Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Delhi Metro Walks - Rajiv Chowk and Connaught Place

Delhi is a huge and sprawling city of almost 19 million people, more than the population of many small countries. However, today it is easy to explore Delhi through its wonderful metro network.

This post is about an exploration of Connaught Place area of central Delhi around the Rajiv Chowk metro station. Rajiv Chowk station has two entrances, one near Pallika Bazar and the other in front of B block.

There are two more metro stations in this area - Janpath and Barakhamba Road stations. This walking tour can also be carried out from these other stations.


The image above is of a Buddha statue at the Cottage Industries Emporium on Janpath. CP was built as a commercial and business centre in early twentieth century under the British rule. Apart from some old and famous shopping areas and restaurants, a walking tour of CP also provides some cultural opportunities.

HISTORY OF CONNAUGHT PLACE

In 1911, the capital of India was shifted from Kolkata to Delhi. At that time, the city of Delhi was mainly limited to Shahjahanabad (area around Chandni Chowk).

Rest of the area which today comprises Delhi was composed mainly of Aravali hills with its forest. Towards its south, there were certain isolated inhabited areas - around the Dargah of Nizamuddin Aulia, around the water tank of Hauz Khas, around the ruins of Tughlakabad and in Mehrauli near Qutab Minar.

Different areas of New Delhi were built by clearing the Aravali hills right upto Reading Road (now known as Mandir Marg). Today, a small strip of that ancient forest land of Aravali hills still remains between Reading Road, Dhola Kuan, Panchkuiyan road and Rajendra Nagar.

The new areas built in 1920s included Connaught Place, Gol Market, Gol Dak khana, Viceroy house (now known as Rashtrapati Bhawan), India Gate and surrounding areas. On Reading road, the British had built the Harcourt Butler school (located next to Birla temple) for the children of the British officials, which used to shift to Shimla during the summer months.

The Aravali hills, in the area where Connaught Place was built, included different villages and two famous temples - a Hanuman temple and a Jain temple. Both these temples are still present, close to Baba Kharag Singh road.

Connaught Place was built in 1929-1933 as a series of buildings laid out in a circle around a central park with roads leading out like the spooks of a wheel. Names of many old roads of CP were changed after independence - for example, Kingsway became Janpath, Queensway became Parliament street, Curzon road became Kasturba Gandhi road while Irwin road became Baba Kharag Singh road.


The civil contractor who had built Connaught Place was Shobha Singh, the father of well known Indian writer Khushwant Singh.

The old shops in CP included Keventers and Wengers in A block. Wengers run by a Swiss couple, was famous for its chocolate cakes. In B block, Galgotias had a famous book shop. Mahatta, the celebrity photographer during 1940s to 1970s, had a shop in M block. The image below shows some of the celebrities photographed by Mahatta.


After independence till the early 1960s, the area now known as Pallika Bazar, had a circular row of wooden shacks hosting the emporiums of different Indian states, while in its centre was the famous United Coffee House of Delhi where writers and artists of Delhi got together in the evening. As a child, I still remember an evening there with the well known artist Maqbool Fida Hussein.

Later, the shops, emporiums and the United coffee house were shifted to new buildings on Janpath and Baba Kharag Singh road, while an underground parking and Pallika Bazar had taken their place. Across the road from Pallika Bazar, the iconic Jeevan Bharati building had come up in that area in 1980s.


In the same period, a big fountain was built in the centre of the circular park in CP, with lights of different colours, and bathrooms underneath. During the summer months, this was a popular place for people to sit around and eat ice creams. Later this fountain was removed when the construction of the Rajiv Chowk metro station was started.

CENTRAL PARK

The central park continues to be an important part of CP for the cultural performances. Because of the bomb threats, today the entry to the park is regulated through two entry gates and thus crossing the park as a shortcut to reach different parts of CP is no longer possible.

Since 2014, the central park is also known for the giant Indian national flag put up across the entrance to Pallika Bazar. More than 60 metres high, the flag can be seen from far away and serves as a beacon for people in this area.


BABA KHARAG SINGH ROAD

Coming from the central park towards Baba Kharag Singh Road (BKSR), you can see two iconic buildings of this area - Regal cinema and Khadi Gramoudyog Bhawan. Standard restaurant at the first floor above Regal had opened in 1957, and for a long time, was known among the old-timers for its cuisine.

On BKSR, on the right side of the road, you can visit the United Coffee House and the emporiums of different states of India full of handicrafts, clothes and other things. Each emporium is like a museum.

On the left side, you can see Rivoli, another old cinema of this area and visit the old Hanuman temple which predates the construction of CP.


The building between Rivoli cinema and Hanuman temple is Mohan Singh Palace market, famous for its tailors specialised in stitching of jeans. If you are looking for jeans made specially for you, this is the place to visit.

The open area around Hanuman Mandir is a popular place for persons looking for a place to rest. Astrologers and those who predict your future by looking at your hands, sit here waiting for the clients. In front of Hanuman temple is an underground passage. Decorated with art, the passage hosts different handicrafts shops and an occasional exhibition. In the evening, I have seen parts of this passage used by young volunteers to teach the street children.


PARLIAMENT STREET

The most famous group of constructions on Parliament Street (Sansad Marg) is Jantar Mantar, built in 1724 by Jaisingh Sawai II, the king of Amber in Rajasthan, who is also credited with the building of Jaipur. He had great interest in astronomy and astrology. Different constructions of the Jantar Mantar were built to study the movements of stars and planets. Similar complexes were also built in four other towns - Jaipur, Ujjain, Mathura and Varanasi. It has six constructions in brick and mortar, of which the biggest is known as Samrat Yantra.


Across the road from Jantar Mantar is the new building of Pallika Kendra of New Delhi Municiple Council. It is an imposing building but is grey and anonymous looking. I think that it is a missed opportunity for making a building that could have been an icon for Delhi as well as a tourist attraction.


The stretch of Parliament street after the crossing is used for staging marches and rallies. Free church at the corner is the meeting place for Alcoholics Anonymous. Being in the city centre, rallies here usually bring photographers and videographers from the newspapers and TV channels. The image below shows farmers at a rally in Parliament street.


