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Essay

Type, Stereo, Stereotype

Devraj Singh Kalsi gives a unique perspective on the Farmer’s Protest in India

Farmers’ protest in India, December 2020. Photo courtesy: Wiki

The nation knows them as truck-drivers, transporters, dhaba-owners (eatery-owners), soldiers, and farmers who made the nation green with revolution (and envy) half a century ago. They perform these jobs so well that nobody in India wants them to do anything else. It would be a waste of time and resources if they show interest in other pursuits. Alerts and friendly suggestions include forget creative gigs and focus on down-to-earth digs. Get back to the fields and grow some figs instead of falling in love with trance – to transplant figments of imagination. Talk about reap, forget repeal. Focus on harvest, forget unrest. Don’t care two hoots? Return to the roots.

If you know a Sardarji in the bulb with malice towards one and all, consider it an exception instead of the changing trend in their professional choices. The Sardarji in the bulb failed to inspire and light up the brains of his community that is perfectly okay with intellectual poverty so long as material prosperity comes their way. Sardar (Sikh) and Kirdaar (character) make an uncharacteristic pair. Pen in his grip looks weak while the sword is mightier even today.  

Crack silly, vulgar Sardar jokes and stereotype them the way you like, but the fact remains that Bhangra, banter and bass show their swag. You enjoy full freedom of expression to hurt the sentiments of the Sikh community and get away with it. With a big heart they always love to give and forgive. Even if you find no art in their dance form, you raise the legs to lift the spirits and feel energised.  

Instead of banking on education to seek greener pastures abroad, they are ready to grab the steering wheel, to steer their future in the direction of prosperity. If diligence is the seed of success, they are ready to toil in the farms as sons of the soil under extreme weather conditions – whether it is about growing sarson (mustard) here or strawberries there. The enthusiasm to feed humanity takes them to the fields, to grow food for all, or set up eateries along the highways to serve truckers and travellers with good food.

The farm protests, spearheaded by the Sikhs, made the entire nation suspect whether they have the brains to understand the farm laws or the misled battalion simply marched ahead with tractors and trolleys under the influence of opposition leaders and alcohol. This narrative was fairly convincing on TV screens as Sikhs have yet to showcase their logical quotient. With no Nobel Laureate to amplify their pedigree, pegging the idea of a Sardarji winning it for science, economics, literature or peace turns out to be a hilarious joke.  

From fibre to fibre optics, they have made significant contribution but the world looks reluctant to recognise their talent in diverse fields. These warriors who break barriers are the carriers of chutzpah and they deliver the impossible. While the national average income struggles to reach a decent level, they have taken agriculture to a new level. So much so that they earn enough to buy jeans on account of hard work in their genes.   

Starving farmers wearing torn clothes and banging empty utensils is the stereotyped image of protesters in India. This is perhaps the first time that the entire nation witnessed stereos playing full blast at the protest site, with a feast of delicacies served to all, with book launches and motivational songs to keep the spirits high. From pizza to pinni (sweet), from badam (almond) sherbet to gajar ka halwa (carrot halwa), from foot massagers to geysers, the visuals emerging from Delhi borders have awakened the collective imagination and consciousness of the people in their heated drawing rooms. The hordes of protesters including elderly citizens, women, and children looking cool, calm and resilient even in biting cold conditions reminds people of Chhardi Di Kala – the expression to convey their buoyant attitude and will power.

When farmers look healthy and well-fed, they weaken their bargaining position as the authorities tend to think they are already prosperous and the new farm laws are sure to double their income. No sympathy or empathy comes their way. Seek repealing of laws and they keep appealing to soften the stand. The deaths and suicides of fellow farmers in this chilling cold do not generate the fear of death. Call it determination, tenacity, or moronic display of obdurate behaviour, they stand united to treat with love and care but never ready to retreat.

Farmers eating stuffed parathas, paneer (cottage cheese), kheer (sweetened and thickened milk), fruits, dry fruits, and jalebis(sweet) make prime time news. The image of struggling, bare-bodied farmers ploughing the fields, surviving on porridge, mashed potato, and boiled rice disappears from the screens. With simmering anger inside and langar (community kitchen) outside, they sit and wage a crowded struggle for their rights, sleeping under tractors and trolleys, waiting for the withdrawal of draconian and now drag-on-ian farm laws.

A diet meal plan sanctioned for healthy living is likely to win more sympathy from the masses and the authorities. Do not jeopardize the mission to bring the farmers of the nation at par with the Punjabi brethren. This scheme is for them, to double their income, to reduce income equality between marginal farmers and march-in-al farmers first. Do not behave like a big brother and a bigger fool. Your doubling of income has to wait till the farmers of India achieve your level first. In the meanwhile, continue serving mankind and feel a surge of collective pride, serve the poor and those in distress, reduce the level of stress, go back, and buy new dress for the next music video. The festivals are all lined up, get ready for Baisakhi (Punjabi new year) and balle-balle, and say cheers to the good life.

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Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.  

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Essay

Neither Tranquil Mandarins, Nor Yellow Devils

While the impasse over the McMahon Line continues and the outgoing POTUS rages over not only the election results but also the Yellow Peril, John Drew gives us an interesting perspective on the perception of both these giants, US & China. 

Credits: Collage by Sohana Manzoor

Many centuries ago, Chinese pilgrims came up the Bay of Bengal on their way to Buddhist sites in the Subcontinent. We have no record of their conversations with the people of Bengal but it was the accurate accounts of early Chinese travellers that enabled archaeologists in the 19th century to rediscover the lost Buddhist sites like that inside a hill at Paharpur (Bangladesh).

A more modern Chinese settlement in Bengal that has left us the word chini for sugar was largely curtailed sixty years ago by the dispute over the Himalayan border, the McMahon Line above Bengal, a remnant of aggressive British imperialism earlier in the 20th century.

Today, Bangladesh, like other sub-continental countries, has its Chinese neighbours within the gates, driving the building of the prodigious rail bridge across the Padma, developing a port hub at Chattogram and proposing a rail link across Myanmar. The Celestial Empire is once again a superpower but this time expanding as never before to the Indian, and perhaps every other, ocean.

The people of the Bengal delta have suffered greatly from empires, whether Persian, Portuguese, British or Pakistani: empires are not a win-win situation and never will be. But while it is as well to be wary of empire-building, also important is to be wary of the stereotypes that invariably accompany it.

When the Japanese were at the gates of Imphal in 1944, they presented themselves as liberators, a clever, ingenious people who were successfully freeing Asia from European rule. The British rulers of India pictured them as cunning and cruel. Both images were stereotypes that served the purposes of those producing the propaganda for or against.

What images does Bangladesh have of the Chinese? No doubt, given the colonial legacy, some of these have, willy-nilly, been bequeathed to us by the West. It is instructive to see how the stereotypes change with the times.

Mandarins

For Europe unlike India, China remained off the map until the 13th century when Marco Polo, among others, made his epic journey to Cathay and reported on a China full of marvels. This report chimed nicely with a superstitious, religious European culture already given to believing in the miraculous and fantastic.

The European Enlightenment in the 18th century ridiculed this farrago, offering a very different view. Leibniz, Voltaire and Quesnay, most notably, canvassed the idea of China as an ideal Confucian state where civil harmony and stability prevailed. Ironically relying on the researches of their opponents, the Jesuit missionaries, rationalist European thinkers used this image to show that a society did not need any religious sanction to be ethical.

Oliver Goldsmith wrote his Letters of a Citizen of the World (1760-1) in the guise of a Chinese visitor, satirizing Europeans for preferring to acquire Chinese frippery rather than to try and understand China. He mocked the way that even the uses of fashionable trinkets, including the pots for infusing a popular new herb, tea, were generally misunderstood.

The idealised view of Chinese civilisation was never uncontested. Moreover, the older images often resurfaced. Coleridge, famously, in his poem “Kubla Khan” returned to the medieval travellers’ image of China as a marvellous place: “It was a miracle of rare device/  A sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice”.

Likewise in the 20th century, Lowes Dickinson, following Goldsmith’s epistolary method with his Letters of John Chinaman (1901) adopted the 18th century Enlightenment outlook on China. So did Vikram Seth in his mannered sonnet sequence, The Humble Administrator’s Garden (1985).

