March 31, 2012

Coexisting Without Converging

It’s surprising how India’s political history will sometimes play out in the street as unintended coincidences as I found out in Kolkata.

I had little doubt that the freshly painted announcement by the All India Forward Bloc, a Left-wing Socialist party, calling on people to attend its 16th State Conference in 2009 did not intend to announce it with the blessings of the Indian National Congress, nor in its shadow however faint.

However, the juxtaposition of Forward Bloc’s symbol, Leaping Tiger and Hammer and Sickle, with the Hand, the Congress symbol, inadvertently highlighted their historical association.

And the irony of the Hand (Congress Symbol) in the background looking over the Forward Bloc announcement would not have been lost on the politically conscious Bengali, more so considering the reverence with which they hold Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose.

The All India Forwad Bloc emerged in 1939 after Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, having resigned from the Presidency of the Indian National Congress after a bitter fallout following differences with the leadership, broke away from the Congress and formed the Forward Bloc.

While the presence of the hand-rickshaw puller in the picture, the working class that Forward Bloc sought to represent using the hammer and sickle in its symbol, indicated Forward Bloc’s continuing relevance, its present-day reach however does not quite reflect it, marginalised further with Trinamool sweeping the Left from power last year.

Surely the juxtaposition had to be an oversight, the kind you’d expect from a painter rushing from one job to another, with barely the time to whitewash the wall of all its previous claimants to public attention before painting his new client’s political announcement. In this case he had left the Congress (Hand) alone even if weathered from gracing the wall.

Except that the announcement painted on the wall was across the street from All India Forward Bloc’s Jorasanko Local Committee office in Mukta Ram Babu Street. From above reading boards with local news, its office window looked out acoss the street at the wall opposite.

At the very least, the Forward Bloc sharing the wall with Congress would remind passers-by of its origins and its turmoil within wrought by Sheelbhadra Yagee and Mohan Singh seeking its re-unification with the Congress in 1955 resulting in a split and their expulsion, and the murder in 1971 of its Chairman, Hemanta Kumar Basu, allegedly at the hands of Congress workers.

Given India’s nature and history, it’s possible for coincidences to be mistaken for wilful acts, and for wilful acts to be passed away as coincidences.


All India Forward Bloc Party Conference

March 23, 2012

Remembering Shigmo On Gudi Padwa

“You should’ve been here at 1:00 O’Clock,” a middle-aged, local man said, probably indicating the time of installation, as I stopped in the temple courtyard to photograph a high ceremonial mast likely constructed from Areca Nut trunk and bamboo and decorated with marigolds, and bananas among other nature offerings, the top surmounted by leaves, similar to the Gudi hoisted on Gudi Padwa.

It rose from a notch in the centre of a raised, square platform where people had made offerings of coconuts to the deity.

Jags and I were returning from a walk along the mudflats and mangroves in Karanjal when I first noticed the high mast erected in the temple courtyard. It was two days after Holi early this month and Shigmotsav celebrations had kicked off across Goa, particularly in the North of the state where traditionally Shigmo (Konkani for the month of Phalguna, the last month in the Hindu calendar) is celebrated from the day of the full moon of Phalgun month to the end of the month that culminates in Gudi Padva, the first day of the Hindu calendar year, that is today.

Only the day before, following Holi celebrations commencing on full moon in the month of Phalgun and lasting a day, I had seen the same sight in the vicinity of a temple in Bhoma as I rode a bus to Panjim. The bus had paused by the temple that sits off the highway, waiting for throngs of people who’d gathered for the installation of a similar ceremonial mast, to make way for the bus. One by one local villagers had come up to the platform from which the mast rose and broke a coconut on the platform as a ritual offering to the deity.

Elsewhere, depending upon the tradition followed at the temples, villagers erect Mango tree trunks or Areca Nut tree trunks though not necessarily restricted to the two. And in the days to follow, given that Shigmo is essentially a festival of music and dance observed largely by Goa’s farming community celebrating the arrival of Spring, villages, and particularly the temples, are transformed by the holding of folk dramas and dances like Khell, Romat, Jagor, Ranmalyem, Talgadi, and Ghodmodni among others.

Villages are not bound by a particular date on which to install the ceremonial mast, each dictated by tradition observed at the temple. Even the commencement of Shigmo celebrations varies across Goa, with South Goa observing it on the beginning of the month of Phalgun and concluding it on Phalgun Punav (Full moon of Phalgun month), while North Goa observes its commencement on Phalgun Punav and concludes it on Padva, today. However, exceptions can be found within each of the two regions. The difference in its observance had to do with the Portuguese banning its observance leading to the colony’s ingenious subjects cleverly disguising its observance along with the Carnival to escape censure and retribution.

“We will keep it until Padwa,” the middle-aged man said when I asked him how long will the ceremonial ‘trunk’ be retained. Today is Gudi Padva, and I believe, with much fondness and piety the ceremonial ‘mast’ will have been lowered. However, the actual Shigmo celebrations involving folk dramas and dances would normally extend only five days from the date of commencement of the Shigmo festival.

