Amal Kiran & poetry

Amal Kiran's book "Inspiration and Effort"

Amal Kiran’s book “Inspiration and Effort”

Amal Kiran ! This guy is one of those tiny flowers with an intense colour, tucked way off the meadow on a mountain trail where not many venture and so not many would know of. Moreover, such flowers grow a little closer to the precipice for folks to know of their existence. How do I know? Had the good fortune of a helpful hand pointing in that direction as I stood look at the vista with her. All through those couple of days that I spent with this man’s daughter, I had no clue of the fine writing that awaited me in a Pondicherry bookshop. We spoke very little of Amal Kiran except a few references to his days in Aurobindo ashram. It was when I begin exploring further that I came across his book which opened up a whole new trail into poetry which I didn’t know existed. I say this because I have only been a consumer of poems. I do not and can’t seem to write poems.

This is about how Amal Kiran’s book Inspiration and Effort: Studies in Literary Attitude and Expression (Published: 1995, The Integral Life Foundation, USA) offers an easy to identify explanation of where might be the source of inspiration lie, in those splendid imaginations turned into words by Shelly, Shakespeare, Wordsworth or Byron.  It is well worth to re-produce this section from the first page of his book, wherein he dives straight into the intent of the entire exposition. He begins –

You hold that genuine poetry is written always by inspiration – effortlessly – as if in a state of semi-trance. A correct view, this, as regards fundamentals. But you may take my breath away by adding that, because in my letter I used words like “tried”, “attempted”, “sought” when I spoke of producing poetry of a mystic and spiritual order new in many respects to the English language, you drew the conclusion that I wrote my poems with a manufacturing mentality which thought out with intellectual labour all of the phrases, lined up the different parts like a mechanic rivetting joints and constructed artifically an unfamiliar out-of-the-way model!

Inspiration is a fact and it does come from a region that is beyond the muscular brain and the tense sinews of thought: it comes from a hidden fountain of force which is more spontaneous, swift, suggestive, vision-bright and harmonious: its outflow brings in a condition of mind cleansed of a too external and intellectual and deliberately constructive activity – hence, the semi-trance, as it were, of poetic creation.

The part I am most interested in is where he speaks of ‘spontaneity’ as the point that is ‘never properly seized by those who do not write poetry’ and goes on to explain how the process might work for those who are recognized for their poetry. Recently, reading an English translation of Kutti Revathi’s poem Rain River written in Tamil,  I marveled at the way her words could create that intense moment of desire and longing. I wondered if the entire thing came in one gush to the poet. It stayed with me for a long time. Amal Kiran’s thinking on this process appears clear and sort of helps in having a perspective on what might the process involve. It may not necessarily be the same for every poet, but it is worth a look. He writes –

The ordinary notion is that spontaneity is the first flow of words when one starts writing or the flood that overwhelms one all of a sudden. It is frequently these things but it is not confined to them. The spontaneous word is that which comes from a certain source – the deep fountain of inspiration beyond the logical and ingenuous brain: no more, no less. There is not the slightest implication that the initial flow of words is the most inspired: it may be so or it may not – everything depends on whether you are a clear medium or a partly clogged one. If you are not quite clear in the passage running between the creative source and the receptive self, the lines that come to you all of a sudden or at the first turning towards poetic composition are likely to be a mixed beauty and even a facile imitation of the beautiful. Consequently, you have to take a good deal of corrective pains or resort to a total rejection. It is of no moment how much you re-write; all that is important is whether at the first blush or at the “umpteenth” trial you catch unsullied the shining spontaneity of the secret realms where inspiration has its throne. Shakespeare never “blotted” a word; Keats “blotted” a thousand, and yet Keats is looked upon as the most Shakespearean of modern poets in “natural magic”. Even Shelly, to all appearance the most spontaneous of singers, was scrupulous in his revisions. What still kept him spontaneous was that each time it was not intellectual hacking and hewing, but a re-vision, a re-opening of the inner sight on the hidden realms in order to behold as accurately as possible the lines and tones, the shapes and designs of those dream-worlds weaving their simple or complex dances.

