Mughal magical realism
For a continental sub-unit boasting myriad traditional art forms, contemporary South Asia could do more to produce works of art that explore modern social and political issues through indigenous mediums. At least one craftsperson of the Subcontinent has taken a stab at that challenge – Saira Wasim, a miniaturist painter of the Mughal style, who works out of Lahore. There is much in the South Asia of today in dire need of artistic examination, and Wasim has cast her stroke wide, using her art to vent anger against religious extremism, nuclear jingoism and female repression.
Trained at the National College of Arts, Lahore, Wasim says that, in miniature painting, “issues which are big conflicts in society are touched on in a very sensitive, decorative and colourful way”. She has adapted the traditional Mughal style to incorporate iconography ranging from the Italian renaissance to South Asian truck art. Her pictures are overtly political, although also playful in their recurring employment of circus themes. Appeals to peaceful co-existence are laced with a distinct touch of irony, even caustic humour. In ‘Friendship’, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pervez Musharraf, both garbed in Tudor attire, shake hands in a military viewing stand as India’s ex-foreign minister Jaswant Singh looks on approvingly. Behind Musharraf scowls a jester, while to the general’s right a pint-sized military officer and a worried-faced Santa Claus offer salutes. Symmetry is maintained on Vajpayee’s side with a clown in meek supplication and a female juggler tossing balls. The medieval circus-cum-military parade is completed with oxen bearing missiles below the stand. While at one level this is a plea for harmony, at another level, in Wasim’s words, it is the depiction of “political leaders neglecting their duties” in childlike play.
Musharraf appears in many of Wasim’s creations, sometimes alongside other world leaders like Vajpayee and George W Bush, and at other times alone with a stoic lion and his military retinue. In ‘Haligoli’, for instance, Pakistani military officials in flip-flops clutch missiles and rifles on rocking horses (and one rocking lion, reserved for Musharraf), while mullahs stare down on the scene from above and figures on flying toy trucks streak across the sky. ‘Friends Again’, part of a series commenting on US-Pakistani military cooperation since September 2001, shows Bush and Musharraf cuddling in an elevated box while Ronald McDonald and a Pakistani soldier stand at the forefront of a celebrating crowd. In perhaps Wasim’s most irreverent blending of symbols, ‘The Kiss’ depicts Musharraf typing at a keyboard as American and British cherubs dote on him; his computer screen is filled with red hearts. In the background, partially hidden by half-drawn curtains, missiles soar into the sky in ordered columns.
Wasim says that because women in Pakistan fear speaking out on public issues for fear of religious censure, she uses art as a medium to express her anger at political and social conditions. She has explored victimisation and brutalisation as themes in her art since childhood, she says, and some of her less overtly political art, such as pieces depicting infants in lily-pad ponds and surrealistic war zones, explores human innocence. She revisits themes of corruption, both religious and political, in much of her work, and figures embodying disgraced ideals – politicians, soldiers, mullahs – appear in most of her pieces. “Due to this hatred against humanity in our society, there is so much corruption, and many social and political problems”, she laments. Samples of Wasim’s work can be viewed at www.absolutearts.com/portfolios/s/sairawasim/
Mountains of literature
It is a comfortable cliché that the Himalayan region is home to hundreds of endangered species and scores of undocumented languages. But it is not common knowledge that the field of Himalayan studies is home to a similarly diverse array of scholarly journals. This overview offers a few words on some of the major journals of Himalayan studies in the year that commemorates the 50th anniversary of one of the most celebrated Himalayan feats – Norgay and Hillary’s ascent of Everest.
Ancient Nepal (Prâcin Nepâl) is a large format yellow journal devoted to Himalayan prehistory and field archaeology and has been published by the Department of Archaeology in Kathmandu since October 1967. Many recent foreign archaeological expeditions to Nepal have published their initial findings in Ancient Nepal, and recent editions include accounts of work in Upper Mustang and Kohla (an old Gurung settlement). While the price is right, the distribution is not, and very few bookshops in Nepal or India carry the journal. Buy it when you see one, it is a rare find.
One of the longest running, most varied and impressively regular journals available in Nepal is Contributions to Nepalese Studies. The home of this journal, started in 1973, is the Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies in Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan University. Foreign scholars as well as domestic academics are encouraged to write for Contributions, and all articles are peer reviewed. Truly multidisciplinary, the journal’s strengths these days include anthropology, sociology and linguistics. Articles may be in Nepali or English, and offprints are provided to writers whose papers are accepted.
