The Literatures of India

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Written by Randeep Singh

Unlike England or China, India has no national language or literature. One cannot speak of a golden age in literature in India as one can speak of the Elizabethan Age or the Tang Dynasty. Instead, there have been different periods of flourishing across India’s many literatures. Here are just five of those periods summarized.

Tamil: The Sangam Age (c. 1st and 2nd century CE)

The Sangam Age was characterized by a secular poetry composed at academies (‘sangam’). The age saw the composition of the five Tamil epics (including the Silappadikaram), eighteen major anthologies of poetry and the Tolkaapiyyam, a treatise on poetics, grammar and rhetoric.

The Sangam poets wrote on love, war and kingship while the aesthetics underlying their poetry tied emotions to particular landscapes, mood and imagery.

In the thicket
Of fresh lotuses rising from the ponds
Caressed by splendid paddy fields
And sugarcane are heard, as on a battlefield
Where two kings fight for victory
Various kinds of clamorous sounds
Made by waterfowls, screaming cranes,
Red-footed swans, green-footed herons,
Wild fowls, cormorants, snipes,
The ural water birds, large herons
And other birds. Buffaloes enter and immerse
Themselves in the soft, unploughed mire
With the hair on their bodies unwashed, eyes
Red, they come and rub
Their itching backs against the unspoilt, straw bins
Thus loosening the twisted strands that hold them
The bins come apart spilling the rich grain
Stored inside with sheaves of excellent paddy
That resemble cowries.
One heard the noise of the loud talk of labourers
With strong arms and farmers standing
In knots. One heard the sound
Of songs in new styles by low born women
Who turned on by strong wine worked in the fields.
Eyes wide like red minnows,
They bandied indecent words and looked
Singularly charming in their clothes splashed
With mud that also glazed their breasts and shoulders
Clasped by armlets. From their hair they picked
The fragrant flowers and thrust seedlings instead.
One heard the ploughmens’ song of praise
As they stood by their ploughs and worshipped
With folded hands. They appeared to break open
The earth radiant with wreaths bound
With shining ears of rice, plaited
With blue lotuses and the thick, vine-like hariali grass

(from Shilappadigaram, tr. R. Parthasarathy).

Sanskrit: The Gupta Dynasty (4th-5th century)

The Gupta Dynasty is the classical age of Sanskrit literature. The plays and poems of Kalidasa blend romance, fairy tale and visions of nature. The epic poems Mahabharata (including the Bhagavad Gita) and the Ramayana were reworked into their final form during this era. Sanskrit fiction also saw the composition of Pancatantra, a collection of animal tales and fables which influenced world storytelling.

In former days we’d both agree
That you were me and I was you
What has now happened to us two
That you are you and I am me
(Bhartrhari, Trans. John Brough)

Blow, wind, to where my loved one is
Touch her, and come and touch me soon
I’ll feel her gentle touch through you
And meet her beauty in the moon.
These things are much for one who loves –
A man can live by them alone
That she and I breathe the same air
And that the earth we tread is one
(Ramayana, Trans. John Brough)

May her path be safe and gracious
As gentle breezes blow,
Pleasant be her way dotted by lakes
Where green lotus-creepers grow;
May the burning rays of the sun
Filter mellowed through thick shade-trees;
Let the pollen of water lillies drift
To lie as softest dust beneath her feet
(Kalidasa, Abhijnanasakuntalam, Trans. Chandra Rajan)

Kannada: The Rashtrakuta and Chalukya Dynasties (9th and 10th century)

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Above: Kannada Inscription (983 CE)

Kannada literature of this period integrated local literary traditions with Sanskritic models and Jain themes. The Vaddaradhane (9th century) is a collection of Jain morality tales and fables and is the earliest prose work in Kannada. The poets Adikavi Pampa and Sri Ponna (c. 950) wrote Jain epics in Adipurana (941) and Santipurana (950) respectively while the court poet Ranna is best remembered for his elegy Sahasa Bhima Vijaya on the battle between Bhima and Duryodhana in the Mahabharata.

