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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Art takes a step Backward

Meena Kandasamy courtesy http://dbnweb2.ukzn.ac.za

After centuries of discrimination, the 'low caste' Hindu, through several programmes of social justice and social emancipation, are getting their equal rights as citizens - the fact that they were kept far out of the mainstream society for generations, oppressed and enslaved and 'untouched' - it denied their children the oppertunities available to those of the 'upper castes'. Through reservation of seats in educational institutions and employment, reduced fees, lower merit requirements and other measures, those belonging to the untouchables/lower castes/ harijans/scheduled castes/Dalits are being ensured of equal rights. All this began after Independance in 1947. 65 years. And likely to continue for decades hence. Fine. Of course, the upper castes may grumble; there are socially/economically backward individuals among them - and now they in turn are robbed of their rights. So it will be.

But - can the same yardstick be applied to art? Lets say - A of the upper caste draws a picture of a dog; and so does B, a Dalit. If for all aesthetic standards, A's picture is better, but since B is a Dalit, should the prize go to B?

Can art be of the Dalit? Can art be of Women? Can art be of the Hindu/Moslem/Christian etc? Should we allow Art to bear such labels? How do you judge a work of art - a poem/ a sculpture/ a painting/ a song/ a story/ - whatever? Would it be for its quality as a work of art or for its political/communal/ jingoistic/parochial considerations? Would you rate a work of art by a man and a woman on the basis of sex? 

Meena Kandasamy is a Tamil Dalit poet. ( since when did we stop saying poetess/ actress? In what way do we discriminate here? Or does gender discrimination end if we say female actor? Is it sexist to identify a person on the basis of sex? If there are only actors, so be it, but awards should be only for the best actor,irrespective of sex ) She was in Trivandrum yesterday in connection with the release of the translated version of her collection of poems. Tamil Dalit poet. Tamil - you need that to distinguish the language she uses; it is also useful to understand the cultural milieu she belongs to. Dalit - it denotes she belongs to a group of communities - socially/economically/politically/ etclly backward. Do we need to know her caste to appreciate her art?

Maybe before you read a poem, you should learn the religion/community the poet is from - and set your mind accordingly.

I am writing this based on a report in the Malayalam daily, 'Mathrbhumi'. The Malayalam poet/activist, Smt Sugathakumari had been invited to do the honour of releasing the collection of poems ( translation by V S Bindu). Sugathakumari was given a copy of the book on the previous day of the function. After reading a poem in the book which was contemptuous of Mahatma Gandhi, Sugathakumari informed the organisers that it will be against her conscience to release a book that depicts Gandhiji badly. She refused to attend the function stating that she cannot be a party to it.

The poem begins by saying that it is incorrect to call him 'Mahatma'. It says that Gandhi's laugh is 'eerie' (Bhayanakam). The poem ends with 'Bapu, Bapu, kodiya vanchaka, njangal ningale verukkunnu' - Bapu, Bapu, you big fraud, we hate you. She calls Gandhiji a sadist, impure, imposter etc. Meena was 17 when she wrote this. She says she wrote it after reading Sylvia Plath's Daddy.

Meena writes:

Gone half-cuckoo, you called us names,
You dubbed us pariahs—“Harijans”
goody-goody guys of a bigot god
Ram Ram Hey Ram—boo.

But they killed you, the naked you,
your blood with mud was gooey goo.
Sadist fool, you killed your body
many times before this too.

In her speech Meena Kandasamy criticized Sugathakumari for refusing to release the book. Sugathakumari said she has her own values and principles and considers Gandhiji as her Guru and nobody can demand that she destroy her values.
Meena Kandasamy has won awards and accolades for her poetry. She has a PhD in Sociolinguistics.
Gandhiji brought all the 'Untouchables' together and called them Harijans; the children of God. they now call themselves Dalits. Who bears the stigma? Who still carries the brunt of casteism in their minds? All of them; upper and lower, Brahmin and Dalit.   When the name is changed from Harijan to Dalit, would the pain and hurt vanish?  So long as one identifies him/herself as 'belonging' to a caste, this schism would persist.  If it was not for Gandhiji, what would have been the history of the present Dalits?

