Open Space India/Talking Poetry have published “The Secret of Secrets: Five Poems After The Murtirahasya“, a sequence inspired by an appendix to the Devimahatmyam, a seminal Hindu text on the Goddess (more on the reference used here). These were some of the last poems I wrote, back in mid-2011, and I am delighted to finally be able to share them.
Do check it out – lots of goodies here.
Motherland carries a long article on performances in Tamil funerals, specifically focused on two oppari singers from Ayodhyakuppam, Chennai, and the self-styled subculture star Marana Gana Viji. Read it here.
As one less famous homosexual complained about another recently, “He does no justice to the adjective gay!” If a grievance can be leveled against this memoir by India’s most famous homosexual (and that happens to be the preferred self-descriptive noun in this book), it is that it is rather lacking in gaiety indeed. Hoshang Merchant’s The Man Who Would Be Queen: Autobiographical Fictions is romantic, lyrical, vivid, but also, above all, sad.
In an almost stream-of-conscious style, Merchant chronicles some of the highlights of sixty years of his resolutely interesting life: beginning with his first memory of his mother (“I believe Mother-rule is the root of male homosexuality,” a small literary journal quoted him as saying last year) and ending with his current situation as a professor who “fathers” – as the author bio says – “his books, his students and a young friend”. The almost staccato impressionism with which he renders his childhood and adolescence does not belie their darknesses. His wealthy family is rife with dysfunction: his father’s infidelity, his parents’ eventual divorce, a sister who tries to shoot herself, and even an almost unspeakable incident in which the author shakes his mother, causing her to fall and break her hip, after which he attempts suicide. Merchant left India at the age of twenty, a year before his mother died, and it’s impossible not to sense the mourning in the two decades he spent abroad.
But those decades, in the USA and in particular in the Middle East, are the stuff of legend. “Sex is a way to sainthood,” he quotes his icon and penpal Anaïs Nin more than once – and Merchant certainly attempts canonization. In California, “a retired army man bent again and again to kiss a herpes sore on my inner thigh”. In Netanya, he enjoys a sexual encounter on a nude beach with a “Venus with a penis”, cheered on by onlookers. In a cemetery near the Dead Sea, which he notes as the site of the ancient Sodom, he watches as “people made love athwart graves”. Ironically, it’s in details like these that the pigeonholing of this book as the autobiography of a gay man is overshadowed by its importance as the autobiography of a poet.
Merchant is the author of twenty books of poems and the editor of a seminal anthology of gay Indian literature, and while the trajectory of his literary career finds surprisingly little mention in these pages, the celebrity accrued through it precedes this memoir. For those seeking arty scandals and name-dropping, however, this book contains quite little of either. “Gossip had become aesthetic,” he writes of a time in his life during which he is accused by a lover of using their affair for the poetry it inspires. Perhaps the experience chastised the author just a little too much.
Although the vast majority of other people who populate this book are barely sketches (with the exception of his vicious stepmother and perhaps some other relatives, it’s difficult to imagine anyone taking umbrage at what is revealed), what emerges is a well-rounded, often searingly honest image of Merchant himself as a person, rather than as a persona. Demanding diva? Homosexual paragon? His time in Palestine nuances both perceptions. At one point, he worked as a toilet cleaner and garbage picker. At another, he converted to Islam to marry his sweetheart, a woman named Yasmin.
His difficult time in Iraq, where he faced an especially rough amount of discrimination, is covered in the memoir through a series of letters; it is as though the experience was too painful to revisit in new writings. But it is where the book ends, in the author’s present-day life in Hyderabad, which is most depressing. Merchant eschewed his inheritance, gave away numerous personal items, and chose to live in an attic costing only Rs700 in monthly rent, with few belongings. Are these the choices of someone in the pursuit of austerity, or of attention? There’s a vulnerability in these pages that is deeply convincing of the former, yet also results in the latter. Either which way, the image of a celebrated artist living in relative penury in his old age is discomfiting.
But then, The Man Who Would Be Queen is the memoir of a true bohème, and perhaps a poet must be indulged his melancholies. In the end, as much as one wishes for more delicious wickedness in the recounting of the past, or a less sombre depiction of the present, the author is brave enough to feign neither. Merchant writes that (Tennessee) “Williams’ autobiography catalogues the decay of an aging queen. It is a sad spectacle”. Merchant’s own is sad, but at least it is no spectacle.
An edited version appeared in The Sunday Guardian.
Change on the level of society is a generational thing. The dream is that there will come a day when a rape, even a single one, becomes as shocking as a beheading or a skinned scalp – an act of torture from an unevolved era, not a hypothetical, daily risk. But until then, as depressing and perhaps controversial as the notion is, there is only so much we can do: caregivers today have a responsibility to raise their sons differently, while simultaneously protecting themselves and their daughters from the dangerous conditioning that remains rooted in human mentality at large.
