G C Lichtenberg: “It is as if our languages were confounded: when we want a thought, they bring us a word; when we ask for a word, they give us a dash; and when we expect a dash, there comes a piece of bawdy.”

W H Auden: "But in my arms till break of day / Let the living creature lie. / Mortal, guilty, but to me/ The entirely beautiful."

Will Self: “To attempt to write seriously is always, I feel, to fail – the disjunction between my beautifully sonorous, accurate and painfully affecting mental content, and the leaden, halting sentences on the page always seems a dreadful falling short. It is this failure – a ceaseless threnody keening through the writing mind – that dominates my working life, just as an overweening sense of not having loved with enough depth or recklessness or tenderness dominates my personal one.”

John Gray: "Unlike Schopenhauer, who lamented the human lot, Leopardi believed that the best response to life is laughter. What fascinated Schopenhauer, along with many later writers, was Leopardi’s insistence that illusion is necessary to human happiness."

Art Spiegelman: "You know words in a way are hitting you on the left side of your brain, music and visual arts hit on the right side of the brain, so the idea is to pummel you, to send you from left brain to right brain and back until you're as unbalanced as I am."

विलास सारंग: "संदर्भ कुठलेही असोत, संस्कृत, इंग्रजी, बुद्धिवादी, तांत्रिक, इतिहासाचे, खगोलशास्त्राचे, आधुनिक पदार्थविज्ञानाचे, शिवकालीन व पेशवाईतील बखरीचे, अगणित ज्ञानक्षेत्रांचे, अशा वैविध्यपूर्ण ज्ञानावर लेखन- विशेषत: कवितालेखन- उभं राहत."

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Are Historical Films Inspirational or Just Plain Nuisance?

While talking to Newsweek March 3, 2008, Israeli author Amos Oz said:"...The past doesn't just play a role; it almost dominates this region. People remember too well and too much. Both Jews and Arabs carry deep, dramatic injuries."

Historical Hindi film Jodhaa-Akbar has created a stir in India. On February 27 2008, there was chaos in the town of Sangli. (Of course, I take every report in Indian news media with a big pinch of salt because as Steve Salerno said the mainstream news business is so unaccustomed to dealing with issues at any level of complexity and nuance that they’re wont to oversimplify their story to the point of caricature.)

Supporters of the film ask us to forget the history on which purportedly it is based and just to focus on film’s cinematic values. (I then wonder why use names like Akbar & Jodhaa or Bajirao & Mastani. Why not use Zeenat-Imran or Gangubai-Balwantrao?)

They also say history is never objective and hence should be “used” to further “good causes” like Hindu-Muslim unity.

Prime Minister J L Nehru too probably would subscribe to this view.

"...All of which shows how little Nehru understood India and the communal question which tore it apart. His arrogance and ignorance contributed not a little to the tragedy. During the First World War, socialists were dismayed to find the working class as nationalistic as any other in place of the solidarity which theoreticians accepted. Sixty years after Independence we face not only the communal question but also caste divisions…"

(A.G. NOORANI “Path to Partition: A witness’ account” Frontline, October 19, 2007)

Historian T S Shejwalkar त्र्यंबक शंकर शेजवलकर (1895 - 1963) argued that even Mahatma Gandhi didn’t have much use of history. Shejwalkar also wished that Nehru and Gandhi studied Panipat 1761 in any detail instead of him!

(Preface to “Panipat 1761”, 1968)

Inspirational history excites me too. Occasionally it moves me to tears. Amartya Sen is a leading exponent of it.

But does it work and for how long?

While reviewing “GOD’S CRUCIBLE /Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215 “ By David Levering Lewis, ERIC ORMSBY observed:

“…Thus, as Lewis notes, “sumptuary laws required that non-Muslims display badges and that clothing worn by dhimmis be distinguished from that worn by Arabs.” Non-Muslims were not allowed to ride on horseback without a permit, or to bear arms. Moreover, for sound fiscal reasons, conversion to Islam was not warmly encouraged since non-Muslims who converted were no longer required to pay the head tax on which state revenues depended. Though well aware of the overly rosy picture often painted of Muslim Spain, Lewis sometimes accepts it himself. Nowadays, we know all too well that the enforced wearing of badges to signify religious affiliation is hardly a sign of tolerance. That was true in Muslim Spain too…”

So was medieval tolerance, where conversion to Islam was not encouraged, anchored to the state revenues and not to some exalted value system? Even in India?

Reviewing “IDENTITY AND VIOLENCE/ The Illusion of Destiny” By Amartya Sen, Fouad Ajami said:

”… Sen works with the anecdote: His potted history is tailored for interfaith dialogues. He writes of the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who, when forced to emigrate from "an intolerant Europe" in the 12th century, was able to find "a tolerant refuge in the Arab world" in the court of the great Muslim ruler Saladin.

But this will not do as history.

Maimonides, born in 1135, did not flee "Europe" for the "Arab world": He fled his native Córdoba in Spain, which was then in the grip of religious-political terror, choking under the yoke of a Berber Muslim dynasty, the Almohads, that was to snuff out all that remained of the culture of convivencia and made the life of Spain's Jews (and of the free spirits among its Muslims) utter hell. Maimonides and his family fled the fire of the Muslim city-states in the Iberian Peninsula to Morocco and then to Jerusalem. There was darkness and terror in Morocco as well, and Jerusalem was equally inhospitable in the time of the Crusader Kingdom. Deliverance came only in Cairo -- the exception, not the rule, its social peace maintained by the enlightened Saladin…

… Inspirational history can go only so far; it will not bend to Sen's good cheer.”

In an earlier post, I noted how the Nizam’s army slaughtered cows in a temple complex in Maharashtra. I also mentioned how Chitpavan Brahmin chieftains of Maratha army looted Hindu shrines around the same time.

But there is a crucial difference between the two.

To say, Marathas didn’t slaughter pigs in mosques would be very simplistic. But by and large they didn’t disrespect shrines, holy books and women of other religions. Until 1857 at least.

In the eyes of most Hindu readers of Indian history this difference perhaps makes some Muslim rulers evil and their Hindu counterparts – much like today’s politicians- corrupt and incompetent but not evil.

India owes a lot to Sufism. People consider ways of Sufis parallel to the ways of Bhakti saints. Like saints, Sufis are considered other-worldly and hence neutral to the politics of their time. (I would argue that most Bhakti saints were not other worldly at all.)

William Dalrymple claimed: “…Sufis succeeded in bringing together Hindu and Muslim in a movement which spanned the apparently unbridgable gulf separating the two religions. To this day, while Muslims usually predominate at Sufi shrines, you also see huge numbers of Hindus, as well as the odd Sikh and Christian. Here for once you can see religion acting to bring people together, not to divide them. In modern India, Sufism is not something other-worldly so much as a religious force that demonstrably acts as a balm on India's festering religious wounds…”.

Historian Setu Madhavrao Pagdi सेतु माधवराव पगडी, expert in Urdu and Farsi, studied sufism and wrote a book on the subject: सूफी संप्रदाय , तत्वज्ञान आणि कार्य (Sufism – Philosophy and Work) 1953. While acknowledging the debt of great sufi saints, he argued that sufis fully co-operated with the policies of aggressive Muslim rulers. He further said that many sufi shrines- he personally visited them- were built by demolishing Hindu temples.
(Jeevansetu जीवनसेतु, 1969)

With luck inspirational history may help create good cinema like Mughal-E-Azam(1960) but I wonder if it can ever work as a social balm.

Artist: J B Handlesman The New Yorker 26 February 1972