To end this section, Amal Kiran mentions Humbert Wolfe’s lines which ‘brings another mode of sight, speech and rhythm equally flawless:

Thus it began. On a cool and whispering eve

When there was quiet in my heart she came,

and there was the end of quiet. I believe

that a star trembled when she breathed my name.

(Humbert Wolfe)

Amal Kiran’s book – Inspiration and Effort, is a rare one from Indian authors on poetry and the process of it. He was an admirer of Aurbindo’s Savitri and a long time resident of Aurobindo ashram in Pondicherry. In over ten years that I have been visiting Pondicherry, I have not been quite attracted to read Aurobindo’s poems or his works. But Amal Kiran now makes me want to do that.

Meanwhile, from a completely direction, I read yesterday on Flavorwire – Why Queer Poetry Still Matters, which mentions yet another terrific gang of poets – Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Langston Huges and more recent ones.

I am not sure if I will ever manage to write poems, but the fact that poetry holds immense power in it to make one see the world and himself in newer and insightful ways, I am convinced of!



Why Interpret Art?


Art: “Dreamers” by Shreya

A short course in Categories in Art (posted earlier here, here & here) early this year has left me with a slightly accentuated sense of “works” of art, “artists” and “forms”. It also made me think about what art is and examine why some claim an exclusive “understanding” of art whereas each one of us are capable of experiencing art ourselves. That is as far as that art course helped me. The other outcome – that it generated a range of questions on art. When did understanding take over experience, along the course of art’s journey? A journey which perhaps is as old, in temporal sense, as the history of man.  Why is it that a criticism of art today occupies so much space than practice or experience of it, in our times? What makes the practice of art lose to the critic’s gaze?

Trained historians and art historians at that, will open a can of processes answers to these questions. But that does not settle it. Those who argue that art is always figurative claim that this is universal, whereas an artist – painter, dancer, writer, poet and musician would attest that it is not always that they have tried to make a statement or convey a thought with the pieces that they have created. Sometimes, they are just that, a creation of one’s own because the creator enjoyed the experience – the kinetic or the action element of creating something. Inspiration or the drive to do it can take a backstage or can kick in, in subtler forms. This does not seem to fit well with the mainstream idea of art as being figurative or those who subscribe to the mimetic theory of art.

Personally, it is quite a divergent way of thinking for me and reflects the learning process. A few months earlier, on art criticism and scholarly engagement with arts, I wrote

While I acknowledge that this method oriented experience of arts is too clinical and perhaps doesn’t remain an experience anymore I would argue that it delivers on greater insights into the context, form and style of the art work.

And the other day I tweeted – “interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art”. This made a relevant point of start to explore the current obsession with interpretation. These are Sontag’s brilliant words on interpretation, which my friend (a non -conforming artist herself) found interesting as well.  And here is the complete paragraph from Susan Sontag’s  Against Interpretation which ends with that line above. The other reason to share it is that I have been exploring Sontag’s writings for some time now. They are remarkable, for they stand as relevant today in the same intensity, if not more, as they were in 1961, when the book was first published.

Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is largely reactionary, stifling. Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.

Sontag seems to be unsatisfied with limiting it to art alone, and goes further to say –

Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world – in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings”. It is to turn the world into this world. (“This world”! As if there were any other.)

The world, our world, is depleted enough. Away with all duplicates of it, until we again experience more immediately what we have.

The lines reflect a confidence of thought and belief which the critics and historians seldom reflect. These lines had a near effect of bulldozing the ideas I learnt in that arts course I referred to and also the bulk of modern discourses on art. I am now clearing the landscape of my “understanding” of art and rather building it on “experience” which I should have done to begin with. It is partly to do with the realization that art is an experience first. This experience originates in the action of doing something, connecting and relating to it. The artist embodies art and often becomes one with the process itself. Why is this not important? It appears that we have completely dispensed with the praxis and rather interested in looking only at the end product. This is a clear dumbing down which would are a recipe for impoverished times ahead, just as they appear now. On theory , Sontag’s is a rather clear explanation of the status quo –

The fact is, all Western consciousness of and reflection upon art have remained within the confines staked out by the Greek theory of art as mimesis or representation. It is through this theory that art as such – above and beyond given works of art – becomes problematic, in need of defense. And it is the defense of art which gives birth to the odd vision by which something we have learned to call “form” is separated off from something we have learned to call “content”, and to the well-intentioned move which makes content essential and form accessory.

