Contemporary aesthetic modes: Reimaginings


Harsha V. Dehejia

We in India adorn with a passion and a purpose, a dedication and a meaning – whether it is adorning our house or our bodies, our havelis or palaces, our shrines or temples. Adornment is to beautify but, even more, it is a metaphor of another reality and equally a visual prayer. At one level, adornment is beautification but, on another, it is a statement of a world view where the beautiful is cherished as a value and as a purushartha (object of human pursuit). In our world view, adornment spreads and bestows auspiciousness around it and therefore it is mangalmaya (fortunate). By its very presence (sannidhya), the adorned object – be it a deity or a woman, the threshold of a home, the palace or a haveli or the rangamandapa (main hall) of a temple – makes everything around it resonate with a certain radiance, tremble with energy and exude a joyous affirmation of life.

The first order of adornment (alankara) is our speech. The Rig Veda gives exalted speech a pride of place. Beautiful speech is poetry, and the aesthetics of poetry identify two types of alankara – shabdalamkara or ornamentation through words and arthalamkara or ornamentation through meaning. Words, through their sound and texture, rhythm and cadence, add beauty to poetry. Meaning adds a certain depth, and the highest adornment is through what is called rasa-dhvani or suggested emotional states and situations.

Adornments are an attribute mainly of prakriti (matter), and the woman is the highest representation of prakriti. Traditionally, a nayika adorns herself with sixteen adornments which include vastra (clothes), mahavar (red dye to the cheeks), keshbandhan (coiffure), pancha angarag (the five colours to the body), bhushan (ornaments), shauch (cleansing bath), pushaphar (flower garlands), dantaranjan (cleaning of teeth), misi (fragrant paste for the teeth), lali (red colour to the lips) and bindi (the mark on the forehead). Understood this way, a woman’s adornment is the total beautification of her body which enhances her sensuality and makes her ready for the many pleasures of romantic love. Also, the adornments are drawn from the world around her and this, therefore, establishes a bond between her and nature.

The adornment of a woman, especially when she is romantic, is a rite of love for to adorn is not just to beautify but also to celebrate the sanctity and beauty of love. When she offers her adornment to her beloved, it becomes an act of devotion both to love and to the beloved. Very often, the beloved will complete her adornment by putting a flower in her hair or applying a tilak (mark) to her forehead. However, there is another more nuanced meaning to this – when a nayak (hīōo) participates in his beloved’s adornment and the man and woman come together in this act of adornment, it is a moment of perfection of love, of purnatva (fullness). It is the coming together of purusha and prakriti, of one becoming the other.

Adornments are a part of our visual arts as well, thus paintings and sculptures feature ornamentation like decorated pillars or arched spaces, sinuous lines and trees in bloom and ornate pranay mandapas with havelis. Colours are an important part of the grammar of adornment; different colours not only add beauty to the painting but also evoke different emotions. For instance, red is the colour of fertility and yellow is the colour of young love and auspiciousness. We adorn our deities with distinct colours: ghanashyam or blue is the colour of Krishna, neel or green that of Shiva, white of Saraswati and black of Kali.

Ornaments, or jewellery, both made of gold and precious stones and even of flowers, are an important part of adornment for, both, our gods and humans, where every part of the body from the tresses to the toes is enhanced with a special ornament. The gifting of ornaments to a temple is considered a pious act. Music, both vocal and instrumental, is ornamented with beautiful phrases.

Alankara is an important part of the Indian aesthetic tradition. It answers both to akanksha (expectation) and auchitya (appropriateness).


Dehejia, H. V. and M. R. Paranjape , eds. Saundarya: The Perception and Practice of Beauty in India. New Delhi: Samvad India Foundation, 2003.

Dehejia, V. The Body Adorned: Sacred and Profane in Indian Art. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.


Katyayani Dalmia

Across India’s sprawling metropolises, provincial cities and small towns, beauty parlours are spaces of aspiration for clients and beauty workers alike. In varied global contexts, beauty ‘salons’, ‘shops’ or ‘parlours’ are analysed as ambiguously political – as spaces of both reproduction and transformation, perpetuating social norms through ideals of beauty, but also affording possibilities for political change in fostering unique forms of sociality. If in many geographical and cultural milieus, parlours make evident the political possibilities of segregated space – segregations of gender, and sometimes of community, as seen in the American context where racially demarcated spaces were put to productive political use by black men and women in barber/beauty shops – in India, salons are vibrant spaces of both separation and proximity. Single-gender parlours exist along with mixed parlours that bring individuals from diverse caste, religious, gender and class backgrounds into intimate bodily contact unusual in light of the social and corporeal distance observed between them in other spaces of everyday urban life.

From eponymous outlets of national and international beauty brands (Lakme, L’Oreal, Toni and Guy, VLCC, Jawed Habib) to neighbourhood ‘Divya’ and ‘Alice’ parlours, the beauty industry in India is booming, employing 3.4 million individuals in 2013 and forecast to absorb 12.1 million workers in 2022, across the organized and informal sectors. 1 Beauty services, such as facials and bleaches for ‘fair’ and ‘bright’ complexions, waxing, hair straightening and setting and bridal and party make-up, materialize associations between appearance and social status. Yet, parlours encapsulate desires for social acceptance and mobility not simply for customers but also for beauty workers, offering entry into modern, professional and even corporate worlds for those without access to educational degrees, in a country where urban mobility is usually premised on these.

Demographically, individuals from across the caste and religious gamut work in parlours, ranging from members of ‘upper castes’ to those who are associated with handling hair, nails and the bodily ‘dirt’ of pedicures and facials in conventional caste schemes, for instance, in North India, Hajjam/Salmani among Muslim and Nau-Thakur among Hindu barber castes. 2 Parlours, as well as their more upscale kin in big cities – spas – are popularly imagined as emblems of modern life. Yet they retain the unstated connection between work and caste identity, as evident in the prevalence of stereotypes that it is ‘lower’ or Dalit castes who tend to take up parlour work and in jokes that spa/parlour beauticians and hairdressers encounter about working in a nai-ki-dukaan (barber shop). As such, parlours capture some of the key contradictions that make up urban Indian life.


Ahmed, S. M. Faizan. “Making Beautiful: Male Workers in Beauty Parlors.” Men and Masculinities 9, no. 2 (2006): 162–85.

Zande, Archana. “Nhavi Women in Pune City: Renegotiating New Opportunities for Livelihood,” in Land, Lasons and Livelihoods: Indian Women’s Perspectives, edited by Bina Fernandez, et al. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.


Leela Samson

Bharatnatyam generally refers to a dance art practiced by a community of women called devadasis (literally, ‘in the service of the Lord’), who performed in the temples of South India during the Chola dynasty in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. This dance, practiced inside the temple precinct, then referred to as sadir, was ritualistic in nature. It was considered auspicious for a dancer to perform before the deity every day, on all festive occasions and during religious processions, as part of her duties. The word sadir means ‘beauty’; it also refers to dance that was performed in the courts of kings. However, the custodians of this dance form, barring a few, did not call their art sadir. Dr B. M. Sundaram, a scholar, writer and raconteur on music and dance, makes a case for the fact that the term ‘Bharatnatyam’ existed from the twelfth century and extensively quoted from different writers and composers over the centuries to prove this.

Much earlier though, in the Sangam period of Tamilakam – spanning from the third century BCE to the third century ce – a literary work called the Akananuru mentions a dancer who performs, accompanied by a nattuvanar who plays the cymbals and a mridangist who plays the drum standing behind the dancer. At this period, it was perhaps called nadanam – nadai-an-am – which, in Tamil, means ‘stylistic dance’.

Today, dancers and scholars attribute the change of reference to this dance art from sadir to bharatnatyam to E. Krishna Iyer and to Rukmini Devi, both social reformists who rallied for an end to the ‘exclusivity’ that the dance afforded one community. The name bharatnatyam existed much earlier and ‘renaming’ it was not on their initiative. However, in 1977, Rukmini Devi did say, ‘So far as I know, I was the first person, when I began to dance in the early 1930s to give the (new) name to the dance and since then the word Bharatanāṭyam has become acceptable.’ The truth is that her first public performance, which happened in January 1935, was called ‘bharatnatyam’. Rukmini Devi’s extreme commitment to the art brought in radical change. The learning of dance by girls from all strata of society soon became a reality. She created pedagogy for teaching and upholding the highest standards in the dance. This was momentous and came at an appropriate moment in history causing all manner of change to be attributed to her, sometimes falsely. She simply used the term bharatnatyam to describe the form because it had now been taken out of the context of the temple. Dr V. Raghavan also used the word bharatnatyam for the first time in 1933, in an article captioned ‘Bharatanāṭyam Classical Dance – The South Indian Nautch’.

Bharatnatyam has been variously described as a synonym for bhāva (emotion), raga (melodic framework) and tala (rhythm) as represented in the splitting of the word ‘bharata’ into ‘bha’, ‘ra’ and ‘ta’. This seems to be a romantic idea and one of convenience rather than of reality. Most others attribute the name to Bharatamuni, the sage Bharata, who is the author of the bible on Indian dramaturgy – the Natyashastra. This too is unfounded. It is questionable whether Bharata refers to one man or to several like him, possibly his disciples, who wrote this voluminous treatise over what seems like several decades. Others simply understand the term to be a reference to India, also referred to as ‘Bharat’, thereby meaning ‘the dance of India’. However, there are so many other dance forms – classical, theatrical, folk, tribal, martial, ritualistic and ceremonial; are they not all Indian? All three of the above interpretations seem to be simplistic justifications. The names given to our dance forms evolved over time and were consciously given. These terms for the forms of dance they represent are secular and inclusive; they do not beg classification or eternity. Like all spoken language or languages of communication like dance, they change over time. Tradition is that which transits the passage of time.


Rukmini Devi . ‘The Spiritual Background of Bharata Natyam’. In Classical and Folk Dances of India. Bombay: Marg Publications, 1963.

Vatsyayan, Kapila. Bharata, the Nāṭyaśāstra. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1996.


Brahma Prakash

The term bhoot is familiar to almost every child in contemporary India, an intrinsic part of India’s folklore and its life-worlds. Although, it refers nowadays to ‘ghost’ in popular usage, this was not always the case. The word also stands for ‘spirit’, ‘free elements’ and for the ‘primordial forces’. In the broader cultural context of primitive and indigenous societies, the bhoot is used for being and the existence of life, its very make-up. It finds expression both in old Vedic texts and in the popular beliefs of the common people. While in the shastra (textual) traditions, it stands for certain quality of being, for the common people it manifests through figures and figurations and has a changeable usage, often depending on region, culture, class and caste hierarchies. In ‘Bhootaradhne’ ritual of Karnataka, the communities worship the spirits of heroic men and women, who have sacrificed their lives for the community. In this regard, H. S. Shivaprakash observes that ‘the deities considered benevolent by lower castes and tribal communities are identified as demons by upper caste Hindus’. In the case of another Southern community, the Tulu, these spirits are regarded as god. While there is a lot of worship around bhoot and bhutakhela (play of the spirits) in North India as well, they are primarily worshipped in these diverse manifestations by only subaltern communities.

Terms related to the idea of the bhoot include ojha and bhagat. These terms are used to refer to the person commonly referred to in the west as the ‘shaman’. The ojha and bhagat are ritual priests and are also often play the roles of ‘mediums’ or the people who communicate between the deity and the worshippers and between ghosts or spirits and the people disturbed by them or who want to speak to them. Though ojha and bhagat perhaps had a more prominent role to play in the social, cultural and political structures of indigenous societies in the past, their influence is hardly to be discounted in many pockets of twenty-first-century India. For instance, they primarily work as healers in rural areas and prepare medicines from herbs locally available and at times perform rituals. Additionally, they also offer pronouncements of justice, and advice, at various levels. This is because of an entrenched belief in many cultures across the subcontinent that good and bad fortune in everyday life is caused by spirit forces. They are looked up to for suggestions on ways to come out of social or personal crises, and their role is often underestimated. In fact, it may well rival that of the better-known ‘gurus’, ‘god-men’ and spiritual leaders who are so commonly associated with ‘Indian thought’ across the world.


Ishii, Miho. ‘Wild Sacredness and the Poiesis of Transactional Networks: Relational Divinity and Spirit Possession in the Būta Ritual of South India’. Asian Ethnology 74, no. 1 (2015): 101–102.

Shivaprakash, H. S. Incredible India: Traditional Theatres. New Delhi: Wisdom Books, 2007.


Ravi Vasudevan

In the early 2000s, a number of public figures including cricket icon Sunil Gavaskar, movie mogul Subhash Ghai and film star Shah Rukh Khan expressed irritation that Mumbai’s film industry was being referred to as Bollywood. Their irritation stemmed, it seems, from the implication that Hindi cinema was an imitation of the American behemoth. Mumbai was not the only one involved in this imprecation. Suddenly, Hollywood variants proliferated in South Asia. For instance, Kollywood for Tamil Nadu’s Kodambakkam-based cinema and, perhaps, more facetiously, Lollywood for Lahore’s film output.

Nationalist anxieties have abated since; there are no longer any strident refutations. We may now step back and note certain transformations associated with the new name. Bollywood, as a term, probably dates back to the mid-1990s. Scholarship has argued that its timing converges with that of India’s globalization, following from the liberalizing initiatives of the early 1990s. The Indian film industry was always known for its informal, non-accountable and sometimes outright criminal networks of finance. Now, in line with economic liberalization, the growing call was to create ‘transparent’ corporate practices. For the first time, long-standing demands by the film trade – for the government to recognize it as industry and, thus, make it eligible for loans from nationalized banks – were granted in 1998.

By the early 2000s, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) developed a film cell and supported an annual business entertainment conference called FRAMES (Film Radio Audio-Visual Music Events Shows) to monitor and help develop the entertainment industry. In a new consumer economy which involved malls, urban gentrification, satellite broadcasting and the incipient pleasures of the internet (Web 2.0 was yet to come), the cinema provided a key cultural resource. The mall-multiplex, in particular, came to be a key feature in the refiguring of the urban, with cinema as one of the attractions to draw the consumer into a globalizing economy. So-called Bollywood cinema would also be crucially transnational in its bid for audiences, involving diaspora populations, but also trying for a crossover appeal. By the early 2000s, foreign returns were regularly calculated, especially from markets in the UK, the United States, Europe and Australia. Today, industry watchers tend to be all-inclusive, with a special interest in China and the Middle East as significant territories.

As the FRAMES conference indicates, cinema is now part of an extended commodity network involving different media – from music and internet sites to television content and ringtones – many points of exhibition and systems of distribution and delivery – from cinema theatres to satellite premiere to video on demand, internet downloads and mobile devices. Bollywood, as a contemporary media constellation, is in this sense defined by media convergence and proliferation, tipping over into other industries, notably music and fashion. The transnational terms of these innovations are not all one-way – India presenting market and outsourcing opportunities for major Hollywood production houses. Thus, Reliance Entertainment has not only provided Hollywood with digital resources for special effects in its studios in a Navi Mumbai Special Economic Zone but has also acquired Hollywood property as a major stakeholder in Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks.

