The note of pain rising higher than love: May at Navayana

The note of pain rising higher than love
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May 2017
Dear Reader, 

The bed of a railway cutting
has tidy sheets. The steel-blue
parallel tracks ruled out
as neatly as staves of music

Here we are, as promised, working away and reporting back. Our resolve to be newsy is holding up for now. We’ve been talking and editing, publishing and exhibiting, writing and being written about. Along parallel tracks.

Two months after the ABVP used its heckler’s veto at Delhi University, the Centre for Dalit Studies at the Department of English commemorated the 126th Ambedkar Jayanti by hosting The Ganja–Mahua Chronicles, Venkat Raman Singh Shyam and S. Anand’s itinerant creation, lately back from Mumbai. Venkat and Anand collaborated over four years on Finding My Way, the story of Venkat’s life set amidst a sea of stories, and from here they have pulled out the Ganja–Mahua thread and spun it anew. It has not been easy finding a place to host an artwork that extends to 72 feet and rises seven feet from the ground and bears an unabashed title that could work just as well for Ambedkar Jayanti as for Valentine’s Day, given that of 10 million marriages every year in India, only 9,623 involved a Dalit and a non-Dalit in 2012—0.09623 percent of the total. There’s unconverging tracks for you.

Parallelisms abound in the multi-panel montage: writing and drawing, legend and fact, verse and prose, artistry and reality, all flow synchronously, pulling together, each bearing out the truth of its counterpart, and yet taxonomically distinct. Separate but equal, like railway tracks? What if the heart were to come in the way of science, attempt mergers? For Ilavarasan who fell in love with Divya, a Vanniyar girl, the railway laid on no tidy sheets. As Marina Tsvetayeva goes on to say in “Rails” (1979, translated by Elaine Feinstein):

I shall weep like a simple seamstress

with a cry of passive lament—
a marsh heron! The moving train
will hoot its way over the sleepers
and slice through them like scissors.

And what when art has its way with science? Cinema reels irradiate from a raspberry heart; but whether they meet within is anyone’s guess. They might do, or perhaps it’s a trompe l’oeil, and the heart no meeting place but a vanishing point. Just as you can get a film like Sairat and, spooling out with it, such tales of domestic violence that you won’t know where you are. Is art ever honest? Or is it just swill to soothe a wild pig’s appetite? Tsvetayeva ends with the lines:

Colours blur in my eye,
their glow a meaningless red.
All young women at times
are tempted by such a bed.

Frances Fitzgerald, Irish widow and mother of two, sheltered Ambedkar during his years in London, and knew that she loved her darling Bhim, as far apart as life had placed them. History preserves her offertory of red-lipped kisses. The might-have-beens make for a beautiful story, we can all agree, sighing together at the movies, but unsparing of such conjugation in real life. Ambedkar probably knew his love was a non-starter, how he felt about that he doesn’t tell (the note of pain always rising/ higher than love, as Tsvetayeva puts it). We all know how Frances felt though we know almost nothing about her; what she did not know—that he was married—kept her hopes up. So here we are, where unfulfillment is the defining individual tragedy built up into a social virtue; the cautionary tale of ganja and mahua, their like natures rendered incompatible. The railway tracks run on, too straight by far. Too straight.

In tandem with the opening of the exhibition, the same searing morning of 19 April, came Anand’s talk “All’s Vitthal, Vitthal’s All” on the social roots of poetic and musical style. Invoking abhangs, Bhimsen Joshi, Kishori Amonkar, Chokhamela, Kumar Gandharva, Janabai and Karmamela, he spoke of Ambedkar’s relationship with this tradition that revolved around the figure of Vitthal or Vitthoba of Pandharpur, the One who earned a million beautiful songs in Marathi from tens of beloved poets spanning five centuries. This was followed by a discussion of our latest offering Ambedkar: The Attendant Details, where Professors Raj Kumar and Tapan Basu and research scholars Debayudh Chatterji and Rohan Kamble reflected upon the little known facets of Ambedkar the book throws light upon.

No lamps were lit, no statue was garlanded, no songs were sung. There are many ways of remembering the Ambedkar we did not know. And we do not know if, when or where The Ganja–Mahua Chronicles will travel and be shown again; for now, you may catch it till 3 May in Delhi. Even if you can’t, you could always dip into Finding My Way, now available at a reasonable price.

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