If you are interested in checking who all are doing sit-ins, protests and asking for their rights, turn left after Jantar Mantar on the Tolstoy Marg and take the Jantar Mantar lane on the right side. This whole stretch of road is reserved for people protesting against/for something. There was a time when Irom Sharmila was here. At another time, it was the site of anti-corruption protests out of which Arvind Kejriwal appeared as a political leader. Here are a couple of images about the protesters on Jantar Mantar road.



JANPATH

Janpath is the road for shopping, from clothes to handicrafts. It has the Janpath metro station at the Tolstoy road crossing. Across the street from the Janpath metro station is Sarvanna Bhavan, the best place for south Indian food in CP.

An important building in the same area is the Cottage Industries emporium (CIE) that is a treasure house of exquisite handicrafts, jewellery and clothes from different parts of India. It also hosts specific exhibitions regularly.


Outside CIE, its lawns also host some statues linked with the exhibitions, like the sculptures in the image below.


SHANKER MARKET

This old market is opposite E block in the outer circle of Connaught Place, on the left side after the crossing with Barakhamba Road. Once upon a time, this area had the first supermarket of Delhi called Super Bazar.

Shanker market has literally changed colours over the past couple of years by asking local artists to colour its walls with beautiful designs.


UGRASEN KI BAOLI

Legends say that this step-well was first built in the Mahabharat times. The present step-well was rebuilt by some Jain traders in the 14th century. In style it looks similar to the 13th century Rajon ki Baoli stepwell in the Mehrauli archaeological area. Later a small mosque was added to the area. It is a beautiful, even if a little neglected building. Many films have been shot here including Rang de Basanti.


During the times when the whole CP area was a rocky forest of the Aravali hills, this stepwell must have been a well known resting place for persons walking along the hilly trails.

The ancient stepwell is hidden in a jungle of modern highrise buildings. To reach it, take Barakhamba road and then turn right on Hailey road, and again turn right inside Hailey lane.

CONCLUSIONS

As a child, I had loved eating Dosas at Madras Hotel on Panchkuiyan road. Literally Panchkuiyan means "five wells". That name also refers to older times when this area was Aravali hills. Further down this road, closer to Karol Bagh, there are some old medieval ruins in the forest.

Till 1970s and 1980s, Connaught Place was the real centre of Delhi. It was at Nirulas restaurant in L block where I had first tasted Triple Sundays, Pizzas, Hamburghers and Uttapams. I am sure that all the persons of my generation who had lived in Delhi, will have their own memories of CP.

Today, Delhi extends to Noida and Gurgaon, on a grid that is more than 60 km long. Each area of the city has its own shopping centres, malls and multiplexes, while CP is known more for Rajiv Chowk, the metro station where you can change the metro lines.

I am happy to take this trip down the memory lane to show some significant places of Connaught Place.

***

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Queer Theatre & Short Films - DIQTFF

Theatre and films are wonderful ways to create awareness and understanding about GLBT issues. At the same time, cultural events are opportunities for persons to come out, to have fun and to be with persons who understand their issues and dilemmas. Recently I had the opportunity to witness some of the short films and theatre events organised during the Delhi International Queer Theatre and Film Festival (DIQTFF).


This post is about my experiences on the first day of DIQTFF. Let me start with some of the theatre performances of this festival before talking about the short films. The image above is from a performance by the Sangwari theatre group.

ASMITA THEATRE GROUP

I had already heard about the Asmita Theatre Group of Delhi, which was founded  in 1993 by the well known theatre personality Arvind Gaur. During DIQTFF, Asmita presented different performances. I saw only one of these - Pehchan (Identity). It was led by Shilpi Marwaha.

Using a street-theatre approach, actors wearing dark blue kurtas appeared on the stage accompanied by a few drums. Short interactions between the actors followed one another in quick succession, weaving a tapestry of dialogues from daily lives around the GLBT issues. Parents talking about an effeminate child, young men talking about a gay classmate, a young woman wondering about her attraction to another woman, fears of the parents of a gay son, people commenting about transgender persons on the street, and so on. Usual casual prejudices and discriminations.


There was little time to think about the things said on the stage, as one verbal exchange led to another, signaled by a brief beat of drums. The culmination of the performance was in two moments of violence. In the first episode, a young girl had been sent to her married sister's house where her brother-in-law raped her to "cure" her attraction for another girl. In the second episode, a young man was sexually abused by his friends because he was gay and needed to be taught a lesson, while one "friend" recorded the violence on his mobile phone.

Most of the exchanges and episodes of the performance were allowed to sink in without any explanations while a few times, one of the actors provided the context and a brief explanation. For example, as the young girl was raped, another actor informed that a large number of lesbian girls face sexual violence to "cure" them of their attraction for their own sex.

It was a very effective performance, leaving me stunned and shocked. It deserved the huge appreciation and standing ovation given to it by the audience. The direct language used in the performance was very effective. I wish it can be seen by the students of all high schools and colleges.

OXANA CHI AND LAYLA ZAMI

Oxana and Layla are two artists from Berlin, Germany who are a couple in real life and complement each other in a wonderful dance and music performance. Both of them are German but have immigrants among their ancestors (One of Oxana's great grandfathers was from India).

The performance has Oxana's contemporary dance and Layla's music. Apart from a saxophone and some strange looking string instruments, Layla also uses some objects from daily life to create her music including some old newspapers and a cup of rice grains.


The performance was like a dream in slow motion expressing different emotions through sounds and body movements. A few years ago, during the world dance festival in Bologna (Italy) I had seen a group of Italian dancers express mental illness through their dance. Oxana and Layla's performance reminded me of that experience. Usually dance and music are seen as motion, dynamism and rhythm. However, appreciating their performance required a slowing down and focusing of attention, almost like being in meditation.

SANGWARI THEATRE GROUP

Sangwari theatre group from Delhi was started in 1994. Their performance at DIQTFF focused on spaces given to transgender persons in India. Through dances, questions and role plays it looked at the kind of visibility and space given to lives of transgender persons in the Hindu scared books, in the school books and in the classrooms, in science and in livelihood opportunities. It concluded that the spaces given to transgender persons are almost non-existent and when they are given, they are demeaning to the dignity of persons.

