As we stand on the threshold of a new normal that will eternally rewrite the history of social interactions, of movements across the globe, of new world orders that will have to be more inclusive and more transparent to world view, we will, perhaps, feel the need to redefine business laws so that even countries with lesser wealth are able to access vaccinations and peace. We are now looking up to leaderships which seem to be in crises themselves. Sitting securely on a tiny island that is well governed, an island where affluence and well-being set it adrift from the turmoils of countries around it, I wonder thirty years from now, what will mankind be like… Will we be forever marred by the current events of the world? Globalisation has ensured that none of us can be secure on any secret island. There can be no land of lotus eaters hidden from the rest of mankind and accessed by only a few anymore. Even if one region is affected by the virus in any corner of the world, can the rest of the world be pandemic free? Perhaps, a question that those who peddle in vaccines and human well-being can address.
These issues have not only been highlighted by the news media but have also found echoes in some of our content this time. Keith Lyons’s essay talks of his last stay in India, when a tourist carried the the pandemic unwittingly into Kerala in February 2020 and subsequent repercussions. More stories and poems that dwell on the spread of the virus this year cry out for compassion. One hopes young poet Ruchi Acharya’s verses are born true.
One day the roses of hope will grow
Meeting the horizon,
Roses that, even plucked, will not die
But will bloom and bloom
Every single day that passes by.
We have young writers on the virulence of the virus and mature pens like that of globe-trotting academic Wendy Jones Nakanishi, who maps the pandemic from UK. Perhaps, we will find a new direction eventually.
There have been calls for uniting above divides as a single unit called mankind earlier too, from greats like Tagore and Nazrul. This time we carry translations of both — Nazrul’s translated poem calls for uniting against artificial divides drawn by man-made constructs and Tagore’s translation talks of redefining through self-reflection. An essay on Tagore by academic Parineet Jaggi talks of the impact of the teachings of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, on Tagore.
We have essays on writers and icons from around the globe. A photo-essay on the bald eagle, heralding the American Independence Day on the 4th of July, gives a humorous anecdote on how the eagle was chosen above the turkey. We have more variety by Candice Louisa Daquin, an immigrant in US, who shows how important human movement across man-made borders is to the development of a country. Michael Burch has given us beautiful poetry reflecting the history of America and American dreams, one of them with the voice of the legendary Mohammed Ali. These verses add substance to the concerns raised by Daquin. Jared Carter brings to us the colours of life with his poetry.
Hughes has also given us a comprehensive and interesting essay on a twentieth century poet called Ivor Cutler, who said much as he sang his poetry and was encouraged by Paul McCartney of the Beatles. The brilliant poetry of Akbar Barakzai continues translated on our pages by Fazal Baloch and one must give many thanks to the translator for his indefatigable energy and for bringing us wonderful fare from Balochistan. An excerpt translated by eminent journalist Ratnottama Sengupta from Nabendu Ghosh’s autobiography ends with Satyajit Ray’s starting his famed career with Apu’s triology (based on Pather Panchali, a novel by Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay). These three films have become iconic in cinema history.
We were fortunate to have Professor Fakrul Alam agree to an interview. An eminent translator, critic and academic who has lived through the inception of Bangladesh from East Bengal, Alam has translated not just the three greats of Bengal (Tagore, Nazrul, Jibanananda) but also multiple political leaders like Mujibur Rahman. In this exclusive, he has taken us through the annals of history, reflecting on less-known perspectives of the Partition. Also, in conversation with Borderless, is Arindam Roy, a journalist with forty years’ experience and the founder of Different Truths who started his writing career, much in the tradition of Cyrano de Bergerac on a humorous note.
This time our backpacking granny, Sybil Pretious, gives us a glimpse of her wisdom, wit and compassion while visiting Philippines and talks of an ancient death ritual, volcanoes and strange mud baths. Devraj Singh Kalsi explores young romance in his tongue-in-cheek fashion. We also have more semi-humorous musings from young writers across borders. While Sunil Sharma has explored facets of the impact of terrorism, the other stories are told in a lighter vein.
Our book excerpt from Feisal Alkazi’s Enter Stage Right has a picture of the young artiste in a discotheque dancing in abandon — check it out. It made me smile. Rakhi Dalal has reviewed Jnanpith Award winner Shrilal Shukla’s Fragments of Happiness translated by Niyati Bafna. The book review by Meenakshi Malhotra of Neelima Dalmia Adhar’sThe Secret Diary of Kasturba brings out an interesting facet on Gandhi and women in the Independence movement. It makes one notice the contrasts in the perspectives of Gandhi and Tagore, who created women like he saw around him in fiction. Kasturba’s life also contrasts with the independence found in the life of the avant-garde artist, Amrita Sher-Gil, who lived around the same time. In an essay, Bhaskar Parichha has shown how Sher-Gil lived out her dreams, blending the best of the East and West, while Malhotra writes, that though “Gandhi called women to join the national movement … he was not seeking to emancipate, but more to call forth their capacity for self-abnegation and self-sacrifice.”
Parichha has also introduced us to the need for changes in the banking sector in India while reviewing Transformational Leadership in Banking edited by Anil K. Khandelwal. Perhaps these will be part of the changes that will ultimately lead to a revision of old systems and the start of new ones. Changes, though not always welcomed or convenient, hopefully will lead to progress that can mould our future into a happier one. Restless stirrings transformed mankind from cave dwellers to an intelligent race that can assimilate nature and technology to survive and dream of a future, living among stars.
As Borderless reaches out to unite mankind transcending artificial constructs, its attempts can bear fruit only with support from each and every one of you. I would like to thank all our editorial team for their wonderful support, contributors for being the backbone of our content, and all our readers for continuing to patronise us.
Do take a look at our current issue for the writers who remain unmentioned here but create phenomenal bridges towards a borderless world.
Title: Enter Stage Right: The Alkazi Padamsee Family Memoir
Author: Feisal Alkazi
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2021
Feisal Alkazi is an educationist, a theatre director, and an activist. Over the past 40 years, his group, Ruchika, has directed over 200 plays in Hindi, English, and Urdu. Noor and A Quiet Desire, two plays written by him, were produced recently. He has also directed thirty films, and more than 100 productions for schools all over India. He is actively involved in heritage education, initiating projects in Delhi, Jaipur, Srinagar, and Hyderabad each of which has culminated in a book. He has written over 20 books.
Enter Stage Right by Feisal Alkazi is a family memoir which recounts the story of two families intertwined by a single love – theatre, of people who helped shape much of the Indian theatre from 1940s to 1990s, of people who came together by chance and stayed on to weave a rich tapestry which not only included theatre but also art, media, cinema and advertising. A memoir which draws an exhaustive portrait of one of the first families of theatre in a subtle yet candid manner, unveils some secrets, shares some anecdotes while capturing the complete attention of the reader.
The prologue of this memoir titled ‘Around the Horseshoe – Shaped Table’ starts with:
“English theatre in Bombay was born on my grandmother’s horseshoe-shaped dining table in 1943. Literally. A group of young college students, among them my father, Ebrahim Alkazi, listened wide- eyed as my Uncle, Sultan Padamsee, spoke of how they intended to form their own group, simply called the Theatre Group.”
These lines open the book with a perfect scene for the reader, drawing attention to the setting which was at the core of foundation of theatre group formed by Sultan Padamsee, the eldest of the Padamsee siblings including Roshen and Alyque. Roshen became a costume designer for plays directed by Sultan and later by her husband Ebrahim Alkazi. Akbar, their cousin, though not a part of the horseshoe table gathering, became a famed painter, one of the pioneers of modern Indian art, while Alyque a famous theatre personality and ad film maker, probably best known for playing Mohammad Ali Jinnah in Richard Attenborough’s movie Gandhi.
How in the 1940s, the entire Padamsee clan would come together for the preparation of plays directed by Sultan, or Bobby as he was lovingly called, is well recounted by Alyque Padamsee, who was then a kid and Sultan’s younger brother.
“There was a little trellis in our bedroom, the roshandaan. We used to climb up on stools and peek through that window to watch what was going on in the drawing room. Bobby reciting Shakespeare, Roshen stitching costumes, Zarina painting posters, Shiraz making some props. It was like a cottage industry, and it was so thrilling to be in a family that had something so exciting to do!”
The seed of this industry, as he calls, was sown by Sultan’s mother Kulsum Padamsee, who had determined the best of English education for her children, which meant that her children were all sent to an elite residential school in Bombay where they had their first lessons in theatre. At her home in Kulsum Terrace, overlooking Colaba Causeway in Bombay, she would allow them to enact plays. Later, she took them to Shropshire, England for further studies where the worlds of Shakespeare and Dickens and Hardy were revealed to them. However it was Sultan, who — having spent six months at Christ Church in Oxford before World War II — began directing plays for the St. Xavier College’s Shakespeare Society in 1943.