Some distance has sure been covered away from the old mimetic theory to the new as is evident today. It is easier to suggest that art is not merely or necessarily a reflection of an outer reality but that it can be about subjective expression as well. That art is a subjective expression gains currency with the abstract art that we see around. Sontag argues that the main feature of the mimetic theory still persists i.e. of content.

A move away from the urge to interpret art should set us free from the appalling materialistic, exact and predictable future that the society stares at. There isn’t a need to fit subjectivity into formal, systematized forms of understanding, even if it could lend itself to such a rude and ridiculous approach.  In fact, when I look around to my friends and those who I know engage with art in whatever form, they are all individuals exhibiting strikingly different ideas and reflect a highly individualistic experience of art. I find almost all their works fascinating and they make me think about the amazing capacities of human mind that gushes out in these myriad forms in our everyday life.

So what is the point, the reader may ask. And let me run back to make it, with Sontag’s words –

None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself, when one did not ask of a work of art what is said because one knew (or thought one knew) what it did. From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck with the task of defending art. We can only quarrel with one or another means of defense. Indeed, we have an obligation to overthrow any means of defending and justifying art which becomes particularly obtuse or onerous or insensitive to contemporary needs and practice. 

Tough times for dreamers?

Not sexy enough! Cultural encounters on the cricket field

Cheer Girls & Cheer Queens of the IPL Cricket (Image: ,

Cheer Girls & Cheer Queens of the IPL Cricket (Image: ,

 As long as IPL was about a new format of cricket, entertainment and advertising, it was predictable and of minor interest to me. But I was hooked yesterday when I saw this fascinating encounter of the regular pompom wielding cheer girls of Chennai Super Kings with the elegantly attired (and beautiful) girls performing bharatanatyam-lavani blend ! That is a new battle field opening up for India’s encounter with this televised variety of ‘popular’ and ‘modern’. Modern Art galleries, Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Kuchipudi, Kathakali performances on the very visible squares of London and New York and finally Bollywood have been the battle scenes where the classical Indian art forms clashed with the popular styles from around the world. The changes wouldn’t be noticed until a good number of years pass and one wakes up to notice that this ain’t what it was a few years back.

That I call it a clash is not my impression of it. Look at the conversations happening! A Mumbai team fan mocks at his friend who is rooting for Pune for the ‘cheer queens’ the team has. And another calls them Pune Aunties. HT writes, the sari-clad cheerleaders of the Pune Warriors have failed to make an impact on the field. ToI observes, No dirty dancing for Team Pune’s cheer queens. A classical dancer feels that classical dance on the cricket field is an insult to the dance form. Yet, some like me watch it like a curious phenomenon and wish to see more of it. It somehow doesn’t seem to be going down well with the people and we have a mix of reactions. Going by the popular mill it appears that the classical dance performing ‘cheer queens’ are not hot enough. Most immediately turn to and look forward to the conventional cheer girls – the ones with pompoms. Oh, and the cheer queens don’t go with anything like that in hand.

What is it that is not ‘delivered’ by the cheer queens that the cheer girls do? Asked differently, is it the sense of aesthetics that drive these reactions to the cheer girls vs cheer queens performance on the cricket field or the desire to see more skin? Of course the cheer queens have much of their bodies covered and draped in a not so revealing sense than the cheer girls. And if the cheer queens are not finding favour with the audience then what could be the reason? I strongly suspect that aesthetics or culture or anything of that sort is not at play here. More skin equals more entertainment and guarantees more visibility.

