objects of research: Titania Palast, Berlin

A Kino in Berlin

We begin in a kino (cinema) in Berlin. Post-Berlin is battered and bruised far more than almost any city in the world. The Allies have carved up the city into four administrative zones: the British, French, American, and Russian sectors respectively. This is also where people who are concerned about culture from the Allied sector are wondering how to regenerate “culture” in this city again. Some of them are scheming.

Berlin, 1945

To make this more complicated, it would seem like the Allies already have areas of influence that will ultimately result in Berlin being divided between the East and the West, just like Germany itself. This is where West Berlin needs a pick me up. Surrounded by the “East”, West Berlin hosts the first Congress for Cultural Freedom conference on the 26th of June 1950. The venue is Titania Palast.

Titania Palast is one of those spaces in Berlin that surfaces again and again under the auspices of historical circumstances. It was one of the biggest cinema halls in Berlin when it was inaugurated in 1928. Most people know it today as the cinema where the Americans started the International Berlin Film Festival, better known as the Berlinale, in 1951. It was the spot where the first concert of the Berliner Philharmonie took place after World War II (1945). It is also where the Freie Universität’s “Gründungsversammlung” took place on 4th of December 1948. Much of this is commemorated on a plaque outside.


This is where the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) begins its work. The Congress itself was attended by quite a few famous writers, philosophers, and “thinkers”; names like Tennessee Williams and Bertrand Russell come up when we look at the list today. What did they do there? They drew up a manifesto against “all encroachments on the creative and critical spirit of man”.

Since this is during the Cold War, and just after the Berlin Blockade, this well-attended congress in West Berlin is also hinting at the Communists across the border (not far from Titania Palast) who are, then, those who are controlling thought. Declassified documents have of course shown that much of this was funded by the CIA. But at the time, the Congress for Cultural Freedom was the space for culture. And this is where we also meet Mike Josselson.

Josselson appears in the introduction of Campaigning Culture and the Global Cold War: The Journals of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (edited volume by Giles Scott-Smith and Charlotte A. Lerg) as the enigmatic American of Estonian origin who spoke English, German, French, and Russian. Josselson, who had already been in Germany for interrogations of German POWs, quickly becomes a part of the CCF and starts convincing intellectuals to serve as editors in the global struggle against Marxism/Communism. This was reported by the New York Times in 1966 as well.

With that background, we land in Bombay.

Berlin to Bombay

Bombay was the venue for the second conference of the CCF. Given its Non-Alignment Movement times, it is not surprising that the CIA was worried that “that Indian intellectuals, artists, and writers might also refuse to take sides.” (Pullin 285) Hence, they land in India for the second iteration of the congress.

Even as I write this, I am not sure of the amount of work that has been done or should be done on Indian poetry’s publication circles and this conference in 1951 (Pullin). The Indian Congress for Cultural Freedom (ICCF) has its own little history that I will not go into. What comes out of this is the Quest magazine, the archive of which lives in a bizarre Freedom First website these days. I have to Eric Pullin’s work here as exemplary in this field and that is who the reader should go for that part. There is also a Graziano Kratli’s essay that touched upon this briefly.

The part that amused me as I went down this rabbit-hole was to imagine a poetry reading. This is what I will end with.

It is probably warm as the communist/pacifist Allen Ginsberg starts reading his poetry on the balcony of Ebrahim Alkazi, the Bombay theatre director (Nerlekar 61) in 1962. Not far away, Arthur and Glorya Hale are in their Nariman Point apartment where they await instructions from Harry Rositzke, who was their CIA station chief in Delhi (Kratli 185). Nissim Ezekiel, one of the editors of Quest, publishes almost every poet who was probably there in that Ginsberg poetry reading. Ezekiel does not remain the editor of Quest for a long time. But for that brief moment, Ezekiel is the best fit that Scott-Smith and Lerg write about in their introduction: Journal editors who were “often well-known intellectual personae in their national contexts and beyond, and their public standing both required and allowed them to demonstrate a certain degree of independence from Paris (and of course, from the United States).” (13)

Curiously, as I start digging into Indian poetry’s publishing circles and connections, I find myself within 20 mins from Titania Palast in Berlin. I take the S-Bahn, across the former borders that divided the East and West sides of Berlin, and end up at a generic Kino in Berlin. There is no sign of the CCF and its history in this place now. They call it Cineplex Titania now. There is a plaque, of course. And as Roman Mars says, always read the plaque.

Further Reading

Hugh Wilford, The Mighty Wurlitzer

Supriya Nair, Publishing Revolutionary Road

Francis Stoner Saunders, Who Paid the Piper

Michael Warner, Origins of the CCF

Giles Scott-Smith and Charlotte A. Lerg (ed.), Global Cold War: Third World Intervention and the Making of the Cold War
– Eric Pullin, “QUEST: Twenty Years of Cultural Politics”

day something: interviews and poems

I have long been a follower of Vivek Narayanan. One afternoon in Delhi, the poet Michael Creighton introduced me to the poetry of Narayanan and there has been no stopping since.

