Categories of Art (4): The Colossal Leap – Of a Hero & Of Imagination

Hanuman (Courtesy:

Hanuman (Courtesy:

With his head then held so high

Gained he size for task on hand.

Sundar Kand! That is where I had first heard of Hanuman’s colossal leap across the ocean to Ravana’s Lanka. In this part of the epic – Ramayana, Hanuman prepares for traveling across the ocean to Lanka where Ravana has kept Sita after abducting her. Kand in Hindi language means a ‘canto’ of a poem. Sundar is another name of Hanuman (his mother Anjana called him Sundar) and this canto of Ramayan bears his name because in this section he is the hero. It talks of how Hanuman leapt across to Lanka and searched for Sita. When he finds her, he urges her to return with him but Sita refuses. She insists that Ram must come to Lanka and avenge her insult. It is a fascinating account of Hanuman’s abilities, his challenges and finally how he sets Lanka on fire when his tail was set on fire after being caught.
This particular episode of Ramayana is considered auspicious to hear as well as read by Hindus. While a written version of it exists as a part of Valmiki’s Ramcharitramanas it is primarily an oral tradition. It is performed by bhajan mandalis (music troupes) across the Hindi speaking belt of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh during festivals or an auspicious occasion in the family. On one such occasion, we had the Sundar Kand being performed in our house and it was to be sung through the night as the recitals are interspersed with explanations. The troupe which performs this is comprised of men. Almost all of them have learnt the epic orally and by being a part of a troupe as they grew up. The musical instruments that accompany this recital are – dholak, manjeera and harmonium. The recitals are often very energetic and for a first timer a very interesting experience to hear it being sung in a dramatized and sometimes boisterous manner.
I was in my early twenties. My encounters with religion, scriptures and traditions of my family were rather limited. It is around this time that I participate in this night long recital of Sundar Kand. The prose as they flowed in Awadhi language drew me in completely. I was drawn in by the lyrical flow. As the poem progressed the listener is offered a magnificent persona and details of his actions as he prepared to take that leap across the ocean into something unknown and uncharted.
Listening to it one could almost feel the whole scene coming alive – Hanuman attaining a humungous size, the surging tide, full moon, the chaos amongst other creatures, the awe, the daring act that he was about to perform, the gaze he casts on the distant land standing on the shore and the breeze blowing in his face. Recalling this experience now I am inclined to think that it opened up to hitherto unexplored aspects of my own life. The picture of my ‘person’ gets more detailed now and in the following ways –

  1.  Orientation: Listening to Sundar Kand offered a sort of orientation to me with respect to the religion and belief system that my family espouses. It tells me of the value system that my people align to and look upon in times good and bad. It suggests of a certain way of life, a conduct that one might adopt through Hanuman’s story. The symbolism is difficult to miss. Even for a kid, the realization – that aha! moment – which suddenly seems to connect that story heard years back to the course of life in the present might have to wait but nevertheless it happens. The process may take time, it has been seeded. With oral traditions like these it becomes easier for a person to locate himself in the diverse range of faith and value systems that exist in the world around us. It is a cultural, social and religious marker. This, the recital of Sundar Kand did for me.
  2. Imagination: Sample this from an English translation of Sundar Kand,

While huge boulders slid in scores
Out came smoke in thick columns.
With that squeeze it came under
Cried all creatures in their caves.
Frightened was no less wildlife
Heard were their howls world over.
In their state of confusion
Serpents with all fiery fangs
Marks of swastik on their hoods
Spewed then venom in profusion.
Venom they spit was fireball like
Turned to tiny stones there rocks.

This detailed description of what was happening all around brings such a completely different world alive. It is as if an almost real bridge is built by the recital to walk from the present world where the story is only words to a world where this is all happening in real time. It gets overwhelming as one listens to the hero going about his work rescuing, fighting, saving and returning to his land. The range of experiences has the potential to engage a kid, a grandma and a young man – all at the same time. And of course it offers sufficient imaginative freedom for each one of them to make their own meanings as they together navigate the story.

