Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Women changing rural India: Sarpanch Sahib

Common perception is that in spite of poverty and under-development, women in South Asia have played a much more active role in leadership and politics of their countries and their communities than in the western “developed” world. Persons like Sirimavo Bhandaranayike, Indira Gandhi, Sheikh Hasina, Benazir Bhutto, Mayawati and Aung San Kyi are responsible for this common perception. Yet, those who know the reality of our world, know that for most women, especially in rural areas, their lives are often closed in the boundaries of traditions, hidden behind veils, bound by rules of caste and class.

India started an experiment in 1993 to change this apparently immutable world of rural women by reserving certain election seats at village council level (Gram Panchayats) for them. At that time, many persons had thought that this would not change anything, men will continue to decide and rule as usual, using their wives or mothers or daughter-in-laws as a cover.

Initially almost all the women who entered the poltical arena because of this policy, were in some way forced by their families. Most of them did not receive any training for the roles they were asked to take on. Almost fifteen years later, it is perhaps time to take stock and understand how this change has worked out in practice and if indeed there has been a change?

Yes, in spite of all the cynicism and active obstruction by old political power-brokers, the experiment has started to bring about a change. “Sarpanch Sahib – Changing the face of India”, edited by Manjima Bhattacharjya (Harper Collins India with India Today and The Hunger Project, 2009), tells the stories of some such women who became presidents of their Gram Panchayats (village councils).


The stories of the book are told by women like Manju Kapur, Indira Maya Ganesh, etc. and are immensely readable. They talk of villages from different parts of India. To understand what these women went through and continue to pass through, what it means for them to live lives of poverty and yet strive for better governance against all odds, makes for a humbling experience.

I liked all the stories. They are succcess stories, even if they show that nothing is easy and at times, the idea of “success” does not quite express what they have achieved. They show that change in the unchanging world of rural poverty, could be almost imperceptible. Like the story of a person like Kenchamma, a dalit woman, who continues to shell betel nuts for a living, even while she is into her second term in the Gram Panchayat. Like this passage from her story:
Quite far removed from the Kenchamma of 1993, who cried in humiliation as she returned from her first meetings, bewildered and frustated at not being able to say anything. We were walking through the village and my eyes fall on her callused hands. She points to the skin of betel nut strewn in piles every where. She did four sacks yesterday. At 50 rupees a box she makes 200 rupees for the day. ...An uneducated Dalit woman has done for her village what seasoned political aspirants have not. But what has she got in return? What does one make of this strange sort of limbo? Thins have changed so much over one generation – from Cariappa’s to his daughter-in-law’s, yet they remain disturbingly unchanged.
Kenchamma has been president of the panchayat twice and is now a grudgingly respected member of the village community – respected by Dailts and Lingayats. But she is still a poor Dalit woman. As if being any other way would be improper. Improper not to live in a thatched, leaking mud hut, or to plaster her house, to not struggle for daily wages, improper to imagine other livelihoods, work not just for the village but make a career out of governance and use the 10 years of hands-on learning she has had. The boundaries have been pushed, but still only from the limits of the home to the village. Isn’t it enough that you have been allowed to reach this far, the voices seem to suggest?
I think that Kenchammas of this world are wise, they know that entrenched social hierarchies can react back with terrible fury if they feel that the status quo is being challenged. They know that they can not count on any one else to protect them. So they bide their time, they accept to continue to living lives of poverty and marginalisation, even while achieving small changes, providing education for their children. They are not aiming for revolutions, they are aiming for a change. Most of us from worlds far away from theirs, including many development experts, are frustrated with this path of slow change.

Perhaps we, or some of us, would have preferred revolutions?

I would recommend this book to everyone, especially those who think that they know India, that they are building the modern new India, that they are bringing in the progress. It would bring a sense of balance in what they think about themselves and gain some respect for those Kanchammas, working in far away places to bring small changes in rural India, taking personal risks that most of us wouldn't have the courage to take.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Migrating souls: Leaving India by Minal Hajratwala

Books and stories that talk about immigrant experience fascinate me. Stories about Indian immigrant experience, their second generations in their new homelands, fascinate me even more. I have realised that when I read them, I talk to myself all the time.