In such an environment it will be fascinating to see how these classical dance forms hold ground. For one I think this is a battle which is quite necessary for the Indian dance forms to win if we are to see a resurgence of classical and traditional Indian dance forms to gain some ground in the popular consumption spaces. I see a tension here and of course when I term it as an encounter. But this is not to argue for or against the ‘western’ influences. It is just to closely observe public imagination and impression of art forms of their own region or country. A modest exercise, yet important in the interest of studying culture and society. And how modern India will traverse this terrain.

Music and perception

Ustad Bismillah Khan playing his shehnai. (Photo: The Hindu)

Ustad Bismillah Khan playing his shehnai. (Photo: The Hindu)

An effect of pursuing liberal arts is that one’s mind is no more disengaged with the heart. (yes, that typical problem with modern education). Pursuit of any form of art or art itself as an experience, as a conscious consumption works as a bridge between the left and the right brained orientations that psychology talks about. Bridging of these two sides has interesting consequences in life, which are at times thoroughly satisfying. For instance, one’s conception of music as an experience.

Why do eyes well up listening to some people play music? Never knowing who the violinist in Song from a Secret Garden is, but riding with that song a full five hundred kilometers on the road stopping, crying, gazing into stunning landscapes, letting the tears get absorbed by the balaclava covering your face and repeating it all in that order?

And so with Ustad Bismillah Khan whose shehnai can reach such depths within that you’ve never fathomed. This affectionate, intimate connect with the person without having seen him ever, tells something about the ability of music to be a language transcending the need to know. You’ve heard a music and felt something happening within? Then you’ve already known him, met him and you are already talking to him. Ustad Bismillah Khan of one’s mind is perhaps the real Ustad Bismillah  who he ever wished to be! And the rest is just a body, a physical being as the Hindu belief goes. The affinities run deep and gets deeper with time. That the body is gone? How does it matter?

As they say, the music lives on. The language too remains, the message expressed and the man still alive. If you care enough to talk and listen and dialogue, he is there! And so are many such people who are no more with us.

Saints & Poets – Kannada Poetry

Translated works are often special because of a completely new world that they open up for a reader who wouldn’t have otherwise known and understood some of the finest poetry of a different region composed in an alien language. When such a world opens up, it is like a travel to a distant unknown land whose terrain, landscape and colors one enjoys with fascination. Living in Bangalore for some time now, I noticed statues of men like Basvanna (near Chalukya Hotel signal), Kuvempu (at Freedom Park) and could know no further of their poetry or their life.

Book Cover: Poets & Saints, Translated by G. S. Amur

Book Cover: Poets & Saints, Translated by G. S. Amur

This afternoon, I am reading Saints and Poets, a collection of Kannada poetry translated by G.S. Amur. It is a sheer delight to know these men and women poets of Karnataka and have a taste of their poetry. The book is highly recommended.

Here are some of my favorites :

Basavanna: A great religious and social reformer of the 12th century and a minister in the court of the Kalachuri king Bijjala (1130-1167) who ruled in Kalyan. He is considered to be the most poetic of the Vachanakaras.

Tied to the altar,
The sacrificial lamb
Ate the tender leaves
Hung in decoration.
Not knowing the axe
Would fall, it filled
Its burning belley.
That day it was born,
That day it died.
Did the killers live
O God Kudala Sangama?

Akkamahadevi: First woman poet in Kannada and one of the best known of the 12th century Vachanakaras. She has been an iconic figure for women poets in Kannada because of her revolutionary nature, her spiritual achievement and the high poetic quality of her Vachanas.

When you build a house in the mountains
It will not do to be scared of wild animals.
When you build a house on the ocean shore
It will not do to be frightened by breaking waves.
When you build a house in the marketplace
It will not do to shy away from noise.
Hear me Channamallikarjunadeva,
Being born on the earth it will not do
To lose peace of mind by praise or blame.

Sarvajana: A 16th century saint and preacher, he is a household name in Karnataka. His Vachanas, set in the desi metre of Tripadi have a biting wit.

You find him in fine sand,
In polished stone
And in lines drawn on cloth
Can’t you find him in yourself,
Says Sarvajana.

