On Sahir and On Manwani’s Book

Rupen Ghosh is a Delhi-based retired government officer with a keen interest in arts and literature.

Rupen Ghosh

Reading Sahir Ludhianvi’s well-researched biography– Sahir: The People’s Poet by Akshay Manwani – with an in-depth analysis of his poetry and songs, translations of some of his finest works, what emerges apart from his being a people’s poet, a progressive poet, a powerful poet of dissent, reflecting the conscience of society, is someone who gave the film song an intellectual quotient, producing a philosophical train of thought even in lighter moments, someone who was the only lyricist succeeding on his own terms alone. His songs became popular entirely because of his powerful lyrics, his language, his vocabulary and his imagery.

The conventional thinking in film songs was that the primary factors for success were the rhythm and the tune. The words followed. The words were to somehow match the melody and the rhythm and not the other way around. That is the reason, composers reigned, even if someone were to resort to plagiarism, at times. Sahir was the only songwriter and lyricist for whom the songs succeeded on the merit of his words alone, on the power of his poetry. His words had a ‘persona of their own.’ The tune and the melody followed the lyrics in what was quite unprecedented, and his name appeared ahead of the composers, in the posters, so powerful were the lyrics and so mesmerised were the audience over Sahir’s poetry. For the first time, the composers had to take a back seat, and it underlined Sahir’s importance in the success of the films with which he was associated.


Sahir never compromised with his craft, being the only songwriter ‘whose poetry made its way into films in its purest form.’ The author writes, ‘so great was his stature as an Urdu poet that he never had to mould his poetry to suit the demands of song writing for cinema; instead, composers and producers adapted their requirements to his poetry. He never really learned the film medium and wrote what he felt’. His songs in films like Pyaasa, Naya Daur, Devdas, Hum Dono, Phir Subah Hogi, Mujhe Jeene Do are acknowledged classics, at least in so far as their music was concerned. He never cheapened his craft to write what would sell. Instead, he gave Hindi cinema a social, material and economic consciousness, and as a socially aware poet, stood up for those who were on the margins of the society, investing his songs with the pain of love and its associated moods. No one, not even the contemporary greats of his time, could come anywhere near him in investing songs with intellectual or philosophical strain, while retaining his basic values as a socially conscious poet, his poetry remaining a beacon of hope for the underprivileged and impoverished, and the socially disadvantaged. The hope and vision, even if Utopian, in Sahir’s words, ‘where no suffering exists, where people live happily, together we have to build that world. That dawn shall come. We must illuminate the darkness, we must usher in a better tomorrow.’

The author in the epilogue to his book, narrates an interesting but poignant story, which had a happy ending, like most of the Hindi films of that era or for that matter of any era. Let’s listen to the author: “Sometime in 1966-67, Sahir, his mother, his cousin and the noted writer Krishan Chander were travelling by car to Ludhiana. Somewhere near Shivpuri in MP, close to Gwalior, the car was stopped by dacoits. The leader of the pack, Maan Singh (who would surrender later in 1972 before JP Narayan, the Gandhian Sarvodaya leader), took all five, including the driver, captive.”

“A few years before the incident, Sahir had worked on the songs of a dacoit-drama Mujhe Jeene Do. Sunil Dutt played the protagonist, a dacoit (Jarnail Singh), who marries Chameli Jaan (Waheeda Rehman), who would sing and dance to entertain people, a profession considered disreputable. The two have a child. The female protagonist, anxious not to let her son follow in the dreaded Jarnail Singh’s footsteps, voices her concern, her plaintive cry, through these lines written by Sahir. Her concern was universal as a mother, anxious to ensure a better and safe future to her child, while the fear existed that as a bandit’s son (even if the bandit wants to reform himself and surrender), the nemesis could catch up one day.”

Tere bachapan ko jawani ki duaa deti hun
Aur duaa deke pareshaan si ho jaati hun

Mere munne mere gulazaar ke nanhe paudhe
Tujh ko haalat ki aandhi se bachaane ke liye
Aaj main pyaar ke aanchal mein chhupaa leti hun
Kal ye kamazor sahara bhi na haasil hoga
Kal tujhe kaanton bhari raah pe chalana hoga
Zindagaani ki kadi dhup men jalanaa hoga

Tere bachapan ko jawani ki duaa deti hun
Aur duaa deke pareshan si ho jati hoon.

“The dacoits, as the story goes, had seen the film. The song, deeply poignant with heart-wrenching lyrics that were to make most eyes moist, was close to their hearts because it aptly mirrored their own struggles. On realising that the man they held captive was the writer of this song, they let go of them free. When Maan Singh got to know who Sahir was, ‘Unhey izzat se jaaney do (let them go peacefully). Even dacoits approved of him.” They had heard of this most poignant ode to motherhood to which they could all relate.” Even if the film was quite indifferent and was a disappointment with comic interludes forcibly thrown in to enhance its commercial appeal which spoiled the aesthetics and the seriousness of the story the film was trying to convey, the silver lining was by way of its music.

The music by Jaidev and Sahir’s poetry were transcendental and divine. So were Lataji’s vocals, which in melody and the sense of pathos and helplessness, had no parallel. We don’t get to hear such music and melody and such poetic brilliance these days. Times have really changed!

No one could have been more philosophical or melancholic than him, more self-deprecating.

Main Pal Do Pal Ka Shaayar hoon, pal do pal meri kahaani hai.
Pal do pal meri hansti hai, pal do pal meri jawaani hai
main pal do pal ka shaayar hoon.

mujhse pahale kitne shaayar aaye aur aakar chale gaye,
kuchh aahein bharkar laut gaye, kuchh nagme gaakar chale gaye.
Woh bhi ek pal ka qissa tha, main bhi ek pal ka qissa huun
Kal tumse juda ho jaa’uunga, jo aaj tumhaara hissa huun

kal aur aayeinge nagmon ki, khilti kaliyaan chunnevaale
mujhse behatar kahanevaale, tumse behatar sunnevaale
kal koi mujhko yaad kare, Kyon koi mujhko yaad kare
masaruuf zamaana mere liye, kyon waqt apna barbaad kare

Or this philosophical profoundness ..

Duniya ke tajurbaat-o-havaadis
ke shakl mein
Jo kuch mujhey diya hai,
lauta raha hoon main……



The Sunday Book Bazaar and a chance sighting of Ghalib

Rupen Ghosh is a Delhi-based retired government officer with a keen interest in arts and literature.

Rupen Ghosh

In one of my now rare visits to the Daryaganj Sunday book bazar, my eyes fell, to my immense joy and bewilderment, on an amazing biography of Ghalib – Mirza Ghalib: A Biographical Scenario by Gulzar. Ghalib’s fondness for old Delhi and its lanes and bylanes was legendary. It was as if Ghalib came alive for a moment, I thought.

It is not a conventional biography that we come to associate with the life and times of someone great and famous, but it is in the form of a biographical scenario, and is an extremely important historic and literary document. Following no chronology or dates and events, it is more of an anecdotal nature, its easy conversational style makes it highly interesting to read. Written so endearingly by Gulzar, who made that highly sensitive serial on Ghalib in the eighties, making the great poet a household name in the subcontinent in the process.

Before we start with Ghalib, a few words about the Delhi’s book bazaar in the oldest part of the city, which no bookworm could afford to miss. Some rare gems, some vintage books, now out of print, some amazing books that we can add to our collections, all coming at throwaway prices, that is so unbelievable, but true. Nowhere in the city, one could find such a vast collection of books, not that one can remember in our living memory, thousands of them, rather millions of them, the place overflowing with books, used and second-hand mostly.

This book-laden lane, with a run-down look, often dusty, decrepit and heavily crowded on Sundays, which starts from Delite Cinema with endless rows of stalls of books of all kinds, and ends near Golcha Cinema, has been part of the culture of old Delhi for the last thirty years or even more. While all other shops stay closed on Sundays, the pavement bazaar, sprawled across the busy lane running parallel to Netaji Subhas Marg in Daryaganj comes alive with a mind-boggling array of books that defies description. The books range from history, political science, biographies, art, literature, music, cinema, travel, to even architecture, designing, aeronautical engineering, information technology and so on. And literary novels, of course, are in great demand. Always.

