Doing things which are not permissible: Poet Prabodh Parikh on love affairs

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He had me at “Grant me the strength to look at you”. It was the most memorable line I’d found from his work while prepping for this interview – more so because it was the one I’d secretly fought against. Surely he was asking for the wrong thing – surely he meant to ask for strength to look away! I mentioned this to him over our first phone conversation (“You have a way of exciting an old man’s ego!”), as we planned my visit to his expansive home library, composed of more than 7000 books. Walking into the dentist’s clinic, he signed off saying I needed more Janis Joplin and Osip Mandelstam in my life.

Walking up to his home, I murmured things to remember if they were to come up in conversation; Prabodh Parikh – Gujarati poet – film curator – short fiction writer – visual artist – Buddhist philosophy – modernity – “intoxicated by imaginary homelands” – veritable jazz collection, and so on. The moment I entered, however, I realised the futility of preparing “talking points” when conversing with such a person.

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Our conversations began with a quiet, unusual proclamation – “I’m good at buying books” – and then traipsed behind boiled-over filter coffees, Rabindra Sangeet sung in elevators on our way out for sabzi-buying errands (“I’ll bet Arundhathi and Sitanshu never had you accompany them to buy raw bananas and yams! But what can I do – my daughter comes home tomorrow and she loves undhyu!”), freshly fried muthiyas, and spontaneous performances of ‘Love After Love’ (made more special after his story about chancing upon a signed Derek Walcott poetry anthology at a second-hand book cart in New York in his 20s) as we walked through rooms wallpapered with bookshelves. Every utterance he spoke seemed to carry the hallmark of phrases from books I haven’t yet read, books that he desperately wants us all to be at talking terms with…


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“You’re a young boy from a one-and-a-half-room Kalbadevi chawl – and you’re buying books. Your father says, ‘You are one of four brothers, with one drawer to call your own. Where will you keep them?’ In 1970, for an Indian boy with no money, book-buying meant adventure, hardship, risk. I used to steal books from J. B. Petit library near Khadi Bhandaar. After I moved to America to study, my father returned the whole lot of them, with a letter of apology. That is part of being in love. You do things which are not permissible.

Beginning an obsession is romantic; sustaining it is what makes it significant. Engaging with books is a sensitising experience. This sensitivity comes from learning to read well, converse well, listen well. And yet, I cannot think of myself as a collector – they tend to go after first editions and rare books. I belong to the breed of my Calcutta book-loving friends, who make Rs. 500 and have to spend Rs. 495 on buying books, because they yearn to inhabit those worlds.”

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“I wish I could be 16 and tell people about the books I love. I’d focus more and share with nuances – without sounding pedantic! – what I cherish with the world. I’m a cultivated soft target – at ease with the world, and yet often left feeling alienated, scattered, chaotic. I read well, I read little. I listen to Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ every day. Eliot was an imperialist, a conservative, a Catholic. I am not these things, but I listen to him and am at peace.

I was reading Nadezhda Mandelstam’s ‘Hope Against Hope’ in line outside HDFC bank the other day – it’s the true memoir on the life of a poet sentenced to death for writing a poem on Stalin in the 20th century. Do I owe it to the world to share this, or do I stay with this rich complexity within myself?

Once, when the social reformer and teacher G. Ramachandran was talking to Gandhi, he accused the latter of being an arasik – someone who isn’t a connoisseur of the arts. Gandhi was in a hospital then, and just as Ramachandran was going to make him listen to some music, Gandhi asked all the other patients and doctors if they wanted to listen too. His enjoyment was not above the concerns of others. How can anyone be more of a rasik than he was in that moment?

I have five saints. They are John Cage, Mandelstam, Kafka, Beckett and Simone Weil. Always be with the best minds. Struggle with them. Start by reading Susan Griffith. Forget everything else I have said.”

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Prabodh’s method of memory keeping – making collages from his travels, complete with menu cards, photographs, poetry and museum tickets.

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“Simone Weil – a demanding young Frenchwoman – is uncompromisingly seeking a god. She knows grace. She recognises the absence of it more than its presence. When I read her, I don’t understand half of what she says – I clutch my head! – but if I didn’t, I’d be the lesser for it. I try to remember that there is Milan Kundera in a gesture of putting chandan on your god’s forehead.”

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“There is something crucial to understand – not if you’re a Buddhist, but if you aren’t one – and it’s that we all have limited potential and unlimited ways of exploring ourselves. And so we must be gentle with ourselves. As Eliot wrote, it’s not about the competition, but a fight to recover what has been lost.

Gandhi believed that saying ‘Ram Ram’ fixed illnesses. He could be stubborn and irrational. In being that, he brought out the neurosis of everyone on the planet.”

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“John Cage says that the evidence of love you can give to another is getting out of their way. He only writes aphorisms, chhoti chhoti baatein. He says that he has nothing to say, and he says it. That is poetry. Beckett says that he has nothing to say, that there is a compulsion to say, a desire to say, and finally a failure to say.

Poetry is resolved. A poet is unresolved. For me, skills come from the window and leave at the door. I just happened to be in Mumbai reading Mandelstam. I could be in Paris reading Tagore while visiting the Sorbonne, weeping. Did you hear the Oxford Word-of-the-Year? It’s “post-truth”. Humans are always looking for ways to entertain themselves, it’s too funny.”

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“The best poets deal with life using language. The best suffering human beings deal with themselves. Poetry doesn’t give you anything; you have to take it. I cannot overcome Tagore. I reinvent him all the time for myself. I wish to get rid of rhetoric and deconstruct everything. But if I give up my rhetoric, what am I left with?

I’ve been obsessed with a line for a while, and it is this – ‘I have a yearning for world culture’. Except I’d replace the word ‘yearning’ with ‘homesickness’. It’s a hopeless idea – how can I ever be at home in a place that doesn’t serve undhyu? Being a parivrajak – being homeless, and thus truly free – is a Buddhist notion, but I don’t know how I’d achieve it. You and I would wander away to Paris – I love that city, it doesn’t cease to fascinate me – and end up building a home there too! We are yet to find a way to be homeless.”

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“What is this obsession with an African American expression of art? What does a Gujarati boy from Kalbadevi have to do with jazz? It defined me differently from all the other Gujaratis of my world. I read Sartre, listened to jazz, fantasised about Paris – and waited in line with ten others to use the bathroom of my chawl. Fifty years of listening to jazz began by winning J. J. Johnson and John Coltrane records while gambling with college boys in my late teens.”

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“Looking closely at the unexamined parts of you and finding a collision of different poetics – vispot – can make you have a nervous breakdown… or it can allow you a dialectic where fresh permutations happen. The Dravidians and Aryans collided, and this could have destroyed both, but instead created the Indian civilisation.

Yet, we don’t survive like John Cage. We survive half-heartedly. We compromise on dreaming, relationships, visions, risks, calculations, and dealings. I once asked the Dalai Lama – ‘Can you have two lives in one life?’ He took his time, and then retorted, ‘Yes, if you have two brains!’

I constantly suffer from this feeling that I am not equipped. Some of us lead half-hearted lives because we don’t equip ourselves with resources. Is this inevitable? The poet in me says – no! It’s not inevitable.

Fight it, because living half heartedly means giving up enchantment.”

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Interviewed and photographed by Tanvi Shah.

Prabodh Parikh is set to regale us with memories, musings and map-less journeys at his Mumbai Local session ‘A Homeland without a Name: Journeys through poetry’ on Dec 11 (Sun) at Bhau Daji Lad Museum, 5 pm. How do we define a homeland? Someplace we grew up in? Someplace we find a part of ourselves in? Someplace that feels familiar and evokes love? What if there are many places that make us feel this way, even if we have never been there? Prabodh will have us traverse many homelands with his poetry while acquainting us with his anchors.
This session is part of Junoon‘s Mumbai Local series, and is free and open for all.

To read more creative collaborative pieces, click here.

Discovering dance in Bombay’s libraries: Dance critic Sunil Kothari on reading in a bygone era

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Posing with Martha Graham’s modern dance student Uttara Asha Coorlawala at Sydenham College.

“Strange as it may sound, the annual report of Standard Oil Company once carried an article on Kathakali, describing the colour schemes representing the qualities of various characters from the Mahabharata and Ramayana according to their Sattvika, Rajasika and Tamasika traits. No other dance forms used such elaborate colours for their makeup, costumes, ornaments and crowns. This was how I came to learn about Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Manipuri and Kathakali.

My memories of Bharatanatyam at the time were limited to having seen Vyjayanthimala in the films Bahar and Ladki. I still recall the lightening quality of her graceful dancing! My painter friend Bhupen Khakhar and I used to go see those films at Capitol Cinema opposite Bori Bundar station.

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Interviewing Vyjayanthimala at Madhya Pradesh’s Khajuraho Dance Festival, 1989.

