Few Points on the Andal Controversy

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on January 26, 2018

1. Andal’s poetry is beautiful. I say this with reference – and with reverence – to the aesthetic quality of her works. But what is beautiful need not be progressive, and vice versa. What is beautiful need not even be true or good.

2. It is wrong to condemn Andal’s poetry as regressive, using modern Dravidian anti-caste ethos as a standard. You cant expect that from someone who lived in the 7th/8th century. It is equally wrong to praise Andal for being a sexual libertarian. One anachronism does not cancel out the other. Prejudice of modernity does not only affect the male gaze, but also the female gaze.

3. The addressing of god in sexually intimate terms is not unique to Andal – several others in her time, after her time, have done it. Those in the Christian mystic tradition did it in defiance of the established orthodoxy and in face of persecution.

4. If ‘radicalism’ and ‘transgressiveness’ is a criteria, then Basavanna and Akkammadevi stand way ahead. Their approach is universal and social, while Andal’s is particular and asocial. But that is a problem with Vaishnavism as such.

5. Sexual liberalism alone is a lazy standard for evaluating the progressiveness of a person or a society. Sparta had remarkable sexual freedom for its women citizens. Slaves and slave women are a different story.

6. Vaidyanathan’s apology was plain cowardice. Vairamuthu should have been more assertive in defending himself. For someone who writes so much on the Tamil martial tradition, he cuts the figure of a fresher weakly protesting against the college bully. Contrast with how boldly Thirumavalavan stands by his comments on the Hindu religion.

7. Fundamentalist groups threatening and initiating violence over academically inaccurate comments on Andal (or silly cartoons on Muhammed for that matter) are enemies of democracy, decency and sanity. The argument that the poet or the cartoonist should be more responsible so as to not provoke these groups is only a cheap defense for fundamentalism.

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Some Comments on The Purananuru

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on December 2, 2017

1. On Amazon.in, the cheapest copy of the best English translation of The Purananuru (Trans. George L Hart and Hank Heifetz. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999) available is at Rs. 1670 (last time I checked). I got my as-good-as-new copy at a second hand book store in the UK for 2.50 £, roughly Rs. 220. Lucky me!

2. This work of poetry is also a passageway into the world of the ancient Tamils, a people who celebrated war, love, meat-eating, wine, knowledge, and generosity. And the poems indicate a strong sense of ‘Tamilness’ in terms of a people and a geography.

3. Martial ferocity is praised. So is compassion, charity & righteousness. The strong and wealthy are urged to provide for the weak and needy.

4. Providing for agrarian prosperity, building dams, protecting order in trade and society and curtailing banditry are considered desirable qualities of kings. And the Sovereign is considered ‘the life of the world’.

5. The poems are thoroughly secular in nature, though there are occasional references to gods, including Brahminical ones like Rama – Ravanan is referred to as an ‘arakkan’, translated as ‘demon’. The first poem is an ode to Shiva. Murugan is the most referenced god in the poems.

6. There is clear reference to Brahmins who are learned in the Vedas, who are considered as holy as cows, and who are deserving of protection and gifts. Likewise, there are also vague references to the ‘low born’. (But a Tamil scholar recently told me that the system of caste in the Tamil land as we know it today originated only after the fall of Cholas.)

7. Chastity and purity of ‘women of the house’ is glorified. At least one poem attests to the practice of Sati.

8. Though it appears that war and wealth are praised, a closer reading also suggests a stoic asceticism of the poets.

9. The most celebrated animal in these poems is the Tiger. No wonder…

Finishing Don Quixote!

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on December 29, 2016

Akira Kurosawa says somewhere that to have lived on the earth without having seen a Satyajit Ray movie is to have lived without seeing the sun and the moon. I would use this quite hyperbolic statement for a person who has lived a literate life without reading Cervantes’ masterpiece. I began reading Don Quixote in November 2015 – I finally finished it today! Reading this book was like working on my dissertation’s chapters, most of which I began working on just 2 weeks before the deadline. I had ample time to complete reading this classic novel. But in between, I read several other shorter books and short stories, cleared my viva and got my PhD, got my first peer-reviewed journal article published, presented at two big conferences, wrote book reviews, got a job, shifted my home to another city, and fell in love and got married!

