23 Nov 2006

Salil Chowdhury: Awakening Strains

Last Sunday (19th November) was Salil Chowdhury’s birth anniversary. Although this multi-layered artist passed away eleven years ago, his stamp of exclusivity continues to sustain his livingness. A majority of Indians know Salil (popular among his admirers as Salilda) as a virtuoso music composer. So did I, for a good many years, leading into my college life. Salil’s music was hard to ignore for any lover of vintage-era Hindi film music. The earthy notes in Do Beegha Zameen or the Indianised version of a Hungarian folk tune in Madhumati; the poignancy of a day wearing down in Anand’s Kahin dur jab din dhal jaye or the strains of Middle Eastern music in Kabuliwallah—music, which didn’t slot Salil Chowdhury into any musician’s club, but established a separate league for him. For me, he was a genius. His versatility, the ability to make music that was internationally-influenced yet India-rooted, and his knack for getting the very best out of his singers easily made him stand out among his peers.

One day, during my college years, Salil Chowdhury stunned me again. This time, with a side of his that had remained unknown to me all this while—as a poet-composer of songs of protest and mass awakening.

Bicharpoti tomar bichar korbe jara
Aaj jegechhe shei jonota…

The public who will judge you
Has woken up today, Your Honour.
Your guns, your hangings, your prison tortures
Will be crushed by their weight.

Salil wrote this song in 1945, two years before India’s independence. It was a diatribe against the farce that was often carried out in the name of judicial hearing of Indian freedom fighters. The 1940s was also the decade when Salil Chowdhury joined the Indian Peoples Theatre Association or IPTA, an organisation of artistes and writers, born to address the conscientious role of the artistic community. As part of IPTA, Salil wrote many songs, beseeching his fellow countrymen to take power into their hands and rebel against exploitation by those in power. He wrote in simple Bengali, using words village folk spoke and voicing issues that concerned them.

O aayre, o aayere
Bhai bondhu, chal jaire…

Come o brother,
Let’s cut the paddy and
Stock the harvest in our granaries.

Thus went his anthem for poor peasants who were perennially robbed off the rewards of their toil by shrewd, profit-minded landlords. The poet-composer didn’t stop at his creation, though. He took these songs to villages and soon these became people’s songs in the truest sense.

It’s easy to see what inspired Salil to feel for the disadvantaged members of his community. As a young boy, he grew up in the tea gardens of Assam, where his father was a doctor. Chowdhury senior would routinely rope in the poorly paid coolies of the tea gardens to organise and stage plays against British exploitation. He also took part in many anti-British rallies, quite an audacious feat when the British were still ruling India.

Although in the mid-fifties this brilliant song-writer-musician matured into an exceptional self-taught composer with the onset of his professional career in film music, he never lost touch with the man within who hoped for a classless society and envisioned an India that wasn’t touched by religious differences. He wrote his last mass song in the early 1990s, shortly after the demolition of the Babri Mosque by Hindu fundamentalist forces.

O aalor potho jatri, E je ratri
Ekhane themo na
E balur chore ashar
Toroni tomar jeno bendho na

O traveller of the light path
It is night; don’t stop here.
Don’t anchor your boat of hope
On this sand shore.

For more information and recordings of Salil Chowdhury’s brilliant compositions, visit The World of Salil Chowdhury.


The World of Salil Chowdhury
People's Democracy

18 Nov 2006

Good Reads...

Dotara, the instrument Bauls play while singing

...I stumbled upon online over the past few days.

Writing Palestine at Words Without Borders, my window to contemporary world literature ('wish I would visit the site more often). The WWB feature showcases the writings of nine Palestinian writers, reflecting the many hues of the conflict-ridden desertscape. Some great writing, brought to us through sensitive translation. My favourite is The Shoes by Nassar Ibrahim:

Time passes slowly, hot and dusty: Barriers, guns, soldiers, identity card checks, long waits, curses and humiliations. Everything mixes with everything else; the advance and the retreat both have the same measure of suffering. In the back, the barriers and the humiliations; ahead, the same thing. So, forward he went. Isn’t arrival, isn’t the surmounting of suffering, the defiance of being broken down a simple, clear parity? An entire nation finds byroads, steps over logic and reason to maintain for itself the logic which says, Persistence first, or death.
Bhupinder Singh's most inspired tribute to India's firebrand socialist poet, Kaifi Azmi. The quality of the post is made better by Bhupinder's wonderful translation of Kaifi's poetry. A great read.

