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.

The Poems of Bedil

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Written by Randeep Singh

Mirza Abdul Qadir Bedil (1644-1720) is one of the leading poets of the Indian school of Persian poetry.

Born in Azimabad (Patna) into a family of Uzbek descent, Bedil lost his parents at an early age and was raised by his uncle. He received a classical education, but also mastered poetry and philosophy through self-study. Bedil served in the Mughal army, but returned to Delhi during the reign of Aurangzeb. It was there that he devoted himself to writing poetry.

Bedil composed over 16 books of poetry including ghazals, rubais and masnavis. His poetry deals with philosophical and metaphysical themes and his verses are complex, challenging if also captivating. He was not well received in Iran which generally disdained the “Indian School” of Persian. He remains, however, an iconic poet in Central Asia and Afghanistan. The Urdu poets Ghalib and Iqbal cited Bedil as an important influence on their poetry.

The selected verses below were translated from Persian into Urdu by Afzal Ahmed Syed and from Urdu into English by Musharraf Ali Farooqi (unless otherwise noted).

For too long the heart’s desire bound me
With a drop of blood I was painted whole
Ulfat dil umr haashad dast o paaim basta ast
Qatra-e khoon az sar taa paa hunaaim basta ast

I read in the wave’s fickle, delicate form
The preface of the sea, the wind’s footprint
Mara ma’aena shad az khat-e shakasta mauj
Ki naqsh-e paa-e hava sarnoshat-e aeen darya’st

What heart’s shop is not adorned by desire?
The mirror’s realm of clarity reflects a bazaar
Ko dil-e kaz havas aaraaesh-e dakaanash neest
Dar safaa khaana har aaena baazaare hast

Behold the spring painted with hues of new secrets
What your imagination never grasped the spring reveals
Chasm va kun rang-e asraar-edagar daard bahaar
Aan cha dar vahamat naganjad jalwa gar daard bahaar

In the desert of fancy there are no fixed points
To find our bearings no need have we
Dar dasht-e tauham jahate neest ma’een
Maa raa chi zaroor ast badaaanem kujaayem

In contentment’s land seek not the sun and moon
If a bread and lamp in night rations has been provided to you
Dar mulk-e qanaat ba ma o mahar mapardaaz
Gar naan-e shabe heest o chiraagh-sar-e shaame

For ages we’ve been amused at expressing worthlessness
We are the opener of the pages of stories of nothingness
You could expect nothing from us, but name
we are the messengers of the world of nothingness

’aumrîst kî sargarm-e bayân-e heechîm
tumâr gushâyee dâstân-e heechim
bâ nâmi az ân mîyân, zi mâ qane’a bâsh
mâ qâsed-e paighâm-e jahân-e heechîm
(Translated by Nasim Fekrat)

Sources:

Annual of Urdu Studies: http://www.urdustudies.com/pdf/27/20BedilPoems.pdf

Encyclopaedia Iranica: http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/bidel-bedil-mirza-abd-al-qader-b

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.

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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.

Om Puri: Four Performances

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Written by Randeep Singh

On January 6, 2017, Om Puri passed away at the age of 66. One of India’s finest actors, he also won acclaim for his performances in British, American and Pakistani films. Here’s a review of just four of his performances.

Aakrosh (1980)

In this searing indictment of India’s justice system, Puri plays a poor tribesman (Lanya) wrongly accused of murdering his wife. Traumatized into silence by his landlords, Puri as Lanya gives a masterful performance balancing intensity and restraint in a tortured figure of silence whose cry of anguish pierces India decades on.

Ardh Satya (1983)

In Ardh Satya, Puri plays a cop (Anant) battling for his sanity and conscience in a force bedeviled by corruption. Whether in dealing with gang bosses, his superiors, or his domineering father, Puri as Anant humanizes one’s struggle in the search for dignity in a circle of deceit.

My Son The Fanatic (1997)

As Parvez, Puri is a whiskey-loving Pakistani immigrant who falls for a local prostitute while his British-born son turns into a religious fundamentalist. Puri deftly plays the role of father, lover and working-class immigrant in one full comic-romantic-dramatic sweep.

East is East (1999)

In another culture clash comedy, Puri plays George Khan, a Pakistani fish and chip shop owner living in northern England in the early seventies. Struggling to establish his sway over his rapscallion Anglo-Pakistani children and his English wife, Puri’s performance elicits laughs, fear and even a little sympathy.

Film Review: Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai

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Directed by Nakul Singh Sawhney

There was a time when Muslims and Hindus lived together in Muzaffarnagar. Their children played cricket. They celebrated Eid, Holi and Diwali. They worked the fields and sat on farmers’ collectives like the Bharatiya Kisan Union. The town was referred to as “Mohabbatnagar,” the city of love.

In September 2013, however, the Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts of Uttar Pradesh suffered one of the worst pogroms in modern India’s history. Over 100 people (mostly Muslim) were massacred while more than 80,000 were displaced. Homes were wrecked, mosques were vandalized and dreams turned to dust.

