Recognising the interlink between culture and conservation
Book Review in the Hindu dated 20th January 2015
NATURE WITHOUT BORDERS: Edited by Mahesh Rangarajan, M.D. Madhusudan, Ghazala Shahabuddin; Orient Blackswan Pvt. Ltd., 1/14, Asaf Ali Road, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 595.
Nature is apparently quite simple and at the same time equally complex. To understand the way everything works is generally to recognize the interconnectedness of everything and also to realize the limitlessness of all that is natural. These days, public debates are quite rampant on issues relating to global warming and environmental degradation and the need and necessity to conserve and preserve whatever is left of biological diversity. And so rife are issues in terms of defining and redefining Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESAs) on account of the inordinate deterioration of the human-nature frontier in hitherto unprecedented ways — the urgency for understanding ecological structure and function has never been so thus imminent in order to plan for a safe present and future for all life. Nature without Borders is certainly timely and relevant.
We read that just by maintaining green pockets or isolated reserves humans cannot forever maintain the ecological process and functions that are at the core of the ecosystem and thus forestall environmental disasters, for it is virtually impossible to enclose nature within any boundaries. It is only by inquiring into ecology, economics, and culture and by asking how they are interwoven that now we can move on ahead. The editors of Nature without Borders argue for acknowledging and reviewing those larger matrices which are as critical as corridors or core habitats.
Eight essays prefaced by a substantial introduction comprise the book under review. Shifting through time and space the essays deal with human-nature nexus in complex terrains across snow-clad mountains and deep jungles as well as through pastures, farmlands and urban spaces. Black sheep, grey wolf, Sarus cranes, marine life forms, fish, dolphins, and the elusive Snow Leopard all figure in the pages of this impressive collection of seminal articles.
In their study on trawling and fishing the authors draw attention to the inordinate squandering of marine life through the intervention of today’s technology. Although known marine extinctions are far fewer than terrestrial ones, extensive commercial fishing has led to the collapse of about a thousand populations that once supplied the world’s seafood.
The Sarus Crane is a six-foot tall majestic bird that is globally threatened, found largely in the rice-wheat landscape of the Gangetic floodplains of North India. And the essay that deals with this bird and its environment pleads for an integrated awareness of cultivation and conservation. The large cultivated fields of Uttar Pradesh are ideal for the Sarus Crane and the people’s way of life conducive for their survival. The largest global population of these birds occurs in Uttar Pradesh that has over 199 million people with a density of over 800 people per square km and 57 million livestock all of whom use every bit of the land and landscape. Two aspects of farmer behaviour are critically important for the bird’s survival: their practice of retaining wetland patches of all sizes and of course their positive attitudes toward these majestic cranes. The need of the hour apparently is to recognise the explicit interconnectedness of culture and conservation.
The mountain ranges of the north and the west provide an array of wild sheep, antelope, gazelle and wild goats. This is also a terrain that is interwoven with the lives of predator and prey, wild and the domesticated spaces, of herding and trading as well. It is here that the most elusive and the most beautiful of the big cats, the Snow Leopard survives. This most camera-shy big cat first filmed in the wild as recently as the 1970s treads the same mountainous tracks as humans and livestock. And quite different from the territories inhabited by the elephant and the tiger, which are merely ecological islands interspaced by human habitation that in turn endanger and hamper their natural movements and threaten their sheer survival, the snow leopard’s terrain spilling over vast areas beyond its conservation range still becomes conducive to its lifestyle — in fact the snow leopard depends heavily on livestock raised and reared by human hands.
Wildlife conservation has always been threatened by the expansion of agriculture and landscapes fragmented by plantation crops. And the primary response to this has been the creation of protected areas such as national parks, sanctuaries, and nature reserves with added restrictions on resource use. We are given to understand that over 1,00,000 protected areas covering roughly 18.8 million square km or 12 per cent of earth’s terrestrial surface area has been set worldwide to preserve natural areas. However, considerable biological density also exists outside these bounded territories in human-modified habitats like the plantations and farmlands. Of course, there is always the factor of conflict and confrontation, and nature never plays by the book.
“Restoring Nature: Wildlife conservation in Landscapes Fragmented by Plantation Crops in India” is a seminal essay that deals with such contexts and conflicts in an area of great regional and global significance, the Western Ghats, and the authors highlight well-researched findings and engage with on-going interventions arguing for extending conservation beyond borders and territories. Tigers and leopards, elephants and people all exist in a vibrant mosaic.
