Archive for the tag “Meera Vishvanathan”

SAMSKARA: A DEATH AND ITS DILEMMAS BY MEERA VISHVANATHAN

 

samskara cover

samskara cover

A DEATH AND ITS DILEMMAS:
READING U.R. ANANTHAMURTHY’S SAMSKARA

By Meera Vishvanathan

Soon after U.R. Ananthamurthy died, members of a Hindu right-wing organization responded by bursting firecrackers in celebration. The images, put up on YouTube, remind us once again of the illiteracy of fascists. We do not know what they thought they were celebrating: perhaps, they felt that death had proved a point in their favour, that it was the final arbiter in a dispute against an opponent who would not give up.

That death resolves no arguments, however, is something Ananthamurthy realized quite early. In many ways, it forms the pivot of his first novel — Samskara. Samskara begins with the death of the iconoclast Naranappa, a man who turned his back on the faith and caste he was born into. He abandoned the traditional rites; shaved his top-knot and wore western wear; he left his wife and lived instead with the low-caste Chandri; he shared meals with Muslims, openly drinking liquor and eating meat; his only incantations were forms of abuse, and he made every effort to incite the younger generation against the old ways.

In the ritual world of the brahmins of Durvasapura, “[a]live, Naranappa was an enemy; dead, a preventer of meals; as a corpse, a problem and a nuisance” (Ananthamurthy 1976: 5) Because he has no children, there is no one to cremate him, and conflict surrounds the issue of who should take up the task. This unwillingness on the part of the community is a final act of denunciation: alive, they do not consider him one of their own; dead, they do not wish to have him as a pitru or ancestor. Although Naranappa rejected brahminhood, it is held that brahminhood never left him. He was never excommunicated formally, and so, remains a brahmin even in his death. The death rites for him have to be performed.

To resolve this dilemma, the community turns to their saintly leader Praneshacharya. But though Praneshacharya contemplates the sacred texts, though he scans Manu’s law code, and fasts and meditates at the feet of the god Maruti, he is unable to come up with a solution. The answer does not appear to lie within the parameters of their tradition.

Naranappa’s body rots, but the story which begins with him does not continue to revolve around him. Midway through the novel, the problem that is purportedly at its centre — the question of who will cremate Naranappa — has been resolved. Not by the Brahmins, who continue to be stalked by fear. Nor even by the low-caste cart-man Sheshappa, who when appealed to by Chandri, refuses to implicate himself in the ‘sin’ of meddling with a brahmin corpse. The final decision is Chandri’s: it is her last act of love, a measure of her regard for Naranappa. She alone has the clarity to understand that is corpse is “not her lover Naranappa. It’s neither brahmin nor shudra. A carcass. A stinking rotting carcass” (Ananthamurthy 1976: 61). Eventually, the deed is performed by Ahmad Bari, a man in debt to Naranappa, who loads the corpse and firewood onto his bullock-cart, sets it afire in the cremation ground, and then leaves, as fast as he can. The cremation completed, Chandri too leaves the village, walking to catch the morning bus to Kundapura.

Yet, even in its absence, the stench of the corpse lingers, and in the claustrophobia of the agrahara Naranappa becomes for some, a preta who continues to challenge them, a ghost who will not leave them alone. He no longer has a speaking part, but  continues to live on in the questions that he leaves behind. The critique turns inward, transmuting itself, and eating away at the mind of Praneshacharya.

Praneshacharya is the good brahmin, ideologue and conscience-keeper of his entirely fallible community. In word and deed, he is presented as the polar opposite  of Naranappa. But on one of the nights following Naranappa’s death, disturbed by the unresolvable nature of the problem, he finds succor in the arms of Chandri. The next morning, seized by doubt and horror, he tells himself, “I am sin, my work is sin, my soul is sin, my birth is in sin” (Ananthamurthy 1976: 68). Fleeing Durvasapura, he runs headlong into the melée of the world, into a tangle of temple fairs and cock-fights and prostitutes. These wanderings do not help resolve his dilemmas: by the end, the only resolution he can make is that  he will return. But by now, plague has beset Durvasapura, and we know he will return to an atmosphere of death. A series of events have been set in motion, and everything suggests the impossibility of return.