To look for Kaifi, is to keep on searching the for new, better, more egalitarian worlds. And heavens that are more just. To remove this search from his poetry would be to take away its soul.

William Dalrymple's feature article on Bauls or Bengali minstrels. The essay is
engagingly heartfelt, yet at the same time marked by a traveller's objective recounting and a historian's passion for research. Besides being a treat in itself, the article brought back great reminiscences. The mention of Bhaskar Bhattacharya, a former colleague, and of his association with the Bauls of West Bengal, revived some wonderful memories. My brother happened to be a part of Bhaskar's team working on a film on the lives of these minstrels, and some of them even came to our house during their Delhi visits. I don't know how I missed this superb article for so long.

Throughout their 500-year history, the Bauls have refused to conform to the social or religious conventions of conservative and caste-conscious Bengali society...The goal is to discover the "Man of the Heart" - Moner Manush - the ideal that lives within every man...

Happy weekend reading to all. :)

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12 Nov 2006

Writing as Resistance: The indomitable Art of Mahasweta Devi

This post was written as a guest entry for a reader's words, the blog of the perceptive and literary-inclined Bhupinder Singh.

Writers are often cited as perceptive observers of the prevailing human condition. Some of the greatest writers have used the power of their written word to bring across the struggles and sufferings of the exploited before a wider audience. There exists a small section of writers, however, which feels compelled to act as more than mere spectators and reporters of the human condition. They throw themselves into the fight, as it were, of deprived people.

This trailblazer of a writer is arguably the finest example of activist writers in India. For more than a quarter of a century now, she has been actively working with tribals in certain Indian states. She fights for their basic rights, helps them unite and become self-reliant, and writes about their life, often reduced to a sub-human level by the rich and powerful. A prolific writer, most of her recent work draws from her association with these marginalized communities.

The Person:

Mahasweta was born in undivided India in 1926, about two decades before India’s independence. The daughter of Manish Ghatak, a poet and novelist, and Dharitri Devi, a writer and social worker, Mahasweta probably had literary activism in her genes. It was community service that emerged on the scene before writing, though. As a college student, Mahasweta joined her friends for providing relief to the victims of the infamous man-made Bengal famine (1942-44). They would distribute food, check through dead bodies lying in street to reach out to those still alive, feed them and take them to relief centres. This direct, raw brush with suffering became the seed of Mahasweta’s empathizing disposition.

Marriage came early, at the age of 20, when she tied the knot with Bijon Bhattacharya, a renowned Bengali playwright. Her husband was also a member of the Communist Party of India (CPI), and at the time the couple was establishing its marital life, communists often became the targets of persecution. As a result, it became tough for Bhattacharya to support his family, extended with the birth of their son, Nabarun, two years after their marriage. Mahasweta did several odd jobs to keep the hearth burning—selling dye powder, supplying monkeys for research to the U.S., teaching at a school, private tuitions—before she finally got a government job at the Post and Telegraph department. But this job was not to last for too long either. Someone dropped a few books of Marx, Lenin, and Engels in her office drawer, and Mahasweta was terminated on the charge of being a communist.

The Writer:

This is when she took to the pen—mainly to supplement family income. She started with light fiction for literary magazines. Her first book-length work appeared in 1956. Jhansir Rani or The Queen of Jhansi was a fictional account of the life of Lakshmi Bai, an Indian woman ruler who valiantly led her forces to fight the British, before being killed by them at age 22. Even as a first-time author, Mahasweta showed the impractical sincerity that distinguishes true writers of historical fiction. She borrowed money from family and friends to travel to the Bundelkhand region in north India, where Lakshmi Bai ruled, and walked her way through remote villages and deserts, collecting oral history, folklores, and ballads. Interestingly, this same seriousness of approach in collecting data for her stories would be seen years later, during the activist phase of her life.

