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By Swarnima Bhattacharya
In a glowing tribute to R.K Laxman, India’s foremost cartoonist, humorist and political satirist (to say the least), The Times of India called him the “uncrowned conscience keeper of the nation”.
I remember encountering the magical and pithy effects of Laxman’s deft brush-strokes, even before I knew that a nation and its makers needed conscience-keeping. In a middle-class, upwardly mobile family like ours, the daily news from The Times of India furnished not only our dinner-time conversations, but was also the repository of what my teachers fondly called “general knowledge”.
Adding immensely to that body of knowledge, introducing layers of pointed, good-humoured criticism to prevalent discourse, were the inimitable cartoons of RK Laxman.
The nameless Common Man, the ubiquitous, immediately recognisable old man, dons the attire of our grandfathers. The checked coat is a vestige of colonial legacy, and the dhoti, harkening back to a more Indian sartorial legacy.
He also wears an unchanging wry, bemused expression, similar to what I have often imagined on my father’s face, after a long day in a battered government office, or standing in a long queue outside the electricity office.
As I grew up, I didn’t need telling to make me know that the endearing Common Man was us-not one of us- but the essence of all of us consolidated on canvas. In an interview with Karan Thapar, RK Laxman recalled how the discovery of the iconic Common Man was rather an accident.
Overwhelmed by the sheer plurality of Indian identities, Laxman started off by drawing representatives of multiple religious and cultural denominations as mute spectators to national goings-on. The Common Man, as we now know him, emerged suddenly, mainly as a result of economising time and space.
And now, this prodigious accidental discovery, is an enduring institution unto itself. For over five decades, the Common Man has peered out of the small cartoon corner of The Times of India. He has been a silent, marginal figure who simultaneously occupied the most private spaces of bureaucrats, politicians, prime ministers of the country, presidents of the United States and even the corners of our drawing rooms.
He remained silent and brooding, with an occasional furrowed brow, but largely unfazed. Since 1947, the year of our independence, he documented for more than half a century, our challenges, idiosyncrasies, dogmas, follies and some moments of redemption.
In his own words, RK Laxman outlined the role and responsibility of a political satirist in so many words, “Ceaseless public criticism is the best guarantee that the liberty of the individual as well as of the nation will be preserved”.
Truly enough, the joke was on everyone. During the tumultuous years of the Emergency, the rights of the cartoonist were suspended for about 20 months. But soon enough, the tongue-in-cheek satirist hit out with this cartoon.
Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru was a well-known admirer of Laxman’s sharp eye and incisive draftsmanship. After finding himself to be an object of ridicule in one of the cartoons, for his role in the Indo-China war, Nehru is said to have requested Laxman for a signed, enlarged and framed copy of the cartoon. Irreverence and dissent had never been more relished and welcome.
Always exposing the avarice of bureaucrats, rapacity of politicians, self-serving deviousness of Ministers and the foibles of everyday people, Laxman never failed to add a dash to humour to commonplace frustrations. It was the quotidian that found centerstage in Laxman’s world of inoffensive derision.
Even though the Common Man was tucked up in the margins of the frame, it was his very relatable presence that has been institutionalised in the Indian political imagination. Unlike the screaming, busy-looking debaters that are now found in profusion in mainstream media, Laxman remained an astute political commentator with his dignity and sense of humour intact.
The fact that his mocking eye survived the ire of successive governments, rioters, angry mobs and offended corridors of power, says a lot about his artistic method. He possessed an uncanny ability to cut through the most entangled of national and social problems, and capture the crux of the matter in one raised eyebrow, or a twisted grin, or a swish of the wrist.
His satire didn’t need distended vocal chords or reams of paper, but just a few words. He found “reason” in chaotic discourse, as Shakespeare would say, as “two grains of wheat hid in bushels of chaff”. The Common Man didn’t topple governments, or change policy, or impact development.
Despite that, never has the Common Man, the weary yet optimistic Everyman, been more empowered and entitled than on the canvas of RK Laxman- not even through political parties whose names commemorate the proverbial “aam aadmi”. Heralded as the “uncommon” creator of the Common Man, RK Laxman breathed his last on January 26, 2015.
