Monthly Archives: August 2006

Performative Production of the State in India

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Akhil Gupta has this article titled ‘Blurred Boundaries: The Discourse of Corruption, the Culture of Politics and the
Imagined
State’ in Zoya Hasan edited book Politics and the State in India (Sage,
New Delhi, 2000). In this article he examines the way people construct the state through various practices including corruption. I found this article extremely interesting as it couples solid field work with fine theorization. The very idea of viewing how people imagine the state into being performatively is great. His is a nuanced reading of his field work data which attends to local history, culture, social set up as well as resonances of relationships. I think it is important to not see corruption as the same everywhere and always (it wont lead us anywhere). There is much sense in following Gupta’s approach and study the performative production of corruption, state, and the relation between state and subjects. If your interest includes state, corruption, performativism, any or all of these, I think you would find Gupta’s article interesting.

An excerpt: “At the local level it becomes difficult to experience the state as an ontically coherent entity: what one confronts instead is much more discrete and fragmentary… it is precisely through the practices of such local institutions that a translocal institution such as the state comes to be imagined.”

Akhil Gupta points out that western categories of civil society and state as well as private citizen and public servant become inadequate to describe the lived realities in India as one finds boundaries being blurred such that the function of public servant need not transpire only in the rationalizes locations of the offices; and the interaction between the civil society and state may continuously be revised on the basis of various factors.

I have only picked a few bits of the many fine ideas to be found in this article. Check it out, folks.

Textual practices in 19th century South Asia

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One of the much debated issues within the field of south Asian studies is the nature and origin of ‘novel’. People have pointed out that the older belief that when Indians started to write novels in 19th century they merely imitated the

European form. It has been noted that much more complex processes were underway than mere imitation. One of my favorite theses comes from Aniket Jaavare who terms it a generic translation. In discussing an early novel written in Marathi, Aniket argues shows how there is mixing of the European prose narrative style and the poetic style of narration commonly found in Sanskrit literature. He goes on to argue that possibly what is happening in 19th century is not so much imitation of European novel, but derivation of the genre which is then mould to the local purposes of the Indian writer. For example one such purpose was to modernize one’s language.

Novel writing is one of the forms of textualising that south
Asia learnt from the colonizer. The modern genres of history, autobiography, journalese are all, along with novel, new to the south Asian culture. Learning these therefore meant that a sort of losing of ones language as these affected the languages. Therefore, the newness of ‘writing’ a novel is also a beginning to alter one’s language, to cut one’s tongue vis a vis the colonizer’s tongue. This space of newness is at once a novel mode of knowledge production as well as one where a negotiated settlement is taking place between the older and the new forms of knowledge production. Thus the emergence of these textual practices is engaged in complex relation of absorption, re-formation, and internalization.

 

 

 

Caste and Identity Politics

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In the post-independence period in Indiaon the one hand there has been erosion in the caste system so that in certain quarters and certain fields the power of this abominable system has decreased; on the other, we see the caste organization being revitalized. This paradoxical situation has been attributed to the policy of reservation policy by some thinkers (not those who are against this policy, but co-travelers). They feel that this policy while enabling the oppressed social groups upward social mobility, also gave an impetus to a process by which many social groups declared themselves as a caste group (while they were seen to belong to a sub-caste earlier), and made claims on the beneficial policy. At the same time, those social groups outside the ambit of this policy felt threatened by the emergence of lower castes into areas of social and political spaces that they traditionally held with themselves, began to mobilize themselves and work for the benefits of their members. This may be seen reflected in the profusion of ‘mats’ (religious seats) and matadheeshas (seers). These twin processes related to the reservation policy have discounted the little progress made in the direction towards abolition of caste.

This argument, offered by those who support the reservation policy yet note the existence of such a sociological situation, is tenable, but within limits. Because, I feel that while this may be true, what has led to the entrenchment of caste interests on the part of the upper castes is also the very idea of losing the traditional power. Social mobility of the oppressed social groups thus has led to a reorganization of the caste hegemony wherein the upper caste social groups find new ways of defending the perpetuation of their domination. See for instance the religious fundamentalism which I believe did much harm to the solidarity of the anti-caste forces in the society. From the ethico-judicial sphere where the power of caste was contested, move towards identity politics was the gift of the religious fundamentalism. Also interesting is the manner in which the exponential growth of religious fundamentalism takes place at the same time as the emergence of the oppressed social groups into the political sphere in a decisive manner, something that was made possible by the reservation policy.

