ON READING SRI AUROBINDO: BLINDNESS, INSIGHT, OUTLOOK AND A PERSPECTIVE

A Prefatory Note: The subtitle of this piece would certainly recall the famed theoretical essay of the same name on the rhetoric of contemporary criticism by the American critic Paul de Man. However what follows is far from any hermeneutical exegesis or any interrogation into the protean fields of theory and counter-theory even in the Indian context. My intentions are merely only to gather together the con/text(s) of the Aurobindian texts as not-read by the ardent devotees, or on the other hand explicated by self-styled scholars and their collective blindness which could hamper any serious “reading” or “interpretative essay”. Even introspection is stilled into submission and converted into being mere un-self-reflective survey. Sri Aurobindo needs to be read and those possibilities of reading never should be taken for granted. No amount of prescription could lead one to the truth of the text. All reading calls for a verification of the text against oneself and other texts.

This is an initial outline for perspective and should not be misjudged as a finality: that would amount to mistaking the map for the territory.

For the ardent devotee who casually or intentionally visits the Sri Aurobindo Ashram the works of Sri Aurobindo appear as manna from heaven to be lapped up unhesitatingly and perhaps later conveniently forgotten during the demands and involvements of other things.  He or she may pick up these works ranging from political treatises through philosophical speculations, to poetry and interpretative spiritual ideologies, and often browse through them as desired or directed by another friend or devotee and pass on. And but for the increasing number of interested tourists and inquiring novices the serious preoccupations of the Ashram and the larger discourses that have evolved round the significant works of Sri Aurobindo would have remained largely unnoticed. That there is an increasing traffic drawn toward his notion of man-making and his own version of evolving spirituality certainly speaks volumes for the significance of Sri Aurobindo in the present.  Nevertheless the question remains: how is he to be read, and what are the larger issues which still cling on to his discourses which might go to hamper the quality of understanding or even further the process of spiritual enlightenment and reasoning?  How is he to be read in the light of new emergent philosophies and theoretical engagements in an ever-changing and complex intellectual present? Of course another significant question also surfaces side by side: why go to all these needless mind games, why not simply read him as many have always conveniently read him and allow the inner amplification of his own vision to do the other tasks? For the simple-minded this last option should certainly be enough but for the ardent seeker there is indeed a whole array of interrogations ensuing from an intense reading of Sri Aurobindo’s version of spirituality.

Let us take these issues one by one.  Because for the unquestioning reader nothing actually matters we will leave such a reader to his/her own fate. The situation of the inquisitive reader could be generally seen under two heads: those who have read only the works of Sri Aurobindo for the most and are drawn into his amazing vortex through and through, on account of the innumerable disciples and their coteries; and second, those who have read and assimilated a number of “other” stuff and are gravitating toward the master’s superior brand of spirituality armed with queries and questions galore. Reading and re-reading Sri Aurobindo’s own works for them then would be an act of enlightenment, and the second category of inquisitive readers would go on asking questions just like those early generation of ardent devotees who had the great fortune of the proximity of the master himself and his own direct presence in the answers delivered to them even otherwise.

Sri Aurobindo’s works are indeed like a gold mine and they appear then as being endless and pure, exciting to the core. The delight is also equally endless. Little doubt that, however, unconditional swallowing of a text without placing it in a clear perspective or clarifying its various aspects critically amounts to no reading at all.

In fact, as the master himself points out, either the absence of a critical insight or the lack of inward vision would result in simple veneration or drastic dismissal.  This also brings us to the situation of the self-styled unbeliever who dismisses the entire oeuvre of Sri Aurobindo as crass non-sense significantly because they are the products of a different generation, belong to a different order of discourse, and they revolve around spirituality which is decried in an age of commercial capitalism and market economy.  To corroborate their dismissal they would also draw parallels with the simple-minded consumer mentioned earlier who claims to be “illuminated” and “blessed” on simply visiting the Ashram at Pondicherry, praying for a few hours at the Samadhi, or elsewhere, and browsing through a book or two from off the shelves.  There are of course innumerable poetasters also who read and “interpret” Sri Aurobindo in order to pick holes in his arguments and proffer them as critical interpretations! They hardly matter in the long run. Spirituality and critical enterprise sometimes appears to run counter too. How does one resolve these issues?

Now to return to the inquisitive reader. The works of Sri Aurobindo—the texts as we have them now—are increasing by the day, on account of the archival research that goes into it. The secondary or interpretative scholarship also is increasing alongside. There are also enterprising scholars who engage with the works of Sri Aurobindo for securing a PhD degree for themselves. Many of them stray into the master’s works for want of anything else or simply on account of writing on an Indian author in English (the resource materials are also fairly vast indeed!) The range of Sri Aurobindo is such that he could satisfy any scholar in almost any field whatsoever. So then sociologists, historians, philosophers, literary theorists, psychologists, anthropologists, cultural theorists, Sanskriticians, Indic scholars, life scientists, cultural geographers—you name it, they are all there! There is nothing wrong, sinful, or clever about exposing the works of Sri Aurobindo to the inquiries of different disciplinary methodologies.  This goes to prove the inexhaustibility of Sri Aurobindo’s scholarship and contribution.  But the moment some too enterprising devotee steps in and cautions the “unwary” and the “radical” thinker of stepping into mined territory, Sri Aurobindo scholarship suffers unduly.

For the most, even among those so called self-styled scholarly inquires into Sri Aurobindo one finds little or no scholarship apart from what gets reflected from the master’s own skill and vision. I would like to classify these sorts of forays in general into two sets:  as mere descriptive essays, and interpretative monographs. The first type usually ends up quoting Sri Aurobindo in large chunks and leaving the quotes as self-explanatory. The examiners also would find it easy to sanction degrees and diplomas to these “devotional” scholars and their dissertations unquestioningly. The second type would bring in some comparative elements quite tentatively and with great care for fear of crushing the master’s words (quite unwarranted, no doubt!) and make sure that Sri Aurobindo’s position is uniquely preserved even in the course of the textual arguments. These self-styled scholars then parade as arch Aurobindonians never ever casting a single glance at either Sri Aurobindo’s works or their own (mis)readings ever afterwards.

Sri Aurobindo might be his own interpreter or rather his works could stand testimony to their own insights—but scholarship is indeed something more demanding than submissive commentaries, surreptitious asides, or supportive descriptions.  Considering the fact that Sri Aurobindo himself was a master at critical thinking and encouraged anyone who came under his spell to further the intellectual realm, these self-professed Aurobindonians are wont to cause more damage than necessary. Sri Aurobindo certainly is a demanding intellectual, a radical mystic, who needs to be taken a little more seriously rather than left to defend himself in these so-called critical dissertations which are nowhere near to what he himself would have acceded to.

