Archive for March, 2011|Monthly archive page

The Idea Of India Project Update: Project Readings: Kabir: An Irrelevant Voice?

In The Idea Of India Project on March 27, 2011 at 2:50 pm

A new set of translations of the works of the Indian poet Kabir are about to be published by The New York Review Of Books.

Nothing can hide the fact that Kabir is largely ignored in India, his words, ideals and spiritual thoughts unknown to almost all of South Asia’s modern citizens. Though there has been a growing focus on his work, with a number of organizations attempting to highlight this messages of inter-religious sharing and tolerance, its difficult to ignore the fact that the thrust of our modernity – with its focus on hard nationalism, intolerant sectarianism, obscurantist anti-intellectualism and fervid consumerism, stands against everything Kabir points us towards. The same of course stands true for other Indian voices like those of Mohandas Gandhi, Darak Shikoh and a number of others who have pretty much been relegated to the ‘has beens’ of our modernity, largely museum pieces to display to visitors and tourists, but not relevant to our day-to-day scramble for wealth and provincialism.

Kabir was a blasphemer, or that is at least how our modern-day mullahs and self-proclaimed protectors of the faith would describe him. And that is where his strength lay. He refused to accept the rituals and hierarchies of organized religion and encourage individuals to ignore the ignorant voices of the priesthood. In a piece I wrote earlier for the India project, called The Art Of Blasphemy: The Poetry Of Kabir I quote two works that underline his disdain and outright disgust of those who claim to know.

O Pande,
what foolishness of yours!
You don’t call on Ram
you, wretched one!

Carrying your Veda and Puranas, O Pande, you go along
like a donkey loaded with sandal wood
The secret of the Name of Ram, you’ve never known
and so you come to shame

You kill living beings and you call it ‘Piety’:
tell me, Brother, what then is impiety?
Among yourselves, you address each other as ‘Great Sage’:
whom then shall I call ‘Butcher’?

The latest issue of Poetry Magazine carries a few of his work, translated by the Indian poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. There is a lovely translation of a work that speaks out against Muslim practices:

If you say you’re a Brahmin
Born of a mother who’s a Brahmin,
Was there a special canal
Through which you were born?

And if you say you’re a Turk
And your mother’s a Turk,
Why weren’t you circumcised
Before birth?

In his explanation of the works, and the poet, Mehrotra write:

Kabir belonged to the popular devotional movement called bhakti, whose focus is on inward love for the One Deity, in opposition to religious orthodoxies and social hierarchies. Kabir called his god Rama or Hari, who is not to be confused with the Hindu god Rama of the Ramayana.

Many of the bhakti poets came from the bottom of the Hindu caste ladder. Among them you find a cobbler, a tailor, a barber, a boatman, a weaver. One, Janabai (see epigraph to “Chewing slowly”), was a maidservant. They wrote in the vernaculars (Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, Gujarati) rather than in Sanskrit, the language of the gods and the preserve of Brahmins. Occasionally, eschewing his abrupt debunking manner, Kabir speaks in riddles. These enigmatic poems (see “Brother I’ve seen some” and “How do you”) are called ulatbamsi or “poems in upside-down language,” in which the intention seems to be to force the reader (or listener) into new ways of thinking and seeing. They each end in a revelation, though exactly what has been revealed is open to question.

There is actually a community of people who follow the sayings and ideals of the poet. Referred to as the Kabirpanthis who follow the sayings of the poet and consider him a prophet. The singer Prahlad Tipaniya is a Kabirpanthi and frequently tours India and neighboring countries spreading the message of the poet.

Shabnam Virmani, a filmmaker, gave a TEDxTalk recently where she spoke about her quest for Kabir, and other folk poets, and her goal of bringing their message to India and others in the region.

In the talk she talked about the violence that had taken over Gujarat and the pogroms against the Muslims that took place in 2002. This event has scared Gujarat, if not the entire nation of India. It has moved many to speak out, to start to take responsibility of what kind of society that India aims to become. Her’s is a voice that is determined to make Kabir relevant to India’s modernity.

Its a tall task. Or perhaps, surrounded by the xenophobia of Gujarat I find my optimism of the will somewhat jaded. The sectarianized post-earthquake urban geography of cities like Bhuj (See Raju, Kumar, Corbridge’s Colonial & Post-Colonial Geographies Of India, Chapter 4 Simpson & Corbridge’s ‘Militant Cartographies & Traumatic Spaces: Ayodhya, Bhuj And The Contested Geographies of Hindutva’) , the blatant mocking of anyone recognized as Muslim, and the stark ghetoization that now marks the towns and cities of Gujarat leave me little hope that poetry has a role to play in overturning this modernity.

Or perhaps its just a bad day and tomorrow I will think differently and get back to work.