Along with Ancient Nepal and Contributions, the longest running journal in the field is Kailash: Journal of Himalayan Studies, published on crisp Nepali paper by Ratna Pustak Bhandar since 1973. The journal was conceived to be a forum for scholars of a younger generation from both the East and the West to have their material published and critically discussed, and to this day Kailash continues to publish the findings of original research projects. Originally published four times a year, Kailash is these days rather infrequent, and is available only in Nepal. The first few editions have now been digitised and are available online free at www.digitalhimalaya.com/kailash/.
The Journal of the Nepal Research Centre (JNRC) has been published in Nepal by the German publisher Franz Steiner Verlag GmbH Wiesbaden since 1977, and contains scores of excellent articles on the cultures and heritage of Nepal. The original aim – a noble one – was to republish in English the most significant articles on Nepal written in German and Nepali which would otherwise go unnoticed by many scholars of the region. To this day, a new edition of the JNRC emerges every year or so, and can be picked up in Kathmandu or Europe.
The Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies (formerly the US Nepal Studies Association) started a bulletin in the winter of 1980, which matured into the Himalayan Research Bulletin (HRB). This journal, edited out of Portland, Oregon, is an interdisciplinary publication of scholarship relating to Nepal and the adjacent Himalayan areas. The HRB is an excellent way to stay in touch with conferences, events, new publications and even old friends (an updated address and contact list is included every few editions). While this biannual journal is available through subscription only, the dedicated website, http://www.himalayan.pdx.edu/, has information on the contents of past and future issues.
The European Bulletin of Himalayan Research (EBHR) was established in 1991 with the aim of providing an open forum for scholars in the humanities, natural and applied sciences specialising in Himalayan studies. This biannual journal has a quirky editorial arrangement: it is edited in strict rotation by teams from the South Asia Institute of Heidelberg University, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris and the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. While notes on conferences and book reviews are welcome, a particular strength of the EBHR is the longer monograph-style articles, which are heavily footnoted and well referenced. The journal is pocket-sized and orange, and the occasional volume can be found in Kathmandu bookshops.
While Studies in Nepali History and Society (SINHAS) was conceived only a few years back, in 1996, the journal has already made an international name for itself as a discerning and high-quality publication. SINHAS aims to enhance understanding of cultural politics and social conditions in Nepal through a commitment to historical analysis, attention to Nepali scholarship and a willingness to explore new terrain. SINHAS is published in Kathmandu by Mandala Book Point and abstracts can be read online at www.emory.edu/COLLEGE/AS/sinhas/
The Journal of Bhutanese Studies dates to 1999, when an editorial board at the Centre for Bhutan Studies in Thimpu realised the need for an interdisciplinary journal relating to Bhutanese issues. The biannual journal can be purchased by contacting the editors or read online free at the website www.bhutanstudies.com.
The Royal Nepal Academy does not have the best track record with continuity when it comes to journals. A few years ago the Journal of Nepalese Studies was launched, but this never got further than a few irregular volumes, and was quickly replaced by the Journal of Nepalese Literature, Art and Culture. This biannual journal can be bought from the sales counter of the academy in Kathmandu.
The Tibet Journal is a quarterly publication of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives (LTBA) in Dharamsala, India. The journal’s focus is on scholarly and general interest articles on Tibetan culture and civilisation by Tibetans and non-Tibetans. This long-standing publication is edited by an international team of senior Tibet scholars, and many seminal articles have graced its pages. The Tibet Journal is available in many libraries and bookshops in Kathmandu, as well as directly from the publisher.
The Namgyal Institute of Tibetology in Gangtok, Sikkim, has recently relaunched its flagship publication, the Bulletin of Tibetology. First published in 1964, the journal is actively soliciting articles on Tibetan studies with a particular view to Sikkim and the surrounding areas. A website, www.tibetology.com, is under construction.
Tom Lehrer once sung of chemical elements: ‘these are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard, and there may be many others, but they haven’t been discovered’. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but there is one coming up in September that a team at the Tibetan and Himalayan Digital Library (www.thdl.org) is compiling. Readers are encouraged to send information on any major Himalayan journals to email@example.com
—Mark Turin, Ithaca
Queens, princesses and refugees
In end-June, it seems that all was forgiven and forgotten between Nepal and Bhutan. The Bhutanese senior queen Ashi Tsering Pema Wangchuk and her college-going photogenic daughters Chimi Yangzam and Kesang Choden arrived in Kathmandu to the weeklong delight of paparazzi, hugging HIV+ children, visiting Lumbini, and – most importantly – being wined and dined by Nepal’s royalty. Crown Prince Paras and his wife Himani suddenly surged to the limelight as hosts to the Bhutanese ladies. One moment that made particularly big waves was Paras bending to a low ‘namaste’ in a manner that has never before been captured by Nepali photojournalists.