Eventually in November this year, after only finishing about 400 pages of a 932 page book, I decided I will close this novel and get back to it later in life, having not completed it for over a year. However, when it comes to reading novels, there is nothing I detest as much as closing a book without finishing it (the only exception to this rule is James Joyce’s Ulysses – I tried reading it during the 2nd year of my PhD but decided after 30 pages that it was a novel for me when I am 40). So, in the last two weeks, I managed to finish the remainder of the book. Really, reading such a work requires commitment to continuity and discipline. And what a novel! While my general mood is misanthropic, it is works like these that makes one root for human civilization.

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Unpacking My Library

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on November 12, 2016

Read full essay at Outlook.  

“Even with help from my partner, it took me two full days to unpack and arrange my books. While surveying them in the process of writing this article, I couldn’t help but wonder why some books were placed here and not there, why have I purchased the same book twice, why have I not yet opened some books, why have I not yet finished the books I have opened, why are there some books still on the market and not on my shelf… The book collecting passion is not just a “chaos of memories” as Benjamin said; it is also a chaos of the future. Gaps in my bookracks gape at me, demanding to be filled. The last book to be added to my philosophy shelf and thereby filling it was Leszek Kolakowski’s Is God Happy? And now, I need to create more space for future philosophy books without disturbing the order that I have established. Or maybe I will introduce a little anarchy…”



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Art in the Time of Genocide

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on December 5, 2011

Originally published on TamilNet

The recent cultural tour of T.M. Krishna, a Chennai based Carnatic singer, in the Northern areas of the occupied territory of Tamil Eelam, was praised by quite some in the Indian media and the Sri Lankan media. It was reported that there was a substantial turn out in Jaffna, where the artist had performed solely in Tamil. While observing the “conflicting images” in the Tamil homelands and asking some moral questions to himself, the singer concludes with an apolitical message in an article published later in The Hindu that “Artistes don’t stand for elections, don’t fight on the battlefield but we offer to everyone the very breath of life —happiness.”

The following article is, of course, not a comment on the performer’s artistic talents, but rather an introspection of the politics behind the performance.

Those familiar with Marxism would agree that there is no art that stands above politics. This is all the more true when art is placed in the context of a nation facing structural genocide. Krishna’s performance in Sri Lanka last year was held in memory of the collaborator Neelan Tiruchelvam, a virulent opponent of the Eelam Tamil struggle.

Krishna was then sought out by the Indian Ambassador to Sri Lanka Ashok K. Kantha who requested the artist to do a tour of the northern regions so that there could be a ‘cultural revival’.

When the emissary of India, a country that backed Sri Lanka in its genocidal campaign against the Tamil people, marks out an artist to promote ‘cultural revival’ in their homelands, can this act and the performance be devoid of politics? And what sort of ‘revival’ can one expect when the performance is allowed by a state that is bent on keeping the Eelam Tamils in a condition of permanent trauma?

Before philistines point out that promotion of such performances proves the liberalism of the Lankan state and that there is no threat to Tamil culture, let it be stated that that Lanka allows these performances precisely because they pose no threat to the state.

Indeed, performances like these also serve the purpose of numbing the effects of trauma.

The reports that the audience in Jaffna was enthralled by Krishna’s performance are believable.

Considering that this is the first tour of the occupied homeland of the Eelam Tamils by an Indian Tamil musician since 1983, the enthusiasm of the people who participated cannot be doubted.

All the same, it should be noted that when such performances are disconnected from real politics of the ground – structural genocide in this case – they only serve the purpose of providing a false illusory relief to the subject.

And this is precisely what the governments of India and Sri Lanka would want – a Tamil art form without a spine to stand as a reflection of the social life of the people, instead an impotent abstraction that is tolerated by the Lankan regime as such an art is powerless to accomplish anything substantial in the political sphere.

A culture in abstract may give a people some sense of identity, but it neither has the substance to resist assimilation nor the power to combat annihilation. Which is why the liberation struggle led by the LTTE followed Ho Chi Minh’s dictum “culture at the service of resistance, resistance at the service of culture” – there was no more talking of an abstract Tamil culture.

