Saturday, June 24, 2017

Rukmini Devi Arundale

India’s presidential elections take place next month, with two main candidates, Ram Nath Kovind, who has been an MP and governor of Bihar, and Meira Kumar. It is more or less definite that Kovind, the BJP candidate will win, though Meira Kumar too has excellent credentials–a woman, a Dalit, who had a career in the foreign service before joining politics. She has been a union minister, a speaker of the Lok Sabha, and is the daughter of the late Babu Jagjivan Ram.

The only woman president so far has been Pratibha Devisingh Patil.

But Rukmini Devi Arundale was the one who could have been the first woman president of India. She was a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha in the 1950s. In 1977 she was invited by the then prime minister Morarji Desai, to become the president, or at least to stand for election, but she refused. Perhaps there have been others who have refused over the years?

Rukmini Devi (29 February 1904- 24 February 1986) was an extraordinary person. Her father, Neelakanta Sastri, an engineer and Sanskrit scholar, joined the Theosophical Society and moved to live near its headquarters at Adyar, Madras [now Chennai], after his retirement. Influenced by Theosophy, she was a beautiful young girl of 16, when she decided to marry George Arundale, an Englishman, a Theosophist, and a man who at 42, was much older than her. Her decision created a furore in the sedate circles of Madras, but she went ahead, and soon became even more closely involved with the world of Theosophy. At the same time she revived and made Indian dance respectable again, founded Kalakshetra, the dance institute in Madras [Chennai] and laid the foundations for animal welfare in India. In the course of her life she received numerous awards, and wrote and lectured on several topics.

Just as Jiddu Krishnamurti was put forward by the Theosophists as the messiah and world teacher, Rukmini Devi was named the ‘world mother’. [see earlier post: Two Philosophers of Modern India, for more on J Krishnamurti]. In 1925, at the Order of the Star meeting at Ommen, Annie Besant announced: ‘Rukmini of glorious past will be Rishi Agastya’s messenger to the women and young ones In India….Young in body, yet she is old in wisdom and power…’. Rukmini did not openly repudiate her, but gradually moved away from the role.

Was her marriage a happy one? Initially it would seem so, but as George Arundale grew older, he became rather odd.

These are just some snippets of the extraordinary life of Rukmini Devi.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The fossils of Antarctica

One hundred million years ago, Antarctica was covered in thick forests, inhabited by dinosaurs. It was a time of warmth, when the polar ice-caps had practically melted. Robert Scott in 1912, was the first to notice fossilized plants. Later Jane Francis of the University of Leeds, as well as others, discovered more. Francis found stunted beech bushes, which were only 3 to 5 million years ago. These plants and trees survived despite unusual polar conditions of night or darkness throughout the winter, and sun and light throughout the summer.
Polar dinosaurs may have lived there throughout the year. A complete dinosaur skeleton was found of Leaellynasura, which looked somewhat like a small kangaroo, lived on plants, and had enlarged optic lobes, indicating it could see in the dark.
Another dinosaur known from its fossils was a meat-eating creature, more than 2 metres tall, living in the James Ross region of Antarctica. It was probably a Titanosaur.
There is also evidence of tetrapods living in Antarctica 245 million years ago.
A meteorite from Mars is believed to have fossilized microbial life.
Recently, there are claims of tiny humanoid fossils being found, which existed 600 million years ago!
Given what we know about human evolution, this is a near impossibility, and I am yet to see something about this in a scientific journal.
But obviously, Antarctica has many mysteries that are still to be discovered.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Narendra Modi and Indira Gandhi

Today, while working on a new book, I reread accounts of the 1971 elections, and began to see parallels between Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi. In that year, Indira coined the slogan 'Garibi Hatao', or 'remove poverty'. The combined opposition's main programme was to get rid of Indira. They failed, and she returned with 352 seats in the Lok Sabha. Yes, a few years later there was JP's movement, the emergency, and her temporary downfall, but there is something to be learnt from this.
Catchy slogans have a great impact. Negative campaigns often do not.
In retrospect her policies did not remove poverty. Was bank nationalization a good thing? It could be questioned. What about the other economic policies? Those need more analysis.
Is demonetization a good thing? I may be wrong, but as far as I can see, it hasn't served its purpose, and has caused a lot of misery. Even bankers are beginning an agitation against it. But if opposition parties want to win elections, they need to focus on some positive programmes. Merely condemning demonetization will not work. Narendra Modi's policies may or may not bring results, but he is putting forward hope for the future. The opposition must do the same.
That is the lesson one can draw from the past. Rahul Gandhi, the Congress, Mamata Banerjee, Lalu Yadav, and others should learn from history.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Lament of the Flowers

[ Pushpa Vilapamu] by Karuna Sri, [pen name of Jandhyala Pappaya Sastri, 1912, -1992] translated from the Telugu
Bent on worshipping you
I woke up with cock-crow:
Bathed, clad in pure white,
Entered an orchard to fetch flowers.

As I stood by a plant, held the bough
And touched a flower, lo: all the flowers raised
Their voices in chorus, wailing, ‘Must you kill us all?’
My hear sank, something flashed in me, as ‘Lament of Flowers’.

‘Will you nip us all and collect in baskets
As we play in the tender leaf-lap of our mother
And sell us to gain salvation? What use
Any worship, when you are heartless?

‘We are dull heads, you are wise;
You have intellect, imagination;
Has your heart turned to stone?
Doesn’t it yield a few flowers to offer to god?

‘While we breathe, we air the identity
Of our creeper- mother---enjoy rocking freely
In her hands--and as the hour approaches,
Contented we close our eyes--at her holy feet.