At one place in the book, Minal says, “Deep in the marrow of every story is a silence”. Perhaps, it is there, in that silence, that the reader and the author can meet and talk, about what was left unsaid and what can not be expressed in words. In that sense, it was particularly hard to read “Leaving India – my family’s journey from five villages to five continents”, because our parallel dialogue in that silence was at times so intense.

When I start realising that I am liking a book and that I would like to write about that it, I start bending the corners of those pages that have particular passages that touch me in a special way, so that when I write I go back and refer to those particular passages.

In “Leaving India”, I have marked so many pages, that if I try to write all the feeling they evoke in me, probably I will end up writing a bigger book. So I will not even attempt to write all those things.

I read it almost in one go, over a period of three days. And, I had to stop myself at times, to put aside the book and go for a small walk, just to think, and also to prolong the joy of reading it.

Minal’s family’s journey starts from five villages in south Gujarat, at a time when there was no state called “Gujarat”, in late nineteenth century. Poverty and dreams of making a mark in far away parts of the British empire, take away the men, leaving their wives with their children in Gujarat. Slowly, the wives also follow their husbands and then as fortunes of the empire change, and new opportunties arise, the emigrants change homes, searching for more hospitable lands where they can grow their families in peace and dignity.

Among all the stories, the one which touched me most was the story of Bhupendra and Bhanu, Minal’s parents, probably because I could empathise and understand more the kind of problems they went through. Among all the pages that I had marked, I have decided to take one passage from this part of the book that touches on the challenges and opportunities that emigration experience can give us:
In New Zealand, Bhanu might have become small and huddled; our lives there were always slightly shabby, as if the gray of the skies had settled over our skins, clothes, hopes. In Fiji, she would have been one of the several daughter-in-law, bickering for position in a chaotic and quarrelsome extended family. In India she could have lived a life of middle– or upper-class privilege, with ahousehold of maids to supervise.
In America my mother bloomed like a tropical flower, colourful, with a thick, strong stem, petals as sturdy as bark....
Slowly we became – all four of us – American. For Bhupendra and Bhanu this would become clearer with each visit to India or Fiji. Although they tried to blend in, to do as the locals did, the mask was less and less perfect. The changes were physiological: they oculd not drink the water, had to be careful about what they ate ... The changes were also psychological. They found they simply could not understand why certain things were as they were, how people could stand to live that way.
You don’t need to move to USA to realise that you have changed. Shifting from Patna to Delhi or Mumbai can change you equally. Going to university, living on your own, every change marks your difference. In that sense, you don’t need to be an emigrant to understand what Minal is writing about.

Minal’s own journey as a second generation emigrant growing up in USA, was also interesting since through it I could imagine a dialogue with my son and see his growing up experinece. He himself would never talk of such things with me, and unless he decides to write a book about himself one day, I have no way to enter that world.

Minal’s own journey is much tougher, I think, compared to my son’s journey, since it is linked to her struggle to live her sexuality that doesn’t fit in with the heterosexual “normality” of the traditional family.

As the world globalises, I think that Minal Hazratwala’s book tells a story that is more universal, that can be understood and felt by all those who move away from the places where they grew up, from villages to the cities, from one country to another.

LEAVING INDIA, My Family’s Journey From Five Villages to Five Continents, by Minal Hajratwala, 2008, published by Houghton Mifftin Harcourt company USA e Tranquebar press India.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Indian Dalit & European Roma

In a recent magazine section of The Hindu (22 November 2009), there was an interesting article of Pardeep Attri on sharing of ideas and experiences between Indian dalit activists and European Roma (Gypsies) activists.

Growing up in India, I had seen the impact of caste based discrimination and exploitation. Over the past ten years, I am living in a place in Bologna (Italy) where some Roma families have been settled. So I have also had the opportunity to see how Roma persons are treated there. However, I feel that in emotional terms, I can understand much better the discrimination and exploitation of Dalits in India, while many of the basic issues regarding discrimination of Roma persons still remain a mystery for me.

Attri’s article

In his article Pardeep Attri has written about some Hungarian Roma activists who had read about Dr Ambedkar’s struggle for the rights of Dalits to live with dignity and visited Maharashtra to learn more about it and to create links with them. Later Attri himself visited Hungary to interact with Roma communities there. He has written about his experience of visiting a Roma village in Hungary.