Jean-Bertrande Aristide Returns

In Journalism, Our Wars, Photography on March 22, 2011 at 4:28 pm

It remains one of the most difficult stories I have attempted to do. In 2005 writer Malcolm Garcia and I traveled to Port Au Prince to document the targeting of pro-Aristide activists and Lavalas supporters in the weeks after Jean Bertrande-Aristide was forcibly removed from power. The collaboration of the French and American governments in the illegal and violent removal of a sitting, democratically elected President of a sovereign nation was blatant and well documented.

mesnal delarge's sister reacts after seeing the body of her brother who was shot and killed while marching in a pro-aristide rally in port au prince. the haitian national police has frequently fired upon peaceful demonstrators, often right in front of MINUSTAH troops copyright asimrafiqui 2006

The work was exhibit at Visa Pour L’image in 2006 and I remain grateful to Jean-Francois Leroy for giving me a platform to speak about the human rights violations and outright assassinations that our governments (French and American) were actively collaborating in. It was a platform denied to the work by all the major newspapers and newsmagazine in the USA that I had approached.

Jean-Bertrande Aristide has today, after nearly seven years in exile, returned to Haiti. Amy Goodman of DemocracyNow! (who else!) has been with him to document this historic moment.

In my original introduction to my project I wrote that:

In early 2005 I traveled to Haiti and found a reality that did not reflect what I had been led to believe. I witnessed an ongoing campaign of violence and repression by Haiti’s current leaders, installed by the USA and France, to eliminate the still vastly popular Lavalas (pro-Aristide) movement and its supporters. Hundreds of Lavalas activists lie without charge in jail while hundreds of others have been killed while protesting in the streets or during Haitian National Police (HNP) raids into strongly pro-Aristide neighborhoods. Entire communities suspected of pro-Aristide leanings have been surrounded by UN (MINUSTAH) and HNP checkpoints and the residents denied services like water and electricity.

And yet both the USA and France have stood firmly behind the ‘interim’ government. Recently the USA decided to restart economic and military aid to this government. This is in sharp contrast to its attitude towards the democratically elected President Aristide whom it placed under economic sanctions in 1995 and then worked tirelessly to topple by funding and courting his opponents. The sanctions withheld nearly $500 million from one of the poorest nations of in the Western Hemisphere and caused severe social and economic devastation in the country. At the same time the US government provided financial and political support to Aristide’s opponents and even arranged conferences in neighboring Dominican Republic for Aristide’s opponents to meet those from Washington who shared similar political views. As Amy Wilentz, a journalist with extensive experience in Haiti, wrote “In a country…where the military has been disbanded for nearly a decade, soldiers don’t simply emerge… they have to be reorganized, retrained and resupplied… and someone has to organize [them].

I admit that there was a strong element of dissent and protest in chosing to produce this work. Malcolm and I travelled to Haiti with no backing of any publication and worked there completely independently of any agency or institutional support. It was risky, and we did some pretty stupid things. Perhaps because we just did not realize what precarious situations we were getting ourselves into. Or perhaps because we were just stupid. Either way, I do remember this as one of the best collaborative experiences I have ever had with a writer. You can read about it in Malcolm’s piece called Descent Into Haiti which was published in April 2005 by The Virginia Quarterly Review. (Sadly the only time I am referred to in the piece, I come across as quite the moron! Malcolm and I are still friends!) Nevertheless, this project as perhaps one of the most demanding, difficult I have done. And one that I, despite its complete publication and distribution failure, remain very proud of.

Jean-Bertrande Aristide has returned to Haiti. And I have to admit, there is a triumphant smile on my face.

The Idea Of India Project Update: Project Reading List: J.J. Roy Burman Gujarat Unknown

In The Idea Of India Project on March 21, 2011 at 5:31 pm

Professor J.J. Roy Burman, who currently teaches at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai/Bombay, India has been a crucial guide and advisor on the current phase of The Idea Of India project.

I was first introduced to Professor Roy Burman’s anthropological over a dinner conversation with the ever resourceful Rajib Das who not only told me about the painstaking footwork done by Professor Burman to find and write about the many shared shrines and temples across the region of Gujarat and Maharashstra, but went out of his way to find and buy this work for me.

Gujarat Unknown by J.J. Roy Burman

I have since met with Professor Burman and spent some wonderful days in his comany at his home in Airoli on the outskirts of Mumbai/Bombay. A reticent and very private individual, Professor Roy Burmam generously invited me to stay with him and gave me many hours of his time to discuss the intentions and content of my project. His advice and continued support remains crucial to my ability to complete this work as his anthropological work is the foundation of my own explorations during the Fulbright phase and I am thrilled that he has continued to remain in contact and act as a guide and support.

This book is a crucial starting point for exploring Gujarat’s living heritage of pluralism and syncretism. There is an extensive bibliography that points you towards further readings on topics such as the history of Gujarat’s various Muslim communities, the Bhakti movement in Gujarat and its resonance with the Sufi traditions, and so on.

