Friday, November 23, 2012

The SPA Effect

Even when you leave SPA (finally!) after five years (hopefully), and bound forward, relieved or regretful at successfully negotiating the endless ‘crits’ that had occupied your mental and physical horizon, you can’t really shake it out of your system.

Neither can you escape bumping into an SPAite every now and then.

You may back into one on a seemingly deserted train platform. Or discover another lurking amongst the leafy plants in the quiet elegance devised by Joseph Allen Stein at the Triveni Kala Sangam. Or yet another determinedly drifting amidst a den of tourists anywhere in the multitude of ‘hill-stations’ in India. Or spot one casually draped around the paintings in an avant-garde art-gallery. I haven’t been to the Arctic (yet) but I have a feeling when I do land up there, there is sure to be at least one SPAite already dawdling or doodling there.

Considering the fairly small numbers that made up the undergraduate course – at least till somewhat recently – this is a fairly remarkable phenomenon. I suppose what it means is that we are a fairly diverse and adventurous lot. The question is, whether we were always Like That Only, or is it some change that SPA hath wrought in us? Like the famous and deluded prince in English literature, we may well wonder if it is our stars, Horatio, or us?

Not having the ability to read the stars, I vote for ‘us’, aided by The SPA Effect. The SPA I joined – by lucky chance since this was practically the only college of architecture I applied to – was chock-full of ‘characters’. It was a great relief after a tortuous week of Economics classes among a gaggle of more or less similarly clad and trained population at the Lady Sri Ram College. SPA, by contrast, ran the entire gamut from khadi and kambals to Levis to lehngas. Before architecture got to be as mainstream a choice of study as management, those who joined the School of Planning and Architecture were (some more visibly than the others) an individual lot. Architecture wasn’t so respectably middle-class as engineering or medicine; it wasn’t obviously understandable like administration or law. It certainly was a professional course, unlike merely studying Physics or English or History, but what the heck architects did – and why they took so long to do it – was a mystery to most.

So, the varied populace of SPA, whether those who wandered in via the SAARC and NAM route from Nepal, Palestine, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Malayisa, Afghanistan, or via villages, towns and cities in Orissa, Nagaland, Assam, Himachal, etc. were a combination of those trying to unravel the mystery – and those who revelled in adding to it. The more exciting and excitable ones had run away from home to join the course, or having finally made it here, dreamt of running away somewhere else. Even the apparently more conventional types, had a streak of embedded eccentricity. All in all, they were certainly not standard types.

And by the time, most finished with SPA or SPA finished with them, whichever way you look at it, they became even less of a standard type, and acquired unmistakably SPA overtones. Perhaps it was the sheer variety of subjects trained at us – structural mechanics, mathematics, history of Western and Indian architecture, plumbing, photography, arts and graphics, air-conditioning, housing, theory of design, building construction, etc. etc. You may have flunked a couple of these or more, but it wasn’t really possible to get seriously bored. I shudder to think what would have happened if I had made it to IIT and missed, well, at least some of this.

But an encyclopaedic course is presumably common to all colleges of architecture. So, what’s so different about SPA? I suspect it is its urban, melting-pot quality due at least in part to its location, in the heart of Delhi, away from the rarefied university campus air. The School of Planning and Architecture is probably the only college to have its Architecture and Planning departments housed in two separate ‘plots’ linked by a length of slip road bordering as public a space as the Ring Road. We sit cheek by jowl with a graveyard and the magnificent ruins of Firoz Shah Kotla, and within sneezing distance from the IP Power Plant, Vikas Bhawan, ICCR, and Mandi House. We are almost on the banks of the travesty that Delhi has made of the Yamuna, more-or-less in line with history and the City Of Shah Jahan and the other cities that came before and after it.

We cannot help an acquired acquaintance with the high road and the low road. It also probably explains an average SPAite’s elusive tolerance to noxious substances and the nonchalant ability to pass by or bypass everything from the sublime to the ridiculous. In fact, it may be the very lack of an identifiable, enclosed territory, and the relative isolation of an academic institution ‘doomed to be a university’, which gives us our peculiar ability to appropriate everything in our vicinity and beyond, and to rise above the state or size of our ‘campus’. A sort of ‘At Home in the World and at Home with the World’ syndrome. Which may be the reason I was foolhardy enough to negotiate the way back to the hostel in the Planning Block alone, at 2 am after a party in the SPA Audi.

On a less flippant note, there was a more focused larger engagement with the world, through our faculty and the course-work which paid at least lip-service to the social and ethical aspects of architecture. And since we didn’t have recourse to a larger academic fraternity, we were actively engaged within the college (sometimes with rather tangible results) that used to make it such a heady place. The SPA building itself, was a practical lesson (some called it a practical joke) in what not to do. And successive generations of students had a lot of scope to work on it to picaresque and picturesque advantage – from the Art Thesis sculptures that doubled up as outdoor and indoor seating for the canteen, to the boundary wall that worked as space to careen, exhibit, and receive mud missiles at Utopia, to the superlative quality of cartoons that passed for graffiti on the staircase walls. The library, almost always full of students from 8 in the morning to 8 at night, was scarcely the quiet, hallowed place sacred to learning in most educational institutions. It was a favourite hangout for dozing, debating, dishevelled students feverishly finishing assignments – or not. A piece of SPA lore recounts one senior’s exasperated holler on a day when the noise in the canteen was more than usually deafening, telling everyone to “Shut up, this is not the library!”

