Tag Archives: history

The Elephant Stable with its homogenous group of chambers, high arched facade and lofty domed roof is one of the masterpieces of Hampi’s Indo-Islamic architecture.

Temples of Hampi: The Lost Kingdom

From the breezy, cavernous verandah of my guesthouse, the blue waters of Tungabhadra gently wind their way through the desolate landscape strewn with gigantic red and ochre boulders. Over a delightful breakfast of crispy dosas and fluffy idlis, I watch the daily ritual of bathing of Laxmi. She is the resident elephant of the nearby Virupaksha temple. A few minutes earlier, her attendants have ceremonially led her to the river. As the pachyderm rolls around in the shallow riverbed, the sprayed water catches the pale morning light. The scene looks like an ethereal holdover from Hampi’s magnificent, forgotten past.

“I never saw a place like this,” wrote Nicolo de Conti, the Venetian merchant who arrived in Hampi in 1420, the first European to set his eyes on the Vijayanagara empire. Another century would pass before this mighty southern kingdom would reach its pinnacle of glory. In those early years of the 16th century, Hampi was the second-largest city in the world after Beijing, and dripped with a glitzy splendor. Sprawled on the banks of the River Tungabhadra, the city bustled with its bazaars teeming with merchants from different parts of the globe. From the chronicles of these overseas merchants, the opulent palaces, magnificent temples, imposing fortifications, and dainty riverside pavilions of Hampi became the stuff of legend.

The glory was short-lived though. In 1565, an alliance of the Deccan Sultanates invaded. For five months, Hampi was plundered, the majestic monuments were razed and citizens were tortured and bludgeoned. But even this crudest form of mayhem and carnage could not completely obliterate the magnificence that was Hampi.

The still-used Virupaksha temple, a 160-foot-high, cream-white pyramidal structure that nestles intricate columns, stone statuettes, a pillared mandapa, and orange-robed monks silently gliding through the temple’s layered interiors, is my start-off point. From there, I take a walk that takes me down a stony trail along the bank of River Tungabhadra. The 2-km stretch feels like a time warp, marked with rock carvings, natural overhangs, cliffside chambers, and obscure monuments hidden behind huge boulders. It is here I find Hampi at its most primitive, and most evocative with its herd of striped squirrels and droves of monkeys scampering about the random, abandoned structures. About midway along this stretch lies Achyutaraya temple. Time seems to stand still since the days when this grandiose temple complex was built in 1534. The long, covered boulevard that stems off the temple is in crumbling ruins. This was a grand bazaar with shops dealing in pearls, rubies, emeralds, and diamonds. The temple today is a derelict complex of red-capped structures that are now homes to groups of black-faced langoors, but the exquisite carvings of the towers and arched passageways speak of a glorious past.

From Achyutaraya temple, a 15-minute walk takes me to Vittala temple, the eternal symbol of Vijayanagara kingdom. The crowning glory of the Hampi temple circuit mesmerizes me with its architectural brilliance, and its unmatched craftsmanship is reflected none better than in the exquisitely carved musical pillars of the rangamantapa. My guide Shankar shows me around the set of 56 monolithic pillars of the pavilion. He taps gently on one of the fluted columns with a sandalwood stick and a strange thing happens. The pillar emanates an unmistakably rhythmic, musical note that sounds like a faint ringing of a bell. “These are the SaReGaMa pillars.” – Shankar says with an elaborate sweep of his hand. A geological analysis has revealed that these pillars were sculpted from the granite rocks that litter the landscape around Hampi. It was nothing short of a medieval engineering marvel to utilize the resonant properties of the rocks, rich in metallic ore and silica, and turn them into pillars that would not only emit the seven basic notes of Indian classical music but also the higher and deeper pitches of wind and string instruments!

The arched openings of the two-storied Lotus Mahal.
The arched openings of the two-storied Lotus Mahal.

Awestruck, I come out from the semi-dark chamber of the Rangamantapa. Shankar leads me to another architectural marvel inside the Vittala temple complex: the iconic stone chariot. A miniature temple dedicated to Garuda (the carrier of Lord Vishnu), the chariot was immaculately sculpted on a wheeled platform. Legend has it that four wheels of the stone chariot could be made to turn on their axis.

On my second morning in Hampi, I head towards the Queen’s Bath, the 15th-century structure built for the royal women of the Vijayanagara kingdom. Shankar points towards the deep, dry trench that runs around the palace. “It used to be a moat filled with water, and crocodiles.” – he smiles. It was evidently a design to ward off the trespassers as the bathhouse was used by the king’s consorts. The simple exterior of this zenana enclave belies the charm of the dainty interiors. A cool gust of air blows as I walk around the arched corridor that rings the rectangular-shaped pool in the center. The vaulted ceiling still bears traces of exquisite stucco designs. Sitting on one of the ornate balconies that hang over the colossal bath, I try to imagine the heady days of this open-to-the-sky aquatic pool five centuries ago, when it was filled with laughter, frolic, and scented water. 

My next pit stop is Lotus Mahal, the leisure palace of the royal household that also worked as a council chamber of King Krishnadevaraya for his ministerial meetings. The two-storeyed palace stands amid a lush green compound, resplendent with its symmetrically equal projections on four sides. The breezy mahal with its open pavilions, cusped arches, and clusters of decorative panels is a brilliant example of Indo-Islamic architectural style. A short walk away I find the Elephant Stables, a linear building with rows of domed structures – homes of the royal elephants. The large central hall used by troupes of musicians during royal procession has a temple-like tower, while the chambers on both its sides reflect the Islamic architectural motifs and style. 

After a sumptuous lunch at a local eatery that is a typical North Karnataka affair with boiled rice, kosambari ( a salad with dal, fresh cucumber and carrots), sambar, and a tangy, aromatic fish curry, I decide to take a coracle ride. These circular-shaped country boats have been plying on the swirling waters of the Tungabhadra to ferry people since the days of the Vijayanagara Empire. As the coracle moves downstream, I find the ride a delightful way to explore Hampi from a riverine perspective as my helmsman, while deftly negotiating the currents and ravines of the river, delves into the history and architectural details of the temples as they pop into view over the boulder-strewn banks.

 A coracle on River Tungabhadra.
A coracle on River Tungabhadra.

As the slanting rays of the afternoon sun starts lighting up the textures of the rocky hills in a mellow glow, I take a short auto-rickshaw ride to the base of Matanga hill. A 45-minute hike through the stepped ramp that zigzags its way up takes me to the top, the highest point in Hampi. From up here, the vast swathes of granite-strewn landscape that was once one of the richest kingdoms on earth looks magnificent, oozing a crimson glow in the soft light. The architectural wonders dotted across this landscape, untouched by modernity, are now ablaze, their chiseled contours more radiant than ever. And amid that solitary wilderness, I can almost feel that the place is frozen in time. The din and the bustle of the lost empire can come alive at any moment, just the way it had been, more than half a millennium ago.  


Sugato Mukherjee is a  journalist based in Kolkata with bylines in The Globe and Mail, Al Jazeera, Nat Geo Traveller, Fodor’s Travel, Atlas Obscura, Mint Lounge, and The Hindu Business Line, among others. 


 

Cherry Blossom Tree in Sara Garg's front yard.

