Theatre, Spectacle and Politics of “Indian” imagination

Attempts to rewrite, and often overwrite, historical narratives have to be always critically examined. This critical examination is especially important in times when people learn their history through mediums which are motivated by agendas of various hues and colours. In light of this context, Vande Mataram, a play that was recently staged in Goa must necessarily be understood in the context of the India’s current socio-political environment.

Vande Mataram, a play performed by Goa based cultural outfit Krutarth, claims to celebrate the revolutionaries who resorted to arms for India’s independence movement, since school textbooks and dominant historical discourses have been allegedly unjust to them. There is good reason to believe that the desire to stage a play having dangerous nationalist tones is not innocent given the antecedents of this group. Some years back, the same set of people under a different banner, were instrumental in staging a performance of the play Jaanata Raja. This latter play written by the Pune based writer Babasaheb Purandare, achieved notoriety for positing Shivaji, an iconic historical figure, as a reincarnation of Shiva and a saviour of the Hindu religion. Jaanata Raja was unmistakably a project to appropriate Shivaji by the Hindu Right. Hence, there is good reason to be critical when the same set of people stage a play championing the militants who formed part of India’s anti-colonial struggle. Also, like Jaanata Raja, Vande Mataram too is not an ordinary proscenium play but a spectacle that employs huge sets, stage gimmicks, large mobs etc. used as theatrical devices to create an impact on the audience. Spectacle performance was a genre that was heavily used by Fascist regimes in inter-war Europe. A number of scholarly works have pointed out that the effect of the spectacular is that it creates conditions that make reason subservient to passion. It is for this reason that one should always be alert to the use of the spectacular.

The play begins with showcasing how ‘Indian’ society was content and free before the arrival of British. The narrative suggests that it was only after the East India Company pitched their tent in Calcutta that the people of the land were deprived of their freedom. This assumption is fundamentally flawed as it totally neglects the modes of oppression existent in pre-colonial India, predominantly the caste system. Those at the bottom of the caste hierarchy were treated and discriminated in most heinous ways and deprived of their basic needs such as water and food. Knowledge acquisition and economic avenues were concentrated in the hands of a few dominant castes. As the English songwriter Billy Bragg famously said, “Freedom is merely a privilege extended, unless enjoyed by one and all”, freedom was indeed a privilege available to only a chosen few in pre-colonial India. Sadly it is only those chosen few who have had tools and avenues to write about the “history” of India’s freedom struggle.

Interestingly, the play does mention caste system as one of the evils that affected the Indian society. Somewhere in the middle of the play, actors portraying Mahatma Phule and Savitribai hurriedly make an entry on stage to eradicate caste along with other evils such as Sati, female illiteracy and widow tonsure. The list of reformers who tried to eradicate these social evils during British India is read out which includes Phule, Shahu, Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Annie Besant. Conveniently ‘forgotten’ in that list is the name of Dr. Ambedkar. Perhaps Dr. Ambedkar would have been partly happy not to find his name alongside that of Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Annie Besant for their problematic views on caste, especially the ways they both imagined to eradicate caste discrimination. However, it is surely a sacrilege to not mention him in a historical narrative that claims to be concerned with India’s Independence movement. The conscious semiotic choices made by the makers of the performance, for example, having a Muslim character appear in mobs at regular intervals,  to not come across as a propagandist Hindu narrative of Indian independence falls flat with this careful exclusion of Ambedkar.

The aversion towards recognising the role of Dalits in the Indian Independence movement is not a new phenomenon. The revolutionaries that the performance mentions have always been part of dominant historical narratives. Names like Mangal Pandey, Anant Kanhere, Vasudev Phadke find a mention in text books because the writers of these same books have never been unjust to upper caste revolutionaries. It is names like Jhalkaribai, Gangu Baba, and Avanti Bai that never find a mention in mainstream historical discourses. Ambedkar is not just an individual but exemplifies the entire Dalit consciousness that launched a strong rebellion against the Indian society that was infested with the rot of caste system. That he chose thoughts as his weapons makes him no less a revolutionary. But then, failing to mention him shouldn’t be surprising. Brahmins sunk in their Hindutva arrogance would never even utter Ambedkar’s name, let alone give him his due credit for an inclusive imagination of India.

The play celebrates those who resorted to armed struggle for achieving independence and at various junctures shows an apparent revulsion towards people like Gandhi who resorted to non-violent means to achieve freedom. That it essentially celebrates violence is as problematic as its reductive positioning of armed struggle vis-à-vis non-violence. Also, this positioning could be further complicated in the contemporary times when the people of Kashmir and the North Eastern regions of the country have resorted to armed struggle to separate themselves from the hegemonic Indian state and its army. If violence against the colonial state is celebrated, how is it, then, that people who take part in these “freedom” struggles against a state that they see as colonial are judged terrorists and not patriots?

The answer to this question is that the dominant imagination in the country sees India as the land of Hindus. Any individual or a movement trying to disrupt this imagination is labelled anti national, maoist, naxalite or terrorist. As and when this Hindu imagination is disturbed, discourses are manufactured and theories are spun to normalise this imagination through various networks. Performances like Vande Mataram are part of these normalisation scheme that want to restore this imagination by carefully side-lining contributions of people and systematically erasing discourses that essentially challenge this very imagination.

(This article was first published in Round Table India, dated 3rd April 2015)

Masaan is an anti Modi propaganda

masaan-posterThe libtard sickular filmmakers in Versova are at it again. Their hatred for Hindu Culture has been always evident from their unwanted and immoral films that have sex scenes and regressive ideas such as woman emancipation, caste eradication etc. The latest one in that league is this film called Masaan, written by a guy called Varun Grover (who’s also been performing a show called Democracy ki Aisi Taisi, ever since our honourable PM Narendra Modi came to power.) Ironically, he studied at Banaras Hindu University but was involved in theatre group there so must be a jholakurta type commie. There is no source I can cite (fuck you Rajiv Malhotra for having forced us into these useless academic routines) about the director Neeraj Ghaywan about being an anti-national but he’s from Hyderabad which always has been a breeding ground for anti Akhand Hindutva nation. He recently opposed appointment of Gajendra Chauhan and supported the naxalites at FTII. But their personal linkages with these naxalite outfits is not as shocking as the film itself and the imagery that Masaan tries to plant into the innocent viewers in India.

Masaan means crematorium. The film is set in contemporary Banaras. The sickular libtard khangressi filmmakers want to subtly convey that Banaras has become a crematorium post Modi’s victory from that constituency. Why didn’t they make this film in Amethi, Rae Bareilly or Italy for that matter? There’s a credible source who told me that this film is funded by Ford Foundation to malign the pristine image of India. They say this film is shot in Banras but don’t show any of the holy ghats nor anyone doing Puja and Aarti. Instead, in the opening scene of the film, a boy is doing Devi. I mean, why would you have a film about Banaras opening with a sex scene, with a character who’s named Devi? My hindu sentiments have been tantalised..errr…hurt.  Also, they’ve maligned the image of Brahmin girls by showing her engaging in illicit relation with a Bania. The character of Mr. Pathak is very problematically portrayed (but good they used a Brahmin actor to portray Brahmin character. Credit where due!). They show him engaged in immoral activities like gambling, corruption, allowing his daughter to decide her future etc.

