20 February 2021

Book Review: Archaeology and the Public Purpose

A special book about a special man. My review for Scroll.

This study of archaeologist MN Deshpande’s work highlights the integrity and zeal of a true scholar
Archaeology and the Public Purpose: Writings on and by MN Deshpande
by Nayanjot Lahiri. Oxford University Press, 2020.



Before anything else, a personal disclaimer, or rather, a claim: I briefly had the pleasure of knowing MN Deshpande. I met him not in the capacity of archaeologist and scholar, but as my school friend Mita’s grandfather, calling him Azoba as she did.

As Class XI students at Delhi’s Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, Mita and I often came back from school together to the Deshpande home. I was already interested in history, and although Madhusudan Narhar Deshpande was not the sort of grandfather to lecture teenagers floating around the house, I remember wonderful occasional conversations with him about ancient India. 

After one such chat, Azoba lent me his copy of Heinrich Zimmer’s Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. A classic of Indology, it was the perfect book to give an aesthetically and literarily-inclined history student at Delhi University, which I was to become soon after. I did not become a historian, but the book has remained in my bookshelf, its front page stamped with “MN Deshpande, Retired Director General of Archaeology”.

Heinrich Zimmer had held the Chair in Indian Philology at the University of Heidelberg in Germany from 1924 to 1938, but was forced to leave because of his criticism of Hitler. He moved first to Oxford and then to the USA. Soon after his arrival in New York, though, Zimmer died suddenly of pneumonia. Myths and Symbols is a collection of the lectures Zimmer delivered to his Columbia University students in the winter of 1941, posthumously compiled and published by Joseph Campbell in 1946 – the year the young Madhusudan became an Assistant Superintendent in the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), where he would serve his entire career, eventually retiring as Director General in 1978.

Deshpande was born exactly a century ago, in 1920, and historian Nayanjot Lahiri’s six essays in Archaeology and the Public Purpose do a stellar job of placing his career in context.

Since the early 2000s, historians have begun to engage with the history of Indian archaeology. Upinder Singh’s fine 2004 volume The Discovery of Ancient India, for instance, traces the establishment of the ASI as well as the individual contributions of archaeologists like Alexander Cunningham, JDM Beglar and James Burgess. 

Tapati Guha Thakurta’s Monuments, Objects, Histories: Institutions of Art in Colonial and Postcolonial India, also published in 2004, moves expertly between the colonial and postcolonial periods, and between institutional and individual histories. There are portraits of early Indian archaeological scholars like Rajendralal Mitra and Rakhaldas Banerjee, while other chapters explore moments when ancient Indian art and archaeology have emerged as crucial basis of flashpoints in our contemporary cultural politics: MF Husain’s depictions of Hindu goddesses, for instance, or the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute, which hinged on archaeology.

But little has been written about Indian archaeology after independence. Recent Indian history is often a tricky project for historians, partly because sources are often scattered and hard to pin down. So it is fitting that Lahiri’s work on Deshpande emerges, at least partially, from her discovery of an archive.

Early career

The scholar-archaeologist’s family had preserved his personal papers, including personal diaries, notebooks, files, photographs (many of them not in the ASI archives) and professional writing (much of it previously unpublished). Lahiri adds her own research, archival and secondary, including things gleaned from her exchanges with family members, to paint a portrait of Deshpande as a member of a generation that came of age with Indian independence – personally as well as professionally.

The sole exception in a family of Maharashtrian doctors, he was raised by a father who had given up his government job in response to a call from Lokamanya Tilak. Having become a staunch Congressman, Deshpande’s father attended the 1936 Congress session at Faizpur, taking the sixteen-year-old Madhusudan along, though it was some 500 km from their home town Rahimatpur. It was on the same trip that father and son made an excursus to see the famous Ajanta caves – on which Deshpande would come to be an expert.

The search for academic excellence led young Madhusudan to Pune for the later years of schooling, and then to Fergusson College, renowned for language studies. But having started out as a traditional language-based scholar, specifically a Jainologist specialising in an ancient Prakrit language called Ardhamagadhi, how did Deshpande enter the relatively lesser-known field of archaeology?

Again, Lahiri’s answer to that question traverses the academic, institutional and social history of an era: the setting up of Deccan College as part of Pune’s educational renaissance; HD Sankalia’s rise to being the head of its archaeology department; Deshpande’s move to Deccan College coinciding with a two-month field training school in Taxila in 1944, devised by newly appointed ASI chief Mortimer Wheeler to address India’s scarcity of archaeological staff; Sankalia responding to Wheeler’s call by sending his best students to Taxila. Deshpande went too, becoming part of what was to become the defining cohort of post-independence South Asian archaeology.

