Ideas of India – part 1

10 Aug

I find these days that there is a lot of talk about Indian culture. Linked, of course, to the fact that India is coming into its her own as an economic powerhouse. Obama repaired his accent to suit us.

There’s a little noticed but perennial discussion about what is ‘Indian’ meandering its way through gatherings of the social elite (but in a way that they already know what it means… lik, they’re telling, not asking or suggesting), especially if there are non-Indians or people-of-Indian-origin around. New shows on international television channels celebrating India’s salable exotica have returned. The odd magazine/newspaper article, numerous blog and travelogues and even some valiant attempts at books that offer to finally and truly understand Indian Culture.

So let’s take that idea up. Indian Culture. A phrase made up of two vast, confusing, ever-evolving ideas that we’re not even sure exist in any tangible form. I mean what is India? A hurriedly strung together collection of regions that were (at the time of being hurriedly…) politically united by the British Crown, with some common economic interests of railroads and telegraph poles linking hinterlands to ports (because the British only really needed that part), trying to loosen the shackles of foreign rule all at once (also debatable) with the help of an anthem and a flag which, sixty years on, are nothing more than tiresome and ridiculed preambles to cinematic experiences (disclaimer – this post does not reflect the beliefs of the author, this is being said to build an argument, so chill!). I’m being too harsh, but it could be argued thus! No?!

And Culture – “refers to the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving…gaggfaahgag…somewhereongoogle…”

Moving on.

I wonder what kind of response one could expect from a random urban teenager, small-town shopkeeper, farmer in Orissa, social activist or industry captain when asked about their ‘Idea of India’. One thing’s for sure, they wouldn’t be saying the same things. Of course there might be obvious overlaps and concurrence over some very broad things, but I don’t believe the answers would anywhere near as similar to each other as when diverse peoples from other large democracies talk about their countries; not the Americans, not the Chinese (It is a democracy!)

Not very long ago somebody important (I forget who) likened India to Europe. That’s why its called a subcontinent. And many Indians when confronted with this uncomfortable task of describing India wear that description as a badge of honour; actually a shield behind which they take comfort.

This problem of description is deeper, though, and has to do with the context within which nations began to be described. The manner (I’m looking for a better word denoting the process of synthesis) of coagulation of feudatories into nation states in Europe gave rise to both the understanding of the ‘nation’ as well as provided vocabulary and measures to describe it. In the aftermath of nation building is when its defining characteristics came to be enumerated. And then the rest of the world (which was, incidentally, colonized) referred to those processes and built their own nations in the mould of their European masters. So did India (which at the time meant the subcontinent as stitched together by the British). But, as I learned in the Political Sciences class, India fulfills none of the requirements of nationhood, except, hold your breath, ‘Nationhood’… which means it is a nation not by any organic factors which bring it together, but because its people ‘want’ to be a nation. It would be interesting to understand exactly when the awareness of nationhood entered the collective consciousness of the people of the subcontinent.

I suspect that people who lived in this area, now called the subcontinent, may have had a sense of the cohesiveness of the geography of this region. In geography or history class we learned that India has natural boundaries – the Himalaya and Hindu Kush to the north and north west respectively, the desert in the west and the sea on three sides, protecting ‘us’. And thence.

Perhaps it never did, perhaps it was always there, bubbling beneath the conscious mind, simmering, with the worn out memory of centuries of pushing together and pulling apart on the subcontinental scale – united variously and differently by the british, the Mughals, by traveling saints and mystics of the middle ages, and once before in a time whose vestiges barely exist, by Ashoka the Great.

So there are a few common strains that have always united us. Religious or spiritual pursuit – in both, its positive and fundamentalist avatars. Taxes on land and income. Superstars (any sarcasm detected here is only in your own head) viz Adi Shankaracharya, the Buddha, Akbar, Ashoka, Lord Someone-or-the-other, the Mahatma, Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Sachin Tendulkar…

But its got to be better than this, surely! There is something about this country that continuously draws the outside world in. My patriotism clouds my objectivity and I have created in my mind a division between the porous borders of my country and ‘the rest of the world’. As if India is still, even in the 21st century C.E., what ancient Greece and Rome and Renaissance Europe made it out to be in their myths and fairy tales. And so, while I admit to this delusion, I also like it. And I also think it is good for me to keep it!

