BR Ambedkar Now and Then: An Interview with Filmmaker Jyoti Nisha

Jyoti Nisha is one of the most compassionate and driven creators on our radar right now. When we speak to her on the phone, it’s her earnest thoughtfulness and drive for life that resonates the most. This thirty seven year old filmmaker is bringing a feature length documentary on BR Ambedkar to us in early 2020.

BR Ambedkar Now and Then is a dialogue with the majority of our country, one that travels across states to ask people who Ambedkar was for them and how his life and values exist with them today. We are excited to share this edition of Write Leela Write’s Engage. Support. Be Curious. series! 

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You travelled 8 states while shooting your documentary BR Ambedkar Now and Then. What was the most surprising perspective you engaged with while you were researching and travelling for this film?

JN: The most important thing about making this film across states and cities was that people wanted to tell their stories. I was fortunately there with a team. A lot was not told from their perspective and the camera, mic, space, medium, platform became a tool to tell their stories. That’s how the story became significantly intense and pure every other day. I am driven by the simple math, if we want to call ourselves fair individuals, then let’s acknowledge that 85 percent of this country barely has  access to fundamental things like quality education, healthcare and opportunities for work, self-care, and ambition. Bahujan inclusion in pop culture is diminished and when it is present, it’s from a lens of victimisation. That’s why I wanted to engage with their experience and words from their location. It is their politics and I was just aligned in the medium and thought process.

In a first post interview you said reading Ambedkar (as an adolescent)  was like finding answers to questions that you didn’t know how to ask. Can we talk about the institutionalised whitewashing of Ambedkar in mainstream education? What are the repercussions of this benign, candied flavour of Ambedkar we are taught in schools? 

JN: Yes. In fact,  I was raised in a very progressive household, my father and brothers had been involved in bahujan activism for decades.  I grew up in a Buddhist home where I was taught to be independent both in body and mind. Even then, I didn't take it all very seriously, it was just the norm back then. It was only later, in my adulthood, that I had my journey with Ambedkar when I first read Buddha and his Dhamma. Babasaheb is much bigger than what he’s been credited for. His caste location, incisive, pragmatic and spiritual approach to freedom and human rights of marginalised breaks the Brahmin hegemony because he sets you free. He compels you to question. There are various questions he answered by setting astounding examples through his work, his politics and character, which isn’t only insightful but ahead of his time. The rest of the existential, spiritual, socioeconomic and mystical questions are answered in Buddha and his Dhamma. I think Babasaheb was spiritually political. That’s what India’s caste hegemony can’t beat. So they appropriate. 

Do you think any attempt of understanding systematic oppression in any form with diligence  is defined as a radical stance? What does radical mean to you?

 JN: I think when we start to question the perspective we’ve been taught as a universal truth, we will always get friction. I was in film school when I realised how clearly certain privileged lenses was being employed in storytelling, especially mainstream storytelling. There is a certain lethargy in allowing people from marginalised communities to be political beings, it’s much easier to keep them as victims. So when you break it down like that, you are starting to provoke the influential  minority, and anything that does that will be called radical. In general, the question is : how do you treat your people? Your women? If asking for fairness is radical then let it be called radical. Some people say this is an agenda, I am just working from a place of this question, and if you still think it’s an agenda, then I think at the very least it is a good and needed agenda. 

Lastly, we want to know what you love about your hometown Lucknow

 JN: You mean apart from the food? Because that’s the best here. I can tell you about my best memories there. Most of it revolves around my cycle gang of friends, we’d ride through railway colony, it was this lovely lush area full of trees. We’d stop and eat chocolate rolls for 8 rupees each. I remember I always wore shorts and my brother’s loose t-shirt. A lot of girls weren’t allowed to wear shorts then, and people would raise eyebrows. But my family never had any notions of what I should and should not wear as long as I was comfortable. Back then, I loved Salman Khan and my obsession was Maine Pyar Kiya. 

Follow Jyoti Nisha on Twitter, FB, and Instagram. Learn more about her film project by visiting:

A Short Interview With Tejas Harad

We managed to catch up with Tejas Harad, who is one of the most interesting voices in our country at the moment. For this interview, Leela wanted to get an insight into his work in translation, his thoughts on activism and social media, and the strategies that he adopts to push our political discourse towards a more informed, inclusive, and kinder playing field.