The other story in the film is fundamentally flawed given that it shows intercaste relationship between Deepak and Shaalu. Shaalu, a hindu girl from a respectable family, is shown to like urdu shayari written by muslim poets. How can they allow this on screen? How did Pahalaj NIhlani pass this film for censor? It also shows disintegration of Hindu culture by portraying Deepak who’s moving away from his traditional occupation to city after getting a better job. This might send a wrong message to lower caste youths in this country. If all of them move to cities by getting educated and good jobs, who will burn our pyres, till our land and moreover, maintain the village culture and tradition? This is what that British confidante Ambedkar wanted his people to do. Masaan is just an extension of that thought and hence a threat to Hindu nation. If they make a sequel to Masaan, they might even profess conversion and criticise Ghar wapasi.

Both the protagonist of the film, Devi and Deepak, move to Allahabad for better prospects, leaving Banaras. This shows a city developed by Mughal rulers is better than one originally developed and brought up on hindu ideology and culture. Another credible source told me that part of the film’s funding came from Pakistan. This just proves the point. This film has won standing ovation and some award at a film festival in France. This is not surprising as the western world has always looked down upon India as they know that we were far superior to them, and much of our vedic knowledge was created in Banaras. A film which shows dark realities of such a great and holy place is bound to strike a chord with these western audiences. And these people in Europe will like any film which has sex scenes in it (Gandu, for ex).

Masaan is an anti-national, anti Modi and anti Gajendra Chauhan film that portrays a very ugly picture of Banaras by telling ordinary stories of ordinary people. Banaras is about safeguarding great hindu tradition which the film says has been shaken by advent of modernity and industrialisation. This film also pays their tribute to India’s colonial masters by having railway pass through every now and then, and even a song about railways. I think this is essential on maker’s part so that the film becomes a strong contender for Oscars. This film might do good collection at Box office but will seriously hamper tourism industry in India as it maligns image of India’s greatest tourist destination, Banaras. Hence, in the interest of nation, I think this film needs to be banned.

Also, Bazinga!


It’s been a month now that I am back to Goa from Delhi for summer vacations. Nothing much to do in Goa apart from meeting friends for beer but I am not complaning! :p I’ve been catching up on reading and watching films, doing some archival work for the upcoming dissertation (but that’s at a pace slower than that of snail’s) and daydreaming. I so wanted to stay back in Delhi for cultural studies reading group but the heat in Delhi this time is just unbearable. Not much writing has happened though which is scary.

It was a great year at AUD and joining there was the best decision I ever took. It has its problems but I love the vibe and SCCE has the most amazing faculty on campus. It’s such a relief not to answer exams anymore.

The university reopens in August and there’s still a month of vacation remaining but I am already bored. Looking forward for the Hyderabad trip in July for ISTR conference.

Kant, Bourdieu and Judgement

In 1790, Immanuel Kant wrote his third critique, Critique of Power of Judgement, completing his trilogy after Critique of Pure Reason and Critique of Practical Reason. Kant’s third critique, Critique of Power of Judgement, is considered to be a foundational reading for anyone concerned with art criticism. Almost two centuries later, the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu released La Distinction: Critique sociale du judgement, translated into English as Distinction by Richard Nice. Bourdieu had compiled a massive ethnographic study relating aesthetic experience and taste in culture to socioeconomic status. Both these text, are extremely crucial in understanding the theorisation of aesthetic experiences and Bourdieu’s work could be seen as arguing for structural determinism as against the universally subjective agency proposed by Kant.

In Critique, Kant’s focus lies on the accessing of the beautiful via pure judgments of taste transcendent of sensual, social, or moral being. Bourdieu expresses doubts about Kant’s claims of beauty, and counters that Kant’s judgment of taste is only a manoeuvring for status by acting as though one’s tastes have some sublimated, elevated character.

According to Kant, beauty is felt when a purposiveness is felt in the representation of an object, in a subjective and yet universally valid manner that excludes interest. Kant begins the Analytic of the Beautiful, the first section of the third Critique, by emphasizing the subjective nature of judgments of taste. He says

In order to decide whether or not something is beautiful, we do not relate the representation by means of understanding to the object for cognition, but rather relate it by means of the imagination (perhaps combined with the understanding) to the subject and its feeling of pleasure or displeasure. The judgment of taste is therefore not a cognitive judgment, hence not a logical one, but is rather aesthetic, by which is understood one whose determining ground cannot be other than subjective.

Kant invokes the idea of “agreeable” to posit the idea of beauty as universal. Judgments of beauty demand that one to express his judgement with a universal tone, considering that given the right environment, each human being could not possibly disagree. To him, expressing that something is beautiful is nonsense. He writes that “the maxim of the power of judgment is to think in the position of everyone else”.

But this notion of moving towards a universally acceptable understanding of beauty raises many questions. It does not take into considerations the social and cultural aspects in these agencies of judgement are shaped and nurtured. Hence it becomes important to look at the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s La Distinction: Critique sociale du judgement, or Distinction. Bourdieu had compiled a massive ethnographic survey to correlate aesthetic experience and taste in culture to socioeconomic environment.

In its entirety, Distinction explores this possibility of social domination through the use of pure judgments of taste and argues to refute Kant’s model of taste in the Critique of the Power of Judgment. Distinction presents an ethnographic study of 1960’s France that details how cultural practices stem from and reify social realities. Bourdieu uses his standard model of lived experience consisting of interaction between habitus, or the socially and historically generated principle that guides our practices and choices of objects of consumption that in turn generate influential social structures, and field, the environment in which habitus works.

Distinction views taste as a social phenomenon, correlated to different categories of agencies with specific social origins and trajectories inextricably embedded in a larger social framework. Taste serves as an indicator of these positions within social structures. Take for example case of Rain, a natural phenomenon celebrated by many artists trying to articulate its beauty through poetry, paintings, music etc. A dalit poet, Sambhaji Bhagat, has a very interesting counter argument to this when he says only those find rain as romantic who do not live under leaky roofs. Here, one’s judgement of beauty of rain is directly linked with his or her socioeconomic status and not in just pure sensual experience of it.

Bourdieu engages with Kant in the Distinction’s postscript. The postscript’s title-“Towards a ‘Vulgar’ Critique of “Pure’ Critiques”-advocates for the ‘vulgar’ critique integral in sociological analysis of the ‘pure’ territories of aesthetics, taste, and beauty.  Bourdieu argues that Kant constitutes the subject of the aesthetics-oriented philosopher as “the universal subject of aesthetic experience-Kant’s analysis of the judgment of taste finds its real basis in a set of aesthetic principles which are the universalization of the dispositions associated with a particular social and economic condition.

