Category Archives: English Classroom

PLAYING FAIR AND SQUARE ON THE GREEN FIELDS

The scene is the cricket match between India and the West Indies during the recent WorldCup.  Sachin Tendulkar is batting.  He has barely faced a few balls when one races through his arm-pad and lands in the wicket keeper’s gloves. There is no appeal—neither from the bowler nor from the wicket keeper. But Tendulkar is walking toward the pavilion. The players are stumped! And so are the million audiences over the world! Tendulkar realized perhaps that the ball had indeed grazed his forearm and so without waiting for the umpire’s decision he retired.  While in the commentary box the erstwhile icons of Indian Cricket Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Sastri debated the issues and virtues of “walking” the play resumed.

Now, we in the present appear to have forgotten the fact that cricket is a game to be played with the sportsman spirit it calls for. In all fairness Tendulkar had demonstrated it albeit the fact that he was playing for a country and that there are enormous amounts of money involved in the whole process. After all, the entire industry of Indian cricket and the business of the World Cup with its whole rigmarole of mega crowds, hoardings, televisions and their ubiquitous commercials, big business offers and betting and so on, revolves round the strategic issue of big money. How could anyone deny that? The spirit of play may be one thing, but the spirit that runs the whole thing is another. In this context what has playing fair and square got to do with the game?

And what is game? What is play? What is fair and square in the field and off the field?  All games we must recognize are essentially sport, which entails entertainment, recreation, and exercise primarily. There is a whole history of human sports that would trace its evolution from the primordial ritual to the contemporary scenario of big Capitalist business. There is also the implied connection with war and destruction and domination: all contemporary games at the international level (and even at its minor levels) are perhaps symbolic versions of battles and wars—a mockery of the all consuming, vindictive passions of the human being!

            Game, Sports, Play—almost synonymous, but each are descriptive of different issues. Game as it is usually understood, is something innocuous, non-violent, played out for the sheer pleasure of it all, and for the most enjoyable and involving little or no disastrous physical violence. It has a beginning, middle and an end—there is a marked difference between the before and after in terms of the protagonists as well as the spectators; above all there is entertainment and enjoyment for all in a game. Sports I would categorize in the similar manner as one that involves outdoor, physical activities, for the most. Entertainment and enjoyment there is, no doubt. There is a game in Sport and there is a sport in game as well. But the point is that all games and sports have their own set of rules which are purely arbitrary, having evolved over the years over cultures and times. In simplistic terms we could even state that all games and sports are products of sets of rules—they keep varying of course, but their visible presence (read umpires, referees, field book etc) and invisible presence (read time, place, action etc) account for the structure of all games and sports. However, the concept of play is something rather loose. It has a structure, no doubt, but this is an ambiguous, amorphous and protean structure, very loose and almost a non-entity, as when children get together and play about.

All three words have conceptual backgrounds; their own socio-political, cultural, economic and historical dimensions too. The proto game-sport-play is of course shrouded in human prehistory. It has necessarily evolved over many centuries.  One could trace its graph from ritual to the romance of the Capitalist market economics of the present. However, there are these sets of rules that govern the logic and pattern of the game that is disrupted if not observed in practice. Rules, we recognize are invisible (or visible as the case may be)–threads that govern, condition and control all sports and games. The rules themselves are arbitrary and not nor never absolute, and this is what makes sports and games entertainment. For instance from the long colonial structure of a five day test match (with a rest day in between) how far has cricket come these days!  When Kerry Packer invited major players to a fifty-over limited version of the game there was so much hue and cry over the sanctity of the test match structure and its disruption. Nothing sanctified was violated but the limited over cricket game evolved and attracted more viewers and audience. Commerce and market caught on and the television and technology supplemented the game. From there to the twenty-twenty rules and regulations have been altered and amended from time to time: nothing has remained inviolable, everything was open to transformation, change. All it required was convenience, consent and consensus. All rules are subject to change, very much like human history. We play on.