Over the last four decades after the birth centenary volumes (SABCL) were released, scholarship in and around Sri Aurobindo studies have certainly increased many folds.  However, I am yet to come across evidences of critical writing of the level of a Sisir Kumar Ghose or a K D Sethna or a Srinivasa Iyengar. I, for one, had the good fortune as a young research scholar in the eighties to interact in person with these extraordinary giants in the field of Sri Aurobindo scholarship. K D Sethna impressed me with his amazingly broad sweep of influences and perspicacious brain. He never let go of his reading even after he came to settle in the precincts of the Ashram. Sisir Kumar Ghose on the other hand was a sort of peripatetic scholar who gravitated to Sri Aurobindo after a considerable stint with Alduous Huxley and later at Shantiniketan with the Gurudev. My conversations with him reminded me of dialogues with Aristotle or Coleridge or Harold Bloom. Srinivasa Iyengar had read researched and taught English literature before coming under the blinding light of Sri Aurobindo. His monumental biography is a piece of well-researched work that proffers a no-nonsense background to Sri Aurobindo studies. Above all this soft-spoken academic was as erudite as ever on several levels at the same time. What mattered in the case of these three early intellectuals and academics were that they kept a steady head in the face of critical inquiry. Sethna moved among the works of Sri Aurobindo with the eye of a classical scholar, Iyengar read and argued with the tenor of a comparatist, and Ghose brought metaesthetic dimensions to the entire discourse. Granted Sri Aurobindo is a visionary who sought yogic sanction in all his pursuits and thereby it might be mandatory for an equally ardent follower to practice yoga rather than intellectually engage with his teaching in order to reach that spiritual realization which the less-fortunate scholar might only cerebrally conceive.  So then, we need to keep in mind the fact that there are these two broad segments—the simple minded devotee and the inquiring scholar.  Four decades of Sri Aurobindo scholarship had produced perhaps a mere handful of significant works, free from mere rehash or simple citation, and even less genuinely concerned scholars.

As we have seen one of the biggest impediments in Sri Aurobindo scholarship had been the fact that the master’s words themselves have been the most adequate explication of his vision. All one had to do was to put one’s hand into the complete works or whatever, and pull out the gold vein—the rest will follow suit. For the unwary, no interpretation, no critical inquiry, no comparative reasoning—all it requires is the setting up of a string of citations and quotations, and parade them as one’s own finding! How embarrassing! How unethical!  The early scholars had their job well cut out—they had to read and interpret Sri Aurobindo in the light of critical and clearheaded thinking.  The later scholars follow suit—the difference being the significant lack of critical reasoning. In Tamil they speak of grinding the already ground dough—in similar scale Aurobindo scholarship has deteriorated to mere rehash and thus lifeless and practically dead.

Citing the master’s words themselves is one thing, but allowing someone else to speak on his behalf is another. For those schooled in English writing Iyengar and Sethna appear to offer the ultimate, and A.B Purani and sometimes Nolini Kanta Gupta, or Prema Nandakumar, could casually get thrown in. The worst form of torture is when some “spinelessly insightless” critics are paraded as having said this or written that when all they had done would have been to draw extensively from Sri Aurobindo’s own writings.  Isn’t it silly and insipid to claim that one has quoted the master at length and thus arrived at academic Nirvana?   Isn’t it even more sillier and stupider to cite such rehashed chunks as corroborative evidence? Perspicacious readers like Sisir Kumar Ghose, Sethna, and Prema Nandakumar would have spent sumptuous hours battling with the master’s words racking their brains out before making themselves bold enough for borrowing those as evidences of what they want to establish. When seen along the likes of Homer and Dante and Shakespeare if Sri Aurobindo’s poetry holds up on its own then certainly it is worth perusing.   When compared and contrasted with a volley of writers and intellectuals who had lived alongside him Sri Aurobindo’s works are worth enquiring into, that should give us enough reason for delving in on our own.  Either way mere rehash or sheer quotation should never compensate for direct encounter and inquiry.  Political thought and action, historical reasoning and interpretation, philological exegesis and practice, philosophical inquiry and spiritual exploration, poetics and textual interpretation are all the characteristic strengths of Sri Aurobindo the visionary, and to neglect these in favour of citing someone who has merely lifted the masters own words as an authority, is to turn a blind eye to that critical inquiry which Sri Aurobindo himself stood for always. Of course it is not for all and sundry to interpret for oneself – that is a demanding task even for the demigods!

This brings me to the crux of my arguments: blindness, insight, outlook and finally a holistic perspective.  In the early eighties when I was taking up my studies on Sri Aurobindo, CD Narasimhaiah, the doyen of Indian English scholars who established a unique centre for indigenous research in what came to be identified as postcolonial studies later (Dhvanyaloka, in Mysore) asked me quite derisively if I could cite some instances of poetry in the entire oeuvre of Sri Aurobindo. He himself had been brought up under the long shadow of New Criticism having studied at Cambridge with F.R Leavis and other eminent scholars of his times, and wont to question everything from the point of view of form narrative and practice. I had to resort to several instances from the poetry of Sri Aurobindo in order to convince the eminent professor that there could be other levels of poetry as different from the Eurocentric that he was quite familiar with.  Such was the leniency of scholarship that resided in CDN that he was willing to listen and comprehend from a younger scholar—and accept many things which he would later argue about! Sri Aurobindo’s poetry we had come to realize by then had another level that required a different set of responses. Later CDN would write of Savitri, “if poetry is a mode of meditation, dhyanamantra you would find it here” (CDN, 1987)  What Sri Aurobindo’s works demanded for a clearer appreciation was an approach that was non-Eurocentric and at the same time a little different from that prevalent in those times. And only those among the innumerable self-styled arch-defenders of an overtly Indian perspective who could evolve an outlook that deviated from the dominant modernist vision could gather the required sensibility for responding to his works. While poets as different in outlook as Kathleen Raine and V K Gokak could read new lines and evolving directions in Sri Aurobindo, Indian modernists like P Lal and Nissim Ezekiel dismissed his work as derivative and deplorable. The issue then would certainly have been not the text of Sri Aurobindo but the contexts in which they were hyped and re-presented by the discourse of the spiritual which had by then overtaken and wrapped up the works themselves. New Indian sensibilities demanded the shedding of all that was debilitating and undermining, and the over dramatization of the spiritual in all its ignorance by the non-initiated led to the growing intolerance of the ostensible ornamentation of all that metaphysical stuff of unreason. The tremendous impact of west-centric modernist discourses wiped out whatever indigenous sensibilities still residually clung to the Indian mind. All reading was modified under the light of new scholarship, under new reason.

