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A visit to Alaska is an unforgettable experience. Remote, wild and exotic, as only unreachable regions can be, it is a feast for the soul. Southern Alaska is also made up of temperate rainforests, making it an invaluable biosphere. Alaska is the largest American state and nearly one-fifth as large as the US. It extends through four time zones and its coastline is as long as the rest of the US. Originally a Russian territory, it was ravaged by Russian fur hunters who practically depleted the land of its wildlife, especially sea otters. In 1867, the Tsar sold the state to the USA for $7,200,000, a little less than two cents an acre! In 1898, gold was discovered in Alaska, resulting in a mad rush of prospectors and miners. After the gold was exhausted, some of the prospectors left, while some stayed back as settlers. The discovery in 1968 of the richest oil fields in North America brought prosperity back to Alaska, particularly after the construction of the 800-mile long pipeline between Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean and Valdez on the Pacific Coast. We were a group of Indians on an American liner that set sail from Seattle. Surprisingly, the second largest nationality, after the Americans, was Indian, including NRIs and visitors from India. The cruise was a feast of theatre, musicals and music (including the mesmerising voice of Vincent Talarico), hobbies, lectures — and food. The food was so tempting, even the vegetarian selection (including Indian vegetarian), that one forgot the battle of the bulge, and ate from morning to night! Our first stop was Ketchikan, located on an island, a former Indian fishing camp. The name comes from a Tlingit phrase meaning ‘‘eagle with spread-out wings’’. It has a rich Indian heritage, including the oldest collection of totem poles. The seaplane was a thrilling experience, like something out of a James Bond film! It was owned and operated by a young woman who flew through the fjords in inclement weather till we saw black bears fishing for salmon, sea lions and seals sunbathing and vast expanses of forest. The seals came in so many colours — white, light brown and black. They were a gorgeous contrast to the scene around us — turquoise water, deep green vegetation and white sun-capped mountains, all tempered by a cool wind and cloudy sky. The next visit was to Tracy Arm fjord, where a glacier once deposited gravel and rock and created a bar that can be seen at low tide. Inside the bar, the water quickly rises to over 1000 feet. The fjords were formed 10,000 years ago, at the end of the ice age, when the glaciers withdrew, and sea water entered the valleys, flanked by tall ice-capped mountains. We could see global warming at work: although we were in early June, the beginning of summer, the icebergs had already melted, and the ship had to navigate very carefully between the floating blocks of ice. The fjord led to Juneau, the capital of Alaska and once the largest gold mine in the world. We got onto a boat and went whale watching and soon spotted huge humpbacked whales. These enormous mammals sport in the water, jumping up high and splashing down, come up to breathe every few minutes, letting out a spout of water, while mamma protects her baby even as she enjoys playing with him. There were five sea lions on a pontoon, nasty quarrelling creatures who obviously did not believe in live and let live. Each was trying to push the others off the pontoon, and all five prevented a sixth from getting up. Since sun bathing is its favourite pastime, this was especially cruel.
Skagway, entrance to the Klondike and once named ‘‘hell on earth’’, was once flooded by gold prospectors who flocked to Alaska and the Yukon (Canada). The White Pass route and Chilkoot Trail were trampled upon by many a would-be miner, each of whom had to carry 2000 pounds of food on his back (200 pounds at a time), enough to last him a year. Many died and only those who could walk without stopping, back to nose against each other, made it. Today the main street, Broadway, retains the false-fronts of the buildings of the gold rush — hotels, saloons, dance halls and gambling houses — while shops and banks function within. There are only 801 residents in this formerly prosperous town. The old railroad functioned between 1900 and 1982 and reopened in 1988 as a summer service for tourists. The tall totems are a reminder of another people and another era. At Skagway, we took a helicopter ride to the Meade glacier. Wearing spiked shoes, carrying mountaineering sticks and wearing ice-proof clothes was a unique and unusual experience. The ice on the glacier was about 300 feet deep, with occasional cracks about 30 feet deep. One false step, and it’s a deep plunge with no hope of rescue. The ice was melting into streams at several places. Since it was summer, the glacier was flanked by pine and grass-covered mountains, capped by ice. In winter, the whole is under ice. If the temperature was minus 200C, the sun still blazed overhead for 23 hours a day on the glacier. But global warming is causing a faster withdrawal of the glaciers. This part of Alaska is called the inner passage and survives on summer tourism. The other local industries are fishing, especially for salmon that swim all the way here to lay eggs and then die, and logging. It was sad to see entire mountainsides laid bare of trees, which are all sold to Japan. While there are rules protecting wild animals, there are none to protect green cover. Even wild animals have only partial protection. If you can get a game license, available for a few dollars, you can go out and shoot a bear or two. Alaskan cities are dotted with shops — Sindhi businessmen selling jewellery, Italians selling their wares, Canadians and Americans. The local Innuit are scarce, and nearly every tourist memento — from T-shirts to totem poles — had a ‘‘Made in China’’ tag. It is a pity that nobody has tried to set up local industries to mass produce totem poles and carved animals — it may make local people less dependant on logging and big-game hunting, and save Alaska’s wildlife. A cruise to Alaska is a contrast between shipboard luxury and wild unknown places where survival is a matter of luck and physical endurance. It is nice to know that some places are still preserved as nature intended them, although with climate change and melting snow caps one wonders how long they can last. Our final port of call was Victoria, capital of British Columbia, Canada. It made me nostalgic for Mumbai. The Parliament Building was a near-replica of Victoria Terminus, while the Empress Hotel reminded me of any building on Ballard Estate. But the most impressive display was to be seen at the Butchart Gardens, built over a limestone quarry that had been exhausted in 1900. Jenny Butchart took over the 50 acres of quarried land and landscaped it to create a sunken garden, rose garden, Italian and Japanese gardens, displaying over a million plants throughout the year. It proves that one woman’s vision, determination and hard work can — literally — move mountains.
When to go In Alaska, expect to find more than one season crammed into a single day. The Southeast and Southcentral regions generally experience high rainfall and moderate temperatures. However, most of Alaska experiences the magic of the midnight sun, which means more daylight hours to fill up. What bliss.
Walk the line
Recently in Chennai, Karuthu, a forum for free expression, debated the limits of creative license. Needless to say, it was a stormy evening. The arrest of Chandramohan in Baroda, the Court order against M F Husain and Maharashtra’s ban on bar dancers bring into focus the larger issue of the limits of cultural freedom and whether creativity can cross legal Lakshman rekhas. First, let us examine the free artistic space given to creativity in ancient India. The Kama Sutra was a one-off work by Vatsyayana: such works come out of every society and period. They do not reflect the age. The Gupta period, when the Kama Sutra was written, was also the age of Manu, who had a greater impact then and later. Only the Khandariya Mahadeo Temple of Khajuraho, built by a medieval Tantric cult, depicts sexual poses. Paintings and sculptures from all over India depict nudity and even explicit sexual scenes, but these are the exception, generally influenced by Tantricism. Ancient India did not perceive evil in the human body or in the relationship between men and women. But the influence of Islam and Christianity was profound and puritanical; the Hinduism of 2001 AD is not the Sanatana Dharma of 400 AD. Female (and male) sculptures in ancient and medieval Hindu temples do not wear an upper garment because the people of those times did not, women restricting themselves to either a cloth tied over their breasts or thrown over the upper torso or neither. Art reflects its environment. The stitched garment owes its origin to the Muslims in the north and British legislation in the south. There were riots in Madras Presidency against the law to wear a blouse — a law enforced by the British with the gun. Even in my childhood, village women in Tamil Nadu and Kerala did not wear cholis. Today, rural and urban Indian women wear a blouse, so today’s icons – Tanjore or Rajasthani, folk or classical – reflect this reality. The gods have always been dressed in the style of their devotees. Nudity can be beautiful and tasteful, as artists have proved time and again. Nudity is not pornography and self-appointed keepers of public morals must distinguish between the two. Artists must have the freedom to experiment and create. It is only a warped mind that can find evil in the human body. When Chandramohan was arrested, it was as ridiculous as Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Yet it was Khushwant Singh who suggested that Penguin India should not publish the Satanic Verses, leading to its ban. The ‘‘secular’’ brigade and the media hailed the ban. The cultural policing started then. Literature and art have always commented on society and religion and must have the right to do so, but not by breaking the law or hurting popular sentiment. If
cartoons of Prophet Mohammed hurt the Muslims, if Christians are hurt by the depiction of a married or naked Jesus on the cross, if Hindus are hurt by the nude depiction of gods, then such depictions must not be permitted. Creativity cannot break the law of the land. Hinduism is growing in popularity, in spite of the many insults heaped by the Marxist and Dravidian parties. But all devotees are not equally erudite and the vast majority lives on devotion rather than wisdom, so ravaging the art school is understandable, though unfortunate. There is a law in India, which prohibits actions that hurt the sentiments of other communities. This law is occasionally enforced against rabblerousing politicians. What puts the artist beyond the law? The art student was obviously taken aback by the reaction to and publicity for his work. But M F Husain thrives on sensation. Sometimes it is harmless, as the occasion when he filled Mumbai’s Jehangir Art Gallery with yards of white cloth. The worst was his painting on a horse — what happened to the animal? Was it killed, and the skin hung up on somebody’s wall, to perpetuate Husain’s bright idea? Nobody was ever told, but I find that the most heinous of his actions. The first time he painted Saraswati naked was forgivable — maybe he did not know the reaction he would invoke. But his next depiction of a nude Mother India was obviously intended to create publicity, which he received in ample measure. If the communal fringe keeps itself (and Husain) in the news, Husain courts publicity with paintings aimed to inflate passions. He apologised for the painting, but it continues to appear on his website. He has divided the artistic community. Satish Gujral, artistbrother of former Prime Minister I K Gujral and a very secular person, has gone on record to ask Husain whether he would be ‘‘bold enough to treat icons of Islam in the same manner.’’ Gopal Adivrekar, former President, Bombay Art Society, says ‘‘artists should not go for such artwork, which may hurt the sentiments of a segment of the society.’’ Husain is a great artist and I have his Ganesha on my wall, but the heyday of his art was his inspirational work, not these crude attention-seeking canvases. ABN Amro has withdrawn its credit card featuring his painting, while several High Courts have found that Husain has transgressed the law. His age and fame protect him, but he lives in Dubai, fearing arrest in India. Art must criticise, as Picasso did with his painting of La Guernica, a critique of the Spanish civil war. Creative people have always provided the impetus for change, whether it was Voltaire before the French Revolution, Tolstoy before the Russian and the many South Americans who continue to protest tyrannical regimes. Every society must have a dialogue, which is often inspired by artists and writers. But Husain is not trying to reform Hindu society. He is merely trying to remain in the media’s eye and derive maximum publicity and benefit. This is the criticism of leading Indian artists too. A communally sensitive country like India cannot provide opportunities for disharmony. Husain’s paintings and Bal Thakre’s inflammatory speeches have a similar role and effect. Indians are too used to the non-implementation of laws and have permitted the rich and the famous to ignore them. This is not acceptable. If the law forbids communally sensitive actions, they must be punished. If this means that art must walk a thin line between creativity and the law, so be it. Nobody should be above the law.
A global warning
As I swelter in the heat wave — the voltage is so low that my air conditioner has ceased to function and the fan is groaning as I force it to work — my mind goes instinctively to the twin threats of global warming and climate change. Has it finally hit us? Polar bears are suffering early summers; the very existence of small island states and low-lying areas is threatened; droughts and floods are hitting major agricultural regions, resulting in farmers’ suicides; and every year a new disease appears on the horizon. Climate change represents an additional stress on ecological and socio-economic systems that are already under extreme pressure due to a multitude of problems such as rapid urbanisation, industrialisation and economic development. With a growing population and an economy that is closely tied to its natural resource base, India and other tropical and sub-tropical nations are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as changes in forest and water resources and rising sea levels. Understanding the impacts of climate change, and its consequent effects on people and livelihoods, is essential for policy makers. Back in March, I attended a presentation of Sir Nicholas Stern’s review on the Economics of Climate Change. Since the air polluting nations of the world, especially the USA, will not reduce emissions in defense of their economies, the Stern Review deals with the economic impacts of climate change. The Review estimates that the overall costs and risks of climate change will be equivalent to losing 5 per cent of global GDP each year. If the wider range of risks and impacts is considered, the estimate of damage could rise to 20 per cent of GDP or more. In contrast, the costs of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases could be limited to around 1 per cent of global GDP. Emissions could be cut through greater energy efficiency and adoption of clean power, heat and transport technologies. However, this would require a 60 per cent decarbonisation of the power sector and deep emission cuts by the transport sector. The current greenhouse gas level is 430ppm CO2 equivalent, rising at more than 2ppm each year. Unless emissions are at least 25 per cent below current levels by 2050, stabilisation is not possible. This means annual emissions must be brought down to more than 80 per cent below current levels. The Review proposes several international frameworks to achieve this goal: emission trading to promote costeffective reductions in emissions that would pump billions of dollars each year to develop low-carbon development paths in developing countries; international technology co-operation for the deployment of new low-carbon technologies; curbing deforestation; integration of climate change into development policy, international funding to support improved regional information on climate change impacts and research into new crop varieties that will have greater resilience to floods and droughts. The developed countries have proposed trading in carbon in the form of finance to support low-carbon development in the developing world. This is a double-edged sword, envisaging new markets in low-carbon technologies, goods and services. There has been a great effort to make India and China accept mandatory cuts on their greenhouse gas emissions, an effort resisted by both countries on the grounds that it would mean less consumption of fossil fuel energy and, thereby, reduced GDP
growth. Indonesia’s rapid deforestation has resulted in the country becoming the third highest carbon emitter, after the USA and China. But the Indonesian government believes economic growth is essential to lift its people out poverty – and that includes the cutting of trees, which is destroying fragile ecosystems, wildlife and biodiversity. Developing countries say they are not responsible for the vast amounts of CO2 found in the air, and refuse to curb their emissions. However, most future emissions will come from Asia — China, India and Indonesia. The European Union, despite its declared desire to adhere to the mandatory goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 8 per cent below 1990 levels, had achieved only 4 per cent by 2004. Most importantly, the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions — the USA — has refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol and observe reductions, making all international efforts redundant. Unless the developed nations make an effort, there is little that the developing nations can do. Coal is the mainstay of India’s commercial energy sources, followed by gas and oil, most of which is imported. Hydro electric power contributes about 10 per cent, but over 50 per cent of India’s total energy requirements are met by non-commercial sources such as bio and agro wastes. Much can be done to improve energy efficiency in industry, transportation and power generation, transmission and distribution, where the losses are very high. If energy is priced at its economic cost, there would be vast savings of energy. Unfortunately, good economics and ecology means bad politics, and most states continue to provide free power to the agricultural sector, a privilege that is misused freely. Non-conventional energy sources are neither encouraged nor affordable. India has a long coastline and 365 days of sunshine. But the cost of photovoltaic cells and windmills continues to be prohibitively high. If these could be made cheaper and more easily available, our dependence on CO2 emitting fuels could be reduced considerably. Climate change is a serious global threat that demands an immediate global response. Unless the USA takes the lead, little or nothing can be achieved. If no action is taken to reduce emissions, the concentration of greenhouse gases would result in an average temperature rise from 20 to 50 C, equivalent to the change in temperatures from the last ice age to today. This would result in a major change in where and how people live, creating more ecological refugees as people flee the countryside to urban conglomerations in search of food and work. The poorest people and the highest density areas will suffer the most, affecting their growth and development. As I gaze at the groaning fan and the wet clothes sticking to my body in the heat and humidity, I can well believe that we have crossed the Rubicon, and global warming has led to this heat wave and the change in climate. Chennai’s summers were never so bad, and we could always count on the sea breeze to bail us out, a breeze which has ceased to exist. Do governments have the will to co-operate and stop this man-made phenomenon? I certainly hope so. Meanwhile, I want to see polar bears before the melting icebergs deprive them of their sustenance, and they become as extinct as several other species who could not cope with a changing climate.
Don’t bite the dog...
The recent death of a child from a dog attack is both shocking and tragic. It is inexcusable that we cannot prevent an avoidable tragedy. Governments immediately shift the blame on the law, which advocates Animal Birth Control (ABC) rather than killing, on NGOs who do not sterilise and vaccinate enough dogs, and so on. Yet no government will admit that poor governance is responsible for the child’s death. Waste dumps are excellent breeding sites for a variety of wildlife, including rats, flies, mosquitoes, disease-carrying bacteria and dogs. Governments must manage solid waste. Every city has a suburban waste dump which breeds disease. This time the problem was a dog. Next time, it may be plague borne by invisible rats. Stray dogs are a rare sight in the West because there are no visible garbage dumps. Illegal meat and broiler chicken shops abound everywhere in India. “Fresh meat/chicken sold here” is a common sign on boards, with live animals beneath, to be slaughtered before the buyer, leaving a trail of blood and bones. Which dog would turn down a juicy morsel? But the authorities turn a blind (and corrupt) eye. The common factor in the recent incidents of dog attacks was the slaughter house, with illegal dumping yards at the sites of the attacks. Governments expect NGOs to solve the problem of stray dogs. NGOs must catch, spay/neuter and vaccinate ALL the stray dogs in India. If so, what are governments for? According to the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI), the number of NGOs working in the field of animal welfare is 2,500, out of which about 100 are doing ABC. The rest run goshalas. The annual budget of the AWBI is about Rs 10 crores, out of which a fraction is available for ABC, an amount which must be shared by NGOs from all over India. State governments have abdicated their responsibility by putting the burden of controlling the dog population on NGOs, threatening to kill dogs instead. To prevent the cruelty involved in killing (electrocution or being beaten to death), NGOs have accepted this unfair responsibility and taken over the government’s duties. Why quiz the CUPA ****representative on the reason why ABC had not yet reached the Bangalore suburb? The answer was known: there is no NGO there. NGOs cannot be an alternative to governance. NGOs can only supplement official efforts, particularly at grass-root levels. What would happen in North Indian towns where NGOs are as rare or as corrupt as the government? State governments must take up ABC on a war footing and provide funds if the dog population is to be controlled. Instead, the Commissioner, ****BBMP, promises to catch and kill “ferocious dogs and leaders of dog packs”. Tragically, only the docile, friendly dogs will be caught and killed. After years of killing dogs, only to see their population increase, World Health Organization (WHO) made some obvious and important discoveries: that the population of dogs was directly proportionate to the food available, meaning that no rubbish heaps and slaughter-house wastes means no dogs; that killing dogs leaves a vacuum, to be filled by more dogs who breed and increase the population; that the only way to control dog populations and rabies is by sterilising and vaccinating the animals and returning them to their home territories. Dogs are territorial animals and will not permit the entry of an intruder. Sterilisation makes them docile, since the hormonal urge to mate, and its consequent ferocity, is missing. Chennai and San Francisco saw the first successful implementation of ABC. In The State of Animals (2005) edited by Deborah J. Salem and Andrew N Rowan,
“In Delhi, a concerted effort at dog removal killed a third of the stray dogs, with no reduction in dog population.” In the early 1970s, the stray dog population in Chennai was so high that, in spite of killing several thousand dogs a year (30,000 dogs in 1995 alone) – resulting in a thriving industry of dog leather bags, footwear and wallets – the population went up geometrically. Mysore is killing dogs on a mass scale, yet the dog population keeps increasing. Every city and village has a veterinary hospital with under-worked doctors, most of who receive a full day’s salary, work for a few hours and take off the rest of the day for private practice. They should be made to sterilise dogs. Unfortunately, AWBI funds are insufficient. Every city, town and village needs to take up ABC simultaneously. In their paper Rabies and Rabies-related viruses, Florence Cliquet and E Picard-Meyer have observed that the ABC programme in India, if conducted regularly, “should lead to a stabilisation of the stray dog population within five to seven years.” In Chennai, the incidence of rabies went down from 120 in 1996, when a full-scale ABC programme was launched, to 5 in 2003 and 2004. Today the rabies cases are limited to those brought in from rural areas. What 100 years of killing (1896-1996) could not achieve, ten years of ABC has. In Jaipur and Kalimpong, the number of rabies cases declined from 10 in 1999 and 2000 to nil since 2001-2002. The success of ABC in these cities means it does work. Some state governments and municipalities have taken a pro-active role. About 45,000 dogs were sterilised in Ahmedabad municipality in the last year – the largest number in the country. In Tamil Nadu, the Urban Development Ministry has instructed all municipalities to carry out ABC on a war footing and to use their own funds. The money spent by municipalities to catch and kill dogs should be used for ABC. Dog breeding must be regulated. Anyone with a pedigreed male and female of the same species starts breeding dogs. If he has a dog of only one sex, he rents it out for breeding. This goes on in rich homes and poor huts, for it promises a lucrative, tax-free income with minimal investment. There is no registration of breeders or dossier of puppies born. When the animals can no longer breed, they are abandoned on the streets, where they have to scrounge for food in the garbage. The stray dogs of Ooty include beautiful Alsatians and other prized breeds abandoned by breeders. Rats, similarly, are bred for sale to laboratories. Wait for the next plague. As a mother and a human being, my heart goes out to the parents of the dead children. But let us not take knee-jerk reactions. Governments must find sustainable scientific solutions, and ABC has proven to be successful in controlling dog populations and rabies, if carried out properly. Don’t bite the dog to cover up poor governance.
Of animals and animal behaviour
In his article Right over Rights, G. Babu Jayakumar (New Sunday Express, January 14) has made some fantastic statements about jallikattu, identifying it with Tamil culture and history, and raising all sorts of issues. It is worth examining them. What is “Tamil culture and history”? According to the Oxford dictionary, culture is
either “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively” or “intellectual development” or “the customs, civilisation, and achievements of a particular time or people”. Culture is defined by the state of human development and not language or religion: Stone Age culture, Bronze Age culture and so on. Jallikattu belongs to a Paleolithic period when man fought animals with bare hands as he tried to domesticate them. There is nothing intellectual or cultural about fighting bulls. Then, there is the taint of history. True, jallikattu is mentioned in Sangam literature and has probably been practiced for a long time. But neither history nor culture is static. The former records past events, the latter defines the age. If we want to go back to the past, then let us throw off our cholis, practice caste and polygamy, stop using electricity and other modcons. He calls it the culture of the subalterns. Jallikattu bulls are owned by rich landlords who let the animals lose on the poor subalterns, while they bet on the result. Their sons do not join in. Then, how many educated subalterns take part? None. It is the poor and disposable subalterns who, well-primed with liquor, take on the bulls in the hope of earning some money. If you care for the oppressed, then this is a form of exploitation. Prevention is better than cure, and prevention of jallikattu is better than provision of ambulances for the injured. Subalterns need education and jobs, not jallikattu which merely keeps them backward. His final coup about the female preference to “choose their husbands based on their valour proven at the annual jallikattu” is out of novels and films. How many women do you know who were married this way? The novels and films also describe how the animals are force-fed liquor. Why is that not mentioned? He wants a proper monitoring mechanism to medically examine the bulls to prevent their imbibing alcohol. Is he aware of the number of laws and rules governing the transportation of animals for slaughter, the way they should be fed, slaughtered and so on? Not a single law is followed in our corrupt country. Dowry and child marriage are banned, yet both continue with impunity. Bos indicus is a natural vegetarian. Television pictures showed the bulls force fed with eggs, even though they resisted. Feeding it non-vegetarian food is extremely damaging to its digestive system, unlike that of the dog which is a certified omnivore. I have between ten and fifteen “pure Indian” dogs at any one time, brought up on vegetarian food, and each has lived to between fifteen and twenty years, a ripe old age for a dog in spite of the lack of air conditioned kennels and meat for their canine teeth. Do animal lovers object to dog (and other pet) shows, to the methods employed by trainers of pedigree (and police) dogs and to the milk of cows? Yes we do object to all these and more, and if Mr. Jayakumar would read the number of articles that appear on the subject or had attended the recent Asia for Animals Conference at Chennai, he would have learned about the cruelties involved in training dogs and other animals for entertainment, he would have eaten delicious vegan food and learned about other cruelties that are perpetrated on animals. Every religion speaks of compassion to both man and animal and Thiruvalluvar, the symbol of Tamil “culture”, repeatedly extols compassion to all creatures and condemns cruelties towards animals. Religion is a barometer of culture, but vested interests misuse it, threatening villagers with dire consequences if they give up old practices. Once upon a time, it was believed that human sacrifice was essential and could alone prevent “divine wrath”. When Shaivas and Jainas in ancient Tamilagam held public religious debates, the losing Jainas were impaled alive. Can these cruelties be justified in the name of religion or culture?
Man must evolve from one stage to a higher one. Once upon a time, Brahmins were the greatest sacrificers of animals. Faced by opposition from the Upanishadic rishis, Buddha and Mahavira, they gave up sacrifice and became vegetarians. Once upon a time, our ancestors hunted animals and survived on raw meat. Then they developed technologies for growing food. Human evolution has been a development of the mind. Should we condemn the Buddha because he was an elitist prince who preached ahimsa and stopped animal sacrifice? If some cultural practices are cruel, they must be stopped. Cruelty is cruel - neither elitist nor popular. The racing driver and cricketer have the right to choose their profession. The bull cannot choose where he will live, whether he wants to eat meat or drink alcohol, whether he wants chilli powder and chemicals rubbed on his anus and genitals, whether he wants to fight or not, or whether he wants to live or be slaughtered for somebody’s enjoyment of a beef steak. Man has a choice and should exercise it to prevent harming another. It is arguments like those for bullfighting that justified the mass killing of Jews in Germany and other genocides. Mr Jayakumar will be unhappy to know that the famous Barcelona bullring in Spain is about to close down, and that the people of Catalonia (the main centre of bullfighting) have voted to end the cruel “sport”. What will the Spanish king do resign from the EU? Tamilians are educated and sophisticated, and barbarism and cruelty sit ill on their shoulders. After all, it was Thiruvalluvar, in 200 B.C., who said “Diverse are the teachings of the religions of the world, but in all will be found that compassion is that which gives men spiritual deliverance. Hold on to it.”
For the last thirty years I have been buying my groceries from one of two small shops near my house. One was run by a Hindu, another by a Muslim. There was much healthy rivalry to keep down the prices, even while providing good quality rice, dhal, spices and condiments. Shopping used to be a pleasure. We used to discuss the rival attractions of Nellore and Ponni rice, and bargain over prices. On the way to the grocer’s I would stop at one handcart to buy vegetables, at another to buy fruits. The owners would make an effort to bring rare berries and herbal plants to feed my growing family. Then, a few years ago, one corporate supermarket came up nearby, followed by another and another. The Hindu grocer gave up, sold his little shop and retired. The Muslim borrowed money from relatives in the Middle East and stocked his shop with the same fancy goods as the supermarket. He has switched over to the same packed foods as the supermarkets. But, without the air-conditioning, the décor and the other frills provided by the supermarkets, I wonder whether he can survive. Fruits and vegetables are now sold at the supermarket in plastic packets. Everything is standardised. The boy who does my shopping prefers the air-conditioned comfort of the supermarkets to the hot little grocer’s shop. Shimla apples and Nagpur oranges are no longer available. Imported Kiwi fruit and broccoli are the order of the day. Even bananas are imported. Each individual fruit has a sticker indicating its country of origin – Australia, New Zealand, USA or Thailand – which I have to peel off, or would end up swallowing. As I had vowed never to buy imported agricultural produce, I stayed away from the imported fruits
in search of Indian ones for a long time. Now I too have succumbed. What is the Government of India doing? India is basically an agricultural country: if we do not buy the produce of our farmers, who will? It is extremely dangerous to import food items that will supplant local varieties. Processed foods are worse – everything is imported, from milk and fruit juices to dates. I am waiting for the day when I will have to buy Australian appalam or Italian vathal. It would have been pardonable if there had been a good reason for the imports – that they were grown organically or were farm-fresh and so on. But even that is not regulated. The perfectly shaped fruits are obviously genetically modified with hormones. These are extremely harmful to human health. Most agriculture-exporting nations use high quantities of pesticides: USA uses 775, EU uses 600 and Thailand uses 280, compared with 179 used by India. Indian testing laboratories do not have the chemicals to test the many hormones and pesticides used abroad, so the foods enter unchecked. Currently, the foreign exporter lists the pesticides he has used – generally as zero – and the Indian government accepts the foreign exporter’s list unhesitatingly. They are supported by their governments whom we dread to offend, so the pesticide-laden products sail smoothly into our markets. The recent case of pesticides in Australian wheat is a good example. A hue and cry was raised by the media. Then the Australian government stepped in and denied the use of pesticides, our government issued a statement supporting the denial, the media kept quiet and the subject disappeared from TV channels and newspapers. If there were no pesticides, who raised the cry, and why? And what did the lab reports that cleared the wheat say? There are no explanations. There is also the problem of new pests entering the Indian environment with the food produce. The Centre for International Trade in Agriculture and Agro-based Industries (CITA) found 87 new pests in apples imported from the USA. We do not know what else has entered from other countries. Then there is the usual confusion between the Plant Quarantine Organisation and the Ministry of Health, with each putting the responsibility on the other. Obviously, the Government does not want us to know. The government’s purchase price for wheat was considerably lower than that of private buyers who bought out the market and created an artificial scarcity, resulting in food shortages. The Government now imports wheat at a higher price. Agricultural imports went up four times since India signed the WTO in 1995, and four million Indian farmers lost their jobs. India has no laws to halt the unchecked import of foods, consequent to the removal of quantitative restrictions under WTO rules in 2001. Last year, we signed a free-trade agreement with zero duty imports with Thailand, which has inundated the market with oranges and bananas. Our shortsighted agricultural policies are the cause of the thousands of suicide deaths among the farmers of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and elsewhere. The numbers will go up further if we do not give primacy to agriculture. On the other hand, India agricultural exports are rejected by foreign countries for reasons of toxic contamination. Thus India’s exports of fresh fruits and vegetables fell from 1.29 million tonnes in 2003-2004 to 1.24 million tonnes in 2004-2005. We urgently need laws to control agricultural imports, giving primacy to our own, and better law enforcement. The imports must be tested in modern up-to-date
testing laboratories established all over the country. The provision stores and handcarts have been a part of our culture. Indian produce cannot stand the competition of subsidised agricultural produce from the USA and EU. The Finance Minister’s new Saral IT form had a column to record expenses. The intention was obvious – to eliminate the self-employed small trader and farmer who cannot provide a bill, thereby forcing us to shop at the supermarkets. When the Indian farmer cannot trust his own government, there is little wonder that he commits suicide.
Man of mystery
The release of The Da Vinci’s Code may have been banned in many States in India but that hasn’t managed to quell interest in the book-turned movie. Even as the fascinating story of crypts and codes holds the readers’ attention, the fawning at Cannes, the surrounding hype of the court case, the Roman Catholic Church’s objections and the demand for a ban on the film have only served to fuel the hype. The story revolves around Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting of The Last Supper. The frieze is a masterly attempt to freeze a particular moment in a famous narrative: the reaction of the disciples to Jesus’ announcement that one of them will betray him. This fuses two chronologically distinct moments: the announcement by Jesus Christ and the reaction of his disciples. We see their reactions, but we deduce from it the chronologically preceding moment of the announcement. The mystery of The Last Supper and da Vinci’s presumed hidden code is in two figures: Jesus Christ and the effeminate long-haired figure to his right. While the others have expressions and body language displaying shock, this person has fainted. The figure is identified by art historians and the Church as John the apostle (not John the Baptist, who had been executed earlier). Dan Brown, the author of The Da Vinci Code, identifies it as Mary Magdalene, who he claims, was the wife of Jesus Christ. Jesus and the figure move away from each other, creating the letter M, which represents the Merovingians, Jesus’ bloodline according to Brown. This theory has been floating around for a long time. The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (a controversial book by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln) made the claim in 1982. The story goes on to say that the Holy Grail contained the secret of the feminine inheritance from Jesus Christ. With secret societies and murderous priests, the novel is fascinating. For the patriarchal Roman Catholic Church, this is surely too much. Da Vinci never identified the apostles in his painting, hence the mystery. Mary Magdalene was a wealthy woman who traveled around with the disciples. According to the Bible, she was present at the Last Supper and at Jesus’ Resurrection. After the Resurrection, she disappears from the Bible. In A.D. 591 Pope Gregory wrongly called her a prostitute in a sermon, a misidentification that lasted for centuries and damned her forever. The Merovingian kings, named after Merovius, the founder of the dynasty, ruled France from A.D. 481 to 751. They claimed descent from Jesus Christ through Mary
Magdalene. But they also claimed descent from the Franks, Pagan gods and even sea monsters. They were connected to the Knights Templar and the search for the Holy Grail. However, there was no proof for their claims of origin from Jesus Christ or even Mary Magdalene. The Merovingians were strong opponents of the Pope who replaced them with the Carolingian dynasty, whose most famous king was Charlemagne. In 1495, Ludovico Sforza commissioned The Last Supper to be painted on the wall of a dining room at the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Da Vinci’s sketches indicate that he thought carefully about the positioning of the furniture, food and the background. He spent two to three years to complete the painting. The result was a ‘work of art, perhaps, better known than any other work of art in the world’, according to Charles Dickens, writing in 1844. Algernon Swinburne called it ‘the supreme crown and glory of Milan’, while Goethe hailed it as ‘a real keystone in the vault of one’s notion of art’. In 1905, George Simmel the psychologist, said that The Last Supper had visually solved the problem of life in modern society, namely ‘how to bring together different individuals into one organic unity’. However, it was quite unlike the scenes of Jesus blessing the wine and bread, the common depiction of The Last Supper before da Vinci. The loud and violent reaction of the apostles left the Dominican monks aghast. Da Vinci had represented a famous scene in a very unique way. Unfortunately, The Last Supper began to deteriorate almost as soon as Leonardo da Vinci had finished it, because he used oil mixed with tempera instead of the quickdrying fresco. He tried to experiment with a new recipe invented by him, mixing egg yolk and vinegar (tempera) with oil paint and painting on a dry plaster, not the wet plaster normally used in frescoes. The humidity caused the paint to separate from the plaster and whole pieces fell off the wall on which it was painted. Da Vinci used thin brushes and several layers of paint, from dark to light colours, thereby increasing the shadows and depths. His compositions have drama and poignancy, but only 20 percent of what we see today is da Vinci’s work. The painting has been restored so many times by so many people according what they believed da Vinci had done. (When he painted Mona Lisa, he discontinued the use of tempera and restricted himself to oil paints, so the painting was preserved for posterity.) Da vinci was fascinated by the human body, and even dissected corpses secretly, an illegal act in his time. He became a member of the Painters’ Guild of Florence. In 1502, he was appointed military engineer to Cesare Borgia. After wandering through Florence, Milan and elsewhere in Italy in search of a patron, he was invited to France by King Francois I in 1516 where he lived till his death in 1519. Da Vinci left 13 paintings, 4,000 drawings and 7,000 notebook pages. His genius was appreciated only in the nineteenth century. As he himself was a versatile genius, several theories began revolving around The Last Supper. He painted several religious pictures of Christian saints and the Virgin Mary, but is best known for his Mona Lisa, the super star of the Musée de Louvre in Paris. The Renaissance was a period when religious subjects were extremely popular, and many artists, including da Vinci, were commissioned to paint religious themes. It seems unlikely that he would have tried to slip in secret messages when he was
desperately looking for commissions and patrons. Maybe a later restorer did, but that would not be as romantic as da Vinci slipping in secret messages. Da Vinci's Code is one of the most fascinating and readable thrillers of recent times. But the banning of the movie takes us back to the old debate on whether art can cross the Lakshman Rekha of religion — whether it is MF Husain’s nude paintings of Durga and Bharat Mata or cartoons of Prophet Mohammed or a film showing Jesus Christ married to Mary Magdalene! Religion is such a sensitive matter that we should avoid hurting sensibilities.
Indus and India
I have just completed reading the much-acclaimed book by Pakistani writer Aitzaz Ahsan on The Indus Saga — From Pataliputra to Partition. This is not a book review, so it will suffice if I describe it as an original attempt to establish an identity for Pakistan beyond its ‘‘un-Indianness’’ and ‘‘non-Hindu’’ character. The book asserts that the history of "Indus" — the Indus region or pre-Pakistan — was always distinct from India except during three periods: Mauryan, Moghul and British, amounting to about five hundred years! But this is true of most of India except the South, parts of which were never conquered till the arrival of the British. Aftab Alam, an advocate from Swat in NWFP, Pakistan, has gone further to propound another thesis, that Pakistan is the real ‘Islamic Republic of India’ and India is Bharat, not India. This is a crisis of identity that Pakistanis have yet to solve, or at least learn to live with. What role did the Indus region play in Indian history? Was it really distinct from the Northern Plains that stretched from the Afghan border in the West to the forests of the North East? The Indus-Sarasvati plains were the site of the earliest civilisations of India: the Harappan and the Vedic. The Rig Veda was composed in the Indus-Sarasvati basin. Then, the ‘‘mighty Sarasvati’’, as the Rig Veda describes the river, dried up, and an eastward movement began. The Indus river pastoralists of the Vedas became farmers, artisans, priests and warriors. Thereafter, the greatest of Indian literature, science and culture developed in the Indo-Gangetic plains, Kashmir and, later, further south. But Vedic greatness lingered in the Indus region, the western-most region of ancient Aryavarta or Bharatavarsha. Several Indians, including Chanakya and Chandragupta Maurya, went to study at the University of Takshashila (Taxila), the center of a great Buddhist movement that stretched from Pataliputra to Uzbekistan and flowered in the great artistic works of Gandhara, where the image of the Buddha first appeared. Hiuen Tsang describes the Buddhist stupas and shrines in the region as the largest and most impressive in the country. In fact the region provided the base for Buddhism to travel beyond the mountains and northwards along the Silk Route. Buddhism flowered and flourished in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. It was the greatest casualty of the Muslim invasions then, as the Buddhas now under the Taliban. Many heroes and villains — especially the latter — of the ancient world came from the Indus region. Kaikeyi of the Ramayana was the daughter of King Ashvapati of Kekeya in West Punjab. His name means lord of horses, a common vocation in the region. Madri, Pandu’s wife who was responsible for her husband's death which resulted in the ascension to the throne of the blind Dhritarashtra and the subsequent
Kurukshetra war, belonged to Madradesha in West Punjab, whose capital Sangala was destroyed by Alexander. Shakuni, Duryodhana’s wicked maternal uncle and his evil genius, came from Gandhara (modern Qandahar) as did his sister Gandhari, mother of the 100 Kauravas, making them half Pathan! And so on. When Harsha ruled Thanesar, the Arabs conquered Sindh and the Islamisation of the region began. The last noteworthy Hindu king was the Shahi ruler Jaypal, who betrayed his son-in-law Prithviraj to Muhammad of Ghaur, who was followed by a legion of Muslim conquerors from Afghanistan, Persia and Uzbekistan. Why did this region convert in such large numbers when the rest of India did not? The conversion was either forced by the sword or induced by Sufi saints, most of whom were Persians. While the Persians themselves retained their pre-Islamic names when they converted to the new religion, the new converts of northwest India took Persian or Arabic names. Ahsan has an interesting answer: while slavery was permitted in Islam, Muslims could not be enslaved. To avoid enslavement and abduction by the conquerors — the fate of the early inhabitants of the Indus region — the local people not only converted, they changed their names to those of Persian and Arabic origin, to be recognised as followers of Islam. The constant wars also prevented the rise of great rulers in the Indus region. Whether ancient, medieval or British India, the Indus region was generally ruled from and neglected by the east. Unfortunately, local people did not put up much resistance against the invaders, whether on the battlefield or in matters of religion. This was a result of desertification and food shortages in the Indus region: after all, an army marches on its belly. The resistance that would be expected of a frontline state crumbled very fast. Every adventurer who crossed the Hindu Kush — including Alexander — was able to sweep through contemporary Pakistan and march into Delhi. They met greater resistance in the resource-rich east and south, which froze into strong caste groups to retain their heritage. Here caste transcended religion: even when an entire group like the weavers converted, they chose to retain their caste. Ahsan cites Adi Shankara’s establishment of the western math at Dwarka to prove that the Indus region was beyond the Hindu vision. But that means nothing — Adi Shankara established the southern math at Sringeri in Karnataka, not Kanyakumari, and the eastern math at Puri, not Bengal, Assam or Manipur. Hindu centres of pilgrimage in the west, such as Hinglaj Devi in Baluchistan and Kasat Raj in Sindh, continued to be important till Pakistan banned religious pilgrimages from India. Several Sikh shrines are also situated in Pakistan. Many towns still resonate with Indian history and culture, such as Lahore, built by and named after Rama’s son Lava. Bharatavarsha or Aryavarta, the ancient name for north India stretched from Afghanistan in the west to the Gangetic plains in the east. The people living here were known locally as Aryans and to the world as Hindus (from Sindhu), hence the name Hindu-stan (from the Sanskrit stanam or place). The religious connotation of Hindu came much later, when the followers of the older religion had to be distinguished from the followers of Islam. Whether Buddhist or Sanatanist, the people were called Hindu. With the demolition of indigenous traditions, the culture of the Indus region passed from the classical works of literature (Vedas to Harshacharita), architecture (Harappa to Gandhara) and art (Gandhara) to a more folk culture, with tales of bravery and
romance during turbulent times. Rasalu and Dulla replaced Indra and Kanishka as role models. The Bhakti movement found its expression in Sufi mysticism and Punjabi folk music and dance, all anathema to the puritanical Buddhists. In fact, King Harsha’s sister Rajashri, a Buddhist, blamed the lack of music and dance in Buddhism for its decline. Buddhism was the primary religion of the Indus region till the arrival of Islam. Islam annihilated Buddhism, dealing it a death-blow from which it never recovered. Contrary to popular perception, Adi Shankara was not responsible for the disappearance of Buddhism from India: it was the large-scale conversion of Buddhists to Islam and the destruction of Buddhist centres at Taxila, Nalanda and Bihar (Vihara). Hinduism survived in the Indus region till partition, when the majority of Hindus moved to India. The Pakistani attempt to divorce the ancient culture of the Indus region from the Indian sub-continent cannot withstand the fact that it was once very much a part of India. Even Ahsan’s Indus Saga has more Indian than ‘‘Indus’’ history. The Rig Veda describes the region and its people as Bharatam janam (the people of India). Since time immemorial, all the land around and east of the Indus was named India, after the river, by the people of the lands to the west. The ancient world never distinguished between the Indus region and the rest of the Indian sub-continent.
Shiva as Ecologist
Rudra-Shiva is the ultimate symbol of the environment. He combines in himself the forces of nature and the five elements or pancha bhutas that represent the Indian commitment to conserving nature: air, water, earth, fire and space. During the month of Shivaratri, when the devout fast and stay awake, meditating on Shiva as the giver of life is meditating on creation itself. The worship of Shiva was an important method of venerating the environment. Many natural forces are imprisoned in Shiva’s persona: his flowing tresses represent the forests themselves, trapping within them the mighty river Ganga, the source of perennial water and life. His vibhuti or sacred ash is the symbol of fertility, a gift of the earth. He is invariably painted or sculpted beneath one or several trees, generally the bilva. He is accompanied by Nandi the bull and, often, different wildlife, for he is Pashupati, lord of animals. Shiva is also Bhupati, Bhuteshvara or Bhutanatha, lord of the earth. Bhu means earth and the suffix ta means give in Tamil, so bhuta means ‘‘given by’’ or ‘‘formed’’ or ‘‘created’’ from the earth. Bhuta is the spirit of the earth who is worshipped in rural India. The bhutagavana of Udupi in Karnataka and theyyam of Kerala are bhuta rituals that continue to be popular. As the ascetic rishi meditating on a hill, the mountains become the sacred home of Shiva. The Himalayas, even visually, look like the abode of the gods. Several Shiva temples are found on hills. From Kailasha in the Himalayas to Tiruvannamalai in the south, the country is strewn with hill and mountain homes of Shiva. By sanctifying them, important watersheds were conserved, preserving forests and providing water for existence. So sacred are the hills that no tree on them could be cut. However, this ban is hardly observed any longer, and Tiruvannamalai is a classic case of deforestation, as are the Himalayan foothills, that were once rich with forests and
wildlife. Shiva holds Agni or fire on the palm of his hand. It symbolises the energy released during creation. The drum represents the sound Om, the origin of creation. The trishula or trident in his hand represents the feminine half of creation. There is no aspect of this deity that does not invoke nature. The five elements or panchabhootas — earth, air, water, fire and space — are represented by five Shiva lingas, which are famous temples and pilgrimage centres. Earth is represented by the prithvi linga made of mud at the Ekamreshwara temple in Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu. Due to its fragile composition, the ritual washing (abhishekha) is done with the oil of the champaka flower, not water or milk or sandalwood. The linga at Sri Kalahasti, near Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh, houses the vayu linga. The oil lamps flicker away in the wind, so pooja is offered to the utsavamurti (festival bronze) alone. At Tiruvanaikaval (Jambukeshwara) near Tiruchy in Tamil Nadu, the lingalinga stands inside a small shrine beneath ground level, submerged under a perennial underground spring. This is the linga of water. The fourth linga — of fire — is situated on top of Tiruvannamalai hill. Shiva appears as the jyoti or light on Kartika Poornima day, when 1,00,000 lamps are lit on the hill. For the rest, the hill itself is regarded as Shiva’s linga, making it a sacred natural feature. The fifth linga is the akasha linga of Chidambaram. Space is represented as the vast emptiness in which Shiva danced his ananda tandava of creation. There is nothing to be seen in the small shrine. While the lingas within are mentioned in early Tamil literature, dating back 2,000 years, the present temples are magnificent structures that were rebuilt in the Chola, Vijayanagara and Nayaka periods, and are important centres of pilgrimage. However, one wonders how many know the unique symbolism of the temples. There are twelve jyotirlingas dedicated to Shiva which celebrate various aspects of nature. Kedarnath (Garhwal, UP) has a natural linga, an irregular-shaped rock, in a temple surrounded by the five sacred peaks of Rudra Himalaya. Vishwanath at Kashi is washed by the sacred river Ganga. At Nageswar near Dwaraka, the snake is celebrated as a protector. Mahakala at Ujjain represents the unrelenting march of time, the Destroyer. Omkareswar is situated on an island in the river Narmada. The temple of Somnath in Saurashtra is a dyke along the Arabian sea. The linga of Tryambakeshwar in Nasik has a crack from which there is a continuous drip of water, with occasional flashes of fire and sound. Grishmeshwar in Aurangabad is the Lord of the torrid summer. Bhimashankar in the Sahayadri hills is ritually washed by an exquisite lotus pond. Vaidyanatha in Parli, Maharashtra, was once surrounded by forests of medicinal plants. Mallikarjuna at Srisailam in Andhra Pradesh was situated in a garden of white jasmine plants. The twelfth jyotirlinga at Rameshwaram is sacred for the 22 fresh water springs situated within the sea. Other temples of Shiva are equally representative of nature. The linga at Amarnath is made of ice, and waxes and wanes with the moon. The ancient Mauryan-Sunga temple at Gudimallam near Tirupati contains a linga with an emerging Shiva carved in relief. The God stands on a yaksha, a spirit of nature, surrounded by a stone fence. Most importantly, the statue once stood beneath a tree, out in the open, as did most ancient figurines. The forms of Shiva are also eco-friendly. Dakshinamurti is the teacher seated beneath the pipal tree. Bhairava is always followed by his companion the dog.
Bhikshtanar is the free spirit living in the wild open spaces. Lingodbhava comes out of the linga of fire. Ardhanarishvara combines the male and female in a single figure, like the simplest forms of creation where male and female are not distinct. Shiva is also the doctor Vaidyanatha, symbolised by the sacred bilva tree which has multitudinous medicinal properties. The Hindu religion, like all ancient religions, celebrated nature and used religion as a means of protecting the environment. Unfortunately, many of these symbols are forgotten today. We have discarded old traditions without replacing them with anything equally good or better. The loser is the environment, as well as humanity.
The Indian Parliament enacted the Biological Diversity Act in 2002 and the National Biodiversity Rules in 2004. The main objectives of the Act are the conservation of biological diversity, sustainable use of its components and fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilisation of genetic resources. The Act envisages a three-tier structure made up of the National Biodiversity Authority, State Biodiversity Authority and Sustainable use of its components and Local Biodiversity Management Committees. However, while the National Biodiversity Authority has been established, few states have set up their Boards, while the local committees are nonexistent. The management of biodiversity is still a long way off. Even the traditional knowledge associated with biological resources is not protected under this act. There are other laws to protect biodiversity, such as the Indian Forest Act of 1927 and Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. There are also international laws to which the Government of India is a signatory, such as the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (1971), CITES, World Conservation Strategy (1980), Convention of Biological Diversity (1992) and TRIPS (1994), among others. But India has a dismal record in the application of laws. Most cases under the Forest and Wildlife Biodiversity Acts come up before District Magistrates who are woefully ill-informed. One gentleman in the Nilgiris was quite surprised to know that forest conservation laws existed. Laws are useless if the judiciary and legal fraternity are unaware of new legislation in India and the world. There are 493 wildlife sanctuaries and 89 national parks in India, covering 4.71% of the country. Of these, 14 are biosphere reserves, which permit development, besides conservation and research. So they are hardly inviolate. Biodiversity hangs on a thread as fragile as the web which binds all organisms. As natural resources are depleted, there is less to go around, less to share. Economic, social and political problems are a natural corollary to the depletion of natural resources, as castes and communities, states and nations fight over them. Water, the most important natural resource which comes from the hills and forests, is a source of discord. When organisms disappear, the chances of fossil fuels forming are remote. Biodiversity - or biological diversity - includes all the organisms found on our planet, the plants, animals and micro organisms, the genes they contain and the different ecosystems of which they form a part. Biodiversity is of three kinds. Species diversity refers to the variety of organisms living on the earth; genetic diversity to the variation in genes within a particular species, such as different varieties of roses or butterflies; and ecosystem diversity to the different types of habitats, which is the sum total of the climate, vegetation and geography of a region. Biodiversity is not
evenly distributed. Only twelve nations contain sixty to seventy percent of the world’s biodiversity, India being one of them. Biodiversity is essential to the survival of every species, as each organism is linked to another in a fragile web called the web of life. These form the food chain that links food producers to consumers, and maintains ecosystem diversity. The amount of green plants in any environment should be much more than the animals or insects that feed on them. The growth of grass is controlled by the deer whose population is controlled by the tiger. There are several food chains which, depending on the environment, could be simple or complex. But all food chains are fragile, and if even one link is broken, it sets off a series of reactions that could cause the collapse of the ecosystem. If predators - like tigers, snakes and eagles - are killed, the herbivores they live on will multiply and will eat up green plants and grains, leaving the land barren and unproductive. This is how a region like North Africa became the Sahara desert. What would happen to dead rats and human health if scavenger birds were wiped out? Every species has its role, making species diversity essential. Loss of genetic diversity impacts immediately. The genetic similarity of Brazil’s orange trees caused a terrible outbreak of citrus canker in 1991. The examples are endless. India is one of only twelve mega diverse nations in the world, with over 85,000 out of 12,00,000 animal species in the world, and 45,000 out of 2,50,000 plant species. It is estimated that the world knows only about 17,70,000 species out of 5 to 10 million. We hardly know what we have, leave alone what we have lost. The rapid deterioration of the ecology due to human interference is aiding the rapid disappearance of several wild plant and animal species. Biodiversity is under serious threat in India for several reasons. Poaching and the wildlife trade are major national concerns, and all the laws in the world have not been able to stop the wildlife trade, the third largest after arms and drugs. Habitat loss, caused by population growth and housing needs, is another important cause. Pollution from sewage and effluents is yet another. The indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers is wiping out entire insect species on which are dependant birds that pollinate our plants, but this is the sacred cow in Indian politics and no political party will dare to remove the subsidies that will reduce their consumption. Encroachment, siltation and eutrophication are destroying wetlands. Oil spills, toxic effluents and sewage, blasting and dredging, collection of ornamental and undersized fish, trawler fishing, nylon nets, destruction of coral reefs and hot water from nuclear plants are destroying marine life. Chemical pesticides, sewage and other organic wastes and sand mining are destroying rivers. Forests are cut for timber and urban use. Underground mining of minerals and blasting of rocks goes on unchecked. And so on. There is no natural resource that is not under threat. Traditional knowledge is up for grabs. Multinationals send agents into tribal areas to purchase traditional information and species. Sometimes animal and plant species are nabbed by the customs as they are smuggled out, but many species leave the country due to lack of knowledge. The bureaucracy needs to be equally educated. The third arm of our Constitution, the legislature, is equally important. Politicians are unwilling to take unpopular but essential decisions. People will accept short-term suffering if it means long-term hope. The poor Indian is so used to suffering that he
can be educated to understand that chemical pesticides and fertilisers are not good for either his health or that of the land. It is the rich farmer who will not change, and he is India’s pampered child. Few educated Indians care for or understand biological diversity. A massive movement must be carried out to fill this lacuna. The People’s Biodiversity Register envisioned under the Act could document local knowledge and understanding, still retained in rural and tribal communities. Conservation of biodiversity is essential for human survival. To quote Charaka (fourth century A.D.), “As long as this earth is full of nature - plants and animals - the human race is going to flourish.”
The Wandering Ganesha
As possibly the most widely worshipped deity in India, Ganesha also becomes the most versatile in appearance. The lack of restrictions on his iconography means that each Ganesha can reflect local aspirations. But Ganesha was not restricted to India alone. There was a time when there were as many foreign versions as Indian, and some of the earliest images of Ganeshas are found outside India. The earliest elephant-headed human figure appears on a plaque found in Luristan, in Western Iran. Dating back to between 1,200-1,000 BC, this proto-Ganesha stands dressed as a warrior, holding a sword and a snake in one hand and a quill in another, a multi-hooded snake at his feet. A marble Maha Vinayaka was consecrated by King Shahi Khingala in the 5th century AD in Gardez in Afghanistan, and an earlier undated Ganapati was worshipped in Sakar Dhar. These figures, from the Gandhara school, stand languidly, the trunk twisted to the left, wearing a snake for a sacred thread and a dhoti. Since Afghanistan was once a land of Hinduism and Buddhism, there were probably other Ganesha images in Afghanistan that were later destroyed. According to legend, Asoka’s daughter Charumati built a temple for Ganesha in Nepal, and the earliest surviving Ganeshas in Nepal belong to the 8th century. Vinayaka dances, a rat or lion under each foot, multi-armed, carrying several Tantric symbols including a radish, and is canopied by the snake. This form is also found in Mongolia, where Ganesha travelled with the Tibetan monk P’agspa. In Tibet, Ganesha is placed above the entrance of Buddhist monasteries or painted on the doors, often holding a trident and identified with Shiva. In Khotan, or Chinese Turkestan, Ganesha was painted on wooden panels and bronze tablets at Khaklik, the Endere stupa and the rock-cut temples of Bezaklik. Here too he holds a radish and is sometimes dressed in a tiger skin, reinforcing his identification with Shiva. Importantly, his head was framed by a halo, establishing his divinity. From Khotan, Ganesha reached China, and the earliest Chinese image of Ganesha is found at Kung-hsien, a two-armed seated figure holding a lotus and the chintamani jewel. Dated to AD 531, this image is described as the ‘‘Spirit King of Elephants’’. The Chinese and Japanese knew two forms of Ganesha: Vinayaka and Kangiten, the latter being a secret esoteric form of the deity. Derived from Tantric cults, Kangiten symbolised the union of the Individual with the Universal Spirit and consists of two Vinayakas embracing each other. The Chinese emperor Chen Tsung banned the worship of Kangiten, but the cult continued in Japan, where it was introduced by the Buddhist Kolso Daishi. Another form, Vajra Vinayaka or Kakuzencho, had three
heads with three eyes, holding a sword, radish, sceptre and modak. In the Gupta period, Ganesha travelled east — to Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia and Borneo — with Hinduism and Buddhism. Many of the figures are distinctly different, with straight long trunks and three eyes, an attribute transferred from Shiva. In Burma, where several Hindu deities were worshipped in Buddhist pagodas, Ganesha was the Remover of Obstacles, better known as Mahapienne. A remarkable four-armed Ganesha holds an axe, rosary and conch, seated Buddhastyle in padmasana on a pedestal composed of a crocodile, tortoise and fish. In Thailand, the Hindu Mon dynasty built several Ganesha temples, and the early Ayuthia Ganeshas are beautiful figures. In a Hindu temple at Bangkok, Ganesha uses his broken tusk as a stylus, and his left hand holds a manuscript. The Hindu Khmer kingdom of Cambodia abounds with figures of Ganesha. Shaivism was the dominant religion of ancient Indonesia, and although there was no separate cult of Ganesha, his skull-bedecked images decorate Shiva temples, the earliest dating to the 6th century. In the Hindu island of Bali, Ganesha became very popular, and most Balinese Ganeshas are depicted standing, with a third eye. In Djembaran in South Bali, Ganesha is seated on a throne surrounded by flames, like the Shigon Fudo fire spirits who tended to royalty after their death. A Ganesha image from the 5th century was found at a cave at Kombeng in Borneo. Influenced by the images of the Buddha, some images have an urna or protuberance between the eyes. In the last century, the Indian diaspora has taken this lovable deity all over the world in every conceivable avatar. He has become the most modern of our Gods, playing cricket with the Indian team, sending rockets to the moon, or exploding nuclear devices at Pokhran. Or simply being a good son and brother, removing obstacles from the path of his devotees, and conferring hope and wisdom on the mobile Indian.
