As Kerala’s Palm-Lined Beaches and Backwaters Call You Again, Stop by My Panamanna

The much-needed COVID vaccine is almost within reach for the masses. In a few months, the roads, seas, and skies will open, providing the lifeline that the global tourism industry, decimated by COVID 19 and sputtering on life support, desperately needs. This is also one instance where patience does not fall under virtues. The industry, understandably, is impatient to welcome customers with open arms, and with little to no restrictions. Their wish is about to be granted. The demand for business and leisure travel has never been higher. While the pandemic has destroyed the livelihoods of millions, there are several sectors that have been relatively left unharmed, and people associated with those sectors have not really seen a dip in their earnings. Add in the wanderlust that is encoded in human DNA, the proverbial floodgates are about to open. There is no time like now to start planning for the next adventure, and with that, comes the biggest question: What should be my first travel destination in 2021? For me, it is a small village in Kerala.

Panamanna – My Home in Kerala

The decision, quite frankly, surprised me. Until ten months ago, I was a proud member of the frequent flier community, thanks to my profession. My job allowed me to fly on a weekly basis, to some of the world’s most popular cities. Then COVID19 happened, and like everyone else, I was grounded. Since the news of an approved vaccine broke out last month, my excitement to fly again has been building up. I vividly remember the giddiness during my maiden flight from Delhi to Chennai 21 years ago. Something tells me, my first flight of 2021 will invoke similar emotions. Since last week, I have been making a mental list of all the places that I want to fly back to, once normalcy resumes. Some have the best food and breweries. Others are known for their architecture, skyline, or beaches. As I was making this list, one place kept pulling me harder than any other. My village of Panamanna under Ottapalam Taluk in Palakkad district of Kerala.   The reasons are amazingly simple. Pure nostalgia, being frozen in time, and a sense of being one with mother nature. I guess, one must be from Panamanna to get these feelings. If I add the number of days that I have spent in Panamanna, from the time I started remembering things. it still would not be enough to make two full years. Even then, I am unable to resist that strong pull. Not that I want to try.

A view from author’s front gate. A wide stairway built with laterite stones, and lined by coconut and betelnut trees, leads to a narrow pathway to the rice fields. A similar stairway on the opposite side leads to the pathway to the village.

How the Gods Designed Kerala

Kerala has over 600 kilometers of shoreline with many famous beaches and backwaters. Panamanna, however, is inland. It is a part of Palakkad District, which is known as the Rice Bowl of Kerala. The entire district is full of lush green rice fields and family-owned plantations that grow rubber, coconut, betelnut, mango, spices and Teak among other things. There is no shortage of water bodies, or rain for that matter, to meet the needs of this farmland, and Panamanna is no exception. A Thodu (local word for a river tributary) slithers across this village, like a gigantic snake, eager to merge with the Bhartappuzha river. In the dry summer months, this thodu is a harmless stream with ankle deep water that is pristine and clear. Most villagers now have a two-wheeler or a car but just until recently, the entire village used to walk through the rice fields and cross the thodu to get to Ottapalam, the nearest town which is a few kilometers away. This shortcut shaved off over five kilometers between the village and the town, so it was a well-travelled route during day or night. The only other option for the residents was to wait for one of the three private buses that came at specific times during the day. If you missed one, you had to wait a few hours for the next. Another option was to hop on an occasional autorickshaw that was heading back to town after dropping a passenger. Those were also rare back in those days. Most people just walked. As teenagers, my cousin and I used this shortcut to sneak into the town, to buy and smoke cigarettes since smoking in the village where everyone knows everyone would be foolhardy!

The wet months create a whole different set of challenges. Monsoon lasts for almost six months in Kerala. It gradually builds up before tapering off. During the first couple of months, the stream is still shallow enough to cross. I remember, all someone had to do, was fold their Lungi or Mundu (reserved for formal occasions), lift their Saree or Pavada (worn by younger girls), hold their leather sandals in one hand, umbrella in the other, and walk across! It was a true skill to be able to do all this while crossing the stream and trying to stay dry! As I type this, I can picture the cold muddy water running past my legs, the undercurrent trying to trip me, as I attempt to cross. Growing up in the north, I was used to shorts and jeans. Wearing mundu was a novelty, one that I truly embraced. Even today, when I fly to Kerala, I only pack two pairs of Jeans. Mundu is my outfit of choice for the duration of my stay. The first few years, I struggled with the whole process of folding my mundu, holding my sandals and umbrella while trying to cross that stream. As the years went by, I became skilled at this whole process.