It was an evening in September in 1957 when I discovered Marg’s special issue on Bharatnatyam. I came across a young, handsome man reading it at the Petit Library in Fort. Seeing me hovering, he gently asked me if I was interested in reading it. On the magazine cover were the 108 Karanas that are carved on Chidambaram’s Gopuram gates, with the shlokas of Natyashastra in the Grantha script. I told the man, “If you have browsed it enough, I would like to!” He found this interesting. When he told me that he was Pradumna Tanna, I extended my hand and said that I had read his poems and seen his paintings in Kumar, a Gujarati monthly published from Ahmedabad. When he found that I’d studied Kathak at Deodhar’s classes near Opera House and was interested in learning about other dance forms, he showed me his sketches of the celebrated dancer Balasaraswati in the Marg issue. There were not many books on dance in Gujarati that I knew of during that period, and I certainly hadn’t read any about Bharatnatyam. Intrigued, I wanted to read that issue from cover to cover.

Later, Pradumna took me to Marg’s Bank Street office in Fort and introduced me to its founder, writer Dr. Mulk Raj Anand. He told Mulk about my interest in dance and how much I appreciated the Bharatnatyam issue. Pleased, Mulk invited me to one of his lectures at Bharada High School near Bori Bundar. During the lecture, he spoke about Georgette Bonner’s interest in Indian dance, but referred to her as George. I had been reading her article on Kathakali around that time, and told him during the Q and A session that her name was not George but Georgette Bonner, sister of Swiss sculptress Alice Bonner. Mulk said that he stood corrected, and invited me to lunch at his home the next day. When I told Pradumna about the incident and my audacity, he assured me that Mulk was a very warm-hearted person and that I needn’t worry.

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With Dr. Mulk Raj Anand.

Entering Mulk’s ground floor apartment at 25 Cuffe Parade, I was ushered into a different world. In the impressive drawing room were stacks of books on art, painting, sculpture and philosophy, a bed on which Mulk would recline, a large oil painting by Ceylonese painter George Kyte, and a sculpture of Buddha’s head. I remember Mulk introducing me to his wife Shirin Vajifdar as a young dance scholar! We were joined for lunch by poets and writers, and pleasant discussions spanned poetry and a recent exhibition at Jehangir Art Gallery.

Around this time, Bhupen and I had signed articles for chartered accountancy. Neither was his heart in accountancy – he had joined painting classes at Grant road – nor was mine. The articles period was for five years, and we decided to go to office as articled clerks after attending morning classes at Siddharth College, thereby simultaneously getting a Bachelors in Arts. We soon realised that this was madness. We decided to focus on our Bachelors degrees – this way Bhupen could attend painting classes and I could study dance – and enjoy college for three more years, after which we would responsibly get a BCom degree and join a CA firm.

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With Chandralekha, Balasaraswati and others.

During this period, I went to Mr. Marshall – the Parsi chief librarian of Bombay University – with a letter from Mulk requesting permission for me to visit the Rajabai Tower library. The library with its high ceilings, stained glass windows on either side, and very British architecture was on the first floor. There was a large table with chairs on all four sides. The atmosphere was conducive for reading in pin-drop silence. When the librarians found out that I was studying and writing on dance, they gave me all the facilities I needed. And that was when I started dedicatedly devouring books on dance.

Mr. Marshall was, I remember, particularly kind. He even gave me a special access card to browse through the racks where books on dance were kept. There were more than eighty books on Indian classical and folk dances, two dance encyclopaedia, books on Balinese and Ceylonese dance traditions, and on opera, puppetry, theatre, and ballet. There were even pictorial books on archived dance posters! I began to bring all this knowledge into my dance writing and curation later. I remember reading American dance critic and poet Edwin Denby’s quip about how dance criticism should be of such an order that even when the readers haven’t attended the show, they get the sense that an artistic event had taken place the previous evening. I liked this approach, and asked Mr. Marshall if there were books by American and British critics in the library of Bombay University. He guided me to the United States Information Service (USIS) at Churchgate, and to the British Council Library.

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Governor Sadiq Ali releasing Dr. Kothari’s book on Bharatnatyam, published by Marg, at the NCPA, 1979.

At USIS and British Council, I found books by John Martin, Walter Terry, Arnold Haskell and Cyril Beaumont that completely opened my eyes. I read about how John Martin had helped establish the Modern Dance movement in America. Arnold Haskell wrote about his travels and firsthand experience working with ballet. I began to understand the significance of copious references at the end of books, because every time I finished one book I would be introduced to several more. I recall reading in awe about dance marathons happening in America – you must remember that there were very few early writings on dance, and all this was a fresh discovery! I used to dream that an opportunity would take me to New York and London and I’d meet the critics whose writings had helped me understand forms like modern dance, classical ballet, and given me a glimpse into the lives of legendary dancers like Martha Graham and Anna Pavlova.

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Interviewing the Russian ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev in Washington, 1975.

My interest in classical dance forms increased significantly after my reading sprees, and I went to Mulk one evening and told him that I would like to seek Mohan Khokar’s advice and join Baroda’s Maharaja Sayaji Rao University to study dance, instead of pursuing CA.

Mohan Khokar had studied Uday Shankar’s style of dance from his disciples in Lahore, been the first male dancer from the North to join Chennai’s Kalakshetra to study Bharatnatyam, and went on to settle in Baroda as a Bharatnatyam lecturer. He was the one who proposed that Mulk edit four major Marg issues on classical dances, beginning with Bharatnatyam.

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Professor and dance historian Mohan Khokar.

I wrote to Mohan explaining my dilemma. We used to correspond regularly – I used to translate his long articles on Kuchipudi and Bhagavata Mela Natak to Gujarati for Kumar magazine – and he would constantly tell me to read books and attend performances. I remember the date when Mohan asked me to visit Baroda and stay at his home. After visiting Baroda and meeting with Mohan, I was to go to Ahmedabad and meet the dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai. Mulk sent letters to both Mohan and Mrinalini, introducing me. It was 15th December, 1957. 52 Alkapuri was a spacious bungalow; the rooms had
cupboards full of books on dance, photographs, magazines and newspaper clippings. In the coming days, Mohan showed me his collection of books and photographs. He knew that I had read most of the books at Bombay University’s library. We spoke at length about various books on dance, about critics like Arnold Haskell and Walter Terry, and about dancers like the Jhaveri sisters, Shirin Vajifdar, Rukmini Devi and Shanta Rao.

When I asked him about my joining his University’s dance department, Mohan advised me to first complete my chartered accountancy and then decide if I wanted to seriously opt for the career of a dancer. He was frank, and said that neither he nor I were endowed with the personalities of performing dancers. Moreover, with Bharatnatyam gaining popularity among female dancers, the scope for male dancers was less. Though I was very disappointed, his advice made some sense. He suggested that I attend dance performances, write on dance, and do research. Mumbai was becoming a centre for professional dance presentations, and there were increasing opportunities to watch dance and write reviews. Since there were very few young persons who were interested in conducting research and academic studies on the subject, if I were to follow his advice, it would satisfy my desire and love for dance while recognising the limitations the life of a performer would bring to me.

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With NCPA trustee Dr. Jamshedjee Bhabha and Kathak exponent Kumudini Lakhia.

I picked up so many things from each person I spoke to on my journey. Mohan fastidiously kept copies of his correspondences, and recommended that I do the same with typed letters. He also told me to learn photography to document events, and not depend on dancers to send over their photographs for my articles. I learned how important detailed chronicling was to be able to write informed, historically accurate articles. The sense of preserving – whether it be performance brochures, rare photographs or articles – was instilled in me by him, and it has held me in good stead all these years.

On 19th December, I called on Mrinalini Sarabhai’s Chidambaram residence. In the midst of Nathdwara pichhawai, rubbings of Angkorvat temple, and streaming gold sunlight, Mrinalini – in a yellow Benarasi saree and a bindi on her forehead – invited me to Tagore Hall for her dance-drama performance of Ramayana. It was one of the most strikingly exquisite arrangements I had ever beheld. As I began to watch more and develop my critique, I travelled with the Jhaveri sisters and Ram Gopal, went to the North East and beyond searching for dance, and did things I would never have dreamt of if Mulk hadn’t rescued me from a sure shot future behind a desk on the 22nd floor of a Nariman Point glass building!

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With Bharatnatyam dancer Ram Gopal (extreme right).
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Arranging performances of Protima Bedi and Mallika Sarabhai for Sydenham College.
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Then President of India Dr. R. Venkatraman releasing Dr. Kothari’s Kathak book at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Bhupen went home to Baroda to tell his parents about his change of heart, and his decision to pursue painting. We didn’t want to disappoint our families, but fortunately were part of a very strong artistic group where each individual was encouraged to find their voice. I find that once you get rid of your emotional baggage and are on your way to financial independence, you have a choice to make. It can be an unpleasant position to be in, but if you are willing to stick out your neck… you will find poetry in unexpected places.

Dance is not a popular art form. The readership for dance criticism is limited. But I must pass this on – these stories, this sense of astounding discovery, these relationships formed with artists who became lifelong mentors and friends – and convey that dance is not only created by glamour and publicity, but by poetry…”


Conceived with and edited by Tanvi Shah.

Photos courtesy Sunil Kothari’s archives.

