Wednesday, March 07, 2007


Note: Very curiously, excerpts from this entry were published in Naxal Revolution.

Diary entry of 17.02.2007
This author strikes a pose at the Chitrakote waterfall.

The site for the log-huts camp overlooking the Chitrakote waterfall takes its dying-gasp: this summer, the huts, all of which have withstood the test of time with remarkable fortitude and very little maintenance, are to be dismantled to make way for a hideous brick-and-cement ‘tourist complex’. An attendant confides to me that tourists aren’t exactly happy: “if we wanted air-conditioned buildings of concrete,” they lament, “we would have stayed back in the city.” In my opinion, the worst thing about the ‘new master plan’ are the four closely clustered cement ‘cottages’ at the edge of the cliff, which rather senselessly block what used to be the Fall’s majestic view from the rest of the (now) proposed lodges: with the exception of those lucky few allowed to stay in those four cottages- the absentee landlords of the GOC- none of the other residents will be able to enjoy the panorama of Chitrakote (see photograph below). Indeed it will not be farfetched to say that the sine qua non of why people would want to stay here in the first place no longer exists.

Under Demolition: The Log Huts Campsite at Chitrakote (can you see Chitrakote?)

Chitrakote is an ideal case study of what’s happening to Chhattisgarh Tourism- and culture- under the tutelage of its high profile- but in my opinion, misguided- minister, Brij Mohan Agrawal. The way I see it, there are three definitive shifts in the ministry’s policy.

1. OVER-BUREAUCRATISATION: During my father’s regime, the mantra was privatization: the scant tourism infrastructure we had inherited from MPTDC (Madhya Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation)- its only notable property being the ruinous Chhattisgarh Hotel at Raipur- was slated for disinvestment; likewise, parent departments of various ‘rest houses’ littered all over the state- Irrigation, PWD and Forest- most of which were built during the heydays of the Raj, were instructed to hand them over to private parties, to be run on commercial lines.

Papa’s policy was clear. GOC was to confine its role to Publicity: its job was to attract potential tourists to come to Chhattisgarh; once here, private parties, functioning with minimal bureaucratic interference, were expected to take over. Bastar of course was to be Chhattisgarh Tourism’s mascot, but other areas- Bhoramdeo, Achanak Mar and Barnawapara (all three are designated wildlife sanctuaries); Bagicha and Mainpat (both ‘virgin’ hill stations); Sirpur, Sonmuda, Dongargarh, Rajim, Chandrapur, Dantewada and Ratanpur (temple sites)- were also identified for promotion. Since ‘eco-tourism’ and ‘ethno-tourism’ constituted the very core of GOC’s policy, the departments of culture, forest and tourism were placed under one Principal Secretary to enable better synergy between them. Jai Tilak, an IAS officer from Kerala who was instrumental in putting that state- God’s own country- on the world tourism map, was ‘poached’ from his parent-cadre, and given what might be euphemistically called ‘a free hand’. All of this, it would seem, has been reversed. For one thing, Mr. Jai Tilak had been unceremoniously shunted off to Excise, where he soon tired of formulating the state's Liquor Policy.

Meanwhile, CTDC, the government-run state tourism corporation, is on a construction overdrive: tourist lodges, much like the one here at Chitrakote, have mushroomed along highways, and at various other places à la Bansilal’s Haryana. That’s all very well. What I fear- and I believe the lessons of past experiences to be on my side- is the likelihood of their falling victim to the gross mismanagement, corruption and nepotism that are the bane of most, if not all, ‘public sector undertakings’: it will not be long before they are reduced to little more than contemporary ruins. At the rest houses I halted at enroute to Jagdalpur- Kanker, Keshkal, Kondagaon- I was told that the rooms were all booked for ‘guests of hon’ble ministers’ although none of these haloed guests, with the exception of the hon’ble home minister’s wife (who spent all of five minutes at Kondagaon), had bothered showing up. In my opinion, the most sensible thing to do now would be to hand these properties over to private parties, who will, motivated as they are by profits, ensure that they are well maintained. Also, all future ‘projects’ should be organic to the state’s underlying cultural sensibilities: right now, they resemble cheap matchbox-style motels.

This in fact brings me to my second and far more serious point: the de-Chhattisgarhisation of Chhattisgarhi culture.

