Through the artist’s eyes: Life after devastation and the politics of identity in Nepal

Through the artist’s eyes: Life after devastation and the politics of identity in Nepal
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Last year was a difficult one for Nepal. An earthquake in April killed over 8,000 people and caused widespread devastation. A few months later, the decision of Nepal’s top political parties to push through a Constitution after years of wrangling led to massive protests by marginalised groups like Madhesis and Janajatis who believe that the new charter discriminates against them.

This was, of course, rich material for the country’s artists to engage with and to create visual commentaries about. Among them are Manish Harijan and Hitman Gurung, whose work was on display at the eighth edition of the India Art Fair, which ended on Sunday.

Manish Harijan stands next to his installation Auspicious Suspicious. (Picture courtesy: Facebook.com/nepalartcouncilktm)
Manish Harijan stands next to his installation Auspicious Suspicious. (Picture courtesy: Facebook.com/nepalartcouncilktm)

Circle of life

From afar, Harijan’s installation titled Auspicious Suspicious looked pretty straightforward – luminous golden skulls mounted on golden plates on wooden blocks. But a closer look revealed the skulls had maggoty brains. An ever closer look showed that the brains were actually made of rice, lentils and corn.

Harijan said that the installation explored the notion of binary oppositions – the skull representing death offset by food grains symbolising life and regeneration.

“Through this installation I’m trying to represent the binaries that exist within our society – positive and negative, good and bad, the devil and the saint,” he said. “I’ve used the grain and the wood to symbolise life, positiveness and the strength to survive.”

Identity and politics

Auspicious Suspicious is also a testament to the circle of life, a theme that particularly resonates in Nepal after the death and destruction wrought by the April earthquake. “We believe in life after death,” said Harijan. “So in this work too there is life after devastation.”

Hitman Gurung's 'This Is My Home, My Land And My Country' (Picture courtesy: Facebook.com/nepalartcouncilktm)
Hitman Gurung’s ‘This Is My Home, My Land And My Country’ (Picture courtesy: Facebook.com/nepalartcouncilktm)

Gurung’s exhibit, This Is My Home, My Land and My Country, tackled the question of identity and the turmoil that followed Nepal’s adoption of a new Constitution last year. Groups that felt discriminated against forced a blockade at checkpoints on the Nepal-India border. This has caused a shortage of gas, medicines and other essentials in the land-locked country.

Gurung interviewed his fellow citizens during the blockade, and his exhibit is the result of his efforts to understand the psychology of ordinary people caught in a crisis not of their making.

Protest in art

This Is My Home, My Land and My Country comprised three large photographs on the wall that showed women holding up their identity cards while hiding their faces in layers of gauze. The women belong to the Tharu community from the border areas of Nepal that has been protesting against the delineation of six new states as proposed in the new Constitution. “They feel that this Constitution has not taken into consideration their political representation,” said Gurung.

Miniature bronze gas cylinders placed next to the photographs symbolised the hardships brought on by the blockade and underscored how several people in Nepal could not access amenities others take for granted. “I went and met the people affected by the blockade,” said Gurung. “It has affected their daily lives. They are cooking food on wood fires, and the inscriptions written in Nepali on both sides of the gas cylinders here are statements by these people about the fuel crisis.”

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Film review: ‘Ghayal Once Again’ proves that some old wounds don’t heal well

Film review: ‘Ghayal Once Again’ proves that some old wounds don’t heal well
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Sunny Deol is back, and this time he is throwing punches from the director’s chair.

In Ghayal Once Again, Deol stars in and directs the sequel to Raj Kumar Santoshi’s vigilante drama from 1990, which featured the bulky actor as a boxer who kills a slimy businessman in full view. Ghayal’s Balwant Rai is a kind of all-encompassing embodiment of corruption and evil, and the sequel finds an appropriate replacement for him in Raj Bansal (Narendra Jha). A nasty business magnate who lives in an ugly Lego-block mansion in Mumbai and runs the city from on high, Bansal’s resemblance to a certain industrialist who has interests in just about every sector of the economy is the most daring aspect of this movie.