This paradox thus has meant that the goal of annihilation of caste is more or less dispensed with in favour of identity politics. It is this which has created a situation where more efforts at improving the socio-economic conditions of the oppressed social groups would also mean the postponement of the abolition of caste. If the various parties involved in this complex social issue continue to stick to the politics of identity, the goal of a casteless society that Ambedkar and others had set for us to achieve might remain unrealized.

State of affairs of affairs of the State

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Thinking about governance is rather difficult. I find too many intricacies involved and hence if someone asks me about the performance of a government or the result of an election I am confused and unable to give a coherent answer. I of course have no deep knowledge of the subject of governance. But being governed is good enough an education in the subject. There are areas that bore us to death to comment upon or to read or listen to the comments. Say corruption. Sonia’s foreign origin. Lalu. And much else. But I think we need to think seriously on the emergence of a certain insensitive governance. Not that governance was ever very sensitive to people or morals or duties. But in the age of mass media when tv has overexposed the good old field of political scandals with profuse daily doses of them, people involved in governance seem to have developed resistance to even this mode of humiliation and shaming. The result is that accountability is further eroded. There was a time when a few stories in Indian Express had the power to unsettle the cabinet balance. Today, no amount of hidden camera exclusives lead to much change. I read this as not merely an insensitivity but a change in the relation between the public sphere and the state institutions. I think what we are witnessing today suggests that a severance is now appearing between popular politics and politics of governance. Policy framers, political institutions, bureaucrats are all thick skinned about public opinion whatever its intensity. The only quarter that has all their attention is the corporate world. Is this an indication of a shift in the institution of modern politics? There has been a long historical association between the middle class and governance. It seems to me that middle class is losing out to the corporatism – a term better suited to describe present day capitalism.

 

Treasure of Tales

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In my childhood reading story books was looked down upon by my elders. We used to subscribe to a newspaper and then later a weekly magazine. I read the daily comics in the newspaper, Modesty Blasé and Phantom. Phantom catered to curiosity and Modesty Blasé often titillated. I was repeatedly chided for wasting time on reading comics! As for stories I got to hear of many from the elders, primarily my mother. They were mostly stories about religious figures. Not very interesting.

 A cover page of Chandamama in 1948

A cover page of Chandamama 1948.

From http://specials.rediff.com/money/2006/aug/28sld2.htm

Then I was introduced to Chandamama. Now this surely was a treasure of stories that too with illustrations. Easy to read, superbly written and offering variety. The stories of course created a long-ago-in-the-past atmosphere and usually had Kings or princes somewhere. But they also had the common folk. They were accompanied by pictures that aided our visualization of the time and place of the stories.

Later, I would read Chandamama in English. Here again, the stories were lucidly written, held my interest all along. There surely wasn’t nothing in them that titillated but they got you hooked.

I think my interest in reading and later even writing has something to do with this excellent publication. All these came to my mind when reading on the rediff site a feature on Chandamama. It has completed 60 years of publication! Cheers!

Their website is: http://www.chandamama.org/

Chandamama for me for a long time simply meant the Vikramadity stories. With Betala on King Vikramaditya’s shoulders, it had that extra attraction. You can read some here.

I remember picking up a Chandamama a couple of years ago for old time sake! My daughter doesn’t share with me the same enthu for Chandamama. That is understandable; the entertainment quotient of this book is reduced for her generation growing up as they do on multimedia entertainment. For me, forgive the tone of nostalgia, Chandamama was the ultimate source of entertainment. No wonder my father would censure me whenever he saw me with a copy of Chandamama. Well, it only increased the excitement as one read stories and had the thrill of cheating on one’s father at the same time!!!

Hip Hip Hurray! Chandamama.

