Monday, November 5, 2018

Memories of My Melancholy Whores Retold III: Dial H for Hotel



“Are you free to talk?” I hear a familiar voice from the other side of the phone.

“Yes I am, always for you,” I have this flirtatious tone in my voice whenever she calls me. She is not offended. On the contrary, if she couldn’t sense that ticklish voice of mine she grows curious and prodding. “Are you alright? Is something bothering you?” she would ask.

It is better to maintain flirtatiousness in the voice than to let her ask too many questions. She speaks a few things including the usual staple of gossip doing rounds in the art scene. With my journalistic instincts alert I listen to her talk. She has not yet come to the point, I feel.

Though she calls me once in a while today’s preamble has given her guards away. She wants to talk something particular but she seems to have lost courage. She continues beating around the bush for some or time.

“The other day I felt a different vibe from you,” she says. I think of it. When was it, really? “Day before.. during the opening of X’ exhibition.” Yes, I remember meeting her there with a glass of beer in her right hand and in her left another lady too young to be her mother and too old to be her sister. She must have been obviously in her early sixties.

I think hard. Couple of beer inside me I should have made some loose talks. Did I make any unwarranted moves towards her?

“No, no...,” she asserts. “You were not high but you were asking me something which I would definitely love to do with you but now circumstances do not allow me to take that step. I feel scared. But I have something to tell you,” she stops abruptly and waits for me to be curious.

I am curious but I do not want to show it. “Out with it dear,” I tell her and add to her pause.

We could hear each other breathing heavily into the phone; those good old days of landline phones.

“May be Lena would love to do it,” she says diplomatically.

“Lena, who?” I ask.

“The lady who was with me at the opening,” she goes silent again.

“Really?” Now I become really curious. “But she is pretty old..”

“So what?”

“I never thought old women of her age wanted it.”

“You know nothing about women,” she sounds assertive and matter of fact.

I am game for it. The days are like that; wild and blind. Discretion is the last thing when the field is open and poaching is not banned. Everyone is drunk in power and richness; not just men, women too. At times they are too arrogant to have a decent conversation.

Here is someone who would like to have a few hours fling with me.

“What do you say?” she asks.

I do not think twice. I say, yes.

“She will call you and arrange everything. Do not goof it up,” she warns and then hangs up.


As expected she calls. She is hesitant initially. From her quivering voice I feel her age; definitely it is added by her overwhelming emotional state.

The pivotal ‘Ws’ are asked: when and where? ‘Why’ could be avoided for I know why. ‘How’, perhaps both of us are experienced enough to find out an answer to that question.

Lena, the good old lady hatches a plan; she is an artist. She would like to discuss her works with me. She would rent out a hotel room in a posh area in the city. I just go there, check in and wait. She gives me date and time.

On the stipulated day I wear my favorite black T-shirt and black jeans. I ride my motorbike and reach the hotel. From the parking I emerge a bit exhausted but I put a brave face and encounter the receptionists. One of the bell boys takes me to the room. The room is empty.

I sit on the cot and take a good look at the room. It is a very spacious one; too spacious for clandestine meetings. The air-conditioner buzzes to make the room cooler than the hot clime out there which I see through the parted curtain. The familiar city sprawls down there and I feel a bit like a thief who is about to commit a crime.

I turn away from the large glass window, pulling the curtains back its place, bringing the remoteness and nowhere-ness of all hotel rooms anywhere in the world back into the room. On the one side there is a large mirror and I take a good look at myself.

What do I see there? A young man in black jeans and T-shirt, looking like a pint size bouncer at a bar door or am I looking like a gigolo who is called to a room to fulfill an old woman’s desire?

I try to shirk off that feeling. I keep telling myself that I am here on my own volition and as much as she wants it I too want it. It is a mutual deal; no exploitation of any kind. The discussion on her works of art is an alibi.


I hear a knock at the door. I open it. Lo, she is there. Lena, the good old lady, with a roll of papers and a portfolio in her hands all smiling.

“May I come in,” she affects modesty playfully.

“Yes, please,” I sound quite earnest and serious.

“When did you come?” she asks.

“A few minutes back,” I answer.

“I saw you coming in,” she says. I shiver. “I was there at my apartment across this place waiting for you to come in,” she says by way of explaining.

I look at her. She is in a designer black dress. I just notice that with her another spirit also has come into the room; the fragrance of Paris. She has drenched herself in some expensive perfume.

We spend a few seconds looking at each other, exchanging awkward smiles, knowing well that everything is a charade meant to end up in a physical intercourse.

“Shall we have some beer?” she asks.

“Yes,” I say.

She opens the mini bar and takes out two large beer bottles. I am astonished. Normally, the hotels keep pint size beer bottles in the mini-bar. The large ones look odd inside the small refrigerator. I notice four more beer bottles stacked inside.

“I asked the hotel guys to put it there,” she dispels my confusion.

I look at her. Inside the thick glass I could see her ageing eyes, the wrinkles around them, the hanging cheeks, weak jaw bones and the loose muscles around the neck.

She tries to speak something about her works but soon sensing the futility of it, we guzzle the beer in silence.

After some time she puts her right hand on my shoulder and draws me closer to her.

I could feel myself going small. I soon regain my composure. I drink beer one glass after another as her hands run all over me.

Once high enough to act I embrace her. I feel her old and weak frame inside my arms. An apparently big woman feels very small as she stands close to my body.

I reclaim her from a bundle of clothes.

The semi darkness of the room emphasizes the fairness of her chiseled body. Her body is wrinkle free and the skin smooth and unblemished. She seems to be doing some exercise or yoga to keep her body in perfect shape.

I move back and look at her. She looks odd with a very old head with wrinkles and all fitted on a sculpted marble body.

I set out my sails into the ocean of our combined desires.

Under my weight she takes a different form. She transforms herself into an agile athlete. We do the race together. And soon I am a spent horse.

She goes to the washroom and comes back with a roll of paper napkins in her hand.

“It’s been since long. She just cannot stop oozing,” while wiping between her legs she says and she shows me the napkins soggy with her fluids.

Looking at her act I feel like having her once again. I turn her around.

With each push she splays herself like a flying squirrel under me. Her perfectly shaped back was presenting me with some Michelangelo moments.

“I never thought men could go for a second so soon,” she lights up two cigarettes and says while handing one over to me.

