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The Idea Of India Project Update: A Temple Where I Begin To Understand That Neither Hindu Nor Muslim Means What We May Believe

In The Idea Of India Project on June 23, 2011 at 2:56 pm

The Hindu temple contains two shrines, both to men who were once Muslims. As I write last statement this I realize that the two religious categories mentioned here – Hindu and Muslim actually make little sense. The fact remains that neither the word Hindu nor the word Muslim used here describes a set of clear, precise, differentiated, and orthodox ideas of the two religions. Here, in the village of Deoli, deep in the heart of Eastern Maharashtra where I have been traveling for some weeks, one comes face to face with the realization that these definitional categories hide more than they reveal.

The Shrine Of Miranath, Deoli Maharashtra

More importantly, that by labeling someone as Muslim or Hindu tells us almost nothing about their life, values, experiences and outlook. It may not even tell us that they are followers of even the basic and simple tenets of the religion. And most importantly, it does not tell us how the lived practice of the religion was influenced, physically, emotionally, intellectually and psychologically, by the other religious practices occurring close by. These categories idealize and mislead. They lie.

Muslim modernists have remained uncomfortable with the complexity, fluidity and the indigenous nature of South Asian Islam. It is a discomfort that gives shape to a concerted effort on the part of the orthodox to eradicate any and all variations to the ‘orthodox’ ideas of the religion largely imported from what is seen to be the ‘true’ place of Islam – the Middle East. Oddly, this prioritizing of the alien in fact negates the lived practice of the majority of the world’s Muslims in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia. It takes the popular, the larger, the more complex, the genuinely regional and attempts to cleanse it and reject it. What makes us uniquely South Asian Muslims is precisely what the modernists and reformists reject most vehemently. Their attacks of ‘deviations’ and ‘heretics’, their rejection of the shrines of saints, and regional practices with direct and clear influences of India’s pre-Islamic past e.g the nerchas of the Mapila Muslims of Kerala, are a reflection of these attempts at erasure.

The category of Hindu is even more complex, as it is meant to incorporate into it thousands of years of religious practice, with thousands of different deities and rituals, none of which can effectively be lumped under any one title. In fact, the word Hindu was once associated with all those people who practiced any faith outside the regions main religions like Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Sikhism and so on. But Hinduism as we know it today, the official, orthodox variety is a product of 19th century reform movements. Pankaj Mishra argued this powerfully in an essay called The Invenstion Of The Hindu argued that there was:

…no such thing as Hinduism before the British invented the hold all category in the early nineteenth century, and made India seem the home of a “world religion” as organised and theologically coherent as Christianity and Islam. The concepts of a “world religion” and “religion” as we know them now, emerged during the late 18th and early 19th century, as objects of academic study, at a time of widespread secularisation in western Europe…But academic study of any kind imposes its own boundaries upon the subject. It actually creates the subject while bringing it within the realm of the intellect. The early European scholars of religion labelled everything; they organized disparate religious practices into one system, and literally brought into being such world religions as Hinduism and Buddhism.

Hinduism’s boundaries, once near infinite, being constricted by, as Ashia Nandy has argued, the values and priorities of Brahmanical, middle-class, westernizing Indians to their uprooting, cultural and geographical. Their reforms were, and remain, a direct criticism of Hinduism as it is lived and practiced across this land. As Nandy states in his essay ‘The Twilight of Certitudes’ in his work Bonfire of Creeds:

The votaries of Hindutva (modern Hindu nationalism) will celebrate the death of Hinduism. For they have all along felt embarassed and humiliated by Hinduism as it is. Hindutva is meant for those whose Hinduism has worn off. It is a ware meant for the supermarket of global mass cuture where all religions are available in their consumable forms, neatly packaged for buyers…To those who live in Hinduism, Hindutva is one of those pathologies that periodically afflict a faith. Hinduism has…handled many such pathologies; it still retains the capacity…to handle one more. (page 129)

Nandy’s argument is very simple: Hindu modernists were deeply anti-Hinduism, going so far as to be embarrassed of its millions of gods and their rather human like frailties and inconsistencies. As Nandy points in another essay called ‘A Report on the Present State of Health of the Gods’ again in Bonfire of Creeds that:

…if you read the literature of Hindutva you will find a systematic, consistent and often direct attack on Hindu gods and goddesses. Most stalwarts of Hindutva have not been interested in Hindu religion and have said so openly. Their tolerance towards the rituals and myths of their faith have even been lower. Many of them have come to Hindutva as a reaction to everyday, vernacular Hinduism.

And this vagueness of religious definition, this ‘fuzziness’ of religious practice and sense of identity, as Kaviraj has argued, did not allow for hard separation of beliefs into categories of religion as those found on British period census forms. Kumar Suresh Singh’s survey of Indian communities showed that hundreds of communities can be classified as having more than one religion. That there were at least 116 communities that are both Hindu and Christian and at least 35 that are Hindu and Muslim. Again, the definitions Muslim and Christian and Hindu remain problematic in this idea i.e. that there are no concrete definitions of these terms to begin with. We can only loosely approximate their meaning and boundaries in identity and cultural terms.