Deol’s Ajay Mehra, who has served out his jail term for killing Rai, is now in the more benign business of conducting sting operations through his news portal, Satyakam. Ajay leaps to the aid to a group of sincere college students who record the murder of a Right to Information activist (Om Puri) by Bansal’s spoilt son Kabir (Abhilash Kumar). The game of wits between Ajay and Bansal is a familiar one, but is enhanced by superbly staged action sequences in actual locations in Mumbai. Deol and action director Dan Bradely shut down busy thoroughfares and malls in the city, and despite some help from computer-generated imagery, the stunts look and feel real.

Less convincing is Ajay’s war against Bansal. The battle of the lone man against the system is not as effective or coherent as it was in Ghayal. The sequel’s inability to provide an extra-judicial solution to the social evil that Bansal represents could have something to do with the precarious journey of the vigilante movie genre into our consumerist times. Where pure evil was previously concentrated in Balwant Rai, the real villains in Ghayal Once Again are selfish parents who protect their wayward wards despite their crimes. The sequel correctly pinpoints the problem, but is too timid to offer the unofficial solutions that will satisfy genre fans.

The vigilante justice action drama was a popular genre in the 1980s and the early ’90s, giving fans the pleasure of seeing crooked industrialists and politicians being maimed or killed without due process on the screen. Nothing changed in real life, of course, but at least within the confines of the cinema, the movies offered the fleeting feeling that justice had been done.

Ghayal was one of the best-known entries in this genre, and the sequel labours under the shadow of the 1990 production. Flashbacks to scenes from the original do not help, nor do Ajay’s repeated nightmares about his past.

Deol is incapable of suggesting a character with an inner life, and he hasn’t aged well enough to portray an action hero who sends his opponents to meet their bonesetters. The actor-director moves slowly, and the legendary hand that weighs 2.5 kilos lands its punches weakly.

Chandan Arora’s surgical editing suggests immense momentum and tension, and the narrative moves at a fast clip before it settles into keeping pace with its lumbering leading man. Deol directs his actors competently, but he stretches out the climax and loses sight of his character’s crusade. Ghayal Once Again starts out as a takedown of Bansal and ends in a pile of mush. Even for vigilantes, it is all about loving your parents.

In the strange way in which the movie trade works these days, Anil Ambani’s Reliance Entertainment has distributed Ghayal Once Again, while Mukesh Ambani’s electronic goods store has lent one of its stores for a crucial action sequence. Who killed the vigilante movie, then? Product placement and the corporatisation of filmmaking.

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Has the Congress party virtually given up on the urban middle-class voter?
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The trajectory followed by the Congress since its defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha election shows that the grand old party remains convinced that its most ardent supporters live in rural India even as the urban middle class remains smitten by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charms.

Consequently, the party is persisting with the agenda it followed during the 10 years when the United Progressive Alliance government was in power, taking up issues and programmes that impact farmers and marginalised sections like the Dalits, scheduled tribes, women and rural poor.

Having steered the UPA government’s “aam admi” agenda for a decade, Congress president Sonia Gandhi has passed on the baton to her son and party vice-president Rahul Gandhi who is now leading this campaign.

Suit boot ki sarkar

He started by espousing the cause of farmers with his high-pitched campaign against the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government’s move to amend the land acquisition act.

Positioning the Congress as “pro-poor”, Rahul Gandhi kick-started his campaign against the Modi government last year by taking up the issue of the controversial land acquisition bill. He succeeded in painting the Modi government as “anti-famer and pro-corporate” and his description of the ruling dispensation as a “suit boot ki sarkar” hit the bull’s eye. The Congress was vindicated when the NDA government backtracked in the face of stiff opposition and put the amended land acquisition bill on hold.

After its success on the land bill, the Congress was emboldened enough to continue on this track when the BJP was routed in last year’s crucial Bihar assembly elections. While there is no denying that the Janata Dal (United)- Rashtriya Janata Dal-Congress alliance was helped by caste arithmetic, the three partners were also able to convince Bihar’s largely rural electorate that the BJP only cared for rich industrialists. The alliance consolidated the Dalit and Other Backward Classes vote in its favour when Rashtriya Swamaymsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat declared that he favoured a review of the reservation policy for marginalised communities.

The Congress resolve was further strengthened when the party started winning local body elections in the rural areas of Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.

Rahul Gandhi has since followed it up by attempting to woo the scheduled castes by making two trips to Hyderabad University last month to support the students protesting the suicide of Dalit research scholar Rohith Vemula. At the same time, Gandhi is also working on a special Dalit agenda to win back the support of the scheduled castes that had once constituted the Congress party’s core constituency.

