Archive for April, 2017

William Jones, India’s bridge to the west

Posted in Uncategorized on April 30, 2017 by Manu

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 29 2017)


Not many in India today remember William Jones, though at the time of his death in April 1794, he enjoyed what a biographer calls “one of the most phenomenal reputations of all time”. To some he was Persian Jones, the translator of the Tariq-i-Nadiri, while others, after he founded the Asiatic Society in today’s Kolkata, called him, predictably, Asiatic Jones. To one not entirely enraptured crowd, he was Republican Jones, what with his “seditious, treasonable, and diabolical” ideas about popular education and universal (male) suffrage. But as far as India was concerned, it was in his avatar as Oriental Jones that he became one of the sincerest interpreters of our land in the West.

To be sure, Jones was not devoid of imperial prejudice. “I shall certainly not preach democracy to the Indians, who must and will,” he argued, “be governed by absolute power.” As a British judge, he scoffed at any political conception of Indianness; it was India’s historical accomplishments he thought profoundly admirable. “I never was unhappy in England,” he once wrote, “but I never was happy till I settled in India.” Part of it, admittedly, had to do with the splendid £6,000 salary that had attracted him here in the first place—Jones calculated that a decade in India promised stately retirement when finally, unencumbered by financial distress, he could pursue assorted intellectual interests.

Jones was born in 1746 to the daughter of a cabinetmaker and a 71-year-old mathematician, whose peers included Isaac Newton. His father died but the cabinetmaker’s daughter gave him a good education—a worthwhile investment, given his prodigious appetite for learning. By 13, Jones had written his first poem, and by the time of his death knew a grand total of 28 languages. A desire to read the Bible in the original drew him to Hebrew, and an interest in Confucius led him to Chinese. He thought Greek poetry “sublime” but when he “tasted Arabic and Persian poetry”, his enthusiasm for Greek “began to dry up”. The only language he never learnt was his native Welsh.

By his mid-20s, Jones had authored several books and was recognized as an authority on the East. But while accolades and a knighthood arrived, the want of a steady income brought inescapable pressures. “I was surrounded by friends, acquaintances and relatives who encouraged me to expel from my way of life…poetry and Asian literature.” They wanted him to “become a barrister and be devoted to ambition”. He agreed, but managed to orient his legal interests also towards the East, producing the forbiddingly named Mahomedan Law Of Succession To The Property Of Intestates. Naturally, his political ambitions floundered.

It was in 1783, when not yet 37, that he came to India. But, in his typical fashion, he connected his pursuit of money with a pursuit of intellectual stimulation. He drew up a list of 16 subjects, ranging from the Mughal and Maratha political systems to the “Music of the Eastern Nations” and “Medicine, Chemistry, Surgery and Anatomy of the Indians”, to investigate. And it took him only a year-long glance at India’s cultural riches, to constitute the Asiatic Society—the body that, among other things, reminded Indians of a figure we ourselves had forgotten: emperor Ashoka.

But what struck Jones most was language. “Sanskrit,” Jawaharlal Nehru wrote, “fascinated him…. It was through his writings and translations that Europe first had a glimpse of some of the treasures of Sanskrit literature.” It began with professional demands—Jones could interpret Islamic law without translators, but Hindu codes evaded him. To rectify this, a pandit was hired on a princely retainer to give him lessons, and soon Jones built up a vocabulary of 10,000 words. When Brahmins in Benares refused to translate the Manusmriti for him, he simply produced his own: The Ordinances Of Manu.

Soon he felt a deeper affection for Sanskrit poetry. “By rising before the sun,” wrote Jones, “I allot an hour every day…and am charmed with knowing so beautiful a sister of Latin and Greek.” It was the first time a familial bond was established between Sanskrit and the classical languages of European antiquity. And there were other dots of history that Jones joined. The Palibothra of the Greeks he connected to Pataliputra. Sadracottus, he discovered, was none other than Chandragupta. India’s past came alive in a wider context, with its own philosophers and emperors, but what gripped our polymath was Kalidasa and his Shakuntala. And through him, Europe was transfixed.

Translated in 1789, Jones’ Sacontalá: The Fatal Ring inspired Goethe to declare: “I should like to live in India myself…Sakontala, Nala, they have to be kissed.” Interestingly, Jones did not only translate—there was censorship, given the moral predispositions of the West. Where Kalidasa spoke of Shakuntala’s “breasts no longer firm”, Jones accepted his remarks on ageing cheeks and shoulders but omitted the breasts completely. In a way Jones modelled a new Shakuntala—a prototype of European virtue, as opposed to the sensuous Shakuntala Kalidasa described; an Indian woman born of Western idealism. Indians too embraced this paragon of chastity over her erotically charged predecessor, much like so many Western slants came to be accepted as unquestionably (and “purely”) Indian.

