Kali Pujo 2022

This year, the Kali Pujo in Kolkata, though as countless as on other years, somehow seemed to be to be an exhausted and even a bored affair. The celebrations of the Durga Puja has been raised to such an extent and level that it has been able to draw out, then accumulate and concentrate all the energies of Bengalis and eventually drain these out on its conclusion with the Lokkhi Pujo. Hence, the utterly tired, spent out, depleted Bengalis, sapped of all its energies sank into a lack lustre affair. However, there is no let up in the number of pujos held as this is a matter of commitment, once you start the pujo it cannot be given up.

 Like in economics, so in celebrations, there is a process of democratization and then a process of the monopoly. The age of the CPM, notwithstanding that it was a communist regime, was also the age of democratization of the public space and its popular culture. Just as the monopoly of Uttam Kumar was compromised in the cinema, with Hindi films and a slew of other heroes entering the fray, the process seemed to have peaked in Basanta Bilap, 1977. In fact, the story is set in the Saraswati Puo Pandal.

The monopoly of the Durga Pujo was also democratized into a series of Kali pandals that fostered creativity both in the façade built by bamboo and cloth as well as in the idols of the Goddess, moulded and baked from clay. Then there was the supply of music, loud, fast paced erotic music of RD Burman and Asha Bhonsle, of Bappi Lahiri a little way down in the 1980’s and ofcourse the sensational Salil Choudhury and Lata Mangeshkar. The melody and the rhythm shook the chakras of the body releasing from it an energy where the human seeks her companions. Those were also the times of the crackers; with the upbeat music blaring on the streets and the smell of burnt sulphur enveloping the air, became intoxicating and exhilarating. But then, I was in my teens. My grandfather took to the Kali Pujo rather badly; not being one quite keen on pujos, for him any occupation of the public space, whether by way of processions or by celebrations was repulsive.

And then there was the immersion; the best of local bands played numbers from Hindi film songs of Laxmikant Pyarelal. The boys dressed in the latest fashion and hairstyle would dance to a frenzy making a lively spectacle on the roads. These days, however, girls have taken the role of the boys in Bengal as they dance with lithe movements, shimmying and swaying, they really claim the space for themselves.

Then came the environmentalists who complained of noise pollution and insisted on a ban on crackers; the latter also had a child labour angle to it. But these dented the excitement of the festival. Then there was the process of monopoly at play again especially with the duo of Rituparna Ghosh and Mamata Banerjee who returned to the Bengali its bourgeoise Jalsaghar and the luxury of poverty of Pather Panchali, Bengalis looked towards heritage again. And what could be better than the Durga Pujo with the huge fanfare that it has come to be.

But there was also the social media, where all kinds of discourses emerged. Some resisted the Kali Pujo by saying that the Diwali got all mixed up with it and then painstakingly, the Bengali mind was drawn into separating the two. The impact of such a sieving out is felt as the music played changes, with the weepy Ramprasadi Shyama Sangeet taking over the sizzling numbers of Asha and Lata. Then because there are no crackers, there is hardly any activity around the pandals. Pandal hopping has died down because of the been there and seen it all feeling after the hectic pandal marking during the Durga Pujo.

In short, there are two aspects to my observations; one is that the monopoly of the Durga Pujo over the community’s physical and mental energies have crashed the Kali Pujo and secondly, the multiplicity of discourses can crack up the public space; too much of critical thought can fracture the universals, the simple principle of post modernism.

P.S These days, the Chhath is celebrated with fanfare in Calcutta and across Bengal due to the rising Bihari immigration into the state. While this means that West Bengal is actually doing very well since all job opportunities appear to be concentrated here, one cannot help noticing the rise of the Jagaddhatri Pujo as a Bengali assertion over the Biharis. The Durga Pujo explodes the pandal artists, the Kali Pujo bursts the energies of the idol makers and the Jagaddhatri belongs to the lightmen. Considered as “the” pujo of the French territory of Chandannagore, the people made Jagaddhatri their Durga, celebrating her with the fanfare of lights exactly a month later.

The questions for media studies would be as follows:

  1. How should we study the phenomenon of the Durga Puja and the other public worship of images by erecting pandals on streets?
  2. Why did the Durga Pujo get so big? Does the changing politics of Bengal have something to do with this?
  3. The typical business cycles of monopoly and perfect competition and then again, a monopoly holds true also of culture. Do you agree?
  4. The choice of music, from the fast paced and excitable RD Burman to the folk and slower music shows the change in social taste in music which has a lot to do with the changing social composition of our demography and hence democracy.
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Bonedi Pujos 2022

At Home With the Bonedis on Mahasaptami Pujo

On the Saptami Day of the Durga Puja this year, i.e 2022, Madhusree bought two tickets for herself and me to take a walk into North Calcutta Bonedi Pujos. Bonedi, a Bengali term derived out of buniyadi, or one of establishment in the land, refers to families who have been rich over generations and hence translated their wealth into a substantial cultural capital to uphold the culture and convert these products into the tradition and heritage of the land they belong to. Thus, we visited a few homes such as the above mentioned. The homes were those of Badan Ray (Pal), Motilal Seal, should be written as Mutty Lull Seal, Bipin Bihari Banerjee, and Beni Madhab Banerjee, Purna Chandra Dhar, Madan Mohan Dhar, Radhanath Mallik and Charu Mallik. Among these, there was only one barowari, or a community pandal puja that celebrated the Akala Bodhon, a variation in the theme of the Durga Puja. These pujos are more than 150 years old, all of them seem to be post the Mutiny of 1857, especially 1860 when India passed securely under the Crown. These were cultural assertions of a new elite with their newfound prosperity under the new regime, having faced many vagaries of fortunes for four centuries of political turmoil in Bengal. Bengal’s prosperity ended with the end of the Hussain Shahi dynasty when Akbar attacked Bengal, led by Man Singh. Though the agrarian production increased, land under cultivation expanded, revenues and commerce grew, yet the constant political harassment of the wealthy by the Mughal militia and revenue officers remained a botheration. Akbar’s favour of the Portuguese, with who the Indian seamen often clashed in the waters did not do better. The East India Company was capricious too and it was not until the passing of the government under the Crown that the Bengalis felt safe again in terms of life and property. The Durga Puja was a celebration of safety and territorial security.

Each of the families mentioned above has a distinct origin history, which when viewed together also becomes a lively history of Bengal. The Badan Ray family immigrated from Rajasthan in about the 14th century into Benaras from where they came to Bengal in the 1600, carrying with them their trade of gold, craft of gems and stocks of silk textiles. The expanding bureaucracy and artisanship, the proliferation of trade and money through trade on the Bengal frontier in the 1600’s made this family well settled. Later they came to Calcutta, made a home in the premises of what in present times is the Calcutta Medical College and when the British acquired the land, they bought the ready-made house in the premises we visited. The plan of the earlier house was different, in the sense that it did not have a mandap, now with the new home with a distinct space for the Divine, the Pals celebrated the Durga Puja with aplomb. The courtyard also had a pond! In 1946, the idol was ransacked by Muslims in the riots, and they could not celebrate the Pujo, but since 1947, they resurrected the celebrations in new vigour. Hence, they are celebrating the 75th year of Indian Independence with fanfare.