Partake in Sunil Kothari’s singular brand of curiosity at 5.30 pm on Dec 16 (Fri), when he conducts his Mumbai Local talk ‘My Journey through Dance: Anecdotes, Dance Criticism’  at Fort’s Kitab Khana. Over the years, his travels have spanned myriad dance forms as well as the length and breadth of the country. And at every step, he has asked questions and offered insights that have pushed the boundaries of both the performers – spanning Rukmini Devi Arundale, Yamini Krishnamurti, the Jhaveri sisters, Sanjukta Panigrahi, Chandralekha and many more – and their art forms. His session promises anecdotes, stories and insights on what it means to hold a mirror up to performers finding their own voices, and how dance can be connected with and relevant to how we perceive and seek to reimagine our cultural and social contexts.
This session is part of Junoon‘s Mumbai Local series, and is free and open for all.

To read more creative collaborative pieces, click here.

Making sense of 1984, 1993 and 2002 with Manto: Documentary filmmaker Rakesh Sharma on his influences

Sirajuddin was sitting. Four people walked past him, carrying someone.

When he inquired, he learnt that they had found a girl lying unconscious near the railway tracks and had brought her to the camp. He followed them.

They handed the girl over to the hospital. Sirajuddin stood leaning against a pole outside the hospital for sometime. Then he slowly walked into the hospital.

There was no one in the room. Only the body of a girl lay on the stretcher. He walked up closer to the girl. Someone suddenly switched on the lights.

He saw a big mole on the girl’s face and screamed, “Sakina!”
The doctor, who had switched on the lights, asked, “What’s the matter?”

He could barely whisper, “I am… I am her father.” The doctor turned towards the girl and took her pulse. Then he said, “Open the window.” The girl on the stretcher stirred a little.

She moved her hand painfully towards the cord holding up her salwar.

Slowly, she pulled her salwar down.

Her old father shouted with joy, “She is alive. My daughter is alive.”

The doctor broke into a cold sweat.”

Pulling her salwar cord for the next round of gangrape. Sakina.

No, this is not the testimony of a Gujarat 2002 survivor from Naroda Patiya.

Yes, in 2002, many fathers and mothers, brothers and uncles found their gangraped daughters/ sisters/ wives abandoned in the fields, or in crowded lanes full of charred bodies and burnt down homes, and sometimes – if they were lucky – inside a hospital still alive, like Sakina.

This is an excerpt from Manto’s ‘Khol Do’, written in the aftermath of the horrific violence unleashed during the partition of India by bloodthirsty mobs from both sides of the hurriedly-created border.

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Saadat Hasan Manto. Photo courtesy Ayesha Jalal.

Manto: Among my earliest influences

Though my father, a minor literary figure in the early years of the Nai Kahani movement, stopped writing by the late 60s, he had a library full of anything significant written in Hindi. I started reading literary stories as a 7-year old, devouring mainstream magazines like Dharmyug, Saptahik Hindustan, Navneet etc and several minor literary journals like Vinod etc. Soon, I discovered Premchand, followed by Yashpal, Krishna Sobti, Bhisham Sahni and many others.

I found Manto when I was 10 years old. By 14, I had re-read many of Manto’s stories, understanding more of the nuances and layers with each subsequent reading. I had grown up with stories and anecdotes about the tremendous upheaval caused by the Partition in my maternal grandmother’s family; from being ‘landed gentry’ in Pakistan, they turned paupers overnight in 1947, barely escaping to India in time.

I was privy to the incidental narratives of grief, loss, tragedy and mayhem as I was the oldest grandchild, often on chaperone duty, escorting my grandmother to sundry reunions within the ‘partition community’. Manto gave me a broader understanding of the fragmented narratives from within my own family and from the many others I met and heard during such meetings.

I still recall the first time I read the short sketch ‘Mishtake’ – it traumatized my young mind to imagine such a mob, but in it I found echoes of the stories I had been hearing.

“Ripping the belly cleanly, the knife moved in a straight line down the midriff, in the process slashing the cord which held the man’s pyjamas in place. The man with the knife took one look and exclaimed regretfully, ‘Oh no!… Mishtake!”

While still in my early teens, I learnt from Manto that the universe wasn’t purely black-and-white. That it contained within it ambiguity, ambivalence and contradictions. That a moment could transform a good person into the vilest monster, or lead to noble, selfless deeds by a ‘bad person’ – a pimp, prostitute, conman or a dishonourable neighbour. That violence didn’t end or vanish with the return of ‘normalcy’ – that those touched by it got affected and transformed, even the perpetrators. (This, in fact, forms a significant part of my upcoming work ‘Final Solution Revisited’, in which I speak to several ‘footsoldiers’ from the mobs.)

I still re-read Manto, every couple of years – he continues to guide and inspire me. How I wish his words didn’t ring true nearly 70 years later!

Blowing on the blood-cot forming on his mustache, Eesher Singh said, “The house I attacked had seven people in it. I killed six of them, with the same dagger you stabbed me with. There was a beautiful girl in the house. I took her with me.”

Kalwant Kaur was listening intently. Eesher Singh once more tried to blow the blood off his mustache. “Kalwant darling, I cannot tell you what a beautiful girl she was. I would’ve killed her too. But I said to myself, no, Eesher Singh, you enjoy Kalwant Kaur every day. Taste a different fruit.”

“Oh” was the only word out of Kalwant Kaur’s mouth.

“I put her on my shoulder and got out. On the way… what was I saying… oh, yes… on the way, near the river, I lay her down by the bushes. First I thought deal the cards. But then I decided not to…” Eesher Singh’s throat was completely dry.”

“Then what happened?” gulped Kalwant Kaur.

“I threw the trump card… but… but…” Eesher Singh’s voice was now a mere whisper.
“Then what happened?” Kalwant Kaur shook him.

Eesher Singh opened his tired and sleepy eyes and looked at Kalwant Kaur whose whole body was trembling. “She was dead, Kalwant, it was a dead body… a cold flesh… please hold my hand.”

Kalwant Kaur put her hand over his. His hand was colder than ice.

‘Thhanda Gosht’

The Spanish philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Perhaps this is why I haven’t been able to bring myself to move on, to stop chronicling the impact of a cataclysmic event like the 2002 massacre or the Mumbai terror attack or the Malegaon bomb blasts. I’ve also begun to feel that there are too few of us exploring this contemporary reality of ours in art, theatre, literature or cinema (unlike, say, Germany, where the Holocaust formed a part of the discourse not just in the arts but also in school classrooms – rather than sweep the horrific memories away or bury them, they kept the discourse alive).

Each time I decide ‘no-more-documentaries’, I cannot bring myself to abandon the journey I’ve found myself on from 2002 onwards. I even resisted filming in Malegaon for a couple of years, but once it became apparent that no one – not a single film-maker – had filmed in Malegaon and was unlikely to, I felt I had no choice but to document what I considered to be a key moment in Indian polity – the next phase of aggressive assertion of Hindutva, after Babri 1992 and Gujarat 2002.

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Vijay Tendulkar. Photo courtesy http://www.vijaytendulkar.com.

Vijay Tendulkar: Another early influence

One of the playwrights I’ve always admired is Vijay Tendulkar; I got exposed to his Marathi plays, through the Sarojini Verma Hindi translations, while in college.

Mrigank Ojha, Amitabh Gupta, I and a bunch of others were so inspired by ‘Khamosh, Adalat Jaari Hai’ as first year students that it became the first play we produced, with a lavish budget of nearly one lakh, way back in the 1980s (shamelessly haranguing our college mates at SRCC to solicit ‘brochure-ads’ from their corporate dads). We were very intense and committed, and quite aware of our own limitations. This led us to do something rather unusual for the time – we engaged a senior NSD pro to train and direct us, paying him a then princely sum of Rs 20,000 for the 4 months of daily rehearsals!

I played Ponkshe and must have looked like a comic sight – a reed thin young man wearing an ill-fitting safari suit and smoking a pipe – even though many including Nemichand Jain, the khadoos critic, gave me good reviews! I, however, had my ‘lightbulb moment’ during the 15-20 shows we did – I realised that I was at best going to become a competent actor, never really a very good one. I also found that I loved doing the other stuff – lights, sets and music cueing/ playback etc – my first step in the journey to becoming a ‘director’.

Years later when Tendulkar called me up to express his support and solidarity around the time my film Final Solution’ was banned, he was very amused to find that he was one of the people to blame for all my current travails!

Tendulkar’s explorations of violence fascinated me – I read everything he had written in the period immediately after his Ford Foundation grant to study violence, especially the plays that explored it within a finite universe – the family, community and society. Just reading a Sakharam Binder or Giddh gave me a deeper glimpse and a layered understanding of human behaviour.

Other early influences:

Phaneeshwar Nath Renu‘s short story collection ‘Thhumri’ still lives and breathes inside my head. Renu – dismissed by the Hindiwalas as an “aanchalik” (regional) writer – painted gentle portraits, captured little moments and evoked within his readers the sense of joy, pain, hurt, anger or desolation his characters were feeling.

