Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Advertisement as Text: A Case Study

Advertisement as Text: A Case Study

Barnali Saha

Research Scholar
University School Humanities and Social Sciences
GGSIPU, New Delhi

The word ‘advertisement’, derived from the Latin word ‘advertere’ meaning ‘to turn’ the attention is a persuasive form of marketing communication with the public with the intention of promoting or selling a product or a service. Though transient in quality, advertisements wield visual, verbal and non-verbal artifacts to craft texts the traces of which are often left behind in the society long after their demise. Therefore, far from being hackneyed discourses intended to sway the general masses, advertisements involve complex encryptions that both imitate as well as construct societal realities.

Like any other form of communication, advertising too initiates with an addresser intending to convey a message via a medium—print or audio-visual—to an addressee who decodes the message and completes the process. However, unlike informal verbal communication operating on a single level, advertisements are intended for a complex range of addressees and often include a whole array of messages targeting myriad groups of audience who must strive to decode the meanings embedded in the text of the advert.

The paper is a case study of five commercials, four audio-visual and one print advertisements, all featuring the Indian social scenario to examine how advertisements include a complex range of signifiers depicting and altering the pattern of cultural praxis. It also intends to examine how advertisements use popular social codes to convey a range of meanings, how they propel and sometimes break stereotypes, how they use images and sounds and wield the tool of language to deliver their message. It will further scrutinize how cultural change is reflected in an advertisement by studying the former versions of the first four commercials chosen for the case study.

The first commercial is a promotion of the Indian brand Emami’s men’s fairness cream called Fair and Handsome. This commercial is among the early advertisements of Fair and Handsome cream launched by Emami and casts its brand ambassador, Bollywood’s leading actor, Sharukh Khan. The ad begins with a young woman remonstrating with her wannabe-fair brother for exhausting her tube of fairness cream. Subsequently, Sharukh Khan arrives at the scene and reproaches the young man for using a ladies only fairness product despite being a man. A cast of extras too carry on with the upbraiding as the protagonist tries to flee from their midst, apparently in embarrassment. The sequence set to a jingle the lyrics of which proclaim that a man may not secretly apply fairness cream meant for soft and delicate womanly skin and instead use Fair and Handsome, a product especially designed to be imbibed into skin into the “rough and tough” skin of men and produce desired fairness in only four weeks.

Fair and Handsome ad 2007
Commentary: The text of the aforementioned commercial is imbued with a thick layer of inner meanings. The subject of beauty rituals, like application of creams and ointments, is often associated with women. Fairness creams, particularly, connotes an image of a female applying the unguent for the effect of whitening her complexion and thereby becoming an object of desire in the eyes of men. The idea of men applying a female-only cream is, therefore, in the prevalent patriarchal point of view, something to be detested and the person performing this sacrilege, upbraided and embarrassed. The terms of remonstration in the speech bubble and in the jingle suggest that a man who deigns to use a fairness cream meant for women is unmanly and effeminate. Nevertheless, Mr. Khan, the manly-man, the person whose fair skin perhaps the abashed protagonist covets, comes to the rescue of the disconcerted and erring male by proposing to solve his problem— his desire to gain fair skin and his shame at using a female-only product—by offering him a cream meant solely for the “rough and tough” skin of men, a cream that he may not be ashamed of using, a cream that is “non-girly”.

The ad most importantly suggests fairness to be desirable not only among women, who need to groom themselves to obtain a husband, but among men too who could go to any extent, even condescend to apply a female-only product, to become attractive like film stars. Nevertheless, the “rough and tough” male society must never approve of a man using female products to heighten his looks. It must, therefore, find a solution by which a male can retain his essential maleness and accentuate his looks. The solution it banks upon is a cream meant for the rough skin of men, a product that combines the goodness of women fairness creams with added ingredients that would heighten its effect on male skin and bring on the desired fairness, the ultimate resolution, in a manner of four short weeks.

The paralanguage of the text is conspicuous as well. The protagonist is depicted as deliberately dark complexioned in contrast to the fashionable Bollywood actor, his embarrassment at using a female product suggest his dire situation.
The advertisement makes strong association between maleness and grooming. It suggest fairness to be the ultimate dream of a modern Indian man.

                               Fair and Handsome Ad 2013

The subsequent ad of Fair and Handsome, featured a few years later, demonstrates a distinct shift in its fairness agitprop. The ad recasts Shahrukh Khan, its brand ambassador, but instead of depicting an act of remonstration at a man using a ladies cream, the commercial features the “badshah” (emperor) of Bollywood’s journey from rags to riches with Fair and Handsome acting as his longstanding confidant in his perilous journey toward the zenith of the cinematic glitter-land. The ad begins with the star narrating his story of how he received nothing but best wishes from his predecessors, and yet, he wanted more from his life. In order to quench his insatiable thirst to succeed, to earn more respect, more fans, he relentlessly persevered and prepared himself for his daunting task of adopting acting as a career. It was Fair and Handsome that became his unswerving companion in his expedition to succeed.