Samskara is a novel filled with the portents of doom. It uses the old imagery of the Kali Yuga, of a time of pestilence and non-believers, to create a new allegory. It was written when Ananthamurthy was still a doctoral student at Birmingham: he was thirty-four.  He had accompanied his teacher Malcolm Bradbury to a screening of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. The film had no subtitles, but Ananthamurthy ‘experienced’ the story, relating to the story of the plague and the indecision faced by the protagonist. It led him to remember a plague that had taken place in his own hometown, where the upper castes had been treated by the doctor, but the lower castes had not. Bradbury challenged Ananthamurthy to write, and Samskara was written following this, over “four furious days” (Reddy 2014).

Samskara-Movie-Poster

Samskara-Movie-Poster

Published in 1965, the book earned the wrath of traditionalists, who saw it as an assault on their culture. It was subsequently made into a landmark Kannada film. It was the film which brought the novel to the attention of the poet, linguist and translator, A.K. Ramanujan, then already teaching at the University of Chicago. Ramanujan expressed a desire to translate Samskara in a letter to his friend and editor Bonnie Crown:

Last week I read a Kannada novel which moved me more than anything I have read in that language. It is by a young writer and was published a couple of months ago. It is about a sinful Brahman’s death in a Brahman colony, and the problem is who should perform the funeral rights [sic] of the sinner… I would like to translate it, though it is going to be very difficult because of the interweaving of Brahmanical mythology and daily ritual in the telling of the story. But if this is translated I am sure it will be important as it is intense, complex, rich and absolutely authentic. I hope to write to the author who is a good friend of mine, now in England on a doctoral fellowship. Are you interested? (Ramanujan, cited in Nakul Krishna 2013).

Ten years were to pass before Ramanujan’s translation of Samskara appeared. Subtitled ‘A Rite for a Dead Man’, it was initially serialized in the Illustrated Weekly of India, where once again it attracted a barrage of responses, some of them  pure vitriol. In the many years since, the stories surrounding Samskara and its retellings have come to acquire the status of folklore.

Ananthamurthy and Ramanujan

Ananthamurthy and Ramanujan

Ramanujan’s presence  has been writ large over the ways in which Samskara has been received by the English speaking world. The Afterword to his translation has him provide a long disquisition on the meanings of term; so much so, that one may wonder if he does not perhaps overinterpret the theme. The problems posed by the story, although phrased within a traditional vocabulary, are distinctively modern ones. Naranappa is able to violate the old rules with impunity, precisely because he knows he is afforded protection by colonial law. At the same time, Samskara crosses many time-zones in its interweaving of modernity and folklore, riddles and myths. It cannot be viewed only through the lens of the brahmanical or the classical tradition.

For, at its heart, Samskara is also a story about love, although not a love-story in the conventional way. In a society marked by close-fisted boundaries, it shows how these divides were complicated and negotiated by the relationships entered into by women and men. Doubts besiege the minds of the male characters, and it is only Chandri, incandescent, who appears to have a clear sense of self. In an encounter that takes place in Praneshacharya’s memory, Naranappa tells him a story about their agrahara:

There was a young fellow in the agrahara. He never once slept with his one lawfully wedded wife because she wouldn’t sleep with him — out of sheer obedience to her mother’s orders. But this young man didn’t miss an evening of this Achari’s recitation of holy legends — every evening he was there. He’d good reason. It’s true, that Achari had no direct experience of life, but he was quite a sport with erotic poetry and things like that. One day he got into a description of Kalidasa’s heroine, Shakuntala, in some detail. This young man listened…But now the young man felt the Achari’s description in his own body, felt a whole female grow inside him, a fire burn in his loins — you know what that means, don’t you, Acharya-re? — He couldn’t stand it, he leapt from the Achari’s verandah and ran. He couldn’t bear to hear any more, he ran straight to plunge his heat in the cold water of the rover. Luckily, an outcaste woman was bathing there, in the moonlight. Luckily, too, she wasn’t wearing too much, all the limbs and parts he craved to see were right before his eyes. She certainly was the fish-scented fisherwoman type, the type your great sage fell for. He fantasized she was the Shakuntala of the Achari’s description and this pure brahmin youth made love to her right there — with the moon for witness. (Ananthamurthy 1976: 23)

The passage is not a philosophical rejoinder. It is not even a political comment. It is emphatically meant to titillate Praneshacharya, to throw a question in his face. It sets alight the spaces of exception that exist within the brahmanical tradition and shows how they are also spaces of hypocrisy.