By 1794, Jones declared a new mission. His incomplete desiderata featured Panini’s grammar, the Vedas, the Puranas, and more. It was a tragic twist that within the year he was dead—the climate never agreed with him—and a grave was built for him in India. “The best monument that can be erected to a man of literary talents,” he once said, “is a good edition of his works.” His widow published a collection, enshrining in it his legacy as the decipherer of India for the West. The West itself, sadly though, dismissed Jones, going down a path of racism and control in a few years. Virtuous or not, Shakuntala became altogether preposterous. And India, they decided, was not only never great, but never could be; the India Jones saw was a myth, all his work a fallacy. And soon, the Raj became our reality.

Meenakshi, the original warrior

Posted in Uncategorized on April 21, 2017 by Manu

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 22 2017)


To visit the great temple in Madurai today is to navigate a dozen streets and discover an army of beggars besieging the 700-year-old structure. Some beggars are old, but many are young and quick. There are beggars with bowls, and beggars with babies. But they all have a peculiar confidence when seeking donations. The temple, after all, welcomes about 15,000 visitors on a routine day, and collections from even a fraction of this host are enough to sustain their economy on the streets. The solicitation of money is made with an almost defiant sweetness—if you don’t drop coins, there are others who will.

For all its known history, Madurai has been dominated by this temple, with its 33,000 sculptures and magnificent towers of monumental height. The Greeks traded here and as early as 21 BC, a Tamil embassy was welcomed in Rome. The eunuch general from Delhi, Malik Kafur, came uninvited to relieve the city of its burdensome riches in the early 14th century, and some generations later, Roberto de Nobili showed up seeking flocks of Christians. The Italian convinced local priests that he was from a line of ancient, lost Roman Brahmins, flaunting a sacred thread, and by 1610 teaching the gospel in fluent Tamil and Telugu.

The story of the Meenakshi temple, though, is the tale of a woman—a fearsome warrior queen transformed into a lovable goddess; a formidable mortal tranquillized into divine immortality. The Story Of The Sacred Games (also called Tiruvilaiyadal puranam), a 13th century poem in 64 rich chapters, begins with a melancholy Pandyan king. “I was without a son,” he remembers, “and I performed great sacrifices for a long time. (And when that failed) I performed the sacrifice that was supposed to produce a son.” Soon he received a child, but the three-year-old that emerged from the flames was a girl. “But God!” cried the king, “even though this girl has come with a face that shines like the moon, she has three breasts!”

So it was that Meenakshi—she with fish eyes, a political superlative since the fish was the totem of the Pandyas—made her appearance on earth. Her father worried that her three nipples “will make even enemies laugh”, and languished in “depression and unhappiness”. He had sought a child but what he got was a freak. But a voice from the heavens reassured him and the three-nippled girl was raised as a boy, dissolving boundaries of gender and sex. When (s)he came of age, her parents said it was time to marry. (S)he, however, decided it was time to conquer the world.

With a furious army, Meenakshi set out from Madurai. Indra, Lord of the Heavens, fled at the very sight of his foe—and nobody laughed any more at the third nipple. Soon the conqueror climbed the Himalayas to battle Shiva. But when the fish-eyed one gazed upon him, the third breast disappeared and she became a regular woman. Or as the poem tells it, she “became bashful, passive, and fearful. She leaned unsteadily, like the flowering branch of a tree under the weight of its blossoms. Her heavy dark hair fell on her neck. She looked downward, toward her feet… And there she stood, shining like lightning, scratching in the earth with her toes.”

Soon they were married, and the rest of the poem shows Shiva as its hero, pulling the strings where once his wife had led. It is suspicious how Sacred Games seeks to establish his power, almost as if to compensate for the reality that was the superiority of his wife—to this day, it is Meenakshi who is worshipped first, not Shiva. They share eight festivals, but she has four dedicated only to her while her husband has none. Shiva too, in practice, was Pandyanized. His animal skins were discarded for silk, the serpents he wore replaced by bejewelled ornaments. He is Shiva in name but a different kind of Shiva.

Inside the temple, there are sculptures still of others who, like Meenakshi, were born different. There is a representation of her in stone, all three breasts intact, before her union with god made her more “normal”. There is Arjuna not only as the feared warrior of the Mahabharat but also as Arjuni, in female form, and as Brihannala, in the third gender—he has the face of a man, with a drooping moustache and a long beard, but the body of a woman, with full breasts. Besides transgenders, there is also room in the tube-lit temple premises for autosexuals—the halls feature self-fellating lions, under some of whom sit pilgrims, children, and ticket vendors.

Was there really once an androgynous queen with three nipples whose exploits inspired Sacred Games? Megasthenes, the Greek envoy to India, refers to the legend of a princess wedded to a god, but seeking history in song is a self-defeating exercise. What matters is the devotion Meenakshi inspired then and still inspires today. Some view her marriage with Shiva as the absorption, at last, of a resilient local goddess into the wider Hindu framework, where her independent power was surrendered in favour of a greater cause and more correct femininity. But the pilgrims who come to Madurai to pay obeisance to Meenakshi—not her husband—keep alive the flame of the original triple-breasted warrior.

And like the politely defiant beggars outside, every pillar and stone defies the story woven in Sacred Games in celebration of a memory from long, long before, when the abnormal resisted the normal, and when a princess reigned before she was turned into a goddess.


