Sunday, February 12, 2017

The new exciting Bikaner House

Ever since Bikaner House got a makeover last year, it has become an exciting venue for exhibitions and events. 
My friend Sumedha launched her book Mewar Ramayana there. The book is beautifully illustrated with paintings commissioned by Jagat Singh, the Maharana of the Mewar kingdom.
In the 17th century, Jagat Singh commissioned a manuscript retelling the Ramayana. The text is in Sanskrit and the illustrations are in three different styles of Mewar painting.

This is believed to be the most well preserved manuscript form of the Ramayana. The rulers of Mewar trace their ancestry to Lord Rama, and it is but natural that in Jagat Singh's long and prosperous reign of 24 years, a book like this was commissioned.

There have been lots of other launches here as well. A photo-exhibition by Jawai, several designer names, art shows, and so on. It's really shaping up well as an alternative to the more well-established India Habitat Center.
Adding significantly to the charm of Bikaner House is Vayu, a design store that offers handcrafted artifacts for the home. They also have lots of lovely curios, jewellery and designer apparel. You need somewhat deep pockets, but it's really lovely and I particularly like their vintage silver jewellery. Last year they had a fabulous pop-up of Bungalow Eight from Mumbai; and lots of other things as well. They're open all days of the week, between 11 am and 7 pm.

If you're heading to Vayu, you can round off the shopping with lunch at the popular Chor Bizarre, which has now opened an outlet in Bikaner House.

I'm really glad to see an old heritage building being re-purposed and brought to life. Bikaner House - along with other royal houses - came up in the 1920s, when the British were building a new capital for the Empire. A portion of this grand new capital was set aside for the princely states of India, that were not officially under the Empire, but operated as independent kingdoms acknowledging British power. A large chunk of India was under these princely states (see all the yellow bits in this map below).
Edinburgh Geographical Institute; J. G. Bartholomew and Sons. - Oxford University Press, 1909
To manage the relationship with the princely states, the British came up with the idea of a Chamber of Princes. The Indian name for this chamber was Narendra Mandal; and it provided a forum in which the rulers of the princely states of India could voice their needs to the colonial government of British India. Once a year, the princely rulers descended upon Delhi for a meeting of the Chamber of Princes. So it made sense to build palaces for them.
source: Getty Images
Some of the buildings were very grand indeed. The most impressive was Hyderabad House, reflecting the incredible wealth of the Nizam of Hyderabad. Indeed, the Nizam wanted to build something that would rival the Viceroy's building (now Rashtrapati Bhavan), but of course he was not allowed to do so!

The smallest and coziest of the palaces was Bikaner House, because it was more like a bungalow than a palace. The small size now makes it a perfect venue for events.
source: India Today

source: India Today

Go on. Head over and take a look. And let me know how it went!

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The legal rights of Hindu women

Village elders under a tree, Rajasthan, 2016
We all know that Hindu society is patriarchal for the most part. Is gender inequality among Hindus only a cultural/social phenomenon? Or does it have a legal basis? What legal rights do Hindu women have? Are they considered equal to men in the eyes of the law? What are the roots of the women's rights movement in India?

As a Hindu woman, I thought I should try and figure out who my friends and foes are. Who or what has helped the cause of Hindu women, and who has hindered it?

First, let us look at religion. If we examine Hindu scriptural law, there is no single uniform code. Influenced by many shastras and commentaries, the law has traditionally been applied by village councils as per local customs. Thus, there is significant variation in women's rights across the country, based on specifics of caste and class. Most of the time, these customs are not pro-women, although they often offer quick justice and practical solutions based on easily understood cultural norms. When women operate within these norms, but face injustice or denial of rights, the village council or panchayat offers a quick and very useful method of redressal. But the norms themselves are quite misogynistic.
William Bentinck, who abolished sati
It was the British who began the process of codification of Hindu law in the 19th century, starting with Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. As part of this process, some local customs, which the British found reprehensible, were declared illegal. For example, sati was banned, and widow remarriage was allowed. This was the first step in giving all Hindu women, irrespective of caste or class, some rights under British law.