Blindness resulted. The Ashram and his followers were closing down. After the great dawn of awakening that came to be recognized as the Indian Renaissance which never took off afterwards and was never even allowed to come to its logical conclusion, a great night of insensitivity descended. Scholarship in Sri Aurobindo studies came to mean only those sanctioned by the devout and the so-called saintly. The scribbles from the margin and from other discourses were silenced under the great arch of the Aurobindonians that was built of solid rock and guaranteed the faithful salvation and nirvana while the unfaithful rampaged on the outskirts as academics and intellectuals, forever kept away from following the silent pilgrim into the interior of supramental manifestation.

The film maker John Abraham a long time ago in a jovial mood told me that he had once explored the possibility of working on a documentary on Sri Aurobindo. After days of shooting in and around the Ashram in Pondicherry he moved over back home to the studio to develop the rushes of the film (remember those were good old days of the non-digital films!)  Alas to his dismay he found all that he had shot had been overexposed in the “supramental glare of the Maharishi.”

These are of course apocryphal, however, they lead us into the heart of what matters. The discourses that have crystallized around the work of Sri Aurobindo demarcated territories of reverence and desecration. As the poet had phrased it: The death of the poet was kept from his poems… (and) …the words of a dead man are modified in the guts of the living. The works of Sri Aurobindo survived like Ishmael alone to tell the tale. They needed to be critically engaged with and their “truth” inquired into. But the first step in that direction had to be taken in the dark under the blinding light of the supramental! Well, too much of the sun can cause our too fragile sensibilities to warp and burn out. The followers of Sri Aurobindo’s brand of spirituality rose and fell with the tide and turn of birthdays and darshan days schooled and tutored under scrupulous Gurus who interpreted the master’s words suitably to the uninitiated. All that happened was a mere rehash of the words of the dead man. They were not allowed to germinate in the guts of the living for fear of the legendary doubts.

When someone speaks out there is a natural tendency to turn the blind eye. What is already known is always most welcome and what is interrogated and unearthed causes disturbances and so is neglected as irrelevant. The generally agreeable was the generally enjoyable. Insight was a laborious process that led to nowhere in particular.

Scholarship in Sri Aurobindo studies thus far had taken these directions: interpretative in terms of select texts and discourses specifically recoursing to acceptable readings. Comparatist perceptions like those afforded by Prema Nandakumar or Rhoda P LeCocq or Harold Coward had endeavoured to open up new directions in critical thinking but did not sustain sufficient support afterwards from elsewhere.  Manoj Das, Rohit Mehta, Haridas Chaudhuri and Kishore Gandhi sought higher correspondences from Indic and non-Eurocentric directions, but the foundations they built up were rehashed by the next generation of scholars as dissertations and newer studies. The early generation of scholars had the guts to make new inroads while the later generation felt comfortable in sticking to the known and the predictable. There is an Arabian proverb that goes like this: Traveller, there is no path; paths are made by walking.  Now to break new wood one has to await the strayed reveler. However, the strangeness of the territory is such that even the castaways are camouflaged and submerged. In this mire of the spiritual to build a fire one needed to get away first. All fires have died out.

The living spirit of inquiry that Sri Aurobindo so carefully preserved and cultivated appears to be misplaced. Vision, experiment and experience had been the catch words of the master both in his creative writing as well as in his philosophical inquiry (he was equally creative in both realms). But the quality of experimentation has begun to ebb away and along with it that special insight which is the inward eye of the initiate.

Sri Aurobindo states:

I had no urge toward spirituality in me, I developed spirituality. I was incapable of understanding metaphysics, I developed into a philosopher. I had no eye for painting — I developed it by Yoga. I transformed my nature from what it was to what it was not. I did it by a special manner, not by a miracle and I did it to show what could be done and how it could be done. I did not do it out of any personal necessity of my own or by a miracle without any process. I say that if it is not so, then my Yoga is useless and my life was a mistake — a mere absurd freak of Nature without meaning or consequence. You all seem to think it a great compliment to me to say that what I have done has no meaning for anybody except myself — it is the most damaging criticism on my work that could be made. I also did not do it by myself, if you mean by myself the Aurobindo that was. He did it by the help of Krishna and the Divine Shakti. I had help from human sources also.

ON Himself:p.148-9 (13-2-1935)

It was not any such thing [about the intellect] before I started the Yoga. I started the Yoga in 1904 and all my work except some poetry was done afterwards. Moreover, my intelligence was inborn and so far as it grew before the Yoga, it was not by training but by a wide haphazard activity developing ideas from all things read, seen or experienced.

Ibid, p.222 (13-11-1936)

The genuineness of the man and his single minded commitment are so superhuman that we have hard time considering that Sri Aurobindo was human after all. Anything that appears to call for a little more effort than was normal we humans ascribe to the divine and thus turn our blind spots into auras of admiration and adoration. This is nothing but sheer marginalization and isolation of the more enterprising among us. History reveals what we humans have done to such greats almost at all times irrespective of geography and culture. Thus what we achieve by our blindness is loss of insight and that profounder perception—that will to achieve.

However, as Sri Aurobindo asserts:

Impossible is our mask of things to be

Mortal the road to immortality.  (Sonnets from Manuscripts, c. 1934 – 1947)

We have identified several overlapping circles of discourse here. The primary one is that aura of Supermind which may or may not have descended. There are those determined disciples who would love to hang on to the nebulous godhead that lies like a nimbus round Sri Aurobindo. There remains little doubt that he was a guru of extraordinary powers and will. Few people have achieved what he did in his time. But disability to engage intellectually with his works amounts to indifference and insensitivity to the higher demands of spirituality. What he achieved was definitely through a solemn struggle—a product of cultural history that he himself was. The secondary factor which is no less significant is the one of his textual works which are also thereby clouded by “faith” and “belief” on one side and there by placed in a unique position of unquestionable authority.  On the other side as we have seen they inculcate blindness. Sanctified by the establishment of devoted believers whatever goes for interpretation is mere rehash of his own words. Any efforts toward a critical vision or any element of debate and interrogation is viewed with sheer culpability and thereby corruption of the devotee’s mind. Many are the ardent devotees who flock to the works of this supreme master of Yoga–they genuinely seek solace and comfort from the travails and traumas of this world. Several are the seekers who do indeed find their desired peace. They do not wish to be disturbed. They are blissful and at peace. Let us leave them to their own fate. Then there are these arch critics of Sri Aurobindo who target his works and the entire discourse that has sprung around the ashram and mock and deride the devout followers: for them this collective act of worship around tombs and samadhis appears silly and absurd. Their prejudiced eyes and biased visions proffer them only darkness and murk. They are thus innately blind. Let us leave them also to their sorry fates. He doesn’t need us to defend him from the bulldozers of mockery and derision. His was a passion for the infinite and the beyond.