Urdu: The Late-Mughal Period (18th and 19th century)

Urdu poetry flourished in the courts and assemblies of Delhi and Lucknow during this time. Its greatest masters were the plaintive Mir (1722-1810) and the philosophical Ghalib (1797-1869). The marsiya (a Shia elegy) flourished in Lucknow under Anis and Dabeer, while Delhi produced poetry at once mystical (Khwaja Mir Dard), satirical (Mirza Sauda) and tragic (Bahadur Shah Zafar).

How long is the life of the rose?
The bud just smiles (Mir Taqi Mir)

The free are not trammeled by any ties
The flower’s fragrance emits itself a thousand ways (Zauq)

I feel as if you are with me
When no one else is around (Momin)

Desire in thousands – each so strong it takes my breath anew
And many longings were fulfilled – many, but even so, too few (Ghalib)

The world goes on changing, Zafar, with the changing times
What sights it then displayed, what now it now provides (Zafar)

Bengali: Colonial and Modern Period (19th and 20th century)

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Above: Fort William College. The Bengali Renaissance witnessed a flowering in arts, culture and science, with its literary branch starting at Fort William College.

Modern Bengali literature adapted the Victorian novel and the English sonnet and epic to Indian themes and realities. Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s (1824-1873) retold the battles of the Ramayana in the style of Paradise Lost in his epic Meghnad Badh Kabya. Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) wrote socially realist novels like Ghaire Bhaire and poems like those in Gitanjali exploring love, nature and the divine. Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (1876-1938) too wrote realist novels on revolution in Pather Dabi and the experience of women in Srikanta.

A History of Buddhist India

Written by Randeep Singh

The Buddhist period of India’s history (c. 273 BCE-646 CE) refers to a time where Buddhism shaped India’s culture, religions, social and political institutions and its relations with other countries. The Buddhist emperors ruled over multi-ethnic and multi-religious empires, and not over the monolithic Hindu nation India is imagined to be.

Ashoka (r. 273-232 BCE)

Ashoka was the last major emperor of the Maurya Dynasty (321-185 BCE). He unified most of the Indian subcontinent and helped spread Buddhism throughout his empire. His empire included Buddhists but also Jains, Brahmins and followers of different sects. His policy of “dharma” exhorted religious tolerance and expressed his concern for the welfare of his subjects.

Kanishka (r. 127-150 CE)

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Above: Map of the Kushan Empire

Under Kanishka, the Kushan Empire encompassed Bactria, Afghanistan, the Punjab and the Indo-Gangetic plains. Ruling from Purusapura (Peshawar), his empire was home to Zoroastrians, Brahmins, Jains, Buddhists, Greeks and other pagan cults. He connected India to the Silk Road and his patronage of Buddhism helped it spread to Central Asia and China.

Harsha (r. 606-647)

Harsha was the last great “ancient” emperor of northern India. He patronized Buddhist universities like Nalanda and established benevolent institutions throughout his empire. He established relations with China and welcomed monks like Hsuan Tsang (602-664) to his court. He was also, incidentally, a patron of Sanskrit literature and himself wrote plays.

nalanda

Above: Ruins of the Nalanda University. Nalanda was founded during the fifth century. Its subjects included Buddhist philosophy, logic, grammar and philology and medicine.


Dharmapala
(r. c. 780-820)

Dharmpala was a ruler of the Pala Dynasty (750-1174). His empire spanned Bengal, Bihar and central India. He founded the Vikramshila University which attracted students from across India, China, Tibet and South East Asia. The Buddhist architecture and iconography of his reign would influence styles found in Burma, Java, Tibet and Nepal.

Back to the Moment of Promise – ‘Azadi’ (freedom) Series of Art Work by Shahid Mirza

Artist Shahid Mirza’s Azadi Series is a set of seven mix media paintings illustrating different aspects of our ‘freedom’ from British rule in the 1947 partition of India. From the direct, explicit and in-your-face bloody history of our colonization to the fading shades of secularism in Pakistan, these paintings invite us to contemplate on ourselves post-partition.

