Saturday, November 28, 2009

Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues: Copying is not Theft

Blasphemy is not all that bad. It makes one to think about the edicts of righteousness. Blasphemy, in that sense, is an unexpected route that helps one to move from the skin of an idea to the core of it. It shakes the patterns, sometimes for bad and most often for good. It forces us to re-program our lives.

And above all, blasphemy is a tool of creativity. It is ironic that creativity could be destructive in a positive sense. Theorists call it ‘deconstruction’. Populists call it ‘rethinking’. Majority calls it a ‘crime’.

Hence, many blasphemers are forced out of the mainstream system only to be embraced surreptitiously and then openly back to the system.

Again the irony is, those who staunchly stand by the edicts are dubbed as ‘fundamentalists’.

Result, blasphemy is a socio-cultural need to further the quality of life.

‘Sita Sings the Blues’, an animation movie by the American animation artist, Nina Paley is blasphemous for those who believe strongly in the righteousness of Indian culture and mythology. The ‘Indian’ here needs to be qualified; it should be understood as ‘ideological Hindu’.

This animation movie is based on Sita; yes our own female protagonist of the epic, Ramayana.

Why Sita is adulated as the embodiment of ‘pati-bhakti’ (unshakable love and devotion for husaband), ‘pativratya’ (chastity) and a subject to all what is considered as ‘good’ by a society, which is ideologically construed and constructed by the dominant male perspective?

Made in 2008, Nina Paley’s ‘Sita Sings the Blues’ is not an answer to this question? But the film is all about questions about the traditionally framed femininity. Nina Paley’s does not seem to be speaking from a feminist platform. On the contrary, all what has been theorized so far by the feminists provides her with an opportunity to humorously look at the life of Sita from multiple aesthetic perspectives.

Sita, born to King Janak is married to Rama, the Prince of Ayodhya. Rama’s father banishes him to the forests for fourteen years. Sita leaves her royal position and comforts behind and follows her husband to the forests. She is abducted to Lanka by the demon king, Ravana. Finally Rama comes with his army of monkeys and rescues her from there. As she has lived in another man’s place, Rama asks her to prove her chastity by undergoing the trial by fire. She does it happily. Back in Ayodhya, Sita is pregnant now. Rama doubts her again. This time she is banished to the forests as the subjects of the kingdom want Ram to be a king who is not swayed by emotions. In the forest Sita delivers a twin- Lav and Kush. Sage Valmiki teaches them the glory of their father. Knowing the birth of his kids, Rama comes to take his children. Once again he asks Sita to prove her chastity. But this time she defies him and ask the mother earth to gobble her up, so does the earth.

This is Valmiki’s storyline. There are ample amount of chances for feminist critique inbuilt in the story itself. It is not just the post-Beauvoir feminists did the deconstruction of Ramayana. In India itself, there had been several classical and modern version of Ramayana that is told from Sita’s perspective. There is even a version that says Sita is the daughter of Ravana.

Nina Paley has not done much in terms of re-reading Ramayana from Sita’s perspective. But what makes her film interesting is that she sticks to the original Valmiki version and makes a few characters outside the narrative to ask questions. These characters are the animated traditional puppet theatre characters, who interestingly speak in a contemporary ‘kick-ass-language’ of irreverent intellectuals and skeptical college freshers.

There are five different dimensions in Nina’s narrative. First, she sticks to a traditional miniature style Ramayana rendition, as seen in palm leaf manuscripts. Second, there is an incorporation of calendar images of Rama, Sita and other characters from Hindu pantheon. Third, the puppet theatre. Fourth, a contemporary remake of Sita as a Blues singer who is waiting for her ‘loving and hurting Daddy’ to come back. Fifth, Nina Paley and her boyfriend in animated forms, facing their marriage troubles.

One cannot take eyes away from the screen and one cannot shut up the ears for a while for the animation is so captivating and the music is truly blues. The music used in this movie is from Annette Hanshaw, one of the noted Blues singers of 1920s. When the movie was released, Nina went into trouble as she had to pay a hefty amount for gaining the copyrights of the music.

Nina weaves in her personal life; her life in NY city, Trivandrum (Kerala, India) and Brooklyn, her marriage and break-up happened during these sojourns. Ramayana came to her when she was going through her marriage blues and she understood Sita in an intimate way.

The movie, though not commercially released in India, has won several awards. Some of the Hindu fundamentalists who have seen this found it objectionable and blasphemous. Nina is reported to have said that even some of the Left wing academics had criticized for her political incorrectness.

Copyright issues made her aware of the problems that she could face in distributing this movie. As a part of the copyleft movement, Nina allowed her ‘Sita Sings the Blues’ to be distributed through internet. Currently it is available in several different downloadable formats.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A.R.Rahman- A Musical Storm

A sharp note on the flute. Rhythmic thumping on a dekka (the left piece of tabla). A few twinkling notes on the keyboard. A set of violins play from medium notes to crescendo. Again the twinkling notes on keyboard. A fresh female voice then sings in, ‘Chinna Chinna Asai’ (Dil hi Chotta sa in Hindi).