All of this would be a most satisfying reinstatement of cordiality between the two Himalayan neighbours, except for one niggling detail that surfaced every time one saw the three Ashi’s of Bhutan in front page spreads. And that was the presence of the 106,223 refugees from Bhutan, whose future suddenly took a sudden turn for the worse a month ago when the Nepali government agreed to a Bhutanese proposal that would essentially render a majority of them stateless (See Himal, June 2003).
The Ministerial Joint Committee of the two countries decided to accept the Bhutanese proposal to an absurd categorisation of the refugees (as bona fide Bhutanese, as voluntary émigrés, as non-Bhutanese and criminal Bhutanese). The verification exercise in one of the camps has slotted more than 70 percent of the refugees in that camp in the second category; this means that these refugees have been rendered stateless unless the Bhutanese or Nepali governments assign them citizenship.
In pulling out all the stops to fete the ladies, the palace seemed surreally unaware of how this was going down in the public. For an increasingly politicised monarchy, Narayanhiti, it seems, should be more aware of the sensitivity of public relations operations.
Speculation in Kathmandu had it that the Bhutanese queen was in town with her daughters as a backdoor diplomat, and is thought to have purveyed the message that Bhutan would take back up to 70 percent of the refugees that had been rendered stateless. This jives well with earlier reports from unnamed sources in Kathmandu’s foreign ministry holding that government had informal reassurances to this effect from Bhutan.
The Bhutanese refugees are understandably hesitant to take such unofficial communication at face value after 13 long years of prevarication on their status in Bhutan and the circumstances in which they were made to leave. They can hardly be pleased, sweltering in camps in the hot, moist plains of Morang and Jhapa, with the chumminess between Kathmandu and Thimpu.
Kazasaburi is a wonderful technology
Glossy publications and slick multimedia information kits assure you that it is an innovative device. And a cheap device. Uses only locally available material. Local people can quickly acquire the skills needed to construct new Kazasaburis. It is also practically magical. It can, unleash development without foreign assistance once beneficiary communities are put through a brief spell of building capacity.
Kazasaburi has the potential to supply all the water needs of far flung rural communities. It can provide enough water to sustain both people and livestock in a good size African village. The water is filtered, hygienic, safe, and there will always be plenty to pot and drink. The success of Kazasaburi has been proven in pilot projects and field tests.
A Japanese NGO is credited with inventing the Kazasaburi. This accomplishment earned it the financial support of the Japanese government. With predictable Japanese zeal and efficiency, Kazasaburi was taken to a few remote African villages by a team of volunteers. They were dedicated volunteers, as only the Japanese can be. Staff back in Japan provided them backup and coordination support. Participatory community development groups in partnership with a networking organisation helped the Japanese innovators take the Kazasaburi to villagers who till then were drinking water from depleted soak pits, spreading disease and dying soon thereafter.
And since it succeeded so well in its objective of bringing clean drinking water to remote African communities, Kazasaburi was brought with great pomp to the Third World Water Forum or the 3WWF held in Japan. The World Water Forum is the periodic and moving confluence of global water interests. It is organised by the World Water Council (WWC), the official organiser and self-designated think-tank on global water policy, based in France.
Members of the WWC make up a who-is-who of development, including all the major states, bilateral and multilateral development agencies, development finance institutions, private corporations, inter-governmental agencies, research institutes and, of course, the inevitable sprinkling of NGOs blessed with selective advantage.
This was the third forum that WWC had organised since the first one in Marrakech in 1997 and the second one in The Hague in 2000. Having set the course of global water policy to synch with the profit calculus of powerful international interests, Japan was thought to be the place to agree upon a plan of action for the 3WWF. Sadly, Kazasaburi notwithstanding, Japan disappointed everyone.
The Europeans were irked at the Japanese for all sorts of organisational reasons. Of course, they were also peeved by the failure of the process to deliver results. The Americans, frankly, were quite unconcerned. But the corporations were there to attend to life’s stern duties. So they prioritised and spent large sums of money at the forum on image enhancement exercises, in addition to pulling policy strings from behind the scenes.
Most participants from the third world were lost in the glittering melee of events at parallel sessions in Osaka, Shiga and Kyoto cities. Few knew what was going on. Fewer bothered to find out since life was jolly at the cafés. The sushi was good, the onsens were cultural. It all came off rather well. Tradition must have saved the hosts for, despite everything, the meet went through the motions like a venerable geisha at a tea ceremony where all the guest are not equally evolved in their aesthetics. The obtuse process at the forum completed the usual confusion so essential to the ambience of summits and other international meets where fog facilitates thinking.
The American war in Iraq added to the water-borne misery at the 3WWF. Radical NGOs managed to get their protests noticed, but for the rest there was no cheer. The political declaration disappointed all. The companies did not get the policy guarantees that their profits require and the bureaucrats did not make much headway with their ambitious advances. The third world did not lose much, nor did it win any. Same story, different place.