He left behind a glowing legacy of menacing caricatures on power, development, corruption and social inequity. As you stand beside the statues of the Common Man in Pune and Mumbai, you are struck with the realisation, that this is no celebrity, even though he is a celebrated iconoclast.
The Common Man is a poignant reminder of our own exalted and significant, but oft-forgotten position as the largest electorate in the world.
Tenali Ramakrishna, or Tenali Raman as he is more popularly known is Birbal's equivalent in South India. A court jester and a scholar exuding great wisdom, Tenali Raman was known as one of the greatest courtiers in King Krishnadevaraya's court.
The Vijayanagar Empire ruled a large part of South India between 1336 and 1646. In the 16th century, the kingdom rose to prominence under the eminent leadership of King Krishnadevaraya. His continuous victories against his enemies ensured a successful and peaceful reign for his subjects. As a patron of art and literature, many crafts and cultural assets thrived in the empire.
Krishnadevaraya's beloved courtier, Tenali Raman is the finest example of the splendour of the Vijayanagar empire. He was born in Tenali, a town in Andhra Pradesh. He lived here until he lost his father, after which his mother brought him to Vijayanagar. He was discovered for his excellent wit and wisdom, and appointed in the court. He was one of the king's ashtadiggajas (collective name for the eight poets and scholars).
A statue of Tenali Ramakrishna near a Municipal Office in Andhra Pradesh Image source: wikimedia commons
Tenali Raman as a scholar, published great texts of wisdom, which have now become artefacts of the Kingdom of Vijayanagara. But his fame does not lie in these achievements. He is known for the mischievous jester that mythical folklore portrays him to be. Through stories, many writers have used jokes to impart wisdom and morals to many generations of people. The stories of Tenali Raman are almost legendary in the Southern peninsula.
Textbooks have been written with his moral stories in mind, and these days, many self-help book are also incorporating his wisdom. His most popular stories are, 'Mother Tongue', 'Cursed Face', 'Saluting the Donkeys' and many more. Through these stories, Tenali Raman, in some way, brought about social justice. Perhaps this is why he is most beloved by many people even today.
Keywords: Tenali Raman, Vijayanagar empire, Krishnadevaraya, Jester, Wisdom
It must be noted that different religions and societies in Southeast Asia have alternative narratives of Ramayana, one of the greatest epic.
Here are some of the versions of Ramayana!
Dasaratha Jakarta: The Buddhist Version
Interestingly, this version of Ramayana does not mention Ravana at all and in fact, there’s no mention of Sita’s abduction, too. In this version, Dasaratha is the king of Benaras and not Ayodhya. Also, Rama and Sita leaves kingdom and go to the Himalayas and not forests. Then, after twelve years, Rama and Sita return back to Benaras and get married.
Paumachariya: The Jaina Version
In this version, Lakshamana is the killer of Ravana and not Rama. Here, Rama is an ardent follower of Jainism, and so he cannot be the killer of Ravana. Also, this version states an army of warrior and not monkeys, as stated in Valmiki’s Ramayana. Another interesting feature of this version is that Ramayana is not shown as a villain, rather a magnanimous king and follower of Jainism.
Gond Ramayani: The Gond Version
Gond is an adivasi clan belonging from Madhya Pradesh in India. Interestingly, in this version, the story begins from where Valmiki’s Ramayana ended; when Sita is rescued from captivity. Also, Bhima, one of the Pandavas from the epic of Mahabharata, is mentioned in this version. Unlike Valmiki’s Ramayana, Rama is not the protagonist in this version.
Ramakien: The Thai Version
This is considered as Thailand's national epic, and is still taught in some schools in the country. In this version, Ravana is shown as a learned scholar and a noble king in this version. Also, Ravana’s pursuit for Sita is depicted as true love. There are a lot of similarities between this version of Ramayana and Valmiki’s version, but this version lays a lot of emphasis on Hanuman.
