The Indian countryside is more than a metaphor

Centuries-old romanticisation of the countryside has masked the unsanitised realities of Indian rural life.
Painting of Mian Mukund Dev of Jasrota, 18th century. Credit: CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images
Painting of Mian Mukund Dev of Jasrota, 18th century. Credit: CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images
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Metaphor is king in the landscape of India’s imagination: every sight evokes a million more. Kalidasa, sometimes dubbed India’s ‘Shakespeare’ for his meticulous crafting of dramas and epic poems, wrote that in monsoon season:

…the vault of heaven is impregnated with massive clouds that are like the ebony gleam of the petals of black-lotuses… in places they are similar to the glitter of mounds of well-pounded black mascara powder… and elsewhere they glisten like the darkened nipples of the bosoms of pregnant women, ready to rain the elixir of life on the lips of her offspring…

Kalidasa, Rtusamhara: Rainy Season

Indian Pastoral is a nostalgic confection that blends all that is most beautiful in the subcontinent’s landscape with a dramatic cast of exiled princes, enlightened Buddhas, pious (and beautiful) daughters of ascetic sages, wily demons and cosmic deities donning worldly disguise. Ink-bellied monsoon clouds are forever teasing the land with long fingers of rain, peacocks are forever gazing from glacial peaks like Shiva himself.

This florid genre arose during the ‘classical’ millennium from 500 BCE to 500 CE as kingdoms and courts sprang up across the subcontinent and India’s growing urban intelligentsia vied for royal patronage. Authors and artists succeeded in infusing court culture with a poetic sensibility. But the writings of these urban intellectuals show that they were still dreaming of the countryside.

Naimisa the forest of sages, Kuruksetra the field of war, Braj the forest of love; the very place-names anchored India’s epics to its Indian landscape, and transported their readers into eternal events. Even the tale of the Buddha is a tale of urban disillusionment and rural retreat: a prince bored by royal pastimes discovers the city is riddled with disease, decrepitude, and death. Cue his exit to the countryside for a meditation retreat and a radical reset under the Bo tree. Despite its multi-millennium drive toward the city’s wealth, India’s heart is full of a wistful love for the countryside.

Or so it may appear – but, as with so many pastoral fantasies around the globe, the landscape of imagination doesn’t always fit the reality.

One factor in the idealisation of India’s landscape was its religious meaning. Hinduism sees the land as pervaded by the divine since there is no fall from Eden, no divide of matter and spirit, in ancient Indian cosmology. Instead, nature flows directly from the Creatoras a torrent of divinity into space and time. The Sanskrit word for the creation of the universe is srsti, or flow, outpouring. The greatness of the Gods is expressed through a language of landscape. Lakshmi, Goddess of Fortune and Fertility, is bathed by elephants in a lush river, Krishna, the God of Love, cavorts in a blossoming forest, and Shiva, God of Ascetic Liberation, dominates the higher altitudes: any google-search will reveal him sitting cross-legged in animal skins against the glacial outline of the Himalayas. Still today, Hindus from every background travel on pilgrimage to sacred sites like the shakti piths, locations believed to be part of the ‘body’ of the Great Goddess. The whole Indian subcontinent is touched by this theology of immanence, so that, as the poet Basava put it, ‘Gods, gods, there are so many, there’s no place left for a foot.’

But there was also a secular factor at play: the arts used landscape as a mood-adjuster and a mirror of the mind. Some of India’s earliest poetry (the circa first-century Tamil ‘Sangam’ poems) deployed natural settings to invoke the passions of war, or to savour states of love. The city-man, for instance, premeditates his next rural seduction while passing through paddy fields and blooming sugarcane. He enjoys his illicit pleasures on the blue waterlily shore where the crocodiles roam. And later he is cursed by regretful women who hide sadly among the river reeds when he is gone. A genre of ‘seducer’ literature grew from this, so that even today the mere mention of a forested riverbank may conjure thoughts of passion, subversion, and heartbreak. In another literary trope of ‘memory-madness’, the protagonist becomes so deranged by emotion that he or she mistakes features of the landscape for the things they have lost. In Kalidasa’s play Vikramorvaśiya a king seeks his lost love in the forest only to discover her reproachful eyes in the ‘red edges and moist calyxes’ of a banana flower: when he embraces a vine that reminds him of her curves, she is magically restored to him. Within the love of Indian countryside lay a Proustian nostalgia for intense feelings and lost happiness.