The middle-aged man was supervising a few local youth busy putting up a makeshift stage in the corner of the temple courtyard. “Dramas will be staged from tomorrow night,” he said. It’s a scene that repeats across Goa in temples where these celebrations take place. Not all Goan temples celebrate similarly.

“No. Around here you’ll get to see this in Durbhat,” a youth said when I asked him if every temple hosts these celebrations as in dances and dramas and the ceremonial ‘mast’ that he referred to as Shigmyache Holi, a term I felt might not be the original reference. He mentioned two other temples in the vicinity that I cannot remember clearly now.

A sodium vapour lamp cast a gentle glow on the activity below as the men discussed ways to reinforce and shape the makeshift stage where local artistes would stage their plays to villagers crammed in the courtyard. Curious of the atmosphere I made a mental note to ride over to the temple the next day and watch the plays with the villagers. I could not make it to the venue the next day.

However, the rhythmic beating of the drums, that familiar Ghanch-katar-ghanch, ghanch-katar-ghanch had floated on the Spring breeze in the days leading upto Shigmo and in the days since, quivering along quiet roads, stepping across lush green paddy fields, skipping over village ponds, all the while strengthening and waning depending on the breeze carrying the hypnotic beats towards or away as bands of drummers carried their drums from Vaddo to Vaddo, beating the familiar, throbbing beat pulsating with the energy and the promise of Spring, and of life itself.

A day earlier, on our way back through Chorao as we headed for the ferry crossing to Panaji, Philip and I had rounded a turn in the narrow road just before it ran through an open field and happened upon an enthusiastic band of drummers on the roadside hard at their drums.

A few shops and homes with sloping roofs lay on either side of the road, and local men stopped by to talk and offer encouragement. The Sun was descending behind the trees and the evening pulsated to a familiar rhythm from my childhood.

“Will you be participating in the Shigmo parade in Panaji?” I asked one of the drummers as he handed the sticks to a young child before turning to me to answer.

“No, no,” he said, smiling. “For the duration of the Shigmo celebrations, we’ll be moving from waddo to waddo, drumming our way through them.”

In the countryside, Goa resonates to the beat of Spring in Phalgun. Like the season itself, the drums regenerate the landscape, and memories.

And standing on the roadside I imagined children stepping out, as I once did, and dancing to the beats of an ancient people of an ancient land following an age-old tradition.

March 21, 2012

Ek Prem Kahani, Truck Ki Jubaani

It’s rare for a love story to be boring, least of all those that continue to play out in the heat of the Sun and the dust of the road. And irrespective of the ending, each love story is worth telling for, in its telling and retelling it relives its moment in another’s heart, in another’s eye, in another’s mind.

And everyone has at least one story to tell, including trucks like this one who told her own tale of romance on the back.

TATA Se Chali Main Kunwari,
Bhandup Main Shringar Hua,
Dahisar Main Bani Dulhaniya,
Ketakipada Main Pyar Hua.

(My journey from a TATA factory as an eligible beauty paused at Bhandup so I could be decked up to be a bride before I was married off in Dahisar and swept away to Ketkipada where I fell in love.)

Note: Bhandup and Dahisar are names of Mumbai suburbs, and Ketkipada is a locality in Dahisar (East).

March 18, 2012

Photographs Of Lilah Wingfield’s Indian Journey To Delhi Durbar, 1911

The elderly, crusty taxi driver in worn whites knew of Nathalal Parikh Marg in Colaba, and waved me to silence with a gesture that betrayed impatience at my attempt to help him figure out the location using directions the young lady from Sakshi Art Gallery had passed on as we made our way through Colaba to the Centenary Exhibition: A Glimpse Of Empire, an exhibition of photographs Lilah Wingfield took of her journey east to India to attend the Coronation Durbar in Delhi of King George V in 1911. The event also marked the formal transfer of the capital of British India from Calcutta to Delhi.

Jessica Douglas-Home has put together photographs her grandmother, Lilah Wingfield, took of her journey through India including accounts from her diaries she maintained of her journey. Lilah Wingfield’s photographs and her account of her journey to and through undivided India is also available in book form and was released by her granddaughter, Jessica Douglas-Home, to coincide with the centenary of the event.

If it wasn’t for the fact the photo exhibition was advertised as The 1911 Durbar through the eyes of Lilah Wingfield I doubt if I’d have been as inclined to make my way to the tree lined street set in the old world charm of stately stone buildings dating back from the Bombay of old.

I was intrigued by the idea of a young British woman all of 23, born and brought up in Ireland and described in the accompanying pamphlet as desperate to get away from an existence that was unbearably claustrophobic, took the opportunity of the King’s Coronation Durbar in Delhi to escape for a few months to India to breathe freedom, an experience that transformed her life.

Such an account promises varying possibilities including wanderlust, adventure, unrequited love, and romance; of the latter Jessica hinted in her interview with HT thus: “The Begum of Bhopal, the only female ruler of the time, became a good friend of my grandmother and invited her to stay with her. Her son, Prince Obaidullah, developed a crush on her. He was quite keen on her and they had a near romance, despite being married.”

