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.

TheSeer-LGBTQ-BookList_indian-Authors

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.

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.

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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”