You must go to Berlin

 

 

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Living by the Rosa-Luxemburg Platz U-bahn, Berlin in November.

“You must go to Berlin” is a refrain we heard from Oslo to Budapest. Travelers and vagabonds swore by it. The itinerant European indicated a promise of a unique experience. The returning Israeli soldier insisted on how Berlin suited his travel (how its spirit suited him) in Europe hitting back after every leap out into the creases and frontiers of Europe. This time he was returning from Iceland, where we had met him a few weeks back. Another one insisted on joining her as she traveled to Berlin for a porn film festival. I didn’t know what to make of these until the evening I coursed through its multi-level underground metro and bahn system and surfaced above, on the massive Potsdamer Platz square. Larger still and standing in contrast is the Alexander Platz square which appears as though the city planners didn’t know what to do with the twenty acre plot. It is a gift of planning from the former East Germany. The strange looking  placement of Park Inn Hotel, the world clock and the shopping complex with confused looking trams and vehicles stopping across the the roads for signal.

Berlin is a restless city. Restless, not in an Asian-city sense and certainly not in its pace. It is restless in its production, its opinion, its taste and in its character. I say this from having spent time mostly in the East Berlin. For a visitor it is hard to characterize Berlin. It is a relief that such a place exists which has slipped out from the many attempts to stereotype it. Berlin’s hard to stereotype character is sensed when travelers – frequent or first timers like me, take a pause after the first “It is an interesting city” remark. Nothing follows by the way of explanation after that. The difficulty is then covered by the traveler recollecting her experiences or personal life stories that unfolded in the city but nothing that could explain why one found it ‘interesting’. Berlin renders clichés like ‘enigmatic’ and ‘rich’ hollow in their meaning. To a traveler who has been a reader of its history and spectator of its present the city is a stream of cultural, intellectual and political rapids with currents of every grade that occurred along the course of its history still whirling by. The traveler can begin rafting at any level and get washed away in the ensuing course.

As I arrived and got on to its dense network of U-bahn and tried in vain to make sense of the profusion of graffiti that covered every visible surface from foot level to the top of multistory buildings. The little buttons on the traffic signals too were in service of the graffiti messages. They displayed messages from chiding the reader of his bourgeois life to assertions of an independent taste and opinion on matters from artistic taste to sexuality. And unlike Oslo, the graffiti here dared with their placement and by their reach from the wagons of metro trains, sides of buildings and of course on the still remaining stretches of the Berlin wall. The city bursts with opinion on every issue – fringe or mainstream, big or small. I think every Berliner in his life must have had some paint on her and made a graffiti at least once in her life. That should perhaps be a more suitable definition of a Berliner than the beaten one that a Berliner crosses the road only when it is flashes green for the pedestrian.

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Sections of the Berlin Wall as seen at Potsdamer Platz. These were the L-shaped concrete blocks which were used to replace the conventional wall after a German soldier from East Berlin used an armoured vehicle to ram into the wall, break it and escape. 

On the political front, the city continues to nurture Marxist intellectualism and attracts scholars from the frontiers of communist thought and political action into spending some time exploring the tomes in its many archives and libraries. A mere walk around its main thoroughfares itself is an education in communist history – from Karl Marx allee to Rosa Lumxembourg Platz. Elsewhere, Lepizig renamed its Ho Chi Minh Strasse and back home Kolkata stayed with its Ho chi Minh Sarani. Berlin tried renaming in dozens, yet a fair deal remains. When it came to renaming Clara-Setkin Strasse which runs along the Reichstag, a leading Berlin feminist Marianne Kriszio is reported to have asked “Have we nothing better to do than to slander the memory of such women?” Evidently, renaming is a touchy subject. This is pretty much similar back home in India, from Delhi to Bengaluru. Renaming of streets can evoke public sentiments as fast as a monsoon roll over of dark clouds.

I am reminded of Walter Benjamin’s quote as I recollect losing our way finding the Berlin Philharmonic and later, the way to Rosa Luxembourg Platz on a late evening – “Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling.”  It was November rain quite literally as I walked down from the skyscraper lined Bahnof Potsdamer Platz towards Brandenburg Gate and looked at remains of the wall all along. This arc of history on a single avenue is quite rare in metropolitans of our times, a sure sight to revel in. I imagined that a walk down this avenue on an afternoon can do the work of two weeks of world history classes for the students I teach here in school.