The debut book brought Mahasweta recognition as a writer, and thus started her ascent in the world of Bengali literature. She authored several books, adding the pennies toward sustaining her family, while at the same time mirroring the prevailing social atmosphere. This promising writer went through a period of personal turmoil, during which time her marriage broke apart, and she suffered from acute depression. Bouncing back soon, she completed her master’s degree in English and served as a lecturer of English literature for two decades. This was also the period when she came up with her seminal novel, Hajar Churashir Ma (The Mother of 1084), which deals with the Naxalite movement in West Bengal that saw many young lives ending before their prime. The book captures the sad realities of the movement through the eyes of the mother of one such young boy. In her attempt to understand the violent movement, this mother comes face to face with her sense of estrangement from the double standard-ridden bourgeois society to which she belongs. Poignant, yet shorn of overt sentimental elements, the novel made a big impact on readers across India and was recently taken to the silver screen by director Govind Nihlani.

The Activist:

Over the next few years, Mahasweta’s pen took a decisive turn. She started integrating history into her storytelling. This wasn’t the conventionally disseminated history though; this was forgotten history, a part of the past that had been conveniently kept under the wraps. She wielded the power of narrative to document as well as spread stories of tribal resistances against the British and other social exploitations in books such as Aranyer Adhikar (Right to the Forest), and Chotti Munda O Tar Teer (Chotti Munda and his Arrow), among others. Here was a writer who truly wrote what she knew. Her vocation wasn’t divorced from her writing. She is amongst the foremost activists working for a better life for India’s tribals. Not content to stay cosy within her writing room, she ventured deep into the forests to live and work with tribal people.

She founded India’s first bonded-labour organization in 1980, bringing together thousands of bonded labourers to give them an organised platform for raising their voice against forced labour. A year before this, she turned Bortika, a literary periodical edited by her, into an open forum in which tribal people, peasants, factory workers, and rickshaw pullers wrote about their day-to-day experiences and problems.
This effort of hers is groundbreaking, since it records the issues of the underprivileged in their own words, unadulterated and unadorned. She went on to create a tribal welfare society for the Kheria and Shabar tribes, which are among the poorest in India. In 1986, this untiring champion of the voiceless founded the Adim Jaati Aikya Parishad or Ancient Tribes Union, a forum of 38 West Bengal tribal groups.

Nine years ago, at 71, Mahasweta received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for “her compassionate crusade through art and activism to claim for tribal peoples a just and honorable place in India's national life.” While accepting the award, she said, “I will have a sense of fulfillment if more and more young writers took to unbeaten tracks. My India still lives behind a curtain of darkness. A curtain that separates the mainstream society from the poor and the deprived. But then why my India alone? Cannot one say the same for so many countries and societies today? As the century comes to an end, it is important that we all make an attempt to tear the curtain of darkness, see the reality that lies beyond and see our own true faces in the process."

The Hindu
Sunil Janah's Site

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1 Nov 2006

Guest Blog - Cesar Puch

Cesar Puch dons numerous hats and does so with √©lan. Horror writer, programmer, webmaster, art director, and very recently, editor. Shadow Regions, an anthology of twilight zone-ish horror tales, edited by Puch, is now available. In this post, Cesar takes us on…

A Stroll Down the Dark Path of Horror Writing

A short while ago my good friend Bhaswati mentioned she wanted to invite a few of her acquaintances to write some guest posts in her blog and that she wanted me to do one of those. I told her I was definitely interested and I asked her if there were any “guidelines” before I went ahead with my post. “Actually, there is something,” she said then, and mentioned her interest in a theme that’s very close to me, a theme that brought some questions to her mind.

I write horror. As many of you might know, our Sury’s (Bhaswati's) writing goes in a totally different direction, yet she always wonders… We’re the best of friends, even when she is in India and I’m in Peru, we share a lot together and one thing she commented once was how someone she considers to be “so nice” (her judgement, lol) could come up with stuff that can be pretty dark.