These days, one tends to see more of text books, though, with students and their parents thronging the place for a bargain deal. And not to forget, after one has gone through so much of jostling and pushing, and after one is done with the bargaining and is satisfied with the day’s collections, tired and exhausted, too, there are always some fabulous restaurants around as a grand finale to keep one’s hunger pangs away and to give free reign to one’s taste buds for rich and deliciously spicy Indian food.

On a personal plane, I remember to have picked up some of the rare books, now many of them out of print, which would be any collector’s pride, in the last 20 years or so of my visits to one of the biggest flea markets for books. While I remain a humble reader, with no pretension, whatsoever, of any claim to any scholarship or any erudition, and I am yet to explore many, many areas of the vast ocean of knowledge that remains like an uncharted territory to me, I thought I could, in my own modest way, share the names of some of the books here, which I can recall with my increasingly fading memory, and which will show how eclectic and universal was that place, and still is in so many ways, in terms of spreading knowledge, and how affordable it still remains, when books have become so expensive, otherwise.

Some of them which readily come to my mind are: The Pensees by Blaise Pascal, a rare biography of Voltaire (the first few pages were missing when I got the book, and hence the name of the author remains a mystery!), The Social Contract by the great French philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Philosophical Letters by Voltaire, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, The Worldly Philosophers by Robert Heilbroner, The Resurrection by Tolstoy, Raymond Aron’s Main Currents in Sociological Thoughts, a collection of essays by Russian-English philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, E H Carr’s What is History, Candide by Voltaire, Bertrand Russell’s series of essays and his brilliant autobiography, The darkness at noon by Aurther Koestler, Greek Tragedy (Penguin classics), Dante’s Divine Comedy (in English translation), Francois Rochefoucauld’s Maxims, John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World, Albert Camus’ The Rebel, Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man, Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Stalin, and many others.

Ghalib’s Haveli/ photo: Prakash K Ray

Now, coming back to Ghalib, now philosophical, now pensive and melancholic but always showing a zest for life to enliven the proceedings, Ghalib literally towered over others like a ‘Victor’ as his nom de plume suggests. Brooding over the questions of life and death, over joy and sorrow, the poet was known for his intensity of emotions and thoughts. He was iconoclastic, no doubt, and questioned the fundamentals of faith, and was scathing about dogmas of faith, taboos, cant, and anything that was hypocritical. Gulzar writes, ‘he is complex a poet as he is charismatic.’ No one suffered more torment and pain as Ghalib, and that is why we find so much of melancholy and sorrow in his poetry. Gulzar describes the suffering and emotional anguish the foremost poet of Urdu faced, in words that has a shattering effect on the reader:

“Mirza Ghalib had hardly sat down when a shriek leaped up from the room below. As he ran down the stairs below with his friend Bansidhar in tow, he found the midwife sobbing. Ghalib looked at the midwife. “Begum,” the midwife said between sobs, “is well by the grace of the lord.” And she turned her face to the wall. Ghalib slowly stepped forward and stood in front of her, “And the child?”. Tears beginning to flow, the midwife somehow managed to bring herself together to say, “still born.”

“Tears streaming to cloud his eyes, a whole world drowned in a few drops of tears that betrayed Ghalib’s feelings, his poise and equanimity shaken for a moment at this terrible loss. His world was shattered beyond words, but the poet picked up a single sheet: three couplets sat comfortably on the page:

“Dil hi tho hai na sang O Khist, dard se bhar na aae kyun?
Ro’ainge hum hazar baar, koi humein satae kyun?

Qaid-e hayat O band-e gham, asl mein dono ek hain:
Maut se pehle admi gham se nijat pae kaun?

Ghalib-e-khastha ke baghair kaun se kaam band hain
Ro’aiey zar zar kya? Kiji-e haaye haaye kyun?

Gulzar’s translations are exquisite as are his poems. Witness this:

“A heart after all, is not stone why must not it brim with pain
A thousand tears shall I shed, why must people hurt me.”

“Ties of life are the ties of sorrow.
Before death, there is no respite from sorrow.”

“The world does not slow down for an embittered Ghalib
Why must the heart cry for it, why must a fuss be made about it.”

Gulzar continues, “Ghalib stood with his gaze fixed at the paper for an eternity and then let go of it. Another gust of wind picked it up in its embrace.”

“On another occasion, Ghalib sat surrounded with piles of books, leafing through an old anthology of Mir. Two British soldiers crossed the place on horseback. The Mughal dynasty had fallen and the British took over and with that a civilisation ended. Ghalib’s poems were a testimony to the tumultuous last days of the Mughals. His attendant and friend who was engaged in dusting the rack of books, casually asked, “I have noticed that you are worrying a great deal these days. Keep hope, He is there, some way or the other, things will work out.”

“Koi umeed bar nahin aati
Koi soorat nazar nahin aati.”

No hope comes true
No sight of it comes true.

“You haven’t slept last night, have you?”, enquired his friend.

“Maut ka ek din mu’iayn hai
Neend kyun raat bhar nahin aati”

Not always his pen carried pain and anguish. His poetry was philosophical and contemplative, too, and, in a way, was pure epiphany to the connoisseurs of his poetry. He was also full of irony and sarcasm at the hypocrisy and cant of the society’s moral guardians.

Gulzar was sublime in his presenting Ghalib for us, in a manner that only he could, which shows his deep love and lifelong admiration for the greatest of the Urdu poets.

“Ghalib stood against a pillar on the terrace in a solemn mood watching the rain pour out of the black night. He started humming:

“Hazaron Khwahishen aesi, ke har khwahish pe dam nikle
Bahut nikle mere arman, lekin phir bhi kam nikle.

“Kahan mae-khane ka darwaza, Ghalib! Aur kahan wa’az!
Per itna jante hain, kal who jata tha ke hum nikle.”

What be the relation between a preacher and an alehouse.
But I did see him cross the threshold as I entered.”

The rain began to rush down in a torrent.”

Women through the ages

Rupen Ghosh is a Delhi-based retired government officer with a keen interest in arts and literature.

Rupen Ghosh

pastimes15The ancient society of hunters and gatherers was intensely dependent on one another and the premium was on cooperation and collective values. As a corollary, there was absence of male supremacy over women, and the division of labour was equitable and fair. Both men and women took part in decision making. The institutions and social arrangements have always been a product of particular historical circumstances. As the society gradually evolved into settled civilisation, and with the polarisation of society into classes and the rise of the state, the women started losing out everywhere, and the patriarchal domination over property family came into existence. From being co-decision makers with men in primitive societies, they were thrust into a position of dependence and subordination.

The new intensive production techniques tended to prioritise men’s labour over women’s for the first time, when the primitive society was trying to organise into a settled civilisation. With the use of agricultural equipment (by those days’ standards) – heavy ploughing and use of cattle and horses – women started losing out to men. While it relieved women from drudgery, it deprived them of being decision makers and the social status it accorded. Similarly, in trade and commerce, it tended to become male monopolies. The control over thoughts allowed men to exercise disproportionate influence and in aristocracies, it was much worse, because women didn’t have to go out and work, and share space with men.

From this dominant trend, unequal property rights emerged and women started losing out in inheritance, and much later in matters of divorce proceedings, and in access to education and other entitlements. Any sartorial imposition was also from that perspective, to keep women tied at home and hearth. And since the medieval societies often indulged in warfare and territorial acquisitions, to grab the resources of other societies, women’s position became more confined to domesticity, but even here, since it was the male, who worked and earned the ‘livelihood’, the key decisions about the future of the household or lineage became the patriarchal monopoly.

In India, during the post-Mauryan period, if not earlier, the structure and dynamics of social relations in that era were governed by the social laws that were rigid and patriarchal, based on the scriptural canons, regarded as authoritative by the orthodoxy and the dominant elite. In that socially restrictive order, women’s position was firmly established, much below the male counterpart, and her access to property, inheritance was limited and varied according to caste, custom and mores and religion.