Both Hindu and Muslim modernists share their revulsion of the vernacular practices of their faiths. They both tried to tear down the lived faiths. As Pankaj Mishra points out,

Only a tiny minority of upper-caste Indians had known much about the Bhagavad-Gita or the Vedas until the eighteenth century when they were translated by British scholars and then presented as sacred texts from the paradisiacal age of something called “Hinduism.” in the nineteenth century, movements dedicated to reforming Hinduism and recovering its lost glory grew very rapidly. The inspiration or rhetoric of these neo-Hindu movements might have seemed archaic. In fact, they were largely inspired by the ideas of progress and development that British utilitarians and Christian missionaries aggressively promoted in India.

As I stand here at this shrine to a man who was born a Muslim and later adopt as a Hindu guru, these thoughts run through my head. Miranath was born a Muslim but adopted Viswanath Maharaj, a Brahmin, as his guide and teacher. I am reminded of the story of the great Indian poet Kabir, who too was born a Muslim, but raised, educated and nurtured under a Hindu guru. The temple also contains a shrine to a Muslim friend of Miranath, the saint Dina Shahwali. The devotees who flock here for puja, and the thousands who congregate for the annual mela, are largely Hindus. Their devotion to a man whose identity, ideas of faith and spirituality, trespass boundaries of accepted religions, reflects a cultural continuity that defies the modernist definitions and categorization. They represent a necessary, alive and passionate faith that is not transcribed in books, or sustained through mass campaigns of control and direction.

It is here that one begins to understand that the census like precision of categories such as Muslim or Hindu make little sense and do little to help us understand the ease with which these men, and this community transcended the boundaries between faith. It is as Farina Mir, Associate Professor at the University of Michigan, keeps reminding me, that we can’t begin to understand such trespassing of faiths by assuming the clarity and precision of categories such as Muslim or Hindu. Here, standing outside this unique temple to a Muslim man, in this small village of Deoli on the outskirts of the town of Wardha in Eastern Maharashtra, I am beginning to understand her argument.

The Facing Change Collective And Why It Is Not Like The Farm Security Administration

In Photography, The Daily Discussion on June 22, 2011 at 8:59 am

A new photographer’s collective takes on America’s social deprivations and economic struggles. Facing Change describes itself as a non-profit collective of dedicated photojournalists and writers coming together to explore America and to build a forum to chart its future.

They have recently announced a collaboration with the Library of Congress. My friends at the wonderful dvafoto recently wrote about this. The official Library of Congress statement announcing the collaboration likened the efforts of this new generation of American photographer’s work, to that of an earlier, justifiably famous, group of photographers who worked for what was then called the Farm Security Administration. It said that:

Facing Change … is a contemporary counterpart to the work done in the 1930s and 1940s by photographers employed by the Farm Security Administration, a federal project that documented the experiences of Americans at all economic levels during the Great Depression and World War II.

I respectfully disagree.

You see, the words ‘…a federal project‘ in the statement above caught my eye. These three words tell us so much about how we are no longer in the social, political and cultural world of the 1930s, and how in fact, this new group of talented and committed photographers faces a challenge far greater than anything the FSA group of photographers ever did.

The FSA efforts involved a group of photographers who went on to make some of the most iconic images of America in the depression years. The works they produced went on to influence almost every photographer who came later, and how issues of poverty, famine, and social deprivation were depicted for decades to come. Some would argue that the visual language they created remains the definitive measure of how such issues and stories need to be depicted. Photographers like Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, and many others, under the guidance of Roy Stryker, the FSA information division, set out to show America to Americans. The works produced by the FSA photographers remains a crucial if not one of the most significant photographic documents of American history if not photographic history. 

But the Farm Security Administration’s photographic program was a government supported project, with the explicit aim of creating a visual documentation of the conditions of Americans, and providing a powerful argument for the social and institutions changed that would enable the New Deal to be pushed through. It was part of a number of programs tried out by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, a federal program. Roy Stryker, the director of FSA’s photographic documentary effort, was a man who had more than a little influence on how the photographers worked in the field. More importantly, he was a Columbia University trained economist, with a stark understanding of how photography and economics can work together to make specific points. In fact, he had used photography in his work economic works. His involvement with this group of photographers was close and immediate. He worked with them on everything from the stories they covered, to the themes they needed to explore. He ensured that America’s publications made their pages available for the presentation of this work. He knew what he was looking for, and his photographers knew the kinds of works that had to be produced to make the political argument Roosevelt’s government was trying to make as it fought to push through radical new legislation that would lead to the New Deal.

Few remember the radical and transformative effect and intent of the New Deal. It’s a subject that warrants an entirely separate post. Suffice it to say, that it was a period of concentrated and determined federal intervention to chart a new economic and social course for American. It gave birth to such important programs as Social Security Systems, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the (now largely castrated but more needed than ever) Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). It also gave birth to the unique Works Progress Administration (WPA) which supported artists, writers, painters, and other creative individuals with subsidies and commissions.

The publication world was also very different. The photographic works produced received massive publication support. Stryker used the media, and the media collaborated closely with him by giving the stories being produced about American’s economic and human struggles mass coverage. It was a time when media offered stories and images of change, confronting the citizens of the country with a view of their fellow citizens that was aimed to moving them to action.

