Categories
Interview

The Evolution of a Scribe from a Cyrano de Bergerac

In Conversation with Arindam Roy, Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Different Truths

Arindam Roy and Different Truths have become synonymous with publishing anything that does not fit into genres of various literary journals. The site carries opinions, humour, semi-news stories, academic papers, poetry, stories, and you name it. Roy, who completes forty years as a journalist this month, has wide experience in his profession, including in newspapers like the Times of India and the Hindustan Times. He has mapped the history of media and journalism in India with his candid responses to questions about his latest and much appreciated venture, Different Truths, which this year has been given a registered trademark. In this exclusive, he tells us about his life experiences, including starting as a writer of love letters for his friends who were less proficient in English, much in the tradition of the French character, Cyrano de Bergerac, and ending as the bureau chief of the Allahbad branch of the Times of India, the managing editor of the Citizen Journalist portal, and a founder of an unusual online webzine.

We all know you as the founding editor of Different Truths, a platform for social journalism. Can you tell us what you mean by social journalism?

When we conceived Different Truths, in September 2015, we created its vision too. We had defined Social Journalism in our page, ‘About Us’. I quote from there, Different Truths is a Social Journalism (a form of collaborative journalism) platform. Based on the tenets of Participatory Journalism, Social Journalism creates a synergy between Citizen Journalists (any lay person, who is not trained as a journalist to voice their opinions) and Professional Journalists. I feel Citizen Journalism/Journalist is a misnomer. Journalism is as much a profession as doctor, engineer, advocate, architect, or a CA, to name a few. If we cannot have Citizen Doctor/Engineer, et al., how can we have a Citizen Journalist?

Social Journalism is a media model consisting of a hybrid of professional journalism, contributor, and reader content. It is similar to open publishing platforms, like Twitter and WordPress.com, except that some or most content is also created and/or screened by professional journalists. Examples include Forbes.com, Medium, BuzzFeed, and Gawker. The model, which in some instances has generated monthly audiences in the tens of millions, has been discussed as one way for professional journalism to thrive despite a marked decline in the audience for traditional journalism.

“Social Journalism helps to strengthen and deepen Democratic Values. It upholds the best traditions of secular, non-violent, non-racist and casteless society. Different Truths upholds non-discriminatory traditions, where Special Needs people have equal opportunities. It aims at unifying the peoples from various parts of the globe to create the world without boundaries – a Global Village where Peace and Prosperity rules.

“The visionary John Lennon’s Imagine (UNICEF: World Version) is our Guiding Light, our shared Anthem at Different Truths” (we shared the video link too). 

We are happy to inform you that we have had a good mix of trained journalists and non-journalists (erudite scholars, poets, teachers from universities, colleges and schools, research scholars, doctors, psychiatrists, people from the bank and insurance sectors, traders, quite a few social activists, artists, musicians, students…the list is exceedingly long. Almost anyone who wishes to write).    

How old is Different Truths? What made you come up with it? 

We are still young, in our sixth year. Different Truths was conceptualised in September 2015. From December 2015-January 2016, we started picking up. Initially, there were a handful of people who shared our vision. Then there was no looking back. We always have had amazing writers and poets. This trend continues. 

Interestingly, our Social Journalists (SJs) were, and are, from various countries. Editorially, we are an Indo-US venture. My Co-Founder and Managing Editor, Anumita Chatterjee Roy, is based at Columbus, Ohio, the USA. 

There were several factors that led to the start of Different Truths. Firstly, my wife passed away in April 2014, after a prolonged illness. Her kidneys had failed. I was her caregiver. Suddenly, I had nothing to do. No one to look after. My two children had left the nest. When I lost my wife, I found one of my Facebook friends, my kin, Anumita, stepped forward and talked to me, even if it was for a few minutes, every day. I would not be able to do so with such regularity – rain or shine.

Life sent a very dependable, trustworthy friend. She would admonish and chide me too. Reason was that I had lost my sleep and remained awake all night. I needed something to keep me busy. Turn another of my failures, sleeplessness, into success. 

I knew that she and I together could launch a digital publication. Though Anumita was a little uncertain, she took a leap of faith for herself and all of us. Different Truths was born.     

Secondly, as journalists, writers, and poets, most of us dream of launching a newspaper, magazine, or a TV channel. Like actors dreaming of taking on the role of directors. Before I reveal the deep personal reasons, let me tell you that after my father’s demise, I had to relocate to Allahabad. I had just married. My little sister was still in school, and my mother was shattered. My wife and I decided to return home. It was an emotional decision – perhaps this generation would not do so – and it meant that my career, which had just about taken off, would nosedive. As I look back, I realise that I was more than compensated in a different way. The Allahabad chapter of my career saw me launch several publications and supplements in newspapers. As a launcher, I had a complete overview of the publication, much like a project head. 

I saw promising, quality publications gasp for survival and shut down, while not-so-good publications (including a salacious one) become a runaway success. It’s quite similar to a meritorious good child not succeeding in later life, while the street smart, neta-type (political leader-type) succeeds and shines. Interestingly, all newspapers, magazines, books, digital platforms, and films, have no magic formula of success. Each is born with its own fortune.

