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Early 20th Century Kanpur: A Template To Understand Feelings Historically

Emotions are at the core of the very practices through which power is constituted and challenged, whether it is the desire for passion or its apparent contrary, the desire for discipline, writes Margrit Pernau

Early 20th Century Kanpur: A Template To Understand Feelings Historically
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Kanpur August 3, 1913. In the burning heat of summer, a crowd of men of all ages and social stations walks towards the Idgah, bare-footed and bare-headed. Every few minutes, they stop to listen to the elegies commemorating the events of Karbala, the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson and his family in 680 C.E. But this year, the laments are interwoven with the desolation of a present event, the martyrdom of the mosque of the Machhli Bazaar (fish market) in Kanpur, a part of which had been torn down on the order of the municipal authorities to make way for a street.

At the Idgah, the crowd listens to sermons and more elegies. Again and again, tears and cries of mourning interrupt the speakers. Finally, a part of the assembly proceeds to the mosque, ostensibly to rebuild the destroyed parts. A confrontation with the police follows, leaving 13 dead and many more wounded, leading to widespread arrests. This was followed by an outburst of feeling in the Urdu press that lasted many months, dwarfing even recent reporting on the Balkan wars, and made the colonial authorities more than just a little nervous.

What was the background to these events? What can they tell us about emotions, except confirm what we suspected all along, that there is a link between the arousal of passion and riots? As always, things are more complicated. For centuries, the ideal in Indo-Persian political treatises and advice literature had been etidal (balance) at the individual as much as at the social and political levels, even extending to the relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm.

The word for justice, adl, too, derives from the same root. This made for a more complex management of feelings than simple discipline. Rather than valuing a specific emotion or its suppression, what mattered was to avoid both excess and deficiency: if miserliness was a vice, so was extreme and undiscerning generosity. Anger was not an evil in itself but both fury and a lack of assertiveness were to be shunned.

This discourse began to change in the last decades of the 19th century. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan is remembered today for the founding of the Aligarh College and for his endeavours to reconcile Islamic beliefs with science and rationality. But Khan and his collaborators also penned article after article bemoaning not the lack of discipline of the students but, on the contrary, their loss of passionate feelings.

Only a revival of josh, of burning passion, in the heart of young men could lead to a revival of the future of the nation and the community, they explained. Unlike their forefathers, their blood had turned white, Sir Syed thundered. Instead of heartfelt compassion for the condition of their brothers and their sufferings, they could only utter a feeble sigh. Manliness and virility here were no longer linked to the ability to achieve a state of balance, but, on the contrary, to the excess of josh, to passion gripping the very intestines of a man and this was by no means specific to  discourse on Muslims.

Instead of assuming that ‘real feelings’ belong to, or even constitute, an inner space, it is more helpful to read emotions as communication happening not in an imaginary inside of people but between them.
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In the years before the First World War, this position received support from the first Urdu publications in the new discipline of Psychology. Notably, Abdul Majid Daryabadi urged his readers not to meddle with nature. Instead of attempting to dominate passions through will-power, they should recognise that emotions were nature’s means of guiding people towards their destiny. The less they were interfered with, the more josh was allowed to run its course, the more vital and virile a community or nation would become.

This interpretation and these concepts of emotions were widely shared in Northern India. When, in 1909 ,the municipality of Kanpur decided to improve the urban structure by broadening streets in the congested part of the city, it so happened that one street ran past the mosque of the Macchli Bazaar and required the tearing down of the wuzu khana (washing area) of the mosque, the place of ritual ablutions.

Compensation and a reconstruction of the building in the immediate vicinity were offered and the managing committee of the mosque initially agreed to the proposal. Soon, however, tempers rose, not only in Kanpur, but throughout North India, fanned by some of the newly-founded Urdu newspapers, like Hamdard, Zamindar and Madina. In what he intended as an effort to calm things down, James Meston, the Lieutenant Governor of the United Provinces, wrote that the campaign was not only excessive, but also artificial, as in Kanpur itself, there was “comparatively little excitement”.

In the Urdu translation, however, excitement was translated as josh, and what Meston had meant as a commendation now was read as an insult. It not only denied Muslims the strength of their religious sentiments and their commitment to Islam but also questioned their virility and their ability to withstand degeneration. Not only feeling josh but showing and performing it thus became central, for the Muslims of Kanpur, but also for the entire Muslim community. As the Muslim Gazette wrote: “The Cawnpore mosque incident has inflicted such a deep wound on the heart of Muhammadans all over India, it will never be healed and will continue to discharge pus until the Day of Judgment. If it had been possible to tear open our breasts and to show the wound we would surely have shown it [my emphasis].”

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How can we read these emotions? First, emotions do not arise out of nothing. Josh was embedded in a political and psychological complex. It had to be taught and learned and was always accompanied by the desire for a passion strong enough to overwhelm the boundedness of the subject in everyday concerns and by the anxiety of not feeling strongly enough. Sentiments were not hurt merely in response to outward events. Developing a sensibility delicate enough to feel the pain of slights —perceived or otherwise—became a moral imperative.

The possibility of not feeling enough hurt or feeling less hurt than other communities was always present and perceived as a real danger. In turn, this was not a universal phenomenon but might be situated in time and space—the desire for passion, the urge to show hurt sentiments has a history.

Second, the media plays a central role in this development, both in the long and in the short term. This was often investigated under the label of manipulation, from the early treatises on crowd psychology by Gustave Le Bon at the end of the nineteenth century to the colonial authors, which berated journalists both for being firebrands, unable to control their emotions, and for coldly manipulating the masses.

However, the implied distinction between manipulated and authentic emotions might be difficult to sustain. Instead of assuming that ‘real feelings’ belong to, or even constitute, an inner space, in which people can (and should) protect against outside influences, it is more helpful to read emotions as communication happening not in an imaginary inside of people but between them. This highlights the importance of power structures in understanding emotions historically.

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Neither the discourse through which emotions are learned nor the experiences which give validation to, or resist, this discourse are free of power. Nor does affective communication take place in a vacuum. While power explains emotions, the reverse is also true. Emotions, as historical, not universal phenomena, are at the core of the very practices through which power is constituted and challenged, whether it is the desire for passion or its apparent contrary, the desire for discipline.

(This appeared in the print edition as "An Archaeology Of Emotions")

(Views expressed are personal)

Margrit Pernau is senior researcher at the centre for the history of emotions at the Mmax Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin

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