Birth Of The Idea Of India Project Or How I Can Make What Was Random And Fortuitous Appear Structured And Disciplined

In The Idea Of India Project on March 21, 2011 at 11:29 am

The diagram below is my attempt to explain the birth and execution of this project I am tentatively calling The Idea Of India. I have been asked to present this work on at least five occasions now and each time I have struggled to really articulate it. The fact remains that I am simply unable to veil under structured thought and organized presentation a work that has largely relied and been inspired by a series of random events, readings and conversations.

IOI Schematic


This course says far less than is required, but it simplifies and organizes the ways in which this work came about, and the outcomes that are emerging as a result of my journeys in India. As you can see, I am making photographs, but also writing essays on Indian history and other topics, compiling personal notes and anecdotes, documenting my travels via maps that mark the key sites and locations. The box marked ‘Artifacts’ refers to things I am picking up along the way that represent personal mementos or items handed to me by the many people I am meeting along this journey. Mostly strange documents, pamphlets, leaflets, posters and such that I can’t seem to throw away.

Despite the diagram’s seeming discipline, this work emerged as a result of coincidences and random events. There is really no other truth to the matter, and I remain particularly  aware of this because I am not sure I will ever be able to pull off a  work like this again. This may be my swan song.

I  have always believed that for work as personal and individual such as this it is crucial to not just talk about the ideas and issues raised in it, but also about ideals and values that inform it. That is, it is important to not only know the ‘what’, but also the ‘why’ to finally comprehend the form and intent of the work.

The idea for this work emerges out of a series of coincidences and conversations that largely took place in 2007 and then again in 2008. It was developed and conceived while sitting in cheap chai stalls and public internet cafes in the city of Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. In fact, my original project proposal for the Aftermath Grant was written at a cyber-cafe in Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh, with almost all corrections and edits done at a local chai stall a few meters down from the hotel I was staying at. I am grateful to the patient and support of the men who daily chided me for my wayward outlook on life and yet continued to ply me with tea whenever I turned up to write.

I have already written about the influence of the works of people like Edward Said, Eqbal Ahmed, Lilla Abu-Laghud, Ammiel Alcalay, Ayesha Jalal, Partha Chatterjee, Elizabeth Key Fowden, Jack Goody, Martin Bernal, Amitav Ghosh, and the many other complex, complicated and complicating writers I started to explore. Their perspectives compelled a re-examination of the many ideas and presumptions I had about South Asian history.

Simultaneously there were a series of casual conversations with friends and acquaintances that revealed their ignorance and prejudice against history itself. Anglo Indians waxing lyrical about the benefits of colonial rule for India, American editors commenting confidently on the  programmatic iconoclasm of India’s ‘Muslim’ dynasties, Arab Palestinians denigrating South Asian Islamic culture as pretty much a small variant on mainstream Arabic Islamic culture, friends in Pakistan reductively accusing ‘Hindu’ hatred of all things ‘Islamic’ for the necessity of Pakistan’s creation and a number of other frustrating and reductive conversations that left my feeling helpless. A particularly vexing conversation took place in late 2007 with an editor from the USA whose entire premise about Islamic history and culture was mired in a reductive, cartoonish ‘clash of civilization’ understanding, from which he proceeded to make the most ahistorical and judgemental comments about a varied and complex polity of ‘Islam’. I was struck by the truth of Eqbal Ahmad’s statement that ‘…distorted histories [that] have created a new kind of medieval histories that is Hindu history and Muslim history…’.

At about the same time I had decided to move away from the literal and ‘has to be seen in the frame’ limitations of photography and pursue a more instinctive and open-ended form of photography. I just wanted to explore different aspects of my eye, mind and photographic instinct. I wanted to produce work where the image was not literal, or the story limited to being seen in its literalness, but that the images became, as I said in my original proposal, ‘..vehicles for the imagination.’ I did not want to include the obvious in the frame, but go past it towards something suggestive and inviting. And to use texts in conjunction to help complete the process of discovery that came from exploring the image and absorbing the writing. It all sounds quite well thought through now that I write it, but it wasn’t and still isn’t. But it is the way I am working, and it is the only way to really understand the relevance and meaning of the images. To know why I produced a particular image from Srinagar, Kashmir, you will have to read the essay that it accompanies. The answers lie in the full engagement with the work, and not just certain aspects of it. It is one of the reason why I have refused to exhibit the work on the basis of the photographs alone.