The iconoclasm of one age may seem timid in another. The furor that surrounded the initial publication of Samskara has since died down, only to be replaced by other battles. Both Ramanujan and Ananthamurthy have been the targets of attack from the Hindu right, that wishes, among other things, to narrowly determine the scope of all Hindu culture. But the old stories still speak to those who can harness them: Samskara shows us the insidious critique that is made possible by a man who knows his culture’s stories.

SOURCES

U.R. Anathamurthy, 2012 [1976],  Samskara: A rite for a Dead Man, translated by A.K. Ramanujan, New Delhi: OUP.

 Nakul Krishna, 2013, ‘Reading the Small Print: The Literary Legacy of an Indian Modernist’, The Caravan, 1 August 2013, Available online: http://www.caravanmagazine.in/reportage/reading-small-print

 Nandana Reddy, 2014, ‘The Controversial Bard: U.R. Ananthamurthy,’ Mainstream (52.38), September 2014, Available online: http://www.mainstreamweekly.net/article5178.html

Images:

http://www.caravanmagazine.in/reportage/reading-small-print

http://english.v6news.tv/tribute-to-kannada-litteratuer-ur-ananthamurthy

Meera

Meera Visvanathan. Recently submitted her PhD in Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

What is Most Terrifying: Paash, Translated By Meera Vishvanathan

(मीरा विश्वनाथन शुरुआत से ही tirchhispelling की सहयोगी रही हैं। पाश की बहुचर्चित कविता ‘सबसे खतरनाक…’ से भारतीय बौद्धिक समाज भलीभाँति परिचित है। आज मज़दूर दिवस है, और मीरा ने खास कर इसी दिन के लिए इस कविता का अनुवाद किया है। जब कोई कविता सबसे अधिक चर्चित और अनूदित हो, वैसे समय में अनुवाद-कार्य बहुत चुनौती-पूर्ण होता है। मीरा ने इस चुनौती को स्वीकार किया है। यह कविता हिंदी से अनुदित है, अंत  में हिंदी पाठ भी दे दिया गया है. tirchhispelling के लिए वे आगे भी इसी तरह से सहयोगी रहेंगी, ऐसा उनका वायदा है। )

Paash With Amarjeet

Paash With Amarjeet

What is Most Terrifying …

 

The loot of labour is not so terrifying

A thrashing by the police is not so terrifying

The fist of greed and betrayal is not so terrifying

To be caught, sleeping or sitting, is bad, it is true

To be bound in frightening silence is bad, it is true

But not the most terrifying of all.

To be silenced in the clamour of deceit

Even while being right, is bad, it is true

To begin to read in a firefly’s light is bad, it is true

To clench one’s teeth and get through time is bad, it is true

But not the most terrifying of all.

What is most terrifying

Is to be filled with stillness, like a corpse,

Without any agitation, to endure it all

To go from home to work

And from work to home again

What is most terrifying

Is the death of our dreams.

What is most terrifying is the watch that runs

Upon your wrist, but stops —

Waiting, for a single glance.

What is most terrifying is the eye that sees

Everything, but remains cold as ice.

Which has forgotten what it means

To view this world with love

Which is enamoured by the fog that rises

From the darkness surrounding things,

Which drinks from the ordinariness of routine

And loses itself in the repetitive cycles of aimlessness.

 What is most terrifying is the moon that rises

Over empty courtyards

After each night of killing

But refuses to burn like chilies thrown into your eyes.

What is most terrifying is the song

That leaps in lamentation,

So as to reach your ears,

Which bellows, like a thug,

At the doors of frightened people.

What is most terrifying is the night that falls

On the skies of living souls

Where only owls cry jackals howl

And whose eternal darkness sticks to the four corners of closed doors

What is most terrifying is the direction in which

The soul’s sun goes down and drowns

And from whose dead sunlight, a single fragment comes

To pierce through your body’s east.