Commentary: The subsequent Fair and Handsome commercial comes as a distinctly different rendition of Emami’s essential fairness agitprop of an abashed man using a female fairness product. Instances of an embarrassingly effeminate male performing a sacrilege of applying an unsuitable female product is conspicuous by its absence in the text of the second ad. Even the wish for a fair skin as the ultimate goal of a person wishing to be attractive is toned down as well. One wonders if the change in its original sexist and xenophobic vison is because of a heightened gender consciousness in Indian society or because of the flak the company received for promoting a racist culture in India. All the same, the ad does suggest fairness to be equivalent to success in featuring it as the “soulmate” (humsafar literally translated) of the emperor of Bollywood in his daunting journey from rags to riches. It was Fair and Handsome, the cream that gave something extra to the male toughened by life’s vicissitudes, which was a fit companion to the star. It is interesting to note that the cream is personified (it becomes humsafar) and equated with strength, passion of acting and kept on a similar footing with these two qualities that make-up the essential being of the czar of Bollywood. Fairness is here no longer the ultimate objective, it is success that one aspires for; nevertheless, in order to be successful one must be fair, one must have Fair and Handsome by one’s side, not as a throw-way option, but as a lifelong companion. As long as fairness is there, the actor will be the coveted star.

 Nestle Maggi Ad 2010

The second commercial is an advertisement to promote the whole wheat variety of Nestle’s already popular brand of two-minute noodles, Maggi. The ad begins with the old gentleman watching the signs of impending rainfall and craving a plate of fried delicacies. Listening to him, his wife instructs her son to ask bahu (son’s wife) to make something healthy and delicious. He, in turn asks his kids to convey the message. The elder daughter who is busy painting her nails further instructs her little brother to forward the instruction to their mother. The child is seen visiting his mother in the kitchen, his eyes glued to the portable video game he is holding, and relates the order to make something healthy, tasty and full of veggies. The woman then instantly decides to prepare Maggi Atta noodles full of health benefits and sends a bowl for the father-in-law. Every member of the family help themselves to a delicious spoonful of noodles and by the time the bowl reaches the old gentleman, he finds only a spoonful of noodles left for him.

Commentary: The text of the ad plays with the idea of a traditional happy Indian household and its ideal denizens: husband and wife, their two kids (one boy and one girl), and the husband’s older parents all living happily under one roof. It puts forward the stereotypical idea of a woman as a kitchen queen, the goddess of her household who could whip up delicious and healthy meals in a jiffy and never needs any help from her family members who are only happy to order their special gastronomical cravings and taste the delicacies. There are further suggestions of patriarchal ideology in the way the woman is positioned in the kitchen happily spending her time within the confines of her culinary space. The fact that none of the family members help the woman and while away time by playing video games, painting nails, exercising or, more exactly, partaking of activities that don’t involve real work, only furthers the patriarchal belief system the ad reflects. The happy jingle as well as the cheery faces eager to taste the noodle all try to hide the retrograde image of an Indian woman toiling in the kitchen, bearing the responsibility of her family while the people in question engage in frivolities of which she can never be a part. Maggi Atta noodles is put forward as the first choice of a responsible Indian housewife who has to take care of her family and must ensure their optimum nutritional and health needs. Therefore, Maggi, suggested as the counterpart of oily batter-fried crisps, is healthier option that everyone can enjoy.

Maggi Mother's Day 2015

Compared with its older advertisement, Maggi’s 2015 commercial is intended not just as a promotion of its brand, but as a celebration of the eternal relation between mother and daughter. The commercial is an “ode to the most beautiful relationship in the world”. The ad is fashioned as a puppet show and features a mother-daughter duo. The mother leads her daughter into a room, her hands lovingly covering her child’s eyes, a beautiful yellow dress laid on a bed, a surprise gift to her daughter as she embarks on a new journey of life. Next, we see the daughter reminiscing and reliving a series of emotionally vivacious moments of togetherness where the mother is depicted as a guardian, a caregiver and a friend. She is seen lovingly feeding her daughter a nourishing bowl of Maggi. As the daughter unpacks her belongings at her new abode, her hostel, and shares a meal of quickly-made Maggi, she remembers her mother. The concluding section shows the daughter visiting her mother, who affectionately welcomes her child and serves her a bowl of Maggi as the jingle celebrating the interminable bond plays in the background. In the epilogue, we see the refracted doppelgangers of the puppets, the beloved human mother and daughter wielding the puppet-strings behind the scene. The commercial finishes with the dedication “for the person who knows everything about you”— a mother.

Commentary: Launched in the wake of severe criticism and ban for using large quantities of monosodium glutamate (MSG) and lead, this Maggi commercial is clearly intended to enhance the image of Maggi. In its aim to ameliorate the controversy and welcome truculent buyers who were aghast by the revelation that their coveted two-minute snack was marinated with chemicals destructive to their system back, Maggi turned to the notion of motherhood.