I have read Meena's poems and found some quite good. And that has nothing to do with the fact that she is a Dalit or that she is an attractive young woman. But Gandhi-bashing is quite fashionable among Dalits, it seems. It gets you applauds and cheers from some members of the Dalit communities.

To me, since the time when world began there have been the oppressor and the oppressed. In some countries it is White and Black, in some Shia and Sunni, in some Protestant and Catholic; in most, the rich and the poor. One day it is the Brahmin and the Dalit, next day the roles reversed

*************** Balachandran V, Trivandrum, 28.06.2012
SEE :http://newindianexpress.com/cities/thiruvananthapuram/article553077.ece


  1. Presume what is being discussed is the vigor of a Dalit to become heroic by humiliating Gandhi. I agree with the first few lines – art should not be compartmentalized depending on the roots and source of the artist. I do not find any reason to contempt what Sugathakumari had done as well; that being against her principles.

    There is a tactic in Group Discussions (mainly to get admitted into B-Schools); when the discussion seems to go one sided, one smart fellow takes an opposite stand just for the sake of it, even though he does not really believe in what he says. Just an attention grabber. That would almost sure see him through the GD. May be this was one such attempt.

    Disclaimer : I have not read the poem yet, or any of Meena’s poems for that matter.

  2. Hmm touchy topic indeed.

    We are a country of free speech(even this is a doubt now).

    Even if she had written about Ambedkar, Christ or Muhammad, we should just treat it as her view

    But I doubt if she has in her mind to write about them as well

  3. @Sreejith: Who is this Gandhi anyway? You mean the guy in granite and cement and cast iron standing at every corner of every city in India?

    How convenient it is to forget Gandhiji, when we have filled ourselves with the fruits of his labour. One can only pity the poet's ignorance, character and immaturity!

  4. Again signs of intolerance.
    SugathaKumari, from what I have understood of her through her words, speeches, interviews etc. has a side that is autocratic and conceited. She certainly has her right to repudiate and distance from what she calls is a disparaging and venal poem on Gandhi. She has the right to feel incensed when a comparatively non entity like the young poet pens verses such as these. (I have not read the poem in full except for the little notes from the media) Her declining to attend the function was her impetuous way when her beliefs were threatened. Most people do this when their beliefs are threatened. However, I feel the logical and wise reaction would have been to attend the function and strip naked the alleged anti Dalit moorings the young poet asperses on Gandhiji.At the same time, I feel that the young poet with a doctorate may have been unfamiliar with the social movement orchestrated by Gandhiji, that enabled the voice of the untouchable to be heard above the din and cacophony of the prejudiced upper caste.
    In a lighter vein a story once told to me goes like , if the Olympics that was held in Los Angeles was held in India, the sprint Queen of India would have won the 100 meter dash hands down as she may have had to run only 75 meters as she is a Dalit.

    And Balan, creativity in all walks of life must not be judged in a biased, intolerant or lopsided manner. There should be no discrimination on creativity, not at all and ever.

  5. Very thought provoking. Just like you say for the arts/creative segment, I will say also for the 'non-creative' sectors, which is a fallacy anyway as everything is creative, else it wouldn't be. I believe that anything which is produced by a human should be judged on its merit and not on who produced it. I have noticed that whenever we look at something that gives us a 'wow' feeling, the thing we want to know is who produced it, girl or boy? age? name? surname? the questions are endless. Why cant we just look up the person shake his/her hand and say "wow!"