The late 19th century saw the beginnings of the Hindu women's rights movement in India. The early campaigners were men, armed with English education, who fought orthodox Hindu society to obtain more rights for women. They were eventually joined by some trail blazing women, who heralded a brave departure from social norms. Women's rights organisations began asking for a comprehensive code of Hindu laws rather than piecemeal legislation. They had mixed results; because the British were slow to make major changes after the Mutiny of 1857.

The independence movement in the late 1800's and early 1900's slowed down the progress of women's rights. The freedom fighters resisted any British interventions to 'modernize' the Indian family. In 1891, when the British introduced an act to increase the age of consent for marriage, there were big protests.

Sarojini Naidu, leading Salt Satyagraha, 1930, after the arrest of Gandhi.
First woman president of the Congress
Things changed under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, who believed in greater rights for Indian women. Although he propounded a rather idealized view of Hindu women, glorifying self-sacrifice, it propelled many Hindu women to come out of their homes and join the Indian freedom struggle in the first half of the 1900's.

The British, meanwhile, continued the process of legal reform. In 1937, the Hindu Women's Rights to Property Act was passed, giving widows rights of inheritance in a joint family. A Hindu Law committee was appointed in 1941, to look further into the rights of daughters. The committee, led by the constitutional scholar B. N. Rau, toured a number of cities throughout India in 1945, and interviewed many people and caste associations. In 1947, India got independence from the British. Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in January 1948. With support from Nehru and Ambedkar, a Hindu Code Bill was introduced to the new Constituent Assembly on April 9, 1948.

Strong protests erupted from many quarters. Religious organisations such as the Hindu Mahasabha said it was 'suicidal folly' (because the new code bill banned polygamy). They believed that the whole race of Hindus would be destroyed, since there were no equivalent restrictions on polygamous Muslims. The pontiffs of leading religious sects said that giving rights to women would break the effective functioning of the Hindu joint-family, and was against the principles of Hindu dharma.

Here are some photos of protests which took place in Delhi in 1949. The protestors were against giving Hindu women inheritance rights, rights to divorce, etc. Since those were simpler days, without huge security issues; here we can see how the public have easy access to the Parliament House! People can be seen climbing the walls, or just hanging around. No doubt, some brought their own packed meals and made a picnic out of it.

After these major protests, the Bill lapsed and went into hibernation. In 1952, the Congress party swept the polls with a huge majority. This gave Jawaharlal Nehru the political strength to implement his vision. As a result of the untiring efforts of Nehru and Ambedkar, four separate acts came into being:
  1. Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 - this allowed inter-caste marriages, introduced monogamy and created provisions for the dissolution of marriage 
  2. Hindu Succession Act of 1956 - this act gave women absolute ownership of inherited property (previously they could only enjoy the property without ownership during their lifetime).
  3. Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act of 1956 - gave the mother guardianship rights if the father neglected the child; and also allowed mothers the rights to be guardians of illegitimate chilren
  4. Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance act of 1956 - allowed women to claim one-third of the joint income of her husband and herself in case of divorce
Despite many limitations, these Acts together were a great victory for gender rights of Hindu women.

The Constitution of India, which came into effect in 1950, guarantees to all Indian women the following:
- equality (Article 14)
- no discrimination by the State (Article 15(1)
- equality of opportunity (Article 16)
- equal pay for equal work (Article 39(d)

In addition, via Article 15 (3), the Constitution allows special provisions to be made by the State in favour of women and children. It renounces practices derogatory to the dignity of women via Article 51(A) (e), and also allows for provisions to be made by the State for securing just and humane conditions of work and for maternity relief. (Article 42).

Since 1956, several landmark judgments have been passed by the Congress government, each one bringing a little more improvement in the legal rights of Hindu women. Several laws have come into effect:
  • Dowry Prohibition Act 1961 - prohibits demanding, giving and taking of dowry.
  • Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act 1971 - allows termination of pregnancy by a licensed practitioner under specific circumstances (rape, danger to mother's life or health, contraceptive failure, etc) 
  • National Commission for Women Act 1990 - a body to review the constitutional and legal safeguards for women, recommend remedial legislative measures, facilitate redressal of grievances and advise the Government on all policy matters affecting women.
  • Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act 1999 - to stop female foeticides and arrest the declining sex ratio in India
  • Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 - defines domestic violence and provides protection against physical, emotional/verbal, sexual, and economic abuse
  • Sexual Harassment of Women at Work Place (Prevention, Prohibition & Redressal) Act 2013 - defines sexual harassment at the work place and creates a mechanism for redressal of complaint
Compared to just a few decades ago, there is huge progress. But there's is still a long way to go in this journey. The current government has been talking about implementing a uniform civil code. This is more an attempt to bring Muslims under the ambit of a civil code, rather than any attempt to further strengthen the rights of Hindu women. The attitudes of right-wing Hindu organisations (which form the major support base for the current government) continue to be parochial and misogynistic.

