Death of a library

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Two registers lay open on the front desk with a blunt tipped pencil tucked in one of them. Visitors are required to enter their names in it. Many walk by without a second look. Two women manned the baggage counter, deciding in a seemingly random fashion, bags that must be tagged with a number and bags that should be left on the floor, in a corner. My bag  didn’t deserve a tag. Back volumes section on the first floor resembled a wastepaper dealer’s store room with bundles of old newspapers and periodicals tied in strings, lay coated in a thick layer of dust. Back volumes of journals, or what one may call as archives, is what I had gone looking for. The library opened in 1915 and one expected a rich list of journals and periodicals from pre-independence era being subscribed to. Did the library have subscription of the journals I was looking for? The staff at the lending desk had a serious difficulty in understanding what ‘journals’ meant. There was no hint of familiarity with this word. She pointed to the same store room on the first floor where I knew the state of affairs. There was repeated use of ‘general’ books in her conversation. In that moment, I abandoned the search for ‘journals’.

The paradox that hits a visitor standing in the middle of the large circular hall, encircled with shelves of books, in two levels, is whether to be glad or sorry. Glad, for the State Central Library (SCL) still exists. That it retains some of its original architectural character and that it appears to be in good health as far as the building and its upkeep goes. Or sorry, for the shelves that hold nothing of the past. The library has no archive. It seems to have done away with the past that once stood on its shelves. For a public library that opened in 1915, SCL has frightfully few books from the early half of twentieth century. A few odd late nineteenth century publications remain tucked among the latest books, as survivors of the purge. There is irony in this report from a newspaper on the reopening of library after renovation – ‘The State Central Library is ready to play host to a new generation of bibliophiles’. The new generation of bibliophiles are civil services aspirants pouring over books that are relevant to the UPSC examination, the grand test that leads up to the portals of modern Indian empire.

For the rest it is an empty shell. It should have once contained within it accounts of past years, stories of those before us, pictures of a world that was and millions of conversations from a world that can be known only through the books of those times. Those books and journals were our only chance. This library sits lifeless for the history seeker, having done away with such records of the past.

Now the city strings it like a treasure to display and entice the tourists who walk by marveling at the setting – an expansive, green park, a pretty red coloured building set within it and pruned gardens around, in which they are likely to take a seat when the park tires them out.

Digital revolution won’t kill the libraries. Government will. Celebrating the structures and gloating over founding dates is all that we are capable of.

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Brahmagiri: An account

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Image Courtesy Team G Square blogpost on the same place

 

This is a guest post by my friend Srikara. He explores history of places with a particular interest in Vijayanagara Empire. In this post, he speaks of his visit to Brahmagiri Hills near Bellary, Karnataka.  From this visit he writes, “The sheer scale of devotion, prescience and benevolence that seemed to have gone into Ashoka’s vision of a just society over two millennia ago, when many other contemporary societies were busy tearing themselves apart with violence, amazed me.”  I find this continuing amazement with accounts of the past and the contrast with the present, as a key driver for our interest in history. 

 

It must have been just past eight in the morning. The bus destined for Bellary had dropped me off on the highway, at the juncture of the road leading to Siddapura. ‘There is no stop here, we will only slow down, and you can get off!’ the conductor had said. I was off and was walking towards the village of Siddapura, five kilometers away. The sun was already in action, filling the world with its yellow spread. It was a lonely road for the most part, through expansive paddy fields with imposing boulder strewn hills peppered across them. Some humongous giant must have crushed solitary rocks with his bare fist and sowed the pieces in these fields as piles of stone. The sun, the paddy, the hills, and the silence of being alone filled me with anticipation for the setting of my destination.

The road ended at the village that had been recently anointed Ashoka Siddapura. And all around, petty shopkeepers, skinny elders wearing shirts, towels, and panches that were once white, and other idlers greeted me with curious stares. I smiled and moved on through the village.

The heat was getting stronger as I continued to walk on a road lined by plots with mud houses with sloping red-tiled roofs. Typical of rural settings in India, chickens running across the road, dogs barking at my perceived trespass, famished oxen tied to their posts, ruminating solemnly, and women carrying cans of water, all met my eyes as I pushed myself through. Just as I stepped outside the village and away from the hum of its life, a large bare hill loomed ahead, to the right of the road. Walls of ruined fortifications straddled the sides of the hill. ‘Brahmagiri.’ I thought. I was near.

