Our Very Own ‘Nightingale’:  Lata ‘Didi’ and her Enduring Popularity

(First of two pieces on Lata Mangeshkar)

Vinay Lal

There has never been any question that Lata Mangeshkar, who passed on at the age of 92 on February 6 in Mumbai, was the most popular singer in India.  There have been endless number of affirmations of her popularity, but just why she may have been so popular, to which I shall turn in the second half of this essay, has been much less frequently explored.  Lata certainly never had any equal among female playback singers, though it is sometimes argued that her sister, Asha Bhosle, held her own for at least a period of time, and among male playback singers Muhammad Rafi alone quite possibly rivaled her in popularity. If Lata was the ‘Melody Queen’, he was the ‘Melody King’.  But Lata had the advantage over Rafi Sahib, who was a mere 55 years old at the time of his death, of longevity.  Asha has a large following, to be sure, and many claim that she was more versatile than her older sister. Apart from the question of whether Lata was deservedly more popular than Asha, this ‘debate’ is unlikely to be ever resolved and is best left to those who are avid about their partisanship and who have the time and inclination to press their passionate conviction upon others. 

As a testament to Lata’s popularity, many in the media have since her passing four days ago mentioned her apparently unrivaled repertoire of songs.  Some say that she sang in thirty-six languages, while others are content to mention ‘only’ around 15-20 languages.  Considering that most people cannot sing well in one language, unless they have had some training, a handful of languages would be enough to point to her extraordinary gifts. The huge commentary in the established media and the even greater outpouring of thoughts and sentiments on social media have all coalesced around the staggering number of songs Lata is thought to have sung.  Some have mentioned as many as 25,000, or 30,000, and as far back as 2004 the BBC, in introducing an article by Yash Chopra on the occasion of Lata’s 75th birthday, mentioned ‘50,000 songs’.  The obituary in the New York Times speaks casually of ‘tens of thousands of songs’ that Lata reportedly sang.  Indians have long clamored to get into the Guinness Book of Records for one record or another, and to many Indians it was a matter of pride that the Guinness Book acknowledged her as early as 1974 as ‘the most recorded artist in music history’, though the claim was disputed by Muhammad Rafi.  Just how this dispute was handled is a long story, but in 2011 the Guinness Book acknowledged Asha Bhosle for holding the world record for the largest number of ‘single studio recordings’.  Neither sister holds the record today, that honor having passed on in 2016 to Pulapaka Susheela Mohan who is a veteran playback singer in Telugu films, though she also sings in other languages including Tamil. 

Considering that India is a country obsessed with records and also renowned as a powerhouse of statistics, and that Indian film music aficionados number in the millions, it may be surprising that no one really knows how many songs Lata performed.  However, in other respects as well there is something askance and quaint in the widespread approbation of her as the ‘Nightingale of India’. Growing up in India in the late 1960s, the ‘GK’ (General Knowledge) book assigned in school ensured that we knew that the ‘Lion of the Punjab’ was Lajpat Rai, ‘Frontier Gandhi’ was Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Lokamanya (‘Beloved of the Nation’) was Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and ‘Deshbandhu’ (‘Friend of the Nation’) was C. R. Das—and that the ‘Nightingale of India’ was Sarojini Naidu, not Lata Mangeshkar.  Sarojini Naidu was, of course, a feisty freedom fighter, a close associate of Gandhi and, after independence, Governor of the United Provinces.  It is a lesser-known fact that she was also an accomplished poet, indeed celebrated by more than one English writer as India’s best poet in English.  Sarojini Naidu was, however, no singer, and it was the expressive, lyrical, and emotive quality of her poetry that earned her, from Mohandas Gandhi, the sobriquet ‘Bharat Kokila’. 

Here Gandhi was following the English tradition that has long associated literature and poetry with the nightingale.  The English romantic poets, in particular, were enchanted with the nightingale, most famously among them John Keats whose ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ remains a staple in English poetry classes. It is perhaps this verse which captures the Indian public’s view of Lata’s ‘full-throated’ voice for the ages: 

                        Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!

                             No hungry generations tread thee down;

                        The voice I hear this passing night was heard

                             In ancient days by emperor and clown . . .

His friend and contemporary, Percy Bysshe Shelley, in his famous ‘Defence of Poetry’, did not doubt that the nightingale commanded the world—as did the poet:  ‘A Poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.’  Gandhi knew, however, that the nightingale is not an Indian bird; thus, he refers to Sarojini Naidu by the word ‘kokila’, the indigenous bird that most closely approximates the nightingale. More tellingly, though perhaps few in India at all care for such matters, only the male nightingale sings.  The female does not sing at all; the male nightingale, which has a vast and astonishing repertoire of over 1000 different sounds, compared to around 100 for a blackbird—the bird celebrated by the Beatles with the lines, ‘Blackbird singing in the dead of night / Take these broken wings and learn to fly’—serenades the female, and that too mainly at night.

Still, even as one takes the measure of Lata’s popularity, a more enduring question remains to be understood.  What made her popular to the extent that she became practically the voice of the nation, and how did she remain at the top for decades?  To many, the answer is obvious:  she had a ‘golden voice’.  By this it is meant that her singing was flawless and her sur was perfect; her singing, it is claimed, was uniquely expressive and she could even get into the skin of the actress for whom she was singing.  Her biographer, Nasreen Munni Kabir, states that Lata also had the gift of capturing the mood of the song and the meaning of the words.  Lata had grit and determination—and discipline, too.  To sing in films in the late 1940s and into the 1960s one had to know Urdu, and Lata had to learn it; and the story is famously told of the time when Dilip Kumar rubbed it into Lata that her Urdu had a little too much of dal-chawal in it!  Lata worked on her Urdu, to the extent that, as Javed Akhtar has related in a recent interview, he did not once hear her mispronounce an Urdu word.  But he suggests that none of this was sufficient to produce the magic that one associates with Lata, and he points out that within fifteen minutes of getting the lyrics for the first time, and not having heard the music either, she had virtually mastered the song.  There was some other quality Lata possessed that was uniquely her own, and Javed Akhtar attributes this to her ability to penetrate to the subtext, the meaning of a song that lay beyond the words.