Feisal writes about the flamboyant and bold Sultan who revolutionized the theatre scene in 1940s, about his choice of directing Oscar Wilde’s Salome which was controversial enough for the times. His restructuring Shakespeare’s Othello was also a move towards the unimaginable in those days. He writes about Sultan’s suicide at the age of twenty three, the cause of which remained a well-guarded secret of the family for many years. Though Sultan’s untimely demise did create a void, the revolution helmed by him was forged further by the rest of Padamsee clan. As present on the horseshoe – shaped table that day in 1943, was also Ebrahim Alkazi, mentored by Sultan, who was later to become the director of National School of Drama and to shape the subsequent theatre milieu.
In the successive chapters, Feisal delves into the history of his father’s family and staging of plays by the Theatre group after Sultan’s death, about the split in Theatre group with Ebrahim and Alyque going separate ways, about his parents’ stay in post War London and the influences they carried back to India, about his early years at Vithal Court where his father, perhaps continuing the tradition of Padamsee family, turned the whole house into a rehearsal space for theatre! Imagine a life where entire days of the family were spent in reading, rehearsing, soaking in various forms of art, hosting the likes of Nissim Ezekiel, M.F. Hussain, Tyeb Mehta, John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Adi Davierwala, where the house constantly bubbled with activities stimulating the mind, where the children, joined by their numerous cousins and friends, would perform plays for the audience, constituted of their families. Fancy having a childhood like that!
Feisal describes the experience:
“Sound, smell, touch, flavor. Open windows that allowed the world in, and that allowed me to peep into the world from my tiny height. Not the isolated ivory tower of the Padamsee childhood but a vibrant, open, engaged view of the world.”
In one of the chapters, aptly titled Six Women Who Revolt, Feisal gives us a glimpse into the choice of plays his father directed during his last phase of directing for the Theatre Unit in Bombay. Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, Jean Anouilh’s Antigone and Eurydice, Lorca’s Yerma and Euripides’ Medea – plays with strong female central characters. While offering critique of these plays and sharing some anecdotes about their production, Feisal interestingly remarks how through the exploration of these characters, his father seemed to be trying to comprehend his own equation with women. It is a discreet, well intended remark which somehow seems to familiarize the reader with the relationship shared by Ebrahim Alkazi with his wife Roshen and then with his later partner, Uma Anand.
In writing about his parents, Feisal dwells more upon his father’s professional life, the plays he directed, the experiments he did with the use of space and light, the revolutionary ideas he brought to NSD (National School of Drama, New Delhi), the fine actors he mentored during his years as Director, but not upon the personal life which Ebrahim shared with his mother. In the chapter where he writes about his parents’ separation, he does write about his mother’s sadness and their difficult initial years in Delhi but focuses more upon his mother’s endeavour in establishing and running an art gallery with her husband and continuing designing costumes for all of his plays even after their separation. What’s even more intriguing is that his parents continued travelling together, every alternate year, to Europe and Beirut to visit Ebrahim’s parents and siblings. Despite their differences, they came together to enrich their children’s lives by revealing to them the best of art and theatre the world had to offer and by letting them spend time with their paternal grandparents, soaking in love, and mores of a culture they lived far away from.
Back home in Delhi, both Feisal and his sister Amal would spend time at NSD, where their father would rehearse and direct plays and their mother would design costumes. During his college years at St. Stephens, Feisal made his own theatre group called Ruchika and spent considerable time in acting and directing the plays. However, it is while he writes about the theatre of questioning and dissent which gained momentum during the late 1970s and 1980s, that the readers get a peek into his role in taking theatre to wider audiences. He talks about the Sikh pogrom of 1984, the rallying of Narmada Bachao, Babri demolition, brutal murder of Safdar Hashmi and about terrorism in Kashmir. Despite his very humane account of repercussions of violence in a society in those times, he does not anywhere refer to the present regime and the sufferings faced by people in the current times.
In writing about his family, he also gives an account of his maternal grandfather Jafferbhai and his aunt Pearl Padamsee, wife of his Uncle Alyque Padamsee. He credits Alyque for making English Theatre accessible, popular and relevant to middle-class audience of Bombay. According to him, Safdar Hashmi, Mahesh Elkunchwar and Alyque were three individuals who widened the scope, subject matter and audience for theatre in 1970s and 1980s, so that it never looked the same again.
Feisal pays homage to his mother by saying that it was the greatest privilege of his life to have been her son — an endearing tribute to the one who taught him all he ever learned of life. He ends the memoir befittingly with an epilogue in which he mentions the death of his father in August 2020. Ebrahim Alkazi was the last survivor of those who had gathered at the horse-shoe shaped table in 1943 and his going marked an end of an era.
Writing a family memoir comes with its own challenges, especially when the entire family is engaged in pursuits which are open to speculations and public opinions. There is always a risk of either going overboard or offering little to the reader in terms of a relevant account. Feisal does a brilliant job in maintaining that balance while offering this memoir. He gives us a detailed account of what matters and merely touches upon that which can be omitted. His writing is astute, rational and pragmatic while being vigorously ebullient.
This memoir is not only the story of a family dedicated to theatre but also an important document which chronicles the history of Indian theatre as well as arts centred around the two important cities of Bombay and Delhi, of the plays which shaped much of the theatre’s panorama in India, of actors, playwrights and directors whose entire lives revolved around enhancing and taking the form to a wider audience, of the efforts the theatre and people associated with it made to give voice to the common man’s concerns in difficult times. This is an essential read for anyone interested in theatre and in the broader art scene happening in the country during the period.
Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.
“Who are you?” Rarely do people vocalize this question, but you know they’re thinking it — from the very moment you meet them. To answer that question, you have to deal with another, internal one first. Who amI?
For a long time, I believed in a rigid identity, a fixed innate truth. Identity was a monolith, immutable and inherited. Down the river of years and landscapes, I have docked at numerous destinations, calling at each port with a distinct call. Heraclitus said you cannot step into the same river twice: the river moves on and so do you. If everything is in flux, how could I be, forever and everywhere I went, only one of the many things I could be?
In an interview, author Jhumpa Lahiri contended a singular, unchanging identity no longer interested her. Instead, she was seeking out different facets of her being and pushing the limits of how she defines herself. Lahiri grew up in an immigrant Indian family in the US but now lives in Rome, having learned and published in her adoptive language. She wonders if she is a Bengali, an American, an Italian, a woman, a writer, a wife or all of the above? Reading Lahiri’s words was liberating. Here was someone who had immersed herself into the Heracletian river, instead of skimming its superficial curves and bends.
I find this detachment from an unchanging, stereotypical identity appealing as I grow older. The more I turn around the sun, the more I want to shed cloaks of nationality, race, religion, sexuality and career. I want to be who I am, only I get to decide which emotional, political and social avatar I wish to place uppermost given the context. The richness of a pluralistic life means different hues take precedence depending on space and time. Back in the Renaissance period, polymaths were celebrated for being cultural chameleons and intellectual infidels. Utilitarianism has turned us into reductionists and prejudice into bigots. We want quick, short, predictable, comfortable answers to “Who are you?”. “Save the transgressive, subversive ambiguity of your Being,” they seem to say. “We need a label to comprehend your humanity. So, hurry up, what’s yours?”
Like Gandhi who wrote My Experiments with Truth, I too am Indian but unlike him, I am also the person who has lived most of his adult life away from India. I am gay, part of the identity politics of the LGBTQ+ minority and in the same breath I am also a cisgender able-bodied male with unspoken privileges. I am a scientist, but I am also a writer, poet. Sometimes I am a ‘person of colour’ and sometimes my emotional reactions against the racial battle fatigue, make me wish I could simply blend into the seawater of majority White.
Today, I have a paid job, but I am also someone who carries inside the memory of being unemployed. At times the immigrant in me surges to the forefront, on other occasions the anti-capitalist. I can be lucid and peaceful, but I know too the chasms between depression and vitality, the ones that are never fully bridged. Although this schizoid state recalls split personalities, a multi-layered identity is far from an incoherent, fragmented sense of self. All of these planes of existence make me who I am and, nevertheless, none of them are sufficient to define me. Only a paradox remains when I think of the whole of me. Identity then is an oxymoron, in evolution.
Undeniably, in a world that likes stock labels and neat boundaries it can feel chaotic to juggle different identities. Heterogeneity strikes many as a threat. Dissonance, variance, deviance constitute a trident charged against the constant, the power-wielding majority. The allure of sameness is strong in mobs, groups, entitled circles. They proclaim cohesiveness is the same as compassion. All outliers are dangerous. This primitive insularity reeks of exclusivity, of othering.
