Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Story for the New Year 2009

(This is a story of four old women living in an Indian village. May be there is something in their story that makes our lives positive and sensitive. Have a great year ahead)

Blessy, Lucky, Grace and Angel lived in a small village somewhere in central India. All four of them were of sixty years old. They had well settled lives with daughters married off to rich families, sons married to beautiful girls and husbands happily retired from government services. They lived in the same locality in beautifully decked houses. They were friends for a long time.

When their doctors suggested that they should go for morning walk to keep themselves fit at this age, they decided to do it together. So they chalked out a plan- meet every day sharp at 6 am at Angel’s house, which was last in the row of houses in the same street and go for morning walk in the play ground which was almost half a kilo meter away from the street. Almost one year ago, they started going for morning walk.

While walking they talked about their lives, about their happy marriages, well settled kids and apparently satisfied lives. But one day Lucky said, “We are lucky but how unlucky we are!” The other three ladies were shocked to listen something like that. “Why do you say we are unlucky?” they asked Lucky in unison.

“We were born in some other places. And we all were married at very early age. We left our villages and came here to settle down. But what do we know about life? What do we know about the other places? We come to know about people and places through television programs. But have we ever thought of going out of this place to see the world?” Lucky asked her bewildered friends.

For the first time, they doubted the quality of their otherwise happy lives. Then onwards they started talking about places, where they had never been, or people, they had never seen in reality. They wanted to go out of that place at least for a day and experience how life and places looked like elsewhere.

There was a rich man in the village. With hard work and planned life, he had become immensely rich over a period of time. This man was not too old. He was in his late forties and had a good family and a mansion like home in the village. He had several business houses in several cities and he travelled all over in his own helicopter. The ground where the ladies went for morning was used as the helipad. When the helicopter brought the man back from his business trips, if it was in the morning, the ladies stood at the fringes of the ground, clutching each other’s hands in order not to be flown away by the menacing wind produced by the chopper’s fans.

“Why don’t we ask this young man to take us for a round in his helicopter? We can see the places and people from above and from there we can see a lot of places in one go,” Grace suggested gracefully. The ladies smiled to each other. “It is a good idea,” said Blessy.

One day, they were in the ground and they heard the sound of the helicopter. The ladies moved to one corner of the ground, holding their hands. The helicopter landed and the business man came out of it. His car was already there, parked in the other end of the ground. Grace walked towards the man and he stopped as the ladies approached him. He had a curious smile on his lips as he had seen them in the ground several times.

“Why don’t you take us around in this helicopter?” Grace asked straight away looking into the man’s eyes.

“Oh…errr…I didn’t get you,” he mumbled between his smiling lips. By that time, Lucky, Blessy and Angel had lined up behind Grace.

“We want to see the city and other places from up,” Blessy said.

“ I got it…You ladies want to fly…Ok…let me think….well please take permission from your families and meet me tomorrow here,” he said.

“We don’t need to take permission. We are our own guardians,” Angel said. The other ladies were shocked for a while to listen that from Angel, but soon they nodded in agreement to what Angel had said.

“Ok..then..let us fly tomorrow morning…same time…here.,” the man said.

Next morning, Blessy, Lucky, Grace and Angel reached the ground a bit early. They were in their best dresses. They gave different stories to their family members as they were questioned about their finaries worn for morning walk.

The man was already there and the pilot had already started the engine. The ladies came to him, smiled at him and he led them into the chopper one by one. He held his hands above their heads as if they could protect them from the strong winds of the chopper fans.

The helicopter took off from the ground, raising a lot of dust, which for while blocked the views from the eyes of our ladies.

“Look…there…the temple…..hey…the market…….the tailor’s shop, there the mehndi wallah’s shop, Amir’s tea shop……its beautiful…” the ladies were screaming.

The man smiled. His eyes were moistened.

After one hour of flight the chopper landed back in the ground. A rustic cricket game was already on there. The boys ran away, taking the stumps off the ground and they watched the chopper landing down like a heavy dragon fly.

Then they saw Grace, Lucky, Blessy and Angel coming out of the chopper. The kids started hooting and howling. “Hey…see our flying aunties.”

But the business man’s driver was already come to the ground to shoo away the kids.

“Are you happy now?” the business man asked them with a smile.

“Yes…but we don’t want a free ride from you,” saying this Blessy took out a five rupees note from her purse and handed over to the man. He was astonished. The other ladies did the same.

The man stood there with four five rupees notes in his hands and a stupid smile on his face.

“Hey…ladies, why did you pay me this?” he asked.

“This is what we pay in bus when we go to the town to buy clothes….” They said in unison.

The man laughed. The ladies too.

“You young girls are mischievous,” he said.

Blessy, Grace, Lucky and Angel, laughed and held his hands to say good bye. They felt that they had never laughed in their lives like this before.

The man, as he entered his waiting car, looked at the four ladies walking away from the ground. He took out the kerchief and covered his face. He did not want his driver to see him weeping.

“Where sir, home?” asked the driver through the rear view mirror.

“No…to my mom’s tomb,” he told the driver after putting his dark goggles back.

(I dedicate this story to a friend who gave me the thread of it)

Monday, December 29, 2008

Rip Van Winkle in Kochi

This is a magic land. People here look as if they were coming straight out of some magical realist novel.

On Sunday morning I am at Gallery OED, Kochi, using its office facilities to finish some of the works for the latest upload of that I edit. The gallery is closed on Sundays. Before leaving me at the office, Dilip Narayanan, my friend and director of the OED Gallery warns me about the gallery visitors who could disturb my work.

“People will come and ask you to open the gallery for them. Just tell them that the keys are not with you,” Dilip tells me and I nod in agreement.

Morning half goes fine and I am left alone to do my work. In the afternoon I hear the footsteps of someone climbing the stairs. I wait with some kind of curiosity. Perhaps, I want some human presence around to validate my existence. This is something awful; you prefer to be alone and suddenly you feel this sudden urge to meet people. At times you hate people coming around you and at other times, when they are not around, you crave for them to knock on your door.

I see this man coming and standing before the closed door of the gallery. He looks at me and I look at him. I don’t want to get up and greet him. I remember Dilip’s words. So I ignore the visitor.

But suddenly I realize that every human being has a magnetic field around him. However you try to avoid the presence of another person in your vicinity, his presence suddenly changes the ambience of the atmosphere.

I could feel that change. I look at the visitor. In his white cotton dhoti and shirt with rolled up sleeves, he could be easily passed for a Youth Congress activist; an aspiring politician in his nationally accepted uniform. He looks young, though his hair line shows considerable receding. I could almost judge his age, late thirties.

“Can I go inside?” he asks me.

“Today is a holiday,” I tell him.

“But I am here to see the show,” he insists with a smile.

I am interested now. In my writings, I have mentioned several times why the galleries should work on holidays. A common man who wants to see an exhibition might take out some time on a holiday to visit the gallery. So the galleries should work on Sundays too. Here I am, the same person, asking someone to go back from the door of a gallery. I feel a strange guilt. I get up, pick up the key and open the doors. Inside the gallery it is dark. I go inside first, train my eyes to find out the switches.

Now the gallery is lit. He comes inside and shakes hands with me.

“I am Mukunda Kumar,” he tells me. I get the smell of his breath. He is drunk. But he is not inebriated.

“Your good name please…” holding my hands, he asks me. Malayalis (people of Kerala) are like that. They can drink at any time. They find out a reason to drink. Once they are drunk, they speak only in English.

