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.

Udham Singh and the Walled Garden:  The Mobile and the Immobile

Part III of 3 parts of Udham Singh:  A Colonial Massacre and the Birth of a ‘Revolutionary’

Sardar Udham is not, then, a film without its insights.  Anti-colonial cinema in India has been prone to cast English officials such as O’Dwyer, or the officials who appear in Lagaan, as wooden characters.  It is immaterial that, even in a film claiming to be based on ‘true events’, Udham is shown—in the absence of supportive historical evidence—as having ingratiated himself into O’Dwyer’s good graces and found employment at his home, but this artistic license permits the viewer to be privy to exchanges between the two which furnish a few clues to some peculiarities of the colonial sensibility.  The British in India saw themselves as a transcendent force for the good, as custodians of law and order and firm adherents of the rule of law, and as exemplars of the idea of fair play whose keen sense of justice won them the goodwill of ordinary Indians.  The highly placed colonial official Major-General John Malcolm, one-time Governor of Bombay and a prolific author, was speaking for every one of his ilk when in 1823 he wrote that ‘almost all who from knowledge and experience have been capable of forming any judgment upon the question, are agreed that our power in India rests on the general opinion of the Natives of our comparative superiority in good faith, wisdom, and strength, to their own rulers’ (A Memoir of Central India, Vol 2, Appendix 18). And that was putting it in mild and even polite language, considering that James Mill thought of India as being in a ‘rude’ (primitive) stage of civilization and others wrote of the ‘savagery’ of Indians.  To the end of his life, O’Dwyer—a more critical character than the immediate perpetrator of the massacre since as the administrator of the Punjab he was responsible for shaping the policy in that province—persisted in holding to the view that it was the educated who had instigated the common folk of the Punjab to rebellion and that the yeomen peasantry could not be aroused to political consciousness except through the machinations of the Indian political elite.  Both O’Dwyer and Dyer remained wholly unrepentant, firm in their belief that the Amritsar shooting was a military necessity and a deterrent that alone could prevent India from erupting into rebellion as in 1857.  If, at the end of it all, there is not much else that one can divine from the filmmaker’s attempt to enter into O’Dwyer’s frame of mind, it is largely because Michael O’Dwyer, as his memoir amply demonstrates, was a man of singular mediocrity.

Statue of Udham Singh, Amritsar, 1990.
Statue of Udham Singh, Amrtisar, 2018.

Amidst the humdrum life of Michael O’Dwyer and the peregrinations of Udham Singh, there are two moments of cinematic illumination which set up what is the fundamental story of modern times, that is the dialectic of motion and stillness, the mobile and the immobile.  When Udham walked into Caxton Hall on 13 March 1940 with the intention of eliminating O’Dwyer, he carried with him an identity card that bore the name of ‘Mohamed Singh Azad’.  Popular tradition has improved upon historical fact and rendered the name, as does Sardar Udham, as ‘Ram Mohamed Singh Azad’.  What does this signify, asks a senior British official, to which Inspector John Swain somewhat haltingly replies:  ‘Sir, this name signifies the religious unity of India’. Udham’s acolytes hold this up, quite reasonably, as an illustration of their shaheed’s secular credentials, but this gesture, even as it anticipates the theatrics of Amar Akbar Anthony by a generation, is somewhat predictable.  Far more arresting is the fact that Udham assumed multiple aliases, traveling incognito with passports in the names of Sher Singh, Ude Singh, Udham Singh, and Frank Brazil.  We moderns like to think of ourselves as living in a (to use that dreadful cliché) global village, but ours is an era not only of passport control but draconian surveillance regimes.  The passport itself is a relatively modern invention just as the nation-state is the ghetto from which we cannot escape. What is most remarkable is just how mobile Udham could be, transgressing borders with relative ease.  Against this mobility is the indubitable fact of the immobility of the thousands who were trapped in the walled enclosure known as Jallianwala Bagh.  Some could run, but only a few metres before running into the bagh’s outer wall or being mowed down by the deadly hail of fire. Many others could not run at all; hundreds were trampled over in the ensuing stampede. In what is the film’s darkest and chilling moment, Udham crawls over the wall of the bagh later in the evening and stumbles upon mounds of the dead and the wounded.   In an extended sequence lasting over fifteen minutes, he leaves with the wounded and repeatedly returns to take them to safety: in the stillness of the night, there are at most the faint moans of the wounded.  It is Ghalib, writing on Delhi as a desolate city of the dead after the British had reduced Hindustan’s first city to abject submission, that comes to mind:  1857 redux, precisely what the two henchmen of the Raj thought they were averting.