Through the loud claps and brazen gestures commonly adopted by traditional transgender persons (hijra and kinnars) in the streets in India, the performance touched on different issues by laughing at them and making the audience laugh with them, even when it talked about brutality and violence. This made the performance more poignant and effective.


Like the performance by Asmita group, their performance was very powerful, leaving questions in my mind about human insensitivity that allows such brutal exploitation of other human beings without questioning the social norms.

SHORT FILMS AT DIQTFF

Compared to the theatre performances, the short films presented on the first day of DIQTFF were less powerful and effective. Most of the short films were not made by professionals. Some of them had very poor sound quality. A few were not very exciting visually, limiting themselves to a fixed shots. Here is a brief introduction to the films shown in the festival:

Darwaze (Doors) by Aditya Joshi is about two young guys, Shashank and Komal, who come to live in a flat. Their landlord's brother Mr Kale and his wife, Mrs Sujata Kale (Sanyogita Bhave), live next door. Sujata becomes friends with the boys. One day Mr Kale discovers that the two guys are gay and live as a couple. Angry, he asks them to vacate the flat. Sujata tries to reason with her husband saying that the boys are nice guys, but Kale does not relent. "In our family we don't have such perversions," he says. (Below, a still from the film with the actors playing Sujata and Shashank).



Few months later, Kale's son comes back from the hostel and has a secret to share with his parents. Kale is shocked and unable to say a word. Sujata laughs. It is a short and sweet film. The image above shows Sujata and Shashank from the film.

Khunnas (Estrangement) by Nasir Ahmed is a short film in Bengali. It is about the relationship between a man and his young son, who likes to dress up as a girl. The man does not like it when his son wants to put on make-up and dress like girls but he is also loving to the child. His girlfriend does not like the young boy and says that such boys are not accepted in the society. She tells the man that as long as he has the boy, she will not marry him. One day the man takes his son to a far away place and abandons him in a market. An eunuch takes away the crying boy. Later the man repents and goes to look for his child but can not find him.

The film is a little melodramatic, looking at the child's abandonment from father's point of view, but still makes an impact.

Satrangi by Ankit Tiwari is about homosexuality and GLBT rights as seen by different religions. Made by a group of students, it asks Hindu and Christian priests their views about GLBT issues and uses a Newslaundry video about an Islamic leader about these issues.

"In the Mood for Love" by ?? - I didn't see the tile of this film when it was shown. I am not even sure about its title, which could have been "Love My Way". I searched but could not find more information about this film. However it was one of the better films of the festival.

This film explored the personal meanings given to love in the lives of different GLBT couples. For example, one story was about a gay couple, Rishi and Bijoy. Another story was about a trans-woman Pradipta Ray who wants to be a film maker.

Tanishq by Naveen Tokas is an autobiographical film. Naveen talks about his feminine side, his desires, the difficulties with his classmates in school and college and his challenges with relationships, leading to a gradual self-acceptance and self-confidence. It is an honest film with a moving testimony.


Five Questions by Mohit Arora is about the TV interview of a gay celebrity and the questions asked to him to explain his life choices and the secret of the mask covering his face. The image below has Mohit Arora and some other members of his team.


I have an advice for the young film-makers - when you are sending a film to a festival, make a Facebook page about your film, provide information about your crew and post a few images from your film. None of the films presented in DIQTFF had any Facebook page and I could not find any online information about the works of their film-makers. The only person for whom some online information was present was Aditya Joshi, the director of Darwaze.

CONCLUSIONS

Though the quality of short films shown at DIQTFF was uneven, it was compensated by the high level of the three theatre performances. Among the performances, my vote for the most impressive performance goes to Asmita Theatre Group.

So many beautiful films on Queer themes are available on Youtube. I think that curators of DIQTFF should select and show a couple of those films in their festival. This will inspire persons in the audience as well as the young film makers to improve their work.

During DIQTFF, Sahil Verma also presented the Harmless Hugs anthology of short stories. The festival was also an occasion to present a photo-exhibition of Alok Johri, "No Conditions Apply".


Later in the evening, well known Bollywood writer, singer and actor Piyush Mishra presented some of his poems and songs, including my personal favourite from Gangs of Wasseypur, "Ik bagal mein chand hoga".

The festival organised by Harmless Hugs was supported by Love Matters India, Impulse AIDS Health Care Foundation and many other organisations.

***

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Writers and Celebrities: Times Lit Fest

I was back in Mehboob studios in Mumbai after forty years. This time it was for the Times Literary Festival. It was a day of listening to writers and journalists as well as to two Bollywood celebrities - Kangana Ranaut and Karan Johar.


Nothing looked the same at the Mehboob Studios, starting from the entrance gate. Forty years ago, we had been stopped at the gate by the guard wanting to know who were we meeting. Inside we had been wide-eyed with wonder as we had seen the Bollywood stars of that era - Ashok Kumar, Jitendra, Navin Nischol and Prema Narayan. Except for Jitendra, who is known as father of Ekta Kapoor, probably people today won't even know the names of those other persons. For the Lit Fest, the studio halls were converted into discussion rooms and though there were a film actor and a film director, there were no film sets or shootings going on.

I had come to Mumbai for the launch of the new film of Sujoy Ghosh - Kahaani 2. Along with the well known Vidya Balan and Arjun Rampal, the film also has the film debut of my niece Manini Chadha, who plays the wife of Arjun Rampal in the film. If you have seen the film, do tell me if you remember Manini and how did you like her!


My Mumbai days were hectic - apart from the literary festival and the launch of Kahaani 2, it was a time for family reunions, as well as, some work meetings related to a research project. However, this post is only about my impressions from the Times Lit Fest.

Arguing About Politics - State of Democracy in India

My morning started with the two well known journalists, Rajdeep Sardesai and Tavleen Singh. It was good to see both of them in person but in terms of what they were saying, both seemed to reiterate what they write every day in their columns. Which means that Sardesai was more critical of Modi while Singh was more critical of the liberal-left.


