Decades between a full circle/ Sumati Mehrishi

Sumati Mehrishi compares and contrasts two life-altering decades — 1900-1910 and 2000-2010 as experts comment on how India shaped its legacy. 

They did not have a bean bag to recline on, a sleek TV fixed on the wall to gaze at, or a bowl of hot and crisp corn popped in an imported microwave oven on their laps for living expensive indolence during their youth. They were born in the late 19th century, and like their contemporaries who lived their youth in the first decade of 1900s, Ajit Singh, Bhagat Singh courageous uncle and a lesser known Bankey Dayal were fighting issues of the Indian tax payer who was reeling under the repressive agro-economic laws, the imperialist plunder and its devouring outcome — the famines in British India.

Then and now

At 25, Ajit Singh was busy consolidating trusted lieutenants for a desired repeat of the 1857 mutiny to mark the 50 years of India’s first struggle for freedom. And Bankey Dayal, in the same year gave us the popular song, “Pagdi Sambhal Jatta”.

Interestingly, exactly 100 years later, in the independent, 21st century India, our country woke up to a “revolution” that began in the reel and permeated into the real. Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s riveting work, a film Rang De Basanti, a film about a bunch of young people who resist the corrupt government after the death of their pilot friend in a Mig-21 fighter aircraft crash, faced tough resistance from the  Defense Ministry. Towards the end in the film, four people — male actors playing revolutionary characters Chandreshekhar Azad, Ram Prasad Bismilh, Ashfaqullah Khan, Raj Guru in their friend’s documentary on freedom struggle, turning to guns and giving their lives to get their message across. The film proved that youth power burnt in embers.
Rang De Basanti achieved what dead pan text books and documentaries on the national network over three decades could not. It helped ignite the “fire in belly” among the non political comfy Indian youth. In no time, there was a wave of courage across a part of the middle class youth. Egged on by the film and its emotions, no one (thankfully) took guns in hand against the system. Instead, they picked candles marches and brave protests against cases of injustice and bad government policies between 2006 and 2008, with more intensity than ever.
Today, when the decade is ending, the Indian youth is back in its comfy drawing. Kamlesh Pandey, who had written the story for Rang De Basanti back in the 1980s, is not surprised at this over-all fizzing out of nationalist enthusiasm. He says, “India’s youth have little interest in the matters of the country. It was the same situation even when Rang De Basanti was made and released. I am happy the film could help ignite some enthusiasm in young minds, but I feel sad when I compare the 21st century kids with my contemporaries. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, people were far more aware of the nation’s problems. They participated more.”

The spark

The 1900s were entirely different. In the first decade, a middle aged Lala Lajpat Rai’s could give shivers to the likes of Viceroy Lord Minto and then India Minister in Britain Lord Macaulay  — who had feared a mass movement steaming, yet again under a mature and middle aged Rai. There were a number of activities and movements launched between 1906 and 1910 by the youth, which the British Government preferred calling “terrorist activities”. This brought about the introduction of suppressing acts to prevent “seditious meetings”, “explosive substance” from disrupting the Rule. There was the Newspaper / Press Act towards the end of the first decade in the 1900s to curb the print. Today, there are attempts to gag the press. On the other hand there are cadres involved in fighting the Indian state. Not outside rulers or outside powers.

Vidhu Varma, a professor at the School of Social Sciences JNU tries drawing a parallel. She says, “In terms of resistance to the state, we have the Naxalite violence today. But if you look back, the Colonial State was very coercive, but it was also facing the terrorist groups. And these were all groups of young men. There was a youth which was getting involved against the colonial state, where as today, there is no comparative youth movement. Our youth are involved in campus politics, aligned to political parties, which are very much part of the establishment. We don’t see a larger civil society movement like you see in UK today where students are revolting against the fee hike. Here it is the issue of reservation which will bring the middle class youth on the streets. So we really don’t see a kind of resistance to the state. Back then the movements decided which route Bhagat Singh would take. “