Invariability strikes those with unquestioned identities as the paragon of assimilation. But assimilation asks a great deal out of me and nothing out of you. How is that fair? Perhaps it is fair in the same way that ignorance and intolerance prosper while justice langours in the darkness. Assimilation has one objective: constancy. I’ve lived in four countries, speak five languages, straddle Science and Art. I stand at the crossroads of the developing East and developed West. I know the taste of racism deep in my skin (like spit full of hateful fear), I’ve walked down shiny corridors of privilege (Oxford, New York, Paris). I know the eyes that ask “Who are you?” and answer before I can, denying me the dignity of equality. In their gaze, my identity is a foregone, implicit bias. To them I say, constant is a dead word to me.
I live in the rough, mean, fleeting edges, the boundaries that no one sees because intersections are tough places. They are also thriving, lush, transcendent niches for the invisible and ignored. At intersections, we become so much greater than the sum total of our experiences. The goal of self-determination is not to figure out the right identity label and hold on to it dearly and protect it vehemently when attacked. Instead, fluidity serves natural order better. Amorphous like the primordial sizzling soup we come from, full of protean charm. Complex and dazzling like precious stones under a stolid terra firma. I wish to carry myself with my multitudinous, contradictory truths. If someone is not prepared to engage in meaningful exchange with my nebulous vibrant ‘otherness’, they will receive a unidimensional, disengaged version of me. Or better, none at all.
Rumi allegedly said “You are the universe in ecstatic motion.” As I write these words, I’m starting to see what he meant. My experiments with difference continue, ironically because the word identitycomes from the Latin one, idem, which means the same. How much of me is lost if the river stops flowing? Congruity always tries to boss over irregularity. In the end, the truth of one’s identity stems from uniqueness, not uniformity. Manifold and bewildering is the flow of an ecstatic river that refuses to be forded by narrow constraints imposed by mankind.
Celebrating the 160th birth anniversary of the polymath, Kobiguru Rabindranath, we offer our readers a selection of translations of his songs and stories and some essays on and around him. For more exhaustive translations and coverage on Tagore, do visit our new section — Tagore & Us.
We launched this section with the translation of seven of his songs by the gifted Sahitya Akademi winning translator and author, Aruna Chakravarti.
In exploring the question of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and alternative masculinities, it is important to keep in mind the multiple contexts and registers in which this question can be explored. One is obviously Tagore’s critique of and take on man-woman relationships in his books and stories throughout his life, which he had observed at close quarters in an extended/joint family context. Many of his short stories, like “The Exercise-Book”, and novels like, Chokhher Bali (A Grain of Sand), show a keen sympathy for women’s aspirations and the situation of that unaccommodated woman, the young widow. Tagore demonstrates his sympathy, even empathy, with the young widow, Binodini, while recognizing that she might pose a threat to social stability within the household of Mahendra and Asha, his girl-wife. The second register is the intertwining of creative writing and androgyny (the latter being a necessary attribute for an author, according to Virginia Woolf), and how Tagore in his capacity as a creative writer had qualities of empathy and sensitivity, which he drew upon to forge unusually close emotional bonds with women. This theme has been discussed by writers and critics under the rubric of Tagore and the feminine or Tagore and women. However, this article seeks not just to explore Tagore’s views on women but his search for a calibrated and balanced way of being in the world without falling into the binaries of imperial and colonized masculinities, and to shape the contours of a self which makes the world its home and is at home in the world.
In his novel Ghare Baire (The Home and the World), we come across a criticism of extremist politics and jingoistic nationalism. A tripartite narrative about the growing political consciousness of Bimala, her failure to understand her liberal husband, Nikhilesh, a landlord and his friend Sandip, a fiery nationalist and a turbulent petrel, who storms the bastions of their household and marriage. Sandip’s brand of militant nationalism appeals to Bimala, who had once harboured feelings of inferiority because of her birth in an ordinary family, and who feels elevated and special under Sandip’s scrutiny. Sandip singles her out for special attention and calls her the “Queen Bee’’ and his muse and inspiration leading her to ignore Nikhilesh’s more mature and balanced views. Early in the novel, Nikhilesh who often functions as a mouthpiece for Tagore’s views in the novel, says that though he loves his country/nation, he cannot place nationalism over humanity. Reflecting Tagore’s views, which espouses internationalism and humanitarianism, Nikhilesh is not understood by his politically immature wife and ignored by his self-serving and unscrupulous friend.
Central to the formation of Tagore’s political views and suspicion about nationalism was his ideological debate with his own niece, his sister, the novelist Swarnalata Debi’s daughter, Sarala Debi Chaudhurani. A keen and fiery nationalist and patriot, Sarala was deeply impressed by the physical culture of imperial masculinities. She was particularly enthused/motivated by the concept of uplifting the nation through encouraging the growth of a physical culture. A statement that resonated with her was the idea of national character and she quotes lines from the ‘Educationist’:
Physical weakness is a crime-against yourself and those who depend on you. Weaklings are despised and a weakling nation is doomed. The decline of ancient Greece and Rome which fell rapidly from the pinnacle of supreme civilization was due to physical neglect and abuse of the inflexible laws of nature. A physically weak nation is drained out mentally, its feet are on the downward path and it will end upon the scrap-heap if it does not act before it is too late.”
She also quotes a proverb which pronounces that the“battles of England are fought and won in the fields of Eton” (Chapter 18,129). Her interest in and involvement with the politics of the freedom movement led her to initiate the celebration of Birashtami (festival of heroes to celebrate martial prowess, bravery and courage)) to mark courage and martial valour. Her belief in developing a physical culture and strengthening the national character made her revive certain traditions, re-invent rituals in order to paint a glorious version of India’s past. In doing so, she encouraged celebrations of Birashtami and invoked and revived the ‘braveheart’, Pratapditya, a landlord with questionable antecedents since he was also guilty of killing his father. In elevating such a figure to a status of a nationalist war-hero, she elicited mixed responses, particularly from her Brahmo family and her uncle, Rabindranath Tagore.
Rabindranath Tagore, among others, strongly objected to Sarala’s invocation of the figure of a parricide as a martial hero. Such a figure could act as a dangerous precedent since it would seem to encourage untrammeled and uncontrolled aggression and blur moral boundaries and ethical codes. This blunting of all moral and ethical codes and boundaries, the danger lurking in a militant and violent nationalism was, as indicated above, represented by Tagore in his novel, Ghare Baire but also in his essays on nationalism. In the novel, the conflict between a rational civic and humanitarian nationalism which eschews violence is embodied by the idealized figure of Nikhil and the primordial reactionary chauvinistic version of nationalism which endorses violence by his ‘friend’, Sandip. After casting a spell (metaphorically speaking) over the impressionable Bimala, whose affection he then misuses to drive a wedge between the couple and then to extract money from her to fund his terrorist activities.
Rabindranath’s indictment of Sandip could be viewed as his response, a sort of extended debate and dialogue with an ideological viewpoint diametrically different from his own, which was represented by his niece. The increasing rift and estrangement between the two — Rabindranath and Sarala — might explain the wistfulness and occasionally melancholic and autumnal tone of Jibaner Jharapata (The Scattered Leaves of My Life) Saraladebi’s autobiography. A proud and self-respecting person, Sarala was probably conscious of the slur or aspersion of effeminacy that the British had cast on the Bengali character. She felt the humiliation and indignity too keenly to accept such descriptions and attributions quietly.
Gandhi and the Crafting of Political Masculinity
One common threadthat runs through the work and writings both these towering personalities of Tagore and Gandhi, is a critique of existing, culturally prescribed and sanctioned models of masculinity as they prevailed in the eastern (Tagore) and western (Gandhi) extremities of India. Both these great men, as public personages, were conscious that they were thought leaders and role models and that examples set by them would be emulated.
In the case of M.K. Gandhi(1869-1948), a great national leader who was instrumental in India’s throwing off the yoke of colonialism in 1947, there is a conscious experimentation with the “truth’’, presumably of one’s inner self, to oppose certain culturally sanctioned models of masculinity. Interestingly, his great-niece, Manu Gandhi referred to the ageing Gandhi as “Gandhiji, my mother” in her diaries, which were translated into English in 2019. When we focus on his corporeal politics, we see in Gandhi’s “experiments with truth” a series of experiments to do with the body which express both a consciously crafted gender ambivalence and throws a challenge to the concept of the manly body of the colonizer. Here my point is that Gandhi was consciously deploying his self, his body identity/ies and attendant subjectivities, in order to make a political point. He used his body and body-politics to establish his difference from the colonially attributed native body and also to mark his distance from colonial models of masculinity. While in one sense, this fluid body seems almost gender ambivalent, it is also an invitation to re-imagine and revision stereotypical notions of gender which circulate in cultures.
Both of these thinkers were probably conscious of the import of the political masculinities espoused by them, particularly under the yoke of imperialism, at a specific historical conjuncture. This conjuncture is the first two decades of the twentieth century, when the models of masculinity available can be broadly conceptualized as imperial, colonial and ascetic masculinities.
