April 12, 2016

India: The fire tragedy at the Kollam temple in Kerala came from an opposite development currently stalking us: politically induced cultural aggression (Jawed Naqvi)

Dawn - 12 April 2016

Subverting a faith of many rhythms

EASILY the most evolved feature of Indian culture has been its myriad musical and dance forms, not in any homogeneous or ordained way, but through its jealously freethinking people and utterly diverse societies.
The fire tragedy at the Kollam temple in Kerala came from an opposite development currently stalking us: politically induced cultural aggression, wasteful indulgence and equally a subversion of what was innately musical and rhythmic in varied forms of worship.
Fireworks, let us be clear, is not at all Indian, nor is it Hindu in any cultural sense. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh may worship Kalashnikovs in its shastra pooja, but the gun, much like the shorts its cadres wear or the hide-knit military drums they beat vacuously, has its origins outside India.
It could not be otherwise. Gunpowder was discovered in China and as far as we know it came to India with Babar who used cannon fire to maul the armies of Ibrahim Lodhi, the ruler of Delhi in 1526.

The fireworks that caused the calamity in Kerala over the weekend were foreign to Indian culture.

The belief in magical weapons spewing fire in the golden past was spread recently by Ramanand Sagar and Masoom Raza Rahi through televised versions of Ramayana and Mahabharata. Homi Wadia movies with Anita Guha and Mahipal portraying mythical characters cannot controvert the historical fact that the incendiary gunpowder originated in China a few centuries ago.
Undeniably, the fireworks that led to the calamity in Kerala over the weekend, were foreign to Indian culture. They were not only imported from China but also belonged to Chinese alchemy. The gunpowder was invented during the Tang dynasty in 9th century, and the earliest record of a written formula appeared in the Song dynasty in the 11th century. Thence it spread to Europe and elsewhere and its arrival there dramatically transformed military strategies based on the flamethrowers of yore.
Only last month, I was riveted to Kerala, visiting its many legendary temples and churches just for the music and dance. We are told a mosque came up there in the lifetime of the Prophet (PBUH). An ancient synagogue speaks of the syncretic tradition this innately beautiful land has nurtured. One of its oldest churches endorses the claim. And music, it is something to experience in Kerala’s religious alcoves.
I had not seen so many tall, yes tall, and elegant women draped in colourful saris in a single celebration. And they were striking the drums strapped to their shoulders, pacing rhythmically and swaying in a row towards their Roman Catholic church. I saw the mesmeric spectacle in Thekkady in central Kerala.
Hitherto one could have savoured the choir music in a church. My children have joined the singing of carols or hymns and psalms in different parts of India. The experience at the Catholic congregation was something different. The songs were in Malayalam as are the Islamic discourses from mosques in Kerala.
Anyone who has heard the music of M.S. Subbalakshmi cannot but be converted to the beauty that Hinduism flaunts. Yesudas the Christian devotee of Lord Krishna can only be found in Kerala. One of the legendary Kathakali artists, an exponent of the timeless dance drama form of Kerala, was a Muslim. Kathakali is a men-only art form of storytelling primarily from Hindu legends, something exclusive to the state.
Aravan muttu, duff muttu and dahar are drums unique to the Muslim communities of Kerala. The music you can experience there during any of the religious occasions will make you wonder why some people want to subvert this with gunpowder. (The older variants of the explosives were made in Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu. They were of indifferent quality and fortunately inefficient. The Chinese ones now in vogue are lethal.)
If you were to see the Hindu Malayali men with their glistening dark bodies leaping high in the air, as I did, still striking the chenda as they would pirouette through the beats, you would wonder who thought up their subversion with unmusical intrusions.
We have known a few musicians from the south who have adapted easily to the north Indian or Hindustani music easily. There is none to my mind from the north who ventured into the southern genre of Carnatic music except perhaps one. Ustad Abdul Karim Khan died in 1938, three years after recording Rama Nee Samana Mevaru, a Thyagaraja composition in Raag Kharharpriya. It is a total submission to Lord Ram and is similar in texture to the north Indian Raag Kaafi. How did the firecrackers come into this?
At one level, one could argue there has been a fall in the aesthetic appeal of the most musical of religions on earth. Lord Shiva with his damru, Krishna with his flute, Vishnu with his conch shell and Lord Brahma’s consort Saraswati as the fountainhead of music with her attachment to the veena make for Hindu-dom’s highest ranking troika being advocates and patrons of music as worship.
What else has happened that rankles as much or probably more as the unappealing firecrackers finding their way into an unfortunate temple?
I believe that in its determination to create a monolithic faith with all the do’s and don’ts of Semitic religions, RSS-led Hindutva has settled for a far less aesthetic Hinduism than the religion deserves.
The fall in standards can be measured. For example, D.V. Paluskar has been supplanted by Narendra Chanchal as the purveyor of bhajans. RSS cadres trained to beat culturally effete drums threaten to replace the chenda with which Keralites rejoice in their religion. Firecrackers among other deviations threaten to turn a hoary tradition into a vulgar ritual, espoused by a neo-fascist cult.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.