Response to Transgressions

Debating 'Transgressions'
A cultural strategy or social structural attributes?

I read Peter deSouza's essay on “transgressions” with profit and pleasure.

It is a well-written  piece with an enviable lucidity of prose and arguments. It covers a huge canvass through the playful use of one particular key word, that is, transgression. His illustrations are apt though purists might argue that his shift from person to book to event is some sort of cherry picking. But they do put in sharp relief some of the arguments that the author is making. 

I have one issue though. Is transgression merely a cultural strategy indexed by the mere subjective will of the transgresser? Or is the transgression enabled by social structural attributes of an individual, group or community?

Put differently, transgression could very well be seen as an ability or resource which is dependent upon various forms of capital a la Bourdieu. Peter deSouza may like to reflect on this a bit more carefully even though he alludes to such an understanding in his essay.

Manish Thakur IIM Calcutta
Enriching, not transgressing

Peter deSouza's recent essay titled “Transgression: Explaining Contemporary India” takes a single word and explores how it comes to explain and complicate our understanding of India today. But, more importantly, the essay breaks out of the sense at the sentence level and is a cautionary note for the humanities and the social sciences establishment here. It seems to be such a clean and clear accompaniment to some strands of Queer theory, where the perspective centres around desire and its transgressions to argue for the human condition.

Although I agree with the overall argument, I just had a few concerns with the author's examples. The first was concerning his conflation of the “menstrual phase” with the “sexually active phase” in the case of Sabarimala. That example rests entirely on that premise because it equates sexual desire and activity with fertility and child-bearing. Although that is how the current dispensation, and brahminical world view around the temple and its logic of exclusion works, I'm not sure that is how we should be considering it while arguing on principle.

My second concern was with his uncritical stance on T. M. Krishna. The author has mentioned that there are criticisms of Krishna's work. And, I agree that Krishna's work is important, but specifically in the context of this article, I am not sure if Krishna can be seen as the exception. The classical arts have a tradition of co-opting the other to enrich itself and thereby perpetrate its traditional stranglehold on art and culture. Rukmini Devi did that with the “rediscovery” of Bharatanatyam and in the national imagination relegated to the margins the devadasi sadir tradition. Andal's poems are supposed to have been taken from or inspired by folk music traditions. The non-classical non-brahminical traditions that have enriched what has come to be called classical music are not the exception, but the rule. And, I am not sure Krishna is doing anything out of the ordinary here. Let us take the example of the “Karnatic Kattaikuttu” production in which he has been involved. He has organised a dialogue of a kind between the Tamil theatre tradition called Kattaikuttu and Carnatic music. Kattaikuttu is a non-Brahminical tradition where primarily episodes from the Mahabharata are performed through the night. This confluence of the Carnatic and Kattaikuttu, as can be seen in numerous YouTube videos, is highly aesthetised to seem much closer to the popularly received Carnatic tradition. The very presence of a vocal accompaniment when the actors on stage are quiet and reflective, all seem straight out of the classical Bharatanatyam mould. This is why the term “Karnatic Kattaikuttu” seems to fit well -- this admixture is a Carnatic version of how Kattaikuttu can be. But, sadly, this versioning, also tells us how Kattaikuttu itself can be to an audience that is largely unfamiliar with the art form. In that sense, Krishna is not transgressing, only entrenching. 

Antony Arul Valan, Ashoka University, Sonipat, Haryana
Conspicious absence

I read, in detail and with great interest, Desouza's piece on "Transgressions". He tries to explain Contemporary India's state and the evolution of its development, using various categorisations of transgression. For example, he uses his characterisations of transgression to study contemporary India, in terms of what he calls its six important dimensions: relations, culture, religion, law, culture, economy, and politics. He attaches significance to the ordered sequence. I find the list conspicuous by the absence of science, art, poetry, sports, literature, music and philosophy.

I think, science (divided into pure and applied), literature, art, architecture, poetry, philosophy, music and sport are, at least, also necessary dimensions to explain the complexity of a society (such as the Indian). The applied parts of science, engineering and agriculture, are very important for the successful development of any society, but particularly so in the case of a complex (developed or underdeveloped) society.

Although I found the article stimulating and partly true, I think contemporary India and most successful countries independent of ethnic composition of size (Singapore and the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, some of the countries in the American continent, the countries of the Antipodes, etc.) require many more dimensions than the six he lists as defining transgressions.

I also think his “four factors” - incentives, penalties, meanings and fears - are both irrelevant and insufficient to explain the complexity of any society, particularly of a developing one. Surely, Rabindranath Tagore, C.V. Raman, Srinivasa Ramanujan, B.R. Ambedkar, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Subramanyam Chandrasekhar, Sachin Tendulkar, M.S. Subbulaxmi, Jayant Narlikar, Sukhamoy Chakravarty, Ravi Shankar, Viswanathan Anand, Raj Kapoor, Nargis, M. G. Ramachandran, the various Indian industrialists, etc., are as important for 'explaining' the complexity, success and failures of contemporary Indian society? That, for example, Ramanujan, was not influenced at all by any of the four factors of Desouza is more than evident, I think.

Moreover, I think all societies are in transition (which is another word for Desouza's 'transgression'). To what? We answer with our stances on policy, determined by humaneness and sympathy.

So even though I was stimulated by Desouza's article, I am also in profound disagreement with it.

