Politics of Padmavati

Watched the film Padmavat. Spectacular, disquieting and disturbing. Spectacular because of the visuals but disquieting and disturbing because of the history. Historians want to take the history bit out of it and the Karni Sena wants to stop the history from coming to light ever. I think that unknowing to themselves both have exactly the same concern and which is that now that India is a nation why rake up the memory of the ferocious and treacherous Muslim conquerors on the Indian soil? Upinder Singh has recently published a book called Violence in Ancient India which has details of political assassinations and punishments in a period we loosely call as the Hindu period but such acts are confined to the royalty only. Memories of conquerors looting the homes, abducting and raping women of ordinary householders are affixed specifically to the Muslims and not to invaders in general. Popular memory recalls that the purdah and the palanquin came throughout northern India in order to protect women from the rapacious gaze of the Turki soldier on the streets. Written history may not have this on record but oral memory does and standing squarely between a multicultural, plural and secular India and a communally divided society is this memory of the Muslim. Hence historians wish to obliterate Alauddin’s ransack and the Karni Sena that of Padmini’s Jauhar, two sides of the same coin of the Muslim conquest of Hindu India. India cannot accommodate the two communities given the history of their coming together, one the rapist and the other the victim of that rape. This will be like asking the offender and the victim to marry. How is that? This is why if India is to be a nation then such memories must be reworked and histories distorted. Historians and the Karni Sena are both performing the same task of revision.

But who really made an epic out of stories surrounding Rani Padmini and her Jauhar? Who used the story to create a sharp contrast between the cultured Hindu and the barbarian Muslim? It was none other than a Muslim poet, Malik Mohammad Jaisi. A century later, miles away in yet another corner of undivided India, in a Muslim kingdom of Chittagong hills, an imprisoned Muslim poet Syed Alaol rewrote Jaisi’s Padmavat as Padmavati in Bengali. One wonders why Muslim story tellers would be so keen to show Muslim conquerors in such uncouth veneer. In fact the folk stories around Padmini in Rajasthan portray the battle between Alauddin and Rana Rattan or Bhimsingh as a Khilji versus Rajput conflict but Jaisi goes out all the way to sharply communalize the story; it is Sultan for him and not Alauddin and thus stereotyping all Muslim rulers as nauseating barbarians. To my mind, the real history should lie in the writing of the folklore as an epic by Muslim poets like Jaisi and Alaol. What were they doing when they were lionizing Hindu ideals and lambasting the Muslim treachery?

Actually, Jaisi and Alaol were fighting what the historian Barani who lived, observed and reported during the 13th century that the Hindus were aristocratic but of mild and meek nature. Jaisi’s description of Rana Ratan in love with the idea of Padmavati, a woman who he merely heard of but whose imagination of her made him into an ascetic and undertake a journey with thousand yogis to Sinhala, is a man who has the power of enormous self-abnegation and self-sacrifice. This he contrasts with the crassness of the Sultan, who much like Rana Ratan becomes infatuated with Padmini by only hearing about her. But he shows crudity, aggression, greed and violence and eventually destroys the queen and her kingdom. Jaisi argues against Barani and other court historians of the Sultanate that neither was the Hindu indifferent towards his religion nor was he ever weak and the mighty Rajputs with their enormous armies had to be the validation of the Hindu prowess. Padmavati, therefore becomes a poem in which the grandeur of the Hindus are described and set off against the crudity of the Muslims.

Barani could not say much against the incumbents of the Sultanate because he was employed as a court scribe of Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq and he ended up praising Muhammad bin Tughlaq, a man though eloquent was a ruthless pervert. But he dropped rather sharp hints against these jihadi rulers, who plundered in the name of a Holy War in his treatise on the ideals of polity. Here Barani invokes ideals which are totally in contrary to the rules followed in the Sultanate. In his “own work”, namely the Fatwah-i-Jahandari, or the rules of everyday living he invokes the idea not only of a polity based on the Hindu ideals of duty, loyalty and commitment and obligation but imagines the Hegelian Super Individual, namely the ruler of the land to be a personified epitome of such values. Hence in Rana Ratan in Padmavat, Jaisi searches for the Purushottam. It will be only another forty years when Tulsidas would compose his Ramcharitmanas to freeze the idea of the Purushottam in Ram.

School texts and other commonsense construction of history tells us that at the time of the invasion of the various parties in the Sultanate, there was no idea of India. Hence in the oral version of the tale around Padmini, the fight is between the house of Mewar and the Khiljees but Jaisi and after him Alaol both insist in a Hindu versus Muslim battle. At one level both are much more aware of the use of Islamic jihad behind the intent of the Sultanate than the anonymous folklore composers but at another level, these poets namely Jaisi and Alaol along the the 11th century Arab Godman, Satya Pir and the 9th century Sankarachary were all in the game together of presenting Hinduism as a dharma that unified a territory with a definitive boundary, namely the geography of India. Padmavat, the epic poem must be placed in this context.

