Editorial / Midnight’s victims
Telling Tales / A broken tradition
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL / MIDNIGHT’S VICTIMS 
 
 
 
 
Mr V.S. Naipaul is having a gala time. Writers’ retreats, if not taken in the right spirit, can be tedious affairs. But Neemrana is pretty and plush, and the gusto with which Mr Naipaul is rubbing people up the wrong way shows that he, together with some of the “nice” people gathered around him, is having the kind of good time the Indian Council for Cultural Relations wants him to have. The international festival of Indian literature would certainly not have been such a jamboree if this Nobel laureate had not been at its cen-tre. And the fun seems to have got even better after Mr Naipaul decided to cut out the niceties. He has quarrelled with the American ambassador’s wife at dinner. This has been followed by a fit of pique during a panel discussion on nothing less than the “weight of history”.

Being Midnight’s Children is a solemn matter. So some of Mr Naipaul’s fellow-writers and co-panelists were mightily offended when he challenged Ms Nayantara Sehgal to pin colonialism down to a specific date, and dismissed Ms Shashi Deshpande’s account of the woman writer’s oppression as “banal”. He was not being facetious. He was speaking out against a species of politically correct, postcolonial twaddle, goaded on by extreme impatience coming out as rude intolerance. The rudeness is unconscionable. And perhaps the moderator — himself a distinguished Midnight’s Child — ought to have put him in his place for it. But the fact remains that the import and implications of Mr Naipaul’s interruptions have to be taken seriously.

When Indian writers choose to write in English — or, for that matter, in a vernacular — they must be clear why they are doing so and what they are trying to achieve as writers. The need to write, and the standards by which this writing is to be judged, cannot remain shackled to a single historical phenomenon. To persist in seeing this writing as determined by colonialism more than fifty years after independence is to severely limit its horizon of possibilities. Robbed of historical specificity, this ready-at-hand story of colonial oppression could all too easily become a grand excuse for mediocre writing, pleading to be read according to criteria which have little to do with literary values. And the same could be said of gender oppression. The female writer must, at the end of the day, be judged by the literary merit of what she has produced. And this is the best thing that an equitable world could do to her. It falls within the purview of the historian to read literature in the context of sexual and colonial exploitation. But a bunch of writers getting together to discuss their craft in a professedly “international” forum, dripping every conceivable form of privilege, cannot afford to tie their vocation down to readymade histories of oppression without seriously belittling their achievement as artists.

For Mr Naipaul, life is too short for the banalities of feminist or postcolonial victimhood. Fair enough. Good literature needs to make no excuses, even if history affords some very real and alluring ones to some of its lesser creators. But then, Mr Naipaul’s wrath will not make better writers out of these votaries of oppression. So he might as well sit back and enjoy Neemrana.

   

 
 
TELLING TALES / A BROKEN TRADITION 
 
 
BY AMIT CHAUDHURI
 
 
I will recount an event that took place recently, in which I found myself involved, which brought home to me the element of the grotesque that underlies our lives in India. About a month ago, a gentleman I know asked me to make the introductory speech to the presentation of an award by the Ustad Inayat Khan Foundation (set up two years ago by Inayat Khan’s son, Ustad Vilayat Khan) to the Benaras gharana tabaliya, Kishen Maharaj. At first, I refused; I had never done this sort of thing before, and wondered if, in spite of my love of music, I’d enjoy doing it. In the end, my acquaintance prevailed upon me, and I saw no further reason to resist.

I will summarize briefly what happened on the evening of February 15 at Kala Mandir. I made a short speech, in which I paid handsome tribute to the two musicians present, and made some remarks on the Foundation. After this, the sitariya, Arvind Parikh, gave a talk, with slides, on Ustad Imdad Khan, Vilayat Khan’s grandfather. The two-minute break that was to follow lasted for half an hour; but finally, the curtains parted, and the two musicians, the governor, and I were invited to the dais. As we waited, the governor chatted with the musicians, and then turned to me to make some kind remarks about what I’d said. Then the award, a salver and a cheque, passed hands from governor to awardee, and Kishen Maharaj was asked to say something.

He began with a general, slightly theatrical preamble, saying how happy he was to receive an award from Ustad Vilayat Khan, a fellow musician. Then, with something like a smirk, he paused and said: “But I want to say something amusing. This Chaudhuri saheb,” he glanced at me and turned again to the audience, “who I hear is a writer from the Sangeet Research Academy, has made a couple of mistakes in his speech.” Still smirking, he continued, “He called me a tabaliya.” He spat out the word as if it was an obscenity. “He shouldn’t have done that. Perhaps he doesn’t know the correct term is tabla vaadak. And then he called my guru Kante Prasad, when it is Kanthe Maharaj. Moreover, he should have referred to Calcutta as Kolkata. I think he wrote his speech in a hurry, and he should correct these errors when he has the time.” I have dispatched his words in a few sentences; but his complaint was more elaborately put forward, in a nasty and attacking manner. A little later, in his concluding words, the governor tried to undo the damage by saying I had spoken with “deep knowledge”; a further, generous acknowledgment came from Vilayat Khan’s son, Hidayat Khan, in his vote of thanks. But the proceedings had already been made surreal.

