Gift Wrapping Our Way Out of Existence

‘Your delivery is scheduled to arrive today’, says the message on your phone. There was a time when you would have been excited after reading this but now it doesn’t matter. Ting Tong, the doorbell rings. The delivery guy brings your order in a white plastic bubble wrap envelope. Congratulations you have a new toy and a complimentary I-will-still-stick-around-way-beyond your-extinction envelope that lands straight in your dustbin, without even a goodbye.

Packaging products, right from bubble wrap envelopes to water bottles, form a major part of the solid waste – their quantity was estimated to be about 77.9 million tons in 2015. (29.7 percent of total generation)

 

But hey how is this your fault? It’s just the way it is, right?

 

The envelope is trashed and what you hold in your hand is probably a book. You can tell even if it’s wrapped in an average looking gift paper. It’s wrapped because it’s supposed to be your birthday gift. You tear it apart and find the exact book you had asked your friends to get. Surprise. Surprise. A temporary smile lands on your face. The book lands on your shelf. Gift paper lands in the dustbin. Again without even a goodbye.

 

Rude, a tree died for this bro!

 

Why do gifts even need to be wrapped? I wonder. Although the practice of gift wrapping can be traced back to 2nd century BCE China, modern gift wrapping practice only became mainstream after it was popularized by Hallmark back in 1917. It was an accident. They ran out of traditional tissues so they started selling colourful envelope liners from France instead. It was a hit. America loved it and eventually, it made it to the rest of the world too.

The psychology behind Gift wrapping says that it influences the recipient to rate their gifts more positively. The short-lived suspense of not knowing what exactly is your gift somehow seems to excite you. As you unwrap the gift, you wonder what’s inside. This curiosity feels good. But is it really worth it? Just a few seconds of our unnecessary pleasure sits on the planet for hundreds of years, asphyxiating anything that comes in its way.

 

Sure avoiding plastic packaging and switching to paper may be a good start but paper isn’t as environment-friendly as you would believe it to be. The problem begins where the paper begins. Wood. Deforestation. Loss of habitat. Loss of biodiversity. Soil erosion. Reduced water quality. And this is just the beginning.

We move on to manufacturing. Here come the chemicals, which seep into our water bodies through a poor waste disposal system. Chlorine, mercury, halogens, nitrates, ammonia, phosphorus, caustic soda – each of these chemicals used in making paper, damages the environment differently. And next is the disposal. Tonnes of paper make it to landfills every day and when they decompose, they release methane – one of the major greenhouse gases.

Paper manufacturing is also water and energy-intensive process. In India, the national norm of water consumption per tonne of paper is 200-250 kiloliter in large paper sectors.

 

That’s equivalent to a lifetime water supply for a family of four!

 

As water shortage becomes more commonplace, it’s going to get harder to manufacture paper. A technology upgrade is necessary. It is possible to make the paper-making process more eco-friendly. The technology is available to reduce water consumption, at least to half. The question is – how important is it? And do the decision-makers realise that?

So we can’t use plastic. We can’t use paper. What can we use?

 

The Three Rs.

 

1. Reduce

Our consumption is a major burden on the planet. And our demand is only growing. We don’t have any other habitable planet known to us. Even if we did, we have no technology to shift 7.7 billion people to a faraway planet. We talk about our end but our civilization has actually only begun. There are so many things that we haven’t discovered yet. There are so many things that we haven’t even seen. And we are already losing our only home?

We must act. We must act now. Big or small doesn’t matter. If it takes a gift wrapper, gift wrapper it is. Ask yourself – do you need it? Do you really need it? If the answer is no then you know what to do.

Okay, so if we are not buying new stuff, what are we replacing it with?

Stuff we already have!
Welcome to the second R –

2. Reuse

Newspapers. Brown bags. Shoe boxes. Pieces of clothes, our options are endless. Are you willing to be creative enough to use them? The Internet can always help.

Our last R brings us to –

3. Recycle

Fact is that we are drowning in our own trash. Fact is also that we are importing more and more waste paper from western countries. Special thanks to China for closing its gate, now all the western garbage comes our way.

We are not in any shortage of waste paper. India produces 62 million tonnes of waste every year. Paper makes a huge part of it. What we are in shortage of is an efficient collection and segregation system. We need better waste management and recycling facilities.

Although paper is one of the easiest things to recycle, there is a limit to that too. After repeated processing, the fibres become too short to produce new paper. In that case, virgin fibres have to be used. Ultimately, even with recycling, there’s no escaping cutting more trees, polluting our rivers and trashing our land.

 

Unless, and until, we start caring.

 

The gifting season is almost gone, gift wrappers have already been used, but when it returns which it inevitably will, I hope you choose to care.

No plastic gift wrappers and reduce, reuse, recycle as much as you can. And when it comes to online shopping, avoid it until sustainable packaging becomes their priority. They may not hear your voice alone, but they can’t avoid us if we all start speaking. Our planet, our only home, is worth it.