“Depends,” I prefer brevity at that moment.

We clean up and dress up. She orders some snacks. We sit, eat and chat.

“I will stay here tonight,” she tells me.

“Why?”

“I can’t go back today itself. It is just across.”

“But I have to.”

“You should.”

At the other side of the bed I see the unattended roll of papers and portfolio of works.

“Never mind,” she says.

It is time to go. I get up. She walks up to the door and gives me a hug and a little kiss on my cheeks.

I feel that more like a mother’s than a horny woman’s.


(Image. Painting by Edward Hopper)



Monday, October 29, 2018

Memories of My Melancholy Whores Retold II- The Bangkok Smile





Year does not matter. What matters, is the fact that it had happened; another remorseless betrayal of the solemnity of marriage. I have never been faithful and do not think I ever could be. My faith resides in my recklessness that runs deep into my existence. I have never tried to reform myself for I see there is nothing worth reforming in me. One is born with that and one has to die with that. Between those two points lies the zone of self-control.

I have self-control just enough to keep myself out of the long hands of the laws of the land. What makes one a criminal, I ask myself. Is it his inability to evade the hands of law? Or his ability to commit crimes thinking that what he does is nothing but just a normal thing? Out of the legal system of a given land what defines an act as criminal is just a relative case. You could do avail something that could be seen as a horrendous crime in your land but seen as just another dispensation of customer service elsewhere.

That thought had emboldened me. I was far away from my place. I was anonymous. In Bangkok, it was just normal. You could check into a hotel, dial the reception desk for a girl who would do the things that you want against a payment, ah yes within the given time limit.

“They don’t allow me to stay beyond one hour,” the faceless girl who had come to my room with a fresh fluffy white towel, a small pouch full of instruments for pedicure, some lotions and a bottle of aromatic oil. Any machine, well-oiled functions smoothly.

I had just arrived at the Suvarnabhoomi International Airport at Bangkok. While admiring the illustrious episode of churning the ocean by the gods and demons beautifully sculpted and covered with gold leaf displayed proudly by authorities in order to herald the mythical depths of a country that flourished in pleasure tourism I felt the quirky irony of that symbol; the churning.

After the official meeting with the people who had airlifted me to their country and a prolonged hospitality that included a dinner at a semi-cruise ship with lot of pep talk by the hosts on the qualities of art and Thai curry-rice combination, I was dropped at the hotel which was no less than a five star facility.

The folded palms and the practiced ‘namaste’, the eternal smile that had lost its tenderness at some point and had turned a bit sour and threatening, on the faces of the girls at the reception desk were just enough to unnerve any first timer in the country and one felt reassured only after getting into the bed with the hotel manual that flaunted all its facilities including the number of a pay channel that played adult films throughout the night and day as well. That was for the beginners, I thought. I wanted the real ones.

The pleasant voice on the other side brought the ferocious smile at the reception desk right inside the room and it hung in the air like the smile of the legendary Cheshire cat in a wonderland. It was slowly proving to be a wonderland full of surreal experiences; she promised me to send the required assistance once she had checked it with the ‘girls on duty’ that night.

By the way, I had only asked for a foot massage. It was a test doze. I would be there for four days and there was enough time for experiments. Foot massage is a normal procedure in most of the hotels there. If you walk down the streets there are open shops and interiors with glass walls where girls kept soothing the travel worn feet of the tourists with their practiced fingers and other tools.

Once you enter those shops, they welcome you with folded palms and a great smile. You are supposed to walk in barefoot. In such shops you cannot choose the girls who would press your feet. A man or woman at the next chair must be serviced by an extremely beautiful girl according to your standard and a very ‘ugly’ one must be at your feet making you wonder whether you are unlucky or you are in the right place at a wrong time.

They offer you a cup of green tea and place an incense stick or an aromatic candle beside your feet. Then they wash your feet with cold water. With one towel they dry them. Then again they wash with warm water and wipe you dry. They may be asking you to drink your tea or simply sit back and relax. But you are already relaxed. You are transported to a different world where only pleasure exists. Moving fingers press and they press on taking you to different heights of pleasure. It takes a lot of time to come down. In the semi-darkness, you wouldn’t know how many currency notes you have given to them. You are dazed.

She came inside with all her paraphernalia. She made her customary Namaste. Surprising me, she climbed on the bed and sat at my feet. Then she opened her small pouch and started taking out the contents one by one. Then she works at my feet.

So here is a room, you are alone with a girl and she is at your feet and her fingers running up till your thighs and bit up. You yearn for her to move a little further. And she must be in the business for long and she knows where to stop and run the fingers down. You are at a sea shore and you don’t dare to go so close, but you expect the waves to come and wash your feet. They do come but recede leaving a micro distance between your feet. You want the waves to touch you but they don’t. It’s a game. She seems to be very good at it. Then she touches once.

The sword is now drawn and it needs to see blood before it could be sheathed. She knows it more than I do. The game goes on until I turn weak and plead her to do something more. She teases me saying that I have the biggest organ that she had ever seen in her life; definitely a sale pitch but no sale pitch sounds a sale pitch when it is uttered. Then she plays the coy game. She pretends as if she does not know anything about sex. She touches it with her fingertip like a child who has seen some eerie caramel custard. She giggles. I plead.

She says she could give a hand job. But she takes another amount which is not marked in the bill. It is an unauthorized act. She is risking her job. I know she is telling lies. Desperate and exasperate I agree to pay up in cash. She does a matter of fact job, takes the money, collects her thing, says that hollow Namaste again and clears the place. She does not forget to give me that hollow smile again.

Day is full with site seeing and official meetings. When night comes everyone is tired; suddenly everyone seems to have developed some pain below their knees. “Today’s walk was too much,” someone says. As that is the sentiment of all none says a word. We wait at the elevator and out comes a group of people whom we had seen at the breakfast table in the morning with their wives. They are perfect Indians with perfect middle class values but this time they have left their wives in the room or have sent them to some shopping. They are on their way to the local foot massage centers where happy ending is offered on a discount price. (You may wonder how I know it. I had seen them on the previous day at a local foot massage center asking for happy ending services and the lady at the door showing them the loft while I was led to the ground level where the normal pressing was done).

I should have read or slept off. Instead I dial the receptionist. A few minutes later there is a buzz at the door. I open it and see one of the friends who have travelled with me. He tells me that he has just come to check whether the girl whom I have asked for is good looking or not. He laments that the one who has just come to his room is just plane. He is looking for an exchange, if possible.