Like Dalits in India, it seems that as a result of this India-Hungarian collaboration, some of the Romas in Hungary have converted to Buddhism:

My experiences with Roma persons

For a long time in Italy, I didn’t have much opportunity to observe persons who are easily identified as Roma. In Italian the political correct term to call them is Rom while most persons use a more derogatory term of “Zingaro” (plural, zingari). I had mostly seen them as beggers outside churches or as persons playing music in the buses or trains to earn money or as persons running the amusement parks that are set up as a visiting fair in the outskirts of the city.

Some of them look very Indian, especially women, who look like Rajasthani women, with a long ghagra like skirt and blouse, often with small babies in their arms and usually surrounded by many children of varying ages. It automatically created a sense of kinship for me.

There are two issues in terms of my personal experiences related to Roma persons. First is that these experiences probably relate to a certain group of Roma persons, who are not integrated in the communities where they live, and who are considered as representatives of all Roma persons.

The second issue is that inspite of feelings of emotional kinship and beliefs in inherent dignity and equality of all persons, I find it very difficult to relate to them.

This difficulty of relationship arises because they seem to be refusing many of the social conventions of living together. For example, it seems that they have not taken bath or washed clothes, they wear tattered clothes. Some times shoeless children can be seen in minus zero temperatures of Bologna winter in small sweaters, shivering in the tremendous cold. They often speak loudly and use offensive language. Some of them smell of alcohol even in the morning so that when they enter the bus, most persons refuse to sit next to them. Some of them, don’t throw the garbage in the boxes but leave it on the road. Sometimes, you can see them taking out garbage bags from the big garbage collection boxes, searching for things that can be sold or recycled, and at the end they walk away leaving all the garbage scattered around on the road.

Some of these things are more about poverty and lack of education, a result of the exclusion, and thus part of a vicious cycle, where exclusion and poverty reinforce more exclusion and poverty.

One of my friend’s wife works with Roma children and according to her the situation of Roma persons in Italy is as bad as Attri describes in his article. They are poor, most of them live in open areas where there is no tap water, no electricity, no sewage disposal. Most of their children, do not go to school or complete it, even if Italy has almost hundred percentage coverage of free universal education.

The unanswered questions

The situation of Roma persons raises so many questions in my mind that I can’t answer and for which, I don’t have any clear understanding. In India, the oppression of Dalits has millenniums-long social tradition, but in Europe, the different socially oppressed groups such as rural poor, were able to throw away the yoke of fiefdoms over the past three hundred years, to create more egalitarian societies, why were Roma persons excluded from this?

Emigrants who don’t share religion, who have different cultures and customs, all have to negotiate how to live with the society that they have chosen to live in. It is not always smooth and there are episodes of racism and discrimination against them. Yet, in a bus, most persons do not move away from an Arab Muslim women whose face is covered with hijab or the African in his long kaftan. Most immigrant children do go to school and are usually the first ones to build bridges with the majority community. The second generations of emigrants do seem to find work and integrate much better.

Jews and Valdes Christians are two of the important minorities in Italy. I am sure that they also experience certain discrimination in at least in some occasions. Yet none of them seems to face the problems that Roma persons do, who have also been in Italy for long time.

I can’t understand the reasons behind this. It seems that by being dirty or being socially disruptive, some Roma persons are saying that they do not want integration and they would like to live as they have always lived, according to their own rules. It is their protest. At the same time, people feel that all Roma persons are like that. They help in perpetuating their own stereotypes?

Is it just poverty that does it? May be it is other cultural issues? May be strong patriarchy that decides who can do what? Perhaps this is only a minority of Roma persons, and there are many more, who have “integrated” and look like other Italians or other emigrants?

May be the roots of nomadism are very strong and integration in the society is an unacceptable goal for some of them?


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Teaching and learning Bharatnatyam: Praveen Kumar

It was just by chance that I came to know Praveen Kumar, the Bharatnatyam maestro from Bangalore. I was in Delhi for holidays and on the last day of my holiday, on an impulse I decided to go and watch his dance performance at India Habitat centre. I had never seen a male Bharatnatyam dance and it was probably that curiosity that drove me to his performance.


