Romila Thapar – A History of India and the Absence of Satan

Romila Thapar’s ‘A history of India 1’ is worth every re-visit. I had the good fortune of coming across is some years ago, prior to that, I had very little knowledge of the historical make of the modern India, although her work stops at the arrival’s of the Europeans in the sixteenth century.

Published by Pelican, the book ‘traces the evolution of India before contact with modern Europe as established in the sixteenth century. Professor Thapar’s account of the development of India’s social and economic structure is arranged within a framework of the principal political and dynastic events. Her narrative covers some 2,500 years of India’s history, from the establishment of Aryan culture in about 1000 B.C. to the coming of the Mughuls in A.D. 1520 and the first appearance of European trading companies. In particular she deal’s interestingly with the many manifestation of Indian culture, as seen in religion, art, and literature, in ideas and institutions.

Thapar states that ‘the history of India in the first volume begins with the culture of the Indo-Aryans and not with the prehistoric cultures of India.’ She further says that ‘1526 marks the arrivals of the Mughuls in northern India and they were (amongst other things) actively involved in the future of Europe in India.’

In her chapter ‘The Antecedents’, Thapar says ‘wealth in India, as in every other ancient culture, was limited to the few. Mystical activities were also the preoccupation of but a handful of people. It is true, however, that acceptance of such activities was characteristic of the majority… whereas in some other cultures the rope-trick would have been ascribed to the promptings of the devil and reference to it suppressed, in India it was regarded with amused benevolence. The fundamental sanity of Indian civilization has been due to an absence of Satan.’

 

Stuart Hall at The Bohemian Aesthetic

“Writing about Stuart Hall, who turned 75 earlier this year, highlights a key point of his importance to the fabric of the cultural and socio-political make-up of today’s Britain. One of the important thinkers of our time, Hall possesses a tremendous intellectual, analytical process, with creative applications to race, class, and culture. He’s also one of my all-time heroes”. My article on Stuart Hall can been read in full here in this month’s eZine; The Bohemian Aesthetic. This is my second article for the section ‘London Letters’. The Bohemian Aesthetic is published each month on the 15th.

“Stuart Hall, now Professor of Sociology at the Open University, was a major figure in the revival of the British political Left in the 1960s and ’70s. Following Althusser, he argues that the media appear to reflect reality whilst in fact they construct it.”

Daniel Chandler

Read the full article

Created by Pasty Moore, The Bohemian Aesthetic is a remarkable eZine focusing on diverse subject matters in line with exploring works by artists unafraid to act against the status quo.

Patsy Moore is a critically-acclaimed singer/songwriter, poet and essayist, film and television score composer, and humanities lecturer, who lives in Los Angeles, California.

The Bohemian Aesthetic eZine was launched based on an arts newsletter that Patsy published between 1994 and 1995. Along with publishing and editing this project, Patsy shoulders the primary responsibility of producing The World Watch Papers and The Bohemian Aesthetics video supplement, BohoTV.

Extract reproduced by the kind permission of The Bohemian Aesthetic©2007

Camerawork Delhi

May 2007 saw the second issue of the amazing photographic journal ‘Camerawork Delhi’ launched in Delhi earlier in January.

Camerawork Delhi is a new free quarterly newsletter in print with a focus on photography in Delhi; its practitioners, its consumers and its suppliers. It carries news and information of local, national and international interest. The first issue was organised by Gauri Gill, Sunil Gupta, Radhika Singh and the print run was financially supported by Khoj.

The second issue for May 2007 includes work by Prabhuddha Dasgupta, Sunil Gupta, an interview with Harry and Laxman of Siddharth Photographix Bhogal in New Delhi, Allan Sekula, an article on Agatje Gaillard and her ‘galerie’ and an article by Mark Sealy, director of Autograph ABP and much more.

Camerawork Delhi is supported by the French Embassy in India and the Alliance Francaise Network

Co-editors are Gauri Gill, Sunil Gupta and Radhika Singh.

For further information you can contact Camerawork Delhi at: gauri.gill [at] gmail.com;  sunilgupta [at] mac.com; fotomedia [at] airtelbraodband.in

The Bohemian Aesthetic

My article on Zarina Bhimji and her nomination for the Turner Prize has been published in this month’s eZine; The Bohemian Aesthetic. I will be writing for them in the section ‘London Letters’ on a regular basis. The Bohemian Aesthetic is published each month on the 15th. 

“With an extraordinary body of work and a humble, dedicated approach to her art, Zarina Bhimji encapsulates the Indian notion of tapasya, wherein a person is devoted, without distraction or pomposity, to explore, understand, and present to the world, truly open to its judgment”  To read more of my article click here.

