Saturday, August 29, 2015

Reflections from Midsomer

Over the past couple of weeks I have been viewing back episodes of the British murder mystery TV series Midsomer Murders. Set in the fictional English county of Midsomer, the series revolves around the efforts of Chief Inspector Detective Barnaby, who is attached to the CID of a town called Causton, to resolve the murders that afflict the county.

A possible reason for the attraction is that the series is a loving dedication to the English countryside, and to the imagined English way of life. Midsomer Murders elevates what it sees as English reality with great aplomb. There are long loving shots of breath-taking English countryside. Added to this are the details that are worked into the stories: a focus on contemporary English villages, the age-old social institutions, the rituals of these institutions, the relationship between the gentry and the village-folk. So lovingly ethnographic is the gaze of this series, that despite the glut of murder and nastiness that fills these episodes one can’t help but feel how wonderful it must be to live in rural England.

After a substantial period of time, when I was more than a dozen or so episodes into the drama, a rather discomfiting thought hit me. The series contained an overwhelming number of white persons! It seemed as if there were no persons of colour in the episodes. That is when I started actually looking for people of colour and sure enough, not a single person in evidence! 

Reflecting on this situation I was reminded of an article that discussed the problems of race in video games. Mounting responses to the standard apologies that one gets, the author Bao Phi phrased one that has remained with me ever since, and seemed particularly appropriate in the case of Midsomer’s disappearance of English people of colour. The apology normally reads “Games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Age are based in European folklore and there were no people of color in Medieval Europe.” Phi’s response is clever and hits the nail bang on the head: “Actually there were people of color in Medieval Europe.  You know what?  There were more actual people of color in Medieval Europe than there were REAL FIREBREATHING DRAGONS OR PEOPLE WHO COULD SUMMON MOTORCYCLES OUT OF THIN AIR WITH THEIR MAGIC POWERS.”

This response makes it so obvious that the constructions of our fantasies are not as innocent as we make them out to be, but invariably involve a choice. That there were more murderers in fictional Midsomer than people of colour suggests that the producers of the show wished to show was that there was no space for people of colour in real English life and the England of the imagination. 

Something else that struck me about Midsomer Murders was the dramatic way in which it contrasted with American versions of the similar genre like Castle, or Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. In the episodes that I have seen, Chief Inspector Barnaby and his associate have practically never been shown with a gun. American versions of this genre, however, are replete with the presence, and use, of guns. It should be pointed out that I am unfamiliar with the way in which the police and detectives in England actually operate. It is possible that just as the non-depiction of people of colour highlighted the way the producers of Midsomer wished to imagine England, perhaps the depiction of a folksy and unarmed police detective is also far from English reality. However, what is important is the manner in which the ideal comportment of the police are depicted. As suggested earlier, just as with advertising, television series such as Midsomer Murders are important because they set up an ideal world that we then look for in real life. To this extent, Midsomer Murders suggests that the use of guns is an aberration, while the American series normalise the use of guns suggesting that the ONLY way in which law and order can be enforced is via the use of guns.

Because television is so ubiquitous in our lives it forms the basis of our expectations of reality. For the great Indian middle class that feeds off American television, American drama series offer a vision of what life in the USA is like. Seeing police with guns, all too often their demand is that police in India also be armed with guns. What they do not see is the kind of racist and gratuitous violence that is meted out by police in the US to persons of colour, and the fact that this violent tendency is aggravated by the carrying of lethal weapons. Of course, given the caste-based nature of the Indian middle class, it is perhaps something that they would not care too much about. Nevertheless, it bears remembering that once unleashed, the spiral of violence is difficult to contain.

It is not uncommon to hear howls of protest whenever social justice issues are raised vis-à-vis films and episodes on television. “Oh, but this is just fantasy” it is claimed. Another standard trope is, “but film is about stereotypes!” Indeed, televisual representation may be about stereotypes, but these representations also impact on our expectations of reality. It is for this reason that it is critical that the representations in film and television are not simply shrugged off as fantasy, but challenged not only to embody reality, but also embody a just reality that we would like to see translated to reality.