Warrant for Indain forests
The Ministry of Tribal Affairs tabled a Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill 2005 at the end of the last session of Parliament. No politician would prefer the environment to a voter and the Marxists are rooting for it, so the bill will sail through, unless civil society objects and raises the issues that will affect our survival. The proposed Bill contravenes the Indian Forest Act of 1927, Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 and Forest Conservation Act of 1980 and debars the application of these Acts. This means that there will be no more statutory protection for forests and wildlife. The rights given by the Bill are vast and endless, including the right to grazing and to disputed lands; conversion of pattas, leases and grants on forest lands to titles; and conversion of forest villages into revenue villages. The Bill provides for settlement of land rights on forest lands in perpetuity. There are already several court cases over pattas granted by former rulers. Under Chapter 3 (4) (j), the tribals are given access to biodiversity. This is totally against the provisions of the Biodiversity Act of 2002 and would permit the felling of
trees or even hunting of animals, including the tiger. The biggest problem is the proposed distribution of 2.5 hectares of forest land per nuclear family, according to Chapter 3 (4). The concept of a nuclear family is nonexistent among tribes. The Bill also permits the land to be used for habitation or self cultivation for livelihood needs. This means that it can be cleared for agriculture or house construction. How long would it take an enterprising businessman to build a resort in the tribal’s name, claiming both habitation and livelihood needs? It has been done elsewhere in the country. Forests constitute only 20 percent or 68 million hectares of India’s land, of which less than 17 percent has thick forest cover. India’s stated policy is to increase forest cover to 33 percent. This Bill will do the opposite. India’s tribal population is about 83 million. Thus about 60 percent of India’s forest land will be lost. Forests are the subject of the Ministry of Environment and Forests. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs can only frame laws for tribals and has no authority to give rights on forest land. Several tribes are not forest-dwellers, but will still be eligible for 2.5 hectares of forestland. Land is a fixed commodity in a country with a growing population. This meagre natural resource should not be distributed to one section of society. The large-scale destruction of forests would lead to the disruption of the nutrient cycle and water harvesting regime, risking the food and water security of the country. The rivers of India originate in the forest. The forests are also the watershed for our wetland systems. Destruction of the forests will only deepen India’s water crisis. The role of forests in checking pollution and protecting the environment in this era of industrialisation will be completely eroded. This principle has been completely ignored. The Bill is in total contravention of the universally recognised principle of ecological integrity. Several non-tribal communities live in the forests, but the Bill is silent about them, hence discriminatory. The Bill is also silent about landless tribals occupying forest lands. Distribution of forests lands does not necessarily mean development. West Bengal has an excellent record of land distribution, but very poor social and economic indices. Certain duties to protect wildlife, forests and biodiversity have been enjoined on the tribals. But, like the Indian Constitution, these duties are merely guidelines, not obligatory. Working extensively with the tribes of the Nilgiris — the Kurumbas, Kotas, Irulas, Paniyas and Todas — for over 20 years, I am happy that their existence is finally being recognised. They need help to get out of poverty and improve their lives. They also have great knowledge of the forests. But we must not romanticize tribals. After all, India was once all forest, and all her habitants were tribals. Over the centuries, tribal communities became food producers — farmers, traders, priests, warriors and more. Many of our so-called Scheduled Tribes are no longer tribals: they do not live in social groups of families who share their resources and possessions, an essential attribute of a tribe. Do either Ajit Jogi of the Congress or Babulal Marandi of the BJP live in tribal communities?
To believe that all tribes are equally caring of the forests is naïve. The deforestation of the North East is going on with the active connivance of the local tribes. After their conversion to Christianity, they lost their bonding with the forests, the sacred groves once occupied by the spirits of their ancestors and their ancient gods of Nature. The lands leased out to the Todas were sub-leased to tea estates and timber and land contractors. Many tribes are known to be guides for poachers, for they know the forests intimately. Like people anywhere, there are good tribals and bad tribals. Tribals need livelihoods, not a licence to be exploited by the land and timber mafia and corrupt officials who alone will benefit by this Bill. Distribution of land to tribals would result in land mafias coming into play to grab the land for commercial ventures. It would be appropriate to study the fate of the people to whom land has been allotted by the Government in the past. It will be a perfect set up for unimaginable corruption and an opportunity for the exploitation of natural resources by powerful killers and crooks. There are better methods to fulfil tribal needs. The Joint Forest Management should be strengthened and tribals should have equal access to benefits accruing from the forests, now enjoyed exclusively by the State Forest Departments. There should be reservation for tribals in certain categories of jobs like watchers, forest guards, VAOs, etc. which require more skill and less education. Preference should be given to tribals in those categories of jobs which require higher educational levels, such as forest officers. While no tribal must be forced out of forest land, those tribals who would prefer to move out of forest areas (and believe me, many do) must be rehabilitated on good, productive revenue land. The regulatory authority, according to the Bill, will be a Gram Sabha to be set up among the tribals. But the Gram Sabha is a political body and cannot take cognizance of an offence. India no longer has the luxury of vast forests. Encroaching villagers poison tigers and kill elephants. They conduct ex-nawabs and film stars on shikars, grab lands for farm houses and resorts and fell trees for money. The meagre 20 percent must be protected at any cost, even if it means cordoning off forests from human interference. This Bill will be catastrophic for Indian forests. It will endanger wildlife and give a free licence to the timber and land mafia. It will make a mockery of the Wildlife Crime Bureau proposed by the prime minister. If there are no forests, where will the tiger and other wildlife live? We are already suffering from poor rainfall, water shortage, low soil fertility, pollution and depletion of natural resources. Our children are taught that we need forests to survive. The Tribal Bill gives the licence to destroy the environment in one stroke. It is up to society to speak out, to demand the Prime Minister’s protection for India’s forests and wildlife, which he swore to defend when he took the oath of office.
Earth @ Rs 100 crore
The art world has been rocked by Maqbool Fida Husain’s recent Rs 100 crore deal. From what we’re told, he will produce one hundred paintings within the coming year for a low-profile industrialist from Mumbai, Guru Swarup Srivastava, Chairman of the
Swarup Group of Industries. The series, titled ‘Our Planet Called Earth’ is a business proposition for Srivastava who, by his own admission, is ‘‘not an art collector’’. Hearing of Citibank’s pricey acquisition of Husain’s paintings in Dubai, he got in touch with the artist’s son, and the deal was arranged. Whether an artist of the stature of Husain should sign such an obviously commercial contract is a different matter. His embarrassment is apparent in his defensive statement that ‘‘people will now accuse me of commodifying art... that is why I continue to make graphics which can be purchased for as little as Rs 2000 a piece’’ and claims that the money will be used to make a movie — his first love. But the bigger puzzle is how art came to command so much money, pulling artists out of the proverbial garret. Perhaps the trend started with the auctions by Sotheby’s and Christie’s, who found that Indian art was commanding good prices in London with the NRI crowd. They set up shop in India and did well, initially. But India is an investor’s hell and red tape soon forced them out of the country. They shifted base to New York and London, and prices started rising. In September 2002, Tyeb Mehta’s massive (8 feet X 17 feet), three-panelled Celebration fetched $317,000, Husain’s Mahabali $107,550 and a V S Gaitonde $ 65,725, at Christie’s auction in New York. Meanwhile, Patrick Bowring and a group of Englishmen set up Bowring’s Fine Arts Auctioneers in New Delhi. They did wonders for Indian art. Prices soared. Ravi Varmas went for their highest ever prices, and the Bengal School saw a dramatic revival. A Bowring’s auction was an occasion for the city’s chatterati to see and be seen, and to pick up a painting ‘‘as an investment’’. It was no longer the done thing to buy a painting to match one’s upholstery! But Bowring’s were constantly beset by problems. A controversy broke out over an allegedly stolen painting of Hemen Mazumdar surfacing at Bowring’s first auction. Soon the CBI was on their trail, and a few unregistered Ravi Varmas, a declared ‘‘national treasure’’, were found on their premises. It is said that a few art dealers, jealous at the auction house’s success, exerted pressure on the government to show Bowring’s the door. Whatever the truth, Bowring’s closed shop, leaving the field to Osian’s and a few online auction houses. Today, paintings are bought and sold with the ease and frequency of shares. But, like shares, you can realise your money only if you buy and sell fast. An art collector has no place in this scheme. Art has ceased to be either a work of inspiration or even a beautiful ornament. It has become a commodity to be bought and sold, and is painted with an eye on the export market. In fact, art has become so lucrative that copies have entered the market, the recent controversy about Anjolie Ela Menon fakes being an example. Several art ‘curators’ and ‘consultants’, who are merely successful dealers or gallery owners or even socialites, have jumped into this fray. Many are used to fix prices. When art prices are fixed they become a risky investment. Names like Husain will probably survive a future crash, and an unknown name may rise like the phoenix from the ashes, just like Van Gogh who achieved fame after his death. But, in the long run, prices will rise only as high as they are sustainable, and Rs 100 crore deals may come unstuck. By which stage, one hopes the investors would have developed a taste in art so that, rather than sell at a loss, they can hang the paintings on the wall and learn to love them. In the meantime, we can rejoice that Indian artists are finally commanding a good price.
The real heroine
A Celebration of Love The Romantic Heroine in the Indian Arts Edited by Harsha V Dahejia Roli Books, Price not stated The nayika is unique to Indian literature, a heroine connecting the secular and the sacred, the shringara and bhakti rasas. She is central to the classics, with the Natyashastra, drama and sculpture revolving around her. She is the earthy gopi of folk culture and the cultured courtesan, adept at several erotic arts, of the Tantric world. But, even as she anticipates her lover, she is moving to a higher spiritual plane, where the individual yearns for the Supreme Being, and ecstasy lies in the realisation of the Self and the divine union of the individual with the Supreme. A Celebration of Love, edited by Harsha V Dahejia, reflects this divine relationship and the role of the nayika. It is a collection of essays by forty writers, covering nayikas as varied as those in “Quest of Krishna”, and “Radha, The Goddess of Love”, the “Sufi Nayika of Qutban”, the “Mughal Nayika”, the courtesans of Lucknow and elsewhere and “Mirabai of Calendar Art”. Nagarjunakonda and the austere Jaina manuscripts also have their own nayikas. In societies where women had a limited role to play, the freedom of the courtesan was unlimited. Some nayikas were born into royalty, others were commoners, but each had to use her beauty, intelligence and skills to reach the portals of power. Bharat Gupt traces the genesis of the nayikas to the Natyashastra, where four types of heroines are delineated. However, they appear much earlier, and Kautilya’s Arthashastra even describes a department for their management. Nayikas were great musicians, dancers and litterateurs. She could be a queen like Mirabai or a courtesan like Vasantasena, a goddess like Radha or a gopi (cowherdess). But she had to have that certain unique quality that could captivate. The four types of women celebrated in the later Kamasutra are described by Alka Pande in “Myriad Moods of Love”. Jerry P Losty examines the emergence of the nayika form in medieval Indian manuscript painting, while Rajashekhar’s “Karpuramanjari” describes the mugdha or artless nayika. Unlike the West, where courtesans were treated as prostitutes and their children as bastards, the permitted polygamy of ancient and medieval Indian society integrated courtesans and their children into society. The courtesan bridged the gap between the palace and the common people, and many became popular queens. But it is in the Krishna tradition that the nayika reached her zenith. Radha is the ultimate nayika, her contradictory moods of love and anger, longing and rejection, were captured in literature as varied as the Bhagavata Purana, Gita Govinda and Rajput and Pahadi painting. The nayika of Krishna’s lila is described in Geeti Sen’s “Raas Lila”, where enchantment meets innocence. In fact the vast majority of the articles belong to the various cults dedicated to Krishna, where the nayikas find their niche in traditions as varied as Shrinathji of Nathadwara in Gujarat, the bhajans of the medieval Rajput princess Mira — also a nayika in love with Krishna — and the Tamil Periyalvar’s Periyalvartirumoli, among others. In fact Mira is the epitome of the nayika who renounces her royal role as wife and widow to become the lover of
Krishna. In the Indian tradition, the nayika also represents the jivatma (individual soul) yearning for her lord or the paramatma (universal soul). This thread runs throughout the book, maintaining the high tenor of the tradition, lifting the nayika to another realm. This tradition even entered the Mughal and Lucknow courts, where the knowledge and talent of the courtesans elevated their status to a higher plane. The book contains articles on often seen but rarely remarked upon motifs, such as “The Aesthetics of Red in Rajasthani Painting”, “The Nayika and the Mirror”, and “The Nayika and the Bird”. The nayika, looking into the mirror, represents the individual searching for the atman within. From the times of Damayanti who used the swan as her messenger, the bird was the go-between who carried messages between lovers. Nayikas were also the Raginis of the Ragamala paintings, representing the nine rasas. While so much has been covered in this book, the omissions are glaring. Where is the nayika of Buddhist literature and art, women like Amrapalli and those of Sunga sculpture and Ajanta painting. The southern traditions, including the Tamil Aham poetry, Kannagi and Madhavi of Silappadigaram, the saint-poetess Andal, dancing women of sculpture and painting, devadasis, Chalukya and Pallava queens, Shantala of the Hoyshalas and many others have, inexplicably, been omitted. The southern nayika was the perfect example of the elevation of shringara to bhakti. The book is profusely illustrated, with many paintings taken from Harsha Dahejia’s own collection. Professor Dahejia is a Doctor of Religion in the University of Ontario in Quebec, Canada, (as well as a Doctor of Medicine). When the book was released in Chennai, Malavika Sarukkai expressed, through the medium of Bharata Natyam, the various rasas of the nayika and her yearning for a spiritual union with the Supreme in an emotive lecture-demonstration, bringing the alive the romantic heroine of Indian art. The quest for the divine union of male and female, the yin and the yang, Ardha Nari and Ishvara, is the ultimate form of spiritual Oneness, inherent in Hindu theology. This book takes us on a 2500-year-long journey through Indian art and literature to find the perfect nayika, who appears in different avatars in different ages. We finally find her in Radha, self-effacing and demure, in Dahejia’s treatise on “The Vaishnava Ethos and Shringara Bhakti”. The book is an aesthetic and readable quest for both the spiritual and secular art lover.
David turns 500
In the 15th and 16th centuries, the tiny kingdoms of Europe were constantly at war with each other. In 1501, the city of Florence commissioned Michelangelo Buonarroti to sculpt an 18 foot block of marble into a statue of David. Working for three years, Michelangelo created a 14 foot high statue that was eventually placed in the Piazza Della Signoria in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, the Town hall, in 1504. This month, the city of Florence celebrates 500 years of David with a festival of the arts. David was a popular figure in Florentine Renaissance art. He had been sculpted by Donatello and Verrocchio, for he was believed to represent the anti-tyrant republican qualities of Florence. The Biblical figure was chosen to symbolise the fact that
although Florence was a small city, it had the courage to take on any enemy who dared to threaten it, like the tiny David took on the giant Goliath. The interpretation of a character from the Old Testament was popular in medieval European art, when the Renaissance was rediscovering its classical past. Michelangelo’s David was different from earlier representations. The artist made him nude, choosing the moment before the young David met his opponent Goliath. According to the Bible, Saul supplied David with a warrior’s dress but, finding he could not walk with it, David took it off. Michelangelo was not content to remain just another artist. He studied the great Greek and Roman artists of the past and great masters such as Giotto, Masaccio and Donatello. He tried to represent the beauty of the human body with all its muscles and the body in motion. He dissected dead bodies and drew from models. Like his contemporary Leonardo da Vinci, he researched in detail the human body, and his artistic work was eclectic in that it included painting, sculpture and architecture. But, unlike Leonardo, who was a scientist and engineer too and experimented with several varied problems, Michelangelo strove to master the human body to perfection. He fixed upon the Biblical description of David as a handsome youth with beautiful eyes. Holding the slingshot over a shoulder, David represented the Renaissance male ideal, muscular and alert, with a fiery intensity of expression called terribilita, which was to characterise Michelangelo’s works and himself. Michelangelo spent months polishing the statue to give it a high lustre. Michelangelo’s David came under attack several times. A riot in 1527 damaged the statue’s left arm which was repaired with a mixture of lime and sand. It was transferred to the Galleria Accademia in 1873 to save it from the elements, but the move also weakened David’s ankles, which support more than six tons of dead weight. In 1991 a frustrated artist attacked the statue with a hammer and broke the second toe on the left foot. The latest restoration has been the subject of much heated debate. The first restorer, Agnese Parronchi, resigned last year because she insisted on dry cleaning with chamois cloth, soft brushes and erasers. The second restorer, Cinzia Parnigoni, applied a poultice of cellulose pulp and sepiolite on a sheet of paper with which she covered the statue to clean it and remove five centuries of grime. Professor James Beck of Columbia University and president of ArtWatch International spearheaded an unsuccessful campaign to halt the cleaning, claiming that it failed to solve the problem of the statue’s structural weakness. However, the cleaning has been completed in time for the celebrations planned for September. Besides being politically correct, celebrating 500 years of David is an economic move to bring tourists to Florence, a city dependent on the tourist industry which has been flagging everywhere since the events of 9/11. But this is also an opportunity to pay homage to one of the greatest artists who ever lived.
Charity or cheating?
In a country with varied problems like India, NGOs have provided some of the most creative solutions — the Ranthambore Foundation taught villagers to paint, not shoot
the tiger, while SEWA used craft and design to empower women. The Chipko movement and Narmada Bachao Andolan brought NGOs together for common causes like environmental conservation and rehabilitation respectively. Many NGOs have made great contributions to rural and urban development, from education to health, environment and more. Socio-economic development is the buzz word but, in India, it is still classified as "charity". India has an ancient tradition of charity and voluntary work. Gifts or daanam of rice, cows, money, houses, and other items, and seva or service go back to the Vedic period. People who taught poor students were respected. Public service, like desilting tanks, was mandatory. The tradition is not dead. A survey conducted in 2001 by the Sampradaan Indian Centre for Philanthropy revealed that 96 percent per cent of upper and middle class urban Indians donated to charity, totalling Rs. 16.16 billion that year. As many as 37 percent of the respondents preferred to donate money over time. But India also needs the time of educated and creative people. Volunteerism received a fillip from early Roman Catholic missionaries who left Europe to work among the poor and diseased. The British supported some religious and social service organisations that formed the backbone of British rule. Soon similar Indian service organisations like the Ramakrishna Mission were born. For Mahatma Gandhi, social service was as important as freedom from foreign rule. In 1860, the Indian Societies Registration Act came into being. Educational institutions, associations and service groups were required to register, submit tax returns and annual reports. Trusts and societies were difficult to manage, and registration ensured transparency and, thereby, respect. Later, some states like Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra brought in their own acts. According to the various acts, members and office bearers of societies and trusts cannot receive any remuneration or benefit. Unfortunately, this rule is not always followed, and office bearers of several societies receive benefits in the forms of "perks", some even taking salaries. The concept of the NGO or non-governmental organisation is a recent legacy of western liberal traditions. Western NGOs include anti-war movements, environmental conservation groups, child rights groups and so on, people who fought and were proud to be disassociated from their governments. Indian NGOs, in contrast, are primarily development workers. Jaiprakash Narayan's movement of the '70s lifted voluntary action to new heights, with NGOs roped in to carry out government programmes. Indira Gandhi therefore viewed them with suspicion, but Rajiv Gandhi took a different view, establishing CAPART to route funds for rural development to NGOs. Unfortunately, allegations of corruption soon overtook CAPART, and it was alleged that any NGO who paid 10 percent of the project cost to the officials concerned could have vast projects running into several lakhs cleared. The money available for NGOs in several ministries became a source of self-employment and bred a new species of NGO tapped funding sources to support personal needs. NGOs who receive funding from American churches are the smartest operators.
When the Methodist fund giver comes, the NGO puts up a Methodist board, when the Pentecost representative arrives, there is a Pentecost board, and so on. So for one project, he has at least half a dozen sources of income: he spends one-sixth on the project and pockets the rest. Thus a lot of the money distributed to NGOs has gone astray. In recent years, many NGOs have come up who are fund-driven, making their commitment and credibility suspect. This is especially so in the field of AIDS awareness, where a lot of American money was made available. According to a study by Charities Aid Foundation (India) and Voluntary Action Network of India, Rs 2571 crore of foreign funding entered India in 1997-98, for distribution to 6,700 organisations. In 2000, this went up to Rs 4000 crores, besides Rs 200 crore from government agencies and another Rs 200 crore from corporate sources. Government funds are not predictable, nor do they come on time. Some ministries take one or two years to clear a project, some sit on the second instalment, many do not even reply to letters. Thus when some NGOs get their projects cleared in record time and others do not, it gives rise to suspicions of officials receiving kickbacks. Vijay Mahajan, writing in Humanscape, lists five roles for the voluntary sector. One role is that of a "public service contractor" providing services for a fee, in areas like education where NGOs can be more effective than the government. Another is as collaborator with the government and private sectors in activities like watershed management or joint forest management, where community participation is essential. The third is as social innovator, experimenting with new technologies, services (such as small savings of self-help groups) and methods of social organisation (like JFM). The fourth role is as social critic and policy advocate for specific issues. And the fifth is to build civil society institutions, to enable and strengthen people's organisations. All these require skilled people who need to be paid. But a major problem is the matching of volunteers with voluntary agencies. There are many people with specific skills who wish to volunteer, but do not know where to go. Indian cities need a clearing house of NGOs and volunteers — a listing of NGOs with credibility and a register of volunteers, so that each can contact the other, find the skills they require and support the cause they wish to espouse. Indians retire early: 58 is still prime time in most cultures, so many volunteers could be retirees. Training is essential for volunteers, particularly those from the government or corporate sectors, unused to the shoe-string budgets of the voluntary sector, where the least amounts are spent on staff, and one person is expected to do everything. The NGO movement has tremendous potential in a developing economy, where lack of governmental credibility demands a legitimate alternative. It would be a pity if a few bad eggs were permitted to give the movement a bad name.
What’s your poison?
It’s election — and sop — time and the biggest beneficiaries are those with the most votes — the agriculture lobby. From the prime minister to every chief minister, politicians are writing off loans, giving free electricity, etc. Good. Every country subsidises the farm sector, so why not India?
But we receive total irresponsibility in return. Our food is doused with chemical pesticides and fertilisers. It is not only the colas that yield high pesticide levels: water, milk, rice, wheat, and every variety of vegetable and fruit are “protected” with insect and human-killing pesticides. We swallow large doses of toxins every day — each one harms some human organ or causes cancer. Every tenth Indian living in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai or Bangalore is likely to get cancer. A few years ago, cancer was a frightening rarity. Today it has become commonplace. Cancer cases are increasing even in rural areas. India’s pesticide industry has an installed capacity of 162,760 tonnes per annum, or 10 percent of the global capacity. Of over 140,000 tonnes of pesticides consumed in 2000 (the difference is imported), over 120,000 tonnes were consumed by agriculture – alone. The chemicals enter the water table. So we are ingesting deadly chemicals at every meal and with every glass — of water or a soft drink. This comes courtesy the Indian farmer. The Insecticides Act of 1968 and the Insecticides Rules of 1971 control pesticide use in India; the Central Insecticides Board (CIB) in Faridabad is the regulatory body. But the Act does not mention either the environmental hazards or the threat to biodiversity. A potential manufacturer has to provide details of dosage, level of residues and their persistence, information that needs years of study. But nobody follows procedures and anything is registered for a fee. Once in the market, there is no controlling its use. Although DDT is banned for agriculture, it is still sold freely for “public health purposes”, and is thus used for agriculture too. A leaflet is slipped in, but who reads it? From 434 pesticides mentioned in the schedule to the Act in 1968, there are 648 today. It is a Rs 4,100 crore market shared by 57 Indian and 10 MNC producers and over 500 formulators. The producers manufacture, the formulators convert them to usable forms. The European Union withdrew 320 substances used for plant protection, including pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. An additional 49 have been given “derogation” status. But pesticides that are banned or severely restricted in the West continue to be used in India, including BHC, Carbaryl, Carbofuran, DDT, Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, DDVP (Dichlorvos), Dimethoate, Endosulphan, Lindane, Malathion, Methyl parathion, Monocrotophos, Mancozeb, Paraquat and others. They have been identified as extremely hazardous by WHO. Untrained illiterate farmers use them indiscriminately and without restriction. The farmer sprays them, sees an immediate benefit, sprays more, finds the insects are becoming resistant to the pesticide, and increases the dose. The crippling results of prolonged exposure to endosulfan in Kasargod district, Kerala, are well-documented. Shockingly, the scientists of CIB rejected the results of the study conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Health, when residues were still found in blood samples ten months after the last spray. Whenever a review panel suggests the curbing of pesticide use, it is ignored. No government or political party would dare to control pesticides. The pesticide lobby — the industry and large powerful farmers — are too strong. In 1996, when the CIB ordered manufacturers to supply information about the chemical composition, waiting and residue period, no information came out, as the industry demanded that
the government should bear the cost of the study! In 2000, the government tried to empower the CIB to renew existing registrations of chemical compounds after a review, but nothing happened. Following the study by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) of bottled water and the colas, a hue and cry was raised, a JPC was set up, but the report has been given a quiet burial. When Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring appeared in the ‘50s, American industry, through Reader’s Digest, spent millions of dollars on articles attacking her. Something similar happened to CSE’s study. The problem lies with the various state departments of agriculture. They have field officers, many in the pay of pesticide and fertiliser manufacturing companies, whose sole aim is to spread the use of their products. Thus they tell farmers to spray pesticides at the time of planting, again when the tender shoots appear, again when the flowers appear, again on the fruit or vegetable or grain itself, till, when it enters the market, the item has become highly toxic. Genetically modified plants are totally dependant on chemical inputs. There are excellent organic alternatives, especially in India. But neem oil is exported in large quantities by India to the USA and Europe for their use as a pesticide, while we are increasing our usage of their banned chemicals! Our farmers do not care for indigenous solutions, although they know them well. The Ministry of Environment and Forests is supposed to monitor and prevent pollution, but pollution by the agricultural sector is never mentioned. Pesticides are the obvious cause for the disappearing sparrows, frogs, vultures and many other species. An Indian farmer applies 99.65 kg of fertilizers — Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potash — per hectare. The increasing indiscriminate use has resulted in nitrate pollution caused by urea, which leaches into the soil and contaminates the water, interfering with the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood. Excess use of nitrates causes Japanese encephalitis, cancer, respiratory illnesses and acid rain. Each chemical fertilizer causes many problems. It also increases the plants’ susceptibility to disease, thereby requiring more pesticide application. There is an unholy nexus between industry and the farm sector. Each needs the other for survival. There is nothing wrong in wanting to earn more, but at what cost? Finally, we all want to lead a good healthy life, but carcinogenic pesticides and fertilizers are not conducive to good health. It is not that farmers are not aware of what they are doing. Many large and small farmers I have met cleverly keep a small area of land for their personal requirements of rice, dhal and vegetables, which are grown organically. The market receives a toxic produce. In a few years, when the biodiversity of the land — the bacteria, insects and small and large wildlife including birds, snakes, frogs and earthworms — have all been wiped out and the land lies waste, the soil stops yielding, in spite of the vast quantities of chemicals. The farmer panics. He has sunk bore wells to the depth of several hundred feet to extract three crops, but the water is drying up due to excessive withdrawal. He now wants more subsidies because he has extracted the last breath out of the land, just as he whips his bullocks to work till their last breath and then, when they no longer can, sells them to the butcher so that he can make some money in their death.
We need a Green party to protect our interests. Thank heavens I am not standing for election – I would definitely lose for criticizing our sacred cow, the Indian farmer. But I want to live a healthy life.
Cultural policing is bad
But creative license cannot be used to hurt people’s sentiments At a recent closed-door workshop at the C P Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation at Chennai, historians, teachers and scientists were discussing the new findings about River Sarasvati and its historical implications, when “volunteers” from a so-called leftist “secular” group barged in without permission, distributed handbills and created an ugly scene, declaring that the motive behind the discussion was to despatch Christians and Muslims from India. Considering that several Christian teachers and JNU scholars were participating, it would have been amusing, but for the fact that the promoters of the group included a former vice chancellor and a retired professor of history, both Muslims. Somebody should tell them that the Sarasvati disappeared by 2000 B.C., long before Jesus Christ and Mohammed were born. A good friend — a former professor and a devout Muslim — advised me not to give the incident publicity, since that was what they wanted, so we merely asked the police to take them away, but did not press charges. Leftist historians have become paranoid about River Sarasvati, trying hard to prove that it never existed in India and denouncing evidence to the contrary. Priceless manuscripts at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune, were destroyed by the Sambhaji Brigade, self-proclaimed “protectors” of Maratha culture. We recently read about the VHP workers who destroyed paintings in Vadodhra. In recent years, books by Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nusreen and now James Laine have been banned in response to fundamentalist demands. Shiv Sena objects to Valentine's Day, a harmless bit of fun and a marketing gimmick for our shopkeepers. Where will it end? There is little difference between the right and the left when it comes to cultural intolerance. They are an increasing tribe today, primarily because they are persons without substance who cannot find another road to make headlines. Cultural policemen are of different types. First, there are the self-styled protectors of public morality who decide on public behaviour, dress and so on. Then, there are the political faithful, adherents of one “ism” or another, who hate every other point of view, and attack books or works of art. Finally, there are the publicity seekers who do not know any other way to achieve fame. I have not included religious adherents: The three types may belong to any faith. Culture thrives in an atmosphere of tension and change, and new ideas are invariably condemned. The end of World War II inspired the creation of a new school of pop art, the introduction of American market values in old Europe where the artist turned to commonplace source material. The confrontations of the cold war produced art that reflected the horrors of war and the oppressing anxieties of a fragile peace, combining surrealistic symbolism with abstraction. Picasso's Guernica criticised the Spanish Civil War. The race riots and Vietnam War inspired artists like Andy Warhol
to bridge the gap between reality and the image: They were the enfants terribles. In recent years, environmental degradation has resulted in minimalism and recycled art, celebrating society's discarded materials. In contrast, the totalitarian nations of USSR and China censored every nonconformist and original work of literature: Boris Pasternak was jailed for Dr Zhivago, which he published in Western Europe and for which he was made to turn down the Nobel prize. The conformist works were boring and a flop. Medieval India, while fighting the tensions of Muslim onslaught, developed exotic new schools of art and literature. In recent years, more great works of art have been produced from Mumbai's crowded chawls than the sylvan surroundings of Cholamandalam Artists' Village in Chennai. A turbulent society produces new and heterodox ideas. A few years ago, M F Hussain drew a nude Sarasvati that drew public anger. It was undoubtedly wrong. Would he have dared to do the same to the Prophet Mohammed? I think not. Salman Rushdie's novel criticised the prophet. Was he justified? No: His work was not even researched. But is the solution a blanket ban? I think not. Are we not succumbing to the religious right and the fundamentalist left when we ban books, or fetter new and revolutionary ideas? When Krishna, the Buddha, Jesus Christ and Mohammed preached their ideas, they were revolutionaries. Christ was crucified for his ideas. Today they have become a part of the orthodox establishment! The English Bible was initially burnt, till Edward ascended the throne of England. 2000 years later, we have yet to accept the inevitability of original thinkers who will be the creators of a new order. Creativity is of many sorts: Albert Einstein, Aldous Huxley, Andy Warhol and even the Beatles were “ideas” people. Sometimes we find ourselves critical of a painting or book, and wonder how it commanded its price or sold so many copies. The answer is in the new ideas it conveys: Seemingly simple solutions and ideas that were there all along. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was condemned by the American establishment, but it created the environmental movement. But, if the writer and artist have rights, they also have responsibilities. They must not hurt people's sentiments on matters of faith. Their work must not create law and order situations. They also have responsibilities towards society, like any one of us. Once upon a time, women in India did not cover their breasts. In fact, even during my childhood, village women did not wear cholis in Tamil Nadu, and did not cover their breasts in Kerala. As man created god in his image (and not vice versa, with due apologies to the Bible), so too did he dress and decorate him. Thus gods and goddesses were dressed as the people were. But times have changed, and today's goddesses are covered with saris and cholis of cotton and silk, although the original stone figure beneath may be dressed differently. A nude goddess is undoubtedly offensive in the 21st century, and Hussain should have been sensitive to people's sentiments. But the artist must be made to understand, and asked to withdraw his work. This is where he must exercise his social responsibility. Vandalising works of art and offering a reward to blacken a face are undemocratic responses. James Laine should thank
the Government of Maharashtra for his increased sales, which is what the ban on his book has achieved. A few years ago, I wrote a book on the Painted Manuscripts of the Sarasvati Mahal Library, where I quoted the Italian traveller Manucci's account that the 17th century ruler of Thanjavur, Vijayaraghava Nayak, was deserted by his troops for ravishing their wives and concubines, and, on being attacked by Chokka Nayak of Madurai, blew up the zenana to deprive Chokka of a Thanjavur princess. The Nayakar/Naidu community of Thanjavur threatened to burn the book and my effigy if the government did not “cover up” this reference to Vijayaraghava. I was ecstatic and wanted them to go ahead, thereby ensuring my fame and the book's sales! Unfortunately, the Government of Tamil Nadu was the publisher and chickened out, and a piece of paper was stuck over the offending paragraph! Democratic discussion and debate has been a liberal tradition of India. The Constitution has given us this right, even as it has put some fetters on our right of expression. This is a right that must be exercised with caution. We live in a highly volatile society, and one spark can cause a conflagration. But, if we have to be accepted as a modern society, we have to be tolerant of different views and learn to integrate them, or refute and change them in an orderly civilised manner. We cannot afford to let a group of bigots police our lives and make their own laws.
Celebrating the sun
January is a special month when I suddenly become aware of the sun. For the past few months, the sun can barely penetrate the thick curtain of plants behind my chair and window, which face west. Then suddenly, in mid-January, the sun lights up my room and I have to close the shutters in the afternoon, to prevent the scorching rays from burning me. And then I remember that it is January, celebrated as uttarayana when the su n enters the northern hemisphere; or sankranti when people fly kites; or pongal when the Tamil farmer thanks the sun for a bountiful harvest and offers him the first fruits of his labour: Rice, lentils, milk and jaggery. So sacred is this moment that Bhishma waited on a bed of arrows to die in uttarayana. January also sees the end of the classical music and dance season at Chennai, and the beginning of folk music and dance. It is so satisfying to see the clockwork regularity with which this is repeated year after year. The sun was the only stable aspect of nature on which ancient people could depend, the crucial force for the creation and maintenance of life, which made it an object of veneration in all ancient societies. It is amazing how similar were the myths and symbols associated with the sun across cultures. The sun is symbolic of the commonality of ancient cultures, possibly even their common origins. In astrology the solar sign signifies creative energy: it became symbolic of creation and was the muse for creativity across cultures. The sun, in the ancient world, was considered to be made of gold. It was represented by the horse, whose speed was matched by the sun as it passed from day to night and back to day, and through the four seasons. The three positions of the sun — sunrise, noon and sunset — were described as the three steps of Vishnu Trivikrama in the Vedas; the three positions of the Greek Helios; and as Horus the rising sun, Ra the midday sun and Atum the setting sun, by the Egyptians. The Egyptian sun god Ra was born each morning as a child, grew until noon, and became an old man and
died every night. The three positions of the sun were the hiding place of the immortal nectar. Because it rises in the east and sets in the west, the sun became a symbol of resurrection and death, while its passage across the skies was likened to a chariot of the gods. In early Indian art the sun rode a chariot driven by four horses, representing the four seasons and the four divisions of the day, reminiscent of the Greek Helios. Later, the number of horses was increased to seven, for the seven days of the week. By the Kushana period in Mathura, the Sun God had developed his own symbolism: A lotus (or lotus bud) in either hand, a flower that grew away from the dirt below to face the regenerative qualities of the sun. And calf-length boots on his feet, so that they may not scorch the earth. The seven horses, lotuses and boots became his defining features throughout Indian art. The lotus symbol was not restricted to India. Much earlier, in Egypt, the solar Ra was a child enclosed in a lotus bud in the bosom of the primordial ocean Nun, from which he emerged to create the world. Similar creation stories exist about the Mesopotamian Enki, resting in the waters, and about Brahma rising in the lotus from the navel of Narayana, resting in the waters. Sunrise was a powerful image, recreating creation. As the brightest of all the heavenly bodies, the sun was all-seeing, an attribute that made it the “eye” of the Egyptian Horus, Hindu Varuna, Greek Zeus, Norse Wotan and Islamic Allah. The sun was regarded as a male divinity by the Egyptians, Persians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans and Indians, and the divine ancestor of the pharaohs of Egypt, the emperors of Japan and the suryavamshi of India. But there were female solar deities among Africans, native Americans, Japanese, Germans and South Pacific islanders. The swastika was a universal symbol of the sun long before Hitler appropriated it. The word is derived from the Sanskrit swasti or well-being and the symbol first appears in the Indus-Saraswathi civilisation. To the Vedic Aryans, it represented the sun, the arms signifying the solar rays and moving in a clockwise direction. It was an attribute of the Greek Zeus and the battle axe of the Scandinavian Thor, besides being found elsewhere in Europe, Asia and the Americas. It is one of the eight symbols of good luck in Buddhism, a symbol of the sacred fire of Zarathushtra and the sun-worshipping magi of ancient Persia, and of the gammadion in early Christianity. The swastika was so popular in Persia and Central Asia that many mosques in Persia and Central Asia were decorated with swastikas by the imageeschewing Moslems. There is a large mosque in Central Samarkhand, overlooking the ancient Silk Road. On the top of its façade is a huge round-faced three-eyed sun, with rays blazing wide, flanked by two large Bengal tigers. The walls are decorated with swastikas. Timur built the mosque after his incursions into northern India, and it is believed that he took back Indian and Persian artisans who designed and constructed the mosque. The popularity of the solar symbolism outweighed Islamic considerations. The sun was often represented by birds of prey. The Egyptian Horus was represented as a falcon, the Indian Garuda was a solar bird, while the eagle and hawk were associated with solar deities in Greece, Mesopotamia and elsewhere. The sight of a majestic bird soaring high into the sun and beyond human vision was inspiring. The sun's enemy was the serpent who was defeated by the bird of prey, the eternal
battle between the Naga, the symbol of darkness, and Garuda, the solar hero. In India, Rahu the eclipse was a serpent who was beheaded by Shiva. The solar Hercules battles the multi-headed serpent hydra and Achelous, the river god who turns into a serpent, while the solar disc above the falcon-headed Horus is surrounded by a snake. There are few exclusive Surya temples in India, perhaps because most Hindu deities are associated with the sun. The earliest recorded temple of the sun — now destroyed — was built by the Kushana king Kanishka in Multan (NWFP). The surviving temples include those at Martand (Kashmir), Osia (Rajasthan), Modhera (Gujarat) and Konark (Orissa). But beautiful icons of the sun can be seen in nearly every Hindu temple. The temple of Konark is one of India's greatest artistic treasures, the sun's rays falling on his own image, as it does in the ancient sun temple of Abu Simbel in Egypt. While the solar orb was carried by European rulers at their coronation, the sun became a powerful symbol in twentieth century pop art. These images are similar to the ancient large-eyed solar disc with blazing rays, which still appears on the national flags of the Philippines, Uruguay, Taiwan and Japan and lives on in images of life, strength and power. It is the ultimate role model for creation. All these images flash before me as summer nears and I hear people cursing the increasing heat. But I also watched the Spirit on Mars last week, which reminded me that the sun has given us the gift of life on earth, impossible on either the moon or mars. And the heat felt very comforting.
Why do rivers die?
My rticle on River Sarasvati (‘In Search of a river’, NSE, December 21, 2003) brought an avalanche of mail from readers wanting to know what happened to the river. Why and how did it disappear? Rivers change course frequently, even disappear. The Palar in Tamil Nadu was once a mighty river that flowed from Nandidurg in Kolar till it entered the Bay of Bengal at Mamallapuram. The 20th century saw the death of the Palar, where sewage is the only liquid in the river bed. Even perennial rivers change their course: The Ganga once flowed through ancient Pataliputra, but has moved away from modern Patna. A fault-line runs along the Aravalli range in a north-northeast direction, even through Delhi. Coupled with this fault-line is the inter-plate tectonics, moving in the same direction, caused by the clash of the Deccan Plateau (or Indian plate) with the Eurasian plate. The plate runs along and parallel to the course of the Sarasvati and the Indus, until it reaches the Himalayas. Plate tectonics is responsible for the continuing rise of the Himalayas and the formation of new glaciers that are the source of the north Indian rivers. The combination of the fault line and plate tectonics has made Northern and Western India into a very earthquake-prone zone. An earthquake coupled with rising sea and land levels destroyed Dwaraka. People living in North India are used to frequent tremors, and those living in the hills to frequent earthquakes. The devastating earthquakes that hit Latur in Maharashtra and Kutch indicate the damage that plate tectonics continue to cause. A massive tectonic upheaval around 1663 BC caused the eastern Siwaliks to move north,
forcing the west-flowing Sarasvati southwards. The river lay directly on the fault line, which continues to be active. The shifting plates were also responsible for the rise of the Siwaliks, and the land mass of Rajasthan and Sindh. Tectonic activity changed the course of the Sarasvati; the Sutlej, which once flowed into the Sarasvati, and the Indus shifted westwards; the Yamuna dug deeper and captured the flow of the Sarasvati's waters to the Ganga via the Chambal River. Thus the Ganga, Yamuna and Sarasvati did flow together towards Prayag, the Ganga taking away the discharge of the Sarasvati even as the Yamuna moved eastwards. The Red Fort, once built on the Yamuna's banks, is now several kilometres away, and the river has shifted 10-40 kilometres east of Krishna's birthplace on the river's right bank in Mathura. The rise of the Aravalis caused the eastern shift of the Yamuna and the abandonment of Indus-Sarasvati cities between 2000 and 1500 BC. It also created several lakes out of Sarasvati's waters, lakes that later became saline due to the intense aridity. The word saras also came to mean lake at a later date, probably because the river shrank into several lakes before it finally disappeared. Reader S N Balasubrahmanyam of Bangalore suggests that there was probably an intermediate stage of water backing up into one large lake, and that rather than disappearing into the desert in northeast Rajasthan, Sarasvati may have dried up when the waters of the Sutlej and Yamuna rivers were diverted by tectonic activity. But geological evidence suggests that several saline lakes of Rajasthan were left by the river. Sarasvati did survive as a smaller Sarsuti that merged into the Ghaggar and then disappeared into the Thar Desert. Tectonic changes, diversions and “preying” by other rivers all combined to dry up the Sarasvati. A combination of circumstances resulted in choking the river and inspiring the Mahabharata to say that the Sarasvati “disappeared” into Marusthali, the Thar Desert. But plate tectonics only tell a part of the story. The Indus-Sarasvati civilisation was primarily urban, with 2600 centres. Urban conglomerations are environmentally unsustainable, and the excellent drainage systems, bathrooms and water supply for which the Harappans are lauded would have polluted and halted the flow of the river. The cold winters, cooking requirements, and the brick and pottery industry would have resulted in large-scale tree-felling for fuelwood, silting the river. The Harappans produced vast quantities of baked clay products — bricks for houses, wells and streets, pots, seals and artifacts. Pottery is not biodegradable, although it is produced from the earth. It breaks easily, cannot be recycled or reused and remains forever, as potsherds. To produce clay goods, large amounts of sand are removed from the river banks and beds, causing great environmental damage. All these must have contributed to the degradation of the river and its cities. Cities are parasites that drain the environment. They are supported and fed by rural agriculture and create implements and technologies to increase food production. As cities become greedier for resources, villages can no longer support their people, who flock to cities for survival, straining natural resources further. Cities produce great intellectual and technical developments, but they also prey on natural resources. In the third millennium BC, the cities of the Nile, Tigris-Euphrates and Sindhu-Sarasvati were abandoned at various stages due to environmental degradation. Urbanisation is an unavoidable evil. Have you seen the Yamuna at Delhi? It is
stagnant with garbage and sewage. If the river can no longer flow on its present route, the flow will be diverted. A massive earthquake and a change of land levels could cause the river to dry up completely. An eminent scholar asked me how the highly urban and prosperous Indus-Sarasvati civilisation became rural. When cities collapse, they revert to rural life styles. Kanchipuram is one such example in the historical period. It was once a “city of cities” — nagareshu kanchi — and a university town where Indian princes and international scholars came to study, a centre of weaving, metallurgy and vegetable oil production. In time, it became unsustainable, primarily because the Palar River dried up. Today it is smaller than most towns of Tamil Nadu, and more rural, surrounded by paddy fields. The weavers have moved to surrounding villages and sell their goods in the shops of Chennai, while the metal and oil production units have closed down. Balasubrahmanyam adds that a major shift in geographical features has taken place within historical times, but is never taken into account in a discussion of civilisation in South Asia. How true! Sarasvati was the location of the Harappan and Vedic civilisations, and cities that disappeared between 2000 and 1500 BC, leaving behind a great mystery. She was flowing in the period of the Rig and later Vedas and disappears during the Mahabharata. Balarama goes on a pilgrimage down the Sarasvati from Mathura to Dwarka. Arjuna follows the disappearing river into the desert. This makes parts of the epic very ancient, but we have yet to study them. The best source of information on the river is K S Valdiya's Saraswati — The River That Disappeared brought out by ISRO and published by the Universities Press (India) Limited. The Rig Veda describes cities and grazing, droughts and floods. Later literature describes villages and forests and fewer cities. Perhaps that is why the Indian seers and philosophers regarded the environment as sacred and treated every component with reverence. They knew the power of nature to destroy her own creations.
Is anyone listening?
We are poised at the threshold of a great future. Together, we can do ithe best part of my column has been the response I have received, between 20 and 70 e-mails per issue depending on the subject. Some agree, some do not and most give me more new information on the topic. I make it a point to reply to every letter and email. It has been a pleasure to have such an erudite and civilized discourse. A very happy new year to all my readers — I look forward to hearing more from you in the coming year. 2003 was the feel-good year, the year of young Indians who wore their patriotism on their sleeve and went out to conquer the world. How wonderful: I have great faith in the next generation. My 21-year-old son Rudra, who cut his first music album, sold 27,000 cassettes and flew the Indian flag across his bedroom wall, even as he studied law. 2003 was also a year when the great middle class dream came to fruition: Cars, washing machines, TV sets and homes were available off the shelf in easy monthly installments. Terrorism brought Indians closer: Instead of “Indian Muslims” and “Indian Christians”, we now have “Muslim” Indians and “Hindu” Indians.
Things must change in 2004 — it is, after all, election year and there are many poor Indians living below subsistence level. The South has had poor rainfall and farmers are already sending their sons off to work in cities, urban conglomerations that lack basic facilities like water and housing, where people crowd into minimal spaces like cattle in a pen. Meanwhile, cattle are smuggled into Kerala, Bengal and Bangladesh, where they are beaten to death flouting transportation and animal welfare laws. Unnecessary cool drinks giants and other companies have been permitted to draw millions of tonnes of precious groundwater. Trees have been cut down ruthlessly for roads, decreasing the land's water-holding capacity. Hills and forests have been mined or converted into industrial and housing properties. Global warming has already achieved climate change: Last year the Rajasthani desert received heavy rains while the catchments of the River Kaveri received none. The worst is not even mentioned: Chemical pesticides and fertilizers are poured indiscriminately into the ground and enter our water sources, making food and water the most dangerous items on our menu. Yet nobody, except a few NGOs, is even mentioning it. Meanwhile, garbage mounts and the freshwaters of our rivers and lakes have been contaminated by sewage. This total disregard for the law has led to severe environmental degradation, while our cities are stinking and ugly. Environmental concern must be the first priority, otherwise more environmental refugees will crowd the cities and undo the great middle class dream; more cancers, lung diseases and water-borne infections will make life unbearable. The other neglected area is education — the backwardness of the Bimaru and many other states is pulling down our human development figures. The free midday meal first introduced in Travancore and later in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, is the only way to attract children to school. If numbers are a problem, quality is a greater problem. NCERT tried to rewrite textbooks and got bogged down in controversy: The new textbooks were badly written and indefensible. But state government textbooks are even worse: Badly written, outdated and irrelevant information, boring and politically biased, they can never help a young person learn and grow. As for higher or tertiary education, the colleges established by the British to produce clerks for the East India Company are still producing clerks, unemployable in the new India. IITs and IIMs do not have enough seats for the number of young people entering college. Does this mean the latter do not deserve good education? As a cultural historian, I believe that culture touches every aspect of our lives and attitudes. There is the frequent lament that we are becoming “westernized”. On the contrary, I am thrilled to see young people dance to bhangra and “disco dandiya” tunes. Design has also touched new heights. But we must, simultaneously, respect the past. The state of our monuments is appalling. Unless it is a World Heritage Site, our monuments are neglected, robbed of their artifacts and used as public lavatories. Most cities and states have yet to enact laws to protect heritage buildings and sites. In most cases we need less government, but the creation of laws and their implementation are essential duties of the government. And every Indian government has failed in this area. These and many more issues will be continuing concerns in the New Year. But what is lacking is public debate. Unfortunately, our politicians have to toe the party line, never mind their vacillating conscience. Unquestioning acceptance of the party leader's opinion is essential to prove one's loyalty: One cannot vote according to one's beliefs or even according to the desires
of the voters. Thus parliamentary or legislative debates have become unruly mêlées, unlike the 1920s when the assemblies had stalwarts debating issues. Then there is the left versus right polarization where neither supports issues on their merits. India has had a great tradition of debate and discourse. Gargi was a woman rishi famed for her debating prowess. Ancient India went out of its way to invite groups of scholars to debate and discuss subjects from religion to art, political theory to music. A famous debate was that between Adi Shankara and Mandana Mishra, resulting in the latter's defeat and the establishment of Vedanta as the superior school of philosophy. The Jainas and Shaivites debated in the Chola courts; Akbar invited scholars to his court to debate philosophy, religion, even music. The importance of the debates can be gauged from the fact that the discourses were recorded and have come down to us several millennia and centuries later. Pre-independence sessions of the Congress were famous for great lawyers and statesmen publicly debating issues that decided policy. Today’s Congress members are only interested in reiterating their absolute faith in the Nehru-Gandhi clan. Every Indian city has groups of intellectuals who meet over lectures and discuss issues. Library societies, private foundations and study centres attract brilliant minds, but unless you are physically present, you will never know what took place. Unfortunately, unless a VIP — a politician or a successful company CEO — is present, the press does not even cover the event. For 5000 years, learning was respected in India and wise men were venerated. Today we are more interested in the ravings of a sycophantic politician than the wisdom of our intellectuals. Unless there is public discourse and debate, we cannot improve our society or our environment. A few file PILs, but how many people can afford the time and costs of litigation? The few issues I have mentioned here — and a few more — will never be mentioned by our politicians when they ask for our votes this year. They are awkward and emphasize the failure of the establishment — and every political party. But they must become the issues of public discussion. We have enough talent, knowledge and even traditional wisdom within our societies to find solutions, but who is listening? I hope 2004 will see debate and discourse on topics that are of urgent public concern, subjects that demand change, however difficult. We are a nation at the threshold of a great future. Let us not ignore unpalatable issues: They will merely come back to haunt us later.
In search of a river
Dr S Kalyanaraman is a man with a single passion: The river Sarasvati. In 1995, he gave up a lucrative job with the Asian Development Bank to search for the river. He has just brought out seven volumes on “Sarasvati”. It is one man’s endeavour to document and interpret everything that is known about this river of mystery. Another person who has a lot of information about the river is Michel Danino. These two gentlemen have collected both scientific and archaeological information that are a wonderful source for study. The search for Sarasvati is essential for understanding the origins of Indian civilisation, particularly the relationship between the Indus Valley and Vedic peoples. The Sarasvati is mentioned time and again in the Rig Veda, India’s oldest literary tradition, even more frequently than the river Sindhu (Indus). It was the “greatest
among the great”, “mightiest”, with a “limitless unbroken flow, swift-moving with a rapid rush and a tempestuous roar”, located between the Yamuna and the Sutlej, and flowed from “the mountains to the ocean”, originating in the Himalayas. Sarasvati was described as the largest and best river in the land of the Saptasaindhava, made up of the Sindhu, its tributaries and the Sarasvati rivers. The Mahabharata mentions the Sarasvati, with the Kurukshetra battlefield located to its south. But desertification had begun by the epic period, for the Mahabharata says the river was “disappearing into the desert” and was later “lost”. From the descriptions in the Mahabharata, it appears that the river was still known and was in the process of disappearing. In 1995, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) scientists found that even in extreme desert conditions in Rajasthan, water was available at 50 to 60 metres depth, and supported agriculture even in summer. CAZRI (Central Arid Zone Research Institute) mapped the buried course of a river through satellite and aerial photographs and field studies. Satellite photography (Landsat imagery) has given new scientific data about this river. It originated in the Siwalik Hills at the foothills of the Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh, flowed through the Ghaggar valley in Haryana and the Rajasthan desert, continued into Hakra in the Cholistan Desert (in Sindh, Pakistan), reaching the Rann of Kutch through the Nara Valley till it drained into the Arabian Sea. The Ghaggar Valley is eight to twelve kilometres wide in many places, confirming that it was once a mighty river. The Ghaggar changed course several times due to earthquakes and floods. Satellite imagery revealed that this river once originated in the Siwalik Himalayas and ended in the Arabian Sea. The lost river could only have been the Sarasvati, for this is the only river known to Indian literature and tradition in that region that “disappeared”. All scientific studies conclude that this river had dried up by 2000 BC. This date is dramatic, for it makes the Rig Veda much older than our history books would have us believe, and contemporaneous in date to the so-called Indus Valley civilisation. The river Sarasvati was going strong when the Rig Veda was compiled. When the archaeological sites of the Indus Valley civilisation were plotted on a map, an amazing observation was made. Most were found to be clustered around the dried-up Ghaggar-Hakra — or Sarasvati — River, making the term Indus-Sarasvati a more appropriate name for the civilisation. The name “Indus Valley” was given to the civilisation because the first site that was discovered by Sir John Marshall in the 1920s — Mohenjo Daro or the “mound of the dead” — was located in the valley formed by the Indus River. Subsequently, 2,600 sites have been discovered between Iran in the west, Turkmenia, Bactria and the Pamirs in the north, beyond Delhi into western UP in the east and till the Godavari in Maharashtra in the south, covering an area of over one million square kilometres. The culture goes back to at least 6500 BC, with evidence of a strong agricultural economy — with silos for storing surplus grain — at Mehrgarh in Pakistan, till it reached its mature phase, when great cities like Mohenjo Daro, Harappa and Lothal were built, by 2600 BC. This makes sense — people do not start building cities till they have a strong agricultural base. This civilisation was not as uniform or sensibly utilitarian as is commonly believed. If
Mohenjo Daro was remarkable for urban planning, water supply and drainage, Dholavira had elaborate stone gateways and reservoirs — as well as the world’s first hoarding in the Harappan script! Lothal is a port with a dockyard and granaries. By 1900 BC, people began abandoning the Indus-Sarasvati cities and moved eastwards. Sanskrit literature follows a similar course, with more references to the Ganga and Yamuna. Saraswat Brahmins have a tradition of moving southwards and Gaud Saraswat Brahmins of reaching the South via the east (Gaud or Bengal), after the Sarasvati dried up. Like all Indian historians, I too grew up with and based all my research on the belief that the Indus Valley civilisation was pre-Vedic. I am no longer so sure. Here are a people — the Aryans — who have left a cornucopia of literature but were believed to have left not a shred of material culture — not even a humble potsherd — for archaeologists to find. And there we have a civilisation in the same time at the same pace with sufficient evidence of the written word found on the seals. There are no signs of an invasion, just an abandonment, like any ghost city or village that has lost its water source. It is ridiculous not to correlate the two. Archaeology and science are juxtaposing one over the other. What are they telling us? That the Rig Veda was composed by the Aryans long before 2000 BC. That it was composed on the banks of the Sindhu and Sarasvati at the same time that the Harappans were living there. That the Vedic Aryans lived in the cities of the Indus-Sarasvati Valley. That the Vedic Aryans had to be the Harappans. The date of 1500 BC for the Rig Veda never had a scientific basis, particularly in the absence of material culture to confirm it. It was decided by Max Muller on the basis of the biblical belief that the world was created in the fifth millennium BC! The distinguishing factor about the Vedic Aryans was their worship of fire, a major Vedic ritual, and yoga. The fire altar has been found in several Harappan buildings, and yogic meditation on the seals. The big problem is the non-depiction of the horse on the seals. But the cow was also not depicted, although we know that the animal was indigenous and lived there. Popular Rig Vedic symbols like the swastika and pipal tree, among others, appear on the seals. The Indus script, along with the Etruscan, is the last Bronze Age script yet to be deciphered, and the fear of what it may contradict, when deciphered, makes us wary of making commitments. But in the absence of any credible decipherment, we have to go ahead and study the civilisation from other more obvious sources. Sarasvati is better known today as the Goddess of knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge of the missing river will give us the clue to our history and the origins of our civilisation. We are lucky to have modern scientific tools to help us. We have to be wise and accept the fact that some of our earlier information was possibly wrong, and that the Indus, Sarasvati and Vedic civilisations were one and the same.