With these thoughts in mind I decided, in the late summer of 2008, to travel to Ayodhya. I was not sure what I would do there, but something compelled me to head to this town which, since the destruction of the Babri mosque in 1992, had become ‘ground zero’ of war of ideas over India’s history. I had some initial thoughts about the possibility of a project on Indian history and I remember discussing it with Pamela Chen of the Open Society Institute at Visa Pour L’image that year. She was one of the first people who heard the general, very general, outlines of this work. The other being my friend Chloe LeCoq – a lovely French transplant to Sweden who had to suffer my South Asian history ramblings while we watched our daughters take turn riding horses in a Stockholm playground.

Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh India

I had expected Ayodhya to be an embattled and divided city, but was instead surprised to find a city that still held onto vestiges of its tolerant pluralist culture, spoke eloquently of its long heritage of syncretism, and retained elements of the complex Awadhi political and social culture that had been responsible for the flourishing of the Ram cult in the region. As Amitav Ghosh once pointed out in a review of the emperor Babur’s autobiography:

Hindu religious activity. Hinduism as we know it today – especially the Hinduism of north India – was essentially shaped under Mogul rule, often with the active participation and support of the rulers and their officials and feudatories. The Ramcharitmanas, for example, the version of the Ramayana that was to be canonised as the central text of north Indian devotional practice, was composed in Akbar’s reign by the great saint-poet Tulsidas. The early years of Mogul rule also coincided with a great renaissance in the theology of Krishna. It was in this period that Rupa Goswami and other disciples of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu rediscovered and mapped out the sacred geography of the Krishna legend.

Hinduism would scarcely be recognisable today if Vaishnavism had been actively suppressed in the 16th century: other devotional forms may have taken its place, but we cannot know what those would have been. It is a simple fact that contemporary Hinduism as a living practice would not be what it is if it were not for the devotional practices initiated under Mogul rule. The sad irony of the assault on the Babri mosque is that the Hindu fanatics who attacked it destroyed a symbol of the very accommodations that made their own beliefs possible.

It was here, while on the ground, that a clearer outline of the work began to emerge.

The proposal that I began to put together that last summer of 2008, and which was diligently edited by my wife Pernilla Rafiqui and close friend Peter Lagerquist, gave birth to a project that I am now pursuing. It has required some of the most extensive and intensive reading and research I have ever carried out, and this aspect remains crucial to the tenor and direction of the work. Every photograph connects itself to an essay or a note on the basis of an underlying idea. Only by reading the essays and seeing the images does the full story emerge. This is perhaps why the work has consistently been ignored by mainstream editors. Most have expressed their disappointment and confusion, if not outright dismissal of its intents. It is just one of the many burdens I carry with me as I proceed on with the work.

However, even after two years of work on it I have to admit that its contours remain uncertain, and its final outcome unclear. I have since resigned myself to the idea that as in any search, this work will remain a tentative exploration, an amateur’s uncertain path towards stories and histories that explain and reveal what we have long forgotten or chosen to ignore. Many ask me what the final outcome of the work will be, but I do not have an answer to that question. I do now state that I would love to finally compile it into a book  – something personal, and one that reflects the vagaries and uncertainties of the journey that project actually is.

I have a title in mind – Longings Of An Exiled Son:A Journey Back To India or something like that.

The Idea Of India Project Update: All Faiths Bring You To The Feet Of Haji Pir

In The Idea Of India Project on March 21, 2011 at 11:02 am

You can already see them on the roads leading up to this small town in remote Western Kutch. Pilgrims from as far away as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat are slowly, determinedly making their way to the town of Naragram in the Banni region of Kutch, Gujarat. Many are on foot and carrying the green flags that define them as devotees to the famous saint known here as Haji Pir. Dozens can be seen resting at night at local gas stations and truck stops. There are Muslims, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and even those we would be hard pressed to describe by any such simplistic category e.g. the Bhil tribespeople will find their way here all the way from Madhya Pradesh.


Location Of The Shrine Of Haji Pir, Nakhratrana, Gujarat


Haji Pir’s reputation as a miracle worker is known far and wide. There is a legend that his reputation reached the King of Bhuj  who had no child. The king came to Haji Pir and begged that he help him give birth to an heir. The Pir promised to help on the condition that should a son be born to the king, the king allocate a piece of land where the Pir could retire to meditate. A son was born. The land was allocated. Haji Pir had once been a soldier in the army of the king Sahabuddin, but soon grew tired and disillusioned with the life of the soldier and the necessity of violence and killing. He chose the path of a fakir instead, studying Islamic scriptures and catering to the needs of the people.

Anyone spending any amount of time at such regional shrines quickly becomes familiar with the stories of miracles that grow up around the saint him/herself. The ability to call forth an abundance of drinking water, the courageous battle despite being beheaded against local tormentors are two themes that are frequently repeated at various shrines in India. Haji Pir too has many legends around him which I will detail in the near future. For the moment, his annual festival approaches – April 9th, 10th and 11th 2011 are the propitious days and thousands are slowly making their way to this small town bringing with them their hopes, dreams, fears and desperation and the faith that the Pir will resolve and solve.