Jaisi has two motives for the composition of his epic poem; one is to contrast the Muslim marauder with the civilized Hindus so as to establish a much more refined version of Islam which did not ride on the swish of the swords and the other is to imagine a purushottam, or the Hegelian Spirit, a Napoleon, or a Caesar who could unite together the highly fragmented polity of Jaisi’s times. Rana Rattan was that Purushottam in a sharp contrast to Alauddin, a man who wants to overrun the whole of India. Both are contrasted with each other not so much by way of direct confrontation but by their kinds of infatuation with the same woman, Padmini. In Jaisi’s poetry both men are enchanted with Padmini without ever having seen her. Ratan becomes an ascetic and leaves his home with a thousand yogis and set off to Sinhala to express his love for the daughter of Gandharvasena, the king of Sinhala. Ratan camps for days and months outside Gandharvasena’s fort and when at last he climbs over the high walls into the premises, Ratan is arrested and sentenced to be burnt at stake. Padmini rescues him, marries him and sails away to Rajasthan as his bride. Soon enough Alauddin fascinated by Padmini just by hearing of her camps outside the impregnable walls of Chittor, finds his way inside the fort and begins a cycle of events in which Padmini burns herself in the jauhar fire. Ratan becomes an ascetic or the yogii in his love for Padmini while Alauddin becomes the ultimate consumerist, or the bhogi. Ratan offers to burn himself, Alauddin creates condition for Padmini to be burnt alive. Ratan’s companions are weaponless yogis, Alauddin’s men are armed to the teeth. Bhanshali’s film has done justice to this spirit.

Rana Ratan and Padmini are lovers while the first wife stands out like a sore thumb between them and Alauddin and his eunuch general, Malik Kafur are lovers and Alauddin’s wedded wife is a less wanted surplus. Alauddin is a narcissist for he lives in a room full of mirrors; it is irony that he is made to look at Padmini through a series of angularly arranged mirrors. Ratan was about to be burnt alive by Padmini’s father, Padmini fulfills her love by setting herself on fire. Bhanshali has changed the introduction quite a bit so that Ratan is never seen outside the fort of Gandharvasena. But the rest are pretty similar. Alauddin and Ratan are shown in juxtaposed shots as each enters his palace, or get dressed up to meet each other over dinner and each frame that shows them parallel or together the contrast between them is heightened. Alauddin has no ideals, Ratan is idealist; Alauddin is treacherous, Ratan is loyal. Alauddin often loses self-control, Ratan is restrained, Alauddin brooks no opposition while Ratan accommodates everything. But brave they both are. Alauddin’s bravado consists in attacking the other, Ratan’s bravery lies in absorbing the attacks. The strength of the Muslim says Jaisi lies in plunder, the strength of the Hindu is in his or her capability of self-sacrifice and martyrdom.

Ratan could have killed Alauddin many times over but each time he would let go of the Sultan for ideals and values came in between. Alauddin cared nothing for values and hence he could kill rather easily by treachery. Bhanshali does nothing to sugarcoat the bitter pill that Alauddin Khiljee and his portrayal inheres the spirit of Jaisi very closely by making his film into an encounter between the Hindu ideals and the Muslim conquerors lack of it. The oral sources however recognize the wars as a battle among the Rajputs and the Khiljees or a matter of ethnicity as in the Turashkas plunder of the Hindus and not necessarily as a communal warfare.

Despite his deep admiration for the Hindus, Jaisi does not ignore the smallness of the Hindu mind because kings could not unite against the invaders and the perverseness of Brahmins exemplified by the betrayal by Raghav Chetan, a court poet in Jaisi but a royal priest in Bhashali’s fim. Jaisi seems to be saying and Bhanshali has correctly picked up the details that the Hindus had no idea of what was striking them.

The reasons for Jaisi and before him Ziauddin Barani, Sultans like Firoz Shah Tughlaq and emperors like Akbar lauded the Hindu ideals was because of the utter unsophistication of people like Alauddin Khiljee or pervertly cruel Muhammad bin Tughlaq. It is never a good ideal for secularism to support fundamentalism in any religion and Islam deserves no reservation to be spared of that either. If we uphold the Sati as a Hindu ideal then where do we place Raja Rammohan Roy or Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar? If we imagine Alauddin as a nice person how do we ever understand the contribution of the great Mughals? or of Jaisi, or of Alaol or of those medieval Islamic scholars and scribe for whose efforts India is multicultural? I think that it is important for every nationalist Indian and secular liberal persons to separate the grain from the chaff.

Eventually, Hindus caught on Jaisi’s idea rather well and there came the Sikhs and the Marathas. The Sikhs imitated the Pathans in their attire and especially the plaits and braids for men and much of their dance moves of swinging on one leg and slapping the thigh are integral parts of the bhangra. The Marathas adopted much of those behavior which were the most hated about the Muslim conquerors namely cruelty, treachery, disloyalty and betrayals and above all, hate. No wonder then the Maratha’s desire for Hindudom lies at the root of the present day Hindutva, a very Islamized Hinduism. Javed Akhtar warns the Hindutvawadis never to become like the Muslims just as Jaisi or Alaol or secretly Barani did the same too. For only they know the barbarity that Muslims are capable of in the name of religion just as we the Hindus know the extent of crudity that Hindu fundamentalism is capable of. To deny fundamentalist possibilities of any religion is secularism’s shame, not its function.