Floods and Floodgates of Emotions

Some years, as the rains continue to pummel the region, this once shallow stream, suddenly and with no warning, transforms into a nasty raging force that breaks its banks and floods the entire village. Acres of crops are destroyed. The whole valley looks like a giant muddy lake. Thankfully, most of the houses in the village are built on hills that surround the rice fields, or on elevation, so the damage from flood to the houses is minimal. It is usually the incessant rains that destroy the tiled roofs. Animals and even humans sometimes, do not understand the deceptive forces of nature. The narrow embankments and even the main road that was visible to human eyes just a few minutes ago, become blurrier or worse invisible during sudden flash floods. Next thing you know, you are being swept away. There is not a single family among the original settlers in Panamanna, that has not lost a bovine, a pet, or a human, to this deception in the past few hundred years.

My mother, as the only kid in the family who could not swim, was one of the lucky ones who survived and lived to tell the tale. An infamous village drunk, who by sheer luck, happened to see her getting swept away, quickly dove in to pull her out and saved her from a certain death. I never met him, and he had been dead for decades, when I first heard this story, but the legend had lived on in the village. Every now and then, someone in the extended family would bring the story up during our stay, and my mother would laugh it off. I do know that she is grateful to that old drunk to this day, and probably says a silent prayer for him each morning.

Kolams and the Feudal Era

When I think of water bodies, I cannot skip mentioning the Kolam. Kolam, the Malayalam word for pond, is a staple of rural Kerala. Every major temple has one for the devotees to bathe before the Darshanam, and so do most of the older Nallukettu Veedu (traditional Nair and Namboodiri Brahmin homes built with Laterite stone and wood, with a courtyard in the middle). The oldest properties have two ponds. One built indoors, was usually well maintained for the family’s private use, and the second one was built closer to the fields for use by the farm animals and farmhands, a reminder of the feudal era when the Nairs and Namboodiris controlled every aspect of social life in Kerala. This was also used for washing clothes. I distinctly remember, waking up as a lazy teenager, to the sound of wet clothes being banged against one of the rocks installed next to the pond and specifically flattened out for washing clothes. Many of these ponds, now largely unused since the introduction of farm machinery and washing machines, have been run over by an overgrowth of water lilies and lotuses. Surrounded by tall and slender coconut and betel nut trees, these ponds with their flowers in full blossom, further enhance the already beautiful landscape. The entire Palakkad district is abundant with these beautiful properties. Therefore, so many Malayalam movies from the eighties and nineties were shot in these villages. These movies focused on Natumpuram Jeevitham (life in the countryside) and Pazhankalam (medieval glory days), and these properties offered the perfect setting for the story that the director wished to capture through his lenses. The annual maintenance cost of these houses, some of which are now hundreds of years old, is not cheap. The current homeowners, descendants of the feudal lords who had been stripped of their vast lands, wealth and status during the Sixties’ Land Reform acts enacted by the first Communist government of Kerala, were only happy to lease these houses to movie producers for what was considered as lucrative sums in those days. Some of these houses have now been permanently rented out to movie studios.

Food and Alliances

Panamanna is certainly not a melting pot of global cultures or cuisine. The place, however, has the best food in my humble opinion. There is no shortage of family recipes that are unique to the village and passed down the generations. Most of the original families living here, have been neighbors for over a century, perhaps more! Nairs of Kerala and the Khasis of Meghalaya are the only two matriarchal societies in India. Traditionally, in the Nair community, a woman inherited her family’s wealth and lands, and became the landlady. Additionally, Nairs also practiced the now almost extinct custom of Morapennu (wherein a Nair boy married his maternal uncle’s daughter and the couple lived and raised their family in her ancestral house). There are many theories proposed by modern historians and anthropologists regarding the traditional Nair society. One theory is that the custom of women inheriting her ancestral property, was practiced because the Nairs were a warrior clan, where the men were always fighting or waging wars with other kingdoms, and women needed to not only run the household but also supervise the domestic staff and farmhands that either worked as free, or indentured labour.