3. Travel: Years later, as I stood in the shallow waters and amidst the softly breaking waves on the shores of Dhanushkodi – the place from where Hanuman was said to have taken that ‘colossal leap’ in Sundar Kand – I am almost drawn into that story again. The real and the mythic begin to blend into each other in a manner that the experience of standing in that place acquires a whole new meaning. The moment is stirring. That hero of my story is not a God, he is me now. I am him!

Such is the effect of a story that I heard from that night in a small town in central India.

Note: This was a response to a writing assignment in an arts course: Write a paragraph or two about a time when you HEARD an epic story. This is not about seeing it on film or reading. It is about the context and content of listening to an ORAL narrative. Focus on your experience and the context of telling and what impact it had on you.


‘This got women reading and thinking’ – MFC Discussion [4]

The report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India was published in 1974 and many in India consider it a landmark in the women’s rights movement as well as a first comprehensive document on Indian women in all aspects of productive and social life. The sweep as I read the contents is enormous.  A Frontline magazine article discussing Women’s Reservation Bill says,

The Committee on the Status of Women in India (1971-74) undertook the most comprehensive review on women’s status since Independence. It noted the “difficulties being experienced by women in obtaining adequate representation” and the “declining trend in the number of women legislators”, which it apprehended may result in women “losing faith in the political process to change their conditions in life, may opt out of the political system and become either passive partners or rebels” (“Towards Equality”, Report of the CSWI, GOI, page 302).

The committee refrained from suggesting reservation, given both the earlier experience and the basis of feedback from women in political parties. This was the only issue on which a note of dissent was submitted by three members. The committee strongly recommended action to provide women “special opportunities for participation in the representative structures of local government”.

My understanding of women’s movements in India and the heady times in which this report was set was unknown to me until Dr Veena Shatrugna gave a brief history of the report (she was also a part of it) in the MFC meet at Hyderabad. Here is what she had to say –

Towards Equality” published in early 1970s was a historical document which determined women’s thought. This got women reading and thinking. By the 1980s organization of women’s movement was disparate – some worked on health, work, law etc. Area of environment was not an issue at that time. This was all outside the formal system- outside academia (for them it was a waste of time), trade unions etc. All the work appeared fragmented but it fitted in well in the larger pic. 

  • Sewa – was organizing women for their right to do the kind of work they were doing like vegetable vendors, rag pickers etc. With VP Singh govt in power (mid 1980s) Ila Bhat was asked to head a national commission to study the working conditions of women in the non-formal sector. The commission sent out 10 lakh questionnaires to various organizations. They received 1.5 lakh filled questionnaires.
  • It was fascinating to see the list of various occupations that emerged. It was amateurish in a sense as many of those insisted on adding a “worker” to whatever trade they described. It was an indication that women were now “workers”.  It added a kind of richness. “There is so much work, but we do not have work” the report began with. Wages was in question. Women can work in any condition that’s the assumption. What they are asking for is interesting. What we did not notice is that the commission was asking for minimum wages.
  • This was 1990s. Women’s movement loses out after this. Why? There were too many things which were asked for. Recommendations were all over the place. For Instance, the symptoms of disease are also mixed up. Tusser workers’ hazards, cashew workers’ hazards and other occupations are given in detail in the report.The men were not accounted for.
  • Dr. Veena finally adds,
  • This team was in a political sense very innocent. It didn’t have any political backing and it was forgotten after it was released. The whole thing came at a time when the nation was not interested in women. It still makes me happy reading the report.

Now, why doesn’t this make the stuff of lectures in the Indian universities, in development, sociology and similar courses? At lest, some of these wayward activists can beef up their understanding of social and feminist movements in the country reading stuff like this than running around plastering slogans (condescending? no! criticism? yes!)

State-Judiciary pact in the neoliberal times – MFC Discussion [3]

A sharp, clear speaking labour lawyer presents this case of Andhra Pradesh Mining Development Corporation (APMDC) which violated occupational health and safety laws in a quartz mine opened in 1964 in a remote location in Mehboobnagar district.