Their journey across the stretch of Gujarat’s barren Kutch region, under temperatures that are now well above 110 F, represents the true meaning of a pilgrimage of faith. It demands the self-sacrifice and the overcoming off odds that are the fundamental idea behind a pilgrimage for it is meant to be a test of the will and of the faith. The destination may in fact be the least important element of it, with faith being tested by the rigors of the journey itself. The strength of one’s convictions not in the vehemance of one’s prayers, but in the strength of one’s will.

Some of this veneration for the journey has been lost in annual pilgrimages such as the Hajj where ease and comfort of travel has become available to those who can afford it. The 5 star Hilton that looms over the Kaaba a reminder of how much of the essence of a religious pilgrimage has been lost in our easily purchased modernity. However unlike modern-day righteous on their A/C-ed, cushioned, conveyor belt to convenience to the Kaaba, the tens of thousands of ordinary Indians of all faiths making their way through the dust and heat of Gujarat towards this shrine to Haji Pir will have earned the right to utter those beautiful words….Labbaik…I have come.

I am on my way to Haji Pir, not as a privileged pilgrim, but merely as a spectator. I lack the faith, the determination and the will. But I go nevertheless because, as one pilgrim I met on the road said to me, Haji Pir must have called you for otherwise you would not be heading there. I am heeding his call in my own small way.

Jim Jamrusch Knows How To Photograph Or Seeing Photography In Movies And Walking Away With A Smile

In Just Fun Stuff, The Daily Discussion on March 21, 2011 at 10:02 am

Jim Jarmusch as an incredible photographic eye and he utilizes it in his movies to amazing effect.

I first noticed this while watching the film Broken Flowers.

There is a scene early in the movie were Don Jonston (played wonderfully by Bill Murray) slumps onto a leather sofa after his girlfriend of the moment leaves him, frustrated as she is by forever being ‘just another one’. A window, out of view, lets in a single source light that illuminates Jonston face and slumped over body. The camera is still, as if we are looking through a viewfinder. The entire scene unfolds over the course of a few seconds as a still photograph…nothing moves, no gestures are made, the room is empty, the light is consistent and singular, and Jonston simply sits with his hands clasped, his back bent, his face wearing an expression of sheer exhaustion and defeat. It is the 1/250 second frame achieved over a 15 second time frame.

The scene is simple,but photographic and worth simply staring at for light, composition and structure.

But Jim Jarmusch really came into his photographic own in his brilliant The Limits Of Control.


The Limits Of Control by Jim Jarmusch

I am not sure how many people actually saw this rather contemplative, magic-realistic movie. It is frankly more a study in seeing than in experiencing. Nothing much seems to happen, few words are exchanged, and the viewer really simply comes along for a quiet ride, simply watching for signs of significance, or hints that may reveal what is unraveling on the screen. It was sheer visual exciting.

However, if you are not paying attention you will miss the nearly dozen meticulously constructed photographic shots through which is characters pass. The camera once again is complete still, the entire frame carefully constructed and precise in its geometry. The verticals, the horizontals, the shadows, the color edges, the frame divisions etc. all are to a precision that a photographer like Lee Friendlander would aim for.

Seeing these scenes was simply thrilling because I could feel myself transported into the screen, standing at precisely where the camera was placed, my own cameras in hand and making a photograph. It is perhaps Jarmusch’s most explicit use of the discipline and rigor of a photographic frame, and he achieves it by reducing the moving camera to a film camera like stillness. Though never is the scene static, as the geometries and angles maintain a dynamism even though the frame itself remains fixed. The movements and sense of tension is created by the juxtaposition of objects, overlapping geometrical lines, contrasting colors within geometric elements and the depth of field created by a careful use of shadow and light.

Its sheer photography and it’s simply beautiful. I love these movies, and I love this director’s eye. I was jumping with excitement when the scenes came across the screen – so precise, so organized. The scene where the assassin walks into his hideaway in a Spanish city, or the courtyard scene where he explains to the waiter that he wants two expressoes, in two separate cups. Its photography at its best.

Aside: I want to be as cool as Isaach De Bankolé. So gorgeous!

The Idea Of India Project Update: Project Related Readings: Achyut Yagnik The Shaping Of Modern Gujarat & Ahmedbabad: Royal City To MegaCity

In The Idea Of India Project on March 21, 2011 at 9:29 am

Towards the end of this work, Yagnik’s words seem to be weighed down by a terrible despair. Though the work is a broad social science study of Gujarat’s political, economic and cultural history, one can’t help but feel that it is more an attempt to understand and explain the state’s descent into cultural xenophobia and anti-Muslim hysteria that mark its political, social and urban spaces today.


The Shaping Of Modern Gujarat: Plurality, Hindutva & Beyond by Yagnik & Sheth



A similar feeling pervades Yagnik’s most recent work Ahmedabad: From Royal City to Megacity, though to a lesser extent.