In Muzzafarnagar Baaqi Hai, Sahwney probes the underlying causes of the pogrom. He shows how the BJP (and its agents) instigated the pogrom to win the general election of 2014 which brought Narendra Modi to power. The BJP was assisted in Muzaffarnagar by local Hindu Jats who used the pogrom to seize Muslim property, women and wealth.

Sawhney also unravels the BJP’s strategy in stirring up violence for votes. First, they turn Islamist terrorism into the new bête noire deeming Muslim youths as members of ISIS. Second, they revive the idea that Hindus have been “cheated” with election banners and posters speaking about “struggling” for Hindus. Third, they play on old anxieties of Hindu men about Muslim men stealing Hindu girls through the new “Love Jihad” conspiracy.

Those who survived the pogrom were put into camps. As Sawhney shows, however, the refugees failed to receive adequate provision for food or medical care. When it was discovered that over one hundred children died in the camps due to disease, the government has the camps bulldozed to avoid any unwanted scrutiny.

Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai is a difficult film to watch. Sawhney could have reined in the many threads in the documentary (such as the Bharatiya Kisan Union) for a tighter narrative and unity of theme. Still, in giving voice to the unheard and letting us enter their world, Muzaffarnagar triumphs.

Ambedkar, Buddhism and Caste

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Written by Randeep Singh

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was one of modern India’s most remarkable statesman. He drafted the Constitution of India, served as the country’s first Minister of Law and led the Untouchables in his fight against the caste system.

Ambedkar singlehandedly revived Buddhism in India. On October 14, 1956, he converted to the religion, prompting the mass conversion of hundreds of thousands of his followers. He created a new identity for India’s Untouchables, but he polemicized his interpretation of Buddhism in the process.

Ambedkar claimed that the Buddha did everything to uproot the caste system, but ignored the fact that the caste system remained entrenched in India throughout the Buddhist period (c. 268 BCE – 551 CE). He did not mention that the practice of Untouchability first emerged during this period. He gushed about how Buddhism gave India democratic parliaments with whip, quorum, resolutions, ballot voting and vote counting.

He still inspires me though and I believe that Buddhism, as secularized political philosophy, can help undermine the caste system. It was the first religion to challenge the caste system by turning upside down the concepts upholding it. Its insights in this respect are interesting from a modern, secular perspective.

Buddhism is concerned with the end of suffering as a human problem.  Its primary concern is to promote human welfare and happiness. It holds that only humans can end their own suffering through moral action, self-discipline, and understanding. No God, divine being, black magic, superstition or astrological charts are necessary.

Humans are equal in Buddhism in the sense of being equally capable of achieving enlightenment. They are equally subject to one universal moral law (‘Dharma’) with moral obligations to one another such as to respect one another’s life, liberty and dignity. This contrasts to the caste system which differentiates laws on the basis of caste.

The Buddha recognized the existence of caste in his society. He exhorted his followers, however, to emphasize the cultivation of moral character as an indication of self-worth. Caste or rather class in Buddhism arise due to human expediency, not divine sanction: it is a matter of vocation, not birth.

Caste is not static either. Like all existence, individual or collective, it is subject to change, interrelated and composite and conditioned by many interdependent factors. The seasons come and go, empires rise and fall and ancient communities perish. There is no “caste” other than the conditions giving rise to it.

Lastly, Buddhism left an important secular legacy for India. It inculcated a more humane ethic in politics (e.g. the reign of Ashoka). It formulated a social contract theory of government. It established inclusive social institutions such as universities, monasteries, and hospitals. Its appeal to reason, ethics and its concern for human well-being, can enlighten India yet.

 

Film Review: Aligarh

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Directed by Hansal Mehta

Starring: Manoj Bajpayee (Ramchandra Siras); Rajkummar Rao (Deepu Sebastian); Ashish Vidyarthi (Anand Grover).

Aligarh is a drama based on the true story of Ramchandra Siras. Siras was dismissed from his position as Chair of Modern Indian Languages from Aligarh Muslim University in 2009, on charges of homosexuality. Mehta’s film is both a sensitive look into Siras’ life and a nuanced critique of how Indian society marginalizes homosexuals in the name of morality.

At the heart of Aligarh is Manoj Bajpayee’s portrayal of Siras. Bajpayee bears Siras’ soul and isolation whether in his barring himself up away from the world or listening to Lata Mangeshkar on whiskey-filled nights.

He also reveals Siras’ quiet charm in his conversations with Deepu, the journalist who interviews Siras after his dismissal from Aligarh. When Deepu asks Siras if he is gay, Siras speaks of his sexuality in terms of metaphor. This is a way for him to leave behind the world of “gay” and “straight” for what matters. But it’s also how Siras makes sense of himself in a society which has no vocabulary for his experience.

Through the courtroom scenes, demonstrations and Deepu’s investigations, we see how the issue of homosexuality in India has become at once political, legal, cultural and moral. But for Siras, it isn’t about politics, activism, collective morality or social censure. It’s about living a life of quiet dignity denied to him.