The Diary of Manu Gandhi and the Meaning of Consent

Abha Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi and Manu Gandhi (from L to R)

A few weeks ago, I found a copy of The Diary of Manu Gandhi (1943-1944) on a pile of second hand books that were being sold for ₹100 a piece. The title caught my attention. Manu Gandhi has one of the most recognizable faces in Indian history, seen always beside Gandhi during his later years. She was by his side when Nathuram Godse stepped before them and shot Gandhi in the chest. 

I have to admit that I was even more interested in the diary because I knew Manu Gandhi as being the young girl who was one of the subjects of Gandhi’s infamous Brahmacharya experiments. I first heard of his experiments with celibacy from a cocky white kid at a college party. I hadn’t believed him –  “That’s not true!” I had said more shrilly than was seemly. “You should read your own history,” he had replied with a smug grin that I felt like swiping at. That night a quick search on Ask Jeeves (in a time before Wikipedia and Google) had promptly told me that he was right. Gandhi did have his young female disciples sleep in the nude with him to check if he had gone beyond sexual temptation. I looked it up at the library the next day and then proceeded to avoid the boy for the rest of the quarter.

In 1946, India was in flames – communal violence was shredding our cities and countryside. Gandhi was tired and rapidly losing perspective. He had lost his wife and several confidants; he was losing his importance in the party; and his fasts were not nearly as effective as they once were. He began to believe that the violence and chaos in the world around him were a reflection of the violence within him and so he decided to focus inwards – to clean up, so to speak. And so he returned to one of his favourite topics – purity through celibacy. He wanted to check if he could master his impulses and desire in the face of temptation. He asked Manu if she would share his bed in the nude.

Manu was in her late teens at the time. He was in his 70s. She had been a devoted server for 3 or 4 years at that point, and he, in turn, was a parental figure – he educated her, cared for her health and well being, and guided her in all matters. When he explained his experiment and his intentions, she gave her consent because she was full of faith and devotion towards him. He was Bapu, but after Kasturba’s death, he was also like a mother, she wrote. He could do no wrong in her eyes.

The people around Gandhi, however, did not share her complete faith in the Mahatma. His stenographer and translator resigned after failing to convince him that this was a bad idea. Patel and other close confidants all tried to convince Gandhi to stop but instead he turned to others whom he hoped would understand him. Eventually, Manu withdrew consent, yielding to the advice of others. She spoke to Gandhi, explaining that she fully understood his motivations and was one with him, but their short yagna had been a success and that they did not need to continue further. With her consent withdrawn, Gandhi stopped.

I was in my early twenties, just a little older than Manu Gandhi had been at the time, as I was finding out about this. I could not understand her one bit. How could she accept Gandhi’s belief that the violence in India was caused by his personal imperfections -was he the centre of the universe? Was her devotion admirable or foolish? Was her consent real or manipulated? Was she capable of thinking for herself or had she completely surrendered her identity?

Close to two decades later, I was walking home with Manu’s diary in my cloth bag. I was hoping to get some answers.

Diary Writing for Homework

Newspaper headlines on August 9, 1942

Her diary begins in 1943. She makes no mention of World War II that was raging across the European and Pacific theatres. On August 9, 1942, Gandhi and his inner circle had been arrested at dawn and were sent to Aga Khan Palace, Pune. Gandhi and other leaders of the Congress had launched the Quit India movement on the day before, rejecting dominion status as offered through the Scripps Commission. Hundreds of other freedom fighters were also sent off to prison during this time.

Manu Gandhi, Gandhi’s grand niece, had been called to serve and nurse Kasturba after the latter had suffered of a severe heart attack in 1943. She joined Sushila Nayyar, Pyarelal Nayyar, Mira ben and Gandhi in the drafty palatial bungalow. She was young (only 14 or 15), earnest and eager to be of service.

Having studied only till Class 5, Manu Gandhi began getting homeschooled whenever she was free from her chores. The diary had began as homework. Tridip Suhrud, the translator, noted that “the Gujarati diary is written in a hand that is yet to be formed… The diary itself is a part of her education with M.K. Gandhi”.

Reading it, you absolutely get the sense that this is being written by an adolescent who doesn’t really want to do her assignment. She is just listing off time tables and how she spent each block of time. 

However, Manu’s writing evolved quickly. She abandoned listing of her various activities and began to write fuller paragraphs giving us a window into Gandhi’s private life. Unlike another more famous teenage diarist, Anne Frank, Manu’s diary entries are more basic. She writes matter of factly about ashram routines and chores she performs, the petty fights and misunderstandings she has with others in the entourage, their various visitors, and Kasturba’s deteriorating health. 

Manu’s diary also revealed the private Gandhi to me and her own feelings towards him. I had read of Gandhi as a public figure but through the diary, Gandhi slowly moved from a vague outline of a figure to one more filled in with colour.

Impressions of Gandhi through the Diary

In her diary, Manu writes of Gandhi and Kasturba through a thick veil of devotion and a form of territorial love. Manu’s entire sense of wellbeing seemed dependent on Gandhi and Kasturba’s approval. When Kasturba or Gandhi were even mildly disapproving, she was distraught, breaking down crying or brooding all day and needing to be reassured by multiple people, including Gandhi himself.

Gandhi was to Manu like Jungkook (from BTS) is to a teenage ARMY girl . Gandhi and Jungkook might not have much in common yet Manu and an obsessed ARMY member might have the same extreme emotional responses to anything their idols said to them. What is notable is that Gandhi (and I suppose members of the BTS) was not only aware of this kind of obsessive devotion, he accepted it very naturally. He was happy with it and responded with a generous form of attention – attending to her studies, guiding her on health, listening to her worries and offering feedback. He might have been a very busy man, but Manu’s diary gave the impression that he made time for her.

Manu, of course, was not the only one so devoted to Gandhi. He was surrounded by others who all competed for his attention and approval. Through Manu’s writings, it dawned on me that Gandhi also seemed to view himself as a Mahatma – a great soul. There are several subtle moments throughout her diary when Gandhi seemed to think such kind of devotion not just natural but also justified. One significant one is an is an entry about Mahadev Desai’s sudden passing in August 1942.

Gandhi and his secretary and confidant Mahadev Desai (from MKGandhi.org)

On August 15, 1942, shortly after their arrival at Aga Khan Palace, Mahadev Desai simply collapsed. Sushila Nayyar who could not find Desai’s pulse, called to Gandhi – “Bapu, Mahadevbhai is dying, come soon!” Gandhi replied, “Mahadev cannot die. He has to write my biography.” 

Bapu later told Manu “Mahadev desired to die in my arms and he also wanted to write my biography. God heard his first prayer.”

What impact does being on the receiving end of such an extreme form of love and devotion have on a person? Was his manner of accepting such devotion a form of hubris or just a matter of fact acceptance of fate?

I do not know the answer to this, but I think some of the petulance that we see later in Gandhi (my favorite example being his irritation that his Charkha was being replaced by the Ashoka Chakra on the Indian flag) might have been a result of this constant adulation he was surrounded by. He was so used to being obeyed as the Mahatma by those in his inner circle that it must have been frustrating to face opposition from those in the wider world. By the time of independence, although he was still being called the Mahatma and was credited with being the Father of the Nation, no one was asking for his blessings or permissions as much. Nehru and Patel were moving on to the real hard work of building a nation while Gandhi took to travelling, hosting prayer meetings,  fasting and struggling to make sense of the chaos. He had to cope with all of this without Kasturba’s balancing influence.

Impressions of Kasturba

Kasturba in 1915 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

While Gandhi was always more human than Mahatma to me, Kasturba had quietly become a tragic Sita-like figure in my imagination – a woman who was drawn into all kinds of problems by her husband. When Kasturba married the scrawny 13 year old Gandhi, there had been know way for her to know that he was going to grow into a Mahatma to millions. Unlinke Ram, he wasn’t breaking Shiva’s indestructible bow at a Swayamvara – teenage Gandhi was way less cool and heroic. 

In the beginning, I had thought that Gandhi and Kasturba shared a rather distant relationship – that as his political career rose, she fell into the background. This wasn’t true and it is clear in both Manu’s diary and other readings that Kasturba and Gandhi shared a unique bond. 

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, while in Sevagram in the early 1940s, was surprised by how strongly Kasturba made her presence felt in the ashram. She also quickly realised that the husband and wife were not nearly as extraordinary as she had imagined.. She wrote that “It was a pleasant sight to see them busy together, an intimacy that is woven like a web, intricate yet simple, delicate but strong… the nights were truly romantic. Though they were out of my sight, they were within easy hearing… their words came in distinctly though I had no desire to eavesdrop. I knew she was gently rubbing his feet. I was not sure whether she did it for her own comfort or his… she was recounting to him some of the events of the day to which he made some replies. The nights were their own, they were simple husband and wife like any other couple in the world.”

Gandhi and Kasturba (Source: Deccan Herald)

Manu Gandhi’s diary entries reflect a similar observation of shared intimacy between husband and wife. She was devoted to him, yes, but not in the blind manner of Manu. She was vocal about her own thoughts and lost her temper with him like any ordinary wife would. She knew the man before the Mahatma and while she might have come to share his political vision, she maintained her own independent sense of self. As Chattopadhyay notes, “Basically she believed in his objectives, though she could not accept all of his convolutions… they had had sharp differences.”

I was most moved by Manu’s simple telling of Kasturba’s last days. Kasturba was suffering of a heart condition and breathing difficulties that made it very painful and uncomfortable. Manu had moved into Aga Khan Palace voluntarily in 1943, to nurse Kasturba after she had suffered a severe heart attack. 

On the morning of her death, Kasturba was praying for the end to come sooner. “Hey Ram!” she cried, “Take me away. During this life time, I have toiled away for everyone. I cooked and fed all. But I have nothing for you. I was engrossed in Bapuji. Hey Rama! Cleanse my sins. I will commit no more sins,” 

Unlike Mahadev or others who equated Gandhi with Ram himself, Kasturba seemed to feel sorry that she hadn’t given more of herself to God. It sounded almost like regret – “I had toiled away for every one… but I have nothing for you.” How many women around the world have suffered the same thoughts at the end of their lives?

Manu described Kasturba’s final moments as follows:

“Bapu was about to set out for a walk. Ba was in Bhai’s lap; she had trouble breathing. Suddenly she spoke up, “Bapu!” Bapu was called in, he took Ba in his lap and asked, “What is happening to you?” Ba replied, “I do not know, something is happening.” Her words were tragic and sad. Her eyes seem to roll up. Everyone began to chant the ‘Rama dhun’.. Bapu closed his eyes and placed his forehead on hers as if he were blessing her. They had spent their lives together, now he was seeking final forgiveness and bidding her farewell. The scene was heart-wrenching and tragic. Her pulse stopped and she breathed her last. All the unbearable pain ceased.”

Like Kamaladevi observed earlier, Kasturba and Gandhi were just an ordinary couple. Her final call to Bapu was not one of a devotee calling to her lord. She was frightened and she called her husband to give her comfort, which he tried to do by bending down over her and pressing his forehead to hers.

