Thursday, December 31, 2009

South Asian Ensemble on the Web

South Asian Ensemble
An Interface of Arts, Literature and Culture for South Asian Diaspora

South Asian Ensemble is a Canadian quarterly devoted to the arts, literature and culture of the South Asian diaspora.

The inaugural issue is now available online:


By Badri Raina

Ruchika, golden fawn, your

Joy-filled, wide-eyed view

Of the world

Was too untutored to see

The wolf in the office room.

You trusted his disguise

And paid fatal price.

You must have been taught

How this is the land

Where women are put

On the deified grandstand.

Too young a pupil you to know

There is that here which is worshipped

And that other which is true;

That throughout the ages

It has been so.

Or that wolves that roam the Indian prairie

Are also known to band together

In all sorts of weather.

But times now are a changing.

You might just have been the little fawn

Whose blood is set to secure

A whole world of fawns,

And bring many a wolf to book.

Your pristine little life, so abused,

So defiled, so murderously denied,

May just have put tongue

Into a million mouths

That had no voice before.

The cruelty of your going

May just have made a whole nation

Realize how rotten we are to the core.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Book Review: Amarjit Singh Grewal's Sach Di Siyasat

Sach Di Siyasat
(The Politics of Truth)
by Amarjit Singh Grewal
Published by Chetna Parkashan, Ludhiana, 2009
Pages: 184
Price: Rs. 220

Rajesh Kumar Sharma

(Extracts from the book review to be published in the winter number of South Asian Ensemble)

Amarjit Singh Grewal’s Sach Di Siyasat (The Politics of Truth) proceeds through a series of structured deflections. It begins with a reflection on the possibility of grasping the “truth” of Guru Arjun Dev’s martyrdom, moves on to explore the truth value of the historiographic object in terms of poststructuralist theory, the discourses of science and game theory, and goes on to unfold the world-historical specificity of Sikhism as a cultural-political project of humanization with implications for the emerging global society. Along the way, it briefly pauses to consider also the contemporary social situation in the light of what the Gurus had arguably envisaged.
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Grewal’s most significant accomplishment in this work is that on the strength of a sustained rational discourse and without resorting to any mystification he is able to situate the world-historical strategic vision of the Gurus in a cultural politics of the global scale. And he is able to spell out that vision as a concretely redemptive one for our real world.
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Grewal’s theoretical-methodological position as it emerges in the present work derives almost exclusively from Western epistemologies. I wish he had bolstered it with insights from the Indian epistemologies, particularly the Buddhist. Moreover, while he aptly deploys poststructuralist theory to wrench open several complacently accepted notions (including that of the self), he could have engaged with poststructuralism more elaborately and rigorously: that would have prevented the impression one gets here of poststructuralism as a finished and closed thing, a kind of conceptual and critical toolbox. In its present shape and elaboration, the work falls short of sufficiently demonstrating at the level of practice the validity of its key theoretical stake that truth is a function of the apparatus (a translation of the French dispositif). The reason, probably, is that not all interlocutors in the dialogue are equally equipped with the subtleties of theory. For instance, the precision that attends on the exchange on story, narrative, discourse and virtuality (49-52), or the incisiveness that characterizes the sustained critique of binarism (148) is not to be found everywhere in the work. Perhaps Grewal could have filled up the gaps by pointing them out: he could have, from his parallel position as the omniscient narrator (in addition to that of an interlocutor), added to what some of the interlocutors had not stated or had inadequately stated.
--- --- --- ---

Somewhat similar fate attends on the treatment of Derrida’s critique of logocentrism, which was actually formulated against the background of Platonic logos conceived as a mathematical conceptual form. To think of logos as something that “travels invisibly through different interpretations” (25) is to succumb to logocentrism again – in the very act of trying to describe it and trace its itinerary. I guess the peril inheres in the very move of describing the logos metaphorically.
--- --- --- ---