Bhanshali’s film has changed the storyline of Jaisi here and there perhaps to simplify stuff for the film screen but he has put in some Shakespearan nuances in his otherwise operatic magnum opus. Padmini goes all the way into Delhi, albeit unknown to Alauddin to rescue Rana Ratan. As long as he was a captive of Alauddin, Rana held on to his character but as soon as he walked free back into his fort with the crowds rising in ovation to his queen, Padmini, he suddenly appeared to be a crushed man, his masculinity deeply afflicted by his queen’s bravado. It is from the moment of his rescue that he actually loses it all and seems to surrender to both Alauddin and his Fate. This is a slight distortion of Jaisi’s tale, where Alauddin has not been able to kill Ratan and instead Deepaval stabs the Rajput king at the back just as the Sultan’s men stab Ratan from behind, but well, the king is dead and Alauddin is ransacking Chittor. Alauddin runs into the fort, imagining to finally get to see the queen but finds her nowhere among the thousands who now march towards the raging fire in the giant pit. He has no idea of what the jauhar is but finally pieces it all by drawing inferences from the lighted embers thrown at him and the huge conflagration which he sees and the march of women towards it. He then crashes, almost cries at stop and seems to say look I didn’t think that the game would go this bad. It is said that Alauddin corrected himself quite a bit in the later part of his rule and Khusrau, his court poet assigns this to the scolding he got from Nizamuddin, the saint of Delhi. But Bhashali suggests that it was the slap he got from Padmini when she walked into fire must have stunned him into civilization.

I am not in favour of a modernity which places a hierarchy on values, claiming the modern values to be morally higher than the medieval ones Jauhar is not Sati; it is the Samurai sense of honour, committed by women of the warrior clans, actual instances being only one here and another there. Sati, on the other hand was forced upon ordinary householders, their numbers could stretch to thousands in the 18th and early 19th century Bengal. Jauhar is not for the ordinary nor for the everyday; it is part of war, a martyrdom in which by an inward collapse you leave the enemy with nothing to fight for. This is what Padmini did; when encountered with a man who had no values or morals, she undid herself and thereby divesting him of his reason for warfare. There are many similar tales as this among the Buddhists as well.

I have no idea why some people in India are trying to appease our Muslim citizens by denying the tyranny of the Sultanate. I am sure that the practitioners of Sati does us the Hindus no service. By erasing the truth of the horrors of the Muslim conquest, we are insulting our Jaisis and Javed Akhtars of their right to critique their religion and reform it to suit a plural world of secular modernity.



















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Meghnad Bodh Kabya by Michael Madhusudan Dutta

On the 17th of December 2017, Nandan Dasgupta captivated the Ohetuk Adda with his presentation of Michael Madhusudan Dutta’s epic poem Meghnadbodh Kabya. While presenting the finer aspects of the work, Nandan wove together Madhusudan Dutta’s biography to show that the life and times of the poet had influenced both his personality as well as his poetry. Often known to have brought Western influences into Bengali poetry the presenter alerted us to the vast reading of the poet of Hindu mythologies as well as his thorough reading Greek and Roman myths. He brings together the Sanskrit metaphors of Kalidas, the grandiose of Milton, the resonance of Chaucer as well as the lyrical romanticism of Yeats. No wonder then Michael Madhusudan Dutta has been Bengal’s greatest poet before the age of Tagore.

Meghnadbodh Kabya is a retelling of the Ramayana where the anti hero Ravana has been glorified. Many episodes in the poem which are the poet’s creation now stand as being integral part of the Epic. For instance, the assassination of Meghnad by the conspiracy of his own uncle, Vibhishana while the former was sitting alone and unarmed in his Yagna room has become a permanent feature of the Ramayana. Despite Meghnad being the hero, he gets killed and exits the poem in the 6th canto and for the rest three it is Ravana who gets the centre stage. The work is mainly about Ravana.

The tone of the poem is not righteous, it is fatalistic. This brings Madhusudan Dutta so close to Homer.The abduction and the war happened because of Fate unforeseen and uncontrolled by human agency. The Gods play their part in the story as they take sides of their favourites and they bring in further doom into the events. There are interesting interventions of Madan like Hypnos in Homer’s epic, the Illiad. And much like Homer Meghnadbodh Kabya despite is valiant effort and heroic characters remains a tragedy, something that Michael Madhusudan introduced into Bengali literature perhaps for the first time ever.

It is not only the epic form of the Greeks that Michael introduced into his poetry but he introduced the blank verse, the sonnet, the use of flash backs and dream sequences and of course the tragedy and foreboding.

Madhusudan Dutta’s own life has been tragic despite him being a larger than life character. Known for his profligacy, he swung between luxury and penury for most of the times to die a lonely and a desolate man. He converted to Christianity perhaps to access the high European culture associated with Christianity. His family and especially his ever supportive father, Rajnarayan Dutta severed ties with him and the conversion cost him his seat in the Hindu College. He was a polyphon and a polymath for he studied Latin, Greek and Persian and he read classics across cultures.

For all his newness, Michael had a predecessor in Henry Vivian Derozio, a poet and a leader who died young. His Young Bengal movement which was a spearhead movement for social reform towards building a more rational society influenced Michael into the world of powerful individual personalities. But perhaps the despondency of his life, having never really been able to balance his creativity with his work for a living made him see in individualism shades of tragic heroism. And that was the flavour of many of his works, among which Meghnadbodh Kabya is the brightest Jewel.

The popularity of Michael Madhusudan Dutta can be gauged from the regularity with which his plays were performed on stage and he also wrote on commission from producers of plays both on stage as well as in private theatres of the zamindars. Many of the dialogues especially from Meghnadbodh Kabya have found their place in Bengali idioms.
