There is a sociological reason why Malayalis speak in English once they are drunk. The Malayali society considers English speaking people are well educated. People here learn English and Hindi at a very early age itself. But they are never asked to use it on a daily basis. So, they understand English and Hindi, but when asked to speak in these languages they fumble. They are too conscious about the grammatical mistakes that they would make. This society loves grammatical rules and they are afraid of grammatical mistakes. And this society loves breaking grammatical rules in surreptitious ways. For that they need to get out of their inhibitions. Once you are drunk, your inhibitions vanish. Then you start speaking in English. You just don’t care about grammar. English gives you an authority; an authority on any subject that you speak of at that given point of time. Liquor dispels your inhibitions and English dispels your fear for the social authorities. And the most hilarious but magical scene in the world is two Malayalis speaking in English after considerable amount of liquor intake.

Mukunda Kumar speaks to me in English. “Your good name please,”

“Johny,” I don’t add my surname to it for keeping my anonymity intact. My name used to be one of the very familiar bylines amongst the reading public in Kerala during the late 1990s. I think, this man might recognize me if I tell him I am JohnyML.

“So Mr.Johny, don’t forget my name. I am Mukunda Kumar,” he smiles and looks around to see the works on display.

“Are you an artist?” I ask him.

“Me no artist. But a kind of artist. Half time artist,” he turns around and tells me.

“And half time actor, I believe,” I add to it with a tinge of sarcasm.

“You know why I am drunk in this hot afternoon?” he asks. “I went to see the Chitram Art Gallery in MG Road. I asked many people where it has vanished. None knows about it. We all know the galleries in Delhi, Mumbai, Dubai, London and America. But we don’t know where is Chitram Gallery. Malayalis are bullshit.”

Chitram Gallery was the only commercial gallery in Kochi. A few years back it was closed down.

“Then I called a couple of people and they told me Chitram Gallery is closed down. I could not stand that news. So I went straight to the next BAR and drank a few pegs to drown my sadness.”

“Where do you live, abroad? You did not know Chitram is closed down?” I ask him.

“I live here, right here, in this city only. But I live in underground,” he smiles sheepishly.


“Don’t ask me….” He continues. “I went to this bar and just above my table I saw a print of Starry Nights by Vincent Van Gogh, framed and hung. It was covered with cobweb and dust. I picked up some paper napkins, climbed on a chair and cleaned up the picture with a lot of reverence. The waiters came around me and asked what I was doing there. I told them I was cleaning it. They asked me why. I asked them, who kept the picture there. They told me, the owner of the bar put it there. I told them that the original of this picture was auctioned for phenomenal price that their owner could not even imagine. I also told them that it was painted by the great painter Vincent Van Gogh. They asked me to leave the bar. But I ordered for one more drink, had it silently and walked out.”

This guy has studied art, I think.

“No…your good name please…..ah…Mr.Johny….yes…I have not studied art…But I belong to an artisan’s family. Art inborn and art made are different…you see.. I am an artist in my own terms. I used to do cartoons. I published a few cartoons in one of the Malayalam journals but the management found that my cartoons were going against their editorial policy. So I stopped cartooning also. I live underground…”

“But how do you know the artists and art?” I insist.

“My interest…I know artists…You know what I studied. I studied Sanskrit in Maharajas College. Then I joined Ship Wireless Communication. When I finished this course, Satellite Communication system replaced the wireless system. So I never got a job…” he smiles again.

I remember one of my friends who left Art History and went on to study film cutting. When he finished film cutting course, digital editing technology replaced manual film cutting.

I want to know what this guy does in his life.

“Your good name please…oh..yes ..Mr.Johny..I am a framer. No, I used to be a framer. I used to frame the pictures of all those artists here in Kochi. Now I don’t have a workshop or shop. I stopped everything a few years back. Now I live underground….”

I want to know more about this man; a man who lives in underground, whatever he means by that and a man who does not know the changes happened in the art scene in the last few years. I note down his phone number and promise him to call sometime.

“My name is Mukund Kumar….don’t forget…Your good name please…oh..yes….Mr.Johny. We should meet. Call me….if I am available we will meet…..”

He looks at me, smiles and walks off.

I stand there, with a half finished article in my computer screen, and look at his mobile number. May be I will never call him. I am afraid, if I call him and meet him over a drink, the spell that he has casted on me would break.

I want to know him forever like this: “I am Mukunda Kumar. I live an underground life. Your good name please….oh..ah…yes…Mr.Johny.”

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Chance to become Jesus Christ

Christ performed wonders. He fed five thousand people with five pieces of bread. He converted water into wine. He performed magical acts because he had to convince the doubting people around him. Then he became the bread itself and wine too. He chased the speculators away from the temple of his father, God. He walked with the poor and the suffering. He neglected the invitation of the rich and went to receive the humble offerings of a prostitute.

In childhood he learnt carpentry from his father. When he grew up he learnt about the exile of his parents, he became conscious of the political structure, he understood how the corporate of that era functioned, how the money launderers and speculators played in the market. As a rebellious youth, he went out to learn the reality of life, he went into the forests, walked up to the hills, he suffered from his internal conflicts and he could overcome the temptations of the body. He came back to the town, educated with experience, enlightened by religio-political thinking. He worked like an artist, an artist who could re-draw the destiny of people. He went to the fishermen and asked them to follow him so that he could make the capturers of human souls. He was a great artist. He was a performance artist and he filled each of his acts with convincing symbolism. His final journey was the ultimate performance of silent suffering. Then he came out of the cave where his mortal body was confined. He was the ultimate artist.

In the airport, almost ten days back, on my journey towards South, I entered one of the eateries and ordered a cup of coffee and French fries. They charged me hundred and twenty rupees for that. When my token number was called I went to collect my food at the counter. To my shock I found the French fries packet contained around 15 pieces of potato, which in total hardly weighed fifty grams. I remembered ordering a packet of French fries at a Macdonald outlet in Delhi. They too had charged me around hundred and twenty rupees for the fries, a burger and a medium cup of cola. Then I went to a vegetable market and asked for the price of one kilogram of potato. It was ten rupees per kilo then.

George Bush Jr., former president of the United States says the hike in food price is caused by the erstwhile third world countries like India. People in India eat too much, he found the reason. Yes, we produce potatoes and the corporate houses based in the United States of America process our potatoes and sell it back to us for phenomenal prices.

What shall be done? I ask this question to my artist friends. I don’t want to ask this question to agricultural scientists, politicians, policy makers and economists because I don’t know them. I know the artists because I know them and I know that of late they have earned a lot of money. It is now their turn to pay back to the society.

I want the intellectual community including the artists to become Jesus Christ, great performers. I ask them to start farming and agriculture. Establish co-operative chains and food outlets in cities, airports, small towns and villages and sell food for affordable rates. Art cannot change society, but artistic acts can. Jesus Christ did this.

When my young artist friend Reji Arakkal recorded a series of interviews of local farmers and showed it to me, I asked him to extract one interview of a thirty two year old farmer from Vynadu district in North Kerala, who has spoken so well about his agriculture strategies and criticized the corporate houses for patenting seeds and introducing genetically modified seeds. He is a school final pass farmer. But he speaks of the issues of agriculture much better than any agricultural scientist. I asked Reji to show this thirty minutes interview, subtitled in English and show all over the world. People have a lot to learn from such inland farmers. No public art, no performance art, no gallery based art can address the issues as effectively as this simple farmer’s observations. “Return to earth that is the only way to save ourselves,’ this farmer says.

On this Christmas Eve, at 11.42 pm, I imagine all my artist friends spending part of their creative time in agricultural lands. Many artists in India have already started thinking in these lines. They are all on the way to become Jesus Christ. Yes, minus the Cross. The symbolic cross is carried by all. No need to receive flagellation while carrying a wooden cross.

I say this because, many of the public art performances, site specific art making, science related art production etc started looking like primary school level science exhibitions- innocent, naïve and almost stupid. Only parents would take pride in such activities of their children.

A friend of mine asked me, ‘any new year resolutions?’ Then she corrected herself, ‘oh, it is a cliché. Resolutions are taken only to break them in a few days.’