No, the loot of labour is not so terrifying            

A thrashing by the police is not so terrifying

The fist of greed and betrayal is not so terrifying at all.

Meera Visvanathan

Meera Visvanathan

Meera Visvanathan is a student of the Ph.D programme at the Centre for Historical Studies (Jawaharlal Nehru University).

सबसे खतरनाक….

श्रम की लूट सबसे ख़तरनाक नहीं होती
पुलिस की मार सबसे ख़तरनाक नहीं होती

ग़द्दारी और लोभ की मुट्ठी सबसे ख़तरनाक नहीं होती
बैठे-सोए पकड़े जाना- बुरा तो है
सहमी-सी चुप में जकड़े जाना बुरा तो है
पर सबसे ख़तरनाक नहीं होता

कपट के शोर में

सही होते हुए भी दब जाना बुरा तो है
किसी जुगनु  की लौ में पढ़ने लग जाना- बुरा तो है
भींचकर जबड़े बस वक्‍़त काट लेना- बुरा तो है
सबसे ख़तरनाक नहीं होता


सबसे ख़तरनाक होता है

मुर्दा शांति से भर जाना
न होना तड़प का, सब कुछ सहन कर जाना
घर से निकलना काम पर
और काम से लौटकर घर आना
सबसे ख़तरनाक होता है
हमारे सपनों का मर जाना

सबसे ख़तरनाक वो घड़ी होती है
तुम्हारी कलाई पर चलती हुई भी जो
तुम्हारी नज़र में रुकी होती है

सबसे ख़तरनाक वह आंख होती है
जो सबकुछ देखती हुई भी ठंडी बर्फ होती है

जिसकी नज़र दुनिया को

मुहब्बत से चूमना भूल जाती है
सबसे ख़तरनाक वो गीत होता है
जो चीजों से उठती अंधेपन की

भाप पर मोहित हो जाती है

जो रोज़मर्रा की साधारणतया को पीती हुई

एक लक्ष्य हीन दोहराव के दुष्चक्र में खो जाती है

 

 

सबसे ख़तरनाक वह चांद होता है
जो हर क़त्ल-कांड के बाद
वीरान हुए आँगनों में चढ़ता है
लेकिन तुम्हारी आंखों में मिर्चों की तरह नहीं पड़ता है

सबसे खतरनाक वह गीत होता है

तुम्हारे कान तक पहुँचने के लिए

जो विलाप को लांघता है

डरे हुये लोगों के दरवाज़े पर जो

गुंडे की तरह हुंकारता है

सबसे खतरनाक वह रात होती है

जो उतरती है जीवित रूह के आकाशों पर

जिसमें सिर्फ उल्लू बोलते गीदड़ हुआते

चिपक जाता सदैवी अँधेरा बंद दरवाज़ों के चौगाठों पर

 

सबसे ख़तरनाक वह दिशा होती है
जिसमें आत्‍मा का सूरज डूब जाए
और उसकी मुर्दा धूप की कोई फाँस
तुम्हारे जिस्‍म के पूरब में चुभ जाये
श्रम की लूट सबसे ख़तरनाक नहीं होती
पुलिस की मार सबसे ख़तरनाक नहीं होती
ग़द्दारी और लोभ की मुट्ठी सबसे ख़तरनाक नहीं होती ।

THE LOST ART OF REASON: WHY SMALL ACTS OF INTOLERANCE ARE LINKED TO LARGER ONES

(Meera’s article discussing May Day and the debate on Ganapati led many people to revisit not only the events of that day but also our approaches to politics and culture. Along with this, it was also a call for the debate to be conducted on a larger canvas. Through Facebook, blogs and pamphlets, people responded to issues ranging from the absence of civility in our political culture to the nature of ‘Freedom of Expression’. Both agreements and disagreements with Meera’s position were expressed. Keeping in mind these many reactions, here is Meera’s second response.)

By Meera Vishvanathan

 Out of a single event, many webs of interpretation can be spun. Many issues were raised in the discussion following my article on the May Day concert in JNU. I can only try and address some of them. The intention here is not to provoke a new debate, but to provide a response that may help tie things together.