Tales of human folly
Iam not a cine goer - three hours in a cinema hall make my neck stiff, and my legs go to sleep. But I recently served on the jury of Vatavaran 2003, an environmental film festival held at Delhi. Out of 154 entries, the nomination committee had selected
70, which I sat and watched in wide-eyed wonder and horror. Wonder at the passion and commitment that I saw in the fascinating creations of so many young filmmakers. And horror at the tales of vandalism and neglect. Each film narrates a story of awe and tragedy: I thought I would share some of these with my readers, for it is unlikely that these documentaries will ever see a popular theatre. The special theme of the festival was “Water”, in keeping with the International Year of Fresh Water. The winning film was Unquiet flows the Chaliyar by Sanjay Mohan, the chronicle of a dying river in Kerala that was once the lifeline of the communities that lived alongside. The toxic fumes and effluents let out by Grasim Industries Ltd. have resulted in death, cancer and cerebro-vascular diseases. The ecology of the river and the forests of Nilambur and Wynad have been destroyed. One man - K A Rahman - fought and died for the river. The pollution is so bad that stretchers are kept ready at bus terminals to rush villagers to medical help. Yet the pollution continues, unabated, with no government action, although everyone knows what is happening. Sanjay Kak's prize-winning Words on Water, narrates the story of the Save Narmada campaign. As we travel down the river with the film-maker, we witness the helplessness of the common people as they struggle to save their lifestyles from the juggernaut called development, which has the powerful ranged against the powerless, to the detriment of the latter. Another prizewinner was Waterworks India, about four men from Ladakh, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu and a water manager from Kerala who keep alive traditional water management practices. We need more such documentation, as traditional practices disappear. In the category of Conservation of Natural Resources, Shekhar Dattatri's The Ridley's Last Stand won the prize for documenting a million year old saga - the arrival of the Olive Ridley turtles on the eastern beaches, their laying of eggs that incubate for 45 days and then hatch at night, after which the turtles go back to the sea. But, in recent years, 75,000 of them have been killed by mechanised fishing boats and their gill nets, which trap the Ridleys who struggle and die, as they are unable to escape. The film follows these ancient animals and the indiscriminate rape of the seas, a tragedy as large numbers of dead turtles are thrown into the water. Mike Pandey's Kalpavriksha, which came second in this category, traces the evolution and discovery of medicinal plants that are inherent in tribal wisdom. These plants are disappearing as forests are cleared in the name of development. The prizewinner in the Wildlife Conservation category was Syeed Fayaz's A Brush with Death, about the cruelty inflicted on a popular friend of the farmer, the common mongoose, which hunts snakes, rats and mice. It is a friendly little animal, which lives in open fields, scrub jungle and urban areas. I have often found beady little mongoose eyes watching me with great curiosity in my garden at Chennai. The mongoose is trapped by madaris to stage bloody snake and mongoose fights, which are banned by law but continue unabated. It is also caught to make paintbrushes, a particularly gruesome death, for the hairs are pulled off when the animal is still alive. The filmmaker follows the entire process and the illegal trade in mongoose hairbrushes. The mongoose population has fallen sufficiently to place it under Schedule IV of the Wildlife Protection Act, yet we continue to buy mongoose hairbrushes for our children.
The other prize winner in this category was Gautam Pandey's Timeless Traveler - The Horseshoe Crab, about a unique animal that has lived on earth for over 500 million years. It is a fascinating ancient species that, interestingly, is found only on eastern coasts. Its importance lies in its evolutionary role, with extraordinary properties contained in its blood that can even stop the growth of cancer and reverse diabetes. However, the animal now faces extinction due to over-collection. Its survival is essential for human survival. Special mention was made of Nagarhole - Tales from an Indian Jungle, where Shekhar Dattatri covers a year in forest, from the arrival of the monsoon, when the forest gets rejuvenated, to the hot summer months when the water sources dry up and forest fires threaten survival. Human interference in forest habitats - illegal encroachments, deliberate forest fires and coffee plantations along elephant migratory paths -threaten the survival of the wildlife. Another habitat film was Sahyadris - Mountains of the Monsoon by Sandesh V Kadur, which follows the wildlife of the hills: Rutting Nilgiri Tahr, the endangered lion-tailed macaque, the elephants and other animals as they await the monsoon. A new category was a film produced by children. While most of them were too adult to qualify, Birds through my window by Rudransh Mathur was an obvious production by a young boy with a hand-held camera. He documented the birds and their nests as they flew around his house one summer holiday. He installed birds' trays and put food on them, filming the birds that came to feed. The film is a revelation to jaded city slickers about how one can find a world of enchantment if only one looks hard enough. The Best of Festival Award went to Mitali Dutt Sarkar, who has made what is probably India's first underwater film. The film documents the fascinating world of the coral reefs of the Lakshadweep Islands and the inter-dependence of various forms of sea life as they scramble to share the limited resources. In 1998, global warming and El Niño resulted in the rise of the water temperature by just a few degrees, bleaching the corals and destroying the reefs. Nature is slowly regenerating the reefs, but it will be years before they return to their former glory. I have read of quarreling juries, but this one worked with total consensus. Maybe it was the poignancy of the subjects that made us feel humble. Or maybe it was the wisdom of the Chairperson, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, who made us see the best and reject the worst. It is sad that in the most important category - Best Television Series - not even one was found fit to receive an award. If cinema theatres are too expensive for screening wildlife documentaries, television seems ideally suited in cost and outreach. Yet, not a single channel could send in worthy films. What a pity. The one common thread in all the films was how human interference is resulting in havoc, destruction and death, on land and under water, in remote forests or in cities. We are the only species that has shown no respect for nature or natural resources. We have driven animals to extinction; we are destroying habitats; we are making rivers of life into rivers of death; we are raising temperature levels that are destroying life under the oceans. Our actions are suicidal: We must realise that human greed will finally destroy human beings, for all life is interconnected. I only wish the messages of these young filmmakers touch a few hearts somewhere, and we learn to respect nature and her beautiful creations.
Abused and polluted
This year is the International Year of Freshwater. The motives are laudable: Doubling the numbers of people with access to safe drinking water by 2015; combating desertification and mitigating the effects of droughts and floods to minimise degradation of land and water resources; increasing access to sanitation and water to improve human health and reduce infant and child mortality. But we still do not see any improvement in the availability of drinking water in India. Two thirds of the earth’s surface is covered by water. Around 97.5 percent is saline, making up oceans and seas. Of the remaining 2.5 percent, only 0.5 percent is found in rivers, lakes and under the ground, and is available for use. About 40 percent of the world’s population lives in water-scarce areas. The UN Population Fund predicts that the world will begin to run out of freshwater by 2050. About 3 billion people do not have adequate sanitation facilities, and 11,000 children die of water-related diseases each day. The growing population places high demands on water resources. One fifth of urban India and three quarters of rural India do not have access to safe drinking water. But this could have been managed if we had kept our freshwater sources clean. India’s record of water management in the 20th century is terrible. 1,683 million cubic metres of water flow through India’s rivers every year. Yet our rivers are dying: Industrial pollution and domestic sewage, excess fishing, agricultural runoff, pesticides, sand mining, brick kilns, water extraction and irrigation are finishing off quality and quantity. UNEP’s Geo 2000 report says, “In many developing countries, rivers downstream of major cities are little cleaner than open sewers”. Delhi’s Yamuna, Calcutta’s Hoogly and Chennai’s Cooum are examples of rivers that have been polluted to death. Water shortage, pollution and stress are creations of modern India, an ugly creation that has become a tragedy, becoming worse by the day. We talk of women walking 10 kilometers for a pot of water: this is really happening. Citizens of Chennai wake up at 2 am and stand in queue for two pots of water, rationed for each family’s use. Traditionally, animal and human labour were used to lift water from wells, a sustainable method of withdrawing groundwater. Then came the Green Revolution, and diesel-powered pumps and motors made it lucrative for farmers to increase water withdrawal. This sent well depths plummeting down. In 1951, there were less than 5,000 public tube wells and 10,000 diesel-powered motors and pumps. Today there are 67,000 public tube wells and 13 to 14 million diesel-powered motors and pumps, increasing at a rate of one million every year. The regular monitoring of groundwater along the Chennai coast between 1996 and 2003 by CPR Environmental Education Centre shows an alarming doubling and tripling of salinity levels. Fluoride is contaminating drinking water all over India, while there is arsenic in West Bengal’s groundwater. The problem is not in the fluoride or arsenic: It is in our extensive withdrawal of ground water. Water has become a marketable commodity, with mafia gangs controlling withdrawal, and multinationals licensed by the government selling us our own water in bottles. Water was nature’s free gift to life on earth. What have we made of it? The rot began in the British period when community-based management systems
were dismantled without providing a workable alternative. PWD departments were given the responsibility in the presidencies and post-independence states, an impossible task. But it was the unplanned urbanisation of the post-independence period and the construction of huge, unsustainable industries that took their toll. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was in a hurry to build his “temples of modern India”. But he was a man who looked to the West for his inspiration, and had contempt for Indian traditions, such as traditional water management systems. I doubt if he ever made arrangements for his domestic water supply, something we poor mortals worry about daily. He never asked his “temples” to control their water usage, manage their waste, or treat their effluents. Thus the industrial giants used obsolete technology to spew tonnes of effluents and waste into rivers and lakes. Nehru said, “Industrialise or perish”. We have industrialised and perished. There is no pollution-free river in India. Along with every factory came homes and families whose sewage was dumped into waterbodies. Thermal power plants discharge fly ash into fresh water bodies; Damodar River is choked with coal dust and loose earth from opencast mines. The effluents and sewage from the Hindustan Photo Film and Rallis India factories in Ooty have polluted the Pykara and Moyar Rivers, making them unfit for people and wildlife. The lovely Ooty Lake became the sewage container for the hill-station's lodges and hotels. It is tragic to see families going for a boat ride in this large sewage bowl, with children trailing their hands in the wastewater. According to the IUCN Red List, 3,011 freshwater species of wildlife are endangered. The crocodile, a symbol of the River Ganga, is endangered and invisible; the tortoise that symbolised the Yamuna is no longer seen there. The Deccan, Eastern and Western parts of India are among the most water-stressed parts of the world; the rest of the country follows close behind. Those parts of India where water was in abundance — Kerala, West Bengal and Cherrapunji — have developed acute water shortage due to deforestation, which results in the silting up of rivers, thereby reducing their water-holding capacity. When the rains arrive or the snows melt, the water spills over and floods adjoining areas, causing as great devastation as a drought. The Ganga Action Plan was launched in 1985, envisaging “the interception and diversion of sewage, handling of industrial waste, and enrichment of the river’s biodiversity to enhance its self-cleaning properties”. Unfortunately it flopped, since it presumed that sewage treatment was the solution to the river’s ills, instead of treating the river as a complete ecosystem. Rs 452 crores were spent on nonfunctioning sewage treatment plants, defunct crematoriums and a river polluted more than before, and the project was closed down in 2000. The only beneficiaries were the contractors, thanks to the high levels of corruption in UP, Bihar and West Bengal. The National River Conservation Authority set up in 1995 sanctioned 763 schemes worth Rs 2460 crores, with nothing to show. Delhi, which used up 99 percent of the funds and implemented all the sanctioned schemes, has community toilet complexes that are either locked up or non-functional, while the Yamuna’s pollution levels have increased alarmingly. Sewage must be treated where it is generated. Inefficient and corrupt municipal officials cannot shoulder the operation and maintenance of treatment plants. It
should not be let back into the river or lake; at best, agriculture is the best destination for treated waste. The only silver lining is that in the recent drought that hit many states, the chief ministers responded with long-term rainwater harvesting measures. Our ancestors, in their wisdom and knowledge of our lack of social conscience, conferred sanctity on our rivers and lakes. Each river was a goddess with her own mythology, and was worshipped. Lakes, such as the Amritsar lake of nectar in Amritsar, were equally sacred and associated with local deities and mythology. The Goddess of Knowledge, Sarasvati, was named after a river. We took away this support system for our natural resources, without replacing it with anything equal. The result today is water stress. The death of our rivers and lakes is a painful tragedy we can ill afford
In the land of Pharaohs
The kings of ancient Egypt used to be buried in underground rooms with a mud-brick mastaba above. In 2650 BC, architect Imhotep, designing his Pharaoh Zoser’s tomb at modern Saqqara, built a square stone mastaba over it. Then he built a smaller square over the first, and a smaller one over that. This went on for six steps till the first pyramid - Egypt’s and the world’s first stone monument - was built to a height of 60 metres, with four triangles on top facing the four cardinal directions, the whole covered with limestone. Saqqara and the better-known Giza are two of several pyramid or funerary complexes that bear witness to the ego of men who built enormous tombs where they could live forever. Around 3000 pharaohs ruled Egypt, but robbers stripped their tombs for gold, and only ten mummies remain in Egypt. I have just returned from a visit to Egypt, an ancient and wonderful land that has given much to the world. It is also a lesson in tourism management. The streets are spotlessly clean, wide and smooth. The results can be seen in the over five million tourists who visited Egypt in 2000. Tourism is a major sector of the economy, in spite of the near-total absence of American tourists today. The vast majority are Europeans, Japanese and Chinese, with several visible Indian groups. The three great pyramids of Giza are actually situated in Cairo itself. The largest is that of Pharaoh Khufu (Cheops). Completed in 2570 BC, it was 146 m high and consisted of 2.3 million limestone blocks placed on top of each other with no binding agent. Slightly shorter is the pyramid of Khufu’s son Khafre (Chepren), 136m. high, and still shorter is that of grandson Menkaure at a height of 62m. Originally, all three were covered with polished white limestone, ripped off to build Mohammed Ali’s mosque in the Citadel. The Sphinx of Giza is believed to be the face of Khafre with the body of a lion, symbolizing royal power. The son-et-lumière at the Giza is a breathtaking curtain-raiser, taking you back 5000 years to the age of the pharaohs and the romance of ancient Egypt. Cairo, like Alexandria, is a modern city where the old and the new, discotheque and veil, co-exist. There is lovely old pre-Islamic Coptic Cairo, with cobbled streets, orthodox churches, gentle icons and Coptic Christians, who make up about 20 percent of the population. There is Islamic Cairo, the city of 1000 minarets built by Saladin who defeated the Crusaders and now overlooked by Mohammed Ali’s 18th century Citadel mosque. Egyptians claim descent from the pharaohs, but there is an obvious mingling of many conquerors, including the Romans, Persians, Turks,
Africans and Arabs. Just outside Cairo are Saqqara and Memphis, the latter housing a colossal, fallen image of king Ramses II whose aspirations to immortality inspired Shelley’s poem Ozymandias. A visit to the Cairo Museum, a treasure house where Tutankhamun’s gold may be seen, is a must. Egypt is said to be the gift of the Nile, which slices the country vertically. We took a Nile cruise from Aswan to Luxor on a luxury ship. But the desert remains parallel to the Nile. Egypt needs farmers from Tanjore or Israel to green the desert. The large numbers of domestic animals reared for meat could be an infinite source of natural fertilizer to improve the soil quality. My image of Egypt was one of pyramids and sphinx, without appreciating the number of temples that were built along the Nile. In fact all the capitals of ancient Egypt - divided into Upper and Lower Egypt - were built along the Nile. The kings were constantly fighting each other till Narmer (or Menes), builder of Memphis, unified them in 3100 BC. Later, Alexander’s invasion ushered the Ptolemaic era, followed by the Romans, Arabs, Turkish Mamluks and Ottomans, the French under Napoleon, the Albanian Mohammed Ali and the British, till the Egyptians became independent in 1952. We visited the temples and funerary complexes at Philae, Kom Ombo, Edfu, Luxor, Karnak and Abu Simbel. The temples are covered with painted reliefs of the pharaohs and their wives worshipping the ancient gods: Horus-Ra, the falcon-headed sun, and Amun-Ra, king of the gods; Jackal god of mummification Anubis; Atum the creator; Cat goddess Bastet; Hathor the cow, goddess of pleasure; Osiris of regeneration; Isis the protector; and Sobek the crocodile representing the might of the pharaoh, among many others. The villain Seth is the gentle hippopotamus. Even as ancient Egypt revered so many animals, none remain: The lion, jackal, crocodile, hippopotamus and many more have been hunted to extinction. No wonder the desert borders the river. The temples are maintained well, although most are in ruins and are under restoration. Egypt, conscious of its limited funds and national wealth of monuments, has brought in foreign groups to restore them. They are lit up beautifully at night, creating an aura of magic and mystery. The largest complex is at Luxor, where the West Bank houses the Valley of Kings, tombs of several pharaohs including the famous Tutankhamun; the Temple of Hatshepsut, the only woman to have ruled Egypt; the Ramesseum built by Ramses II to stand eternal witness to his glory; and the Valley of Queens where several queens and nobles are buried. On the East Bank are the temples of Luxor and Karnak, the world’s largest temple complexes, which are testimony to Egyptian building skills, as enormous hypostyle halls contain a forest of 134 towering pillars with papyrus capitals. The tallest obelisk in Egypt is located here. Unfortunately, a mosque separating Luxor and Karnak and another raised within the walls of the temple jarred my aesthetic sensibilities. But the most impressive temple is that of Abu Simbel, situated in Nubia in South Egypt. Carved out of the mountainside, the two temples of Ramses II and his wife Hathor are beautiful and impressive. Four seated colossal statues of Ramses II, each over 20m high, front the temple. As these temples lay buried till recently, they were free of pillaging conquerors and thieves, possibly the only temples with intact deities. On February 22 and October 22 each year, the sun’s rays fall on the three figures of Ra-Harakhte, Ramses II and Amun - never on Ptah, god of night - deep inside the sanctum sanctorum, a testimony to the engineering skills of the builders. The
shifting of the temple when the Aswan High Dam was built is an epic, when the whole world came together to save the temples. The greatest contribution of Egypt to human development is the art of writing. The walls of the temples and tombs are covered with hieroglyphs dating to around 3250 BC, narrating the stories of kings and gods. They describe the reliefs and paintings on the walls, which are distinctive for their unchanging style for over three millennia. Colours reinforced the function, nature and environment. Egypt was lucky in the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, now in the British Museum, which enabled the decipherment of the hieroglyphs. Egyptians love Indians, especially Amitabh Bachchan, followed by Mithun Chakraborty. In fact one Egyptian told me that the only man who could possibly overthrow President Mubarak was Amitabh Bachchan! There is much in Egypt that is reminiscent of India - the plan of the temples, the step pyramids resembling the Dravida vimana, temple tanks and more. If you are looking for a holiday to treasure, go to Egypt, where civilization began and some of the greatest achievements of humankind abound.
Who is an Aryan?
The recent ban on sacrifices by the Government of Tamil Nadu has resulted in a rash of statements by ill-informed and motivated politicians on the “Aryanisation” or “Brahminisation” of Dravidian culture, in which gods, systems of worship and rituals have all been divided into one or another camp. The British created an AryanDravidian divide, which became a useful tool for Indian politicians. It is time to separate truth from falsehood. The conventional belief is that the “Dravidians” of the Indus Valley civilisation originally populated North India. Along came the nomadic Aryan warriors who killed or enslaved most of the Dravidians, packed off the remainder to the South, destroyed their cities and imposed their language, religion and culture. How simple, how easy! Firstly, we now know that the cities of the Indus Valley civilisation were destroyed by the environment and geological changes, not invasion. Secondly, nobody moved south: The Indus Valley culture moved eastwards towards the Ganga, as did the Aryans. Even Tamil literature does not speak of a north-south migration. Then, there is absolutely no evidence that the Aryans came from any place other than modern Punjab-Sindh. So we must discard forever the theory of a foreign origin for the Aryans. The writers of the Vedas called themselves Aryas, which meant a “noble person” and not an ethnic group. Who were the Dravidians? No such word is ever used in Vedic literature, and is a very late addition, adopted by British historians. There are references to Dasa, which meant enemy (Persian daha = enemy) and later, as defeated enemies were enslaved, came to mean slave. No racial differences have been found in any Harappan archeological site, wiping out theories of different races. There is a presumption, created by British historians, that Aryan and Brahmin are synonymous, and caste was an Aryan creation. But Aryans included every caste and
jati. There are several non-Aryan Brahmin and non-Brahmin Aryan castes. There is no mention of caste in the Rig Veda, the oldest and purest Aryan literature: its first appearance is as late as the Purusha Sukta. So, caste must have been non-Vedic - or non-Aryan - in origin. Further, people changed their castes as they migrated. In our times, Pattunool weavers from Saurashtra became Iyengars in Madurai, Shreshtis (merchants) of ancient India became Sethis and Seths in northern and western India, Shettys in Karnataka and Chettys in Tamil Nadu. All castes and communities who speak Sanskrit-based languages are presumed to be Aryans, while the speakers of Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu and Kannada are considered to be Dravidians. Language is the least reliable of all ethnic characterisations. I speak and write English -does that make me English? People always adopt the language that serves them best, for language is, after all, a means of communication. The Saurashtra Pattunool weaving community, the Marathas of Thanjavur, and the Telugu-speaking Nayakars are among the many examples of people who have migrated and adopted the Tamil language. In the North, scheduled castes and tribes of distinct non-Aryan origin speak Sanskrit-based languages. India has a long history of migrants who adopted the local language and customs, like the Parsees who landed in Gujarat. While Sanskrit and its descendant languages belong to the IndoEuropean group (which includes Persian), and Southern languages are grammatically different, speaking a language does not give you an ethnic identity. Then there is this fallacy of an indigenous Dravidian religion and an imposed Aryan religion. The gods of the Aryans were Indra, Varuna, Mitra, Agni and so on. With the exception of Agni, the all-consuming and essential fire, all of them lost their preeminent position to Brahma the Creator, Shiva the Destroyer, and vishnu the Preserver, none of whom are even mentioned in the Rig Veda but are now described as the face of Aryan religion. These gods are both non-Aryan and Brahmanic. And what about the vehicles of the Gods? All this makes the Brahmins the chief promoters of non-Aryan religion! If Kartikeya or Murugan is now called the “Tamil God”, let us not forget that he owes his origin to the Greek Kshatrapas and Kushanas. The chief God of the Tamil Silappadikaram is Indran: Does that make the epic “Aryan”? Sacrificing animals is, we are told, basic to Dravidian culture: banning sacrifice is “Aryanisation” or “Brahminisation”. Firstly, the earliest instances of animal sacrifice are recorded in Sanskrit literature, when the Aryans also sacrificed animals. In time, as religion and people evolved, Brahmins stopped sacrificing animals, thanks to the preaching of the Upanishadic rishis, the Buddha and Mahavira. The indigenous Bhakti movement that originated in the Tamil country and slowly spread over the whole of India, spoke out against killing animals for food or sacrifice, and took the message of devotion to a personal God to the common man. One should laud the religious evolution and abjuring of primitive and cruel practices that was preached by our saints. Sacrifice was basic to all ancient religions, a life for a life, blood for blood. As philosophers and schools of philosophy developed, the contrast between good and evil, right and wrong were extended to cover previously accepted practices. Thus slavery, human sacrifice and the caste system were condemned as crimes against
people, while vegetarianism and condemnation of animal sacrifice were regarded as respect for all life. Even those who claim that sacrifice is essential to “Dravidian” religion - whatever that means - will not eat meat on Saturdays or on the New Moon (Amavasya) day, nor will they sacrifice an animal in the pooja rooms of their homes, affirming that non-killing of animals is the higher goal. The so-called rationalists support animal sacrifice in the name of “Dravidian” culture and oppose “Brahminisation”, understanding neither and unable to define either, losing in the process, all rationalism. Today's Hinduism is an amalgam of every tradition to be found in this country. The religion has absorbed and encompassed local traditions and gods. Thus deities like Kamakshi of Kanchi, Meenakshi of Madurai, the Ashta Vinayak of Maharashtra, Balaji of Tirumala, Ranganatha of Srirangam and Vaishno Devi of the Himalayan foothills may not find themselves in any Vedic text, but have more devotees than the Vedic Gods. Are they Aryan or Dravidian, or even local tribal gods? Who knows and, more importantly, who cares? The only pure Aryan ritual left is the presence of Agni or Fire, who was essential to Vedic religion. There are several non-Vedic variations to every ceremony and festival in every community, such as the mangal sutra or thaali in the wedding ceremony, the various birth rites and even forms of disposing the dead - from cremation to burial to cremation-burial. The religion has evolved and adapted over 5000 years. The best example is the festival of Ganesha, who was never a Vedic God. His worship remained localised for centuries until Lokamanya Tilak decided to utilise Ganesh Chaturthi to unite Indians to fight for self-rule. Ganesha came out of the family pooja and into the public arena, a symbol of resurgent India. Today the festival is probably the largest pan-Indian celebration after Deepavali. Yet none of these developments have scriptural sanction, nor are they Aryan or Dravidian. So it is time politicians stop hoodwinking people about Aryan and Dravidian, and cease to blame Brahminisation to score points against each other or cover their own failures. No demarcation is possible in Hinduism. We should ask ourselves whether a law is good or bad, and support or oppose it thereafter. And stop politicians from dividing us over non-existing Aryan and Dravidian differences.
Birth of swadeshi art
Navaratri has begun, and my Bengali accountant has gone to Kolkata to celebrate Durga Pooja, when beautiful images of the goddess reflect the dynamism of Bengali folk art. But Bengal had a larger role to play in the world of art, for it was here that "modern" Indian art was nurtured and found direction. The Bengal school was very important for several reasons. For the first time, art was used as a handmaiden for social and political change. It bridged the gap between the romance of the past and the realism of the present. Most important, it saw the rise of the individual, who was now free to experiment and innovate and express himself through this creative medium, and not merely carry out the orders of a rich client. This was at a time when India was at the receiving end of strictures from men like
Macaulay, who wrote the obituary to Indian culture, Trevelyan who wanted to "romanise" Indian culture, and Ruskin and Vincent Smith who contended that Indians lacked aesthetic sense. The Indians struck back, with artists like Ravi Varma, Jamini Roy and the Bengal School. The last, in particular, took up revivalism as a mission. Much of the credit goes to E B Havell, the head of the Calcutta School of Art, who realised that the art syllabus designed for European schools did not develop Indian artistic tradition or imagination. After all, the stated objective of the Calcutta art school was to build up a body of copyists who could help the British rulers administer the country. The arrival of the British heralded a break with the past, and marked the rise of individuality, a change in subject matter, a diversity of styles, and the loss of royal patronage. The artist had to struggle to survive. In this struggle he discovered himself as a thinking and expressive individual, not a craftsman servicing a client. The Tagores of Bengal led the artistic "revival". Abanindranath, who synthesised several oriental styles with European Impressionism and later Art Nouveau, came to be known as the "father of revivalism", reviving Indian traditions as wide apart as Ajanta and miniature painting, and the "father of modern Indian art". Gaganendranath recorded the reality of Bengal in Japanese pen-and-ink style. Their uncle Rabindranath Tagore, who started painting late in life influenced by "primitive" and African art, was a more of a poet and littérateur than artist. Rabindranath Tagore was charged by a desire to establish an individual style and dictate culture, and revive the forgotten schools of Indian painting. While his early art was western in technique, his natural imagination and feeling for line and rhythmic form revealed the intensely eastern character of his art. Impressed by Japanese kakemono (roll-picture) style done in wash and Persian colouring, he chose traditional subjects like Krishna-Radha and Shah Jahan, and expressed himself in gestures reminiscent of Ajanta. The end effect was a mélange of romance and symbolism: apsaras flying in the clouds, Javanese dancers, Shah Jahan's last glimpse of the Taj, and so on. He combined calligraphy with decoration, using soft lines and colour wash to heighten the textual effect. The juxtaposition of soft colours accentuated by flowing lines created an intensely Indian mysticism and sublime spirituality that became the hallmark of the Bengal school. Abanindranath rediscovered the line, which was basic to ancient Indian art. A little known fact is that he was the creator of the image of Bharat Mata, extolled in nationalist literature. The Bengal School rejected western realism even as it revived traditional Indian styles, making visual experience irrelevant. Abanindranath's elder brother Gaganendranath's paintings were rooted in his experiences. His brush and ink drawings of Calcutta translated the mundane into art; his Himalayan landscapes depicted the serenity of the mountains; his personal sorrow over his son's early death resulted in the Sri Chaitanya series. He also painted cartoons on the social and political events of his time. He finally merged black and white with cubism, although his figures were never distorted. The third Tagore - Rabindranath - took up painting in his old age, when his nephews ceased to paint. He had the eye of an artist, for his poems contain a strong visual imagery. But he refused to follow traditional styles, and called out to Indian artists to desist from producing work that could be labeled "Indian", asking them to step out, see the world and imbibe the best. His paintings show strong influences of American
Indian and Pre-Columbian art, Peruvian animal and bird figures and African dynamism. They were formal and stylised, with male and female heads forming a large part of his oeuvre. But his paintings could never equal either his poetry or his nephews' talent. Abanindranath produced highly talented students, each of whom made a singular contribution to the growth and development of Indian art, establishing the NeoIndian or Nationalist School of Art at Vishva Bharati. Jamini Roy drew upon rural life and experience, making the mundane magical. The greatest was Nandalal Bose who, inspired by popular legends and religious themes, generated nationalist pride, equating spiritualism with nationalism. Like Ravi Varma before him, he utilised themes from the epics to convey contemporary social and political messages. Later, nature and the Santhal tribes formed his inspiration. His final years were spent at Shanti Niketan, where he was encouraged by Rabindranath Tagore to experiment with form, medium and theme. This was a phase when his art came closest to life and reality. Nandalal Bose illustrated many of Rabindranath's poems, and even designed the sets for the latter's musical plays. He became the official designer of the Indian National Congress, creating "magical cities" out of bamboo, thatch, paper and pots at Haripura and Faizpur. Other students of Abanindranath became the first "modern" artists of the twentieth century, each distinguished by a style and content. Venkatappa's personal austerity brought the spirit of Indian asceticism into his work. Debiprasad Roychoudhry, Principal of the Government Art School at Madras, was a painter and sculptor whose work lives in the Triumph of Labour tableau on Chennai's Marina Beach, marked by its inspired realism and socialist message. M A Rahman Chugtai's paintings were lyrical, Sarada Charan Ukil's figures were ethereal visions, and Asit Kumar Haldar was a skilled craftsman and narrator. The list is endless, with each contributing to a changing world of art. What is important about the early "modern" artists is that they brought a spirit of nationalism to their work, defying western strictures by combining aesthetics and idealism. There was no religious divide: Muslims and Hindus painted scenes from the Hindu epics, the life of the Buddha, Omar Khayyam and anything else. Culture was distinguished from religion, a separation that artists who went over to Pakistan after partition were not allowed to maintain, and, like Allah Bux, had to stop painting Hindu themes. The Swadeshi movement in art took the elite to the masses and vice versa by popularizing prints of paintings by Ravi Varma and the Bengal artists. A reaction to the colonial art schools set in, and students walked out, seeking to establish an indigenous curriculum and method of functioning. New associations and journals, such as the Society of Oriental Art, Rupam and Roop-lekha, sprang up. Mahatma Gandhi recognised the potential of art as a socio-political medium when he asked Nandalal Bose to design the Congress pavilions. These early artists combined nature and artistic creativity, western realism and Indian idealism to send out a nationalist message, reflecting the turmoil of the freedom movement and social change. Our ancient artists remained anonymous. The rise of the individual and his message made a difference in the twentieth century.
Blood on our hands
The Tamil Nadu Animal and Bird Sacrifices Prohibition Act of 1950 clearly prohibits
sacrifice in temples, as do similar laws in many other states. The State Government wants to enforce the prohibition - and rightly so. The response has been shocking. One section of the media has opposed the government directive because they oppose Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. The opportunistic communists have come out in support of animal sacrifice - whatever happened to Marxist rationalism and atheism? Someone else has filed a PIL. A former minister, also a well-known lawyer, has objected. Do we really want to go back to our primitive past? Blood sacrifice was common to all ancient cultures and religions. Ancient Hindus and Jews did it; Muslims continue to do it (during Id). There are scenes of human and animal sacrifice on Harappan seals. The first to speak out against bloody sacrifices were the rishis of the Upanishads. The chief message of the Buddha and Mahavira was to stop the killing of innocent animals. In time, the sacrifice of people and animals came to be regarded as primitive and cruel. Interestingly, scenes of animal sacrifice are rare in classical temple sculpture or painting. Till the 20th century, human beings - especially the unwanted girl child - were regularly sacrificed in India. Education resulted in a public outcry against the practice and the government responded by banning human sacrifice, although we still hear of occasional lapses. But mere banning is never sufficient, and any change in attitude and action owes much to individuals such as the late Krishna Iyer in Tamil Nadu and Peela Ramakrishna in Andhra Pradesh. The former went around persuading people to “break” a pumpkin instead of killing an animal or bird. The latter took the police to the remotest villages to stop sacrifices. Such was the commitment of these men. Animal sacrifice is particularly brutal. Buffaloes, goat and roosters are queued up as in a slaughterhouse, crying as they watch the others die and await their turn. Blood flows everywhere. Sometimes the worshippers anoint themselves with it; most times, they drink it even as it flows out. After the sacrifice, the priest may garland himself with the entrails. After beheading the buffalo, the chopped-off legs may be placed in its mouth, the fat spread over its eyes. The worst form of sacrifice is live impalement. It is altogether too gory. Is this what the Gods want? Blood sacrifice was regarded as magic, a tool to propitiate or please a god, to fulfil a vow and as a sacrament. The animal (and, formerly, person) could be a scapegoat for human sins or inexplicable natural phenomena, or a vehicle to carry away the collected demons or ills of an entire community. It seems very unfair that a little goat or a peaceful buffalo should be made responsible for events beyond their comprehension or control. Ancient peoples performed sacrifices to control negative forces, particularly disease, in the belief that any blood would satisfy the bloodthirsty spirit. The animal was sacrificed to “save” a human life. Today, medicine performs the task more efficiently. Animal sacrifices continue in villages all over India. The beginning of the planting season and Navaratri are particularly bad periods, when large numbers of animals, particularly buffaloes, are killed to propitiate local goddesses and thus ensure fertility. In the Himalayan states and the East, animals are sold by weight to be sacrificed to Devi during Navaratri, to re-enact the killing of the buffalo-demon Mahisha. The confrontation between the Goddess and the buffalo goes back to a totemic period when the worshippers of the former defeated the worshippers of the latter. Unfortunately the memory of that confrontation lives on in the brutality of buffalo sacrifice.
There is a distinct gender bias in sacrifice. The male god - generally an aspect of Shiva or Vishnu - is regarded as benign and peaceful, an austere yogi or a benevolent provider. The female - a form of Shakti - is blood-thirsty, violent and cruel. She may be Kali, with sharp, protruding canine teeth, or Mari, the smallpox goddess, or anyone else. Every village in South and Eastern India, has bloodthirsty village goddesses who reinforce the myth of the wicked witch, always a woman. The former is controlled by blood, the latter by society. Women are potentially evil, according to this belief, and must be kept under control. They are drinkers of blood and consumers of human and animal flesh, and any insufficiency in their propitiation will, it is believed, invite their wrath and inflame their cruel natures. The Sapta Matrikas (seven mothers/sisters/virgins), the various forms of Kali and Mari and all village goddesses have a longing for blood and a reputation for cruelty. Their images are ugly and frightening, both in appearance and behaviour. What an awful image of women, which is ingrained in the Indian psyche! Surely the mother who procreates and nurtures deserves a better reputation? While the temples to the male Gods are beautiful, majestic buildings that inspire awe and serenity, Devi temples are small, dark and dingy, situated outside the city in a sacred grove that is the haunt of dead spirits. Thus supporting animal sacrifice is supporting both gender inequity and perpetuating myths about the evil that is woman. Male spirits who demand sacrifice are generally the Goddess’ lieutenants, who have developed a taste for blood. This image was created to justify the suppression of women. Another little-known aspect is economic. Animal sacrifices are promoted by moneylenders, who freely give loans for the occasion and thus get illiterate villagers into their clutches. The wielders of the knife are often butchers who officiate as priests and charge for their services. The cost of a buffalo runs into thousands, a goat, sheep or rooster into hundreds. Add the cost of the feast and the poojari's fees, and the result is a hole in the pocket. There is a mafia that benefits from the conduct of animal sacrifices, which keeps the lower strata in permanent bondage. This becomes a vicious cycle. The animal sacrifices purport to improve their situation. But they tie the votaries, who generally belong to the lowest classes and castes, in economic chains, where they remain forever. Obviously, the gods are not pleased. Sacrifice means giving up something precious to oneself. Thus Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice his son, while Shunahshepas offered himself to be sacrificed. Buying and killing an innocent animal does not fit the bill. The sacrifice probably originated among totemic tribes who sacrificed the animal totem to acquire its strength or wisdom. Conquering tribes would sacrifice the animal totem of the defeated tribe to signify victory. In the choice of the buffalo to be killed, there is an obvious racial message: that the dark-coloured, slothful and ugly animal deserves to die. Animal sacrifice is cruel, disgusting and primitive. Bloody sacrifices brutalise the viewer, confusing the distinction between right and wrong. If one man supports animal sacrifice, another will support human sacrifice, the killing of children and sati. How can any of these be permitted in a civilised society? All cultures and religions evolve, discarding ugly practices. Over the years, we have learned to identify and repudiate negative aspects of Hinduism, such as sati and the caste system. Animal sacrifice is another cruelty that must be rejected and discarded. It is surprising to
hear educated people talk of “customary practice”. Religion should be value-based and ennobling. Sacrifice is neither: It is cruel and disgusting. We need to rise above petty political differences to support the implementation of a good law.
Ganesh Chaturthi is back, and with it the most lovable deity of contemporary Hinduism, larger and more beautiful year after year. The public celebration of the festival has spread to the whole country. Huge Ganesha images are installed on street corners, highways and in remote villages. “All obstacles, whatever they may be, are rooted out by worshipping Ganesha,” is the blessing necessary to any society. Ganesha derives all his qualities from the elephant. The elephant is huge and strong yet gentle, qualities of Ganesha. The elephant is perceived to be wise: Ganesha symbolises wisdom and knowledge. The elephant’s sharp hearing translates into Ganesha’s ability to listen and acquire knowledge. The elephant has a long trunk (nose) and a keen sense of smell: Ganesha’s trunk can sniff out good and evil. The trunk can hold objects, making Ganesha a great scribe. His mouse vehicle represents the speed with which the elephant can move. The elephant clears every obstacle, making him Vighneswara, dispeller of obstacles. The elephant is attached to his mother till he is a teenager: Ganesha is always a young boy (Tamil: pillai), attached to his mother Parvati. Ganesha is not the only revered elephant. The eight directions are guarded by eight elephants: Airavata, Anjana, Sarvabhauma and Vamana in the east, west, north and south respectively, and Supatrika, Pushpadanta, Pundarika and Kumuda in the northeast, northwest, southeast and southwest respectively. The Gajashastra has an elaborate story of how elephants could once fly, but lost the ability when they disturbed the penance of Varana rishi and were cursed by the sage to be grounded. Airavata is also the vehicle of Indra, king of the heavens. Admiration for the animal’s size and strength led to its association with royalty. There is a story that a wild elephant bowed low before Chandragupta Maurya, confirming his destiny as emperor. Chandragupta mounted it and won several battles, guided by its wisdom. The elephant’s love of water led to the custom of elephants pouring coronation water over the king. Elephants pouring water also flank Gaja Lakshmi. To invoke rain, the elephant was anointed with sandal paste and taken in procession. The elephant symbolised the birth of the Buddha, representing both Maya’s dream of an elephant entering her womb and the royal prince who renounced the world. Elephants appear frequently in art and were the symbols of several dynasties, including of Ashoka. The elephant was probably domesticated by the Indus Valley period, where it appears on the seals. In Mamallapuram, the elephant appears as a monolith and in Arjuna’s Penance; it adorns Konarak. Indian admiration for the elephant led to its deification as Ganesha. Yet this is not matched by our treatment of the animal. Few animals are as brutalised and illtreated as the elephant. Today they are used by the logging industry, in temples and by government departments of forests and tourism. The cruelty starts with the capture and training. Wild elephants are separated from their herds by nooses thrown from the back of a trained elephant or concealed on the ground, by pits into which they
fall (a favourite of poachers) or by frightening them with fire into stockades, a public jamboree called khedda. Beautiful wild elephants, which once roamed free, are imprisoned in kraals (cages), tortured, brutally beaten, poked with sharp metal rods and harassed with starvation and loneliness till they finally submit. This is how elephants are “trained” into submission. Is this the treatment for Ganesha? The mahouts control their charges by poking the goad into sensitive spots behind the ears, causing great pain. Mahouts, according to a document of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, “ill-treat their elephants…deprive them of proper bath, water and food in time, and neglect to take the desired precautionary measures which at times lead to serious troubles including killing of human beings”. There are several private individuals who own elephants and use them for begging, advertising, and rent them out. In recent years there have been several instances of elephants running amuck on the roads or during festivals and killing their mahouts, a welldeserved end. In zoos they are chained and live all alone. They have to give joyrides in forests and elsewhere. The worst off are circus elephants, who are burnt and tortured till they ride a cycle or stand on their heads for the enjoyment of human imbeciles. Gifting an elephant to a temple is the greatest cruelty and should be banned. They are chained, with festering sores on their legs. They are made to stand in the hot sun and beg for hours, or walked on hot tar streets, begging. People give fruits and money, imagining they are feeding Ganesha. The fruits are sold by the mahout, who uses the money on himself. An elephant needs at least 250 kg of food a day. Temple and privately-owned elephants get a few balls of cooked rice. Even cash-rich temples like those of Madurai Meenakshi and Vaitheesvarankovil have sick and wounded elephants, with calloused ankles where the chains bind them. The state of elephants in other temples is equally bad. The government owns most temples, so nobody bothers about the elephants. There are no veterinary check-ups or supervision of feeding. From time to time, Forest Departments of the southern or northeastern states are asked to part with an elephant to be gifted to a foreign zoo or to a temple. Have you seen the heart-rending sight of a calf separated from its mother in elephant camps? The calf is roped and bundled into a lorry, irrespective of its age, and the mother and child wail and starve for days. Elephants are social animals and live in herds headed by a matriarch. The baby is protected by its mother and aunts for nearly fifteen years. Male calves disperse thereafter, establishing their own home range to avoid inbreeding. Females never leave. Calves never stray far from the mother, who becomes extremely agitated if she loses sight of her baby. In recent years the elephant population in the wild has come down drastically. 50 percent of the Asian elephants are found in India. Of them, 50 percent live in South India. Before Independence, their population was over 1,00,000. Today it is about 28,300. The decreasing numbers are due to habitat loss, as forests are cleared for agriculture, plantations of tea, coffee, teak and rubber and human habitations; dams and canals and mining in forest areas; and poaching for ivory, which has made Indian tuskers a rarity. 59 percent of elephant deaths are caused by poaching, 13 percent by food poisoning by farmers, and 8 percent by electrocution from electric fencing. Between 1980 and 1986, about 100 male elephants were killed annually. Project Elephant, initiated in 1991-92, aims to manage the species, creating eleven reserves. But the elephant corridors are encroached: elephants need to migrate over
large areas in search of food, something that is disappearing fast. So, as we pray to Ganesha, spare a thought for the elephant. Are we being kind to them? The elephant goad and noose in Ganesha’s hands must remind us of human cruelty to this noble creature who once roamed most of the earth. Man created the elephant-headed God. Let us treat the elephant with the love we shower on Ganesha.
Immortalised in art
Sometime back I wrote about Raja Ravi Varma, who heralded a new genre of art and a new Indian woman. Around the time Raja Ravi Varma was breaking ground in Madras and Bombay, the Kalighat school of painting was emerging in Calcutta, the city of Kali. Like Ravi Varma, these artists also created images of an emerging Indian society and a new Indian woman through a new style of popular painting that later became the calendar art of eastern India. By 1765, Calcutta, now Kolkatta, had fallen to the East India Company, making Calcutta the centre of the British Empire and the largest metropolis in India. With the British came new influences: books, prints and the applied arts. Local artists were trained by the British to draw realistically and reproduce landscapes, buildings and nature. Paper, watercolours and oil paints made painting much easier. By 1809, the first paper mill had been established, providing cheap paper. The patuas, as the artists of Kalighat were known, were, traditionally, professional painters of scrolls or pattas, who wandered around singing the epic stories they painted; they also made moulded images and mud pots. Such wandering minstrelpainters are described in Sanskrit literature and belong to an ancient tradition, still found in Midnapore district of West Bengal. They took on a new and contemporary dimension in Kalighat, where they painted on paper and sold their paintings in the markets for a modest price of 2 to 4 paise, targeting the pilgrims who came to the Kali temple at Kalighat and went shopping in the surrounding by-lanes. This was the beginning, in the East, of popular art, which we find in large quantities around temples. The Kalighat paintings were distinguished by their simple rectangular format, with a plain background in western portrait style, quite different from traditional Indian painting where the background is always filled with elaborate designs and decorations. The focus is on the main figures, like English portraits, although the execution is reminiscent of the glass paintings of Thanjavur. Like the glass paintings, the Kalighat paintings were able to achieve volume and roundness, unlike the flat miniatures of preceding periods of North Indian painting. There is also a hint of Chinese painting, which we know influenced the glass paintings of Thanjavur. The buyers were the multitude of pilgrims who visited Kalighat, and would buy lowpriced single paintings of religious figures. Entire families at Kalighat set up production units, with different members collaborating to produce paintings of a similar stylistic school. The figure was first drawn in pencil, followed by a base of broad wet strokes. While they used bright colours, they used darker shading to obtain a sculptural roundness. The round faces were either in three-quarter or full profile. The eyes were long and widely open; the features were added in strong vivid lines: narrow noses, arched eyebrows and small, sensuous lips filled with colour.
Brushwork was strong and mature, with detailed finish. Limbs were tubular, arranged in rhythmic harmony. The final addition was ornamentation — long chains from neck to waist, huge nose rings and earrings, and bangles and amulets covering the arms. Interestingly, the jewels were made of silver, obtained by using tin. The Kalighat paintings were done on paper, using traditional vegetable and other organic dyes and colours, with gum Arabic as binder. The themes of the Kalighat paintings were stories from the Ramayana, the life of Krishna and the incarnations of Vishnu, besides traditional themes of musicians and courtesans. The religious paintings did not deviate from traditional Hindu canons depicting deities: Hindu iconography, attributes and legends were depicted faithfully. The most popular was, of course, Durga, who lived in every Bengali home. But a path-breaking development was the depiction of contemporary events such as the 1857 mutiny or the famous Tarakeshwar murder. The people of Calcutta now appeared in these paintings: the newly fashionable Calcuttans, soldiers and babus, priests and ordinary workers, and animal stories. There were also, for the first time, Islamic and Christian images. The Kalighat painters excelled in their depiction of women: beautiful courtesans and queens, richly dressed and elaborately bejeweled, and the earthy, bold and strong peasant women of Bengal, no longer retiring and timid. This was also in keeping with the changing face of the Indian woman. The Kalighat paintings thrived for a short period from 1880 to 1930. Unfortunately, the advent of printing, with the ability to produce large numbers in a short time and at a lower price, dealt a deathblow to the local painting industry, as oleographs flooded the market. New techniques such as woodcuts and lithographs were curiosities to be purchased and owned. Finally, the newly developing Bengal school, nurtured by the three Tagores — Abhanindranath, Gagendranath and Rabindranath — changed the face of Bengal painting, and the bold folksy style of the Kalighat painting could not survive the sophistication of the new artists. But shades of Kalighat painting lived on in the paintings of Sunayani Devi and Jamini Roy. Living near Kalighat, the former was familiar with the patta painters and was the first to go to their style for inspiration. Her studies of Radha and Krishna captured the mischief and the compassion. Her work was spontaneous, natural, simple and bold, all the characteristics of primitive art. There were few details or ornamentation. Her women were full of the abundance of life. Jamini Roy was trained in the Government School of Art, Calcutta, and started off as a portrait painter. But he did not follow the established Bengal school and painted as he liked, in the style and medium of his choosing, which was Kalighat. Sometimes he conformed to the perspective and proportion of realistic art, yet he jettisoned them soon, and experimented with folk drawing and painting that were more appropriate for his conventional subjects. Coming from a humble background, the crowded back streets of Calcutta, Jamini Roy found inspiration in his natural unsophisticated surroundings that harked back to his childhood memories of dolls and toys, a world of fantasy and colour. He innovated, crossing the divide between a world of stylised form and his formal art training to produce new designs, themes and fresh colours. He accentuated the strong lines of Kalighat painting: the long and widely open eyes now stretched out of the face, the narrow noses, arched eyebrows and small, sensuous red lips were exaggerated even further. His brushwork was even stronger, with thick bold lines. His subjects were taken from rural Bengal, celebrating the peasant woman, bold yet modest, in her
simple yet colourful surroundings, an embodiment of Indian womanhood. He used strong, vibrant colours in their full glory, never diluting by shading, applying each colour uniformly, which resulted in flat two-dimensional pictures. Yet the dynamism of his studies of rural India, hardly a popular subject of art at that time, was path breaking, making him one of the great artists of modern Indian painting. Although the Kalighat paintings died out, they lived on, immortalised by Jamini Roy and his students. Traces may be seen in the faces of the images made for Durga pooja. Yet it is sad that few are left in India today: the best were taken away by the British, who had a better eye for a good investment in the arts. The importance of Kalighat painting and its off shoots is that, for the first time, the simple village woman was immortalised in art. This paved the way for later artists to celebrate the romance of the Indian village in painting.
The equals of men
I was recently researching the women of ancient India when I came across a startling piece of information. Seventeen of the seers to whom the hymns of the Rig Veda were revealed were women — rishikas and brahmavadinis. They were Romasa, Lopamudra, Apata, Kadru, Vishvavara, Ghosha, Juhu, Vagambhrini, Paulomi, Jarita, Shraddha-Kamayani, Urvashi, Sharnga, Yami, Indrani, Savitri and Devayani. The Sama Veda mentions another four: Nodha (or Purvarchchika), Akrishtabhasha, Shikatanivavari (or Utararchchika) and Ganpayana. This intrigued me so much that I had to learn more about them, but I drew a blank. Who were these wonderful women who were on par with their men and produced the greatest and longest living literature of the world? In the Vedic period, female brahmavadinis (students) went through the same rigorous discipline as their male counterparts, the brahmacharis. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad describes a ritual to ensure the birth of a daughter who would become a pandita (scholar). The Vedas say that an educated girl should be married to an equally educated man. Girls underwent the upanayana or thread ceremony, Vedic study and savitri vachana (higher studies). Panini says that women studied the Vedas equally with men. According to the Shrauta and Grihya Sutras, the wife repeated the Vedic mantras equally with their husbands at religious ceremonies. The Purva Mimamsa gave women equal rights with men to perform religious ceremonies. Vedic society was generally monogamous, and women had an equal place. There are several instances of individual women who sought to educate themselves. Pathyasvasti went North to study and obtain titles. The well-known lady philosopher, brahmavadini Gargi Vachaknavi, was an invitee to the world's first conference on philosophy, convened by King Janaka of Videha, and challenged Yajnavalkya to a public debate. Her acknowledgement of defeat and praise of Yajnavalkya induced the king to gift him 1,000 cows and 10,000 gold pieces, which Yajnavalkya rejected and retired to the forest, followed by his wife Maitreyi, an equally educated and spirited woman. There were shaktikis or female spear bearers according to Patanjali's Mahabhashya, and women soldiers armed with bows and arrows in the Mauryan army, according to Kautilya’s Arthashastra. The Greek Ambassador Megasthenes mentions
Chandragupta Maurya’s armed female bodyguard. Thus education was not the only vocation for women. The heroines of the epic period are better known. Sita and Draupadi were highly educated, powerful and determined women. But the debasement of the status of women had begun. Sita had to undergo an Agni pariksha — an ordeal through fire — to prove her purity. In the Uttara Ramayana, a later interpolation that is illustrative of changing mores, she was cast off by her husband to assuage palace gossip. She finally “entered the earth”, a euphemism for suicide. In spite of her five husbands, Draupadi was staked and lost in a game of dice, disrobed and publicly humiliated. The men of the Ramayana and Mahabharata had several wives, an indication of the lowering status of women. Rules of morality were stringent for women, and even the fact that she was deceived could not save Ahalya from her husband’s curse. Kannagi, in the Tamil epic Silappadigaram, is married to Kovalan, who abandons her for a dancing girl Madhavi. On losing all his money, he is kicked out by Madhavi. His faithful wife takes him back and they go to Madurai, where he visits the public parks filled with dancing girls and later pawns Kannagi’s anklet. When he is falsely accused of theft and executed, Kannagi should have heaved a sigh of relief. Instead, she curses the city to be destroyed by fire. Thus a wonderful city and its inhabitants were destroyed for a useless man. Jayalalithaa, Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, did well to remove Kannagi’s statue from Marina Beach in Chennai. She was no role model. Manimekhalai, daughter of Kovalan and Madhavi, was far better. Refusing to become a courtesan, the profession of her birth, she became a nun and Buddhist philosopher. Kannagi is used as a role model to justify polygamy and a patriarchal society, teaching women that suffering and patience is synonymous with goodness. To escape the growing harshness of society, many women joined the Buddhist and Jaina orders of nuns, which gave them opportunities for social service and public life. Vishakha, Amrapali and Supriya gave the Buddha hospitality and financial support. Uppalavanna became a teacher of younger bhikkunis. There were thirteen theiris among the Buddha’s chief disciples, the most famous being Dhammadinna, a teacher of religion, Soma of Rajagriha, the beautiful heiresses Anupama and Sundari, queen Khema, wealthy Sujata, Chapa the chastened wife, Patachara the bereaved mother, Sukka the preacher, and Kisagautami, superintendent of the Jetavana convent. Ajja Chandana was Mahavira’s first female disciple, the others being Mallinatha the Mithila princess, Jayanti and Mrigavati of Kaushambi, Sthulabhadra’s seven sisters and Yakkini Mahattara. The new faiths gave them a freedom and dignity they missed as wives, mothers, daughters and concubines. The most interesting women are the panchakanya, five women immortalized for their chastity and purity: Ahalya (wife of sage Gautama), Draupadi, Tara (wife of both Vali and Sugriva), Kunti and Mandodari. Four of these women were forced to marry, or be associated with, more than one man by forces beyond their control. The idea developed that a pure heart was stronger than physical chastity. But the freedom of choice given to the Vedic women had gone. Women had to follow the dictates of their family and society, while men had the freedom to have several wives and concubines. Creativity came to the rescue for many women, as religion and temple building were their only refuge. Shaiva and Vaishnava saint-poetesses of the early bhakti movement in Tamil Nadu include great women like the Shaivites Avvai, Tilakavati,
Mangaiyarkarasi and Karaikkal Ammaiyar, and the Vaishnava mystic Andal. Rajasimha Pallava and his wife Rangapataka jointly built the Kailasanatha temple at Kanchipuram. Sembiyan Mahadevi, widow of Gangaraditya Chola, renovated and built several temples. Kundavai, sister of Rajaraja Chola I, built temples at Rajarajapuram. Lokamahadevi, wife of Vikramaditya II Chalukya of Badami, built the Lokeshwara temple at Pattadakkal. But these were fortunate women who had education, wealth and status. The vast majority were wives and chattels. Islamic rule in North India saw a sharp decline in the status of women, now relegated to the veil, both as an influence of the new dispensation as well as for their personal protection. Jauhar protected Rajput women from captivity. If women came out of the confines of the home, the new court culture made them either entertainers or chattels, both highly degrading positions. Thousand years of the purdah was to have a highly detrimental effect on women, something from which the northern states have yet to recover. Religion and creativity, once again, came to the rescue of a few. Lalla, a Kashmiri Shaivite ascetic, preached absolute dependence on divine will and devotion to one’s duty. The Rajput princess Meera is the best known, composing beautiful and eternal poetry. All the states of India had great women saint-poetesses, such as Mahadaisa, Muktibai, Janabai, Bahinabai, Venabai and Akkabai of Maharashtra who composed abhangs and kirtans. There were few women rulers: Razia Sultana, Chand Bibi, Rani Chinnammal, Rani Lakshmibai, and perhaps a couple more. But they were left out of civil society and development. We had to wait for the 20th century to achieve that. So next time we look for role models, let us look carefully and make sure the message they convey is correct. We have to go back 5000 years to find women who fit 21st century hopes and aspirations.
