Friday, January 30, 2015

Vad Fest 2015: Do We Need to Protest or Wait for a Vad Biennale?

(Vad Fest 2015 Poster)

“Baroda looks over-developed,” says an artist who had been a former student of the fine arts faculty, M.S.University, Baroda almost two and half decades back and is currently on a visit to the recently concluded Vad Fest 2015. I cannot help but agreeing with him. Development kills, taking a cue from Francis Bacon’s maxims, I muse and add, absolute development kills absolutely. That is the thought that still lingers on in the mind of someone who still holds on to the ethics pertaining to any kind of development. Planning and urban development manifested in new pavements, parking lots, newly laid out lawns, fences, high walls, barbed wires, spot lights and the general renovation and rejuvenation of the space kill the sense of nostalgia that we all carry in our minds about a place that we had left long back. In Baroda too, those people who have come to visit the Vad Fest 2015, after a long gap, would definitely feel the same; the death of nostalgia. Generally, when we dip the crumbs of nostalgia in the hot tea of reality, agitation sets in. Where have all those old charms gone? Who has taken it away and replaced them with sanitized facilities? None of us asks, had it not been these visible developmental programs, where we would have parked our cars? We had cycles then, today we have cars, that too very big ones. Humility of pedalling has given way to the arrogance of pressing the accelerator. Still we feel the pain of seeing a permanently or temporarily shut way side tea stall beyond the barricades; it was where we all had once stationed ourselves for discussing art and culture into the wee hours of night. Yes, most of us are agitated by the uncanny feeling imparted by the flourish of Baroda’s infrastructural development.

Agitation in our minds, however fades off when we walk into the faculty of fine arts premises, where the Fine Arts section of the Vad Fest 2015 is taking place. For those uninitiated, Vad Fest is ‘Vadodara Festival’ and is initiated by the Tourism Department and the Gujarat Government to promote art and culture in the state. Art and culture are no longer innocent activities of creativity. They obviously constitute a part of government policy and play a pivotal role in national and international diplomacy. Gujarat has been under the BJP rule for the last thirteen years, first under Narendra Modi and now under Smt.Anandiben Patel. Therefore this ‘Art and Culture Festival’ comes under the administrative and diplomatic policies of the state government. The BJP government/s in the state has been implicated for inciting communal divide, pogroms and vandalizing art and culture in the state at various times since 2002. In 2007, the very same fine arts faculty that currently celebrates the Vad Fest 2015 had come under the attack of cultural censors from the right wing fold. Much water has flown down the Vishwamitri Bridge since then. Artist community that had come up against the BJP government at that time was left to mind its own business by the right wing activists. No attack on artists’ community was reported since 2007. No artist had to flee Baroda due to political ostracism. A few of them took off from there to greener pastures for their own reasons, which was though a result of the infamous Chandramohan issue in 2007.

 (Vad Fest poster )

They say Baroda was never again the same Baroda since 2007. Wars, communal divides and pogroms change the complexion of any society. In fact these factors are intricately connected to the political dispensations and economics of the respective times; and they are in fact the causes and effects at the same time. With or without communal divides and pogroms a place keeps changing as the effects of politics and economics appear there in various manifestations. Underdevelopment, development and overdevelopment are deliberate machinations of collective political will and in every situation art and culture also take different forms, changing the cultural discourse of the place. The exodus of a few from Baroda in 2007, however had not changed the course of cultural discourse in Baroda or in the national scene quite drastically. The artists and intellectuals who had decided to stay back or remained unmoved and took the turn of events naturally made readjustments in their discourse as a part of resistance and survival, which in turn created a subterranean discourse of art and culture. Had the exodus been so drastic and earthshaking, today Vad Fest 2015 would not happened. Had that exodus been so effective that it could make the discourse to change its course, then definitely there would not have been such an enthusiastic participation in the Vad Fest 2015.

Vad Fest 2015 is a 360 degree cultural festival, which at once shows brain and brawn. There is an overall sense of euphoria in the streets of Baroda as the faces of famous singers and dancers greet the citizens from huge hoardings. Festivities come with a price tag. People are ready to pay. You may tend to ask where all the poor people have gone from Baroda who cannot afford tickets to these mega events. The fact is that enclave-d culture is for the middle class and upper class who could afford to buy tickets in the front to middle rows respectively. The political and business classes always get those rows either by paying upfront or by getting complimentary passes. Poor are not complaining either. They get fringe benefits as such festivals offer so many small scale business avenues and job opportunities. We live in a ticketed democracy. If you could afford to buy an expensive ticket you get the front seat in the democracy. But from the fringes we have always got the right to question such queue jumps. In culture, luckily there is no lathi-charge and water cannon firings. Therefore we will not be baton beaten if we turn too critical about such mega events. I could not see too many roadblocks for such mega events in Baroda.

 (renovated old building that houses MRID at FFA, Baroda, with Dhruv Mistry sculpture. Pic. Abhimanue Vadakoott Govindan)

There is a road block for the Fine Arts section of the Vad Fest 2015. Keeping 2002 communal unrest and pogroms in general and the 2007 Chandramohan issue in particular, in mind a few artists and intellectuals raised an ethical issue prior to the Vad Fest 2015 and pleas were made to the artists to withdraw their works from the Fest. It put at least a few in dilemma. Some did withdraw their works from the exhibitions and many went ahead to participate. While some artists had problems of categorizing them into different curated compartments, most of them felt happy to be a part of the exhibitions. When I visit the faculty of fine arts where I was a student two decades back, I find the sense of euphoria looming large over there in the atmosphere and in the weekend the city seems to have come in full strength to witness the works of art in display. I do not find any protestors at the gate of the faculty. I have seen them in the facebook actively campaigning against the Vad Fest 2015. The lack of democracy or the apparent choice of buying democracy with money is not seen here. You can walk in to the faculty, visit the shows, meet the artists, curators and even have cup of tea from the famous canteen of the faculty. This is a moment of reunion for many and for several others it is to participate in something that takes place in their city.

