Anachronistic Women in Shyam Benegal’s Sardari Begum

Anachronistic Women in Shyam Benegal’s Sardari Begum

It must be bizarre for a filmmaker to be present at a retrospective celebration of his own life’s work, and even more so to attend a lecture in which someone else spends an hour dissecting it. Nevertheless, Shyam Benegal, the prolific Indian filmmaker, not only attended but also participated in such a lecture as part of the Shyam Benegal Retrospective Weekend on September 27-30, 2012. Dr. Anuradha Needham, Donald Longman Professor and Chair of English at Oberlin College, gave a lecture entitled “Performing Women: The Singing-Dancing Women of Shyam Benegal’s Sardari Begum.”  The lecture comes from her forthcoming book, New Indian Cinema in Post-Independence India: The Cultural Work of Shyam Benegal’s Films.

Needham’s presentation focused on a genre of Indian music called thumri, which originated in courtesan traditions, to illustrate the power dynamics of post-colonial India and the role of gender in shaping national identity. She situated the art form in both Benegal’s film and in the larger feminist movement. After independence from British rule, Victorian moral ideology continued to shape the new independent Indian national identity, and thumri was removed from its roots in the courtesan caste, scooped up as a form of bourgeois cultural acquisition (think grade school piano lessons or finishing school skills), and purged of erotic elements to conform to a newly imagined nationalistic Indian tradition. This change left an entire group of female artists in limbo: while their art had been refashioned into a part of the Indian musical canon, they themselves no longer retained their place in society as respectable artists. Thumri still, in some senses, carried connotations of eroticism, and while some women aimed to step away from that association, others persisted with their traditional performance methods and courtesan lifestyle in defiance of social acceptability. Benegal’s film Sardari Begum puts this distinctly feminine tension at center stage, subverting dominant patriarchal values—though never expressly favoring either conformity or rebellion—and raising questions about female identity and the transition to modernity.

Dr. Needham’s lecture was followed by a conversation with Benegal and Dr. Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, a visiting professor of English from NYU New York. A portion of their discussion is reprinted below.

 Dr. Rajeswari Sunder Rajan: [Dr. Anuradha Needham’s] broad argument is that the performing woman—her commitment to her art, to the creative impulse, and to her own ambition—is at odds with the cultural constructions of femininity. Primarily if you see [these constructions] as good daughterhood, good wifehood, and good motherhood, the two cannot occupy the same space—you cannot be both a performer and a respectable woman. I think that particular conflict is something these films show very powerfully. [Dr. Needham] also stresses the outsider status of performing women in the construction of the emergent nation. On the one hand, the nation’s figuration cannot accommodate these marginalized, excluded figures, and yet it needs the reclamation of their art for the construction of a so-called national culture. They cannot be excluded successfully, because the great performing arts of the nation are important for the construction of a certain tradition and its continuance, so women pose a dilemma for the national question.

I was also interested in asking Anu to think and define whether she sees Benegal in this film attempting a form of recovery, rehabilitation, or revision. I think these are distinct in some ways. The recovery is to bring women from the margins and put them in a place where they would, at least for film viewers, seem absolutely to occupy center space. But also rehabilitation from disrepute to respectability, to rehabilitate them as figures of art and culture, as great singers, actresses, and so on. And also revision, which is a question of valuation, of ideology, of revising our view of them, and essentially seeing them not as good women in place of bad women, not on a moral spectrum at all, but seeing them as complex figures, as interesting, complex, dominant figures, rather than as being kind of negligible figures. Much feminist scholarship, too, was engaged at the time in recovery, rehabilitation, and the whole revisionary aspect of feminine scholarship. I think this is an impulse that is reflected in these films.

Or perhaps it’s none of these things—perhaps there’s no agenda, and I think that’s the most amazing possibility of all, that there is no overt, explicit agenda, but that they are primarily psychological studies of certain performing women in terms of their tragedy, of their own innate self-destructiveness. In some ways, in Sardari Begum, as Anu says, the many people trying to understand her, piece together who she was and what made her tick, also brings up the possibility that what Benegal is proffering through her representation here is the idea of her as being an enigma. In some ways, the most interesting thing to do with Sardari Begum is to leave her as an enigma.

