21 April 2015

Post Facto: Bharatanatyam, ‘sleeveless’ and a threatened museum

My Sunday Guardian column this month:
Last month, the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum had to abandon its plans to host the grand finale of the Lakme Fashion Week, after alleged threats from a Maharashtra Navanirman Sena (MNS) leader. The tie-up with a fashion event was part of managing trustee and honorary museum director Tasneem Zakaria Mehta›s attempts to raise money (a fee of Rs. 2 lakh was to be paid for the use of the venue), while giving the museum›s visibility a fillip. Whether one thinks that the idea of a museum being given over to a fashion show for an evening is an exciting innovation or a bizarre mismatch, it is clear that those who actively opposed the event did not see it in the Mumbai Mirror's neutral terms — as "an alternative public space being used for an international event."
A museum trustee told the Mirror that the event had to be shifted elsewhere at the last minute because Byculla corporator Samita Naik's husband, Sanjay Naik (also an MNS leader) went to the museum premises and threatened to take another 300 people there to protest against the show. The fashion show episode is only the most recent in the battles between the BMC and Mehta, who have earlier crossed swords over ambitious plans for the museum›s expansion. Last week, things came to head when the BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, which partially funds the museum) unanimously passed a proposal to revoke the agreement between the BMC, Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation and Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). The current management, which is responsible for creating one of India›s very few exciting museum spaces, was meant to last another five years. It has now been put on six months' notice.
Reports quoted Sandeep Deshpande, an MNS group leader who presented the proposal to oust Mehta, as saying: "What culture does she intend to show? Our culture is Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Lavni and Kathak; this is what we should be showing to the foreigners, not the culture that these people talk about."
When I posted that quote on Twitter, one response I got was "our culture is Bharatanatyam? Who›d have thunk the Hindu right would admit to sexual slavery as its culture." The tweet was referring, snarkily, to the fact that Bharatanatyam as a dance form emerged out of the centuries-old devadasi system, in which young girls were married off to a deity or a temple, effectively becoming bound to provide sexual services for upper-caste men in the community.
Snark aside, the ironies of Deshpande's remark are inescapable — and several. First, Bharatanatyam's origin really is tied to what can honestly be described as a Hindu way of life — just not in a way the Hindu right would like to admit. Second, what's on display here from the MNS and its ilk is an incredible historical amnesia, an erasure of the decades of struggle that went into reclaiming Bharatanatyam and sanitising it into an art form that girls "from good families" could practice. Third, that sanitising was a deeply controversial thing, with voices like that of Balasaraswati publicly criticising the way the dance form was stripped of its erotic gestures. And finally, while Bharatanatyam as practiced in the wake of Rukmini Devi Arundale and Kala Kshetra might be de-eroticised, lavani certainly is not. The erotic charge of lavani is integral, both in its lyrics and its dance steps.
At one level, I'm glad that the MNS wants to claim these dance forms, or any dance forms, as part of "our culture". But given that this "support" is so uninformed by history, and so kneejerk and hypocritical in its sense of morality, it seems possible that the tables could turn at any moment. Lavani and tamasha were once beyond the pale of Brahminical culture; now they have been appropriated as Maharashtrian culture, so much so that they were made exempt from the ban on bar dancing. Right now, the world of fashion is tagged as Western and upper class, thus immoral. Tomorrow, "our culture" could co-opt it, and label something else immoral.
Meanwhile, when pushed to the wall by the moral police, we can end up defending things in their terms. "Anamika's collection was celebrating Indian garments and was not immoral," Mehta was quoted as saying — if it had been Western wear, would it have been less morally upright?
Chaitanya Tamhane's unmissable debut feature, Court, trains its steady gaze upon a Mumbai courtroom in which similar culture wars are being played out just below the surface. The charge is one of abetment to suicide, but what is really on trial is a man's refusal to toe the hegemonic cultural line. If a man claims to be a folk singer, a lok shahir, then it is terribly suspicious that he should be a member of any social and political organisations — and oh, downright fraud that he should voice political or economic dissent "in the guise of cultural workshops".
Culture here is what a majority endorses — it seems almost its job to mock the minority, whether that be a Catholic lady publicly punished for wearing a "sleeveless" top, or the North Indian migrant who is a figure of fun because he dares propose marriage to a Marathi girl. Culture, in this view, is only culture if it challenges nothing. It must laugh foolishly at its master's jokes, and roll over and die when told to. It must bark at outsiders, but it must never bite its own.
Published in the Sunday Guardian.

