Archive for January, 2014

A Fairytale With A Feminist Message… Finally!

Long long ago…  there was a princess with ocean blue eyes, hair like spun gold, complexion like peaches and cream, and a waist that could be spanned with two hands… or that’s what I presume! Well with all these attributes how could she not be a princess?

Princess Fiona

Princess Fiona

But alas! One day, an ugly crone, with twisted back, and grey and knotted of hair came and took her away, and with all possible dark, black magic – puts her behind the windows of an ivory tower. Here, the princess did nothing to rescue herself, but she only sang her sweet laments, such that little birds cried out to her sorrow. And despite all her gloom, she still believed in one thing that Revlon claims to sell… Hope. For she thought her Prince Charming will come and rescue her… Someday!

And then one day, her Prince Charming heard her voice, and answered her every spoken and unspoken prayer, glanced upon her countenance and fell “deeply in love” (That’s all she was waiting for after all!).

He not only killed the crone chivalrously, but rescued and married the obviously thin and fair skinned princess and apparently lived happily ever after with her.

That’s how a typical fairytale goes, does it not? There are too many perfectly beautiful damsels in distress, awaiting their chivalrous knights to come rescue them. From Rapunzel to Ariel, from Cinderella to Sleeping Beauty, these characters have appeared on movie screens and TV sets. This is not only a Construction of Reality by the Western world. Our own home made Amar Chitra Katha too follows the same stereotype. The Good man is white skinned, with perfect dentures, tight abs, and a flexible back always ready to rescue the ‘damsel in distress.’ Bad man of course is brown or black skinned, deformed, pot-bellied and everything that’s not so good. And not to mention he also consumes flesh and alcohol, while the virtuous ones eat more fruits and vegetables than prescribed in any slimming diet!

These are stories we’ve all loved as children, and still turn to time and again as adults. However, I can’t help but wonder… how much do we carry these childhood fantasies into our adulthood, subconsciously or otherwise? Do they contribute to a culture that has led to the creation of the largest fairness cream market in the world? I often thought when do we get to see real heroines, with good messages, and more brains than beauty.

Amidst all these thoughts, when I watched a few episodes of Shrek recently, I realized why I started growing quite fond of this animated series … which is much more than funny characters and laugh-out-loud lines! In fact, at last the movie industry has answered some of my questions and those of the like-minded people I occasionally come across!

Unlike the anti-feminist, racist, body dystopia-promoting stories, this one turned out to be liberal and refreshing. The story revolves around Shrek, a plump, green ogre, who actually turns out to be the hero of the piece. Princess Fiona who chooses to abandon her looks to truly be herself, and be with the man she loves. And who also occasionally rescues him from the evil Prince Charming, who has hair like gold but a heart of coal. And there’s an inter-racial marriage too, in the form of Donkey and Dragon.

Shrek is a refreshing change to the familiar fairy tale movies. It will restore your faith in the children’s movie industry, and allow you to feel confident that you can reinforce feminist values while taking your children – or just yourself – to see it. I would like to see more of such creations in the world of animation with optimistic messages, packed into a wallop of an entertaining film.

Kaikeyi – The ‘Evil’ Queen???

Kaikeyi – the most misunderstood woman in Ramayana was one of the characters that always fascinated me. Despite her complexities, she is an interesting character that stands out in the epic. She is considered to be one of the women whose actions led to the events of the epic. She is also portrayed as the proverbial step-mother and is seen as the jealous wife and an over-zealous mother.

kaikeyi- The warrior princess

kaikeyi- The warrior princess

I often wondered, was Kaikeyi really the evil queen she was made out to be? I do not mean to defame the popular version but offering a feminist’s gaze at a legend that is written by, and dominated by men.

To begin with, i believe Kaikeyi’s personality is worth examining and perhaps provides a strong clue to her motivations which later led to her insisting on the exile of her stepson from Ayodhya. Kaikeyi was a princess of the kingdom Kaikeya and was very strong-willed. As a young girl and the only sister to seven brothers, Kaikeyi grew up without a maternal influence in her childhood. That’s because her father, the King, had banished her mother from Kaikeya after realizing that his wife’s nature was not conducive to a happy family life. She obviously harboured a sense of insecurity from the male community, who she thought were capricious. While wanting to keep up with her brothers, she trained herself to become a warrior princess.

King Dasharath had married her only when his first two queens, Kaushalya and Sumitra, were not able to conceive. She realized that her purpose in the kingdom was to bear a child. For that matter, any wise and intelligent woman would feel humiliated by such motives. Also as a result of being the youngest of three wives, she was somewhat insecure in her heart, in that she feared that the king did not love her as much as he loved his other queens. Having said that I should also mention that polygamy was common those days but was solely a pro-male phenomenon. It did not reflect a woman’s point of view nor it tried to find out how distressed a woman can feel in the presence of co-wives.

