Azad Bhavan, New Delhi
29th October 2008
Pavan K Varma’s best known book, Being Indian, is a biting critique of what he sees as the myths surrounding the Indian national character. The leap from this to a lofty epic poem, Yudhistar and Draupadi, based on an episode in the Mahabharata seems at first blush rather large. But Mr Varma, currently Director General of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), is a man of many talents as his various books, as well as his success as a diplomat and man about town, attest. Aside from its effortless eloquence, Yudhishtar and Draupadi bears another familiar Varma trademark – a controversial perspective. Yudhishtara the dharmaraja is here revealed as a man tortured by frustrated desire; the illustrious kings of the Pandava dynasty are catalogued according to their inglorious sexual excesses and deficiencies. He talks to Venetia Ansell about desire and why Indians must reppropriate their culture if they are not to become photocopies.
Yudhisthara fascinates Mr Varma. He is “rectitude personified” and yet he chooses to follow moral laws only when it suits him. He is ultimately a man of balance. But what happens in the dice episode? How does Yudhishtara not only lose but degrade himself to the extent that he bets and loses his own wife, the joint spouse of the five Pandava brothers, Draupadi? It is this question that Mr Varma tries to answer. He writes that it is hard to resist pausing “at spaces left tantalisingly vacant…to delve deeper in the real content of the relationships”. “The narrative of the epic is in a hurry, it has no time to linger on the emotions behind each and every action”. Does this attribution of motivation, this fleshing out of the distant epic king who remains disengaged and all but unsullied even during the bloody civil war, help the modern reader? “We need as many interpretations as possible for a text as dense as the Mahabharata.” He terms his take on the Pandava dynasty, which you could easily imagine screened as an Indian version of Rome (remember ‘Attia amat omnes’?), a modern perspective. “I am not making a moral judgment”, says Mr Varma firmly. For him, morality is sukshma (subtle), just as it is for Yudhishtara.
But why the constant emphasis on desire? The Hindu world view acknowledges the role of desire, Mr Varma notes. Modern day society may not condone it, but “society’s prescriptions are not infallible”. He cites Vatsyayana’s statement that each of the three purusharthas – dharma, artha and kama – lead to the fourth, moksha.[i] All are equally valid. “There is a philosophical validity to desire; the physical can also act as a window to the divine.” Indian mythology is not random, “there is a structure to everything.” Take Krishna, about whom he has written a book (Krishna: the Playful Divine), as an example. Krishna courts the gopis (cowgirls) in a manner which is totally beyond all conventional morality. “We need Radha as much as we need Sita.” Mr Varma is clearly a fan of the purna avatara[ii] while Vishnu’s second most famous avatara, Rama, fails to excite.
Why has India tried to deny the presence of desire in its arts and its divinities, to pretend that unambiguously sexual sculptural depictions and literary representations are nothing of the sort? Mr Varma attributes much of India’s reticence to the “relentless colonial critique of Hindu civilisation as a dark cess pool”, citing EM Forster and Paul Scott as prime culprits. One of the reasons, he says, that Krishna died as a lover was because elite Indians were ashamed of this aspect of their god.
Two other books of his deal with kama – an adaptation of the Kama Sutra which plays up the importance of female satisfaction and Love and Lust: An Anthology of Erotic Literature from Ancient and Medieval Literature which takes passages from several texts you might not associate with desire including the Upanishads. Is all of this an attempt to re-establish the role of desire in Indian literature? “Not re-establish so much as to make people realise how pervasive it is in all arts.” He points at a conveniently placed large bronze sculpture of an alluring woman styled in the classic ‘s’ shape to his right. “Before Islam, women didn’t wear upper garments.”
How important does the author of Being Indian think Sanskrit is to the concept of Indianness? “I can’t stand the lack of respect we give to our own languages under the baneful shadow of English”, he says with a sudden seriousness. “We can’t become a nation of linguistic half-castes, perpetually adrift from our own tongue.” For him, language is your culture, your identity – not a utility.
Indians must reappropriate their culture. He speaks with force of the “cultural asymmetry” that has ensued as a fall out of post-colonialism. “When formal empires end the playing field is not automatically or immediately levelled.” Educated Indians read Shakespeare with pride, but how many have read Kalidasa? Mr Varma terms this “the unfinished revolution” (a possible title for his new book which deals with this very subject). “We cannot become photocopies.”
Sanskrit literature does “of course” have the potential to become popular in the West, but who will propagate it? Mr Varma dismisses contemptuously those who try to sell such cultural exports abroad, passing themselves off as worthy ambassadors with their two memorised Sanskrit shlokas. “First we must reappropriate our cultural space, then we must become authentic spokespersons for our culture.” He is not interested in the political controversies surrounding Sanskrit as a vehicle of saffronisation. “We have moved beyond this.” Indians must, though, learn to respect their languages and their culture. Until a middle class Indian stops replying in English to a question asked in Hindi, this will not be the case. So will the unfinished revolution ever resume? Quite simply, thunders Mr Varma, “it must”. And then he settles back into his leather chair, pipe in hand, the smile returns and he asks me why I haven’t drunk my tea.
A list of Mr Varma’s books can be found at http://www.iccrindia.org/pavankvarma/books.htm
[i] The purusharthas are the goals of human life – duty, wealth/status, desire and liberation (from the cycle of death and birth)