A Glance at the Raining Flowers, Away From My AP Lecture

Rain is a metaphor in many books and movies. It signifies a baptism, a cleansing, a change. It is said to smell like a thousand different things: roses, grass, smoke, spring. Rain is laughter, rain is peace, rain is tears. Adele sang a song about rain, so did Pitbull and Phil Collins and so many others whose names I can’t remember. In their voices, I’ve listened to the longing of the rain, the screams of the rain, the warm smiles of the rain, and the tippy-tappy feet of the rain. But today, rain is simply beautiful.

The water falls like diamonds from the sky, catching the light and making the front yard of the house glow. The wet grass looks like the plains in the movies where the main characters can lay down as if it’s a bed. This window in my study peers into a world of wonder. 

I want to run outside and be part of the wet, wondrous world, I want to dance in the rain, but I have responsibilities. I look back at my computer, and I get back to AP World History. Rain will come again. 

My little sister gasps, “look outside, Sara,” she tells me, “it’s so pretty.” I look back at the images on my screen: burial mounds as Auschwitz, accounts of the “Rape of Nanjing,” and soldiers lining up for a firing squad. It’s hard to imagine anything pretty after this atrocity. How did the world move on? When the victors wrote the story, was there no mention of the horrors they committed, was there a mass campaign to forget? I sound like a conspiracy theorist and shake my head to clear it, smiling at my sister. I will see the beauty that she does because without that rosy sheen the world becomes a dark place. 

I smile at Savi, nine years old and caught up in the rain. And I humor her, walking over next to her desk. She’s covered it in stickers of hearts and rainbows and a pink nameplate that says “THIS GIRL CAN.” While nine-year-olds are enamored with every little thing about the world, at sixteen, I’m focused on making it to a good college.

In a few years, Savi won’t even remember Austin, the city in Texas we moved from over the summer. I know, because when I moved to Austin from Pittsburgh right around her age, I quickly forgot details, left only with a vague notion of warmth. All I remember is the snow in Pittsburgh, huge puffy pink snow pants, friends I found in our neighbors, experimenting on worms, and evenings spent trying to catch fireflies. 

It’s strange how history repeats itself, a new job, a new home, a new school, and eventually, new memories to replace the old. I left too much in Austin to forget. Austin was where all my friends were, where I diversified my relationships, and where I learned what it meant to grow up. In six years, Savi will be a different person with different experiences. But for now, she’s completely engrossed in the window. She isn’t even thinking about her next class period let alone the next few years. I glance up. 

What a difference those four steps I took to Savi’s desk made. Suddenly, I see rose quartz falling from the sky. The pale pink of a sunset outside the windows. A flurry of springtime snow. And my eyes want to grow larger to take in the whole world right outside that’s pushing its way in. I can almost swear I hear birds. If my life was a movie, a chorus would sing in the background, my hair would fly around my face, and I’d ask, “Is that a different world?” 

Magic can’t hold for long before reality kicks back in.

A petal flies into the window. Light pink and small, and I understand what’s happening. Our front-yard cherry blossom trees bloomed a few days ago, and the hard rain is pushing the petals down to the ground. Even with a logical reason, I can’t help but laugh. It’s raining flower petals. 

In Austin, our front yard was bland. Two big green bushes covered everything and even when they flowered in the spring, their tiny flowers attracted so many bees that we couldn’t truly appreciate it. If I was nine again, I would want to prove that I was better than my friends through empty posturing about having a pretty yard. But now that I have a slice of nature in my yard, I find that I don’t want to share the story of its glory with the world. This will be our memory to cherish.

I watch for a few more moments, looking down at the coating of petals on the ground. I’m enamored of the flower petals. I can’t move. I watch the petals fall, the wind pushing them onto our neighbors’ lawns, then pulling them back onto ours. If fairy tales happened, if princes came, if there is a heaven, they would all look like this. 

“Look, Shiv,” I point my twelve-year-old brother out his window, “It’s raining flowers.” I feel giddy. My smile feels like it could light up the room. He looks away from his computer, his eyes follow my finger, and he smiles too. The big, open smile that only my younger siblings can make. 

“I saw, I’ve been watching it ever since the rain started,” he tells me smiling as he returns to class. Lucky boy, in front of a window all the time. I sit in front of a wall plastered in all of the chemistry notes for the open-note tests. 

I finally tear my eyes away from the window and head back to my desk. But, I’m only half-listening as my teacher talks about the Treaty of Versailles, World War II, and the other legacies of the “Great War.” I’m lucky to be sitting here, the past a distant memory. For me, it’s raining beauty, and for those soldiers, it rained death and chemical warfare. And I wonder what would have happened, if one day, on the bloodied battlefields of the war, it rained flowers instead of bullets. 

My phone rings with the alarm for lunch, startling me into action. I close my laptop, and I run towards the hallway bridge outside my room to look through our giant window. The flowers are still falling, and now I can hear the rain. A torrent that sounds like YouTube Calming soundtracks played at full volume. 

Down the stairs, I turn into Papa’s study. He’s in a meeting with his headphones in, I wave my arms to get his attention and point outside. He smiles and nods, he’s seen the rain. I keep gesturing, and he looks again. His face lights in awe at the pink tornado outside that wants to pull your gaze into its swirling depths and never let it go. 

I loved Austin and felt my heart was tied there by too many strings to ever let go of the past, but I feel my heart making space for the present. Atlanta is where I can look outside and become nine again because it’s raining flowers. 


Sara Garg is a 16-year-old sophomore in high school and a poet. She started writing poetry in 4th grade and hasn’t stopped since. Her works have been read at the Matwaala South Asian Diaspora poetry festival and published in two of the anthologies of Austin International Poetry Festival as well as the Austin Bat Cave 2019 Anthology. She has won multiple awards for her poems including the Youth Poet of the Year Award 2017, Awards of Excellence for her PTA Reflections poems, and her district Young Georgia Writers’ Competition winner. 


 

Jhulelal in Jhulelal Mandir situated in Nadiad (Image from Wikimedia Commons and Under Creative Commons License)

Pallo: Sindhi Poetry to Discover Oral History

Poetry As Sanctuary – A column where we explore poetry as a means of expression for voices of the South Asian Diaspora.

For five years now, I have hosted monthly poetry readings in my living room, which, starting in March 2020, with the onset of the pandemic, transitioned to weekly online meetings by popular request. It has proven to be a sanctuary for us regulars. We read poems in different languages, with impromptu translations, to find shelter in poems. We have read poems to process the major public tragedies in these unusual times, be it the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd and protests in its aftermath, California’s largest wildfires with darkness at noon over San Francisco and ash raining down from the skies, India’s major floods and the largest migration of daily workers who walked from all major Indian cities to their villages, the very divisive presidential election with the prolonged wait for the results, to the history-making Biden-Harris team winning the White House from Trump, and beyond. Thanks to the patient listening and open minds, we have grown closer and our personal experiences are also shared through the poems we read.

