Thursday, August 11, 2005

Rushdie, Naipaul and Hampi

First off, this guy is wrong. Rushdie is brilliant (previous praise for Rushdie on this blog here). I can't wait to read his new book.

(link to Amitava Kumar's article via this very interesting post by Amardeep Singh on the amazing Sepia Mutiny)

In the same post, Prof. Singh also talks about V.S. Naipaul's recent interview with the New York Times. This leads to a discussion (in the comments) of Naipaul's attitude towards Muslims, and more specifically, his reactions when he visited Hampi. Here is Prof. Singh's take on the issue, and here is William Dalrymple's. I'm a big Dalrymple fan, and everything I've read by Prof. Singh has been insightful and informative, but here I have to disagree with both of them, particularly Dalrymple.

Dalrymple writes:
"The fall of Vijayanagar is a subject Naipaul keeps returning to: in an interview shortly after being awarded the Nobel Prize in 2001, he talked about how the destruction of the city meant an end to its traditions: "When Vijayanagar was laid low, all the creative talent would also have been destroyed. The current has been broken."

Yet there is considerable documentary and artistic evidence that the very opposite was true, and that while some of the city's craftsmen went on to to work at the Meenakshi temple of Madurai, others transferred to the patronage of the sultans of Bijapur where the result was a significant artistic renaissance."

The latter point may be true, but Dalrymple is down-playing the impact of the destruction in Hampi. This actually makes for a good segue for me to discuss some stuff that's been happening in my life recently. I visited Hampi last weekend, and my reaction is much closer to Naipaul's than Dalrymple's.

Naipaul's basic contention is that the discontinuity that resulted with the destruction of Vijayanagar resulted in a major loss of creative energies in the Hindu South. I couldn't agree more. To take one example, Hampi's ruined Vitthala Temple is an architectural and engineering marvel. The temple is famous for being the Vitthala temple where the great Vitthala bhakta, and father of Carnatic music, Purandara Dasa sang the praises of his patron god. It is also famous for the design of the stone pillars, 56 of which are designed to be used as a musical instrument.

Most of these pillars have now been destroyed, but the ones that remain are fascinating. Each one of these pillars is designed to be used as a percussion instrument, and each is tuned to a different note. On festival days temple musicians would strike these pillars with specially designed drum-sticks, producing a comprehensive sound that could be heard nearly a mile away. Keep in mind, that this temple was constructed in the 15th century, a near contemporary of the magnificent Gothic cathedrals of Europe with their amazing pipe organs.

Now, my cousin and I have been having an ongoing discussion for a few years now. The question he posed to me was, given the melodic beauty and complexity of the Indian music system with its ragas, and deep understanding of the musical scale, why were Indian musicians unable to discover (invent?) harmonics? Europeans started with church organs and choirs, and around the 15th century, Monteverdi (a near contemporary of Purandara Dasa) played around with what he was listening to to come up with a harmonic system that would be perfected a few hundred years later by geniuses like Mozart and Beethoven.

It isn't outrageous to imagine that if Vijayanagar had exported its temple construction technology and acoustics to other temples that such a system could even have been stumbled upon by a Purandara Dasa, to be perfected a few hundred years later by a Thyagaraja (a near contemporary of Mozart). But, because of the discontinuity caused by the city's destruction, we will never know.

Ok, this is pretty far-fetched you say, but the point stands. The destruction of the city of Vijayanagar, beyond just being a humanitarian catastrophe, was a cultural disaster. A lot of the artistic knowledge and achievement gained by the Vijayanagar civilization was lost. To downplay this tragedy is tasteless, to say the least.

And that's my biggest problem with Dalrymple's analysis. Sure, some of these artists gained occupation under the Bijapur Sultanate, but shouldn't we also acknowledge the extent of the loss, as Naipaul does?

Furthermore, some of the damage done to these statues and monuments speak to the determination and audacity with which the conquering Muslim armies went about their jobs. One nine foot high Ganesha idol, built of granite, and at the time the tallest Ganesha idol in India, took weeks to disfigure. The conquering army first drilled holes into the trunk and belly of the statue, then inserted metal and wood pieces into those holes, and over a period of a few weeks, systematically poured water into those holes. The water caused the wood and metal to expand and thereby shatter the trunk and belly of the idol. That level of calculated destruction must be clearly reported and discussed.

Think about the hue and cry raised over the destruction of one architecturally insignificant, and unused mosque in Ayodhya (an action I deplore, by the way), and consider the lack of outrage at the tragedy of Vijayanagar. Or, for another historical example, compare Dalrymple's description of the destruction of Vijayanagar with this account of the expulsion of the Moors from Spain. It appears that polite opinion allows for outrage over historical acts of injustice done to Muslims, but not for those done by Muslims.

Let me end by saying that the ruins of Hampi are a marvel. If you ever get the chance, make the trip. You won't regret it.


Sinfully Pinstripe said...

As I have already mentioned, this is a really learned post.

Vijay said...

Thanks buddy! Of course, I'm only an amateur historian taken on people more learned than me.

Aashadabhoothi said...

Excellent post. The historic wrongs must atleast be acknowledged not avenged. Another spill off from the Vijayanagar kingdom was the Mysore kings under the WOdeyars. The wadyiras especially Krishna Raja Wodeyar the 4th, was a patron of arts and he was very progressive. This resulted in Bangalore being the first country in India to be electrified.