Peasants

Less happily, in the 19th century as European capitalism and imperialism destroyed the old feudal order at home, feudal China was increasingly dismissed as decadent and backward, its largely symbolic fleet destroyed by the British. Bangladeshis need no reminding of the wretched history of the cross-border trade in tea and opium.

Thereafter the dominant image of China that emerged was of the cunning peasant, especially following the “Boxer” uprising against the foreign imperialists and missionaries. Chinese labourers came to be used as cheap labour across the world, building the American railroads, for instance, and, after being conveyed secretly in sealed trains across Canada, providing labour battalions for the Allies in World War I.

Masters have a way of blaming slaves for their own condition and so was born the ugly racial concept of the Chinese as a Yellow Peril, perhaps a subconscious fear that the roles of masters and slaves might one day be reversed. In one frequently reproduced lithograph, even the meditating Buddha was enrolled as the Peril’s presiding genius!

The peasant figure that displaced the mandarin still belonged to the same feudal order. Ah Sin, a comic stereotype created on page (1870) and stage (1877) by America’s most celebrated writers, Bret Harte and Mark Twain, was shown as debased and thievish. Whatever the intention of the writers, the effect, at a time of anti-Chinese rioting on the West Coast, was pernicious.

Jack London’s portrait of the peasant Ah Cho in The Chinago (1909) was something of an exception to the general run. The French colonial authorities in Tahiti are exposed for the racism that hangs a man even when they find he is the wrong one, so cheap is the life of a Chinese coolie.

That the image of a sly Chinese peasant is not necessarily untrue can be determined from the way it was also used by Lu Xun, China’s foremost short story writer in the 20th century. Ah Q (1921) tells the story of a bully and coward who prevaricates in the face of, among other things, revolutionary change. For Lu Xun, a peasant uprising in China would not be successful until the peasantry was properly educated and genuinely spirited.

Fu Manchu

In the 20th century, while China underwent almost permanent revolution in an attempt to free itself from feudalism and foreign domination, the single most influential and lasting image Western culture threw up in response was that of Dr Fu Manchu who, with the manners of a mandarin and the craftiness of a peasant, was a perfect fusion of the two previous stock figures.

For almost the entire century Dr Fu Manchu filled the minds of first book and comic-reading and then film-going and television-watching public. Urbane and fiendish, he was involved in gambling and drugs as part of a plan to bring Europe and America under Chinese control. Historically, of course, the opposite had been true.

As Sax Rohmer admitted, he made his name as the creator of Fu Manchu because he “knew nothing about the Chinese” (depicted in his books as “the most mysterious and most cunning people in the world”). He got no closer to China than the East End of London but his fevered imagination has proved as contagious as any virus.

It is indicative, and also ironical given the British treatment of China in the Opium Wars, that such virulent dreams of a racist, imperialist China seem to have originated in the drug-fuelled nightmares of Thomas De Quincey, the English Opium-Eater.

Pretty Much Alike

When the incumbent President of the USA describes the racially-indiscriminate Covid-19 as the Chinese virus he is evidently trading on the 19th century image of the Yellow Peril, updated as that became in the 20th century to the Red Peril. It is an old trick to deflect attention from your own shortcomings by blaming somebody else.

The images of China they elaborate tell us as much about Western culture as about China. As we saw with the stock image of the peasant, the image is not necessarily untrue: it is that it is inadequate, incomplete. The real problem is that a stereotype essentializes a vast and various place. People and places are diverse.

Timothy Mo, in his novel Sour Sweet (1982), parodies the silly prejudice that “all Chinese look alike” by having his Chinese protagonist Lily complain that all the “bland, roseate occidental faces” look the same to her compared with “the infinite variety of interesting Cantonese physiognomies: rascally, venerable, pretty, raffish, bumpkin, scholarly.”

In the 21st century we could do worse than let an 18th century English mandarin have the last word. Lord Macartney, Britain’s first Envoy to China (1793-4), wrote: “The Chinese, it is true, are a singular people, but they are men formed of the same material and governed by the same passions as ourselves.”

Goldsmith, in the introduction to his Letters, had written: “The truth is, the Chinese and we are pretty much alike. Different degrees of refinement, and not of distance, mark the distinctions among mankind.”

But Macartney went further. He suggested that before we looked at others we had better take a good look at ourselves. If the English found the Chinese proud of themselves and contemptuous of others, it was because these were the characteristics the English themselves displayed when travelling the globe.

The world we see mirrors us. The first place to look for the Yellow Peril – and the Red and the Black – is in Whitehall and in the White House.

John Drew has been a university teacher on both sides of the Himalaya and of the Atlantic.

First published in the literary page of  Daily Star, Bangladesh.

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The Syncretic Lore of Guru Nanak’s Legacy

While skirmishes continue to line the borders of India, Sameer Arshad Khatlani, author of The Other Side of the Divide, explores the deeply embedded syncretic elements in the heritage left behind by the founder of Sikhism. Part of his legacy still lives on in Pakistan.

‘Beating of Retreat’ Ceremony at International Border at Wagha. Photo Courtesy: Wiki

Poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal’s ‘tremendous work’, wrote German writer Hermann Hesse (1877–1962), belonged to the world of Islam apart from two other domains of the worlds of India, and of Western thought. In his book Incarnations, academic Sunil Khilnani echoes Hesse and notes that Iqbal (1877-1938) was “deeply engaged with the histories, themes, and conflicts embedded in Islamic thought and in literary traditions that fired his imagination.” 

Islam was certainly an important theme of Iqbal’s poetry. But he also wrote about important figures of other religions glowingly in the spirit of his famous couplet: “Mazhab nahin sikhata aapas mei bair rakhna, Hindi hai ham vatan hai Hindustan hamara (religion does not teach us animosity, we are Indians and India is our country).” “Hai Ram ke vajud pe Hindustan ko naaz, ahl-e-nazar samajhte hain is ko imam-e-hind (while India is proud of Ram, priests also teach us about Allah),’’ wrote Iqbal, highlighting the reverence that a vast majority of Indians felt for Lord Ram.

Of all the non-Islamic religious icons, Iqbal perhaps wrote most admiringly about Sikhism founder Guru Nanak, whom he hailed as “mard-e kaamil (perfect man)”. His poem titled Nanak starts with a lament that “our people paid no heed to the message of Gautam [Buddha]”; did not recognise the worth of that “jewel of supreme wisdom”. It then refers to Nanak and says the perfect man “awakened India from a deep slumber”. In another poem, Iqbal pairs Nanak with Muslim saint Moinuddin Chishti, who was a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. “The land (India) in which Chishti delivered the message of truth; the garden in which Nanak sang the song of oneness that homeland is mine, that homeland is mine.” 

Iqbal was born, raised, and died in pre-partition Punjab, the land of Nanak, which was divided between India and Pakistan in 1947. The division triggered violence, left tens of thousands of dead, and led to a virtual exchange of populations between the two parts of Punjab. It tore apart the region’s centuries-old milieu of co-existence imbibed in Nanak’s philosophy.

Nanak remains a unifier even as the vivisection continues to take a heavy toll on the subcontinent. India and Pakistan have fought three wars over Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), where conflict remains a legacy of the Partition. The two countries were on the verge of another war in February 2019 when India carried out a retaliatory airstrike in Pakistan following a car bomb attack in J&K.

Relations between India-Pakistan worsened in August 2019 following the stripping of J&K’s special status that prompted Islamabad to take steps like the downgrading of diplomatic ties. The upheavals had no impact on the Kartarpur Corridor that provides visa-free access for Indian pilgrims to Gurdwara Darbar Sahib built at Nanak’s last resting place in Pakistan. The corridor was completed and opened within a year on November 9, 2019, three days before Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary.

Gurdwara Darbar Sahib remains an enduring symbol of Nanak’s legacy, which is more relevant today when divisive political leaders rule the roost and all pillars of democracy appear to be succumbing to majoritarianism. It is built at a place where a group of Hindus and Muslims are believed to have found flowers underneath a white sheet when they performed Nanak’s last rites. The two sides agreed to divide the sheet and flowers among themselves. Muslims buried their share and built a mazaar or mausoleum in Nanak’s memory. The Hindus put their piece of the sheet and flowers in an urn and buried it.