2. DE-CHHATTISGARHISATION: Not too long ago, I was having lunch with a journalist from the German publication, Focus. She had just been to a cultural evening organized by the Department of Culture, and her surmise of what she saw was as follows: “Chhattisgarh’s culture,” she mused, “is very similar to Rajasthani culture.” Had it not been for her local guide, who had thankfully accompanied her to the luncheon, I would have taken this comment to be symptomatic of an outsider’s total lack of cultural sensibility to distinguish a bison-horn Maria peacock dance from the Kalbeliya. He quickly clarified that the song & dance routine that my distinguished guest had seen was indeed staged by a troupe from Rajasthan, and it had nothing to do with Chhattisgarhi culture. “What else can we expect,” he said, “when the minister for culture is a Marwari (a native of the Marwar region of Rajasthan) who doesn’t know how to speak [the] Chhattisgarhi [dialect]?”

A young journalist-friend from Bilaspur, who had won the local Press Club’s local badminton championship, narrated a similar anecdote to me. While presenting him with the trophy, the hon’ble Chief Minister politely asked where he hailed from. “I am a thakur,” my friend replied, “from Uttar Pradesh.” The CM’s off-hand repartee to his query is telling: “So am I.”

It is an undeniable fact that Chhattisgarhis today find themselves being ruled by a government constituted primarily by persons who do not- cannot- identify themselves with the state’s underlying cultural sensibilities. This has had catastrophic affects. In this regard, I shall cite specific examples. At the Rajyotsav celebrations, held annually to commemorate the state’s foundation day, the amount paid to a little-known dance troupe from Mumbai in 2006- Rs. 15 lakhs- was more than that disbursed to all the other local artistes put together. Likewise the Chhattisgarhi Sahitya Academy, which was headed by the state’s poet-laureate Lakshman Masturia during my father’s government, has been allowed to go defunct while a Sindhi Sahitya Academy has been formed for the promotion of Sindhi literature (Sindh is now a province in Pakistan with its capital at Karachi). While I’ve nothing against Sindhi, it is also important not to overlook other dialects of Chhattisgarh that face a very real threat of obsolescence: Sargujiya and Nathpuriya are two that come to mind, which have a very rich literature that ought to be preserved and promoted.

As far as the local artistes are concerned, an unofficial Culturocracy dominates: it has monopolized state-largesse by systematically ostracizing artistes who refuse to kowtow to the not-so-covert politico-cultural agenda espoused by the BJP’s parent-body, the RSS. During the last Vidhan Sabha elections, professional artistes hired by one Mohan Chand Sundrani, a Sindhi by sheer coincidence, to campaign for the BJP were caught unawares when they were suddenly paraded before the Press as having en mass joined that party. Not surprisingly, Mr. Sundrani now lords over Chhattisgarh’s cultural activities as head of Sundrani World Video, a Raipur-based private limited company, which releases more than 200 ‘Chhattisgarhi’ musical video-albums and CDs every year. This is more than all his competitors put together. In fact artistes not part of his ever-growing cultural stable are finding it increasingly difficult to survive. His numero uno ‘artiste’ is one Yogesh Agrawal, the younger brother of the state’s culture minister. Mr. Yogesh Agrawal’s tallest claim to fame comes from having ‘co-starred with the Bollywood superstar, Amitabh Bachchan, in the patriotic film, Ab tumhare hawale watan saathiyon.’ In film posters erected all over town, his beaming visage dwarfed that of Mr. Bachchan’s. Cinemagoers were therefore somewhat bemused to discover that Mr. Agrawal’s sole appearance in the movie was in a five-second non-speaking scene with the superstar. Lest the audience carelessly overlook this precious misé-en-scène, owners of theaters were advised to pause and replay it at least three times over with the caption: “in this scene, Amitabh Bachchan appears with the pride of Chhattisgarh, our very own Yogesh Agrawal ji.”