Unfortunately, in most instances, the debate was reduced to defining ‘freedom of expression’. Whereas, I meant to raise a larger set of questions about cultural politics. For this reason, I think it is important to address three issues we must consider in the long-term: the first relates to platforms and contexts; the second, to cultural symbols and forms of appropriation; and the third to censorship and freedom of expression.

If the argument seems to have become limited to JNU, then this has to do with the nature of the responses. But I write this in the hope that understanding one particular situation may help us understand these questions as a whole.

Of Platforms and  Contexts

Let us begin with the event so as to put it behind us. I have been asked, ‘Does not JNUSU (or any organization or group) have a right to decide what is conveyed from their platform?’ Of course they do. Platforms have their significance and organizations have the right to determine their political and cultural orientation. Debates can happen only if differences in positions and distinctions in ideology are understood. I was not saying that anything can be said anywhere or that we must create some kind of intellectual free-for-all.

Nor is the crowd forced to accept what is  thrust upon it. I will not argue for enforced decorum. For, from the intervention of crowds there often arises great and lasting political change. But the nature of this change depends on the political understanding of the crowd: it is what separates a riot from a revolution. And it is this political understanding (or the lack of it) that I was querying.

Nor should my arguments be read to infer that a  GaneshVandana or any kind of vandana should  be sung as a matter of practice every May Day.  But supposing, as happened that day, on a  platform that you have carefully constructed, on  an occasion that means a great deal to you,  someone comes and says or sings something  that you not only find uncomfortable but also  hate. How do you deal with this intrusion? Is  your primary response, in fact your only  response, to shut her up and forget about it? Is  your understanding of May Day so brittle that a  single wrong note must be silenced  immediately?  Is silencing something our only  form of resistance? Whatever happened to  disputation, argument, sarcasm, irony or  debate?

Let me thank the person who put up Nagarjun’s poem entitled ‘Pita-putrasamvaad’ because it makes many points with a subtlety I am not capable of. But since we hold that Ganapati belongs to the Hindu right and is a brahmanical figure, Nagarjun made a grave error when he composed this poem! Should we not remove this poem or this poet from our tradition so we can have a truly ‘progressive’ politics? And further, since anything touched by the right-wing is reprehensible and our identities as an audience are so brittle, shall we also stop reading Namdeo Dhasal entirely and never cite him from a public forum?

If, instead of singing a Ganeshavandana, Tritha had sung the Purushasukta, my response would have been different. But the point is she sang what she sang, and responses are based on events and not on hypothetical situations. I have a problem when we begin to respond to every situation in the same way, and when for a whole variety of situations we begin to propose a set of standardized and even ‘final’ solutions.

Cultural Symbols and Forms of Appropriation

Frankly, I am baffled by how my arguments can be read as ‘romanticizing’ Ganapati because he was once a tribal god. Instead, what I was trying to point out was the complex process by which he was absorbed by brahmanism. If we understand this process, perhaps we will understand that the appropriation of Ganapati by the Hindu right in itself is not enough cause to silence a hymn devoted to him. This does not mean that we must glorify Ganapati, worship him or appropriate him for ourselves. But the process must be understood because figures whom we hold dear, such as Bhagat Singh, are similarly appropriated by the Hindutva right. This is not to equate Ganapati and Bhagat Singh because that would be ahistorical. But if you can’t tell the difference between a simile and an analogy, then I would suggest that you first check a dictionary.

A certain kind of cultural politics, espoused by anti-caste movements, has tried to reclaim icons appropriated by Brahmanism. Thus, Phule brilliantly read the Puranas to indicate a non-brahmanical substratum to Indian history. Attempts to reclaim Mahabali or Mahishasura draw from such an understanding. Ganapati also fits this paradigm, but since he was appropriated slightly earlier, he appears not as a vanquished symbol but a deity in his own right. So, when we oppose Ganapati but celebrate Mahishasura, we exhibit not only the poverty of our political imagination but also distort the innovativeness with which someone like Phule could reach out to the past.