I was not the only one appalled by this man’s behaviour, by his creation of a quarrel, in public, out of an imagined insult and minor, or non-existent, transgressions. He had not taken the trouble to thank me for the speech in which I’d said many good things about him; but perhaps he thought that praise was his natural due, and that it needed no acknowledgment.

“Tabaliya” is, by common consensus, the legitimate and politically correct word for a tabla player. The term that is disliked is “tabalchi”, which was used of those who played the tabla with tawaifs, or courtesans. “Tabaliya”, “sitariya”, or “kheyaliya” carry no such slur. “Tabla vaadak” is an artificial term, with no history, in the ugly Sanskritized Hindi of post-Independence India; it is hardly, if ever, used. At any rate, both “tabaliya” and “tabla vaadak” mean exactly the same thing: “tabla player”. What was his complaint, then? If one is ashamed of one’s profession, one cannot hide behind a euphemism. The error concerning his guru’s name he could have cleared up with me in private, later; or, politely, in public. Certainly, it was less absurd than the one he made in calling me a “writer from the SRA”, which showed he lacked the common courtesy to find out who it was who had been invited to felicitate him. Kishen Maharaj’s behaviour that night is the sort one might expect from a man lacking entirely in culture, a lack which would not, for me, be compensated by grey hairs or exalted achievements. The final remark on the word “Calcutta” betrays a sanctimoniousness one does not associate with those who have innate dignity.

I recount this unedifying tale to emphasize the necessity for an injection of education into the world of classical music. To properly understand the incident, and many others (Hindustani music proliferates with horror-stories far worse than the one I’ve told), one must put them in the context of the mental and moral vacuum in which that world is largely situated. For one thing, the lack of an education results in a corrosive lack of self-esteem, even among the talented; and this is nurtured and augmented, rather than rationalized or diminished, by the flattery of sycophants. Modernity and education are not necessarily the enemies of Hindustani classical music, as they are so often, and so glibly, made out to be; classical music’s primary enemy is itself, its feudal, non-egalitarian structure, and this is what is inexorably killing it. Indeed, the restoration and recuperation of classical music was largely due to the efforts of the educated middle class, but it is that middle class which is responsible, today, for excessively sentimentalizing and idealizing the idea of parampara, or tradition, and the guru-shishya relationship.

What is parampara? It is a set of observances and practices through which music is learnt, transmitted, and performed in north India. Many of these practices are, in theory, good; but much of what constitutes parampara in reality is bad, even soul-destroying, and should change. It’s one thing, for instance, to encourage the student to show reverence towards music and the elders who are the custodians of that music; it’s another thing altogether to encourage a habit of obsequiousness towards them, whether you actually respect them or not, and for the young to perceive this obsequiousness to be an essential path towards self-advancement. The obsequiousness takes many forms; the most common is the touching of the feet of elders, frequently the means of keeping an inflated ego appeased rather than an expression of love. I think this custom should be temporarily banned until it regains something of its originally intended decorum and sincerity.

There are, of course, more extreme forms of servility. Their main purpose is to salve the brittle egos that abound in the world of Hindustani classical music, and to also fan the flames of the most petty resentments. This makes for an atmosphere in which arrogance expresses itself exclusively in the language of false modesty, in which venality articulates itself in unworldly, religiose homilies. Very rarely does one encounter actual modesty or unworldliness.

This brings me to the guru-shishya relationship, reportedly the panacea to the various ills that beset classical music. But the guru-shishya relationship is itself beset with all kinds of evils. We have heard a great deal about the faults of present-day students, their impatience, their desire for quick fame; we hear rather less of the faults of the teachers. There are some outstanding gurus, who are also decent human beings; but there are also cases in which the opposite is true. At the heart of the guru-shishya relationship is, too often, a power struggle, in which the guru competes with, demeans, and withholds knowledge from his disciple.