It was wonderful to watch him dance and I clicked lot of his pictures during the dance.

After my return to Italy, I added some of his pictures to Kalpana.it and wrote to him, asking him to look at those pictures and that if wanted I would be happy to send him some pictures in higher resolution. He wrote back to me to thank me, and thus we started to correspond.

In November, when I had an opportunity to come to Bangalore for work, I wrote to him, saying that I would like to see him perform and perhaps also while he taught his students. He had just come back home after a dance tour in UK, and he immediately agreed to meet me in Bangalore.

It was not possible to watch him perform nor to see him teach his students because of my busy work schedule. But one afternoon I visited his home and ate wonderful food cooked by his mother. There was besibhele bhat (rice cooked with vegetables, and spices) sandige (balls of puffed rice mixed with gentle spices) and curd rice, followed by rasgullas.

His dance school Chithkala is part of his house and his home, spartan, simple and full of empty spaces, is very tastefully done, reflects his personality with lot of Ganesh statues. His dance school is one big room in minimalist style with a dancing Natraj on one wall, a Ganesh picture in an angle, and a wall covered with mirrors.

After we ate, I asked him if he would give a small performance for me. You are not suppose to dance with a full stomach, but he agreed to give a small performance. It was very thrilling to know that he was dancing just for me, and it was the most wonderful gift that he could have given me.

All through the lunch and then his dance, we talked about his dancing and his life. Here are some excerpts from this informal talk:

Sunil: It is not common to find male Bharatnatyam dancers. How did you decide to become a dancer?

Praveen: I was always dancing. Then my father said, if you are you interested in dance, learn it properly. I was fifteen at that time, I was in high school, that I started to learn dancing. I continued my studies at the same time and became a graphic designer. For one year, I also had a job as a graphic designer. Then I said that my real passion is dance, and I want to take it up properly. So I gave up my job and took to dancing full time and opened my dance school.

Sunil: And your parents, were they happy with this choice? Normally society does not seem to accept male classical dancers.

Praveen: No actually, my parents supported me.

Sunil: Tell me about your Guru, who taught you dancing?

Praveen: My first Guru is now no more. Now I am a disciple of C.V.Chandrasekhar. He is in Chennai. He is 75 years old and still dances. Perhaps you remember him, he was with me during my performance in Delhi.



Sunil: In Chennai? How does that work? And why did you decide to have him as your guru?

Praveen: It was just like that, by chance. I go to Chennai occasionally to be with him. But now looking back, I am very happy that he accepted me as his disciple. It is not easy to find Gurus like him. Many persons can teach Bharatnatyam. They can teach you specific dances on some songs. But they can’t explain the whole thought process that goes behind composing a dance. My Guru is very good because he does not just teach me specific dance steps, but I can learn about the thought process that goes behind making a specific dance.

Sunil: Do you mean a particular school of dance? He can explain the meanings of gestures and their significance?

Praveen: It is more of a particular style of dancing. Each teacher has his or her own style of dancing, so a Guru teaches you that style.

Sunil: But isn’t classical dance mean that you have rules about specific movements and you have to respect them?

Praveen: Yes, there are specific rules of dancing but it is more than that. You can observe life around you and adapt those in your dancing. You look at organisation of a piece, administration of a performance. Not all Gurus think about those. For example, in salsa you start with your hands in this position (makes a gesture with one hand raised up, palms turned downwards), while in Bharatnatyam you start like this (makes another gesture with one arm lifted and palms held upwards), so you can learn from others and then adapt it and incorporte it in your dance.



Sunil: So your Guru doesn’t only teach you specific steps but he can teach you how a dance performance is created?

Praveen: Yes. For example, you may remember one dance from my performance in Delhi. It is usually not done by male dancers. He proposed that I adapt it for my dance. He wrote the lyrics in front of me. And then it’s music was set up. Perhaps it was the first time that a male dancer was doing that dance. Thus, it is not just about learning steps, but I could see and understand the whole creative process in making in that piece of dance.

Sunil: It must be very fulfilling to have students with whom you can share such knowledge and not limit yourself to teaching some dance steps?