It was also a time of some of the greatest American literature – Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, E Wilson, West to name just a few. The Federal Writers Program was in effect – yet another federal effort to raise awareness of the plight of the Americans and the political, legislative and economic changes that had to be implemented to lift the country from its economic depths. Steinbeck, Aiken, Bellow, Cheever, Ellison, Terkel, Wright, West were just some of the amazing writers who worked for this program.

It was a world – political, cultural, artistic, and social, completely different from what we face in American today. The FSA photographers were producing works in a political and social atmosphere that was supporting their projects, responsive to their depiction of America, anxious to read and understand it through a news media that was anxious to publish it. It was a time when there were politicians, academics, artists, writers, painters, editors, journalists, photographers, house wives, congressmen and women, social workers, and ordinary citizens who believed in social change, in radical involvement of government in directing and building the nation, on the responsibility of the individual to the collective.

We no longer live in that world. The photographers of Facing Change must face an America that is politically and culturally the polar opposite of the one the FSA photographers faced. The Facing Change effort is being initiated in a time when there is little or no political support for social welfare intervention or federal focus on the needs of America’s working class. It is a time of the individual over the public. It is a time of wealth over welfare. It is a time of the corporate elite, whose interests are overwhelmingly served by our political leaders and done so at the overt detriment of our ordinary citizens. It is a time when our media outlets are busy producing entertainment and voyeurism, refusing to see their responsibility to the citizenry and the Republic. Owned largely by corporations, or trading on the stock exchanges, our news papers and news magazines are beholden to the marketplace priorities of their owners, and the profit/return algorithms of their accountants. In their pages the intolerable, not-so-beautiful American working class can only spoil the appeal of the Photoshop-perfect fashion models and always-smiling American mall shopper. In their pages today, they justify trillions for wars, while insisting further cuts for programs for our citizens. It is a time when our political leaders are more interested in games of violence, racism, petty posturing and cozying up to corporate power. It is a time when citizen intervention in government affairs or a demand for accountability of our leaders, is considered treason. It is an American whose collective idea of itself is not the struggling working class, but the individual corporate elite, jet-setting across the globe, consuming at the boutiques of SoHo, New York, and partaking of the consumerist pleasures and luxuries that only excess money and excess acquisitiveness can offer. It is an America where we no longer produce important writers, merely navel gazing ones. Just look at the collective works of the modern giants of American literature like Roth, Updike, DeLillo, Pynchon and you will see writers who refuse to engage with American realities and American social concerns. They are just in a world of their own, completely insular, and completely indifferent.

This is a new America.

Unlike the FSA, which was a program sanctioned and supported at the highest levels of government that consisted of people attempted radical social and economic change in a struggling America, Facing Change is largely a grass-roots efforts in an atmosphere of the highest level of government indifference and impotency in the face of a struggling America. In many ways I believe Facing Change may be the braver effort given the world in which it has been given birth, and the world into which it must now fight to have its works seen, published, promoted, discussed and acted on. The FSA was near propaganda, while Facing Change is activism, and hence more democratic, and in a political world that is increasingly less democratic, a more difficult effort.

So I will, as I said before, respectfully disagree with the Library of Congress. The importance and relevance of photography comes from the social and political context in which it is produced. Mere documentation does not make it important. It can make it a record, but it cannot make it relevant. When Helena Zinken of the Library of Congress states that “we feel confident that t…he documentation provided in these contemporary photographs will be treasured by historians, photographers and the public—much as the FSA collection, which arrived newly minted back in the 1940s, is treasured by all those groups today,” she forgets that it was not documents of history alone that the FSA set out to produce, but documents of immediate political and social change. That the importance of the FSA effort was in its intent, its use, and its impact on political, economic, and social realities of America. It changed the world we lived in and we never looked back.

That impact on the world is what made FSA the amazing and important effort that it is now rightfully seen to be. Whether Facing Change becomes that amazing and important effort, the equivalent of the FSA, is less a matter of photographic skill and documentation, but about the ways in which we can work to link their stories and images to political action. This is the key challenge of the moment, and the Library of Congress can do much more I believe to help make this happen. This work has to transform political will in an America where political will is today confused with political wealth.

This is a brave project, and it is a talented group of photographers. I can’t think of a better collective with a stronger commitment to the nation and her citizens. Their individual works point to their commitment and determination. I can only wish them well, and say that I write this post out of respect for what they are trying to do, and to remind us that they are doing it against some of the greatest odds we as citizens have ever faced. The challenges they will encounter in getting their works to make a difference, is the same challenge we citizens face today in getting our politicians to give a damn about our public and social welfare.

I wish the photographers of Facing Change all the luck in the world. Theirs is not an enviable task.

The Afghan War Now On The Menu Or What Happens If You Stick Your Head Really Far Up Your A**

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Journalism, Musings On Confusions, Our Wars on June 19, 2011 at 5:24 pm

MREs — Meals Ready to Eat — photos of everything on the menu for soliders from many different cultures who are all fighting in Afghanistan © Ashley Gilbertson / VII Network via Lens Culture

The embedded photojournalist is now so bored that he is photographing food. You can see the entire piece by clicking on the image above.

