Saturday, February 19, 2011

Epic Culture

Adishakti's Ramayana Festival held from 16th to 23rd Feb 2011 included some stimulating talks and discussions wtih a wide range of acclaimed thinkers and scholars ranging from Ashis Nandy, Romila Thapar, Rustom Bharucha, Sarah Joseph and several other artists, performers, researchers and academicians. Today's session was with Ashis Nandy whom Bharucha introduced as a 'cultural thinker' rather than the conventional 'social scientist'. At first sight, the 73 year old Nandy appeared like a very affable french bearded grandfather, fair and balding with twinkling eyes. His gold rimmed spectacles hardly gave him the academic air that I had associated with him through the many articles that I had read.He was not the bleary eyed intellectual attempting expession as if words were brittle but a casual and confiding almost chatty mentor talking freely without dropping names or using jargon.
Candidly, he opened his talk by a confession in an English thickly accented by Bengali, that he was going into a digression first. His purpose he said was to try and locate epics in the civilizational context of India.For this aim, he first expounded existing traiditions that have located Indian cultural unity in the ancient scripts like the Vedas and the Upanishads. India as it is today and as it is defined is seen to be a product of a sacred and authentic scriptural past that is closed and fixed. Nandy denounces this and takes the stance, taken both by Tagore as well as by Gandhi, that Indian unity is located in the medieval times and the sects and epics developed during the Bhakti movement. This period has been a period of innovation and literary fertility. Nandy sees Tagore as the anti-national nationalist poet because of this new or rather conflicting way in which Tagore defines Indian unity.
The reason that Nandy takes this stance, the second point that he makes, is because he believes that Indian unity is a product of an open-ended past and not of a remote inceptual point that defines our cultural identity. The past modifies us and is as open as the future, he claims. He gives the apt example of the original 10000 couplet gathas of the Mahabharata to which 90000 couplets were added over the centuries. Epics in India were thus completed over the years and were not sacrosanct and unchanging products of a pristine past. An interesting comparison that he made was with the medieval times of the Western societies which are seen as the dark ages and which see the  past as closed as their utopias are always imagined in the future. Furthermore, while Homer's epic is closed, Mahabharata has been open ended. The Indian medieval age has been an age of great productivity.
Thirdly, Nandy also denounces the modern tendency to historicise the past. By historicisation, he means reducing epics to legends to be examined by history. In other words, to analyse epics according to present categories of ideology and schools of thought whether they are Marxist, Freudian, or Structual/anthropological. He rejects the mythification of epics. With the tendency to historicise also comes the tendency to demystify and demythisize which Nandy finds to be a hypocritical endeavour in which critics have only replaced myths with their own schools of thought and philosophies. At the same time, while they have been engaged in trying to decipher myths, they are caught in a sort of ambivalence which is based on an insecurity that they haven't really totally figured out 'hows epics work.'
With this significant digression, Nandy poses the relevant question: "How do we locate Indian unity in the medival domain which encompasses a gamut of poets, writers, innovators etc ?" He continues by affirming that there are other ways of constructing the past as is shown in the postcolonial context by countries like Africa, Latin America and many others. As it is now history is a discipline which is necessary for managing 'the chaos of human memory.' It is based on the theory of memory rather than on forgetfulness. Nandy posits a method of constructing the past through what he calls principles of pricipled forgetting.The past can be a reconstruction of what we can forget and what we can remember. But history as it is now, is a 'totalist' discipline that is a space conflicting with ethics as it cannot include forgetfulness in its documentation of the past. Nandy proposes a more humane approch for reconstructing the past.
Interestingly Nandy quotes figures that he admits no other academician would have looked for. In his studies on the Partition, Nandy observed that 40% of the people during that time of violence and turmoil were either helped by people on the other side or knew others who had been helped. On the other hand, during the holocaust in Europe, the figure was close to 1%. These figures are indeed never included in a history of a place or a people. Nandy conceives of a non-hierarchical domain in which history is located so that all the different Ramayanas whether they are by Tulsidas, Kashiram, or Valmiki are inclusively present without any one gaining more authenticity over the others. He sees this plurality built in inevitably in an epic culture in which 'gods and demons are both necessay.' He extends this coexistance of plurality to an inextricable interdependence between a self and its anti-self or its disowned selves.With such an inclusive vision, the sacredness of a place or a text is justified in itself and not by a hierarchy. 
The epic hero or heroine is thus not just a paradigm of the good and the just, he/she has also within him/her his/her anti-self. The epic hero is a whole character who is a culmination of his self as well as his antonym. Heroes have always come from outside their cultures and have had deviant births, remarks Nandy. Moses led the Jewish people out of Egypt, but he was himself groomed and brought up as an Egyptian Prince- his antonym. Hitler, although hardly considered a hero, but taken in the sense of a protagonaist at a cataclysmic time in history, was himself never a German although he massacred Jews for German 'ideals.' In the Ramayana, Rama is not only the divine incarnation and the righteous king, he is also an insecure man who takes arms in his exile even as his wife protests against the futility of arms in a forest. Exile, incidentally is seen by Nandy as a confrontation with the self. It is not geographical nor historical but psychological.
Furthermore, epics offer 'hermeneutic rights' for interpretation. In other words, their significance is not etched in stone but is reader oriented and open to interpretation within the context of the reader's present. Eventually, the epic becomes nothing else but another way of constructing the past. Ashis remarks insightfully: "The past can be captured neither through  history nor through human rights activism. It is located in the consciousness." While historical methods of documenting the past have heavily depended on words, language and categories in which we wanted to accomodate the past neatly, Nandy calls for the creation of new domains of dialogue in the way that we access and reconstruct our pasts, epics being one of these domains of engagement.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Introducing Russian