Black and White Photographs taken during the anti-Hindu Code Bill demonstrations outside the Council House, New Delhi on Dec. 12, 1949. Source:

Monday, December 19, 2016

Taj Mahal: Scaffolding Update (and also tickets by credit card now)

As of Dec 15, the old currency notes are no longer accepted as tickets at the Taj Mahal. They've started accepting payments by credit card now, so you can swipe a card at the counter. Huzzah. No more cash woes.

You can also buy tickets online at the ASI website: 

Here's what the Scaffolding at the Taj Mahal looks like now:

This photo is clicked in the afternoon around 1:30 p.m. yesterday. Morning temperatures are at 8 C (47F), rising to 22 C (72F) in the afternoon. Nights are cool again.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Portraits of labourers in Delhi (2)

Photo: Marcel Fens, on his guided tour of Khari Baoli
What words would you use to describe the people in this photo? Relaxed? Happy? Yes. They're having a nice break, waiting for work.

But there are two more words that come to my mind, and those are not-so-nice: Uneducated and Unskilled.

The informal sector in India is characterized by uneducated and unskilled labour.

Education levels are abysmal. One-fourth (23%) of informal labour is illiterate; having never gone to school. About 10% have studied upto primary school. So that's one-third of the labour force, which doesn't really know how to read or write much. They are vulnerable to exploitation, not just by employers and middlemen, but also by moneylenders. Roughly 48% of workers in the informal sector have studied until Grade 10.

In addition to the poor literacy levels, informal labourers do not have specific vocational training or skills that will bring them better paid jobs. Thus they bring literally nothing to the bargaining table, and must make-do with whatever current rates are offered to them. More than half of the informal labour force is self-employed. This makes it even more difficult to negotiate for improvements.

At the end of the day, it's about education. Until we improve vocational skills and ensure basic literacy, we're going to keep seeing low-paid, poor and unhealthy workforce.

Data source:
Confederation of Indian Industries
An Analysis of the Informal Labour Market in India
A. Srija & Shrinivas V. Shirke

Friday, September 2, 2016

Portraits of labourers in Delhi (1)

Photo credit: Marcel Fens, who travelled through Delhi and Rajasthan with us
The vast majority of workers in India are in informal jobs. The ILO estimates that the overall proportion of informal workers in total employment is 92%. Pretty staggering, huh? This includes not only those in unorganised sector, but also contract and informal workers in the organised sector.

These men in the photo are hired to transfer goods from shops in the wholesale markets, to waiting trucks. The gamcha, a checked towel, is a multi-purpose textile that all of them have. Almost a class trademark.

The government has mandated minimum daily wages for unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled labour, but that applies only to those who you hire for the full day. The men in this photo are probably being paid by piece / sack loaded or unloaded. 

ILO Country Office for India | July 2016

Monday, August 15, 2016

Linkages between Sikhism and Sufism

A couple of months ago, at Siri Fort, there was a performance by the amazing Wadali Brothers of Punjab. Like many singers, the Wadali Brothers take their name from their village; Wadali, which is the birthplace of the sixth Sikh Guru Hargobindji.

The Wadali Brothers sing in the Gurbani, Kafi, Ghazal and Bhajan genres of music. They believe in the Sufi tradition deeply and are liberalists at heart, believing in freedom of religious practice as homage to the divine one. Their performances - part dialogue - part music - are deeply stirring. If you want to listen to it, here's the website:

Many people think 'Sufi music' (by which they mean quwwali) is a purely Muslim tradition. In the Punjab, though, there has long been a tradition of 'Sikh Sufi music'. 