And this at a moment when civilians continue to die in an unjust war, an illegal war, and an absolutely unnecessary one. Things are so bad that our erstwhile puppet, a one Mr. Hamid Karzai, is complaining about it and doing it loudly. But of course, as Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, such expression of ‘freedom’ are not for the people we are apparently there to ‘free’.

No, it is best that we continue to use our media to repaint this bloody, shoddy and shameless military frat-party as some noble, casual, innocent, benign dinner party. I hate to say this, but someone has to call such rubbish work precisely what it is: rubbish.

Our cameras, and hence our society’s eyes, are turned to the banal and seriously ludicrous. Perhaps I will say nothing more than to counter-point this fine, artistic presentation of food with this also very fine, journalistic presentation of the consequences of once the food has been digested – the waste that we do not want to look at.

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In a fine piece called The Magic Realism Of Body CountsMohammad Idress Ahmad pointed out:

At the end of 2009, the Pakistani daily Dawn calculated that, of the 708 people killed in 44 drone attacks that year, only 5 were known militants. Earlier that year, The News, Pakistan’s other major English-language daily, had calculated that between January 14, 2006, and April 8, 2009, 60 drone attacks killed 701 people – of whom only 14 were known militants.

This is only the tip of the ice-berg. We don’t want to think about what is happening inside Afghanistan itself where no journalists or other institutions have bothered to keep count. To say nothing about the criminality, corruption, and sheer waste that are the lives of the people of Afghanistan under our ‘gourmet’ occupation has been completely erased from our view. That Afghanistan remains, after over 10 years of an American presence and an American controlled, and mind you, illegitimate, puppet government, on the most dangerous country for the very Afghan women we apparently went to liberate and stay there to protect, is simply shameful.

Trust Law Graphic

This is under our benign watch. This is after eleven years of an American style Mc-democracy and its only getting worse. And yet none of the daily socio-economic pathologies of Afghanistan makes it to us out here in the ‘civilized’ world. It is simply erased from our eyes because we are too busy cozying up to our ‘boys and girls’ and studying the menu!

In the face of atrocities, killings, maiming, torture, indefinite incarcerations and a general atmosphere of repression and military occupation, it is shocking that individuals, publications and institutions think that works such as this is worthy of production, publication and promotion. As a citizen of a country involved in multiple illegal and brutals wars, and where we avoid a serious discussion about the consequences of these wars for the people we are waging them for and against, and the legality them, this kind of work only comes as yet another slap in the face leaving me feeling mocked and humiliated.

I mean, we aren’t even trying to be seriously anymore. There are photographer’s producing stories about the joys of post-war Iraq, in complete denial of the psychotic reality of the ‘client’ state that we have created there. This is sheer and simple obfuscation if not blatant propaganda. These are serious war, with massive human and social consequences, to say nothing about devastation and death, and we just don’t give a damn! Why even go! Why not just do a different story, but one at least that is real, and has meaning, and reflects a genuine intellect and critical engagement. Why bother to do this?

This is not even serious anymore.

Delhi Gets A Major Photo Festival And It Is Inviting Submissions

In Just Fun Stuff, Photography, Photography Workshop, The Daily Discussion on June 15, 2011 at 3:55 pm

Delhi gets its first major photo festival, and they are inviting submissions. The final pieces are still being put together, including the list of workshops and seminars so I will not say much more than that.

The organizers have been very generous and invited me to present my work from India, focusing on how the project idea came about, how I have pursued it over the last three years, where I have sought funding for it, and how it is being executed in the field. I have also been asked to present a discussion with two other photographers (the list is being finalized) on how to conceive, propose, fund, plan, structure and execute long-term photography projects. The focus of the seminar will be on new and non-traditional ways of finding support and the three participating photographers will talk about their experiences with their own projects. Finally, I have also promised to make myself available for random meetings under various trees and stairwells of the India Habitat Center (the site of the festival) for those who wish to engage in a more one-on-one discussion about their projects, portfolios or even their personal life. Its just the kind of guy I am.

As submissions are still being accepted, I encourage everyone to send in their works. This is the festival’s first year, but nevertheless I am confident that it will be quite a production and just simply a fun event to participate in. Given the breath of works being produced in India, it promises to reveal new talent, and surprising new stories from a country everyone thinks they know, and yet which never fails to surprise them.


The Idea Of India Project Update: The Salvation Of The Lunatic

In The Idea Of India Project on June 15, 2011 at 11:08 am

His clairvoyance resulted in his being consigned to a lunatic asylum where he languished for nearly sixteen years. The news of his miracles however spread far and wide and the king Raghoji Rao, a devote Hindu who also become a devotee, finally ordered his release. Today his shrine on the outskirts of the town of Nagpur is perhaps the most well-known sacred site in the region of Vidharba in Eastern Maharashtra.

But it is no longer a solitary shrine. As I walk around in the marketplace that has grown up around the central tomb, I come across a number of smaller tombs and shrines. Some are fairly large structures and are devoted to the close friends and relatives of Tajuddin Baba. Others smaller structures are for those who were devoted to the Baba and had given their lives in his service. Hundreds of people mill about what can only be described as a small village, complete with convenience stores and the usual set of shops selling flowers, chadors, knick knacks, and audio and video products devoted to the story of the saint.