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Finally I read through Malik Muhammad Jaisi’s epic work, Padmavati. Written in 1540′ Padmavati predates Tulsidas’s Ramayana by about 40 years. Both are experiments in Awadhi poetry and represents milestones in writing in the vernacular. Like Tulsidas   decades after him, Jaisi too trained in Sanskrit, studying the language from the best of Pandits in Benaras. The purpose behind studying Sanskrit was to get the rhythm and the tone of the language so that the poetry written in Awadhi could have similar grandeur of the metaphor. But there was yet another similarity behind both the poet’s purpose and that was to imagine a Purushottam. For Tulsi it was Rama but for Jaisi it was Rana Rattan, the man who was infatuated by and eventually took Padmini as his second wife, he being already married to one Nagmati. Padmini was exquisitely beautiful, Padmini being a generic name for a particular kind of woman. The other types are heerni, Hastini, hansini, mrinalini and so on. Padmini is supposed to be the most beautiful form of women. Most probably, Padmavati was the name of this Padmini’s name. Her father was a ruler in Sinhala by the name of Gandharvasena, one who would invoke the jealousy of the mighty Ravana. By the time Gandharvasena ruled Ravana was dead but Vibhishana was alive and the Rakshasas seemed to be rather envious of him. In fact when Ratansena was carrying Padmini across the seas, Lakshmi, the Goddess instate of Lanka conjured up a vile storm that nearly fatally rocked their boat.

Padmavati’s beauty in a large measure drew from the beauty and the bounty of the land she was born into, namely Sinhala. Sinhala was not only high economy but it was high culture as well. Sinhala therefore constituted perhaps the dreams of the Rajasthani, a dream which they partially fulfilled by providing generous employment to the cultured Bengalis. Bengalis were employed in the royal courts as purohits, Pandits, generals, accountants and ministers. Indeed, Swami Vivekananda too was sponsored by the royal family of Kota, his costume too being designed in Rajasthan! The search for wealth and opportunities brought the Marwaris into Bengal as early as the 16th century. So, for the Rajasthanis it seems that Sinhala was their El Dorado.

Rana Ratan, or Ratansena gets to know of Padmavati through Hiraman. Hiraman is Padmavati’s parrot who escapes her custody and falls into a series of misadventures but eventually finds a place in the royal palace of Chittor, a colloquial name for Chitradurga, or the painted fort. Hiraman plays politics when he openly praises Padmavati to the queen, Nagmati. Nagmati in a fit of jealousy asks Ratansena to get rid of Hiraman but unfortunately he falls deeply in love with this magical woman who he can only dream of. Ratansena beset by his love for Padmavati renounces his kingdom and becomes a yogi. With an army of thousand yogis sets forth for Sinhala and on reaching Gandharvasena’s fort camps outside its walls for days. Padmavati hears of the infatuation and falls deeply in love with Ratansena. However, once Ratansena gets the impression that Padmavati may accept him as her lover, he with his yogi compatriots scale the walls of the fort and enters the campus. He is arrested and is about to be impaled. It is upon his gallows that Padmini sees Ratansena for the first time and she signs in the pardon for him. Gandharvasena is bound to release the yogi and give his daughter away to him as a bride. Padmavati comes away to Chittor with her large retenu of female companions and reunites with Hiraman. This is about two thirds the story.

In the palace Padmavati must encounter Nagmati through ugly scenes of quarrels and fights revealing her not a woman of grace but of one who is haughty and intolerant of incumbent queens. Smart people are often rude and hurtful, so was she. Ratansena was nonetheless clear that Nagmati would remain the principal queen while Padmavati remained his love. He would therefore spend nights with Nagmati. This did not faze Padmavati who seemed to be getting used to the ways of the palace. There are indications that Padmavati remained a virgin, the King being too enamoured to even attempt to touch her. The king’s infatuation is not lust but pure wonderment of beauty and a complete surrender to her, as if she were a Deity.

Only towards the end comes in the Sultan. Jaisi does not mention who that Sultan was except that he was a Muslim conqueror in India. Like Ratansena he too camped outside Chittor with the view of seeing Padmavati. But Ratansena went like a yogi, the Sultan came like a marauder. Ratan wanted to give up his life as a tribute to the lady, the Sultan came to pare down the fort and take her as a captor. Padmavati saw Ratan as he was about to be burnt at stake, but the fact that the Sultan caught a glimpse of her through the mirror was enough for Fate to condemn her to be burnt alive on the pyre. Ratan scaled the walls to surrender to Padmavati, the Sultan broke down the walls to subjugate her to him. Jaisi brings in the Sultanas a contrast to Ratansena, to reveal to us the low lines of lust and the nobility of love. Till such a point no one faults Jaisi with his bias against Muslims but when he starts describing the elaborate feast that Ratan makes for the Sultan and his cohorts which is a grand spread of meats of all kinds of animals who weep tears of blood and look stunned at the people who loved them and raised them and now want to kill them for flesh, the poet brings about non vegetarianism as cruelty against the world and raises it to the overall metaphor for killing, something that the Sultan has come to do. Lust for Padmavati is merely an extension of his lust for eating animal flesh. Jaisi contrasts the ethos of the Hindus against the ethos of the Muslims saying that the Muslim conquerors have torn asunder the dharma of the grand land of beauty and love only to replace it with greed and lust.

While Jaisi eagerly stereotypes the Muslim as an invader, unauthorized and illegitimate entrant into India, he refrains from ennobling all Hindus. The two characters namely Raghav Chetan, the court poet and Depaval the ruler of a neighbouring constituency are the ones who create trouble for Chittor out of spite and of envy. Raghav Chetan has lusted for Padmini and as he is ousted from Ratan’s kingdom he promptly goes over to the Sultan and provokes him to Chittor. Depaval is jealous of Ratan for the great surrender for love that he is capable of and the great reward he has got from Padmavati because of such a surrender attacks Chittor mercilessly when Ratan’s soldiers are away fighting the Sultan. On Ratan’s death Padmini alights the fire.

