Archive for April, 2011|Monthly archive page

The Idea Of India Project Updates: Photo Schematic #4

In The Idea Of India Project on April 26, 2011 at 2:11 pm

This situation is a race against time. An element that makes this entire situation worthy of exploring is the dusk sky that can be seen in at the top of the frame. If this goes black, the image is lost. My eye is on the lovely blue of the dusk sky, and my other eye is on my watch to see how much time I have to play here. Add to this the fact that I have to find movement within the frame, and that a person has to be present in that doorway with the lovely flourescent light. So once again, a number of things have to come together as I try to put this frame together, starting from the rear of the image which is the crucial element of the visible, dusk sky.

Of course, I should mention that this is a busy intersection near the Surat, Gujarat railways station and the rushing traffic – cars, taxis, rickshaws/CNGs, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, pedestrians, State Transport buses, private buses, hand carts, camel carts, itinerant wanderers and the occasional curious Policeman, is a constant source of distraction and danger just behind where I am standing. The issue of distance to frame becomes key as well as anything close and the frame loses depth, and anything further and the proportions become pointless. Or at least to my eye they do. In this video I am still not quite at the perfect distance, but I am quite close. But I can’t really go further back without endangering myself and upsetting a lot of drivers. I don’t want to go any closer. I have negotiated this distance through stubbornness and reliance on the politeness of the drivers using the road.

Most all the elements are there, except for a small portion of the trees and cellular transmission pole on the top left. But I fear that I may not be able to do much about that in the final version either. But certainly the light is lovely, as since I am shooting daylight film, should offer a range of color tones across the entire frame – the yellow-red of the street lamp, the green (the color it will be rendered on day-light balanced film) of the flourescent light within the temple, and the soft dusk blues of the sky above. Lets see what I finally arrive at.

The Idea Of India Project Update: Wrapping Up The Gujarat Phase Of The Work

In The Idea Of India Project on April 24, 2011 at 1:13 pm

Its been a long, tiring two months in Gujarat’s heat, dust and paranoia. Behind the triumphant rhetoric of a fast industrializing Gujarat lie the quiet whispers of a fear and psychosis that colors most everything that happens here. The communities live in suspicion of each other, and it affects anyone trying to work in the state. As a photographer you quickly become a source of suspicion and worry, and are either asked to move on by local residents, or questioned by the local police. Throughout my time here I have been working with the awareness that I will not be allowed to.

Religious sites have become battlefields and caretakers are scared.  What may once have been considered areas of tolerance are today being fought over in an effort to ‘purify’ them into one theocratic tradition. All this has made visiting such sites rather difficult. Spending time there has been near impossible. Basically the caretakers at almost every shrine or temple I have tried to visit and spend time at have been worried about my presence. Sometimes I have managed to convince them of my intentions, on other occasions I have simply been denied access and asked to leave the site. This has of course proven to be a source of great frustration as a photographer as I am already struggling to deal with the rather monotonous light and urban landscapes in these small indian towns. And with the day time temperatures soaring around 40C and above, I have been weighed down with the effort to find the stamina to simply be out and working.

Nevertheless, I am now wrapping up my time in Gujarat and moving on to the next phase of the project. I will have to return, but in a few months. There are some new sites, and new stories that I have discovered since I began traveling here. This region remains an amazing source of Indian history and culture and there is no doubt that what has allowed me to continue working here has been the generosity and support of the many ordinary Gujarati residents who have allowed me to hang about and go through my over-complicated photography process. In the same time I have been reading and exploring some amazing works that lay open the amazing complexity and history of this region, revealing secrets and understandings that I had never even imagined.

For those who are interested, here are some of the works specific to the region of Gujarat that I have been reading:

Samira Sheikh’s Forging A Region: Sultans, Trader, and Pilgrims in Gujarat, 1200-1500 which is an excellent historical account of the regions political, economic and religious landscape. As I continue to explore the reasons and trajectory of the state’s current religious divisions and anti-Muslim propensities, Sheikh’s work helps place the violence and xenophobia of today into broader context.

Forging A Region by Samira Sheikh


Farina Ibrahim’s Settlers, Saints And Sovereigns: An Ethnography of State Formation in Western India is a complicated read, but unveils a region that is often seen to not contain much more than nomads and desert. The Kutch region of Gujarat however has had a powerful influence on the formation of the identity of Gujarat itself, and of course. As a border region, the story of the partition of India played itself out here and defined the collective memories of the people of the area. I have as yet not finished this work, but for anyone looking at Gujarat, it is a must read.

Settlers, Saints and Sovereigns by Farina Ibrahim


Yagnik and Sheth’s The Shaping Of Modern Gujarat and Ahmedabad: Royal City to Megacity are interesting reads, though at times a bit too sparse in details. It is however a good general read for those looking for a quick introduction to the history of the state, and its recent decline into xenophobia and violence. I do feel that as writers both Yagnik and Sheth, in an attempt to understand the reasons for this complex regions spiral towards today’s xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiments make too linear and teleological argument. However, they do offer a good argument for how recent changes in the economic and industrial landscape of the state affected relationship between communities and castes. What perplexes me is that the same changes affected many other regions of India and we fail to see similar levels of divisions between communities there. So there seems to be something else at play here. Regardless, I do recommend both these works.


Edward Simpson’s Muslim Society and the Western Indian Ocean: The Seafarers of Kachchh was a surprising find, thanks to Rita Kotari and it proved to be an invaluable and important read. It was this work that pointed me towards the story of Dariyapir and why I traveled to Mandvi, Gujarat as part of this project. However, at a broader level it speaks about the history of changes that have taken place in the state, seen from the telescopic detail of one town, and how it has created tensions and violence between its religious communities, particularly the Hindu and Muslim communities. You can actually preview quite a lot of the book at Taylor & Francis.