He waits till a girl comes to my room. He takes a good look at her and tells me that he got a better one than this girl, anyway. He hurries back to his room. The girl comes in and she starts the charade without much ado. Soon I realize that she does not speak even a little bit of English. She speaks to me in gestures and does all what the other girl had done a couple of days back.

As I look at her I feel pity for her. From her face I realize that she is not a really a ‘young’ woman. She must be in her early thirties. She massages me as if she was mopping the floor; dispassionately, like a boring job. I ask her to stop. Then through gestures I tell her to lie down on the cot.

I anoint her feet with the lotions and oil. She looks at me aghast. She tries to stop me. I gesture her to lie down. She lies still. I pick up the little tools and start working on her feet exactly the way the other girls had done to me. For almost half an hour I massage her, tenderly. I could see tears flowing down from her closed eyelids. I ask her to lie down on her stomach. She obeys. I massage her lower back, her buttocks, I run my fingers along her spine and I press her shoulders. She feels like a small bird.

I run my fingers on her scalp. I press her eyebrows, eyelids, nose and lips.

Then I ask her to wear clothes. She gets up and gets dressed.

“Nobody in my life has done this to me,” she says. I know though she does not use any words this is what she has said.

She embraces me and sobs for a few seconds. Then with her folded palms says a Namaste and smiles.

I stand there. She is gone. I feel that is the most sincere Namaste and smile I had in Bangkok.


Sunday, October 28, 2018

Memories of My Melancholy Whores Retold I



(picture source net Patrika)

Sonagachi is not a landscape but a sinful communion of histories. From landscapes it is easy to discern histories but from histories perhaps one would find it difficult to conjure up landscapes.

Still I was looking for a landscape. I could see faces partially hidden by the shadiness of the night. Desiring bodies moving inconspicuously with prayers seeking anonymity filled the streets that let out different odors of which I could distinguish the smells of frying fish, eggs, chicken, onion, red and green chilly, cheap deodorants, boiling oil, talcum powders, soaps, liquor and petrol vapors, urine, decaying fruits and vegetables, and above all the undefeatable smell of sex.

I felt no fear, no shame and no trepidation. I was just eager.

‘Sonagachi, thy name is woman/You beget pimps/Dispense pleasure/You look so real at night/And I have seen you in daylight/Sonagachi, thy name is man/During the day/Toiling bodies/Tired streets/A great yawn/Tumbling down/From the creaky balconies.’

I could only think of it in poetry. It was the refuge of someone who was about to do something he had never been good at doing; visiting the sex workers.

As a young man I had never felt any dearth of sex. I had it from within the marriage and also without. There was no need to visit a brothel. I was never so desperate.

(Suddenly I remember a day. I do not want to say when and where, how and why but I remember the day. It was when all the shops were shut due to a strike. I wanted a packet of contraceptives. The one who was ready to share her body with me that day asked me to get a contraceptive first. I went out in search of a shop that sold it. Having found none, I went to a place where a lady doctor used to run a private clinic. She was there, reading some magazine. As she knew me she smiled at me. She looked at a vacant stool on her side as a doctor would do to a patient. I kept standing and she was amused. After a few seconds of embarrassment that had been forced her too by my reluctance I opened my mouth, “Do you have, by any chance, a packet of condoms with you?” She just laughed out. “No, but I do keep sanitary pads,” she joked. I bolted out of that room.)

Someone told me that in the city where I lived too there was a street that housed sex workers. I got hold of a book that described the street and the lives of women there which I found had the fantasy of the writer playing havoc than an actual research and findings. I still do not know was it my modesty or the book that held me back from visiting that street.

Sonagachi was there in my mind for long. I wanted to visit the place more than I wished to visit Kalighat Temple. I was lucky that I managed to visit Sonagachi first and it took another four more years to visit the temple.

Sex sells and absolute sex sells absolutely. But in places like Sonagachi sex does sell but there is no absolutism in it. There are no frills. You go there, wander around, you want it or not pimps come to you and before you know you are climbing some creaking stairs, and you are before a stereotypical madam complete with her cherry red lips, obscene fat, enticing smile and affected sophistication. You make your payment and you are ushered into the next level.

Pimps are dime a dozen in Sonagachi. Kamatipura is no less.

I walked with my local friend who seemed to have some previous experience in the place. Pimps came and made lucrative offers; ‘sir, Manisha Koirala will run for her money if you just once see my Pinky.’ A drunken man who had gone mad with love scampered around wailing, ‘Oh Karishma, where are you?’

Pimp who had been accompanying us with cajoling and mild threatening laughed and enlightened us saying that the drunken guy was looking for Karishma Kapoor, the then reigning heroine of Bollywood.

The story of the mad lover was poignant. He had visited the place a year back and was pleasured by a girl who faintly resembled the actress or the guy had a misperception about her regarding her looks. He gave her the name, Karishma and kept visiting her whenever he could save enough money. One day he found out that she had taken a man permanently as her paramour, pimp and protector. The lover was thrashed well by the new man in Karishma’s life. The lover lost his mind forever. Ever since he was a part of Sonagachi’s night life adding a sharp note to the existing melancholy of the street, balconies and damp rooms where the women laughed the hollowest of laughs, parted their unresponsive thighs and let out moans that they had rehearsed jokingly with other mates during the post lunch lazy hours when they dried their gaudy little clothes and combed their tresses.

My pimp (as if my life was hinged on his) took me to a Kothy (they call the whore houses so) where I was welcomed along with other sex hungry drunks, government officers on travel duty who had decided to commit yet another sin for a change in their boring lives, experience-collectors like me, young artists who had not yet seen a naked body ‘live’ and just depressed people who had been given advice by friends to visit a brothel so that they could come out as men in love and hope!

Money changed hands and I was taken inside a room which looked like an one room flat in my city’s standards, where a man, two women, a young girl in her early twenties and two children were deeply involved in a game of cards. An old television set was belting out some Bollywood songs and it sounded just a god-alone-knows-why type of background score for the setting where a sexual encounter was about to take place between myself and one of the women in the room (which woman I couldn’t figure out then). May be the songs in the television had already given the background score for several physical encounters by then.

It was seriously not a time to think about Bollywood songs.