But there is an element of struggle and quest in Sri Aurobindo’s works which need to be taken quite seriously indeed. As we saw earlier he was a product of his times and the cultural and intellectual context of his becoming are there for us as leads to his process of thought and the formulation of his philosophy. We have to recognize that Sri Aurobindo was an intellectual and a philosopher—his works and words are ample evidences for this view. He was a poet and essentially one as he himself has vouched. In fact as I have argued elsewhere his system of belief can be understood and resolved only as an aesthetic circuit with the human seeker on one end and the God head of the Spirit at the other end.  So then this system would also require to be seen in the light of cultural and historical scholarship. Sri Aurobindo’s life that is often recognized by many scholars as falling into three distinct phases begins with his European exposure and return to India and his political involvements leading finally to the withdrawn life of a seeker in Pondicherry. In all these three phases he had to encounter forces of decadence and degeneracy.

Let us take them one by one. His early upbringing by an anglophile father led to his over exposure to the aftereffects of the enlightenment rationality and an Anglo-Germanic philological heritage. His return to India was marked by a nagging self-doubt and an eagerness to identify with his non-Eurocentric self.  This search for identity can be seen in his early political writing—the plethora of linguistic and cultural contexts that were reeling under a unifying colonial yoke afforded him the perspective toward a holistic synthesis, which leaves in itself a Hegelian trace. He was an activist and sought direct confrontation with the authority of the establishment. There are interesting exchanges between Sri Aurobindo and Mahatma Gandhi. Sri Aurobindo’s withdrawal into French Pondicherry after his activist political stint reveals his desire for a synthesis of the intellect and the all enfolding spirit. He could envision the larger framework of cosmic action wherein the smallness and pettiness of little minds petered into insignificance. He was single minded in his pursuit of the spirit and a holistic transformation was his genuine desire. He was like the Buddha in that not until all life was on its way to be transformed will he let go, and individual nirvanas meant little for him. He devised a philosophy of spirituality and also evolved a map for the initiate to follow suit. The discourse that evolved later around all these contours is even now hanging like a smoke screen and his individual intellectual trajectory is almost already well lost. Much like an Upanishadic seer that he was, he insisted his followers to engage with their own yogic experiences as he himself had done. He had of course many sides to his personality: the political thinker, the activist, the seeker, the yogi, the philosopher and the poet.  Whatever preoccupations he went through he never let go of the last—that of the poet.  Poetry afforded him the unique blending of inspiration and expression. The search for the mantra or that perfect unison of sabda and artha, sound and sense meant the quest for the ultimate unison of inspiration (vision) and expression (word).  I used Savitri as means of ascension he wrote in a letter.

I used Savitri as a means of ascension. I began with it on a certain mental level, each time I could reach a higher level I rewrote from that level… In fact Savitri has not been regarded by me as a poem to be written and finished, but as a field of experimentation to see how far poetry could be written from one’s own yogic consciousness and how that could be made creative” Letters on Savitri

He wrote and reworked on the Savitri manuscript till his passing—the first canto alone had undergone thirteen revisions. Poetry for him worked as an index of the evolving human consciousness. His works are thus to be seen as maps of spiritual reading. To read them as holy words of the master is to behold their outer skeletal structure and like holding on to the shells of meaning. Let those ardent devotees clutch them for what they are worth but the master himself would have avowed that the not-so-simple minded at least trudge the narrow road of spiritual seeking and not be left in the blind alleys of adulation. Perhaps one of the major reasons for the intellectual stasis that is profoundly felt in the Sri Aurobindo circles today is on account of this blindness that withholds any possible insight. For the literary minded there is virtually god’s plenty in Sri Aurobindo’s works to spur them into comparative discussions and interrogations. For the philosophically inclined Sri Aurobinod has carved out new and newer niches of trajectories to be explored. For the spiritual minded the Integral Yoga that he has so painfully evolved in his own spiritual quest marked by eclecticism is left to be experimented upon and explored further.

Kishore Gandhi had experimented with the ideas of spiritual evolution in his works very much like the author of Sri Aurobindo or the Adventure of Consciousness.  KD Sethna had ushered in comparative scholarship through his vast reading and Ghose had made new inroads with his metaesthetic. He had also drawn attention to the repeated misuse of the high-sounding Aurbindonian as an adjective and even suggested Aurobindian as a more modest alternate term instead. Haridas Chaudhuri and Frederic Spiegelberg tendered a forum for a dialogue and a symposium. Even in my own modest early book, The Mantra of Vision, I had attempted a holistic vision of the master Yogi and his creative work from an Indian perspective. Even in my later essay, entitled “Towards a Spiritual Aesthetics of the Environment: Quality, Space, and Being in Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri,” published in the US based journal, ISLE Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment Vol. 18. Issue 2 (Spring 2011) pp. 302-322—I had visualized a unique perspective in terms of ecological dimensions and thus pioneered a new dimension in Sri Aurobindo criticism. In Savitri Bhavan, the poet and visionary Shraddhavan appears to have given a new direction to re-reading Sri Aurobindo while in the collective enterprise of SACAR under the direction of Ananda Reddy, serious interest in Sri Aurobindo scholarship appears to be flourishing. Their occasional seminars and workshops favour some sort of self-reflexivity. Many years ago Sreenivasa Iyengar and Prema Nandakumar had set Sri Aurobindo’s writing in the intellectual perspective and larger framework of Indian writing in English to be explored and furthered by the next generation of scholars. Alas, the genuine scholar like the genuine devotee is a far cry in the present. Our times are marked by amazing changes and advancement in science and technology, the world we live in the present is definitely much more “advanced” than the times of Sri Aurobindo when the imperial and colonial forces held potent and powerful sway over all and everything. The market economy of the capitalist present and its itinerant scholarship grounded on claims to information that is universally accessible have blinded the already blind human eye further. The dismissal and de-valuation of metanarratives of the last century have laid claim to a territory of panoramic ignorance.  Knowledge is doubted and wisdom is sidelined. Information has risen to the centre stage. And ignorance is prided as wisdom it has indeed become folly to be wise and remain so. Had he lived on beyond his times, Sri Aurobindo would have charted out new directions in the present. He would have been like the child in the story yelling out that the emperor is truly naked. However, his residual presence and urgency of intellectual inquiry have been erased and silenced. His works are rehashed and his words echo down the long corridor of forgotten memory and a misplaced past.  Nevertheless, the eternal eye that would have led the inquirer forward is not yet completely closed though. There is a tiny fraction of opening. So then all is not yet lost. What is required is a critical temperament and a truth-seeking perspective that would not wither in the face of opposition and inclement weather—an outlook that does not succumb to the comfort and convenience of the commonplace and the mediocrity. The grand narratives of yesteryears might be ignored by the postmodern present that prides in the here and now, however, profound questions relating to truth and meaning, the nexus of mind and matter, the interrelationship of nature and human nature, are bound to be tenaciously pursued by those minorities who chance to reflect on their own selves and identities. Perhaps, then, like in the Dantesque vision there would arise the spirit of the master himself to lead the genuine seeker even through Inferno and Purgatory to Paradiso. Sri Aurobindo realized early enough that his was a superhuman struggle, to redeem the true spiritual identity of all human kind, he also realized that he had to explore his own inner self continuously and ceaselessly in order to chart out his map for generations to follow suit. His works are genuine asseverations of both these aspects. For the convenience of the present day scholarship he genially assents to being ripped apart as a poet, a philosopher, a political and social thinker, a man of Indian Renaissance, a spiritual yogi who chartered the direct pathway for the divinization of the human being, and a literary critic. In the contexts of contemporary criticism this could be termed as dismemberment and dehumanization because the organic unity of the man and his work is dislocated. What usually happens when such piecemeal readings are indulged in is that sloppy mis-readings are flaunted as original findings!  Believe me, there are research scholars who bring up amazingly imaginative topics like Sri Aurobindo and Paulo Coelho, simply because they find that the latter speaks about the mystical, and magical. There are others who lapse into “spiritualism” without even recognizing the terminological distinctions of the term or its historical connotations. For the unwary, magic, meta-magical themes, mysticism and spirituality are just terms which are mutually interchangeable. The true spirit of critical enquiry has petered into shallow and superficial research—the requirements of the present also appear to be thus merely skin-deep. Now, like HG Wells’s tale of the valley of the blind, all of us are made to believe that to be blind is truly natural and thus made to turn quizzically toward one suitably endowed with sight and vision. Whither is sped the visionary gleam? Where is it, the glory and the dream?  

