narratives · society · Uncategorized

Musings from Madhur Vihar

In front of the board that says “Please Don’t Feed The Dog”, the dogs of Madhur Vihar are uniting against a lone cow. They have been hungry for days but it has not dampened the will to fight for their territory. “Go Away! This is our home!”, they seem to be shouting in unison. They are clearly unaware of their own minority status in this neighborhood, and the cow too seems to be oblivious of her revered status in the nation. The dogs are tiring out, and the cow has decided to turn and go back to the garbage dump where it has been left by its owner to find some food. The upholders of the respective status of the above mentioned animals are currently busy taking a nap or watching news with ego-maniacs as anchors, their anger interspersed with advertisements of a very happy generation. “You wan’t to get angry, here I’ll break a mug!” says a loving cosmopolitan husband to his wife who seems to be tired of her luxuries…I am wondering how to sneak in the dogs to feed them, and am sorry for the cow who is not alone in facing double standards. Meanwhile the crows have been spared, and my crow friend has just picked up the egg shell I left for it on the stone slab.

family · kahaniyan · narratives · people · reflections · society · Uncategorized

Amma and I (Fiction: Short Story)

On the second shelf in the kitchen are two mugs- orange and yellow. Amma and I bought these together from the neighborhood market some months ago; she wanted to spend time with me over chai.

I have been living with Amma since last summer. It was unplanned.

I had been working in another city for 6 years, when she called me and asked if I would like to move back. I was surprised by that sudden call. But I had been noticing changes in Amma’s voice, she sounded more fragile and lesser of the strong woman who had raised me on her own. I sensed urgency, and feared that leaving this opportunity of time together might be my biggest regret later in life; I started applying for a new job.

A few months later, I packed my bags with great hesitation, said goodbye to the loveliest friends and was home.

Only to realize, home isn’t the same.

My room having served as a space for guests had remnants of their personalities. My books were missing, my memories of an entire childhood had been painted over, and as if to mock at my sense of belonging, a strange wall art had appeared in their place demonstrating dearth of imagination and skill. I was unable to relate with the velvet curtains and their display of fake splendor, and the calendar with models wearing gold jewelry deserved to be hidden.

I felt invaded.

But I decided to curtail my impulses and settle in. I was carrying with me imaginations of a period of bonding, a fresh beginning where the two of us navigate through unforeseen adventures, moments of laughter, nostalgia and exploration. I needed time to slowly initiate this process with her. First, I needed to feel at home. Amma meanwhile had been nurturing her own desires that had been unfolding across time and space. Little did we know that the colourful memories we were hoping to weave, might turn into bitter episodes we both crave to forget.

To give you some context, I have been raised by a feisty single mother, who fought against all conventions to ensure that I have a safe childhood away from her abusive husband, receive good education and appreciate life through all that it has to offer. We had our turbulence and there were times when Amma struggled under mounting pressures, but it would be safe to assume that we managed well. I chose to pursue a career of my choice and consider myself fairly independent. Amma took pride in my achievements and I found consolation in performance. Then I fell in love. After living with my partner for a while, we realized we were happier alone, and I moved in with some friends – the year when Amma stopped being herself.

Having lived her life on her own terms, I had expected Amma to be my biggest support in that phase. On the other hand, I faced an onslaught of unsolicited advice and fears. Her reactions were exaggerated, conventional and seemed alien to me as her child. I wondered who had she been speaking to; can a person’s identity and beliefs change drastically over time? Is this really my mother? I was coping with an estranged partner and also disbelief at my mother’s radical transformation. Things weren’t easy.

Amma’s phone calls kept increasing in their frequency and her tone was always worried. She would call me when I was in office, at the gym, with friends, and her queries were always regarding my future with my partner. He and I were not planning to move back together, yet we cared for one another, how hard was it for her to understand? Things kept boiling between us for a while, I did not want to hurt Amma, but I couldn’t hide my sense of shock at her extreme reactions. My impatience with her was growing, she was disturbing me, I was feeling stressed after her every call, I was borrowing her anxiety, for the first time in my life, I suddenly felt insecure.  My friends asked me to avoid talking to her so much.

I reduced our interaction; I would only take her calls on weekends and make sure the conversation is short. Seeing her missed calls during the week made me feel nauseous with guilt, but I needed to do this for myself, or this is how I justified it. Every passing weekend, I felt Amma seemed even more anxious than before, her questions ranging from my roommates’ personal lives to my ex’s future plans. Once she asked me invasively about my sex-life, at that point I could just not take it anymore. And I burst out. I do not remember what I said; I just know that I was in great anger and that she fell completely silent. I had hurt her, and hurt my own self. After that she stopped calling me. I cried my heart out, overwhelmed with guilt and anger- frustrated at having lost the mother she was and at my own incapacity to be more responsible towards her growing insecurities. I wish I knew how to deal better. Because I could not find a solution, I started escaping my reality. I also did not call Amma. That year, we did not go for a holiday together, our annual treat. I too did not present the idea; I felt it was better for me to keep distance lest I lash out at her.

It was tough to imagine Amma as this weak person who had allowed me to disrespect her. She had been most loving but also a very strict mother. Raising a child on your own in a society as ours has never been easy, and to run your own organization along with it is even tougher. Amma had several moments of extreme stress when I was growing up, and often she would direct her resentment at me in some form or the other. It wasn’t deliberate, she needed attention, care and love, but all she got was endless nagging, judgement and criticism. However she never broke. She held her head high and taught me to do so. As a child I developed an ocean of empathy for her, I could sense what she was going through, I could ignore her angry remarks and focus on her deep love for me. We were a team. This team was breaking now.

After a phase of discomfort in silence, I began calling Amma on my own. She would always take my call, irrespective of the time. She would tell me about the neighbors, the problems at office, some news of my childhood friends who still lived in the city, but never about her health.  I used to feel restless speaking to her, I wanted those conversations to end sooner to avoid possible confrontations. She regularly asked about my meals and I wonder why it never occurred to me, is she eating properly?