A key discourse in the fallout of such corporatization is the claim that the film business would now be more transparent in its financial practices, supplanting earlier kinship, social and financial networks. However, corporate transparency has never quite won through, if it does anywhere, and informal arrangements and payments continue to define the film industry.

Film historians were the foremost sceptics in challenging the new nomenclature. Some observed that both media industry and shoddy scholarship were now reading Bollywood back into the very origins of Indian cinema, for example, by referring to pioneer D. G. Phalke’s mythological films in the 1910s or the Indo-German Light of Asia/Prem Sanyas (Franz Osten, 1925) as Bollywood films. If such anachronism deserves withering put down, a second critique of the term and its limits is less persuasive. Focused on contemporary transformation, the critics argue that while some companies and even a certain aesthetic and narrative ideology are part of contemporary Bollywood as a force of transmedia globalization and nationalist hegemony, others are not. The reference to the new normal was the high-end diaspora themed films such as Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (Brave of Heart Wins the Bride – Aditya Chopra, 1995), Pardes (Foreign Land – Subhash Ghai, 1997), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something Is Happening – Karan Johar, 1998) and Kal Ho Na Ho (Whether Or Not There’s a Tomorrow – Nikhil Advani, 2004). Critics assumed that such a repertoire meant that Bollywood primarily drew on the family social film to address the Indian diaspora and indeed to mobilize diaspora investment. In this rendering, Bollywood, as cinema, was anything which deployed codes of melodramatic storytelling centred on the family addressing the global nation and deploying spectacular song/dance sequences; anything else lay outside Bollywood.

In fact, such views were echoed in the industry. For example, a significant figure of the early 2000s, Ram Gopal Varma, a maker of edgy films in a variety of genres – road movie, gangster film, horror – would position himself as an antagonist of the sentimental family socials of Karan Johar. However, Varma himself struck deals with 20th Century Fox, was financed by Singapore-based NRI corporate firm, K Sera Sera, and made a bid for the US market through Cinemaya Media. If we understand Bollywood to mean a new, transmedia business form interfacing with global flows of capital, then Varma was not outside Bollywood.

It is impossible to understand contemporary cinema without the multiplex and the idea of the multiplex film. Along with blockbuster movies, multiplex theatres would also feature more modestly scaled films catering to a niche audience. This has meant that, as cinema, contemporary Bollywood is composed of a rich field of practices and, to use industrial parlance, the phenomenon of product differentiation. Even Yash Raj and Dharma studios diversified beyond the family social into action, comedy and even films with an indie feel. Thus, Yash Raj would produce films such as the urban dystopian thriller, Titli (Butterfly – Vikas Behal, 2014), the mode retro of Detective Byomkesh Bakshi (Dibakar Banerjee, 2015) and distribute films such as the very fine Macbeth adaptation, Maqbool (Vishal Bharadwaj, 2004), and the quirky road movie, Piku (Shoojit Sircar, 2015). Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions pulled off a careful character study by Irrfan Khan in The Lunchbox (Ritesh Batra, 2014), a modest international success at film festivals and in the art house circuit. The financial position is perhaps best captured in the way the irreverent Anurag Kashyap (Dev D, 2009; The Gangs of Wasseypur, 2012; Raman Raghav 2.0, 2016; Mukkabaaz, 2018) draws on the new Bollywood economy, perhaps, most dramatically, with Reliance Entertainment buying up 50 per cent stake in Phantom Films – the company started by independent-minded film-makers Anurag Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane, Vikas Behal and Madhu Mantena. None of this invalidates the innovation and creativity of these film-makers, but, perhaps, we should note that however recent and abused a term Bollywood is, it is composed of a complex range of practices along with the bid to produce India as a ‘brand equity’.


Govil, Nitin. Orienting Hollywood: A Century of Film Culture between Los Angeles and Bombay. New York: New York University Press, 2015.

Rajadhyaksha, Ashish. ‘The “Bollywoodization” of Indian Cinema: Cultural Nationalism in a Global Arena’. Inter-Asian Cultural Studies 4, no. 1 (2003).


B. N. Goswamy

Who, from among the millions who use the term, cares – one is entitled to wonder – where the word comes from or for the fact that photography is, as the dictionary says, ‘the process or art of producing pictures by means of the chemical action of light on a sensitive film on a basis of paper, glass, metal etc.’? For the common person here, the aam aadmi in other words, a ‘foto’ is a ‘foto’ – in routine usage, simply a picture, a likeness, a facsimile – nothing more nor less. The ease with which the term – as a version of the original word ‘photo’, which in turn descends of course from ‘photograph’ – has entered every person’s vocabulary is truly astonishing. Less than two hundred years ago, the word did not even exist in India and now everyone uses it as if it has been part of their language since srishti (creation) began. One knows that elsewhere, as in England for instance, the word ‘photo’ was used, from quite early on, as a colloquial abbreviation of ‘photograph’. However, here, with us, it is different, for it has come to stand for any picture or likeness at all, the virtual equivalent of taswir (the Persian as also the Urdu word that serves to describe ‘painting, limning; a picture, image, effigy, likeness, sketch, drawing’).

Consider the range of uses; when someone here says, ‘I bought a large phōṭō of Guru Nanak today’, it almost certainly means he or she bought a print, some oleograph, a ‘calendar-picture’, for hanging in his or her home or placing it in the family ‘worship room’. It does not even cross his or her mind that no photograph of the Guru Nanak – a great guru belonging to the sixteenth century – could possibly have existed, ever. Similarly, when children in the village used to gather around a ‘byscope’, peering at images with eyes glued to large glazed holes, the vendor – of what in Germany used to be called guckkasten – kept belting out information for the benefit of his young ‘customers’, that they were looking now at the foto of a baaraman kidhoban – buxom laundress who weighs nothing short of twelve maunds (which equals 400 kilograms) – now of the shehar (city) of London, regardless of whether the objects he was showing were coloured lithographs or faded engravings. It was a show of fotos.

It is a bit unsettling, perhaps, the universal use of this word overriding, subverting, mocking, all other words for any kind of likeness, but it is here to stay. Tamilians use it with as much ease, or thoughtlessness, as Gujaratis do; you hear it from Assam to Punjab, Kashmir to Jharkhand. Anything drawn, painted, limned, that even remotely suggests a likeness, or an imagined likeness, is now a foto. A friend used to be very fond of a quietly romantic Urdu couplet and would often recite it – Dilke aaeeney mein hai taswir-iyaar/jab zaraa garden jhukaai, dekh li (The image of my beloved is there, shining in the mirror of my heart/Any time that I long to gaze at it, I just have to bend my neck). He was, I know, quite upset when a poetaster ruined it for him when he used the same thought for a cheeky song in a recent film. In a sequence, a skimpily dressed dancer sang it, to the accompaniment of lewd movements and the sound of wolf-whistles – Meri phōṭō ko seeney se yaar/ chipka ley saiyyan Fevicol sey (‘Come, my lover, hasten! Take my phōṭō and paste it on your chest with Fevicol’, where the last mentioned is a popular adhesive paste). It is all there in this word – the looseness of understanding, layering, anachronism and even adhesion.


Goswamy, B. N. Essence of Indian Art. San Francisco: Mapin Pub., 1986.

Jain, Nishtha. City of Photos [Motion Picture]. India: Raintree Films, 2004.


Antony Arul Valan

Today, Tamil gana/paattu (song) rings loud and clear beyond its historical confines. It is an art form that is breaking the monolithic view that the culture of Chennai is its ‘classical’ traditions. Along with thappaattam and parayattam, gana is being recognized as an art form that is an important constituent of the Tamil cultural landscape. But what is gana?

Chennai-based playwright, Thomas Manuel, says gana is ‘a collection of rhythms, beats and sensibilities native to the dalits of Chennai’. S. Anand calls it ‘a rap-like musical idiom of the Dalits in Chennai’ and explains how the form has ‘moved from the slums and burial grounds where the genre was spawned to cinema, commercial gigs and recorded tapes. From an instant improvisational form, the genre has become a distinct marketable commodity.’ A. Mangai calls them ‘the more urban version of Dalit music’ and states that they are from, what is known as, the ‘Black Town of Chennai’ (karuppar nagaram).

Academic research has traced the evolution of the art form to the songs of the siddhars of ancient Tamilakam and then, more recently, to the Tamil Muslim mystic Gunankudi Masthan Sahib – whose compositions in the early nineteenth century are still sung by gana singers today – and Samuel Vedanayagam Pillai, popularly known as the first Tamil novelist. However, in the words of V. Ramakrishnan, ‘[gana] reached Chennai through migrants who came in search of work’; he concedes, despite this, that it is difficult to explain its origins.

Gana singers have sung in Chennai for at least two centuries, with their voices muffled by the politics of nation-building that could only accommodate the songs of the affluent sections of the city. With the advent of recording devices, a few gana singers made the effort to tape their compositions and record it for posterity. When these were heard outside of the slums, a few Tamil film-makers in the early 1990s took gana to the silver screen, which eventually led to its adoption in college campuses. At least one report in the early 2000s rues the loss of the ‘angst and melancholy’ that characterized the genre, as the shift to college campuses involved, primarily, ‘themes of fun and romance’. Soon, in the movement from small pockets of the city to the screen and campuses, the genre came to be known as a repertoire that reeks of misogyny and sexual innuendos.

According to a popular exponent of the art form, ‘Marana Gana’ Viji – who makes it clear that he does not prefer to sing sexually explicit songs and those that demean women – ‘gānā is not a music form that tries to infuse self-confidence … It stems out of pain … It is not a form that can be learnt, like carnatic … It is a form that is about living and experiencing our life.’ He lists five types of gana: attu gana – when the singer takes a tune from a popular film song and adds his or her own lyrics to it and sings it; all gana – when the tune, beats and lyrics are all composed by the singer; jigil gana – when the lyrics are centred around intoxication and intoxicants; deepa gana – when the song and tune have been composed by singers of yore (these ballads at times run for several hours); and marana gana – when the song is about the philosophy of death (it could be handed down from the past or composed by the singer).

The year 2016 marked the formation of the South Indian Gana Singers Association. And 2018 has brought a new form of life to the genre with the establishment of ‘Casteless Collective’, a first-of-a-kind band of gana artists who have been brought together by the Ambedkarite film-maker, Pa Ranjith. Their debut performance on 6 January 2018 was attended by over four thousand people, and it ‘created ripples on the internet’. The band performs compositions against caste discrimination, raps on Ambedkar’s life and gushes about the ‘small joys’ that living poor in Chennai affords them. In fact, there is also a lesbian gana in the repertoire of the Casteless Collective. (This should be seen in the context of a singer in a ‘classical’ genre being relegated to the margins by the powers, because of her sexuality.) Though the Collective clearly states that this is an attempt at political mobilization around the art form, the impact this assertion will have on the perception of the cultural fabric of the city and indeed the state and its people is heartening.


Govindarajan, Vinita. ‘The Casteless Collective: A Music Band’s Debut Has Caught the Attention of Chennai and the Internet’., 11 January 2018.

Hindu Tamil. The ‘“Danga Maari” Marana Gana Viji Interview Part 01’. Available at: (accessed 1 June 2018).


Katyayani Dalmia

Gorapan – a light skin tone – is a highly coveted aspect of appearance in South Asia. In many languages of the subcontinent, one simply has to say ‘good’, ‘clear’ or ‘clean’ colour to indicate fair skin – nalla niram in Tamil and Malayalam, accha or saaf rang in Urdu and Hindi, rong porishkar in Bengali. Apart from the ubiquitous mention that it finds in matrimonial classifieds, the most obvious indication of the social obsession with complexion is demonstrated by the flourishing use of skin-lightening creams by women and men alike, in a context where beauty, as well as ‘smartness’ of appearance, is imaginatively linked to light skin. While the first fairness cream in India, Afghan Snow, made its appearance a century ago – in 1919 – currently, the most widely used brand is Hindustan Unilever’s Fair and Lovely, launched in 1975 and accounting for 34.7 per cent of India’s entire skin-care market in 2014. Whiteners and lighteners comprised almost half the value of the Indian facial-care market in 2014 (30 billion out of 66 billion rupees or 454.55 million out of 1 billion dollars), with the latter expected to grow to a 130 billion rupee (1.96 billion dollar) market by 2019. 1

In the first attempt to define ‘colourism’, African-American feminist, Alice Walker, describes it as the ‘prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color’ (emphasis added, Walker, 1983). As such, colourism is distinct from racism in that it is a mode of discrimination that is seen as operating as much within, as between, races or communities. In the Indian context, skin colour has a complex relationship with community categories; late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century colonial anthropology read caste as a form of race, understanding ‘superior’ physical features such as a ‘finer’ nose and a lighter complexion as corresponding to ‘higher’ caste positions (Dirks, 2001). Indian sociology, subsequently, debunked this position, with G. S. Ghurye observing in the 1930s that ‘the physical type of the population is mixed, and does not conform in its gradation to the scale of social precedence of the various castes’ (Ghurye, 2004). More recently, Dalit activists have argued for conceiving casteism as akin to racism but on grounds very different from colonial census commissioners and ethnographers; the focus of the comparison is no longer external bodily features but an analysis of both racism and casteism as oppression based on descent (see Reddy 2005).

Beyond statistics on commodities and the century-long caste/race debate, the complex meanings and significance of skin colour in Indian social life is illustrated by the ways in which it is discussed within everyday contexts of family, friendship and work, in its subtle use in sizing up strangers as well as its importance in assessments of loved ones and the self – in how it is evoked in jokes, banter and abuse alike and its centrality in the most serious of all businesses: marriage. If the consequences of dark skin are particularly deleterious for women, affecting their marital prospects much more than men, they are common across genders in terms of associations between skin tone and status. Stereotypical connections between skin colour and caste identity burst forth in everyday interactions. It is as common for a fair-skinned Dalit to be greeted with surprise on her skin colour (‘you don’t look like an SC!’) as it is for a dark-skinned Brahmin to be told that she looks ‘chamar-type’ (like a chamar – an ‘untouchable’ caste, associated with leather work in North India). A common adage in Uttar Pradesh expresses this idea – Kariya brahman aur gor chamar, inse sada rehna hoshiyar (this translates: A dark-skinned Brahmin and a fair chamar, never trust either), expressing the concern that in each of these cases, there is an incongruity between caste and colour that renders the individual suspect.