The imperial masculinity model is based on the white imperial ‘master’, the civil servant, the ‘pukka saheb’, the kind extolled by Kipling and criticized by E. M.Forster. Coincidentally, this Kiplingesque masculinity, often caricatured, found its takers in people who extolled the muscular, strong masculinity of imperial cultures, like Sarala Debi, Tagore’s niece. The Forsterian view that the English public school culture shaped “well developed bodies, under-developed minds and undeveloped hearts’’ was not known to her, nor would it have found favour. This model also made its way into Indian discourses where it becomes linked with questions of national character and patriotism. In his book, The Intimate Enemy (1983) Ashis Nandy proffers the view that the Indian elite in the 19th century perceived the British as agents of progressive change and accepted the ethos of aggressive imperial masculinities.
According to historians and critics like Indira Chowdhury, Mrinalini Sinha and Chandrima Chakraborty, there was a developing discourse of de-masculinization and emasculation among the British, where they denigrated the Indian middle class and particularly the Bengali men as weak and effeminate and this also led some political leaders to move in the direction of defining and conscious crafting of alternative masculinities.
The third or ascetic model is available in Ananda Math by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and CharAdhay ( Four Chapters, 1933), the last and thirteenth novel by Tagore along with real life characters such as Swami Vivekanand (1863-1902) and Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), albeit delineated with some ambivalence. Chandrima Chakraborty in her book on Masculinity,Asceticism, Hinduism: Past and Present Imaginings of India (2011), highlights the “conjunctural alignment of asceticism and masculinity in Indian political history,” in order for its transformation into a strident symbol of Indian nationalism.
Interestingly, there is a further dimension and addition to this narrative. Jibaner Jharapata is not the only source of Sarala’s life story. She is described in Rajmohan Gandhi’s biography as Gandhi’s “spiritual wife”, because he felt strongly drawn to her, seeing in her a woman who possessed a unique combination of education and emotional strength. To Gandhi, she was a woman whose love for the nation was equally strong as his, although it followed and developed along different trajectories. In a peculiar role-reversal, we find Sarala Debi, who spent her formative years in Tagore family mansion at Jorashanko, inverts the models of “colonized masculinity” to promote and propagate militant nationalism. Tagore and Gandhi, whose spheres of influence she existed in, do not seem to have brought about much of a change in her. The great men eschewed and turned away from existing models of masculinity and moved towards the crafting of new masculinities, drawing on asceticism and spiritualism to do so.
Chakraborty, Chandrima(2011)Masculinity,Asceticism, Hinduism: Past and Present Imaginings of India. Delhi: Permanent Black
Chattopadhyay, Bankimchandra, Anandamath or The Sacred Brotherhood.Trana Julius Lipner, New DelhiOUP
Chaudhurani, Sarala Debi(2007)Jibaner Jharapata, Calcutta, Dey’s Publishing.(Bengali) All references in the text are to this edition,with translations by the author of this paper
Gandhi, Rajmohan (2006) Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, his People and an Empire. New Delhi:Penguin/Viking.
Kumar, Radha (1993) The History of Doing: An Illustrated History of Doing. New Delhi, Kali for Women
Malhotra, Meenakshi (2018) A Dark Goddess for a Fallen World: Mapping Apocalypse in Some of Bankim C.Chatterjee’s Novels in Unveiling Desire: Fallen Women in Literature,Culture and Films of the East eds Devaleena das and Colette Morrow. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press
Ray, Sangeeta (2000) En-Gendering the Nation: Women and nation in Colonial and Postcolonial Narratives Duke UP
Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development at several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing theSelf and Claiming the I, in addition to numerous published articles on gender and/in literature and feminist theory.
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Debraj Mookerjee explores how syncretism permeates between the West and the East — how the two lores do meet
Cultural influences travel at the speed of human imagination. In the modern world it is easy to plot the journey of cultural influences across the planet, thanks to the seamlessness created by communication technologies. The Internet links us all. But we also know cultural influences travelled through the globe since the earliest migration of humans. We know the Chinese invented paper some 2000 years back. We know potato came to India from the new world through the Portuguese and became widely popular only around the 19th century. We know Marco Polo brought pasta from China to Italy. These are things we know. We also know because these are things. But along with things, ideas also travelled, as did poetry and song. Philosophy travelled, and ways of knowing and experiencing the world travelled. How many of us know for example that Ibn Rushid, an Andalusian of Arabic descent born in Islamic Cordoba, Spain, in 1126, translated Aristotelian philosophy into Arabic? Or the fact that these translations were further retranslated to Latin by Thomas Aquinas, a mediaeval scholar who was influenced by, though he differed strongly with, Ibn Rushid? Such is the power of ideas. Ideas are borderless. That is their power.
Within the context of the so-called East-West encounter, there are so many cross-cultural influences we are unaware of. Influences that travelled to and fro the West and India seeped into the cultural experiences of either worlds. History and society can be viewed in many different ways. Politics often invents a vocabulary that insists on differences. Art on the other hand weaves patterns that merge into each other, producing beautiful new forms. Art and the philosophy surrounding it bring different cultures into play with each other. We will walk around some examples of such cross-fertilisation. And in the process perhaps expand the borders of our own minds and how we look at the world. I shall dwell on two such instances of cross-cultural influences. First, I shall look at Gandhi and the influences he shared with the West and the sharing of political ideas and philosophies they produced. I will explore the diverse trajectories his core ideas of nonviolence and civil disobedience took in shaping up to what they eventually became, and even the influences they have had after him. I shall thereafter present Tagore and begin by looking at the shaping of his world view as a thinker and as an artist, reading closely into his specific interactions with particular milieus in England. Finally, I shall look at Tagore iconic music (Rabindra Sangeet) and trace the influence Western (especially Welsh) music had on his works.
“You can love a person dear to you with a human love, but an enemy can only be loved with divine love.” “Let us forgive each other – only then will we live in peace.”
Who would you imagine might have spoken these words?
Gandhi? Almost, but not quite. These are Tolstoy’s words. Tolstoy was a writer, a philosopher and a religious thinker. Gandhi was particularly influenced by Tolstoy’s ‘The Kingdom of God is Within You’ and his essay on ‘Christianity and Patriotism’. Tolstoy’s ideal of “simplicity of life and purity of purpose” had a deep and abiding impact on Gandhi’s core thinking. In ‘Christianity and Patriotism’, Totlstoy writes: “Patriotism may have been a virtue in the ancient world when it compelled men to serve the highest idea of those days — the fatherland. But how can patriotism be a virtue in these days when it requires of men an ideal exactly opposite to that of our religion and morality — an admission not of the equality and fraternity of all men but of the dominance of one country or nations over all others? But not only is this sentiment no virtue in our times, but it is indubitably a vice; for this sentiment of patriotism cannot now exist, because there is neither material nor moral foundation for its conception.”
Gandhi had carried Tolstoy in his heart for the longest time. But shortly before Tolstoy passed away in 1910, as Gandhi began the active phase of his fight for human rights for Indians in South Africa, and thereafter his struggle for India’s independence, he wrote to Tolstoy, prompted by the writer’s ‘Letter to a Hindoo’, in which he paves a path for freedom sans violence. The letter from Tolstoy was addressed to Tarak Nath Das, editor of Free Hindustan, who advocated the violent approach. Gandhi apprised Tolstoy about the Indians’ ‘passive resistance’ against racial oppression in Transvaal. He wrote that nearly half of the total Indian population of 13,000 in Transvaal had left Transvaal rather than submit to the degrading law, and ‘nearly 2,500 have for conscience’s sake allowed themselves to be imprisoned, some as many as five times. Tolstoy’s letter explained why non-violent resistance and a resolve by Indians to become free were the only solution. Gandhi sought Tolstoy’s confirmation of the referred to above being written by him, and his approval to his friend printing 20,000 copies of the same for distribution and having it translated. He had ‘taken the liberty’ to write the letter ‘in the interests of truth, and in order to have your advice on problems the solution of which you have made your life-work.’ Gandhi quoted Tolstoy thus, as he introduced his letter, when indeed it was widely distributed: “Do not resist evil, but also do not yourselves participate in evil: in the collection of taxes, and in the violent deeds of the law courts and (what is more important) the soldiers. Then, no one in the world will enslave you.”
But there is a bigger symmetry at work here than just the transfer of wisdom from Totstoy to Gandhi. Thiruvalluvar was the legendary Tamil poet who lived some time between the fourth and first century BCE. His work Thirukkural is an unparalleled treatise on ethics, communicated in verse. The first translation of the Thirukkural in a European language was done in Latin by Constanzo Beschi, a Jesuit Missionary, in 1730. Beschi himself was a Tamil scholar and poet, known as Viramamunivar. Tolstoy is said to have read a German translation of the work. And his ‘Letter to a Hindoo’ was apparently inspired by what he’d read in the Tamil saint-poet’s work. Around the time, Gandhi wrote an article, ‘Tolstoy’s Satyagraha’, showing how thousands, acting on his views ‘advising people not to obey the laws of the Russian Government, not to serve in the army, and so on’, were going to jail. Tolstoy’s writings, though proscribed, were being published, leading to the imprisonment of his agent. Tolstoy thought that ‘my views are true, and that it is my duty to propagate them.’ Gandhi concluded: ‘True freedom is to be found—only in such a life. That is the kind of freedom we want to achieve in the Transvaal. If India were to achieve such freedom, that indeed would be swarajya.’
