Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Thinking Otherwise


Chai Lit is a carefully crafted space for a non-hierarchic engagement with thought, creativity and narratives, indeed a crucible to encourage silences to be overcome in order to transform despair into hope through affirmative action. Words and silences, each in their own ways, create inflexibilities and traps as we are often lost in the labyrinth of influence, repression, fear or self-censorship or at the other end of the spectrum, the certainties of dogmas and prejudices. The stultification of the mind often inhibits the full realization of creativity, critical consciousness, inclusive sensitivities and humane insights.
On an invitation from Dr. Richa and Dr. Yogesh Pratap Shekhar, the organizers and co-founders of Chai Lit, I travelled to Gaya with two young minds I have had the privilege to have taught: Amritendu Ghoshal and Prabhat Jha. The introduction to the seminar did not follow institutional patterns: no prayer song, no lighting of the ceremonial lamp, no bouquets, no formal introduction to the speakers and contributors. The content was more important than the trappings, the seriousness of the matter was accorded the highest value, the façade did not exist. The windows were open for the ideas to flow.
Amritendu spoke of the necessity to develop a rational critical sense and engage with political issues that invariably affect our lives. The necessity to oppose injustices comes from being able to identify them and their operative modes through a developed critical political consciousness. Later during the interactive session, political activism on campus with its manipulative strategies and being a seminary for public political careers were set over and against the understanding of politics and its expression through debate and dissent. Billed as Knowledge Kitchen, the seminar became the microcosm of an ideal university campus.
Prabhat had two poems to offer. They were incisively satirical exposing the cynical quest of power using rhetorical and divisive strategies acted upon by vigilante groups following thew master’s voice: beef ban, book ban, film ban, we are inhabitants of Ban de land. Prabhat’s excellently scripted play Sawaal par Bawaal was read by the playwright himself and Dr. Richa with a vitality that comes from convictions about an inclusive idea of India where free speech and comity are threatened with violence into silence and where participatory democracy is extinguished to facilitate the birth of demagogues. In a short address that followed. The same points were reemphasized and the need for organic intellectuals stressed. As interludes between thought sharing, poems were recited, notably Shilpa’s reading of Kedar Nath Singh’s poem Vigyan aur Neend.
 I spoke in the defense of the humanities, framing its decline within the growth of later capitalism and social utility of disciplines whose worth may be quantitatively measured. I attempted to locate the disquiet in the formation of knowledge in colonial models both exogenous and endogenous and drew upon the coercive and divisive implications of Aristotle’s Law of Identity. I tried to show how STEM disciplines with their accompanying examination patterns have reduced problem posing cooperative teaching-learning as dialogue to an uncritical junk-food pedagogy. During the course of the discussions, I pointed out how nothing is innocently neutral as the tool to construct the world, language, is nearly always political. Dr. Pranav Kumar spoke of furthering the process of decolonization drawing upon indigenous resources rather than on western models. No model however is the exclusive monopoly of a specifically identifiable community; these may be incorporated, transformed and mediated within indigenous contents. Gandhi fashioned an indigenous anti-colonial movement bring together disparate influences as wide as Tolstoy, Ruskin, Edwin Arnold and Thoreau on the one hand and  Raichandbhai, Gokhale,, Buddha,his mother, wife, maid and scriptural sources of the east. Exclusionary readings have negative implications because the totality of insights remain inadequate.
Personal narratives were cited by a number of participants to indicate the toxic politics of exclusion and the problems of correcting perceived historical injustices. The nationalism debate, an inevitable staple of the public sphere was energetically pursued. It seemed on occasions that many institutions are refurbishing the idea of a university and the idea of India in a strategic manner in which being a liberal and a free thinker has little legitimacy. During the course of the debate, Professor Yogesh Pratap Shekhar defined nationalism as derivative that homogenizes an imagined community through perceived commonality of aspirations. However, the process of homogenization may exclude a number of social formations as is the mobilized political practice today. Who belongs to a nation? A participant suggested that all those for whom India is the matribhumi  which is commonly understood as homeland. But this notion is problematic and arbitrary because nations are not fixed entities and one’s nationality may be at variance with one’s homeland.
The discussions would have continued had time not been the final arbiter. Knowledge Kitchen had succeeded in creating a possibility to think otherwise.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Revisiting ‘For God and Country’