So, it was rather a shock when I walked into the library after returning to teach intermittently at SPA, and found it a sad and silent space, with books piled all over the tables and no one but the librarian in sight. Surprising too, since SPA is bursting at the seams with about 120 students in each undergraduate batch. The distinct, tightly knit community with its special ethos, has seemingly mutated into a distant cousin of DU – in its attire, in its architecture and its attitude. It may be an uphill task for the SPA Effect to thrive in the midst of the shiny floor-tiles of the canteen in its new avatar of a cacophonous Call Centre lobby-like space. Like the poet hoped for Abou Ben Adhem, ‘may the tribe increase’ – but not immoderately or inordinately, and certainly not at the cost of the qualities which gave SPA its distinctiveness, its intense engagement within the college and with the city.

© Anisha Shekhar Mukherji

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Are Indians an ahistorical people? Part II

Are Indians an ahistorical people?
Part II

Let me pose a hypothetical question.
What if the British had not chosen to civilize India? Would we have no history? What would we have? What did we have?

Apart from many tangible examples of history, in the form of old temples, palaces, towns, ceremonial buildings, celebratory water-features and gardens, we had some of the most extensive written literature – consisting of legends, philosophical treatises, codified manuals and stories. This literature, which was encyclopedic in nature, records not just dominant modes of conduct, philosophies or people but also the tertiary, non-mainstream ones. For instance, the Carvakas, materialists whose way of thinking and living is more nearly like the dominant material values of the world today, were historically always a minority in the Indian subcontinent. Nonetheless, they are mentioned repeatedly, and not just in the philosophical treatises of the Sankhya, Yoga, Jain or Buddhist schools but also in many versions of popular epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Thus, the idea of history being a multi-faceted perception, and the retention of different perspectives for the listeners/readers to make up their own minds about the relative value of each perception, was especially true in the Indian tradition. By that measure, it certainly appears that the Indians cannot be called ahistorical.

In India, culturally and philosophically there was no sudden, sweeping Industrial Revolution. An oft-remarked phrase is that in India you can see several centuries at the same time. Even today, when we are being consciously propelled towards a western-dominated society more than ever before, different ways of living coexist simultaneously, some reflecting 21st century modes and others that seem to have existed since very ancient times. However, with colonization and its aftermath, our perception and understanding of history has changed so drastically, that many of the beliefs, knowledge systems, and alternative records which constitute our many histories, have already perished.

The Objectives of History
To understand why this continues to happen, we need to look at the objectives and methodology of history in the colonial period (whether directly those of the colonizing power or of dominant cultures at that time that may not necessarily have been colonizing our country). The British, (who by the time they came to India were themselves a society living in ways that were a definite break from their own past) formulated ways of recording the vast and complex Indian civilization that they encountered. Two main categories of such recording and interpretation work are generally identified – termed the Orientalists and the Utilitarianists. The Orientalists had a romantic notion of India, and the Utilitarianists had a contemptuous attitude towards India. Their major motivations, depending on either orientation, were therefore essentially:
a)      to understand/ control an unfamiliar area, people and resources;
b)      to highlight/ appropriate aspects of these areas, people and resources useful to them;
c)      to ignore/ denigrate aspects of these areas, people and resources not useful to them.
Both these categories of writers/researchers/historians, naturally, ultimately failed to understand the Indian world-view. Their version of Indian history, led to a distorted view of Indian presented to the world – and to Indians.

The other main source of our history, is through scholars who were not directly participating in the colonial enterprise. They did not have any direct interest in controlling and exploiting resources in this country. Their objective however was not mere academic interest either. In Germany, as in France, and in many other countries of the West, there was among some intellectuals a profound dissatisfaction with the mechanized, inhuman ways of their society that resulted from large-scale industrialisation. They were looking for a second Enlightenment, a second Renaissance that would liberate them from the deadening effects of their industrialized society.

Just as the first renaissance arose out of the revival of concepts and ideals from the ancient Greek culture; so it was believed that the second renaissance would arise from the East, from the ideals of ancient India. Hence, the overwhelming emphasis of such scholars and Indologists on the most ancient and the oldest aspects of Indian history that they could unearth, to the exclusion of the later periods of Indian history which were identified with a jaded and fallen people. Some of these scholars were also looking for a justification of their own present – hence Max Mueller’s statements about the ancient Aryans being most akin to the ancient Germans, and his belief that they were the most vigorous and enterprising races in the world with the authority and responsibility of leading the rest of the world.[1]

The conventional manner in which historical studies pertaining to India are generally still regarded, practiced and studied, follows such a colonial tradition. And so we dream of our glorious ancient past, rue an abysmal immediate past and present, and look forward to a potentially bright future – but only if we follow the footsteps and the direction of the West. Not very different from the stated beliefs and policies of our colonial masters. So we continue to view ourselves through the eyes of the West, and can only see our reflections reduced and distorted through time and space.