Upon seeing me, the man got up, tied his lungi tight, collected the cards and nodded at the women in the room. Two of them got up and picked the children and moved out of the room. The charade seemed to me well-rehearsed and perfectly timed. Even the children did not make a sound.

The woman in her twenties did not look at me. She walked past me and latched the room from inside. Then she came in front of me. She looked straight into my eyes and gave me a full smile.

Suddenly I knew, she had a history. But I could not make out her geographical background. She looked like any other young sex worker in any Kothy in any red street in India. She could be even a local who spoke Bengali or she could be one who had crossed the border from Bangladesh and got inducted in the business.

I did not feel like having sex. I wanted to make a conversation with her and get out once the time was up. But I did not dare to do so. Sex workers are not always kind and they are there not to make interesting conversations unless you are known to them over a period of time.

One of my friends had told his story with a whore. He was suspecting himself to be a lunatic after reading a lot on Vincent Van Gogh. He wanted to fall in love with a sex worker. He managed to find one in a place and struck up a deal for some hours. Once inside the room, he started talking to her as if she were a character from Van Gogh’s life. After listening to him for a few seconds the lady told him: “Hey dick, want to have a fuck, do it and get the fuck out. I am not here to listen to your rubbish. If you don’t fuck I am going to kick your ass. If not pay up and get lost.”

So I did not want to do any small talk with her. She continued to smile. Then she raised her hands and started unbuttoning my shirt. She ran her fingers all over my chest and pressed the right places that sent lightings all over my body.

In utter silence, like a prayer she helped me remove my clothes. Then she herself opened a contraceptive packed and put one on me. Then she lied down on the cot and lowered her garments.

I saw her face. Many men might have seen her in that angle. She too must have seen many men the way she was just seeing my face. Unreal faces in distorted angles. She opened her lips inviting a kiss. I was reluctant. I thought of all those lips those had pressed on those receptive lobs. My eyes wandered all over the cot with soiled towels and bed sheets. I wanted to get over with it as early as possible.

She caressed my hands and said something that embarrassed me: “You are as strong as Salman Khan.”

I should have felt good or rather she might have thought that such a comment would bolster my ego. Instead, I felt defeated.

“Where are you coming from?” she asked.

As she had already referred Salman Khan I thought it would be good to say “Mumbai.”

I had exhausted myself. One of the shortest of sex encounters had felt the longest and torturous.

She got up, with her Salwar and panty somewhere below her knees she awkwardly walked to the other side of the room where there was a bucketful of water. She poured some water and pulled her garments up and tied the strings without letting the smile on her face go.

She threw an oily towel at me. “Clean,” she almost ordered.

I would have committed suicide than cleaning myself with that clothe. So I went to the bucket and tried to clean myself.

It was time to go. I mumbled something to make her feel good; just a human obligation.

“Take me with you?” she said.

My eyebrows shot up.

“Yes, take me with you to wherever you came from.” She was not smiling then. Her face had gone dark and she had her palms folded.

I thought I would die out of fear at that moment. She walked past me and unlocked the door.

Then she just walked into the darkness of the corridor.



Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Inking His Way to Khairagarh’s History: Akshay Seebaluck and Inktober 2018




(Akshay Seebaluck and the VC of IKSVV, Prof.Mandvi Singh during the inauguration of the Inktober Khairagarh 2018)

Akshay Seebaluck should be a happy artist now. Inktober’s Khairagarh chapter, initiated by Akshay himself was a huge success and it has given a necessary shot in the arm to the Indira Kala Sangeet Viswa Vidyalaya (IKSVV), Khairagarh. A humble beginning it was as most phenomenal successes in the history of art are and today the IKSVV says that it would ‘fund’ Inktober next year. October 2019 is far away and Akshay is a final year MFA student, ready to spread his wings in the heavens of world art. However, the seeds of enthusiasm in order to carry forward the Inktober brand have already been sown and a few students from the junior batches have declared their commitment towards the project. A post-Inktober project is already underway with another MFA final year painting student, Albert Srivastava in the lead, filling the white walls of the campus with soothing graffiti (note that the preferred color for the architecture here is brick red with broad white lines creating a sort of grids, imparting a sense of old time charm with a colonial twang).


(During the display of Inktober Khairagarh 2018)

An international brand by now Inktober was initiated in 2009 by an American artist, Jake Parker, who in his website confesses the reason for this ‘art challenge’ saying that he ‘created it to improve his inking skills’. ‘Thirty one days and thirty one drawings in ink’ was the challenge and it was taken by artists from different parts of the world only to make it an international ‘virtual brand’ that happily gives away its franchise against certain hash-tags that lead any such effort back to Jake Parker. When Akshay took up the project, he only knew that he could source the required number of ink works from within the college itself. Man proposes but mates dispose. Akshay did propose this idea to his friends who initially gave him a lukewarm reception. Supported and spirited with Debashish, Abhinav and a few other friends, Akshay went on with the project. He wanted someone else to be the curator of the project so that he could spend more time in organizing the works for the display. However, as the consultant curator of the project (this responsibility was placed on my shoulders for myself being their art history professor) I asked Akshay to bear the cross by doubling himself up as a curator-artist.


(Team Inktober during display)

Social media was successfully put to use in spreading the word and at least fifteen foreign artists promised to send their works. However, during the initial days the morale of Akshay was a bit sagging as the students’ participation was not coming as expected. It was where Akshay’s curatorial instincts started working well. He took a few friends devoted to the cause to the neighboring villages (where Akshay has been a familiar face during the last six years of stay in Khairagarh as he has the habit of going to these places for doing live-sketching) and invited the village kids to do some ink work. Initial hesitation gave way to tremendous amount of mischief and play. At the expense of a few sheets of paper and a lot of ink Akshay and team came back with bundles of works of art created by children, who came in hoards with their parents for the grand opening of the Inktober Khairagarh 2018 with their parents and a lot of smiles. If villages cooperate can cities be far behind? Like poems works started streaming in.


