(My column in Mint Lounge, March 17 2018)


Between 1816-20, when the British officers Benjamin Ward and Peter Conner conducted their geographical survey of southern Kerala, they found 15,000 groves in the region dedicated to local gods and conserved in the name of the divine. Known as kavus, these sacred sites varied in size but served essentially as patches of hallowed forest amidst swathes of territory exploited and tamed forever by man. The kavu in Mannarasala, for example, still covers 16 acres of land, preserving in its shade not only numerous species of plant and bird, but also thousands of venerated serpent idols. Elsewhere, a grove might be simply two-three trees, a few square feet cordoned off around it, pale remnants of what were originally more glorious spaces. That these groves are disappearing is old news—outside Kerala, in Coorg, for instance, the extent of devara kadus (Gods’ forests) came down to less than half in the last century, from 15,506 acres in 1905 to just under 6,300 acres in 1985. This has been the fate too of groves elsewhere in the subcontinent, from the saranas (“sanctuaries”) of Madhya Pradesh to the protected woods that the first inspector general of forests found in the Khasi Hills in 1897.

What sparked my interest in these “hot spots of biodiversity”, as some describe them, was ancient lore. For Malayalis, the grove is a familiar concept. Legend has it that after the mythical hero Parasurama reclaimed Kerala from the sea, the Brahmins he settled along the coast were challenged by serpent-worshipping Naga tribes. Eventually, after a great deal of violence put the immigrants to flight, a compromise was effected by the warrior sage: The Brahmins and Nagas would live together, provided, as one authority put it, the “colonists” set aside “a corner of every occupied compound to the abode of the serpent gods”. And so it was that kavus were first established, “left untouched by the knife or the spade, thus enabling the underwood and creepers to grow luxuriantly therein” ever since. So too, goes the story, the Namboodiris and Nairs, descendants of the two parties, began to dwell in peace, united in their protection of these groves and in the worship of the serpent gods believed to reside within. Over time, it became a mark of respectability and exalted lineage to come from a household with its own kavu, groves appearing, meanwhile, also beside temples and shrines.

Without romanticizing the motive behind these groves—some see them as purely environmental concerns, proof of wise ancestors seeking a balance with nature—it is clear that kavus in Kerala did play a role in maintaining the ecological health of the countryside. One official in pre-independence Travancore came across a kavu (“an interesting oasis in the open maidan”) in which he counted “129 trees of 17 different kinds”, from the jack and mango to the poison nut and bitter melon. Decades later, in the early 1990s, Madhav Gadgil and Subash Chandran, in the course of their research, also discovered threatened species that had survived in obscure Kerala groves. Religion and associated taboos were essential in preserving these sites, though. The 19th century botanist, Francis Buchanan, whom one would expect to have rejoiced at the sight of such “oases”, scoffed in Karnataka that they were merely religious “contrivances” locals invented to prevent the state from claiming public land. In Kerala today, serpent gods can be moved with mantras from their kavus and established elsewhere, on cement platforms in namesake groves, clearing the way for the axe to finally go where it was forbidden.

This, tragically, is what happened in my own ancestral place. There were half-a-dozen kavus on the estate. A great one, more than an acre in size, also housed an immense pond, water collecting during the rains and serving nearby fields well in times of terrible heat. Half a century ago, when a biscuit factory—of all things—was proposed there, my ancestors feared their gods enough to decline the offer. Some years ago, however, the priests conveniently moved the serpent deities into the principal family shrine, a few bushes hastily planted as a makeshift kavu. The original place, where legend said our goddess went to bathe, had no divine protectors now, no deity to secretly swing on its vines. Where mighty trees once stood, there were now saplings of rubber, the skies visible from the ground when all we could see looking up, not long ago, was an impenetrable blanket of green, rich and wild. There was, then, an ecological intention behind the groves perhaps, but it was fear of divine wrath that fortified the kavu against the avarice of men—with Parasurama’s deities gone, it was the god of profit who came to reign.

But instead of sentimentally lamenting the loss of kavus, we can learn from the past and build new groves for the present, this time seeking to protect them without halos provided by any gods. In the piece of the ancestral estate that my mother inherited, dozens are the trees my parents have planted, throwing out the ruinous rubber that had replaced towering old jacks and teaks. Birds, whose sounds we had forgotten, are making their way back, and while there are no serpents from grandmother’s tales, there are plants with flowers and trees with fruit. It is not a garden in the conventional sense but a chaotic patch of foliage and growth, an attempt at reviving what was foolishly destroyed. That, perhaps, is what we should seek to do in our own little ways—have corners of green in every maidan and every plot, in villages as well as the urban compound, growing free and seeking again to shroud the skies in the splendour of leaf.

(My column in Mint Lounge, March 10 2018)


Pliny the Elder, who lived 2,000 years ago, was a man with an interesting mind and very many admirable gifts. It could, however, be argued that on certain topics, an overmastering desire to sound singularly authoritative caused even this venerable philosopher to spout what must necessarily be described as balderdash. Menstruation—a topic as alien to free and sensible discussion then as it is today—was one such subject. For, according to Pliny, this flow of blood constantly threatened to unleash grave, terrible catastrophe upon the world. If, by some horrific accident, menstrual blood touched earth, “seeds in gardens are dried up”, “the fruit of trees falls off”, and whole fields could turn forever barren. Beehives were instantly destroyed, and if dogs went anywhere near menstrual blood, it could drive them mad, infecting their bites with “an incurable poison”. A reflection in the mirror was adequate for the mirror itself to lose its shine forever, and such, reported Pliny in his Natural History, was the calamitous power of the menstruating female that “hailstorms…whirlwinds, and lightning even, will be scared away by a woman uncovering her body while her monthly courses are upon her”.

Pliny was not alone in the ancient world for sincerely believing all kinds of nonsense where the female body was concerned. The physician Hippocrates declared that men didn’t menstruate because they could flush out impurities through sweat; women, as inferior beings, had less efficient bodies, and were compelled, therefore, to bleed. Aristotle, meanwhile, was certain that the ideal human body was male—what was not male was a deformity, and the female was one such deformity whose body had altogether peculiar functions. In China, the seventh century doctor Sun Simiao was somewhat more intelligent in approaching the subject from a medical perspective, though some of his treatments for menstrual ailments do not necessarily inspire confidence—featuring the consumption of beetles, horse-flies and wingless cockroaches, with a dash of ginger and pepper, presumably to help it all go down. Not to be left behind, our ancestors in ancient India found their own logic to understand menstruation: The king of gods, Indra, needed to distribute his accumulation of sin, and while part of it was deposited with the earth, the seas, and trees, one portion was accepted by women, fated ever since to bleed. The only pearl of wisdom, perhaps, in this tale is that yet again, for the doings of a man, it was the woman who had to pay the price.