 

 

 

References:

repository.upenn.edu/
fespa.com/en/news-media/
icontrolpollution.com/articles
downtoearth.org.in/interviews
intechopen.com/books/
indiatoday.in/india/story/
bbc.com/news/
mapsofindia.com/my-india/
wiki/Paper_recycling
bustle.com/articles/
wikipedia.org/wiki/Gift_wrapping
wikipedia.org/wiki/Packaging_waste

Conflictorium- A Museum of Conflicts

Conflicts are much more than mere news

A society faces a plethora of obscured events that create and recreate a place, and thus, the culture. We usually evolve through the times, and sometimes adapt, but we must archive whatever has gone by and what still remains. While most museums house objects, memos, diaries, and other items of history, a precise documentation of the core reasons that led to the conflicts are hardly archived.

Trying to understand the disputes that we still face, the divergences, which are so in-built that perhaps their resolution might just need or create another revolution in the history?

Rare is to find the curation of such ‘conflicts’ which would raise the much required awareness. Aided by the media that manipulates news that hardly pertains to the issues and seldom tries to identify the layers, the conflicts that remain unheard and perhaps go unnoticed by us in our daily lives must come to surface. While museums file the details and minutes of the history, they much rarely let you interact with it.

 

Museum of Conflicts

Conflictorium, in Ahmedabad is a museum, as the name suggests a Museum of Conflicts. It is a multi-sensory interactive museum, wherein through medium of sound, touch and visuals, the spaces evoke in you the varying thoughts and perspectives on issues like casteism, labour exploitation, marginalised communities, the brutality of the lucked-out privileged, and the gender biases prevalent yet not talked about, the violent actions on animals and other voracious matters.

The Museum is housed in an architecturally beautiful house, the one which belonged to the first hair dresser of the city, Bachuben. On entering, the first interaction is with the brutal history of Gujarat, the riots, and the henceforth demise of the communities and the effects that the state faced afterwards.

The other spaces, tell the visitor the stories of all the said issues, through voicing opinions that have been on-record collected through generations via films, television series, radio, and other communication mediums. They intricately present the sensitivity of the issues and leaves one with contemplation.

 

 

Anne Frank House

The first floor is a flexible space, which incubates different exhibitions from time to time, and provides a platform to different artists and events in history that have occurred across the world. During my most recent visit to the museum, it encompassed the most known story of the Holocaust, the story of Anne Frank. Many artists were involved in creating the closest replica of the Anne Frank House, the annex where she and her family faced a continuous battle, to hide from the price they had to pay for being Jews. The depiction and the storytelling of the house were incredibly touching and precisely done.

img_20191127_1857107303840843991158582.jpg

 

As one climbs down the steps, there in the small corner right next to steps, there is a mirror, asking you to listen to the story of the lady who resided in the house, and how the place has been a place of transformation for many and how Bachuben lived, this puts you in a position to literally act, and see the change in yourself.

The museum holistically provides you a challenge to the perception, where it questions your notions about everything around you.

 

Defying Love’s Boundaries – Bollywood’s Heroine in the New Millennium

Mohabbat bhi zindagi ki tarah hoti hai, har mod aasaan nahin hota, har mod par khushi nahin milti, par jab hum zindagi ka saath nahin chhorte, to mohabbat ka saath kyon chhorein.

[Love is similar to life – every turn isn’t easy; every turn doesn’t bring happiness… But if we don’t abandon life, then why do we abandon love?] – Mohabbatein

P.C. Barua and Jamuna in Devdas (1935)Although the first Indian romantic film, Devdas, released in 1935, Bollywood’s tryst with romance began in 1929 with the Melody of Love, the first talkie film screened in India at Calcutta’s Elphinstone Picture Palace. Bollywood love generally involved singing around trees; close-ups of touching flowers depicting the taboo kiss; love triangles; and extra-marital affairs. While the Bollywood heroine mostly toed the line of tradition and propriety, films like Ijaazat (1987) and Lamhe (1991) attempted to break the Bollywood romance mold. But, even though Indian cinema remained circumspect towards depicting empowered women, TV programming took the lead with shows like Rajani (1984) as housewife turned social crusader, and Udaan (1989) about a woman’s journey of becoming an Indian police officer.

images (4)

By the late 90s, the Indian audience broke the shackles of state-owned programming with the advent of foreign TV media. Televisions beamed women taking center stage with serials like Tara (1993), Shanti (1994), and Aarohan (1996). Emboldened by popular demand, Bollywood filmmakers began to explore cinema beyond traditional narratives; and the new millennium brought female roles re-imagined with portrayals of independent women stepping outside conservative notions of propriety in Indian society. The year 2000 introduced Bollywood lovers to ideas of identity and agency, with the release of Astitva and Kya Kehna. Actor extraordinaire, Tabu, jostled with a lover’s inheritance and an illegitimate love-child in Astitva, while re-discovering her identity and courage; aided ably by her son’s girlfriend, Namrata Shirodkar. Meanwhile, Kya Kehna had Preity Zinta carry the mantle of single mother, and an unborn child ostracized for its out-of-wedlock status.