I think about the psychology of the facebook protestors and the enthusiastic participants as well as the citizens of Baroda. Facebook protestors are righteous and well meaning people but completely displaced in their argument.  In the meanwhile the participants, curators and the citizens of Baroda are slightly guilt ridden and they want to do away with that guilt. I would like to explain these points further. In Germany, after the fall of the Nazi regime, there was a blanket acceptance of eclectic art and cultural expressions, almost without critical resistance. Nazi Germany had abolished artists and burnt art works and ostracized and fumed the defectors. Post Nazi Germany had the need to wipe out this collective guilt. The acceptance of eclectic cultures and expressions of art was the need of the time. Today, if the Government of Gujarat is supporting and even making a platform for contemporary art and culture, it should be seen as a collective atonement on behalf of the citizens of the city or state. It wants to rub off the stain that was caused by the unfortunate events in 2007. It is in fact a city-centric or state-centric initiative. It cannot be and should not be connected to the pogroms of 2002 or the general demand for an apology from Mr.Narendra Modi. I would like to see this festival especially that happens in the fine arts faculty as a collective atonement of the city and the government, which still hold their pride but say apologies in very elaborate terms. The curators and artists are also equally apologetic, in more than one sense, because they want to say their fellow artists and curators that they are doing it for the city not to hurt the sentiments of those who oppose it for ethical reasons.

 (display at the painting section- pic Abhimanue VG)

Ethics, when it comes to art and culture in today’s world of economic definitions, is a re-adjustable cloak, and it could be worn as per the need of the time without feeling shy of it. Ethics has become a cloak because the parameters to define ethical practices have changed considerably. Ethics is in a permanent mode of transition and it at times oscillates between rights and wrongs, right perspective and wrong perspective, and unsettles the thinking of the viewer who looks for an anchor. If we stick to the hard and fast rules of ethical practices, of defining black and white with no chance of a grey emerging, then functioning within a zone of creativity becomes next to impossible. If we go by an abstract ethical value of art and culture, we become purists and between the purism and fundamentalism the demarcating line is too thin to be seen. And if one asks me to stick to the ethical codes of art, then I would ask how we could do art in Delhi or in any other city centres in India? Each urban space is built on violence over the destitute and the dispossessed. Urban economy stands on a pool of blood and corruption. In that sense, we can’t do a probable relationship with our Pakistani brothers and sisters, we cannot have any cultural or economic or social relationships with the United Kingdom or the United States of America. We cannot have any cultural dealings with countries and communities that have done atrocities against us and people in general. Shall we remain permanently the captives of a nostalgic golden era where everything was well and good?

Those who read my views on Vad Fest 2015 may question my intentions for I have been very critical of certain mega cultural programs in India. Though this is not a platform to go back to the nuances of those issues, I would say that those criticisms were primarily based on the ethics of economics and the resultant aesthetical corruptions. Here, in the case of Vad Fest 2015, either case is not in my purview. There has been no economic allegation against anybody and the aesthetics in display is homemade and open to critical debate. Again those who raise their fingers against me might ask how I could separate the larger politics and the immediate past of the country or state from the Vad Fest 2015 organization. They would like me to accept that Baroda should remain a dark hole despised by anyone and everyone in the cultural field only because the cultural activities are supported by the BJP government. But unfortunately, I am not here to sign on their dotted line. I would like to see Baroda flourish again and stand clean without any stain of a past incident. We could learn lessons from the past occurrences and we could stand guard against darker forces creeping in the cultural discourse. The problem with those people who oppose Vad Fest 2015 is that they mix up ‘funding’ with ‘censorship’.

 (viewers at Vad Fest. Pic Abhimanue VG)

Funding is not censorship. Funding but obviously is control. But control is not censorship either. As there is no free lunch in business, we cannot say that the funder would expect and accept a free play of criticism. If anybody says that culture is not business, as I have already stated, culture is business and it is a part of policy and national and international diplomacy, whether artists would like to hear it in this way or not. Also I request them to remember the quirky statement quoted by Slavoj Zizek in one of his writings, ‘When I hear the word culture, I take out my cheque book.’ In Vad Fest 2015, I did not see any direct or indirect censorship exercised by the funder. I could not even see some sense of control over the aesthetical choices of the curators. Of course, there is a huge amount of self restrain amongst the curators considering the lessons from the past. Compared to the controversial works of Chandramohan in 2007, in Vad Fest 2015 there are so many works that shows frontal nudity and almost there pornography. Interestingly those are the works got the red mark, that means they are sold. Protestors should open their eyes and see these indicators. Also I could see a lot of collective studios and spaces where artists letting their imaginations loose even if they involve sexuality, nudity and certain amount of vulgarity. Baroda does not seem to be doing censorship on any of these works.

Vad Fest 2015 and its fine arts expositions are quite huge and elaborate. I should congratulate all those who curated these shows and the people who directed the whole program successfully. But I would still say that these are not survey shows. These are shows that stick to the conventions of curating works of art that have come out of the erstwhile students and teachers of the faculty and also from those artists who have made their national presence even if they are not from the faculty. The exhibitions, seven in all, look complete in themselves but once you come out of each segment of the show you get a feeling that something is seriously missing. This is not a criticism to kill but to mark out the glaring gaps. One of the major gaps is seen in the contemporary art section. This section has major works of many of the Baroda alumni artists as well as the ones who have national presence. But then the question is, do these artists really represent Indian contemporary art in a holistic sense? Though there is a separate section for video art, installations, site specific art, photography, digital art and performance art are not adequately represented or debated. Graphic Arts section is quite exhaustive and the curator has taken special care to accommodate most of the former students and established artists in this section. I wish these works got more space to do justice to them. Sculpture section somehow disappoints me. Impressing sections are Path Finders and Magnificent Seven. Painting and Baroda Chronicles are ambitious efforts to accommodate most of the Baroda based artists.