With regards to the practice of Morapennu, the theory proposed suggests that this custom of marrying first cousins was established simply to ensure that the family wealth and assets stayed intact in the family, and that the bloodline stayed pure. Whatever the reasons may have been, these customs contributed to women empowerment and women camaraderie that has been fostered over centuries in the Nair community. I tend to believe that this bond shared between women across the village is what has led to the creation of a few dishes and recipes that are utterly unique to this village. As someone who has traveled a lot, and has tried authentic cuisine from every continent, I can confidently say that a simple dish like Karapara (a crepe made from left over rice battered and mixed with various lentils and spices and served with onion chutney)tastes better than any dosa that I have ever eaten. These dishes always, without fail, get me to gastronomical heaven. What makes it even better is that these recipes are so uniform across the village, that I could try the same dish prepared by my mother, an aunt, or a neighbor living on the other side of the village, and still could not tell the difference!

Speaking of differences, something that I am absolutely craving, is a bottle of Nadan Kallu which loosely translates to country liquor. Yup, as the connoisseurs of adult beverages reading this would attest, the best destinations are those that have good alcohol! I am a lover of scotch. Single malt scotch from the Highlands to be specific. I will drink anything in a social setting but when I am by myself, and wish to unwind, it is always a glass of scotch that gets the job done. That being said, I am a sucker for a good nadan kallu, or Toddy to be precise. The kallu is unlike any alcohol that you will ever drink. I credit my grandfather for getting me hooked on this, even though the poor guy had no idea that he unknowingly introduced me to Toddy. He was the only man who has left indelible impressions on me, and one of those impressions was his habit of drinking toddy. Making toddy from palm tree sap, is a centuries old skill that is a dying art. When I was a kid, I used to watch this local farmer sell fresh toddy to my grandpa. I always emulated him and wanted to be like him when I grew up. One day, when he was not around, I got my chance to take a sip from his toddy pot. Let me tell you, it is an acquired taste. The initial disgust at that moment has turned into a lifelong love for the taste. While some licensed liquor stores do serve toddy, the real deal is found only in the village, and I cannot wait to get my hands on a bottle!

I have so many fond memories of my summers spent in Panamanna. Living in a town where coal was abundantly available to generate power, I was spoilt. We rarely lost power where I grew up. On the other hand, electricity had not reached Panamanna in the early nineties, even though the electric poles had been installed on all streets, and wiring was completed to all houses in the early eighties. They just “forgot to turn the power on” for over ten years. There is a shining (pun intended) example of corrupt and careless governance for you! Folks in the village relied on Vallakku, which in Malayalam means lantern. There are many types of vallakku. Petromax was the most popular and trendy brand of pressurized paraffin lanterns. Some families also used the regular vallakku, which was a kerosene wick lamp. Then there was the original Vellakku. These have been used in Kerala for centuries to illuminate homes as well as temples. Fueled by sesame seed oil, called Nella Enna which means good oil in Malayalam, this vallakku is considered Shudham (pure).

Lack of streetlights meant that while walking through the fields and plantations, villagers used either a battery-operated flashlight or a homemade Choottu, a type of torch made from burning dried coconut leaves tied together like a broom and soaked in oil, another one of the many uses of the coconut tree. Like the Neem tree in the north, the coconut tree is a gift of nature that keeps on giving! The mud embankments that separate the fields, and used as walkways, are also a fertile ecosystem for snails, crabs, frogs, and their predators, the snakes, many of whom are highly venomous. People back then, traveled with both a torch, and a stick, that they used to tap on the embankments to scare away any unwanted reptiles. On moonless nights when it was pitch dark outside, I could see these traveling lights from a distance. Looking back, I wonder if the local ghost stories about flying lanterns suddenly disappearing in the farms, were simply the product of someone’s imagination!