The sharpening of the theoretical structure may have been a response from the orthodoxy to the more flexible and liberal attitudes reflected in the Buddhist texts towards caste and gender. By then, feudalism had started making deeper inroads, huge land grants to the priestly class were becoming more and more common and the governance was considered as a compact between the ruling clans and the orthodox priestly class, much to the exclusion of the vast majority of those who worked on agricultural land, artisans, craftsmen and others.

Education of a limited kind was permitted to women of the upper social crust, but was certainly not intended to encourage their participation in discussion or any trade or occupation. Women’s access to property, inheritance was limited and varied according to caste, custom and religion. Social practices were not uniform and matrilineal systems organized inheritance differently from the patriarchal.

India has come a long way since the time when polygamy, purdah system, ban on widow remarriage, complete absence of education for female child, female infanticide, child marriages were some of the social evils that had vice-like grip over the society. Even barely two hundred years ago, the social evils and superstitions had reached such a stage where social reforms became imperative. This was the period when the westernized educated elite revolted against rigid social conventions, outdated customs, social taboos and blind dogmas. Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Jyotibha Phule, Savitri bai Phule, Ranade and others were the pioneers of the social reform movement, that was to become the first gingerly steps towards evolution of India as a modern entity.

Post-independence, there was a concerted attempt to pursue social reforms aimed at protecting the rights of socially underprivileged and women. In the fifties, a major social reform was enunciated to empower women, to make laws more equitable for them, especially in the areas of property and inheritance rights, education, marriage and divorce. This is considered a landmark change towards greater gender equity, that was to transform the face of India, forever.

Women everywhere are questioning the unequal gender relations and breaking the glass ceilings of patriarchal domination and mindsets, making the environment less exploitative and more gender-friendly. In every sphere of public activity, be it in bureaucracy or politics, or business or self-employment, women are taking on responsibility, earlier perceived as male-oriented areas. Even in such fields hitherto dominated by men as higher education, finance, energy, economic development, climate change, foreign affairs, defence, trade and infrastructure, women are increasingly making their presence felt.

As we evolve into modernity and realise that most of the regressive social practices, customs and mores were detrimental to women, who used to suffer more from patriarchal religious domination, it is time to take a critical look at all such restrictive practices that hamper and curtail women’s activities in the public space that made the male-female relationship more unequal, skewed and iniquitous.

Social reforms are slow in coming everywhere, India or South Asia being no exception, but to truly evolve as a modern society, an objective and dispassionate critique of all regressive practices that have brought misery to women and other marginalised and socially underprivileged sections, and that have only strengthened the powerful oligarchs, would be the best answer. To keep people tied up in superstitious beliefs, received wisdom, handed down edicts and commandments, would only deflect attention from the critical and core issues of life and livelihood impacting the majority of our impoverished masses, including unjust and unequal gender relations.

A country which doesn’t critically and continually examine its past, and discard what is considered regressive, iniquitous, unjust and derogatory to its women, socially marginalised sections and other disadvantaged groups, is condemned to repeat it, to its collective misery.

Begum Akhtar: The Tormented Soul Who Rose to be the Ghazal Queen

Rupen Ghosh is a Delhi-based retired government officer with a keen interest in arts and literature.

Rupen Ghose

There is a very poignant pen portrait of one of the greatest ghazal singers, Akhtari Bai of Faizabad, who later became famous as Begum Akhtar. She sang Dadra and Thumri also. She chose these forms because they gave her the perfect opportunity to explore the poetry and convey myriad emotions. Rita Ganguly, her student and companion, puts in her book Ae Mohabbat (one of Begum Akhtar’s all-time famous ghazals), ”her taseer (soulful sound) was the result of years of loneliness, pain, suppression and silence. It also ensured that Akhtari Bai was a master of what Brecht called the alienation effect; she had the ability to sing the saddest song with a bright smile.” She was a classic example of how personal tragedy dogged her life and brought the best of music: soulful, pensive, melancholic.

begum-akhtar-rita-gangulyRita Ganguly co-authored the book with her publisher, Rita Sabharwal, and gives a gripping portrait of the tormented soul, who came home and cried after every big performance. Her torturous journey of life from Bibbi to Akhtari Sayyed to Akhtari Bai Faizabadi to Begum Ishtiaq Ahmed Abassi and, finally, to the name we all recognize, Begum Akhtar, has been well-documented in her book. She narrates how Begum Akhtar took one blow after another right from her childhood, in her undying quest to sing, and sing with perfection and from her heart. The early trauma of Begum Akhtar’s life resulted in the singer being consumed by melancholy. She always felt a deep vacuum in her life and lived in constant fear of what would happen next. Rita Ganguly rues that loneliness was her constant companion.

Begum Akhtar’s birth centenary was observed in 2014, and it was Rita Ganguly who paid a richly deserving homage, through her highly readable book, which remains her much labour of love and respect.

There are heart rending narratives, though unconfirmed and rejected by Ganguly, of how she was not allowed to sing, having been married to a so-called respectable family. When she finally appeared on stage, she broke down and was quite crestfallen, that even death would be preferable to the music-less existence that she was forced to undergo. Her husband finally relented, and that set Begum Akhtar’s amazing musical journey to reach glorious heights.

Begum Akhtar in film Roti (Mehboob Khan, 1940)

She and all other professional female singers of her time had to fight conservative male patriarchy, their derisive and barely concealed contempt and downright hostility. The stifling boundaries that the patriarchy set for women, didn’t allow much space for creative pursuits, if these involved women to be in public domain. That she overcame severe obstacles by battling adversity, the orthodox society had placed on her and countless other women performers, speaks volumes of her gutsy character. It is because of the indomitable courage and fierce determination to pursue music as a passion, and excel, breaking free from the suffocating societal taboo, that today women can hold their heads high, and follow their dreams, without any social pressure.

Begum Akhtar was no ordinary singer. Sarojini Naidu praised her that she was brilliant; the legendary Gauhar Jaan predicted she would be a great ghazal singer. And much later, as she became a household name with her sublime voice and mellifluous singing, she remained humble, though moody and unpredictable.

Akhtar sang for many contemporary poets, including poets of yore, Jalaluddin Rumi, Bahadur Shah Zafar and Mirza Ghalib. We all remember her for some of the matchless singing style associated with her, that has endeared her to all her aficionados and countless music admirers: ‘Yeh naa thi hamari kismet’, ‘mere humnafas, mere humnawan’, ‘Kuch to duniya ki inaayat ne dil tod diya’, ‘ai mohabbat tere anjam pe rona aaya,’ and many more. Incidentally, ‘Ai Mohabbat tere anjaam pe rona aaya’ made her a household name in India, and during those days, in public concerts, she had to sing the ghazal multiple times, each time giving a different treatment in her renditions, making the audience spellbound.

The right kind of pathos the rendering created among the audience that many of whom came to identify themselves in similar situation. The way she sang the words ‘ronaa aayaa’ really made many eyes moist, such was the mesmerising impact her singing would make on the listeners.

She who gave joy to millions of listeners of many generations, including great and very renowned Hindustani classical musicians, but her own life was to be full of sorrow, pain, deep melancholy, abusive relationships, and betrayal by people she loved. This was echoed by Sheela Dhar, an eminent musicologist, in her book “Raga ‘n Josh – Stories from a Musical Life”, and I quote: “She was given to occasional attacks of melancholy which could last for days and were as much a part of her as her sparkle. During these times she was inconsolable, though her friends never gave up trying to cheer her up. In this frustrating process, I discovered that the only role in which she felt really comfortable was that of the wronged woman. She was fully persuaded for the moment that life was made up of unbearably tragic happenings and that these constituted a terrible reality. She lived each moment intensely, emoting inwardly, languishing in her sorrow. Her heart remained permanently pierced by a dagger which some unfeeling and insensitive person was twisting. Despite her sorrow and pain, she conducted in public with the greatest reserve and dignity. She was a singer of exceptional charm too and there are legendary stories afloat about her extraordinary life. Above all, steering clear of everything, was her exquisite singing and she devoted every moment of her life to music, which remained with her till the very end.”