Prisoners of history
My last article “Did Rama Exist?” (NSE, July 6) brought me an avalanche of mail, which can be broadly divided into two categories. One was the intellectual response, some of which was very educative. For example, I learned that names like Sabari and Ravana are still common among the Savara tribes and others in the eastern region. The other was the hate mail: Hindus who objected to my criticism of the demolition of the mosque, and Christians and Muslims who said I was antiChristian/Muslim because I cited the lack of archeological or epigraphic evidence about their founders which, they insisted, was available in the gospels or the Koran. They obviously did not know the meaning of archaeology and epigraphy, nor could they comprehend that I was supporting literary evidence in the absence of material culture. This lack of understanding is dangerous. History is supposed to be a systematic and chronological record of past events, supported by analysis and explanation. Historiography, on the other hand, is a study of the techniques of historical research and writing and the methods of historians. Finally, historicism is a school of philosophy that believes that social and cultural phenomena are determined by laws of history, which are basic to human existence. Thus history becomes a study of the past in the context of the present, to become a lesson for the future. Historical research is supported by tools such as archaeology, the scientific study of
excavated sites, artifacts (including buildings, statues, coins, etc.) and physical (including organic) remains; epigraphy, or the deciphering, interpreting and classification of inscriptions; and literature, a record of past events. Material culture can be dated scientifically by Carbon 14, thermo luminescence, soil sampling, and other methods. The earliest known chroniclers were the Greeks, and Herodotus is regarded as the first historian. Yet even they resorted to creating monsters out of the unknown or inexplicable. Roman history was political and imperialistic, and fathered British history. Medieval European or Church history was mixed with god and religion, while French historical writing concentrated on social aspects. Official chroniclers of Islamic rulers covered the lives and exploits of their kings, but objectivity and truth take a beating when one is writing about one’s ruler and benefactor. Thus they ended up as paeans of praise. Travellers’ tales are also an important source of information. But history has been open to creative interpretation. For example, the revolt of 1857 is a “mutiny” or a “war of independence” depending on who writes about it. Two important developments in history writing were Marxism and the Annales school. Marxists emphasised the materialistic or economic aspects of history. But this approach was limited by the tendency to see everything in terms of a class war, forgetting the fact that ancient societies were not governed by ideology and ignoring the role of the individual. How does one define Alexander of Macedonia in such terms? The Annales were the brainchild of two Frenchmen, Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, who emphasised the importance of critical study and an open mind, current issues and their interdependence with past events, as ingredients for a “total” reconstruction of the past. The limitation of this school is that events, seen over a long duration, get divorced from the immediacy of phenomena and developments. For example, the caste system, seen over the long run, is the evolution of professional groups, like guilds. But in contemporary terms, it is the oppression of one group by another. History writing, as we know it today, came with the British to India. Those who studied British history will remember long lists of kings and wars. Early Indian history, as conceived by the British, transposed Indian names and wars on to British history writing. Medieval India, with listed kings of the Islamic period who were constantly at war, lent itself easily to this system. It was the earlier period that was difficult. There is little ancient British history. The same could not be said of India. So, the Vedic, Epic and other pre-Islamic periods were treated as sociological studies of North India. The rest of India was consigned to oblivion, with a few southern dynasties and their wars serving for “short answer” questions. In recent years, subaltern studies — the history of subordinate castes, classes and gender — has been a welcome development. Unfortunately, these, again, are sociological studies, as subaltern groups have no recorded history, and the student has to rely on doubtful oral traditions. A new and growing field is the study of environmental impact on history, a logical research methodology as the search for natural resources has been the greatest motivator for movement of peoples. The problem in India is that all records, even of known historical characters, like
Harsha Charita or Mudrarakshasa, are works of literature. While the epics and puranas are itihasa or history, they are also mixtures of fact and creative writing. It behoves a student of history to dust off the fiction and use the books as source material. In recent years, archaeology has come to the rescue of historians of ancient India, correlating literature with material remains. Thus sites of the Mahabharata have come to light, while the Harappan odyssey is well known. Unfortunately, old habits die hard. We still insist on the “Aryan invasion” from Central Asia, when there is absolutely no evidence in either literature or archaeology. We still speak of the “mythical river” Saraswati, when satellite pictures have confirmed its existence beneath the Thar Desert. We still believe the Harappan people were ancient Dravidians pushed southwards by the Aryans, when neither Sanskrit nor Tamil literature nor archaeology supports it; moreover recent excavations have shown the Harappans moved eastward, in which direction the Vedic people also travelled. Yet we refuse to correlate the two. We have yet to define the distinction between “Aryan” and “Dravidian”, two groups whom, we were taught, were racially different. We have not yet comprehended that the British used history to divide and rule. Unless we analyse the itihasas and puranas, we cannot reconstruct subaltern studies, which are locked away in stories of totemic tribes and rakshasas, the enemy. It is not possible to be totally objective in historical writing, as bias is revealed through the choice of language and events, disclosing a conscious or unconscious bias of perspective. The Indian tragedy is that we become prisoners of our perspective. So we have leftist and saffron, Eurocentric and Indocentric historians, with variations in each. While all agree upon some core facts, it is impossible to avoid a confrontation. But it is equally important that one does not become a prisoner of one school of history and be unwilling to change one’s opinion. Marxist historians claim their work is “objective and scientific”, a theory refuted by historical developments in Europe itself. They refuse to accept new archeological findings as proof of ancient events and literature as a source of information. Similarly, saffronites have to face the fact that Godse killed Gandhi. If there is verifiable data, it becomes a fact. It is essential to utilise different tools of data collection and interpretation to arrive at historical truth. Unless we discard the belief that the West is always right, and accept that there have been mistakes, bias and motive behind western writing of Indian history, we will never shake off our mediocrity.
Did Rama exist?
Ayodhya is in the headlines every day. One would have to be an ostrich to avoid the subject. Was there a temple before the mosque? Archaeologists would have to answer that. Was Rama born there? The answer is a matter of belief. Did Rama exist? Yes, I am quite sure he did. Rama’s life was a fact. His divinity is a matter of faith. To doubt the existence of Rama is to doubt all literature. There is no archaeological or epigraphic evidence for either Jesus Christ or Prophet Mohammed, who are known only from the Bible and Koran respectively. Does it mean they did not exist? If Rama
performs miracles such as liberating Ahalya, the Biblical story of Jesus walking on water or the Koranic tale of Mohammed flying to heaven on a horse are equally miraculous. Such stories reinforce divinity, not fact. The Ramayana starts with Valmiki asking Narada who was the greatest man who ever lived. Narada narrates the story of Rama, king of Ayodhya, in a few terse, factual lines. Valmiki then goes on to elaborate the story in poetry, creating the Ramayana. Creativity distinguishes the epic from Narada’s news report. Rama is not a god in the epic. But we have contemporary examples of people deified in their lifetime, such as the Shirdi and Sathya Sai Babas, who need a Valmiki or Vyasa to immortalise them. The Ramayana is geographically very correct. Every site on Rama’s route is still identifiable and has continuing traditions or temples to commemorate Rama’s visit. Around 1000 BC, no writer had the means to travel around the country inventing a story, fitting it into local folklore and building temples for greater credibility. In 1975 the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) unearthed fourteen pillar bases of kasauti stone with Hindu motifs near the mosque at Ayodhya; reports of the excavations are available with the ASI. Rama was born in Ayodhya and married in Mithila, now in Nepal. Not far from Mithila is Sitamarhi, where Sita was found in a furrow, still revered as the Janaki kund constructed by her father Janaka. Rama and Sita left Mithila for Ayodhya via Lumbini. In 249 BC, Ashoka erected a pillar in Lumbini with an inscription referring to the visits by both Rama and Buddha to Lumbini. Ashoka was much nearer in time to Rama and would be well aware of his facts. Rama, Lakshmana and Sita left Ayodhya and went to Sringaverapura — modern Sringverpur in Uttar Pradesh — where they crossed the River Ganga. They lived on Chitrakoot hill where Bharata and Shatrughna met them and the brothers performed the last rites for their father. Thereafter, the three wandered through Dandakaranya in Central India, described as a land of Rakshasas, obviously tribes inimical to the brothers’ habitation of their land. Tribals are still found in these forests. The trio reached Nasik, on the River Godavari, which throbs with sites and events of Rama’s sojourn, such as Tapovan where they lived, Ramkund where Rama and Sita used to bathe, Lakshmankund, Lakshmana’s bathing area, and several caves in the area associated with their lives in the forest. Rama then moved to Panchavati near Bhadrachalam (AP), where Ravana abducted Sita. The dying Jatayu told them of the abduction, so they left in search of Sita. Kishkinda, near Hampi, where Rama first met Sugriva and Hanuman, is a major Ramayana site, where every rock and river is associated with Rama. Anjanadri, near Hospet, was the birthplace of Hanuman (Anjaneya); Sugriva lived in Rishyamukha on the banks of the Pampa (Tungabhadra); Sabari probably also lived a hermitage there. Rama and the Vanara army left Kishkinda to reach Rameshwaram, where the Vanaras built a bridge to Lanka from Dhanushkodi on Rameshwaram Island to Talaimannar in Sri Lanka. While parts of the bridge — known as Adam’s Bridge — are still visible, NASA’s satellite has photographed an underwater man-made bridge of shoals in the Palk Straits, connecting Dhanushkodi and Talaimannar. On his return from Sri Lanka, Rama worshiped Shiva at Rameshwaram, where Sita prepared a Linga out of sand. It is still one of the most sacred sites of Hinduism. Sri Lanka also has relics of the Ramayana. There are several caves, such as Ravana
Ella Falls, where Ravana is believed to have hidden Sita to prevent Rama from finding her. The Sitai Amman Temple at Numara Eliya is situated near the ashokavana where Ravana once kept her prisoner. The presence of the Vanaras or monkeys, including Hanuman, has made the authenticity of the epic suspect. But this is the most plausible part of the story. The Vanaras were obviously tribes with the monkey totem: after all, the Ramayana belongs to a period when most of India was jungle with tribal forest-dwellers. India still contains several tribes with animal totems. An early issue of the Bellary District (now in Karnataka) Gazetteer gives us the interesting information that the place was inhabited by the Vanara people. The Jaina Ramayana mentions that the banner of the Vanaras was the vanaradhvaja (monkey flag), thereby reinforcing the totemic theory. Similarly, Jatayu would have been the king of the vulture-totem tribe and Jambavan of the bear-totem tribe. Was Lanka the modern Sri Lanka? One school of thought places Lanka on the Godavari in Central India, citing the limited descriptions of the South in the latter half of the epic. Narada does not mention Panchavati or Rameshwaram, but refers to Kishkinda and Lanka. Living in the north, it is unlikely that Valmiki knew the south. But Valmiki would know the difference between a sea and a river. Lanka, says the author definitively, was across the sea. All the places visited by Rama still retain memories of his visit, as if it happened yesterday. Time, in India, is relative. Some places have commemorative temples; others commemorate the visit in local folklore. But all agree that Rama was going from or to Ayodhya. Why doubt connections when literature, archaeology and local tradition meet? Why doubt the connection between Adam’s Bridge and Rama, when nobody else in Indian history has claimed its construction? Why doubt that Rama traveled through Dandakaranya or Kishkinda, where local non-Vedic tribes still narrate tales of Rama? Why doubt that he was born in and ruled over Ayodhya? Major settlements, including temples, were renovated several times: restoration is a 20th century development. When the main image was made of perishable materials, it was replaced by stone. For example, we know that the wooden image of Varadaraja Perumal of Kanchipuram was replaced by a stone image, for the earlier image is still preserved in a water tank. The present architecture belongs to the sixteenth century Vijayanagara style. Yet the temple was known to have existed before the Pallava period (seventh century). This is the story of many sacred sites in India. This happened to several Rama temples too. Rama’s memory lives on because of his extraordinary life and his reign, which was obviously a period of great peace and prosperity, making Ramarajya a reference point. People only remember the very good or the very bad. Leftist historians have chosen to rubbish archaeology, literature and local tradition. So how do we prove that Rama did exist? Finally, although there is enough evidence that Rama did exist, it still does not justify breaking down a mosque. Would Rama have approved? It makes us as barbaric as Babar and his General Mir Baqi who, says Hafizullah in his Persian document, built the mosque over the Ramjanmasthan.
The Buddha effect
Nearly every Indian knows about Ajanta paintings, Mughal and Rajput miniatures, Tanjore painting and so on. Yet few know about a unique school of art tucked away in Ladakh, between the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges. I spent this summer in Ladakh, a land of rugged beauty and a high-altitude cold desert with snow-tipped mountains, where the Sindhu (Indus) River and magnificent monasteries provide relief to a harsh land. The early history of Ladakh is obscure and is probably hidden in the oral traditions of the nomadic Changpa tribe. It was settled by successive groups of Mons and Dards, the former Buddhist missionaries from the Himalayan foothills, the latter of Aryan origin. The fourth Buddhist Council held by Kanishka at Kashmir established it as a centre of Buddhism. There are examples of Gandhara-style Buddhist sculpture and painting from the 5th century onwards in Kashmir. The subsequent disappearance of Buddhism from Kashmir made Ladakh the last refuge of Buddha’s teachings. The stimulus was a combination of Indian spirituality and Tibetan culture, the kings themselves of Tibetan origin. If the Buddhist monks of Ajanta liked to surround themselves with paintings of the life of the Buddha, the monks of Ladakh liked it no less. This resulted in gompas or monasteries filled with exquisite frescoes and thangkas of Buddhist mythology. The prevailing religion is a form of Mahayana Buddhism known as Vajrayana, similar to Tantric Hinduism and propagated in Tibet by Guru Padmasambhava or Rinchen Zangpo, who visited India to study Buddhism and is credited with the translation of Sanskrit works into the Tibetan language. He is generally portrayed as holding a rod with three skulls (representing desire, hatred and ignorance) or a trishul. Buddhist iconography is elaborate, with eight Dhyani Buddhas, several Manushi Buddhas who are human manifestations of the former, eight or nine medicine Buddhas, several Taras or goddesses, the guardians of the four points —Vaishravana, Virudhaka, Dhritarashtra and Virupaksha — and many famous Lamas, including the founders of the Red Hat and Yellow Hat Orders. To the uninitiated, it can be initially confusing, till we start looking for Hindu parallels. Then we find the thousand-headed Purusha of the Rig Vedic Purusha Sukta in Avalokiteshvara, similar to Vishvarupa Vishnu; several forms of Shiva and Shakti, and a trishula on the summit of each monastery, reinforce the connection. Among the oldest monasteries is Alchi, dating back to the 11th century AD and built by Padmasambhava, who brought back with him Indian ideas of architecture and art, and artisans from Kashmir, recreating Ajanta with touches of Central Asia, the most beautiful paintings in the region that are comparable to Ajanta itself. Alchi consists of Indian-style temples, with a sanctum sanctorum and mandapa connected by ardha mandapas. The Dukhang (assembly hall) contains a statue of Avalokiteshvara made of pure gold and a stunning image of Vairochana, with walls containing fascinating scenes of turbaned men and multiple-braided women, drinking, riding and fighting, scenes of people in Central Asian dress and brown Indian faces, a Kashmir lost forever. Of the temples of Alchi, the most magnificent is Sumstek, a three-tier temple with three enormous statues of Avalokiteshvara, God of Compassion, Manjushri, God of Wisdom, and Maitreya, the future Buddha, that protrude through the ceiling onto the
first floor. The dhotis of each are covered with exquisite miniatures of court life, pilgrimage centres, palaces, life histories and Tantric figures. In the center is a stupa with space for circuambulation. Every inch of wall space is covered with Buddhas, Boddhisattvas and mandalas, while the ceilings are covered with elaborate designs. Each monastery in Ladakh —Thiksey, Hemis, Likir, Shey, Sankar, Spituk, etc — contains unique frescoes and thangkas, besides gold-plated and painted sculptures. Spituk was a moving experience. Perched on a lonely hill overlooking a windswept barren plain, it contains an enormous old and painted Mahakala, worshipped as Kali by the Indian soldiers who climbed the hill for Her blessings before the Kargil war. I read names in Tamil of men from Madurai and Dharmapuri. Did they survive? I could only wonder and pray. The other form of painting in Ladakh is the thangka, a Buddhist ritual painting originating from the ritual paintings of Hindu deities, with rules laid down in Buddhist scriptures. Before creating a thangka, the painter, preferably an ordained Lama, goes into confinement. Then, on an auspicious day during the waxing moon, he takes on a superhuman existence and starts painting on a kashikaras, a sacred cloth from Kashi (Benares). The colours used to be obtained from minerals, and the paintings were embellished with gold, silver, pearls and turquoise, although poster and acrylic colour have become the norm. The thangkas illustrate stories of the Buddha, Boddhisattvas and Jataka tales. Generally, there is a large central figure of the Buddha with three to five small scenes from Jatakas or the life of the Buddha. Some thangkas have central mandalas, mystic concentric circles suggesting the passage from the material to the spiritual, with eternity at the center. Interestingly, the four "entrances" to the mandala are Vedic-style gateways, immortalized at Sanchi, with deer representing the Buddha’s first sermon at Sarnath. The snow-covered Himalayas and barren rocks in hues of pink, blue, white and brown form the background, while the Buddha sits on a lotus. There is a miniature of Abitabyu, the God of Longevity, at the top of every thangka. This unique art style of thangka painting originated in the Tzang region of western Tibet. Unfortunately, it has yet to be acknowledged as a school of art in India. Old or new, the frescoes and thangkas of Ladakh display an artistic sensitivity, a wealth of intricate detail and a love of colour that stand out in contrast to the bleak landscape, bringing to life austere monasteries built atop mountains that overlook frozen valleys with sparse populations, where the dancing River Sindhu is often the only sign of life. The paintings of Ladakh are a beautiful offering of our northern sentinels and deserve to be counted among India’s great art heritage.
The power of one
June 5th saw another World Environment Day pass by, with the environment going from bad to worse. Sustainable Development has remained a catchword on paper. Yet, a few individuals have made a difference. The best NGO, in my experience, is one man working in one village. That is why institutions like the Roman Catholic Church and Ramakrishna Mission are so successful. They post one man, a priest or monk, ideally with no attachments, to a small village, where he works night and day to achieve his mandate.
Everyone cannot become a priest or sanyasi, yet there are some who, in the course of their work, make a difference. This is about three men who changed their environment and created islands of greenery. Every year, on World Environment Day, CPR Environmental Education Centre (CPREEC) in Chennai, gives an annual Environmental Education Award to a rural teacher. Three people have received it till now. All three have created gardens out of wasteland, out of sheer commitment and motivation. The first awardee was Reddivari Sankaranarayana, headmaster of Kotapalli Zilla Parishad High School in Andhra Pradesh’s Anantapur district. Sankaranarayana, son of a poor farmer, was posted to Kotapalli School, at the foot of a barren hill in a water-starved wasteland. Only 10 students came to school. A lesser man would have been intimidated. Not Sankaranarayana. To start with, he decided to educate his students and the villagers about the environment. Then, he rolled up his sleeves, cleared the bushes and started planting trees. He created bunds around the trees, harvested rainwater and vermicomposted the garbage. Water had to be carried by the teacher and children from a kilometre away. He spent Rs 10,000, plus a monthly Rs 300 for watering the plants, out of his savings. Soon, the school had 150 students. Initially, he received a memo from the government reminding him that his brief was education, not environment. Later, they provided a water tank, the zilla parishad sanctioned money for new classrooms and the government constructed a compound wall. His efforts became a role model for the rest of the village, where he made everybody plant at least one tree in their home. Today, the village is a green oasis. The second awardee was M Ramadoss, Headmaster of CGBVS Government Middle School in Nenmeli village, Kanchipuram district. This village adjoins CPREEC's project site, a watershed that became a wasteland after deforestation took its toll. A small hillock stands in the middle of agricultural land. Every time it rained, the soil would be washed off into the two artificial reservoirs below. Soon there was no water in the village and the people migrated to Chennai in search of work. The villagers approached CPREEC, which took up the challenge to reverse the environmental degradation at a low cost. Ramadoss, meanwhile, took it upon himself to make the children and villagers aware of environmental conservation. He would take out rallies through the village on greening the environment. With the children, he planted and maintained trees and a kitchen garden, recycled and reused the wastewater for the garden, and composted the biodegradable waste. He requested CPREEC to install a large community smokeless chulha to conserve energy. Posters with environmental messages were pasted all over the school. Any child in his school can talk about conservation, and tell you the saga of Nenmeli. This year’s awardee is J Lakshminarayanan, Headmaster of the Government School at Kallakorai, Nilgiris district. Lakshminarayanan belongs to the Badaga community and has, over the years, watched the destruction of the Nilgiris with dismay. He belongs to Thambatti, a Badaga village, where an empty slope of a hill was being used as a garbage dump. Once, it had been a watershed with shola (indigenous) forests. Some years ago, he approached CPREEC to help him save the land: it was decided to develop it into a gene pool of medicinal plants, many of which were being spirited out of the hills. But a slope of a steep hill, several thousand feet high in the Western Ghats, requires terracing, which costs money. So a solution was worked out: Lakshminarayanan and his students collected and planted the saplings, while
the village women fed them. CPREEC did the terracing and fencing, desilted three ponds and constructed stone bunds for soil and water conservation, besides training the women and students in tree plantation and maintenance. Then Lakshminarayanan took over the maintenance and protection of the land with the help of the students and villagers. Today Thambatti is a lovely little village with the wafting smells of rosemary, sage and 182 species of medicinal plants, little patches of vesambu and strawberry, pretty ponds and terraced slopes. It is an outstanding example of the success of environmental education. Lakshminarayanan has been transferred several times. When he was posted to Kammathi village in Gudalur taluk, he established a community polytechnic for the tribals. His motive was to keep them away from the Mudumalai forest and its produce. As Headmaster of Kallakorai Government High School, he planted and maintained 7000 cypress trees and 500 shola species. As master-trainer of the National Green Corps, he leads 100 teachers and 100 schools in this ecologically fragile and important district. These are only three out of several individuals who have made an effort to change their environment. It is not impossible: it only needs will, determination and effort. When Mohandas Gandhi, a young lawyer, was thrown out of a first class compartment in South Africa, it lit a spark in him that had disastrous consequences for the British Empire. When Ashoka saw the carnage at Kalinga, it moved him to remorse, and to the establishment of the Buddhist sangha. Rabindranath Tagore said that the primary function of education should be “the inspiring atmosphere of creative activity…the constructive work of knowledge.” The motivation of a single inspired individual can move mountains. The three men in this article are village schoolteachers who became headmasters, probably the pinnacle of their careers. They had neither funds nor power to achieve their dreams. Yet, by sheer determination and perseverance, they have made a difference, and created oases in expanding wastelands. Such individuals make the impossible happen.
Hunger then & now
Another Indian Summer — hot, dry and short of food. The history of India has been a history of droughts and floods. The Rig Veda is all about the battle between Indra, the Rain, and Vritra, the demon of drought, with incantations to ensure the victory of Indra. “Food should be increased; this should be a firm resolve” says the Taittiriya Upanishad, and “Nothing happens to a hungry man”. Vedic literature is a prayer for prosperity, rainfall and food. Agni, Fire, is praised for clearing the forests and providing land to grow food. Pre-historic art depicted the battle between man and animal, the struggle for survival, supremacy and food. This was a time when men hunted for their next meal. Rock paintings in places as wide apart as India and Europe depict the same concerns. In fact, the ubiquitous mud pot was invented for the sole purpose of storing water, grain and other foods. By 2500 BC, the inhabitants of the Indus Valley were building large granaries for storage. Archaeological evidence shows that wheat and barley were cultivated. Remains of a large granary indicate that grain was stored in large quantities; it also
indicates there was a likelihood of food shortages requiring official supplements. There is a terracotta figure of a woman kneading dough. Fishhooks mean that fishing was an occupation, while the many bulls and buffaloes on the seals indicate the animals had probably been domesticated. Kautilya's Arthashastra talks about combating drought. The king, he says, should build dams and forts and pay in kind, or he may distribute food free, without extracting work. He must also store and distribute free seeds — and we have just woken up to the importance of seed banks. The Mauryan period was affluent, yet famine was never far, and good governance required preparation for drought. A Mauryan inscription from Mahasthangarh in Bogra District in Bengal describes the measures taken by the state to cope with famine. Paddy was granted to the Samvangiyas to tide over food shortages. When there was “excess of plenty”, says the inscription, the granary and treasury had to be replaced with paddy and gandaka coins. Hunger was a big problem. The Duta Jataka, represented in the Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda carvings, depicts how hunger could change behaviour. A king of ancient India used to feast on rich food in front of the palace, with his retinue watching him. One of his servants was always hungry and daily longed to eat the food. One day he announced that he was a messenger (duta) and walked in unstopped, for a messenger could approach the king directly. He sat before the astonished king and started eating. When the king asked whose messenger he was, the famished servant replied he was a messenger from Hunger, which had emboldened him to approach the king and share his food. In Indian tradition, food security was so valuable that the greatest merit was that of feeding a guest: Atithi devo bhava or “the guest is a god”. There is a story in the Mahabharata of a mongoose who attended Yudhishthira’s coronation. He told the king the story of saktuprashta, a measure of grain. A very poor and famished family managed, after several days, to collect a small amount of grain. They cooked it and were just about to start eating when a guest arrived, on the verge of death due to starvation. Each member of the family, though famished, offered his or her portion of food to the guest, whose hunger could not be satiated. Finally, after every morsel had been consumed, the guest revealed himself to be Indra, and granted them instant salvation. So great was their merit that the mongoose, who had rubbed himself on the few remaining grains of rice, found himself partially transformed to gold. Thereafter, he went to every ritual and sacrifice to transform the remainder of his body, but even the rituals of the great king Yudhishthira did not command merit equal to that of the hungry family. There are many similar stories of sacrifice: in a second century AD sculpture from Nagarjunakonda, Prince Vessantara gives up his elephant of perennial prosperity to the starving people of Kalinga, even at the cost of his own banishment. In Bharhut sculpture, the tree spirit or Vanadevata puts out a hand from the tree and offers food and water to the weary traveller. No act, in Indian tradition, was greater than the offering of food. Kalidasa describes a perfect grihasta or householder as one who can satisfy everybody’s needs by offering
them all the food he can afford. A Brahmachari had to beg for alms, making humility his strength. Adi Shankara, as a Brahmachari, was so touched by an amalaka fruit which was all that a poor woman could afford to give him, that he immediately composed the Kanakadhara Stotra, which rained gold on her. The Bhikshatanar form of Shiva, a dishevelled naked beggar preceded by a dwarf, comes to the wives of the rishis to beg for food. By taking on this form, Shiva identifies himself with the starving millions to teach his devotees that feeding a hungry man, even an unkempt beggar, is akin to feeding God himself. Effort is equally important. Krishna lifts Mount Govardhana to protect cattle and ensure food security, for milk is essential to our diet. It is a theme repeated in sculpture and painting. King Mandhata, seeing the hard work of his people, caused a rain of corn, gold and garments, a scene depicted in the sculptures of Amaravati and Jageyyapetta and in faraway Java. Mass feeding was an act of great merit. Several inscriptions and carvings describe instances of mass feeding. In a terracotta sculpture of the Gupta period from Ahichchhatra, Shiva’s ganas are happily feasting on a huge stock of food stored for Daksha’s sacrifice. The beautiful Rig Veda manuscript in the Saraswati Mahal Library at Thanjavur, illustrated with the stories of Shiva’s Thiruvilaiyaadal, depicts the marriage of Meenakshi and Sundareshwarar (Shiva), with huge quantities of food provided for visitors. The worship of food, particularly grain, manifests itself in the worship of Annapoorna, the rice goddess, Rajarajeshwari and Kamakshi, agricultural deities, Dhanya Lakshmi who holds a sheaf of corn and local goddesses like Ponni, the rice goddess of northern Tamil Nadu. Early Indian art depicted shalabhanjikas at Sanchi, celestials in Khandagiri, Orissa, and Kushana river goddesses at Mathura, all holding trays overflowing with vegetables, fruit and grain. All rituals still begin with a prayer to the nava dhanya or nine grains. The temple, as a centre of religious, spiritual and cultural activity, looked after the people by storing grain and feeding them during times of famine. This role was taken way from many temples by misappropriation of temple lands and revenue. Reviving the practice of annadhanam restores an important source of food security. The rains have failed us this year, and deprivation threatens the country. People need food to survive. Are we prepared if the rains fail us again? Are we prepared to feed our growing population in circa 2020?
Does religion affect demography?
Demography and Religion in India By Sriya Iyer Oxford Rs 595 Any discussion of demography in India has invariably turned towards three determinants: education, economic development and religion. The higher fertility and growth rates of the Muslims, when compared with the declining fertility and growth
rates of the Hindus, have raised the potential threat of Muslims outnumbering Hindus. Political leaders have used this agreement to foment communal disharmony. However, there has been no academic or scientific study of the causes for this demographic differential, or the role of religion in determining population growth in India. Demography and Religion in India by Sriya Iyer is a major contribution to an important and essential area that is impeding development and population control in India. She has approached the subject in two ways. From a macro-demographic approach, she examines the theologies of Islam and Hinduism, to present their approaches to population control. Hinduism says little about birth control; the common blessing for newly married woman being “May you be the mother of a hundred sons.” While abstinence is a virtue, the surprising revelation is that a Hindu woman spends, on an average, 53 weeks at her parents’ home in connection with post-childbirth ‘purity and pollution’, which would undoubtedly cut down her fertility. On the other hand, Muslim women spend only 28 weeks. Further, Hinduism has no opinion for or against birth control and abortion, whereas several schools of Islam aver that birth control may be permitted only in restricted situations. Thereafter, Iyer takes up a micro survey of Ramanagaram, a small town and Taluk near Bangalore in Karnataka, which rears silk worms and produces silk yarn for important silk weaving centres. Ramanagaram is not India, but the populations of Hindus, Muslims and Christians (83.87 percent, 15.59 percent and 0.41 percent respectively) make it as representative as possible. She has nterviewed women from the town and five villages. As this was a demographic survey, she selected Hindu, Muslim and Christian families in proportion to their distribution within the Taluk. The literacy levels were quite high in this Taluk, with Christian women being better educated than the Hindus and Muslims, and all the women were employed. There was little difference in mean age at first marriage between the three communities, with all three below the legal minimum age for marriage (which is 18). The study has established the significant and common determinants of female fertility, including marriage age and contraceptive use. The most important determinant was women’s education, particularly secondary and higher (university) education, which delayed marriage age, increased the opportunity costs of her time and her productivity, by exposing her to the benefits of small families through books and the media. This was most apparent among Muslim women, who were the least likely of the three communities to go to the university. Another important determinant was the husband’s skilled occupation, particularly among those with secondary or university education, for such men were busy with their careers in the early years, and, influenced by colleagues and peers, preferred “quality” children to quantity. Income was very significant, as women of higher income groups expected lower gains from marriage and therefore tended to marry later, whereas the poor looked upon children as insurance for their old age. The age at menarche indicated the women’s health and nutritional status, important for child bearing, while the marriage age was found to be determined by social norms and not by the law. Christian women had more autonomy in decision-making on family sizes, while the presence of the extended family in Muslim households reduced fertility. The book looks at the use of contraception. In contrast to the 1991 all-India census figures of 42 percent for Hindus, 28 percent for Muslims and 34 percent for Christians who use family planning, making a total of 44 percent of the population, 53 percent of the women in Ramanagaram replied in the affirmative, consisting of 86
percent Christians, 57 percent Hindus and 40 percent of Muslims. Here the author concedes the possibility of religion influencing contraceptive use in Ramanagaram, but the higher-than normal figures also suggest that better socio-economic conditions can change figures. The study has several suggestions: that religious leaders should be targeted to encourage adherence to the minimum legal age; that theological positions of religion on birth control should be clarified; that higher education, better employment and media campaigns must be used to influence later marriages. Finally, does religion affect demography? The story concludes that religion by itself did not play any significant role in the female marriage age in Ramanagaram. There were no differences in marriage age between Hindus and Muslims on account of socio-economic variables, although there were differences between Christians and the other two, primarily because of higher education levels among the Christians. However, Muslim women average one child more than Hindu women. Interestingly, the author suggests that there is little theological difference between Hinduism and Islam on demographic behaviour, except in their positions on birth control. The Muslims of Ramanagaram are richer than Muslims elsewhere, which may explain their demographic closeness with the Hindus, while the higher education levels in Karnataka also contribute to lower fertility rates. One wonders what a similar study in a Taluk in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar would reveal. The book has tackled a difficult subject and approached a contemporary problem, which has much historical and religious baggage, scientifically.
The Indian dream girl
FICCI Ladies’ Organisation (FLO) has objected to the saas-bahu serials on television, to the eternal mother-in-law-daughter-in-law conflicts, where beautiful women sleep in silks and diamonds, oppress and suppress other women. They have even organised a seminar on the unreality of the women in these soaps. Domestic renovation gave me the time and opportunity to witness some of these soaps. It was a sociological revelation. They are all family dramas about large joint families. First, I learned that the “good girl” is always the eldest bhabhi, who keeps breakaway branches together, who instills family loyalty and discipline in newer, younger bahus, and prevents her husband’s sisters from marrying unsuitable young men. Mamma-in-law is quickly worsted by her bahu, who makes her saas a better mother-in-law for the next bahu. The saas had forgotten that she, too, was once a bahu. The men are weak — either they stray from their loyal sari-clad wives towards frizzled-haired women in tight trousers and décolleté tops, or they are manipulated by scheming women, or they lose large sums of money in ill-advised business ventures and so on. Invariably, the women of the family sort out every problem, keep beautiful homes, look lovely, keep their families intact and, when required, cook and run the family business. We even come across a widow remarrying and accepted lovingly by her new in-laws, and another widow marrying her late husband’s brother.
Wow! FLO should award the soaps for creating super women and ushering in a social revolution! Is this woman every Indian’s dream girl? It would appear to be so, judging from the popularity of the soaps. But these stories could equally depict anybody’s life. The image of women created by the artists of the idiot box is not very far from the image of Indian women created by 20th century painters and churned out by the cinema. Art reflects society, the latter being both the model and the patron. Thus we find women portrayed throughout history as the period and milieu demanded. For example, the women of the rock cut caves of Western India are respectable wives of a growing bourgeoisie that formed the business community, powerful goddesses of perfection in the Gupta period, accomplished dancers and musicians in Thanjavur and Orissa, and so on. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Indian artists tried to reformulate Indian images. As Europeans set up ateliers in India and western portraits of governors and their wives came into vogue, rich Indians were prompted to patronise them. For the first time, women who were never seen outside the zenana became the subject of paintings. Ravi Varma was the first to break the traditional mould, casting his women as regional, national and feminine ideals and creating a national file of typical Indian women. The technique of oil painting enabled him to play up the sensuality and fullness of women’s bodies, the gloss of their costumes and jewellery, without compromising on their respectability. His was the sensibility of the aesthete brought up in an aristocratic tradition wherein a woman was adored for the splendour of her persona and sex was neither taboo nor crass. But, in spite of all the ennobling idealisation and glamourisation, his heroines were human because the artist placed them in human situations. He also brought art to the service of swadeshi and nationalism. Ravi Varma’s women were of three distinct types. The aristocratic women of society, who were the models for his mythological figures, were made into Indian iconic symbols. By crossing the barrier between the classical past and the changing present, they became role models for the perfect Indian woman, the type of women the TV serials of today are trying to depict. They became prototypes for national role models: betrayed Shakunthala, pensive Damayanti, passive and quiescent Mandodari and anguished Draupadi were all upper caste Indian women, dressed appropriately in grand saris and exquisite jewellery, thrown into roles that fit their own oppressive backgrounds, in contrast to assertive women like the coquettish Menaka and demanding Matsyagandha, who became the vamps and villains. The second genre, his portrait paintings, was derived from Victorian and French neoclassical paintings, and were symbols of purity and happy domesticity as mother, daughter and wife. These women in their traditional clothes, heavily bejeweled, became symbols of culture and tradition, chastity and purity. The third type of woman was the peasant, dark skinned and unadorned. Yet Ravi Varma treated her with the sensitivity of an artist, conveying a sense of quiet dignity. His oleographs took this imagery to every home. It was to have a major impact on the emancipation of women in India, by visualising cultural icons and providing
“respectable” role models that could be hung on every wall. Ravi Varma recreated theatrical tableaus dramatising the role of the virtuous women, and thereby created future models for Indian cinema and television. He clothed and decorated his figures well: the Indian audience obviously likes women in beautiful saris and lots of jewellery. If not, we would not see so many sari and jewellery shops — including new ones opening every other day — in the large cities and small towns of India, where his real-life models lived. Following Ravi Varma came the Bengal School, which included Abanindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose and Sarada Charan Ukil, among others. The Bengal School was greatly influenced by Japanese painting in its line drawing, formality and illusionary effects, resulting in a highly romantic imagery: Gopis shyly awaiting Krishna, Apsaras, characters from the Arabian Nights and Mughal princesses were wispy ethereal figures, dream-like waifs, bejeweled and exotically dressed, belonging to a realm of fantasy. Other artists like M A R Chugtai and D P Roychoudhry also produced similarly exotic women. It was left to Jamini Roy, influenced by the folk paintings of Kalighat and elsewhere in Bengal, to bring the Indian woman down to earth. But these women, like those of Amrita Sher-Gil and later artists like B Prabha and N S Bendre, were peasants who are known to keep their feet on the ground. Thus, from the days of Ravi Varma, there were always two classes of Indian women: the upper class, depicted in all their jewellery and larger-than-life imagery, and the simple, down-to-earth peasantry. This, then, was the image of the Indian women when cinema became popular. Cinema combined all these images: the Theatrical figures who had so influenced Ravi Varma, the fairy-tale figures of the Bengal School and the down-to-earth peasant women of India. From Mughal queens to dancing millionairesses, from martyred peasants to twinkled-toed goddesses, the image of the Indian woman was fixed: beautiful (all Indian actresses are beautiful), well dressed, oppressed, righteous (and therefore successful, for right is greater than might), hard-working, a good wife, mother and daughter-in-law, etcetera, etcetera. The vamps drank alcohol, smoked cigarettes and were the villain’s mistress. In spite of the trousers and mini dresses worn by our heroines today, they revert to the sari or salvar-kameez as soon as they get married (on screen), and many of the risqué outfits worn by the heroine and the vulgar dances that accompany them, often appear only in dream sequences, meaning that a man may imagine what women must not wear! If that is what the audiences want, that is what our producers are going to give them. So, FLO ladies, cool down, and enjoy the serials. The women are definitely far more respectable and respectably dressed and behaved than our film heroines. It may be an unbelievable world, but it’s non-stop (literally) fun. And if you think that gorgeous saris and jewellery, joint families and Sati Savitris appear only on TV, just visit Mylapore in Madras or Karol Bagh in Delhi, or even watch a Delhi function on television news, when the Bold and the Beautiful of India make their appearance, and you will not be disappointed.
Cultural production of knowledge
Living traditions in contemporary contexts — the madhava matha of udupi By Vasudeva Rao
Orient Longman Rs 475 Hinduism has been studied from various angles: theistic, philosophic, sociological and so on. This book is an unusual attempt to study it from the sectarian point of view, and to examine the role of a matha (monastery) and the Sanyasis at its helm in influencing the life-style of its followers. The matha in this study was established in the 13th century by the philosopher Madhva of Udupi in Karnataka. Madhva founded the Dvaita (dualistic or monotheist) school of philosophy, derived from Vedanta, which he preached to the Smartha Brahmins of Udupi. His followers, also known as Madhvas, believe that the world is real (satya), the soul is dependant on Brahman, who is full of attributes (gunas), never becoming one with it. The reality of the world is a dependant reality. Being an insider (of the caste) has given the author access to people and information not easily available to the outside world. Yet it is to the credit of the author that he has not let this colour his point of view. The chapterisation is indeed unusual. Apart from the social organisation, the author has included a chapter on the “Gastrosemantics within the Udupi Krishna Matha”, the “Cultural production of knowledge”, the “Styles of discourse” in the “production” of this knowledge, and the roles of “the Sanyasi and the householder”. Such a division would naturally bear the promise of a different point of view. Udupi, on the west coast of Karnataka, is one of the seven holy places of Tulunad, populated by Brahmin and non-Brahmin Tulu speakers, the language being Dravidian and similar to Tamil and Kannada. The Udupi matha is made up of eight sub-mathas, each named after the village where the lands of the matha are situated. In the 15th century, Vadiraja Swamy, the chief Swamy or pontiff of one of the mathas, introduced the paryaya system, by which each matha gets a fixed period of two years to worship (by conducting the rituals for) the image of Lord Krishna and manage the main matha. Thus each matha now gets a chance every sixteen years. The author describes, in detail, the rituals and celebrations of the main temple of Shri Krishna in Udupi. If Venkateshwara of Tirumala is Kanchana Brahman and Vithalaswamy of Pandharpur is Nada Brahman, Krishna of Udupi is Anna Brahman. The food offered to God is naivedya, and the food eaten (or retrieved) is prasadam. According to Madhvas, food that is distributed is the knowledge of Brahman, and food that is preserved is his glory. The role of food in the mathas of Udupi cannot be underestimated, which is probably why the city spawned so many excellent cooks and hoteliers who took the culinary delights of South Indian cooking all over the world. The author has given detailed tables and descriptions of the feeding of the Sanyasis, Brahmins and other castes, for every visitor to the matha is fed, an obligation of the paryaya Swamy. The book goes on to describe the teaching methods of Sanyasis and lay teachers, the role of women and the impossibility on inter-caste religious education. Most religious sects in India, of whom the Madhvas are no exception, cater to specific sub-castes, and the role of the other castes vis-à-vis the dominant religious group is clearly defined. It is rare to see the acceptance of a student from another caste, even if it is a parallel one, such as the Madhvas consider the Smarthas and Shri Vaishnavas to be. Women are accepted by lay teachers only, not the Sanyasis, so their inclusion is still a rarity.
The author expresses a very unusual point of view: he maintains that the two ashramas of renunciation (sanyasa) and householder (grihasta) share attributes that form a channel of interdependence and criticism, articulated through the concept of vairagya (detachment), that “invites us to understand sanyasa as a value or virtue”. The Indian ideal of renunciation has always been difficult to comprehend, given the traditional interaction between the sanyasi and the grihasta (householder). While the Sanyasi of the Madhava sect is a renouncer within an institutionalised set-up, “a life devoted to seeking knowledge of the Brahman and living a life in His consciousness” by the householder may be an equally detached one. Whereas the path to moksha or liberation according to Adi Shankara is total renunciation or sanyasa, the Madhvas give greater importance to the adoption of detachment, with or without sanyasa. Further, although sanyasa includes giving up one’s caste, renunciation among the Madhvas is not against the caste system or Brahmanism. Madhva attaches greater importance to vairagya or detachment, which is the cornerstone of his school of philosophy. The author concludes by remarking on the flexibility and adaptability of the Udupi Madhava matha, which makes change a distinct possibility. Today, new questions are being asked: what will be the position and role of Dalits? Or of women? These are not easy to answer, for they have been shelved so long by all those connected with religious sub-sects. This book is valuable contribution to the hitherto undocumented institution of mathas, which have been a mainstay of Hinduism and have provided the religion with its only organised institutions and pontiffs. It has surveyed, in detail, the functioning of the temple of Udupi Shri Krishna, the mathas associated with the temple, the systems of education and feeding, the systems of renunciation and the uniqueness of renunciation as per the gospel of this sect. It is a valuable ethnological and sociological study, and is essential for the understanding of both Hindu religious institutions and the Dvaita school of philosophy.
Grounded in wisdom
Ancient India sanctified plants, animals as a recognition of biodiversity Earth Day has come and gone, and everybody has made his or her annual commitment to save the earth, which seems doomed to destruction. On Earth Day, I chose to look back at the Indian view of nature. How did ancient Indians conceive the elements, how were the elements recreated in art? The Rig Veda is a celebration of nature, its hero the God of Rain. Dawn was beautiful Ushas, dressed in a veil of light crimson, whose dancing appearance is heralded with the fragrance of the flowers. The lotus, said Kalidasa, welcomes the touch of the sun. In fact much of Indian literature celebrates the sun, moon and the constellations. In a sculpture in the rock-cut cave temple of Bhaja (2nd century B.C.) Surya, in his chariot, destroys the demon of darkness. Surya is invariably depicted in a chariot driven by seven horses representing the seven days, encircled by a halo, and wearing boots, for his feet could scorch the earth! The beautiful Chola temple at Gangaikondacholapuram in Tamilnadu contains a rare and exquisite representation of Surya in a navagraha stone - a lotus encircled by the planets. But the greatest
tribute to the sun was at Konarak, the giant chariot reflecting the Sun God in all his glory. Water was the foremost of the pancha bhutas or five elements. Flanking the doorways of early temples, were images of Ganga on a crocodile and Yamuna on a tortoise. In the 4th century A.D. Varaha cave at Udayagiri, the two goddesses meet in a wall of water, recreating Prayaga. But the greatest celebration of the Ganga was in far-away Mamallapuram, where the Pallavas carved the story of the descent of the Ganga for eternity on an enormous rock. Later, Adi Shesha, the divine snake who forms the couch of Narayana, represented water. Indian art sanctified water as a giver of life. Another bhuta - Earth - was the most ancient deity, and lives on in the village goddesses of India. She was incarnated in Bhudevi, the consort of Vishnu and a form of Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity, and was rescued by the mighty boar incarnation of Vishnu, Varaha. Kushana sculpture often combined water and earth by making the goddess hold a pitcher of water and food, or stand on a water pot or on an overflowing cornucopia (kalasha). Flanked by elephants that rained water on her, the early Gajalakshmi's hands held fruits, vegetables and grain; today the same hands shower gold coins in popular art. Vayu, the wind, was hardly represented, although a rare image appears in a coin of Kanishka. He was the fastest runner among the gods, his speed and strength inherited by his son Hanuman who could dash from Lanka to the Himalayas, and return with the mountain itself. The image of Hanuman flying, a club in one hand and the mountain in the other, is the most popular image of Bajrang Bali. Agni the fire was an extension of the sun, conveying the sacrificial offerings to the gods. In early imagery, flames rose from the crown and shoulders of Agni, who purified the home and was the witness of all actions and rituals, including the marriage of Shiva and Parvati (Gurjara Pratihara sculpture), the pact between Rama and Sugriva (Mattancheri painting, Cochin) and Sita's purity. Ancient Indians looked upon Agni as an ally who cleared the forests and helped them make the transition from nomadic herders to agriculturists. Akasha the sky was represented by Indra, the king of the heavens, mounted on his elephant Airavata, a symbol of royalty; in the exquisite Kangra miniatures, Airavata is the cloud and Indra is the rain. Indra was often held hostage by demonic elements. Kalidasa celebrated the rain clouds in his Meghaduta, or Cloud Messenger, beautifully depicted in the cave paintings of Ajanta and the early Chalukyan sculptures as Vidyadharas flying among the clouds. These were the pancha bhutas, but there were others. The early cult of the Yakshas or spirits of nature lived on in the Vanadevatas, who lived in the trees and helped human beings. In a Sunga sculpture from Bharhut, the Yaksha or Vanadevata's arms appear from the sal tree, holding a bowl of food and a pitcher of water. Several trees are celebrated in art and literature. The most sacred is the ashvata or pipal, beneath which the Buddha attained enlightenment. The ashoka and bakula were brought to bloom by the touch of a maiden's foot, a ritual immortalized in the shalabhanjikas of Sanchi and Kushana sculpture. Dakshinamurti the teacher sits beneath the Ficus benghalensis (banyan), while the baby Krishna sleeps on the leaf of the Ficus krishnae. The luscious mango is celebrated as the Goddess Ambika, sitting beneath a mango tree. The Ekamreshvara temple in Kanchipuram is dedicated to Shiva, whose
Lingam once stood beneath the mango tree, which is still worshipped. Many ancient towns were named after trees of socio-economic importance or the sthalavriksha, such as Kanchipuram after the kanchi tree, Vrindavan after the vrinda plant, Thillai (now Chidambaram) after the mangrove and so on. Many of these plants, like the kanchi and thillai, are no longer found in these places. Cutting a sacred tree was taboo. In the kalpavriksha, the tree of life or wish-fulfilling tree that first appears in the Atharva Veda, were clustered the blessings of all the trees - food, water and wealth. In a Sunga sculpture from Besnagar, the tree is surrounded by bundles of treasure. The tree appeared at the churning of the ocean, along with Lakshmi, Goddess of Prosperity. A variation is the kalpavalli, the wish-fulfilling creeper, with buds and tendrils that decorate the coping of the Bharhut railing. Animals were revered too. Kamadhenu was the wish-fulfilling cow, whose offspring are all the cattle on earth. The word "go" or cow was very important: gopura was the entrance to the village, gotra was the clan to which a person belonged, goshti was an assembly of good men, gosarga and godhuli represented dawn and dusk, while gopa and govalla were officials. Krishna even lifts Mount Govardhana to save cattle from Indra's wrath, a recurring theme in Indian art. Other animals were celebrated for their characteristics, such as the deer for its gentleness: the place where the deer roams free is sacred, said Manu, and the deer park at Sarnath was the site of the Buddha's first sermon. Hunting the gentle deer was frowned upon in ancient India, as is depicted in the sculptures of Bharhut and Khajuraho. Local animal species were protected by naming places and temples after them, such as Mylapore in Chennai (mayil = peacock) or Aannaikatti near Coimbatore (aannai = elephant). But the greatest honour given to animals was their elevation as the vehicles of the gods, and as the incarnations of Vishnu, roles that are repeated in sculpture and painting. Shiva rode the bull, Vishnu the eagle, Brahma the swan, and so on. The elephant was deified as Ganesha, the langur as Hanuman. Harming the animals was taboo. Rajasthani and Pahadi miniature painting display the greatest appreciation of nature by the Indian artist. By recognizing the five elements that were essential for life and elevating every species of plant and animal to sanctity, ancient Indians recognized and respected the importance of biodiversity. We are making a last-ditch effort to save it with the Biological Diversity Act. Unfortunately, Indians only respect what they worship. By secularizing rivers and lands, plants and animals, we have been scientifically correct, but we have also rung their death knell, as people pollute and destroy with impunity. The earth and its bounties are sacred creations. Unless we revere them and revive a respect for their sanctity, we have little chance of saving them.
Demonising the enemy
BC and CNN have dominated the air waves these last two weeks, and the images that have been transmitted are very different from what we were led to believe. Contrary to the earlier image of “weapons of mass destruction (WMD)”, which have yet to be found, and oil wealth, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq appears to be a sea of sand
and desert. So, why did the US and UK go to war? The motive changed midway to the “liberation” of the Iraqi people! The words “oil” and “armaments industry” are never mentioned as motives. Iraq is a classic case of “How to Demonise the Enemy and Ennoble the Victor”. Once the American media decided that George Bush was the Great White Hope and Saddam the wicked villain, images were created to reinforce the theory. The tanks advancing over the vast expanse of desert represented a tragedy for innocent civilians pounded by a mighty military machine. CNN presented the scene as a wilderness demanding the ultimate sacrifice of life by innocent American soldiers committed to destroying WMD and “liberating” Iraqis, never mind the killing and maiming. Between BBC and CNN, there are differing messages. BBC has been showing us injured children, local and international resistance, a live and healthy Saddam, no WMD and a subtle disapproval of the war, notwithstanding its support for British soldiers “in berets”. CNN has claimed that Saddam was either dead or absconding, Basra was “taken”, there was little local resistance, few civilian casualties, and WMD were hidden in every cache, until proven otherwise. When the Iraqis paraded a few PoWs, it was a contravention of the Geneva Convention. But the triumphant parading of Iraqi PoWs — some with their hands tied behind their backs, some with hands raised in surrender and many buffeted about with their heads in bags — has not elicited any condemnation from the pliant media. Demonising the enemy is as old as civilisation. To say that Rama killed the tribal ruler of a small island is less heroic than to make him fight a demon: a multi-headed Ravana with supernatural powers and special boons and weapons given by the Gods. Krishna grew up destroying a variety of anthropomorphic demons, and built up the image of an invincible incarnation. Kamsa killed seven children before the birth of Krishna, thereby reinforcing his evil nature. Five Pandavas killed one hundred Kauravas, the latter supported by their own and other mighty armies. To reinforce their strength, they also chose Krishna's Yadava army. But right triumphs over might, as greater skill and better fighting abilities win the day. Rakshasa, or demon, was the name of an ancient Indian tribe. The minister of the Nandas, who were defeated by Chandragupta Maurya, was Rakshasa, and is immortalised in the play Mudrarakshasa. Many defeated tribes were called Rakshasas. Later, the term became synonymous with demon. There are many types of demons. For example, Indra, the God of Rain, fights and destroys the evil Vritra, the demon of drought. This is one of the many examples when natural forces, like human beings, are at war with each other. Devi fights and defeats the buffalo-headed demon Mahisha. This is probably an instance of Devi worshippers defeating buffalo worshippers. Such a story becomes more plausible when we take into account the fact that Mahisha was believed to be the ruler of ancient Mysore (an anglicised version of Mahisha) and that the buffalo-worshippers — probably the pastoral, buffalo-herding Todas — went away to the adjoining Nilgiri hills in order to preserve their religion and culture. Devi worshippers in Karnataka and districts of Tamil Nadu adjoining Karnataka still sacrifice buffaloes, through impalement and very cruel methods, as if to satiate their
anger and slake their thirst for revenge. Is it the memory of an ancient confrontation? Perhaps. After all, huge effigies of Ravana and his demon brothers are still burnt joyously during Dussera. If, as some historians believe, Rama’s defeat of Ravana represents the southern foray of the Aryans, then the destruction of the buffalo by the Goddess represents the defeat of the tribals by the non-Aryan population. Nobody was free from demonizing the enemy. The demons of all mythologies were invariably the enemies of the victorious dispensation, Aryan or non-Aryan, Indian or foreign. Heroism has always demanded a victory over a powerful enemy. Ancient conflicts, such as that between the Greek Theseus and the Minotaur or the Biblical Job and the Behemoth, sent out the message that the resolution of opposing forces was integral to life, and the battle between the forces of darkness and light, evil and good, were complementary to each other. Thus Adam is tempted by the serpent, which represents the Devil, the biblical equivalent of the demon. A young David battles and defeats the giant Goliath. The Old Testament makes the Jews out to be good, and the varying opponents — Egyptians, Palestinians and Romans — to be evil. Israelis seem unable to overcome the Biblical portrayal of Egyptians and Palestinians as villains even today. This is not unlike Bush’s depiction of the “good” American setting out to defeat the “bad” Iraqi. It is interesting to see how heroism was depicted over the ages. Many heroes of the ancient world are shown battling demonic animals, such as Hercules who killed the Nemean Lion without weapons, in a cave, or Theseus who entered the labyrinth and killed the bull Minotaur. Battling the lion was a sign of heroism: the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh fights two. The killing of fierce fire-spitting dragons was a popular theme in almost all civilisations, the Greek Hercules and Perseus being the best known. With the rise of Christianity, this heroic feat was transferred to the saints, such as St George who killed the dragon. In many cases, the animal symbolised the warring and defeated tribe. The American Indians immortalised their victories by building totem poles. Each animal on the pole was the totem (or symbol) of a defeated tribe, the latest at the top; the number of totems reflected a tribe’s power. The totem poles eventually became an art form. Demons appear in Islam too. In the Hamzanama, a painted manuscript of Akbar’s period depicting the story of Prophet Mohammed’s uncle, demons and demonesses are destroyed by decapitation. This was extended to human enemies. An illustrated Persian manuscript about Mahmud of Ghazni’s invasions, now in the Saraswati Mahal Library at Tanjore, depicts soldiers carrying the heads of the defeated kings, their bleeding bodies on the ground, to Mahmud. In two separate instances in Shah Jehan’s Padshahnama, Raja Jujhar Singh Bundela of Orchha and his son Bikramajit, and Khan Jahan Lodi and his sons Aziz and Emal, are killed by the severance of their heads which, says the text, was full of “demonic” hopes and fancies (such as the desire to be independent). The head had to be severed from the body to destroy the demon it hosted. A famous depiction of a war is the Bayeux tapestry of the AD 1066 invasion of Britain by the Normans. Embroidered by Matilda, wife of William the Conqueror, and her ladies-in-waiting, it shows a horrible and bloody war, the killing of Harold and the
Saxons, and William's triumphant anointment as king. Yet, in spite of the embroidered ferocity of the Saxon warriors, historically, they actually capitulated quite easily. One man’s hero is another's villain. I wonder how the myth of the all-powerful Saddam will be narrated in the years to come. The big difference is television, which conveys simultaneous images. Fortunately, the many “embedded” journalists are sending out images that prove that heroes are not always good and demons are not always bad. But de-demonizing enemies calls for intellectual sophistication. It is much easier to create a voodoo doll that will be hated, and thus provide justification for war.