 (Vad Fest director Jayaram Poduval (right) with British artist Gavin Turk)

Commendable in scale and sincere in execution, this festival has done more than one good thing to the Baroda art scene. Each section has a separate catalogue and each one of them look sufficiently documented though I find the curatorial notes a bit disappointing. The essays included in the Magnificent Seven catalogue are academically researched and readable in nature. Path Finders catalogue provides the picture of those people actually explored the Baroda scene initially and helped in making it happen. In an effort to accommodate all the teachers in this section, there are a few young teachers included here and they, with all due respect to them, do not qualify to be ‘path finders’ in the true sense. But then everything has its own conceptual and pragmatic limitations.

Before I conclude this article, I would like to say that this festival has all the potential to become a biennial or triennial cultural festival provided the state and the local administrative bodies give it the same support that they have given to it now. In that sense, Vad Fest as a whole has all the ingredients to be the next biennale of India, following the path of Kochi Muziris Biennale and Pune Biennale. The organizers and conceptualizers of Vad Fest have done something similar to these efforts and what it needs to do is to fine tune it further and push towards the other venues in and around the fine arts faculty. I may say that Vad Fest is a precursor of a possible Vad Biennale. It could be called VB or BB (Baroda Biennale). Why not? What do they say, yes, the more the merrier. 

Friday, January 9, 2015

Becoming a Kitchen Garden in Solitude

(a treadmill- for representational purpose only)

Inside a darkroom, where paintings, a treadmill, a huge bed, a television set, cupboards and so many other little vignettes of the owner’s memories take different forms and shapes and in my feverish vision I see them moving from one place to another. Now a painting starts talking to the mute blind television set which has never been switched on by me or anybody. It resists the advancing of the painting with its coldness. The treadmill start running around the room, increasing the pace and it pants itself to halt after a few minutes. The red dots on the digital screen flash ‘fatigue’. Books start murmuring to each other; why doesn’t he pick us up and fondle us with care and love? The laptop screen turns itself on and calls out for my attention. Bullets and blood shower from the ceiling. Small pocket cartoons, strip cartoons, edit page cartoons fall like dead birds on the floor of my room. I hold myself together. Anger, grievance and condolences flood in the screen and my snow white bed spread turns red. I send out a silent scream. Nobody is there in the room. Maupassant and Saadat Manto discuss innocence and violence. I want to run out of this room, from fever and from my skin. But where to? Nowhere to turn and nowhere to run. So I lie down and watch the speeches of Rajiv Dixit in Youtube. A man finally got killed himself for being terribly truthful and right.

(Saadat Hasan Manto 1912-1955)

If dying for a cause is martyrdom, then each human being is a martyr. They die silently each day standing up for a cause and eating bullets of arrogance. A lonely man is a martyr. A man in the crowd is also a martyr. Somebody sitting in a cosy room is a martyr; one who lives a luxurious life is a martyr. Nobody is spared. Bullets are waiting for you. It is just the question of time. Between the bullets of arrogance and your head or chest there is only a thin line of your opinion. Once that is made clear, be sure you are in the firing line. Each person in the street reflects the frightened faces in Goya’s painting, Third of May 1808. We have become so used to the scenes of soldiers carrying heavy arms and today we are used to the scenes of pirates and fundamentalists similarly armed and hooded. They represent the two ends of the same ideology; supremacy for ideological power. One works for the system and the other wants to disrupt it in order to establish a new system. Which system is good? Nobody knows. A woman in burqa blurts out: I feel naked when I lift the hijab off from my face. Is she right or the one who wears skimpy clothes and protests that men pass lewd comments? Both of them are led by two different ideologies and we should know both are right. If both are right how one right could be more right than the other? Why our god is better than your god?

 (Wanderer Above the sea of Clouds- painting by Casper David Frederich)

That’s why I like lonely people; they are loners because they have accepted the rights and wrongs of others and they do not want to argue and establish the supremacy of his own thinking. His silence itself is a form of resistance from getting affected by the rights and wrongs of others. He has his rights and his wrongs but he does not want to impose it on others. So he remains aloof, letting others go ahead. If everyone could do this then this world would become very beautiful and worth living. You may argue that such a world will be very boring; a world without conflicts and full of boring lonely people. No, loneliness does not express boredom or antisocial behaviour. It is a form of solitude which is poetic. In these moments of aloneness one could imagine oneself as a dancer, singer, actor, scientist, artist and what not? One could perform one’s own talents before an imaginary audience that does not judge or mock. You do not even need applauses. You just need to show off, display and flaunt what you have; so fulfilling. Terrorism happens when we start judging others. In domestic front, in love affairs, in world affairs, this judgement has created terrorism. You argue to win and it is terrorism; persuasion is another form of terrorism. You can spill blood by making somebody blush, said Levinas.

 (Take me where I belong- painting by Shibu Natesan)

That’s why I felt so much of happiness when I saw a young man doing his contemporary dance steps at a deserted railway platform. I was in a train heading towards south and he was waiting for a train going towards north. This was an empty station as it is located near the administrative blocks of the city. After seven o clock in the evening, hardly people come to this station to board trains. This boy was looking like an apparition with a sling bag on his shoulders and he was making his graceful steps as if he was holding a beautiful dame close to him and making dance movements together. Or was he enjoying his steps alone or was he anticipating the people in the other train in which I was standing and watching him to appreciate him? Or was he imagining some girls in our train and wanted to leave a mark in their minds?   Was he imparting a sense of wonderment to us? May be or may be not. But a person like me still lives with that moment of his dance movements in a lonely station. There is no competition, there are no spot lights and there are no judges. Those are just a few steps that spill out from his limbs as he could not contain the happiness surging in him. There is no terror in a lonely dancer and there is no terrorism in creativity.