13 April 2015

Songs in the Streets

My Mumbai Mirror column yesterday:

Kundan Lal Saigal would have turned 111 on 11 April. But here's a question. Why should you care?

When I was a child in Delhi in the early 80s, a family friend I called Vinoo Uncle sometimes sang me to sleep. The song was always "So ja rajkumari". I remember it in the best way a lullaby can be remembered: as a silken cocoon which never failed to rock me softly into slumber. 

It was only decades later that I learnt that it was a song made famous by KL Saigal. Saigal sang it for a film called Zindagi, directed by PC Barua, who made the original 1935 Devdas. (Zindagi, which repeated the Devdas star couple Saigal and Jamuna, was the highest-grossing film of 1940, and I recently learnt that it might be the only film Manto ever reviewed.) 

But Saigal appeared in my life much before I discovered all that. When I was 11, I lived with my nani in Calcutta, and every time I expressed irritation about the music classes I had to take, she would tell me how as a child she had badly wanted to learn to play the violin. And for some reason, the story of her (unfulfilled) musical ambitions was tied to her having been a Saigal fan. I had no idea who Saigal was, except that when Nani told me this story, her eyes would acquire a faraway look as she started to hum some quivery-quavery song of a type which the 11-year-old me could only definitely identify as "old". 

This, while somewhat imprecise, was not untrue. Kundan Lal Saigal was born on 11th April 1904. And if you remember that he was dead before independence, it is absolutely remarkable that so many people continued to sing his songs into the 80s. My nani was perhaps an unsurprising candidate: born in a village in Uttar Pradesh, she would have arrived in Calcutta at the end of the 30s, when Saigal's popularity was at its peak, and she a teenager with adolescent romantic yearnings. Why Vinoo Uncle knew or sang Saigal is less easily explainable: he must have been barely four when Saigal died, in January 1947. But he had a younger sister he may well have sung lullabies to, and they were growing up in Lucknow, the city that produced the song's lyricist, Saiyid Anwar Husain, better known as Arzu Lucknawi. 

But somewhere between the 80s and 2011, I acquired a taste for Saigal. I may not be able to write the paeans to his Bhairavi that biographers of a certain age do, but I was enough of an admirer of "Diya Jalao" and "Ek Bangla Bane Nyaara" to feel slightly conflicted when Ram Sampath composed an parody of his slightly nasal, melancholic, lyric-heavy style, called "Saigal Blues". I must admit that "Is dard ki na hai dawaai, Majnu hai ya tu hai kasaai" fitted perfectly with the irreverent faux-tragedies that filled Delhi Belly, but when I laughed out loud, I wondered if I was betraying Saigal. And my nani. 

This week, as Saigal turned 111, I reopened my copy of Pran Nevile's 2011 biography of him. Like so many Indian biographies of musicians and performers, the book is liberal with anecdotes and scanty with facts - perhaps inevitably so, given how little documentation appears to exist of Saigal's early life. But even these often conflicting origin myths do locate Saigal in the wider context of a North Indian musical milieu, of which little survives today. Nevile conjures up a Jammu in which "famous classical musicians... trained professional singing girls who then looked for patronage from the Maharaja's court", and where a pir could tell a boy to focus on zikr and riyaz for two years. Somehow it seems perfectly fitting that Saigal, having decided to become a singer, should leave home and spend eight years doing all sorts of jobs in the cities of North India - Moradabad, Lahore, Kanpur, Bareilly, Simla and Delhi - while picking up music seemingly from everywhere. The world of Saigal's childhood is a world in which a boy from a well-to-do family still wanted the singing part of Sita in Ramlila. It is a world of "wandering ministrels (sic), temple priests, faqirs and jogis", in which kissa singers sold satirical verses for an anna, and not just religious festivals, but the hawking of goods involved music. 

