Luang Prabang: 25 years since Benedict Anderson’s visit

Luang Prabang: A view from Mt. Phousi

Luang Prabang: A view from Mt. Phousi

Tucked deep along the popular and wildly promising backpacker routes of South East Asia lies Luang Prabang. This tiny capital of a former princely state which merged with two other little kingdoms to form Laos opens itself unconditionally to the backpacker, the tourist and the fantasy seeker, all alike. No questions asked, beyond the necessary ones at the immigration. The thrill for the backpacker and the rich tourist perhaps lies in being able to walk over and taking for granted this little nation’s sovereignty, its own voice. The traveler with his stash of dollars can get away with anything – ride motorbikes without driving license, move about brazenly in utter disregard for people’s customs, practices or legal regulations and any go forth with any imaginable activity that might promise an inexperienced thrill which the tourist wouldn’t have dared to think of in his own country or traveling in the more prosperous and developed countries of the world. But in Luang Prabang, just go ahead and do it. Here, the weight of a dollar is more than people’s words. The tourist’s fantasies of every variety can be realized here for a pittance, until the pleasure seeker drops out satiated or bored.

Historian Benedict Anderson passed away last week. One of his books Imagined communities was a part of reading in grad school. Curiosity made me look up his other writings and I realized that he wrote of his trip to Luang Prabang during the Songkhran Festival in 1998. ( The excerpts in this post are from the essay published in LRB here.) Reading that I realized that it was twenty five years since his trip that I crossed the Mekong river and into its border town of Huay Xai. Three hundred kilometers up, through the lush mountains of this former Lan Xang kingdom, on the bend of the Mekong lay the endearing Luang Prabang town, home to Prabang Buddha and to some of the most affable people of the subcontinent.

Back to Anderson’s account, it appears that he was a keen eyed traveler more than a historian. His travel accounts tend to be mischievous, sarcastic and incisive in parts. In 1994 Luang Prabang was given UNESCO World Heritage status. In the four years since then, Anderson notes the changes.

In its heart is the hundred-metre-high hill of Phou Si, crowned with a restored Buddhist stupa (nicely floodlit at night) and an abandoned Russian antiaircraft gun. Below is a town that one can stroll across in 25 minutes but which has about forty elegant, modest Buddhist temple complexes, almost all warm browns, blues and whites, backed by huge bo trees, and opal-fired with the saffron robes of monks and novices. Here and there, one picks out former residences and office buildings of French colonials, which have by now acquired the charm of gentle provincial decay. Not a Hilton or Hyatt in sight: no Burger King, McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts. One BMW.

This absence of a Hilton, Hyatt, Burger King, McDonald’s etc is remarkable. The town’s remote location is evident in the fact that even twenty five years since Anderson’s visit, there still are none of these monuments of globalized existence and faux-modernity. The absence of west-styled fast food restaurants and five-start hotels is the exact reason why my friend and I felt a helpless attraction to this town and its homely feel. As Asian travelers with our own countries run over by the global food and hospitality chains, which are constantly road-rolling the peculiar and characteristic identity of the places, we felt Luang Prabang was indeed one of the last remaining places yet to be conquered by this homogenizing force.

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Luang Prabang comes off as an easy paced town with not much to see but to lounge and soak up the pace of this town by the Mekong river

Sisavanvong Road: The main thoroughfare in the town

Sisavanvong Road: The main thoroughfare in the town

Back to Anderson’s piece, he examines the ‘preservation’ effort of Luang Prabang’s culture and lifestyle with the World Heritage status. The following lines make for a remarkable critique which in retrospect do seem apt –

‘Best-preserved’ indeed. But by whom or by what? First of all by French imperialism at the end of the 19th century, which, anxious about the brutal British conquest of neighbouring Burma, seized the left bank of the Mekong from the Thai monarchs in Bangkok, who had the bad habit of razing Lao townships that did not behave themselves as loyal vassals. This démarche created a new border far away from Luang Prabang, leaving most Lao-speakers, on the right bank, to become the industrious and despised ‘Irish’ of a Siam that was on the way to becoming Thailand. It made possible the absurd singular English noun ‘Laos’, stupidly taken from the French plural ‘les royaumes Laos’ (the three Lao petty principalities of Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champassak). It led to the construction of a colonial headquarters in the Thai-razed, but ‘central’ locale of Vientiane rather than the remote and northern Luang Prabang. Ultimately the creation of ‘Indochine’ as a vast administrative unit run from Hanoi left Laos as the place where, in the Thirties, six hundred Frenchmen could peaceably indulge themselves, off location, in opium, girls, boys and drink. So to speak, the lotus-eating end of the colonial world.

Through the course of history, Laos seems to be a country pushed and shoved by its neighbours as well as powerful nations. Now, the baton seems to have passed on to the backpackers and tourists to do the same. However, the place still manages to stand apart as a very different experience – culturally and geographically. The mighty Mekong is an overbearing presence. The Buddhist monks still on their early morning walk to receive alms from the townsfolk. The barges ferrying people and vehicles across the river. High school kids volunteering at the National Museum to inform visitors about the artifacts, folktales and the Ramayana stories in English. They are absolutely adorable.