Book Review: Track Record

Posted in Uncategorized on April 21, 2017 by Manu

(Published in Open Magazine, April 28 2017)

Trackrecord1.jpgTHE ADVENT OF the railways in India, like the advent of new technology everywhere, inspired opportunity while also provoking subversion. There were pioneers who envisioned a network to weld the country together as never before, while others, like Gandhi, perceived such welding as a means for “bad men [to] fulfill their evil designs with greater rapidity”. “There may be no diamonds at Golconda,” one commercially motivated baddie declared, “but there is the worth of a ship-load of diamonds in the cotton fields of the Deccan.” A few defeated souls also saw promise in the railway track. On his way to exile in Burma after 1857, the fallen badshah of Delhi beheld from his bullock cart the construction of railway lines, recalling perhaps his own proclamation promising merchants subsidised access to ‘steam-vessels and steam-carriages’ if the Mughal imperium were restored. The British thwarted such restoration, realising in the process that in an alien land, the railways also held military potential in putting down mutinous emperors with mutinous designs.


The railways in India animated diverse minds, from Rudyard Kipling and Florence Nightingale to Tagore and RK Narayan. The debate on its introduction in the Subcontinent began in the 1830s, and the concerns raised were many. Would, for instance, ‘the Hindoos’, with their caste and religious paranoia, embrace rail travel and contribute to its economic viability? As it happened, they did: The journey from Calcutta to the Puri temple was marvellously shrunk from 26 days to 12 hours. Others thought the fire carriage a wasteful enterprise altogether— India’s destiny lay in developing waterways, argued its most committed promoter, Sir Arthur Cotton, whose 3,000 statues stand testament to his efforts in this direction in the Godavari belt. And there were yet others who welcomed rail for its political possibilities. ‘If India is to become a homogenous nation,’ argued Sir T Madhava Rao, ‘it must be by means of the Railways [and]…the English language.’

Naturally, the historical evolution of rail in India, today the fourth largest network in the world with billions of passengers and 1.3 million employees, opens up more than a linear set of discussions on its diverse and often contradictory implications. And these themes have been approached by not one but two books in 2017, neither of which, mercifully, falls into the trap of romanticising its protagonist excessively. The first of these, Indian Railways: The Weaving of a National Tapestry, is a joint effort by Bibek Debroy, Sanjay Chadha and Vidya Krishnamurthi, covering the dawn of the project till Independence in 1947. ‘The railways,’ its back cover states, ‘brought modernity to India’, and the book is an ‘engagingly written, anecdotally told history’ of an institution that ‘still weaves the nation together.’ It is an appealing blurb, and the credentials of the authors, who were colleagues on an official railway committee, are impressive.

The book they have jointly produced, however, is not the book the cover advertises—perhaps it is a case of too many cooks (there is also a foreword by Gurcharan Das), or perhaps the concept of what an engaging text looks like has grown more orthodox. While Indian Railways offers remarkable information, it is held together by prose that is uninspiring. Not enough effort has been devoted to turning what often reads like a first draft into a polished, memorable volume that can appeal to readers outside academia or government. There are moments when the book shines, but it cannot be said that this quality pervades the text—a disappointing conclusion to reach when the original ingredients are most amenable to excellent narration: Elements such as the 1854 book on railways written in Marathi, or that thrilling 1857 episode involving 15 Englishmen and women stranded on a water tank surrounded by 3,000 baying rebels. There is the saga of the rivalry between two railway companies, and the newspaper vehemence of the anonymous ‘C’ and ‘P’ on the viability of rail in India. The stories are certainly present in Indian Railways. It is the storytelling that is absent.

Debroy, Chadha and Krishnamurthi are fascinated by their subject, but in writing a book on a topic so full of potential, a little more narrative effort—or editorial investment—could have vastly altered their offering for the better. So pages 97- 107 with a table on ‘Evolution of Policies and Committees, 1850-1947’ is a valuable repository of information, but does little to enliven the manner in which these policies came to be, the human actors involved, and the competing vested interests that decided the course of the railways in our land. For a book subtitled The Weaving of a National Tapestry, the text is preoccupied with the institution itself, meting out, at best, step-motherly treatment to wider, evolving trajectories that were often led by the railways themselves, or of the social forces at play, at different times in different contexts. As an encapsulation of essential information, Indian Railways wins. As something that promises a greater adventure, the book leaves one disappointed.


IT IS HERE that Arup K Chatterjee’s The Purveyors of Destiny serves as a more satisfying read, touching deftly on the economics and politics of the railways without neglecting the rich social landscape they traversed. The book is not merely a more readable account of the chronology of the railways, but also about what they came to symbolise at different times; of the purpose they served in the hands of different actors with different intentions. Chatterjee declares, perhaps a little ominously, that ‘an excess of probity, proof or empirical data’ has been avoided in the book, which still, nevertheless, holds over 600 citations, and points the academically inclined towards more extensive resources and material of interest. Narrative appeal, in his book, has not been sacrificed at the altar of textbook exactness, and he succeeds in striking a healthy, confident balance.