*****

The Jallianwala Bagh Memorial has been mired in controversy since the present government sought to transform it over the last several years into what they call a ‘world-class’ tourist site. Though Amritsar has a statue of Udham Singh that was installed in 1990, a large new statue of Udham Singh, which though sponsored by the Kamboj community to which he belonged can also be seen as part of the renovation initiative, was put up in 2018 just outside the memorial complex.  The statue from 1990 shows Udham as a turbaned and bearded Sikh, holding a revolver in his right hand.  The sculptor was, one could say, attempting to capture a likeness of the man in the act of shooting Michael O’Dwyer; on the other hand, Udham was neither bearded nor turbaned when he carried out the fateful act.  Indeed, in the preceding six years that he lived in England, he abjured the external signs that identify the Sikh male.  The new statue has been mired in controversy: some have objected to the loose and ill-fitting turban that sits atop Udham’s head, while others cavil that his outstretched right hand is sans revolver.  The Government of India is said to have objected to a revolver in one hand, saying that it would ‘send a wrong message’, especially to the young; the clod of earth in the palm of his right hand is supposed to represent the soil of Jallianwala Bagh now sanctified by the blood of the hundreds who were martyred.  However, to understand what is at the heart of the controversy, one can do no better than to turn to Sunam, Udham Singh’s birthplace, where the viewer is confronted with the bizarre fact of two statues of him, installed in the same year of him, that stand cheek by jowl.  One depicts him as a Khalsa Sikh, with unshorn hair and a beard; the other shows a clean-shaven man, recognizable from most of the pictures of Udham Singh that circulated in the public realm in the immediate aftermath of the assassination and in the following two to three decades.

Close-up of the outstretched arm of Udham Singh holding a lump of earth in his right hand, from a statue of him in Amritsar, 2018

There is little if anything to suggest that Udham Singh was an observant Sikh, much less someone who swore by a Khalsa Sikh identity.  Many contemporary public commentators have expressed alarm at the propensity of the present government to appropriate the most renowned figures of the freedom struggle, including figures such as Bhagat Singh who was an avowed atheist, but the apotheosis of Udham Singh (and Bhagat Singh, for that matter) into a Khalsa Sikh is not any less troubling. It is unlikely that these controversies will die down anytime soon.  The functionaries of the state and the middle class in India have agreed upon a solution that deflects some of the fundamental questions and promises to satisfy the nation’s ego. This solution is captured in some of the scripted lines that appear on a dark blank screen at the end of Sircar’s film where it is solemnly declared that ‘more than 100 years later, India is yet to receive an official apology from the British government for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.’  An apology that has to be forced, as seems to be the case, from the British is no apology at all; an apology that may arrive when India is in the position of being a world power, if that day should arrive at all, would be nothing else but a demonstration of the coercive power of the strong and an instantiation of the maxim that ‘might makes right’. Little do those who would like an apology know that we are in the midst of an epidemic of apologies. Some would like an apology to be accompanied by substantial financial compensation, to put some teeth into it and make it hurt.  Perhaps we should think of an apology, unthinkable for the foreseeable future, which would entail the British erecting, of their own free will, a statue of Udham Singh alongside the one of Mohandas Gandhi that stands in Westminster. The pigeons, at least, will have a field day.

(concluded)

See also Part I:  The Making of Sardar Udham:  A Massacre, A Young Man, and the Burden of Revenge, here.

Part II:  The Peregrinations of a Supposed Revolutionary:  The Many Guises of Udham Singh, here.

The 3 parts together were first published in marginally shorter form as “The Enigma of Udham Singh: Jallianwala Bagh and the Solitude of Revenge” in Open magazine (print and digital, 5 November 2021), available here.

Objects and the(ir) Objective: The Story of India

[A Review article on India:  A Story Through 100 Objects, by Vidya Dehejia.  Delhi:  Lustre Press/Roli Books, 2021.  ISBN:  978-81-94969174.  279 pp.]