(A version of this post was first published in The Goan Everyday on 30 Aug 2015)

Friday, August 21, 2015

Bhembre, Nagri Konkani and the project of Brahmin supremacy

Some time ago, speaking on the BBSM’s platform against the assertions of FORCE Uday Bhembre, is reported to have represented “the FORCE action as not a mere step for English medium but a revival of the Portuguese agenda to denationalise Goans from its language and culture.” In addition, Bhembre suggested that, “‘English medium is a step of deculturisation, leading to the ultimate agenda of denationalisation. These are the same people who line up in front of the Portuguese Consulate for Portuguese passports. Tomorrow, these people would not hesitate to chant a slogan – Viva Portugal’”. Bhembre is not the only person to have made these suggestions.  Arvind Bhatikar is reported to have made similar statements. 
Persons familiar with recent history will not be surprised that Uday Bhembre is associating with the Hindu nationalist RSS and engaging in hate speech against the Catholics in Goa. However, at least the 80s this is the man who was hailed by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church as one of the most secular leaders of Goan society. How then, did this switch take place?

This confusion will be allayed, and Bhembre’s recent statements make sense, if we place him within a tradition that seeks brahmanical hegemony over both Konkani and Goa.

For this it is necessary that we go back into the past, to The Triumph of Konkani penned by Vaman Varde Valaulikar (translated by Sebastian Borges, 2003), fondly known to his spiritual children as Shenoi Goembab. The first chapter of Valaulikar’s polemic seeks to establish that Konkani is the mother-tongue of Goa. This task was important for Valaulikar, because he was in fact trying to persuade members of his caste group to accept Konkani as their mother-tongue. This was not an easy task, because many of them, like a certain Raghunath Ganesh Shenoy Talwadkar, identified Konkani with the Catholics of Goa. Valaulikar spends some time in this chapter responding to Talwadkar’s arguments.

What is very clear from reading the polemic is that Talwadkar had a horrific distaste for Christians. Valaulikar indicates that Talwadkar had disparaged Dr. José Gerson da Cunha as a “defiled Christian”, “bigot”, and “goanese”; and had indicated his argument against adopting Konkani as a mother tongue because it was a Catholic tongue derived from the language of “the very low classes viz. fisherfolk and farmers (p.16).”

Valaulikar’s response to Talwadkar is very interesting. To the suggestion that Konkani is a language of lower caste Catholics, Valaulikar’s suggests that while Konkani may have been developed by the missionaries, these “priests in Goa learnt their Konkani from the Brahmins alone (p.21).” In other words, he dismisses the possibility that humble folk may have been at the root of developing the language. With regard to da Cunha, Valaulikar’s response is even more revealing. Rather than tick Talwadkar off for his prejudices, Valaulikar’s responds, “Dr. Gersonbab is certainly not a religious fanatic; he is a large-hearted, virtuous scholarly Brahmin who, having been born in Goa, endeavoured to spread worldwide the glory of his motherland (p.32).” In short, what Valaulikar stresses as redeeming about the language and da Cunha is the fact that they are both brahmin.

This reference to history is to highlight that, while Valaulikar’s project may have been about Konkani, it was also about establishing Brahmin hegemony over the Konkani language. The period in which Valaulikar lived and worked was the period when dominant castes across India, and especially southern India, were preparing to create linguistic homelands where they could rule the roost.  If the Saraswat caste was to compete with others, it was necessary that they have both a territory and a language. To fulfil this task, it was important to convince people like Talwadkar that Konkani was indeed their language. To do this, it was necessary to take Konkani away from the labouring castes, in particular the Catholic bahujan, both in Goa and especially in Bombay, and convert it into the property of the Brahmins. This was done by constructing a history that suggested Konkani was developed by brahmins and creating a hitherto unknown language, Konkani in the Nagri script. This also required that the development of Konkani during the colonial period be erased. The tragedy is that this period of the early to mid-twentieth century was exactly the period when the Catholic bahujan, drawing on Christian and European sources, were crafting a golden period for Konkani by reading, writing, composing music, and crafting theatre in the language. To make Valualikar’s fiction into fact required that history itself be denied, and this is why Bhembre wilfully ignores a complex Goan history to make the hateful suggestions about denationalisation.

This is the common link that joins the appeal of Marathi to the bahujan of Goa from the ‘60s to the ‘80s, the fight for the official recognition of Konkani in the Roman script, and the demand that the Government support English language as a medium of primary education. All of these are directed against Brahmin and brahmanical oppression, and it for this reason that brahmin supremacists like Bhembre have been opposed to all three of these liberation projects. It is possible that Bhembre is not in essence a Hindu nationalist, but has a more limited agenda of Saraswat hegemony in Goa. However, given that Hindu nationalism is a project that seeks, and sees, brahmins as the natural rulers of the land, it is little wonder that Bhembre makes common cause with the RSS and the BBSM.