Culture was concretized in the Eelam Tamil resistance and its finest, progressive aspects were filtered and deployed by the movement. A simple historical practice of the subaltern Tamil classes, like the veneration of ‘veerakal’, symbolic stones installed to honor heroes fallen in battle, was revolutionized by the Tigers.

The result was ‘Maaveerar thuyilidam’ – the heroes’ graveyard, which got the dimensions of a sacred but secular space.

The popular enthusiasm of the Eelam Tamil people to honour the fallen cadres, irrespective of their gender, caste, subcaste or religion, produced a horizondalizing effect on a formerly vertical society.

For all practical purposes, the Eelam Tamil resistance was the pinnacle of Tamil culture.

But while the Sri Lankan government systematically destroys these popular symbols, hunts down Pongu Tamil activists, and ensures that no cultural traces of Eelam Tamil resistance is left, it promotes those forms of Tamil culture and art that are completely devoid of revolutionary content, that can be easily accommodated. Then, it goes without saying that the adherents of this Tamil culture can only be ‘cultural’ at the expense of the progressive culture of the Eelam Tamil resistance.

So T.M. Krishna is wrong when he claims that these types of artistic performances would give the Tamils “more self belief, pride and faith in themselves and their lives.”

For art to be emancipatory it cannot and it should not ever soothe a people facing oppression. Rather, it has to make them conscious of their existentialist condition, of the nature of the oppression they face and provoke them to fight it.

While Krishna’s tour was on, the SLA encroached a hundred acres of farmland in Kilinochi, forests were destroyed and lands were grabbed in Batticaloa, and foundations for Sinhala colonization were strengthened in Mullaitheevu with yet another Buddhist stupa built on Tamil lands.

Art, for it to be a true expression of the socio-cultural life of the Tamil masses, cannot but address these crucial issues. Else, it will just remain an opiate of a minority of Tamil elites in auditoriums in Jaffna or elsewhere.

The struggle for Eelam Tamil liberation, like all such liberation struggles, was in itself the highest expression of national culture. It is important for all cultural activists in the homeland and in the diaspora to carefully preserve this tradition and to invent and reinvent art forms, like those tried in the Pongu Tamil uprising and Maanudathin Tamil Koodal, and to provide a culture of progressive resistance to a people subject to meaninglessness.

The diaspora in particular has great potential to interact with cultural groups from various peoples fighting similar oppression and infuse into Eelam Tamil art forms new contents that dialectically enriches both the particular aspects of the art in the context of the struggle and the universal message it holds.

It goes without saying that for this, the political understanding of those dealing with culture must be rooted in the interests of the Eelam Tamil people. Failure to wage a resolute struggle in the field of culture will only allow the Sri Lankan state to destroy all progressive Eelam Tamil content in art while simultaneously promoting, with aid of its external patrons, depoliticized forms that are no expressions of Tamil reality.

Whose art is it anyway?

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on January 11, 2009

In the world today all culture, all literature and art belong to definite classes and are geared to definite political lines. There is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics.

-Mao Tse-tung

An interesting component of the course at Asian College of Journalism is the ‘Arts and Culture’ elective, taken by Sadanand Menon, veteran journalist and arts critic. Though I had not opted for the elective, I made it a point to attend as many classes as possible. For a novice in the arts like myself, the classes were an eye-opener. Towards the end of the semester, on December 19th, we were taken on a ‘culture tour’ to Kalakshetra, an institution that imparts training in and promotes classical dance and music. Recognized by the Indian government as an institution of national importance, Kalakshetra is considered a ‘cultural landmark’ in Chennai.

Founded by renowned Bharatanatyam dancer and theosophist Rukmini Devi Arundale in the year 1936, Kalakshetra is a new-age replica of the ancient gurukul system of learning. Spread over a vast 100 acres in Thiruvanmiyur, a rather tranquil suburb of Chennai, it claims to provide a “holistic education” for serious students of the arts, “amidst a serene and inspiring natural environment.” The institution resembles an island, cut-off from the intricacies of the busy city, a world onto its own.