In July 2020, I suffered a personal tragedy, as my mother passed away in India. As an only child, it was especially hard to not be near her as she bid farewell to this life. The strong independent woman she was, she had made plans for her mortal remains to be donated to the local hospital for the cause of science. Due to COVID restrictions, the hospitals were no longer accepting cadavers. My maasi’s daughter and her son, and their spouses, took care of the last rites. My grief was expressed in the poetry circle as I sang an old Sindhi prayer that I first heard as a child from my grandmother. It is an aarti, sung at the end of most prayer rituals in Sindhi households. We call it pallo as we sing it while holding open a scarf or end of a saree or hands open in front of the body, in supplication. The ‘pallo starts with…

Pallo payan ti maan Zinda-Pir te

Muhenji bedi athayee vich seer te  

Pallo payan ti maan Zinda-Pir te

Baasiyu baasan ti maan Zinda-Pir te

 

Jyotin-wara Lal-Odera

Kayee kan ta, to dar phera

Tuhenje meher ameer fakir te

 

I am seeking at Zinda-Pir

My boat is mid-stream

I am seeking at Zinda-Pir

Wishing for my wishes at Zinda-Pir

 

O enlighted Lal-Odera

Many come seeking at your door

For your blessings, the rich and the poor

Sindhi is spoken mostly by Sindhis living in Sindh, Pakistan. The majority of them are Muslims as the Hindu Sindhis, like all four of my grandparents, migrated to India in 1947, due to the partition of the country. My parents were about ten years old as they became child refugees in India. Their generation assimilated by adopting the local languages and customs, and by inter-marrying people of different faiths and languages. The partition destroyed the rich cultural and literary heritage of Sindhis as we became displaced people. My mother was the only person I could speak in Sindhi with. With her passing the reality of Sindhi as a dying language hits home personally. Most of my cousins can’t even speak it, and I never learned to read or write it. It is written in the Arabic script and growing up in Delhi, there was no access to learning it in school or elsewhere. 

As I sang the pallo, one of the poets in our circle, who reads extensively in Urdu, another language written in Arabic script, told me about Shah Latif, the best-known poet of Sindh. A classic book of his poems, Latif-jo-Rassolo, was published in 1866, almost 100 years after he passed away. With curiosity aroused and information a few clicks away, I discovered so much about the land of my ancestors and Sindhi culture that I might never have otherwise.

For example, I always knew that we Sindhis worship Jhulelal, the river god, who is depicted sitting on a fish. That seemed fitting for a people named after the river Sindhu, called Indus in English, that flows through Sindh. Sindhis have been global traders from the times when rivers were the highways and boats were planes. The typical Sindhi greeting ‘bedo paar’ literally means ‘may your boat land safely’. 

What I never knew was that Jhulelal is a poet who lived in the mid-tenth century. He is called by many other names, such as Lal Sai (because he wore red robes), Odero Lal (Flying one, as he traveled a lot), Zinda-Pir (Living Saint), Sheikh Tahir, Shahbaz Kalandar, amongst them. He is part of the rich Sufi tradition, that originated in Sindh. The richness of the culture is hinted at in the fact that India is named after a bastardization of Indus, the land of the ancient Indus Valley civilization.

One of the major archeological sites of that ancient civilization, called Mohan-jo-Daro, is simply Sindhi for Mound-of-the-Dead. The locals knew of it always, way before the British engineers trying to lay the railroad through the soft sand of Sindh were led to it, to steal and reuse the 5000+ year old bricks from the Great Wall of Sindh, to stabilize the sand for 90 miles of railroad tracks to be laid on it. To this day, the shrine of Odero Lal in Sindh is one of the few places where Hindus and Muslims continue to pray together under the same roof.

I have sung the pallo many times in my life, but only now deciphered the coded message in it. Today Zinda-Pir would be considered a Muslim name and Odero-Lal a Hindu name, but in the song, we seek blessings from the same poet, best known as Jhulelal, the Sindhi God. The most popular song that every qwaali concert ends with, when everyone dances, is an ode to Jhulelal, Dum-a-dum Mast Qalandar, made popular in the 70s by Bangladeshi singer Runa Laila, but also sung by Abida Parveen, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Fareed Ayaz, and many others that continues to build bridges of love as iconic singers from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India continue to sing it to appreciative audiences. Breathing life into poetry by reading it out loud to patient listeners revives this almost-extinct message of love, much needed in these troubled times. 


Dr. Jyoti Bachani is a poetry-loving business professor as sanctuary is a monthly column curated by me, written by different poets and poetry lovers who meet weekly to read poems to each other in a group that organizes itself using the Facebook page Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley group. 


 

Top: Photograph of indentured Indian labourers at Spring Garden Buildings. Jamaica, 1880 (Image from the National Archive); Bottom: Contrabands at headquarters of Gen. Lafayette, 1862. Contrabands was an expression coined by Gen. Benjamin F. Butler to describe escaped slaves (Photo by Mathew B. Brady courtesy Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library/Yale University via Wikimedia Commons)

Juneteenth Isn’t Enough: How Indian-Americans Can Use Their Pasts to Help Another Present

Though empires abolished slavery in the Caribbean islands during the 1830s, their move to the model of indentured servitude wasn’t much better. From 1838 to 1917, western European governments transported over 500,000 Indian indentured servants to work on their plantations in the Caribbean. Some were brought unwillingly and others consented to their servitude, however, most servants were not made aware of the horrific conditions and treatment that they would face. Really, the “indentured servitude” model that colonizers granted Indian laborers was a fancy word for slavery.

During the same time period, on January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation – enslaved individuals in the Confederate States had been freed. Unfortunately, even a document as official as the Emancipation Proclamation was flawed and freedom for all enslaved people would come only after the ratification of the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865.

In a Confederate state like Texas, the power balance between the state and federal governments meant that Texas’ leaders could decide if they wanted to put the document into effect. Finally, on June 19, 1865 – hence the term “Juneteenth” – 2,000 Union troops invaded Galveston Bay, Texas, officially declaring freedom for all enslaved Texans.  “Juneteenth” marks the day that Black Texans gained freedom – the last state to adopt the Emancipation Proclamation in America.

Two centuries later, Juneteenth just became recognized as a federal holiday in the United States. July 4th may stand as the country’s day of independence from Great Britain, but Juneteenth stands as the country’s second independence day in recognition of freedom for all citizens. 

Similarly, India may be politically independent, but colonization still manifests itself in subtle ways. In fact, Raja Masood, an associate professor of postcolonial literature and theory, notes that “children are still taught to write an application using words and phrases that endorse a colonial mentality such as “Yours obediently” or “Your obedient servant.” Think of the word “boss” commonly used in the Caribbean and Asian communities. How about the titles Maiam (Madam) and Saab (Sir)? My English professor said, “Don’t call me sir, call me Mike.” Students in India and Pakistan are taught primarily in English and almost every school teaches the language as if it’s their native tongue.

Indian huts on a sugar plantation near Port Louis in Mauritius. (Image by Frederick Fiebig from the British Library)
Indian huts on a sugar plantation near Port Louis in Mauritius. (Image by Frederick Fiebig from the British Library)

Classism and casteism were amplified outcomes of colonization in India. In fact, the stratification and division that colonization brought to India pre-Partition, remains part of Indian ideology and society. Colonization has, also, pushed Indians to disassociate from Black people. The British, having created stratified structures, pit minorities against one another, “us” versus “them,” and unlearning this behavior has been harder than learning it.

June 19th, recognized as the day that slaves gained their freedom, also recognizes that Black people are still fighting for equality and justice. The murders of Black Americans such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are clear signs that anti-Blackness is ever prevalent and detrimental in society today. As Indian Americans, how can we use our riddled history to empathize with the plight of minorities in America?