Time flew by, next year I could not offer to go on the trip because I had to finish some work. Amma came over to see me. This time she was weaker, fidgety with her luggage, nervous in the taxi and fell sick on eating ice-cream. She was worried about my life. How long will I live with flatmates? Two of them are already married and have moved out; will I always keep working like this? Is this all that I want?  I was surprised at her questions, isn’t she the one who told me in school that if I do not work hard, I’ll waste my life? That it is better to focus on Math than on boys? So why is it now important for me to forget my priorities and instead hunt for a husband? Amma did not persist much; she would just bring it up feebly, listen to my response, and take deep breaths. I wanted to embrace her and tell her gently that I love her, but I couldn’t, I just told her that her views are not aligned with mine.

The year after that is when Amma called me to ask if we can stay together, and I landed home.

She had become quieter, thinner and would often cough. She refused to take medicines or to reduce her workload. She still washed her own clothes and preferred to not have a cook. I on the other hand had gotten used to a different lifestyle. I liked being in control at home, so did Amma, and this has been her home forever. With Amma, life revolves around her rituals and schedule. Her priorities started becoming mine, and I found myself in constant conflict. I felt stranded in my own house and challenged her authority.

In the past year we have fought over our culinary desires, wardrobe, choice of toothpaste, frequency of oiling hair, desire or lack of desire for a pet, selection of news channel, re-purposing of furniture, watering of plants, and of course my marriage. Every time Amma brought it up, I put up one question- I thought she wanted me to live with her, why is she not letting me do that and asking me to get married? Amma refused to respond.

I had come back with a desire to amend things with Amma. To express and resolve the resentment we had built up in the past and to go back to the relationship we shared, but our dynamics grew worse. Neither did we enjoy anything together nor were we particularly helpful to each other. In fact I stopped seeing Amma as my ageing mother, I stopped being gentle, I could sense a rising insensitivity within me which was alarming yet overpowering. Be it on walks or at dinner I would avoid talking to her, or make calls to friends and ignore her worries. Amma on the other hand refused to let go of this opportunity to influence me, she would quote examples from neighbourhood, and warn me of dire consequences in future. In retrospect I think Amma being the protective mother she has always been wants to ensure that I do not face the hardships she went through, she wants an easier life for me, and she sees matrimony as a solution having witnessed happier marriages of her cousins and extended family. What Amma refused to acknowledge was the fact that I am an adult and responsible for my choices and future, it is no more her duty and she can choose to enjoy this time with me, knowing ourselves better. I had hoped that in all these years Amma’s determination to solve my personal crisis would have mellowed; instead it now haunted us day and night.

Amma also had her new-found misery to deal with. A daughter she had nurtured with much love was now being arrogant, defiant and denying her a role with dignity. Over each cup of tea, we fought. With time we became more hurtful, brought out monsters from the closet and delved in self-pity. To aggravate her further, I forced her to follow a new diet advised by a doctor and suffered paranoia regarding all possible illnesses that could divest her of her vitality. She became irritable and stubborn, and I acted like an impatient parent.

I thought this would go nowhere and was on the verge of giving up. I had started looking for jobs again and wanted to move out. Unable to solve our crisis I wanted to flee. Amma on the other hand chose to go into her shell on learning that I might leave again. I was openly voicing my regret at having moved in with her and she started living with the resentment of not having solved my life’s problems.

It was in order to save our relationship and collective sanity that I decided to take at least a break and went back to stay with my friends. I wasn’t running away, or perhaps I was being a coward. I was seeking refuge to be able to soothe my frayed nerves and find a solution to our daily upheavals.  The first few days were relaxing; I followed all advice- from Yoga class to Green Tea and then evening by the river. I was supposed to find peace and I was ready to embrace it wholeheartedly. Just that it was hidden deep within.

On one of my walks in the park, an elderly gentleman who had been greeting me regularly waved at me. I went up to him. He was warm and welcoming and we struck a conversation around purpose and meaning in life. As if he could read my distress, he remarked, just by meditating in this park here you will not find your answers. I felt annoyed and chose to ignore his advice. I continued to live with my friends and worked from distance.

After a few weeks, I could not resist an overwhelming guilt. I decided that maybe Amma too could benefit from this change. I booked her tickets and invited her to stay with me. We spent a week together wherein we watched theater, used our favorite recipes for cooking, sat in the park and read passages from books we had read together long ago. None of us brought up the topic of marriage. She did not ask me when or if I would come back. I was too scared of my inability to control my reaction and she had been silenced. On this trip I realized that Amma had a flair for cards, and she enjoyed drinking mocktails. My friends took her out for a movie and had a wonderful time with her over coffee. Amma laughed easily, music to my ears, yet I found her to be hiding her hurt.

While leaving, she did not say anything; she just squeezed my palms, hugged me tight and kissed me as she always does. When I saw her walk with the trolley, I noticed she was slower, her shoulders drooped slightly. I held back a fierce wave of tears, and shouted, “Amma! I’ll be back soon!” On my way, I recalled, Amma had been petrified on flying alone earlier, how did she manage this time?

That evening as I sat in the room, I could feel Amma. In all her little things- the box with laddoos, the hand towel, my old comics and new pajamas, she had left behind her essence. She called to let me know she had reached safely, her phone had been off and she forgot to switch it on. She mentioned that a very kind young woman held her hand when the plane took off. She thanked me and my friends for the wonderful time she had, and that she misses me terribly. Before ending the call she shared that after a very long time, she felt as if she was with her friend. I wanted to be that young woman, hold her hand and sleep.

A few mornings later, I sat in the park, anxious if he would be there. The gentleman who had remarked on my search for solutions arrived. I waved at him, he walked towards me beaming with kindness. I apologized to him for having been rude and told him that I am going back to where the problem is, the solution resides there itself. He patted me on my back, smiled and walked away.

I went back to Amma again. She was ecstatic. I had not informed her of my arrival, yet I found that my study room had been re-arranged to suit my needs, my books were back on the shelves, and my wardrobe was left empty for me. I prepared a chart offering to cook one meal every day and we agreed to get a washing machine, two news papers and use separate tooth pastes.