Pondicherry is certainly waking up to the potential of foreign languages especially with languages from countries which are hosts to various lucrative post graduate courses. Recently Mr Adikesavan of the Japanese Language Institute, the first language institute for the Japanese language in Puducherry, has expanded to include a fully functional Russian Institute under the directorship of Ms Tatiana at Pondicherry. The Japanese Institute was inaugurated by the Japanese Consulate and is supported by the Japan Foundation. According to the Director, there are 250 students currently enrolled for several years in order to complete various levels of learning Japanese. They are eventually prepared to write the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) conducted by the Japan Foundation. The question can be raised as to how Pondicherrians really benefit by Japanese by investing so many years for these levels of study. Mr Adikesavan promptly replies that he is working on a tie up with Japanese Companies and that placements for these students are guarenteed at the end of the course as they would be able to work in Japan. What he is further looking to do is to introduce foreign languages into schools and engineering colleges so that students can have a foreign language at the end of their enginnering courses and use it to study further in the country of that language. While Japanese is already underway in several schools and some of the best engineering colleges, a new plan has been designed to also integrate Russian into these colleges and schools.
Today's trip to Rajiv Gandhi College of Engineering and Technoloy was for a promotional presentation made by Ms Tatiana Perova, Director of the Institue of Russian Language at the Russian Council of Science and Culture (RCSC) in Chennai. As a Russian student from EFL-U, and as one among a total number of 2000 Russian language specialists in India, I tagged along not only to benefit and get utterly intimidated by the rapid banter of Ms Tatiana Perova and Ms Tatiana, Director of Russian at the Japanese Institute, but also because I thought it was a great opportunity. Ms Tatiana from Chennai was well informed about Russian recourses and teaching centred in South India. She listed some places in Kerala and Andra Pradesh as existing centres for imparting education in the Russian Language even as she acknoledged Hyderabad's EFL-U and Osmania University as the strongest teaching centres in terms of rigour and quality in South India. For further information on Russian Language courses, which are also offered by the RCSC, one may look up the following link