I was particularly keen to visit Motilal Seal’s home since he was a contemporary of Raja Rammohun Roy, though closer in age to Dwarakanath Tagore, which makes him about twenty years younger to Rammohun. Despite being the “Fort William” gang and good friends with Radhakanta Deb, especially over the quest for universal primary education for both boys and girls, he supported anti Sati and widow remarriage. He must have started his Durga Puja not before 1815, at best in 1812, because that was when he came and settled in Kolkata. Motilal Seal is perhaps the biggest philanthropist known in recent Bengali history. His properties were spread all over the city and hence the home and its pujo looked simple and staid and modest compared to the wealth he possessed. Clearly this was the influence of Raja Rammohun Roy.

We visited the two Basu Mallik families; one which had the surname of Basu Mallik and the other simply Mallik. Mallik is a title of the Hussain Shahi regime, but they added Basu to their names, as per the guide to hide their identities from the Mughal revenue officers. This does not seem to be too probable an explanation; instead to my mind, the great caste reorganization of the 1860’s may have had something to do with this, as the Malliks today are overwhelmingly Baidyas, while the Basus are kayasthas.

The Basu Malliks were, as the guide tells us, shippers and it is interesting that their homes are overwhelmingly studded by cast iron pillars, grills, panels and laced with glass! The glass was sourced from Italy rather than Belgium, the Belgian glass being a luxury a century later. The cast iron pillars and panels appear to have been imported as well. The Bessmer process had just started in England around the 1850’s and though there were valiant efforts by the Mysore Maharaja, an American in Madras and a Parsi cum Ethiopian trader in Chittagong to set up an iron factory for mass production, these were not too successful. It was not until the 1930’s that Alamohan Das could finally stabilize the technology of castings. However, the Basu Malliks being shippers also explains their access to imported goods.

In the Surya Sen Street, Kabiraj Lane and the entire area of Radhanath Mallik Street, we see the profuse use of iron castings for pillars and grills. These homes may have belonged to those connected with overseas trade, which helped them with currency and resources to obtain the material, especially glass. The import and use of Italian glass may be explained by the fact that Italian seafarers and craftsmen who were frequently onboard the Company ships.

Purnendu Dhar was in the Company treasury, and this is pretty clear in his version of the Abhaya Durga, who has just two hands instead of the ten, rests herself on a pair of lions, is not killing any demons, comes with her children, with her guards, Jaya and Bijaya. The fact of Mr Dhar being in the treasury tells on his search for nonviolence and a more realistic image of Durga, he is already closer to religion less totemic.

Close on the heels of the Abhaya Durga is the Akalbodhon where, not the Mahisasur but Ram lies praying at the feet of the Goddess, about to blind himself in the eye because he failed in his promise to dedicate 108 blue lotuses to the Goddess. Since the Goddess hid one and counted only 107, Ram used his own eye as a substitute for the blue lotus. The four companions of Durga are Sugriv, Hanuman, Lakshman and Vibhisan, as this is the untimely call for her, and she could not have arrived with her children as she would have been she to be worshipped in spring, the original season of her homecoming. Autumn, despite being called the untimely and exceptional season of the Goddess, nonetheless is widely worshipped and the evidence whether she was ever worshipped in spring remains a big question.

The home of Benimadhab and Bipibihari, who worked in the Company’s judiciary services us very well explained by the fact that they have rectangular Corinthian pillars with Greek sculptures cast upon them in golden coats and plaster of Paris. All homes are rectangular with a courtyard in the middle, balconies overlooking the courtyard, cut off from the world at large except through the windows in the rooms. Even then these hardly overlook the street below. Interestingly, these are the families which have the most elaborate display of photos of ancestors on their walls, though some other families have these too though not so ostensibly.

The property of the Subarnabaniks, which is of Badan Ray is the best maintained, they started off being as rich as anyone else but somehow could maintain their riches through the generations. They had been the organizers of the Subarnabanik society in Calcutta and still maintain wide contacts within the extended family networks. Those who are keen to work from the angle of caste, would do well to study the role of the Subarnabanik caste in maintaining the family wealth and hence the cultural heritage of their ancestors. It is intriguing though why in 1946, despite the presence of so many bonedi homes, only that of the Subarnabaniks were attacked by Muslim rioters; it is possible that their wealth must have attracted contempt. There was a stair gallery in the sense photos were hung along the stairway; there were photos of Queen Victoria, the Queen Consort, Napoleon on a warship, British Parliament, the group photos of the Subarnabanik Associations in full swing and ofocurse of Benaras ghats and nooks along the Ganges, nostalgia of a home they once had and now they left.

Interestingly, a few of the footpath poster and calendar art shops were open; I gasped at the presence of European, and not even American music and sports icons in pictures. Tackily drawn and gawdily printed, it had the Beatles, Smiths, Rolling Stones, T Rex, Pink Floyd and then again images of Viven Leigh, Audrey Hepburn and then images of the English cars, such as the Rolls Royce. This was along the boundary wall of the Hindu Hostel. The streets of North Calcutta were spic and span, even when they could get really narrow, the paving perfect and the sewer and storm water system impeccable, all wires underground, and strangely, homes even when the most tragically dilapidated, were neat and looked organized.

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The Anomaly of Lal Singh Chaddha

Even before the film was put on the studio floor for shooting, I knew that Lal Singh Chadha would not work. Notwithstanding that Forrest Gump is an American cult film and Lal Singh Chaddha has been ably adapted, yet the film would not have worked in India, even if there were no adverse publicity. Understandable that the propaganda against the film was politically motivated yet there was something in the film spirit that ran wholly contrarian to the Indian ethos; one who does not get this essential constitution of the Indianness, to my mind, should no longer aspire to remain a filmmaker. Hence exit Aamir Khan, he has lost his philosophical home in India especially because his ethos and that of India’s are now at variance. Here is why.

Who is Forrest Gump and how is he the innate spirit of America so that everything in the American Constitution and the constitution of everyday life must be tested against his emotional well being and material success? At the core of the character is disability and America being a Sparta in spirit requires Spartan citizens, full of physical brawn and intellectual brain, material as well as spiritual success, inclusive but also has its own religion of success and pursues its own culture of future. America is a land of the prospects, of upward mobility and here the disabled, the colored, the women and perhaps the Catholic, like in Sparta constitute formidable others. It becomes, thus a challenge to the effectiveness of America to see Forrest Gump have a normal life.