23293.jpgSimultaneously, the allowance of 100% FDI in the film industry, caused international companies like 20th Century Fox, Walt Disney, and Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc., setting up shop in India, influencing Bollywood film production and distribution. Combined with the expanding presence of multiplexes and reduced budgets due to digital cinema technology, Bollywood filmmakers were increasingly able to risk off-beat stories. Films like Lajja (2001), Filhaal (2002), and Provoked: A True Story (2006) showcased female protagonists battling misogyny, surrogacy and domestic violence. When a film about a women’s hockey team, Chak De! India (2007), earned more than 100 crores INR, the box-office stamp of approval for women-centric films had arrived, albeit reasoned with King Khan’s (Shah Rukh Khan) presence.

images (5).jpeg

More than 70 years after Bollywood’s first romantic film was released, its contemporary version, Dev.D (2009) brought modern India to the forefront, set in Northern India unlike Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s novel about a Bengal village boy’s lovelorn life. While the characters remained the same, the story incorporated a modern Paro (Mahie Gill) shunning the chauvinistic Dev (Abhay Deol), and Chandramukhi as Chanda (Kalki Koechlin) prostituting for survival after an MMS scandal destroys her family. With its modern take on an oft re-hashed love story, Dev.D brought independent film-making and empowered women to the forefront of Indian cinema. Ishqiya (2010) featured Vidya Balan as a widow seeking revenge for her attempted murder, manipulating two common thieves with her seductions, in a bid to confront her murdering husband. Ishqiya’s box-office success spurred a gamut of woman-centric films such as 7 Khoon Maaf and No One Killed Jessica (2011), English Vinglish and Kahaani (2012).

images (6).jpegHowever, it was the arrival of Queen (2013) that put the spotlight of a box-office success on the able shoulders of its female lead, Kangana Ranaut. Queen featured Ranaut as Rani, a bride spurned a day before her wedding, who decides nevertheless to go on her European honeymoon alone. Breaking the shackles of her typical Delhi upbringing, she encounters friendly strangers and new adventures, making her confident in her independence, even as her fiancé realises his mistake. Adding to Bollywood’s explorations of women’s empowerment and female sexuality was Margarita with a Straw (2014). The film featured Kalki Koechlin as Laila who suffers from cerebral palsy struggling with her love for Khanum (Sayani Gupta), a female activist in Manhattan, even as she copes with her conservative mother’s (Revathy) opposition.

images (7).jpegWith Lipstick under My Burkha (2016), Bollywood saw the sexual aspirations of women in small town India unveiled. The rebellious streak features prominently among the four female protagonists, with a feminine camaraderie that is increasingly becoming a major plot point of contemporary Indian cinema with films like Angry Indian Goddesses (2015) and Veere Di Wedding (2018). Not surprisingly, with the increasing influence of women directors such as Meghna Gulzar, Shonali Bose, and Alankrita Shrivastava, women’s representation has moved beyond traditional societal norms, and Bollywood’s heroine is frequently pushing boundaries in the new millennium.

Cho… Cho… Cho… Chhau

Under an open sky, the percussive beats of myriad drums reverberate, as an ensemble of drummers perform the taal bhanga announcing the arrival of Chhau dancers to the ashor (arena). Amidst shouts of “cho… cho…cho…” inviting the audience, masked performers carrying sword and shield enter the stage circled by drummers. Legend has it that the taal bhanga is similar to native hunters shouting “cho… cho…cho…” while chasing game during their annual hunting expeditions.

The frenzied atmosphere becomes vibrant with the acrobatic movements, in tandem to the cadence of Dhol, Dhumsaa and Charchari, and the melodic embellishments provided by native instruments such as ‘reed pipes, mohuri and shehnaii.’ The heightened theatricality of Chhau commences with the martial dance of folk warriors, as an enthralled audience gathers around.

 

Historical Legacy

Originating in the martial arts of Eastern India’s Manbhum District, Chhau’s folk heritage spans the three regional types of Purulia Chhau in West Bengal; Mayurbhanj Chhau in Northern Orissa and Seraikella Chhau in Jharkhand. Chhau’s war-like movements are often compared to the parikhanda (shield and sword) exercises of the region’s Paikas (foot soldiers).

Owing to the inter-mingling of tribal culture in the densely forested landscape, etymologists and folklorists differ in their interpretation of Chhau. Some argue that Chhau is derived from the Sanskrit word Chhaya meaning ‘shadow, while others claims include an Oriya origin, either Chhatak/Chhaii (clowning) or Chhauni (military camp); or from the Bengali word, Chhau which means ‘mask.’

Martial Heritage 

While Chhau’s martial heritage can be traced through centuries, Chhau’s formal development as an art form occurred under the aegis of Seraikela’s royal family, the Singh Deos. To ensure defence capabilities were preserved under colonial rule, some states maintained their Paikas as dance troupes with the same vigorous exercises stylized into themes set to music. The ‘first woman soloist of the previously all-male form’ Sharon Lowen suggests that the inclusion of women performers expanded with Chhau dancers such as Krishna Chandra Naik teaching women in Calcutta during pre-independence India.

 While the theatrical development of Mayurbhanj and Seraikella Chhau was largely influenced by patronage of Indian princely states, Purulia Chhau retains its vigorous folk character, and is the most flamboyant of the three styles. Purulia Chhau’s tribal earthiness is depicted in its ostentatious masks, acrobatic leaps, and energetic flourish.

 

Regional Influences

Similar to the blurriness of the dance’s origins, the coalescent facet of tribal life contributed variously to the development of Chhau. With martial strains similar to paaikaali in Orissa and nachni performed by females in rural areas of the region, Chhau’s acrobatic dance narratives depend on the sub-genre of the region. Royal patronage also greatly influenced Chhau’s development.