Rajiv Gandhi College of Engineering and Technology has a sprawling campus constructed in an area of 30 acres located 30 km from Pondicherry on the Cuddalore road. It has commendable facilities in terms of infrastructure, a large auditaurium, a well maintained and rich library with facilities for video conferencing and learning through distance which was shown to us by the Principal Dr. E. Vijaykrishna Rapak himself, a doctoral graduate from IIT Madras. First, we were directed to the Principal's office as Ms Tatiana gifted him with a colourful calender from Russia as a token to appreciation. Then we had a short meeting with the various heads of department and the Principal as Ms Tatiana briefed them about her subject of presentation and what she expected them to contribute for a clear partnership. She was very clear that in order to have any joint ventures or projects, which were immensely facilitated by the RCSC, she needed to know the needs of the college and what they were looking for with educational scope in Russia. The following presentation by Ms Tatiana Perova was aimed at a brief introduction to Russian culture and educational opportunities for the students. While the packed hall listened to her rapt with attention, there was a noticeable lack of enthusiasm and maybe even knowledge when Ms Perova asked simple questions about space history. I got the impression that this was perhaps the kind of education that was a burden rather than emancipatory. Forebodings aside, in our college tour after the presentation, Ms Tatiana from Pondicherry asked the very pertinent question that if the students lead such a hectic life and study for such long hours a day, how would they have time for Russian. She was promptly told that they would work hard for Russian too! We saw a fully equipped chemistery lab with pictures of Avogadro and Madam Curie smiling from the walls and also took pictures in front of a dozen monuments. As this was my first trip as a Russian representative to a college, I carefully observed formal etiquettes and customs. This was the first time that I was covered with a shawl and honoured as a Seminar Guest. After the tour the Principal and the Course Coordinator took us out for a sumptuous lunch, making sure that the dishes were less spicy for the Russians. On our return we made a short stop at the Japanese Language Institute and the Ms Tatiana, the Director from Chennai was delighted at the class and the software used as well as other teaching resources. She checked out possibilities of video conferencing classes and finally we took pictures again. This was probably the first day that I have heard so much Russian continuously and although I could understand a large part of it, I still feel handicapped at speech. However, this trip with Russians was a great one and indeed showed me how MUCH I have to brush up when it comes to spoken Russian at a native level. As for Russian in engineering colleges, while it does not seem to be a distant reality, inquisitive students would definitely want more clarity as to how Russian is going to make their futures better. While Russian is a leading country when it comes to space technology, oil, gas and energy related fields as well nuclear studies, the question that persists is whether learning Russian for three years on every weekends would actually equip students with adequate skills for these areas and whether these language skills are actually dispensable or not. Several universities have had ties up with foreign countries and arranged exchange programs without really investing into the language of those countries. In the end subject expertise would count a lot more than language skills although these skills would definitely be useful. The bigger question however is that in  a country like India, which is mesmerised by the US and UK, will Russia have any substantial takers?

Kaleidoscope 2010

With the season for film awards, we can hope to watch some acclaimed international films in the fray for the most prestigious awards in the film world. The Golden Globes in January had interesting results. The Best Actor’s award was given to Colin Firth for his brilliant performance of a stammering King George VI in The King’s Speech. The Best Actress Award was clinched by Black Swan’s leading actress Natalie Portman, who stunned the world with her versatile performance of a timid and nervous ballerina transforming into her haunting and seductive alter-ego symbolized by the black swan. The Golden Globe award for Best Motion Picture - Drama was given to The Social Network with its fast paced narrative and its excellent editing that straddles various time frames in a linear sequence without losing clarity. While Inception was hugely popular in 2010, it remained only a nominee for all the major categories and failed to impress the Golden Globe critics. The BAFTA awards (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) went largely to the same films as the Golden Globes, revealing a vein of similarity with its American counterpart in its taste for celluloid art. The King’s Speech was a sure winner in the category of Best Film even as Colin Firth swept away a BAFTA award in the Best Actor category. The King’s Speech also won Supporting Actor and Actress award for Geoffrey Rush as the King’s speech therapist and Helena Bonham Carter as the queen. The Best Actress BAFTA award was given again to Natalie Portman for Black Swan. Inception received the Special Visual Effects and also the Best Sound BAFTA award while The Social Network got its share of recognition through the Best Editing award.