Some years ago Sunil Khilnani, author of the elegantly written The Idea of India, a long discursive essay on post-independent India very much shaped by a Nehruvian sensibility, embarked on a rather different enterprise as he attempted to grapple with a country characterized by a long past.  How might we imagine the history of India if we were to view it through the lives of some of its most arresting men and women—and equally some who won little recognition beyond their own community, fell into obscurity, or were architects of policies that have long since been disowned?  The outcome was a book that Khilnani called Incarnations:  India in 50 Lives (2016).  It is understandable that his narrative should be peopled by the likes of the Buddha, Ashoka, Shankara, Kabir, Nanak, Mirabai, and Gandhi, but the choice of Charan Singh, a wily politician who served as the country’s caretaker Prime Minister for six months at the head of a wobbly coalition, will seem odd to many except perhaps to those who remember his reputation as an unstinting champion of the rural peasantry.  The choice of Satyajit Ray may seem inspired to film afficionados who recognize him as one of world cinema’s supreme auteurs, and whose Apu Trilogy is a landmark of humanism, but I suspect that the hundreds of millions who follow Salman Khan or Shahrukh Khan have barely heard of a director who crafted his films in the image of Mozart’s operas where, as Ray once explained, ‘groups of characters maintain their individuality through elaborate ensembles’.

Khilnani did not claim to be writing about the 50 most influential Indians, or the ‘greatest’ Indians, but it is in the nature of things that his 50 lives should have been construed as in some ways the lives of the most eminent Indians.  Any enterprise such as Khilnani’s must be marked by eccentricity.  It is a similar eccentricity, if that is the word to designate choices that sometimes appear unstable, quirky, and occasionally outlandish, that characterizes Vidya Dehejia’s audacious and intellectually provocative attempt to narrate the story of India through 100 objects.  Dehejia is principally an art historian and would doubtless have been inspired by A History of the World in 100 Objects (2010), an attempt by Neil MacGregor to write a ‘world history’ through 100 objects in the gargantuan collection of the British Museum of which he was then the Director.  MacGregor was constrained only by the parameters set for him:  ‘The objects had to cover the whole world, as far as possible equally’, and address the totality of human experience, not only the lives of the rich and the powerful; consequently, the objects chosen could not merely be great works of art but had to speak to everyday life.  Dehejia in principle sets for herself a somewhat similar task with regards to the objects that she chooses, stating that she has tried not to privilege any political standpoint and that she has sought to be ‘even-handed and fair-minded’ in the story that she tells.  The desire to be ‘even-handed and fair-minded’ may evoke some cynicism from the reader with a knowledge of the British attempt in India to represent themselves as neutral gatekeepers, but others might say only that Dehejia is being true to the calling of her profession.

It is, however, in the structure of her book, lavishly illustrated and meticulously produced by New Delhi-based Roli Books, that she most closely emulates MacGregor with one significant difference.  Both books are divided into twenty chapters and generally four to five objects illustrate the thematic argument of each chapter; however, where MacGregor proceeds strictly chronologically, moving from one phase of history to another, Dehejia’s fidelity to chronology extends only within each chapter. Thus, for example, in discussing ideals of womanhood in India, Dehejia moves from a bronze statue of Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi, c. 900 CE, to a watercolour on paper from 1615 of Nur Jahan, whom some readers may perhaps be surprised to discover was an expert markswoman; and from there to a recent statue of Ahilyabai Holkar, who was an astute ruler as much as she was a pious Hindu in the mid-18th century, to two early nineteenth century representations of Saraswati and Bharat Mata.

To understand the circumstances that have conspired to make possible a work such as Dehejia’s, it is necessary to recapitulate a few recent developments in historical scholarship.  There is, after some decades where cultural studies predominated and the gaze was riveted on the politics of representations, once again the turn to material history. It is immaterial that the Chola Temple Walls which Dehejia adroitly describes as a ‘Public Record Office’ (pp. 68-69), covered as they are with inscriptions, cannot quite be held in one’s hands as is generally true of many objects. Her objects are artefacts that inscribe a past, speak to the present, and occasionally portend the future. Secondly, Dehejia is still beholden to one of subaltern history and postcolonial theory’s most potent insights, namely the place of the ‘fragment’ in the imaginary of the nation.  Taken together, her objects—and other like objects—are more than the sum of the parts; but each is a fragment, sometimes calling forth other associations, occasionally a whole unto itself, and sometimes orphaned.  Thirdly, and relatedly, since national histories have become suspect to enlightened liberals, more particularly as they generally degenerate into becoming nationalist histories, scholars have had to search for new ways to write national histories without succumbing to the nationalist malady. Dehejia’s history of India through 100 objects can certainly be read in this vein.