According to Guru Shashadhar Acharya, the Singh Deos were responsible for the inclusion of Hindustani classical ragas and codification of dance techniques. Artists from Charida (also known as Mukhosh Gram) suggest that the ‘Chhau practice of wearing masks and narrative styles was also influenced by the ‘king of the Bagmundi and bhumiji chieftains.’

Masked Unmasked

With the exception of Mayurbhanj Chhau, both Seraikela and Purulia dance styles are performed wearing Chhau masks. Renowned Chhau dancer, Ileana Citaristi, suggests, “Although Mayurbhanj Chhau was an expansion of Seraikella Chhau, patrons of the dance decided that masks were a hindrance to expression.” The pastel-colored Seraikela masks are in sharp contrast to the theatrical masks of Purulia which are adorned with beads and coloured feathers, towering nearly 2 feet in their vibrance.

Originating in tribal folk performance, the tradition of mask-making begins with sculpting a clay model of the face (Matir Muha). This process called Mathamathi involves coating the mask with powdered ash and paper mâché. D.I.C.O Purulia elaborates that once the initial Matir Muha is ready, artists detail facial features with clay paste (Kabis), finally covering with ‘cotton cloth dipped in the kabis and polishing with a wooden carving tool thapi.’ Coloration for different characters varies depending on regional representation, with similarities in Kali and Krishna’s depiction as blue-coloured.

Ritual Performances

Despite etymological and regional differences, Chhau is commonly associated with religious occasions such as the spring festival of Chaitra Parva in April, Gajan Festival honoring Lord Shiva, and the Sun Festival. Chhau performances traditionally begin before midnight and explore epics such as Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Purana. Chaitra Parva rituals vary depending on geographic traditions, generally beginning with the Jatraghat invoking Ardhanariswara. The inaugural Jatraghat is a dance procession of Goddess Sakti with the ceremonial rituals concluding with a similar dance of Goddess Kali. While Seraikella Chhau is devoid of Vachikabhinaya (vocal support), Purulia Chhau’s tribal flair is evident with the drummer singing during the performance.

 Although recently classified by UNESCO as ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, Citaristi contends that private and government support for Chhau’s propogation has not increased. However, even as as Chhau’s stylised movements continue to enthral audiences worldwide, its theatrical aesthetic of a martial dance will remain etched as another gem in India’s cultural legacy.

 

Performing Uncertainty: Khursheed Ahmad’s Work at the Dharti Arts Residency Open Studio

A month from the abrogation of Article 370 by the Indian state, and the beginning of an unprecedented clampdown on communications from the valley, it would not be very remiss to say that Khursheed Ahmad’s installation and subsequent performance at the Dharti Arts Residency Open Studio was timely, even if somberly so. The last month has seen an uproar across certain sections of civil society around the abrogation of Article 370, the associated influx of security troops, the ban on communications, and widespread uncertainty, silence, and curfews. Reports of children being detained, some as young as eleven years old, have begun to filter through to Delhi, vehemently denied by most Indian media outlets as well as the state. All of this outrage, however, seems to be informed by a collective amnesia.  Protests, outbreaks of violence, or reports of detainment and torture from Jammu and Kashmir are nothing new, however: the valley has been the setting for a bitter battle over many nationalisms and political positions for years now, even prior to the independence of the Indian state in 1947. It is this banal everydayness of violence that comes to the fore in Khursheed Ahmad’s installation as part of the Dharti Arts Residency. Questions of what it means to occupy this space, and derive meaning, belonging and desire from it haunt the viewer long after they leave the exhibition space.

Hosted by the Serendipity Arts Foundation, the Dharti Arts Residency is an intensive studio based residency for emerging artists. Over a period of three months, the four selected artists participate in various activities like peer conversations, critique sessions, gallery and studio visits, and artist talks. Alongside these activities, they are also expected to conceptualize and produce a new work, and the residency in 2019 drew to a close with a two-week open studio with installations by each of the artists. This year, the residency featured four artists from diverse backgrounds- Dharmendra Prasad, Farah Mulla, Shazia Salam, and Khursheed Ahmad.

Walking into C-340 at the Serendipity Arts Foundation during the open studio, I was first met by a number of people milling about upstairs. The installations were on a different floor, accessible by stairs. Quite helpfully, the organizers had set up a stand with brochures for the attendees: containing details of the artists, their current work, the Foundation, the residency, and even a floor plan pointing out where each artist’s installation was placed across the two rooms, halls, and an outside space.

Ahmad’s work spanned the whole of Hall 1, a multi-media installation that included photographs, a performance video, found objects, and near-sculptural blocks of shapes evocative of dargahs and mosques. A slight elevation afforded a view into the four-sided structure painted black by the artist. The structure was marked by openings all along its sides, and offered viewers a look inside, evoking the manner in which circumambulation around a dargah affords a glimpse of the inside. Each opening was covered by white paper, ripped to allow a limited view of the space inside, which contained a screen playing a video performance by the artist. The photographs around the installation, of various spaces across Kashmir, were marked by a spillage of yellow light filtering into the mundanity of the photographs, transforming them into objects that required greater contemplation and attention. The whole installation, however, came to life not on the first day of the open studio, but on the 20th of August, when Khursheed Ahmed performed a small, open-ended piece around his installation.