It has been a few months, and it is my birthday today; Amma kept a letter on my table while leaving for work. A hand-written letter, her beautiful cursives reminding me of the time I spent at her office desk, following her words and framing mine. She used to work till evening but would ensure that I come back to her from school, have my lunch and complete homework. Prior to my examinations she would prepare test sheets for me to sit and practice. I do not know when she took out time to manage all of this. Being a single parent is a huge responsibility, and one that comes with endless criticism and scrutiny from those around. She never faltered. I do not remember her ever crying, I just remember that she would smile a little less. And that is why, her smile has always been the most beautiful sight for me.

I read through the simplicity of her words, the depth of her experiences. She expresses why I matter so much to her, some funny memories that she cherishes and how she would like me to have friends over as I used to in my teenage years. She even remembers the bands whose music we would listen to! It is a long letter. She has traced my life from her eyes. She writes that with my permission she would like to invite some people who matter a lot to me- my uncle, my favourite class teacher, friends from school and university, and my cousin  for dinner on the weekend. Then she adds as a separate note that she’ll come home late because she has to go out with our neighbour for some shopping. She requests me to not worry about her medicines and that she would be back by 7. As an afterthought she confides, “I think your neighbour aunty has very good choice. I have seen her bedsheets when she hangs them after a wash. That is why I will go with her to select a new table cloth. It will look good when we invite people for dinner. I know you are busy and you don’t like this market, don’t worry, be happy, we will also be enjoying. ”

I immediately re-read the letter, cried, laughed, and kissed it.

In the past year, I have at times been brutally hurt; I have at times inflicted immense pain. For a while I have battled with my wounds and guilt, and have found myself sinking in quicksand. Amma’s letter instantly pulled me out. In her moment of reflection, she released both of us from roles that had outlived their relevance. Amma has made space for me once again in the house, but more than that, Amma and I have made space for one another in our lives. Our time apart and together has made us realize how complete and capable we are as individuals, yet how important is our bond, and we must relish this in our renewed togetherness.

I’ll go for a haircut and call Amrita aunty. It would be great if she can also join us on the weekend, after all she is Amma’s dearest friend. It is 6:45 pm and knowing Amma, I have left the door open. Adrak Chai is ready, ready to be served in our mugs.

history · museum studies · people · society · travel

“Madam are you from Japan?”

“Madam are you from Japan?”

For a moment I thought he was kidding me, but unfortunately he wasn’t!

Just because I had stepped out of the airport with a friend from Manipur and distinct features, I was perceived to be Japanese by the auto-rickshaw driver in Delhi. I am not from Japan, my ancestors are not from Japan, and I do not have the physique or features that  people use as a lame excuse for nurturing  a simplistic perception of anyone from the North Eastern States of India, with least awareness of the plurality of people . I look Punjabi and even am Punjabi, this was the most incredulous comment ever, and I am still overwhelmed by the sheer ignorance that persists!

I told him I am not, that my friend though from Manipur, lives in Delhi and asked him to drop me in a residential area of Delhi, indicating that I have been to Delhi before and am not the tourist he assumes I am. But this guy was truly persistent. He tried to take me via longer route, he told me how Delhi is a great place, and then to exasperate me further, he actually pointed at India Gate and told me how it is a must watch tourist destination.

When we reached towards my destination and I guided him on the turns, he assumed it is thanks to my mobile phone and maps, and finally before leaving told me how he came this far just because I could have been cheated by other driver folks in the city.

I think somewhere the gentleman mentioned gave me the beginning of an answer to a  question another had asked around 6 months ago, “Why do we need museums?”

Buddy, you need museum to go to the anthropological section and begin to understand that the North Eastern States of India are not Japan, to start being aware, to nurture empathy, not ignorance.

academia · critical theory · critique · design · image identity · india · reading culture · reflections · society · visual culture

A Tourist in My Nation: The Missing Swaraj – Term paper, Gandhi’s Critique of Modernity

This post consists of snippets from a Term Paper written during the module on Gandhi’s Critique of Modernity at the Young India Fellowship 2012-2013. This paper was written under guidance of Prof. Vivek Bhandari.

I used this opportunity to critique with certain faces of culture that i engage with, this is not to undermine or demean any form, event, person whatsoever.

“Rajasthani group Musafir’s promotional packet reads:

classical and mystical musicians, unexpected instruments played by

virtuosos, whirling desert drag queens, devotional and frantic folk

dances, hypnotizing snake charmers, and dangerous fakirs, including

fire eating, balancing acts, sword swallowing, and walking on crushed

glass-a fantastic entertainment! Sufi desert trance music by elegant

gipsy [sic] wizards …. A music of ecstasy, whirlwinded of climaxes

punctuated by thc gentle gesture of a breathtaking tunc. An authentic

magical experience (Maharaja, e-mail promotion, II July 200 I).

The exotic trope extends from India to Europe’s margins as groups from

southern Spain, eastern Europe, and the Balkans are also “orientalized.”

–          Carol Silverman

(Trafficking in the Exotic with”Gypsy” Music:Balkan Roma, Cosmopolitanism,

And “World Music” Festivals)

In the following narrative, I have attempted at exploring Gandhi’s ideas of Swaraj, complete freedom, in the context of enslavement through orientalised imagery, for folk artists from Rajasthan. We visited a Folk Festival in Rajasthan last year in Jodhpur, to live an experience in the dualism that I had begun to take for granted. I now choose to question what I saw and experienced, in the form of fictionalised Diary Notes, which I would have made had I visited the Festival post our acquaintance with Gandhi’s Critique of Modernity. The incidents though true, the reflections have been mostly made in the present and not when these incidents actually occurred.

Even though I chose the context as that of a particular festival, it is not meant to focus on just that or to undermine the good it would cause, but to address the larger question of Swaraj in the domain of culture,especially folk.

My basic framework was composed of theory on Swaraj, Culture, Orientalism and Civil Disobedience apart from Personal Experiences in case of the festival and Puppeteer’s Colony, Delhi.

I have changed the names of the festival, people and colony.