Unfortunately, “protection” is interpreted too frequently in ways which are invasive, imbalanced, curb basic freedoms or blame the victim. The city of Gurgaon recently imposed an 8pm curfew on its female population. This curfew carries multiple layers of responsibility: women are discouraged from working or being out of the home past that hour, and their employers are required to arrange for transportation to drop them back home, in addition to a slew of tab-keeping measures that monitor personal details and activities. Accountability is thus shifted completely away from the police and the authorities; should a crime occur past that hour, they can plead as useless as the post-midnight pumpkin in the story of Cinderella.
As many people have pointed out: why is the onus on potential victims, rather than potential perpetrators, to stay off the streets? Why can’t Gurgaon ban its male population from being outside at night?
And why is rape or other gender-based crime (such as eve-teasing or molestation) only expected to happen at night?
The word “curfew” is said to have come from the French words for “cover” and “fire” – “cover the fire”. What Gurgaon has done could happen, as though in a dystopian Margaret Atwood novel, in any other city, and in fact already does happen in informal, unstructured ways.
The visual this term – “cover the fire” – conjures to my mind suggests that the fire is not put out, only kept from view. There is a profound and pervasive stifling of “fire” in women – dissent, expression and passion. But there can be no extinguishing it. As any of us who have experienced the curtailing of ambition, moral policing or other forms of inhibition know, the fiery woman knows when to take the form of water: to become amorphous and slip away, reconstituting in kinder vessels, larger landscapes.
A simple example that you might be deeply familiar with: afternoon sex, after all, is the only kind of sex good girls in Madras have.
The most terrifying thing about a law-enforced curfew is not that it has happened, but that it will continue to. The Gurgaon precedent may “inspire” the administrations of other places. Before we get to that stage, and with the sobering reality that a truly egalitarian society won’t manifest overnight in mind, what can be done to effect little changes that might go a long way?
A culture of fear is a culture of defeat. There have to be better ways to protect ourselves and the other women in our lives than to simply say “stay at home, it’s for your own good”. For example: “morality” is taught in schools, but what about martial arts? We routinely carry shawls to cover our upper bodies, but do we carry pepper spray in our handbags? Do city corporations invest in adequate street lighting?
Instead of questioning women who are alone on the street, can’t the police also question male loiterers? Instead of chasing couples off the beach, why not keep a closer eye on actual crime?
Instead of blaming all women, or suspecting all men, why not take the view that we’re all in this together, and that a society is only as sick as its silences?
An edited version appeared in iDiva (Chennai), The Times of India.
Everybody knows that the second greatest euphemism in the food and beverages industry after “Rocky Mountain oysters” are the words “ladies’ night”. The suggestion: the clinking of glamorous, girly and most importantly gratis cocktails against a backdrop of softcore feminism. The actual serving: vodka deposited with an eyedropper into a sea of diluted juice against a backdrop of hardcore desperation.
Cheapskate tactics? Maybe. Maybe folks only want women to drink if they pay money to do so, which would be perfectly fair.
But then I recall two scenes, not far apart, at the same restaurant in Chennai: in the first, a female friend and I ordered a bottle of white wine. The waiter, asking no further questions, walked off to get us one. In the second, dining with a male friend, I asked for a single glass. “White or red?” I told him my preference. “Chenin blanc or sauvignon blanc?” In the presence of male company, regardless of how minimal the expenditure, female drinking was deemed respectable enough to warrant choices. In its absence, regardless of how extravagant the resulting bill, it was not.
Let’s not even contemplate the topic of the TASMAC adventure, wherein the undercurrent of judgment sensed in prime establishments is more like a riptide.
No wonder then that the news of what the world’s largest alcohol company, Diageo, did earlier this week for its Indian operations has been met with some thinly-disguised consternation. Out of 30 managerial positions at Diageo, 12 have been filled by women – and a further four women have been appointed directors. Additionally, the press reports that the Indian operations of major high-end manufacturers William Grant & Sons, Moet Hennessy and Pernod Ricard are either headed by women, or employ a large percentage of female executives.
“Will a woman really get that?” sulked one very sexist article. That being booze. That being the booze experience.
You know, just like how women don’t get mathematics, or philosophy, or any of those tough, tough things.
What’s ironic is that women here probably know far more about liquor than their male counterparts, because all pleasure that occurs surreptitiously intensifies. Our society is permissive when it comes to men imbibing alcohol. With women, however, it happens differently. Either she is inducted into the enjoyment of liquor by liberal relatives, or she learns how to keep it a secret. This means that she figures out her capacity, how to keep a clear head, what to do if she’s gone overboard, how to conceal the traces. She figures out what she likes and doesn’t, and why. The act of imbibing is not simple for her. I don’t intend to glorify alcohol or gloss over its ill effects, but when it comes to India and alcohol, women have everything it takes to run the show: sharply-honed senses of planning, self-preservation and maverick nonconformism.