The factions

There is revolution, but in patches and characteristically, politically aligned. And like in the previous century, when religious and communal sentiment was on the pitch, revolution at the campuses today is conveniently – Red or Green or Saffron. Today, there are communally driven people who, the government addresses as terrorists. 2000-2010 have been and seen a mish mash. Where as 1900s saw a few historical watershed events. 1905 saw the partition of Bengal, which the Hindus in Bristish India strongly agitated against, 1906 — the formation of the All India Muslim League and 1907, a formal, inevitable split between the so called moderates and the extremists. The national movement got shaped, segregated into distinct and marked identities and ideologies.
Najaf Haider, faculty, Centre of Historical Studies, JNU feels there is a strong similarity in the two decades in respect with how religion is “empirically tested”. He says, “It’s only a hunch — I feel religion is on test today as well. The Muslim line of argument in the 1900s was that Hindus and Muslims are two separate communities which cannot co-exit. They not only had a strong difference in opinion, they were entirely opposite, almost antagonistic.”

In the wake of the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid judgement, would the nation have seen a different reaction from Muslims had the Muslim League been active today? Haider answers, “Back in the 1900s, the Muslims were driven more by a pan Islamist feeling than ‘nationalism’. They came as a single political force. Unlike today — when a single national party representing Muslims doesn’t really exist, yet the Muslims feel disgruntled. Even at a pocket borough like Aligarh, a decade ago or two, there wasn’t a movement worth remembering regarding the Babri Masjid issue. Kabhi nahin lagaa ki koi bade hawaa beh rahee ho. Perhaps the Muslim League would have failed to resurrect the issue the same way like the BJP has during this decade and the previous.”
The 1907 was the year of split between the so called extremists and the moderates. Varma adds,“ In the 100 years, the whole idea of social reform, which happened at that platform where a split took place between the so called moderates and the extremists, we realise that the social reform has matured, it has had various phases, permutations. Today we are looking at economic liberalization and the larger concern about the social sector. There’s a larger concern about the ‘citizen’. Because, back then, we were subjects of the Bristish Empire, so our vocabulary was different. But today, we are talking about expanding the social rights of the citizen. We are looking more into the social sector. Things like who is intervening? Who is taking charge of the social sector etc.”

Seeds of change

In 1904, seeds were sown for the Dravidian Movement in Kasi, where Periyar EV Ramasamy felt the need to rise up to the cause of the non Brahmins after he was humiliated and stopped from having meals at one of the community food stalls. Ramasamy, a congressman, left the party for its pro Brahmin policies in1925 and began the Self Respect movement. He performed a Satyagrah in Kerala and floated the Justice Party in 1939, which later branched out to a bigger cult and party – the present day Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) steered by M Karunanidhi.
Irrespective of the DMK’s success down South, it is important to note that the last decade has been remarkable in the way the backward social groups have risen to their cause and reported caste related atrocities across the nation. “Things are changing but some things are continuing to be the same — it’s happening simultaneously. Caste atrocities in this decade have been reported. There are people who want to uplift the under privileged, the low castes. But the tragedy during this decade is that unlike EV Ramasamy Periyar’s agitation against Brahminism in Tamil Nadu 50 years ago, a bunch of leaders today have no sincerity in getting the society rid of the caste system. They have to realise that the solution is equality and not politics over caste.”
Also, this decade has seen the triumph of Dalit leaders, who have been believed to cash on the cause of the weaker sections through electoral gains. The most laughable, ironical outcome of this selfish approach from a bunch of leaders and local politicians across the country — the Muslims throughout the country have been divided into Dalits and non Dalits — segregation on the basis of occupation and birth Islam doesn’t allow or suggest. As a result, Haider adds, “At the The Sachar report says that Muslims in India are more backward than Dalits. The situation is bad in semi uban and rural areas. There’s a baffling socio economic gap within the Muslims of our country.”