The Congress vice president is now preparing to reach out to the scheduled tribes with a proposed year-long campaign to put the Modi government in the dock for diluting the UPA government’s Forest Rights Act to deny forest rights to tribals.

Employment guarantee scheme

On Tuesday, the entire Congress machinery was galvanised to claim ownership of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act on the 10th anniversary of the UPA government’s flagship programme and to showcase its commitment to welfare of the rural poor.

The party also chose to use this occasion to hit out at the the NDA government for suddenly discovering the virtues of MNREGA after Prime Minister Narendra Modi had initially mocked the programme, describing it as a “living monument” of the failures of the previous government. The Congress put out exhaustive details to dispute the Modi government’s claims that it had further strengthened MNREGA and to underline that the ruling alliance had actually destroyed the programme.

Rahul Gandhi specially travelled to Bandlapalli village of Andhra Pradesh’s Anantpur district from where Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had launched MGNREGA in 2006. He was accompanied by the former prime minister and a galaxy of senior leaders including Ambika Soni, Digvijaya Singh and Mukul Wasnik. At the same time, the party’s state units held special conventions to spread the word that this pro-poor scheme was the brainchild of the Congress. Rahul Gandhi will review the implementation of the programme with all state unit chiefs in Delhi on Friday.

Consolidation first

Congress leaders maintain that since the urban middle class remains favourably inclined to the BJP, it makes political sense to strengthen and consolidate its support in the rural hinterland where people are still willing to give it another chance though they too had turned their back on it in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. “The middle class is, by nature, fickle,” said a senior Congress leader. “It was the biggest beneficiary of economic reforms but it lost no time in shifting its loyalties to the BJP.”

The same urban middle class, which is today mesmerised by Modi magic, had come out in overwhelming support of the Congress in 2009, enabling the UPA government to have a second term. The party notched up big victories in semi-urban centres and cities, thanks largely to Manmohan Singh who had then emerged as a middle class icon, just like Modi is at present.

Although there is overwhelming support in the party for its move to concentrate on the rural hinterland, there is also a growing view in the Congress that it cannot afford to ignore the urban middle class, especially when Rahul Gandhi is making a concerted effort to win over young people.

The vocal urban voter and the country’s growing young population, they emphasise, play a critical role as opinion makers and this vital fact cannot be overlooked. The young voter played a critical role in fashioning Modi’s 2014 victory, just was an important factor in ensuring Aam Admi Party’s successful debut in Delhi.

Rahul Gandhi’s supporters, however, maintain that the Congress has always stepped in to voice the concerns of the people both in rural and urban areas. Former ministers Jitin Prasad and RPN Singh insist that the party vice-president has highlighted issues which are urban-centric and that he is making a serious effort to connect with the youth with his periodic visits to colleges and universities. “He has taken up the issueof net neutrality, intolerance and freedom of speech which concern the youth,” Singh pointed out.

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The ugly truth behind a ‘heartwarming’ story of Muslims performing a Kashmiri Pandit’s last rites

The ugly truth behind a ‘heartwarming’ story of Muslims performing a Kashmiri Pandit’s last rites
Photo Credit: Courtesy: Rahul Pandita
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On January 30, an octogenarian Kashmiri Pandit, Janki Nath, died in his home in Malvan village in south Kashmir’s Kulgam district. He had a government job, but he retired just as Malvan was emptying of its Pandit inhabitants in 1990. He sent his daughter to the safety of Jammu. She is married now and lives in Delhi. Even after the three massacres of Pandits in Kashmir Valley in 1997, 1998 and 2003 – a time when even most of those who stayed back chose to leave – Janki Nath decided to brave it out. He was an old man and preferred death to the uncertainty of exile.

After militancy forced about 400,000 Pandits into exile in the early 1990s, a few families, especially in the villages, had chosen to stay behind. Most of them did not have any member with a salaried job and depended on agriculture for sustenance. Janki Nath was among the handful.

After his death last Saturday, the news agency Press Trust of India reported that in the absence of any Pandit, his Muslim neighbours performed the last rites. The report, carriedlater on The Indian Express website, said that the deceased had been unwell for the last five years and that his Muslim neighbours were taking care of him.