This was the matrix which early cinema drew on to create a film like Street Singer (1938), and into which its music fed back. In Nevile's words, "paanwallas, tongawallas, peons, clerks, hawkers, students and teachers could be heard humming Saigal's ghazals". And Lahore's famed kothas rang with Urdu ghazals popularised by Saigal. 

Nevile credits Saigal's songs for popularising film music on records. But cinema and recorded music were then far from replacing live performance; something best illustrated by the fact that cinemas in Lahore combined film screenings with live song-and-dance performances: "Ek ticket mein do maze". 

The story of Saigal could be the story of many things: of Indian cinema's first properly mobbed superstar; of the rise of gramophone recording; of Hindi cinema before it became Bombay cinema - when Indian cinema was being produced almost entirely from Calcutta, with several films made in Bengali and remade in Hindi. As the industry shifted base, Saigal, too, moved to Bombay, but died soon after, an alcoholic, at the young age of 42. (There is a strange echo of Manto here, who died soon after leaving Bombay, also an alcoholic in his forties.) Will someone not make the bio-pic?

12 April 2015

Picture This: Chasing Politics

Last Saturday's BLink column
Following Shazia Ilmi through the 2013 Delhi assembly election, a new documentary offers a glimpse into the struggles of the Aam Aadmi Party. 