In comparison, the left wants to uphold a definition of secularism where all religious symbols must be removed from public platforms. Fair enough. But the problem is, in India, if you reject everything touched by the taint of religion, what will be left is not a secular space but a sanitized one. So, in keeping with this argument, we removed the Ganapati hymn from our platform. Then surely we should also have stopped Laal’s rendition of Baba Farid? But have not many adivasis deified Birsa Munda? Is not Ambedkar a deity for many Dalits? Shall we remove all references to them as well? And is it just me or is this argument getting increasingly stupid?

No one studying ancient Indian history or Sanskrit texts can ignore the tremendous brutality of the varnajati system. Granted, but at the same time you cannot attribute to entire periods of history only one text and only one character. To equate all Sanskrit texts with the Manusmriti is similar to saying that Golwalkar’s ‘We or Our Nationhood Defined’ is the defining text written in English in the 20th century. A critical attitude to history requires that we engage both with the brahmanical past and those who dispute it. But the ‘critical attitude’ on display in our campus labels even a student who studies Sanskrit but does not vote for the ABVP and eats beef a ‘communal fascist’. Frankly, there are traditions of debate and disputation in Sanskrit that could teach the organized (and disorganized) left a great deal — if only they were prepared to listen.

 When Ambedkar burnt the Manusmriti at Mahad, I see it as a symbolic act of great force, a necessary act of violence if you will. But Ambedkar also sat and read the Manusmriti with a brahmana, and if I remember Eleanor Zelliot’s account correctly what were burnt were sections of the Manusmriti dealing with the oppression of the shudras. I don’t remember Ambedkar saying that we should not read the Manusmriti or burn the brahmana. This is why the act of burning the Manusmriti at Mahad is different, so fundamentally different, from the burning of books in Nazi Germany.

Censorship and Freedom of Expression

What I saw in JNU on the night of 1st May was an act of censorship. On this, I will stand my ground. If the audience had booed and the singer had stopped, that would be one thing. But the moment someone, anyone, leader or crowd gets up on stage and enforces silence, then it constitutes an act of censorship. The choices made and subsequently defended were made by one vocal minority that decided it could determine what could be heard and what could not without even the semblance of  reasonable debate.

I have been told that  since we  were   celebrating May Day   whatever was sung    should have been ‘appropriate’ for the   occasion. Since it was a  platform  for  progressive  culture , Faiz and Habib   Jalib were  fine. But  Ganapati was not   part  of  ‘our’ culture, so Tritha  had to  go.  Explain to me  how this is  different from   a logic that says  ‘Valentines day is not a    part of our culture, so it  must go’,  ‘wearing jeans is not a part of our  culture, so it must go’, ‘women visiting  pubs is not part of our culture, so it must  go’?

This is not to say that everyone has to  adopt the same cultural symbols.  Monocultures are undemocratic and  dangerous. But if you think that in  rejecting these symbols you can say “So-and-so offends me, so I have a right to silence her,” then I will say you have no such right. If you think you think you have this right, then the ABVP similarly has the right to force a ban on Ramanujan’s essay, certain Muslim clerics have a right to silence The Satanic Verses, and the Maharashtra police has the right to ban the Kabir Kala Manch and hound its activists. Fundamentally, if there is any difference between these positions it is only one of degree. The right to oppose something is not the right to silence it without any debate.

It also worries me when we begin to parrot the language of offense and blasphemy. Because these are not ‘new’ or ‘materialist’ or ‘secular’ or ‘Marxist’ categories. They do not constitute the ‘freedom of expression of the audience’ or the ‘right to dissent’. Rather, they are ideas rooted in hegemonic religions and replicate their structures of silencing dissent. Of late, in India what we have begun to see is the fragility of both secularism and freedom of expression as concepts because we have all begun to take and legitimize offense so easily.

The questions I raised were addressed to the university precisely because intolerance has been rising in campus spaces. To say that one should have the same expectations of a crowd at JNU as a crowd at a Bon Jovi concert or a bhajanmandli does great disservice to the university. Because I expect a university to be open to reflection and criticism and to have the generosity to at least consider different points of view.

There is a vitality to debates that is dying because we have steadily reduced ourselves to a series of assertions and positions. We have bracketed ourselves such that we only wish to hear people who say exactly what we want them to say. And above all, we have taken to bowing down to a culture of political correctness.