One also comes across a number of holy men who have carved out small homes in various corners of buildings and stores. A number of them have lived here for years – Rehmat Bab an elderly man I met had been sitting in the same spot for over seventeen years. His only movements was from his bed – basically a small mattress stuck into a hole in the wall, and the carpet just outside it. There he received followers of all faiths and spoke to them, gently advising and blessing them. No doubt there will be a small tomb in his name when he passes away.

I am now collecting audio and video materials depicting the saints miracles. There is consistency to the stories that seem to grow around the saints – about battles against flesh-eating demons, the procurement of water, the curing of the ill and so on. Where they originate from few can remember. Perhaps the thousands of wandering mystics and holy men that traverse these regions carry them in their stories. I am not sure if anyone has investigated the origins of these folk legends. Perhaps because they can’t be corralled into our idea of ‘good’ history, they have simply languished in the hearts and narratives of the locals.

Perhaps it is best to leave them there for fear of reducing them to merely stories. Here at a shrine like Tajuddin Baba’s you can see people standing in front of TV screens watching the story of the saint acted out in made-for-DVD dramas. Poor production and amateurish acting seems to take nothing away from the intensity of the viewing experience. The devotees stand in front of the video stalls and stare in disbelieve and listen in belief. These legends have meaning, and most importantly, they offer hope for cures and possibilities that life may not suggest. To the millions who come to this shrine and watch these stories, this site is a source of salvation, of hope and of strength. These legends are real, and they are repeated between themselves as facts. You can sit at a tea stall and listen to groups of men and women discussing the legends as if they had seen them with their own eyes. They believe. And perhaps they do because it is the means to confront the deprivations of life, and to hold true to the belief that when there is no one else left, the saints will always be with you. Maybe this is all that the legends also offer; a promise that you are not alone and that greater forces will stand with you in times of trouble. In this they are even more important, even more relevant, than history. They are salvation.

Silent No Longer Or Photojournalists Take On Poverty In America

In Journalism, Photography, The Daily Discussion on June 12, 2011 at 7:21 am

In a post titled The Strange Silence Of The Conscience that I wrote over a year ago I lamented that:

As I look across the recent photojournalism awards, and scan for works in newspaper websites, I see a dearth of serious and committed interest in the hollowing out of America. There are a few stories here and there, a large number based on news reports about the health care debate and the foreclosure crisis. Matt Black has been working away with his usual tenacity and dedication. But this is far, far more than about a news blip, or a protest march, or the foreclosure of a home or two. It is about a fundamental surrender of government and national responsibility towards the very citizens both are supposed to serve. It’s about finding ourselves in this strange, irresponsible, unconscionable and immoral place in history where we can approve billions for foreign wars – illegal, unjust and paranoid as they are, and yet fight tooth and nail to stop even pennies for the care of our own.

Pointing to a series of social and economic statistics,I argued that the silence of the photographers was confusing and disappointing. There just did not seem to be as many people looking back at ourselves, at what was happening at home, while so many were running into the coddling embrace of our military to help depict illegal wars and war crimes as campaigns of liberation and freedom. We seem to have an infinite pool of financial and legislative resources to throw at wars, the security state, the handful of financial goons on Wall Street and its cohorts.

So it is with some pleasure and surprise that I learned about the collective work of the photographers Danny Wilcox Frazier, Jon Lowenstein, Brenda Ann Kenneally, Eli Reed, Andrew Lichtenstein, Richard Sennott, Steve Liss and Stephen Shames have come together to produce the project AmericanPoverty.org. And I can’t be happier to be proven wrong.

The shamelessness of an elected administration, one under the leadership of a man we pinned so many hopes on, that continues to pursue fantasies of global domination, regime change and Sisyphean attempts to eliminate various proper nouns while our citizens face dire choices and futures is simply staggering. These duffers (I have to thank the Pakistani writer/journalist Mohammed Hanif for reminding me of this fine word) are not only irresponsible, immoral and reprehensible, but reflect the stupidity of public politics and government that has become our modern reality.

It is simply unconscionable to allow such disparity, inequality and injustice to exist within our borders. It is unconscionable that this social and economic deprivation is not the only issue our politicians and power mavens are talking about. But it is clear that there is a direct correlation between the increasing resort to a rhetoric of fear and paranoia, and the abnegation of responsibility towards our citizenry that most all politicians now demonstrate. It isn’t a lack of ideas  – even a cursory look at the recent writings of Paul Krugman or Joseph Stiglitz or even the more conservative Robert Reich will reveal, but a lack of interest. I say lack of interest rather than lack of will because it is clear that money, greed, narcissism and careerism are the main determinants of our political landscape today.

This is a brave effort on the part of this photographers collective. It is an important effort. And I think that is what I most like about the work. It is important. It is important in that it is attempting to create a dialogue that does not exist in our mainstream ideas of our selves. It is important because too often we are told that poverty is penance, and not a manufactured social consequence of policies and priorities. Since the years of the hideous Bill Clinton – a man who most still fail to realize was the most Republican President we ever had, we have been brow beaten into accepting that the poor are the cause of their own deprivation, thus allowing our policy makers off the hook for supporting social, economic, corporate and political institutions that manufacture and sustain poverty amongst certain segments of our society.