Choice of mix media creates the eerie feeling of contemporality within the historicity of the past. With each of these paintings, the Artist tries to bring us back to that moment of promise when freedom from colonization and sectarian bigotry seemed possible; when millions of lives were lost to achieve it.

By bringing us back to that moment of promise, the Artist encourages us to confront our own concepts and constructs of ‘freedom’ before we go on and congratulate ourselves on the continuation of the hollow and shallow facade of celebrating August 14.

azadi-1a-shahidmirzaAzadi 1
Blood-letting of the powerless.

azadi-2a-shahidmirzaAzadi 2
Destruction of life by agents of the state.

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Changing positions of (Muslim and Hindu) power-brokers.

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The deadly religio-spiritual antagonist.

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Sectarian violence.

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Early faces of hope.

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Freedom for who?

Created after the formation of Bangladesh, Bhutto’s assassination, Zia’s Islamicization, and Pakistan’s Talibanization, Azadi Series displays the history of partition in the context of today, and, in bringing the past into the present where we continue to suffer from the same but intensified problems of inequality, these paintings insist that the moment of promise is now.

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Azadi Series by Shahid Mirza first Published at Uddari Art, Punjab 1947 & After
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‘What is happening in Palestine is a genocide and we will not allow anyone to bully us into sanitizing our words.’

Uddari supports the following statement
made by Dream Defenders on August 6, 2016.

dreamdefenders

Dream Defenders Statement
on the Condemnation of M4BL Platform
by Some Pro-Israel Groups

On Monday, the Dream Defenders along with 50 other organizations, representing hundreds of Black people across the country launched A Vision for Black Lives, an agenda that clearly defines policies, organizing tactics and resources to advance Black liberation. The platform included a call for the US government to divest from military expenditures and US aid to the State of Israel and instead, invest this war-making money towards building infrastructure to support Black and Brown communities in the US. Since our launch, some Zionist organizations have condemned the platform and have announced that they will cut all ties with the Movement for Black Live, going so far as to label some in the BLM movement anti-semitic.

Their response has made it all the more clear why we stand in solidarity with Palestine and with Black and Brown people around the world fighting for justice.

Those who have previously claimed to be allies of the Black lives matter movement have shown us that they are comfortable with our resistance so long as it fits within particular confines and restrictions. It is convenient to endorse black lives matter when it benefits you. And as long as we stay silent about Israeli apartheid, they will “stand” with Black liberation in the US. Now that our movement has taken a stand against all forms of white supremacy and oppression, Black lives no longer matter. We want no part in this quid pro quo form of politics. True solidarity does not come with strings attached.

We’ve been dealing with this type of hypocrisy with our supposed “allies” for generations. On the American left, there are many wolves in sheeps clothing. You have revealed yourselves. And now that we know who you are, we will not forget.

We remain steadfast in our condemnation of the State of Israel and their illegal occupation of the Palestinian people’s homeland no matter the consequence. Solidarity with Palestine is not a requirement, it is a choice” and is rooted in the basic understanding that the state violence we experience is directly tied to the violence facing Black and Brown communities in Palestine and around the world. While our struggles are not identical, we recognize that we are up against the same systems. What is happening in Palestine is a genocide and we will not allow anyone to bully us into sanitizing our words. In 1948, the State of Israel created a Jewish majority by destroying approximately 500 Palestinian towns and driving over 700,000 Palestinians out of their homeland.  Ethnic cleansing continues today in the form of expulsions, Jewish-only settlements, massive attacks in Gaza and across Palestine, in addition to over 50 Israeli laws that sanction discrimination and apartheid.

As Black and Brown people living in the US, the heart of global empire, we bear a particular responsibility for global liberation. It is our taxpayer dollars that are funding Israeli apartheid and a military industrial complex that is devastating entire peoples and communities throughout the world.  Having an international analysis, means we must call for the divestment of our support of Israeli apartheid and to the wars being waged in Africa, Latin America and throughout the Middle East, just like we are calling for a divestment from the policing of our neighborhoods and incarceration of our people. This is both an ideological and a strategic decision. Resources are needed to advance the Vision for Black Lives platform and there are plenty of resources to be distributed, they are just being spent on waging war against, rather than stabilizing, our peoples.This is why the Dream Defenders believe in Black and Brown solidarity and why we fight for the liberation of Palestine.