We had the privilege of watching some of the students rehearse, at the famed Bharatha Kalakshetra auditorium, for their performance on the 56th Annual Arts festival of Kalakshetra, held between 21st December and 2nd January. It was spellbinding, a visual treat. I was lucky enough to see their performance on December 25th. Brilliant though it was, I found the rehearsal more appealing, for it showed the sweat and toil that went into the process of producing the magnificent output on the 25th. And besides, they didn’t have the cover of lighting and costumes. I remember Dashrath Patel telling us in one of the Arts and Culture classes that “The most important thing is not the destination. It is the journey.” We also met Leela Samson, Director of Kalakshetra, who briefed us about life there.

Though I have seen quite some Natyam recitals at high school and on television, I have never paid to see a performance. The tour of Kalakshetra provided me the incentive. I persuaded two other colleagues to join me for a dance-drama by the Kalakshetra Repertory, on 21st December. Enthralled by the show, I went alone for the performance of Bharatanatyam recitals by the “best of Kalakshetra staff and students” on December 25th. I do not have the technical expertise to comment on finer aspects of the performance, but as a whole, I thought it was splendid. In fact, during certain recitals, I wondered if the performers had elastic bones.

While watching the performance, I took time to observe the audience as well. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that they were mostly upper-middle class or upper class – natural, considering the price of the tickets (Rs 50, 60, 100, 200, 300, 500). I have no doubts that the art form itself is bourgeois and elitist. A person living a hand-to-mouth existence, lets say a construction laborer, would neither have the money nor the “cultural education” for him to appreciate such shows. The person next to me said that it was great that Kalakshetra was promoting “our Indian culture.” In fact, this very same sentiment echoes among the staff of Kalakshetra who claim that the institution seeks to develop “India’s ancient culture.” The guide who took us around Kalakshetra during our tour on the 19th said that Rukmini Devi’s initiative to revive the “traditional arts and crafts of India” was “revolutionary.”

Bharatanatyam, before it was revived by Rukmini Devi, was considered a vulgar dance form in Tamil Nadu. Practiced by the Devadasis, it was popularly known as Dasiattam or Sadhirattam. These Devadasis, or servants of God, catered to the sexual appetites of priests and the wealthy landlords. It is ironical that these very same brahmin castes and the more Sanskritized sections of the landlord castes now promote Bharatanatyam as a product of a great culture. It was E. Krishna Iyer, a freedom fighter, who coined the term Bharatanatyam for this dance form in the early 20th century. Rukmini Devi, another brahmin, took over from there, and what was once a dance of temple prostitutes was packaged as a puritan and aesthetic art form – a sacred icon of Indian culture. Post-independence, with the abolition of the Devadasi system, Bharatanatyam became a monopoly of the brahmins and a few from other upper castes. While it is true that Kalakshetra provides opportunities for students cutting across caste, class and nationality barriers, it cant be denied that the art form in itself has gained a brahminical tinge over the years, and thus, explaining its acceptance among the elite sections.

In my opinion, and I may be wrong, art may be called revolutionary if and only if it addresses the cause of the oppressed. I should say that Bharatanatyam today is anything but revolutionary. Ever since its revival, it has been an urban and bourgeois art form, and as far as I know, showing little concern to social causes (I may be wrong again here. I haven’t heard of any performance sending a revolutionary social message. Google didn’t help either). Most of the performances focus on representations of religiosity, say, the Gopis love for Krishna, Shiva Thandava, Parvati’s penance etc. Even the “revolutionary” Kalakshetra didn’t have anything radical to offer. And it is not that the art is not capable of it. I still remember, not without strong emotions, a brilliant Natyam performance by a friend of mine condemning communal violence, for a school function in 2003.

This is the fundamental problem with contemporary practitioners of the “classical arts.” In their vehement pursuance of imagined traditions, they constrain themselves within artificial limits and fail to see the larger picture. While myths like Sita Swayamwaram or Kumara Sambhavam are reconstructed through dance, grave contemporary issues, like farmer suicides or the violation of human rights of Dalits, which are in desperate need of attention, do not even fall in the artistic boundaries of these classical artists. Then again, should the artists believe in “art for art’s sake”, something Mao didn’t believe in, something I don’t either, they shouldn’t promote these arts as icons of “national culture” – they cater to limited sections only.

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