Inter-minority division feels illogical. We often talk about the atrocities that slavery and colonization individually brought, but what we recognize less are the parallels between them. These parallels are proof that hegemonic institutions have inflicted trauma on a range of minorities. The treatment, which both the Indian slaves and African American slaves endured, was horrendous and, unfortunately, very similar. The governing bodies of both India and the United States exploited people for their own benefit.

Bibee Zuhoorun was one of the many laborers who was made to work in the Caribbean. She shares her testimony in an ongoing investigation on the India indenture trade. Zuhoorun says, “the injustice meted out to fellow labourers – a story of overworked men subjected to ill-treatment and corporal punishment. Labourers were often confined within plantations and denied wages if they refused to work. She felt stuck in a foreign land.” Zuhoorun was one of many.

Women were kidnapped off of the streets in India and brought to the Caribbean islands for the Indian male laborers. Kalyani Srinivas, a resident of the Bay Area and a person of Indian-Trinidadian descent, emphatically states, “Isn’t it a travesty that history misrepresents the blatant slave trade of Indians to the Caribbeans. My great-great grandmother was 16 and holding her child in India when she was taken forcibly by the British to Trinidad. She was brought as incentive for indentured male workers.” 

Sexual harassment was a common occurrence and Zuhoorun didn’t receive wages for 2.5 years of her labor. Britain profited largely off of the East India Company and did more harm than good; the British ran the company logistics and financials, and Indians did not get authority nor benefits from the company.  

Contrastingly, I note the words of Fountain Hughes, a slave who was interviewed in 1949 and whose words have been archived by the United States Congress. His story is long, but he emphasizes the idea that the slaves were alone, and the conditions they existed in were not worth living for. He says: “we, no more money, but course they bought more stuff and more property and all like that. We didn’t have no property. We didn’t have no home. We had nowhere or nothing. We didn’t have nothing only just, uh, like your cattle, we were just turned out. And uh, get along the best you could. Nobody to look after us. Well, we been slaves all our lives.” 

Worse of all is the similarity in the devastating number of casualties that both races faced. An estimated 35 million in casualties is said to have come from the irresponsible rule of the British in India and at least 17 million people died as a result of slavery and slave trade. Both times, abuse of power took the lives of millions of innocent citizens. Both times, these casualties were avoidable. 

Our shared narratives have been erased, omitted, and forgotten in written history. Let us remember that Indian-Americans are not far removed from their history of slavery and colonialism.

This year has brought about obstacles for the AAPI community. In fact, AAPI hate is running rampant our society, and in standing up for the AAPI and Black community, we create a united front – one that is stronger than any individual alone. 

Juneteenth is a day to celebrate the freedom of African American slaves, and for Indian-Americans, it is a day to reflect on our ancestry and shared trauma to empower others in our community.


Ayanna Gandhi is an 11th grader at Castilleja School in Palo Alto, California. She has a deep interest in writing and reading but also enjoys politics, singing, and sports of all kinds. 

Srishti Prabha is the Managing Editor at India Currents and has worked in low-income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.


 

Film, 'If I Go, Where Do I Go?' at BAMPFA.

Berkeley’s Film Archive Diversifies History With Films by Amit Dutta

“Cinema becomes a way of searching and learning through culture, history, music, beauty and eventually truth.” — Amit Dutta, Many Questions to Myself

UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) is UC Berkeley’s resource for artistic resources and serves the broader Bay Area population. Their mission is to create dialogue and community engagement through art mediums on local and global topics.

In pursuit of diversity in history, BAMPFA is showcasing Indian filmmaker and writer Amit Dutta. Dutta is known for his distinctive cinema through deep explorations of India’s artistic, literary, and cultural traditions, both contemporary and historical.

His recent shorts and features, including the premiere of If I Go, Where Do I Go?, on his five visits with Hindi experimental writer Krishna Baldev Vaid, are now available for viewing on BAMFA’s website.

Dutta’s landmark film Nainsukh, on the eighteenth-century painter, is also a part of the series. The 2010 film first took Dutta back to the Kangra Valley near his childhood home, a land from which he has since drawn much of his inspiration. Dutta, who characterizes his films as research- and process-based, notes: “I became very interested in indigenous knowledge systems and the workings of tribal/folk and classical modes. How could these systems produce such stunning works? What was the source?”

Shambhavi Kaul describes his varied films as “travers[ing] genres, moving effortlessly from crafted scenario to spontaneous encounter, from mindful self-reflexivity to ghostly magic.”

Whether in sensuous tracking shots of past paintings on gallery walls or ancient sculptures in their original setting; animations of artworks that reveal their underlying effects; moments of improvised acting; or expeditions and visits with unanticipated results, Dutta’s evocative films find new and beautiful expression in dialogue with their subjects.

This isn’t the first time Dutta has been featured by BAMPFA. In 2017, BAMPFA presented several of Dutta’s films on Indian art in conjunction with the exhibition Divine Visions, Earthly Pleasures: Five Hundred Years of Indian Painting. View artworks from the BAMPFA collection in the exhibition brochure, written by guest curator Robert Del Bontà.


Srishti Prabha is the Managing Editor at India Currents and has worked in low-income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.


 

BET Island: An Untouched Gem

The Cultured Traveler – A column exploring the many miles of what South Asia has to offer.

If you appreciate the vastness of the sea, boat rides, and heritage temples of India, then this place is for you. A place where you feel immersed in serenity one moment and the adventure in the next. 

Okha is a small coastal town in the Dwarka district of Gujarat. It is surrounded by the sea on three sides and has a sandy beach on the Arabian Sea coast. BET Dwarka Island situated 3 km across a small creek from Okha port and reached by ferry, which was a memorable experience for me.  For the about 20-minute journey, you only have to pay Rs 20 per person. If you want to hire a personal boat, you will have to shell out Rs 4000.

For me, amidst the clean blue sky, hovering seagulls, and the coos of birds, the soothing cool breeze was like a tranquilizer.

Indeed, Bet Dwarka is a magical, beautiful, untouched, and enchanting island. This is a place on the western coast of India where I get the opportunity to see both the sunrise and sunset from the ocean. It is a lifetime memory. The long stretch of the Bet Dwarka beach is perfect for a long walk. The best part was that I did not find a lot of commercial activities here and it might be because Bet Dwarka beach was the first in Gujarat that the Government earmarked for eco-tourism development.

BET Dwarka Ports

Archaeological Importance 

The place derived its name from the ‘bhent’ or gift that Lord Krishna received at this place from his friend Sudama. The island is also called Shankhodhar as it is dotted with a huge number and variety of conch shells. Archaeological remains found under the sea suggest that there were settlements of the Harappan civilization from the Late Harappan Period or immediately after it, from the Indus Valley Civilization. It was an important shell-working center during the Harappan period. During the explorations in and around Bet Dwarka, a large number of antiquities of late Harappan period which include pottery, a seal, coins, etc, were found.

That is the reason Bet Dwarka has always stirred the curiosity of archaeologists. Probably because of the mythical claim that points that this place had been Lord Krishna’s original house in the yesteryears. 

Ferries going to and from Okha to Bet Dwarka Island.