Business bees

Varma points out that the two decades have been important in terms of rise of the business families and corporate groups. She says, “In the 1900s, there were only a few business groups. In 100 years, the corporate sector has expanded, and we see that they are interlocked with politicians; the recent scams show how the groups are involved in surveillance and spying activity. The corporate sector has played a very important role. At the same time it is employing every possible means to stay up and try to negotiate with the state.”

Singh feels that the use of resources and its impact on the environment have been big issues in this decade. He says, “The awareness regarding global warming was there in the previous decades as well. But the human induced impact on the environment and the changes it’s bringing to the environment, like cloud bursts in Leh, is what makes this decade very different from the previous ones.”
According to Varma, the 1900s saw the rise of civil society organizations, something very similar to what happened in the 21st century India. “There were more organizational forms coming in the 1900s and we can compare it with the first decade of the 21st century when the civil society organizations are well established. The NGOs have been playing a very important role. In fact, we are seeing there are various criticisms being mounted on NGOs and the need for relooking at the social sector.”

Indentity Inc

In 1901, the first Census of India was conducted under the guidance of Sir Herbert Hope Risley. The next census of this century is round the corner. But the most interesting phenomenon to hit the Indian society is the Unique Identity number, a technological tool envisaged for the “aam aadmi”. Is the codification similar to what the Bristish had tried? Varma says, “The state would like to codify, classify citizens. Risley and the other administrators were trying to do something very similar. They were trying to figure out the caste background. They had an interest of ‘control’. They wanted to manage the society better, so they thought they should understand it first. The urge for information was very much part of the colonial state. There was a desire to rule better. Today, the Indian state is trying to do the same thing. And we are very generous about it and saying that we want I Cards and we have access to public goods. However, the state will also learn to classify us.”

There are citizen support groups protesting against the codification. Gopalkrishna, member, Citizen Forum for Civil Liberties says, “The Unique Identity project is a measure to dehumanize Indians. It is turning India into a surveillance state on connivance with the U.S.A. I am afraid it will make us feel like we were born in Nazi Germany. It is a measure to create a common land market. There is a greed for policing and intelligence, in this DNA profiling. We are being treated like guinea pigs for an experiment which hasn’t been carried out anywhere else in the world. It will turn India into a property based democracy.”

Varma adds, “Today, we have the Youth For Equality group which addresses social problems but it has a class based arguments and it’s not something which takes the youth across the board. It seems to pop up only during the election time. We as students were part of the anti dowry, anti sati movements. All these social evils are still there, but there is a larger acceptance, owing to a consumerist middle class which has come up owing to the economic liberalization, I think we are less critical of social issues against women. However we have a civil society active against cases like the Jessica Lal muder case, and the Ruchika molestation case.”

Bedroom and beyond

The society has seen a whole lot churning in social and family values. The television has brought about a lot change. There are a lot of channels that are pushing people back to superstition and negative old time beliefs. People are talking about sexuality more loudly, about sex life more graphically today. There are pubs and coffee houses, where women are turning out — like never before.  Over a cuppa or a vodka they are aggressively spilling out from their grape wines – things about sex, beauty treatments, expensive holidays, social networking, changing partners and about lying to parents over the phone. Leading advertisement film maker Prahlad Kakkar adds, “The new mantra today is kambal mein mangal. Every one likes discussing what’s happening under the sheets, happily. Look at the condom and deodorant advertisements. They tells you the story. It’s out of fashion to be sush-hush about personal details. If you take me to the 1900s, I will be happy going back. There was something so beautiful about romance back then. Today people just know how to get laid.”


Seven years before the very coveted role of the youngest of the three Bengali goon brothers  Mikhail, in genius Vishal Bhardwaj’s film Kaminey fell into his hands, Chandan Roy Sanyal was just another struggling migrant to Mumbai. Hoping to fit into the stifling Hindi film industry, Sanyal had moved to Mumbai from Delhi in year 2000, leaving his father to tinker and repair people’s fax machines for a living at the latter’s shop at Karol Bagh. In his pocket, Sanyal had carried “some money for survival” and a pager — the telecommunication messenger device which he primarily used for keeping in touch with a girl friend from Delhi University.