Gandhi had told Rev. J.J. Doke, his first biographer (1909): “It was the New Testament which really awakened me to the rightness and value of Passive Resistance. When I read in the Sermon on the Mount such passages as ‘Resist not him that is evil’, I was simply overjoyed, and found my own opinion confirmed when I least expected it. The Bhagavad Gita deepened the impression and Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You gave it a permanent form.”
When we imagine Gandhi, along with perhaps Asoka and the Prophet Mohammad, as among those historical figures who imagined society and politics through the prism of morality, we ought to know the influence of Tolstoy’s thoughts. Tolstoy thought of morality as a category that steps beyond politics. Gandhi could not afford that luxury. India needed freedom. So he introduced morality into politics.
Gandhi harvested patriotism through the principles of Ahimsa and Satyagraha — Non-violence and truth force. The latter was the goal and the former the means. In these he drew influences from ancient Indian philosophy, and from thinkers like Tolstoy and the transcendentalists of America — more on the latter in a bit. So, we find a saint-like figure, a Russian aristocrat and also among the more celebrated writers of his time, conversing across time and space with one whom Churchill infamously labelled the ‘Naked Fakir’, but who went on to become the Father of a Nation.
Here is the interesting thing, and we need to frame this in the context of the Cold War that was to commence soon after the assassination Gandhi – that the other major influence on Gandhi came from, of all places, the United States of America. The Transcendentalists were radical thinkers of the early 19th century who rejected organised traditional religious belief systems. They believed in the ‘oneself’ of the self and the universe. Ralph Waldo Emerson, thinker, poet, writer philosopher, and the most famous of the transcendentalists, once wrote: “Within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty; to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE.”
Emerson took interest in Hindu texts thanks to his aunt Mary Moody. His idea of the over-soul, the universal oneness can be read as a derivative of the idea of Brahman – the singular force signified by the chant ‘Aum’. In this poem by Emerson entitled ‘Bhrama’, the oneness mentioned above is emphasised, as an idea subsumed in the concept of ‘Brahman’, which goes beyond this or that or even the specific injunctions of scripture:
If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.
Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
And one to me are shame and fame.
They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.
The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.
A contemporary of Emerson and one deeply influenced by him was Henry David Thoreau, who advocated both self-reliance and civil disobedience, elaborately discussed in his book, Walden Pond, which is an account of his experiments with asceticism. His practices were motivated by his encounter with yoga. Thoreau seldom was ecstatic. And yet he wrote: “What extracts from the Vedas I have read fall on me like light of a higher and purer luminary, which describes a loftier course through a purer stratum, free from particulars, simple, universal.”
He was fond of quoting from the Bhagwat Gita, as was Gandhi. Gandhi was significantly influenced by Thoreau experiments and ideas. Gandhi, in his 1942 appeal ‘To American Friends,’ wrote, “You have given me a teacher in Thoreau, who furnished me through his essay on the ‘Duty of Civil Disobedience’ scientific confirmation of what I was doing in South Africa.”
At the Second Round Table Conference in London in 1931, the American reporter Webb Miller, a long-time admirer of Thoreau, asked Gandhi, “Did you ever read an American named Henry D. Thoreau?” Gandhi replied: “Why, of course I read Thoreau. I read Walden first in Johannesburg in South Africa in 1906 and his ideas influenced me greatly. I adopted some of them and recommended the study of Thoreau to all my friends who were helping me in the cause of Indian independence. Why, I actually took the name of my movement from Thoreau’s essay, ‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,’ written about eighty years ago.”
Miller noticed that Gandhi, a “Hindu mystic,” adopted from Thoreau the philosophy which was to affect millions of Indians and inspire them to defy the powerful British Empire. “It would seem,” Miller concluded, “that Gandhi received back from America what was fundamentally the philosophy of India after it had been distilled and crystallized in the mind of Thoreau.”
The back and forth does not end here. We all know how Martin Luther King Jr was influenced by Gandhi. He once wrote, “While the Montgomery boycott was going on, India’s Gandhi was the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.”
So ancient Indian philosophy influenced the transcendentalists. The transcendentalists influenced Gandhi. And Gandhi went onto influence King Jr. Kipling might have written that “East is east, and the West is West. And ne’er the twain shall meet”. At the cost of sounding frivolous, perhaps he had not read Mark Twain’s famous poem, ‘A passage to India’.
Gandhi and Tagore were in conversation in the deepest sense of the term, both captured by the tight frame of history, yet never ever contained by it. It is apposite, therefore, to try and capture within the rubric of the larger argument, the influences and intellectual trajectories of both Gandhi and Tagore. Tagore, India’s iconic poet, the first non-European to receive a Nobel Prize, who travelled to England in 1912 clutching a collection of 103 self-translated English poems, became a world phenomenon in a little more than a year. Though Tagore is revered among Bengalis and indeed all Indians as ‘Kavi-Guru’ (Poet Guru, as it were), his development as an artist was syncretic.
As a young boy, he spent a month in Amritsar with his father and was greatly impressed by the devotional songs sung inside the Golden Temple, with his father often joining in. While a landlord in East Bengal during the 1890s he became familiar with the great Baul tradition of Lalon Shah. He absorbed Western influences, especially in his poetry, but also influences as diverse as the paintings of specific communities in islands as far-flung as New Ireland in Papua New Guinea! Tagore took to painting later in age and was never quite sure of his own work, but they have a magical haunting quality that is all too difficult to pin onto a singular culture.
One of the first persons whom Tagore wanted to know was Stopford. Tagore, being a prominent member of the Brahmo Samaj, which was closely allied to Unitarianism, had heard so much of him, and had perceived an alignment of convictions. Sir William Rothenstein,in his account of Tagore’s days in London, says “Stopford Brooke asked me to bring Tagore to Manchester Square; ‘but tell him’, he said, ‘that I am not a spiritual man’.” Soon Tagore would become quite the toast of young poets, who would seek him out, Ezra Pound being prominent among them. Among others whom Tagore met were Shaw, Wells, Galsworthy, Andrew Bradley, Sturge Moore, and Robert Bridges. In a 1915 letter to Robert Bridges, Tagore wrote, “I know what this war is to you… Please let Mrs. Bridges accept my heartfelt sympathy and reverence [for one] whose son is fighting for the cause of liberty in one of the greatest wars in the history of mankind.” Bridges included Tagore’s poems in his Anthology The Spirit of Man in 1915. On his part, Tagore was struck by the breadth of view and the rapidity of thought that he found among his new friends. Addressing his English audience, he said: “Those who know the English only in India, do not know Englishmen … All you people live, think and talk while a strong, critical light is constantly focussed on you. This creates a high social civilisation. We in India, on the contrary, live secluded among a crowd of relations. Things are done and said within the family circle which would not be tolerated outside; and this keeps our social standards low.’
Tagore famous novel, Ghare Baire (The Way of the World, 1916; tran. 1919) presents his disquiet with insular nationalist sentiments, to the exclusion (of what he believed) larger humanist imperatives. His protagonist, Nikhil articulates liberal universal values and is willing to sacrifice his life to ensure peace in his domain (he is a landlord). His fiery friend, the nation (as mother) worshipping ultra-nationalist radical Sandeep, stokes the violence that ultimately consumes Nikhil, but from which he himself stealthily slinks away.
Tagore absorbed more than just ideas from the West. His music, especially the scores of many of his songs, was influenced by his interactions with the West. On his 2012 visit he’d heard the music hall songs and folk tunes that he later incorporated into his distinctive musical genre, Rabindra Sangeet. As a child, he’d heard his siblings play myriad instruments. His older brother Jyotirindranath, significantly, played the piano and violin. From him, Tagore developed an early ear for western musical lilts. Lively English, Irish, and Scottish folk tunes impressed Tagore, whose own tradition of Bhramo hymnody was subdued. Tagore confesses: “At seventeen, when I first came to Europe, I came to know it intimately, but even before that time I had heard European music in our own household. I had heard the music of Chopin and others at an early age.”
Of particular note is Robert Burns, whose poetry and music were quite widely known in metropolitan Bengal. His work was particularly popular with Bengali students in the early days of Hindu College (now Presidency University), Calcutta. The Scottish missionary to India, Alexander Duff, remembers students in Henry Derozio’s (poet and assistant headmaster of Kolkata’s Hindu Collge) discussion group reciting Burns’s poetry and singing his democratic anthem ‘A man’s a man for a’ that’. Two of Burns’s sons served for many years in the Company army, and one of them, James Glencairn Burns, was later appointed judge and collector of Cachar (in Assam), and became an expert in Hindi, instructing company cadets in the language on his return to England in 1839. Burns’s songs pervaded 19th century British India and were well known to many Indians: Rabindranath Tagore adapted at least three of them and set musical scores to the Bengali versions of the original melodies.