 (One of the Delhi Metro trains)

I stand in another station in south and wait for a train to my destination. I see, to my surprise, a new train coming to my vision. The dull silver grey of the metro train has gone now it looks pure white and I see a lot of girls standing there, slightly larger than life. The windows, doors and the glass panes over them are not left. Everything is covered with one long envelope of white. It is an advertisement, I realize. But the train looks cute and I cannot stop smiling at the train. The train looks like a little creature who has got a new coat. The underground tunnels where the metro runs now turn into a wonderland where this happy new creature chugs around. There are small little things in our lives that bring smile on to our faces. We have seen trains of Indian Railway completely covered by some sort of weird painting. I look around for an explanation. One can understand that train could be covered with pictures either as a part of beautification or as part of revenue generation through advertisement. But this train looks really ugly. This looks like a politician has done some painting and that has been digitally multiplied and pasted all over the train. But then I could only look at that train with sympathy. It looks like a school child in ill fitting gaudy clothes amongst a host of kids wearing proper uniform. I need not go out and torch the train to right that wrong. May be many people are happy with it.

(Chilli plant - for representational purpose only)

A conflict free world could be generated if you are lonely and meditative. Loneliness and meditation do not have anything to do with recess, holidaying, spiritual retreat, going to hills, sea sides, visiting churches, temples, gurus, yoga teachers and so on. To be lonely and also in meditative mood, one need not do anything particularly. One could be in kitchen, one could be in classroom, one could be in a laboratory or one could be in a studio, one could be climbing rocks, one could be playing cricket, one could be toiling in mines or one could be making garlands, one could sweating out in a farm and one could be sweating it out in a gym; one could be pushing pen on files while one could be sitting and reading in library; whatever you do you just need to do that because that is your choice. But you could do one thing, a simple thing; you can just stop comparing and judging. The moment you start compare and judge the conflict starts. You are beautiful but the moment you want to be more beautiful, conflict starts. Your clothes are already good, but you want to dress up better than someone else, conflict starts. I am not advocating the idea of curtailing aspiration. Aspiration should be there but it should not be in comparison with the other. Your desire should be the desire to be best in you not in comparison with others or other things. The creator has created us differently. Ideology homogenises us. There is a compromise between the two and that is the survival in an all time evolving society. We make constant adjustments to survive but there too one could be absolutely comparison free. In the given context we could be less judgemental. Besides, we could change the context from within the closet contexts. Let me tell you, you cannot make a huge estate of vegetable plantation more productive unless you employ artificial modes of nurturing and tending. But you can keep your kitchen garden pesticide and fertilizer free because you could use your kitchen waste to make your own manure and pesticide. If not you could derive happiness from seeing the small little white, red and green chillies or tomatoes sprouting out of the plants that you have grown at your kitchen window sill. Do you want your tomatoes or chillies bigger than your neighbours? 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Please Do not Read as it is just Rambling

(actress Anushka Sharma in PK)

Some days writing can fail you. Words happen but not exactly the way you want. They lose rhythm and purpose. They look like scattered colours on a canvas by an angry artist. You may call it an abstract work but it is not an abstract work; it is a lost work, a work that has been lost in its own failure to make sense unto the one who has made it. I walk from the huge railway station that reminds me of the Piccadilly Station in London. So many trains that are bound to the London suburbs and to the other cities come there and go. Nobody just goes to this station to experience the feeling of it; a place where trains terminate and another journey begins. Nobody is curious about the termination but they are all anticipating the beginning of a journey. Each one has a purpose to be there on the right time and on the right platform. And the ones who get down from the trains need not necessarily be on right time or on the right platform. Departures seek precision and arrivals are always at hands of destiny. Like the days when writing fails you, you wait for the arrival. It is destiny’s play. Trains depart and whatever time they depart, it is the right time. Whatever time your writing is left to others for judgement is the right time.

I come out of the station alone. I want to tell someone that I have arrived. I fish out the mobile phone from my pocket and dial the number. Before I could connect the call someone calls me from behind. In a new city I hear my name called out and I am surprised. A young man approaches me with a large smile and he shakes hand with me. He introduces himself as an artist who is in touch with me over facebook. Thousands of faces pass through my mind and I try to locate him amongst them. I do not remember but his familiar approach makes me feel that I know him. He is an artist and has been in touch with me. He has just finished his show in one of the galleries in the city and he is more than happy to give me a brochure of his exhibition. I take it from him and flip through the pages. Abstract art. If it is abstract you are at a loss for words. You don’t understand much and you do not make much out of it. But it is a society polite society and we need to make polite gestures of acknowledgement. I say his works are good. He tells me about the famous people how have visited his show and bought his works. He is excited to impart all those to me. I see through the pretention of the people who have bought his works or who have expressed their intention to buy his works. But I keep the smile on in my lips. Now he wants to take his selfie with me. I pose with him. He wants to capture the defining building as the backdrop. As the sun is behind us we become silhouettes. These are small little incidents that make you feel good about yourself. You are recognized in a crowded city.