In one of his remarkable poems Sri Aurobindo has written:

Who was it that came to me in a boat made of dream-fire,

With his flame brow and his sun-gold body?

Melted was the silence into a sweet secret murmur,

“Do you come now? Is the heart’s fire ready?”

Hidden in the recesses of the heart something shuddered,

It recalled all that the life’s joy cherished,

Imaged the felicity it must leave lost forever,

And the boat passed and the gold god vanished.

Now within the hollowness of the world’s breast inhabits –

For the love died and the old joy ended –

Void of a felicity that has fled, gone forever,

And the gold god and the dream boat come not.

                                                The Dream Boat 1930, revised 1942

Is it too much to ask to keep the heart’s fire ready to be able to greet the dream boat? But first we need the strength enough to dream and to recognize the boat as it comes in to our sight. Having misplaced it we end up dancing absurdly round in circles. The simpleminded get saturated with contentment and become complacent. Once our outlook gets changed and our doors of perception are cleansed the voice of Sri Aurobindo would reach us clear and undisturbed. And the seeker in us will be awakened to pursue that action from where we left off. .

smurals@gmail.com

                                                                      Acknowledgement

I am thankful to Sri Ananda Reddy of SACAR for having gone through the earliest version of this essay and made insightful comments.  I also thank Sri Arup Basu, editor of Shraddha Journal from Sri Aurobindo Bhavan, Kolkata, for including it in Vol. V No 1, 15th August 2013. This article is open to suggestions and comments: readers are welcome to email me with the title on subject line.

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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

from Introduction to Inter-readings: Text, Context, Significance (2010)

Interreadings:Text, Context, Significance,2010,
© S.Murali & Clement Lourdes, Department of English, Pondicherry University

from Introduction
Murali Sivaramakrishnan
The Act/Art of Inter-reading

Reading is a not a simple process of transaction of meaning from the text to the reader. Of course, such a simplistic view is but a naïve manner of understanding the complex linguistic, lexical, syntactic, socio-political and aesthetic circuit of the author-text-reader continuum— so much intellectual and academic discussion and analysis over a long period of time has gone into the dissection of this triangular relationship, and it is not yet over. And quite understandably so. In fact, this may even be nothing new after all when we take into account the scholarship that has accumulated over the last century in the related fields of human sciences and the social sciences and turn our heads backwards into our own past. The virtue of hindsight could proffer us newer perspectives, no doubt. And, literature, it augurs well to remember, is not the only domain where these issues are problematised, of course. The consequences of the decode-encode complex and its dimensions in terms of the cultural-historic rhetoric/fabric has been discussed and debated ad-nauseum by now in academic circles all over the world, in as varied a discipline like Anthropology or Cybernetics, Geography or Ecology Nevertheless what all this has entailed for us in brief is the self-reflexive foregrounding of the author-text-reader complex. As Jeremy Hawthorne has put it succinctly:

“Meaning, significance, fulfillment are not to be found sitting obediently and expectantly in literary works, waiting for the pages to be opened so that they can troop out into the reader’s head. What we get from our readings we get as a result of a mental struggle which is informed and directed by our theories and ideas– whether or not we are conscious of these.” [Jeremy Hawthorne Cunning passages: New Historicism, Cultural Materialism and Marxism in the Contemporary Literary Debate. London:Arnold, 1996.]
The point well worth reiterating is that the mental struggle we engage in when we encounter texts could be conscious or unconscious—no reading thus could be free from theorizing on its own, every reading is an informed reading! In short, the common reader is most uncommon! Let us now take a closer look at the trigonometry of this relationship:

In brief, one could say that the movement of the arc of literary theorising has been historically decided by the instress of one of the three points of the literary triangle: the author, the text and the reader. Those theories in the past that accorded prime importance to the author like the Romantic or the Phenomenological theories could be grouped together on one end as against those formulations of the New Critics or the Formalists who argued for the autotelic nature of the text removed from all contexts. Post Structuralism and its aftermath challenges the very orthodox nature of these relationships and unties the very lynchpin of textuality and the fabric of reading. While socio-politically self-reflexive theories like Feminism(s) and postcolonialism read against the grain of that fabric situating themselves not outside this trigonometric relationship but firmly securing themselves within the eddy of the meaning making process, whether it be the inquiry into the ontology of the text/meaning .
Theorising in one form or other has gone on in our universities for several decades by now and we have come to recognize the act of theory as moving toward new and newer positions within this paradigm and evolving Strategies of Reading. In all, the idea is not to be bogged down to a sort of reading and interpreting of individual texts but untying the very process of meaning– formation and the dynamis of the trigonometry.
In all, the range of literary theories from Formalism through New Criticism and Structuralism to Deconstruction and their critical practices has been in more than one sense instrumental in creating a meta-language of literary production, meaning and receptivity.
And the academic institutionalisation of literature and literary studies – focus on how literature is –Created, Constructed, and Conditioned. Thus theory did usher in a paradigm shift. And the reading process as one discovers was never simplistic.
Now, if the academic institutionalization of literature and literary studies could be said to have brought about a sort of Copernican revolution—a paradigm shift—in the focus of how literature is created, how it makes meaning, or even how such an awareness is itself constructed and conditioned, one could say that the intense history of theoretical enterprise itself has brought about even an even profounder paradigm shift in the manner in which such theories themselves have been interrogated and applied in various cultural contexts. For instance, Postcolonial theory is necessarily a historical recognition of the status and relevance of theory, and at the same time it foregrounds a resistance and challenge to the inordinate theorizing of literature in non-European cultural contexts
Well, whatever its demerits might be, the emergence of theory in our academia has brought forth newer and newer perceptions for discovering cultural locations. The trigonometry of reading has evolved from the almost two dimensional Euclidian plane geometry into the pluralistic trajectory of a post-Einsteinian world of multiverse(s). The dynamic of this movement cannot be underestimated: it entails a new world of interpretative possibilities. The reader is as much ingrained into the text as the text is de-centred in the process.
This is the point where I propose to implant the theory of inter-reading that this book aptly bears out. Quite distinct from the deconstructive entertainment that the play of text-author-reader poses, this process would re-organise and recognize value and signification. Inter-Reading does not play down intertextuality neither does it inter/hinder the reader/writer. It allows for a slow percolation or osmosis of the trio I mentioned at first into one another. The writer does not cease to be, neither does the text, when the reader enters the play ground. The text in the sense of being a tissue, a woven thing— woven of former texts—is by virtue of being itself, a process of engagements, of con/texts. And the inter part of the theory that the reader ushers in does not inter the text, in the sense of inter – bury or put into the ground, neither does it hide the reader’s act of playing. The text proffers the vast but structurally limited playground where in the deconstructive play takes place. For as long as the reader can, the play goes on and it could also end in a tie! Meaning and interpretation are here not mere strategies but palpable sensations that bear out the testimony of delight—the ananda or beatification of being. And the implied value in literary texts do not go unrecognized. As pointed out earlier, caste, race, gender and history could be seen as conceptual tools in engaging with the textual territory. We recognize the category of nature without the text as also another criteria for this engagement. I have discussed this process at length in another context. Suffice it to say that the idea of the text does prefigure the work of human mind(s) and the process of meaning production hastens in the outside/inside continuum. The text opens itself before it encloses the fabric of its own destiny. Ancient Indian Sanskrit linguists have spoken about mahasatta—the great essence. This is in part what each individual reading would participate in. To stretch this anlogy further would be to essentialise, to narrow it down would be but to fragmentalise. Either way Interreading (without the hyphen) would lead us to mediate between the text and the author, to allow for the play to happen, and also to retain our integral beings. After all it is the human being that creates cultures and counter-cultures!

….Read More in Inter-readings: Text, Context, Significance (2010)

Interreadings:Text, Context, Significance,2010,
© S.Murali & Clement Lourdes, Department of English, Pondicherry University

Published by the Pondicherry University Pondicherry 605014, India
First edition, April 2010

No part of this publication may be reproduced without the prior permission from the editors. The views expressed in various essays are those of their authors alone and the editors are in no way responsible for those.

Fallen Feathers

The afternoon of the 16th February 2011 was just like most other late winter afternoons in Pondicherry—there were many birds scampering and feeding in and around the densely forested area of the University Campus. There were Common Myna, Black Drongo, Sunbirds, Red-Vented Bulbul, Iora, Brainferever bird, Paradise Flycatcher, White-browed Bulbul, and Golden Oriole—all hunting about when the Red-Winged Crested Cuckoo landed. There was a slight breeze from the east. My excitement was overflowing. At first I had thought this was a rather plump Paradise Flycatcher female, but then closer inspection showed the clear white shoulder patch and black crest. Identity confirmed— Clamator coromandus! It was the Red Winged Crested Cuckoo visiting the campus and perhaps taking off immediately. Strangely enough I spotted the very same specimen the next day at almost the same time on the same whereabouts.  But that was all. The bird’s brief visit had ended as suddenly as it began.  Now after the great cataclysmic cyclone Thane’s visit it was as if the year had just turned about. Winter afternoons would not be the same again for the avid birdwatcher in these parts.

Red Winged Crested Cuckoo in Pondicherry University Campus

I have been keeping close watch over the local migrations of birds in this campus for over the last decade. Most migrants arrive exactly around the tenth of October and leave as mysteriously as ever around the 10th of March. Of course during this brief span of time the green campus becomes a little more hospitable in terms of the weather. All kinds of feathered bipeds make this small green patch their homes for a brief while—some like the Orange headed Thrush make a silent stop over enroute to their wintering home in the Andaman Isles.

I am not sure whether this Red Winged Crested Cuckoo has been recorded in this part of the country by other ornithologists. I know there are a few specimens in the Madras Museum.

As a matter of fact, an year ago, on 16th February 2011 afternoon at around 4.30 p.m. this bird landed on a broad leaved tree near my residence in the Pondicherry University Campus.  It was a slightly pleasant afternoon and the sunlight was trickling through the not-so sparsely wooded campus. The bird appeared a little bit shaky but not too frightened and intimidated by the photographer. After a quick glance around and waving its crest the bird flapped into the neighbouring wooded area adjacent to Auroville campus. One whole year has rolled by and it is February once again.

The Pondicherry University campus is coterminous with the boundaries of Auroville—(a significant place on all tourist maps of the country on account of the idealist bio-centric international community living together inspired by Sri Aurobindo’s vision of harmony)–  and the land, soil and vegetation certainly is not much different. There are not much variety in terms of trees and bushes. Cassia, Acacia and Cashew Nut trees along with variety of palms comprise the major flora. An occasional Neem or a Tamarind would add spice to the air. Many new species are also being planted and cared for.  But then for the most the campus is dry and does not harbor many fruiting or flowering tree, except of course for the ubiquitous cashew—and when in season it is rife with birdlife. Coppersmith Barbets and the other kinds of frugivorous birds usually live off the nuts and berries. Tamarind, Mango and Lime are also not too hard to come by.  Insects and reptiles abound. And so do a variety of amphibians.  An occasional visit from a Peafowl from beyond the walls of the University Campus would add a tinge of colour to the red sand dunes. And to any willingly receptive ears the shrill crescendo of this region’s most common Francolin Partridge the Francolinus pondicherianus would be virtually unforgettable. Early dawns and late evenings appear to be the favourite times for these dumpy ground dwelling birds to break forth into their frenzied shrieks.