Beyond even this, I would argue, there is something else that made it possible for Lata to become the heartthrob of the nation. She emerged on the national scene with a bang in 1949 by establishing her presence as a singer in several films, many of which became hits:  Mahal; Barsaat; Andaz; Bazaar; Dulari; and Patanga.  The historical context that saw her take the country by storm is critically important.  India had acquired its independence in 1947 and one of the many questions before the country had to do with the status of women.  Gandhi’s noncooperation movement of 1920-22 had brought women out into the streets for the first time and the trend accelerated with the Salt March and subsequent satyagrahas.  But, in most other respects, women were not part of the public sphere, and though the Constitution that was being drafted by the Constituent Assembly envisioned an equal place for women in Indian society, the prevailing sentiment was that women belonged mainly in the domestic sphere. To take one illustration, though women played an important role in the communist-led Telengana Rebellion (1946-51), studies have shown that even their male compatriots expected women revolutionaries to give up their rifles and return to the kitchen once the rebellion was over. 

At the same time, the struggle for freedom was also built on the idea of service to, and sacrifice for, Bharat Mata.  The nation in most parts of the world is construed as a feminine entity, but in India this had resonance beyond the ordinary for many reasons, among them the fact that Hinduism, in contrast to the Abrahamic faiths, has still retained a space for the feminine in various ways.  This can be seen in the attachment to goddess worship that is still found in nearly all parts of the country, though it is more pronounced in some parts of the country, such as Bengal, than in others.  Indian art during the freedom struggle from the 1920s until the attainment of independence is suffused with invocations to Bharat Mata.  In the aftermath of independence, the idea of Mother India had to be given a new incarnation—and then, fortuitously, Lata came along.  She represented the idea of the feminine principle in its least threatening form.  Where the prominent female singers of the previous generation had heavy, contralto voices, often having to sound almost like a man, as is evidenced amply by Malika Pukhraj and Zohrabai Ambalawali, Lata started off with a voice that was somewhat girlish and somewhat desexed.  The contrast is all too apparent in the very first film, Mahal (1949), where Lata and Zohrabai, both uncredited, first appeared together:  Lata sang ‘Aaayega aayega aanewala, which blew everyone away, but the intoxicating mujra, ‘Yeh raat phir na aayegi’, is performed by Zohrabai.  Lata’s was a voice that domesticated women, so to speak, and put them in their place as keepers of the hearth and custodians of the nation’s morality.  This placed Lata at a considerable remove from the generation preceding her, some of whom also had to struggle against the stigma attached to female singers.

As historians of the Hindi film song have argued, but more importantly as every listener who has heard Lata and Asha Bhosle at some length knows, there is a marked difference in the artistic trajectories of the sisters in one fundamental respect which has a bearing on the argument that Lata speaks for a certain kind of femininity which places her in a different relationship to the idea of the nation.  If Lata’s singing was more soulful, Asha’s singing had more body to it and exuded a kind of raw sensuousness—in part because Asha sang for actresses who had taken up roles where the heroine could to some degree project her sexual identity.  It is common knowledge that Lata would not sing the songs of the vamp, but Asha gave a sexual feel to feminine identity in ways that went beyond simply being reduced to a vamp or someone who did mujra songs. The womanliness that Asha’s voice embodied hinted at sensuousness, a comfort with one’s own sexuality, but only occasionally did it border on the salacious. 

If we had to put this in simpler terms, we can find the source of Lata’s popularity not only in everything that has been ascribed to her—perfect sur, flawless pronunciation, expressive soulful singing, and a genius for comprehending the mood of every song that went beyond the words—but also in the fact that she came to embody the idea of a virginal womanhood almost at the very inception of the nation.  (Some may find the notion of ‘Bharat Mata’ and ‘virginal womanhood’ do not easily sit together, unless one was invoking some Indian conception of the ‘Virgin Mary’.)  No one, after all, speaks of ‘Asha Didi’.  Much work needs to be done to understand the magic wrought in India, and over India, by Lata Didi.

This is a slightly edited version of a piece published under the same title on 10 February 2022 at abplive.in.

Reveries of One’s Childhood: A Brief Eulogy for Soumitra Chatterjee

Soumitra as the grief-stricken Apu contemplating a future without his deceased wife, Aparna: a still from Apur Sansar (“The World of Apu”)

When Soumitra Chatterjee passed away on November 15, I felt, quite likely in common with many others in India and especially West Bengal who had followed his career, or who had at least more than a passing familiarity with the cinematic oeuvre of Satyajit Ray, as though some part of my own childhood had been yanked from me.  Soumitrada came to fame as the young man Apu who, in the third part of Ray’s trilogy, Apur Sansar (“The World of Apu”), has abandoned the village and the life of a family priest for the thrills and hazards of life in the big city:  Calcutta.  It is said that Ray had wanted to cast him as Apu in the second part of the trilogy, Aparajito, but he was too old for the part of the young Apu.  Yet, such was the spell cast by Soumitra Chatterjee, it seems as if even the child and adolescent Apu were played by him.  The trilogy closes out Apu’s life, but so many lives of the young were set in motion with Apu’s life.  Soumitra Chatterjee, one felt, had been Apu throughout; and Apu’s life became one’s own.

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The Phenomenon of Bhagat Singh

(September 28th marks the 112th birth anniversary of Bhagat Singh.)

 

“This is the story of a phenomenon.”  So begins Christopher Isherwood’s famous and mesmerizing biography of Sri Ramakrishna.

Bhagat Singh is not just the name of a famous revolutionary whose flame flickered briefly before burning out.  Bhagat Singh is the name of a phenomenon.

It was the late 1920s and the name of Bhagat Singh was everywhere.  Gandhi burst upon the national scene in 1919 and had soon taken the country by storm.  He transformed the Congress into a mass organization, galvanized the country through the non-cooperation movement, and even, in some places in northern India, paralyzed the British administration. The Anglicized Jawaharlal Nehru, taken in as was everyone else by Gandhi, thought he had seen everything.  The Gandhi era of Indian history was well under way.

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*Remembering Tom Alter:  An “Englishman” in India

Yes, I do know that Tom Alter, the gifted film and television actor and theater artist who died in Mumbai

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Tom Alter.  Source:  Indian Express.

a little more than two weeks ago, was not an Englishman but rather an American.  I doubt, however, that most people in India knew that he was an American:  he was a firangi (“foreigner”, of foreign origins), and the firangi, when all is said and done, is an Englishman—at least in India.  Jawaharlal Nehru once described himself in a conversation with John Kenneth Galbraith, the American Ambassador to India—and others too have said this of him—as the “last Englishman” in India.  He had not reckoned with Tom Alter, who, in his love for cricket, was thoroughly English—and Indian.