The other names in the collection include modern poets like Gopalakrishna Adiga, Channaveera Kanavi, G.S. Shivarudrappa and more. This serves as a very engaging and enjoyable panorama of Kannada poetry.

On Art, Art Criticism & Art History

Street art on a London street (Photo: Praveena Sridhar)

Street art on a London street (Photo: Praveena Sridhar)

How often are we conscious of using words like art, craft, art criticism, art history, artisan and artist ? These words are used interchangeably in common language or at times in conjunction, like ‘art and craft’. How does one distinguish one from the other? Is there a difference? These are simpler questions emerging from a common user perspective. The other set of questions which make take the inquiry deeper are – has the meaning of the word ‘art’ changed over centuries? If yes, what does one read in this change? How does this effect our experience and understanding of art? Together these questions embody a range of philosophical aspects of art and its experience.

Art criticism as well as art history can be attempted only when an approximate meaning (if not sharp) of ‘art’ is set. This has been my concern lately. An appealing take on arts is seen in Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man Without A Country . He writes,

“If you want to really hurt you parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possible can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”

This is the stuff many would identify with – ‘a very human way’ , easy, simple and experiential. And don’t people really indulge in arts as a reprieve? But this offers no direction to those seeking a scholarly engagement with arts. This is not a material that can be worked with in a scholarly sense, yet it is of great value as a literary work.

An analyical perspective on arts is offered by R. G. Collingwood in The Principles of Art published in 1938. He notes that ‘there is no point in using words according to a private rule of our own, we must use them in a way which fits on to common usage. This again would have been easy, but for the fact that common usage is ambiguous.’ And when common usage is ambiguous then ‘confusion between the various senses of the word may produce bad practice as well as bad theory’. Hence, the effort to understand what art is before one goes further into history and criticism. A useful sketch on the history of the word ‘art’ comes from Collingwood,

The aesthetic sense of the word, the sense which here concerns us, is very recent in origin. Ars in ancient Latin means something quite different. It means a craft or specialized form of skill, like carpentry or smithying or surgery. The Greeks and Romans had no conception of what we call art as something different from craft; what we call art they regarded merely as a group of crafts, such as the craft of poetry (ars poetica) which they conceived, sometimes no doubt with misgivings, as in principle just like carpentry and the rest, and differing from any one of these only in the sort of way in which any one of them differs from any other. It is difficult for us to realize this fact, and still more so to realize its implications. If people have no word for a certain kind of thing, it is because they are not aware of it as a distinct kind.

Artists of the Renaissance period conform to this notion of arts and the artists think of themselves as craftsmen. However, a shift in meaning begins in the seventeenth century.

It was not until the seventeenth century that the problems and conceptions of aesthetic began to be disentangled from those of technic or the philosophy of craft. In the late eighteenth century the disentanglement had gone so far as to establish a distinction between the fine arts and the useful arts; where ‘fine’ arts meant, not delicate or highly skilled arts, but ‘beautiful’ arts (les beaux arts, le belle arti, die schone Kunst). In the nineteenth century this phrase, abbreviated by leaving out the epithet and generalized by substituting the singular for the distributive plural, became ‘art’.

– (Collingwood, The Principles of Art)

This discussion emerges from a set of questions that my friend shared adding that how does one approach these issues during an exploration of art forms. The questions suggest an interest which goes beyond the typical museum visitor or from a person interested in an aesthetic consumption alone. His questions –

  1. Interpretation of art, especially sculptures, wall reliefs and statues. 
  2. The philosophy and meaning behind a piece of art. History of the piece of art, particularly religious pieces,  starting from how it was first designed through how it evolved, depending upon economics, politics, cultural assimilation, communal strife, to its present form and importance.
  3.  The place of wall reliefs in architecture (temples mostly).
  4.  Symbolism
  5. The question of ‘why’? Why would artisans/artistes want to create such stuff, what motivated them to?
  6. Geographical variation of art, perhaps due to climate or raw materials
  7. Historical evolution of art itself, especially in South India, especially sculptures.