The text of the ad, the jingle, sung by Shankar Mahadevan, the singer whose track Maa from the popular movie Tarrein Zamein Par is an unequivocal popular favorite, strive to cast  away the stigma hurled at Maggi. It is interesting to note here that Maggi before 2015 never celebrated Mother’s day with a special ad. Although the notion of motherhood is intrinsic in its previous ads and Maggi has been generally portrayed as the primary snack-time choice for mothers, here the text narrates a different story. The notion of motherhood, the idea of a mother as a primary caregiver, as the sole protagonist upon whom the child’s mental and physical growth depends is the fundamental point in this ad. The lack of any male presence furthers the notion of powerful matriarchy, not intended to equalize gender bias, but as a buoy saving Maggi when the vox populi decreed its jettison from their daily menu. The ad unmistakably displays Maggi as the traditional snack that is integral in a mother-daughter relationship. In fact, Maggi acts here as the binding force between the mother and the daughter, something equivalent to a lifelong friend, the humsafar in the Fair and Handsome ad. The use of puppets to deliver the message represents the idea of fun and fantasy; and yet, the realistic features of the puppets as well the human mother-daughter duo featured in the final part, suggest the commercial’s message to be deeply ingrained in realism despite its features of fantasy and amusement.

Ariel India 2013

The Ariel India commercial also features the theme common in several washing powder advertisements: the Midas touch of a mother’s magical hand rubbing away the stains from clothes. In fact, it is interesting to note how the image of a mother is omnipresent and omnipotent in the advertising world. The use of motherly emotion to sell a product is a commercial manipulation that seems never to misses its point. Here again, like the Maggi ad, we see a mother-daughter pair; and yet, unlike the Maggi ad, that borders on the maudlin, the message here is straightforward. A daughter playing her musical instrument is consternated to find a mud stain on her T-shirt that the mother uses Ariel to tackle successfully. The mud stain gone, the mother and the daughter is relieved and the commercial ends with the duo give each other flying kisses.

Commentary: The Ariel washing powder advert is another example of a persuasive commercial that used the image of a mother to enhance the appeal of the product. The ad suggests the washing of clothes as a mother’s primary duty. Although it doesn’t adopt the blatant expression like the famous “As good as mom’s hand wash” tagline of Surf Excel, another washing detergent, the underlying meaning of the text does represent laundry to be a woman’s department.

                                                Surf Excel Ad

It is from her mother that the girl child inherits the tricks of laundry— the use of Ariel washing powder to clean stains—and implements them when the need arrives. One may wonder how a surfactant’s potency is accentuated when used by an ideal mother— one who knows her homemaking job well. But here the Ariel ad, like several other detergent powder ads, is quiet. The ad is satisfied to present a gendered view of society, one where a woman is a mother more than anything else, where her other qualities are conspicuous by their absence, and if present, are devalued in comparison to her homemaking skills.

Ariel Share the Load Campaign 2015

Ariel, however, decided to deconstruct the dated and gendered view of a patriarchal Indian household, a stereotype in the advertising world, when it launched its share the load campaign, a drive to sensitize the Indian men to the need to partake of the chores of the house. The narrator is the father of a young woman who watches his daughter as she tackles her official work and her domestic roles singlehanded while her spouse, unperturbed, demands food, drink and asks his wife to wash his shirt. The father feels helpless for instilling the gendered roles in his daughter and takes active steps to rectify the erroneous social gesture of household chores being gender specific by deciding to share laundry duties with his wife.

Commentary: The ad comes as a powerful voice and questions the gender roles that have passed on from one generation to the next without evolving. It questions the idea of a complete woman as a multitasking role-player, a domestic goddess as well as a career women and lays bare her desperation when she has to tackle both sides of her life without help from her spouse and her family members because she was brought up in an environment which taught her it’s a man job to tackle the outside world and he must always be a disinterested spectator when it comes to housework: a stereotype deserving abrogation in our social-media centered modern world where women are no longer domestic identities. The powerful tagline hook “why is laundry only a mother’s job” is intended as an embarrassing truth that needs to be tackled.

The commercial is addressed to the newer generation of Indian men and women, and Ariel, because of its progressive outlook, comes as a product designed for the modern Indian home where men and women share an equal footing. The commercial undoubtedly enhances the product’s image, it surprises us and persuades us to take a positive action. By propagating a unique point of view, the commercial makes sure it is in the news, and by extension, this leads to the product it is promoting to become popular as well.

Video 8 Catch Subzi Masala 2015

Not all commercials, however, likes to tread the unbeaten path to seize the reader’s attention. Many, like the Catch spice ad, abides by the stereotypical norms of society to sell its product. In this ad, we see Vidya Balan, Bollywood’s leading female actor, addressing the narratee. She tells us that when food at home becomes boring then people start making excuses to avoid the gastronomic fare. We view a range of cases where the cast— a young man, an office going adult, a middle aged man returned from work—indulge in the act of making excuses to avoid tasting bland home food. The problem, nevertheless, is deftly solved by Miss Balan, who asks the narratee to use Catch spice at home to introduce flavor to her boring cooking and that way win her family back. The trick works wonders as we see the disquiet dinner-haters returning to the table and tasting the delicacies cooked with Catch spice.