(Akahsy Seebaluck with team and teachers during the opening of Inktober)

Yves Klein, during his lifetime, had not even thought of India though he was very much interested in Japan and Chinese martial art practices and Zen Buddhism. But at some stage Akshay met Yves Klein in his ink path and then everything turned for good. With the absence of female models available in a conservative atmosphere of IKSVV, boys at the hostel decided to volunteer themselves as ‘live brushes’ with Akshay and other gleefully clever ones playing bits of Klein in their own selves. Inks of various shades were smeared even to the remotest of body spaces with an intention to get the prints of those spaces on paper. While during the day these boys worked at different fine arts departments, at night they turned the corridors and common hall of the boys’ hostel into impromptu performance spaces where they drew in ink and did body performances with each one coming forward to eternalize their bodies with an ink print. Walls have ears hear; the news of ‘live brushes’ reached the girls’ hostel on the other side of the campus and soon there too while everyone slept live brushes came alive. During the display on the basketball court, anticipating protests from the hopeless fundamentalists from the streets, the girls put only one condition: “If they ask to remove our body prints, make sure that the boys’ body prints are removed as well.” Ek chuttki ink ki keemat tum kya jaano; girls dare to browbeat the invisible moral police here- yes, this report is from erstwhile conservative Khairagarh.


(from a performance at the opening of the Inktober, Khairagarh 2018)

Akshay did a good job in his display strategy. Keeping his consultations on with me, he went on to develop a volleyball netlike structure using locally available jute threads. In two nights’ time, he created the jute mesh which became an extremely pleasant and innovative display wall, transparent and ‘desi’. Around six hundred works were on display; with no theme binding the artists they had created an array of works that expressed their mildest to wildest of fantasies. Some showed extreme skills and some showed extreme sensitivity. Some were academic in approach and some were absolutely professional. The live brush works did invite a lot of curiosity but everyone’s sentiments remained unhurt. Two performances celebrating ink were done by students from Thailand and Srilanka. A few days before, Nikhil Tiwari, another MFA previous student from the painting department had already performed a complementary ink project titled ‘Even Odd One’. The professionalism of Akshay in executing and propagating the Inktober idea was visible even in creating a uniform for the volunteers (black T-shirts with Inktober logo at the chest and a line in way of explanation running along the spine). During the opening, Akshay carefully chose to wear a T-shirt but green in color, coding him distinct as the curator-artist. One had to say, yes he had worked for that distinction. The Inktober Khairagarh 2018 was inaugurated by the Vice Chancellor, Prof.Mandvi Singh in the presence of the Dean of Fine Arts, Prof.V.Nagdas, Pranam Singh and other department heads. By the end of the project, Akshay’s bank account is around Rs.15000/- minus but his happiness balance is good enough to sustain him for another year. Perhaps for the first time, a student project was widely reported in the local editions of the Hindi Newspapers.



Monday, October 22, 2018

Anoop Scaria, the Kashi Art Café Man: An Unceremonious Exit



(Anoop Scaria, Founder of Kashi Art Cafe. He was 57) 


 Anoop Scaria passed away yesterday. He was 57. Have any of you even once thought for moment who I am talking about? Many, I am sure. Anoop Scaria along with his surviving American wife, Dorrie Younger was the founder of Kashi Art Café, Kochi in 1997. When it was opened, the founders had not dreamt so big though Kashi Art Café would become a part of India’s modern-contemporary art history not only with its cutting edge exhibitions but also with an award, Kashi Award for the young and upcoming artistic talents. Like many other galleries opened by the dreamers of the post-flower power generation along the coast of the Arabian Sea in India, Kashi Art Café too was a dreamers’ den where they drank coffee, smoked weed clandestinely, discussed forest-festivals, carnivals and anti-nuke projects. Anoop Scaria was an activist who doubled up himself was a raconteur of Fort Kochi’s legacies for the tourists until Dorrie who too was looking for her soul mate, found him at the shores. Kashi Art Café was their joint venture; coffee, cakes and discipline by Dorrie, dreams, passion and more dream-projects by Anoop Scaria.

Kochi-Eranakulam had not too many galleries to boast in those days when the art graduates from Kerala either migrated to the metro cities in India to further studies as well as to become full time artists or went abroad in search of jobs which demanded their artistic skills. Chithram Art Gallery in the MG Road was one private gallery that did some business. Kalapeedam, led by Kaladharan was almost operating like a non-profitable organization which in fact was not making any monetary profit though it could show off the cultural profit that has been getting accumulated to its own legacy. Durbar Hall was yet to be snatched from the Archaeological Survey Department by the Lalit Kala Akademi. The only exhibition hall available was the Woodland Hotel conference hall. There at Edappally, a little away from the city center, Madhavan Nair Foundation (MNF) was a point where artists could gather and somehow the museum there used to embarrass the artists with its tableaus of Kerala history and the naïve sight and sound show. The art education center at the MNF was preparing young talents for higher education in art elsewhere.


(Interior of Kashi Art Cafe) 

The absence of an exhibition space did not matter much to the artists who hanged out with Anoop Scaria and his brother Anand Scaria, who is an environmentalist and poet who is currently residing in Thiruvannamalai. They together made Fort Kochi their gallery and the activities their art. Before anybody was conjuring up performance art in Indian art scenario, catching the performative practices globally taking place by intuition these young dreamers were performing various acts of art aiming at a world devoid of conflict of any kind. But there were no art critics or historians to register them as art performances therefore their activities were dubbed as social and cultural practices that played up the spirit of social consensus than confrontational politics. The conglomeration of dreamers was of various feathers and colors whose faiths ranged from Zen Buddhism to radical Maoism. There were creative people disillusioned by religion and politics and there were people who were disillusioned by the revolution they had been carrying forward for long. Anoop Scaria accommodated them all or rather they accommodated Anoop Scaria in them. That’s why with the passing away of Anoop, all of them remember those days fondly than his post-Kashi establishment days. With the arrival of art business, Kashi Art Café had to reinvent itself and in the process many were deleted from the dreamers’ gang and many got added. ‘Good friends we had, oh good friends we lost, along the way,’ sang Bob Marley in his legendary ‘No Woman No Cry’.

