Image by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič



Updated: Nov 23, 2020

This talk was presented on December 6, 2017 as part of The Idea of India – Bangalore chapter, hosted by and at Vidyashilp Academy.


When we meet someone we often ask ‘Where are you from?’. The answers may vary from names of villages of patrilineal ancestors, countries from where they may have migrated or towns where the immediate family has settled in. The reason we ask such a question is to be able to situate the person in a context, get a sense of who we are meeting, frame their lives for our understanding in howsoever fragmented a manner. Similarly, when we ask the same questions about ourselves as the human species, we refer to ‘history’. History enables us to look at where we come from and the journey that has been so far – the various roads we have travelled as a race, the struggles, the conflicts, the people and ideas we have encountered along the way – the stories of our multiple pasts – or so we would like to believe.

The question of multiple pasts brings us to the question about whose stories does history tell us? And who is narrating those stories? History is complicated. What it is, what it is not, who it is about, who makes it, who writes it, who decides what to keep and what to eliminate – these are questions that complicate both history, and the way it is written and studied. It becomes even more complex in a country like ours. This is a land that has been witness to the footprints of so many different kinds of people from across the world, over thousands of years. Our civilization is formed by many forces and influences, which make it layered and complex with plurality at its core. These multiple strands of stories are often not linear or chronological. Many things happened simultaneously, and others in loops of time. The causes and effects of these stories are usually not clear and the lines are blurry. Political powers shifted first between kings, then colonial powers and then through independence and partition, shaping and reshaping the contours of the subcontinent. Simultaneously cultural, religious and philosophical movements, class and caste struggles, assertions of gender and sexuality, have written and rewritten our stories. Not a single ‘history’, but a multitude of ‘histories’ have thus shaped the way we live, the way we understand ourselves and our relationship with the world around us.

But like Chinua Achebe said using an African proverb, ‘Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter’. In the constant struggles for power, those who have maintained positions of strength have always pushed the writing of their own singular story. There are some historians too, who have contradicted and challenged these dominant narratives telling stories of the ‘others’. But constantly the structural powers of caste, gender, religion, race and sexualities, among others, have tried to drive away this ‘noise’ of the other historians from the textbooks we read in schools. The hegemonies of certain ways of telling history ensures that the general public, who have not pursued the long and strenuous journeys of reading histories in universities remain unaware of the works of these historians who challenge power. For the larger public then what is available as history is often singular ones compromised at the hands of such powers. In the process, gaps, erasures and silences necessarily arise within the narratives of the past that we encounter.

This is where the arts come in. The arts in its various forms as plays and poems, songs and films, dances and sculptures live and breathe among the public. They influence, question, mould and shape how we see ourselves and our relationships with the world around us. The arts have always provoked and protested the telling of a single story. Through the arts we are enabled to enquire into our past and ask critical questions about the gaps, erasures and silences that dominant powers of various kinds have created and sustained. The arts seek those stories that have been suppressed, blanked out and made invisible. We are able to seriously, playfully, ironically, and sarcastically engage with them. They have the possibility to disrupt hegemonies of caste, gender, religion, race and sexualities, among others.

I work with India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) where our focus has been to support the journeys of scholars and artists who do just that. As a facilitator, catalyst and provocateur in the field we fund projects that investigate and explore that which is absent from our understanding of our pasts and presents while making ways for our imaginations of collective futures. Here I will share with you some examples of these projects.

Interrogating the Past: Gaps

Gaps in our understanding of history could arise out of various reasons. There could be lack of evidence, a limited understanding of what is defined as evidence, communities unable to articulate and narrate their stories because of the imbalance of power or even a dearth of imagination on the part of investigators of the past to be able to find alternative ways of understanding it.