I passed by a stone temple in ruins and reached an unusual structure at the foot of the hill. ‘This is it.It was a rather horse-shoe shaped edifice built of stone blocks, the whitewash on whose walls had mostly faded. It served as a shelter to the upper surface of a large boulder and had a staircase leading up to it. I absorbed my surroundings for a minute. I was looking up at the shelter in the silent shadow of Brahmagiri. A necklace of ancient fortified walls stared at me from the heights. In front of the hill was a vast fallow land that was, again, lined by gigantic boulder hills afar. Taking a deep breath of the eerie stillness, I climbed up the steps.

Atop the boulder, a cage enclosed what I had come so far to see. As I peered through the steel bars, deeply engraved runes on the boulder made themselves visible over an area of a standard Persian Carpet. The script was vivid and each of its characters was inscribed with elegance. As I observed each line in awe, I tried to remember what it said from what I had read about it.

The Brahmagiri Inscription is the southern-most of all of Maurya Emperor Ashoka’s myriad Rock and Pillar Edicts proclaiming universal peace and an embrace of humanity. They were inscribed over two thousand years ago across the Subcontinent, from Kandahar to Siddapura, Gujarat to Bihar. They mark Ashoka’s righteous rule after his adoption of Buddhism.

The Brahmagiri inscription announces to the lost city of Ishila that once was in the vicinity, that ‘the men of Jambudvipa had (since Ashoka’s reign began) become mingled with the gods’ and urged its residents to embrace the Truth, treat their parents, elders, masters and relatives with respect and obedience, and be compassionate to animals.

Other edicts across the country are more radical in their call for humanity. They proclaimed religious equality and freedom to pursue one’s faith, right of prisoners to appeal against sentences that were ordered to be dispensed justly to begin with, protection of several animal species by royal decree, provisioning medication and treatment of illnesses, facilitating long-distance travelers with the planting of large banyan trees and digging wells, and much more.

I tried to fit the Brahmagiri edict into Ashoka’s vast philanthropic jigsaw puzzle, as I continued to observe the curvy letters. The sheer scale of devotion, prescience and benevolence that seemed to have gone into Ashoka’s vision of a just society over two millennia ago, when many other contemporary societies were busy tearing themselves apart with violence, amazed me. The presence of this gem of history in what was now a desolate place was mystifying.

Siddapura is like an all you can eat buffet for history-buffs. It has a preserved site of megaliths, written records on stone, forts atop hills, ancient temples in ruins, artfully carved veeragals, saffron-clad mendicants and, most importantly, a weight that keeps pressing on you, filling you with enigma and wonder, a weight of history, of the place having been there, and seen it, for thousands of years, a weight of ghosts that had dissolved in the air with time. I had only savored a starter, and was salivating for more. I walked down the stairs.

Social History and the City: A guided tour of Avenue Road

Avenue Road, Bengaluru. This crossroad is said to the spot from where Kempegowda sent out four oxes to mark the frontiers of this city.

Heterodox is flavour of the season. This encourages me to make transgression into history, a discipline where I can only be described as a consumer of texts and accounts of places and events. Hobsbawm’s collection of essays Uncommon People and his endearing essay on jazz music remains a favourite reading in history. I have enjoyed Tony Judt’s Post War although I can’t seem to agree with his rather condescending views on social history that I discovered later. But this post is about a guided tour along one of the oldest roads in Bangalore. This walk was an opportunity to think about writing history and methods of this discipline. I walked down Avenue Road led by my friend Srikara, on whom I have relied on over the years to know Bangalore better. We walked a whole afternoon and evening, with him speaking of the settlements, monuments, events and major developments around this old and very busy part of the city. It is anything but forgotten. Avenue Road is like those Angkor temples, which are engulfed by massive growth of tree roots all around. Avenue Road, much the same is enmeshed into the everyday life of this city and people instead of just trees. The throng of people on Avenue Road is perhaps the same as in earlier centuries, only a bit more dense with an expansive variety of goods traded in its bylanes.