Such excision was inevitable for the art clime was slowly changing and with an American at the helm of affairs Kashi Art Café drew the winds of change to its sails and surged forward. It was in 2005, Bose Krishnamachari curated as a part of his anti-curatorial acts a huge project titled ‘Double-Enders’ and one of the venues in Kerala was Kochi. It was not at the Kashi Art Café but in showcasing the Double-Enders in Kochi, Kashi had a pivotal role. Late Rajan M Krishnan soon debuted at Kashi with his solo exhibition, Kari Varakal, the Black Drawings. Followed by the success of Double-Enders, many artists started working in and around Kochi and five years into the new millennium there were a few new galleries in Kochi. Kashi Art Café became the hub of art activities in Kochi while the rest of the galleries played second fiddle to it, trying their level best to break into the Mumbai-Delhi based mainstream market. Anoop-Dorrie couple held the clout intact and almost became the decision makers of Kerala contemporary art. If Kashi supported you were ‘in’ the mainstream and if not you were ‘out’ of it. The grip was vice-like and it took no time for Kashi to start Kashi Art Residency and Kashi Art studios for the artists who exclusively worked with Kashi and a few Mumbai galleries. The phenomenal growth and clout of Kashi Art Café even surprised the early fellow farers of Anoop and Dorrie.




(Anoop and Dorrie Younger in younger days)

Anoop’s close friend, musician, spiritualist and current resident in Brazil, Anand Jyoti once recounted how he was astonished by the changes in and around Anoop Scaria. “When I left for Europe and from there to Brazil, Anoop was trying to do many things artistically,” Anand Jyoti told me in 2007. “When I went to Kochi with the intention to meet him, I almost found him aloof not because of unfriendliness but because of his busy schedule. There were artists queuing up to meet him, buyers coming around to discuss matters, gallerists paying a visit, foreign visitors lounging at the café. Everything was business-like and it took a few days for me to reconcile with the changes there.” Success had never gone into the head of Anoop; he remained grounded. But it was a bit unnerving to see the couple unilaterally deciding on the gravitas of Indian contemporary art almost brushing aside the studied observations of the critics and historians. However, in the dimly lit interiors of the Kashi Art Café, Anoop found time to talk to me whenever I paid a visit in those days. In the meanwhile a few other things were happening. Kashi’s success in the market which in turn had reflected in the bank balances of the artists in Kochi and other places had changed the ground realities a bit. Living cost had shot up overnight and for those who couldn’t make any dent in the market it became almost impossible to live there or they had to become the assistants of the successful ones. Driven by the Kashi engine, Kochi was turning into new fragments of guilds where master artists ruled and the assistants toiled.

A gallery named ‘Dravidia’ had shut shop before the market made it presence felt. Abul Azad, the noted photography artist and photo archivist who had been living in Mattancherry for long in his studio called ‘Mayalokam Art Collective’ had to evict himself of his den and shift elsewhere due to the pressing living conditions. To rein in Kashi’s non-stop success trail, a mirror reverse of Kashi, ‘ISHKA’ was opened by a quirky printmaker, photography artist, performer, musician and actor Joseph Chakola in Eranakulam only to live for a few shows before bringing the shutters down. Anoop-Dorrie nearly monopolized the Kerala Art scene and the ‘would be’ Biennale directors had to use the Kashi brand to push their projects as Bose’ Laboratory of Visual Arts (LaVA) too was showcased at Kashi. Anoop-Dorrie duo even used to decide the itinerary of the artists who resided in their residencies and studios. Centralization has its own bad effects and is bound to break at some point if one is not careful. Abul Azad, Anoop’s erstwhile collaborator in art projects and long-time friend notes that Anoop had grand plans and he wanted Kochi to be the Art Hub of India. It did happen as he wished but minus himself.


(Anoop Scaria)

It was an irony that the year the first edition of Biennale was inaugurated (2012) the same year heralded the success run of Kashi Art Café headed by Anoop Scaria and Dorrie Younger. The celebrations were very much in the air and Anoop was implicated in a case of possessing contraband or misusing his premises for unlawful activities involving contraband. Anoop-Dorrie duo had to make an unceremonious beat retreat to the oblivion on Munnar where they had their estate. Kashi Art Café was sold to another entrepreneur and besides the name the erstwhile romanticism that it had evoked is lost forever. Was it destiny at play that made a man who dreamed of making his land the hub of Indian art got unceremoniously bundled out from the same location and another big event was in the meanwhile unfolding itself? Was there a larger conspiracy behind it? I am not a conspiracy theorist and want to believe that Anoop couldn’t excise many weeds in his premises though many of his former friends had already left the place as they became aware of their waning significance in the august company. The gatekeepers were not perceptive enough and when Anoop needed friends, I was told, many were not around to hold out a hand. Anoop made the retreat as a depressed man and a paralytic attack made him immobile; to make matters worse he was diagnosed of cancer.

A young friend who was patronized by Anoop Scaria sent me a voice message yesterday: “Sorry, I am drunk. I am disturbing you, I know. But I have to say this thing to you. Anoop was a good soul. I was a nobody in the art scene doing works with scraps of things. He took me to places and gave me a decent place in the art scene. I live in a small place with small dreams. Today I am feeling nowhere. Ever since Anoop left Kochi, things came to a halt for me. Today he is gone. I am drunk and I thought I could speak to you. I am sorry, if I am disturbing you.” I listened to the message that came in two pieces, then I typed out this: “I understand.”


(All images are from the net. Sources, manoramonline, thehindu, theindianexpress)

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Chronicler of Stupid Common Men: The Art of Navanshu Kumar





(Navanshu Kumar, artist)

Navanshu Kumar, a young artist based in Khairagarh/Bhilai (incidentally he is also a final year MFA Painting student in the ISKVV, aka Khairagarh University) prefers to call a spade a spade. If anyone asks him why his canvases and installations do not have this ‘beauty’ component in him, he immediately chips in with an answer; according to him the idea of beauty has been debated at various levels and a contemporary painter perhaps does not live in that notion of beauty. In the ideal world that the artists of the yester years had been trying to realize beauty could have dwelled safely but today with a fast changing world in hand the very idea of ideal has been lost. Hence, it becomes imperative for any creative artist to look beyond the idea of beauty and perfection, and engage him/herself with the world, comprehend and express it as it suits to him. Seen against this backdrop, Navanshu’s paintings are ‘a-paintings’ or ‘anti-paintings’ carrying the historical dilemma of all the painters in the post-Duchampian art world where each one is destined to with an anti-painting or create an ‘a-painting’ using the age old language of painting itself!