Ahmedabad: From Royal City To Megacity by Yagnik & Sheth


Each work weaves its story towards those dreadful moments in 2002 when a state orchestrated pogrom against Ahmedabad’s Muslims resulted in nearly 2000 deaths and the displacement of tens of thousands to camps on the outskirts of the city. The scars of that moment remain fresh as practically all the perpetrators of the violence and killings have been allowed to go scott free, and almost all the luminaries, academics, business elite, politicians and others of the state have adopted a resilient silence if not a quiet approval of the violence and bloodshed. As Yagnik himself laments in the conclusion of his work:

Till today, there has been no discussion or reflection within the community about the nature of the violence that Hindu Gujarati society has shown itself to be capable of…They…justify the…events by selectively quoting the Ramayana and Mahabharata where atatayee or oppressors were eliminated by the heroes of the epics. More disturbing than their callousness was the utter silence of the spiritual leaders of the most modern sects of Gjuarat, including the Jains for whom ahimsa (non-violence) is the cardinal principle. The larger ethical and moral questions raised by the epics were conveniently ignored by them. (page 289)

Both these works are a good introduction to what is an amazingly complex and varied region of India. Gujarat was home to Gandhi and to Mohammad Ali Jinnah, two figures of vastly different temperament, ideals and preferences. The same state was also a region of complex economic engagement and interaction between the Arab world and Indic world, giving rise to many magnificent artistic, poetic, literary and cultural creations. Yagnik’s more recent work, on the city of Ahmedabad, attempts to address this more directly as he highlights the many ways in which the region’s Indo-Islamic culture influenced, and continues to be seen in, its architecture, cuisine, language, textiles, business, political structure, poetry, literature and arts.

Yet today the state has been reduced to a simplistic, xenophobic commitment to a new Hinduism – aggressive, reductive, rejectionist, and corporate/mercantile. Behind its confidence lies a deep insecurity and fear of difference, an intolerance of complexity and a refusal of its own history. In what can only be described as a great irony, it is a new Hinduism that spits on one of the states greatest of children: Mohandas Gandhi. His principles of ahmisa and self-rule are today nothing but annoyances to a community drunk on western capitalism’s gloss and misleading conflation of consumerism with liberty, corporatism with modernity.

I had traveled to Ahmedabad to write about the many shrines that dot the landscape of this city. But I find that I am no longer interested in that subject. I am now researching an ethnographic map of Ahmedabad, to write an essay about the divisions that have appeared between the city’s citizens, and the historical, political and economic factors that may have led to them. Yagnik’s work is pivotal to this exploration. Ahmedabad, and the suspicions, fears and divisions that pervade its society, may be a bellweather of India’s future unless we are able to challenge the deeply xenophobic provincialism that is being produced here and being sold as something ‘purer’, something ‘natural’, something ‘Hindu’

The Idea Of India Project Update: Project Related Readings: Gilmartin & Lawrence Beyond Turk & Hindu: Rethinking Religious Identities In Islamicate South Asia

In The Idea Of India Project on March 21, 2011 at 8:21 am

It was a William Dalrymple review, ‘India, The War Over History’, in The New York Review Of Books that first bought my attention to this work. It remains on my reading list and has already been referenced in my India project writings a few times. Gilmartin & Lawrence’s Beyond Turk And Hindu: Rethinking Religious Identities In Islamicate South Asia brings together some fine academics to offer a more complex, inter-twined reading of South Asian history, dynasties and communities.

Gilmartin & Lawrence Beyond Turk & Hindu University Press Of Florida

Two articles in particular have fundamentally changed my understanding of Indian history. Both touch on sensitive topics that occupy very simplistic and inflammatory spaces in the popular historical imagination. Richard M. Eaton’s essay ‘Temple Desecrations And The Indo-Muslim States’ fundamentally transforms our understanding of the history and reasons for temple desecrations as he carefully examines the evidence of such acts from the period prior to the arrival of so-labelled ‘Muslim’ armies and also that during ‘Muslim’ dynastic rule. It discusses in great depth the practice of temple desecration between Indic dynasts and points to it as an act of political conquest and symbolic erasure of a defeated dynast (the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue?). It offers a continuity of this practice with the arrival of Islamicate dynasties in the region. Most importantly, it highlights the need to see specific acts of temple desecration in their specific historical, political and economic conditions, rather than merely as a knee-jerk ‘Muslim’ iconoclasm which is how they are popularly viewed. This essays goes some ways to helping us understand why only specific temples were ever targeted, while others and the vast majority, left untouched. It also explains why so many temples in fact were funded and supported by Islamicate dynasties, even under the otherwise orthodox Mughal ruler Aurangzeb.