Jaisi took the tale of Padmavati from a local Rajasthani folk lore. A poet Hem Kanta has written on Padmini as well where Padmini is very much a queen, almost ascending to the position of the chief queen. Prabhavati and not Nagmati is the incumbent queen and while they avoid each other, Padmini assumes the role of the chief queen. There is a problem of the stepson who might well be the guy to have incited Depaval against an errant father. Hem Kanta’s Padmini was born in Poogal in the kingdom of Bikaner. The Sultan now bears the persona of Alauddin Khiljee who attacks Chittor to snatch Padmini. Rattan and Padmini discuss Khiljee and are very careful to say that what he reveals are characteristics of a vicious marauder and neither of a King nor of a Muslim. Khiljee is no longer a Muslim stereotype, he is the stereotype of a ruler who follows no dharma.

Jaisi’s tale is tragic and fatalistic, Rattan is a tragic hero because he is beaten despite the nobility of his soul; he is a target of jealousy and envy. But he is also the Purushottam because infatuation for him is not lust, nor greed, nor the desire to possess but it invokes in him the supreme sacrifice of his life, death and martyrdom. Padmini reciprocates with her own death, death and death complete the circle of love. Nagmati, Depaval and Raghav Chetan stand out as surpluses, having no redemption for they have envied and thus literally have no liberation. Alauddin lives on as the grand reality principle of history, for there is no denial that the Khiljees did indeed rule in such a despicable way.

Jaisi’s poetry has all the structural properties of becoming universal and eternal. Padmavati and Ratansena complement each other, one offering to be impaled and the other immolating herself for him. Nagmati and Padmavati are opposed to each other and so are Rattan and Sultan. Hiraman the parrot which brings Padmini to Ratan by narrating tales of Padmini to the king and Raghav Chetan, the court poet who separates the lovers by exciting the Sultan with Padmini’s stories, constitute a pair. Depaval kills Ratansena and Nagmati wants to see Padmavati dead, are a pair. Hindus and Muslims are a pair, so are kings and yogis. The story thus acquires a symmetry and because of this symmetry the story can balance on its own, away from the politics of its times, away from the narrowness of its own events, into a realm of transcendence where we only remember the sublime beauty of Padmavati and the intense love of Ratansena for her. This is Jaisi’s story, much different from Hem Kanta’s tale of kings and queens, battles between the Rajputs and the Muslims and Padmini as a part of the politics of war and annexations.












































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Gayatri Mantra

My uncle has sent me a video in which an Indonesian singer tries to make a song out of the Gayatri Mantra. She sings perched upon a rock on the sea shore which gets constantly awashed by the waves lashing on it only to be smashed and rendered into a loose mass of foam. The sun is just about to rise amidst a network of cumulo cirrus clouds against a jade blue sky and the earth looks both beautiful and bountiful. This, is the premise of the Gayatri Mantra. The reciter is enchanted with the earth and she heaps upon it her lavish praise but conscious that the Sun, an even more powerful force might be envious of her compliments to the earth hastens to “also add” the Sun. Tat Savitu, she says, meaning, yes you too, dear Sun. On hindsight she recalls that the earth and the Sun are parts of a much larger cosmos and hence the cosmos must be appeased as the senior. So she adds, all the Deities of Bhrigu, meaning the astral Deities of the Zodiac who are supposed to create a field of force for the earth and the Sun to exist. Then she says that we must remember the entire system, the beautiful earth upon which we live, the Sun that has made that life possible and the zodiac that has made it possible for us to hold the Sun as well as the earth. The Gayatri thus expands the consciousness of the holistic constitutiveness of our lives, or of Life as a whole, pointing out to it being subject to a number of contingencies.

I was never much into the Gayatri Mantra as something that renders power to the chanter. I also had great difficulty in learning the mantra because it is not in Sanskrit but in a strange Vedic tongue and hence does not have the aesthetics of the Sanskrit metre. But looking at the video I suddenly was awakened to the level that the Vedic mind wished to reach, and which is to the final and the uttermost limits of the constitutiveness of human existence. I think that this separates the Indian thought from those of any other in the world. While the ancient literature has sought a valiant hero in Gilgamesh, who, though bound by promises to his people and by the idea of sin that lay in the unbridled exercise of passions and will, the Indian thought always seeks the outermost boundaries of human lives, which depend not so much on individual heroism but on the various factors of the physical world that renders heroic ventures possible. The Vedic people were not only modest but far more pragmatic so as not to imagine that everything that works in favour of humans are exclusively her own doing.


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Amitabh at 75 years

On his landmark birthday of three fourth way towards a century, Amitabh Bachchan retains the romance of the star he once rose to be some four decades ago. He is active in films, in the entertainment business, on social media, in public opinion and what is of greater significance, in gossips circulating around celebrities. It seems, as if that the writers are exhausted of ideas to write good scripts for him, but Amitabh’s image is still eager to grow and evolve into a finality that eludes our imagination. If we have the likes of Salim Javed once again in the present times, Amitabh can still rise into the iconic megastar all over again, crushing all the stars of our times. He has a strange presence; it is literally when he stands no one can be seen in his glare. In the early days of Amitabh’s stardom we used to discuss how politics of his time brought him in but our question today will be, if the age that held him has passed into history, what makes him still a star?