Luang Prabang’s riverfront is one of the prettiest to spend a leisure evening tucked in a small corner of the world. With its setting, it does seem to drive this literal feeling of being far out in the world. Especially, with the time it takes to reach this place. With the absence of factories, heavy machinery, high-rise buildings, large automobiles, mass transport systems and especially high human density, the place manages to immediately make an impression of being in a place which is out of the usual, fast paced cities that the global traveler has routed himself through, to reach here.

The long boats with a powerful outboard engine on the Mekong are an adventurous way to arrive into Luang Prabang.

The long boats with a powerful outboard engine on the Mekong are an adventurous way to arrive into Luang Prabang.

Barges and small boats continue to be the medium of reaching upper banks of Mekong in Luang Prabang

Barges and small boats continue to be the medium of reaching upper banks of Mekong in Luang Prabang

The fate of the royalty of Luang Prabang seems like typical of the colonial era. Either the King becomes a vassal or banished from his land if he tends to be assertive. Rest of the royal family especially the Princes are groomed in the colonizer’s capital abroad, in this case, the royalty being groomed in France. King Sisavangvong gets the nickname of being the ‘playboy King’ perhaps because of his fifty children and fifteen wives. His palace, which was once a French chateau is now the national museum. The night market on the boulevard in front of the palace is a truer picture of the modern day Luang Prabang and not the uninspiring and somewhat oddly cobbled artifacts at the museum.

Laos and Luang Prabang is best seen in its night market in my opinion. It is where the common Laotian surfaces, who lives a life in the countryside perhaps and turns up at the market to make a buck out of the souvenir hunting tourist. Reading Anderson’s account from 1998, his description of the night market reads as a very fine prose and stays remarkably unchanged to my eyes twenty five years since –

The open-air market reminds one of what shopping-malls and supermarkets have cost modern life: the savour and endless variations of homemade cooking and the exuberant inventiveness of a ‘cottage’ artisanate. At the stall of a genial, toothless old Hmong woman, for example, I found an elaborately embroidered baby’s cap from which a circle of 12 silver alloy coins dangled, while the scarlet tassled top was held in place by a larger, heavier coin with a hole bored through its middle. The larger coin was inscribed: ‘1938’, ‘Indochine française’ and ‘5 centimes’. The smaller ones, dated 1980, have passed out of circulation because they are still etched with the hammer-and-sickle, and because inflation has anyway made them valueless. High colonialism and high Communism, once mortal enemies, now cheek by jowl on the endless junkheap of progress, can still light up a baby’s face.

The night market on Sisavangvong Road coming up at dusk with the palace in the background

The night market on Sisavangvong Road coming up at dusk with the palace in the background

High colonialism looms large on several of the former colonies. I see it unfolding every time a tourist treats the country as his ancestral property and brazenly goes about town with a sense of entitlement as though the people are obliged to serve him. It only feels sad that there is little being done to  by the way of the tourist’s own sensitivity as well as from the international multi-lateral organizations which can assist Laos in developing a sharp and sensitive tourism policy similar to the one which helps European countries to keep the visitor subjected to their conditions and not the other way around.

Twenty five years since Anderson’s visit, Luang Prabang does manage to retain the charm that he spoke of. It also appears to have come further down along the road which threatens its unique culture and lifestyle that Anderson pointed to. The value of such travel pieces I realize is immense in creating reference points in the history to at least be cognizant of what we will lose or have lost along the decades.

Meanwhile, I hope Benedict Anderson rests in peace.

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Road to Hampi

Hampi landscap. It brings alive the imagery of early Indian novels in English, with bend in the river, villages around it and the grand temple in town.

Hampi landscap. It brings alive the imagery of early Indian novels in English, with bend in the river, villages around it and the grand temple in town.

Time is slipping by way too fast lately. Between school, university and work travel has suffered. While I am still processing my earlier experience, another ride is being considered.

Sitting on a bench at a tea stall in the bazaar area of Hampi I tried making sense of the cluster of shacks, huts and small houses that appeared scattered around grander looking structures of the past. There was a massive temple gopuram towering above everything else around which sat very small houses huddling as though they still retained the class order of the fallen Vijayanagara kingdom. I had spent a night in one of these houses, in a lane off the Virupaksha temple. Many of these houses offer rooms on rent. These rooms are annexed to the residing family’s quarter and looks like one of the main sources of income for the families living here. These make the bulk of guesthouses in Hampi. You’d take one if you are on a budget and a scrape-the-bottom kind of traveler.

The previous night, after riding into the town and settling in the room I read Satish Chandra’s account of Vijayanagara and Bahamani Kingdoms. It was a quick overview of the history of the very place I was sleeping in. 500 years back I would have been sleeping amidst the people of the most powerful empire in the Deccan and would have bowed to Krishna Deva Raya.