The other article is by Phillip B. Wagoner’s ‘Harihara, Bukka, and the Sultan: The Delhi Sultanate in the Political Imagination of Vijayanagar’. This latter article challenges the popular idea that the Vijaryangari kingdom was a bulwark that Islamicate Delhi Sultanate, pointing towards ample evidence to the high degree of cultural, architectural, political, economic, creative and military sharing, influences and outright borrowing from the Delhi Sultanate that marked the dynasty of the Vijayanagari kings.

I write ‘Muslim’ and ‘Hindu’ in quotes here primarily because I now find these terms highly inadequate to describe the complex individuals and dynasties of the medieval period. It is irresponsible to refer to Babur, for example, as a ‘Muslim’ dynast, reducing his complex personal, political and economic motivations for various acts of warfare, peace, society and arts to simply that of his religious heritage.

In fact, challenging this very terminology is one of the principle objectives of Gilmartin and Lawrence’s work. They instead attempt to offer us the terms Islamicate and Indic to incorporate the more complicated and multifarious ideas and ideals that actually inform and infuse these dynasties. As the describe in their introduction:

To open up the space between reductive religious orientations and mobile collective identities, one needs a new vocabulary that is not restricted to modern connotations of words such as Muslim and Hindu. It was to remedy the inadequacy of English popular usage that historians Marshall G.S. Hodgson coined the term Islamicate. For Hodgson, the neologism Islamicate allowed students of civilizational change to refer to the broad expanse of Africa and Asia that was influenced by Muslim rulers but not restricted to the practice of Islam as a religion. It is for the same reason, to suggest the breadth of premodern South Asian norms beyond Hindu doctrine or practice, that we employ the term Indic in the essays that follow. Both Islamicate and Indic suggest a repertoire of language and behavior, knowledge and  power, that define broad cosmologies of human existence. Neither denotes simply bounded groups self-defined as Muslim or Hindu.

This is an important and fascinating work indeed. I also particularly enjoyed Tony K. Stewart’s piece called ‘Alternate Structures of Authority: Satya Pir on the Frontiers of Bengal’ which has been instrumental in turning my attention to a region of India I know little about. It appears that I may to travel there to add it to the project.

The Idea Of India Project Update: 10th March 2011: The Shrine Of Hazrat Syed Ali Mira Datar And The Trace Of The Devil

In The Idea Of India Project on March 14, 2011 at 4:52 pm

Her face is a mask – without expression and stone hard. Her eyes stare into the distance, oblivious to the hundreds of men and women milling about the courtyard of the shrine. In the dying dusk light, under the glare of incandescent lights from the flower sellers inside the shrine complex, she lets out a scream, her mouth turned up towards the sky, her hands pulling at her hair. She falls to her knees and scratches at the marble floor but is soon back on her feet. I sense the eyes of the crowd turn towards her, and an atmosphere of tense anticipation fills the devotees as they step away from her. She begins to run. The crowd parts giving her room as she gathers speed and hurls herself into a somersault. Her body hits the ground with a loud thud. Some gasp in surprise. And she starts again. And again and again. Her face reflects her exhaustion, her eyes carry her confusion. In the growing darkness she is an apparition tearing at herself, loudly throwing herself against the floor, desperately shouting her accusations against the evil that is in possession of her. Her father stands by her, watches her, gently instructs the devotees at the shrine to give her room to complete her rituals. He has been doing this for nearly 5 years, gently and patiently standing alongside his teenage daughter who has lost her soul to the devil. I cut through the crowd to get a closer look and see that there are others – dozens of others, some as young as ten years old, who are stamping and shouting their way across the courtyard, their families quietly and shamefacedly following their movements, protecting them from bodily harm. A boy glares at me, threatens me with stones. An elderly woman seemingly in a trance suddenly lunges for my cameras before her children restrain her. A young man, chained to a pillar, calls out to me, begging me to release him. A young woman rolls on the ground, moaning, tearing at her breasts, begging to be set free. The presence of the devil fills the air, as dozens call out to him, and to the pir, asking to be release from their suffering, wondering when and how they will find escape. I feel suffocated in the tense atmosphere, and look to leave. Pray for us, I hear someone call after me. I turn around and see the tear filled eyes of the father of the young girl I had witnessed hurling herself against the floor. Pray to Him to release us from this suffering, he pleads.

I promise him that I will.

For the thousands who come to this venerated shrine – located about 35 km North of Mehsansa in the village of Unawa, to Syed Ali – or Mira Datar (brave healer) as he is more commonly known, this shrine is sacred and a crucial last port of hope.

They claim that modern medicine has failed them, that the doctors remain confused and perplexed by the evil that has overcome their loved ones. And that only Mira Datar knows the answer, and that they believe in him. They will tell you stories of the miraculous cures that they have seen with their own eyes – of possessed individuals who coughed up dozens of steel nails, or others who jumped from a three-story tower to scare the devil and landed safely and cured. The saint performs miracles in death, just as he had in life.