Case Status: Ongoing, Writ Petition in Andhra Pradesh High Court

Facts:  A quartz mine of APMDC operated from 1964 to 1975. 400 workers  worked in the mines during its period of operation. The location of the mine is remote. In the 1980s almost  all the former workers start dying in three villages of the district. There is a rush to various hospitals in the state by the affected families for treatment. Hospitals diagnose the conditions differently – pharyngitis  tuberculosis etc. Only one, Ramamurthy Hospital diagnosed it as silicosis- an occupational disease. The media gives these deaths extensive coverage. Subsequently AP govt steps in and sends a committee comprising of 5 doctors to the district.

An investigation by Union ministry team finds 136 workers dead and 191 workers critically ill in the year 2000. As on 2013  a writ petition is pending.

The lawyer presenting the case highlights the kind of questions being raised in this case where a compensation is being claimed by the workers’ families and state is being held responsible for the deaths:

  1. The deaths happened in the period 1984-1985. Why has the petition come so late?
  2.  The petition should have been filed under  Workers Compensation Act instead of  clogging the High Court which has a huge backlog of cases.
  3. There s no documentation of this disaster. Therefore, filing charges on APMDC has been difficult.
  4. Workers are being asked – Where is your identity? How do we know you have worked in this mine? PF card, health card… any card? How do we fix the claim on APMDC?

In all these, not a single question was directed at the State. Then there is an enquiry report from a union ministry and yet State doesn’t act or intervene in the situation. Judiciary it is said checks the action of the legislature. In all these years it has not questioned the State! There is not a single question directed against the State where its agency APMDC has shown blatant disregard for workers’ medical care, rehabilitation and  even a basic enquiry.

It is interesting how the situation is being framed.The line of critique to me appears incomplete and rather hasty –

There is some kind of a pact between the judiciary and the State. The pact is “I will not ask you and you will not question”.  This is the backbone of our liberalization.  Actually… we have no labour laws. The state has completely abdicated itself. It is this kind of silence we see in our judiciary!

Categories of Art (3) : A Thousand Splendid Versions – On Ramayana & Sita Sings the Blues

Being familiar with the epic and having grown up watching it on TV in the 1990s (Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana tele-series) the first reaction to Sita Sings the Blues (SSTB) was of amusement. Here was something fresh in its colours, ideas and presentation and which didn’t preach, in fact it enquired! Also, that the shadow puppets- their positioning and language gave the story a completely radical feel. An epic of such repute layered with a language which stops just short of being profane is a bold attempt. The author appears to have taken an offence at depiction of Sita in this story. Perhaps the anger is amplified by incidents in her personal life which to her appeared parallel to Sita’s story. As a person located outside the Hindu belief system in which Ram and Sita are deified, she connected with the epic as just a story, void of its deeply entrenched cultural and traditional values. When one connects in this way interpretation and relationship with the story is completely altered. SSTB is an illustration of such a process.
The director goes through a personal crisis of having been left by her husband and in that state of mind questions if Sita’s portrayal in Ramayana too was unjust and unfair. That, for her spawns a new narrative of Ramayana which is told through Sita’s experience. Sita singing the blues is an imagination which is creative, audacious, progressive and suggestive. It is suggestive in its reading of gender in Ramayana and contests it with its own version. This version doesn’t quite differ in its outcome from that of the epic but that it is combined with an urban story and another layer of criticism as incidents happen. It seems to suggest that if these questions are asked clearly and openly, perhaps our social world will not borrow from such distorted version of gender and follow it for real.
That the director is an American woman narrating the epic in her life’s context makes it noteworthy. It is an experiment in an alternative narrative and in my opinion a moderately successful one. For it achieves a refreshingly modern form with an interesting combination of story, commentary and technology. She sees the tragedy of following such role models like Sita in our daily lives. It would take a significant effort for an Indian to attempt the same not only for the intense backlash that it might trigger from the radical groups but also that the Indian imagination does not allow for such a thought which challenges the depicted roles of women in the epics.
Use of animation and shadow puppetry into telling of Ramayana alters the way the story is experienced. It has existed in diverse forms and traditions across Asia and the Asia Pacific. This new attempt in SSTB can be seen as just another one. As with every form this one too appears a product of its own times and of a particular conception of social world. This conception is not singular or homogenous at any given time. While one perceives it as an art from, another person lives by it. It is subjective to people’s location in the cultural-social milieu as well as their relationship with it. Therefore, it is not surprising that SSTB evoked angry response from Hindu radical groups (like Hindu Janajagruti Samiti) and at the same time the ‘liberal’ variety applauded such a bold experiment with their comprehension of the form remaining equally fuzzy.
SSTB is also a milestone in filmmaking as well as distribution with its audacious attempt to break free from the exploitative copyright and distribution networks. While the original record copyrights for Annette Hanshaw were not held by anyone, the songs were still under copyright. This had severe financial implications because if the film were to be released and distributed legally it should have bought the rights to use the songs. That is when the director leverages internet and peer sharing networks to distribute the film free of cost over the internet. Not many would experiment with such forms of distribution especially when a lot of money and reputation is at stake. This is affirmed with the recent controversy over the Indian filmmaker Kamal Hasan’s film Vishwaroopam. These experiments are the stuff that progress in any field rests on.
Watching a film is certainly about entertainment but it is often difficult to experience it with a frame of mind that is culture and value neutral. SSTB offers a variable and highly subjective experience of Ramayana to audiences of various nationalities and culture. This must be said before one attempts to examine the various connotations of this film.

