June 22 2018

Teaching Tales: Mokashi’s “Religious” Narratives

Jeffrey M. Brackett, Ball State University

Children dressed as Lord Krishna wait for a fancy dress competition. Credit: Ajay Verma/Reuters 

Children dressed as Lord Krishna wait for a fancy dress competition. Credit: Ajay Verma/Reuters

Teaching an introductory course on Hinduism presents a number of pedagogical challenges, not least of which is the selection of the course readings. This situation is not unique to instructors of Hindu traditions, as faculty across disciplinary subfields will attest. Of course, readings ought also to align with course goals and learning outcomes, and they should effectively integrate assignments appropriately scaffolded to facilitate said goals. Beyond these issues, one need also to consider one’s institutional location: department, college, university, and community goals, mission, and expectations. On top of that, pedagogical choices ought also to negotiate the social locations of the students and their educational backgrounds (i.e., Is this their only course in religious studies? What is their major? How far along are they in their college experience?). Far from being an exhaustive list, these issues are intended simply to indicate the complexities facing instructors of introductory courses. I tend also to include two other elements: (1) Narratives, such as ethnographic accounts or novels; and (2) At least one assignment that is “self-referential” (more on that below), or, as many students say, “relatable.” The first element tends to de-exoticize the course content, in part, by challenging Orientalism, essentialism, and sweeping metanarratives that call for historical—and other—contextualizing details.

Students continually rank D. B. Mokashi’s Palkhi: An Indian Pilgrimage (SUNY Press, 1987) among their favorite books in my introductory course about Hinduism. Though the reasons they provide for this observation vary, the common thread is that the book reads like a novel on the one hand and like a memoir on the other. The personal element is clear, as the text records Mokashi’s journey with the Warkari Sampraday (“movement”) in Maharashtra, India, on its annual pilgrimage to Pandharpur. Mokashi’s blunt description of the pilgrimage quickly disabuses readers of romanticized fantasies of the “spiritual nature” of such journeys. Mokashi seems more often than not to focus on the mundane, daily messiness of the pilgrimage, and the struggles—physical, social, fiscal, familial, educational, and so on—that function as a lens through which readers can have a glimpse of Indian religious life more broadly. Mokashi’s integration of such stories leads to lively discussions on wide-ranging topics. Beyond the themes themselves, it is Mokashi’s talent as a storyteller that keeps the reader’s attention. Mokashi is, after all, counted as one among an elite group of Marathi writers who transformed, post-Independence, Marathi literature.

One need not be a Marathi literature aficionado to see how his work translates into the undergraduate classroom, even though his literature does indeed address salient issues in the study of Hindu (and other) religious practices in India. A sample of the issues that emerge from a close reading of his work include, for example, insider-outsider identity questions—Mokashi writes of how he is an insider to Maharashtrian life, yet an outsider to the Warakari movement; the question of “authenticity,” as in, who decides for any group what counts as “authentic” and what is excluded? Mokashi calls himself a “Trip-kari,” highlighting his outsider status while on the Warkari pilgrimage. Yet Mokashi carefully shows that these binaries break down—his views of authenticity are fraught with naïve views, as are his assumptions of his outsider status. What is compelling about his account is its honest portrayal of the messiness of religious classification schemes, narrated as a daily diary that reads like a memoir. Rather than simply telling readers how to think of these and other categories, he illustrates them through his encounters with various interlocutors along the way. We hear from each person a story that complicates bookish knowledge of Hindu practice. These interactions with Warkaris and townspeople along the route provide students and instructors opportunities to discuss other topics that have shaped broader questions in the study of religion in India: relationships between “old” and “new” practices; distinctions between urban and rural settings; and the power of class, caste, education, and gender roles within (and outside of) the Warkaris. This list is a small sample of how one might connect Mokashi’s experiences (from his 1961 pilgrimage) to the Warkaris today.