Talking about the state of democracy in India, Singh said that it was a democracy without justice as even serious criminal cases of murder and rape dragged for twenty years. She also felt that the inability to ensure decent education for the children and minimal health services for the citizens were failures of the Indian democracy.

Sardesai said that there were limited choices for the democracy in India as we are only asked to choose between Congress, a family-owned private limited party, or a street populist like Kejriwal or a demagogue like Modi. He also felt that over the past few years, media has also failed to stand up to the Government.

Singh felt that media had been co-opted by the Government immediately after independence of India when Nehru had offered government houses and other perks to big journalists who had accepted those perks. When you are taking benefits from the government, how can you criticise anything, she asked.

In another session in the afternoon, I listened once again to Sardesai and Singh. This time they were accompanied by two more journalists - Jyoti Malhotra and Kumar Kekar. In this session, Sardesai became more emotional, complaining about the pressure of the Modi government on the media houses and how this is affecting journalism.


Kekar also joined in the criticism of Modi by raising the issue of 2002 Gujarat riots and claiming that Modi Government has suppressed the new book "Gujarat files" of Rana Ayyub. (I am not sure about the suppression of Ayyub's book as I saw it displayed in a book shop at the Mumbai airport. It seems to be a best seller.)

Singh asked why media continues to focus only on Modi, forgetting the other riots in India such as the riots against Sikhs in 1984 and the infamous Maliana killing of 42 youth.

Overall, this session was like listening to one of the debates that they have on the Indian TV channels on most evenings, without anything new in it.

Equality, Liberty and Sexuality

I was looking forward to this session on alternate sexualities and it did not disappoint. The session had three well known persons - French author Charles Dantzig, Isreali author Gil Hovav and Indo-German artist Katharina Poggendorf-Kakar. It was moderated by Vikram Doctor.


Vikram Doctor started the session by talking about the rise of nationalism and the power gained by conservative right wing persons/parties in different parts of the world, asking if this is going to create new challenges for persons of alternate sexualities.

Charles Dantzig explained that it is not correct to equate political right wing persons with sexual conservatives. For example, Marine Le Pen has many gay friends and many French gays support right wing parties in France because they are afraid of Arab immigrants. Even the other rising figure of French right, Francois Fillon had started his career with support from an important gay parliamentarian.

He felt that perhaps more public hypocrisy and restraint was needed and that he had been shocked by the kind of backward things said by people against same-sex marriage law in France.

Gil Hovav supported Dantzig's position by explaining that in Israel, in spite of the right conservative parties which are in power and gay marriages are not legal, the government and society are very accepting towards alternate sexualities. He lives with his companion, his former commander in the department of Israeli intelligence, with their daughter, who is biological daughter of his companion with a Lesbian friend. The Israeli society is very accepting and they have not faced any kind of prejudices.

Being a gay or a lesbian is also not a issue in the Israeli armed forces where all are expected to do service, while in France, the army is more anti-gay.

Gil also spoke about the Palestinian issue by saying that he completely supports the right to freedom of the Palestinians. He agreed that the persons with alternate sexualities face a lot of difficulties in the Palestinian society and many of them prefer to live in Israel, but he feels that right to sexual freedom is less important than the right to freedom of the Palestinian people.

Katharina Poggendorf-Kakar said that like gays and lesbians, even for the women, it is difficult to say if they are margainlised by conservative regimes since many women play an active role in these right wing parties. It is the same in India, where women play an active role in the oppression of other women, for example, mothers-in-law in the families. It is more about patriarchal mindsets then about the parties and more dialogues are needed on these issues starting from the schools.

Katharina also said that expressing love in public by persons of same sex is threatening to public because it forces them to confront their own sexuality. The changing society threatens notions of masculinity and patriarchy and thus there is rage among young men. While she feels that the percentage of rapes is higher in Europe than it is in India, here the rapes are more vicious and violent because there is much more rage among young men in India than there is in Europe.

I enjoyed this session very much, it was very thought-provoking. My only complaint was that for the one hour or shorter sessions, they should not have more than 2 speakers since it is difficult to give sufficient time to more persons.

Jonathan Clements, Pallavi Aiyar and Kangana Ranaut

Both Clements and Aiyar are travel writers, writing about Asia. Clements has written exclusively about China and he feels that knowing the local language and a deep knowledge of local culture is necessary to write about a country. His interest in China came at an early age since his father was part of a band, which played in a Chinese restaurant. "Whichever place in the world I visit, I always stay in the Chinatowns", he explained.


Aiyar, on the other hand, writes from a more external point of view without getting too much mixed up with local cultures. She was in the US when she first went to visit her Spanish husband in China and it hooked her, resulting in her first book. Since then she has written about other Asian countries.

Aiyar raised up the issue of the country stereotypes that dominate media. For example, in 2008 during the Olympics in Beijing, the foreign media wrote extensively about the pollution in the city. Two years later, in 2010 when the commonwealth games were held in Delhi, though the city's pollution was as bad as in Beijing, no one ever wrote about it, focusing instead on women oppression and rapes.

I found this session a little boring. My disinterest was probably also because I have not read either of them. So I left their session half-way to go and listen to the bollywood star Kangana Ranaut.


Kangana, being a Bollywood celebrity, had her own session in a big hall, full of people. She was being interviewed by journalist Manu Joseph. She is very articulate. However, the hall was too crowded and I thought that I had already read so much about her views in the newspaper and magazine interviews, so after five minutes, I decided to give it a miss.

The Ethical Slut

This was another session related to sexuality, asking if polyamory is the answer to our promiscuous instinct. The short answer to this question was "No", though the different persons present in this session came to that conclusion very differently.

There were 3 persons in this session – Dossie Easton, Barbara Ascher and Hoshang Merchant. It was moderated by Pragya Tiwari. Both Dossie and Barbara were a kind of therapist-counsellor-spiritual writers kind of persons while Hoshang, is a more rebel poet, looking from his role as a gay activist.


It was not a good combination of persons, because Hoshang clearly did not agree with many of things the other two were saying and came out a bit too strongly. The other two seemed a bit unsure of how to deal with him. Each of them had a lot of interesting things to share and merited their own separate sessions, grouping them together like that did not allow enough space for any of them. It was not a dialogue between them but rather a conflict, till Hoshang decided to leave the stage.