Is Kasturba a tragic figure as Manu sees her? Kasturba haunted my thoughts for days after I finished the book. Should a life be judged by the quality of its ending? During her life Kasturba had been strong and resilient. She had been a real partner. In the end, she had withered away, like a plant that has had its day in the sun.

Women and Gandhi

Kasturba and Manu both managed to get under my skin, as I read this book. I turned into a thin skinned super feminist after the Diary. It is funny how these women around Gandhi seem to form perfect case studies for a Gender Studies class in a university somewhere.

History says Kasturba had the option to not join Gandhi on all his endeavours. He did not force her to join him and gave her the option to opt out. But is this true? Did she really have a choice? She had 4 sons and her jewels were sold by her husband to finance his ideas. Where could she have gone ? What would happen to the woman who abandoned Gandhi (because that is how she would have been remembered if she really had forged ahead without him)?

And what of Manu, Abha and Sushila – Gandhi’s young female entourage who had agreed to be part of his experiments with celibacy? Who is to judge whether their consent is real or influenced by the utter imbalance in their relationship with Gandhi? If I had accosted Manu in 1946 and explained to her that perhaps she didn’t really know that her consent was manipulated by Gandhi’s immense power over her, she might have flown at me in a rage of denial. No one likes to be told that they don’t know what they mean.

Regardless, Manu is unlikely to have joined the #metoo movement. She remained devoted the Gandhi till the very end, when she died at just 40. Morarji Desai, who visited her at the hospital, wrote to Nehru, saying “Manu’s problem is more psychological than physiological. She appears to have despaired for life and developed an allergy to all kinds of medicines.” Her diaries predict such an end because the Gandhis had been her entire world. Without them, it is easy to imagine that she knew nothing else. 

In the end, when I finished with the Diary, I was left with more questions than answers about consent.

Consent is more complicated than “You said yes”, but even more complicated is our judgment of it. I personally do not think Manu gave her real consent when Gandhi asked her to participate in his experiments  but I bet you Manu did. She wanted Gandhi’s favour and attention because he was the centre of her universe. And no matter what her motivation, shouldn’t her consent be accepted and respected? In that case, if she gave her consent, were his experiments acceptable? That doesn’t sit well with me.

Similarly, Kasturba might have consented to living the life of a political activist and consort to a saint, but was it real consent or just resignation? Is resignation consent?

I think we should really think about this as parents, spouses, members of society and citizens of a democracy. How often do we really give people in our lives and communities the option to say no. And does that matter? I think it does.  

Reference:

What is Constitution Day (Samvidhan Divas) And Why it Should be Celebrated

Constitution Day is a rather recent addition to our calendar. 26 November used to be called National Law Day and it was mostly forgotten. But in 2015, the National Law Day was declared Constitution Day (or Samvidhan Divas). It gives me an excuse to delve into one of my favourite topics. Our Constitution.

The Constitution itself has a marvelous history. The drama around the creation of the Constituent Assembly, their debates, and the variety of issues it sought to address (something I hope to write about in a future post). Civics is by far the dullest of the Social Sciences in middle school and yet the most important and relevant. No matter what career a student chooses to take up, they are invariably going to be citizens of a democratic nation. We take this citizenship for granted, never really thinking about how precious this is. My grandparents, just two generations away from me, were part of a generation that knew what it was to live in a non-democratic state. Their ancestors before that were either subjects to the British Raj or in princely states – subjects of a detached and disinterested monarch. Also, for generations, people in the Indian subcontinent were always aware of their duties – duties to their family, duties to their community, religion, king or queen. With independence and the adoption of democracy, Indians were introduced to a new vocabulary. We grew aware of rights, and our Constitution told us what those rights were and also, that we could fight to protect our rights.

The Constitution as an Agent of Transformation

The Civics textbook definition of the Constitution is that the Constitution serves as a rule book for how a democratic state should function. It also provides a sort of mission statement to guide future leaders and citizens about the ideal society that the Constitution seeks to nurture and protect.

The Indian Constitution is often criticized for being derivative. More than 70% of it came from the Government of India Act, 1935. The framework of how our government will run comes from the Act. Curiously, we even incorporated some of the harsher, more autocratic aspects of the Act like preventive detention, or the power to suspend the legal system during an Emergency, etc. Things that Indian freedom fighters had objected to in the 1930s were now powers that the independent Indian state had.

So what was so great about the Indian Constitution? While it is true that most of it is derivative, does something have to be entirely original to be of value? I do not know. I do know that while it may have flaws, the Constitution sought to create an new nation that was built on the precepts of Equality, Liberty and Fraternity as interpreted for the uniquely Indian context.

Here are the top 3 things I think makes our Constitution unique and special:

  1. Universal Adult Franchise: When we read ‘universal adult franchise’ we automatically think of women receiving the right to vote, and this is natural because that was a hard-won right in the rest of the world. Women in India could vote and hold office since the 1920s (Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay becoming the first woman to run for public office, even before her counterparts in Britain, when she ran in the 1926 elections for a seat in the Madras Provincial Legislative Assembly). Interestingly, women got this right much before western women (French women could vote and hold office only in 1944). But, there was a time when voting was the right of just the educated landowners. It was an effective way to disenfranchise the weakest and most vulnerable portions of society. In India this would have excluded not just women but also Dalits and indigenous (tribal) people. So, for a new nation to immediately grant Universal Adult Franchise is a big deal. From its very beginning, it sought to include the very people who had been excluded by society through political and social institutions. (To give us some perspective, South Africa adopted universal adult franchise only in 1996 and Bahrain and some other Muslim states gave women the right in 2005).
  2. It’s Defense of Equality: At the time of independence, India was shaking off the British but was still in the suffocating grips of social and religious authoritarianism. Breaking caste rules or gender rules could lead to severe social, emotional and often physical consequences. Unlike Western nations where the power lay in the hands of the government, India had multiple levels of power, starting at the religious or caste based community level down to the head of the family. Ambedkar, B.N. Rau and members of the Constituent Assembly were writing a constitution for a country that didn’t fully recognize the notion of an individual’s rights. And so, the framers sought to rewire our social structure. Article 15(2) which banned the discrimination in access to restaurants and roads (years before the American Civil Rights movement managed to end segregation in the United States), Article 17 abolishing untouchability and Article 23 forbidding forced labour. In theory, at least, the Constitution was laying the groundwork for a society where every citizen was equal both politically and socially.
  3. The Right to Constitutional Remedies: In India, a citizen can move directly to the Supreme Court to protect their fundamental rights against violation not just by the State but also by institutions. This makes sure that the State and institutions cannot create laws that violate any individuals fundamental rights. The head of your company, religious math, or head of your joint family even cannot force you to do anything that violates your fundamental rights, as the state is duty bound to protect it. As mentioned earlier, our Constitution recognized the various levels of power or sovereignty in India and provided a recourse for the average citizen to protect themselves from social as well as political authoritarianism.

Ambedkar was used to hearing criticisms of the Constitutions by the end of the drafting process. In his final speech to the Constituent Assembly on the 25th of November, he addressed some of them but added “… I feel, however good a Constitution may be, it is sure to turn out bad because those who are called to work it, happen to be a bad lot. However bad a Constitution may be, it may turn out to be good if those who are called to work it, happen to be a good lot. The working of a Constitution does not depend wholly upon the nature of the Constitution. The Constitution can provide only the organs of State such as the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. The factors on which the working of those organs of the State depend are the people and the political parties they will set up as their instruments to carry out their wishes and their politics.”

He continued to say that the Constitution written by the Constituent Assembly reflected the views and pressing concerns of his generation and he was aware that every generation would face its own concerns and have its own views. He quoted Thomas Jefferson, an American founding father –  “We may consider each generation as a distinct nation, with a right, by the will of the majority, to bind themselves, but none to bind the succeeding generation, more than the inhabitants of another country.”

The Constitution we have today is not perfect. It has also been interpreted in ways we might not agree with. But if we choose to remain ignorant of its contents we do ourselves and our generation a great disservice.

We live in a frighteningly divided time now, where neighbors attack each other personally for differing political views and declare themselves upholders of morality in their community WhatsApp and email groups. The late 1940s were an even more divisive period in Indian history. People disagreed violently with each other on a lot of things. The violence spilt out of their mouths, onto the page and then into the street.

At the time, the subcontinent was divided and two countries were formed. One ended up with a Constitution that was slowly but carefully constructed. The other that seemed accidentally put together with individual egos and prejudices taking precedence over values and ideals. One has survived70 years and is regularly challenged but almost always respected. The other was thrown out and new ones were written to suit the convenience of the man in charge. If we look further at the other countries who gained independence and shook of colonialism in 1940s, 50s and 60s, the story of Indian’s constitution feels even more unique and special.

And so I feel our Constitution should be celebrated every year. The best way to do it is to pay attention to it – understand it, discuss it and defend the rights within it whenever we can.

Resources:

Ambedkar’s final speech to the Constituent Assembly (bits of which I have quoted above) can be found here.

An excerpt of the final speech in a Scroll article titled Why BR Ambedkar’s three warnings in his last speech to the Constituent Assembly resonate even today

An article I wrote earlier about Ambedkar and the narrative of his life.

A book that I am currently reading: The Transformative Constitution by Gautam Bhatia

East India Company’s Plundering of Indian History (and why that matters today)

This is Benjamin West’s famous painting of the Mughal emperor Shah Alam handing over the rights to collect taxes in Bengal to Robert Clive and the East India Company (1765). A little over 100 years ago, Aurangzeb had nearly evicted the British, but in the 1760s the scrappy East India Company (EIC) was on the verge of drowning Aurangzeb’s precious empire and emerging as the new power in the subcontinent. If you look at the painting closely, you will see how the British and their allies are cast in the light, while most Indians are in the shadow.

West was a romantic and a patriot. He liked painting famous scenes from history like The Death of Nelson or Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky. The painting above was recording the birth of British India and the British Empire at large. India was to be the goose that laid the golden eggs.

Casting a Shadow over Bengal

Ironically, in his painting, West wasn’t wrong to paint Indians in the shadow because with the handing over of the Diwani to the EIC, a dreadful shadow did indeed fall over Bengal. Within five years, the Company’s exploitative business practices ruined the local economy and compounded a natural disaster that led to the terrible famine of 1770. 10 million people died during this time – 1/3rd of the total population in the province.

To give you some perspective, Covid has caused approximately 6.5 million deaths globally over nearly 3 years. The famine cost 10 million lives in just one province that covers modern day West Bengal, Bangladesh, parts of Odisha and Bihar. Entire generations were effectively wiped out.

To their credit, the world took notice. While descriptions of the famine shocked the English back home, the English were even more outraged when they started seeing Company officials coming home millionaires (the outrage stemmed more from envy, I suspect, than moral uprightness). Robert Clive, the central figure in West’s painting (receiving the scroll from Shah Alam), and considered the founder of the British Empire in India reportedly came back to India with “£1,200,000 in cash, bills, and jewels.” In today’s value, that is £286,400,000 (£286 million). This was one individual’s earnings. There were many other Company millionaires who made their millions by looting India.