If someone says, ‘What you have said offends me’, we never say, ‘Let us discuss the basis for this offense and what has gone wrong.’ Instead, we take out an apology and say ‘Oh, forgive us, for we had no intention of offending you’. We silence the debate, brush it aside, and move forward. But the debate has not been addressed or resolved.

Perhaps what happened in JNU on the night of May Day was not as serious as ABVP’S enforced removal of the Ramanujan essay. But it was just one step away and that distresses me. Nothing I can say should or will stop JNU from raising its voice against the repression of struggles across this country. But I maintain that such acts reduce our moral authority to be the voice of such struggles. To say ‘Our language of politics is different from others’ is no defense. Small acts of intolerance are linked to larger ones.

As a historian, what the night of 1st May reaffirmed for me was the fact that the silences of our sources are as important as what they tell us. For, it is from the present that we reach out to the past. The past is not separate from us. The past is our contemporary. It lives among us, even the most ancient past. And though we find certain ideas inconvenient, though we might wish to oppose them, we cannot block them and neatly stash them away.

And so, I will sing the praise of inconvenient ideas, even if they have an elephant head and a large body. Not because I vest my faith in them. But because doubt is the first step towards querying false certainties.

 (Meera Visvanathan is a former member of JNU students’ Union and a student of the Ph.D programme at the Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University)

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VAKRATUNDA, MAHAKAYA… OR WHAT CANNOT BE SUNG IN THE UNIVERSITY?

By MEERA  VISHVANATHAN                                                                

Apoorvanand’s article published online on Kafila had the courage to say in print things that I, as a student of JNU, had so far only said in private. Such acts of outspokenness are important for the conversations they set up. They allow me to believe that the space of democracy is available, at least intellectually, even as it retreats everywhere else.

I too stood among the crowd at the Parthasarathy Rocks in JNU on the night of 1st May as we waited to hear the Pakistani band Laal. Before Laal rose up to sing, we were introduced to a young singer, Tritha, who was to sing three compositions.  The first two were clearly classically inspired, but did not have a form that the audience could fit words to. As she began the third composition, singing Vakratunda, Mahakaya… in what was clearly a hymn to Ganapati, an uproar broke out among the crowd. Tritha, however, continued to sing with her eyes closed. I watched in horror as the President of the JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU) walked on stage, the image magnified by the huge screen set up for the audience, and asked Tritha to stop her song. The reasons for such an act were not discussed. One must assume that a hymn to Ganapati was considered ‘inappropriate’ for May Day Celebrations. On the big screen, I watched the singer’s face fall as Laal took the stage to much applause.

Vakratunda, Mahakaaya… I   cannot remember what the   rest of the hymn was because I     was not allowed to hear it. Somewhere, a few lines later,   the chant began Ganapati Ganapati… Based on my limited knowledge of  Sanskrit, Vakratunda, Mahakaaya translates as ‘of curved trunk, of great  body’. Just look at these epithets: can we imagine them being used for  any archetypal brahmanical God? Can they be used for Rama smiling  sweetly on Ramanand Sagar’s serial and presiding over the blood of  riots? As for   ‘Ganapati’ which provoked such an uproar: the term means  ‘lord of a gana’ where gana is usually translated as a political group, sometimes even a military one. The same etymology holds true for ‘Ganesha’. That is why, comrades on the left, even the General Secretary of the CPI(Maoist) can go by the name Ganapathy and no one has got up to ask him to change it.
Historians will tell you that in origin, Ganapati was a yaksha, a tribal or folk god of great powers. Over time, as brahmanical religion entered village and tribal societies, he was absorbed into the Hindu pantheon. This process was
not unique: it occurred for any number of local cults, images and themes across history. True, the figure of Ganapati himself tells us little about the people of the past. But we cannot always reach out to the ancient past with an ease that is possible for more recent events. And even if narratives of appropriation are complex, they need not take away from points of origin. To use a contemporary analogy: Does the fact that Bhagat Singh is appropriated by the Hindu-right detract from the fact that he was a Marxist? Does the mere image of Che Guevara occurring on vodka bottles or mass produced on t-shirts allow us to ignore his iconic status as a revolutionary? Cultural symbols are usually more complex than the ways in which they are packaged and made available to us.