(cricket ground in Mumbai)

I carry the brochure with me. I decide to walk all the way to the heart of the city where all art events take place. I could have taken a taxi but I like walking. I walk along fence of the huge ground where people play cricket. Who bowls to whom and who strikes at whose ball nobody knows. So many pitches and so many players. Willow strikes at the cork and the orgasmic noise erupts. Could it be a four, a six or a single or nothing?  I am not a cricket player. But when I play with my son in a ground where often I bowl to him than face his bowling, I am surprise at the ease with which he connects the balls with his bat. He goes for fours and sixes and one and twos he refuses to take. He plays to win and win in a big way. I feel the erotica of batting when I am given a chance to bat by my son. The Cosco ball, which is actually a tennis ball than a cricket ball, touches the bat that I wield and I feel the pleasure of lunging it for a two or a four. Like my son, I too do not want to run. He does not want to run because he is sure of his hit and I do not want to run because I am too old to run between imaginary wickets with no keeper or fielders.

I walk along the fence of this famous ground. Some people keep their noses into the fence and at the bus stop nearby I see a lot of men standing very close to the fence. I too look inside and see a young girl doing her stretching exercises in body tight clothes. She is aware of the voyeurs but she does not mind doing it for them. I walk and she moves out of my sight like a movie frame. My eyes are more focused on the cricket pitches. I remember William Hazzlit, the British essayist writing about the game of cricket seen from a moving train. What would have happened to that ball that has been just bowled, he wonders.  Was it Hazlit or Cronin? (Vijay Nair would tell us) There is a pleasure in seeing cricket from a passing train or a moving vehicle. You just do not know what happened to this ball or the next ball. You can design a game for yourself once you have seen the batsman lunging at a fast ball or a spin ball. I walk further too see more and more players hitting at the balls with their willows. I do not know what happens to those balls. I see foreigners training their cameras at the dogs training at the edge of the ground accompanied by trainers and care takers. Dogs have a better life in this city than people.

When I look at this park where I was playing cricket yesterday with my son I remember all those cricket pitches that I have seen in my life. I have never been to a proper cricket match. I have seen it in televisions. In my village, in my childhood I was more interested in imitating Shrikant than Kapil Dev. I was interested in Veng Sarkar and Mohinder Amarnath than Sachin Tendulkar or Virat Kohli. I have seen my elders wearing pads on their legs below their tucked up lungis. I have never played a cricket match. But I can imitate those players of my time. Who could forget the charm of Viv Richards and David Boon? I have lost interest in cricket. My son talks to me about a lot of cricket players and I do not know any one of them. I know Virat Kohli because he and his girl friend have done some lip job. I find it pathetic when I see Virat Kohli pouting in some advertisement panels. I found Anushka Sharma pathetic in PK with her unmistakable lip job. I know a few people in Indian cricket team because advertisements force them into your life. In fact who gives much attention to choreographed matches? I like the suspense of games played for the sake of it. That is the real deconstruction of the mainstream game. Happy that people still play those games in gullies and streets.

Some days are like that. Writing fails you. Then you are supposed to read whatever you write. May be there are no readers for such writing. 

Monday, January 5, 2015

My Architect or Sex is Not Enough for Fathers: Our Efforts to Know our Dead/Living Fathers

(Poster of the film 'My Architect' a film by Nathanile Kahn 2003)

How do you call your father, if he is no longer in your life or has never been in your life or has left you at some point of time? May be it is very easy: if your father was a painter, you could refer him as my ‘painter’, the one who painted you. If he was a sculptor, you could qualify him as ‘my sculptor’. That’s how most of us refer the God, the ultimate father (feminists may take objection here for them the maker is always the mother. No dispute please. I too consider, at times, God as a woman, a very black woman; hey Mamma!!), the maker. The same hands that have made you have made the lowliest of creature in this earth too. So be humble. But what about the father, your father, who comes once in a while to meet you and then disappear for so many months, if not years? Why do mothers cry when fathers come back? Why do fathers look young and mothers old? What is this father and who is this father? I remember M.T.Vasudevan Nair talking about his father coming back from Colombo with a girl who faintly looked like him. Another friend tells me the story of his father who has taken him to a girl’s marriage. Why did she come and touch my father’s feet? Why did she look into my eyes before turning them to her bridegroom? Why her eyes were tearful?

I do not want to go into any Freudian discussion of father figure. Every son is not out there to kill his father for the fear of him getting at his mother. Every son is not sexually challenged by his father. It is one of the ways of looking at things. Theoretical tools, for sure. But what about the sons who go out looking for their father because he was not there at all in their lives while they were growing up. He is remembered by an occasional hug, a peck at the cheeks, some lunches together, some dinner together, a game of cricket in a play ground where he bowls at you and run behind the ball laboriously. Father reminds you of the fragrance of shaving cream, strong arms, hearty smile and glowing eyes. This man who disappears from your life has to be sought out. His reality should be dug out. He should be understood and if he is worthless, leave him behind. But the search should be on. Any son, who has challenged his father in Freudian terms or otherwise, should seek him out from obscurity. I remember Theodor Vel Wagner, the protagonist of O.V.Vijayan’s ‘Thalamurakal’ (Generations) coming back to Palakkad, from Germany to know the roots of his father. Oh good lord, where is my father? What would I call him?

(Louis Kahn and Nathanile Kahn)

Three of us sit there in a beautifully but subtly decked up drawing room, sipping small shots of the Balvenie single malt whiskey silently, feeling the heat of it tracing the inner routes of our self and contrasting the feeling with the raging cold outside. This moderately lit up room has one large glass window that opens to a little balcony with arm chairs and so many little curios culled from all over the world and beyond it there is a large garden where people, pigeons, dogs, cats and drivers relax. Along the frame of the window there runs an artificial wine with white leaves and white flowers. Each flower is a small little light and our host tells that it is brought from Japan. The lit up creeper adds to the feel of the room and it turns into a bower hanging between dream and reality. We set up a computer and projector and we are ready to see a documentary. And the name of the documentary is ‘My Architect’.