Tom Alter was born in India to American parents.  He attended Woodstock School in Mussoorie, and I suspect that his attachment to Mussoorie remained throughout his life.  His parents moved to Rajpur, a small town which is 25 kilometers from Mussoorie on the road to Dehradun, when he was 14 years old, but it is in Landour, which is but a few kilometers from Mussoorie and can be reached by foot in a little more than half an hour to those who are familiar with the terrain, that he chose to get married to a fellow Woodstock student, Carol Evans.  They were married at St. Paul’s Church in Char Dukan, literally “Four Shops”, which is more than a charming little place where many people engage in guftagoo.  And “guftagoo”, the art of conversation, is something of which Tom Alter, from what I have heard, was a keen and admirable exponent.

I never had the good fortune of meeting Tom Alter.   I wish it had been otherwise.  He had a few hundred roles in Indian films and was the actor of choice for those Indian film directors, working mainly though not exclusively in Hindi, who were looking to cast a role for a white man.  But Tom, let it be clear, did not take on only the role of a firangi, or white man; he could easily pass himself off as Indian.  In a long interview that he gave recently for Rajya Sabha TV, Alter described how he came to love Indian cinema.  The films of Rajesh Khanna got him hooked to mainstream Hindi movies; as he put it in an interview in 2009, “I still dream of being Rajesh Khanna. For me, in the early 1970s, he was the only hero — romantic to the core, not larger than life, so Indian and real — he was my hero; the reason I came into films and he still is.”  This may be thought of as an unusual confession:  of course, Rajesh Khanna had an extraordinarily large following, particularly in his heyday, and the stories of young Indian women swooning over him are legion.  I have some recollection of his visit to Indonesia in the early 1970s when I was living there and of the absolute crush of young women who had gathered at the airport to receive him.  Where Khanna went, pandemonium followed.  Rajesh Khanna not Amitabh Bachchan was the first superstar of Bollywood, even if that is not known to those in the present generation.

RajeshKhannaInAradhana

Rajesh Khanna serenading his lady love, in Aradhana.

Rajesh Khanna’s following, however, was overwhelmingly young women—or at least that is the impression one received from television, newspapers, and popular film magazines.  The popular film magazine Stardust had been launched in 1971, and scandal and gossip, always a characteristic feature of Bollywood and Hollywood, received a new boost.  One early Stardust cover had this headline, “Is Rajesh Khanna married?”  Now Alter may not have thought of himself as an intellectual, but in some circles it would be something of an embarrassment to admit that one had a weakness for Rajesh Khanna, that “evergreen” star who, with his trademark tilt of the head and cherubic countenance, seemed positively silly; when he ran around trees in the gentle pursuit of women, he looked, even more so than other actors, hilariously comical. Rajesh Khanna’s following seemed to be comprised largely of those very women who entertained ideas of romance derived entirely from Mills & Boon novels, if perhaps a notch below in their class background.  So there is something unquestionably something charming, even disarming, in hearing Alter speak of his unbound affection for Rajesh Khanna.

Alter’s first role in a Hindi film was in 1976; the following year, in one of his most memorable roles, he played Captain Weston, the aide-de-camp to General Outram, the British Resident at the court of Wajid Ali Shah, the Nawab of Awadh, in Satyajit Ray’s film, Shatranj ke Khilari (“The Chess Players”, 1977), itself based on a short story by Munshi Premchand.  I saw the film a year later, in late 1978, and the scene is memorably etched in my mind.  Weston is summoned by Outram, who in his own fashion attempts to fathom the mind of the inscrutable Oriental Despot.  Outram has heard that Wajid Ali Shah is a poet—well, whoever heard of a king who fancied himself a poet.  “Tell me, Weston, you know the language, you know the people here—I mean, what kind of poet is the King? Is he any good, or is it simply because he’s the King they say he’s good?”  “I think he’s rather good, sir.” “You do, eh?”  So Weston is asked to recite a poem; he complies with the request, if reluctantly.  When he’s done, and has rendered the poem in translation as well, Outram—who has pronounced himself not much of a “poetry man”—pompously declares, “Doesn’t strike me a great flight of fancy.”

TomAlterAsCaptWeston

Tom Alter as Capt. Weston, aide-de-camp to General Outram, Resident of Lucknow, in Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj ke Khilari (“The Chess Players”), 1977.

Alter was known to aficionados of Indian cinema and theater lovers as someone with an enviable command over both Hindi and Urdu.  He delivers the lines in Shatranj ke Khilari, as well as in other films where he appeared, with absolute ease and comfort; indeed, it was pointed out that his interlocutors, many of them native speakers of Hindustani, often resorted to English words when Alter didn’t. In his love for Hindustani, for Hindi and Urdu alike, for Urdu literature and the everydayness of Indian life, Alter showed that it was possible to repudiate the idea of exclusive loyalties.  Perhaps, as an Englishman born of American parents in India, he could be singularly free of the virulent disease of nationalism.

It is no surprise that in recent years Tom Alter was called upon to play the role of Maulana Azad more than once, most recently in a TV series on the Indian Constitution (“Samvidhaan”), and that he did so with brilliance. In fact, it could not be otherwise in many respects.  If Alter was celebrated for his chaste Urdu, much more so was the case with Maulana Azad, whose mastery of Urdu has been commented upon by those who are familiar with the language.  But we may say that Tom Alter stands in for the figure of Maulana Azad in yet more touching ways.  Though Alter was born in India three years after partition, it is his American grandparents who had first made their way to India in November 1916, settling down in Lahore.  Alter’s father was born in Sialkot; at the time of partition, Tom’s grandparents elected to stay in what became Pakistan, while his parents opted for India.  One doesn’t ever think of English families in undivided India that were divided by the partition:  that is another story in the making.  Maulana Azad famously stayed behind in India, and he remained firmly committed as a secular and practicing nationalist Muslim to the idea of India.  Maulana Azad was too fine a match—as a thinker, writer, scholar, and principled man—for Muhammad Ali Jinnah, but that, too, is another story.

