Thursday, November 28, 2013

The reformist poet-saints of Karnataka

Ever since Gautam Buddha and Mahavir, India has a tradition of social and religious reformers. 15th and 16th centuries' India saw a surge in social reformers such as - Kabir, Surdas, Rahim, Meera Bai, Gyaneshwar, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Tulsi Das, Ravi Das - who had spread their messages through poems and songs. In Karnataka, the tradition of poet-social reformers goes back to 11th and 12th centuries. This post is about three of those poet-social reformers from Karnataka - Basavanna, Akka Mahadevi and Kanaka Dasa.

Basavanna and poet saints of Karnataka - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

I was familiar with the works of poet-saints like Kabir, Surdas and Meera, but I had little knowledge about Basavanna. Recently I spent a couple of weeks in Bidar district in the north of Karnataka for a research project. It was an opportunity to visit some of the places linked with Basavanna. This photo-essay is about this visit.

Basavanna statues in the villages

For our research we were travelling in a small town, when I noticed the statue of a man sitting on a horse. I had seen similar statues in many other villages. The statue had a man with wearing a crown and his right hand was raised up in benediction.

Basavanna and poet saints of Karnataka - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

"Whose statue is that?" I had asked.

That was Basaveshwara, Lord Basava. Others called him Basavanna, brother Basava.

"Why do people in villages put up his statue?" I wanted to know.

"He was a poet, he wrote vachchanas or prayers. He was also a social reformer, predicating the abolition of castes from Hinduism", someone had explained.

Later on, when I had searched for information on the internet, I had discovered that Basvanna was from 12th century, thus, had preceded Surdas, Kabir and Rahim by about 400 years. While poet saints of north India, including others like Gyaneshwar and Meera, are well known to common public, they are not objects of public worship like Basavanna. I have never seen statues of Kabir or Surdas in the villages in northern India, while Basavanna seemed to be more popular among the people in north Karnataka.

Basavanna was a minister in the south Kalachuri kingdom in the ancient city of Kalyani. Apart from writing vachchannas, he had also promoted radical social changes through the setting up of Anubhava Mantapa, a democratic community decision-making body that had representatives of different groups including women and persons from different castes. He was part of a social reforming tradition, and was succeeded by other vachchanna writers such as Akka Mahadevi. Their followers are called Lingayats.

Basavkalyan - The ancient city of Kalyani

The ancient city of Kalyani, the kingdom of the south Kalachuri kingdom in 11-12th century, is now known as Basavkalyan, and is also the central town of the Basavkalyan sub-district (taluk) in Bidar district.

Basavkalyan has a temple at the site of the ancient Anubhava Mantapa set up by Basavanna. The central part of the temple is shaped like a giant linga, though inside the Mantapa there are no statues or shrines of Shiva. Instead, the Mantapa is adorned with the pictures of the different social reformers of the Basavanna tradition, while the central part presents paintings showing episodes from life of Basavanna.

Basavanna Anubhava Mantapa, Basavkalyan, Karnataka - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Basavanna Anubhava Mantapa, Basavkalyan, Karnataka - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Basavanna Anubhava Mantapa, Basavkalyan, Karnataka - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Close to the Anubhava Mantapa is a lake and an ancient Shiva temple. From the lake, on the horizon you can see a giant statue of Basavanna.

Basavanna lake, Basavkalyan, Karnataka - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Basavanna shiva temple, Basavkalyan, Karnataka - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Basavanna giant statue, Basavkalyan, Karnataka - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

On the other side of the main road that connects Basvaklayan with the district headquarters in Bidar, a new shrine to Basvanna has come up recently that has his 108 feet high statue at the top of a small hill, visible from far away.

Basavanna giant statue, Basavkalyan, Karnataka - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Basavanna giant statue, Basavkalyan, Karnataka - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Basavanna giant statue, Basavkalyan, Karnataka - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Basavanna giant statue, Basavkalyan, Karnataka - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Basavanna giant statue, Basavkalyan, Karnataka - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Basavanna giant statue, Basavkalyan, Karnataka - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

The work on this shrine is still on-going. Underneath the statue, a cave has been dug in the hill which has statues of different social reformers of Basvanna tradition.

Alamma Prabhudevaru, Basavanna shrine cave, Basavkalyan, Karnataka - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Nilamma Tayi, Basavanna shrine cave, Basavkalyan, Karnataka - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Unfortunately, most statues of the new Basvanna shrine seem to be made with plaster of Paris, and some are already showing cracks, loss of colour and some damage. This means that this shrine will require lot of regular maintenance.

Basavanna shrine, Basavkalyan, Karnataka - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Basavanna shrine, Basavkalyan, Karnataka - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Akka Mahadevi

Akka Mahadevi (Sister Mahadevi) was one of the women social reformers in the Basvanna tradition in the 12th century. She had given up clothes and went around nude.

In 2000, film director Madhushree Dutta had made "Scribbles on Akka", where Seema Biswas had played the role of Akka Mahadevi.

The iconography of Akka Mahadevi is challenging for the traditionalists because of her nude female body. Thus, in the paintings, in the front views she is shown with long hair covering her breasts and lower part of her body. Similarly her back views hide her body with her long hair.

