The last day of the Jaipur Literature Festival is often the quietest. The Monday after the weekend, there’s both satisfaction and a slight sense of loss that it’s over. Here’s what we left the venue with.
Learning tehzeeb from tawaifs
This session, attended by a small but enthusiastic audience, featured Hindi writer Prabhat Ranjan, who was awarded the inaugural Shri Dwarka Prasad Aharwal award at the festival this year. He was joined by Yatindra Mishra and session moderator, Anu Singh Choudhary.
Ranjan has written Kothagoi, a Hindi book about the lost culture of north India’s tawaifs. “This is not merely research for me,” said Ranjan, “I was only writing because one day, I wanted to write Kothagoi.”
Tawaifs, and other performers such as devdasis, were victims of Victorian morality, and so-called social reform movements of the Twentieth Century in India, which did not understand either the diversity of these communities, nor their cultures of public performance. These traditions of music and dance were appropriated by a middle-class brahminical movement to “sanitise” Indian arts. In the process, tawaifs fell by the wayside.
Yatindra Mishra said that many bais and tawaifs attempted to regain social standing by going into Indian cinema in the 1930s. “They took their thumri, dadra mehfil there, and were often very successful,” he said. “People like Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, later called Begum Akhtar, were introduced as film stars.”
In the early 1950s, Mishra pointed out, the trope of the tawaif was used as “a way to get a dance number into the film in order to make more money.” He said the song Thare Rahiyo from the film Pakeezah was one of the best examples in Indian film history of the tawaif’s khadi mehfil, saying that the performance of the song was “80 to 90 per cent accurate.”
Ranjan said, “More than the act of creating literature, I wanted to emphasise this history [with Kothagoi].” He said that aristocratic families used to send their sons to kothas to learn tehzeeb from them, and that tawaifs used to set the fashions of the day. “The kotha, like the cinema, did what the public wanted,” he said. “When I was growing up, it was these performers that I was allowed to listen to, and not film songs.”
“These performers were present during the most important events in our life. How, then, can you call them infamous?”— Prabhat Ranjan
Eating Books: A Cosmopolitan Cuisine
One of the first sessions of the day saw Nilanjana Roy and Anjum Hasan in conversation with Jerry Pinto.
Roy, who spoke about her latest book, a collection of essays entitled The Girl Who Ate Books: Adventures in Reading, presented a brief history of Indian writing in English, starting with the importance of the Tranquebar Printing Press, and including newspapers such as The Hircarrah and the Hicky’s Bengal Gazette, as well as writers such as Romesh Chunder Dutt. Speaking about Behramji Malabari’s writing on England, she said, “He did what every traveller to the east had done. He exoticised them [the English].”
Hasan spoke about her latest novel, The Cosmopolitans, whose protagonist, 53-year-old Qayenaat, is caught between two moments in the history of Bangalore: one of “hopeful early modernism”, represented by her father, and the other of “a new, 21st century, much more moneyed cosmopolitanism.”
Much of Hasan’s novel concerns the contemporary art world, and one of the characters is Baban Reddy, who is the toast of Bangalore. “He is embraced perhaps because of his art, but definitely due to his name and money.” Speaking on the notion of consumption, and the idea of turning art into money, Hasan said, “So much of what we feel and think about art is extraneous to it.”
Saying that the experience of being alone in a gallery with a work of art “is an experience, not an act of consumption”, Hasan said she saw Qayenaat “not as a consumer, but as a rasika.”
Roy asked, “What do we mean when we say readers? It is not just people who are privileged enough to have books at home.” She referred to temples built by dalit communities to Angrezi Devi, saying, “to a lot of marginalised people, English becomes a language of empowerment.” She also spoke about the “pavement booksellers who swung [her] attention towards Latin American writers.”
Roy told a story about a boy in an Uttar Pradesh school who started to cry because he was given a book to keep for himself for the first time in his life. “We have a vast and completely unmet need for books, and it astonishes me how deep that need goes,” she said.
“Reading was really our way of travelling. We had imagined cities where we wanted to be long before we had the opportunity to visit them.”— Nilanjana Roy
Chronicles of exile, from exile
This panel featured Kashmiri writer Siddhartha Gigoo, Djiboutian writer Abdourahman A Waberi, author and academic Rita Kothari, and moderator Maina Chawla Singh.
Waberi said that he was twenty when he left Djibouti for France, where he stayed for over two decades. “Now I criss-cross between the USA and Paris, and I think of myself as a new kind of nomad.” Waberi said that he looked to India as a kind of inspiration, saying, “You are overcoming issues of history and memory in a way that we can’t imagine elsewhere.”
Waberi said that his work concerns a quality that is best characterised by the Arabic word for journey, “safar”. The most difficult aspect of this crossing, he said, was first saying that he is a writer. “I come from a very modest family, and being a writer is not considered practical. So I doubted myself very much.” He eventually did start writing, and his distance from home has always impacted his work. “I was writing from a distance from the get-go, in a self-imposed exile from Djibouti.”
Gigoo narrated the story of how he came to write, for which he said he needed to narrate the story of his exile from Kashmir. Gigoo had to leave his home in Srinagar at the age of 15, in the wake of attacks and threats on many of his Kashmiri Pandit neighbours, and a particularly frightening night when two men showed up outside his home with pistols.
Eighteen years later, Gigoo had the opportunity to visit his old home in Srinagar and was astonished to see that one of his childhood paintings still hung on the wall of his old room. “I was stunned, because we had sold this house in the 1980s, after which it had definitely been occupied by militants and security forces.”
When he returned and told his friends this story, they said that this kind of thing only happens in fiction. “So I wrote a story about it that eventually became my first novel,” he said.
Kothari, whose work concerns Sindhi communities, said that translation was very important to her work. “For me, translation is not merely from one language to another. It is a migration,” she said.
Kothari told the audience the story of what happened when she asked a Sindhi woman who had won an award for her embroidery and had the opportunity to come to Delhi for two days whether she had wanted to sightsee further. The woman’s response, said Kothari, could be inferred as both “It does not behoove us to go.” and “I don’t like it.”
“Is she talking about her own agency or her lack of agency? These are questions of translation, and the personal is never removed from ethnography,” she said.
“I doubted myself, then turned this difficulty into ability.”— Abdourahman A Waberi