It is as an art historian that Dehejia comes to her task and this shows equally in her choice of themes and the objects to illustrate the themes. Though four to five principal objects are apportioned for each part, the section on the ‘Art of the Illustrated Book’ is an exception with seven objects—and all these are examples of what may be called ‘high art’, folios from rare manuscripts and miniature paintings. At least half of the objects chosen by her are sculptural works or miniature paintings and the overwhelming and some will surely say misleading impression left upon the reader is of a civilization that was shaped predominantly by the artistic sensibility of Indian people.  One hundred objects are numbered but the ‘100’ is not to be taken literally, nor are the objects always drawn from India, even if they are clearly ‘Indic’ in origin or produced in some fashion under the sign of the Sanskrit cosmopolis:  thus, for example, a 9th-century Sri Lankan statue of the Buddhist goddess Prajnaparamita is offered as an illustration of the ‘yogic body’, but the argument is supplemented both with seals from the Indus Valley (ca. 2000 BCE) to suggest the antiquity of yoga in India’s imagination and the famous 7th century CE open-air ‘Great Penance’ relief carved on two boulders at Mamallapuram where yogic postures are depicted (pp. 34-37). The commentary that ensues is what one might expect from an art historian, though here Dehejia’s declared intent to eschew a political position here perhaps does short shrift to the subject.  There has been a lively debate in recent years, particularly in the United States, on whether yoga is intrinsically related to Hinduism: both the Christian right and Hindu nationalists have affirmed (though for different reasons) such a relationship, while many especially liberal practitioners of yoga claim that it is a wholly secular practice shorn of any religious underpinnings.  There is some controversy over whether the main motif of this magnificent sculptural relief is Arjuna’s penance or the descent of the Ganga, but in either case yoga’s associations with Hinduism seem unimpeachable. 

-Great Penance Relief at Mamallapuram (formerly Mahabalipuram), Tamil Nadu, 7th century CE. The figure of the ascetic in a yogic pose can be seen at the center, about a third of the way down from the top.

Dehejia is less reticent, however, on how what objects tell us about Hindu-Muslim relations and the contemporary project to read Hindu aspirations into the past.  She does not state her position bluntly but her repudiation of the communalist standpoint is clear enough.  It is a measure of the restraint with which she writes that the discerning reader will at once understand her position while the reader who is disposed towards Hindu nationalism is perhaps likely to think anew his or her own position.  Consider her treatment of this subject through two objects. A Chalukyan period (ca. 1000 CE) granite sculpture of a dvarapala (door guardian) interests her since it frequently changed hands, moving one from Hindu king to another in a tale of vanquishers and the defeated (pp. 62-63). Sometimes objects, and sacred centres—most famously Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, otherwise known as Sancta Sophia—fell to the conqueror of another faith, a phenomenon that she rightly points out can be seen ‘in most parts of the world’.  The communalist would like to read such phenomena exclusively through the lens of religious animosity, but it is the politics of conquest and the quest for power that characterize this history rather than the politics of religion. More arresting for many reasons, not the least being that even educated Indians know very little about the Deccan sultanates (1527-1686) and their extraordinary cosmopolitanism, is her choice of two miniatures from Bijapur (ca. 1604, pp. 106-7).  One features Ibrahim Adil Shah, Sultan of Bijapur, who wore the rudraksha beads associated with Shiva, playing the tambura; in the other miniature, produced at the Sultan’s behest, the goddess Saraswati, a veena resting on her left rap against her right shoulder, is rendered much like a Mughal princess.  This hybridized painting is emblematic of the syncretism of the Muslim courts.  Adil Shah had inscribed along the top the words, ‘Ibrahim, whose father is guru Ganapati and mother the pure Saraswati.’  Should we be surprised that in more recent times Ustad Bismillah Khan, the master of the shehnai (the double-reeded oboe common in north India) nonpareil, played at the Kashi Viswanath temple and that he regularly prayed to Saraswati?

Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah playing the tambura; ascribed to Farrukh Beg in an inscription written by Muhammad Hussain Zarin Qalam, c. 1610-11. From an album page. Collection: National Museum, Prague.