Some works that focus on broader issues, but contain some important essays related to the culture, development, and politics of the state of Gujarat include:

Geert de Neve & Henrike Donner’s The Meaning Of The Local: Politics of Place in Urban India has a fascinating chapter by the same Edward Simpson as above titled ‘The Rituals of Rehabilitation: Rebuilding An Urban Neighborhood After The Gujarat Earthquake of 2001′ which examines how neighborhood reconstruction after the 2001 earthquake was influenced by broader religious and Hindu nationalist ideologies. This was a fascinating read and reveals how the entire urban landscape of cities like Bhuj were inflected and influenced by the ideals and prejudices of a larger Hindu project of historical and cultural imagination. This included the performance of rituals. myth making, re-naming etc. that left a deep imprint on the spatial and social makeup of the post-earthquake city.

The Meaning Of The Local by Neve & Donner


Edward Simpson has another excellent essay in Saraswati Raju, M. Satish Kumar, Stuart Corbridge’s Colonial and Post-Colonial Geographies Of India called ‘Militant Cartographies And Traumatic Spaces: Ayodhya, Bhuj and the Contested Geographies of Hindutva’

Colonial And Post Colonial Geographies Of Indian, Raju, Kumar, Corbridge


There are still more works to research, but for the moment these are the principal texts that have taken me through Gujarat. There are some key issues that I have been unable to find good material for. For example, I have yet to see an explicit examination of the influence of Gujarat’s adoption of broad industrialization and its celebration of the corporate/capitalist ideology and the impact this has had on defining and transforming the social and cultural values and practices in the state. There are of course studies that have examined the connection between corporatism and fascism, but I have yet to see one specific to Gujarat. There is a very clear prioritization and belief in the values of the corporation, with Modi often being referred to as the CEO of the state.

Clearly, a very influential mercantile and industrialist class has convinced itself that it can run a polity along social and decision-making structures of a corporation. This is not an obvious conclusion to arrive at, and people have to decide to do this. What does this mean for issues of justice, equality, equity, environment, human development indices and so on? How do corporate values translate into social and cultural priorities and values? What impact does the adoption of such corporate values as broader social values have on the nature and functioning of an ostensibly democratic political system? These are just some questions that I am curious to explore when it comes to Gujarat and continue to look for materials and research that can help.


I will be writing some new site specific posts in the coming days. I have fallen behind on this. But I wanted to get this set of updates out.

I am now in my last week here in Gujarat. A need to change locations and scenery will see me shifting focus for some weeks to the Bengal and Kerala most likely. I just need to see a new kind of light, a new kind of world.

The Travails Of Our Post-Colonial Subconscious Or What Does The English Language Have To Do To Be Recognized As An Indian Language?

In Background Materials, Book Responses, Just Fun Stuff, Musings On Confusions, The Daily Discussion on April 21, 2011 at 12:34 pm

A very curious essay appeared in the recent issue of The Caravan magazine. Written by Nilanjana S. Roy, titled ‘How To Read In Indian‘, it veered uncertainly between discussing the emergence of the phenomenal success of Indian writers writing in English, and a discussion of outsiders writing stories about India. Subtitled The Long History of a Literary Argument That Refuses to Go Away it clearly meant to be a literary discussion, but in fact it quickly diverged into a discussion about the outsider writing about India.

Roy begins by recounting some of the debates at a gathering of Indian writers and intellectuals at Neemrama Fort Palace, and moves towards the criticism that so-called Indian critics have made of those from the so-imagined outside writing about India. Roy mentions Mulk Raj Anand’s criticisms of Salman Rushdie, various criticisms hurled against V.S. Naipual and his works on India, and a strange reference to Pankaj Mishra’s recent critical study of Patrick French’s new book on India. As Roy elaborates:

In a sense, we have always been sensitive as a nation to what is written about us; nonfiction about the US, for instance, seldom draws as many reactions, fuelled equally by anxiety and exasperation. The anxiety comes, in the reading of many, from seeing any narrative that interrupts the neatly seductive story of India Shining; the exasperation comes from a smaller band of Indians who are tired of having what they already know and consider familiar explained to them in exhausting and unnecessary detail.

But somewhere in the middle of the essay, the focus turns to the question of language. The example of Bankim Chatterjee is given – a Bengali writer who made a conscious decision to never writing in English and instead speak ‘to his people’ only in the native language of Bengali. As Roy states, that for Bankim…

…the question of whom he was writing for became urgent in his mind. He could not, he felt, write unless he was addressing his people, his countrymen, in their tongue

It seems to me that this is an entirely different question from the one that was first offered in the essay. One is a question of perspectives on India – the insider vs the outsider. The second is a question of language as a marker of belonging, and ideas of nationhood and community. The first is a criticism about what is said about India and by whom. The second is a question of what means ie language is used to write and whether English (and yes, lets admit that this is about English, about our colonial scars, and about our desperate post-colonial ideas of our indigenous cultures) qualifies as an appropriate language to use to speak about, and to India.

I am willing to admit that there may be overlaps in these discussions, but it seems that to make sense of either we should, to help with the discussion, keep them apart.


The first issue has come up quite bit lately. A certain group of self-appointed guardians of literary India have taken it upon themselves to pillory Europeans who have had the temerity to work in India, say something about her and her culture, and perhaps most egregiously, find a place of celebrity and social and cultural participation in India itself.

This peevish stance was recently seen in Hartosh Singh Bal’s recent tirade against the writer William Dalrymple that appeared in India’s (English language!) Open Magazine under the heading ‘The Literary Raj‘. It made for painful reading, riddled as it was in a language and presumption so provincial that they defied belief. The essay was inspired by Dalrymple’s prominent place in organizing and appearing at the now very popular Jaipur Literary Festival, a fact that seems to have upset Singh Bal’s Indian, and lets admit it, nationalist and cultural sensibilities, leading him to ask:

I have been told that Dalrymple is a personable man, and in my own encounters with him I have indeed found him so, but what is of interest in this context is not Dalrymple the man, but Dalrymple the phenomenon. How did a White man, young, irreverent and likeable in his first and by far most readable India book,’The City of Djinns’, become the pompous arbiter of literary merit in India?