Lalit Vachani’s 2015 documentary 
An Ordinary Election, shot in the run-up to the 2013 Delhi assembly elections, tracks politician Shazia Ilmi’s campaign in south Delhi’s RK Puram constituency. Screened last week in Mumbai, Kolkata and at least three different venues in the Capital, the film attracted an audience largely comprising activists, journalists and academics. While Vachani could not have predicted it, the fact that Ilmi left the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in May 2014 and joined the BJP in January 2015 (after losing the RK Puram seat narrowly to the BJP contender) forms an overarching frame for the way we view the film. And given that the much-publicised exit of Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan from the AAP Executive Council was taking place the week Vachani chose to screen his film, many saw it as a prescient comment on the AAP’s present.
From the start, when we see Ilmi alone in a seemingly empty room, being recorded for TV even as she is recorded for Vachani’s film, it is clear that she is a creature of the camera. As The Economic Timesrecognised in a 2011 profile of her, “being on TV is Ilmi’s core competence.” Having worked as a political correspondent and news anchor for 15 years, Ilmi “is not flustered by rudeness, can shout as loudly as necessary to gain the anchor’s attention, speaks fast and without gaps so that others can’t sneak in parallel commentary, appears to have a cultivated disregard for punditry, and has the rare capacity to smile beatifically for the entire duration of the debate.”
We have had more occasions to watch Ilmi in action since, and Vachani shows her putting these impressive abilities to use on the campaign trail, continuing to hold the beatific smile while being told by a Vasant Vihar uncle that she should have stayed a journalist, or hearing the news of her electoral defeat. In a Q&A after one Delhi screening, Vachani said that he considered tracking at least one other candidate, perhaps from another party, but for various reasons, including budgetary constraints, decided to stick with Ilmi, whom he knew from her student days at Jamia Millia Islamia. (Vachani now teaches courses on documentary at the University of Göttingen, Germany.) But while he makes good use of his unfettered access to Ilmi, and her ease before the camera, he spends equal time talking to her three different campaign managers and volunteers, providing a rare picture of AAP from the inside out — a point I shall return to.
A documentary doesn’t have to lay out its arguments like a thesis does, which can be a strength. But the two axes along which Vachani’s interests lie seemed clear to me: religion and class. Religion is perhaps the more obvious one, given that Ilmi, whose name identifies her as Muslim, was standing from a constituency where only 4.5 per cent of the population is Muslim. AAP’s choice was a rejection of vote bank politics, and Ilmi repeatedly appeals to voters to see her as ‘just a citizen’ rather than a ‘Muslim face’. What the film also catches, though, is Ilmi’s cleverly multifarious presentation of self, in which references to biryani (cooked by one of her poorer constituents) sit side by side with remarks that project a subliminal Hindu worldview: “Jab bahut zyada adharm badh jaata hai, toh safai ke tareeke hote hain”. In one revealing scene, she does not contradict a temple priest who says, “Brahmin prasann honge toh bhagwan prasann honge (If Brahmins are pleased, god will be pleased too)”. When she then leans over to whisper in his ear, “My mother-in-law is Brahmin,” it is difficult not to think of it as political opportunism, especially in the light of Ilmi’s future actions.
As for class, the film shows Ilmi traversing the constituency of RK Puram, which consists of middle-class government quarters, jhuggis, as well as posh colonies. She is self-possessed and gracious wherever she goes, though her appeals to middle and upper middle-class voters rang truer for me than her attempts to learn Tamil from Tamil-speaking slum-dwellers, which evoked an Indira Gandhi style of politics. What is harder to pinpoint — and yet crystal-clear as you watch the film — is how class operates as a dividing line within the party, causing invisible fractures that eventually break the campaign, damaging Ilmi’s chances. We see the removal of two campaign managers. The first, Omendra Bharat, an IIT graduate and an inspired orator, is replaced by Siddharth (no last name), another computer engineer, who lasts until a TV sting shows him willing to accept donations without receipts. (The sting was later dismissed as manufactured.) Anjana Mehta, who replaces Siddharth, comes across as a much-more English-speaking figure, who dismisses both Omendra and Siddharth as “pontificating” rather than working, and casts aspersions on their loyalty. Vachani captures the anger of several volunteers who believe that these decisions were taken undemocratically, including Mohanji, who stops working in protest, only to return once Ilmi leaves.
One revealing disagreement breaks out over why Ilmi should be called ‘Ma’am’ rather than by her first name. Gender, of course, is the elephant in the room. Ilmi talks of men’s inability to deal with a woman as boss. Omendra’s carload of campaigners is entirely male and North Indian, while Siddharh is quoted as unselfconsciously saying that whatever money he spends on AAP, “it’s still cheaper than dating girls”. AAP’s brilliantly energetic 2015 campaign revealed a party so astute about class as to successfully make it the unifying election plank so many have failed at. Watching Vachani’s film, though, one worries that it cannot prevent itself from being riven by it.
Published in the Hindu Business Line.

7 April 2015

Much too fast and furious

My Mirror column on Sunday:

Dibakar Banerjee's contemporary spin on a 1940s Bengali sleuth is packed full of grungy period detail, but detective Byomkesh Bakshy doesn't look like he can save the world. Not at this speed, at any rate.

The pleasures of detective stories are – or ought to be – two-fold. There is the pleasure of being rowed gently into a world in which secrets lurk beneath the surface of the everyday. And then there is the pleasure of watching a single mind, invariably a mind sharper than most people's, lower a net into these seemingly unruffled waters and fish those secrets out of the depths. Dibakar Banerjee's new film offers plenty of the first kind, having populated its 1940s Calcutta canvas with so many secrets that it feels like watching a particularly atmospheric painting come to life. But Banerjee's Byomkesh feels too callow and too hurried to afford us the second kind: not so much because he nets the wrong fish, but because he hurtles through this storied world without letting us savour what he does uncover.