Poverty is manufactured. It is a construction of society. It is made. I know this from my work in Pakistan, Haiti, India and other nations where we have come to expect poverty. So it is wonderful to see a group of talented and clearly passionate photographers, with deep connections within the communities they are documenting, attempting to raise these realities and present them to us. And possibly help us realize that there are connections that have to be made between our policies in Washington D.C. and our poverty in Washington D.C. and elsewhere. Look at these stories and tell me that it is acceptable that we continue to fund wars (note, we are escalating Libya and Yemen as I write this!), bail-out criminal and irresponsible corporations, cut crucial educational funds and yet turn to our own citizens and say ‘Hey, its your fault and if we help you we will set a bad precedence of dependency!’ Our social welfare programs for corporate interests retain their trillions of dollars, while our social welfare programs for our citizens continue to be cut each week.

This cannot continue.

The Idea Of India Project Update: The Monsoon Washes Me To Maharashtra’s Eastern Horizons

In The Idea Of India Project on June 11, 2011 at 12:37 pm

The monsoon came with the shock of a slap, the walls of rain ensuring that I was left staring out of my hotel window for nearly three days straight. And though beautiful, and reminiscent of the joys of childhood, the monsoon rains for a photographer are nothing but a dead stop. With life in the cities coming to a near stand still, oceans of water covering almost all open ground and paved roads, the possibilities of the found photograph become limited. Kerala’s monsoon however imbues it with a remarkably raw beauty – the winds pull at the palms, ocean tears at the shores, dark, ominous clouds dance across the horizon and the entire world is painted in a subtle blue/gray. But its a beauty that alienates the photographer as it steals the light, the colors and the community.

So I find myself heading to the drier, hotter and more sun-baked shores of Eastern Maharashtra. Specifically, I am heading to Nagpur – headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the right-wing Hindu nationalist and militant group. There is also a very strong Shiv Sena presence here.  Maharashtra has been the region that a number of right-wing religious parties have drawn their roots from. I am not confident enough to state why this may be so, but I was reminded of something that Ashis Nandy wrote in an essay called “Final Encounter” where he discusses Gandhi and his killer Godse and the broader social and political world that collaborated in Gandhi’s assassination. Nandy, pointing out that Godse was from Maharashtra, states:

…Godse and all his associates except one came from Maharashtra, a region where Brahmanic dominance was particularly strong. He also happened to be from Poona, the unofficial capital of traditional Maharashtra and a city renowned for its old-style scholarship and for the rich, complex culture which the high-status Chitpavan or Konkanath Brahmins had built there…The Maharashtrian Brahminic elite also had a long history of struggle against the Muslim rulers of India in the 17th century and 18th centuries…and…by the 20th century the Maharashtraian Brahmins had reinterpreted their history in terms of the needs of Hindu nationalism. They saw themselves as the upholders of a tradition of Hindu resistance against the Muslim occupation of India. It was on this reconstructed and self-created tradition that a part of the Maharashtrian elite built up their anti-British nationalism. (Nandy, A Bonfire Of Creeds, Page 71)

Nandy uses this background to build his argument that Gandhi’s innovations – intellectual, spiritual, emotional and political were a threat to the given order of society, and in particular to the Brahmanic elite of the region. Gandhi saw the Brahmins as nothing more than interlopers, the ones who had taken Hinduism away from its traditions. Hence Gandhi posed a great threat to the greater Sanskritic traditions. One can assume that the many changes that took place in India in her post-independence journey towards mass suffrage have also proven to be a challenge to the Brahminic elite.

In fact, this very point has been argued by the likes of Partha Chatterjee – that the resurgence of so-called Hindutva - Hindu nationalism, occurs just at the point when India’s democratic institutions begin to offer legal and political rights to the lowest echelons of India’s citizenry. There is much to be said about the Mandal commission recommendations and the rise of the nationalist and Hinduized political rhetoric of political parties like the BJP. But that is an entirely different post some time in the future.

But Maharashtra is also a region of deep and broad pluralism, with literally thousands of important shared Sufi dargahs, and Hindu mandirs scattered across the state. It is to these that I am now traveling, using them as the basis of discussions of the regions syncretic and pluralist traditions. The next three weeks will see me working in and around Nagpur.

The Maharashtra Phase Asim Rafiqui 2011

Maharashtra’s history – social, political and cultural challenges the revisionist narratives of the sectarians. Today Shivaji may be considered the fountainhead of Marathi nationalism and anti-Muslim justification, but even his story and that of his family, defies the reductive versions used to convince people of his sectarian purity and exclusivity. Maharashtra is also where the magnificent Ellora caves are located. The beautiful Hindu, Jain and Buddhist carvings found here were frequently admired and studied by Muslim travels and administrators in the region. Contrary to the modern-day conviction of the iconoclasm of all Muslims, I will be writing short pieces based on the travel writings of Muslims in the region and the great admiration with aesthetic awe with which they experienced these beautiful carvings.