He says, “The pager was a wonderful thing. Cute and spunky nick names of the senders would appear on the screen. At one message from my girl friend, I would rush to the nearest phone booth and give her a call. The pager had its limitations but it still felt very ‘personal’. 9628252447. I still remember the number,” he adds.

In a decade’s time, things have totally changed for Sanyal. He uses a mobile phone. He reflects the way an urban kid born in the late 20th century has lived in the last ten 10 years — surviving, crunched between deadlines and digital devices for communication and entertainment. Today, Sanyal even endorses a mobile service company. In this particular ad series, Sanyal comes across as a generous Romeo, lends his phone over to girl friends for long conversations without a squeak or worries over his phone bill, selling unbelievably elastic talk plans from the brand.

Tele communication devices have entirely changed the way we lived. They nibble into our family time, distract us over work, we refuse to leave them outside the bedroom, the lecture room or worse, the freshroom. These micro processors did not fall upon us overnight. The seeds for these technologies were sown in the first decade of the 1900s, in Europe, of which the British India had received only a newsy whiff.

Shobhit Mahajan, professor of Physics and Astrophysics, Delhi University, feels that the first decade of the 1900s was certainly amongst the most productive revolutionary decades in the sciences. He says, “It was the decade where we saw the flowering, the introduction of two big theories in physics – the theory of Relativity by Einstein and the idea of quantum mechanics. Quantum Mechanics. The latter wasn’t totally developed in the decade. The importance of these two theories is not just in the filed of physics. You cannot imagine the modern information technology or communication without quantum mechanics.”

According to Mahajan, the whole theory of quantum mechanics was laid out over the next two decades. This helped in development in electronics, semi conducters, super conducters, computers, tele communication. “There are many things we take for granted today, which are the hallmarks of modern technological society, and would not have been possible without quantum mechanics. The first decade of the 1900s was really revolutionary in the sense that after Galileo, nothing really happened in the world view of nature, nothing really substantive happened fundamentally between Aristotle, Copernicus and Galileo. Here, essentially Galileo brought a whole new way of looking at nature, and the universe. And this was another paradigm shift, a revolutionary break. One which dismissed the idea of absolute motion and rest and hence a privileged position to the observer himself.”

In 1905, a leading German language physics journal Annalen der Physik published four of Einstein’s “revolutionary” papers. The year became to be known as the “miracle year” for the scientist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1921 for his services to theoretical physics. Especially, for his contribution to theories related to the photoelectric effect, which deals with the thermal property of light.

Though the early 19th century Europe had seen many landmark inventions taking place, like the stethoscope, the sewing machine, the electromagnetic waves, the Braille printing for the blind, the typewriter and the electric dynamo, the first decade of the 1900s did see some inventions trickling in. In 1901, the first radio transmission across the Atlantic Ocean was successfully sent. The same year, primitive assembly line was first used by Ransome Eli Olds, an early car maker, who set the pace for the first conveyor belt based assembly line used by Henry Ford in his car factory in the Michigan plant in 1914.

In 1903, Willis Whitney invented a treatment for the filament so that it wouldn’t darken the inside of a glowing bulb. The same year, the Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville flew their flyer, a fabric covered biplane, the propellers of which were supplied by a 12 horse power water cooled engine. The Wright Flyer flew for 12 seconds to 120 feet.  The same decade saw the invention of the tungsten bulb, by William David Coolidge who made the filament lasted longer than the older ones used. This bulb ignited a revolution of sorts. Then, Rayon was first commercially produced by an America based company. Bakelite, the inexpensive, nonflammable very useful and popular kind plastic used in engine parts, radio boxes and switches and other objects was invented in 1907 and cellophane, the thin transparent waterproof protective film in 1908.