Tagore created one of his most popular songs, ‘Purano shei deener katha’, on the model of the old Scottish folk song collected by Robert Burns: ‘Auld lang syne’ (1788). Whereas the Scottish is in dialect, its Bengali counterpart in the standard tongue. There can be no literal translation in songs transcreated, as it were in a different language, since the nature of the two languages is different. And yet, there are great similarities between the songs. The original communicates the eternal sentiment of nostalgia for old friends, memories of good times and longing to revive the same. Tagore communicates the same basic sentiment. One should remember that even though Tagore adapts the tune of the western songs, he very often varies the tempo and the rhythm to suit his own creative needs. The mention of ‘dola’ (swing), ‘banshi’ (flute) and ‘bokuler tolay’ (beneath the bokul tree) introduces interesting indigenous cultural symbols. These words introduce the concept of the god Krishna and his worldly amour divesting them of both divine and erotic connotation. The Bengali song stands as an eternal paean to reunion of friends of all categories.
Tagore’s ‘Phule phule dhole dhole’ is a transcreation of Burns’ ‘Ye banks and braes of bonny Doon’ (1792), the tune of which is based on ‘The Caledonian Hunt’s delight.’ The first four lines of Tagore’s song evokes faint sweet breezes, rippling gurgling stream, cuckoo song and an undefined longing. It is close to the mood of the ‘Ye banks and braes,’ though more mystic and abstract. In Burns’ original version, the nostalgia and longing are rooted in unfulfilled love. In the Bengali, there is no hint of narrative, though the narrative is obviated when sung in its proper context. Sung independently, it appears as a universal romantic desire for an unattainable ‘something,’ intensified by the beauty of nature.
But Burns was not the only one to influence Tagore’s music. In 1885, much before his heydays, Tagore composed ‘Kotobar bhebechhilnu’, using the tune of Ben Jonson’s ‘Drink to me only with thine eyes’. The tune of the original English song is adapted to his original Bengali lyric. Tagore’s song raises interesting cultural issues. The words are radically different, though the mood of love is dominant in both, the English song is much more sensuous, redolent of physical and Petrarchan appeal. Tagore’s Indianisation is romantic, idealistic and self-effacing, but with a witty twist in the last two lines: “Now that you yourself have come to ask me/ How can I explain how much I love you?” Another Irish folk song that inspired Tagore was ‘Go where glory waits thee’ (1807), which was collected by Thomas Moore (1779-1852) and was based on ‘Maid of the Valley.’ Tagore’s songs ‘Ohe Dayamoy’ and ‘Aha aji e basante’ (O Kind One and It is Spring Today) are based on these two originals.
There is a general consensus that Western and Indian songs are essentially different in that in the former the rhythm may change many times within the same song, while it remains the same in most Indian songs. Tagore nevertheless finds the change of rhythms ideally suited to express different facets of feeling (see Tagore’s essay ‘Sangeet o Bhab’). One cannot be entirely sure as to the exact source of his musical preference, whether it comes from Western music, or even from his ear for ‘kirtan’ (popular Bengal devotional music associated with the Vaishnavite tradition). But what is certain is that his music comes from a syncretic imagination, which was able to discern beauty and form beyond the restrictions of nation and culture.
Debraj Mookerjee has taught literature at the University of Delhi for close to thirty years. He claims he never gets bored. Ever. And that is his highest skill in life. No moment for him is not worth the while. He embraces life and allows life to embrace him.
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That is what Gandhi believed and this month, we celebrate this soul who would have loved a world without borders but was forced to be part of drawing boundaries that still lead to violent dissensions and bloodshed. Gandhi himself dissented but with non-violence.
This I understood well when I completed reading MyExperiments with Truth from cover to cover. In the process, I uncovered a man who despite his idiosyncrasies had a lot to offer the world — his outlook and his persistence, his organisational skills, his ability to analyse a solution, his ability to forgive, his presence of mind.
I wonder how many of us understand his ultimate weapons Satyagraha, action based on truth, and ahimsa or non-violence. Is that why often our protests are ineffective as opposed to his protests, only some of his worked in his estimation, like the ones in South Africa? Because people listened and learnt his system. But what happened in India? Bapu’s autobiography cleared up much for me, though only a small portion of the book is devoted to his life in India. He was in South Africa for twenty-one years. I, perhaps, have understood a bit on what he said about protest, about a practitioner of Satyagraha, a Satyagrahi:
“A Satyagrahi obeys the laws of society intelligently and off his own free will, because he considers it to be his sacred duty to do so. It is only when a person has thus obeyed the laws of society scrupulously that he is in a position to judge as to which particular rules are good and just which are unjust and iniquitous. Only then does the right accrue to him to the civil disobedience of certain laws in well-defined circumstances. My error lay in my failure to observe this necessary limitation. I had called on the people to launch upon civil disobedience before they had does qualified themselves for it, and this mistake seem to me of Himalayan magnitude.”
(An AutobiographyorMy Experiments with Truth, Penguin, Pg423)
Gandhi realised his error and withdrew civil disobedience. But I wonder if every protester across the world understands this definition or accrues more to Malcolm X’s school of getting one’s way by “any means necessary”, a reflection that I borrow from the interview of the writer who wrote Gandhi’s life in ballad form, Santosh Bakaya. The other interview we are carrying is of a journalist who upholds the truth — perhaps someone who Gandhi might have admired, like he did Mrs Besant or Gangaben Majumdar (the woman who helped him realise his dream of Khadi) — Teresa Rehman. An award-winning media person, she has spoken of her journey as a “reporter” or a “chronicler” of people’s lives.
This month we had given a call for writings on Gandhi and humour. Some of the responses were a pleasantly surprised. It was amazing to have a surprise essay from New Zealand by Keith Lyons. I only understood what an impact Bapu has had all over the world after reading Lyons’s essay. This time our essay section is filled with writing on Gandhi — Rakhi Dalal’s essay on the relevance of Gandhian values in the present context and Dustin Pickering’s essay, again on My Experiments with Truth, Gandhi’s autobiography. He has even managed to apply some of Gandhi’s outlook to American politics.
Pickering has also given us a spoof on Trump in the future, which brings a smile to your lips as does Bakaya’s spoof on Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr in Heaven. We have lot of stories this time, flash fiction and otherwise, few exhibiting Gandhian values. Our fiction columnist, Sunil Sharma has given us a story that revolves around finding the creator of Alice. Also centring around the theme of Alice’s Wonderland is a review we carry on a translation by Arunava Sinha of Sukumar Ray’s Haw Jaw Bo Ro Lo ( Habber Jabber’s Law in English) by an academic who has worked on Bengali Children’s literature, Nivedita Sen.
The other reviews are that of Bhaskar Parichha — essays brought out on Gandhi as part of his sesquicentennial celebrations last year — and Moiank Dutta, who has given a glowing review of Bakaya’s the Ballad of Bapu. Debraj Mookerjee has reviewed a book called India Dissents and has identified Gandhi as the giant of all dissenters. Here is what he says, and I do not think I could have said it better: “He (Gandhi) was a devout Hindu who was secular to a fault, and against the evils inherent in Hindu society. It is precisely because of this that Gandhi was so successful in mobilising India both politically and socially.”
Varied thoughts on a man who is a major contributor to world change, thought and philosophy with his simplicity and stubbornness have been captured in Borderless this month.
We have a couple of musings on Bapu too, including one which attempts to bridge gaps between the different ‘castes’ in New Delhi.
Our columnist, Devraj Singh Kalsi, has given us his trademark poignant cum humorous non-fiction down the memory lane. Veering more towards humour is our book excerpt of Rhys Hughes new book, Corybantic Fulgours. Do pause by to see what this humorist has to say on evolving a new form of artistic expression, that started out with a doodle any one of us could attempt but leads up to an impossibly named book! More humour in verse has been provided by Mauritian poet, Vatsala Radhakeesoon. We are absolutely delighted that she and Hughes have agreed to contribute humour to Borderless on a monthly basis.
Poetry has an interesting collection this time with three Korean poets, mouthing values that sound like those of Tagore and Gandhi! We also have poetry on and around Gandhi. A poem in which the very well-known Nabina Das reflects on the universality of Shaheen Bagh in being a meeting ground for all believers in democracy would have almost been Gandhian in intent but is it? I leave you to decide for yourself.
Sara’s Selections for young people has a range from butterflies to Gandhi, thanks to Nidhi Mishra and Archana Mohan of Bookosmia. They gave a call for young people to write on Gandhian values too and some of the pieces have been amazing.