My experience and understanding as a launcher of publications were invaluable. Like my editor, Krishna Raj, in Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), Mumbai, used to say, “We should know what not to select before we know what to choose.” This became a lifelong mantra for me. With limited funds, digital media was the obvious choice. 

Thus, we decided that Different Truths would be an online magazine (Webzine).  Now, we have two registered trademarks, Different Truths (DT) and Kavya Kumbh (KK). These trademark registrations were received last year, amidst the gloom and doom of the pandemic. Our extended DT family – we call them DTians – and we were thrilled.  Our brands, DT and KK, have global recognition because of these trademarks.     

What is it you look for from your contributors?

Like all editors, a clean copy. But that’s quite difficult considering the divergent backgrounds, cultural, educational, etc. Also, these writers have not been through the grind. 

I remember you and I chatting the other day, between our works, on WhatsApp. After a thorough training, we found that we as cub journalists (writers and editors, much later) were green. A true journalist is forged in fire. Newsrooms are humbling experiences. Those – we have seen a few – who are full of themselves, have had a huge fall too. In frustration, quite a few indulged in substance abuse (alcohol, drugs, etc). Many of them were very promising. We lost so many talents. It saddens me.

All contributors need to trust us. We are hard-nosed professionals. They must give up their egos – though painful, we had to do it too. All writers, me included, should not be airheaded. 

Young and not-so-young poets and writers judge themselves by Facebook likes and comments. Instant gratification is like drug abuse. It gives us an instant high. Virtual reality isn’t real. It certainly alters our perception of reality pushing us toward multiple personality disorder, if not schizophrenia. 

It’s worth remembering that writing is a vulnerable process. All writers face emotional and intellectual erosion over time.  Also, it’s not fair to say that grammar does not matter in a poem. It does. Free verse is exceedingly difficult. We need long practise to be able to perfect it. It’s not just a jumble of words, heaped on each other for then it becomes a glorious heap of garbage. Such poems (and prose) are instantly rejected. I recall what one of my schoolteachers used to say, “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”  

Humility and eagerness to learn is most important for all contributors, no matter where they are writing. 

I recall a well-known quote of APJ Abdul Kalam, “If you want to shine like a sun, first burn like a sun.” 

You have a fairly popular programme called Kavya Kumbh. When did you start and why? What have been the responses to it?

It all began last year. We had decided to organise a mega poetry meet on the World Poetry Day, March 21, 2020. We had confirmed participation of around 185 poets (some with spouses and children, 223 guests) from the length and breadth of the country, from Gujarat to Sikkim, and from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu. Other than that, we had poets from five other countries. If you recall, the nationwide lockdown had begun around that time. I thanked my stars that I postponed the dates by six months around March 15 or 16. 

The event was named Kavya Kumbh (KK). We decided to get a Trademark registration for KK. Thereafter, from September beginning to mid-December we had an online poetry meet in various languages. We also discussed cinema and art during the KK meet. This event strengthened our brand DT too. 

All our future events, online or in person, will be held under the KK brand. 

What were you doing before Different Truths

Immediately before I started DT, I had been invited by the Banerjees, who own AH Wheeler Co. that has bookstalls in nearly 250 railway stations. AHW has been into selling books from 1877. An iconic brand, this company was started by a Frenchman, Émile Moreau. There’s an interesting story. Moreau was a bibliophile. He had books all over the house. His wife warned him that either the books or she would stay at home. He took it lightly at first. Her admonitions grew. One day, he took a table, a bedsheet, and his books to the Allahabad railway station, which had been set up in 1859, two years after the Sepoy Mutiny or India’s First War of Independence. He kept the books for travellers to pick up free. They paid instead. A business model was born. The rest is history. Later, Moreau inducted Tinkouri (TK) Banerjee and made him a co-founder of the company. After independence, he handed over AHW to Tinkouri Babu. Now, his fourth generation is running the company. 

I knew all about publication launches. I had no idea about the nitty-gritties of publications’ distribution and marketing. I joined as the Head, Business Strategy and Corporate Communications of AHW, on March 1, 2014. Two years later, in 2016, I left AHW. During this time, its swanky bookshop was under my wings. I got to read all the books months before these hit the stands. It was a lovely experience. Meanwhile, DT was growing by then. It needed my attention. My stint at AHW gave me first-hand experience in distribution and marketing of publications. 

Before that I was engaged in journalism, working with various publishing houses. I was asked to lead an online magazine at Gurgaon as its Managing Editor (2007 to 2009). Under my wings, it grew phenomenally. I was heading the entire editorial functions of the fifth largest Citizen Journalist portal and was responsible for bureau operations in various cities of the country with return on investment accountability. I boosted content volume by 967%, over the previous year with significant improvement in quality of that portal. I led and inspired a team of reporters and editorial desk. Enriched, I returned home, once again, now to look after my ailing wife. 