But I think, I have already taken my New Year resolution. I am going to talk to all my artists friends to become Jesus Christ and I will play the role of John the Baptist, one who walks before and humbly accepts who is not even worthy enough to carry the footwear of those who are coming behind.

I am going to go to the places in India and ask the people what contemporary art has done to their lives. And I am going to come back and tell my friends, what they people have to say about their contemporary art. I am going to participate in small little activities that would help to make human lives worth living, of course using art and art critical mediation as my tool.

I am going to ask my rich artist friend to help me to establish day care centers for the children of the working people. I am going to ask my rich artist friends to help me in establishing old age homes for old artists, who may be rich but live in isolation and disgrace. I want to see the old people live in happiness, not as destitutes and dependents.

All these are done through the funds created by art and artists. I am just a church, artists have to become Jesus Christ. And there would be no Pope in this holy city of human beings.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ten Ways to Overcome Writers’ Block

It was my decision to lock myself in a flat in Kochi for ten days and see how much I could write. This flat belongs to a friend of mine. On the first night of my arrival, my friend dropped me at the flat and warned me of two things. One, don’t open the door if someone knocks at it. Two, don’t pay any attention to the white figures if they come to the window and make some sounds.

His intention was to frighten me. And nobody likes to be told things like that especially when he is going to stay alone in a new place. I threatened him of dire consequences and sent him out. He had already prepared the flat for me, which was lying unoccupied for some time. I looked around and found a computer with internet connection, a television set with cable connection and a non-functional kitchen. I had some packed food and two bottles of beer with me. I opened the beer bottle, switched on the television and settled down.

Then suddenly the speed of the fan reduced automatically. I looked at the bulbs, which showed no sign of voltage fluctuation. But then how did this fan slow down? I got up, went to the regulator and turned it to full speed; the fan regained its speed. But then nothing happened. After food I went to bed, keeping all the lights on.

Next morning I got up, opened the window and found a beautiful garden down there. Some puppies were playing in the garden. They were playing with a grown up dog. I looked at them keenly and found that the dog was not their mother. It must be their father or brother from the previous delivery. Then I started counting the puppies. There were nine in number. Nine puppies, a good sight. I remembered the movie, hundred and one Dalmatians.

Luckily, I found an electric kettle in the kitchen. My friend had made minimum arrangements to make some tea for myself. I made a cup of tea and drank it. Then I went outside, bought some bananas. I had also decided not to eat more than one meal a day.

Now I am settled here. I have been writing for the last five days or so. Good experience. Minimum human contact and maximum output.

But then I face the problem of writers’ block in between. How do I get over this problem? I don’t want to speak to my friends or chat with them. I can see many of them online. But my location in Kochi does not make much difference to them because most often we see each other online only. When you meet in the virtual world, location does not matter.

Is it so? Location matters. If my friend pops up in the chat box and tells me that he is Spain, suddenly I find him distant and foreign. But if the same person tells me that he is comfortably sitting at his Delhi office, I feel a lot happy. Those friends who chat with me or telephone me usually, also feel the same about my locational shift. “When are you coming back to Delhi?” they ask. “Why?” I counter question them. “I feel a lot happier when I think you are sitting at your Delhi office space and chatting with me.”

So location matters a lot even when you are connected virtually. I know I am digressing a lot. My idea is to point out how I overcome the writers’ block here.

1) I walk along the wall, as close as possible and grate my body against the wall. I walk up and down keeping my body touching the wall and slowly I start thinking how people might be feeling in confinement. I think about the people in Auschwitz, Andaman, and Guantanamo Bay. Then I like to scribble my thoughts on the wall like graffiti. I imagine I don’t have a pen or pencil with me. So I use my finger nails to write down my pangs. In fact, I don’t do that. I imagine doing so. When I am able to imagine there is no writers’ block. It vanishes.

2) When I don’t feel like walking along the wall, I walk round and round, first slowly, then fast, till my head starts reeling. I count the mosaic tiles on the floor while I go round and round. I find shapes and forms evolving from the mosaic tiles. And I think about how artists arrive at certain forms and expressions. Once I get into that track my writers’ block starts melting down. I could then even visualize the book cover of Foucault’s ‘Madness and Civilization’.

3) Sometimes, I don’t feel like walking round and round. Then I open a shelf on the right corner of the wall and put my head inside and stand like an ostrich for long time till I feel suffocated. I try to close my eyes and feel the self imposed claustrophobia. Then I think about the men inside the hood, the ones in the torture camps, the ones in the gallows and the ones on the horse back. But the horse back ones have some difference. They can see the world outside through the holes cut into the hood. They are Klu Klux Klan people. They attack the black people. I think of black movies, black revolution and the paintings of Manjunath Kamath’s works, where he paints a lot of people putting their heads into buckets, shelves etc. Look my writers’ block is gone.

4) When I don’t want to torture myself like that, I go near the window and look down at the garden and find there are only two puppies left. They play with crows and the crows play with them. When the teasing of the crows increases and the puppies feel uncomfortable the mother rushes at the crows from nowhere. Then I smile and my mind gets filled by some inexplicable feelings. I think about my son, my mother, my wife, my girl friends and all those kids in the world. Mother rushes to save the child. I remember Maxim Gorky’s Mother. I remember Brecht’s Mother Courage. Above all I remember one line from my mother’s diary, which I accidently opened a few days back. It was written in 1997. ‘Johny is working hard and he is shooting up in life.’ I was not shooting up then. People were shouting at me. But I could make my mother proud even then. My writers’ block is gone.

5) When I don’t want to look down through the window, I just walk up to the television set and stand before it, imagining that I am a character in one of the television shows. I give interviews to imaginary people, I become Mickey Mouse, Goofy, I walk like Denzel Washington, fight like Wesley Snipes, then participate in the Star Singer program, act like Mr.Bean, go to bed with Julia Roberts (but they would sensor this scene. They did not even allow this scene with Denzel in Pelican Brief), walk on the red carpet, receive a Grammy Award, give a thanks giving speech at the Man Booker Prize ceremony. I act out all these for an imaginary audience. Then my writers’ block is gone because I have so many things to tell my imaginary audience.

6) I smoke a few cigarettes. But it never helps. May be rarely cigarettes burn out the writers’ block. Smoking tires you. But you smoke again and think about why you are tired. It may help, because a tired mind can bring forth weird ideas.

7) On can go into toilet and sit there for a while. Just concentrate on the bowel movements and think about existential problems of human beings. In flats, especially flats like this, the walls are paper thin, like the hotel room walls. You can hear the bowel movements of your never seen neighbor. Then you imagine the narrative traditions of India, in a tier system. You imagine the cross section of a flat, the anatomy of the flat. So many people in the closets, doing funny things. Yes, toilet is a place, which can dispel many blocks including the writers’ ones. I heard Shah Rukh Khan spends three hours in his washroom. He must be removing his actors’ block.

8) When I don’t feel like sitting like Thinker in a toilet I go before the mirror, strip my clothes one by one and stand in stark nudity. I examine my body inch by inch. I count the hairs inside my nose, make sure that my hairs are graying symmetrically. I look at my tummy, hold my breath and try to see any packs of muscle visible. I think about Arnold Schwarznegger’s documentary ‘Pumping Iron’, Sylvester Stallon’s Rambo and Rocky series, think about American politics and its imperial incursions, and my writer’s block is gone.

9) I wait for someone to call me and when they call me I refuse to take the call. When the ringing stops, I think about the person who rang me up, his/her location, engagements, attitudes, intentions, desires and the reason for calling me. I send sms to some friend and wait for him/her to respond. When the reply comes, I look at the icon of sms, without opening it and imagine what could be the content. Then my writers’ block is gone.