In the end, Robert Clive’s career took a nose-dive. In England, he faced charges of corruption, brutality and profiteering. During his life time, he was much hated and he ended up killing himself at the age of 49 in the same brutal manner in which he had lived his life. Later, his story was scrubbed and rewritten by other British viceroys to justify their rule in India. But we won’t go there.

Our textbooks talk in great detail about the significance of the Battles of Plassey and Buxar, the rise of Clive and the Company and their hand in the famine that followed. It makes mention of the wealth that India had at the time and how, in a very short time, the British managed to strip it away.

But textbooks and classrooms do not have the time to fully illustrate what that wealth looked like, or even how it was plundered away, and what that really means in the present.

The Lucrative Career of a Plundering EIC Officer

Robert Clive’s eldest son, Edward Clive, followed in his father’s footsteps and was Governor of Madras as well as part of the wars with Tipu Sultan. He was present when Tipu Sultan was finally defeated and killed in battle. His wife Henrietta, wrote to her brother about the plundering of Srirangapatnam: “The plunder of Seringapatam is immense. General Harris will get between £1,50,000 and £2,00,000. Two of the privates have got £10,000 in jewels and money. The riches are quite extraordinary. Lord Clive has got a very beautiful blunderbuss (a short, large-bored gun) that was Tipu’s and much at Seringapatam. I should like to have the pickings of some of the boxes.”

“I should like to have the pickings of some of the boxes” she says!

Edward and Robert Clive’s collections are housed at Powis Castle in Wales. You can pay an entrance fee, explore the beautiful gardens, the enormous castle and the attached museum that was all funded by the Clive’s adventures in India. The Clive Collection – a collection of Indian items that is one of the biggest in the world – is bigger than the Delhi Museum even. It includes a grand palanquin that belonged to Siraj ud Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal who Clive defeated at the Battle of Plassey, and Tipu Sultan’s gold embroidered slippers, his guns, jewels, and even his battle tent.

The Clives also carried away two of eight finials that adorned Tipu’s throne. Finials are the decorative knobbly bits on the ends of thrones. The finial, like the one in the image above, is made of gold and set with rubies, diamonds and emeralds. One was sold in 2009 for over £3 million.

In 2003, Christies auctioned this 17th century Mughal emerald brooch. According to the listing details it is an “emerald of exceptional colour and clarity weighing 55.8 carats with superb Mughal carving of tulips on both sides”.

According to the note on its provenance, the brooch last belonged to the 10th Duke of Northumberland. It was passed down through the generations from his ancestor, the 3rd Duke of Northumberland, Hugh Percy. His wife was Charlotte Florentia, the daughter of Edward Clive, who stole the finial that we talked about earlier. Charlotte’s mother had wanted to “have the pickings” of Tipu’s treasure. Coming back to 2003, this brooch was sold for £1.2 million.

Whose History is it?

Today, the United Kingdom is working hard to make sure these treasures do not leave their borders.

I found a press release issued in 2021 on gov.uk titled “18th-Century Tipu Sultan Throne Finial worth £1.5 million at risk of leaving UK“. According to the release, an export bar had been placed on the finial (just like the one in the Clive collection) to allow time for a UK institution to purchase the piece, which might otherwise leave the country (UK). Why does the UK still want it?

The UK sees the finial as part of their history now. The release states that “Following his defeat, many objects from Tipu’s treasury arrived in Britain, where they influenced poetry (John Keats), fiction (Charles Dickens; Wilkie Collins), artists (J.M.W.Turner) and were received with huge public interest.” – “arrived” in Britain? Did they just arrive as if of their own volition? Were they looking for cooler climes?

The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) recommended that the export license application for the finial be deferred to 11 February 2022, or extended to 11 June 2022 to try and keep the finial in the UK because the Committee believed that “it is an important symbolic object in Anglo-Indian history in the last years of the 18th Century, with Tipu’s defeat having great historical importance to Britain’s imperial past and leading to a contemporary fascination with Tipu’s story and objects.”

Guess who else might think that Tipu’s defeat might be of greater historical importance? Where else might there be a greater contemporary fascination with Tipu’s story and objects? (India, of course!)

When I was younger I had heard arguments made by the Egyptians and the Indians about how the British had stolen our nation’s wealth. I had not really cared at the time. I didn’t have a concept of time or value of history and cultural identity.

However, if you were to zoom into the image of the finial or the emerald with it delicate tulips etched into it, it tells us a story of advanced Indian artistry and craftwork. There was nothing comparable to it in the world at the time. And it wasn’t even that long ago.

How many Indians, do you think, are aware of this rich history of art in India? Generations of Indian students are coming out of secondary school without fully understanding what the textbooks are telling them – about the wealth that the Mughals and other Indian monarchs commanded, about the quality of artistry, understanding of metallurgy and gems that our ancestors possessed – an understanding that might be more easily grasped with a visit to a well curated museum where the story comes to life.

Today, if I want to show my son, or my class, any of this, I will need to organize a trip to the United Kingdom because that is where the best samples are. We will need to buy tickets to see our own cultural heritage – a heritage that was literally stolen from us. And worse still, some of these items are not even in museums – they are being sold off to be part of private collections, where some rich woman will wear that 17th century brooch as a pendant of a string of pearls at a party. So not only did the treasure make a British person rich in the 18th century, it continues to make British people rich today.

If you want to read more about

Robert Clive, then this article by William Dalrymple on Robert Clive as a vicious asset-stripper

Also, check out this blog about the art in Tipu’s palace in Srirangapatnam.

What does Nehru have to do with Children’s Day?

Happy Children’s Day!

When my son was very little, he came home from school and went straight into the kitchen, clearly looking for something. Disappointed, he stood in front of me and demanded to see the cake. What cake, I asked. “It’s Children’s Day, Mamma! You are supposed to celebrate having children!”

Today, it isn’t very different. My son just came home from school where his teachers worked really hard to make him and his classmates feel special and cared for. I appreciate the sentiment even though the day had a very different point of origin.

Significance of Children’s Day

Growing up, I knew that we celebrated Children’s Day on Nehru’s birthday. The reason I had heard was that Nehru loved children, but I later found that Children’s Day was really an awareness and fund-raising drive.

In 1951, a United Nations Social Worker Fellow V.M. Kulkarni who had been studying the rehabilitation of juvenile delinquents in England liked how the Queen of England’s birthday had been used to focus attention on children’s issues and raise funds for Save the Child Fund. He proposed that Pandit Nehru’s birthday, November 14, be used to bring awareness to children’s issues and child rights. It is said that the proposal embarrassed Nehru but he agreed to have his birthday attached to the cause.

Perhaps Nehru’s reluctance at Kulkarni’s suggestion was warranted. Soon political bootlickers and sycophants would gather children and have them sing songs in Nehru’s honour and he would pose obligingly with little children. The original intent was forgotten and a new legend grew about Nehru’s great love for children. He certainly had a great love for his own daughter, to whom he wrote wonderful letters from prison that not only outlined Indian and world history but also explained his humanist ideals and values. I often wonder how young Indira felt on receiving these letters. Did she groan at the heavy topics he chose to write about, and wish he would talk more about prison food or other ordinary things – not a draft of a chapter?

At any rate, Nehru’s birthday became Children’s Day from 1956. I looked around for pictures of the first official Children’s Day but the first official interesting material I found was the President’s address on the occasion in 1957.

In a speech titled A Plea for a Better Deal for Children, Prasad said that “it is a welcome idea to have one day every year to be celebrated as Children’s Day when all questions pertaining to children and child welfare would receive special attention.” The theme in 1957 was child hunger. The International Union of Child Welfare declared that “a child that is hungry must be fed”. Prasad extended the theme, by saying “If we put a wider interpretation on this theme, it should encompass wider needs such as hunger for play, hunger for love and hunger for security. After all a child needs these as much as nutritious food.”

Today, India’s President welcomed students from various schools and her speech was simply about the beauty of childhood. The original intent is long forgotten. It is now just a day when we celebrate children and Nehru.

Growing into Nehru

The slide show above covers Nehru’s childhood from infancy to his college years at Cambridge (the last picture is of him with his parents and two younger sisters, who later became famous in their own right – Vijaylakshmi Pandit and Krishna Hutheesing)

Born on November 14, 1889, as a child, Nehru did not hunger for food, love or security. He was born to extraordinary privilege. His family home, Anand Bhavan, in Allahabad had a swimming pool. Of course, do not imagine Nehru living alone with his parents in this palatial estate. The Nehru clan lived together. He was the youngest and his sisters followed much later, so while Nehru might not have hungered for the basics, he did hunger for companionship. Home schooled for nearly most of his education with governesses and private tutors, he did not have a peer group of classmates or playground friends. His much older cousins had neither time nor interest in him, and so although he was part of a bustling household he grew up rather alone.

In his autobiography, Nehru begins his story with refreshing candor and self awareness “An only child of prosperous parents is apt to be spoilt, especially so in India. And when that son happens to be on only child for first 11 years of his existence there is little hope for him to escape this spoiling.” His parents certainly spared no expense on his education. Annie Besant, the great educator and founding member of the Theosophical Society, recommended a tutor – Ferdinand T. Brooks – who, Nehru believes, had a great influence on his thinking. Brooks developed in Nehru a taste for reading and introduced him to a vast variety of literature and philosophy (including Theosophy). He also set up a lab in their home where they performed experiments to explore basic chemistry and physics. At 15, his parents and his infant sister accompanied him to England, where he was dropped off at the famous English public school – Harrows.

Clearly Nehru did not have an average childhood. He was keenly aware of the great difference between his experience of India versus that of the common Indian. This difference is often used against him. While many like to pull Nehru down for his elitism or his post-Independence leadership choices (both valid points), Nehru’s writings from prison in the 1930s reminds us that he was human, with the same human frailties that affect us regardless of income, education, gender, caste or creed.

In fact, I am glad for his intellectual upbringing. India was blessed to have an independence movement led by thinkers rather than wild and spontaneous actors (think of the rather haphazard birth of Pakistan). The men and women who organized our freedom struggle developed democratic ideals and a vision for equality that came from a conversion of intellectual vigor to actual action. The outcome, among other things, is our Constitution. Imperfect though it might be, it has provided us with a stable democracy for 75 years, while our neighbours have floundered. Most of the people who helped put the Constitution together were intellectual giants.

Recently, on social media, I read comments wishing that the India had a military dictatorship. They felt that this would help improve infrastructure and law and order. I wonder if Indian classrooms should spend more time exploring Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Burmese or Sri-Lankan history. All our neighbors have had experiences with military coups (successful and failed) and the outcomes were never positive for the country. In India, Nehru and his colleagues can take some credit for military-proofing Indian democracy. To read more check out this article. His understanding of the potential threats to democracy has often helped us tremendously, and while we might disagree with his politics, we should be grateful that we have a democracy that allows (at least in theory) for dissent.

So this Children’s Day let us not conflate the two events. Nehru probably did like children (it is very difficult not to like children, and even if he did not like them, it would have been political suicide to admit it) but Children’s Day is not to celebrate his love for children. It is to draw awareness to important children’s issues in our society today, as Rajendra Prasad did in his very first Children’s Day address – serious issues concerning children’s health, children’s rights, access to quality nutrition and education.