Commentary: The Catch spice commercial is another example acquainting us with the idea that advertising affects the way we construct our identity. The ad plays around the stereotype that it’s the woman’s duty to cook for her family, while the family, regardless of her feelings, may denounce the dishes she cooks when her food, and she, by extension, becomes boring. The expression “boring” is significant in the ad. Narrated by the vivacious actor effortlessly managing her way in the kitchen, Vidya Balan is anything but dreary in the ad, while the other female case, the cooks, in this ad are either invisible or are lacking personality, like the woman whose middle-aged husband makes an excuses of having had dinner with an office client to avoid her home cooked meal. The woman’s unprotesting dismayed face betrays her inner sentiments, but, it’s interesting, that she doesn’t talk back and simply accepts her failure and tries to spruce up her cooking by adding Catch spice. The effect is immediate as we see her displaying herself in a more confident way dressed not in nondescript monotone but in white, resembling the white of her husband’s shirt, suggesting equal footing at home. The paralanguage in the ad also suggest its men who get to deny food they find boring and it is women who must learn the tricks of the trade from effervescent movie persona and implement them to add attraction to their selves and to their cooking. The ad plays around the idea that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and if a man finds a woman’s cooking unattractive, he, by extension, considers the woman cooking it, unequivocally dreary. And a man wants nothing to do with a dreary woman. The ad plays with the insecurities of an Indian homemaker who is often forced to feel inferior and is hardly appreciated for her hours of unpaid labor. The ad furthers this stereotype to sell its branded product. Here again, like many other commercials, we see a product solving a baffling problem: how to avoid being a boring woman? The answer is easy: use Catch spice and accentuate your cooking, and, by extension, become a confident and attractive woman.

Video 9 Catch Hing Ad 2016

The commercial of Catch Hing spice launched afresh resembles its predecessor in content. It features Vidya Balan, its brand ambassador, as the same vivacious woman who is ready to solve all cooking dilemmas an Indian woman encounters. The ad casts a group of woman all tempering the truth in a frivolous and gossipy way. Vidya Balan tells that everybody tempers truth, but real tempering is done by Catch Hing which heightens the flavor of a dish and accentuates its temperate appeal.

Commentary: The text of the commercial preserves the idea that a woman’s place is in the kitchen. It further adds, that it’s women who gossip in the most frivolous manner tempering with truth in a masterful way, adding such color to an original incident—a young woman accidentally dropping a glass of water on her mother-in-law—that it takes on a bizarre and outlandish shape. The discourse is intented to be funny and meant for an Indian woman who watches television soaps that stretch truth to an unbelievable extent. It doesn’t use any vague symbols but reaches its point straightforwardly: all women love tempering with truth, but a spice is better at tempering than most of them.

Figure 10  Print Ad Razor Slim

Commentary: The Razor Slim capsule ad is an example that shows that despite their differences both audio visual and print media commercials have equal impact. This ad targets the insecurities of an overweight individual with the carefully placed headline “The Amazing New Breakthrough in Natural Weight Loss” the narrowing of the letters suggest the loss of adipose, the inevitable result of consuming the slimming capsules. The word “New” suggest the modern roots of the product, the innovative scientific technique that went on to formulate this natural breakthrough slimming formula. And yet, the product is completely organic, being Ayurvedic in nature. The ad deftly plays with an Indian citizen’s obsession with Ayurvedic products and her general disinclination to consume Allopathy drugs given their unnatural lineage in a scientific laboratory. The ad therefore suggests a smart admixture of the old and the new: a new formula with traditional and modern characteristics acting together.  

The before and after images are cleverly placed and reminiscent of the way we read an English text from left to right. The picture of the left suggest former flatulence while the later image depicts the amazing slimming results produced after taking Razor capsules. Further, the image of a woman’s toned body, a tape measure calculating the slight number of her waistline boost the idea of positive weight loss. Finally, the words of endorsement from doctors with exceptional medical records is used to appease the buyer of the safety of the capsules as well as its inevitable effects. It suggests that the formula is clinically proven and is both safe and effective.

The case study of the series of commercials suggest that advertising is a popular form of public communication that uses various devices like stereotyping, clever use of layout, symbols, text, sound, etc., to convey its message to its target audience, and in this process of communication, it alters, constructs and deconstructs several societal realities. Advertising is thus an extremely potent form of complex communication that affects the way we build our identities, we visualize our world and become conscious of cultural environment.  

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Advertisement as Text: A Case Study by Barnali Saha is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Thoughts on Attending a Literary Symposium

Last week, I attended a conference organized by the university and partook of the intellectual pleasure involved in basking in scholarly ideas propounded by a line of talented academicians. Although several papers presented at the conference unequivocally deserved an elevated seat, there were others which were not only inferior, but also downright pitiable in their academic capability. Ambiguous, self-contradictory and lacking in intellectual depth, these papers presented at the conference failed to struck a right chord and abraded the mind generally mollified by unembellished intellectualism.