Some years ago, I was told about a pink autorickshaw that sold bootlegged liquor. I’ve never been able to verify this, and of course it sounds about as mythical as a women-friendly TASMAC. Still, there’s something about the news that the Indian operations of these beverage enterprises are going to be led largely by women which is almost as delightful a thought as such a vehicle. It may be “just business”, as some might say, but the news is no less than a toast – to all the women out there who by virtue of having to hide, seek, rebel and relish as only the forbidden can be relished learnt not just how to hold their liquor, but how to hold their own.
An edited version appeared in iDiva (Chennai), The Times of India.
The question posited to me was “are women now becoming unafraid of controversy?” My short response is straightforward: “when have we ever been?” Afraid, that is. To look to the likes of the poses and performances of Veena Malik and Vidya Balan as signifiers of a bolder, less diffident womanhood is woefully ignorant of historical facts. There have always been controversial women. From the revolutionary (Phoolan Devi, Irom Sharmila), to the attention-courting (Kamala Das, Protima Bedi) to the free-spirited (Amrita Sher-Gil, Akka Mahadevi), there is a very long legacy of evidence that upsetting the acceptable is hardly a cutting-edge phenomenon.
And isn’t it very curious: why does controversy, when it comes to women, so often come down to sex, or more banally, the wonderful but ultimately reductionist arena of clothing (or lack thereof)?
Which brings us to the question of what the function of controversy is. Is it enough just to titillate? There’s probably nobody out there who doesn’t, as a voyeur or a vendor, love a good scandal. But if all one has to do is undress – well, how very boring.
What about subverting the system? I.e. does appearing topless on a magazine cover with an incendiary tattoo free other women to do the same, or does it merely elevate Veena Malik to certain celebrity, without a positive trickle-down effect on the freedoms of other people? Controversies come in two categories: the contrived and the accidental. The first stirs up the sensational on purpose. The second becomes notorious not by design but because it surprises on more complex levels than the obvious.
Some months ago, I began to wear a certain sartorial item that I had long admired. That I was turned away from two stores when I tried to purchase the said item should have given me a clue about what was to follow. Still, purchase it I did, for myself, for no reason other than that I found it beautiful.
The humble metti, nuptial toe-rings, were by far the most subversive thing that I – doyenne of firetruck-red lipstick, leopard-print thigh-highs and strapless sari blouses – had ever worn.
“What next? If thaalis were ‘pretty’ would you wear one too?” snapped someone.
“You’re not supposed to!” exclaimed another. Such a simple condemnation. Supposed.
“It suppresses sexual desire by way of the reflexology system,” rued one who found the whole idea disappointingly regressive. (“It’s not working,” I deadpanned.)
“Now there really is nothing left that will entice you to wed,” tsk tsk-ed one more.
These are some of the reactions that came from my own friends – free-thinkers, free-lovers, free-wheelers one and all. I noted the discomfort in the taciturn glances of strangers too: diverted interest (“this chick’s taken”), curiosity, and most of all, confusion. I do not, after all, look like I’m married – which is to say, I do not look like I am marriageable. The suggestion, then, is that I am one without being the other. Cue the collapse of logic in a certain moral universe. Which, if all sartorialism is semiotics, is precisely the effect I’m going for.
I’ve learned something very interesting as a result of wearing this most conformist and conservative of ornaments. It is that, contrary to what Audre Lorde wrote, perhaps the master’s tools can in fact dismantle the master’s house. True dissidence is rarely ostentatious. It occurs not at the level of wanting to be seen but on the level of deciding to – simply, guilelessly – be.
One last question: if the essence of controversy lies in shock value, are we perhaps just too easily shocked?
An edited version appeared in Times of India’s iDiva supplement today.
The idea of nationhood (or, say, the idea of empire) is predated by a long, animistic history of the idea of the earth itself as a fertile, maternal source. The emblematic figures (Britannia, Mother Russia, Marianne among them), almost always associated with revolutionary or consolidating eras, that have been taken to represent these motherlands are in many ways developments from that fundamental impulse, even without religious connotations. In The Goddess and the Nation: Mapping Mother India, Sumathi Ramaswamy turns her attention to Bharat Mata. The book contains 150 fascinating images of and relating to this modern “goddess” – a pre-Independent Indian invention of significant historical interest.
Ramaswamy’s accompanying text, however, suffers from a number of failings, both in proposition and delivery. Overly verbose and almost tediously academic, the writing could have benefited a great deal from a sense of irreverence. Ramaswamy deeply dislikes the icon who is the subject of her work, mostly on account of Bharat Mata’s Hindu-hegemonic associations. To have expressed this dislike with more pluck and spark instead of thinly veiled contempt would have made for far more engaging reading.
