Friday, August 26, 2005

Indian History Education: An email conversation

A friend in America recently wrote to me and asked:
"yo, what is desaffronisation? taking hinduism out of public ed? is that a big deal right now?"

My response:

There's a major controversy regarding the education curriculum in India. Essentially, Indian history has been written by a bunch of leftists and unreconstructed marxists since Indian independence. School textbooks reflected this bias, and the curriculum writers were supported by the left-leaning Indian government. In the 1990s, Indian rightists took over government, and began introducing textbooks that reflected their historical biases. Now usually I'd be in favor of this, but I have many problems with Indian rightists. They're mostly cultural rightists, and I'm essentially an economic rightist. Being cultural rightists, many of them are Hindu chauvinists, and the most hidebound and reactionary people were put in charge of revising the curriculum. So, their changes to the educational system were characterized by the leftist academic elite as "Saffronisation".

Now, the left parties are back in power, and they're going about dismantling the saffronisation of education and reinstating the old texts and theories. This is called "Desaffronisation". My personal opinion tends towards a plague on both your houses attitude. Indian leftists are some of the most idiotic people on the planet, and Indian hindu chauvinists are some of the silliest. Neither should be in charge of dictating the History curriculum in Indian schools. Furthermore, India is a very ahistorical country, in that the Indian people largely don't have a mature sense of history. There isn't a long tradition of recording, analyzing and arguing about our history, as there is in most of the rest of the world, so much of our historical thinking is extremely simplistic.

So, on the one hand you have a bunch of leftist academics, learning and teaching all the wrong lessons from Indian history, usually in inaccessible jargon, and on the other hand you have a group of simplistic charlatans who have no idea how to appoach the study of history in the first place. As you can see, it's a tough one. The biggest casualty of all this nonsense, of course, is the Indian student. Children in India, already discouraged from studying history by a society enamored with science and engineering, are taught faulty history in an extremely boring way. Not only do they end up not knowing anything of their history, they end up being turned off to it. Instead of educating India's children about India's history, India's history teachers are contributing to the continued historical ignorance of the people of India.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Mangal Pandey

I saw the film last week and was going to write something on it, but Ashok Malik says everything I wanted to in today's Indian Express, and he puts it in a much better way than I possibly could.

"Mangal Pandey is eminently watchable. True, it is not short of anomalies and anachronisms — Barrackpore looks beautiful, but is not usually overlooked by the Sahyadris; Lord Canning refers to the white man’s burden a half-century before Kipling coined the phrase; the real Mangal Pandey almost certainly never met Azimullah Khan and Tatya Tope.

Nevertheless, as a mix of history, folk tradition, legend and cinematic licence, the film is worth the price of the ticket. It is visually extremely rich, some of the sets are straight out of Company-era watercolours.

The drama and vibrancy of mid-19th century India is well brought out — snakes and painted elephants, glass bangles and throbbing music. Some of these are cliches, of course, to appeal to the overseas viewer, but in much the same manner as Indian novelists now seem to write only for literary agents in London."

As someone once said, read the whole thing (link).

Thursday, August 18, 2005


1. Went to Pondi last weekend. Abhi has the goods here (with pics).

2. This is really pissing me off.

3. A British former leftist, turned American "neo-con stooge" fawns over Jyoti Basu and, in the same article, says this:

"I have come to hope very devoutly that India ceases to think of itself as a 'Third World' nation, and that it makes a strength of its former weaknesses. In practice, this ought to mean an across-the-board alliance with the United States."

Link here.

4. William Dalrymple:

"If the last few years are anything to go by, I suspect that in the years ahead the main competition Indian writers aspiring to win the Booker will face will not be the Alan Hollinghursts or the AS Byatts, so much as their own cousins born and brought up in the west."

Very interesting. Link here (via kitabkhana).

5. And finally, in the humor department: apparently, you can outsource just about anything. (link via Amit Varma).

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Rushdie, Naipaul and Hampi

First off, this guy is wrong. Rushdie is brilliant (previous praise for Rushdie on this blog here). I can't wait to read his new book.

(link to Amitava Kumar's article via this very interesting post by Amardeep Singh on the amazing Sepia Mutiny)

In the same post, Prof. Singh also talks about V.S. Naipaul's recent interview with the New York Times. This leads to a discussion (in the comments) of Naipaul's attitude towards Muslims, and more specifically, his reactions when he visited Hampi. Here is Prof. Singh's take on the issue, and here is William Dalrymple's. I'm a big Dalrymple fan, and everything I've read by Prof. Singh has been insightful and informative, but here I have to disagree with both of them, particularly Dalrymple.