State of OHS in India – MFC Discussion [2]

MFC Annual Meet, 2013, Hyderabad

MFC Annual Meet, 2013, Hyderabad

The meeting at MFC has been quite rewarding for my research interest in Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) in India. The conversations at the meeting yielded a laundry list of issues that affect a functioning and effective OHS system in the country. It starts with an instance of an industrial chemical polyacrylate which is categorized as a mild to moderate toxin. 5 workers reports an NGO from Vadodara, Gujarat, have died in the state due to polyacrylate exposure. Other instance cited was of nasal septum perforation from chromium exposure in Vadodara.

The range of issues in OHS are:

  • Data on deaths, injuries, disability and ODs.
  • Workplace environment monitoring, its data (dose- effect replationship)
  • Laws and their enforcement, use of legal provisions
  • Right to refuse – workers have a right to refuse work if they think that conditions are not safe. It doesn’t apply that way in India
  • Investigations and their reports
  • Information on hazards- to the workers
  • Information on OHS situation to the society
  • Unionization and TU situation – politics and priorities
  • Priorities for workers and other stake holders
  • Medical education, diagnosis, treatment. OHS education in other faculties – law, engineering, social work, sociology, medicine. For instance- doctors know so little about OHS. In case of IITs – how many of them include OHS in their curriculum?
  • Disability assessment and rights of disabled. Workers disabled because of OH are not included by disability law. Case- a disable person was assessed by ESI medical panel. Disability assessed as 20%. Within 2 months the person dies. When an RTI was raised by an NGO to know what standard was applied to assess the disability. The medical team replied that there was no standard.
  • Research on different aspects of OHS= medical, social, legal.
  • Use of PPE, availability, quality standardization and other issues.
  • Technology – age old techniques like dye manufacturing being done in open pans
  • Vulnerability of specific social groups like dalits, migrant workers etc.
  • Lack of BOHS (basic OHS) and lack of social security to majority – ESI & ESIC. Many places not covered by ESI and employers do not want ESI
  • Universalisation of BOHS/Integration of OHS with general health services
  • Role of central and state govts, national and international agencies, NGOs, TUs.
  • Campaigns, movements, networking
  • OHS literature
  • Myths and misconceptions
  • Relief and rehabilitation
  • Return to work – ‘light duty’
  • New technology and materials (no information on status of these in India)
  •  Occupational cancers, NIHL, Pneumoconiosis

On data – central government has no control over the state governments. And this affects data availability.

Work environment monitoring – vague and poorly implemented. Law does not mandate industrial hygienist. South Africa had a mandated a ‘dust monitor’ 100yrs back.