The Beauty of Nature 

While getting to the jetty to board the boat, I saw people selling packets of bird feed. Not knowing why, I also bought some packets. And as soon as the boat left, seagulls flocked to the boat for the feed that’s in our hand. It’s was an incredible experience to see the gulls flying extremely low at such close range and even picking the feed from your palm. After getting down at the jetty, I walked for nearly 700 meters to reach the Lord Krishna temple. I saw hand-pulled trollies taking elderly persons to the temple. The main temple which closes at 12 noon, is believed to be built by Rukmini, wife of Lord Krishna. This is the place where Mirabai, the devotee of Krishna, disappeared at the feet of the Lord’s idol.

Sri Keshavrai Ji Temple in BET Dwarka Island.

Story of Sudhama and His Gift

The main temple here is Sri Keshavrai Ji Temple. Interestingly, here the idol holds the shankha (conch) in an oblique position. The temple is like a palace, built in pink limestone and filled with carvings. Small shrines are built for every queen of Krishna. Rukmani who is believed to have carved the idol here is not found, instead, Satyabhama, the second wife of Krishna, is very prominent here.

Devotees offer ‘rice’ here, which reminds one of the legendary tale that tells how Sudama, a friend of Krishna, had bought him ‘rice’ as a gift. 

When Sudama decided to seek Krishna’s help, to come out from his poverty, his wife packed him a handful of Poha to offer to the Lord. Sudama was hesitant about how to give his gift to Krishna. Krishna asked what gift his friend has brought for him. Sudama tried to hide it but Krishna took it and ate the Poha and offered it to his wife. Sudama returned without asking for help. But a surprise awaited him back home! Instead of his broken hut, there stood a palace and his wife and children were dressed in expensive clothes. That’s when he realized of Lord Krishna’s magical powers.

Other Shrines 

Apart from the main temple, there are various small shrines dedicated to Radha, Rukmani, Jambavati, Lakshmi-Narayan, Devki, Matsya form of Lord Vishnu, and many more. Hanuman Dandi temple of Bet Dwarka enshrines idols of Lord Hanuman and that of Makardhwaja – Hanuman’s son. According to myths, a drop of sweat from Hanuman Ji’s body was gulped by a fish who later delivered a son known by the name of Makardhwaja. Interestingly, the Bet Dwarka region has two Dargahs – Sidi Bawa Peer Dargah an Hajo Kirmil Dargah.  

Mobile phones and cameras are not allowed inside the temple, so better leave either in the hotel or you will have to keep them in the lockers specially made for this purpose.


Suman Bajpai is a freelance writer, journalist, editor, translator, traveler, and storyteller based in Delhi. She has written more than 10 books on different subjects and translated around 130 books from English to Hindi. 


 

Decoding the Significance of Indian-American Heritage

One of our seven beloved grandchildren asked the other day, “How do you say ‘reception’ in Indian?” She needed the information for her school paper, Growing up in a Multicultural Family.

A few months ago, another granddaughter had asked, “Has anyone in our family invented something?” for her high school paper.

The significance of Indian American heritage can be decoded through an understanding of “reason” and its limitations.

The renowned eighteenth-century philosopher, Immanuel Kant would say, “All knowledge flows from the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.

The world continues to subscribe to the philosophy of Kant.

Science, six sigma, policies, laws & regulations, and the like are products of reason. America excels in the products of reason. Most Nobel prizes go to Americans and America is home to top-notch technologies, products, and services.

In spite of these incredible accomplishments, why then has America not been able to tackle racial disharmony for over a century?

The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution abolished slavery in 1865 and a host of newer laws, policies, rules, and regulations have been adopted since then, including the 1965 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, or national origin.

Racism persists because the nation is limiting its pursuits to the products of reason, but the solution is not to be found there.

Swami Vivekananda was an Indian monk revered in his native land and widely respected in the United States. Asserts Vivekananda, “Indian thought dares to seek, and successfully finds, something higher than reason.”

Swami Vivekananda’s wisdom can be proved.

Intuition is immediate cognition without the benefit of the five senses and the rational mind. Perfect intuition translates into the capacity to discern truth from falsehood. We all have a certain level of intuition, but the accuracy is generally too low to be of any practical value.

How does one discover something higher than reason? Obviously, one cannot use reason itself for such an inquiry.

Seers have left behind clues in the form of discoveries over millennia that couldn’t have been sourced from previous knowledge, and in every case, the process used is meditation, known for thousands of years.

As an example, the four Vedas are the most ancient scriptures of humanity. Their knowledge and wisdom couldn’t have been sourced from previous knowledge as there was none. This is why they are referred to as “revealed” (Shruti).

Another example, physics realizes that the universe came into existence pursuant to a big bang moment 13.8 billion years ago when it was an incredibly small energy phase (10-33 cm in diameter), unbelievably hot and immensely dense. Physics realizes too that on the other side of the big bang, there was absolutely nothing, a void.

How did “nothing” transform into the energy phase of the big bang? No product of reason has an explanation, and the explanation they do have is fraught with inconsistencies and paradoxes.

Inspired by Indian wisdom, my friend and associate physician turned theoretical physicist, Jim Kowall found the answer: “Consciousness of the void created the universe”.

How did seers know that meditation is the route to progress? They cite their Guru as their source, but how did their Guru know it? If you keep going back, you will eventually run out of Gurus, and then the question is, where did the first sage get the knowledge?

This is where the inquiry comes to an end, and the belief in God exponentially increases.

Meditation also brings about a rise in internal excellence, inducing positive changes from within. And this hypothesis can be tested as internal excellence can be measured.

Internal excellence has nothing to do with race, religion, gender, political affiliation, or national origin.

A rise in internal excellence is accompanied by a rise in positive emotions (love, kindness, empathy, compassion) and a fall in negative emotions (anger, hatred, hostility, resentment, frustration, jealousy, anxiety, despair, fear, sorrow, and the like).

So, society needs to do meditation to bring about a rise in racial harmony and a fall in societal discord. Who would have thought? 

Relatedly, the best performance results when the best products of reason are combined with a program to enhance internal excellence

The ancient contributions notwithstanding, science is the appropriate body of knowledge to use when the system fundamentals are well understood. When they are not, but measurements are available, data-driven methodologies such as six sigma are appropriate. When system fundamentals are not well understood and measurements are not available, then enhancing one’s focus of attention as with meditation, remains the only route to new discoveries. Take care though, discoveries made this way must nonetheless meet the rigor of logical scrutiny.

Remember, transcending reason may well produce new knowledge, but once produced, it is subject to all the constraints reason imposes on all knowledge.

This in a nutshell is the significance of Indian American heritage. American heritage provides the best products of reason, while Indian heritage suggests that transcending the bondage of reason is the only route to further progress and teaches how.

Indian American heritage has the capacity to make a substantial contribution toward a better and more peaceful nation and world. These ideas should be front-and-center in the conversations to further strengthen US-India strategic partnership.


Pradeep B. Deshpande is an Indian-American academic in America for fifty-five years. He has interacted with Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi and P. V. Narasimha Rao, a friend and associate of his late father in the freedom struggle.

Acknowledgments. This article is written with the blessings of H. H. Gurumahan, Founder, Universal Peace Foundation, Thirumoorthy Hills, Tamil Nadu, India.