This Oscar nominated documentary is about Nathanile Kahn’s search for his father, to know his father and to understand him. This father had denied him the right to be his son though he gave him his family/surname. Nathanile father died when he was just eleven years old and his mother was his third wife. They lived in a remote forest edge in Philadelphia and occasionally his father visited them. His mother was a full thirty years younger to his father. His mother worked with his father in an architectural firm where she fell for his charismatic father. He was already married twice and was the father of two other children, who were around twenty years elder to Nathaniel. His father never wanted to break his first marriage and when the second woman was pregnant with his baby, and when she mentioned about the child and the physical involvement they had, he just said in his charismatic way that she should take it ‘philosophically’. She did not challenge the man nor did the third woman who became the mother of Nathaniel. But he craved for his father who died at the Penn Station in New York. He was seventy four years old. When the Police made the inquest and the following interrogations the identity of the dead man was revealed. His name was Louis Kahn, the world renowned architect.

(world renowned architect Louis Kahn)

Louis Kahn was born to a Jewish couple in a rundown building in Parnu, which is in present day Estonia. He studied architecture in the University of Pennsylvania where he became a professor later on. He met with a fire accident in childhood and his face was deformed. His father said it was difficult for him to survive but his mother said that he had an ugly face which would help him to be famous. He did become famous not for his ugly face but for the monumental buildings that he made in various countries including India (Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedaba) and in Bangladesh ()the Parliament building in Dhaka). No 20th century architect could escape the influence of Louis Kahn. Be it Charles Correa, Balkrishan Doshi, Frank Gehry, IM Pei or Philip Johnson, they all were influenced by the architectural style of Louis Kahn. With all his five feet five inches body, Kahn stood tall as an architect genius and it brought people to him like a moths to a light. Many perished and many survived and those survived still speak of the burning, the sweet, cool burning they suffered at the flame of Louis Kahn.

(Bangladesh Parliament house by Louis Kahn)

Nathaniel Kahn grew up as an orphan and he wanted his father back. It was impossible to get a dead man from his tomb. Hence he decided to make a journey to the tracks that his father had travelled. He visited each and every building that his father had created. He met people and interviewed them. Many broke down when they came to know that Nathaniel was Louis Kahn’s son. They knew that there was a son like that but nobody knew where he exactly existed for Kahn did not want to acknowledge that relationship with his mother and son. Nathaniel came to India to visit the IIM at Ahmedabad. Balkrishna Doshi could not find words to express his feelings for the departed genius. And in Dhaka, the chief government architect cried when he spoke of Kahn. “We were the poorest country in the world. But Kahn gave us democracy through this building,” says the architect with tears rolling down from his eyes. The film ends there. Out there the night has thickened and has covered itself with the inevitable fog. We eat dinner in silence.

We three men, all who have lost their fathers in different phases of their lives. One has a father who was a great painter who made miniature paintings and meticulously catalogued each and every painting that he did. One has a father who was a teacher and a weaver of clothes; a self styled craftsman. One has a father who was a lost politician and a government servant and a devoted social worker. One has lost his father when he was in his twenties. One has lost when he was in his early fifties. One has lost his father when he was hardly fourteen years old. One runs a foundation on his father’s name. One recreates his father at every juncture of his life. One tries to capture his father in his words, each time when he writes about any father in the world. All three of us are fathers. We shudder at the sight of the imagined and possible plights of our sons and daughters. Our fathers have inscribed them in us, irrespective of their time and context of departure. Our efforts are to know them and may be whatever we do to know them finally take us to ourselves. ‘My Architect’ consolidates our love for each other. And we pay tribute to Nathaniel Kahn in silence and Louis Kahn is remembered not only for his architecture wonders but also for this son’s effort to know his father.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

A Winter Note: Stray Dogs and Big Umbrellas

(Picasso holding umbrella for his girl friend Francoise Gilot)

Winter this year, I feel, is like a long expected guest who has sneaked into home when I was out for some quick work. I have been impatient, like many others in the city, looking at the calendar, watch, sun, moon, wind, stars and innumerable dress codes that adorn the streets of the city, searching for the signs of its arrival. It befooled me once again. I had just stepped out for a few days and by that time it was in. Once I open the door, winter jumps up at me calling out ‘surprise’, tickling me with its drizzle fingers. I embrace it rather reluctantly for I do not like surprises like this. These ghostly appearances within the darkrooms with faces glowing at the reflected lights of computer screens or television screens fill me with a sense of dejection. I try to present an easy face, hiding my discomfort in having encountered with a cheeky surprise. Winters have never been so before. They used to come dressed up for me; dark chiffon lined with fiery orange in the morning, grey gowns in the afternoon and red silk in the evening. Night they used to be natural, sending me inside the duvet unnaturally clad in several layers of woollen. Winter used to dance naked for me. This time it behaves like a rogue.

I come out of a metro station along with many scurrying towards workplaces, shopping ends and eating joints. I have a book to pick up from an upmarket book mart, which I had ordered a month back. Holding myself together I hit the street and it starts drizzling. In this city, people love water because most of the year it remains dry. Show the picture of a sea to anybody who is a natural inhabitant of this city, they will throw up their hands and run towards it. Anything that resembles more than a bucket of water, send the citizens here into a holiday mood. That is the sense of the citizens who lived in landlocked areas. While people from south run towards hills, people from north rush to sea sides. On the seashore, a north Indian adult is a child. You get to see men in skimpy underwear managing their enormous bellies while rolling along the retreating waves. Women get drenched in their hapless daily wears inviting more lechers than they would have had they been wearing swim suits. Art of art is concealing art. In beaches, in India it becomes true. Democracy ends where gender begins; that is the rule of seashore. I have digressed enough.