Anyone with even a passing level of interest in Indian politics must read Shrilal Shukla‘s ‘Raag Darbari’, a timeless classic and brilliant satire written nearly 50 years ago. It is a book a few friends and I return to every couple of years, reading our favourite passages aloud to each other and to their young children! Over the years, I have bought at least 20 copies of the book but often find it missing from my library, as I keep handing it out to anyone who comes home and discusses ‘politics’! No excerpts – go buy the book, read and chuckle through it. And then pause to think why our current polity resembles the Shivpalganj universe explored so brilliantly in the book.

RSS: An even earlier influence

Among the many fringe benefits of a North Indian childhood was my early exposure to chaddhi-uncles – the middle aged men in flaring khaki shorts conducting their drills in the same public park where we were trying our best to emulate Andy Roberts and Lilee-Thompson. Quite naturally, the local RSS ‘shakha’ demographics didn’t include any young children, as cricket was far more interesting to us than their pet lectures on Bharat Mata and Gau Mata. Their worldview and narratives of history seemed strange, especially as we were already being exposed to Gandhi, Nehru, Bhagat Singh, Bose, Chandrashekhar Azad and Bismil.

During election times, these chaddhi-uncles went door-to-door campaigning for Jan Sangh, invoking Gau Mata and Bharat Mata and their ‘hinduspeak’ (the overbreeding Muslim working overtime to ensure Hindus became a minority very soon, Kashmir and Akhand Bharat etc). For us children, this was a special time for no-holds-barred fun and we would march through the lanes shouting our own slogans – “Gali gali mein shor hai, Indira Gandhi chor hai” or “Beedi mein tambhakhu hai, Jan Sangh daku hai” and my then favourite “Gaay hamari mata hai, aur kuchh nahin aata hai, bael hamara baap hai, vote dena paap hai.” The best of our mirth was always reserved for these chaddhi-uncles.

None of us could imagine this loony fringe ever becoming mainstream, voted to power with an absolute majority, emboldened to wreak havoc as vigilante groups…

1993

The defining experiences: The 1993 Bombay riots

Bombay, the city I called home for 23 years…

In 1992-93, I ran the Nivara Hakk relief camp in Jogeshwari (East) on a full-time basis for a few months. I lived just a mile away from the so-called trigger point – the Radhabai chawl, next to Jhoola Maidan, where members of the Bane family had been burnt alive. It felt like my own backyard was on fire, so how could I just stay away and not help douse the flames?

I saw the many layers of grief, anger, resignation, and despondency, as well as the many petty, ugly, charming, and irritating facets of everyday politics at the mohalla level. I was taken around to the ‘borders’ and ‘morchas’, terms I was hearing for the first time, referring to the lanes and gutters that separated the two communities’ slum dwellings.

After the 1993 bomb blasts, I remember walking around stunned past the Century Bazaar or the Air India building, looking at the shattered glass, the debris, the damages floors and structures.

The history I had grown up reading without really comprehending in its entirety was replaying itself around me. Manto’s words suddenly came resoundingly alive, all around me, in the very city he wrote of so fondly.

Those weeks and months taught me much about humans and the things they do, the depravities they are capable of, the sudden moments that transform a benign father into a monster, moments that bring out the compassion and the bitterness – a space full of an interwoven web of complexities, ambivalences and ambiguities.

However, through these months, I never filmed anything, not even a still frame! I was far too mired in real life to even attempt to be a dispassionate chronicler. The many layers of understanding I developed here later got reflected in ‘Final Solution’ though.

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Photo courtesy Ashok Vahie for the Caravan Magazine.

Delhi 1984:

Earlier, while in college, I’d seen the 1984 anti-Sikh carnage first hand.

In Connaught Place, with the looting in full swing, with people from all classes helping themselves to anything they could lay their hands on.

In Paharganj, as it worsened – how helpless I found myself seeing a mob chase a middle-aged Sikh shopkeeper, unable to intervene.

In Trilokpuri, in its deathly silent lanes and in the relief camps in the days and weeks later.

Delhi replayed the horrific violence of 1947 in its streets and its posh localities, even as all of us watched, helpless and stunned.

Later, Babri 92 and Bombay 92-93 opened my eyes in a fuller manner.

Manto’s words rang true and echoed then too. But I had perhaps blindsided myself into believing this was specific to the North Indian psyche, one shaped by the recurring invasions from the Khyber Pass and the horrors of the Partition.

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Photo courtesy Outlook India.

Final Solution’: The 2002 Gujarat carnage

Having worked in relief camps in 1984 and 1993, I no longer wanted to volunteer for the immediate ‘red-cross type’ relief (milk, essential supplies, medicines, blankets) or the longer-term work (filing FIRs with local police, affidavit-making, processing compensation claims, getting the relief cheque released and suchlike) in 2002.

I decided to use all my available skills, especially film-making, to make an ‘intervention’ and craft my own plea against hate, bigotry and violence.

It took me almost 6 months to define and understand the why, what and how; I didn’t film at all after an initial trip to Gujarat in March 2002. Finally, it was on Oct 2, Gandhi’s birth anniversary, that I found myself aboard a train hurtling towards Gujarat, on my way to film the Gaurav Yatra (Pride Parade) that CM Modi had embarked on. I nearly gave up on Day One itself, when I realised that his rally was making detours to often halt at the exact site of some of the worst atrocities, a rather macabre celebration. It was a challenge even to scan the faces of the cheering crowds, as I wondered how many of them had been a part of the marauding mobs.

Had I not been ‘detained’ for hours on a dark highway on my first day of filming the Gaurav Yatra “on orders from Saheb” (the Patan Police SP’s words), I probably would’ve given up after a few days of filming. (It was too hard to take – all those stories of human depravity unleashed during the carnage, and the lingering sense of tension and Hindutva aggression).

But, in that moment, surrounded by the cops, with a large mob collecting to have a go at the “suspected Kashmiri terrorists” (the message flashed through the control room to police mobile vans), I felt myself boiling with rage even as I awaited the campaign-in-charge Amit Shah to come and vet me, the ‘noise-maker’ acting tough with the cops. The SP had pleaded his inability to ‘release’ me citing orders from ‘above’ – so it took an Amit Shah to leave a Modi rally and drive a few miles to come and personally check me out on the outskirts of Patan.

All that went through my mind on a loop was – filming is my birthright, the Indian Constitution gives me the right to freedom of expression, how dare anyone stop me?

It was that night that I decided that I’ll make ‘Final Solution’, no matter what.
And I released the film 15 months later, 3 months before the 2004 elections to the Indian Parliament.


Compiled by Tanvi Shah.

To watch ‘Aftershocks: The Rough Guide to Democracy’, ‘Final Solution’ and Final Solution Revisited’ (under production; excerpts online now) visit https://vimeo.com/rakeshfilm.

Rakesh Sharma will be conducting a Mumbai Local talk titled Reality and the Lens: The challenges of storytelling in documentaries on Dec 3 (Sat) at 5 pm, at Bandra’s MCubed Library. His session will open the world of documentary film-making, with anecdotes of how Rakesh negotiates the system – replete with post-completion obstacles like censorship by the State and extralegal censors, a near-total lack of distribution and almost no sources of domestic funding. Why make the film? Who is it for? We will travel with him through the making of his acclaimed ‘Final Solution’, and enjoy a special glimpse from his upcoming film ‘Malegaon’.
This session is part of Junoon‘s Mumbai Local series, and is free and open for all.

To read more creative collaborative pieces, click here.

Flights (of fancy) with a magpie: In cinematographer-photographer Hemant Chaturvedi’s realm of miscellany

In the Madh Island home wanderers come and go
Talking of Chor Bazaar obsessions, spice thresholds,
and what it means to build a home.

“I’m a magpie – I collect everything. Friends who visit my home liken it to a museum, but I don’t like the term. What I have is a thoroughly lived-in space, a living space, where each article has an origin story.”

It was the kind of offer – even without the accompanying drawl, the whiff of Italian liquor – one can’t refuse. It’s also the kind one cannot possibly prepare for, with conversations bounding from Brian Selznick’s graphic novel ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’ to Paris’ Père Lachaise cemetery where the filmmaker Georges Méliès is buried – “Did you know that when Méliès’ production house went bankrupt he sold some 600 celluloid films to cut losses, which were melted into plastic and used to make women’s shoe heels?” – “Well that reminds me of ‘tread softly because you tread on my dreams’!” – “Is that John Donne?” – “Yeats!” – “Ah, Eunice de Souza and her English Lit lectures!”

Presenting a photographic glimpse into the home and the multivarious enthusiasms of cinematographer and still life photographer Hemant Chaturvedi!