(work by Navanshu)

In such negotiations, any artist including Navanshu makes a tight rope walking while creating a painting using a painterly language and remains constantly conscious of the fact of tumbling down into the realm of pure painting with all its idealism-baggage. It is exactly the way the radicals use the language of authority against the authority in order to topple it. When they assume power they could either re-articulate the language of power and authority or could extend the language of hegemony as an act of perpetuation. The danger of such perpetuation is this that it not only maintains the linguistic authority but also it facilitates a change in the approach of the user (here the radicals) and makes them as good or bad as the authorities in the previous regimes. Duchamp had saved himself from the tyranny of painting while resorting to the painterly language that was vogue in those days (cubist-expressionistic) before he completely shifted to the usage of readymade objects as works of art or as components of the works. The Abstract Expressionists of America had also tried to move away from painting but ironically became the new age purists thanks to the theoretical formulations of Clement Greenberg. Picasso was perhaps one artist who successfully juggled various creative languages and including that of painting but transcended all kinds of purism (even he did not allow his cubist experiments to be purist in nature).

(work by Navanshu)

Navanshu lives in a country where artists are pressed to do painting ‘also’ by the gallerists despite their success in other mediums and expressions. Artists making huge steel or bronze installations are expected to make small scale paintings to satisfy various market forces. I am not overlooking the fact that artists at time feel the compulsions from within to do various forms of art using various mediums. While accepting that I would also maintain that the paintings done by such artists would become dead weight in their later career provided the character of the art market changes for good. However, for the time being the tunnel is endless and no light is seen for even a shredded painting could be further auctioned only because it has been shredded live in a well-choreographed prank. Hence, a young artist who is hardly 23 years old would feel the pressure of the market sooner than later; chances are more that his anti-paintings would be re-dubbed as pure paintings and the style that he has developed so far would need its own sophistication. That is not a bad thing to do for the artist has to live in a society where the communication currency is nothing but money. Therefore Navanshu’s entry into the art market may not surprise anyone (even if it would be via residencies or biennales or primarily buy small time buyers and finally via galleries) and as an art critic my critical gaze is currently placed on him to see which direction he would take in a few years’ time.

(work by Navanshu)

One may by now be wondering why I call the paintings of Navanshu, anti-paintings. They are anti-paintings because they move drastically different in theme and style from the mainstream painterly practices of the day. There was a time (especially from 2000 to 2014) when every young artist in the country painted images that were mediatized in one or the other way. They all followed the so called contemporary synthetic style of photorealism that at once established the Renaissance Illusionism while extolling the possibilities of glossy two-dimensionality, almost denying the presence of any kind of depth of history. The Renaissance illusionism was used as a benchmark of the skill of the artist in question and the flatness was to be seen as his/her ability to articulate the contemporary discourse (which was absolutely shallow with artists with half-baked knowledge or google driven information posing themselves as the champions of the world issues which are immediately recognized thanks to their entry into multiple discourses via words, pictures and moving images). Navanshu breaks away from this shallowness and delves deep into a sort of expressionism that primarily captures people and places in the most unlikely fashion while problematizing his own relationship with art history at various levels.


(work by Navanshu)

Navanshu’s expressionism may look familiar in the initial look but one could see the deliberate imbalances that he has created through the application of colors and the distortion of the images. While some of them look absolutely stock images culled from a book of caricatures, a second look would reveal that they are not stock characters at all and this aspect is underlined by the strangeness that the artist attributes to each of them through their almost blind (or all seeing?) disproportionate eyeballs and the general aloofness of posture. They look like the remnants of a war, a devastation, perhaps they look like people from a different existential plane whose denial has become the logic of our sane existence on the face of the earth. Navanshu has painted the portrait of around nine aliens; the title is deliberately misleading for the onlooker could immediately launch him/herself into the search for the aliens that he/she is familiar with. But for me, they are people around us whose alien face that we refuse or fail to see. Francis Newton Souza had done it when he painted six gentlemen from our times. They were not caricatures or representative figures; but they were more than real and affirmative. Navanshu’s aliens stand at par with those gentlemen of Souza.


(work by Navanshu)

A young artist from any part of the world at the beginning of his career would definitely think (or his thought may traverse) about the aspect of madness; not only of his own madness but also of that manifested in others. Art history lauds those artists who had gone mad but had done good paintings; it also praises those artists who had chosen low life as well as the lower middle class life. Navanshu seems to agree with all these dictums of art history but he keeps himself off so far from depicting female or male nudity which I believe is a conscious stance against the cannons of art history (while I see many of his contemporaries conjure up various emblematic representations for/of nude females, especially in a time when nudes are not so really entertained on canvases and papers). I am not particularly excited by this aspect seen in Navanshu but I see that restrain as another possibility of taking his art to a dispassionate dimension where he could deal with the political realities of today in a more existential and experiential manner as he has already repudiate the ideal ‘beauty’ concept which often comes hand in hand with the nude paintings or female body in general.


(Stupid common man/every morning by Navanshu)

What Navanshu takes interest in is the field of madness. According to my reading, Navanshu sees madness as another language (I do not know whether he is clearly a Freudian or Lacanian in this sense) which could offer us a different reality, which could be more real that the apparent reality itself. He captures this language of madness through his emblematic presentation of figures and characters that include his much debated painting, ‘Stupid Common Man’; a Kafkaesque maze that he invites us into and leave us there to negotiate the space for ourselves. This could be one reason why Navanshu’s mad people look just as normal as we are with only different reflecting in the bulbous shiny eyes that we see externalized in these images while we keep them safe within us. Madness is a different order which is against the mainstream norms therefore the mad people were send across sees to the alien shores where they were expected to die a dismal death. The idea of Ship of Fools, explained by Foucault in his ‘Madness and Civilization’ shows us how people are transported to a different reality for harboring a different reality in themselves. The restoration of socio-political and moral order in a society by sending the vagrants and the mad to alien shores and islands is what we see today in a different way in the case of the migrants all over the world. They are being constantly sent to different places; some are even forced to live in vessels moored in strange seas for long; they are called the boat people. What Foucault had said comes back to us in a different way, an open political decision and discourse. Navanshu gets these people not as boat people but as people with no lands. There are efforts to politicize Navanshu’s works as he opens it up in one of the conversations.