I look for a place of shade so that I can protect myself from getting drenched. But I think only I am looking for a shade, rest of the people are walking merrily as if they do not discriminate between sunshine and rain. Suddenly I realize this city street has no awnings. If at all they are there, the owners of the shops have rolled it up to their necks so that people will not over crowd before their shops barring the view of the street. I turn by body in forty five degree angle and walk along thinking that holding a palm over my head and turning the body sideways would keep me protected from the rain. It is a foolish belief that most of the people do, exactly the way they crinkle noses to prevent an ugly smelling from hitting the nostrils or cupping the palm over the ears to hear something clearly or even opening mouth while applying eye kohl. Some foreigners stand like cardboard cut out pasted against the walls wherever a little bit of awning is jutted out. I hurry past them and reach the book store and it seems to be a bit overcrowded for its size. Rain. Rain has brought more customers even to a bookstall, I imagine. The attendant in the shop greets me as he knows the purpose of my visit and immediately hands over the book. Your Radio Benjamin, sir. I thank him, make the payment and come out.

It is still raining outside. The cold has increased. I do not want to move my body sidewise again. So I wait in the corridor that leads to the inner lane of the market. Suited, booted, gypsied and pepsied people come pass by each one making a competition with the other in looks and affluence. Fat stray dogs taken care of by the shopkeepers and the animal lovers from the rich neighbourhood, sleep around wearing jackets firmly tied around their obese bodies. An one legged young boy approaches me with some bead chains and pleads with me to make some purchases. I tell him that I do not have any use of those chains. He hovers around me for some time and finding no kindness oozing out from me hops away from there. Another young man comes with two rotis and starts talking to the dog in jacket sleeping next to my feet. My mother has made it butter. Please eat it, he says. Then he breaks the bread into pieces and places it before the dog. The dog gets up unwillingly, smells the crumbs and goes back to sleep. He is too full and feels like a garbage bin. We exchange glances and go back to our worlds.

It is raining still. I see people holding very large umbrellas, under which you can start a wayside food stall. That big umbrellas. In our villages we hold small umbrellas. In cities people hold big umbrellas because they don’t want to get drenched at any cost from any side. There is a different psychology to it. It is a social marker. Big umbrellas show your bigness. You can carry a big umbrella in the boot of your car. Office going public cannot carry such umbrellas. Those who carry it show their affluence. Above all, big umbrellas occupy more space in public and big umbrellas and big cars serve the same purpose; occupy more space in the public domain so that you can show your importance. I see an umbrella shop at a corner. I go there and ask for the price of umbrellas. Shop attendant opens a big umbrella with a flourish by switching on a button. It slowly goes up and covers a four feet diameter. Rs.750/- He says. I shake my head. He opens a small one; the plebeian types. Rs.450/- I put my hand out under the sky and the drizzling has decreased. I do not want to make an invest in that umbrella. So turn my body once again in forty five degree angle and reach the metro station. Winter follows me like a shadow clad in greys. 

Friday, January 2, 2015

‘Bhen C***d’- the Catchword of Art Dealing

(A Painting by M.F.Husain. For representational purpose only)

A commotion in the drawing room wakes me up from reading. I had just arrived and was trying to settle myself, and the best way to settle down in a new place is to read something that helps you dissolve time-space disparities that often we feel after a few hours of journey. But reading could be a funny business too. A chronic reader in toilet, once found himself devoid of any reading material as he checked into a small hotel in a remote area, finally plucked out an instruction pamphlet of dos and don’ts from the door and took it to the washroom to read his heart’s or bowel’s content. Unlike that reader of lore, I am always equipped with books wherever I go, if not two at least one.

At the door there is this friend (in fact, my friend’s friend who has become a friend in due course of my previous stay here) who speaks only in high pitch amply iced and cherry-ed with the choicest expletives in Hindi. This adrenaline driven young man is so happy to see me back in Delhi and he wants me instantly out there in the drawing room for a couple of his friends have come to spend some time at home. My friend’s house houses a lot of interesting works of art both contemporary and modern, besides having designer furniture and antique wares. Even if he is away the day to day affairs of this house run smoothly as there are efficient boys who take care of things. But fortunately or unfortunately, this house is open to my friend’s friends any time in a day. Hence, my friend’s friend has now brought two of his friends for a couple of drinks. He has a minimum demand; it is New Year and I should sit with them for a drink.

I am horrified by the proposition. I am extremely uncomfortable in the company of strangers. To top it if the strangers or friends talk in high volume I cannot just stand them. But now, his persuasive powers are stronger than my weak efforts of resistance. Suddenly an idea strikes me. I tell him that I want to go to the washroom and would join him in a while. Then comes his question: Didn’t you take bath today? Is it necessary to take bath in this cold? I smile at him and run my palm over my belly. He understands and I retreat to the washroom with the book, thinking what to do next. I look for an escape route but the only let out in the washroom is fitted with an exhaust fan. I sit there for sometime thinking various ways of escaping from this friend and his friend. However, finally I emerge from the toilet, take a deep breath and go out to the drawing room and greet his friends.

(A work by Sukesan Kanka- For representational purpose only)

One is a sardarji and another is a cut sardarji (who does not wear a turban). First look tells me that they are property dealers and my intuition turns out to be right. Now my friend struggles to introduce me to them. Meet Mr.Johny sir. He is a PhD from London (I look for another opening to escape but take that qualification like a mild abuse and wait). He is an art promoter. He makes value of the artist. Iske haath laga to...bhen****t gold nikalega (if he touches-an artist- he will turn gold). I instantly feel like touching myself so that I could turn myself into gold. I know that my friend is making his position clear. He tells his friends indirectly, see man, I mix up with people. Sardarjis coax me to drink. I resist. It is New Year, please. For friendship’s shake (excuse me, are we friends yet?). Finally, I pour a small drink and with water that whiskey looks like gin- that light. It tastes like hemlock.