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The approach to Brandenburg Gate from the Victory Pillar

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The approach to Reichstag from Brandenburg Gate

Berlin’s socialism, its workers’ unions and their almost militant activism to safeguard wages and its intellectualism in art, music, lifestyle, philosophy and political thought is unmatched. No other city perhaps exhibits such a wide spectrum. If there is the classic socialism, then there is also the new left and both challenged menacingly by the right wing conservatives like AfD.

While a fraction of young Berliners choose to propagate and be a part of the Identitarian Movement, spreading fast across Germany and France, there is the horde of bohemians and hipsters who confuse the identitarians with their disregard for nationalism and to rigid ideologies. The ideological inclinations of the Berlin hipsters appear to be as diverse as their facial hair styles and marked by as many different thoughts as their body piercings. That is the beauty of Berlin. It all comes together as a very busy, forever changing collage, where each piece is a history as well as a commentary on the contemporary at the same time. Berlin seems to vow to not let any new wall ever get erected!

To a traveler, I’d respond in the same eager tone – You must go to Berlin! This European capital is a river with rapids to be rafted by the visitor. Jack Lang’s words stringing the two cities in a single sentence sure seem apt, “Paris is always Paris and Berlin is never Berlin!”

Not sexy enough! Cultural encounters on the cricket field

Cheer Girls & Cheer Queens of the IPL Cricket (Image: www.bollywoodgames.com , www.mazematlo.com

Cheer Girls & Cheer Queens of the IPL Cricket (Image: http://www.bollywoodgames.com , http://www.mazematlo.com

 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.

Holy cow, armchair anthropology & attraction of the ‘exotic’

Cows_JamuiA paper I recently read and which I had never known about (although some argue that it has been one of the most well known papers on culture & ecology) amazes me in its method and for the art of stating the obvious.

Marvin Harris’ paper The Cultural Ecology of India’s Sacred Cattle ‘attempts’ to talks of the ecological role of bovine cattle in India. (JSTOR link, gated & I don’t like these folks anymore for the world lost a brilliant young man, Aaron Scwartz, due to their deathly lawsuit.)  By his own admission he bases his argument on’ intensive reading’ and that he has ‘never seen a sacred cow, nor been to India’. This is amazing! Such erudition that he exhibits in the successive pages of the article are all based on having not seen the subject of his article at all. Leave alone that the reference ‘sacred cow’ itself is laughable if you were to ask an Indian. Cows in the hindu belief are sacred aren’t referred to as sacred cow. That which he attempts to do i.e. an ethnographic account is logic defying, for his language itself exudes ignorance of the place and relevance of cows – a) for Hindus and b) in India .

Numbers on cattle production, fodder consumption, efficiency variables etc are relatively easy to access, easier to crunch and layer interpretation on them. So the ecological arguments of the paper form the information bulk. But the rest is banal and not quite about the ‘puzzling inconsistencies’ that he thinks it is. So, the fact that the author has not seen, leave alone experience the sight of watching cows in Indian setting, his subject makes this paper’s assertions very thin. I have a serious problem with this. The second problem is that why on earth is this sort of stuff a part of sociology readings particularly in graduate programs in India. I do not quite care about outside India because some of it can be informative for others to know and that the paper comes out of the western institutions which have encouraged such armchair anthropology in the first place.

He writes,

“Mismanagement of India’s agricultural resources as a result of the Hindu doctrine of ahimsa  especially as it applies to beef cattle, is frequently noted by Indianists and others concerned with the relation between values and behavior. Although different anti-rational, dysfunctional and inutile aspects of the cattle complex are stressed by different authors, many agree that ahimsa is a prime example of how men will diminish their material welfare to obtain spiritual satisfaction in obedience to nonrational or frankly irrational belief.”

With this he identifies the tensions between beliefs and rational thought that characterizes a society’s relationship with production systems. When ecology is seen as a relationship between man and environment mediated by culture, the dynamics of resource use and inter dependencies become evident. The idea of “ahimsa” and cow as a sacred animal evolve from Rig Veda, a Hindu religious text. The practice of not killing cows irrespective of their utility as a resource that is practiced by Hindus then becomes irrational yet necessary as a religious practice. Harris argues that it is not as irrational as it appears. There is a logical sense in such a practice. I admit that such a reasoning is valid and his argument that culture too has a logic and reason behind it. It isn’t quite exotic and strange as it may seem to an outsider. The underlying thought that ideas – how they are formed and how they evolve, have much to do with the way relationships are framed and perceived is a reasonable one.