The historical – and symptomatic – importance of Grewal’s book in terms of the contemporary critical-theoretical scene in Punjab lies arguably in its constitutive contradiction: it is a poststructuralist anti-project (the conversational, dialogical form is one of the markers), yet it does not decisively liquidate the humanist subject. Actually, the contradiction dogs Grewal’s undertaking right from the moment of its conception. His very problematization of the text of the Guru’s martyrdom finds articulation in a humanist conceptual vocabulary as he formulates his basic questions: Who writes this text? Why? For whom? And how does it come into existence? The only properly poststructuralist question is the last, that too if we agree to read it the way Foucault might have phrased it: How does it emerge? And once Grewal has taken the humanist road, he is destined to envisage Guru Arjun Dev’s work as a “project” in the pre-structuralist, modernist parameters. The advantage of his taking the humanist road is that it paves the way for his candid encounter with the current situation in which he sees barely any signs of the pluralistic democracy that the Guru had founded. But this obviously also suggests that there might be a chance that the Guru’s great dream probably did not take into account the all-too-human reality, or that the great dream has suffered betrayal at our lesser hands. If Grewal had avoided the modernist trap and walked an extra poststructuralist mile (this time with Deleuze, over Hegel’s still active grave), he would not have been distressed at the current situation. He could then have contemplated the work of the great Gurus without the constraining limits of projective linearities and as opening up radically new fields of possibilities. And in the fields of possibilities, there are no reasons to despair.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Roma People

From Manzur Ejaz of

The gypsies or the Roma people, presently settled in Europe, are of Punjabi origin. In this movie if you follow the dailogues you will recognize Punjabi words like pee (drink) kha (eat) main (me) tu (you) etc . This is very intresting film about seperated Punjabis.

Some artiles about Roma people.

On the road to Roma people

Tarot of the Romas

Roma People

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Copenhagen, 2009

By Badri Raina

At Copenhagen they met—

Greed and Need.

Greed said, “ cut down your need”;

Need said, “enough of your greed.”

Greed retorted, “the Earth cannot wait

For your need to become greed”;

Need rebutted, “you are a great one

To say so,

Having created all our need.”

Greed, you know,

Of course wished to have the cake

And eat it too;

Need knew if that continued to be done,

There would be no place for Need in the sun.


Swore they would cut down their carbon,

And save the Earth

For a renewed birth,

But not before Capitalism had its full-bull run.

Greed said, “Capitalism is ours; we made it;

Leave it to us; you do that which is fit

For your station.

We shall carry the corporation

To your lands,

And thereby have less emissions on our hands.”

Need said, “emissions anywhere

Will not spare you,

Because the Earth is one;

Thus either all of us Capitalism shun,

Or we all roll down the mountain.”

The Bolivian, the Cuban, the Venezualan

Said, “the Earth cannot be parceled out

Anymore for anyone’s convenience;

The Capitalist lout

Had better see sense,

And recongnize

That the world’s mountains, icebergs,

Rivers and seas, air and fire

Are Socialist:, making no distinction;

Either everyone lives or everyone dies.”

Consternation followed upon

That recognition,

Obliging the chief spokesman of Greed

To exclaim:

“If indeed the Earth is Socialist,

It is best dead;

We shall go build Capitalism anew

In heaven or hell instead.

Come Christmas, we walk away from Jesus,

And walk into the Shade;

We swear upon the blood of the Barons,

We shall never let Capitalism fade.

Having brought down the Berlin Wall,

Wall Street shall stand unbroken,

However the Lehman’s and the others

May have rashly spoken.

Let the fatcats be the fatcats,

And the hungry be in the billions;

We have all the arsenal,

We shall train our guns

On all the world’s ragamuffins

Who have no reason to be;

And, being, who only obstruct

The Market from being free.

War shall be our answer

To that ultimate perfidy.”

Thus at Copenhagen

Did the Earth make up her mind

To put an end to mankind,

And some better species find. December 20, 2009

Sunday, December 13, 2009

On Harvinder Bhandal’s Review of Amarjit Singh Grewal’s Sach Di Siyasat

(Published in Filhaal, No. 5, Oct-Nov 2009, Pp. 13-17)

Rajesh Kumar Sharma

Harvinder Bhandal’s review (“Sach di Siyasat ate Siyasat da Sach”) of Amarjit Singh Grewal’s Sach di Siyasat (Politics of Truth) in Filhaal (Oct-Nov 2009) is a well-written and interesting piece, but as someone who has read Grewal’s book I wish Bhandal had re-read the book before hastening to ‘demolish’ it. The form and argument of the book demand that it be read and re-read, and seen from a distance. Intellectual judgements are best not made in haste and passion. And it is always good to reflect on one’s opinions before rushing out to proclaim them in the streets. There certainly are several problems with Grewal’s book, but Bhandal’s hasty reading only puts them out of focus, thus forestalling a fruitful critical discussion that should rightly follow the arrival of a work of serious intent.