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“There’s something gorgeously psychedelic about this. Look at all the flotsam and jetsam floating about in the darkness!”
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A Keystone 16mm projector from 1942.
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A Siemens 16mm camera from 1944. (I confess to having whooped with astonishment when it began whirring.)
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A candle powered and hand cranked film loop projector, undated.
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“This sword isn’t something I collected from my travels – it’s an old family heirloom. There’s no question, given its weight and design that it belonged to a woman. The family holds that this is the sword that the Rani of Jhansi went to battle with.”
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The minimum fare on this old rickshaw meter was one rupee.
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“I’ve owned every camera model Olympus ever made.”
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‘This is what we call, in film lingo, a dolly. I have some fantastic memories of working it during my time at Merchant Ivory Productions (1985 – 2005) with dolly operators Giri, Gyan, Mani and Rambali.”
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“With the decline of vinyl records, the one form we really lost was fantastic cover art.” A framed print of the Jimi Hendrix experience’s second studio album ‘Axis: Bold as Love’ hangs on a wall opposite the stereo system Hemant set up himself.
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A Will Eisner illustration print hangs in a corridor.
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“I had the hugest crush on Waheeda Rehman – you couldn’t meet someone as graceful as her and not fall for her! She’s the only one who wasn’t portrayed on this ‘Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam’ poster – and now she is.”
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Foreground: A present from a Portuguese origami maker Hemant once hosted. Background: An angel tattoo from Ethiopia.

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“All the unread books reside in my bedroom. All the read ones are here in the library – look at how the bookshelves are bowing!”
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An glimpse into a collection of Lynd Ward’s fascinating novels, comprised entirely of prints of woodcut art of the most intricate kind.
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A page from Ralph Steadman’s ‘I. Leonardo’.
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Time not spent frantically searching for  ‘The Curious Sofa’ by “Ogdred Weary” (Edward Gorey) was spent reading Maira Kalman’s ‘The Principles of Uncertainty’.
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Allahabadi fare numbered in the afternoon’s countless revelations – lunch began with gajar mooli salad, chukandar pudina and kheera kela salad, and went on to gobhi ki tehri, bharwan bhindi, boondi kadhi and homemade mirchi achaar!
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The rest of the afternoon was spent poring over large prints of Hemant’s black and white photography from recent travels and shoots.
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From snapshots of graveyard art to Chaplin impersonators, acts of ablutions to those of monastic prayer, and endless, endless snow!

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A fitting farewell – I leave with a bottle of Bhut Jolokia chilli sauce, and an invitation to visit again to read in the library and “be quietly fed at suitable intervals”. The promise of phrases like matthe ka rassa and kamal kakdi ki tarkari endures, as does the memory of a glorious October afternoon.

Written and photographed by Tanvi Shah.

Though he is better known as a cinematographer, with films like Company and Maqbool to his name, the still camera has always gripped Hemant’s imagination. His Mumbai Local talk ‘Places of Faith: Finding Belief through a Camera’ will have us journey from the Kumbh Mela to the town of Chaplin impersonators, from the Tibetan mountains to a crater dotted with Shiv temples, and have us see the many manifestations of worlds of faith through his lens.
This session will happen on November 13 (Sun) at Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum at 5 pm. It is part of Junoon‘s Mumbai Local series, and is free and open for all.

To read more creative collaborative pieces, click here.

 

 

 

“Be as irreverent as you like”: 33 questions with poet Arundhathi Subramaniam

For when artistic equilibrium looks like
“a hammock suspended between Corfu and the Maldives”.

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List three words that you love to taste.
Currently, it would be emollient, amaretto, agape.

List three words that make you flinch with their violence.
Slaughter, eviscerate, bludgeon. A fourth: asphyxiate.

Describe a recurring daydream.
When I was in school, I had a recurrent daydream about slipping out through the side-gate of the playground during lunch break. It later became a poem:

How easy to slip out
between the bars of school’s mildewed side-gate

in the middle of recess
zigzagging between games of kho-kho

and steaming lunch-boxes,
squeezing out when everyone sees

but no one notices,
darting across the lane past the ENT hospital,

then down the broad sweep
of arterial road, pelting southward

towards a sea as Arabian as the spirit
where it is possible to become what one has always been –

snorting steed with cumulous mane
pounding into the tides

foaming galaxies of unbottled fiction
deferred coastlines

endless nights

(‘Side Gate’)

Describe a precise moment in your life for which you have ceaseless nostalgia.
One would be a trip to Positano and Ravello, those breathtakingly beautiful towns on the Amalfi coast of Italy on the Tyrrhenian Sea. I went there in the year 2002, thanks to a poetry festival in Salerno and Vietri. I was with my Italian translator and we had a wonderful time. But I have wanted to return to that strip of coast since then. Today, I think of what fun it would be to do it with a gaggle of old friends from college.

Imagine that you were to adapt a poem for the stage as a scenographer. What articles would be onstage?
If it were ‘Where I Live’, my poem on Mumbai, I’d say some of Sudhir Patwardhan’s wonderful gritty paintings on the city would help – a wild mosaic of dish antennae, scaffoldings, aluminium roofs, blue tarpaulin, and buildings stacked on top of each other. Articles? Is there a way to evoke ‘septic magenta hairclips’, ‘garrulous sewers and tight-lipped taps’ without getting terribly literal? I don’t know. An auto rickshaw, maybe?

Name a novel whose protagonist you identify with at this phase of your life. Use three adjectives to describe that protagonist.
No novel that I can think of. But myths, yes. I’d say the Shakuntala story from the Mahabharata. In a cycle of poems from my recent book, ‘Eight Poems for Shakuntala’, I see her as a female questor archetype, one who discovers the freedom and exhilaration of multiple citizenships. That’s a trope I identify with. Three adjectives? I see her as exploratory, integrated, wise. Those are aspirations, mind you. I’m not quite there yet!

Describe one of the more memorable conversations you’ve had.
I’m not one for lengthy descriptions – I write lyric poems, remember? I’d say several conversations I’ve had with my spiritual guide, Sadhguru – largely because of his ability to be playful and profound all at once.

I also remember a five hour walk and conversation with an old college friend, Rahul, years ago. It was winter in Delhi and we must have talked about everything under the sun, from unreasonable professors to politics and religion. We ended up at the gates of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, which we both agreed was significant.

Do you keep a notebook?
I have a few in which I scribble every now and then – largely fragments of poems and guilt-inducing checklists. I usually read them on flights and forget about them afterwards.

What about “other people’s stories” do you find most attractive?
That’s a line from my poem, ‘Epigrams for Life after Forty’, isn’t it?

I suppose I think of myself primarily as a listener. I’m a reasonably good one, I think – attentive and largely non-judgmental. But I like listening to stories in which people are willing to present themselves as vulnerable. I’m not interested in hearing people brag about what they consider to be their achievements or simply air their opinions on various subjects. I’ve found myself hugely enriched by meeting people at interesting junctures in their lives, when they’re at crossroads in some way or the other. It’s the ‘gap moment’ which is always the most fascinating. It’s a time of flux, of uncertainty, of great possibility. That’s the kind of story I find attractive.

There is a phrase that goes – “You must love what you cannot like.” What do you love in that way?
I don’t think I will never make my peace with a certain kind of human being one encounters increasingly at lit fests and (alarmingly!) nowadays, even in one’s inbox – pushy, pugnacious, self-absorbed, careerist, interested in you only insofar as you can further her/ his literary aspirations. This kind of person fills me with such alarm that I want to run a mile in the other direction. But I do know the fear, the insecurity, the sense of inner bankruptcy, the lack of self-love that fuels such a persona. So I try to make sure I keep a window open just a notch because even this kind of person can sometimes surprise you. I’m not sure it’s love – a theoretical love perhaps!

Name some fictional characters who have made you laugh.
Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice. Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. Professor Lockhart in the Harry Potter books. I’m sure there are heaps of others. (My friend, the novelist Jerry Pinto; I include him because he makes fact seem crazier than fiction.)

When did you last dance?
That’s actually easy to answer. The last time was last December in Panjim with a bunch of delegates after the Goa Literary Festival.

Name the people who you have adopted as your literary ancestors.
The list might be as varied as Nammalvar, Annamacharya, Akka Mahadevi, Tukaram, Basho, Oscar Wilde, Wallace Stevens, TS Eliot, Rilke and AK Ramanujan. And many others too varied to name. My literary family tree is old, gnarled, decidedly non-nuclear and multicultural.

Do you think that the optimal career for a poet would involve no work besides writing and reading?
I’m not sure about that. I do believe my life has been nourished by my work as arts journalist, poetry editor and curator of Chauraha and later classical dance at the NCPA. There was a time I knew I had to stop all that in order to allow for writing of greater immersion. But it’s a fine balance ‘between tox and detox’ that fuels the creative juices. One has to keep working out that balance for oneself. It’s different at different stages of one’s life.

You dedicated your poem ‘Where I Live’ to “Anders who wants to know”. Whose door would you want to knock on and demand a new poem?
I’d knock on the door of several mystic poets, I think, and ask for more on their enlightenment experiences – from Akka Mahadevi to St John of the Cross. And how wonderful it would be if the Buddha had written verse!

Name some of the things you have fallen into.
Puddles (as a child). Love (as an adult).