The result is that Chatterjee’s book feels like a more complete approach to the story of the railways, going beyond institutional development into its numerous roles. The railways at one time could be, as he quotes, ‘clandestine spaces for experimentation’, where ‘vegetarian looking businessmen’ tasted mutton and beef. To upper-class Indians before nationalism took root, the railways supplied ‘aristocracy in proxy’ and gave Englishmen in India—and those Indians seeking to be English—‘a nominal provincial Europe’ on wheels. Then there is the nostalgia with which everyone tends to approach the railways. So one commentator, in whose day trains served table-top meals with service by waiters in white, laments the ‘soggy cardboard box’ in which the ‘amlet’ and ‘toas’ came to be served, oblivious that to later generations (including my own) it was precisely those soggy cardboard-box meals that made the prospect of a railway journey exciting. So too there is horror—in 1947, the railways became bringers of death, photographs revealing their bloody service to the cause that was Partition.

The railways that took so many avatars—Chatterjee tells in a style that for most part comfortably moves from lucid to philosophical to occasionally academic—‘were built with the ideology of ‘intermeshing’ the economies of Britain and India, or more practically of India into Britain’s’ and by the 1890s had ‘reduced the subcontinent to a twentieth of its temporal expanse’. With majestic stations like Victoria Terminus and Howrah, the railways manifested the intimidating grandeur of the Raj, reinforcing imperial supremacy. Yet, as the railways transported not just people but also aspirations of unity, masterful leaders like Gandhi Indianised these symbols. ‘The railways were used for truly secular purposes by Gandhi. He had no qualms about seeking donations, aboard them, or on platforms for the Satyagraha movement,’ and every station became a platform for the nationalist cause. Revolutionaries disrupted railway lines, and ticketless travelling and chain-pulling became acts of civil disobedience. In a generation, the railways went from exemplifying the civilising mission of the English to transporting Indian resistance and embodying national resilience.

Chatterjee’s book, which has aspects in common with the better parts of Indian Railways, brings the story down to current times, towards the end focusing heavily, and perhaps somewhat jarringly, on cinema and its changing conception of the railways. Through much of the text, the reader feels every motivation to turn the pages, without tedium, given the variety of scenes across time and context through which we are transported— there is splendour as well as shock, elegance as well as embarrassment, the past as well as our present. Chatterjee promises a cultural biography of the railways, but what he delivers is something more, and his book will rank high among all those that have made compelling efforts to bring alive the many worlds of the Indian railways, worlds in which its carriages and engines have served as both witnesses and participants.

Shivaji is an Icon Claimed By Many

Posted in Uncategorized on April 19, 2017 by Manu

(Originally published in August 2015 in The Wire.)


When a force as refractory and ungovernable as Maharashtra’s Sambhaji Brigade sets itself against a nonagenarian scholar, more than just the scholar in question need to be concerned. This, after all, is one of our worst prototypes in the business of cultural surveillance and censorship. Notoriety came to the Brigade in 2004 after they destroyed 18,000 books and 30,000 manuscripts at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune. The provocation was a few lines on Shivaji’s parentage in a book by a till-then obscure western scholar, James Laine. And what proceeded involved vandalism, the blackening of faces, and yet another concession of intellectual space to those able to make threats of violence and to carry them into action.

But Babasaheb Purandare, the latest target of this group, is probably aware that the origins of their grievances are hardly contemporary. Purandare is considered one of the foremost historians of Shivaji’s life and work, to the extent that his romanticised renditions have earned him the popular title, Shiv Shahir (‘Shivaji’s bard’). His critics, though, find in his work a heavy pro-Brahmin (and equally contentious anti-Muslim) tilt. This is why the award to him of the Maharashtra Bhushan for his research on the 17th century king has come under fire now.

This heavily contested symbolism of Shivaji has been a battle entrenched enough to directly affect Maharashtra politics—Purandare is simply the most recent excuse for an ominous public display. Within basic parameters of reverence, Shivaji is a plastic concept that is to different people different things. The real issue, then, is about which groups can ‘claim’ his memory with the greatest authority. In this context, the writing of history decides what ironies of the past may be celebrated and what are denied. All so that political contingencies today can be aligned into a linear trajectory of ‘tradition’ and meaning.

With Shivaji, as is the case with all historical Indians of distinction, the ironies are many. So too is the potential for political exploitation.

In 1674, towards the conclusion of his illustrious career, Shivaji sought the one thing he needed to clinch his accomplishments—ritual legitimacy. He had acquired fame and territory, as well as not inconsiderable wealth. But what would he represent for posterity?

As late as 1672, the English knew him as ‘Sevagee the Rebel’. The Shah of Persia sniggered that the Mughals could not contain a mere ‘zamindar like Shiva’, while Aurangzeb’s court chroniclers referred to him as ‘the wild animal’ and ‘that mountain rat’: when he died, they wiped their brows and remarked, ‘The infidel went to hell.’ Warlord, sacker of cities, infidel: Shivaji had achieved much, but he sought an enduring place in history that surpassed these unflattering descriptions, while going beyond mere passing applause as a local rebel hero.

And for this, the warrior leader of the masses turned, ironically, to religion and to the instruments of official piety supplied in India’s social market by Brahmins.

