'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Ram Guha And Amitav Ghosh

"All told, the Bengali has shown a keener and more durable interest in other (foreign) cultures than, say the Marathi or the Tamil. ... Satyajit Ray was at one point both Bengali and British, then, at another point, Bengali and French....Perhaps the last Bhadralok thinker to be both Bengali and Indian was Tagore.... the ordinary folk - 'Sadharan Lok' - of Bengal are genuinely interested in the rest of India, the self-proclaimed intellectual, never"

- Ramachandra Guha

I have met and known people from all over India. A disproportionately large number of my acquaintances have been Bengalis; and up to a certain point of time, almost all Bs I knew were of the ultra Academic variety. I admit they were among the more interesting sets of people - in ethnicity terms - I have got to know. This longish post is on just one aspect of the 'standard' B intellectual's mindset - how he/she views the cultural formations of the rest of India, especially the South. And this post is also the take of someone who has never visited B country. Note: over the years, I have get to know a few non-Academic Bs too (including one unique character encountered in Pondicherry, somone who easily ranks in the top ten of the most unique people I have known, but I won't be able to say anything about him here and now).

When I read eminent writer and historian Ramachandra Guha's review of Amartya Sen's 'Argumentative Indian' (appeared more than a year ago and now, not available online), it rang a bell, loud and clear. Let me quote a bit from fading memory:
"The Bengali intellectual, when searching for examples to illustrate his theses, provides a rich variety of selections from his own language and culture and once he leaves home, makes a straight dash for Paris, Moscow, Havana or the US for illumination - the rest of India does not count for much."

Amartya Sen does use some non-B Indian examples to make his points, but almost all of them belong to a few distant categories - medieval Mughal/Islamic or ancient Vedic or Buddhist; and then, he moves to the world at large, giving contemporary 'Rest of India' a rather short shrift (his often articulated admiration of the 'Kerala model' of social development is, I believe, quite a different matter). When Gandhi appears in his book, it mostly to argue with (and sort of suffer in comparison to) Tagore. Guha points firmly at Maharashtra as a region that contributed at least as much as Bengal to the Indian renaissance of the 19th and early 20th century, and says it is a contribution Sen has totally failed to note. This is not to say Sen is dismissive of the other Indian states - they just don't seem to excite him too much. And Guha avers, his attitude is quite representative of the B intellectuals'.

My own first impression in this matter came from a TV Science Quiz show named 'Quest' which Doordarshan used to air in the Eighties. Produced by the Calcutta Center of DD, it always featured two competing teams drawn from bright Calcutta schoolers; these teams were perpetually named the 'Albert Einstein team' and the 'S.N.Bose team'. I distinctly remember thinking: "They could have named the 'other' team after Raman or Chandrasekhar or...but they have gone for straight to Einstein himself, as if this is some Bengal versus Rest of the World contest. Where the hell is the *rest of India*?!"

And over long years, I too formed an image of Bengali intelligentia that was not too different from what Guha sketches. In more volatile times, I had even tried to impress on some academic Bs I knew well, that such a thing as Rest of India exists and it counts for something - and got some interesting results. Here are some examples (*):


Example 1: Chennai, mid '90s. Myself and a Telugu friend ('Gult' hereafter) asked a Bengali colleague why he does not like Carnatic music as much as Hindustani (well, it might appear Hindustani music is not really pure B but at least in modern times Bs have contributed as much to it as anybody else).

Note: The B here (let me call him B1) was quite into culture and knew Urdu poetry by Faiz and Spanish poetry by Neruda as well as his Tagore and Jibanananda Das.

B1: Karnatic is mostly about devotion, sort of a devotion to a personal God. I am not very religious. And all this unvarying piety .... puts me off.

Self: But Hindustani also has a very strong devotional aspect. And you do listen to it.

B1: But devotion is only a *part* there, whether Hindustani or Rabindra Sangeet. Here, it is the whole thing. You know, it is like for us, rice mixed with curd can be a side dish but out here, curd rice can be the entire meal. That is something I don't enjoy so much!

Gult: Curd rice does not make up the entire meal even here! Anyways, if you look at say Tagore, he is almost always devotional; at least mystical, in his music.

B1: That is not true; his work spans the whole range of human experience. And even when he is devotional, he does not keep calling God names, like a 'Sahashra Namam' or something. He does a lot more than that.

Self: The 'Sahasra Namam' is not really a Carnatic music composition. So...

B1: Well, what I meant, the gist of what I said is, here the themes are limited. I prefer emotions, nature, landscapes, seasons,... they have much wider appeal than just personal devotion. And even the way people approach music is so religious here, for example, the devotion to Tyagaraja, the chanting....

Self: That is only a display of reverence to a teacher.

Gult: Yes, even Tagore was addressed as 'Gurudev'. So, what is wrong with the Tyagaraja Aradhana?

B1: Nothing wrong as such. But, the degree of it... well, I have seen people treat Tyagaraja as a God, doing Puja to him and stuff. Even some non-Musical people, even they keep his pictures in the wallet!

Self: Tyagaraja in the wallet??

B1: Well, that picture of an old man who looks like a Fokir and is dressed in rags, always sits with his legs crossed....

Gult: Baboi!! (eyes turned up in reverence) Om Sairam!


Example 2: Hyderabad, late 90's. A Bengali Physicist ('B2'), who had been in the 'South' for a few *years* told me:

B2: Hey you know what, today I was in bus and listening to the cricket commentary on my pocket radio. There was a loud roar of the crowd and the chap from the front seat turns and asks: "Outtaa?" Strange, these Telugus pronounce zebra as 'jebra' and earth as 'yerth' but 'outtaa' for 'out'. Too much!