Around this time, I took a sabbatical and co-authored a novel, Rivers Run Back, with my American co-writer, Joyce Yarrow (more of it later).  

Meanwhile, from 2001 onwards, I was involved with several Coffee Table Books (CTBs). The first was for an Italian publisher, Jaca Books, based at Milan. Other than journalism, it opened a new channel of co-authoring and planning CTBs. 

Oft and on, I was called as a guest faculty at several Mass Comm colleges, some of these were Symbiosis Institute of Mass Communications, Pune, GB Pant Institute of Social Sciences, Allahabad, Photojournalism department of Allahabad University, Jaipuria Institute of Mass Communication, Lucknow, Amity, Lucknow, Bhavan’s Journalism Department, Allahabad, etc. (though not in this order). 

I was penning poems in between too. This was more for me. I have not been careful with my poems and have lost most that were written during school days till now. I remember that after my intermediate boards, I began participating in Yuvavani, reading poems, and earning my pocket money. 

My father was against poetry writing and reading. He saw it as a waste of time. But I saw a glint of joy in his eyes and that of my Jetha (father’s elder brother), when they heard me recite on the radio. He melted when I bought fish for home with my first earning of Rs 140/- (Rs 35/- per week). I also gave my mother Rs 40/- in the year 1977. My father was happy that poetry could help me buy fish. It gained acceptance at home. He was also against my becoming a journalist. But after I joined EPW, things changed. During one of his visits to Mumbai, he hugged me and said, “Forgive me, I was wrong. Remember, it’s not just a job. It’s a mission.” I touched his feet. Our eyes had pools of tears. 

I am happy that I followed his advice, even if it meant suffering for my wife and children. Thankfully, they understood and stood with me, through thick and thin.  

You have been a journalist for a number of years. How many? Where all have you worked?

This month, on June 4, 1981, I began my career. Today, I completed 40 years as a scribe. It’s an incredibly special day for me, Mitali. It has been a long journey. Full of highs and lows. As I look back, I find that two small magazines, immensely respected, laid the foundation stone of my career. These were Himmat (Courage in English, headed by Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and C. Rajagopalachari) and Economic and Political Weekly or EPW (headed by the illustrious editor, Krishna Raj). At both these places, I did everything from proofreading to subediting to writing. It taught me that no work was small. I lived value journalism here. It went amiss later in life, with many other publishing houses, big and small. I also had a stint with Associated Press before I was asked to join The Times of India at Allahabad once again. I led the East UP edition, as the bureau chief. 

How is mainstream journalism different from running a webzine?

It’s as different as chalk and cheese. Mainstream journalism needs a huge setup. It’s capital intensive. Also, it depends on advertisement revenue. When the advertisers pay the salaries of all journalists, they call the shots. Before I talk about webzine, I must add that I was at the transition of journalistic values. There was a time when the owners/managers thought twice before talking to an editor. They sought appointments from his personal assistant and would ask if he/she was in a good mood to talk. The chairman of a big media house, I was told, would ask the editor of that newspaper if he could join him for a cup of coffee. And if he weren’t free, he could check later. 

In the mid-80s, four or five years after I began my career, there was a tug-o-war. The advertisement director/manager (depending on the size of the media house) was the kamau putra or the successful son, who earned the most. The circulation department made some money that perhaps paid for the newsprint and ink. He was to emerge as the mejda (the second eldest brother), but the editors and their teams were the ones that created costs by spending money. Though they might have given the house/brand a strong image, they were marginalised.  A major media house said that they were there to fill the news-holes in the dummy – the space left in the page after the advertisement department sent the page-dummy showing advertisement placements. By the 1990s, editorial departments around the country had lost much ground. It was grabbed by the two earning sons of the family. Since they earned most, they got the creamy layer of the milk. 

Sadly, most editors compromised. Those who did not toe the line had to leave, nursing their wounds. This meant that more and more editors agreed to play the second or the third fiddle. 

In editorial meetings, one could hear that we are a newspaper, not an advertisement paper. Soon, free yellow pages emerged. These had just advertisements and perhaps a couple of rehashed stories that were written by the content writers. Somewhere in the 1990s, Advertorials began appearing. If the advertiser was ready to pay, an editorial write-up with high sales pitch was allowed. This shattered the editors and the editorial department of media houses. They had to sit and lick their wounds. The advertisement department(s) grabbed the last mile – writing – from them too. 

Meanwhile, the corporate egos of media houses were to take a huge beating in the next decade, at the turn of the millennium. New media or the webzines were emerging. The advertisers were no longer sure how much of their money resulted in actual footfalls. Now, the new mantra in the various webzines were pay per click (PPC). The circulation department was soon to be replaced by the Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) teams. Now, they too had to work in tandem with the editorial department. The webzine editors soon learnt what were keywords, which news was trending. The medium and big webzines metamorphosed soon.  Meanwhile, the webzine editor had learnt a few invaluable lessons. He was more like a commando. He was emerging as the news guerrilla. He was the product manager, and once again the blue-eyed boy of the team. He was responsible for the company’s return on investment. It was more like the return of the Prodigal Son for the webzine editors.  