Memories and an Invitation that Never Expires

Summer nights can be brutal in Kerala even though the temperature cools down a little. It can still be unbearable at times. I somehow became immune to the heat because of the people I got to spend time with. Back in the nineties, joint families were the norm in Panamanna. There was no shortage of cousins to fight and play with. An icing on the cake was neighbors showing up for dinner and drinks with my grandfather. There was always extra food for an unexpected visitor or two. The village was going through a spike in crimes those days due to rising unemployment. Burglaries were common, so all the men slept outside, armed with Vadi, a type of homemade baton and Arivalu, a sickle used in farming, Sometimes, the neighbors joined us, which turned into one big sleepover. Occasionally, we would hear a loud whistle, almost like a howling, a unique sound invented by the villagers called Olli. This was everyone’s cue to quickly get out of the beds and pick up their vadi and arivalu and run towards the sound! The hills surrounding the fields in Panamanna create a natural echo chamber which acts as a sound amplifier. Someone who thought their house was being robbed, or someone who feared that they had heard unwanted footsteps or noise in their yard, would make those howling sounds and everyone else from the neighborhood would run towards that sound. Most times, it was a false alarm but at least on three separate occasions during my stay, we hit the jackpot! While no one dared used the sickle, villagers did not mind meting out their own form of justice to the robbers with the vadi. The person(s) caught was tied to a tree or a pillar and was given a good beating. The elders ensured that the mob did not get out of control before the authorities showed up. Imagine my excitement as a teenager running with my cousins and uncles to catch a robber! Where else could I find that thrill?

Every house in Panamanna now has power, modern facilities, electronic gadgets, smartphones and vehicles. All the streets are now well lit. Numerous new families have moved in, so each time I go back, I see new faces and make new acquaintances. A lot has changed over the years, but some things have stayed the same, the most important one being my love for the characters and stories that shaped my early years and youth. I spent most of those years in the east, and consider myself a proud product of that environment, but sprinkled, somewhere in there, are a few traits, that I acquired during my short stays each year in Panamanna. 

I think of it as a short documentary that still leaves a lasting mark on you. Most of the live characters from my documentary have either gotten old or passed away, but their memories and my time spent with them, will forever be etched in my heart. I get to go to Panamanna every few years, sometimes every couple of years if I am lucky. The last time I was there, was in 2018. A trip is long overdue! Usually, someone is there to pick me at the airport, but sometimes I arrive at odd hours and just get a cab. The ride from the airport to Panamanna is over three hours and on roads that take no pity on your back. It does not matter if I am exhausted from the long journey, or if am in a stranger’s vehicle, or driving with my folks sitting next to me, the moment the vehicle makes its first turn towards the road that leads to my village, there is this inexplicable feeling of bliss that washes over me. All the fond memories come bubbling out to the surface. My heart rate goes up, and a smile comes to my face that stays for days, and only fades when it is time to say goodbye. I honestly do not know if it’s just separation anxiety, or the child within me, trying to relive the glory days. I do hope that I never find out the answer. Why ruin magic?

Cover Image: Image by ejakob from Pixabay
Article Images: Shashi Nair

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The Undefeated, the Irreplaceable: Thinking of Soumitra Chatterjee!

On 24th July 1980, Mahanayak Uttam Kumar passed away. His death was unexpected, the result of a massive stroke. My paternal grandmother, an ardent and inconsolable admirer of the star, refused to eat. On 15 November 2020, the legendary Soumitra Chatterjee breathed his last. For more than a month, his battle with COVID-19 has been a matter of extensive media coverage. Every other day we would find updates about his unresponsive and failing health. His demise didn’t surprise cinema lovers. We all saw it coming. So, when I went downstairs to inform my maternal grandmother of the news, I found her sitting pensively. She already knew. Her age didn’t permit her to skip dinner but she retired early, ate a morsel and hardly spoke a word.

But here’s the catch. She wasn’t the only one grieving for this immense loss. The sense of bereavement trickled down to the youngest generation in my house, my 15-year-old sister who knew the actor as Feluda, the most popular sleuth in Bengali literature.

While Kumar and Chatterjee represent the two factions that Bengali audience has been divided into, the latter was the flagbearer of a much more accessible narrative. Uttam Kumar was the star; suave and charismatic. Soumitra was down-to-earth, a disarming mix of romantic and cerebral. So deeply did his personality and sensibilities seep into the characters he was portraying that one cannot imagine them without remembering his intelligent face, piercing eyes and defenseless charm. It doesn’t matter if the people he played were fictitious, written by authors who had no particular face in mind. Today, if one reads Tagore’s Nashta Nir (the book on which Satyajit Ray’s 1964 film Charulata is based), they will finish the book visualizing Amal as Soumitra Chatterjee. This is irrespective of the fact whether they have watched the film or not. Similarly, he is Apu incarnate.