10) When none of the above works, I masturbate. That removes all the blocks.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Food for the Path

This piece of writing is for all those youths who have left their home once, not knowing when he/she would come back to the warmth of home.

You could be a conformist or a rebel. You may be leaving home with the parents’ consent or you may be rebelling and quitting the life you had till now. Whatever be the case, your mother gives you a packet of food. She blesses you with a few drops of internal tears and a packet of food. Mother knows well that you would get your food from the food stalls out there in the unknown streets, she is sure that you would not go hungry as you are capable enough to find your food. Still she packs that one meal for you. Not necessarily a full meal, may be a few snacks; a packet of a few familiar fragrances and colors.

Journeys are mutual invasions; you think you invade a new land, tame it and make it yours. But the place of your landing invades you in turn and it invades your tongue, eyes, skin, nose and ears. The new land with its curious affinities re-inscribes you as a new person. The taste of your mother’s food become a memory; the moment you think about it, as if in a magical conjuration, it spreads a feast before you, a feast of sights and smells. A feast of deep memories, a feast of protected days that would never come back. They call it growing up. And you refuse to grow up and you want to go back to that day, the very same day, when you left your home first with a packet of food, specially prepared for you by your mother.

In Malayalam, the packet of food that you take along when you set out on a journey is called ‘padheyam’ or ‘vazhicchoru’ or ‘pothichoru’. These words have a smell; smell of a banana leaf made flexible on fire, the smell of unconditional love. When you translate these words into English, like poetry in translation, the smell goes away. All those three words mean, ‘Packed food for the Path.’

In a train compartment, within the cocoon of loneliness that you have woven around you with your fears, desires, aspirations and the wetness of the inexplicable sadness, you open this packet of food. Each grain of rice tells you a story of your growth- from a toddler to a rebellious youth. The grains have now changed their colors. The green vegetable stains them green, the red vegetable makes it red, the coconut chutney gives it a pink sheen and the pickle, the preserved spring of a mango orchard sings a cradle song for you. You drink from the pet bottle; this water still carries the fire of your home kitchen, even if it is cold by now. You may buy branded bottled water from now onwards and you remember how you refused to take this water along. This is a landscape; a landscape that you passed just now without knowing that you have crossed it.

For me, the experience of padheyam is like a full moon night seen through the windows of a moving train. The bright face of the moon follows you. It shines the tips of the trees and the edges of the iron grill of the window that holds you back from your unreasonable desire to jump out from a moving train. Journeys induce you with a sense of death chosen at will. Then you see the moon, the ethereal scenes of a ghostly landscape and you suppress the desire to die. You think about life and the happy moments you spent back in home. You look at the food and the full face of the moon. You want that packet of food remain with you forever, the same way you want the moon shine in your life forever.

I am sure, one day you will go back to the safety hands of your parents, especially those of your mother. If you are a man, your wife would say, ‘grow up you mama’s boy.’ If you are a woman, you find a confidante in her. You wonder how you have grown into her and she into you. You look at the old photographs in your family album and find yourself in the photographs of your parents taken when they were young.

It is then you realize how meaningful the rebellion is. All your life you rebelled to become your father and mother. You negated them only to become what they already been. One day you also would pack food for your son or daughter and be sure they would come back one day, after all those journeys and they would agree with you on this point: All rebellions are about going back to the roots, to become one with the roots. The fruit knows the root. Fruit is the fulfilled desires of the roots.

When you become a fruit, you become the padheyam also. You bring it back to your parents. If they are still around, you open it for them and if they are not there, you go to the sea shore and spread it out there.

They say, the dead souls come as crows and eat your offerings laid out with prayer and tears at the sea shore.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Where is the Artist Community’s initiative to Help Terror Victims?

I look at the words of my artist friend MSC Satya Sai. It is an e-mail that he sent to the Taj Public Service Welfare Trust, which was formed under the leadership of the Taj Group Chairman, Ratan Tata. The trust is meant for extending help to the Mumbai terror victims. The statement sent out by the trust says that it would ‘continue to discharge its mandate in the coming years, specifically covering relief to victims of sudden acts of violence, natural disasters, and other tragic events that inflict damage to life and property.’

A noble gesture from one of the most reliable industrial houses in India- The TATA Group. No doubt about it.
Satya writes to the trust (I don’t know whether it is ethical to reveal his words for my blog readers. But I take liberty of doing it as he is my good friend), “I am a Delhi based artist, originally from Hyderabad. With present market crunch, having few rupees in my account I may not donate the amount of money which I desire to but want to donate one of my paintings worth more than One lakh which can be auctioned and get more than its original price money for the Taj relief fund.”
I don’t doubt the intention of my young friend either. He really means it. He has the guts to tell the Taj Group that he is an artist, a struggler of sorts, but still wants to help the victims with whatever means available at his disposal.
But if I were a contemporary visual artist in India, I would not have given any kind of support to this trust. Please ask me why.
I would not have given any support to this trust because I expect my community and fraternity of artists to come forward to form a trust and execute its mandate in helping the affected in terror attacks. I want this artists’ trust to help not only those affected within the Taj Hotel premises, but all those faceless people who got affected in the Mumabi Railway stations while the terrorists struck.
Why should we always wait for someone like Ratan Tata or Aziz Premji or Narayana Murthy to come forward to establish trusts to support the public in India? What is our artists’ community/fraternity doing?
In one of my recent posts after the Mumbai terror attack, I had written about the failure of Indian contemporary art in reaching out to the common public. Now, I think, it is the right opportunity for the artists’ community to say, ‘we do care’.
I remember when Chandramohan’s works were attacked at the Fine Arts Faculty, Baroda during the final display in May 2007, the first war cry coming from the Chemould Gallery, Mumbai, in the form of an email. It said, all the artists should congregate in the gallery, make a resolution and take action against the right wing fundamentalists who attacked the works of art in Baroda. Next day, they gathered at the steps of Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai, made public speeches and later they traveled to Baroda by road to form a human chain in order to re-establish their solidarity with the somewhat nebulous artists’ community.
But when the terrorists struck Mumbai, this community is not seen anywhere. They are not asked any question by the media. Forget that media, most often it is crap. My friend in Mumbai informed me that one of the respected television channels in India, NDTV aired a program in which the celebrities were called to ask what did they feel about Mumbai episode and what was the song that they would prefer to dedicate to the nation? After their comments, a song of their liking was aired, to start with some nationalistic songs, then the usual Bollywood stuff.
Sickening, isn’t it?
More sickening is the attitude of those people (many from artists’ fraternity too) who go around, send sentimental text messages and emails. Tragedy transforms into comedy when some of the text messages languish between a sense of trauma and an intentional joke. Again, sickening it is when people go around and organize candle light vigils.
My artist friend in Delhi tells me, “Candle light vigil sucks. It is a photo opportunity for many and an outing for others.”
There are people who take this candle light vigils very seriously and they will never appear in newspapers and television. Here fashion industry leaders and parallel movie actors and NGO leaders call for candle light vigils. And next day, their pictures appear in front page of the newspapers.
A friend of mine sent me an SMS asking me to light a candle on one of the window sills at my home to remember the departed souls in Mumbai terror. I just deleted the SMS without any remorse. Reason: I don’t believe in candle light vigils. Number two, I don’t have window sill at home. Number three, I hate that feel good factor after doing something symbolic like this.
I am ready to accept that I am impotent and powerless.
In 2002-03 during my stay in London, I went through so many documentaries made on 9/11. The documentaries were made from different perspectives. Some dealt with the heroic action of the New York Fire Fighting Department. Some dealt with the police force. Some dealt with the lives of people who came out of the twin infernos. Some dealt with lives of the relatives of the dead people.
Nowhere, yes nowhere, I could see people calling out for candle light vigils. Instead, I saw a number of passers by stopping at the pictures of the missing people, even a few months after the terror attacks, placing a flower, a souvenir, an amulet, a book, or a sandwich, or a candle before them. They were not acting out for television cameras. They were the common people in the US, paying tribute to all those who lost their lives on 9/11.
Symbolic help does not help really. Where has Chandramohan gone? Did the artists’ fraternity that created human chain of solidarity later on ever think of this young artist who received all the ire of the rightwing fundamentalists?
Artists do not have any union. Galleries also don’t have any union. Apparently, Indian art scene has a peculiar dynamics. But when an issue that affects the general interest of the gallerists, they do discuss, merge, collaborate and participate in actions. Art Funds, Artists Pension Funds, Performance Art Festival etc are the best examples from the recent past to show how the galleries could come together and work towards a common goal.
But why they are silent now? Why they are not mobilizing public opinion through bringing all the artists in one platform?
Why do we wait for Ratan Tata to come and organize artists and galleries?
That is the importance of being Ratan Tata. The family of Tata did not reinvest all its money into profit making. They established cultural forums, museums, research institutes, publications and participated in the making of India as a modern nation. Tata Group is one of the biggest collectors of Indian modern art.
I am told that one of the prominent young gallerists in Mumbai walked into Taj Hotel a few years back and found out an immense collection of modern art in its rooms and halls. He identified several pivotal works in the collection. Nobody knows what happened to that collection after the fire and brimstones lashed out against the Taj Hotel.
Ratan Tata must be knowing and he must be worried also.
But the artists’ community does not worry. It has not even issued a joint statement yet.
Now tell me, why should I wait for Ratan Tata to tell me that we all should act? Why can’t my community take the initiative?
Is it because the artists’ community find the financial losses incurred thanks to market recession is more tragic than the terror attacks in Mumbai?
Now, you may ask me, why can’t I take the initiative to form an action group of artists?
I have already told you, I am impotent and powerless.
Let my community members also accept that they are impotent.
Until then, I am distinct and I belong elsewhere.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Glimpses from the God’s Own Country