Several media houses were in the doldrums. Medium and small media houses who were blind to the new media or the webzines were pushed into penury or extinction. Big media houses were forced to incorporate the new media and integrate. They not only survived, but they also thrived. 

An emerging trend that needs study is what will happen after the pandemic. Ad revenues have totally dried up. There’s no business. No buying-spending. Big media houses are seeking donations or subscriptions, something that webzines like Guardians and few others were doing, earlier.

Once again, content is the king.  

Other than the TV channel, new media is the fastest, with their huge armies of citizen and social journalists. Webzines are here to stay. It’s now a 21st century reality. There is space for big, medium, and small players (like us) in the world wide web. Newer social media tools are being integrated too.  

It’s exciting and exhilarating to witness so many changes, from hot metal (lino or mono typesetting) to offset printing and then to become paperless in the new media. Our lives had epic ramifications – at least for some of us, who began our careers in the 1980s or 90s. 

Do you write? Tell us about your writing — especially the experience you had with bringing out books with the Times group. 

Writing is my oxygen. I have been writing since my college days. First, it was nesha (addiction), then it became pesha (career). It helped me earn my pocket money. My father didn’t have to provide me with a monthly dole. 

There were weird demands. Two of my friends, in the railway colony, where I spent my formative years, decided to woo two girls. Now, they were Hindi medium students, while these two girls were ‘convent educated’. Love letters had to be written in English. I became their letter writer. When these girls agreed to date these guys, they found to their dismay they couldn’t even speak proper English. One of them had seen me with her friend. She made him confess the truth. Later, all of us had a huge laugh. 

There were others who wanted me to word the invitation cards for their sister, bhabi’s (sister-in-law’s) sister and so forth. There were demands for shraddha (funeral peace prayers) and sacred thread ceremony functions too. These grew. Then I decided to stop writing invitation card content. Kins and friends in business wanted me to word letters for them too. The list is endless.

I helped launch several small publishing houses. I became their free ghost writers too. This too had to stop. 

Meanwhile, in 1987, I decided to do copywriting for an upcoming advertisement agency. They paid well. I attended client meetings and led sales pitches too. I still do it. But I ensure that I am paid in advance.  

As I said earlier, I was contacted by an Italian publishing house in 2001. The Internet was new then. I was an early bird. I got a good deal. This book was read by my bosses and friends. When TOI was doing a Coffee Table Book (CTB project for the Information Directorate, on Kumbh) my bosses and friends remembered my Italian book and felt that I could do it. That’s how I got involved in the projects. My stories were interview-based, involved legwork, and contacting people. My friends in the Information Directorate insisted that I write the sarkari (government) version too.  Of the 10 articles in the CTB for Kumbh, I wrote five stories (later two were merged into one) and I had four stories in it. Again, when the TOI was bringing out a CTB on Uttar Pradesh, I was given the lion’s share. Out of the nine chapters, I wrote three (one-third of the book). These were: Art & Craft: Art makes us human; Folk Traditions and Festivals: Songs and dances as life discourse, and Classical Music and Gharanas: Melodious tunes from the land of harmony. 

There were many other projects, where CTBs and other books needed my inputs. I wrote and wrote. 

You co- authored a novel. Tell us about that. What was your experience in co- authoring because writing is an individual experience? How do you coordinate? 

I became a novelist rather accidentally. I have many writers and poets on my Facebook. Often, we writers talk and share what’s the work in progress. Joyce Yarrow, an American mystery writer, is a good friend. She was telling me on Skype chat (WhatsApp, Telegram, etc were not there then) that she had planned her next book’s location in Cuba. I mildly suggested that after this book, why don’t you come to India. She could weave rich materials and history into her book. Suddenly, she was all ears. Over the next month, I kept on telling her about India. I spoke of Tagore, Nazrul, Vivekananda, Premchand and many others. 

One evening, Joyce suggested that I co-author a novel with her. I developed cold feet. I had written on facts mostly, except for a few short stories. But a novel, no way!  Somewhere along the line, I agreed, though unsure. Over the next three years, we talked on Skype, phone, video chats on weekends, from about 8pm to 10pm, my time. Both of us were amazed that the entire story plot was bottled in me. I did the scaffolding of the novel, while she created its brick-and-mortar structure. We shared notes. Since there was a huge gap in our writing styles, she wrote the texts mostly, with agreements, disagreements, fights, and laughter. 

It was a great learning experience. Our novel was launched at the American Centre, New Delhi, in January 2015. My Delhi-based school buddies had come to cheer me, other than my classmate Dr Sunjoy Joshi, who is heading the Observer Research Foundation. My son and nephew had attended the launch programme, other than my cousin and his wife. One person who would have been incredibly happy was my wife, Ruma. She left us nine months before the event. 

Between editing and writing, which is a more preferred task? 