TomAlterAsMaulanaAzad

Tom Alter as Maulana Azad.  YouTube Screen Grab.

Alter’s life is interesting and salutary, above all else, not only for his affection for India and his understanding of the country, but because as an “Englishman” he had the liberty of putting forth views which Indian secularists and liberals have eschewed and often vigorously attacked.  Over a decade ago I published a very long scholarly article on the trajectory of the word ‘tolerance’ in contemporary Indian political discourse.  The Hindu nationalists no longer want to hear anything about the much-touted “Hindu tolerance”, since in their view “Hindu tolerance” has over the centuries made Hindus vulnerable to rapacious foreigners and especially Muslim conquerors.  The idea of Hindu tolerance, on this reading, has been the graveyard of Hinduism.  The left, however, repudiates the idea of Hindu tolerance for altogether different reasons.  Some argue that it is a complete fiction; others find it a mockery, pointing, for instance, to centuries of caste oppression.  The idea of “Hindu tolerance”, they argue, is nothing but a frightful and bloated conceit.  This is what I termed “intolerance for ‘Hindu tolerance’”.

Alter had a different reading of what India has stood for and, notwithstanding the tremendous assaults on Indian pluralism of the last few years, still embodies to those who can recognize India for what it is.  In the aforementioned hour-long interview that he gave to Rajya Sabha TV in August 2016, he speaks about the time of partition and the aftermath [start at 58:30].  The killings and the bitterness would not preclude the Constitution of India from stating that every Indian had every right to be a Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Christian, or the practitioner of any other faith.  Alter speaks of his father who unhesitatingly described himself and other Christians as living in a land between the Ganga and the Yamuna:  it is a Christian father who recognizes that to Hindus this land is holy, pure (“pak”).  This is a Christian father saying this; for Christians these are not holy rivers; but “crores” (tens of millions) of people believe that they are holy rivers, and there is a force in that belief.  That, to the mind of Tom Alter, was secularism in practice.  In India, Alter noted, there has never been a point of view which dictated, ‘My path alone is right, yours is wrong’.  It is doubtful, Alter said, that there is anywhere in the world another country where such a worldview, such a sensibility of tolerance, has prevailed for such a lengthy stretch of time.

Alter feared that this delicate fabric which has been stitched over time is beginning to tear apart.  But he had no difficulty in characterizing what he saw as a wondrously unique culture of tolerance that had defined India.  Alter, in his interview, appears with a bandaged thumb.  His thumb had to be amputated, as melanoma tore into his body.  The cancerous rise of militant Hindu nationalism, if Indians are not watchful, will lead to the amputation of India.

Alter’s grandparents had come to India as Christian missionaries.  It is fitting that Tom Alter should have departed this life as a missionary for an unheralded India.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Bewitched by Bhutan:  Travelers, Magicians, and the Art of Voyaging

The Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, sandwiched between Tibet and India, rarely obtrudes upon one’s consciousness.  It is commonly described in the West as ‘fiercely protective of its traditions’, which is another way of saying that it has, thankfully, been resistant to the idea that it should, as the neo-liberals are fond of saying, “open up” to the West if it wishes to be more than just a footnote to history.  Over the last decade, Bhutan has nonetheless splashed its way into the Western media every now and then for a very different reason, as the progenitor of the idea that Gross National Happiness should replace GNP (Gross National Product) as a more reliable indicator of a country’s well-doing. The young king of Bhutan has been one of the idea’s most enthusiastic advocates and it has not been without its takers, most particularly among those who have worked on ‘development’ and ‘social justice’ issues and are cognizant of the fact that the well-being of a nation and its people cannot be reduced to something called the GNP and a few other economic (or allied) determinants.   Whatever the difficulties of ‘Gross National Happiness’, and they are considerable, the idea should perhaps be embraced for no other reason that it might put a few economists, the vastly overrated and frequently insolent practitioners of the dismal science, out of work.  Happy is the country that has little or no need for economists.

It may be too much to say that Bhutan, for all its remoteness, has a film industry; nevertheless, a few films have come out of Bhutan over the last several years.  A few days ago, by happenstance, I came upon the first feature film out of Bhutan, and was struck, as surely every viewer would have been, by the charm, depth, and relative sophistication of Travelers and Magicians, “Chang Hup The Gi Tril Nung”, especially in the absence of a filmmaking tradition.  Made in 2003 by Khyentse Norbu, the film is remarkable for more than its unhurried pace:  much like Bhutan itself, the film steers refreshingly clear of the loud and mindless chatter of much of nearby Bollywood and Hollywood.  Its central character, Dondup (Tshewang Dendup), a young official working in a village somewhere in central Bhutan, is in a hurry to get to Thimpu, the country’s capital:  he has received a summons to a visa interview at the American Embassy.  But why should anyone be in a hurry in Bhutan?  If a young man in Bhutan is in a hurry, something is askance.  When “the land of dreams” beckons, what else remains?

Travellers&MagiciansPosters

America’s reach is everywhere; the dream-work of America is happening in the remotest corners of the world.  Dondup is what, borrowing the vocabulary from neighboring India, I would like to describe as the Resident Non-Bhutanese:  though he lives in Bhutan, he might as well be living in America.  Dondup has already been transported to America:  he wears tennis sneakers, and, on more than one occasion, the camera lingers on these would-be Air Jordans, the vehicles of his carriage from one land to another.  The walls of Dondup’s room are plastered with posters of white, sultry-looking girls; a large US army poster, “Uncle Sam Wants You”, with the familiar call to a glorious career in the mightiest military machine of the day, dominates one corner of the wall.  American rock music blares from Dondup’s boom box; even the distinctly un-American Gho, a knee-length robe tied at the waist, which serves as Bhutan’s mandated national dress for men, is given a Yankee twist as Dondup sports a denim variety.