Very often, Soumitra Chatterjee was described as Satyajit Ray’s muse. The actor marked his debut as Apu in Apur Sansar, the third film in the celebrated Pather Panchali trilogy. He starred in fourteen of the director’s films. Some of his best works were accredited to Ray. Together, they created a cinematic chronicle that encapsulated imaginative thought, subtle expression of complexities, the vulnerability of characters and above all, enlightenment. They created frames and moments that have crystallized in our collective consciousness. Recollect the warm poignance of the final scenes of Apur Sansar. Apu, with his young son balanced on his shoulders, is walking away from a past of untimely loss and towards a new future of hope and rekindled relationships. In the backdrop is an idyllic river, a boat floating on the calm waters. Apu hesitates to reveal to his young son that he is his father. Instead, he introduces himself as a bondhu (friend). That split-second reluctance holds within itself the entire emotional arc of not only Apur Sansar but the entire Pather Panchali trilogy. Right from Apu losing his sister Durga to a fever, his arrival and struggle to survive in Kolkata, the death of his beloved Aparna and finally uniting with his son. 

Through Soumitra Chatterjee’s approach to emotion and expression, we haven’t been spoon-fed happiness or grief or for that matter, any sentiment. This isn’t the Yashvardhan Raichand brand of emoting with dramatic music and glycerin fogging the screen. This is understated, moving and full of space for the audience to comprehend the depth of what has transpired. And this isn’t only for an intense moment. He was capable of conjuring copious amounts of charm without being overbearing. In Charulata, Chatterjee is playing Tagore’s Oh Go Bideshini on the piano when his sister-in-law arrives with paan. Lightheartedly, he refuses to accept her present and continues with the song. Attractive and endearing, without clogging the viewer’s sensibilities with tropes.

Soumitra Chatterjee never agreed to be cast in the mold of the demure Bengali bhodrolok. In the 1969 Bengali adaptation of Anthony Hope’s Prisoner of Zenda, he portrayed a menacing antagonist with ease. Pitted against Uttam Kumar, the megastar of Bengali cinema, Soumitra Chatterjee held his ground! In fact, the era in which Bengali films were overcome with the juti (star-couple) fever with Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen leading the pack, Chatterjee stood out for his refusal to be pushed into that direction. He even dabbled with the strict-yet-caring sports coach characterization much before Kabir Khan stepped into the picture. In the 1984 film Koni, Chatterjee plays Khidda, a swimming instructor. He takes a talented girl named Koni under his tutelage. But Koni’s journey to becoming a professional swimmer is thwarted by poverty and petty politics. In the 32nd National Film Awards, the film was honoured as the Best Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment.

Soumitra Chatterjee belonged to children as much as he belonged to adults. Adults my age will remember him most vividly as Feluda, Satyajit Ray’s Charminar-puffing detective whose greatest weapon was his magajastra (the power of brains). Tall, often sarcastic, fiercely protective of his companions and dignified, Chatterjee’s portrayal transformed the character into a cultural icon. Ray’s Feluda can be considered as respite amongst the dreadful and one-tone depictions of the character that the screen has seen in the last few years. No actor has been able to imbibe Feluda with Chatterjee’s cleverness and dry wit. 

Many are unaware that, unknowingly, Soumitra Chatterjee had sparked a revolution in fashion. Never a proponent of flamboyant dressing, he popularized smart casuals. Feluda ignited the trend of wearing the Bengali-style kurta with trousers and a Kashmiri shawl wrapped around the shoulders. In Aranyer Din Ratri, Chatterjee’s character Ashim wore crisp shirts, trousers, big watches and sunglasses. Pranay Baidya went a step ahead and created an entire line of men’s clothing inspired by the actor’s striped kurta in Charulata.

To conclude that Soumitra Chatterjee’s career was a bed of roses liberally sprinkled with meaningful cinema and consistent accolades will be undermining his tenacity. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Bengali film industry went through an era of acute crisis. Piracy was rampant and the quality of films was terrible (to say the least). During this time, he had to accept roles that were nowhere near his intellectual capacity. Nonetheless, he tried to rise above the difficulties and starred in impactful films such as Koni and Tapan Sinha’s Atanka. Both made strong commentaries on evils such as poverty, lobbying in sports, and political murders.