These questions include a wide range of philosophical ideas – aesthetics, form, experience, imagination, consciousness, language etc. Each one of these are pursuits in themselves. Nevertheless, one can still attempt a methodical approach to appreciating art forms (this is a dangerous terrain to chart as one may argue that it is oversimplification of the subject and that it is naive at best). I would like to argue that a step wise, methodical approach which includes a checklist of questions to pose when one observes a piece of work is a fairly decent segueing into the discipline. More importantly, it makes the subject interesting! For beginners as well as the younger generation which doesn’t seem to have time for the museums but seem to enjoy themselves in public art installations, street graffiti and similar spaces of art practice and performance.

So, to my friend who posed those questions I suggest this method of analysis based on Terry Barrett’s Criticizing Art and from Kaoime Malloy’s lectures. I have uploaded a pdf document on the method here – Art Criticism and Analysis: An Approach. Malloy divides analysis into 4 steps – Description, Analysis, Interpretation and Judgement. Under each one of these there are a set of questions which help to identify and unearth information about the study form in a structured manner. For instance, it poses these basic questions to describe the art form

  • Form of art whether architecture, sculpture, painting or one of the minor art
  • Medium of work whether clay, stone, steel, paint, etc., and technique (tools used)
  • Size and scale of work (relationship to person and/or frame and/or context)
  • Elements or general shapes (architectural structural system) within the composition, including building of post-lintel construction or painting with several figures lined up in a row; identification of objects.

While I acknowledge that this method oriented experience of arts is too clinical and perhaps doesn’t remain an experience anymore I would argue that it delivers on greater insights into the context, form and style of the art work. This is a potential material which can then be worked with.

Of course, one might in the end still allege that this is no where near to Vonnegut’s elegant prose that we began with.

Seeing the old through new lenses – Digital Humanities

A few weeks back I attended a talk on Digital Humanities organized by Center for Public History at Srishti . I figured that what appeared new was something which we (my startup partner & I) were already doing without quite knowing that a new set of technology tools applied to sociology is now going by a new name called ‘digital humanities’. It applies a range of computing and digital technologies to humanities discipline making research in this area deliver on aspects which were earlier not possible. Some rather peculiar and interesting ways of looking at text and images have emerged as a consequence – Google’s n-gram viewer for instance and wordle tool. While  I think these computational tools are exciting to use and valuable in exploring and mining material, these do not make for very sound techniques which can be at par with the conventional research methods.

Here is a small wordle based analysis to explore what is the kind of shift in focus, value, thinking and prominence of literary ideas that happen in over a century. [Wordle generates “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text.] For this I use Nobel Prize in Literature citations from year 1900 to 2010, a period little more than a century. I split this duration into two periods of 1900-1950 and 1951-2010. The split at 1950 is to contrast between pre and post World War II world. And in what manner does such a large scale (almost the entire world gets involved) and extremely bloody event in the history brings about a change in the values and literary themes pre and post war. Like the way Walt Whitman’s work gets shaped by his experiences as a field nurse during the American Civil War, I try to explore how global ideas shape after WW II. Here, I assume Nobel Prize in Literature as a representative of global values of the time. 

Word cloud of Nobel Prize in Literature from 1900-1950 –

Word cloud of Nobel Prize in Literature citations from 1900-1950

Word cloud of Nobel Prize in Literature citations from 1900-1950

Word cloud of Nobel Prize in Literature from 1950-2010 –

Word cloud of Nobel Prize in Literature citations from 1951-2010

Word cloud of Nobel Prize in Literature citations from 1951-2010

The two word clouds were a fascinating picture. Notice how a major word “recognition” before WW II changes to “narrative” after the war. In fact, the word “recognition” almost disappears along with “idealism”. And well, I am tempted to look at “idealism” ‘s disappearance after WW II and “realistic” ‘s appearance.