Associations between colour and caste, however, are flexible; in urban contexts where caste identities are less publicly known, individuals use skin colour – in combination with other aspects of appearance such as manners, speech, dress and diet – to try and guess each others’ ‘background’. Yet, at the same time, as they employ the upper caste/fair skin, lower caste/dark skin stereotype in these mundane practices of guesswork, people also readily offer examples of Brahmins ‘dark as the bottom of an iron cooking plate’ or Dalits ‘fair as milk’. Gorapan, then, is a mobile category, in three senses of the term – first, in how it is associated with groups; second, in how it is understood to be inherited or acquired; and third, in the course of an individual’s life. Fair skin connotes status in terms of class, caste and sometimes religion – for instance, Shia Muslims in the Awadh area and upper- or middle-class Muslims, more broadly, are imagined as fair. Regional variations are significant and in some cases, certain elite castes – for example, Kayasths in Uttar Pradesh – are also stereotyped as dark-skinned. Skin tone is understood to be inherited genetically but in popular emic theories, its inheritance is also seen as affected by the diet of the mother during pregnancy and the season in which a child is born. Lastly, a rich and dynamic language around skin tone – colour ‘opens’, meaning that a person has become lighter and ‘brighter’; colour is ‘suppressed’ or ‘lost’, meaning that a person has become darker – attests to a mobile conceptualization of complexion. This understanding of colour, however, is also asymmetrical in so far as dark skin – that is, skin that is darker than the in-between shades of ‘dusky’ and ‘wheatish’ – is seen as more fixed than skin, which is fair or gora.


Deshpande, Rohit and Saloni Chaturvedi , ‘Fair & Lovely vs. Dark Is Beautiful’. Harvard Business School Case 516-079, March 2016. Revised March 2017.

Dirks, Nicholas. Castes of Mind. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Ghurye, G. S. Caste and Race in India. Mumbai: Popular Prakashan, 2004.

Reddy, Deepa. ‘The Ethnicity of Caste’, Anthropological Quarterly, 78, no. 3 (2005): 543–84.

Walker, Alice. “If the Present Looks Like the Past, What does the Future Look Like?” in In search of our Mothers’ Gardens, 290–312. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1983.


Santosh Desai

Like its cousin, the beauty parlour, the gym is now an ubiquitous part of the urban landscape. In towns, big and small, well-equipped gyms dot the landscape. Staffed by people of robust musculature and lithe frames, the gym is a little piece of urban infrastructure that gathers a very particular set of people in its fold. The young and fit, who want to push their body to higher level of performances; the unfit, across the age spectrum, who see it is as a place of possible redemption; the marriage hopefuls, who wish to whip their frames into some approximation of svelteness before their big day; the reluctant, going through the motions, there because of unwise resolutions and persistent relatives; the addicted, who treat exercise as a fix they must have, all different varieties, congregate to the new temple of the body – the gym.

After all, the body is, in many ways, experienced as the primary site of change today. Viewed increasingly as a defining asset of the self, the body becomes an object to be cherished and developed. The idea that one’s physical self is mutable, and, that too, in ways that are under one’s direct control, has been gaining ground. The shaping, sculpting, building, adorning and grooming of the body has become a profitable and growing industry that cuts across age and gender differences. The gym is the foundational site of this movement, a place where the manufactured body comes into being and, literally, takes shape. The new grows out of the old, a harder overlay of sinewed muscle.

The gym, as a place, becomes a new kind of meeting ground. Amidst grunts of effort and panting exertions, a community is born. The idea of physical fitness includes elements of health and beauty, of getting the body fit and ‘in shape’. The idea of ‘working out’ imagines labour in a new way – one that is both purposive and self-directed. The output of this labour is enhanced input to the self. There is a grim sense of determination in the users of a gym, a sense of having to overcome obstacles in order to reach the goal one has set for oneself. One’s body becomes an opponent, to be taught discipline and be beaten into shape.

The gym varies dramatically from its country cousin, the akhara, where the wrestling arena is a mud pit, the wrestlers wear rudimentary slabs of cloth and live in a world of oil massages and ghee. The rules that surround wrestling are hierarchical and austere. There is a moral pursuit inherent in the act of training at an akhara, one that fears the sapping effects of modernity. The gym, on the other hand, lives in an entirely different cultural universe of sophisticated machines and specialized equipment, of gear, protein shakes and personal trainers. If the akhara’s main concerns are with the retention of an uncontaminated form of masculinity, the gym is part of the modern market discourse where the body is prepared as a site that consumes as well as offers itself for consumption. The idea of ‘fitness’ captures the desire to ‘fit’ and align with the external context, physical and otherwise. The body becomes equipped to be deployed in ways that are necessary through the act of frequenting a gym.

The gym of today has come a long way from its roots. The gymnasium, in its earlier avatar, fulfilled a similar purpose but in a very different way. There was an air of industrial purpose in these warehouses of the physical. Only those needing to bolster their physical selves for some purpose frequented the gym; the gym was a specialized space for people like athletes, bodybuilders and soldiers. Today, the world of the gym is one of air-conditioned sleekness, where men and women go as part of a lifestyle, and ‘going gymming’ is a routine, everyday event.


Alter, J. S. Moral Materialism: Sex and Masculinity in Modern India. London: Penguin Books, 2011.

Alter, J. S. The Wrestler’s Body: Identity and Ideology in North India. Oakland: University of California Press, 1992.


Irwin Allan Sealy

The word ‘hero’ is used to denote someone who is a ‘protector, defender, one who safeguards’. It is derived from the Proto-Indo-European word ser- (which means, ‘to watch over, to protect’). The Indic equivalents of the term are veer and surma, both of which may carry the defensive sense of ‘hero’ as well as valour in warfare (i.e. an offensive sense as well).

The word could also simply denote the protagonist of a literary work or other artefact (nayak). In this context, the word could connote strength, as in the case of Ram who draws the bow when no other can; or majesty, as in the case of Akbar who rules a greater empire than any; and bravery, which extends even to a commoner who risks his or her life to save his or her country or a defenceless child. Of course, physical prowess alone will not do – Ram is strength and serenity; also implied is maturity – the boy Krishna must outgrow his prankishness and mischief. In Indic literatures, therefore, a hero may be deified, but a god may not be reduced to a ‘hiroo’; a villain may have heroic qualities, but she or he would misuse them.

The word hero can also be used to denote an icon. In this sense, it primarily confines itself to the filmic world, denoting the protagonist and connoting brawn (e.g. Salman Khan), though puckish good looks (e.g. Shah Rukh Khan) can outclass muscle. Youth is essential, but gravitas, a greying Amitabh Bachchan, for instance, will do. At the same time, one blessed with a comic sense and immaculate timing can be ‘Hero No. 1’ – Govinda, whose swart, chubby face can meet any challenge from the above roster and make later hatchet-faced men look ashen and polar and un-Indian; equally possibly, a villain might steal the show, as did Sanjay Dutt in the film Khalnayak.

The word hero could also be used to refer to a sturdy thing. For instance, a bestselling bicycle, a popular motorcycle, a stalwart scooter – the Chetak, riding on its association with the hero Rana Pratap’s heroic horse (see story ‘Chetak Ki Virta’). A simple banyan or singlet cut to show muscle, advertised by a brawny film star, such as Salman Khan, can stretch to meet the word hero. There is also sometimes added a cautionary sense to the word hero. For instance, when the common utterance, ‘Hero mat ban’ (‘Do not try to be a hero’), reveals a depth of irony not ordinarily associated with the Indic mind.

If we turn to the feminine form of the word, ‘heroine’, we notice that it is not frequently used in parlance. It has not penetrated the lexicon to the same degree as the word hero has. However, it has found considerable use in the film world. Prominent historical queens from the subcontinent, such as Razia Sultana or Jodhabai, may be described as ‘heroines’ for their celluloid depiction but not for their historical value as icons of power or capability, for which purpose a local language equivalent would be pressed into use. Among politicians, J. Jayalalithaa from the state of Tamil Nadu might qualify on the grounds of her past in the film industry; otherwise, even an astute practitioner such as Indira Gandhi would require a descriptive term rather than the term heroine. A commoner, such as the anti-AFSPA activist Irom Sharmila, who displays resolution and iron will might be described as a heroine. Virtue, by itself, would not merit inclusion, and godliness would immediately disqualify the applicant; thus, even if Sita were viewed in her role as a protagonist in an epic drama, the word heroine would not apply (except in say a Ramlila performance). This is because usage of the term can seem faintly sacrilegious.


Kumari, N. Vijaya and D. Shanmugam . ‘Postcolonial Politics in Irwin Allan Sealy’s Hero: A Fable’. Notions 7, no. 4 (2016).

Sealy, I. A. Hero: A Fable. New York: Viking Press, 1990.


Shivangini Tandon

The terms ishq and pyar can both be translated into English as ‘love’, though they have their distinct trajectories of historical development. The terms have both secular and sacred connotations describing feelings of attachment, eroticism, romance and emotional desire, among others, between lover and the beloved – pir and murid and the creator and the created. Scholars like Francesca Orsini have tried to map the history of love in South Asia where it can be defined both in terms of affect and sociality. The intention here is to make the point that both ishq and pyar originated in very different sociocultural, literary and philosophical settings. Therefore, there is a need to highlight the plurality of these idioms of love which get manifested in the Indian literary discourse (through poetry, prose, drama, etc.) and have multiple synonyms in the Indian vernacular tradition – prem, srngara, ishq, kāma, sneha, mohabbat and so on. The main characteristic feature that distinguishes the notion of pyar and iśq from each other is the following: while the former describes any form of attachment in relationships without necessarily being erotic, the latter is marked by its intensity and eroticism.

Iśq is an Arabic word meaning love or passion, also widely used in other languages of the Muslim world. Traditional Persian lexicographers considered the Persian esq and Arabic isq to derive from the Arabic verbal root asaq – ‘to stick, to cleave to’. They connected the origin of the root to asaqa – a kind of ivy, because it twines around and cleaves to trees. Iśq developed a unique literary tradition and entered South Asia in the eleventh century with the Ghaznavids. In its most common classical interpretation, iśq refers to the irresistible urge to obtain possession of the beloved (ma‘shuq), expressing a want or desire that the lover (ashiq) must fulfil in order to reach the stage of perfection (kamal). The word iśq also has a distinctive discursive place in the Indo-Persian literary culture and in the classical Persian tradition; it is somewhat similar to mohabbat. Some scholars define it as a form of attachment that is marked by sensual love. However, Sufis generally relate this word with the divine and divide it into two: Iśq-e Haqiqi or real love or the love of god and Iśq-e Majazi or profane love or love for god’s creation, that is, love of a man or a woman.

The distinction between spiritual and profane love is also suggested in the qissa, a genre of story-writing that developed in India during the medieval and early modern periods, which invokes the trope of iśq as challenging the normative boundaries. At the same time, Sufis have read these stories as representing the love of the human soul for God. Such romance stories like that of Hir–Ranjha, Laila–Majnu and Ratansen–Padmawati also reflect a conflict between iśq and ethics or between the code of iśq and that of family honour.

Pyar has been derived from the Sanskrit word priya or priyakara. It is used to describe almost all kinds of love, whether it is towards one’s lover, parent, children or friends. Its other synonyms in the various Indian languages are prem, sneha, dosti and mitrai. This word is part of the Indo-Persian vocabulary and borrows a great deal from the Indian vernacular tradition. Scholars like Orsini have analysed the notion of pyar as a significant emotion or bhāva which can manifest itself in terms of relationship between the servant and the master (dasya bhāva), erotic love (madhurya bhāva), that of the friend (sakhya bhāva) and that of the mother and the child (vatsalya bhāva).

In this modern age, this multiple vocabulary of love reflects a unique cultural and linguistic synthesis in India. Whether it was expressed as courtly, romantic or devotional love, the emotion it encompassed within itself stood for dedication, attachment and affection.


Meisami, Julie S. Medieval Persian Court Poetry. New York: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Orsini, Francesca, ed. Love in South Asia: A Cultural History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.


Roma Chatterji

The Bangla word jatra or yatra in Sanskrit, literally journey, refers to troupes of itinerant players and, by extension, to the theatrical form as well. Its historical origins are difficult to establish, though there are apocryphal stories that trace it to the movement of ecstatic Krishna devotion initiated by Sri Chaitanya in the sixteenth century. In fact, Sri Chaitanya is said to have performed in musical dramas about the life of the god Krishna and the discovery of an incomplete manuscript of a play on Krishna’s sport with the gopis (cowherd girls) in the twentieth century is used to give credence to this story. Whatever its history may be, jatra, unlike many other forms of folk theatre, continues to attract audiences in both rural and urban Bengal.

The reason for this may be due to its flexible and open-ended structure that allows it to absorb novel elements from the ever-changing performative environment. Thus, not only has it absorbed techniques of proscenium theatre that came to Bengal in the colonial period, but it has also allowed itself to become a vehicle for the expression of new political ideas, at first, through the Indian Peoples Theatre Movement in pre-independence Bengal and then, later, in the 1960s when the Marxist playwright and actor, Utpal Dutta, decided to use jatra to reinvent a form of political theatre in Bengal. Techniques such as the use of frontality, direct address to the audience, breaks in narrative continuity and song and dance through the use of allegorical figures, such as Bibek (conscience) and Niyati (fate) that add a moral dimension to the story, make it an attractive vehicle for political activism. Another aspect of the jatra that is extremely important, though not often written about, is its ability to impact other performance styles, especially in rural Bengal. As jatra troupes travel across the countryside with their palas (plays), they become a source of new ideas that are then taken up for exploration in other forms of performance. Jatra, because of its popularity, perhaps, but also because of its open-ended structure that allows for the accretion of elements from elsewhere, is a dominant influence on diverse forms of folk theatre and dance.

Hypostasis, or the use of figural types to represent ethical perspectives as well as alternative historical paths, is a technique that has enabled the jatra mode of narrative enactment to retain its relevance in the contemporary performative environment and to take on complex political themes. Thus, in vernacular renditions of the 9/11 strike on the World Trade Centre, Bibek and Niyati are subtly used to portray Osama Bin Laden, a complex persona in whom demonic and saintly aspects coexist, poised on the edge of time, whose actions will actualize one or the other aspects of his personality and, in the process, shape the course of history as well. By portraying Bin Laden as an archetype, the event becomes a singularity in the Deleuzean sense, not so much an event in ‘real’ time that can be shaped into a linear narrative but rather a virtuality in which contrary signs are co-present. After all, the turbaned and bearded face that has become the global signifier of the ‘demonic’ other also denotes the ‘saintly’ figure of the pir.


Chatterji, R. Writing Identities: Folklore and Performative Arts of Purulia , Bengal. New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, 2009.

Skoda, U. and B.Lettman, eds. India and Its Visual Cultures: Community, Class and Gender in a Symbolic Landscape. New Delhi: Sage India, 2018.


Leela Samson

Līlā or leela, like many Sanskrit words, can neither be literally nor sensitively translated into English. It can only be loosely translated as ‘divine play’. The word also alludes to beauty, charm, to a yogini and to a divine drama or play.

Līlā is a variant of the female given name ‘Leila’, derived from the Semitic word for ‘night’. Over time, it has come to mean ‘dark beauty’ or ‘dark-haired beauty’. In Spanish, līlā is the word for the colour ‘lilac’. In German, it means ‘purple’. The word has different meanings. It could mean play, sport, spontaneity or drama, but most importantly, it usually focuses in one way or another on the effortless or playful relation between the Absolute – or Brahman – and the contingent world. The concept of līlā is common to both non-dualist and dualist philosophical schools, but it has a markedly different significance in each. According to the philosophy of the sixteenth-century theologian Shree Vallabhacharya, ‘Play or leela is the spontaneous activity generated from curiosity.’ The word līlā also exists in almost all Indian languages. For example, in Tamil, it is leelai or kali, that which is toxic, seductive, ecstatic dance – as in after drinking kallu or toddy. This is not unlike unmaatha taandavam, the dance of extreme ecstasy.