I “met” Amitabh forty years ago while watching Sholay after it already had run over two years. After that I quickly watched Amar Akbar Anthony. I watched Zanjeer and Deewar much later in reruns. But in my first encounter of him in Sholay, a film that cannot really be said to belong to Amitabh specifically, there was something about him for which I decided that in my life henceforth, I will be Amitabh Bachchan. I grew studious, dead serious, somewhat melancholic, but focused and decided to win at everything I do. I became a perfectionist, hardworking, confident, defiant and also arrogant. I used to imagine Amitabh Bachchan as bearing all of the above attributes and hence worked myself up to be all of these. Slowly, I discovered that the image of the star also was attached to his parents, dutiful towards his children and I too, taught myself to be mindful of my own parents. When I watched Deewar, I became intensely political; interestingly, I developed a socialist, egalitarian, anti-rich political affiliation with strong ideas about social justice. I trained myself to become fearless and soon had a hostile body language that helped me hold out against potential eve teasers.

Then came Amitabh’s first downfall as he, charged with graft, resigned from politics. I became aware of the sociology of public opinion and since I was about to write my MPhil examinations in JNU, I decided to work on the public condemnation of Amitabh Bachchan. My thesis was called the Social Construction of a Hero, The Images By Amitabh Bachchan. In the dissertation I discussed how the star image of Amitabh Bachchan made the public construct him as a man who could corrupt the politicians. I started working at the end of the career as an MPhil student and soon I used Amitabh’s formula of hitting back at critics with a slew of comeback films, renewed contacts with the media and creating noise around his own victimization as the apt formula which I could use against harassment at my workplace. I started feeling invincible in the sense that if I do not accept defeat, no one can rile me in. I learnt how to rise up against hostilities. My MPhil dissertation expanded into a PhD thesis in which I concentrated on how Amitabh Bachchan was a philosophy of overcoming of obstacles and of evolving into a higher level of achievements.

Slowly I grew older and more settled in my employment and made a name for myself in my career. I now own my own apartment and drive my own car; my days as a street fighter seems to be over. I also have now other people to admire, I no longer watch popular films, and I have expanded my readings far beyond political thoughts into reading more of history and anthropology. I no longer need to be Amitabh Bachchan and Amitabh, truly seems to have brought me as far as he could and now my journey with him seems to be over. When I look back on the star with distance and detachment and again ask myself the same question, what makes Amitabh into the star that he is, I think that I get two possible explanations.

One is undoubtedly his family background, not of political connections for these no longer work for him, but of education. The advantage of having a poet father and a mother who used to be college teacher before her marriage, the privilege of forever having poets and novelists as guests, the atmosphere of English classical literature, Shakespeare’s plays and the poetry of Yeats gives Amitabh a rare education, perhaps unparalleled by any among his peers. People often miss this very important asset of Amitabh Bachchan when they count his money and mark his wealth.

The other explanation is a sense of restrain. In the height of success or the depths of failure, from earning a crore per hour of work to being penniless with his home on mortgage, Amitabh seems to have neither been overboard with joy nor sink into a doomed despair. Money does not embolden him, penury does not unsettle him. When in bad times, he thinks of emerging out and when in good times, he dreams of further perfection. In his restrain lies both a sense of self command and self-awareness. I think that the above two explanations are somewhat related; only a very fine education can lead to a heightened awareness of the self, which is plainly what Amitabh Bachchan inheres; every other attribute of action and anger, of renewal and retribution, of victory and justice only build upon the strong edifice of self-awareness. If I am to become Amitabh again, I think that I need to raise my self-awareness and not my voice.

With his roles in the Last Lear and Kahaani, Amitabh is no more a stranger to Tagore and hence we can wish him through Tagore’s birthday song, He Nutan, Dekha Dao Baar Baar, Jonmero Prothomo Shubhakshan, or translated as Let me be renewed every moment with the renewal of that first auspicious moment of my birth, or O Divine, let me be born again and again, every moment being the auspicious moment of my birth.



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Bijoya Dashami versus Dussehra

On the day of the Bisorjon I get loads of happy Dussehra greetings. Bisorjon is a sad time and the Bijoya Sammilani a way of huddling together with friends and family to celebrate the aftermath of an exhausting festivity. The Dussehra greetings seem so out of place and useless then. Here we have this enormous Goddess created through myths and imaginations of the mind and there we have the pithy guy called Ram who is trying hopelessly to be God. The epics were most probably compiled out of a collection of folk tales during the Guptas in the 4 CE but these were revived and rewritten copiously from the 11th century onwards and by the 17th centuries we have thousands of versions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata coming from all over the Indian subcontinent and in the various vernacular languages which grew threw such rewritings of the epics.

Interestingly the period of resuscitation of the epics corresponds to the age of the Muslim conquests which sometimes could establish political power as in Delhi but for most of the times were a nuisance as in Bengal, indulging in the purest form of goondaism so amply cited in the biographies around Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Muslim Bengal never really constituted a political or an economic power for these remained with the local Rajas and the zamindars but yes, they did assume some form of central authority on the might of violence by which they claimed swathes of lands rampaged by their hooligans as being subjected to Islam. To stand up against the Muslim rule that often forced conversions rose Hinduism to revive itself. The Gita may have been the first attempt at bringing Hinduism at par with Islam for here was the Book for the Hindus spoken by a God in first person claiming that the human surrender to Him unconditionally and unquestioningly just as in the Abrahamic texts. The Ramayana also was an epic around a singular and a unique hero who stood for everything that was noble and heroic and therefore extremely susceptible to becoming God.