Tejas is a copy editor with Economic and Political Weekly. He is also a regular contributor to various news publications. He is interested in everything that has to do with written word and politics.

Your work in translation brings a lot of overlooked texts to the forefront, do you think translation is a useful tool towards making social change and awareness? If so, why?

I have not really done many translations but I certainly want to take up a few projects in the future. I recently translated Maharshi Viththal Ramji Shinde’s manifesto of the Bahujan Paksha, a political front he had floated while contesting assembly elections in 1920. Even though the word Bahujan has gained currency in electoral politics and anti-caste movements across India, very few people are aware that its antecedents lie in the Maharashtra’s Satyashodhak movement of the early 20th century. A lot of the Satyashodhak literature has remained confined to Marathi political sphere and people who can’t read Marathi remain unaware of it. Therefore, translating Shinde’s manifesto was important to bring an important node of history to the attention of the English public sphere.

Each movement now and then faces questions that seem insurmountable. In such cases, movements from other spaces and other times can act as guiding forces, and translations play a crucial role in making those signposts available to activists. Also, a movement can have richer theoretical foundation if activists and scholars widen their net while looking at the source material.

What does social media mean to you? Has it been a positive or negative force in your work/life?

A: I always felt at ease while writing than talking. Social media allowed me to talk to people more freely and more deeply because in its early days social media was primarily text-based. Social media also activated the pamphleteer in me. I used it for talking about politics.

Social media has largely been a positive force in my life and work. Though, there have been times when it took a toll on my mental health. Sometimes I use Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp in a continuous loop jumping from one app to another and then another. At such times work certainly gets affected and one’s energy too get drained out.

Social media is an unprecedented phenomena and our brain as well as our sociocultural sphere is yet to adjust to it properly. But once it becomes as taken-for-granted as say TV, we will use it more optimally (I hope).

How do we redefine dominant thought and culture when it comes to activism on social media? Is there any value to changing the nature of the narrative on social media?

A: There definitely is value in moulding the narrative on social media. Social media is not a world unto itself. It can be an effective tool in activism if activists use a multipronged strategy in engaging with the public. Many activists spend their energy only in reacting to lies and hate propagated on social media. While I definitely see value in countering even the most obvious hate speech, lies, and misguided opinions, activists need to go further than this. Activists also need to talk about their own politics, principles and values they hold dear, the kind of world they imagine, and what practical steps people can take to reach the ideal world. Advocacy is as much or rather more important than countering the opponents’ malicious comments.

Activists develop their world view and understanding of society after years of engaged politics. Therefore, they should be patient with younger people who may not understand an issue with all its nuances. Activists should provide resources and guidance to people willing to engage in politics. Kindness and empathy need to go hand in hand with advocacy. Activists also need to show commitment towards politicizing more and more people. The great thing about social media is, activists can try multiple strategies at the same time. They only need to show willingness to do so.


Consider the rat

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“Hey just saw this. How about rats? We have rats all over our office.”

This was our designer Indu Manohar responding to my email soliciting ideas for a seriously long overdue community post. What followed in the email was Indu’s breathless proposal for what I believe to be our most vital community post thus far. To adequately bring out the grandeur of this tale, I will proceed in an ancient bardic form, separating the akam (the inner landscape) and puram (the exterior landscape). Normally, akam poems are concerned with love and the personal (in this case, our anecdotes with rats) and the puram poem concerns war, the state and worldly affairs (in this case, the rat in an urban context). Let’s begin with the proverbial thalaivi, Indu in this instance.


“My electric car is currently facing rat biting problems, so I came by cab today. I also offered a rat from office a lift to my house last week. No joke. I stopped to open the gate of my house and it ran out from under my car and disappeared into my garden. I don't know if it was a home rat that went for a day trip to work, or a Leela rat that decided to move.”