On the 17th of December 2016, my school St. Xavier’s Patna conferred upon me the Distinguished Xaverian Award. With mixed emotions of happiness and humility, when I went back home carrying the citation, I wondered whether I had truly lived up to the motto that had been inscribed in my young mind since the very first day that I walked in awe into the campus: ‘For God and Country’. Over the years, rationality had become the guiding canon of my life and I thought I would examine what the motto of my school meant to me. When I looked at the gathering that evening, I was startled by the outstanding diversity among individuals: women and men from different cultural, linguistic, religious, ethnic and professional groups seated with quiet dignity.  On any day when I look outside the classroom where I teach, I observe different kinds of flowers and trees, different birds chirping under a blue December sky, different butterflies flitting from flower to flower. And if I look at the physical map of our country, I see tall, majestic, snow-clad mountains, wide rivers, gushing streams, fertile plains, plateaus, lakes, seas and oceans. If we are believers, then we are awed by the magnificent diversity of creation where the creator has structured our earth and the universe with the infinite metaphors with which our gratitude may be expressed. Even if we are non-believers and consider the material world as the only reality we are grateful to live in a world that has evolved over millions of years through a process of natural selection which is truly beautiful for its overwhelming variety. A passage from Samskara, the celebrated novel by U. R. Anantha Murthy comes to mind: ‘May the mind be like the patterns of light and shade, the forms the branching trees give naturally to sunshine. Light in the sky, shadow under the trees, patterns on the ground. If luckily, there’s a spray of water – rainbows’. The poetic rendering of diversity, the different beauties of light and shade is a critical reminder that difference can be appreciated and valued. The presence of sunshine on a winter morning is what we look forward to as indeed we look for the cool shade of the tree in the summer heat.
If we are able to observe and appreciate natural diversity then what happens to us that we are becoming progressively intolerant toward cultural diversity? Is there something innately wrong with the way we have constructed culture within the material conditions of production? This brings us to the understanding of culture which among a few select words in our lexicon is notoriously difficult to define. Culture is a complex of representations of who we are in all of what we do. The essentialist view of culture is often seen as a fixed property or essence that is universal to a particular category of people giving the impression of a simple society.  To propose that women are good childcarers because they are women, that black people are good at sports because they are black or Bengalis are good are arguing because they are Bengalis carries the notion “they are like that’ which is to engage in essentialist thinking. The basic principle of stereotyping any cultural group operates on essentialist lines as it reinforces the prejudices of one group towards the other. The non-essentialist view of culture suggests a multilayered complex social force whose characteristics are difficult to reduce into a simplified understanding. Culture is dynamic and perhaps more than ever with frames of reference undergoing major changes these changes have been substantial. Earlier the frames of reference were limited to family, location, limited social formations, religion, and in an extended sense, province and country. In an age of migration and globalization rapid changes have been witnessed in many of these structural formations. We used to belong, now we over-belong. We inhabit several spaces simultaneously and subscribe to multiple cultures.
Western episteme has constructed knowledge in binary pairs. We comprehend the world in terms of difference: day/ night, black/white, rich/poor, city/ village, upper/lower, good/bad, men/women. There nothing damaging about this form of pairing as long as they may be comprehended in terms of difference, for instance women are in some ways different from men. But in many ways they may be similar too. They may be similarly educated, they may share a friendship based on equality, they may share responsibilities at home, they may both be interested in poetry, and they may even wish to undertake an expedition to the South Pole or climb the Everest. But the problem arises when gender is seen as oppositional. The idea of opposition implies the creation of otherisation when a set of characteristics define one side of the slash with positive values and the other side of the slash with negatives. It creates a hierarchy of power privileging one over the other. That is when all the trouble starts.
This form of partitioning stemmed from the ham-handed experiment by Cyril Radcliff who hurriedly partitioned the subcontinent and the same form of partitioning through perceptions of opposition happens daily in muhallas and sitting-rooms, slotting by politicians and religious leaders in the unhealthy maneuvers in electoral democracy.
St. Xavier’s taught me that homogenization and reduction to a solitary identity is to miniaturize human beings. Simply put, it means that to be a good citizen, a good human being and a good member of a religious denomination, one need not demonstrate it by hating everyone else.
This needs to be reinforced in our daily lives by standing up to all forms of perpetuation of intolerance whether it is the silencing the creativity of of Perumal Murugan, the dastardly killings of Kalburgi, Panesar and Pansare, the irrational dictates of Khap Panchayats, the vanldalism at theatres, the mercenary cyberthugs spitting abuse in the social media, the brutality of ISIS, acts of wanton terror in India and across the globe, the burning of churches, the killing of Dalits, the violence against women, political mobilizations to rewrite a shared history and the manipulation of binaries equating dissent with sedition across university campuses and public spheres. This was not my country when I went to school. The rich cultural, linguistic, geographical diversities defined my country and that is the way to define it today. Diminishing the idea of India is to diminish India. I re-dedicate myself to the motto of my school ‘For God and Country’ to redeem the acceptance of the Distinguished Xaverian Award.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Democracy Deficit in the Academia