Bengalis, who were colonized earlier (and more effectively) than most of the rest of India, acquired a taste for detective fiction early. Priyanath Mukhopadhyay, a retired policeman, began recounting his experiences in the Darogar Daptar (The Inspector's Office) series in 1892, around the same time as Arthur Conan Doyle began writing his first stories. Mukhopadhyay's popular series didn't draw from Doyle, but Holmes and Watson certainly had an influence on other Bengali writers of crime fiction, giving rise to many a cerebral detective who solved crimes with the aid of a not-as-clever associate who happened to be a writer. One of these was Sharadindu Bandopadhyay, whose Byomkesh Bakshi first made his appearance in print in the 1930s, accompanied by his writer friend Ajit. The alliteratively-named detective was a dhuti-wearing middle class Bengali man of his time, with a domestic life involving a wife and a child, and a world that extended only till Cuttack and Munger and Dhaka – quite different from Satyajit Ray's rather more cosmopolitan Feluda, a bachelor who spoke fluent English and bore the Anglicised name of Pradosh Mitter (rather than Mitra), and whose travels took him to much farther-flung destinations like Jaisalmer, Ajanta, Kathmandu, Gangtok, places that Satyajit Ray had been to himself. But while Feluda's adventures were always child-friendly, full of antique smuggling and kidnapping, Byomkesh mysteries could often involve crimes of lust and passion and revenge.

Another reason why Byomkesh has endured is that he has been incarnated in many avatars outside the pages of Sharadindu's 32 and a half stories. He has been given audio-visual form by directors as disparate as Satyajit Ray, who cast Uttam Kumar as Byomkesh in the famously disappointing film Chiriyakhana; Basu Chatterjee, who turned Byomkesh into a national household name with his Rajit-Kapoor-starring series on Doordarshan in the early 1990s; Anjan Dutt, who launched his first Byomkesh film in Bangla with the young TV actor Abir Chatterjee in 2010; and Rituparno Ghosh, whose Satyanweshi, starring Kahaani director Sujoy Ghosh as Byomkesh, had to be completed by his crew after Ghosh died unexpectedly while still working on it.

Dibakar Banerjee's Byomkesh, then, is only the latest in a long line of cinematic interpretations. It is fitting, in a way, that Byomkesh should finally find a home on the Bombay film screen, because Sharadindu Bandhopadhyay worked for nearly fifteen years as a scriptwriter with Bombay Talkies, Filmistan and other studios. On the other hand, it does feel slightly odd to watch this picture-perfect world of dhuti-clad Bengalis called Something-Babu having to read Yugantar in Hindi and saying such things as “same-to-same”-- not to mention the jarring dissonance produced by Sneha Khanwalkar's deliberately anachronistic musical score.

There is much period detail that starts off feeling marvellous and on-the-ball—such as the smoky streets of North Calcutta's old Chinatown, festooned with Chinese New Year banners and strings of Chinese sausages, or the way the competitive, education-obsessed, bhadralok milieu is established with effortless accuracy by characters being remembered by their university gold medals, whether two years or 20 have passed since they were awarded. But then, in swift succession, Banerjee flings at us a Burma-born actress who goes by the annoyingly Hindi heartland stage-name of Angoori Devi, a comic Sardar taxi driver, two dumb Bhagalpuri pehelwan guards to provide the Hindustani quotient, a pack of Chinese druglords and a ridiculously fake Japanese villain strutting about with a samurai sword -- and the film began to feel like a mithai too stuffed with mewa to taste anything at all. 

Every possible constituent of Calcutta's 1940s mix is ticked off, except perhaps the Armenians. But by trying to splice together deaths by sword and deaths by strychnine, nationalist party politics and British policemen and the Chinese opium trade and the Japanese bombing of Calcutta, the film refuses to let one properly soak in the smells and sights of any one of these. Each time Nikos Andriatsakis's supremely atmospheric cinematography deposited us at the dark edge of a galli, with opium addicts stumbling out, I craved to be let into the opium den, to see it for myself. But that never happened. Meanwhile Watanabe's house looked like a facade only present for him to prance about in the garden. I enjoyed much of the spectacle of what I do understand is meant to be a genre film, but I felt nothing for any of the central characters -- and less for any of the peripheral ones, even when they died thankless deaths.

