Year in review: Ten great Southasian culture stories of 2023

Year in review: Ten great Southasian culture stories of 2023

A selection of Himal’s most-read articles on Southasian culture this year

From the cinema of caste in Tamil Nadu to how Pashto poetry articulates the trauma of war and violence, we at Himal Southasian take a look back at some of our most-read stories on culture for 2023.

Here's our selection, in no particular order:

Mari Selvaraj, 'Maamannan', and the cinema of caste in Tamil Nadu

"Popular Tamil cinema presents the south of Tamil Nadu as something like the Wild West, where the law is lax and men with handlebar moustaches, armed with machetes, rule the streets," writes Karthick Ram Manoharan, "Reality, however, is often a lot less exciting."

Karthick explores the energetic and ongoing debate on caste and representation in Tamil cinema, with the director Mari Selvaraj and his new film Maamannan at the centre of the latest skirmish as a new wave of anti-caste films challenge the caste-glorifying films of the past and the Tamil film industry's old ways.


"Yes, our son is gay": A Nepali father's awakening

In December 2007, Nepal's Supreme Court decided to decriminalise homosexuality. Despite this legal victory, gaining social acceptance for Nepal's gender and sexual minorities remains a struggle, as does improving society's understanding of the complex challenges they face.

A path-breaking personal essay written by Bhojraj Pokharel and translated by Niranjan Kunwar calls for social acceptance and full rights for Nepal's LGBTIQ+ community.


Languages of the islanders in Southasia: Part 1 and 2

Discussions on languages of Southasia are often limited to languages spoken in mainland Southasia. Rarely mentioned are the lesser-known languages spoken on the numerous islands of the region.

In part 1 of the essay, Abhishek Avtans explores the linguistic diversity and study of endangered languages in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. These languages of the islanders, many endangered and vulnerable, are not only treasure troves for linguists but also an integral part of these speech communities' identity, history, knowledge and culture. In the second part, Abhishek looks at how the languages spoken in the islands of the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh demonstrate language contact and convergence, and offer insights into the histories, cultures and linguistic diversity of the region.


Now scattered across modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan, primarily along the two countries' shared border, Pashtuns have historically faced frequent challenges to their territories and ways of life. Most often, they have told stories about this in their poetry.

But just as Pashtuns are marginalised in Pakistan, Pashto poetry is yet to get due recognition in Pakistan's mainstream literary circles, despite its immense and vital tradition.

Hurmat Ali Shah writes on how Pashto poetry highlights the oppression faced by Pashtuns across multiple fault-lines and why these works deserve greater space and attention.


In India, the prevailing atmosphere of disapproval and denigration of homosexuality led many queer individuals to distance themselves from their churches and surrounding communities, resulting in isolation. Still, many queer Christians found themselves looking for some source of steadiness and solace, and some found it in their church.

In an essay co-published with queerbeat, Joshua Muyiwa looks at how some queer Indian Christians are slowly returning to the fold – helped by some churches' efforts to make safe spaces for them.


Founded in 1952, the Awami Idara, Mumbai's largest Urdu library, is part of a long history of Southasian Muslim labour activism and an often-overlooked Indian Muslim left, rooted in the mills and factories of cities like Mumbai.

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, the library collected printed Urdu materials from across India and Pakistan. In doing so, it built an eclectic collection that also tied its Mumbai neighbourhood to trans-Southasian worlds of Urdu literature and writing. Amanda Lanzillo explores how the Awami Idara provided a space for Mumbai's Muslim labourers to consider their connections and commitments to political movements and events across Mumbai, Southasia and beyond.


In the Bollywood films that dominate many Indian and Southasian screens, it is rare to see trans people getting much screen time – let alone owning the stage like in Joyland. Chintan Girish Modi takes a look at how Indian audiences are connecting with director Saim Sadiq's acclaimed, queer-affirming Pakistani film, which was briefly banned in its home country.

"As a person who grew up in India, where Pakistan is routinely demonised as an enemy country, it was moving to see fellow Indians responding to Pakistani characters on screen with respect, warmth and solidarity," Chintan writes. "The people in the cinema that evening, whether queer or not, seemed to see something of themselves in the film, without national borders or histories of intergenerational trauma getting in the way."


In Sri Lanka, during last year's aragalaya, or people's struggle, the concept of the gama or village in Sinhala, came to the forefront of political discourse. Gota Go Gama on the Galle Face Green in Colombo, demanding that president Gotabaya Rajapaksa resign amid a dire economic crisis, not only became the main site of resistance but also came to represent an anarchistic revolutionary movement.

The village has long been a powerful trope in the Sinhalese Buddhist consciousness, and was presented as such in Sri Lanka's nationalist political vision throughout the 20th century and till today. Dhanuka Bandara considers the work of Martin Wickramasinghe, a leading Sri Lankan writer of the 20th century, and Ananda Coomaraswamy, a key Sri Lankan cultural critic and philosopher, to uncover how agrarian utopianism came to be a fundamental part of Sri Lankan nationalist thought.


In a review essay on Jawan, Anna M M Vetticad explores how the new Hindi blockbuster starring Shah Rukh Khan is a far cry from the small but steady stream of Hindi films that have risked making political statements under the BJP regime, at a time when the very act of watching a Shah Rukh film has become a political statement in an India where Muslims are more vulnerable than they have ever been before.

Anna also points out that Jawan lends an illusion of importance to the women, but the characters are poorly developed and remain strictly on the margins. "In effect, this makes Jawan a slightly updated variation of a long-time favourite genre of Indian cinema: the tale of a lone male crusader battling an anti-people establishment."


In much of Southasia, food preferences are a marker of both class and caste. By extension, social and spatial segregation based on food consumption is a way of making social hierarchies starkly visible.

The consumption of beef has long been used as a tool for "other"-ing in Kashmir; the difference now is that the stigmatisation is coming from within the Muslim community simply because beef is distasteful to dominant-caste Muslims and elites. In contemporary times, beef consumption is viewed as a divider between villagers and urban-dwellers.

Burhan Majid writes on how in Kashmiri Muslim society, there is strong evidence that the consumption of varying kinds of meat plays a significant role in creating and perpetuating social barriers and caste hierarchies. This also debunks the notion that caste does not exist in Kashmiri Muslim society.


Himal Southasian