The post-Independence situation in India is different. It is a land with an ancient past, which needs to be realized in the future by way of political autonomy. But the mere politics is inadequate to grant autonomy to the middle-class intelligentsia, the social class that won the Freedom. The Indian Constitution is geared towards providing this middle-class intelligentsia its fuller manifestation. People, irrespective of social class and caste, creed and religion, language and culture are supposed to become this member of the intelligentsia in attitude, mindset, and manners. The challenge of the Indian Constitution is to help a person who may have the capabilities but not the means to attain the status of the middle class. Hence to qualify as a candidate of popular imagination, the candidate must be seen to be one superior in qualities and capabilities though poor and without means and opportunities to use those capabilities into a materially comfortable life. Forrest Gump is automatically disqualified in the popular imagination. Our mascot is Apu; he is found even beyond the trilogy of Satyajit Ray; he sneaks into the images of the heroes of our popular cinema, practically in every language; one who suffers due to lack of means when s/he deserves every bit to be at the helm of affairs in terms of capabilities.

The challenge to Americans and hence to Forrest Gump is to make a lot of efforts at achievements; the challenge to Indians and hence to Apu is to make many complaints to allow the society to give him the right space. America’s politics is all about hard work; India’s politics is all about reservations and distributions of entitlements. The two do not match despite both being diverse democracies looking out more into the future rather than at the past. Lal Singh Chaddha is thus the wrong model for us. We cannot have much to do with it.

The above then brings us to the question of the popular cinema if it reaches out to the nation or nationalism. It perhaps does in the sense that the politics of the nation is the final limit and hence the final possibility for the manifestation of the individual’s capabilities. The nation serves as the reality principle of the film; take that away, the cinema loses its context. The universal appeal of a film lies in its context; place the context firmly, the actor’s agency finds its higher order principles. In Forrest Gump this was the case. In Lal Singh Chaddha, the context was missing; it did show India in its palpability but missed out India in its aspirations. Therefore the Apu trilogy, now over 70 years of age finds its appeal while Lal Singh became a damp squib.

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Pablo Neruda on WhatsApp and In Genuine Translation

In medieval times, authors, or those desiring to become authors would often do quite the reverse of plagiarism. Unlike plagiarism, they would instead, reproduce holy texts and rewrite epics and ascribe those to the original authors namely saints of yore or even to some mythical and Godly figures. Thus what comes to us as Homer’s Illiad, or the tales of Bewoulf, or the epics of Valmiki or Ved Vyas are may not be the work of a single author; instead written and rewritten by many more contemporary ones who decided to contribute by way of reproducing the sacred texts and thus add to the sanctified culture of their times. Sociologists would ascertain that the self-effacing authors were in times of less developed individualism. If so, then our medieval days could not have produced self-aggrandising monarchs and princes and self-promoting gurus and spiritual leaders. Moreover, the devotional and mystic movements all over the world bear evidence to the fact that degrees of high individualism may not be the unique property of modernity though the nature of that individualistic consciousness may change.

The tendency of authors to hide behind the great and perhaps the original names might be an act of devotion, where the fan can be self-effacing to bring forth the worshipped. But there could be yet another side to the story and which is that ideologically charged individuals often alter, edit, rewrite ideas which they think should be a part of the general thinking and use big names to be vindicated. This is perhaps the case with the poem allegedly written by Pablo Neuda called “On Dying Slowly”.

I have placed both versions in the table below. On the left, we have the whatsapp version, on the right we have the version translated into English for purposes of the Noble Prize Committee. Many readers seem not to know the difference and in fact related to the fake version better than they did to the genuine translation.

Look at the portions marked in bright yellow. The one on the left starts abruptly as if to say that you die slowly if you don’t read books, you don’t travel, you don’t appreciate yourself, so if you must read, travel, appreciate yourself if you are to live well. This sounds like a life coach and by no means like a poet who has won the Noble Prize. Neruda also writes about a slow dying for those who do not read, nor travel, nor appreciate themselves, but the placement of the sentences are part of a larger picture, picture of a man who dies slowly because of an inner collapse into a routine, lack of her adventurous soul, not ready to move out of her skin to appreciate the small chaoses in her life, striving forever to expand her soul to participate in the larger life. This sense is lost in the whataspp forwards, in which one is instructing you to do a certain set of things, instead of analyzing your spirit which faces the choice of either being alive or dying slowly. The poet speaks of the efforts needed to stay alive by constant participation in life that is larger and hence read a book, travel, let others help you, have a dream are instances and examples of that outgrowing your habitual self.

Neruda The FakeNeruda The Original
you start dying slowly if you do not travel, if you do not read, If you do not listen to the sounds of life, If you do not appreciate yourself.   You start dying slowly When you kill your self-esteem; When you do not let others help you.   You start dying slowly If you become a slave of your habits, Walking everyday on the same paths… If you do not change your routine, If you do not wear different colours Or you do not speak to those you don’t know.   You start dying slowly, If you avoid to feel passion And their turbulent emotions;   Those which make your eyes glisten And your heart beat fast.   You start dying slowly, If you do not change your life when you are not satisfied with your job, or with your love, If you do not risk what is safe for the uncertain, If you do not go after a dream, If you do not allow yourself at least once in your lifetime, To run away from sensible advice…   You start dying slowly if you do not follow your passion.   Do not die slowly, follow your passion, live life & stay blessed forever.  He who becomes the slave of habit,
who follows the same routes every day,
who never changes pace,
who does not risk and change the color of his clothes,
who does not speak and does not experience,
dies slowly. He or she who shuns passion,
who prefers black on white,
dotting ones “it’s” rather than a bundle of emotions, the kind that make your eyes glimmer,
that turn a yawn into a smile,
that make the heart pound in the face of mistakes and feelings,
dies slowly. He or she who does not turn things topsy-turvy,
who is unhappy at work,
who does not risk certainty for uncertainty,
to thus follow a dream,
those who do not forego sound advice at least once in their lives,
die slowly. He who does not travel, who does not read,
who does not listen to music,
who does not find grace in himself,
she who does not find grace in herself,
dies slowly. He who slowly destroys his own self-esteem,
who does not allow himself to be helped,
who spends days on end complaining about his own bad luck, about the rain that never stops,
dies slowly. He or she who abandon a project before starting it, who fail to ask questions on subjects he doesn’t know, he or she who don’t reply when they are asked something they do know,
die slowly. Let’s try and avoid death in small doses,
reminding oneself that being alive requires an effort far greater than the simple fact of breathing. Only a burning patience will lead
to the attainment of a splendid happiness.”

The whastapp forward has taken the examples of the poet and converted these into didactic and definitive sentences, and thus reducing reflections and ruminations into ideological instructions. By this, the poetic flavour which is anti-ideological because here boundaries of ideas held by concepts are repeating pushed at till words disappear into images. The WhatsApp has simple words those which are formulae for actions.

As we descend down the poem, the left hand version seems to change words with alarming defiance; here the poet’s glimmer become glisten, without even crossing the mind of the plagiarist (reverse) that the idea of the poem is to create excitement and not pathos; teary emotions are part of the ideological machinery.