The right to academic freedom is not a fundamental right but a rationally considered academic right. The right to academic freedom is a right to be free from the interference of the state and governments and function to build an egalitarian nation. However, every right conferred upon an individual or an institution carries with it certain social responsibilities. These responsibilities give universities and institutions a significant opportunity to contribute to the qualitative development, intellectual, cultural and political growth, to interrogate inequities and generate forms of knowledge to shape the society it serves.
A free spirit of enquiry is mandatory for intellectual journeys toward discovery and the absence of hierarchic control reassures the autonomy and dignity of the stakeholders in the process. In over three and a half decades of teaching, I have witnessed a widening gap between what a university is supposed to be and the routine practice. The privileging of the office over the classroom, of administrators over teachers and researchers resulting from market utility, so beloved of the post-WTO education-as-service-industry has alienated higher education from its social obligations in shaping a just, fair and an equitable social order. It is not by accident that a hierarchic bureaucratic order has been set in place for the triumph of market statistics through the exercise of power and control. The nineteenth century utilitarian Jeremy Bentham proposed the panopticon for surveillance whose material manifestation was the colonial cellular jail in the Andaman Islands. Today many educational centres including colleges in Patna University are contemplating the use of CCTV cameras in public areas of institutions and shockingly in classrooms. The use of cameras in public areas, if used for security purposes rather than administrative espionage is justifiable, though not entirely desirable. In classrooms it is a disgrace to the dignity of the teachers and students, participants in the process of learning and producing knowledge. Teachers are evaluated every day by students and peer reasearchers and students evaluate teachers once a semester for official purposes. These official purposes are ill-defined because in most cases the results are never made public because the system is usually complicit with ideological and often irrational forms of vested interests. The deserving might make the undeserving top occupant of the hierarchic order very uncomfortable although experience teaches that the pachydermatous skills rather than academic and intellectual attributes are among the preferential virtues.
Transparency in evaluation and authorized recording of lectures for the benefit of students would be far more effective than this undignified form of espionage. Again, these covert operations would hardly be of any relevance if the recruitment were to be fair. Its need critiques itself. The academia works best when the best traditions of democracy fertilizes teaching and learning, a true participatory partnership that inspires and motivates the pursuit of excellence.
University campuses, its public spaces: libraries and classrooms; teachers, students and employees constitute the ‘public sphere’, a term popularized by Jurgen Habermas of the Frankfurt School. In the dichotomous positioning of the state and civil society, the public sphere constitutes a site for contested public opinion which functions as moderating agency against ill-conceived exercise of the state’s authority or the violation of civil codes. Thus the public sphere is plurally constituted and engenders diverse views and practices while creating space for dissent against discrimination, injustices and inequities. The growth of true democratic traditions is directly proportional to the development of the public sphere. In India, sadly, its educational systems, unable to produce a ‘critical mass’ because of the suppression of the public sphere has created what Noam Chomsky calls a ‘democratic deficit’. It is the ruinous lack on part of the state institutions to sustain and perpetuate democratic principles. Contrariwise, they obstruct the sharing of opinion and information and actively discourage dialogue and dissent. While India continues to uphold the colonial sedition law under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, it fails to appreciate the value of enlightened laws such as Section 43(1) of the British Education Act of 1986 which states ‘ Every individual and body or persons concerned in the government of any establishment to which this section applies shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers’.
Are we then surprised when intolerance of diversities and threats to the constitution engender forms of exclusionary knowledge to which unthinking subscription entitles life and citizenship?