Kant is unable to give fair account to the social and the historical in our aesthetic experiences. His account gives does not give any importance to the social factors that impacts our judgments. Kant’s emphasis on the importance of subjective emotional response to aesthetics is interesting, but his account of the mechanics of such responses and their implicative depiction of a subjectivity disconnected from social reality during these moments of aesthetic experience seems inaccurate and seems like he is dismissive of the social and historical factors of subjective response.

There is no fixed rule proposing that the Kantian notion of being will produce exactly the same results in every subject, and it gives some space for being skeptical of utopian ideal in which Kant is imagining to propose that all subjects will arrive at same conclusions. Also, if according to Kant, saying that “this is beautiful for me” is nonsensical, it becomes a problematic argument. That implies we will have to communicate with everyone about our encounters of experiencing beauty. But if the experience of the beauty is so conclusive bereft of any doubts according to Kant, then why should one even bother to obtain a confirmation? The judgment of taste does not necessarily has to be spoken about. Kant indirectly assumes that we all must talk about beauty. In this argument too, it looks like Kant is not considering the societal mechanisms responsible behind engaging into communication with other subjects.

It is really difficult to take a position here on both the sides. Both approaches of looking at taste and notion of beauty in an epistemological lens and its relevance in current understanding and formation of taste within subjects. Even Distinction leaves much room to raise doubts and problematize the postulates put forward by Bourdieu which in certain aspects appear reductive but that’s not the focus of this exercise. We may at certain moments believe whole heartedly to have experienced a Kantian sort of beauty, and we may find ourselves being critical towards that that very experience later on, seeing the ways in which larger social and historical forces have led us in thought to certain conclusions. The meaning of such an experience may be slightly flawed and no longer totally sure of itself. One should also not deny the importance of critical thinking, and the ways by which acts of critique provide an equally fulfilling experience. At the same time, an experience of beauty can unsettle any dominant notion or understanding of critique.

Countering hatred

Past few days have been really busy as our new Marathi play, Jatharaanal, enters final leg of rehearsals. A satirical critic of totalitarian state where the king turns into a cannibal, this play is an exciting project to work on since it is a musical we are doing after a very long time. There is a qawwali that has been written which echoes the protagonist’s dilemma to choose between knife and alcohol while the lyrics plays on some interesting pun on the word “Suraa” which means both, knife and alcohol, in Marathi. Towards the end of it, the Qawwal urges everyone to choose “Sur” (Music) over both the “Suraa” as that has a bigger capacity to heal.

The attack on the school in Peshawar has numbed everyone beyond limits. While people wrote very emotional messages on Facebook (and even diplomatic advices to Pakistan), I didn’t feel the urgency to respond to it mainly because I was not able to articulate my feelings. I just felt scared and incapable. The emotional outpour is more because it is children who were killed. What bothers me is this killing and wiping off innocence from our lives while we are living in times when we need it the most. Children seem to embody that innocence that we all yearn for and we must hold onto it as much as we can.

There is some apparent connection I am trying to find between the qawwali from the play and my concern with incidents like Peshawar. I think Music, like innocence, is one answer to counter hatred and we need more of it. Because as Bard said, Music is the food of love and we must play on.

No intellectual revenge on art please!

sontagAgainst Interpretation, an essay by Susan Sontag that appeared in 1964 and which was later published into a collection of her writings, is one of the most important and influential texts on art criticism. Sontag, a cultural critic and scholar, through this essay heavily criticised the intellectual taming of the arts that was on rise during that time. “Against Interpretation” was a polemic against one reductive way of art criticism of treating a work as if it were equivalent to the account that could be given of its “meaning.” She thought this practice seemed misguided and corrupted our direct appreciation of a work’s “thingness.” Instead of relying so much on questions about what elements in a work of art mean, she considered it was important to rely more on questions about how they function-concretely, sensuously, and formally-in the work.

Sontag’s essay came in a very specific historical time when “Conceptual art” was all the rage in 60s. Conceptual art usually was supplemented with theoretical explanation about the artwork. If the viewer did not get the “meaning”, he or she would rather refer to the catalogue or be relied upon critics for their account of interpretation of the artwork. Sontag seems to attack this very situation where a critic in the guise of interpreter or one who reveals the “true” meaning of the art is given undue importance. She held a position that a critic’s job is not to interpret the artwork for others but to tell them what it is. She thought interpreting artworks for “true” meaning would be the overstepping of critic’s role.

The early Greek theories about art being mimesis and representation of reality is where she points the origin of a situation where emerged a need to justify art. The value of art to human life was being questioned by Plato. Sontag writes

[A]ll Western consciousness of and reflection upon art have remained within the confines staked out by the Greek theory of art as mimesis or representation. It is through this theory that art as such – above and beyond given works of art – becomes problematic, in need of defense. And it is the defense of art which gives birth to the odd vision by which something we have learned to call “form” is separated off from something we have learned to call “content,” and to the well-intentioned move which makes content essential and form accessory.

Though the Greek theories of art being mimesis and imitation now seem to be dated in favour of art being subjective expression of one’s self, the dichotomy of form and content still persists. There is an apparent separation of form and content in artworks and is often treated and dealt with separately. The dominance of content over form is such that the artworks are more discussed for its content over its formal elements. The separation of content and forms makes artworks deductible to a statement or an argument which is the very notion Sontag is trying to critic heavily.

Sontag seems to be against only certain kind of interpretation. In an interview with Evan Chans, she said she is not against interpretation as such, because all thinking is interpretation. Rather she is against reductive interpretation and the making of cheap equivalences. She is against rules of interpretations and the practise of using an interpretative grid over and over to “decode” disparate works of art. For her, interpretation is not in the terms of Nietzscheian sense where Nietzsche says there are no facts, only interpretations but she is rather dismissing the allegorical or metaphorical matching of art works. She says

Directed to art, interpretation means plucking a set of elements (the X, the Y, the Z, and so forth) from the whole work. The task of interpretation is virtually one of translation. The interpreter says, Look, don’t you see that X is really – or, really means – A? That Y is really B? That Z is really C?

This reductive way of interpreting was not only a fad of sixties but largely dominates the criticism discourse in current times too. Almost a half century later since the essay came out, the fanatical project of interpreting artworks is proliferating uncontrollably.

Interpretation ie reading the subtexts into an artwork, according to Sontag, came in a specific historical time period post scientific enlightenment. The power of myth (and hence religion and God) was weakening as against to reasoning and rational thinking. A new reading of ancient texts was felt necessary to make them relevant in post scientific enlightenment era. This led to summoning of new interpretations of these texts to reconcile the texts with modern demands. Further quoting Sontag,

The situation is that for some reason a text has become unacceptable; yet it cannot be discarded. Interpretation is a radical strategy for conserving an old text, which is thought too precious to repudiate, by revamping it. The interpreter, without actually erasing or rewriting the text, is altering it. But he can’t admit to doing this. He claims to be only making it intelligible, by disclosing its true meaning.