It is also Nehru’s birthday. We are still a young nation and his legacy is still up for debate and political wrangling but perhaps in a hundred years the man will be remembered for both his contributions and his failings in a more balanced, objective and less divisive manner. That he was extraordinary is hard to deny if you delve into the man’s writing and look carefully at his influence in a myriad issues that concern modern India today. It is also hard to deny that he was not perfect. We should never be satisfied with the legacy of our ancestors – growth and forward movement are our constant civic duties.

Sources:

Joshi, S. (2005) How did Children’s Day begin, The Tribune India. Available at: https://www.tribuneindia.com/2005/20051112/saturday/main4.htm (Accessed: November 14, 2022).

Prasad, R. (1958) “A Plea for a Better Deal for Children,” in Speeches of Dr. Rajendra Prasad, President of India, 1957-1958. India, pp. 98–99.

Nehru, J. (1982) “Descent from Kashmir,” in Jawaharlal Nehru, an autobiography. Tehran: Bahman Pr., pp. 1–26.

All images from Wikimedia Commons

The Ordinary Woman’s Role in India’s Freedom Struggle

You might know Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay as a freedom fighter, a social reformer, or the woman who revived Indian handicrafts, handlooms, and theatre in independent India. Or you may know her for setting up the National School of Drama, Sangeet Natak Akademi or Crafts Council of India. She also wrote over 20 books, like War-time China based on what she saw on her travels through Japan and China during World War II.

I, however, knew nothing of this woman or her enormous contributions. When I say nothing, I mean nothing. I first read of her in Ramchandra Guha’s Makers of Modern India where he included an excerpt of her presidential address to the All India Women’s Conference in 1944 entitled “The Women’s Movement in Perspective”. It sent me down a long Kamaladevi binge. I felt like an explorer who had stumbled upon a glorious waterfall and was revelling in its beauty, until a native came up to me and said, “What’s the big deal… it’s just a waterfall.” Many people of my acquaintance could not understand my excitement about Kamaladevi. They had heard of her, and she was old news. To me, however, she is a personal discovery.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been reading Kamaladevi’s memoir, Inner Recesses, Outer Spaces. She lived a rich and eventful life. But more importantly, she lived an incredibly impactful life. From her early teens till the very end of her life, she was constantly up to something – and that something was always something useful that made a lasting difference.

Her memoir had been an education in itself. Kamaladevi was a lightning rod who drew interesting and influential people to herself, giving her front row access to important moments in history. She was often an active participant in the making of said history. For a student of history, the book is an incredible primary source but, also, for just an ordinary urban Indian woman, the book shows that the ideas of Feminism that we have frequently looked West-ward to inform us, are actually part of our own modern history.

Top 3 Lessons about Women from Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay

Last October, we were driving through Madhya Pradesh, but our progress was stymied by cattle who used the National Highway 44 as a sort of lounge – chewing their cud while gazing blankly at us as we weaved through them. Our slow speed allowed us to examine the villages on either side of the highway. Here I saw an unfamiliar India, where women were nearly entirely under their veils with a child on their hip. Coming from urban South India, I felt like I was a foreigner watching one of those documentaries about “exotic India”, except to me this wasn’t exotic. It felt regressive. I couldn’t imagine life like this – wearing a costume that limited my movement and vision, accepting the diktats of the men in my family, living that level of domesticity.

Later, we stopped at a Dhaba where the parathas were served to us by a big mustachio-ed Rajasthani gent. As we ate our parathas, I watched his wife, behind layers of fabric and a veil pulled over her eyes, stomp out and slap a slab of Amul butter on to the counter beside him. Then, in a low voice, she seemed to give him a crisp talking to. He listened sheepishly, nodding, and patting his arm in a self-consoling fashion. I had been wrong to underestimate the women in their veils, I realized.

As an urban educated woman, I expected ‘liberated’ women to wear jeans or practical salwar kameezzes, to read or watch the news, or have jobs. I was guilty of dismissing women dressed in traditional attire as catering to stifling custom and saw them as being less whole and complete, imagining them to be lacking in agency and independent thought.

This was all nonsense, of course. Women everywhere, in jeans or purdah, are whole beings on their own paths with their own thoughts and feelings. Kamaladevi writes of the people she met as whole people – examining them beyond their attire, manners, or socio-economic custom or even politics. Among her stories, are stories of the Indian woman at a time when India was really going through tremendous change.

1. Looking Beyond the Veil at the Real Woman

In Inner Recesses, Outer Spaces, Kamaladevi spends the early chapters giving tribute to her life in a little village in the Western Ghats where she was raised by her mother and grandmother. I treaded through those pages warily because Indian writers have a tendency to deify their parents, and this can be a little tiresome. However, she wrote of the matrons in her family with warmth and humanity. Her mother could be sour and bitter on occasion when she spoke of the low position of women in society or even her own situation after the death of her husband. While she was religious, she was also rational and expected her daughter to be well educated, troubled by the fact that her daughter seemed to prefer spending more time out of doors than in her classroom. Her grandmother, although she had many children, was detached, and would travel alone at a time when there were no cars or even trains close by. Even today, in India, we make a big deal about women traveling alone – “solo travel” we call it. But at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, women travelled alone. Maybe not all women, but some did.

She also writes of her beautiful and articulate aunt who was unfortunately widowed early in life. As a widow, she wore the obvious signs of widowhood, like a shorn head, but in private she bristled at the humiliation. Yet, she was able to shield her personality – protect herself from bitterness and cynicism. Time and time again, Kamaladevi points to these women, who carve a space for themselves within the trappings of custom and tradition, and who come to occupy a useful space in their community and society. Her mother and grandmother created little communities where women could gather and get together and share ideas. Her aunt became the person everyone looked for in the time of a crisis. She was powerful and a source of strength that the family depended on – virtues that we often associate with masculinity – strength, power, stability.

Similarly, she writes of Kasturba who had the unenviable position of being Gandhi’s partner in life. I say unenviable because Gandhi was not a romantic walk in the park if you hadn’t noticed. Kasturba had married a rather ordinary 14 year old boy who transformed himself into a Mahatma, and she had to keep up. She did keep up. Kamaladevi writes of Kasturba’s “presence” as being independently powerful. As Gandhi himself writes, Kasturba had her own clear perspectives and points of view. She stated them honestly and her personality survived the overwhelming personality of her husband’s. Yet, she played the role of the traditional woman, who at the end of the day was loyal to her husband till the end. There was no contradiction in her being.

From left to right: Ameena Tyabji, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Kasturba, circa 1930. Kasturba’s body language exudes that power that Kamaladevi describes in her book.

On several occasions Kamaladevi returns to a criticism of the modern post-Independence woman and her letting go of those aspects of her cultural identity that made her unique. Kamaladevi speaks of being in jail with various female Satyagrahis from different parts of India. She wrote of how these women’s cultural identity was evident in the manner in which they wore their simple sari, their choice of modest jewellery etc. In contrast, the modern woman has let that go because in our hurry to leave the admittedly more stifling customs, we have also let go of the good ones that perhaps ought to have been preserved.

2. The Real Challenges of being a Female Satyagrahi

In the 1920s, Kamaladevi was invited to volunteer as a Seva Dal. Seva Dal volunteers were the foot soldiers of the Congress’s non-violent movement. We have read about Satyagraha in textbooks, but we do not fully comprehend what it means to be non-violent in the face of violence.

She explains the nature of the work of a Satyagrahi as follows:

“When attacked, the natural reaction is to hit back. Here the victim had to endure untold physical pain as also mental humiliation. Here pain in a manner is invited on oneself, with no scope for relief through retaliation. Similarly in a normal fist fight a result emerges and the matter normally ends. Psychologically the struggle drags, offers no immediate satisfaction. This called for prolonged sustained stamina, firm faith in the objective which may not even be realized in the volunteer’s lifetime.”

Women wholeheartedly participated in the Seva Dal training camps but in the beginning, there was no active role for them to play in the Salt Satyagraha. Kamaladevi still in her 20s, convinced Gandhi that women, who had been working shoulder-to-shoulder with the men in the political movement, should be given a chance to join the Salt March and movement. He reluctantly agreed to issuing a public invitation and soon enough scores of women joined to support Gandhi’s campaign and court arrest.

Satyagrahis participating in Prabhat Pheris in Bombay, 1930

In the months that followed large crowds of Satyagrahis were arrested and sent to jail at the Arthur Road women’s quarters, Mumbai. Her description of life in prison really explains why Seva Dal camps were needed to prepare the Satyagrahis psychologically, because prison life was intensely difficult and humiliating.

Women were stuffed into prison cells, shoulder to shoulder with ordinary criminals. It was hot, dirty, and loud. The women demanded to be treated as political prisoners, different from the more dangerous criminals that they were being forced to share cells with. But these requests fell on deaf ears, until one woman, Perin Captain, inspired her cell mates to non-violently resist going back into their cells once their break time was over. So, hundreds of women stood on the verandas outside their cells, rooted to the ground, forcing the people in charge of the prisons to re-organize the cell allocation. Still, the physical discomfort was immense. There was not enough healthcare in prison and, after a long bout of jaundice Kamaladevi herself had set up a voluntary hospital clinic for small first aid type procedures. She sometimes would have to deal with more serious cases including childbirth and serious illnesses. She writes of a time in prison, when it was so stiflingly hot in her cell, which lacked ventilation, that every night she would faint because of the heat and lack of air and would be found unconscious in the morning by the jailer.

What moved me the most was that women prisoners were given thick and rough khadi sarees but were not allowed underwear. There isn’t a clear explanation of this omission. Depend on Kamaladevi to try and solve the issue. She wrote a memo with a list of grievances – their request for underwear being of highest priority. But the memo was received by an irate Irishman who was the jail superintendent. He simply changed Kamaladevi’s living quarters separating her from everyone else to prevent a revolt.

3, The Expanded View of Feminism

Occasionally, I get to listen or talk to adolescents on topics like feminism. Recently, when the American Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, I listened to some of them express themselves very strongly and while I was pleased to hear them articulate themselves so clearly, I also wondered at how overwhelmingly Western our Perspective on feminism is. Feminism, it felt like, had boiled down to hashtag-able issues – like #RoevWade or #metoo. Both issues are important and complex, something that quick 280 character Twitter posts cannot do justice to. In India, however, women’s issues are further complicated by economic and social issues like poverty and caste.

In India, women got the right to vote earlier and more easily than the women in Western countries. We also have several extremely powerful female leaders like Indira Gandhi, Jayalalithaa, Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, Sonia Gandhi, etc who are often judged more for their tolerance for corruption, autocratic ways, or poor policy decisions than for being a woman. Yet, we are also a country where the gender gap still persists and where pregnant mothers cannot find out the gender of their child during an ultrasound – a law that has saved many lives. India is complicated – far more complex than what American, white-washed feminism can grapple with.