While the conference offered the way to composing a well-edited and well-documented research paper bolstered by arguments; on the other, the contrapuntal exposition of dismal writing was only too evident to ignore.  As I sit at my desk on this early spring morning of the first day of the week imbibing the cacophony of mechanized quadrupeds and millipedes, my mind wanders and settles itself on thoughts of the conference and the papers that struck me by their merits and demerits.

A talk on the importance of literature and how literature is never neutral despite an artist’s apolitical, asocial stance was an important, albeit hackneyed, premise that began the academic proceedings for me. The speaker of the early session, a noted academician, spoke at length about literature being imbricated with elements of social realism. According to him even the most esoteric tokens of a creative mind are an effort to consciously manipulate language and artistry so as to communicate a certain ideology directly or indirectly to a reader. The modernist texts, the transcripts laden with abstractions, the works of Joyce, Chomsky and Eco, all share a similar purpose: they all strive to communicate with a reader. And in this process of communication, an author’s latent ideology, her frame of mind, her intellectual propensities all evident or hidden under layers of conscious or unconscious literary mysticism find expression in the text she composes. A denizen and an integral element of her society, the society’s fictional refraction or non-fictional reflection inevitably occupies a fundamental space in the writer’s work. The scholar noted that neutrality in a creative work is unequivocally the most undesirable element, since it’s a departure from the embryonic purpose of literature: to heighten human consciousness and to sensitize it by unleashing the tidal wave of catharsis.

Another paper that touched base with one of the leading talking points in Indian English literature: the importance of incorporating the Bhasa texts in the study of Indian English was exceptionally well-presented and was intellectually invigorating. The paper incorporated the critical imperative to canonize the tokens of Indian literature into a significant and compacted category. It proposed that the nuances of Indian writing, the myriad contrapuntal tonalities of Indian English, the social scenario that daubs the writer’s psyche, the elemental influence of the spatial-temporal element in a writer’s work all need to be considered from an indigenous point of view when critiquing a work of Indian English literature. Here, the hybridized tropes of western literary criticism falls short of adequately deracinating the qualities of a literary work psychologically and socially ingrained in the ethnic soil; hence, a distinct categorization of Indian English writing is indispensable.

On the second day, I savored the flavorful mulligatawny of children’s lit, young adult literature, the absurd nous of nonsense poetry, eco-criticism, and post-colonialism, etcetera. Having surmounted the acclivity of enthrallment, aversion, torpor, insouciance and finally, illumination, I came back home my head full of ideas and my mind filled with newfound admiration for the art of literary communication. An initial discourse on the popular fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood talked about the overt sensual cues impleached within the thread work of the story. The implications of the color red, its intrinsic association with sexuality, and the primeval suggestiveness of the leitmotif of the big bad wolf in fairy tales were some of the interesting points discussed.

A critical study of the story of Snow White through the psychoanalytic lens of Carl Jung was the central thesis of an excellent paper presented by a research scholar from IIT Roorkie. The intrinsic merit of her work, coupled with her excellent presentational skills abridged time for me. I sat in awe of her subject wondering how the seemingly innocuous genre of children’s literature is thickly laden with inner meaning. Another presentation by a graduate student from Viswa Bharati, the intellectual ryokan of the East of India, was illuminating as well. Her work featuring popular fairy tales in Bangla talked about gender, readership, the idea of male impotence as a recurrent theme in several of the stories and the motif of the “antur ghar” (in-home labor room) as a gendered space that held in abeyance the laws of patriarchy governing a feudalistic Bengali household were interesting points of conversation.

The intellectual bouillabaisse was further flavored by a talk on Thoreou’s Walden, a favorite text I often go back to when the need to connect with the inner self suggests itself. The Transcendentalist’s deliberations on solitude, thrift, the honing of the skill of self-sufficiency, the need to conserve nature were all part of the paper. Though mediocre in content and lacking in originality, the speaker’s attempt to play a beautiful video of Nature speaking to her children smoothed the irregularities of her presentation for me. Here, I couldn’t help but wonder why nurturing is still regarded in popular culture as the domain of the materfamilias. Although it’s time we deconstruct the trite impression of the nurturing mother and consider her as a human being imbued with several other characteristics apart from her tendency to nurture, we must agree that attempts by Feminist scholars alone cannot invoke a tectonic shift in the outlook of the all and sundry. Change is never a linear process.