Meanwhile, the endless pampering the famous musician receives ensures that, not infrequently, his art deteriorates eleven or twelve years after he becomes famous, or that he continues to perform, to the delight of his acolytes, long after his music has become intolerable. However, organizers will pay atrocious sums of money to invite our Bharat Ratnas and Padma Vibhushans to perform, often with their children, money that would be better spent on providing opportunity to fresh talent. If one non-performing Padma Vibhushan is worth a hundred new talents seeing the light of day, I’d rather have the hundred new talents. But, instead, sitting studiously to witness an ageing musician create a tuneless cacophony on his instrument is also a part of our reverential, and revered, parampara. I’ve described problems here to which, sometimes, there may be no clear solutions; but to bring them out into the open is at least a step towards ensuring that we might work towards a classical tradition in which talent can co-exist with dignity.

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THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

Come share the joke

Last laugh Smiling Buddha, sorry, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the kindly light that seems destined to lead West Bengal from an industrial wasteland to a paradise of steel. Our hunches stem from this one incident. A leading industrialist and his associates, who have substantial interests in one of Bengal’s traditional agro-based industries, went to the Writers’ last week to meet Buddha. As usual, they tried their best to convince him of the need to reduce the workforce, given the sorry state of affairs. And as usual, they wondered if the message had got across. Lo and behold! Buddha had got it straight. He also gave a straight answer. He was with them. But if they wanted his help to cut down on the workforce, they had to place themselves in his shoes first and then judge. If they scaled down their requirements, Buddha might still be able to talk others into accepting a reasonable reduction, but he could not agree to a freeze in wages. All he could do was ask the unions to defer the demand for a wage rise till the financial situation improved. Fair enough. As the industrialists trooped out, Buddha told them with an impish smile, “You don’t have to go to town with your cause.” Habits die hard. So despite Buddha’s sermon, the industrialists went to Alimuddin Street to see Anil Biswas. The gen-sec of the party’s state unit told them, “The CM has said yes, so just relax.” While they were coming out of the HQ, they met Buddha again, his smile broader this time, “I told you not to go to town with your cause.” Was that a polite warning, or godliness?

Going places

Moving the mountain out of a molehill. After many months of patient persuasion, the Union home minister, LK Advani, shifted house from Pandara Park to 30, Aurangzeb Road for security reasons. Soothsayers and astrologers naturally played their part. Four “auspicious” dates were apparently earmarked, all in February — 16, 19, 20 and 21 — to move into the new house. A special sunder kand path, from the Rama- yana, was reportedly arranged. It is said to have been a brainchild of the urban development minister, Anant Kumar. Modern day Hanuman of modern day Ram?

Passage from India

News from abroad. POTO seems to have gone international. Information about the controversial anti-terror ordinance has now reached the United Nations. Under the security council resolution number 1373, the government of India is said to have been asked to submit details about its anti-terrorism measures by December 28. The Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime lost not a minute. A detailed note was sent pronto, with special emphasis on POTO. Perhaps the international community has been kept unaware of the fact that POTO has failed to get parliamentary approval and that there is still no consensus on the issue among the Indian political class and the intelligentsia. Maybe, the POTO details will come back with a black pencil mark from the UN as well.

A new way out

Full marks to the administration in Aligarh,where they found a novel way of dealing with troublemakers during the elections. A day before the polls, the administrators drew up a block-wise list of miscreants and others likely to create trouble. They were asked to furnish a personal bond each of Rs 50,000, giving an undertaking that they would not indulge in any rowdyism or resort to arms on the day of polling. The impact was instantaneous. Supporters of Kalyan Singh, workers of the BJP, the Congress, the SP, the BSP seemed to have suddenly become models of good behaviour. The DM, collector and the superintendent have won much respect from the Aligarhwallahs. They can now wait for their transfer orders.

Sibling worry

No signs of order in Kerala, where the fight seems to be intensifying between the CM, AK Antony, and his staunchest rival, K Karunakaran. The battle has extended to the family as well where the Kerala Congress chief, Muralidharan, has been warned by father Karunakaran for supporting Antony behind his back. The old man now wants a ministerial berth for daughter Padmaja, who was denied a ticket in the last polls by the Central leadership and given the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation to cool her heels in. Karunakaran has sent Antony his message through top Muslim League leaders, the Congress ally in Kerala. If Antony refuses, Karunakaran’s supporters would resign from the cabinet. The problem is none of the supporters are willing to do Karunakaran’s bidding. Looks like it is time to find another state run corporation for Padmaja.

Looking for a change

Need for similar corporations in West Bengal where Sougata Roy and Priya Ranjan Das Munshi seem to have embarked on a job hunt. Roy is in the Trinamool, but things are not going too well for him. He is hoping to jump into the mayor’s seat if Subrata Mukherjee manages to convince Mamatadidi to send him to the Rajya Sabha. But a veteran in politics, Roy is also supposed to have sent out feelers to the Congress which seems keen to coopt the old guard. Priya can then hold Roy’s hands while shouting back at the Somen Mitra-Pranab Mukherjee lobby. Good luck mates!