Since the WhatsApp forward was neither metaphoric nor philosophical, it became a shorter presentation, unable to keep pace with poetic flow because it had no flow. Neruda could have gone on writing in the same flow, the artistic beauty of works is that they become endlessly manifest; existing even when the cease to exist in their finite beings. Ideologies must end finitely, to contain the concepts into discrete contents, the abstracts into the specific. That’s why the plagiarised poem looks so shabby and crass; a humiliation to the poetry of Nobel Laureate, namely Pablo Neruda.

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Congress Redeems, Congress Ruins

The promoters and owners of the INC, its supporters, those who are naturally inclined towards the Congress have entered the mode of metaphysical faith rather than of reasoned reflection. They are wont to believe that their routing at the polls is not a result of their irrelevance but the natural process of the rise and the ebb of tides, when, as the water drains off, they will be revealed as eternal as the hills and be redeemed as India’s sacred geography. Why? Only because the good, the Congress in this case always wins over the BJP, the evil of the story. This is a faith-based discourse, medieval, irrational, and non-secular to the core. It only shows that the liberal discourse is at its journey’s end.

The problem is not about the Congress, the problem is the failure of a liberal politics to carry us any further than what it already did. In India, we may say that it lasted for less than a century, if we consider Gandhian politics to be its beginning, when liberal ideas seem to be fully formed. The reasons for its rise and the causes for its death today remain fairly the same and both lie in the final promise of modernity, which is the emancipation of individual agency.

Individualism has a long history; long because without science and technology, it cannot have a secure material base, producing wanderers, travellers, monks and nuns and ascetics before it became artists, professionals, entrepreneurs, and political leaders. We may say that the desire of the individual to be free has always lurked as a prehistorically constituted species DNA, waiting for the right environment to manifest. Whether it is a Newton or Moses, whether it is Charlamagne or Einstein, and Michael Jackson or Michelangelo, individuals live off the surplus of the society. In crass Marxist terms, the individual may well be a parasite, living off the surplus of the society for no society that does not produce a surplus can produce individuals. Thus, societies egalitarian societies fall short of producing the genius. In feudal times, the talented individual was supported by the royal courts, in monastical orders, monasteries held them. Therefore, the rise of capitalism based on science and technology that can go on reproducing its surplus also supports democracies based on universal franchises.

The rise of Gandhian politics is due to the rise of capitalism in India; the model of the Freedom Struggle was a promise of individual emancipation. This continued into the Constitution of India and hence it is life. The individual’s emancipation out of her class, caste, religion and creed, language, and region, were to be eliminated into one homogenous image, the Indian citizen. A large bureaucracy was installed to check this individual from slipping back to her social particularities. The IITs, IIMs, competitive examinations were part of this monastery, that created opportunities but also monitored should she slip back into her original categories. The promise of unity in diversity was truly respected, provided the diverse elements melted into a unity. Or there was a hierarchy of terms, unity was super built on diversity. This was wonderful for equality but where it lacked was to produce the genius through letting her access the surplus. In every institution one was guided by elaborate rules, only to control entitlements and not to facilitate through surplus. Thus, while we created able bureaucrats and technocrats, judges, teachers, and a management cadre, what we could not produce were scientists and thinkers. Scientists who drained their brains to countries abroad did far better, the writers and film makers worked wholly on private finance and the artistic awards were always “politically influenced” and “manipulated”. Iron caged bureaucracies guarded and protected mediocrity, the genius was suspected and smothered. Gate keeping the order of the day to keep the talented out. Shibram Chakarabarty in his two-volume autobiography exposes this clearly and one has only to watch the films of Raj Kapoor to understand the menace that mediocres can bring about in the society to maintain equality and unity.

Still the Congress politics would not have suffered if the system that upheld it, besides the concentration of power, also had the monopoly of economic powers. But wedded to mediocrity, our school examination system, the curriculum of colleges, the format of the competitive examinations could only select the intellectually mediocre who needed to excel in rote learning. Institutions fell because staffed with the mediocre, they pegged down the genius. Public sectors stagnated because there was not enough talent to progress technologically, education became irrelevant, judiciary became clerical, politicians lacked imagination. No wonder then the engine of economic growth slowed down, depending more on the circulation of money, separation of the physical and the financial sectors, growing speculative finance and stagnant industrial production and eventually the falling value of the INR. Unity, equality, and mediocrity of the politics of the Congress did this to us. Lies about history and raising the nation as a religion were the two horns of ideology, not of the BJP of today, but of the Congress in its heydays.

Once the economy dipped, the agent of that economy, the state had to withdraw. Public sectors were sold to private individuals, liberalism was the only way out. Congress was the chief architect of the grand privatization of the economy; once started it was a juggernaut, proceeding on inertia. Hence the Congress faced the same fate as that of the Mughal Empire post Aurangzeb, when due to the latter’s policies of incessant warfare, warlords became rich from the money that was drained out from the imperial treasury. In this case, private industrialists, swindlers, and capricious individuals became richer who started to secure their influence and power as individuals. The BJP was born with the support of this new rich. So far so good. But what about the massive populace that has joined the BJP of today?

The reasons for people joining Modi are like the people rallying behind Gandhi, personal growth, and emancipation. Gandhi fought the British because they were in power; BJP fights the Congress because it is in power. Hence Sonia Gandhi’s call to another Freedom Movement backfires. The BJP is the Freedom Struggle. The Indians fought the British as the oppressed, excluded and the inferior fights the superior. The BJP fights with those who feel the same way about the Congress. No wonder then wherever you go in the government or in deliveries of public services, you see such deterioration in efficiency, quality, and finesse. Because the “new Indians” are fighting the encumbered and entrenched “British”. Culturally this is expressed as anti-Valentine, anti-Christmas, ant jeans, demolition of Lutyens Delhi, privatization of railways and airlines and so on.

The dominance of private capital over the public sector is the single most reason, inter alia for the polarization of the society. Unemployment worries only the Congress because it is its tag line; the recent CMIE study shows that unemployment does not worry the people at all because most are not even looking for jobs. Since enterprises providing mass scale employment are no longer around, jobs are mostly part time, multi skilled, multifarious, tentative, combination of salaries, professional fees, and self-earned commissions. Such jobs need networking on the one hand and family and community support on the other. The hijab of the Muslim girl, the tika on the Hindu boy are nothing but a sinking back into their own communities, finding approval and hence support from their kith and kin to be able to network and earn. No one looks out for the MNREGA anymore as sustenance, it is better to head a Hindu outfit for networking for jobs and deals. No one is looking for that small time private sector job when one can network among Muslim brotherhood to supply aggregates in construction. And this new source of economic power has itself become the new bureaucracy, in the Foucault style, which no longer needs to exercise power from a vantage point but is spread throughout the society in capillary action, each one trying to control the other.