Having convinced myself as to the overall intellectual impact of the papers presented at the conference, I found myself wholly unprepared for the consternation I was destined to receive in the guise of a paper that dealt with the Harry Potter series and the Twilight saga. Full to the brim with enthusiasm as to the intellectual treat I thought I was to receive, I found myself shell-shocked when the self-contradictory arguments of the research scholar hounded me like time’s running chariot. An uncompromising aficionado of Rowling’s Harry Potter series, a self-confessed magic loving muggle, I have spent many a happy hour gloating in Rowling’s world of fantasy, conjuring charms, wondering what my Patronus would look like. The glamour of the presentation topic weighed heavily on me as I listened to the content proposed by the scholar. Arrhythmia set in with unusual severity the more I sat and listened to the presentation. The scholar made it a point to malign my favorite series by blatantly declaring that many adults in her country (she came from a neighboring nation) look down upon the Harry Potter series. She further defaced it by saying that it is read specifically by teenagers and young adults since it lacks any link with reality. Here, I wonder, if it isn’t an erroneous gesture to cast aspersions at fantasy literature because of its apparent disconnection with reality. Can we be so audacious as to disdain such mighty tokens of literary merits like the Narnia series, the Discworld saga, the Alice Stories, Harry Potter and many more as artless works of fiction unfit to occupy the bookshelves of our kakotopia? Aren’t they the measures to provide respite from the pains hurled by political bludgers (READ: Sedition, dissent, nationalism-anti-nationalism debate: I hate you all) in our dystopic reality? I think they are. Also, I believe, any student of literature who adopts the monotheistic attitude of accepting a book by its face value without interrogating its intrinsic assets and disadvantages, once who could easily relegate a text based on its genre is a simpleton clearly unfit to study and appreciate the depth that humanities offers. I never got a chance to question the presenter as to why, being an agnostic, she chose to work on popular tales of fantasy. Can you really progress with your research work if you are convinced by your topic’s latent solemnity?  A line of vociferous arguments disarmed our young scholar and she found herself utterly baffled when confronting the questions of several teachers and students. I did not add to her woe.

A subsequent presentation on the nonsense literature composed by Sukumar Ray began with a list of interesting arguments. The author of the paper, in spite of his serious lack of presentation skills and a paper that traversed a belabored path, pointed out with great incisiveness how Sukumar Ray’s poetic renderings were in reality acerbic criticisms directed at the imperial masters and their loyal servants, the Bengali Bharolok, indigenous gentlemanly characters imperial in spirit. The author’s critical investigation of several of Ray’s poems was insightful in rekindling a renewed respect for an author every Bengali girl indisputably adores.

The fascinating final note of the day was provided by the presentation on the orientalist cartoons published in the Punch magazine. The penultimate paper, the award winning submission of the year, was an excellent intellectual document that studied a series of cartoons featuring in the Punch magazine and pointed how they propelled the imperialist cause, propagated the orientalist myth of a regressive and uncivilized orient that needs the masterful occidental potentate to survive, thrive and lead attain the basics of a civilized life.

The proceedings of the day concluded with a lecture on the postcolonial novels pf our day, their nuances and their unique creative focus. The academician presenting the paper talked about the postcolonial tomes as conscious raising artistic attempts focusing on the composite postcolonial environment for its creative prompts and often deconstructing the orientalist myths propagated by the imperial gaze during the protracted period of colonial incubation.

As I came home that day with mind filled with thoughts and ideas, I couldn’t but congratulate myself for being a perennial scholar of the humanities and for having the leisure and the opportunity to allow myself to marinate in the intellectual juice of academia and imbibing some its creative and critical insights in the process.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Parabaas_Publication_March 2015

My translation of Bibhuti Bhusan Bandyopadhyay's short fiction, "Puin Mancha" has been published in the latest issue of Parabaas, Here is a link to the story:  The Climbing Spinach Trellis

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Jubilant Jaipur: A Blog on our October Trip to the ‘Pink City'

One early morning during the inception of the festive season when all of Delhi slept, we made our way to the railway station with the intention of catching the New Delh-Ajmer Shatabdi Express. The station was bustling with activity even in that early hour, and except for a series of people sleeping on the floor on mats and newspapers, there was hardly any somniferous sign in the vicinity. Passengers waited for the early trains, the customary mechanical female voice narrated the arrival-departure notifications in Hindi and English respectively, while the coolies with brass amulet like badges carried their usual tonnage. The newspapers of the day having freshly arrived at one of the bookstalls, we helped ourselves to a crisp new sheet and a couple of magazines.Our luggage at our heel, we waited for the train to arrive at our platform. 

Presently, the train slithered its way into view. The arrival of a train is always an exciting sight to watch. The beacon of red light and the boom of the engine horn are the first suggestions of its arrival, and then come its massive body and its undulating tail. Even in these modern days when many people prefer air travel over long-distance commute in railroad trains, the appeal of the train as a quintessential mode of transport is far from exhausted. Being an economical and easily accessible means of travelling, apart from that vintage-appeal that it inevitably ensues, many of us desiderate railroad travel to air-travel when time is not an issue.

 Our train commenced on its journey on-time and puffed its way out of the station. For the next few hours, we viewed an ever-changing landscape outside our windows. After the initial quarter of an hour, when we saw backs of houses, dumps of garbage, there burst into view the hillocks, meadows and agricultural fields rich with the fruits of the season. Bathed in the morning light, the green of the fields were soothing to the eye accustomed to the pollution laden scenery of a metropolitan city. 

Presently, when we saw pink-washed buildings and structures, we realized we were nearing the ‘Pink City’. The train reached Jaipur station fifteen minutes later than its scheduled time of arrival and we made our way to our hotel. The taxi cab ride from Jaipur station to our hotel, which was near the Jalmahal, took nearly an hour because of the awful traffic jam caused by the metro rail construction in the city. After a late lunch at the hotel and a spell of much needed siesta, we made our way to the City Palace. The pink city with its pinkish splendor spread its charmingly warm and sunny carpet of welcome for us.