Our translations this month have housed a pièce de résistance — Saratchandra’s short story, ‘Abhagi’s Heaven’, translated by no less than Akademi Award winner, Aruna Chakravarti. And we have Fazal Baloch with a translated story from Balochistan. The interesting feature we have had in translations is that two poets from Nepal and Kashmir have translated their own poetry in their respective languages to English!
I leave you all now to discover for yourselves the rest of the magic provided by writers and I thank you all contributors and readers for making Borderless a part of your lives and thoughts!
It is a 600 years old devotional poem by Gujrati poet-saint Narsinh Mehta and we know it probably because it is known to be Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite bhajan or devotional song. He loved it because it speaks about humanity, truth and empathy among humans; traits which he thought were indispensable for harmonious living and which could create a world living in tranquility and peace. His convictions in these humanist traits make his stance on non-violence more comprehensible and relevant to us today. Especially today, when all across the world we witness the grisly play of vicious might bent on establishing hegemony by creating animosity among people, unleashing violence not only in action but also in thought.
The 2010s saw a rise in fascism across the globe. Characterised by ultra-nationalism, unquestioning adherence to a single party/leader, hostility towards minorities, suppression of dissenting voices and people’s civil liberties, this decade’s worse fears have been made worst by the exploitation of social media to spread fascist propaganda. Over the years, most of the platforms have indulged in giving a free pass to hateful messages simply for the sake of maximum engagement and shareholder return or for the sake of not losing business in respective countries where they operate. Even the mainstream media, including news-channels and newspapers, have resolutely carried out the objectives of such propaganda thereby aiding the spread of hatred in society.
In a recent documentary called The Social Dilemma on Netflix — many individuals, who once worked with big giants like Google, Facebook and Twitter, come forth to talk about the threats that our societies now face in the wake of frightening explosion that media has wilfully abetted. Besides addiction to social media, rise in anxiety and depression among people, what these individuals are really troubled about is the onslaught of fake propaganda on social media, which they worry, could lead to civil wars.
According to The Social Dilemma, fake news or propaganda gets viral six times faster than genuine news. This has given a way to effortless creation of polarised factions of people in the virtual world. As a result, sometimes a carefully engineered hatred, which if escalated, can be easily employed to provoke the factions into indulging in actual violence. It does really make for a very powerful tool in the hands of fascist regimes, which is exactly what we are witnessing around us. Social media has helped escalate it. The othering of people on the basis of caste, religion, class and communities has always existed in societies, even in democracies. Now this list also includes people having different opinions than a majority. It seems we have reached a point of no return. We have lost the sight of what social media had initially really intended to do – to bring people closer and connect them.
We have forgotten that violence only begets more violence.
But perhaps, collectively, mankind was never a kind species. Did we ever believe in vasudhaiva kutumbakam, the world is one family? A look back at history is sufficient to prove that, as a species, we have never lived congenially with each other. Neither World Wars nor the consequences of environmental destruction have been enough to make us realise the value of living in accord with each other or with nature. Perhaps that is why saints like Gautama Buddha, Guru Nanak Dev or Kabir searched for a spiritual path, one that could steer more people towards love and compassion. That is why Mahatma Gandhi realised that violence could never be an answer to anything, not even to the fight for independence. BR Nanda, a scholar on Gandhi, has confirmed in an essay on ‘Gandhi and Non-violence‘:
“He (Gandhi) objected to violence not only because an unarmed people had little chance of success in an armed rebellion, but because he considered violence a clumsy weapon which created more problems than it solved, and left a trail of hatred and bitterness in which genuine reconciliation was almost impossible.”
And don’t we all know it first-hand? Recall any of your fights with your friends, even as a child, which turned physical. Can you remember what you felt after the fight was over? After one of you lay down on ground, wounded and defeated. And whether you were able to easily reconcile with that friend afterwards, without a feeling of bitterness inside your heart? We know better, don’t we? We do realise that violence is seated in something much more innate. Engaging in violence is always an easier option because it comes from a place of feeling superior, and not equal, with respect to other. Violent action is usually preceded by violent thoughts. And such thoughts never leave a person at peace. Neither the aftermath of a violent scuffle ever leaves us calm.
Jiddu Krishnamurti says: “It is violence when we use a sharp word, when we make a gesture to brush away a person. So violence isn’t merely organized butchery in the name of God, in the name of society or country. Violence is much more subtle, much deeper.”
On the other hand, choosing non-violence requires courage; it requires a sense of equanimity, kindness, empathy and the necessity to stand true to a notion of higher purpose, which we humans believe is our goal in this world. Gandhiji placed satyagrahaandahimsaat the centre of force of life which can sustain humankind and present an approach to curb the world of brute force of violence. These ideas are eternal because they are inevitable in coming to terms with human condition.
Gandhiji did not only postulate the idea of non-violence, including non-cooperation and civil disobedience, as a form of resistance against colonial occupation, but also against long held prejudices in the social system. He understood it too well that it wasn’t only against colonisers that India was fighting. He conceived violence in its elemental form as anything which is inflicted to hurt, whether physically or mentally. Therefore, he emphasised upon ahimsa as a way of life, upon harmony between people of different religions and upon being kind-hearted. He changed his stance on the practice of caste system in Hindu religion, which he once believed in, later in life.
“According to Gandhi, non-violence is the greatest and most active force in the world,” writes Subrata Sharma, a scholar. He quotes Gandhi while defining non-violence and explains the perspective of this great leader:”‘Avoiding injury to any creature in thought, word and deed’. It is a positive force, when positively put it means love in the largest sense that means love for all without discrimination of good doers and evil doers. Non-violence does not mean meek submission to the will of the doer. Rather, it inspires man to stand against the will of the tyrant. It not only enables us to conquer the opponent but also unites with all our fellow men.”
In the chaotic times that we find ourselves in at present, Gandhiji’s ideas assume greater importance because we have already suffered the consequences of indulging in violence, even on social media. We are forced towards fascism, towards submitting to brute force of authoritarianism, resisting which, in the most assertive and non-violent way has become an absolute necessity. We stand at the junction where we may either decide to put at stake the future of our coming generations, this country and the world at large by giving in to the violent forces of fascism and enmity or we may decide to follow Gandhian principles of non-violence, truth and humanity.
“If humanity is to progress, Gandhi is inescapable. He lived, thought and acted, inspired by the vision of humanity evolving towards a world of peace and harmony. We may ignore him at our own risk.” — Martin Luther King Jr.
Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ . She lives with her husband and a teenage son, who being sports lovers themselves are yet, after all these years, left surprised each time a book finds its way to their home.
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author.
As India celebrated the sesquicentennial of MK Gandhi last year, Marg had come out with a special issue on the lesser-known aspects of Gandhi’s engagement with aesthetics.
Gandhiji’s aesthetics was two-fold: one, it was a quest for exquisiteness and two; it was a set of principles fundamental to the personal practice. Edited by Tridip Suhrud, the nine essays are a fitting tribute to the inventive beauty of Gandhiji and its wide-ranging applicability in present-day society.
In an art project organised by Sahmat in 1994–95 as a continuation of a program called Artists Against Communalism that emerged in response to the Babri Masjid demolition in Ayodhya and as a part of a year-long series of events, artists — from KG Subramanyan to Atul Dodiya, from NS Harsha to Nilima Sheikh, A Ramachandran to Vivan Sundaram, Nalini Malani, PT Reddy, Nand Katyal, Shamshad Hussain, Orijit Sen, Parthiv Shah — were invited to create postcards that could later be displayed as artworks in galleries and also be circulated among the general public as boxed sets. Ram Rahman’s essay ‘Thematic Ad-Portfolio: Postcards for Gandhi’ deals with these postcards.
In the editorial note, associate editor, Latika Gupta, gives an overview of the underlying themes of this volume and how they explore Gandhi’s conceptual understanding of art which combined the ideas of truth, beauty, and utility. The Mahatma is also placed in the context of the current times when his legacy is being put to different political uses.
It is a widely held belief that the Mahatma had no place for art, music, and literature in his ascetic life and ideas about national regeneration. In the introductory essay ‘Art as Namasmaran: The Aesthetics of Gandhi’, Tridip Suhrud unravels the various human and natural artistic elements that moved and influenced Gandhi, the concepts and patterns that guided and came to be reflected in his choice of attire, living spaces, and discipline.
‘In the Footsteps of Spectres: The Aesthetics of Gandhi’s Walks’ by Harmony Siganporia, we get to see how walking was an integral part of Gandhi’s private and public engagements with politics and truth. Gandhi embarked on several important walks throughout his life. They served as forms of pilgrimage, mass agitation, and individual protest. This essay explores various aspects of Gandhi’s walks by revisiting his writings and the photographs of these historic events.
Sudhir Chandra in his article ‘Gandhi’s Hindi and His Aesthetics of Poverty’ dissects Gandhi’s appreciation of minimalism and purity, which is evident not just in his sartorial style but also in his use of language. Convinced that Hindi alone could be India’s national language, Gandhi attempted to transform it into a more inclusive language, incorporating certain words from regional languages and others of Urdu-Persian origins.