It helps to begin by considering a brief history of the image: it originated in Bengal several decades before Independence, and the first of its most notable appearances was in a painting by Abanindranath Tagore (circa 1904) of an unadorned, sadhu-like woman. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s hymn Vande Mataram (“I worship the mother”) was brought into the nationalist movement by Rabindranath Tagore in 1896 (the writer otherwise opposed the concept of nation as woman/mother, as in his novel The Home and The World). The hymn became associated, at least per Ramaswamy’s narrative, with an increasingly militant, Durga-like representation of Bharat Mata. During the five decades or so of its greatest popularity, the new demigoddess could be seen draped in the tricolor, suckling the children of her nation, riding a lion, handing weapons to her favourite sons and so on – all while sitting on, standing in front of, or literally embodying the map of India.
The author makes one noteworthy contribution to the field of visual arts theory: the rather poetic term “barefoot cartography”, referring to “a set of demotic practices and techniques whose primary creative influence and aesthetic milieu is the art of the bazaar”, with the bazaar being taken to mean the kitsch style seen on calendars, hoardings, film posters and the like. The term is lovely, but its use in this book is largely condescending.
Ramaswamy approaches the artists and activists associated with these images through a strangely skewed prism. Decontextualized, everybody from the nameless painters of mass-produced prints to Amrita Sher-Gil, Subramania Bharati and Sister Nivedita are tarred with the suggestion (if not accusation) of being in support of sectarian Hindu nationalism. The book is rife with bizarre logic: for example, that Sister Nivedita loved and wished to distribute Abanindranath Tagore’s benign painting while also being a devotee of Kali is “inconsistent”, as though spiritual leanings and aesthetic ones are always aligned (and how colonialist/Orientalist is the idea of a bloodthirsty, one-dimensional Kali anyway?). That Amrita Sher-Gil, who was once moved to declare that “India belongs only to me”, painted her Mother India as a dark-skinned beggar “seems sacrilegious” to the author, because it is unlike the recognizable luminous, light-skinned deity-figure who more popularly bore that name. Sacrilegious to whom? The purveyors of the Bharat Mata image, who essentially fashioned a new object of veneration, may have expressed themselves in traditional idioms but didn’t see ingenuity as blasphemy.
Consider also two examples of how non-divine women in propagandist paintings are read. In the first, in reference to a photo of women during a street march in the 1930s, there is this line: “women have a special claim on (a sari-clad) Mother India by virtue of being (sari-clad) females themselves”. In the second, after some discussion about how the female soldiers of the Rani of Jhansi regiment wore standard uniforms and not saris, she writes that “the barefoot cartographer[‘s] own vision of love-service-sacrifice could seemingly only accommodate the male body as the armed defender or map and mother”. What did women wear if not saris at the time, and why reduce them to their sartoriality? And how does realistically portraying the Ranis as they were dressed reflect an andro-normative worldview; would it be preferred that they fight in saris, too? Such an incredible disregard for historical context is frustrating and baffling.
Ramaswamy gives herself away in a series of adjectives midway through the book: “Bharat Mata’s offensive, divisive and embarrassing anthropomorphic form”. It is the last of the descriptors that is most revealing. Bharat Mata’s contemporary co-opting into the right-wing visual vocabulary is certainly problematic. But from a historical perspective, it is necessary to bear in mind that we are all bound by the orthodoxies, conventions and lexis of our times. She may be read as a Hindu nationalist emblem today, but through its heyday the symbol was, though naïve, mainly and merely nationalist – an allegiance that was less unpopular (in fact, downright subversive) in colonial times than it is today.
Multidenominational manifestations of the image, which could have benefited from deeper study, receive only cursory mentions: for instance a march in Rajahmundry in 1927 in which students sang Vande Mataram while carrying banners that said “Allahu Akbar”, or an image in Subramania Bharati’s Intiya magazine which also carried the Bharat Mata image as well as the Muslim phrase. And some omissions are evident: such as how, oddly, Ramaswamy completely misses the Christ-reference in a 1931 illustration of a crucified man within the outline of India.
The book’s most interesting chapter focuses on the first temple to the symbol, inaugurated in Benares in October 1936 by Mahatma Gandhi. Strikingly, the temple contained no idol: Bharat Mata was the cartographic India itself, a sprawling relief map in marble. Offerings such as flowers were not permitted. In many ways, this can be read as the most inclusive evolution of the symbol: non-religious, privileging the scientific, without demographic markers or restrictions. Yet here again, Ramaswamy chides the “refusal – in fact failure – to create a set of secular rituals”. What are secular rituals? Why should any rituals be created at all? The author suggests that their creation would have saved the monument from its relative obscurity, but it helps to remember that the symbol of Bharat Mata herself is a sort of anachronism from a time when such a symbol had, and to some extent fulfilled, its purposes. Aside from M.F. Husain (whose attraction to geopoliticizing the female form in a way that is possibly Hindu Ramaswamy seems vaguely uncomfortable with), there hasn’t been a contemporary visual artist in decades who has worked notably with the image.