The entrance tower of Virupaksha temple. All round it are settlements with hardly any cordoned off spaces. Even inside the temple, only the sanctorum is locked at night. The rest of the space doubles up as a large open air dormitory for visitors who aren't up for spending money in renting rooms in the lodges around.

The entrance tower of Virupaksha temple. All round it are settlements with hardly any cordoned off spaces. Even inside the temple, only the sanctorum is locked at night. The rest of the space doubles up as a large open air dormitory for visitors who aren’t up for spending money in renting rooms in the lodges around.

Later, I read Edward Carr’s What is History. Particularly the chapter on history as progress. After that, I read a bit of Pico Iyer’s Lonely Places – Falling Off the Map. He talks about how ‘lonely’ may not always mean physical loneliness, but that it could set-in, in spite of being a part of the greatest crowds or bustle of things. I found myself readily agreeing with it because this place is one of that kind. Loneliness, would at best be a state of mind. (Some would remark, of course!). I agreed with it because the Hampi ruins are almost unreal at one level. The people here seem to be oblivious to the rather heavy weight of history that this place carries and which travelers (and riders and backpackers) come seeking. They appear to be looking for the remains of a mighty empire which had a lasting impact on this part of the world in 15th and 16th century. Whereas, those who live here seem to go about their work and daily life with an obliviousness or perhaps indifference. I don’t know!

Every apart of this erstwhile city, which once had a perimeter of over sixty miles as Nicholas Conti, an Italian traveler reported, continues to be inhabited. They farm, they live and they carry on with their lives here leaving the ruins not to themselves but embedding them in ways which are quite functional. These are, so to speak… living ruins, in my opinion.

This is such a contrast to the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. May be not in the scale of construction but in terms of beauty and elegance. Hampi is way too rich in the experience that it stands to offer to a visitor and the way it situates itself in an interesting integrated manner with the local people. Yet, Angkor gets over two million visitors annually whereas Hampi doesn’t even see 80,000 visitors in a year.

Visiting Angkor I felt it has this ghostly feel to it. A sense  of abandonment and extreme loneliness overcomes the visitor (an Indian visitor at least who comes from such thriving and populated places of history from Gulbarga to Hampi). Hampi, however, is festive. It drives in a sense of continuity of history, as I felt visiting it for the first time. Although, one might find the state of maintenance of most structures inadequate.

Here is once instance where I see a contest for physical space happening in perhaps most of the inhabited spaces across the world. Projects in conservation and preservation of heritage continues to fight this contest and the only approach it seems to be adopting often is to sanitize the space occupied by heritage structures and monuments, cordon it off and in a way, keep them in a frozen state. This often ends up aggravating the contest. An interesting project which moves away from this idea and is seeking to create a ‘living space with heritage’ is Aga Khan Foundation’s work in conservation and restoration of Nizamuddin basti (with Humayun’s Tomb) and space around it, in New Delhi. I heard the project team’s Ratish Nanda give an elaborate presentation on the project a couple of months back at NGMA Bangalore.

This, I feel is the direction heritage conservation in India should move in and not the European style of preservation which is akin to deep freezing. Even as Hampi gets a substantial fund from Government of India towards its conservation, I hope it learns from the Nizamuddin Basti program and not fall prey to the European and American experts on conservation of heritage. I am certain that there is an Indian approach and style waiting to be developed in this space!

An almost crumbled temple from the Hampi cluster.

An almost crumbled temple from the Hampi cluster.

A structure within the Vitthala temple, one of the best kept in the Hampi set of ruins.

A structure within the Vitthala temple, one of the best kept in the Hampi set of ruins.

Knowledge of the past before us – History & Methodology

footprints

(For Isha)

This morning, Romila Thapar, Professor Emeritus at Jawaharlal Nehru University delivered a talk on Knowledge of the past before us, at IISc. Having bought her recently published book The Past as Present: Forging Contemporary Identities Through History I was interested in her views on the methodological aspects of knowledge production. Also, that she has faced a good deal of criticism ( Whipping Girl of the Right ) from the ruling governments – present and earlier, both. Her works are elegant in their presentation and highly structured. This has been a part of the attraction to read essays and books by her. Although, her views are not necessarily agreeable. In an earlier post on ancient Indian system of education I suggested that one must look at historical evidence before believing any particular idea about the event in consideration. Though such a rational analysis and logical generalizations can take away the ‘romance of history’ as she has often suggested.

This morning it was about the instrumentality of  “time” in history. And this was a very interesting piece of analysis – that concept of time in history has been varied. There are two ways time was seen – a) cyclical (ex: Incas, Babylonians, Ancient Greeks, Mayans, Hinduism, Buddhism & its idea of wheel of time;  b) linear (ex: Judeo-Christian, Islamic idea of time beginning with the act of creation by God).

