Saturday, October 10, 2009

Dionysus in Gandhi’s Ahmedabad

Dionysus is not exactly a Gandhian God. He is the god of cruelty, excess, orgy and transgression. Restored to the Western pantheon in 1872 by Fredric Nietzsche, chiefly in order to blitzkrieg the dominant values of the Western Civilization, Dionysus presides as the chief deity of modernism. The Greek God whose philosophy is `excess of anything is good’ counters both the Christian ideas of moderation and self restraint as well as the bourgeois ideology of `excess of anything is bad’. Monroe K Spears’s book `Dionysus and the City’ (1970), whose title I have stolen for the title of this article, examines the relationship between the Nietzschean Dionysus and the context of urbanization in the development of modernism in the west says,
` Dionysus presides metaphorically over most of the recent trends in theater, from cruelty and absurdity to audience participation, nudity, and the tribal rock musical. On and off the stage, he is apparent in two contemporary figures: the black militant, violently releasing dark and repressed forces both in society and within psyche, and the rock musician, with his female devotees and his orgiastic cult of collective emotion.’ (1970: 35)
Professor Spears in his insightful analysis points out that the word City etymologically comes from the civitas, city-state, which is properly an aggregation of cives, citizens and the term civilization too comes from the same root. As a poetic trope, it stands for both the city within and the city without. Professor Spears, drawing upon ideas from Walter Pater’s essay ` A Study of Dionysus’, comments that modernism began when Dionysus entered the city. In earlier times, Civitas Terrena or the Earthly City was seen as striving towards a Heavenly City, Civitas Dei, but for moderns, says Prof Spears, it is seen as falling or fallen and moving towards the Infernal City the City of Dis, the city of Dante and Baudelaire, and of Eliot. In short, when the modernist poets paint the city in dark and sinister colours, they are in many ways censuring and negating the process of urbanization as well as the entire foundation of civilization, they are criticizing the city within and without. If modern city stands for modernity, then modernism, as a cultural movement often stands in contradiction and negation to modernity.
However, the relationship between the city and the village is crucial not just in analysis of modernism, but also for entire literary historiography and historical analysis of culture as demonstrated by Raymond Williams’ seminal book ` The Country and the City’(1973). Giving a lucid and rigorous analysis of shifting values, perceptions and associations of the opposition between the country and the city as embodied in English literary history, Williams remarks that this contrast,` is one of the major forms in which we become conscious of a central part of our experience and of the crises of our society’. (1973:289). He argues that capitalism, as a mode of production, is the basic process of most of what we know as the history of country and city. He cites Marx and Engels from the Communist Manifesto where they say, ` the bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns...has created enormous cities...has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilized ones.’ (1973:303).
Williams, in spite of being a Marxist, is critical of the idea implicit within Marxism and socialism, the avowed enemies of capitalism, in their perception that the city is more `advanced and progressive’ than the country because the industrial capitalism is a more progressive than the feudal capitalism. However, what is important to us in our analysis of the relationship between modernism and the city in the Indian context is Raymond Williams’ awareness of relevance of this thesis to cultures beyond the British and the western culture. He is aware of the fact that the historical process he is studying is `now effectively international, means that we have more than material for interesting comparisons. ‘(1973:292)
While it would be illuminating to examine the imagery and sensibility associated with the urban experience in the modernist Indian poetry, I would be delimiting myself to Gujarati. The meaning of the term modernism is indeed ambiguous and contested; however, I would characterize modernism as a sense of discontinuity with tradition and rebellion against established artistic and ethical norms. The earliest glimpse of modernism in Gujarati poetry can be found in Niranjan Bhagat (b.1926)’s ` Pravaal Dveep’ or The Coral Island. The poems are centred on the experience of the megapolis called Mumbai and exhibit influences of the western modernist poets like Eliot and Rilke along with Tagore. Among the famous contemporaries of Bhagat is Suresh Joshi (1921-1986). A lesser-known contemporary of Bhagat is Hasmukh Pathak (b.1930) also exhibits early modernist sensibility centred on the urban experience. In `Saherni Ghadio Ganta..’ or Keeping a count of time in the city, he uses a typical modernist metaphor:
` and the evening ( with lipstick decorating her lips)
Kisses the streets and lanes;
Hundreds of mercury lamps dance to the Jazzy beats,
And fires find their way into gutters.