Over the centuries, the romanticisation of India’s countryside kept pace with the juggernaut of Indian urbanisation. The 1800s saw massive cities like Delhi, Kolkata, and Mumbai sprawl ever outward. Their migrant poor survived on these cities’ run-off wealth, and sent money back home to the country when they could. Meanwhile the metropolitan middle-classes continued to read Kalidasa from their suburban verandas, and came to cherish their fiction-made fantasy of nature. Popular culture widened this divide between fantasy and reality. The popular series of Amar Chitra Katha comic books helped children to picture the mountains as full of sages, and the forests as full of demons chasing nymphs. The silver screen went further in over-writing India’s rural reality: the Himalayan slopes of Himachal Pradesh, the grain fields of the Punjab, and the desert palaces of Rajasthan have all been sanitised of their real inhabitants and turned into manicured movie sets where light-skinned actors can romp freely. For the audiences, it was far cheaper, and cleaner, to watch young lovers sing across a mountain vista, than to visit the provinces. One can understand why the neo-realist film Mother India (1957) had a revolutionary effect when it showed a rural working woman face agricultural labour, near-starvation, crime and grief for her lost children.

The problem is that Indian Pastoral censors the world it celebrates; we rarely see farmers and labourers (the vast bulk of the population), artisans, traders, travelling doctors, village entertainers, the darker-skinned peoples of India, or migrants. The actual population has been largely replaced with an ornamental tableau of yogis, lovers, tribal colour, and the occasional picturesque farmer’s wife. Yet many of India’s wildernesses have become associated with indigenous protest and environmental trouble. Currently, mountainous border-regions such as Kashmir, once the jewel of India’s eye, are frequently off-limits due to political tensions. Consequently, the Alps have become the new Himalayas for a jet-set generation – with added schnapps and Euro-glamour. The Ganges – the third largest river in the world, feeding more than 10% of the global population – has become the centre of campaigns to clean its polluted waters of human fecal matter and environmental waste. In historic regions like Bihar – birthplace of Buddhism – poverty remains a longstanding challenge. Indian provinces like the eastern ‘Seven Sisters’ states are associated with indigenous struggles for self-governance, and cultures that stand outside the mainstream narrative of an orthodox ‘Hindu’ history.

As a result, Indian modernity is now ambivalent toward the countryside. Popular movies still contain gaudy rural interludes in which we see ‘India shining’, as the conservative media like to portray the nation. But in actuality many middle-class Indians are reluctant to travel within their own country. Tourist agencies peddle a monument-rich but people-poor ‘Incredible India’ that can be visited on selective routes that avoid the bulk of the landscape, much as American tourists jet across state after state of farming communities on their way to see landscape flashpoints like the Grand Canyon. Behind this the tradition of pilgrimage continues – although the original journey up through the mountains to the fount of the Ganges can now be circumvented with a ‘quick-fix’ of a helicopter ride straight to the glacier.

But the unsanitised reality of the countryside largely remains invisible behind the veil that Indian culture has drawn over it. The ‘little’ pastoral imagined over the millennia is a miniature painted in ornamental colours on a tiny canvas. But the ‘big’ pastoral of India’s real countryside – replete with demanding landscapes, challenging eco-economies, and a multitude of cultures – is a larger, less delicate, artwork. It is a rug woven with strong threads and natural colours, making up an unfamiliar pattern. That need not make it less beautiful.

Jessica Frazier

Jessica Frazier is Lecturer in Theology and Religion at Trinity College, Oxford, and a Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Hindu studies.

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