Coming back to Kaikeyi, she was said to have accompanied Dasharath to a war against a demon. During the war, when Dasharath was supposed to have been injured, she drove his chariot out of the battleground, nursed him and got him back on his feet, fit to fight the war. King Dasharath was very impressed by her heroism, and granted her two boons, which she kept for a better day. So, later on, when Dasaratha appointed Rama as his successor, Kaikeyi used her strengths to her advantage and thought of a way to get herself and her son ahead of everyone else – she requested that Rama be exiled, and that Bharata be promoted in his place. Of course this hideous act made her the quintessential villain in the ancient epic and even to society at large, I wonder how many other people in her situation would have reacted. I guess not very differently.

Some versions also say that she did all this under the instructions of Rama himself! According to this version, Rama confessed to Kaikeyi, that he was Lord Vishnu on earth and he needed to go to the forests to eliminate many a demon and Ravana as part of his duty on earth. For this, could she do something to help him? He also warned her of the implications, and the stigma that would be associated to her name. Kaikeyi, being an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu thought a stigma on her name was a relatively small sacrifice to be made. It is said that after her death, Kaikeyi found a place at Vaikuntha, the abode of Lord Vishnu.

We do not know the truth in these versions. However, in most instances a powerful and assertive woman, no matter what her motives are – have always been viewed by the society as villainous, domineering and wicked, whether in history or mythology.

If there is some truth in the story of Ramayana, I would say that Rama’s exile was destined and pre-ordained. The quintessential step-mother was a figment of an author’s imagination or at best just a catalyst, who has been bearing the brunt of it all, since ages!

(Photo courtesy: Ravi V‘s blog A Free Mind)

Bali – A Home Away From Home

It was a short official visit to the beach town of Bali, but a memory I will treasure forever. On reaching the airport, at first, I was a little surprised when a charming young Balinese woman greeted me with a Namaste, saying “Om swasti astu.” (May God shower grace upon you) knowing that I was from India. Lakshmilatha, as she introduced herself, was supposed to be my escort who would drop me to Pan Pacific Nirvana, the luxurious resort where my stay had been arranged.

The massive charioteer

The massive charioteer

En route from the airport to the resort, as I was looking around the place from the car, what surprised me even more were the signboards – big and small – all over the place and names of the villas that read: Srirama, Laxmimata, Lakshmana, Nakula, Bhimsena and so on.

Even though a bit jet lagged, I wondered for a fraction of second where I am? Of course, at the face of it, you will become aware that Hinduism is alive and well in East Asia. Needless to say, I also did a bit of reading before reaching this place, but the real experience was unique. It was as if I am seeing a mini India in Bali!

It’s amazing that an island in the middle of a Muslim majority Indonesia has over 92 percent of Hindu population. The different structures I came across on the way were a reaffirmation of this tradition and culture. On the way, two stark structures – a massive charioteer with a warrior perched on top of it – a closer look suggested it’s Arjuna and Krishna – and another which looked suspiciously like a dancing Nataraja simply drew my breath away.

Lakshmilatha told me that in ancient Bali, nine Hindu sects existed, namely Pasupata, Bhairawa, Siwa Shidanta, Waisnawa, Bodha, Brahma, Resi, Sora and Ganapatya. Each sect revered a specific deity as its personal Godhead. There are even ardent Hindus who recite a version of the Gayatri Mantra with great regularity. Amazingly, it is said that if a Balinese is asked what heaven is like, he will turn around and say – just like Bali, without the worries of everyday hurly burly of life. They want to live in Bali, to be cremated in Bali when they die, and to reincarnate in Bali.

I grabbed a book from a local book store to understand the historical intricacies of the place. The island of Bali has been discovered from various inscriptions, including the Blanjong pillar inscription written by Sri Kesari Warmadewa in 914 AD. It was during this time that the complex irrigation system subak was developed to grow rice. Some religious and cultural traditions still in existence today can be traced back to this period. The Hindu Majapahit Empire (1293-1520 AD) on eastern Java founded a Balinese colony in 1343. When the empire declined, there was an exodus of intellectuals, artists, priests, and musicians from Java to Bali in the 15th century.

It was much later in 1930s that Bali became a tourist paradise for the western world. anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, and artists Miguel Covarrubias and Walter Spies, and musicologist Colin McPhee created a western image of Bali as “an enchanted land of aesthetes at peace with themselves and nature.” This is when the western world woke up to Bali as this mystical land. But its Hindu spirit remained unharmed.