He did return to Deccan College, but only to find that a Phd had been submitted on a topic very similar to his own, the scholar having remained under the radar because he was in jail (one assumes, though Lahiri doesn’t go into it, that this was one of many promising young Indians imprisoned during the Quit India agitation of 1942 – my mother’s father BM Singhi topped Banaras Hindu University’s Hindi MA exams from jail). Deshpande’s academic ambitions in Jain studies thus dampened, he took Sankalia’s advice and accepted one of the new ASI scholarships offered by Wheeler.

Multifaceted work

Lahiri’s biographical history of Deshpande and his cohort is full of details that offer unexpected pathways into the present. She reproduces, for instance, Wheeler’s Note to the Standing Committee on Education, in which he argues brilliantly and vociferously for an improvement in research on Indian heritage, rather than a “faint and usually sentimental consciousness that this great inheritance exists”.

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“[W]ithout a high standard of research at the back of it all, even the most general education will fall short of its goal,” predicts Wheeler. He adds a great metaphor that new India’s research-scorning new technocratic elite might benefit from hearing: a country’s ability to conduct high quality research, he writes, is like its ability to produce a Rolls Royce: it helps maintain “the standard of the less intricate piece of machinery with which most of us have to be content.”

Deshpande himself did not become a university-based teacher-researcher, but his academic interests – in the caves of the Western Deccan, in Prakrit inscriptions, and in the relationship between archaeology, ethnography and history – remained. But this volume’s rarity lies in capturing the enormously multi-faceted work of the practicing public archaeologist in the second half of the 20th century: someone who “conserved monuments, undertook fieldwork, managed museums, dealt with infractions of laws relating to antiquities and protected sites, spearheaded new legislation as also replied to the stream of questions relating to archaeology raised in every parliament session”.

Deshpande’s career ranged from excavations at remote field sites – he writes of working with his mentor Sankalia on “the banks of the Sabarmati in Gujarat and in the river valleys of the Malaprabha and Ghatprabha in Karnataka” – to supervising the conservation of protected monuments, a task that involves a great deal of science, from structural engineering to acoustics to chemistry.

Highlights from Deshpande’s career include executing a conservation plan for the famed Gol Gumbad in Bijapur; following up on Sheikh Abdullah’s personal interest to bring Srinagar’s Hari Parbat fort under ASI protection; working with Indira Gandhi’s government to help pass the watershed Antiquities and Art Treasures Act in 1976 to help prevent smuggling – and arguing against the same government when it proposed a polluting oil refinery at Mathura, only 40 km from the Taj Mahal, and a “beautifying” weir on the Yamuna that would affect the Taj’s foundations.

Much before Indira, Deshpande had encountered her father – when Nehru visited the Ajanta Caves in 1958 and Deshpande, then superintendent of the South-Western circle, took him and Edwina Mountbatten around the caves as “the highest ranking archaeologist of the ASI based in Aurangabad”. Lahiri’s delighted, delightful account – aided by ASI file notings on special toilet cleaning and candid photos from Deshpande’s albums – shows us a man who never missed a chance to visit historic ruins even as a supremely busy Prime Minister, wandering about Mandu for his free day after a Congress meeting in Indore, making and executing a second Ajanta visit to experience the enchantment of the paintings again – and to show them to Edwina.

At the heart of the book is a very different sort of instance of the archaeologist at work. Deshpande’s “jugalbandi” with the famed Chipko activist Chandi Prasad Bhatt is a little-known event that changed the fate of a well-known shrine. The story of how the historic Badrinath Temple was saved from being turned into just another Birla Mandir is a remarkable one.

The temple’s amalgamation of structures, built from the 11th century through to the early 20th, was in the process of being replaced with an all-new structure by the Jayshree Trust, named for the daughter of Basant Kumar Birla. A massive new concrete wall had been built and red sandstone had arrived from Agra, which would have led to a new temple in an architectural style far from local pahari traditions, and an altogether different modern scale.

Chandi Prasad Bhatt’s interventions – reaching out to Deshpande as the ASI chief in Delhi, appealing to the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, HN Bahuguna, and organising a public demonstration against the renovation – set in motion a train of events that eventually helped save the old structure. So different was Indian democracy in 1974 that we had politicians in power actually responding to agitating locals rather than being automatically on the side of the industrial magnates. 

More remarkably, when viewed from the flattened kneejerk responses of our present, public culture in that India did not equate service to history with being against tradition. A figure like MN Deshpande was emblematic of that India.

Own writings

The book is both on and by Deshpande, with more than half the volume devoted to an edited selection of Deshpande’s own writings (many translated from Marathi). These writings range widely across region, subject and style. Never verbose, Deshpande combines the archaeologist’s fine-toothed comb with an eye for what might interest the present-day layperson.