Understandably, William Dalrymple did not take kindly to these suggestions, and fired back with his own piece in the same magazine titled ‘The Piece You Ran Is Blatantly Racist‘. Hartosh Singh Bal’s retort followed in the form of a piece called ‘Does Dalrymple Know What Racism Really Is?‘. as well as one by Pramod Kumar, one of the founders of the Jaipur Literary Festival, entitled ‘An Inconvenient Truth‘.

A similar accusation of ‘how dare you!’ was leveled against – and I say this with no small irony, by Patrick French against the Indian born Pankaj Mishra. Yes, it may seem odd to say this, but that is precisely what happened when Pankaj Misrha wrote a ‘not so enthusiastic’ review of French’s new work on India called India: An Intimate Biography Of 1.2 Billion People.

Mishra’s criticisms, offered in a piece called (provocatively I will admit) ‘A Curzon Without An Empire‘ and published in India’s (English language!) Outlook Magazine, were leveled against French’s truncated understanding of India’s modernity and her economic development. Mishra’s criticisms reflected ideas already raised in many Op-Ed and other pieces he has written about the phenomenon of Shining India and the deep inequalities and injustices it is inflicting upon the majority of her citizens.

French, however, took it personally, and retorted with what can only be described as an attempt to singularly mark Mishra as an ‘outsider’ who pretends to be a ‘insider’. He chose to discredit Mishra in a response, with the rather catty title ‘Cameron’s Cuz Is More The Curzon‘, not by taking on Mishra’s socio-economic arguments, but his ‘outsider’ character:

It is a pity Pankaj did not pursue his burgeoning career as a novelist, or produce the promised short history of modern India. Instead, he has ranged widely, sitting on eminent literary prize committees, popping up as a visiting fellow at assorted foreign universities and jetting about denouncing “business-class lounges” and their elite inhabitants. It is not clear whether Pankaj—travelling the globe for high-paying western publications, while busily condemning “late capitalist society”—ever uses these lounges himself, or whether he prefers to take a downgrade to cattle class. For a long time I have appreciated his chutzpah most of all, though he remains a writer of promise. He has been successful in imparting his “authentic” take on India to the West, and one American intellectual even adjudged our reviewer to be “the young Siddhartha Gautama himself: a scholar-sophisticate” after meeting him at “the lower Manhattan holiday party of a stylish magazine”.

As these debates have raged it seems that we have lost sight of the key issue ie what is being said and not who is saying it. We can see this tendency in Singh Bal’s and French’s reactions. Instead, we have focused on who is saying them.

What should matter is not that Dalrymple or any other writer is an ‘outsider’ or an ‘insider’ but only whether what he says about India is intelligent, insightful, articulate and informative. We have to accept that many Indians have written rubbish works of fiction and non-fiction about their own country, and many foreigners have in fact written some fabulous works in the same categories. It is not the origins of the writers that matter, but the content of their writing. Dalrymple has in fact written some powerful works on Indian history – White Mughals: Love And Betrayal In 18th Century India and The Last Mughal: The Fall Of A Dynasty: Delhi 1857 being two such works.

Dalrymple’s place in India’s literary circles is not the result of a ‘Johnny come lately’ but reflects many decades of passionate engagement with the country and its history. We can’t fault him and others like him for his origins, but have to engage him, and all others, on the basis of their ideas and contributions. Which is what Mishra did when he critiqued French, though French preferred to offer a rebuttal that was if anything petty and venal.

A focus on the ‘what’ vs the ‘who’ helps distance us from debates that can quickly become mired in racist and xenophobic stances. They allow us to remain above the treacherous and slippery terrain of identity politics and nativist generalizations. It allows us to focus on ideas, insights, and information, without coloring our judgments on the basis of color, ethnicity, race, religion and class. Literary and intellectual criticism has to adopt this position if for no other reason than to be consistent and rigorous.


We next turn to the question of Indian writers writing in English. This question became an urgent issue of concern particularly since Salman Rushdie’s set off a fire-storm of indignation when he very careless suggested in the introduction to the The Vintage Book of Indian Writing that:

The prose writing–both fiction and nonfiction–created in this period [the fifty years of independence] by Indian writers working in English is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the eighteen “recognized” languages of India, the so-called “vernacular languages,” during the same time; and, indeed, this new, and still burgeoning, “Indo-Anglian” literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books. The True Indian literature of the first postcolonial half century has been made in the language the British left behind.

Few have managed to get past this dismissal of India’s vernacular literature, and many have been fighting tooth and nail to argue for the importance and relevance of India’s so-called ‘vernacular’ languages.

And Roy too can’t get away from speaking about this. What is confusing is that she keeps returning to this question of language, which appears to have been her original motivation for writing the piece, sporadically while focusing far more on the issue of who writes about India. What is perhaps confusing is the underlying privilege she herself grants to Europe, its markets, its audience and its ‘reading’ of India.

What we are all uncomfortable acknowledging is that the West—shorthand for the complex markets and divergent reading tastes of the UK, the US and a large swath of Europe—has a sharply truncated view of Indian writing. Imagine assessing all of European literature by reading only works in Polish, or only works in Italian—that, in the absence of a market for translations of Indian fiction, is the position the West is in when it reads “Indian writing”. And as long as the market is open only, or chiefly, to Indian writing in English, this blindness cannot be overcome. There is also the question of economic power: with access to larger audiences abroad, publishers outside India can and do dictate who has that access, what kind of stories travel from here to there, what books will be considered future Indian classics. There is an inequality in the system, inevitable, inescapable and often resented.