The Goddess and The Nation is a passionless study about a subject that arose out of the passionate struggle of multitudes, then fell into disrepute. The book closes with a mention of the “delicious subversion” of the barefoot cartographers – something which the author otherwise refutes throughout it. Such contradictions are rife, but one in particular stands out – Ramaswamy writes that barefoot cartographers demurred from portraying the violent deaths of female martyrs for the nation, but when the assassination of Indira Gandhi is rendered violently, “the limits of patriotism’s barefoot cartographic imagination have been reached [because of] the risk of pointing to the death of the very mother and map for which many of its martyrs have given up their lives.” Barefoot cartography, by its nature, is diverse and constantly evolving. The only limits to such an imagination are those imposed by predisposition and condescension.
An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.
Ranjit Hoskote’s I, Lalla recasts the poems (vakhs) of the 14th century mystic Lalleshwari as the collaboration of many authors over six centuries. Excerpts from a conversation during the Poetry With Prakriti Festival.
You’ve entitled your book of translations as “I, Lalla”, and believe that although there was a historical figure (a poet and mystic) by that name, over the centuries the body of work that was attributed to her was in fact composed by multiple people, many Lallas. So on the one hand you have the palimpsest and on the other, a persona that emerges from it. What was your experience of working with both?
It’s actually an inference you make after going through the material – you realize that it’s actually a polyphony. The corpus attributed to Lalla is a collection of many tonalities, lines of argument, different kinds of musicality, and different bodies of imagery. And it is possible through some turns of phrase and choice of words to infer that certain pieces came from earlier or later periods. There are certain internal evidences. For instance, certain administrative references (which existed in the 18th century but not in the 14th). Or when Shiva is referred to as “sahib”, as a word for “lord”. The poems have been continuously rephrased for contemporary usage; they are not frozen in an old Kashmiri text. There is no mythic old Kashmiri text.
You’ve used the word “confluentuality” to situate Lalla in spaces which are, alternately or at once, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and other identities. This is a confluentuality that unnerves those with narrow sectarian interests. Tell us more.
I think the hard-edged identities of religion or ethnicity are to a great extent modern constructs. If you look at pre-modern India, what you’re really looking at is a set of intersecting geographies. The three major dynamics are trade routes, pilgrimage routes and invasion routes. You find a constant migration of people: new cults, new texts, new religious ideas and also new secularities. From the 12th to the 18th century this is what you have. A lot of this activity is in fact confluential – people who extend themselves beyond what is permitted to them canonically. We’re still playing out the politics of the 20th century to a large extent – which was a really divisive, annihilative politics, creating hard-edged identities at the expense of the other. In a situation like that everybody suffers but what are most damaged are forms that developed at the intersections. A particularly sad example internationally would be the culture of the Arab-speaking Jews, a flourishing culture from Morocco, Iraq and Syria, which completely fell between the lines of Zionist and Arab interests. It’s impossible to continue, pushed into an either/or logic. The imagination becomes less capacious in these terms.
The term secularism is often upheld as the preferred, politically correct narrative – how does an essentially syncretic figure like Lalla add to or complicate the debate?
Secularism is technically an equidistance from all religions. In India it’s come to represent an ability to embrace all religions. The tragedy is that however you interpret it, it involves simplifying or damaging the sense of all religions, their richness of detail. If by secular you mean something that is skeptical of the sacred, then that’s a fundamental lack of understanding about the religious imagination. My problem with this is that secularists tend to embrace the cultural concepts of religion while shying away from the philosophical and ideological.
This work is also interesting in the debate about cultural authenticity. You’ve said that “authenticity suggests an original against which comparisons can be made”, and that Lalla is “a perfect argument for how culture is always a hybrid invention”.
Until the earlier 20th century, the vakhs were orally transmitted. In the 1920’s there was a print version, which assumes authority, so what were earlier versions became variants. So long as it was oral or in the form of script it was still an open-ended text. This theory I’ve put forward of a contributory lineage allows us to look critically at the whole concept of authorship. From my point of view the corpus is full of performers, writers, editors and the unlettered people of the [Kashmiri] valley. In the nature of how such contributions work, what is important is not the name of the author (which cannot be known) but attributes made.
Men on quests of faith had the acceptable trajectory of being a son, a householder, a retiree and then a renunciate to look to. Female seekers like Lalla had to reject the system entirely. What are your thoughts on how gender might have come into play in the life and work of Lalla?