Writing is far more fulfilling than editing. I often laugh and say that editors are like safai karmacharis (cleaning crews). We are here to dust, mop and shine works that are not upto the mark. It’s a thankless job. However, on a more serious note, editors create writers – like directors create actors – and that is a huge joy. My editors made me. It’s payback time for me, I think. 

What is the future of Different Truths? What do you see as your own future? 

As a Founder, Publisher, and Editor-in-Chief of Different Truths, with my Co-Founder and Managing Editor, Anumita Chatterjee Roy, we can shape the present of the webzine. We can look back in glee at the past too. But it’s impossible to say what the future holds. This uncertainty helps us put in our best. It makes us challenge ourselves too.

As I am writing today (June 4), we have 5,418 posts in Different Truths. It has taken us almost six years to achieve this. We published 17 online anthologies so far. We have published several thematic issues and are still counting. 

We are the only webzine that creates its own visuals. Anumita does a wonderful job. I remember you and most writers, columnists and poets appreciate her creative work. 

We two at the core form the nucleus, while the rest of the Editorial Team may be likened to the electrons of the smallest unit, the atom of the webzine. 

In March 2019, we were awarded the prestigious Double Cross Gold Medal. In fact, Different Truths was chosen by an illustrious person, Knt. Sir Silvano Bortolazzi, whose name was proposed eight times for the Nobel Prize, “proposed in six occasions as candidate to the Nobel Prize in Literature and proposed in two occasions as candidate to the Nobel Peace Prize.” 

Prominent writers wish to publish with us. This is a good sign for the future. As long we are honest and committed and we continue to allow all kinds of political opinions, leftist, rightist, or centrist to find space in our webzine, we shall continue to be non-partisan and democratic. We do not allow bigotry and jingoism.

No subject is taboo in Different Truths. To quote from ‘About Us’ again, we had stated, “At Different Truths (differenttruths.com), we intend to speak about issues that are kept in wraps. We wish to unravel the truth, no matter how unsavoury or bitter. We wish to challenge the taboos. We wish to be heard over the din and noise of the traditional media, most of which, we all know, has collapsed under ugly money-power. When journalists are fair, the houses are not. All media houses have their ‘Holy Cows’, areas that cannot be ever touched.”

As I look back on my 40th work anniversary today (I walked into Himmat’s office at Arun Chambers, Tardeo, Mumbai, on June 4, 1981), I am happy that we have been able to keep the promise we made to ourselves and the world, in September 2015.

Last but not the least, we two as captains are as good as our team (writers and poets). At the end of the day, they make or mar us. If we learn from our past and focus on our present, the future shall take care of itself.

I enjoyed responding to your perceptive questions. Thanks a lot.

Thanks Arindam.

The Core team of Different Truths: Arindam Roy & Anumita Chatterjee Roy

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

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Categories
Essay

Durga: Iconography, Discourse and Counter-Discourse

Arindam Roy discusses the evolution of the Hindu goddess at the intersection of history, politics and religion

Durga and her daughters

Through a complex system, we elevate a mere mortal to divinity and humanise gods.

Ram, Krishna, Buddha, Kabir, the two Sai Babas and more are venerated as gods. Often their births are associated with miracles, premonition of curse or shrouded in mystery. Let us examine three cases:

  1. The birth of Ram and his brothers are marked with celebrations, in Ayodhya, but Dasharath is worried in his heart of hearts. He recalls how he had killed Shravan Kumar accidentally and the curse of his blind parents that he too would suffer the pain of parting with his son. A keynote is struck. We are prepared psychologically for the events to follow with an epic hero in the making.
  2. Krishna’s birth is magical. The prison guards fall asleep. A raging storm, torrential rain and Sheshnag acting as an umbrella for swapping Baby Krishna with Yogmaya. Many miracles would follow. A god is born.
  3. Kabir’s birth is shrouded in mystery. His death and the quarrel over his corpse are resolved as beneath the shroud, roses are found. Hindus and Muslims followers perform last rites according to their traditions. A sage-god arrived among us.

Allow me to quote from one of my articles, ‘Of Durga’s Homecoming and other stories’, (Oct 16, 2007), from my blog, Wise Planet:

“The faith of faiths is a touchy matter. But let us find out why strange stories about gods gained currency. Have you ever wondered why gods behave like human beings?

“Why Durga comes to visit her parents’ home annually or why Shiva enjoys his marijuana? Why Bal Krishna stole butter? Similarly, why Jagganath of Puri, who bathes once a year shivers and has fever? Once every twelve years, he is cremated with his siblings in his private crematorium, and so on.”

Amitabh Bhattacharya, a senior journalist in Varanasi, explained that humanism – the belief that gods behave like human beings – gained currency in the post-Puranic era. In fact, the period between Puranas and 10th century AD, the time of Muslim invasion, saw a spurt of miracle-performing gods. This was also the time when angry gods became a part of the Hindu pantheon.

He explained that Buddhism, Jainism, and Islam had threatened the very matrix of Hinduism. Those amongst the ordinary masses, who could not be won over with devotion (bhakti), had to be scared in some ways. The Hindi poet of the Bhakti movement, Goswami Tuslidas had said, “Bhaye bin preet nahi” (no love without fear).

