Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Burden of the Present

Early in the morning they drop me at the railway station. It is a state car with the emblem. As I get down from the back seat, as the young man who has escorted me to the station takes my bag out from the car's boot, people with their sleep ridden eyes look at me curiously thinking that I am someone from the government with a designated vehicle. This has happened to me before too. I understand each time the intoxication and high that authority could induce in one's mind.

I pick up my bag which has become heavier with the materials and books that the artists have given me, bid goodbye to the driver and the young man, avoid making eye contact with the curious people around and walk straight into the station. On platform number three my train has already arrived. Surprised I lug myself towards the overbridge that for a moment looks unsurmountable with the heavy bag in my hand. Panting and puffing, I climb the flight of stairs and alight at the third platform. Luckily the air conditioned chair car in which they have booked me is right there next to the foot of the bridge.

I go inside. I see weary faces of early morning passengers here and there. Just as they are bored they look at me with eyes deprived of sleep and then they go back to their day dreaming or into desperate efforts catch some sleep. I haul my bag and place it on the side racks above my head. I have a very bad cold. To add to my misery the air conditioner in the coach blasts down heavy loads of cold air on my head and neck. I feel sick. Then I do something that I have never done before. I open my bag and pull out a woollen shawl which I had packed when I left Delhi, knowing that by the time I return it would be winter. I cover myself with it and I feel strange. I have never covered myself in Kerala, that too with a woollen shawl.

The shawl and the notebook in my had give me a sort of avuncular look and obviously nobody these days write inside a moving train. If I had seen someone writing down something in a notebook, I would have definitely taken that person either for an old school writer or a member of some legislative body who had to prepare notes, while on the move during a busy schedule. I look absolutely retro. These days nobody uses a notebook and pen. Most of the people prefer to work on their computers, notepads, tabs or smart phones. Going back to a retro mode is deliberate and I cannot insist that everyone does it because as they we cannot set the course of history in reverse. If someone wants he could leave all modern technology behind and live a retro life. But that cannot be advocated; it should remain a personal choice.

Through the large glass window I could see the landscape slowly becoming visible as the first rays of the sun pierce through a reluctant darkness and the fog above the trees. The misty morning looks so alluring that I feel like walking into it. However, I warn myself: anything seen through a tinted glass will be  far removed from the reality. But I know the quality of the landscape on either side of the railway tracks. There are hardly any houses; what you see is the large expanse of lush green in different forms. Some run horizontally and melt into the horizon line. Trees with different contours look like individuals with different characters, standing sternly at their places, ignoring the people inside the passing trains. It is an ancient land. If you hark patiently you could hear the voices spoken by the trees. As if to transmit their secret whisperings to the winds, beyond one could see transmission towers of telephone service providers jutting out of the foliages, as anachronism of modernity.

The train passes over a small culvert with a clear brook running beneath. A white crane stands still. Up there along the electricity lines birds of different sorts sit and debate the course of the day.

Nature muted by a running carriage overwhelms me.I take out my phone and skim through it; mails, WhatsApp and Facebook. I take a selfie. Dissatisfied by my looks, I consign the picture to the delete box. In Facebook, people have posted so many things and a majority of it looks like latin to me as I am not tuned to the daily routine of sporadic updates by so many people who I hardly know. Then I look at some pages of certain journalists. Birds of a feather flock together, they say. In those pages I see the birds of the same species. I find them burdened by the Present. Whatever they have posted, though seems to have clear thoughts behind it, are apparently too close to our times and look shallow. They are debating very crucial issues. But all of them took a voyage on a paper-boat in a shallow sea. I fail to see the glimpses of historical depths.

For many of those who post those opinions and those who comment on them, it is a question of life and death. In their engagement, they look serious and sincere. They are so close to the issues that I wonder if they would ever be able to detach from those issues. Their innocence and verve makes me think of them as children in role play games; they pretend as their parents, teachers, shop owners, politicians, lawmakers, historians, scientists, and so on. This brings a smile to my lips. I look at the names and find most of the familiar. Soon they transform in front of my eyes and they become strange people with strange opinions and strange behaviour. I suddenly understand that they are simply doing what they are expected to do. They are just following their calling and path. I am the one who has been wandering in the woods of history, often lost or distracted.

Inside the train coach, I realise that I can never agree with the world around me. When he world is right, I am definitely wrong. If I am right, then he world should be wrong. How could I bring about the alignment with the world? The world is so fast and I am too slow to catch up with it. Ironically, I don feel the need to catch up with the world. Yet I feel pain when I see disparities among people abound around. I feel miserable when people connect even with the nature with the aid of technology. A scenery is no longer a scenery until it turns out to be a digital image which could be zoomed in and zoomed out. A reality is a reality only when it is debated in the social media. We have only mediatized realities now. The nature out there looks so close yet distant from this railway coach.