In a piece on the Maharashtrian site of Bahal, for instance, where he conducted fieldwork in 1952-3, Deshpande suggests that it may have lain on “the ancient route joining Bhrigukachha (Broach), the Barygaza of Ptolemy and Periplus, with Paithan (Pratishthan)”, been part of the kingdom of the Yadava kings of Devgiri in medieval times, and retained some degree of importance till Maratha times. He then explains why the place lost its importance: it did not lie on the railway route and became subservient to Chalisgaon, which is a junction on the Central Railways.

A scholar who limited himself to ancient times may not have ended the piece the way Deshpande does – his approach helps bring the ancient world alive, while also making a point about how the historical significance of a place depends on the vagaries of technocratic modernity.

Like his guru Sankalia, Deshpande wrote often in his native tongue, Marathi, to help communicate the archaeological worldview to laypeople. As a language scholar turned archaeologist, he was as comfortable with etymological theorising about the origin of the name Ajanta based on Pali proper names and local pronunciations as he was describing the specific architectural features of the chaityas at the site. In later life, Deshpande further developed his interest in local worship of various deities in the region, carrying out a fascinating archaeological anthropology that links the present with the past.

Despite his humanism and interest in communicating beyond scholarly circles, MN Deshpande was a true archaeologist: someone whose respect for the past was supreme. And unlike the bombast and lip-service that increasingly passes for “respect for the past” in India, this respect was measurable in the material details.

In a wonderful interview reproduced at the end of the volume, Deshpande explains how in conservation archaeology – the repair and maintenance of old structures and artwork – “structural stability is of prime importance, closely followed by aesthetic considerations.” He continues, “Some might argue that aesthetics is subjective but they would be wrong. An ancient monument signifies the achievements of a particular age and thus bears an indelible imprint...the solution of the problem of conservation of a monument lies in the complete understanding of the monument itself, that is why it cannot be left to civil engineers and practising architects.”

Spending time in Deshpande’s company helps us learn how to learn from the past. It is a lesson Indians sorely need.

Published in Scroll, 7 Feb 2021.

Book Review: A Bit of Everything

A fine new novel I reviewed for Scroll, about Kashmir and much else:

 In ‘A Bit of Everything’, author Sandeep Raina travels with questions of memories and victimhood.

This novel self-reflexively explores how a Kashmiri Pandit crafts the narrative of his life and loss

About ten pages into Sandeep Raina’s novel, the Kashmiri Pandit protagonist is asked if he would like to watch a film about the history of the concentration camp he is visiting. Rahul Razdan has just arrived in Europe after six despairing years in Delhi, and walking around Dachau has already filled his mind with thoughts of his homeland. Something about the Austrian stranger’s innocuous question jolts the usually subdued young professor out of melancholia into sudden rage. “I have seen it all, I have felt it, I have been the film. Why would I want to see it all again?” he snaps.

A Bit of Everything is punctuated by incandescent moments like this one, where the light – and heat – from a still-smouldering bit of memory suddenly illuminates the drab, papered-over present, sometimes threatening to set it on fire. But such sparks are rare, because they are dangerous. Most people, most of the time, prefer to view the past nostalgically, and Rahul is no different. In the nostalgic mode, too, the mental analogy is with a film – but a film one watches over and over because one yearns to inhabit it again. 

“The past could be recalled easily, it could be comforting. He could rely on it. He could replay his fondest memories. Sitting here in a cold lounge on a cold leather sofa, he could recall a summer garden, a breezy afternoon, a book aglow under a winter candle, the smell of a wooden bukhari, warm toes in woollen socks, the scent of apples in straw boxes, pine-needle charcoal smoking in a kangri, Doora’s fluttering sari. The past could be relived as he wanted. The problem was with the present.”

A Bit of Everything, Sandeep Raina, Context.

A Bit of Everything, by Sandeep Raina. Westland, 2020.


A slow souring

Raina understands the workings of memory from the inside out. His book is a self-reflexive take on how we craft the narratives of our lives: as individuals, as families, as communities, as nations. It is no coincidence that Raina’s fictional narrator, the mild-mannered Rahul, has the rare ability to accept himself – his bafflement, his grief, his anger – without denying others his empathy. That empathetic quality is particularly valuable in a paean to a lost Kashmiri Pandit homeland, because the granular personal memory of that loss is too often dissolved into a politically expedient history of collective Hindu victimhood.

After they were forced to leave the increasingly communalised valley in the early 1990s, the Pandits’ painful and legitimate grievances have been sucked more and more into a narrative not of their making. The community is now a crucial pawn in the Sangh Parivar’s game of whataboutery, a game which politicians benefit from keeping alive.

We live with Rahul and the others the wrenching violence of the Pandit experience, of having been uprooted from the only home they had ever known, with little notice and few avenues for return. But their fear and hurt and befuddlement is not marshalled into some easy post-facto rationalisation. Raina’s protagonists refuse to play the static parts assigned to them in that never-ending majoritarian game: Pandits are not perpetually wounded victims, Muslims are not perpetually ungrateful traitors. (Even those from the “forces’ families” are allowed complicated inner lives by Raina – though he makes it clear that India’s defence establishment is its own social category in Kashmir.)