I think the most radical aspect of this film, as well, is the question of Sardari’s being a good mother or a bad mother, because feminism doesn’t address the question of motherhood as much as it does questions of sexuality, marriage, and so on. So the idea of even making that a problematic aspect of Sardari’s representation—you know, was she exploiting her daughter as much as, in her own instance, she was misunderstood and exploited? And the whole female tradition of thumri and other art forms, which are handed down from mother to daughter.

I also find that the representation of women in this very powerful, centralized, frontal way in which they appear in these films prevents us from reading them as victims of their society. We see them being hugely exploited and misunderstood, but they are never victim figures of any kind. They are not even made sacrificial victims of their art. In some ways they are seen as women before their time. I think that’s the point that Anu, too, was stressing: the importance of the second generation, and the two young women who are consciously bearing the burden of carrying on Sardari’s tradition. The idea that these are women who come before their time, that these are anachronistic women, for whom the world and their society is not yet ready, is something I’d like to address in Anu’s paper, and, more broadly, to Shyam.

 Shyam Benegal: Now, I think what Anu’s writing is a very scholarly and very fascinating study, because it gives a completely different point of view from the one I had when I was making the film. You see, when you make a film you are putting together things; when you’re studying it and analyzing it, you’re deconstructing it. So naturally, when I put it together, I automatically don’t thinking of deconstructing it at that stage. There is a process. I have no difficulty in accepting what Anu has written, nor do I have any difficulty in accepting what you’re saying, but you see for me, when I was making the film, the story suggested many things.

The most important one, of course, is that it’s a movement from tradition to modernity. The women in performing arts—any kind of performing arts—in India were always part of a particular caste of a particular community of people who did not necessarily accept [them] into what one might call the status of the accepted social norms. They could only participate as performers. As artists, their work could be appreciated greatly, but they could not necessarily have a marriage, a family, and so on. They would have, outside of all of that, but they wouldn’t be socially accepted. You always had that issue.

In the 19th century, this social structure was no problem, because there was a caste division in the whole community and they were perfectly happy with their status. But the world was changing outside, and they felt that there was a possibility of being part of another social circle, something they would be hankering for in any case, because they were always seen on the fringes of [the old society]. In the case of Sardari Begum, somewhere there is that need, because of the times she moved in, but then you have a problem of being a woman.



Alec Ross (@AlecJRoss), whose Wikipedia page is titled “Alec Ross (innovator),” and who works for every overambitious young woman’s most prominent political role model, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (@HRClinton), as “Senior Advisor for Innovation,” stopped by NYU Abu Dhabi’s downtown campus (DTC) for a casual visit on October 9, 2012. Accompanied by the U.S. Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Michael Corbin (@AmbCorbin), Ross gave a short presentation on the role of social media in diplomacy and business, and stuck around for a Q&A with students. Sadly, @HRClinton was present only in spirit. In an attempt to broaden our audience, get with the social media movement, and reach out to target demographics (tween girls, celebrities, and readers aged 35+), @ElectraStreet has put this review together in tweetspeak. All questions come from students present at the talk. Is this the #futureofjournalism? You tell us. Here’s what happened:

NYUAD event in the biggest, fanciest conference room at DTC: @AlecJRoss to speak on #socialmedia. #kindofabigdeal #reportstoHillary

@AlecJRoss and @AmbCorbin (US ambassador to UAE) being briefed upstairs. Students taking advantage of the #freecoffee

They’re here, and everyone’s looking sharp #somanyblazers #somanymoleskines

We’re here to talk technology: @AlecJRoss is Senior Advisor for Innovation to Secretary of State @HRClinton. #howcoolisthatjobtitle?

@AmbCorbin mentions social media in the context of an “entrepreneurial ecosystem:” Kickstarter, networking, etc.