His legends, most of which can be heard on loudspeakers adorning music and CD stories that line the alleyway to the shrine, speak of his defeating evil kings and overcoming even death itself to fight in the path of the righteous. The owners of these audio/video stores do brisk business selling CDs, books, calendars and other knickknacks that celebrate the achievements and miracles of the saint. The sons of the family of caretakers – from nearly 700 families involved in the management and administration of the shrine, mill about the crowd drumming up business by encouraging the pilgrims – Hindus, Muslims and others, to make offerings at the shrine and seek the counseling, guidance and blessings of the senior clerics. Their ostentatious clothes – gold threads, fancy watches and a general air of arrogant indifference separates them from the mostly poor and impoverished pilgrims that folk here. This has of course not gone unnoticed by others from the area. Some years ago the local village administration filed suit against the families of the shrine, to bring the shrine and its revenue under the control of the administration.

But far removed from these mundane matters, the saint continues his work, quietly bringing all to him, and in his own, indescribable and inexplicable way, offering them healing and solace.

Update: Tewfic El-Sawy of The Travel Photographer blog recently visited this shrine and has produced an extensive write-up and photo essay about his experiences there. You can see his work by clicking on the image below

Where The Head Spun – 6th March 2011

In Just Fun Stuff, Musings On Confusions on March 6, 2011 at 6:11 am

Jennifer Egan.

She is one of the finest American writers working today. Her A Visit From The Goon Squad was troubling, provocative, funny and dire. So it was with some surprise, but more with excitement, that I saw that she has turned to journalism.

She has a piece on Lori Berenson in the latest issue of the New York Times Magazine. Her piece The Liberation of Lori Berenson is wonderfully written and retains Egan’s sensitive eye for the simple detail, and that lovely ability to allow her characters to emerge quietly and in fragments.

Lori Berenson spent 15 years of a 20 years sentence for aiding and abetting a terrorist plot that never took place. I am not surprised at Egan’s choice of Berenson, who in fact sounds very much like a character out of one of Egan’s books when Egan describes her:

She is slight and mild-mannered, with wire-rimmed glasses, an inquisitive gaze and wavy brown hair that she often wears in a single braid down her back. She dresses simply — often in jeans, occasionally dangly earrings. Her speech is polite and a little stiff, in the manner of both a native English-speaker who has lived much of her life in another language, and a person who resists self-revelation.

Worth a read.


On a different note, I have been following the turmoil in the Middle East on the amazing Jadaliyya website

Complementing Al-Jazeera’s excellent coverage, Jadaliyya offers the best in-depth analysis of the social, economic, political and cultural factors fueling the tectonic shifts taking place in a region long ignored and seriously misrepresented by American and European media, intellectuals, pundits and academics. I recommend that you bookmark it.


Speaking of tectonic shifts, The Boston Review, carried a fascinating article on the state of our economy and criminality that bought us to our financial knees. In a review of four important books on the subject called Business As Usual: The Next Wall Street Collapse writer Jonathan Kirstner highlights the institutional and systemic failures of post-Reagan/Clinton capitalism and its abandonment of the fundamental warnings of some of the most important economic minds of our time. Stiglitz’s Freefall: America, Free Markets and the Sinking of the World Economy, and Posner’s A Failure of Capitalism: The Crisis of ’08 And The Descent Into Depression appear to be particularly important. In both academic economists come in for particular criticism:

The embrace of rational expectations and the efficient-markets hypothesis, and the tendency of the discipline to reward impressively sophisticated and utterly implausible models, contributed to the ideational environment in both business and government that led us off this cliff.


This of course comes at the heels of another devastating piece in Rolling Stone Magazine which highlights how the crass criminality that underpinned the financial and mortgage market collapse, has largely been covered up and the perpretrators allowed to go scott free. Mark Taibbi continues his excellent expose of this hideous industry and its hideous actors in a piece called Why Isn’t Wall Street In Jail where he points out that:

Nobody goes to jail. This is the mantra of the financial-crisis era, one that saw virtually every major bank and financial company on Wall Street embroiled in obscene criminal scandals that impoverished millions and collectively destroyed hundreds of billions, in fact, trillions of dollars of the world’s wealth — and nobody went to jail.

Sobering. Dismaying.


My friend and photographer Tiane Doan Na Champassak has a new blog. My initial reaction was one of confusion, but then again that is how I felt what I first met Tiane himself. It takes a while to get him, as it took me to get this blog, and I love it. Called 1 PHOTOGRAPH/ER it features, as Tiane explains, what he considers to be an:

exceptional photograph, the rare “jewel” often hidden in a mass of images produced by either well-known or unknown, professional or beginner, conceptual or classical photographers.