  6. @Anil: As someone who has had a long association with Sugathakumari in matters relating to environment, I can tell you for certain that many Malayalees are irked at the very mention of her name, forgetting that they have not/cannot/will not do even an iota of social service she had done/ is doing. I have also sensed that it is more so among the men, typical of the Malayalee men. Teacher is not autocratic as you have said. I can vouch for that. She may have her shortcomings like any other human being. Whatever trees that remain standing in Trivandrum owes their lives to her - K was studying at Abhaya for 2 months - people don't have any idea of the service that Institution is giving -

    Beliefs - Teacher's or mine are not threatened. But just because of the 'freedom of speech' available in this country, Ms Kanadasamy has gone around besmirching Gandhi's name - please read the poem in full and also other poems - ( parroting another poet who had Electra complex about her father - Sylvia ends the poem calling her daddy, Bastard and committed suicide right after that).

    Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was just another human being; but to heap the kind of filthy abuse the way Ms Kandasamy has done- like I said, you don't feel angry at that young woman. Actually you only feel revulsion...

    And Sugathakumari had the decency and dignity to keep away from that function. Perhaps what the likes of Kandasamy would have wanted is to provoke - that's the easiest way to gain publicity for a mediocre writer.

  7. @Sujata; You are right, everything is a creation, every activity is creative ( except banking!!:-D ). One should look only at the product, the creation. But for most, art is a tool, not for art's sake, but for something else!

  8. Balan, The subject matter is not the relentless, selfless service and work of Sugatha Kumari affecting many matters in our life. Nobody can dispute or ridicule her for what she has done and continues to do.
    My comments about her being autocratic was based on some inferences. However, with you who have had a long association with the lady, categorically emphasising that I was wrong, I do acknowledge my statement may have been based on incorrect information.

    The subject is the vile and profane poem in question. In fact an utterly nonsensical work without knowing who Gandhi was and his work has become the raison d'être for this hullabaloo. Well, there are two ways of tackling creativity and art that is primarily designed to generate controversy and thence publicity. One can ignore and desist from commenting and critique. Or one can join issue and dissect it to reveal the insipid and triviality of the nonsense. You will recall the subject of M.F.Hussien’s painting of a nymph like figure from Hindu pantheon and naming the painting “Mother India” or “Saraswati”. Though his work needed no controversy to be carried far and wide, he quite foolishly named it so. And the bigoted Hindus did the rest.

    I would have wanted Sugatha Kumari to historically and based on facts enlighten this young woman the falsehood on which she disparaged Gandhi. Such frivolous writers will pick up themes that can be contentious. Either they are naïve or are cunning in the business sense. In both cases they have to be put in place, not by violence but by art itself. A blasphemous writing has to be dealt with the pen and not by guns, swords or brick bats.
    Certainly the young poet has her right to eulogise or besmirch Mahatma Gandhi . But it will brood well to know on what factual materials she crafted her creation.

    When Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Rites” was creating frenzy, a Muslim politician vociferously called for its ban and ostracizing the author. When he was asked if his demands were based on inferences after reading the book, he was honest to admit that he had not read the book and he added,” One doesn’t have to crawl through slush and dirt to know it is dirt, one can tell by looking”.
    That was a strange analysis of literary creation

  9. Meena admits the influence of Sylvia Plath's 'Daddy'. Placed in that context, I can see what she is attempting to convey about the general feelings of the younger generation of Dalits with regards to Gandhi- the same feeling of love-hate displayed by Plath towards her father.
    Yes, Gandhi's efforts to bring the Dalits into the mainstream were instrumental in starting their journey from oppression into mainstream society. But the labels like 'Harijan' served as a demeaning nomenclature among caste Hindus for quite a while. Ambedkar's attempts at self-empowerment of the Dalits without an assumption that they had to be servile and grateful would be more to the taste of contemporary Dalit writers, as far as empowering them.
    Sugathakumari is perfectly entitled to her opinions and her protest at the release of the book, as Meena is to her opinion of Gandhi and her writing about him as a 'Daddy' that she loves to hate.


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