@AmbCorbin claims to beat @CNN to the reporting scene #embarrassing #isjournalismdead? #panicking

@AlecJRoss talks #globalization, quotes @HRClinton: “promise or peril can no longer be contained within national borders.”

US Foreign Service officers are now getting help from tech-savvy university students #NYUADcompsciprogram #summerinternships?

@AlecJRoss calls it a “reverse internship program”: there are currently 354 in 90 countries!

Technology is powerful, and FAST. The day @HRClinton became SoS, there were 100mil. FB accounts. As of last week, there are 1bil. #cray

The last few years in tech have been about building platforms (#Facebook #Twitter #etc). Now it’s about using them #entrepreneurialecosystem

@AlecJRoss started a business (@OneEconomy) from scratch, in his basement. Bet YOU feel lazy and inefficient now. #ido

Another #genius use of technology: text Haiti campaign cost nothing, was set up overnight, and raised $40mil in 2 weeks for disaster relief.

@AlecJRoss assures us we need no technical training to be just like him: “Thinking as a human and not an engineer can be a good thing.”

Time for Q&A! #freecoffee is getting cold because @AlecJRoss is more exciting.

Q: What’s the downside to connectivity? A: Everyone has a voice, and they’re not always nice. #InnocenceofMuslims

Re: “What’s the downside to connectivity?” @HRClinton: “Our info networks are like nuclear power. They can fuel a city or destroy it.”

Re: “What’s the downside to connectivity?” @AmbCorbin says knowing where to draw the line; diplomacy requires confidentiality.

Q: What about the disconnect btw online and offline civil rights? A: US makes no distinction between online and offline worlds.

@AlecJRoss: “US has always advocated for free speech.” Online, message is the same; tools are different.

A line between free speech online and varying freedoms in the real world is harder to draw or delete outside the US. #China #Russia #MidEast

Q: Doesn’t Internet immediacy lead to oversimplification for shock value? A: Yep, and punishes those who don’t conform to party orthodoxy.

@AlecJRoss: BUT while many media outlets compromised quality for entertainment/immediacy, subscriptions to academic journals skyrocketed.

@AmbCorbin: there’s a place for good journalism, just maybe not in print.

Q: Is mainstream media getting played by the social networks? A: Some are, they’ve just gotta be savvy.

@AlecJRoss has an inkling multimedia reporting is the way to go.

@AmbCorbin wants a time-saving news format like PowerPoint. #futureofjournalism?

@AlecJRoss thinks #Twitter might be that time-saver, if you find the right voices. Can’t listen to 2000 people, so pick one you trust.

Do you trust @ElectraStreet? And what do you think about the #futureofjournalism?

We’re on #Twitter & #Facebook, and just getting hip to #socialmedia—let us know how we stack up.


The Earth Hour Collaboration

The Earth Hour Collaboration


“Synergy” is a word used for fitness products and computer programs, because it means something seemingly magical and sounds like the name of a superhero. So when Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bin Ali Bin Rashid Al Nuaimi, otherwise known as the Green Sheikh, states that universities of the United Arab Emirates, environmental organizations, and the Emirati government must “synergize,” skeptical people like me begin to quietly roll their eyes.

That is, until they realize that what he proposes might actually create this sort of magical combination, producing more than the sum of its parts. The Sheikh, working in conjunction with the Emirates Wildlife Society-World Wildlife Fund, has issued a challenge to the university students of the UAE. If six thousand people, in six months, are able to donate unused medicine to the Al Ihsan Charity Center in Ajman—which has operated under his patronage since 1998—he will fast for six days. This promise is a part of this year’s Earth Hour campaign, coordinated globally by the World Wildlife Fund.

