Monday, August 01, 2016

On Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India, and other books about cultural heritage

[From my Forbes Life column]

As a film buff, I am often appalled by how much neglect or apathy there is when it comes to India’s cinematic heritage. Important material isn’t archived, movie prints degrade over the years, and there are farcical cases such as the one where an invaluable Satyajit Ray-Marlon Brando interview from the 1960s was accidentally taped over – by our state-run TV channel, no less. When I have contacted family members of deceased directors, cinematographers or scriptwriters, it often transpires that there are no extant documents about their work, or that the family has little information or insights to share.

Things are not much better when it comes to chronicling other aspects of our cultural past, including the events and movements that continue to shape our thoughts today. Which is why one of the more heartening byproducts of the Indian-English publishing boom has been the arrival of such books, which are well-researched but also written for a general – as opposed to an academic – readership.

A recent example is Akshaya Mukul’s Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India, an excellent history of one of the country’s most influential publishing ventures, Gita Press, which was founded in 1923 by the Marwari businessmen Hanuman Poddar and Jaydayal Goyandka. Through its bestselling publications – including the monthly journal Kalyan, which has a circulation of 200,000 – Gita Press has for decades propagated an idea of India that is based on Hindu supremacy and a rigid interpretation of sanatan dharma. Mukul’s book traces how this came to be, the personalities and philosophies involved, and the complex ways in which the project intersected with the ideologies of such prominent people as Mahatma Gandhi, who had a cordial relationship with Poddar but who also decried the latter’s views on the caste system and other social ills.

So much ground is covered here – in the fields of historical research as well as analysis – that this book deserves multiple readings. One of its most stimulating chapters centres on the Gita Press’s obsession with preserving the purity of the Hindu woman and in laying out her duties and proscriptions, notably through a 46-page monograph titled Stri Dharma Prashnottari (Questions and Answers on Women’s Dharma), which took the form of a conversation between two women. In this dialogue, Sarala is the simpleton who asks questions about women’s rights and responsibilities, while Savitri – a stand-in for the “ideal woman” – gives her the answers. For instance, on the question of education, Savitri states that Western education – which can have the effect of making women question traditions – is a no-no; they should read only religious epics and texts. On the few occasions that Sarala asks a provocative question or adopts a challenging position, she is met with sophistry: when she cites cases of physical abuse towards women and wonders if husbands don’t have any responsibilities, Savitri replies that what women should be concerned with is their own dharma (stri dharma), irrespective of what men do.

All this makes for absorbing reading, but Mukul’s book reminds us that it would be a big mistake to see the monograph as an antiquated product of its time. Though first published in 1926, it is still in print, having sold over a million copies, and continues to provide “moral guidance” to generations of people – women and men – who haven’t had the benefits of modern education.

I didn’t know much about Gita Press before I read this book, but Nandini Chandra’s The Classic Popular deals with publications that I savoured as a child and still sometimes turn to for comfort reading: the Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) comics started by Anant Pai in 1967. Chandra’s book, which began life as a dissertation, is notable for its analyses of the visual iconography of ACK. It includes plenty of artwork from fondly remembered old comics, but
the ACK fan will feel some discomfort too, since Chandra often uses those images to demonstrate how they have subtly manipulated readers’ perceptions of mythological and historical characters, or affirmed stereotypes. Thus, the dominant male gaze is pandered to in such scenes as the one where Arjuna abducts Subhadra and her skirt is shown rising up to reveal her legs; a bullying schoolteacher – whose background we know nothing about – is drawn with a moustache-less beard, thus subliminally identifying him with Muslims (who usually figure as the “others” in these comics); Rajput women who are about to immolate themselves rather than submit their honour to invaders are drawn in a way that accentuates their voluptuousness and potential for ravishment.