But, Harris’ opinion that “ahimsa” is an example of how men will diminish their material welfare may not necessarily be subscribed to (and I feel strongly about the haste in coming to this conclusion) because:

  1. Teleologically speaking, material well-being is not how many societies (including the Hindu) see their ultimate goal in life.
  2. The role of cow in the Indian belief system and in the agricultural production system is more complex than the simplistic, instrumental relation that Harris’ frames it as. I mean, he really ought to have traveled to India and experienced a city road with stray cows, a rural farm life, a town life with many well employed families still maintaining a cow shed and things like that. That would sure have made a deeper and richer study. For instance, much of what he says about cows utility Indian children grow up seeing it all around. And consequently they too are able to reason out the utility value of cows and much more than what his paper tries to illuminate. I remember my Grandma explaining me the practices and all that she would do to maintain her stock of 4 cows. It ain’t rocket science, it is deeply rooted in cultural practices which we sure understand better by the mere fact that we are a part of it and live within it.

Kikkli Kaleer Di : On cultural revival

A procession commemorating Dr Rakumar, a kannada filmstar in Bangalore

This is a hasty thought, as I listen to this latest bollywood song Kikkli Kaleer Di . This is from Punjabi folklore sung in jest (probably) by children who play this game of holding hands together and swirl around. Kikkli refers to the game and kaleer means ‘a little girl’. The next line goes as pag mere veer di meaning ‘the turban of my brother’. The song in the bollywood film changes this line but retains the lovely traditional flavour of the song. What surprises me is the manner in which this little song with a very specific regional identity comes back to people via the entertainment industry. It is very little known outside Punjab state and perhaps within Punjab too there would be differences in what people understand of it and regions where kids still play this game and sing this song.

Two observations fascinate me about this process:

1. Not all is wrong with the entertainment industry as an agent of cultural standardization: The belief that a standardization of experience and culture is happening in modern societies around the world including Indian society needs further exploration. It appears to be an impression not accounting for processes like this song which brings back diverse folk traditions – songs, dance forms, poems, costumes, etc back to the current times much in a sense of revival. How else would a specific regional folk song like this one be known to a listener in Bangalore? Many such instances from films can be drawn like this song Navrai Majhi from a recent film English Vinglish. This is a marathi folk song pulled out from the marathi heartland and presented in the film. It may not be complete or even retain its original flavour but it certainly succeeds in bring the forms of usage (words & thought) back into modern forms of use. So in a way, entertainment industry contributes to cultural revival. The manner in which it does so appears to be known yet not acknowledged. Isn’t this similar to how arts and culture flourished in the past as well? That there are centres and public forums which promoted and encouraged performances. In our times films is an institutional equivalent of such centres of performing arts of the old times. I’d like to think that way as it holds promise of a constructive exploration of emergent forms of cultural representation and how it contributes to our idea of modernity.

2.Films engineering social thought: This comes from a frame of reference that films reflect a certain possibility of how relationships, social set-up and context might look like. Also that often films are built on ideas or events that have already taken place within that society and these are reflected back as a film to the very same people. This makes an interesting process to examine as this mechanism is subtly shaping social behaviour. In that sense it would be worth exploring how the recent set of films in India have shaped behaviour as well as opinion. For instance, Chakravyuh a recent release, is based on the Maoist insurgency in the central states of India. It brings forth the oddity of State- people relationship and situations in which the oppressed end up taking arms and fight the State, which in their opinion has already taken sides with the market (elites?). Here is a failure of social contract which appears to have gone past resurrection unless the State undergoes a massive transformation in the way it sees the people. Now, this could get a little vague in direction. The engineering part in the film comes out as a non-direct position that the film takes on this issue. Similarly, the language and dance forms in the songs too tend to effect a mild change which in some cases ends up becoming a major force. For instance, the tamil number Why this kolaveri di. The language and construct of reasoning (if the content can be called as that) has permeated conduct of the younger lot in Tamil Nadu in curious ways.

While I find a meta-narrative to this obvious ‘films have a social impact’ sort of theory, I think it can be said that it would be hasty to reject films as just another source of entertainment which has had a rather ruining effect on Indian society. I sure do not subscribe to that school of thought or the critics in the ‘films have had a corrosive effect on the society’ camp.