“But why fear? What’s role of fear in religion? Even the Holy Bible categorizes different kinds of fear. It talks of good fears and bad fears. The fear of god is a good fear,” stated Sebastian John.

Fear of being cursed by angry gods stopped large-scale conversions. The fear of burning in hell, causing grave curse to the forefathers and future generations, might certainly be a good marketing ploy but it helped the Hindu sages and seers to keep the flock together.

Durga, Chamunda and Kali – the terrible forms of Shakti – had the elements of fear inbuilt in them. To mellow the element of fear, the motherhood aspect, the all-forgiving, all-loving goddesses were also woven into these myths. At a more mundane level, it was said, “Don’t our mothers get angry? But do they love us any less?”

Durga Iconography

In the research paper, ‘Iconography and Visual Culture of Bengal’ (published in Chitrolekha International Magazine on Art and Design, Vol. 2, No. 1, 2012) Ruma Chakravarti tells us the meaning and intent of iconography:

The subject of iconography, the study of images with a specific narrative or symbolic intent, raises complex aesthetic and philosophical questions for the modern world about the universal appeal of pictorial messages. In the iconography of temples, it has never lost its relevance, because the messages conveyed through religious icons are the same messages that have been part of the religious vocabulary for hundreds of years. Often icons carry more than one meaning. These are each accurate in their own way as they usually address a number of separate mythological or historical concepts.

“In investigating the link between iconography and religion it is worth noting that ‘much of Indian sculpture was produced in order to embellish a sacred scripture.’ (Dehejiya, 1997) Religion is not successful unless it is spread to the masses. In order for this to happen, the first requisite is that people across all strata of society understand and know the basic beliefs on which the religion bases itself. In general, the reading and understanding of Hindu scriptures was and still is largely the domain of the privileged, either through reasons of birth, wealth or access to education. Physical symbols that represent religious beliefs and the gods are much easier for people to view and assimilate. The identity of gods as nirakar or formless is much less easily understood than their physical depictions as sakar or having a form. The sacred thus moves from the formless to the concrete. Hinduism displays the power of iconography as a profound stimulus to the memory.”

While working on the evolution of Durga through her iconography, for a Gurgoan-based online magazine that I was heading as Managing Editor, I found that Durga was a minor goddess perhaps worshipped by armies, in certain parts of India, that went to war — there were numerous wars in the past —  but as her influence grew, her icon also underwent transformation (read development).

In the article, ‘The lion of Durga is a gift from a Greek goddess, published in Merinews, and later, posted in my blog, Wise Planet (Feb 15, 2009), I observed:

“The white lion of Mahisasur-mardini (Durga) has been imported from Greece. The lion, as a vehicle, was incorporated in the Durga iconography between sixth century AD and 12th century AD. It was ‘imported’ from (read, gifted by) the Greek goddess, Nanaia.

“We find occasional representation of Nanaia riding a lion on some Kushan coins and seals. Historians point out that on the basis of the development of the Durga iconography, it might be said that the prominence of the war-goddess grew in 700 years.”

In the early Kushan period, around first century AD, Durga was a lesser goddess. The terracotta figurines and stone sculptures of this period depict the goddess with two or four hands, wrestling with the demon (Mahisasur), locked in hand to hand combat. Most of these figurines and sculptures were excavated at a site called Sonkh, near Mathura. It forms a rich legacy of the Mathura Art. For 300 odd years, during the Kushan period, the lion is not seen.

A rare image of Mahishamardini Durga from the 5th AD found at Chandrashala, M.P. Preserved at Allahabad Museum PHOTO CREDIT: Bhaswati Bhattacharya

“The Mahisasur-mardini icon of goddess Durga, as we see it today, evolved in the Gupta period, undergoing changes in iconography. Around this time, we find examples of Devi with eight, 10, 12 and even 16 hands. As her stature grew, her iconography evolved,” informed Dr Sriranjan Shukla, the assistant keeper of Allahabad Museum, in an exclusive interview.

Durga is the most widely worshipped aspect of Shakti, till today.

The Gupta period is a time of transition. Referring to a sandstone relief, of the latter part of the fifth century AD, of a Chandrasala (which were placed outside temples to indicate the ruling deity), we see Mahisasur-mardini combating the asura (demon). It shows the goddess place one of her feet contemptuously on the head of the vanquished demon. She lifts his hindquarters by the tail and pins him down with her trishul (trident). A short male figure, as her attendant, establishes her glory. He is a gana(army) of Shiva, consort of the goddess. The locks of the gana and the goddess are elaborately treated, in the style of that period.

The Kushan artists of the Mathura Art School are credited to conceptualise Mahisasur-mardini, or the form of Durga defeating the buffalo-demon. From a lesser goddess, depicted in terracotta figurines and sandstone relief, she attained glory in the Gupta period. Most of the Puranas were authored in the Gupta period, which was a golden era of Indian art, literature, trade, commerce and polity. It was a time of peace and prosperity.