Meanwhile, the ‘music videos’, far from being representative of Chhattisgarh’s incredibly rich folk culture, have become increasingly vulgar and full of cheap double-entendres: in one number, ‘aey man chali’, the Calcutta-based starlet, Oshin, gyrates to techno-rhythms with only an iota of clothing. Culture, therefore, is being sacrificed at the scaffold of titillation. The other trend discernable in the evolution of popular Chhattisgarhi music is the growing influence of Oriya, and particularly Sambalpuri, songs. This is mainly because most of the music albums are recorded in sound studios in Cuttack; more often than not, Oriya songs are simply dubbed in Chhattisgarhi. Tonight, at the Lohandiguda madai (fete) where over ten thousand tribals from all over Bastar have congregated, we saw a ‘natt’ competition. Eight parties were simultaneously performing scenes from the Ram Lila in eight separate enclosures to a suitably enthralled squatting audience, comprising mostly women. The common feature in all these performances was that they were all in Oriya (see photo below).
Lohandiguda Madai

The only place where we came across a performance in the native dialect was outside the devi-gudi (the tribal temple): a mandali (band) of performers was singing stories from the Puranas in hybrid-Halabi (which even I could follow), interspersed with ‘prasishtis’ (adulatory songs) for paying-devotees.

The biggest sufferer, however, has been the nascent Chhattisgarhi film industry. In the years 2000-03, more than 35 Chhattisgarhi films were released; from 2004-06, their number has shrunk to less than 10. Annual state film award function, started in 2003, ‘to recognize and promote excellence in Chhattisgarhi cinema’ was summarily abandoned; subsidies announced by the previous government too have been discontinued. Instead the Department of Culture organizes ‘Film Star Nights’. Here also, the ‘politics of culture’ has ensured that the more popular of Chhattisgarh’s ‘stars’- like Shekar, Anuj Sharma and Poonam Naqvi, who attained stardom with ‘Mor chaiyyan bhuiyyan’, the state’s top-grosser ever- are kept at a distance from such events. The DoC’s chief organizer of such events is the proprietor of R.P. Films Pvt. Ltd., Rajesh Mishra, who, like Mr. Sundrani, is extremely close to Mr. Yogesh Agrawal. Any artiste who is considered close to rival political organizations- like Mr. Sharma- is not extended an invitation to participate whereas little-known starlets, who are obviously more amenable to the state’s designs, are given prominent billings.

I was recently asked to preside over the closing ceremony of a statewide Gammat Nacha competition. This, as I later learnt, is an annual event organized by the Tarun Chhattisgarh newspaper. It is indeed unfortunate that although we have several dance-forms in the state, the state government has not deemed it fit to promote any of them. The solitary exception, the Panthi Nach competition announced belatedly this year (2007) as part of Guru Ghasidas Jayanti celebrations, is seen as little more than a political gimmick to woo the ‘Satnami votebank’. The prize money announced for this competition, however, was inexplicably reduced when it came to actually rewarding the winners. This laxity is understandable considering that rather than a particular 'caste' like the Satnami, the principal target of the present government’s cultural policy is indeed the ‘Hindu votebank’. This then brings me to my third- and most sensitive- point.

3. RELIGIOUS EMPHASIS: By far, the single biggest ‘event’ in the DoC’s calendar is the ‘Rajim Kumbh’: glitzy hoardings displaying smiling photographs of the state culture & tourism minister and the CM alongside that of the deity, Rajiv Lochan, are erected at strategic places all over the state; double-page advertisements are placed in every minor and major publication of the nation; sadhus (godmen) from all over the country are extended state-sponsorships to attend. While I find nothing particularly wrong with this- after all, both the Rajim Kumbh méla and the Bastar Dusshera (which has nothing whatsoever to do with the tale of Lord Ram) were popularized during my father’s regime- it is most objectionable that these religious events are being used not only to further votebank politics but also for shameless self-promotion: only last year (2006), some of these godmen were persuaded to confer, in violation of all established precedence and norms, the religious title of ‘Mahamandalesvar’ (great lord of the universe) on the personage of the state culture minister, Mr. Brij Mohan Agrawal.

Taken together, the above-described three trends have led to an unfortunate paradox: the way this present administration sees it, tourism and culture in Chhattisgarh today have very little to do with the Chhattisgarhi identity. Even more worrisome is the fact that both the existence and evolution of this identity have come under grave threat, and there is nobody to speak against it.

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Amit Aishwarya Jogi
Anugrah, Civil Lines
Raipur- 492001
Chhattisgarh, INDIA
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