It took a long time for the world to make up its mind on what precisely menstruation was all about. Not too many centuries ago, the red taint was married to ethnic prejudice to serve other purposes—it was commonly believed in medieval Europe that Jewish men tended to menstruate. As late as the 19th century, menstruation was considered a “disease” by the most serious of doctors, with the potential to escalate into comprehensive madness. In societies across the world—from villages in Turkey to hamlets in Nepal’s hills to little towns in Spain, where bleeding women may not cure pork—menstruation was perceived as a “dirty” function, a polluting reminder of human infirmity, dealt with by secluding women and enveloping them in rules and endless regulations. They could not enter kitchens, touch certain items, look at the moon, look at themselves—and so the list continues, turning women into outcasts, though formally they were “getting rest” . It was, of course, the genius of some that they succeeded in defying this worst of traditions in their own small ways—a Namboodiri Brahmin woman in Kerala wrote in her memoirs that while books were prohibited in their life of strict purdah in the early 20th century, their periods were the only time when, hidden from the gaze of men, they could finally devour those magazines and political pamphlets bearing electrifying news from a changing world.

But where there was a culture of spouting nonsense in the not-too-recent past, today we are still fighting what is a culture of silence. One study last year found that only 55% of women in India understood menstruation as a wholly natural process, while only 48% had any knowledge of it before menarche. Last August, a teenager in Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu, killed herself after she bled in class, and statistics on girls dropping out of school for want of toilets are all too familiar in the subcontinent. One needs only to look around oneself—a year ago, this columnist’s aunt would not enter the room where her father’s body lay before cremation because she was menstruating. In school, the lack of sex education meant that we boys thought sanitary pads were a variant of the diaper—because girls were not just silly but also incontinent. Clearly, it was still possible to continue in that tradition of Pliny and Hippocrates as recently as the last decade, and my own ignorance as a 13-year-old was demolished only with a smack (and then a talk) when I tried to shame my older sister by asking about her “diaper”.

There is, of course, a slow decline in squeamishness about menstruation, but there is also irony in rich measure: Where a movie about a man who makes sanitary napkins gets tax exemption in a state, the actual product itself is deemed a “luxury item”. While there is a goddess who periodically bleeds—and whose menstrual cloth is every devotee’s dream possession—there are millions of girls who must hide away when their “time of the month” arrives. The only reassurance, then, is that barriers have been broken in the past and we can count on women again to stand up where society is hesitant and afraid (or full of foolish characters, like I once was). What men could seek, in the meantime perhaps, is to rise beyond parroting aimless lines about the glories of motherhood and the divinity of the female, and learn about things that involve flesh and blood—things like the spot that appears every month on the menstrual cloth, which once threw even Pliny the Elder off the mark.

(My column in Mint Lounge, February 24 2018)


Rukmini Devi Arundale was nine years old when she met her future husband at a gathering in Madras (now Chennai). The year was 1913 and George Arundale had been, till recently, a college principal in Varanasi, a position he vacated to serve the Theosophical Society on a permanent basis. Already in his mid-30s at the time of their maiden encounter, the Englishman could not have expected that in only seven years’ time he would provoke a colossal uproar in quiet, respectable Madras. For, in 1920, the Theosophist proposed marriage to the Brahmin girl he knew as a child. For two and a half decades, they were together, both of them celebrated figures of their time. But by the eve of his demise in 1945, it was already patent to many that between husband and wife, it was the former Miss Shastri whose legacy was destined to endure and shine. Theosophy brought them together, but Rukmini Devi’s work had evolved well beyond that universe, taking form in an institution celebrated to this day in a name synonymous with all Indian arts deemed “classical”: Kalakshetra.

Rukmini Devi, whose death anniversary it is today, could have led a very different life. Had it not been for her father’s intellectual leanings, she might have married a fellow Brahmin and settled into a life featuring not theosophy but domesticity. Had she not, after her marriage, met the ballerina Anna Pavlova on a boat to Australia, she might never have received the advice that motivated her to step on to the dance stage back in India. The Theosophists, meanwhile, imagined her as their “World Mother”, the female counterpart to the role envisioned for Jiddu Krishnamurti. Later in life, prime minister Morarji Desai offered her a chance to serve as president, an opportunity she politely declined. Her life revolved, instead, around dance, and of her commitment to revitalizing India’s artistic heritage there can be no doubt. There remain, however, concerns about the shape in which old traditions were reincarnated, though, for every critic of her cause, there are also those who believe Rukmini Devi “rescued” a portion of our heritage just before it was fully destroyed.

The 1920s and 1930s were a period of transformation for traditional dance in the south, and what we today call Bharatanatyam, with its “classical” connotations, was the inherited legacy of the Devadasis and their matrilineal communities. Victorian officials described them as nautch girls, and the collapse of patronage at courts such as Tanjore (annexed by the British) plunged many of these women into the very depths of poverty. Some descended into prostitution, their stigma tarnishing the community as a whole, as well as its creative pursuits. Muthulakshmi Reddy, the daughter of a Devadasi, exemplified one kind of reform—she obtained a modern education, a “proper” marriage, and, becoming a legislator, argued that art “at the expense of good morals and health of the race” was pointless: The Devadasi order had to be abolished. Others, like E. Krishna Iyer, were more sympathetic. “Should the art be penalized for a defect of society?” he asked. “Is it really the arts that lead to concubinage?” The Devadasis themselves made an effort to articulate their interests in one voice. But it was too late—their dance had to be “saved”. From them.