When I assign Palkhi, we read it toward the end of the course as a way of bringing together several course topics. His matter-of-fact description of the pilgrimage humanizes a “sacred activity” by noting its thoroughly mundane aspects, told through stories of his experiences: selfish pilgrims, charlatan teachers, broken families, thieves, rumors, ridicule of education, child labor, caste and gender divisions, and much more. The most common assignment I give for this text is a reading-response essay in which I include a series of prompts. Last year, I changed this assignment into a self-reflexive essay that is paired with an art project. The goal is for students to think creatively about their own “journey/pilgrimage,” broadly conceived. Students write a short essay that connects their artwork with key moments in Mokashi’s text; that is, the project is not entirely self-referential. It is precisely the self-referential quality that leads to a conversation about ethnographic research, writing, reporting, and more. Although the artistic component was optional, most students chose to complete it.

On the assignment due date, students lined their work up in front of class and took turns explaining their art. Students made deeper and clearer connections with class materials than normal, in part because they were narrating personal stories. In subsequent classes, we address pros and cons of the art assignment and use that discussion as a reminder of the complexities of cross-cultural translation, transcreation, and self-reflexivity. Overall, the assignment challenges them to rethink all of the course materials, and it’s an assignment less easily forgotten after the course concludes. These types of assignments relate to another pedagogical question I’m asking: how do I incorporate art projects into the religious studies classroom? There is a growing number of resources to help us think through obvious questions, such as how to evaluate artwork in our courses; how our institutional location shapes how we teach; how our respective program and course goals weigh on our pedagogical choices; and how we can work toward creating better learning situations for our students.

Mokashi touches on some of the themes in Palkhi in other of his works, such as Ananda Ovari and Farewell to the Gods (the latter is available in English translation). Since I have translated Ananda Ovari, our discussion turns to the complexities of translation and transcreation. Ananda Ovari presents readers with a modern interpretation of Sant Tukaram (1608–1649). First, I’ll say a bit more about Sant Tukaram—affectionately called ‘Tuka’—, the most popular Marathi-speaking Hindu sant among the centuries-old Warkari movement. The cultural significance of the Warkaris, its sants, and its annual pilgrimage to Pandharpur is intricately woven within “Maharashtrian identity” as a whole. Though Warkaris are mainly uneducated, poor, low-class farmers, modern recollections of Tukaram often are composed by middle-class, educated, upper-caste, urbanites. Since Tuka’s biography itself vacillates between history and memory, there is a lot of room for continued artistic recreations of him. In fact, Dilip Chitre, the poet and longtime translator of Tuka’s poetry, claimed that much of what we know of Tuka’s life is folklore. Folklore or not, Tuka’s life story continues to inspire modern artistic interpretations. For example, thirty years after its initial publication, Ananda Ovari gained new life in 2004, when Vijay Tendulkar adapted it for the stage, a process of transcreation. Atul Pethe directed the play with Kishore Kadam as the lead actor. I’ve translated the novel, tweeted the Marathi and English, and now I’m moving into a phase of transcreation myself by setting out to transform Ananda Ovari into a graphic novel.

In Mokashi’s modern interpretation, we see Tuka through the eyes of his younger brother Kanha. Mokashi’s story highlights the tensions between family life and renunciation, with each of the three brothers making different choices: Savji, the eldest brother, becomes a renouncer (i.e., an ascetic) at an early age, shortly after his wife dies; Tuka becomes useless to his family, as he regularly wanders off, rapt in devotion to Lord Vitthala (a form of Vishnu in Pandharpur), eventually vanishing; and Kanha toys with the bhakti (devotional) path on occasion, composing poetry and mimicking kirtan performers (storytelling, with chanting and music), only to feel as if he is doing just that—copying others and not following his own path. Ananda Ovari also presents Tuka becoming a sant (often glossed as “saint”) as the result of uncontrollable circumstances: for example, Tuka turns away from family obligations in the face of tragedy; when his parents, wife, and child die during the horrible famine, Tuka withdraws from family life and eventually vanishes. In fact, Mokashi begins Ananda Ovari with Tuka’s disappearance: “Tuka vanished on a Monday.” What follows is Kanha searching for Tuka, and narrating his “biography” along the way, emphasizing the difficulties his family faced as a result of Tuka’s devotion to Vitthala. Kanha is often frustrated that no one outside of the immediate family knew the real Tuka. The real Tuka caused heartache and was more of a burden than a blessing to his family. Tuka even considered suicide, so depressed was he after the famine took loved ones and led to bankruptcy for their small shop.