(Images courtesy Internet)

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Art Review Survey and the Erasure of Philosophers

Art Review publishes 'Power 100' in the art scene. Another art magazine breaks down the list of these powerful 100 people in the art world and has come up with some interesting findings. It is not surprising that the global art scene is still dominated by the white male. (68% male, 32% female). When it comes to race, 70% are whites, 16 % are Asian, 7% Latino, 5%Black and 3% Middle eastern. If we go by the place of origin track, we get to see 51% hailing from Europe, 22% from the US, 13% from Asia, 8% from Central and South America, 3% from Africa and 3% from Middle East. While the Professional field is dominated by 35% of Gallery / Dealer, 23% artists, 22% curator / museum administrator, 14% collector, 3% Fair Director, 2% School Administrator, and 1% Philosopher.

If you ask me, I am not surprised. The data cannot be more revealing. But something really surprised me, the still not fading one percent of philosophers or to see from a different perspective, the pathetic representation of philosophers in the global art scene. It could be further broken down using certain other sociological and economic tools The diminishing numbers of philosophers within the tribes that constitute the global art scene directly says that the art no longer runs on grand philosophies. It could also be seen as a certain time in the history of the world when art happens without any philosophy. I do not know yet whether it is a good symptom or a bad one. A work of art which has no philosophy or that resists philosophical interventions in reading maybe a sort of hollow art that does not hurt, therefore finds easy routes to the hands of the art collectors and investors.

This particular data analysis gets curiouser and curiouser  when we come to know that a work of art which does not have any philosophical anchor could be custom made for the market. The whole data tells us where the art scene stands today. It is not at a crossroad as popularly believed. It does not have any hesitation to move further to the already personified white male dominated route. That means the supremacy of art market is still in the hands of the white world. The not so impressive representation of the other parts of the world in this list shows the either they are included because of the growing markets in those regions or they are represented because of their exchange, both aesthetical and financial with the white world.

Coming back to the issue of the almost nil representation of the philosophers in the list, a closer look would reveal that it does not underline the drastic and unceremonious removal of the philosophers from the art scene, but emphasises without any room for doubt that the other actants including curators, artists, and galleries don the mantle of the philosophers; and they do it convincingly. By treating philosophers as a separate constituency, these players have extracted a great purpose of ideation and engagement meant for sublime from the works of art.

Reduction of the presence of philosophers from the art scene also heralds an era of art without historical continuities.When the art field players decide for themselves that because of the complete triumph of capitalism, history is no longer relevant to the case of art. the fallacy that they do not understand or refuse to recognise is pertaining to the very experience of history in various forms creating further fields for historical as well as ideological engagements with a larger world. That means discounting the philosophers from the art scene more or less reflects its own bankruptcy, that too in an urgent race for making profit.

Yet another view on this would be the lack of market value that the philosophers could generate for the uses and perpetuation of the art market. Ironically, the findings of the philosophers from the world over are used in the generation of art literature with or without acknowledgement. When the curators and art administrators double up as philosophers too, the automatic ejection/ rejection of the philosophers takes place in the art scene.

The question then arises is this: Can the art world exist without the philosopher? As of now the market driven art world has proven that it could exist without their presence, assistance and contributions. However, in the long run it would not be the same case. Any work of art produced without a philosophical content as recognised by the artists and the other players in the field of art would start looking like hollow shells signifying nothing.  Philosophies are always not expected to please. They at times make incisive critiques on the existing situations and conditions within which aesthetics is produced; this is currently not palatable to the art world.

'Centre fails to hold' is the dictum of the modern world. When the centre fails to hold the peripheries, perhaps the peripheries start deciding the nature of the centre. This engenders a new philosophy which could move in opposition to the existing philosophies. But the market's ability to subsume the new peripheries, and make it a part of the centre could collapse the emerging philosophies. To find a way to resist the allure of the market, thereby parting way for the philosophies to tread  more steadily and safely without feeling the threat of immediate erasure.

Maybe the survey, and lists published by the economic interests do not matter much to many artists and the other art world players. However, such lists show how cruelly the balance of the art world has been tilted by the white western world. The data that the percentage of participations of various entities including gender and region need not necessarily be a finality as it is purely based on the economic positioning of the considered people in the lists. This could change as the human presence and success are always not determined by economics alone. It is one of the factors that ultimately decides the artistic worth of the people in different parts of the world. When economic factors pretend  that they could bleep out the sociological, political and cultural factors that determine the presence or absence of many, these kinds of lists and surveys would enthral the unsuspecting artists in the world.