Evolving Histories
Is it pertinent to continue with this definition and concept of history which we inherited with colonisation – or do we need to evolve a different way of looking at history? To paraphrase the physicist Richard Feynman’s famous quote: “first figure out why you want to learn and what you want to know and the method will result more or less by common sense’.[2] Why do we study history today? Are the purposes the same as why the colonial powers did? If yes, then our purposes are certainly misguided; if no, then it is time we reevaluate both our motives and our methods of looking at history.

There will probably not be any disputing the fact that the motive for learning history is, or should be, to direct our understanding of the past so as to make us aware of our cultural, national and local identities, and to help us to shape ourselves and our societies in positive ways. Obviously these objectives are very different from those of the ‘historians’ of the colonial period. The methodology evidently should be different too. We therefore need to redefine history from our context.

Defining history merely as ‘a study of the past‘, limits the reach and sources of history to the professional and excludes a wide swathe of sources as well as people from their own history. The exclusion of the layperson in recent times is not just confined to the field of history. Increasingly, in India we follow the path of the western world where, as N.J. Habraken observes: ‘We have been educated in a culture of science, technology, and organization that is overwhelmingly professional. This culture is, if not ignorant, deeply suspicious of the productive power of the lay world and its variety of social patterns.’ [3]

So, while we certainly were not an ahistorical people when the term was first applied to us, most of us – and paradoxically, even professional historians – are in danger of becoming so now. The dialogue with the past gets far more muted and limited every day. Carried out behind closed doors amongst only among a handful of professionals, such whispered and occasional dialogue, keeps out of the conversation a large section of people who also carry the memory of their past. It therefore misses out not just many important words and phrases but even lengthy passages of the story from the past, and then presents this incomplete fragmented story, as the complete and only version of the past! With the concentration on only one sort of recorded history that professional historians espouse, it ultimately serves to keep away both professional and the laypersons from their shared history – and from each other.

So most of us, educated or not, literate or illiterate, are ambivalent and negligent about many aspects of our history. Not just our philosophies and myths, but also the more tangible remnants which refuse to fade away from our landscape. This perhaps explains the extreme distrust between professional custodians of monuments and local communities who, finding that they no longer have any claim to their immediate history, refuse to recognize any duties towards protecting them either. We carve our initials on them, inscribe ‘Raja loves Meena’ on them, vandalise and trash them, and even carry off their bricks and stones as mementoes or to build our homes.

Refuse dumped on the historic Bijay Mandal

Even when we recognize them as repositories of culture, of knowledge, of history, etc. and put up plaques recognizing them as important national assets, in actual fact we ignore them. While we may physically conserve them, we do not believe they have anything which may be applicable for us to follow today. The fact that climate, ecology, even culture is a continuum, and the responses to them in older architectural forms and spaces may contain aspects which may have relevance to our lives today, is not even considered. Thus, everyone agrees that Jaipur is a foremost example of city-planning. Yet, the new extensions to Jaipur are built as if they could be anywhere in India or even outside India; as if there is nothing within this feted historical city that architects and planners may learn from, that could be integrated in modern cities.

In short, we treat our historical assets, our monuments and our cities, just as we study or regard history – as a separate compartment, as something frozen, as only representative of a certain time different from the present, as something to be visited briefly – and then forgotten. And as something to be kept beyond the reach and comprehension of the layperson, the non-historian. On the other hand, many counties of the western world who look after their tangible history so well, still do so in a museumized, mummified way. Unlike our bustling teeming old cities, filled with every variety of human activity but unkempt and crumbling, their cobbled streets, thatched houses, beamed rooms, are alluring and well-preserved, and house endless permutations of museums, interpretation centres, souvenir shops, restaurants, design offices, galleries – but have no trace of the diverse life that first gave rise to them.

The linguist, Helena Norberge-Hodge, who has spent a large part of her life in the region of Ladakh, generally seen as a remote, backward, exotic land, arrived there in 1975. During her time there, she visited and lived in many villages there. After spending sixteen years in Ladakh, she wrote the book, Ancient Futures, Learning from Ladakh. Recollecting her experience in the earlier part of her time spent there, she writes: ‘I have never met people who seem so healthy emotionally, so secure, as the Ladakhis. The reasons are, of course complex, and spring from a whole way of life and world-view. But I am sure the most important factor is the sense that you are part of something larger than yourself, that you are inextricably connected to others and to your surroundings.’[4]

In conversations with my maid and my cook, I notice the same connection with the villages and the local cultures they have come from, as well as how much more aware they are not just of their customs and religion, but also through them of the larger world. Practically all the days in a year have some significance for them. They are far more attuned to the changing cycle of the seasons or the movement of the moon and the sun. The rituals, fasts or festivals that highlight important times of the day, season or year help them not merely to celebrate their present by meeting with the family or the larger community, but also to keep their past alive through shared memories of other celebrations and rituals.