Kamaladevi was uncomfortable with being linked to the Western definition of feminism, but in my view, she was definitely an Indian feminist. She spent much of the 1920s travelling around India on speaking tours, trying to create support for social and legal changes to give women more equal rights. Over time she chose to define her struggle in more general terms. She writes –

“As time went on, I realised we would have to move and function within a wider parameter. The demand for national freedom had already been sounded as basic for our national well-being. Thereupon followed the demand for equal opportunities for all, as obviously women were not the only victims of social and economic disabilities and discriminations, others were equally oppressed socially, and depressed economically. It was dimly growing on me that the women’s struggle had therefore to be an indivisible part of the larger political, social and economic struggle.”

Kamaladevi leading a flag procession, circa 1930

Kamaladevi’s brand of feminism has a special name now – it is called Intersectional Feminism. It acknowledges that there is difference in the discrimination faced by an upper caste, urban, educated woman and a tribal woman in an impoverished part of the country. The solution really is to raise everyone together – to create social institutions and systems that not just prevent exclusion but focus on inclusion and equality. It is an argument that no thinking and feeling person can refute, but it is very difficult to put into practice because it is very difficult to overcome prejudice and fear or discomfort with differences. That is why thousands of NGOs and millions of social and government workers are working away furiously at a job that never seems to end – the job of creating a fairer world.

After independence, Kamaladevi worked to create a marketplace for rural women and men who worked with their hands. She established cottage industries and handicraft councils to revive the arts and create an economy for the artist. Her institutions to revive the performing arts also gave a legitimate space for the artist. She worked with tribal women’s groups and artists to make sure their culture didn’t disappear but also to make sure that there was a market where their work could bring them some income. Kamaladevi was solution oriented.

Although Kamaladevi’s memoir is not a feminist treatise, it is an important book to read because it tells the story of the women’s movement in India with all its in-built complexity. She occasionally does sound a little harsh in her judgment of modern India, like an old grandmother who likes to tell her grandchildren how it was better in the olden days. As a reader, I chose to tolerate it. What is the point if you live an amazing life, if you can’t be given a free-griping pass. Old people have the right to look back at their past with rose tinted glasses – it is the reward for a life well spent.

Resources:

I sourced my images from the 2 following sites and most of my information from her book, as listed below.

  1. A Fistful of Salt: How Women Took Charge of the Dandi March. The Wire. (n.d.). Retrieved October 28, 2022, from https://thewire.in/women/women-dandi-march-gandhi
  2. Pal, S. (2017, April 3). A freedom fighter with a feminist soul, this woman’s contributions to modern India are staggering! The Better India. Retrieved October 28, 2022, from https://www.thebetterindia.com/94158/kamaladevi-chattopadhyay-feminist-freedom-fighter-cooperatives-faridabad/
  3. Chattopadhyay, K. (2014). Inner recesses outer spaces: Memoirs. India International Centre.

Stamp # 8: Why Kanakadasa Matters

About three years ago, I did a class on medieval Indian history (Grade 7 NCERT) at the school where I teach part time. Up until that time, my elective had an average of 12 participants (it’s a small little school). But this subject had just four sign ups. By the end of the semester, the four told me it had been their favourite so far because as a group, we were able to understand the connection between the past and present, a connection that seemed to elude us when we just looked at the textbook.

That semester we compared the height of the Thanjavur gopuram to a modern urban building, contemplated the impact of political instability and violence that comes about when a kingdom is constantly being raided by a neighboring king or a bunch of raiders from Central Asia, and compared it to stories of children living through political instability in Kashmir or parts of the Northeast or Sri Lanka. We also read the poetry of Bhakti saints who questioned superstition, social inequity and caste with sharp clarity. By the end of the term, we realized that regardless of time period, the human experience has remained constant. From the surface, we may look different, but on examination we are no different from our ancestors who lived during those times.

Take our modern vocabulary. It makes you think we are living in a new unprecedented era of human evolution. Like, influencers – do you think influencers are a new concept linked to social media? Well, then meet Kanakadasa, and others like him (Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Kabir, Eknath, Jnanadev, Purandaradasa, etc) who were the viral influencers of their time.

We can read that dry chapter about the Bhakti movement and wonder why it matters, especially if one has no particular interest in god or religion. But here is why I think Kanakadasa and other Bhakti saints are still is relevant, even if you don’t listen to classical music or are religious:

Kanakadasa stamp issued in 1990 by India Post

Be0fore we begin, 2 quick facts to remind you who are talking about:

  1. Kanakadasa is one of the pillars of Carnatic music – credited with 240 odd musical compositions that are now canon.
  2. He got a Krishna idol to literally turn away from the entrance, towards a little window in the back of the Udupi temple sanctum sanctorum when Kanakadasa was not allowed to enter the temple on account of his low caste. By turning towards the window, Kanakadasa was able to have the Lord’s Darshan through a crack in the wall.

And now here are 3 things that makes you forget that Kanakadasa was belonged to the 16th century (during the time of Hampi’s Vijayanagara Empire):

  1. Swag

    Kanakadasa was born a minor chieftain under the Vijayanagar empire. While he belonged to the shepherd caste, he was not some poor unknown. He was a well respected and successful member of society. Yet, when his guru, the famous Brahmin saint Vyasatirtha accepted Kanakadasa as his disciple purely on the merits of his devotion and talent, the guru’s other followers (all Brahmins) sneered at him for his lack of qualifications (birth being the only qualification that mattered at that time).

    Kanakasa’s response? Like a modern song writer, his music was influenced by his experience. He wrote some of the classiest revenge songs ever. One of his longer pieces called Ramadhanya Charita is a biting criticism of caste through witty metaphor. The story isn’t about the glorious life of Rama. Instead, grains of rice and ragi play the main roles.

    In the story, Rama and Sita, on their way back to Ayodhya, stop for a meal at sage Muchikunda’s ashram. Here, the sage offered a vast spread of food and Rama asks Hanuman what the best dish is. Hanuman, ever the over-achiever, asked for all the raw ingredients that went into making the dishes to be brought out. Once on the table the various grains assembled begin to argue that they are the grain of real essence. Finally, Rama asks that all grains be stored for six months. Six months later, Rama asks to check on all the grains. Rice, the most refined of grains, was stalest while ragi, of humble origins, was still fresh. Thus, humble ragi won the title of Ramadhanya – the grain of Rama. Rice was a metaphor for the refined upper castes while ragi represented the humble lower castes who worked sincerely without fanfare. This poetic work assured the common man that Rama was aware of their true worth.

    In another song titled Teerthavanu Pididavarella (Are All Those Who Hold Teertha Hallowed?) Kanakadasa says:

    Are all those, who holding their nose and take a dip
    Into water who reading holy scriptures
    Hoping to enjoy other’s wives secretly
    Swerving from the code of ethics, Brahmins, gody?

    Are those bot-bellied persons Vaishnavas of true essence
    Who earn their lievelihood with shouts of vehemence,
    Simply painting their foreheads and keeping their vessels
    Without knowing the art of penance and its skills?



    Imagine being one of those snooty fellow disciples listening as Kanakadasa sings the keerthana before his guru, or worse, listening to people in your community humming it as they watch you walk past them, demanding undeserved respect.
  2. Represent!

    Recently, I was listening to a wonderful podcast on The Daily about Serena Williams legacy to the sport. She is a great example of the importance of representation and just how powerful that is. How do you quantify the impact of seeing someone who looks like you succeed in a world that is not welcoming to you. Serena Williams looked nothing like the delicate gazelles we expect to win Women’s Wimbledon. She was muscular and powerful and was a woman of colour. She didn’t hide who she was. She was loud and proud. But we think of representation as being something modern.

    Yet, back in the 16th century, Kanakadasa was representing an entire group of people who were consciously disempowered. He was writing songs in local dialect for the common man in which he was explaining complex Hindu philosophy in simple language – philosophy that the Brahmins felt was exclusively their domain.
    While Kanakadasa was an outsider to the orthodoxy, to the common man, he was a lower caste man who was accepted and even praised by the great Brahmin guru Vyasatirtha, advisor and guru of the king of the entire Vijayanagar Empire. His life was his message And what was that message? He was saying that everyone is deserving of divine grace and acceptance. He was saying that these Brahmins who demanded respect and servility weren’t necessarily deserving of it.

    Instead of sitting in one place, expecting disciples to come to him, Kanakadasa was going village to village spreading the word. So, you could meet him, talk to him, listen to him, sing with him and clap to the beat. There is power in that.
  3. Democratization of Education

    In modern times literature, social science, science and technology are important elements of that education. Why? Because education’s main goal is to improve quality of life. A good education gives us perspective; it makes us less gullible to superstition or herd mentality; it prepares us to be good citizens; and it prepares us with the skills and knowledge we might need to earn a living. Today, with technology and e-learning – high quality education is available to more and more people. It used to be the domain of the rich, but now it is something accessible to anyone with a smart phone.

    In the medieval times, you learnt how to make a living by helping your parents or people of your caste. But that wasn’t an education. An education that explained the world to you or that transformed your way of viewing the world was an education exclusively for the Brahmin or the Kshatriya. Anyone not of those castes were excluded in two ways – first, they did not have access to a Brahmin guru who passed such important knowledge orally to his disciples. Second, they could not learn on their own because all scriptures were in Sanskrit. But Kanakadasa brought learning to everyone. Instead of sitting in one place, expecting disciples to come to him, Kanakadasa came to your doorstep. So, a potter or a weaver, an open minded Brahmin or Kshatriya, all had access to him.

    And when he came to your village, he wasn’t just talking about social justice or deep Vedantic truths, but he was also encouraging rationalism – telling people that they needed to think logically and not fall prey to superstition. In a sense, his music was the medium of education in that time, much like video is today.

As I read and listened to his music, Kanakadasa upturned several false narratives that I had collected in my head. Prime among them was this peculiar belief I once indulged that Indians began to think rationally once we were exposed to rational Western thinkers of the18th and 19th century. Yet, 200 years before that, Kanakadasa was already questioning the orthodox Hindu’s belief that he needed a son to be able to attain the Divine. His argument was based in logic and rational thinking. Think for yourself, he was constantly exhorting. It is the same as Kabir and other poets of this period. Yet, somehow I read Indian history and unconsciously came to believe, rather preposterously, that before Western philosophy all Indians were running wily-nily through life without any sense of reason.

The other false narrative I had built up was the power of an individual against ingrained social norms. I had a Hollywood influenced dramatic belief that all it takes is one persuasive individual to transform society. However, Kanakadasa was fighting the same prejudice that, 400 years later, Ambedkar and other Dalit leaders were fighting against – an inflexible and cruel caste system. This leads me to conclude that social change cannot come from one individual’s extraordinary effort. It can only work when we all unite and push against it, like that moment at the end of Finding Nemo, when Nemo advises all the fish to swim down to overwhelm the fishing net. It is an apt visual metaphor for what is needed to make fundamental changes in society.

Just Keep Swimming

In the end, personalities have always come who have tried to play the role that Nemo’s dad plays here which is to encourage us all to swim down, but the swimming is up to us, and while all of us cannot be Kanakadasa or Ambedkar or other voices of a united conscience, we can all swim. Social change is always a product of united effort.