 

Why Madhubani? Find Out At Our Free Workshop!

Why Madhubani Art?

Madhubani literally means ‘forests of honey’ and refers to paintings in a distinct style that captures viewers’ attention with their vibrancy. ‘Madhubani’, is a folk art handed down over thousands of years from the times of Ramayana. Tradition states that King Janak of Mithila commissioned artists to make paintings for the wedding of his daughter, Sita, to Lord Ram. The womenfolk of the village drew the paintings on the walls of their home as an illustration of their thoughts, hopes, and dreams.

With time, the paintings became a part of festivities and special events. It was unknown to the outside world until the massive Bihar earthquake of 1934. House walls had tumbled down, and the British colonial officer in Madhubani District, William G. Archer, inspecting the damage, ‘discovered’ the paintings on the newly exposed interior walls of homes. Archer was stunned by the beauty of the paintings and their similarities to the work of modern Western artists like Klee, Miro, and Picasso. Slowly and gradually, Madhubani paintings from Bihar, India, crossed the traditional boundaries and started reaching connoisseurs of art at the national as well as the international level. 

Madhubani paintings, done in villages around the present town of Madhubani, were usually done on freshly plastered mud walls of huts. These paintings use two-dimensional imagery, and the colors used are derived from plants. Traditional themes generally revolve around Hindu deities like Krishna, Ram, Shiva, Durga, Lakshmi, and Saraswati. The paintings also depict natural objects, like the sun and moon, and religious plants, like tulsi (holy basil). Other motifs include scenes from the royal court and social events, apart from activities from daily life. 

Madhubani is a unique folk art that is said to beckon the gods every morning who comes invisibly to the household to bless the members of the family and to bring prosperity. Hence my fascination with it!

About Bandiworks and Me

I’m a multi-disciplinary artist who enjoys engaging with folk art from across the world – with a special focus on India. The idea is to share with people the simplicity of these creative forms and my love for them – I find them so empowering. I design and conduct experiential workshops for all age groups, giving a contemporary bent to heritage Arts and Crafts. 

At Bandiworks, one of the artforms we worked with extensively is ‘Madhubani’ of Bihar. We have adapted this folk art to create contemporary custom-made articles of use as well as curated paired experiences which introduce you to Madhubani in different settings. Be it along with the traditional food of Bihar, the Dashavatar rendition in Kathak, or the intricate folds of Origami. This juxtaposition makes for thought-provoking forms of expression and gives rise to unexpected conversations.

India Currents and Bandiworks Connects

Join me, in collaboration with India Currents, for a free LIVE Madhubani drawing workshop on March 31st at 6:30pm PDT and 9:30pm EDT.

Sign up for the event here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/146816172123

Join us from anywhere in the world to celebrate Holi and draw Madhubani art.

This event is for all ages and will run as a 1.5 hr online workshop on Zoom.

No previous drawing skills required!!

You will walk away with the knowledge of an age-old traditional art form, appreciation for it because you’ve drawn it yourself, and an hour of relaxation and fun – much needed during these times.

Materials Required:

  • A4 sized paper (Thicker is better. Handmade paper if you have access to it)
  • Fine tipped gel/fibre tipped pens in black and red (fine-tipped sharpies)

Look forward to seeing you all there!


Bandana Agarwal is passionate about folk art from around the world and hopes to make it accessible!

India’s Military Campaigns Beyond Her Boundaries

We often hear that Indian rulers throughout history never invaded other countries – never established colonies in foreign lands.  The above statements are made, no doubt, to extol the virtues of our Hindu/Buddhist civilization – its emphasis on high philosophy, a penchant for peace, and deep-rooted spiritual (as opposed to materialistic) values. History generally bears out the validity of these statements. There are, however, some very notable exceptions.

The earliest example of foreign invasion (to Lanka) comes from Ramayana, whose historicity is, at best, questionable. But we cannot deny that the ethos for foreign invasions clearly finds favor in Ramayana. Of course, gods like Rama are judged differently from mere mortals like us. Then, there is in a famous Bengali poem, the legend of Vijaysingha, a prince from Bengal, subjugating the same Lanka (a favorite whipping boy, it seems) and rechristened it Simhala. A similar legend, I am told, exists in Sri Lanka that Prince Vijay came from somewhere in India and conquered Lanka. The historicity of this conquest, I gather, has not gotten universal approval from established historians. However, reverence for his exploits have withstood the test of time, thereby indicating our support for such endeavors, quite at variance with the ethos of non-aggression outside our borders.

Moving down in time, and based on firmer historical evidence, we find the great Maurya Empire of Chandragupta, Bindusara, and Asoka (322 BCE to 232 BCE) extending in the northwest into what is now Afghanistan and Balochistan and into the borders of Persia (Iran). In 305 BCE, Chandragupta Maurya led a series of campaigns to capture the satrapies left behind by Alexander the Great when he returned westwards. Seleucus I Nicator fought to defend these territories. Both sides made peace in 303 BCE with a treaty that gave Chandragupta control of the regions he sought, while Seleucus was given 500 highly valued war elephants in exchange. A map of Chandragupta’s empire in 320 BC (Figure 1) indicates that it included the entire present-day Balochistan under Pakistan and extending up to the southeastern end of present-day Afghanistan, including Gandhara, Kandahar, and Kabul Valley.  

Chandragupta Empire (Figure 1) from mapsofindia.com

King Asoka the Great made further additions to his empire in the northwest. A map of Asoka’s empire in 265 BCE (Figure 2) shows it to include entire present-day Afghanistan encroaching into the southeastern reaches of present-day Turkmenistan. Also, his empire expanded further across the Pakistani border in Balochistan into the eastern reaches of present-day Iran.  

Ashoka’s Empire (Figure 2) from mapsofindia.com

Thereafter, there is a mention of Hindu Shahis as rulers of Gandhara and Kabul Valley from 850 to 1026 CE.  There is little mention of Hindu Shahis in Indian history about their origins. It appears that the dynasty was set up by a minister of the Kabul Shahi dynasty by usurping its existing ruler. The Hindu Shahis had a tenuous existence with the local Saffarids and Samanids.  The Samanids captured Kabul around 900 CE, but the Hindu Shahis continued in the Gandhara till they were conquered by Mahmud of Ghazni.  

Probably the most stunning examples of campaigns outside the traditional borders of India are the naval exploits of the Chola kings of South India, Raja Raja Chola (reigned 985-1014), and his son Rajendra Chola (reigned 1014-1044). Raja Raja Chola’s naval forces captured the northern part of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and also subjugated the Maldive Islands. His son Rajendra’s naval campaigns were even more impressive.  He captured the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and brought the whole island of Ceylon under his control by imprisoning their king, Mahinda.  In 1025 CE, Rajendra led Chola forces across the Indian Ocean and invaded the Srivijaya kingdom, attacking several places in Malaysia and Indonesia.  This was surely a unique event in the annals of Indian history. The Cholas sacked Kadaram (the capital) and Pannai in Sumatra and Malaiyur in Indonesia. Rajendra also invaded Tambralinga, the Langkasuka Kingdom in modern Malaysia, and south Thailand. The Chola forces captured the last ruler of the Sailendra Dynasty, Sangrama Vijayatunggavarman. The Chola invasion engendered the end of the Srivajaya empire, whose maritime power declined under Chola attack. After this, the Cholas conquered large portions of Srivijaya Kingdom, including its ports of LigorKedah, and Tumask (now Singapore).  For the next century, Tamil trading companies from southern India dominated Southeast Asia. A map showing the Chola kingdom in 1030 CE is presented in Figure 3.