Praveen: Yes, it is very fulfilling. Very few students can appreciate that. Among my thirty students, perhaps one or two can have that kind of commitment.

Sunil: You were talking about salsa. Have you ever been to a discotheque?

Praveen (smiling): Not in India. But I have been to discotheques a few times outside India. A few times, when I was in USA and then also in UK. People think that if someone is a classical dancer, he can’t do the discotheque kind of dance, but it was fun and some persons were very surprised that I was dancing like that.

Sunil: Have you ever been to a modern dance workshop like the Jazz dance?

Praveen: Workshops like that abroad are too costly for me and we don’t have many such opportunities here.

Sunil: Attitudes towards males dancing have changed now? Among your students do you have only female students or also some men?

Praveen: Yes, the attitudes have changed. Now we have more men dancing. Among my students I also have a university assistant professor, who is a man.

Sunil: And do you also get students from outside India?

Praveen: Yes, I have had some students who come from other countries to learn dance.

Conclusions: I think that it is a privilege to be able to look behind the public faces of performers and artists and have a glimpse of their lives and their creative processes. I found this particular conversation important for understanding some facets of the teacher-student relationship in learning Bharatnatyam.

Praveen is a gentle person and I am glad that he opened up so easily to share his thoughts. The memory of him dancing just for me in his dancing room will always remain with me. Thank you Praveen.

You can also check the pictures from Praveen's dance performance in Delhi at Kalpana.it.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Kurbaan and the Muslim Reality

I was determined to see at least one Hindi film in a proper cinema hall. The last film I had seen at a cinema hall was Jodha Akbar. In Italy, where I live, Bollywood films are not released and I have to wait to come to India to see them in a cinema hall. Last week I was in Bangalore for work and one evening, after the work finished, I walked into the theater and I saw Kurbaan.

Even though I had read in some newspaper that this film has flopped, at least that particular day when I went to see it, the hall in Forum mall of Bangalore, was quite full. Perhaps it was a hit in Bangalore?


Film: Given a chance, I wouldn’t like to see Kurbaan again, even though it did have lot of plus points, especially in terms of acting from the main actors. I liked all of them, especially Kareena Kapoor. She looks good and is great overall, even more in the emotional scenes. Saif, Vivek and veterans like Om Puri and Kirron Kher, all give credible performances.

The plot of the film is tight, it is fast-paced, so the time does run very quickly. The music and the background score are lovely. "Shukran allah" song is my faviourite. Cinematography is wonderful and shots of the explosions and shootings are done like in Hollywood films.

I had read about some debate about the explicit sexual scenes between Saif and Kareena, and indeed there is one such sequence. I think that it is great that Kareena had the strength to do this scene, since in India, all things related to sexuality are usually shrouded in hypocracy. With a clever use of “Rasiya” song in the background, the scene communicates an underlying sense of danger and pathos, even while stretching the limits of sexual moments shown in Indian films.

At the end of the film, from so many scenes, the images of Kareena remain with me. Like the closing image of the film with the unshed tears in her eyes!

Loops in screenplay: Yet there were times, that I felt like laughing in the film, because of its screenplay - it was all a bit childish and unbelievable. Like the reporter deciding to become a part of the terrorist group or the way American policemen were so easily outsmarted by a lone terrorist or the way FBI is shown  as clueless, running in circles.

After watching scores of Hollywood dramas about the global reach of American secret services, it does seem different to see them as bumbling idiots. The terrorist can run away from scenes of shootings, even with a bullet in his chest, without the police being able to do anything. May be, as a sign of Indo-American friendship, we can send some sniffer dogs from India to the New York Police department.

Avantika (Kareen Kapoor), the Hindu ladylove of the terrorist, wakes up night to call the reporter, but when she goes to a supermarket with her Appa, why she can’t stop a policeman or a security service person to say that the lady accompanying her is her jailor? And when the old lady is whisked away, she can run to the reporter to cry and plead to him for saving her, but can’t just walk away? Or, even when she knows that men are carrying bombs (while she is unaware that her own bag has one bomb), why can’t she talk to persons in the train or security at train station? If at least they had shown that Appa was carrying a gun and had threatened to kill her, her silence could have looked more believable (Appa does carry a gun but Avantika does not know about it).