A quick discussion with my peers (when I project these two images and ask them what is striking for them) reveals a multi-dimensional view. Words like “condition” , “human” , “sympathy” and “life” by their appearances post 1950s suggest a wide and rich range of reasons that made these as key concerns of literature after the people worldwide live through some of the most horrendous times. When I look at this picture, it comes out as a fertile ground for various sort of enquiries – sociological, literary and in writing styles also.

This, I think is the deliverance of digital humanities – these ideas which wouldn’t quite have occurred to an investigator. It has been a valuable tool in my research projects.

Dawn Upon Delhi – Photo exhibition at NGMA

Dawn Upon Delhi photo exhibition, NGMA, Bangalore

Dawn Upon Delhi photo exhibition, NGMA, Bangalore

There’s an interesting exhibition of photographs going on at NGMA, Bangalore titled “Dawn Upon Delhi” this month. It is a rich collection of photographs from the 19th and 20th century Delhi, especially of the time when Delhi went on to become “New” Delhi and the three grand ‘assemblages’ called Durbars. The exhibition is curated by Rahaab Allana and I find it remarkable in the way it is presented. Just the right kind of information panels to go with sets of photographs. The information presented adds a precise context or sometimes thought(s) of the people of that time. Two of these caught my attention as I went along:

On a panel titled ‘Photography and the Durbars’

“the image was an essential component of advancing the cause of British rule in India.” – Governor General Lord Mornington

As I read this quote by Lord Mornington I was reminded of a conversation in a political philosophy lecture where the professor asked the class what role did they think photography played in history, if at all one thought that it did play a role. I think it has been a key instrument (much more than a medium) since its invention  which could advance a certain kind of narrative, a visual one at that and therefore, inviting more credibility. This narrative was often a carefully staged one and highly subjective. It could be argued that photography has always been so but I’d like to contrast the form practiced by British Empire in India from that of the form that is practiced in a world where no nation is a subject of the other. The difference is striking. While it is still used as an instrument to advance a certain perspective or a way of looking at the world, it is different in its fundamental approach. It doesn’t ‘advance a cause’ in such blatant terms as it did for Lord Mornington. Professional associations and photo agencies today have a code of conduct and have clear standards in place with respect to what does one photograph and how does that get used in print, on web and other avenues. This, in spite of the web technologies which have made production, reproduction and publishing of images so easy and cheaper.

The other piece of information which was intriguing is the following where a “modern” development is talked about-

There had been opposition to the Durbars in the vernacular press from as early as Oct 1876, as it coincided with a famine in Deccan – in western and southern India. Photography as a means of  documentation eventually exposed the rampant commercialisation and the concurrent famines during these Durbars. In their pursuit of media attention, Raj policies catalysed another “modern” development: the conflicted relationship between political authorities and a self-regulated autonomous press. No matter how much the authorities herded the crowd and issued traffic pamphlets, the crowd – a mix of classes, nationalities and professions – became an entity and a force that helped determine the trajectories and interpretations of these Durbars. On the other hand, these photographs expressed not only a sense of “order” within the Empire, but also complex and often contradictory beliefs about race, socio-economic culture and history.

This is insightful because in some ways it identifies a period in history where the conflicted relationship between political authorities and an autonomous press might have begun. I couldn’t have traced this relationship back to the time of the 1911 Delhi Durbar. The number of individuals and press agencies covering the Durbar as well as rest of India in early 20th century were a good enough number to be able to present a multi-dimensional view of India and its people. It would have been difficult for the British government to control press in such a landscape. So, while the government went about organizing the Durbar, there were a good lot of independent agencies writing and photographing the Deccan famine. It was only too natural for some of them to contrast the two in their newspapers and periodicals.

What seems interesting about the political events and the press is that there comes a revolution driven by technology (printing press, camera, telephone) which completely alters the way in which events were seen and understood within the country and outside. In a sense, this looks like an ant’s eye view which develops during the first half of 1900s and which gives a complete new understanding of the events, processes and people in the society.

Note: Dawn Upon Delhi (pdf) is a travelling photo exhibition. So do check it out if you happen to be in Mumbai, Delhi or Kolkata. 

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.

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.