Instead, Raina’s narrative burden is the slow souring of once-warm relationships – and like his professorial narrator, he takes it seriously. If he revels in the sights and smells and sounds of his beloved house and garden, painting a often-idyllic picture of the sleepy small town of Varmull (I had to google to realise it’s the Baramulla of news reports), Rahul is equally punctilious about recording the fault-lines beneath the surface. The cross-community connections of Tashkent Street are real, but they contain within them the seeds of discord.

On Tashkent Street

So, for instance, we learn that Rahul and Doora build their “Haseen House” on a spur of the fields belonging to Doora’s family. It’s a detail, but one that helps understand how historical resentments brew: Pandits own all the arable land for miles, while it is poorer Muslims like Firoz and his brother who know how to cultivate it.

Rahul’s relationship to Firoze lies at the core of the novel: their bonding over the garden; Rahul’s awkward silence when Firoze takes the blame for a theft that his brother may or may not have committed; his attempt to compensate by teaching Firoze English literature for free. The inequality once tempered by neighbourly attachment becomes unbridgeable as social distrust deepens.

Then there’s the story of Kris, originally Krishna, who lives in one of the derelict houses on Jadeed Street where most of Varmull’s Dalits lived, “no one knew since when”. After his father dies cleaning a gutter, he comes to work in Rahul and Doora’s house at 13, hoping to acquire some education alongside his domestic duties. But Doora catches him pilfering and sends him away, launching him on a series of adventures in religion. First disallowed into the temple on Gosain Hill, then offered a new name and a Koran but barred from the mosque as “napaak” (impure), the Dalit boy finally becomes a Christian at 14.

Tashkent Street enables unlikely connections, but also watches them with suspicion. If the relationship between Kris and the poor Pandit girl Ragnee raises eyebrows, so does the fact of Firoze’s and Asha Dhar’s mother becoming friends over their daughters’ weddings – and the Ramayan. “I can’t understand the trittam-krittam, trit-pit Hindi they speak in the show, and no one at home tells me anything,” says Firoze’s mother to her son to explain why she goes to Asha Dhar’s house to watch the Hindu epic on Doordarshan every Sunday. 

“Mother, focus on your Pashto, not your Hindi,” laughs Firoze, while telling Rahul privately that it’s the Dhars’ cooking she can’t stay away from. Asha Dhar’s husband Pt Dhar, too, is unhappy with the friendship, which brings the Khan family – including their younger son Manzoor – into unnecessary proximity with his teenaged daughters.

Coming home

Over and over, Raina catches cultural and linguistic undercurrents that are the waves of the future: Iqbal Bano playing at a Pandit wedding before being turned off for its Pakistani-ness; Arun Dhar averting his eyes when asked about his friend Manzoor, or Pt Dhar dropping his voice to a whisper when he talks about his son-in-law’s “Shankhi” leanings so that the shopkeeper can’t hear him, or telling Rahul that he should say “poshte” because Muslims say “mubarakh”.

Raina’s radar may be stronger in Varmull, but it is alert to signals of contradiction even in Delhi and London – the intra-Muslim divide between Pashto-speakers and others; his Babri-destroying cousin Chaman who assures Doora that Rahul won’t fall into bad habits abroad, while winking at him and talking about marrying a mem; the Trinidadian Hindus who toast “Raoul” with beef doner kababs and whiskey while enlisting his services as a pandit for their planned Sanatan temple in Tooting.

Rahul’s final return – to India and to Kashmir – is the only unconvincing part of the book, perhaps because Raina’s attempt to unravel all the knots of the past at once feels more like wish-fulfilment than reality. But this is still a book to be read for its closely observed, deeply felt sense of Kashmir: a world seen from the inside, and then sadly, painfully, from afar. 

In this, A Bit of Everything is the complementary opposite of Madhuri Vijay’s award-winning 2019 novel The Far Field, in which we travel into Kashmir alongside a privileged young woman for whom the place is just a name. It is her slow and revelatory transition, from clueless to tragically embroiled, that helps forge ours.

Unlike Shalini, whose understanding grows as she embeds herself in Kashmir, Rahul begins to understand many things as he is removed from them, once he is no longer a “god of education” in Varmull. Distance and time help recalibrate the familiar.

The British section of the book is powerfully evocative, offering a rare glimpse of the South Asian immigrant experience in all its trials and excitements. As someone who studied in England at an age and time close to the fictional Rahul, I found much that felt deeply recognisable: the insufferable white academic who generously “simplifies” his name for the brown person (while not even thinking to ask how to pronounce yours), the sad, desperate search for ingredients to cook your own food, and the unexpected intimacies with other brown people.