That was in 1992 and the film was ‘Roja’ by the ace director, Mani Ratnam. The music was different and effect that it created was captivating.

I was in my final MA with a decision to become so many things together; an IAS Officer, a film actor, if not a serial actor, a stunt man, a poet, an art critic. The decision was that if none of these worked out, I should be leaving for some Gulf countries (as many of the Kerala youngsters of that time used to do). I joined the Brilliant Tutorials in Madras (now Chennai) to prepare for IAS exams. I practiced Karate. Sent poems to magazines. Wrote articles in local journals. Got some training in music and in playing tabla.

Then came this music, music with a difference. The record covers and the magazines said that this music was given by one young wonder named ‘A.R.Rahman’.

The music caught us unaware. S.P.Balasubramanyam, whose velvety voice reigned the film industry with that of K.J.Yesudas, found his new avtar in A.R.Rahaman’s music (kadhal rojave- Roja jaane mann). Unni Menon, who was rejected by the Malayalam film industry at that time found his re-birth in Rahman’s music with Roja’s ‘Pudu vellai mazhai’ (yeh hasi vaadiyaan in Hindi). Then came a stream of new singers with A.R.Rahman- Minmini, Suresh Peters, Shankar Mahadevan. Hariharan left his harmonium and sober looks to become a rock star. Our own rock star Remo Fernandes pitched into top league with Rahman’s ‘Humma Humma’ (Bombay).

I don’t blame myself for thinking about becoming a musician after listening to A.R.Rahman. But those were private fantasies waiting to be dropped at any moment. So it happened soon. But A.R.Rahman lingered on with his music first, then with his high pitch voice. In 1997, when India celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Independence, Rahman and his advertisement days’ friend, Bharat Bala created history by making the album, ‘Vande Mataram’. Rahman moved from a shy youngster (confused, I should say after reading about him) to an Oscar Award winner (Slumdog Millionaire).

When the Oscar Awards were declared, when the nation erupted in celebration, many were unconvinced. The doubt came from the fact that the music in Slumdog Millionaire was not his best ever. We had heard several original and new songs from Rahman. But Oscar Award committee has different reasons to honor him.

I would have waited a few more years to know more about Rahman had I not chanced upon this biography on him titled ‘A.R.Rahman- The Musical Storm’ by a young journalist and writer Kamini Mathai. Like his music, this biography is also a tour de force. Once I started reading it, I could not keep it down till I finished it.

Reason for this passionate reading is different. Each page in this book made me realize how much the Rahman music is in our lives. And knowing about its making is a thrilling experience. Almost the same feeling that you get when you watch the shooting time comedies by the end of a Jackie Chan movie.

Like many Keralites, I too used to proudly believe that A.R.Rahman was a Malayali (a mundu man- that’s how a Face Book enthusiast once qualified all the Malayali celebrities). This book helped me to come out of that illusionary pride.

A.R.Rahman was born in 1967 in Mylapore, Tamil Nadu, to Shekhar-Kasturi couple. K.R.Shekhar was one of the highly sought after music composers and arrangers in the Tamil and Malayalam film industry. But Shekhar could not establish himself as a music director in Tamil industry. He got that break in Malayalam in 1960s. So many of us thought Shekhar was a Malayali.

Shekhar ghost composed for many directors. As a hardworking man he was running from studios to studio working on 24 x7 schedules. That took the toll of his life. He developed some mysterious disease and when Rahman was nine years old, Shekhar passed away, leaving four children and a jobless wife behind.

Shekhar-Kasturi couple belonged to a Brahmin family and many of the family members worked as electricians. Shekhar too had an affinity for equipments and new gadgets. Rahman, who was born as Dileep, too inherited his family legacy as he could ‘repair’ any musical instruments just by looking and understanding the mechanism of it.

Shekhar too had recognized the talent of his son. But Dileep’s ability was not just in repairing musical instruments. He could reproduce any musical note that was played to him once. His passion was for harmonium and keyboards. By the age of nine, he could play professionally.

Father’s death put the family into utter chaos. With three daughters and one son, Kasturi was finding it difficult to meet the ends. She started renting out Shekhar’s musical instruments that brought some income. But nothing was happening. During her husband’s illness, Kasturi had run to every divine healer available in Chennai. Finally she found solace in a Sufi pir. She and her family was slowly becoming Muslims. They embraced Islam mentally.

At the age of 11, out of necessity, Dileep started playing for recording sessions. He was/is the fastest fingers on keyboards. He could compose, program and arrange music. This shy boy became the talk of the town. Soon Dileep dropped out from school. He started earning for his family by playing sessions, doing jingles for advertisements.

Dileep developed a habit of working at night as he used to spend his day time in session playing. He did his original compositions at night from the home studio by that time he had built. With friends, he thought of starting bands and some of them played for a year and later on disbanded.

When Roja was released in 1992, the family had already become Muslims. In fact, they are not Muslims, but Sufis. When the music of Roja was about to be released, Dileep asked for the change of his name. Rahman came easily. But the A.R was difficult. His mother said to have got these letters in a vision. Now A.R stands for ‘Allah Rakka’ (Allah Rakha).

