Showing posts with label India. Show all posts
Showing posts with label India. Show all posts

Mimicry and Hybridity in Plain English (Updated and Expanded)

This essay is a sequel of sorts to an earlier blog post essay I wrote a few years ago, introducing Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism for students as well as general readers. 

Update from April 2017: I added a new section called "Close Reading Bhabha's 'Signs Taken For Wonders.'" Also, for folks assigning this in a classroom, there is a downloadable PDF version of this essay here

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When the terms “mimicry” and “hybridity” are invoked in literary criticism, or in classrooms looking at literature from Asia, Africa, or the Caribbean, as well as their respective diasporas, there is usually a footnote somewhere to two essays by Homi K. Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man,” and “Signs Taken For Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority Under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817.” But students who look at those essays, or glosses of those essays in books like Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts, generally come away only more confused. Though his usage of a term like “hybridity” is quite original, Bhabha’s terminology is closely derived from ideas and terminology from Freud and French thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan. I do respect the sophistication of Bhabha’s thinking -- and the following is not meant to be an attack on his work -- but I do not think his essays were ever meant to be read as pedagogical starting points.

What I propose to do here is define these complex terms, mimicry and hybridity, in plain English, using references from Bhabha's own writings, but also from other sites -- from specific cultural contexts, historical events, and works of literature art that aren't under Bhabha's purview. The point is not to tie the ideas up nicely, the way one might for an Encyclopedia entry, for example. Rather, my hope is to provide a starting point for initiating conversations about these concepts that might lead to a more productive discussion in the classroom than Bhabha's essays tend to do alone.

Fateh Singh Makkar, 1924-2017

I recently delivered a eulogy for my grandfather, who passed away at the age of 92. This is a slightly edited version, with most names removed to protect my relatives' privacy.

My grandfather and me, at the Air and Space Museum, 1982

Thank you all for coming today to help us remember and honor my grandfather, Doctor Fateh Singh Makkar. (We called him “Bhapaji.”)  Bhapaji passed away in Ludhiana, Punjab last week at the age of 92; my parents were there to be with him in his last few days, as were my father’s sisters. It happened right around the 11th anniversary of the death of my grandmother Bhagwant Kaur, and they had come together in Ludhiana in part as part of the family's annual commemoration of her death.

Bhapaji was a larger-than-life figure for us -- a big man with a huge personality, beloved by four generations in a large family with that is now mostly dispersed over northern India with a couple of branches here in the U.S. Today I'm going to talk for a couple of minutes about his life and give some details that help give a sense of who Bhapaji was with a somewhat historical, documentary angle (others today will speak more "from the heart").

I think of people of Bhapaji's generation -- there are fewer and fewer of them with each passing year -- as a bridge in some ways to our collective history as people of South Asian descent. Bhapaji, born in 1924, lived through the last years of the British Raj, the Partition, and then essentially the whole of postcolonial Indian history up to this point. We don't, I don't think, pay enough attention to the lessons of that history.

Like many Sikhs, our family history started in what is today Pakistan. Bhapaji was born and raised in a Muslim-majority village called Musakhel in a rural part of western Punjab; his own father was a kind of village doctor -- in Indian languages, a Hakim. I once asked him if he remembered anything about his own grandfather. He told me that he too was a hakim -- so the medical tradition goes back a long way in our family (my own father is a doctor). Bhapaji later moved to a village called "Chak Number 90," where my father was born. As much as that area of Punjab was home, politics interceded, and with Partition approaching it became abundantly clear that they couldn't stay. In 1947, the family migrated on foot from Pakistan into India, covering an astonishing 160 miles with a nine month old baby -- my father -- in their arms in the midst of terrible violence.

After a brief time in a refugee camp, the family resettled in the town of Bharatpur, Rajasthan, where Bhapaji set up a medical practice and a dispensary. He soon became known and respected throughout the town. He was the head of the local Sikh Gurdwara society in Bharatpur, but he was so well respected by the local Hindu community that he was also elected head of the Bharatpur Punjabi Hindu temple.

I felt that sense of importance when I would go to visit Bharatpur as a child. It's not an especially nice-looking town; there's an old Mughal fort there, but otherwise it's a forgettable place in the middle of the desert. But when we went there we felt like VIPs. My family had what felt like a huge compound there, with high walls and lots of rooms and pathways. (I haven't been back in many years, so it's possible that it seemed bigger to me as an eight year old than it actually was.) I was in awe of the cavernous main hall where we would play cards and chess for hours, and I was amazed at all the wild animals one would see in the streets and alleys of the town -- pigs, goats, dogs, cows. When we slept on cots on the roof during the hot summer months (no air-conditioning back then), we had to watch out for aggressive monkeys that came out at dawn to harass us poor humans. I was in awe, too, of Bhapaji’s antique shotgun, sometimes used for hunting game, though in the midst of the riots of 1984 Bhapaji had to fire it in the air to dispel a murderous mob that had gathered at the doors of the compound. 

It happened again: a place that felt like home suddenly didn't. The family was shocked by 1984 -- by the sense that neighbors could turn on them without warning -- and decided to move to Punjab for the greater sense of security and belonging. (My mother’s parents did something similar at that time after going through a similar experience, relocating from Delhi to Chandigarh.) Bhapaji and my father's brother settled in Ludhiana, where Chachaji opened up a medical practice of his own.

Even as he seemed to remind us of our past, Bhapaji also enjoyed and embraced modernity -- whether it was modern medicine or modern technology. He enjoyed getting to know young people; I was always impressed by how good he was at sizing people up and debunking the kind of hot air and bloat that Indian men of a certain age are sometimes prone to. I remember one relative at a dinner once bragging about how many Crores of Rupees he was supposedly making in his factory; Bhapaji laughed it off: Bhaisaab, you must be confusing Lakhs for Crores. And when another relative seemed to get a little too carried away reminiscing about the Kulchas that are famous in Amritsar, he gently chided, "You should eat to live, friend; don't live to eat." 

Another sign of his modernity was his respect for women; Punjabi men of his generation tended to be intensely patriarchal. And yes, both of Bhapaji's sons became doctors, but one of his daughters too is a practicing doctor in Lucknow; another is a teacher (now retired). In the 1960s and 70s, it wasn't so common in traditional Punjabi households like ours for daughters to get post-graduate degrees. And more recently Bhapaji showed great respect for the women in the younger generation who are working professionals, including my wife and my brother's wife.  

Bhapaji had six children -- two sons and four daughters. All are thriving, with twelve grandchildren (my generation) as well as, now, eleven great-grandchildren. Of the six children, three ended up in medicine as well -- my father, my father’s sister (my Bhuaji) in Lucknow, and my Chachaji in Ludhiana. In the next generation again (my generation) there are three doctors too. So the long and proud tradition of medical work in our family continues. (And yes, neither my brother nor I went to medical school; perhaps one of my kids will find their way back to the family "line.") 

Many of us in the room are getting older. Bhapaji taught us how to age gracefully and to enjoy life’s later years. He lived healthily in spite of longstanding issues with heart disease -- he had his first heart attack at age 57 and underwent what was then (this was 1982) a rather risky bypass operation. It worked; he went on to live well, by and large, for another 35 years. Even after becoming a widower a decade ago, he continued eating extremely carefully, doing yoga, and going for regular constitutional walks until just the last year of his life, when his health started to falter. That discipline is incredibly impressive. I think of my own struggles to eat healthy and exercise. Bhapaji didn’t need an app or a device to get him to be healthy. He just had the discipline and did it.

Bhapaji was the last of my four grandparents. He was also the grandparent my brother and I knew best, in part because he spoke the best English of any of the four. That said, I had wished many times that my Punjabi was better so I could have experienced the full force of his legendary wit and humor. Bhapaji expressed the desire that my kids and my brother's kids grow up speaking better Punjabi than we did. We’ve been trying to honor that request.

Near the end of his life, Bhapaji and my father went back to Musakhel in Pakistan -- the village he had left behind now more than 70 years ago. The village is still there; the house is still there, and the old folks in that village, remarkably, still remembered Bhapaji. It was remarkable to my father on that trip to see how quickly Bhapaji could reconnect with old childhood friends he hadn't seen in so long; it says something pretty profound about Bhapaji's personality and how well he was loved. But I think it also tells us something about the way time can heal wounds. The bridge between two communities that was broken in 1947 can be mended; it wouldn't be that hard to do. And we can begin to move forward, together. 

Gender and the State: A Beginner's Guide to the Personal Law Debate in India

Next week, Lehigh hosts an exciting conference called "Feminisms Beyond the Secular," with a number of prominent feminist academics coming into speak, from India, the U.S. and Ghana. 