The discussions touched on ideas of romantic love and how these initiated in Europe in medieval period and later came to be seen as universal. Hoshang felt that the ideas of romantic love originated among gay poets and was later taken over by heterosexuals, who began to question if gays can experience romantic love or if they are just sexually promiscuous.

Another area of discussion was instinct versus culture and the possibilities of learning new ways of thinking and controlling the instincts. Regarding polyamory and the ideas of having multiple romantic/sexual partners, the discussions also touched on the role played by jealousy.

I was not satisfied with this session because it did not give me enough time to listen to the views of the three speakers. However, after the Lit Fest, I looked for and bought Dossie Easton’s book “The ethical slut”, because I want to read more about her ideas. I have already read some of the works of Hoshang.

Devi and Demon

I was really looking forward to this session, hoping to hear some stimulating discussion. Arshia Sattar has translated Ramayan while Amruta Patil had done a graphic novel on Mahabharat. Thus the session was organised to focus on the figures of goddesses and demons in these two books and was coordinated by Devdutt Pattanaik.


Pattanaik started the session by talking about the contraposition between the ideas of hermit versus householder in the Indian philosophy and how these two books look at these two ideas.

The session was a little disappointing since both Arshia and Amruta were unable to point towards any new facets of the Devi/Demon characters from the two books. Amruta did talk about a relatively unknown character of Mahabharat, Satyawati, but she was not able to express it in an interesting way. Similarly, Arshia talked about the Shakuntala story but it lacked the spark. The most interesting part of their discussion was about the figures of Mriga (deer) hunting in the two epics.

Both Arshia and Amruta emphasised the need to look at the context of the two epics rather than jumping to conclusions about the motivations and actions of specific characters. For example, Arshia talked about Ram and the difficult choices he makes throughout his life, while grappling with the responsibilities of his public role leading to the negation of his personal desires.

Compared to Arshia and Amruta, Pattanaik was a much more interesting and articulate speaker, but his role in the session was limited.

Loneliness of Men and Women

Before leaving the Lit Fest, I also went to the session of Karan Johar who was interviewed by Jitesh Pillai. Like the Kangana Ranaut session, this was also in the big hall and was full of people. As usual, Johar was very articulate and also seemed sincere in sharing his thoughts and angst. However, most of it was not new since he had already spoken about these things in his numerous interviews in magazines and newspapers.


Others

Among others, I also saw William Dalrymple, Ramchandra Guha and Sudhir Kakkar.


I briefly listened to an Australian Aboriginal poet, Lionel Fogarty, in a session moderated by Ranjit Hoskote.


Conclusions

Overall the festival was a good occasion to see many persons whose works I have read and admired. In terms of new ideas and discussions, there was not so much and the quality was uneven, however that is inevitable in the events of this kind.

It was a bit sad to think that the literature festival organised by one of the most important publication groups of India had not even one big Indian literature figure and no one from the world of Indian languages. Probably after Mahashweta Devi, we do not have any towering literary figures in India any more. Is it because our society today is all about superficial fun-and-having-a-good-time, and there is no time to stop and worry about literature which does not bring any money or power?

It was not possible to participate in all the sessions. For example, I would have loved to attend Devdutt Pattanaik’s session “Is God a boy or a girl? And what about Devil?” I would have also loved to listen to Ram Chandra Guha on history as it happens and history in hindsight. But these sessions were planned too late in the afternoon for me, as I had some other engagements.

However, as a result of the festival, I am planning to read the works of two authors that I have not read before, Gil Hovav and Dossie Easton. So I can say that it was a worthwhile experience.

***

Friday, November 25, 2016

Traditional Transgender Communities in India

Indian parliament is debating a bill on the rights of transgender persons. In 2016 it is being discussed in Loksabha, the lower house of parliament. However, some groups of transgender persons (TGPs) are opposing parts of this bill, arguing that it will harm their rights.

Recently a press conference was organised in Delhi about the TG bill. Representatives of TGPs from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Puducherry, Haryana and Delhi were present. This article tries to understand their main concerns. (Below, an image from the press conference).

Before we talk about the concerns of traditional TGP communities in India, it is necessary to understand what kind of communities are these.

TRADITIONAL TRANSGENDER COMMUNITIES IN INDIA

Different sacred texts of Indic religions provide examples and stories of TGPs including the Ardhnarishwar avatar of Shiva, the Mohini avatar of Vishnu during the churning of oceans for the nectar of immortality and the episodes from Mahabharat where Arjun becomes a woman called Brihannala and the story of Irvan during the Kurukshetra war.

While ancient texts illustrate traditional attitudes and practices regarding gender and sexuality, societies do not always behave according to those ancient ideas. The attitudes towards TGPs in today's India include giving them specific social and cultural roles in circumscribed areas such as weddings, child-birth and traditional theatre, while at the same time excluding them from mainstream community lives. Some of them are sex workers, which is often used against them for their further marginalisation and exploitation.

There have been a few examples of transgender persons assuming power and playing important social roles in medieval India such as Malik Kafur, a military general of Alauddin Khilji, and Malik Sarvar and his adopted son Malik Qaranfal (known as Mubarak Shah), who ruled Jaunpur in what is now Uttar Pradesh in the 14th century. However, these can only be considered as exceptions that prove the rule of social marginalisation of TGPs in India. In the post-independence period, many TGPs have broken out of the societal boundaries to study and to take up different professions, but again, they are still a small minority among the TGPs.

"Traditional TGPs Communities"  of male-to-female (MtF) persons came up to deal with their exclusion from mainstream community lives. In different parts of India the traditional TGP communities share many similarities but are also different. These are led by senior TGPs, who may be called Guru. The members of communities also identify each other through family kinship-names such as nani, dadi, mother and sisters. Such TGP communities have specific names such as Haveli or Dera, used by their members.

Though the ancient Indic stories also include female-to-male (FtM) persons such as the Shikhandi story in Mahabharat, FtM persons are less visible in India and are not part of the traditional communities.