Nanak and Sikhism’s association with Muslims has been far deeper than what is generally known. His Muslim teacher was the first to point out how blessed Nanak was as a child. He called Nanak gifted and understood before anyone else could that the Guru’s vastly superior intelligence was because of the blessing. Rai Bular, a Muslim landlord, prevailed on Nanak’s father, Mehta Kalu, to be patient with his son’s otherworldly pursuits. Kalu was worried as Nanak wandered with holy men. Kalu wanted Nanak to study. Bular convinced Kalu to let Nanak be and reported miracles associated with the Guru which convinced him of Nanak’s holiness. 

Bular is known as Nanak’s first devotee outside his family. Janam-sakhis, or Nanak’s life stories, and the Sikh scripture Guru Granth Sahib have several references to Bular. Bular is believed to have reported a hooded cobra shielding the Guru from the sun when he lay asleep under the open sky as another sign of Nanak’s spiritualism. Bular is also the one who is said to have noticed that a tree’s shade remained on a sleeping Nanak even as the sun’s position changed. He is reported to have rushed to tell Kalu that his son was an exalted being upon observing this.  Bular convinced Kalu that Nanak was ‘a gem, a man of God‘ and dedicated large tracts of land to the Guru. Much of the modern-day Nankana Sahib, including Gurdwara Janam Asthan, built at the place of Nanak’s birth, is located on the land Bular bequeathed to the Guru.

Bular’s descendants lead annual processions to celebrate Nanak’s birthday in Nankana Sahib.  Rai Hadayat, Bular’s 17th generation descendant, had the honour of leading Nanak’s 500th birth celebration. Bular’s descendants have been the custodians of Nanak’s estate.  Rai Mohammad Saleem Akram, Bular’s descendant, now manages the estate. The revenue generated from the estate is spent on the welfare of the local Sikh community and the upkeep of gurdwaras in Nankana Sahib. 

Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Sikh Empire founder who came from the same Bhatti Rajput heritage as Bular, recognised his contribution to Sikhism. He bestowed the title of Rai Bhadur on his descendant, Rai Issa Khan, and made him a revenue collector.  More recently, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak (management) Committee (SGPC) acknowledged Bular’s “immense contribution” to Sikh history in May 2018 by putting up his portrait at Amritsar’s Central Sikh Museum. 

Another Muslim, Nawab Rai Kahla, made it to the Sikh hall of fame in July 2017. The SGPC unveiled his portrait at the museum in recognition of the courage he showed in sheltering Guru Gobind Singh, one of Nanak’s nine spiritual successors, in 1705. Kahla, a vassal of Aurangzeb who ruled a small principality in present-day Indian Punjab, offered Guru Gobind refuge in defiance of a Mughal decree to hunt down the 10th Sikh master, who was at war with the Mughal Emperor.

Kahla’s descendants are the custodians of Guru Gobind’s holy pitcher called ganga sagar which he was given as a token of gratitude along with a sword for sheltering the guru. Ganga sagar is believed to hold water despite its asymmetrical holes. Former Pakistani lawmaker Rai Azizullah Khan is the relic’s current custodian. He inherited it in 1975 from his family, which managed to carry the prized relic with them when they fled to Pakistan at the time of the Partition.

In 1705, the goodwill generated by the Malerkotla ruler, Nawab Sher Mohammad Khan, for speaking up against the execution of Guru Gobind’s sons, Zorawar and Fateh, has held his successors and principality in good stead since. The small kingdom in India was an island of calm; a Muslim sanctuary in East Punjab when the neighbouring areas were emptied of Muslims in 1947. Malerkotla continues to be East Punjab’s only Muslim pocket.

Folk history attributes Guru Gobind’s blessings to Malerkotla’s unique history. He is said to have blessed the nawab when he learnt about his letter to Aurangzeb protesting the un-Islamic execution of Zorawar and Fateh. By the time the nawab stirred the Mughal consciousness over the injustice, it was too late. But his gesture was not lost on Guru Gobind. He is said to have declared “his roots shall forever remain green”. 

The rubabi tradition of performing devotional songs, kirtans, at gurdwaras is associated with the descendants of Nanak’s Muslim companion, Bhai Mardana. Guru Nanak sang his poetry to the tunes of a lute-like musical instrument, rubab, that Mardana played. Mardana’s descendants came to be known as the rubabis. The rubabis had performed kirtans at the Golden Temple for seven generations since Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh Guru, roped in Mardana’s descendants, Bhai Sadha and Madha, for the job until the Partition ended the tradition. Only baptized Sikhs can now perform kirtans

The Partition weakened the syncretic links, but the ties are inseverable. They are enshrined in Sikhism. Guru Granth Sahib is the anthology of sacred writing of Sikh gurus and saints, including Muslims such as Baba Farid.  It is revered as a collection of revealed words—Gurbani (literally from the Guru’s mouth). Guru Arjan compiled the first edition of the scripture then known as Adi Granth. He had it installed in 1604 at the Golden Temple, which he declared Ath Sath Tirath (shrine of sixty-eight pilgrimages). Guru Arjan is widely believed to have invited a Muslim saint from Lahore, Mian Mir, to lay the foundation of the most exalted Sikh shrine. Muslim saints such as Mian Mir and Farid are highly revered figures in Sikhism. Farid’s picture at the entrance of Gurdwara Janamasthan underlines his importance in Sikhism.

Muslim saints like Baba Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah also contributed to unifying literature that bound people together. Waris Shah gave full shape to Heer-Ranjha, which remains popular on both sides. He followed in the tradition of Baba Farid, the pioneer of Punjabi literature. The syncretic message cut across the religious divide and bound Punjabis together. 

Things began to change in the 19th century when, according to writer Ian Talbot, revivalists began to peddle “the myth of a golden age when their faith was pristine and unsullied by syncretic traditions”. The myth weakened the shared cultural values of the rural population and replaced blurry community identities and replaced them with defined boundaries. Even Punjabi became a language of contention. The Muslim and Hindu revivalists increasingly began identifying Urdu and Hindi as their mother tongues. The Sikh-Mughal conflict was used to exacerbate religious fault lines. Emperor Aurangzeb’s high-handedness in dealing with the Sikhs was highlighted. The spiritual Muslim leader Bulleh Shah’s (1680) moral stand was conveniently forgotten. Shah, a Syed and the Prophet Muhammad’s direct descendant, hailed his friend, the ninth Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur, as a ‘holy warrior’ when he was put to death. He earlier dissuaded the guru from seeking revenge on Muslims “for the cruelty that the emperor Aurangzeb had inflicted upon his (Sikh) people”. 

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Sameer Arshad Khatlani has been a Senior Assistant Editor with Hindustan Times, India’s second-biggest English newspaper with a circulation of 10 million daily, since July 2018. He has worked in a similar capacity with both The Indian Express and the Times of India. Khatlani has reported from Iraq and Pakistan and covered elections and national disasters. He has a book, with Penguin, On the other Side of the Divide, published in February 2020. Read one of the reviews here.

First published in Sameer Arshad Khatlani’s blog.

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The Worshipper of Mother Earth: A Nostalgic journey

Ratnottama Sengupta journeys to show how past and present are interlinked in art and pays tribute to a polyglot

I must have been six or seven years old then. I had already developed the habit of looking attentively at visual images even before I could discern the letters of the alphabet. For, even as a child I would leaf through Baba’s* books that were everywhere in our house — in the bookshelves, on the table, on the beds and even under the beds. So, when I loitered out of our home into those of our neighbours, I was drawn by the ‘Merry Christmas’ cards overflowing the mantel shelves of some and the ‘Diwali Greetings’ lining the walls of others. Later I started collecting them, and some years down, when my elder brother went off to medical school, I inherited his stamp collection. In all of these, I would involuntarily seek out Indian scenes: women plaiting hair, farmer ploughing his field, Koli* fisherfolks with their nets, boatman in the river, cow and calf, lady lighting a diya*, an itinerant sadhu, a Baul* singer…

Why was I drawn to these ‘Indian’ stories? I was, after all, growing up in Bombay of 1960s, where the citizens were commuting by train to eke out a livelihood in the mills and factories, in the corporate offices and film studios churning out tinsel dreams. I never posed these questions then but almost six decades later I have the answer:

In the rapidly industrialising country, people coming out of a glorious past were forging a new identity for another tomorrow. But even an India of new dreams could not be divorced from the lived reality of the forefathers, right?