As Dibakar Banerjee put it so beautifully in an introduction he wrote to a Puffin edition of three Byomkesh stories in 2012, being Byomkesh was always about doing the right thing. But there was something deliciously gradual, small-scale, sometimes even mofussil about the Byomkesh stories that I remember, which has been replaced here with an action hero out to save the world. It feels like a delusion of grandeur. I hope he'll come back to ground level.  

29 March 2015

Shashi Kapoor, the perfect partner

My Mirror column today: 

Whether paired with Amitabh Bachchan, Shabana Azmi or his wife Jennifer onscreen, the understandably secure Shashi Kapoor always made for a compelling foil in the movies.

I think he's completely deserving of it, but Shashi Kapoor might seem an unusual choice for the Dadasaheb Phalke award. Unlike his larger-than-life father, Prithviraj, whose grand passion for theatre and cinema started the Kapoor clan off on their path to show business, and unlike his two elder brothers Raj and Shammi, both of whom - though not comparable - carved out distinct, individual niches for themselves in an unforgiving film industry, Shashi has always been the perfect foil. Never an actor who sought to have the spotlight turned solely on him, he has always been someone who gave himself wholly and freely in partnerships. And rarely, in the world as in cinema, is that quality given the applause it deserves. 

One of his earliest romantic pairings, with the lovely late actress Nanda, lasted through the whole decade of the 60s, with seven films, starting with Char Diwari (1961) and ending with Rootha Na Karo (1970). The most successful of these, of course, was Jab Jab Phool Khilein (1965), in which he went from being a carefree Kashmiri boatman singing 'Pardesiyon se na ankhiyan milana' to being the wealthy Nanda's uncomfortably suited-booted husband, singing 'Yahan main ajnabi hoon' at the sort of piano-centred party that Hindi cinema so often used to depict the terrible un-Indian debaucheries of the rich. In an interview in the 90s, Shashi said Nanda was his favourite heroine. Nanda, who was by far the bigger star when they started acting together, returned the compliment. The figure of the ghuta-hua poorer man to the little rich girl of 60s cinema was one Shashi repeated the following year, in Waqt, where he played Sharmila Tagore's educated-but-poor lover who must work as a driver to support his mother. 

A very different sort of partnership, with Amitabh Bachchan is, of course, legendary. The two did so many films together that Jaya Bhaduri once apparently referred to Shashi as her "soutan", because he spent more time with her husband than she did. The Amitabh-Shashi on-screen relationship ran the gamut, from estranged brothers (most famously in the 1975 classic Deewar, but also in other films like 1979's Suhaag), to servant and master (Namak Halal, 1982), blue collar worker and white collar boss (Kala Patthar, 1979), sometimes even sort-of-rivals for the love of a woman (Kabhie Kabhie). Much as I loved watching Shashi's sunny, ethical engineer play off the brooding Amitabh in the fictionalised prevention of a real-life mining tragedy that was Kala Patthar, my favourite of their performances together is probably the ridiculously enjoyable Do Aur Do Paanch, in which they play rival thugs who've taken jobs at a school, pretending to be music teacher and sports teacher respectively, in order to kidnap a little boy. 

Amitabh being the spotlight-grabber that he is, it took a persona as secure as Shashi's to remain completely unthreatened. Which he did, despite the conspiracy theories floated in film magazines of the time, about Shashi's role having been cut down to size in Deewaar. In a short but rather remarkable 1975 interview to Bikram Vohra in Filmfare, Shashi categorically refused to add any fuel to that fire: "[I]t's ridiculous to say that Amitabh's role [in Deewaar] was engineered to show me up. After all, before I took the role I knew I was playing the second lead. So the idea of a conspiracy against Shashi Kapoor is Bullsh*t. And in any case why do we have this hang-up in our country? About always coming out as heroes. In the West great names like Olivier, Burton, Harrison frequently played second roles. There's nothing demeaning about that." 