I am not presenting at the conference, though I am moderating a panel. Nevertheless, I thought this might be a good moment to post something of my own related to this topic. I had tried to get it published earlier with a scholarly journal, without success. The second half of the essay, not included, deals with novels -- Taslima Nasreen's writings related to secularism and Muslim women's feminism, and Samina Ali's Madras on Rainy Days

This section contains an account of the Personal Law debate in Indian law, which affects Marriage Law, Divorce, custody of children, and property in marriage. It might serve as a beginner's introduction to that debate -- helpful to people who don't have much background in debates over feminism and secularism in India. 

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It is becoming increasingly clear that the often-presumed link between “secularization” and “modernization” does not quite hold, as certain regions of the developed world remain strongly religious in the cultural sphere, while the rapid progress of industrialization in the developing world has come with the growth, not the diminishment, of strong religious beliefs. Secularization, as a cultural, historical tendency, is therefore not an inevitable process, and in a surprisingly wide swath of nations around the world the question of what exactly constitutes “secularism” has become a hotly-contested issue. In these debates, women's rights are often—indeed, nearly always—the central material question under debate. Questions of women’s dress, access to education and employment, control over reproductive rights, the right to divorce, property rights, and child custody rights—these are variously contested by religious conservatives, from Saudi Arabia, to Europe, to India, to the United States. The diversity of different national histories and cultural contexts is so great that no simply universal, “secular feminist” response is readily available.

As critics such as Chandra Talpade Mohanty and others have pointed out, universalism has tended to lead to analytic errors, and is often premised on a kind of neo-colonial presumption of western feminist superiority. And yet, women’s struggles with repressive religious authorities in different parts of the world can be explored, and indeed, profitably understood, across cultural and political boundaries, as long as close attention to cultural and historical specificities is maintained. In the case of the concept of secularism in particular, a helpful corrective to a conventional universalist model might come from a political philosopher like Rajeev Bhargava, who has argued that western political secularism may be only one among many concepts of workable secularism. If in a country like the United States “secularism” seems to indicate a wall of separation between Church and State, in India secularism can refer to a state deeply involved with religion, but focused on using its power to adjudicate resources and rights equally amongst different religious communities (Bhargava 2005; Bhargava 2011). As Priya Kumar phrases it, this kind of secularism emphasizes “tolerance or freedom of all religions rather than as the exclusion of religion from state” (Kumar 2008: 15).

Gender and Secularism in India: a Brief Historical Overview

In the Indian case in particular, secularism in the contemporary moment seems to hinge on women's rights, sometimes with the same degree of complexity and even awkwardness of the recently enacted French laws regarding the Hijab, or headscarf. The current crisis in women's rights and religion has been directly debated in regard to two legal controversies in the 1980s, the Shah Bano case (Agnes 1999; Agnes 2007) and the Roop Kanwar Sati case (Mani 1998), though arguably it could be extended both backwards—to the debates over Sati in the colonial era and the centrality of rape in narratives of Partition—and forwards, to the violence against women in the riots that engulfed the Indian subcontinent in 1992 and 2002 (Baldwin 2002). 

Notes on "Photo-Wallahs" (1992)

My friend Kate Pourshariati recently organized a screening of the documentary film Photo-Wallahs (1992) at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. She invited me to briefly introduce the film and moderate a discussion. Below is a slightly revised version of my notes from the event.

David and Judith MacDougall have been making documentary films since the late 1960s, and they’ve made films on people from numerous regions, from Africa, to Italy, to Australia, to India. Besides this film, they’ve done several other documentaries based in India, including Doon School Chronicles, on the elite boarding school in Dehra Dun, and Gandhi’s Children, focusing on slum children in Delhi. (Many of their documentaries are made collaboratively, but they have sometimes also worked on their own. Doon School Chronicles has David McDougall’s name on it exclusively, while a recent film, Diyas, was directed exclusively by Judith McDougall.)  In addition to making films, David MacDougall has written a fair amount about film and issues related to visual anthropology over the years, including two books, Transcultural Cinema and The Corporeal Image

Photo-Wallahs is a film about the culture of photography in the famous hill station of Mussoorie, with some scenes filmed in Dehra Dun. The method of the documentary is “observational,” which is to say there’s no background narration from the film-makers, and the audience has to do the work of putting together the individual pieces and themes themselves. The filmmakers focus on two different kinds of professional photography, 1) tourism photography, which involves middle-class tourists paying to be photographed dressed up in fanciful costumes with the Mussoorie hills in the background; and 2) more conventional studio photography, such as is used in matrimonial ads and wedding pictures. They also have brief sections involving people who are not photographers, including a segment with Sita Devi of Kapurthala (who was photographed by the fashion photographer Cecil Beaton in England in the 1930s), as well as a segment with the Indian writer Ruskin Bond, reading from his story “The Photograph.”

In Defense of India's Literary Culture (Dalrymple, Bal, Jaipur, etc.)

There's an interesting -- though rather awkward -- debate up right now at Open Magazine, between William Dalrymple and Hartosh Singh Bal. The starting point for the debate is the status of the annual Jaipur International Literature Festival, which will be occurring this coming weekend in Jaipur, Rajasthan.

Before getting into the ins and outs of the debate, here is what one probably needs to read.

1. Here is Hartosh Singh Bal's starting volley:

2. Here is Dalrymple's response, "The Piece You Ran is Blatantly Racist":

3. And here is Bal's response to Dalrymple's "racism" charge:

4. Here is a further response by Pramod Kumar, who claims that actually the Jaipur Literature festival was not exactly William Dalrymple's own idea in its original inception:

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I should begin by saying that I'm predisposed not to think very highly of Hartosh Singh Bal, because of the asinine essay he published in the same magazine in 2009, "Oh, For a Book to Ban!" (Chandrahas Choudhury at The Middle Stage responded to that essay ably here.)

To put it as succinctly as I can: I'm not really inclined to care very much what a literary critic who doesn't read books thinks.

That said, Bal, in his initial piece in the new "Open" debate, does seem to have improved, and done some journalistic homework this time around. He does make some valid points about some of the the problems with India's literary culture: there's no question that there is still a fair amount of symbolic and financial dependence on the West (though arguably it's as much the U.S. that drives that as it is the U.K.). Reading his essay it seemed to me that his target shouldn't be Dalrymple per se, but rather the overly deferential way Dalrymple is received by some Indians. Moreover, his complaint with the Jaipur festival isn't about the festival per se -- by all accounts, the festival is diverse and inclusive, though it certainly does trade on the celebrities that fly in to participate -- but again, the matter of perceptions. (It might be interesting to ask some Indian readers not clued into LRB and NYRB channels whose name means more to them: Ian McEwan, or Shobha De? William Dalrymple or Amitabh Bachchan?)

That said, I think it's worth pointing out some things about India's English-language literary culture. First, as someone who started out studying the first big wave of Indian English authors -- Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Amit Chaudhuri, Anita Desai, and so on -- one of the things I always used to lament was the fact that all of these writers felt they had to leave India to make their careers happen. It was partly a symbolic matter -- they did want recognition from the London  literary establishment -- but it was at least as much financial. Anyone in their position in the 1970s would have done the same if they could, without really skipping a beat.

One sign of things changing is that that is no longer the case. There is a new vibrancy in the Indian publishing houses, and the Indian branches of transnational publishing companies (i.e., HarperCollins India and so on) that might well allow current and subsequent generations of writers to make a good living as writers without leaving India. Some of the younger writers whose books I've read and enjoyed in recent years fit in that category: Chandrahas Choudhury, Amit Varma, Samit Basu, Deepanjana Pal, and Dilip D'Souza come to mind (there are many, many others). Perhaps they are not getting paid on the scale of Arundhati Roy or Vikram Chandra (i.e., with the huge advances from American publishers), but the last I checked they seemed to be doing just fine.

The issue is not a lingering "Raj effect", it's whether there are publishing houses that can edit and produce serious books, whether there are journalists and magazines that can review those books, and finally whether there are readers who can buy and read those books. By almost any standard, the literary climate   (again, only talking about English for the moment) is much better now than it was 20 years ago. Why isn't that the real story here? At one point in his initial essay Bal asks, "How did a White man . . . become the pompous arbiter of literary merit in India?"  Someone only becomes an arbiter if others elect to make him one. Dalrymple is certainly influential, but there are plenty of Indian critics who can also be held up as "arbiters", including the afore-mentioned Chandrahas Choudhury; we might also mention Nilanjana Roy as a possible candidate for "Arbiter". Bal's piece, in other words, seems to be symptomatic of the very disease he claims to be trying to diagnose. 