‘Music for the Congregation: Assembling an Aesthetic for Prayer’ by Lakshmi Subramanian explores Gandhi’s adoption of musical prayer as an important tool for shaping ashram life and community at Sabarmati. For Gandhi, music was a useful prop to make prayer a joyful experience and prayer was crucial for character-building among satyagrahis. His taste for music was shaped by his exposure to the church choirs of England, and the larger repertoire of devotional recitation and music that had been popularized by V.D. Paluskar and the Gita Press. These influences eventually guided his choices as he approached Pandit N.M. Khare to lead the prayer sessions and public meetings at his ashram and created a collection of songs — Ashram Bhajanavali.
In ‘Architecture as Weak Thought: Gandhi Inhabits Nothingness’. Venugopal Maddipati looks at two houses inhabited by Gandhi in Segaon (Sevagram), Wardha —Adi Niwas and Bapu Kuti. While the former is very simple and minimalist, the latter is more elaborate in design with clearly partitioned rooms. Though it would seem that architecture played a secondary role in Gandhi’s life and was relegated to the marginal spaces of domesticity and interiority, Maddipati has an alternative viewpoint.
‘The Long Walk to Freedom’ by Jutta Jain-Neubauer brings into focus a lesser-known aspect of Gandhi’s personality as a designer and maker of chappals. Gandhi saw in handmade sandals an aesthetic route to eradicate the stigma that had been associated with the communities of skinners, tanners and leather workers. Inspired by the Trappist Roman Catholic monastic order who were staunch believers in austerity and manual labor, Gandhi set up a shoemaking unit at the Tolstoy Farm and later replicated the model at Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. Made from the skin of animals that had died a natural death, this iconic ashram Patti Chappals also came to be known as ahimsa slippers.
‘A Biography in Prints: Gandhi and the Visual Imaginary’ by Vinay Lal studies the evolution of the representations through a range of prints that offer a chronological rendering of his life, charting his transformation from a law student in England to a satyagrahi in South Africa and finally the architect of India’s independence. Lal discusses the subtler meanings and politics conveyed in the compositions.
Throughout his long political and spiritual career, Mahatma Gandhi frequently stated that his life goal was to reduce himself to zero. This was a goal that he variously pursued by shedding worldly attachments, declaring celibacy, adopting abstinence, and periodically undertaking to punish bodily fasts, all for the sake of meeting his ideal of aparigraha or “non-possession”. ‘Reducing Myself to Zero: The Art of Aparigraha’ by Sumathi Ramaswamy reflects on the aesthetic dimension of this key Gandhian aspiration.
‘Ark, Saint, City, Cipher: The Gandhi of Gulam Mohammed Sheikh’ by Ananya Vajpeyi focuses on the Baroda-based artist’s engagement with the Mahatma and his ideals. Looking at a series of paintings made by the artist from 2000 to 2019, the writer analyses how Sheikh draws on references from various older texts and images and places Gandhi as an interlocutor across different periods and philosophies.
A fitting tribute by the Marg foundation to the father of the nation.
Bhaskar Parichha is a Bhubaneswar-based journalist and author. He writes on a broad spectrum of subjects , but more focused on art ,culture and biographies. His recent book ‘No Strings Attached’ has been published by Dhauli Books.
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Dr. Nishi Pulugurthameanders through the passages of Aga Khan Palace…
Places have always fascinated me. They say so much, about lived experience, about people and about culture. There is so much of history and life in places, known unknown and little known. Some waiting to be discovered, some familiar. Tucked in the familiar lanes and by lanes of the city I live and places that I have been to are moments of history, of lives, of stories that need to be heard, places and buildings that need to be discovered. Even familiar places throw up new stories and new histories.
Living in times such as these when COVID_19 has kept us locked in, at times I see some picture, a news item, a small story somewhere that takes me back to a place, a memory, a slice of history and the past. Travel writing has taken up quite a bit of my time in the past few months as I sat editing my manuscript, an edited volume, a collection of travel essays. So, even though I was physically in one place, at home, I was able, at least, for some time to visit and re-visit places as I read the essays that my wonderful contributors had crafted.
I thought of going back in time too, to speak of a place, a city that I had visited some years ago. Of a monument, a building that stood majestic, of a hot summer day when I decided to put to use a couple of hours that I had at hand before I had to catch my flight and head home. Those were times when travel was not a big issue and we travelled for various reasons. Moreover, we could travel when we felt like it, or wanted to. The pandemic has pulled the plugs on that, life has now become restrictive and as I try to make the most of it, I decided to scribble some thoughts that came to mind. Especially, as October was knocking around the corner and being imprisoned was something that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi often experienced. I refer to him as the monument that I speak about has a connection to him and to an important aspect of his life.
On a trip to Pune I encountered a small part of history. This was my first trip to the city and a very short trip at that. I was hoping to make the best of the few hours of leisure I had. A city that had been growing at a fast pace for some years due to the software industry, Pune seemed at first sight very much a modern city that is ever growing and expanding. The older part of the city is crowded with a lot of traffic. The dirty Mutha river, mostly dry, the Shaniwar Wada close by and the very popular Dadushth Ganesh temple are crowded with tourists and locals. I did check them out too. I did write about my visit to Shaniwar Wada some years ago too. In this essay I will write of my experiences of my visit to the Aga Khan Palace. One of the reasons for my choice of it is its connection with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi whose birthday falls in this month.
A short auto ride took me to the Aga Khan Palace that is located in Samrat Ashok Road on a scorching day in May. Built by Sultan Muhammed Shah Aga Khan III, the spiritual leader of the Nizari Ismaili Muslim, this palace was built to help the poor in the region badly affected by famine in 1892. According to popular lore, the Sultan built the palace to provide employment to villagers of the surrounding region. About a thousand people worked on it and it was constructed in five years at a cost of about twelve lakh rupees. For many years the palace housed a school till it was handed over by Prince Karim Aga Khan to the Gandhi Smarak Samiti in 1972 as a mark of respect to the memory of Gandhi.
As one enters the compound one notices a plaque at the entrance that announces that this building is a monument of national importance. It is in this building that Gandhi was imprisoned along with his wife, Kasturba Gandhi, his secretary, Mahadev Desai and political activist and poet, Sarojini Naidu after he began the Quit India Movement, from August 1942 to May 1944. This monument is also important as it is here that both Kasturba Gandhi (February 22, 1944) and Mahadev Desai (August 15, 1942) died. In a corner of the premises of this monument is a Samadhi, a memorial to both of them, marking the place where they were cremated. Two tulsi plants mark the spots. A calmness pervades the whole place. A lone gardener cleans the dry leaves as I stand there for a while transported to another time.
The palace is now a museum with the rooms used by Gandhi, Kasturba and Mahadev open to the public. The rooms are spartan revealing the simple life that its inhabitants lived. A few personal items of Gandhi are on display too – utensils, slippers, clothes and letters. As one enters into the big hall at the entrance there is a large statue of Gandhi. The museum has large paintings which present various aspects of him during the struggle for freedom. There is one that has Gandhi with a begging bowl in front of a big crowd. One image is that of Kasturba lying in Gandhi’s lap, a canvas that presents an intimacy in their relationship. A painting titled “New Hope for Rural India” reveals Gandhi’s engagement with the “Constructive Programme”- a programme that envisaged an agenda for a revolution that would bring about a change in the individual and in society, a programme that Gandhi undertook to prepare the people for a post-independence India. Another painting is titled “A Crusader for Humanity.
The imposing palace has Italian arches and lawns and has five halls. With a magnificent structure, the two storied building has a corridor that encircles the entire building. This building is now the headquarters of the Gandhi National Memorial Society. I recall walking through the building taking in every aspect of it, pausing to observe and note as I move through the rooms and corridor. I remember sitting under one of the large trees and gazing at this building that had been witness to a major part of Indian history. As I revisit the place with words and emotions, in times that are so different, I am reminded of the relevance of Gandhi’s ideals of non-violence in a world that is increasingly becoming violent — in action, in deeds, in words. It is time, to ponder about his ideals that are needed now more than ever.
Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor in the department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College and has taught postgraduate courses at West Bengal State University, Rabindra Bharati University and the University of Calcutta. She is the Secretary of the Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library, Kolkata (IPPL). She writes on travel, film, short stories, poetry and on Alzheimer’s Disease. Her work has been published in The Statesman, Kolkata, in Prosopisia, in the anthology Tranquil Muse and online – Kitaab, Café Dissensus, Coldnoon, Queen Mob’s Tea House, The World Literature Blog and Setu. She guest edited the June 2018 Issue of Café Dissensus on Travel. She has a monograph on Derozio (2010) and a collection of essays on travel, Out in the Open (2019). She is now working on her first volume of poems and is editing a collection of essays on travel.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.