Rukmini Devi played the leading role here. She was not insensitive to the Devadasis (“The corruption that killed them was…of society in general,” she said) but also felt that sadir, as the dance was known, thirsted for reinvention. As one authority put it, “She was not delinking a tradition or sounding its death-knell, but merely taking on an existing tradition and moving it into a more public domain.” This meant innovation—the melam ensemble that accompanied the performance was parked on the side, preserving the limelight solely for the dancer. The costumes (“very untidy” with “poor” colours) were modified, the stage itself lit up in modern light, with props, backgrounds, and, most interestingly, the image of Nataraja, till then never propitiated in this fashion. The “bad associations” Rukmini Devi saw were expunged—sensuousness was prohibited, bhakti or devotion taking its place to cement dance with respectability. Where there was once sadir with its “fallen” Devadasis, there was now Bharatanatyam, bursting with Sanskritic purity.

In 1935, despite objections from her guru that one year of learning was inadequate, Rukmini Devi performed on stage, becoming one of the first non-Devadasis to dance in public. As one critic notes, “Once Rukmini Devi demonstrated that the emerging middle class was willing to accept her…the field was open…. The legitimacy that she claimed was based on her level of social acceptance.” In 1936, she founded what would become Kalakshetra, recognized now as an “institution of national importance” in India. The venture suffered trials of its own—after her husband died, she had to vacate the Theosophical Society premises and, as decades passed, Kalakshetra saw its own politics and feuds. There also remained voices that criticized the institutionalization of a dance form and the standardization it engendered. But for all this, Kalakshetra became the pre-eminent nursery of “revived” Bharatanatyam, students arriving from all over the world to embrace this “ancient” Indian dance as well as the woman who had helped give it its contemporary form.

When Rukmini Devi died in 1986, many were the glowing obituaries that followed, but there was also an evaluation of all that she had achieved. As the editor of the influential Sruti magazine argued, “Her unique contribution was to destroy what was crude and vulgar in the inherited traditions of dance and to replace them with sophisticated and refined taste.” In this, the dance form received a new lease of life, going on to earn international approval, even if the dancers who had preserved it for centuries were left by the wayside, their sustained devotion reduced to words like “vulgar”. There was injustice in all this, and yet Rukmini Devi was important—as someone once said, it was thanks to her that sadir could live on as Bharatanatyam. If, in the 1930s, there had been nobody to pick up the pieces as they fell, would the dance have survived at all?

(My column in Mint Lounge, February 17 2018)


In 1575, authorities in the port of Surat prevented a woman called Gulbadan Begum from embarking on her pilgrimage to Mecca for an entire year. Negotiations dragged on, and eventually, she had to bribe with the entire city of Valsad in order to board her boat. It was no surprise that the begum paid in town, not coin—Gulbadan was, after all, the daughter of emperor Babur and aunt to mighty Akbar, then sovereign of all of upper India. It was, however, revealing that even a senior representative of the imperial harem found herself applying for leave to sail, for the truth was that the Mughal emperor’s power met its limit at the beach. It was, instead, the writ of the king of Portugal that prevailed in the Arabian Sea, and without Portuguese permission, no princess, of whatever consequence, could depart India’s shores. Even as Akbar dismissed the Portuguese as “chickens”, Mughal ships quietly paid to carry on their business—the Europeans might have been overpowered were they on land, but on international waters their mastery of naval warfare ensured that even the imperial family gnashed its teeth but, ultimately, fell in line.

In 1613, during Jahangir’s reign, however, the Portuguese, already imperilled by the arrival of the Dutch and English, went a step too far, hastening their decline in India. The emperor, to be sure, was a friendly, curious man—when the English presented him two mastiffs, he was so thrilled he had the dogs carried around in palanquins—and he might have allowed things to carry on as before. But that September, Portuguese provocation was so brazen that only firm action could restore Mughal prestige. The underlying issues were many. Politically, the ignominy of seeking licences was a demonstration of the limits of Mughal power, always somewhat embarrassing when the emperor was officially “Conqueror of the World”. Then there were religious concerns: The Portuguese were such fervent Christians that each cartaz (licence) carried images of Jesus and Mary—a troubling detail for Muslims compelled to buy these documents in order to do the haj. In 1613, a Hindu lady also got embroiled in these Mughal-Portuguese dynamics, her wrath bringing down the full force of the empire, ringing the death knell of the latter’s long-standing power at sea.

The lady in question was Mariam uz-Zamani, though she is often popularly called Jodhabai, the Rajput princess who was Akbar’s wife and Jahangir’s mother. While conventional depictions are somewhat limited—she is beautiful and regal in a tedious, overblown sense—in actual fact, the dowager was a formidable woman. Described by a contemporary as “a great adventurer”, she towered over phenomenal business enterprises even while sequestered in the Mughal harem. At court, as scholar Ellison B. Findly notes, she was one of four seniormost figures and the only woman to hold a military rank of 12,000 cavalry, entitling her to the right to issue firmans of her own. She was also the proprietor of the Rahimi, believed to be the largest Indian vessel trading in the Red Sea, displacing 1,500 tonnes, its mast some 44 yards high. In addition to goods worth millions, the dowager empress regularly conveyed Muslim pilgrims to Mecca on her ship—this, when she wasn’t actually funding the construction of mosques, even while she remained herself a practising Hindu.

In 1613, however, the Portuguese decided it was a clever idea to seize and subsequently burn the Rahimi. The action was unprecedented, and, given who the owner of the vessel was, the insult landed straight on the otherwise cheerful, opium-loving Jahangir. The whole affair was meant to gain leverage at a time when the Portuguese were threatened by competition from other European companies. But as it happened, the move backfired. As one observer noted, Jahangir immediately had Daman besieged, blocked all Portuguese trade in Surat, and “hath likewise taken order for the seizing of all Portingals (sic) and their goods within his kingdoms”. Furthermore, the emperor “sealed up their church doors and hath given order that they shall no more use the exercise of their religion in these parts”.

Rattled, the Portuguese made amends by offering Rs3 lakh as compensation, but on the condition that the Mughals expel the English from Agra. Jahangir refused to blink, however, calling the Portuguese bluff, and welcoming soon afterwards in 1615 Sir Thomas Roe, the famous English ambassador. “The Portuguese folly in the capture of the Rahimi, then,” writes Findly, “tipped the scales in favour of the English.”

But it was not as if the newcomers were granted a red-carpet reception—on the contrary, the playing field was merely levelled somewhat. Mariam uz-Zamani herself wasn’t sympathetic to the English: In 1611, after an Englishman outbid her at the indigo market in Bayana, she exerted enough pressure on her son to ensure that Roe’s unofficial predecessor, William Hawkins—the “English Khan” who till then was friendly with Jahangir—had to pack his bags and leave for good. In any case, if there was any doubt that the emperor’s mother was a force to reckon with, the affair around the Rahimi dispelled such thinking. And in 1623, when Mariam uz-Zamani died—still immensely rich and powerful—due honour was given to her by burying her in a mausoleum close to that equally redoubtable man to whom she was once married: emperor Akbar.