Jacques Derrida the harbinger of deconstruction—a veritable destructive and reconstructive practice of re-reading and reinterpreting interpretations themselves—initiated the whole issue of recognizing the play element in human sciences while delivering a significant address in the mid sixties in the Johns Hopkins University in the US [See Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” Alan Bass, tr. Writing and Difference (1966), pp. 278-95)]. According to him, human history (read western history of ideas) has been one structured round the idea of centre and periphery. It has been a virtual centre that has potentially ruled, manipulated and conditioned the structured thinking of the human being (read western). The invisibility of a centre that could be transcendentally present within a system maintaining the stability of the system without undergoing any change in itself has been the mainstay of western history of ideas. There have been no doubt many attempts to overthrow or discard this centre but for the most these attempts have been toward replacements rather than any displacements.  As Derrida demonstrated, western history of ideas has revolved round such invisible centres. If one were to think of the idea of a god as the centre, one could almost logically close off all doubtful positions—all elements within the circle of the invisible structures are created, organized and maintained by god, and while he/she is at the indispensible centre all else is locked. The various elements within this system cannot bring any change to the centre, while they themselves could be changed. From Derrida’s reading the process of western structural change has been from god as the centre through science and rationality in turn replacing god as the centre.  There has been virtually no change in the system even when such transplanting take place. This could perhaps account for the system’s stability.  It is however when the element of play enters that a new discourse comes to be created. When the centre remains invisible and unaltered play is possible for all elements within a given structure. But this is playing within the structured rules of the game—playing fair and square. This element of play could be unending if one could imagine a structure without a centre, because then all the elements with and without the system would be constantly in a state of play!  This just like a kindergarten class-room without a teacher in the middle!  Utter chaos?  Sheer confusion? But a recognition of total freedom, no doubt! However, the moment the teacher enters the class-room the system is restored to its harmonious structure.

The implications of Derrida’s concepts can be seen in close examining a totalizing situation where everything is dictatorially controlled and maintained. Human freedom is at stake here. So then, play reintroduces the element of human freedom, the recognition of the very condition of human existence. This is play at its extreme. When all totalizing systems collapse (like the state withering away) then the extreme conditions of entertainment and ecstasy would be revealed in play. We have come very far from the idea of play we started out with.  But we are armed with new insights.  When Tendulkar walked away from the crease he probably never even dreamed of all these possibilities. He was playing fair and square on the green fields! But he was also making a statement that rules and regulations are invisibly present in the game and this sport is essentially a play that needed to be played out within a structure– an arbitrary system– that is always open-ended. Many new transformations could be padded on to these rules—much could be changed, but for the most there is an implied idea of entertainment and ecstasy within a set of rules at a given time—all players have to adhere to that. Some of course play fair and square, others might wait for the umpires to dismiss them—still others would appeal to the third umpire loaded with his techno-tools and rule-books and strategic calculations. But the point of it all: heroes are made within the set of invisible rules–  to play well is sometimes strategically to break the rules, to go beyond the boundaries, but the play within the imaginary rules is sometimes even more magnificent.

Speaking at a Ceremony to honour Dr.Prema Nandakumar and Ms. Shraddhavan at SACAR

The text of Dr Murali Sivaramakrishnan’s speech in which he has discussed the contribution of Dr. Prema Nandakumar and Ms. Shraddhavan in the field of research and English language follows:

Auroratna Award 1

‘In English we use a phase which goes like “To carry coal to new castle” which means when one goes to new castle one does not carry coal. So when I come to SACAR and this might appear rather overburdened if I try to introduce either Prema Nandakumar or Shraddhavan because I don’t know them. I know very little about them. In fact I know so little, when I look all around you, most of you know more about them than I do because I am familiar with their work. As persons I have not had the occasion to meet either Sri Aurobindo or the Mother but I came to Sri Aurobindo through the work of Srinivasa Iyengar. Prof. Iyengar has been a kind of eye-opener for me. Then I started working on Sri Aurobindo. I am sure Prema-ji started working on Sri Aurobindo ten years before I was born even, I think, because in the 1950s, she was working on Savitri. In 1957 she started working and by around I think 1960 when she finished her book—her monumental work—I was just a kid. Eventually, when I came to do my work so many years later, her book on Savitri was a piece of revelatory sort of experience for me and that I found quite challenging in two ways because I have always felt that the work of Sri Aurobindo needs to be read in multiple dimensions at the same time. Of course we have Sri Aurobindo as the rebel; we have Sri Aurobindo as the creative writer; we have Sri Aurobindo as the political thinker, the historian, the sociologist, the person who has interpreted the Vedas and the Upanishads, a scholar extraordinary who also participated in the freedom movement of India; we have to see him and his work in a multiple sort of dimension and the kind of comparative element that both Dr. Prema Nandakumar and Shraddhavan provided, I think, were real eye-openers for me specially her work in comparing Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri with Homer’s epic which I don’t think anybody in the history of the world would have attempted because here is a work which is the longest work in the English language—Savitri with 24,000 odd lines—which happens to be the longest work available in the English language barring perhaps Nikos Kazantzakis’ Odyssey: A Modern Sequel which runs into 33,333 lines. So if you consider that as a translation, here is an original work in English which is the longest work and to compare that with another epic of multiple dimensions like Homer’s Odyssey or Iliad is something which a person with genuine intellectual and at the same time spiritual calibre can attempt. And that is what I found most intriguing in the work of Dr. Prema Nandakumar. So, it is a pleasure to talk about the work of somebody who has actually cleared the way or paved the way or made new wood in the scholarship in relating epics of two separate cultures, two separate cultural backgrounds, two separate idioms. So this is what I found most intriguing about Dr. Nandakumar’s work.