Indian idea of time is cyclical, which is cosmological in nature and represents a certain universal orientation. Then there was this shift from lunar calendar to solar calendar in the past (Vedic times) which facilitated the calculation of what is known as the “samvat”. This was a mix of mathematics, religion and history, as a method to construct time. Whereas, linear represented a certain human-centered idea of time. Perhaps, one can see the linear as an arc of the cyclical time as Thapar suggests too.

The larger argument was that “history does not come as a self-contained package”. It is constructed in various forms. It is the forms of usage of “past” which of course has a lot to do with the sense of “time”, which forms the manner in which one develops an understanding of history. She argues that historiographies can use past differently (this is also discussed in her recent book The Past as Present).  This bit of information is particularly interesting because it illuminates another possible reason and meaning for why art forms like poems, dramas and epics exist and get passed on over generations.

All societies over the centuries have constructed their past, often in accordance with contemporary theories about the meaning of past. The past therefore is represented in various ways: in the oral traditions of mythology, folktales, ballads – some of which were incorporated into literary forms as epics, narratives, drama and chronicles. This becomes the data of what we call ‘traditions’.

The three historiographies which use past differently are – a) Brahmanical tradition (Oral); b) Puranical tradition (Textual); c) Shramanic tradition (Buddism & Jainism). As for the reasons for adoption of different medium, Thapar speculates that the Brahmins realized that controlling the past can get them greater authority. And hence, the oral histories were extensively formed by brahmins.

Text as a medium, she argues, gives ‘data’ status and continuity. And therefore the project of puranas in Hinduism. The Shramanic idea on the other hand was that information of the sort that the Brahmanical and Puranic text dealt with, was not given by Gods. Instead, it believes that such information is a result of the contract between people. This idea is reflected in Buddhism and Jainism. Shramanic and Brahmanical traditions are embedded and are intrinsic forms of historical consciousness. For example, Mahabharata is referred to as ‘itihas’ (history) and Ramayana is referred to as ‘kavya’ (prose). These epics, Thapar cautions, may be seen as repositories of historic consciousness and not necessarily records of historic events.

Of what relevance one may ask is this discussion on ‘past’ to contemporary times? This is what I tend to instinctively ask when I hear these seemingly abstract conversations. The answer to this, I find lies in these few lines in The Past as Present:

In contemporary times we not only reconstruct the past but we also use it to give legitimacy to the way in which we order our own society. Given that with the advance of knowledge, we have more ways of discovering new evidence and of asking fresh questions of the evidence, we can therefore construct a past that is more credible and precise.

It is this precision of historical analysis that is required in the contemporary times in India when right wing political parties are hell bent on making history serve their interests than be an honest reconstruction of the past. Politics of the day is unfolding in the history textbooks in schools and universities – ‘saffronization of the textbooks‘  (Read: Mis-oriented Textbooks & Errors in textbooks)- and one of the ways to debunk is to deliberate on the methodology in practice of history and reconstruction of the past.

Education in pre-colonial India: Dharampal’s The Beautiful Tree

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Image Courtesy: K.L. Kamat (Illustration by B.K. Mitra for Kalyan Magazine shows students and animals in harmony with nature)

In the school where I teach, the teachers hold a very diverse range of views about the role of a school in a child’s life. What must school stand for and what areas of the child’ s life must the school be concerned with. Those who run the school – the management folks, stand at one end of the spectrum of beliefs about “education” and the manner in which a child’s time in the school must be structured. The rest dot the entire spectrum with some of them occupying the far opposite end of the spectrum which means that they are of the opinion that democratic means of taking decisions in school must be the overriding criteria. Above that, the school should let children be – in a sense that let them decide when they want to take up written exams if exams are a necessity. However, they’d prefer that there are no exams and that children should be assessed in some other non-structural, preset format. Exams, in short, are tyrannical. This has been an ongoing discussion for several weeks now and likely to reach no easy consensus.

Meanwhile, there is another discussion on role of a school in children’s lives. It began with this article on children’s emotional and psychological needs. It gives a roundup of the ways in which schools in Indian metros are catering to such needs:

Children in Indian metros are reaching out to school counsellors to make sense of their increasingly complicated, increasingly lonely lives. A nine-year-old is no longer too young to have a problem — or even know what a problem is.

This led to someone remarking that probably Indian schools will soon be back to the “gurukula” system of ancient India – where schools will “again” begin to cater to all the aspects of a child’s education – academic, social, emotional and spiritual. The remark led me to think of the sources from where one can draw inferences that ancient schools or “gurukulas” were indeed catering to all of those needs of a child.

As it looks, there is no historical evidence to say this conclusively. Even as a possibility, this is hard to imagine because launching off from the point of believing that India’s “ancient” system was the best arrangement which developed well-groomed, well-grounded and learnt individuals one is already given to believe that there was something extraordinary that the “gurukulas” did. They sure were a very different institutions from the modern day schools. But saying anything further – about how they approached education and helped children will require more evidence, in the absence of which, I feel compelled to tell that teacher that her argument is a mere conjecture.

