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new internationalist
issue 316 - September 1999


[image, unknown] Music

by Njava
(EMI Hemisphere 7243 4 99265 CD)

by Tarika
(Sakay SAKD 7034 CD)

by David Toop
(Serpent’s Tail, ISBN 1 85242 595 4)

The Malagasy like to dance: they dance with the living; they dance with the dead. Music provides a thread that links the quick to the spirits and it is this, the sense that sound is integral to life, that Tarika’s D and Njava’s Vetse convey. ‘D’ even stands for ‘dihy’, the island’s word for dance; ‘Vetse’, on the other hand, means to share.

On the surface, both Tarika and Njava share a lot: the skittering melodies played out by highly-strung guitar and marovany; the unmistakable East African rhythms and songs as spirited as Latin dance tunes. The break comes in the content: Tarika, as well-known for their acclaimed album Son Egal as for their former incarnation as folk band Tarika Samy, have used D to reclaim dance tunes from the 1970s and 1980s, a golden age when each of Madagascar’s 18 tribes practised their own unique rhythms. With Hanitra’s beguiling voice leading them on, the result is an intricate rhythmic weave that just sails out into the evening summer air.

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Njava, however, are travelling in the opposite direction. A quintet which started out performing at ceremonies such as trance rituals and circumcisions, they are staking their pitch for more modern sound. Consequently, Vetse is a varied album: the beautiful opener, ‘Paory’, shows a contemplative side; others some riotous times with ancestral party animals. In all cases, Vetse is anchored in a past unthreatened by gradual change.

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Of course, however much we enjoy these records, it will never be with the same meaning that their Malagasy fans can bring to them. Tarika’s ‘Ilahikolo’ – an ancestor dance that refers to one of the island’s favourite pastimes of bringing out your (dead) relatives for a party – stands little chance of being regarded with anything other than macabre fascination by western audiences. This is in spite of the fact that for Malagasis the cere-mony is a joyous occasion. So what do we get from these records? This is a topic raised in David Toop’s wonderfully provocative book, Exotica. Toop sets up a polemic that takes him on a worldwide journey: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Willie Colón, Hawaiian rappers Boo-yah Tribe and the sad tale of Carmen Miranda are just four of his stops. Probably alone amongst contemporary music writers, Toop is actually a curator of sound: a polymath with an intense and unaffected interest in music and its place in the world. At times his prose has a dreamlike quality to it, perhaps a necessity when dealing with the light jazz with added bird song and fake-Polynesian twangs of Martin Denny. Toop is spot-on in his analysis of stress-busting New Age music and scathing towards those who collect music like a tourist’s mementos. For him, music, and more particularly sound, is a thing of infinite power. A superb book.

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Genetic Engineering, Food, and Our Environment
by Luke Anderson.
(Green Books ISBN 1-870098 78 1)

Earth First! and the Anti-Roads Movement
by Derek Wall
(Routledge ISBN 0 415 19064 9)

SchNews: Survival Handbook
(Justice? ISBN 0 952 974827)

Rethinking Green Politics
by John Barry
(Sage ISBN 7619 5606 9)

Genetic Engineering, Food, and Our Environment. Brevity is the sister of talent, as Chekhov said. And Luke Anderson’s genuinely brief guide to Genetic Engineering, Food and Our Environment proves the point. This clear, concise, inexpensive little book is absolutely useful. Assuming nothing, it starts, helpfully, by answering the question: what is a gene? What follows is a calm, step-by-step, factual and informative guide through this political minefield of a subject. The quotes – and there are many of them – from various scientists, occupying positions on both sides of the debate, are instructive. But most entertaining – in a chilling sort of way – are the words of the GM corporations themselves. The boast from Monsanto’s agricultural section co-President, Robert T Franley, on the company’s control over 87 per cent of the US cottonseed market, speaks volumes. ‘This is not just consolidation of seed companies, it’s really consolidation of the entire food chain’. Er... thank you for that bit of information, Monsanto. E-mail: [email protected]

