Imagine sitting down to write the story of your life. Most likely, as you think about what to write, your mind would drift to other autobiographies and memoirs you’ve read. You’d ask yourself: What kinds of incidents did other writers discuss? What kind of literary conventions and styles did they use? Essentially, what was an autobiography supposed to look like?
Now, imagine: what would it be like to write the story of your life if you had no other previous model to follow?
In the winter of 1641, in the grand Mughal city of Agra, a Jain merchant, poet, and philosopher named Banarasi Das faced this exact question.
Banarasi Das lived from 1586-1643 CE in urban north India: mostly in the cities of Jaunpur and Agra. For Jains, a “full” human lifespan is 110 years, and Banarasi wrote his autobiography when he was 55. Thus, he titled his text Ardhakathanak, meaning Half Story (unfortunately, he died two years later).
The Ardhakathanak is the earliest known autobiography written in a South Asian language. It’s a truly fascinating look into what life was like during the peak of the Mughal Empire, from the perspective of a citizen, not a ruler. In this post, I’ll highlight a few sections from Rohini Chowdhury’s translation that stood out to me as particularly interesting or surprising.
Most people identify Saint Augustine’s Confessions as the first-ever autobiography, written around 400 CE in Roman North Africa. In South Asia, the autobiography has a comparatively more recent history. The Baburnama may have been the first autobiography written by someone living in South Asia; it is the journal of Babur (1483–1530 CE), the founder of the Mughal Empire. Babur wrote in Chagatai Turkish about his life in central Asia, and later his invasion of India and establishment of an empire. Babur described India in great detail, but he was essentially writing from the perspective of a foreigner.
While the Ardhakathanak may not be the first autobiography to describe South Asia, it is the first known autobiography written in a South Asian language. Banarasi Das wrote the Ardhakathanak in Braj Bhasha, an ancestor of modern Hindi and one of the major literary languages of northern India before the 19th century. So, who was he? I’ll let him introduce himself:
Introducing Banarasi Das
जैनधर्म श्रीमाल सुबंस | बानारसी नाम नरहंस
तिन मन मांहि बिचारी बात | कहौं आपनी कथा बिख्यात
jain-dharm śrīmāl subans bānārasī nām nar-hans tin man māhi bicārī bāt kahauñ āpnī kathā bikhyāt
A Jain from the noble Shrimal family,
That prince among men, that man called Banarasi,
He thought to himself,
“Let me make my story known to all.” (4)
Happy Valentine’s Day (or should I say eid al-hubb) from Rabat, Morocco, where I’ve been studying abroad for the past several weeks! Living in Morocco has been an incredible experience, and I have quite a few posts lined up about what I’ve been learning here about Morocco and myself. For now, though, I just want to share a very short and sweet Malayalam song, called “Manikya Malaraya Poovi.”
This song is from an upcoming Malayalam film titled Oru Adaar Love, but it’s actually an adaptation of a song originally written in 1978 by P.M.A. Jabbar — a Malayali poet who, quite unexpectedly, works as a clerk in a general store in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia! The song belongs to a traditional genre called Mappilla paattu: songs sung by Muslims of the Malabar Coast in northern Kerala on special occasions, such as weddings and family gatherings. The language of Mappilla paattu songs mixes Malayalam with Arabic and other languages such as Persian, Tamil, and Hindi-Urdu. This article states that “the lyrics of Mappila Pattu songs often praise prominent Islamic religious figures, recount anecdotes from the Prophet’s life and recollect historic battles. A leading proponent of the Mappila Pattu tradition was 19th-century poet Moyinkutty Vaidyar, most well known for his battle songs.”
The original song describes the love story of the Prophet Muhammad and Khadijah, his first wife. It begins with describing how “Khadijah sent a representative to the Prophet’s uncle Abu Talib, as a formal proposal, who promptly gave his consent” and ends with Khadijah dressing up for her wedding and the couple receiving divine blessings. The section of the lyrics used in the film song describe the couple’s first meeting, where Khadijah falls in love with Muhammad at first sight. Khadijah herself is a fascinating figure: a wealthy businesswoman in Mecca who was fifteen years older than Muhammad, and first hired him as a business agent before marrying him. She’s one of the most important women in Islam, and was the first person to accept Muhammad’s message, thus becoming the first Muslim.
In the past few days, this song has gone viral in India (17 million views on YouTube as I type this) for a couple of different reasons. Quite simply, the video depicts two students flirting in a crowded hall through glances and gestures. At one point in the video, the lead actress, 18 year-old Priya Prakash Warrier, winks at her love interest, played by Roshan Abdul Rahoof, and people are going crazy over it. (That wink has inspired many, many memes so far.) The song has been described as “an ode to the cheekiness of young love,” one which fits neatly into Indian cinema’s long tradition of romance communicated purely through eye contact.