There is just so much wrong in the above paragraph that I do not even know where to begin.

First, it is ridiculous to complain that the West reads only those works that are written or translated into English. I mean, what else would they be able to read? Furthermore, the critic has nothing to say about the fact that the initiative to translate works from various Indian languages into English or other European languages often comes at the behest of European publishing houses. If indigenous Indian writings are to find a global audience, they have to be placed into an Indian publishing structure that makes them i.e translates them, available to a larger audience. I suspect that the answer is not merely about translations though but also about the relevance and resonance of the stories.

Second of all, the statement carried within it an hypocritical thought: that it is Europe that does the reading that actually matters. Despite the writings attempt to complain about the value set on works that are recognized and celebrated in the West, she himself sets Europe up as the audience that actually matters and should in fact be reading India more broadly and in a less truncated way. Their reading us, and all of us, is very important and the determinant of value. She laments their ‘truncated’ reading of us, as if their reading is what really matters. This prioritization of the Western audience underpins all such complaints of ‘truncated’ views, and is the unspoken background prejudice of such critics. A need felt for stories to ‘travel from here to there’ belies a belief that arriving ‘there’ is somehow the achievement that matters. Here she is again:

She also ignores the reality that there are large markets for vernacular literature in India itself. Kerala alone boasts a market of nearly 33 million readers, and all in their native Malayam. As described in a piece in Le Monde Diplomatique called ‘Kerala: Mad About Books‘:

Outside the big cities, a very small minority of Indians – only seven to eight million – read in English. India has an overall rate of 65% literacy – measured in people’s own mother tongues. But where India drops into the Indian Ocean, in the state of Kerala, home of Malayalam literature, literacy is close to 100%. Not surprisingly, the population of Kerala – some 31 million – reads books.

Returning to the issue at hand, when will we accept that English is an Indian language? How many years, and what history, allows us to call a language ‘Indian’? Is it 10 years, 100 years, 400 years? I would argue that English is fundamentally an Indian language and has as much right to be called that as Urdu, or Tamil or Hindi or any other language that arrived into its present form and place as a result of settlement, communication, commerce, conquest and creativity. In fact, Roy herself admits that:

The Census 2001 figures, released late last year, revealed that English had, effectively, become India’s second language, behind Hindi. Many of the new English speakers come from the small towns or belong to metropolitan areas that lie outside the charmed circles of privilege…as this generation begins to tell and write its stories, it may not need to beguile the souks of the West with its Indiennisme.

But while doing so, refuses to see that the question of Indians writing in English and Indians not writing in English is only interesting if you privilege and value the judgment and commercial power of the European. An insistence that if it’s not being ‘read’ by Europe than it is being marginalized, ignored and under-valued reflects a very severe post-colonial inferiority complex that holds the European ‘audience’ on a higher scale of value and relevance. The question to ask ourselves is why this is so? Is it simply because they throw more money at it, and can hence create a greater aura of glamour, celebrity and fame around their industry? Is it because their voice continues to matter to us even far above our own? It reminded me of something Partha Chatterjee said, though in a different context, that despite our best efforts our…

…thought accepts and adopts the same essentialist conceptions based on the distinction between ‘the East’ and ‘the West’, the same typology created by a transcendent studying subject, and hence the same ‘objectifying’ procedures of knowledge constructed in the post-Enlightenment age…There is consequently, an inherent contradictoriness in…thinking, because it reasons within a framework of knowledge whose representational structure corresponds to the very structure of power…thought it seems to repudiate it.

Chatterjee, Partha Nationalist Thought And The Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse? Page 38

What also remains unexplained is that given the growing appetite for Indian writers in Europe and the USA, why there has not been a greater effort from within India to have its many vernacular works translated into languages that can be read by the Europeans and the Americans? This is something yet remains to be understood, and as far as I know has not been sufficiently examined. A part of the answer I believe lies in the point I made earlier: that it is the universality of a story that matters, not merely its translation. I am sure that this is not the whole answer, but we cannot ignore this fact. And the naturalness of it: the European is under no obligation to read our stories and we should expect her to be.

Finally, I would add that the reason why we don’t just read Polish literature to understand Europe is because Poland comes to us not just as a separate language, but also as belonging to a separarte nationalism. The prejudice of Indian nationalism prioritizes her Northern Indian elite and mythologies, complete with its preference for English and its strong historical and cultural links to the West. I need to say more about this, since this may inflame some serious objections, but we cannot ignore the preponderance and unfair weight of North India when it comes to being mistaken for India as a whole. That is why we can assume that an Indian from a narrow, middle-class segment writing in English represents all of India because Indian nationalism itself has been articulated by this class since such nationalisms very inception, if not earlier. A very small elite speaks for the entire region, and many regions are marginalized in the process. This is a broader issue that require more explanation for which I do not have space here.


Underlying all this concern of course are some very nativist ideas of what it means to be Indian, and who can claim that privilege. These ideas are of course inflected by the definition of an Indian nation, cemented by the pillars of official nationalism: borders, states, languages, flags, passports etc. But literature is about ideas, not geography. It is about the human imagination, not cities of birth. The idea of India cannot be confined to within India’s physical borders. Her post-colonial modernity defies such simplistic definitions of what it takes to be Indian. A vast, diverse diaspora is one reality that undermines the country’s geography. The cosmopolitan lives of even so many millions of her resident citizens – lives that see them living, studying, conducting business in a number of different geographic and cultural domains, is another reality that can’t be ignored. Into this modernity of cultural and geographical flows we cannot place rigid and fixed ideas of ‘belonging’ or ‘culture’ or ‘vernacular’ languages.