As I write the conclusion, my mother has logged off from her official portal and my sister has finished her studies. They plan to spend the evening watching Joy Baba Felunath on Zee TV. Soumitra Chatterjee lives on. In his characters. In the history of intelligent cinema. In the legacy of unaffected, naturalistic performances. In childhood memories. In middle-class households who learnt to appreciate film by watching Soumitra’r Chobi (translation: Films of Soumitra).

Additional Reference:

https://thevoiceoffashion.com/intersections/film-x-fashion/the-costume-drama-of-soumitra-chatterjees-everyman–4143

Racism Should Not Subsume Any and Every Form of Discrimination, This Lexical Reference Should Be Kept Handy

RACISM… the word in vogue right now, though that’s not necessarily a good thing. What is even more astounding is that racism is being used to describe all sorts of discrimination. There might be critics of overt cultural appropriation, but the subversive dilution of racial discrimination means that the blunt force trauma that racially discriminated individuals encounter will become as common an occurrence as eve teasing in India (which could end up in an acid attack by the spurned lover), or just another instance that hordes are facing globally and too big to deal with. A lexical reference for discrimination is necessary, not just for those being discriminated against because of race, but for others who face discrimination everyday because of gender, caste, religion, sexual preference, economic status, or any multitude of discriminatory reasons.

DISCRIMINATION
Oxford: the practice of treating someone or a particular group in society less fairly than
others
MW:     a: prejudiced or prejudicial outlook, action, or treatment racial discrimination
b: the act, practice, or an instance of discriminating categorically rather than
individually
Urban a: When YouTube doesn’t allow you watch a video because you don’t live in the
U.S.
b: “Action based on prejudice or racist beliefs that results in unfair treatment of
individuals or groups; unjust conditions in areas such as employment, housing
and education.” – Museum of Tolerance
Law:     n. unequal treatment of persons, for a reason which has nothing to do with legal rights or ability.

Discrimination ranges from microaggressions of prejudice and bias to the killing of a train passenger due to religious reasons or parading a woman naked around the village because of her caste. These people face discrimination too, and they too do not deserve that the apathy towards their experiences with discrimination be diluted further. While societal constructs of discrimination might have changed on the policy level, the implementation leaves much to be desired for.

Among the many isms one might encounter in daily life, discrimination presents itself in many forms. Racism, casteism, elitism, sexism, and cronyism with its derivatives, crony capitalism and nepotism, are rarely happenstances, but a pervading prejudice that extends beyond geographical boundaries. The most recent example is the Cisco lawsuit “for caste discrimination toward an Indian American engineer”, also called CASTEISM.

…ISM
Oxford:            a set of ideas or system of beliefs or behaviour
MW:                 a: a distinctive doctrine, cause, or theory
b: an oppressive and especially discriminatory attitude or belief
Urban:             a: Someone who does a distinctive specified thing so much, that they are
now notorious for it. They are generally referred as a “their name”-ism.
b: In a fraternity or sorority of the ethnic persuasion, an ism is defined as
an individual that has the same position in line
Marine Law: Known as the International Safety Management Code, the ISM Code is
one of the required regulations in the marine industry

And what might be the difference between elitism and cronyism? The consideration of being among the privileged few and receiving favours for being among the privileged few… The pseudo-intellectual Bengali who hijacks cultural authority is likely exhibiting elitism.

CRONYISM
Oxford:           the situation in which people in power give jobs to their friends
MW:                 partiality to cronies especially as evidenced in the appointment of political
hangers-on to office without regard to their qualifications
Urban:            partiality to friends, expressed by appointment of them to positions of
authority, regardless of their qualifications
Business:       the act of showing partiality to one’s close friends, typically by appointing
them to a position in a company or organization despite the individual not
necessarily being the best person for the position. Although this is favoritism
is frowned upon in many cases, it is often hard to determine what is or is not
cronyism…Although accusations of cronyism are prevalent, they very rarely
amount to any disciplinary action or removals from power.