(My column in Mint Lounge, February 10 2018)


In 1883, when the Kamasutra first made its appearance in English, European readers of Vatsyayana’s treatise hadn’t the faintest idea that its publisher—the Hindoo Kama Shastra Society—was, in fact, an entirely non-existent body. Ostensibly headquartered in Varanasi, with links to London and New York, the “Society” was actually a work of fiction, born from the minds of a couple of British officials and their associates in faraway India. That the translation, despite its infirmities, was indeed of Vatsyayana’s 1,600-year-old disquisition was not doubted. But even as the Kamasutra made its way into the great libraries of the West, the true identity of its translator remained shrouded for years behind this fictitious organization.

There were several reasons why Sir Richard Francis Burton was paranoid about advertising his name with the book—British laws on obscenity were so draconian that printing anything even vaguely sexual could show writers the doors to prison. For the Kamasutra, then, it took some creative thinking to evade Victorian prudery. The Sanskrit word yoni, for instance, was used in the English text for the vagina, even when Vatsyayana himself never used that word in the actual Sanskrit original. But the gamble paid off—in time, the bogus Kama Shastra Society’s translation would become, as one scholar notes, “one of the most pirated books in the English language”, registered across the world as the oldest and foremost classical text on all matters pertaining to love and human sexuality. This, even when it wasn’t exactly sincere to Vatsyayana’s moral outlook from centuries before.

The loosely held opinion that the Kamasutra is a catalogue for boudoir gymnastics also owes much to this context: The pronounced disapproval with which topics around sexuality were viewed meant that its most colourful components acquired, ironically, a life of their own, feelings of taboo fuelling a mischievous appetite for the text. In actual fact, though, the Kamasutra is more than a manual for love-making—of the seven books that constitute its body, only the second is strictly concerned with methods of human congress. Burton, bent as he was on “the sexual liberation of Victorian society”, seems to have highlighted these while watering down other elements. But despite such interventions, even in that first 1883 translation, of 175-odd pages, Burton could devote only 40 to this theme. The remainder of the Kamasutra, in fact, offers a much wider series of discussions for the benefit of its wealthy and primarily male audience, covering not only sex but also matters of aesthetics and more.

Book 5, for example, concerns itself with extramarital affairs and how one ought to go about getting in bed with another’s spouse, while another section in the same book investigates, tantalizingly but ultimately disappointingly, “Why Women Get Turned Off”. In Book 1, we learn that if men of culture want to remain men of culture, they must allocate time every five-10 days to the removal of all their body hair. Married women are generally not to be seduced, we are taught, but if it helps to gain influence over a powerful husband or even perhaps to erase him from the world and acquire his wealth, it is acceptable to bed the wife as a weapon for one’s personal ambitions and avarice. In these sections, then, the Kamasutra might well have been inspired by cold, calculating Chanakya and his utterly pragmatic Arthashastra.

The writer Hanif Kureishi once similarly noted that the Kamasutra is less like Lord Byron’s heady romances and closer to P.G. Wodehouse’s wit in much of its tone. “One can wager on kisses,” argues Vatsyayana, for “whichever of the partners first gets to the other’s lower lip wins.” In order to seduce a woman, a man must be prepared to go flower-picking with her, to play in her doll house, and, perhaps most essentially, cultivate her closest friend, who, in an ideal society, is her wet-nurse’s daughter. Where courtesans are concerned, Vatsyayana advises them to avoid by all means patrons with worms in their stool—or whose breath “smells of crows”. They must also, he warns, never surrender reason, feeling free to manipulate men for money and goods. And if a patron were no longer capable, of providing said money and goods, he was to be discarded. One suggested route was to alienate him with markedly unpleasant behaviour: “Curling the lip in a sneer” and “stamping on the ground” promised success, evidently. “Ignoring him” was also an option.

There are, however, parts of the Kamasutra that make for highly uncomfortable reading, especially in this time when #MeToo has sparked such troubled introspection; sections that, as scholar Wendy Doniger notes, seem to justify the seduction-by-sexual-assault school of thinking. So while one can laugh at the Kamasutra’s assertion that the male “instrument” (ideally pierced) smeared with honey, powdered thornapple and black pepper provides divine ecstasies to the female, one cannot quite digest that a man can confidently proceed with intercourse with a woman when “her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes”. Where at one point he is clear that “a girl who is asleep, weeping or absent” cannot be a bride, Vatsyayana still allows a wedding technique that involves getting the lady drunk, and taking her “maidenhead” while she is unconscious. Of course, given its age and context, it is not surprising that the Kamasutra speaks in a male voice with erroneous male preconceptions. Compared to contemporaneous texts like the Manusmriti, however, the Kamasutra is replete with commentaries by women—and it recognizes the right to pleasure for the female too.

Vatsyayana’s approach to the third gender, on homosexuality and bisexuality, also makes for gripping reading (and interpretation), so that in the overall analysis of the work—a very good recent translation being A.N.D. Haksar’s—one feels partly surprised, partly amused, but always certainly interested. For all its sometimes outlandish views on life, marriage and intimacy, the Kamasutra remains a thoroughly fascinating work of art and cultural heritage, one we must read for more than a mere list of bedroom positions. That, in the end, is the secret of its enduring appeal.

(My column in Mint Lounge, February 03 2018)


Perhaps if Meerabai of Mewar had jumped into a fire, she too might have had armies of 21st century men prepared to smash glass and destroy public property in the name of protecting her honour. After all, nothing rouses patriarchal masculine pride more than illusions of stoic sacrifice by unreal beauties, who, between managing their heavy jewels and rich skirts, spout tedious lines about valour and fortitude. So where (the possibly fictional) Padmavati, by dying the way she is supposed to have, went down as the right kind of tragic heroine, the definitely real Meerabai presents a minor problem by refusing to bow out in the correct fashion. On the contrary, far from yearning to kill herself after her husband succumbed on the battlefield, Meerabai declared firmly, “I will not be a sati.” She chose, awkwardly instead, to live for decades more, singing praises of her favourite deity, Krishna, while rejecting pressures from the muscular guardians of Rajput society. While patriarchy accommodated her as an icon of feminine, god-loving devotion, in her own verses, we find also a lady with a mind of her own; one who stood up to all established norms of honour, and to the authority of every mortal man around her.