Self: That chap spoke Telugu. What he asked, when translated into English would be "Is (someone) out?"

B2: But why 'outtaa'?

Self: 'out' is a technical term which he did not translate or even distort as you said. The 'aa' ending is sufficient to frame a question with 'out'. So he asked you a question in Telugu with an English technical word - and you misunderstood!

B2: You mean, the problem was that I do not know Telugu?

Self: Certainly. If you knew even a bit of it, you would not have found what he said ridiculous, at least. But why would you care to learn a language you find funny upfront?

B2: Hey, by any chance, you mean to say, I am a language chauvinist?

Self: Not yet! Anyways,.... how did you reply?

B2: I told him: "Not outtaa! Sixeraa!"

Note added in 2010: Much after this post was written, Shah Rukh (he is of course, no Bengali) tried to mock Rajnikanth with "Yennada Rascalaa?!" - a daft passage from Om Shanti Om - which many in the Northern part of the country seemed to think was very funny!

More recently, when I read (eminent Bong writer and scholar) Amitav Ghosh's 'Hungry Tide', I could not help feeling how B-centered the work was (actually, there was nothing B-chauvinistic in it but my own world-line made me look at it in a particular way although I was no longer among B academcians - indeed *any* academicians).

And then, the other day, I saw 'In an Antique Land' by Amitav Ghosh himself. Leafing thru it, I found myself reading the chapter 'Mangalore'; and boy, it was one hell of a brain exercise. Decoding a name spelt 'BMA' in an obscure Arab manuscript as 'Brahma' and correcting it to 'Bomma', Ghosh launches into an incredibly rich and cerebral exploration of medieval maritime Malabar and Tulunad - details touched upon include the 'Babbariya Bhuta'(**) cult of Mangalore and its contemporary form, the Vachanas of the great social reformer Basavanna,...; and places visited in the sweep of his exploration include, apart from Mangalore itself, 'Dahfattan' (modern 'Dharmadom', Ghosh tells us), 'Fandarin' ('Panthalayini Kollam') and even the remoter 'Jurbattan' ('Srikandapuram' - I could not make out the connection here) in Kerala. Ghosh also informs me that 'Samutiri', the traditional title of the Raja of Calicut was derived from 'Samudra', the ocean, Calicut being a very maritime state - something no Kerala history text I studied mentions.

Must say, with this profound interest in a region of India far removed from his (in the process, Ghosh has more than doubled my knowledge of Tulunad, which lies right next door to my native Kerala) and the loving detail in which he has marshalled data and worked out his ideas, Ghosh has certainly provided a telling counter example to Guha's thesis (and mine)!


(*) - Anecdotal evidence is dicey, I know, but that is all I have. And (in all respect to Guha) I suspect Guha's issue with B intellectuals sprang from the *behavior* of some specific B's he met in his academic life as much as from broad statistics he might well have accumulated. He gives an example, complete with the accurate transliteration of B accent (something I did not try in reproducing the dialogs above) here:
(search for the string ‘Ei shala Jawaharlal Nehru shapotaar!’). Of course, although I too have had parallel expreiences when I was in the academic circus, my life has since happily diversified and I have got to know quite a few 'normal' Bongs as well.

(**) - the 'Bobbariya Bhuta', Ghosh tells us, is the spirit of a Muslim trader and seafarer who died at sea. I guess the name is derived from 'Berber', the north African ethnic group from which many traders and explorers hailed - ibn Batuta for instance (more recently, this group also produced soccer maestro Zinedine Zidane). There are parallels between this cult and that of 'Vavar Swami' of Kerala, traditionally a Muslim lieutenant and friend to Ayyappa of Sabarimala. This Vavar is also said to have been a maritime guy (although not sure if he died at sea) so, the spirit of Mangalore might well be him - or a close parallel. And let me add, I had all along thought 'Vavar' to be a corruption of 'Babar' but now, it looks more likely to have been a derivative of 'Berber'!


  • At 10:21 PM, Blogger Ananya said…

    Very interesting blog.
    I share some of the 'misconceptions' about Karnatic music mentioned in the blog. I still feel that the non-bakti rasas are also associated with Gods- although my exposure to karnatic music is very limited.
    happy blogging.

  • At 3:27 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    thanks ananya.

    i myself am a layman. but the "exclusively devotional allegation" seems to apply only to the 'kirtana' aspect of south indian classical music. there is a whole range of music employed in bharatanatyam, kuchipudi and mohiniattom and so on which, while being quite classical (the musical content of bharatanatyam appears closest to 'standard' karnatic music), expresses the entire range of human emotions; in mohiniattom it is almost always amorous love (at any rate, not proper 'bhakti'). and then there is 'sopana sangeetam', a classical genre in its own right, which is used in kathakali for instance.

    so, it is clear that old bong1 was oversimplifying. yes, in comparison to hindustani, there are less of nature - landscapes and seasons - featured in the south indian musical works. moreover, the synesthetic association of ragas with times of the day and seasons (a truly remarkable discovery of hindustani) is left unexplored.

  • At 6:42 PM, Blogger Ravi Mundkur said…

    Dear Nanda Kumar
    I came to visit your blog while searching for Bobbariya!
    a nice blog of various thought and informations.Please find some time to spend at my blog on tulu-research@blogspot
    Ravi Mundkur

  • At 5:39 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    hi ravi,

    belated thanks for visiting. shall visit tulu-research. thanks for the invite.


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