Detailing occurrences of līlā from Indian traditions would help differentiate the various shades of its meaning. In the Krishna bhakti tradition, rasa līlā is considered to be one of the highest and the most esoteric of Krishna’s pastimes. In this tradition, romantic love between human beings in the material world is seen as merely a diminished, illusionary reflection of the soul’s original, ecstatic love for Krishna in the spiritual world. Just as a child plays at will with its own reflection in a mirror, with the help of yogamaya (i.e. power to create, sustain and withdraw the world), Krishna sports with the gopis (cowherds) of Vrindavan, who are like shadows of His own form. The rasa līlā is also an uttsava, a celebration. People believe that our souls were once blissfully one with the universal spirit. There was no doubt, no pain and no fear in that state. Then, for līlā, the Lord separated the soul from Himself and sent it ‘to play’ in the universe. Enlightened souls of numerous sages and saints sought various ways of getting back to that blissful state of oneness with the universe. These sages and saints became gopis of Vraj in order to experience what they could not as sages. In this form, they saw how easy it was to achieve bliss. Leaving behind their preconceptions and prejudices, they gradually became free of everything that stopped them from enjoying their oneness with the universal spirit. In His lilas, the Lord is said to have cleansed them and removed the many layers of attachment and maya (illusions) that enveloped them.

In chirharan līlā, the Lord removes the dvaita (duality) from the minds of the gopis. He steals their garments while they bathe in the river, hides them atop a tree and then asks them to lift their arms in supplication, that is, to forget the physical and experience abandonment.

In the Gita Govinda, a Sanskrit poem written by Jayadeva, Radha is none other than Krishna, the very fount of his lilasakti or creative power. She transmutes his glory into the zenith of blissful happiness, in which alone he takes pleasure. Līlā is also the playfulness in God, in nature, in man. But playfulness is not trivial. Whether in life or in the dance of life, how do you reconcile ‘depth’ with ‘playfulness’? It is indeed paradoxical.


Misra, Ram Shanker. The Integral Advaitism of Sri Aurobindo. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt Ltd, 1998.

Sax William Sturman, ed. The Gods at Play: Lila in South Asia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.


Brahma Prakash

It is believed that the origin of the Hindi term naach is the Prakrit term nachacha. In its current usage, naach stands for a dance tradition in North India. This connotation, however, is very new and limited, beginning with the colonial period. In common parlance, otherwise, the term would represent a performing arts genre that is very close to natya, the broad genre of performing art which includes dance, music, stories and so on. Dance and music are intrinsic to the performance of naach. Naach is gender-neutral and can be performed by men, women and transgenders. In some regions of North India, performers are called nacha or nachar. Based on the style and movement pattern, a naach can be mornaacha (peacock dance), patangnaach (kite dance), kaharwanaach (palanquin dance), launda naach (the dance of female impersonators) or any of the other myriad forms and styles.

The utterance of the term and its related cultural practices have varied presence from region to region. In Bengal, it is called nachni, while in Bihar it is naach, and in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, it is called naacha. The tradition was also deeply caste-based, and before Independence, there were many caste-specific variants of the naach, such as rautnaach, chamaruanaach, dhobiyanaacha and gondnaach, referring to various communities. Performers largely came from the lower castes or Dalits. And, of late, there has been assertion of naach from the community point of view. Nacchi se bacchi (‘Daughter of a dancer’) is a popular slogan used by an Adivasi activist in Jharkhand, as a way of reclaiming the word from the world of stigma and prejudices it has come to represent.

During the colonial period, the word was written in its anglicized form as ‘nautch’. Nautch has very rich and complex histories in relation to the postcolonial discourse. Historian Pran Neville gives several accounts of the encounters where the English and the dancers came together but often on unequal terms. The term ‘naach’ saw its resurgence in Colonial India subsequent to the government banning various art forms. It appears that it is under the encounter of colonial culture, which also tried to individuate cultural practices, that the use of nautch became restricted only to dance. And, today, many naach traditions are vulnerable to extinction in the absence of patronage, which began to be dismantled by the colonial power.


Jassal, Smita Tewari. Unearthing Gender: Folksongs of North India. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.

Raheja, Gloria Goodwin and Ann Grodzins Gold Listen to the Heron’s Words: Reimagining Gender and Kinship in North India. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.


Brahma Prakash

Nakhra is a term of affectation. It carries a sense of pretension. It stands for a playful love and hate relationship in a familial situation. A baby can do nakhra to get more love from its mother. Similarly, lovers do nakhra if they not receive the desired attention and therefore these are also acts of desire. Nakhra has dramatic pretensions with elements of dobbing, whispering and pleading. The person may not be angry but she or he will show that she or he is angry as something due has not accorded to her or him. Ruthna (sulking) is closely related to nakhra. It was believed that courtesans would do nakhra to seduce men in power. From that perspective, nakhra is a feminine act with sexual undertones for economic and political ends. One who does a lot of nakhra is called nakhrali or nakhreaj.

However, in general, nakhra is a flirtatious act or attitude. The idea is to give oneself air. It is closely related to the mannerism referred to as blandishment and coquetry. Nakharā is social behaviour as well as an artistic and playful act. In many performing art traditions in India, expressions of sensuality are called nakhra. For example, nakhra plays an important role in ghazal and khyal singing and the dance tradition of kathak. It is an art, an aesthetic of pretence in which one party negotiates with the other in the form of coquetries. Facial expressions play a vital role in the act of nakhra.


Manuel, Peter. ‘A Historical Survey of the Urdu Gazal-Song in India.’ Asian Music (1988): 93–113.


Vibha Puri Das

Padma, a synonym for the flower lotus, enjoys salience in various strands of Indian mythology; it connotes beauty and purity, rising above the ordinary. Padma is an ancient and beloved analogy for the cosmos and for aspiration to perfection. While Padma awards do not form part of the constitutional frame notified on 26 January 1950, as they were instituted in 1954, the two share their roots, wellsprings and rationale.

The Padma awards, as in the other national symbols, generate pride in the nation-state of a longing to adhere to a notion of ‘Indianness’ and a sense of belonging to a wider and larger entity. In today’s lexicon, when nationalism tends to be conflated with militarism, when development seems synonymous with exclusive enclaves of privilege, when environment sensitivity are conversely creating more and more ecological refugees, entities which evoke national pride remind one of the need to nurture the roots of nation-building that were based on not speaking to primordial emotions of otherness.

The categories of Padma awards are the Bharat Ratna, Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan and Padma Shree. The granting of awards has had its share of controversy – with the granting of the award to some eminent scholar, musician or public personage or the omission of a deserved grant. However, the return of the award, on the few occasions that it has happened, has invited considerable public interest and discussion about bringing the phrase award-wapsi (return of the award) into common lexicon.

The frames visible from the vantage point of the Padma award include a differentiation between a monarchy bestowing awards as patronage and the political republic, instituting state recognition of distinguished service in diverse fields. This constitutes a mutuality in as much as the state is a partner in recognizing the excellence – arguably, it is the state that privileges those aspects of excellence it awards, not individual excellence alone, that demand recognition: Svarāja as in self-rule. At a second remote is the frame of the ‘Righteous Republic’ where the dharma underpinnings of the republic find sustenance and growth through individual’s aspiration to fulfilment of its evolutionary raison d’etre. Gandhi’s conception of connection between self-realization (atma darshan) and politics (rajya prakaran) posited that inner change within individual leads to outer changes in society. Another frame looks at the power and beauty accompanying the sthitaprajna, ‘the man of steady mind or steady wisdom’ who strives to attain inner svarāja and perhaps seated in padma asana: svarāja as in swadharma.

Ethical and ennobling aspirations reflected in the Directive Principles of State Policy of the Indian Constitution find resonance in choice and designation of the Padma awards. Anything that helps India rid itself of debilitating poverty of the masses takes the country towards Svarāja. ‘For the state to have a moral vision of the Human good rooted in truth, and not as a subjective legitimizing device’. The argument that without svarāja as self-rule, svarāja as self-government could degenerate into state oppression even in so-called liberal societies seems particularly prescient today while we celebrate Padma awards even as we hurtle towards greater disparity, greater voicelessness of the marginalized and bigger threat to civil liberties through technological invasion.

Most Padma awards have been conferred on living personalities but the Bharat Ratna has with attendant controversy been bestowed posthumously also. The most recent posthumous Bharat Ratna was given to founder of Banaras Hindu University, Madan Mohan Malaviya. One Bharat Ratna conferred posthumously on freedom fighter Subhash Chandra Bose was declined by his family on the ground that it may be interpreted as a slight to his memory.


Gandhi, M. K. Hind Swaraj and Other Writings, edited by Anthony J. Parel . Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Thapar, Romila The Past as Present: Forging Contemporary Identities through History. New Delhi: Aleph Book Company, 2014.


Yousuf Saeed

Qawwālī (from Arabic qaul meaning to speak, a statement) is a vocal musical form performed in Sūfī shrines and secular spaces, including trendy concerts, in much of South Asia by a group of singers called qawwals. They use both mystical and secular poetry, in languages ranging from Urdu and Hindi to Persian, Arabic and Punjabi. Although North India’s classical or Hindustani music grammar (ragas, talas) form the basis of a qawwālī rendition, one may also find in them influences of folk and light music tunes.

According to popular belief, qawwali was developed by the fourteenth-century Delhi poet – Amir Khusrau – to be performed for the Sufis of Chishti order such as Nizamuddin Aulia (d.1325). However, historical evidence suggests that musical forms named qaul and qawwali may have existed in Arabia and the Persianate world, at least a couple of centuries before Amir Khusrau. For instance, Ali Al-Hujweri, an eleventh-century Sūfī shaikh buried in Lahore, has written about qawwals reciting poetry in the sama gatherings of Sufis in Arabia, Central Asia and India. Many musical forms, instruments and styles arrived in India from central Asia via musicians and artists between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, helping in the evolution of newer forms through their synthesis with Indian musical forms under the patronage of various rulers. Amir Khusrau was active, then, as a talented court poet and composer in Delhi and a close confidante of the Sūfī Nizamuddin Aulia, composing ghazals and setting them to music for his patron kings of the Delhi sultanate using both Central Asian and Indian music. Present-day qawwali compositions like Man kunto maula and Chhaap tilak sab cheeni, attributed to Khusrau, are some of the basic songs performed by qawwals all over South Asia.

The training and repertoire of qawwali music have been passed down via oral transmission, in the families of present qawwals, with hardly any written documents. Today’s qawwali is usually a long-duration group song (a composition may last anywhere from fifteen minutes to one hour or more) with an accompaniment of harmoniums, dhol (barrel drum), tabla and hand clapping. Some gramophone records from the early twentieth century contain short-duration (three- to four-minute) renditions called kawali (Bhairabi KawaliPahadi Kawali and so on) by well-known solo vocalists like Gauhar Jan and Peare sahib. These sound like fast tempo renditions of the classical thumri or chhota khayal and should not necessarily be considered a precursor to the twentieth-century qawwali, since terms like qawwal and kalawant were used, even during Mughal times, to mean a singer or vocalist in general.

Before exploring the popular or secular usage of qawwali in South Asia, it is important to highlight its importance in the traditional Sūfī sama (audition) itself. While one finds unending debates in the Islamic world, especially among the orthodox scholars about the illicit nature of music, Sufis liberally argue in favour of the practice of sama to enhance their spiritual experiences, often citing examples of the Prophet Muhammad himself who listened to, or did not object to, singing. Those who disapprove of the sama and music in Islam complain of its ability to lead listeners astray, especially towards the ‘sinful’ practices of music, dance, wine and lust. For most Sufis, however, the sensuous elements of music, such as rhythm and tone, are not as important as its lyrics are. Hence, for many early Sufis, sama meant listening to the recitation of thought-provoking or philosophical verses, often without the accompaniment of musical instruments – anything that could trigger a spiritual ecstasy. The mehfils (gatherings) of sama are usually exclusive. For instance, women are discouraged from participating or listening in many gatherings, although they may listen from nearby enclosures. In some Sūfī orders, the listener is allowed to move his or her body in whirling or dancing, whereas some orders or hospices discourage body movement.

The poetry recited in a qawwali is not necessarily always religious, sacred or spiritual, nor are any specific poets preferred. While there are many non-sacred romantic verses in the repertoire of a qawwal, besides the main song or ghazal that forms the backbone of a qawwali, the artists also occasionally insert a girah (knot) or an interlude couplet which thematically befits the main ghazal but may be very different musically or even from a different language.

While many traditional qawwals in India and Pakistan, especially those associated with specific shrines, come from a certain family tradition, gharana or caste, some also learn anew to perform in secular spaces or for record companies. Early gramophone records (for instance, advertised in 1941 by Twin Record Company) provide us names of artists like Abdur Razzaq qawwal, Kallan Khan qawwal, Wali Mohammad qawwal and Shaikh Lal qawwal, among others. Hundreds of qawwali records were being produced annually in the early twentieth century, besides inexpensive song books of qawwali lyrics, suggesting a vibrant popular culture of record-listening at homes and in public. In India’s early cinema, many situations were used as backdrop for a qawwali, not necessarily all associated with a Muslim identity or a mystical/sacred context. One of the most prolific playback singers to give voice to cinema qawwalis through much of the twentieth century is the legendary Muhammad Rafi.

We do not know when, or by whom, the qawwali muqablas (competitions) between two facing groups (usually men and women) were introduced in cinema or otherwise. Such a tradition is unlikely to have existed at the Sūfī shrines, although poetry and music competitions were common in most royal courts in India. Competitive mushairas (soirees) of Urdu poetry were also frequent in public spaces. Many Bombay films have depicted such competitions, usually between the lead male and female protagonists. Nakli Nawab (1962), Mere Mehboob (1963), Ghazal (1964) and Dayar-e-Madina (1975) are such films that feature poetic rivalries, which often lead to the romantic union of the two protagonists. The naive mehfils of mushaira that were hallmarks of adab (literature) and aadab (etiquette) were catapulted to a more complex level of musicality, emotions and flirtation via these qawwali muqablas.

Gramophone records gave way to a culture of audiotapes and cassettes in 1960s, making the listening of recordings more affordable. People could easily make copies of recordings and also record live sessions. Some qawwals who gained fame through their appearance in Bombay cinema as well as their records/cassettes in 1960s to 1970s were Ismail Azad, Yusuf Azad, Rashida Khatoon and Shakila Bano Bhopali. In the 1980s, qawwals like Aziz Nazan, Shankar-Shambhu and Habeeb Painter and Pakistan’s Sabri brothers also made themselves household names with their popular compositions. The rise of Pakistan’s Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan saw a new phase in the popularity and appreciation of qawwali worldwide. Sūfī music and Sufism itself became trendy, with a much larger audience purchasing music or going to the concerts. Many musicians, including the late Nusrat, added Western or synthesized music to their performances, popularizing the art. Sūfī music, comprising of high-pitched alaps, tans, phrases of poetry from the well-known Sūfī poets and high-energy rhythmic beats, remains an integral part of Bombay film culture today. Although the Indian music industry today may be in the doldrums due to online piracy, qawwalis and Sūfī songs are some of the most-accessed types of music being downloaded and shared via social media the world over.