In the life more than the work. I would think the Kashmiri Saivite tradition has always been a tradition of householders. Even if there were ascetics who retreated to the forests, they were chiefly householders. For Lalla there was no other option. Her spiritual quest was at odds with what was expected of her as a woman, so she took up the life of a wandering seeker. The conventional reading has been to talk about the historical personage using scanty biographical evidence, mostly chronicles. To my mind this is not the most productive way to do this. I am more interested in the poems. The vakhs themselves contain very little personal information. I find it difficult to reduce it to a gender position. A statistical example would be that there are not more than four or five references to female labour in the vakhs. The rest are of male labour. It is wishful thinking to regard this in a gendered sort of prism.
You’ve worked on these translations for two decades, and as you belong ancestrally to the Kashmiri diaspora, lived with the idea or presence of Lalla for much longer. How has Lalla shaped your own writing or sense of the world?
I think that as with all translation projects, you are shaped by what you translate in ways that are manifest and sometimes not so manifest. It’s been very important to me in terms of extending my own work. Many people have commented on how these translations don’t sound like my poetry. The aim of the translations has been to restore the jagged, colloquial, very sharp quality of the originals. It’s been an amazing opportunity. It has allowed me to sort through a number of ideas about the sacred and to understand the sacred as something that stands beyond orthodoxies. The sacred is compelling and it is elusive; it eludes the names and the forms.
An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.
The first anniversary issue of Out of Print carries my short story, “The High Priestess Never Marries“.
The first association that came to mind when I heard that New Delhi (in the footsteps of a successful public demonstration of the same name in Canada) would be holding a Slutwalk was: bra colour.
I wasn’t planning an outfit, right down to matching underthings, in order to participate in the said Slutwalk; the association came from having recalled a strange Facebook exercise in which women were encouraged to post the colours of their bras as their status messages. Doing so was expected to raise awareness about breast cancer, ironic considering that no explanation was to be given for the status – in fact, the whole thing was supposed to be kept secret from the male populace. Needless to say, it wasn’t a very successful effort.
The term “Slutwalk” seemed similarly counterproductive in an Indian setting: by the time we had all had our arguments about the word “slut”, who uses it here and when and why and if it accurately conveys what must be conveyed, the core message of the protest would have become secondary. The core message in this case being making public spaces safer for women, who risk violence and shaming on a daily basis just by virtue of being out of the home (violence and shaming within the home are invariably connected, but more difficult to tackle by way of event-based strategies). Indeed, this is what happened – privileged to the point of being exclusionary, the term was contextually meaningless, and altogether detracting and distracting.
The desi Slutwalk was renamed “Besharmi Morcha”, Hindi for “shameless protest”. Although the demonstration has yet to take place, tangled as it has become in a great deal of discussion and comparably little action, this is surely an improvement. Also, it sounds a lot like “besame mucho” (Spanish for “kiss me very much”), which is really rather nice.
Oops, did I just trivialize what some historically-clueless people have called the beginning of the women’s rights movement in India?
Lost in all this clatter about the semantically correct and the stylishly cool is the most pertinent question of all: can public demonstration actually galvanize change in today’s world?
Public assembly is believed to be so powerful a tool of political activism that governments are known to either enshrine or fear it. In the United States, freedom of assembly is protected within their Constitution as the very first amendment; in Malaysia, police have been arresting people for wearing yellow ahead of a protest on July 9 for which that colour has taken on totemic meaning. Since the beginning of the 20th century alone, numerous examples have attested to this power. Everything from the physically taxing Salt March to the bloody Tiananmen Square protests to the relatively rather relaxing Lennon-Ono bed-ins of the ‘60s show this to be true. Even the fun Pride Parades of today have their roots in the spontaneous, violent uprising known as Stonewall that took place 40 years ago in New York City.
Public assembly is immediate and visceral: emotions run high, there is excitement and electric tension, and in some cases things can become frighteningly unmanageable. They attract attention, they demand spontaneity, and they always contain some elements of risk. But they are only the most visible representation of a struggle, neither its cause nor its culmination. What happens at a protest itself is far less important than what happens the next day, and in all the days to come.
The Slutwalk also reminded me about a (possibly apocryphal) story about the Aurovillean Mother: that nearly a hundred years ago, she had organized for schoolgirls in Pondicherry to march around the town wearing comfortable shorts, an act of an unimaginable lack of decorum in that time. They were spat at and disparaged, but over time, the town became accepting of different modes of dress. It’s a difference that remains palpable even today, as any Chennaiite woman who heads south for the weekend knows.
