History is measured in centuries and eons, and going by such universal standards, ours is a very young country indeed. Yet the last seven decades of India’s existence as an independent, sovereign republic have been full of the ups and downs, the windfalls and mishaps, the great achievements and high tragedies that one only expects to find in epic historical narratives.
Another defining aspect of India’s recent history has to do with the country’s transformative prowess. Change, for better or for worse, has been part of our collective destiny for all these years. Our cities, as they stand today, all bustle and sprawl, are barely comparable to their past avatars. Even our towns and villages, while trying to hold on to some vestige of old identities and traditions, seemed to have welcomed the spirit of change, and have responded in their own, unique way to the great modernising wave that began to overrun post-Liberalisation India.
It’s doubtless our country’s cultural community — its exceptionally talented ranks of artists, poets, writers and filmmakers — that has proved to be the most sensitive, and most prescient, in picking up the national zeitgeist of the past seven decades. And it’s for that reason that we, at Guardian 20, have decided to celebrate India’s 70th year of Independence by turning our gaze towards the country’s cultural terrain.
In this issue we bring to you a variety of features, interviews and comments that touch upon the theme of Indian Independence. But above all, we put the spotlight on five of India’s most important cultural personalities — from the world of arts, literature and sports — and find out how they interpret the country’s past and to what extent they are able to predict its future course.
We have the artist Krishen Khanna, among the last remaining greats of Indian modernism, talking about how India can mean different things to different people, and how in this multiplicity of meanings might lie our country’s great strength. The poet and critic K. Satchidanandan develops this theme further, while highlighting the achievements of some of India’s greatest poets who managed to capture the national experience unconstrained by geographic of linguistic boundaries.
The renowned kathak maestro Pandit Birju Maharaj, who was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1986, shifts the focus on the state of performance arts in India, while reminiscing about the early days of Partition. And representing the world of contemporary music, we have Ehsaan Noorani, part of the celebrated Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy trio, discussing the ways pop music could be used to celebrate the idea
Rounding things up is the former cricketer Mohammad Kaif sharing his thoughts on some of the more memorable phases of the sport and looking back at the golden years of Indian cricket, which were also among the finest moments in Indian history.
‘Aritsts adore this country, and that’s why we are here’
After the British departed, we were left with a kind of British legacy and their teachings that were based on the Royal Academy of Britain — though I was never a student of it. But this big exhibition which took place post-Independence at Rashtrapati Bhawan shook everybody. It was a huge and wonderful exhibition. After this, Souza started painting pictures from Khajuraho and Husain was deeply interested in the same subject and did several drawings of Khajuraho based on the sculptures we saw at Rashtrapati Bhawan. This was taking the Indian tradition along or placing your work on that. But you can’t place your work on the idea of India in a sense that whatever you do is Indian.
When things or events happen, art doesn’t immediately emerge. These things build slowly but very permanently. That is what has happened in India. The best of Indian art has somewhere along the line is rooted in our own country’s heritage. There is also a great spirit of internationalism in art, and we are not left behind in that. We take cognizance of that. Right now I would say that Husain was very definitely a home-grown product and Raza as well, although Raza lived for years in Paris and he came back home and started painting a lot of tantric symbols. Freedom liberated us and we still want to preserve it.
The Bombay Progressive Artists group broke away from the sterile and fixed idea of what India was. That was the main thing it broke away from. They said that the group was Indian without knowing what India was. Actually India is a huge country with so many beliefs with so many people and ideas. You can’t just say that one particular idea reflects India. It is the same with the arts as well. The best of Indian art I think has related to the problems of this country and has reflected the problems of this country in myriad ways. We artists adore our country and that’s why we are here and that’s why Raza came back leaving a very lucrative position in Paris to be among his own people. But we must remember that India can’t be just one thing because there so many aspects to this country. The best we can do is to give everyone some breathing space, for living and working – that’s the best that can be done. I feel I have my space and I am blessed that I am able to do my work.
—As told to Bhumika Popli
‘India has changed over the years’
Pandit Birju Maharaj
I was born in 1938, so far back that I remember seeing British men in our country. Indians struggled hard to get Independence. During Partition, trains coming from Pakistan were all in blood. People were brought dead and pools of blood were everywhere. I heard all these stories from my family when I was young. When we got Independence, it was a time of glory and happiness. It was a time for change. So, India was eventually changing.
When it comes to the arts, I remember kathak dancers were amused to see when they were encouraged by British women to perform in front of them. After Independence, in Bombay, 8-10 music and dance programmes were held at a time, but with the advent of film music and ghazals, classical music’s influence was hampered a lot. Sometimes, classical singers were pushed to the peripheries and such changes were part of that time. I received many accolades, including the Padma Vibhushan in 1984 and I am still overwhelmed but awards are not everything to an artist. He also wants his voice to be heard. In a scenario where the artist’s demands are not fulfilled and the art is not well-received, there is not much use for such rewards. But ups and downs are part of any work you do.