Sometimes these connections with strangers feel stronger than with one’s known people, like Rahul and the man who sells Kashmiri noon chai on a London street. In a world governed by whiteness, brown skin can stretch to cover the bones of class and caste, religion and nation. The differences magnified in the sameness of Varmull can shrink to nothingness in London. That, too, is a revelation.

Published in Scroll, 30 Jan 2021.

24 January 2021

Making Love, With Clothes

My Shelf Life column this month:

What did clothes mean to the ancient Indian poet?

You wouldn't think it to look at us now, but ancient Indians were a sexy people. The delight we took in the erotic seems to have been unabashed. Love-making was a legitimate form of aesthetic pleasure, often described in the allied arts of dance, music, art, architecture – and poetry. And as I dipped into The Bloomsbury Book of Great Indian Love Poems, edited by Abhay K., I found myself noticing how frequently our ancient poets mentioned clothes. 

Perhaps, you might say, it is unsurprising for clothes to come up when the subject is sex, and female beauty. “A wet, transparent skirt clings to her thighs,” writes the 11th century Bhojya Deva in 'Apparition on the River Bank', translated from Sanskrit by Bill Wolak and Abhay K, while Kalidasa's epic work 'Ritu Samhara' maps the seasons by looking, among other things, at women's changing attire. It is summer, for instance, when “young girls, proud and blooming, beads of sweat shining on their perfect bodies, take off their fancy garments and cover their high and pointed breasts with thin linen stoles”.

A cover of 'The Bloomsbury Book of Great Indian Love Poems'.

But real artistry lies in turning object into metaphor. Many an ancient Indian love poem describes a woman's response to finding herself unclothed, turning the literal fact of undressing into a charming motif – shyness. “She tries to find her clothes moving her hands/ and throws her broken chaplet at the lamp, she laughs shyly and tries to cover my eyes,” writes the eighth century Sanskrit poet Amaru, in Abhay K.'s rendition. “Have patience, my love,/ don't take off my clothes yet,/ Though parrot is asleep, mynah is still awake,” runs a Braj Bhasha poem by Keshavdas, also translated by Abhay K, while a poem from the Subhashitavali in A.N.D. Haksar's translation begins: “Wait a bit! Let go my skirt! Others will wake! O you are shameless!” 

In an extension of the shyness motif, the poets make the woman's clothes speak of her unspeakable desire. Over and over, the woman doesn't undress herself – her clothes have a mind of their own. “[A]nd with wanting alone/ her clothes by themselves/ fell down her legs,” goes another Amaru poem 'Did she vanish into me', beautifully translated by W.S. Merwin and J. Mousaieff Masson. In an older John Brough translation of Amaru, collected in Making Love: The Picador Book of Erotic Verse (ed. Alan Bold, 1978), the woman stops her ears and hides her blushing face in her hands, but her lover's coaxing words work their magic: “But oh, what could I do, then, when I found/ My bodice splitting of its own accord?” 

A book cover of Making Love: The Picador Book of Erotic Verse.


Another Amaru poem in the same anthology gives us a female narrator 'tricked' by a dexterous lover, who uses his feet “in pincer-fashion” to catch her sari “firmly by the hem”, obliging her (she says) “to move the way he ought”. And finally, there is Vijjakkaa in the Subhashitavali, capturing the voice of a woman being archly competitive about lovemaking, while pretending a disarming frankness: “Friend, you are very fortunate/ to be able to narrate/ the sweet exchanges full of joy/ in meeting with your lover boy./For when his hand my darling placed/ On the skirt knot at my waist,' I swear I cannot then recall/ any, anything at all.”

But not all ancient women were shy. In one cheeky Bhartrihari poem, we hear that “On sunny days there in the shade/ Beneath the trees reclined a maid/ Who lifted up her dress (she said)/ To keep the moonbeams off her head.” “All my inhibition left me in a flash,/ when he robbed me of my clothes,” writes Vidyapati, in Azfar Hussain's translation from Maithili. In Kumaradasa's 'She Bites Him', a woman pretending to be asleep has her clothes ripped off her by her lover: “Thief!” she cries/ and bites his lower lip --/ what a girl!”

A cover of the book 'Speaking of Siva'.

The Gathasaptashati, which means 'seven hundred lyrics' in Sanskrit and is also known as the Sattasai, is a collection of love poems written in Maharashtri Prakrit in the first century AD. Mostly in the voices of women, these lyrics are more frankly joyous about sex than most things us moderns can imagine. Sample the poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra's translation of one, from his 2008 volume The Absent Traveller: “He groped me/ For the underwear/ That wasn't there:/ I saw the boy's/ Fluster/ And embraced him/ More tightly.” And here is another, radical and beautiful in its cross-generational embrace of sexual experience: “As though she glimpsed/ The mouth of a buried/ Pot of gold,/ Her joy on seeing/ Under her daugher's/ Wind-blown skirt/ A tooth-mark/ Near the crotch.”