An article on Scroll.in describes the classic eye-contact scene as such: “man/boy or woman/girl spot each other in a public place and cannot look away any more. They keep staring at each other unmindful of the world around them, communicating their mutual ardour in visual code. The tune plays out in the background. Time freezes and the people and objects around the lovers disappear – the ultimate state of being in love.”
Besides its depiction of young love, however, the song has also sparked controversy. A few Muslim men in Hyderabad felt that it was inappropriate to include this song in a film, because its lyrics describe the love between the Prophet Muhammad and Khadija, his first wife, and they filed a police complaint against the film. Omar Lulu, the director of the film, had this to say: “My mother has always loved this song and it was a part of my growing up… there has been some opposition from some old Muslims in the community. They feel that a love song that is about the Prophet Muhammad and his wife in a film is insulting to Islam. But these people are in a small minority. I think the song is now reaching more people than it did originally.”
Finally, this song is also serving a unique, almost-subversive purpose among parts of Indian society. For the past several years, Hindu nationalist groups have violently protested against Valentine’s Day, arguing that it is “indecent” and against “Indian culture.” These organizations, such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, choose to conveniently ignore the long history of publicly celebrating love in India. For example, Kalidasa, the most celebrated playwright in all of Sanskrit literature, wrote in the fourth century AD of spring festivals dedicated to Kamadeva, the Hindu god of love. In opposition to the Uttar Pradesh state government’s crackdown on young couples in public (called “anti-Romeo squads”, a pet project of the state’s chief minister Yogi Adityanath), popular writer on Hindu mythology Devdutt Pattanaik pointed out a verse in Valmiki’s Ramayana implying that “a city devoid of lovers in parks [is] a sad city.”
Of course, facts and history don’t matter to right-wing groups; this is evident in the United States as much as it is in India. Hindu nationalists have, in general, exhibited an obsession with controlling love among Indians, whether it is between people of different religions (the infamous “love jihad” hysteria), different castes, different sexualities… basically almost any consenting adults. This Valentine’s Day, many Indians pointed to the popularity of “Manikya Malaraya Poovi” — a film song celebrating young, carefree love, with roots in a traditional Muslim art form — as signifying the type of India they want to belong to. Jignesh Mevani, prominent activist and lawyer, Dalit leader, and politician in the state of Gujarat, tweeted about the song:
Happy Valentines Day ❤️❤️ Viral hit of ‘Manikya Malaraya Poovi’ is the answer to RSS's Valentines Day protest and Again Indians have proved that they like to love more than hating someone. Enjoy this beautiful video. #ValentinesDaypic.twitter.com/QtWqqqm8zt
Finally, here’s the song itself, with a translation of the lyrics below. I don’t know Malayalam myself, but I was able to piece together something which roughly conveys the message of the song, I think. Let me know if you know of any more accurate translations, and enjoy the song! Happy Valentine’s Day — and eid al-hubb mubarak from Morocco!
About a month ago, I had the opportunity to interview David Shulman, a scholar whose work and impact is hard to describe in just a paragraph. He is arguably the world expert on south Indian languages, literature, and history, in addition to being a poet, literary critic, and activist. Fluent in Hebrew, Sanskrit, Telugu, Tamil, and Hindi, his scholarship and knowledge is exhaustive.
I’ve written about Shulman’s work on this blog in the past; namely, his translations of songs that used to be performed by courtesans (devadasis) in South India. His latest book, Tamil: A Biography, published in 2016, focuses on the cultural history and development of the Tamil language. He is also a founding member of Ta’ayush, “a grassroots movement of Arabs and Jews working to break down the walls of racism and segregation by constructing a true Arab-Jewish partnership” in Palestine and Israel.
An Iowa native, Shulman is currently the Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but each spring he comes to the University of Chicago as a visiting professor, which is where I had a chance to talk with him. Although I was a complete stranger, he graciously agreed to my request for a short interview, and invited me over to his apartment by Lake Michigan. We had a fascinating conversation on Carnatic music, culture, history, and language in South India and beyond. Enjoy!
You began your studies in Hebrew and Arabic, and then shifted your focus to South India. Could you talk a little bit about that?
The thing I most liked in my B.A. years was Persian. I was doing Arabic, and Islamic history, and Islamic studies, and African studies, and things like that. But in my second year, after a year of Arabic, I started Persian, and that was what I truly loved. I wasn’t that serious a student in general, but [laughs] the one thing I cared about, really, was Persian.
I went to Iran and wandered around there for a summer with my brother, and that time I could also speak a little Persian. But I was drunk on Persian poetry—that was the main thing. I went on a pilgrimage to the graves of Hafez and Saadi in Shiraz, and we were in Isfahan, the great Caspian Sea… Actually, from Persian, I drifted eastward into India, through a series of accidents. But it had a lot to do with Persian.