And any inquiry into conservation ecology calls for the critical appreciation of this interlink. Nature spans rather than spills over borders and people remake the land not as and when they please, but as a contingent result of a series of contests and choices by a myriad factors. Thus in order to get the bigger picture, we need to allow ourselves to be enriched by variant perspectives that draw on human ecology, history, culture and the changing social dynamics.
This is a sensitive collection of essays centred as they all are on a very pragmatic approach, be it about the conservation ecology of wolves or the fight for an urban forest in Delhi. The idea of the border has very little sense when it comes to nature. However as the editors argue the borders within which we have tried to sequester nature against the siege of human demographic and economic growth are important symbols for they remind us of what we would like to secure and against what. And in the end as we close the book we feel the wisdom of the poet emerging: when we build walls what are we walling in or walling out?
One should not use the name of God mechanically and superficially without the feeling of devotion.
Of late media is rife with information regarding public demonstrations of kissing couples and their multitudinous onlookers. There is also so much in the news about several young men and women (?) who have also taken upon themselves the role of moral policing. As urban centres are the hub of these intense activities there has also been instances of skirmishes and state interventions. As with everything else much might be said on both sides; nevertheless the issue is one that needs to be taken seriously.
There are several factors at work here. To begin with, the visual media is so ubiquitous these days and the young people behind and off the camera are on a rush to feed the dragon always and all times. Thrillers like kissing wars are the right type for these to latch on for hours together. There are also enough and more spectators who switch on their televisions for these sort of sensational news: they are willing to watch and wait for equally long hours. After all ticklers like these make life worth living. There is this other factor of small-time hatchers—people who are otherwise-talented and who might be involved in many other fields like the arts or sports. They find this sort of arenas the right kinds to latch on to and swing on to the bandwagon: automatically the limelight falls on them. Take any issue related to the environment, or violence against women, we are sure to find such barbs and hatchers who latch on for dear life and rise with the tide of popular media hypes. After some days they are hardly there in the field, simply because they have made enough notoriety to get by in their chosen fields of expertise by then.
The most significant factors involved in the kissing wars are of course the demonstrations and demonstrators themselves along with the moral police who oppose them. Public demonstrations are of course intended to raise public awareness with regard to issues of significance. The Mahatma had resorted to soul-force or satyagraha as one genuine mode of resistance and protest. The kissers of the present have by all means a genuine reason to protest: they are demonstrating for raising mass- awareness of what we have as a civil society sidelined and repressed. It is significant that several young men and women have come to the open to protest and demonstrate against the slow closing of the civil mind. We need to wake up and recoup our society and safeguard its health and well-being. This of course needs to be done on a war footing, no doubt. They have resorted to demonstrate by making a public event of kissing. What is there if two willing people get to embrace and kiss in public? Why should it cause offence to the others? And anyway why should the other get involved? Why not learn to turn a blind eye as we often do when we see two animals coupling in public? Is a public kiss that offending? Why this dramatic emergence of a Hanuman Sena all of a sudden? Our social mores are so stilted and ossified that there is hardly any sensitivity when genuine issues crop up. We have been repressed into subhuman beings never to respond to those subtle issues: we have been taught to turn a blind eye to all and everything except ourselves. And now all of a sudden our moral insides are churning when two people embrace and kiss. But then, we need to pause a little here and reconsider the issue a little more in depth.