Though she locates the origin of interpretation as we know it in this certain historical time, she is quick to mention that interpretation in our times is even more complex. There is an open contempt for appearances in this sort of interpretative exercise. She says “the modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys; it digs “behind” the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one.” Such interpretations are done on grids of modern doctrines. Sontag cites two examples of these prescriptive interpretative grids: Freudianism and Marxism. She quotes a Freudian reading of a scene in Bergman’s The Silence –a tank rumbling down an empty street as a phallic symbol– as an example of a critic relying on “content” (a tank in an empty street), but stripped of the filmic context: “Taken as a brute object, as an immediate sensory equivalent for the mysterious abrupt armoured happenings going on inside the hotel, that sequence with the tank is the most striking moment in the film. Those who reach for a Freudian interpretation of the tank are only expressing their lack of response to what is there on the screen.” For Sontag this is “an overt contempt for appearances.” The appearances are what is seen and heard on the screen and what should be described by the critic, and they should be supported by extra-filmic evidence only when textual evidence supports it.

According to Sontag, real art has capacity to make us nervous. It has power to “affect” through its form and appearance. Interpreting art for its subtext and content is like taming the art work and making it more comfortable. There are two main points Sontag is making. One is that we should not rely on apriori interpretative grids (Freudian, Marxist, Psychoanalytical, etc.) to “excavate” meanings indiscriminately, and in the process reduce every work to the same story (an Oedipal journey, a class struggle, etc.). In other words, the interpretation should not take the place of the experience of art. Secondly, we should never interpret a work based only on its content. Or put more reasonably, the better interpretations are the ones that take into account aspects of form, style, history, and aesthetics. There is nothing wrong as such with ‘content-based’ analysis, and some of it can be very revealing about how a film may relate to external social, political, or cultural factors. But there is little in such an analysis to distinguish the film from a book, play, or television show. Content-only analysis nullifies medium differences.

She says that it doesn’t matter if the artists want their artworks to be interpreted or not. We can’t be absolutely sure that whatever we’ve interpreted is the final reading of the artwork and hence doing so doesn’t make any sense. In his non-verbal play titled “Hour we knew nothing of each other”, Peter Handke sketches about 450 characters he sees from a rooftop of a café and just writes about their appearances as they walk past his sight. When the play is staged, there are actors wearing different costumes and walking sequentially from one end of the stage to another. There is no communication between them and hence no apparent way of guessing who these characters are or what are they upto. The audience could ascribe as many narratives possible to these characters. There isn’t any grand narrative to the play but a possibility of multiple sub-narratives. This play could be considered as classic example where one cannot separate content and form since both are fused together so well that they become inseparable.

Sontag cites example of Kafka and how his work has been “interpreted” as a statement about modern man’s alienation from meaning or from God, or as an allegory of psychopathology. She warns us to refrain from doing this kind of reductive criticism.

Does that mean Sontag leaves no room for symbolism in an art work? She’d say it would be foolish thought to take a brute object and make it as a sensory equivalent of something else citing example of scene from Bergman’s film. Not all apples present in artworks symbolise genesis! Reaching to such conclusions, according to Sontag, is expressing one’s lack to respond sensuously to what is displayed.

In a film by Satyajit Ray, there was a shot where a road is show in perspective with streetlamps running parallel to the road. One of the streetlamp was off while all others were lit. Film scholar Satish Bahadur went on to praise this shot in the context of the narrative of the film at a length. When Ray was asked about this, he coldly replied that the lamp just happened to go off during the shooting. The overzealous need for interpretation could lead to such meaningless conclusions and Sontag wants us to resist from doing that.

Sontag optimistically denotes that interpretation does not always prevail and some movements in art making have originated as a response to this interpretative mode of criticism. She gives examples of two such movements in (then) modern painting ie Abstract Art and pop art. She writes

Abstract painting is the attempt to have, in the ordinary sense, no content; since there is no content, there can be no interpretation. Pop Art works by the opposite means to the same result; using a content so blatant, so “what it is,” it, too, ends by being uninterpretable.

The absence of content leaves no scope for interpretation in abstract painting while pop art uses content in a very different context, often problematizing it’s meaning so to speak. These movements are the escape routes artists have found for themselves to escape from this bloated interpretative criticism. Even in the case of programmatic Avant-gardism, she notes that by experimenting form at the expense of content, artists are trying to put up a defense against the infestation of art by interpreters but also wary of it perpetuating the illusion of distinction between form and content which she is trying to nullify. She says, another way to elude this army of interpreters by making works which address the audience directly for what they are instead of concealing meanings into some allegorical elements in the work.

Cinema, for Sontag, has been successful in achieving this elusion but we need to note that she is writing this in sixties. The situation in film criticism could be very different in current times. She credits newness of cinema as the prime factor that it has not been “overrun” by interpreters. Also its formal complexities that includes technical elements such as camera angles, edit cuts, sound design etc. make a very unique language of forms. But in current times, films too have been infested with the army of overzealous interpretations. Apart from the Ray’s example cited above, a recent Indian film that has caught attention of the “critics” is Haider by Vishal Bhardwaj, a film set in backdrop of insurgent Kashmir and adapted from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

What kind of criticism is Sontag expecting then? She states out clearly that art criticism should serve the work of art not usurp its place. One needs to give more attention to form in art. Sontag contemplates two proposals, reactionary and the other being proactive. The reactionary proposal has to do with art that demotes content- based interpretation by taking its own structure of formal elements to be its subject matter. This is reactive, in Sontag’s view, because the concept “form” is tied dialectically to the concept “content” in such a way that emphasis on the form in hopes of weakening the content is bound to complicate both. The proactive approach, according to her, is to elude the interpreters as mentioned above by making art works that will directly speak for themselves through their absolute formal structure, thereby not leaving any scope for interpretations.

Through this essay, Sontag makes us all aware of how the “art” of interpretation (or excavation in her terms) can be fraught with indecipherable jargon and dull, repetitive readings. But interpretation also exists on the ‘surface’ for anyone willing to take the time to see, hear, feel, and describe. The call is to fall back on sensual reception of artworks instead of cognitive understandings of art based on prescribed hermeneutic grids. Though her immediate concern is to dismiss such criticism, she also draws our attention to a bigger problem that we as society are slowly heading towards. She writes

Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life – its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness – conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. And it is in the light of the condition of our senses, our capacities (rather than those of another age), that the task of the critic must be assessed.