Amidst all this gloom, Kazasaburi made significant progress. Information on the Kazasaburi was shared with participants and ministers from all over the world through multimedia presentations on the huge screen in the NGO area, including a broadcast quality video documentary showing Japanese volunteers busy planning, travelling, visiting, helping, guiding, sharing and, in the end, jubilantly celebrating with thankful African communities.
Three different sessions had inputs on the Kazasaburi, besides the one session that was entirely devoted to it. Free return tickets were available to registered participants from the conference secretariat in Kyoto for efficient commuting, including on the Shinkansen, otherwise called the “bullet train”. There were confidential whispers that the Kazasaburi was being considered for a place among the ‘Top-10 Water Actions’ supervised by WWC.
Eventually, Kazasaburi won the day. And people should heave a sigh of relief at learning that Kazasaburi will be made available to the poor in the poor countries through the benevolence of efficient and munificent Japan.
But I cannot make my friend Malik Aslam the plumber — 39, father of five, who works 10 hours a day for USD 2 –understand why he was not invited while grateful community representatives from remote African villagers and Kazasaburi’s innovators were brought to say their thanks in front of all. You see, Malik Aslam has been sinking the Kazasaburi for the last 20 years just as his father did before him and his father in his own time. Only he has always called it a hand pump. He can understand why the Japanese innovators call it a Kazasaburi, but he cannot understand why they call it an innovation.
–Khalid Hussain, Multan
The final century
I am 51 and do not understand what it really means to be old. What does the word old mean to those whose lives are too short to have experienced the things that make the rest of us know that we are growing old? Do we then not grow old because we do not experience Big Macs, and all the rest of it that arrived on us one day without warning and divulged to us just how old we are.
Nowadays I work a lot with a project involving the ‘extreme’ poor (also known in some quarters as ‘hard core poor’) and though I do not agree with much that goes on, I understand what it means to grow old and yet not be able to grow old. Because most do not. They cannot grow old. They look with terror and fall into a stupor at the endless hungry sunsets they must see. Hunger is a new definition of everything. But there is no language yet to say what it means.
In a village where I try not to get too involved, a woman invites me to watch her family watch her feeble husband die. A few kids cling to her or loiter nearby. If her husband dies she will become destitute. As a destitute she will qualify for aid and assistance. Even the dying man knows that and in a dialect I do not understand he mumbles on. In any case, it hardly matters what he says. What does a father dying in his youth before the eyes of his wife and children mumble that you and I can understand. Perhaps it is easier to understand the wife. I think the woman promises that she will be a widow by the next morning. She will qualify. And she looks at me with pleading eyes, I the boss from the city in a dirty Pajero.
How can I imagine what I cannot understand, unlike her who imagines because she does not understand? She cannot know that I, the boss from the city in a dirty Pajero, cannot persuade an inert, blinking bureaucracy that there is a woman waiting for some money with just as much resignation as she once waited for her husband’s death.
Yet this cannot mean anything for this man who has no history, barring the family he will leave behind to live on a destitute’s pension that his death may bring them. Who can understand the absence of his past, the cloying of his hunger and the irrelevance of his death from unrecorded causes. He will neither be mourned nor missed. How can he be when the seeds of his loins are waiting for his death? The only slim chance that they can live a little longer depends on his passing. He has no history except that once, on the deathbed, he has seen a man who understands the semiotics of age and youth, who is being implored by his wife to do something about the pension she will soon be eligible for.
He is just a man who will die before his time because he had no control over his life in an age when his misery multiplies regardless of whether the prices rise or fall in distant share markets. He is not part of history because he has not heard of Wall Street, that mighty orgasm of the market civilisation, now slightly on the wane after a premature climax. He does not know he does not exist except in his world, where nothing can be imagined because everything is far too real and always the same. Reality has collapsed him into a man waiting for his wife to be a widow, and in the sameness of his daily life no one gave him any markers to measure out his age. His is the kind of niche market that no one has any time for. So why did they even bother to make him in the first place? I walk out and immediately the power of their imagination overwhelms me. I am the bhai saheb, the mian bhai, believed by the dying to be the deliverance of their kin, the one who will sweep away the remains of their family into the world from where I came in a huge vehicle that reeks of the city and pity and mercy. And wisdom.
In this circular world of hunger, I am the deliverance of their imagination.
Here there is no poetry, only a blind and barely animate faith. Meanwhile, inside the hut the man lay dying and he is the wretched cause of that faith, because what takes him away tomorrow, if his wife has got it right, will one day take all the rest away.
I hear this is the final century. Why am I filled with relief? I, the boss from the city in the dirty Pajero.
–Afsan Chowdhury, Dhaka