Amalgamating various traditions, Shivaji created a genealogy that exalted his grandfather (a village headman) into a scion of the Sisodias. Overnight, he could trace unbroken lineage to ancient Rajputs. 50,000 Brahmins were feted and honoured. One of these grandees, Gaga Bhat was prevailed upon to declare (with seductive financial incentives) that Shivaji was a purebred Kshatriya.

Sevagee the Rebel now became Shivaji the champion of Hinduism and all things that would justify his upgrade in caste. And herein lay a big paradox. In building up the Maratha state, he had elevated merit over birth, and ability over caste. Yet, at the climax of his career, Shivaji had needed caste rituals to cement the endeavours of his lifetime. This is what would come to assume the political proportions that last to this day.

Six years after his coronation, Shivaji died. But the memory of his remarkable life, for the sheer audacity of its ambition and for the scale of his accomplishments, riveted Marathi society through ballads and songs that made him a folk hero and confirmed his position as the region’s foremost cultural symbol.

What this symbol meant beyond local inspirations was always open to question. British Indologists placed him in history primarily as a Hindu standing up to an Islamic potentate. By 1840 travellers like JW Massie stated with conviction that Shivaji’s was ‘a kind of holy war’ against Islam. But these were largely theoretical explorations. Indeed, it would take an Indian to realise the full power and potential of Shivaji to move the Marathi masses. Shivaji could be (and is still) deployed as Maharashtra’s greatest cultural force.

Jyotirao Phule, a gardener by caste who was fascinated by the founding principles of the United States, espoused a radical view of social change. Shivaji, to him, stood up not only to the tyranny of Aurangzeb that emanated from Agra, but also to the tyranny within Hindu society of its hereditary elite. Phule wanted the ordinary peasant to emulate Shivaji and stand up against every variety of oppression, domestic as well as foreign.

Naturally, Phule’s view was lambasted by the elite, who were by now not only more often than not Brahmin in origin but also English educated. A typical review of his work on Shivaji was blunt in its disapproval: ‘The ballad of Raja Chattrapati Shivaji. A copy of this has come to us. The author is some Mr Jotirao Govindrao Phule or other. When we read this work we thought that to accept it would bring sheer disgrace upon the great and courageous Shivaji, and upon all Hindu people. We have no idea of the author’s address, so we are afraid we are unable to send it back to him.’

While Phule’s Shivaji was dismissed, Tilak’s was readily embraced by the end of that century since it focussed largely on an outside enemy and did not upset any internal balances. As Maria Misra states, Tilak saw Shivaji as ‘an avenging angel of revivalist Hindu militancy whose politics was the prototype of Tilak’s: culturally aggressive and Brahmin-led…[which] suggested that the great general’s main purpose in life had been the protection of cows.’ If Tilak was the more aggressive Brahmin claimant, Ranade was inspired by the values of the West. He sought in his Shivaji a humanist and a statesman, anxious to reform and who allowed for a nascent sense of nationality to emerge in the region. Shivaji had become a repository for each man’s ideology.

In the early twentieth century, the Maharajah of Kolhapur mixed up some of these rival views to support his own reformism. He looked upon his ancestor as a liberator of not only the peasant but also of Maratha elites from the debilitating shackles of orthodoxy. He even reserved positions in his administration for non-Brahmins (while another Maratha ruler, the Gaekwad of Baroda funded the education of a Dalit called Ambedkar). The Brahmins pettily started performing ceremonies of purification after their audiences with the Maharajah. The message was clear: if in 1674 they ascribed ‘twice born’ status to Shivaji, two centuries later they still had the power to revoke the privilege.

The idea that Brahmins could determine social prestige by sheer virtue of birth, even while the toiling castes and classes enjoyed no such prerogative was frustrating. As one popular song in 1924, went:

Shivaji our king, Marathi our pride
Shivaji protected dharma, defeated our enemies
Saved the life of Hindu dharma, saved the life of the motherland
We worshipped at the feet of Brahmins, and have become slaves
Remember the honour of Shivaji; see the shame of his people
Live your life with honour, cherish your honour. 

After independence, the rise of elements such as the Shiv Sena, with their spectacular nativism and anti-Islamic tendencies, meant that Shivaji’s anti-Mughal character received prominence in the national narrative. But within Maharashtra, the Brahmin faction, the Maratha faction, and other factors continue to fight out what is an endless (and increasingly violent) conflict, one which is playing out currently in the episode of Purandare and his Maharashtra Bhushan award. The Sambhaji Brigade evidently has the support of the NCP. Udayanraje Bhosle, a descendant of Shivaji’s, is a party member. The BJP under Devendra Fadnavis continues to stand by Purandare, and finds his version of history most representative of Shivaji’s legacy—for their agenda, at least.

But while this contest continues, the basic rules are clear to all concerned: Shivaji is sacred. Even Purandare cannot be accused by his worst critics of being anything less than in complete awe of Shivaji. In fact AR Antulay, the only Muslim to have become Chief Minister of Maharashtra, too had to demonstrate his reverence. When he went on Haj to Mecca, he reportedly added a visit to London to his programme to make a claim on a sword there that belonged to Shivaji. Antulay could take no chances when it came to ‘proving’ his commitment to the idea of Shivaji.