Narayanan’s work interests me not just because of the intense craftsmanship that he has about his work. It is also how he manages to use form in his poetry that has fascinated me. The Life and Times of Mr. S, his book of poems, deserves a much longer post that I hope to get around to, finally. For now, here is an interview from the Center for Writing and Communication with Souradeep Roy and Uday Kanungo.

day 10: how to speak poetry

maybe we should meet as complete strangers

Take the word butterfly. To use this word it is not necessary to make the voice weigh less than an ounce or equip it with small dusty wings. It is not necessary to invent a sunny day or a field of daffodils. It is not necessary to be in love, or to be in love with butterflies. The word butterfly is not a real butterfly. There is the word and there is the butterfly. If you confuse these two items people have the right to laugh at you. Do not make so much of the word. Are you trying to suggest that you love butterflies more perfectly than anyone else, or really understand their nature? The word butterfly is merely data. It is not an opportunity for you to hover, soar, befriend flowers, symbolize beauty and frailty, or in any way impersonate a butterfly. Do not act out words. Never act out words. Never try to leave the floor when you talk about flying. Never close your eyes and jerk your head to one side when you talk about death. Do not fix your burning eyes on me when you speak about love. If you want to impress me when you speak about love put your hand in your pocket or under your dress and play with yourself. If ambition and the hunger for applause have driven you to speak about love you should learn how to do it without disgracing yourself or the material.

What is the expression which the age demands? The age demands no expression whatever. We have seen photographs of bereaved Asian mothers. We are not interested in the agony of your fumbled organs. There is nothing you can show on your face that can match the horror of this time. Do not even try. You will only hold yourself up to the scorn of those who have felt things deeply. We have seen newsreels of humans in the extremities of pain and dislocation. Everyone knows you are eating well and are even being paid to stand up there. You are playing to people who have experienced a catastrophe. This should make you very quiet. Speak the words, convey the data, step aside. Everyone knows you are in pain. You cannot tell the audience everything you know about love in every line of love you speak. Step aside and they will know what you know because you know it already. You have nothing to teach them. You are not more beautiful than they are. You are not wiser. Do not shout at them. Do not force a dry entry. That is bad sex. If you show the lines of your genitals, then deliver what you promise. And remember that people do not really want an acrobat in bed. What is our need? To be close to the natural man, to be close to the natural woman. Do not pretend that you are a beloved singer with a vast loyal audience which has followed the ups and downs of your life to this very moment. The bombs, flame-throwers, and all the shit have destroyed more than just the trees and villages. They have also destroyed the stage. Did you think that your profession would escape the general destruction? There is no more stage. There are no more footlights. You are among the people. Then be modest. Speak the words, convey the data, step aside. Be by yourself. Be in your own room. Do not put yourself on.

This is an interior landscape. It is inside. It is private. Respect the privacy of the material. These pieces were written in silence. The courage of the play is to speak them. The discipline of the play is not to violate them. Let the audience feel your love of privacy even though there is no privacy. Be good whores. The poem is not a slogan. It cannot advertise you. It cannot promote your reputation for sensitivity. You are not a stud. You are not a killer lady. All this junk about the gangsters of love. You are students of discipline. Do not act out the words. The words die when you act them out, they wither, and we are left with nothing but your ambition.

Speak the words with the exact precision with which you would check out a laundry list. Do not become emotional about the lace blouse. Do not get a hard-on when you say panties. Do not get all shivery just because of the towel. The sheets should not provoke a dreamy expression about the eyes. There is no need to weep into the handkerchief. The socks are not there to remind you of strange and distant voyages. It is just your laundry. It is just your clothes. Don’t peep through them. Just wear them.

The poem is nothing but information. It is the Constitution of the inner country. If you declaim it and blow it up with noble intentions then you are no better than the politicians whom you despise. You are just someone waving a flag and making the cheapest kind of appeal to a kind of emotional patriotism. Think of the words as science, not as art. They are a report. You are speaking before a meeting of the Explorers’ Club of the National Geographic Society. These people know all the risks of mountain climbing. They honour you by taking this for granted. If you rub their faces in it that is an insult to their hospitality. Tell them about the height of the mountain, the equipment you used, be specific about the surfaces and the time it took to scale it. Do not work the audience for gasps and sighs. If you are worthy of gasps and sighs it will not be from your appreciation of the event but from theirs. It will be in the statistics and not the trembling of the voice or the cutting of the air with your hands. It will be in the data and the quiet organization of your presence.

Avoid the flourish. Do not be afraid to be weak. Do not be ashamed to be tired. You look good when you’re tired. You look like you could go on forever. Now come into my arms. You are the image of my beauty.