Ram worship which used to be mostly in the form of a Ramlila, a dramatic performance that became an occasion for discussing public values and morals of kings and heroes and such narratives had the most wonderful effect of placing the Dharma of Kings against the emergent British power, especially as we know that there was a strain on the economy leading to suffering of the common people. The Durga Puja was not a protest but an ostentation, by the local Rajas, many among who, if we are to go by the Raychowdhuries and the Daws, the Malliks and the Dorjipara actually did very well during the British rule. Ramlila’s flavour is vernacular while that of Durgapuja is Renascent, it is intrinsically universal, victorious and regal. Ramlila is of subjects, Durgapuja is by sovereign kings. This is why in the days of the Rightwing politics, the vernacular culture, defeated by modernity seeks Ram, the sovereign Bengali culture, redeemed by modernity seeks Durga.

Durga has a Puranic entity in which she is a demon slayer, and what a slayer she is for she kills that demon that no male God can kill. As the chants of the Mahalaya begins we hear how the various celestial celebrities give their weapons to her, to me it always seems that they are giving up their weapons to her. Durga collects these arms and then she slays Mahishasur, the great guy from Mysore, the great devotee of Lord Shiva, her husband. We don’t know what wrong the Mysore guy commits but he needs to be slain for he threatens to challenge the fair skinned Gods. Durga is a capable woman, for she has shown enough might in her abilities to suffer, she abounds in self-confidence, being the daughter of the richest King on earth and she is willful for she goes against every well-wisher of hers to marry this much older drug addict and alcoholic, Shiva who does not even have a proper roof over his head. Durga is invincible also because of her love for Shiva, her affections for her children, her tolerance of Brahma and Bishnu both of who are her sons in law. So she is the ultimate sovereign, no one is more powerful than her. Hence she is invoked to undo this Mysore man and in the process undo the boons of none other than her beloved husband. Shiva has never asserted himself against her except the time when he tried to fool around with Ganesha and according to some versions even behead the little boy. Durga was so angry that not only had Shiva to restore the child to life but also give him the pride of place as Ganesha must be invoked before we invoke any Deity of Hinduism. Whatever be the conditions of his birth, Ganesha does not have Shiva’s sperms and represents the ultimate power of Durga to have a child without sex. Interestingly, those who follow the lunar calendar say that Mother Mary was born on Mahalaya day, so strange because Durga as the warrior Goddess was too born on that day, both being virgin mothers.

Durga in Bengal is worshipped only as a community God and not as a personal God. There is no everyday worship of her precisely because she is simply does not live in the abode of her devotees. On the days of her worship, Bengalis welcome her as the daughter who has come home. She is a victorious daughter, a powerful Being, contented in her moorings in Kailash and looks so happy. But Bengalis cannot get over the fact that this Princess of all Princess, the pampered daughter of the King of all Kings must vacate her material comforts to live in the harshness of the mountains. So when she comes with her children Bengalis go overboard trying to compensate her ascetic existence with the bounties of the world, food, clothes, ornaments, music, dance, gaiety and others. Durgapuja is Bengal’s greatest cultural show on earth. Ramlila is a stage performance, no more than that.

Durgapuja is a unity, an accumulation, a consolidation and an aggregation. It sucks in zillion entities within it. Some local boys have formed a music band, play it for the Pujos, the poet has composed some poetry, publish it for the pujos. Those who squirm at the resplendent pandals saying that this is waste of money are not economists for they do not see the millions of homes sustained through the Durga Puja economy. The money for the outrageous show comes out of donations, small enough so as not to hurt one’s pockets too much, mostly collecting advertisement budgets of corporate houses, the pandals snatches away from budgets of the media houses. The proportion of money spent individually is too small but when aggregated for Durga becomes huge.

Immersion is crucial to Durga. It creates space for fresh spending again next year and so we say Ashchhe Bochhor Abar Hobe. The worship of earthen idols and their immersion is not intrinsic to Hindu worship. The Jagannath undergoes a renewal of its wooden body in nabakalebar. But the earthen idol, the Pandal and the immersion have been crucial to making a pujo into a community affair, a vehicle for the circulation of wealth. The Ramlila simply has no comparison to this grandiose of the Durga Puja made possible through a massive circulation of wealth. The Bisorjon is an ending just as the Mahalaya is a beginning. For the Bengalis it is the Durga Puja that marks the beginning and the end of time, we live from Pujo to Pujo.

The Ramlila is not a Time marker, it is a seasonal affair and though some scholars have tried to trace a whole lot of livelihood and community ties of obligations around the Ramayana, they have not been able to establish it in the same vein as the Durga Puja.

But let us never imagine that the Durga Puja is the tradition of Bengal for just step outside the city or beyond the high walls of the erstwhile zamindars all we see is a sleepy village that wakes up not until much later with the Nabanna and the Raas and then there is the worship of the harvest, the paddy, the fields and the foods. Gods and their idols are aggregated symbols that we actually super imposed on traditions and may not be traditions of Bengal. The idol is an aggregator, brought into worship when we want to collect the forces of the community and not necessarily keep playing through tradition in order to reproduce the community over and over again. This is why the idol worship invokes so much of innovative ness.