Created by Pasty Moore, The Bohemian Aesthetic is a remarkable eZine focusing on diverse subject matters in line with exploring works by artists unafraid to act against the status quo.

Patsy Moore is a critically-acclaimed singer/songwriter, poet and essayist, film and television score composer, and humanities lecturer, who lives in Los Angeles, California.
 
The Bohemian Aesthetic eZine was launched based on an arts newsletter that Patsy published between 1994 and 1995. Along with publishing and editing this project, Patsy shoulders the primary responsibility of producing The World Watch Papers and The Bohemian Aesthetics video supplement, BohoTV. 

Extract reproduced by the kind permission of The Bohemian Aesthetic©2007

Black Skin, White Masks – the legacy of Frantz Fanon

Marking the abolition of slavery, I would like to present you with an extract from Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon, one of the greatest minds of the 20th century:

I am talking of millions of men who have been skilfully injected with fear, inferiority complexes, trepidation, servility, despair, abasement. – Amié Césaire, Discours sur le Colonialisme

The explosion will not happen today. It is too soon… or too late.
I do not come with timeless truths.
My consciousness is not illuminated with ultimate radiances.
Nevertheless, in complete composure, I think it would be good if certain things were said.
These things I am going to say, not shout. For it is a long time since shouting has gone out of my life.
So very long…

What does the black man want?
At the risk of arousing the resentment of my colored brothers, I will say that the black is not a man. There is a zone of nonbeing, an extraordinarily sterile and arid region, an utterly naked declivity where an authentic upheaval can be born. In most cases, the black man lacks the advantage of being able to accomplish this descent into a real hell.

Man is not merely a possibility of recapture or of negation. If it is true that consciousness is a process of transcendence, we have to see too that this transcendence is haunted by the problems of love and understanding. Man is a “yes” that vibrates to cosmic harmonies. Uprooted, pursued, baffled, doomed to watch the dissolution of the truths that he has worked out for himself one after another, he has to give up projecting onto the world an antinomy that coexists with him.

The black is a black man; that is, as a result of a series of aberrations of affect, he is rooted at the core of a universe from which he must be extricated.

The white man is sealed in his whiteness.
The black man in his blackness.

Man’s tragedy, Nietzsche said, is that he was once a child. None the less, we cannot afford to forget that, as Charles Odier has shown us, the neurotic’s fate remains in his own hands.

However painful it may be for me to accept this conclusion, I am obliged to state it: For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white.

 

Frantz Fanon was born in Martinique in 1925 and studied medicine in France, going onto psychiatry. His writings had far reaching influence from the civil rights to black consciousness’ movements.

Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon is available here ISBN 0-8021-5084-5

Reading Lolita in Tehran


“For nearly two years, almost every Thursday morning, rain or shine, they came to my house, and almost every time, I could not get over the shock of seeing them shed their mandatory veils and robes and burst into colour. When my students came into that room, they took off more then their scarves and robes. Gradually, each one gained an outline and a shape, becoming her own inimitable self. Our world in that living room with its window framing my beloved Elburz Mountains became our sanctuary… We read Persian classical literature, such as the tales of our own lady of fiction, Scheherazade, from a Thousand and One Nights, along with Western classics – Pride and Prejudice, Madam Bovary, Daisy Miller, The Dean’s December and, yes, Lolita”.

In her introduction to Reading Lolita in Tehran – a memoir in books, Azar Nafisi recreated a world full of hope doomed to remain with the realms of sorrow. Gathering a motley crew of students from the University of Tehran (which Nafisi resigned from), both Nafisi and her students took great risks of being discovered at their regular literature class reading banned classics.

First published in 2003, Reading Lolita in Tehran gave first hand account of what it was like to live in revolutionary Iran. A remarkable book about books, Reading Lolita illustrates Nafisi’s talent and magic of pinning each word down to have depth and meaning, nothing is wasted, nothing is written for the sake of writing. Her talent lies in her courage and her ability to construct without compromise or false memory, a time within her memory of how there really were moments of fearless living.

Reading Lolita in Tehran – a memoir in books written by Azar Nafisi is published by Fourth Estate publications.

The Sorrow of War


The Sorrow of War, a short novel by Bao Ninh published in the early 90’s remains one of the most outstanding pieces of writing from a Vietnamese perspective on the war in Vietnam. A classic in its writing style, the essence of the novel is about the act of writing as much as it’s about the war. Bao Ninh has created a masterpiece that should be considered amongst great war novels, perhaps great novels generally such as ‘The Heart of Darkness’, ‘The Outsider’ and of course ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ that many critics have cited.