The Maharashtra pieces will hopefully act as Gyanendra Pandey’s fragments - evidence that confronts and dislocates mainstream and popular narratives of history, offering evidence and stories that perhaps force us to re-examine what we today take as the given truth.

The Idea Of India Project Update: The Thangals And Way Of The Other Muslims

In The Idea Of India Project on June 4, 2011 at 2:36 pm

The Shrine of Thangal Sheikh Mohammed Shah, Kondotty, Kerala

Islam in its Persian-Arabic attire failed to make much sense to the masses [in India]. That is why its “cultural mediators” were constrained to make the Islamic traditions more meaningful to the converts in syncretic and symbolic forms. In the process, the pristine purity of dogma and tenets, which the Faraizis in Bengal and the mujahideen in the northwest tried in vain to restore, was tailored to suit the spiritual and material urges of the people. Local customs and heterodox traditions, which were repugnant to Muslim orthodoxy, found a place in the corpus of beliefs and religious practices. This was reflected in the diversity or religiocultural practices, and also in the variety of political and economic experiences.

Hasan, Mushirul “The Myth of Unity” in Making India Hindu: Religion, Community, and the Politics of Democracy in India Ed. Ludden, D Page 189

There seems to be little written about the Thangals of Kerala. Professor Hussain Randathani tells me that there is some original research that has been done on this line of Muslims in Kerala, but that most of it is in Malayalam and hence inaccessible to me. However, what is fascinating about the man whose shrine I had come to visit in the town of Kondotty, Sheikh Mohammed Shah, was that he may have carried a dual Muslim identity – both Shia, and Sunni.

Both Stephen F. Dale in his work The Mappilas Of Malabar, 1498 – 1922: Islamic Society on the South Asian Frontier and Roland E. Miller in his Mapilla Muslims of Kerala do give us some more details about this unique orientation, but I will write more about that in a future essay. Suffice it to say that under pressure from the orthodox Sunni orientations, many Shia claimed taqqiya, a recognized practice that the Shias can resort to in times of duress. Similar action has been taken by groups of Nizari Ismailis, the Khojas and the Pirana ie. Satpanthis as well.

Rehman Thangal, great-grandson of the the Sheikh, greeted me in his lovely home adjacent to the shrine and we spend some hours talking about the story of the Thangals, and their powerful influence in society and politics in the region of Kerala. Much of that influence is how a bygone memory – the land reforms in post-independence India resulted in the social and material dissolution of the Thangal dynasty. However, they remain a highly respected and venerated family in this part of Kerala. Rehman proudly showed me a number of manuscripts from this ancestor’s library – a hand written Koran, copies of various Persian texts like Gulistan and even small momento that had survived in his family’s collections like a pistol personally given to the Sheikh by Tipu Sultan himself. I was unable to however learn anything too specific about the history of his family. In fact, even he was not sure about the origins and story of the Sheikh whose shrine had been in the care of his family.

The shrine itself is a lovely Indo-Persian structure. Looking slightly worn down because of the heavy cover of rain, its place in the community was also a mystery. I did not see many people stopping by, but then again, it could just be the weather. Rehman told me that a major nerchass is held at the shrine in early March of each year. A series of photographs taken by a Japanese researcher, Misako Kawano, who had visited the family recently to document the cultural traditions of the Thangals, show a fairly large affair involving hundreds of people. Rehman assured me that the event began at the shrine and moved to the front yard of the family home for the evening finale. I will have to return here next March to witness it.

I am now travelling in Kerala to explore the history of the ‘other’ Muslims. The mainstream narratives of India’s Muslims tend to ignore the diversity and plurality of India’s Muslim community. They gloss over the many variants and local traditions that emerged in Muslim religious practice, and prefer to speak of the community as one. In fact, parroting a classical colonialist preference, modern Muslim prefer to see all Muslims as one homogenous, cohesive and uniformly similar social and political body. This view, a result of the exigencies of colonial rule and administration, has remained stuck in the minds of the modern Muslims nationalists and others. As Mushirul Hasan points out (Ibid Page 193):

The colonial government’s reforms of 1909, enacted to defuse the Congress demand for a greater share in administration and decision-making, was a calculated masterstroke; it discarded the notion and jettisoned the prospect of secular nationalism. It established separate electorates for Muslims, along with reservations and weightages, and thus gave birth to a religiopolitical community, sections of which began to see themselves in the colonial image of being unified, cohesive, and segregated from the Hindus…An otherwise diverse community was thus homogenized…in order to be suitably accommodated within political schemes and bureaucratic designs.

It is here, from Kerala, that one can start to unravel the diversity of the Muslims of India. The Mapilla Muslims are the earliest of Muslim communities in the country, and the saints, mystics, traders and settlers that arrived here in the 7th and 8th centuries, the first to carry the message of the religion to the people of the country. The Mapilla Muslims of Kerala retain a culturally and historically distinct Islamic culture that retains many of its influences from regional non-Islamic religions including Hinduism. The Thangals, a family with its lineage to the Ismailis is heir to a complex Muslim heritage whose proponents have actively searched for ways to reconcile and incorporate traditions from outside the orthodoxy of Islam.

Their stories are the stories of Islam in India – complex, varied, and syncretic. My journey in Kerala is meant to reveal this usually forgotten or ignored beginning of Islam in India, and of the many diverse communities and people that belong to it. The culture, history, society and rituals of the Muslims of this region are vastly different from anything we could imagine in North India or Pakistan. This is precisely what I aim to show.

The Idea Of India Project Update: The Goddess Of The Sea

In The Idea Of India Project on June 2, 2011 at 9:54 am

The Shrine Of Manuban Bib, Ponnani, Kerala Copyright Asim Rafiqui

Some days later, there was a wild dance of the elements in Ponnani sea. The heavy clouds burst and brought the heavens down to meet the sea, which reached up and met it halfway, rising in mountainous waves…A fishing boat overturned. The sons of Ponnani were thrown into the water looked around in terror. All around they could see nothing but water. The horizon itself looked like another sea…

Ramanunni What The Sufi Said 

Her naked body emerges from the storm-tossed ocean waves and the fishermen, thrown from their boats, cling to it for safety. The corpse is strangely warm but it reminds the men of the solace and safety of their mother’s bosom. It drags them to the safety of the shore, and the men are overwhelmed by her beauty – a beauty that calls forth veneration and reverence. They cover her with their own clothes, and dig her a grave. Angry at the sea goddess, they build a shrine and begin to worship her and seek her protection.

This is the story that the Keralan writer Ramanunni weaves in his work What The Sufi Said to explain the story of Manubam Bibi whose shrine near the town of Ponnani I have come to visit. Located spectacularly on the edge of a peninsula facing a raging sea, Manubam Bibi’s shrine is revered by Hindus and Muslims from across the region. The shrine, now remodeled along a typically North Indian style dargah complete with minarets and an imposing dome, is surrounded by the homes of local fishermen.

There is an incongruity between the architecture of the shrine and the surrounding environment of sea, sand, palms and beautiful, single storied thatched roof homes. The shrine’s materials of cement, steel and asphalt suggesting an imposition of an imagination from outside the locale. The fishermen’s family homes seems to blend in with the world around them, reflecting the colors, textures and materials of nature itself. I have to believe that the shrine did the same once, but that new ideals perhaps imported from the North of India, or even the Gulf where many Keralan’s travel for employment, have had their effect.

The Shrine of Manubam Bibi Ponnani, Kerala

But regardless, it is the ocean that defines the world here, and as its waves crash angrily against the walls of the shrine, it underlines the meaning of the shrine and the abode of the goddesses herself. The shrine is merely a symbol. The ocean has always held a powerful influence on the imagination of man. Gods and goddesses have been attributed to it. I am more familiar with the Greek traditions – the goddess Amphitrite, the wife of the sea-god Poseidon, who was possibly one of the fifty Nereids – nymphs of the sea, or perhaps even a Oceanides, one of the three thousand goddesses of the sea. But it is quite thrilling to discover that here in Kerala’s north, the fishermen also see the sea as a goddess  – one who protects, wrecks vengeance, nurtures and destroys.

Manubam Bibi is a Muslim female saint associated with the sea. In this she mirrors the legends of many Hindu goddesses associated with the sea. Her devotees come from all faiths, and once again it is a legend that weaves the communities together. The inter-connectedness of the faiths of the land are also the fundamental idea behind Ramanunni’s novel, which, much like the regions folk poetry, speaks against the divisiveness of faiths and seeks to highlight the common aspirations of all men and women. Ramanunni has woven this sea goddesses story into a tragic tale of love – that between a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy. As Dominique-Sila Khan points out in her work Sacred Kerala, while discussing this novel, the beautiful Hindu devotees of Bhagavati who marries a Muslim boy is written as an incarnation of this goddess of the sea.

Manunbam Bibi is not the first female saint I have knelt before. As I step out of the shrine’s inner chamber and push past a crowd of people trying to get inside, I think of the shrine of Badi Bua in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, considered the most powerful of saints in the region. I wrote about her in a post called The Saints Of Ayodhya: Sufis In The Hindu City stating that:

One of the most important and revered shrines in the city is to a woman saint by the name of Badi Bua, or Badi Bibi. She was not only considered one of the most beautiful women in the city, but created enemies amongst the local clergy by refusing to marry and devote her life towards the worship of God. When approached by a local suitor who claimed that he was in love with her eyes, she by legend plucked them out and gave them to him.

Today her shrine lies on the outskirts of the city, amongst a small but tense forest of trees, surrounded by the decaying graves of local aristocracy. Every hour or so an individual arrives and sits in quiet meditation speak to her and cleaning the leaves, dead flowers and dust from the tombstone. Unlike a mosque, a shrine is often a place for individual devotion.

I prayed at Badi Bua’s shrine. As a non-religious, anti-clerical secularist I nevertheless carry faith (I hold it as a given that all men of theology and the philosophy of theology are hypocrites and men without faith). The prayer came true. I am now under obligation to return to Ayodhya, and to her shrine, to pay my respects to her once again. I prayed at the Manubam Bibi shrine. I would love to come back to pay my respects here too.