Perhaps it is this lived connection with our surroundings, which we need to recognize as an important part of history. Perhaps we need to redefine history as ‘an understanding and record of the past’ rather than merely a ‘study of the past’. Such a definition would necessarily include and question various ways of looking at the past, whether through written and oral records, societal beliefs, art forms, mythology, ritual practices and so on. It would give credence to local, decentralized histories; to lived histories, that help to root us to our context and route us to our directions. We may then be better able to understand the significance of different remnants of our personal and shared memories, and which of these we must amend, continue, transmit or discard.

So, one of the relevant answers to ‘what is history’ – which is naturally as subjective as any other one – could be ‘a rediscovery of values that have existed for thousands of years – values that recognize our place in the natural order, our indissoluble connection to one another and to the earth’.[5] From that point of view, a large part of the world today, not merely many Indians, may be termed ahistorical.

Images © Anisha Shekhar Mukherji; Text © Anisha Shekhar Mukherji

[1] Vasudha Dalmia, pp. 1-27, ‘Friedrich Max Mueller, Appropriation of the Vedic Past’, Orienting India, European knowledge formation in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries, Three Essays Collective 2003, New Delhi.
[2] “First figure out why you want the students to learn the subject and what you want them to know, and the method will result more or less by common sense”. Richard P. Feynman, as quoted in Special Preface to Six Easy Pieces, p. xviii, Penguin 1995, this Edition 2008
[3] Appearance of the Form, p. 2, Sharing
[4] Ancient Futures, Learning from Ladakh, p. 85, OUP New Delhi 1991
[5] Helena Norberg-Hodge, Ancient Futures, Learning from Ladakh, p. 191.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Are Indians an ahistorical people? Part I

Are Indians an ahistorical[1] people?
Part I

To me that is an interesting and pertinent question. I have repeatedly encountered it, and often posed more as a statement than a question, both by Indians as well as foreigners.

To really answer this, we need to pose a counter question. What do we mean by history and historical? I doubt if there can be an absolute definition of history, acceptable to all people and cultures. After all, my personal history apart from being of interest to me, can be said to be really relevant only to my immediate family and friends. For the rest of the world, especially to those who do not even know I exist, it is a mass of relatively useless information. So, evidently all information about the past, even if it is true, does not qualify to be called history in a larger sense. And if the person I pass occasionally on the street is unaware of my personal history, does that make him or her ahistorical?

Who decides then, what is history?
In India, shortly after they arrived on our shores, it was essentially the British who decided this. Apparently before these enlightened ones (and other colonial and intellectual powers like the Germans and the French) made us aware of it, we in India had no history, or at least no sense of it. So, we had to be taught history. And since the Indians were too foolish and weak to resist the onslaught of the Europeans, it certainly did not make sense to spend much time in teaching them their own history. That would constitute relatively useless information. Instead they must be guided to devote their energies in gaining information primarily about a little island many miles away in a different part of the world. Who were the kings who ruled there/ what were the plants that grew there?

I was reminded of this as I recently read a collection of short stories written by Munshi Premchand to our eight year old daughter. The first story was called ‘Bade Bhaisahab’ (Elder Brother). The story is about two brothers sent to school away from home. The younger brother spends his time in playing, flying kites, and running around in the fields while the elder spends practically all his waking moments in studying various incomprehensible subjects. Despite repeated admonishments, the younger brother cannot apply himself to diligent study. Strangely enough, he passes his examination with flying colours. And the elder brother? He fails!

What does this mean? “Just luck”, observes the elder brother who is in class 9 for the second time. “Wait till you reach my class”, he warns, “and you have to read, among other things ‘Inglistan ka itihass’. Just remembering the names of the Kings will wear you out. Eight Henrys! Which catastrophe was in which Henry’s rule? How will you – how can you – remember? Write Henry VIII instead of Henry VII, and you will not get a single mark! Dozens of Kings called William and James; probably crores called Charles. You will then see your brain whirling dizzily. Had these unfortunates only asked me, I could have told them 10 million names, but all they seem to know is a handful of names behind which they keep on adding I, II, IV, V!”

Of course, the British must have believed that knowledge of the names and the deeds of the different King Henrys was indispensable to the growth and development of a young Indian boy.[2] So did the poor boy. However much he longed to go and play football and kabaddi under the open sky like his younger heedless brother, he steeled himself not to, in a valiant bid to master the deeds of English kings, long dead and gone, but inevitably a part of history.

So, that was an indispensable part of ‘Indian’ history then. We have been born many years after Munshi Premchand, who lived and died before India achieved independence from the British Raj, and have escaped the real or the recorded tyrannies of the Williams and Henrys. We now read of other kings in our school histories. There is, certainly for Indian tongues, greater variety and ease in their names: Ashoka, Bindusara, Chandragupta, Harshvardhana, Mahendravarman, Iltutmish, Akbar, Sher Shah, Shah Jahan.
Nonetheless, we still remain preoccupied with kings and dynasties.