Akka Mahadevi, north Karnataka - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Akka Mahadevi, north Karnataka - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Akka Mahadevi, north Karnataka - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

In spite of these challenges, her figures continue to adorn the village temples and continue to be an example of emancipation to women. Her poetry (vachchannas) are also challenging to traditionalists because she raises questions about her body and her soul.

In my opinion, the figures of persons like Akka Mahadevi and Basvanna are one of the best examples of the robust openness of Hinduism that questioned the sacred texts and presented alternate views. That these figures continue to be popular with huge number of followers is an important sign of continuing living traditions of Hinduism against those who wish to present a narrower and more monolithic view of the religion.

Kanaka Dasa

Bidar was full of giant posters showing persons of different political parties with the figure of Kanaka Dasa, a poet-saint from 16th century Karnataka. Kanaka Dasa can be considered as a contemporary of  poet saints of north India such as Meera Bai, Kabeer, Raheem and Sur Das. The figure of Kanaka Dasa reminded me of paintings of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, a 15th century poet-saint from Bengala.

Kanaka Dasa poster, north Karnataka - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

In his poetry Kanaka Dasa talked of class differences and inequalities between the rich and the poor. He also talked of getting above the rituals for a true meaning of god.

I asked my companions about those posters and they explained that these were for celebrating the 526 anniversary of Kanaka Dasa and all the political parties want to be associated with his figure. I am not sure if today in north India any poet-saint enjoys that kind of common popular support, except may be for Sant Ravi Das, whose annual processions used to be an important social event in north India, especially for the dalit groups.

Conclusions

In the traditions of Gautama Buddha and Mahavira, Basvanna and his group of poet-saints from 12th century Karnataka were social reformers. I was surprised by the continuing relevance and popularity of these figures in the contemporary rural Karnataka.

Few centuries later, in 15th and 16th centuries, different parts of India had many other poet saints - Meera Bai, Gyaneshwar, Surdas, Kabeer, Raheem, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Ravi Das and Tulsi Das. Today, the poetry and the works of these later poet-saints from north and central India, continue to be alive and known, though none of them has received the iconic status reserved for Basvanna in northern Karnataka. In other parts of India, I have never come across statues of the other poet saints in the villages, like the Basvanna statues in north Karnataka villages.

I was also struck by the dominant statues of Ambedkar in many towns of north Karnataka. I don't know if this is linked in some way to the caste-defying traditions of Basvanna.

Dr Ambedkar statue, north Karnataka - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Dr Ambedkar statue, north Karnataka - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Though Ambedkar was not a poet-saint but for dalit and marginalised population groups of India, his messages of emancipation and dignity have achieved an iconic status and perhaps he can be considered a rightful heir to the Basvanna tradition of social reforms.

***

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The abusers and the lynching mobs

When Tahehlka's Think Fest had started, we were getting ready to start our research on "Violence and Abuse" in north Karnataka. Reading the list of the speakers at the Think Fest, I had briefly fantasized about somehow flying to Goa to listen to some of them. About two weeks later, as the first news about Tarun Tejpal's sexual abuse of a journalist had come out, we had just started to discuss the preliminary research results. We were trying to make some sense out of the terrible situation that had come out of our research.

Our research was on "violence and abuse, including sexual abuse, towards persons with disabilities in the Bidar district of Karnataka". The research was conducted jointly with local associations of disabled persons and persons working in a community programme.

A group of disabled persons and community workers from Bidar district, both women and men, were trained to conduct the research. The aims of our research were two - (i) to gain an understanding about factors influencing violence and abuse towards disabled persons and (ii) to initiate a dialogue on how can violence and abuse be prevented.

During the initial training of the researchers, it had come out that this issue directly concerned both disabled persons and community workers. In the past 12 months, many of them had also been through personal experiences of emotional, physical and sexual violence.

Our daily feedback sessions during the research, when we discussed the information collected during the day, brought out sharing of peoples' stories and invariably had some of us crying.

In the next few weeks, I will be working at the analysis of the information collected during this research. However, the preliminary analysis of our data shows a terrible situation -

  • More than 80% of the disabled persons interviewed had at least one experience of significant violence and abuse in the past 12 months. For most of them the experiences were more frequent, some times even daily.
  • More than one third of the women interviewed had had at least one episode of sexual violence in the last 12 months.  Married women suffered more violence and abuse compared to unmarried women.
  • Disabled men were also victims - more frequently of emotional and physical violence, but about 9% of them had had at least one episode of sexual violence in the last 12 months.

Our research shows that violence and abuse are common in our homes, in our families and in our communities. Few persons had the courage to talk about the abuse they had suffered. Often, those who were supposed to protect them, including police and authorities, were themselves complices and even perpetrators.

While reading about Tarun Tejpal and the journalist, everyday I am listening to the shrill debates, to the cries for jail and stringent punishment, to those who ask for castration and death. And I think of our research.

They shout - kill the rapist, hound anyone connected with them, make examples out of them, better if they are well known persons. The shrill noise means we are exempted from looking inside ourselves, to recognize and understand our societies. We do not need to look at what we do every day in our homes and our communities.

One Nirbhaya every now and then, is fine for breaking news, prime time debates and candle light vigils, so that abuse of hundreds of silent unknown Nirbhayas in our homes, families and communities can go on.

***
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