Our citizen’s lived realities are far more interesting than fixed identities and out-dated ideas of ‘Indian-ness’ require. It is specious, if not a complete waste of time, to argue about whether a certain language is Indian or not. If we keep in mind that it is mere historical fate that Assamese is an ‘Indian’ language and Pushtun is not. It could just as well have been otherwise. And we should not forget that even today people in regions like Kerala and Tamil barely speak Hindi, with many absolutely refusing to do so.

We are better off, whether it is when we discuss fiction or non-fiction, judging a work on the merit of its content and imagination, rather than on merely its mode of communication. We are better off accepting the absolute hybridity of our lives, the many ways in which they are embroiled and mixed with the lives, cultures, histories and intellectual trajectories of societies, peoples and ideas beyond our geographical borders. Today more than ever – in an age of global media, the internet, accessible long-distance travel, inter-connected marketplaces and business, we no longer live and experience this world from within our geographical frontiers. Our imaginations are influenced by things we can’t even really enumerate, and perhaps largely by ideas that come to us from way past our known horizons. We don’t have to like this modernity, but it would be foolish to pretend to ignore its reality. It would be equally foolish to pretend that we can today set a clear definition of what it takes to be considered Indian, and who can claim the right to speak for it, to it and with it.

The Idea Of India Project Updates: Photo Schematic #2 & Schematic #3

In The Idea Of India Project on April 20, 2011 at 6:24 pm

You walk by a scene like this, and its impossible to resist. But there are a lot of problems with this situation, which screams possibilities but is quite incomplete. And perhaps may never offer itself beyond the obvious.

First, I am at the scene a little too late in the evening and the shadows have become too dark.

Second, I am not sure if the lights in the furniture show room would even be turned on earlier in the day.

Finally, there has to be some movement, some object, in the window of the furniture showroom.

So a lot of things would have to come together for this to offer itself as a frame. But clearly there is something fun here. The contrast between the tungsten light and the flourescent light. The strange juxtaposition of the large furniture showroom window which creates a rather strange and stage like second half of the frame. I will return here and see what I can find tomorrow evening.


This is an entirely different situation, and frankly, full of amazing possibilities. The light, a single source flow from the left side, is just beautiful. The mirror and the poster of Sai Baba create excellent anchor points for the image. The wall is painted in pastels but the cracking and fading give it a lovely texture. The portrait orientation helps line up the geometrical lines with the mirror and the support structure in the wall.

But again, something more has to happen here to make this interesting. I would want tea drinkers sitting in front of my frame, and others reflected in the mirror above me. The multiple layers would complete an otherwise simple composition and make into something fun to explore with the eyes. I was filming here just a bit before lunch. I will have to return in the morning when there are more people in the cafe, and hope that I can get the place on the bench where the frame will be just perfect.

The trick is not just the people though. The morning sun has to be strong enough to create the same single-source light from the left. Anything weaker and this becomes a bit too dark. So there is a delicate balance here and timing is crucial. That is, I have to be there so that there is enough light, and enough people. I wonder if I will manage that.

The Idea Of India Project Update: The Chai Wallah Gets Reviewed: The Lakshmi Vijay Hindu Tea Shop, Surat Gujarat

In The Idea Of India Project on April 19, 2011 at 9:28 am

The Lakshmi Vijay Hindu Tea Shop, Surat Gujarat

It’s a little difficult to spot at first, but you simply have to look for where the local traffic policemen gather when they are not risking their lives directing traffic at the Bhagal Chowk crossing in Surat, Gujarat. Behind these men in crisp uniforms is a small blue door which will lead you into a fine little tea shop.

The Gujarati sign board names it as the Lakshmi Vijay Hindu Tea Shop, and they prepare their tea with a gusto that gives it a weight that can lift the sleep off your soul. Each cup comes with a branch of mint leaves soaking in it. You take them out before you drink it, but of course, the lovely flavor lingers. Hang about and you can listen to the local businessmen who gather here discuss their issues of the day, and even some crucial trade secrets. In the midst of the chaos of this crossing, this is a little piece of quiet and civilization.

The Idea Of India Project Update: Photo Schematics: # 1

In The Idea Of India Project on April 17, 2011 at 5:49 pm

This is the first in a series of short videos that capture a situation where I stopped for some time to explore the possibility of making a photograph. I may not be sure what catches my eye, but a scene can offer possibilities that I want to examine. This is a scene I came across while walking up Pavagadh hill near Champanar, Gujarat. The temple to Kalika Mata is  one of the three Shakti Pithas in Gujarat, and the temple sees thousands making their way up the hill to perform their darshan.

I stopped outside this photo studio and watched the movements of the boys working there, and the mirror that reflected a painted image of the deity. It isn’t immediately obvious what the scene offers in terms of an image. But it is a frame, and a situation that demands a closer look. There is the single light coming from my rear, the strange break in the middle of the frame offered by the swinging mirror, the movement of the characters that will eventually see them in different parts of the divided frame itself. The light remains pretty consistent, but there is the possibility of movements and the reflections in them mirror to create something interesting.

The frames I made were more complicate than what the video shows. But that is precisely what this feature is about: to reveal the base material from which a photographer begins, and then waits to find an actual photograph.

The Mughal Miniature As An Act Of Resistance Or Whether An Ancient Tradition Can Save A Modern Pakistan

In Essays Related To Pakistan, Just Fun Stuff, The Daily Discussion on April 15, 2011 at 5:36 pm

The Naqsh School of Arts in Lahore’s Old City is perhaps the only institute of its kind in Pakistan. Located in building next to the founding family’s haveli near Lahore’s Bhatti gate, it was created to preserve the classical art form of the Mughal miniature. Stepping into its first floor, which I did for the first time in 2008, was a little like stepping into a world last seen some three hundred years ago. In a large hall that acted as a gallery and a studio, a teacher sat on a low platform covered with cushions and a wooden drawing table, while a group of students sat on low sofas around him following instructions, copying classics and quietly murmuring suggestions and advice to each other. It seemed a world given to tradition, and largely removed from the maddening modernity of the city of Lahore around them. My impression of a school isolated from the lives we lived was exacerbated by the fact that I knew little about the history and tradition of the Mughal miniature and the many ways it in fact did remain relevant to our times.