There is an unforgettable ghazal composed by Sudarshan ‘Fakir’ ‘Kuchh to duniya ki inaayat ne dil tod diya’, that Begum Akhtar lent her magical voice, which reflected her trauma and pain, and the suffering that she endured:

कुछ तो दुनिया की इनायात ने दिल तोड़ दिया

और कुछ तल्खिहालात ने दिल तोड़ दिया

हम तो समझे थे कि बरसात में बरसेगी शराब

आई बरसात तो बरसात ने दिल तोड़ दिया

दिल तो रोता रहे और आँख से आंसू ना बहे

इश्क़ की ऐसी रवायात ने दिल तोड़ दिया

वो मेरे हैं मुझे मिल जायेंगे जायेंगे

ऐसे बेकार खयालात ने दिल तोड़ दिया

आपको प्यार है मुझसे कि नहीं है मुझसे

जाने क्यों ऐसे सवालात ने दिल तोड़ दिया

Rita Ganguly took all these years to muster courage to write about her guru, to share her Ammi’s story, as she says in her inimitable style, “not just as a student but as a woman who has seen another woman’s life from such close quarters.” Akhtar died after a heart attack suffered during a concert in Ahmedabad in 1974.

As Rita Ganguly has been seeking to carry forward her Ammi’s legacy through her songs, she believes that Begum Akhtar would be best understood by her melodious ghazal — Khushi ne mujhko thukraya hai, dard-e-gham ne pala hai (Happiness eluded me, and pain nurtured me). This summed up her story and her musical odyssey.

Mallikarjun Mansur: The humble perfectionist, who strode the Hindustani music firmament like a colossus

Rupen Ghosh is a Delhi-based retired government officer with a keen interest in arts and literature.

Rupen Ghosh

“Mallikarjun Mansur is no more. The torrent has gone back into the magic mountain from where it used to flow” – Late HY Sharda Prasad in his touching tribute to the great vocalist.

One of his numerous admirers asked Mallikarjun Mansur: “Isn’t music a lot of hard work?” His repartee was, “Hard work? No. Music is nothing but joy. I’m lucky to be a singer.”

Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur (1 January 1911 – 12 September 1992) would have been 106, had he been alive today. A man as unobtrusive, low-profile and modest, his birth centenary celebrations in 2010 passed without much notice and fanfare, typical of his modest persona. Known for his simplicity and humility, rooted to the soil of his native Dharwad, dedicated to the only cause in his life, music, and completely focused on reaching the highest level of perfection till the last day of his life, Mansur’s musical journey resembled a fakir’s life – spartan and deeply spiritual, humble and unpretentious and away from the limelight. Except for the Hindustani music aficionados or the people from his native Dharwad or his close circle of friends, many of whom are no more, no one really pays much attention to the life and times of this virtuoso, and remember the eventful journey of one of the great vocalists, from obscurity to musical greatness, to become one of the greatest musicians of all time. May be, Mansur would have preferred that way, self-effacing and unassuming that he was, for the reminiscences to be low-key and away from excessive public glare, as he himself had lived an ordinary, commonplace and humdrum existence, a virtual nobody for a major part of his music-dedicated life, till fame and recognition knocked at his door. Not possessing a forceful and imposing stage presence or personality or a rich, authoritative voice, Pandit Mansur’s musical odyssey was remarkable in the sense that recognition came to him much late in life.  But, his penchant for learning, for perfection and for improvisation continued till virtually the last breath, so much so that even when the end was nearing, his mind was working on improvisation, on improving the raga structure. 

maxresdefaultIn a heart-touching obituary and tribute to this gentle colossus who died in 1992 of lung cancer, the late HY Sharda Prasad, ex-media adviser to former Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, wrote: “So many of our well-known authors and artists move about with a swagger for they seem to believe that they are indeed colossi striding the scene. They are all the time looking at those who are looking at them. Mallikarjun did not possess a regal bearing. He did not clothe himself in princely robes. He did not care to be the centre of attraction. He was content to be inconspicuous. He continued to look like a shopkeeper’s accountant. He did not speak like an oracle. He rarely referred to his triumphs. He won not only the respect but the affection of his contemporaries. He was wholly without envy. His was an unfailing geniality and lightness of heart. His airs were what he sang. He did not put on any.” Sharda Prasad continued in his sublime tribute, “those who met him never failed to wonder at his combination of eminence and humility.”

There was something in the soil of that place, truly blessed as it were, especially Hubli-Dharwar region of North-Karnatak, which was so fecund as to produce a succession of Hindustani music legends – Mallikarjun Mansur, Kumar Gandharva, BhimsenJoshi, Gangubai Hangal, Basavraj Rajguru  and others. In those days of Princely States, Southern Maharashtra, very near to the Maharashtra – Karnatak border, was host to many minor principalities of Miraj, Sangli, Kolhapur, Ichalkaranji, Kurundwad and they had singers in their employ. Many great singers had made the region as their home – Rahimat Khan Sahab, Balkrishnabuwa, Abdul Karim Khan Sahab; Kolhapur was host to Alladiya Khan Sahab, Manji Khan, Bhurji Khan and Shaligram-buwa; Bhaskarbuwa lived in Dharwad.

Born in a family in of poor cultivators in Dharwad, Karnataka, his father was an ardent lover and patron of music, despite an extremely impoverished existence. Starting at a very tender age of eight as part of a theatre troupe, constantly travelling in what is now rural Karnataka and southern Maharashtra (yes, there were no rigid regional and linguistic boundaries then), Mansur’s was an unsettled existence of an itinerant performer.  To his good fortune one day, he found the rare opportunity of performing on stage before the Gwalior gharana stalwart, Pandit Nilkanthbuwa Alurmath, who was so impressed by young Mallikarjun that he decided to take him under his wings. Rigorous training followed for six years under the watchful eyes of his guru at Miraj. Later, what could be more fortuitous, Mansur was noticed by Ustad Alladiya Khan of Jaipur Gharana and was placed under his son Manji Khan.  Unfortunately, Manji Khan’s early death brought Mallikarjun under the tutelage of Ustad Allaidya Khan’s other son, Ustad Burji Khan. Thus, Mallikarjun’s gayaki and virtuosity were a wonderful confluence of both Gwalior and Jaipur Gharanas, with his own improvisations within the thematic structure and purity of Hindustani classical music.

Mallikarjun in his autobiography “Nanna Rasayatre” (a rough English equivalent would be “My Emotional Pilgrimage”) dwelled on his early riyaz, and let us listen to him. “Practice began at eight every morning and went on until 1.00 p.m. Whether it was a straightforward raga like Yaman, or a twin raga like Basanti Kedar, or a complex raga like Khat, the stream of the guru’s singing flowed with astounding power and beauty. And once I began learning from him, my personality underwent a change. I felt there was nothing other than music for me. Here was nectar for a thirsty man.” His reverence and lifelong respect for his Gurus was indeed touching and as Sharda Prasad recalled, “nearing forty he kept going from his hometown Dharwad to Kolhapur for lessons from Burji Khan.” 

As we know that the most popular form of vocal classical music in North India is Khayal singing and it is a highly improvisational genre; the very word khayal literally means “imagination.” Singers are expected to improvise, innovate and add new dimension within the flexible melodic structures called ragas, with performances lasting for many hours. Mallkarjun Mansur and other greats of Hindustani music through rigorous riyaz mastered the technique and art of Khayal singing and that is what the music connoisseurs enjoyed. His command over the khayal, and specifically of the esoteric Jaipur style, would eventually make him a maestro in his time. The music aficionados and his countless admirers, whose numbers must have been formidable at one time, recall that he could cast a hypnotic spell on his audience with his astounding breath control, the absolute purity of his swaras and the wonderful way in which he employed various embellishments. They also remember that Mansur was well known for his command over a large number of rare ragas as well as his ever mercurial improvisations without disturbing the emotional content of the song. He had a slightly high-pitched tenor and his expertise rested on the vast repertoire of ragas in khayal vocalism he had mastered. Be it Basanta Kedar, Nat Bihag, or Khat, or uncommon ragas like Kamod or popular ragas like Yaman Kalyan, Deshkar, his range was amazingly vast. In the words of HY Sharda Prasad again, “he sang for more than sixty years and there was always a special intensity to his singing, a special urgency and earnestness in his treatment of melody.”