The Sattasai poems are a far cry from the stigma and hypocrisy now the norm in India, but clothes are still part of the hide and seek of sexual pleasure. It took another 11 centuries to produce an Akka Mahadevi, whose paeans to her beloved Lord Shiva allude to clothes only to reject them. “People/ male and female,/ blush when a cloth covering their shame/ comes loose,” she writes. “When all the world is the eye of the lord,/ onlooking everywhere, what can you/ cover and conceal?”  

When love is all-knowing, all-embracing, clothes have no purpose.

Published in The Voice of Fashion, 7 Jan 2021.

A Kite for Sore Eyes

My Mumbai Mirror column:

In Hardik Mehta's Amdavad Ma Famous and Prashant Bhargava's Patang, a city's universal passion for kites leaps off the screen in all its infectious energy and deeply immersive spirit

A still from Amdavad Ma Famous (2015), Hardik Mehta's award-winning documentary about the kite-flying festival of Uttarayana that takes place on 14 January in Ahmedabad.
 
Ek din tum patang ka shauq kar loge, toh zindagi ke saatth saal tak woh shauq poora nahi hoyega [If you get into flying kites even for a day, you'll stay addicted for the next 60 years],” says an old Muslim cleric in Amdavad Ma Famous. “Yeh shauq aisa hai, bahut terrible shauq!” In case the maulana's words haven't convinced you, filmmaker and editor Hardik Mehta cuts from him to the sight of an old woman on a terrace – white sari, white hair in a loose bun, possibly older than the cleric – flying a kite with gusto.

Mehta's glorious 2015 short documentary, which won a host of awards across the world and was declared Best Non-Fiction Film at India's 63rd National Film Awards, was set and shot during the festival of Uttarayan in Ahmedabad, when the whole city gathers on its rooftops to fly kites. The pivotal character is a young boy called Zaid Khedawalla, whose enthusiasm for the sport borders on the obsessive. Uttarayan is another name for Makar Sankranti, which falls on January 14 or 15 every year, based on the solar calendar. In the days leading up to the festival, Zaid wakes up very early in the morning to scout his neighbourhood for fallen kites. “By 10 am or so, he has gathered enough kites for the day,” says his father, laughing.

The fact that Zaid skips school to fly kites all day is a recurring theme in the film. His father tries to get him to go to class. The maulana tries to get the boys off the roof off the mosque. Mushtaq, caretaker of a bank building in the film's chosen neighbourhood of Astodia, tries to shoo them away, even locking up the terrace on some days. But Zaid, like thousands of other young boys in the city, is incorrigible. “You don't listen to your father, Zaid?” asks the filmmaker. “I do try,” grins Zaid. “But these kites are just too much fun.”

It is one of several charming moments in an utterly charming film. Mehta captures these boys in all their manic energy, but also locates them within the colour and chaos and community of a whole city abuzz with the same zeal – street markets selling varieties of kites, manjha-walas sharpening the thread with ground glass, ancillary products springing up to protect bike-riders from the sharp kite threads that criss-cross the streets at this time. Zaid's father later confesses that he was just as crazy about kites when he was Zaid's age. The crabby Mushtaq, who responds to someone calling the boys artists (“kalakaar”) by labelling them the face of the devil instead, is seen later in the film flying kites himself. When quizzed, his reply is hilarious: “I only fly the kites that have fallen on my terrace”.

Mehta's marvellous aides – he has a truly talented sound designer in Manoj M Goswami, and Alokananda Dasgupta has created a brilliantly uplifting soundtrack – help him make all sorts of other visual and aural connections. When Mushtaq speaks of the kites as bringing out the boys' “wild side”, Mehta cuts to monkeys clambering up and down the terraces, almost exactly in step with the boys. Dasgupta's soundtrack punctuates the bouncy ascent of all sorts of people – large, old, creaky – up roof ladders.

That heartwarming inclusiveness was also very much the point of Prashant Bhargava's lovely 2011 feature Patang, in which an Ahmedabad native, now settled in Delhi, returns to the city after many years during Uttarayan, bringing with him a teenaged daughter through whose fresh eyes we see Ahmedabad's old city. Patang contained one of Nawazuddin Siddiqui's earliest full-fledged performances, as the Ahmedabad-based nephew who bristles at his uncle's sudden descent upon the old family home.

But what is it about kites – other than the obvious and overdone fetishised idea of India as colour – that makes them cinema-worthy? Speaking to the legendary critic, the late Roger Ebert, about his film, Bhargava (who also died, tragically young, in 2015) said, “In India, kite flying transcends boundaries. Rich or poor, Hindu or Muslim, young or old — together they look toward the sky with wonder, thoughts and doubts forgotten. Kite flying is meditation in its simplest form.”