At another arts institute in Lahore not too far away from this very traditional art institution, the students however have been exploring ways to not only preserve, but to profoundly transform this classical art form. At the Lahore College of Arts, the instructors and students have taken quite a different path and transformed the art form in radically interesting ways.

One of its students, the much celebrated artist Shazia Sikander, has already transformed our understanding of the possibilities of the Mughal miniature, pioneering ways of what was perhaps the most conservative of arts into something living, and modern. The National College of Arts in Lahore, Sikander expanded the possibilities of the miniature form bring together drawing, animation, installation, video, and film. Sikandar has already been recognized as a MacArthur Fellow and continues to push her work into new directions.

DissonancetoDetour2 by Shazia Sikandar

DissonancetoDetour2 by Shazia Sikander

Dissonance to Detour by Shazia Sikander

Dissonance to Detour by Shazia Sikander

However, there is yet another move towards modernizing this classical art form and it t involves giving it a voice that is resistance and dissenting. The Mughal miniature was never meant to confront, to challenge, to subvert or to question. Largely confined to issues of beauty and narrative, the artists focused on technique and artistry. Patronized by the powerful, it was as Virginian Whiles says ‘...aristocratic art with corresponding limitations.

Virginia While, a lecturer at the  Chelsea College of Art, University of the Arts, London, has written a fascinating new book that explores the new, polemical and critical directions of art in Pakistan, and in particular the emergence of the works of a handful of artists trained in the precision and tradition of the Mughal miniature but putting it to use for explicitly modern uses.

Whiles points to the shift that took place at the school in a talk she gave at the Khoj International Artists Association in Delhi, India:

…the teacher who eventually promoted it as a major study, Bashir Ahmed, disciple of Ustad Sheikh Shujallah, disciple of Ustad Haji Mohammed Sharif, declared miniature painting’s autonomy within a separate department…Renowned for its rigorous discipline, defending the concept of an ongoing Mughal tradition in face of postmodern infiltrations, the department’s state of flux may well motivate the current explosion of energy manifested by the very different miniature production over the last few years.

The critical shift is to be seen in those works commenting on actual issues: fundamentalism, violence against women, corruption and nuclear warfare. Substantial debate is taking place between the protagonists and antagonists of the miniature practice. For example, the politicisation of content is viewed by certain students and teachers as reflecting a modish political correctness; others reject outright the miniature medium on modernist grounds of its dependency on traditional values; whilst in beween the question has been raised as to whether: “… the miniature project is a postcolonial quest to retrieve cultural identity.” (Hashmi 2000)

Many of these issues cannot be clearly answered, but they do open up room for dialogue around an art form many may consider too traditional, too outmoded to be relevant today. However, Whiles book perhaps asks us to rethink this idea, and to attempt a closer look at the works of a group of Pakistani artists attempted to bridge their heritage and the many humiliations of their modernity. Perhaps on a larger level it opens up the question of whether art can in fact be an act of resistance and dissent in the face of the leviathan of our modernity. This is a question that calls not for an answer as an absolute, but for an answer as a vision and an aspiration. How we choose to imagine and construct the answer may well decide what kind of society Pakistan will find itself to be.

The Idea Of India Project Update: The Eunuch Goddess

In The Idea Of India Project on April 15, 2011 at 10:00 am

Note: This essay was originally published on March 21st. This is an update based on a recent meeting with historian Samira Sheikh who has generously provided me with her research into the legend and contested history of Bahuchara Mata. All updates reflect insights gained from her work.


A continuity of history has been erased at the temple of the goddess Bahucharaji. As I walk into the center of the temple I am surprised to see a dozen or so men busily working at carving and cutting away stone and cement blocks, constructing a new temple where once a classical Indo-Islamic structure had stood. The shrine complex that I had expected to see is no longer.

I remember seeing the original structure in a photograph taken by Professor J.J. Roy Burman. It showed a rather humble yet elegant shrine with arches, domes, cupolas and a beautiful, multi-pillar supported low roof. A large varakhadi tree towards the rear, its branches gently resting on the dome and roof. But no more. The original structure had been torn down and was now being replaced by a classical Nagara (perhaps some Solanki influences can also be seen?) temple structure, complete with a dominating shikara, the likes of which can be seen all across this region.

The shrine of Bahucharaji Mata has always been a contested space, her origins, mythologies, and ritual practices contested by many. A virgin goddess, it was not only her origins that were a source of conflict, but also the various rituals that were practiced here. And this contestation become particularly intense when in 1859 a group of Brahmins were appointed by Sayajirao Gaekwad of Baroda (now Vadodara). As Samira Sheikh, who has done extensive research on the story of the goddess Bahurajai Mata, points out in her essay ‘Lives of Bahuchara Mata in Idea of Gujarat 2010‘ in The Idea Of Gujarat Ed. Simpson & Kapadia:

It was in 1859 that Sayajirao Gaekwad of Baroda appointed a dakshini or ‘southern’ Brahmin, Narayanarao Madhav, to officiate over the rituals of the temple in place of a ‘Rajput’ offciant. This would seem to be the first time in the record that Brahmins presided over the temple ritual. Six Brahmins were employed to attend the goddess and twenty-one other temple servants of other castes were retained on the Gaekwad’s payroll

The elite Brahmin community, while acknowledging the power of the goddess, were always uncomfortable with the rituals and practices that occurred there. Her legends offered evidence of practices that were clearly repulsive to the new caretakers – animal sacrifice always occurred here, and many rituals carried Muslim influences and gender-bending attributes. Furthermore, as Samira Shiekh writes:

The temple was also associated with theatrical performances such as bhavai, which were staged in the outer halls of the temple. Reformers such as Rammohanray Desai were appalled by the lewdness of bhavai performed at the temple in the 1930s and campaigned to have performances banned from the premise.