The well-known Marathi writer, humourist, film and stage actor, music composer and orator, late P L Deshpande (popularly known as Pu La Deshpande) narrated an anecdote of Mansur’s improvisation and not blindly imitating his gurus, in a wonderful article on the musical journey of the musical maestro ‘The Man wholly immersed in Music’ (originally in Marathi titled ‘GaaNyaat raahaNaaraa maaNuus’; later on, it was translated into English): “Learning gayaki of a gharana must not be confused with blindly copying guruji’s style. Once Mallikarjun-ji was once presenting a private mehfil in Pune, presenting so many bandishes of well-known raags, one graceless person among the audience loudly remarked in the midst of that ethereal moment his music was creating: “Bade Khan Sahab did not present the antara in this manner”, the implication being that Anna could not present it properly. Mansur, lovingly called Anna, fixed him with a withering stare and told him in his Kannada-influenced Urdu: “That Bade Miyan did not present this antara thus is well known to me. But I present it that way. Am I supposed to be a mere stenographer of Bade Miyan? Now hear how Bade Miyan used to present this antara, how my guru Manji Khan Sahab changed the contours of its presentation and how I have brought a different interpretation to bear on it.” And then without disturbing its weight, he presented the same antara in three different styles, with three different approaches. When an acknowledged master presents a bandish in his own distinctive manner, it is not because he does not remember the phrases used by other artists, but because he wants to use the same kernel to show his artistry and present various patterns of laya using that bandish. But that blind adherent of the gharana did not know this basic fact. And this is where the slavish followers of gharana gayaki are left behind by an artist who has truly grasped the spirit behind a style. Manji Khan Sahab himself did not believe in copying his father. Every genuine artist has his own personality. He is endowed by nature with imagination and ability to think new thoughts. But probably no other field suffers as much from the confusion and the opposing pulls between tradition and innovation as our Indian Music.”’

Pu. La. Deshpande, in an article where paying the gentle colossus fulsome praise, recalled: “When he turned 60, some of us went to pay our respects to him in Dharwad. When the greetings were over, the tambouras were tuned. Pt. Mansur sang Multani, then Shri, LalitaGauri and Naat. The following morning, we heard Khat Todi, Shuddh Bilawal and Sarang. It was an uninterrupted cascade of music. One of us asked him, “Isn’t music a lot of hard work?” He shot back, “Hard work? No. Music is nothing but joy. I’m lucky to be a singer.”

Mallikarjun always led a simple life and humble life. He worshipped music and wanted to share its purity and joy with all his listeners. Worldly success meant little to him. Even in the semi-coma condition he was in, before he bid adieu to the mortal world in September 1992, he would ask his son Rajasekhar to sing and guide him as to what he should improve. Music was truly in his blood and was his only passion. In a television interview telecast after his demise, he had expressed satisfaction at the vastly growing interest in classical music saying, “In the olden days we had so many veritable colossi in music of the highest calibre, but the audiences were small, exclusive and limited. Today, there are mammoth audiences, but sadly very, very few musical giants left.”

Mallikarjun Mansur left his mortal coil to be with the Supreme maker almost twenty-four years ago, but his music, sublime, heavenly and ethereal, steeped in the rich traditions of Hindustani music, would endure forever.



Shyam Benegal: The Pioneer of Parallel Cinema

Rupen Ghosh is a Delhi-based retired government officer with a keen interest in arts and literature.

Rupen Ghosh

Parallel cinema emerged when there was a need for such a cinema. Each movement has a peaking state, then it plateaus and starts to erode.             –  Shyam Benegal


It was the year 1955, and Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali had opened to much critical acclaim in India and a little later abroad, literally putting Indian cinema on the world map. With this, Ray came to represent a genre of films later became known as the -‘new cinema’, ‘new wave cinema’, ‘alternative cinema’, ‘realist cinema’ or ‘parallel cinema’. With Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak, he later formed the trinity, which represented a strong presence in the parallel cinema or art house cinema movement. While these terms are used interchangeably, there remains a crucial difference with the term ‘parallel cinema’, which emerged in the late 1960s and created a distinct type of cinema with parallel tradition to popular cinema and sought to make the best of both aesthetically made popular cinema and new cinema. Whereas the new or alternate cinema is somewhat antithetical to the concept of popular cinema, the term ‘parallel’ cinema denotes a genre which runs parallel to the mainstream cinema. Thus, the parallel cinema was characterized by a synthesis of serious content, naturalism and depiction of grim realities with certain elements of popular cinema, so typical of commercial films.

shyam_benegalShyam Benegal, the subject of this essay, is widely considered to be a major believer and practitioner of parallel cinema and his debut film Ankur was rightly termed as the ‘middle-of-the-road’ cinema having adapted ‘psychological realism to the conventions of the mainstream Hindi movie.’ It was here that Shyam Benegal’s art and aesthetics were different from the more radical and political commitments of new-wave filmmakers like Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak and Mani Kaul, whom I am tempted to call as ‘avant-garde’ filmmakers, though all of them, Benegal included, believed in pushing the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm or the status quo in the realm of cinema. Acclaimed by the critics for their aesthetics and sensitively handled subjects, some of Benegal’s films were also commercially successful, which paved the way for more films of such genre. Benegal, thus, became a pioneer of parallel cinema in Hindi films.

To trace the genesis of new wave cinema or parallel cinema, one has to go back to the forties when the film society movement was formed and by the time, it was 1970s, there were no less than 150 film societies all over India. It is through these societies that film aficionados could watch the best of Indian and foreign cinema. In 1952, India saw for the first time International Film Festival of India, which was held in Bombay, Madras and Calcutta, and the Italian neo-realistic classics like De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and other films of the genre were shown to much critical acclaim from young filmmakers, who wanted to break free from the formulaic patterns of commercial cinema. It was to the credit of the central government of the day that it helped in creating an enabling framework for quality cinema by setting up the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune in 1961, the National Film Archives of India in 1964 and the Film Finance Corporation in 1960, the latter with the objective of disbursing loans to directors desirous of making films outside the commercial format.

The social realism of the fifties’ Hindi cinema

Till the 1950s, widely rated as the golden era of Hindi movies, the mainstream commercial cinema had not turned Bollywood yet, a haven for ‘mindless entertainment’, and films with socially conscious themes were being made, all within the paradigm of commercial cinema. Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, V Shantaram, Mehboob Khan, each in his own unique way carried forward the idea of socially meaningful cinema and addressed socially relevant issues, within the genre of mainstream commercial cinema. The filmmakers like Bimal Roy were inspired by such iconic masters like Sergie Eisenstein, the Russian genius and maker of such path-breaking films like Battleship Potemkim, by the films of Italian neo-realist masters like De Sica and Fellini, and he attempted to project the grim realities of the socially and economically oppressed in films like Do Bigha Zameen, Sujata, Bandini. The cinema of these masters like Roy, Guru Dutt, V Shantaram could be termed as serious non-parallel cinema viewed by masses and thinking classes alike. Bimal Roy’s films of intense social realism within the commercial format were widely appreciated abroad, so also Raj Kapoor’s cinema with common man as hero. Many of filmmakers, musicians, lyrics writers, screenplay writers working in the mainstream cinema were members of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), too, and brought their heightened social awareness and consciousness to their art.

In the Hindi cinema of the 1950s, the city of Bombay was portrayed for a certain idea of India. Sunil Khilnani in his wonderful book ‘The Idea of India’ sums it so lyrically, so eloquently (pages 136-137): “A generation of actors like Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt, and radical scriptwriters like K A Abbas, staged and sang a nationalist vision of India that was recognizably Nehru’s own. In films such as Awaara, Shri 420 and CID, the city was portrayed as at once a place of bewilderment and exploitation, and an enticing and necessary destination brimming with opportunities. The stories are usually told through the eyes and sensibility of a Chaplinesque ‘common man’, a vagabond or tramp happily endowed with an educated lower-middle class sensibility, who struggled against the authority of tradition and the corruption of wealth, picking his way through Bombay’s traps and bewitchments. Such films dramatized in a diffuse but evocative way a democratic, outward-looking and secular nationalist sentiment, and affirmed the city as the most likely place to cultivate this.”

The trend of social realism in movies during the fifties could not be sustained though, but eventually paved the way for parallel cinema later during the ‘70s and could be credited for creating a platform for the alternative cinema to take roots and grow.