Resources:

You can buy this book here

a. Select Songs of Kanakadasa by Shashidhar G. Vaidya

b. Wikipedia for more information on Haridasa and Vyasatirtha

c. Rajkumar’s 1960 film Bhakta Kanakadasa. (great piece of Indian film history and great music too)

Stamp # 6 and 7: Tagore and Malaviya’s Educational Legacies

Around five years ago, when I dove more deeply into the education space in India, I found myself uncomfortable with just how much we were borrowing ideas from the west and how we were trying to force-fit them in an Indian context. It was a habit that we had fallen into for generations, like as if we had lost the confidence in our own ways of thinking about learning and education. But the more I looked into it, I realized most people weren’t even aware of Indian thinkers on education or they felt that Indian education thinkers were frequently mixing religion with education. So in this piece, I want to look at two men who tried to make a difference in the field of higher education. They recognized that creating an education system created for an Indian context is important to create Indian thinkers and Indian problem solvers, but their approaches to education was very different. But before we begin, let us look at the educational environment the two men were responding to.

An Oversimplified Story of Indian Schools till the Early 20th Century

Gurukul System. Source: Gurukul Blog

ANCIENT HISTORY: The story of the history of education in India complicated. This is true because the history of India is extremely long. But the prevalent image of ancient Indian schooling at the Gurukuls. People used to deposit their children at the homes of a guru at around the age of 7 or 8. For the next 10 to 15 years, the children were part of the Guru’s household, where they helped in household chores and served their Guru and also learned the scriptures. Over this period, the child learnt self discipline, life lessons as well as academics (in the form of the scriptures). Access to this form of intense education was not universal. It was only available to a small group of boys who were born to a certain caste. The vast majority of the population was excluded from the Gurukuls. Other boys were taught the trade they were born into by their fathers, uncles or any old surviving male relative (because in those days, remember, people died young so the joint family raised its young children together).

MEDIEVAL HISTORY: In the medieval times, gurukuls, madrasas and informal education through apprenticeships continued. There might have been village pathashalas in villages where they had someone who could teach reading and writing, and children would attend during the seasons when they were not required to help in the farms. These schools taught in the vernacular medium, but it always helped to learn the official language of the emperor who ruled over your area if you wanted to rise above your station.

THOMAS MACAULAY’S LEGACY OF BRITISH EDUCATION: The East India Trading Company came quietly in the late 17th century and were settled cozily in India by the mid 19th century. But the British were finding the vast cultural gap tiresome when it came to doing business. They were either going to have to learn the local ways (which many of the early British settlers had done) or get the locals to learn their language and “elevate” the native a little.

Thomas Babington Macaulay, First Baron of Macaulay (April 1856) Source: Wikimedia Commons

The school textbooks today credit Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay with the modern Indian education system. During his recommendations to the Committee of Public Instruction he pointed out that English should be the medium of instruction instead of Arabic or Sanskrit. If the British were going to be spending money on education, they should be looking for some gains or returns. This was 1835 and the British were in India to make a profit, after all. Macaulay summarized the goal of education in India as follows: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern- a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.  To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.”

I think, the education system laid out by the British were actually successful in accomplishing that goal. It did create a class of Indians who were English in opinions, morals and intellect. And many of them did enrich the vernacular dialects with terms of science borrowed from the West, however, many also used the “English opinions, morals and intellects” to examine the English themselves. These English minded thinkers led our freedom struggle and brought extraordinary good to our country.

Unfortunately, what Macaulay’s education also did was make it seem like Indian culture – its music, dance, food, poetry, literature, religion and philosophy and aesthetic were somehow inferior. We see elements of this even today when you look at the CBSE English curriculum for the 10th grade – where they are still reading Robert Frost rhyming about the way a crow shook a dust of snow upon him. Indians know crows but most of us haven’t seen snow or how it dusts on things. Indians have long adopted English as our own and used it to create masterful works of fiction and poetry. Yet it hasn’t seeped into our textbooks so very well.

Macaulay’s education and a subsequent American culture wave has taken a strong hold on our imagination even. In every creative writing session I have ever had, most of kids have written about Bobs, Jacks, Marias and Lucys doing fun or awful things.

The goal of Macaulay’s education policy was to create a class of Indians servile to the West and who were raised to believe in the superiority of Western culture. In the late 19th and early 20th century many people like Rabindranath Tagore and Malaviya felt it was time to provide an education that met the needs of a new Indian nation state. Education was now needed to create a unified national consciousness and create a class of citizens who understood the nation that they were now masters of.

Madan Mohan Malaviya and Rabindranath Tagore

Name: Madan Mohan Malaviya (1861-1946)
Date of Issue: 1961
Issued by: India Post
Name: Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)
Date of Issue: 1952
Issued by: India Post

Both Malaviya and Tagore were born in 1861 and both were founders of two of most India’s well-reputed universities (Benaras Hindu University and Vishwa-Bharati), yet the two men were very different from each other. Just look at them – Malaviya in his turban, neatly trimmed moustache, round tilak and simple tidy appearance versus Tagore’s flowing mane and beard, in his loose robe.

Malaviya, also known as Mahamanas for his wide and generous interests, lived simply. Here is a picture of him in his room, from the archives of BHU. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Madan Mohan Malaviya was a Kayastha Brahmin from an area near Allahabad, UP. His father and grandfather, well known and respected for their mastery of Sanskrit scriptures, were invited to various places to recite the Srimad Bhagavatham. Malaviya attended a local village school and went to college to get a degree in English. Later, he studied law. Over his lifetime, Malaviya donned many hats – he was President of the Indian National Congress, he revived The Hindustan Times in 1924, got 156 of the 177 Chauri-chaura rioters acquitted in his capacity as their lawyer, got British-Indian courts to use the Devanagri script for their record keeping, established the Hindu Samaj as well as a Boy Scouts organisation in India, and of course set up Benaras Hindu University.

Tagore’s accomplishments are more well known. Like Malaviya, Tagore was also Brahmin. His father, Debendranath Tagore, had founded the Brahmo Samaj and was a deeply spiritual man. Tagore grew up in a joint family where music, dance, art, drama, spirituality, poetry, and everything beautiful was within easy reach. He had hated classroom learning and his ideas of education and how it should be delivered came from his inherent discomfort with classroom education.

What I find interesting about Malaviya and Tagore is that they had much in common and yet both have such different vibes. Both men’s vision of education was born from their own personal but very different exposure to Indian religious and artistic culture in their childhood. Their pedagogical approaches reflected these two very different approaches to religion and culture.

Today, Benaras Hindu University is considered one of the top universities in the country – in the same league as IISc , IIT Delhi, Kharagpur and Mumbai. Vishwa-Bharathi University might have stumbled in rankings in recent years, but it has survived in modern India. I do not know how close they are to the vision of their founders, but my interest is in the initial days of these places and the approach each founder applied.

I feel like each university was created in the image of its founder.

Benaras Hindu University (please check out this article to see pictures of it in its early years), like its founder, appeared to be planned in a neat, constrained, orderly fashion. Colleges to teach the Vedas and Vedanta, Ayurveda and medicine, Gandhari Vedas or Fine and Performing Arts were formed. There was also a College of Artha Shastra teaching subjects we would call Economics, Physics, Chemistry, etc. There were buildings and residential quarters funded by various princely states. Initially, Malaviya had intended for all teaching to happen in Sanskrit or the vernacular but then realised that there were no textbooks in those languages.

Shantiniketan and Vishwabharati was founded with a different perspective. Shantiniketan was all about allowing students to commune with nature and learn in an organic fashion. Classrooms were under trees. Religion was to be taught by a mindful observation of nature and the self, rather than through instruction. Culture was again to be experienced through participation in music, art, dance and theatre. Like its founder, Vishwabharati was untamed in form. When someone told Tagore that there were no textbooks for subjects in the vernacular, Tagore simply pointed out that once there is demand for it, supply would follow, and so classes in Shantiniketan were taught in Bengali.

The Place of Religious Education in Secular India

As I was writing this story out, I was half listening to my son reading a news article about communal violence in the background. Communalism and secularism are hot topics in India today where our opinions of the government’s relationship with religion is causing friction. I was torn about what one would make of Malaviya’s vision of Hindu education in these times. Tagore’s interpretation of religion is more palatable in this modern time because it is non-denominational in its expression. In contrast, Malaviya never shied away from scripture. Despite his conservative religiosity, in history, Malaviya was not a dividing force. He was a practicing Brahmin and yet was making peace with Ambedkar during the signing of the Poona Pact in 1932. From all I could find, he was a consistent voice in favour of communal harmony.

Yet, is Malaviya’s brand of religious education good for peace and harmony in secular India? I looked into Malaviya’s own writing for the answers. Believe it or not, he seemed to familiar with my worry. You will find the direct quote below, but here is the summary. He felt that

  1. The absence of compulsory religious education had not prevented the growth of sectarianism, but perhaps a truly religious education might liberate the mind and create a spirit of brotherly feeling between men.
  2. He believed that “instruction in the truths of religion whether imparted” at “Benaras Hindu University or Aligarh Moslem University” will produce men who are true to their religion,… God,… and country. In other words he appeared to believe in the universal message of love, harmony and brotherhood at the core of all religions.
  3. And therefore, he felt that a true religious education is a more likely to lead to peace and harmony than not.

Here is his complete quote, that I summarised above:

“It  will  not  promote  narrow  sectarianism  but  a  broad liberation  of  mind  and  a  religious  spirit  which  will  promote brotherly  feeling  between  man  and  man.  Unfortunately  we are  all  aware  that  the  absence  of  sectarian  religious  Universities, the  absence  of  any  compulsory  religious  education  in our  State  Universities,  has  not  prevented  the  growth  of  sectarian feeling  in  the  country.  I  believe,  my  Lord,  instruction in  the  truths  of  religion,  whether  it  be  Hindus  or Mussalmans,  whether  it  be  imparted  to  the  students  of  the Benares  Hindu  University  or  of  the  Aligarh  Moslem  University, will  tend  to  produce  men  who,  if  they  are  true  to  their religion,  will  be  true  to  their  God,  their  King  and  their  country. And  I  look  forward  to  the  time  when  the  students  who will  pass  out  of  such  Universities,  will  meet  each  other  in  a closer  embrace  as  sons  of  the  same  Motherland  than  they  do at  present.” (page 29, Speeches and Writings of Madan Mohan Malaviya)

Like Malaviya and Tagore, many others including Gandhi tried to provide an alternative to the British system. Today, I see several schools around India that make a real effort to take the homegrown Indian route and I deeply appreciate the effort. It is challenging when the entire structure is borrowed but it is nice to see that we are making efforts to fix that every now and then even at government levels like with the NEP. But what I understand from Malaviya and Tagore isn’t a surface level exposure to Indian culture through cursory chanting of prayers or grandiose celebration of festivals but through a deeper examination of the self and the world we inhabit through the lens provided by Indian philosophy, as well as an exposure to the contribution of various philosophers, writers and poets in more modern times as well.

“How did he find the time?” I asked my husband, ruefully. “He didn’t have Netflix or Insta-reels” he said jokingly. And I wonder if that might be true. I wonder at all the lost potential.