The excess of information available is making us less sharp day by day, more so now as compared to the times in sixties when Sontag wrote this. With the proliferation of technology we use to outsource our lives, our capacity to use our basic senses could be put at stake. According to Sontag, reception of arts might be one of the few avenues where we could apply our senses to get affected and we should not let that go by such hermeneutic reception of it. What is at stake, according to her, is nothing less than a mode of worldly experience. For, awareness of art is as much a primary mode of experience in the world as is anything else. Hence, when she ends the essay with “In place for hermeneutics, we need erotics for art”, it’s not merely a conclusive note but more of a slogan Sontag is giving us and asking us to fall back on our sensory experience of the world.

Rituals and Emotions: Notes from the Muharram procession at Kashmere Gate

As the first semester draws to a close, I was taking a stock of events and experiences that I’ve had since I first moved to the city of Delhi in August. The one striking experience that had me moved and thinking was when I attended the Muharram procession, just across our university campus on Hamilton Road, as a part of our history and historiography course. The question that was posed to us by our teacher and which still continues to bother me is how do we approach writing about rituals like Ashura? This one question has opened up some more questions and possibilities and in this essay I will try to address some of them.


Muharram processions is not an easy sight to be a part of. The self-flagellating Shia men and kids injuring their bodies and unescapable sight of blood is an uncomforting spectacle. Also, one would find herself or himself between those gathered to participate the procession, often weeping and crying as they mourn the death of Hussain and martyrs of the battle of Karbala.

There is no one particular way of approaching & engaging with rituals like Muharram. There are various nodes which can be picked up as an entry point of engagement. One could look at bodies, spectatorship, emotions, temporality and elements of the ritual such as space, time, aural and visual features. I will particularly focus on the element of emotion in Muharram as my point of departure and its connection with the aural and visual elements of the procession as well as the problem of temporality and history. The underlying line of inquiry in this exercise is to locate the factors that prompt the emotional display during Muharram.

History of Muharram and Ashura

Muharram commemorates the pitched battle (680 C.E.) of Karbala, in present day Iraq, which many now understand to have been a struggle over the political and spiritual leadership of Islam. […] To simplify, Husain, grandson of the Prophet, was slain by the henchmen of the Ummayad ruler Yazid, who’s [..] lavish and imperialist style of governance was, in the opinion of Husain and his followers, contrary to the egalitarian spirit of Islam. Shi’ahs dwell on the tragic martyrdom of a number of characters in their redactions of the story, including Ali Asghar and Ali Akbar, Husain’s sons; Abbas, Husain’s half-brother; Hur, who defected from the Ummayad army; and Qasim, son of Husain’s brother Hasan. Many believe that the Imams (spiritual leaders and successors to Muhammad) and martyrs of Karbala are present during Muharram and, like Sufi saints, intervene on behalf of the devout. Part of the ambivalence over Muharram stems from the fact that Husain’s martyrdom is considered a moral victory. Thus, for Shi’as Muslims, both mourning and celebration are deeply embedded in Muharram’s emotional fabric. (Wolf, 2000)

To show their allegiance to the slain martyrs, and to the principle of success ship that Hussain embodied, Shi’as retell the story of Husain’s martyrdom. They recall scenes from the battle using a variety of dramatic verbal genres, and participate in processions, carrying battle standards, tomb replicas and other icons of the Karbala story. (Wolf, 2003)

At the Muharram procession we were witness to, we saw three different groups, mourning the martyrdom in different styles. The first group involved middle aged men and some kids hitting their backs with sharp tools like blades, chains and knives. The second group had men hitting their forehead and loudly thumping their chest. The third group was a community of Shi’a students from Ladakh based in Delhi. They mourned by beating their chest and singing Nohas in chorus. Nohas are melancholic poems written to commemorate the martyrdom and valour of Hussain ibn Ali and his comrades of the Karbala.

Performing the pain

Self Flagellating men as a part of mourning on Muharram Muharram (Kashmere Gate, Delhi 2014)
Self Flagellating men as a part of mourning on Muharram Muharram (Kashmere Gate, Delhi 2014)

Men and women of all ages wept and cried to mourn the deaths of martyrs of the battle. The grief was apparent on the faces of men participating in the mourning display as well as those who had gathered to watch the procession. Observing this, one is confronted with a question what factors are stimulating these emotions? Weeping or crying is believed to be a very personal emotion and usually displayed in public. Also, crying for someone’s death also implies a personal connect between the person who is weeping and the deceased, perhaps shared time and space. But apart from a spiritual connect to Hussain, the ones present there had no direct connection in terms of shared time and space with him. How then the spectators could so profoundly express an emotion in memory of a figure whom they haven’t shared physical time and space or about an incident to which they themselves were not part of? It is not to say that it is impossible to cry or weep thinking about a person you have never met. In case of Muharram, the mediated affect could manifest through the aural and visual ambiance as well its temporal transcend and historical specificity which I shall discuss it later in this paper.

As I was interacting with a Shia friend of mine about the Muharram, she mentioned one important thing about the Shia community that the sentiment of mourning is much central to the Shia discourse for its historical significance. The identity of the Shia community is much strongly linked to the battle of Karbala and the events thereafter. All Shias believe that they are direct descendants of Husain and hence of Prophet Muhammad. Considering this, it almost becomes dutiful for devout Shias to express their grief during Muharram. It is with this sense of “duty” the performative aspect of mourning seeps in. But as discussed earlier, weeping would also need a personal stimulus. At this juncture, one is confronted with the idea of emotions during Ritual and ritualised emotions. In a paper titled “Performative tears– Emotions in Ritual and Ritualised emotions” by Axel Michaels, he distinguishes between the ritual crying and crying during the ritual.

[Crying during ritual] is perhaps evoked by rituals or given space within them as weeping is very often emotionally contagious, but remains subject to the individual’s choice or psychic disposition whether it happens or not. The ritual crying, on the other hand, […] follows […] five criteria of rituals; it is dependent on causal change (the death), it is stipulated, performed or staged in a prescribed form, publicly performed and staged, irrevocably marking the loss of the deceased. [..] [T]he weeping is not a spontaneous reaction to death and subject to individual feelings. It is a must and part of a symbolic performance in which solidarity is expressed. (Michaels, 2010)

But in a ritual like Muharram, it is hardly possible to differentiate whether the tears are real or not because often ritualised weeping may end in “real” weeping due to the stimulating effect of the situation. In spite of this fluid nature of emotional display, Michaels argues that the distinction between real tears and performative tears is not useless. He mentions

[R]itualized tears are as real as tears shed as an emotional response to an event. Assuming that they are not “real” presupposes a Western individualism and emotionalism that places individual and spontaneous emotions higher than formalised and ritualised emotions. […] [A] ritual is framed by the intentio solemnis (formally marking the beginning and end of emotional display) and other formal criteria. Tears within this frame are performative tears since their “intention” or cause is laid down or prearranged. They can be formally […] allowed by the community [and] nobody will then ask why a participant starts crying if tears are a “normal reaction” in this part of the ritual (Michaels, 2010).