Benegal’s evolution as a filmmaker

Shyam Benegal is rated as a trend setter in so far as parallel cinema in India is concerned. It can be said that no director since Satyajit Ray has done more for Indian cinema than Benegal, endearingly addressed as Shyam babu by his friends and admirers. Benegal provides an alternative history of cinema in India, away from willing suspension of disbelief and which the mainstream cinema specialises and he has consistently drawn attention to myriad inequalities and disparities which scar Indian society, polity and economy. These basic, grim and stern realities of life were  conveniently airbrushed by the popular cinema to create an artificial make-belief world.

Benegal’s intellectual development and evolution as a filmmaker were greatly influenced by the humanist-socialist and liberal philosophy and ideology India had adopted. This was the guiding spirit for the nation, included in the newly framed Constitution, and served as a framework for socio-economic development – an all- inclusive and embracive agenda. It was the liberal, socialist values which played a key central role in shaping Benegal’s ideas and vision as a filmmaker and which were mirrored or rooted in Benegal’s concerns as a filmmaker. Buddha, Marx and Gandhi also appealed to Benegal equally, and deeply influenced his worldview.

Benegal, like Ray, was inspired by the European neo-realist movement led by De Sica, Fellini and other filmmakers, and his movies are a powerful social critique to expose myriad inequalities in our society and in the process give voice to the subaltern. Benegal was all for the social change within the democratic structure of the country and his strong faith in the egalitarian principles of the country is reflected in his movies. To Benegal, cinema should be used as a means of social critique within the overall development agenda. His early films reflected and informed the vision of a socialist pattern of society and a commitment to equitable development. Benegal was, however, of the view that political cinema in the form of parallel cinema was a product of its time and grew out of the political unrest and turmoil and growing discontent in the country, with years of planning not yielding the desired results, making people restless. To quote him: “Political cinema will emerge only when there is need for it”. As for the filmmaking as a craft and in his treatment of the subjects, his attention to details and leitmotifs, Benegal was closest to Ray and could be termed as the true inheritor of his legacy.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the parallel or new wave cinema entered into the lexicon of Hindi cinema in a meaningful way, making its presence felt. Benegal was a pioneer, followed by Sathyu of Garam Hawa fame, Saeed Mirza, Mani Kaul (who unfortunately is no more), who emerged to create a new movement. Later on, Govind Nihalani and Muzaffar Ali carried the torch of alternative cinema with a new idiom and vocabulary, a new thematic treatment of socio-economic realities; in short, a more meaningful and socially relevant cinema. But, each director develops style and ethos uniquely personal to oneself, and presents one’s vision and creates reality mirroring the vision. That is the uniqueness and beauty of this medium that we get to see and appreciate the film makers as diverse as Ray, Sen, Ghatak, Benegal, Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani (who were influenced by the French New Wave of Godard and Truffaut) Adoor Gopalakrishnan, MS Sathyu, Saeed Mirza, Vijaya Mehta, Aravindan, Aparna Sen, Sai Paranjpaye, Jabbar Patel, Govind Nihalani, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Girish Karnad, Girish Kasaravalli, Ketan Mehta, Goutam Ghose and Rituparno Ghosh and others.

In this paper, considering his vast oeuvre and his choice of subjects for films, I propose to discuss four of his cult films, which encapsulate and embrace Benegal’s liberal, humanistic and egalitarian values – Ankur and Manthan of his rural trilogy, Bhumika and Sardari Begum, the latter two being women oriented films with women as dominant characters. Both Sardari Begum and Bhumika (on the life of the Maharashtrian actress Hansa Wadkar) were about very strong women who were ahead of their times. That is a recurrent phenomenon in his films as also Benegal’s return to rural themes of conflict between the peasant and the landlord and the dialectics of development, of the conflict between modernity and traditionalism.

Ankur – the first of Benegal’s rural trilogy

I do not know if cinema can actually bring about change in society. But cinema can certainly be a vehicle for creating social awareness. –Shyam Benegal

Ankur, released in 1974, became a symbol of the new cinema, that brought a radical thinking in the entire concept of film making. The film was set in the late-1940s in a village in the present day Telengana, and the characters use Dakhani, a regional variant of Hindi-Urdu spoken around Hyderabad. Benegal made use of the peasant revolt in southern India in the forties of the last century to serve as a backdrop. He offered us an insight into the deeply entrenched feudal order, the resilient caste, class and gender inequities which existed in more virulent form in parts of rural India a century ago, and prevails in some form or the other in more backward regions of the country.

Shabana’s nuanced and subtle performance fetched her the national award and much critical acclaim abroad. In a letter to her mother, Saukat Azmi, she writes: “This film looks like a Satyajit Ray film – with a realist aesthetic. For the last outburst scene, I would scream out my lines from a play which I had done in Bombay. In the climactic scene, if an actor uses his or her mind in analysis and preparation, then something extraordinary will happen.” Ray rated her as a promising actress with great histrionic qualities. Aruna Vasudev, a noted film critic, paying glowing tributes, explained that before Ankur, ‘new modes of perception and technique for both filmmakers and audience were still hazy and barely formulated. In the context of its time, Ankur was a major step.’

In the climactic scene, villagers have assembled around the landlord (in a brilliant role by Anant Nag) as he mercilessly beats and thrashes the mute, alcoholic and unemployed Kishtaya (Sadhu Meher), husband of Lakshmi, the poor peasant woman. Lakshmi arrives, shocked and aghast at this injustice and horrendous beating, and starts abusing and cursing the landlord and the family that they would never be happy with the sighs and tears of the poor peasants. In this, she was articulating the unstated collective emotions of the villagers. As she lets out a hysterical shriek, she shatters the old iniquitous, unjust power balance at that moment, bringing to the fore the stark reality of gender, class and caste inequalities. The landlord, Surya, who had used Lakshmi’s vulnerability to carry on an illegitimate liaison with her, in the process making her pregnant, and now fully aware of his guilt, makes a swift and ignominious retreat to the house. Saru, his wife, looks at him with contempt as he cowers terrified behind the bolted door, convinced of his guilt and the fact that this dalliance has brought shame and ignominy on them.

As the film nears its end, Lakshmi helps her injured husband to his feet and trudges back to her hut. At that moment, a little boy who was witness to the beatings of Kishtaya, hurls a stone at the landlord’s window. The glass shatters and the boy runs off the village path. The ending is angry, stark and direct, and subtle too. It represented the vision of Shyam Benegal for an egalitarian and progressive order, freed from feudal oppression and myriad exploitations. However, being a liberal humanist, who is moderate in his outlook and approach to life and politics, Benegal was always subtle, nuanced and understated and never overplayed any emotion and was never melodramatic, much like his mentor Ray.

Manthan – the story of a remarkable cooperative movement

Mhara Gaon Kathiawada
Jahan Dhood ki nadiya vahe
Jahan koyal kuhu kuhu gahe
More ghar anganana bhulo na
My village is Kathaiwad
A river of milk flows there
The cuckoo sings there
Do not forget my home and threshold
 (A folk song in Kathiawad, Saurashtra repeatedly heard in the film)

The film is a brilliant social critique of a government official sincerely attempting to change the socio-economic conditions and perceptions in a Gujarat village. It is the story of cooperative movement in milk production and distribution – the story of Amul. Does the cooperative movement have a future in transforming India, as was thought of in the ’50s and ’60s?

The film Manthan was based on the successful initiatives launched by the late Dr. V kurien, the architect of the ‘white revolution’, as the milk cooperative movement was called. ‘Manthan’ is of a genre which could be termed as less structured and less informal than conventional film making – popularly known as cinema verite – and is rooted in the desire to make real stories about real people. It was the firm belief of Dr. Kurien that women have to be at the forefront of the co-operative dairy movement and the less privileged must be involved in cooperative management and decision-making. This was the basic premise of ‘Manthan.’