The Myths of History
So, is history then essentially the knowledge of ‘who’ ruled ‘when’? And therefore, if you and I cannot summon this knowledge at a moment’s notice, does that mean we have no sense of history? Even conventional definitions of history today do seem to be broader than this. Most dictionaries state that history is: ‘A systematic account of the origin and progress of the world, a nation, an institution; the knowledge/study of past events; the past considered as a whole; a course of events.’ Related terms, such as ‘Historicity’ and ‘Historiography’, are defined as ‘historical truth or actuality’, and ‘the art or employment of writing history’ respectively.[3]

This seems to offer a fairly wide field for interpretation, free from political dominance. But, implicit in these definitions seems to be the idea that ‘history’ must be ideally written to qualify as history. Evidently then, such a definition or idea of history arises from cultures where the written word is revered more than the spoken.

But does the mere fact of writing definitely imply that what is written did actually happen? Conversely, does non-written knowledge of past events related to institutions, societies, cultures (which may include highly systematic oral accounts, rituals, visual records or performance-based records) not qualify as ‘history’? The Vedas, the oldest extant texts in India, (also one of the oldest written records in the entire world, as recent research has shown) were for a long time transmitted orally. Did they become part of ‘history’ the moment they were written? For many Indians, and non-Indians too, they represent a highly systematic account of the origin and progress of the ancient world as lived in the Vedic civilization. However, ‘systematic’, of course, is not an absolute term. So, to many other people, they are merely spiritual hymns, myths, allegories, and do not qualify as history.

What value then do myths, rituals and legends have in the context of our past and our present? Again to answer that, one may have to pose another question.
What is a myth?
Some scholars believe that ‘A myth is an extremely complex cultural reality, the foremost function of which is to reveal the exemplary models of all significant human activities in a given society from birth to death. Indeed myths are the most proud and meaningful possession of all early Pre-Industrial Revolution societies. They provide the living entities by supplying models of human behaviour’.[4]

Though one of the definitions of a myth as ‘a traditional story concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social fact’ mirrors this opinion, the other two meanings also included in most dictionaries seem to convey the very opposite: ‘a widely held but false belief; an imaginary person or thing’.[5] The origin of the word is from Greek mythos: story/talk. And the many synonyms of the word: ‘allegory, fable, legend, lore, mythology, symbolism, fallacy, fairy story, false notion, fiction, old wives’ tale, misconception, untruth’, seem to indicate that a myth is generally equated with a falsehood. Again the implication seems to be that the written word is more accurate than the spoken.

But we all know that human observation, recollection and recording – whether pictoral, textual or oral – are all very subjective. E. H. Carr explored this question in his book, What is History, first published in 1961. He quotes Professor George Clark from The New Cambridge Modern History, who writes about ‘the doctrine that, since all historical judgements involve persons and points of view, one is as good as another and there is no ‘objective’ historical truth’. Carr himself questions ‘the empirical commonsense view of history’ as ‘a corpus of ascertained facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian’ and finds it ‘a preposterous fallacy, but one which is very hard to eradicate’. His own answer to the question of what constitutes history is, ‘that it is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past’[6].
This seems to leave enough freedom of interpretation, and give equal importance to both recorded and lived histories.

Myths certainly do keep alive the dialogue between the past and the present. Devdutt Pattanaik has shared his abiding fascination with myths through his many books and talks. To him, ‘Myth is truth which is subjective, intuitive, cultural and grounded in faith…truth seen from a frame of reference’.[7] This frame of reference not only enshrines codes of conduct and value-systems, but also often offers clues of a more tangible nature – if only we know how to look for them. B.B. Lal, one of the most senior archaeologists of India and a former Director-General of the ASI, has excavated and discovered many important historical sites. In his book Piecing Together, he writes about the discovery of stone-ware associated with the Mahabharata tradition, in sites associated with the Mahabharata story not just through literary data, but also through oral tradition. He cites the example of Saini, located between Meerut and Hastinapur. According to local tradition, when Bhima, the third Pandava, passed through this place, he dusted his shoes. And lo and behold, a mound grew up. As Lal observes: ‘Surely, Bhima’s shoes had not accumulated that much dust so as to create such a high mound as that at Saini.’ But the legend does indicate an association of this site with Bhima, and the Mahabharata story. When Lal explored the already exposed sections of the mound, he found that it revealed the stone-ware that had been discovered at other sites associated with the Mahabharata story.[8]

Despite their enduring value, and what Ashis Nandy describes as ‘the salience given by Indian culture to myth as a structured fantasy which, in its dynamic of the here-and-the-now, represents what in another culture would be called the dynamic of history,’[9] most of us are reluctant to accord any ‘historical’ value to myths and rituals. Perhaps the main reason for this is related to how ‘history’ as something separate – which was no longer a part of life, and therefore which needed to be studied in order to know something about it – arose as a field of study. In the western part of the world, this happened with the onset of what we know as industrialisation; and in the countries of the South and East, such as ours, with the onset of colonization. All traditional societies anywhere in the world, were in touch with their history in a more inclusive sense, till this major break with their past occurred, leading them to ‘study’ history instead of ‘living’ it.