If Chandra’s book made me feel ambivalent about a key aspect of my childhood, Ambi Parameswaran’s Nawabs, Nudes and Noodles: India Through Fifty Years of Advertising was a much less complicated source of nostalgia. For a boy who grew up in the Doordarshan era, the very chapter titles make the heart sing – “Ab main bilkul boodha hoon, goli kha ke jeeta hoon” and “I am a Complan girl! I am a Complan boy!” being just two of them. This book chronicles some of India’s major advertising campaigns, using them as prisms to look at the country’s sociological history:
what do these ads tell us about the changing roles of women, children and elderly people, for instance? Or the ways in which we have consumed various categories of products and services, ranging from milk to junk food to wedding jewellery. Parameswaran adds the necessary personal touch by drawing on many of his own experiences from a long career in advertising.

But to return now to my preferred subject, film literature. Many books in recent months have covered aspects of cinematic history that are in danger of being forgotten – these include biographies of old-time stars (such as Mekhala Sengupta’s Kanan Devi: The First Superstar of Indian Cinema) or exercises in documentation, notably The Pather Panchali Sketchbook, which brings together all the sketches Satyajit Ray had drawn for his seminal 1955 film (the drawings were once thought to have been lost by Paris’s Cinematheque Francaise museum) and Sidharth Bhatia’s The Patels of FilmIndia, about the caustic film-magazine editor Baburao Patel, bane of many moviemakers and stars of the 1940s and 1950s.

And then there is Ziya Us Salam’s Delhi 4 Shows: Talkies of Yesterday, an affectionate collection of pieces about what it was like to be a movie-watcher in Delhi in the pre-multiplex era. There are many entertaining stories here that will leave today’s youngsters wide-eyed even though they involve relatively recent history. Such as the ones about theatres that had private boxes for burqa-wearing ladies, or the shrewd promotional strategies followed by hall-owners, who even hired special buses to fetch viewers from the railway station. This book brings alive memories of single-screen halls – or “talkies” – of the past, many of which continue to be landmarks and monuments of the city long after they ceased to be functional. Like the other histories mentioned above, it is reminder of how the past constantly interacts with and informs the present. 

[A longer piece about Delhi 4 Shows is here]


  1. To portray Gita Press as a purveyor of religious fundamentalism is an exercise in dishonesty.

    The Gita Press fills a vacuum that exists in Indian publishing space. It has taken a lead in publishing much of Hindu religious literature - which is largely ignored by more famous publishers. Has Rupa published the commentaries of Adi Sankara? Has Penguin published an unabridged version of the two epics? Do we have a major publisher who has published the much unheralded religious literature of the South - the works of poet saints Azhwars and Nayanars, in unabridged editions? Has Rupa published the commentaries of Manavala Mamunigal? Or those of Appiah Dikshitar? Do we get to see Kamba Ramayanam in our chic bookstores? Or for that matter, Tulsi's Ramcharitmanas? Or the great Tantric texts? Or Abhinavagupta's Shaivite texts?

    The mainstream English press considers Hinduism to be anathema. But hey...the people want to read Hindu texts. And Gita Press fills that vacuum. Yes, it may also peddle in some propagandist political literature. But it publishes a lot of good stuff too, ignored by other banners.

  2. "the dominant male gaze is pandered to in such scenes as the one where Arjuna abducts Subhadra and her skirt is shown rising up to reveal her legs"

    This is a most ridiculous line. The whole world panders to what you call "male gaze". Male gaze is not a cultural consequence, but a biological reality caused by the testosterone levels in you. When a Raj Kapoor or a Luis Bunuel or a Martin Scorsese or a Paul Thomas Anderson show skin in their movies, the motivator is of course the male gaze! They do it because they want the males in their audiences to have some fun. Men are the same everywhere.

    A denial of that is the worst form of sexual repression. The line you take is a peculiarly Wahabbi line - to deny agency to men by telling them what they should and shouldn't see with their eyes. It's precisely the attitude that gave rise to Hijab or Purdah in the Islamic and later medieval Hindu traditions.

    It's interesting that while one is OK with the ample institutionalised skin show that happens all over the world from Southern California to Tokyo, it becomes a bit of a problem when ACK comics do the same. Heights of Hinduphobia.