A note on Amitav Ghosh II

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In Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines (SL), the issue of identity is linked to his critique of nationalism. It is a much commented upon subject, so I won’t pretend to say something new. But, however, I have a case to make, and towards that let me push my argument. The story of the unnamed narrator’s growing up in SL takes in the theme of nationalism by probing the problems confronting the development of a sense of identity. The three frameworks here, as mentioned in the previous post, are represented by Tha’mma, narrator’s grandmother, a die hard nationalist; by Ila, narrator’s desire image, a claimant of cosmopolitanism; and Tridib, narrator’s relative and role model, a ‘man without country’.

In exploring his relationships with these characters and their bearing on the way he views the world, and in cross stitching narratives of war, riots and mass mobilizations, the narrator brings the discourse of nationalism under the scanner for its exclusive claims on the identity of its subjects; the violence across time and space – world war II, communal riots in Calcutta and Dhaka – is made to speak of the divisiveness inherent in the ideology of nationalism. Tha’mma’s shrill exhortations to the narrator to not love Ila as she has deserted her mother land, Robi’s chauvinistic attempts to enforce the cultural code of ‘our country’ on Ila when she tries to dance in a hotel, the easy manner in which even small children internalize the division between us and them during a riot, the commonality of daily lives and people’s aspirations across borders – and a number of such narrative units are accumulated in the novel to weigh against the ‘shadow lines’ that nationalism draws between people; on the contrary, it brings out the bond of human (!) empathy that overcomes divisions to form relationships as between Tridib and May. And contrary to the violence that nationalist emotions unleash, it offers a kind of merciful violence and sacrificial violence that are based on ethics (as when May puts to death a suffering dog and Tridib enters a violent mob to save the old man) rather than ideological hatred.

The narrator’s negotiations with the past, his evaluation of the public history through private memory and his reconstruction of his own coming of age story expose the role ‘nationalism’ plays in the process of identity formation. The novel presents three aspects of the nationalist discourse in the Indian sub-continent: nationalism’s construction of the ‘other’, communalist character of nationalism, and exclusionary principle of ‘national’ category. The narrator’s expostulations on this issue reveal the anxiety about how the ‘other’ makes real borders in the imagination of the people – both within and beyond a territorial polity – and releases ‘terrifying violence’. The rhetoric of nationalism conceals on the one hand, transnational connections and on the other any other forms of collective identity.

However, this critique of nationalism in Ghosh follows a familiar course. That it is one which fits in with some of the postmodernist and post colonial theories have provided this novel much currency. What is seldom talked about is the unsaid aspects of nationalist discourse in the sub-continent. Ghosh’s comprehensive critique of nationalism in SL by remaining silent about the caste dimension of the constitution of nationalist discourse evades a major aspect of it. The nexus between dominant groups and the nationalist politics has achieved a hegemony that for long has rendered invisible the underlying contestations of it through history. Hence, when we read in SL a critique that feigns ignorance on the level of cultural fissures that inform the nationalist discourse, we cant help becoming a little suspicious. It would appear Ghosh’s critique of the grand narrative of nationalism is only a part of another grand narrative of critique of nationalism as it  ignores very important dimensions of the politics of contestation in the nationalist discourse as it embraces the transnational theoretical positions on nationalism.       

Feminist voices in Kannada poetry- II

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Dr. Vijayasri Sabarad is a well known feminist writer and an activist. This poem written in 2005 still has the anger that characterized the feminist poetry of the 80’s. Again, we see the references to myths. The urge among the feminists writing from within Hindu communities to critique the injustice meted out to the mythical women is a double edged sword – critiquing the past as well as debunking their present value. This poem is much more open about the present prevalence of the value system that has constructed femininity as submissive in myths. The patriarchal exhortations that stealthily aim at imbibing servility of women through cultural symbols are frontally attacked here by pointing to its prevalence today.

The strategy of discursive engagement with the mythical symbols in feminist writings in Kannada is well established. The problem with this strategy, though this sounds like nit picking, is that there is a danger of these cultural symbols that are community (caste) specific to be seen as societal.

