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


(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


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?


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!)