Chola Empire (Figure 3) from Wikimedia Commons

The Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s disastrous encounters with the Uzbeks in 1645-1647 should perhaps be mentioned. The Emperor was possibly driven by his dreams of recapturing the Mughals’ ancestral homelands in those parts. It was the only time in recorded history that an India-based power ventured across the Hindu Kush to annex a Central Asian territory. Shah Jahan himself moved to Kabul to oversee the operations and two of his sons, Murad and Aurungzeb were involved in various phases. The war ended in a status quo with the Hindu Kush remaining as the western border of the Mughal empire. The Mughals suffered heavy losses in the campaigns, both financially and in manpower, a lot of it due to severe weather conditions.

Finally, there was the Sikh empire of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839 CE), which extended from Khyber Pass in the west to western Tibet in the east.  Ranjit Singh had several encounters with the Afghans in the borders, starting from 1823 with the defeat of a large army of Yusufzai north of the Kabul River. The Battle of Jamrud and his march through Kabul in 1838, in cooperation with the colonial British army stationed in Sindh, became the last confrontation between the Sikhs led by him and the Afghans. It helped extend and establish the western boundaries of the Sikh Empire. In 1838, Ranjit Singh with his troops marched into Kabul to take part in the victory parade along with the British after restoring Shah Shoja to the Afghan throne at Kabul. The Maharaja’s general, Zorowar Singh, after successful campaigns to Ladakh, Gilgit, and Baltistan, marched into Tibet in 1841 at the head of a large army and fought successfully with the Chinese Qing forces. Within six months, he had conquered territory to the northwest of the Mayyum Pass.  But then a strong Tibetan army descended down from Lhasa. He fought many a pitched action in the vicinity of Lake Manasarovar and was killed in the last one of these on December 12, 1841. A map showing the Sikh Empire from 1799 to 1849 is presented in Figure 4.

Sikh Empire (Figure 4) from mapsofindia.com

I contend that there are many more reasons for the relatively small number of incidences of Indian invasions beyond traditional borders other than our Hindu/Buddhist ethos. One principal reason could be that over the years, India, unlike China, has had few very powerful kings with large empires. It is self-evident that unless one’s kingdom reached the borders of India, the intervening territory had to be subjugated before venturing across the borders. Besides, the kings were kept busy fighting their neighboring kings as well as usurpers in their own kingdoms.

India’s geography – the high mountains in the north and seas around the peninsular south – there was a further deterrent to potential ambitions of Indian kings regarding campaigns beyond the borders. The high altitudes of the Himalayas and the very cold climates for much of the year were always formidable obstacles to overcome. And campaigns across the seas required significant development of naval technologies yet to come. It is perhaps no accident that the great European colonies of Britain, France, Holland, Portugal, and Spain in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, all sprouted after the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries with the advent of newer naval developments.


Partha Sircar has a BE in Civil Engineering from Bengal Engineering College in Shibpur, India, and a Ph.D. in Geotechnical Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley.  He is a 53-year resident of the United States, including the last 36 years in California. He has worked in several engineering organizations over the years and is now retired for over eight years.  He loves to write.

Reena Kapoor’s Poetry Is a Nostalgia Trip Of Places Untraveled

What makes you a poet?

Reena Kapoor’s debut book of poetry, Arrivals & Departures: Journeys in Poems makes this question even more relevant. Consider poetry a result of meditation, of thoughts, ideas, and memories that collect in the mind through observation. Reena grew up crisscrossing India as her father was a doctor in the Indian army. Her educational path is, like her poetry, quite diverse. She earned an undergraduate degree in Engineering from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, a Master’s from Northwestern University, and works as a software product leader in Silicon Valley. Kapoor’s debut poetry collection is thematically divided into sections interspersed with photographs she took. These images seamlessly connect her poetic utterance with passionate understanding. Recently I caught up with Reena Kapoor, a Bay Area resident, over email to pick her brains about her beautiful bouquet of poems and pictures. 

IC: Arrivals & Departures is your debut poetry collection. What role did nostalgia play in putting this book together if any and how?

I am an immigrant and a traveler.  And grew up as such – my father was a doctor in the Indian army and I grew up living all over India. In fact, I attended about 8 schools through high school, and call myself a “musafir” which is the Hindi/Urdu word for a traveler. Nostalgia plays a big role in my written word both due to my life circumstances and I guess to some extent life stage. Something about middle age and you start to see your life as it has been and how it’s brought you where you are. So looking back becomes much more natural vs. being younger where a solitary focus on the future is more apt and natural. My poems also express a “nostalgia” of sorts for what I don’t actually remember, ironically e.g., “koel” talks about the songbird that reminds me of childhood but the home is my parents’ current home which I did not grow up in but it still feels like mine…

IC: My reading of your collection introduced me to multiple themes, and a speaker addressing different voices. Can you talk about the various themes there are in your work, and how they interact with each other? 

The themes in my work are multiple but they tie back to me, my life experiences and my take on life, and how to live a good one. A lot of what I say has to do with how I grew up, (what it was and I guess to some extent IS like) being a girl/ woman in India and then my own very personal attachments to people and interests and objects that hold enduring meaning for me.

IC: I quite like the interdisciplinary play of images and words, where sometimes the image is a poetic utterance itself. What was your process like in putting this unique book together? What do you want your audience to take away from it? 

This is perhaps the hardest question for me – one that I get a lot of but one that I am pretty much at a loss to answer i.e., the “how” of writing my poems. The pen moves and I follow. I am led by an inner voice that I can’t turn away. When it arrives, I am compelled by words that spill out. I may polish or refine those words later but the initial and main body of the work almost creates itself. I guess it’s probably a given that I can’t “teach” poetry because the “how” of it is so elusive to me. 

These poems have been “coming” to me for over a decade now and I finally found the quiet space to listen and put them down. But it was really my husband who pushed me to publish my work. I was plagued by the usual self-doubt that I guess many writers face – and I still do – as to who would be interested in my words or my ordinary life? The fact that even a few of my friends and loved ones have found some resonance in my poems has been one of my most precious gifts.

IC: You are not just a poet. With degrees from IIT, Northwestern, a keen interest in photography, theatre, and performance as well, did these other aspects of your creativity influence your writing, and if yes how did that come about? 

Becoming an engineer was a practical and financial choice. I liked Math and Physics. And I came from a middle-class family in India where my parents emphasized the importance of being financially independent — especially for women. In those days in India, you could choose to be a doctor, or an engineer or a loser. So I ended up in IIT. I was always active in theatre and continued this pursuit through college and my early working years in the US. Photography came to me later with the iPhone 3…and the iPhone has continued to be my camera of choice. And Poetry came about the same time that I started capturing photos. I guess some latent creative impulses were clamoring for expression all along but I could only hear them once I felt a little more “settled”, a little more free, and in some ways liberated from my own expectations of “success”. It’s been a wonderful path and I am still loving every minute of it. My very first play “Art of the Possible” was played online recently and I am actively writing more theatre and literary pieces that will hopefully be produced soon. 