Finding a past
Last week, at the C P Art Centre in Chennai, T K V Rajan, archaeologist turned television producer, presented an exhibition titled ‘In Search of Krishna’, a welldocumented collection of material about the excavations conducted at the various sites connected with the life of Krishna and the events of the Mahabharata. In view of the ongoing excavations at Ayodhya, it is worthwhile to see what the Mahabharata excavations revealed. Over 35 sites of the Mahabharata have been identified in the North, all of which have yielded material culture — painted grey ware (PGW) pottery painted over with designs in black pigment, and antiquities in uniform and identical levels. This pottery is made of a superior quality of paste formed of well levigated clay and fine, wellburnt fabric achieved by distributing heat in the kiln evenly. This civilisation is also characterised by the use of iron, unknown to the earlier Harappans. Hastinapur, between Meerut and Mawana in Uttar Pradesh, is now a forgotten village, but excavations in 1952 revealed the existence of Vidur-ka-tilla (Vidura’s palace), Draupadi-ki-rasoi (Draupadi’s kitchen) and Draupadi Ghat (for bathing), besides copper utensils, iron seals, ornaments made of gold and silver, terracotta discs and several oblong-shaped ivory dice used in the game of chauper. Iron objects numbering 135, and which included arrow and spearheads, shafts, tongs, hooks, axes and knives indicate the existence of a vigorous industry. There are indications of brick-lined roads and drainage systems, and an agro-livestock based economy. The PGW of Hastinapura has been assigned to 1100-800 BC. The events of the Mahabharata probably occurred around 1000-900 BC. Later, according to the Matsya and Vayu Puranas, a heavy flood on the River Ganga destroyed Hastinapura, and Nichakshu, the fifth king after Parikshit (Arjuna’s grandson) who ascended the throne after the Kurukshetra war, shifted his capital to Kausambi, 50 kilometres from Allahabad. There is definite archaeological evidence of a massive flood level. The devastation by the Ganga is still visible in the thick clay soil. After their exile, the Pandavas asked for three villages: Paniprastha, Sonaprastha and Indiraprastha, generally identified with modern Panipat, Sonepat and Puranaqila in New Delhi. These sites have also yielded the same pottery and antiquities. Building structures with drainage systems and PGW were excavated at Purana Qila.
Kurukshetra, now in Haryana, was the site of the Kuru war. Excavations here have yielded iron arrow and spearheads, dated by Thermoluminence (TM) to 2800 BC. Today it is a town of bathing pools. At the Brahma Sarovar, a large lake 3,600 feet by 1,500 feet, Krishna, Balarama and Subhadra are said to have bathed after a solar eclipse. Bhishma lay on his bed of arrows at Bhishma Kund. Arjuna shot an arrow into the earth and a cool fountain of water flowed out directly into Bhishma’s mouth, creating the Ban Ganga pond. Eight kilometres away is the village of Thanesar, the capital of Harsha Vardhana in the sixth century. Yet, the excavations were stopped soon after these finds were revealed, and were never resumed. Why? The submergence of Dwaraka is described vividly in the epic. Arjuna asked the residents to vacate the city immediately as it was going to be submerged by the sea. Dvaravati, accordsing to the Sabhaparva of the Mahabharata, was heavily fortified. Dr S R Rao started excavating the Dwarkadish temple till he hit the remains of 15th, 12th and 9th century AD temples. He dug on, passing two earlier temples, until, at a depth of 9.5 metres, they came to the remains of two towns destroyed by the sea. From the earlier of the two they recovered the characteristic lustrous red pottery of the period and region. Encouraged by his findings, he decided to search for Dwaraka. Underwater exploration yielded two gateways, fort walls, bastions and a jetty at a depth of 10 metres off Dwaraka, in the Arabian Sea. Apart from corresponding to the Mahabharata’s description of the architectural features of the city and the mode of its submergence, it has directly fixed a date by TM for the pottery of Dwaraka at 3520 years BP (Before Present). Other finds include pottery, bronze and iron implements, three-holed triangular stone anchors at Dwaraka, a late Harappan type of seal made of conch of a composite animal — a bull, unicorn and goat — and lustrous red ware pottery at Bet Dwaraka, linking the site to the Harappan culture, and thereby establishing its continuity. Bet Dwaraka was an island frequented by Krishna who is said to have visited its Shankhodara Temple. It also contains the only ancient temple for Matsya, the epic saviour of the world at the time of the Great Flood. The materials discovered at Dwaraka corroborate history and myth, and fix a date for the inundation of the city — between 1500 and 1300 BC. The most remarkable aspect of both epics is their geography. The Mahabharata mentions many small villages, tanks and hills, which are still identifiable. What is the historicity of the Mahabharata? Our doubting historians will never accept any of these finds unless they are supported by inscriptions, which will never be forthcoming as the earliest Indian inscriptions belong to 300 BC. So, do we treat the epic as myth till they are satisfied? Western scholars tried to establish a connection between Krishna and Christ, claiming that the former was derived from St Thomas’ teachings about the latter, but literature and archaeology have proved otherwise. The Chandogya Upanishad mentions that Krishna Devakiputra was a student of Ghora Angirasa and the author of the Upanishad, which repeats the teachings of the Bhagavat Gita word by word.
In the 4th century BC, Chanakya refers to the story of Krishna’s birth, while Megasthenes mentions that the Sourasenoi (Surasenas or Yadavas) worshipped Herakles (Krishna). Their two great cities were Methora (Mathura) and Kleisobora (Krishnapura?) on the navigable river Yobares (Yamuna). He also mentions that Herakles (Krishna) sent his daughter Pandaia to rule over the kingdom of Mathura (Madura) on the southern sea. Was she a descendant of the Pandavas, and did the latter re-emerge as the Pandyas, whose southern capital was named after Krishna’s capital, Mathura? Panini, Patanjali and the Buddhist and Jain works also mention Krishna and the events of the Kurukshetra war, while the Chinese traveller Yuan Chang records that a great war was fought at Kurukshetra and the bones of dead warriors lay buried under the soil. In 180-165 BC, the Greek ruler Agathocles issued coins with images of Vasudeva holding a chakra. Several inscriptions are available in the first century BC: the Greek ambassador Bhagavata Heliodorus erected a Garuda column to Vasudeva at Besnagar; the Mora Well inscription near Mathura mentions the worship of the five Vrishni heroes, including Vasudeva; stone enclosures (Narayana vatika) were built for Vasudeva and his brother Shankarshana (Balarama) at Ghosundi and Hathivada. The most controversial site is, of course, the temple at Mathura, the birthplace of Krishna. I am not aware if any excavation has been done here, but tradition and even eminent historians associate the site with the birth of Krishna, which is why Aurangazeb consciously chose to build a mosque over it. Apart from knowing that vyuhas were army formations, I never really understood their formation or penetration. Rajan has computerised them to work out how the various Kaurava warriors were placed and how the Pandavas entered and destroyed these vyuhas, increasing the sophistication of what was always believed to be a primitive tribal war. Krishna’s divinity is a matter of faith, established by his identification with Lord Vishnu. But archaeology has conclusively established the veracity of the Mahabharata and the existence of the cult of Vasudeva-Krishna at a very early period. The epics form the soul of India, and Rajan has done well to document and bring alive ancient history.
Wealth out of waste
Sometimes, writing about beautiful creations of art seems futile when the most beautiful of them all — nature — is subjected to the worst form of defacement. I am writing about garbage — call it waste or anything — which is disfiguring our cities and countryside like nothing else ever did. The beautiful East Coast Road from Chennai to Pondicherry is equaled in scenic beauty only by a similar San Francisco-Los Angeles coastal road, with one big difference: large heaps of garbage all along the way. The rubbish heaps include both biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste, particularly plastic. Archaeologists of the future will probably name our civilisation the Plastic Age.
I recently participated in a ‘phone-in’ on AIR. Most of the callers complained about garbage dumped in their neighbourhoods. Some unfortunate souls lived alongside dumping grounds, inspite of laws forbidding dumping in domestic areas, and complained of rotting dead bodies and raw sewage. Others spoke of burning rubber and plastic, which release toxic chemicals into the air. The tragedy is that they had to complain at all. When in Mumbai, I like to visit the Maharashtra Nature Park (MNP), situated at Dharavi near Mahim Creek. In 1980, the area was one of India’s largest garbage dumps, adjoining Asia’s largest slum. If there could be a hell on earth, this was it. Today it is a lush forest, a 15-hectare marshland of greenery and tranquility in the middle of a noisy, polluted metropolis. It is an example of how will and determination can convert a problem into an asset. In one area they have left open a section to remind the visitor of what the MNP once was. This patch is like an archaeological dig; only, instead of different layers of soil, we see layers of plastic bags peeping out of the soil. A major problem in the park is the synthetic fibres of discarded clothes. They are so strong and non-degradable that they can cut the roots of trees. The park is an island of hope in a sea of urban despair. There are over 14,000 varieties of plants, including non-commercial, fruit and vegetable trees, medicinal plants and even a nakshatra vana, vermicomposting pits, wetlands and a nursery. 84 varieties of birds and 34 varieties of butterflies, apart from several insects, reptiles and small mammals, have returned to the area. It is an education for young and old alike, an example of wealth created out of waste. The concept of waste is a creation of the twentieth century. Earlier, nothing was thrown away. I remember an old cupboard where our housekeeper would faithfully store every piece of rope, broken metal, bottles, newspapers and more. Whatever she could not use was faithfully handed over to the raddiwalla who, for some unfathomable reason, only paid her for old newspapers and beer bottles, reused to bottle phenyl. The rest were given to him free, to be melted down and reused by him. Then came the plastic explosion followed by the packaging boom. Our dhals and spices once came tightly packed in old newspaper, today they come in plastic bags. We used to take our cloth bags to the shop, today we go empty-handed and return with several plastic bags of provisions. Many grocers’ shops have closed down as large supermarkets move into each locality. Supermarket products are packaged in plastic and cardboard. At the end of a shopping spree, our dustbins are full with discarded packaging. Waste management has become a hot topic. Ideally, there should never be waste. Everything comes from nature and should return to nature. The slogan ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ should be practiced, not decorate Earth Day and Environment Day posters. The raddiwalla is probably the world’s greatest recycler. We could help by reducing consumption and using reusable items. The use and throw culture leads to growing garbage mountains in our cities. It is essential to segregate waste at source into biodegradable waste, such as household, agri-horticultural and hotel waste, and non-biodegradable waste.
American cities have effectively introduced segregation bins of different colours. This should be introduced in India too, although there is always the fear of brightly coloured bins being stolen if left outside the house! Biodegradable waste is the most manageable. A pit in the corner of every house and building would produce enough vermicompost — garbage reduced to manure by earthworms in the soil — to feed an organic vegetable garden. Dr Sultan Ismail of Chennai has developed pits to suit every home, need and quantity of garbage. If vermicomposting pits were made compulsory in every home and building in every city, we need not fill fresh water sources with garbage, as was done to the lakes or yeris of Chennai. A simple metal mosquito netting would keep out rats and mosquitoes, preventing the pits from becoming health hazards. But a dump yard would be too large for a mosquito net. Bioconversion is supposed to be done in many Indian cities, but given the poor record of municipal corporations, one doubts if any waste is treated to speed the process of decomposition. Non-biodegradable materials should not be made easily available. Plastics have become necessities, but their production should be accompanied by a good recycling and reuse programme. Public awareness can convert waste into asset. If nothing else, just hand it over to the rag picker or raddiwalla, rather than let them sift through the garbage bins and leave unsightly trash on the streets. Hazardous waste — chemical, pathological and radioactive — is a ticking time bomb. Apart from the hazardous wastes we ourselves produce, there is the recurring threat of trans-national shipping to third world countries, including India, even though it is illegal. Some enterprising Indian businessmen even wanted to ship 9/11 trash to India for disposal as scrap metal, never mind its high toxicity. Hazardous waste can only be tackled through waste reduction at source, recovery, reuse and recycling. Pre-treatment followed by incineration or autoclaving, prior to disposal, is essential. Unfortunately, economic considerations outweigh environmental factors, and nearly 80 percent of highly hazardous industries dispose off their waste in low-lying areas. The garbage bins of hospitals are also major sources of disease and infection. Laws demanding the proper disposal of biomedical waste are yet to be implemented in India. India must be the only country that fills fresh water sources with sewage and other wastewater, including toxic industrial effluents. The pollution of our rivers and lakes is not just a tragedy — it is sheer stupidity, considering the fact that we perennially have a shortage of drinking water. We hardly know the damage wastewater causes when dumped into the sea, but it returns to our plate along with seafood. Liquid effluents from industries such as tanneries are let into the ground, contaminating drinking water sources. Indian cities need several small water treatment plants that can treat the water before pumping it into agricultural fields, seas and other end uses. Indian cities are unplanned and fast growing. Decentralization and privatization of municipal services could improve their cleanliness — Chennai is an example. A combination of public awareness and institutional framework can improve segregation and collection systems. But my garbage cannot be dumped in your
backyard: people must practice alternate disposal systems. This is not a scientific paper about waste disposal. This is merely an environmentalist’s cry for justice to nature. Meanwhile, our existing garbage dumps continue to be eyesores and health hazards. I wish more municipal commissioners and mayors would visit Mumbai and learn from the Maharashtra Nature Park, to create urban forests out of their dumping yards. It would be such a wonderful experience and opportunity for young people to observe and learn that trash could become treasure. And an effort to reverse the Silent Spring of urban India.
The legend of Iraq
Iraq is not a ‘desert sheikhdom‘ but an ancient land to which much of the world owes its history and development Every morning, the newspaper has the latest from President George Bush shooting from the lip at Saddam Hussein. During a political discussion with a group of young people, I was amazed to discover that they thought Iraq was a larger desert sheikhdom, notable for its sand, Arabs and oil. They were equally amazed to learn from me that it was the home of the great Sumerian-Mesopotamian cultures (also known as Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Chaldean) the cradle, probably, of much of human civilization. Years ago, while working for my PhD, I found a wealth of instances of Sumerian influences on ancient India and the world, which formed rich background material for my work. As the world prepares to bomb Iraq back to the Stone Age, let us look back and see what we inherited from that country. The Tigris and the Euphrates are two long rivers that originate in Armenia and form a valley between them till they reach the Persian Gulf. This land was named Mesopotamia or ‘(the land) between the rivers’ by the ancient Greeks. It was rich farming land, but was also ideally situated for the growth of urban culture, leading to its development as the center of an ancient trade route that stretched from Egypt to India. It was also an unstable environment with frequent changes in the courses of rivers that led to changes in landscapes and kingdoms. The combination of geography and history made the region one of the most creative places in the history of the world. The earliest Paleolithic sites are found here. By 3500 BC, the Sumerians had developed exquisitely painted fine pottery, sculptures in basalt, alabaster and marble, and built architectural marvels. By 2500 BC they were trading with the Indians. In 2000 BC Gudea of Lagash had maintained detailed records of Sumerian affairs and history. Writing was the Sumerian gift to the world, the earliest-known instances found in their city-state. Our knowledge of this civilization comes from inscribed pictographic tablets. Babylonian cuneiform writing and the Semetic-Akkadian language became the medium of communication all over the Middle East, for the Sumerians were great traders. There are records of business deals and personal messages on clay tablets and seals. Even our Harappan seals display a remarkable resemblance to the early
Sumerian pictographs. The Sumerians were already listing their kings before the major event that was to be their historical landmark, the Great Flood of 3000 BC. According to Sumerian tradition, the patriarch Utu-napishtim was approached by the God Ea who warned him of the impending doom and instructed him to build a boat and fill it with his family and all species of animals and craftspersons. Utu-napishtim did so, and was protected from the cyclone that wrought havoc on the earth. This went on for seven days till, on the eighth, he let first a dove and then a raven go free. When the latter did not return, he emerged from the ship, and the land was reclaimed by man and animal. This was the origin of the story of Noah's Ark in the Bible and that of Manu (Matsyavatara) in India. Ancient Sumer developed the sexagesimal metric system, a numerical system based on 60; they had devised mathematical tables with squares and cube roots and used Pythagorean numbers fifteen centuries before Pythagoras. They were familiar with fractions. The world’s first literary epic — the story of Gilgamesh who was ‘‘twothirds god and one-third human’’ — appeared at this time. The Sumerians had an elaborate pantheon of deities who found their way into the Bible, such as the Enlil with the Biblical Tablets, the Virgin Mother and Dumuzi, associated with death and resurrection. They also influenced the mythologies of Hindu deities, such as Durga who has features of Ishtar, and Narayana whose mythology resembles that of Enki. Sumerians were prolific builders, and archaeological excavations have revealed cities built around massive step temples or ziggurats with stone foundations, a central mountain tower and pillared halls. This form of architecture can still be seen in southern India and South East Asia. In the sixth century BC, the Chaldean Nebuchadnezzar constructed buildings famed for their size and magnificence, such as the Marduk Temple (believed to be the Tower of Babel), the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Median Wall, besides magnificent palaces. The Sumerians were also great technologists who managed to control the changing course of the Tigris and Euphrates by constructing dams, large and small. Most of this culture took place in the city-states of Ur, Nippur and Lagash till, in 1970 BC, the Amorites took over and Babylon became the capital. In 1800 BC Hammurabi, the great statesman and law-giver and a contemporary of the Hebrew patriarch Abraham, re-codified the old Sumerian laws inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform writing on a huge eight foot stela of black diorite, now in the Louvre. On top of the pillar there is a scene of Hammurabi receiving the laws from the Sun God. Hammurabi was a path-breaker, who also modified the laws in favour of women, giving them the right to divorce, and providing proper provision for women by making the husband provide for the maintenance of divorced wives and their children, of whom the mother had custody. There are 282 paragraphs relating to criminal and civil law. The Code of Hammurabi became synonymous with justice. The next dynasty to rule the region was the Mittani or Hurrian, an Aryan people whose language and gods show distinct Indian similarities, followed by the Ashurs of
Assyria. There are some theories that the latter were the Asuras of Indian literature. The Ashurs or Assyrians were famous for their iron weapons and war machines that left ruin and desolation behind them. Achaemenian Persians, Alexander and the Seleucid Greeks, Parthians and Sassanians attacked the region several times. In the seventh century AD, as the Persians and the Byzantine Christians remained locked in a power struggle, raiding bands of Arab desert warriors plundered the fortified towns of the region. Palestine and Syria were conquered first, followed by the killing of king Rustom of Persia and the Islamization of Persia and Iraq. When the Arabs conquered Mesopotamia, the ancient culture was destroyed and forgotten. While the Abbasid Caliphs of Baghdad adopted the Persian language and mores, Iraq became the site for the battles between the successors of Prophet Mohammed that led to the Shia and Sunni sub-divisions. By intermarrying with the people they conquered, the Arabs removed the distinction between Arabs and non-Arabs, and the Mesopotamian region became the Arab nation of Iraq. Arabs, Mongols, Persians and Turks ravaged the land of Iraq in succession, till the discovery of oil and the ascendancy of the British in the twentieth century. But the Arabs took the knowledge of the lands they conquered to the world as Arabic mathematics, medicine and science, none of which were developed by the Arabs themselves. Persians, Assyrians, Egyptians and Jews wrote books on these subjects in the Arabic language. And thus the heritage of Sumer lived on as Arabic knowledge. This, then, is a short history of Iraq, a nation to whom much of the world owes its history and development. The Americans will be the newest nation to attack and destroy this ancient land, whose history has been as wrapped in tears as in great inventions and discoveries.
Portrait of an artist
Art critics decry Raja Ravi Varma’s contribution to modern Indian art. Yet, at a recent exhibition at Chennai, prints of his oleographs were sold out and his originals command record-breaking prices. So, what was he — artist or charlatan? What was his role in contemporary art history? And what makes people flood their homes with his paintings? Contrary to popular belief, Ravi Varma was a self-taught artist. He observed Theodore Jensen, a Dutch portrait painter at the court of the Maharaja of Travancore, who refused to teach him or let him observe the mixing of colours. Nor would the palace artist Ramaswamy Naicker teach him. So, he studied the Royal Academy paintings published in the Magazine of Art; the Italian paintings of the Renaissance; and the works of little known contemporary French artists such as the Boulangers and Borguereau. The illustrations in Edward Moor’s Hindu Pantheon were a major source of inspiration, the dramatic drawings of the Hindu pantheon firing his imagination. But Ravi Varma was depressed, for he had no teacher. He started doing portraits, and
this gave him a break, for his relative Kerala Varma rewarded him with a box of oil paints ordered from Madras. Thereafter, Ravi Varma learned by trial and error, till he mastered the art of oil painting. Belonging to the fief of Kilimanoor, Ravi Varma was highly educated, well versed in the Sanskrit scriptures and an orthodox practicing Sanatanist. Yet he rejected the Malabar school of painting of the Padmanabhapuram palace and temple and Mattancheri in Cochin. The epics, available at his fingertips, were his major source of inspiration. To this was added a life of extensive travel, to Madras, Tanjore and the temple towns of the Presidency, Baroda, Bombay, Mysore and the princely states of Rajasthan, Delhi and elsewhere in North India. He was no Raja, but the accidental title became a tribute to his oeuvre. A little-known fact is that his two granddaughters were adopted by the royal family of Travancore; the younger became the mother of the last Maharaja. Ravi Varma’s paintings can be divided into portraits, compositions based on portraits and compositions from Indian epics and legends. While the last are best known, his mastery probably lay in the first genre, where he brought grace and character to even banal subjects, capturing facial expressions and fabric textures till his style became his signature. But it was his historical compositions that brought him name and fame. The Tanjore School had continued the ancient art of freezing situations in painting, and there is a strong influence of Tanjore glass painting in the early portraits by Ravi Varma. In his epic paintings, dramatic events of the past were frozen in time. He evolved a new language of narrative art, amalgamating indigenous gloss with western elements of realism. He utilized the three-dimensional, Western style of painting, capturing the physical and rendering it tangible. But there was a challenge, in that western neo-classical realism had to portray Indian themes and subjects that were cultural symbols. His success lay in his sensitive depiction of women. He transformed the aristocratic upper class women of his times into his heroines by combining the sacred and the seductive: passive Mandodari suffering her unfaithful husband; unhappy, abandoned Shakunthala; Draupadi in a state of utter despair; coquettish Menaka seducing the sage Vishwamitra; and the many portraits of beautiful, winsome women, identifiable female types of his times. The emotion on each face tells a story and stirs the senses. The exquisite silk saris, rich jewellery and drama ensured the success of the paintings. The highlighting of gold and gems was a throwback to Tanjore. In contrast to the light-skinned upper class heroines of the epics, his dark-skinned reaper and gypsies were studies of great sensitivity. An important influence on his paintings was drama, particularly the Marathi and Sanskrit theatre that he observed in Bombay. His characters, particularly goddesses, were often framed within highly stylized prosceniums. Many of his women wear the Maharashtrian nine-yard sari. The painted backdrops are props giving the depth and distance to the paintings, with the main subjects posed in front. His use of perspective was tempered by the Tanjore school, where the main subject stood out in dramatic contrast to lesser characters.
Ravi Varma was to painting what Rabindranath Tagore was to literature, using traditional idioms to convey contemporary ideas, and thereby reaching out to the new awakening. Thanks to Macaulay, Western ideas had impacted heavily on late nineteenth-early twentieth century India. Many Indians were rejecting their heritage. Ravi Varma used European naturalism to reinterpret — even reinvent — his culture. His Galaxy of Musicians and Group of Indian Women were an attempt of sorts at national integration. Inspite of the different costumes and jewellery of the women, each from a different state or community, he integrated them into a group of similar-looking women. By draping many of his women in the six-yard sari, he can also be credited with popularizing it as the national dress of India. His patriotism came out in his paintings, and his portraits of Shivaji and Tilak were early clarion calls for nationalism in Maharashtra. Recognition and awards started pouring in. Among his prominent patrons were British Governors, former Dewan of Travancore Sir Seshayya Sastri and the Baroda Regent Sir T Madhava Rao, who introduced his works to Sayaji Rao Gaekwad, thus commencing the Baroda collection of Ravi Varma paintings. At Madras, he won the Governor’s Gold Medal for his painting Nair Lady at the Toilet, which also won a Certificate of Merit at the International Exhibition at Vienna. He sent ten paintings to the International Exhibition held at Chicago: all ten were accepted and he won two medals and diplomas. On the same occasion, Swami Vivekananda, a great admirer of the artist, addressed the Parliament of World Religions at Chicago in 1892. Who were his detractors? There were the revivalists like E B Havell who accused him of ‘‘common realistic trickery’’; Ananda Coomaraswamy who, even while acknowledging that he had never seen an original Ravi Varma, had no compunction in classifying it as ‘‘second rate’’; P R Ramachandra Rao who called it ‘‘imitative’’, ‘‘theatrical’’ and ‘‘earthy’’; G Venkatachalam who labeled it ‘‘mongrelized’’; and Sri Aurobindo who decried it as ‘‘preposterous’’ and ‘‘barren incompetence’’, in comparison to the Bengal school. Yet Ravi Varma was doing nothing different from these venerable gentlemen of Hindustan: even as they criticized him for mixing east and west, they were expressing their own views in the language of the conqueror and the metaphor of Macaulay! In 1894 he started the Ravi Varma Lithographic Press in Lonavla, near Bombay. It took his 89 oleographs — the precursor of modern ‘‘calendar’’ art — into every home. But it was also a bad move because the quality of printing was poor, making his paintings appear mediocre and negating the drama and grandeur of the originals, thereby prompting the uncharitable remarks. It was also a financial disaster and was finally disposed off, leaving a vast number of prints floating around the country. Ravi Varma was accused of a ‘‘lack of poetic faculty’’ by Havell. Yet the artist was also a poet who composed in Sanskrit and Malayalam. He contemplates his painting of Shiva and Parvati thus: ‘‘I wonder, and mine eyes are anxious to learn, If the peacocks’ plumes I place for jewels upon her head, The cowry shells for bangles and tender leaves for silks, Become the hunter’s wife, the Daughter of the Mountain’’.
Ravi Varma was the Father of Modern Indian Art, appearing at a historical moment in time when one period gives way to another. He was able to straddle cultures, continents and eras, producing paintings of sheer beauty and sensitivity. The continuing popularity of his paintings is the greatest testimony to his life’s work.
The itihasa tradition
Modern Indian historians have, unfortunately, thrown out the baby with the bathwater. While they rightly reject the ‘fable’ element in earlier histories, they have also discarded the historical element in our oral literary traditions, thereby losing an important source of information At a recent seminar in Chennai on ‘Writing History’, apolitical historians — those who are genuinely interested in the past, and not as a tool of political control — defined their vision of history. The seminar brought together primary, secondary and tertiary teachers of history, besides writers of history and of history textbooks, and other historians of a high academic calibre. History must be based on fact, they all averred, not on individual reading of events: ‘‘Facts are sacred, comments are free’’. It should be objective, not motivated. It should be interesting, brief and crisp, with less names, dates and laborious information that have to be “mugged”. The focus should shift to social, cultural and scientific developments, which are more interesting than the political, with greater emphasis on contemporary events. It must include local, state and national histories. Textbooks should be updated regularly to include new discoveries. Good communication skills are essential for producing material that is both factual and interesting. Historical methodologies must be established, with the story element to create awareness and knowledge linked with analysis, utilizing computer simulation methodologies: “why” and “how” must be answered. If a student learns to analyze history, it will be a useful tool all his life. Fifty years of motivated history made me wonder whether unbiased history is possible in India. Further, while Indian historians use literature as source material for social and economic systems, they do not accept the same literature as source material for events. Although history started as a discipline in seventeenth century Europe, the Greek Herodotus is described as the first historian. However, in what seems like déjà vu, his contemporaries called him the ‘‘Father of Lies’’, believing that one could not write truthfully of contemporary events, till Cicero anointed him the ‘‘Father of History’’. Medieval European mathematicians challenged history as having no methodology and therefore no knowledge base, lying in the “realm of imagination and memory”. But maths, after all, starts with assumptions, which are not limited to history. Different schools of historiography also appeared, such as the Annales and Marxist, right and left. History became open to interpretation, to be seen as the writer chose.
Contrary to popular belief, ancient India did have historical traditions. The Rig Veda refers to eulogies of rulers and sages — gathas (songs) and narashamshis (praises/genealogies of rulers and sages) sung during ceremonies. By the later Vedic period, three more historical genres had been added: akhyana (historical narratives), purana (ancient events) and itihasa (‘‘thus it happened’’). Being oral traditions sung by priest-poets, the religious aspect invariably crept in. According to the Upanishads, three clans — the Angirasas, Bhrigus and Atharvanas — combined to develop the itihasa-purana tradition of historical writing, as opposed to drama and poetry which were regarded as the result of creative imagination. The Ramayana and Mahabharata were also composed in the itihasa tradition, but it was the Bhrigu-angirasa contribution to the puranas that is considerable. The other historian group was that of the Sutas, court minstrels or bards, well versed in Vedic lore, of whom the most famous was Vyasa, the author of the Mahabharata. They used dance to narrate their stories, a fact mentioned by Bana and sculpted on a Sanchi bas-relief. Historical narratives of ancient India consisted of important events arranged in the form of a story, to illustrate moral, spiritual and social truths. Royal glory is developed as the efforts of the king, with chronology used to order the sequence of actions rather than dates. The best example of the akhyana is the famous Harshacharita of Bana, who also praises the Mahabharata as the ideal itihasa. To the historian of ancient India, history was more than a succession of events. The fulfillment of the purpose of human existence, the vagaries of destiny and the meaning of events in terms of the aim of life were paramount. Political intrigue, war and familial discord were impediments in the life of an individual who had to achieve a higher goal. History was generally conveyed through biography. The Ramayana of Valmiki, Mahabharata of Vyasa, Harshacharita of Bana, Vikramankadevacharita of Bilhana, Rajatarangini of Kalhana, Mudrarakshasa of Vishakhadatta and Prithvirajavijaya (the story of Prithviraj Chauhan) of Jayanaka are some important biographical histories belonging to this genre. Rajasthani folk songs, describing the lives and achievements of local Rajput rulers (who are also given divine genealogies), also belong to this tradition. The books themselves give an idea of where fact ends and creativity begins. The Ramayana starts with Valmiki asking Narada to describe the perfect man. Narada narrates the story of Rama in four pages. Valmiki fills seven books! The British, who first ‘‘wrote’’ and interpreted Indian history as we know it today, used Megasthenes’ Indica, or Alexander’s invasion, as the marker for the beginning of Indian history. To study Indian historical works from the European point of view presents several problems. European history is based on material culture and achievements, representing a total break with the earlier tradition. It is essential to understand the ancient Indian historian’s idea of history from the perspective of his environment and the world he lived in, and to translate it, thereafter, into contemporary language. Unfortunately, the modern Indian historian threw out the baby with the bathwater. While he rightly rejects the ‘‘fable’’ element in earlier histories, he also discards the historical element, thereby losing an important source of information. Indian
tradition has always distinguished between the philosophical and spiritual shrutis, the socially binding smritis, the literary kavyas and the historical itihasas, never crossing the line. Kalidasa’s works, for example, are never considered to be itihasa in spite of heroes and heroines taken from history. Indian itihasa must be understood in the larger context of Indian culture, in that kings were expected to fulfill a divinely ordained role, and their lives interpreted in that tradition. By overlooking the historical process in the development of tradition, there is the danger of losing its significance. The modern historian celebrates historical consciousness, while the ancient and medieval historian lived in an ideal world, steeped in Vedic culture and based on the authority of the ‘‘revealed’’ word. Historical events of the past were located with reference to their contemporary values. Few contemporary historians read original sources, lacking knowledge of Sanskrit and Tamil, both essential for the study of ancient India. An older tradition need not necessarily be more authentic than a later one, although it would definitely recall more ancient traditions. The Vishnu Purana may be much later than the Mahabharata, but its descriptions of the events of Krishna’s life are no less authentic. Contemporary Indian historians have neglected to study the process that transmutes fact into myth and, thereby, to separate myth from fact, history from fable. The historical process reveals itself through the haze of myth and legend. For example, tales of animal incarnations and battles between man and animal would reflect an age of totemic wars, while divine origins were created to establish legitimacy to rule. We need a history of India that is not constantly attacked for its authenticity or interpretation. We have to understand that a different age produced a different type of history, but facts do not change. The divinity of Rama may be based on faith, but his existence is based on the literary evidence of itihasa. We have a strong literary tradition; if we cannot trust that, what do we have left? Archaeological discoveries are changing perceptions, but few historians are studying them. We must produce one single, consistent history. While students must appreciate the wonder that was India, they must also criticize the inadequacies and mistakes. We must not end up with textbooks that praise a crook like Robert Clive, yet doubt the existence of Rama, King of Ayodhya.
Where’s the water?
2002 saw the country discuss every issue — politics, religion, cricket — except the most important — water. A major part of the country received inadequate rainfall, and drought and hunger will rear their ugly head this year. No civilisation can survive without water, least of all India, which is so dependent on the rains. The most creative actions of people in the past have been in collecting and storing rainwater. Can we rediscover and renew them? That’s the challenge. A simple creation to collect and hold water with far-reaching consequences was the mud pot, which made it possible for people to store water and transport it over distances. They were produced in different shapes and sizes, painted and decorated and eventually worshipped as the sacred kumbha and kalasha. The first use of the
wheel was to turn a pot; baking the clay was a step forward in human evolution, making the mud pot the world's first non-biodegradable material. Till today, potsherds define a culture. Rivers were the location of civilisations, and different civilisations utilised them in different ways. The annual flooding of the Nile was used to advantage by the people of Egypt, who used the fertile silt to cultivate crops and develop a great civilisation, honouring the Nile as a god. The Tigris and Euphrates, Indus and Hwang Ho were responsible for the Mesopotamian, Harappan and Chinese civilisations respectively. Early people cut channels, diverted rivers, and farmed their regions. Wells had been dug in the cities of the Indus Valley by the third millennium BC, while the Great Bath could have been anything from a bath to a water storage tank. The Indus Valley cities had excellent systems of water harvesting and drainage. Dholavira, laid out on a slope between two storm water channels, is an example of sophisticated engineering. At Sringaverapura near Allahabad, where Rama crossed the Ganga in Guha's boat and archaeological finds date back to 1200 BC, there is a marvel of hydraulic technology dating to the first century BC. The city was supplied by water from the Ganga, taken through several channels and two silting tanks to a third, an early example of water filtration. Excess water was channelised back to the river. Water, in Indian tradition, was so precious that it was sacred, and associated with the gods and the local temple. Nowhere was this more so than the south, totally dependent on rainfall; large tanks were built adjoining temples. In fact, there were generally at least two in every village: one was a large earthen lake (eri in Tamil) used for bathing and washing clothes and animals, and dedicated to the Mother Goddess. The other was the temple tank, used for drinking water only. All the houses around the tank had roofs sloping towards the tank, to direct the rainwater into the tank. This tradition has made way, in recent times, for multi-storied flat-roofed buildings and cemented roads. The inability of water to reach the tank or infiltrate the ground leaves the temple tanks in our cities dry, as in Chennai, which has 39 traditional but unusable tanks. Tank irrigation goes back to the Paleolithic age in southern India (as in Adichanallur) and Tamil Sangam literature differentiates between river and tank irrigation, and temple tanks. Despite the importance given to agriculture and irrigation, none of the southern dynasties had irrigation or public works departments till the British arrived. Temples and village councils raised money to maintain irrigation channels, excavate and maintain tanks. Thus water sources belonged to the temples were sanctified because of their important role. In the centre of many temple tanks, there is a carved mandapam or open pillared hall, as in Mylapore in Chennai or Padmanabhaswami in Thiruvananthapuram, where the bronze utsava murtis are brought once a year for the theppam or float festival. Some of the tanks are beautifully decorated with carvings, such as that of Modhera in Gujarat. In the hills of Uttarakhand, sacred naulas — small wells or ponds used for drinking water — were built out of stone, the water purified with the leaves of medicinal
plants and trees planted alongside to reduce evaporation. By worshipping the naulas and the trees, people were forced to keep the naula clean and preserve the trees. Sanchi, in the third century BC., boasted of three tanks. The first city of Dhilli (Delhi) was situated at Surajkund (now in Haryana) where, in the 11th century, the founder king Anangpal Tomar built a semi-circular tank with a stone step embankment and named it the tank of the sun, as it adjoined a sun temple. The kunds were waterharvesting tanks that dotted much of north India and were held in reverence, as they were generally attached to temples. This ensured that the water was clean and the tank was maintained. Later, the sultans and Mughals desilted and maintained most tanks, as they were the sole sources of drinking water. They adapted the stepped embankment design for their dargah and palace reservoirs, such as the Kaki Saheb Dargah in Delhi and the Asar Mahal reservoir in Bijapur. The tanks are a monument to Indian engineering skills, providing channels to control the flow, tapping underground sources (such as the bhandaras of Madhya Pradesh) or simply storing rainwater. In water-thirsty Rajasthan, to prevent evaporation, a bhida or lid covered the catchments. Often, air vents and shafts were provided to ensure the free flow of the precious liquid. Situated in the desert, Gujarat and Rajasthan developed excellent systems of water management. Water is such a precious commodity here that every spring and lake is believed to have a divine origin. There were many types of water tanks and wells. One ingenious water conservation system was the tanka, a cylindrical hole made in the centre of the open central courtyard of the house, leading to an underground tank in which water was collected and used by the residents when all other sources had dried up, sometimes for three to five years. But the area is most famous for its step wells — the baolis and jhalaras. The step well is unique to the region, the earliest known dating to the seventh century. While jhalaras collected underground seepage and were used for bathing, the baolis were sacred, used for drinking alone. Consisting of open pillared pavilions leading from one level to another below the ground, the baoli may even go seven storeys underground till the water is reached. Sculptured niches and pillars support each storey and surround the pool at the bottom. The many storeys are cool and shady, and a pleasant retreat from the heat above. Sometimes the step well is, itself, a shrine; at other times a shrine is built at the entrance. The walls are covered with sculptures, confirming that the well is sacred. India's traditional water collection systems are varied and unique. There are check dams, such as the johad in Rajasthan, annaikatti (annicut) in Tamil Nadu, and bandhara in Maharashtra. Nagaland's zabo system of cultivation collects water in ponds below catchment areas in delineated watersheds. In Meghalaya, bamboo pipes are used to divert spring water and for drip irrigation. What happened to all those traditional systems? Today, most water holding systems are defunct, or act as receptacles for garbage and sewage. In the grading of countries according to their water resources, access, use and environmental impact, the World Water Council and Britain's Centre for Ecology and Hydrology have rated India very low, nearly at the bottom of the list, scoring just a little over 50 percent. Yet we get the highest rainfall in the world, with only South America beating us.
In the past, the waters were sacred and tanks and wells that contained them were also regarded as sacred. All the Indian rivers were regarded as goddesses; the colonial period saw a drop in the respect accorded to natural resources, while postIndependence governments did not bother to renew traditional systems and derided the religious tag. Ancient Indians created wonderful and beautiful systems to collect and hold water, sanctified by their life-sustaining role. We have destroyed them without providing an alternative.
It’s raining music in Chennai
In December, all roads lead to Chennai. It's the music and dance festival, and artistes and connoisseurs flock to the city. When Jawaharlal Nehru called Madras the intellectual capital of India and Calcutta the cultural capital, he had obviously not spent “The Season” in Chennai. Chennai has a culture of sabhas, cultural organizations that promote music and dance. In December, there is a nip in the air and music in the breeze; it is the month of Margali (or Margashirsha). Why December, or Margali, and why Chennai? These questions took me to an ancient tradition of Tamil Nadu. It was in Margali (December-January), when the red-hued star Thiruvathirai was in conjunction with the full moon, that Shiva, as Nataraja the Lord of Dance, danced his cosmic dance of creation — the ‘ananda tandavam’ — in the golden hall at Chidambaram. On ‘arudra darshanam’, devotees flock to Chidambaram and other Shiva temples. Adding to this tradition is the charming story of Naayanmaar Maanickavaasagar, a Shaivite saint. On his way to Chidambaram for the ‘arudra darshanam’, he stopped at the Shiva temple on the hill of Thiruvannamalai, where he saw young girls wake up before dawn and sing to Goddess Parvati for prosperity of the country. Inspired, he sang the Thiruvempaavai, now sung before dawn in all Shiva temples during the nine-day Thiruvempaavai pooja leading to ‘arudra darshanam’. Vaishnavas sing the Thiruppaavai composed by saint Andal of Srivilliputtur, who sang of her desire to unite with her lord Krishna. It became a tradition in Tamil Nadu for old and young people to wake up before dawn in the month of Margali, walk the streets singing one of the two poems, visit a temple, and sing them again in the evenings. In 1927, the Madras Session of the Indian National Congress included an All India Music Conference, where a resolution was passed urging the formation of a permanent institution to promote music. In response, the Music Academy was founded in 1928, and the Margali tradition evolved into the annual music festival held in Chennai in December, on the first day of Margali. This was followed by the creation of many more sabhas; all are well structured and organised, bringing the best performers and performances to the city. Scenes of music and dance adorn the walls of our temples. On the walls of the Kailasanatha temple at Kanchipuram are musical instruments of the Pallava period, many still used today. What has changed is the architectural space where the dances are performed.
Classical music and dance were generally offerings to the deity and performed within the temple, in the pillared mandapa in front of the sanctum sanctorum, to the soft light of oil lamps. The limited space was sufficient for music, and was probably responsible for the tight, restricted movements of South Indian dance styles, in contrast to Kathak, a court style where the dancers could swirl through open halls. There are scattered references to the ‘natya’ or ‘nritya mandapam’ in Sanskrit and Tamil literature. This is not a lesson in art history to study the evolution of the stage for performing arts. Rather, I would like to visit a few classical centres of music and dance, and see how they developed into the sabhas of Chennai. While the earlier Shaivite saints travelled to remote temples in a spirit of piety, Shaivism in the Chola period was exotic, celebrated by classical dance and music, which received a major impetus during this period. The sanctum sanctorum at Chidambaram is the Chit Sabha, the hall of consciousness, which houses the image of Shiva dancing the ‘ananda tandava’, hence the name Chit Ambalam, the hall of consciousness, or Chidambaram. It is at a higher level than the other sabhas, and the Linga here is empty space signifying akasha, guarding the Chidambara rahasya (secret), described by Umapati in AD 1300 as a yantra. In a mural in the early Chola Brihadishvara temple at Tanjore, there is a painting of the original pillared Chit Sabha, with Rajaraja, his three wives and two priests. The oldest surviving sabha is the Nritta Sabha, the pillared hall of dance on the same axis as the Chit Sabha, with an open area of seven metres by seven metres considered necessary for Bharata Natyam. It is similar to the ratha (stone chariot) pavilions, derived from the wooden temple carts, ornamented with graceful dancing figures on the plinth. Here Shiva defeated Kali in a dance competition by lifting his leg in the urdhvatandava. The 108 karanas of Bharata's Natya Shastra are carved on the entrance of the eastern gopura of the temple. From the paintings at Tanjore, Tiruppudaimarudar (near Tirunelveli) and the manuscripts available in the Sarasvati Mahal Library at Tanjore, it appears the traditional stage was a pillared platform, not unlike a temple chariot, on which the dancer performed, while the auditorium was at a lower level. In Orissa, ‘nata mandapas’ were constructed in most temples. The best known is that of Konarak where, like Chidambaram, it is on the same axis. The main temple itself has a staggering variety of dance sculptures, while the nata mandir is an encyclopedia of karanas. The same Natya Shastra manifested itself differently in the sculptures of Chidambaram and Konarak and, in the case of the latter, was revived in neo-classical Odissi. The surviving ‘kootambalams’ of Kerala probably represent the most ancient sabha tradition, the best examples to be seen in the temples of Thirumulikulam, Parur and Vatakkunathan. The ‘kootambalams’ are rectangular in shape, with proportions and measurements specified by the Natya Shastra and the Shilparatna. The ‘kootambalam’ is part of the temple complex and must be in harmony with the rest of the structure. The roof is sloped at the sides with snake hoods at the corners, suggesting a close similarity with temples and dance halls of South East Asia, whose corners are tilted upwards. The stage is a raised square structure flanked by pillars and facing the deity, the audience lined on either side. In fact the entire ‘kootambalam’ is a highly formalised structure that includes a stage, green room and auditorium.
By the fifteenth century, when the temples of Belur and Halebid were built, the halls became varied and baroque. A circular ceiling of celestial musicians and dancers at Halebid repeats the ceiling of the original Chit Sabha as portrayed in the painting in the Brihadishvara Temple at Tanjore. The space below is circular, as specified by the Natya Shastra. Yet there is a qualitative difference, with the introduction of a courtlike atmosphere, with the audience sitting around the performer. The influence of the nautch had arrived. The Islamic period saw the shifting of the auditorium from the temple to the palace. In fact it even changed dance styles like Odissi, where boys had to perform in temples since the women were taken away by the Muslim rulers, resulting in an exaggeration of certain movements to imitate the feminine. The shift from the confines of the temple to the palace changed the performing arts: they were still elitist and erudite, but a larger audience could now watch them. Meanwhile, folk theatre did not change. The performances were held in the open, or under thatched roofs, calling large numbers of people to observe, enjoy and participate. The combination of the classicism of the traditional arts and the public availability of the folk arts was to inspire the formation of the sabhas. The early sabhas of Madras were simple thatched roof structures that recreated the rural arangams where music performances and street plays were staged. They also marked an important change: the square performing area now became rectangular, creating opportunities for large dance dramas that combined classical music, ‘nritta’ and ‘natya’. Indian music is better performed in small areas, such as chamber music concerts, and the huge new stages, auditoria and microphones were most unsuitable for Indian instruments, which struggled till their sounds were enhanced with electronics. However, creative artists like Rukmini Devi used the opportunity to bring alive epic and puranic stories, such as the Ramayana, in dance dramas. Rukmini Devi went further. She recreated the ‘kootambalam’ at Kalakshetra in Madras, with enormous steel members criss-crossing the ceiling and obviating the pillars that restricted the space of the earlier ‘nritya mandapams’. However, other sabhas have been unimaginatively built, reflecting neither the ‘nritya mandapam’ nor the ‘kootambalam’, resulting in a cross between the rural stage and the western auditorium. Yet the magic remains. When the strains of the violin float through the air, when a powerful voice hits the first notes of a raga and the dancing bells start jingling, we are whisked away to the banks of the Cauvery river, to Tanjore and Kumbakonam, where the fresh early morning air of Margali dissolves into musical notes. Musicians and dancers from all over the country yearn for an opportunity to showcase their talent in Chennai during the Margali season. Once a year, all these talents converge in the sabhas of Madras… and the magic is renewed.
India: A tourist’s nightmare
Foreign travel is both a happy and an unhappy experience for an Indian. Happy
because travel abroad is such a pleasure — clean roads, no beggars, clean toilets and more. Unhappy because the contrast with India is striking. Cambodia must be one of the poorest countries in the world. Yet the roads are spotlessly clean and although little children tried to sell me everything from bangles to books, none of them were begging. I never saw anybody easing himself in public. I went on a trek to Kbal Spean in the Kulen mountains, to see the river of 1000 lingas. At the foot of the hill was an Indian-style toilet in a hut with bamboo walls and a thatched roof. It was spotlessly clean. There was no running water, just a cement trough with water, and a bucket. The water was so clean that I could see the bottom of the trough. Can you imagine the same toilet in India? From time to time, the government of India and the state governments announce new tourism policies, with new targets and new attractions. The Tourism Development Finance Corporation was set up in 1987 with a corpus of Rs 100 crore. As per the National Action Plan for Tourism of 1992, foreign exchange earnings from tourism were expected to increase from Rs 10,000 crore in 1992 to Rs 24,000 crore by AD 2000. Employment in tourism was expected to increase from 1,40,00,000 to 2,80,00,000. Hotel accommodation was to increase from 44,000 rooms to 1,20,000 rooms. Excise duty on capital goods import for the tourism sector was slashed from 35 percent to 15 percent. Yet tourists did not come in, and India's share of international tourism remained at 0.33 percent. A major problem was the government of India, which vacillated between socialist disdain for the American and European traveller, and Third World reality, which needed every dollar. As a result, the government went into areas it should never have touched — hotels, travel agencies, tour operation and services — when it should have limited itself to provision of infrastructure and training — something it never did. Our infrastructure is awful. Dirt and garbage, unusable public toilets, potholed roads, and unpredictable flight timings — despite the advent of private airlines. The all-toocommon sight of people easing themselves in public is shocking and disgusting. It is naive to imagine the tourist only needs a ticket and a room, and our cultural and natural heritage will do the rest. What we get, as a result, are local tourists, and they are sufficient reason to ban tourism. Have you seen a busload arrive at a tourist attraction? As soon as the bus stops, a crowd converges — beggars, hawkers of food, crafts, guidebooks and anything else available locally. The Indian tourist is intrepid and can shake off the beggars and the persistent salesman. He then proceeds to punish the locals by urinating outside the monument. It is shocking that respectable middle class women do not hesitate to line up against a public wall and urinate. There is no attempt to search for a toilet — the free ones will be dirty and why pay to use a toilet? If the site is a temple or mosque or church, their conscience is pricked and a few beggars will be slightly richer. Otherwise they climb back into the bus and go to the next stop on their tour, to repeat the drill. This is cultural tourism. How much more
uncultured can we be? Eco tourism is the new buzzword. Any visit to a natural park or wildlife sanctuary is described by tour operators as eco tourism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Eco tourism envisages treks with backpacks and camping in the wild, not hordes in a tourist bus descending on the sanctuary. No wonder the birds keep away. Tourism destroys the environment. The Ooty-Mysore highway passes through Mudumalai National Park — a Project Elephant site. Vehicles race through the Park, polluting the air with noise and emissions, while the roadside is littered with plastic carry bags and garbage. A number of resorts have come up deep within the forest that have resulted in entire settlements of job seekers, prostitution and a mafia. Many resorts even arrange illegal hunting expeditions. The degradation of the sanctuary is complete. Ecologically fragile and important areas must be totally closed to tourists — areas such as parts of the Himalayas and the hills of the North East, the Eastern and Western Ghats, the Nilgiris, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, wetlands and mangrove swamps. Hill areas are critical, with deforestation and soil erosion leading to water scarcity, loss of fodder, fuel and other minor forest produce. The pressures of migrant populations on the hills are another source of ecological degeneration. The fragile eco-systems cannot support a floating tourist population. The problem is that no effort is made to assess the carrying capacity of an area and the ecological and social impact of tourism, or to integrate tourism development with the overall needs of the area. Neither the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) nor the State Wildlife Departments are equipped to deal with the hordes of tourists who are uncaring of the ecological or artistic significance of the area. Take the Thiruvannamalai Temple at Tamil Nadu, recently taken over by the ASI. The state government has gone to court against the order and the public is divided on the issue. What are the pros and cons? There is no doubt the ASI can, if it so desires, maintain a place very well. The beautiful Chola temples at Tanjore and Gangaikondacholapuram with beautiful gardens are maintained well by the ASI, despite the shortage of maintenance staff. Have you seen the Meenakshi Temple at Madurai, restored by the trustees and the state government several years ago? It has been painted in Technicolor, including shocking pink and green. The subtle features of stone carving have been converted into stiff stylised figures dressed in shiny enamel paint. This is the story of monuments all over India. This defacement of our heritage cannot be permitted, and the ASI must alone renovate and restore our monuments. Further, in non-ASI sites, particularly temples, vested local interests — politicians, bureaucrats and goondas — set up shops, swallow temple incomes, and generally use the place to further their personal interests and political careers. Some of the other problems of tourist areas include unqualified guides, lack of cultural shows (such as traditional music and dance), lack of good guide books in a variety of languages, lack of good labelling, particularly in museums and archeological sites, lack of basic facilities such as clean rooms and toilets, and lack of
clean eating places. Guide books are available at very few monuments, while descriptions are to be found only at ASI-maintained monuments. And if you visit a museum, you may never understand what ‘‘Vishnu, Pallava, 7th century’’ means. Clean rooms, toilets and eating-places are scarce. Except for the South, which has good three-star hotels, most of India has either five-star hotels or hellholes. And finally there are the ever-present beggars who pester the foreigner. Let us not fool ourselves that they are poor. These are professional beggars who will never work. Tourism is an excellent source of revenue, but not in its present avatar in India. We must emphasise our cultural heritage as tourist attractions, and leave our ecologically fragile areas alone. We can emphasise our festivals, and specialise in specific areas of strength. But if we don’t clean up, remove beggars and provide good hotels and toilet facilities, we can bid goodbye to the visitor.
With historians of every hue demanding inclusion of their version of history, it is time we greens demanded recognition of the role played by the environment, and the results of the interaction between people and the environment, on the history of India and the world. Human society depends on complex processes derived from nature, such as air, water, land and energy, geophysical processes such as earthquakes, rains, droughts, floods and desertification, astronomical factors such as the position of the moon and stars and other natural processes and phenomena. Life forms are part of ecosystems as varied as deserts, tropical rainforests and polar caps. The foundation for all life forms is photosynthesis, with a complex web wherein photosynthesizers, or plants, are eaten by herbivores that are eaten by carnivores. Any disruption in this web disrupts the entire system. If forests are cleared, natural nutrients are destroyed and crops cannot be supported. Pollution of any one part of the ecosystem harms another; destruction of even one species affects the food chain. Human beings are a part of this eco system, but with a difference. They have modified and changed natural processes through science and technology. An obvious instance is agriculture and intensive farming of plants and animals. They have also destroyed entire ecosystems for the sake of short-term material gains. When the use of natural resources shifts from providing food and shelter to creating infinite material goods, the ecosystem breaks down, lands become inhospitable, waters polluted and insufficient and the environment is no longer able to support life. So, humans move elsewhere, in search of food, water and land, forgetting their past experience to repeat it anew, and impinging on the lifestyles of those already present in the new land. The history of the world is the story of environmental modification and degradation, and search for new lands. Archaeology tells us that gazelles were herded in the Levant in 18,000 BC, while the earliest grinding stones and slabs had appeared by 15,000 BC. About 10,000 years ago many technologies were combined and intensified to grow food and herd
animals. Why human beings changed from hunting-gathering to agriculture, is difficult to explain. It was probably a combination of population pressure and evolution of the human brain. When the environment could no longer support the population, the excess — generally the better warriors and brains and thus the more adventurous — set out to conquer and exploit a new area. This led to a clash of cultures, with technologically advanced people dominating the less advanced, who were then oppressed. The domestication of the horse and its use in warfare around 3,000 BC changed the course of history. Europe, China, India and the Middle East were at the mercy of these horsemen — Mongols, Turks and Huns. Between 9,000 and 5,000 BC, sedentary communities appeared in South-West Asia, China and Mesoamerica, which emphasized specialization, resulting in religious, military, farming and social groups, where ownership of food passed from the communal sharing of hunter-gatherers to ownership by individuals or large organizations such as temples. By 4,500 BC, temples had become the focus of societies in Mesopotamia (now Iraq), owning land and collecting, storing and distributing the food. By 3,000 BC, Mesopotamian society had been stratified, with rulers and priests at the top of the hierarchy, farmers and artisans (the technologists) forming the bulk, and the slaves at the lowest rung. By 3,500 BC people cultivated wheat and barley and domesticated cattle, sheep and goats in the region between the Indus and Sarasvati rivers. Copper smelting had begun in Anatolia by 6,000 BC, and the wheel was used for pottery by 4,500 BC. The new technologists produced implements, textiles and artifacts that were exchanged for food. They lived and worked together, building cities and creating a trading class that bought from one group and sold to another. The technologically advanced urban class dominated the rural food producers, who had to produce excess food for their families and for the urban dwellers. Settled urban conglomerations made huge cultural and scientific advancements, producing great works of art and literature, religion and philosophy, which outlived them. They built fortifications, temples and palaces. They had standing armies to defend them, and brought labour by coercion, which led to slavery. They were also the winners of wars, so their history became world history. But the sites of the great civilizations were soon deserted. Intensive agriculture and urbanization led to drying up of the Sarasvati river, alkalinity and salinization of the Indus and the desertification of the Indus-Sarasvati cities. Sarasvati and her tributaries became the Thar desert. When food supplies decrease, natural resources are insufficient and food and water unavailable or too expensive to transport, civil wars break out. When, in the name of agriculture, natural ecosystems are cleared and an artificial habitat is created to restrict the species of plants to be cultivated and animals to be farmed, the natural biodiversity balances are destroyed, altering water levels and exposing the soil to erosion and salinity. Forests are destroyed for land, timber and fuel, causing soil erosion. This caused the abandonment of villages in central Jordan by 6,000 BC, and the cessation of agriculture in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley by 1,700 BC.