To find out more about this and the rest I’d have to read the book that the lady at the gallery counter informed me was sold out. So I made up for the gaps in the visual narratives exhibited in the gallery with my own imagination though it did not take me far.

While the Raj has been sufficiently documented in photographs with respect to the relationship the British Colonial Rulers shared with their subjects, the Indian Princely States, with images rarely varying in their depiction of lives of Kings, Queens, and Princes beholden to the British Rulers for retaining their way of life, there’s little I’ve seen exhibited of viewpoints travellers shared of their impressions of India on their journeys through the sub-continent, little or none beyond the mandatory serving of fakirs, babas, medicants, and snake charmers.

I’d hoped Lilah Wingfield’s photographs would fill one such gap. It does, only to an extent. Still, it’s an important document if for nothing else than for the fact that while photographs from the time will invariably focus on events and occasions in progress as documented by official photographers, typically framing the key moments, it’s left to a meandering traveller, an invitee to the event, arriving as preparations for it reach their climax, to cast their eye about and record moments peripheral to the actual event.

And Lilah Wingfield does offer up several peripheral moments from 1911, centre stage. Among others, photographs depicting tradesmen displaying their wares in the 10th Hussars encampment where Lilah had her tent, the horse Lilah borrowed in the Tented City that came up in advance of the Delhi Durbar to house over 250,000 visitors, the arrival of Ruling Princes and their entourages by train to pay homage to King George V and swear allegiance to their British Rulers with the possible exception of Gaikwad of Baroda, who, Jessica said as she walked the three of us and another visitor through the photographs on display, “stripped off his jewels before paying homage to the King Emperor George V, even turning his back on the Monarch as he made his way back.” A gesture, Jessica explained, designed to indicate “That I’m your equal.”

It created a furore, a scandal.

A photograph on display catches the plainly clad Gaikwad of Baroda in mid-turn as he prepares to turn his back on the seated King Emperor George V before walking back. It’s a moment of defiance, making the viewer linger on for a fraction more, imagining the very moment in the context of the event, the coronation of King George V as the Emperor of India.

I wondered what he must have thought as he walked up to the Royal Pavilion surmounted by a glittering dome. Did he balk at the very last moment considering the inevitable repercussions that would follow his defiance? Did he wish he hadn’t done it as he walked back?

The power of a photograph is not restricted to the moment it frames, instead it lies in the larger frame of the ‘before’ and the ‘after’ it does not capture.

A similar feeling crept up on me as I paused by the photograph showing Lilah in the middle of a street in Chandni Chowk, captioned: Lilah visiting Chandni Chowk for the last time. In the distance she heard the sound of the 101 gun salute from the ridge as the Royal couple departed.

It's a moment that signals the end of her Delhi visit and preparation for her onward journey that would take her to Peshawar and Rawalpindi in the North West Frontier Province, before pointing her in the direction of Lucknow, Benares, Cawnpore, Agra, Jaipur, Udaipur, Bhopal, Bangalore, and eventually Colombo, spanning close to four months from the time Lilah arrived in Bombay on 28 November, 1911, snapping up the Bombay Harbour from her cabin porthole with her Kodak, to Feburary 1912.

It must’ve been a moment of anticipation, of trepidation, of excitement. Here was a young woman journeying to a country she’d never been to before but only heard about or read in accounts that must’ve included among other things the inhospitable terrain, the man-eaters, the ‘unbearable’ heat, the alien tongues, ‘strange’ customs to name a few, each contributing to the perception of India as a frontier offering challenges not all of which were easily surmountable let alone hospitable.

To that end, while limited in their representation of the scope of imagery her journeys will have afforded her, considering she traversed terrain breathtaking in their diversity, cultural and otherwise, Lilah Wingfield’s photographs nevertheless acquire a certain poignancy in the context of her willingness to strike out of her own comfort for the unknown of India, for making a choice and exercising it.

It’s in this context that the visitor, having navigated the black and white timeline of her impressions of the Delhi Durbar of 1911, pauses that much longer when brought up face to face with the last one in the series showing the Colombo waterfront with a hotel at the far end among coconut trees leaning out to sea and Lilah Wingfield in a hand-pulled carriage, her head turned for the camera, before catching the S. S. Malwa for England.

A journey to qualify for a lifetime, a lifetime possibly transformed in ways probably not imagined before embarking on the journey. It’s the in-betweens that Lilah did not frame that the images on display nudge the viewer into considering, extrapolating, and reflecting upon.

The exhibition is on at Sakshi Gallery, Tanna House, Opposite YMCA, Colaba, between 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Sakshi Gallery is reached barely a few minutes walk from the Regal Cinema circle, past Majestic, and is located adjacent to the Holy Name Church on Nathalal Parekh Road (formerly Wodehouse Road).

The photo exhibition, A Glimpse Of Empire, ends tomorrow, Monday, 19th March, 2012.