If you were to build a community where none existed, what rules would it follow?
Since my community would presumably include people I like a great deal, I think perhaps my only rule would be that we all find ways to spend time together a few evenings in the week. That’s the equivalent of hanging around a campfire, which makes great sense to me. Warmth, friendship, laughter, music – those matter. But of course, as soon as it’s a rule, the magic of the campfire might vanish!

What items can there be no recipe for?
Love. Poetry. Masala chai – when I make it.

What does your writing desk look like?
Right now, it has several large unopened envelopes that contain books I have no time to read. These make me guilty. The wonderful Staying Alive poetry trilogy, edited by Neil Astley, currently dominates the shelf above it. That makes me happy.

What do the words “cultural copyright” make you think about?
Unintelligible contracts. My lawyer’s telephone number.

Describe the sights and smells of your favourite library. Did you have a favourite librarian?
No favourite librarian. But a favourite teacher in school, Anahita De Vitre, who later became a close friend. I will never forget the gentle way in which she’d talk to me about books of poetry she’d enjoyed. There was no attempt to proselytize. And that worked wonderfully. If she’d tried too hard, I’d have probably been allergic to poetry today.

The library at the University of Stirling is a special favourite, because I spent hours there, as a writer in residence in 2003. As a child, I remember the lending library, Warden Bookhouse in Mumbai, which my family went to every Saturday. It was a small, dark, somewhat stuffy place on Warden Road at the time, but for a child, rich with wonder and discovery!

Have you ever had your palms read?
I have. And the versions never tallied.

What is the most outrageous thing you have ever heard?
Tough one.

What is the most outrageous thing you have ever said?
Tougher still.

What does your brand of curiosity smell of?
Parsnips. (Do parsnips smell?) And Persian tuberoses. (It’s late now, and you can see I’m losing it.)

What is more artistically rewarding for you– anonymity or fame?
Both in judicious doses. More anonymity because the real work is done quietly, behind the scenes. But a little acknowledgement definitely helps every now and then to keep going.

What does artistic equilibrium look like?
A hammock suspended between Corfu and the Maldives.

What does artistic disequilibrium look like?
A room I was recently in at the Mumbai University Guest House about which the less I say the better.

Worlds that do exist v/s world that don’t – which do you prefer writing about? Why?
It’s the places where one meets the other – a kind of magic here-and-now-ness or else a familiar elsewhereness. Why? Because I guess I want both in poetry – the familiar and the unfamiliar, ‘anchorage and adventure’.

What seven pieces of artistic solace – music, paintings, recordings etc. – would you anonymously bestow on an island castaway?
A whole bushel of books: the poetry of Neruda, the Bhakti poets, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, I Am That by Nisargadatta Maharaj, Mystic’s Musings by Sadhguru, the complete works of Austen, a seasoning of PG Wodehouse, Agatha Christie and Richmal Crompton for mirth and comfort, maybe Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook, definitely the Mahabharata. That’s more than seven, isn’t it? So for the rest an internet connection that enables them to access all the music and art they desire.

The word ‘enthusiasm’ is derived from the Greek adjective ‘entheos’ meaning ‘having a god within’. Are there any etymological origins of words that you enjoy?
Recently, I’ve been thinking about ‘bhakti’ which comes from the word ‘bhaj’, literally sharing or possessing or partaking of. The link between bhakti and food interests me, because it suggests that the desire for the sacred is born of a passionate appetite, a famished longing, not pious sentimentality. (Hence the title of the Bhakti poetry anthology I edited recently, Eating God’.) I’m also interested in the link between bhakti and the bacchanal, the bhakta and the bacchant — they point to a similar spiritual path, across cultures, of ecstatic abandon, wild self-annihilation.

What – in your eyes – is the antidote to cynicism?
Walking in the hills or the beach, or even watching National Geographic, if you can’t be bothered to budge from bed – basically, anything that puts you back in touch with awe and enchantment. And even if culture sometimes erodes that sense of wonder, nature never does.

Are you a wartime soldier or a peace time soldier?
A soldier? Not me. Writing poems is an attempt to melt borders, not guard them.


Interviewed by Tanvi Shah.

Award-winning poet Arundhathi Subramaniam will be conducting a session called ‘When God is a Traveller: Of Journeys Personal and Poetic’ at Bandra’s MCubed Library on Nov 5 (Saturday) at 5 pm. For Arundhathi, journeys are not just geographical. Her poetry traverses with abandon the diverse landscapes of the mythic, the contemporary urban and the existential. Through excerpts from her highly-lauded When God is a Traveller, she will talk of her travels through language, and the fraught, exhilarating and perennial journey of growing into oneself.

This session is part of Junoon’s Mumbai Local series, and is free and open for all.

To read more creative collaborative pieces, click here.

Regional Tongues and Literary Identities: Harnessing a language on the move with writer Sitanshu Yashaschandra

“The colonial master Macaulay famously said that all Indian literature could be accommodated on a single shelf in a library of European literature. And yet, I write literature in a language as old and rich as the languages of those who set up “vernacular schools” in colonially controlled Gujarat in the 19th century. He did not know. Do we?”

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Artist Atul Dodiya’s illustration art for Mr. Yashaschandra’s poem ‘Samudra’.

“I come from a time when being objective was important. And you’re telling me I can write a piece from my subjective point of view! This amazes me!” Thus commenced my conversations with celebrated poet and playwright Sitanshu Yashaschandra. A Los Angeles to Bombay video call, twenty three exchanged emails and three STD calls to Vadodara worth of discussion spanning Indian modernism, reactionary democracies, poetry that is a “static reiteration of comforts”, the histories of languages, and how Indian literature helped bust the colonial myth that India needed the British to move from a chaotic past into an orderly future later, we proudly present Mr. Yashaschandra’s first foray into blogpost writing!


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The great poet and public figure Umashankar Joshi used to say, “I am an Indian poet writing in Gujarati.” Through that description (“I am an Indian poet”), Umashankarji – a Gandhian freedom fighter and later, a Rajya Sabha member – indicated his views on the integrity of Indian culture and his love for it. While admiring him as a poet and a person, I contest his statement. I submit that I, on the other hand, am a Gujarati writer writing in Gujarati. There is more than modesty in my divergence. In fact, something quite different from modesty. My divergence comes from an optional understanding of what poetry and Indian-ness are.

Some of my contemporaries think that to qualify as an Indian writer (not just a regional writer) one has to do something more than “merely” write in one’s regional language. “Regional poetry is fine,” they seem to believe, “but Indian poetry is the thing!” And yet, another set (superset, so to say) of Indian writers believes that to be a “world class writer” one has to write in English and have a foreign publisher and win at least a prize from Paraguay or Uruguay if not the Commonwealth itself. Preferably one in a foreign currency, with lots of digits. A (non)sense of hierarchy is implicit in the first and explicit in this second belief.

I differ. I believe that you have to write well to be a writer and leave it at that. Aspirations and efforts beyond that tend to be disastrous for creative writers. All that a poet needs to do is write with total engagement with sahitya i.e. togetherness of word and meaning, language and reality, and writing and experiencing, as the critical theorist Bhamaha pointed out in 6th century CE. It sometimes escapes our understanding that “Indian-ness” and “world class” are not external to regionality; they are included in it. To be Gujarati (or Malayali, Assamese, Kashmiri) in itself involves being Indian and international. The latter two are abstractions. If they do not rest on the reliable foundation of time-space specificity, they are airy nothings.

Simply put – if a poet is not here and now, he is nowhere. Being here and now goes with being a poet – the two are related by what is called a-vinaa-bhaavi sambandha. I am a Gujarati poet writing in Gujarati. I am here and now. I am in my home in Sama, Vadodara, in the October of 2016. This is how I am fully capable of being anywhere else, in any other time. We all have an innate capacity for sama-samvedana or saadhaaraneekaran; an ability to step out of ourselves, feel a wider sympathy. Restrictive love for oneself marks the European notion of the “writer as reclusive genius”. Anu-kampana (to be moved in sync with others) marks the Indian idea of the kavi – as in the iconic figure of the archetypal poet or Adikavi Valmiki, who was moved on witnessing the pain of a bird whose mate was killed by a hunter’s arrow. This incident is what prompted him to write Ramayana. That is my genealogy.

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A poet – like any artist – is innately spontaneous but unerringly transformative like a tree. There are many different kinds and colours and fragrances of trees, leaves, thorns and flowers – but they’re all alike in their roots looking for and finding water in the soil.

There was a vritti to my kaarika! – A tree has to be rooted deep in the earth but should also reach out high to the sky. If it is arrested in the soil – however rich it may be – the shrub could produce only potatoes and sweet potatoes (batata-sakkariya, indispensable in these Navaratri days!). All around us we see obese readers and listeners who feed on such arrested texts that are unable to grow out of reductionist segments of desi, dalit and naari-vaadi literatures. On the other hand, we see other readers getting tipsy on fermented drinks from rootless fruits produced in hanging gardens owned by the Indo-English literary industry.

As a writer in Gujarati, the deeper I go into the personal and collective lives of Gujarati speaking people, the more it empowers me to reach out to the distant lives in India and elsewhere. The more Gujarati I become (through instincts and hard work), the more Indian and international I turn out to be.