Trust and Trusteeship

Gandhi in Sarvodaya, mentions that the society should regard the welfare of the worst off of the society as its special responsibility. In order to create socially just conditions so that welfare could reach unto the last, Gandhi suggested the moral consideration of Trusteeship which required the voluntary transfer of excess wealth into the Trust by the wealthy to ensure that political freedom and economic freedom go together.

“I am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance”1says Thoreau in his essay on Civil Disobedience. Being a participant in this festival, I tried to find out how exactly the huge amount I pay for the tickets helps the artists. It would go to the Trusts mentioned above who raise money from sponsors each year. The Trustees travel and select participants from amongst a wide spectrum of artists and festivals across Rajasthan, who would then perform at the festival based on qualitative criteria. The idea of judging and rating creative expression always intrigues me. How do we place one above the other, what informs us and how far can one keep one’s own biases? “The pattern whereby

society’s others are recruited from the periphery in order to articulate musically ‘the soul’ of the more settled members” 2  though prevalent globally, demands reflection.

My attempt is not to question the Trust’s motive which appear to be in the favour of folk art and artists, but am attempting at reflecting what could be the consequences of such a festival, based on what I experienced there. Where on one hand this intangible cultural heritage is at the risk of being lost and not surviving in the competition from mainstream, there is also the risk of placing it into a stereotypical romanticized role.

 “In working for his livelihood he ought to have earned not only his daily bread but also his eternal truth.” 3said Tagore. Is the artist’s role to be that of participation for survival and acceptance into the capitalist system eventually, or is there a greater truth which might be missing attention?

Based on an interview, the Mission Statement of the Festival says that when you listen to them perform you are not looking at them as a folk artist but you are looking at them as an artist of some calibre and merit…earlier the folk artist was more of a prop in the larger tourism mindset. There is a sense of accomplishment that “folk has become mainstream” and “Sharing the stage with international artists gives the traditional artists the confidence; an acknowledgement of their talent” 4

In the following diary entries I attempt at reflecting on the following:

This  festival ,following social welfare policies as dictated by concept of Trusteeship, is bound to get the artists recognition for their skill and provide a stage for respect, reinforced self-esteem and  future growth, however is this very concept of recognition and growth “from outside the Imperium”10? For, there is a role to be played by the spectators as well in the authority that gets granted to the folk artist especially a more renowned one.


Day 1: Visit to the Folk Festival: Reflections on the performance at Design School

Having reached Jodhpur last evening, we visited the Folk Festival today. The festival was held in the beautiful fort where one could consume culture in its most exotic and luxurious manifestation.

The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.” 5– Edward Said

The artists dressed in their best and most colourful attire would come up on stage as per their turn, enthral us with a few pre-determined performances and feel obliged to this extended patronage. Z Khan was among the percussionists.

A balladeer and percussionist from Alwar, I have known Z Khan prior to the festival. We had once performed together in a module on inclusivity and collaboration* at my design institute.  Z  Khan, his troupe, and two puppeteers R Ji and C Ji, had come up with a performance along with a group of students. We had the opportunity to witness him in all his grandeur, his spontaneity, his witty lyrics and above all Z Khan as a human being with a history of his own, than merely Z Khan, a part of a representation- an ornamented and controlled performer on stage.

As much as I felt indignant at finding him controlled, subdued and incessantly grateful, it would be a lie if I say that the festival did not make me forget everything for a few moments, or that I wasn’t in awe of the fort’s splendour or that I did not enjoy the experience of sitting comfortably and listening to music under the moon light. Like any other tourist, I hung my camera in my neck lest I spot a picturesque scene to be captured. Having been introduced to a variety of thoughts in the past few weeks, I now wonder if I have adopted a coloniser’s “gaze”, have spectators like us who use the medium of a festival to watch from a well-defined distance denied an artist his/her self-control?

The songs and their lyrics come from different contexts and regions, many of those I did not even understand. As much as I feel that this is at least a way of encouraging (empowering?) the artists to continue with their art forms many of which are indigenous, I cannot help but reflect on the fact that perhaps I reduce something so complex and so embedded in its context to a mere spectacle, that I probably could be alienating the form from the essence. Ultimately we are subjugating the artists to the demands of the audience, to what we believe and imagine and are told (by media, by tourism department, by photographs) to be Rajasthan’s tradition and not what it is. Why does someone from outside need to organize a festival of this large scale for them, why are they not self-reliant or autonomous?

“They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.”Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte but “This reliance on outward help is a symptom of slavishness, for no habit can more easily destroy all reliance on self.” 3 Says Tagore.

But then I wonder how would they survive against the industry without monetary support, without that pedestal? Would we go to their locales and experience that life if we really are so keen on it. Why do we anyway need to experience “their” life, because we assume that “we” are a certain category and “them” the “other”? Perhaps they are still in our mind “natives” representing a certain “past”. I debated in my mind whether this is also because somewhere the artists are enslaved within the structure of the society and have still not moved out of it. Having received patronage from the royalty and the ruling classes in the past, they seem to have still not moved out of that role in the “colonial sociological theatre”

Having been introduced to Gandhi’s and Tagore’s  concept of Swaraj as well as Thoreau’s essay on Civil Disobedience, I wondered whether these upholders of culture will never really attain their Swaraj, whether they will not escape the “social scheme of ant life” which Tagore mentions. Because even if apparently they belong to a free culture, somewhere they still have not attained freedom from inside, freedom in mind, they are still playing the part of the ruled and those that are watched. They are ordered by the system, conditioned to alien ideas of themselves and moulded to suit modernity, to stylization, control and to notions of civilization. “If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man.” says Thoreau, are these performers then themselves? Is this their true nature?

What about realizations and warnings as these:

“To allow the market mechanism to be the sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment . . . would result in the demolition of society”- Polanyi


In such cultural imperialism where a certain form is objectified, transformed and aligned with industrial development to serve the purpose of the coloniser, be it anyone, including I who sat there in the audience, have then artists like Z Khan attained their right, their freedom, and a life of fearlessness? “Strength lies in the absence of fear…So long as we fear our own brethren; we are unfit to reach the goal.” 6 Says Gandhi.

