Raised on a staple of Cecil B. DeMille and Homi Wadia films taken from religious epics, many Indians of my generation became readily knowledgeable of Hindu and Christian legends early in life. Muslim stories in movies were not there, partly because of the severe restrictions on the human portrayal of men and women from Islamic history.

We are not talking about Aalam Aara but stories about icons of Islam at par with Wadia&’s Sampoorna Ramayana or DeMille&’s The Ten Commandments. When a religious Muslim film finally reached Lucknow in the late 1960s, it did brisk business though it was only a documentary about an annual pilgrimage. The movie was called Khaana-i-Khuda.

Zahirun Bua, the unlettered cook, was promptly dispatched by Amma to watch it with Sartaj — the rented family clown who masqueraded as our housekeeper. “Wo dekh aab-i-zamzam,” he nudged Zahirun in the darkened hall, lying through his teeth that the scene was about the sacred water that pilgrims take home in plastic cans. Zahirun was in her late 60s and Sartaj still in his impish teens. Unlike the patently immoral prankster of an escort, Zahirun was a serious believer. It was her first movie and she went there for ziyarat, a glimpse of true religion to her. The shot Sartaj showed her was of a washing powder ad. Zahirun gazed at the soapsuds and wiped tears of devotion with her dupatta. The irreverent man changed his religion according to the home he worked in. Actually he never had any religion. He was Gopal in Mrs Puri&’s house, a Hindu. In ours, he was a grudging Muslim never to be found near a mosque, ever. Religion you can change or walk out from. Someone can become Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Bahai or desert the fold if they are already there. There can be stiff consequences but that&’s a separate issue. If you are not a believer you can become a believer and vice versa.

Caste is a different thing. It is irrevocable no matter how many religions you change. A Dalit cannot become a Brahmin or the other way around. When Bhimrao Ambedkar became a Buddhist, mainly to underscore the fact that he was walking away from the hierarchical Hindu fold enforced on him, he still remained a Dalit. There are thus Sikh Dalits, Muslim Dalits, Christian Dalits and, of course, Buddhist Dalits who converted en masse under Ambedkar. Gandhi threatened to fast to death if the Dalits, officially called the Depressed Classes, walked out on the Hindu fold and accepted the British offer of separate electorates, which Ambedkar said they badly wanted.

Ambedkar opposed the fast but Gandhi&’s ‘emotional blackmail’ trapped him. He rued the consequent Poona Pact for the rest of his life. India&’s dominant caste parties, primarily the Congress and the BJP, carefully hide this Ambedkar story from public view. They did so again while celebrating Constitution Day last week. The Indian constitution was perhaps the least brilliant of Ambedkar&’s works. There was no dearth of men and women who could have strung it together. Had the pious poet Maulana Hasrat Mohani written it, for example, the Indian constitution would be modelled on the Soviet state. The Muslim League leader was Jinnah&’s tormentor and an ardent fan of Lenin.

T.M. Krishna would agree with much I have said about the Dalits and Ambedkar&’s struggles against the Brahminical order. The 40-year old singer is himself a Brahmin, and what a sensation he has been on the Carnatic music firmament in recent years. Krishna sang in Delhi at the weekend. His mastery over deep kharaj, sur and laey has to be heard to be believed. Krishna is also branded a communist for his outspoken views against Hindutva, and perhaps for his apparent soft corner for Jinnah. He has been critical of some, not all, non-resident Indians for doing what upstarts would do with music. To highlight his protest against the takeover, Krishna decided not to sing at the season&’s Chennai ‘kutcheri’ usually held in December.

Krishna believes that the rationalist Dravida movement of Dalit and backward caste Tamils is threatened by the Hindutva upsurge, possibly in collusion with the movement&’s Trojan horses. Krishna&’s fluid thinking on social issues is of a piece with his unorthodox approach to music, including its spirituality. Yet, Ambedkar would have probably frowned at a composition he sang.

Gopalakrishna Bharati&’s opera Nandanaar charitram is highly acclaimed among Carnatic music&’s upper caste patrons. In VarugalAmo, ayya? the low-caste Nandanaar seeks the Lord&’s permission to come into the temple. Ambedkar would have seen in it shades of the “temple entry movement” of the 1930s, which Gandhi supported and he opposed.

Arguing that the Dalits needed education, healthcare and jobs with equal respect more than the right to enter a temple, Ambedkar said: “Why should an Untouchable beg for admission in a place from which he has been excluded by the arrogance of the Hindus? This is the reason of the Depressed Class man who is interested in material welfare. He is prepared to say to the Hindus, to open or not to open your temples is a question for you to consider and not for me to agitate. If you think it is bad manners not to respect the sacredness of human personality, open your temple and be a gentleman. If you rather be a Hindu than a gentleman, then shut the doors and damn yourself for I don’t care to come.”

This is the realism with which Ambedkar ticked off Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya. What a far cry from the riveting illusions conjured by the DeMilles and Wadias. Ambedkar seems broadly in consonance with Krishna&’s thinking, minus the wooing of a low-caste supplicant. He needed a Krishna song that would free his people from the talons of caste Hindus.


Dawn/Asia News Network.