The new construction seems yet another attempt to ‘civilize’ and normalizing the a goddess that just refuses to be either. These attempts to redefine her story, and to bring her into the broader, uniform pattern of an official ‘Hinduism’ reflect a continuing discomfort with her un-gendered, uncomfortable and uncontrollable values, ideals, meanings and influences. The largest battles to control her were of course textual and mythical. Her appeal to a wide range of people – mostly non-Brahmin, has meant that, as Samira Sheikh points out, the:

…narratives about the goddess arise out of local relations between Rajputs, Bhils, Kolis, Marathas, Brahmins and Muslims, and of course the hijadas. There are many variations and modulations in these narratives, depending upon who does the telling. The tension between those who seek to reform and those who seek to retain has introduced new variants to the old stories, and added meanings that are only intelligible to those who understand the frontier politics of the region.

One group defined her to have excellent Puranic credentials, but this was challenged as recently as the 1930s when new myths of her origins were offered. It was claimed that Bahuchara, one of three daughter of the court poet Kathiawad and Deval – who herself was an incarnation of a goddess, was traveling with her sisters to meet her father when she is raped/killed near the town of Shankalpur by a bandit called Bapaiya. Before dying she commits tragu (a ritual to cut off the breasts and place a curse on another) and places a curse of Bapaiya turning him into an eunuch, a state that he can only overcome by starting a temple in Bahuchara’s name and worshipping her there. She also promises that any eunuch who stays at the temple dressed as a woman will find salvation from this life and place in her divine abode. Bapaiya spent his entire life worshipping her.

This legend contradicts the ones that link her to the Puranic texts, and claim her as one of the three Shakti pithas in Gujarat. The elite textual accounts even attempt to link her to the story of Krishna, by suggesting that she was an infant born to Yashoda who was exchanged for Krishna. But it was the poet Vallabha, a great devotee of the goddess, who did the most to make her ‘respectable’ and as Sheikh points out:

…re-invent or ‘engender’ the goddess as a respectable, Puranic manifestation of trans-regional Shakti. He also made the goddess acceptable to Vaishnavas, at a time when Krishnaite Vaishnavism was on the rise in late-Mughal Gujarat.

Other legends around the goddess have woven India’s Muslims into her world as well. A legend speaks of how Arab travellers passing through the town trapped, killed and ate cocks that they found near the temple. But a single-eyed cock managed to escape and told of the incident to the goddess. She immediately ordered the cock to crow, as it did so, the previously killed cocks inside the stomachs of the Arab travellers burst from their stomachs and returned to life. It has since been a tradition, particularly amongst the Muslims who come here, to release cocks in honor of the goddess. A number of them can be seen running free in the courtyard of the temple itself.

The temple sits in the middle of a small fortress, that carries the complete marks of an Indo-Islamic structure. In fact, the original dharamshala built by Manajirao Gaikwad in the 18th century is still intact, and retains its complete Mughal-era architectural elements and influences. The site had the constant attention of robbers and dacoits and the fort was constructed, complete with three large gates and towers to protect it. Inside were constructed a dharamshala, administrative offices, a school, a police station, a dispensary and a tank for ablutions. Today markets line the streets leading up to each of the three gates, with vendors selling the usual array of kitsch, memorabilia, snacks and knickknacks. Stern looking policemen sit at each of the gates, though they appear largely indifferent to the people going in and out. The entire place has a lovely, festive feel, as pilgrims arrive at all times of the day.

As I look over to the decaying walls of the fort, the pealing blue paint the covers the walls of the dharamshala and the sparkling new stone of the temple itself I can’t help but think that a determined, intentional carelessness towards the past is being exercised, while a meticulously and generously financed new ‘Hindu’ future is being constructed.The pounding of hammers against stone felt like the sounds of wounds being inflicted against a heritage that apparently no longer appeals, or can no longer be tolerated. Some of the original structures of course do remain. The shrine complex also contains shrines to deities such as Sahariya Mahadev, Nilakantha Mahadev and Kachroliya Hanuman. There are also memorials to some of the most passionate of the goddesses followers like Dada Narsinh Vir and the eighteenth-century poet, Vallabha Bhatta.

Today the power of the goddess to resist her homogenization, and incorporation into an official Hinduism is her true test. There is some hope that even this latest architectural attempt at homogenization will fail, as have previous such attempts. As Samira Sheikh reminds us:

But these elites have been…unable to pin singular, consistent meanings to the shrine and thus to render it transportable outside its immediate milieu. The shrine’s meanings continue to be elusive, un-gendered, unanchored. Although the custodians of the shrine have had competing sets of values, it is the continuing tension between these strands that is integral to the success of the temple. It is also in the mechanics of such popular religiosity, however so restricted, ambiguous and culturally confined, that we discern the particularities of Gujarati politics and religious adherence.

A Pandit at the temple that I spoke to said that Muslims still come to the temple and release cocks to receive the goddesses’ blessings. Historically the Kamalias, dressed partly as women and bearing Muslim rituals, and the hijadas (eunuchs) have been her most devoted servants. For the hijadas, many of whom are Muslim are a despised and mocked community in South Asia, she is a protector. But I wondered for how much longer would they be welcome here. But perhaps, as is often the case in India, the legends will survive even this most recent assault, and that the memory of this community will overcome the new narratives being constructed.