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Rammohun Roy Barely Remembered, 22nd May 2022

Today, i.e., on the 22nd of May 2022 Raja Rammohun Roy’s existence completes 250 years. He died on the 27th of September 1833 in Bristol. His contributions can be measured by the extent of our forgetfulness of him; he must have been very successful that he has created conditions for us so comfortable that we no longer need his services. He would indeed have taken this to be his greatest achievement; so effective, so effectual, so vital that he is no longer needed to run the show. His success can also be measured by the fact that he has made the world which he inhabited wholly incomprehensible to us, so deep are the changes he brought about. That is why there are absolutely no celebration of the Rajah’s life and contributions worthy of note. The various outfits of the Brahmo Samaj are putting up poorly rehearsed songs, factually incorrect and incoherent talks and all the wrong prayers on the occasion.

Rammohun is an interesting person, far too big to be comprehended in a consistent and coherent frame. That he knew many languages, that he wrote religious books as well as legal, administrative and even school texts, that he raised Bengali to the level that Bankim Chandra and Tagore could write about it and infused Hindustani classical music to the Bengali song and was a social reformer who changed Hinduism to such an extent that even the Sanghis cannot return to conservatism and that he was sought by Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Macaulay, Robert Owen in England, by Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Emerson in the US, that the Cadiz Constitution in 1812 was especially presented to him, that the German institutions translated his works on Christianity and that Louis Phillipe threw a dinner in Paris in his honour, also do not help us to understand the man holistically as he single handedly wrote the script of modern India as the later generations was to imagine it, Constitutionalize it and live in it.

If Rammohun must be resurrected today it is due to the polarization that is happening in the Indian society. Interfaith harmony should at least be pursued if not interfaith unity. Let us examine Rammohun’s ideas on religion.

I think that the book Tuhfat ul Muwahhidin which he wrote at the age of 16 and did not publish till he was 32 because he did not wish to annoy his father any further than he was already angered by his views on religion. The source of this book was his education in Patna where he was sent at the age of 9 for “higher studies” which meant Persian literature and Arabic texts. Here he passed the examinations of the Koran and earned the title of Zabardast Maulavi. He had learnt a smattering of Sanskrit at home because of his caste and priestly professions of his family before they came into Imperial Services of the Mughals. Rammohun went to the nawabi school and because of this he had also learnt Bengali better than most. In village schools, Sanskrit was taught, and Shubhankari was the only way that Bengali was instructed; Bengali was a rude language and hence looked down upon. The knowledge of Bengali stood in great stead when later he developed this language to the present high point. Persian learning was quite common as it was the English of the times, necessary to obtain a government job. But his learning of Arabic was important for he read in this language, translations of Greek works of Aristotle and Euclid, Heraclitus and Aurelias, Plato and Socrates; in short, those texts which had created the European Renaissance that generated thinkers like David Hume, Francis Bacon, Lucretius, and others. Rammohun did not learn English till he was in his 30’s; he could not have been influenced by Western liberalism. He was the western liberalism, teaching the Mintos and the Hamiltons, the Middletons and Tylters, the importance of reason over religion.

Tuhfat must be read by modern sociologists and anthropologists for published in 1804, it preempted the ideas of Emile Durkheim and Claude Levi Strauss who were to write a hundred years later. He writes that religion is an invention of the human mind, universal to all societies to mark as sacred those which are incomprehensible, unattainable, unreachable, and uncontrollable. As science progresses and magic develops for the stage as entertainment, the scope of the comprehended, attained, and controllable expands, pushing the sacred to ever more newly discovered areas of the unknown. The beauty of reason is that it not only knows but also can mark what is there to be known but is presently not known. Hence, reason’s language crashes religion. So far, Rammohun speaks like Europe. But where he diverges his path is his recognition that religion is an innate need of the human. Wars and violence brace the human society when religion vacates leaving a moral vacuum. To fill this, one must raise reason to the level of religion, with its ideology, its principles, cannons. Thus, was born liberalism, in his hands through his various publications and the Atmiya Sabha. Western liberalism spoke only of the redemption of the individual, refashioning polities that guaranteed such freedom of action; Rammohun’s liberalism lay upon a contract between the ruler and the ruled, and among the people to respect each other’s freedom and hence to desist from thinking one as wholly free willed and without responsibilities. This thought has been the primary focus of Bollywood since the birth of the star in its movies; many scenes and dialogues of Deewar are directly from episodes of the Rajah’s life. This is what makes us as Indians, freedom to exercise responsibility, freedom to realize the higher opportunities in politics and society through taking on roles of responsibility. When eventually the Congress went to Gandhi, the imagination of the free citizen became this; in the Constitution of India, the imagination of the individual is also this.

The intellectual source of the Raja unfortunately not noticed by most, lay in Ain I Akbari. He was particularly close to the Mughals as his family was, inhering most of the Mughal values in institutions and as his notes show, in the system of their justice. For this reason, he hated the British in his youth. But later as he came to know them and despite his tiffs and arguments with the Christian missionaries, he admired the new civilization and saw in it a path to escape into the future. Hence, he delves into our homes, packs up our bags, leaving behind the baggage of superstitions, suspicions for other faiths, useless rituals in Hinduism, buys a ticket for us in the Upanishads and helps us evacuate the now irrelevant medieval institutions into the land of the modern and rational. That’s why, his stay in Varanasi where he learnt Sanskrit in a structured manner and read the Upanishads and classical music is such an important part of his life. It is this journey that we are now on to, it is a new land that he has brought us into; the land of the yore lies far beneath us, we are above the clouds of medievalism.

Rammohun’s religious views were split between Debendranath and Keshub Sen; the former took God as the manifestation of the natural laws of the Universe to be deeply realized within us and help us align to such rules and eventualities while Keshub Sen opened the New Dispensation to worship of all faiths, Islam, Christianity, Jews, Parsis, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs, and others. For the 250 years of the Rajah, we perhaps need the New Dispensation again.

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Awakening With Ahalya

Ahalya’s Awakening. Kavita Kane

Kavita Kane writes like an expert Sanskritist. She seems to have read stories and scriptures with an eye that is rarely trained to grasp metaphors and meanings hidden in the heavily coded Sanskrit texts. But here she is, analyzing and reinterpreting Ahalya, the most beautiful woman to have ever been born on earth. Her beauty seemed to be her disability since what remained hidden inside of her exterior demeanour was a sharp brain that could and would equal, if not surpass the best of Rishis of her times. Hence, she was born a scholar destined to study deeper into the higher order of things. Yet, she was to be married, for marriage was a must. The family privilege that could have helped her to excel in her studies, pay the expenses for her education, invest in a gurukul of her own, somehow became determined to get her married. Indra was her prime suitor.