This realisation came to me after I visited Santiniketan, had the good fortune to interact with pathbreaking artists like Sankho Chaudhuri, K Subramanian, Ramananda Bandopadhyay, Debabrata Mukherjee  — and when I penned Krishna’s Cosmos on the art and life of pioneer printmaker Krishna Reddy. Through them all, I understood that the need for a self-perception of a ‘Bengal’ identity — both biographical and cultural — was very much alive post Partition.

Although Krishna Reddy had a divergent journey in Art, Maniklal Chatterjee, was also moulded in the same crucible as the printmaker, under the watchful eyes of the iconic Nandalal Bose. And, in a certain way, Maniklal carried on the famed Master Moshai’s* Haripura Congress tradition of capturing the everyday life of farmers and labourers, artisans and housewives. It came out of his innate love for nature and the pastoral world in the lap of mother earth. In other words, it was rooted in Life as it was lived in erstwhile East Bengal, that end of the land which was lopped off by the Radcliffe Line, forcing Maniklal to seek a new roof to shelter his homestead — and a new haven through lines and tints.

Krishna Reddy, moving in 1950 to post World War II London and Paris, realised that while Europe was seeking as escape from the horrifying memory of the holocaust, by negating human figures and going into Abstract art, Cubism, Op art and Pop art, India was looking back to its pre-colonial heritage in art: the Mughal miniatures, the folk traditions of Bengal, the bazaar art of Kalighat, the Patachitra of Puri and the homely Madhubani. It was this fount of inspiration that Maniklal Chatterjee appears to have made his own. He did not use his inborn skill to counter the influence of Academic training, nor was he being Progressive by adapting Modernism. Born of a different history and rooted in a different culture, he compulsively looked back to the home he had left behind in Barishal and drew upon the wash technique, the tempera and water colour of Santiniketan that has welded diverse art inheritances in its quest for an Oriental universality. 

In short, it was this artist’s way of retaining an identity that was as much him as his Bangal accent and his commitment to Communism. Yes, he committed his grasp over the formal and technical basics of the Santiniketan/ Bengal School of painting to talk about Everyman. His imprint of life of his suffering countrymen bore the aesthetic sophistication of the hallowed School but was charged by the love for an idyllic India. A withering workman’s India. An unspoilt India now relegated to memories.

But though he dipped his brush in the colour of nostalgia, Maniklal’s art was imbued with serenity and joy. The women and men, the kids and calf pulsated with lived energy. The ‘sarbohara‘ who has lost his all — the uprooted refugee as much as the man who has nothing to lose but his chain, these were the heroes for Maniklal Chatterjee. 

Those were the glorious days of IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association). Remember the film, Do Bigha Zamin (Two Acres of Land)? The rickshawala on foot racing with his cart against a horse drawn carriage, not just to reach his human brethren to his destination but also to earn two square meals and — more urgently — to save his two acre land, back in the country’s hinterland, came to signify the rapidly industrialising India of 1950s. It was this set of lives that Maniklal Chatterjee chose to iconise. His art sang of those deprived, but not downtrodden. Not for nothing were these celebrated as ‘Postcards from Bengal’. The poet within the artist wrote,  “Tomar kaachhe aajanma wrini aami —  tumi je basundhara (I am beholden to you Mother – you are the Earth).”Age cannot wither nor time stale this luminous face of Mother India — be it for Maniklal Chatterjee or for you and me. Because art for him is the expression of a deeply rooted emotion. It is as personal a portrait of his life and times as the photograph of my parents taken in a studio after their marriage: It is a time wrap, but one we will always be grateful for.

*Baba: Father. Her father was the late Nabendu Ghosh, an eminent  writer in Bengali and a personality in film scripting and directing.

*Koli: Fisherfolk in Mumbai.

*diyas: oil lamp

*Baul: mystic minstrels or bards in Bengal

*Master Moshai: Teacher or Maestro in Bengali

Ratnottama Senguptaformerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and write books. Daughter of Nabendu Ghosh, she has authored Krishna’s Cosmos, a biography of the pioneering printmaker Krishna Reddy, among many other books She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award.

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Essay

Remembering Rokeya: Patriarchy, Politics, and Praxis

In this tribute, Azfar Hussain takes us on a journey into the world of Madam Rokeya who wrote more than a century ago in English, Urdu and Bengali. Her books talked of women, climate and issues related to patriarchy.

I repeat the same truth, and, if required, I will repeat it a hundred times.

— Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain*

 What’s the worst that could happen to me if I tell this truth?

—Audre Lorde

December 9 marks both the birth and death anniversaries of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1880-1932). The Rokeya Day in Bangladesh also falls on December 9. Indeed, Rokeya has by now been institutionalised, iconised, and, for that matter, even reified. This means a certain misappropriation and depoliticisation of her work as well. But there are now several biographies of Rokeya and scores of books and articles on her. Although I do not intend to recount Rokeya’s biographical details here, I should stress the point right at the outset: Rokeya’s life as a Muslim woman — lived courageously and even dangerously — illustrates nothing short of sustained struggles against religious bigotry, lack of education, shifting vectors and valences of colonialism, patriarchy affecting the practice of everyday life, and other forms and forces of oppression in colonial Bengal in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Theorist-activist, essayist, fiction-writer, poet, translator, journalist, educationist, organizer — and an organic intellectual in her own right — Rokeya produced a remarkable corpus of written works, making distinctive contributions to Bangla literature while articulating with full force the cause of women with a particular, if not exclusive, focus on their education and emancipation. Roushan Jahan already characterized Rokeya as “the perceptive feminist foremother,” given the ways in which she anticipates a constellation of feminist questions and concerns broached later, although Rokeya and what a whole host of third-world feminists have called “Western, white feminism” do not go hand in hand. 

Rokeya’s important works include Motichur, vol. 1 (1904); Motichur, vol.2 (1921); her only novel Padmaraag (1924); and Aborodhbashini (date uncertain), among numerous others. Rokeya knew five languages — Bengali, English, Urdu, Arabic, and Persian — while she directly wrote in three of them — Bengali, Urdu, and English. Her work Sultana’s Dream — a novella first written in English and later translated into Bengali by the author herself — is usually described as “a feminist utopia” that, as Roushan Jahan rightly points out, “antedates by a decade the much better-known feminist utopian novel Herland by [the American novelist and poet] Charlotte Perkins Gilman” (1860-1935).

Yet another work in English by Rokeya is instructively titled “God Gives, Man Robs” (1927). It’s a powerful essay that carries her famous words: “There is a saying, ‘Man proposes, God disposes,’ but my bitter experience shows that God gives, Man Robs. That is, Allah has made no distinction in the general life of male and female — both are equally bound to seek food, drink, sleep, etc., necessary for animal life. Islam also teaches that male and female are equally bound to say their daily prayers five times, and so on.” Some contend that this work advances Rokeya’s nuanced version of what is called “Islamic feminism” at a conjuncture that witnesses androcentric and colonialist abuses of religion itself. Rokeya of course already puts it clearly and simply: “Men dominate women in the name of religion”*.

Although it is impossible for me to characterise or summarise the entire range of Rokeya’s written works, I can readily call attention to one particularly predominant concern that prompts, energises, and constitutes the very production of her words and her world: the woman question relating to the question of the total emancipation of humanity — of both women and men. And the woman question itself is constitutively and irreducibly a revolutionary question insofar as in the final instance, it prompts us to interrogate, combat, challenge, and even destroy the historically produced system of male domination called patriarchy on the one hand, and, on the other, those systems of domination and exploitation that variously support and even enhance patriarchy itself. And Rokeya’s specifically revolutionary stance decisively resides not only in raising the woman question but also in making that question integral and inevitable to the entire horizon of her work — literary, pedagogical, organisational, social, familial.

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Let me return to Sultana’s Dream (1905), because a number of its aspects still continue to remain ignored, although these days this work often gets discussed by those who claim to do postcolonial studies. I think this work is more than just a subversive and satirical intervention in the genre of what might be called “political dream-fiction” or “political science fiction.” And I read it as a work offering—through a radical reversal of the patriarchal or male-dominated order of things—a social imaginary that looks forward to, or even creates in imagination, a space and a place in which not only patriarchy spells out its own death but in which also science, political economy, ecology, and the forces of nature and the forms of justice remain adequately responsive to one another in the best interest of not only all humans but also all living beings themselves. And, thus, this work remains opposed to the destructive and oppressive logic of colonialism, militarism, and masculinism—and even anthropocentrism—profoundly interconnected as they are. In Sultana’s Dream, Rokeya also brilliantly anticipates a version of feminist science, offering a critique of colonialism’s relationship with science as a power/knowledge network. Indeed, “Sultana’s Dream” is, thematically and stylistically, the first work of its kind in the entire history of literary productions in Bengal.