The orphaned dreams wandering and lost at midnight
Weep for a while and turn silent.
While Mumbai has played a very significant role in formation of modernist sensibility in Gujarati and Marathi, it would extremely interesting to see how the city called ` the Manchester of the East’ Ahmedabad emerges from Gujarati modernist poetry. Ahmedabad or Ahmadabad is the largest city in Gujarat and the sixth largest city in India with a population of almost 5 million. The city is also sometimes called Karnavati , an older name and as Amdavad in colloquial Gujarati . Ahmedabad is the administrative center of Ahmedabad District, and was the former capital of Gujarat State from 1960 to 1970, when Gandhinagar replaced it.
One of the most famous poems on Ahmedabad is a ghazal written by `Adil’ Mansuri (b.1936) one of the rebellious Gujarati poets who had to leave Ahmedabad, his homeland. Mansuri was associated with the avant-garde `Rhey Math’, a group of rebellious poets based in Mumbai. He is also credited with introducing modernist sensibility to Gujarati ghazal. The ghazal in question here is romantic and looks at the city he is leaving in a sentimental fashion.
You might never see it again
This city playing in the sands
You might never catch a glimpse of it again
On the plains of your memory
Fill up its fragrance in your breath
You might never catch the scent of its wet earth again
Ahmedabad emerges as an idyllic Eden from which Adam and Eve are driven away. The ghazal ends with romantic idealization of the motherland:
Let me rub the dust of my homelands to my forehead, `Adil’
Who knows I may never see the dust in my life again.

However, not all are so sad to leave Ahmedabad or mind losing the so-called ` Paradise’:

Ahmedabad
Manilal Desai
Only in the eyes of the camels, you find compassion in Ahmedabad. Humans don’t have eyes at all. Walking on the hot tar roads, cataracts have covered their brains. I too live in Ahmedabad. I live in Ahmedabad too, and a translucent film has started to envelope me. The air conditioners of Niroz and Quality restaurants struggle to breathe in the Bhatiyar lane. The lane, however, casts shadows of the whores of Maninagar. The sands of Sabarmati have spread over every street of Ahmedabad, and the roads wait to be inundated with frenzied floods. It wasn’t for fishing by the river, did Gandhi build Sabarmati Ashram, nor was it for dallying with the Ahmedabadi dames coming for a bath here. He, in fact, wanted to procure an auto-rickshaw for Ahmedshah, who happens to drive a cycle-rickshaw here. But Ahmedabad can’t think of anything other than spitting on the tracks of Balwantrai Mehta’s car or banging its head against Indulal Yagnik’s cap. Yesterday, the horses of Ahmedabad neighed in the tombs of Sarkhej- tomorrow, Adam will ask, ` What have you done with the feelings I gave you?’ and I will take hold of the finger of a shoe-polish boy from Lal Darwaja who has agreed to polish shoes for a paisa, and run away from Ahmedabad.
Only camels are capable of compassion in Manilal’s Ahmedabad and the speaker is scared that he too will turn callous by living here. The poet flattens out the history and makes a collage out of it. Mahatma Gandhi ‘s Sabarmati Ashram for the speaker is built because Gandhiji wants to buy an auto-rickshaw for Ahmed Shah, the founder Sultan of Ahmedabad of the fifteenth century, who happens to be slogging on a cycle rickshaw here. History has reduced the glorious Islamic emperors to cycle rickshaw drivers. The resplendence of the Sultanate is reduced to poverty. Yet Ahmedabad does not care and given a chance the modernist Adam, unlike Adil’s Adam prefers to flee Ahmedabad holding the finger of a shoe polish boy from Lal Darwaja. Manilal’s Adam is more concerned about turning thick-skinned in Ahmedabad.