The Academy Awards better known as the Oscars are known to be every actor and director’s dream. The recent ceremony had largely predictable results, with Portman and Firth winning Best Actress and Actor categories. Some critics rated the The Social Network as a more skillfully crafted film than The King’s Speech however, they noted that the theme of a social networking site taking off globally would hardly be one fit for an Academy Award. Again, The King’s Speech reaped its share of glory with an Oscar award for Best Picture.
The 36th annual César Awards known to be the French equivalent of the Oscars were held on February 25th. They were presented by the Académie des Arts et Techniques du Cinéma. The Best Film winner was a 2010 French drama directed by Xavier Beauvois called Of gods and Men (Des Hommes et des Dieux), starring Lamber Wilson and Michael Londsale, who won a Best Supporting Actor award. The Best Actor award was clinched by Eric Elmosino for his performance in Gainsbourg while Sara Forestier won Best Actress for Les Noms des Gens. Best Supporting Actress went to Anne Alvaro for Le Bruit des Glacons.
The two films The King’s Speech and Black Swan which have been the most acclaimed films of the year, have some of the best performances when it comes to individual talents. Here is a little background into these films:

The King’s Speech: This is a film about King George VI of England who has no choice but to assume the throne as his elder brother abdicates in order to marry. George ‘Bertie’ suffers from a deep rooted inferiority complex because of his stammer and dreads the office of the king which requires meeting people and making speeches in front of large audiences. His stammer becomes a matter of concern to his loving wife Queen Elizabeth I and she sets out to find someone who can help him. She finds Lionel Logue, an unconventional speech therapist, who helps Bertie overcome his fears and to find his voice. In a memorable scene from the film, Lionel asks Bertie to read a passage aloud as he simultaneously plays loud music. Bertie cannot hear his own voice and is overwhelmed with pessimism halfway through the passage although he does not know that not hearing his own voice has made him read the passage flawlessly. The unconventional speech sessions which involve the king spewing a long string of swear words in order to relax his muscles are some of the funniest scenes of the film. In conclusion, this film is not only an original take on a piece of history, it portrays with skill the mutual dependence of a king and his subjects. It gracefully acknowledges that kings are also human.

Black Swan: As the title and the image suggest, the association of ballet and swan brings to mind nothing else but Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. This is a film about a ballerina, Nina Sayers played by Portman, who is a dancer in a New York City Ballet company run by Thomas Leroy (Cassel). Ballet is her only passion and she lives her life under the vigilant and controlling eye of her mother and former ballerina Erica Sayers. Things start to change in Nina’s life as she gets selected to play the lead in Leroy’s new season production of Swan Lake. However, she has competition in the form of Lily, a new dancer. Swan Lake in an original interpretation requires a dancer who can play both the White Swan with innocence and grace, and the Black Swan, who represents guile and sensuality. Nina fits the White Swan role perfectly but Lily is the personification of the Black Swan. As the two young dancers expand their rivalry into a twisted friendship, Nina begins to get more in touch with her dark side - a recklessness that threatens to destroy her. In a sequence of surreal events whose reality is left for the audience to decide, Nina glimpses her dark side through tangible reflections that are independent of her in the mirror. She hallucinates and commits murder as the black swan consumes her only to fight with her own dark side. As the Swan Lake performance comes to an end with the death of the white swan, Portman herself succumbs to the black swan as her purity and innocence are forced to die with the white swan. This is also a veritable cinematography masterpiece as the director explores the various relations with white and black.