We have more work to do now than ever before. In moments like these, we must double down and fight on. Check out A Vision for Black Lives – it is full of information about potential legislative action at the local, state and federal level and campaigns to support our efforts to advance global liberation. Launch a Campaign in support of the Boycott Divest and Sanctions Movement to show the State of Israel that we do not support their oppression of the Palestinian people. If you want to see it for yourself, look to organizations who run delegations with a principled stance that would allow for a real look at the situation on the ground, not a manicured one. Read more about what Black Palestinian solidarity means and looks like here. Do not stay silent. We applaud Jewish organizations like, Jewish Voices for Peace, If Not Now and the Jews of Color Caucus  that have spoken out in this moment in solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives and have called upon others to do the same.

The Dream Defenders remain committed to a world in which ALL people are free. As Black people fighting for our freedom, we are not thugs and our Palestinian brothers and sisters are not terrorists. For the children who are met with tear gas and rubber bullets as they walk home from school, for the families of those we have lost to police violence, for the communities devastated by economic violence and apartheid walls, we fight. To all those who believe in a world in which all people are free, join us. For those who no longer stand with Black people because of this belief, goodbye. We do not need nor want you in our movement.

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Imagining Ancient India

Mohenjo_Daro_first_look_poster

Written by Randeep Singh

Ashutosh Gowariker recently released his trailer for Mohenjo Daro, an action-adventure set in ancient India’s Indus Valley civilization, c. 2016 BCE.

For years, ancient India has been imagined as Hindu in TV and film. The mythological serials, Ramayan and Mahabharata, set the standard back in the 1980s with their recreation of an imagined Aryan/Vedic/Brahmanic society and culture. The vision of Ancient India as a Hindu India has been constructed with every palace wall, turned with each roll of the chariot and uttered in every Sanskritized syllable in Hindu mythological serials and in semi-historical serials like Chakravartin Ashoka Samrat.

It’s also apparent in films like Mohenjo Daro. True, it looks less like the Mahabharata, but also, unlike the epics, Mohenjo Daro was a historical reality. The Indus was India’s first civilization, declining around 1900 BCE. The Aryans thereafter migrated to the Indus Valley from beyond the Hindu Kush around 1500 BCE, giving India the Vedas, the earliest Hindu religious texts.

Gowariker helps popularize the claim of Hindu Nationalists that the Indus civilization was (in part) an Aryan society and civilization. Whereas the people of the Indus are believed to have been dark-skinned Dravidians, the hero in Mohenjo Daro is a light-eyed Hrithik Roshan with blondish locks and a trident. The statues of the Indus gods are recognizably Hindu, the language Sanskritized and the film features horses, animals not known to the civilization and introduced to India centuries later by the Aryans.

Films like Mohenjo Daro suggest what India was and how we see the past. And like the many mythological and semi-historical TV serials and films before it, Mohenjo Daro is less an attempt at faithfully reconstructing a historical India than imagining a perennially Hindu one.

 

India Wins Freedom – The Maulana Speaks

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Written by Randeep Singh

The complete text of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s India Wins Freedom was not released until 1988. Until then, Azad (1888-1958) had withheld his personal comments on the responsibility of Vallabhbhai Patel, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Gandhi for the Partition of India.[1]

The “founder of Indian partition,” was Patel, says Azad. Patel saw partition as a way to eliminate the Muslim League from Indian politics. He found it impossible and frustrating to work with the League’s members as part of an interim government and “openly said that he was prepared to have a part of India if only he could get rid of the Muslim League.”

While Nehru was less enthusiastic about partition, he became gloomy about the prospects of working with the Muslim League in government and acquiesced to the idea of partition.

Nehru sowed other seeds too. Congress had approved a plan proposed by the British cabinet to create a federation of Indian states with guarantees of provincial autonomy (including Muslim majority areas). This only just placated the Muslim League, says Azad. Nehru however proclaimed that Congress would be free to modify the plan as it wished. This alienated the Muslim League so as to make any further negotiations with Congress pointless.