Qureshi, Regula Burckhardt. Sufi Music of India and Pakistan: Sound, Context and Meaning in Qawwali. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Saeed Yousuf. ‘The Debate on Amir Khusrau’s “Inventions” in Hindustani Music’. The Journal of Indian Musicological Society 39 (2008): 220–232.


Tista Bagchi

A polysemous word of Sanskrit origin, raga originally meant ‘colour, tinge’ (from the verb-root ranj, meaning ‘(to) dye, (to) colour’) and is historically related to the Persian-origin word rang (colour) used in several modern Indian languages; additional figurative meanings that have also become salient in these are ‘passion, love, anger’. Although the term ‘ragahas’ entered the domain of nomenclature for musical and sartorial events and (sub-)brands in recent decades (for instance, Morning Raga, a 2004 film directed by Mahesh Dattani), historically and culturally it denotes a special category of scale-based patterning, sometimes called a ‘melodic framework’, in both the Hindustani and the Carnatic systems of Indian classical music (often with folk origins).

There is much greater scope of nuanced expression within the basic structure of a given raga than the common English translation ‘mode’ can capture. Paradoxically, the raga is grammatically more restricted: each raga comes with its own melodic and enharmonic constraints. Instead, the much later schemata of thāt specifications (as especially codified by the musicologist Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande), a major figure in modernist pedagogy in Hindustani classical music, Bakhle notes, are better analogues to modes in Western classical music. The ragathus has no direct counterpart in Western musical traditions although, as Powers notes, note groups akin to ragas – and closer to the modes of Western classical music – are found in certain obsolescent musical traditions of Kashmir and West Asia.

Ragas are both sung by classical Indian vocalists and performed instrumentally by solo or accompanying instrumentalists. Most ragas have been grouped according to the appropriate times of day to perform them, for example, Bhairav/Bhairon and Todi(dawn), Bilawal and Asavari (morning to early afternoon), Multani (late afternoon), Purvi (sunset) and Bihag and Bageshri (night). Raga-malika (literally, ‘garland of ragas’, compositions that weave many ragas) representations abound in miniature Indian art as well.

While mentions of the term raga are found in Upanishadic and eighth-century texts, the first clearly musicological text focussing on the tonal details of different ragas is the Raga-Tarangini, a treatise on ragas ascribed to Lochana Sharma (aka Lochana-Pandita or Lochana-Kavi) and dated to c. 1150 CE. The work describes (in a mix of Sanskrit and contemporaneous Maithili) the different tonal characteristics of then-recognized ragas, such as Purva and Mukhari (which are no longer ordinarily performed).

In largely pre-Islamic categorization, ragas have further been differentiated from raginis, which are conceived as the more numerous female ‘wives’ of a smaller number of seasonally appropriate ‘masculine’ ragas, a distinction no longer salient. Furthermore, certain ragas are ascribed to poets/musicians such as Amir Khusrau (who is credited with inventing the khayal genre in which ragas are sung) and Tansen (ascribed to be the inventor of ragas Miyan ki Malhar and Miyan ki Kanara).


Bakhle, Janaki. Two Men and Music: Nationalism and the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Powers, Harold. ‘Asian Ethnomusicology Lecture Series: South and West Asian Musical Traditions’. Hosted by the Department of Music and delivered at the Humanities Institute, University of Chicago in 1992.


Sudha Gopalakrishnan

The epic Rāmāyana, the story of Rama, has had a long oral history in India for more than two millennia. It was first composed by the poet Valmiki around the second century BCE. The epic poem has a sacred significance in India and in many cultures of the South and Southeast Asia. It has stirred the imagination of poets, writers, musicians, painters, ballad singers and dancers from all over the world, who have transformed the story into multiple creative expressions and is regarded as one of the symbols of cultural interaction in Asia.

The term Ramlila combines two words: Ram and Līlā. Ram refers to the hīōo of Rāmāyana, who is revered in India as the incarnation of the god Vishnu, who took birth as the prince of Ayōdhyā and defeated the demon king Ravana. Līlā, in Sanskrit, has a specific contextual meaning in the domain of the sacred, which recognizes the human world as the spontaneous, joyous and playful creation of god. The world is illusionary in nature and is simply a construct of the mind. In a manner of speaking, the closest translation that one could make is that Ramlila is ‘Ram’s playful exploits’. In this sense, Ramlila is an enactment of the līlā of God for the sake of humans and is therefore the play of the God Rama. Ramlila is the performance of the Rāmāyana and, more specifically, of the Ramcharitmanas (or simply Manas as it is popularly known), an adaptation of the text composed by Tulsidas, in Hindi, in the sixteenth century.

The sway and the still-active presence of the Rama narrative across India and many parts of Asia have no parallels anywhere in the world. In India and elsewhere, it is believed that watching and playing Ramlila have a spiritual significance. There are several versions and adaptations of the performance in India, mostly based on local versions of the story and styles of performance. Performances in different regions adapt them to their own regional variations and include local versions, devotional songs and performative styles, and this heterogeneity is perhaps the most significant syntactical feature of the language of this performance.

The basis of many Ramlila performances in North India is the Manas. A class of reciters called Ramayanis narrate the entire text of the Manas, and each day’s performance is a dramatization of the recited text. Fundamentally, Ramlila draws its narrative and performative power from the oral reservoir of the text and it is astounding to see the charged atmosphere and collective energy when the audience become participants in the recitation of the epic during the performance. It is perhaps this practice of ritualized public reading that led to the development of Ramlila as a performance.

Performed during the time of the festival of Dussehra, for a period ranging from nine to over thirty days, the līlā ground is considered sacred during the performance. The Ramlila of each region has its own dramatic conventions through which the story progresses day by day. In many cases, there are no strict divisions between the character and the audience, as the audience moves along with the performers through the shifting spaces, participating in the sequence of events including the wedding, banishment, kidnapping and war. The main characters (svarupas) – Ram, Lakshman, Sita, Bharat and Shatrugan – are usually played by boys between the ages of 6 to 12 years and are revered as the representatives of Gods themselves. The make-up of the svarupas resembles temple traditions of decorating (sringar) the idols. Masks are used for characters such as Ravana, with ten joined heads. Ramlila masks are made of paper mache, metal and cloth.

Effigies used in the Ramlila are of enormous proportions, sometimes extending up to 50 feet in height. Largely, the effigies are made of Ravana, his brother Kumbhkarna and Meghnad. As a symbolic representation of the victory of good over evil, it is a common practice across India to burn the effigies on the last day of Dusshera, which marks the end of the annual cycle of Ramlila.

There are several varieties of Ramlila, different and dynamic ways of performing this story, with almost every town in North India having its own Ramlila ground. For example, the jhanki līlā (vision, view) is a spectacle with no narrative that presents a static visual enthroned on a chariot, usually one or more of the incarnations (svarup) of the God represented. It is the spectator who ascribes the meaning to the vision and the appeal of the tableaux (jhanki), to its spectators, arises from the special religious significance of the occasion. Another variety of the performance, called tulsi lilais, is more prevalent and is usually a grand show with stage props and splendid costumes, theatrical dialogues and processions which feature the story in a vivid manner. The Ramnagar Ramlila, perhaps the most well-known līlā representation that happens in Banaras, across the river Ganga, is a splendid ceremonial drama lasting for a month during the Dussehra time, which combines the narration of the text, tableaux and dialogue.

It is difficult to trace the exact origin of Ramlila, but it is said that Tulsidas, himself, may have imagined his poem as a performance, for a wider appeal. Story goes that a disciple of Tulsidas choreographed a performance of the scene of the reunion of Ram and Bharat, after fourteen years of Ram’s exile into the forest. The play, staged at Nati Imli near Ramnagar, is still performed every year at the same site and draws many spectators, including the king of Ramnagar.

The sponsorship of Ramlila saw a major shift after independence, with the crumbling of royal/feudal systems. It became a community-based art, supported by the local communities. Performances usually held in the afternoon were replaced by elaborate night shows over consecutive evenings. In recent decades, wealthy and business families have come forward to sponsor private performances, and troupes (mandalis) have also sprung up in urban centres such as Mumbai, Delhi and Calcutta raising the popularity of the art across India. In 2005, UNESCO proclaimed Ramlila as a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’.


Kapur, Anuradha. Actors, Pilgrims, Kings and Gods: The Ramlila of Ramnagar. Calcutta: Seagull, 1990.

Lutgendorf, Philip The Life of a Text: Performing the Ramcharitmanas of Tulsidas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.


Sudha Gopalakrishnan

Creating intricate designs on the ground with rice paste and other natural colouring materials, intimately linked to worship and festive celebrations, is a common tradition across India. As we move from region to region, we see that these ornate patterns are almost solely crafted by women. What is striking is the variety and sophistication of this artistic practice across regions, communities and individuals.

The designs drawn on the floor are known by several names in India and are linked to diverse semantic references, some explicit and some others linked to concomitant attributes of different expressive ideas. In the northern parts of India, it is rangoli, derived from the Hindi word rang meaning colour. West Bengal has named its floor design alpana, in all probability drawn from alimpana, which means to plaster, coat or, by extension of the idea, to draw or paint on a surface. In Tamil Nadu, the word kolam means simply a design or form. The Telugu muggu, also, means a pattern. There are several other expressions of drawings made on the ground, in other places of India, such as mandana (the same Sanskrit word means decoration) in Rajasthan, aripana (perhaps from alpana?) in Bihar and kalamezhuttu (three-dimensional drawing of the goddess on floor; the sacred space is called kalam) in Kerala.

The patterns made on the floor by women are linked to a set of practices across India, practices that may overlap with other regions but also have distinctive features of their own. The art of floor painting is so diverse in usage, purpose and artistic features that it cannot be reduced to a singular set of signs and symbols. There are traditional designs associated with each occasion – ritual, festivity or any happy celebration. In many cases, the craft is used in connection with a festival, ritual or celebratory occasion. Alpana in West Bengal is associated with festive occasions such as Saraswati Puja and Deepavali. Muggu is drawn at home during occasions such as Sankranti, during the month of Dhanu. The crafting of kalamezhuttu has a highly ritualistic character and is associated with specific ceremonies and rituals, whereas pookkalam is a necessary feature during Onam celebrations in Kerala. In many areas, making floor diagrams is a daily customary routine, such as in the kolam of Tamil Nadu.

In spite of variations across India, the crafting of a floor diagram has a common set of rules. When the ground is made ready and the surface prepared, according to the place and occasion, the artist lays down the contours with initial strokes, making vertical, horizontal, diagonal and circular shapes according to the design. With combinations of colours placed onto this basic form, the picture magically comes alive, whether simple or intricate.

Rich in symbolic significance, intricate in patterns and vibrant in colours, rangolis represent the collective memory and artistic imagination of the women. The idea associated with the word has a propitiatory significance, as an offering and a vow directed towards the well-being of home, family and the community. It is also an assertion to keep alive a tradition handed down from mother to daughter for generations, not through any conscious method of teaching but through a shared involvement and nurturing.

The floor designs, in cases such as rangoli, alpana and kalamezhuttuis, are also thought to acts as spells to invoke a deity, ward off evil and spread welfare and peace in communities. They are also prayers to the deity of one’s choice (ishtadevata) asking to fulfil a wish or seek blessings. It is significant that these are ephemeral drawings and are erased or destroyed once the deity has been invoked, prayer is addressed and the ritual action completed.

Some of the more prominent designs drawn on the floor are swastika, spiral, circle, lotus, full pitcher, flowers, leaves and the figures of animals and birds. While kolam uses only rice paste and has a geometric configuration, many other varieties are vibrantly colour-based. They use pigments and colours drawn from nature. Some of these include rice flour, turmeric and kumkum, dried and powdered leaves, charcoal and burned soil. The artists have expertise in mixing natural ingredients together to get variations in colours. For example, a mixture of turmeric and lime gives a dark red colour, while black is derived from burning charcoal.

The colours, the patterns and their symbolism, the practice and regional variations of rangoli, reflect India’s rich heritage as a land of festivals and colour. However, it is also important to recognize that while we club these traditions together as India’s common heritage, they are not actually homogeneous. There are several regional variations of floor decorations; for instance, floor decorations such as hase in Karnataka, aripana in Bihar, mandana in Rajasthan, aipan in Uttarakhand and chowkpujan in Uttar Pradesh do not have identical features. There is a wide range of social situations, where some of these forms are more conventional, some are put to use in a contemporary context and some others are constantly in a state of change, both in function and form. For example, currently, rangoli has adapted to more unconventional settings and has become part of any formal or informal occasion, including an office function, an evening dinner party or simply welcoming a special guest. Tourism departments and their allied institutions have popularized the art, and sometimes the designs also get replicated in fabric. The word rangoli, along with the craft that portrays it, is not likely to disappear any time soon. The forms may vary and the contexts may change, but the artistic skill and exquisite designs of rangoli, quintessentially Indian, are here to stay.


Gajjar, Irene. Ancient Indian Art and the West. D.B. Bombay: Taraporevala Sons, 1971.

Gode, P. K. ‘History of Rangavalli Art between c. A.D. 50 and 1900’. Studies in Indian Cultural History 3 (1969): 87–102.


Hemachandran Karah

I grew up relishing a special kind of salad called pachadi prepared exclusively on a Telugu New Year’s Day. The pachadi was sweet, salty, bitter, astringent, pungent and sour, all at the same time. In helping us children figure out such an admixture of tastes, an elder never failed to remind us that life is as much an assortment of leads, likeable and otherwise. Pachadi and other lay creations are a reminder that the idea of taste is not a mere culinary affair in Indian imagination. Instead, it is embedded within a long-standing aesthetic persuasion called rasa. Appreciation of beauty, drama, poetry, music, dance and all things that make an emotional universe owe something or the other to the framework of rasa. Broadly, one may translate rasa as essence, flavour, taste and aesthetic relish. Contemporary English-educated audience may associate taste with an unforgiving moral judgement. Such a scepticism may have some validity. All the same, within the Indian cultural milieu, rasa emerges primarily as a spectrum of fleeting emotions, rendered stable by one’s propensity for savouring them selectively. For example, most Indian filmgoers are aware of ephemeral emotions that their favourite heroes, heroines, villains, lyrical compositions and dialogues with a punch are capable of generating in them. No less importantly, they may also savour a particular emotion, heroic pride for example, in pursuing a dearly espoused political orientation.