I recently came across a definition of meditation in another film, Matthew Vaughn's 2005 Layer Cake, that makes sense in this context. A man with a passion for high-quality guns says to Daniel Craig's high-stakes drug dealer character: “Meditation is concentrating the front of the mind with a mundane task so the rest of the mind can find peace.”

As you watch the myriad faces in Mehta's film, intensely concentrated on the kite in hand, eyes lifted to the heavens, it suddenly seems entirely clear why these fluttering bits of paper have captured the human imagination for centuries. And we have kites to thank for something else – at least they're not guns.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 24 Jan 2021.

 

20 January 2021

A love that breaks class barriers

My Mumbai Mirror column:

An unlikely relationship reaches across social boundaries in Rohena Gera's understated romance Sir.

It may seem difficult to recall in the cold light of the present, but cross-class romance once warmed the hearts of Hindi film audiences. The poor boy who won the heart of the rich girl (and the wrath of her family), was a staple of the single-screen era. Even then, the rich hero-poor heroine equation was less frequent -- and for that fantasy to extend to the master-servant relationship was rarer still. Rohena Gera's lovely film Sir, completed in 2018 and released online earlier this month, tries to turn that dream into reality.


Ratna (Tilottama Shome) works as the live-in domestic help for Ashwin (Vivek Gomber), who is due to get married to his girlfriend Sabina. When the wedding – and the relationship – suddenly falls through, the quiet Ashwin finds himself being hectored from all quarters. His overweening mother wants him to reconsider, his father seems to assume he can't handle his part in the family business and his friends want to steer him into dating again. Increasingly isolated, he begins to notice the unobtrusive warmth of Ratna's presence. She comes from a space of experience far removed from Ashwin's upper class Mumbai universe – a poor rural family, a hurried marriage, early widowhood with its attendant social and economic fallout -- but her halting words are both genuine and wise. The gulf between them is huge, but Sir manages to make us believe in the possibility that it might just be bridgeable.


The America-returned Ashwin has never been anything but polite to Ratna. But as his appreciation of her grows, he baulks more and more at the rudeness of those around him. Gera's deft script and direction is aided by the wonderful understated performances she draws from both Shome and Gomber, Shome in particular delivering scenes of great devastation with a quiet wallop – such as when a boutique manager responds to Ratna's entry by yelling for the watchman, or Ashwin's party guest makes a scene over her spilt wine. Gera makes clear that nothing said or done to Ratna is out of the ordinary; it is what the servant-keeping classes in India mete out unthinkingly. From Ashwin's businessman father dissing his construction workers to the neighbour who insults her child's ayah (Geetanjali Kulkarni in a great supporting role) rather than chastise the child, the film throws into relief Indians' constant othering of those less privileged than us. It is upper middle class common sense to think of servants as 'lazy' or 'cheats' or inept, 'morons' who need to be kept in check with low salaries, stark boundaries and harsh punishments. The more we want to exploit the poor, the more it suits us to think of them as less than human.

 

It is against this usual wall of invisibility that Ashwin's gestures – that would be common courtesy if Ratna were not a servant – stand out as excessive. It isn't just in his class that they attract attention, but also in hers. Offering to wait for a servant to finish eating, asking if she needs a ride home -- these are acts so unthinkable on an employer's part that they arouse the mockery and suspicion of other servants. And for Ratna, made vulnerable by both class and gender, they can lead to social extinction.

 

And yet, it is in Ashwin's spontaneous crossing of that wall, his apparently unconscious transcendence of the very boundaries society wishes us to guard, that the possibility of any real relationship lies. Because even as Ratna fears the weight of social censure, she demands the respect of social acknowledgement. “Main ganwaar hoon [I may be a country bumpkin],” she tells Ashwin, “Lekin main aapki rakhail ban ke nahi rahoongi [But I won't live here as your mistress].”

 

In Zoya Akhtar's powerful segment of the 2018 anthology film Lust Stories, another quietly efficient domestic help (Bhumi Pednekar) finds herself taking care of her young male employer (Neil Bhoopalam). The intimacy between them feels far from furtive, and the banter that accompanies such frank, lusty sex holds at least the glimmer of equality. But that distant promise is shattered when Bhoopalam's middle-class parents arrive, with a suitable girl in tow. In front of his parents and prospective in-laws, the good middle-class boy behaves impeccably – which is to say he betrays not the barest hint of his real relationship with the maid.

But perhaps that's the point. When something only exists behind closed doors, is it ever really real?

 

In contrast, it is Ashwin's insistence that he isn't afraid of what people might say that makes his attraction to Ratna so heartwarming. It may seem utopian, but that's why it feels like love.