The “greatest shock” for Azad was the Mahatma’s change in his attitude toward the Partition. The apostle for Hindu-Muslim unity gradually became less vehement in his opposition to Partition. Indeed, Gandhi became convinced that partition was inevitable after his suggestion to invite Jinnah to form the government was flatly rejected by Nehru and Patel.

What I found most illuminating about “India Wins Freedom” is Azad’s prescience regarding what the Partition meant for India’s future. Partition did not solve India’s communal problem; it lodged it permanently in the Indian psyche. In accepting Partition, Patel and Nehru had endorsed the Two Nations Theory. How then were they any different from Jinnah?

“India won her freedom, but lost her unity,” says Azad. It’s worth remembering 69 years on, that those who get the credit for winning India’s freedom should also bear the blame for dividing it.

Further Reading:

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, India Wins Freedom (Orient Longman: Hyderabad, 1988).

[1] Azad was the longest serving President of the Indian National Congress before 1947 and served as independent India’s first Minister of Education. He narrated his experiences in India Wins Freedom in Urdu between 1955 to 1957 to Humayun Kabir who transcribed and translated them into English.

The Sufi Legacy in South Asia

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Written by Randeep Singh

On September 13, 2014, the Hari Sharma Foundation in association with a number of arts and cultural groups, presented the conference, “Spirituality, Humanity and the Marginalized: The Sufi Legacy in South Asia” and a musical concert “Songs of Waris Shah, Bulleh Shah, Kabir, Lalon Fakir and Rabindranath Tagore.”

One of the musical highlights was the husband-wife team from Bangladesh, Farida Parveen (on voice and harmonium) and Ghazi Abdul Hakim (on flute). Ghazi on the bamboo flute turned music into poetry, filling the concert hall with the colour of Bengal, taking us beyond the streams and paddy fields.

Farida Parveen sang the songs of Lalon Fakir with a gusto and a tenderness in her earthy tones. The concert also featured Enakshi Chatterjee from Calcutta who opened with songs of Tagore and Madan Gopal Singh from Delhi who sang songs of Sultan Bahu and Bulleh Shah and others.

The highlight of the conference was Dr. Nile Green (UCLA) and the ensuing discussion. Green’s presentation, “Mazaars for the Marginalized” underlined the pluralistic, cosmopolitan dimensions of Sufism, of its journey across trade routes by caravans from Khurasan eastwards to Turkey and southwards through the Khyber Pass into Hindustan.

That plural and cosmopolitan spirit, Green spoke, is heard in the tradition of Sufi poetry and music which filtered into India from Khurason. It is in words like “Auliya” (Arabic), “Pir” (Persian) and “Baba”(Turkish), epiphets for Sufi masters and in the shajars (genealogical trees) of Sufis tracing their ancestry to Samarkand or the Hejaz. Sufi shrines included Greek Christians in Turkey as they did Hindus in India.

The appeal of Sufism to the marginalized according to Green was in its creation of a space where social power was redistributed more evenly. Sufis also acted as important intermediaries between the ruler and the common man in economic, political and legal matters and Sufi institutions provided food and medical care to the poor.

The piety and inclusiveness of the Sufi was questioned during the discussion period. Sunera Thobani mentioned how the Sufi pirs themselves had vast estates and wealth, whereas Habiba Zaman pointed out how Sufi spaces often clearly excluded women. Green himself pointed out today how Sufis became kings of Libya upon that country’s independence or how those of Sufi lineage sit in parliament in Pakistan. Green also reminded us of the hierarchy within Sufi orders, no where more uncompromising than in the relationship between the murshid and the pir.

One member of the audience asked whether Sufism or “Islam-lite” was a way of making Islam more acceptable and congenial to a post-911 West. Whether it is remains a topic for further discussion. But what Green reminded us is that Sufism has always had an appeal beyond just Muslims and the shariat and the importance of its role in shaping culture, Islamic or otherwise.