So while the film looks and sounds good, if you think about the story, it does seem full of loopholes and not very credible.

Film’s message about Muslims: I had read in some reviews that the film tries to be neutral and explain both the sides, and the reasons of anger among Muslims. However, I found the film’s depiction of Muslims a bit problematic. I felt that the film explains the apparent reasons given by fundamentalists to justify themselves, but it ignores the point of view of the silent majority of Muslims.

Almost all Muslims in the film are shown to be sympathatic towards terrorism and justify it by the American and European greed and barbarism. The only “good” Muslim in the film is the reporter Riyaaz Masud (Vivek Oberoi) along with his girl friend, but even he can’t articulate himself when his father talks about the superiority of religion. His fight seems more motivated by feelings of personal revenge because of death of his lady love in a bomb explosion, rather than from his beliefs.

Reporter’s father (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) clarifies that “for Muslims religion comes first” and the terrorist mastermind (Om Puri) says, “No American is ready to sacrifice himself for his God, as Muslims can do”.

It is true that the Muslim characters shown in the film are limited and the film does not really show the views of other Muslims, who do not believe in terrorism. But, in my opinion, it would have helped to show some Muslims who could articulate that religion is not more important than their country and that no matter what, killing innocents can’t be ever justifed.

Thus the film is a story of a few persons, and can’t be generalised to all Muslims. But at the same time, the film’s take-home message seems to be: you can’t really rely on Muslims. Here some examples of how this message is given in the film:

One of the women in the house is murdered at home and her body is still lying in the basement. Her husband complains about the bad smell, but other ladies in the house can’t smell it and go on with their daily khanas and teas. The message is that Muslim women are all afraid and submissive or die-hard fanatics themselves.

There is a university professor, who helps to get a job as a university professor to a Pakistani terrorist in St. Stephen’s college in Delhi. This same kindly looking professor, who likes to spend hours playing chess in the teachers’ room in the college, happily goes to guard an old man in his house to help the terrorists and smiling threatens to “take care of him”. The message is that even cultured and peaceful persons, are in reality hidden terrorists.

And the Pakistani terrorist, is himself talking about the peace messages in holy Kuraan and about promoting a dialogue among university students about Islam. At the same time, he happily shoots American Policemen and unarmed civilians in his free time. He doesn’t feel pain and can stitch the wound on his chest without fainting. But The brutal assassin has a saving grace, in spite of himself, he is in love with his Hindu wife and in the end, he forgets his bombing mission and kurbaans (sacrifices) himself for his love.

There is the elderly woman (Kiran Kher), wife of the terrorist mastermind. She does not have any qualms in putting a gun on the head of pregnant woman who calls her Appa (elder sister) and who has been living in her care for some days, because “no one is really innocent” and “it is all justified by the American bombings in Afghanistan and Iraq”. Why couldn’t she carry the purse with the bomb herself, you may ask, it would have achieved the same end, without risking to have it on a person who is likely to run if she gets a chance?

When the film finished, I felt that its over-riding message was that no Muslim can be really against terrorism, that you can’t even believe those Muslims who talk about peace and against terrorism. It is great pity that the film gives such a message.

The unrepresented Muslim: On yesterday’s International Herald Tribune, there was an article of Tariq Ahmed, a doctor of Pakistani origin, working in Brigham (USA) titled “The price of being born a Muslim”, where he has written:

The reality is that the vast majority of Muslims are secular. We do not pray five times a day, do not read Koran and have not spent much time inside a mosque. We only turn to Islam when a child is born, someone gets married or someone dies. ... We certainly have no interest in participating in civilizational battles. We are in fact loathed by religious minority. And yet we have no clear voice, no representation and no one in the Western world appears to be aware of our existence. Every time a terrorist attack occurs, we suffer the most.
I feel that there is need to represent these persons in film and to help express their point of view.

For majority of people in the world, it does not matter if they are Hindus, Christians, Jews or Muslims, religions and religious books are important in certain moments of their lives, but their lives are not limited by what these books say or do not say. They do not follow everything said by those who claim to be their religious leaders. Kurbaan does not say much on behalf of these persons.
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