Thus it can be hypothesised that though the tears are shed in the name of Hussain, there is a varying level of personal engagement and subjectivity involved within the participants of this ritual. This subjectivity can emerge from various points. To understand this subjective position in collective outburst of emotions, we could invoke Schechner’s idea of ritual where he says

Rituals are collective memories encoded into actions. Rituals help people deal with difficult transitions, ambivalent relationships, hierarchies, and desires that trouble, exceed, or violate the norms of daily life.

In the context of Shia community, the fact that being a minority sect within Islam could also have possibly resulted in some bitter experiences they might have had in finding space for their sectarian pride in larger discourse of Islam. Especially in a country like India, where Muslim population itself is in minority, being a minority within a larger minority would mean being confronted with the added insecurities of the minority community. Mourning at Muharram could then as well can be looked at as a ritual in which these collective memories, experiences and insecurities get encoded into action i.e. mourning and act as a sort of catharsis for the Shia followers.

Affect during Ashura Procession

The affect infliction in Ashura procession happens through the aural and visual elements of the Ashura ritual. These elements of the performance are equally important to invoke the grief within the participants. By aural and visual elements, I am referring to the Nohas that are sung by the chorus, the sound produced by thumping the chest, the flagellated, weeping and bleeding bodies, the presence of blood etc. These could be considered as agencies that create the mediated affect as mentioned earlier.

Nohas, poetry of lament describe the aftermaths of battle of Karbala and different episodes about it. Written in soulful Urdu, Nohas are set to mournful tunes and sung in a metronome like beat produced by loudly beating on chest, which is called maatam. A large chorus singing Nohas to this beat does sound haunting. This way of mourning i.e. beating the chest is interesting in the sense that the meaning generation in this form is embodied and converges in, on and through the body. It happens through performing the chest beating in conjunction with poetic recitation of Nohas and its virtual aestheticization to the point of becoming an art form. Maatam embodies the rhythmic character of the lament poetry and translates verbal performance into a type of a movement (Wolf, 2000).

The men inflicting injuries upon themselves could be looked at as devices used to invoke the motif of blood that was shed at the battle of Karbala. This could have deeper impact on the subconscious of the spectator and could be considered as one of the stimulus that is imperative to invoke grief. But this is a very primary hypothesis and the performance should be looked at in more focused to put forth some solid evidence for the same. 

Performing History and temporality

The commemorations of Muharram begin on day one of Muharram and culminate on the tenth day which is known as Ashura. During this time, pious Shias observe mourning practices, dress and behave sombrely, and attend during gatherings at which the history of the Battle of Karbala is retold, often in conjunction with sermons teaching lessons to be learned from this history. Tenth day commemorations may include a passion play, processions, and various forms of lamentation, such as self-flagellation, the singing of nohas, the recitation of marsiyas and a ritualized form of mourning ie Maatam.

Though I have limited my observations to the processions on the tenth day ie Ashura, one needs to also look at the events that happen for the first nine days and lead up to the day of Ashura. These gatherings are called Majalis where the narrators reciteMarsiyas. Marsiya is form of prose poetry which is recited (as opposed to Noha which are usually sung, though both are forms of elegiac poetry) to narrate incidents about Karbala battle. They are narrated in a heightened manner to make the attendees feel the pain and suffering that the martyrs of Karbala and their families went through.

The affect on the audience parallels the shifts in tone of the reciter, with the lamentation rituals evoking intense crying and weeping. While all majalis include the lamentative narration of the […] the tragic events of Karbala, reciters […] will include as much detail of suffering as possible in this narration, to elicit maximum levels of emotion from the audience. (Deeb, 2005)

This sort of performance and invoking of history makes the Muharram as a site where the participants could experience temporality in terms of time. When the audience assumes an active role in enhancing the emotional feeling through collective mourning, a transcendence towards regret takes place. When participants are placed simultaneously in the performance of Ashura as well as on the plains of Karbala many centuries ago, an altered sense of temporality is experienced; the present is merged with the past in a unified moment of intensity.


The central point in my inquiry of Muharram has been to locate the source or the stimulus of emotions that the Shia attendees go through during the mourning phase of Muharram. It can be only deduced that there isn’t one source but various factor collectively responsible for the display of emotions. Lara Deeb mentions that the emotions surrounding Ashura commemorated express both grief and regret. Tears shed for the martyrs of Karbala are tears that are religiously commendable. It is believed that both evoking these tears and shedding them are acts that bring divine reward and that may increase one’s chances of entering heaven. Blood spilled in memory of the events of Karbala is similarly an embodied demonstration of grief and an empathetic expression of solidarity with the Imam’s pain and sorrow. It can also be an expression of regret or remorse. Some of those who perform the traditional style of maatamexplain that this demonstrates their regret for not being at Karbala with the Imam—a reference to those Shias who originally called on the Imam to come and lead their revolution, but who then failed to arrive at Karbala in time to either protect the Imam or stand and die with him (Deeb, 2005).

The fact that the mourning still continues in various forms and embodiment also highlights the relevance of the ritual for the community in contemporary times. Noted Islamic scholar Hamid Dabashi has argued that the central thematic of these mourning performances is the notion of Mazlummiyat. Mazlummiyat refers to the absence of justice towards Shias that signals the necessity of its presence. He writes

Shi’ism is a religion of protest. It can never succeed politically without failing morally. As a cosmic carnival of a constitutional injustice, taziyeh is the mourning of a loss that must always fail in its stated objective if it is to be successful. No mourning could or should ever be successful. The success of mourning is its failure. Mourning is successful only to the degree that it fails, acknowledging the enormity of the loss, the incomprehensible dimensions of the tragedy. The success of mourning means the eradication of the central trauma that has caused it, and no such eradication of a trauma definitive to a culture is possible-without nullifying that very culture. Shi’is are condemned/blessed forever to remember the central trauma of their history, but never so fully that they can then forget it. The act of remembrance will have to remain always incomplete-like a dream that keeps haunting a people, forcing them to try to remember it, but never successfully. In commemorating the death of a martyr, Shias are seeking to identify with absolute Otherness; with saintliness in the midst of sin and death at the moment of living; with dual, absolutely incongruent, Otherness; with the face and the body, miasmatic memory and creative incantation, of the saintly and the deceased. In that impossibility, mourning choreographed and staged, taziyeh is made possible (Dabashi, 2005).

We need to remember that Dabashi’s argument is rooted in the context of socio-political history of Iran and other Shia countries in Middle East such as Iraq & Lebanon. In Indian context, Shias being the minority within a minority could as well be looked at as a possible reason for denial of justice in an already congested and contested religious space. While Muharram becomes the remembrance of the events of Karbala, the thematic of Mazlummiyat also reflects the binary of oppressed and oppressor. The importance of commemorating it every year is better articulated by a woman Deeb interviewed in Lebanon. She said

In every era there is an oppressor and an oppressed. And this history always repeats itself, throughout all eras. Ashura reminds us of this, so we will never forget that there is a Yazid and a Husayn in every time, in every nation, in every government, and people should always have the spirit of revolution against oppression, in all its faces, no matter what its identity (Deeb, 2008)

Thus, as per the Shi’ite belief, the commemoration of Muharram is not just about mourning and remembrance but that of solidarity and an embodiment of spirit to fight against injustice.