The Ramlila is a theatre group, a rock band whose relationship to the community is like any other performance group, to entertain through a product. It is neither nor can ever be as participative as the Durga Puja where the life of the Goddesses, her pains and her achievements, her sufferings and her victories, her well being and hardships, her joys and resentments are acutely felt in every Bengali’s body and soul for she who is so dear to us must suffer so on account of a marriage we were so helpless to prevent. This is why when she goes away all she does is to give us pain by making our homes empty all over again. This emptiness makes us calm emptying us of our energies for quite some time to come, carrying us calmly through the rest of Autumn and the winter and not before the spring comes again with the Noboborsho really that we are over with our sense of missing the daughter. Ramlila ends by arousing our ego and our violence, it gives us the smugness of having killed a guy by maiming him first and then by blowing him up. The violence and its celebrations jar the solemness of Bijoya Dashami. If there is something that indeed can calm us and get the evil out of us, it is the Bijoya Dashami and not the Ramlila, for the effect of the latter is quite the opposite of calmness. Rest of India, if they are seriously looking to overcome the evil must come into the Bisorjon, the dead calm of the water that carries our darling daughter away from us again and again. But for this, the rest of India must love their daughters as much as the Bengalis love ours.















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Amitabh @ Prateeksha

It was exactly on the 20th of December 1990 that I got an invitation from Amitabh Bachchan to be his house guest at Prateeksha in Mumbai. The invitation came through a call from Mumbai, then still Bombay in my landlord’s telephone because I as yet did not have my own connection. It seems that he called earlier in the day while I was at office, wanted to know when I would be available “directly” to take his call and there I was at 10 minutes past 6 pm to talk to him. I told him that trains were full in the last week of December and that I might like to postpone my visit until later into the New Year but he said that he was to visit South Africa and then again get very busy so here he was in a lean period when breaks were manageable. He would send me plane tickets both ways, the return being an open ticket and I was not to worry because I would be very well taken care of at his house by his family and him. But the nights, I said I would want to be in my office guest house, fairly close to his house in Juhu because I was not too comfortable living in with families which included even my own relatives. I was duly booked for the nights at the airport Hotel, fully paid for by Amitabh Bachchan. The reason for the invitation was that I had posted him, albeit rather late, copies of my MPhil dissertation from JNU titled the Social Construction of a Hero –Images By Amitabh Bachchan. The stuff I wrote, he said were exactly presented just in the way he thought of himself in his mind. How could I ever know his mind so well was the curiosity he wished to satiate through my visit to his home.

When this happened I was 29 years old and from the age of 17 I was a fan of Amitabh Bachchan having seen him for the first time on screen in Sholay and Sholay was not even exclusively his film. I, being born and bred in a renascent Bengali family, supposed to know nothing beyond Tagore suddenly became enamoured by a guy playing a pedestrian role in a multistarrer apparently violent. Thereafter, I tracked Amitabh through both the new releases as well as the rereleases of older movies. I decided that I was Amitabh Bachchan, in my mind every separation between his entity and mine was to vanish. I had to think with his thoughts, move with his body language and work through my everyday life as if, within my own precincts I was he. I was not romantically nor erotically attracted to him; my attraction towards him was philosophical. In my mind I already was speaking to him all the time and when I finally blurted all that out in my academic work, I, had attained silence because dialogue ceases in complete agreement. So, frankly, I no longer needed to meet Amitabh. But I would get a chance to see Jaya Bhaduri, and to see her became my overriding interest in visiting Prateeksha.

Amitabh sent over the tickets to me through his establishment in Delhi and his car and driver picked me up in the wee hours of the morning to drop me at the airport for the flight to Mumbai. I was more worried about a packet of soft notun gur sweets not being squashed on flight that I was carrying for the Bachchan family purchased from Annapurna in front of their Delhi bungalow, Sopan. Then finally as the day broke and life picked up in the streets in Mumbai that his car drove me into Prateeksha. Amitabh was the first person to greet me in the house. He was getting very distracted by a light sweater that I was wearing from Delhi because though Delhi was freezing, Mumbai was hot. He constantly worried that should the sun become brighter I would sweat. He then took the journalist who was interviewing him and me into the wooden shed at the corner of his garden because here he could run the airconditioning. He was more enthusiastic talking about my work to the journalist than about discussing his.

It was close to lunch that I met the family in full force which included Ajitabh who had come down from London. I soon realized as we sat down to dine in the finest silver crockery and over a twelve course meal, that it was not Amitabh Bachchan, but I who was the star. Eyes were looking at me admiringly and with awe, there were furtive glances from the staff trying to see what kind of a star I was so as to merit such an honour. I inferred that so far no guest has been so much honoured at Prateeksha as I was. Perhaps the reason was that I was an academic and so was Harivanshrai Bachchan. Teji, Amitabh’s mother told me that Harivanshrai had read my work and then my bibliography and said to her that so many books, even he had not read. I was being admired for my academic achievement.

In my observations and through my analyses of Amitabh Bachchan, he, his family, his home, the way it was organized, the décor, and his daily routine was very familiar to me. It was as if I knew them as closely as I knew my own family. But it was interesting that they too found me familiar to them as well. I think that they knew my “type”, intelligentsia, city bred urban middle class educated in premier institutions with excellent schooling and that made my “type” much more familiar to the family than the film world of Mumbai could ever be.

Yes, food was resplendent and overflowing, Amitabh was perceptive to my addiction to pickles and insisted that the pickle should always be set before me for all meals. Jaya was torn between being a good host and just chatting with me finding in me a fellow Bengali who remembered her glorious films and her famous Bengali directors. But the memory that I would cherish were the philosophical discussions with Amitabh and Jaya over the nature of self, manifestations of ego, anger, morality, the law and justice, democracy and ethics, stardom and cinema, poetry and epic, spectacle and extravaganza, violence and obscenity, right wing politics and liberalism, vendetta of the media and the emancipatory power of popular culture, of Hussain and Ganesh Pyne, of eyes and laughter, of image and appeal, most of these I have captured in my forthcoming book of sixty philosophical essays around the image of Amitabh Bachchan.




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