(Images Courtesy: Internet)

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Thoughts on Mediatic Realism and Art Trends

Trendy Art
Do trends affect the creative output of the artists? Trends of any kind are such markers or indicators that tell the interested ones where the world is heading to. In the case of art, trends are often seen in the exhibition seasons, choice of the artists for international awards, general displays in art fairs, curatorial subjects, choice of curators, articles featured in the magazines, their covers, buying and selling of works of art and so on. Trends are also such things that are ill-fated to become obsolete before they become a cult. Some trends prolong their tenure with help of certain interests involved in the art market and some other trends die out sooner than they come. To see it in the right perspective, we could always say that trends are the market indicators deliberately designed for making certain profits in their transactions. Where success of anything is determined by the money that it rakes in the market, it is not surprising to see many artists getting carried away by such trends.

Photorealistic art in the US

Five seasons back in Indian art scene, we had seen the swan song of a comparatively prolonged trend of Mediatic Realism. For almost fifteen years, mediatic realism in painting ruled the galleries and markets till it collapsed with the expected bursting of a ballooned market.  Mediatic realism as an aesthetical trend was not an invention of the Indian artists. The origins of which have to be sought within two clear trends in the West, interestingly one in the pre-second World War Soviet Union and two, in the post-war United States of America. The artists of the Soviet Union who complied with the diktats of Stalin and the Community party that he had led not only created art for the mediatic purpose, but also reused it for furthering the cultural climate through constant visual reminding. Media in that sense became an intermediary between art and media and vice versa. The commitment of this kind of mediatic reaction was to a predetermined social cause of a proletarian government.

Social Realist art in the USSR
However for the Americans, it was the other way round; they did not have much to direct or educate the society as the society was already saturated by both the print and television media. For the artists, who gravitated around the styles propounded by Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenberg, Jasper Johns and so on, the market place and the media presence of 'things' itself was a raw material and a stagnating philosophy and splurging in it helped these artists to be a part of the ephemera that the social life of the US bracketed and could remotely forward certain kind of critique of it without hurting anybody. Interestingly, the socialist reaction of the Soviet Union and the pop-art style of the US had captivated the artists of the world as they could set the trends of the time in pre and post cold war era. Through close scrutiny we understood that the former intended to present the social issues in a pre-configured and state authorised formalism and it remained so for a long time without much change. But in the case of the latter, it was purely a formal exercise. For the pop-artists went on experimenting with the formal aspects of the mediatized images and excised meaning out of them to repackage  their visual presence as an art language. That's why we see the pop formalism varies from artist to artist, opening a wide range of styles within the rubric of pop-art.

Work by Andy Warhol
It took many more years for the mediatized images to make a re-entry with less emphasis on technique and formal stylising and become vehicles of more intense subjective mediations and meditations. The we see in Gerard Richter, Edward Hopper and artists of their ilk. In China mediatic realism had already taken a different route to re-emerge as political realism amply loaded with irreverence and satire, at times verging on sad-masochist tendencies and self-annihilation. Perhaps in India the artists found this international trend more appealing to make enquiries into their own selves and the societies in which they lived. India was experiencing the pangs of a changing economy and its socio-cultural impact was quite unsettling. Those artists who made their early entry into mediatic realism, however, did not address the changing scion-economic and politico-cultural climates directly or they did not even show any urgency to do so. Instead they took to the imaginary as well as historical junctures in which the social narrative had changed violently and at times latently.

Work by Edward Hopper
This enquiry was 'realistic' but not mediatic at the outset. The imageries were grim reminders of violent times of change in history. Unlike the Chinese and Euro-American artists, Indian artists did not depend too much on the realism of the Soviet kind or the realism of the pop-art in the US. Indian artists did not even look at their Chinese counterparts, but zeroed in on the realism which as perhaps naturally adopted by any artist of any place to have a re-look at history. There was no particular methodology for it but the persistence of that realism heavy with history was somehow appealing to many and certain art critics wrongly identified it as Mediatic Realism. However, such critics were soon to be justified as the artists in India sooner than later would depend upon mediatized images for their aesthetical as well as critical purposes. Hand in hand with their adoption of mediatic realism by the Indian artists, there developed a trend that became more and more formal, reflecting other socio-political trends mediatized visually, investing lot on the skill of the artists (and their more skilful  assistants). While a majority went by the trend making their work 'photorealistic', a few of them added abstract values to it, enabling them to become the vehicles to transport rather internationally appealing social commentaries. A positive fall out of this was seen int he abandoning of the language by the early exponents of mediatic realism in India, and then becoming more like savant painters and artists , exploring the land and nature, emphasising a lot on the natural virtuosity of artistic skills and visionary qualities.