I also loved Persian music right away. They have a raga-like system, what they call the dastgah. There’s associated scales, there are melodic phrases, like in any Indian raga. They don’t have so many—you know there are hundreds and hundreds of ragas. In any case, I loved the music. They often sing delightful verses from Hafez, Saadi, Rumi…
Note: This short piece was originally published on the website of Sadhana Coalition of Progressive Hindus, a grassroots organization I’m part of. When I use “we,” I am referring to Sadhana.
In the past few days, thousands of people across the world, both in India and abroad, have publicly taken a stand against the cow/beef-related mob violence, lynchings, and targeted killings of Muslims, Dalits, and other marginalized groups in India, under the slogan #NotInMyName. (If you want to read more about the protests and the violence that inspired them, you can Google “not in my name protests india”.) These protests have been widely praised, but also heavily critiqued by others.
Rajesh Rajamani argues that the #NotInMyName protests are “part of the problem,” and take focus away from “Brahmanism, which is at the core of the Hindu religion, and its scriptures that sanction social inequality and allow for violence to preserve its unequal structure.” He further states that any distinction made between Hinduism and Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) is “imaginary and false”.
Mr. Rajamani is correct in pointing out that any discussion of the violence perpetrated against Dalits and Muslims is incomplete if we do not also address the systemic violence that takes place through the institution of caste. Brahmanism refers specifically to the system of caste hierarchy which leads to entrenched social inequity.
However, we simply cannot agree with Mr. Rajamani’s claims that Brahmanism lies at the heart of Hinduism, and that Hindutva is no different from Hinduism.
A temple in Karnataka’s Haveri district, where Kanaka Dasa was from
A stamp commemorating Kanaka Dasa
The poet-saint Kanaka Dasa lived in what is now the Indian state of Karnataka, in the 16th century, when the Vijayanagara Empire was flourishing. A devotee of Krishna, he was a member of the haridasa devotional movement, which began in the 14th century and continued on through the 19th century. Some well-known haridasas include Purandara Dasa and Vyasatirtha. The haridasa movement significantly influenced what we now know as Carnatic music; Purandara Dasa is known as the “Great Father of Music” (sangeeta pitamaha), and many of his songs and the compositions of other haridasas are sung today. Because we have lost the original melodies of these songs, modern musicians and scholars have set these Kannada compositions to music, and that’s what we hear today. Many of Kanaka Dasa’s songs are sung as part of the Carnatic classical canon, including the charming ragamalika “Baro krishnayya“.
The song I want to share in this post, “Kula kula kula vennutiharu,” is rarely heard on the Carnatic concert stage, but its message is as urgent now as it was hundreds of years ago. In this song, Kanaka Dasa questions the notions of purity and pollution that form the basis of caste. He cleverly points out that lotus flowers, cow’s milk, and fragrant musk all originate in locations that orthodox Hindus may see as “impure”; yet, their products are seen as symbols of divinity and goodness! He asks the listener: which caste do Vishnu and Shiva belong to? Which caste does the soul or the five senses belong to? These questions may seem frivolous and rhetorical, but the fact that caste hasn’t been eradicated yet shows us that we need to take Kanaka Dasa seriously.
This song has been set to a joyful raga, Hamir Kalyani, and is sung here by the Bangalore Brothers, M.B. Hariharan and S. Ashok. Kannada lyrics follow, with an English translation taken largely from William Jackson’s Vijayanagara Voices:
Happy New Year all! I’ve been quite busy with college in the last few months, which is why I haven’t been posting as much lately. However, I did want to share this incredible video with you all.
“Chennai Poromboke Paadal” is another boundary-pushing project featuring Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna, who has been working tirelessly in the past few years to break down the elitist culture of Indian classical music (I’ve written about him in many previous posts). It was directed by Rathindran Prasad, who rose to fame with his “Kodaikanal Won’t” rap video starring Sofia Ashraf, and also involved journalist and activist Nityanand Jayaram and songwriter Kaber Vasuki. This video highlights the environmental impact of unrestricted urban development in Chennai, through a Carnatic composition in the colloquial dialect of Chennai Tamil.
Krishna has often asked “why is Carnatic music only in Sanskrit or chaste Tamil or chaste Telugu, and why is it talking about only [Hindu gods], when it could be talking about anything?”
“It’s very easy to say that Carnatic music should have different subjects and be in different dialects. It’s only when you do it that you realise if it works or not. The greatest thing the project has gifted me is that it has shown me such an experiment is possible and has opened incredible doors for me and for so many others.”
I’ll be honest: it’s a little unsettling to hear phrases like “concrete kattadam” (concrete buildings) sung in Anandabhairavi raga, but it’s also a really exciting feeling. I truly hope to see more projects like this; utilizing the rich aesthetic framework of this elite art form, but redirecting its lyrical focus to promote social change and introspection. This is the beginning of a new janma for Carnatic music.
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.”
Advertisement for a skin bleaching cream
Advertisement for a skin bleaching cream catered to men
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)