Dondup’s village is a two-day bus ride from Thimpu.  He just misses the only bus of the day and tries to hitch a ride.   As he waits by the roadside, he is joined by a peasant carrying a large sack of apples; a vehicle pulls up, but the driver assumes the two men are traveling together and says he cannot take them both.  Down the winding mountain road comes, a short while later, a dramyin-strumming Buddhist monk (Sonam Kinga); before too long, a rice paper merchant and his pretty daughter, Sonam (Sonam Lhamo), have joined the party.  The journey has long been a metaphor, in world literature and cinema, for self-discovery; but this voyaging into the self entails a twin-pronged movement, both into interiority and away from the crowd into the company of strangers.  Thus, though Dondup starts out as the solitary traveler, the size of the party grows—but only so much, indeed just enough to prod him into some degree of anxiety and discomfort, then a modicum of self-reflection, and finally a recognition that the self seeks the other.  The five pilgrims journeying into Thimpu are eventually picked up by a truck driver; as they clamber into the back, they discover they have a drunk for company.  The drunk may not exemplify a higher consciousness, but he does point to altered states of consciousness.  Much like the Buddhist monk, he remains unruffled:  merry is he who is drunk—drunk on the love of God, or perhaps drunk in the lover’s embrace.  Along a major turn-off, the five step down and the truck moves on.

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Dondup, the young man in a hurry who seeks to leave for America, and the apple seller.

The narrative frame of Travelers and Magicians involves yet another element that has long informed Indian story-telling traditions.  The road ahead is a long one; to pass the time, and prompted by Dondup’s desire to flee the apparently suffocating confines of village life in a hermit kingdom, the Buddhist monk takes it upon himself to share with Dondup and the others the story of Tashi (Lakhpa Dhorji), a villager who yearned to escape from the drudgery of everyday life.  One might fault the film for occasionally taking recourse to a stock of clichés: thus, Tashi mounts what else but a white horse that he cannot tame.  He is thrown to the ground and injures his leg; wandering around in a daze, Tashi is hopelessly lost in the remote mountains before he comes upon the home of an old woodcutter, Agay, married to a beautiful woman much younger to him.  The old man rules over his young wife, Deki (Deki Yangzom), like a tyrant; she longs for a younger man’s touch and company, and Tashi and Deki are soon caught in a web of lust and jealousy.  A plot is hatched; the old man’s chhang (liquor) is poisoned, but he seems to take a very long time to die, writhing and groaning in pain. This adulterous relationship ends as all such escapades do, as Deki falls to her death in the wild rapids as she pursues a fleeing Tashi.

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Tashi and Deki caught in a web of lust and jealousy.

The story of Tashi is told not in one single take, but rather the film alternates between the main narrative frame and the interior frame; the filmmaker cuts seamlessly between the two stories, making effective use of dissolves, match cuts, and other cinematic devices.  The interior story doesn’t exactly mirror the main framework story, which is what makes it all the more enticing; and yet there are enough elements—the desire to escape the constraints of village life, the voyaging forth into the unknown, the journey into the interior of one’s self, the entrapments of desire, the restlessness of the young—to stitch the two stories into a single narrative framework.  The film is self-reflective about the art of story telling:  stories are not to be told only to while away the time, but because stories, more other than forms of discourse, translate more easily from one culture into another.  Was it Thucydides or Heraclitus who said that wherever one goes, one runs into a story?

TractorInTravellers&Magicians

The party disperses: the monk and Dondup finally a catch ride to Thimpu.

Travelers and Magicians deploys in many respects elements of a narrative structure with which we are familiar from other films and works of literature.  Just as the party grew incrementally, so it diminishes incrementally.  Some hours short of Thimpu, a bus finally pulls up before the party of five.  Dondup, who had at the outset been in an extraordinary hurry to get to America, now seems rather indifferent to the land of dreams:  the bus has room for only and he puts the apple-seller on it.  And so the party of five has begun to scatter, the monk and Dondup taking a ride together into Thimpu. The destination is no longer of any consequence; the journey is everything.  As Eliot put it hauntingly in “Little Gidding”,

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

 

 

 

 

*How Vijay Was Born: Bachchan’s Urban Landscapes

 

The persona of the angry young man, a role that Amitabh Bachchan would earmark as his very own, is commonly thought to have emerged in Hindi cinema in the first half of the 1970s, in films such as Zanjeer (1973) and Deewaar (1975).  The 1970s were certainly turbulent times:  early in the decade India and Pakistan went to war, and not long after India would attempt to have itself partly admitted into the club of nuclear states with a ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’.  Whatever Indira Gandhi may have gained with these spectacular displays of her will to triumph, she is commonly thought to have squandered these victories with the imposition of the emergency, the stifling of dissent, and social policies calculated to arouse the opposition of the poor.  However, the malaise that afflicted the country was much deeper:  industrial production had slowed down, the labouring classes were in a militant mood, shortages of essential commodities were palpable, and unemployment was rampant.  Azaadi had wrought little; the dream had soured.

 

There is every reason, then, to think of the 1970s as preeminently the decade when the genre of the ‘angry young man’ planted itself in Hindi cinema, a theme taken up with considerable gusto in Tamil films of the 1980s.  But Bachchan’s films of the 1970s demand attention for another compelling trope, namely the idea of the city.  The migrations from the countryside to the city, which might be constituted into one epic narrative of the history of India after independence, continued unabated –– and we should recall that Vijay, in Deewaar, flees with his mother and brother Ravi to Bombay from the hinterland.  Mrinal Sen and Satyajit Ray are commonly thought of, particularly by film aficionados, as two filmmakers who were heavily invested in the nexus of the city and the film.  Sen has described Calcutta as his El-Dorado, his muse:  the city features prominently in his work, perhaps nowhere more so than in his films of the early 1970s when young men floundered about in search of jobs.  Ray’s ‘Calcutta Trilogy’ –– Pratidwandi (1971), Seemabaddha (1971), and Jana Aranya (1974) –– likewise captures with extraordinary subtlety the anomie of city life, the dislocations the city creates in social relations, even the transformations in emotions under city life.

 

Many of Bachchan’s films of the 1970s are also eminently city films.  Signs of the urban landscape are unmistakably present in Zanjeer, even if the city is somewhat undeveloped as a character in its own right.  The city must have its dens of vice, where Sher Khan rules supreme before an encounter with Inspector Vijay Khanna (Bachchan) sets him on the path to reform.  Mala, the street performer, lives in Dongri Chawl; at the other extreme, the underworld don Teja lounges relaxes by the side of a luxurious swimming pool.  Four years later, in Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), the city would have even greater visibility:  many of Bombay’s landmarks and public institutions –– Nanavati Hospital, Victoria Terminus, Haji Ali Dargah –– feature prominently in the film.