At the Eranakulam bus station, to catch a bus to Kottayam, I wait. It is early morning. I have this urge to say that I stand there ‘alone’ in an island of silence. But it is not true. There are people around me, both natives and visitors.

I wistfully look at these Malayali women with their curly hairs still wet in early morning bath. It is a beautiful sight, quite refreshing. They are all geared up to face the breaking day. I look for the Malayali men wearing dhotis. No, dhoti has become a rare sight here. Trousers have replaced the stereotypical white dhoti. I remember the men in South Korea and Singapore. There ordinary workers and laborers also wear three piece suits, complete with a neck tie. It is an interesting sight to see the men in three piece suits squatting in streets, smoking cheap cigarettes.

In Eranakulam, I don’t see trouser clad men squatting and smoking. A blanket ban on smoking is in place and people seem to obey the government order unlike in Delhi, where I live.

I hear someone speaking in Hindi. There are so many tourists and North Indian dwellers in this city. I remember all those newly married couple whom I saw in the flight while coming to the city. Eranakulam and Kochi are honeymoon destinations too.

There is one good thing about traveling in a flight, which is filled with honeymoon couples. They will not disturb you. They don’t even need two seats. They make two seats into one and create a private world of their own by opening both the tray tables. A clanging of bangles here, a rustling of silk here, a muffled laughter there and few stolen kisses here. And you are either left to enjoy all these secretly or to indulge in your own activities; day dreaming, dozing, reading- in that order or the other way round.

If you are extra observant, you may study the mehndi patterns on these girls’ hands and legs. I study them carefully because there are a lot around me in the flight. And I imagine all of them as exotic reptiles in heat. I am sure this skin is going to be shed in a few weeks’ time.

Why all these walking murals look so fragile and helpless, I ask myself. Till a day before their marriage, they were running around like bold tigresses, negotiating the curves and squaring the circles of an urban jungle. But during honeymoon days they look so threatened and insecure. They are happy only when they speak to someone back home (could be parents, relatives, siblings or friends) over mobile phones.

I see some honeymoon couple at this bus stand. I feel lonely. I call my friend, who is a later riser. He picks up phone and asks my whereabouts. “I feel like marooned in an island,” I tell him and to excite his interest I tell him about the honeymoon couples.

“Honeymoon couples choose this city these days because there is a belief that honeymooning in Kochi would bring them sons,” my friend sounds serious and I laugh off.

“Seriously man, people come here to have sons,” he insists. Now I have to believe it. I am learning a contemporary myth of the God’s own country. I imagine a host of couples landing in this land looking forward to have sons- India’s perennial preference for male children to continue the family legacy.

Eranakulam has a lot of temples and churches. Kerala is God’s own country not because it is blessed with a heavenly nature but it has given abode to all the thirty three crore population of Hindu gods and all those saints invented and enrolled by Christianity. Mosques too are abundant but then there is only one god there. There is no wonder if people believe that they will be blessed with sons if they honeymoon here.

Suddenly I remember how myself and my wife decided to have a child almost ten years back and look, we were staying in a hotel in Eranakulam! We did not know about this myth then. We did our best but nothing happened. We got our son in Delhi, after many years and we had forgotten the meaning of honeymoon by then. Under the sweltering August weather in Delhi, honeymoon is the last thing you remember.

I locate my bus. Buses have different faces. Some of them smile, some of them grin, some others show their empty gums, some look deeply drawn in thoughts and some look injured and insulted. My bus looks pensive with downcast eyes. It is an Ashok Leyland make.

Most of the Road Transport Corporation buses are red in color. If there is a single yellow stripe like girdle around its body, it is an ordinary bus. If it has a wave like yellow patch around it, it is a fast passenger. If it is predominantly yellow and less red, it is a super fast and if it is green, it is an express. There were light blue buses- they were deluxe coaches, but not seen too many. For information sake, if the board is written in black it is an ordinary bus and if it is in red, it is a fast passenger.

My bus is a fast passenger. Nobody is seen inside the bus. I walk up to the enquiry counter and wait for someone to take my query. There are several drivers and conductors sitting inside the room, chatting- must be politics. Someone comes to the counter and does not show any inclination to answer my question. Anger seethes in me.

I had fought with several transport bus workers in Kerala. They have a strong union and most of the time they just don’t care. Once a conductor refused to give me a balance of three rupees. I insisted that I should get it back. I had a severe verbal exchange with him. I went to the complaint cell, showed my ticket and placed my demand for three rupees. The authority there looked at the ticket and then looked at my angry face.

“Ah…you can get your money back. But this bus does not belong to this depot. Please go and submit it to the depot where it belongs,” he told me.

The bus belonged to a depot, which is two districts away from where I stood. I should travel four hours in the same bus to claim my three rupees! That’s what trade union does to people. They become so strong and they start thinking that the buses are run for keeping the employees fed. They just don’t care. I threw the ticket at his face and walked off. I felt impotent till I caught up with a mainstream flick, in which Mohanlal (a leading actor in Malayalam film industry) thrashed up all the villains including some bureaucrats. Yes, that’s how, we Indians regain our virility. Our dignity is three inches in flaccid stage and while watching a movie it is seven inches. The government overworks to keep us in three inches format.

“That bus leaves at 8.00 am,” finally he tells me with no warmth or human connection. There is enough time.

I walk around and see a book stall. I browse through the journals kept in neat rows. So many of them. When I left Kerala almost sixteen years back, these many journals were not there. I look at them. They have all kinds of names- from intellectual stuff to soft porn types. I pick up an intellectual type magazine (not because I am an intellectual but just to know what Kerala intellectuals think about these days), browse through the contents that fail to excite me. I keep it back.

People read so much in Kerala. It is an argumentative society. All these journals today analyze Mumbai terror incident giving their ‘exclusive’ stories. It is an alert society- perhaps too alert that has rendered it numb and reactionary.