The city of Jaipur is a most perfect confluence point of our eclectic Indian culture. Steeped in romance and marinating in royal heritage, this well-planned, antiquated city, built by Sawai Jai Singh II of the Kachhwaha Rajput clan, is a traveler’s delight. Planned by the Bengali architect Vidyadhar Chakravorty, Jaipur is divided into nine blocks and encircled by a formidable wall. In this walled city, you will find the juxtaposition of the old and the new in a multihued canvas that accommodates the myriad colors of India with rich flamboyance. Here, you will encounter ostentatious palaces, stunning astronomical instruments, royal armory on one hand, and modest shops selling delightful tchotchkes, pagdi-donned commoners, ghagra wearing females on the other. Our three-day holiday in the city offered us a great opportunity to dive into Jaipur’s rich culture and imbibe some of its pink richness.

 City Palace, Jaipur 

 City Palace, Jaipur 

Our first stop on our first day of touring around Jaipur was the royal residence complex or the City Palace. Like the city of Jaipur which offers a concurrence of the old and the new in the same canvas, the City Palace, one of its principle architectures, too is a medley of two different styles of design: Mughal and Rajput. This extensive regal complex is complete with courtyards, gardens, museums, temples, etc. The royal family still resides in a specially allocated portion of the City Palace. A fluttering royal flag abaft the building occupied by the imperial family suggested the presence of the present king in the building. When the king is absent from his royal seat, the flag is not hoisted. 

The entrance tickets of City Palace are modestly priced for Indian residents. Having my graduate student card with me, I successfully availed myself of the discount that you get if you have a valid student identity card with you. Upon entering the royal complex, you find yourself accosting the Mubarak Mahal, or the reception centre. When Sawai Madho Singh built the palace, this area was used as a royal guest house. Now it houses the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum which displays a glorious collection of royal memorabilia, weaponry, paintings and costumes. The most memorable among this memorabilia is the voluminous dress worn by Sawai Madho Singh I. He was a king with unprecedented adipose deposit: he weighed about 250 kg!

Making my way through a group of bewildered onlookers who stood gaping at the king’s mighty dress, I found myself face to face with the royal attire. Since visitors are not allowed to take pictures in the museum, I mentally captured the image of the cloak impleached with gold. In breadth it is so extensive that it could very well clothe a full family of four individuals. As I tried to imagine the king wearing the same costume and standing before me in his full height, I found a few stray drops of perspiration on my forehead and so decided to amuse myself by concentrating on the other finery.

Our next stop at the City Palace was the Diwan-i-Khas, or the hall of the selective audience. Located on a raised platform, the ceiling of this marble paved pavilion is decked with beautiful chandeliers. However, the most exquisite items on display in the Diwan-i-Khas are the two mammoth silver water containers mentioned in the Guinness Book of World Records. Sawai Madho Singh II used these gigantic silver vessels to store drinking water from the river Ganga when he went on his trip abroad. 

Diwan-i_Khas at City Palace, Jaipur 

Diwan-i_Khas at City Palace, Jaipur 

Diwan-i_Khas at City Palace, Jaipur 

The Maharani’s Palace or the Sileh Khana is the power-packed chamber of the City Palace, it being, ironically, in my opinion, the abode to some of the most exquisite Rajput weaponry you’d ever see. Upon leaving the Diwan-i-Khas, we headed in that direction of fearsome beatitude. An ostentatious “welcome” sign on the wall made by arranging several daggers and knives overwhelmed me with their presence. The Rajputs were evidently fond of their toys as wherever I looked I accosted glass-case after glass-case of fierce weaponry. Knives, swords, some with engraved, stone studded hilts, some simple in appearance, bucklers and shields, guns and other armory filled every corner of this massive chamber. Being a non-violent individual, I wasn’t at ease in that chamber of arms; nevertheless, I couldn’t but admire the zeal of the Rajputs who must have taken great pains in collecting that massive array of armaments. Be that as it may, I decided to leave the gallery of weaponry and all thoughts of war and death behind when I descended the stairs and headed for the Diwan-i-Am.

The chamber for the general public or Diwan-i-Am is a breathtaking gallery of royal collectibles and curios. From a handwritten copy of the Bahagavad Gita to copies done in miniature form of other noted sacred Hindi texts, the Diwan-i-Am displays it all. The hall itself is a poem done in masonry. It has exquisite chandeliers, marble pillars and many more. You will be drenched with beauty inside this extraordinary hall of ordinary people.  

Upon exiting the Diwan-i-Am, we felt a strong urge to savor some royal tea at the Royal Café in the vicinity. Apart from the fact that the restaurant was inside the City Palace and their crockery had the royal emblem, there was nothing especially royal about the café. The prices of food items in the menu were modest and the quality of the tea they served was good.