 

It is Deewaar, however, which carved out the space of the urban in a wholly distinct manner. As Vijay, Ravi, and their mother arrive in the city, they leave behind a social order that is simultaneously more intimate and more unforgiving:  one cannot escape one’s social markers so readily in the village or the small town. There is also a tacit assumption that as the breadwinner of her family, Sumitra Devi’s prospects are better in the metropolis. Vijay’s adolescent years are captured in a few, albeit critical, scenes in the film; and then a match cut transports us to the angry young man, now a worker at the docks.  As he takes on the mafia, one senses the explosion of urban India; the ‘angry young man’, a new hero emerging from the bowels of the city, represents the anger of a generation whose dreams lie shattered.

 

As Vijay wrests control of the docks from Samant’s men, we are tempted into thinking that he is increasingly embracing the urban world as his own, refusing to be beaten into submission by the unruliness and hurly-burly ways of the city.  The docks are among the many signs of the urban.  The city is everywhere in Deewaar and the film skillfully signposts urban spaces.  Newly arrived into the city, Vijay’s mother finds works at a large construction site.  Sumitra and her two sons make their home under the bridge:  it is not the overhead traffic over the bridge that makes the city, but the tens of thousands indeed millions sheltered under it who, yet again, give birth to the unintended city.  The great migrations into the city gave rise to the slums, with their population of labourers, tradesmen, prostitutes, and petty criminals, and it is from the housing tenements, some under the bridge, that one gets what Ashis Nandy has described as the ‘slum’s eye view of Indian politics’. From their modest home under the bridge, the young Ravi arrives at the gate of the nearby school.

 

Slowly but surely, the plot of Deewaar drifts into other ineluctable spaces of the urban landscape:  high-rise buildings, five-star hotels, night-clubs, indeed the city streets themselves through which Ravi gives furious pursuit to Vijay.   But the singularity of Deewaar resides in something quite different, namely that it is the first film in Hindi cinema which establishes a dialectic between the footpath and the skyscraper, the two preeminent signs of the film’s urban landscape.  The ubiquity of the footpath as home to the homeless, migrant labourers, and myriad others living at the margins of society is self-evident.  One can think of it more imaginatively as a school where life’s lessons are imbibed:  while Ravi goes to school, Vijay takes up shining shoes on the footpath.  Soon enough, Vijay gravitates from the footpath to the skyscraper:  he even attempts to gift his mother one. No sooner has he gained possession of the skyscraper than his fall commences, as if the footpath were beckoning him to return to his roots and plant his feet on the ground.  The fact that his claim on this skyscraper is ephemeral, and ultimately undeserving, is underscored by the fact that the viewer’s sight of the building is barred throughout the negotiations.  The skyscraper holds no intrinsic interest for Vijay, indeed its very existence is refracted through the footpath.  The footpath is literally that:  the path where the foot trod, where every footfall becomes a trace of memory.  At every turn of his confrontation with Ravi, Vijay seeks, unsuccessfully, to remind him of their shared histories on the footpath:  ‘Ravi, tume yaad hain bachpan mein kitni raaten footpath pe khaali pet guzarin?’

 

One could go on in this vein; but, in conclusion, I would point to one of the dialogues on the footpath that have now become part of India’s cultural memory.   The young Vijay, refusing to pick up money thrown at him as a shoeshine boy, says with dignity, ‘I polish shoes and do not beg for money.  Pick up the money and place it in my hands.’  Davar, the mafia don, tells his henchman:  ‘Yeh umar bhar boot polish nahi karega.  Jis din zindagi ki race mein isne speed pakdi, yeh sab ko peeche chorh jayega.  Meri baat ka khayal rakhna.  Ek din yeh ladka kuch banega’.   Looking back at the life of Amitabh Bachchan, one has the feeling that much in it was prefigured in the figure of Vijay.  More than anyone else in India’s film industry, Bachchan has proven to be the lambi race ka ghoda.

(Also published in Times of India, Crest Edition, 6 October 2012, p. 10, as “How Vijay Was Born”)

*Mujhe Tumare Sign Chaiyen: The Act of Writing in Deewaar (1975)

For all the apparent simplicity of its plot, Yash Chopra’s Deewaar (1975) — on which I have written a book [HarperCollins, late December 2010] to which I made reference in my blog earlier this month — twists and turns on a number of phenomena, none perhaps as remarkable as the act of writing.  Though Deewaar has generated its fair share of commentary, scholarly and otherwise, I am not aware that the palpable significance of the written word as such has previously been registered much less interpreted.  To be sure, the tense indeed terse conversation that ensues between Vijay and his brother Ravi in the aftermath of Vijay’s purchase of a skyscraper, when Ravi asks for Vijay’s written confession – mujhe tumare sign chaiyen, ‘I want your signature’– has already been inscribed into the annals of the most famous dialogues in Hindi cinema.  Conversation is perhaps not the best of words; confrontation more accurately describes their exchange.  As an aside, it is notable that Vijay and Ravi each have conversations with others, but seldom with each other.  They exchange words with each other on a few occasions, but these should not be confused for conversations.  An older meaning of ‘conversation’, the Oxford English Dictionary reminds us, referred to sexual intimacy and even the act of sexual intercourse; though this meaning of ‘conversation’ is now lost to us, the word retains suggestions of social intimacy, living together and consorting with others.  Such intimacy is not shared between the two brothers, even if Vijay frequently attempts to draw upon what he hopes are shared memories.

In a film bursting with crackling dialogues, it is scarcely an accident that many of the most telling lines are delivered around the subject of the written word, and that the signature marks the advent of a new sensibility.  Writing inaugurates a hermeneutics of suspicion, introducing new hierarchies of power and establishing a contrast between status, where one’s place in the social hierarchy is a matter of ascription, convention, and unwritten traditions, and contract, an agreement that is legally enforceable in a court of law.  The signature is the most dense and iconic of all acts of writing.  The written invariably introduces uniformity, even if there is inconsistency within a document and between texts; and the alphabetization of the script has even been interpreted as a charter of oppression for some people. The signature, moreover, is the infallible mark of identity, and forgery of a signature is tantamount to what, in modern parlance, is called identity-theft.