Different parts of India have different terms about TGPs including Hijra/Hijda, Kinnar, Kothi, Aravani, Khusra, Pavaiya, Maada and Jogappa. These terms may be used in different ways in different parts of India.

There is limited documentation and understanding about the lives of TGPs in the traditional communities. Often the documentation and understanding come from persons trained in the western/modern analytical methodologies rather than from persons who have grown up in the TGP-communities with a consequent distortion of what they understand and how they explain it.

Not all the TGPs in India live as members of these traditional communities, many of them live outside. Considering the huge amount of discrimination and violence faced by TGPs, I feel that even larger number of TGPs may be hidden in their families. However I have been unable to find any studies or even estimates of the percentage of TGPs living in traditional communities and outside these.

The traditional TGP communities of MtF persons are organised in family clans with state and regional level structures. The proposed bill has prompted the coming together of these communities to form a national level body. Male transgender persons (FtM) are also participating in the building of the all India TGP organisation.

A national meeting of the TGP communities from different states is being planned in Madhya Pradesh in December 2016, where the constitution of the All India organisation will be formalised.

TRANSGENDER PERSONS IN INDIA

The national census conducted in 2011, for the first time, collected separate data on transgender persons. According to this data, there were 4.8 lakhs (a little less than half a million) transgender persons in India including 11% of children. Around 56% of them could read and write, though literacy rates varied between different states. For example, around 68% of TGPs in Maharashtra could read and write while in Rajasthan the percentage went down to 48%.

Considering that many TGPs remain hidden in their families to avoid societal prejudice and discrimination, actual number of TGPs in India is likely to be much higher.

Most of the data regarding TGPs collected in the 2011 census has not yet been analysed. This data can provide us with important information about the lives of TGPs such as - how many of them reach old age, how many of them have university degrees and how many of them live in communities with other TGPs. I think that organisations active in the areas of human rights and in more specific issues of Queer rights need to take this up with the Census department of Government of India so that the details of this data are released. 

BILL ON THE RIGHTS OF TGP  IN THE INDIAN PARLIAMENT

The bill was originally presented in the Upper House of Indian Parliament (Rajya Sabha) by the DMK leader Tiruchi Siva on 12th December 2014. After some modifications this private bill was passed by Rajya Sabha on 24th April 2015. The bill approved by Rajya Sabha was presented in the lower house of the Parliament (Lok Sabha) on 26 February 2016. Since then, after consultations with various bodies another version of this bill has been developed.

All India Transgender Persons’ Organisation was happy with the initial version of the bill introduced in 2014. They felt that the amendments introduced in the version passed by Rajya Sabha had diluted some of their rights, but they still accepted and supported that bill. However, they express strong opposition to some of the changes introduced in the present version of bill being discussed in Lok Sabha.

Government officials have assured them that after the end of the on-going winter session of the parliament, a national level meeting will be organised in Delhi where all the different groups of TG persons will be invited for discussions on the proposed bill.

CONCERNS OF TRADITIONAL TGP COMMUNITIES REGARDING THE RIGHTS OF TGP BILL

The main concerns about the proposed bill are as follows:

Representation of the TG communities: TG persons feel that Government has consulted only NGOs about the bill. In their opinion, NGOs get funding for and are focused only on HIV prevention and they do not understand what it means to be a TG person and all the different issues that are part of their lives in traditional TG communities. Therefore, TG persons ask for direct representation in consultations with Government of India.

The Bill is against the traditional TG communities: Often TG persons, including children, are abandoned or forced out of their families. Working adults, when they decide to come out with their TG identity, they lose their jobs. The traditional TGP communities take care of and provide emotional support, peer support, help and advice to them. They feel that the proposed bill negates and criminalises these roles of the traditional communities.

Traditionally TG persons have not had opportunities for education and proper employment, while over centuries they have developed social roles such as Badhai system where they visit families during marriages and other happy occasions such as birth of children.

While better opportunities for education and employment of children and young TG persons are welcome steps in the proposed bill, making traditional activities such as Badhai as illegal is not the right answer. TG communities already have children and young persons who are going to school and who want to take up proper professions. However the older TG persons who are not educated and do not have professional skills, how will they survive if they can not take part in their traditional activities and if their traditional communities are seen as illegal?

The bill proposes punishment and jail for persons who will discriminate against TG persons. However they point out that among those who harass and exploit the TG persons, police persons are the biggest perpetrators. Thus they ask how will this anti-discrimination work?

The bill proposes jail for TGPs found begging on the streets. Such provisions ignore the prejudice, discrimination, oppression and exploitation faced by TG persons from the police. Such laws will increase the police harassment against TG persons because they can be simply picked up from streets.

Promoting work and empowerment of TG persons: The original version of the bill included incentives to private companies for employing TG persons. They feel that this was a useful provision and should be maintained.
Definitions of TG Persons in the Bill: The proposed bill also has some definitions which are problematic. For example, references to half-man and half-woman (Ardhnarishwar) are taken from ancient texts such as Mahabharat, which are metaphorical and not related to real TG persons.

A related issue is the lack of the words such as Hijra and Kinnar in the proposed bill. The bill does not use these traditional words and ignores their meanings and significance to the traditional TG communities in India.

COMMENTS

I think that the concerns of All India TGPs Organisation raise three kinds of issues:

(i) The first is a practical issue regarding lives of adolescent, young adults and older TG persons who have grown up in traditional communities outside the mainstream society and who feel threatened by the measures proposed in the Bill, because it increases the risks for their criminalisation, oppression, exploitation and marginalisation.

The measures proposing the right of TG children to live in their families, to study, to work and to live lives with dignity are important and should be promoted but without penalising those who have grown up and live in the margins of the mainstream communities.

In my opinion, traditional TGP communities are a societal response to their marginalisation. Families when they decide to expel and exclude their child with gender dysphoria, they call upon these traditional communities to take away those children. Children should have a right to live in a loving and caring atmosphere in their own families. However, the social change will not come just because a new law is made. Declaring traditional communities as unwanted and unwelcome will mean removing their existing social support system.  Thus, there has to be an adequate period of transition.