Rokeya is also an early but powerful theorist of women’s liberation, a tireless organiser, an exemplary pedagogist of hope, and even a revolutionary in her own right. And her revolutionary moves reside in ways in which she gave voice, at the beginning of the twentieth century, to an entire generation of women struggling in confinement, or struggling against the purdah system itself, against the abuse of religion, against the shackles of not just double but multiple colonisations of women by patriarchy and colonialism and ‘feudalism,’ for instance.

Rokeya’s work Aborodhbashini is often reckoned the locus classicus of the discourse surrounding the purdah system, but does Rokeya combat the system of women’s seclusion and segregation à la Western feminists? No. For Rokeya, purdah is not just a floating signifier but heavily meaning-loaded, conjunctural, contextual; it’s more than an external veil covering a face or any part of the body, but it refers to an entire system of both mental and physical imprisonment to which the questions of colonial patriarchy and patriarchal colonialism remain relevant. Rokeya says: “The Parsi women have gotten rid of the veil but have they got rid of their mental slavery* [manosik dasattya]?”. It’s here where Rokeya not only anticipates Kazi Nazrul’s own formulation of “mental slavery” (moner golami) — but she also accentuates — way before Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire and Ngugi wa Thiong’o — the need for anti-colonial, emancipatory education for both women and men.         

Last, Rokeya is also a politically engaged satirical poet whose apparently playful wit and sarcasm could be devastatingly subversive at times. Some of her famous poems include ‘Banshiful’, ‘Nalini o Kumud’, ‘Saugat’, ‘Appeal’, ‘Nirupam Bir’, and ‘Chand’. And her poetic but satirical interventions at various levels keep making the basic point about praxis itself: your silence is not going to protect you. Notice, then, a stanza in a poem she wrote as a response to those sell-outs, those middle-class bhadralok collaborators of the Raj who not only resorted to silence, but who were also nervous about losing their “honorific title”s, in the face of the Indian nationalist movement gathering momentum in 1922:

The dumb and silent have no foes

That’s how the saying goes

All of us with titled tails

Keep so quiet telling no tales

Then comes a bolt from the blue

Passes belief, but it’s true

All of you who did not speak

Will lose your tails fast and quick

Come my friends and declare now

In loud and loyal vow

Listen, ye world, we are not

God’s truth, a seditious lot

(quoted in Bharati Ray’s Early Feminists of Colonial India)

I’ve so far quickly contoured only a few areas of Rokeya’s interventions but honouring the legacy of her work calls for rereading, remobilising, and even reinventing Rokeya in the interest of our struggles for destroying patriarchy and all systems of oppression.

* These phrases have been translated by the writer, Azfar Hussain.       

Azfar Hussain teaches in the Integrative, Religious, and Intercultural Studies Department within the Brooks College of Interdisciplinary Studies, Grand Valley State University in Michigan, and is Vice-President of the Global Center for Advanced Studies, New York, USA.

First published in the literary page of Daily Star Bangladesh

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Essay

Hold the roast turkey please Santa !

Celebrating the festive season off-season with Keith Lyons from New Zealand, where summer solstice and Christmas fall around the same time

Santa Claus Parade Dunedin, New Zealand: Photo courtesy; Wiki

There is something quite surreal that happens across the Southern Hemisphere in the last week of December. It seems to be a mismatch between festivities and seasons. Temporarily, around Christmas, the world ‘down under’ somehow pretends it is winter, not summer. The European and North American cultural traditions associated with the birth of Jesus Christ, believed by Christians to be the Son of God, get mixed up when the seasons are reversed. Within the same week as the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, many throughout the South still celebrate the observance with images of snow, tinsel, evergreen conifers, mistletoe, reindeer, sleighs, and of course, jovial Santa. So, during the hottest months, when Christmas carols can be heard in petrol station forecourts and in the ‘music on hold’ when waiting for customer support, there is an artificial feel to the merry Christmas and tidings of great joy. 

As the child of immigrants to New Zealand, I guess Christmas time must have been both comforting and disconcerting for my Scottish and English parents, who had been used to chilly temperatures, the prospect of real snow, and the need to have hearty traditional British Christmas foods including roasted turkey, ham on the bone, puddings infused with brandy and hot drinks. For some reason, we always had the out-of-season Brussel sprouts on the table for the main Christmas day meal. 

For most of my childhood, we stuck to the typical Christmas foods, always eating too much of the plum pudding made with treacle and the beef fat suet after a huge meal prepared by my mother slaving away in the kitchen with the oven set at 180C on a 30C day. It was only in the 1980s that our family, like many other New Zealanders, gradually moved towards cold meats, seafood and salads. Eventually, the Christmas plum pudding was replaced by the pavlova, the meringue-base topped with whipped cream and fresh strawberries. More families gather together at the beach at Christmas time, listening not to sleigh bells but the sizzle from the BBQ. 

In recent decades, some New Zealanders have got seasonal-correct, by having a mid-winter Christmas complete with roast meat, potatoes, sweet potato, and pumpkin, at a time of year when such warming food is best appreciated. 

The first Christmas in New Zealand happened many centuries after the arrival of the first settlers, the Maori. In 1642 Dutch explorer Abel Tasman celebrated with fresh pork and extra rations of wine, while English navigator James Cook, who landed more than 250 years ago, feasted on pies made with seabirds on Christmas day in 1769.

Pohutukawa blooms

Over time, Christmas has become localised to its climate and geographic location. In New Zealand, there is a native tree, the Pohutukawa, which blooms vibrantly red during what is still known as the ‘silly season’, and this has been dubbed the Kiwi Christmas tree. Some Santas in shopping malls wear red shorts, and local businesses, community groups and churches make decorative floats for the annual Santa parade which always includes fire trucks reminding participants of the impending forest fire danger. 

Pohutukawa tree

With the warm temperatures and long days, the holiday time is more about a lazy game of cricket on the back lawn or getting sunburnt at the beach than excessive feasting and drinking, awkward gift-giving, and church attendance. One modern development in my hometown is that one neighbourhood has taken on the North American tradition of decorating houses with festive lights and kitschy displays. However, as it doesn’t get dark till after 9.30pm in December, parents must allow their children to stay up later to visit the suburb when the lights are on and glowing. 

I’m fascinated how cultural events (and religious festivals) have been exported and imported around the world. In New Zealand, where Indians make up 4% of the total population due mainly to recent arrivals for study and work, the Hindu festival of Diwali is celebrated in most of the main centres, with calls for it to be declared a public holiday from 2022. Sikhism is the fastest-growing religion in the country according to the latest census, and my hometown of Christchurch now has more than 10,000 Sikhs (more than 2.5% of the population), meaning that there’s a good chance that someone from Chandigarh, Amritsar, or Ludhiana lives in your street. 

When I’ve lived in other parts of the world, I’ve noticed how festivals, some with nature-based or pagan origins, may at first seem out of kilter with the seasons or time of year. Among the Yi, Bai and Naxi of southwest China’s Yunnan, a torch festival is held around the summer solstice to symbolise warding off locusts and ghosts. One legend about its origin tells the tale of a spirit being sent to torch the Earth and its evil residents, but when he fell in love, he convinced the inhabitants to light fires for a few days to make it seem that he’d accomplished his task. It’s an almost identical tale on the west coast of Ireland where an ancient midsummer festival to protect the crops is said to have its genesis in the desire of an angel for harm not to come to the Irish people. 

This year 2020, which for pretty much every one of the Earth’s 7,800 million human inhabitants has been interesting, to say the least, closes with some unusual phenomena, including the ‘Christmas star’ created by the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on the solstice, and perhaps a collective sigh of relief when midnight rolls over on the 31st of December. 

From afar it must have looked as if the world was both on fire and burned down, as wildfires have raged across Australia, the Amazon, Siberia and California, and whole populations have ‘sheltered in place’, deserting once crowded streets and landmarks, reducing pollution and carbon emissions. 

