Mirza Ghalib and The Public Sphere

I subscribe to the Tata Sky and within the bouquet I get Javed Akhtar Active. This is really the channel I usually watch apart from the standard detective serials like CID, Monk, Castle, Mentalist and Adalat. All of these add substantially to the way my mind works. The other day, Javed Akhtar was discussing rahguzar, an Urdu word whose closest meaning in Hindi is the public space. We know of Habermas born in the year 1929 and dead only recently as the master theoretician of the public sphere. It was he who in a step by step manner through the use of historical memories of Europe arrived at the development of a public space which apart from the street squares and its cafes, its painting galleries and critique clubs also included the much circulated print media and literature. The idea of the public sphere was actually to stand between the State and the economy, economy as that being wholly located within the household of Europeans. The development of capitalism and the market then becomes the development of the public space; the exchange of goods and services being done through impersonal means of the famous “invisible hand” of Adam Smith. The crisis of the public sphere, according to Habermas, then lie in the confusion of economics with the public space and which then becomes corrupted by the interests of the capitalists.

The Urdu poets of India also imagined the public space. Since Urdu poetry has heavily influenced the Hindi films all through the decades of the 30’s to the 70’s, the idea of the public space in the popular Hindi film is developed out of the ideas of Urdu poetry and among them, the star is Mirza Ghalib. Ghalib wrote profusely in Persian and also in Urdu. Rah Guzar, a common theme among the Urdu poets is best imagined as the path which is passed and since this is a path, literally a road it is a public space. The public space of the Urdu poets is not merely a space beyond the home but it is also a moment in one’s journey, a moment, which because of the journey will necessarily pass into its next. The public space in Indian thought is therefore also one of mobility, which in the Hindi film becomes open to possibilities of upward social mobility. Protagonists are forever taking the road to find romance, love, lost parents and siblings and even large and unimagined fortunes. The Hindi film’s idea of the public sphere is typically a legacy of the Urdu poetry.

Ghalib imagines the public space as a space of liberation; it is typically without walls and enclosures and hence it is not a salon, nor a café. And because it is without enclosures it is emancipatory and liberating and liberating it is because within walls lie our social norms and rules that divides people into castes, religions, creeds, gender and age. It is the public sphere where these particularities are all mixed up and become the universal. Ghalib and the entire ilk of his followers seek this liberation of universality. Ghalib is no Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, the man who influenced modern Bengali poetry to no end, albeit through the prose of his novels. Unlike Ghalib, Bibhuti Bandopadhyay imagines the universality of the human being in his (he did not mention her) quest for transcendence and sublimity. There are then two moments, one is to move beyond the social barriers and the other is to sublimate beyond the realm of earthly affairs. Popular cinema combined both these; the Hindi cinema was more of Ghalib with a sprinkle of Bibhuti while the Bengali cinema was essentially Bibhuti with somewhat of Ghalib sprayed in. The differences between Ghalib and Bibhuti also mark the differences between much of northern India and the Bengalis.
Ghalib’s idea of the public sphere as a space for universality, where because the walls are broken and the frozen moments of the Being dissolved into the journey of the Becoming, is indeed the most emancipatory project in a caste ridden, ruled restricted society of India. The colonial rule of the British had one great contribution to the Indian life, it substantially undermined the powers of the Brahmins to call shots in burning widows and beating the Dalits. Thereafter, the “Hell” of emancipation appears to have broken lose aided fully by the creation of new forms of public space, namely the railways, “pice hotels”, hostels, “mess homes” and of course the “saudagari office spaces”. But there were two other major opportunities; one was the Freedom Movement itself and the other was cinema. Far more than the media or the novel, the printed books or calendar art, it were the Freedom Movement and the popular cinema those which gave a vent to the Indian being’s grandest dreams and which was the “dance freely with abandon on the streets”, the quotes being a sentence from a vaishnav kirtan. The street dance of the followers of Chaitanya, led through the thoroughfare of Bengal roads by Nityananda is the most cherished memory of liberation precisely because it helped pull people out of their enclosures into the universal public sphere, or the road, or the rah guzar which the Urdu poets speak of.

The cinema is full of the flavour of the road; and mostly women are placed into open spaces where they freely romance men, something which the walls of their homes would not allow. There are two ways of looking at the issue; the woman is given the right to be and occupy the open spaces and yet at the same time, she is invariably in the glare of the male consumer of cinema. By constantly bringing a woman into the open sphere, the cinema may have helped in creating a visibility and hence a right for a woman to inhabit the public spaces. But at another level, her being in it helped her being ‘seen’ and “gazed at” or “tasted” by men. Ghalib’s poetry speaks from a male point of view because he relishes the fact that in the public space he gets to see women who he may never have been able to see among his social milieu. But if it is a matter of intimacy then the public space is useless; one should go indoors and once more get into the wrangles of social rules and restrictions. The frangibility and the fragility of the public sphere lie in the desire for intimacy. This is a far cry from Habermas’s apprehensions that the pristine quality of the public sphere may be corrupted by the spilling over of capitalism. The anxieties around the public sphere in the West come to rest in capitalism, while for India it is sex. The crux of critique then which, for the modern world is all about the protection of the public as universal becomes weighed in terms of possibilities of sex in India. Sex, and not class constitutes the crux of the Indian society.

Then will our sociology be different from that of the West? Yes, beneath our theorizations of caste and class and the access to more equal opportunities and to the material resources of the society, is the Levi Straussian anxiety of women. Women are our wealth, she constitutes our opportunities and she must be protected just as a diamond, locked up indoors, guarded, as the lawyer defending the Nirbhaya’s assailants say of Nirbhaya. The politics of India at the core is around sexual access and this perhaps explains why our popular cinema which except perhaps of Amitabh Bachchan, rests solely around the question of betting and getting women. This also in all probability explains why sexual violence is so much on the rise, for sex is our politics and high costs of living, women’s liberation, the high fashion of cities and the growing inequality of both material as well as cultural wealth is creating more and more unequal access to desired women. Our politics of the growing right wing, our democracy getting more and more influenced by spheres of influence of the wealthy and celebrities and the fact of market now taking the place of the nation, intensifies our anxiety of being able to get the women we want, who are getting costlier and pricier to obtain.

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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