The Aryan-Dravidian Divide

At another level, the Aryans accepted the Dravidian-tribal gods. An authority on iconography, BN Mukherjee explains in his book that one way to distinguish between gods of Aryan and non-Aryan origin is that the former always have water cosmology. Thus, Brahma, Vishnu, Lakshmi, Saraswati are of Aryan origin, while Shiva, Durga and Kali belong to the non-Aryan roots.

Never mind if a god of Aryan origin is the child of a god of non-Aryan origin. In this case, all children of Durga are Aryans, while she herself has a non-Aryan origin.

Mrinal Pande, in her article, The evolution of Durga, from demon slayer to nourishing mother, in Scroll, says, “After the 4th century CE, images of Durga slaying this demon began to surface all over India. As an armed goddess, unprotected by males, fond of flesh, alcoholic beverages and even blood, who upon victory breaks into frenzied dancing with her battalions of female soldiers, Durga stubbornly retains the stamp of her non-Aryan origins.”

Later, she adds, “As Durga slays … she creates her own fierce female armies who love to join a good fight when they see one. Together, they defy all norms sought to be imposed on them by a patriarchal religion. They get drunk, kill, ululate and scream, play football with the decapitated heads of demons and then break into a bizarre war dance until the petrified gods politely request Durga to stop and leave for her heavenly abode with her women (Devi Mahatmya).”

Though several authorities stated that Durga was an aboriginal goddess (non-Aryan), Bahujans and tribals, believe that she was a fair-skinned Aryan, who killed Mahisasur by deceit and trickery. Amidst huge controversies, a counter-narrative about Durga and Mahisasur emerged. During the Navaratri, while the mainstream Hindus celebrate Durga’s victory, twice a year (Spring and Autumn), tribal communities mourn the death of their dark-skinned valiant hero. (A case in point among the Muslims: while Shias’ mourn the defeat and beheading of Husayn ibn Ali (on Oct 10, 680), at the Battle of Karbala as his martyrdom, during Muharram, Sunnis’ celebrate victory. There were Shia-Sunni clashes in India).

Four years back, in 2016, Durga and Mahisasur were in the news. A group of students belonging to the All India Backward Students Forum (AIBSF), at Jawaharlal Nehru University, claimed that their hero, Mahisasur, a martyr, was being insulted by upper the caste Hindus. Smriti Irani, the Union HRD minister read out a pamphlet in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of the Parliament), where Durga, a fair skinned goddess had been shown in poor light and Mahisasur as the victim, by this group of students. Irani described this as “a depraved mentality”.

In fact, AIBSF celebrated the first Martyrdom Day of Mahisasur in 2011, as per media reports. They said that they had the constitutional rights to celebrate the martyrdom day of their hero, a dark-skinned brave warrior.

There is a tribe in Jharkhand and in some pockets of Bihar, Bengal, and Madhya Pradesh, with the title ‘Asur’, who claim to be the descendants of Mahisasur. A vanishing tribe, the Asurs are in the margin of the margins. The face extinction due to abject poverty and conversion into Christianity.

Prashant Pandey and Premankur Biswas, in an article, ‘Meeting the Asurs’, in Indian Express, reported:

“Sushma Asur, a tribal activist in Sakhuapani, says the community also celebrates Sohrai, which coincides with Diwali, by applying koronj (or karanja in Hindi) oil on their navel, chest and nose, and eating cucumber. ‘The symbolism here is that when our ancestor Mahishasur was killed, he had blood oozing from his navel, nose and chest. Applying oil on those parts depicts the same. Eating cucumber is a symbol that we are avenging his death by eating the ‘kaleja (liver)’ of the killer,’ Sushma explains.

“In her 20s, Sushma says she has studied up to Class XII and is working with tribal activists to ‘revive our lost traditions, songs and skills’. Over the years, she says, there are several of these traditions that have given way to modern practices of the ‘outsiders’.

“Asurs, she says, were once iron smelters, but now the village doesn’t have a smelting unit. Chamru says he used to make small weapons, ‘but I have forgotten all that now’. According to one of the theories, the Magadh Empire benefited a lot from the weapons the Asurs made. ‘Their iron does not catch rust. And we know there are many Ashokan-era edicts on iron that haven’t rusted,’ says Ashwani Kumar Pankaj, a tribal activist in Ranchi.”

Pandey and Biswas add that the legend of Mahisasur finds its echo in the Santhal and other tribal folklore:

Vandana Tete of the Jharkhandi Bhasha Sahitya Sanskriti Akhra, an organisation that works to revive tribal history and the tribal way of life, says the legend of Mahishasur finds its echoes even in the folklore of the Santhals, numerically the biggest tribal group and spread across Jharkhand and West Bengal. ‘When others celebrate Navratri, the Santhals look for their missing chief, whom they call Hudur Durga. When they cannot find him, they pretend to dismantle a clay model. This is presented through a dance form,’ she says. Many academics have interpreted this as the Santhals seeking Mahishasur, who, they believe, was killed by deceit.”