Anthropology and History tells us that human beings have evolved considerably (or that’s what we are given to think) from the level of mere animals (not meant to demean the animals in any way!) and in this process developed a social system and a civil society (perhaps, several systems and several societies at the same time) which actually has imposed several self-imposed or hegemonial restraints on our behavior with ourselves and in relationship with the other. In many ways we are not simple biological entities existing as mere life forms, growing, breeding and dying. We have constructed innumerable but invisible complex structures all about us which control and manipulate us: sometimes we are conscious of these but mostly we are unconscious of these factors. Making love as we understand in the present in civil terms is a private affair. In sociological terms love and sex are definitely separate factors and could exist as mutually exclusive categories. There are of course innumerable dimensions to sex and love. Nevertheless, sex or its “higher evolved” version of love is something which we as civil and social beings have accepted as a private affair. Violators of girls and women might resort to any level of physical abuse seeking gratification by any and all means: there is hardly any point in theorizing these to such inhuman beings; their acts need to be condemned and such offenders severely punished. But to make what is a private affair as a token of demonstration may not be quite right. What happens when two people kiss is certainly a private affair, but it is often held that kissing is an act of sealing genuine love and relationship. Young people certainly would recognize the thrill attached to a kiss, those furtive glances and that tender touch. To make of that a mere tool for display and protest might be taking things a little too far. As they say, streaking or display of nudity in public also would a little later appear to be a fair play in this direction. Just imagine the simplicity and prowess of a Bahubali or an AkkaMahadevi who shed all clothing in the face of a society that was built on external trappings and seeped in self-delusions. Theirs was a mode of subversion that was self-inflicted in order to inculcate a different set of values. If the kissing demonstrators had wanted they could certainly have chosen a different path or a different mode of public protest rather than resorting to a genuine and intimate affair like kissing and turning it into a public event. They are perhaps doing a gross injustice to the sacred art of loving. Have we suddenly landed in a system where the very meaning of sacred has eroded away? Don’t we hold anything, not even love as sacred? Now, this definitely wasnot the reason why those self-styled protectors of social values took to the streets to harass the demonstrators. They were on the other hand, only mere pawns revealing the larger process at work in our repressive culture—that of sidelining genuine issues and harping ceaselessly on the trivial.
Now how could the self-styled moral police call themselves Hanuman Sena? What has that eternal brahmachari got to do with these issues? In the Ramayana and elsewhere Hanuman is portrayed as a monkey who is extremely chaste and wise. Even at their first meeting Rama remarks on his clear sightedness and the clarity of speech. The Vayu Putra whom every genuine devotee is used to meditate on in his or her hearts is a sacred soul extremely devout and intensely benevolent. After all even his physical prowess needs to be evoked and incited by external agencies before they manifest through him. To invoke such a sacred name in a putrid war of moral impositions is certainly to cast dishonor on that noble soul. Erudite scholars of religion and philosophy have reminded us time and again that the god one worships externally is a projection of one’s own ambition and desire.Bhagavan Ramana has cautioned us that: One should not use the name of God mechanically and superficially without the feeling of devotion.
If those noble souls who parade themselves as self-styled moral protectors of society hold any faith or belief in their insides they have little business to drag the name of a unique soul into the public sphere. To quote Nietzsche, where the rabble also drinks all waters are impure! Do we have any right to such acts of violence against all that we hold as good, true, and beautiful? And anyway who stays long enough in the highways of profound reflection inquiring into the deeper significance of religion and spirituality?
Even if the kissers were simply allowed to show their act of protest everything would have gone fairly unnoticed even, because our present society is fed day to day with new sensational news that we have forfeited our memories. Alas! Our self-styled arch defenders of a public morality have to take arms against such offenders who tickle their sexual energies, and our voyeuristic society thrives on such traumatic sado-masochistic sexuality. The visual media is our new eye and heart. Whither is sped the inner eye?
Dr. Murali Sivaramakrishnanis Professor and former Chair of the Department of English, Pondicherry University. He can be reached at email@example.com
This copy of The Book of Indian Birds was presented to me by Prof K K Neelakantan, the doyen of Ornithologists in Kerala, in appreciation of my work in connection with wildlife activities in the mid seventies. I still cherish this copy because the legendary Salim Ali himself signed it. We were assembled at the office of the Chief Conservator of Forests, Kerala. I recall vividly the animated conversations we had with him and later my walking alongside him discussing birds and wildlife. Those were wonderful days. A page from those wonder years…
The book under review is an excellent interdisciplinary study that falls squarely in the shadowy space between art history and political history, and, given the present day academic scenario, there is virtually very little communication between such disciplines and their methodologies. However, once one discovers the area where they overlap and become sensitive to the insights that would follow thereon, it is certain that new and newer collaborative perceptions are bound to emerge, as Richard Eaton and Phillip Wagoner reveal through this magnificent work. Architecture and cultural landscapes especially in the Deccan in peninsular India bespeak of conquest, dominion, destruction and redefinition. Exquisite stone temples, synonymous with cultural inscapes define this territory. The three issues highlighted in this study are power, memory and architecture. The book is very well produced and illustrated liberally: a delight for those interested in the contested sites of the Deccan.