Ahmad hails from a family which practises the Kashmiri folk theatre form, Bhand Pather, which has a long history in the valley. With his interests across various practices, Ahmed brought into his performance elements of Bhand Pather. With no given script, the form usually depends on the performer’s improvisations. A protean form, Bhand Pather takes on various meanings in different public spaces at different times. In his short piece, this improvisational element of Pather shone through prominently, as Ahmed drew everyone into the room into his performance, into an act of creation itself. The art form in Kashmir has gained prominence, according to most commentators and practitioners, as a tool to spread information, awareness, and amusement, and this purported idea drove the tone of the whole performance.

Commenting on media representation of Kashmir and its conflict, Ahmad’s work has various elements that quietly, but significantly, shed light on the problems of media representation faced by any in or from the Valley. To me, the limited glimpse offered into the space, the fragmentary nature of the video performance that one could view from outside the box indicated poetically the nature of how information that travels to mainland India from the war-torn valley is nearly always in fragments, and often as unconfirmed rumours that one chooses not to believe. Ahmed’s use of performance, text, found object, sound, drawing, and photography, and his intentional overlapping of these media enhanced this point further- as the brochure declares, it not only challenges the interaction between the body and space, but also probingly questions the position of the viewer as a passive consumer of the event.

Beginning with a short reading of a poem, concentrating on the colour and metaphor of ‘yellow’, Ahmad started speaking. His quiet, stammering voice pervaded the room, and stammering seemed to be the common thread running through the performance. Like the occasional glimpses of the video, his hesitant voice drew him and his work together, verbalizing literally the irregularities and ruptures in the history of his place of belonging. As he spoke, he passed on the microphone, and his voice was taken up by others, with each person in the room picking up a refrain from the last, and modifying it in tone and content. The people in the room responded to it in different ways, gravely, or lightly, and some entered fully into the play of the performance itself, threading in words and references Ahmad himself did not touch upon: words like ‘Kashmir’, ‘blood’, and ‘Article 370’.

As he spoke, and others did, some shared in the performance by donning a ‘costume’- angarakhas of three colours, red, green, and black- that he handed out. The binary between viewers and performers fell away as they traced the contours of the room together, and through their movement, seemed to highlight the various elements of the installations. The photographs, for instance, in light of Ahmad’s poem, gain significance, with yellow light pervading them, belying their mundanity and their grim quality in some. A double-edged sword, like the shehnai Ahmad tried to play, and which, coincidentally, refused to sound a single note throughout, they left the audience questioning, inviting them to look closer, and perhaps even conveying that the frustration of being unable to fully grasp the content of the photograph is the space of a more productive examination. Not a violent protest, or even a very loud one, the performance thus became a process of understanding- a facilitation of conversation, and discussion around topics one chooses, in the Indian nation-state, not to look at.

Communication, or its lack, became another trope woven throughout the performance, thus. In one section, Khursheed Ahmad handed out letters, evoking the by now popular representation of Kashmir as a ‘country without a post office’. It is interesting to note that post the abrogation of Article 370, and the international coverage of the communications clampdown that has come with it, this is a trope repeatedly springing forth in conversations, performances, screenings, and debates around Kashmir. Somewhat hopeful in this context, however, is the idea of ‘witnessing’ Ahmad brings up. What does it mean to witness an event on media? What does it mean to ‘see’ or hear what is happening in Kashmir? As one of the attendees at the performance mentioned, the word shaahid (witness) in Urdu is closely related to shaheed (martyr), an intertwining of concepts that only hints at the myriad ways one can begin to understand what it means to witness, bodily, and often, fatally.

As individuals outside Kashmir, what elements do we associate Kashmir with? Images like a dove, barbed wire, water, the Jhelum, the distinctive smell of rose petals, agarbattis, shehnais, conflict, pellets, come to mind, and all of these were used by Ahmed throughout his performance. As almost disconnected elements, they came together to pose a crucial question about Kashmir, representation, and the Kashmiri voice struggling to find forms of self-representation. As is obvious to anyone looking into the present situation in the valley, Kashmiris occupy a number of different political positions. Perhaps Ahmad’s performance reaches its efficacy precisely in this: it leaves the performance open for interpretation, by anyone. For the viewer in Delhi, it poses the question not only of where the artist stands, but ultimately, where do you stand? Finally, then, it leaves the viewer with a set of uncertainties, and ruptures any smooth narratives that one could attach to a space of conflict, setting in motion an exploration the viewer can undertake with the artist himself.

Image Courtesy – Serendipity Arts Foundation and The Lumiere Project

An image of an audio cassette

Spools of Time

“Hoshwaalon ko khabar kya, bekhudi kya cheez hai.
  Ishq kijiye, phir samajhiye, zindagi kya cheez hai.”

 

Jagjit Singh’s poignant baritone blares through the record player; his voice unwavering like the finely tuned strings of a sitar.

The tape recorder splutters and stops abruptly, as the spool manages to entangle itself in an infinite warp. Like that of one’s hair, which needs to be tugged on delicately to successfully untangle the mess without tearing it off your scalp.

 

“IT’S TANGLED!” I declared.

While simultaneously reaching out for a pen that seated itself on a niche carved out of oakwood. The rear end of the pen fit generously into the groove of the cassette after multiple attempts.

 

I meticulously started rotating the pen inside the grooves. A little to the right. While easing it on the left. The black magnetic spool unwinds itself effortlessly to go back to its former state of perfectly wrapped spool ready for insertion into the record player.