Ashwani Kumar Pankaj, a tribal activist in Ranchi, says, “While Asurs may be the only one to have taken on that surname, the Mahishasur story has its parallel in different tribal languages.”

In the report, ‘Asur tribals mourn “martyr” Mahishasur, Jaideep Deogharia, wrote in The Times of India:

“Asurs believe they are descendants of ‘Hudur-Durga’ – the Santhal name for Mahishasur – and do not worship any god. They say that the Devi Mahatmya story of the Markandeya Purana, which describes the birth of Durga and her nine-day battle with Mahishasura, is biased. According to them, the birth of Durga from the conjoined powers of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva was a ‘crooked conspiracy’.

“The tribals now have help from experts and academics to bring their perspective to the forefront. Started three years ago in Kassipore area of Purulia district in West Bengal to search for tribal roots of Indian mythology, an organisation called ‘Shikar Dishum Kherwal Veer Lokachar Committee’ has gone from strength to strength and now invites tribal counterparts from neighbouring states to Purulia later this month to help out with their mission.

“A team from Jharkhand – comprising Sushma Asur, Vandana Tete, Ashwining Pankaj and other new-age activists researching tribal literature – are set to participate in the programme this year. Sushma, a member of the primitive tribe group (PTG), features prominently on a Facebook page titled ‘Asur Aadivasi Documentation Initiative’. She urged other communities – particularly those in the power corridors from ‘Akhra’, a platform for tribals to promote their art, culture and literature – to stop celebrating the assassination of their ancestor with ‘such grandeur’.”

A Bahujan thinker, Premkumar Mani, in his article, ‘Who are the Bahujans really worshipping(published in Forward Press), wrote:

“Mahishasur means people who rear buffalo, the buffalo-rearers. Those who trade in milk, the dairy people. Asur may have changed to Ahur and then to Ahir (the present-day milkman caste). Mahishasur or the buffalo-rearers must have been the people dominating the Banga region. Racially they must have been Dravidians. They must have also been opponents of the Aryan culture. Aryans had to defeat them. These people used Durga. In the Banga region, prostitutes mention Durga to be of their clan…. It took Durga nine nights to kill Mahishasur. The Brahmins who sent her waited nine nights with bated breath. This was a difficult task. If not force, deception. Force of deception. On the ninth night Durga tasted success, she killed Mahishasur. As they heard the news, the Aryans (Brahmins) were all agog. They swooped down on Mahishasur’s people and cutting their heads (munda) off made a new kind of garland. They put this garland around Durga’s neck. Even Indra couldn’t do what Durga had done…. What Durga achieved was miraculous. She was most important. Most blessed of all! The very incarnation of Shakti!”

It is rather sad that Mani and few others, who worship Mahisasur, described Durga as a sex-worker/prostitute. Perhaps counter-persecution is born out of long years of subservience and exploitation. Attacking the exploiters makes sense — in this case, upper-caste Hindus — rather than their gods. I strongly feel that we do not need victims to be victors. Such lapses and folly discredit all counter-discourses.

Pandemic and Durga Puja

For the first time, the autumnal festivities have been cancelled. When Sarbojanin puja committees pleaded that the Shakti puja cannot be discontinued, the celebrations have been allowed with lots of restrictions – for the public good – in Uttar Pradesh. Passes have been issued to residents of a para/mohalla (locality). Online pushpanjali and arti has been arranged. For the few, who may be issued time slots for pushpanjali, the mantras are being chanted without the flowers. The priest offers flowers on behalf of all.

At some places, there is Ghot (urn/pot) puja, with an image of the goddess. Some puja committees have put up the idols, where the largest idol (Durga) is not more than four feet tall.

Ram Dal, a unique feature of Allahabad (Prayagraj, now), where tableaus depicting the scenes of Ramayana, led by Kiran Ghora, are watched for better part of the night. Two Ramleela Committees, Patharchatti and Pajawa vie for the best tableaux. These processions are held on fixed days, locality wise, with traffic restrictions. The lighting of the streets are to be seen to be believed. This year, all Ram Dals have been cancelled.  

During pandemic, with the spread of COVID-19, it makes sense to impose restrictions. In West Bengal, the Calcutta High Court had to intervene and impose restrictions on puja pandals and pandal hopping.

There were mixed feelings. The social self in each of us appreciated the steps taken by the state and district administrations. However, we still missed the fun and joy of nine days, hopping pandals and binge eating during this time of the year.

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Arindam Roy, publisher, editor, author, poet, translator, a teacher of Mass Comm and Creative Writing, has 39-year experience in various newsrooms. He is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Different Truths. He has held senior positions in several publications. He has launched several publications. He participated at various seminars, symposia, poetry meets and webinars as chief guest, keynote speaker and has delivered presidential addresses. He has contributed 13 chapters to various publications, of these, seven chapters were published in two Coffee Table Books, published by the Times Group. He co-authored a novel, Rivers Run Back.  He shuttles between Allahabad and Bangalore.

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