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I'm not going to go out of my way to defend Dalrymple here; he's perfectly capable of defending himself. I do think Bal was mistaken to focus on a "Raj" connection for Dalrymple, since Dalrymple really does not stand for that -- as anyone who's read his major books would know. (See: "The Last Mughal" or "White Mughals") For his part, I do think Dalrymple should probably not have responded to Bal with the "racism" charge, since it has proven to be a distraction from more substantive issues. (The cartoon was probably racist; the essay itself was more misdirected than anything else.)

Again, I think the substance of Bal's initial engagement with "Dalrymple" was more symbolic than real -- more focused on the problems with the Indian readers' deferentiality to Western authority -- so it's unclear why Dalrymple was even really his particular target. Isn't the real target Bal wants the Indian English reading public?

The best way to help foster a more intelligent literary culture, one that is driven more by ideas and substance than by cheap postures and obvious symbolism, is to actually focus on substance. How much more interesting would it have been to write a piece about the 2011 Jaipur International Literary Festival focusing not on Dalrymple and Ian McEwan, but on the Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif (who is participating in the festival this year), or the great Hindi poet Ashok Vajpeyi, one of the key figures in the Nayi Kavita [New Poetry] movement? Or the great Chinese, African, and Pakistani writers who are all gathering there this year? The saddest thing about this whole argument is that with all this vitriol we've wasted what might have been a good opportunity to have a different kind of conversation.

In Delhi, at the Library

For the past few days I've been ensconced in south Delhi, mainly visiting the city's research libraries as well as friends and family. It's winter in Delhi, which basically means the high is about 70 degrees F in the daytime -- and still quite sunny. In short, quite a pleasant change after Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago, where the high was just about the freezing mark.

I was able to spend a fair number of hours at three different libraries in the city, the library at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the Sahitya Akademi library, and the Nehru Memorial Library (NML). This is just a brief report on what I found there, in case anyone is interested in visiting India for their own research.

First off, I should say that doing library research in Delhi is not actually that hard if you're coming from outside India. The main libraries are all housed in stately South Delhi, full of wide boulevards, government buildings, and Mughal-era tourist attractions (like Humayun's Tomb, Safdarjung, and Khan-e-Khanan). You are not in the busy markets (though there are plenty of markets and malls not far away), nor are you in amidst the throngs of humanity in Old Delhi or Connaught Place.

The second thing to know is that online/electronic search only takes you so far at these libraries, at least as of the present moment. You need to go and browse the stacks and actually talk to librarians in all cases to find out about the collections. In all three libraries I found that books also weren't resehelved especially carefully -- you sometimes have to poke around adjoining shelves and really look if you want to find particular things.

At JNU library, there was a nominal security presence, but I just said I was coming from a university in the U.S. and the guard let me in. The central library building is housed in a rather formidable 10 story structure.  As far as I could tell, the building does not have climate control, so the windows are kept open throughout the stacks (presumably year-round?). This means that the books are all quite dusty, and in various states of degradation. The collection is large, but the literature stacks are pretty spotty (the social sciences stacks actually looked much more impressive). I also couldn't find any of the old Hindi and English-language periodicals I was looking for in the stacks, so I asked the periodicals librarian. She sent me to one 'deputy', who then called on another, and they opened up a huge locked (!) room full of decaying bound periodicals, which as far as I could see were not actually "organized." After about 20 minutes of sleuthing, the three of us found a few volumes of one of the journals I wanted ("Indian Literature"), but at this point the Deputy apologetically told me that if I really wanted to do research on literature I should go to another library, such as the Sahitya Akademi.

As a side note, the JNU campus is an interesting place to visit. The university is known as a hub for the Indian left, and you see evidence of this in spades, as huge murals painted by the various left-leaning student parties have pride of place on many campus buildings. (I do not think many American colleges would allow this level of student club dominance.) You see much shrill denunciation of U.S. Imperialism, religious Communalism, as well as the policies of the center-left Congress Party currently in power. I briefly visited some of the bookstalls outside the library, and found one eager bookseller who was full of gossip about former JNU professors who now have posh teaching appointments in the U.S.

I followed the JNU Deputy Librarian's advice, and the next day went to the Sahitya Akademi library at Rabindra Bhawan. Here I found a collection much better maintained, with really extensive (virtually unparalleled) collections of literature in Indian languages. The materials related to English were perhaps less extensive, but still had quite a bit that I found helpful. I also found some great stuff in the Sahitya Akademi's collections of manuscripts from the Akademi's own prestigious International Seminars, including a talk by Aijaz Ahmad ("Times of the Modern") from 1996, that I think has never been formally published.

Finally, I was able to visit the Nehru Memorial Library at Teen Murti Bhawan. Here the star of the collection is clearly the material (in History, Political Science, and Economics) related to modern Indian history (starting with five extensive shelves marked "Gandhiana"). Also outstanding is the collection of old newspapers on microfilm. I did spend a few hours looking through some of these -- as far as I know, British Indian newspapers like the Civil and Military Gazette (from Lahore) or The Statesman (Calcutta) are not available like this at American university libraries. I will have to come back here and stay longer (for maybe two or three weeks) to do more digging for a certain side-project I want to do at some point.

Literature is somewhat besides the point at NML, but again I did find some helpful material for my project. My one warning for visitors from abroad is to make sure to get a "letter of reference" from your supervisor or chair. In this case the Librarian (who was very much not a Deputy) gave me a hard time about not having such a letter before letting me in anyway. (I would expect that you would want the letter on stationary -- I'm not sure that a printed-out email would suffice.)

At all three libraries I visited, the photocopying works like this: you give your materials to a man at the photocopy center for copying, and he does it for you. The rates are either 50 paisa or 1 Rupee (1 cent or 2 cents) per page. At first I found it a little odd -- for me, photocopying has always been one of the necessary miseries of library research -- but the nice thing about the arrangement is that it gives you a little more time to stay focused on your work. On this brief trip, having a few minutes more to explore the library was appreciated.

Another thing: you might want to pack a lunch if you are visiting these places -- no in-library cafes.

Now -- on to see family in Punjab and Himachal Pradesh.

A Little on Gauhar Jaan

I was doing some research this morning on an unrelated topic, when I randomly came across the name Gauhar Jaan, one of the great recording artists in India from the first years of the 20th century. Gauhar Jaan is thought to have sung on the very first recording of a song ever made in India, in 1902. Here is what she sang:

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It's a kind of Hindustani classical song called a "khayal," sung, I gather, in Raag Jogiya. At the end of it she says, famously, "My name is Gauhar Jan!"

Who was Gauhar Jaan? Her background, from what I've been able to find on the internet, seems remarkable:

Gauhar Jaan was born as Angelina Yeoward in 1873 in Patna, to William Robert Yeoward, an Armenian Jew working as an engineer in dry ice factory at Azamgarh, near Banaras, who married a Jewish Armenian lady, Allen Victoria Hemming around 1870. Victoria was born and brought up in India, and trained in music and dance.

Within a few years in 1879, the marriage ended, causing hardships to both mother and daughter, who later migrated to Banaras in 1881, with a Muslim nobleman, 'Khursheed', who appreciated Victoria's music more than her husband.

Later, Victoria, converted to Islam and changed Angelina's name to 'Gauhar Jaan' and hers to 'Malka Jaan'. (link)

Through her mother, who depended on the patronage of wealthy Muslim noblemen (I'm presuming she may have been a Tawaif), Gauhar Jaan got training from the best classical music masters in Calcutta at the time. By 1896, she was a star performer in Calcutta, which is how she was able to charge Rs. 3000 in 1902 to have her voice on the first audio recording of an Indian song ever made. Later, Gauhar Jaan became a star all over India. She performed in Madras in 1910, and even performed for King George V when he visited India. She died of natural causes as the palace musician of the Maharajah of Mysore in 1930. (There is a fuller bio of Gauhar Jaan here, at the Tribune. Also, see this profile of Gauhar Jaan.)

Another song Gauhar Jaan was famous for was "Ras ke bhare tore nain," which I think many readers will find familiar for reasons that will become apparent below.

Here is a somewhat more recent version of "Ras ke bhare tore nain," sung by Hira Devi Mishra (from the 1982 film "Gaman"):

I'm finding the Hindi (Braj Basha?) a little hard to follow, so if anyone wants to help with translation, it would be appreciated. Here is the Midival Punditz' "Fabric," a drum n bass remix used by Mira Nair in Monsoon Wedding:

The neighborhood where she films those crazy wires is in Old Delhi -- the area around Jama Masjid. Nair also did her first, student film in that neighborhood (the film was her thesis at Harvard; it was a short, eighteen-minute documentary called "Jama Masjid Street Journal").