My engagement with Ananda Ovari began in 1997–98 when I read through the novel twice with my Marathi professor, Dr. Vijaya Deo, and made my initial translation; I let it sit, and then returned to it in 2008. My translation is about 36,000 words; Tendulkar’s play is around 8,000 in its English translation. About ten years after Tendulkar’s play, I returned once again to the novel, and chose Twitter as the platform for sharing my translation-in-process. Posting my work on Twitter forced me to clean up the translation, 140 characters at a time. It also helped me make translation decisions that I had relegated to footnotes, where I described various ways a word or phrase could be rendered in English. On Twitter, I would first tweet the Devanagari, followed by my translation. I kept track with a simple numbering system (3.5, for instance, meant “Chapter 3, Tweet number 5). Twitter felt like straightforward translation, in that I stuck closely to the original, unlike the stage adaptation of Tendulkar, who changed the story’s ending.

Like Tendulkar, though, I am engaging in a transcreative process as I transform Ananda Ovari into a graphic novel. This project raises all sorts of questions that I can bring into classroom discussions. What, for example, is my connection to the Warkari interpretive literature? Will the graphic novel read as my Tuka—as in, my artistic interpretation of Mokashi’s novel—to be read alongside other interpretations? If so, who is my intended audience? Why do I feel the need to engage in this project at all, given my status as an observer—and clearly not a Warkari—of Maharashtrian culture? How closely do I stick to Mokashi’s novel? What can I assume about the reader’s knowledge of the Warkaris, Tukaram, Maharashtra, and so on? If the readers have no knowledge of these topics, do I write an introduction that provides that context? If I take that route, how does that change the way the book is received? That is, graphic narratives tend not to have introductions. And if there is an introduction, do I also include the translation, making it into a larger work?

Of course, there are many other questions for me to consider. What I hope, from a pedagogical standpoint, is that students come away from these discussions with more nuanced perspectives on the complexities of transcultural studies, and the gravity of topics such as cultural appropriation, translation, interpretation, and analysis.

Concluding Remarks

Students tell me that personal stories and storytelling often make the course content “relatable”—which I translate with words like, “it makes sense to me,” or “I can learn from this example.” I’ve begun responding to students’ desire for such experiences by incorporating art projects into courses. The projects accomplish as least two important goals. First, they help students respond in nontraditional ways to the course readings. Second, students then engage in their own storytelling as they narrate to the “story” that is their artistic interpretation. These creative elements are an opportunity for students to reflect further on their relationship to the material, regardless of the nature of that relationship. Students remember stories from Palkhi, both positively and negatively, precisely because the stories are relatable. How do we as educators build upon these experiences in ways that encourage deeper learning? One approach is to have students tell their stories, which ought to encourage further questions, challenges, and more learning. It may also help them understand why some stories are more powerful than others, and why reading “those Hindu tales in ancient texts” may prove to be a worthwhile endeavor, maybe even a “relatable one.”

Jeffrey BrackettJeffrey M. Brackett is an associate professor of religious studies at Ball State University where he regularly teaches courses in Hindu and Buddhist traditions, religion and pop culture, and ethnography of religion. In 2014 he received Ball State’s highest teaching award, the Outstanding Teaching Award. In the spring of 2015, he combined his interests in pedagogy and art by teaching a fifteen-credit hour immersive learning seminar, “Representing Religion in Comics.” His current research projects integrate his academic training with his artistic practice: an examination of the discourses surrounding the notion of “art as/and spiritual practice”; and turning his translation of D. B. Mokashi’s Marathi novel, Ananda Owari, into a graphic novel that he will draw. He has worked extensively with the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion, both as a workshop participant and as a member of the leadership team.

Further Reading

Mokashi, D. B. Palkhi: An Indian Pilgrimage. Translated by Philip C. Engblom and Eleanor Zelliot. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1987.

Next article >