(A version of this post was first published  in the O Heraldo on 21 Aug 2015)

Friday, August 7, 2015

Post-colonial upsets in the Palace

Not too long ago I was part of a group being offered a guided tour of the palace of Tristão da Cunha, a Portuguese nobleman and adventurer who was nominated the first Viceroy of Goa. Even though nominated, however, da Cunha was not able to take up his position owing to a case of temporary blindness.  Yet this did not stop Cunha from acquiring other important charges from the Portuguese crown. At some point in the course of this tour the guide paused and spoke of the fact that, in 1514, Tristão da Cunha was sent by Dom Manuel II as ambassador to Pope Leo X. Trying to impress on his audience the significance of the embassy, our tour guide indicated that the embassy proceeded to the court of the Pope in grand style, containing, in addition to the famous elephant Hannibal, “Indians, Africans and Amerindians.” The guide then went on to express his disappointment that the quincentennial anniversary of this event had passed by almost unmarked.

I instinctively stiffened when I heard this description of the embassy.  Given that the guide had been engaging in what is a common Portuguese habit of referring to the early modern Portuguese as “we Portuguese”, there was a certain suggestion of unequal power relations between the Portuguese and the aforementioned peoples that I found distasteful.  My presentiment was not misplaced. Hardly a couple of minutes after this description, an acquaintance who was also a member of the group came up to me and grinning broadly suggested “Why Jason, to commemorate the quincentennial we should send you to the Pope!”

Even though I laughed off the suggestion, I was furious and felt humiliated. Having met only once before, and belonging to an extended circle of friends, this man was clearly trying to be friendly, and yet he had got it so wrong!  He was blissfully aware of my resentment because he was firmly in the grip of two features of Portuguese life. The first is the tendency of segments of elite Portuguese to have a sense of ownership over Goa, and other former territories of the empire. The second, is the failure of contemporary Portuguese to make a distinction between themselves and the Portuguese of the early modern period.

Unknowningly or otherwise, this man, was violating a number of the norms that should structure post-colonial relations in the Portuguese world. First, by suggesting that I was an “Indian”, he was effectively placing me in a larger racial category that robbed me of the peculiarities of my history. Second, there was the failure to recognise that the persons sent to the Pope in the embassy of Dom Manuel II were probably not free, but enslaved persons.  Dom Manuel II used the exotica of these people in their strange, but rich, dresses, to impress upon Pope Leo X, that he was a ruler of imperial dimensions and deserved the privilege of the Padroado Real that would secure for him a pre-eminent place among the princes of Christendom. In making this facile suggestion that presenting an “Indian” to the Pope could amount to a meaningful commemoration of the event, this man failed to see that he was repeating earlier models of unjustly hierarchical relationships, rather than those of equality that should mark our democratic times.

There have been at least two kinds of traditional responses to these situations. The first is to use class to break up the racial humiliation involved, and thus suggest that one’s ancestors were elites and never enslaved persons, and thus not the kinds who were presented to the Pope.  The other response is that which has led to the more traditional Indian nationalist type responses that we suffer in Goa. This response crafts a distinct Indian identity for Goans that is opposed to the Portuguese, and crafts a Portuguese history in Goa that is filled with one atrocity after the other.

Both responses are obviously problematic. The first because while opposing racism it strengthens systems of class and caste oppression; the second on the other hand ignores the fact that so much of a Goan identity – or any identity born from the colonial encounter – is a mixed one. Being Goan we are as much Portuguese as we are Indian. Rather than rejecting racism, this second retort is actually framed within racist frames and consolidates racial identities. Not surprisingly, given how caste is also a racial formation, it also works to consolidate upper-caste identities, and their histories of displacement, even as lower caste memories of liberation through the intervention of the Europeans and the various Christian churches, despite the fact of slavery and other issues, are cast aside.

In light of this scenario, it appears that an ideal response to the situation I found myself in rests not necessarily in quick come back, but a commitment to a larger and longer dialogue committed to a broader agenda of democracy. The challenge is to attack both Indian nationalism, that denies complex histories, and Portuguese elitism that exercises a sense of ownership over the lower orders of the country as well as persons from former territories. 