 

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 17 Jan 2021.

16 January 2021

A Reel Holiday

My Mirror column:

The grand tradition of the holiday movie, from Eric Rohmer to Luca Guadagnino, spins wisdom out of sun-kissed beach breaks
.


There used to be many ways to take a year-end vacation. But with sightseeing, parties and travel all deemed dangerous post-pandemic, more and more people have had to be content with a movie-watching staycation. And when you can't escape dreary city life in reality, there is much pleasure to be derived from movies about other people's holidays.

So my vicarious vacation was centred on the late French director Eric Rohmer, who was a kind of patron saint of the holiday film. As central to the French New Wave as more flamboyant members like Truffaut and Godard, Rohmer was a film critic first. He edited the pioneering journal Cahiers du Cinema for years, before making his feature debut with The Sign of Leo in 1959. By the time of his death at 89, on January 11, 2010, he had over 50 films to his credit. One of cinema's gentlest, most perspicacious commentators on the vagaries of courtship and romance, Rohmer often placed his characters, usually young to middle-aged, and bourgeois, in a classic French summer vacation locale where connections and cross-connections could unfold at leisure. A quiet beachside country house is the setting for several of Rohmer's finest films in this vein: La Collectionneuse (1967), Pauline at the Beach (1983) and The Green Ray (1986), all beautifully photographed by Nestor Almendros and all currently streaming on a well-known online platform.

In La Collectionneuse, Adrien (Patrick Bauchau) decides to spend a month alone after his girlfriend (Brigitte Bardot's sister Mijanou, to whom Bauchau was married in real life) leaves for London. Arriving at a friend's cottage, he vows to rise early every day, go for a swim, spend his time without any conscious purpose other than to enjoy his leisure. He is intent upon doing nothing, and doing it well.

But his plans of what we would call ‘me-time’ are easily disrupted, primarily by lustful thoughts of the charming younger woman with whom he happens to be sharing the summer house. The more studiously Adrien declares his lack of interest, calling Haydée ugly or ordinary or common, the more apparent it becomes that she's on his mind. In the wonderful tradition of Rohmer romances, our attention is directed as much to what happens as what does not, with Adrien's actions coinciding less and less with the claims of his self-examinatory voice-over. As an article in the French Review put in 1993, “Rohmer's prideful heroes charge into the summer with dreams of lush beauty and luxurious freedoms, only to be chastened by the heat, the boredom, and, above all, the aimlessness and acute self-preoccupation that are the dubious rewards of those who gain as much freedom as they desire.”

It isn't just Rohmer's heroes whose attempted holiday resets only reveal their confused mental states. In Pauline at the Beach Rohmer cast the delicately blonde Ariella Dombasle as the soon-to-be-divorced Marion, who is spending her vacation with her fifteen-year-old niece Pauline. On paper, Marion is the adult, and she does try to think of Pauline's needs -- as she imagines them. But as with Adrien, so with Marion. The more we hear about her romantic hopes for herself and her cousin, the more apparent it is that she has no idea what she's doing. Extricating herself from her mistake of a marriage, she is now so in love with le grand amour that she imagines it with the first man who seems vaguely interested – blissfully blind to the fact that he's only in it for sex with a pretty girl.

There are other echoes between the two films, like the way this form of vacationing throws together people of different backgrounds and ages, allowing for conversations that wouldn't happen in everyday life. And in both, the younger people emerge as the less confused ones. Both Haydee and Pauline, who volunteer their views a lot less than the others in their respective settings, seem much more clear-eyed about who is and who isn't a good match. While Marion throws herself at her pretentious older lover and tries to matchmake Pauline similarly (with Marion's own ex-boyfriend!), Pauline finds herself a more age-appropriate summer fling. Both she and Haydée in La Collectionneuse also emerge as perfectly capable of handling the unwanted attentions of dodgy older men.

Other filmmakers have followed Rohmer in depicting the vacation as a time to establish a new kind of routine, even discipline. In the British indie filmmaker Joanna Hoggs' meditative 2007 debut Unrelated, Anna (Kathryn Worth) joins an old friend's family on their Italian vacation, giving herself a break not just from work but also from a faltering marriage. Luca Guadagnino's A Bigger Splash (2015) has its rockstar heroine (Tilda Swinton) fully silent on her Italian vacation, to help her voice recuperate after an operation. Hoggs' camera lingers tenderly as an often distraught Anna jogs virtuously up and down a local hillock, and teeters on the brink of an affair with her friend's much younger son (Tom Hiddleston). Guadagnino's tone is even less Rohmeresque than Hoggs' melancholia, with his characters going straight for the jugular rather than circling gently around their issues. But there's something that these very different films all share: the realisation that holidays never achieve what we hope they will.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 10 Jan 2021.