Monday, January 25, 2016

We are but pawns in this cosmos

It was after the move to Madras (Chennai now) that we first got a television set at home.  In the Neyveli phase of my life, there was no television.  The Indian government was slowly launching its state-run Doordharshan in one big city after another, and being in India's fourth largest city meant that we had been promoted to the age of the telly.  A small black and white set, from a company that was owned by India's tennis-playing family.

It was a pain to watch movies on that small screen, and even worse it was to read any text like the subtitles.  But, thanks to that small screen and the state-run television broadcasting, I watched quite a few "art" movies--films that were not the regular, commercial, kind, with the heroes and the heroines running around trees and uttering melodramatic dialogues.  My all-time favorite was Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Elipathayam (The rat trap.)  A close second were Aparna Sen's 36 Chowringhee Lane and Satyajit Ray's Shatranj ke Khilari (The chess players).  

Shatranj ke Khilari is set in the days before India's First War of Independence, which was referred to as the Sepoy Mutiny in the grand British interpretation of history that we learnt in school.  With the backdrop of the British ready to gobble up Awadh--which was Oudh in the British history that was told to us--two nawabs are preoccupied with nothing but playing chess, even as the world around them changes rapidly.  

Chess, which my mother taught us to play when we were kids, was born in the Subcontinent, and then spread via Persia to the Middle East and to Europe.  Shatranj itself is a Persian word.  Thus, two Muslim Nawabs playing chess forgetting everything around them, in a land of Muslim rulers, was, well, nothing out of the ordinary.  "Of course", you thought while sitting back in the chair as you watched the movie.

Which is why it is tragically hilarious to read the news item that Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti "has declared the playing of chess “forbidden,” calling it a waste of time and money that creates hatred between players."  Will be laughable if not for the seriousness with which the Mufti's words are taken by some. 
In a fatwa, or religious decree, issued in response to a question from a caller to a Saudi television show, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh said that the game was “the work of Satan,” like alcohol and gambling, despite its long history in the Middle East.
A fatwa against chess?  Doesn't the Mufti have better things to worry about?  He is not the first religious leader to rule against chess; examples include:
An Italian sage of the 11th century, Saint Peter Damian, scolded the bishop of Florence for his weakness for the game. Chess was initially outlawed by Iranian Revolution which prevailed in 1979; however in 1988, Ayatollah Khomeini said it was permissible as long as it is not combined with gambling. However a contemporary Shia leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani of Iraq, has emphatically forbidden all forms of chess, whether played online or with physical pieces, and regardless of whether betting is involved.
Seriously!  Why?
Then, as now, religious professionals were wary of a game that transcended religious and cultural categories, and stimulated the brain rather than the soul.
But, why?  Because it is "gloriously rebellious," writes this commentator:
[Chess] obsessives, especially the professional players who devote their lives to the game and strive to understand its “truth”, are engaged in a glorious act of rebellion. The “real” world is dull, unjust, unchangeable, so instead they live in an illusory world, like Alice when she goes behind the looking glass and finds “a great huge game of chess that’s being played – all over the world”. Perhaps this is what the mufti really fears: chess players are natural rebels who have rejected the workaday world and all its totems. They want to topple kings – and maybe muftis too.
Of course, one needn't play chess to topple kings--the white supremacists from the northern island played that toppling game really well in the Subcontinent!


Anne in Salem said...

And in the US, chess is championed for elementary school children as contributing to strategic thinking, problem solving, creativity, sportsmanship (has that been changed to sportspeopleship yet?), etc. I don't understand.

Sriram Khé said...

Religion-based directives on everyday life often can be irrational and difficult to understand ;)

Ramesh said...

Appalling decree. The religious fanatics are truly nutty. Extreme fanaticism must surely be considered a psychiatric illness.

36 Chowringhee Lane was truly a masterpiece, but Shatranj Ke Khilari ??? I thought it was one of those movies that nobody watched but everybody praised. You watched THAT in your youth ?? Your hormones were surely all mixed up :):) hahahahaha

Sriram Khé said...

whaaaaaaaat? you had time to watch "36 Chowringhee Lane" ... despite your college, cricket, table tennis, girls, ... ;)
Yes, it was an awesome movie. Not too long after that movie, she (Jennifer Kindal (Kendal? can't be bothered to Google!) died from cancer and I remember feeling sad on reading about it--I was the undergrad program whwn that happened ...
Shatranj was a wonderful movie. I always liked Sanjeev Kumar and in this movie he was very good, and so was Shabana Azmi. Of course, a slow movie. Even slower is Elippathayam--Sharada was phenomenal in that ...

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