Ahalya marries Gautam to escape Indra. The marriage ends up her being turned into stone. The Ahalya myth is not patriarchal because Gautam punishes Ahalya, it is patriarchal because of the way a woman’s sexuality is constructed and then imposed upon her. Since in a world, dominated by masculinity and defined to secure that domination, a woman’s beauty and her sexual desires are used to obtain her a man. The act of being acceptable to a man is what not only constructs a woman’s sexuality but also insinuates the desire in her. According to the author, a woman’s eagerness for being accepted kindles her sexual passions. This is what happened to Ahalya; eager to be accepted by Gautam, she awakens into sexual desire. This is her first awakening.

Ahalya would have never married; but compelled to marry, she tries to balance marriage with her vocation, chooses a rishi as her consort and falls into the structure of the family which is founded upon the submission of the wife to the husband. In this role of a submissive wife, her body, or the seat of beauty, which is what attracted men to her, is awakened into sexual desire upon which she becomes the typical nagging wife. Pushed into a subservient role of a woman who must “attend” to the needs of a man, she becomes the stereotype wife material, making demands on her husband. Ahalya for whom the mind was above the body is now an inverse of herself, the body becomes paramount over her brains.

Ironically, Gautam was attracted to her because of her beauty, never noticing her brains because of her gender. This places Indra and Gautam on the same plane, and only later in her life does she realize that if all men are for her body, then why not choose the one who satisfies her body better? She accepts that she was attracted to Indra all along and goes along with him. This is her second awakening.

Her choosing Gautam was to buy freedom for her scholarship by trucking her body. Unfortunately for her, neither was satisfied. Was she to marry Indra, she may have had a better deal because Indra was not himself balancing the body and the mind; he was all of body and perhaps, he could have left some space for her to be the Ahalya who she wanted to become? But Gautam was balancing the body and the mind as Ahalya was and soon he decided to favour his meditation over lovemaking. To walk off into meditation leaving everything else, was a privilege of a man; the woman because of her role of a homemaker, was incarcerated indoors from which she could never have a choice. The balance of vocation and work, according to the author is an impossible task and hence the balance which both Ahalya and Gautam imagined would be the case, ruined the marriage. This was her third awakening.

Then the woman, to be free in her mind, needs a room of her own. That room is her retreat, and this she can only obtain if she turns into a stone. The stone is useful for her, for it is the stone’s lifelessness that protects the woman inside it from being open to male desires. The woman’s unfreedom is the man’s lust, that is her greatest danger. However, Ahalya finds her peace inside the stone; if not a wife, then she is also denied for being a mother, a daughter, a friend and what is even more important, a teacher. The curse of becoming the stone is to be deprived of humanity and any form of visible presence for the world if she is to pursue her studies. The myth of Ahalya warns women not to touch books nor to develop her brains for then, she may have to forego her humanity, a humaneness that is permitted as far as the man wants, a humaneness that is confined to only what the man desires of the woman. This is Ahalya’s final awakening.

Kavita Kane clarifies that Gautam is not the jealous husband whose male ego is threatened by Ahalya making love to Indra; instead, he is hurt by Ahalya’s own defilement, her fallenness at giving in to lust. Her lust has diminished her, and this time, both her brains and her beauty. While he was with her, he divided her into two, taking her beauty for himself and leaving her alone with her brains. But now, as he catches her “red handed” in making love to Indra, she needs to become a whole again. What is better than a being turned into a stone to preserve her wholeness?

The author stops here with Gautam reconciled and Ahalya peaceful. But we see the desperate soul of Ahalya, a woman whose existence is construed only in terms of sexual desire, her desire for men and the men’s desires for her. Hence, she secures herself against it; but with her sexuality also evaporates her many sensualities, like taste for good food, ears for good music, feet for graceful dance, nose for the fragrances and the touch of the per deer or of children, or the feel of the cool breeze on the skin. The stone, by making a woman’s body into only a site for the satisfaction of the male desire, also ensures that a woman can have no other senses like taste, smell, sound, visuals and feeling; the stone is the hijab. This is my awakening after reading the book.

In this novel, the author makes a good case for polyandry. Gautam says that polyandry is best suited for women who are too good and multi-talented. She may find a partner each for each of her attributes. Polygamy should ideally be the mirror of polyandry and not what it is, marriage as conquest and expansion. If spinsterhood is not a choice for women and marriage is indispensable, then the Hindu wisdom says that polyandry may be the best option. In either case, the woman’s sexuality is left unaddressed and that she may be a person in her own right is waylaid. The man can be self sufficient as we find in the idea of the Ardhanariswar, but that a woman too could be somewhat of a man is denigrated as Sikhandi, the guy who is not quite the guy. Adds up to say that gender means woman only, the male is gender neutral.

Reader may also refer to the novella, Dui Bon by Rabindranath Tagore.

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English Medium, Bengali Medium

It appears that a storm is raging in Bengal over a recent controversy stoked by one RJ called Ayanatika who perhaps made some comments or observations around the inferiority of Bengali medium schools. Naturally, apologists for the Bengali medium rallied on the social media showing off their present state of employment in jobs with impressive salaries to vindicate the point that the students read in the Bengali medium are not always the losers. It is strange that only a generation before me and hence two generations before those who are writing in the social media, schools like the Ballygunge Government, Mitra Institution, Diocesan for Girls, and the United Missionary School were the top-ranking ones which produced star students and with their confident, strongly networked, and boisterous alumni associations thumped the executive boards and elite clubrooms of Calcutta were Bengali medium ones. I distinctly remember a few relatives who studied in Loreto House and La Martinere as shy and retreating ones, unable to stand up to the staggers and straddles of their cousins who went to the creamy schools, incidentally in the Bengali medium. Then what happened and why did the tide turn? To my mind, that is the more significant question than the demerits of the Bengali schools vis-à-vis their English counterparts.

The likes of Amartya Sen, Barun De, Nitish Sengupta, Sukhomoy Chakravarty and before them, Satyajit Ray went to only Bengali medium schools and which is perhaps why their command over the vernacular is so secure. They also have few peers in the writing of English even among the English persons and yet the Bengali medium schools produce children who not only speak English hesitatingly, write it jerkily but are unforgivably weak in writing, reading, and speaking the Bengali language. The problem is not with the medium of language, but what is being said, read and culturally produced in that language. And hence the divide between the Bengali medium and the English medium lies not in the medium of instruction, but in what is instructed.

The changeover from the domination of the Bengali medium to the English medium schools has taken place in multiple steps and it is important to follow these in some detail. The process of the change over seems to have taken place since the mid 1950’s and consolidated by the middle of the 1960’s. The most important episodes of this era were the expansion of the public sector large scale industrial giants and the setting up of the IITs and Universities. The local industries which were supported by innovations were now taken over by those dominated by large capita, albeit through public investments. The public institutions for education were also geared to supporting the base of large-scale production as its intellectual superstructure. The agency of the innovator and hence of his milieu lost importance. Therefore not only did the Bengali enterprise suffer so did the Tamil enterprise, the Punjabi enterprise, the Marathi, the Malayalam and so on. As these innovation-based local production declined, the vernacular language that upheld the thoughts and ideas leading us towards this innovation based local production also diminished in significance. It is not Bengali alone, but every language as in the Telugu, Oriya, Gujarati, and others shied away from being vehicles of human thought and learning. The fault lies with centralization, whether of politics, or of capital, or of the public life; the middle of the 1950’s made it sure that India was to be a unity with less space for diversity.