Thinking of existing works on history of pre-colonial education system in India, I can think of only one very well written and comprehensive work – The Beautiful Tree, by Dharampal. The discussion in school reminded me of this book which I had read a few years back. Re-reading it this week, I find it remarkable in scope and review.

Dharampal refers to the lack of historical records in the introduction:

Very little, however has been written on the history, or state of education during this period, starting with the thirteenth century and up until the early nineteenth century.

Further, he reviews the records for nineteenth century and describes the sources:

Most of the discussion on the state of indigenous Indian  education in the early nineteenth century, and the differing viewpoints which give rise to it, use as their source material (a) the much talked about reports by William Adam, a former Christian missionary, on indigenous education in some of the districts of Bengal and Bihar 1835-38 (b) published extracts of a survey made by the British authorities regarding indigenous education
in the Bombay Presidency during the 1820s, and (c) published extracts from another wider survey of indigenous education made in the Madras Presidency (from Ganjam in the north to Tinnevelly in the south, and Malabar in the west) during 1822- 25. A much later work on the subject, but more or less of asimilar nature is that of G.W. Leitner pertaining to indigenous education in the Punjab.

Even these later works, leave alone the earlier ones, do not say anything about what was the approach of a “gurukula” in imparting education nor are any ethnographic works dealing with what went on inside them. It leads to the argument that all the glorious claims about the traditional Indian “gurukula” system lack evidence. However, we do have sufficeint account of the fact that the macro role it played in the society and pre-colonial, “indigenous” system was remarkably effective in addressing needs to the society at that time. It is this “beautiful tree” of indigenous education system that Gandhi said was destroyed by the British in India. Dharampal adds that:

It is important to emphasize that indigenous education was carried out through pathshalas, madrassahs and gurukulas. Education in these traditional institutions – which were actually kept alive by revenue contributions by the community including illiterate peasants – was called shiksha (and included the ideas of prajna, shil and samadhi). These institutions were, in fact, the watering holes of the culture of traditional communities. Therefore, the term ‘school’ is a weak translation of the roles these institutions really played in Indian society.

What he highlights in the following lines is the trap that educationists are walking into again:

The idea of a school existing in every village, dramatic and picturesque in itself, attracted great notice and eclipsed the equally important details. The more detailed and hard facts have received hardly any notice or analysis. This is both natural and unfortunate. For these latter facts provide an insight into the nature of Indian society at that time.

The proverbial ancient “gurukula” system needs to be looked into with a more critical lens and the first step would be to find records from the history of what went on within these ancient schools. Without this we will continue to have these vacuous conversations about the ancient glories and continue to push the current school system towards a vision which no one knows what it looks like.

Awadh Punch: India’s Charlie Hebdo of Past

This was brewing for sometime now, with last evening’s conversation with an art historian bringing it all to a churn. Turns out that her father wrote for the legendary Awadh Punch, a satirical Urdu weekly published from Lucknow, which began in 1877. It was edited by Munshi Sajjad Hussain. Recollecting stories of the post-independence days in India, she recollected how charged and energetic were the times in which she grew up. There was, in her opinion, greater room for sharp, incisive and on-the-face criticism by the way of humour and satire, unlike the current years, especially with a BJP led government ruling India. Awadh Punch ( referred as AP hereon) was an Indian version after the tremendously successful Punch which began in 1841 in England was the heydays of the British Rule in India. This Urdu weekly contributed in another big way – the development of Urdu short story. Here is a chapter from Huseyn Suhravardy‘s work on AP and its contribution to Urdu short story and journalism. The satire and cartoons of Awadh Punch repeatedly poked a finger in the British government’s eyes with every opportunity and at every occasion. Another newspaper in the Deccan started around the same time was Kesari by B.G. Tilak which was a prominent voice for self-rule or swaraj.

In the similar league was another interesting newspaper – The Comrade. It ran  from 1911-1914 and an essay on the British mistreatment of the Turks but still encouraged them to join the Allies during WW1 did it in. The paper was shut down under the Press Act of 1910. What is remarkable about the journalism of this era in India is that the times (colonial administration) and the odds (state of technology and high costs) were several times greater than the present and yet there were these bold and fierce initiatives. This is quite a contrast to the current range of newspapers in India which seems to be ever so flexible in their willingness to pull down articles, not touch controversial issues and play safe.

The larger point is that political satire in India has had a rather long history which needs to be known. It might help recast the current intolerance of political opinion and the ways of presenting them in a comparative light. The current direction of thought is that political commentators in India are doing a fair job of criticizing the government and shaping public opinion. But a quick look at the late 19th and early 20th century newspapers and periodicals in India would tell you that this is a far cry from the early action in political commentary.

Mushirul Hasan, a noted Indian Historian writes,

The political uncertainties and the proliferation of newspapers in early 20th Century offered a variety of themes for political satirists to explore.