Manilal Desai (1939-1966) belongs to the later generation of modernist Gujarati poets, which include poets like Labhshanker Thaker (b.1935), Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh (b.1937), ) Ravji Patel (1939-1968), Chandrakant Sheth (b. 1938) , Chinu Modi (b.1939) and Sitanshu Yashashchandra Mehta ( b.1941). What is most important here is the experience of metropolis and urbanization pervades their works in terms of imagery and sensibility. Sheikh, for instance, has many surreal sequences based on the cities like Delhi and Mumbai.
Gandhi’s Ahmedabad is no longer the land of non-violence and peace. In a poem called ` Maru Shaher’ by Chinu Modi, we find Ahmedabad behaving in more of a Godseian way:
My City
Chinu Modi
You won’t find any fog here anymore
Even if every mill is shut down
No heart melts here anymore
The city exhausted of serving Gandhi
Violently seeks vengeance in innumerable ways
My city: Ahmedabad
They measure your shadows
Not bodies
To stitch clothes;
Here you have to live like bugs
On borrowed breath
Roads are of tar here
And sunlight black as tar
Falls here
My city: Ahmedabad
This city is an old man
Groaning with constipation
This city is all the fancy aerobics
Of a back broken spider
It’s a museum of fallen stars
A grand crematory
Incessantly
Incinerating corpses
My city: Ahmedabad.
Tomorrow a rabbit
Will prey on a dog
Will reduce my honour
To ashes
Who knows what sins of my past life
Is this city avenging?
I cant forego it even for a moment
And it doesn’t let me live
In peace even for a while
O Ahmedabad
Why did you become Karnavati again?
Why don’t you become Aasapalli?
Ahmedabad is neither the `Manchester of the East’ nor is the land of ahimsa. The mills are closed down and like Manilal’s Ahmedabad, it gives a damn for it. The city is exhausted of serving Gandhi and seeks vengeance with incredible violence. The poem written in 2001, which compares Ahmedabad to a `grand crematory constantly burning the corpses’ is indeed sinisterly prophetic. We can feel reverberations of the Post Godhra carnage in it. Like Manilal, Chinu Modi too flattens out history in a form of collage and uses plenty of allusions to historical legends surrounding Ahmedabad. The line about a rabbit preying on a dog is the story associated with the Sultan mentioned in the Manilal’s poem who is famed to have founded the city of Ahmedabad on the Hindu city of Karnavati after he saw a rabbit chasing a dog in that place in 1411 AD . The poem ends with the speaker moaning the return of the Hindu Karnavati and asks why Ahmedabad doesn’t become Assapalli again. Assapalli was the kingdom of a tribal king by the same name, which was conquered by the King Karnadev I of Patan in the eleventh century. Chinu Modi wants the Dionysus back in the city. The primitive tribal kingdom of Assapalli stands for the Eden, which was destroyed by so-called civilized Hindus. We can fruitfully compare the longing for tribal past in Chinu Modi’s poem with Manilal’s wish to escape dangerous side effects of being an Ahmedabadi and contrast it with Adil Mansuri’s sentimental application of Ahmedabadi dust to his forehead.
However, the experience of urbanization and city life is not limited to what EV Ramakrishnan (1995) in his very important study of modernism in Indian context has termed `High Modernism’ or individualistic and elitist modernism, but is also crucially present in what he calls the later avant-garde or collectivistic or subaltern modernism. The Dalit movement in Marathi was largely Mumbai based or based in the city. In Gujarati too, Dalit poetry has taken a note of the city and its discontents. One can cite a poem by Sahil Parmar, a Dalit Gujarati poet:
AHMEDABAD 1974 AND 1984
Sahil Parmar
The outstretched sky plays its own tune
Scattered stars
Flicker feebly
Like the squeaking whistles
Of cloth mills razed by fire
The horizons hazy
Due to the suppressed sobbing
The moon is pulverized
One...two...three...ten...a dozen fragments
Falling upon this city
Crushing
Millions of people
Millions of eyes
Millions of dreams
Under them.
This city is now a crematory of dreams
Darkness like a cemetery
Wrings this city
Before I choke
I can only say
`That hostel mess bill was a very big event indeed!”