– Leonard Cohen

The Price of Goodwill

One of the things that I read while writing the last post on “Miyah poetry” is this article by Dr. Hiren Gohain. Dr. Gohain is one of the stalwarts of the Assamese intelligentsia and while one has to pay attention to his views (he is far too important in that context), a few things that he mentioned deserves a more discussion in its own space. Furthermore, given the stature he holds in that arena, it is important to discuss this article in this context.

Let me paraphrase his article before getting any further. The most important points that he makes are:

  1. He has done a lot for Muslim villages and, hence, the trust that they bestow upon him is not a fluke.
  2. In Assam, things were becoming “normal” after a long phase of ethnic violence.
  3. The “sane and wise” Muslim leaders asked for dialogue and understanding at the time and supported the Assam Accord.
  4. The newer educated class is playing into the hands of Hindutva by writing a “powerful narrative” of Muslim victimhood and that these poets do not really want a reconciliation between the indigenous people of Assam and the descendants of immigrant Muslims”.
  5. They are writing for a different (read: Un-Assamese) audience and ignore an Assamese audience at their own peril.

There are many things that must be taken into account. However, a few lines and phrases need to be pointed out before I go any further. For instance, the phrase he uses while talking about what is at stake is a haunting line:

It is unfortunate that an episode like ‘Miyah poetry’ should be allowed to cloud this goodwill that came at such a huge price.

There is an assumption that Dr. Gohain begins the article with which is a historical timeline – one he uses to contrast with the “abstract rights” that these poets seem to be writing about. The timeline – to mention/remind briefly – is this : Assam Agitation which led to ethnic violence was quelled by the sanity and wisdom of Muslim leaders who did not answer violence with violence and that has slowly become led to a “normal” peaceful phase in the years that followed. I think there is another element in that history that has to be pointed out as well. In the post-Assam Agitation era, most of the ethnic minorities that carried out acts of violence were – in some way or another – pacified by state appeasement. Whether it was Advani coming to Bodoland and giving Hagrama Mohilary the keys to the kingdom or otherwise, the point to be made here is that what Dr. Gohain is calling the “normal” has come after quite a few leaders of those communities were given territorial governance powers.

The result of which – and one must point this out – has been a slow but subtle change in the demography of many cities in Assam. Bongaigaon – for instance – has seen a large influx of urban migrants because there is always a lot of development work that demands cheap labour in both Bongaigaon district and Chirang district. This very often brought in the cheap labour of Muslims from the char area (Dhubri and Goalpara) to both Bongaigaon and Chirang. Of course, as Dr. Gohain mentions, the post-1991 Liberalization of the economy also saw upward mobility of a lot of people and many of them were Muslim in Lower Assam. However, this has to be seen alongside the rise of “Territorial Councils” of Assam that the state negotiated and then the benefits of the economy opening up in India.

This also saw – and I saw this in Bongaigaon for a long time – a resentment towards the Muslim community. What Dr. Gohain calls “some resentment among a few of them [Muslims] against the insinuations, snide remarks and mistreatment at the hands of Assamese chauvinists at workplaces or elsewhere” is a gross understatement given the daily microaggressions against urban migrants in Lower Assam; an example would be this story of a score of Hindi-speaking people in Assam from 2012 and one only needs to take a cursory glance at the number of Bengali-speaking Muslims who have been also killed in similar fashion.

Therefore, what Dr. Gohain is calling a narrative of victimhood orchestrated by someone behind the scenes is – in effect – the result of the gradual “normalizing” of ethno-nationalism in Assam. The kind of which, one can only assume, has boiled over to the point that the disenfranchising of many from that community is not a problem at all.

Instead, what Dr. Gohain tells us, is that the “indigenous” Assamese, whose “national existence” survives on language, “believe, rightly too, that they have never had a real chance to put their house in order”. There is a dangerous conflation here that needs to be pointed out: the “indigenous” Assamese is a homogenization of a population whose language politics is simply too complex to be thought of as something that is contrary to Bengali. In fact, the lower one goes in Assam, the more the language bridges the gap between “Axomiya” and “Bengali”. On the other hand, I would really like to know who would put the house in order and how.

The last point in his article is a haunting one. In concluding his article, he writes of the “indigenous” Assamese, the sense of “goodwill” that Muslim and Assamese share and how “Miyah poetry” ignores Assamese at its own peril. In writing the difference between the two communities, Dr. Gohain himself is creating vague communities which are seemingly at odds. The “other” created in his own article portrays the Assamese Muslim as someone who must be tolerated, not accepted, as Assamese. On three occasions in this article, he very clearly uses the distinctions between Assamese (irrespective of how he defines the term) and the Assamese Muslims; as though the distinction itself does not hint at daily microaggression. The use of the word “goodwill” hints at the “peril” that he picks up later. Like, a host, he charges his Muslim guests of Bengali origin “goodwill” to accept the occasional snide remark and not dare use the language (s)he uses at home to create poetry. The peril – he says – is that of Hindutva. The fear, perhaps, is that Hindutva will do better what Assamese ethno-nationalism has not been able to do so well over the last decades. We live in troubled times indeed.