For the convenience of the audience, the language preferred by the host was English though every now and then translations would be done for the artists, a majority of whom do not understand English. Experiencing the vernacular does not extend to its language, to what it actually is saying, to what it really is voicing. Having recently been introduced to the concept of Subaltern voices, I would want to quote Gayatri Spivak: “Can the Subaltern Speak?”  Were these performers really communicating with us, or were they only soothing our senses? Now when I reflect upon things, I have almost always learnt about them from someone from outside. It could be a museum, a documentary, a coffee-table book, research paper, fiction, blog etc. but when did I really hear from them. Apart from the opportunity I had at my institute- which in itself is a paradox, since the institute ultimately had called them to create a spectacle aligned with the institute’s purpose- I have never really interacted with them as they are and in their language.

This took me back to our performance practice, R Ji, one of the puppeteers would make deliberate attempts at speaking in English even though all of us design students (who have been trained to employ empathy, another dualism we thrive in) tried to convince him that he should talk to us in a language he is comfortable in. However the use of the English language is because that helps him attract the audience that is bound to pay him more. Having identified the weakness of his spectators and the prevailing trends, rather than feeling victimised by those he chooses to caricaturize himself to his benefit. He knows that speaking in English every now and then makes his performance more amiable and tickles the audience. He smartly named two of his puppets as Romeo and Julio, much to the delight of his audience.

R Ji also expressed his desire to learn the English Language because he felt that without it literacy is incomplete, he wants to read beyond that available in his mother tongue. He wants to be able to teach his children to speak and read in English, for their better future. His thought resonates with the apparent colonisation by the English Language. One comes across various Langauge training institutes along with personality development so as to “develop” the natives and make them fit into the system, increase their worth. But Gandhi warns us that we must not make of it a fetish. In its place it can be of use and it has its place when we have brought our senses under subjection and put our ethics on a firm foundation.” 6

In Gujarat, where I was studying at that time, there seemed to be a very distinct focus on the language than on literacy itself. I vividly remember a hoarding where cheap Corel Draw effects were used to depict how the word “Gujarati” written in its script would turn graphically into the word “English” written in English, where Gujarati was at the base and English on top. I find it to be saying a lot more than any other advertisements I have seen or posters stuck on walls. The English have not taken India; we have given it to them. They are not in India because of their strength but because we keep them.” 6 I somewhere agree with Gandhi.

These thoughts crossed my mind as I strained my neck to catch the last glimpse of Z Khan. I looked around at the audience, belonging to the elite class; they sat in royal postures while nodding their heads to the music in a patronizing fashion.

This was followed by a guest performance, a Spanish troupe- for the festival authorities want to take it beyond Rajasthan and invite troupes from different countries. This falls in line with the global trend of world music festivals. However some amongst the audience did not seem too pleased with this intrusion in the aura of “authentic” Rajasthani Folk, a concept that Silverman questions in her research on Romani music and world festivals. She wonders as to why we look for that authenticity which is bound to cause the musicians to be static in time. This was similar to an unexpressed resentment amongst us students when we realized during our performance that R Ji and C Ji’s style was not as folk, mostly it was a much more simplistic version inspired from populist cinema. Where Z Khan stood for exclusivity and almost rejection of any external influence on his art form, R Ji did not hesitate in being more inclusive. However both of them chose to comment on the society and system through the agency they could exert through their art.

Last evening, there had been an opening ceremony in the Old City of Jodhpur. As it was aimed at a much wider audience, many of the performances seemed more inspired from popular modes of entertainment in the urban setting than folk. Amidst tight security, these were performances open to all, but was it really so? The local residents climbed on to the terraces and sat on the walls to watch, as the space below was occupied by those who wore the attitude of official visitors. This dualism was similar to the one we faced in our performance. Our narrative was a plea against the demolition of a market in Ahmedabad due to a development project, as it would cause great loss of livelihood to those in the informal sector. The irony was that this message was performed within the confines of an institute and its guests, most of who, apart from representatives from the market, would be benefited apparently with that project. As Ashis Nandy would say, all of this seems to be “double entendre; it is as much a part of the oppressive structure as in league with victims.” 7

* It was fairly easy for us to be sitting in an institute and have debates over how we should be inclusive as a society and the relevance of Creative Commons and Open Source. This is where the paradox lies. I know for certain, that I would not want all my work to go into creative commons and somewhere at some point I must have definitely been inspired by some form of art or the other which could be some community’s common form of expression.We rarely find people arguing against themselves.” – Gandhi

Day 2 : A trip to the Tourist Spots

We visited an ancient temple today. Though we do not prefer using itineraries, the receptionist convinced my fellow travellers to visit some of the tourist destinations highlighted in a brochure at his desk. Without questioning the criteria of selecting these particular destinations over others, we also looked at them as products to be consumed. These landmarks and tourist spots are communicated of in the “voice of colonial modernity” 7 and are then expected to live up to that image and words associated with it: “Experience the Real Rajasthan, the Land of the Maharajas”, “Sunset in the Desert” etc. and an air-conditioned taxi would come to pick you up for the same, establishing our role as the esteemed spectators from outside visiting for an experience of the exotic.

At the parking lot, I saw a jeep filled with pilgrims, all dressed in their local attire, looking bright, colourful and picturesque. My immediate impulse was to capture them in a photograph which would then float along with the many such renderings we often come across of Rajasthan and its people; for I would carefully select my frame to not include the mobile recharge stall and the bus next to them. I would produce it as an isolated ‘object’ of study, stamped with an otherness.” 8 We often ourselves confuse our nationalism (Incredible India) or patriotism with Orientalism. Had I clicked that photograph, my colleagues in my Design School would have admired it for its aesthetics, for a much celebrated naive sense of traditionalism we tend to attach to such exclusive characterizations of ethnicity. Had I included the mobile recharge stall, we would have called it a montage of the old with the new. In either case the image would lose its original independent meaning and would adopt a narrative we see befitting in our reproduction of the same, one that would “glorify the present system and its priorities” 8. If I use them in an article, I would give a caption to entrap it in my interpretation. It would become a part of a larger discourse and not retain its individuality. It would be subject to my way of seeing, just like the artists, just like the sites I would visit.