Work by Shibu Natesan
Today the world of art seems to be lacking in influential trends. In fact, trends are complementary to market forces and as they feed on each other, the absence of one automatically decides the absence of the other. Hence the temporary (hopefully) diminishing of market for the contemporary art, has prevented the influential trends from emerging. This has created some  kind of confusion in the Indian art scene. In my view, this confusion (whether palpable or not) is good for artists to focus on their innate talents and those who don't have it would perish for good. Looking at the international art magazines, I have noticed the West is desperate to introduce certain art trends. What stops it from importing it to the world is the absence of a trans-national market.

(images courtesy : Internet)

Friday, October 21, 2016

Folly of getting the Local Communities into Art

Of late I have been meeting gallerists who are intensely worried about the local communities that are not taking any interest in art and culture. They say that people don't get to see art at all in the public and private spaces so much that they have developed some sort of an aversion for art. Is there a remedy to it? I ask them. They have got some quick fix ideas to make people aware of art and its role in their lives. First and foremost the local communities should be brought to the zones where art activities take place or art activities should go to their locations and make them do some art for themselves, to put it in other words, make everyone an artist. Secondly, fill up the environments with a lot of works of art so that people get an idea of visual art and its relevance in public spaces; that means encouraging 'Street Art and Public Art'.

Such suggestions ad  intentions apparently look innocent and well meaning. But the suggestions and solutions, critically speaking are ridden with a lot of problems. Let me analyse the issue pertaining to these suggestions one by one The complaint that the people lack art awareness is itself a faulty one, to begin with. When a galleries says that people from local communities take no interest in art, he or she does not qualify the local communities talked about or the kind of art that he or she expects them to see. Does he or she mean that the local communities should be excited by the art in general or the art created by the visual artists or the art exhibited in his/her gallery? If he/ she is talking about the art in general, saying that people are not taking interest in art is a biased opinion, not reality. People in fact, take a lot of interest in various kinds of art forms including visual art, music, films, theatre, television programs and so on.If the complaint is that they are not keen on the kind of visual art produced in our country, then we have to ask whether the kinds of visual art produced in our country is 'given' to them in all possible means or not. If it is about them not seeing the kind of art exhibited in his or her gallery, the question should be re-directed to him / her and asked whether they invite the local communities to their premises?

This is a very old problem. However the idea of taking art to the places where the people live or to the community centres is burdened by a sense of patronising. First of all one has to define the local communities. 'Local Communities' is not a monolith. It has various levels and hierarchies based on economy, education, inheritance and now political affiliation and religion. The affluent classes generally do not entertain patronising efforts taken up by somebody in order to initiate them into art and culture, because they have already got their initiation in art and have also got a stake in it. That means, the local communities are constituted by a willing minority of middle class and a dispassionate minority of the lower middle class and the lower income groups. Somehow we are not ready to accept the fact that when we talk about taking art to the people we are envisioning a pre-defined community of underprivileged people who perhaps would accept the art enforced using them for the time being by participating enthusiastically.  Ironically in this effort we fail to ask whether they have something of their art to show us; they may have abut in our mission we fail to recognise  their art.

Equally fallacious is the conclusion that the lower income groups do not understand or appreciate art. A set of people living in underprivileged areas in a city or rural areas in fact are closely in touch with various kinds of art forms, ritualistic, performative and meditative in their own contexts. Enriched by the images and sounds of the popular and street cultures, these sets of people are more receptive to works of art than the people above who show a lot of discretion in choosing their art form, which often are no better than sentimental expressions. Seen in this context, both the layers of the local communities need a different sort of sensitisation via both pedagogic and participatory methods.

The well meaning people who intend to do these sensitising acts, unfortunately want everyone to be an artist through participation. Becoming an artist or making an artist out of a disinterested person seems to be important for these missionaries. Anybody could be an artist, provided that person does anything aesthetically, involving rhythm and harmony. However, believing too much in this dictum is injurious to the general health of art. In an attempt to make everyone an artist, these missionaries miss a point, which is, if everyone is an artist how would they be seen in the society. And naturally too, everyone is not equipped to do creative works even if they have latent potentialities in them to do creative works. We have enough artists in this country and each year more of them are added to the struggling congregations. What we need urgently is creating a society which is tolerant to artists and their works. If we could help a majority of people to turn into art lovers and appreciators of the artistic abilities, we would achieve fifty percent success in our efforts.