IC: Every day before I sit to write, I like to read something that I love, irrespective of the genre. What inspires you to write? 

The human condition. Nothing more or less. Why are we this way and what moves us and why? Finding happiness and meaning in the smallest of things is all there really is — yet it is also the human condition to chase so much else for naught; so much prestige, empty adulation, status, endless wealth yet most of which often leaves the traveler feeling alone and empty. Yet the chase becomes a life. Why? Eternal questions and I am not sure I will ever have answers. But the pursuit of such questions moves me and such learning is what I seek.


Dr. Manisha Sharma is a poet, fiction writer, and yoga teacher passionate about social issues in India. Her work is longlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, a finalist for the 2020 Cream City Review Fiction Contest, a semifinalist for the 2019 American Short(er) Fiction Contest. Her publications are in The Madison Review, The Common, Puerto Del Sol, The Bombay Review, and more. Currently, she is a lecturer in English and Yoga at two community colleges in Virginia and Ohio. 

An Inauguration That Awoke My Ancestors

(Featured Image: Screenshot from CNBC coverage of the 2021 Inauguration)

I was pouring my coffee and almost spilled it when I heard Senator Amy Klobuchar’s words, “Our first African American, our first Asian American, our first woman Vice President, Kamala Harris” waft from my TV. As nonchalantly as I had been watching the inauguration, that moment – those words violently ran through my body, as though all my ancestors were asking me to listen. 

Kamala Devi Harris.

I was happy to hear of the Democratic shift in our Executive and Legislative branches of government and had voted accordingly, yet I remained skeptical. Skeptical if the words matched the vision. 

I accepted Vice President Kamala Harris as a person of color, but I’m not sure why, I hadn’t rationalized the identities she presented. Her Indian-American identity was one she had disengaged from early in her career, rightfully so, only to reach out conveniently when she needed votes. I still voted for her, advocated for her. Not because of her Indian heritage but because of her qualifications, her recent policies, her passion, her willingness to adapt, change, and grow. She was a powerhouse and deserved a position that matched her abilities. This was the narrative I spun for myself and others. 

But…it wasn’t until those words were uttered at the inauguration that I felt myself shudder. Shudder in disbelief. Shudder at the significance. Shudder at the thought of my connection to her.

A Lotus Goddess. 

And there she was…like Lakshmi Devi, ready to sit upon her throne. Her purple garments, vibrant like the purple lotus. Rooted in America in the most American way – a child of immigrants from two spaces and places. I could not will that away and neither could she. 

For so long, I denied seeing myself in Kamala in the interest of seeming impartial; to not be criticized for voting based on resemblance. I cannot deny it any longer. Our Vice President, Kamala Devi Harris is an Indian-American and I love her for it. I love myself for it. She will be a part of my history and I, hers.


Srishti Prabha is the Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.


 

Monita's mother and daughter

A Story of Luck and Luster

Not a ray of hope, but a mountain of light emerged from the Kohinoor. A dazzling rock carved out from the Golconda mines. A mighty jewel for an emperor’s crown!

I steal a look at her chiseled profile, head bent over a book. Black lashes cast sweeping shadows.  A twinkle of a tiny, but brilliant diamond in her nose. A glittering mustard seed. A diamond mined from the Kollur Golconda mines in Guntur district of Andhra. The mines that produced the legendary 100 carat diamond in the coffers of Babur, the founder of Mughal Empire. I touch the tousled hair splayed on my shoulder. The diamond gleams softly, reassuringly. My girl’s light may not be as lofty as a mountain but it warms my heart. Her limpid eyes are twin Manasarovar lakes in Mount Kailash. Her still waters are cool and sweet to quench my longing for life, born with an emotional acre of her own. Sunflowers, moonbeams and white diamonds bursting on rolling tides. A waxing, gibbous moon rising. The Pink City awakening to a fragrant deluge. My mother, warm and eager to hold her by my side. Her beauty summoned tears of joy. We laughed through our tears. She was here. Our own bundle of perfection. Made of sugar, almonds, makhanas, moonstones, tender secrets, clarified butter, cardamom, laughter, white clouds, musk and iridescent peacock feathers. 

Today she stands tall and lithe, with a delicate bone structure. Mango-bark tresses gleam on her shoulders. She curls them around her face, delighted in the effect. I smile. She twirls a silky strand on her finger, sifts her thoughts through a sieve of memory. I love the parts of her that are familiar. The unfamiliar aspects of her aptitude intrigue me. Melodies speak to her, her sense of style, her attention to detail. Simple pleasures of baking a perfect pastry. A shriek of delight at a “pun” unintended. Her competitive spirit in chess, golf and scrabble. “I take after my nani” she sighs in relief, when she surveys a well made bed, a gleaming kitchen, a tidy home. Different from my hurly burly ways. I thank my sweet mother as her gentle goodness gleams in the brilliant facets of my daughter’s soul. Together they shine brighter than the Kohinoor. An inimitable quality. Soft, supple, strong. Focused. Minimalists, both. Comfortable in vintage jeans, a well-cut soft blouse, small hoops.  Her waif-like face, huge eyes and an aura of effortless beauty makes heads turn. My mother was also stopped in her tracks. Her regal bearing still inspires awe. They do not belong to a tribe. They have agency. Their combined Myrrh envelops me. She ties and unties the knots in her hair and heart. Her lustrous eyes search for a safe place. A garden to call home. Where her moonflowers will take root and grow.

She has a hint of “his mother”, in her knotted brow but lacks in worldly ways. She does not gesture with her eyes. Nor engages in endless banter with the motley multitude. The world wants to engage her in conversation. She looks up from her inner reverie, and politely responds to mundane questions: When will the flight take off? Are you traveling alone? What are you reading?  She has her wits about her, to evade personal intrusion. She is good at concocting “travel identities”. My mother-in-law never even lifted eyes from her knitting, when we drove from Jaipur to Agra. But my moonbeam loves to go places. They avidly absorb history, art, culture, museums, gardens. This COVID lockdown has doused our wanderlust. We can’t fly to be with her ‘nani’, but we walk. We reminisce. We read, sing, paint. Tell stories.

I tell her the story of Kohinoor because it is an important story. A story of our land. Plundered by Sultan Ibrahim Lodi, retrieved by Babur after a bloody battle. Fell into the ill-fated hands of Humayun who tumbled to his death. Sher Khan coveted it, but was blown up in the siege of Kalinjar Fort. It’s the story of Shah Jahan who honored his love by building the Taj Mahal. The Kohinoor was installed in the Peacock Throne. Aurangzeb seized the throne and imprisoned his own father, who died pining. A story of passion and pain. Nadir Shah of Iran, the plunderer carried the Peacock Throne to Persia. Only to be assassinated. It’s a tale of greed, betrayal and conspiracies. It’s the story of Kohinoor. The diamond changed many hands and was ultimately endowed to  Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab. When Ranjit Singh died, the British East India Company usurped it for Queen Victoria. Now it is part of the British Crown jewels where it fulfills the strange prophecy: ‘He who owns this diamond will own the world, but will also know all its misfortunes. Only God, or a woman, may wear it with impunity.


Monita Soni has one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India, and a heart steeped in humanity. Monita has published many poems, essays and two books, My Light Reflections and Flow through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.