It is in the manner of the above, of through the “Silsila” of centralization that there grew a class division; namely those who had the education and wherewithal to participate in the national life versus those who were left back in their own milieu. This class division was marked by the difference in the medium of instruction; the birth of the English medium schools may be looked in this context. The Bengali medium must be a loser and the English medium a winner because of the forces of centralization and the loss of federalism.

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Kerala History Congress – Time Spent Well

Just back from the Kerala History Congress of 2022 where it was the sheer magnanimity of Dr Joe Sebastian, the Secretary of the Congress to invite me as a panel speaker on films and history. The Congress was organized many times and postponed each time doomed by the pandemic and closure of colleges. Hence, when travel was eventually allowed, his colleagues and he put together this impossible task in a record time of barely a week. In this they organized the Congress in as many as three cities, with Ernakulam, closest to Cochi had speakers from outside the state. The host of the conference was St Teresa’s College of Ernakulam.

This was the first time that I interacted so closely with Kerala formally and for work. My earlier visits to the state were that of a tourist, interacting with local guides and boatsmen, hoteliers and cabs. Notwithstanding my many friends from the state, this was the first time that I interacted with the Malayalee society in their own settings. What struck me most, mainly due to my familiarity with cinema, how everything was conducted as smoothly as a pantomime drama. No one rushed here and there, no one called out to one another in loud voices, no one seemed to be confused, none crossed paths with others, and there were no collisions, no cross purposes, no conflict, no confusion. With almost close to a hundred girls, in an all-girls college, everyone knew their place, position, role and duties. Glasses of water was served, followed by trays to dispose the glasses, snack trays came with savouries wrapped in tissue paper. I was very surprised when a student brought me some water in a separate glass; embarrassed I asked that there was no need for the special treatment, she said that the water served for the rest was warm and she knew that I am being from Delhi was used to drinking water in room temperature. I was impressed by the young woman’s alertness and intelligence.

Malayalees are courteous and concerned. Never in my life in Delhi or Calcutta or in my travels in Mumbai or Chennai, have people offered to carry my bags. In Ernakulam, no one allowed to have even a shred of baggage on me, even the lightest of files was carried by someone or the other; it didn’t matter if she were the Head of the Department. Usually in India, girls are shy of lugging things, in Kerala, it did not matter those girls carried heavy stuff around. The hotel staff worried more about my meals than I was, as if the matter of my comfort was personal to them. Passengers at the airport were helping me with the trays and trolleys, bookshop owners took a personal interest in what I read. People conversed too; they greeted freely and generously.

They are clean too. The city was spotlessly clean and looked rather done up; but somewhere the city struck tradition. It did not have the anxiety of Calcutta that is somehow trying to cling to its old glory and at the same time trying to politely accommodate its forever encroachers who claim its spaces and landscape,  nor did it have the supercilious ostentation of Delhi where one is trying to make a point, nor the little weariness of Mumbai, not quite knowing where it is headed to, Cochin seemed confident, contended and sorted out in its state of being. It sat there, oblivious of what others would think of it, receiving the world hospitably but in its own terms. When a young student asked me what my plans for Onam were, I realized that most Malayalis thought that Kerala was the centre of the world. The compere of the cultural programme, a well spoken articulate young girl constantly referred to the state as the country and indeed Kerala is known as God’s own country.

Buildings in the city were painted with traditional hues of white and yellow with heavy cornices and canopies, traffic was steady and somewhat slow, disciplined and restrained. All the lights worked, and one hardly saw a policeman around. The spaces for shops, temples, mosques and churches, schools and colleges, wayside eateries and repair shops seemed neatly contained within their demarcated spaces. Known for its stern caste system, everyone here knew their spaces. Caste system means many things of which the discriminative hierarchy is only one aspect; the caste system has many attributes and perhaps being content in one’s space, knowing one’s social duties might just be some of the good fall outs of this undesirable institution. Perhaps due to this good side of the caste system, Kerala works so smoothly with a great deal of social cooperation in the attainment of its public goals. Perhaps this too is the secret to the high levels of social development indices of the state and its literacy, its ready and eager supply of labor force, the strong presence in the labour force across the world, its distinctive contribution to education, intellect and culture.

In the college, everybody spoke only Malayalee. They had to consciously try to speak English. Even the papers were mostly presented in Malayalee and the paper presenters mostly interacted with the students in their mother tongue.  Bengalis of India do not speak their language with such fluency as they mix English and now Hindi with it, but Malayalee’s can speak for the entire length of their conversation without resorting to a single word from outside their language. This means that the language has kept abreast of times with its phrases and idioms able to capture the essence of the times. The power of language must lie in the power of its people and culture which must have adapted and even been on top of affairs in the presently evolving world. Bengali groups which lament the loss of language must mark that the power of a language to be relevant to its times must inhere in the power of relevance of those who speak the language. Malaylees have proved their relevance, and which is why they speak their language with such fluency and fervour.

The girls of the college that hosted the congress put up a cultural programme in the evening; this was to showcase Kerala’s heritage. In any other college we would have put up a show for folk music, band music or pop culture; but here it was classical performances, and the crowds went wild with excitement over a rendition of mohiniattam as much as they tapped and clapped for Western rock that concluded the programme.

Kerala History Congress has a two-fold agenda; one is to develop social history and the other is to develop appropriate methodologies to study social history. The idea behind this is to make history relevant for the present. Through the papers I understood that Kerala is not an easy “country” to study for it has very strong allegiance to monarchy; perhaps it would have shone out like the jewel of India if the princely state of Travancore was allowed to be. Its leanings to the CPIM, and now to the Congress or a regional party or even if the BJP ever makes a mark will be for the one and only one agenda and which is to define its identity securely against being absorbed indeterminably into a homogenous set of universals. More than citizenship, the Malayalee seems to have pursued a social and a civic entity; more than a political space for contestation of identities, they seem to have chosen a public space for enlisting cooperation. They are comfortable in their own skin, content within themselves and yet that holding on to their spaces has not made them resist the world and erect walls against it; they have been able to carry their traditional selves into the future and in this way create a future for their tradition. That is the power of the Malayalee.