Our modest garden rat, possibly hearing echoes (well, this a bit of a stretch but rats do have incredible hearing) of an ancient, far more ambitious trail left by their ancestors who followed the human migratory patterns, sailing with us over the oceans, settling and thriving where we did.  Our other office rat, a distinguished fellow, promptly feasts on any crumbs we leave behind and helped himself to an entire packet of Grand Sweet and Snacks’ asafotieda infused potato chips one weekend too. Our attitudes towards the garden rat are reminiscent of the ambivalence that the devoted feel for their preferred deity, samples these lines written by Nammalvar in the 9th Century CE

“While I was waiting eagerly for him
  saying to myself,
     "If I see you anywhere
       I'll gather you
  and eat you up."

he beat me to it
  and devoured me entire.

    my lord as dark as raincloud.
      my lord self-seeking and unfair.”  

Two winters ago, I found myself embroiled in a battle of wits with perhaps one of the most wily individuals I had ever met, a rat the size of a bandicoot plaguing my apartment. Mine was a largeish, old apartment located two floors above a bakery, the ideal abode for rats. The rats never really bothered to come up as their needs were taken care of downstairs. Atleast I’d not noticed them upstairs and my comestibles seemed untainted. However, that winter the bakery shut shop, the owner had defaulted on a few month’s rent and it turned out he hadn’t paid his share of the water bill which meant the BWSSB promptly came by to cut off our water (well, mine, as the first floor was rented out to a call center that didn’t really seem all too perturbed by the lack of running water). It was then I first encountered my nemesis, let us name it Ishtar for purposes of simplicity and cheap symbolism.

Poisoning and trapping the rat was out of the question because I’m uncomfortable with the notion. I decided that it would be a war of attrition, in the style of Fabius Maximus, depriving Ishtar of all resources so it would find it prudent to seek another home. Weeks of living very carefully, taking out the trash diligently, sealing all my grain and vegetables, leaving not a tiny drop of water on the floor, all went to naught, as I would come back home only to find Ishtar peeking at me from under the fridge, tauntingly. I figured that a scorched earth policy wasn’t enough, so I decided to seal all entries and exits, only to realise that this meant nothing to a rat, they find a way where God does not will a path. Eventually, a month went by, a month that seemed like something out of the Parallax View and those other Pakula paranoia thrillers,and  Ishtar just quietly moved out. This didn’t feel like a victory, it just felt as if Ishtar was on their way to better prospects, the next big thing.


But how did our rats become so emboldened? While research on rats is very, very hard to conduct as this article shows, given their subterranean existence and society’s taboos about them and their reputation for spreading disease, our designer Indu has some answers;

“We all kinda know why the urban rat population is so high. It's because the urban dog population is so high, so not too many cats. And the dog population is so high because the vulture population is so low. When our vast number of dairy cows go to die in the carcass dumping fields outside cities, the dogs thrive. The vultures have all died out because of a drug called diclofenac that's given to old cows to ease their pain. Immediate renal failure. 99% of Indian vultures have died since the 90's. I can go on. Vultures are a bit of a pet passion of mine.”

And how do they move and enter our homes?

In cities, rats can enter buildings through openings as small as a quarter. They also may “vertically migrate” upward and enter residential dwellings through toilets. Because rats often make their way into homes from parks, subways and sewers, they can transport microorganisms they pick up from decomposition of wastes, thus earning the colloquial nickname of “disease sponges.”

Unlike humans, rats are not limited by the density of their population. In population biology, they are referred to as an “r-adapted species,” which means they mature rapidly, have short gestation periods and produce many offspring. Their typical life span is just six months to two years, but a female rat can produce up to 84 pups per year, and pups reach sexual maturity as soon as five weeks after birth.

However, we are yet to truly understand our rodent friends, society is still mired in largely antiquated notions of rats. And no, I’m not appealing for you to fall in love with rats- that’s bizarre. What me and my colleagues (this is a WLW endorsed statement) humbly ask of you is to simply consider the rat..


Indu Manohar and Satyavrat Krishnakuma

Becky Bowers

This month we caught up with Becky Bowers, a research student in anthropology who focuses on female construction workers and gendered spaces in Bengaluru. While working on the field in Bengaluru, she decided to undertake the rather challenging task of starting an English class for the children of the construction workers. This is one of the most insightful and vital community posts that we have done, so we implore you to take some time and hear what Becky has to say. 