Bhandal probably misreads the book because of his own un-deconstructed position. The first evidence of this is provided on the very first page of the review. He rushes to summarize the book and so plunges into a trap which a little reflection could have helped him avoid. If Grewal’s methodology is “textualizing”, as Bhandal admits it is, his “text” can obviously not be subjected to summarization since “text” and “summary” are embedded in different and incommensurable paradigms. Here, then, Bhandal’s error is methodological, and therefore fundamental (as Aristotle would say). Secondly, anyone who reads Grewal’s “text” followed by Bhandal’s response can see that the summary is both reductive and incorrect. Grewal does not really state that historians are motivated by their specific objectives to “create” history as they imagine it. On the contrary, he repeatedly says that he does not disavow historical events but only suggests that those events are not transparently available to us in a purity unmediated by discourses. In fact, he does not reject history at all but only problematizes conventional historiography. And in this, he does not do anything new.

Yes, he does nothing new in the sense in which the ‘new’ is habitually and uncritically understood. But then Grewal does not also claim to be doing anything new. It is a misdirected quest that wants to find something new, such as new historical facts and discursive form, in the book. One of Grewal’s main points is to problematize the given. His stance is that of a cultural critic and theorist, not of a historian. In any case, the fascination with the new deserves to be interrogated: it can be covertly theological (hunting for an absolute genesis, a delusion that Buddhism has so sharply pierced through), or consumerist-capitalistic. As a serious and insightful reader, Bhandal could have been more alert to what the ideologies of the ‘new’ might conceal.

While the book’s discursive form is manifestly not innovative, there is something to be said in its defence. Grewal mentions at the outset that it is a response to the invitation for a paper. Instead of penning a paper, Grewal however weaves a dialogic text. The authorial, authoritative and authoritarian connotations of a scholarly paper as a mode of discourse that sets out to state a “truth” are too well known to readers of theory to bear another restatement here. The very choice of discursive form should be sufficient to warn that the author of the book cannot be seen to be making any ‘truth claims’, including the claim that there is no truth.

Actually, the parameters of Bhandal’s reading can be discerned in his inability to shed the baggage of binarism. He refuses to think beyond binaries, such as the subjective-objective dichotomy. The book, however, makes its very inaugural move on the rejection of binaries. Indeed, even when the author speaks of the relationship between history and memory, he is careful to insert a third term: discourse as a practice that shapes both. And as practice, discourse has a material presence, as the examples and treatment of the subject matter also indicate; it is not some transcendental fog. Bhandal, however, seems to have expected a kind of clarity that can only be called, with considerable restraint, pedestrian. Grewal complicates the issues progressively because he asks fundamental questions; Bhandal oversimplifies because he assumes that the fundamental questions have been resolved once and for all.

It is precisely such assumptions that lead Bhandal to accuse Grewal of treating his interlocutors as no better than his mouthpieces. As a matter of fact, from Bhandal’s assumed point of view (that sees Grewal’s project as “textualizing”), Grewal as the “author” of the text should himself stand radically “textualized”: neither he nor his numerous interlocutors can be seen as “selves” in an unqualified Cartesian sense but only as “speaking subjects” within the matrices of discourse. But then Bhandal perhaps does not want to concede, even to himself, that so many among the articulate Punjabi intellectuals think the way they do. He does not wish to believe that the time of unquestionable certainties has long since passed. He is not willing to recognize the contemporary Punjabi intellectual moment.

To that extent, of course, his review is symptomatic of the Punjabi intellectual crisis today.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


M. L. Raina

1. Collected Screenplays by Andrei Tarkovsky
Translated by William Powell and Natasha Synessios
Faber, London.Xxv+564 Pages. $ 25.
2. The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue
By Vida T. Johnson and Graham Petrie.
Indiana University Press, Bloomington
Xvii+331 pages. $ 25.95
3. Mirror: A Film by Andrei Tarkovsky
Artificial Eye Video Production, London
102 Minutes. 24 Pounds.

Let me confess at the outset that I am a Tarkovsky addict. He reminds me not so much of other filmmakers, as of a number of Russian writers from Turgenev and Chekov to a much younger contemporary, Andrei Makine even though the latter writes in French. They share a cultivated sensibility that allows them to be at home in the quintessential Russianness of their heritage and, at the same time, encourage an uninhibited acceptance of Western ideas. One thinks of Tolstoy and Turgenev (particularly ‘Sportsman’s Sketches’ and ‘Ayesha’), of the poems of Lermontov and Pushkin, the plenitude of the Russian landscape in ‘Dr.Zhivago’ and the neurotic brilliance of some of Dostoevsky’s stories.