Our society has changed a lot and Kathak has also changed over the years. It reached from the courtiers to the stage to the silver screen. Earlier, girls were not allowed to dance but I encouraged girls in my family to learn dance plus get education and be self-dependent. I would also like to urge the government to help those students financially who want to take this form further to the next level.
As for the term “Independence”: to me it is very beautiful and it means peace and happiness.
—As told to Preeti Singh
‘I’ve seen the Tricolour flying high at various venues across the world’
Indian cricket has undergone a big change from where we started years ago. Englishmen gave the sport to us. And back then, it was mainly Test matches and the longer format of the game that our team played.
Of course, cricket wasn’t as commercialised as it is now. People played the game because they had fun and enjoyed the game. And probably it’s the only sport we enjoyed the most initially. It wasn’t all about the money: my father also played this game, and he did so because he enjoyed and he loved the game. He had a passion for it. But for the younger generation, it’s more about getting the returns for the time you spend on it.
For us, it wasn’t an option to become a sportsperson. Remember the saying, “kheloge kudoge banoge kharab?” Now it is more about routines and spending time and investment money, and awaiting returns on an investment.
In 1983, when Kapil Dev was the captain, we had great players, like Nawab Patudi and others. They were great talents individually, but in ’83 we started winning as a team, as far as my memory goes. After the 1983 World Cup, things changed for Indian cricket. There was Gavaskar, while he played with Kapil Dev, in West Indies – going all the way to West Indies and beating them. They played really well.
Then, when Ganguly became the captain, the game went through another period of transition. Ganguly made a huge difference, and Sachin was always an inspiration because the way he played. He inspired the whole country.
They are the ones who inspired us to take up the sport and compete.
The Indian team has come a long way and our fans make it the biggest game in the world. I’ve seen the Indian flag flying high around the world, and I’ve fans from other countries also cheering for India. This really gave me great pleasure.
Thanks to our older generations of cricketers, we’ve come this far. And today, players like Kohli and Ashwin are setting a great example for youngsters. But the greatest motivation remain the fans: they are the ones show us the connection between the team and the country.
—As told to Anirudh Vohra
‘Celebrate the nation with music’
There was a very good time post-Independence, when lots of films and music were involved in creating certain kind of colloquial compositions and notes inside the country. So many songs they used in those films were based on the theme of Indian Independence and the people could connect to it. That, of course, is lacking today. I think films like Lagaan should be made more often. One needs to revisit this.
We need to compose more music that celebrates the idea of India, something like “Sabse Aage Honge Hindustani”. In terms of the music, though, there has been so much progress: there is classical music which Naushad used to compose, but now it has completely burgeoned. Due to globalisation, people have more options and can listen to different kinds of music.
What I feel is that there was a time when there was so much of solidarity and national pride; but nowadays I think, “Where has the national pride gone?” We need to have more unity as we have more people who are looking to cause fragmentation and disunity at every point — be it the Dalit issue or the issue of rapes going on now. There is so much negativity these days. We need to respect and uphold what our freedom fighters fought for. The point is, most of us are doing the opposite of what the founding fathers wanted.
I do think that music can help bring change and can carry a good message, but eventually it is up to the people.
—As told to Preeti Singh
‘Writers should be allowed to decide the limits of their own freedom’
India has changed for the better and for the worse, better because as long as we stuck to the basic constitutional principles of democracy — socialism and secularism — I think we were going ahead. But the arrival of neo-liberal economy and the loss of our secular ethos primarily in the state and partly in the civil society can be seen as among the major challenges our country is facing right now. By the loss of secularism I primarily mean the rise of Hindutva and the extremist execution of what is considered “Hindu” which I would not agree with; and in the neo-liberal economy the corporate players are having a heyday and our socialist program has completely been marginalised. These two I consider as the major problems that India is facing now.
Indian writing in English has passed through many stages. It is no more exotic and flowery as it used to be. Now it has become more realistic and experimental. It is coming closer and closer to India’s day-to-day life and reality, particularly in fiction. English poetry also has developed a new style which can be called a style of understatement. It is well-structured and it is very conscious of its tones and ways of expression. One can also say that a lot of Indian words, expressions and attitudes have been imbibed by the English writing which is distinctively Indian, so I would say it has come of age. Poets like Arun Kolatkar, A.K. Ramanujan, Adil Jussawalla and Kamal Azad have created a new kind of poetry which is based on Indian ethos, even though it is all in English.
Freedom ultimately has to come from within and I think only the writer should be allowed to decide the limits of his or her freedom, and any state, religious organisation or any other kind of agency shouldn’t decide for the writer. There are daring writers who are ready to speak truth against power, they will go on writing and you cannot kill them, like M.M. Kalburgi or Narendra Dabholkar were killed. You can argue with them. As recently the Madras High Court judge said in the Perumal Murugan case [author of the novel Madhorubhagan], “Well if you don’t like a book just don’t read it or if you have another point of view write another book.” I think that’s how civilization progresses.
—As told to Bhumika Popli