I don’t know if I’m nice or not, and I do believe everyone has a shade of darkness within, huge or tiny that varies. It is what makes us humans after all. I do like to think of myself as “a good person”, I stick to myself, I try to be respectful to others, and I try to play devil’s advocate whenever there’s a discussion just to try to grab all the dimensions in a problem… But yes, darkness is familiar to me. So why choose that? Why write horror? How can an apparently happy, nice, good person by society’s standards come up with stuff that makes us cringe? Does it take a toll? Let’s try to answer these questions.

Many years ago horror novelist Stephen King wrote a book called “The Dark Half”. In it, Thad Beaumont, a literary writer makes money and fans on the side by writing gore with the byline of George Stark. Stark is not only a name on a page, but has been even given a “past” as a violent ex-con now living in a self-imposed exile. When Thad makes the decision of “killing off Stark,” the fictitious Stark materializes and comes “back from the death” to claim vengeance on the editor, the publisher, and ultimately on Thad—the people responsible for his death. In doing so, Stark appears as murderous as the characters in his gory novels.

Are all horror writers like George Stark? OK, forget the murders (or not … :-s) but are all horror writers dark people who dwell on violence and blood, who have a twisted view of the world, who surround themselves with the goriest props and who have a shrine at home for Friday the 13ths Jason Voorhies? The answer is… ok, maybe some, in greater or lesser degree. But for the most part, we are talking about family people, very respectful, very friendly. I’ve had the chance to meet a few horror authors who turn out to be really nice people to deal with. I recently started reading a novel called The Rising, a very gory, very acclaimed book about zombies by author Brian Keene. The first thing I read was the dedication: “For David, Daddy loves you more than infinity”. Not quite the axe-wielding lunatic, huh?

Personally I’m not a big fan of gore (for those who don’t know gore implies stuff like running blood, spilling bowels, decapitations, and other gruesome stuff, the more gruesome the better, at least for fans). I am a true fan of The Twilight Zone and stories that, as I said in the introduction to my anthology Shadow Regions, scare you in the mind, not in the gut. I like the psychological aspect of horror, the supernatural part of it. However, during my experience as a writer, I inevitably dealt with pretty hard stuff: rape, violence, child abuse, pedophilia, death of loved ones, teenage sex and drug use, murder, etc. You see, before writing about sadistic killings, I prefer writing about (sadly) very real stuff. Is that hard to do? Yes, sometimes it is. But when you write horror you just do it.

I’m sure writing tough subjects are a part of every genre in fiction. Does it keep us away from going back to the keyboard? Not really. Why? Hard to tell. One thing is clear though. Our writing, at least mine, is in no way a celebration of these terrible things, but they are inevitable for the plot moving forward.

And what about the not so real but oh so terrible other stuff? The supernatural bit? Why that? I can’t answer for other authors and their choice of the amount of gore and supernatural elements they put in their work. For me, the supernatural has a charm of its own. It pokes at my sense of wonder. It takes me away from a world where things are bound to happen into another where even more things are bound to happen, in ways I never thought possible.

I used to be a scaredy-cat when I was little. I don’t know when that changed, when I took a step inside that darkness. But I believe I didn’t go in without a few lifelines. I do like to think I keep a solid line traced between what’s fiction and what’s real, even if one mirrors the other. I do like to think that the horror I write is not a direct reflection of me, but a sort of catharsis. Once I talked to a friend of mine—who happens to be a psychologist—about eros and thanatos (good and evil), how we all have some of both within ourselves. She said, in my case I was sort of recycling thanatos and turning it into eros, creation.

So why do I write these hard things? Here’s a simple-minded answer: I’d rather see them on page than in the real world.

I write creepy stuff, I generate scares for people who want to be scared, excited, chilled for a bit before returning to their everyday lives. Readers come in all shades and colors. Some want that jolt, be it just a little shock or a massive discharge. And for those readers there will always be the authors who provide those jolts. Those people are not the potential serial killers some would think. They just approach fiction in a different way.

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