Saturday, 11 February 2012

Karline McLain's Brilliant Analysis of two Indian Phenomena

Sometimes it takes an outsider to understand what is happening within a country and to explain it in a way that seems obvious in retrospect.

Karline McNeil is Assistant Professor of Religion at Bucknell University. She is perhaps best known for her book on Amar Chitra Katha, - "India's Immortal Comic Books".

Here's her first insight: She makes the very interesting observation that Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) comics have instilled a sense of national identity and a deep knowledge of India's mythology, history and national heroes among the Indian middle class and the Indian diaspora. The English edition of ACK comics has been the most popular among this segment.  Thinking back to my own childhood, I would say this observation is very true. Everything I knew about Indian history and mythology came from Amar Chitra Katha, and through the medium of English.

A scene from Vasavadatta, a work that I would never have heard of but for Amar Chitra Katha

ACK's art work was always good, and the imagery often seemingly divinely-inspired. This scene from Mirabai where mythology in the form of Lord Krishna intervenes to save the life of a historical figure (Mirabai) is one of my favourites.

The Mahabharatha: This scene of Karna's willing sacrifice was a very touching one for me

One of the few non-ACK works that I did read was Rajagopalachari's Ramayana, but that was also in English. By and large, ACK was the only source of knowledge about their country's heritage to a whole generation of middle-class Indians. As part of her insight into what happened with ACK and the Indian middle class, McLain links this phenomenon with the advent of the Indian nuclear family, which greatly reduced the role of grandparents and other elders as storytellers and torchbearers of cultural knowledge. Amar Chitra Katha stepped into the breach, and the rest is history (no pun intended).

Karline McLain also gave a short speech recently in which she analysed the phenomenon of the recent rise in popularity of Shirdi Sai Baba. Here's her second insight: She believes many Indians have turned to Shirdi Sai Baba and his unifying message because of their growing unease with the polarising politics of the Hindu right wing. That video is worth watching, and she has written a paper on that topic as well. What she says echoes what I feel about the Hindu right. These political parties have distorted (in fact, negated) the universalism of the Hindu approach to the world and turned it into a saffron jihad. They don't speak for me, and if Karline McLain is to be believed, they don't speak for an ever-growing number of other Indians. As my late father once said in disgust, "In the name of Rama, they act like Ravana." I don't know if the recent (i.e., in the last two decades) popularity of Shirdi Sai Baba is an independent phenomenon or if it is a rebuke by the Hindu mainstream to the militant Hindutva concept. Nevertheless, the idea is novel and certainly worth considering.

Karline McLain is a non-Indian who has grasped some key elements of what modern India is really like. Sometimes the perspective of distance bestows a wisdom that is denied to those in the thick of a phenomenon. As Kipling rightly observed, "what should they know of England who only England know?"

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