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on 7 Aug 2015)

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Seeing Christ in the lost

The theme of the passion of Christ is a profound part of Western European art. This is hardly surprising, as the process leading to Christ’s death is of critical importance to Christianity. Moreover, the passion of Christ provided artists with the opportunity to express, through the figures of Mary the mother of Christ, Mary Magdalene, John the evangelist, and the other disciples, some of the more profound emotions known to humans: anguish, grief and mourning, tenderness, comfort, and resignation.

As important as the individual figures in these scenes are to the larger canvas, quite naturally the tortured body of Christ receives special treatment by the artist. The viewer is invited to gaze at the brutalized and lifeless body of Christ and contemplate the suffering that, according to Christian tradition, Christ willingly undertook to save humanity.

This focus on the violated body of Christ also draws from the medieval tradition that concentrated prayerful devotion on the five wounds of Christ: the two nails that pierced his hands, the two that penetrated his feet, and the one on his side, where the lance impaled him. Just as figurative art took inspiration from this devotion, so too did the musical tradition. A particular favourite of mine is the Danish-German composer Dieterich Buxtehude’s oratorio Membra Jesus Nostri. As the name suggests, this composition is dedicated to the contemplation of seven—not five—wounds of Christ. Broken up into seven cantatas, this work contemplates Christ’s feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart, and head.

As critiques of Mel Gibson’s famous film The Passion of the Christ indicate, however, no matter how great the suffering, the passion of Christ acquires its complete meaning from the fact that subsequent to his death, Christ was resurrected. To focus merely on his death and passion, therefore, is to miss the entire point of the Passion. The Christian belief about the Resurrection  is that through his victory over death, Christ also conquered time and space. It is perhaps the recognition of this transcendence that has allowed artists to see and depict the broken body of Christ in a variety of forms and places.

Take, for example, the very moving sculpture by Maksymilian Biskupski in the Military Cathedral of the Polish Army, Warsaw. Titled Christ of All the Lost, the figure is completely abstracted from the context of Christ’s traditional life cycle. In this image, Biskupsi presents Christ through the figure of a corpse dressed in military uniform, excavated from the grave, soil still clinging to his body. The figure is one among other bodies protruding from a common grave. The sculpture was intended to be a memorial to the Katyn massacre which saw the murder of thousands of Polish Army officers in the 1930s. Through this art work, Bikupski successfully twines the grief of those mourning for the officers with that felt for Christ, and suggests that Christ is among us, suffering when the innocent and weak suffer and are killed.

This identification of Christ with the wretched of the earth is, of course, not Biskupsi’s innovation but has a venerable tradition within Christianity. An illustrative case is that of St. Martin of Tours. According to tradition, prior to becoming a Christian, Martin was a Roman soldier, and while stationed in Gaul, encountered a mendicant freezing in the cold. Moved to pity, he shared half his cloak with the mendicant. Later that night, he was blessed with a vision, where the mendicant revealed himself as Christ, who praised him for following the teaching of seeing identification with the poor and the wretched as service to God and the path to salvation.

It was in this context that I encountered the three images of Peter Hujar that were captured by his former lover, David Wojnarowicz. On display at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, as part of the on-going exhibition America Is Hard to See, the images of Hujar were taken moments after his death from AIDS. These three images feature Hujar’s hollowed out face, his feet sticking out from under the bed sheet that became his shroud, and a limp hand by his side. I was deeply moved by these images, and for a moment saw not the dead Hujar but Christ himself, as was perhaps Wojnarowicz’ intention. As I learned at the exhibition, Wojnarowicz was part of a group of homosexual artists who participated in the culture wars of the 1980s and demanded that the U.S. government pay greater attention to the AIDS epidemic that was killing thousands of men at the time.

The tradition of Christian art in Western Europe wasn’t simply about filling up a space with pretty pictures; rather, by drawing upon our deepest emotions it sought to teach the faithful to empathise with the life of Christ and his saints. When contemporary artists transcend the immediate context of Christ’s life, but draw upon the Christian tradition, they perform the equally important task of helping us see Christ and his saints, not only in images in church but more importantly, in the world around us.

(A version of this post was first published in The Goan Everday on 2 Aug 2015)