I would like to insist that one cannot begrudge Dehejia her choices.  Nevertheless, even as she candidly terms them ‘idiosyncratic’, the debate is not thereby closed.  Each object tells a story, and she is adept in narrating the story, but thousands of other objects, each illuminating in its own fashion, would have served her equally well. A number of arguments may be raised in this connection, again less so as criticism than as provocations. First, I wonder if it is not the case that Dehejia has been perhaps overly influenced by trends highlighting “diversity” and the occluded subjects of history.  A watercolour from 1615 of Empress Nur Jahan underscores her abilities as ruler and as an expert markswoman (pp. 236-37), and the aforementioned bronze statue of the 10th century Chola queen Sembiyan Mahadevi and the 2011 statue of the 18th century Ahilyabai of the House of Holkar are in the same vein (pp. 234-35, 238-39). In recent years there has been a spate of biographies of Mughal women of the royal household, some written, it seems, to counterbalance the lavish attention bestowed on the great Mughal rulers.  This is all fine and admirable, but still at the end a rather anodyne exercise, establishing only, as Dehejia argues more than once, that patriarchy in India (and elsewhere) has prevented women from attaining their full potential.  The more critical question is whether women in politics may furnish us a politics that will yield a more just and equal society. Secondly, and somewhat in this vein, India has historically provided richer possibilities of imagining a world that is not tethered to rigid conceptions of male and female, masculinity and femininity.  The stunning statue from a copper alloy of ca. 1000 of God as ardhnari (half-woman) points to a world where both masculinity and femininity were preceded by androgyny (pp. 84-85).  According to Dehejia, ‘the dominance of the male is clear in the fact that the composite image is called Shiva as Half-Woman’, but one must perforce ask:  ‘called’ by whom?  There is nothing intrinsic in the image which suggests the conception of God as predominantly female or male.  But supposing that Dehejia were right, one is then moved to inquire whether the art of the West, or of China, Japan, or Africa, also allowed for such imagery of the divine godhead?  Is the dualistic framework of thinking as much a problem in classical Indian thought as it is in the philosophical systems of the West?

Shiva as Ardhnari (Half-woman), c. 1000 CE, from Nepal. Copper alloy with gemstones. Approximately 83 cms. Collection: Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The colonial civil servant and ethnographer William Crooke wrote a delightful and now forgotten book called Things Indian (1906). There are some 175-200 odd essays on subjects such as amulets, bamboo, the bazaar, camels, carpets, curry, diamonds, elephants, embroidery, fairs, rice, salt, tea, and snakes.  I am tempted to ask, after reading about amulets in Crooke’s book, why ‘bangles’ are not one of the 100 objects that Dehejia writes about:  the bangle-seller has been a ubiquitous presence in our bazaars and fairs, and the scene of a woman breaking her bangles upon learning of her husband’s death is to be found in scores of Hindi movies. A similar thought might arise regarding the mango and the banyan tree, but here Dehejia anticipates the reader in capturing these two ‘objects’ alongside the tiger, the peacock, and the lotus flower in the definitive stamps released by the Indian government’s post and telegraphs department (pp. 260-61). But their reproduction in this doubly diminutive form nevertheless suggests once again that everyday objects are slighted in favour of works of arts.  Where, the reader may also ask, is the cricket bat? If cricket is, alongside popular cinema, the enduring passion of so many in the country, it would appear to be deserving of some attention.  I was thinking likewise of the matka (clay water pot), the belna (rolling pin), and the pots and pans of the Indian kitchen.  The pressure cooker—the traditional one, not the new incarnation known as ‘instant pot’—was invented in the US and became practically obsolete there, except as a retrofitted bomb, but in India it has found an enduring home and the Indian kitchen is unthinkable without it.  Yet it is a mark of the suppleness of Dehejia’s thinking that some of these pots and pans do make their appearance in her ‘objects’, having entered into the imaginary of the contemporary artist Subodh Gupta’s massive installations, ‘Spill’ and ‘Very Hungry God’ (pp. 268-69). Objects with which we have lived for a very long time may take on new forms.  We can read new meanings into them.  It is to Dehejia’s credit that her book allows for this fecund play of possibilities.

Subodh Gupta, “Spill”, 2007.

[First published in a slightly shorter version in Open magazine (26 July 2021) under the title “An Objective History” and also available online (16 July 2021) here.]