The present poem picks on many symbols of patriarchal brutality. What I liked about it is its outspoken anger and subversion. In
India today there is super sensitivity regarding certain cultural symbols, such as Ram. This poem does not hide behind indirectness but lambastes these figures for the unjust patriarchal value encoded in them.

It is however the last stanza that interests me. Here are references to symbols of equality in the same cultural field. Kudalasangama and Kalyana refer to the history of Basavanna, leader of an egalitarian movement in the 12th century. I don’t know

 

the reference to Madahavi (shame on me). Do let me know if anybody has any info on her.

About the translation: there is no point in repeating that I have taken liberties in a couple of places to retain the sense of the lines. I have also attempted to dare the English phraseology at times, so that some of the effects of intensification that the Kannada poem achieves through a mode of repetition are carried across. This however is a provisional translation.  

 

They are still here

(Dr. Vijayashri Sabarad: ille iddaare)

 

 

Pervasive darkness,

nakedness all around

sightless eyes and blighted vision

in an endless night.

 

Where are they!

Those that spoke of stars,

those that beckoned

only to lead beyond the habitats

and vanish from sight;

Those who sold the honour,

cursed Ahalye and turning her into stone

became gods to lift the curse!

 

Nude,

naked fields, naked space.

Why this darkness between the earth and the sky?

Where are they –

those who denuded us,

those who paraded our nudity,

those who disrobed in the court?

 

The Dushyasanas of the world

are mere mortals jeering the naked;

What of these great souls, the gods

who bid for disrobing

who begged for nakedness?

Lecherous eyes on the nude body!

Raring to see the body curves

restless lust!

 

Mother Anasuya

didn’t make the triumvirate wait,

breastfed them and put them to sleep

in the cradle!

 

The ones who slept

the ones who disrobed

the ones who forced out of home

the ones who dragged in…

they haven’t disappeared

the ones who should be nowhere,

they are here

as father, as brother, as uncle, as in-law

as assorted figures of maleness,

dancing before our eyes

with the same conceit, same wrath!

 

Moon is bleached

stars are befogged

Kudalasangama has drowned

in the sacred pond of Kalyana

lotus blooms no more

Madhavi, Sky’s creeper is already dead.

From Contemporary Kannada poetry

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Here is a poem from Kannada. S. Manjunath is one of the major voices in contemporary Kannada poetry. His poems are rich in their micro details and careful construction. I have translated here one of his poems that I like. It is an old one though.  

 

Thing Hymn

(S. Manjunath: vastu stuti)

 

Salutes to things

May they not make our hearts logwood

Bestowing on us dumb curses, inertia, idiotic sleep.

 

Salutes to heaps of glittering coins

May they not mock us, entice us;

Vanishing from our pockets

May they not waste the meaning of compassion.

 

Salutes to prostitutes

Their starved eyes, mad derisive eyes

May they not assault poor us;

May they with mercy send us

Onto faintly fragrant road of love.

 

Many salutes to god and devil,

Who is what who knows

May he be safe who claims he knows

May no one make us slaves

May we not be

Death’s morsels even as we live.

 

A Tree

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This poem is by Kannada poet Anand Zunjarwad. Posting here because I liked it.

A Tree

(Anand Zunjarwad: omdu mara)

A tree

Was once my cradle;

Who had raised it by watering

I don’t know.

A tree

Is growing somewhere

For my pyre;

Who is raising it by watering it

I don’t know.

I too like all else

Am nourishing some trees by watering them

For what of whom

will they be

I don’t know.

Bollywood films vs. Hindi cinema

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Reports say that Vishal Bhardhvaj’s Omkara is a good film and a flop. Karan Johar’s KANK is a conservative film and a hit. Critiques feel that this tendency in the career of films where a good film flops and an average film hits is regrettable. We all share such a feeling, more or less. But I feel our categories of good and bad films is not very useful to understand the situation, given that good and bad are relative terms and cannot be applied  without some subjective preference. In this context, Ashish Rajadhyaksha’s distinction between Hindi cinema and Bollywood cinema is useful.

According to him Hindi cinema is one where the film and its world – its inner and afterlife as it were – has a traditional approach. Hindi cinema is geared towards the Indian middle class market, made with an established grammar of aesthetics, even when non-conventional, it orbits the older world of cinema.

