The monsoon came with the shock of a slap, the walls of rain ensuring that I was left staring out of my hotel window for nearly three days straight. And though beautiful, and reminiscent of the joys of childhood, the monsoon rains for a photographer are nothing but a dead stop. With life in the cities coming to a near stand still, oceans of water covering almost all open ground and paved roads, the possibilities of the found photograph become limited. Kerala’s monsoon however imbues it with a remarkably raw beauty – the winds pull at the palms, ocean tears at the shores, dark, ominous clouds dance across the horizon and the entire world is painted in a subtle blue/gray. But its a beauty that alienates the photographer as it steals the light, the colors and the community.
So I find myself heading to the drier, hotter and more sun-baked shores of Eastern Maharashtra. Specifically, I am heading to Nagpur – headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the right-wing Hindu nationalist and militant group. There is also a very strong Shiv Sena presence here. Maharashtra has been the region that a number of right-wing religious parties have drawn their roots from. I am not confident enough to state why this may be so, but I was reminded of something that Ashis Nandy wrote in an essay called “Final Encounter” where he discusses Gandhi and his killer Godse and the broader social and political world that collaborated in Gandhi’s assassination. Nandy, pointing out that Godse was from Maharashtra, states:
…Godse and all his associates except one came from Maharashtra, a region where Brahmanic dominance was particularly strong. He also happened to be from Poona, the unofficial capital of traditional Maharashtra and a city renowned for its old-style scholarship and for the rich, complex culture which the high-status Chitpavan or Konkanath Brahmins had built there…The Maharashtrian Brahminic elite also had a long history of struggle against the Muslim rulers of India in the 17th century and 18th centuries…and…by the 20th century the Maharashtraian Brahmins had reinterpreted their history in terms of the needs of Hindu nationalism. They saw themselves as the upholders of a tradition of Hindu resistance against the Muslim occupation of India. It was on this reconstructed and self-created tradition that a part of the Maharashtrian elite built up their anti-British nationalism. (Nandy, A Bonfire Of Creeds, Page 71)
Nandy uses this background to build his argument that Gandhi’s innovations – intellectual, spiritual, emotional and political were a threat to the given order of society, and in particular to the Brahmanic elite of the region. Gandhi saw the Brahmins as nothing more than interlopers, the ones who had taken Hinduism away from its traditions. Hence Gandhi posed a great threat to the greater Sanskritic traditions. One can assume that the many changes that took place in India in her post-independence journey towards mass suffrage have also proven to be a challenge to the Brahminic elite.
In fact, this very point has been argued by the likes of Partha Chatterjee – that the resurgence of so-called Hindutva - Hindu nationalism, occurs just at the point when India’s democratic institutions begin to offer legal and political rights to the lowest echelons of India’s citizenry. There is much to be said about the Mandal commission recommendations and the rise of the nationalist and Hinduized political rhetoric of political parties like the BJP. But that is an entirely different post some time in the future.
But Maharashtra is also a region of deep and broad pluralism, with literally thousands of important shared Sufi dargahs, and Hindu mandirs scattered across the state. It is to these that I am now traveling, using them as the basis of discussions of the regions syncretic and pluralist traditions. The next three weeks will see me working in and around Nagpur.
Maharashtra’s history – social, political and cultural challenges the revisionist narratives of the sectarians. Today Shivaji may be considered the fountainhead of Marathi nationalism and anti-Muslim justification, but even his story and that of his family, defies the reductive versions used to convince people of his sectarian purity and exclusivity. Maharashtra is also where the magnificent Ellora caves are located. The beautiful Hindu, Jain and Buddhist carvings found here were frequently admired and studied by Muslim travels and administrators in the region. Contrary to the modern-day conviction of the iconoclasm of all Muslims, I will be writing short pieces based on the travel writings of Muslims in the region and the great admiration with aesthetic awe with which they experienced these beautiful carvings.
The Maharashtra pieces will hopefully act as Gyanendra Pandey’s fragments - evidence that confronts and dislocates mainstream and popular narratives of history, offering evidence and stories that perhaps force us to re-examine what we today take as the given truth.