What makes the 1900s so special? Mahajan smiles, “There is a difference between the first two decades of these two centuries. The fields of enquiry are somewhat different. In the first decade of the previous century, the fundamental questions in science were in physics, microscopic physics, sub microscopic physics — like why atoms behave in a certain way. Now the focus has shifted to something very different  — to broadly speaking — ‘complex systems’. These systems are not meant for simple minded understanding. The behaviour of these large conglomerations is qualitatively different. It is where the action will continue to be in the nest few decades. It is completely fine to say that I know how a hydrogen atom works, but I still don’t understand how things flow.”
What are the things that changed the way people lived in the first ten years of the 20th century? Leading ad film maker Prahlad Kakkar feels the innovations in telecommunications between 2000 and 2010 have completely made us dependent on technology. “I cannot imagine living a single day without the cell phone. You take it away from me and I won’t know what to do. Then the cable less network system is something totally amazing.”

Apart from portable media players, smart phone device solutions and other unthinkable concepts, minimalist eco friendly laptops, there are other wonders that happened to us in the beginning of this century.  These include a date rape drug spotter invented by Francisco Guerra in 2002 and a Birth control patch invented by Ortho McNeil Pharmaceutical in the same year. There’s the sixth sense computer technology, in which computers respond to digital hand gestures. It has seeped into the home appliances industry and ensures you don’t move even your knuckles or fingertips to get domestic chores finished, forget moving the butt.

As opposed to the usage of the primitive assembly line in the first decade of the previous century, the West got the Hybrid car and the Ice Bike in the 2000s.

Then there is the YouTube, which saves you from living a bad sex day or a bad hair day. For the uninitiated, the YouTube helps you surf for videos uploaded by experts and amateurs across the globe on topics ranging from “how to kiss” and “how to French kiss” to “how to get the right batter consistency for cake” to “how to tie a baby sling’ and “how to knit loops into a needle with wool”. It also gives you the rarest of gems from John Lennon or Manna Dey with lyrics, original videos and sometimes visuals of flowers and rainbows clicked from a stranger’s digital camera.  Bump into spoofs, steamy political speeches, Zidane’s head butt and the Harbhajan Singh-Symonds spat on this wonderful invention of 2005.

Then, there is the microelectronic retinal implant invented towards the end of this decade – a breakthrough which helps restore vision to patients “with age-related macular degeneration and blindness” – all with a microchip that will transfer information from a camera on glasses via the chip to the brain.

The 2000s gave us things unimaginable. Yet, Mahajan thinks the first decade of the 1900 was more remarkable in terms of invention. He says, “I don’t think anything close to what happened in that decade has happened in the years between 2000 and 2010. Of course there have been far reaching technological advances. But there hasn’t been any fundamental development in this decade. Yes, there has been the human genome project, the first time we had a partial view of what he human genetic make up all about, what human life is made of. We have had developments in the field of bio technology.  We now know the genome of including many organisms including the chimpanzee.”

He adds, “We use biotechnology to use drugs. We are also trying to understand how cells work at the molecular level etc. And yet, there is so much left to be known.” According to Mahajan there is a bunch of questions unanswered in many fields. Like? “In the field of biology, we don’t know how the proteins fold and they function essentially. We don’t know how the metabolic networks in a cell work.  We don’t know how life started – whether it was RNA or DNA or protein. In the field of physics there are lot many questions still unanswered. Cosmology is an open field. We still, for instance don’t know how to integrate quantum mechanics with gravity. We don’t have the theoretical tools to do that. This business of unified theory, where all the theories of physics will emanate from one theory, is still a far reached thing. It’s still a dream.”