Meerabai was born at the dawn of the 16th century in Merta in Rajasthan. According to hagiographies composed by her earliest admirers, this motherless child was raised in her grandfather’s household, and from a tender age showed great affection for Krishna. Around 1516, when in her late teens, she married Bhojraj, son of the legendary Rana Sangha of Mewar. Their complicated union did not last, however, for in the next decade, Meerabai lost her husband and her footing in his royal household. Her refusal to commit sati might have added to the erosion of status that came automatically with widowhood, but she did not care about being perceived as an inconvenient woman. As one of her verses, addressed, evidently, to her husband’s heir, declares: “Rana, to me this slander is sweet…Mira’s lord is (Krishna): let the wicked burn in a furnace.” There is no doubt that Meerabai was passionate in her love for God—some of her greatest works are those expressing deep sorrow at her “separation” from her divine beloved. But there is also no doubt that hers was a voice that challenged the world, refusing the control her husband’s relations sought to exercise in the name of their own prestige and her patent lack of aristocratic reserve.

Some of this resistance is encapsulated in Nabhadas’ Bhaktamal, composed soon after Meerabai’s time. “Modesty in public, the chains of family life/Mira shed both for the Lifter of Mountains,” the saint writes, for instance. So too she had “no inhibitions” and was “totally fearless”. “She cringed before none, she beat love’s drum.” In other words, far from leading an unobtrusive life in widow’s garb or fitting into the role of a pativrata (devoted wife), as Padmavati is supposed to have done, Meerabai engaged freely with other devotees and moved in spaces not ordinarily permitted to women. Her interlocutors, furthermore, included a diverse cast of men, from backgrounds that did not make them ideal companions for a Rajput widow. Where custom demanded social invisibility of her, Meerabai chose the opposite, further enraging her family. Still, she did not care—“I don’t like your strange world, Rana,” she records. “A world where there are no holy men, and all the people are trash.” Indeed, in the face of her resolve, there was even an attempt to poison her, but our poet was uncowed: “Rana,” she announced, “nobody can prevent me from going to the saints. I don’t care what the people say.”

Eventually, Meerabai was cast out and became even more determined in her ways. “Fools sit on thrones,” she sang, while “Wise men beg for a little bread.”Elsewhere she proclaims: “If Rana is angry, he can keep his kingdom/But if God is offended…I will wither,” making clear where her loyalties resided. “She danced,” writes Bhakta Dhruvadas, “with anklebells on her feet and with castanets in her hands. In the purity of her heart, she met the devotees of God, and realized the pettiness of the world.” Much had to be given up, but she did so readily in the pursuit of her calling. “What I paid,” writes Meerabai, “was my social body, my town body, my family body, and all my inherited jewels.” With Krishna as her focus, however, she was able to survive every loss and become one with the people. She would sing his songs and, through him, be also her own person.

In due course, Meerabai became a travelling saint, an outcast where she was once a princess. Her satsangs were attended by many, but the path was riddled with privations and tests—there are even those within the Bhakti tradition who challenged her or sought to take advantage of this woman on her own. But she survived, dying on her own terms in Dwarka by the middle of the century (and not in a blazing flame). Her story has since found several takers—Mahatma Gandhi saw an exemplar of non-violent resistance, while Carnatic singer M.S. Subbulakshmi highlighted Meerabai’s religiosity at the cinema. But just as importantly, in what is often forgotten, Meerabai also “disowned, defied and subverted the…values associated with powerful and entrenched institutions—family, marriage, caste, clan, royalty and even the realm of bhakti.” She threw off the weight of expectations from every quarter, and painstakingly embraced only that which brought her closer to God. Passion, flaws, rejection and greatness were all woven into this mortal one, remembered to this day by that fascinating, immortal name, Meerabai of Mewar. And so she went down as the woman she truly was, refusing to become another Padmavati, that paragon of monochrome glory.

(My column in Mint Lounge, January 20 2018)


It is tempting to wonder if Swami Vivekananda might have achieved his enduring appeal had he chosen to remain a “Vividishinanda”, or even a “Sachchidananda”, at the time of his defining visit to the US. These were, after all, names he preferred at various points, before finally confirming, in 1893, the label by which the world remembers him.

“Vivekananda” certainly rolls better off the tongue than the other options, but significantly, it is also the name by which this peerless Bengali monk has been appropriated by practically every political camp in contemporary India, to deploy in support of even antithetical motives. To those whose blood is not red but saffron, he was a champion of Hindu pride. Those, on the other hand, who abhor majoritarian impulses, also point to the very same man, in whose preachings may be found endorsements of a liberal nature. Veritably, this iconic thinker-saint, whose birth anniversary it was on 12 January, has emerged as everybody’s favourite, precisely because he can be different things to different people.

Vivekananda’s story is well established: born as Narendranath into a bhadralok (genteel) family in Kolkata, a promising academic career, his encounter with the spiritual master Ramakrishna, and his transformation thereon as not only an architect of modern Hindu thought but also as a messenger for India itself. What firmly confirmed him as a force, however, was his famous address at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago. As his Irish disciple, Sister Nivedita, remarked, “it may be said that when he began to speak” at that 1893 gathering, “it was of the religious ideas of the Hindus”. By the time he had finished his monumental address, “Hinduism had been created”.

This modern rendition of ancient traditions entitled him to honour, but some offer fantastical tales that heralded much earlier the certainty of distinction. He was Shiva incarnate because, as a child, the only way to calm his mischief was to pour “cold water on his head and simultaneously (chant) the name of Shiva”. When a snake slithered into Narendranath’s room while he meditated, so admiring was the reptile that it sat still, utterly transfixed. These stories served their purpose in romanticizing Vivekananda’s work with magical, god-ordained destiny, but we can safely conclude that they are entirely apocryphal.

The philosophy he upheld was a refashioned Advaita Vedanta. But esoteric concerns aside, what electrified minds was his blending of religious reawakening with national reinvigoration. After generations of inferiority complex fed by a colonial state—that India was rotten and devoid of civilizational value—Vivekananda refused to argue on conventional terms. “Let others,” he declared, “talk of politics…of the immense wealth poured in by trade, of the power and spread of commercialism, of the glorious fountain of physical liberty.” The “Hindu mind” did not care—India’s mission was not to count coins, focused as it was on “the evolution of spiritual humanity”.