Cronyism, on the other hand, has existed for as long as societal favoritism has. The influence of social networks in the world extends from panelinhas in Brazil to guanxi in China. According to an Oxfam India report, India Inequality Report 2018, “the total wealth of Indian billionaires is 15% of the GDP of the country, and the richest in India have made their money through crony capitalism rather than through innovation or the fair rules of the market.” The impact of crony capitalism is subversive in its obscure influence on the global political economy.

Even the Covid 19 pandemic has not deterred cronyism (Fig 1.), with the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) which provides loans backed by the Small Business Administration, displaying hints of crony capitalism which are often well within legal bounds. According to ForbesManeet Ahuja and Antoine Gara, “In a fresh twist on ‘relationship’ banking, personal connections were key to landing PPP cash whether the intermediary was a big bank, or a small one.” When the PPP application of Families First Pediatrics’ owner, Dallen Ormond, was refused by JPMorgan Chase which had “dished out $20 million in PPP money to two subsidiaries of Ruth’s Hospitality Group, the steakhouse chain parent that has a separate credit line with the bank, Ormond fumed in an email to Forbes, “Please tell the powers that be when this is all over I hope they can find someone to save their newborn baby’s life as they enjoy their $50 steak“”.

Of course, the Trump administration has already encountered flak for its nepotistic latitude as was evident with Ivanka Trump during the G20 summit in Japan. So, another cronyism derivative, nepotism, which favors family seems par for the course. In India, Kangana Ranaut’s outburst on Koffee with Karan against nepotism is infamous for the can of worms it splattered across the tabloids with eugenics being bandied about for good measure.

Of course, a lexical reference for discrimination would be incomplete without elucidation of the pervasive endemic of RACISM and SEXISM. One of the definitions of race is, “distinct evolutionary lineages within a species,” according to Alan Templeton. The “inventor of modern racial classification” Johann Friedrich Blumenbach published his analysis of human taxonomy, De Generis Humani Varietate Nativa (On the Natural Variety of Mankind) in 1795. According to Nature magazine, Blumenbach’s comparative analysis of cranial shapes “divided the human race into five great families: the Caucasian or white race, the Mongolian or yellow, the Malayan or brown, the Negro or black, and the American or red.”

Race and Genetic Variation
Source: Daniel Utter

Scientists in the 21st century refuse to ascribe race as a biological attribute for human classification, and “prefer to use the term “ancestry” to describe human diversity since race is a social construct.” Ancestry provides an intersectional approach to biocultural adaptation in diverse geographical conditions. Of course, colonialists’ attempts to civilize savages of Asia and Africa added to Blumenbach’s paradoxical authority and continued its subversive influence around the world… Not unlike casteist discrimination in India, which is based on the varna classification originating more than two millennia ago, and continues to be the basis of social identity for many. And let’s not forget the derivatives of discrimination based on gender and sexual preference which include:

  • Sexism: Prejudicial stereotyping based on biological gender attributes with discrimination generally directed towards women and transgenders
  • Sexual Orientation Discrimination: Prejudicial stereotyping based on sexual preference with discrimination generally directed towards those interested in same sex or non-binary sexual orientation

Obviously, while there may be enough reasons to discriminate, the question you need to ask yourself is, whether you should. While social categorization may be necessary for affirmative action or reservations for the disadvantaged in society, human nature has evolved through social constructs of identity and its dark underbelly will continue to resurface until discriminatory actions are considered unacceptable and insupportable not only on a policy level, but also within the layers of human existence.

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Video: Five LGBTQ Books to Read by Indian Authors This Pride Month

June is celebrated as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Pride Month to honor the 1969 Stonewall Uprising Movement. We bring to a suggestion list of five books around and about LGBTQ lives to read by Indian authors. For more such videos, please subscribe to the YouTube channel.

To show your support, you can also take part in the #21DaysAllyChallenge being run by Pride Circle.

Music: Bleach
Musician: anatu
URL: https://icons8.com/music/

Read Kyung Sook Shin’s ‘Please Look After Mom’ Before You Celebrate the Next Mother’s Day

We celebrated another Mother’s Day earlier this month. Mothers are celebrated grandly across the world on this day.  Motherhood is idealized as something pure and blissful.  It might be that, but hardly does one get to see a different side of this ideal. This is the case in almost all societies. 