While I was contemplating on the possible consequences of this action, another tourist went ahead with her DSLR and clicked multiple images in succession, lest she missed the shot. A visitor to the oriental India, she would share this romanticized version of “the other” on her return, aligning with a colonial discourse “based on the distinction between the ‘the East’ and ‘the West’”, ‘objectifying’ the subject of her interest as “contained and represented by   dominating frameworks.” 8

I moved further down the road and came across a Police superintendent who introduced himself to me in broken English and wished to acquire my name and country of origin. I told him I am from Meerut in Uttar Pradesh, he seemed to be amused and not much convinced. I do not know whether it was my attire, my expensive camera or more fluency in my English than his, which made him automatically raise me to a higher pedestal. His unjust treatment of his own self, reminded me of Gandhi’s “fears of inadequacy” and “perceptions of white superiority” 9, in this case perceptions of the superiority of English Language. I was perplexed by his treatment of himself as a subject and recalled Thoreau’s statement. “We should be men first and subjects afterward.” 1This Superintendent who with pride spoke of his position of authority, is he really a free man?  Isn’t he in his mind still occupying the role of the colonized; the role of the native? Perhaps for that brief interaction he did lose his “sense of identity, lost touch with himself ” 9as Malcolm mentions in his autobiography.

I thought that since that region must be flocked by visitors, “emulation” 9 must have gotten normalized. Perhaps that was an exemplification of his attempt at establishing self-esteem. as in the initial phases of Gandhi’s and Malcolm’s struggle for Swaraj.  Maybe the social norms had caused him to “become inwardly small” and hence “be belittled by others” not due to exertion of power by others, but as Tagore says, by being “ humbly conscious of their dwarfed humanity” 3

<<Visit to Temple. Purchase of Churan . Walk back>>

A boy who was sitting next to a goat (another photographic imagery) waved at me and asked ‘What your name?” “Poornima”, I replied. “Poornima! Poornima! Poornima!…” I could hear him chanting my name as I hurried to catch up with the rest.

From the temple we were to tour Sand Dunes. We had been informed by the driver who was also a guide, that there were sand dunes in close proximity and a must watch for anyone who visits that side. The driver dropped us at an entrance fashioned like that of a fort behind which were luxury tents. One often comes across such artificially created manifestations of a cultural identity, or what Tagore would have called “external conformities” 3, to recreate a certain experience, but rather than a restoration to an identity of self, I find these to be in adherence to the image granted upon us by those we consider superior, or those whom we want to attract to visit us in the first place. Rather than a symbol of pride or self reclamation, I find these to be signifying our captivity into certain stereotypes of ourselves. Rather than a “Recovery of self” this seems in alliance with the “Intimate Enemy”8 of Ashis Nandy’s interpretation.

A German shepherd expressed surprise at our presence. There seemed to be no one, and definitely not the sand dunes. I entered a hall which had huge framed photographs of the Maharaja, Maharani and the Prince in his Polo attire. These photographs though not completely exclusive or rejecting western influence, were to create an ambience of luxury. This framed luxury served as a reminder of the different roles we occupy in between the polarity of exploiter and exploited.

After exploring the place I ventured inside the hall adjacent to the entrance and reached a kitchen. The man greeted me with enthusiasm and told us that a camel ride is the only option to reach the dunes. The cost for every ride was very high and negotiable at the same time. I secretly wished to head back but much to my dismay the group decided to rent a camel cart.

Once the cart arrived, we left for the sand dunes. Rather than being greeted with the fantasised images of our assumptions, we travelled through cotton fields, met cows and children on the way, who laughed at our vanity of not choosing to walk like them. (We had thought that we would be moving through sand, not a kuccha road.) Finally we did arrive, to climb a mound of sand and watch the sun go down.  I could not come to terms with this reality of tourism and us as tourists. I could not believe that in our sedation with the ideas of authentic and images not located in time or space, we had lost our good sense, or else how could one expect to reach sand dunes in such close proximity anyway? I felt deeply embarrassed at my mystified perspective. Also I experienced for a change not just watching someone or something, but also being watched. I was as much a spectacle for the children on the way, as their local environment was a remote site for me. It is not just the others I have been meeting are to be freed of their psychology of subjugation, but also I who needs to be freed of this psychology of the colonizer.

Day 3 (Part 1) : Shopping and traditional attire

We went for shopping in the day time and tried our level best to hunt for a pair of Jootis, local footwear that would fit into my large feet. The shopkeepers advised me to either give up or to reduce the size of my feet. I decided to visit the National Handloom Centre.

Whenever, we, people belonging to the Middle Class or higher, visit such spaces, we feel that we are participating in a progressive and constructive way of supporting the traditional livelihoods of others.  British activist Jake Bowers notes that, “Multiculturalism is fine and dandy when it is at an acceptable distance”2(Patrin Listserve, 27 May2000). My choice of that particular place was this expectation that certain selected items would definitely be there. Seeing a pair of Levi’s jeans at National Handloom will be a cause of surprise for me, but it wouldn’t be so at a mall nearby. I fear that I might be exemplifying Gandhi’s fears of our versions of civilization, where we choose to see different nations. I chose to see different Jodhpurs, or the same Jodhpur differently, in separate segments.

However at that particular moment the most dominating criteria was to find footwear in my size, than could be worn along with the few traditional attires I own for occasional wear. The thought of not wearing those clothes everyday is more utilitarian than anything else; however the occasions when I do wear them have an air of pseudo cultural interpretations. My deliberate stance on traditional attire on those certain occasions speaks more of “new secular hierarchies, which have reduced major civilizations to the status of a set of empty rituals.” 7


Back at the institute, we would celebrate “Cultural Day”. On this day, all students dress up in clothes specific to their region and culture, and the entire student body gets itself photographed. This is followed by a cultural program which displays diversity and then dinner. Do we reclaim our identities, or we reduce them to symbols? More than that, why do we need a specific “Cultural Day” to experience our “Culture”? Whose culture is this, my culture as one enslaved, or the culture of the enslaved adopted by me in mere tokenism? What I wear on a daily routine, is it not my culture?