Where does this other fifty percent lie? It lies in creating a climate of visual art and also the houses of visual arts. That means we need to create more and more museums for traditional, modern and contemporary art. Once the people are initiated into the appreciation of art, they should be provided with places where they could see 'living art'. this is possible only when more museums are created in our country. Galleries cannot do this and they should not even attempt it. Galleries are fundamentally business showrooms and expect only the buyers and insiders  of the art community. Most of the galleries in India are okay with people not crossing their doors. Many gallerists maintain that they expect only the buyers. In this scenario, only the public museums could pitch into save the situation.

A museum cannot purely be a private initiative for it would definitely end up showing what the funder of it likes or prefers to showcase. In the case of a public museum we see in our country, the displayed artefacts slowly decay due to lack of maintenance and are never upgraded and updated due to bureaucratic interference. What makes sense then is the establishment of public-private initiative where finders leave the power of discretion to able professionals. Such museums would be the places which welcome those who have been craving for aesthetic experiences thanks to their recent initiation into art.

The gallerists who selflessly support the Street Art projects to enhance the aesthetic appeal of the neighbourhoods as well as the artistic inclinations of the local communities miss yet another point; they are not supporting the Street art. All art done on the streets is not Street arts are aesthetical interventions based on the critique of the complacent mainstream society. This amounts to vandalism and defacement of public and private property. Such art would not like to be patronised by the galleries or by the governments. Hence what we see today in the name of Street art is a kind of art meant for beautifying the cities, which is a form of conformist art. These works could create aesthetical backdrops for the mundane life but ironically most of it is missed by the people in the closest neighbourhood doe to their added proximity. Hence the major consumers of such art are the people who live in the vantage points; the rich and the powerful.

It is also pertinent to notice that such kind of graffiti or street art is not allowed in those neighbourhoods where the affluent ones live. Therefore, taking art to the local communities with a patronising zeal would eventually turn futile. Instead there should be a more egalitarian approach to create adequate cultural climates so that the people get naturalised with art.

(Images courtesy: Internet)

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Bliss of Impersonating : Arundhati Nag

Arundhati Nag 
 (courtesy the Hindu)
At the age of fifteen she fell in love with theatre. Forty five years down the line she could just get up and say that her identity and love for the country are intact without being a member of the RSS. She is Arundhati Nag, the noted theatre and film personality, and director of Rang Shankara, an exclusive platform for modern and contemporary theatre in India, at the L V Prasad Eye Institute Auditorium in Hyderabad, delivering the third Ramkinkar Baij memorial lecture, organised by the Musui Foundation in strategic collaboration with Kalakriti Art Gallery, Hyderabad. Arundhati Nag is not an academic, but an actress, an art administrator and a silent practitioner of frugal living. Born in Delhi and brought up in Mumbai, Arundhati, at an early age itself became a juggler of languages which she says, has helped in developing her theatre persona.

Arundhati Nag knows that her acquaintance with the life and works of Ramkinkar Baij is not as deep as that of an art historian or an artist. But what she has learnt from Ramkinkar Baij is the passion of pursuing the enigmatic call of unbridled creativity and his perseverance of frugal life. As a creative artist what Ramkinkar wanted was a platform to do his art povera. Baij celebrated life in its naturalness and created works from what was available, maximising their mediator qualities despite their minimal stature in life. Putting the humble components of nature together, Baij created a galaxy on earth of which the stars like Santhal Family, Mill Call, Harvester, Sujata and so on still shine with their original glitter. Arundhati coming from a different creative circuit has found her soulmate in Ramkinkar when she visited Santiniketan a few years ago and accidentally confronted the imposing presence of Ramkinkar's sculptures in the campus.

Girish Karnad giving instruction to Arundhati in Ranga Shankara's landmark production 'Bikhare Bimb'

"I did not know anything about Ramkinkar then. But the monumental sculpture - Santhal Family took me by force. The rawness of their contours, the blissfulness on their faces and the curiosity in their eyes; their balance and poise, everything attracted me. The theatricality of his sculpture was just real, never falling into the gorge of sentimentalism. I understood the drama in it. Since then I have been an ardent admirer of Ramkinkar " says Arundhati.