Classical dramaturgist Bharatha who lived nearly two thousand years ago recognizes such moments of savouring, where flickering emotions transform into stable entities with a potential for transcendental vision. In Natyasastra, his treatise on drama, Bharatha describes at least eight stable emotions linked to rasa. They include the erotic (sringaara), the comic (haasya), the tragic (karuna), the furious (raudra), the heroic (vira), the terrible (bhayaanaka), the odious (bibhatsa) and the marvellous (adbhuta). Tenth-century philosopher Abhinava Guptha adds one more to this list which he calls the bliss (santa). Bharatha does not treat all the eight rasas as watertight sentiments. Instead, he recognizes them as emotional phenomena that animate in sync with a theatrical performance and yet live beyond. Bharatha also enlists a host of transitory emotions that go with an eightfold emotional cluster. A long lineage of critics until the present finds Bharatha’s insights on aesthetic relish transformative and technically astute.

Bharatha’s thesis on tastes is still tied to and dependent upon one’s capacity to peruse the formal properties of a piece of art. It does not account for tastes that thrive everywhere and yet nowhere. The wherewithal of taste, its beginning, and end if any, catchment area, its spiritual hold on personhood and voices of those who breathe life into it, and the rest, require closer attention to the problem of subjectivity. Bhatta Nayaka, who lived during the tenth century, takes us exactly in that direction. Valmiki’s Sita cannot remain the same across epochs, Nayaka would argue. For example, a contemporary teenager may relate to Sita for her fierce independence one moment, feminine charm in others and an unexplainable inner compulsion in others. Citing these instances, Nayaka would merrily declare – ‘We should treat subjectivity not as a mere interior universe, but as a lived world that one may choose to inhabit and animate. Does that sound radical and completely in sync with the current reception theory? Yes it will.’

In sum, as a modality of aesthetic response, rasa resides somewhere between logical analysis and appreciation flavoured by intuition. As an object of taste, rasa is, and will remain, driven by subjectivity. Also, due to an element of savouring and meditation, rasa may also prompt a transcendental vision. This is useful in a real-time political situation. For example, disabled people may better understand the import of their social exclusion by unearthing certain cultivated tastes that work against them. At the same time, a meditation on a particular emotion such as bhayaanaka may aid them in making sense of vulnerabilities that do not spare anyone, including habitual oppressors. The point is this – human conditions such as vulnerability require an idiosyncratic and a universal purview. The framework of rasa can ably serve both pathways.


Schwartz, S. L. RasaPerforming the Divine in India. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

Vatsyayan, Kapila. Bharata, the Nāṭyaśāstra. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1996.


B. N. Patnaik

Sahitya is a category term generally used for a body of linguistic art works, in the written form, such as poetry, drama, stories and novels, essays, biographies, autobiographies and travelogues. ‘Literature’, in its narrow sense, is its equivalent term. In its broad-sense usage, literature includes writing on themes such as development, environment, endangered languages, etc. At present, the word sahitya is not used to refer to writings on these themes. Here, literature is used in its narrow sense. Poetry, drama and fiction constitute the core of sahitya/literature. Overgeneralizing a bit, these are instances of imaginative writing as against essays, biographies, travelogues and journalistic reporting, which deal with the real and the conventional attitude is to treat these as the poor cousins of poetry, drama and fiction – works of art. With respect to imaginative literature, one does not raise questions of validity – John Keats’s ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’ (‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’) is not contested because ugliness is truth too. No issues are raised when William Shakespeare describes life as ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ (Macbeth). There is no contestation of a cloud becoming a messenger for the lover to his beloved in Kalidasa’s Meghaduta on the same ground. One willingly suspects one’s disbelief here, accepting that the parameters of reality change in these works. In essays, travelogues and news stories, which are more ‘realistic’ genres, one expects strong rootedness in reality.

However, ‘Art, Truth and Politics’, Harold Pinter’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, which deals insightfully with issues of eternal human concern such as the nature of reality, unreality and truth in art and political life, can hardly not be called sahitya. The same holds true for Alexievich Svetlana’s ‘Voices of Chernobyl’, which, as a deeply moving and perceptive account of a human-made disaster, transcends its specific context and its genre as journalism. Thus, a very basic characteristic of great sahitya turns out to be its universality and sometimes, its author’s too, as in the case of the Mahābhārata, as multiple innovatively different versions are created across centuries. Generations of readers relate to great literature in manifold ways.

However, a great literary work is not about content alone; it is about language and style as well – ‘what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed’ (Alexander Pope, ‘An Essay on Criticism’). ‘Gather me into the artifice of eternity’ (‘Sailing to Byzantium’) is how W. B. Yeats articulates the desire for eternal existence. Eduardo Galeano captures the grace and beauty of Pele’s game, by saying, watching him was like living moments ‘so worthy of immorality that they make us believe immortality exists’. Immortality takes a different form in William Blake’s expression – ‘hold infinity in the palm of your hand’. Creativity is manifest in terms of rich metaphors which connect thoughts, feelings and objects never connected before – the reader perceives things in a new way. Ambiguity and indirectness are the essence of literary expression because of their suggestive power. The ambiguity of Maria’s situation and the resulting confusion of interaction in the sanatorium are rendered into a profound tragedy of insensitivity and miscommunication in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s story, ‘I Only Came to Use the Phone’. Instead of directly saying that one cannot destroy others without destroying oneself, Albert Camus, mixing facts and imagination, creates his Caligula, in his play Caligula, who embodies this vision. Exploring ways of creative expression, which sometimes takes the form of metaphor, the Bhagavad Gita, in the eleventh chapter, tries to describe the infinite in terms of the finite, the formless in terms of form.

The relationship between the world of literature and the real world is not always as transparent as in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. It is often more complex. Much worthwhile literature is not a mirror of reality but an aesthetically appealing construction of it. The world of art is created from an understanding of the real world and to that extent it not exactly real; yet, ironically, this ‘created’ world of literature, with its economy of structure and intensification of thought, feeling and experience, enriches our knowledge of and sensitivity towards the real world. There is no point in looking for Meursault, Camus’s ‘outsider’ in the real world, but this character helps us understand indifference as an attitude and disconnection with the world as a way of life and the situation of the loners in a world that mistrusts them. One must not hope to find Sita in the real world, but the Sita of Uttara Kanda of Valmiki’s R ā māyana helps us understand the tragedy of ignoring the limits of tolerance and willingly suppressing the natural voice of protest.

Great writers explore, in depth and sensitivity, the range of human experiences and the human situation as (s)he negotiates the world. Literary works of significance provide their readers intellectual and aesthetic pleasure, while illuminating and sensitizing them to the human predicament. Other things like helping them escape from their reality, educating and inspiring them to struggle and not give up, etc., are bonuses.


Albert, Edwary. History of English Literature. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Kundera, Milan. The Art of the Novel. London: Faber and Faber, 2005.


Gopika Nath

saree is a 5.5–9-yard, unstitched garment, traditionally worn by women from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The saree is a derivative of the Sanskrit word shati (pronounced ‘shaatee’) – meaning a strip of cloth – and from shadi (‘shaadee’) or sadi (‘saadee’) in Pali. It evolved over time to become the saree (‘saaree’) in contemporary usage. It could also have been derived from the Prakrit word sattika, meaning women’s attire, found in Buddhist and Jain literature, or from the south-west Dravidian sāṛīri, pronounced as sire (Kannada).

Saree is the generic term used for the unstitched garment worn across the subcontinent. In different Indian languages, it can be referred to by other names. For instance, in Tamil, the saree is called pudvai, selai or adai; in Malayalam, it is sela, pudava or tuni; in Odia, saadi, sardhi, luga, kapta; in Marathi, saadi, sardhi, shallu; in Gujarati, saadi, saalu, lugadu or cira.

The saree can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilization. It evolved from a three-piece ensemble – costumes belonging to the Vedic and post-Vedic period (1500 BCE to 350 BCE), generally consisted of three articles of clothing for men and women alike. These were not cut and sewn garments but rectangular pieces of beautifully crafted textiles. The antariya or lower garment (resembling the dhoti), fabric passing through legs, covering them loosely and then flowing into long, decorative pleats in front of the legs. The uttariya was like a mantle; it covered the upper part of the body, worn over shoulders or head. It could be worn across the back, resting on shoulders, to fall freely on the forearms. Sometimes, women took two uttariyas, one draped on the head and the other across the arms. They did not cover their breasts but married women wore a chest band, known as stanmasuka or stanapatta, which is similar to the mammillare or strophum worn by the Roman women. This three-piece ensemble or poshak (generic term for costume), is mentioned in Sanskrit literature and Buddhist Pali literature of the sixth century BCE. The antariya evolved into the skirt, known as ghagra and lehenga, the uttariya became the dupatta and the stanapatta developed into the choli and the uttariya and antariya merged to form a single garment known as the saree. 2 Sculptures belonging to the Maurya–Sunga period (324–78 BCE) reveal that antariya was always tied below the navel, emphasizing the curves of the female form.

Today, there are more than eighty recorded ways to wear a saree (Boulanger, 1997) which offer special insights into the ethnology of Indians and Southeast Asians and the archaeology of the periods in which it developed. The most commonly worn style, called the Nivi style, has the saree wrapped around the waist, with the loose end of the drape worn over the shoulder, baring the midriff. In ancient Indian traditions and according to the Natyasastra (ancient treatise on dance and costumes), the navel of the ‘Supreme Being’ is considered to be the source of life and creativity, hence explaining the need to bare the midriff when draping the saree. Other texts such as the Dharmasastras state that women should be dressed in such a manner that the navel is never visible.

With the advent of Western fashion trends, the more cumbersome and tricky-to-wear saree has been overshadowed by trousers, dresses and gowns. It has led to the advent of the ready-made or pre-stitched saree, which is easily available on popular online portals, apart from stores. Some designers have also devised the saree-gown – a single garment worn like a full-length dress, with pleats in the front and a faux palla draped over the left shoulder in the traditional Nivi style but without the midriff showing.

There was a time when wearing a saree signified maturity into womanhood and learning to drape and carry one’s saree well was an attribute of elegance. For the Nair community, a woman receiving the mundum neriyathum from a man signifies marriage itself – pudavakoda. Especially, in North India, the saree is no longer worn every day by most. Instead, it is becoming synonymous with formal wear to an extent that wearing one could be overdressing. This decline in the draping of the saree and consequent impact on handloom production and livelihood of weavers has led to various social media events such as the hundred saree pact and others, which encourage women to wear a hundred saris and post pictures of themselves on social media.

Ancient literature, such as the Sanskrit novel Kadambari (seventh century CE) written by Banabhatta and his son Bhushanabhatta and the Tamil epic poem Silappadikaram (100 to 300 CE) by Ilango Adigal (pseudonym of one of many Jain and Buddhist authors in Tamil poetry), describes women in exquisite drapery or saree.

The saree has also been important in Hindu mythology. Draupadi’s Vastraharan is an iconic scene from the epic, Mahābhārata (fourth century CE), symbolic of the violation of dharma, its restoration by divine grace and a woman’s self-respect, faith and grit in the face of adversity. The ideal of self-respect as unending where there is faith is epitomized by the never-ending piece of fabric that clothed Draupadi. Draupadi’s vastraharan is not seen as her humiliation but as her friendship with the male God, Krishna, her ally in the assertion of Dharma, who offered her a garment without end and thereby, endless grace.

Although the saree evolved from the Indus Valley Civilization, after independence it became an emblem of national unity and identity in India, especially with Pakistan disowning it, because it was perceived as a Hindu dress, and Fatima Jinnah, the ‘Mother of the Nation’, referred to the saree as ‘unpatriotic’, consequently causing a loss in its popularity in Pakistan. So, the saree is a signifier of power and politics. India’s Italian-born leader of the Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi, is never seen in anything but a saree. This becomes a signifier of power and politics in a fictional biography, entitled The Red Saṛi, which is the ‘story of a woman who gets into power in spite of herself’.

Before we conclude, a word about Indo-Greek influences on the sartorial styles of the two civilizations. The connection between India and Greece precedes the arrival of Alexander the Great in 326 BCE by over a century due to the arrival of Cyprus the Great, of Persia, on a mission to conquer India in 558–535 BCE and that of his successor Darius in 518 BCE. A number of mercenaries serving in Darius’s army chose to settle and formed small settlements, following their customs and speaking their own language. One such colony was at Nyasa in Swat Valley. There was fusion of art and religion within the borders of the Hellenistic kingdoms, especially in these north-west peripheries. The foundations of Hellenism in Gandhara were laid during the Indo-Greek period, in the second century BCE. A late first or early second century CE Gandhara frieze near Swat, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum collection, shows men and women wearing flowing robes. The men drape a skirt above the knees with front pleats, a portion of the fabric going around the waist, thrown across to the left shoulder and over it, leaving the torso bare. The women wear long, flowing gowns, fitted at the breast and down to their ankles. They drape a long and wide uttariya across the shoulders from the back, pulled downwards around the hips, almost like a saree pallu would be pulled out from behind the body, towards the left shoulder. The apparently soft and thin fabric of their garb begins its drape from the front of the left arm, loosened at the forearm, circling the body from behind, returning to the left forearm. The similarity between the garments preceding the sāṛīri and the drape of these figures raises poignant questions about who influenced whom.


Boulanger, Chantal. SarisAn Illustrated Guide to the Indian Art of Draping. New York: Shakti Press International, 1997.

Lynton, Linda. The Sari: Styles, Patterns, History, Techniques. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002.


Harsha V. Dehejia

In a civilization like ours, the creation of the beautiful is a way of life, where both the raja (king) and the praja (populace) surround themselves with sensually rich and evocatively beautiful objects, where the creation of beautiful objects does not always need a prayojana (reason) and where the presence of the beautiful ushers saubhhagya (the auspicious).

In the Vedas, the beautiful was an integral part of rta (the cosmic order) and it was not to be understood separately from it. The hymn to Dawn is one, among many, example of the Vedic concept of the beautiful and how it is a part of rta. Once the religious sampradays (traditions or religious systems) began to be formed, the beautiful was mainly applied to the divine and it could not be understood on its own. The gods were therefore beautiful. However, as the first millennium was about to begin, little springs of speculation of the concept of the beautiful began to be formed, as we began our attempts to understand what is beautiful in the tradition. The beautiful was sensually pleasing and therefore prakriti pradhan, but it was Bharata’s Natyashastra and the concept of rasa that made the beautiful also bhāva pradhan (emotionally driven). Contemplation of the sundar (beautiful) leads to saundarya or beauty and therefore a simple definition of saundarya is the subjective experience of what is objectively, sensually pleasing that leads to a state of vishranti (rest) and ananda (bliss).

Etymologically derived from su nara, the adjectival sundar or its variations such as supratik in the Vedas are applied initially to natural phenomena. In the kavya literature, the adjective sundar referred mainly to sensual or material beauty, without any suggestion of metaphysical, moral, ethical or spiritual excellence, as morality and spirituality were subsumed under the overarching term dharma and sundar was to be understood under the rubric of kāma.

The popular phrase satyam, shivam, sundaram is a much later addition in the Indian tradition and was probably imported into Sanskrit through English only in the nineteenth century. The concept of sundaram being tied to shivam, however, does appear in the bhakti literature, for beauty for the devout can only be in ishvara (god). Equally, Abhinava Gupta equates rasa with brahma nanda and that makes the connection of beauty with sat (the true essence or that which is unchangeable, Sanskrit). It was, therefore, not difficult to translate the English phrase beauty, truth, goodness into Sanskrit and make it a part of Sanskrit parlance.