A walk down Avenue Road is to take a break from the stiffness of history that holds structuralism and determinism with an unquestioning faith and from historians of that ilk. This road and the space around it, affirms the relevance of social history. To understand the transformation of this city social history presents a method that yields a nuanced picture of the city and its historical transformation. From this walk with Srikara, I return with a firm intent to venture into history as discipline because of dissatisfaction with political history based narratives of the city and its spaces. They are plainly inadequate in identifying the cultural and social richness of the past of a city. It is a transgression because I am neither a historian nor an architect. These are the two varieties of professionals that one comes across when it comes to writing, speaking and researching history of cities in India. Chronology is important. But with that chronological movement there is often a story told through lives and work of well-known personalities or story that is hero-led (think of the Dewan of Mysore, or Chief Engineer of the Presidency etc). This is the kind of history that is insular to everyday life. On heritage walks, one is likely to hear this variety of historical narratives. I am tired of them. The everydayness of life and spaces, which is situated at a distance from the day’s politics, holds as much potential in revealing a past that, if not better, can illuminate the present just the same as other methods. I was on this tour to know about this everydayness of life and people on Avenue Road.

Srikara explaining a beautiful series of motifs depicting Parvati and Shiva’s wedding ceremony, on the walls of sanctorum of Kote Venkateshwara Temple. It is located next to Tipu’s Palace in Bengaluru.

We walk along one of the roads that was once the center of the city. Bangalore expanded much beyond this old center, not forgetting, but shifting out into adjacent areas. The sprawl wasn’t expanding due to political reasons or changes in production relationships. This is where deterministic historical analysis is likely to run out of steam. Here is a city expanding, less due to politics or economic drivers but out of other reasons, one of them being poor hygiene and sanitary conditions in the old quarters. This could be a one-off event. These reasons don’t lend themselves well to the determinism that one would want to read in the expansion. Moreover, it isn’t that the settlements of artisans, textile workers (in Cottonpet), salt workers (in Upparapet) and others shifted out once new housing locations developed. Many preferred the congested and tight spaces of this old center then and in future. In fact, embedded deep in the bylanes running perpendicular to Avenue Road one finds the city’s oldest mosque, from a time the area was called ‘Taramandal’ during Tipu Sultan’s reign, one of the oldest chapel and several Hindu temples that are centuries old. All of these continue to be visited. It turns out spatial re-arrangements and civic engineering are not sufficient reasons for people to move out to where the engineered intent of the administrators might wish them to go. Instead, they stay. Their reasons often slip out of the grasp of a political historian.

The imposing wall is of Bangalore Fort and the space next to it, of scores of hawkers. This contrast and interaction with historical monuments has been fascinating to see in cities and towns across India. It is interesting to compare this with the sterilization that monuments undergo with conservation projects.

This is why I love guided walks. In all these years that I have ridden past the flyover in front of this shrine, I failed to notice this. This shrine, Dargah Hazrath Meer Bahadur Shah, is built over the grave of Bahadur Shah a fallen military commandant during the siege of Bangalore Fort in 1791.

In Social History and Its Critics published (1980) Louise Tilly provides a back-to-the-basics kind of explanation of the project of social history to its detractors and its utility,

One of the key impulses of social history’s development is (was) a populist vision that aims (aimed) to seek out how ordinary people lived and acted in the past. That these people seldom appear by name in the political narrative of events is another way of saying it is hard to discern their individual or collective consciousness in the narrow political sense, or that discernable collective consciousness is expressed episodically.

Avenue Road should be of interest to those seeking lives of ordinary people and a sense of what the collective lives of various social groups was like, over the centuries. It offers an enriching experience, with possibilities of finding narratives beyond the predictable ones of politics, architecture and urban design. For instance, in the motifs of temples, old stables for horses and elephants, cavalries and hubs of goods trading one finds glimpses of continuities to present day.
From this walk emerged glimpses of a city’s social past. I am intrigued and fascinated at the same time. Avenue Road is also rich in a kind of aesthetics which needs some time to sink in. Beyond the chaos of pedestrians, pushcarts and scores of hawkers, this aesthetics emerges in the temple motifs, in the shrines for fallen heroes and in dozens of minor ways that people go about tending to their trade or craft. Or one can just find a corner to imagine the visuals of stories that are told today, of events in the city. Either way, it appears a great way to explore the city, especially, for those interested in history. I could make a laundry list of observations, but I’d rather let Avenue Road work on the visitor in its own way. And for the rest, I am thankful to Srikara for the tour.

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

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(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.

Why Interpret Art?

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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?

‘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!)