Review: "Global Bollywood: Travels of Hindi Song and Dance"

Global Bollywood is an academic anthology, but it contains several essays that might be of interest to lay readers who are fans of Hindi films and filmi music. There are, admittedly, a couple of somewhat jargony essays in the collection, but they can be avoided for readers allergic to that sort of thing. Accessible essays that take on specific subjects, and present new and helpful information about them, dominate the anthology. As a result, I can recommend it alongside another book I reviewed some time ago, Tejaswini Ganti’s Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema.

Defining "Bollywood"

Sangita Gopal and Sujata Moorti's thorough introduction to this volume is a pretty definitive survey of much important scholarship on Hindi cinema. Given my own background and interests, the sections from which I learned the most were probably the somewhat more 'marginal' sections, where Gopal and Moorti provided overviews of some slightly more obscure topics, such as the influence of 19th century Parsi street theater on the emergence of the Bollywood acting and musical style (they cite Kathryn Hansen’s work on this subject; also see Hansen's translation of Somnath Gupt's book).

Still, here is the definition of "Bollywood" with which Gopal and Moorti begin:

Frequently remarked upon by insiders and always remarkable to outsiders, song-dance occupies the constitutive limit of Bollywood cinema. It determines – perhaps unfairly but invariably – the form itself even as it frequently escapes the filmic context to inhabit other milieus. (1)

One could object that it's not just the song-dance that is distinctive about commercial Hindi cinema, but the particular stylization of the acting, which seems over-the-top and melodramatic to many viewers acculturated to the values of European art cinema. Certainly, it wasn't just song-dance that Satyajit Ray rebelled against starting in the 1950s – or, more recently, Aparna Sen, or Mira Nair. These art film directors were also interested in more naturalistic characterization, and in finding beauty in the everyday.

Gopal and Moorti are by no means the only ones to attempt to work out a theoretical definition of "Bollywood." I have been reading some of this rapidly proliferating scholarship for a project I have been doing on a non-Bollywood director, and this act of defining Bollywood "in theory" is quite widespread.

But I wonder whether Bollywood studies scholars might be over-thinking it. Does a particular national cinema need to be positively "defined" anymore? That is to say, can’t we simply say that commercial Hindi cinema is defined by its context and cultural norms, just as commercial American cinema might be defined?

Variations of "Censorship"

Another aspect that falls under context is the choice of topics and themes, and the censorship regime. Censorship in Indian cinema is a two-way street. On the one hand, there is the familiar figure of the censor board (CBFC), which has a very particular culture and history. It might be worth pointing out that all film industries have some form of this, for good reason, and it is therefore wrong to say that Indian movies are "censored," while American movies are not. American movies that get commercially released are also censored -- but differently censored, through the ratings system as well as through the big distributors, who rarely carry "NC-17" rated films.

But there is also a kind of self-censorship intrinsic to Indian cinema itself, as enacted by the makers of films, and even by the actors, which relates to the choice of topics. This self-censorship is often a rough mirror for the tastes of the marketplace; filmmakers and actors try not to do anything that will turn off a large number of potential ticket-buyers. However, there are times when there is a gap between what the censor board thinks is unacceptable and what the masses think. (An example of such a gap, referenced by Nilanjana Bhattacharjya and Monika Mehta in their essay in the volume, is the great “Kaanta Laga” Visible Thong controversy of 2003 [see the video on YouTube, if you dare].)

One place where self-censorship is a particular problem, in my view, is in acknowledging and representing poverty. I really don’t care that Bollywood doesn’t do female nudity, or that lip-to-lip kisses remain rare or are relegated to more adult-oriented films. What does bother me is when someone like Amitabh Bachchan objected, at least initially, to the non-Bollywood film Slumdog Millionaire purely on the basis of the fact that it represents the slums. Twenty years earlier, he objected to another film about slum children, Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (which is vastly superior to Slumdog, incidentally) using almost exactly the same language he used in 2008. It was irritating then, and it remains irritating today.

Is “Bollywood” an Insult?

Many people inside the Bombay film industry have complained, and continue to complain, about the term "Bollywood," just as some directors of Italian Westerns object to the term "spaghetti Westerns." Gopal and Moorti cite Amitabh Bachchan and Ajay Devgan as two examples of Hindi film stars who don’t like the term.

But of course if you don’t use the term, you also lose something; it’s possible that the objectors are being over-sensitive to an insult that is not in fact really there. (When Indians use the term, for example, they are suggesting the culture, the magazines, the fashion, and the glamor -- not necessarily a particular style of filmmaking.) Gopal and Moorti, always sensitive to nuances, work out a reasonable compromise:

We use the term Bollywood instead of Hindi commercial cinema to capture the global orientation of this formation. When we refer to Hindi commercial cinema in a primarily domestic or a historical context that does not include this global orientation, we use Hindi popular cinema or some variant thereof. Similarl, we use the term filmigit, film song, or film music to emphasize the aural dimension of the performance sequence. (4)

For some, non-Bollywoodized viewers, the song-dance in Hindi cinema is a turn-off. (I have many friends who, much to my irritation, like to fast-forward those sequences when watching Hindi films on DVD.) But for fans of the films, as well as closely observing critics, the song-dance sequences might well be the main reason to watch.

Noted documentarian Nasreen Munni Kabir describes Hindi film song as 'the only truly original moments in a Hindi film... I mean you couldn’t use the songs say from Border and put it in another film. Everyone goes on about the 00 or so films produced in India but 790 seem to have the same story. It is mainly the music that shows fantastic new energy and originality.' It is here that innovations in technology, allusions to sociopolitical realities, and aesthetic experimentation are most in evidence. Simultaneously, these picturizations code the inexpressible and the transgressive. (5)

At the end of the passage above, Gopal and Moorti are referring, I believe, to the way song-dance is often inserted as a cue for romance, allowing the hero and heroine to enact desire they could never directly announce in speech. Songs, in short, bring in encoded (and sometimes not-so-encoded) sexuality. (Someone once described to me a parlor game you can play when watching romantic songs from old films: if the song ends with a mountain, it signifies an erection, and if it ends with a stream, that's an orgasm.) Our guest blogger, Nilanjana, also talked about this, in an essay not included in the present volume:

In the absence of dialogue, music and song sequences and the mechanism of coitus interruptus have often been used to portray sexual situations, such as in the song "Chup Chup Ke" from the recent hit Bunty Aur Babli (2005). The song sequence depicts the lead characters’ first night together (suhag raat) after their marriage, where the first shot of the couple embracing each other in bed quickly cuts to shots of the characters dancing and singing in an otherwise uninhabited desolate mountain landscape. The lyrics describe the sky’s unfastening itself from the earth, which conveys the intensity of the couple’s physical passion while avoiding its literal depiction. (link)

71 Songs, in a single film. Really.

I suggested above that it may not be appropriate to define Hindi cinema by song-dance, but I’m not saying song-dance isn’t relevant. The history of song-and-dance in Hindi films is important, including the central role of music in the silent film days (when films would often be shown with a live band performing songs), as well as in the earliest "talkies," many of which were actually in operatic form – that is to say, they featured virtual non-stop singing, with dialogues sung rather than spoken. (One film that is often cited along these lines is Indrasabha, which is sometimes described with awe because it contained 71 songs; in fact, the entire film was probably more like one, continuous, operatic song.)

The Absence of Government Support

One of the great mysteries of post-Independence India is why the government took so long to recognize the cinema as a formal industry (it only happened in 1998), and further, that it imposed "luxury" taxes on commercial films. The fact that it wasn’t recognized as such for so long probably hurt the industry economically, as it led producers to raise money on the black market. But I think it also hurt the industry in some ways intellectually and aesthetically. Other newly independent nations would have died to have such a prolific source of national culture available. (Smaller countries, both in the past and today, generally screen imported films.)