Reflections Post Festival


While returning from the Festival today, I wondered how wide spread could be the impact of such a festival. Yes, some of the artists do get to perform in international festivals, some get recognised in talent hunt shows, but how sustainable is that impact? Would it have changed general public’s attitude towards them? Would it change the State’s attitude, get them recognition beyond awards and more in the form of aid for livelihood and healthy living? How much of an impact would it have on them as citizens in a democracy, in their day-to-day interactions and strife for survival?

I begin with the ones I have most closely interacted with, also them being direct beneficiaries of such events and festivals. I found their behaviours often conflicting. 

Z Khan could throw tantrums (along with his instrument) if students would not follow his instructions, and would with great pride flaunt his ipod (that he could not use despite our attempts at teaching him to do so), but Z Khan was obviously dependent on the faculty who invited him, for his troupe’s food and stay, and hence his will was subordinate to hers.  This does not amount to true spiritual freedom, this increases reliance on external parties to recognise them through their skill. Z Khan’s sweet demeanour is not his humility, but a mask he cannot do without in front of his- at the cost of sounding extreme- masters.

On the eve of our performance, dinner was organized in the lawns. I saw C Ji and R Ji sitting quietly in the corner, squatting on the ground. There were empty chairs to be occupied, but they did not even look at those, those were mentally beyond their reach. No one in our campus would have raised an eyelid if they would sit on them, but what surprised me more was that no one offered them to not sit on the ground and occupy seats either. This, when we had just performed as part of a module called “Inclusive Growth”. When they politely declined my request, I also sat down next to them. In the then gathering of more than a hundred people, only one more student joined us. I ask, aware that I would sound child like, but had it been Shubha Mudgal or Adele, sitting on the ground, will almost all hundred not have joined? Is folk mainstream? Have they achieved the same status as the festivals proclaim? Have the remaining hundred people or so, been freed from a colonial mindset? I doubt if any one of us can ever say as Thoreau did in prison :“I did not for a moment feel confined.”1

 R Ji and C Ji returned to their hometown in a bus which left not from the station close by, but one that was much farther off. They did not have the courage to speak of this inconvenience caused by the administration department who booked their tickets. When I got to know of this, I spoke to them and expressed my embarrassment as well as anger at them for not having demanded what they deserved, for not having put their foot down, I was hurt, I was naive, I wondered have they no sense of control? 

Where entrepreneurial skill is alien to Z Khan- he cannot start a festival of his own, more than doing it, he would not even dream of doing so, having surrendered somewhere in his mind- R Ji is more of an opportunist than him. Considering the fact that the institute hosted international students, he set up a puppet stall and sold his puppets at a good price. However the stall could not be put up without the permission and aid of the institute itself. Just because the artists have traditionally been rooted in these structures, is it fair for that belief to continue? According to John Ruskin, whose thoughts influenced Gandhi, the insistence of political economy on its separation from moral questions, is the cause for the lack of social wealth generation.

The festival was limited to Rajasthan and our performance to an institute in Gujrat, but Rajasthani folk arts are not limited by geographical boundaries. I attempt here at reflecting upon a different set of folk artists, who migrated from Rajasthan to New Delhi around 70 years ago. These are the residents of a Puppeteer’s Colony in Delhi.

“And therefore while we keep our wells reserved for the cleaner sect, we allow our ponds to get polluted, the ditches round our houses to harbour messengers of death.”3: Tagore

In the light of the existence of such Festivals and renderings of the Rajasthani Folk Art and Artists, how do I look at the struggle of these artists in another space and context?

This colony initially comprised of puppeteers who had migrated from Rajasthan due to lack of patronage in their homeland and increasing competition from entertainment through cinema and other gadgets. As John Ruskin would have opined, industrial capitalism might lead to riches economically but contradictorily it causes impoverishment. Impoverishment results in increased migration to other cities in search of livelihood, and the puppeteers were joined by artists from other states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar over time. The colony now comprises of 12 sects including balladeers, magicians, acrobats, drummers and dancers, population estimates varying from 3000-6000 people.

The land on which they reside was uninhabited and having not been recognized as lawful citizens of the city, they constructed their houses on their own and lived for a long period without basic facilities of water, electricity, sanitation, education or options for alternative livelihood. There is a presence of a Trust, which apparently is not very functional any more apart from the school being run.

Today the colony is a slum which over time has acquired a unique identity due to the niche of its residents. Apart from party (customers), the colony is frequented by students of art, photography, amateur documentary filmmakers, lifestyle journalists and inquisitive researchers. A recent phenomenon though is the advent of “Slum Tourism” highlighting this one for an “Artist’s Slum’s Tour” addressing mostly visitors from Europe. These are what Kurin would term as “cultural brokers.” 2

On visiting the colony I am often greeted by two different attempts at reclamation of themselves. One is through preservation of  their local art and lifestyle, second is through emulation. When one enters the school, set up by the Trust, one meets young men with long hair (colored streaks) and piercings, interested in B-Boeing and choreography than puppetry or drumming. This however is not caused as much by not respecting their form of art, but due to frustration at not being able to sustain. The artists gets work erratically for six months in a year during season, and are idle for the rest of the time. They generally do not have any savings and live for the present. Many among these are internationally renowned, they perform in cultural functions organized by government bodies, but the reality is beyond the image.

Even more threatening is the fact that they might lose this land, have their homes demolished, and get scattered. Their land has been sold by the government to developers so that this could be the site for Delhi’s first skyscraper. Gandhi and Tagore would have both denounced such private interest at the cost of public good; however the slum dwellers have only the option to either accept rehabilitation or fight it out. One of the puppeteers’ wife, who spoke to me on one such visit, said that they were not going to fear anyone but God and are going to not step out of this land. It is not just shelter, but identity for them now. The State however has its means. Often the slum dwellers are picked up by the police on trivial grounds, especially because the men in the colony are infamous for drinking habits- A reason why the skyscraper residents would not want them to be anywhere around their enclave.