For instance, there has been in-depth scholarship on various aspects of classical music in this country over decades. However, there is very little work that explores the lives of the musicians who play instruments, many of whom come from the lower castes. One such case is that of the players of the Nadaswaram, a wind instrument popular both at religious ceremonies and weddings in south India. In the southern parts of Karnataka these musicians come from the hajama or barber community who call themselves the Savita Samaj. There is no documented history or study on them, though the instrument they have been playing for centuries is an integral part of the Carnatic music repertoire. Ashok Maridas, a film maker, attempted to study this community to make a film that depicts the untold story of the members of Savita Samaj. Using the instrument as a visual metaphor, the film, Casting Music, explores the socio-economic conditions of their lives and the various issues facing their existence. It explores their journey, the many changes that have taken place in their ways of life, and the uncertainties of their futures as well as the future of the Nadaswaram as more and more members of the younger generation move away from music to pursue other occupations. The film strongly critiques the social stigma faced by them and their struggles to find their rightful place in the history of music in southern India.

In another project Umashankar Mantravadi, a sound expert, challenges the singularly visual understanding of archaeological sites such as temples. He argues that the study of ancient sites has been dominated by visual and spatial methods of observation and research. However, since many of these sites were created for performances, unless they are also studied through their aural qualities and parameters, we will remain ignorant of the history of listening practices in India, and be unable to conserve them without damaging their aural capacities, he postulates. Through his study of Archaeo-acoustics or Ear-chaeology, Umashankar mapped two sites – the Vadakkamnathan temple in Thrissur, Kerala and the Buddhist site of Nagarjunakonda in Anupu, Andhra Pradesh — by recording the sonic properties of their ambience, as a pilot project for a larger exercise of doing the same for five more sites. He aims to create an archive of these sonic properties of the sites on a web platform, enabling users to recreate the listening experience of those sites. Perhaps, his findings will also help the Archaeological Survey of India to develop ways of conserving these sites without impairing their sonic qualities.

These two works, in very diverse ways, illustrate how projects in the arts can enquire into the ways in which we study our past and attempt to bridge some of the gaps in our understanding of history.

Interrogating the Past: Erasures

While there have been gaps in history where we have not paid adequate attention to some stories, other narratives have been erased over time due to various socio-political power dynamics that have rendered them invisible.

One such story is those of the women poets of the warkari tradition who composed abhangs, or spiritual poetry dedicated to the Vittala deity of Pandharpur in Maharashtra. Mostly sung in the north Karnataka and Maharashtra regions, these songs are integral to the warkari pilgrimage, a journey of 21 days from Dehu or Alandi to Pandharpur, undertaken in the months of June and July. The warkari movement began in the late 13th century with the saint-poet Gyaneshwar and continues to this day. While those abhangs composed by male saints like Tukaram, Namdev, Eknath and Gyaneshwar are sung by the community, the ones written by women composers like Aubai, Limbai, Gonabai, Bahinabai and a dozen others have been forgotten. Shruthi Vishwanath, a singer and music composer, has brought some of these abhangs back to life through composing and singing them in the public realm. Like many women’s voices from across the world, the poems of the warkari women speak of the sphere of their immediate domestic lives and inner worlds where chores of the everyday resonate with philosophical realisations about life and living. While at one end the simplicity of these works makes them accessible and endearing, their unabashed outspokenness makes them fiercely feminist. For instance, there is an abhang where Gonabai, mother of Namdev, is reprimanding her son for not taking care of worldly matters and spending his time in search of the lord. Another by Janabai, in tender and sensuous tones, talks of her intimate relationship with Vittala. The compositions speak of desire, longing and physicalities that are bold and audacious. Shruthi’s work has brought not only these abhangs, but also the lives and practices of these remarkable women poets into light, out of the oblivion they were pushed into.

There is another kind of erasure that happens even within dominant narratives – expunging parts of its uncomfortable or conflicting history for the vested interests of powers that be in later times. Enquiring into the relationship of caste, patriarchy and violence and its debates within the history of the Hindu religion is one such story. Abhishek Majumdar, a playwright and theatre director, had been concerned that after the elections of 2014 and the rise of the Hindu right wing, all debates on the hardline religiosity in India were happening between believers and non-believers. He wondered if such debates ever happened within the frames of Hinduism’s vast intellectual and philosophical expanse. Exploring historical documents and archival materials he wrote Muktidham, a play which is set in the fictional context of 8thcentury India when Hinduism encountered the rise of Buddhism especially among the lower castes. It interrogates the multiple debates within Hinduism during this difficult time, examines the various branches of its philosophy, and traces how one kind of sectarian response that originated through this argumentation, turned increasingly dogmatic and anti-intellectual. This set the course for the Hindu right for the next many centuries.