But the cultural arbiters in the Indian government, including both Jawaharlal Nehru and Rajendra Prasad, saw it as a debased art form, which would be of no use in promoting the national goals of progress and development. Nilanjana and Monika Mehta talk about this in their essay in the collection, as follows:

Having already denied industry status to the commercial film industry, the state proceeded to define the film industry’s products as luxuries and imposed heavy taxes on them. In addition, the state emphasized commercial films' dangerous potential to corrupt so-called Indian culture. In the Constituent Assembly Debates, one member stated, 'I think that the greatest injury is being done to the nation by the cinematograph.' Another member lamented, 'these cinemas are doing a great injury to our old treasure of music, poetry, and art.' (107)

There was a similar disdain for the music, as Biswarup Sen points out in his essay, where he talks about All India Radio’s snobbish rejection of popular music in favor of Indian classical after 1947. Here is India’s first minister of information and broadcasting, Dr. Balkrishna Vishwanath Keskar:

The object is to encourage the revival of our traditional music, classical and folk. The Radio is fulfilling that task for the nation and I can say with satisfaction, that it has become the greatest patron of Indian music and musicians, greater than all the princely and munificent patronage of former days. (B.V. Keskar, Cited in Gopal and Moorti, 90)

And here is Sen’s account of what happened to Indian radio under Keskar’s direction:

Under his tutelage, the All India Radio (AIR) developed a list of seven thousand ‘approved’ classical artists, and he saw to it that classical music comprised fully half of all the music broadcast on national radio. Keskar, however, was not destined to win the culture wars. Unable to digest the AIR’s stern diet, the listening public defected to Radio Ceylon, a commercial radio station who broadcasting policy was far more in tune with consumer demand. In the end, the government bowed down to popular taste and set up a new channel designed to disseminate ‘popular music and light entertainment.’ Stated in 1957, Vivid Bharati would soon become the nation’s most popular radio channel, bringing to an end Radio Ceylon’s brief but significant period of broadcasting glory. (90)

(Bhattacharjya and Mehta also have an account of this episode in their essay.)

In Biswarup Sen's account, the rejection of classical was also instrumental in the rise of Kishore Kumar to superstardom in 1969, with "Roop tera mastana" and "Mere sapno ki rani." Before that, Kishore Kumar had already long established himself as a playback singer for Hindi films, but had remained in the shadows of classically trained singers:

It is somewhat of a mystery as to why Kishore would become a superstar so late I his career. The answer may lie, paradoxically, in what most would see as a serious lacuna in his musical education—of the male playback singers of his generation, Kishore was the only one who had received no instruction in classical music. Among his 'competitors,' Rafi had trained under Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Manna Dey was trained by his uncle, the renowned K.C. Dey, and both Mukesh and Mahendra Kapoor were well versed in light classical music. Kishore, on the other hand ,was entirely untutored, cuasing him to be often neglected by musical directors—songwriter Kalyanji's comment that his skills lay more in 'mimicry than in technique' was typical of the musical establishment's reaction to his singing style. Yet it was precisely this lack of skill that proved to be Kishore's strongest selling point. Singers too well grounded in traditional music could, by the middle of the 1960s, no longer market their style of vocal delivery. To take the most obvious example, the great Mohammed Rafi, whose more classically inflected songs from the period are masterpieces of execution, proved insipid and inadequate when singing playback fro Shammi Kapoor, who more than any other actor in the 1960s symbolized what it meant to be 'modern.' (96)

Though he did have some training in Indian classical music, R.D. Burman never wholly gave himself over to the classical music mentality, and that freedom from the binds of traditional Indian music liberated him, making him the most effective maker of contemporary sounding Hindi film music starting in the 1960s.

Globalizing It

In their introduction, Gopal and Moorti cite at length a Greek scholar named Helen Abadzi who has studied the appearance of Bollywood film (referred to in Greece as “indoprepis”), as well as the advent of Greek music imitating Bollywood film songs, starting in the late 1950s. Luckily, the article they cite is on the web; readers might want to take a look at it: “Hindi Films of the 50s in Greece: The Latest Chapter of a Long Dialogue”.

Another site visited by the Global Bollywood anthology is Indonesia, where there is a hybrid pop music genre associated with Hindi film influence called Dangdut. Dangdut music is considered low-class entertainment by Indonesian elites, but since the 1980s and 90s in particular, Bollywood music has been immensely popular. (See Boneka Dari India by Jakarta born Ellya Khadam. It's a cover of the Hindi film song ‘Samay Hai Bahar Ka’)

A third site is Egypt, which might seem unlikely, since Egyptians tend to look down on Indians, as Amitav Ghosh documented in In an Antique Land. Walter Armbrust, in his essay for this volume, also talks about this as follows:

Egyptian filmmakers and most elites disparage Indian cinema, and this is consistent with the more generalized attitude about things Indian. 'Hindi' in everyday language labels things that are strange, silly, or just plain dumb. When someone acts as if you do not know what you are doing, you can say fakirni Hindi? (You think I am from India or something?). Film(i) Hindi means 'an Indian film,' but it is also synonymous with 'a silly thing.' Conceivably, the current linguistic usage of Hindi in the sense of 'strange' or 'stupid' came about at least to some extent through the introduction of Indian films and the eventually antagonist stance against it taken by the elites. (201)

Armbrust's essay does not really get into the particular careers of the Hindi films that have screened in Egypt over the years. Rather, looking at Egyptian film and arts magazines, he focuses more on how Indian themes and atmosphere have been invoked periodically (starting in the 1930s), often by Egyptian filmmakers with all-Egyptian acting crews.

It might have been nice to have essays on the use and adaptation of Hindi film in Africa or Latin America, though other scholars have certainly published articles on that subject here and there. (That India-themed Brazilian soap opera comes to mind...) Another topic that seems particularly salient is the way radical Islamists have gone after Bollywood films and music in places like Afghanistan (but not only there), as corrupting influences. Conversely, I'm interested in how places like Afghanistan have been represented within Hindi films like Kabul Express.

But there is quite a good amount here as it is, and I would happily recommend Global Bollywood to both serious film scholars and fans who want to gain a broader knowledge of the industry, both as it developed within India, and as it has traveled.

The Peace That Almost Was In Kashmir

In this week's print issue of the New Yorker, there's a long, satisfying piece by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Steve Coll on India and Pakistan's attempts to resolve the status of Kashmir over the past few years. The big surprise is just how close the two countries were to permanently resolving the seemingly insoluble problem. The agreement, which was in its final stages in the spring of 2007, was never put into effect or publicly revealed because it was being finalized just when Pervez Musharraf's government began to unravel. Musharraf had hoped to simply postpone the public summit where the deal would have been announced, but instead the whole thing had to be shelved.

The article isn't online at the New Yorker's web site, but you can read it here, at the New America Foundation:

By early 2007, the back-channel talks on Kashmir had become “so advanced that we’d come to semicolons,” Kasuri recalled. A senior Indian official who was involved agreed. “It was huge--I think it would have changed the basic nature of the problem,” he told me. “You would have then had the freedom to remake Indo-Pakistani relations.” Aziz and Lambah were negotiating the details for a visit to Pakistan by the Indian Prime Minister during which, they hoped, the principles underlying the Kashmir agreement would be announced and talks aimed at implementation would be inaugurated. One quarrel, over a waterway known as Sir Creek, would be formally settled.

Neither government, however, had done much to prepare its public for a breakthrough. In the spring of 2007, a military aide in Musharraf’s office contacted a senior civilian official to ask how politicians, the media, and the public might react. “We think we’re close to a deal,” Musharraf ’s aide said, as this official recalled it. “Do you think we can sell it?”

Regrettably, the time did not look ripe, this official recalled answering. In early March, Musharraf had invoked his near-dictatorial powers to fire the chief justice of the country’s highest court. That decision set off rock-tossing protests by lawyers and political activists. (link)

And from there that it just went downhill for General Musharraf. Now, with weak and unstable new leadership in Asif Zardari, and a possible change in leadership coming in India as well this spring, it's unclear whether anything can be done anytime soon.

The actual details of the almost-agreement aren't spelled out entirely in the article, but we do get some promising inklings:

To outsiders, it has long seemed obvious that the Line of Control should be declared the international border between India and Pakistan--it’s been in place for almost forty years, and each country has built its own institutions behind it. Musharraf, however, made it clear from the start that this would be unacceptable; India was equally firm that it would never renegotiate its borders or the Line of Control. The way out of this impasse, Singh has said, was to “make borders irrelevant,” by allowing for the free movement of people and goods within an autonomous Kashmir region. For Pakistan, this formula might work if it included provisions for the protection--and potential enrichment, through free trade--of the people of Kashmir, in whose name Pakistan had carried on the conflict.

The most recent version of the nonpaper, drafted in early 2007, laid out several principles for a settlement, according to people who have seen the draft or have participated in the discussions about it. Kashmiris would be given special rights to move and trade freely on both sides of the Line of Control. Each of the former princely state’s distinct regions would receive a measure of autonomy-- details would be negotiated later. Providing that violence declined, each side would gradually withdraw its troops from the region. At some point, the Line of Control might be acknowledged by both governments as an international border. It is not clear how firm a commitment on a final border the negotiators were prepared to make, or how long it would all take; one person involved suggested a time line of about ten to fifteen years.