The Indus Valley seals indicate the area was densely forested and filled with wildlife. Deforestation and construction of complex systems to contain flooding of the Indus caused soil erosion and cessation of rich alluvial deposits, resulting in the sudden death of the Indus-Sarasvati civilization and a mass exodus to the east, to the perennial waters of the Yamuna and Ganga. The area that is now Pakistan had, meanwhile, become inhospitable, unfortified and lacking the natural resources to feed a standing army, leaving the western flank of India unguarded and an easy prey to invaders. The countries to the west of the subcontinent — once home of the great civilizations of Babylon and Persia — had already been destroyed by the intensive agriculture; they had shifted to nomadic grazing, living on their goats, which required fresh pasture, for which they invaded India. Their intensive farming of goats resulted in large numbers that became the major destroyers of the forests of the fertile Indo-Gangetic plains. If people changed the environment, so did the environment change the lives of communities. Climatic changes affecting rainfall, changes in the course of rivers, floods and droughts have resulted in the search for new pastures. Environmental calamities can also be linked to historical events. In AD 1,504, North India was devastated by a terrible earthquake, which left the land weak and defenceless. It became an easy prey for Babur, who occupied Kabul, and the Moghul empire came into being. A drought and plague in Western India in the 16th-17th centuries made the region a battleground for Moghul-Maratha encounters and led to the fall of the Moghul empire. During Haider Ali’s attacks on Madras, 1,200 to 1,500 bodies were collected daily for weeks, and the consequent loss of manpower resulted in a devastating famine and British annexation of Madrasapattinam. As populations grew and land became infertile, people went out to search for more land, the direct reason for the colonialsim of the last 400 years, and cause of the continuing civil strife in places like Palestine, Indonesia and Afghanistan. There is a pattern in this. First, a society shifts from hunting-gathering to agriculture, requiring greater technologies and cities, all supported by food surpluses of agrarian societies. With the consequent diminishing of natural resources, societies break down and wars break out, such as battles over the Kaveri river. They enter into temporary alliances till they collapse and revert to a state of primitiveness or set out for new pastures, as our NRIs have done. In 1971, in spite of a good harvest, lack of purchasing power led to the creation of Bangladesh. The division of the world into ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ countries can be directly correlated to those societies which have exploited and destroyed their ecosystems and those who still have resources to exploit. Today, having learned the lessons of history, they safeguard their environment and exploit the ‘developing’ countries in the name of trade. Within India itself, natural resources are richest in forest areas where tribals live, hence the battle for their ‘souls’. The accelerated pace of development over the last 100 years, coupled with the onset of information technology, has made it possible for us to learn from our past and continuing mistakes. India's growing population puts us at a disadvantage at every turn, but if we are to have a long-term perspective, we must limit our desires to providing food for our
people’s survival and not for our growing consumer culture. We have to respect and nurture nature, if we want her to provide for us. But is anybody willing to listen?
Images of religion
After two weeks abroad, I returned to the sound and fury caused by the government of Tamil Nadu's ordinance prohibiting conversion by force, allurement or fraudulent means. Good friends of mine in the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of South India, have told me how the behaviour, particularly the methods of conversion, of many new Christian sects has embarrassed them. The use of force and financial allurements for conversion is a fact, and I have come across many instances in the course of nearly three decades of work in rural India. Senior Church leaders have even expressed their opposition to these methods in public. The new ordinance does not take away the right of a person who makes a considered decision to change his faith. The current protest is ridiculous and obviously political, considering the fact that only anti-AIADMK. parties have joined the fray. Meanwhile, the supreme court has ruled that religion may be part of the curriculum. This ruling has silenced those who claim that religion breeds violence. Religion has been a force for good, for the improvement of the individual and society. However, it is important to ensure the integrity of the information and the communication methods. We must distinguish between Religious Teaching — as done by pathashalas, seminaries and madrasas — and Teaching About Religion. The first should be restricted to religious teachers; the second is essential for people to appreciate the beliefs of others. While the Christians and Muslims have been at war since the Crusades, medieval Roman Catholics and Protestants also fought each other. But most religious wars were, in reality, fought over land, power and wealth. Even aggressively missionary nations like Spain and Portugal went to the Americas for wealth and territorial expansion. Islamic conquerors were themselves looking for land and wealth. Religion has been a cloak of respectability for the adventurer. Each religion has a great message. Hinduism teaches the doctrine of nishkaama karma, or duty without desire for reward, and the suppression of the ego. Buddhism's message is one of right conduct and living. Christianity emphasises the importance of love, compassion and service; Islam, the brotherhood of man and Jainism, compassion to all creatures great and small. The fault line in each religion is the result of social developments. The Rig Veda, the oldest and most sacred book of the Hindus, does not speak of caste (the Purusha Sukta is a later interpolation). Later, caste was decided by occupation, not birth, and was changeable. Yet caste became the curse of the Hindu religion, a medium to monopolise skills and knowledge and suppress people. The Buddha established a few rules of good conduct. Buddhism was established as a new religion after his lifetime but became so rich and corrupt that it self-destructed. Jesus Christ was a Jew who tried to clean up his religion, Judaism. He never preached another religion - if he were reborn, would he call himself a Jew or a Christian? Today, missionaries and conversion define religion. Islam means peace, but cruel despots and terrorists have changed that meaning. By teaching children about the evils of each religion, what do we want to do? Turn them into atheists? That would be an ideal leftist agenda.
Ideally, religion should be a personal matter, taught at home. Unfortunately, with the breaking down of the joint family and both parents going to work, this is no longer possible. Schools must step in and teach moral values. The argument that existing schoolbooks have enough information on the Buddha, Kabir and Nanak is no argument. Religions such as Hinduism and Judaism do not have a single founder, which does not mean that doctrines should not be taught. As the supreme court has said, value education must ensure equal respect for all religions. The problem is that religious sects produce books that boost their own and put down others. Tolerance of other religions implies putting up with what we dislike. We need to pass on to integration. The God we worship is an individual choice, born of an accident of birth; the culture we practise must be common and identifiable. A good example of this is seen in Kerala where the Onam festival is celebrated by almost everyone. When the Zoroastrians asked for permission to build a temple to preserve their sacred fire, the Raja of Surat gave them absolute religious freedom, but demanded that their dress and public customs be locally compatible. When our cricketers appear on the field, their blue uniform is a unifying factor. We root for our new age religion and its practitioners. Values are incomprehensible without the support of appropriate images. One textbook defined communal harmony with three schoolboys, Ram, Rahim and Robert — Hindu, Muslim and Christian — distinguished by their turban, topi and hat respectively! I would have defined their commonness by a shirt and shorts for each. The artistic traditions of religions were used to teach the difference between good and bad. The scenes of the life of the Buddha in early Buddhist monuments were intended to serve as role models. The walls of Hindu temples are decorated with the stories of gods and goddesses who defeated demons, the message being that evil will be destroyed. The Chola bronzes of Nataraja send out an image of peace within ferment. Shiva's face is a picture of detached calm, even as he destroys evil and creates a new world, encircled by fire, dancing to the beat of the drum, fire in hand and the demon of ignorance squirming beneath his foot. The walls of temples were carved with images of Portuguese visitors and Arab traders, of Brahmins honouring the Buddha and Buddhists worshipping Hindu deities. While different occupations are portrayed, the obnoxious system of untouchability is never shown in Indian art. The religion was obviously not proud of this social development. Art was used to send out messages by other religions too. The Cross is the defining image of Christianity, a reminder of Christ's ultimate sacrifice. Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper and Michelangelo's Pieta convey the message of the tragic inevitability of the Crucifixion. Even an image-less religion like Islam promised paradise in the exquisite decorations on the walls of mosques and tombs. In Persia, the Sufis reproduced the life of Prophet Mohammed in exquisite miniature painting. Today's popular art is produced by media images - cinema and television. After the Akshardham Temple incident, the most poignant images were of a qawwal singing of the need to build temples and mosques and trust in god and Hindu and Muslim women demanding a stop to further bloodshed. On the other hand, when the television beams images of killers identifiable as belonging to a particular religion and dead bodies of people of another religion, it sends out a very negative message. Media images of gun- and sword-toting Muslim fundamentalists or trishul-wielding Bajrang Dal members are not conducive for harmony. This is what fundamentalists are aiming for - negative messages that will elicit a negative response from the other
community. Images are very important in shaping society. Indian cinema, in the '50s and '60s, sang songs of communal harmony. The people responded accordingly. Unfortunately, the Hindi films of that period also portrayed smugglers and vamps as Christians. That image stuck. Then came the '80s and the cinema portrayed a world of angry young men and contract killings, gang wars and the underworld. Most of the mafia and contract killers are shown to be Muslims. These are the new images, and we know where they have led us. The streets of our cities are filled with cinema posters that carry negative messages. The media shows nasty images for news and sales value. They may be true, but they raise temperatures. Art imitates life as much as life reflects art. Images, be it in the precincts of a temple or in a newspaper or in a cinema hall or beamed via satellite, shape ideas and behaviour, and their impact is severe. It is thus imperative that today's popular art carries the message of peace and good social values. The written word is read by very few - it must be accompanied by images that are seen by millions. Religion has preserved so many good values for millennia. With the judicious use of images, it can become a powerful force for social good.
The vanquisher of Mahisha
This is the time of Navaratri or Durga Pooja - nine nights when Devi is worshipped all over the country. Celebrated as the victory of Durga over the demon Mahisha, several other stories are current, such as the killing of the demons Shumbha and Nishumbha by Chandika; the worship of Devi for nine days by Rama before the war with Ravana, who was killed on the 10th day or Vijayadashami. Sometimes Durga is worshipped for the first three days, Lakshmi for the next three and Sarasvati for the last three. The ninth day is Sarasvati pooja, when people worship the tools of their trade. Each part of the country celebrates the festival with a different story and tradition. Some are gory, with animal sacrifices as in parts of eastern India and Nepal. Some are beautiful, such as the dancing of the garba-ras in Gujarat. Others are unique, as the kolu or dolls festival of Tamil Nadu, when Devi's universe - gods, people, animals, plants and their fruits - are displayed on steps and worshipped. Mysore is famous for its annual Dussera procession, a legacy of the maharajas. Bengal's Devi Pooja, like Ganesh Chaturthi, is a time for community celebration, with huge images of Durga killing the buffalo demon. What is unique in India and Hinduism is that it is probably the only major world religion that still gives time and a unique status to a female deity. The various manifestations of the festival are indicative of the many local cults and forms of worship that have combined in the worship of Devi. As the consort of male deities -Parvati of Shiva, Lakshmi of Vishnu and Sarasvati of Brahma, and their many incarnations - she is gentle, erudite and wise, a perfect wife and mother, the Indian female ideal. Yet, as the Ardhanari of Ishvara, she fortifies and strengthens Shiva himself. As Durga, she is strong and independent with incarnations that tell the story of local goddesses. From Kanyakumari, the Virgin Goddess of the southern tip of India, to Vaishno Devi
of the Himalayan foothills, from Kali and Kamakhya in the east to Bhavani and Amba in the west, each goddess has a unique sthala purana (local history) and icon. Of the various manifestations of Devi, Mahishasuramardini is the most popular. The evil Mahisha was indestructible. The male Gods had failed. So Shakti manifested herself to destroy the demon, the conquest of good over evil. She absorbed all the qualities and abilities of all the Gods, symbolized by her multiple arms holding all their attributes, those of Shiva and Vishnu alike. In Bengal and Orissa, the Durga images are made of baked clay, involving creativity and devotion. Earlier, each image was made individually; nowadays moulds are used for mass production, with variations in the decoration of each individual figure. Unfortunately, like Ganesh Chaturthi, it also ends with polluted water bodies and images that cannot be immersed and do not dissolve in the water. Shakti is a symbol of woman power, the primeval feminine force, the power and energy underlying the cosmos. Unfortunately, this has not always translated itself into respect for womanhood. While the status of Devi has been reflected in greater freedom and respect for women in rural areas and among the lower castes in South and East India, the urban and upper caste woman is still oppressed. Durga Pooja is a time for women to take stock of their lives, to realize their potential and emulate their role model, Shakti. Unless that is done, the message of Durga Pooja is lost. When the early food gatherers and grazers settled down to produce food, they praised the earth as a Mother Goddess of fertility. As people built settlements, they needed protection from evil spirits, disease and pestilence. They worshipped goddesses, later identified with Durga, whose name means fortress and who protected them from disease and pestilence. Thereafter, as people required continuing prosperity, they worshipped Lakshmi, Goddess of prosperity. Water was essential for survival, so the rivers - Sindhu, Sarasvati, Ganga, Yamuna and others were deified. With settlements came learning and literature, represented by Sarasvati. Some of the goddesses, such as the Sapta Matrikas, Kali, Chamunda, Mari, Chandika, Bhairavi are terrifying and bloodthirsty village deities absorbed into mainstream religion. Some, such as Tara, were also appropriated by Buddhism. In the course of such absorption, the indigenous culture combined with the Vedic to become the contemporary Hindu religion. What is important is that everything essential for survival was feminine and identified with the goddess. In every culture, the goddess has different manifestations that shatter conventional stereotypes and reflect her basic creativity. Fertility goddesses are found in every civilization, the earliest female figures with exaggerated sexual characteristics belonging to the Paleolithic period (20,000 BC) Paleolithic images also linked lions with motherhood. The earliest goddess with the lion is the Anatolian Yasilakaya, while goddesses with lion's heads are frequently found in Babylon and Egypt. The lion was also the symbol of power and strength in the ancient world. All these analogies were transferred to Durga. This was the golden age of women, without whom men and male gods could not function. Durga was a fierce warrior and fighter, independent and sovereign, a law unto herself, strongly sexual in her reproductive ability, combining in herself the male and the female, the yin and the yang, the inspiration for the Ardhanari-ishvara. Many goddesses were identified with war. The Zoroastrian Anahita protected the kings of Persia from invaders, and was identified with the Greek warrior goddess
Athena who supported Achilles against Paris in the Trojan War, Hercules in his many labours, and Ulysses in his travels. Anahita even entered the patriarchal Islamic religion with the Iranian Sufis, who spoke of divinity as the "Beloved" and described him as female, with the same war-like appearance and qualities of the ancient Anahita, yet docile and modest like the Islamic female ideal. All the enemies of the goddess - the demons of every culture - are male, yet she is subdued, not conquered, by a male God when her modesty is threatened, as Kali was by Shiva. This is a recurring theme in cultures as far apart as ancient Greece and Rome and aboriginal Australia. Such stories may have come about to explain how female-dominated societies were taken over by men and replaced with a male God. The defeat of the Amazons by the Greeks is probably an allegory for the defeat of matriarchal societies - Penthisilia is killed by Achilles and Hippolyta by Hercules. An interesting story is that of the Egyptian Isis who dominated Egypt. When Alexander conquered Egypt in 332 BC, she was taken over by the new composite Greco-Egyptian culture and named mother of the Greek Sarapis, and was worshipped till 600 AD, when her temple at Philae was converted to a Christian church and she was absorbed into the character of the Virgin Mary. When the Romans invaded Britain, the chief goddess was the warlike Brigit, identified with the Roman Juno and warrior-goddess Minerva. She was incorporated into Christianity as St Bridget or St Bride, and her feast day, February 1, was the first day of the Celtic spring. Several other pre-Christian pagan goddesses of Europe and their festivals were incorporated into the character of the Virgin Mary or as saints - such as the annual death and resurrection of the Sumerian Dumuzi, which became Easter, and the Roman spring festival of Flora, which became May Day with a May Queen - to increase the acceptability of the new religion. This shows the importance of the goddess before the advent of a patriarchal religion. In the third century AD Obsequies of the Holy Virgin written in Syriac, Mary's body is taken to heaven, on the orders of Jesus Christ, to the ‘Tree of Life’ and united with her soul. She was addressed as ‘Queen of Heaven’ and ’Virgin.’ In the 11th century, St Anselm of Canterbury described her as the one by whom "the elements are renewed, demons are trampled… and plenty flows… to make all creatures green again.’’ As societies went from matriarchal to patriarchal, the acceptability of the Mother Goddess decreased. In fact, in spite of the widespread belief in and worship of Virgin Mary, her immaculate conception became an article of faith only in 1854, her assumption (into heaven) in 1950 and her official declaration as "Queen of Heaven" as late as 1954. The Goddess had to be docile, tolerant and non-threatening. Thus Parvati, Lakshmi and Sarasvati were recommended as role models, while the assertive and independent Mother Goddess was relegated to the sacred groves at the outskirts of the village. In India she was propitiated as a force to be feared, as Kali the bloodthirsty, Mari the harbinger of smallpox, Kanya the virgin, Chandi the fierce, and Bhairavi the terrible. Durga or Shakti is not a demon, nor an object to be feared. She annihilates the demons that haunt us before they can endanger the world. She is the perfect female, powerful and active, giving women what society has denied her: respect, strength,
intellect and knowledge. When we celebrate Navarati and Durga Pooja, we must think of her as a role model and try to emulate her.
In the eyes of the beholder
Ganesh Chaturthi has come and gone, and we have seen Indian creativity at its contemporary best. In a celebration that has assumed larger-than-life proportions, Ganesha has come out in all sizes, shapes, scenarios and colours. The popularity and public celebration was due to the personal effort of Lokamanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak who, in 1893, utilized the festival to speak out against British rule in India. He brought the deity out of the home and made him the focus of a community celebration and a socio-religious movement that was to shake the foundations of the British Empire, uniting Maharashtrians of all castes and hues. There it stayed till, in recent years, it has become a community festival all over India, with large community Ganeshas that have kindled the imagination of its creators and sponsors. In recent times the community worship of Ganesha has spread all over the country, particularly in the southern states where Ganesha is a popular deity. Ganapati, the chief of the ganas, is mentioned in the Rig Veda, but the word was an epithet of Indra. Ganesha's origins are obscure. The earliest appearance of an elephant-headed figure, holding a sword and a snake in one hand and a quill in another, was at Luristan in Western Iran around 1000 BC. Was this the scribe of the Mahabharata? Ganesha was a popular deity in pre-Islamic Afghanistan, at Sakar Dhar and Gardez and many other places. Says an inscription from Gardez, ‘‘a beautiful and renowned Maha Vinayaka was consecrated by the renowned Shahi king, the illustrious Shahi Khingala’’. The elephant - the world's largest mammal huge and powerful yet gentle, is associated with wisdom, memory and longevity. He is the ultimate protector, the preventer of mishaps. No wonder he was deified. For a long time, the Ganesha image in India did not graduate from the standing and seated figures, holding the elephant goad, sugar cane, a tusk or pen or ‘modak’ (sweet). The enormous elephant on a tiny mouse was a study in contrast. And then came the Puranas, where the Ganesha lore exploded with myriad legends. His origins, exploits and associations were renewed till a whole epic was created around the God. As usual, contradictions began. Was he a bachelor, as per the southern tradition, or did he have two wives - Siddhi and Buddhi - as per Maharashtrian tradition? Or was he a Tantric, with the association of Shakti? In the Chalukyan cave temple at Badami appeared the first dancing Ganesha, carried away by the magnificence of his father Shiva's tandava. It is also in the Chalukyan temple at Aihole that Ganesha's association with the Saptamatrikas is first seen, an association that has lasted till today in village shrines all over central and southern India. In fact, the early Chalukyas of Central India probably promoted the worship of Ganesha. The later Cholas of Thanjavur took the dancing Ganesha to great heights, but it was in Orissa that the Nritta Ganapati reached artistic perfection. The happy dancing Ganesha becomes a violent Tantric figure in Nepal, where the mouse vehicle is replaced by Shakti's lion as Ganesha's vehicle. Ganesha took a different form abroad. A popular figure in Mahayana Buddhism, his sculptures are found in Tibet and Nepal where, says a local legend, Ashoka's daughter Charumati built a temple in his honour. The five-headed Heramba Ganesha
and the snake-hooded form are very popular forms here. Ganesha images are found in China and Japan, where he is often referred to as the spirit king of the elephants. His Japanese forms are the esoteric Kangi-ten and the three-headed Kaku-zen-cho, who are often seated on a mountain. He is worshipped as Maha-pienne in Burma, while he is the guardian of river crossings in Java. Cambodia, Java and Bali saw a proliferation of Ganesha images. It was in Maharashtra that the worship of Ganesha reached its heights. The Ashta Vinayak - Mayureshwar, Chintamani,Mahaganapati, Siddhivinayak, Vighneshwar, Girijatmak, Balleshwar and Varadvinayak - are all situated in villages around Pune, the seat of Shivaji, the Peshwas and Maharashtrian culture, which spread around the Deccan during the Maratha period. According to the scriptures, there are thirty-two forms of Ganesha. But there are no hard and fast rules of iconography in his depiction, so the figures are eclectic and creative. The popular forms, as they appear during the Ganesha festival in Mumbai, are very up-to-date. When India exploded its nuclear device, Ganesha was flanked by the bomb! When India went to war, Ganesha appeared with a gun. When Agni was launched, his weapon was a rocket. I have seen cricketer Ganeshas and soldier Ganeshas, the family man with his large extended family of gods and goddesses and the politician supporting the party of his devotees. The huge Ganesha images with their large entourage in Mumbai are a fascinating study of contemporary sociopolitical developments. And the final procession on the eleventh day is a way stander's delight. They are the ultimate in ‘‘calendar’’ art. Many contemporary artists have painted and sculpted their vision of Ganesha. However, it is not the qualities of the God that have attracted them, but his figure: the voluminous elephant head and pot belly, the small, sharp eyes and short legs, the whole presenting a study in contrast, made rich by embellishment. M Reddeppa Naidu combined his faith and spirituality with graceful lines and soft colour tones. His ink drawings of the God accentuated the anatomy of the deity. P S Nandhan used decorative lines to accentuate form and movement. J Sultan Ali was inspired by tribal art, and produced stocky figures that emphasized ‘‘pattern and bold form’’, while K Sreenivasulu was inspired by folk forms and Tanjore painting. Ganesha is a Tanjore painter's delight, embellished with gold and precious stones. If painting saw inspired lines and movement, sculpture saw changing norms of iconography. B Vithal created the abstract gold-plated Ganeshas, inspired by the formlessness of the Ashta Vinayaks. P V Janakiram used form, texture and wire to create variations of iconographic forms, while artists such as S P Jayakar, K S Gopal, D Venkatapathy and M Senathipathi used metal repoussé. The number of contemporary artists who have painted or sculpted Ganesha is infinite. They have adapted traditional and tantric forms to create uniquely new Ganeshas. But Ganesha also had an ecological message. The Deccan has always been dependent on rainfall, which was collected in artificial tanks and wells. Every year, the tanks were desilted during the summer months. This had a dual advantage, by which the tanks and wells were maintained, while the landless were given employment during the non-agricultural period. The clay left on the tank beds and outside the wells was used to make the Ganeshas, with eyes made of crab's eye seeds. After the festival, the Ganeshas were immersed in the local lake, river, tank or well.
Being unbaked, the clay would soften and dissolve, becoming one with the well, tank or river bed. The whole cycle was renewed the following year. The sugar cane in his hand represents an important agricultural product. With the combination of the respected elephant figure, the festival was one of ancient India's methods of using religion to conserve the ecology. Today's Ganeshas are baked, made with plaster-of-paris, sometimes even strengthened with cement and RCC. Even an innocuous material like baked clay is eco-unfriendly. When these Ganeshas are immersed in water, they do not dissolve, and we see the ugly and painful sight of Ganeshas hacked to pieces. Worse, toxic paints are used to decorate them. The water is polluted and becomes a toxic hazard. In many places these are the only sources of drinking water. I doubt whether Lokamanya Tilak would have approved of this. Ganesha is an artist’s inspiration and delight. The Ganesh mandalis have excelled in creativity, now they need to go back to the environmental messages of the past. This year, one of the Ganeshas in Mumbai carried a message of rainwater harvesting. Good, but inadequate. Organizers of Ganesh mandalis must not make a beautiful festival into an ecological hazard. Ganesha is a celebration of agriculture, water conservation and India’s wildlife. We need to remind ourselves of this sacred tradition even while we celebrate the Ganesha festival.
Animals in Indian art
The response to my previous article ‘Are we civilized?’ (NSE, September 1) was overwhelming. I am thrilled that so many people are concerned about animals, and relate the growing social violence to the general lackadaisical attitude towards cruelty and violence. One letter said that kindness to people came first and would automatically ensure kindness to animals. Of course. Neither precedes or succeeds the other. A humane person is always humane. Ancient India protected animals in the same way it protected all of nature, by creating an aura of sanctity around them and celebrating their dignity. Some animals were the vehicles of the gods. Others, such as the elephant-headed Ganesha and Hanuman, the monkey devotee of Rama, became gods themselves. There is probably no other culture in the world that has been so consistently associated with plant and animal life as the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain traditions of India. So, we were taught to treat animals well. I remember when I sat with my feet on the warm fur of my Alsatian dog; my grandmother would scold me, saying I was stepping on Lord Bhairava himself! At every meal a small bowl of boiled rice was kept out for the birds. And the kolam had to be drawn outside the house every day, in rice flour, for the ants had to be fed. Thus respect and kindness to animals was ingrained in our daily lives. Indian art, which was used to allegorise values and moral beliefs, honoured the dignity of animals. Hermits and saints were always depicted living in harmony with nature. Cave paintings express a primeval fear, a need to subdue and subjugate as people hunted. Probably, as people moved from hunting to food production, the need to kill for food receded, and they could sit back and appreciate the qualities of the animals that were once their antagonists. In the Indus Valley seals, animals such as the humped bull and elephant were particularly popular, while the rhinoceros, tiger,
antelope, eagle and snake appear to have some significance. The Vedas invested gods and animals with divine parentage. In the ten incarnations of Vishnu we have divine manifestations that are equally animal and human. Early Indian art portrayed animals with human qualities such as love, jealousy, sacrifice, resentment and more. They were given a status of equality, with scenes of Boddhisattvas preaching to animals and rishis teaching a multi species audience. The Jataka tales are replete with stories of the Buddha’s many births in various animal forms. Ancient India loved its forests and animals. At Mamallapuram, the scene of the cow licking its calf in the Govardhana cave and the gentle, loving animal families in the rock-cut penance of Arjuna are some of the greatest works of sculpture. Scenes of hunting were unavoidable, as the patrons were kings, but the artist sent out his own silent message when he depicted the pain and agony of the wounded deer, the elephant cringing as he was attacked from all sides in the midst of a war and the desperation of the tiger when it was cornered. ‘Is this valour?’, was their message. The lion capital of Ashoka, with the majestic Asian lions in Persepolitan style, proclaimed the might of the king, and is now the emblem of the Government of India. In contrast, at the base of the same capital, are frolicking animals, nature at its free and untrammeled best. Ashoka selected four animals to represent the Buddha: the elephant symbolised his birth, the lion his clan, the horse his renunciation, and the bull his zodiac sign. The lion represented might, a symbolism that continued all through Indian art history, as late as the Pallava and Vijayanagara periods. This probably saved the Asian lion from extinction. The animal that appears most frequently in Indian art is the elephant, the mount of kings and heroes. As a sequel to the story of Maya, mother of the Buddha, who dreamed that an elephant entered her womb before the birth of her son, the elephant represented the Buddha and Buddhism in sculpture and painting. The elephant was the mount of Indra in the Western Indian rock-cut caves, and is represented in the Jataka tales. He appears in scenes of Gajendramoksha. Vishnu on his mount Garuda swoops down to rescue the elephant from the mighty snake Naga. And, of course, he is Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity who keeps away obstacles (Vighneshwara). Ungulates are prolific in art. The bull represented nobility and stature. It was also the capital of an Ashokan pillar from Rampurva (Bihar). The bull accompanies Shiva, standing at the entrance to Shaivite shrines, while depictions of Uma Maheshvara (Shiva and Parvati) are prolific in the Maratha paintings of Tanjore. The cow was, of course, go mata and Kamadhenu, a representative of Goddess Lakshmi. Unfortunately, the buffalo alone, representing the demon Mahisha destroyed by Durga, came to represent ignorance, slothfulness and evil, and became a much maligned and sacrificed animal. The advent of the horse in India has been the subject of much debate, irrelevant here. Suffice to say that terracotta horses from Sar-Dheri (2500 BC), Lothal, Rangpur and Kayatha (Ujjain) indicate its presence in the proto-historic period. It was in the Mauryan, Kushana and Gupta periods that its representation took on dynamism, for it was associated both with royalty and the chakravartin or universal ruler. The Vedic description of the sun with his flying steeds was personified by the Sun God Surya on a solar chariot driven by seven horses, magnificently depicted in
the Sun Temple at Konarak. The deer represented peace and serenity, the meek and the oppressed, sacrificing its life to save another, and appears in delightful scenes of forests and nature. Birds were used to express human emotions. The swan represented morality and clean living, being the vehicle of Brahma and Sarasvati, while the crow was a messenger. The eagle-hawk (Garuda) and similar large birds of prey symbolised speed, strength and the sun. It was the enemy of the snake, feared yet respected and worshipped in the Naga stones of rural India. Several animals represented the waters, such as the elephant, snake, crocodile and tortoise, the last two symbolising the rivers Ganga and Yamuna respectively. The change came after the Sultanate period. The paintings of Vijayanagara and the Mughal and Rajasthani schools became more realistic, and animals were no longer symbols. Akbar commissioned painters to reproduce the animals recorded by his grandfather in the Babar Namah, while Jehangir’s period is known for the remarkably realistic paintings, by the artist Mansur, of rare and common animals stripped of all spiritual overtones. Unfortunately, this period also saw the celebration of scenes of the hunt, a throwback to prehistoric painting. Earlier, scenes of hunting were generally accompanied by scenes of renunciation and remorse. Paintings of Krishnadevaraya hunting at Lepakshi, Babar’s mass killing of deer and tigers, trapping of birds and animals and Rajput rulers hunting characterise the mores of the age, and set them apart from earlier Indian art, although the Ragmala paintings and scenes of Krishna’s life still treated them with sympathy. The elephant, tiger and rhinoceros were hunted to extinction in the Indus Valley, which had celebrated them on its seals. The corollary came in the British period, when photographs were taken with large numbers of tigers, leopards, cheetah, deer and elephants killed for sport. In one stroke the new rulers of Hindustan wiped out what India had cherished for millennia. More important, they changed attitudes. Hunting became a ‘sport’, dead animals became ‘trophies’ and destruction became an ‘entertainment’. Art still carries a message, especially for the illiterate. The symbols chosen by political parties are a good example. I will never forget a woman who told me that she voted for the rising sun symbol because it represented the Sun God, giver of life, little realising that the party it stood for (DMK) preached atheism. When the AIADMK led by Ms Jayalalithaa had the rooster as its symbol, it led to gory instances of cruelty towards the bird by the opposing party, till Chief Election Commissioner T N Seshan mercifully banned the use of animals as election symbols. In contemporary Pakistan, animals as election symbols undergo great cruelty. Advertising is a use of art to propagate a message, then and now. Artists of ancient India sent out a message of kindness and harmony through animals, using stories and symbols understood by the masses. We need to revive the use of art as a means of propagating the same values today.
Marine archaeology and the study of the past
The National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT), Madras, who discovered the archaeological relics in the Gulf of Cambay, recently organised a National Workshop on Marine Archaeology in the Gulf of Cambay (or Khambat), which I was privileged
to attend. Privileged because it was one of the most well-organised and focused workshops I have attended recently. It was inter-disciplinary, with participation by scientists, archaeologists, geologists, engineers, epigraphists, historians, etc. The subjects were chosen with a view to broadbasing NIOT’s efforts in the Gulf of Cambay, so that their scientists would have a better background for their underwater archaeological work. Accordingly, papers were presented on geoarchaeology in the Gulf of Cambay and its environs, geochronology, the use of remote sensing in underwater archaeology, the paleo climate of the Gulf of Cambay region, the sedimentation process, and the geological evolution of the Cambay Basin. Marine archaeology is a new subject and a little-explored one, mainly due to the lack of funds, scientific and other necessary equipment and even trained divers, besides a dearth of qualified marine archaeologists. A pioneer in this field is Dr S R Rao, formerly of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and now with the National Institute of Oceanography in Goa. With all the existing limitations, he has done considerable work in the Bet Dwaraka region, where he found an entire submerged city, with rubble and masonry structures, several shell and pottery items and seals. The Mahabharata and Harivamsha describe Krishna’s capital Dwaraka and how it was submerged by the sea in great detail, a description that coincides in many ways with what the divers found. Unfortunately, the doubting Thomases of our historical world, a school of Indian historians who regard Indian literature as “myth”, do not want to acknowledge this interpretation, in case it gives credence to the story of Krishna, whose capital was submerged by the sea. It is ridiculous not to correlate archaeology and literature. Mythology is “the science of primitive man, his manner of explaining the universe”. Records of natural phenomena and historical events — invasions, migrations, etc. — are stored as myths. If literature and archaeology had not been correlated, we would never have known the history of ancient Greece. And how many people are aware of the fact that the only (ancient) temple for Matsya — Vishnu’s incarnation at the time of the great flood — is to be found at Shankhodhara in Bet Dwaraka. Structures have also been found off the Poom Puhar coast, but South Indian history is nothing more than a footnote in Indian history books. So two major archaeological finds whimpered into oblivion after a few magazine articles. Any other country would have celebrated them. NIOT’s discovery would have also, probably, died a similar death if the Minister of Ocean Development, and Human Resource Development, Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, had not chosen to announce it publicly. Immediately, there was a chorus of voices clamouring that it should have been first presented as a scientific paper. That would have been an excellent way to destroy the story. Why should the rest of India not learn about these discoveries? They belong as much to the cart puller as to the scientist and archaeologist. What was found in the Gulf? Several rectangular to round pieces made of rock and mortar with perfectly shaped holes (some rectangular), obviously man-made; stone cylindrical rods with vertical holes, probably used as necklaces (as in Harappa); rolled rods and well-turned cylindrical rock pieces; fused rock articles; thin triangular and round rock pieces; chert blades, cut into long flat pieces; macro tools resembling axes, stone blades, choppers, chisel, etc. and micro tools made of basalt, chalcedony and chert, besides a pestle and fish hook; ladle-shaped objects made of agate or steatite; semi-precious stones and beads made of opal, agate, carnelian, steatite,
quartz, malachite, and topaz; potsherds, including sun-dried gray and kiln-baked red. But these were not all. Human and animal (deer and duck) figurines, a hand with what appears to be a carving of a bangle, a few fossilised human bones and a flat rock piece with a sort of script have made the finds more exciting. Paleo channels 20 to 40 metres deep and over 9 kms long, adjoined by basementlike features of major structures in a grid pattern, resembling an urban habitation site, were observed. These include a 40m x 24m tank-like depression with steps leading to a deeper portion (like the Great Bath of Mohenjo Daro?), a 200m x 45m platform-like structure, a 79m x 50m buried structure and what appears to be a 41m x 20m wall, with a relief of about 3m above the seabed. Most important, a chunk of carbonised teak wood was picked up, which was dated using 14C (Carbon dating) methodology by the Birbal Sahni Institute of Paleo Botany, Lucknow, and the National Geophysical Research Institute, Hyderabad, gave an interim calibrated age of 8150-7650 BP (before present). This is the information that came in for much public flak and acrimony, with some historians and media stories even casting doubts on the authenticity of the scientific testing and the results, an untenable accusation. Foreign laboratories upheld the results, a certification which should not have been necessary, and about which there has been no response from the doubters. Another reason given for doubt was that the wood could have floated into the area from anywhere else. But the scientists present at the workshop debunked that objection, showing how the current patterns meant that the water circulates within the Gulf and is not exchanged with the Arabian Sea. Having seen these artifacts myself, I believe they belong to a pre-Harappan culture. Ladles, figurines, beads (including the cylindrical stone pieces) and chert blades, made of terracotta, have also been found in Harappan sites. If the rock with the script on it belongs to the same period as the carbonised wood, it would be the earliest known writing. Marine archaeology is an essential tool for the study of the past. Our limited knowledge and lack of facilities should not make us turn a blind eye to what has proven to be an important source of information elsewhere. Ancient shipwrecks indicate the items traded across the Mediterranean. Cleopatra’s bust was a recent discovery off the Egyptian coast, and tales of American shipwreck hunters — including the Titanic — are legion. The seabed preserves its treasures carefully. Marine archaeology in India is still at its infancy. It needs up-to-date scientific equipment, such as remote controlled robots, and trained divers and diving equipment. All this costs money. The Gulf of Cambay project involves three disciplines. The archeological investigations map the area of interest, trace the paleo-river course, collect artifacts and videograph underwater archaeological material. Geological investigations investigate the structure, tectonics and buried channels, sand wave movements, and locations of depressions and basins. Engineering investigations include sonar imageries and remote sensing. The Gulf of Cambay extends over 3000 sq km in the state of Gujarat, with the rivers Narmada, Tapi, Sabarmati and Mahi draining into it. The rivers form an estuary with islands above and submerged below the water. Rivers of today superimpose older river channels, and cut across materials deposited earlier. The sea is made up of
alternating clay and sand formations, the latter making shoals that migrate periodically. Tectonic activity in the area would have influenced sedimentary deposits and underwater structures. However, scientific geochronology and geochemistry can give very accurate dates today. Gujarat is an archeologically rich site. Paleolithic remains of the low sea level periods of the middle and late Pleistocene ages have been found in Junagarh and Bhavnagar districts (adjoining the Gulf of Cambay). Around 14,000 B.P. the sea level started rising, while the period between 9000 and 5000 B.P. saw strong summer monsoons. Mehergarh (in Pakistan), the oldest known pre-historic site in the subcontinent, existed at this time. Pre-Harappans occupied the area around 6000 B.P., developing into the mature Harappan phase. Not far from the Gulf is Padri, an important preHarappan site. While the lower levels had rectangular and square structures of mud, the upper levels were made of mud-brick. Similarly, the earlier coarse pottery was replaced by fine and well-made pottery in the upper levels. Harappan script, pottery and copper artifacts appear towards the end of this phase. The best examples of Harappan culture are to be found at Lothal and Kuntasi, both Harappan ports. Lothal is the site of the world’s earliest dockyard, besides which a warehouse and bead furnace have been found here. At Kuntasi, a jetty for anchoring small boats was discovered. Several inland settlements of the Harappans have been excavated, besides the sites of Rangpur and Prabhas Patan. By the third century B.C., the historical phase had begun, and Hathab near Bhavnagar is referred to as Hatrab by the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea. Along with the excavations at Dwaraka, the area is rich in early material artifacts, and the prospects are exciting. Prof M Ravindran and Prof S Kadhiroli, Director and Project Director respectively of NIOT, have worked very hard to do their homework and cover all aspects of the proposed investigations in the Gulf of Cambay. The discoveries in Dwaraka and Cambay have proved that the Indian coastline contains rich treasures that could unlock secrets of our past history and pre-history. The east coast has a tradition of lost cities and archaeological treasures. If we could find more money for marine archaeology, we could learn so much more about ancient cities like Mahabalipuram and Poom Puhar.
Books to make you weep
The response to my last article 'Teaching History - a Political Agenda' (NSE, July 21) has been overwhelming. I have received letters and phone calls from eminent historians, administrators, journalists and others from all over Southern and Eastern India. Most important, they are people known for their lack of bias, particularly the historians. Everybody agreed on two important issues - the need for unbiased writing and the sheer boredom of our history books. Mr Michael Danino from Kothagiri added that some students had told him that they called the history lesson 'the sleeping pill'. I can well believe it. I found it a bore and a chore to flip through even a few random pages. Other subjects are as bad, or worse. The worst subject is Civics. The NCERT books are so badly written that they can only inspire the student to run away from India. Do you know the Directive Principles of State Policy? I don't. The book says there are sixteen, but eighteen are listed. Do you know who is a good citizen? None of our politicians would pass the test. Janardan Poojary's discredited loan melas are described as ''a great help to the weaker section (sic)''. Do you know why we are
poor, what are our social problems and what are our relations with foreign countries? You would never believe the newspapers after that. We seem to have only friends, with a mild aberration in our relations with Pakistan. There are only three evil effects of the caste system: ''1.) Divided Nation. 2.) Plight of the low castes. 3.) Obstacle to country's progress.'' The problems of the Scheduled Tribes (the books do not define a scheduled tribe) are even easier to sum up: ''educational backwardness, isolation, old methods of agriculture and social and economic backwardness''. A few years ago, I remember reading a chapter on national integration in my cook's daughter's school textbook. It was about three boys - Ram, Rehman and Robert. I now quote the chapter, which remains imprinted in my memory: ''Ram is a Hindu, Rehman is a Muslim and Robert is a Christian. Ram wears a turban, Rahim wears a cap (topi) and Robert wears a hat. But Ram, Rahim and Robert are friends''. The chapter was illustrated with the three boys in their different headgear. Now do you wonder why communal harmony is so elusive? They should have shown three scruffy schoolboys dressed in dirty shorts and shirts. The only headgear I have ever seen on young boys is a cricket cap. We must emphasize the commonness, not the differences, but the textbook writer did not think so. Do our children need to know details that even a lawyer or an IAS officer would have to look up in his Constitution of India? If you read a Civics textbook, you would not wonder why India spent 50 years in backwardness. It makes India out to be one of the most boring and useless nations. The five-year plans, the various government schemes to alleviate poverty and the functioning of the parliament are so dull that civics makes history look like a whodunit! Geography is a fascinating subject. Who does not like to travel to different nations, learn about different cultures and peoples? India's natural resources and wildlife are so varied and interesting, yet there is so much information and so little soul in our textbooks. They are full of details about climate, vegetation, physical features, minerals, population and any thing else that is not covered by the other subjects. The birth of our planet, the role of water and the development of life forms, the sustainability of life forms and their inter-dependence in a complex web, is much better subject matter. The student learns about different types of rocks, but is unaware of a simple method of preventing landslides: growing grass and trees on hill slopes. Agriculture is a part of geography, but it does not teach the village school boy better farming methods. And, in our rain-starved nation, our books do not teach methods of conserving water or increasing ground water infiltration. Geography should become a travelogue, whetting the child's appetite to succeed, make money and travel. The science textbooks are a tragedy. They have to be ''mugged'' (learned by rote, for the uninitiated), for most schools do not have laboratories, good or bad. Scientific experiments are delineated in great detail, which the students have to learn and reproduce, as if they actually conducted each one themselves. So students 'mug' up complicated experiments in Physics and Chemistry with no comprehension. At the end of the day, they cannot test their water for e-coli or heavy metal contamination, nor do they know how long the water must be boiled to destroy bacterial infection. This information is surely more important in view of the many water-borne infections in our country.
Biology - botany and zoology - is the science of life. But, by the time the student finishes naming every part of a worm's body or describing the sex life of the cockroach or cutting up a rat, he becomes indifferent and insensitive to animals. He mugs up the process of photosynthesis, but is unable to appreciate the role of plants in sustaining life, and the importance of conserving forests and greenery. When William Wordsworth described ''Yon solitary Highland lass'', I doubt whether he imagined that a little boy in a coastal village in India would be learning it, with no understanding of the meaning of yon or lass or the Highlands. To return to my cook's daughter, I once explained to her a lesson about Simonedes in ancient Greece. It took me quite a while to explain where Greece was, and that I did not know what Simonedes meant. She was unable to think beyond Tambaram to the south of Madras and Anna Nagar to the west. A world of nation-states was beyond her comprehension! Surely there are Indian writers whose references would be more comprehensible. I do not blame the textbook writers - they are given a heavy syllabus and have to produce a book to suit it. But I fault them for introducing personal bias and boring presentations. The syllabus is designed by professors teaching in colleges and universities, who have the advantage of easy curricula that they barely complete, giving them time to write copious books. Our students are the guinea pigs. Further, a subject specialist need not be a good communicator and vice versa. A combination of specialist, writer and illustrator is needed to produce good books for children. Writing school textbooks is far more difficult than writing for adults. You have to hold the attention, convey new ideas and ensure their retention. Our schoolbooks would never pass this test. The vast syllabus and extensive information, coupled with the need to complete the portions, make teachers race through the books with no time for practical work or explanations, thus compounding the problem. Private publishers produce very well written books for private schools whose parents are willing to pay good prices. Unfortunately, these reach very few children. The vast majority of our students must make do with poor quality books produced by indifferent authors on paper of such low quality that the print goes through one side of the page to the other, making reading a visual problem. In our country, we waste money on so many things. Can we not spend some well on good books, good schools, good equipment and good teachers? Investment in education is an investment for the future. The Ministry of Human Resource Development initiated a programme to review and redo, if necessary, the syllabi and the textbooks. Unfortunately, this got mired in a left versus right controversy. The two groups are still slugging it out, while children continue to carry, on bent backs, heavy school bags full of books. The erstwhile writers of these books are, naturally, reluctant to see them withdrawn, as they will lose their lucrative royalties. So they raise an irrelevant cry about saffronization. And sections of the press and the parliament echo this cry. Nobody cares for the education of our children. Our new President, Dr A P J Abdul Kalam, has emphasized the importance of empowering the child to make him develop into a responsible citizen, and the importance of education in national development. The quality of that education is
equally important. It is not enough to count the increasing number of literates. What are our children learning, how relevant is their education? How creative does it make them, can they become scientists or writers or thinkers of the future? The clichéd description of the village school with one teacher for all classes is unfortunately true. Without subject specialists, laboratory equipment and good textbooks, can we expect our children to be better and brighter? Few children have the opportunity of studying in private schools, which are undoubtedly more committed to good education. This is where good textbooks can make a difference, by giving all children an equal opportunity.
Teaching history: A political agenda
Recently, I sent one of my staff members to the Arts Colleges at Kanchipuram in search of graduates in history or archaeology. Two colleges said they did not offer history, since students were not forthcoming. The third sent one M A. in history who, according to his own explanation, was doing his A M I E and had acquired an M A. degree because history was the ‘easiest’ subject which would enable him to call himself a post-graduate! This is the cursory treatment the subject receives in the South. People in the North are smarter than us, for they have learned the importance of history in acquiring an I A S or other public services degree. Yet, seeing the national debate on the subject, one would imagine that the country was swarming with historians. There has been much debate in the press from historians of the left, right and center as to what should be taught. So, I bought a few NCERT textbooks - presumably the best in the country - to see, for myself, what was being taught. My first reaction was ‘‘How boring.’’ The books were verbose, badly written, confused and unreadable. There was no natural development of ideas - one jumped back and forth. I pity the student who studies these books. He will only learn to hate history. The division of periods is so lop-sided. Ancient India, running into several thousand years with a cornucopia of literary sources, is one section; medieval India, comprising a thousand years, from the eight to the eighteenth centuries, is the second section; and modern India, spanning a period of two hundred years from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, is the third. This corresponds roughly to ancient, medieval and modern, a uniquely Indian division! It takes one year to teach each section. Thus thousands of years of history and culture are equated with just two hundred years of British rule! A bunch of useless Governor Generals - most of whom did nothing more than amass great wealth - are given more importance than a law giver like Manu. As a woman I dislike what he wrote, but I cannot deny the role and importance of his codes, which have held sway over centuries. Speculation is taught as fact. The Harappan civilization, it is admitted, has yet to be fully understood or deciphered; yet there is a strong case made for its Dravidian character, without admitting that there is evidence of both Aryan and Dravidian. Then, of course, there is the suggestion that the Vedic Aryans were invaders from Central Asia, the Steppes, or wherever else, who conquered North West India (now Pakistan), even though the Vedas themselves do not make even a remote suggestion to that effect. In fact the chapter itself is titled ‘The Coming of the Aryans’, and says, ‘Their homelands were in the vast plains of Central Asia’. Maybe, but this is still speculation. How can we teach them to young people as fact? Most important, they
do not teach the fact that the terms Aryan and Dravidian refer to culture groups, not race. Thanks to Hitler, many Indians actually believe they belong to the ‘Aryan race’, without knowing that such a thing does not exist. There are invidious remarks that put down one group and boost another. For example, Satish Chandra praises Kabir and Nanak as great mystics who ‘strongly denounced idol worship’. As an ardent idol worshipper myself, I object strongly to that statement. There is a determined effort to whitewash Aurangazeb and prove that his religious decrees were actually ‘economic and social’ and ‘against superstitious beliefs’, and that there were no ‘orders for the general destruction of temples’. Aurangzeb's official, authorized historian Mustaid Khan asserts to the contrary. There are many more examples that need not be listed here. Please pick up your child's history textbook and read it - and learn the leftist version of Indian history. What should we teach in our history books? The truth, or a sanitized version? I can only go back to my own school (Cathedral and John Connon in Mumbai, recently adjudged India's best school in a nation-wide survey) and tell you what I was taught, which developed my passion for history. At the junior level, our history text books included Great People of India in one year, the Ramayana another year, and so on. I learned about the great Vedic sages, Buddha and Mahavira, scientists and freedom fighters. We followed Rama's journey from Ayodhya to Lanka and learned both the history and geography of India. Years later, I came across Dr H D Sankhalia's suggestion that the sea crossed by Rama was the river Godavari. Maybe, but that was speculation. The popular belief is that he crossed the ocean at Rameshwaram and, unless the contrary can be proven conclusively, that is what the students need to know. Simultaneously, we had World History and even British History. The former consisted of a series of adventures of young people in various periods and places - Neanderthal, Neolithic, etc. The story element made all the difference. Later, at a more senior level, we followed textbooks where good and bad were judged in very black and white terms. Ashoka and Akbar were ‘good’ kings, Aurangazeb was ‘bad’. There was no effort to sanitize one community or another. Good and bad were judged according to their actions, with set parameters. Thus ‘good’ kings dug wells and tanks, built roads and rest houses, planted trees and improved the lives of their people and the economy, creating the ‘feel good’ factor. Bad kings were cruel, went to war, killed and taxed their people and oppressed them. This has been a standing joke about history books, but it does teach values and sends out strong messages. Those Indian freedom fighters who idolized Hitler were wrong, while Mahatma Gandhi's message of non-violence was right. Maybe history is not so black and white, but we learned to judge people and events by their actions, not by their race or religion. If the leftists sanitize some aspects of our history, the rightists want to sanitize some others. In school, we learned that eating beef was not unknown to the Vedic Aryans. That did not affect our faith, nor did it inspire us to go out and eat beef. These were events of 5000 years ago, and we must be happy that we have evolved considerably since then. Then there is the matter of date. In India we have a peculiar situation of a material culture (Harappan) with no recognizable literature, and a cornucopia of Sanskrit
literature with little evidence of material culture. That they are both ancient is a fact. Recent debate will have us believe that the existence or otherwise of the horse and its family is the defining factor. But to presume that there was no overlap is ridiculous. Instead of trying to prove whether they are same or distinct, the better option would be to present what we know of both and leave archaeologists and scholars to debate the rest. It is shocking to read the views of a school of historians who choose to disregard the literary heritage of ancient India. After all, all ancient civilizations were sustained by oral or literary traditions. More disturbing is the fact that we do not teach our students about archaeological discoveries - the cave paintings of Central India or the underwater finds off the coast of Gujarat and in Tamilnadu, to name a few. We need not even try to label them. Maybe the knowledge of their mere existence would inspire some young Indian somewhere to excavate further, or find an Indian Rosetta stone that will unravel the mystery of the Harappan seals. It is sad that when the whole world is excited about the Gulf of Cambay finds, which have been dated scientifically, we have a cynical school of history that casts doubts and has a media arm to back it up. What do they want to prove - that our history and culture are not ancient? There is the other problem of students not opting for history because it is not joboriented. This mistaken belief is the reason why less and less South Indians get into the I A S, whereas North Indians, aware of the importance of the subject, take it and enter the administrative services, the source of power in India. A private institution like Loyola College, Chennai, offers degrees in Applied History, such as archaeology, museology and tourism, which are all career-oriented subjects. Why can there not be more such opportunities? Ancient societies did not bother about history, as they were more interested in preserving and developing their cultures. It is only with the growth of the nationstate that history was recorded and studied as a motivating factor, one that would rally people to the cause of nation making and preserving. It is the pivot around which the nation-state functions, its raison d'être. Unfortunately, the Indian nationstate being a late starter, we started recording our history very late, long after others had made their own records and judgements. This has, naturally, created problems, for our history was written by those who wanted to use it to rule and control. History can be exciting and romantic. Winston Churchill's History of the English speaking Peoples is an excellent example. There are brilliant histories of other nations. Why are we so churlish with ours? I believe that India, as a nation-state, has come to exist and stay, notwithstanding events in Kashmir and the Northeast. Our history books must tell young people what is known of the past, teach them to be aware of it and to be proud of the best. History books must become more interesting and attract the best brains. Writers of textbooks must stick to what is known, whether it is supported by archaeological or literary evidence. We must stop doctoring history to suit political ideologies. Too much damage has been done over the last fifty years. Let us have more honesty in the future
What’s wrong with our art critics?
In a previous column, I mentioned the art critic who told the dancer to include "secular" items in her repertoire. This raises the question: what is art criticism, and
how qualified are our art critics? Art criticism is barely known in India. There are few courses on the subject, and most of them cover either art history or aesthetics, neither of which include art criticism. Most critics are either art historians, or art lovers who pick up some ideas and knowledge along the way, or ex-students of fine arts, or even reporters who were put into the slot by their newspaper. As a result, today's art critics write at will, with no basis for their comments. While subjectivity cannot be denied, it cannot be the basis for art criticism, for it has destroyed many young artists. Further, a subjective opinion should be worth listening to. Very few of our art critics would qualify. Art history and criticism have made great advances in the West, but while the former has found its métier in India, the latter is barely understood. Indian art criticism is arbitrary, emotional and sentimental. Good criticism must evaluate, revitalize and stimulate the artist, be a positive force to stimulate development. Unfortunately, most reviews are in obtuse, incomprehensible language, which alienates the reader. Many people skip art reviews because they do not understand what they read. What a pity. Why is there a deliberate attempt to obfuscate the arts? They must be accessible, and that is the duty of the art critic. Traditionally, Indian art has never indulged in obtuse jargon. India was among the earliest nations to produce critical treatises on the arts — Natyashastra, which codified the rules for dance and drama, the Chitrasutra of the Vishnudharmottara, which documented the rules of painting, the Manasara, which laid down the rules of architecture and the various Shilpashastras, which documented the rules of sculpture. Thus the tradition of codes as the basis for art was not unknown. In the past, in India as elsewhere, a work of art was judged by its adherence to the rules of art. These codes were not commentaries: that was left to later writers, such as Mallinatha who commented on Kalidasa's plays, or Abul Fazl who commented on the Akbarnamah. Indian art commentaries came into their own in the 20th century, with the writings of E B Havell, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Heinrich Zimmer and Radhakamal Mukherjee. While they largely described and interpreted ancient and medieval art, early writers on contemporary art were Mulk Raj Anand, Niharranjan Ray, Karl Khandalawalla and Jaya Appasamy. Josef James and Anjali Sircar are two eminent critics from the South. A work of art has several meanings and interpretations. The critic is required to explain them, and help viewers understand the meanings and structure. Further, the criticism should be subsidiary to the concepts and notions the artist is transmitting. The Indian critic presumes his job is to criticize or find fault. Not so. Art criticism must explain, interpret and then engage in debate. The structure, shape and form of a painting are as important as that of a novel or a technological creation. The critic must accommodate varying forms, concepts and trends. At the end of the day, a good critique must be as much a work of art as the painting or sculpture.