The ways of recording and transmitting history, which are linked to the ‘objective’ of history, naturally underwent a major change. Pre-industrialisation and pre-colonisation, the objective of being in touch with one’s history, may be essentially summarized as firstly, to have ideals to live up to, and to shape character in succeeding generations. Thus, the prevalence of epic poems and stories glorifying the deeds of the brave and the loyal/the true/the faithful, etc. Another important purpose of history was to enable succeeding generations to utilize the bank of knowledge gained in previous generations, whether in the realm of useful inventions, innovations or best agricultural and social practices, etc. The third purpose was to enshrine in public memory events or acts deemed to be important in shaping the identity of a people. Naturally enough then, different groups of people deemed different acts/events/practices to be important, and therefore histories of different groups of people in different areas differed. There was no ‘one History’.

Reformed Histories
With industrialization, the reach and scope of history changed dramatically. People could move quickly both inland and overseas with the invention of the steam engine and the steam ship; differences of regions and locales got effaced; standardization was brought in for greater control of resources; national identities assumed greater significance than regional identities; there was greater volume of contact between people in different regions – and so histories began to be written over a larger canvas. This also meant that people began to move away from traditional occupations and traditional communities, and so lost touch with their immediate histories. When these fast-paced societies did realize the significance of recording their past histories, many of the smaller, local histories had already been lost. In the event, the histories that survived were naturally those of the dominant section of people or the majority.

With colonization, the scope of these dominant regional or national histories, increased even more. And the colonized societies were ‘re-formed within the history of the colonizer’. This not only meant that they had to literally ‘learn’ the histories of the colonizer (thus, for many years Indians, as also communicated in Premchand’s stories, had to memorise the succession of British monarchs, Prime Ministers as well as features of the geography and religion of the British Isles) but also had to re-learn their own history from the point of view of the coloniser. The ideals deemed to be worth striving for, were those of the colonising culture, and those of the host society were deemed to be inferior. This was true not just for the areas under British domination. So, for instance, Indians in Pondicherry, where the French established an enclave for purposes of facilitating trade in 1673, studied French history and geography.

History was recognised as a crucial weapon and a tool in demonstrating this difference between the colonisers and the colonised. This is how the British dealt with, as Ashis Nandy puts it:
‘the ideological problem of British colonialism in India which could not easily grapple with the fact that India had a civilization, howsoever strange by European standards…everything said, there were the traditions of four thousand years of civic living, a well developed literati tradition (in spite of all its stress on oral cultures), and alternative traditions of philosophy, art and science which often attracted the best minds of Europe. The fact that India's past was living (unlike, say, pre-Islamic Egypt) complicated the situation. Some explanation had to be given for her political and cultural 'degradation'.
The colonial ideology handled the problem in two mutually inconsistent ways. Firstly, it postulated a clear disjunction between India's past and its present. The civilized India was in the bygone past; now it was dead and 'museumized'. The present India, the argument went, was only nominally related to its history; it was India only to the extent it was a senile, decrepit version of her once-youthful, creative self.
…Secondly and paradoxically, the colonial culture postulated that India's later degradation was not due to colonial rule - which, if anything, had improved Indian culture by fighting against its irrational, oppressive, retrogressive elements - but due to aspects of the traditional Indian culture which in spite of some good points carried the seeds of India's later cultural downfall. Like a sinful man Indian culture was living through a particularly debilitating senility…Thus, in this argument, there was a postulate of continuity but it applied more to sinfulness than to virtues; for an explanation of India's virtues one had to fall back upon her contacts with the modern world.’[10]

Despite this takeover and ‘makeover’ of Indian history, and the overt equation of all Indian traditions with superstition and degradation, many rural communities or those in the smaller towns, not as affected by association with the British as in the larger urban centres, persisted in ‘living out’ their histories. The past becomes relevant only when there is a real connection between people’s memories and aspects of their past. So, when in 1914, the Pondicherrian soldiers returned after fighting with the French ‘on behalf of the mother country’, ‘France was no longer a mythical country…whose history and geography one studied in books. It somewhat became their own country whose people and landscapes filled their memories.’ [11]

Lived Histories
Almost half a century ago, The Children’s Book Trust, New Delhi, published a book called Life with Grandfather, written and illustrated by Shankar, a renowned children’s author. The stories are meant for young children and are written in a way that they could be situated anywhere in India. But the drawings that accompany them, the clothes that people wear and the landscape they are drawn in, show that they are set in South India. Perhaps this book records the memory of Shankar’s own childhood. In that case, it may be said to record information from about seven decades ago. One of the stories is called ‘A Game of Chance’. 

This is how it starts:

‘Every year there was a monsoon festival in one of our big temples. The main event of the festival was a mock battle. The battle was fought between two groups of people, those living on the west side of the temple and those living on the east. Hundreds of men, each armed with a sword and a shield, gathered on opposite sides of a large field. When a special signal was given they marched towards each other and started fighting. Nobody was ever killed or wounded in these mock fights. People were trained to play this mock battle in memory of a real battle fought at that place between two kings hundreds of years ago.