(work by Navanshu)

One of the recent installations done by Navanshu shows a series of curved roof tiles locally made and baked being painted into masks and were displayed in a series on the wall of a village house. According to Navanshu, these tiles are human faces (besides they are called ‘masks’) that cover themselves to hide the reality that they carry with them. The villages are changing fast; the people are changing; there are mass migrations to the cities from these areas; the ones who have made some wealth in the cities are making concrete houses back home, changing the character and complexion of the villages. But they all put a brave face before these changes. The villages around Navanshu are in their transitory state; they may fade in the coming years. The masks therefore become the masks of a Grecian tragedy relating the chronicles of massive crisis. This in variable dimensions could merge with any village in the northern part of India and tell the stories of the people there without playing the representational game. The changes in such sylvan villages are not externally imposed; each one wants to take part in the idea of development and they fail to notice what they are losing fast. The common man as usual remains stupid, comprehending it as a high amount of intelligence and reveling in it. Navanshu, as an artist is currently with them to chronicle those tales of tragi-comedies. But I am sure Navanshu has to move to a different world to shape his art further up. He could be looked at by the curators and galleries in India and elsewhere for he could not only make his anti-paintings but could articulate them verbally too.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Attack on Marina Abromovic and Mahatma Gandhi




(Marina Abromovic)

On 23rd September 2018 in Florence, Italy at the Palazzo Strozzi, during a book releasing ceremony on the occasion of the world renowned performance artist, Marina Abromovic’s major retrospective exhibition, another young performance artist from the Czech Republic attacked Abromovic with a portrait of her allegedly painted by the assailant himself. The man was immediately overpowered (as the video grabs of the incident show) and the lady escaped unhurt. In the post-truth world even the sincerest of protests could be seen as a publicity stunt but when it comes to Abromovic anyone in his/her right sense would not believe that she needs any kind of publicity stunt that involves a physical attack on the artist herself. Abromovic, who is known as the ‘grandmother of performance’ art (the term ‘matriarch’ may be reeking with the smell of a binary that even her direst of critics wouldn’t like to attribute to her. Grandmother, the affectionate term not only qualifies her authority in the field but also positions her as the pioneer in/of it) has done enough acts that extended, tested and problematized the enduring capacities of human body and mind. She does not need an external attack on her body in order to grab eyeballs from the art scene in Italy, especially a place where she had performed her six hours long performance piece titled ‘Rhythm 0’ in which she had let her body to be vandalized by the audience.


(after the attack on Abromovic)

I do not know too many details about the man who had attacked Marina Abromovic. However, I would like to see his act as a referential act devoid of any kind of reverence to the artist. The reference should be to the performance titled ‘Rhythm 0’ done in 1974 in a studio gallery in Naples. Forty one years have been passed since then and the impact of that piece in the minds of the people/artists all over the world refuses to fade. This performance piece of hers, devoid of sentimentalism of any kind stays in the annals of art history as a pivotal work of art just like Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ (1917). Any conceptual artist today cannot overlook Duchamp for his cleverest of acts of bringing a readymade into the gallery context. Today, anybody who goes for an object based conceptual art has to pay tribute to the temple of Duchamp for one cannot have an object which is not a ‘readymade’ in one or the other sense. A act of performance art anywhere in the world auto-creates resonances with the performances of Abromovic for her sheer diversity of acts using her body as the lone tool. Hence, I would say any artist who uses his/her body owes a bit to the body of Abromovic, obviously the story-telling and ever benevolent grandmother.


(Rhythm 0, Abromovic's performance in 1974)

The man, the assailant, while attacking Abromovic was in a way paying tribute to the master performance artist, the genius of body based art and obviously was making a reference to one of her earlier works. The attack in itself could be seen as a ‘performance’ which was not meant to hurt the artist. Had the supporting wood hit her head it would have caused grievous head injury to the lady is another matter, which had complicated the matter, in a way transporting it from the aesthetical realm to the realm of criminal acts. While once again testing the enduring capacity of the human body and mind, as claimed by Abromovic herself almost forty one years back, the assailant was making a point that a performance, however ephemeral and anti-establishmentarian it remained in a given context, in a different time and space the possibilities of it being read differently were more. The six hours long violence in an absolutely uncontrolled (self-restraint of the audience was the only surety that Abromovic had when she placed seventy two items of assault including feathers, needles, razor blades, knifes and even a loaded gun) might not have caused serious injuries to the artist as she stood there abnegating her selfhood and subjectivity, rendering herself into an object to be acted upon. But a portrait of the artist done by the assailant, which became a weapon of assault could be read as ‘this’ artist’s effort to reclaim her subjectivity, the very subjectivity which he tested against her real personal subjectivity in the act of assault.


(the beginning of Rhythm 0 1974)

By thrashing the portrait on her head, the assailant partly annihilated the ‘created’ subjectivity of Abromovic (in this case, the canvas portrait of Abromovic done by the assailant, and in the case of 1974 act of Abromovic, the ‘object-hood’ that she temporarily created as her ‘subjectivity’ in the gallery premises) as she had wished in her original performance by causing not so insignificant hurt on her body. The assailant has emulated the same semi-serious hurting act in his attack; the only difference that we could cite for changing an aesthetic act into an act of criminality is that he had not given any intimation to the artist that he was going to do something of that sort. While Abromovic’s original piece was done in a controlled atmosphere where artist’s willingness was all the more important that had driven the whole performance for six years, here the atmosphere was different controlled and was not expecting any attack on the artist. I am sure, given all these the performance artist in question can be given a let go only by Abromovic herself provided she sees the man’s assault as a genuine piece of response to her oeuvre and a originated out of a negative reverence.


(Mahatma Gandhi)

This is where I remember Nathuram Godse and Mahatma Gandhi. On 30th January 1948, Gandhiji was on the way to his evening prayers at the Birla House in New Delhi when Godse pulled the trigger at him. Godse, it is reported that had reverence for the Mahatma but he did not like the way he tried to interpret Hinduism. He suspected that by helping the Muslim community in India and the newly formed Pakistan Gandhiji was eroding the cause of the Hindus, who Godse thought would meet with its demise if Gandhiji was allowed to speak for the Hindus. Gandhiji’s life was an ensemble of performance pieces, carefully designed and performed by the Mahatma himself. Godse was the also a performance artist in that case who was taking the Mahatma’s own reference to bump him out. A chill went through my spine as I read the post attack statement delivered by Abromovic in the media. It read: “The man came up to me looking into my eyes and I smiled at him thinking that he was giving me a gift… In a split of second I saw his facial expression change and he became violent, coming towards me very quickly with force.” Doesn’t it sound eerily familiar in the context of Gandhiji’s assassination?