 

The index finger applies pressure on the play button and the music reels in with a click.

A gentle consistent hum accompanies it in the background.

 

Record Players were an integral part of Indian households. The gentle hum of music playing from the living rooms were a welcoming sound for bypassers. They would come inside whistling and clicking their fingers to the tune of the beat.

 

Cassettes could be personalized and recorded over. The sturdiness was unmatched. And the joy lied in the drudgery of flipping the cassette from Side A to Side B. 

 

There were no advertisements that interspersed the music, which modern forms of online platforms tend to do; in a conscious effort to make one indulge in consumables. It would be pushed down one’s throat like a spoon of bitter gourd being force fed to a child. In the assumption that it would perhaps make life a more pleasurable experience.

 

The plastic cover which encapsulated the spool would not shy away from scratches and dents. It would brave the torrential mood swings and bickering of the husband and wife, while the youngest offspring decided to teeth on it vigorously. 

 

And yet, the spool would roll seamlessly indifferent to the atrocities imposed on its exterior.

These seemingly ordinary pieces of plastic had worlds of music inside them. Music that had the ability to uplift one’s mood or be one’s companion on a lonely night. Choosing the right music to capture the essence of the living room was a herculean task. It involved sifting through covers of music with different layout. 

 

It was like a library that tempted you with book covers in various hues; adorned with illustrations. The back jacket of the book would provide one with a luring glimpse of the contents. 

 

The music emanating from the cassette would determine which song would be stuck in my head. It would refuse to go out of one’s mind, like a piece of gravel stuck in one’s shoes…reminding one of its constant presence while walking down a crowded street, and offering a sense of familiarity.

 

 

Image by Ståle Freyer from Pixabay

 

 

 

 

 

More Lessons from John Allen Chau’s Death

Last year, the members of the Sentinelese tribe killed John Allen Chau, an American missionary. Apparently, John wanted to take his religion to the tribe to bring them peace and harmony. A few months later, as I take one more look at the unfortunate incident, I am compelled to wonder – in the death of this adventure blogger and the messenger of Christianity, do human beings have a few more lessons than originally understood?

 

Instead of going to the Sentinelese, what if John had come to me? I have never killed anyone, so this is a difficult thought to entertain. Of course, the constitution gives me the right to practice my religion and if John had come to me to proselytize, my first reaction would have been to ignore him. If John had persevered, I would have indulged him in a debate. Had I turned out to be a tough nut to crack, John would have perhaps quit accosting me. That would be the end of the meeting with John. I would have continued the chaotic life I had been living. However, John would not have stopped. John had a mission. He would have knocked on the doors of my neighbor. The neighbor, if gullible or genuinely impressed, would have converted to Christianity, or would have tried what I did. If this hypothetical neighbor were my friend, he would have called me to help with John. You would think John would have given up here and gone back to his home. However, John knocks on the third house. At this point, the entire community gets to understand John’s motives and they come together to drive John away. John goes back. Where? A different city. John is a committed missionary. He does not stop!

 

So, where does John stop? Sadly, John stops only where the Sentinelese stopped him. In a world where evangelism is not a crime, it might become difficult for some people to draw red lines for themselves. It is terrifying to see the scale of power the church wields over these promising young men who could have done anything else in their lives but chose to civilize the world and bring Jesus to ‘Satan’s last stronghold’. The Sentinelese people perhaps do not engage in debates with people they do not know and are smart enough to understand the dangers posed by such attempts to ‘civilize’ them. They fear obliteration of their race. They perhaps know that the meeting with Christ does not end with meeting with the Christ. They know that Jesus Christ will bring in a lot of not-so-Christ-like Christians to their land. Sentinelese might not have a Penguin or a HarperCollins but they remember their history well.

 

If I had killed John, I would have been, according to Indian law, sentenced to death or life imprisonment. This would be so because I am part of the civilized world and I had other means at my disposal to stop John. John, like me, was also part of the civilized world. In the civilized world, John has the freedom of speech and expression and I have the ability to forgive and forget. In our civilized world, John also has the responsibility to understand that people like their own kind of ‘peace’ and ‘civilization’, Satan is at best a philosophical idea, and if at all a Satan exists, he lives in and off the church.

 
John was just an innocent face of a much deeper crusade to create a world order controlled by the church. This order has the money and muscle power to allure people who are not ‘tribal’ enough to resist violently and not ‘civilized’ enough to resist peacefully? Fortunately for us, the ‘Satan’s last stronghold’ is still intact. But the church has an army of Johns operating to civilize the lesser Sentinelese of the world who do not kill at first contact. John Allen Chau has left us but the church lives to fight another day.

the-tashkent-files poster

The Tashkent Files

History is the most compromised field of study in our country and our political history has been the worst victim of a consolidated and considered cover up effort. Within our political history, the history of political India after independence is just a haze for the minds of today’s Indians. This obfuscation is not a coincidence. If nothing else, the movie ‘The Tashkent Files’ has been able to establish that much through its extensive research and simplified narration.