Puppet Show at The City Palace, Jaipur

Some gratuitous Rajasthani decor shopping later, we went to see the Hawa Mahal, that exquisite palace of the wind located a few yards away from the City Palace. The Hawa Mahal is the unequivocal crowning jewel of Jaipur. Such is its design, its distinctive architecture, that standing in front of it, even among the jostling peddlers and honking traffic of Jaipur, you will find yourself transported to some romantic land of dreams. Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh who commissioned this building had originally intended it to be a gallery for royal ladies to view the processions of the city. Nowadays you don’t need to belong to the royal family to climb the stairs of this exquisite five-storied marvel and enjoy the ever-changing kaleidoscope of life in the Pink City. 

Hawa Mahal, Jaipur 

Hawa Mahal, Jaipur 

The second day of sightseeing around Jaipur began with a chance of adventure for us. We decided that instead of booking a cab, we would travel by auto rickshaw and take in the flavor of the city, which we did, literally, since pollution is the main ingredient of the Jaipur air.

Our first stop upon leaving our hotel was the Jaigarh Fort. Of the three forts in Jaipur, Jaigarh is now known exclusively as an artillery warehouse. Located at a strategic point, this hill-top fort offers a breathtaking panoramic view of Jaipur. Maharaja Jai Singh II built the fort in the 18th Century with the aid of the architect Vidyadhar Chakravorty. 

Jaigarh Fort

The most exquisite item on display at the Jaigarh Fort is the behemoth Jaivana Cannon cast in 1720. It is a humongous object that speaks of the sheer power of the erstwhile Rajputs. Our guide informed us that the Jaivana was test fired once and the impact of the cannonball was such that a lake had formed in Chaksu, the place where the cannonball had landed. It is mythically held that the range of the cannon is around 40 km. 


The museum at the Jaigarh Fort was fascinating as well, being well equipped with royal photographs and artillery; nevertheless, it was the ancient temple dedicated to Kal Bhairav, the protecting deity of the fort, which interested me most.

From Jaigarh we headed to that famed structure of Jaipur: The Amer Fort. In Jaipur, Amer is the only one where you’ll encounter royal luxury in full. It has an exquisite Sheesh Mahal, fabulous gardens, a beautiful Diwan-i-Am, and is in one word a perfect erstwhile royal seat. Located about 10 km north of Jaipur, Amer was the capital of the Kacchwaha Rajputs for nearly 700 years. The fort was built in 1592 by Raja Man Singh 1, while the subsequent rulers added to its majestic charm. 

Garden at Amer Fort, Jaipur

Sheesh Mahal, Amer Fort, Jaipur

 To reach the fort you can either take a jeep at the car-stand or take an elephant ride. We opted for the former and reached the rear portion of the fort in ten minutes. The lovely sandstone Diwan-i-Am and the twenty-seven pillared scribe-hall or Sattais Kacheri are some of the attractions at the Amer Fort. In fact, every section of this fort, be it the mirrored Sheesh Mahal or the royal bathing hall, or even the faded murals on the interior walls, will overwhelm you with its beauty. A visit to the exquisite royal seat is never complete without a stop at the sarangi player outside the fort. The musician is an undoubted virtuoso and entertains the crowd with the melodious notes from his sarangi. I had listened to him in my previous visit to the Amer fort and enjoyed his music this time too. He wields myriad kinds of music from his Saringi and that day he even played a snippet from “Baby Doll” the latest Bollywood item song.

The Saringi Player at the Amer Fort, Jaipur

 It being four already, we rushed to see the Jantar Mantar, which closes at five in the evening, from the Amer Fort. Jantar Mantat was built during a time when kings received especial epithets for being extraordinarily intelligent. Apparently, the sire who built Jaipur was in the eyes of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb sawa, meaning a quarter, more intelligent that most people. And this extra-intelligence earned him the soubriquet Sawai from Aurangzeb himself.

Jantar Mantar, Jaipur

Jantar Mantar, Jaipur

 The Jantar Mantar observatory was built by Sawai Jai Singh II, who was renowned for his astronomical interest. It features an extraordinary array of complex astronomical instruments and is a treat for the eyes. This observatory is the best preserved of the five observatories that the king built in India.

Delicious Rajasthani Thali at LMB, Jaipur

 A long spell of shopping later, we next headed to the famed Lakshmi Mistanna Bhandar, or LMB, as it is called in Jaipur, at the Johri Bazaar for dinner. Being an avid traveler I have been to several restaurants that serve Rajasthani food, but the exquisite Rajasthani thali of LMB beats all my previous Rajasthani food experience by a wide margin. Delicious is an understatement when speaking about the magnificent meal we had that night at the eatery. The food was the cream on top of our perfect Jaipur get-away. The cherry on top of it, however, was experienced by us the following day when we boarded the famous double-decker train from Jaipur to Delhi. The train not only started and reached its destination on time, but also offered us an opportunity to view the landscape outside from an upper level compartment.

Thus our fabulous getaway to Jaipur came to an end and we returned home refreshed and bearing a luggage of new memories to please us in the coming months. 

P.S. A caveat: if traveling by the double-decker train, avoid the lower compartment. You will know why when you see it in person.