We facilitate the air dashing scents; feast the bees
That court us with sweet nectar; please the eyes
Of the likes of you; why this selfishness and--
Stop, don’t snap us--Do you sever mother and child?

‘You’re fine--cutting others throats for your sake---
How mean of you to acquire merit thus? Will the Master of all
Accept this bloody offering? Won’t the all knowing Lord
Receive our poor souls? Why an intermediary?

‘Strangling our throats with a thread of wool,
Sending needles through our hearts, they bind us
To deck their fashionable hairdos---
Alas, pitiless indeed is your fair sex!

‘Squeezing us in presses to the last drop
Of life, you men make attar
With our heart’s blood to was the foul
Smell of your bodies, O murderer!

‘Alas! All those luxuriating beasts of men
Sprinkle us on their beds, trample our tender bodies
Under their heavy feet--crush and crush-- and next
Morning throw us out, all faded and unpetalled.

‘Offering all our priceless tender sweet lives
At your feet, aren’t we lost,lost? Having
Plundered our youth, beauty, you sweep us away
With a broom! Do men have any ethics?

You are born in the land of the Buddha,
Why is natural love just dead in you?
O murderer, murdering beauty,
Tainted indeed is your human birth.

For God’s sake leave your worship,
Don’t cut our innocent throats!
Oh! What grace can you earn
Killing us with your own hands?’

Thus admonished by the flowers--so
I thought--I had no hands to pick them;
To report the matter to the Lord
Thence I came, all empty-handed.

[1944, trans K Godavari Sharma.]

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Black Carp

In Japan, black carp were known for their courage and strength, and streamers and banners depicting these carp were used as symbols by samurai warriors. The streamers or ‘windsocks’ are known as Koinobori, while the carp are known as koi.
Today Koinobori are used on Children’s Day, 5 May. A pole is planted with a colourful streamer above, a black carp streamer below, representing the father, and then a red carp streamer for the mother, with smaller and different coloured streamers representing the children. Initially Children’s Day was known as Tango no sekku, or Boy’s Day, and was only to honour sons. It used to be celebrated according to the lunar calendar, but was fixed on 5 May, after Japan began using the lunar calendar. Girl’s Day was on 3 March. But in 1948, Boys Day was renamed Children’s Day, celebrating the happiness of both boys and girls, and 5 May became a national holiday. Apart from carp streamers, a kintaro doll too is depicted, riding on a carp. Kintaro is a folk hero, a child with superhuman strength. One of Kintaro’s fictional exploits, was the capture of a black carp.
In the Edo period , black carp were were popular with great artists who often depicted them in paintings or woodblocks.
Black carp have been selectively bred to create ‘brocade carp’. Selective breeding actually started in Japan in the 1820s, but today this has been refined, and these coloured carp are kept in ornamental ponds. White and red, known as Kohaku, are the most popular. Decorative carp are now avavilable across the world.
Masuji Ibuse [1898-1993], famous for his novel Black Rain, on the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima, also wrote The Carp, a story of friendship. Crazy Iris [Kakitsubata] is another of his works on Hiroshima, a species of Iris distorted by radiation.

Monday, July 25, 2016

A visit to the post-office

The other day I visited the Rajpur post office in Dehradun, to send some Speedpost. The post office has a shop attached to it, selling stationary, mugs, and cards depicting local aspects, snowy mountains, the Himalayan Tahr, the monal pheasant. Outside is a plaque that has always intrigued me:
Anyway that day, when I went inside, there was no electricity. The Speedpost could not be sent till it came on. I came outside--there were men with a ladder against the electricity pole. 'How long will you take?' 'Do you have something urgent?' he responded. 'Yes', I said. 'I'll put the electricity on for a few minutes', he said. He made a phone call. Soon, a whirr as lights and computer came on. The Speedpost was sent. Another lucky customer managed a registered letter. And then the lights were off again--perhaps for a long time.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Chopin and Poland

Yesterday, on Japan TV, [NHK news channel] I came across a one hour class on Chopin’s mazurkas, recorded at the Royal Academy of Music. The teacher, an attractive young woman, whose name I did not get, was playing extracts from the mazurkas on a Steinway grand piano. She was an expert pianist, and held the students spellbound with her playing and her commentary and explanations.
And as I had just been thinking about the division of countries, my thoughts turned not just to Chopin and his music, but to the history of Poland, that country so often partitioned. Chopin was born on 4 March 1810, in ┼╗elazowa Wola, near Warsaw. His father was a French immigrant and his mother, Polish. What was the situation in Warsaw at the time?
By 1795 Poland had ceased to exist after three partitions led to its occupation by Prussia, Russia, and Austria. Napoleon, though, brought hope to Poland, promising to revive the nation. After his defeat, by the Congress of Vienna in 1815, a new small kindom of Poland was created, out of part of the duchy of Warsaw, with the Russian emperor as the king. Krakow became a city republic, but the rest of Poland was again divided between Russia, Austria and Prussia.
Poland began a movement for independence, but after a brief success, was taken over again by Russia. Independence came again only after World War I.
Chopin moved to Vienna in 1829, and to Paris in 1831, but his heart was with Poland, and his compositions were influenced by the music of Poland. With the revolutions in Europe in 1848, he went to Scotland and England, but returned to Paris, where he died on 17 October 1849, of tuberculosis. In this short life he composed 55 mazurkas, 27 ├ętudes, 24 preludes, 19 nocturnes, 13 polonaises, 3 piano sonatas and some concertos.
Another later great Polish pianist, Ignace Paderewski, was valued so highly, that he even became the prime minister for a short time in the newly independent Poland!