Madhya Pradesh – deaths due to silicosis among migrant workers were always reported as due to TB by the doctors. TB vs Silicosis sort of a movement began. 2005-06 424 persons were affected due to silicosis. In 2011, 1701 persons affected with silicosis in 3 districts in MP. This was a small study. A petition has been filed to knw the status of silicosis. NHRC has released a report on silicosis. MP govt has constituted a silicosis board to address the issue and also track migrant workers.
Rajasthan – mining is a huge revenue source to the state. Labourers are generally employed through agents. The mines are let out on lease to the owners. Now to the labourers Rajasthan govt is paying out of its own pocket. The govt is not able to make the mining lobby to address the situation. Workers do not know who they are working for. It is also difficult to determine who owns the mine. 21 victims have been compensated with Rs 3 lakhs. Now the state govt is concerned that it is spending its relief fund money.
Comment – appeal to look at the causes below the symptoms. Large scale denial of disease is for a reason. So understand the political economy of OH. There is a paradigm shift in the entire world of work in the last 2-3 decades. Whenever capital engages in surplus extraction there are two barriers- it has to give job secturty. Second, wages to labour. Regan and Thatcher bring in neoliberal capitalism and a paradigm shift in surplus extaction. Mid 1990s production is reorganized. It orients towards maximization. In that situation employer-employee relationship is fragmented so that it is no more required to take care of the worker. Labour extraction becomes absolute.

Construction, Mining and Factories sector have a schedule of diseases. A person/doctor who comes across a patient suffering from any of the listed diseases can report to the Factories Inspector. (Ref: Book “They go to die” on mining in South Africa).

Comment – Medical profession is getting away too easily. It can’t diagnose silicosis. “we can’t wait for a well wisher funded by Bill Gates to do find a diagnosis. May be he can help if he finds a vaccine for it.”

Work, Health & Rights – MFC Discussion [1]

MFC Banner

Medico Friends Circle completes 40 years with this annual conference in Hyderabad. Seeing the energy and quality of discussions this morning is admirable. The gathering is quite diverse – activists, NGOs, researchers, development professionals, engineers and doctors (although the name suggests that it is a group of medical professionals.

Theme of this MFC meet is Work, Health and Rights.

The concerns within this are about what is work, work conditions and gender, particularly in the unorganized sector. Now, the distinction between organized and unorganized sector is not straight forward or simple. The concern originates from the health care situation of 97% of the work force in India today. To address this, it would be required to structurally analyze the forms of legal, economic and social relationships in which the workers exist with their employers.

Organized/Unorganized categorization is based on sectors of production, whereas, workers can be employed under formal and informal modes. One view is that it is a convenient economic-legal categorization which grades people on the degree of benefits they receive as a part of work force. The other is that the categorization of organized sector began with the Factories Act.

Agriculture has been mostly informal but with MNCs coming in many aspects of agriculture has become organized yet the workers have remain unorganized. There are problems when an industry begins to get organized. And these problems are of concern to development and growth.  Two primary concerns in defining nature of sector and work are-

  • Legality
  • Social Security

The right to unionize should be of critical importance when a sector organizes. This according to one view, helps ensure social security which should be of primary concern from a gender perspective.

Unorganized-organized categorization would soon become irrelevant in the neoliberal world says one participant citing the  case of Rajasthan government where employees who were made permanent after 2004 do not have any pension benefits or security.. They only take a monthly salary.

Contrary to this, some perceive that the categorization is a fairly clear one at that and there are two markers of such a distinction-

  • Worker – direct hires, contract workers (under ESI Act).
  • Entitlements – employer provided, employee-employee contributory model, safety net (RG Yojana)

When in 2006 it was declared that “menial services” will be contracted out in the public sector why didn’t anyone object? The dalits were completely pushed out from the resultant opportunities. In the government sector dalits were turned away. And therefore, it is necessary that the meet discusses caste and class also.

The view that these categories are becoming redundant is held by quite a few. “Today we find that a permanent worker is an endangered species says a former trade union worker.” The sector is moving towards dissolving this employer-employee relation.

I find it interesting that the people here concern themselves with figuring out these overwhelmingly confusing categories of organized-unorganized and formal- informal work. It is interesting because here is a group comprising mostly of practitioners and fieldworkers and not academicians who find it problematic the way workers are seen and engaged with rests on such arbitrary system.

On a lesser hero of Indian Politics – Lohia and Caste in Indian Politics


The following is a review of political thoughts and writings of Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia who happens to be a lesser known figure of Indian independence movement and of the political transformation that unfolded in the 1950-70 period.