Selected Bibliography

  • Wolf, Richard K. 2000. Embodiment and ambivalence: Emotion in South Asian Muharram drumming. Yearbook for Traditional Music 32: 81-116
  • Wolf, Richard Kent. “Return to Tears: Musical Mourning, Emotion, and Religious Reform in Two South Asian Minority Communities.” (2003).
  • Deeb, Lara. “Emulating and/or embodying the ideal: The gendering of temporal frameworks and Islamic role models in Shi ‘i Lebanon.” American Ethnologist 36.2 (2009): 242-257.
  • Deeb, Lara. “Living Ashura in Lebanon: mourning transformed to sacrifice.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 25.1 (2005): 122-137.
  • Dabashi, Hamid. “Taziyeh as theatre of protest.” TDR/The Drama Review 49.4 (2005): 91-99.
  • Norton, Augustus Richard. “Ritual, Blood, and Shiite Identity: Ashura in Nabatiyya, Lebanon.” TDR/The Drama Review 49.4 (2005): 140-155.
  • Chelkowski, Peter J., ed. Eternal Performance: Taʻziyeh and Other Shiite Rituals. Seagull, 2010.

Privilege, Equality and Caste

You cannot help but to upset people when you write about Caste. The reactions to my post on Rajdeep are really interesting and just a reminder that we need to constantly engage ourselves into this debate instead of not talk about it at all calling caste a passé, because it isn’t. This post was initially intended to address the twitter conversation I had with Nilay but now after having received more and diverse opinions on my post, will address some others too. The conversation between me and Nilay started after him tweeting this.



To which I replied as above. I also asked him if his understanding of privileges was this shallow, I am not interested in carrying this dialogue any further and would rest my case. At this point, the debate suddenly turned into a You vs Me battle which I didn’t see coming. Did he get better education? I don’t know which school/college he went to so no comments there. Can I not buy land in Goa? Of course yes I can but from whom? Who is the majority land owning community in Goa? Temples (and hence Mahajans (Guardians) of temples, who coincidentally happen to GSBs). Are you denied entry to temple? It’s my choice that I’ve almost stopped visiting temples unless I’m with some friends or guests. But I’m allowed entry till a certain point where I can put in money into donor box, pray and leave. Entry to sanctum sanctorum is still denied to castes other than GSBs. But the point isn’t what privileges I’m allowed. Opinions about a big problem like caste cannot be held on such binary of “Me vs You” debates. Nilay further tweeted following tweets



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To be very frank, I was not at all offended by the “People like you” reference in his tweet but it’s interesting that a debate which gets consolidated to level of “You vs Me” from nowhere suddenly elevates to level of “People like you”. Also, people like him and many other have made me conscious about my caste too so that’s levelled. Also, nor do I (stress on I) need an acknowledgment of the injustice that has been done by upper caste towards other caste communities neither am I playing my caste sympathy card. I don’t think I have personal gains from it, apart from getting myself more engaged with debates of caste, class and identity. Also, one is entitled to their impulsive beliefs which were incepted into them. For ex. someone believing in ghosts is also impulsive and incepted by an external agency.

In the due course of the discussion that followed, Sagar mentioned something about “equal footing”, and I think this is where the crux of debate lies. Equality, at least in India, is deceptive. It reminds me of a quote from Swadesh Deepak’s seminal play Court Martial which says, “All are equal before law, but some are more equal than others.” We are equal by law, not by beliefs. And this is a behaviour common across caste and religious communities and not specific to any.

Caste, Privilege and Equality is a vicious cycle. The caste system in India privileged certain communities. Thus they could get themselves educated, acquire knowledge, seek and generate employment opportunities and hence their future generations could also live in a better condition. Equality as a necessary idea came much later into our societal understanding and that concept still struggles to find a space here. What did thousand years of oppression did to the communities who were at the receiving end of it? First and foremost, it injured their morale and self-confidence. My grandfather would recount that if a Bhaadkar (landlord) would walk by, no one was allowed to make an eye contact with him. They would have to remain in whatever position with their eyes fixed to ground. An eye contact with the upper caste landlord would signify breaking of the caste code. And many of these people were labourers in the landlord’s farm so they could not afford to upset him as that would mean no employment for rest of the life. This incident speaks volumes about the humiliation that these people went through. It affected their world view, capability to dream big or even afford to dream in first place. This sense of low self-esteem has passed on through generations. In real sense, we cannot speak of equal footing or merit unless we address this historical oppression of backward communities which hasn’t only affected social and economic emancipation of them but also emancipation of their individual self.

Hence when people cringe about reservations in educational institutes and jobs and instead lobby for merit and equality, I find it extremely problematic because our history doesn’t justify that cringing. “Your ancestors may have discriminated against my ancestors but you haven’t discriminated against me so I shouldn’t be holding that against you” is a flawed argument. Perhaps, in the process of discrimination, your ancestors have hampered my ancestor’s ability to overcome discrimination which might still be continuing in my family. Who knows?


PS: I’d pause all the caste debate here for a while due to mounting load of pending submissions that I’ve to do as its end of the semester. We can take the dialogue further on tweets, facebook, email or in comments section here but I will try to reply only when I’m relived of the submission load. My post on Rajdeep’s tweet is here.

Rajdeep, your caste is showing!

When I moved to Delhi from Pune, one thing I was relieved of was not having to answer condescending Punekars asking me my last name. It’s a “not so subtle” way of asking “What’s your caste?” and the tone of the conversation that would follow was largely dependent on whether I was a Brahmin or not. While I was aware of caste discrimination since my days in Goa, I became aware of caste atrocities and how it plays a major role (more than one can think of) in one’s life when I moved to Pune. Social segregation, ghettoization of dalit communities etc. were starkly visible in a Pune where the Brahmins have had a stronghold in shaping it as a city. My relief from being asked Pune’s typical conversation starter “What’s your last name?” didn’t last long until last week when I went to Goa Sadan for the annual “Goa Festival”. This time it was a Goan (a GSB) asking me the same question and all I could do is laugh and tell him what my last name is.

The reason for this post is the latest controversy that Rajdeep Sardesai has stirred by tweeting about his “Sarswat” pride after fellow GSBians, Manohar Parrikar and Suresh Prabhu were inducted into Modi’s cabinet.


Well I had already called it a sick behaviour from Rajdeep’s side by tweeting that “There’s nothing great in taking pride in people inducted into power who already hail from privileged classes”. While I thought the controversy ended there, Rajdeep has now written a column in HT justifying the tweet thereby paving way for a fresh controversy. And in course of responding to that, GSB sentiments of a fellow twitter user, Nilay Bhandare (@kharobangdo) seems to have been hurt or disturbed. This post is to address the concerns after having read reactions by both and probably address larger problem of caste with particular reference to Goa.