Soon the conversation turns to art and market. My friend points at one painting of a young artist on the wall and asks his friends to guess the price. They do some guess work and obviously it goes wrong. My friend tells them the actual prize (around four lakhs rupees) and both of them say ‘bhen***t’ in chorus. That is the way they exclaim. Enthused by the surprise and shock that he could cause on his friends he comes back with renewed force. Showing a two by two and half Husain drawing on the wall at the other end of the hall, he asks, how much, guess. The answer comes quickly from the friends. Ded lakh. One and half lakh rupees. My friend laughs to his heart content. His friends, as he expected, have gone by commonsense. If the other work, bigger than Husain’s could fetch four lakhs then a smaller work should fetch minimum of one and a half lakh. My friend laughs a vicious laugh. He declares then with an expansive gesture in such a voice that the Christie’s representative in Mumbai could hear that: Thirty five lakhs. His friends’ jaws fall. ‘Bhen***t’ thirty five lakhs!! Yes, it could go a crore in an auction, exactly the way we hike up price of property in the market, my friend says. Now his friends understand it.

‘Bhen***t’, shall we also put in money here? They ask. Obviously, you can my friend says dismissively. I look at him. This man who has heard a few tips from here and there from my friend about is now behaving as if he was a real art dealer, that too in my friend’s absence. Soon, the conversation goes in various directions and like real property dealers, his friends conjure up the works of art they have seen in their friends’ collections. Strange names and strange anecdotes regarding art and antiques come up. A few diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and gems also make brief appearance and vanish. Then it goes to the architectural wonders in Dubai and peters out into the price of a call girl in an international market. I sit and listen in silence with a smile that only a person with piles in his rear can paste on his face during a high level meeting. Then I get up to go. But charged with rupees dreams and my possible role in making it real, they coax me to sit and drink. I refuse. One drink enemy, two drinks friend, says one of them. Means, if I leave after one drink, the friendship is not consolidated. I like making enemies out of friends. But I do not want to make enemies of out strangers. They can do more harm than friends turned to foes. Then I become Jesus Christ. I use the strange alchemy of water and turn a few drops of whiskey into gin. They are happy. They talk about becoming art dealers very soon and my friend encourages them. I shake hands with them in less than five minutes and retire to my room and back to my writing. I am sure two more art dealers are born in the same evening. 

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Thinking about Avijit Paul and Moumita Das in the New Year

(Avijit Paul and Moumita Das, the artist couple were killed in October 2014)

A year without you two. In October you are gone. In November we came to know about your departure. Many a tear was shed. So many words were written. A few condolence meetings. Yet, I do not know, you Avijit Paul and Moumita Das, how many of us remember you still. I was with a couple of friends yesterday night, drinking beer in silence and listening to a few old Rajesh Khanna songs in television. My New Year Eve was like that; without noises and shouting. Happiness was not overflowing and the shake hands at the strike of twelve at night were more obligatory and customary than out of pure intention. While listening to the songs from Amar Prem, a Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore starrer from late seventies, I was thinking about you two. I was thinking about you two so intently that I woke up with this feeling that I should write about you once again. But then people will call me a pessimist; someone who writes about the dead and gone on a beautiful New Year morning. So I postponed the idea of writing about you two, two innocent souls that were destroyed for no reason. Still I could not overcome you. I travelled from one city to another. And I am here tonight, sitting in a new place, in a new bed with a couple of boys to attend my worldly need of hunger. But I am still thinking about you. May be your parents and relatives and a few friends are also thinking about you at this moment. But be reassured, you are remembered.

There is a particular reason for me to remember you two so intently. I was one of those few people who had met in a place to do something towards commemorating you two. There were a few enthusiastic friends who knew you better. I had not even met you two when you were alive. But I thought it was my duty to be there and do something towards commemorating your lives. There were a few plans and they were really good. We wanted to declare an award in your names. We thought of setting up a few scholarships and funds for assisting young artists who needed support in fulfilling their education and international residencies. We had even thought of having a fund raising show to give some money to your families, not as compensation but as a gesture of togetherness. We wanted to tell your parents that we were with them and we would remain with them so long as we live. We wanted to tell them that we shared their pain. Everything was going smooth and I found my friends very enthusiastic. I suggested crowd funding for it. And I was sure that crowd funding would have worked better than forming a corpus fund through the contributions of selected donors. Everything was going smooth and I was hopeful. My friends looked earnest in their approach. I even wrote a concept note for the show that would earn some funds for your families. I did not want any piece of glory from it so I even I decided not to mention my name anywhere in the activities. My friends who are good at organising things promised me that they would do the needful.

Nothing happened. I kept on enquiring about it. One of them who took the initiative to organize the meeting that I had attended later told me that the friends who promised their help soon turned cold towards the whole thing. I do not know what happened. Was my approach wrong? Was my approach too patronising? I do not know. May be those who live, do not want to spend their precious time on the cause of the dead. But I am in a way guilt ridden because I thought that I was doing something towards commemorating your lives. But nothing happened and I feel that it was my failure in getting things done than those people promised their help. I think a lot about you people on the last day of last year and the first day of the New Year because I feel that I have further done something wrong to you by trying to initiate something which turned out to be a non-starter. I want to tell you sorry. I am sorry for doing that. And I do not know what my fellow travellers who came around to do something to commemorate you think about it now. But I cannot exorcise you two out of my mind. I think you will live along with me so long as I live because I understand the possibility of death in the mind of someone living.