I do see glimpses of a very mature and intelligent society. You see, it is very difficult to bring even a hundred of us together in common protest (unless you pay us for it!). There seems to be an inherent wisdom and almost saint-like tolerance (or perhaps it is a collective fear) that allows us to let things sort themselves out. And most importantly we have not, for all the infusion of rationalist thinking in the last half century, forgotten that we live only for the generation after us, and not, absurdly enough, for ourselves. And every successive generation thinks the same. So who is it that we live for… What is this ‘life’, this ‘living’ that we speak of? Our grandparents didn’t ‘live’ so that our parents could… and our parents didn’t so that we could… and we won’t so that our children can… and in this we find that life makes sense, that it has meaning, that we build it, and find joy in doing so, and in nurturing the possibility that someone after us will actualize all that has been evolved… and (oh joy!) that that point will never actually come… That we must enumerate our achievements on the preparation for the future. This is an important idea. And philosophically too, that is the space into which we are led. Be prepared, and let the world happen to you. Do your best and leave the rest up to the Lord. We must find fulfillment only in the effort and give up the desire of the result of action, for we have right only over work, and not over reward – that is something that the Law of Karma, the Lord of the Universe, the Supreme Consciousness, will take care of. Build infrastructure and allow the economy to evolve. Provide education and watch people become more socially responsible. Create collective or community assets (streets, markets, public transport, open spaces and green areas etc) and see how quality of life improves. Work towards speedier and simpler judicial procedure and voila, democratic institutions are immediately strengthened (‘immediately’ means over a generation; but what is a generation over 5000 years). Adopt organic farming techniques and see health and nutrition improve. Apply the practices of Yoga and meditation in your daily life; practices that have been validated over thousands of years; and walk down the path of greater evolution and enlightened community life. Prepare, prepare, prepare. And wrest the initiative from the forces of Karma. Force the universe to respond to the fact that you carry everyone along with you. Let the machinations of the world find the most effective path in the seed-bed of your preparation, and plant the future in your wake! Deposit yourself into the hands of your Maker, and strive to do only His (or Her, if you prefer) bidding.  Find joy and contentment in preparation – on every level of existence, in every sphere of life – and you will find that you are happy with whatever be the result. This is grace. This is the reason we are who we are. the result of what we prepared ourselves to be. And we better like it, rather than not! This is our culture, our unity, our faith, our mysticism, our religion our spirit and our happiness!

Now the point is, how do we follow this? Wait for part 2, but it will be a while… 🙂


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THE WORLD’S MOST READ ENGLISH DAILY…

10 Jan

This was written during the last week of the football world cup finals in July 2010 (as you will see). I get The Times of India at home… the world’s most read English daily…

 

…sip-of…hot, HOt-tea, oh look, 36 ppl killed by Maoists (who r these ppl?), OHMIGOD THEY’RE CONSIDERING USING REPLAYS IN FOOTBALL! FINALLY!…more youth killed in Kashmir, Omr Abdullah says anti-nationals did it (so specific)…sipofhottea… Dude this Gautam Vora chappie seems like a good scapegoat. Now if she hung herself how is it his fault? Police will bajao him and get some cash. Then they’ll say no evidence and death by suicide so let…more women are going to IIM…good…next…fricking germany vs arg should be the final yaar… fabianos going to win the golden handballs… but what if he does…win the golden boot.. he has a chance. will they give it to him after the whole world saw his handball? sipofhottea…Diesel’s going up too… thank god I bought petrol variant …some politician indicted for murder (did I really think the word ‘indicted’? … I’ve got to get a life)…bus fares…whatever…3 teens killed by central troops… that’s kashmir again…boss these beard issues are funny dude, we’re becoming like the united states of england… we want their lifestyle but not their prejudices…as if… sipoftea…boss, tunnel to take PM (means, the Gandhis) to the airport… sc*#w the people, make tunnels for the powerful… and i bet this is not going to be held up by a protracted tender followed by controversy and then excrutiatingly slow progress…this PM isn’t going to live that long…or are they doing it directly for Rahuljee…3 km special road and all for 3 people…frickin 6 km sealink for 6 million ppl took 10 yrs…f@#*in crap (oh, feeling is also coming)…M-A-R-A-D-O-N-A…snigger snigger…if he beats ger, then he’s vindicated. if he loses to ger, then he lost only to GER in SUBLIME form…not so bad…so now he can say anything he wants…sipof YUCK…hmmm PM making weak noises at extraditing Anderson…lip service saala…shit i’m spending too much time here…law for child sexual abuse… nice, chal baad mein…

A Raavan by any other name…

10 Jul

This is not about dissing Raavan… though it made me irritable as I watched (and more irritable after). It is not about criticizing the writing/story/plot since the vigil idiot (www.thevigilidiot.com) has done that in style… It is certainly not about making fun of anything in the movie… the comments by various people trying to save face and defend near and dear ones were funny enough (and went a long way to prove exactly the opposite of what they claimed!)

the promos promised way too much!