Narendra Modi and a 14th-century Delhi Sultan: A Study in Megalomania

Vinay Lal

The 14th-century Sultan of Delhi, Muhammad Tughluq, was by all accounts a stern, puritanical, and yet generous ruler, characterized above all by capriciousness and a brutal exercise of power.  Perhaps the most reliable and certainly one of the most detailed narratives of his rule comes from the hand of ibn Batuta, a Moroccan traveler who spent six years at the Sultan’s court.  Ibn Batuta observes at the outset that “this king is of all men the most addicted to the making of gifts and the shedding of blood.”  Over the next thirty pages, ibn Batuta details the gifts that the Sultan showered upon nobles but especially foreigners, following it up with gruesome accounts of the punishments he meted out to those who dared so much as to disagree with him.

An illustration from Jules Verne’s book “Découverte de la terre” (“Discovery of the Earth”)
drawn by Léon Benett. IbnBatuta is shown with his guide in Egypt. Source:  http://www.artfinder.com/work/ibn-battuta-in-egypt-hippolyte-leon-benett/
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Modi Goes Down to Crushing Defeat in West Bengal: A Ray of Hope for India?

(First in a projected mini-series on the West Bengal Assembly Elections. For non-Indian readers or others not immersed in the nitty-gritty of Indian politics, the state assembly elections determine which party will rule the state. In the present round of assembly elections, five states went to the polls in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which has wrought havoc in India in recent weeks. Far from being suspended, elections in West Bengal were held over a period of five weeks.)

The incumbent Chief Minister of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), Mamata Banerjee, popularly known in Bengal as “Didi” (literally, older sister), addressing a crowd from her wheelchair.

Indian elections have seldom been pretty affairs, certainly not in the last decade, and the gargantuan scale as well of even state legislative assembly elections makes elections in most countries look like tame affairs.  However, even by the rough-and-tumble standards set by politicians and their followers in India, the just concluded elections to the West Bengal Vidhan Sabha will go down not only as one of the most keenly and even bitterly contested elections in the country’s recent history but as a sure indicator of the depth of depravity to which the BJP has sunk and the manner in which it has dragged down institutions such as the Election Commission in its naked quest for power.

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The Assassins of Gandhi’s Memory

Vinay Lal

The assassins of Gandhi’s memory are everywhere in India today.  They lurk in many of the highest offices of the land, in legislative buildings, in the alleys and byways of Indian cities, and most of all in middle-class homes where it is an article of faith to hold Gandhi responsible for the partition of India, condemn him for his purported appeasement of Muslims, dismiss him as an anti-modernizer, ridicule his unstinting and principled advocacy of nonviolence, and sneer at him for his effeminizing politics.

Statue of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in the Indian Parliament complex, New Delhi.
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In-Betweenness and Migrancy: A Tribute to Manglesh Dabral–Migrant, Poet, and a Quiet Rebel

Vinay Lal

The Hindi poet, Manglesh Dabral, died in New Delhi last week, felled as many others have been by COVID-19.  Dabral was a quiet, unassuming man, and, according to those who are truly conversant in Hindi poetry, quite likely among the two or three of the greatest Hindi poets of his generation.  He had a long career as a journalist, having been associated with many leading Hindi newspapers and magazines—in Bhopal, Allahabad, and Delhi—over the course of several decades, and his stewardship of the Sunday literary magazine of the newspaper Jansatta, known as Ravivari, was quite legendary.  His obituaries make note of his many distinguished contributions to Indian literature and journalism and all those need not be rehearsed here at length. Though Dabral’s poetry was translated into English and nearly a dozen other European languages, he was himself an accomplished translator into Hindi of the poetry of Pablo Neruda, Bertolt Brecht, and Zbigniew Herbert among others. 

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Yeh Inquilab Hai, Sir: Indian Farmers and the Architecture of Protest

Farmers gathered in protest at the Delhi-Haryana border at Singhu on 4 December 2020. Photograph: Agence France-Presse.

Almost to the day, one year ago, the Dadis (or grandmothers) of Shaheen Bagh stood up to the Indian state while most of the Indian middle class, which capitulated to the Modi government when it first assumed power in 2014, looked on silently as one of the most remarkable nonviolent protests anywhere in the world was carried out with discipline over several months before the pandemic took over the lives of everyone and furnished the state with the pretext to send the Dadis back to their homes.  Now, with the rebellion of the farmers, a new front has been opened in the battle of the country’s ordinary citizens against a wholly authoritarian government that is frighteningly intolerant of dissent and reeks of the arrogance of power.  “Power tends to corrupts”, the English politician and writer Lord Acton famously declared, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

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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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