I decide not to buy any magazine because I think I could spend my quality time looking at the passing landscape and scenes, from a moving bus window. It is more informative and exciting than reading that intellectual pulp.

I should take a leak because the Transport Department does not care even if your bladder bursts while in the bus.

I look around for a washroom. I see a typical temple architecture on my right. I think, look, here another temple. But to my shock I find it is a public toilet. Imagine- a public toilet made in the form of a temple!

While in the bus I see so many temple structures- all houses of the neo-rich. Yes, simulated temple architecture in mortar and brick as wood is rare and costlier. Kerala is filled with this sickening sight of temple architecture incorporated into house building. Right from Nedumbasseri Airport to the local toddy shops. They all have the same architectural archetype for reference.

Something is terribly wrong with this society. A society lives on debates unmindfully splurges on what it actively negates in polemics. They don’t understand that they piss and shit in sanctum sanctorum, the ones they severely want to protect.

God has finally left this country, it seems. Architects of vulgarity have taken over.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Looking for a Hero

“I always wanted to become a soldier. But then I got into another comfortable living here in JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University). Now I seriously think that I should join the army.’- a student tells the Hindustan Times.

“We should appreciate the Jawans (soldiers). They have given away their lives for protecting us.”- an artist friend to me over Google chat.

The elite commando force, NSG, the National Security Guards, became the darling of the Indian people, once they gunned down the terrorists in Mumbai and captured one of them alive. People gave them flowers and got their autographs. Newspapers flashed their pictures- them rejoicing after the ‘war’, them in family situations, them in the act of rescuing a wounded child at Taj Hotel, Mumbai.

I remember the picture of this unknown NSG Commando smiling at us with a red rose in his hand. Suddenly I remember something uncanny: the picture of an unidentified university student waving his hands before the armored vehicles rolling in front of Tiananmen Square, China.

I remember the pictures of angry mobs and angry family members of those army personals who laid down their lives at the Kargil Hills. Then we screamed, ‘we are wasting precious lives on an unwanted war.’

Today, friends send me pictures of protesting crowds all over India, holding placards that congratulate the brave deeds of the NSG Commandos.

I cannot get over this Mumbai Terror episode. I write about it again and again.

I am happy at least finally our NSG Commandos have been brought into some use. Otherwise, they have been accompanying the useless politicians of India, guarding their lives from the ‘people’ of India. I have seen so many of them sitting wearily in the open Maruti Gypsies, in full combat attire. I always wonder why any one of them never raises his weapon against these politicians.

They will not do it because they are trained to work for a cause- that is protecting whatever they are assigned to protect. They are not machines, but trained human beings.

I congratulate them. Like any other Indian who watched television channels, I too got goose pimples when I saw them being air dropped at the top of Taj and Nariman House. I wanted to become one of them. My empathetic relationship with war heroes.

I don’t feel any surprise when I listen to an intelligent woman artist praising commando action nor do I get shocks when I hear someone in JNU expressing his wish to join the army. It is all about empathy.

It is all about a country, which is looking for the Heroes. Our heroes have been dead and gone. The young generation has expressed its revulsion for the stereotypical Indian politician. Now what India needs is a hero. This country has been desperately looking for a hero for sometime. Mumbai Terror episode has given us a new set of heroes- the NSG Commandos. Could they be our real heroes for long?

Don’t call me a traitor or a deviant. Let me tell you, in the Mumbai episode, the NSG Commandos are not the real heroes. They are the ‘heroes’ who finally go back to home and hearth, or they are the heroes who go back to their loved ones. Then as the narratives say, ‘they live happily ever after’ because we don’t come to know what happened to their lives. We need a happy ending.

But the other narrative goes on- the narrative of the real heroes, whom people want to emulate. In the Mumbai episode, the real hero is the captured terrorist. Newspapers tell his name and he is referred as Kasav. (I can go to google and look for his real name. But I don’t want to do that)

Why do I call him a real hero? The reason is that people, after the adrenaline rush, recognize one thing- this guy stood for what he believed right. He is not an underworld don. Nor is he a professional pirate. He is a trained soldier of Allah, or he is made to believe that he is one. Like the NSG Commandos, he is also on a mission and he obeys only one command- the command of his terrorist sect, which trained him and made him believe that after attacking a place like Mumbai he would go back to his country, if not he would reach the heavenly abode. Any person with commonsense can understand that there is not even a remote chance of him going back. But he believed that he would go back to the heavenly abode of Allah. He told this to his interrogators without feeling any remorse or regret of his act.

Here is Kasav, a fourth standard drop out, who now speaks ‘excellent English, has a good knowledge of computer and software, trained in handling sophisticated arms and ammunitions, well versed in Geo-Mapping systems and satellite communication systems’, who has become the face of the terror. His face was flashed all over the world. Newspapers made logos out of his face- a logo of terror.

India, a country with millions of school drop outs, has all the potential to produce millions of Kasavs. I don’t mean that they all would go and attack Pakistan. But they would become local heroes by joining local terror camps- to terrorize their own people. Or they would become heroes by helping the people around them. To become local heroes, they should believe in something. They need an anchor. Extreme ideologies are always comfortable anchors for directionless people. The majority of Indian youth with no direction from political system would look at extreme ideologies, whether it be Maoists, Hindu, Muslim, Left or Right, that offer a heavenly abode.

If the Indian youth, irrespective of their intellectual abilities or educational backgrounds or cultural positioning, want to emulate the NSG Commandos, that shows they need a disciplined anchor. The NSG director has already said that it is an elite force, so it cannot open shops in all the parts of the country. Then would you like to join army? No, it is not as glamorous as the NSG. What about Police? Oh, it is a corrupt force. So NSG, NSG, NSG. If not, anything that would give us a direction, an anchor and a disciplined practice to transcend our selves (Read it as reaching the heavenly abode).

With a failed political system, Indian youth is ready to launch themselves into a new course- the course of extreme ideologies. Either they would consume more or when they fail to do that they would become local Kasavs.

Am I sounding too negative?

Let me take an example from Bollywood. In the film ‘Fanaa’, Amir Khan is shown as a terrorist, first working as a ‘drop out’ guide in Delhi, then as a top class business man elsewhere, then as a top ranking official in Indian army. He gets himself conscripted in the Indian Army, works hard to climb in ranks- all for reaching his aim, sabotage the country. Finally he is shot dead by his own wife.

The film was a huge hit when it was released. Why, because we identified with the man with a mission and anchor in life. He could do anything to achieve his goal. He was a Kasav.

We like Heroes with a mission. And we like more anti-heroes with a mission.

We forget those soldiers who raped Manorama in Manipur. We forget those soldiers vandalized the lives of Kashmiri people in yester years. We want to become NSG Commandos.

And we will forget NSG Commandos also.

This admiration is just an adrenaline rush. We will pardon our politicians. May be we will elect more egalitarian politicians in future.

But we will forget the heroes who go back to their families.

We will remember those who subverted our thinking with daring, missionary zeal and anchor.

I don’t want to become a Kasav nor do I want to become an NSG Commando because I have found my anchor in myself.

I stop my car and bike before the stop line at the read lights. I am not in a rush to reach anywhere because the journey itself is my destination.

(Illustration- Kasav in action at Mumbai CST)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Failure of Indian Contemporary Art during the Times of Terror

One week has passed since the terrorists’ attack in Mumbai. Like any other citizen in this country, everyday I watch television news and read newspapers to keep myself updated about the Mumbai incident. They say, Mumbai is getting back on its feet. Mumbai is picking up pieces to put once again back to the jigsaw puzzle, which is otherwise called life. And in Delhi people conduct candle light vigils. It takes no time to convert a tragedy into theatrics, death into spectacle. Perhaps, every tragedy has got an aspect of theatricality embedded in it. Even a death occurred in privacy and silence has got an unrevealed spectacle in it.