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“How old is Gujarati literature? Was it just some kind of ‘folk literature’ before the British came in the 19th century and set up schools for us to learn English literature?” These are questions sometimes put to me by bright-eyed and kindly Gujaratis. They leave me speechless, and I can well visualise my contemporary Marathi, Malayalam, Assamese and Oriya writers rendered speechless too.

The writing of literature in modern Indian languages like Gujarati, Marathi, Kashmiri, or Kannada is as old as the writing of literature in English, Italian, or French – if not older. Till Dante wrote in “vulgar” speech – locally called Italian – all European literary writers wrote in Latin. Dante lived in the 13th-14th century. In India, till around 12th century the language of literature was Sanskrit, Prakrit or Apabhramsha. The earliest available literary Kannada texts are from the 9th century. Tamil literature has a long history among modern Indian literatures. Apabhramsha was used to write literary texts from 6th century to 12th century in many parts of India, including Gujarat. The earliest Gujarati literature in the Gujarati language were produced in the 12th century.

The colonial master Macaulay famously said that all Indian literature could be accommodated on a single shelf in a library of European literature. And yet, I write literature in a language as old and rich as the languages of those who set up “vernacular schools” in colonially controlled Gujarat in the 19th century. He did not know. Do we?

The self-imposed shame of living in slums of snobbishness is evident in all classes of Indian society today – the super-rich in five star hotels, the middle class in super fast a/c trains, and the poor sending their children to Englis meedeeyum schools in search of somebody else’s future. And this has not happened overnight.

I often feel that if we work sincerely and ask questions to our own past, it could – like the ocean churned in Indian mythology – offer us amrita (nectar) and visha (poison), and challenge us to become a people capable of taking care of ourselves.

As a Gujarati writer, I enjoy knowing about the adventures of Dante, the first Italian European “regional” poet of ‘Divine Comedy’ as much as those of Vajrasenasuri, the Gujarati Indian “regional” writer of ‘Bharateshvara-Bahubalighor’, the oldest available poem in a regional Indian language. The time scheme is the same.

If contemporary Indian literature is to explore and realise its potential, two kinds of interrelated work have to be done: to know, understand and critique its literary past and to know, understand and critique our contemporary socio-political reality. And above all, to innovate and enjoy new texts as readers and writers.

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Artist Atul Dodiya’s illustration art for Mr. Yashaschandra’s poem ‘Darek cheej bey bey’.

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Utkarsh Mazumdar, a courageous and creative theatre person in Mumbai, performed one of my plays at the Prithvi festival a few years ago. This play was about 15th century Gujarati poet Narsinha Mehta, whose poem ‘Vaishnava jana to tene re kahiye’ became widely known through Mahatma Gandhi. The play focused on how Narsinha faced challenges and threats from oppressive forces such as the joint family, the caste system, market forces and the State. In one scene, Narsinha participates in an erotic ‘war’ between Radha and the gopikas on one hand and Krishna and the gopas on the other. This love war lasts long, and finally a truce needs to be arranged. The Gujarati poet Narsinha becomes an emissary for Krishna (whose bhakta he was), but who would represent Radha during the negotiations?

For this task Narsinha chose Jayadeva, the poet of ‘Gita Govinda’. In the 15th  century, the Gujarati poet from the western coast of India knew the Oriya Sanskrit poet by work and made a convincing choice. This fact was never mentioned in the earlier films and plays on Narasinha. Weaving it into my play made me feel the ‘here and now’ that helped the writing reach out elsewhere and to other times. I know in my bones that it happened because I wrote in Gujarati and read directly from Gujarati and Sanskrit. The great theatre artist Satyadev Dubey was present at the festival, and he spent the evening after the play with Utkarsh, me and the two medieval Indian poets. That Indian togetherness was Bharatiya Sahitya.

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My later poems include Gujarati ‘sound poems’ on Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara and Ibrahim Rugova. These are poems written and read in Gujarati. No language is incapable of producing literature that concerns the human condition, wherever it may be located. A good poem in Inuit by what we call an ‘eskimo’ poet is better than a bad poem in English or French. This simple fact is overlooked so often.

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What are the challenges that confront me as a Gujarati poet-playwright today?

– The demands and commands of an ideologically stagnant State. Whether it is an ideology of the Left or the Right makes little difference. A writer is a person of ideas, not of any ideology.

– The manipulations of the marketplace. Through subtle psychological controls, the economic powers pass off counterfeit literature as being genuine and turn sahrudayas into consumers.

– Resultant dullness or sammudhataa of a society that becomes indifferent to itself.

Bharata in the Natyashastra insightfully described this state of loka, and explained how theatre deals with it. I have discussed this in some detail in a book called Ramanyiyataano Vag-vikalpa. It is in Gujarati.
What says thou, mere hamvatan?


Conceived and edited with Tanvi Shah.

Ilustration art courtesy Atul Dodiya.
A special thank you to poet and painter Piyush Thakkar for his help!

Sitanshu Yashaschandra’s will be a conducting a Mumbai Local session at Kitab Khana (Fort) on Oct 21, at 5.30 pm. His talk ‘A language on the move: My writings in Gujarati’ will explore the role of the regional writer and the ‘alternative’ texts he writes. While these may not be at the centre of culture, could they cultivate a compelling presence for the public? Through readings from his own poems and excerpts from his plays, Mr. Yashaschandra will address writing as subversion, investigation and enquiry.
This session is part of Junoon‘s Mumbai Local series with fantastic artists and scientists.

To read more creative collaborative pieces, click here.

Dying Art Forms, Static Traditions and Religious Mumbo-Jumbo: Puppeteer Anurupa Roy on our general ignorance

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Anurupa Roy – now one of India’s most acclaimed and exciting puppeteers and founder of Katkatha Puppet Arts Trust – in a school puppet play (top right).

“I recently had the misfortune of meeting a film maker who wanted to make a film about the “dying art of puppetry“. She said it is “common knowledge” that these artists “live in villages and are uneducated”. Gunduraju and Rajappa’s faces flashed before my eyes. These artists can recite between 60,00 – 100,000 verses from the epics and the Puranas from memory. Who are the uneducated ones here?”

Anurupa and I sat cross-legged on stage as it was being readied for her afternoon performance. We’d been talking about the inability of contemporary urban dwellers – unlike people at the grassroots – to view ourselves as a whole, seeking instead to compartmentalise our contradictions. She’d lamented the lack of rigour and conviction that one had to tell a story which, according to her, is the crisis of the urban artiste. I remember noting the stage being mopped around us, light cues being cello-taped onto the floor, actors in costume sweeping across the stage with that compelling energy that precedes live performance – and noting all the questions I wanted to ask, if only the crocodile would halt his ticking clock.

When she sent in her stream-of-consciousness thoughts a few days later, I realised just how many questions I wouldn’t have thought to ask. It wouldn’t have occurred to me, for instance, to ask her what connection spice ships had to Balinese interpretations of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Or how puppetry performances serve as a source of catharsis in mourning rituals following a death in the community. Or how it feels to discover one’s own cultural heritage when living abroad, what it means to proclaim an art form dead, how puppetry and caste are convolutedly linked, or how filling museums with puppets is a misguided attempt at the preservation of our astonishing ethnic endowment.

“What was the need to invent these forms? Where is their source? How did we get from there to here?” Anurupa had wondered aloud. This is an attempt to find some answers from the only sensible starting point there ever will be – ourselves.


“That I loved puppetry but knew almost nothing about it when I started off would be an understatement.

The beginning was characterised by frustrating attempts to artistically cut up unsuspecting mothers’ sarees, soft toys, and other stolen/borrowed/found (depending on whose perspective it was!) materials to build crude puppets. Their movements were our labour of love aimed at narrating funny stories, but not much else. The ‘us’ in this situation refers to my puppetry soul brother/school mate Rahul Moga (who I often smuggled into Lady Sriram College for Women for puppet show rehearsals), me, and other like-minded lunatics with whom Katkatha was born in 1998. We had no training and no idea where to begin.

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Katkatha’s “disastrous but first” production Quest (1998)

It was during one of our earliest shows – a Mahabharata-based collaboration in which the world of puppetry collided with Bharatnatyam – that I first became conscious of the space between traditional form and contemporary practice.

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Katkatha and Geeta Chandran’s collaboration Her Voice (2000)
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Her Voice (2000) was a retelling of the Mahabharata from Draupadi’s perspective.

Around that time, I had another life-altering experience. It happened one rainy evening at Dilli Haat, brought about by the arrival of Sweden’s Marionette Theatern in the city. I got to witness Michael Meschke’s The Apocalypse Trial being performed. This was puppetry as I’d never seen it before. I found Michael’s address and, taking a complete shot in the dark, sent him a letter introducing myself. In 2001, I was off to the Marionnette Theatern to study puppetry.

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Outside school in Stockholm, 2001.