One of the most difficult issues involved a plan to establish a joint body, made up of local Kashmiri leaders, Indians, and Pakistanis, to oversee issues that affected populations on both sides of the Line of Control, such as water rights. Pakistan sought something close to shared governance, with the Kashmiris taking a leading role; India, fearing a loss of sovereignty, wanted much less power-sharing. The envoys wrestled intensively over what language to use to describe the scope of this new body; the last draft termed it a “joint mechanism.” (link)

Though fragile, this seems to me to be potentially workable, as it gives most parties a little bit of what they had hoped to get from a final resolution. Indeed, this story makes me feel somewhat optimistic, for once, about Kashmir. (If they did this once, they could do it again if and when political conditions are right in both Delhi and Islamabad.)

There's a great deal of other interesting material in Coll's article, including material related to the 11/26 attackers (definitely Pakistan backed, no surprises there) as well as India's troubling history of "disappearing" Kashmiri separatists. Overall, he has a very balanced and informed perspective (neither pro-India nor pro-Pakistan); it's well worth a read.

MLK in India: His Address on All India Radio

Martin Luther King, Jr. visited India in 1959, an event which is described in detail at the King Encyclopedia. King, as is well known, modeled his approach to civil rights in the United States on Gandhi's successful mass non-violence/civil disobedience campaign for Indian independence.

On NPR last week, there was a story about how All India Radio has recently discovered in its archives the recorded version of the address given by Dr. King at the end of his visit to India.

Through a little bit of digging on Google, I found the actual recording posted on the internet, at the website of the Indian Consulate of Chicago.

For me the highlight of the address is the closing, which I'll take the liberty of including here:

Many years ago, when Abraham Lincoln was shot – and incidentally, he was shot for the same reason that Mahatma Gandhi was shot for; namely, for committing the crime of wanting to heal the wounds of a divided nation. And when he was shot, Secretary Stanton stood by the dead body of the great leader and said these words: “now, he belongs to the ages.” And in a real sense, we can say the same thing about Mahatma Gandhi, and even in stronger terms: “now, he belongs to the ages.”

And if this age is to survive, it must follow the way of love and non-violence that he so nobly illustrated in his life. Mahatma Gandhi may well be God’s appeal to this generation, a generation drifting again to its doom. And this eternal appeal is in the form of a warning: they that live by the sword shall perish by the sword.

We must come to see in the world today that what he taught, and his method throughout, reveals to us that there is an alternative to violence, and that if we fail to follow this we will perish in our individual and in our collective lives. For in a day when Sputniks and explorers dash through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can win a war.

Today we no longer have a choice between violence and non-violence; it is either non-violence, or non-existence. (link)

Perhaps the meanings of King and Gandhi's respective messages have changed as times have changed. India is no longer a country with a colonial chip on its shoulder, and minorities in the U.S. have a shining example of success in President Barack Obama (among many other signs of progress). It is probably a bit too easy and nostalgic to simply savor those past struggles without continually seeking to apply them to our messy current situations; with too much familiarity and Big Talk, these two icons of struggle risk becoming bloated relics. (For example, by the 1970s, Gandhianism in India had become an easy symbol, devoid of substance -- one thinks of the overweight Congress politicians in homespun, happily siphoning off crores of Rupees for Swiss bank accounts.)

Concomitantly, it may be that rigorous non-violence cannot mean the same thing for us today as it did for African Americans who demanded a seat at the American table, or Indians who demanded sovereignty -- a seat at the table of nations. Perhaps King and Gandhi's shared dream of a total, worldwide movement away from a social order based on violence, active or potential, is one we'll have to put away for the foreseeable future, as simply not in keeping with human nature. Satyagraha is a brilliant strategy for mobilizing the Indian masses to defeat the most powerful, thoroughly armed Empire the world has ever known, without bloodshed. But in my view it is neither effective nor appropriate as a response to Jihadists on the streets of Mumbai, or Maoist rebels in eastern India, to name just two examples. (I am not a pacifist myself for this reason.)

And yet, is it not still chastening to hear these words, even in these times? (Listen to the speech.) As I say, some of the diacritics may have changed, but I think King's warning still stands: "they that live by the sword shall perish by the sword." Gaza*. Sri Lanka. Iraq. India-Pakistan. Isn't that still the truth we need to hear?

[* Update: Just to be clear, I'm using the name "Gaza" here as a short-hand for the current Israel-Palestinian conflict, not as a way of suggesting that the Palestinians need to hear this message more than the Israelis. Both sides might benefit from hearing this message.]

Dabbling in Regional Indian Cinema on an Air India Flight

BakulaNamdevGhotale_acass_246x250.jpg People talk trash about Air India, but it has one distinct advantage -- if you're lucky enough to fly to and from India on one of their newer 747s, which are equipped with personal video screens, you have a wealth of Indian TV, movies, and music to entertain yourself with, while eating Chiwda (instead of peanuts) and not-too-bad shrimp curry. (You still have to sit in a cramped little chair for 16-24 hours without losing your mind, but that would be the case on Lufthansa too.)

Our son wasn't too much trouble on this flight (he slept through much of it), so I was able to sample a range of subtitled Indian movies in different languages that I otherwise might not see. In some cases, I didn't watch whole films -- sometimes just an hour or so -- but it was an interesting experiment to compare a group of films that normally are only seen by members of specific linguistic communities. People sometimes talk about Indian cinema as if the only films worth watching are made in Hindi and produced in Mumbai, but perhaps the folks who are saying that only watch those films?

The most entertaining, and highest production value film I watched was the Tamil film, Sivaji, The Boss, starring Rajnikanth (star of several YouTube "superhits," including "Little Superman"). I initially enjoyed the sense of Tamil ethno-linguistic pride in the film (Rajnikant's love interest is named "Tamizhselvi"), though it did start to get old after a little while (I did not see such an obsession with regional identity in the Malayalam, Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, or Punjabi films I sampled on this flight. Is the Tamil-centricness of Sivaji, The Boss unique to this film?).

Rajnikanth's manic physical comedy and dancing, and the film's over-the-top sets and situations, are really why someone who is not a long-term Rajnikanth fan watches a film like this. I couldn't say that the anti-corruption plot made any narrative sense, though there were some powerful "crowd" moments here and there; there's just a whiff of the rough edges of actual Indian politics. More than anything else, it seemed like Rajnikanth's mission in this film is to entertain the audience as fast as possible, and continue doing so until every last bit of amusement is squeezed out of every damn frame of the film. (I wish I knew where he gets the energy.)

Incidentally, Sivaji, The Boss was the most expensive Indian film ever made, in any language, as of 2007. It was a super-hit in the South, and successful even dubbed into Hindi.

After Sivaji, The Boss, I sampled two Malayalam films. I watched most of a wonderful family comedy called Madhu Chandralekha, starring Jayaram and Urvasi. I have to say I definitely enjoyed the story about how the ordinary, unglamorous wife of a successful singer and composer becomes jealous of a glamorous young woman who comes into their lives. It felt very real and honest, and Urvashi (a regional actress who came out of "retirement" for this film) is convincingly unglamorous, if that expression can be permitted. (We have all seen movies television programs where an obviously incredibly beautiful woman tries to "frump" it as someone bookish and unpopular, but the audience knows it is only a matter of time before the Grand Makeover occurs, and Beauty Emerges Triumphant. Not so here.) Incidentally, here is a song from the film.

Also worth checking out is a Malyalam film called Smart City. Set in Cochi, a quick Google search revealed that this "honest man vs. the corrupt business establishment and gangster cronies" film seems to be based on a real, 2004 proposal in Cochi to build an "Internet City," where a multinational corporation based in Dubai would develop a whole region of the city as a kind of high-end Internet/IT/Multinational hub. Though it is by no means an art film or a work of political propaganda, Smart City is quite serious in its opposition to this kind of "think big/get a piece of the action" approach to development, and touches on a sensitive and important issue that is much broader than just Kerala (i.e., the controversies over "Special Economic Zones").

One small observation: both the Tamil film Sivaji and the Malayalam film Madhu Chandralekha had physical comedy about what happens when one eats absurdly spicy food. In Sivaji, Rajnikant coolly eats a plate of hot peppers to impress his love interest and her family, before allowing himself to spazz out in the bathroom. In Madhu Chandralekha, the jealous wife makes wildly spicy food for her husband to try and alienate him, because she doesn't feel worthy of his love. Comedy of course ensues when the wrong person eats some of the food. Just coincidence, or is there a tradition of comedy over spicy food either in South Indian movies, or even Indian movies in general?