This formula emphasizing spirituality was not original, but where Vivekananda differed from previous reformers—who too sought to restore confidence but whose message circulated within the elite—was in his conviction that the masses needed awakening, and that religion was the medium for it. “Before flooding India with socialistic or political ideas,” he argued, “first deluge the land with spiritual ideas.” That he travelled the length of this vast country, and to places as distant as Nagasaki and New York, further energized his cause.

His spiritual ideas were derived from Sanskrit philosophy, even though its dissemination was not to remain in the language of philosophers. “It is an insult to a starving man to teach him metaphysics,” he observed. Things would have to be simplified, translated into vernaculars, and “fiery” missionaries enlisted to transport this message. Old movements such as the Bhakti of popular worship had to be discarded. While in Chicago he highlighted divine love, in India he saw Bhakti as making the nation “a race of women!” Odisha, for example, was “a land of cowards; and Bengal,” he admonished, “has almost lost all sense of manliness”.

While not violent, Vivekananda envisioned Hinduism as a proactive faith and not one that remained complacent in disorganized variety. Such a reinvention of Hinduism, he affirmed, was the key to “awaken the national consciousness”. Internal differences had to be weeded out, because “the whole secret lies in organization, accumulation of power, (and) coordination of wills”.

Reformers from below, for instance, were not to show aggression against orthodox Brahminism. An example Vivekananda cited was the American blacks. “Before the abolition, these poor negroes were the property of somebody, and…(were) looked after…Today they are the property of nobody. Their lives are of no value.” So, too, in India, despite injustices of caste, it was unwise to attempt to push the elite out of the way, crippling unity. Besides, “To the non-Brahmin castes I say…you are suffering from your own fault. Who told you to neglect spirituality and Sanskrit learning?…Why do you fret and fume because somebody else had more brains, more energy, more pluck..than you?” Despite problematic pronouncements as this one in 1897, to his global audience, Vivekananda’s voice was refreshingly open. “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true”—a message highlighted by liberal Hindus to challenge the often physical violence unleashed against minorities in India today.

There were in Vivekananda’s message contradictions, and indeed he may have had more than one message. In his own time, however, these did not seem like contradictions at all. He simply spoke to different people in different ways. To Indians battling caste, speaking multiple languages, and with regional identities, his purpose was to engender national unity by reinventing Hinduism. To those abroad, his mission was to present Hinduism not as that tangled jungle of superstition the British saw, but as a mature, magnificent faith. Consistency wasn’t perhaps Vivekananda’s strong point, but, in the end, it was also precisely his inconsistency that made him such an appealing figure to such large numbers of people in India as well as abroad.

(My column in Mint Lounge, January 13 2018)


She lies buried amidst sepulchres that house the remains of many who are still famous. There is Jim Morrison on the premises, the American rock legend whom trains of tourists come to pay homage, like pilgrims bearing flowers. Edith Piaf, the waif who sang her way to greatness, finds her peace nearby, as does Frederic Chopin, the composer whose pickled heart is in Warsaw but whose body dissolves in the French capital. Benjamin Franklin’s grandson rests here, and in the vicinity there is a man believed to have been sired by Napoleon. Oscar Wilde’s sculpted grave competes with Marcel Proust’s neat bed of stone, and many more still are the artists, writers, and persons of esteem who crowd the hillside cemetery that is Père Lachaise in Paris. And yet, between them all, under a platform of rugged rock, lies this tragic Indian woman. Her name and cause have been largely forgotten, but since 1858, she has been here, longer than many of her revered neighbours. Tourists walk by with cameras, oblivious to her unmarked square existence. But every now and then there is a stray visitor who arrives on a quest: to locate the final resting place of that remarkable woman, the last queen of Awadh.

I was that visitor a few days ago, when I trekked up Paris’ most famous graveyard to look for this forgotten tomb. The lady appears in yellowed old books by several names. She was to some Malika Kishwar, while others knew her as Janab-i Aliyah, Her Sublime Excellency, mother to the ruler of “Oude”, Wajid Ali Shah. In 1856, when the British deposed this nawab from his ancestral seat in Lucknow, his family departed for colonial Calcutta, with all the money they could gather and what dignity they had left. But while the son (a “crazy imbecile” in the eyes of his sneering oppressors) prepared to fade quietly into history, the mother was determined to win back that which was her family’s by right. That very year, this woman who knew little beyond her sequestered palace, set foot on a ship, determined to sail to England so she might speak—woman to woman—to the English queen in person. After all, declared the middle-aged begum, Victoria was “also a mother”; she would recognize the despair her people had unleashed, and restore to the House of Awadh territory, titles, and its rightful honour. And so proceeded Malika Kishwar, her health already in decline, braving cold winds in a foreign land, to plead the cause of royal justice.

The mission was doomed from the start. Advisers were many and much was the money they sought for the privilege of their counsel. The results, meanwhile, were nowhere to be found. As historian Rosie Llewellyn-Jones records, Kishwar discovered quickly enough that Queen Victoria, in her “circular dress”, had little power to bestow anything more than polite conversation on her and her Awadhi line—when an audience was granted, they spoke about boats and English mansions, not about imperial treacheries and the unjust business in Lucknow. In the British parliament, things got worse. A prayer at long last prepared was dismissed on spurious bureaucratic grounds: the begum was to submit a “humble petition”, words that she failed to use in the document laid before the House. While her son accepted British imperium, the mother was obstinate in battle. So, when she wished to travel, they sought to dragoon her into acknowledging their suzerainty—if Malika Kishwar and her ménage wanted passports, she would have to declare herself a “British subject”. The begum refused to do anything of the sort, prepared, at best, to be under “British protection”, but never anybody’s “subject”. And legal quibbles aside, the Great Rebellion of 1857 compounded matters—there was now no prospect of relinquishing even a fragment of British power when the hour called for a demonstration of obdurate strength alone. Awadh was lost forever.