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In the way that the world works, the most interesting discovery I made in Sweden was the traditional puppetry of India! Working as the English speaking guide at Marionette Teatern’s museum – which housed a large collection of traditional Indian shadow puppets and performance video footage – I slowly learned about Indian puppetry forms. The knowledge that South and South East Asia – unlike Europe – has continuous, living traditions hit home hard for me. This means that stories have uninterruptedly lived, altered and changed through traditional performing art forms for thousands of years, and become utterly enmeshed in the everyday lives of the artists and their communities.

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At puppet school – Scoula de la Guaratelle – in Naples, 2002.

I returned to India with diplomas in puppet theatre and glove puppetry from Sweden and Italy, and in 2003 became the assistant coordinator of Putul Yatra, a puppet festival organised for the occasion of the Sangeet Natak Akademi’s 50th Jubilee Anniversary. The Yatra was aimed at showcasing of the current state of puppet theatre in the country.

It is important to state here that no real census of Indian puppet theatre had been taken since the 60s. Nobody really knew which forms were still around, who was performing them, and what state they were in. Work commenced when I dug up the Akademi’s video archives in an attempt to find puppeteers, the forms they practised, and figure out whether they’d be able to perform at the festival. It was a bit like to learning to swim by jumping into the sea during high tide!

There were at least 17 living traditional forms in India that we then knew of. There could be more but the practitioners could not be located. In any case the rest were dead forms, like the Koyya Bommalata of Andhra Pradesh, I was told.

Two evenings before the festival began, I received a phone call from a professor from Hyderabad’s Osmania University. Would we like to invite a Koyya Bommalata group to the festival?

“But it is a dead tradition!” I replied loudly on the phone, trying to be heard over the noise in the professor’s background.

“I am watching them right now,” he responded.

Three days later, the troupe had arrived with all their worldly possessions to perform at the Putul Yatra and for the first time ever in Delhi!

Throughout the festival, I’d sit to watch group after group unwrap their puppets and rehearse under the old peepal tree at Mandi House’s Meghdoot Theatre till the wee hours of the morning. I was being made privy to living heritage, history and narrative as it unfolded before my eyes.
I remember each and every night.

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Traditional puppetry footage from Anurupa’s archives.

I realised then how big this “thing” really was. It had been in existence long before I turned up, and seemed to carry the collective memory of the evolution of humanity itself. Most traditional arts are generational, passed down one’s bloodline. The communities into which they have grown and been developed have never been static. Shadow puppeteers migrated from Maharashtra to Karnataka, then to Tamil Nadu, maybe even to Kerala. Some went on the spice ships to Indonesia, where they were adapted by locals. It is no wonder that traditional Indian shadow puppet clowns or Juttu-mama look very similar to the Indonesian Samar or Petruk! They were the carriers of the oral narratives, of epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata – not as religious texts, but as treatises of the human condition.

In the Sillakayata narrative of the Togalu Gombeyatta (leather shadow puppets of Karnataka), the puppeteer asks his audience – why does Drona put down his weapons when he hears about Ashwatthama’s death? Was it really because of despair? Drona knows that his son is chiranjeevi – he cannot die! When Bhishma renounces the throne and takes the oath of celibacy, why does Shantanu bless him with “Icchiya Mrityu” – that he can choose the exact moment of his own death? Is it filial love? Or is it because Shantanu knows that Bhishma was one of the cursed sages who Ganga had failed to release from a cursed life because of Shantanu’s interference?

Why would the puppeteers ask such questions of their audience?

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Traditional puppetry footage from Anurupa’s archives.

Traditional puppeteers, apart from being entertainers and storytellers, are also shamans, healers, advisors and matchmakers. During rites of passage such as birth or death in the community, generational forms are presented as part of the ritualistic ceremonies. The puppet – made up of dead materials – comes to life on stage and goes back to being dead in a box after the show. This constant recreation of the cycles of life, death and the cosmos reassures the audience.

After Putul Yatra, I visited several of the puppeteers I had met at the festival. The high points of these visits – whether to the glove puppeteers in West Bengal’s Padmatamli or to Shadipur Colony’s Rajasthani Katpuli walas in Delhi – were the days without performances, when the puppeteers were at home. As I saw them gather in the evenings to sing and have what we’d call a jam session, I realised that this was not a job. It was a practice in the truest sense of the word, an everyday habit, as natural as bathing.

The relationship between the traditional artist and the narrative fascinates and amuses me in equal measure. In 2014, I spent two weeks in Mussoorie with master puppeteer Gunduraju making puppets by day and listening to his stories by night.

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Learning puppetry and the art of storytelling from Gunduraju. Mussoorie, 2014.

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Gunduraju spoke of Mandodari like she was his next door neighbour, of Duryodhan like he was the spoilt child he’d known since his childhood! These were not epic heroes or villains, but people with back stories and reasons and motives who lived through Gunduraju’s storytelling. Would we perceive Shakuni as such a black character if we knew that Bhishma starved his entire family to death? If we were told that his father Subala told him, “Each time you limp, may you be reminded of the sacrifice we made for you” when he broke Shakuni’s leg before dying? The idea that Shakuni did not love Duryodhana and only wanted Bhishma’s kin to die turned the Mahabharata on its head for me. Is anybody really totally black or white? Are things ever that simple?

We often assume, thanks to their televised versions, that Ramayana and Mahabharata are scripted linear narratives. It comes to most of us as quite a revelation that there exist at least 300 written and over 1000 oral versions of the Ramayana, and that no two are identical.

It often startles me when urban artists dismiss traditional forms as religious mumbo jumbo and say things like, “The Ramayana and Mahabharata are archaic texts all about religion. I am not a religious person.” Viewing the epics as mere religious texts is severely short-sighted, to say the least. 300 versions of any narrative is not just about diversity – it is about protest, counter-protest, dissent, dialogue, linguistic heritage and anthropological clues about cultural practices. The retellings of Ramayana and Mahabharata by the shadow puppeteers – who work with leather and were automatically relegated to the lowest rung of the caste ladder – explicitly question the upper castes.

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Traditional puppetry footage from Anurupa’s archives.

I recently had the misfortune of meeting a film maker who wanted to make a film about the “dying art of puppetry”, thereby uplifting the state of “those poor artists”. I asked her how she had reached these conclusions, and what data her research was based on. She said it is “common knowledge” that these artists “live in villages and are uneducated”. Gunduraju and Rajappa’s faces flashed before my eyes. These artists can recite between 60,00 – 100,000 verses from the epics and the Puranas from memory. Who are the uneducated ones here?

This ignorance has dangerous implications, and leads to the problematic stereotyping of puppetry. Cultural policy makers cannot discern that tradition is not a monolithic block, and that puppetry cannot be divorced from its storytelling narrative and considered “entertainment” or “culture” in isolation. Some forms are dying out, yes, while others are very healthy. One dying form does not mean that “puppetry is dying”. Moreover, intervening to “preserve” it by setting up factories to mass produce leather puppets, acquiring puppets from puppeteers to fill museums, or worse still giving the puppeteers new skills like “lamp shade making”, is a step in the wrong direction. There is no form without the artist themselves. Saving dying art forms involves acknowledging –

– that tradition is a continuous process. It renews itself. Some forms invariably lose their context and significance, and naturally die out.

– that traditional forms are carried by the artists. It is they who need stimulus through exposure and training, and opportunities to market to new audiences.

– that we often fall into our urban trap of looking at the world through compartmentalised lenses, through which traditional narratives are viewed as “old, archaic and religious” and practiced only by “illiterate” people.

I can’t entirely blame that filmmaker. Our education, orientation and environment has forced us to view the world in a certain way. Education is equated with English medium schooling, success with a big car and house. In school, geography and history and chemistry are separate subjects taught in air-tight compartments. Commerce is serious, the arts are for losers. Work is work, leisure is for the weekends, passions are confined to hobbies. How can we hope to understand living narratives passed down generations unless they are repackaged as television dramas or written about by new age gurus?

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Traditional puppetry footage from Anurupa’s archives.

Finally, amidst all this, how do I define my practice? I am not a generational puppeteer. I am the first in my family to take up the practice, which means that I’m not bound by traditional aesthetic rules, narrative structures or forms. My puppet shows have ranged from Shakespearean comedies to Humayun Nama to Bollywood satires to abstract material theatre pieces. I can choose between forms, aesthetics, designs, and narratives without any pressure to “preserve” one type of puppetry. The contemporary nature of my practice liberates me, and yet, what I aspire to is the immersion and rigour of traditional forms. If there is one thing I’ve learnt from tradition, this is it – it is the yeast from yesterday that bakes bread today.”


Conceived and edited by Tanvi Shah.
Photos courtesy Anurupa Roy.

Join us for Anurupa Roy’s open session titled An Epic Retold: The Puppet And Its Presence at Bhau Daji Lad Museum on Oct 9, 2016 at 5 pm. Anurupa has been working on the dismembered presence in puppetry for her latest production, the Mahabharata. It is a style of performance in which the story is told by showing only part of the puppet’s body in such a way that its entire presence is felt.
This session is part of Junoon‘s Mumbai Local series.

To read more creative collaborative pieces, click here.