It was mostly in Europe such enquiries happened. Europe was the centre of gravity back then for intellectual qualitative work in these fields. It’s the same even now. Mahajan adds, “Indians are not a major player in the frontiers of any field. Let’s face it. We rarely do we break new ground. We are only tinkering around. And there are lots of reasons for that. We aren’t producing people who can think out of the box. Why are we not producing people who can work in teams? Our education system positively discourages people from working in teams. Things like – a Newton or a Galileo sitting in his study in a candle light, working out things alone are long gone. It is more about collaborative effort in today’s age.”


No matter how strong and uprooting, communal disharmony in India has never really affected the bonhomie between artists of different faiths. The beginning of the 20th century, when the communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims were at their peak, there was a tectonic shift taking place in the field of Hindustani music. In Calcutta the seat of Hindustani music began inching towards Pathan gurus from North India. The gurus would usually tour and relocate themselves around music hubs. Today, Calcutta, the music hub has become sort of a Vanaprasth for gems like Girija Devi, the thumri maestro. The veteran, a Hindu from Benaras, is imparting music training in the traditional Guru Shishya parampara at the modern day gurukul , the ITC SRA Academy with legends like Ustad Rashid Khan, Ustad Sarwar Khan of sarangi and Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty.

In 1902, the first gramophone record of Hindustani music was introduced. This created the first ripples among the young aspiring lot of artistes settled in Gwalior and Calcutta to intensify their training to meet the “modern” standards of music. Incidentally, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, who had created a revolution with his studio recordings in the Pre Independence era in Pakistan, was born during this year.

Today, owing to technology and the change in listening patterns (people usually like music assorted and shuffled instead of buying raga specific, time specific albums) the recording companies’ interest in Indian classical music is facing a decline. There is music on the web which can be loaded by the niche section of music lovers. Recording brands are least interested in churning out new records and paying maestros for music which has limited or now “shelf life”.  Legends like Pandit Ranjan and Pandit Sajan Mishra are bluffed on the name of royalty. A few years a go they had received pay cheques of Rs 2.30 each. To counter this step motherly attitude from recording companies, a few artistes have come up with their own recording labels and home studios.

During the first decade of the 20th century, sarod had picked up as a very popular instrument. The concert format and structure was also attracting a lot innovative moves. The Madhya laya (a specific moderate tempo) was picking up as the standard pace for concerts and sarod has a lot to contribute in this regard. Today, it’s the Bangash lineage and people from the Maihar gharana who are taking the sarod forward with their experimentation by leaps and bounds. Ayaan and Amaan Khan, the poster boys of Hindustani music and sons of the illustrious world renowned maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan have taken the instrument to lounge music and apparel launches. “Today, I feel, we as a nation should be slightly more rewarding to young musician. Today a deserving sportsperson is honoured early in life. The same could be done for musicians.”

Raja Ravi Varma, the artist from Travancore died in 1906. The last decade saw India taking interest in the artist’s life – all because there was a film made on his life. The focus fell more on the hypothetical relationship he had with his muse than his art work. Also, today, you can find cheap imitations of Varma’s works in busy Chennai framing shops.
But during the last decade, Indians got noticed for their art and sculpture skills like never before. From New York to New Zealand, India born artist Anish Kapoor, who believes in Indian sensibilities and aesthetics to have given him the inspiration has turned the world into preening narcissists with his highly polished mirrors and inimitable pigment works. Kapoor is designing Orbit, a monumental tower at the 2012 London Olympics site. Then there is Subodh Gupta, who has seen his career surge during the last 10 years. A struggling unsure Bihari during the 1980s who had no takers for his art in Delhi, Gupta is the God of installation art work, a concept which soared owing to his success in the international art and auctions market.

Recently, his work Idol Thief went under the hammer for 1.08 at the SaffronArt auction. Though the top slots at auctions are reserved for milestones like Husain, Souza and Raza, there is the clutter and clamour of objects, from stainless steal utensils to flour and oil shoving aside conventional artworks. “Today the most unfortunate thing happening at the Indian art scene is the way people in India make stars out of a few artists. Also, there are a number of people who are making utter rubbish on the name of art and installation art.”