Just Another Wake-up Call

Murali Sivaramakrishnan[Professor of English at Pondicherry University, India. He is also a poet and painter. His recent publication includes the poetry book Silversfish.                     E-mail: <smurals@gmail.com>

It had rained so heavily last night. But now the dawn has brought so
much soft light on the wet boughs and silken flowers. Everything appears
fresh and clean. The sky bears an amazing touch of blue. From where
I sit on the low balcony of my house I can see right up to the end of the
street where it turns sharply to the left and right hiding beyond the heavy
laden trees. Now there is a shower of insects. There are termites all over
the place. Crows, mynas, drongos and magpie robins are dashing in and
out of the strange volcano-like eruptions from the ground. Millions and
millions of tiny winged creatures zoom about only to be devoured in hundreds
by these birds and other little lizards and hairy mongooses which
join them. This is certainly a protein rich repast for them. Nature is so
strange. Each one thrives on the other. Life is one long unending chain.
And yet the survival of each species is ensured through different means.
The termites might be food for the birds but their sheer numbers makes
them outlive their predators. It is not the time span or specific niche in the
food chain that ensures this, for after all in nature time means different
stuff for different species.
They say that the Mayfly has the shortest life span of all living creatures.
It lives barely for one day. And within this short life circuit the entire
drama of birth, growing up, reproduction and the ensurance of the species
and death comes full circle. Some moths and butterflies live a little longer
and dragon flies live up to a week. While on the other hand, the longevity
of elephants and tortoises takes them close to a century and beyond
sometimes. All life forms on earth have their own intrinsic space and time,
and one significant point we have to bear in mind is that they are there
for themselves and they play a significant role in the biosphere and ecosphere.
We can say they have intrinsic significance which means they have
essential rights to exist independently of what we humans might consider
their worth. Of course we human beings have the definite capacity to decide
their fate and destiny because of our might and forceful histories. We
have become the dominant species on earth the masters of all our universe
(until we encounter such superior alien creatures in other planets or stars
which is a future possibility). But for the present we humans have absolute
right of control over all of this planet earth, this third rock from the sun.
I once heard someone state over the television that Americans have
such superior weapons nowadays that they can destroy the entire earth
nine times! This immediately made me wonder how such a threat is feasible!
Simply because once the earth is destroyed there would not be another
to destroy a second time let alone till the ninth! But the threat is obviously
a bit exaggerated for the sake of its magnitude! Of course humans do have
the power to annihilate all life forms including ourselves. This is certainly
a potential threat to all nature.
But nature thrives through creation and destruction. Even the giant
reptiles of the Jurassic age had to face extinction through the great ice age.
Nevertheless nature did find a continuity in ensuring the success of life by
permitting new and newer life forms to germinate even after such a massive
catastrophe. It is said that even after a horrendous chemical warfare
cockroaches can survive to live another day! Perhaps they have evolved
their own biological adaptations after encountering repeated attacks from
us humans inventing and reinventing several chemical and biochemical
atomisers and such stuff to eradicate what we hold as pests from our domestic
spheres! Life does find new ways!
We humans are indeed great consumers. We gorge on our planet. And
down the centuries as we read in our history books we have been exploring
and conquering new territories inside our earth as well as on the surface
and even above our earth. We have created cultures and civilizations,
languages and technologies that have helped us spread all over the globe.
There is virtually no place on earth which has not felt the shadow of a
human being! Our great creativity and adaptability has ensured our survival and success. There is little doubt that us humans are the sole owners
of this mass of rock from the sun. We might defend ourselves by saying
that we have every right to ensure our own survival because we are the
dominant species on earth. We can command the fate of all else. And now,
even if we do produce a mass of garbage which might pollute our earth and
water and air around us we can eventually find new scientific means to
get rid of all that. There are many among us who would strongly advocate
for human beings alone as the apex creations of god – after all we are the
direct decedents of god – he or she produced us in their own image (this is
what our religions would teach us).
This I have heard: humans are not the only creatures who leave debris
behind. Large herds of wandering elephants pull down and destroy
innumerable trees, thorny shrubs and bushes. Aren’t they then culprits of
destruction of nature and habitat? With the discovery of fire human tribes
have torched and scorched miles and miles of bush and terrain down the
history. So then, why only blame our present day generation solely for habitat
Having said that, we come to realise that the axe and the fire have laid
waste miles and miles of living land through countless generation. But the
point is simply that now we have reached such a pass that we do not have
any more chance: we have reached a cul de sac in our history and the history
of our planet. We have the first wake up call.
We have built up our civilizations and cultures with us humans as the
centre of it all. When we put our interests in front of everything such a
view is called anthropocentricism – human centred world views. Little do
we recognise as the intrinsic rights of all other non-human stuff to exist.
But nature as we have come to realise through all our learning and pursuit
of science, is something that cherishes what is called biodiversity. There
are innumerable living and non-living things that are besides the human
existence and they too have a need and necessity to exist side by side. In
fact it is through the continued preservation of this vibrant harmonious
web of life that we can also aid in our own survival. Ecology teaches us
that everything in our universe is interlinked with every other thing else.
We break one and it makes a dent in all others as well. When each animal,
each bird, each amphibian, each insect is deprived of its survival space – its
biological habitat – we also are making dents in the other interconnected
chains. We are locked in with everything else that exists. Some we can see
and make out, others are invisible to us but nevertheless exist. We have
so little right to assert our own right over everything else. But yet, this is
exactly what we have been trying to do so far. Our history, or rather our
environmental history is so full of our own footprints and finger prints.
We are the culprits.
Our second wake-up call is one that tells us our earth is not a garbage
dump! All the nations of the world produce waste and they are of several
levels from chemical to bio-chemical to nuclear waste. What do we normally
do when we are left with some waste? We simply dispose of it over
our wall; if it is in our neighbour’s yard it is safe beyond our sight. Now that
we have come to realise that all of this is our home where shall we dump
our waste? Is there space beyond stars? Can we find a distant galaxy where
we can heap all our waste?
These are not mere lists of facts or a fanciful array of fantasies – but
his could be a clarion call to stay awake and recognise our responsibilities.
We should not reach out for the snooze button
There has been no time in our histories as in the present when our
wake-up call has been so persistent. It is screeching. We have so polluted
our earth, our waters – including fresh water lakes, rivers and the seas –
and our air. We have to change our ways of living. Before that we need to
wake ourselves up. Do we need to wait till the last and final call has to go?
Was it indeed Mahatma Gandhi who said that we have not just inherited
the earth from our forefathers but simply borrowed it from our children!
My reverie is rudely broken by the door-bell. Someone is at the door.
I need to go and get the front door. The sunlight outside has become warmer
and shadows have started to shrink. The sun is moving beyond the tree
line up into the blue skies. The termite volcano appears to have subsided.
The crows have already left. Satiated no doubt with their fill of sumptuous
protein-rich meal. Only a couple of stray mynas still hang about pecking
at this and that. A couple of squirrels dash in and out of the bushes. Probably
the late comers. It dawns on me suddenly that I have left the lights on
inside my rooms. It is imperative that I conserve whatever is left, including
our electricity. I definitely do not want that doorbell to be the third and
final wake-up call. I am up and about in no time!

Revista rile, joão pessoa-pb, v. 1, n. 1, p. 289-292, jan – jun 2018 

Art and political history through stones and temples– Book Review in the Hindu dated 7th October 2014

UntitledThe 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 s.murals@gmail.com