These two projects delineate the ways in which the arts are able to unearth stories that have over time been extirpated from our sense of history and how their resurgence can create new ways for us to understand our struggling presents.

Interrogating the Past: Silences

There are also silences in our histories – stories we are too scared or heartbroken or weak to tell and listen to. Many of these silences arise out of our own complicities or turning a blind eye to systemic violences of power; while others are results of sheer ignorance or arrogance that arise out of our own privileged positions in society.

One such story is that of Kashmir. In the imagination of India, Kashmir is a picture postcard of vivid natural beauty, devoid of human beings. However, over the past few decades the valley has been the site of unprecedented violence and we have still not found a language to speak about it. Sanjay Kak, a writer and film maker, worked with nine remarkable photojournalists from Kashmir to research and excavate their chronicles of the lives of people over the past twenty-five years. The resultant book Witness, comprising 200 images of photographers Meraj Ud din, Javeed Shah, Dar Yasin, Javed Dar, Altaf Qadri, Sumit Dayal, Showkat Nanda, Syed Shahriyar and Azaan Shah represents the public collective memory of the valley seen by insiders from close quarters. The design of the book with its loose spine, bound by a thread, detached image post cards within its pages, haunting layout and the editorial note by Sanjay narrates a story of Kashmir we need to pay heed to. Choosing the visual medium over text, these photographers have been able to dive into quotidian life amidst everyday brutality and the banality of violence attempting to find a new language to speak about a community struggling for agency and self expression.

Another significant area of silence in our histories has been the absence of stories of those who labour. While rulers and the cities and monuments they built, wars and empires and changing hands of power have been at the core of historical narratives, lives of women and men who ‘work, build, and make’ have been absent in our stories. Bhagwati Prasad, a graphic artist, attempted to work on the untold stories of migrant labourers and their tools, as they shape the history of the city of Delhi. These stories provide varying perspectives from those who have come from outside the city to make it their home as it grows in shape and size. Auzaron ki Chuppi Aur Kolahal (The Silence and Clamour of Tools) is the graphic book that traces this history through intricate drawings made by Bhagwati as he explores the world of labour, their relationship with tools and the roles they play in shaping our histories yet remaining absent from it. During his many engagements with members of labour groups Bhagwati also painted these images across the walls of the Faridabad Majdoor Library where workers meet to bring out a newsletter, the Faridabad Majdoor Samachar.

Another way in which silences are created in history is through constructing other people’s identity by representation in the complete absence of their own agency in it. Often this happens because of a complete inequality of power between the represented and those who represent. Zubeni Lotha, a photographer attempted to understand the construction of identity by representation through photographic images – in particular, the photographs of the Konyak Nagas by ethnologist Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf, which are responsible for creating the Naga stereotype. In 1936 ethnologist Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf came to Nagaland with a camera, and photographed the Konyak people, which became the earliest and most definitive images of them for the western world. His book, Naked Nagas, presented to the reader, these ‘noble savages’ uncorrupted by civilisation, framed and informed by Europe’s claim of civilisational supremacy over the ‘primitive Orient’. Zubeni’s project challenged this idea of the Naga identity formed through these images where they had no agency to determine how they wanted to be represented. Travelling through the state and in consultation with people from the community Zubeni built a body of photographic work titled Looking At the Tree Again, which is a critique of Haimendorf’s way of ‘seeing’. She photographed people the way they wanted to be seen, thereby also interrogating her own practice of photography on ideas of representation. More importantly, the project raised questions about the nationalistic mission of the modern state machinery that renders communities homogenous and lacking in agency to determine their own identity even today.

Reimagining the Future