As we reflect on the year, perhaps we could learn from the words of prize-winning novelist and poet Robert Penn Warren: “History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future.” 

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Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, with a background in psychology and social sciences. He has been published in newspapers, magazines, websites and journals around the world, and his work was nominated for the Pushcart prize. Keith was featured as one of the top 10 travel journalists in Roy Stevenson’s ‘Rock Star Travel Writers’ (2018). He has undertaken writer residencies in Antarctica and on an isolated Australian island, and in 2020 plans to finally work out how to add posts to his site Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).

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Essay

The Lost Art of Doing Nothing or the Pursuit of Wasting Time

                  

                                                                                                                        By Anwesha Paul

The very act of writing is a “doing”, and hence, paradoxical to the theme of this particular discourse. Nevertheless, I shall make an attempt to give form to the formless, and resolve the anomalies contained therein.

The other day I was in the act of doing something completely silly. I was walking around the house barefoot, reveling in the smoothness of the marble floor beneath my soles. It had been a while that I indulged in such sensuous wanderings and the gnome in my mind kept interjecting — “Shouldn’t you spend your time in creative pursuits?” or, “Why don’t you make the most of your four-day holiday?” It went on to further castigate me, “You have already spent two of the four days in bed listening to lectures and hardly coming up with anything worthwhile.” Oh, well … the softness of marble… so delectable… I am one with this moment and its contentment. Ah…the senses take over and the mind formulates luxuriant phrases. I wonder if my attention to its properties awakens something within the stone itself? Almost as if in response to my thought it glows translucent in the sliver of sunlight, the green veins almost holographic, twinkling ever so slightly, stretching across the wide expanse of warm white, like the star clusters of Ursa Major, the snapshot of the universe etched in its most humble creation, the basest of life, a stone.

Turning my gaze upwards and outwards I perceive the street beyond my window. The hubbub of life, unnoticed in the routine of more important things, washes up on the shores of my consciousness. The raucous calls of the vendors belong to a forgotten era. The fragrance from the florists’ stalls wafts to my nostrils. Beguiling, bewitching memories take over the mind.

In a different age, seemingly eons apart, I used to notice my grandmother observe the busy street outside. Oh! What a forgotten activity is world-watching! I would often join my grandmother as she would lean against the railing, her hands crossed over it, extending outside, just observing. But was she just an observer? Or was she an active participant in Dionysian delusions? If not actually, in her mind, she surely participated in the scenes that unfolded outside? But, then again, does the world exist separately outside our mind?

 I remember pastry sellers with their delicious wares in boxes atop their heads, and other hawkers doing the rounds of the streets. These astute purveyors knew women were potential buyers, and if they came within their range of awareness, surely, they could make a sale or two. I remember the tableaux taken out on India’s Republic Day and Independence Day every year and how these shows went by the street in an awesome procession, and we would be privy to a glorious carnival, a free ringside view, at that.

This habit of world watching had another aspect to it. It was both an idle pastime and an active pursuit. As one lolled languorously against the wrought iron balconies, one inadvertently registered bits of information about neighbours as well as strangers. Though the verandahs have shrunk or disappeared altogether, and women actively make up the world now — having long given up their role as bystanders to throng the centre-stage of the theatre, there is this new platform, a kind of liminal extension which affords one a glimpse into the lives of others. It’s no longer a local thing like the flavour of aloo paranthas escaping from your lunchbox at school recess but a richer repast of global fare conveying people’s lives from across the world in the geography agnostic space of social media.

If we slowed down a little, perhaps we could once again discover the joys of being bystanders and absorbing the minute, ordinary, interesting details of life, which blossom into something extraordinary under the telescope of idle scrutiny.

In the early days of the lockdown and pandemic people were busy producing content. Everyone was dancing, singing, writing, painting, or engaging in some activity that was considered “fruitfully spent”. There was almost this urgency which required one to keep doing, and doing more, because somewhere, perhaps this thought lurked that if we did not “do” something we would cease to exist. Thus seen, “doing” comes across as a survival technique, an imperative which keeps one going. The thought occurs to me that “doing nothing” is not necessarily a counterpart, but a complement to the active life. Perhaps, one is meant to hibernate, and go within at times, in the alternating winters of the soul so that when the time comes, one can emerge out of her halcyon hollows, energized by ennui.

As the winter months draw closer and the nights become longer, the slight nip in the air feels delightfully welcome. Leaving the dream realm and the cozy warmth of the blanket becomes perhaps, the hardest achievement to pull off, no matter how brisk the mornings may be. The soft bed clothes and the duvet become my tribal totems, claiming me as their own and clinging on with the tenacity of limpet linen which seek to enclose me in their sybaritic shell. With a herculean effort I have to fight off the smothering love of the blankets to embrace the cheery day.

A warm bath and a brisk walk scented by the fragrance of the seasonal flowers is all it takes to get out of my morning tryst with torpor. In the sub-tropical climate, the winter months are short and longed for, and consequently savoured. I try and eke out the days of pleasant weather. Delhi winters are, of course, something I would really want to revisit. I remember it was zero degree the first winter I spent in Delhi. Fresh from the experience of a freezing Himalayan solstice in Kathmandu, I was sure Delhi would be a cakewalk. Was I wrong! Delhi surprised me with a zero that year. However, it did not repeat its feat in the following four winters that I spent there.

Winter is a paradox — it is bright and brumal; brisk and lazy. It is lethargy wrapped in mental discipline. It is agility layered in lassitude, only to be coaxed out with great effort. It is de jure dormancy. Now, if you cancel a plan stating, “It’s too cold and I cannot get out of my blanket,” you will probably be dropped from several social invitation lists in the near future. Conversely, you may be excused by the similarly lazily inclined who would probably have preferred to loll around in their sun-kissed balconies but, nevertheless, went wherever they had to.

The fear of missing out on things is a real ailment. I don’t know if a word for this condition exists in the English dictionary. The acronym FOMO (‘fear of missing out’) was added to the Oxford Dictionary in 2013 giving this pronounced social anxiety a lexical legitimacy. If I were to coin a word that describes this fear it may be something like “missophobia.” Well, I agree my inventive faculties are not that great, but they are, kind of instigated during this spell of doing nothing. Even as I pen this rambling enquiry into the lost art of doing nothing, I remember lying around on a camp cot on the terrace of a winter afternoon, consuming a whole lot of chocolates and oranges while listening to Simon and Garfunkel on loop, just indulging in daydreams.

The delectable indolence, the frenzy of life, the charmed memories waxing and waning like the moon, wakefulness followed by sleep, and birth by death, all turn in an endless, inevitable and anticipated cycle. Returning to the paradoxical nature of “doing nothing,” I’m tempted to agree with Tom Stoppard who famously declared, tongue firmly in cheek, “It takes character to withstand the rigours of indolence.”

Anwesha Paul is a UX designer and graphic artist from Kolkata, India who is also into writing, having published several pieces in various print and online publications. Anwesha is an animation filmmaker whose short films have been screened and awarded in various international film festivals.

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Essay

Role of Editors in News Media

Bhaskar Parichha, a senior journalist, explores the role of editors in swaying public opinion.

In recent years the increasing influence of the media has changed the shape of Politics all over the globe. Consequently, it has raised provocative questions about journalism’s role in the political process. There are questions about media’s effect on the political system and the subsystems– the legislature, the executive and the lobbies.

Is media power in politics a myth or an exaggeration? Who influences whom? When does the media power peaks and when does it touch the bottom — these and similar other questions, however, defy any clear cut answer.

Research suggests that the media effect on politics cannot be answered in broad generalities. There are various types of effects, on various types of political dispositions, at various levels of political activity, under various conditions. Further, the mass media are highly diverse in content, of which politics is only a minuscule part .

In politics, the mass media influences not only individual opinion but also the way politics is conducted. If political roles are changing, so are the expectations of politicians. Changes take place even between the relationship of followers and leaders, and also, perhaps, some of the values of political life itself.

Walter Lippmann, the renowned American Journalist and political analyst, once said: “Journalists point a flashlight rather than a mirror at the world.” Accordingly, the audience does not receive a complete image of the political scene, they get a highly selective series of glimpses instead. Reality is also tainted. It was his view that the media cannot possibly perform the functions of public enlightenment that democratic theory requires. He  reasoned that  mass media cannot  tell the truth  objectively because  the truth is subjective and entails more probing and explanation  than the hectic pace of news production  allows.