‘And of course Prof. Kittu Reddy has already mentioned Bharati’s translation. That is something which I wanted to cite also. Of course there is a big debate going on in the Tamil circle in support of Dr. Prema Nandakumar’s translation of Bharati; that apart if we were to look at the selections which she had made, it is not the entire corpus of Bharati of course. But whatever she has done with her discerning eye that, I think, is something which has come from her own reading of Sri Aurobindo’s work because Sri Aurobindo has specifically said that the critical eye that operates in poetry is almost superior to the critical eye that operates on poetry. So in that way she has been able to bring together the critical eye in separate perceptions and to be discerning to identify the kind of noteworthy work of Bharati. That, I think, is a good introduction. More than that Prema Nandakumar has done extensive work in bringing Tamil writings and brining regional and discursive elements of a particular cultural ethos in which Sri Aurobindo himself lived. Forty odd years he lived here in Pondicherry and that is something which is amazing for us because he never left Pondicherry. He has continued to be here and he has also translated Andal; he has done some tremendous attempts in bringing together so many other works which were around him. I don’t know whether he was aware of Tamil language, whether he could speak…’

Dr. Prema Nandakumar said: ‘He knew Tamil language. It is there. And he readPanchali-Shabdnam. He was the first to translate Kulasekhara Alwar into English.

Dr. Murali Sivaramakrishnan continued: ‘So that way Prema Nandakumar has been able to bring together a totally different cultural ethos into the study of Sri Aurobindo and she has been able to distribute, or rather, been able to bring together these elements into the discourse of Sri Aurobindo and other scholarship around Sri Aurobindo. To that extent, I think, her work is most admirable. And I am a person who loves to look at her work from a distance and I think I have great respect for Dr. Prema Nandakumar. Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to honour her.

‘To talk about Shraddhavan: I know that Shraddhavan came here in early 1970s perhaps. Before that she has been a poet in the English language and I have had many occasions to sit near her and talk to her of British poetry. And I was always taken in by the astuteness and the clarity of the rhythms and eloquence of poetry that she has been able to pick up. She had told me that she had worked in the lines of Charles Tomlinson, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, W. H. Davies and I could hear the reverberations of the late Modernist and the late romantic British poetry. I consider that as a romantic poetry because Ted Hughes was somebody who revived or brought together Tomlinson, W. H. Davies and others who brought together a sort of a romantic element in the line of British poetry back into the flavor bringing together the human and the non-human elements. That, I think, Shraddhavan has brought into me new shraddha. Shraddhavan has been a kind ofshraddha for me through her writings. And I have followed her English in SriAurobindo’s Savitri. [To Shraddhavan] That is an essay a part of which you had presented at my department when you came there—The Englishness of Savitri.

‘I don’t know whether many of you here are familiar with the kind of controversial work written in the late 1970s which is called The Pedigree of Savitri. I am surprised. Even at SACAR I don’t think you have that essay. It is a controversial essay which actually most counter to… Are you familiar with that by any chance?The Pedigree of Savitri? When I read that essay I was working on Sri Aurobindo in the early 1980s. I came here in 1986 and I was working in the Ashram Archives. There I found this particular reference and then I had to go to Hyderabad to dig up in the Osmania University journals and I came across that article. I found that Shraddhavan’s work on Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri and language actually brings together the lost connection between Sri Aurobindo and European early modernist poetry. At many times I always felt that Sri Aurobindo was somebody who was unable to communicate with the rest of the world. Poet and a person who lives in the present has to always have a kind of connection with what is happening outside. One cannot be a recluse all the while. Sri Aurobindo was never a recluse. You know, I have always defended this view-point. Many people have said: “Oh, here is a man who has chickened out in the phase of action, who has already moved away and who stayed at Pondicherry in the French resort.” They said that he did not want to step out in the British eye because he was afraid of action. But I also wrote a little bit in Sri Aurobindo’s Action and there I have tried to bring together this attitude of action and inaction and the kind of withdrawal that Sri Aurobindo did. So Sri Aurobindo was somebody who was all the time exposed to the multiple elements around him at manyplaces. He was open to that. He always liked to look at what was happening outside. And Shraddhavan has been able to pick up the element of the quality of language, the tonal variation and the subtle nuances of the English language which Sri Aurobindo carried with him as a remnant of his European learning. And that is something which she has been able to link with the spiritual quality of the language. I have read many other scholars trying to expound the quality of spiritual resonance in Sri Aurobindo’s poetry but Shraddhavan’s shraddha has been unwavering and steady. And I don’t think there is any other person who deserves this award in the present other than these two people.

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‘So it is a great honour for me to be able to share whatever I feel about these two Masters who have led the way and opened up their way for people like us who like to see the quality of poetry and philosophy at the same time. Thank you very much.’