Another of Shashi's most interesting - if somewhat unlikely - romantic pairings was with Shabana Azmi. The films they did together that remain embedded in my mind are both literary adaptations. They played husband and wife in the memorable Junoon (1978), Shyam Benegal's adaptation of Ruskin Bond's A Flight of Pigeons, and many years later, in the 1993 In Custody (Muhafiz), the Merchant-Ivory adaptation of Anita Desai's novel by the same name. Shabana plays the neglected, petulant wife in both films, but Shashi's roles could not be more stunningly different: a fiery young 1857 mutineer called Javed, and an aged, overweight poet whose world is crumbling. As an aside: it's funny to think of the fact of these actors as people who've known each other for ever - that same Bikram Vohra interview from 1975 has Shashi tossing off a remark about how he told Shabana that she's a great actress but not very goodlooking (as opposed to Parveen Babi, to whom he apparently said the opposite). 

But perhaps Shashi's oddest and most interesting film pairings were with his wife Jennifer Kendall. The first one I recall is also in Junoon, where as the troubled Javed, Shashi becomes obsessed with the teenaged Ruth (an exquisitely young Nafisa Ali) and his potentially dangerous attentions are only kept at bay by Jennifer, playing Ruth's mother Miriam. The second is in the 1970 Merchant Ivory production Bombay Talkie, where he played a Bombay film star who has an affair with the visiting American novelist Lucia Lane (Jennifer). These were not performances that let on that the two actors were, in fact, husband and wife. 

I don't know very much about their real-life relationship, but the same 1975 interview paints a picture of the Jennifer-Shashi household as one where Shashi was forced to eat organic breakfasts at 7.30 am, and occasionally, at least, have vegetarian stints. This seemed unbelievable to the Filmfare journalist in 1975. But it fits perfectly with Sanjana Kapoor's memory of growing up in a house where three things were banned: aerated cold drinks, comics and film magazines. Clearly, Shashi's lifelong ability to keep the Hindi film world he was born into at a safe, sane, distance owed something to Jennifer. But that would need another column.

23 March 2015

Post Facto: Flipping the script for Urdu?