Lohia’s vision of egalitarian politics appears to be a case of lost opportunity for Indian politics and its leaders. It is a lost opportunity in a sense that had the rapidly rising regional political parties spared some time thinking about what kind of identity they are creating for themselves and their people they would have done much towards transforming the state of their lot as well as works towards nation building. This transformation one might add has often been the common denominator for almost all the political parties that have come up post- independence. Tragically, in India such a discourse on transformative politics remained on the fringes of mainstream politics. This mainstream comprised of the Congress party’s variety of politics by social consensus driven by political hegemony of small elite.

The following thoughts draw from Lohia’s essay “Towards the Destruction of Castes and Classes in India” written in 1959 edited by D.L Sheth. It outlines Lohia’s political and social ideas which he felt can transform society. His key concerns were – justice, equality and a society without caste in India which will lead to a certain variety of politics that is constructive and in the best interest of the nation. Democratic aspirations of Indian masses are based on caste and regional factors notes Lohia. Political coalitions built not on caste associations but on large and material interests will bring about a transformation in Indian society. A key concern to him remains the evil of caste system which must be tackled with a ‘crusade’ against it. The paper reasons that adult franchise may help in destroying upper caste domination. Noticing that regional parties are also caste parties, evidences of caste dynamics are cited from Maharasthra (with Mahars displacing Brahmins from their traditional place at the top of social domination), Tamil Nadu (with the two Dravidian parties asserting regional identities), Andhra Pradesh (where Harijan, Kammas and Communism have a peculiar political interaction) and Bengal. In all these states he observes that caste has significantly coloured the political processes. Most numerous group tends to acquire political and economic privileges. Therefore, if the disadvantaged groups of lower castes aspire to achieve such privileged position then it is imperative that they rise above the caste distinction. This is because a caste based association will never help them achieve numerical majority as there exist a vast variety of castes. He anticipates that this is problematic and will in the future lead to disastrous consequences to Indian politics and further to the vision of nation building which occupied the imagination of leaders of early decades of independence.

Lohia attempts to provide a radically different social and cultural basis to politics which transcends caste based distinction. He identifies that economic and power relationships have traditionally been allocated to hereditary groups by ritual status. Class stratification due to modernization has created gaps. These gaps are being filled by caste groups. Such a layered social structure will lead to inequities and in the end may not achieve what it ought to i.e. a complete abolishment of caste. Instead it will only lead to displacement of higher caste by lower caste in domination and power status.

He attempts to transcend caste – caste dichotomy and attempts to guide the political processes to the larger goal of nation building. The ruling class he observes has three characteristics – high caste, wealth and English education. These are the means through which the higher caste has made itself distinct from the lower castes. One must understand how this operates in order to realize social justice. This is further complicated by caste – gender segregation. Emerging social coalitions he suggests should be of ‘a single exclusive party of disposed and disabled humanity in the country’.

Considering the range of ideas and themes that Lohia engages with in this paper, he appears to be an original thinker, not necessarily in line with the prevalent political thought of his times. Influence of European socialist traditions on his political thought is evident when he considers the interaction between caste and class and tries to orient the course of struggle in a manner that caste based distinction is eliminated and various groups of people identify themselves under class.

It is remarkable how the arguments made by Lohia on caste and politics in his times are relevant today. He warned against caste – politics interaction that is likely to arise and a possible ‘politicization of castes’ and ‘casteisation of politics’. Both of these have now happened and in a good measure at that.  A recent controversy over Ashish Nandy’s comment on people from SC and ST community being corrupt and the consequent response from leading thinkers from SC and ST community is in many ways a realization of the scenario that Lohia warned against. The fracture in the Indian society in six decades of Independence are now prominent enough and is deeply polarizing public and social life in India. It is difficult for the diverse range of castes to imagine themselves without their caste label and instead think of themselves in any other way. For instance, they could identify themselves as Indians first (nationalism too is problematic, but perhaps much lesser than caste) yet the first choice seems to be caste.

This said, peripheral location of Lohia’s thoughts in India politics should also be noted. How could Indian society where caste and social heterogeneity is so deeply entrenched start thinking with a completely new frame – that of no caste. It can be argued that caste assertion has brought about a positive change in the social, economic and political situation of lower caste as well.