Benegal viewed this movie in the context of changing India, and the resultant clash between tradition and modernity when a State claiming to a welfare state carries out social and economic engineering on the lives of poor villagers. It was the story of the cooperative movement in bringing in rapid transformation. On the cooperative movement, Benegal commented: “The success of the milk cooperatives in this country in the Anand pattern in Gujarat has been a milestone. In Anand, the farmers owned the co-ops and therefore the employees of the co-ops were the employees of the farmers. They have in the milk co-op of Gujarat employed technocrats of very high quality as the farmers’ employees, in order to maximise production, but also to market their product. Whether this model would work with other areas of agricultural production, one really does not know. It could work with oil to some extent, but then again oil seeds come against very big monopolistic interests because there are about 20 families that control the entire edible oil of the country.”

On the cooperative movement, one is reminded of Tagore’s views. He had articulated a social vision where exploitation would give way to a just, humane, collectively owned economy. At the core of his thought was the cooperative principle. Tolstoy and Gandhi also held similar views. As Tagore had foreseen it, it is true the cooperative principle enables the most marginalised people to mobilise themselves more effectively. With the world engulfed in a severe financial and economic crisis, the cooperative principle appears more attractive holding out the promise of shared prosperity and well-being. It is a hopeful sign that the cooperative and collective view is slowly gaining ground in dealing with such issues as climate change, abolition of child labour, human rights and the like.

Bhumika – the saga of a yesteryear film actress who lived life on her own

Tumhare Bin Jeena lage ghar mein
Balamji, tumse milake to ankhiyan
Tumhare bin jeena lage ghar mein
Badal gayi mei to ek nazar mein
Balamji, tumse milake to ankhiyan
(A beautiful song which captures the period of ’40s and ’50s, rendered by Preeti Sagar with music composed by Vanraj Bhatia)

Benegal remains a remarkable figure in Indian cinema in the sense that through his films like Bhumika, Sardari Begum and Zubeidaa, he explores the female perspective, with the films revolving around female characters as leading protagonists. Usha in Bhumika, Sardari in Sardari Begum, Zubeidaa in Zubeidaa and even Zeenat in Mandi were strong-willed women who lived life on their own terms and defied society’s rigid norms to carve out a place for themselves, despite facing oppression, alienation and ignominy. One of Smita Patil’s finest performances was in Bhumika (1977), based on yesteryear Marathi film actress, Hansa Wadkar, a brave and rebellious woman; her search for emotional security and happiness takes her through a difficult journey of life. At the end of the day, she has to face life alone; fame and independence coming at the cost of terrible isolation and alienation.

Bhumika was perhaps the first Indian film based on a woman’s perspective, on the life and times of 1930s and 1940s Marathi cinema actress, Hansa Wadkar, and how from a young age, she was thrust into films to support her poor family. She lived life on her own terms, leaving home several times to escape the exploitation at the hands of her family members. Her husband was extremely dominating and suspicious, and jealous too, and proved to be as exploitative as her own family. Her several affairs, partly to spite her husband and partly to live life on her own terms, made her controversial though. Her anger, her hysteria, her trauma, her sorrows and her terrible traumas were captured so poignantly by Smita Patil on celluloid. The centrality of women was always present in Benegal’s narrative in an attempt to reclaim women’s voices in performing arts. The film attempted to explore the psyche of women who were performing artists and how society perceived them with jaundiced and prejudiced eyes. Behind glamour and glitz, there lurked a sordid tale of exploitation and violence. The leading protagonist lived a false life of glamour and romanticism while on screen; off it, it was life of loneliness and sadness. Bhumika had other great stars as Amol Palekar, Sulabha Deshpande, Amrish Puri and Anant Nag.

On Bhumika, Ms. Sangeeta Datta, a film historian, critic, documentary filmmaker and biographer of Benegal articulated his vision: “Benegal’s films burst onto the screen at a time when the first wave of the women’s movement were being felt in India. Bhumika specifically raises fundamental questions about female selfhood and family structures, about autonomy, power structures and conflict. The film literally was a study of women in the film industry of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. It was a study of the performing artists as well as of the folk theatre from which many films originated. It was also a historical journey through dominant film genres and modes of production.”

The film Bhumika was unique in the sense that the leading female protagonist, Usha, the actress in the film, gets her autonomy and independence only when she lives alone, after going through a series of involvement with other men – an actor, a filmmaker and a feudal patriarch. Her liberation comes when she is freed of all such men, when she rejects them and overcomes her insecurities. Her struggles and travails are a metaphor for the rapidly changing India, of changing socio-cultural mores and customs, though they take time in changing. Shyam babu placed the struggle for the autonomy for women in the context of the newly independent nation’s yearning to find its place in the comity of nations. In the late ’70s and ’80s, there was a vigorous debate over the role of women in India, and Bhumika by questioning the socio-cultural role of women in the society, places the film in the context. It questions the accepted moral norms for women and brings up the suppressed voice of women.

Smita Patil achieved iconic status after her award winning peformance in Bhumika. It was a pity that she died young. Given time and with experience, she would have developed her craft further as, Shyam babu himself once said that with instinct one can go only upto a certain point. What we saw of her talent was only the tip of the iceberg. Her outstanding performance in Jababr Patel’s Umbartha remains unsurpassed. Indeed, till today we mourn her untimely death. She would have been one of the greatest actresses ever. Yet, in her limited time, she performed in some of the most memorable roles which are still remembered today.

Sardari Begum – the story of an extraordinarily gifted singer who defied all odds

hazoor itna agar hum par karam kartay to acha tha
Tagaaful aap kartay hain karam kartay to acha tha
 (Javed Akhtar’s ghazal rendered soulfully in the film by Arti Angalikar)

The film ‘Sardari Begum’ is about a middle-aged singer past her prime, a woman spirited, free-wheeled & passionate, who dares to follow her dream of becoming a professional ‘thumri’ singer and is disowned by her family. The film was made in 1996, at a time of declining interest in parallel cinema and when Bollywood was fast turning into celebration of kitsch.

sardari--330x220Writing about the film, which revolves around female characters, so familiar to him in exploring the female perspective, Shyam Benegal explains: ‘It is not as if I want to always present women as victims. There is something very interesting about women, particularly in India, because the social pressure on them are so much more than on men due to the way Indian society is. What I intend to show is the ability of Indian women to handle the situations they have been placed in.’ Dwelling on Sardari’s character, Benegal adds that ‘she is a woman who makes it on her own in life, and the kind of music she sings in now on the decline. It is about the world of the public singer and her relationships in private. She is a different person to different people, and for the film-maker, this subjective attitude is what is interesting to explore in cinematic terms.’

Sardari Begum is a compelling story with tragic overtones of a free-spirited woman, who breaks free from the societal taboo and from the patriarchal norms. Smriti Mishra, who made her debut as a young Sardari, received critical praise for her role as she rebels against her family and the male-dominated ethos of our society. Passionate about music, she defied the societal norms to live life on her own terms and without in any way compromising with the art she pursued all her life. She quite passionately declared once that she would die, if not allowed to pursue her music. Smriti went on to receive the National Award for supporting actress. She had earlier done another scintillating role in an offbeat film ‘Is Raat ki Subah Nahin.’

In Sardari Begum, we find the dying art of ‘thumri’ singing and the society’s bracketing thumri singers, and in fact all public singers, as people of questionable morals. Benegal always has displayed sympathy for the underprivileged, and in his films, his humanistic vision comes alive. Of course, he is always understated and sensitive in depicting situations, and he reminds us of the loss of this precious cultural legacy, of a rich tradition slowly dying, and how the struggles through which Sardari follows her only passion of singing gets intertwined with the larger world of a cultural and historical crisis, of a society still hamstrung by the rigid norms, which are all to the women’s disadvantage. Ever an optimist, Benegal presents some hope for the future of this beleaguered art, that perhaps the legacy would survive, despite all odds and hurdles on its way, when he very poignantly portrays the dying Sardari passing on the baton to her daughter and asking her to sing a baleful thumri ‘Chali Pi Ke Nagar’. It was vintage Benegal all the way.

In the film, the leading protagonist, an indomitable woman, leads an extraordinarily brave life. Only a strong-willed and determined woman could defy all odds in a traditionally male-dominated society. The irony is that her quite remarkable life does not find mention in more than one column in the newspapers on her accidental death, and Sardari relapses into anonymity. The film ends with a hope that the daughter, though inconsolable in her grief, would carry on the precious legacy for which her mother had suffered so much, all her life.