This month's Post Facto column, for the Sunday Guardian
Last weekend, Jashn-e-Rekhta, a "celebration of Urdu", unfolded at the India International Centre (IIC) in Delhi. The two days of festivities — and it really did feel festive — included at least two plays, a mushaira, qawwali, ghazals, dastangoi, recitation, and a host of lively discussions about Urdu's past and present, from detective fiction to the internet.
Now Delhi is blessed with an abundance of cultural activity, of which qawwalis and ghazals often form a part — privately-funded events like Muzaffar Ali's Jahan-e-Khusrau, dedicated to "sufi music", or the Agha Khan Foundation's Jashn-e-Khusrau, actually dedicated to Amir Khusrau. The Delhi government also pays official homage to Urdu: the Urdu Academy's drama festival at Shri Ram Centre, the annual Republic Day mushaira at the Red Fort (meant to evoke the memory of Bahadur Shah Zafar's Lal Qila mushairas) and the qawwali at Jahaz Mahal in Mehrauli that brings the state-sponsored part of Phoolwalon ki Sair to a close. So what made Jashn-e-Rekhta special?
Organised by entrepreneur Sanjiv Saraf, the man behind Rekhta.org, the festival was as different from sarkari Urdu events as the stylish, effortlessly trilingual poetry website is from the Urdu Academy's. The Rekhta team produced a tapestry of remarkably high quality, with no whiff of patronage being dispensed. There were no technical glitches or interminable chief guest speeches. And by locating itself in the IIC, genteel silver-haired cultural heart of New Delhi, the organisers announced their affinity to a Nehruvian ethos as invested in secular modernity as traditional roots.
And yet, as the few people I did know kept saying to each other in delighted surprise, it wasn't an audience of "IIC regulars". Of course, it was a middle/ upper middle class audience (unlike the wider demographic Phoolwalon ki Sair attracts), but it included young and old, grungy and normcore and exquisitely turned out. That mix, and the general excited hulchul, lent a magnificent vibrancy to the proceedings. The buzz only grew when Mahmood Farooqi began to intersperse his and Darain Shahidi's brilliant dastangoi performance with non-diegetic jokes, taking arch cognisance of Manish Sisodia, Delhi's current Deputy CM, who had queued up for his first dastan.
As for the programming, while hats were doffed to some expected icons (a musical tribute to Begum Akhtar, a dramatic one to Manto and a conversational one to Krishan Chander), the audience seemed as large and as rapt for SR Faruqi's delightfully meandering chat about the ghazal as for Nandita Das and Irshad Kamil disagreeing on the quality of today's film lyrics. The huge presence of Pakistanis -- writers, poets, critics, translators, performers -- was remarkable. More remarkably, I didn't hear anyone introduced as Pakistani, or even addressed in that sugary DD anchor sort of way as "our guests from across the border". If you knew who Intizar Hussain was, you already knew he migrated to Pakistan in 1947. With less famous people — Ali Akbar Natiq, whose Urdu short stories have just been translated into English, or Ali Madeeh Hashmi, who's done the translation, or the writer and critic Asif Farrukhi, or several of the poets at the mushaira — one had no idea that they were "guests from across the border", until a reference to Karachi or Dawn clicked into place.
The language, it was clear, really does bind us. And whether it was Intizar Hussain speaking of how he came to write jataka tales, or Mahmood Farooqui's rendition of Vijay Dan Detha's Rajasthani folktale "Chouboli" as the evening's dastan, there is no doubt that this language is as deeply and widely subcontinental as anything we have.
But while there was plenty to celebrate, let's not be coy about facts. One: like most Urdu events I've seen, the stage was dominated by men, mostly men above a certain age. The (all-male) mushaira placed this upfront: the oldest poet was 88, the youngest 65. Only eight women appeared over two days: two as musicians, and two others in connection with literary great men — Baran Farooqi was in conversation with her father SR Faruqi; Salma Siddiqui appeared as "the wife of the legendary Urdu fiction writer Krishan Chander". I was just feeling somewhat gratified that at least the most active question-askers were women, when from the impressively poetry-literate men behind me rose the loud murmur: "Uff, phir wahi feminism".
An Urdu literary festival also makes visible the undeniable tragedy of Urdu in India, that those who speak the language well enough to take the stage are almost invariably Muslims. As for reading and writing it, well, there are no Krishen Chanders left.
The identification of Urdu with Muslims is a self-fulfilling prophesy. But surely it must mean something that there is still a Delhi audience excited enough by Urdu to make the IIC burst at the seams, for two days? Perhaps Urdu remains a constituency coveted by both community and capital. I recently read a fun piece by Aneela Zeb Babar (who is, among other things, a Pakistani living in Delhi), mocking the attempted takeover of Urdu by the Modi sarkar and Tata Sky alike, via Salim Khan (who inaugurated Modi's Urdu website last May), and Javed Akhtar (who is now "Active" on Sky).
There is already one irate blogpost complaining that Jashn-e-Rekhta's signage and scheduling were in Roman. I get it. But when my free booklet of shers turned out to be in Urdu script, I considered leaving it behind. No script should be left behind. But with Urdu, we risk throwing out the baby with the bathwater. (And perhaps here Urdu shares a quandary with Hindi: the Roman script has made swift inroads, aided by an army called Microsoft.)
If, on one hand, the Urdu script is taught only in madarsas, on the other hand, we see the massive popularity of Zee's Zindagi channel, launched in India last summer with a bouquet of Pakistani TV serials. No literature festival, however seductive, can escape (or answer) the nagging question of "fast food" oral consumption versus the actual labour of reading. But for people like me, who cannot read Urdu, but follow enough of a dastan performance to remain enthralled (as Danish Hussain quipped, "Is there anyone here who claims to understand 100% of every Hollywood film they see?"), the spoken word may offer a path back to a language we must not leave behind.