  3. "Though first published in 1926, it is still in print, having sold over a million copies, and continues to provide “moral guidance” to generations of people – women and men – who haven’t had the benefits of modern education"

    Again this reeks of condescension. With the assumption being that common people cannot think for themselves and cannot read books with a historical perspective.

    The Bible sells millions of copies too all over the world. So do the works of Plato, Aristotle, Tacitus, Augustine, Plutarch, Heredotus, Cicero among others. None of these books can claim to be in conformity with "modern" notions of what's appropriate and what's inappropriate. That doesn't stop western audiences, who care for their culture, from reading these great men. Sure Aristotle was a reactionary. Sure, many of his ideas make jarring reading today. But he was nonetheless a great man, a genius. People know what to digest and what not to digest.

    People are smart, you know. They are smarter than you think.

  4. Jay, much condescension in your comments about Gita Press.
    Extremely turned off by your line - "Gita Press has for decades propagated an idea of India that is based on Hindu supremacy and a rigid interpretation of sanatan dharma."
    They talk about the good aspects of Hinduism, which are plenty, and sadly which few other elite English publishers do.

  5. Gaurav (and, by extension, Shrikanth): I just reread the two paragraphs I have written here about Mukul's book, and I don't agree that there is "much condescension" in my comments. (Obviously I'm biased when I make that judgement call - but so, in your own ways, are you.) Gaurav, that sentence you quoted - how does it in any way preclude the possibility that Gita Press has also highlighted the good aspects of Hinduism?

    And Shrikanth, you know full well - or should know after all these years - that I'm not the stereotype of the rigid left-liberal who would unconditionally denounce such ideas as the Male Gaze; if anything, I have spent dozens of pages in my new book defending charges of "regressiveness" and "misogyny" that too often get directed at popular filmmakers. Anyway, I'm not getting into a prolonged argument about that here - don't have either the time or the mental space for comments discussions these days. Some other time maybe...

  6. The line you take is a peculiarly Wahabbi line...

    Had to laugh out at this, Shrikanth. I'm a guy too, and I know what it's like to be stirred by such images (I have a surprisingly vivid memory of reading that comic at age 7 or 8 and noticing Subhadra's bare legs) - and I agree completely that it's a very slippery slope if one tries to argue that men who are merely looking at women they find attractive or sexy are doing something unacceptable or worthy of prosecution. But there are two sides to every story: in this case, the fact that images that are perpetuated and recycled repeatedly - the newspaper illustration of the "shamed" rape victim covering her face comes to mind - do tend to reaffirm and harden people's thinking about a subject (I don't think people are as smart as you seem to think, by the way!). And your comments in the past too have shown that you are peculiarly unable or unwilling to be empathetic towards the woman's perspective when it comes these matters.

    At any rate, again, my description of Chandra's book was as straightforward as possible. You're making it sound like when I wrote the sentence "the dominant male gaze is pandered to in such scenes...", I had really written "These comics are drawn by evil men whose only purpose is to oppress women!" Suggest you bring a little more nuance to your reading.

  7. Jai: My comment was not as much directed at you, but at the author. Especially the bits about the booklets on Stri Dharma selling copies.

    People aren't stupid. This is a free country. They know what to take and what to discard. The latest Olympic medalist is a girl from a state known for its Khap Panchayats. Indicative of how India is changing. It is changing by the day. Changing by the hour. This isn't a country that has regressed, the way Iran has over the past 30 years. It's getting better by the day. And it's important to acknowledge that.

  8. "And your comments in the past too have shown that you are peculiarly unable or unwilling to be empathetic towards the woman's perspective when it comes these matters"

    I am. All I am saying is this world of ours is not ideal. If men were to be stripped of their sexual desire, the world will go extinct in a few decades. It just takes one generation of sexual abstinence to end the human race you know!

    We are all born in a state of "original sin". Man is imperfect. Yes, we try to overcome these failings to the extent possible. The rule of law, custom, peer pressure, religion, among other things all conspire to civilise us. But this process of civilisation is never complete nor is it desirable! The sustenance of the human race requires us to retain a bit of beastliness in us. That's life.

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