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Earth First! The irony of ultra-radical Earth First! activists singing the praises of mobile phones, camcorders, the Internet and other symbols of capitalist accumulation, is not lost on Derek Wall in his book about the controversial eco-activist movement. Importantly, Wall declares his initial hostility to the movement, quoting his own 1990 assessment of them as ‘right-wing’ neo-Malthusians who praised AIDS and famine as ways of reducing human numbers. But Earth First! has changed, says Wall, having rejected right-wing politics and the more extreme forms of ‘ecotage’ and having moved to the Left. Indeed, Wall’s Earth First! and the Anti- Roads Movement is almost a paean in its homage, combining gritty first-hand accounts of direct actions and an academic’s analysis of the position of such activism within the broader political context. This makes for a rather chalk-and-cheese affair, that may have some readers skipping over the especially heavy reference-ridden chunks, and others gliding over the lightweight anecdotal bits, depending on predilection. Skilfully woven this book is not, but it has got an appropriately intelligent, anarchic energy about it.

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SchNEWS survival handbook. SchNews: Survival Handbook does not bother too much with heavy-duty analysis or academic credibility. But it’s first-rate activist fare, offering regular columns such as ‘Crap Arrest of the Week’. The book is a shameless recycling of copies of SchNews, emanating from the British seaside town of Brighton. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Wide-ranging, hard-hitting and rude – ‘the MAI is a multinational’s wet dream’ – yells one cross-head, it has flashes of a quirkier humour too: ‘information is your weapon’ blazes a title page – above a drawing of a custard pie. E-mail: [email protected]

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Sitting at quite the opposite end of the scale is John Barry’s Rethinking Green Politics. Theoretical, academic and conciliatory in approach, he kicks off by saying that green politics has ‘an established perspective in political and moral debates’, that it is no longer ‘immature’. Barry’s argument is above all ethical; his concern is to put the idea of ‘ecological virtue’ high up on the mainstream political agenda at both a national and international level. ‘The transnational character of green citizenship can be taken as a political expression of the increased ecologically based interdependence that creates a new relationship between otherwise unconnected individuals.’ Hard to take issue with the sentiment behind that.

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Punitive Damage
directed by Annie Goldson

Aotearoa/New Zealand does not have an honourable record when it comes to East Timor. Since its annexation in 1975 by the Indonesian military regime, successive Aotearoa/New Zealand governments have maintained that the situation is ‘irreversible’ and have refused to act on well documented claims that over 200,000 East Timorese have died as a direct result of the occupation.

As recent changes in the region have meant that Indonesia may, at last, be willing to grant autonomy to the East Timorese, Aotearoa has committed resources to help monitor the first ‘free’ elections in Timor – for many people a case of much too little, far too late. Punitive Damage, is then, a timely reminder of what many New Zealanders and their Government still fail to acknowledge.

The story of Kamal Bamadhaj, a New Zealand citizen who was murdered in the 1991 Santa Cruz Cemetery massacre, this film seeks to tell a number of stories about East Timor, international politics and the human toll that is exacted by events like this. As the title indicates, the documentary is driven by Helen Todd, Kamal’s mother, and her struggle to get Kamal’s death recognized in a US court of law.

Inevitably, though, this is a larger story and the success of the documentary is bound up with director Annie Goldson’s willingness to carefully account for other narrative strands. Kamal’s death is our entry-point into the suffering of an entire country and people who have experienced the intentional killing of at least a third of the pre-invasion population. As Helen Todd notes, to her and the film’s credit, if the pain experienced by one mother living outside the country is so great, how much worse must it be for the East Timorese, experiencing a systematic, brutal campaign against their rights for freedom and suffering losses too large to imagine?

Punitive Damage is no ordinary story of a westerner killed in a foreign country who then becomes a symbol of all that is wrong in the world, while the indigenous, non-western people remain unnoticed. Goldson’s film focuses on Kamal because as a New Zealander he bridges the gap between his country and East Timor. It shows western audiences what the implications are if we pretend we don’t know and are not partly responsible for what takes place elsewhere.

In the end Kamal is just an ordinary young person who chose to act and this is the heart of Punitive Damage. As Kamal wrote in his final diary entry the day before he was killed: ‘Whether independence or total genocide occurs in East Timor depends not only on the remarkably powerful will of the East Timorese, but on the will of humanity, of all of us’.

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Reviewers: Louise Gray, Manu Caddie, Vanessa Baird
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird

T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C
Mother India
... being the film at the pinnacle of Indian popular cinema history.