(ii) A second issue is more cultural. Traditional communities that have developed over centuries, provide specific roles of peer support, guidance, emotional support and sustenance for TGPs. Little is known or understood about these roles. Promoting their dismantling and declaring them as unwanted, without understanding the kind of support and services they provide, does not seem to me  to be a good idea.

Thus, I believe that there is an urgent need for research and studies in TGPs issues conducted by transgender persons themselves including persons who live in traditional communities. It is also important to develop adequate research methodologies which do not view everything only from western/modern analytical frameworks but which give equal importance of ideas and understandings of persons in the traditional TGP communities.

(iii) A third issue is about the role of the public institutions. As the TG persons complain about their exploitation by the police, similar complaints are also made about gender-based violence and other issues related to marginalised population groups. Measures are needed to promote institutional changes in the police and judicial system.

One way to promote institutional change in the police could be to nominate a local group of TG persons as expert-advisers for their local police stations, so that they have opportunities for regular interaction with police to inform them and to sensitise them on TG issues. However, this would also require opportunities for training of TG persons to play this role.

CONCLUSIONS

While traditional TGP communities have a long history, TGP movement in India is just beginning. I plead my own limited knowledge about the issues. From what I have understood, TGPs are divided in different groups including traditional communities, other persons outside the communities, some persons in or working with NGOs and the silent and hidden group of people who remain in their families.

These different groups may share many common goals but they also have significant differences. Building a national organisation in which these different groups can join together to share their common goals and make a joint fight for their rights would probably be a long-drawn process. In this sense, formation of All India Organisation of Traditional Communities of TGPs should be seen as an important first step.


Note: Apart from one picture from the press conference (second from the top), all the remaining images used in this post are from the North-East Queer Pride Parades 2015-16 held in Guwahati (Assam, India).

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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Games We Used To Play

A visit to the Jan Jaati Sanghralaya (Tribal Museum) of Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh, India) brought back the memories of my childhood. If anyone had asked me what kind of games do the tribal children in India play, I wouldn’t have known what to answer. I was surprised that most of the tribal games shown in this museum are the same games that I had played while growing up in the Delhi of 1950s and 1960s.

This post presents images of the traditional games played by children in India before the TV and video-games culture took over our lives. The images of this post come from the Tribal Museum of Bhopal as well as from other parts of India. Let me start this post with an image that I love. It is of a simple innocent game - a girl playing with a balloon. I love it because, in it the girl has been dressed in a sari like an adult, but she is still a child and she expresses the innocent joy of her childhood in her play. 
Games played in ancient India

References to games where players use a dice are found in the ancient Hindu texts of Rigveda and Mahabharat. The war of Kurukshetra, the central event of Mahabharat, starts from a game of Chausar, a dice-based board game, in which the elder Pandav brothers, Yudhisthir, bets on his wife Draupadi.

17th precept of Buddha in Brahmajala Sutta written in ancient Pali language advices the followers to avoid playing games and thus provides a list of common games played in India the BCE era. The image below shows the English translation of this text along with the descriptions of different games.

A bass relief sculpture from the Buddhist stupa ruins from 2nd century BCE in Bhahut village of Satna district in Madhya Pradesh shows persons playing a chausar or chaupad like game with the dice.
Both the above pictures are from Bharata - @Dauhshanti

Thus, ancient Indians had different kinds of popular games. You will find echoes of many of those games in those described below, with which I had grown up.

Traditional Indian Games

Most of these games do not require any special equipment. Sometimes they include a ball made from scraps of old clothes. Some games require stones of different shapes. Often the game-boards are designed on the ground with chalk or a brick.

In my childhood, we used dark coloured smooth tamarind seeds as the dice, by cleaving the seeds into two, so that one side is white and the other is dark. Thus, if you throw six pieces of tamarind half-seeds, you can count the seeds which land on their backs with the white part up.

So come with me on this journey of discovering the traditional Indian games. If you have an opportunity to visit Bhopal, do not forget to visit the amazing Jan Jaati museum with its rich exposition of colours and arts of tribal India. If you can't visit it, you can get a glimpse of its wonders at the museum website.

Poshamba or Poshampa

In the tribal museum they call it Poshamba, we used to call it Poshampa. In this game two kids form a
gate with their hands and sing a small ditty while the other children pass underneath. The ditty is: “Poshampa bhai poshampa, dakuon ne kya kiya, sau rupaye ki ghadi churayi, ab to jail mein jana padega” (Poshampa brother poshampa, what did the bandits do, robbed a 100 Rs watch, now they must go to jail). As the ditty finishes, the kid under the arms-gate is caught and has to choose between two words like allu-baigan (potato-egg plant) or sona-chandi (gold-silver) and depending upon the choice, s/he has to go behind one of the gate-kids and make a queue. Like this, all the kids are divided into 2 teams who will have a final round of pulling each other till one side falls. The image above from the tribal museum shows the final moment of the tug of war.

Chaktak Gondra or Ghoda Badam Shahi or Kokla-Chhipaki

The tribal museum calls it "Chaktak Gondra" and informs that the cities children call it "Ghoda
Badam Shahi". However, we used to call it "Kokla-chhipaki". In this game a child playing Ghoda (horse) holds a cloth and sings a ditty while s/he goes around other children sitting in a ring. The ditty says, “Kokla chhipaki jumme raat aayi re, jeda aage pichhe dekhe uski shamat aayi re” (Friday night of the hidden Kokla has come, whosoever will look behind, will be punished).

If any child tries to look back, Ghoda can hit that child with the cloth. While walking around, Ghoda quietly puts the cloth behind one of the sitting children. If Ghoda can complete one round without the sitting child being aware of the cloth at his back, Ghoda can beat that child with the cloth. Next, the child who was beaten becomes the Ghoda and the whole thing is repeated.

Thus the child playing Ghoda has to be vigilant and cunning, keeping a poker-face so that the sitting children do not realise that the cloth has been left behind one of them.

Pitthu

Kids are divided into 2 teams. Five or seven flat stones are placed one above the other in the centre of the space.