The word sundar refers to what is secular and sensuous and is one of many in the family of words denoting sensual beauty and is replete in the kavya literature rather than in the shastras. Other poetic words for beauty in the kavya literature being pramoda, carusubhaga, mugdha, lavanya and lalita, among many others. A survey of kavya literature suggests that while for the Indian poet the woman was the repository of beauty, yet since the sharira (body) was in a homologous relationship with samsara (universe), the attribute of feminine beauty always resonated with the world around. Poets, thus, used phrases such as gajagamini, mriganayanisulochana and so on while describing feminine beauty. This relationship between the human and the world around was an assertion of a living resonance between the human world and that of nature – as between a woman and a tree – and the beautiful was best represented and understood in this context.

While the sundar is available to all, saundarya is the preserve of the rasika or the committed aesthete who initiates a contemplative analysis of what is sundar and uses not only the pramana of perception but also of inference to create an inner, subjective, restful realization characterized by vishranti and ananda which gives us an intuition of some transcendent beauty. Saundarya is therefore a philosophical concept and is best underpinned by the epistemology of Kashmir Shaivism. An important part of that philosophic system is pratyabhijna (repeated cognitions) to move the sundar to saundarya.

Saundarya is half received and half perceived and is context- and culture-dependent. In making this statement, there is also the assertion that the epistemic reality of sundar is never in doubt, for if sundar were to be purely subjective without any objective basis, no philosophical discourse could take place as it would eliminate the objective sundar. While what is naturally beautiful is a part of our cosmic reality, the aesthetic discourse on the beautiful is reserved for what is created by humankind or what is commonly called art as, in saundarya, we also celebrate human creativity.

In subsuming sundar and saundarya under the rubric of kāma, we are ensuring that it is one of the purusharthas and therefore an important part of noble and gracious living and thinking.


Dehejia, H. V. The Advaita of Art. New Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass Publishers, 1996.

Dehejia, H. V. and M. R.Paranjape, eds. Saundarya: The Perception and Practice of Beauty in India. New Delhi: Samvad India Foundation, 2003.


Seema Khanwalkar

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the term ‘selfie’ was first used on Flickr in 2004. A selfie is defined as ‘a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically with a smartphone or a webcam, and uploaded to any social media website’. Oxford Dictionaries named ‘selfie’ as its word of the year, in 2013. There are references to selfies in a few Indian languages; however, most Indian languages do not have an equivalent translation or a word for selfie. For instance, while Hindi has swachitra/chayachitra, Tamil has cuyapatam and Telugu has sviyachitra, Bangla has selaphi, Urdu, Malayalam and Gujarati use the same word – selfie – and Assamese, Kannada and Odia have no word for it. Most of these languages seem to have incorporated the word as a natural part of modern vocabulary.

However, the selfie is far from being a modern phenomenon; it dates back to 1839, when photographic self-portraits were part of the experiments of the time. The first such photograph was taken in 1839 by an amateur chemist and photography enthusiast from Philadelphia named Robert Cornelius. Cornelius had set his camera up at the back of the family store in Philadelphia. He took the image by removing the lens cap and then running into frame where he sat for a minute before covering up the lens again. On the back of the photograph, he wrote, ‘The first light picture ever taken. 1839.’ The two words are decades apart, but they both stem from the same timeless delight to document oneself. ‘There is a primal human urge to stand outside of ourselves and look at ourselves’, says Clide Thomson, a technology writer; according to Frédéric della Faille, ‘it is much more a moment and a story, than a photo. It is not about being beautiful.’ The selfie, in India, has found its way into the rural landscape as well. You know you are living in a tech-savvy world – craving constant communication – when a person chooses to broadcast a selfie over a bottle of chilled cola on a hot summer afternoon. Telecom companies launched a 10-rupee recharge pack that became a massive hit – so much so that Indian villagers now buy the recharge pack far more often than they do colas or candies.

The selfie imagination has fired a young Indian designer – Adriti, whose quirky Tumblr blog, called ‘Selfie Gods’, transformed the old Indian God paintings with the modern-day smartphone and selfie stick. According to Dr Pamela Rutledge, a media psychologist, humans are hard wired to respond to faces; we are engaged when we see faces. This is what prompted creators of smartphone applications to add the front-facing camera, despite reservations.

The selfie phenomenon stands in a Janus-like situation (caught at a crossroads), between empowerment and alienation. Amitabh Bachchan, an icon of Indian Cinema, posted recently that he was disgusted when some youth took selfies when he was attending a friend’s funeral – ‘The selfie culture tends to deprive youth of social stimulation, becoming more and more engulfed in the virtual and technological world of the media.’ Taking selfies in hospitals, of people on ventilators or during surgeries is considered stony-hearted; it is considered an indicator of low self-esteem or extreme narcissism, in this case. The number of instances of youth dying while taking daredevil selfies corroborates this view. It is also said to encourage social withdrawal and alienation.

The selfie, however, is here to stay, as it gets transported to newer creative genres, thanks to technology, art and imagination. It remains to be seen how much the people mature to its use and empowering potential.


Wortham, Jenna. ‘My Selfie, Myself’. The New York Times, Sunday Review, 19 October 2013.

Yun, Daniel. ‘Selfie, A New Sense of Self’. blogpost on After The Rain, posted on 14 December 2013. Available at: (accessed December 2018).


Ira Pande

Also spelt as shamiyana, the word takes its name from the Persian shamiyan – a cloth canopy stretched overhead to provide shade from the sun. Shamiyanas arrived in India with the Mughals who were known for the richly decorated cloth canopies they favoured. Miniature paintings of Mughal court scenes usually include a canopy over the imperial throne, when the ruler is seated. The word probably entered the lingua franca through Urdu – a language that grew up in the bazaars and cantonments of Delhi and North India – that was later adopted by local languages such as colloquial Hindi and Marathi. Over time, it became synonymous for a lavish cloth tent shelter that comprised a canopied structure and removable cloth walls. The latter were strung on bamboo poles, threaded within stitched channels in the cloth panels.

The shamiyana is used on ceremonial occasions, such as a royal visit, to mimic a court. This is probably why it was adopted by the East India Company’s parvenus, to raise their standing among the hoi polloi, on their tax-collecting tours. Later, it became a standard practice to rig up a shamiyana for any outdoor festivity, even a cricket match played by the gora sahibs (white sirs). The beautiful floral panels of the Mughal shamianas gave way to less refined panels and, often, the shamiyana was a plain white tent or awning. This latter form travelled to England to emerge as the marquee at county cricket matches and other such domestic celebrations. Till today, marquees and outdoor tents outside India remain plain-white tented structures.

In India, however, the shamiyana continued to grow and evolve even after the royal courts of India died out. The side panels (kanaat, in Hindi) are a popular and inexpensive way to demarcate a temporary inclusion of public space. For instance, in the pre-run to the busy Diwali sales of sweets, the local halwai (confectioner) will rig up a few kanaats (with untidy and soiled, gaudy panels, hired from the nearby ‘tent house’ supplier) to accommodate the spill over from his smaller kitchen. These generally have geometric designs in bright colours and serve to provide a festive air to squalid surroundings. Village weddings, temple festivals and school sports days are other examples of scenarios that demand this kind of use.

The puja pandal (also now strangely known as the pujo pandle) is a genre by itself. The pandal is a variation of the shamiyana and takes its name from the famous puja festival in October when the country goes into an overdrive of spending and indulgence. Created by the nimble bamboo engineers of Bengal, these enormous structures are strung over bamboo scaffoldings that may take weeks to rig up. Lit with chandeliers, paintings and embellishments that highlight the theme behind it, these pandals attract thousands of viewers over the week-long celebration.

However, the most impressive version in India, today, is the wedding shamiyana that has breached the scale of lavishness seen in the heyday of princely India. No wedding, however modest, is ever held without a shamiyana to accommodate the guests who come to celebrate the occasion. It could be considered a minor industry in itself, supporting, as it does, a vast network of artisans and craftspeople who are part of the process of making it. Of late, such shamianas offer temperature-controlled interiors with giant mist-making fans and portable air conditioners to cool humid interiors and gas-fired heaters and braziers to warm the guests in winter. Swathes of bright chiffon and silk are strung to brighten the interiors and carpets cushion the floor.

The final word is provided by the Government of India (under Finance Act of 1997, Clause 77A, Section 65) – ‘A Pandaal or Shamiyana means a place specially prepared or arranged for organising an official, social or business function.’


Dayal, Lala Deen. ‘Exterior of Darbar Shamiana’. RCS Photograph Collection, Queen Mary Collection, Album 12 (2004).

‘Definition of SHAMIANA’. Available at: (accessed 25 May 2019).


Uma Vangal

The term ‘South Indian cinema’ refers to the four Southern Indian film industries – Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada. Industries in each of these languages are widely referred to by Hollywood-centric derivative names: Tollywood (for Telugu cinema), Kollywood (for Tamil cinema), Sandalwood (for Kannada cinema) and Mollywood (for Malayalam cinema). The origins of South Indian cinema can be traced back to films from studios in the Madras Presidency, as opposed to Hindi and Bengali cinema. These film industries are as old as any Indian cinema and are the dominant players in many ways. While lacking Bollywood’s brand name, the South Indian film industry is far more dynamic, producing nearly half of the total films in India. Of the 1986 films released in 2018, 868 were from the south (Tamil 189, Telugu 242, Mollywood 173 and Kannada 264, as against Bollywood’s 305).

Characterized by melodramatic storytelling and performance, high-decibel delivery of alliterative and emotive dialogues, extensively choreographed song sequences featuring numerous dancers and artists and elaborate costumes, south Indian films are often caricatured as loud and crude. However, these films are hugely popular within India and its diaspora. The exposure to global cinema makes the film-literate audiences here discerning enough to be unforgiving when undervalued. Be it the first southern talkie Kalidas, which was released in 1931; or the famous drum dance in Chandralekha (1948) that propelled the south onto the national stage; or, more recently, the films Bahubali 1 (2015) and Bahubali 2 (2017), which stormed the box office across the country and the world, south Indian films have constantly made Western critics sit up and take notice. If Telugu cinema can boast of legions of viewers in India and abroad, and its spectacular stunts, hyperbolic dialogue and performances and big screen entertainment, Tamil films are known to have revived film-making in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore and Canada and also for its experiments with genres such as the noir, gangster and science fiction in the last two decades. If Malayalam cinema has now heralded a New Age cinema in content and treatment, spearheaded by a young breed of storytellers, Kannada cinema, a pioneer in the New Wave Cinema of the 1970s, has seen a revival and is catching up with the other industries in terms of the number of productions.

The South Indian film industry is respected for its disciplined work ethic. Bound scripts, strict schedules, production plans, call sheets, with all crew and technicians respecting timelines and deadlines are a hallmark of the four industries. In all areas of film-making, such as in production, post-production, distribution and exhibition, South Indian films have led from the front with cutting-edge technology, with some of the finest post-production facilities in Asia available at Chennai and Hyderabad, and effective management of resources. The industry also boasts of many globally recognized names, such as Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Girsh Kasaravalli, G. Aravindan, K. Viswanath, Vetrimaraan, Mani Ratnam, Rajamouli, Sivaji Ganesan, MGR, NTR, ANR, Rajkumar, Prem Nazir, Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Chiranjeevi and Sridevi.

The politics of the region are also seamlessly played out in films of this industry, often propelling actors into politics and power (M. G. Ramachandran aka MGR, Jayalalithaa and N. T. Rama Rao aka NTR are cases in point). In Tamil Nadu, in particular, the Dravidian movement consciously used films to propagate political ideology, just as it happened with Soviet cinema. In recent times, Hindi remakes of South Indian films have found huge success at the box office.


Pandian, M. S. S. The Image Trap: M.G. Ramachandran in Film and Politics. New Delhi: SAGE Publications, 1992.

Velayutham, Selvaraj. Tamil Cinema: The Cultural Politics of India’s Other Film Industry. New Delhi: Routledge, 2008.


Timeri N. Murari

The Taj Mahal is named after the woman whose sarcophagus lies in the centre of the tomb, directly beneath the peak of the dome – Mumtaz Mahal. The Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s sarcophagus lies beside hers. He christened Arjumand, the wife he loved deeply, Mumtaz Mahal – the jewel of the palace. The Taj Mahal remains one of the Seven Wonders of the World, along with Petra in Jordon and the Statue of Liberty in New York.

These two words – Taj Mahal – which possess mystery and meaning, have defined India for centuries. If Taj Mahal did not exist in the world’s vocabulary, India would, perhaps, not exist in its vocabulary either. The words had the power to cross global boundaries, unlike anything else that this ancient culture has created – temples, palaces, forts or even the great prehistoric civilizations.

For the majority of the world that does not know what it represents, the Taj Mahal has a meaning. It conjures up the ultimate sense of splendour, something beyond ethereal and their imaginations and yet, when the world hears the words, it understands that it defines ultimate beauty. People will not have ever seen it, probably only have a vague sense of its location, if that, but will identify, by its evocation, that it is the yardstick of aesthetic perfection. Added potency to the words is the knowledge that within the beauty lies a powerful love story and one cannot deny the power of love to seduce any individual’s imagination.

The Taj Mahal appears frequently in national and international news media as presidents (Obama), prime ministers (Netanyahu), princesses (Diana), the list of powerful people, make the pilgrimage to Agra to pose on the same marble bench in front of the tomb. It is a must-see, must-do for every tourist (seven to eight million annually at the last count) visiting India, alongside Indians, themselves, who have never seen it before. We should be grateful that its serenity stilled the destructive impulses in humans. Four centuries of conquests and wars have raged around the Taj Mahal and though the Persian and other invaders did plunder the tomb of its silver doors and inlaid precious stones, they left it relatively unharmed. They were awed by its beauty, soothed by its icy calm and stole only what they thought was precious. It even survived the destructive impulses of our British overlords – the Marquis of Hastings and Lord Bentinck. Both of them wanted to break up the tomb and sell the marble to dealers in Calcutta. Fortunately for the Taj Mahal, the marble prices in London dropped as the British had discovered porcelain for their bathrooms. It was the viceroy – Lord Curzon – who not only saved the Taj Mahal but also carried out much-needed repairs after centuries of neglect.

The overuse of those two words to define the country and evoke that beauty has, however, coarsened its meaning over the years. There must be hundreds of restaurants in the UK, Europe and other cities in the world, with the name Taj Mahal, not so much to celebrate the magnificence of this tomb but to announce to passers-by that Indian food (chicken tikkas) are served within. Worse happened to the words Taj Mahal when a real estate tycoon built a monstrously ugly building, filled it with kitsch that reflected the height of his bad taste, in Atlantic City and christened this definition of over-the-top awfulness, the Taj Mahal Casino. Despite his ignorance, he reached out for something that was, for him, the sublime idea of beauty, splendour and magnificence.