It took me a-while to read through the volume because I dwelt on each page, poring over the pictures and delighting in the art historical perspective as it emerged. And in the process, there were two similar works that I was immediately prompted to fish out from my shelf to consult alongside: Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory, and Sheldon Pollock’s The Language of the God’s in the World of Men. “Intriguing,” is perhaps the one word that jumps to one’s mind while perusing all three. Land and memory are inextricably connected and built-environments suffer from invasion and conquest leaving traces of the depredations and maraudings of colonizer as much as those of defeated rivals. In the vision of the authors of Power, Memory, Architecture, invaders of Deccan, were confronted with complex cultural situations and were in turn left with a range of options: they could continue to patronize pre-existing structures in a similar manner like of old or rebuild them in the same sites in their own manner. They could also redefine or alter them in imitation. In some cases they could destroy them or as in other cases they could ignore the cultural sites altogether and turn a blind eye. In any of those cases—examples of each are elucidated in the various chapters of the book—what emerges is the struggle of power over cultural landscapes and people’s memory.
The broad area that this book captures is the Deccan with its monumental architecture – specially the fiercely contested sites of Kalyana, the one-time capital of the Chalukyas; Raichur (another area of struggle between Vijayanagara and the Bahmani sultanate); and Warangal the power base of the Kakatiyas. From the tenth to the fourteenth century (continuing to the seventeenth) the desperate struggle between political power and architecture as the visible and palpable expression of the cultural life of the people, becomes especially intense. Temples are chronicles of a narrative of this interaction of power and memory.
The book is divided into four sections, titled respectively: Orientations; Kalyana and the Chalukya Legacy; Warangal and the Kakatiya Legacy; The Raichur Doab in the Age of Gunpowder. Power is the lynch pin of this book: and relying mainly on the available architectural and epigraphic record, the authors read beyond crude stereotypes of clash between Hindus and Muslims and attempt to identify and explain the wide range of ways at critical points in the Deccan’s history, conquerors, administrators, and even local chieftains interacted with the key cultural monuments of this area. As they argue, historians have often tended to neglect the Deccan during the 1300-1600, and this book proffers different perspectives from the usual ones toward a better understanding of how regional politics operated at the ground level. The authors approach monuments and other material evidence as dynamic texts that tell their own tales about how they related to different communities over time.
Memory is identified as playing a crucial role in the close encounters during the 16th century in the Deccan interacting between power and architecture in more significant ways than it was during the 14th and 15th centuries. What is perceived is the shift from non-interference to re-assemblage with active patronage, ranging between the desecration and redefinition of monuments. While earlier with the expansion of Delhi Sultanate into the Deccan a fusion of temples and mosques came into prominence, during the 16th century by contrast, a deliberate revival of earlier times and cultures were infused. As art historians have always emphasized, Chalukya architecture was to be seen as a distinct taxonomic entity, and the 16th century patrons actively sought them out for recycling in their royal projects. Both the variant versions of Chalukya architecture– the Dharwar and the Bijapur styles—were reintegrated into the nascent emergent style apparently infused with a political motive deliberately in the Vijayanagara to invoke a continuity with the past. In a similar manner to the north the Sultanate of Bijapur (1490-1686) whose sovereign territory covered much of the Chalukya’s former territory, displayed its own awareness and interest in the past. The battle of Talikota spelt catastrophe for Vijayanagara while for Bijapur it was a physical and ideological transformation, and its Sultan Adil Shah used the plundered wealth to upgrade Bijapur from a mere provincial outpost to a major Indo-Persian capital. Architectural narratives reveal this process of fusion, transformation, and reintegration. It is not unusual for scholars of history to refer to the plunder and pillage of Hindu temples by Muslim invaders. But as this book attempts to reread in the remains of Deccan’s architectural monuments, desecration and destruction were not the sole process but a deliberate cultivation of aesthetic and architectural history integrated with memory of place also was in the scheme of things.
Another polemical re-reading that is sure to engage the interested reader’s attention in the book is with regard to the implications of Sanskrit and Persian cultural perceptions and universality of dominion. This is revealed in the situation of the Deccan after the Delhi Sultanate’s decline in the 14th century and the subsequent rise of the Bahmanis and the Vijayanagara during the next two centuries. Whereas the Sultanate’s invasion had been recognized as having reconfigured the political geography of Deccan, what is yet to be reckoned is the impact of this conquest that worked as a catalyst for accelerating the diffusion of the ideals of the Persian cosmopolis in a region where those of the Sanskrit cosmopolis had already sunk deep roots. As the authors argue the Persian cosmopolis crystallized at about the same time that the literati under Chalukya patronage were yoking the ideals of the Sanskrit cosmopolis to both Kannada vernacularism and Chalukya imperialism. Stones and temples do have much tales to tell. The disruption of power centres and reestablishment of new nodules for dominion and rule have left several traces that resonate down centuries for the attentive ear and eye to perceive and rearticulate—an intricate interplay of power, memory and architecture. This book is a treasure.