 

India doesn’t have a culture of routinely producing political thrillers, thanks to twin towers of our uninterested filmmakers who would rather portray the love story of one of the fiercest warriors of India – Baji Rao than his military and political programme; and a long, arduous rule of a political party that has been busy hiding its skeletons in the closet for far too long to be able to nourish a free and fair ecosystem for creativity, no matter how unpalatable this creativity becomes for the ones in power. For the uninitiated, watch this thread – freedom of speech by Mr Anand Ranganathan. The present film had its own struggles to see the light of the day. The Congress party with 44 MPs in the Lok Sabha tried different devices to stall the release of the film. One can make an intelligent guess about how vicious can such a party become with an absolute majority in the parliament. That the party considered to be the chief architect of our freedom struggle wreaked emergency upon us, no longer seems to be shocking.

 

Vivek Agnihotri has come back with his creation ‘The Tashkent Files’, which is running almost housefull even after a week of its release without suffering much of a dip even as Dharma Productions released its much anticipated and much hyped ‘Kalank’. This is Vivek’s second such film after ‘Buddha in a Traffic Jam’ where he has tried to cinematize the ‘war of narratives’ in our country. Although this time, Vivek’s script is not as tightly woven as his last time but given the difficulty of the subject at hand, the handicap of inaction by successive governments and law enforcement agencies of our country, he has achieved a major feat by just being able to connect the far flung dots of historicity.

 

This film seems to be well-researched with specific citations from books and newspapers, interviews of people connected with the case plugged in naturally in the script, the pointers to the cold war, CIA versus KGB, and narrations of the possible motives for ‘killing’ India’s second Prime Minister. While the motives are described in detail and the audience is left intrigued by the twists in the case, the treachery of the Communists, the Congress, and the Lutyens delhi  is established with solid presentations by the lead character of Ragini Phule played by Shweta Basu Prasad. While the film succeeds on this front, it has its own share of shortcomings. Most of the actors in the cast are underused in the movie. Add a few underdeveloped characters and you get confused about who represents what, much of the dialogues are shallow except the ones delivered by characters played by Mithun Chakraborty, Pankaj Tripathi, and Shweta Basu Prasad who get some of the best lines written for the movie. Mandira Bedi, Pallavi Joshi, and Rajesh Sharma execute their roles well. Prakash Belawadi and Achint Kaur don’t do much and are rather left on the bench for the complete innings. A bigger problem with the movie is its background score which is largely insipid and changes too abruptly to allow any emotion or mood to grow on you.

 

After having watched this movie and Buddha in a Traffic Jam before this, it seems Mr. Vivek Agnihotri, perhaps in his zeal to appear neutral or unbiased, keeps adding all the elements he comes across on social media. As a result, in one scene you will see a character accusing the other of sleeping with people for success, on the other hand, another character is portrayed as a racist who hates muslims. Although this is a noble attempt, it also creates a kind of overcompensatory khichdi about the characters and the purpose of a particular story. Mr. Agnihotri is seen trying too many subjects in one story where perhaps a subject like corruption of activists itself is too alarming an issue to be ignored for a separate project.

 

In spite of a few shortcomings, this film succeeds in providing some information to its audience about the life and times of Shastriji. That for me, is its biggest victory. Beyond all the conspiracy theories floating around about anyone’s death, it is more important to know and understand a person’s life, because that way, like the filmmaker would prefer, we can at least save our heroes from dying twice. Congratulations Anuj Dhar! More power to your research!

Bhakta, Bhagwan, and MahaShivaratri

I had been meaning to attend the Mangal Arati (the morning prayers in Indian temples) at the Ramakrishna Math, Ulsoor (Bengaluru). The Arati starts at 5 am sharp. So I had to start around 4 am to reach well in time. This was on 25th of February. Though it was difficult to break the inertia of sleep, once broken, it was all energy and exuberance in the arctic breeze striking against the face. The night was not over yet. The morning was yet to arrive.

I reached the temple just in time to witness the Mahashivaratri (the night of Shiva) celebrations. Though the original plan was to participate in the Mangal Arati at 5 am, the Shivaratri celebrations from the previous night were just drawing to a close when I reached. It was a sight to behold. Shiva’s image was placed on a throne, ameliorated with flowers and sandalwood paste. The uplifting florid whiff in the air kept all the devotees who had assembled there from the previous night absorbed in Shiva. Many sang, a few meditated, and others just kept an incessant gaze at Shiva, perhaps in contemplation.

While the world outside of me was absorbed in the songs and mantra chanting, my mind was busy weaving a web of questions, answers, analogies, and conclusions. Does God exist? Does Shiva exist? Who are these people worshipping? I observed both sides of the world – The God side and the Devotee side. I saw no difference. There never existed two worlds. It was one. The only answer that could tranquilize me was that God exists when the devotee exists. God ceases to exist when devotees cease to. That we have created impenetrable firewalls between these two worlds, is our own undoing. Inside the temple, at that moment, I couldn’t tell if the devotees were worshipping Shiva or Shiva was worshipping the devotees.

 

While we all celebrate our deities according to our preferences, we tend to forget the names who exemplified devotion and became the Bhaktas who brought the God to us in a humane and relatable form. I find that our history is replete with such stories where Bhagwan (God) and Bhakta (Devotee) have been put on the same pedestal. One is no less than the other for if there is no Devotee, there is no God. Ram and Hanuman, Ram and Tulasidas, Krishna and Radha, Krishna and Meera, Krishna and Sur, Vishnu and Prahlad – the count just keeps growing. There has perhaps never been a story where the God has existed without the Devotee. It would be safe to say that the Devotee creates the God. A spiritual novice is helped on his journey to enlightenment by relating to a humane God that one enlightened devotee from amongst us has created in the past. If we extrapolate this point, we see clearly that for us God is what these devotees tell us about him/her. Krishna is what devotees like Sur, Meera have told us about him. Ram is what devotees like Tulasidas, Kaka Bhusundi tell us about him. Similarly, in a different religion like Christianity, God is seen through the eyes of Jesus.