Patriarchy’s continuing firm grip on our lives is manifested when we only acknowledge her existence to celebrate; never acknowledge her existence to help or understand the role of a mother thrust upon many women. There lies the danger in hollow celebrations: it does not bring about any change in the rut or routine and daily hardships of countless mothers.  

To help you understand this analogy, think about the recent hailing of doctors and nurses as heroes in the COVID 19 pandemic.  No doubt, it is important to boost their morale and confidence and to show moral support. However, if this celebration of our heroes does not extend to anything concrete such as better protective gear for them or increase in their remunerations, it becomes empty and superficial. 

Similar is the praise heaped on mothers. If one praises her but does nothing to help out, she continues to be a sacrificial goat for the entire family. Unfortunately, then, the celebration comes to naught. The 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize winner, Please Look After Mon, by Kyung-Sook Shin looks at this dichotomy in the importance and negligence of our mothers. 

The novel begins with the most straightforward sentence: 

“It’s been one week since Mom went missing.”

It is a factual statement that hits you hard. Slowly the story unravels the emotional ramifications of this one incident through the different perspectives of a daughter, son and husband. 

Sixty-nine-year old Park So-nyo goes missing in the crowds of the Seoul Subway Station. Only when she goes missing, do the various family members of the house begin to search both their recent and deepest memories of her to feel her presence once again. 

So-nyo’s youngest daughter, Chihon, reconstructs her memories of her mother, piecing her life for the reader. Chihon revisits the memories of that fateful day as well when So-nyo went missing- assailed by the usual idea that ‘what if I had not done this, this would not have happened.’

Through Chihon’s perspective we see her Mom’s various interconnections with her and her family and how she spent her whole life making amends and being resourceful to earn enough money for the family’s well being. Chihon’s conversations with her sister also reveal how her sister has now become a mother but still cannot resign to a life where she is always giving up herself for others like her own mother, So-nyo had done. 

From relearning her mother’s actual year of birth, to realizing how her mom could not read or how she needed to take a secluded walk just to take a break from the drudgery, Chihon comprehends the various facets of her mother’s being rather than only viewing her as a role. 

Similarly, So-nyo’s husband’s relationship with his wife also throws up facets of her life and her thoughts that he never bothered trying to understand or gauge. The use of the second person point of view makes the husband’s position even more damning, as if listing out things that the husband failed to do – paying attention to her increasing headaches or her recent tendency to forget things. Despite So-nyo’s age and failing health, it was she who was there for him and not the other way around. Now that she has gone missing, her husband feels the ache of the empty house. 

So-nyo’s eldest son, Hyong chul also reminisces about his mother and contemplates how he could have become an even better son for his mother. Closer to the end, we hear So-nyo’s voice and her true emotions and thoughts about herself and her children. Finding their missing mother is the task that brings back all these emotions and memories among the family members. In their search they keep hearing about her being sighted. But these are only whiffs of her presence, never her in complete actuality, as if she has now become a ghost. 

But in a way, she was always a ghost. She took the weight of the entire family, of her world, on her shoulders, like Atlas had, without the family even seeing that burden. Reading Please Look After Mom is deeply emotional and it will make anyone introspect their own relationship dynamics with their mothers. 

The invisibility of So-nyo is glaring and through the novel, is ironically there for all to see. Though the narrative is set in contemporary South Korea, it is relevant even in India. Here too, we similarly place our entire worlds on one person, without acknowledging that burden. Women themselves are conditioned to sacrifice for their children, for their family as they are told that only motherhood can give them complete happiness. This is seen even in So-nyo’s plain acceptance of her responsibilities without ever questioning them. 

Yet for all mothers, like for So-nyo as well, this idea of complete happiness can itself be a strain, where to break out of it seems impossible with little or no options. The mental agony and disconnect between the reality and the ideal that it creates goes largely unseen in India till today. 

We need to as societies, not just clap our hands for our mothers or make her a breakfast for Mother’s Day but really help out and understand the various intersectional forces at play that restrict her to a role of never ending responsible emotional and physical labour that is infinitely tiresome. 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

About the Author: Madhubanti De has just completed her Masters from the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU. When she is not swamped with work, you can find her snuggled up with a cup of coffee and her newest favourite book for hours.

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

 

 

 

 

 

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!

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”