There are many parallels between Indian Hinduism and Balinese Hinduism. For example, within Indian Hinduism most people worship Brahman as a supreme deity and within Balinese Hinduism most people worship Sanghyang Widhi Wasa as a supreme deity. Sanghyang Widhi Wasa is similar to Brahman, in that he is believed to embody all universal dualities and have many incarnations. Within Balinese Hinduism, Dewi Sri also represents a very special deity. She is believed to be a Balinese Hindu figure that the Balinese historically did not derive from another culture. Dewi Sri is the consort of Wisnu, the Goddess of rice, the Goddess of sustenance, and the protector and nurturer of Bali’s rice fields.

Almost all of the Balinese Hindu Gods and Goddesses were historically assimilated, into Balinese Hinduism, from Indian Hinduism. However, this assimilation process did not always take place as a result of direct contact between the Balinese and Indians. Many Balinese Hindu beliefs and practices, were assimilated into Balinese Hinduism because of historical contacts that the Balinese had with the Javanese.

Pan Pacific Nirvana was my home for a couple of days in Bali. The fancy five star resort was ideal for those just wanting to luxuriate – with spas, massage, swimming pools, and meditation retreats. Because I was there to attend a summit, I could not go on a major expedition. But some of the things I saw, I enjoyed and got a strange feeling that I had been here some time before!

Getting an Indian flavour in a country so far away from home was enthralling. The town has a culture than resembled South India more than the North. At times I felt I was in a pristine South Indian town – listening to the music of Nakara flowing inside and around the temples and seeing young girls with orange and white flowers in their hair moving on the streets. Each day young Balinese women place floral offerings to the gods in front of every home or shop doorway. You can get the smell of agarbattis all over the place – creating a serene and calm atmosphere.

Many Bali hotels and resorts hire Indian chefs and local eateries and restaurants that proudly have Hindu names on their signboards and sell dahi puris to masoor dal and vegetable jalfrezi and chicken makhanwala.

I happened to visit a quaint, but highly expensive shopping cum eating arcade – Bali Collection – that was positioned in the middle of an enclave. What greeted me was a full length statue of Mahatma Gandhi along with Nelson Mandela that automatically brought a smile at the corner of my lips. I was also quite enthralled to see the bust of Rabindranath Tagore at one of the market complexes.

I vaguely remembered reading about Tagore’s visit to Bali when he was on a three and a half month Southeast Asian tour in 1927. Tagore said that he was going on a pilgrimage to India beyond its modern political boundaries.  He wrote: “India’s true history reflected in the many stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata will be seen more clearly in this part of the world.”

As I explored a small picturesque village overlooking the paddy field and clear blue sky, a scent of rural ancient India filled the air. I could feel the true meaning of Tagore’s words… literally!

An Air of Youthfulness

Book review:

Love, Films and Rock ‘n’ Roll

Swayam Ganguly’s debut novel – Love, Films and Rock ‘n’ Roll is nothing out of the world, but that’s what sets it apart from the crowd. The storyline is simple, centering the lives of three young men who meet as strangers on a train journey and become friends forever. While their common points of interest was a love for the arts and a desire to do something ‘different,’ the story further explores the changing perception of the younger generation, and how with the help of the central theme – love, films and music – the men relive their inherent cultural values.

- Love, Films and Rock ‘n’ Roll

Love, Films and Rock ‘n’ Roll

The language is vivacious and has a youthful charm as the author aptly describes the emotions of the young men, their state of mind and also that of the other characters.

Swayam needs to be applauded for doing a good amount of research while writing his book, especially when his characters discuss the various aspects of film and music, it shows his depth of knowledge on the subjects. At the same time, he has also painted a wonderful picture of the city of joy – Kolkata, as he goes on to describe the streets, its people, the teeming crowd and every other minute detail. The descriptions are vivid and come straight from his heart.

The way Swayam has structured the content needs a special mention. The book is divided into three parts, each having a certain number of chapters. The book shuttles between the past and present – as in the first part we get to see how the three characters get to meet and discover their dreams and desires. The second part deals with how they go about chasing their dreams and finally, the last section depicts their changing perceptions, some fulfilled ambitions and ends on a positive note.

The fact that the novel deals with Youth and the younger generation makes it invigorating. Well structured, inspiring and lively, Love, Films and Rock ‘n’ Roll is indeed an enjoyable read!

To learn more about the book, visit: https://www.facebook.com/lovefilmsandrocknroll