Most Indians decry "modern" art, which seems very new and different to them. This is the first fallacy. Artists are inspired by and draw from their experiences and surroundings. Artists study the works of their colleagues and predecessors and are greatly influenced by them, making much of contemporary art derivative. If Picasso was inspired by primitive art, Abhanindranath was influenced by Japanese "wash" techniques, while Bengali folk art influenced Jamini Roy. Tantric symbols have been a source of inspiration for several artists. Contemporary sculpture has been greatly influenced by both conventional cire perdue casting and folk techniques. So nothing is really very new. However, with the exception of the Abhanindranath Tagore and Jamini Roy schools of Bengal and the Tantric artists, symbols and styles borrowed from earlier Indian art forms have not contributed to the formation of any major movement. Thus, although K C S Panikkar started the Cholamandal Artists Village near Madras and the Bombay artists met at Artists' Centre and Jehangir Art Gallery, they were still individual artists struggling to make their mark in a competitive world. There is a frequently voiced criticism that contemporary Indian art has been heavily influenced by the west. This is true, but it is equally true of so other things, from language to clothes to music and so on. The British opened the world to India, and changes occurred in every field. Art, which had been a handmaiden of religious and folk expression, suddenly found itself separated from cultural needs. It began groping for self-expression and foreign influences were bound to manifest themselves. But, though, abstraction is believed to be a western import, artists of the 10th century Brihadishvara temple in Thanjavur abstracted the dancers in their paintings to create an impression of fast movement. The artist is a creator whose work is the output of his experience. But creation and criticism are inter-dependant for dynamism. Indian art criticism has been described as "contradictory, sectarian and peevish" or "overwhelmingly effusive and salutary". In other words, critics are either antagonistic or effusive about individual artists and their works. This is destructive, because an upcoming artist can be destroyed by a critic's prejudices, or a mediocre one boosted out of turn. Sympathetic reviews condition the artist's choice of subjects and treatment. Antagonistic criticism makes the artist insular. I knew two young and potentially good artists who lost their confidence after a nasty review and gave up their profession. M F Hussain, undoubtedly a great artist, is praised to the skies. Yet, a few years ago, he filled up the Jehangir Art Gallery with metres of white cloth and painted on a horse. I wonder what happened to the horse. Was it killed for its skin? I did not hear any protests. Art criticism should be constructive. Interpretation of the work of art should be combined with constructive suggestions, so that the both viewer and artist benefit. Several senior artists reach a point of stagnation; many younger ones are highly derivative. The critic can say so, and damn the person forever. Or he could suggest the way forward. While output is considerable, quality must be equally good. In several cases,
formalism comes into the art, as artists respond to market demands. There are artists who are fashionable, their works a "good investment". In fact, today, the works of well-known artists like Hussain or Anjali Ela Menon are bought by investors with surplus funds. Yet the prices they command are nothing in the international market. And for every Menon sold, hundreds of artists languish unknown. South Indian artists are the most unfortunate, for few South Indians "invest" in contemporary art. Many buyers employ art consultants. Many years ago, I saw a consultant supervise a painting by a reputed artist. The man chose the subject, the colours and even the format of the painting, to suit the tastes of the potential buyers. Yet the critic described the artist's work in glowing colours. Later, the artist told me the consultant had demanded he "gift" the critic a painting! Where is the originality or creativity in such a work? I would rather buy a tried and tested Tanjore painting. A good painting is as much a work of communication as a book, which delineates ideas. That is why contemporary American art is so effective: it uses mundane every-day symbols that, within a composition, add up to a positive message. Contemporary American art is as good a communicator as American advertisements, even though the message may be more complex. This is not unlike the social function of traditional Indian art, again a form of transmitting a message. Traditional and folk art invariably have a message, such as the triumph of good over evil or religious truths. Much of contemporary Indian art does not convey messages in symbols that can be understood by the average person. This alienates the artist from the viewer; preventing this is the critic’s function. What do we, in India, want of art? We have our beautiful classical and folk arts, which art historians and critics dismiss as craft. We have great artists producing beautiful works of contemporary art, which our public dismisses as alien. This is where critics come in. They can bridge the gap and take art to the viewer and the viewer to art. The critic has to recognize the artist’s creativity. Indian artists can certainly produce original works of art and shake up the art world. It is a pity that, despite a plethora of artists and artworks and sense of aesthetics, India is not a major world player.
Does art have a social function?
Some time ago, a well-known art critic asked a well-known dancer, in my presence, why she did not include ‘‘secular’’ items in her repertoire. This is a shining example of ‘‘pseudo secularism’’. The dancer is among the greatest today — surely she has her own sources of inspiration. Why should she dance ‘‘secular’’ items, whatever they may be? Secular means separation of church and state and has nothing to do with the arts. What would dance be without Balasaraswathi’s longing for her childgod in Krishna nee begane baaro, or music without the ‘bhakti’ in M S Subbalakshmi’s voice? What would Da Vinci have painted instead of the Last Supper or how would Shah Jehan have envisioned a paradise on earth in his magnificent constructions? Thank God, the art critic did not live in those days.
More important, does art have a social function, should it have a social function? These are important questions demanding answers. In 1948, Radhakamal Mukerjee wrote a book called The Social Function of Art, which raised more questions and doubts than it gave answers to. Benjamin Rowland made the famous statement that, in India, ‘‘Art is religion’’. Indian art historians are still debating that statement! Indian aesthetics does not give art the status of conceptual knowledge, or a reflection of reality. Indian art does not depict physical reality as perceived phenomena: it is more concerned with subtler planes of presentation. Unlike the Greeks, the Indian artist never attempted to create the perfect form. Indian art presents imperceptibles, wherein the artist and the viewer identify with the emotion that transports them to a more subtle (sukshma) level. Even as art fashions forms after the human image, the human figure is presented as an object of perfection, not of realism. The perfect form is one more means of searching for the perfection within. Indian art is the expression of human and superhuman perfection. Yet, art is a social product and a means of social control. It regulates the lives of people and societies. Myth is made and used to touch emotions. When we walk into a temple, we pass sculptures narrating tales of the deity fighting forces of evil, where good always triumphs and evil is finally destroyed. Thus the ten incarnations of Vishnu and the various murtis of Shiva are different manifestations assumed to fight evil. The mudras (hand gestures) in Buddhist images are meant to convey the teachings of the Buddha, or the turning of the Dhamma Chakra (Wheel of Law). During the Pallava period, when there was a deliberate attempt to clear the forests and promote agriculture by converting hunter-gatherers to farming, the popular deity was Somaskanda, the family trio of Shiva, Parvati and Skanda, reflecting the ‘‘family values’’ that the rulers were trying to promote. Later, when agriculture had come to stay, the popular deity became Kamakshi, the Goddess holding a sugarcane. There is a strong social message in each icon and narrative scene. Ancient cultures represented gods and goddesses, demons and symbols that arose from the collective consciousness of the people as myths. Myth formation has been described as ‘‘a re-echo of the pre-historic and the ancient’’. The myths bind the individuals to each other and to the community. The myths and symbols become the raw materials and subject matter of art, creating symbols that are recognizable, which bind the artist and viewer in a common web. Symbols such as the swastika or cross were gradually imbued with magic and mysticism by the work of artists. Art is also a symbol of power. When prehistoric man painted cave walls with scenes of the hunt, he may have tried to internalize the event and thereby strengthen himself. The icon in a temple or the cross on the altar is imbued with magic and ritual. Prayer strengthens the worshipper emotionally, and helps him internalize the power symbolized by the object. Art also provided an opportunity for the ruler to display his power. The Ashokan pillar capitals were symbols of the ruler’s imperial power. Whether it was the pyramids of the Egyptian Pharaohs or Rajaraja Chola’s Brihadishvara temple at Thanjavur, each symbolized the power and achievements of the emperor. The spires of the shikharas were as tall as the king’s status. When Rajaraja’s son Rajendra built his own Brihadishvara temple at Gangaikondacholapuram, he made it shorter than the Thanjavur shikhara, out of respect for his father. The art form is often dictated by the message. Where authority is paramount, architecture becomes the dominant art form, subordinating the others. When
knowledge and intellect hold sway, the brittle edges are sharpened and sensitive modelling creates rounded, decorative and soft sculptural modelling. The sculpture is a message. Painting is generally the result of strong passions and a lyricism that pervades the life and times of certain societies. Each culture or social system nourishes a distinct art form. When the society is passive and static, the art and architecture are severe. A good example is the architecture of the Public Works Departments (PWD) buildings of the postIndependence period in India. Globalization and the opening of the economy have made architecture, art and decoration so much more exciting. Art is also based on economic structure. The nature of the economy and the forms of distribution of surplus wealth and leisure define the form and emotional content of the arts. Temple building, an economic, religious and artistic activity in medieval south India, was replaced by individual works of artists in the colonial period; today, big buyers collect works of art as an investment, apart from adorning their walls. Art also depends on the region for its subjects, materials and technique. Early Indian farmers worshipped the Earth goddess, who was represented as a large-limbed symbol of fertility, while the searing Iranian desert juxtaposed the endless tranquility of the sands with the rich colours of stylized gardens. The more perfect the symbolism of the artistic form, the more beautiful it becomes. The Gupta Buddha, the dancing Nataraja and the stately Shiva Lingas are allpowerful representations of a superior intellectual process. But, even as the religious message becomes stronger, so does the artistic creation. The distinction between religion and art lies in the abstraction of values and the formalization of religious appeal, which form the basis for emotional appeal. If art has been ‘‘a hand-maiden of religion’’, it has also developed unaided by religion. Chinese sculpture and Moghul painting are two good examples, although the imperial style is ever present. Post-Renaissance art in Europe broke away from religious themes to create landscapes, portraits and still life. Every age throws up new problems and challenges, and new materials for the artist. But, as art is produced by the interaction between the individual and society, the artist’s social and cultural relationships govern the choice of subject and the art form. If primitive art was closely associated with the rites of fertility and survival, and the art of the ancient world served a religion that expressed universal values, aspirations and moods, later European art compensated for inhibitions and urges suppressed earlier. Much later — and as late as the twentieth century in India — art became an individual quest, developing its own rules and standards and searching moods and emotions within for inspiration. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the artist began to refashion and reinterpret social values and moral codes, leading a protest against social repression. But style, symbol, motif and content remained the products of social developments, and served the purpose of social expression and communication. Art has been described as an ‘‘autobiography of society’’, expressing the ideals and sentiments of the national culture of the times and age. The power of art lies in the presentation of the universal and symbolic. Art has created archetypes and symbols that have bound society and individuals. Whether the work of an individual or the collective creation of a guild of artisans, art has given the world the noblest and most beautiful ideals and symbols. By bringing unity and order on the ideal plane, art binds society. It cannot be ‘‘religious’’, ‘‘secular’’ or ‘‘ethical’’, for it combines all the
truths of religion, metaphysics and morality to bring about equilibrium between the individual and his society. So, to return to our question, art does have a social function, but it is one that develops unselfconsciously, one that responds to a social need. If it is imposed, as the communists did in the USSR, it becomes a symbol to hate. Let us not forget that the first symbols to fall as the Soviet Union was dismantled were the enormous sculptures of Lenin, now lying in junkyards. Art should not be required to have a social function, for enforced attempts will never succeed. We cannot demand ‘‘religious’’ or ‘‘secular’’ themes — that is the artist’s prerogative. If the end product is something society can identify with, it is automatically feted, appreciated and takes an important place in society. If the community cannot identify with the work of art, it is discarded. When Raja Ravi Varma broke with tradition to paint in the newly introduced European genre of portraiture and realism, he chose themes and symbols out of the epics and puranas. Every viewer looking at his works identified with the symbols that were already a part of social consciousness. The new style merely enhanced the picture. And that is why Raja Ravi Varma became immortal, whereas many of his contemporaries were soon forgotten. There is a message here that artists and art critics may like to remember.
Government apathy is appalling
I am writing this from Ooty where I have come for the summer, an annual ritual in our family since 1907. But how it has changed! Once upon a time we could see the Stonehouse, home of John Sullivan, builder of Ooty, from our house on Stonehouse Hill. Now there is a PWD eyesore — Anna Stadium. I went for a walk and rushed back home, past a stream of sewage. Tourism in Ooty is a disaster. Huge buses drive at break-neck speeds on streets meant for horses. The air pollution is unbelievable. In 1997, the C P R Environmental Education Centre did a survey of the ambient air quality at Charing Cross in Ooty and found that it was worse than Mount Road in Chennai. The pavements are teeming with hawkers and there is garbage everywhere, in spite of a very successful campaign against plastics by the Collector, Supriya Sahu. The few public toilets are filthy, so the visitors use the roads for their physical needs. There are constructions everywhere — lodges, shops, bars and restaurants have come up with no planning, breaking every rule. With the arrival of VIP visitors — such as the President of India — local people and problems are swept aside as officials take care of these great men of Hindustan! Water supply is neglected, roads are not swept and the traffic becomes even worse, thanks to our zealous security officers. Those who require security should live within their fortresses. Tourism has destroyed the Nilgiris. The environment has been totally disregarded. Officers come from the plains with no awareness of the importance of the ecology of the Nilgiris. I am combining a holiday with the organization of an exhibition of paintings by Kurumba tribesmen and pottery and terracottas by Kota tribeswomen. Not many people are aware of the rich cultural heritage of the Nilgiris. In the course of our
environmental work, we came across several disappearing traditions. The C P Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation has extensively documented — on paper and on video — the rock paintings of the Nilgiris, the art, craft, music and dance traditions of four Nilgiri tribes and worked with two — the Kurumbas and the Kotas — to develop their artistic traditions to help them generate an income. In the Nilgiris, each tribe has specific functions, duties and skills that, if developed, could fetch them a regular income and, more importantly, preserve a disappearing heritage. Civilization dawned in the Nilgiris long before the Tamils held their Sangams. Material finds date back to 10,000 BC, and include sarcophagi and pottery, as well as carvings, writing and paintings. A little-known pre-historic rock shelter at the Edakkal Caves in Wayanad (Kerala) contains mysterious carvings, including a hieroglyphic script. Who made them in these remote hills, and what language do they represent? They will probably rank among the unsolved mysteries of all time. Ancient (3000 BC) caves under an overhanging rock at Eluthu Paarai in the Kothagiri sector contain well-preserved monochrome paintings in red ochre depicting people, flora, fauna, hunting and daily activities, supplemented by geometric designs and unique stylized forms. Another site with white ochre (or bleached red ochre) painting is found at Konavakarai, with scenes of hunting and honey-collection. The paintings of Masinagudi are pastoral Neolithic scenes, with figures seated on elephant, tiger, deer and peacock, tempting identification with Indra or Ayyanaar, Ayyappan, Vayu and Muruga respectively. At Iduhatti there are paintings in white (probably bleached red ochre) of honeycombs and honeybees, as well as geometric forms and handprints. The most recent discovery was at Vannanparai, where the paintings resemble those of Masinagudi. We came across an old man, the last artist of the Kurumba tribe, who lived in the shadow of these paintings. Once a year, during the annual festival, he would paint around the temple doorway and on the walls. His grandson Kitna was taught by our volunteer artists to paint on paper and he, in turn, taught other young men of his tribe. The Kurumbas use the resin of the ‘vengai’ tree, which gives a burnt sienna colour, for their paintings. It is a fascinating thought that the Neolithic paintings of the Nilgiris may have been done by Kurumba ancestors, which the Kurumbas themselves believe. In his exhaustive 19th century survey of the Castes and Tribes of Southern India which includes a documentation of the stories, food, religion, subsistence and other activities of all the tribes of the Nilgiris, Edgar Thurston observes that the front of the Kurumba’s houses ‘‘is sometimes whitewashed, and ornamented with rude drawings of men and animals in red earth or charcoal,’’ a tradition which has practically disappeared in recent times. Kurumba paintings are no less beautiful or unique than the Madhubani paintings of Bihar or Warli paintings of Maharashtra, yet they lack state support. The Kotas are the potters, carpenters and blacksmiths, and skilled artisans. Unlike other Indian potter castes, women and men participate equally, although shaping of the pots on the unique clay Kota wheel — the trygann — is done entirely by women. Interestingly, clay images are created not of the deity but as offerings to the deity. The most exotic and well-known tribe of the Nilgiris is the Toda. They are herders of the very fierce-looking Nilgiri buffalo and are essentially dairymen. They venerate the
hills and valleys, rivers and landmarks and the buffalo. Though their origin has been a mystery, their language, for all its guttural sounds, is undoubtedly Dravidian. Todas are renowned for their intricate embroidery called ‘pukuru’, used to decorate the ‘putkuli’, a large piece of double cotton cloth that completely envelopes the body. The Irulas (distinct from the snake and rat catching plains Irulas) make and use musical instruments such as the drum, dwarf pipe, long flute and nagasore when they worship their God Rangaswami. They make glass bead necklaces and brass earrings and anklets, while their ability to plait straw into ornaments is unique. Irulas are famed for their knowledge of herbal medicine. The Paniyas are the most prolific, yet the most suppressed, the slaves of other tribes and of rich landlords in Kerala and worshippers of Kaatu Bhagavati. They are skilled bamboo workers, making their hunting and other tools out of bamboo and miniatures of the same as toys for their children. I recently received a lovely bamboo pen made by some Paniyas with the help of a NGO. Such skills must be preserved and nurtured. The Badagas are well educated and modern. They are the traditional landowners and agriculturists of the Nilgiris. Many have joined medicine and other professional fields today. But they too have unique customs and rituals that should be documented. The tribals are diffident and shy and afraid to fight for their rights or even a decent living. The loss of their lands to tea estates and the forest departments has reduced them to poverty, resulting in alcoholism and declining numbers. More needs to be done for them, but imaginatively. Forest officers teach them to farm with expensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides, destroying the ecology, their health and immunity. Instead of Aavin supplying milk, Toda cooperatives could be formed to supply milk and taught to process the milk into butter and cheese. Kota craftsmanship is exquisite and Kurumba painting is unique. Surely they could be put to good use. The Nilgiris should be declared a World Heritage Site — they have a unique ecology, ancient heritage sites and a rich tribal culture. We talk of socio-economic justice for the downtrodden, yet we are condemning a once-proud and independent people to poverty, all because they are too timid to protest. Tibetans have been given shops at a vantage site opposite the Botanical Garden, which every tourist visits. But the Nilgiri tribes are denied the same. The apathy and negligence of our governments is frightening. Will we lose this heritage too, like we have lost so many others?
The sacred link
Religion and Ecology — in India and Southeast Asia By David L Gosling Routledge, price not stated David Gosling trained as a nuclear physicist and later became the first Spalding Fellow in Religions at Clare Hall, University of Cambridge. Like many physicists, he possesses that rare ability to transcend time and space to bring together religion and science to face practical issues, such as conservation. This book studies the impact of the Hindu and Buddhist religio-cultural tradition on the ecology of India and Thailand.
Gosling begins by tracing the environmental movement in India and its focus and dependence on India's cultural heritage. The Vedic tradition and the village tradition have often been separated into the higher literary and lower popular, but the author sees a continuous chain running through. The Hindu tradition is closely linked to nature, with the same Brahman pervading people, animals and plants. Dr Karan Singh's exposition of the Vedic scriptures is referred to frequently, wherein he acknowledges an ecological dimension, that represents the continuity between the past and the present. Dharma is cosmic in its scope and the Bhagavat Gita's diktat of nishkama karma — selfless work without concern for the reward — is meant to benefit all creation. By enacting the Indian Forest Acts of 1865 and 1878, the British reserved for themselves the sole right to exploit them. The large-scale destruction took its toll on entire forest ecosystems and impoverished the tribal inhabitants. Several social reformers protested, including Swami Vivekananda. But the secularization of the Indian polity did not see deforestation and resource depletion as major problems. Indian scientists looked to the West for inspiration till Jagdish Chandra Bose, influenced by Samkhya philosophy, saw in his scientific research a religious quest. The most important reformer of the 20th century was, of course, Mahatma Gandhi, whose statment that ''the earth has enough for everyone's need but not for anyone's greed,'' owed much to Vivekananda. Gandhi challenged the anthropocentric view of man, calling for a more balanced relationship between people and the natural world of plants and animals. Twentieth century India has seen several struggles to protect forests, the bestknown being Chipko and the Apiko. Three doctrinal groups were at war here: the Marxists who were anti-tradition and wanted redistribution of wealth and natural resources, the socialists who preferred afforestation and adoption of appropriate technology and the Gandhians who, while sharing the concern over social and economic injustices, brought together the Gita's three paths of knowledge (of scientists), action (by activists) and devotion (by litterateurs). In this context, Anna Hazare's water management movement was neither western nor modern, and used the village temple as the focal point of mobilization. What has been most striking about these movements is their utilization of traditional religious symbols in a contemporary setting. The early Buddhist message, though anthropocentric, was based on a frugal and communal lifestyle, with specific injunctions against the unnecessary killing of plants and animals. Shunyata (emptiness) invalidates hierarchy among life forms or life and non-life; in the Ladakhi tradition everything dissolves into a web of relationships. The author takes Thailand as a case study of a country that, though never colonized, suffered large-scale deforestation and destruction of waterways. It was only with King Mongkut (Rama IV), in the 19th century, and Buddhadasa, an early 20th century monk, that Thai Buddhism began looking to address some of the urgent social and environmental issues of contemporary Thailand. Post-independence India has seen an emphasis on poverty alleviation and
development. Environmental concerns of the West — global warming, climate change and ozone depletion — are of less concern to India. The Indian dialogue has centered on the Madhav Gadgil-Ramachandra Guha thesis of an environment-led approach, which emerged during the Chipko movement, and the Jean Dreze-Amartya Sen approach that advocates participatory development, concentrating on basic education, health care and a reduction in gender imbalance. Gosling sees hope in the Dreze-Sen standpoint, which seeks a socio-economic remedy by taking responsibility for all one's actions. There is one major problem with the book: though it is about the relationship between religion and ecology, some important local traditions — sacred groves, sacred trees, sacred water bodies, sacred rivers and sacred mountains — are virtually ignored. However, this book is essential for anybody who wants to know about the environmental movement in India, particularly its cultural and religious roots in the Sanskrit and Buddhist traditions.
Rape of the Nilgiris
The century-old Nilgiri Mountain Railway has been in the news recently. The Madras Railway Company, a British firm, completed the first stretch from Mettupalayam to Conoor in 1899 while Ooty was connected by 1908. It is unique and exciting, the only train in India that runs on a special rack provided centrally between the track rails. The 45-kilometre journey climbs steep gradients, over waterfalls and streams, passing through thick jungle, long tunnels, ravines, gorges and cliffs. It is one of the most picturesque and beautiful journeys and provides me some of my most beautiful childhood memories. But the train that connected Ooty, the Queen of Hill Stations, to the hot dusty plains, was also to sound the death knell of the hills. Till then, it was a long and arduous task to climb the hills on horseback, with bullocks whipped into pulling goods over a long and slow trek through the hills. The road and train made the journey easy and the destruction of the hills inevitable. British greed and Indian complicity did the rest. John Sullivan, Collector of Coimbatore, is credited with the discovery of the Nilgiris, specifically Ooty, in 1819. But people have lived here since aeons, and human remains in the Nilgiris have been dated to 10,000 B.C. Neolithic sarcophagi, the Eluthu Paarai rock paintings of 3000 B.C. and the mysterious Edakkal Cave inscriptions are among the earliest archeological remains found in South India. The descendants of those people are the colourful Toda, Kota, Kurumba, Irula and Paniya tribes and their subsidiaries, and the more agricultural Badagas. The Nilgiris are an excellent study of inter-tribal relationships. The Todas bred buffaloes that supplied the milk, the Kotas were potters, ironsmiths and carpenters, Kurumbas were the magico-religious sorcerers, Irulas were herbal doctors and the Paniyas were slaves and bonded labourers. The Badagas were related to the Lingayats of Karnataka and brought the science of agriculture to the hills. Each tribe performed its exclusive role in the barter economy, besides eschewing inter-tribal marriages and even communal feasting. Many scholars have speculated that this was how the Indian caste system could have developed.
The tribes preserved the pristine beauty of the hills through millennia. Yet, in the 120 years or so since the British went up the hills, the Nilgiris have become an environmental hotspot. What happened? The Nilgiris (nila giri or blue mountain) are so-named because of the blue mist that envelops them and because of the kurinji (Strobilanthes kunthianus) flower, a tall bushy scrub eight to ten feet high with bright blue bell-like flowers that bloom once in twelve years and cover the hills in a blue haze. The Nilgiris are rich in plant diversity and about 3000 varieties of flowering plants have been identified here. Of the identified species of animals are 74 mammals, 342 birds, 120 reptiles and 49 amphibians, besides many butterfly and insect species. The unidentified probably runs into thousands. The major hills are the Nilgiri, Nilambur and Siruvani hills. The elevation ranges from 300 metres to 2700 metres above mean sea level. The highest point is Doddabetta at a height of 2,636 metres. Several rivers either flow through the Nilgiris or originate there — Pykara, Moyar, Bhavani, Chaliyar, Kodalundi, Bharathapuzha, Noyil, Kundah, Suvarnathi and Lakshmana tirtha. The Nilgiris is home to the last tropical forests and rainforests of South India. The Nilgiris were the first to be declared a Biosphere Reserve in 1986, an area of 5520 sq. kms. A biosphere reserve is a protected area with a unique environment and ecology. There are several reserve forests such as Nilambur, Kallar, Sirumugai, Siruvani Sigur and Singara; sanctuaries such as Wynad, Nagarhole and Mudumalai; and national parks such as Silent Valley and Bandipur.’ The declaration of the NBR has not contained the degeneration of the Nilgiris. The major problem is deforestation. Vast stretches were denuded of their green cover. Between 1849 and 1992, the sholas decreased from 8,600 hectares (ha) to 4,225 ha, grasslands from 29,875 ha to 4,700 ha. The timber was used for the railway sleepers during the British period, and, till today, for construction, furniture, paper, fuel and fuelwood for the tea industry. The cutting of trees and destruction of forests has resulted in habitat loss for wildlife and soil erosion, the rains washing away the rich topsoil year after year. Another problem is the tea industry. Sullivan introduced tea in the Nilgiris, but it was only after 1865 that tea cultivation became important. Today, nearly 16,900 ha are under tea cultivation, served by highly polluting factories that process the tea and, in the process, pollute the pure Nilgiri air. By law, tea must be planted on slopes of above 330, but this law is easily flouted. Unfortunately, while tea gardens look green, they do not encourage the existence of a natural ecosystem. The land under cultivation for ‘‘English’’ vegetables has also gone up, to over 12,400 ha. All these plants have short inadequate roots, leading to an increase in the number of landslides. The rocks and boulders that make up the hills are held together by soil. When trees are cut down, their roots are no longer available to hold the soil together. A heavy rainfall is sufficient to make the rocks and boulders come hurtling down. Tea and vegetable plants are totally inadequate in preventing landslides. Similarly, the alien wattle and eucalyptus trees cover over 9,775 ha and 5,150 ha respectively. Their prime purpose has been to supply raw material for South India
Viscose, who held a 99-year lease. Nothing grows beneath these trees, which have only served to drive away the natural wildlife, and drunk up the ground water reserves. Several development projects rang the death knell for the Nilgiris. Locating the Hindustan Photo Films in the Nilgiris was a suicidal and ridiculous, Jawaharlal Nehru’s brainchild and a resource-guzzling white elephant. Thousands of hectares of forestland and grasslands were destroyed to build the factories and the homes for the staff, an unnecessary effort as the company (a PSU) died a natural death. The relocation of the Ceylon Tamils in the Nilgiris following the Sirimavo Bandarnaike-Lal Bahadur Shastri pact was another act of suicide, as the population shot up, resulting in the establishment of TANTEA to provide them work by converting more forest land to tea gardens. The Pykara Ultimate Stage Hydro Electric Project (PUSHEP) was yet another disaster. Apart from the expansion of the hydroelectric project in prime forestland, 7000 people were settled in Masinagudi and transported daily to PUSHEP across the elephant corridor. Companies like the Government Cordite Factory, Protein Products India and Needle Industries have also contributed to the degradation of the Nilgiris, by the conversion of forest to factories and the pollution of air, land and water. The consequent population pressure has created slums out of the beautiful hill stations of Ooty and Conoor. The destruction of wildlife is unforgivable. It all started with the trigger-happy British hunters, followed, after Independence, by trigger-happy Indian poachers. Habitat loss, increases in population, and pressure on land, water and other natural resources have made the tiger a rarity, the tusker an impossibility. I remember sightings of tiger, leopard, bison and elephant on the Mysore-Ooty road and during forest forays in my childhood. I have not seen any for a long time. The elephant corridor is heavily encroached, making migration extremely difficult for these huge pachyderms. Poaching has taken a heavy toll of wildlife. We have also destroyed the original tribal inhabitants of the Nilgiris. Alcoholism is rampant and their population is decreasing. Their ancient inter-tribal barter system has broken down and they lack the skills to make them employable. With the exception of the Badagas who are educated and prosperous, the rest have been dispossessed of their land, while conversion to Christianity has resulted in many of the tribals giving up their ancient customs. They have become objects of curiosity for gawking tourists, but have been unable to derive any benefit from the tourism industry, unlike locals elsewhere. Governments and the people have destroyed the Nilgiris in their greed to exploit its resources and treasures. But the Nilgiris are the major watershed for South India, serving three states. If they go, so will our biodiversity, our natural resources, our water catchments, our life giving rains. The survival of the South is heavily dependant on the Nilgiris.
Alternatives to the idiot box
Summer’s here and parents are at their wit’s end finding activities to occupy their little darlings. I am convinced God created schools to give all those poor harassed mothers some rest. It seems so cruel to snatch away their peace just when they had got used to it - and that too, in the heat of summer!
In days of yore, when families were large and a child more or less did not make much difference, the kids were largely ignored and left to their own devices. Today’s planned kids have no companions, and parents are determined to structure every activity. Those who are lucky go off on holidays or are packed off to grandparents. For those who stay at home, television is the sole entertainment. High IQ activities and extra classes - tuitions - on every subject, are the fate of the offspring of ambitious and upwardly mobile parents. Poor kids! No wonder they turn to the television set as a release! Toyshops are having a ball, but the humble book seems to have taken a backseat. Some time ago, Dr V Balambal, retired Professor of History, University of Madras, sent me her paper on the ancient board game ‘pallankuli’, once a favourite of women in ancient Tamil Nadu. I was so fascinated that I decided to publish a book by her on ancient board games and asked her to send me more material. She added two more papers on ‘paramapadam’ and ‘chaturangam’. I found and displayed old variations of these games at the Museum of Folk Art in Kanchi, and Dr Balambal’s book will also be out shortly. But summer holidays won’t wait for printers, so I hope this introduction will inspire mothers to pick up the games of their youth, and teach their children. It will be time well spent. The simplest game is ‘paramapadam’, better known as snakes-and-ladders. There are a hundred squares on a board; the ladders take you up, the snakes bring you down. The difference here is that the squares are illustrated. The top of the ladder depicts a god, or one of the various heavens (kailasa, vaikuntha, brahmaloka) and so on, while the bottom describes a good quality. Conversely, each snake’s head is a negative quality or a demon. As the game progresses, the various karmas and samskaras, good deeds and bad, take you up and down the board. Interspersed are plants, people and animals. The game serves a dual purpose: entertainment, as well as dos and don’ts, divine reward and punishment, ethical values and morality. The final goal leads to Vaikuntha or heaven, depicted by Vishnu surrounded by his devotees, or Kailasa with Shiva, Parvati, Ganesha and Skanda, and their devotees. In this age of moral and ethical degeneration, this would be a good way of teaching values to children who think they already know more than their parents. If ‘paramapadam’ teaches moral values, ‘pallankuli’ develops skill and quick thinking. Two players compete on a board consisting of between seven and twenty pits per player; each player has to collect the coins or shells or seeds with which the game is played, the player with the maximum number being the winner. There are nine variations of this game, each a ‘pandi’, with regional, caste and religious variations. It was very popular among women and required a good memory and alertness, as they had to count and remember the number of coins or seeds accumulated by the opponent. ‘Chaturanga’ was the Indian version of chess, played with the four parts of the army - foot soldiers, cavalry, elephants and chariots. However, the popular version had eight similar pieces on either side, and the goal was to get to the other side and knock out the opponents. There is evidence of ‘chaturanga’ having been played with dice, which is still not uncommon, although it involved more skill than chance in this avatar. In fact, Yudhishthira and Duryodhana, in the Mahabharata, played a version of ‘chaturanga’ using a dice. Tamilian variations of ‘chaturanga’ are ‘puliattam’ (goat and tiger game), where careful moves on a triangle decide whether the tiger
captures the goats or the goats escape; the ‘nakshatraattam’ or star game where each player cuts out the other; and ‘dayakattam’ with four, eight or ten squares, a kind of ludo. Variations of the ‘dayakattam’ include ‘dayakaram’, the North Indian ‘pachisi’ and ‘champar’. I am sure there are many more local variations. The difference between the board games of yore and those we buy off the shelf is that the items required for the former were made at home, sometimes temporarily as in ‘pallankuli’ where cups were dug out in the ground, and sometimes permanently, whereby carved wooden boards were commissioned to be designed and carved by sculptors for rich families. Or made by women who strung together colourful beads or embroidered elaborate designs to form the base for the game, the lines and squares marked by different colours. Some of the most beautiful items of everyday art left in old families are the exquisite carved wooden or embroidered game bases. Seeds were collected from the tamarind or Erythrina indica (kalyana murungai) tree, the latter having beautiful red and black (crab's eye) seeds. The games brought together men and women, servants and masters, children and adults. Democracy was unselfconsciously at work here. I am appalled at the amount of time children spend watching television nowadays. Parents try to justify it by saying that they watch the National Geographic or Discovery channels. For every educational programme they watch, they see at least twice the number of film-based programmes, which are neither desirable nor educational. The damage caused by TV is that it stops the thinking process. Young people cease to think or analyze or create. The tube gives them all the information, beautifully packaged, making them into unthinking dummies. It is not for nothing that the television is called the ‘‘Idiot Box’’. Let’s face it, TV is terribly attractive, and none of us are immune. The trick is to give them something equally interesting and more challenging. Summer camps are a better alternative. As a teenager in Bombay, I took part in one where the great K H Ara was instructing us. He just let us follow our ideas and merely helped us with the drawing. I even learned to draw with a brush. Having pioneered the concept in Madras in 1981, and seeing the difference it has made in my own children and others, I am an ardent believer in summer camps for kids. Here, the children do a variety of activities and learn new skills. Most summer camps have a heavy dose of the arts - drawing, painting, craft, music, dance and theatre. These are neglected in schools, and this may be their only opportunity to learn these skills and develop their latent creativity. Spoken Sanskrit and cartooning, yoga and karate have all been subjects in our summer camps. The range and potential are enormous. Computer camps are a new craze, but these should be selected carefully. Many just leave the children to play games on the computer. While computer games develop fast hand-eye-coordination, the children get hooked, and this becomes a new version of the Idiot Box. Learning to use computer applications would be far more useful for the child. Sports camps are yet another good activity - cricket coaching, tennis camps, swimming classes are good ways of keeping young people busy. Then there are the outdoor camps, a great craze abroad. There are several in the North, where kids learn all about trekking and mountaineering, surfing and sailing. There is very little in the southern states, although the possibilities are great. WWF (World Wildlife Fund) India also organizes outdoor camps where young people learn about living in the wild, tracking animals and appreciating nature. Unfortunately, eco tourism is still in its infancy in India. Most of it is organized by state government
corporations who lack imagination - although, to give them credit, they try very hard! We Indians also hesitate to send out our children out on their own, and forests, with imagined dangers, would definitely be a no-no. Entertainment today has become somebody doing something for us. We watch games on television instead of playing them ourselves, we play games for their packaging, not for their challenge, we participate in activities for their future utility, not because we add to our skills and knowledge. The biggest casualties are our youth, who are denied the opportunity to create their own fun. As a child, my son once asked me whether my parents had permitted me to watch television - he had unfashionable ones who did not! When I told him that there was no TV, and radio was limited to once a week, he asked what I did for entertainment! What did we do? We played simple outdoor games instead of watching them. We cut and sew clothes for our dolls instead of buying Barbie (not available in India in those days) and her wardrobe: it taught us to stitch and became a handy tool to make our baby's clothes or replace husband's lost buttons and kids' torn shirts! We used old magazines, cardboard boxes and cloth to create craft items long before ‘‘wealth from waste’’ became a fashionable slogan. We sharpened our wits against each other over simple board games that required a good memory and quick thinking, like ‘pallankuli’ and ‘dayam’, increased our vocabulary over scrabble, and improved our IQ over chess. Does it sound familiar? We too craved entertainment and fun, but created our own. We were not spoon-fed from an idiot box that specializes in entombing young minds inside a TV set. So, what are your kids doing this summer?
The choice that confronts us
No normal person can ignore the fires burning in Gujarat. As violence rages and neighbours glare suspiciously at each other, one's mind flies to that great apostle of peace, Mahatma Gandhi. It is an irony that Gujarat produced both a Godhra and a Gandhi. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in a challenging period of world history: new inventions had taken the world by storm, the telephone and aeroplane brought distant places nearer and old ideas of democracy and freedom were born again. Insulted by a white man in South Africa and unable to take the slight, he decided to fight for freedom from British rule. India was poor and Indians had no weapons for a conventional war. But Gandhi did not despair. He took the ancient Indian message of non-violence or ahimsa and made a weapon out of it. A shrewd Gujarati lawyer, he knew that guns, sticks and stones could not win this war. His satyagraha, civil disobedience and jail bharo became household words as he used them to fight each battle. Not only did he succeed in winning freedom through non-violence, he had conceived a great idea for all time, an idea that was to be repeated elsewhere, time and again, through great personalities like Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela. It is not easy to fight peace. Israel would be forced to accede to a Palestinian state very quickly if the people were to sit on the road, fasting unto death, or if they faced bullets with empty hands. By choosing the path of terror and the gun, the terrorist gives a reason for suppression, harming his people and his cause. September 11, 2001, gave the Americans reason to destroy Osama bin Laden and his Taliban
supporters. They could never have attacked without a justifiable cause. Terrorists give governments excuses for TADA and POTA. Peaceful opposition does not. The human brain is the most wonderful creation, combining a storehouse of data, a super processor and the means to implement all the knowledge and information. Time and again, it has produced great ideas that have motivated people to make their world a better place. The greatest creativity has been of ideas. Archimedes' eureka sums it all up. An important milestone in the history of humankind was farming and the domestication of animals. The first gave people the means to produce and store food, thereby providing food security. By domesticating animals they were assured of energy, provided by the bullock, speed and transportation, provided by the horse, and security, provided by the dog. This was no mean achievement of the human brain and human ability. The next great milestone was the development of writing, reading and arithmetic. It was to revolutionise human development. Ideas could be stored, transmitted from person to person, place to place and generation to generation. People could learn and study about weather patterns, the heavenly bodies, the arts and the sciences. It produced great books, buildings, works of art, inventions and discoveries. Speech, and the ability to read, write and count are the most important factors that distinguish people from their fellow animals. The Upanishadic sage who first spoke of ahimsa and non-violence did so in a forest, surrounded by hunter-gatherers and warriors. Out of violence was born nonviolence. The Buddha made a religion out of it; Mahavira took it to mean compassion for all creation, even the tiniest. And this was at a time when meat-eating and animal sacrifice was the norm. By preaching the message of ahimsa or non-killing, they changed the course of Sanatana Dharma, as Hinduism was then called. It became a sophisticated religion of peace, abjuring the taking of all life. Democracy and republics are the ''in'' creeds of the twentieth century. But ancient Greece and India knew of them long ago. Leaders were elected as early as in the Rig Vedic period. The Greek philosophers describe democracy, Kautilya describes the republics of his time. However, those were responsible governments, where responsibility was accountable. Only a free man, educated and propertied, had the right to elect and be elected. When we see politicians buy votes and ''capture'' booths, we must wonder whether our version of democracy is working, whether this is what the philosophers of yore had perceived. An important milestone in ideas was the French slogan of liberté, égalité et fraternité. It changed the course of human history. Kingdoms fell, a more equal and equitable society grew to produce the present world of equal opportunity. It overthrew kings and kingdoms and ushered in democracy and individual freedom. Twentieth century India produced some of the most wonderful ideas, although we are slow to recognise them. The first was, of course, Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent freedom struggle. The second was free primary education accompanied by free lunch, first introduced by Sir C P Ramaswami Aiyar in Travancore. It sounds mundane, but it was to revolutionise society, removing hunger, bringing children to school, educating girls
and, thereby, creating a state of high literacy and education levels and low population growth, which stands up as a model for contemporary India. Tamil Nadu followed the same route in the post-independence period, but the rest of India still lags behind. The third was the Green Revolution. I remember the 1960s, when hordes of rural poor, especially children, flocked to Bombay in search of a livelihood and food. It was to create the Shiv Sena as an ''anti-outsider'' movement. We Indians were very bitter when the Americans gave trouble over the use of PL 480 funds to buy grain in the international market and cursed the sub-standard wheat. But that was to spur on our scientists, particularly Dr M S Swaminathan, to create the Green Revolution that made India a food-surplus nation. If we are able to survive the vicissitudes of our troubled times, we owe it to our full bellies. The fourth great idea also comes from Dr M S Swaminathan: that of food banks. Although we are a grain surplus country, parts of India - Orissa, for example - still see hunger deaths. And natural calamities like floods, droughts and earthquakes devastate individuals and societies, destroying their employment sources and earning capacity. Hunger, disease and death stalk the land all over again. Create food banks, says this great scientist, where they can borrow food and repay it later, instead of making them live on doles. He talks of food security in 2020, when our population will exceed our stocks of food grains. But who is listening? We started with violence in Gujarat, which is uppermost in our minds today. We are seeing the development of a new credo of intolerance and ruthlessness. The sad aspect that distinguishes these riots from the rest, is that we cannot blame goondas and lumpen elements any longer. Today's young people and the middle class have chosen this path. The human mind, which has produced some of the greatest ideas and productions, also has the capacity to produce great evil and cruelty. It is very easy to slip. The great French revolution, which was to modernise and revolutionise Europe, also produced the dreaded guillotine, which chopped off so many royal and aristocratic heads, and, later, the Communist revolution that, in the name of equal opportunity and sharing of resources, committed some of the greatest human rights abuses and cruelties of all time. Hitler may have been a one-man aberration, but the communist pogroms were not. Nor was the Chinese Cultural Revolution or the Khmer Rouge, which took over the gentle Cambodian people and executed three million of them. The balkanizing wars of the Balkans are among the worst cases of mass slaughter in recent years. And what about the cruelties inflicted on other species in the name of science, sport, food and so on? These are all twentieth century terrors, and the twenty first century is barely a little over a year old. The veneer of civilisation is very thin. We have to choose whether we want the hunter-gatherer in us to rule, or whether we prefer to don the mantle of civilisation and respectability. The ideas we choose to live by will make a difference for all time.
Restoring the old
A few days ago I visited the Government Law College in Chennai. Standing next to the Madras High Court, it is one of the most beautiful Indo-Saracenic buildings of old Madras, designed by Henry Irwin, built by Namperumal Chetty and opened in 1899 on what was, originally, the burial ground of the old "White Town". The building has beautiful stained glass windows, a painted central ceiling, stucco ornamentation of creepers, intertwined snakes and Doric pillars, high ceilings and open verandahs. The college library is even more beautiful, with stucco Moghul-type screened arches over the windows and doors. The beauty ends there. The beautiful ornamentation is chipping off, the painted ceiling has changed colour with salt, moisture and dust, and the humid and saline air of Madras is taking its toll of the plastering. The Law College is in urgent need of maintenance. It belongs to the Government of Tamil Nadu. But does anybody there care? Madras University's Senate building, even parts of Fort St. George (including Robert Clive's house) and other Colonial buildings of Madras, besides ancient temples and old residences, urgently require maintenance and restoration. But the state governments and local municipal corporations are philistines. They do not spend money on conservation; they will wait till the building falls down and either spend an exorbitant amount to repair it, or sell it to the building raddiwalla, and make a lot of dubious deals by the way. After my article on conserving the built heritage, many people told me how difficult and expensive it was to maintain old buildings, and that pulling them down and building new ones would be easier and cheaper. I beg to disagree. Any building is tough to maintain, whether it is old or new. One spends more time with plumbers, electricians and carpenters than with one's own family, unless you live in one of those swanky new service flats that cost the earth because somebody else is doing the maintenance for you. I have been working in a 170-year-old building for the last 24 years. And I have just renovated a 400-year-old building and created a museum out of it. It has been the most creative experience of my life, and I must share it with my readers, in the hope that someone else may be inspired to do the same. My great great great grandfather acquired ''The Grove'', my maternal family home in Madras, now housing the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, in the middle of the nineteenth century. Being comparatively "modern", it had a "Madras terrace" roof, beautiful arched windows, heavy solid pillars, marble flooring and a lot of period wooden furniture. It was surrounded by trees as old as the building, with roots that had grown through the floor and into the walls. We also discovered a lot of exquisite woodwork that had been cemented over in the years my grandfather was away at Delhi. We removed the plaster to reveal more original woodwork, and peeled off the paint to restore the original wood colour. The broken floor tiles were replaced with the nearest equivalent. The most difficult repair was the leaking roof : every time we plugged a hole a new one would appear. We replaced the weathering course over the flat terrace and the tiles over the slopes till the leaks stopped. The most important conservation effort was the utilization of the building. About eighty people work in the building today, several visitors use the libraries, lecture hall and auditorium, not to mention the teachers and children who study and work there. When people use a building, they make sure that the roof above their heads does not leak, that roots do not grow out of the floor and that the walls are not damp and unhealthy. I recommend populating old houses with lots of people. They were built for large joint families. The big advantage with numbers is that each one looks
after his/her area, and the building is automatically maintained. Today, "The Grove" is a beautiful old lady with the charm and elegance of a bygone era. More difficult, but more challenging, was the restoration of the older family house at Kanchipuram, 80 km west of Madras. Going back to the 17th century, it gradually went out of favour with the family after the 19th century migration to Madras, although it was full of relatives even in my childhood. Slowly, the older relatives died and the younger ones left Kanchi in search of livelihoods, and the degeneration thereafter was swift and thorough. Two years ago, we decided to renovate the house. It is a lovely old Vijayanagarastyle and Nayaka-period building with stucco ornamentation on the walls, a kalyana koodam and nadu mitham in typical Tamil style, and a zenana, a tradition unknown elsewhere in Hindu homes in Tamil nadu, probably the influence of the Muslims of nearby Arcot. As the plaster peeled off the damp walls, we were pleasantly surprised to find wall paintings, buried stucco heads and even stone epigraphs left by our ancestors. My grandfather gifted the house to the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation - the house had been the inheritance of Sir C.P.'s mother Rangamma, an only child. The Foundation's Council of Management sanctioned me a princely sum of five lakhs and their best wishes, and the restoration work began! The biggest problem with old houses is dampness. We found a good contractor who relaid the sloping roof and the flooring tiles on the flat roof, and replastered the walls, whose sand and limestone covering had crumbled over the years. We took care to ensure that we used the same brick floor tiles and similar country tiles for the roof. Only the walls were repaired with cement, but the replastering had to be done very carefully, recreating the original stucco ornamentation. Some difficult decisions had to be made. The wall paintings were in a very bad condition. We decided to retain the best (still in a bad condition), frame it behind glass and paint over the rest - in a similar traditional style. Then, Kanchi has a tradition of covering woodwork with blue colour, derived from indigo, and mixed with varnish. We could not get the same effect, so we went to a paint company that advertises several thousand combinations and colours, and they matched the exact blue with the dull matte finish of the original. We discovered that the old house had a wonderful rainwater harvesting system, whereby all the water from the open central courtyard and the runoff from the roofs were channelised by underground stone (granite) culverts into the open well in the garden. Yet we have "experts" today claiming to have "discovered" the art of rainwater harvesting through open wells! We had to replace the stone culverts with buried underground PVC pipes, as stone was very expensive. After repairing the system, the dried-up well started retaining groundwater. And, finally, a brush and paint finished making the building into "a thing of beauty". In spite of the difficulties involved, restoration was much cheaper than contemporary construction with mosaic and RCC. Although the restoration was tiresome and laborious, it cost much less than what it would have cost me to pull down and rebuild the old house. We have created a museum out of it - the Shakunthala Jagannathan Museum of Folk Art, the first of its kind in Tamil nadu and now open to the public with collections of old lamps, utensils, musical instruments, dolls, toys, puppets, textiles and household artifacts, including a recreated zenana of Kanchipuram. The final cost of renovation was only rupees eight lakhs (as against at least twenty lakhs
for a new tiled roof building of the same 6000 square feet) - and a lot more in commitment and dedication. Anyone with determination can maintain and use old buildings. There are enough people with knowledge, concern and willingness to conserve and restore the old. Look what private industry has done to the misused Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. And how well the very private Madras Club is maintained. But, will our apathetic state governments let them participate in public conservation efforts? I have greater hope in private owners and private sponsors. Only they will make the effort to save our disappearing heritage. And then our hearts won't bleed - as mine did - when we enter the portals of the Madras Law College!
Lightening the mood
Amma, write about cartoons next time," said my budding lawyer son Rudra. The suggestion told me much about his reading preferences. Cartoons have become such an integral part of our lives. We automatically search for them in the morning papers and have our favourites. They are a powerful medium, commenting on politicians and politics where respectable scribes fear to tread. And they are the means to reach the young - sometimes the only medium! The world is such a grim place that we need something to start the day with a smile, and this is the role of the cartoon. We broke our teeth on Mickey Mouse, Tom and Jerry and Little Lulu. Dennis the Menace was our first love. Those were the days when there was no TV with a full time cartoon channel, and the cinema was a rare treat. Books and comics were our chief sources of entertainment. Comics could also be serious business, although that did not quite fit the description of comics as "funnies". We followed the adventures of the Phantom and his dog, appropriately named Devil, in the jungles of Africa. Mandrake the Magician was another who got out of impossible situations through sleight of hand tricks. Superman was better known through syndicated columns than through his films. In our teens, Archie and his pals introduced us to American culture that, we believed, was hamburgers and dating! It took my generation a long time to discover that there was another and better U.S. There were all those post-war comics of Battler Briton and Dogfight Dixon and their daring escapades on land and air. Tintin gave us lessons in geography as he explored the world with his friends, while Asterix and his friends expanded our knowledge of Roman history. Phantom, Mandrake, Superman, Battler Briton and the rest were role models and heroes. But there was also a blatant racism. Phantom was white - kind to his dog, the natives and the wild animals, but taller, braver, stronger and a distinct cut above the rest. He also fell in love with only beautiful white women. I never came across a beautiful black woman. The image that came through of the Africans was very uncomplimentary and, unfortunately, shaped our early images of that alreadymisunderstood continent. We also short-circuited many classics by reading the comic version first. I always hated the morbidity of the Bronte sisters, so I first read the comics and then the originals (a must in those pre-VCR lending library days), knowing which were the morbid sections that should be skipped. We were discouraged from reading comics.
There was always the fear - quite justified, too - that comics would discourage us from reading books. So our access to comics was restricted to newspapers and magazines. As we grew older, we started following R K Laxman's You Said It, drawn, to quote the cartoonist, "in an inspired mood of mischievous abandon". He made tantalizing and witty statements about politics and politicians and deserves the credit for making the Congress topiwalla a figure of fun and hypocrisy. In a case of life imitating art, his "common man", present in every situation, was to find a human avatar in L K Advani, who has an uncanny resemblance to Laxman's oppressed figure. Did it help bring the BJP to power? I would not be surprised! How appropriate that, recently, someone thought it fit to immortalize Laxman's common man with a statue. Growing up in Bombay, I loved Mario's cartoons, which were a take off on life in Bombay - politicians, businessmen, glamorous film stars, dabbawallas, secretaries and all the ingredients that went to make up the steaming cauldron that was Bombay. And he managed to put his finger on all that we loved about our wonderful city. Abu Abraham was, in my opinion, highly over-rated. I never found his cartoons witty. A brilliant but unknown cartoonist was S K (Bobby) Kooka, formerly of Air India. He created the Maharaja, Air India's mascot, who sold a lot of the airline's seats, and who, with the collaboration of M/s J. Walter Thompson's illustrators, was the subject of many witty cartoons and advertisements. Kooka then went on to create the Amul ads, which are still the best and the funniest among contemporary Indian ads. But his cartoons were never signed. Among contemporary cartoons, I enjoy the Wisecrack in my daily City Express -I have even blown up one on weight control in the hope that it will inspire me! Living in Chennai, I miss the pure fun of Mario and the subtle humour of Laxman. A cartoon must be funny - even the Oxford dictionary defines the cartoon as "a humorous drawing". Our newspapers still contain US-syndicated comic strips: Phantom, Beetle Bailey, Dennis the Menace, Henry, Archie, Tin Tin, Asterix, The Flintstones, Scooby Doo, Captain Planet, Spiderman and so on. There are a few Indian features too: Chacha Chaudhuri, Supandi and Shikari Shambhu are the better known. Two cartoon strips I don’t enjoy are the Lockhorns and Bringing up Father. They are about dysfunctional couples and families, with a strong undercurrent of sexism there are more jokes against the wives than the husbands. Leroy Lockhorn is designed to evoke sympathy for the husband whose wife is a poor cook, ageing and unattractive, never mind that he is pot-bellied, balding and addicted to alcohol and pretty young things. Maggie, in Bringing up Father, throws her weight around in her bid to control her husband Jiggs. Don't let your wife get out of hand, is the message. Is this a good lesson for young people? An occasional joke is okay, but this daily diet of jokesabout-women can mould young minds differently. Some of our magazines report snippets of information illustrated by cartoons. But many of our cartoonists evoke laughter by making fun of the figure, not the situation. Jayalalithaa is given several extra layers of fat, Narasimha Rao's pouting lip practically falls off his face, Sonia Gandhi's face looks longer and very horsy,
Vajpayee's face is made into a perfect square, and so on. This is not a cartoon - merely an exaggeration of the least attractive part of their anatomies, particularly the face. There is hardly any take off on the ridiculous things they say or do - these are reported in full seriousness. Cartoons require wit and creativity, a rare combination that must be a part of the cartoonist and cannot be acquired. Cartoons play a very important role in today's world, whether they are intended to do so or not. In the days of royalty, there were court jesters who could cross the line and say, in the form of a joke, something that would have cost the head of a more senior and important court functionary. The jesters were wise, intelligent and quickwitted, and very involved in the political machinations of the kings and their rivals. With the passing of kings and courtiers, the lacuna has been filled by the cartoonist. The ridiculous sayings and doings of our political class are held up for public ridicule by the cartoonist, who reduces to irrelevancy a potentially dangerous action, or punctures a hole in somebody's bloated self-esteem. To quote R K Laxman, "Dharna, crossing the floor, toppling the government, student power, coalition governments, three-language formula, and a score of others, seem very much as if they are invented purely for the benefit of the cartoonist. If there is a grain of truth in this I wish to express my grateful thanks to the rulers as well as to the ruled." The cartoon developed its popularity in Punch, which made fun of the British political world and establishment. Punch was a compendium of wit and humour, with cartoons by all-time greats such as Ronald Searle, David Langdon, Anton, Emett, Starke, Fougasse, Nicolas Bentley, Douglas Low, and others. Articles that were extremely witty, exaggeratedly polite, and yet full of innuendos and sarcastic takeoffs on contemporary politics and politicians supported the cartoons. We Indians have produced great works of humour. The Panchatantra, Hitopadesha, Kathasaritsagara and the Jataka tales are full of fun, wit and sarcasm, even if they do contain a moral at the end of the story. They make excellent copy for cartoons, and many an enterprising publisher has taken advantage of this to bring them out as comics. Somewhere along the line, we lost our sense of humour. Khushwant Singh says that Indians lack a sense of humour, at least we don't know how to laugh at ourselves. I disagree - Hindi films are always making fun of South Indians as comic figures speaking Hindi with a funny accent. If not the South Indian, the Marwari or Gujarati Baniya is the source of fun. I don't find such situations funny, but nobody objects: in fact, many Hindi films are produced in the South and/or financed by Marwaris and Gujaratis. But our contemporary humour is slapstick. We laugh at people, not with them. I have not touched on the subject of cartoon or animated films. They form a genre of their own. The printed cartoon, particularly political and social cartoons, must be warm, witty and wise, like the jesters of yore, who, even while they cracked a joke or sang a funny ditty, slipped in a wise comment born of their native shrewdness, making many of them the kings' most important advisors. Which takes me back to Laxman, Mario and the Amul ads. They are witty and fun. Long live the cartoon!