The Marathi film Bakula Namdeo Ghotale was much smaller in terms of production values or professionalism than either of the Malayalam films or the Tamil film I watched, but it was still entertaining, if not exactly Cannes Film Festival material. First, Bakula Namdeo Ghotale features actors in starring roles who look convincingly rural (i.e., the male stars all have "bad" teeth, and are not conventionally good-looking; see what I mean in this song from the film). The plot is nothing too exciting (a conniving Sarpanch falls in love with the wife of the village idiot; the wife fends off his advances and protects her witless husband), but, again, the actors held my attention because they seemed "real" to me.

I watched a little of the Punjabi film Ek Jind Ek Jaan, but quickly got bored and quit. What struck me here, by comparison to the Malayalam and Tamil films in particular, was just how low-budget and uninspired the film looked, even with an "over the hill" Bollywood star as the leading man (Raj Babbar). I should point out that there are some higher-end and more ambitious Punjabi films out there, so this is not a comment on the Punjabi film industry in general, so much as Air India's particular selection. (That said, I have never seen a film that had Raj Babbar in a major role that I found watchable. Shaheed Uddham Singh, The Legend of Bhagat Singh, and LOC Kargil were all nauseatingly bad.)

I also watched a few minutes of a Gujarati film, but neglected to write down the title, and so can't say anything about it. Like the Punjabi films Air India was showing, it looked rather cheap and conventional.

While most of the other regional films being shown by Air India have been released in the past two years, their two Bengali selections were both "classics," from the 1970s and 80s. The one I watched on this flight was Aparna Sen's 1984 art film, Parama, about a housewife who has a flirtation with a young, avant-garde photographer. It was very well done; with the photography theme, it reminded me a little of Antonioni's Blow-Up, but with a nostalgic, Bengali high culture sensibility. The young actor Mukul Sharma, who played the photographer in the film, opposite Rakhee Gulzar, reminded me a little of Dustin Hoffmann in the 1970s.

Needless to say, making even half-assed comparisons between different regional cinemas would have been easier if Air India had been showing films comparable in scale and status. There would really be no point in comparing Aparna Sen's Parama to something like Sivaji, The Boss.

Still, here are some sketchy thoughts: though it makes a big fuss out of adhering to Traditional Tamil Culture, Sivaji, The Boss is as over-the-top and glossy as any big, loud, Bollywood movie. This is not terribly surprising; there is a regular exchange of ideas and talent between the Hindi and Tamil movie industries, and watching this film I felt as if I were watching a Bollywood film that happened to be in the Tamil language. The only major difference might be the presence of Rajnikanth himself, who has an utterly unique style and an iconic status that has no equivalent anywhere else.

The Malayalam films I sampled were smaller and less ambitious, but the trade-off is that they both had an honesty to them that I liked, even with dramatically different themes (married life/relationships on the one hand, and corruption/multi-national development on the other).

The other regional films I sampled were less compelling, though between the Gujarati, Punjabi, and Marathi films on offer, the only one I found watchable was the spirited Marathi film Bakula Namdeo Ghotale. I do not know if the naturalistic appearance of the actors or village settings is common in Marathi films; if so, it would have to be a reaction against the artificial sleekness and hyper-cosmopolitanism of Bollywood cinema -- and ironic, given that Mumbai is actually in the state of Maharashtra. And because not much is written about Marathi films in English (most of the links that turn up in Google are simply various options for illegal downloading), I have no idea whether this film is typical or not.

Are there other recent films in regional languages that readers would recommend? Also, any recommendations for off-beat, "multiplex" oriented Hindi films? (I have had my fill of Bachchans and Khans for now.)

The Swinging Sounds of Goa

One of the most famous Konkani pop songs from the 1960s is Lorna's "Bebdo". Here it is, with lyrics and translation:

Pretty swinging, huh? The sassy tone and subject matter reminds me a little of Trinidadian Calypso from around the same period. It's true that there is a dark side to these types of songs (alcoholism, and the hint of domestic violence), but there is also a buoyancy and power in her voice that I really enjoy. (Are there other 60s Goan/Konkani tracks available on sites like YouTube that readers would recommend?)

When this was first recorded in 1966, the effect on the local music scene was electrifying:

From a kiosk on the beach, a pretty lady named Bertinha played records on the speaker system provided by the Panjim Municipality. She had a weakness for Cliff Richard tunes, Remo says. But that evening, she spun out a song called Bebdo (Drunkard). Miramar Beach was hypnotised. "The Panjim citizenry stopped in its tracks, the sunken sun popped up for another peep, the waves
froze in mid-air," Remo has written. "What manner of music was this, as hep as hep can be, hitting you with the kick of a mule on steroids? What manner of voice was this, pouncing at you with the feline power of a jungle lioness? And hold it no, it couldn't be yes, it was no was it really? Was this amazing song in Konkani?"

Bebdo had been recorded a few months earlier by Chris Perry and Lorna in a Bombay studio and released by HMV. The jacket bore the flirty image that would later hang outside the Venice nightclub. The 45 rpm record had four tracks, opening with the rock-and-rolling Bebdo and ending on the flip side with the dreamy ballad, Sopon. "Sophisticated, westernised urban Goa underwent a slow-motion surge of inexplicable emotions: the disbelief, the wonder, the appreciation, and then finally a rising, soaring and bubbling feeling of pride," Remo says. "The pride of being Goan. The pride of having a son of the soil produce such music. Of having a daughter of the soil sing it thus. And, most of all, of hearing the language of the soil take its rightful place in popular music after a period of drought. Chris and Lorna had come to stay." (link)

The article from which that story is taken is by Naresh Fernandes, and he goes on to give a really interesting (if digressive) account of the links between Goa and the mainstream Hindi film music world.

First, even from what little I've heard, it's pretty evident that Goan pop music (which is deeply influenced by big band, bebop, and 1960s R&B) overlaps strongly with the "modern," R.D. Burman sound that emerged in Bollywood in the late 1960s and 70s (think "Ina Mina Dika"). The reason for that is simple: the majority of the musicians employed by the film studios were Goans:

But the Sound of India actually was created by Goan musicians, men whose names flickered by in small type under the designation "arranger". It's clear. The Hindi film classics that resound across the subcontinent and in Indian homes around the world wouldn't have been made without Goans. Their dominance of the Hindi film world is partly a function of the structural differences between Indian and Western music. Indian classical music is melodic. The ragas that form the basis of Indian music are unilinear, each instrument or vocalist exploring an independent line. To move an audience, film scores must be performed by orchestras, with massed instruments playing in harmony. Only Goans, with their training in Western music, knew how to produce what was required.

Frank Fernand was among the first Goans in Bollywood and assisted such worthies as Anil Biswas, Hemant Kumar and Kishore Kumar. As he describes it, the men who composed the scores for Hindi films couldn't write music and had no idea of the potential of the orchestras they employed. They would come to the studio and sing a melody to their Goan amanuensis, or pick out the line on a harmonium. The Goan assistant would write it out on sheet paper, then add parts for the banks of strings, the horn sections, the piano and the percussion. But the assistant wasn't merely taking dictation: It was his job to craft the introductions and bridges between verse and chorus.

Drawing from their bicultural heritage and their experience in the
jazz bands, the Goans gave Bollywood music its promiscuous charm, slipping in slivers of Dixieland stomp, Portuguese fados, Ellingtonesque doodles, cha cha cha, Mozart and Bach themes. Then they would rehearse the orchestras, which were staffed almost entirely by Goans. After all, hardly anyone else knew how to play these Western instruments. To Frank Fernand, the music directors were mere subcontractors, men whose main job was liaising with the financiers. "We arrangers did all the real work. They'd show off to the directors and producers and try to show that they were indispensable. But to be a music director, salesmanship was more important than musicianship." (link)

I don't have independent confirmation of Fernandes' account of the influence of Goan orchestral arrangers and musicians on the emergence of the "modern" (as opposed to Raga-based) Bollywood sound. But his account certainly seems quite plausible. (One way to check would be to look for the small print names in the credits on old Hindi films from the period to see if there are Goan/Portuguese names.)

I would also recommend another article in this series by Naresh Fernandes, here. Among other things, he talks about the influence of expatriate African-American jazz musicians in Goa (adding a further wrinkle to this rich story of musical hybridity).

Getting to Know Goa, Slowly

Though it is undoubtedly one of India's most popular tourist destinations, it might be surprising to readers that Goa most definitely is not being overrun with big-time real estate development projects. There are some large resorts around (the "Taj Exotica"), in both north and south Goa, and a really insistently Philistine foreign tourist could potentially stay in Goa and never leave one of those places. But Goa is not becoming another Dominican Republic or Jamaica, with mega-resorts so dominant they threaten to eclipse local populations and culture. The best beaches are still, by and large, open to the public, and while some are quite crowded (Calangute), many of the public beaches we've visited seem perfectly tranquil, with a mix of foreign (largely Russian) and Indian tourists enjoying the sun and sand.