A big fair was also held at the time of the festival. The fair lasted many days. Tradesmen from different parts of the country came there with all kinds of goods to sell. Hundreds of shops were set up and many markets held. People waited for this fair to do their annual shopping. They could buy anything from a small pin to a big elephant.’[12]

The battle was evidently important to a large community who lived around the area, so they enacted it in order to preserve their memory of this battle. Through the fair, they not only transformed this memory into an occasion for celebration, commerce and conviviality, but also transmitted this memory to other communities who came to participate in the festivity associated with the fair. Rather more effective than merely learning about the battle in history books? And perhaps if the history books were written by somebody far away, they would not bother to include a local battle in it. So who is ahistorical? The people who enact the battle? Who celebrate stories through festivals that gave them a connection with their past? Or those who do not believe that such memories and associations are important, and omit to record these in favour of the bigger battles and wars?

 © Anisha Shekhar Mukherji

[1] Ahistorical: Adjective:
 Lacking historical perspective or context.

[2]  Thomas Babington Macaulay, a British poet, historian and politician, served on the Supreme Council of India between 1834 and 1838. He stated in his ‘Minute on Indian Education’ (1835): "all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England."
[3] Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, Compact Oxford Dictionary
[4] N.R. Ray, 1976, p.xi, as quoted in S.R. Rao, The Lost City of Dwarka, p.10, Aditya Prakashan, New Delhi 1999
[5] Compact Oxford Dictionary Thesaurus 2005 Edition
[6] What is History, p. 30, Penguin 2008, first published Macmillan 1961
[7] Devdutt Pattanaik, MYTH=MITHYA, A Handbook of Hindu Mythologies, p. xiii, Penguin, India 2006
[8] B.B. Lal, The Memoirs of an Archaeologist, p. 4, ‘The Yawning Gap and I’, Aryan Books International, New Delhi 2011.
[9] Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy, p. 57
[10] Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy, pp. 18-9.
[11] Animesh Rai, p. 8, The Legacy of French Rule in India, 1674-1954, IFP Publications, Hors Seris 8
[12] CBT New Delhi 1965, this edition 2006, pp. 38-9

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Healthy Tasty Cake! Multi-Grain, Beetroot Orange-Peel Cake

This recipe is an improvisation.

The author of the original is Nutan Pandit, whose Natural Childbirth Classes I attended in expectation of the arrival of my child. Among the many friends who had recommended these classes, Arpita Chatterjee clinched the issue by telling me about the wonderfully satisfying cakes that were served there. So, I went along, gratefully ate the cakes thoughtfully dished out to the legitimately hungry women (and their spouses), in between taking notes and practising the breathing and other exercises, and requested Nutan to share the recipe.

Of course, I had been baking much before I attended these classes. In fact, cakes and soups were probably the only categories of food that I was good at making. With the reputation of being ‘bright’ at studies, nobody seriously expected me to enter the kitchen, even when I had finished school and college. So it was that, when I got married fairly soon after I was officially bestowed a Bachelor’s Degree in Architecture, my list of culinary accomplishments was rather short. My mother-in-law skilfully parried queries from her relations and friends about my abilities at making ‘sukto’, malai chingri’, alu-posto and other such Bengali delicacies, by elaborating on the range and quality of these two items that I could produce.

My cakes though good to eat, were the conventional butter-sugar-egg variety. Even though my Turkish friend, Gulfer Badak, a fellow-student at the Master of Arts Degree in Architectural Conservation in Leicester, regularly conjured up incredibly light and fluffy cakes in her house, I only-half believed her when she said she used yogurt. It was the cake at Nutan Pandit’s, which punctuated each two-hour class for the four-day sessions over the three-weeks of the Course, that led me to the alternatives of oil, curd and jaggery. Since then, I have become so much bolder in my experiments, that this recipe may not be easily recognisable as an off-shoot of the ones she served.

The two or three main ingredients that mark out my cakes – orange-peel, beetroot and the multi-grain flour mix – are small but key variations. In fact, the grated orange peel, which is the really brilliant part of the recipe, is not really my idea, but a contribution of my mother’s. It gives a fresh and lingering flavour, and also satisfies my concerns about reducing litter by usefully consuming the peel, which otherwise ends up in the waste-bin. If oranges are one of your favourite fruits, as they are ours, you will know what I mean. We hand-grind or grate fresh orange peel practically every day in the winters, and my cook is really pleased when the orange-season ends. My mother also dries orange peel and powders them, for use when fresh oranges are not available. 

As for the combination of various flours, I have hit upon it by dint of good intentions and bad planning. My bid to make each mouthful of the cake as wholesome and delicious as possible for my small and fastidious daughter, is coupled with an inherent reluctance to stick to strict instructions, and an impulsive temperament. So, when the wish to bake suddenly catches hold of me (as it often does), and I discover I am out of some standard ingredients; I happily search for an alternative in the kitchen. The addition of popped amaranth seeds (also called ramdana, chaulai dana) to the recipe, was the outcome of one such sudden baking effort.