Images of reality portrayed by the media differ from country to country. Judging by their respective media, audiences are apt to form varied images about events and the international ramifications. Different media produce different opinions. There is no commonality in   which political actors and actions deserve the spotlight and which should be regarded positively, negatively, or neutrally.

Influence also depends on the credibility of the media and on the esteem with which their audiences regard them. A TIMES NOW story or one by CNN-IBN will attract diverse opinion from viewers. So,credibility is the big thing in media exposes.

Nearly everyone acknowledges that  the media play a powerful role  in our public and private lives. Also,opinions about the media  and estimates of their influence  on society’s other institutions are  important barometers of democracy’s functioning. On the other hand, attitudes about the media have at times been   highly critical and  critiques of the press have spanned a century and several continents..

Whether the media actually impede the operations of the other three organs  of democracy is difficult to say, but as the Indian experience shows, media have  an abiding influence on government and its institutions than the institutions have on the media.

American humorist Will Rogers said long ago, “All I know is just what I read in the papers.” For many Indian politicians there is a good bit of truth in this aphorism — what they learn about ongoing political events — comes primarily from the news media.Therefore, media as a supplier of information undoubtedly  molds public opinion and influences political decisions. If the media guides citizens’ attention to certain issues and influences their thinking process, it goes without saying that the media influences politics. That, in essence, is the reasoning behind the agenda-setting hypothesis of scholars like Maxwell E. McCombs and Donald L. Shaw.

Agenda-setting or the ability of the media to influence the course of events in the public mind has been part of the   political culture of the United States of America for nearly a century. The idea of agenda-setting asserts that the priorities of the press to some degree become the priorities of the public. What the press emphasizes is, in turn, emphasized privately and publicly by the audiences.

In 1952, the Republicans  led by Dwight Eisenhower successfully exploited the three Ks — Korea, Corruption and Communism — in order to regain the White House after a hiatus of twenty years. The prominence of those three issues, cultivated by press reports extending over many months and accented by partisan campaign advertising, worked against the incumbent Democratic Party.

There are numerous instances of how popular American presidents’ actions and statements reported in the media affected public opinion. These include President Nixon’s  persistent opposition to accelerating troop  withdrawals from  Vietnam during 1969,1970 and 1971;Reagan’s  1981 argument of AWACS   airplane sales  to Saudi Arabia; Carter’s 1977-78 increased attention to Arab countries, his 1982 bellicose posturing  towards the Soviet Union; Ford’s 1974-75 defense of military spending and Carter’s advocacy of   cuts in domestic spending . In contrast, a number of  unpopular presidents made serious efforts to advocate policies but failed to persuade the public.

In no area of public life have practicing politicians take media effects more seriously than during elections. Political campaign organizers spend much time, effort and money to attract favorable media attention to candidates for major electoral offices. When their candidates lose, they frequently blame the tone of media coverage or rather the lack of it.

There is an old saying that there is many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip. It is one thing for politicians to try to create a particular image and another for that image to be conveyed to people and, through them, to the voting public.

Systematically establishing the impact of election communication on the public’s opinions and behavior is a real challenge. The nature of campaign coverage has also a profound impact on the way people vote. This is confirmed by how people tended to view the candidate – as the winner or the loser. As for the media, that old line of legendary coach Vince Lombardi – Winning Isn’t Everything, It’s The Only Thing — is taken to heart and the public response usually follows suit.

The media affect politics and public policies  in a variety of ways. By mobilizing hostile public or interest group opinions the media may force a halt to political choices. But, as a general rule, journalists should disclaim any motivation to influence public policies through their news stories. Except for the editorial pages, their credo calls for objective, neutral reporting. Only investigative stories may be the major exceptions to this rule.

Contemporary political folklore pictures the media as adversaries of officialdom who alert the citizens to governmental misdeeds or failures. In reality, there are, or may occur, many situations   when officials and journalists work together to bring about needed action.

The power of news people rests largely in their ability to select news for publication and feature it as they choose. Many people in and out of government try to influence these media choices.  But in the ultimate analysis, it is the editor and news directors –the gatekeepers in news media — who decide which item to pass and which to kill.

First published in Bhaskar Parichha’s blog

Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha (2020) and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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Essay

The Library by Tagore

A part of Bichitro Probondho (Strange Essays) by Rabindranath Tagore, this essay was written in 1885. It has been translated from Bengali by Chaitali Sengupta from Netherlands

Rabindranath Tagore

The stillness inside the library can be compared to the thousand-year-old roar of the mighty ocean that has now been tamed to sleep. A deep, peaceful slumber of a baby. A place where language is on hold, its rhythmic tide is locked and the brightest light in our souls is imprisoned behind the black and white words. I wonder, what would happen, if one day, the words revolt, breaking free of the bondage? Just as the Himalayas contain in its frozen ice a thousand floods, in the same way this library too preserves the best of human emotion in its breast.

Humans have been able to fence in electricity with iron wires, but who knew that man would lock words behind silence? Who knew that he could trap music, boundless hopes, the happiness of an awakened soul and the prophecy of the oracles in the pages full of words? That he would imprison the past in the present? And create a bridge upon the infinite ocean of time just with the help of a mere book?

We stand at the crossroads of a hundred roads in the library. Some paths lead to the boundless sea, some to the topmost peak, and yet another meanders to the inner crevices of the human heart. There’s no barrier, no matter where you wish to go. Man has created his salvation within the small perimeter of a book.

In this library, one can very well listen to the rise and fall of human emotions, like the echoing of the sea resonating through the conch shells. The living and the dead co-exist in close proximity here and opposition is a close relative of compliance. Trust and doubt, research and discovery are mates here. The popular and less popular live together amidst great peace and harmony. None ignore the other with contempt.

Crossing several rivers, oceans, mountains the voice of humans have reached here, galloping through several ages of time. Come, come here, for here we’re singing the birth song of light.

The Great One, who after discovering heavens, had given out a clarion call to all humans — ‘You all are the sons of heaven, this earth is your heavenly abode’ — it is his voice and millions of other similar voices, that reverberate within these walls through the years.

Have we then, from the foot of Bengal, got nothing to say, no message to give out to the human civilization? In the unified music of the world would Bengal’s contribution be only silence?

Doesn’t the sea at our footsteps speak out to us anymore? Doesn’t the Ganga bring forth the song of Kailas for us? And the vast blue canopy- isn’t it anymore there above us? And the galaxy of stars there, are they not for us?

Each day brings messages to us from far away countries from past and present. In response, are we only going to produce a few flimsy English newspapers? The countries around the globe are writing their names with the ink of immortality. Would we, Bengalis, be happy to put our names only on the application papers? Humanity is putting up a stiff fight against the preordained destiny; with the bugle calls, soldiers are being called upon. At a time like this, are we only going to be immersed in petty affairs?

Bengal’s heart is full after a long silence. Let her once speak out, in her own tongue. Her voice would indeed add melody to the music of the world.

Author’s bio

Rabindranath Tagore (1861 to 1941) was a brilliant poet, writer, musician, artist, educator – a polymath. He was the first Nobel Laureate from Asia. His writing spanned across genres, across global issues and across the world. His works remains relevant to this day.

Translator’s bio

Chaitali Sengupta is a published writer, translator, journalist from the Netherlands. She is involved in various literary & journalistic writing, translation projects for Dutch newspapers (Eindhoven News, HOWDO) and online platforms, both in the Netherlands and in India. Her works have been extensively published in many literary platforms like Muse India, Indian periodical, Borderless Journal, Setu Bilingual, The Asian Age. Her recently translated work “Quiet Whispers of our Heart” (Orange Publishers, 2020) received good reviews and was launched in the International Book Fair, Kolkata, India.

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Categories
Essay

Cinema Viewing: Zooming In & Zooming Out

Gita Viswanath and Nikhila H explore how the world of moviegoers has changed with time and with COVID19

During the pandemic, people all over the world watched a lot more films due to the lockdown than they normally do. The use of social media also increased exponentially. The proliferation of OTT (Over the Top) platforms has given immeasurable access to cinema and other modes of entertainment to those who have the means and technology (such as internet connection and steady bandwidth, viewing devices, etc). While some term this phenomenon as a democratisation of film-viewing practices in a given society, others feel that the nature of cinema is bound to change in the absence of a collective social experience of film viewing.