At the time of this writing, Besharmi Morcha is indefinitely pending. There is no doubt that if it is to happen, it will garner enormous media attention, inspire a thousand more blog posts, and be the focal point of many discussions relating to gender issues for some time. Perhaps there will be provocative attire (the dress code of the original Slutwalk) on display, perhaps there won’t be. Perhaps the demonstration will be sedate, or perhaps it will be flamboyant.
None of that really matters. Count not the number of people who come to march, count not the number of people who turn up to gawk – count only, over time, the number of assaults and insults that are meted out on those same streets. Perhaps there won’t even be a correlation to the protest itself, but only to a larger framework of engagement and daily, reiterated revolution. But all that really matters is that that number dwindles, as far as it can possibly fall.
An edited version appeared in Times of India’s iDiva supplement today.
Two hours by car from Tanjavur, through a meandering scenic route of paddy fields, bucolic groves and glimpses of the sun-dappled Kaveri river, is the temple town of Tiruvarur: birthplace of Carnatic music’s triumvirate of doyens (the composers Kakarla Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri), and the site of the crown jewel of the South Indian Shaivite cult, the Sri Tyagarajasvami temple. Estimated to be around 1300 years old, the temple blossomed under the aegis of the major reconstructions of the Chola dynasty, and gained prominence owing to the many travelling bards who, seized by revelations, were moved to song within it. In the modern era, however, certain parts of it fell to neglect, most notably the Devasiriya Mandapam, an auxiliary hall within which is contained a trove of radiant 17th century ceiling murals.
Up until three years ago, the murals were in a rapidly deteriorating state owing to water seepage, fire, human negligence and other factors. When Ranvir Shah, the maverick behind the Chennai-based arts and culture organisation Prakriti Foundation, was told by temple authorities a decade ago of plans to whitewash the paintings, he managed to stave off this travesty for eight years, when the necessary permissions for restoration were secured and a collaborative effort with the Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) could begin.
He wasn’t the only one concerned with preserving the stunningly detailed, exquisitely painted murals. The Indologist David Shulman, in what he calls “an act of despair”, visited in 2006 with the photographer V.K. Rajamani so as to document the images before they were lost forever. Shulman and Shah, among others, met – propitiously, as anyone associated with this project now says – and from this was born a major undertaking to restore and preserve what are now known as the Mucukunda Murals.
Dating to the late Nayaka/early Maratha period, the murals narrate, over the course of 50 panels, the mythology of how Tyagarajasvami – or Shiva in his mode as householder and king, flanked by his consort and child-prince in the iconic Somaskanda configuration – came to reside in Tiruvarur. Legend has it that the monkey-faced Chola ruler Mucukunda brought the deity from the heavens at his own request. Tyagarajasvami, who before this had rested on the chest of Vishnu in the cosmic ocean, moving in tandem to that deity’s breath, was bored in Indra’s heaven. This god of momentum and relocation desired settlement – specifically, in a locale already associated with Kamalambal, a powerful goddess with Tantric significance, as well as a different, more primitive aspect of Shiva as lord of the anthill. When Mucukunda, having helped Indra defeat a demon, is offered a boon, Tyagarasvami secretly communicates to him the desire to be taken to Tiruvarur.
Indra, hesitant to part with the god so quickly, has six more identical figures made, and asks Mucukunda to choose the original. Again, Tyagarajasvami gives Mucukunda a signal (different sources suggest a smile, a wink, or an intuitive understanding), thus allowing him to leave the ennui of heaven, and make the town his abode.
The origin story of Tyagarajasvami thus exalts him as a god who chooses his own tribe, and this sentiment remains strongly ensconced among those involved in the restoration of the murals. The release of Shulman and Rajamani’s elegant coffee table tome, The Mucukunda Murals, on January 26 in the Devasiriya Mandapam celebrated the near-completion of the restoration work, and was well-attended by a large gathering of scholars, aesthetes and local devotees, who carried mirrored trays as they walked beneath the murals so as to look at them without strain.
In brief lectures, a panel of noted experts on Tiruvarur – Professor Rajeshwari Ghose, Professor Saskia Kersenboom, Professor Davesh Soneji and Professor Shulman – shared their personal connections to the temple and its deity. Kersenboom, author of the pathbreaking 1987 book Nityasumangali, spoke about the “cinematic flashback” she experienced during her first visit to the temple in 1975, during which she saw the devadasis in procession as they had been in the generations before their art was banned. Ghose quoted an anonymous Tyagarajasvami kavacham, in which the poet tells God to take away anything from him but his ability to appreciate the arts, because it is through them that he experiences divinity. She also credited the temple for having been the wellspring of the Tamil bhakti movement, inspiring the pilgrimages of the Nayanmars and Alwars and giving the collective Tamil consciousness a meaningful identity.