Let me dwell on the inaugural moment of the signature in Deewaar as a prolegomenon to a more considered evaluation of the act of writing that readers will encounter in my book.  These pages, modified to some degree from the text of the published book, should suffice to indicate the tenor of the argument.  The signature makes an early and pivotal entry in Deewaar.  Anand Babu, entrusted by mill workers with negotiating a fair agreement with the management, is confronted with a difficult choice.  A folder is placed before him, and as he turns one page after another, Anand Babu asks what is the meaning of this insult:  the proposed “new” agreement offers the labourers terms which they have already rejected.  Anand Babu is asked to turn another page:  smack in its middle is a photograph of his wife and their two sons, Vijay and Ravi, all now held hostage at the owner’s command.  There, in the background, is the crack of thunder:  events in the social world have their counterpart in the natural world, however much the modern dispensation to think of the physical and social worlds as distinct entities.  What, asks Anand Babu in obvious rage, if I were not to sign?  The plot, a sophisticated viewer is likely to think, is but chicken feed; and the Hindi film’s love for the baroque and the garish is none too subtly conveyed by the camera’s turn towards one of the more fearsome hooligans who is described, as he twirls his moustache with a menacing look on his face, as a man who has twice been to jail, once on the charge of murder.  ‘I want my wife and children’, says Anand Babu; ‘and I’, replies the seth, ‘want your signature.’  That is not what one would be inclined to describe as a fair exchange, but one must never underestimate the weight behind the signature.  Sign the papers, Anand Babu is told, or perish the thought that you will ever see your loved ones again.  Lightening strikes:  here is a portent of the unrelenting darkness that is about to descend on the lives of Anand Babu, his family, and the community of workers.

The seth holds up the pen in one hand; Anand Babu looks down at the photograph and then his eyes hover on the pen.  When I first saw this film as an adult, I was reminded of the essay question on which generations of school children in India were brought up, though perhaps in this computer age the question no longer resonates as mightily as it once did.   We would be asked to discuss, ‘Is the pen mightier than the sword?’, though the interrogative form always seemed specious.  It was understood that, unless one was willing to subscribe to some notion of naked power, the greatness of the pen had to be affirmed – an affirmation all the more necessary in view of the fact that, idealist sentiments aside, the pen was viewed as being at an incalculable disadvantage with respect to the sword.  Norms of civility demanded that the pen be made triumphant over the sword.  That apparent opposition – the one an instrument of civilization, of letters and philosophy, the other the symbol of brute strength – is in Deewaar dissolved at this junction, since both the pen and the sword are to be the instruments of Anand Babu’s defeat.  Wordlessly, Anand Babu grabs the pen; his hand clutched to it, he hesitates:  back and forth the camera moves, against the crescendo of thunder outside, between the paper that demands his signature and the image of his captive family.  The camera zooms in on his hand as he affixes his signature to the nefarious agreement, and then cuts to Anand Babu standing before the workers in pouring rain:  he offers no explanation for his conduct, only an account of his capitulation:  ‘I’ve signed all the papers of the agreement and agreed to all their demands.  I’ve also agreed that the labourers will toil at the same wages that they received before – and that if there is another strike, it will be illegal.  I’ve sold you all off.’

*The Footpath and the Skyscraper: The Pleasures of Deewaar

Few films from mainstream Hindi cinema have captivated audiences as much over nearly four decades as Yash Chopra’s Deewaar (1975, with Amitabh Bachchan).  At a book launch in New Delhi last evening, a journalist told me that the film producer, writer, poet, and former editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India, Pritish Nandy, once declared Deewaar to be the single most interesting ‘masala’ film.  I cannot say how reliable is this information, but for many years I nursed an ambition to write a small book on Deewaar.   The results of that ambition are there to be seen in my book DeewaarThe Footpath, the City and the Angry Young Man, due to be released by HarperCollins India in mid-December.

Among the most spellbinding elements of Deewaar is what I have described as the dialectic of the footpath and the skyscraper.  To give readers a taste of what they might expect by way of interpretation, here are a few slightly edited passages from the book:

“Moving as he does between the extremes, from the village to a global trade in smuggled goods, from the uniform of a mere coolie at Bombay’s docks to tailored suits, we should not be surprised that Vijay [Amitabh Bachchan] teeters between the footpath and the skyscraper.   Deewaar has justly been described as a film that gives vent to the explosive anger of discontented young urban India, as well as a film that, while exploring, partly through tacit invocations to the rich mythic material found in the Mahabharata, the inexhaustible theme of fraternal conflict, provides an allegorical treatment of the eternal struggle between good and evil within oneself.”

“Compelling as are such readings, I would nevertheless suggest that Deewaar also puts on offer the dialectic of the footpath and the skyscraper . . . .   The footpath or pavement . . . has ever been present in the Hindi film, to be numbered among the dramatis personae.  The ubiquity of the footpath as home to the homeless, migrant labourers, and myriad others living at the margins of society is too self-evident to require comment.  One can think of it more imaginatively as a school where life’s lessons are imbibed:  while Ravi [Vijay’s brother, played by Shashi Kapoor] goes to school, where under the umbrella of the textbook, the national anthem, and the discipline of the rod he will learn to become the dutiful subject of the state, Vijay takes up shining shoes on the footpath. It is on this footpath that some of the dialogues inescapably associated with Deewaar take place:  issuing a retort to Jaichand for throwing money at him after his shoes have been polished, the young Vijay says, ‘I polish shoes and do not beg for money.  Pick up the money and place it in my hands.’  Vijay, Davar later cautions Jaichand, is the steed that runs long races (‘lambi race ka ghora’):  ‘He is not going to be shining shoes the rest of his life.  That day when he catches life by the neck, he will leave everyone behind.  Mark my words:  One day this boy will make something of himself.’”

“Sure enough, Vijay gravitates from the footpath to the skyscraper.  Elsewhere in this book, I have described the impossible gift:  when riches comes his way, Vijay’s first thought is to gift his mother the skyscraper built with nothing less than her blood, sweat and tears.  All the insults and humiliations heaped upon her, he deludes himself into believing, are thereby avenged.  Curiously, no sooner has he gained possession of the skyscraper than his fall commences, as if the footpath were beckoning him to return to his roots and plant his feet on the ground. ‘Meri ma ne yahan eente uthai thi’ (‘my mother carried bricks on her head here’), Vijay informs the businessman from whom he purchases the skyscraper, but the fact that his claim on this skyscraper is ephemeral, and ultimately undeserving, is underscored by the fact that the viewer’s sight of the building is barred throughout their negotiations. . . .”