" If human beings are moving sculptures then sculptures are frozen drama theatre" Arundhati had said a day before the formal memorial lecture. She uttered these inedible words when she stood enthralled before the sculpture of Ramkinkar's disciple K S Radhakrishnan. " Theatre gives the great high of impersonating a character which is not you. An actress is someone who hosts  another personality in her body keeping the objectivity intact without ever falling into the trap of the character. Sculptures also have that quality one being the other without subjecting the artist to its demands. There is a relationship and there is a high, but it is that of impersonating" says Arundhati in her lecture.

In Paa with Amitabh Bachchan
Ramkinkar had thrown all societal and artistic conventions to the wind. He did not care for others' views. As K G Subramanyan had once put it, 'Baij was in pursuit of happiness in the simplest things in nature". Arundhati also had thrown conventions to the wind. But as a young girl of fifteen it was easier said than done. She was fascinated by the IPTA, Indian People's Theatre Association, which had established in Mumbai and had stalwarts like Balraj Sahni, AK Hangal, Kaifi Azmi, Shaukat Azmi as its actors and ideologues. There was a strong resistance from Arundhati's family and she was given permission only when her mother got the assurance from the IPTA elders that there would be someone who is socially accepted to escort the young, vibrant, dreamy and aspiring Arundhati from and to home for and after rehearsals.

Receiving Padmashree from the then President Smt Pratibha Patil
The idea of impersonation came to Arundhati as a  revelation because the first role she was offered was that of a young widow who was forced to marry her dead husband's brother. The play was Rajeender Singh Bedi's 'Ek Chadar Maili si'. Arundhati was not sixteen then. She did not know all what went into the making of a marriage, family, death, remarriage and so on. Encouraged by the elders of IPTA, Arundhati learned the ropes of acting only to land up with similarly passionate people like Jennifer Kapoor under whose care and vision, the Prithvi theatre came up and changed the theatre scenario in Mumbai. Arundhati carried the seeds of Prithvi theatre within her and relentlessly worked for establishing Ranga Shankara in Bangalore, where any theatre group with a decent production could present their play for just Rs 2500 a day. Three hundred and sixty five days a year, Ranga Shankara presents around four hundred performances including her own productions.

Arundhati with Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar
Like painting and sculpting have inherent differences in conceiving and executing, theatre acting and film acting are different, says Arundhati. Even if she gets many offers to act in films (yet another mother role), she declines most of them because she knows well that her acting style is for theatre. " My gestures, emoting, voice modulations and all should be meant for a live audience including the ones who are sitting in the last row. In film, you are performing for a camera and the performance is limited to a part where the camera is focussing. Cinema is the medium of fragmentations; it is an art of fragmenting and putting together. For me theatre is a bodily experience which makes the actress happy, devoid of any ruptures in my personality" says Arundhati.

Arundhati with Sanjana Kapoor
Indian theatre is definitely facing a lot of challenges from new media and television. But experience tells her that if there is a provision for good theatre, people will come back to it. Arundhati extolls Naseeruddin Shah for delivering good theatre without fail. "Paresh Rawal is a good actor but he delivers bad theatre. Anupam Kher's theatre is a no no to me personally" says Arundhati. Citing once again Ramkinkar Baij, Arundhati reiterates that she still in search of an Indian theatre, which she knowns cannot exist for India's  cultural diversity. But the search and the show must go on.

(Images courtesy: Internet)

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Lamakaan : A Space with a Soul

Views from Lamakaan, Hyderabad
The black board that welcomes you is filled with information written in white chalk. As I am told there is a cafe inside, instinctively I search of the menu on it. Menu it is though,  of a different kind; if you are thirsty and hungry for some aesthetical spread, it is all here at Lamakaan, an oasis in the middle of the upmarket urban sprawl of the Banjara Hills in Hyderabad. Lamakaan, the emerging and thriving cultural hub of the city has not only the best productions of theatre, music , monologues, writers' interactions, book launches and exhibitions to offer but also moderately sweetened tea served in glasses and small samosas and also bondas, all for Rs 20/- (compare it with the minimum two dollar fares in the other cafes that dot the urban landscapes). The three level space is full by evening five o'clock, and surprisingly youngsters talk to each other! Some of them do have laptops opened before them, but they too are animatedly conversing with their friends. Lamakaan is a no-smoking zone but it definitely not a no-mobile phone zone, yet no one seems to look at their mobiles. A rarity indeed.
A music concert at Lamakaan

Coming from Delhi, I am reminded of the legendary Indian Coffee House at Connaught Place, where the writers, artists, intellectuals politicians, film-makers and so on met regularly to discus issues as if there was not tomorrow, over endless cups of coffee and the patent worthy cutlets, in those good old days. Having a lot to do with Kolkata, sculptor KS Radhakrishnan remembers those 'addas' in Park Street and Shakespeare Sarani. Brought up in Mumbai, theatre and film personality, Arundhati Nag cannot help gushing about the Samovar Cafe at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Kalaghoda and the Prithvi Theatre surroundings which had inspired her to realise her dream theatre Ranga Shankara in Bangalore. I am in good and famous company. We are suddenly engulfed by the auditory, olfactory and sonic ambience of Lamakaan. Small Aloo bondas dissolve on our palettes, washed down  by tea served in glasses which a Mumbaikar would spontaneously call as 'cutting chai'.