So Purandare might be a Brahmin writing about Shivaji in a perspective that favours the Brahmin narrative and incenses the Marathas. But he’s no James Laine, for he doesn’t question the basic sanctity of Shivaji. He might have erred, but he has not committed sacrilege.

Galileo Galilei, explorer of the skies

Posted in Uncategorized on April 13, 2017 by Manu

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 15 2017)


If you go to Florence with the twisted desire to behold Galileo Galilei’s remains, there are two places to visit. If your interest lies in withered, physical fragments of genius, you must walk to the Museum of Science where a glass egg holds his middle finger—something he once raised in constructive opposition to the Catholic church—with two other digits and one tooth for company. The balance of Galileo’s body, enclosed in the integrity of a magnificent tomb, lies in the Basilica of Santa Croce, where his shriveled companions range from Machiavelli to Michelangelo (whose corpse “admirers” smuggled from Rome—evidently stealing the dead was acceptable conduct in those days).

The basilica is a spectacular structure in a spectacular city and for 600 years someone or the other was still building it—it was only in 1863 that the marble façade was fixed. I parked myself on a bench outside and read about the great man buried inside, acting with self-conscious decorum before locals sitting on the steps, drinking beer by the evening light. Galileo, at any rate, would not have objected to the alcohol—when, in contravention of sacred, irrational traditions, he wrote The Assayer (1623), a foundational work for modern physics and methods of science, one orthodox critic suggested that perhaps Galileo was suffering from an overdose of wine.

Born in 1564, Galileo was the son of a musician. After a boyhood in Florence, he went to university in Pisa, affronting its masters by demonstrating uncommon intelligence. Acquiring considerable numerical knowledge, he declared that the “book of Nature is written in mathematical language. Its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures” without which “one wanders in vain through a dark labyrinth” of religious ignorance. Naturally, with outrageous ideas like this, he returned to Florence broke and without prospects. His popularity with students, however, rescued him—Pisa hired him as a lecturer, where he impressed pupils with his contrarian charisma, composing such memorable lines as, “Only wear gowns/if you’re a dimwit who frowns.”

Over the years, Galileo moved about a great deal, struggling to earn a living and to support his mistress. The Medici grand dukes of Florence, whose imprint remains visible across the city, patronized him and, later, extended protection. In 1605 he tutored a Medici and in 1609 he annoyed this Medici’s mother—oblivious to the difference between an astronomer and an astrologer, she commissioned him to produce her dying husband’s horoscope. A debt-ridden Galileo, without irony, accepted, prophesizing a delightfully extended future for the ailing duke, guaranteed by the heavens. As it happened, the man died within the week.

Galileo’s greatest successes did, however, come from the stars. The telescope, invented in 1609, allowed, as R. Hooke wrote, a “transmigration into heaven, even whil’st we remain here upon earth in the flesh”. Galileo developed a model 30 times more powerful than the Dutch prototype to investigate the skies. Soon he showed that the moon was not a smooth, divine orb, but a place with mountains and craters—all the imperfections of Earth afflicted heaven too. He discovered Jupiter’s moons and the phases of Venus, concluding in 1612 that Earth was not the centre of the universe, as certified by the Bible, but that it revolved around the sun with infinite space beyond, of which we were but a tiny fragment.

It was a fascinating time. In 1610, Galileo had published his Starry Messenger (immodestly hinting that his consequence to history was greater than could be commemorated by any memorial now). Thinkers across Europe were animated by the possibilities this opened up. Space travel appeared in Francis Godwin’s The Man In The Moone (1628) and within a decade it was suggested that one day humans would indeed venture beyond Earth. Other works of fiction like The States & Empires Of The Moon (1657)—featuring four-legged aliens and rockets—explored the theory that there might be other habitable worlds out there. This was more than just creative writing: Fiction offered a safer avenue to articulate controversial ideas in the teeth of papal opposition without fearing charges of heresy.

Galileo, however, was hardly the diplomatic type. He began his damning Dialogue Concerning The Two Chief World Systems (1632) on an understanding with the pope that he could articulate his view but must concede that Christian traditions were paramount. Galileo did the exact opposite, and soon found himself tried by powerful men with small minds, contemplating techniques for his liquidation. In the end he was prevailed upon to state that he “abjured, cursed, and detested” his theory of Earth’s revolution around the sun, muttering “but it still moves” defiantly under his breath. Partly because there were sympathetic factions within the church, it was decided that the man would not be roasted. He was to spend the rest of his days under house arrest.

When old, blind Galileo died in 1642, the Medici sought to bury him inside Santa Croce beside other great sons of Florence—the pope objected and it would take 95 years of persuasion before the remains were installed inside the basilica. My own visit to Santa Croce ended in disappointment, though—the doors were shut and I couldn’t enter to view the spot where Galileo lies. I had to satisfy myself through a picture pamphlet instead. Rising from the bench outside and from the gaze of the beer drinkers, I performed a perambulation of the building; a consolatory revolution of my own around the resting place of the man who revealed to us science’s great truths, toppling, in the process, God and God’s voice on Earth.