Monday, May 12, 2014

Academia at 42 degrees

I have often asked myself this uneasy question: how do I like to invigilate in an afternoon examination at 42 degrees? Most people will probably think that I am a decadent masochist if I say I relish doing it or if I were to turn quixotically philosophical and say temperature is an attitude of the mind. But if I were to be honest, I would look at it from the perspective of examinees that have to study, memorise, assimilate, prepare and beat the anxieties of writing a test in a room that is faintly reminiscent of the barbarous Holocaust. To sit on those bum-hard benches with egotistical authorities assuming criminal intent and issuing diktats that combine moral clichés with legal threats is an assault on common human dignity. But as the axiom goes: what can’t be cured must be endured. That is where an invigilator is advantaged. An invigilator is privy to a show that can be amusing enough to distract the mind from the forty two degrees through the drudgery of three elastic hours. An examination hall is a wonderful place to observe differences and similarities, performance and pretentions, dignity and subservience, community fellow-feeling and individual excellence, empathy for the ignorant  and subterfuges for self-preservation.
The chap in the third row, first bench has an obvious disadvantage as opposed to the person in the sixth row at back of the room. He wears a cream shirt with buttoned down flap pockets over which is embroidered in green and pink thread ‘SELF CONTROL’ He practices it with the perseverance of an ascetic until the last ten minutes of the test when material advantage overwhelms the conscience. Two rows behind, a girl with a yellow kurta and pink dupatta with temple appliqué at the borders, stares at the ceiling waiting for divinity to intervene while chewing the cap of her ball-point pen. Providence usually takes its time and in the next fifteen minutes the top end of the pen looks like the bone given to an energetic puppy. The guy with frazzled hair reminiscent of a two-minute-ago electrocution looks left, then right, sticks his tongue out, scratches his temples, the back of his head and settles down to challenge the question paper. The girl in a pair of Levis indigo jeans bought last night with a loose crepe orange cotton top in the second last row has got into the business of assaulting the paper in real earnest, drawing lines as margins, writing six lines and underlining three, erasing a pencil-drawing, scratching her nose and then continuing to write in a kind of aesthetically pleasing hand that catches my envy through the corner of my eye. Another in a black kurta who remembers very little of physics from school wrestles with her writing equipment, grimacing, snorting and smiling with each moment of disaster or triumph.
Tea comes in a plastic cup that could not have been smaller. Within seconds a serrated layer of cream forms at the top of the earth-brown liquid that bears the authoritative stamp of institutional hospitality. A sample of the river water collected next to the cremation bank may have tasted better. That sounds just a little bit morbid. Shall I erase it? Tea drained in spite of its violence on the taste-buds, its time to focus on the job of a conscientious invigilator.
May I borrow an eraser from her please? - asks a petite wheat-complexioned boy with a chiseled face. I am surprised at the good manners of this young man. This culture-plus moment almost demands the generosity of gratification with something like- Borrow two if you please. I hated to see this young lad sitting in the forty two degrees on that austere seat proving to the world that he had the wherewithal to get a masters degree and embark on a lonely road to success defined by society.
Time for examinees is a haiku, for invigilators an epic. And the hands on my wristwatch continue its painful circumambulation as the incinerating heat eases to a bearable close. Five to five, five minutes to go. That announced, hope renews. A sudden flurry of community consultations begins. Words, digital signals, snarls, whispers, winks, turns, twists are cautioned. It stops briefly, starts again. Resilience in an uneven world is an instrument of survival. End of time, we file out celebrating our freedoms in our own different ways. We are after all children of different gods.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Understanding the Art of Cinema

Understanding the Art of Cinema: a Guide for Beginners by R.N. Dash provides an encyclopedic understanding of films written in a language that is comprehensible and intelligible both for the uninitiated and proficient scholars of this discipline. To be able to inform, enlighten and encourage critical thinking and scholarship in such a vast subject is a significant achievement. What has been most baffling is that Mr. Dash with an immaculate record as a civil servant, an avid reader, a reference index in cultural relations has been a reluctant, self-questioning author and despite being a walking-talking encyclopedia on films his quintessential humility required a great deal of persuasion from his friends, admirers and students before he wrote and published the book in the autumn of 2013. Films constitute a major cultural practice of our times. People see films for various reasons: entertainment, representation of unusual themes, as a narrative and cultural signifier that enables viewers to experience a world different from their own, to experience the practice of the art by the many directors all over the globe and possibly for intellectual and sensory pleasure. Whether one reads a book, watches a theatre performance or views a film, the pleasure is enriched through critical interrogation. It may stem from asking a simple question: why did I like this film? This unobtrusive question has produced a discipline that is commonly known as Film Studies and Understanding the Art of Cinema sets out to explore, inform and analyse the elements that constitute such a scholarship. It begins with the etymology of the word cinema, understanding the constituents of a film, the ambiguity the term ‘movies’ and explains the technology of the cinema in various stages of its development. R.N. Dash’s book conducts the readers through an exploratory journey in cinema covering areas such as growth of world cinema from the silent era to contemporary practice in various countries, development of Indian cinema and the structure and constituents of this art form. Questions of classifications are enumerated in detail drawing succinct distinctions among long and short films, factual films, advertisement films, promotional films, feature films, ducu-feature and docu-drama. It answers some of the fundamental classificatory queries that often trouble those interested in film studies. With candid humour, he speaks of the category of Art films as a paradox since it implies that other categories are not works of art. The author distinguishes Mainstream, Parallel and Art movies while indicating that nomenclatures may have a certain fluidity of definition. The structural components of the cinema including the normative function of producer, director, executive producer, screenplay and dialogue writers, production designer, cinematographer, actors, composers, choreographer, editor and technicians are delineated in authentic detail with illustrations in various sections. The subject is indeed vast but Mr. Dash has been able to provide a comprehensive and detailed insight into a discipline that requires serious scholarship. While I expect that Understanding the Art of Cinema will become a signpost in film studies, I wish to see an early reprint adorning shelves in bookstores and libraries. In it I wish to suggest the inclusion of a glossary for quick reference to film terminology as well as an index. Each scholastic discipline constitutes its own special language which can often be unsettling for the uninitiated. This book is different. It uses words in common use and explains discipline- specific terms simply and with clarity. The invitation to read the book could not be more explicit.