...it could have been...

It is about a rather more serious issue! It prompts the question that William S first seemed to have asked – Naam se kya fark padta hai, meri jaan?

…RAAVAN…

We, fortunately, live in a society that is more or less tolerant of anyone questioning, re-interpreting our cultural pillars and scriptures etc. (except for the hate-mongers of course) But with great power, said one American mythological character, comes great responsibility. That is to say, if one wants to offer an interpretation, one should make it count! It should add to the canon… it should provoke/deride/re-energize/redress or even just plain entertain! Undermine the institution if you wish… Now the question is… are you able to… do you really have something to say?

But do let’s give credit where its due. The fact that such a project was concieved. That stars were roped in to do the do (actually that cuts both ways, with performances being what they were). That that much money was spent on an idea like this and taken to the masses. That the visuals were what they were, that such a world was created. For some of my friends, just that Raavan was thought of, and that it reflected at least sparsely, the great ideological clashes that plague the understanding of our mythology and literature, would have been value for money. But who else (apart from our insignificant minority) pays or cares for the thought? Execution is what has separated Mani Ratnam from other filmmakers in the past, and will continue to do so in the future, I’m sure.

Now to my main point… the name itself…

…Raavan…

Like my Mother said, “Why has he used such a heavy mythological name?”, unmindful of the weight of her words on the shoulders of the filmmaker, “A simple ‘Beera’ would have been fine!” There is more home grown wisdom behind this epiphany than Mother would care to analyse…

Just – if you will indulge me – imagine this movie with the name ‘Beera’. Imagine that the film was not publicised as being a Ramayan interpretation. If the film’s PR will argue back that they did nothing of the kind, then imagine that the publicity had no Ramayan overtones, no references, no articles in newspapers speculating whether Abhishek and Aishwarya were playing Ram and Sita! No whiff of Ramayan at all…

Just a thriller about a powerful, charismatic brigand, who stood up for the rights of the downtrodden and his precocious, and perhaps honourable, battle to bring the attention of the haves to the plight of the have nots, overcoming his urge for personal revenge because he fell in love on the way (having being struck by the courage and strength of his abductee) … His life is doomed to tragedy, but also, he is validated, martyred, emancipated…

Now imagine the references in dialogue… ten voices in my head, can’t decide what’s right, that leads me to rage, I am filled with self-confidence, bouyed by the righteousness of my cause, their women are women, our women not worth respect? my sister was wronged and so I will abduct one of their women, so they will know how it feels…

The references in story… and you’re thinking… Hey, its like the Ramayan man! Wow that’s cool! Not that we could have ignore all the flaws… but still… I feel that the similarities to the Ramayan would have been hailed, and the writer/filmmaker credited for such subtlety, and the dissimilarities or inanities resulting out of twisting the original structure of the Ramayan, and the poor analogies, forgiven, to a certain extent, because there was no claim of similarity to the Ramayan in the first place… That’s the key – no claim in the first place… While this still may not have rung the box office cash registers, it would certainly mitigated harsh words from critics… and perhaps encouraged discussion on the issues touched upon in the film as well as led to some re-examination of the epic itself among some viewers…

…So why was I irritated? Why is this a serious issue?

No matter denials like who said it was based on the Ramayan etc. The fact that your film is named Raavan…the baggage this brings with it… the weight the film is already carrying before it even begins… was perhaps too much…

…And then when one comes across genius in bits and pieces… for eg. when Beera asks…

Had you not been married, would you have stayed?

 … as he moves round and round on the basket-like boat, the twitter of children about him, swiftly turning his head again and again, transfixing her with his, at once, stoic and love-filled, gaze…

…would you?

The descent into the forest… so sublime… a journey into another world… but whenever Dev opens his mouth, I want to drown… (I’m sure its not his fault entirely).