K Vela Velupillai, Solna Sweden
Climate of Religosity

Peter deSouza's article “Transgressions” has missed out that a climate of religiosity has pervaded all parties, except the professedly leftist ones, like a miasma. Whether it is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Shiv Sena, the Congress, or the Trinamool Congress, all leaders profess a profound religiosity. The difference is that whereas the BJP or the Shiv Sena only claim to be the defenders of their version of Hinduism, which is an ahistorical version of Hindutva originally concocted by Savarkar, Rahul Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee want to propitiate all religions. The makings of that go back to Bankimchandra's Anandamath and the activities of Dayanand Saraswati. But from the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh were founded Hindutva which found its nurturing vessel.

One should not forget that the Congress had within its fold Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad, Purushottam Das Tandon, and Govind Vallabh Panth who were far from being fully secular in their worldview. One should not judge the ideology of the Congress only by looking at the views of Jawaharlal Nehru or Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. Later, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and P V Narasimha Rao all peddled soft Hindutva. It was during Rajiv Gandhi's regime that the locks on the Babri Masjid were opened, and Narasimha Rao turned a blind eye when the Babri Masjid was being pulled down.

We must not forget that what one might call “progressive transgressions” were being performed from the 19th century onwards. Jyotiba Phule wrote bitingly against the caste system. Ramabai Pandit and Savitribai Phule struggled for women's equality. Ishwar Chandra Vidysagar was trying to legally permit widow re-marriage among Hindus and prohibit child marriage.

In this century Periyar Ramasamy was an atheist, anti-castiest, and a feminist. B R Ambedkar founded a new movement among Dalits against caste exploitation. Abala Bose in Bengal and the parents of Lakshmi Sahgal spearheaded movements of women's education. The pity is that all these are threatened by Hindutva in alliance with the most degraded version of a neo-liberal, privatised economy, where education, health care, and women's wombs have all become commodified and utter nonsense is propgated as scientific truth, rendering India a laughing stock in the world.

Amiya Kumar Bagchi, Emeritus Professor, Institute of Development Studies Kolkata
A reply to the commentators

I am thankful to all four who have read my article “Transgressions” carefully and correctly, depriving me of the usual defence made by authors that “I was misunderstood”. They have presented my argument with interesting conceptual challenges and counter views. If I were to summarise their dissatisfactions this is what the list would look like. They are (i) possible “cherry picking”, (Thakur) (ii) exclusion of important domains, (Velupillai) (iii) misreading of practices, (Valan) (iv) entrenching orthodoxy, (Valan) (v) offering insufficient explanation (Thakur/Velupillai), and (vi) inattention to aspects that are significant (Bagchi) rendering the article high on ambition but short of delivery.

The first two challenges I see as being of a methodological nature that can easily be met by a further elaboration of my conceptual schema. My essay seeks to provide an analytical model to explain India. Nothing less. The pivot in this model (please note it is a analytical model and therefore is pitched at a certain level of abstraction) is the concept of “transgression”.

For the concept to have purchase, the existence of a normative structure that guides and regulates social behaviour is assumed. Each domain of the many in society (only some of which are discussed) has a normative structure that changes, either fast or slow, because of pressures and processes of modernity. These I have not and do not need to list for they litter the landscape of social research. Transgression occurs when a particular combination of incentives, penalties, meaning structures and discourse, at a particular time, takes place. The bringing together of the combination could be personal or social, (Thakur’s second concern) a mapping task for social sciences, and so to see it as psychologistic (Thakur again) is to miss out on the complex dimensions of the subjective which I want to draw attention to.

I propose that my model works for all dimensions - incentives, penalties, meaning systems and public discourse as factors that encourage or retard transgressions – and hence the list of exclusions given by Velupillai or the counter examples given by Bagchi “progressive transgressions” are not really in opposition to what I am saying. I encourage them to see their examples in terms of the possibilities afforded by incentives, penalties, meaning systems and public discourse. These factors are rich three-dimensional analytical doorways which one must enter if one wishes explanatory depth. One should not see them with one-dimensional ideological frames. Many of the cases offered as counter examples by Vellupillai and Bagchi can be successfully read through the “meaning systems” within which the individual is embedded and which prompts him/her to act.

The behaviour of a Ramanujan, a Maulana Azad or a Pandita Ramabai can be explained through the mapping of these four factors with greater emphasis be given to one or perhaps two. The challenge would be to discover how they combine to produce the particular behaviour that we seek to explain. Implicit in the criticism of Velupillai and Bagchi is a certain idiosyncrasy of personality. I hold that all is explainable through a mapping of the combination. My use of book, person, episode were merely a strategy of illustration of the model and to divest it of the burden of comprehensiveness that is often expected i.e., “but this is missing…”

This leaves two last responses offered by Valan. I accept the fine distinction he makes between “menstrual phase” and “sexually active phase” and think the distinction can be accommodated in my model. The Sabarimala case, a mere illustration, he has persuasively shown to be a deficient illustration. The second response, also to an illustration, that TM Krishna’s experiments at transgression are entrenchments rather than transgressions requires more investigation. While he offers an alternative reading I see his reading as demonstrating an ideological firmness, “this is all the cunning of the dominant castes”, which prevents him from appreciating the confrontation Krishna has with the purists and orthodox in his cultural journey. Incorporation does not mean subjugation. In culture borrowings are taking place all the time, sometimes in asymmetrical power situations sometimes in subversive ways, and hence we need more discussion on Krishna’s experiments.

We are in a zone of ambiguity here. Valan sees my illustration as deficient. I see his reading as being ideologically blinkered. This is a zone of creative dialogue. And finally Velupillai  sees transgression as a synonym for transition. I must disagree. Even at the minimal grammatical level transition is passive, transgression is active, transition suggests directedness, transgression implies deliberation. They could not be more analytically different.

Peter Ronald deSouza, Goa
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