Ambedkar’s Rags to Riches Tale and What We Can Learn About Story telling from It

When Helen Keller, the famous blind, deaf and dumb author and disabilities activist, was 11, she wrote a short story called ‘The Frost King‘ that was published in a couple of newsletters. It quickly got a lot of attention because many found it very similar to a story written by Margaret T. Canby called “Birdie and his Fairy Friends”. The scandal quickly became a national issue with Helen Keller being accused of plagiarism. At the time, many famous people including Mark Twain came out in Keller’s defense. It was in this context that Twain wrote these famous words: “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations.”

When you read enough books and watch enough film you come to realise that this is very true. Indeed, all stories are based on one of these seven plot lines.

  1. Overcoming the Monster – where the hero has an arch nemesis (usually an evil being or force)that he/she must defeat to protect one’s family, home or country, like in Star Wars or Sholay.
  2. The Quest – where the hero and his/her companions go in search of an object, and overcome various obstacles and challenges, like in Lord of the Rings or the story of Hanuman’s journey to find Sita.
  3. Voyage and Return – where the hero travels to a strange land and, after some adventure, they learn important lessons that they could not have learnt anywhere else. They eventually return as better or wiser people, like in the Odyssey or Jab We Met.
  4. Comedy – where there are a bunch of absurd twists and turns where expectations are subverted but the outcome is always happy. Most rom-coms.
  5. Rebirth – where an event forces the hero to reconsider his/her beliefs and attitudes and forces them to change for the better. Secret Garden (one of my all time favourite book), the story of Valmiki or Gautama Buddha.
  6. Tragedy – The hero, a somewhat symathetic character, has a major character flaw or great mistake which is ultimately leads to their undoing, like the story of Karna in the Mahabharata.
  7. Rags to Riches – where the hero starts at the bottom, gains success, then suffers set backs to emerge triumphant eventually, like the Will Smith movie Pursuit of Happyness.

These plotlines and the ideas that Twain was talking about might be true about fiction, but this blog is about history. What does this have to do with telling of history?

Good history writers and teachers have long employed these plotlines to tell us about what happened in the past. Some lives of important figures in history often feels like they were just made for film or novel.

Take Ambedkar for example. His life reads like a classic rags to riches tale. I do not mean that Ambedkar became a rich man or that he spent his life in the pursuit of wealth. He is no Tata or Birla. But look at where Ambedkar began and look at where we find him now – on stamps, in statues all over the city, on the sides of cobbler shops and banners in your neighbourhood. He went beyond temporal and mortal riches. The chronology of Ambedkar’s life fits almost perfectly into a typical template of a rags-to riches story.

Ambedkar: From village to Columbia to Baroda to New Delhi

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar went from a little boy who was made to sit on a gunny sack in the corner of the classroom to an esteemed scholar, Chairman of the Drafting Committee and first Law Minister. Image Source: Columbia University

A typical Rags to Riches story has 5 typical elements – a raggedy beginning, a promising series of initial victories, a giant set back, a valiant struggle, and eventual victory. Now, this is easily managed when you are writing fiction, but often, if we take a few steps back, the fully-lived life of a historical figure can also be squeezed to fit the template, as you can see in Ambedkar’s case:

A Raggedy Beginning: Ambedkar was born in a small town in Madhya Pradesh in 1891, into the Mahar caste. Mahars are untouchables and Ambedkar was never allowed to forget his low status. In school, he was forced to sit separately on gunny sacks and not given equal access to drinking water. When he would come up to the board to answer a question, children would rush to move their lunch bags out of his way so that he didn’t accidentally pollute their food. Yet, Ambedkar shone so brightly that nothing, not even caste, could hold him back.

A Promising Series of Initial Victories: After school, Ambedkar entered Bombay University and got a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and Political Science. He was the first of his community to rise so high, but he was to meant to rise higher still. He was awarded a scholarship by the Diwan of Baroda that sent him to Columbia University, where he received a Masters and PhD in Economics. Then, he went to London where he became a lawyer and received a D.Sc in Economics. If you haven’t caught the drift yet, Ambedkar was a rising star.

The Giant Setback: After London, Ambedkar somewhat reluctantly returned to India because part of the deal with his scholarship was that after receiving a world class education, he needed to come back and serve the Princely State of Baroda. Up until this point, Ambedkar had enjoyed several years just being Bhimrao Ambedkar – lawyer, economist, a complete human. But when he came back, no one could see beyond his caste. In Baroda, no one was willing to rent him a decent home and his colleagues refused to let him drink water from the same pot, share food with them or sit with him. It was deeply humiliating. He was being treated exactly as he had been as a child. Except now, he had a taste of a life with dignity, respect and visibility and he knew that no human deserved this sort of treatment.

A Valiant Struggle: At Baroda, Ambedkar realised that academic achievement and wealth were of no value in the face of prejudice. So, he left Baroda without fulfilling his commitment with a clear mission now. He returned to Mumbai and became a lawyer who specialised in issues relating to the rights of lower caste people. One of his early cases was a libel suit. A group of three non-Brahmins had written an article blaming all the problems facing contemporary India on the upper castes. An outraged group of Brahmins filed a libel suit on these men. Ambedkar came to their defense and won. With this victory, Ambedkar made a name for himself. But he was going to become more known when he locked horns with Gandhi himself, demanding that the Depressed Classes receive their own separate electorate, just like how the Muslims and the Hindus had their own. Gandhi was anxious not to create more division. Division based on religion was grievous enough, but dividing the Hindu electorate based on caste was unacceptable. Gandhi was going to fast unto death to oppose Ambedkar’s proposition for separate electorates. Fortunately, the two men found a way to compromise. The Poona Pact was signed in 1932, where the untouchables did receive a reservation of electoral seats in the British Legislature. Ambedkar never forgave Gandhi. But during this time many noticed Ambedkar as more than just a Dalit leader. He was a political thinker.

Eventual Victory – When India was on track to get Poorna Swaraj, Ambedkar (who never joined the Indian National Congress) was asked to become Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee. As Chairman, he led the Committee with his clear vision of what India should be – a fair, free democracy that valued liberty, equality and fraternity. Nehru also invited Ambedkar to become India’s first Law Minister.

Ambedkar who was once treated as sub-human was sought after for his sharp mind and wisdom. No one cared for his caste (or if they did, they dared not let their prejudice be known). They only cared about his ideas, and whether they liked them or not, they were all listening keenly till the end.

If this was a movie, then it would end with the hero winning – a standing ovation, or a shower of petals or a walk into the sunset.

Ambedkar’s narrative arc is that of a man who rose from nothing to something, and carried us all together with him, taking the role of India’s moral voice in its early years.

The Problem with Using Archetypical Plots in History

History writers and teachers have always employed one of the 7 standard plotlines from the very beginning of time. Think of any famous historical figure and you will find that they conveniently fit into one of these standard plots.

Gandhi’s tale is told to us as a Voyage and Return plot, where Gandhi grows up as an average boy in India, sails to South Africa where his adventures in this strange and deeply racist land leads him to the discovery of non-violence as a potent political weapon against injustice; a weapon he returns to India with in order to push the British out and free India forever.

Nelson Mandela’s story can be told as one of Rebirth, where prior to his imprisonment Mandela was leader of a violent guerilla group, but over his 27 year long imprisonment, he emerged as a voice for non-violence, forgiveness and peace.

Telling their stories in this manner can leave students or readers inspired, if that is the intention of the story. In addition to inspiring, one of the chief concerns of any good educator is to get students to think for themselves. Often stories like these glorify historical figures and encourage blind hero-worship. Is that the purpose of history teaching? To simply make us feel proud or feel in awe of these men and occasional women who changed the world?

There is a risk of over-simplification and glossifying history for the sake of good story-telling, but I argue that employing archetypical narrative arcs or plot lines have their place in the classroom, especially where critical thinking and reflection are valued

Employing Archetypical Narrative Arcs to Support Critical Reflection

Story-telling has been a powerful teaching method from the very beginning of time. From time to time, it has been used to rewrite history to conveniently persuade the listener to share the values of the story-teller.

But as teachers of any subject, one of our goals is to create independent critical thinkers. If we keep this goal always in sight, we will be less likely to stray.

Powerful narratives are a great way to hold a class’s interest and keep them hooked till the very end of the lesson. But, more importantly, it is a great way of showing, not telling, history. Ambedkar’s story isn’t just the story of a determined man who wanted to rise out of his miserable conditions. It is very much about the perniciousness of the caste system, about the ideas of social equality and justice that he tried to ensure had a place in the Constitution, as well as the revival of Buddhism in India.

For stories to work, it is important for a teacher or writer of history to be always aware that the story is a tool. They should not fall into the trap of actually believing that a fully-lived life can cosily fit into these constructed arcs. Life does not just abruptly cut off at the high point because it would be convenient for the audience. Life ends whenever it chooses to; in Ambedkar’s case the story did not just end when he occupied a seat in Nehru’s Cabinet.

The interesting parts of the story are those that do not fit in the narrative arc. It’s when you draw your students’ attention to the unruly bits that stick out of the template. Like in Ambedkar’s case, it is about how he was always restless and dissatisfied with his own work. He resigned from his position in Nehru’s cabinet after Parliament failed to pass the Hindu Code Bill that sought to protect gender equality in marriage and inheritance in one go. After resigning, Ambedkar stood for elections as an independent candidate on two separate occasions. He lost both times and then, he died in 1956.

I asked my class what they thought was on his mind the most in those last months, when he apparently worked just as had as he always had even though he was very sick. Did they think he was reflecting on his role in writing the Constitution, the moral conscience of India, or the fact that he lost the recent elections and wasn’t directly in government any more?

Life is more complicated than fiction. This inconvenient little ending to the otherwise perfect story had my class a little unsettled. One child found it hard to believe that even after all he had done, he was still unable to win an election. Was it because of caste? Was it because he wasn’t a good politician? He asked questions that got other people thinking. The class fell silent for a while. Then, he said that sometimes even when we do our best, people don’t notice. It happens to all of us – we try very hard and the others don’t really care that we did. There were murmurs of agreement, as am sure many thought back to times when their efforts were unappreciated.

The conscious inclusion of narrative arcs in our lessons makes a difference, but only as long as we use it carefully, remaining truthful to the actual story and focussing on the showing, rather than the telling of the lesson.

The Story of the State Emblem of India: Oertel’s Discovery of Ashoka’s Lion Capital and Dinanath Bhargav Who Put it on Our Constitution

Name: Ashoka Lion Capital
Date of Issue: 15 Dec 1947
Denomination: 1.5 Annas
Source: India Postage Stamps

In December 1947, Independent India’s Postal Service issued three stamps. One was the flag, another was an aircraft, and the third was India’s National Emblem – the Ashoka Lion Capital of Sarnath. This is the story of the Lion Capital and how it found its way onto a stamp.

Rediscovering the Lion Capital

Sarnath, if you don’t already know, is a short drive outside Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh). It gets cold in the winter but it’s blazing hot in the summer. If you were an archaeologist planning a dig in this famed Buddhist holy site, you are going to prefer working in the relatively dry winter and spring, instead of the hot summer and wet monsoon. Accordingly, Friedrich Oscar Oertel, a civil engineer from the Public Works Department, arrived in Sarnath in December 1904. He was an amateur archaeologist and had been looking forward to the dig that he had planned with the Archaeology Survey of India. He had four months before the summer heat made it impossible to work and there was no way he could know what was waiting for him under the mud.