As an individual working in the field of fine arts, my interest, all these days, has been in locating the reactions of our contemporary artists, especially those residing in Mumbai. For me, Mumbai artists are very special people. They live in the financial capital of India. They react to the global incidents more vehemently than the artists living in other parts of India. They are much sought after people not only in the financial market but also in the entertainment market. Their opinions are religiously sought on social issues including fashion and life style. Their opinions hold a lot of weight. They may not be born Mumbaikars. But they are Mumbaikars by choice, if not by fate.

During the days of terror, I reached out to the artists’ fraternity in Mumbai through emails, sms, chats and telephone calls. “I was there at Taj, couple of hours before the incident,” someone mumbled. “Thank God, we are saved,” someone heaved. “We should congratulate our commandos,” someone thumped. “Fine…but,” someone stopped in apprehension. “Things are okay. But how long?” someone expressed the doubt. Individual reactions vary in such situations but they all seemed to be shaken.

For the artists’ fraternity, ‘Mumbai terror’ is the second terrorist attack in three months. The first attack came in the form of market slump. That came through the stock exchange tickers showing continuous falling. The second one came through the sea route, heavily loaded with arms and ammunition. When the market collapsed, the artists were asked by the media, ‘What do you feel?’, ‘Do you think it is going to last?’, ‘What exactly happened?’ ‘Could you suggest a solution to come out of this?’ ‘Was this market just a bubble, if it could just burst like that?’ ‘How are you going to face it?’ ‘What kind of correction are you proposing?’ And the artists did give intelligent and sensitive answers.

I surfed all the television channels, browsed through all the newspapers just to see one reporter asking similar questions to the artists in India. Leave that, why all the artists, at least the artists who live in Mumbai. I thought I might have missed some news item, some newspapers, where artists appeared to comment on the terror situation in Mumbai. So I called several of my friends to do a quick research for me. All of them came back with one answer: ‘None is asked.’

I would be distorting the fact if I say artists did not feature in news items during the days of calamity. Delhi based senior artist, Anjolie Ela Menon was contacted because her son was in Mumbai on that fateful day. Iloosh Alluwaliah, a Delhi based artist was contacted by the newspapers because she had her first ‘solo show’ in Taj, Mumbai, several years back. She is shocked because ‘she decided to have her solo show in Taj as she came to know that Amrita Sherghil had her solo show in Taj, Mumbai in 1940s.’ In Mumbai, one artist was contacted by the media. I forgot her name, but my friend told me that she was an interior designer and ‘artist’. Well….

I don’t want to criticize our artists because I know that they are not silent on this issue. Unfortunately, they were/are not asked to express their opinions regarding the Mumbai incident. This provokes me to ask some questions to myself. What is contemporary art for the general public? Does the general public consider art as an integral part of their lives? Why do the media contact only politicians, film actors, tele-serial actors, social activists, dancers, singers, film directors, theatre personalities, designers, architects especially when it comes to the incidents like Mumbai Terror? If media represent the pulse of the society, what does the erasure of artists’ voice mean at this point of time? Why did the same media that went gaga over the market success of the artists choose to keep a selective silence on their presence during the Mumbai incident? Does it show the failure of Indian contemporary art in reaching out to the public?

I raised my doubts to a couple of very important Indian contemporary artists. One of them told me by quoting David Sylvester, “the moment art talks more about money than aesthetics, just be sure it has lost all its value as art. It no longer caters to the public. Even if it talks about public issues, the public just does not want it to talk about its issues. Perhaps, art is the last thing people are bothered about.” The second one said, “Our artists have been painting, sculpting, installing, photographing, video-graphing public life and its problems for long time. During the moments of crisis, if people are not remembering it, I should say, the art has failed to remain in their minds as things that evoke powerful responses. It is surprising to see that not a single artist was asked to react on the Mumbai incident by the media, nor did they discuss any contemporary work of art that almost dealt with the issues of war and terrorism.”

Has contemporary art failed completely? If I go by the Mumbai incident, I would say, it has failed. It has failed in its mission to be there in the public mind. If art is all about making ruptures in jaded thinking process, if art is all about generating alternative thinking, if art is all about providing spiritual and philosophical solace, if art is all about reaching out to people and being one with them, if art is all about politics, our contemporary art has failed to be all these.

Let me take the example of the show titled ‘WAR’ curated by Shaheen Merali at Bodhi Art Gallery, Mumbai. Bodhi is located at Kalaghoda, which is a few minutes away from Colaba where all these unfortunate incidents took place. This show with national and international artists, was all about terrorism and war. Not a single television or newspaper reporter referred to this show as a discursive platform where the Indian artists brought in their thoughts about war and terrorism. The reporters were ‘filling in’ us with the references from the Bollywood flicks that made use of ‘terrorism’ as a theme. They did not forget to mention ‘Shootout at Lokhandwala’ but they absolutely forgot to mention the WAR show. Does that mean Shootout at Lokhandwala could reach out to people and the WAR show could reach out only to a few interested parties and party hoppers?

In Mumbai we have an important artist, T.V.Santhosh. This man of very few words has been consistently working on the issue of war and terror for the last six years. His works have been internationally discussed for their thematic gravity. T.V.Santhosh’s name is always taken up for discussing the art market’s ups and downs. When his works fetch higher prices in international auctions, the media go crazy discussing his ‘value’. But when the actual terror struck Mumbai, he was not asked for a single comment. I have not seen his name anywhere in the newspapers. I have not seen his interviews in television channels during or after this calamity.

I can take any number of names who have articulated the issues of war and terror- Atul Dodiya to Baiju Parthan. Bose Krishnamachari to Pradeep Mishra. Jitish Kallat to Amar Kanwar. Shilpa Gupta to Tejal Shah. Why these artists were not asked once, what do they feel about the whole situation? Have their art failed in reaching out? Or the market has done such an overwork to take the works away from people?

Do the media discuss art and artists only when they have market value? Now the market is down. Has the media’s aversion for interviewing artists at this moment been dictated by the market factors? If so, shall we say art has become just money. Only money nothing else?

I am not a person to answer these questions. I am not implicating artists also for this. But one thing I am sure- art, whether it is shown in Mumbai, Delhi or in any international venue, is not touching the core of people’s life in India. People just don’t care about art. They may care more about the rising and falling in property values, they may care about the failing political system, they may care about the low standards of a movie by just not going for it (and assuring it a box office dud), they may care about the education system, they may care about the prices of vehicles. But they just don’t care about art.

If they need to care…they should be brought into it. Mumbai incident shows that Indian contemporary art is an insular world, manipulated by twenty, played out by two hundred, followed by two thousand and cursorily looked at by maximum a twenty thousand people. Man, that is a pretty silly number considering the two billion population of this country.

What should be done (by the artists)? As Lenin said, the artists should make a very clear stance on their alliance- whether they belong to the people or to the market.

Being in market is not a problem. But becoming a market in oneself is.

Theodore Adorno said, there is no poetry after Auschwitz.

I say, there cannot be same kind of contemporary art from Mumbai after 26/11.

After a few months, if some Mumbai artist comes up with a work of art that refers back to the 26/11 incident, mark my words, he/she will be the biggest joker of the century.

(Illustration is a painting by the Delhi based artist, Manjunath Kamath)

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Last SMS


Monday, December 1, 2008

Finding that Muslim Friend in You

Dear Najeeb,

How are you? And where are you? Last year when I went to my village, I asked our friends about you. One of them told me you were in Dubai for a long time and once you got a chance to travel to England with your boss, you gave him a slip. Now they say you are well settled in London, doing a good job and earning a lot. Good. You were always a smart ass. I still remember the kind of pleasure you used to get by slapping at my bare thighs with your hard palms. You see, now I have shed all those fat. I am no longer your ‘elephant’. It is funny to remember all those things we did during our school days. We have grown old my dear friend, with graying moustache and hair. What about you?