See also the related post on Deewaar and the act of writing:

Mujhe Tumare Sign Chaiyen: The Act of Writing in Deewaar (1975)

*Gandhi’s Photograph and the Politics of the Frame

The popular Hindi film brings to mind the framed portrait of Mohandas Gandhi, ‘Father of the Nation’.  Hindi films are often described as formulaic, and perhaps not without reason:  their ingredients, many imagine, are utterly predictable, and indeed one of the pleasures of watching such films may reside precisely in the fact that often one is aware of the dialogue even before it has been uttered.  The plot generally holds no suspense, and that may be one reason why the Hindi film thriller is, barring an exception or two, still an anomaly.  Whatever the merits of the argument, I have been struck by something else in viewing hundreds of films over the years.  In the Hindi film of the 1960s through the 1980s, as in real life, one could almost always expect to find the framed photograph of Mohandas Gandhi, most often in the police station, the government office, or the receiving room of the senior politician’s headquarters.  Occasionally, one would encounter the framed Gandhi in the home of the pious teacher, the dedicated social worker, or the plain old-fashioned patriot.  The framed Gandhi, if one were to watch mainstream Hindi films from the decades of the 1960s to the 1980s with a modicum of attention, seems to have been nearly as essential to the Hindi film as songs, the staged fights (orchestrated by the ‘fight master’), or the suffering mother.  One might argue, of course, that the Hindi film was merely following the script set by the state:  the protocol apparently required that Gandhi’s photograph be hung visibly in the most prominent office of a government institution.

It is tempting to think that, from his lofty position on the wall, Gandhi is there to inspire men and women to do good; but perhaps he is also there to cast a look, as we shall see, at all that transpires in his name and under his photograph.  Though the ‘Father of the Nation’ did not much believe in surveillance, and was notoriously indifferent to considerations of his own security, eventually surrendering his life to an assassin who had absolutely no difficulty in penetrating the Birla House gardens where Gandhi held his evening prayer meetings, the framed Gandhi appears to peer down from his lofty position on mere mortals.  However critical one may be of Gandhi at times, even his worst enemies would have a hard time thinking of him as a ‘Big Brother’.   Even Gandhi’s authoritarianism, for such is how it is has been described by some of his critics, was tempered by a radical catholicity of thought.  Nevertheless, perhaps the framed Gandhi is there to remind the thinker or doer that Gandhi Baba’s eyes are cast at their deeds:  his blessings will be showered on those who act ethically and his admonitions will caution those who are set on the path of wrong-doing.  One can understand why Indian embassies and consulates throughout the world prominently display the framed Gandhi:  whatever India’s standing in any particular country, the name of Gandhi is calculated to earn India some goodwill.  Similarly, the person who puts up Gandhi’s photograph may be attempting to acquire cultural capital, suggesting to others that the admiration for Gandhi points to some element of nobility in his or her own personality.  If we are associated in people’s minds with the friends we keep, there is reason to suppose that the photographs of venerable elders on display are meant to signify something about us to others.

The gesture of the framed Gandhi can, of course, be read in myriad other ways.   It is customary for states to hang framed photographs of the highest officials – often elected, just as often self-appointed, as in the case of ‘presidents for life’, or otherwise chosen to preside over the destinies of their people – but Gandhi occupied an anomalous position in the immediate aftermath of independence, holding no office and yet being bestowed with the epithet of ‘Father of the Nation’.  But, in India, framed photographs of the gods and goddesses are even more common than the photographs of netas, ‘leaders’ of the nation.  Let us, for a moment, overlook the fact that many of those canonized or celebrated as netas have been scarcely deserving of that honorific, and it is no surprise that the word ‘neta’ is commonly and justly viewed as a term of abuse and vilification.  Netas are often those who plunder the nation.  Holding no elected office in either independent India or even in the Congress party after his one-year term of presidency of the Congress in the early 1920s, and having no riches or possessions to his name, Gandhi cannot be bunched together with the netas, small and big, who populate the Indian scene.  But Gandhi was equally reluctant to being deified:  he openly disowned the idea of being a Mahatma, and would have shuddered at the thought of being assimilated into Hinduism’s gods and goddesses.   Gandhi occupies, we may say, a position betwixt the politicians and the gods, and yet a position that is akin to neither.  Perhaps that old and tiresome question, of whether he was a politician in saint’s garb or a saint who muddled his way through politics, will never go away.

One keen observer of Indian politics who has always remained aware of the framed Gandhi is the cartoonist R. K. Laxman, famous among other things for his creation of the ‘common man’.   In one cartoon after another, Laxman lampooned the netas, bureaucrats, and the sycophants who came to define ‘politics’; significantly, the framed photograph of Gandhi looms large in his work, as the three cartoons reproduced here amply demonstrate.  Laxman was keen to underscore the hypocrisy of politicians, leaders, and party office holders, though ‘hypocrisy’ is perhaps a banal and even relatively benign word to characterize those who, under Gandhi’s portrait, did not hesitate to offer or accept bribes, engage in horse-trading, engineer ‘disturbances’ in the interest of advancing the party’s electoral prospects, and so on.  Still, Laxman may have missed out on one element in his representation of the Gandhi looming behind the frame.   As I have had occasion to write elsewhere, there is no constituency in India – liberals, Marxists, constitutionalists, Hindutvavadis, militants, feminists, Dalits, Punjabis, Bengalis, communalists, gays and lesbians, most of all Gujaratis, and then countless more – that does not love to hate Gandhi'The Framed Gandhi', cartoon by R. K. Laxman.  He has been framed for every imaginable ill that has afflicted India:  some hold him responsible for the partition of India; others for upholding caste, relegating women to the household, and allowing the bourgeoisie an easy ride; and many others for betraying his fellow Hindus.  There are even those who find the hand of Gandhi behind the culture of gherao, strikes, hartal, and the evasion of law.  And one could continue in this vein.  So, when we frame Gandhi, we do far more than enclose his photograph or portrait behind glass.  Our habit of framing Gandhi has more to it than meets the eye.

(This piece is available in an Uzbek translation here:  http://eduworksdb.com/gandhis-photograph-and-the-politics-of-the-frame/)

An Estonian translation of this article by Martin Aus can be found here:  http://techglobaleducation.com/gandhis-photograph-and-the-politics-of-the-frame/