F.O Oertel looking snazzy in his archaeologist get up, casually smoking his pipe (1892, Burma). Source: Wikipedia.

Archaeology had become a trending subject since the end of the 19th century all across the British empire – from Egypt to India. In Egypt, his colonial counterparts were discovering Mummies and temples in the sands, while in India, the British were unearthing Buddhist stupas across Bihar, UP, Haryana, ancient temples, caves and other unimaginable treasures. And Oertel wanted in on the action.

Oertel was in Sarnath for just one season, from December 1904 to April 1905, but it was a magical dig. Here is a picture of the dig during that time.

From the ASI archives, this image shows a fragment of the pillar in the foreground and the immaculate lion capital behind it. It is surrounded by other treasures rediscovered over the course of the dig. You can also see workers working the site in the background.

Oertel had reason to believe that there were things to find at Sarnath. His predecessors had been finding several relics and fragments of life from ancient India. But what he stumbled upon was beyond his imagining. During the dig he came upon broken bits of what was recognisably one of Ashoka’s pillars. The great king Ashoka was known by this point because many of his other pillars had been rediscovered by various British archaeologists across Bihar, UP and Haryana. James Prinsep, the famed British scholar and orientalist, had already managed to translate the inscriptions on these pillars that told us the story of the legendary peace loving king.

Over the course of his dig, Oertel came across one of the best preserved Ashoka capital. It was nearly 7 feet tall with four lions sitting with their backs to each other and their mouths open. They sat on a base that had a frieze of sculptures of a lion, elephant, bull and horse, each separated by wheels or chakras. This abacus, in turn, was atop an inverted lotus. It was all made of polished sandstone. The discovery sent waves through the small but passionate little community of archaeologists around the world.

A year later, Oertel applied to return to Sarnath, but the United Provinces (UP region) was in the throes of an awful famine and his request was denied. He continued his expeditions elsewhere, finding other things that he often shipped back to England to add to the growing collections of art from the colonies in British museums. The Lion Capital of Sarnath, however, remained in Sarnath.

From a Museum in Sarnath to India’s State Emblem

A little over four decades later, India was getting ready for her independence. Among the weighty responsibility of putting together a Constitution, the Constituent Assembly also decided that India’s State Emblem should be the Ashoka’s Lion Capital. All countries need emblems. Emblems or symbols are visual representations of a nation’s values, history and goals. Ashoka’s Lion Capital was meant to remind the Indian citizen of our ancient and illustrious history. We are the descendants of the great Ashoka, who after his bloody war with Kalinga, reflected on his actions and gave up violence and territorial ambition for peace and leading his people righteously. During Ashoka’s time, the four lions with their open mouths were spreading Buddha’s message in the four cardinal directions, but a secular India detached the Lion Capital from its religious symbolism. Instead, the four lions came to mean a young nation’s pride, courage, power and confidence.

But, the image you see in the stamp is not a photograph of the Lion Capital. The Constituent Assembly needed an illustration that captured the essence of the capital but that could be easily reproduced as rubber stamps and be printed as stamps and letter heads. Enter Dinanath Bhargava.

This is a picture of Dinanath Bhargava at the time of his retirement. He was commissioned by his mentor Nandalal Bose to design the State Emblem for the Constitution. The emblem includes the words Satyamev Jayate (Truth is always victorious) from the Mandukya Upanishad. Source: Times of India

Dinanath Bhargava was a 21 year old art student in Shantiniketan. His teacher, Nandalal Bose, had been asked to design and illustrate the official Constitution, and Dinanath had been selected to work on a particularly important project. He was to design the National Emblem. So, the 21 year old would wake up early, get on a bus and head to the Kolkata zoo to look at the lions. He practiced drawing lions for a month before he got down to designing the emblem. His design made it to the cover of the original illuminated Constitution of India. That’s quite an achievement for a man in his early twenties. Bhargava grew into a well known artist. He revived folk art by bringing Madhubani paintings to cloth, brought and supported the carpet making industry in Gwalior, introduced double-decker looms in textile manufacturing and designed Chanderi sarees. He was the director of All India Handloom Board when he retired in 1986.

When I was reading about Dinanath Bhargava, I wondered if his parents were worried when he said he wanted to be an artist. Probably.

Indian history is littered with anonymous artists who have had enormous impacts on our culture. But I am glad we know of Dinanath Bhargava and others like Nandalal Bose, his teacher, so that we know whom to be grateful to.

The cover of the hand illustrated and calligraphied Constitution of India. Source: Wikisource.org

Resources:

  1. India’s State Emblem: A 2,300 Year Old Story by Carol Lobo for Live History India
  2. Dinanath Bhargava is the man who sketched and illuminated India’s national emblem by Rajan K for Speaking Tree
  3. Stupa-hopping in Sarnath by Rana Safvi for The Hindu
  4. Friedrich Oertel: The Man Who “Found” India’s State Emblem by Janhavi Patgaonkar for Live History India 
  5. The camera and the spade: Photography in the making archaeological knowledge by Sudeshna Guha from Researchgate
  6. Copy of the Original Constitution of India on the Library of Congress website.

Stamp #4: Stalin, Mao, Lenin and E.M.S. Namboodiripad on the Streets of Kochi

As we drove into Kochi, red flags with the hammer and sickle greeted us almost as soon as we entered the city. My son, whose energy and patience were flagging, suddenly perked up. “Wait!” he said. “Where are we?”

It was like we had entered another alternate universe. My son who had been studying about Indian democracy and who has been exposed to ample anti-communist, anti-China rhetoric through the media was surprised to see Mao smile benignly at him from behind parked vehicles.

Nearly every other lamp post and pillar had him exclaiming in delighted horror. “Isn’t that Hugo Chavez!” he cried, before he spotted Stalin standing guard outside the entrance of a Pay and Park lot. Karl Marx was expected, but Maradona’s smiling face confused all of us and demanded some quick googling to find the connection between Maradona and Communism. Turns out Maradona was an anti-American Leftist.

By the time we reached our hotel room, Kerala’s Communist party propoganda had been so successful that I myself was wondering if I had remembered history correctly. I mean, maybe Stalin wasn’t so bad… and I never knew Mao could look so gentle and kind. I may have misjudged the man.

Over our weekend in Kochi, we could not escape the hammer and sickle at all. And I began to wonder how Communism took hold in Kerala? And why has it survived? Afterall, history has not been kind to Communism. There are 5 nations that call themselves communist today: Cuba, North Korea, China, Laos and Vietnam and I wonder if any of them had Stalin staring sternly at cars entering a pay and park lot.

Communist leaders abroad have always concerned themselves with class struggle and the inequities of industrial economies. Yet despite typical Indian hero worship (parents even name their children after Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev – listen to this interesting podcast about why they do), political thinkers in Kerala were original thinkers. The founding fathers of Kerala’s Communist party, like EMS Namboodiripad, P. Krishna Pillai and A.K. Gopalan, saw socialism and communism as a possible solution to the social inequalities caused by caste, gender and religious discrimination.

EMS Namboodiripad (EMS) came from the highest landowning caste in Kerala. The Namboodiris are the Brahmins and at the time, they were a feudal elite who intermarried with the Nairs (the caste of the monarchs) to dominate society, art, culture, politics and even the economy. While EMS could have led a comfortable life, he was influenced by a rising political awakening across the nation in the 1920s. Like AK Gopalan, his comrade who came from the Nair class, and P. Krishna Pillai, he was inspired by Gandhi’s satyagrahas and joined the Indian National Congress.

But over time, like many other regional political thinkers and actors, EMS and others were increasingly disillusioned by Gandhi’s particular blend of politics and spirituality. While Gandhi might be what was needed to get national independence, Gandhi’s method did not feel practical to the issue of caste discrimination, gender inequality nor did it address the issues of landless peasants. EMS came to see Gandhi as a “Hindu fundamentalist” and yet he also recognised Gandhi as a complex person and had embraced his ideas of simple living.

In 1939, after leaning more and more to the left, first within the Congress party, and then out of it, EMS, Krishna Pillai and AK Gopalan formed the Communist Party in Kerala. In 1956, when Kerala became a state, EMS became its first Chief Minister – the first and only non-Congress chief minister in India at the time.

How had the Communist party become so successful? I think this is because of the grassroots efforts of the Communist party in Kerala. Krishna Pillai, still fondly remembered as a founding father of Communism, died at the age of 42 while hiding from authorities in a little hut. He was bitten by a snake. Although a leader of great repute, his premature death isn’t very surprising because he lived an action packed life. Coming from a poor family and having left home early to make his way in the world, Pillai was uniquely qualified to understand the suffering and the needs of the masses. Everywhere he went his emotional attachment to the cause and his personal interest in the people was evident, and so Pillai became an effective missionary of sorts. He brought Communism to all corners of his state and made an intellectual philosophy a meaningful cause. Of course, the British and the Indian government had concerns about Communists and all their talk of armed revolution, but it is important to note that apart from the Punappra Vayalar uprising against the Diwan of Travancore in 1946, Kerala’s Communists functioned within the India’s democratic multi-party framework and grew increasingly popular because were addressing specific social problems.

So when Kerala became a state in 1956, EMS became the chief minister, because the people in Kerala were familiar with the Communist Party. Those in power in Kerala society trembled because with his arrival came also terrible signs that things were about to change. EMS quickly set about making aggressive agrarian land reforms by capping the amount of land anyone could own and passing ownership of land to tenants who had been working that soil for generations. Although he could not immediately bring these land reform laws into action, eventually it went a long way in redistributing land and opportunity across Kerala.

Unfortunately, he perhaps tried to do too much too soon. His controversial attempts to reform private education to make it more accessible to all, led to vast, mostly peaceful protests led by the Syrian Catholic Church, Nairs and the Congress. In 1959, EMS was forced to resign and Kerala was under President’s rule for a while. He came back to power in the 1960s where he was able to pass more reform laws and today is credited for the state’s high literacy rates.

A curious thing I learnt as I read about EMS and other Communist thinkers in India was how international the Communist movement was. Indian Communist thinkers like M.N. Roy travelled outside India, even meeting Lenin, and helped other countries with their own movements. During the Sino-Indian war in 1962, Communists like EMS remained neutral – choosing to side with neither Mao-led China nor their own nation, India. Isn’t that curious? In the minds of the early Communists what came first – the political ideology or their nation? And what about Indian Communists today?

At any rate, today, nearly 75 years later, from the looks of things Communism is still going strong in Kerala. It bypasses religious differences by being vocally atheistic. Their gods were the faces we saw on the sides of Kochi’s street – Lenin, Maradona, Hugo Chavez, Engels, Marx, EMS, Krishna Pillai and others. Like the hundreds of Hindu gods who smile down at us from prints on the wall, in calendars, wedding invitations and car stickers, they are more or less forgotten in our daily busy-ness, and only remembered in times of crisis or when in need of inspiration.