Wednesday, 2 April 2014

The Reluctant Voters' Guide to Varanasi

The Reluctant Voters' Guide to Varanasi                Mrinal Pande 

With the slogan of Har Har Modi ,the BJP tried to steer Varanasi towards a simplified and sanitized version of  Hinduism, democracy and leadership . But those who knew their Kashi, felt the move to substitute its divine protector the Lord of Lords (Mahadev Shiva) with Modi, was bound to fail in a city renowned for its stubborn defiance of outsider bullies challenging the might of Mahadev. Known also as Kashi(the area of beautiful Kaans grasses), Pushpvati(the city of flowers), Avimukt Kshetra (an area that its patron God, Shiva will never leave) and Brahmvaddana(the city of the truly learned ) Varanasi has a long history of intellectual dominance in the north east and has refused to be overwhelmed by any new ideas before the new proposal is subjected  to a thorough and collective scrutiny by the people of Kashi(Kasheyas) themselves . The process of scrutiny here involves all : kings , learned ones and the common citizen . Once they have all collectively lifted the embargo, Varanasi plays loving host to all genuine ideas no matter what the caste or creed of its carrier . It further goes on to encourage subtly that the common man’s language be used for a dissemination of the new ideas . Buddha to Parshvnath, Kabir, Tulsidas, Premchand, Ghalib and Ginsberg, all dissenters were extended a rare warmth and receptivity after the archetypal argumentative Indians here had been appeased and convinced .  Thereafter, if they so wished, the city would happily offer them a public platform to help generate many memorable freewheeling discourses .

Before the Aryans came in, Kashi was a major trading post and had its own pantheon of Yakshas, Nagas and other weird and unpredictable gods who formed Lord Mahadev's retinue. And when the Aryan duo of Videgh Madhav and Gotama crossed the river carrying a new and ritualistic Vedic culture that had overtaken Aryan cultures west of the Ganges , the peoples of Kashi (Kashyas) did not le them in without a healthy debate on its own variety of Dharma(religion) Artha(capitalism) , Kama(sexuality) and Moksh(liberation) . They made sure that in this land, Lord Shiva the Destroyer alone shall dominate as Devadhidev(the supreme God and patron of all art forms) and his brand of inclusive love for all those fearsome Yakshas and Nagas and wild beasts and reptiles must be accepted by the new incumbents . Unused to such impudence, a hymn writer (of the Paippalad branch of Atharv Veda) lost his cool and sent up a prayer to the dreaded Takma ( Malarial fever), asking it to leave the west and move eastwards and ravage this unbending city of Kashi .

Malarial fevers may or may not have entered the city but Kashi remained unbending . After the great war of Mahabharat Vasudev Krishna of Dwarika (now in Gujarat) emerged as the most sophisticated statesman and leader of men in the northern plains . But Kashi remained cold to him . The king of Kashi chose to befriend a clownish Pondraka(from West Bengal where else?) and encouraged him to fool around as Vasudev of Dwarika to the great merriment of his equally mischievous subjects ! So much for political clout and adroit politicking!

Kashi, like Shiva, harbours a natural love for music , dance and poetry that combine  the folk and classical genres . Everyone acts as a critic of music and poetry here, from the lowly Ahir with his cans of fresh milk to the traders ( like Jai Shankar Prasad and Bhartendu) and ofcourse the dazzling courtesans befriended by artists and patronized by its rulers . It was said by one of its famous courtesans, that her monthly earnings were more than those of the Viceroy of India . These brilliant, learned and financially independent women interacted freely with the high and mighty on an equal footing and  have proffered sage advice to kings, Ustads and Pandits . Some even wrote special Kajri lyrics in the vernaculars to mourn their favorite policemen and soldiers who died defending the honour of Kashi . One Chaiti, which is still sung, goes :

Arey Rama Nagar jaala kaley paniya re Hari ! (ah, our beloved Data Ram Nagar has been banished to the black waters).

And another celebrates the colourful and handsome Rutam Ali :

Kahan gayo mero Hori ko khelaiya,

Spahi Rustam Ali, banko sipahiya .

(where oh where has our darling, that handsome player of Holi Rustam Ali, gone ?)

To create music and poetry so lovingly out of wars, banishment and death in exile, is no mean achievement . In an age when Sanskrit ruled , two vernacular poets of Kashi : Tulsi and Kabir, both orphaned and abandoned initially by the society they were born in, eschewed Sanskrit and created literature in local dialects . So also Premchand . All of them rediscovered and re established for all those who lived beyond the pale of the upper castes and their power languages (English, Persian or Sanskrit), a particular aura of human honour and dignity . Their works are neither utopian nor quixotic but introduce a new sonority fed as they are, by a stubborn conviction, that ultimately both art and politics , belong to the mixed societies whose Ganga Jamuni culture must be respected at all times . ‘I will beg for a living, sleep within a mosque but neither give nor ask for political patronage’, Tulsidas said . And Kabir told both the Mullahs and the Pandits bluntly that neither of them knew the real path . Stop yelling for God’s sake,  he said, He is not deaf !

It is important for all aspirants to the supreme leadership in India to realise that voters of Kashi will be unchanging in their resistance to hypocrisy . This once all three major candidates being fielded by parties, are outsiders to the city of Varanasi that can see already how their ultimate goal is to fly the tricolor from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi.

The Buddha’s advise for a poor boatmen, Avariya, still holds for the voters here . This man had come to the Master complaining about how he was constantly being cheated by tricky out of towners after they had been ferried across the river . One can imagine a twinkle in the Buddha’s eyes as he said : “ Outsiders, you should remember, are fickle by nature. It is you the boatman, who must ensure that you exact a proper fee from them before you allow them to set foot in your boat .”  



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