A kid from team one has to throw the ball so as to break the stone-tower. While kids of the second team need to collect the ball and throw it so that it hits one of the kids of first team, the other team needs to rebuild the broken tower without being hit. If the first team manages to complete the tower without getting hit by the ball then they have 1 pitthu in their account. If they are unable to complete the tower and get hit, then it is second team’s turn to throw the ball. The team with larger number of completed towers (pitthu) wins the game.

This was one of my favourite games in the school. I remember playing it with my classmates of primary school, early in the morning before the classes started.

Budawa or Lansangada or Dag-Dabeli

This is one game that I found in the tribal museum with which I was not familiar, because it requires
tree-climbing. One kid plays the stick-guard. Other children throw the stick as far as possible and while the guard goes to pick the stick, they all must climb on the tree. The guard brings back the stick, draws a circle around the tree and puts the stick in the circle. The children from the tree have to get down, pick up the stick and climb back without getting caught by the guard.

The tribal museum of Bhopal has two beautiful installations on this game, shown in the images on the right and below.
Gondiva or the stilts game

As the name suggests, it requires racing or dancing on the stilts. It is popular among Balga, Saharia and some other tribal groups. I was also unfamiliar with this game.
Gilli-Danda or Gulli-danda

This game requires a short piece of spindle shaped wood called Gilli or Gulli and a wooden stick called Danda. One kid hits the corner of Gilli with the stick and as it jumps up, hits it as far as possible. The other children have to catch the Gilli before it touches the ground. If they manage to catch it, it is their turn to play the game. If they can't catch it, the first player continues to hit the Gilli and go around.

This was also very popular when I was a child. However, I was not very good at it so I did not play it often.
Machhali Pakadia or Kekada Pakadia

This game is played by the tribal children in the coastal areas where they have to catch (Pakadia) a Machhali (fish) or a Kekada (crab) in the bamboo basket. I remember seeing children playing it in a river in West Bengal during my childhood, and I remember having tried in vain to catch a small fish with the basket. Thus this game is also unknown to the city kids.
Chaupad or Chausar

This is the ancient Indian game described in Mahabharat. It is played with 12 or 16 pawns and seems to be similar to a checker game popular in Europe (for example, in Italy they call it Dama). It is a strategy game like chess. However I had never played it as a child.
We did play a simpler version of a game with such a board and dice that is similar to Ludo. It is said that the British took Ludo to Europe from India in the 17th or 18th century.

Jhula or the swing

This simple game needs at least three children. One child sits cross-legged and holds his/her feet, while the other two hold the sitting child by his/her elbows and then swing him/her till s/he looses the grip on his/her feet and or opens her legs and touches the ground.
Ghite

This game is played with 5-7 small round stones called ghite (singular Ghita). The player keeps one stone in his/her hand, throws it up in the air and in the mean time, picks up the stones in the centre, catching back the stone-in-the-air. If the stone-in-the-air falls down, the player loses the game. It becomes slowly complex – you start by picking one ghita at a time and then increase the number of stones to be picked or you need to do some specific movements while picking the stones. This game is played mainly by girls.

An easier version of this game uses a ball, which is thrown up in air, while the player collects the stones.
Gadi

Village children often play with small wooden or bamboo carts (Gadi), pulling them around the village roads. Sometimes, the moving wheels action a stick which drums on the wood and makes a sound.

Usually these require larger spaces that are harder to find in the cities. In addition, in cities we do not use carts. Thus, while I had seen these in the villages, I had never played with them.
Carrom board

This game requires a special wooden board and special wooden round pieces called Goti. The Gotis are of two colours, white and black. In addition, there is a red Goti called the queen. The game is played by two or four players, divided into two teams, one black team and one white team. You need to hit the Gotis of your colour on the board till they fall in the holes on the corner of the board. The team that manages to get the red Goti wins the game.
I loved this game and remember playing it even while I grew up and was studying medicine. Many years later, I had bought a carrom board and taken it to Italy to play it with my son.

Ghar-Ghar or House-house

This game is usually played by young girls, where they play act to be ladies of the house, who cook and do household chores and make tea for the guests. They usually create a small separate space for playing it. In the image below, the two children sitting on the roadside, were playing it wrapped under a sari.
I remember playing it with my sister when I was around 5 years old and she was 3. We used to create our space between the charpaies, the light beds with wooden legs and woven with cord. These beds are laid out at night for sleeping and put up against the walls during the day to save space. I think that this game is a way for children to understand family relationships and gender roles, as during the play we used to mimic the exchanges between the adults of our families.

Kabbaddi

This game is also played by two teams. A person, the attacker, from one team has to go to the other side while repeating kabbaddi, kabbaddi, to touch a player of opposition and then run back to his own side while continuing to repeat kabbaddi-kabbaddi without a break. The other team has to avoid getting touched and if someone gets touched then they try to catch the attacker and not let him go back to his side. Every touch accompanied by safe return to your side earns your team one point.

In the image below, the guy in green dress is the attacker who has entered the space of the yellow side and is trying to touch someone of their team.
This game is played by older kids, both girls and boys, though more popular among boys. India has different state level and national level championships of this game. It is very popular in rural areas.

Conclusions

The Jan Jaati tribal museum of Bhopal is a beautiful place and merits a visit. I was really impressed by their beautiful art installations and the quality of tribal handicrafts. Their section on the tribal games is small but is very interesting, as you can guess from the images above.

Visiting the games room of the Tribal Museum brought back so many memories of childhood games and I was surprised that after more than fifty years I still remembered the words of some of the ditties used with those games.

Are you aware of games played by tribal groups in other parts of the world? Are there any games that are similar to the one described above? I feel that the origins of some of these games probably go back to our prehistoric ancestors and thus it is possible that ancient humans, as they spread out from their homelands, they took some of these games with them to different corners of the world.

Let me conclude this photo-essay with two pictures - first image is of a kite carrying the colours of the Indian flag. During the month of August, in the midst of the monsoon winds and especially around 15 August, the independence day of India, a lot of children and adults like to fly kites.
The second image is that of Biscopewalla (Biscope man), which can't be called a real game but was a way of entertainment during my childhood to watch some moving images and imagine ourselves in a cinema hall before there was any TV or video-games.

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