Murari, Timeri N. TajA Story of Mughal India. New Delhi: Aleph Books India, 2017.

Taj Mahal-Official Website of Taj Mahal, Government of Uttar Pradesh (India)’. Available at: (accessed 25 May 2019).


Arjun Ghosh

The word tamasha is of Persian origin and can variously mean ‘fun’, ‘play’, ‘entertainment’ or ‘spectacle’. By the twentieth century, the word spread to other parts of the world. In the Indian subcontinent, it has taken on additional meanings of ‘commotion’, ‘chaos’, ‘excitement’ or a ‘large participative spectacle’. Tamasha also assumes a part of its meaning from a popular performance form that is prevalent in Maharashtra.

The most retweeted tweet, using the term tamasha in January 2018, interpreted the unprecedented press conference by four senior judges of the Supreme Court of India as a tamasha which was carried out in a state of mind that lacked ‘calm … without thinking twice’ – and a mistake which they would ‘regret’. In an interview, eminent singer Ghulam Ali lamented that ghazal singing is being altered to suit commercial interests and styles and that unmindful of the traditions, contemporary ghazal had become a tamasha. In these instances, tamasha is seen as standing for a corruption of acceptable practices, a deformity that does not belong to the social mainstream.

On the other hand, a news story describing a new restaurant for a club associated with the Indian parliament is headlined, ‘chefs stirring up a little tamasha’. The restaurant aimed to move away from the ‘same pedestrian desi staple’ to a cuisine that is cooked up at French cooktops, with fire guns, siphons and pipettes. Thus, a cultural shift from the ordinary or the mundane is described as sharing the excitement of tamasha.

In Maharashtra, tamasha is one of the most popular forms of rural theatre in India. Over four hundred tamasha troupes criss-cross the state putting together a variety entertainment involving songs, dances, music and narratives. These are performances by itinerant troupes which set up stage in open spaces and perform before large audiences numbering thousands. The form came to Maharashtra through Mogul armies which, during its long years of campaign, camped in the area. Singing girls and dancers were brought in from the north to entertain the soldiers. Soon local musicians, percussionists and actors joined them to produce what today is tamasha – an escapist entertainment for a predominantly male audience.

In the seventeenth century, tamasha was patronized by the Peshwas. The court patronage receded in the nineteenth century, during British occupation. The tamasha survived under the patronage of the landlords. It was during this time that tamasha assumed vulgarity. During the Peshwa period, the lavni entered tamasha. A lavni is a narrative song that expresses love and vigour. It is accompanied by dancing with gyrations and lustful expressions. Till the nineteenth century, the female characters were performed by boys – the nachya. The absence of women also granted a licence to the performers to play up the lustful rendition before the largely male audience. When female dancers were introduced in the nineteenth century, such renditions bordering on vulgarity continued. As a result, the audiences looked upon the female performers as little more than prostitutes.

In an increasingly casteist India, the understanding of tamasha as vulgar is often seen in consonance with the incidence of the performers of tamasha who have been largely from the lower castes – the Mahars, the Mangs and the Kolhaties. This has caused the tamasha to be repeatedly censured by conservative opinion. Since the mid-twentieth century, the popularity of the tamasha has caused it to be appropriated for political and mass campaigning. Tamasha performances by the left-wing Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association tried to cull out a more sanitized version of the form. In the 1950s, the central government initiated a programme of social reformation through drama. Balwant Gargi decried the attempt by social playwrights to substitute the ‘lewd’ language of tamasha with sanitized humour as one that was ‘driven by bigotry’ and ‘taking the very guts out of the tamasha’ for ‘what is vulgar for the middle class is not vulgar for the commoner’.

Its association with the world of Bollywood lends to tamasha the association of glitz, glamour and sleaze. In the 1950s, as cinema grew in popularity, tamasha song and dance sequences influenced the Marathi cinema. But the cinema, in turn, returned to the tamasha with the audiences demanding film songs to be repeated on the stage. The performances compulsively exude energy to ensure that the spectators are not bored. The compere often shared light-hearted and provocative jokes with the audience to keep the focus on the bawdy aspects of the dances. During performances, often audience members would offer money to the dancers, both as requests to perform a particular number and to repeat raunchy gyrations.

The tamasha is also an extremely versatile performance form which can be performed at virtually any open space. This allows the form to be accessible to working-class districts and to the peasantry. Many of the songs of the tamasha operate in the second person with a constant reference to a figure among the audience. This, along with the tone of interaction, makes for a participative body of spectators. Thus, tamasha also carries with it a sense of a participative entertainment, a fun play, a lavish spectacle.

The word tamasha has leant itself to the titles of multiple enterprises – a chain of restaurants, a magazine for children and certainly to numerous theatre groups both in India and other countries. In each such usage, the word picks up a connotation that is distinctly subcontinental. For instance, a book by Himika Ganguly, which takes the reader through multiple encounters of a young woman with prospective suitors, is titled The Great Indian Matrimonial Tamasha. The narrative of the book relies on a dramatic dialogue between the woman and her various suitors in the matchmaking game where the conversations do anything but arrive at a meeting of the minds. In this instance, ‘tamasha’ indicates a show, a play which is make-belief and not always attaining its objective. When the Congress Party boycotted the midnight launch of the Goods and Services Tax in the parliament, it sought to discredit the event by calling it a tamasha. In both this case, ‘tamasha’ refers to a gathering of large numbers of people to watch a carefully orchestrated spectacle.


Gargi, Balwant Folk Theatre of India. Delhi: Rupa & Co., 1991.

Pandit, Maya. ‘Tamasha’. In The Oxford Companion to Indian Theatre, edited by Ananda Lal, 466–47. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004.


Rajat Subhra Banerjee

Vaastu, or Vaastu Shastra, is a traditional Indian system of architecture. Vaastu Vidya, or the philosophy and design of buildings, was prevalent in various parts of India in the distant past, starting, most probably, from the Indus Valley Civilization. Temples were probably the first elements of building that were guided by Vaastu Shastra, though later it embraced all other forms of buildings and also town planning. Unfortunately, most of the ancient texts on Vaastu Shastra are lost in the mists of history. Only bits and pieces have survived, resulting in large gaps in the true understanding of this ancient philosophy.

These aforementioned gaps have led to a wide variety of interpretations for Vaastu today. People have merrily gone for a sort of fill-in-the-blanks exercise to come up with their own versions of Vaastu. I am no Vaastu expert by any means, but as a professional architect, I have met, over the years, many such ‘specialists’. From these esteemed practitioners of an ancient philosophy, I have picked up the bits and pieces of Vaastu (along with a great many ‘blanks’), as it is widely practiced in India, and especially Eastern India, at present.

Let us consider the example of a single residential unit. In Vaastu, as loosely practiced in Kolkata and other parts of Eastern India, the house is roughly divided into four quarters – Earth (Bhumi) – south-west, Water (Jal) – north-east, Air (Vayu) – north-west and Fire (Agni) – south-east. The planning of a house depends mainly on these four factors. There are, of course, several other considerations, but for the moment we’ll stick to these basic issues.

Very simplistically, to begin with the Fire Zone (Agni Kon), this is associated as a general rule, with the kitchen, where a fire is lit everyday in a typical Indian household. This kitchen is to be placed in the south-east corner of the house. From the climatology point of view, the south-east corner is the ideal position of the master bedroom, but Vaastu deems otherwise.

The Water Zone (Jal Kon), once again, is associated with the bathrooms and overhead tanks, which are then placed in the north-east. The Air Zone (Vayu Kon) is, in its turn, believed to imply airiness and piety, thus balconies and puja rooms are preferred in the north-west to make the breeze flow and saintliness glow. Everything else is in the Earth Zone (Bhumi Kon) and tends to be crammed into the south-western section of the house.

There is, however, an alternative way of looking into these four entities. Hindu philosophy is full of allusions. What if these four entities represent the four stages of life or ‘varnashrama’? A few thousand years ago, a man (yes, we’ll be completely patriarchal here and restrict ourselves to men) would be expected to live to the ripe old age of 60, so we can divide his live into four quarters, each spanning roughly fifteen years. For the first fifteen years, a man is a child. This is the Water (Jal) period and one most important property of water is that it has no shape of its own; it assumes the shape of whichever container it is kept in. Similarly, a child starts with a more or less blank slate. Thus, the environment (or container) for the first fifteen years or so shapes his character. The next fifteen years, roughly from the age of fifteen to thirty, is one where the male patriarch is assumed to be at his physical peak. A fire now burns strongly within him. This is the period where he achieves whatever he’ll achieve in his life (or so it was thought in that ancient Vedic Age), perhaps as a soldier of fortune or a farmer or a priest. So this is the Fire (Agni) period. Thereafter, comes the period between roughly the ages of thirty and forty-five, when a man settles down with his family in a house that he has built for himself on his own land, resting on the laurels gained during his previous fifteen years. This is the grounded Earth (Bhumi) period. Finally, there is a period where Air (Vayu) dominates, as the male figure in our story gradually ages and becomes vacant – more gas and less substance, until one fine day his soul departs into the ether forever.

Transposing the above temporal sequence in the spatial structure of a residential building, the child should ideally be housed in the north-east (Jal Kon), the young man in the south-east (Agni Kon), the middle-aged man in the south-west (Bhumi Kon) and the old and infirm in the north-west (Vayu Kon). Bathrooms, kitchens and balconies can be fitted in suitable niches within. As an architect, I feel reasonably certain that houses designed on these premises could turn out to be far more comfortable than houses having the kitchen, say, in the south-east corner – at least in Indian conditions. But the vaastu pandits are loathe to accept this interpretation, even as India continues to move into the twenty-first century and beyond.


Fazeli, Hengameh and Ali Goodarzi . ‘The Principles of Vastu as a Traditional Architectural Belief System from an Environmental Perspective’. WIT Transactions on Ecology and the Environment 128 (2010): 97–108.

Birtchnell, Thomas. ‘Vastu Compliance: The Gentrification of India’s Sacred Spaces and the Mobilities of Ideas’. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 42, no. 14 (2016): 2345–2359.


Ranjit Nair

The earliest appearance in any visual record of yoga is on a steatite seal that has come to be known as the Pashupati seal from the Indus Valley civilization, thought to have perished by human or natural agencies around 2000 BC. The seal depicts a man seated in a yogic posture with animals surrounding him. Until the script is deciphered, there is little that can be conclusively established about the figure. Suffice it to say that yoga in embryonic form seems to manifest in this great civilization of antiquity.

In the Indian tradition, yoga was not just calisthenics but also stood for a philosophy which was counted among the ‘orthodox’ Hindu darsanas, of which there were six, by the reckoning of the celebrated eighth-century philosopher Shankara, who is credited with having revitalized Hindu philosophy and practice. Each darshana has a philosophical work as the starting point and yoga’s was the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali which dates to back to the second century BCE. Patanjali summarizes yoga in the pithy epigram yogaschittivrtiinirodhana which, literally translated, means ‘yoga is the inhibition of the diversions of consciousness’.

Yoga was paired with the Samkhya school of philosophy within the cohort of the six schools. The Samkhya or ‘Enumeration’ was based on a dualist conception of mind and body. To a considerable extent, yoga was to Samkhya as practice was to theory. Samkhya seems to have been the dominant philosophical tradition when the Bhagavad Gita was composed as the latter text maintains that there is no knowledge equal to that of Samkhya. The practitioner of yoga turned the senses inward, avrtta cakhshu amrtatvam icchan, ‘with eyes turned inward, desiring immortality’.

The Bhagavad Gita, which nestles within the epic Mahābhārata, proclaims yoga:karmasu kaushala, meaning ‘yoga is skill in works’. In his commentary on this sloka, Shankara explains skill as the ability to undertake works while keeping at bay the attachments which come with it. This is rephrased as nishkama karma or ‘work undertaken without the desire for reward’.

As a system of meditation, the yoga appears across the spectrum of Indian philosophical traditions, both Vedic and non-Vedic. In each of them, the practice of yoga was an indispensable for emancipation from the everyday world, variously known as mōkṣanirvāṇna and kaivalya in the canon of each school. As part of the search for the knowledge that liberates, each tradition had its own account of yoga, consistent with its metaphysics and epistemology. Among the criteria of knowledge, the Yoga Sutra also lists yogic perception or pratyaksha that included a notion of perception transcending the senses, which was interpreted by different schools based on their own distinctive philosophical tenets. These differences are to be observed, for example, in the ‘concept-free’ (nirvikalpaka) pratyaksha of the northern Buddhist schools of Mahayana Buddhism and its offshoots to the Advaita Vedanta’s state of supreme felicity which involved the recognition that the individual atman or self is in fact the atman of all being embodied in the mahavakya ‘Tattvamasi’ or ‘that thou art’ adumbrated by the Upanishads.

Later, yoga fascinated the modern West, with yoga groups emerging a century ago, in the wake of the exertion of scholar-monks like Swami Vivekananda who took it overseas. It caught the attention of the West in the first quarter of the twentieth century at a popular level as an exotic form of calisthenics and its breathing exercises or pranayama (literally ‘control of the breath’) were recommended by doctors as a method of oxygen intake which had positive impacts on health and well-being. In the sixties, the Beatles took to meditation, visiting Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in his ashram in Haridwar, making yoga a part of popular culture in the West. Several savants followed, including Buddhists, thus making yoga widely accessible. Yoga was commercialized, with some practitioners patenting their versions of yoga to make it part of consumerist culture. Yoga became a brand, with accessories such as yoga mats.

The hatha yoga, which involved physical exercises that could be strenuous, was popularized, even as warnings were issued by public health authorities that its contortions of bodily organs could cause injury.

In the contemporary world, yoga won recognition by UNESCO as recognized as living intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO. The Indian prime minister Modi suggested that 21 June be declared as the International Yoga Day, which found favour with the UN General Assembly and won them over with an overwhelming majority. Yoga is seen as a prime example of India’s ‘soft power’ and there are tens of millions of people practicing it, proclaiming its aesthetic and mental value and teaching it across the world.


Burley, M. Classical Samkhya and Yoga – An Indian Metaphysics of Experience. New Delhi: Routledge, 2012.

Iyengar, B. K. S. Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. London: HarperCollins, 2002.


Source: KPMG report on ‘Beauty and Wellness for India’, cited in Verma, Tarishi (2017).

North Indian language terms for barber castes sourced from the author’s field work in Lucknow (2014–15) as well as from Ahmed 2006 for Bihar and Delhi (see references) and Nadeem Hasnain’s The Other Lucknow for UP (2016, Vani Prakashan).

All figures are from Deshpande and Chaturvedi (2017) (see references).

Sources also indicate that when the Aryans came into the plains of the North Indian rivers, they brought with them the word vastra for the first time. Though a Sanskrit word originally meaning a garment or cloth, for them it was a piece of treated leather made into wearable clothing. Moving southwards, they started wearing cotton weaves, in the manner of the Indus Valley inhabitants. This style of wearing a length of cloth around the waist, especially for women, and the cloth itself came to be known as neevi, an early precursor to the three-piece ensemble that morphed into the sari.

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