What happened in JNU on the night of May 1st was an act of unbelieveable intolerance. It was marked by the peculiar combination of ignorance and populism that drives censorship. But worse still, is the fact that such intolerance is being justified in discussions subsequent to the event. Clearly, people did not come to the concert expecting to hear a hymn to Ganapati. But perhaps the situation could have been dealt with by allowing the singer to finish her song and then taking the mike to offer a critique? Surely we should be able to deal with ‘uncomfortable’ situations with some amount of political maturity and grace? Such an action goes beyond the unhappiness it causes an individual artist or member of the audience. It ties up to larger questions of how we view our histories and what worth we assign to freedom of expression.
Of course, we seem to have agreed that there are limits to the freedom of expression. But surely these limits are meant to be ‘reasonable’. Would singing a hymn to Ganapati on May Day have led to a carnage? Did it amount to hate-speech? If not, why shut it up instead of dealing with it in the terms of democratic debate? Small acts of silencing pave the way for larger ones. If JNUSU can use its position of privilege to act so summarily, then it erodes its moral authority to speak out against censorship. Next time you raise your voice in support of M.F. Husain or the struggling people of Kudankulam and Nonadanga, the chorus will be muted because you too have shown your ability to suppress something that isn’t ‘convenient’ for you. Next time you speak out against the moral policing of the ABVP, your voice will be muted because you too once abrogated to yourself the role of a ‘custodian of culture’. It is just one step away from the idiocy that says ‘he break my nation, I break his head.’
Stranger still was the fact that night we were able to accept disco versions of Pakistani poets we revere, but that tolerance died suddenly when faced with a Sanskrit hymn. True, certain languages are used by political and cultural elites to undertake acts of violence and bolster hierarchy. But they are also often used to articulate a politics of dissent. English, for instance, has been used to justify the worst possible racist and imperialist excesses. But does that mean that we will cease to read anything written in English? Most of the standardized bhasha languages of today’s India grew and spread at the cost of local and tribal languages. But does that mean we will exorcise them from our psyche? Nor is the knowledge of Sanskit opposed in any way to a left-democratic consciousness. D.D. Kosambi was one of the greatest Marxist minds of India, and yet he spent years of his life studying, editing and translating Sanskrit texts! To put it simply, it is not Sanskrit that must be opposed. Rather, it is the people who use Sanskrit (or any language, for that matter) to bolster caste hierarchies and brahmanical patriarchy.
And in the end, perhaps, what we need to reflect upon are the absences of our cultural politics. To the fact that we have reduced ourselves to canonizing certain texts and figures at the cost of others. To the fact that our involvement in cultural politics is often no more than a blur of slogan shouting. It shows not only an ignorance of history, but a hollowness to our political selves.
Of late, the university is a space where debates on censorship are becoming more potent. We have seen how difficult it is to even raise the debate on the removal of AFSPA or go through with a screening of Jashn-e-Azaadi. How the most terrible forms of discrimination are experienced by Dalit students, forcing them sometimes to commit suicide. How the legitimate demand to be allowed to eat beef or pork on campus is meant by sexist and casteist violence and abuse. But we of the left, progressive, democratic, feminist, anti-caste spectrum cannot replicate such forms of silencing, on however small or big a scale, because it takes away from our larger struggles and demeans them.
I too have been on occasion a member of the JNUSU Council so I know how difficult it can be to take decisions on the spur of the moment. But political decisions cannot and should not be based on the ‘mood’ of a crowd. They have to be handled in terms of democratic reasoning and civil debate. I would not expect a union that has known the inconvenience of speaking truth to power, that was forcibly shut down for three years in the name of the Lyngdoh Committee Recommendations to suddenly abrogate to itself the privilege of
deciding which voices can be heard and which cannot, which songs can be sung and which cannot.
But it is not JNUSU that is at fault so much as the larger university community. I do not expect such acts of silencing from a university, particularly not from JNU.

(Meera Visvanathan is a former member of JNU students’ Union and a student of the Ph.D programme at the Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University)

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