Too many sparks but nothing to hold them together – nothing that ould be called a well told story.

I have not read/heard a single person talk of the Ramayan after having watched Raavan… It was either ‘visually superb’ or ‘bakwaas, but visually superb’. Maybe Mani Ratnam just picked a jaded topic… What with the name of Ram being used to perpetrate all sorts of nefarious activities… everyone’s had enough….

And that’s just the thing. As it is our appetite for serious debate is all but extnguished… it has to be funny, derisive of somebody, and done in 3 mins… and then its fit for consumption… So what little space we keep for rigorous debate on mythological subjects has been occupied and ruined… at least for the near future. It queers the pitch for those who actually have something to say. The audience have their ears full, their walls up, and their wallets firmly shut…

I’m up for the next Mani Ratnam film though… funnily enough, even more eagerly after Raavan… His comeback is going to be awesome, I feel…

A Song To Start With…

29 Jun

If we link our past to our future...we'll have a path to walk on. - mooshak

… I once asked a Teacher, “Why is music given such importance in spiritual practice, almost all over the world?” And He said, “Because we are just vibrations, snatching at harmony…”

There is a musical phenomenon called Coke Studio ripping through the personal computers of  thousands of subcontinental youth. If you haven’t discovered it already (wherever you are in the world, as long as you like GOOD music), its never too late. Coke Studio seems to mean many things to many people. To the youth of Pakistan (read the comments below the videos on youtube)…it seems like their battle-cry… their victory dance in the face of rapid political descent (obviously caused by powerful men in cahoots with world-dominating powers, while the common Pakistani watches helplessly). My Brother says that a nation pushed against the wall tends to find in its voice a much more poignant strain. While the world breakfasts regularly to descriptions of a disintegrating Pakistan…(not all of which seem true)…these immensely talented and accomplished Pakistani musicians decided to strike back…

…but this opening post isn’t about Pakistani politics (Now now – an Indian must be careful if he has to live in India! :-)) Its about the songs that producer Rohail Hyatt and his team have masterfully picked to bring to the fore… And about one song in particular…

In some long forgotten time – in a place forged from the memories in my bones – I was there when this song was first written… In fact, I was witness when the words first formed… and centuries later when I hear them again, my blood, confused, displaced, educated, sterilised, still recognises the ancient call… but only just…aikon alif tere darkaar…

The lyric and its most obvious translation are provided below…

http://ilovesunrise.blogspot.com/2009/06/aik-alif.html

http://www.koolmuzone.com/forum/lyrics-and-guitar-tabs/lyrics-noori-saieen-zahoor-aik-alif/

The link to the video, performed by Noori and Saaeen Zahoor, follows… This can inspire an entire movement…(it kinda already has!) amen to that…

forward, tweet, fb, blog…2,00,000 views is just not good enough… get it out there!

http://www.youtube.com/user/cokestudio?blend=1&ob=4#p/c/F4193A3A15DA737E/9/Ra5nTlty6CM

(it works if you copy-paste)

The song talks of how we are blindsided by ‘learning’. We continuously overlook the Thing Itself…manifest in that final cry of ‘Allah’ by the Saaeen…and how we must needs resist our urge to ‘eat’ the whole world with our senses..as if our relentless and gargantuan collective endeavour to make sense of all that exists is doomed to end in ridicule…and we must surrender…that surrender is more honourable than defiance…as if surrender is defiance…as if surrender is courage…as if surrender is revolution…inevitable…

It isn’t just Saaeen Zahoor and Abida Parveen and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, (known sufi exponents) who sing of the ‘spirit’ in the series. The young, and ridiculously gifted, generation of pop stars, a couple of whom have struck gold in bollywood, surprise us with their attachment and understanding of their musical/spiritual culture, and mesmerizing performances of songs of old Masters… strengthening their traditions, carrying them into the future…

This story will continue, for Season 3 of Coke studio is out in parts already…

And the oft-heard lament from us Indians responding on these video posts is – Why can’t we do this in India? Ha ha… typical neighbourly jealousy…

More soon…

On why a movie called Raavan, by any other name, could have smelled sweeter… why we tell stories (at all)…and how social networking can be made into fun and fulfilling ways to make that little difference…

oh, and I promise to spruce up the site a little bit every time… I’m just getting the hang of this 🙂