Protecting the ecology: A sacred duty
Our filthy streets and dusty, drab, treeless countryside would suggest that Indians don’t worship nature. Believe it or not, vanaspataye namah was an essential part of our culture. The Rig Veda personifies various natural phenomena, revered for their power over human existence, and all through Indian literature we find respect for nature. This was more so in rural and tribal India, where people played an active role in their conservation, making protection of the environment a sacred duty. They created their own laws, systems and taboos that ensured preservation of the ecology and environment. Any transgressions would be punished by fines and, occasionally, even banishment. Ancient Tamil literature grouped the various geo-climatic zones into the aindu thinai or five tracts: paalai (desert), mullai (pasture), marudham (agricultural land), kurinji (hills) and neithal (coast). The deity, inhabitants, occupations, foods, settlements, music, musical instruments, water sources, plants, animals, birds and seasons of each are documented in detail. But there was also an attempt to preserve the delineated regions. For example, Palani in Tamil Nadu was kurinji and there was a conscious attempt to preserve its character. Folk songs sought to perpetuate the characteristics of each thinai. The most important aspect of our heritage is the ecological, squandered away in recent times. It includes entire ecosystems and mini biospheres preserved as sacred groves, trees of economic and social value preserved as sacred trees, even small thickets preserved as sacred precincts, fresh water bodies preserved as sacred tanks, and so on. By sanctifying them, they ensured that a great heritage was preserved for all time. What is a sacred grove? It is a patch of forest, anything from five to five thousand acres, with or without water, left untouched out of religious belief. The trees here are sacred, the pond, if any, is sacred, and so on. Generally, the grove is dedicated to the Mother Goddess or the Earth Mother, Devi or Amman, but other deities could also reign in the grove. The sarpa kaavu of Kerala, once found behind each tharavaad or family home, was dedicated to the snake. The kovil kaadu of Tamil Nadu are generally dedicated to Amman, but other minor deities such as Ayyanaar, protector of the night, may also hold sway. The nandavana and deivavana of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh are similar temple gardens and forests. Every village has a grove, many of them still preserved in the south. The village made its own taboos: except for utilizing plants for their medicinal qualities, not a leaf or twig could be touched. It was a mini biosphere reserve, preserving local flora and fauna, retaining subsoil water and the water level. These are self-sustaining ecosystems and repositories of several rare and endangered endemic plant species. The grove was also a source of preservation of indigenous art and craft. The potter excels himself as he makes terracotta horses, bulls and elephants, to be dedicated to Ayyanaar. The faces of the ferocious Devis and their fierce warrior Veerans (braves) make us wonder whether these were the rakshasas or demons that came to life in Sanskrit and other indigenous literature. The sacred groves preserved over centuries are now patches in a barren landscape.
There is a very telling image of the Western Ghats near Pune in Maharashtra, at the location of the Panshet Dam. The hills are barren, except for a small clump of trees that house the deorala, as the sacred grove is known in Maharashtra. I have seen villages where all that is left of the grove is a single tree beneath which sits a Ganesha or a Devi temple. Farmers and others have encroached into the groves. Apart from the groves that were the repositories of local endemic species, we also had the concept of the sthalavriksha or sacred tree, which celebrated the economic or ecological or medicinal contribution of individual species. For example, the pipal is the most sacred of trees, providing a home for animals and birds, shade for human beings and even wisdom if you were the Buddha and sat beneath it. The sthalavriksha of the Kapaleeshwarar temple at Mylapore in Chennai is the punnai or Alexandrian laurel. Once upon a time, ships were made out of logs of the punnai tree. The sacred tree of Chidambaram, the seat of Nataraja, the Lord of Dance, is the thillai or mangrove, so essential to the ecology of the cyclone-prone region. Some trees like the bilva (Bengal quince), neem and tulsi are sacred to Shiva, Devi and Krishna respectively, and form a necessary part of their worship. They also have important medicinal properties. The tulsi is grown in the courtyard of every home. The women swallow a leaf or two, to avoid coughs, colds and throat infections. Unfortunately, many of the trees that were sanctified for their local importance have practically disappeared. Kanchipuram was named after the kanchi tree. There is not a single tree left in Kanchi. Where is the kadamba vana where Meenakshi of Madurai once dwelled? The punnai forest of Mylapore has disappeared as the city of Chennai has grown, while the mangroves of Chidambaram are disappearing with tourism and deforestation taking their toll. The sacred tanks were another conservation system. Water - including the rivers, lakes and other fresh water sources - was precious and hence sacred, and the construction of tanks, wells and canals was an act of great merit. Every temple in south India has a tank to store water and retain the village's water level. Harvested rainwater went into this tank. Today the tanks are polluted. Soap, detergent, plastics and other debris float on these tanks. Some, like Chennai's Mylapore temple tank, have not seen water for a long time and have been converted to a public lavatory and garbage dump as an uncaring and corrupt administration looks the other way. The tanks, pushkarnis, yeris, keres and sarovars built centuries ago are now pools of raw sewage. Chennai was once a city of lakes. In the 1950s and '60s the water tanks were filled with garbage and given to contractors for "development". The result is a city without water. The ancient people of India established sound socio-cultural practices epitomizing in situ conservation of biological and genetic diversity. In recent times, this has been forgotten or ignored in the face of development. Firstly, there is no exhaustive allIndia listing or account of our ecological heritage. Secondly, the legal status is ambiguous. The groves, trees and tanks lying within forest areas are protected, the rest are not. Then, the conservation practices associated with the sacred groves and tanks have been weakened with time and changing beliefs. For example, conversions to Christianity in the northeast have resulted in the discontinuance of the old tradition of conserving vast tracts of forests as sacred groves. As a result, the forests are disappearing and Cherrapunji, which has the world's highest rainfall, now has a water problem. Changing lifestyles and practices are also destroying these resources.
Finally, a growing population and changing resource use patterns are also wiping out our ecological heritage. I have not touched on other aspects of our environment, only on those preserved by religious traditions. These were developed by different communities all over India and were successfully applied in different places by different people in different ways. As we have shown ourselves to be inept at protecting our environment, we need to return to our traditions to protect it. After 5000 years of civilization, religion is still the major motivating factor in India. We should continue to harness it for the public good, as our ancestors did.
The many faces of Pablo Picasso
I was in New Delhi at the beginning of the New Year and, naturally, visited the Picasso exhibition organized by the National Gallery of Modern Art (Ministry of Culture, Government of India) and the Embassy of France in India, at the National Museum. I have seen Picasso's paintings before - in Paris, New York and elsewhere. This one was brilliantly curated by Marie-Laure Bernadec of the Musee Picasso in Paris and Saryu Doshi of the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai. Put together as a retrospective, it turned out to be a crash course on the life and work of Picasso. Metamorphoses 1900 - 1972 is the title of the exhibition, an apt one since much of Picasso's life and work is about change and transformation. He dominated the art scene in the twentieth century, spanning the period from 1900, when he held his first show, to 1973, when he died at the age of 92. It is a tribute to a great artist who changed the art scene of the last century. Picasso was greatly influenced by Cezanne whom he described as "the father of us all". Impressionist painting had already overturned traditional art, but Cezanne, even as he respected the classical painters, used paint to model, and created a new genre now termed as Post-Impressionism. He investigated form and space, using geometric forms to situate objects and crossing the space bar, a path to be followed by Picasso. Later, Picasso became part of the Cubist revolution in art, along with his friend and alter ego Georges Braque. It may be of interest to recall that Le Corbusier, creator of Chandigarh, used Cubist ideas to decorate his new city. Picasso's early paintings, between 1900 and 1904, are known as the Blue Period, tinged with melancholy and influenced by the suicide of his friend Carlos Casagemas. He painted hundreds of sad faces without even a smile, where blue is the dominant colour. This was followed by his Rose Period, when he abandoned sentiment for "beauty, balance and serenity". Paintings such as Nude Youth and Head and Shoulders of a Woman are stylized in touches of pink and ochre with grey for depth. Picasso painted harlequins and acrobats and lively circus scenes. The change came in 1908, after the Cezanne retrospective in Paris in 1907. Picasso and Braque launched Cezannesque Cubism, by reducing forms to simple geometric volumes. The favourite subject was the still life, the simplicity of the everyday objects enhanced by focusing on plastic pictorial effects. From this he evolved towards the fragmentation of volumes into multiple facets, anticipating the period of Analytical Cubism. Space was depicted from various angles. But Picasso combined various idioms: both geometric and naturalistic figures
coexisted in the same painting. His Man with Mandolin was the most powerful of his Analytical Cubism period. Outlines were shattered and figures could no longer be distinguished from the background. Picasso chose subjects with a tall format, leaving an unfinished lower section, which contained part of the original sketch. Although abstraction was a possibility, Picasso remained rooted to reality through the introduction of paper collages. From Analytical he went on to Synthetic Cubism, reintroducing colour and using flat simplified shapes and interplaying real, patterned paper and wood with its painted imitations. Picasso resolved the problem of representing real three-dimensional objects on a flat surface by alternating flat surfaces with physical relief, juxtaposing different views, playing with different textures and materials through various artistic techniques, thereby sculpting his paintings to produce a new genre. His Glass, Pipe, Ace of Clubs, and Die (1914) sets out his new Cubist statement. His idea was that things are not what they seem to be. Not many people may be aware that the habit of "camouflage" for vehicles and people, invented by Guirand de Scevola before World War I, was inspired by Cubism. De Scevola copied their methods to "totally deform objects" so that things were not what they seemed. But Picasso did not restrict himself to Cubism. His Studies (1920-1922) combines classical figures and Cubism, by bringing together different tones, colours and styles of painting on one canvas. Between 1925 and 1937, Picasso dabbled with Surrealism. He produced a series of guitars by transforming a variety of materials string, cardboard, wood, and fabric. Yet another influence on his painting was African tribal art to which he had been exposed and had developed great fascination for. Picasso was greatly influenced by the women in his life - and there were many. The first was Fernande Olivier whom he met in 1904. She provided several studies for his Rose Period paintings. In 1911 Eva Gouel became his girl friend, but died in 1915. This was the period he began experimenting with Cubism. In 1918 he married Olga Kokhlova and produced a series of portraits of Olga on the lines of heavy antique Iberian statuary. In 1927 Picasso met 17-year old MarieTherese Walter, whose full figure inspired volume and heavy modeling. In 1936, the Yugoslavian Dora Maar entered his life. Picasso used angular shapes and black and red for the brunette Dora, in contrast to the rounded forms and the blue and yellow used for the blonde Marie-Therese. In these paintings we find the use of different angles to view the face and body on one canvas, to suggest mood and movement. In 1937 he met the American Lee Miller whom he depicted with a startling combination of humour and viciousness. In 1946 he started living with Francoise Gilot who was depicted by him with curves, arabesques and simple lines linking geometric shapes. The last woman to enter his life was Jacqueline Roque in 1954. This time he separated the limbs and juxtaposed them on the same plane, reducing and simplifying the anatomy, with codified graphic signs to convey the nude body. This was Picasso's late idiom. The next year his legal wife Olga died, and he married Jacqueline in 1961. Some of Picasso's oeuvres have played major roles in art history. One such is Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1937), which Leo Steinberg analysed elaborately, in a monograph. It consists of five figures, "each singly encapsulated". Picasso broke with
traditions of form and continuity, even time and space, bringing tribal African and Western forms within a single frame. In 1937, shocked by the viciousness of the Spanish civil war, he painted La Guernica, his largest canvas, created in shades of black, white and gray. It awoke the conscience of Europe to the horrors of war. Between 1959 and 1962, he produced 27 paintings and 140 drawings, besides linos and maquettes, devoted to Manet's Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe. This was a dialogue between two artists, Picasso and Manet, between a traditional representation of landscapes and the human form and Picasso's application of Cubism. Returning to landscapes, Picasso fitted into these paintings this dialogue between artist and model, surrounding them with festoons and suggesting stylization through Cubism. It was a classical theme set in a modern idiom. The period 1933 to 1939 was one of engravings produced for the art dealer Ambrose Vollard. The central figure was a Minotaur - half-man, half-bull - with whom Picasso identified himself. The Minotaur is shown in a variety of situations, from the company of innocent children to orgies with models. Finally, Picasso punishes the creature, and thereby himself, by blinding him, as he stands bellowing in despair. Picasso was terrified of blindness, yet, he said, "They should put out painters' eyes, the way they do to goldfinches to make them sing better". Picasso produced some large and dramatic bronzes, and painted ceramics some of which are on display. He was also an amateur photographer, and his photographs are an interesting documentations of his life and times. The 122 works on view - depicting all the various stages mentioned above - are from the Musee Picasso in Paris and from his son Claude and the Picasso family. The selection of oeuvres is an excellent documentation of the history of Picasso. Metamorphoses is all that I have written and more, and a wonderful opportunity for us to see the work of the greatest and most important artist of the previous century. From Delhi the show travels to Mumbai. My only complaint is that none of the South Indian cities will be honoured by Picasso's art. I am told (unofficially) that the reason for this obvious omission is the lack of good galleries and security in the Government Museums. How shameful!
Wanted: A national culture policy
I start the New Year with a fervent prayer for a policy and direction for Indian culture. There is no dearth of talent or creativity; we have as many beautiful sites of architecture, sculpture and painting as Egypt, more cultural traditions than the rest of the Asian continent. India's greatest asset is its cultural heritage. Yet we do not even maintain most of them well. And we are unable to use them to attract the rest of the world to our shores. Why? We have a new Minister for Culture - the fourth in three years. Is the subject so unimportant? Dr Murli Manohar Joshi was interested in culture, but he made the mistake of opening up the books of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) and was promptly shunted out. Mr Ananth Kumar had little time for or interest in art and culture. At the 38th Annual Triennale of the Lalit Kala Akademi held in New Delhi, he inaugurated the exhibitioin and went away without even seeing
the exhibits. Maneka Gandhi made the same mistake as Dr Joshi and paid the price. Mr Jagmohan, with a good track record and administrative background, has taken over as minister. One hopes he stays to do something for culture. Fortunately, the department has had good Secretaries in recent years. They held fort even as ministers came and went. And we all know that the bureaucracy runs India. Independent India has had few or no ministers of culture who were interested in their portfolio or took their jobs seriously. Only artists who lived in Delhi could 'reach' anywhere, or be patronized by the czars and czarinas of culture who have dominated the national scene from time to time. For several years, these 'czars', such as Pupul Jayakar, Kapila Vatsyayan and Martand Singh, made the decisions in the world of culture. They lived in Delhi and occupied positions of patronage. Lack of support for the 'outsider' - those artists who did not live in Delhi - forced many artists, such as Sonal Mansingh of Bombay, Alarmel Valli of Madras, Jatin Das of Orissa and othes, to shift base to Delhi. Most of the others did not care: unfortunately, they were unheard and unsung. Over the years, the various Union Governments have used the Culture Ministry as a source of patronage. The Festivals of India were presided over by prime ministerial favourites who supported their favourites and so on. It was a self-serving and self-perpetuating exercise. Of the czarinas, only one made a major contribution to preserving culture - Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay who established the All India Handicrafts Board and saved many of our craft and textile traditions from oblivion. Culture does need patronage - it has always survived on royal or government patronage, all over the world and from time immemorial. But the patronage must be fair, financially accountable and transparent. There are so many artists and art forms that languish in poverty, so many buildings crying for conservation. Why start new ventures when the old need the money? We Indians are proud of our ancient and unique culture. But what has the government done for culture? Private galleries, institutions, individuals and impressarios promote culture; they organize seminars and exhibitions, concerts and performances. E Krishna Iyer, Rukmini Devi and Balasaraswathi revived Bharatanatyam, Kalamandalam and Guru Vallathol did the same for Kathakali and Mohini Attam, Guru Vempatti Chinna Satyam for Kuchipudi and Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra for Odissi, while the Sabhas of Madras preserved and promoted the ancient Carnatic music tradtion. The art revolution took place in the galleries of Bombay and Calcutta. The state governments were slightly better. Realizing the importance of culture in emphasizing regional pride, they set about preserving several cultural traditions, never mind the fact that they used culture as a steppingstone for gaining votes. Unfortunately, corruption and favouritism is more rampant in the state governments, where every signature costs money or an inordinate delay. India has tremendous scope for cultural tourism, which can generate revenue, but our policies are short-sighted and self-defeating. For example, the exorbitantly unfair pricing for foreigners by the Archaeological Survery of India at heritage sites lost us visitors and 30 per cent in tourism revenues last year. The ticket price has now been reduced, is payable in rupees and purchasable at hotels and airports. Further, all monuments are to be closed on Mondays, as they are all over the world, instead of staggering the weekly holiday and changing it at short notice (as was done earlier), thereby creating confusion for the tourist. This should have been done long ago. If we need government patronage, particularly largesse, the government must also recognize the fact that it needs people to give credibility to its efforts to promote culture. It is inconceivable that the Government Babu can promote culture. Today
there is a government-people divide in the field of culture. I have visited several villages, which house exquisite and ancient monuments, which leave the local people cold. They belong to the government, I am told; what role do we have there? This brings us to the problem: how can we create a government-people partnership to promote culture? Firstly, every city, town or village must have a 'Culture' or 'Heritage' committee, as is done in several parts of the UK. These committees, as a beginning, must list every local heritage site, old building, tradition (such as a local weaving or music or craft tradition), and knowledge (of medicinal plants etc.), and all private collections of art, craft and other artefacts. They must be responsible for the preservation of exisiting archaeological and heritage monuments, known collections and local art traditons. They should be permitted to raise their own funds, if they desire to do so. After all, when temples need renovation, local people raise their own funds. If funds cannot be raised, the government should step in. However, all restoration should be done under the supervision of the ASI or the state department of archaeology. Unless local people - who have, after all, preserved their local heritage over centuries - are involved and take pride in local conservation efforts, we will continue to see our antiques and artefacts smuggled out of the country, and our traditional knowledge patented in the West. There are several unexcavated archaeological sites in India. The Harappan sites now extend into UP. Where else can they be found? Nalanda was the focus of education what treasures lie hidden beneath the ground? Where are all the stupas Ashoka built in Kanchi? A minor excavation at Mamallapuram revealed a temple, a Varaha and pushed local history back by a hundred years. Money is a problem, we are told. There are several American and European universities who would happily spend the money to give their students a hands-on experience in archaeology, and who could be invited to specific archaeological excavation sites, again under the supervision of the ASI or the state department of archaeology. Much of the ancient Egyptian and Greek civilizations were uncovered this way. India has a wealth of archaeological remains crying to be excavated. We also need good infrastructure around monuments - clean and motorable roads, telephone lines that work, clean toilets and clean restaurants serving clean food. The most exquisite monument cannot compensate for the ugliness of public defecation, garbage mounds and rivers of sewage - common in every Indian tourist spot. There should be a policy about removing beggars who pull the arms of visiting tourists, keeping the most intrepid traveler away. Let us not pretend that they are India's face of poverty. The poor of India live in villages and tribal areas, eking out a living. These are professional beggars who hang around temples and public places. They can be employed around the monument (try it - they will refuse to work!) and if they do not work, they must be moved away to a beggars' home. Those monuments that come under the Central and State Archaeological Acts are protected from destruction, whatever be the state of their preservation. But India has thousands of other wonderful buildings - palaces, buildings of the British Raj, old homes, ancient village shrines - and ecological heritage sites that are not covered under the act and are coming down in the name of development. A few years ago, Moore Market, that landmark of Madras Presidency and the best example of IndoSaracenic art, had to make way for a railway station. The Police Commissioner's Office in Chennai was saved by a Public Interest Litigation (PIL). Two years ago, as I started renovating our 400-year old family home in Kanchipuram, I discovered
stucco figurines, paintings and fabulous collections of old art, brassware, textiles, and more of ancient Kanchi. The house was gifted to the C P Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation and will shortly open as a Museum of Folk Art. But I shudder to think of the number of similar houses in other old cities that have been pulled down. Most of the ancient buildings of Mylapore's maadaa streets, surrounding the tank, have come down and multi-storied buildings now deface the area. Once, on a visit to Trivandrum, I asked to see an old ettukattu tharavaad (house). My hosts were hard put to find one. We need laws by which old architectural styles are preserved and precincts maintained. A few years ago, I was part of a national committee that drafted the rules for the preservation of urban heritage - ancient monuments, precincts and environmental traditions. The draft was sent to nearly every corporation and municipality. I wonder how many of them adopted it. Even the names of cities must be preserved, for they too have a history. Madras was the first British settlement in India and was never known as Chennai. The only alternative could have been Mylapore, an ancient port of Pallava times. But why change a name that has brought fame - Madras cotton (worn by James Bond), Madras checks, Bleeding Madras and so on. There is even an American city named after Madras. Art can pay for its existence by generating its own revenue. Private players should be roped in to maintain archaeological sites. The adoption of the Taj Mahal by the Tatas and the creation of a National Culture Fund are welcome steps, but I am afraid they will ony cover famous sites in tourist cities. We have so many more which make up local pride and culture and which need protection. Finally, we should ensure that many more of our cities and sites are declared as World Heritage sites. Delhi, Benares and Kanchipuram deserve to be named World Heritage cities, for a start. There are many more that can make the list. For a country with so many archaeological treasures, it is shocking that few come under Unesco's World Heritage listing. It is not enough to be proud of our heritage. We must protect it systematically. Conservation should not require pulic agitations and litigation. We need a national culture policy, one that will outlive poltical parties and their whims, and local governments, must be compelled to adopt them. Is anyone listening out there?
Ragas and raginis of Indian music
The music season in Chennai is in full swing and the sabhas have rivalled each other in producing a unique fare. In recent years, it has become de rigeur to mix old and new, young and old, to attract a larger audience. The weather is just right and even my post-influenza cough, which was nagging me, seems to have decided that the climate is too lovely to waste. The month of Maargazhi, with all its romantic associations, is here. Did you ever wonder why Tamilians go gaga over Maargazhi? I once went to Thanjavur at this time of the year and learned the answer. There, on the banks of the Kaveri, where Tyagaraja composed his kritis, even the birds sing and scrubby schoolboys can be heard humming classical tunes. Most of our musicians belong to Thanjavur district - now you know why. Andal, that great Vaishnava poetess who wrote the most exquisite poetry in praise of her Lord, celebrated Maargazhi in her
Thiruppaavai, as the Shaiva Naayanmaar Maanikkavaasagar did in his Thiruvembaavai. The association of music and season is more pronounced in Hindustani music, where every raga has an appropriate season, reason and even time of day. The ragas and raginis of Hindustani music celebrate another time, another place and another school, but the spirit is the same. The Rajput kings commissioned the painting of the Rragamala (garland of ragas), the single most popular text of Rajput miniature painting, more popular than even the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagavata Purana. A comparison of the various ragamalas reveals a clear artistic hierarchy, extending from the highest levels of the imperial Mughal style to a more folksy rhythm, as the rulers established their political and social distance. The earliest known ragamala was painted in A.D. 1591 at Chunar, near Benares, in the imperial Mughal style, and consisted of thirty-six paintings. This ragamala is an exploration of the relationship between the worshipper and th worshipped where each raga consisted of a woman worshipping at the shrine of Shiva, the Lord of music and dance. In spite of the Devanagari script used for the descriptions, the style is Persian, with heavy borders and decoration and figures larger than the architectural scale. By the 17th century, the ragamalas had been indigenised. The figures fit the architectural scale, the clothes were soft and transparent and the faces shaded and three-dimensional. The surface pattern was flat and the figures well-defined. Most important, the colours were bright, vivacious and vibrant - red, green, white and saffron yellow dominate the paintings - with greater detail in the landscape and foliage. The final phase of the ragamala paintings was the Pahadi school, seen in the Punjab, Kulu and Kangra hills, and the Oriya. In the 17th century, Guru Arjun Singh compiled the Guru Granth with a classiciation of the ragas and raginis at the end. This became the standard classification of the Ragamala, also followed by the later Kangra school, according to which there are six ragas - Bhairava, Malkaus, Hindol, Deepak, Shri Raga and Megha. Each raga, represented as a Raja, has five wives - the raginis - and eight sons or putras. Thus there are six main ragas, thirty raginis and forty-eight sons, totalling eighty-four ragas in all. A ragamala scene is formal, with the liveliness created by the surrounding ambience, and depicts the relationships between a man and a woman, or a worshipper and a deity. The emotional potent of the raga is characterised by the time of the day or the season. Rather than provide a mere spatial background, nature intensifies the relationship. The texts illustrate bhakti, devotion to a personal god. This takes the form of romantic imagery, as the worshipper longs for union with the divine, and the obliteration of the individual in the Supreme Being. Most of the paintings were devoted to Krishna as the Supreme, although Shiva also formed the subject of several schools. The ragas are classified and depicted in art according to the sentiments they express, as male (raga) or female (ragini). Courage and anger are male, depicted as wrestlers, a man pulling a bow, a prince speeding on a street or playing polo or even an acrobat. The raginis are dancers, women in love, seated in a garden, on a lotus
and so on. Germaine Greer - where were you? Some represent devotion and worship, such as Raga Bhairava, Shankara Bharn and Bhim Palasi, which depict the worship of Shiva, the lord of music and dance. Raga Kalanka represents Vishnu, holding a lotus and seated on Sheshnag, in a lake covered with lotuses. Other ragas celebrate the seasons. Raga Vasant and Ragini Bilawal are the songs of spring, a season of flowers, birds and dancing men and women. Krishna dances with rhythm and energy, against the background of the floral jungle. Bhairava Raga and Ragini Gandhari represent the hot summer months. The punkha is moving and a dust devil (dust storm) whirls in the sky. Another raga representing heat is Deepak, the lamp, which is said to burn the body of the performer. According to a legend, Tansen was once compelled by King Akbar to sing this raga. As the notes rose to a pitch, the waters of the river Jumna began to boil and Tansen lost consciousness. His body was burnt by the intensity of the raga and he could not even wear his clothes, till a young girl, also an expert musician, sang the Raga Megha Malhar-the song of the rains - and the rain fells in torrents, cooling his body. A young prince with a shaven head, over whom a young woman pours water to cool his burning body, represents Raga Champak, son of Raga Deepak. Raga Megh Malhar and Sarang and Malkauns Ragini represent the rains. Krishna dances with Radha under a sky dark with rain clouds. In other paintings, a large-leaf umbrella may protect Krishna, or peacocks may dance under the clouded skies, or saurus cranes may fly against darkened clouds pouring down rain. The celebration of the rains in water-starved India is as old as Indian civilisation. The imagery of the peacock in a darkened sky is very popular, for the peacock dances in happiness when the rains break out. Raga Hindola (swing), another monsoon raga, the husband of Bilawal (spring), is associated with the Jhula festival of Mathura and Brindavan. Ragini Telangi, daughter of Hindola, is represented as a woman getting an oil massage, essential in the dry autumn season. Pancham Raa is also the autumn and Shri Raga the winter harvest. Shri or Lakshmi is the goddess of prosperity worshipped during the harvest, and the farmer is shown worshipping her in these paintings. Her son is Raga Gaundmalhar, a young prince dancing with joy under heavy dark clouds punctuated by lightning. Raga Malava represents the cold winter months. Different ragas are sung at different times of the day. The morning ragas are Bhairava, sung before dawn, Rama Kiri and Bhaskar at dawn and Bilawal after sunrise. Sarang is the noontime raga, picturised as a scene of daytime activity with a hot sun in the sky. Sarang is a 'happy' raga, with prancing deer and flowering trees. Raga Chandra is a night raga, when Chandra the moon is seated on his chariot, while a young prince listening to music on a moonlit night is Raga Kedara. Lalitha Ragini is sung at night, when a woman is shown in deep sleep. Three ragas - Kumbh, Gambhir and Wardhan, sons of Shri Raga - represent three stages of love. Raga Kumbh (pot) shows a young woman lowering a pot into a well as she and a young price gaze at each other. This is the first stage, the meeting. In Raga Gambhir they have met and are doing an activity together - this is the union. Raga Wardhan is the parting of the lovers, such as the prince gong away to war. Separation is a common theme of the Ragamala paintings - Todi, Kamodi, Bhimplasi, Ahiri, Gandhara, Devagandhari and Vairati are among the many ragas and raginis
representing separation in love. The imagery can be powerful. Ahiri Ragini from the Punjab hills shows a woman feeding milk to cobras as she waits her lover. Snakes have descended from a sandal tree to hear the music of Asavari Ragini. The twisting bodies of the snakes and flower-bedecked creepers climbing a tree depict emotional turmoil. Other symbols of love are the deer, peacocks and other birds. Generally, when a figure is alone, it is a case of unrequited love or separation. In the paintings of love in union, the couple may be listening to music or wandering hand-in-hand or dancing in celebration. Rajasthani ragamalas are passionate, and the themes of celebration, festivals and love are depicted in vibrant colour and passionate scenes. Pahadi paintings are more sentimental and stylised, very restrained and romantic. While the princes of the dusty and hot landscape of Rajasthan enjoyed frolicking animals and gushing fountains, the Pahadi school recreated the beautiful landscape of the hills, and achieved an atmosphere of restraint and sentimentality. In the final ragamalas from Orissas, the meeting of the north and south took place. The conception and execution are Oriya, Vijayanagara and later Andhra. The ragas are Hindustani.
Unchanging musical tradition
Ah! December. The month of music and dance, when the weather is pleasant, silk saris can be worn and Chennai's beautiful people are busy at the Sabhas, to see and be seen. The Tamil month of Margali beginning on December 15 celebrates Andal's Thiruppaavai and Manikkavachagar's Thiruvembaavai, when the air is full of music and romance. Living in Chennai, I too am inspired to write about music, the soul of Carnatic culture. As we listen to the range of the human voice and the depth of Indian music, it is amazing to think of its age, beauty and its enhancement by a variety of influences-folk, classical stylisation and cross cultural. Indian music claims origin from the Rig and Sama Vedas, the latter being the Rig set to music. There is mention of musical instruments such as the gargara (probably a string instrument), aghati (cymbals), and a variety of drums, flutes and veenas. But music and dance have existed among all tribes and peoples all over the world. PreVedic cave paintings show scenes of dance, which must have been accompanied by music. The Harappan sites have yielded cymbals, flutes and whistles, while the seals show harps and long drums. Several deities were associated with music: Saraswati with the veena, Shiva with the damaru or udukkai (drum), Vishnu with the conch and Krishna with the flute. The gods were given the simplest folk instruments: the ektara, dhamaru, conch and flute. Ravana was a great veena exponent. Narada, in the first century, could play the flute and was also accompanied by the tambura. Bharata, in the second century, describes instruments and their uses extensively. He had four classifications: ghana (solid) or idiophones, avanaddha (covered vessels) or drums, sushira (hollow) or wind instruments and tata (stretched) or string instruments. He also mentions the kutapa or orchestra. Tamil Sangam Literature mentions five classes of instruments: the human voice, leather instruments, gut instruments, hollow instruments and metal instruments. The most common word for instruments is vadya, although atodya, turya and karuvi are also used. Bharata's classification is as relevant today as it was in the second century. The earliest instruments mentioned in Tamil literature are the yal (or yazh: harp),
kulal (or kuzhal: flute) and maddalam (drum). The most popular ancient instrument was the yal, a harp based on the bow, crossed with strings. The vil (bow) yal even appears on the Harappan seals, although we do not know what it stands for. The instrument disappeared in the 10th century and with it, probably, a certain system of music. For, each instrument profoundly influences the system of music. In the last fifty years we have seen the changes in music wrought by the electric keyboard, which gives varying rhythms and sounds to which the composer and singer must adapt and change their entire styles. The use of the bow as a musical instrument lives on in the villaadi vaadyam used for the villupaattu, an inter-active folk medium combining music and story telling with this huge adaptation of the bow. After the 10th century, the veena became more popular, even though it was known from the Vedic period. In the 11th century, the Sufis introduced the duff, sitar, sarod and shehnai in North India. A violin-like instrument was used in the 10th century, but the present western violin was adapted to Carnatic music in the 19th century by Baluswami Dikshatar of Madras. The number and variety of instruments, especially folk instruments, is endless. All classical music and its accompaniments had humble folk beginnings before they were accepted on the concert stage. A newspaper report last week bemoaned the adaptation of "filmi" tunes by children at Children's Day functions. I abhor the obscene lyrics and unnatural gyrations that go with film songs. They are better suited to be aerobics, but hardly keep our stars slim! But the tune, after all, is good music-and some of the best too. If a teacher rewrites the song with patriotic messages, she should be congratulated for her creativity. After all, film songs are the "folk" songs of contemporary culture, and find more adherents than classical music, especially among the young. In recent years, western instruments like the clarinet and mandolin have been accepted in classical Carnatic music. Culture develops as people discover and adapt to their needs. The assimilation process never ends. Classical arts are invariably derived from folk arts, and a close study of temple sculpture will reveal a dancer moving to the rhythm of a folk instrument. Since we cannot know the sounds that were produced in the past, I searched the earliest stone constructions in the South, to find out what musical instruments were used. There was not much at Mamallapuram, but at the Kailasanatha Temple at Kanchipuram, dedicated to Shiva, the arts have a prominent place and a variety of instruments can be seen. A Kinnara-Kinnari couple-painted on the wall of one of the shrines plays on the flute and the cymbals, both basically folk instruments. After all, Krishna was a cowherd. In this mural, the flute is held on the side of the face, like the pictures of Krishna and unlike the Carnatic music way of holding the flute in front. The conch appears only as an attribute of Vishnu. The conch was rarely used in Northern Tamil Nadu, although it was a popular instrument in Madurai and the region to its south, where it is harvested from the Gulf of Mannar. The third wind instrument is the windpipe, a long trumpet described by Bharata as the thundaki, which first appeared in Gupta and Chalukyan sculpture. Several types of string instruments-forerunners of the veena-have been identified in the temple. Veenadhara Shiva holds a single string ghoshaka veena across the chest and shoulder, with a gourd at the upper end. This instrument also appears in the paintings and sculptures of Ajanta, Badami and Mamallapuram and other Pallava sites, indicating its popularity in that period. Another single string veena found in the
temple is the veena alapini, without the gourd, a forerunner of the later svaramandala of medieval India. The single string veena-the ektara-is still used by wandering minstrels in the countryside. The sculptures of Harihara and Gangadhara are portrayed holding kinnari veenas with two gourds, one on either end, the earliest known representation of the kinnari veena and the prototype of today's veena. The fourth string instrument is a tambura held by Goddess Saraswati on her lap. It is a string instrument with a single gourd, held across the lap of the Goddess and not vertically as is done nowadays. No concert is complete without percussion instruments, which are probably the oldest musical instruments. Three types of percussion instruments are found in the Kailasanatha temple. The simplest is the ghatam, the common mud pot, known to the literature of that period as the dardura, played by Tandu during the dance of Shiva. A variation of the dardura consists of three equal-sized pots piled one on top of another. Another percussion instrument is the vertical drum pair, with one larger than the other, placed in front of the player, who crosses his hands to play on this instrument. Such drums are to be seen in Gupta, Vakataka, Chalukya and Pallava sculptures, and are the forerunner of the tablas. Interestingly, although the popular percussion instrument in Carnatic music today is the mridangam, the mridangam is not to be seen in early sculpture, and the tabla is no longer used in Carnatic music. The third type of percussion instrument is the damaru or udukkai, seen in Shiva's hand, which produces a rattling sound and accompanies him as he dances the ananda tandava, the dance of creation. The udukkai is commonly used in rural areas to call people to assemble for entertainment. This early Pallava temple also contains two types of ghanas or solid instruments to keep the beat. One is a pair of cymbals consisting of two discs with a hole in the centre through which passes a string. One type of cymbals has circular discs, the other a pair of small cups. The other ghana is the bell or ghanta. So what did a Pallava concert sound like? A flute, veena, tabla, ghatam, cymbals and a tambura to accompany the singer. Does it sound familiar? Go to any concert in one of Chennai's sabhas this December, and watch the instrumentalists and the singers. If the instruments have not changed, the music would hardly be different, then and now. Shut your eyes and imagine that you are in the court of Narasimhavarman II, Rajasimha Pallava, who built the Kailasanatha Temple to celebrate the Lord of music and dance-Shiva. Is there a sense of deja vu?
Images of violence
One of the most unforgettable images of recent times is that of the planes flying into the New York World Trade Centre's twin towers, and the towers collapsing vertically. Of people running on the streets of New York, covered in dust. I doubt whether those who saw those images on television will ever forget them. Some images are permanent and indelible, such as the little Vietnamese girl running in terror from the napalm bombing by the Americans, and the blasting of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban. The First World War's lasting image is the Austrian Grand Duke Ferdinand seated in his car, before his assassination, while the Second World War is remembered by images of bombed European cities and crying and maimed children sitting on the ruins of Hiroshima. These were black-and-white photographs, which made them even more stark and terrible.
Ever since the America-Afghan war started, we have been bombarded by images. Some are tragic, some are bleak - war never produced pretty pictures. Others are a joke. I will never forget one that came out when the war began. The newsreaders (BBC and CNN) were describing Osama bin Laden's popularity in Pakistan, where he is a popular icon. And they showed posters of Osama hung up in the marketplace of Peshawar, flanked by posters of … Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla! I did not know whom to feel more sorry for - the two actresses who were in such unpleasant company or Osama who, along with the Taliban, obviously has a problem about women. Would he feel flattered or threatened? The latter, I presume, more so since the actresses belong to an "enemy" country. Violence has been a major source of inspiration for art. The earliest rock paintings of the Paleolithic people depicted the hunt, with bloody images of dying animals and gory group attacks. There was no sympathy for the hunted animal till a sculptor, in 7th century BC, carved a relief in the North Palace of Assurbanipal at Nineveh, depicting the fear and flight of hunted asses. In fact the war-like Assyrians of Nineveh documented, in gory detail, the various wars and hunts of their kings. The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans also glorified their wars in painting and sculpture. A 6th century BC amphora (pottery) from Athens depicts the deliberate and brutal killing of Penthesilea by Achilles, a 1st century BC mosaic from Pompeii depicts the defeat of the Persian king Darius by Alexander and a 4th century A.D. sarcophagus of St. Helena is decorated with Roman horseman ill-treating their prisoners. In the Alexander mosaic, a small group of Greeks fights the mighty Persians with a huge army of men, horses, chariots and weapons, emphasising the strategic superiority of Alexander. But the most striking aspect of the mosaic is the emotion on the faces of the warriors as they meet, face to face - the intensity of Alexander's expression as he readies to kill, the anger of Darius, and the pain and bewilderment of the injured and frightened horses. Interestingly, women are rarely depicted in scenes of violence, neither the hunt nor war. A few Greek reliefs do show the Greeks fighting the Amazons, but as the latter are largely mythical, they do not count for much. A lot of art is the result of war - images of war, celebrations of war and rallying calls to war. Americans carrying their flags after September 11 portrayed stability, permanency and reassurance, as much as a call to war, and I am sure we will see American artists reproduce them on canvas, like musicians create songs to commemorate the dead. A famous war preserved for posterity was William the Conqueror's conquest of England in 1066 AD, painstakingly embroidered by his wife Matilda and preserved as the Bayeux tapestry. It narrated the war in detail, with scenes of fighting and dead bodies, including the death of Harold, King of England. Indians built pillars and temples to commemorate victories. Ashoka's pillars of stone, the Gupta Iron Pillar, Rajaraja Chola's Brihadishvara Temple and the Jayasthambha of Chittorgarh are examples of victorious art. Islam's ban on visuals may have been one of the reasons for the celebration of Muslim victories by the destruction of temples and churches and the construction of mosques on the same place. How else could the conquerors remind an illiterate population of their victory? Till recently, only victors celebrated their victories in works of art. The vanquished were either enslaved or oppressed, and their cultures were destroyed and repressed. In 1937, Picasso created Guernica, a monumental monochrome depicting the destruction by German bombers of a Spanish village. It did more to mobilise
European opinion against the Nazis than the speeches of politicians. The year 1971 was a defining moment in the history of modern India, when the trauma of partition and the frequent Pakistani attacks on India were felled in one stroke by the break-up of Pakistan. So sweet was the victory that when a euphoric opposition leader A B Vajpayee likened Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to Goddess Durga, destroyer of the evil demon Mahisha, artist M F Husain was inspired to depict Mrs Gandhi as Durga. Husain produced some of his best work in this period. Indian art abhorred the depiction of violence as much as the Indian religions Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism - rejected violence. While Greek art depicted violent emotions, such as the Alexander mosaic described earlier, Indian art was inward looking. For example, in a scene of violent warfare, such as Durga killing the demon Mahisha, the face of Durga is calm and untouched by the fighting. Similarly, even as Shiva kills demons in his various samhara (destructive) aspects, his face remains calm and untouched by the violence of the events. This is the doctrine of nishkaama karma, action without desire for reward. But whereas divine wars are motivated by selflessness, human wars are definitely motivated by selfish desires. The Americans claim to be fighting a war against the monster of terror, but theirs is a war of anger. The Taliban and Osama bin Laden claim to be fighting a holy war or jihad, but the killing of innocent civilians going about their work peacefully can never be holy. Only images will outlive this war - images of injured children, crying children, children fighting for their lives, children used as human shields, children with one leg, one eye and so on. Once upon a time, we would wait for an obliging artist to come along and record the war for posterity. Today, images travel so fast that we see them even as they are being made. Television is a new art form that brings striking images into our homes. But the Alexander mosaic and Bayeux tapestry are still available for view over a thousand years later. Peasants in a Chinese village are reconstructing the Bamiyan Buddhas in their village. I wonder how the bombing of the twin towers and the war against terror will be preserved for posterity. Most victorious and heraldic art was commissioned. But the artist slipped in his opinion of the horrors of war in the body language and facial expressions within his paintings. Unfortunately, we have yet to learn the message that artists of every nation and age recorded in their images: that war is destructive and ugly. The artist of Nineveh was a "peacenik" of the ancient world, as are so many other artists cutting across time and civilisation. But their voices are drowned by the louder clamour of war cries.
Jewel, jewel everywhere
I recently visited the exhibition of the Nizam's jewellery at the National Museum in New Delhi. It is one of the most beautiful collections of stones and jewels, and the Indian government should be congratulated for acquiring it. The story of the acquisition is long and complicated. Mir Osman Ali Khan, the last Nizam, was fabled for both his wealth and parsimony, for his fabulous strong room of gems contrasted with his very simple lifestyle. Being far-sighted, he anticipated problems in the years to come and therefore established two trusts - the Nizam's Jewellery Trust and the Nizam's Supplemental Jewellery Trust. It is a matter of satisfaction that an important
Indian heritage collection has been preserved in India, for Indians. In 1713, Mir Qamaruddin, a favourite courtier of the Mughal king Aurangazeb, was appointed the Viceroy of the Deccan and he founded the Asaf Jah dynasty of the Nizams of Hyderabad. In time, the smaller kingdoms of the Deccan were swallowed by Hyderabad and, with them, their vast wealth and jewellery. The Golconda mines were a part of this kingdom and have yielded some of the world's largest and most famous diamonds, such as the Koh-I-noor in the crown of the British monarch, the Hope diamond in the Smithsonian at Washington and the Jacob diamond in the Nizam's collection. Burmese rubies and spinels, Colombian emeralds, and pearls from Basra and the Gulf of Mannar flooded Hyderabad. Apart from their own purchases of jewellery, the Nizams encouraged the practice of nazrana, or the gifting of gold, gems and jewels to the ruler as expressions of loyalty or to curry favour. Thus they built up an impressive inventory of 325 (known) items besides 22 unset emeralds. The jewels date from the early 18th to the early 20th centuries, and have mixed origins. A double strand diamond necklace came with the annexation of the Adil Shahi kingdom of Bijapur, while the Nizam's help to the British for the defeat and death of Tipu Sultan gave him a share of the booty, including a pair of emerald, diamond and pearl armbands that once belonged to Tipu. At the age of ten, my mother visited Hyderabad with her grandfather, Sir C P Ramaswami Aiyar, the then legal advisor to the Nizam. Amma told me how the Nizam showed her his famous strong room and entertained the little girl by pouring out a bagful of stones, identifying them as diamonds, another bagful and identifying them as emeralds and so on. It was one of the most fascinating experiences of her young life. The Nizams were Mughal in origin and culture, but their jewellery represents a fusion of North and South Indian and even Western designs. The basic craftsmanship is Deccani, inherited from the Vijayanagar Empire, although some of the jewellers may have migrated from Delhi after the collapse of the Mughals. The South Indian makarakanti necklace, with gems set in silver with reverse enamelling and indigenous motifs, were reproduced by the Deccani jewellers with gold-set gems and the same reverse enamelling. Intricate Mughal designs and lacy western motifs competed for pride of place. Like other South Indian jewellery, the stones were generally uncut. Only the diamonds have a few cuts - again the South Indian tradition reflecting the common jewellery traditions of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Among the most beautiful pieces of the Nizam's collection are the various sarpech, the gold turban ornament set with diamonds and either rubies or emeralds, with a cocky jewelled feather or bird surmounting the band. The Nizams wore heavilyjewelled belts (patta tilai) whose buckles were styled on the South Indian hair ornaments. But the most spectacular are the heavily-jewelled necklaces, the kanthis and hanslis, the intricately decorated armlets (bazubands) and elaborate anklets (paizeb), and a vast array of pendants, earrings, rings and taveez. And, most impressive of all is the Jacob diamond, the single Imperial diamond purchased by the sixth Nizam Mahboob Ali Pasha in 1891 from a dealer named Alexander Malcolm Jacob, a transaction which landed the Nizam before a commission of enquiry. Jewellery has brought out some of our most creative impulses. Adornment has always been a human passion. The use of jewellery goes back to the beginnings of civilisation, when primitive people decorated themselves with flowers, feathers,
shells and beads carved out of wood, bone and stone With the advance of civilisation, terracotta, copper, ivory and coloured stones became more popular, till silver, gold and precious stones took over the world of adornment. But it was in India where the love of jewellery reached the greatest heights of design and decoration. Most Indian jewellery is based on natural motifs - flowers, leaves, fruits, birds and, sometimes, even animals. Nature has given us the most exquisite design ideas and the Indian jeweller has intelligently used these to produce the most wonderful jewels. Indian art and literature give us a good idea of the popular jewellery designs of ancient India: from the heavy peasant designs of the Mauryan and Sungan periods to the intricate jewellery of the Ajanta paints and the perfection of the jewellery depicted in the bronzes of Tamil Nadu. Both men and women wore jewellery - bold and powerful designs, colourful and exotic. With the arrival of the British and the influence of Protestant Puritanism, men gave up wearing jewellery. It is nice to see that today's young men have lost this inhibition, and male adornment has become popular once more. In the south, art and literature celebrated jewellery. The Tamil Silappadikaram (Epic of the Anklet) is the story of the anklet of Kannagi, who lived with her jeweller husband Kovalan in Puhar, a city of gold, pearls and precious stones, where the jewellers lives on the main street. The succeeding epic Manimekalai describes the jewels of the courtesan Madhavi: she wore a belt made of several strands of pearls, armlets and bracelets made of pearls and precious stones, bangles made of gold, navaratna, conch and pearls, rings, toe rings, gem-set necklaces, serrated earrings and even the thalai saamaan worn by brides and dancers. Much later, in the 13th century, Marco Polo describes the pearl and gold bracelets, the ruby, emerald and sapphire necklaces, and the anklets and golden toe rings of the kings of the Coromandel Coast. Nature has been the source of inspiration for Indian jewellery; the mango-shaped maangaa maalai of Tamil nadu, the leaf-shaped pachaikal thaali necklace of Kerala, the flower-shaped kaanphool of the north, the feather-topped sarpech, the parrotshaped armlets and so on. Gold and gems are believed to have beneficial properties. Medicinal effects are attributed to gold, which is worn against the body so that, as it gradually rubs against the skin, the minute particles will enter the pores. The nine gems-navaratna - are worn to enhance the powers of a beneficial planet or minimise the effects of a malevolent one. According to a myth, when Shiva opened his third eye to destroy the demon Padmasura, Parvati ran away in fright, breaking her anklets in the process and scattering the gems therein. Shiva saw his beloved Parvati in each gem and created nine warriors out of the stones to help his son Kartikeya destroy the demon. They are the Sun (ruby), Moon (pearls), Mars (coral), Mercury (emerald), Jupiter (topaz), Venus (diamond), Saturn (sapphire), Rahu (zircon) and Ketu (cat's eye). A fortnight ago I wrote about our lack of creativity. There are some areas where the exception is the rule - jewellery is one of them. Over the years the Indian artisan has produced some of the most beautiful creations in gold and silver, diamond and precious stones, a tradition that has continued, developed and strengthened over the years. Unfortunately, the best jewels are in private collections and we see them very occasionally, if ever. The exhibition of the Nizam's jewellery is a wonderful
opportunity to see the great creations of the Indian craftsman. It is coming southward soon, to Hyderabad and Chennai, giving us an opportunity to look, admire - and pat ourselves on our backs!
Artist, don't blame the north!
Are southern artists the victims of the North-South divide? (NSE, Aug 5). Or, are southern artists victims of their own environment? It is easy to look for villains: Northern galleries do not promote Southern artists, Delhi babus do not give grants to Southern artists, and the media do not write about them. Excuses are endless. But Bharata Natyam and Carnatic music find an audience, even students, in the North, while most Delhi babus are South Indians. And the media? Most of them give their readers what they want to read, and as often as they want to read it. So, what happened to Southern art? First, the tradition. In South India, art was either heraldic or religious and, most often, a combination of the two. Rajaraja's Brihadishvara Temple at Tanjavur and Krishnadevaraya's Vithalaswamy Temple at Hampi were intended to amaze and inspire awe. Artistic excellence was an offering to the gods, a reminder of the greatness of the king and his devotion to his deity. Art was not a reproduction of reality: it was a path to perfection. Ceilings were covered with paintings that narrated Puranic stories. Walls and pillars were profusely decorated with sculptures, while doorways and roofs were surmounted by massive towers (gopura) and golden spires (vimana). Art inspired, taught and reinforced religious ideals. But it was never ''art for art's sake''; it had another mission. Places or private homes with painted walls or other decoration are rarely, if ever, seen in the South till the modern (British) period and thereafter. On the other hand, the remotest rural havelis and huts of northern India had painted walls, decorated hookahs, embroidered pillows and torans and carved walls. In contrast, South Indian homes are severely practical. Carved Chettinad homes, and the Mattancheri and Padmanabhapuram Places are recent in comparison to the decorated medieval homes of North India, while Tanjore and Mysore paintings were created for the pooja, not as decorations on the walls. The fashion of decorating the home with works of art is thus quite recent in the South, unlike the painted havelis of Rajasthan and Gujarat or even the beautifully painted walls of the humble hut dweller in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Bengal. Painted huts are never seen in South India. Names of artists are rare in India, but a few have survived from the Mughal and Rajput periods. None are known in the South. So where did the Southern artists go for their inspiration? Raja Ravi Verma was the pioneer of modern Indian art, but was dismissed as a ''calendar'' artist whose pictures were described by art critic Ajit Mookerjee as ''an almost pathological symptom of a disintegrating culture''. Mookerjee traced the origins of modern Indian art to the nationalist movement and Bengal - Abanindiranath Tagore and his student Nandalal Bose who combined soft lines and colours with ''a lyrical romanticism'' and Jamini Roy, that ''modern primitive'', who dug into the native traditions of his Bankura district and discovered, in the patuas and pottery, patterns of primary and bold colours and strong lines. This ''primitivism'' influenced the early works of M F Hussain who found inspiration in ''traditional Indian dolls, paper toys, shapes
galore''. When Mookerjee criticised Ravi Verma's paintings, no Southern artist or art writer supported him as a pioneer of modern art. It was left to the auction houses of London, where the price of his paintings have skyrocketed in the 21st century. The folk and primitive character of the Eastern school upset the times, for it charged the insignificant and the commonplace with evocative ideas and associations. The artist is not an innovator. He reproduces, with a brush or a chisel, something that exists and of which he is a part. If the Bengal school was inspired by folk traditions, Western Indian painters such as Ara, Bendre and B Prabha revelled in the dusky sensuousness of the local women who were the source of their inspiration. And Northern artists such as Hakim Khan and M A Rahman Chughtai turned to Mughal paintings for their ideas. Where was the South? Of the six students of Abanindranath, one - K Venkatappa belonged to the erstwhile Mysore state. While Abanindranath and his other students found patrons in the North, Venkatappa, whose paintings were a collection of scenes from the classics, portraits and studies of the Himalayas and Ooty, had but one: S V Ramaswamy Mudaliar. The eclectic subjects tell a tale of a search for inspiration. Southern artists disdained local sources of inspiration, such as the Tirupati (Kalamkari) or Kerala Schools, and so on. They looked westwards, producing works that were ''out of sync'' with their milieu. Needless to say, they could not integrate culturally. Nor did they find local buyers. The lack of a Southern School of Art probably motivated K C S Paniker to establish Cholamandal Artists' Village. Paniker was a rare artist who used lines to inscribe, not outline, whose combination of symbols, words and lines created original and intricate movement. But a lot of Southern art was either derivative or rootless. While Cholamandal brought them together, Southern artists survived on craftwork, textile design and so on. There was no market for their works of art. This singular lack of patronage has been a hallmark of Southern buyers. The article mentioned earlier says that Southern galleries prefer to promote Northern artists. Galleries are commercial ventures, not art promoters. They will sell whatever finds a market and fetches them a good commission. I know one Southern industrialist who let his interior decorator choose the furniture, carpet and paintings, another buyer who bought a Hussain for its resale value, and so on. The Southern pragmatism in buying a work of art for its intrinsic value continues to promote Northern artists who have ''made it'' rather than Southern artists with doubtful futures. How many Southern buyers know anything about the artist, the school or the work? The media have been blamed for this lack of knowledge. But this is a chicken and egg syndrome. The media will publish if there is a readership, and readers will read if they have more opportunities to read and learn. Most Southern newspapers publish art reviews only one day a week, in contrast to Northern newspapers who publish reviews a day or two after an exhibition opens. Many of the reviews in the South come long after the exhibition has closed down. Further, there has never been any ''dialogue'' on art. For a long time there was Josef James and then Anjali Sircar, both art critics from the South. The Calcutta school looked down on Bombay, the latter called the former snobs. The North was tossed around. The South was never in the reckoning. A few individuals got a good press, but were never part of a school or artistic movement.
In contrast, South Indian music and dance had powerful impresarios. Rukmini Devi Arundale was a pioneer and a champion of her genre, while writers like Subbudu wrote both constructively and regularly. Performing arts from the South went ahead like a battering ram: Bharata Natyam, Kathakali, Odissi and Carnatic music found an early audience in the North, whether they were understood or not. The reasons for this are multifold. Firstly, they narrated Epic and Puranic tales that were known all over India. Let us not forget that Ravi Verma's oleographs were produced in Lonavla, near Bombay, not in his native Kerala. Secondly, the aesthetic appeal was striking. A work of art MUST be beautiful, it must appeal to the senses. And finally, there were powerful writers who wrote repeatedly, explaining every gesture and nuance, variation and movement. The North soon learned about Bharata Natyam and Kathakali. Today, visual arts in the South need the equivalent of impresarios who will promote them with unfailing regularity. They also need writers who will educate the readers, start a dialogue and kindle public interest. But they must find their roots which will anchor them in place, while the main plant searches for a place in the sun. A painting must reflect the artist and his environment, not the buyer. A combination of environment and circumstances has circumscribed the development of contemporary art in the South, although the South has produced great individual artists. The artists have to create the environment and the movement to be reckoned as a force on the national scene. They also need regular media support. Otherwise, we will continue to be limited to a few individual artists who have good contacts in Delhi and Mumbai, or to the token half-a-dozen paintings picked up by Lalit Kala Akademi from the South to ensure that the ''National'' exhibitions are truly national!
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