The dark shades of Raja Ravi Varma

Posted in Uncategorized on April 13, 2017 by Manu

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 08 2017)


By the time of his demise in 1906, critics were convinced that Ravi Varma would feature right on top of the “rubbish heap” of Indian art. To Aurobindo, he was “the grand debaser of Indian taste and artistic culture”, a “superstition” that “received its quietus” at last in death. To Ananda Coomaraswamy, who allegedly based his denunciations on Varma’s prints rather than actual oils, his “fatal flaws” were “theatrical conceptions, want of imagination, and lack of Indian feeling”. The gods Varma painted were “in a very common mould”, aggravated by the “unsavoury” singers and prostitutes on whom they were modelled. Sister Nivedita found Shakuntala profoundly “ill-bred”, fuming that thanks to Varma, “every home contains a picture of a fat young woman lying full length on the floor writing a letter on a lotus leaf”. His paintings were indecorous, imitative, and simply not real art—they belonged on the cheap calendars where Varma himself apparently doomed them forever.

While price tags aren’t a dignified vindication of the value of any creative work, the auction of Varma’s Damayanti in New York recently for $1.6 million (around Rs11 crore) is a plausible indicator that a century after diabetes rested his brush, the artist retains appeal among more than just connoisseurs of calendars. His romantic Indian themes, immersed in mythology, were one reason for his immense popularity but “the appeal of his heroines”, Partha Mitter wrote, “lay in the fact that they were not iconographic types, but palpable, desirable human beings”. Then there was the historical period during which he crafted his reputation—nascent nationalism made his oleographs of Shivaji a rage in Maharashtra. Brahmins visited his studio to “gaze in wonder” at his splendid canvases, and poorer homes acquired prints of gods they worshipped but could never visualize—not at affordable prices anyway.

Interestingly, as Vidya Dehejia noted, Varma was “the progenitor of fair skin as an ideal of feminine beauty in Indian popular visual art”, an innovation favourably received in colonial times, penetrating masses of minds through Varma’s lithographs. He was, in this respect, influenced by un-ancient yardsticks. On the one hand, it was his aristocratic roots that steeped him in Sanskrit tales of Draupadi and Radha. But, on the other, when he portrayed these protagonists on canvas, attributes were altered to fit conventions of the day. Unlike old sculptures, they could no longer be scantily clad, and so appeared exquisite drapery. And unlike ancient poetry—from Kalidasa to the Kamasutra—they could no longer be dark-skinned, since that ideal had made way for the model of fairness. So it was that his Damayanti and Shakuntala were paler than their literary ancestors—dark strokes were reserved for lower-class women.

My own favourite Ravi Varma, however, is an obscure canvas that features a decidedly upper-caste woman of redoubtable bearing, confident in her darkness and the authority with which she occupies the frame. Glaring at the viewer (or perhaps the painter who presumed to deem fairness a requisite for beauty), this is a formidable woman who towers over the pale faces populating Varma’s better-known paintings. The difference is that this is a portrait, but while Varma ordinarily flattered his patrons by enhancing their attractive features, this one is marked by originality—he daren’t take liberties with a single characteristic of his uncompromising subject.

Her name was Mahaprabha, daughter of Chamunda. Married to an uncle of Varma’s, she was a descendant of kings, and mother of queens. But for our purposes Mahaprabha can be identified primarily as Varma’s mother-in-law—the woman with whose daughter he had a troubled marriage (which forms a significant narrative component in an awful biographical film that countered Varma’s heights of feminine beauty by depicting him as a muscular flirt with a shaved chest). Mahaprabha was, in family circles, believed to be precisely the kind of woman her painting shows her to be. “All were in awe of her and she was feared and respected,” remarked a descendant to me, and “her opinions were never refuted as none dared contradict her views”. Varma painted her as she was, without softening her piercing gaze and pronounced features.

Lambasted by J. Swaminathan for his “vulgar naturalism”, Varma was actually not from a world of fair women in silk saris writing letters and awaiting lovers—his mother was dark, regal, and an accomplished poet. His wife and her royal sisters were not fair, but were attractive women of personality (with the capacity to flout rules—Varma’s wife acquired an “addiction to drink” despite orthodox settings). Yet the growing preference for fairness took root among them too, hastened by his brush. His older daughter modelled for him thanks to her fine features and complexion (though he toned down the authority writ across her face to produce a delicate air), while a dark-skinned second daughter was destined to live in her sibling’s shadow, considered less beautiful, though not less headstrong and powerful.

There is splendour and beauty in Varma’s mythological creations like Damayanti, and these played a role in the modern re-conception of our pre-modern past, shaping nationalism and cultural confidence in a colonial age. But the portrait of Mahaprabha represents the reality of the world that created the painter—a world with a different aesthetic, not suited for pan-Indian appeal, but singularly striking. While Varma’s work is dismissed as kitsch, this is a painting that stands against his own idealizations—the woman here is not coy; she is firm in her gaze. She is not dainty, but full of force. She is real and not amenable to artistic manipulations of form and colour—it is the background he made pale, not the woman’s skin. And this very manifestation of her reality makes her, to me, more magnificent than Varma’s breathtaking mythological canvases.