Epic in every way, the novel tells the story of a teenager who enters the Vietnam War that claimed over 58,000 U.S. combats’ lives and over 6 million Vietnamese. It is this devastation that Ninh writes about so fluidly.

‘The Sorrow of War’ is without doubt timeless. Perhaps it is one of the greatest war novels ever written. Imagine the film ‘Apocalypse Now’ and increase its effect, say by a factor of a thousand – perhaps more – this is the power of Ninh’s writing.

Highly acclaimed in the West when first published, perhaps not so widely read, Ninh was bestowed with praise. Upon publication in Vietnam, Ninh suffered at the hands of the authorities who are only now beginning to see the merit of the work. The book was recently released in Vietnam under the title of ‘The Destiny of Love’ but despite this imposition, the novel was widely read by the Vietnamese public and has become a marker for expressing personal experiences other than those meted out by the authorities – where the humanity of a soldier and true suffering of civilians has been written with courage and honesty.

‘The Sorrow of War’ should be essential reading for every child in schools throughout the world, and should form part of the curriculum, namely history – illustrating without compromise the effects of war and its ultimate futility.

In one of the lesser horrific scenes in the book, Ninh delves into the humanity of the Vietnamese soldiers. This scene appears towards the beginning of the book:

Here, when it is dark, trees and plants moan in awful harmony. When the ghostly music begins it unhinges the soul and the entire wood looks the same no matter where you are standing. Not a place for the timid. Living here one could go mad or be frightened to death. Which was why in the rainy season of 1974, when the regiment was sent back to this area, Kien and his scout squad established an alter and prayed before it in secret, honouring and recalling the wandering souls from Battalion 27 still in the Jungle of Screaming Souls.

From there on it gets darker – using a non-linear structure which comes naturally to Ninh, he tells us how the scout squad when hungry hunt down an Orang-utan – only when they go to prepare her for cooking, they see her smiling face which is peaceful and motherly – but they are hungry and they eat her nevertheless. For this deed, the entire squad is punished, it seems by nature – none but Kien, the ‘hero’ of the book survives; most of the squad are shot dead in battle, a few go mad and run off into the jungle.

Toward the end of the book, when the final battles occur – Kien witnesses the carnage of hand to hand combat. In a scene we see a beautiful young girl strewn across some steps leading to an official looking building – as Kien encounters her, he notices her beauty but soon realises that she is dead – her legs a set wide apart; clearly she has been raped. But the rape is not over – a group of soldiers rush past and drag the body down the steps and continue to rape her.

Profound, shocking and beautifully written, ultimately the book is about lost love and perhaps impossible love – teenage sweethearts torn apart because of the war; Kien and Phuong’s innocence too is quickly lost. Meeting again after many battles, neither is able to stay with the other. Guilt, memories of a pure and innocent lost love, and the demise of both Kien’s and Phuong’s humanity do not allow the two to be lovers or to be together again.

Heer Ranjha – The Cinema of Chetan Anand

Chetan Anand’s Heer Ranjha remains the quintessential interpretation of Waris Shah’s Heer. Screenplay written by Kaifi Azmi, the film is delivered in poetical verse, making it one of the most unique and original pieces of work to come out of Hindi cinema. Written in 1766 by Waris Shah and supposedly based on a true story, ‘Heer Ranjha’ has come to symbolise Panjab and the themes of resistance within it. Ranjha is of course played by the legendary actor Raj Kumar and Heer played effectively by the stunningly beautiful Priya Rajvansh.

In a recent interview film director Paolo Sorrentino commented that “it is no longer possible to amaze the viewer with plot or content”. And yet Chetan Anand’s Heer Ranjha (admittedly it was made in the late 70’s), even when viewed today, does exactly that; amaze the viewer with plot and content. 

Chetan Anand gives Heer the strength that Waris bestowed within her – a rarity in the cinema of Bombay today where female desire is akin to that of a delinquent and often seen in the form of a juvenile rendition.  Aside of the characterisation which I will come to later, Chetan Anand hardly uses dissolves, fades, fast cuts to tell the story. Instead, he confidently uses prime lenses, tracks, long takes and possibly a single camera to shoot, I cannot verify this, but having viewed the film on numerous occasions, you get the sense of intensity that you can only get from a single camera shoot giving the viewer a sense of the work being emotionally energetic.