Earth Hour, a sixty-minute event in which participants agree to shut off the electric lights in their homes and businesses, started in Sydney, Australia in 2007, and has now expanded to include cities in 135 countries, speaking 51 languages (of which Arabic is in the top three). This year’s campaign, entitled “I Will if You Will,” is a grassroots attempt to “go beyond the hour” in order to implement long lasting change. Through the Earth Hour YouTube channel—referred to by UAE project coordinator Oliver Kerr as a “global portal”—users can upload video challenges, to dare themselves and someone else to make an environmental commitment. The format is flexible, the deadlines and challenges self-imposed. The WWF hopes for this campaign to raise awareness both globally and locally, as challenges are made between friends, celebrities, schools, companies, and larger organizations in the global community. One man, for example, has pledged to let his three-year-old daughter dress him for a week if 5000 people commit to recycling in 2012. Two firefighters have challenged themselves to scale a ninety-six-story building if 5000 people agree to take public transportation for a week. Rock singer Vanessa Bley will play in a pedal-powered rock show if 1000 people live without using oil or natural gas for a day, while Greenpeace director Kumi Naidoo will dye his beard green if 10,000 people commit to Earth Hour.

Kerr believes that this initiative will be more effective in creating enthusiasm among people all over the world, especially students. This project leaves environmentalism in the hands of those who have the self-motivation and inspiration to work towards sustainable improvements on a local, everyday scale. Sheikh Abdul Aziz is eager to look to young people to implement this on-the-ground change, dubbing the March 31 event “Youth Hour.” He loves working with youth, he says, because, “when you are young, you have a lot of time, and a lot of energy, but no money. When you get older, you have more money, but a lot less time, and a lot less energy. That’s why we need to work together with the young people, to make sure that their time and energy can have a great effect on the world.”

The UAE, a country full of biggest, tallest, most-expensive world records, also holds the title of highest per capita “ecological footprint”  of any country in the world, according to the WWF’s 2010 Living Planet Report. With the high rates of carbon emission, deterioration of indigenous mangroves and coral reef systems, low water supply, and overfishing occurring in gulf coast countries, the nation needs a miracle to turn its habits around—perhaps the magic “synergy” that the Sheikh suggests. Events like Earth Hour draw on the mundane, small changes made by individuals to make small-scale environmental improvements, but these changes are only effective if performed on a massive scale. The promotion of these efforts by a public figure like Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Nuaimi goes a long way towards helping time and energy rich environmentalists, though it is hoped that along with this publicity and support will come large-scale governmental action for a more sustainable future. The Emirates have professed a commitment to move towards renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, as well as placing an emphasis on conservation of the natural landscape, implementing new building codes under the Estidama pearl system, and launching campaigns to promote recycling and reduce energy and water consumption. These are certainly significant steps towards reducing this “ecological footprint,” though the effects will only be felt if they are fully implemented on both a large and small scale—here’s hoping that the Green Sheikh’s synergetic magic casts a powerful spell.

Earth Hour celebrations in Abu Dhabi were marked on the Corniche by a drumming spectacle. This year’s participants included the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the Main Building of the Municipality of Abu Dhabi City, the premises of the Municipal External Centers, Sheikh Zayed Bridge, Maqta and Musaffah Bridges, among other public and private buildings.

NYU Abu Dhabi held a gathering at the Downtown Campus, with a dinner buffet, acoustic performance stage, canvas on which to place pledges to go beyond the hour, and a candlelit walk to the Corniche to join in the rest of the city as the lights turned off on its most iconic buildings. Oliver Kerr stopped by to mingle with students, giving a short speech about the responsibility we have for the planet and congratulating participants of Earth Hour for this simple show of support. The EWS-WWF and NYU Abu Dhabi’s environmental group, Ecoherence, would like to thank those who participated in the hour, while also encouraging further action. Here is a sample of some of the pledges made at the event:

I will remember to turn off the faucet when not in use.
I will donate 1dhs for each extra plastic water bottle I use.
I will refuse plastic bags.
I will use a reusable water bottle.
I will remember to turn off the lights.
I will use more natural lighting to light my room.
I will encourage more people to get outside. When they see how beautiful our world is, they want to protect it!

[Photos: Top: Candles lit at NYUAD’s Downtown Campus during Earth Hour on March 31. Middle: Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bin Ali Bin Rashid Al Nuaimi speaking in Ajman. Bottom: NYUAD students celebrating Earth Hour. Photos by Sachi Leith.]