The tide having turned, in 1858, the begum decided to return at last, defeated and unhappy in the extreme. But in Paris she fell ill and died on 24 January. The funeral was simple, but there was yet some dignity and state—representatives of the Turkish and Persian sultans gave this Indian queen the regard the British denied her and her line. A cenotaph was constructed by the grave, but it has long since fallen to pieces—when decades later the authorities at Père Lachaise sought funds to repair the tomb, her exiled son decided from Calcutta that it was simply not worth his pension, while the colonial state was even less inclined to honour a difficult woman lying several feet underground in an alien European country. And so, since that time, in a graveyard full of magnificent memorials, the queen of Awadh has remained, a shell of broken stone sheltering her from the weeds and overgrowth that alone have made a claim upon her and the story that she tells.

Others of her suite also suffered. A younger son had come with her, Sikandar Hashmat by name. He died in England, and was carried to join his mother in her unmarked grave. A grandson’s infant child was also buried within, turning the tally in Paris to three. But it was in London that one more of the delegation fell, this one a baby princess, born to Sikandar Hashmat from his Rajput wife on British shores. I walked around a dull little place called Kilburn to look for this grave. And there, in a cemetery, after an hour between tombs set in the soggy English ground, I found a memorial to the child: Princess Omdutel Aurau Begum, “who died 14th April 1858”, months after her grandmother who was once a queen. But Omdutel, all of 18 months, had a minor triumph where her royal grandmother had none—lying by a pathway in that cemetery in Kilburn, her grave at least bears her name. The begum, on the other hand, has become to the passing tourist at Père Lachaise in Paris a plinth on which to rest, smoking a cigarette and looking on to a horizon full of the dead, till a stranger might appear to tell how they have under them pieces of a fascinating woman, and the remains of one of Indian history’s most unhappy tales.

(My column in Mint Lounge, January 6 2018)


In 1757, on the eve of the historic Battle of Plassey, a merchant called Amir Chand threw in an alarming demand at Robert Clive’s table. “Omichund”, as the English knew him, had served the East India Company, assisting in their shaky relationship with the nawab of Bengal. Now, however, as war looked inevitable, he also made himself indispensable, helping hatch that infamous plot by which the nawab’s commander, Mir Jafar, was to betray his sovereign and join ranks with the Company. At the last minute, however, Omichund put forth an ominous clause—he wanted Rs30 lakh for his services, failing which he would (regretfully) divulge the scheme to the nawab himself. Colonel Clive was upset. But he was also shrewd: two copies of the pact with Mir Jafar were prepared. The counterfeit carried Omichund’s clause, while the actual agreement said nothing about his reward. And when everything was over and the English had prevailed, the old merchant was summoned and simply told: “Omichund, the red paper is a trick, you are to have nothing!”

It is said that Omichund died a broken man. Two of his sons left colonial Calcutta to do business in Varanasi instead, where prosperity came to them soon enough. But it would be some generations before one of their line could redeem the reputation of their perfidious ancestor. To be sure, this great-grandson, Harishchandra, often referred to as Bharatendu (Moon of India), was not a vengeful nationalist—before he died this day in 1885, many were the occasions when he hosted gatherings to demonstrate affection for the Raj that betrayed his forebear. But even as he sang of “the Western rays of civilization” and the “progressive policy of the British nation”, Harishchandra’s contributions to the development of Hindi carved for him a place in the eyes of posterity. He might have composed panegyrics when births and weddings took place in Queen Victoria’s household, but it was also his pen that helped propel a movement to transform a neglected language of mixed origins into a mass cultural campaign that culminated in that famous cry, “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan”.

Harishchandra began life in 1850 in a combination of tragedy and grandiosity. He lost his parents young but grew up so rich that all his life his greatest difficulty was how not to mismanage more of his money. He founded and edited one of India’s first women’s journals, Balabodhini, but to his own wife all he offered was neglect. If an object caught his eye—a camera perhaps, or new perfume—he required it at once. “This money,” he laughed, “has eaten my ancestors; now I am going to eat it.” But even as he reduced life into an oscillation between debt and extravagance, he also left behind a mark that endures to this day. His Kavivachansudha (founded 1868) and Harishchandrachandrika (founded 1873) emerged as iconic platforms for literary exchange in northern India. Featuring Dadabhai Naoroji’s drain theory as well as news from the local Dharma Sabha, it was through these publications that Harishchandra, as the scholar Vasudha Dalmia notes, “veritably created literary Hindi” even as he gently voiced his support for Hindu consolidation. He became a catalyst for a vernacular nationalism that would achieve full force in the following century, rising simultaneously as the “Father of Modern Hindi Literature and Hindi Theatre”.

If modern Hindi is today well entrenched, where it comes from is an issue that still provokes debate. As Prof. Harish Trivedi writes, “Hindi was commonly perceived to be an underdeveloped and underprivileged language, fragmented into several competing dialects, backward and dusty by association with its largely rural constituency”. The British recognized Urdu as the north’s language of government. Since it was spoken primarily by elite Muslims, however, this stirred resentment among others who competed for jobs but did not know Urdu. As Harishchandra argued, thanks to this official bias, Muslims enjoyed “a sort of monopoly” where employment was concerned, which was not only “injustice” but also “a cause of annoyance and inconvenience” to masses of Hindi speakers who also happened largely to be Hindus. The matter was not black and white, but the message carried resonance. Both languages were cousins derived from the same roots—one was truer to Sanskrit, while the other had gained much from Arabic and Persian. Now they became rivals.

But this time also coincided with an urge to make new literature—something modern and fitted to emerging feelings of cultural and political nationalism. Much of the poetry in Hindi was in the Brajbhasha and Avadhi dialects, traditionally considered prestigious but thought to be encumbered by an excess of devotion and piety. Khariboli, the dialect spoken around Delhi and present-day Uttar Pradesh, on the other hand, was an open vessel for literary innovation. “The progress of one’s own language is the root of all progress,” Harishchandra argued, and page after page in his magazine was devoted to plays, poetry, satire and essays, all of which combined to create a new corpus for speakers of an increasingly standardized Hindi. Khariboli was swiftly invested with pride and disseminated widely through Harishchandra’s energy and enthusiasm. Only he could have pulled it off—wealthy, flamboyant, and with personal networks stretching from British officials to Bengal’s reformers, he was noticed in the right circles. That he also centred his activities in Varanasi, a city of special significance for Hindus in a time of political consolidation, further legitimized his ventures.