When it was released in 1957, Mother India (Bharat Mata) was hailed as an instant classic, India’s Gone with the Wind. The concept of the mother as the guardian of the soil and soul of the nation contained in the Hindi term ‘Bharat Mata’, was already profoundly significant to the Indian popular consciousness. Even so, the film’s critical and popular reception exceeded all expectations.

It owed its success in no small part to the powerful sense of audience identification with the suffering of the mother figure at its centre. Played with exemplary skill by Nargis, who occupies a hallowed position in the Indian film pantheon, her performance suggested the very essence of noble self-sacrifice, womanly devotion, and adherence to the social and moral order. But the film’s conservative values, profound though they were, were also deceptive, since it exhibited a clever interplay – artistically and politically – between the traditional and the radical.

The iconic Radha with plough.

Produced in the early years of Nehru’s socialist experiment and a decade after independence, it was a remake of director Mehboob Khan’s own 1940 black-and-white classic Aurat. This, filmed in a village in rural Bengal not far from where Khan grew up, told the tale of a shy young bride, Radha, arriving to live with her husband and mother-in-law only to discover the extent of the family’s indebtedness to the village moneylender.

The opening sequence of Mother India shows tractors and cranes churning a landscape as parched as the now elderly Radha’s complexion, while in the foreground she is urged by local dignitaries to inaugurate an irrigation canal. Clearly a survivor, she is revered by the villagers. But looking back over her life of tragedy she is made to symbolize both the country’s traditional moral values and its drive towards progress and development – a new ideological twist in the post-independence era remake.

Although Mehboob Khan cited Cecil B De Mille as his Hollywood idol, stylistically his film draws from several different traditions. Certainly Mother India belongs first and foremost to the popular Indian cinema – there are even muted song-and-dance sequences and the storyline is straightforward melodrama – but it successfully amalgamates this with both Soviet social-realist techniques and an epic Hollywood sweep. The film’s most enduring image is of Radha – her ox having died from overwork – captured in profile, carrying a plough along her back. This is an image of iconic heroism straight out of Soviet poster art.

The pivotal moment in the plot comes when Radha’s husband suffers an agricultural accident, losing both arms in the process. Unable to bear being a burden to his family, he slips out of their lives. When the mother-in-law promptly dies and Radha’s two babies are killed in a flood, she must act to save her surviving children’s lives. Her face and body caked in mud from the flood, she presents herself at the moneylender Sukhilala’s door, prepared to submit to his repeated requests for sexual favours in return for food. But before she makes her sacrifice, she receives what she interprets as a sign that her husband is still alive, and she roundly beats her persecutor instead.

This is not the act of a wholly powerless woman. Indeed Radha’s subtle transformation from more-or-less mute, submissive wife to an independently powerful mother, reflects the way the film discreetly disrupts female stereotypes. Traditionally, wives are seen as eternally self-sacrificing, and although mothers are given a greater degree of expressive autonomy, they are frequently models of piety. Radha is far from being a straightforward paragon of religious virtue. She evolves in the film’s second half into a complex older woman, by turns sprightly, by turns truculent, her devotion to her two grown-up sons taking on almost incestuous overtones. Indeed, psychoanalytic underpinnings also surface with the characterization of the second son Birju, who as a little boy is all mischief and irrepressibility, but who as an adult becomes wayward, his energy transforming into aggression. Eventually banished from the village, he becomes an outlaw, his main redeeming feature being his unwavering adoration of his mother. Returning to the village to abduct the moneylender’s daughter on her wedding day, Birju is confronted by his own mother who threatens to shoot him if he doesn’t release the girl. Fatally wounded, Birju embraces his mother, then expires.

Radha’s final overwhelming act of sacrifice can be seen as a revolutionary gesture on behalf of women’s solidarity. More frequently, however, audiences see the killing of the bad son as a way of restoring the natural order. Whichever view comes out on top, there’s no denying the film’s enormous emotional resonance. Mother India remains at the very pinnacle of Indian popular film history and it’s hard to deny, despite its occasional faults, that it deserves its position.

by Esi Eshun

Mother India (Bharat Mata), directed by Mehboob Khan, was released in 1957.

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New Internationalist issue 316 magazine cover This article is from the September 1999 issue of New Internationalist.
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