Prof Murali Sivaramakrishnan is Professor of English in Pondicherry Central University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Murali Sivaramakrishnan belongs to that rare breed of the vanishing (rather vanished) tribe of English teachers who are well-equipped with a strong foundation in the Indic spiritual tradition. Sturdily armed with a Sanskrit orientation, he approaches the territory of Indian aesthetics that angels dare not tread. It is common knowledge that the primary source of this discipline is thevedas and the upanisads. All great creations of art are the supreme emanation from the heart filled with rasanubhava. We do have a hoary tradition of aestheticians extending from Bharata of the fifth century BC down to Panditharaja Jagannatha of the 17th century who have thought long and thought deeply on what constitutes the nature and mode of existence of a work of art. The western critical tradition cannot pride itself of such unbroken continuity. There is a yawning unbridgeable gap of 10 centuries between the decline and fall of the Roman empire in the fourth century A.D. and the European renaissance of the 14th century, the interim medieval age relegating arts as unwanted baggage in its over-insistence on religion.
This book is an attempt, in the words of the author, “to reread the contribution of the mystic in the light of contemporary scholarship,” with an approach that is “holistic and integral, methodology not derivative but comparative, and poetically sensitive.” The work, a collection of articles previously published during 1993-2011 in various journals, is divided into four major sections in 11 chapters with an addition of two personal, contemplative musings — for me the best of the lot — and a select bibliography. Of these, the section ‘Aesthetics’ is of immediate concern to us. Murali is quick to realise the distinction between the aesthetics of the West and the East. Indian aesthetics centres on supra-sensual values since it is impossible to comprehend the finite without extending it to the infinite.
For Sri Aurobindo, the object of human existence is brahmananda, the delight of being and hence progress in life lies not in rejecting beauty and delight or practising a life of denial but in rising from a lower to a higher plane in the realisation of the experience of beauty and delight. The aesthetic process lies in the soul becoming conscious of its pilgrimage towards God. He envisions the possibility of the human to enlarge his awareness to the ultimate stage of Divine Supraconsciousness.
Murali maintains that Sri Aurobindo’s aesthetics is integral in nature and spiritual in its conception. Life is viewed in its entirety and in its all-inclusiveness. He steers clear of two attitudes: the materialist’s rejection of anything behind the phenomenal appearance and the ascetic’s refusal to accept the material reality of the world. These two stand as the major obstacles to a comprehensive awareness which is possible only through an integration of Life and Spirit into a cosmic continuum. “To become complete in being, in consciousness of being, in force of being, in delight of being and to live in this integrated completeness is the divine living” says Sri Aurobindo in his The Life Divine. Murali coins the phrase ‘the aesthetics of transformation’ to denote this stage in the evolutionary process, in the Arnoldian sense of ‘a growing and a becoming, and not a being and a resting.’
Murali advises us that while approaching the works of Sri Aurobindo we should bear in mind the following: “his distinction of the subtler levels of spirituality from overt religion and its discourses; his foregrounding of the intensity and necessity of experiential yoga…; his constant involvement with poetry and the power of the Word — the mantra”. His concept of the efficacy of the mantra, the poetic expression of the deepest spiritual reality, which he formulates at great length in his magnum opus The Future Poetry is vital to the Aurobindonian spiritual aesthetics which is all about the wholesale transformation of the inner-self (body, mind and spirit) and not, not at all, of the tawdry fripperies of external existence.
Most of these essays deal with Sri Aurobindo’s search for enlightenment, his recovery of the significant principles of ancient aesthetics embedded in our scriptures. Ideas and illustrations get repeated time and again; hence there is a noticeable lack of progression in the elucidation of Sri Aurobindo’s aesthetics. It is none too easy to guide the reader through the labyrinth of the works of the great mystic. Murali draws heavily from the abundant source available in our scriptures. However there remain some nagging questions which an uninitiated reader is bound to raise. How does an aesthetic experience get immediately intuited? What is the locus of such an experience? Does it offer a terminal value? What is aesthetic judgment? Or aesthetic bliss? Probably such overt pragmatism is irrelevant and unwarranted in the context of Aurobindo’s synthetic vision. One searches for the ‘New Directions’ promised in the title of the book. Whither are they?
Book Review by MS Nagarajan in The Hindu July 1st 2014