Print Edition - 2016-11-13  |  Free the Words

Of seminars and sharing

  • There is a bonding of cultures and faiths, arts and narratives that pervade South Asia
- ABHI SUBEDI

Nov 13, 2016-

I attended a seminar entitled “First India-Nepal bilateral dialogue on Nepal and India: exploring new vistas” held in Kathmandu from November 2 to 3, at the invitation of India Foundation. Other collaborators as printed in the brochure were the Nepal Centre for Contemporary Studies (NCCS) and Neeti Anusandhaan Pratisthan. The title “First India-Nepal” struck me. It sounded like a postmodernist sense of time that does not necessarily indicate the landmarks, and despite so many experiments, every act is the “first”. Judging from the quality of papers presented, the seminar marked yet another grand reiteration of themes. 

Prof Lokraj Baral’s NCCS itself has organised many seminars before under the above rubric. I remember presenting papers in several of them, and also in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) literary conferences in South Asian metropolises. In this “first” conference, some issues of constitution revision and equality were nicely raised but more in the form of speeches than academic papers. Some papers repeated old data. 

Clichéd expressions

Both the Nepali and Indian scholars repeated one very important expression, which has become a cliché—’we have common bonds of culture and heritage’. But the expression was not given any importance, it was just repeated. Always a sceptic about the future of the Saarc, I feel a little tired of listening to these clichés. You can hardly hear discussions on the strength of the Indian loktantra and its value in a world where democracy is surprisingly eroding even in the countries that are known as its champions. I am a great admirer of the Indian democracy that for nearly 70 years has continued to function despite so many odds. People fairly and confidently elect their representatives. 

Nepal’s achievement in the direction of democracy is also remarkable. I wished that instead of always ignoring such values that are shaped by principles of respect for all citizens’ rights, for which Mahatma Gandhi fought and gave his life, the seminars made that heritage their mantra. Being more of a Gandhian person, I feel sad to see these values being menacingly forgotten by the day. 

Beyond borders

Based on the above argument, I want to present an example of how we share heritage of arts and culture in the region. Though the area is complex, exciting and vast, I am presenting here three samples, only to suggest how subtle, artistic and mind expanding the heritage of cultural sharing is. My experiences of writing about the common South Asian folkloristic, literary and artistic heritage, and about how the traditions of the sants, fakirs and performers that have bonded with these traditions, are my guide.

The following three important books show how cultural heritage is a shared phenomenon. These three books strongly show a bonding of cultures and faiths, arts and narratives that pervade this region. I present the gist of a long article that I have written. These books are Goddesses of Kathmandu Valley: Grace, Rage and Knowledge (Routledge 2016) written by Arun Gupto, The Triumph of the Snake Goddesses (Harvard 2015) written by Kaiser Haq of Bangladesh and In the Name of the Goddess: Durgapuja of Contemporary Kolkata (Primus Book 2015) written by Tapati Guha-Thakurta. These books share common themes but the spread of the culture and modes of operation in them are varied. Each of them opens new avenues of cultural history and practices of the region. The authors come from different countries of South Asia and each of them is a scholar. 

Arun Gupto, a teacher, is South Asia savvy. He approaches Devi from the familiar anthropomorphic and anthropological factors. By using the evolution or growth of goddesses in a culture where grace, rage and knowledge together create them, Arun has introduced probably the most unique hermeneutics of Devi Studies. Devi does not grow like barnacles as said by Wendy Doninger, but develops through performances. Like the Sufi or fakir practices, each time you perform Devi ritual you infuse meaning into them. Arun says Devi is thus a text, like Sufi songs, a constantly renewable energy. That is precisely what goddesses have been 

providing us with—secular and renewable textual energy. 

Double dialectics

I have been a long admirer and reader of a professor from Kolkata, Tapati Guha-Thakurta. Her studies of Indic arts and paintings remarkably reveal unexplored meanings. I am impressed by her penchant for fresh analyses of the cultural subjects. In an academic visit in November 2015, I met scholars at SOAS and Oxford University who were familiar with Guha-Thakurta’s works. One professor at Oxford, a colleague of our friend Professor David Gellner, said to me that Tapti Guha-Thakurta had even helped her in her research on Indic arts and culture in Kolkata. My inquisition and my area of interest made this professor believe that people of this region share some common culture. 

Thakurta’s book In the Name of Goddesses, which was made available to me in Kathmandu by Madhablal Maharjan of Mandala book store, is a insightful and detailed study of Kolkata’s world-famous Durga Puja. Thakurta has combined theoretical perception with the visual study of the spectacular practice of worship in Kolkata. In this big tome, she has covered the symbolic, kinaesthetic and cultural significance of Durga Puja. Her examination utilises diverse sources from Giorgio Agamben’s analysis of ‘sacred and profane’ to the massive local materials. Thakurta’s study meets several aspects of Arun Gupto’s study, which gives a picture of cultural convergences and the long period of cultural sharing.

I got hold of one other brilliant book written by scholar and poet Kaiser Haq— about the snake goddesses. This book introduces a very significant narrative of cultural convergences in this region. It is a translation of Manasa’s story, which is part of the mangalkavya. Kaiser says in his brilliant prologue, “Mangalkavya is poetic record of the compromise of synthesis of the opposed cultural formations”. He shows how mangalkavya rose “from the indigenous religious cults of the Bengalis as these engage in a double dialectics, with Brahmanism…and the politically dominant Muslims”. Wendy Doninger writes more about it in her introduction. 

When we talk about common cultural heritage, we should make note of this unique ‘double dialectics’, of sharing and harmony that shapes the common cultural traditions of South Asia.

Published: 13-11-2016 08:42

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