The poem, like the poem by Chinu Modi calls the city insensitive to the closing down of the mills in the seventies. Like Manilal’s poem, it accuses the city for shattering people’s dreams and lives. Like Modi’s poem, it uses the metaphor of crematory for the city. Like the other two poems, this poem too interweaves historical references into its metaphorical fabric. The last line alludes to the event of the price hike in the hostel mess bill in LD Engineering College in February 1974, which resulted in an outcry and a strike by the students. The strike snowballed into the famous Nav Nirman Movement, a mass anti-Congress agitation to remove the then Chief Minister of Gujarat Chimanbhai Patel. JP Narayan movement backed up the Nav Nirman Agitation. The poem, as the footnote says in his collection, commemorates the event.
We can see that the modernist Gujarati poetry articulates voices of dissent and alternative notions of Gujarati culture and identity by employing the trope of city and the poetic material drawn from urban experience. The poems by Chinu Modi, Sahil Parmar and Manilal Desai protest against the established culture by voicing their anguish caused by the urban experience of Ahmedabad. The perceptions presented in the poems are critical to the predominant ideas of `culture’. The poems are rebellious and anarchic like the presiding deity of modernism, Dionysus. Modi’s poem is more direct in its Dionysian longing to return to the primitive tribal kingdom and its anti commercial stance (They measure your shadows/ Not bodies/To stitch clothes). The poems are also full of images of morbidity, darkness and decadence. Unlike Adil’s ghazal which is `pretty’, the modernist poems about Ahmedabad are often ugly (consider Chinu Modi’s metaphor of ` This city is an old man/ Groaning with constipation/ This city is/all the fancy aerobics/Of a back broken spider...). These poems interweave references to historical references like Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmed Shah, Karnavati, Assapalli and the Nav Nirman Movment with legends like the rabbit that chased a dog and dense surreal metaphors of darkness, pulverised moon and surreal humour of Ahmed Shah driving a bicycle rickshaw. The images are anarchic and subterranean.
Raymond Williams notes that ` the key cultural factor of the modernist shift is the character of the metropolis. (1990:166).’ What Prof Williams says about the Modernism in the West has implications and uses for us too. The examination of urban experience is crucial for understanding the Modernism in Indian languages. This article is a concise attempt to do so and a beginning of a more elaborate research project. It reveals that The City is a crucial trope in the modernist poetry as the cities like Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Mumbai have played a formative role in moulding of modernist sensibility in Gujarati. It briefly examined the tortuous affiliation of Indian modernism to its urban context with a specific reference to a handful of modernist Gujarati poems by poets like Adil Mansuri, Chinu Modi, Manilal Desai and Salil Parmar dealing with Ahmedabad. I sought to demonstrate how these poems intricately weave history, sociology and politics into their dense fabric to articulate multiple and often dissenting perceptions of cultural history of Ahmedabad and by extension Gujarat.
Notes:
All translations in the article are mine. The poems of Adil Mansuri, Manilal Desai and Hasmukh Pathak are taken from ` Adhunik Gujarati Kavita’ ed. Suresh Dalal and Jaya Mehta, Mumbai: Sahitya Akademi 1989.I am grateful to my friend Piyush Thakker for procuring a copy of Chinu Modi’s poem for me. Sahil Parmar’s poem is from his collection `Mathaman’, Self published, Gandhinagar, 2004.
WORKS CITED
1. Dennis Walder ed. Literature in the Modern World: Critical Essays and Documents. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990
2. EV Ramakrishnan, Making It New: Modernism in Malayalam, Marathi and Hindi Poetry’, Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1995
3. Monroe K Spears, Dionysus and the City: Modernism in Twentieth Century Poetry, New York: Oxford University Press, 1970
4. Raymond Williams, Modernism and the Metropolis. In Walder ed. 1990, p.166
5. -------------------------The Country and the City, New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.
6. Sahil Parmar, Mathaman. A collection of Gujarati poems. Self Published. Gandhinagar, 2004
7. Suresh Dalal and Jaya Mehta ed. Adhunik Gujarati Kavita’Mumbai: Sahitya Akademi 1989

The article appeared in New Quest, Pune, June 2009
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