In another place he refers to cartoons as a medium and refers to AP’s work, which should be interesting to know for those thinking about the state of freedom of expression and intolerance of opinion post Charlie Hebdo attack:

Cartoons ridiculing the colonial government appeared with impunity in this Lucknow publication. The volume of humour produced by this weekly had both variety and range. One of its offshoots was that political/social satire became an accepted and legitimate medium of experience. Indeed, the first two decades of the 20th century offered multiple themes for political satirists to explore.

Further,

We need to be aware of and express, in an inventively humorous manner, the relationship between seemingly incongruous and disparate things. For this to happen, we must draw some wisdom from wit and humour in public life, past and present. Cartoons offer such rare insights into our political and cultural histories that they can be read as a document without undermining their artistic achievements.

His book Wit and Humour in Colonial North India: Awadh Punch, and Wit andWisdom: Pickings from the Parsee Punch, 2012 offers a glimpse into the Indian versions of the Punch which came up in the 19th and 20th centuries.

A selection of plates from AP are archived in the Digital South Asia Library of U. Chicago.

And here is a cartoon from AP on Afghanistan published in 1879, for a flavour (courtesy: The Public Archive) :

A cartoon from Awadh Punch on Afghanistan, 1879. Courtesy: The Public Archive http://thepublicarchive.com/?p=1921

A scene from the second phase of the late war, the ex-Amir sitting on the ground with one end of a rope around his waist, the other in the hands of a British officer who is preparing to lead him away to exile; to the left, Sir FrederickRoberts standing by the side of a female figure, representing the Afghan nation, with an arm placed on the General’s shoulder.

The legend at the top is taken from a poem by “Ghalib” in which a Lover is supposed to say to his Mistress, when parting from her, “I have heard of the ignominious way in which Adam was forced to leave Paradise, but I am certain that he never felt half the remorse I now experience, when leaving your pleasant paths and sweet companionship.”

The Colonization Narrative : India

Victorial Memorial, Kolkata, India

Victorial Memorial, Kolkata, India

This is an perhaps an oversimplified, linear narrative of how India went from a land ‘out there’ and ‘somewhere’ to being the crown jewel of the British Empire. If I were to write this story of colonization for a history paper, I would perhaps sink without a trace in the deep waters of historical analysis. But it still merits a shot for the fact that simpler narratives are a point of start for the more nuanced ones.
The story of colonization in India is that of a gradual subjugation and systematic economic exploitation. From the first colonial encounter – with the merchants of the British East India Company – to establishment of British empire with India as a colony, the two hundred years of British presence has left an indelible mark on all aspects of Indian economy, agriculture, geography and more so its social core. Historians reason that Indian colonization happened in three distinct phases –

Mercantilism (Phase I), 1755 – 1813

What started as a small trading operation from a small post on the Hoogly river in Calcutta in 1755, the operation of British East India Company went much beyond trade in the decades to follow. The English merchants were interested in trading spices, silk, jute and other goods which would sell in Britain. Merchants and businessmen dominated this period and expanded their trading operations in India rapidly as the demand for these goods in Britain increased. However, growing demand for these goods back in Britain also meant an outflow of bullion out of their country and into India. In addition to this the cost of trading in India were high due to wars with the Portuguese and Dutch trading companies.

The merchants sought to address this by extracting land revenues in India as taxes which could compensate the outflow of money from Britain. The rights to land revenue were to be acquired from the rulers of princely states of India. The first such land revenue collection rights or the “Diwani” rights were acquired for Bengal after the Battle of Plassey in 1957. This was soon to spawn an elaborate system of land revenue system known as “ryotwari” system and the “mahalwari” system (in northern parts). The model was on a template of land revenue system of the Mughal rulers who preceded the British. Ryotwari system is a characteristic of this period. It was operationalzed with the help of intermediaries or “zamindars” who were awarded the ownership of large tracts of land and were responsible for collection of revenues on behalf of the Company. Historian Bipan Chandra estimates that the export from India to Britain increased four times during this period. Indian trade had come to be monopolized completely by the British as the 18th century came to an end.

Free Trade (Phase II), 1813 – 1858

During the second decade of 19th century Adam Smith’s idea of free trade or “laissez faire” economy had managed to influence the British parliament with some of its members – the “free traders” demanding that access to Indian markets must be made free. This translated into the Company losing its monopoly rights in India. To this effect the Charter Act of 1813 was passed. It withdrew British East India Company’s trade monopoly. The Company’s territorial possessions were now subordinated to the British crown.

This phase is marked by commercialization of Indian agriculture. India was fast converting into a plantation colony with cash crops like indigo, opium, jute and tea being forced on the peasants, over food grains. Consequently indentured labour was used for running several of its plantation colonies in French Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and Sri Lanka. Agriculture in India now served as a raw material base for British industries. Famines, introduction of railways (1853) and irrigation projects were other features of this phase.