Dalrymple writes:
"The fall of Vijayanagar is a subject Naipaul keeps returning to: in an interview shortly after being awarded the Nobel Prize in 2001, he talked about how the destruction of the city meant an end to its traditions: "When Vijayanagar was laid low, all the creative talent would also have been destroyed. The current has been broken."

Yet there is considerable documentary and artistic evidence that the very opposite was true, and that while some of the city's craftsmen went on to to work at the Meenakshi temple of Madurai, others transferred to the patronage of the sultans of Bijapur where the result was a significant artistic renaissance."

The latter point may be true, but Dalrymple is down-playing the impact of the destruction in Hampi. This actually makes for a good segue for me to discuss some stuff that's been happening in my life recently. I visited Hampi last weekend, and my reaction is much closer to Naipaul's than Dalrymple's.

Naipaul's basic contention is that the discontinuity that resulted with the destruction of Vijayanagar resulted in a major loss of creative energies in the Hindu South. I couldn't agree more. To take one example, Hampi's ruined Vitthala Temple is an architectural and engineering marvel. The temple is famous for being the Vitthala temple where the great Vitthala bhakta, and father of Carnatic music, Purandara Dasa sang the praises of his patron god. It is also famous for the design of the stone pillars, 56 of which are designed to be used as a musical instrument.

Most of these pillars have now been destroyed, but the ones that remain are fascinating. Each one of these pillars is designed to be used as a percussion instrument, and each is tuned to a different note. On festival days temple musicians would strike these pillars with specially designed drum-sticks, producing a comprehensive sound that could be heard nearly a mile away. Keep in mind, that this temple was constructed in the 15th century, a near contemporary of the magnificent Gothic cathedrals of Europe with their amazing pipe organs.

Now, my cousin and I have been having an ongoing discussion for a few years now. The question he posed to me was, given the melodic beauty and complexity of the Indian music system with its ragas, and deep understanding of the musical scale, why were Indian musicians unable to discover (invent?) harmonics? Europeans started with church organs and choirs, and around the 15th century, Monteverdi (a near contemporary of Purandara Dasa) played around with what he was listening to to come up with a harmonic system that would be perfected a few hundred years later by geniuses like Mozart and Beethoven.

It isn't outrageous to imagine that if Vijayanagar had exported its temple construction technology and acoustics to other temples that such a system could even have been stumbled upon by a Purandara Dasa, to be perfected a few hundred years later by a Thyagaraja (a near contemporary of Mozart). But, because of the discontinuity caused by the city's destruction, we will never know.

Ok, this is pretty far-fetched you say, but the point stands. The destruction of the city of Vijayanagar, beyond just being a humanitarian catastrophe, was a cultural disaster. A lot of the artistic knowledge and achievement gained by the Vijayanagar civilization was lost. To downplay this tragedy is tasteless, to say the least.

And that's my biggest problem with Dalrymple's analysis. Sure, some of these artists gained occupation under the Bijapur Sultanate, but shouldn't we also acknowledge the extent of the loss, as Naipaul does?

Furthermore, some of the damage done to these statues and monuments speak to the determination and audacity with which the conquering Muslim armies went about their jobs. One nine foot high Ganesha idol, built of granite, and at the time the tallest Ganesha idol in India, took weeks to disfigure. The conquering army first drilled holes into the trunk and belly of the statue, then inserted metal and wood pieces into those holes, and over a period of a few weeks, systematically poured water into those holes. The water caused the wood and metal to expand and thereby shatter the trunk and belly of the idol. That level of calculated destruction must be clearly reported and discussed.

Think about the hue and cry raised over the destruction of one architecturally insignificant, and unused mosque in Ayodhya (an action I deplore, by the way), and consider the lack of outrage at the tragedy of Vijayanagar. Or, for another historical example, compare Dalrymple's description of the destruction of Vijayanagar with this account of the expulsion of the Moors from Spain. It appears that polite opinion allows for outrage over historical acts of injustice done to Muslims, but not for those done by Muslims.

Let me end by saying that the ruins of Hampi are a marvel. If you ever get the chance, make the trip. You won't regret it.