It is not as if there are no contradictions in the above picture as a young teacher from the state observed that there is too much of insistence on family connections, social status, peer networks and hence gatekeeping of new entrants into spheres of excellence. The much-disliked Mallu inbreeding in general discourse is perhaps a case in the point. The network not only works in keeping people out but also keeps ideas out too. It works both ways, to create a resistance among people in accepting the ideas of the more learned as much as it prevents the entry of talent into the existing network of achievers. Therefore, in Kerala, success must be identified and facilitated for each of its many social groups. No wonder then, despite the powerful amazons of Kudumshree, centralized powers of bishoprics, of the King, the state and the public investments are of such importance. A professor told me that Telengana was poaching industries from Kerala as also the industries wanted to flee the state due to its strong trade unions. Trade unions is essential to its society as a strong social group, a tightly knit network which cannot have its benefits compromised with the growing compromises on its closedness by private industries.

Kerala has its own discipline, its self-discipline and cannot be commanded from sources other than they accept. The caste society has strong ethos guiding its members that coheres them together as well as marks them out from the rest. These have both empowering as well as disempowering elements; while we acknowledge so much of the latter, we fail to recognize the former that has lived on in India since aeons of time, been its primary means of generating the material civilization and providing for its capital as well as supply of labour. Sociologists ask rather different questions and does not recognize the normative; for a sociologist it is a world of cold and hard facts, and the caste system is such a fact. The sense of agency of Kerala draws from its self-restraint in civic space, an inner sense of duties towards the world and self and a strong recognition of the role of the self in making a difference in public life and its long history of the caste, its oppression and the fight of the reformers against it, the many religions of the state, the strong princely states, the external orientation of the economy, the predominance of the cash crop, the land with its waters and the sea with its rain clouds have all worked together in creating the self-identity of its people. Ideas of citizenship seems to have also been contested in some instances, as I gather by absorbing the general tone and flavour of the papers, conversations with the students and teachers and of course by generally absorbing the atmosphere of the state.

In the Congress, a paper presenter discussed the film Martanda Varma, based on the legendary king by the same name who modernized Kerala. In his pagentry and spectacles, in his anger and benevolence, in his stern justice and large mercies, the King contains not only the legitimacy of his rule but the entire persona of Kerala. During my PhD, two Malayalee examiners attacked my thesis of cinema vilely with impositions of their interpretation of cinema as darshan etc. I realized that the Malayalees know only a single film namely Martanda Varma, and it is this film through which they watch every other film, and its directors make their films ever since. The ethos of Martanda Varma guides Kerala even today, just as in the heydays of the court of Travancore. The King still lives on and yes, of course, how could I miss it, still governs the land, regal, confident, contended, contained, extending courtesy to the world, concern for all, a model for cooperation rather than of competition and/or conflict. It is indeed a country unto itself, forever living up to a standard defined by the King, and forever congregating in the grand pageantry to show solidarity among its various social groups, guided by and commanded by the forever living, Martanda Varma.

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Lata Mangeshkar Dies At 92

Today is the day after the Basant Panchami, the day of the immersion of Goddess Saraswati. Today is Lata Mangeshkar’s bisarjan. It happened in the morning while the Panchami tithi had not yet turned intothe sashthi that her body fell still of stirring of life. She is dead now at the age of 92, an immensely successful and a fulfilling life. Indeed, the national flags of at least India and Pakistan may fly half-mast. As a singer who broke into the Guinness Book of Records, Lata will be remembered as the personification of the song in Hindi films. Lata gone is also like the death of a family elder, an icon who lived through ages, associated with moments of many of our lives today. That’s what popular culture does, links our lives to rhythms to lend meaning and a background score to our narratives. That’s what Lata was, the meaning, an overarching one to our lives. One of the many things that we lose as we grow old are anchors of our symbols, patterns, and icons. That loss will be deep.

Yet, I, the compulsive and obsessive sociologist that I am, I find in Lata Mangeshkar, a persona that has defined us in many other ways too. A girl with a dark complexion and a sweet face, school girlish determination that is often due to her naivety in two thick long plaits on either side of her head, Lata is one born in a traditional Maharashtrian Brahmin family, which often is bereft of money resources and social contacts. And here at the age of 19, she loses her father to become the breadwinner of a family of younger siblings and a widowed helpless mother. This is the quintessential Meghe Dhaka Tara, as I see her, with her two plaits, a saree draped protectively and shyly around her as she jostles in the city trains of Bombay to visit the film studios. With the casting couches, male propositioning and male chauvinism, and a thin whiny voice, this girl is now all set to find a toe hold in the world of female singers like Gauhar Jaan and Suraiyya. And yet, she has a strange confidence or non-compromise; she needs money bad, but she won’t bend an inch to get it. She wants to win in her own terms. During her career she fought with all the leading men of the industry, Mohammad Rafi, Sachin Dev Burman and even Kishore Kumar. Through these fights she established her own labour unionish rights, of royalties to play back singers, fees of women singers being at par with those of the men and mostly, to have the name of the singers in the credits. She needed the money, she needed the job, but she refused to lower down her labour rights, her victory is also a great victory of women against the male domination, of a talented individual against a circle of influence and of labour against capital. She is thus the very embodiment of the spirit of the Hindi film industry before it became Karan Joharised into Bollywood.

Lata started her career as a film star, but she hated every moment of that because her face had to be made up and that her face had to be shown. There was some feminine inhibition at exposing herself to a public gaze I think but there was some obstinacy at that too, why should a woman have to be publicly performed to be of importance? That was her conservatism showing but she found an inner power in that too. In her song, she played the part of every heroine to the core, so much so that the heroine had to keep pace with her. Rekha, I think said that she had to struggle to express through her face, songs that Lata sang. She started the trend of studying the actress very closely, talking to her, listening the way she spoke, she nodded her head, she laughed and even cried, a practice that Asha followed too and then she acted out her part through her voice. Heroines like Mala Sinha, Waheeda Rehman and Sadhna shone through as actresses perhaps because they had Lata singing for them. This is perhaps the truest for Nutan and Meena Kumari.

Lata’s drama was her oomph factor; the elder men in the music industry often scolded Asha and her for singing so sexily on stage; she wore the same white saree, had the same kind of drape around her and the same two plaits on a face that wore no make up ever since she fled the sets of films and yet her voice appealed at the level of the gut. In her head, she was so many heroines, romancing, suffering, adventuring, fleeing and being flayed, despondent and jubilant, seductive, and secluded, worshipping the Divine and at the same time luring the man. The sheer extent and depth of the rasas she embraced and absorbed and worked through to produce those masterpieces should have been documented. Unfortunately, her biographers and admirers were enamoured with counts of her successes and not her inner life. It is not as if she had the best voice, but she had a gayaki that I wonder will ever be reproduced.

Lata was unmarried but never unattached. She took on, till her last breath the complete responsibility of her family. She celebrated her own birthday, bought herself expensive sarees and had food with chillies. She enjoyed cricket and watched music reality shows. She was never demure about living life, never apologetic of enjoying it. She was not defensive because she never married, she never felt inadequate if she did not produce children and sleep with a man, for her all such nobility of a woman to be married to justify herself as a successful woman as the insipid Kiran Nooyi. I think that more so because of the last paragraph that she is very justifiably the Ratna of Bharat.

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