Apart from various sorts of seeds and flours, I have also (with varying degrees of success) added to the cake-mixture, fruits and vegetables in season – grated beetroot/carrot, finely chopped apricot/mango, mashed bananas/dates/figs. I like to keep processed food-items to the minimum, which is why I do not as a rule add any essence or flavour. Freshly grated ginger (or even its dried and powdered form, saunth) and the addition of orange/lemon peel are healthy substitutes. Beetroot gives a rather delicious deep colour and texture, especially in combination with Madua (millet)[1] or Bhatt flour. So much so, that I had a hard time convincing my aunt’s neighbour when he dropped in on a cold night in December just in time to sample the freshly-baked cake for my cousin’s birthday, that it did not have any chocolate in it.

I had been toying with the idea of writing my version down, owing to the rather gratifying response that my experiments generally receive. My strictly vegetarian grandmother is pleased with the curd version of this recipe, since she does not eat eggs in any form. Indeed, visits to Dehra Dun to my extended family, are ritually accompanied by the carrying of home-made cakes to my grandmother, aunts and uncles, and a demonstration baking event at my eldest aunt’s house. Despite this, Saroj Mausi still calls up every other month to refresh her memory about the ingredients and the process, owing not entirely to her habit of writing down recipes (along other useful things such as important telephone numbers, details of art and craft that attract her attention, grocery lists etc.) on sundry scraps of paper. My tendency of constantly experimenting with the proportion and kinds of ingredients, and presenting her with a different sort of cake on each visit may also have something to do with her queries.

But the immediate provocation for noting down this recipe was the completely flattering request by my daughter’s good friend, Aniva Rao, who asked me if I would teach her to cook when she grew up, so that she could enter TV Cooking Contests. This, to someone who has been the subject of hysterical banter in the family when it comes to any domestic duties, was too good to be true. So, I decided to write this down before she changed her opinion.

1 ½ cups atta (wheat flour); ¼ cup madua (finger millet, also known as raagi, nachni); ¼ cup sooji
(If you do not have madua, you can replace it with black bhatt or soya flour – as I did on a midnight baking session in December at Saroj Mausi’s – or popped amaranth seeds; or if you want a slightly denser cake even with jhingora/jhangora [2](barnyard millet). If you do not have any of these or merely want to play it safe, stick to 2 cups atta. The addition of more than ¼ cup of madua/jhingora/ bhatt, will make the cake a little too heavy.)
1 tsp cinnamon/green cardamom powder (The cinnamon/ green cardamom powder can be expanded to include powdered nutmeg and cloves.)
1 ½ tsp soda bi carbonate
½ tsp baking powder[3]
a pinch of salt
MIX WELL TOGETHER (I sieve these four to five times)
2/3 cup oil (sesame oil) (I used refined oil according to Nutan's recipe, but I have now stopped using refined oil completely in my kitchen; you can substitute the oil with white cow's milk butter too)
2 cups red sugar/grated gur (if you are out of these, and want to use ordinary white sugar, reduce quantity to 1 and 1/2 cups)
Grated orange peel/powdered Orange peel (approximately 3 tb.sps)
1 peeled and finely grated beetroot
1/2 cup hot water (add ½ tsp grated ginger for extra flavour) 
3 eggs or 1 cup curds (the Curd version should be more of a ‘dripping’ consistency than with the eggs.)
(Some of my friends swear by the 'cut and fold' technique with a spoon for the final mixing, though the chef at a demonstration baking session at ATTIC last Christmas claimed that the best way is to vigorously mix in a circular motion with a ladle or your hand. I use a combination, depending on what the size of the vessel I have chosen, allows.)

Ladle in to a greased baking dish – I have lately started using a lovely black earthenware dish from Kerala, courtesy Veni Mathew, a Kumaoni friend married into a Malayalee family. It is traditionally used to cook fish-curry or rice. But it works well as a baking dish too!
I generally bake in a pre-heated electric oven (25 minutes 220 degree, 25 minutes low (160 degrees); if you have a Gas oven, bake for 1 hour.

I sprinkle posto khus (poppy seeds) or brown til (sesame seeds) on top of the mixture for a light crunchy top, as the fancy takes me. Go ahead, try it. 
And feel free to improvise.

[1] A friend and fellow-architect, Siddhartha Misra told me that the origin of Millets is attributed to Vishwamitra, the king who became a sage. Through great tapasya, Vishwamitra gained the power to make counterparts to the Lord’s creations. These were aimed at the needs of the poor, such as the lumbering buffalo in response to the revered and deified cow and bull, and the hardy millets in response to water-intensive grains such as wheat and rice. Despite being less resource intensive and easier to cultivate and rear, these were never accorded a similar status by the higher caste-Hindus. Indeed, they are still looked down by many, (including my family) being branded as ‘poor man’s food’. Rotis made of madua, rich in calcium and other nutrients, were traditionally part of the staple diet in many parts of India, including my part of the country - the mountains of Kumaon and Garhwal in Uttarakhand.
[2] Jhingora or Jhangora is a specialty of Uttarakhand; it is generally cooked with milk as a kheer, but can also be eaten in a salty form, as an upma.
[3] A friend who bakes frequently, cautioned me about the health implications of additives in baking powder. I am not certain whether baking powder should be entirely replaced with soda bi carbonate, but I found these two sites useful: