“The Unforeseen Impacts of Activism”

Note: I wrote this blog post this summer, after participating in a youth program run by South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), a DC-based advocacy organization focused on issues facing South Asian American communities. I know I haven’t been active on this blog lately, but I have some new content coming soon, I promise — especially now that my final exams for this quarter are now over.

This post later led to me being interviewed for this article on The Caravan: “How South Asian Americans Are Asserting Their Political Voice This Election”!

Anyway, here’s the post (originally published here):

Sitting in my university’s library last spring, I was procrastinating on studying for finals by browsing Facebook—something any college student can relate to. In between the endless feed of news articles and photos, one event caught my eye: a three-part discussion series, “South Asians for Black Lives.” The Facebook event listed some incredible speakers and activists who would be talking about important issues such as the model minority myth and colorism in South Asian communities, which both affect whether and how South Asians choose to stand in solidarity with Black communities (or not).

Although we had really wanted to attend the discussion series, logistically it wasn’t very feasible to do so. Talking with my friends who expressed an interest in the event, we decided if we couldn’t go to “South Asians for Black Lives”, we would bring “South Asians for Black Lives” to us. That is, we would basically copy that event and hold it on UChicago’s campus instead.

There were some important differences, though. Our university’s South Asian Students Association was robust, but focused more on cultural and social events, like the annual spring show and chai socials. When it came to programming related to social and political issues, there wasn’t a whole lot. My friends and I weren’t sure what kind of response we’d get from our campus community—would anyone even show up?—so we decided to make our event a one-day affair, instead of Northwestern’s three-part series. We reached out to professors, activists, and fellow students from the UChicago community and the greater Chicago area as well, and invited some really incredible, passionate speakers.

Finally, it was the day of the event. Although there were some minor hiccups, everything went quite smoothly. After a panel discussion with two activists and allies of the Black Lives Matter movement, we moved into small group discussions led by members of UChicago’s Organization of Black Students and other student activists. Although the theme of our event was geared towards South Asian students, quite a few students from different Asian backgrounds attended, as well as students of other ethnicities. Afterwards, my friends and I were frankly surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response we got from those who attended! Many of them expressed that they would love to see more events focusing on social and political issues relating to Asian-American communities on campus.

The success of our “South Asians for Black Lives” event inspired me to find out whether other South Asian students across the country had also been trying to hold social justice-related events, and what kind of success they were having. While looking online, I stumbled on SAALT’s Young Leaders Institute (YLI) webpage. YLI seemed like exactly what I was looking for: a group of young South Asian Americans who were passionate about social change. By the time I found out about YLI, it was just a day before the application deadline, but I managed to send my application in anyway (a couple hours late). Thankfully, I got in!

The YLI training in DC was eye-opening in a variety of ways. It seemed like every member of the cohort felt like their colleges’ South Asian student groups also didn’t focus that much on social and political issues as much as cultural events. The theme of this year’s YLI was Immigrant Justice, and after hearing about the different projects we were hoping to execute on our campuses, I was honestly in awe of everyone else. We learned about the current immigrant right issues facing our communities, we heard from activists and organizers, and we had some very honest and important conversations.

For me, one of the most meaningful moments of the YLI training was finding out that the project that originally inspired my friends and I—the “South Asians for Black Lives” event at Northwestern—was actually organized by a member of the 2015 YLI cohort, Sanjana Lakshmi! One could say this was just a coincidence; Sanjana’s event just happened to show up on my Facebook feed one afternoon. However, I think it was more than just a coincidence. It was proof that our efforts to have these important conversations in our communities can have a much greater impact than we could ever imagine. I’m sure that in the coming years, as each YLI cohort works to tackle a variety of social and political issues in their campus communities, their work will serve as inspiration to many more young South Asian Americans, just as it did for me.

Imagining white gods: colorism in Hindu art

It’s no secret that light skin is favored over dark skin throughout the Indian subcontinent, an attitude that is found in many other societies and is generally referred to as colorism or shadeism:

“Everyday media culture in India … consistently marginalizes dark-skinned Indians, especially dark-skinned women. Matrimonial classified advertisements in Indian newspapers specify routinely that prospective grooms prefer women with ‘‘fair’’ or ‘‘wheatish’’ complexions. A majority of the Indian female actors in Bollywood are light-skinned women, and the few dark-skinned women actors who have overcome the restrictive norms of skin color wear thick make-up to conceal their dark facial skin.

Interweaving colorism into a seamless package of physical attributes, the faces of Indian models in advertisements are almost universally light-skinned with smooth complexions, shining black hair, and slim bodies. The most lucrative products in the Indian cosmetics sector since 1998, a decade after India’s initial incorporation into the global economy, are chemical and herbal products that promise to reduce darkness and preserve light skin by preventing further tanning.”

Colorism in India doesn’t just exist in the realm of cosmetics and modeling; it finds a stronghold in religion as well, which makes understanding it even more complicated. One of my earliest posts on this blog talked about how the popular Western depiction of Jesus Christ as a white man has actually had some pretty serious consequences. In this post, I’m going to touch on some questions that are much closer to home:

  • Can colorism in the Indian subcontinent be attributed to British colonialism alone, or are there much older causes?
  • How has colorism influenced popular depictions of Hindu deities?
  • What are the social implications of depicting Hindu deities with extremely fair skin?
  • Are colorist attitudes beginning to change among Hindus, and among all South Asians in general?

Origins of colorism in South Asia

I think it makes a lot of sense to imagine a connection between British colonialism in India and colorism in South Asia today. However, all the explanations for colorism that I’ve come across make it very clear that colonialism did not introduce notions of colorism into South Asia; rather, it significantly strengthened pre-existing attitudes. So, where did these pre-colonial attitudes come from?

Devdutt Pattanaik, a popular writer on Hindu mythology, asks the same question: “Wherefrom comes this love for gori-chitti [light-skinned] complexion, this desire for fair brides in matrimonial [advertisements]? People say it is the hangover of our Aryan past -– that the nomadic tribes who came from the [northwest] held the dark-skinned settled communities of the subcontinent in disdain. Aryan gods like Indra were white.

But this white supremacist flavor does not hold firm in the face of other evidence. Some say Shiva was a Dravidian god, a god of the settled communities –- but he is described as Karpura-Goranga, he who is as fair as camphor. Some say that Vishnu and Ram are gods of the Aryan imperialists –- but both are described as dark. This theory of Aryan invasion, with roots in 19th-century racial theory, seems too simplistic and rather pedestrian to modern scholars despite its great popularity…”

If the origins of colorism can’t be adequately explained by the Aryan invasion theory, where else should we look? Radhika Parameswaran, a professor at Indiana University’s Media School, attributes colorism to perceptions about caste status:

“The castes that are not connected to manual labor outdoors tend to have higher status and prestige according to social norms. Lighter skin color is viewed as a status symbol for the middle and upper castes, who did not have to do manual labor.

From a historical and anthropological point of view, the relationship between caste and skin color is murky. There is no established causal relationship or even correlation between skin color and caste. But here’s what I will tell you, there is a strong perception that skin color and caste are linked and as long as that perception lasts, it will matter a great deal. So, I would say there is a widespread and entrenched perception that lighter skin color equals higher caste.” (emphasis mine)

Continue reading “Imagining white gods: colorism in Hindu art”

The doomsday fisherman

One of my goals for this summer was to post more frequently, and to get rid of the thirty-some incomplete posts I have lying around in my drafts folder. With only a week left before I go back to college… I guess that was more of a long-term goal. Anyway, in this post I just want to share an eerie and fascinating Sanskrit poem I came across a few weeks ago.

This poem belongs to a genre of Sanskrit poetry called subhashita. In Sanskrit, the prefix su means “good” and bhāshita means “spoken”, so subhashita literally means “well-spoken”. Subhashitas are typically short poems of just two or four lines following a specific meter. Subhashitas have been composed on a wide variety of subjects, but what distinguishes all of them is their brevity, wittiness and creativity.

Before getting to the poem, though, we need a little context. This subhashita makes reference to a number of Hindu religious figures, mainly the dashavataras: ten avatars (incarnations) of Vishnu. In Hindu mythology, the god Vishnu incarnates when evil is on the rise in the universe and dharma is in danger. It’s believed that so far, he’s incarnated nine times, with the tenth avatar to come near the end of this world.

Without getting too much into the details, here are Vishnu’s ten incarnations:

  1. Matsya, a fish
  2. Kurma. a turtle
  3. Varaha, a boar
  4. Narasimha, half-man, half-lion
  5. Vamana (also called Trivikrama), a Brahmin dwarf
  6. Parshurama, a pretty violent Brahmin
  7. Rama, the hero of the Ramayana epic
  8. Krishna, one of the most popular Hindu deities
  9. Buddha, the founder of Buddhism
  10. Kalki, the doomsday savior-to-come

It’s also common to see the Buddha replaced in this list by Balarama (brother of Krishna), especially in south India.

Painting of the dashavataras in the traditional Kalamkari style from Andhra Pradesh. Top row (left to right): Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana. Bottom row: Parshurama, Rama, Balarama, Krishna, Kalki.

We also need to make note of one more character (the main character of the poem, actually). Bhairava is the scariest form through which the god Shiva is worshiped. The name literally means “terrible, frightful” in Sanskrit (he’s also called Kalabhairava, “frightful time”). I’ve written previously about an 8th-century Sanskrit poem on Bhairava, so take a look if you’re interested. Bhairava is often depicted as a black-skinned beggar surrounded by dogs (which sadly don’t get much love in Hinduism). Also, his begging bowl is the skull of the creator god, Brahma. Cheery, right?

Finally, I don’t want to get too into the intricacies of Hindu cosmology, but I’ll just say that Hindu mythology looks at time on a very, very large scale. According to the Puranas (composed mostly during the first millennium AD), the universe goes through cycles of creation, dissolution, and rebirth, existing during the day of Brahma (whose day lasts 4.32 billion human years), and in dissolution during Brahma’s night (also 4.32 billion years long). After a hundred years of Brahma (over 300 trillion years!), Shiva steps in and destroys everything, including Brahma. After another hundred years of Brahma, Brahma is reborn and the process repeats infinitely. So, if you’re still with me, this poem is set at the end of a kalpa: one day of Brahma.

Finally, the poem! This subhashita comes from page 21 of an online copy of the Subhashita Ratna Bhandagara (meaning “Treasury of Subhashita-Gems”) a collection of over ten thousand subhashitas that was published in 1952. The author and date of composition aren’t given; however, if anyone is interested and finds out, please let me know. Here it is:

Continue reading “The doomsday fisherman”

The kutcheri: a playlist, history, and critique

Painting by E. Ramki, “A Carnatic Music Concert” (2008)

A performance of Carnatic music is referred to as a kutcheri (also spelled kacheri, kacceri). The word “kutcheri”, however, does not simply mean “concert”; rather, it refers to a particular concert format which was developed in the early 20th century and was designed to present Carnatic music in a specific manner.

Carnatic music accords primacy to the voice, and indeed the kutcheri was designed as a vocal concert. The vocalist has full control over the kutcheri; they decide what compositions and ragas to perform, where to improvise, and how the concert generally flows. The vocalist usually receives melodic accompaniment from a violinist, and rhythmic support from a mridangam and sometimes ghatam player, with the drone of the tambura constantly in the background.

The kutcheri, which was pioneered by the vocalist Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar (1890-1967), follows a rather rigid format intended to highlight a variety of different ragas and types of Carnatic compositions. In my annotations for each track, I try to give an explanation of each composition, and the role it plays in the kutcheri.

Recently, the kutcheri format has been critiqued extensively by the vocalist T.M. Krishna, and I strongly agree with Krishna’s critique. I do believe that, if we view Carnatic compositions as truly artistic creations, and not merely as just religious songs, then the kutcheri does a disservice to the music. For example, some compositions (like varnams and padams) are simply deemed unfit for extensive improvisation.

In addition, the kutcheri includes items called “fillers” and “tukkadas” which are meant to be “lighter” and less melodically complex, thus giving the audience some “relief” from “heavier”, more complex ragas and compositions. Krishna argues, “Let’s take a Western classical concert. Every item is an intense piece of composition and music. Every item is presented with the same intensity, and the experience is as intense with a Schubert as with a Beethoven. You don’t have Beethoven being given as a filler, and you don’t have pieces towards the end just to tingle you before you head back home.”

However, like it or not, the kutcheri is the format in which Carnatic music is presented today. So, for those listeners who may never have been to a kutcheri before, here’s my attempt to recreate that experience.

One last note: this playlist is much shorter than an actual kutcheri. A real kutcheri would likely contain more compositions, and more extensive improvisation on some of the parts. For example, in this playlist, the ragam-tanam-pallavi is only about 20 minutes long, whereas in a live kutcheri it may be closer to an hour.

Hope you enjoy, and let me know what you think. History of the kutcheri and more of T.M. Krishna’s critique after the break.

The playlist

Continue reading “The kutcheri: a playlist, history, and critique”

Getting lost in Bahudari

I have a summer research job where I mostly work on my laptop at home, so I’m free to listen to music, podcasts, lectures, whatever. Lately, I’ve been listening to Carnatic concerts, since it’s otherwise kind of inconvenient to listen to two-and-half hour-long YouTube videos during my everyday routine. So, while listening to a 2015 performance by TM Krishna, one of my favorite Carnatic musicians (for a variety of reasons), I was pleasantly surprised to hear him render a composition in one of my favorite ragas, Bahudari.

I don’t want to get bogged down in the details of Bahudari, because why write about it when you can listen instead? But I will say this: Bahudari is a unique Carnatic raga, in that it doesn’t contain rishabham (the equivalent in Western solfege is the second note, re). Partially because of this and a few other details in the raga, Bahudari lends itself to bright, expansive melodic phrases. It’s a feel-good raga, in my opinion. (Also, a detail that has no relevance to the raga itself: the word “bahudari” means “many paths” in Telugu.)

In Carnatic music, Bahudari is generally seen as a minor raga, rarely selected for extensive improvisation. There aren’t too many compositions set in Bahudari either, but one of the few is “Brova Bharama,” which happens to be one of my favorite kritis composed by Tyagaraja. In the TM Krishna concert I was listening to, “Brova Bharama” was the composition through which he explored Bahudari.

There’s something playful and (dare I apply this word to Carnatic music) fun about TMK’s exploration of Bahudari and “Brova Bharama”. At 37:07, Krishna begins with a tanam (improvisation with more of a rhythmic focus) that starts out delicately, becoming increasingly forceful. He is mirrored almost perfectly by the violinist RK Shriramkumar, whom we’ll be paying more attention to soon. Today, it’s unusual for vocalists to sing a tanam before a composition, but I remember reading somewhere that it is/was common for veena players to do so. Anyway, Krishna’s tanam explores the lower octave of Bahudari, increasing in complexity over time.

Now, it’s the violinist’s turn to shine. At 40:55, Shriramkumar begins a short alapana in Bahudari, and the very first phrase he plays is so well-crafted that it elicits an appreciative “Oh!” from Krishna. At 41:33, he then switches to a tanam (I think…), just like Krishna did before. That goes on for a minute or so–and then at 44:13, without any warning, the violinist decides to begin “Brova Bharama”!

This is a break from traditional protocol: usually, the violinist would end his improvisation and then allow the vocalist to begin the composition, but here the violinist headed straight into the composition from the tanam itself, with a smile on his face. Krishna is visibly surprised, but he goes with the flow, joining in soon after the violinist begins. This cheeky move by the Shriramkumar sets the tone for the entire composition, and it makes the whole thing fun and a real treat to watch. So, finally, here’s the video:

Finally, the part that really caught my attention was a short phrase at 46:05, when the Shriramkumar begins the charanam (third and final verse of the song). This sequence is just played so sweetly that I had to take my violin out and play along with the recording. Which I then did, on repeat, for like an hour… as cliche as it sounds, I think that was the first time I really experienced “getting lost in a raga.” That one phrase played by the violinist actually inspired me to write this whole post.

I remember when I used to fall asleep during the improvisational parts of Carnatic concerts. How I’ve changed! (Ok, that still happens sometimes. I’m working on it.)

Do any of you have similar experiences “getting lost” in music or art in general? I’d love to hear about them!

Irreverent devotion: a poem by Tukaram

I posted a couple days ago about a lecture given by Professor Vasudha Narayanan. She ended her talk with a small poem that was so witty and bold, I had to share it.

A little background: Tukaram is one of the most famous poet-saints and social reformers of the Hindu bhakti movement, and is revered by the egalitarian Varkari tradition that is most popular in the Indian state of Maharashtra. Tuka, as he is colloquially called, lived in the seventeenth century, and was born into a family of grain sellers who were Shudras, one of the lower castes in the Hindu caste hierarchy. Through his songs, Tuka protested against the injustice he observed and experienced in his community, while simultaneously exploring religious themes. I’ve actually featured a Tukaram poem on this blog once before: take a look here.

Tukaram composed to his chosen deity, Vithoba/Vitthala, in his mother tongue of Marathi, in a format called abhang (meaning “unbroken”), “a run-on couplet of three and a half feet, with the first three rhyming. He was unrivaled in the use of this poetic device, and others have practically left it alone after him in a tacit acknowledgment that nothing more can be done with it. As was the tradition, he also added his signature, Tuka Mhane (तुका म्हणे) or ‘Tuka Says,’ at the end of each verse.”

“In composing abhangs, Tukaram incurred the wrath of the Brahmins, who believed themselves to be the only true custodians and interpreters of religion. Not only did he dare to impinge upon this prerogative, but he wrote in Marathi rather than Sanskrit.According to legend, the local Brahmins compelled him to throw the manuscripts of his poems into the river Indrayani, and taunted him with the observation that if he were a true devotee of God, the manuscripts would reappear. It is said that Tukaram then commenced a fast-unto-death, invoking the name of God; after thirteen days of his fast, the manuscripts of Tukaram’s poems reappeared, floating on the river. Some of his detractors became his followers; and over the remainder of his life, Tukaram acquired a reputation as a saint.”

Tukaram’s outspoken nature was likely the cause of his early death: “In the forty-eighth year of his life, in 1649, Tukaram disappeared … Some say that he informed his wife early in the day that he was going to Vaikuntha (the Divine Abode), and his wife laughed at him. He went up the hillock and waited for Vithoba. By that time, news had spread around Dehu and people had gathered around the hillock, waiting for the Divine event. From eyewitness accounts, a large vehicle appeared from the skies and Vithoba emerged. Eyewitnesses rushed to Tukaram’s home and informed his wife that Tukaram was on his way to Vaikuntha, the Abode of God. His wife ran toward the hills, only to see him take off in the Viman (flying vehicle). Modern devotees still gather at the hillock and sing his praises. However, Starr offers the suggestion that he was probably murdered because of his successful reformist activity, which had agitated the Brahmins, and that his followers hid the body and spread the rumor that he had gone to heaven in a heavenly chariot.”

“Tukaram used rustic, but striking and effective language, often strongly admonishing his listeners. Critics have sometimes characterized his language as ‘ harsh,’ ‘indecent,’ and ‘vulgar’, but his sincerity and his motivation is not doubted. Tukaram firmly believed that his verse was not his own, that his mouth was merely a vehicle for God … [He] emphasized liberation through devotion to God and loving service to mankind, rather than through rituals and sacrifices. He did not favor elaborate rituals, displays of asceticism or preoccupation with austerities, saying, ‘even dogs come in saffron color, and bears have matted fur. If living in caves is being spiritual, then rats who inhabit caves must be doing sadhana (spiritual practice).'”

According to the New World Encyclopedia, “Tukaram’s poetry has remained popular until this day. No other Marathi poet, medieval or modern, has been so universally appreciated. Several of his lines have become household sayings.” So without further adieu, here’s the poem. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the Marathi original online, so we’ll have to make do with the English translation which Professor Narayanan recited:

That we fell into sin is thy good fortune;
We have bestowed name and form on thee.

Had it not been we,
Who would have asked about thee,
When thou wast lonely, and unembodied?

It’s darkness that makes the light shine;
The setting that gives luster to the gem.

Disease brought to light Dhanvantari [the god of medicine],
Why should a healthy man wish to know him?

It’s poison that confers value on nectar;
Gold and brass are high or lowly only in comparison with each other.

Tuka says: It’s because of us, God,
That you exist.


Approaching God through paradox and wonder: adbhuta rasa

I just listened to a fascinating lecture given by Vasudha Narayanan, an eminent scholar of Hinduism and professor at the University of Florida. Simply looking at the title of her talk, “Paradoxology: The Art of Praising the Deity,” my head started to spin a little, but Prof. Narayanan’s speaking style was so engaging that I was able to keep up (mostly).

The phrase “down-to-earth” definitely doesn’t apply to her topic, however. The subject of Prof. Narayanan’s lecture was the idea of paradox, and how paradox is a fundamental way in which Hindu traditions conceptualize and experience God.

The title of the lecture was actually a sort of esoteric religious studies pun. In Christianity, a doxology is “a liturgical formula of praise to God”. Paradoxology, therefore, would imply looking at how paradox is involved in doxologies, (of course, Prof. Narayanan explores this in a Hindu context). Just to be clear, I’m going to provide a couple definitions of “paradox”, because it’s a really tricky word (please let me know if I’m not using it properly…):

  • a statement or proposition that, despite sound (or apparently sound) reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory.
  • a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true.
  • a situation, person, or thing that combines contradictory features or qualities.

Paradoxes can be found in devotional poetry and mythological stories from many different Hindu traditions. Off the top of my head, I realized that paradox is a big part of Rudram, a selection of verses from the Yajur Veda that describe the god Rudra (precursor/an aspect of Shiva) through an astonishing variety of epithets, basically saying that Rudra is present throughout the universe, in nature, in all beings, etc. So, there are verses like “Salutations to Him who is elder and to Him who is younger; Salutations to Him who is born before and to Him who is born after” (6.1.1-2). I’m actually currently working on a post about the poetry of Rudram, so stay tuned for that.

In Prof. Narayanan’s lecture, however, she was talking about the Sri Vaishnava tradition in South India, which worships Vishnu and his incarnations, especially Krishna. In many Sri Vaishnava poems, for example, paradoxical statements are used to describe Vishnu: “You are nectar and poison; death and immortality.” There are countless popular mythological stories about the life of Krishna that are also quite paradoxical and mind-boggling.

One story that Prof. Narayanan relates is one that I remember hearing as a little kid; it’s one of the more popular stories about the young Krishna. In fact, it’s so popular that Yann Martel wrote about it in Life of Pi (one of my favorite books):

Continue reading “Approaching God through paradox and wonder: adbhuta rasa”