This essential Russianness is hinted at by Andrei Makine in his 1997 novel “ Dreams of My Russian Summers”: ‘a whole host of actions, faces, words, sufferings, privations… all that buzz of life resounding against a single echo’. That ‘echo’ for both is memory, a recurrent nostalgia for a way of life in which the mother occupies pride of place in a benign pastoral setting. Through the images of the grandmother in Makine and the mother in Tarkovsky’s early films,’Ivan’s Childhood’ and ‘Mirror’, they explore the sustaining power of tradition and nature.

Both recreate the lost moment and are closely attached to the physical fetishes of the past. For both the love of the mother (Russia) is a continual heartbreak. They love her absurdity (as Solzhenitsyan would say), her capacity to absorb pain and joy in equal measure. In ‘Ivan’s Childhood’ and ‘Mirror’ Tarkovsky’s favourite actress Margarita Terekhova (he uses her way Bergman uses Liv Ullman in film after film) establishes herself as the mother-spirit animating the stories of love, sacrifice and feminine vulnerability. In ‘Solaris’ Kris Kelvin’s mother has no relevance to the plot, but is there to uphold her creator’s belief in her catalytic power.

In these films memories and reminiscences spill out pell-mell though anchored in the expressive presence of the mother figure. She remains the centre of the narrative as well as a source of coherence and order.

Andrei Tarkovsky made seven full-length films and a few smaller ones, as this collection of his screenplays attests. He is equally the inheritor of the Great Russian cinematic tradition and a dissenter from it. Like the pioneers Eisenstein and Pudvokin, he displays a passion for history and a visionary boldness in presenting it. An English critic, Mark Le Fanu, credits him with visualising the epic traditions of the 19th century Russian novel in the sweep and scale of ‘Andrei Rublev’ (it’s a pity that the screenplay of this two-part film is not available in the Powell-Synessios edition). He is a dissenter because his genius refused to compromise with the official Soviet ideology. He dared the censors and suffered neglect, hostility and inevitable ill health leading to early death in exile.

A major stylistic innovator in film of the past thirty years, Tarkovsky baffles a lay viewer as well as some of his more informed admirers nurtured on the European art cinema of Bergman, Rohmer, Renoir, Bresson and other avant-garde auteur-directors. The lay viewer, accustomed to the easy formulaic narrative of the Hollywood fiction film, finds Tarkovsky difficult since he does not adhere to a linear plot, nor satisfy stereotypical expectations. He is elliptical, hermetic and intellectual to the point of obscurity. One wonders how he managed to survive in the Soviet Union as long as he did and why he made films in different languages (‘Nostalgia’ partly in Italian, ’Sacrifice’ in Swedish).

Critically mature ‘readers’ of film as art are uncomfortable for other reasons. They find Tarkovsky wordy, allegorical and often given to experimentation as a means of obscuring meaning rather than clarifying it. True, the appearance of the horses (forces of nature?) in ‘Andrei Rublev’ at the beginning and the end, the ticker-tape cascade in the last cathedral scene of ‘Nostalgia’ or the scatter of papers at the close of ‘Ivan’s Childhood’ can not be easily explained away. Their symbolic depth invites deeper involvement, which even sympathetic viewers find inconvenient.

Speaking of Tarkovsky’s last film, ‘Sacrifice’, Johnson and Petrie believe that the protagonist Alexander’s discursiveness represses the effects of the great scenes, especially the fire scenes and the lonely road. These demurrals are justified. In extenuation we could say that the filmmaker is more than a narrator. He complicates his scenes, overturns our responses in order to accommodate his meditations on the human condition. In a sense he stretches the medium to express the metaphysical dimension of experience.

The metaphysical experience in Tarkovsky’s films is felt in the inner world of his characters, even as the external historical and political themes enclose their dreams, reveries and hallucinations. The documentation of the features of lost time subverts the narratives in which his characters are enclosed, or better still, immured. For example, the stories of war in ‘Ivan’s Childhood’ are not of much value by themselves. Their significance is in the residue of human attachment such as loyalty, courage, and memory that they can muster. When the Soviet censors criticised what they considered a lack of sufficient patriotism in the film, they ignored the fact that Ivan’s protectiveness towards his mother is in itself a metaphor for the filmmaker’s protective attitude towards Russia.

Though ‘Ivan’s Childhood’ is not as openly metaphysical as, say, ‘Mirror’, ‘ Solaris’ or ‘Nostalgia’, it often deflects attention from the purely documentary details (war, Berlin Chancery and the flying papers). We are made to inhabit a space halfway between history and hallucination, as in the recurrent images of the mother intervening in the war narrative. We are also asked to puzzle out the paradox between Ivan’s child-like innocence and his skills as a guerilla fighter behind the Russian lines. Our routine expectations are frustrated at the very beginning when the film opens with Ivan’s dream of a hand and reveals Galtsev who will later play a significant role. The frequent crossing of boundaries between dream and reality in almost all his films forbids simple naturalistic appraisal of their style and content.