What sparked the idea that led to this initiative? What were the initial responses from the children and their parents? What were some of the hurdles that you had to encounter? 

There were a couple of moments that sparked this for me: Firstly, I frequently encountered people in my work who asked ‘What are you doing for the poor?’ and since it was difficult to explain how my research or what I wanted to do once I finish my PhD might have any direct or positive impact on the lives of my research participants, I considered what I might be able to contribute in the present. Ethically, anthropologists try to adhere to the practice of fair return in ways that are not cash incentives but that contribute something to the people we work with. The catalyst though was when a teenage girl approached me during the Sangha and told me that she would like to improve her English and become a teacher. All her family were in construction and she was concerned she would have to drop out of school too. It was her request that motivated me to begin English lessons for the children of that community. Even if it was a small contribution, I wanted to help improve their chances of moving outside of the construction and domestic worker roles that most of their parents undertake.

The initial responses from the children and their parents were positive and we began with classes of around 20 which was also thanks to APSA, the NGO who worked with the community and promoted the lessons to them as well as letting us use their office space for lessons. However, getting frequent attendance is always something of an effort due to the children’s trips to their parent’s and grandparent’s villages in the north of Karnataka. Some children also dropped out - not just from the classes but from their school as well. Hearing this is very disheartening, but unfortunately not surprising given the precarity of family incomes in the area. Many of the children were very shy to begin with especially when asked to speak about themselves and why they wanted to improve their English, some could barely introduce themselves. Co-ordinating the volunteers was one of the biggest challenges due to the shifting nature of Bengaluru’s population (as well as getting people to brave the traffic and come to Jayanagar!) and it was always difficult when one of the teachers had to leave. Besides improving conversational English, our main objective was for the kids to enjoy themselves and improve their education of the world outside the colony in which they live - explaining where and what Europe was for instance, proved quite a challenge! Getting the children to think outside of the box and beyond the world of a rote learning dominated education system still proves a challenge today although they have certainly embraced our more interactive methods. Anything with teams can easily become chaos due to the competitive nature of the kids - in fact many are formidable kabaddi players. 

What are some of the other problems that migrant kids of construction workers face in a new city?

The children from the colony are mostly members of settled families (that is they are often second generation city dwellers) although the colony still maintains strong links with areas such as Gulbarga, Raichur and Yadgiri, in northern Karnataka. Some of the girls may still have to return to rural areas for marriage and farming. From my experience working with migrant children whose parents frequently shift between Karnataka and neighbouring states, they face substantial challenges. The most immediate concern is health issues. A number of migrant children live on construction sites with their parents which are obviously not child friendly places. Like their parents, they inhale and are exposed to cement dust, and are housed either in tents or tin shacks with poor sanitation. As a result, dengue and other such illnesses are also fairly common occurrences. Despite various laws in place to protect the children of construction workers and the attempts of NGOs, access to education and healthcare is minimal at best. One group of migrant children I came to know bore visible signs of poor nutrition since their parents were unable to leave the site to buy fresh fruit or vegetables (perhaps once a week), or even afford them.        

Aspirations ranged from age group to migrant status of construction workers. Some workers could only express the desire to endure - that is to keep working and being able to eat until they were no longer able to. Others would express their denial in terms of what they wanted their children to do: whilst many did not want their children to follow them into their occupation, for some of the inter state migrants, this was the only foreseeable option since their children did not go to school. Since I worked mostly with women who are restricted to the bottom rung of the skills ladder in construction, many could not envision an alternative form of income and since promotion for them was impossible, they placed everything they had on their children’s future. For the children, the same was also true in terms of demographic vis a vis aspirational variances. For my students aspirations were high and often focused on improving the lives of their parents (one of the older boys wanted to become a bank manager "because my parents are poor") and another wanted to become a doctor in order to cure dengue which was also prevalent in the colony. When I asked the children from a construction site I frequently visited what they wanted to do when they were older, such alternatives to construction or agricultural work seemed inconceivable to them.