The heartline of the campus is of course the deep gorge or the Ravine that runs toward the sea on the east coast. A walk down or even along these red slopes in the early dawn or late evening is bound to yield interesting results for the avid bird watcher. Resident owls and nightjars have been reported by enthusiastic students. During the rains this ravine empties the excess water down to the sea and all along the dry summer days the ravine affords some sort of cool shade and respite for the ground dwellers, lizards, scorpions, snakes and chameleons as well. Many a time we have been fortunate to have had brief visits from the serpentine communities and sometimes from a solitary Iguana. Mongoose also live alongside Hare and Jackal. A decade ago late evenings would have been punctuated by the howls of jackals—they have become spare and rare indeed over the years. New constructions and ever expanding demands of natural space for human development have taken care of their dwindling populations no doubt.  But then this is inevitable indeed.

For the most the sprawling eight-hundred acre campus is a quiet haven for a large number of bird species among those insects. And overhead at almost any time of the day depending on the season one can find large flocks of estuary and coastal birds, egrets, and herons slow winging toward the marshes and salt water ranges on the east coast road. The crackling racket of Roseringed Parakeets is a fairly common greeting for the naturalist who steps into the campus during the day. So is the tonk-tonking of the Coppersmith Barbet.

But then all this has changed after the Thane Cyclone’s disastrous visit.  The landscape has changed and certainly for the migrating bird groups the local map has been altered and earth lies a little shadier brown and crumbled. The super fast flight of the Green Pigeon groups has also been altered considerably.  I had photographed orange breasted green pigeons on tall tree tops during the last two years and they have been fairly predictable in their movements in and out of this region. This year a large flock arrived albeit a bit late. They are also visibly a bit shaky. The general turn out of songbirds and flycatchers have been for the most getting a bit less predictable while the ubiquitous cry of the Brain-fever bird rises in crescendo every morn and evening.  I have almost forgotten when I last heard the Indian cuckoo’s pi..ppi…ppiyu

The fateful Cyclone Thane blew over this region on the 29th of December. Around midnight the storm became violent and the wind blew with rising ferocity. Many trees were uprooted and the roads became virtually unrecognizable from the surrounding debris. While we watched helplessly many a huge tree crashed and their branches flayed about in the wind. Lots of White-Browed Bulbuls and Magpie Robins fell victims to the demonic cyclonic fury. After the rains the next day by about evening we came across many a wet bundle of feathers. Poor things, their world had been altered beyond recognition. Birds are such helpless victims when it comes to natural disasters; however, their recovery is indeed remarkable. The very next day when the skies cleared the song of the Indian Koel rang out cheerfully, the Brainfever kept company. Indian Robins became their perky selves once again. And the Orioles flew at breakneck speed across newly felled clearings. The Black Drongo and the Myna hung around the workmen who came to hack away the debris—there was a flurry of insect activity. Everything was coming back to life and the birds knew their landscape had been altered.  The fluttering butterflies and the vociferous cicadas day in and out keep up the hope for a brighter tomorrow.  For after all, in nature nothing ever goes to waste; everything is recycled—including the fallen feathers.

 Orangebreasted Green Pigeon Treron bicincta

Lark Landing on a Tree

Hoopoe

These are among some of the birds most commonly met with by anyone who has been fortunate enough to have fairly good eyesight and equally good hearing.

  1. Common Myna
  2. House Crow
  3. Jungle Crow
  4. Tree Pie
  5. Magpie Robin
  6. Oriole
  7. Golden backed Woodpecker
  8. Drongo Black
  9. Drongo Ashy
  10. Sunbird(s)
  11. Rose ringed Parakeet
  12. Brainfever Bird or Indian Cuckoo
  13. White Browed Bulbul
  14. Red Whiskered Bulbul
  15. Red Vented Bulbul
  16. Partridge
  17. Spotted Dove
  18. Small Green Bee-eater
  19. Brahminy Myna
  20. Coppersmith Barbet
  21. Crow Pheasant
  22. Hoopoe
  23. Indian Koel
  24. Pariah Kite or the Black kite
  25. Swifts
  26. Blackheaded Munia
  27. Shikra Hawk
  28. Iora
  29. Small Minivet
This list of course is not exhaustive—I have haphazardly noted from what comes to my mind at the moment. If I were to verify my bird notes and field guides I am sure I could bring half a dozen more common birds to light! However, among the more exotic are the following:
  1. Orange Breasted Green Pigeon
  2. Indian Pitta
  3. Sand Lark
  4. Crested Serpent Eagle
  5. Green Billed Malkoha
  6. White Throated Ground Thrush
  7. Paradise Flycatcher

Over the years I have been fortunate enough to capture some good and some not so good images of these amazing forms of life. When I reflect on these images I am transported to those moments of ecstasy and intense happiness that I shared with them. Birds no doubt form the most endearing and colourful forms of life that we humans are fortunate to share our living spaces with. Dr Salim Ali the doyen of Indian ornithologists has recorded that there is perhaps no place on the globe that has not been darkened by the shadow of a bird—this goes to prove the extreme adaptability of this life form. Almost anywhere in the world one is sure to come across bird life—provided of course one keeps one’s eyes and ears open!

When I reflect on the years of bird watching that I have gone through the most exciting thing that comes to my mind is sharing notes with the legendary Salim Ali. It was in the late seventies that I had the good fortune to meet this great man. We were instrumental in setting up what was then known as the Kerala Natural History Society—KNHS for short—and our president was none other than the pioneer of Kerala’s bird studies, Dr K K Neelakantan. I was then an undergraduate student under him involved in trekking and natural history alongside my literary studies. As part of the natural history work I organized a wild life exhibition and I was awarded a prize for my involvement. The prize was none other than a copy of the famed Book of Indian Birds. I had also the good fortune to be introduced to Dr Salim Ali who was then engaged in field work in the Western Ghats. He was delighted in signing the book for me! This priceless possession is now adorning my book shelf. And every time I take it down I am whisked back to those days!  How decades ago I was walking down the Ponmudi hills with Dr Salim Ali with his dangling his field glasses, listing the hill birds. The high pitched rackets of Grackle and Racket tailed drongo even now float down the byways of my imagination. The sounds and songs of birds no doubt serve to make our otherwise dreary life meaningful and joyous.

Magpie Robin

Ask anyone to name a singing bird and you will be fairly surprised by the quizzical looks that might appear on their surprised faces—well, they might murmur, how about the Koel? That’s a singing bird, right?  Some who are blessed with wild imagination and with a bit of general knowledge trivia might come out with astounding names like the Nightingale, or the Skylark!  True, they are all birds that sing—but the most commonly available sweet-singing thrush of our own lawns and backyards as yet remains seldom noticed or recognised! Most people would have some rehashed knowledge of birds through their brush with romantic poetry—either in English or in their own native tongues. Hence their idea of the Cuckoo! But then come March, and this sprite black and white bird bursts into such sweet melody perched on the top of some tree or bush and will keep on for months together till it raises its chicks. The Magpie Robin certainly has a special place in every bird-watcher’s heart; there is little doubt about it. You can meet with this bird usually in the mornings or evenings almost anywhere in our campus. Its favourite nesting spots are on dead trees or among electric-wiring boxes!

