Former West Bengal Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi shares his favourite books on culture and politics from 2020.
Politics and society” just about covers everything, except—I was going to say—music, religion and love. But wrong! At least in India, the India of our times, those three are at the heart of our politics.
When T.M. Krishna’s book Sebastian & Sons appeared in January 2020, few would have linked that title to music—the family-based establishment that has been making the mrdangam. Fewer to controversy. But as word got around that the book was as much about the animal hide used for the percussion instrument as about its great sound, and about the exclusion from due recognition of its makers by its users, the reaction set in. Its official launch was cancelled with a new venue being found at the last minute. This gave the book exactly the notice it deserved, in terms of sales and reviews, culminating in Tata LitFest 2020’s best non-fiction award.
Was Kabir a weaver? Is his being a Muslim brought up by Hindu parents fact or fiction? Chandan Sinha’s just-out The Vision of Wisdom—Kabir asks and answers the question with the discipline of a biographer and the eloquence of a philosopher. Sinha has translated a selection of the 15th-century mystic’s couplets into contemporary English with a note for each couplet that continues a venerated tradition. Sinha, with guidance from John Stratton Hawley, has us in his debt by renderings that tell us India’s politics and society are a strange weave, breaking at one touch, remaining unscorched through raging fires.
M.S. Subbulakshmi and love go together. If the remark sounds sensationalist, it is unintended. But let anyone who has heard her sing ‘Yaro Ivar Yaro’ speculate where that indefinable love lurked in the cave-heart of the ‘Queen of Music’. In her rapturous singing of Mirabai to Krishna, her rigorous rendering of Tyagaraja’s compositions to Rama, or in some invisible chamber of her soul to someone she wished existed? Will Keshav Desiraju’s Of Gifted Voice: The Life and Art of M.S. Subbulakshmi tell us where that love lay?
In Estuary, Nandini Krishnan’ translation of Perumal Murugan’s Tamil novel Kazhimugam, the author moves from his rural home to an urban tract where we’re our own prisoners with the world watching, scanning us through invisible lenses. Alone and exposed.