At no point was the numinous quality of the events that led to the restoration, and indeed to that particular day of celebration itself, underplayed. In what is perhaps an unusual method of doing things in this modern (and that too, academic) context, the lectures ended to coincide with the Sayaraktsha Pooja, the dusk prayer to the deity. The entourage reassembled at the sanctum sanctorum, chanting Om Namashivaya Namaha in front of the glittering Tyagarajasvami, before the evening’s performances began.
Evoking the panegyrical element of all pre-colonial temple performances, the concert was highlighted by the magnificent recital of a portion of the mohamana varnam by dancer Shymala Mohanraj. A disciple of the legendary devadasi Balasaraswathi and one of the foremost torchkeepers of that lineage, her supreme command of the stage and consummate, unostentatious grace were breathtaking to behold. A deeply endearing rendering of kuruvanji songs by Tilakamma, who is also of devadasi heritage but no longer able to dance, also served to fortify the idea that age is an externality – beauty and passion transcend such limitations. A nagaswaram presentation by T.K. Selvaganapathy and T.S. Palaniappan (who trace their musical lineage to 22 generations), accompanied in part by a padam by Kersenboom, and as a performance by eminent vocalist Aruna Sairam rounded off the evening. At the heart of the entire ceremony was an exploration of lineage in all its forms – hereditary, intangible, karmic and incidental. But most importantly, a new understanding of lineage, stripped of hegemony and baggage and brought to the simplest level: the absolutely personal epiphany of the workings of cosmic leela, and one’s place within it.
In the afterglow of this rare, possibly miraculous, story of triumph over the forces of aesthetic ignorance and bureaucratic negligence, it’s easy to forget that a multitude of precious structures throughout India face dissimilar fates. The Mucukunda Murals have been saved, for now, by “the co-operation of public and private interests in temple conservation”, as Soneji puts it. “I hope this is a model that will catch on”. Perhaps God only winks at a chosen few, but the responsibility for the protection and maintenance of our architectural and artistic heritage lies with all who care to watch, refusing to allow such losses in our own lifetimes.
An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.
Midway through Bhimayana, the upper caste man whose complaint about not being able to find a job thanks to the quota system asks the woman who has engaged him in debate, “How come we don’t read about all this in our history books?” The question throws light on this graphic novel on the whole: a deeply polemic text in the guise of a beautiful comic book, its primary impetus is the construction of pedagogy. It’s tempting to forget this, and lose oneself in the many little joys that Gond tribal artists Durgabai and Subhash Vyam have brought to its pages – a water tank that grows eyes and becomes Ganesh-like on the next page, the assortment of animals and trees pretty as fabric prints, and the much-praised dispensing of the conventional panel/box format altogether. It’s tempting, but also difficult, because it’s not so much that Bhimayana tries to rectify history than that it tries to reinvent a decontextualised present. Its overarchingly simplistic, almost absolutely dichotomized narrative of heroes and villains may suit its physical form, but not its purposes.
The trouble begins with the nature of the discussion that leads into the story of Bhimrao Ambedkar. Rather than open with the iconic activist’s life itself, he is introduced to us via a difficult contemporary question: affirmative action policies. The setting is an Indian city of the present day, and the frustrated job-seeker and his bespectacled companion are waiting for a bus. One assumes that the target audience for this book is an Indian one, then, and that the practical complications of imagining an India free of the hideous hegemony of caste will be addressed satisfactorily.
This isn’t the case – by the end of the book, one is left not stirred by hope, but disturbed by the vocabulary of the struggle. This includes everything from the use of a phrase like “India’s hidden apartheid”, which suggests that casteism is an institutionalized, legally sanctified segregation in our country rather than a socially abetted one, to the vilification of Gandhi as someone who “could afford a first class ticket in a foreign country” without a counterpart explanation of how Ambedkar went from not being allowed to drink water at his school to studying at foreign universities.
And the explanation is necessary, as the book is clearly for a foreign audience, and while caste is an indubitably evil system, it plays out in Indian society in ways that are more complex than this book chooses to deal with. But this also makes it quite suitable for children, with its very basic writing, and an odd mix of occasional rhyme and incongruent speech patterns that does strike a charming and whimsical chord. The intriguing artwork, of course, is a major plus point.
But the ultimate lack of political sophistication when dealing with such loaded subject matter remains disturbing. Bhimayana’s end result contains just little too much vitriol, a little too much victim vogue. And just not enough vision to live up to the story of Ambedkar himself – a hero who deserves celebration not as a divisive force, but as an example for everybody. And therein lies its fundamental problem: it’s not enough to say that casteism exists and to recapitulate newspaper reports and statistics about this fact. The fact is not in doubt. The solution is. Bhimayana neither posits nor inspires one. Its methodology of hero-worship as a means of engendering change smacks of party propaganda, while missing in all of this is a sense of the one thing that will truly eradicate the problem in the long run: compassion, love and respect for all humanity.
An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.