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In Just Fun Stuff, Musings On Confusions on April 14, 2011 at 11:32 am

Thanks to TruthDig

The Idea Of India Project Update: Personal Diary Entry: Seeing Myself In Another

In The Idea Of India Project on April 9, 2011 at 9:30 pm

Rasa (9 Moods Of South Asian Dance) By Siona Benjamin

Rasa (9 Moods Of South Asian Dance) By Siona Benjamin

I was introduced to Siona Benjamin by a friend at a conference and despite shaking her hand, holding her eyes while speaking my name, and acknowledging her presence in front of me with a gentlemanly nod,  I never really saw or met her.

Thinking back I realize how often I can meet people and yet never really meet them. What I mean is that quite frequently most people I come across are like leaves carried past on a breeze – occasionally brushing up against me to make their presence felt, but never such that I give them a lot of attention and are always quickly forgotten. And despite being aware of the many possibilities and imaginations lost in meetings casually and indifferently conducted, I can’t seem to break this pattern of behavior.

Siona Benjamin had the possibility of being a leaf blowing past my life. And then I heard her speak.

We happened to be on a panel together at a conference organized for Fulbright scholars. I had spent the previous twenty-four hours completely absorbed in working through the specifics of my own presentation, and had been working and reworking the words in my head to make sure that my audience was able to appreciate the scope and intent of my work in India.

The moderator had introduced her to the audience in the auditorium as an Indian Jewish artist currently in India researching her heritage and history. When I had met her the previous afternoon I had the impression of a reticent woman, shy and somewhat uncomfortable in the surroundings of the upscale hotel the conference was being held in. I had not paid her much attention to her after that first introduction, and frankly had not even bothered to read her biographical and professional details that were available to me on a handout the moderator had handed to me earlier.

As she stepped up to the podium to begin her presentation I applauded with the rest of the audience, but my attention and thoughts were focused on the notes for my own presentation. I had already determined, based on previous experience of course, that what would follow would be a conventional presentation where an artist simply shows some of her work up on the screen and simply explains the ideas that inform it. The panel presenters were artists working on subjects related to Indian identity, history and culture, using various techniques and mediums to explore these issues. It promised to be a pretty predictable talk.

Or so I thought.

As Siona carefully, meticulously and with great gravity, spoke about the intent and ideals that informed her works, I inexorably found myself being pulled away from myself and towards the world she was drawing for us. My mind moved away from what was in front of me, and in my notebooks, and towards what was being shown on the screen, and the language being used to explain it.

Finding Home No. 73 (Fereshteh) "Miriam" Siona Benjamin

Finding Home No. 73 (Fereshteh) "Miriam" Siona Benjamin

I realized that something remarkable and beautiful was making itself present. My mind cleared itself, my ears that previously had been hearing sounds, now began to hear words:

I am an artist originally from Bombay, India, of Bene Israel Jewish descent. My work reflects my background and the transition between my old and new worlds. Having grown up in a predominantly Hindu and Muslim society, having been educated in Catholic and Zoroastrian schools, having been raised Jewish and now living in America, I have always had to reflect upon the cultural boundary zones in which I have lived. In this transcultural America I feel a strong need to make art that will speak to my audience of our similarities, not our differences as I feel I can contribute to a much-needed “repair” (Tikkun) through my art. I would like my audience to re-evaluate their notions and concepts about identity and race, thus understanding that such misconceptions could lead to racism, hate and war. (From Siona’s personal statement)

She drew me into her world with her words, and into the complexity and sheer creative universe of her works. And when she showed herself in blue, I finally began to understand.

Finding Home No. 89 'Vashti' By Siona Benjamin

Finding Home No. 89 'Vashti' By Siona Benjamin

Blue is a Jewish woman of color.

Blue is the soul that may be searching for a home, but realizes that there may not be a single place to call home, or even a single, pure self waiting to be discovered.

Blue is the liberation that comes from seeing that we are many things, in many places, in many moments and all at the same time.

Finding Home No. 74 (Fereshta) "Lilith" By Siona Benjamin

Finding Home No. 74 (Fereshta) "Lilith" By Siona Benjamin

In her essay ‘Blue Like Me’ published in From Word to Canvas: Appropriations of Myth in Women’s Aesthetic Production (Ed.) V.G. Julie Rajan and Sanja Bahun-Radunović, Siona pointed out that:

I am also … an American artist, as the environment in which I live inspires me. It is sometimes discouraging, though, when I am asked for information about the Jews of India… to ground me in a single valid category, in my Indian/Asian/Jewishness or my Indian/Asian/Americanness. Similarly the Jewish world has been sometimes puzzled by the hybridism of images of Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, and Jewish tradition in my work. Since the work does not fit into the typical Ashkenazi Jewish category, it becomes difficult to digest and process the images.

The desperation of the institutions of nationalism, academia, society and the culture industry to ‘categorize’ along pure,explicit lines, is perhaps one of the singular more devastating acts of violence against the individual. In the same piece Siona argued how her work remained an act of resistance and a determined refusal to surrender to the easy, yet devastating, erasures that our overly bureaucratic, xenophobic and myopic modernity demands of us:

This is exactly what interests me in de-categorizing my work. These are persistent issues that disturb me, so I choose to present them. I do not wish to be a token artist for any one category, as tribal impulses and nationalism are deeply ingrained in us and too easy to assume. Because of the lack of tribal security and comfort, I (as an artistic outsider) pursue special insights into this situation. This is the reason why I have always been on a quest for making hybrid images or characters in my work, a sort of universal being that comes from one point of view but that leads the viewer to unexpected destinations.

As she spoke – in a voice that implored, without pleading, insisted without demanding, and carried conviction without dogmatism, I heard the explanations and justifications of all that I had and have been attempting with my own work. I found myself disappearing, transforming, and re-emerging in front of my own eyes, reflected in this artist who was, a mere 24 hour earlier, invisible to me and had now become a mirror.