The history of the motion pictures has seen a shift from 35 mm to 70 mm; the decline of the latter, and then its resurgence in the 1980s. During these times, going to the cinema was an event in itself. It necessitated the rituals of planning, the booking of tickets in advance, dressing up and stepping out of the homes. The singular mark, if we identify one, of this era of film spectatorship, would be its collective nature. It was not uncommon to witness several members of the audience cry, laugh, or cheer together. While there are several films that show their characters watching a film withing their plot, Abbas Kiarostami’s entire film Shirin (2008),focuses on women audience’s responses to watching a film on the legendary lovers, Shirin and Khusrow. The story of the lovers reaches us exclusively through the soundtrack. The creation of the star was also a consequence of collective viewing. The euphoria surrounding the star, at times translating to audience performances in the form of whistling, hooting, flinging coins at the screen, and performing aarti (a Hindu prayer ritual)when the star appeared, could not have happened in the isolation of the home. 

By the mid-1970s, almost all major cities in India had television broadcasts. The growing popularity of the television, even with its diminished screen size, as a means of watching films challenged the primacy of the cinema hall as a site of exhibition. The spatial shift from the public cinema hall to the private homes as viewing spaces is also a consequence of the arrival of television. However, the total individualisation of the viewing experience was yet to happen. Families, at times, even neighbours, would gather in front of the television, where the Doordarshan telecast around 6 pm and ended by 10 pm. Programmes were made specifically to appeal to groups of people across age, occupation, and class. While Tania Modelski’s Loving with a Vengeance: Women’s Narrative Pleasures (1982) argues how television, particularly soap operas play upon women’s fantasies and feed their longing for an alternative to their isolation within the nuclear family, it is also possible to argue that watching films on television meant being subjected to informal censors within the family and domestic situation.

Scholars have talked about how cinema-going created a new kind of sociality and public sphere around cinema. In the Indian context, a short story by a Kannada feminist writer Vaidehi titled “Gulabi Talkies mattu sanna alegalu” (Gulabi Talkies and small waves) for instance, gives us a glimpse of how through cinema-going the public sphere became accessible to women, otherwise sequestered within their homes. Girish Kasaravalli’s film Gulabi Talkies (2008) ostensibly drawing from the short story, gives us an insight into the fantasy worlds opened up by cinema for women, as well as delineates the destruction of that social imaginary and their proclivity for fantasy, when women got pushed back into the private sphere with the coming of television.

Soon after, the advent of the Video Cassette Recorder (VCR) and Video Cassette Player (VCP), became hugely popular ways of watching movies with the added advantage of recording them for repeat viewings. Lending libraries mushroomed and entire families were able to watch a movie for the price of, or perhaps, less than that of a single movie theatre ticket. In India, this led to a complete change in leisure practices to the extent that cinema hall owners ran into huge losses and most theatres that had seen their glory days had to either shut down and get converted into shopping complexes or lay in a state of neglect.

The 1990s heralded the era of the multiplex that once again drew audiences to theatres, at least in the urban areas. With admission rates way higher than single screen theatre tickets, the multiplex became a site of the upper middle-classes flush with funds in a newly globalised, consumer-driven economy. This even gave rise to an entire new genre of films called the multiplex film. Young filmmakers with exposure to world cinema cashed in on this change and made films that may not have been feasible in the era of single screen theatres whose audiences comprised people from different classes. The more homogenised audience of the multiplex enabled filmmakers to produce films that catered to the taste of a particular segment of the market.

And then came mobile telephony in the new century. The miniaturised screen size transformed film viewing, which was essentially a public and later family/group activity, into a highly individualised one. Today, it is not unusual to see different members of a family watching different films on their phone screens in the same house or even same room – the use of headphones or earbuds making it even more convenient.

We are all familiar with the phenomenon of the intermission/interval; peculiar to film screenings in India. This device, as Lalitha Gopalan has noted in Cinema of Interruptions: Action Genres in Contemporary Indian Cinema (2002), even became an important consideration while scripting the film wherein the interval would be located at a turning point in the narrative. The interval in cinema halls also provided the scope for sale of snacks, which in the era of multiplexes turned into a focal point with the aim of providing a wholesome and complete form of entertainment for the audiences.

Turning our attention back to viewing films on the laptops or phones, we may say that the act of determining the interval is also controlled by the viewer. We could stop watching to eat, to visit the washroom, to turn off the stove, to get the door, or when the plot slackens and our interest wanes, to doze off. With the alarming speed with which attention spans are decreasing, filmmakers are turning their attention to short films.

The abundance of OTT platforms for distribution of films has led to easy access to world cinema. Until some years ago, it was difficult to view international films unless one frequented film festivals. Now, it is a different story. Platforms such as Mubi, Netflix, Prime Video, among several others, provide us with opportunities to watch films from all over the world. Just as in the case of the rise of multiplexes, similarly, OTT platforms also have proved to be a boon to filmmakers. Professional organisational set-ups, constant demand for fresh scripts, and scope for experimentation have made OTTs viable for young filmmakers.

At a time, when socialising in the real world became highly restricted, a flurry of activity was visible in the virtual world. One such popular enterprise was the formation of online film clubs to watch and discuss films, which the authors of this article also engaged in. What is interesting about such groups is that the film viewing experience is not collective. We do not watch the film to be discussed together; rather, we watch them at our convenience after deciding upon the film and only get together virtually to discuss our individual responses in the process of a personalised experience of viewing. 

Let us think about the nature of spectatorship that online groups engender. The sense of the collective does not stem from the act of seeing, which, in any case, happens in the privacy of our homes. Rather, it stems from the sense of a joint endeavour and the need to contribute meaningfully to it. While most theories of affect talk about the process of experiencing cinema, it may be equally important to look at the communicative aspect of affect; hence articulating what we feel about a film is a way of affirming and making available for ourselves (and others) how we feel about a film. Lakshmi Srinivas (2013) talks of how film viewing is framed by the social aesthetic, that is, film is a pretext, which provides a context for the social experience of film going. The audience response in any Indian theatre, she argues, provides a frame for the filmic experience; similarly, in our isolated film viewing case, the Saturday meeting becomes the ‘social’ within which our filmic experience may be framed.

With COVID-enforced isolation and restriction to stay in the house, films and social media platforms became a way of escape and reaching out, though not in the same way as the more conventional ways of watching cinema. The need to have social interactions beyond the family may have motivated some of us to embrace the world of online interaction. The form of discussing films (and virtually all of the films we discussed spoke to and of the contemporary times) on our Facebook group, Talking Films Online, for instance, became a way of thinking beyond and outside the oppressive present.  It helped most of us gain a perspective by contextualising the present itself, while we seemed to be in danger of being cut off from the known and the familiar past. Thus, the activities of watching films and logging in for discussions on Saturdays became a way of regaining a hold on our lives, when we all felt adrift.

The lockdown gave many spectators who were part of online film groups, the experience of seeing and hearing and being seen and heard on screen. While initially thrust upon as an inevitable fall-out of the situation, people soon learned to equip themselves with better devices (where possible), requisite apps, necessary accessories to be better seen and heard. Being part of the discussions on the films, recording them and sharing them make participants content generators in their own right, leading at times, to the creation of independent YouTube channels for uploading the recordings of the discussions and for live broadcasts.

Thus, the shift in patterns of spectatorship over time goes beyond a mere change in ways of viewing films. Rather, the ways of generating content to accommodate these changes have themselves transformed. The resultant transformation in modes of sociality is just about beginning to become apparent. 

Gita Viswanath is the author of a novel, Twice it Happened, a non-fiction book, The ‘Nation’ in War: A Study of Military Literature and Hindi War Cinema, as well as a children’s book, Chidiya. Her poems and short stories have been published online. Two of her short films, “Family Across the Atlantic” and “Safezonerz” are available on YouTube.

Nikhila H. teaches in the Department of Film Studies, English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. Her areas of research interest are Filmic Translations and Gender Studies. Her recent publications have been on remakes and multimodal translations. Her current projects include a commissioned essay for a volume on Shyam Benegal for Edinburgh University Press, and for a collaborative volume on New Cinemas of India.

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