Sufism became popular in the Punjab through the mystic Baba Farid (Hazrat Khwaja Farīduddīn Mas'ūd Ganjshakar), who belonged to the Chishtiya sect.

But in the 14th century, Guru Nanak, the first guru of the Sikh religion, distilled the Sufi, Nath and Bhakti traditions - three religious genres that influenced Punjab's spiritual tradition - in his divine verses.

Nanak even laid down the 'raag' (melody) in which each of these verses were to be sung. The concepts of love, secularism, universality, music, freedom of spirit and one god shine through in Nanak's verses; deeply influenced by these three traditions. The ballads of Islamic-Punjabi became popular among both Sufi story-tellers and the Gurmukhi musicians.

Thus, Sikhism and Sufism have many linkages, and they are not just at a philosophical level. Did you know that the foundation of the Golden Temple at Amritsar was laid in 1588 by a Sufi mystic, Hazrat Mian Mir? Guru Arjan Dev sent a palanquin to fetch Mian Mir to Amritsar from Lahore!

Monday, May 16, 2016

Gramin Seva - a good idea that needs stricter monitoring

If you live in a slum or village on the outskirts of Delhi, you will probably find yourself using one of these decrepit Gramin Seva vehicles for transport. 

The Gramin Seva (Village Service) vans were introduced in 2010. Licenses were granted to 6000 vehicles, mostly 3-wheelers, to ferry people from the villages and slums in the peripheral areas of Delhi. It was a great idea, to meet the needs of an expanding city. The vans offered poor people cheap connectivity to the major city junctions, from where they could further connect via metro, bus and train.

Ticket prices for Gramin Seva have always been low; they range from 5 to 10 rupees in most cases, and for longer distances it is 15 rupees. However, passengers routinely have to deal with overloading of vehicles beyond the permitted capacity of 6 adults. Owners of the vehicles say they cannot run a sustainable service, if they only take 6 people. Sometimes the vans are crammed with double the allowed capacity! The van owners do not invest in vehicle repair, and although there are norms for the quality of the vehicles, most of them are now old and falling apart.

In addition, some vehicles do not ply on their designated rural/outer routes. Instead, they choose more commercially viable routes where they are not authorised to ply (by law, they can ply only up to the Inner Ring Road; and they cannot cross the Inner Ring Road into the city). Several errant vehicles have been issued challans (traffic violation notices) by the Delhi traffic police. 
But if you live in a slum or farflung peripheral village, Gramin Seva is still one of the cheapest options, given the shortage of Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) buses in such areas. The big DTC buses cannot ply these unviable far-flung routes. In many areas, private enterprise has also stepped in to fill the gap. Many private vehicles operate as vans. In some places, there are even private bus services. 

Recently the AAP government has checked and renewed licenses for 4200 of the original 6000 Gramin Seva vehicles. Hopefully some of the really decrepit ones have been thrown out. They have made it mandatory for the vehicles to be fitted with a working GPS, so that it is easy to track whether a vehicle goes out of its assigned route. Will things improve? We can only hope!

Friday, May 13, 2016

Evening gup-shup at Hauz Khas

The ruins at Hauz Khas are a happy place to spend the evening catching up with friends. Amidst the medieval architecture of an old university complex, you can find a quiet spot to relax.
After the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258, Delhi became the most important place in the world for Islamic education. Many leading philosophers and teachers migrated to Delhi. The university at Hauz Khas was established in 1352, and became one of the largest and best equipped Islamic seminaries in the world.
They university came up around a beautiful Royal Tank (Hauz Khas). The tank was originally dug by the Khiljis in the 1200's, but it was deepened and improved by Firoz Shah Tughlaq (1309 - 1338). Can you imagine how beautiful this university must have been? It is a green oasis even now. Firoz Shah Tughlaq's tomb is also there, in the building on the left.
On weekends, Hauz Khas is very popular. Here's a group that was playing the guitar when I went:
Another bunch of people were practising parkour:
There are usually lots of people around, but you can still find quiet places to sit and chat. Or have a romantic moment. See these photos below, for glimpses of a Sunday evening at Hauz Khas.

So many people, each lost in their own world :) Perhaps just a handful of them knew the history of Hauz Khas; or that algebra was once taught here, and astronomy, and poetry, and calligraphy and geography.