Financial Imperialism (Phase III), 1858 – 1947

Industrial revolution in Britain and an uprising of native Indian soldiers against the Company (the Sepoy mutiny) ushered in the imperialistic phase where the colonizer and the colonized relationship was set firmly in place. The railways, land revenue system, civil services and judiciary served as the apparatus of the British government to strengthen the colonial grip and make India serve as a captive resource providing colony which would get fed into the furnace of British prosperity perpetually.

This phase is marked by de-industrialization of Indian industry (as argued by many historians and economists, though I find that this period also served as a demonstration of industrial technology and its capability for the Indian entrepreneurs and who would later make good use of it to set up their own businesses. Ex- V O Chidambaram Pillai in Tamil Nadu, Birlas and Goenkas in Calcutta, textile entrepreneurs in Bombay). Indian goods during this period became in-competitive to the superior machine made goods like textiles which flooded the Indian market from Britain. This inflow of cheap goods was a consequence of the industrial revolution in Britain.

The domestic market was systematically exploited and foreign trade by 1920s had declined significantly. Indian capitalist class rises in the aftermath of the World War II when the foreign economic influence wanes away due to the war. It is then that the Indian economy picks up steam and the Indian industrialists align with the Congress to push for independence. What follows later ends the colonization of India in 1947.

 

Travel in the post-colonial times

Fort Dansborg ovelooking the sea, Tranquebar

Fort Dansborg ovelooking the sea, Tranquebar

This little Dutch settlement has always attracted me with its brilliant blue skies and the expansive ocean. Last week we drove into this seaside village, which was a twenty five mile long stretch of coast leased out to the early Dutchmen by the Tanjore king in the late 1700s. The Dutch called it Tranquebar. The Tamils call it Tarangambadi, translated loosely as ‘the land of singing waves’. The last couple of hours remained of the day light as we entered this town and took up a hotel by the sea side. The evening wore a calm look and a quaintness that is hard to find along the dense and busy east coast road in Tamil Nadu. The intact (and partially restored) arch at the entrance of the Dutch settlement physically marked a time travel zone that we were about to enter. The narrow road led to an old church, the fort – called the Dansborg and a lovely sea side villa which now is a heritage hotel run by Neemrana group.

I have been visiting this place on almost all my rides along this coastline much like the Danish, Portuguese, British and the French ships which did the same but from the other side. From the records of protestant missionaries and the Portuguese trade documents I learn that this was one of the busiest regions in maritime trade along with other now disappeared ports like Porto Novo (about 80 kilometers north of Tranquebar). We stopped to take a look at the statue of Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg, the first protestant missionary to India, who traveled to India to spread the word of God. A marble slab underneath the statue listed many other minor firsts that the local Diocese could dig up, or perhaps imagine, about the man and made a laundry list of achievements down there. The statue didn’t cut much an impression on me, especially with its gold paint but the little tidbit of a history there – of he being the first protestant missionary in India – set my thoughts wandering into a past that I have often loved to imagine and recreate. A past much like a movie set in which fort Dansborg rises in the horizon with the Danish red flag fluttering and the young Zigenbalg hoping to set foot as he approaches the land, at this very place on the eastern coast.

An old Dutch house, Tranquebar

An old Dutch house, Tranquebar (Image: Praveena Sridhar)

A statue of Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg (July 10, 1682 – February 23, 1719)

A statue of Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg, July 10, 1682 – February 23, 1719 (Image: Praveena Sridhar)

Fishermen at work on a Sunday morning, opposite to the fort. They inhabit the modern day Tarangambadi.

Fishermen at work on a Sunday morning, opposite to the fort. They inhabit the modern day Tarangambadi.

The other details blurred out as I read the history of protestant missionaries in Madurai, Tirunelveli and the incursions of the Tranquebar mission. These men were clearly fired with a spirit of adventure and fascination of ideas which captured their imagination. An imagination which saw a world made possible by their God, their faith and that these are supreme – and that the rest, the ‘heathens’ must be brought to the fold. In my reconstruction of the 17th and the 18th century India when the Dutch arrived, I was inclined to think more about their adventure and rawness of the endeavor of these men who set sail in a direction they hardly knew of. And yet when they arrive they have plans – of trade, commerce and evangelism. Perhaps they were fired by the enthusiasm of the newly formed Dutch Republic back home when they declared independence from England and formed a federation during the end of 16th century.  One can see Tranquebar as a consequential small story in the larger canvas of the Dutch Golden Age (“Gouden Eeuw”) during which the Dutch Empire became one of the major seafaring and economic powers in the 17th century. Interestingly, many economic historians regard Netherlands as the world’s first thoroughly capitalist country.

Well, in the heat of such a splendid economic and power charged run the Dutch were understandably getting adventurous and sure had plans for it. And from the many ships sent out in the world, one of them was to reach India and hit the coast somewhere around the place where I stood that evening. Fort Dansborg was rather unimpressive and likely so to an Indian who has seen the massive, intimidating and fascinatingly beautiful forts in the Rajputana – Mehrangarh, Jaisalmer, in the Deccan – Golconda, Gingee, Vellore and in the high hills of the Konkan coast. Meanwhile, the fishermen on a small landing spot were busy sorting their nets and separating the catch after an early morning round of fishing. The scene was mildly strange – a bright 21st century morning with motorized fishing boats on the coast and a very busy history in the background with Zigenbalg’s grave marking the end of a generation of adventurers.