Oriole

Orioles are certainly among the most beautiful birds anywhere in the world. They catch our attention as they dazzle their way through the sunlight.  Many a time you would see only a flash of golden yellow. These are Golden Orioles. They are more or less residents in our campus. The Black Naped Oriole is conspicuously absent in these parts. And so is the Black Headed. After the rains you can usually hear the fluting cry of the orioles among the trees. They are not very shy birds and one can easily watch their flying antics.

Common Myna

This bird is quite common in our campus and its sprightly gait and variety of calls is bound to attract the attention of even the most uncaring student in the campus!  One could see them hitch hiking on cattle many a time, helping the cattle get rid of marauding insects. They are omnivorous birds and the young ones as a rule appear to have a ravenous appetite. The poor parents are kept on their toes diving for insects and feeding the little ones. Many a lamp post in and around the campus is the nesting place for these sleek black and brown birds.  Their yellow eye patch gives them a dignity no doubt. Perhaps they are postgraduates here and elsewhere!

The one I have here was being attacked by an oriole!

Small Green Bee-eater

Bee eaters are definitely eye catching. They swoop down on their prey in flight and deftly gathering it up return to the very same perch. The common one in our campus is the Small Green. I have also come across the Blue Bearded Bee eater perched on high tension wire near the building sites.

The small blue nests in holes in the ground.  And you might be surprised to come across their nest in such obvious places that you wonder how the birds survive from their natural predators. But that they do is a sign of their success. They plan their breeding season in early summer when there is a plenitude of insect life. And the little ones are quite deft and spritely as they flirt around lamp posts and telephone lines.

Brahminy Myna

Dr Salim Ali, the doyen of Indian ornithology, lists so many varieties of mynas in the Indian subcontinent—they are almost fairly commonly distributed too. Apart from the common myna, there is the Jungle Myna, Blyth’s Myna, Grey Headed Myna, Pied Myna, Grackle or Hill Myna, and Brahminy Myna. In our sprawling campus you could easily come across the Brahminy—so called on account of its white tuft no doubt. They are usually found in pairs. The best time to spot them is immediately after the rains.

Hoopoe

The hoopoe is certainly a majestic bird with its outstanding crest and royal gait. Its hooping call most often echoes round the campus and floats down the corridors and through the open windows. Your first sight of the bird would be surely on the ground as it walks by kingly in its grace. It would take off flapping its barred wings at your approach. Insects are its food and you can meet with them singly or in pairs, almost anywhere in the campus.

White Browed Bulbul

There are many birds that one usually hears but seldom sees.  This is one such bird. The bubbling calls echo and reecho among the bushes morning and evening, and the birds dash about usually in pairs. The white brow is distinct, provided you have enough patience to wait for the bird to show itself. Other than this brow the bird is drab and not at all noticeable. It usually merges with the dry foliage.

Red Whiskered Bulbul

As the name implies this bird sports red whiskers and is adorned with a black crest.  Most often you might mistake its crest for its beak and the bird appears to have two heads—so a Janus-faced bird! It is not uncommon in our campus and you are bound to come across fairly large hunting parties in and amidst bushes, crackling away. They are usually early risers and quite active throughout the day.  These bulbuls— so named on account of the musical instrument of that name—are among the lovable birds which keep our campus alive.

Red vented Bulbul

It would be good for the beginner to keep some standard sizes of birds in mind for further reference when you come across newer birds.  Sparrow, Bulbul or Myna are usual reference sizes.  Red vented bulbul is usually found alongside mixed hunting parties of red whiskered and white browed.  As the name implies it is identifiable on account of the red patch below its tail. The head dress is something that resembles a crew-cut!  It nests on small patchy bowls of twigs and dry leaves amidst bushes.

Iora

This beautiful resident bird in the campus is a famed singer—but seldom do people see it! Obviously the usual pair loves to hide amidst the thick leafy braches and tease the searcher! Anyone who takes a stroll down the green part of the campus is certain to hear unusual whistles and chirpings from among the foliage. If one were to take the pains to wait it out patiently one is sure to spot the couple darting between the branches. The male is yellow and black and the female dullish green. One is left wondering how such a small dumpy bird could hold with in itself such lovely repertoire of notes and songs! The life of the campus would be drained if these lovely birds were to desert us! A couple of years ago I was taking an overseas professor for a morning walk round the campus and hearing an Iora pair among the trees we both stood amazed and silent – so religiously like in a church or a temple!

Green Pigeon

One evening in mid-February I was most excited on sighting a whole family of Green Pigeons right across a small clearing beside my quarters. They were perched high up on a cassia tree eating the berries on the lantana or some sort of parasitical growth on the trees, and the late evening glow of the sky was reflected in the bosom of the male. I am not quite sure whether these Orange breasted Green Pigeons were just visiting the campus for a breather in the midst of a long distance flight or even local migrants. Either way the campus is a bustle of bird life between October and March.  However, as each year passes the numbers of our feathered friends are certainly dropping.  Massive tree-clearings, no doubt, here and elsewhere are regularly destroying their green cover. Just imagine what a dreary place our earth would be without these beautiful creatures!

Birds against the blue skies

One morning in November last year I was gazing up into the deep blue sky when I spotted these long distance fliers.  Their flight formation is amazing. Just as a taut bow, they were a gaggle of Geese. Large groups of ducks and geese assemble during winter alongside pelicans, storks, herons and egrets in the water bodies in and around Chennai—the best time to watch them is between October and late March. Ducks and geese like flamingoes are among the high flying birds—ducks have been reported flying as high in the air as even five miles! I have some good shots of Glossy Ibises as well.

White Throated Ground Thrush

A long time ago while bird watching  in the western ghats I had many an occasion to come across this short stumpy ground thrush—and I recall making a even a presentation for my naturalist friends including images of this beautiful bird that I had sketched in my notebooks of those days.  But then imagine my surprise when I came across this bird here in our campus one morning sitting and meditating all alone among the leaves! The short stretch of tree cover amidst the bamboos near to the Centre for Pollution control was the haunt of this silent one. I have never heard its whistling songs here in Pondicherry.

When one starts writing about birds there is no end to what one could put in. Birds are such delightful creatures that once you have started noticing them you will find yourself drawn to their world, their calls, their songs, their movements and their habitats more often. The study of birds has developed so much these days that from being a mere amateur birdwatcher one could progress to a full-fledged ornithologist in no time provided one takes the pains for it. However, as an aesthete and a committed bird photographer I have discovered another dimension to the whole thing: waiting for the right moment for the right kind of light and aperture, I have found, is a process of silent meditation. It bestows you with a patience and quiet –a calm that passeth all understanding!

Murali Sivaramakrishnan

smurali1234@yahoo.com