Benegal’s legacy

Benegal’s films offered an alternative vision of cinema and were grounded in social reality of the kind which the popular cinema in the name of entertainment airbrushes to artificially create a rosy image, of what otherwise is a grim struggle for those who are on the margins of the society. His films articulate concerns of the underprivileged and strongly highlight class, gender and caste issues. But at the core of each, lie deeply humanistic narratives that define his ideological leanings and his conviction that cinema could bring change in society and be a vehicle for creating social awareness. One of his notable achievements lie in the domain of discovering some of the finest acting talents in Indian cinema, names which became one with the parallel cinema – Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Anant Nag, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Neena Gupta and a few others.

Benegal had also another remarkable credit in bringing Nehru’s Discovery of India to the masses in a long-running television serial ‘Bharat Ek Khoj’ in the eighties, which presented India’s 3000 years of history and culture, a continuing legacy, to a very large audience, for the first time. But would parallel cinema survive when India of 2016 is barely recognizable from the ‘70s and ‘80’? This is the question which all film connoisseurs would be asking.

The eclipse of parallel cinema

The trend of a political conscious cinema with realist premises was a reflection of the legacy of the socio-political unrest in the late ‘60s and mid-1970s, and gradually the influence waned with the memories and echoes of that unrest slowly receding from the background and becoming a thing of the past. It was the product of its time and with the change in taste, and in a new paradigm, it hardly has any takers. The liberalization of the economy in 1991 and the resultant globalization brought about radical change in lifestyles, mindsets and outlook, which has led to a marked decline in social or political issues and grim socio-economic realities to be reflected through the cinematic medium or literature.

With an unprecedented prosperity for a section of the urban middle class, miniscule as they are, who would like to entertained 24 hours by 7, the space for cinema as a social critique has shrunk and the concerns of the underprivileged are hardly articulated on the celluloid. The governmental support for parallel cinema too has declined and this genre depicting the socio-economic realities is all but dead, with obituaries having been written of what was essentially the result of a political movement. As Shyam babu once said, ‘Parallel cinema emerged when there was a need for such a cinema. Each movement has a peaking state, then it plateaus and starts to erode.’ Benegal, however, feels that some of the better filmmakers of the present draw their sustenance and inspiration from the parallel cinema and besides providing entertainment, they connect to life, and this would not have been possible without the influence of the kind of realism which Benegal and others portrayed. It is these creative and innovative filmmakers, who with their taking up themes with realist premises and with their unique treatment taking into account the current sensibilities of the present era, keep the hopes of meaningful cinema alive.

The first two decades of the new millennium has seen Hindi cinema all but converted for an NRI audience and for multiplexes, technically slicker with better production values matching even those from Hollywood, mounted on a very lavish scale, cinematic techniques of the very best, but detached from the grim realities afflicting the majority of our population and lacking soul. The concerns have become narrow and restrictive with strong overlay of conservative and patriarchal values. Can the alternative cinema be revived to articulate the concerns of life and livelihood of the silent majority? Can the cinema once again become a medium for creating social awareness and bringing change, against myriad social evils and be a vehicle for ushering in a gentler, kinder, and more caring and compassionate society?

The Indian Constitution: The wonderful consensual document that binds this heterogeneous land

Rupen Ghosh

Rupen Ghosh is a Delhi-based retired government officer with a keen interest in arts and literature.

Book Review: The Indian Constitution/Oxford India Short Introductions/Madhav Khosla/Oxford/2012

A wonderful addition to the literature on Indian Constitution is a fascinating study on the subject by a young legal scholar, Madhav Khosla, who was pursuing a PhD in Political Theory at Harvard University in 2012, when he wrote this interesting interpretation to some of the key constitutional questions that continue to generate interest and stimulate intellectual debate. The book is titled ‘The Indian Constitution (Oxford India Short Introduction Series)’. It is a marvellous attempt, giving an insightful and analytical account of one of the greatest political texts ever written. I must say that if the book could spark interest in India’s Constitution, it would have served its purpose and make the young author proud.

The book is evocative of the time when the Constituent Assembly set upon itself the onerous task of drafting the Constitution for independent India, a momentous event for the founding fathers. It was the occasion when Nehru observed that, ‘I tremble a little and feel overwhelmed by this mighty task; there is some magic in this moment of transition from the old to the new.’ It was a proud moment for the nascent republic that was emerging from the long shadows of feudalism and social backwardness to rightfully earn its place in the comity of nations, and the drafting the Constitution provided an occasion to ponder over as to what constituted its vision to be an Indian. It was a search for our identity; a young nation’s striving for a normative structure that should govern our polity, the rules of socio-economic and political governance.

As I read this fascinating book, I wonder that a document that was drafted six decades ago and having undergone over a hundred amendments, still retains its endurance and vitality, despite bruises acquired in its challenging and, what some may call as its, tortured journey.

41yjglgd31l-_sx342_bo1204203200_The book highlights some of the challenges the Constitution faces and the evolution of legal interpretations that have embellished our understanding. Some of the chapters like separation of powers between the three organs of the State, the fascinating journey of federalism, despite retaining some of the prominent unitary features, the fundamental rights that are the bedrock of democracy and that are justiciable and any transgress of the rights is invalid and unlawful and the changes that have made the Constitution a dynamic and living document, add great value to the book.

It is well recognised, its critics’ carping and constant din of criticism notwithstanding, that the Constitution is an organic living document. It must be dynamic and keep pace with the changing times. We have also accepted that the basics and fundamentals of the Constitution are unalterable and the governments of the day have also respected the doctrine of the basic structure of the Constitution after the landmark Supreme Court judgements settled the issue; Golaknath, Keshavanda Bharati and I R Coelho judgements are too well-known to be reiterated here.

As the largest democracy in the world, a reading of the constitutional texts should be de rigueur for not only the political scientists and analysts, but also for everyone who would like to reflect upon the theory and practice of constitutionalism and would like to debate about what the idea of India signifies.

What is constitutionalism? It envisages checks and balances and legal constraints on the exercise of power by the executive and the legislature and keeping them under some kind of constraints. The very idea of constitutionalism is embedded in human history and is part of evolution of political philosophy. Staring from the Magna Carta (1215), some of the natural law philosophers who espoused the cause and promoted this idea are well known names in political and social philosophy – Thomas Acquinas, Tom Paine, Locke, Rousseau.

Madhav Khosla sums up the key essence of constitutionalism as the following: A written constitution, independent judiciary with judicial review powers, the doctrine of rule of law and separation of powers between different organs and institutions, democratic government responsible to the people and elected through a transparent process, fundamental rights of the people (that are the cornerstone of the Constitution), the principles and practices of federalism, decentralised governance with power to the grassroots level self-governing institutions. What Khosla’s book brings out is that the Indian Constitution is unique in the sense that it bestows identity to over 1200 million people, giving a constitutional fabric which is in sync with some of the finest ideas of democratic governance, drawing as it were from the country’s eclectic and syncretic past, its fascinating journey of assimilation and accommodation all through the centuries, and also imbibing some of the finest democratic features and practices from the American, Canadian, Irish and Australian Constitutions and the British Constitutional Law.

There is consensus that the Constitution draws upon a rich fount of knowledge, wisdom, learning, heritage, conventions and traditions to craft a unique document that provides a social, economic and political philosophy best suited for the governance of this heterogeneous and variegated land and espouses some of the finest values of republicanism, liberty, equality and fraternity, the rule of law and the fundamental rights and a spirit of egalitarianism as reflected in the Preamble as well in the Directive Principles of the State Policy.

The unique and sui generis nature of the constitutional journey has been the realisation that the Constitution has provided a platform and framework for accommodation and articulation of millions of aspirations, conflicting at times, and despite its somewhat turbulent journey and the charge that the individuals who were called upon to work it didn’t fulfil the roles expected of them, it has not only afforded opportunity to its socially and economically underprivileged citizens to dream and aspire for a better future and demand a place under the sun for righting some of the historical inequities and wrongs, it has shown remarkable endurance, sustainability and vitality to guide the destiny of this remarkable land of over a billion people.