Reading accounts and papers of the colonial era and experiencing them often generates different narratives. And that is the point I was reflecting upon. On the Sunday morning in Tranquebar, gospel music flowed in the air from the church nearby, interspersed with hymns in Tamil. The church is as old as the fort. The hymns stood in contrast to the reality of the day. This in a way appeared as the way in which the dead Dutchmen’s conquest lived. In these hymns and a formerly alien faith which arrived by the ships that laid anchor on this coast over three hundred years back. Colonial era may have been past and the research papers mark that historical juncture fairly well. But at the core of the post-colonial times lies the colonial, healthy and mutated. Those hymns were by the ‘heathens’ who embraced protestant Christianity and years later venerate the man who brought this alien faith to them. The faith that makes the people of this settlement sing these hymns and regard Sunday as a day of prayer and mass is clearly not theirs. It was a part of the conquest, of men charged with commercial and technological prowess and a part of the project of shaping the world into becoming what they imagined it as.

Conquests I now think are little about physical forms like forts, territories and countries. They are more about conquest of minds, of people’s faith, practices and of their beings, into becoming what the conqueror wants it to be. This variety of conquest impregnates generations to come and lives, as strong as ever. The physical forms, even of the conqueror are gone yet the effects remain.

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. 

‘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!)

Modernists – Then & Now

Early Indian modernists

Early Indian modernists

This morning a discussion on life, work and legacy of Raja Rammohun Roy and Syed Ahmed Khan led to a question on why did they call for ‘modern’ education in India of the mid 19th century (around 1840-1890 period)? How different was the Indian education system before the onset of colonial period and post? What did Indian education lack that the ‘modern’ British system have?

One perspective stems from Dharampal’s The Beautiful Tree, an important work on the history of Indian education system. He argues that much of the British education system of the British India (and consequently today’s education system) is based on the ancient Indian structure. By this he probably means that the instruction method, spread of schools (as in a school in every village) and curriculum all appear to have been adopted and modified to the needs of the British administration and presented as their own. I do not doubt the claims of the book nor the scholar’s study. In fact, I find the process only too natural.

I have two observations on the current discourse on origins of modern education system in India and its effects:

1. Allegation that British education system is essentially Indian, with a sense that it is noting new but our own system shown to us as new is not true.

2. ‘Modernists’ of 19th century are not much different in their approach to the new crop of Indian academicians and professors who have returned to India (or visit periodically) after being trained abroad or worked abroad. The ideas they propagate back in India are pretty much the same like what the modernists of 19th century did!

Saying that the British system of education is only a derivative of traditional Indian system is one thing. But implying that the British system has in some way borrowed and been deceitful in doing that would be flawed. Here is my reason for believing so. If the invaders in any geography are powerful enough and have long term ambitions to rule the place and not just plunder it then it is quite a natural progression that the dominating power would manipulate the processes of this new land and its people. Like if they want Indians to work in the new order of production (and industry) in British India then they would also have to be oriented and trained likewise. If the British empire brought in railways, elaborate administrative processes and newer technologies (post industrial revolution) to India then they also wanted to condition Indians to be able to work in that new environment. This is easier when one takes in an existing mode of learning of the natives themselves and modify it by incorporating all that you would also want to ensure that the natives learn in order to serve you better (remember this is a colonial power-colony relationship) The ‘modernists’ like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Raja Rammohun Roy saw how out of tune a native Indian is, in this new order of things in British India. They probably felt that it would hinder the growth of the native Indian as he wouldn’t be able to better his lot if he doesn’t ‘learn’ the ways of the new India. Also, we know that Syed Ahmed Khan held British empire to be way too powerful and that Indians didn’t stand a chance if they were to revolt against it, as they did in the uprising of 1857. Now this was one group of people who thought that Indians should modernize – learn English language and train in newer fields of science and industry. Those who pushed for such ideas are termed ‘modernists’ of the late 19th century.

There is another set of modernists that I see – Indian academicians and professors who are trained abroad. I find that they do not see themselves as agents propagating certain ideas which do not necessarily hold the same importance as they think it should or are simply irrelevant. To my understanding they aren’t any different from what our 19th century modernists were doing. These I call modernists of now. Except the subaltern studies initiative, I do not recall anything as original as this in its concern and rigour. We have some of the major works on Indian society, culture and politics from western thinkers. Also in many instances divergent from what the native sociologists would see it like.

These are some first thoughts on a discussion on some of the early modernists in India and which was in some way imagined as something that happened in the past. In spirit, I think it still happens and will keep happening. Being conscious of it can be a better position to be in than always looking at it in retrospect.