The night belonged to Shiva, naturally one thinks of Shiva, and one realizes that one sees him only through the stories and poems written and composed by his devotees. Since I belong to the Mithila region of our country, the most prominent name that occurred to me was that of Kavi Kokil Vidyapati. Kavi meaning poet, Kokil meaning Cuckoo, and Vidyapati meaning the Master of Knowledge. True to his name, Vidyapati was a great scholar in Sanskrit and chiefly wrote in Maithili, Abahatta, and Sanskrit. There are two major classifications of his poems – one – love poems concerning Radha and Krishna and then the devotional poems and songs for Shiva. Such is his influence in the Mithila region that no celebration is complete without the rendition of his songs. Interestingly, since he lived in the times when the chief language of eastern India was Abahatta – the primitive form of Maithili, Bengali, Nepali, and Oriya; his influence on these languages is seen as analogous to that of Dante in Italy and Chaucer in England. Vidyapati lived from AD 1352 to 1448.

 

Kavi Kokil Vidyapati
Kavi Kokil Vidyapati

 

The life story of Vidyapati stands as the most glittering testimony to the way Bhakta-Bhagwan relationship has been treated in Indian tradition of culture and its accompanying literature. It is said that Shiva was so impressed by the bhakti of Vidyapati that he took the form of an illiterate herdsman and offered to serve Vidyapati and live with him. Once when the poet was traveling on the invitation of King of Mithila Shiva Singh, he was dehydrated and needed water to drink. Since the area was barren and there was no water source in the vicinity, Shiva who was disguised as Ugna poured out some gangajal (water from Ganges) from his jataa (matted hair). Vidyapati at once recognized gangajal and insisted that Ugna reveal his true form. Ugna admitted to being Shiva himself and promised to stay with him till his identity is not revealed. Later in time, once wife of Vidyapati, Sushila angry at Ugna for not completing his assigned task charged towards him with a broom to punish. Vidyapati couldn’t stand this quietly and gave away Shiva’s cover. Shiva disappeared instantly leaving Vidyapati sad and depressed. Vidyapati left his house in search for Ugna and after much roaming and wanderings, found him at Nandanvana. Ugna didn’t come back with Vidyapati but promised to help Vidyapati as and when needed. The celebrated place where they met again is now known as Ugnasthan (the place of Ugna).

Vidyapati composed several poems for Shiva. The most important aspect of his songs is that they are emotionally very personal and the deity appears to be extremely close to the devotee, sometimes as friend, at times as disciple, other times the Bhakta suffering in separation from Shiva.  This is one great thing that in his poems, Shiva is not an alien super-human figure who is just meant to be worshipped from a distance. In his songs and poems, Shiva becomes your best friend who knows you the best and you are allowed to protest, whine, and love. Shiva becomes that ally in whom you confide all your secrets, share all the joys and sorrows of the world. Vidyapati’s God is not merely to be respected and worshipped; he is to be loved, adored, pampered and kept close all the time.

The Shiva that Mithila knows today is perhaps the personification of all the poems of Vidyapati on Shiva. In a way, Mithila worships the Shiva of Vidyapati. In other words, the regions of Mithila, Bengal, Odisha, and Nepal adopted the Shiva that was created by the great devotee-poet Vidyapati. I am sure this would be true for most of the regions of our country. We have since time immemorial known Gods through their devotees. Be it the Advaita Brahman of Adi Shankaracharya or the beloved Krishna of the romantique Radha, the Mother Kali of Sri Ramakrishna or the Shiva of Sundarar. Gods have needed ardent devotees to bring them closer to this world. As such, knowing the Bhakta is not different from knowing the Bhagwan. The devotees who sat inside the temple premises to observe the Mahashivaratri celebrations projected their own individual selves and together created the whole i.e. Shiva who they worshipped. It won’t be a hyperbole then to say that if one believes that this world was created by an almighty force, it was created only to complete that force’s own existence. Without the manifestation of force, one can’t see the force. What does it matter then that the force still exists?

 

Note – If you are interested, read through the poems of Kavi Vidyapati.  A couple of sources are provided below. Various song-renditions are available on youtube.

Note on 21st February, 2020 (Mahashivaratri) – This rendition is by my mother Smt. Kavita Jha (1973-2019), who absolutely loved singing Vidyapati.

The Master Story Tellers

A few days ago during the Bengaluru Poetry Festival, I was almost done for the day when the Master of Ceremony announced that the next event was going to be a performance by Padma Bhushan Teejan Bai. Only the mention of Padma Bhushan made me stay back. When Teejan Bai began with her Pandavani, I was happy that I stayed back. Although I barely understood the language, she was so fascinating and inspiring with her songs. It was one of those moments when you realize that certain arts are so powerful that they appeal to you breaking through the barriers of language. Continue reading “The Master Story Tellers”