When a baby is born in an Indian household-they invite hijra to shower the newborn with their blessings for their blessings confer fertility, prosperity, and long life on the child. But when that child grows up we teach them to avert their eyes when a group of hijras passes by, we pass on the behaviour of treating hijras as lesser humans to our children. Whenever a child raises a question related to gender identity or sexuality they are shushed down. We're taught to believe that anything "deviant" and outside of traditional cis-heteronormativity is something to be ashamed of. This mentality raises anxious, scared queer adults who're ashamed of their own identity, and adults who bully people for "queer behaviour".
Hijras are a community of people who include eunuchs, intersex, and transgender people. They worship the Hindu goddess of chastity and fertility, Bahuchara Mata. Most hijras, but not all, choose to undergo a castration ceremony known as "nirvana" in which they remove their male genitalia as an offering to their goddess. The whole community is vibrant with hundreds of people with hundreds of ways of expression, the true identity of a hijra is complex and unique to each individual. In India, hijras prefer to refer to themselves as Kinner/Kinnar as it means the mythological beings who excel at singing and dancing.
Hijras worship the Hindu goddess of chastity and fertility, Bahuchara Mata.homegrown.co.in
The hijra community works systematically, the community separates itself from the outside world and teaches lessons to the young ones in secret. Each community has a guru and the other hijras are their disciples or chela. The "hijra ways of life" are taught to the disciples in a secluded environment where they leave their families and live with other hijras in the community. More often than not hijras are thought of as nothing different from transgender and often referred to as transgender; however, scientifically these two terms denote a different class of people. Hijras are a part of the whole community of people with various identities and of spiritual and cultural values meanwhile, transgender merely refers to those people whose gender identity differs from the sex assigned to them at birth, they are a part of the community and do not represent the whole community.
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Historically and culturally the community has existed in the Indian subcontinent as long as the civilization has existed. There are mentions of hijra in The Mahabharata, a holy book of Hindus. Shikhandi who was neither male nor female is a mythological legend. In another version of Mahabharata Arjuna, one of the Pandavas was cursed to be the third gender by Urvashi, when he refused to be sexually involved with her. In a story by Padma Purana, it is seen that Arjuna transforms into a woman to take part in Krishna's mystical dance which only women can take part in. The Hijra figures are prominent in Indian Mughal History as well, referred to as Khwaja Siras and known for their loyalty to the ruler, they worked as the sexless watchdogs of the Mughal harems. They held important positions in court and various facets of administration during Mughal-era India, from the 16th to 19th century. The Hijra community is a testament to the sexual diversity that is integral yet often forgotten in Indian culture.
If the whole hijra community was looked upon with enamor and respect in our history, what happened that when we come across the community we look at them with contempt and are filled with a mixture of negative, fear, laughter, and odd emotions. It's owing to the fact that under British Raj, the Criminal tribes Act 1871 hijras were criminalized and the law was made to eradicate the whole community. However, these acts were abolished by the Indian government after independence, and by 2014, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh all had officially recognized third gender people as citizens deserving of equal rights where the third gender means individuals categorizing themselves as neither male nor female. Even though the progress is slow but in 2015 Madhu Kinnar became the first hijra mayor in India was elected in the city of Raigarh.
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Although the hijra community was revered by society and is invited to births and weddings for religious and spiritual ceremonies, they still become victims of abuse and discrimination. Violence and hate crimes against the community have become common. They are deprived of education, job opportunities, seating in restaurants, etc. leading them to live in poor conditions barely surviving. They often have to resort to begging and prostitution to earn a daily living. The government has tried to address this issue by introducing bills for the protection of the hijra community, with prison terms and other punishments for those offending them, but there is little to no less effect on the social stigma against the community.
In India, the hijra community comes under the umbrella term LGBTQ+ and we notice that they lack voice and representation when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights. We need to understand that when we fight for LGBTQ+ rights we fight for the whole community, we fight for hijras who have been victims of violence, hate crimes, and disrespect from none other than the people of our society. And although hijras are a part of the LGBTQ+ community as a whole, they have an independent subculture of their own. It is worth every effort to know about them, to study about them, to befriend them, and to smile at them for they are every bit of human as we are and they have nothing but blessings in their heart.