Let’s look at Rajdeep first (Nilay deserves another post) because if not anything else, the article is a bit hilarious too at some level.

“GSB” refers to the Gaud Saraswat Brahmins, a tiny, but highly progressive community of fish-eating Brahmins that I belong to which nestles along the Konkan coast, across Maharashtra, Goa, through to parts of Karnataka.

A “Highly progressive community” that decides how they would talk to a person depending on his or her skin tone and last name. A highly progressive community that controls temple ownership in Goa and denies entry into sanctum sanctorum for other communities. A highly progressive community that asserts their own dialect as an official language onto rest of the state. This list of highly progressive attributes can go on but let’s stop here.

Rajdeep further mentions that

In his valuable book Saraswats, Chandrakant Keni traces the history of the Saraswat community, of the migration from Kashmir, of how they faced oppression from the conquering Portuguese, how they zealously held onto their family traditions and village deities, and placed a premium on education as a path to upward mobility.

While I have not read the book by Chandrakant Keni, I will refrain from making remarks on his arguments about Sarswats but only thing here is that I have problem with is GSBs placing a premium on education as a path to upward mobility. When you are the only community having access to education and knowledge systems and thus denying the right to education to rest of the communities, aren’t you the only one who’s going to ride on the path of upward mobility? It’s like running the race alone or with fellow racers who are handicapped by social structure which you’ve ensured remains intact for centuries and then claiming victory?

The next para would put any standup comedian to shame which read like

Despite the small numbers, the Saraswat community has contributed enormously to the country: In cricket, led by the big two Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar, Saraswats have scored more than a hundred Test hundreds; in cinema and the arts, we have the splendid Girish Karnad, Shyam Benegal, Guru Dutt and the latest Hindi film dream girl, Deepika Padukone; in education, the Pais of Manipal have led the way; and in business and finance, the likes of Nandan Nilekani and KV Kamath have been pioneers.

Of course there is no doubt about Tendulkar and Gavaskar’s legacy but when their hundreds translates into “Saraswats” scoring more than a hundred test hundreds, it does look ugly for reasons more than one. Also we need to think what societal setup that “allows” Sachin Tendulkar to score hundreds while Vinod Kambli’s career gets a halt and gets the tag of “characterless”. It looks like Rajdeep has no understanding of the privileges that upper caste communities in India have always enjoyed. He strengthens this belief further by saying

Casteism is when a caste identity is used to promote hatred and separateness towards the other, when it creates social barriers based on occupation, marriage or inter-dining.

Alas! Paisaa aaya par class consciousness nahi gaya! If it was only that simple. This is the urban elite understanding of “casteism” and Rajdeep seems like a frontrunner of such bullshit that gets disguised as liberalism. Casteism is what happened in Khairlanji and rising cases of atrocities against Dalits. It’s also ridiculing of the Ambedkar followers on 6th December and discussing how these “Jai Bheem” people need to be shown their place who crowd and litter the city of Bombay, which is otherwise clean and devoid of any crowds. It’s also Brahmin students cancelling their admissions from Aurangabad University when it was being renamed as Babasaheb Ambedkar University. It’s also asking someone their last name. It’s also advertising in a local Marathi Daily that It’s a celebratory moment for “Bamons” of Goa because after Parrikar, a Kamat has been made the CM. Reminding anyone of their deprivation by invoking a pride in one’s own caste or directly ridiculing the other, is casteism.

Will just share an incident that happened with my cousin few years back. She studies in an elite school in Margao and scores well enough to come first in the class. A fellow GSB classmate of hers comes second. On the day of results, the mother of this GSB girl asked my cousin, “Your last name is Naik, right? How do you then come first in class?” As if coming first in class (and hence being intelligent and worthy of acquiring knowledge) was a trait peculiar to GSBs. Perhaps Rajdeep never got asked this question. Perhaps he wasn’t denied access to education (and hence empowerment) because of his caste.

One can be ignorant about his or her privilege, it’s only by agency of caste one learns to be proud arrogant about it.

Notes on Bruce McConachie’s Evolutionary perspective on Play, Performance and Ritual

The paper by Bruce McConachie titled “An Evolutionary perspective on Play, Performance and Ritual” attempts to give how these three categories might have evolved out of each other. As McConachie claims “this evolutionary perspective on play, performance, and ritual rests on a recent synthesis of evidence from anthropology, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and other empirically based disciplines”. He also attempts to articulate new definitions of these key terms ie Play, Performance and Ritual in this paper. As a response to this text, I would like to highlight the concept of Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device (HADD) that McConachie elaborates in the Religious Ritual and Performance section.

10600626_1506632282949986_3011552146061300276_nAnthropologists like Guthrie, Lanman, Whitehouse and Barrett emphasise on the importance of HADD in the minds of hominid and later Homo Sapien as primary reason for our species’ creation and worship of gods. Many psychological experiments have demonstrated that people often claim that they have detected animate agency in images, natural events, and accidents where none really exists. For example, people believe they can see the face of a deity in the embers of a fire, for example, or are able to perceive the workings of the gods in a thunderstorm. This is referred as HADD. According to these four anthropologists, HADD, initially an evolutionary adaptation that sensitized our ancestors to the possibility of dangerous agency, led to the secondary cognitive effect of helping them to invent and perpetuate religion. HADD facilitated the extension of performance into religious ritual.

Having been a witness to ritualistic performances like Muharram and Guru Purab recently, I’ve been curious to understand how and why people ascribe their beliefs to a mythic figure and participate in these rituals while often putting their bodies at stake in memory of it. Be it self-flagellating men in Muharram processions or young Sikh men displaying sword fights to invoke a sense of grief and pride respectively, what is the force that drives these men to do these acts? For instance, in Muharram procession, while the men are hurting their body, the spectators beat their chest and weep. What is it that is embodied in these performances which invokes a sense of grief into people who are witnessing it?

Self Flagellating men as a part of mourning on Muharram Muharram (Kashmere Gate, Delhi 2014)
Self Flagellating men as a part of mourning on Muharram Muharram (Kashmere Gate, Delhi 2014)

Scott Atran (whom McConachie quotes in this paper) in his book In Gods We Trust: Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, seems to confirm the crucial role of HADD in religion. According to Atran,

“Most primitive religious rituals rehearsed situations of danger, stress, pain, and occasional death to enable humans to process traumatic experiences in their lives that have no logical or probable explanation or outcome. Such events played a much larger part in human history 50 thousand years ago than they do today, when disease, starvation, and violent death were more frequent occurrences. Despite appearances, sacrifice, mutilation, and similar ritual practices sanctioned by religious belief helped Homo sapiens to deal with life-threatening events and to bind individuals more tightly to their group.”

I am not sure if HADD is the answer to the questions that were raised after watching the Muharram procession but it seems to hint at it.