‘Nothing can ever happen twice’ is how Wislawa Szymborska, the 1996 Polish Nobel Prize winner, began a celebrated poem. The poem is quintessentially Szymborskian in that the simplicity of its beginning soon moves on to provide a profound commentary, tellingly captured in these lines:
‘No two nights will teach what bliss is
in precisely the same way,
with exactly the same kisses.’
Szymborska could well have been making an observation about the past — where certain junctures are exceptional, and never quite unfold again in the same way. One such moment in ancient India can still be imbibed in the forests of Chhattisgarh, a state marked by much beauty, and marred by even more bloodshed. Buried in the Ramgarh hill in a thick cover of jungle, there is a lovely loverly tale, in the form of a 3rd c. BCE epigraph in the ancient Brahmi script. This, the Jogimara cave inscription, simply says:
Sutanuka by name, a Devadasi.
The excellent among young men loved her,
The sculptor named Devadinna.’
There are other caves of a similar age, one of which is inscribed with an equally ancient epigraph, so evidently, our sculptor happened to be in the midst of a small community of people who lived here. Scholars have debated about how this epigraph can be used to date the ‘devadasi’ practice while others have concerned themselves with the profession of Devaddina. Since the cave was once vividly painted, of which only faint traces remain, it is possible that he may not have been a sculptor but an artist or perhaps, both. Was he separated from Sutanuka? The message bears the marks of a man pining for his beloved. If they were together, what were they doing in the middle of the Surguja forests? There are many things that remain in doubt. But there is little doubt that this love embraced sexual pleasure. The word used to communicate that Devadinna loved Sutanuka is derived from ‘kama’.
So, what is it that makes this articulation of love different from anything else? If one maps the history of love in ancient India, there would be many types but inevitably, it is political elites and citizen-centred households that are captured in texts of various kinds, from the epics to a codified shastra in the form of the Kamasutra. In practically every instance, these are stories about and prescriptive discourses on love - falling in love, courtship, the range of desire, and the types of sexual conduct and so on. There is no historical persona here who speaks about her or his beloved in this charming way. The couple here, on the other hand, is ordinary people, not connected with royalty or riches. Yet, the fact that their presence has been inscribed in such a simple and intimate manner makes them appear to be surprisingly modern. This is because they epitomise a romantic ideal of the couple - the sort that one sometimes reads about in novels - unencumbered by caste, class or community. For this reason, I think of Sutanuka and Devadinna as the ‘first couple’ of ancient India.
It is somewhat regrettable that the ambience around this ancient couple is endangered by graffiti put down by modern couples. ‘Seetu’ and ‘Upendra’ jostle with others, and with hearts pierced by arrows, all painted in red. In fact, wherever there is an accessible sandstone rock face on the hill, around and beyond the nationally protected monument, there is ugly graffiti.
With so much emphasis on the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, it is perhaps time to seriously think of a similar programme for India’s heritage. Swachh Bharat Swachh Smarak is a slogan that is mentioned in the same breath as Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. This usually gets mentioned during World Heritage Week and is dominated by ribbon-cutting and awareness programmes at Archaeological Survey of India sites. While everyone enjoys the samosas that go with it, the fact of the matter is that no amount of moralising at public functions or advertising about ‘Incredible India’ on national TV can succeed in stopping the defacement of monuments.
Instead, what may work is a demonstration of political will, with some out-of-the box thinking. Indian public spaces, after all, are full of the mug shots and messages of political leaders and parties. They have made those spaces their own because of their clout and the funds that they command. The sense, though, that these inevitably communicate is that it is perfectly legitimate to use billboards, banners and bus stops for boasting about themselves. The graffiti which can be seen around monuments is an extension of this culture. To put it in another way, if our leaders have the means to stamp their presence in public places, the spaces that are available to the ‘aam admi’ will also be used in a similar manner. Attendants at ASI monuments simply do not have the means to stop such defacers.
But will our leaders show political will and surprise us? What is certain is that only if they publicly eschew the entirely vulgar practice of inscribing themselves all over the place, will they have the moral authority to persuade India’s citizens to stop defacing in a similar way. If they do (one lives on hope!), it is a win-win situation. India’s public spaces will look better. And possibly, India’s first couple will become more visible than the graffiti which surrounds them.
Nayanjot Lahiri is professor of history, Ashoka University. The views expressed are personal.