As Tarkovsky began to experiment with stream-of-consciousness and narrative disjunction, his films became more inward and their hold on external reality more problematic. Part of the reason may be his increasing impatience with the Soviet censors who ordered cuts and revisions at the slightest suspicion. Even when he tried to make epics on the scale of Eisenstein’s ‘Ivan the Terrible’ and ‘Alexander Nevsky’, he could not bring himself to follow the beaten path of the great master. ‘Andrei Rublev’ is motivated more by Tarkovsky’s religious fervour than any endorsement of secular glory that Eisenstein represents. The director is drawn to the traditional church icons and makes his hero something of a protector of their beauty amidst the cruelty and oppression of the medieval period.

But it is in ‘Solaris’ and ‘Mirror’ that Tarkovsky’s religious and non-political attitudes receive their fullest expression. In ‘Solaris’ he uses the novel by the Polish science-fiction writer, Stanislaw Lem, to create a collage of melancholy forebodings triggered by the emptiness of the Space Sea

There are extraordinary scenes of the countryside in the scientist Burton’s dacha. The mental turmoil of the hero Kris Kelvin and the chaos of the Space Sea sharply contrast with the beauty of the earth represented in the abundance of hay, the polish of the floorboards and, most poignant of all, the evocation by Kris of his dead wife Hari and the mother. Whereas Lem questions anthropomorphic thinking and the limitations of human knowledge, the film celebrates our capacity ‘to stay human in an inhuman world’ menacing us from across the Space Sea.

By all accounts ‘Mirror’ is Tarkovsky’s masterpiece. Generally acknowledged as one of the most challenging films of the last three decades, it brings to successful fruition his experiments in different cinematic modes and demonstrates his ability to combine various genres in a mosaic of reality and desire. It alternately takes the form of rich and highly charged documentary footage woven within the practices of a Cubist painting. The title creates the ‘prismatic effect’ of a broken mirror radiating a scintillating glow all around. The filmmaker’s ‘eye’ is genuinely innocent since it plunders from the imagery of childhood a vision unsullied by evil, though not far from its corruptions.

Given the dual perspective of a child and an adult, the film finds its epiphanies in an emotionally charged and imaginatively visualised edenic state. In his search for a stable identity amid the interactions of past and present, the director rifles through all the resources of art to fix the mystery of human life in all its high and low tides. The casting of Margarita Terekhova in the dual role of grandmother and mother of the boy calls all identities into question. Against the moving images of the vast Russian landscape demarcations dissolve. Struck by the imprecision of contours, we are lifted into a timeless experience by the power of Pushkin’s and Arseny Tarkovsky’s poetry and merged with the colours of the landscape as the music of Bach, Purcell and Pergolesi transforms the whole into a profound revelation.

Many-layered in conception, the film intertwines family relationships with topical newsreel sequences. With his father Arseny reading his poems on the sound track, Tarkovsky enhances the film’s meaningfulness, making it seem contemporary and tans-historical at the same time.

Johnson and Petrie have written a comprehensive evaluation of Tarkovsky’s films and analysed his distinctive cinematic techniques. They are more thorough than Mark Le Fanu and will remain the best guides to this enigmatic genius. Their analysis of what they call Tarkovsky’s thematic and image clusters defines these films as poetic in the most sublime sense. One of the successes of this book is in the originality of the authors’ reading of the films. Not until I read their commentary did I grasp the connection in ‘Mirror’ between Lenardo Da Vinci’s broken mirrors and the luminous juxtapositioning of the Cyrillic script of the captions. Similarly, the Breughel painting at the end of ‘Solaris’ would have remained a mystery to me had not the authors found its relevance to the landscape and Tarkovsky’s symbolic purchase on it.

The ‘visual fugue’ in the title speaks eloquently of Tarkovsky’s jumbling of the artistic genres in his work. This is an appropriate description of his method and captures its ambidexterity.

In a poem by Arseny Tarkovsky, used in ‘The Stalker’, the poet says “What is soft and weak is good: hardness is close to death”. Perhaps this is Tarkovsky’s credo. Does it imply his openness to experience? His distrust of the given, the prescribed? Tarkovsky’s own readiness to confront extremes is a clue to his religious acceptance of suffering, of the paradox of being human. The rest, the ancient sages would aver, is silence, as of the Space Sea in ‘Solaris’.