Though they have been spoken about in the newspapers and documentaries, also Sulman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, they are yet to be heard. They lack their own voice and are dependent on third parties for solving conflicts among themselves. Secondly their economic desperation has caused them to be subservient and complying in most cases. If one looks at any of the visiting cards, one sees Minnie mouse, door welcome girl, tribal dance, pop corn machine among other facilities offered for birthday and other parties to the elite in Delhi. A far cry from the oriental identity which gets people to them in the first place. Even crumbs from a table are better than

nothing at all in a time of starvation (Patrin Listserve, 25 May 2000). 2

They explain that no one is interested in their age old stories and people want the latest, hence they are ready to adopt. This reminds me of the sacrifice Tagore mentions and how I would not even dare to attach the term “dignity” to this. How do we even expect Swaraj in a situation so complex, where it is not just the “tyranny of India rule” through political, economic and social discrimination which surrounds a people, but their internal class based disputes and variations as well? There are many romanticized stories about the unity and harmony they live in, but mostly fiction. This is not to suggest that they are subjects of pity, but they definitely demand attention and empowerment through means that get them self reliant. They seem to have “lost power to combat all aggression and exploitation.” And are in a“state of abject passivity”. 3

Some of the youngsters propose an alternative. Having been personally affected by gimmicks such as these : “such marketing reinforced the belief that the Gypsies were freshly imported, authentic exotics”2, they ask to rebuild and redesign their space as a cultural colony.  Having gauged the “Intimate Enemy” closely, they are certain that people would flock in large numbers to experience the tradition, the benefit of which could be shared by the developer and Government. “This would also take Delhi closer to the image of Paris they want” says one young puppeteer in a matter-of-fact tone. This would take Delhi closer to its “Englistan” and temporary salvation to the residents. Some of them have indeed come out of their dormancy, and have started their own groups or organized others as brokers, but it is a tiny fraction of them. Having participated in many a festivals, having retained and many a times self-propagated their identity as preservers of the folk, their reality right now is that of people fighting for their most fundamental rights under the Indian Rule, people fighting for both political and spiritual Swaraj, some of them exhibiting fearlessness, some frustration and some fear. They await leadership from amidst themselves.


“My patriotism does not teach me that I am to allow people to be crushed under the heel of Indian princes if only the English retire… This is not the Swaraj that I want.” 5Gandhi would have expressed his disapproval.




Works Cited


  1. Henri David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience
  2. Carol Silverman, Trafficking in the Exotic with”Gypsy” Music:Balkan Roma, Cosmopolitanism, And “World Music” Festivals
  3. Rabindranath Tagore, Cult of the Charkha
  5. Edward Said, Orientalism
  6. M.K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj
  7.  Ashis, Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism
  8. Partha Chatterjee, ‘Gandhi and the Critique of Civil Society’, in Ranajit Guha (ed.), Subaltern Studies III (New Delhi 1984)
  9. Dennis Dalton, Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Power in Action
  10. Ashis Nandy, ‘From Outside the Imperium: Gandhi’s Cultural Critique of the “West”, Alternatives, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1981


history · image identity · india · kahaniyan · meerut · narratives · people · projects · reflections · society

Meerut Post 2: Meerut Ki kainchiyan! (Scissors)

If you haven’t used a scissor made in Meerut, you have missed out on an excellent cutting experience my friend.

Its only when I moved out of Meerut for my Graduation, that I learnt of Meerut’s Scissors.

I gifted one to a friend who used it for preparing garments, and he was pleasantly surprised with the tool’s efficiency. That made me wonder, how much I took our amazing Kainchis for granted.
In fact my mother had been gifted a large beautiful scissor by her patient, with her name tastefully etched on it, it has been our companion for years. They are the most long lasting scissors ever.

The smoothness of their functioning is literally orgasmic. Trust me, I have been in Design Schools, and have used many scissors, but the ones from Meerut, you can never forget the exhilaration of that perfect sharpness, that deft movement, that sound (khich, khach) which is almost music to my ears.

Just in case, you ain’t aware, Meerut’s Scissors may get Geographical Indication Mark :

To express my gratitude and love for the craftsmen and their wonderful creation, scissors:


kainchiyan meerut ki _poornima sardana
kainchiyan meerut ki _poornima sardana


Kainchiyan meerut Ki_ night_ aise koolness ho gayi_ poornima sardana
Kainchiyan meerut Ki_ night_ aise koolness ho gayi_ poornima sardana


Ok yes, i took some liberty and let aesthetics go for a toss 😉


Shall be posting more on this, pretty soon!


history · meerut · narratives · people · personal narratives · projects · reading culture · society

Meerut: Post 1: Bakri Mohalla

I was born and brought up in Meerut. But to be really honest, I don’t think I ever lived as a part of Meerut, I never tried to connect with my city, never tried to learn of its history or be a part of its future.

I feel that this apathy that many like me live with is also one of the reasons that the place deteriorates and its stories are lost unheard.

I now have decided to slowly begin to listen to those stories, to document them. For what, you ask.

Well, for nostalgia a bit, but more so for reclaiming the space, reclaiming my role in its larger narrative and for others who have lived as disconnected and sans  sense of belonging as I did.

I begin with nostalgia though.

We used to go to study in a tuition centre called Auora Classes. Vinod Sir is one of the most interesting and passionate Physics teachers you would ever come across. Now this centre was in a locality known as the Bakri Mohalla, and the one question I guess each one of us must have joked about, is , Yeh bakriyan buffalos kaise ban gayin? So the place was a hub for buffalos and scooties belonging to students. What I wonder now is why did we never try to find out what got this place its name?

So thats my next agenda.

In the meantime enjoy this quick piece made in the honour of Bakri Mohalla!

Bakri Mohalla: artwork: Poornima Sardana
Bakri Mohalla: artwork: Poornima Sardana

In case you are confused:

Bakri- Goat

Bhains- Buffalo

These are buffalos made here because the colony though named after goats was visually a buffalo haven