Multipurpose cafe space at Lamakaan
Lamakaan has been active in the city for the last six years. Even before that the place was already there and it was slowly being nurtured by veteran photographer, Hasan, who like Chandigarh's Nekchand, loved rocks.Hasan travelled all over Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka and to the place where his rock love would take him and kept taking photographs of rocks! Madness to the ordinary eyes, Hasan's passion has resulted into a huge repertoire of rock photographs and it could be easily the sociology and ecology of rocks in South India to the expert's and exalted eyes. A few of which are exhibited at the side walls along the stairs that lead to the second level where music, dance and other choreography are rehearsed. Itinerant artists are also accommodated in that modest room.

 KS Rashakrishnan and Arundhati Nag with Akshay from Lamakaan

Rocks are everywhere. The amphi-theatre where we sit and sip our tea and converse with Akshay, a young cultural enthusiast who grew weary of his job in event management and advertising companies, and has now taken up the position as a program manager Lamakaan, has a backdrop of two huge rocks that resemble a saucer over a cup. Lights and sound systems are in place. Arundhati Nag who knows the troubles, first hand, of running such a place wonders how Lamakaan is managed. " We generate funds by running the cafe" says Akshay.  "Seven young boys manage the cafe. The food is modest but in good quality. During the lunch hours one has to wait for ten minutes to find a place to sit and eat. They don't just come, eat and go. They slowly develop a soul relationship with the place. They get their friends. They develop interest in theatre, music, films and literature. With no persuasion per se, they all become our patrons."

Theatre workshop at Lamakaan

Run by a trust that resists corporate funding for ethical reasons are solely funded by canteen, contributions and the meagre rent yielded from programs. "We keep a left of the centre policy. So we have the support of most of the university educated youngsters" Akshay says "It is not that we don't make any profit, we do make profit but we reinvest it in the programs, and notably we are over-booked. It is a happy scenario overall but it has its own teething problems."

Open air theatre with rock backdrop

Banjara Hills in Hyderabad is the abode of the rich and powerful. Road No 1where Lamakaan is located however is surrounded by the middle class and upper middle class  who have a problem with sounds and people. Insulated by economics and discretion these rich people found a threat in Lamakaan as it started attracting more and more people. Citing the theatre sounds, the noises of rehearsals and so on as public nuisance, some people around filed a case against the establishment last year. With the city's intellectuals and artists rising up in rebellion against the move to close down Lamakaan, the government quashed its move to curb the activities of the blooming cultural centre and directed the organisation to be careful as the road congestion that its programs could create especially during the weekends.

Development and modernisation are the aspects that eat into the old cultural hubs and turn them into glass, steel and concrete edifices that emanate heat than cultural and spiritual energy. Politics and religion of late have started taking away the available spaces for setting up memorials and religious establishments or places of worship. The mental spaces for discussing cultural issues are also shrinking quite fast due to direct and indirect ideological threats. Seen against this grim backdrop, liberal, intellectual and artistic spaces like Lamakaan should be conserved, preserved and cherished.
" The next plot lying vacant is under litigation, Once it is lifted, we don't know what would come up there; a mall or perhaps a high rise. Then Lamakaan may have to develop new strategies of survival" Akshay looks into the darkening surrounding with hope.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

About Monkeys and Us

Monkeys. They come uninvited into your homes through the windows that you have forgotten to latch and the air holes. They raid your refrigerators, ravage the wardrobes and topple the tastefully arranged statuettes in the drawing rooms. They defecate and urinate all over, even in the most unexpected places in your bedroom leaving the home reek in their stench for many days to come. You make complaints to the residence welfare association secretary who in turn would alert the municipality or corporation authorities who if kind enough would send the monkey catchers to the area later. When the monkey catchers come with their traps and crackers, they would find no monkeys around for they might have gone to other places to raid.

