educational politics

Make in India and remove Sheldon Pollock from Murty Classical Library, demand 132 intellectuals

Other suggestions are to bring on board traditional practitioners and to develop 'Swadeshi Indology'.

After renowned Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock signed two statements condemning government action against students at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, he is now being targeted by another petition asking that he be removed as general editor of the Murty Classical Library of India.

The Murty Classical Library of India, funded by Rohan Murty, a junior fellow at Harvard University and son of Infosys founder Narayana Murthy, plans to translate ancient texts in several languages including Sanskrit, Telugu, Hindi, Bangla and Pali into English to make them accessible to modern readers. It has published nine books so far.

A group of 132 scholars and intellectuals have signed a petition requesting the project's funder Rohan Murty to invite critics of Pollock for discussion and to align the ambitious translation project with the goals of the government of India.

“Such a historical project would have to be guided and carried out by a team of scholars who not only have proven mastery in the relevant Indian languages, but are also deeply rooted and steeped in the intellectual traditions of India,” the petition said. “They also need to be imbued with a sense of respect and empathy for the greatness of Indian civilization.”

This, the petition argues, cannot be done by Pollock who it states is well-known to have a “deep antipathy towards many of the ideals and values cherished and practiced in our civilization”.

The petition, posted on Friday, had almost 10,000 supporters by Sunday night.

Batting for government

One of Pollock’s perceived missteps, the petition states, is his position condemning policies of the Indian government, particularly his stand against government action at JNU in support of “separatist groups”.

“[It] is crystal clear that Pollock has shown disrespect for the unity and integrity of India,” the petition said. “We submit that such an individual cannot be considered objective and neutral enough to be in charge of your historic translation project.”

Other demands in the petition include aligning the Murty Classical Library of India with the principles of the government’s “‘Make in India’ ethos” and to reconstitute its board to give fair representation to traditional practitioners of the texts being translated.

“The project must be part of the “Make in India” ethos and not outsourced wholesale to American Ivy Leagues,” the petition said. “Just as your visionary role in Infosys showed the world that Indians can be the top producers of IT, so also we urge you to champion the development of Swadeshi Indology.”

Who wants this?

Of 132 signatories, 32 are from Indian Institutes of Technology across India. The petition lists Professor K Ramasubramanian, a Sanskrit scholar and translator at the department of Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT-Bombay as its first signatory. He did not respond to an email request for comment.

Though the majority of the petitioners are faculty members and administrators of universities, there are also a few former and current bureaucrats on the list. This includes N Gopalaswamy, former Chief Election Commissioner of India and current head of the Human Resource Development ministry’s committee on Sanskrit Promotion and CSR Prabhu, former director general of India’s National Informatics Centre.

“The [Murty Classical Library of India] project is very good, but it should be done by someone who knows our civilisation well,” said Varadraj Bapat, a signatory of the petition and a professor at the School of Management at IIT Bombay. “Today modern educated people don’t know Sanskrit, so the right to translate manuscripts should lie with those who really know Sanskrit. Subsequently people will read only the English interpretation, whereas the actual manuscripts will have much deeper meaning.”

Bapat believes that those who have a traditional understanding of texts will be better translators than outsiders.

Selective quotation

Among the sources the petition cites in its case against Pollock is a talk he gave at Heidelberg where he is quoted as having said:

“Are there any decision makers, as they refer to themselves, at universities and foundations who would not agree that, in the cognitive sweepstakes of human history, Western knowledge has won and South Asian knowledge has lost?...That, accordingly, the South Asian knowledge South Asians themselves have produced can no longer be held to have any significant consequences for the future of the human species?”

The petition neglects to note that in this passage Pollock was actually charaterising the arguments made by some sections, not offering his opinion. The petition also fails to cite a later part of the speech where Pollock clarifies that while he does not believe that “South Asia’s contribution is the most important ever made to world knowledge”, the region provides a “record of the achievements of human consciousness, equalled by few other areas of inquiry in its richness and duration, and which thereby allows us to frame strong hypotheses about the nature of that consciousness and the conditions of its transformation.”

Pollock argues:

“I have been privileged to live my life amid this body of thought, and I have glimpsed, or thought I have glimpsed, a vast range of things I would otherwise never have known: relationships of culture and power, for example, that were nothing like those we know in the contemporary world of nationalism and imperialism; forms of vernacular life, such as language ideologies, that constituted, not a compulsion driven by ethnicity, but an accommodation to, literally, the particular ecologies of particular places; a cosmopolitanism that was voluntary rather than compulsory (like, say, Romanization), ethnicities that were fluid (if they existed at all), universalism that managed to co-exist with particularism.”

— 'What is South Asian Knowledge Good For?' ‒ Sheldon Pollock

Rohan Murty did not respond to an email request for comment.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.