In 1885, not yet 35, Harischandra died, by now less convinced of the Raj and its goodness for India. But what he had helped launch assumed a life of its own, becoming the Standard Modern Hindi of today in the course of a few decades. By 1893, a Nagari Pracharini Sabha emerged to lobby for official recognition of Hindi and Devanagari—the request was granted in 1900. By 1910, a Hindi Sahitya Sammelan was born, of which Gandhi remained a member longer than he was of the Congress. Poets and writers raised to think of Urdu as the language of culture, invested increasingly in Hindi. As Premchand wrote in 1915, “Urdu will no longer do. Has any Hindu ever made a success of writing in Urdu, that I will?” This “Hindi Renaissance” was infused with nationalism and some even drew links to 1857—seeds of a standardized Hindi were sown when speakers of various dialects united for the “First War of Independence” and recognized themselves as one people. Harishchandra, however, did not live to see the fruits of his work—but for many, by helping Hindi rise to its feet, he had more than paid off his ancestor’s debt. Omichund may have erred by siding with the British, but by creating a vehicle for cultural and national aspirations, Harishchandra had earned only honour.

(My column in Mint Lounge, December 30 2017)


In December 1982, The Illustrated Weekly Of India carried a story on an Indian painter and her latest series, inspired by classical mythology. The feature included a number of photographs, and had followed exhibitions at the Jehangir and Taj art galleries in Mumbai. While Society magazine described a “minor stampede” at the venues, part of this was also because many were interested in the women who appeared in these canvases. After all, the artist had been true to descriptions in the epics: Where the Mahabharat relates how Vishwamitra saw Menaka “nude” after her skirt went “off with the wind”, and “lusted to lie with her”, the painter of these works had indeed created a sage with a face that weighed his options, beholding an apsara (celestial nymph) who wore jewels but had truly lost her clothes. The reviews were not kind—emphasis was placed on the word “nude”. But even as the painter K.H. Ara told her to ignore critics, what upset the artist were the threats that followed. As a letter to the Illustrated Weekly warned, while “Hindus are less communal…it is not advisable to misuse their generosity. You should desist from baring their gods and goddesses.”

Rukmini Varma would grow tired of this—the critic who disapproved of her traditional choice of subject (“God save us from our gods and goddesses!” commented S.V. Vasudev) as much as he did of her preference for realism. And a right wing that was apoplectic about the unabashed manner in which mythological figures were approached. The tilt towards realism was perhaps natural, given her circumstances. Arriving with a gun salute into Kerala’s premier royal family in 1940, her early life was spent in a palace, surrounded by court painters who elevated realism to the heights of worship. That she was descended from Raja Ravi Varma carried its influence too. Varma’s style was for much of the 20th century discredited as being too colonial, as India moved through phases dominated by the nationalistic Bengal School, followed by the modernism of Amrita Sher-Gil and the Progressive Artists of Bombay.

But, for Rukmini, realism retains merit. When, in an interview, she was asked if she wanted to be introduced as “a dethroned princess on a nostalgic trip” or “as an artist carrying on the tradition of an illustrious ancestor”, her response was: “Neither.” Try instead, she suggested, to present a “woman with a mission” centred on “preserving realistic art”. To her, realism is “timeless”. And if the suggestion is made that such work is anachronistic, her response is simply: “I disagree.”

Her mission has had its ups and downs. In the 1970s, Rukmini saw tremendous success. Her exhibitions in India were opened by governors and presidents, while, in London, Lord Mountbatten sang her praises. Her social position—had the old order continued, she would today have held the title of maharani—allowed her private tours of the Vatican’s collection, and she sat with Svetoslav Roerich on the advisory board of the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath in Bengaluru, where she lives.

This was also the phase in which she experimented a great deal—her palette-knife paintings from this decade are among the finest works produced by this self-taught artist in a 50-year career. While she too dabbled in modernism, and expresses admiration for Sher-Gil’s originality, Rukmini always found herself drawn back to realism. Even as she resurrected her ancestor’s style, there were elements she introduced of her own. “During the Victorian era,” for instance, “painters muted the colours. Nobody did a bright painting, and everything was mixed with a neutral colour…(so) the outcome would be soft…But my palette is not like that…I give each shade its own prominence. And the canvas becomes vivid.” So too she separates herself from the classical and academic schools—hers is a realism that relies solely on pictures formed in her mind—“visions” where characters appear fully formed, jewels and all—so that models are rarely required for reference.

Rukmini’s paintings, which abound with buxom women and muscular men, do indeed have shades of purple and blue. But what marks out these canvases is that most of her characters, while covered in gems and jewels, are not draped. “My point has always been to bring out the innumerable shades in flesh, for there is nothing…that has more varieties of shades than this,” she once explained. “I am fascinated by the interplay of shades (and light)… If it is an arm, of course, there will be no comment. But if there is a bust, or hips, or thighs, immediately comes in this word, ‘nude’. Which is ridiculous.” In another interview, when asked why she “filled” her canvas with “nude women in erotic postures”, quick came the response: “If my work is characterized as ‘erotic’ by you, then how would you describe the frescoes in…Ajanta?” As a one-time dancer (having learnt Kathak from Maya Rao and Bharatanatyam from U.S. Krishna Rao), and as a student of Sanskrit classics, Rukmini seeks an idealized conception of beauty. When asked why her characters, despite her realism, are so unlike real human beings, she laughs, “It is always an exaggeratedly beautiful anatomy that I see. Perhaps I’m inventing a beauty that simply doesn’t exist? Perhaps reality as I see it is so overpowering that this is my form of escape?”

Painting did become an escape by the end of the 1980s. After she lost her son in an accident, Rukmini became a recluse, disappearing from the world of art, where, in any case, she had never been “in” with the times. It took over three decades, till this year, for her to put up a show again, where the principal work on display was a 9ft-tall painting of the Hoysala emperor Vishnuvardhan with his dancer wife Shantala, both of them wearing jewels for clothes and depicted on the basis of Rukmini’s “vision” of the couple. At 77, painting such tremendous canvases is not an easy exercise—in the verandah of her colonial-era house, two teapoys are put together with a table on top, and Rukmini is hoisted up in an armchair so she can work. But paint she must—and while the world may move from one style to the next, and from one experimental form to another, this descendant of India’s painter prince remains committed to her style. “Art has no expiry date, and no geographical boundaries,” she smiles, “and we can always learn from the old masters.”