That there were no Pandits present there is a blatant lie, but we will come to that later. First: why do journalists in Kashmir Valley feel compelled to report the death of a Pandit? Janki Nath was no poet laureate or social activist. He was no Padma Shri. Why is it news that a Pandit has died and his Muslim neighbours have come to his house in condolence or that they have helped in the arrangements of his last journey?

Vinod Pandit, an activist who lives in Kulgam district, says he often visits the bereaved families of his departed Muslim neighbours. But there are no cameras in tow. No flash bulbs invade the privacy of the grieving family.

Two: who among Janki Nath’s neighbours felt compelled to call the media? Malvan is a remote village on the edge of a forest and there are no TV stringers there. So who called the PTI correspondent and what did he see?

Courtesy: Rahul Pandita
Courtesy: Rahul Pandita

Did he see everything but choose to ignore it? He must have seen a man, wearing a pheran (Kashmiri loose coat), quietly tying in an arc over Janki Nath’s bier a thin mulberry tree branch, as per the centuries-old tradition of the Kashmiri Pandits. That person was Vijay Ji, a Pandit from a neighbouring village who rushed to Malvan along with three other members of his community after hearing about Janki Nath’s death.

The PTI correspondent must have seen another man, again in pheran, and a woolen cap, reciting a Shiva hymn, making balls of soft-cooked rice and ghee, to be offered as last meal to the departed man. That person was Jaw’e Lal, another Pandit from another neighbouring village. The PTI correspondent must have seen a woman putting walnuts and marigold flowers over a plate of rice grains and then lighting an earthen lamp over it and keeping it on the right side of the dead man’s head. Her name was Kishni Pandita and she also came from a village nearby.

The PTI correspondent must have seen a man who lit Janki Nath’s pyre. His name was Surinder Pandita. His family had to leave Malvan in 1990. Obviously, he knew Janki Nath and his family. He is a state government employee, currently residing in a camp established for Pandits who returned to Valley to take up jobs they badly needed. He was accompanied by a young activist, Rahul Ramesh Raina, who lives in the same camp. They took along a bundle of peanuts and candy, which is required for the last rites. Janki Nath, they realised, had kept his Ramnami cloth ready, as many elderly Hindus do in apprehension of their departure.

The PTI correspondent must have also seen an old woman, sitting quietly on one side, looking intently at the dead man. That was Rani, Janki Nath’s wife who lived all her life with her husband and was now mourning his departure. In all, there were at least 12 Pandits in attendance. Of course, there were several Muslim neighbours who were present as well during the ceremony. But in the presence of a priest and so many Pandits, there was no question of them performing the man’s last rites.

The PTI report begins with the clichéd phrase: “In a heart warming example of Kashmiriyat…” The Pandits often wonder about this strange word which has permeated ink-like through the blot paper of our existence in exile. We wonder about it because we are like Luis Borges’ Funes the Memorious, unable to forget anything. We remember that it couldn’t warm the hearts of men and women in Malvan as their Pandit neighbours were fleeing one after another in 1990. We remember the coldblooded murder of a young Pandit teacher and his father in the neighbouring village of Ashmuji in July that year (The teacher, Shiban Krishan Kaul and his father, Radha Krishan Kaul were killed by terrorists after destroying their house. His wife, Nancy Kaul, stayed with the corpses the entire night as no one came to their rescue. The two were cremated the next morning by the army.)

Courtesy: Rahul Pandita
Courtesy: Rahul Pandita

This is not the only time when false stories like the one from Malvan have been reported from Kashmir. We read these stories every year. It is not that senior journalists or the civil society in Kashmir do not know the charade behind these stories. But they choose to keep silent.

Eleven days before Janki Nath’s death, a newspaper in Kashmir published this cartoon. It was the day when we were observing the 26th anniversary of our exile. In hindsight, many of us are relieved that someone created this cartoon. Because it is on such occasions that the veneer comes off and everyone can see what lies beneath.

I ask our erstwhile neighbours and erstwhile friends from Malvan, Ashmuji and elsewhere in the Valley to do us a favour: stop engaging with us on what happened in 1990. Do not tell us that you were equally helpless. Because, as Holocaust survivor Primo Levi wrote to his German friend, there exist a thousand ways to manifest one’s solidarity with the oppressed. Propagating the falsehood of warmth is not one of them.

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