It's also worth pointing out that the state has a substantial economic, industrial, and cultural life that has nothing at all to do with tourism. (To give just one example, Goa is apparently popular with pharmaceutical companies, because the low levels of pollution in the air and water make it easier for pharma factories to achive high levels of purity in manufacturing medicine. The local Cipla plant makes the Indian/generic version of AIDS cocktail drugs that are sent to sub-Saharan Africa, and delivered to patients at a cost of $1 a day.)

This resistance to outside money and mega-tourism projects is not for want of trying. This New York Times article from March 2007 is a good introduction to some of the debates over the direction of Goa. The short version is this: the state government was more than ready to implement a "regional plan" that would open doors to major development projects, but a popular "Save Goa" protest movement emerged in 2006-7 that forced them to drop the plan. As a result, you do see some pockets of new tourist development, but it is measured and limited. (The article foregrounds the story of an investor whose focus is on finding distinctive individual houses in Goan villages to renovate and then market in a limited way.)

The emergence of a movement to protect Goa's distinctively laid-back, but fluid cultural heritage does not come without some problems and dangers. Yesterday, we had the distinct privilege of meeting a local Goan writer and journalist named Vivek Menezes, who had a lot to tell us regarding both the history and current status of Goa.

One article Vivek published in 2006 details the tensions produced by the boom atmosphere that was prevalent at the time:

Chakravarti continued, "Piece of the action is ...driving Goa to the edge," and writes movingly about tears at his friend's funeral marking "a sense of loss for a Goa we pine after but can no longer recognise."

It's a sentiment that’s nearly universal in 2006. Long-stayers, relative newcomers and locals all describe a sensation of being under siege.

This feeling is particularly strong at the fringes of Goa's burgeoning tourism marketplace, in the decades-old long-staying communities that developed from the hippie phenomenon of previous decades. On the heels of a series of directives from the centre, officials from half a dozen different state agencies are turning up at people's doorsteps, checking the ownership and legal status of homes and businesses, and denying licences and permissions required
to et up shop in Goa. (link)

I would recommend reading the rest of Vivek's article, where there is some great material from people abroad who have come to the state not as tourists, but to live and settle here.

My preliminary outsider's sense is that the feeling of "crisis" Vivek was referring to in 2006 may be at least temporarily at bay with the collapse of the regional plan. Some people still seem to have a sense of nostalgia for the lost "old Goa," but in a region with history as rich as this one, it's not always clear whether they are talking about the 1990s (Goa NRG/rave culture), the 1970s ("Dum Maro Dum"; western hippies), the 1920s... or the 1570s.

Vivek lent me a book called Reflected in Water: Writings on Goa (edited by Jerry Pinto; Penguin India), in which I've been encountering some interesting essays that address some issues relating to Goa's earlier history. More about that below.

First, William Dalrymple has a great essay in the collection called "At Donna Georgina's," which was originally published in his book The Age of Kali. Here are two paragraphs that give an account of the rise and fall of Goa as a center-piece of the Portuguese commercial empire in the east:

In its earliest incarnation Old Goa was a grim fortress city, the headquarters of a string of fifty heavily armed artillery bastions stretching the length of the Indian littoral. But by 1600 the process that would transform the conquistdors into dandies had turned Old Goa from a fortified barracks into a thriving metropolis of seventy-five thousand people, the swaggering capital of the Portuguese Empire in the East. It was larger than contemporary Madrid, and virtually as populous as Lisbon, whose civic privileges it shared. The mangrove swamps were cleared, and in their place roses the walls and towers of Viceregal palaces, elegant townhouses, austere monasteries and elaborate baroque cathedrals.

With easy wealth cam a softening of the hard eges. The fops and dandies had no interest in war, and concentrated instead on their seraglios. Old Goa became more famous for its whores than for its cannons or cathedrals. According to the records of the Goan Royal Hopital, by the first quarter of the seventeenth century at least five hundred Portuguese a year were dying from syphilis and 'the effects of profligacy.' Althoug the ecclesiastical authorities issued edicts condmening the sexual 'laxity' of the marrie women who 'drugged their husbands the better toenjoy their lovers,' this did not stop the clerics themselves keeping whole harems of black slave-girls for their pleasure. In the 1590s the first Dutch galleons had begun defying the Portuguese monopoly: by 1638 Goa was being blockaded by Dutch warships. Sixty years later, in 1700, according to a Scottishsea captain, the city was a 'place of small Trade and most of its riches lay in the hands of indolent Country Gentlemen, who loiter away their days in East, Luxury, and Pride.

So it was to remain. The jungle crept back, leaving only a litter of superb baroque churches -- none of which would look out of place on the streets of Lisbon, Madrid or Rome--half strangled by the mangrove swamps.

I'm a little skeptical of this account, in part because there might be material factors leading to the decline of the Portuguese empire that outweigh the culture of extravagance and profligacy Dalrymple is describing here. (Admittedly, I haven't studied this in depth.)

Dalrymple goes on to give an account of an interview he had with a contemporary 'old Goan' -- a woman named Donna Georgina, who 30+ years after Goa's annexation by India, remained nostalgic for the time when Goa was still a Portuguese colony. In fact, there has traditionally been a small group of diehard Portuguese loyalists who agreed with Donna Georgina. But more numerous have been Goan writers and intellectuals with a strong pride in Goa's unique cultural identity and heritage, who also comfortably identify as Indians.

One example of the latter was Armando Menezes, who happens to be Vivek Menezes' grandfather. After Goa was liberated in 1961, there was a movement to absorb the state into Maharashtra; the state does contain a fair number of Marathi speakers alongside those who speak Konkani and Kannada. (There are also a significant number of Konkani speakers in Maharashtra.) In the same collection where I read Dalrymple's essay there is the text of a speech given by Menezes in 1965, just as the debate over the future status of Goa was underway. Menezes puts a great deal of weight on the Konkani language as a feature distinguishing Goa from Maharashtra, but also manages to offer a more general vision of Goa's cultural identity:

All that the Goans want is the freedom to choose. Ther are a few things which he cannot choose, but which have rather chosen him. This soil, this Goa, has chosen him; and wherever he lives and toils and dies, there is a corner of a foreign field which is forever Goa. His tongue has chosen him; it is metaphysical impossibility to chose another. One can choose one's wife; one cannot choose one's mother: that is why it is called the mother tongue. We must be the merest renegades, the merest waifs and strays blown about the streets, if we fil to recognize that. And one cannot choose one's history. Untold centuries, even long before the arrival of the Portuguese on Indian shores, have chiselled our souls to what we are; we have known the confluence of many cultures, the impact of many destinies. The Goan soul is woven of many strands and is, at bottom, a coat without seams--even in spite of the recent attempts to tear it to tatters.

I like this formulation because 1) it doesn't lean exclusively on the history of Portuguese colonialism (which would be merely another species of Raj nostalgia), and 2) it manages to be proud without being exclusivist. Goan culture has long been a composite formation, and needs to continue being such, if it is to continue to grow and develop.

British author Graham Greene also referred to the conundrum of Goan identity when he visited Goa at just around the time Armando Menezes gave the speech quoted above. Much of what he wrote in 1965, describing the style of living here, still seems somewhat salient:

There are few extremes of poverty and affluence: most houses, however small, are constructed of laterite blocks with brown tiles of great beauty. They were built by Goans, not by Portuguese (for the Portuguese lived only in the towns), often by Goans in exile, in Aden or in Africa, who hoped to return one day, for the far-ranging Goan has a loyalty to his village you seldom find elsewhere. It seemed the fiurst thing one Goan asked another--not in what city he worked but from what village he came, and in distant Bombay every Goan village has its club of exiles--350 clubs.

In the first Indian village outside Goa on the road to Bombay you are back to the mud huts and broken thatch which are almost a sign of affluence compared with the horrible little cabins made out of palm fronds and bits of canvas and any piece of old metal on the outskirts of Bombay. These are dwellings to escape from; how can their inhabitants feel loyalty to Mahrashtra--the huge amorphous member-State of the Indian Union neighbouring Goa, into which Goa must almost certainly be sooner or later submerged?

Without agreeing with Graham Greene's assessment of poverty in Maharashtra, one can be pleased that his prediction of Goa's inevitable cultural and political absorption has turned out not to be true.

(That's all for now; I might have more Goa posts as I continue to see and read more things. Happy New Year, everyone!)