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

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)

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.