As against this the Bollywood film is geared towards the glocal, towards the borderless, is depthless in value, indulgent in emotions, conservative in outlook, and generates its money through a variety of novel ways. Thus in terms of its inner life (actors, storyline, emoting, its costumes, tunes, locales etc) and its afterlife (distribution, promotion, use of allied media, etc) these two are different. Bollywood is for Rajadhyaksha a culture in itself.

Here we seem to see the difference that can work, at least to some extent. Films such as KANK are ‘born hits’ in the manner the film is surrounded by its afterlife; ones such as Omkara (leave alone a Kasarvalli or Shyam Benegal production) have to fight it out in the good old manner. But with much of the revenue being generated today by the shows in the multiplexes rather than good old theatres, Hindi cinema starts with a limp compared to Bollywood cinema. The audience who make the box office jangle at multiplexes prefer less intensity and more emoting, less radicality and more conservative outlook, as long as the Janus faced modernity so typical in
Indiais in place: a westernized behavioral world with a neo-brahminic cultural value.

I don’t know about Omkara and KANK, but today most films fall broadly into Rajadhyaksha’s categories. In appeasing the new middle class with its surface passion and core conservatism Bollywood film has left Hindi cinema behind; Hindi cinema of both the kinds: the daring type that ventures to explore the new and ask questions and the traditional type that is conservative but is not made in the mould of Bollywood or doesn’t have the cultural and marketing trappings of Bollywood.

In such a scenario Shyam Benegal cannot any more make a Manthan. His genre is forced to engage in a dialogue different from the earlier ones. And with a different interlocutor. Not that parallel cinema ever did well in box offices, but it seems that today the very possibility of making such films is hardly imaginable. Ideological shifts are perhaps one reason; I also feel that cinema as a media has shifted decisively towards postmodern aesthetic grammar and parallel cinema doesn’t fit in.  

Feminist voices in Kannada

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This post offers a few scattered thoughts on feminist poetry in Kannada focusing on a translation of a poem by Saraju Katkar. I hope to add more later.

Here is a poem translated from Kannada:

 

Ahalye

 

You

Ahalye,

As stone you were a legend

A poem, a novel,

A living proof of male ego.

 

With rebirth

One thought you would raise

The flag of rebellion

Against Indra

Against Gautama

Continuously

Against male oppression.

 

But, Ahalye,

Becoming a woman after becoming a stone

You became a slave

To Gautama

Entering his monastery

Unthinkingly

 

You were alive as stone,

Ahalye

Becoming woman again

You died.

 

 

This poem addresses the mythical character Ahalye, wife of Gautama, molested by Indra yet punished by Gautama (he curses her to become a stone until Ram visits the stone at a later age). Here is a common motif in Kannada (and I suspect in many Indian languages) feminist poetry (written by those from Hindu communities): invoking the mythical female characters. Two purposes are served in this attempt. One, the myth itself is questioned and undermined; the mythical women are reviewed from feminist point of view. Second, the very apparatus is debunked that had been used by the patriarchal discourse, that of myth that reinforces and propagates submission of women to men’s rule, that invites women to emulate the example of the mythical characters who had been submissive to men. Thus the feminist content of the strategy is not anachronistic. It aims at dismantling the patriarchal instrument of discursive enforcement of submissiveness. Hence, a poem such as this might appear to be pointless in talking about the past and addressing mythical beings. But, actually they are addressing the practice present till today of quoting the mythical characters to seek women’s submission to male ego. This poem is a good example of both this strategy and the ideological resistance it inscribes.

This is usually found in the poetry of those who write form within the upper caste Hindu communities. For the others, these characters are largely irrelevant. Yet, the strategy of debunking the myths may not be irrelevant because there are continuities between the deployment of myths to enforce patriarchy and the one to enforce brahminical hegemony. That is why in anti-caste literature also we come across the same strategy.

How different such engagement with the past is from the ones that seek to find in past a means of forming cultural continuity. That is why I am often uncomfortable when one talks of cultural amnesia, need for finding roots in one’s tradition.