If one day Mahaprabha appears at auction, I wonder what value they would assign her. For she goes back to the time before Varma gave us the cultural imagery for which he is celebrated, to a time when he had no freedom to represent truth with romance, and had to paint in oil reality as reality was, big nose, dark skin and more.

What if there was no British Raj?

Posted in Uncategorized on April 13, 2017 by Manu

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 01 2017)


The appearance recently of a series of books on India and the Raj shows that the history of empire is once again in fashion. There is Jon Wilson’s magisterial India Conquered, which investigates the manufacturing of British power in India, and Ferdinand Mount’s The Tears Of The Rajas, which explores its traumatic corollary. Shashi Tharoor delivers a withering review of colonial exploitation in An Era Of Darkness, while Walter Reid, in Keeping The Jewel In The Crown, exposes British perfidy in the closing chapter of Pax Britannica. Most of these books succumb, however, to sometimes painting history in black and white—Curzon, as this column has argued before, earned points as a villain for partitioning Bengal, but it was also he who restored India’s monuments and preserved our historical heritage.

It’s a slippery proposition, but what character might India have developed had the British never prevailed? Would the south have existed as an autonomous unit, possibly under French influence? After all, by the mid-18th century the French had booted the English even out of Madras, and established a robust peninsular presence. The chief of Pondicherry was dignified by the Mughal emperor as a nawab and managed to keep the Marathas at bay (apparently by plying the commander’s lady with alcohol). Tipu Sultan was a friend of the French, and had it not been for revolutionary convulsions in the 1790s that preoccupied his allies overseas, he might have received the assistance he needed to vanquish the British. More endearingly, Tipu entertained plans to educate his sons in France, and given his interest in engineering, the fruits of the Industrial Revolution may well have found their way to Srirangapatna via Paris. As it happened, the French enterprise collapsed, and the English claimed supremacy.

It was the entrenchment of British power that made racism state policy; this could, perhaps, have been averted had Indians retained power, dealing with Europeans from positions of strength, confidently commissioning Western talent for indigenous purposes—it was a German who commanded the Marathas at Assaye, and in Kerala it was a Dutchman who modernized Travancore’s armies. The nautch girl turned begum of Sardhana had tragic romances with a Frenchman and an Irishman. Such exchanges were a two-way street—in the early 19th century, Tamil devadasis performed in Europe and Kalidas won Western admiration when his Shakuntalam was staged in London as Sacontala. Racism reversed this, but if the politics behind racism had itself been avoided, things might have been happier.

Not everything, of course, would have emerged perfect even under Indian rule—caste, for instance, would have remained a deep-rooted obstacle to the dawn of any sense of nationalism. Politically, by the late 18th century, the Marathas dominated north India, from Lahore in the west to Bengal in the east, and a line of Shivaji’s family ruled in Tanjore, deep in Tamil country. But while the Marathas might have united much of India, had the last Anglo-Maratha War in 1818 not culminated in defeat, they would have had a long way to go before they could claim the loyalty of India’s diverse peoples. After all, it was raiding rather than governing that animated them, and as the Maharashtra Purana noted in the context of Bengal, “When they demanded money and it was not given to them, they would put the man to death. Those who had money gave it, those who had none were killed”—hardly a promising formula to inspire brotherhood and patriotism.

The irony, contested as it is, is also that it was a common hatred of the English that energized feelings of Indian unity. And that it was a foreign language that allowed a Mohandas Gandhi from Gujarat to mentor a Jawaharlal Nehru from Allahabad, collaborate with Tamil-speaking C. Rajagopalachari, and debate with the Bengali Subhas Chandra Bose. Indeed language would have been another interesting twist if the British had never reigned. English was imposed officially in 1837, before which it was Persian, now dead here, that served as the lingua franca of officialdom across much of the subcontinent. As one 1858 report noted, Persian was “for 600 years the language of justice…the language of the Court…(and indeed) it was much better known even than the English language is at present”. It was used in Nepal and fragments of it were employed as far south as Kerala. If English had never picked up, India’s elite may still have been speaking to one another, across divides of region, religion and language, in an equally foreign tongue born in faraway Iran.

So instead of the succession of East India Company rule by the Raj under maharani Victoria, India might have come into the 20th century with a figurehead Mughal badshah, presiding over a Persian-speaking bureaucracy, supervised by the Marathas, with diplomatic dealings with a French-influenced south. Like foreigners before them—from the Arabs and Jews to the Turks and Central Asians—the British, Germans and French would have been absorbed into local society, through inducements of marriage and employment. Indian philosophy would have proudly travelled beyond its frontiers, and ideas from the rest of the world would have received a welcome in India too.

All this, of course, is one grand hypothetical proposition, fraught with perils. But while we increasingly investigate the impact of the Raj in shaping modern India, one hopes to be forgiven for wondering what the land might have looked like had the English never claimed dominion, and demeaned India as the jewel in a foreign monarch’s crown.