As India turns 75, a look-back at the defining cultural moments that shaped it
What have been the most compelling works in the arts and in literature in India in the last 75 years? The anniversary gives us a chance to consider the question anew, but the answer is more difficult to arrive at than we assume. After all, we love our cultural icons much more than we do their work.
Anyway, the question is too general and, as a result, unwieldy. Let me narrow it down. Before doing so, let me also say that I think the idea of ‘Independence’ as a break and catalyst in our modernity is of limited use. Many of the greatest shifts and innovations in culture took place well before Independence, in the 19th century: it was then that the sphere of culture – of poetry, dance, fiction, art, the classical genres, cinema – began to be formulated as a domain of freedom and unpredictability. It was then – and not after Independence – that we became either citizens or daydreamers, or both. I would roughly, perhaps tendentiously, date the moment of citizenship, at least in Bengal, to 1828, to the formation of the Brahmo Samaj, and daydreaming to 1860, to the composition of the Meghnadabadhakabya by Michael Madhusudan Dutt and Hutom Pyachar Naksha by Kaliprasanna Sinha. Since then a hundred and sixty years have passed. Others will date these moments differently; but, whatever their dates might be, they will predate Independence. I see the legacy of those traditions of citizenship on the one hand and daydreaming on the other carried forward well after Independence to, at least, the late 1970s. In the ’80s, another break or fissure, more significant than Independence, begins to appear, to do with the onset of globalisation and the free market, the ascendancy of English, the creation of a neoliberal elite, and the gradual rise of the Right. All of these were formalised in India in 1991 by both economic deregulation and the assault on the Babri Masjid. Whether, since 1991, we have been ‘free’ – in our dreams, our imagination, and our thoughts and actions – is moot.
What is border post 918 which provides shade to both India and Pakistan?
We were at the Suchetgarh border post on the India-Pakistan border in Jammu. Driving fast through rice fields alongside village homes, the fact that we had arrived at one of the highest militarised zones in the world had taken me by surprise, the only indicator had been the high, elaborate fence we drove along for some distance. For all present, it seemed like a picnic with a dash of pride, everybody was taking pictures, posing and reposing.
Seven decades since Independence, it’s high time our films reflected gender parity, a crucial cornerstone of a just society
Let me tell you about a brand new rom-com which I quite enjoyed. Wedding Season, directed by Tom Dey, is about a personable pair of desis in New Jersey, looking for their dream partner just so they can get their pushy parents off their back. When Asha and Ravi meet, it’s cute. Strike one. Going by standard rom com rule number two, they have to be oblivious of each other’s charms to begin with, which these two, well played by Suraj Sharma and Pallavi Sharda, duly comply with.
What do birds and beasts make of freedom?
Many years ago, at a bird-ringing camp, I remember holding a little bird (I have even forgotten what species), that had been caught in the mist net, ringed and was now ready for release. I held my cupped palms upwards, opened them and with a whirr and a squeak (of delight?), the little bird took off to freedom, taking and freeing a little bit of myself with it. There is really no way to describe the uplifting feeling. Of course, it also made me feel smugly virtuous for the rest of the day! It made me understand why wild animal rescuers are often in tears when they release their wards (even snakes) back where they belong – never to see them again. Of course, politicians do this with white doves all the time – but for venal reasons. Others buy captive birds like (often garishly dyed) munias and release them en masse but this is to buy the approval of the Gods and only leads to the capture of more such birds (so they can be bought and freed).
India still fails its women, 75 years after Independence
In just a few hours from now, independent India will be 75 years. The nation will, as usual, have the traditional official celebrations. But the truth is that we are jaded, the miracle of freedom no longer dazzles us. For those of us who saw the British flag come down and the Indian flag take its place, these are disquieting times. Times of evading the truth, of evading reality. We celebrate our Independence, but we have edged out the story of Partition. Is it intentional amnesia? Or have we truly forgotten it? True, humans can forget what they want to in a heartbeat. But Partition is the Siamese twin of our freedom. It was the price we paid for freedom, the price that was paid by people who lost the homes they had lived in for generations only because of a line drawn on a map.
What three letters, part of the Lahore Conspiracy Case, will be part of an updated Bhagat Singh Reader?
The completion of 75 years of Independence is a good time to recall Bhagat Singh, the iconic hero of India’s freedom struggle who has been frequently invoked by political parties of late, although often without sufficient knowledge of — and respect for — his true revolutionary ideals.
The last time the great personalities of the Independence Movement were celebrated at a scale somewhat approximating the current one was in 2007, the year in which five national anniversaries were observed — 150 years each of the First War of Independence and the birth of Lokmanya Tilak; 60 years of Independence; and 75 years of the death and 100 years of the birth of Bhagat Singh.
How childhood friends and stories of Partition rekindle a hope and make us determined to blur the lines that divide us
Sonam Kalra is a friend who goes back to some of my earliest childhood memories. I remember how our grandfathers would take us swimming and, afterwards, order cheese sandwiches and potato chips for us. Together, we led the morning assembly with songs of national unity at Modern School, in Delhi’s Vasant Vihar, for more years than either of us would care to count. We were out of touch for years once we began our adult lives, save a meeting here or there that would last only a few minutes but that would bring out our love and admiration for each other and give us a quick moment to catch up. Three decades later, we have both gotten to the place professionally where we have found our calling and where leaving a legacy behind is what drives our engines.
Seven artists, over seven decades, interpreting India since Partition
Satish Gujral, Partition series, ’40s-50s
The catastrophe of the Partition is well-documented and Satish Gujral was a witness to the bloodshed and violence that accompanied it. Born in Jhelum in 1925, as a young child he accompanied his father in helping refugees relocate to India, and the trauma he experienced was to influence his art forever. “Partition is close to my heart and what I witnessed remained with me and was reflected in my work. Art was a medium to express that turmoil,” stated Gujral in an interview to The Indian Express in 2010. The painful memories led to several acclaimed works in the ’40s and ’50s, including Days of Glory (1952-86) with its huddled and helpless protagonists seated in isolation, and The Despair (1954), a dark depiction that portrayed loss through its wailing subjects.