In his characterisation, Chetan Anand clearly show’s desire from Heer’s point of view as well as that by Ranjha’s. We see in Heer a powerful, fully developed, balanced, ordinary and at times an extraordinary female who confronts her husband, declaring that she can only give herself to Ranjha; we see her challenging the Kazi; Heer questions her father’s love; Heer runs to meet Ranjha oblivious of her surroundings visually playing Waris Shah’s profound refrain “Ranjha Ranjah kandi ni mein api Ranjha ho gai” (in the midst of desiring Ranjha, I have become Ranjha) and finally we see Heer defying her mother. Here Waris tells us that courage is not enough and Heer’s fate is undone by Kaido her uncle and the Kazi, his partner in crime, who trick her into agreeing to marry Saida – Chetan Anand succeeds in conveying Waris Shah’s message that authority is inherently corrupt and justice for the defenceless is difficult to find.  

In the song picturisation “meri dunya mein tu ayi (when you entered by world)”, sung  by Ranjha to Heer when she comes to meet him in the dead of night, Chetan creates an erotic and luscious emotional imagery exploring innocence, love and desire, when Heer and Ranjha become one.

Towards the end of the film in the sequence when Ranjha finally comes to wed Heer, Chetan Anand heightens the drama of Heer’s jealous uncle, Kaido working himself up to blend poison in the sweetmeats that he would feed Heer in due course against that of the sheer joy of the festivities going on in the rest of the house; track shots lit with colour make it seem like a festival of colours. This is interspersed with Heer being beautified and embellished as a bride to meet her Ranjha. A rainbow of earth colours make up the sequence until we finally see Heer standing against a pure white backdrop, dressed in deep reddish pink looking delicious, like a cerise liquorish ready to be popped into your mouth. Ranjah’s sister-in-laws are mesmerised by her beauty and captivated, bumping into each other trying to catch a glimpse of her – and all this without dialogue and a sentimental musical score.

A deeply under-rated film maker – Chetan Anand has left us with a visual poem from which we can all learn about truth and what the mystic’s like Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah were trying to impart: that authority fundamentally gets in the way of enlightenment and a truthful living. Waris Shah’s Heer was in essence a severe criticism and questioning of the motivations of religious orthodoxy and a firm belief that “We are in God and God is in us”.

Fugitive and Cloistered Virtue

The new translation of the famous Malleus Maleficarum, or ‘The Hammer of the Witches’ that has recently become available, illuminates the mind of the writer and the subsequent persecutions. Written in 1486, the Malleus became the bible of the witch hunters and used ‘blasphemy’ as a point of entry to terrorize and torture their victims. An extremely disturbing book, the advocacy of violence towards women in particular is shocking. This highly controversial book is said to have sent mostly women, many men, gypsies and anyone who didn’t fit into to the norm to their death. Although debate is still rife as to how many were killed, the trials at Salem in America are famously documented and illustrate the extent of what one human being can do to another.

Blasphemy played a key role to accuse and punish, and if you look closely at the word blasphemy, break its Latin components down, I believe it reads ‘stupid woman’. And since the roots of blasphemy are inherently about doubting the interpretations of the word of god or the sheer act of transgression, the word manages to travel effortlessly across all religions. And women have historically been dealt the card of being at the root of all evil, so that explains the construction of the word.

As words evolve they take on a character and standing, managing to strike a blow when called upon. Men and women throughout history have stood up against oppressive forces, questioning their interpretation of religious texts. Many of these opposing voices ended up being crushed or silenced.

“Estimates of the death toll during the Inquisition worldwide range from 600,000 to as high as 9,000,000 (over its 250 year long course); either is a chilling number when one realizes that nearly all of the accused were women, and consisted primarily of outcasts and other suspicious persons. Old women. Midwives. Jews. Poets. Gypsies. Anyone who did not fit within the contemporary view of pious Christians were suspect, and easily branded “Witch”. Usually to devastating effect.”  Introduction to the online edition available at www.malleusmaleficarum.org

Although our world is far from that of the 1400’s but on reflection what can future generations’ highlight about our understanding of the need for freedom of speech? The brutality of regimes throughout the world employs both sophisticated and crude methods of weeding out the non-conformist. Communalism, ethnic cleansing, censorship of anyone who would want to doubt and question scriptures are rife. Although no one has been burnt alive due to being a witch, many are killed for reasons of going against religious and cultural beliefs.

Writing almost 200 hundred years after the publication of the Malleus, John Milton, the poet was still pleading against censorship. An extraordinary poet and visionary and a devout Christian of the puritanical strain – he wrote passionately about the dangers of censorship: ‘I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary.’

And in another work he wrote: “Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do ingloriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple: who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”

Cleverly using the idea of truth in the feminine, Milton clearly understood and demonstrated how easy it was to crush that voice. Merely questioning or uttering what might appear to be blasphemous even today can still cost a life; in many parts of the world a ‘medieval’ state of being exists. Perhaps we have to wait for another four hundred years before we reach the enlightened state that John Milton possessed with such intelligence and grace.

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