Different identity

In the footsteps of its leader, Mayavati, the BSP seems to be attempting a change of image. Probably to get over its identity as a predominantly Dalit party, the BSP was heard shouting, “Hathi nahin, Ganesh hai. Brahma Vishnu Mahesh hai”. God help them!

Footnote / What kept her away?

Why was the brightest star in the Nehru-Gandhi galaxy missing from the skies over Amethi and Rae Bareilly this time? There are speculations that Priyanka Gandhi, despite having campaigned for the two constituencies extensively in the last elections, gave them a slip only after she had become doubly sure that the Congress was bound to lose in both. The onus for the likely debacle has been put on family friend Captain Satish Sharma, who is said to have somehow managed all the tickets in the two constituencies for his supporters. Among whom is Ashis Shukla, the Brahmin leader who was given his ticket by denying the same to the sitting MLA in Amethi, Ram Harak Singh, a Thakur by caste. Singh naturally is mightily displeased and seems to have rallied behind Shukla’s opponent, Ameeta Modi Singh, second wife of Sanjay Singh, who is the adopted son of the Rajput raja of Amethi. But Amethi may not be the only reason which has stopped Priyanka from joining the fray. She is reportedly in the family way again. Some good news to counter the bad.    


 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Undoing the curse

All that hype Sir — The death of Bappaditya Ghosh is shocking not only because it has exposed the pathetic state of government hospitals in Calcutta, but also because of the chain of events it set off (“Blot in blood destroys accursed family”, Feb 18). The way Ghosh’s ailment was viewed by his family, especially his mother, demonstrates the need to raise awareness about the disease in Indian society as well as to engage patients and their family members in counselling sessions. Such sessions would acquaint parents, who are carriers of the disease, and help them understand the needs of a thalassaemic child.

Yours faithfully,
Jyoti Saha, Calcutta

Literary vibes

Sir — The editorial, “Write side up” (Feb 17), identifies certain problem areas for organizers of literary “festivals” in a country like India where there is a substantial body of regional literature. However, given the changes in the literary scenario, the tone of discouragement in the editorial seems out of place.

The rapid growth of technology has transformed the cultural environment the world over. If literature is seen to play a role in broadening perspectives in the age of globalization and liberalization, then the promotion of Indian writing in English will help a lot.

Take for instance, works of V.S. Naipaul which have enriched the lives of his readers. They have benefitted from his insights, his courage. His tireless journeys through the Islamic world, through India and his chronicle of life have inspired them. The same holds true for Amitav Ghose and his interpretation of history and civilizations in novels like In an Antique Land or The Glass Palace.

As one familiar with modern Bengali writing, I think most of the writers are too localized and have the tendency to write on the same subjects, contrary to their Indo-Anglian counterparts. One cannot help feeling that as a nation we are only too happy to invest money on meaningless forms of entertainment rather than honour those literary giants who have brought fame and prestige to our country.

Yours faithfully,
Abhijit Mukherjee, Calcutta

Sir — The organizers of the “international festival of Indian literature” seem to have ignored a simple fact — that there is a difference between what constitutes Indian literature and what is popularly known as “Indian writing in English”. It is not clear what the organizers hoped to achieve through this seminar other than giving Delhiites something to talk about. As pointed out in “Voice for literature’s poor cousins” (Feb 19), the event has afforded politicians with literary pretensions a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to mingle with the likes of Amitav Ghose and Naipaul. Atal Bihari Vajpayee could however do his bit to ensure the creation of a national translation board to give exposure to Indian literature abroad.

Yours faithfully,
Sumita Bandopadhyay, Calcutta

Winner takes all

Sir — The photograph of Aamir Khan and Gracy Singh on the front page of The Telegraph (Feb 13), reminded me of the famous poster of Raj Kumar and Nargis in the 1957 classic, Mother India, which was also nominated for an Oscar. Like Mother India, Lagaan, too, is a simple film, set in a small Indian village. Lagaan has proved to be refreshingly different from the usual Hindi films and is likely to appeal to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Unlike Mother India, I am confident that this time around, Lagaan will bring home the Oscar and give Indian fans a reason to celebrate.

Yours faithfully,
S. Balakrishnan, Jamshedpur

Sir — Although Lagaan has been nominated for the Oscars, it is unlikely to win it. Hollywood has never taken the Bombay film industry seriously. Despite its fascination with all things “exotic”, the academy would not find anything exciting about a movie revolving around a cricket match between Indians and the English.

Yours faithfully,
Jayanti Haldar, Calcutta

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