After these many years, I wonder why I write you this letter. Yes, I know why I do this. These days, everyone is afraid of Muslims. You know the reason also. They say Muslims are terrorists. Now, Mumbai is attacked by the Lashkar-e-Tyebba terrorists. Even if Mumbai is attacked by the terrorists, as usual we find an emblematic enemy in Muslims. They say, Muslims breed like anything and one day they are going to destroy all other people. I am fed up of this kind of thinking. I don’t want to argue with people because people are always a majority and your voice will sink in their arguments. I am not a politician because I have other things to do in my life. I am not a policy maker because individuals like me are always out of the policy making bodies. But I think, I have some partial solution for this lopsided thinking of the people.

The solution is simple. Just search for your Muslim friend. Or just find out that Muslim friend who resides in you.

In our childhood days, you must be remembering, we grew up without knowing whether you were a Muslim, a Christian or a Hindu. Even if we went home during the lunch breaks, we all cherished the free meal served from the school kitchen. Do you remember the seal on those sacks of wheat and oil tins? They had the American flag etched on them. We never thought we were having subsidized American food. Then during intervals we ran to the ‘kaakka’s’ (the older Muslim brother) shop where he sold sweets and pickles. For five paise we used to get one piece of pickle and a lot of water free. Don’t you still remember the sweetness of water when you drink it after chewing the pickled berries?

I never thought you were a Muslim. But I envied you for the first time and I too wanted to become a Muslim, do you know when? Don’t laugh at me. I became jealous of you when you had your sunnat (circumcision). You got two weeks leave from school. When I came to see you, you were lying on a mattress spread on the floor with a white cotton cloth hung like a tent from your groins. I could see you giving me a smile with a tinge of pain in it. Your umma (mother) and other women of the household were sitting around you, singing songs and feeding you with the best of sweets. They made me to sit near them and gave me a lot of sweets.

Back in school, you showed me your stuff, now without the foreskin. It looked pale red. Do you remember, how gleefully we did the pissing game after that. Mine with the adjustable end and yours without that. We drew our names on the clay wall behind the school building with our urine jet and we waited to see the clay sucking in our urine and leaving a faint mark of our names there. Oh….now again I was jealous of you, during those Thursday evenings, when you guys had the Arab lessons. You never allowed me to touch your Arab text book. It was too sacred for you. You showed off how you read it from right to left. What an achievement. I wished to study Arab then and there. But it’s okay. You compensated for it by inviting me and other friends during the Ramadan days when used to do fasting. In the evening, along with you, we too had the wonderful dinner that your Umma cooked for all of us.

I remember, I used to get up by the ‘Allahu Akbar’ calling from the mosque which was a few paces behind my house. At the same time I used to listen to this ‘Venkateswara Suprabhatam’ sung by the legendary M.S.Subbalakshmi, coming out of a loud speaker of the nearest temple. My days were marked by this jugalbandi of Allahu Akbar and Venkateswara Suprabhatam. In the evening, my grandmother waited for the Mullah to give the namaz call so that she could light the lamps in the small temple at our courtyard. I had never seen her going and looking at the clock. She religiously lit the lamps before all those Hindu gods when the Mullah prayed to Allah.

On Fridays, my friend, those were all good Fridays, we got two hours of lunch break. From 12 to 2. You went to the mosque to finish an early prayer and came back to the school ground. Actually, we never noticed that the long interval was for facilitating namaz. For us it was a value added time to chase butterflies in the school ground, ogle at the elderly girls standing at first floor of the building and pester the old women who sold pickled items along the boundary wall of the school. I still don’t understand, why as village kids we had this perennial liking for pickled things? These pickled items used to level all gender imbalances for both the boys and girls liked these alike. Don’t you remember the loud speaker of the school, which only played out Vandemataram, Janaganaman and the marching tune, during these Friday lunch break played out one popular song? The school had one LP record, which had only one song. And all those five years we spent there, every Friday we listened this one song. Man…those were days of utter happiness.

Did you ever raise objection in singing Vandemataram or Janaganamana? I am sure, you never, because we never thought that those were meant for indoctrinating us with Hindutva. For us they were daily dose of nationalism, which we consumed happily. Often, if I am not wrong, we looked at those girls standing in other lines and sang very loudly so that their untrained eyes would waver and meet our gaze at some point. They would then lower their eyes. What a sight it was man. Then who said, you were a Muslim. Who said our friends Shaji, Salim, Sabu (there were two Sabus), Naushad, Rabi, Reji, Rahmatullah, Shamnad and all were Muslims? Had we ever looked at each other as Muslims and Hindus? Have we ever fought on religious lines? The maximum insult that came out of our innocence was this: You are a murian (your tip is chopped). But you gave me the befitting answer: Your dad is bald. We never thought of our religions when we exchanged these funny insults because we courted the same girls, we flirted with the same teachers, we spent endless hours for the same set of girls coming from their tuition homes.

We celebrated all the festivals together. We could go to any home and could ask for food. If there is a marriage in the neighborhood, we all worked there as volunteers. The junction next to my house was called Pakistan Junction because the majority of the Muslim community lived that side of the village. But it was at this junction I learned the basics of Islam. During the Ramadan days, the traveling story tellers and theatre people used to come and perform there. In childhood, I could recite the story of Mohammad Nabi Sellallahu Alaiva Sellam in verse. We all sang these songs together.

When I remember the marriages in our village, I blush man. Do you remember Shainuba? Yes, my girl friend during the school final. As you know, she got married when I was in my degree first year. Girls get married earlier. She was not in love with me anymore but I think I was. She came to invite me and my family for her marriage. As you know, Muslim marriages have this heavenly biriyani cooked for the feast. I crossed the fence and went to her home to attend her marriage. Marriage was over and the guests were called to feast. As I was shy I could not get into the crowd. I went back crestfallen. I lost a girl and the biriyani too. Later in the evening I was sleeping out of sadness (now I think I was sad for that Biriyani part), my mother called me out, ‘Get up, biriyani came.’ There is a custom in our village, if any feast is there, that should be shared with the neighbours. Shainuba’s umma had brought our share. The moment I heard the word ‘biriyani’ I jumped up from the bed. My mother looked at me with some expression in her eyes, which put me into utter shame.

When my mother was admitted to a hospital for removing her uterus, I met a nurse called Meharunnisa. Obviously she was a Muslim. But I never thought of her as a Muslim. I fell in love with her instantly. And I wrote a lyrical poem dedicated to her: “Meharunnisa, meharunnisa, for how long should I wait.” Such a pedestrian lyrics. But I tuned it and sung it for her. With a laughter that resounded spilling of pearls on a marble floor, she received the poem, read it aloud for my mother who was under her care. I don’t know where Meharunnisa is now.

What happened to all of us Najeeb? Last time, I went to Pakistan Junction to buy a packet of cigarette, I found a group of boys staring at me. They were having clear Muslim identities. I smiled at them. Some elders knew me. They talked to me. I saw a group of your girls walking down the road with scarves and purdahs covering them. I don’t know when all these changes started taking place. Did you notice these things whenever you came back to home last? Didn’t you get disturbed by the sight?

It is time for all of us to seek each other. Wherever we are we should reach out to each other and should get back to our innocence. So that next time, if I you confront me with a gun in your hand, I would laugh and say, ‘You are a murian’. If I confront you with a trident, you would laugh and say, ‘Your dad is bald’.

Then both of us will go to your Umma’s kitchen and eat those sweet meats she made for us.

If I look at your biwi with my funny eyes, don’t slap my thighs with your hard palms. I have shed all those fat, man.