Why do monkeys come into the homes that we live? They do not come to attack us; nor do they have any interest in vandalising our homes. They do what is natural to them. They come into the homes when none is around in order to find some food. We often say that monkeys steal food. They don’t steal food, they look for it and when they find it they take it away for it is natural to them; seeking food and taking it. One may ask why then they get into the wardrobes and upset the setting of the interiors. They do it because it is natural to them; that’s what they do, a little bit of frolicking and merry making after food or in search of food. They eat food and go back and before going back they may defecate or urinate where they are. Don’t we do the same? We eat to our heart’s and stomach’s fill and they look for a loo to empty our bowels. We do it in the toilets and washrooms and monkeys do where they find themselves. They really do not intend to upset you with their piss and shit. Do we upset other people when we use washrooms in the places wherever we are?

Monkeys come to our homes because the places where our homes stand today were their natural habitats years back. They were the rightful authorities of these places where we dwell today. There were full of trees laden with flowers and fruits; there were several herbs that they knew by instinct could heal many an illness. Their habitations were autonomous and mutually sustaining. Monkeys did not pluck more than they needed from the trees; they also did not destroy the tender shoots and flowers for the sake of it. They enjoyed doing a bit of revelry by hanging from the branches or jumping from one tree to the other. They respected other creatures in the forest and the co-habitation was more or less harmonious. Monkeys, like many other creatures helped the trees in pollination and seed distribution. The plot of life was going smooth till the developers came and destroyed the forests and made the clearings into huge apartment complexes. In the gated communities you created your own rules and regulations and gave the security guards all rights to scare away the monkeys.
When we talk about and against colonialism do we really think about the kind of colonialisms that we have been performing in our own habitats? We have colonised the natural lands of the monkeys and other creatures. Then we started talking about our rights as well as their rights. We never thought about those monkeys once they had evicted from their own forests that we had invaded to create high rise apartments. Once in a while, we become very conscious of the life in the nature and natural life; so we buy books about natural life and read them till we fall asleep. We grow a few trees and plants and someone out of pity and more selfishness rear pet creatures at home. This they believe would compensate all the wrongs that the human beings have done to the monkeys and other creatures of the forests. How many of us think about monkeys on a daily basis? We hardly think about them. We hardly think about the people who live in forests and in the peripheries. What difference do we make between monkeys and the forest dwellers?

 We might have forgotten about the monkeys. But they have not. They come back not with vengeance but ridden heavy with memories. Have you seen monkeys sitting on our water tanks and looking at the rising sun? Have you seen monkeys on the high ledges sitting precariously and seen like silhouettes of brooding philosophers at the cliffs and watching a beautiful sunset? What do you think? Do you think that they have come to raid your fridges? No, they have come to see the places where their ancestors had lived. They look at the sun the way their forefathers used to sit and watch the rising and the setting sun. Holding the babies close to their breasts monkey mothers tell them about the life they had once lived in these forests that have become concrete jungles now. They know that they have been an evicted lot and the land belongs to them naturally. But they do not have any paper documents to prove that it belongs to them. Their land is the land in their minds and souls. They do not come with an intention to steal the food items in your fridges. They creep into your homes because that’s how they used to do in the trees when they were living there. It is genetic. Monkeys do not forget. Even if some of them forget, the genetic inscription is so deep that they would remember at some point in their lives as the acidic memories melt down through the grooves of those inscriptions.

In the mud path of the park where I go for morning walk, I see a person standing awkwardly and turning his neck as if in a twitching and looking at me approaching. I look ahead of that man waiting and see a pack of monkeys sitting and eating some crumbs of biscuits that some religious morning walker had spilled there for the use of birds, stray dogs, ants and monkeys. I saw two right in the middle of the path and many other in the thickets along the walkway. I walk straight and the man joins me. He tells me that if we are two the monkeys don’t attack us. I tell him that even if you are alone they will not attack you for they are living their lives and you are living yours. So long as you do not pick up a stick or stone to throw at them they are not interested in you. You walk or not walk, you go for your job or not, they are least bothered. They are in their natural habitat in the forest like park. They pick up the crumbs because they see them there. Otherwise they eat the tender shoots of the plants and the unknown fruits hanging from the trees. Even the stray dogs do not bite you, I tell him because they are not really interested in you, I mean the human beings. It is us who are afraid of the natural creatures and we think that they will attack us. This fear, I believe has come from the understanding that we have encroached in to their natural territories. Colonizers always create forts and military structures to protect themselves from the people whom they rule over because they are afraid of dispossessing the people of their natural rights. Our politicians also do the same and they create a militaristic nation because they also know that they have dispossessed their own people. We are the monkey men and women but still we consider ourselves better than monkeys.