Lessons from Lorca for Indians in the age of ultra-nationalism

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The 125th birth anniversary of Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936), the most important Spanish dramatist of the 20th century and the most celebrated victim of the civil war that brought the dictator Franco to power, is being observed the world over this year. Lorca’s plays, especially the trilogy of Blood Wedding (1933), Yerma (1934) and The House of Bernarda Alba (1936), have exerted a compelling influence on creative souls working in more than one art form.

Fashioning his Rukmavati ki Haveli on Bernarda Alba, in 1991 the filmmaker Govind Nihalani transported his viewers to a village in Rajasthan at the beginning of the 20th century. After Rukmavati’s husband dies, she decrees a five-year period of mourning for the family, which means wearing black and cessation of all social intercourse. But her five young daughters, like their Spanish sisters in the Lorca original, can barely take the renunciation. With the moon in their eyes and yearning in their limbs, they restlessly move about the chambers and courtyard of the haveli like dark, doleful phantoms.

The House Of Bernarda Alba by the senior generation of Hamazkayin “Arek” Theatre. Source: Wikipedia

In the end, as passion and the seething will to live get the better of matriarchal exhortations of class, honour and tradition in an insufferable feudal ambience, tragedy shatters the unquiet silence of mourning. But even as her youngest daughter hangs herself after a nocturnal tryst with an unseen stranger, a shaken yet unbending Rukmavati declares, “My daughter died a virgin,” which is a lie, as pathetic and powerless as a host of other lies produced by authoritarianism and a mindless, heartless defiance of the laws of Nature. Nihalani’s treatment of a theme as old as womankind and yet as new as contemporary inroads into the Indian ethos in the name of history, heritage and the like, deserves to be witnessed anew. It is doubtful whether the filmmaker could have chosen a more appropriate setting than Rajasthan, epitomising as it does, cruelty and chicanery when its former rulers, landed gentry and other privileged classes talk of chivalry and courage. 

The high-strung person and blighted throw-back mindset of Rukmavati can destroy not just a family but an entire community or even a whole country. While critiquing the policing mentality of tyrants, big and small, Rukmavati ki Haveli conveys a warning against those elements in the Indian polity who would want to arrest the march of history for their own narrow gains. Such elements, once strong in the Hindi-speaking heartland but now given to flexing their muscles in previously untouched territories, would think nothing of setting the clock of civilization back, all the while chanting seductive mantras like, “The glory that was once ours”.

(One daresay that Rukmavati would have wholeheartedly approved of the conferment of a bogus divinity/sainthood on young Roop Kanwar who was burnt alive by her in-laws and village elders on her husband’s pyre at Deorala in Rajasthan in 1987.)

Rukmavati Ki Haveli (1991)

Lorca suffered a violent end when he was not yet 40 because he saw through the absurdities and cruelties of the politics of status quo, expressing himself memorably in poems, plays and other writings. These were characterised by a quiet outrage against feudalism, ultra-religiosity and militarism. In one and the same breath, he alienated the church, the landed aristocracy and the army – a more lethal combination of reactionary forces would be difficult to imagine. In continuing to recall Lorca, almost nine decades after his assassination, people all over the world honour the profound ideas he expressed with poetic fervour, and the shining ideals for which he perished. It is not difficult to follow why Lorca seems especially relevant to contemporary India. The rhetoric of reaction that has come to grip a sizeable section of Indians today, promises instant retribution to anyone opposing its inherent shortsightedness.

Patriotism, overdone, has been a safe and profitable refuse for many a wayward element. Bertrand Russell was proved correct when he held this position during the War years, but not without causing himself considerable trouble at the hands of British hawks and warmongers. In more recent times, the late scholar and educationist Edward Said had articulated the same point of view in many of his distinguished speeches and writings. Addressing students and teachers of JNU and Delhi University some years before his untimely end, Said made many friends and not a few enemies when he dismissed exaggerated notions of patriotism. He was categorical that societies tolerant of hyper-patriotism have paid a heavy price by passing into the choking embrace of obscurantists and fundamentalists.

Lorca was a patriot to the extent to which his poet’s instinct and lyrical temperament, his social conscience, and his understanding of the political realities of the day allowed him to be. He loathed fanaticism, which many make the mistake of construing to be their duty to their country and people. Judging by the way things are shaping up in the hands of ultra-nationalists in power, aided and abetted in their designs by opportunists and hangers-on belonging to dubious regional outfits, there is an important lesson for Indians here, which they may fail or refuse to acknowledge at their own peril.

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