Now there is no Dileep or that reminds him of Dileep days. He is A.R.Rahman. He wants himself to be a complete Sufi. He does not sing or compose vulgar songs. If at all there are vulgar suggestions in the lyrics he asks the lyricist to remove it. Rahman was not sure of his voice. Hence, when he sang for the first time (humma humma in Bombay Tamil original), he switched off the lights in the studio to not to face anyone.

Rahman composes differently. He samples out sounds from various instruments and mixes them in his computer. He gives total freedom to singers and musicians to improvise to the maximum and none knows which one of their versions that Rahman would finally choose/use.

May be his father was not acknowledged as a musician in his lifetime, but Rahman makes it a point that each and every musician is acknowledged in the CD jackets. The musicians started getting a face with Rahman. He pays each and every musician regularly even if their piece is used in his composition for a couple of seconds.

Rahman is famous for his late arrival. But the movers and shakers in the film industry are ready to wait for him, not for hours or days, but for months in one go.

This biography reveals the world of Rahman for us. What Rahman is like as a person? How does he treat his celebrity status? How does he live his social life? How does he take criticism and controversies? How does he take success and failure?

For Rahman, God comes first. Then, mother. Without mother, he is nothing, Rahman says. That’s why he sang in Vande Mataram, ‘Amma tujche salaam.’

Written in clear prose pepped up with lively narratives and subtle humor, this biography by Kamini Mathai is not meant for portraying Rahman in golden terms. She becomes critical and probing, when it comes to the whimsies and fancies of Rahman. Kamini has interviewed so many people associated with Rahman during his Dileep days to A.R.Rahman days to the world music celebrity ARR.

When you read a good book, you touch the heart of the subject and the author. Here when read this book I touch the hearts of A.R.Rahman and Kamini Mathai.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Bhuj and at the Edge of Rann of Kutch- Setting for a Camp

(Shaam-e-sarhaad- general view)

(Crafts display at Shaam-e-Sarhaad)

(buffet desk)


(Reception Desk)

(Folk Singers at Shaam-E-Sarhaad)

(johnyML at the folk singing session)

(Somu Desai with folk singers)

(Asit and Rajesh Shah and Dhruv Patel at Shaam-e-Sarhaad)

(JohnyML at Shaam-e-Sarhaad)

(Somu Desai at Shaam-e-Sarhad)

(on the way to Kutch)

(at Hunnar Shala)

(A work station at Khamir)

(Khamir Crafts Park at Bhuj)

Life seems to be destiny driven. Eight years back I had all the opportunity to visit Bhuj. I remember the date exactly for it was a very memorable day. It was 26th January 2001 and at the Rajpath in New Delhi, India was showing its cultural and military might on the Republic Day.

All India Radio (AIR) news reader, Sushma called me on phone on that day. While talking to her, I found the ceiling fan in my drawing room shaking a bit violently. A sudden feeling of dizziness passed through my brain. Before that feeling of unsettlement was over, I heard the frantic voice of Sushma, “Johny, everything is shaking here.”

In a few minutes everything changed in India dramatically and drastically. The districts of Kutch and Bhuj were completely destroyed by a killer earthquake. What Sushma and I were feeling was the tremors of that destructive earthquake.

I was working with then as a senior correspondent. Soon I received a call from the office to join that team of reporters that was going to Bhuj. For some reason, I refused to go. I was getting bored of journalism. I was planning to quit.

Today, when I pass through the broad and neat roads of Bhuj and Kutch, I feel the pinch guilt inside me. I should have come here then as a reporter. Today, I am here as an art curator. I am surveying this place for doing an art camp. But I was destined to come here- that’s important for me.

On 18th November 2009 at 5.30 AM, I, Somu Desai, Asit Shah and his associates Rajesh Shah and Dhruv Patel left Baroda for Bhuj. Our destination is Kutch, just at the border where the Rann of Kutch begins. It is a ten hours drive by road. Dhruv and Rajesh are efficient drivers and the Innova picks up speed as we leave the roads of Baroda.

Morbi is a place on the way to Bhuj, one of the industrial centers of Gujarat, where the famous clock brands, Ajanta and Scientific are produced. A mineral rich area, Morbi also has several ceramic and tile factories. You look around and see different brand names of ceramic tiles and ceramic wares. Penguin to Monalisa, Apple to Armani, the international brand names are copied and flaunted with enough spelling mistakes to bring to a smile to your lips. Rejected western commodes become boundary walls here.

Marchel Duchamp would have a field day here.

The roads are very wide and clean. One can step on gas to raise the speed upto 140 kilometers per hour. The earthquake has brought so much of charity and financial investment in this region. One of the major investments is in windmills. Windmill fields are a new area of investment in the power sector.

As an open area with a lot of wind force, these mills produce electricity that makes Gujarat a power donor state. You invest in windmills and you can access electricity from any part of India for a nominal price per unit. Many industrial corporate houses and celebrity individuals have invested in windmills.
Bhuj has a different landscape. The earth is flat and as the salt content is high, the greenery is minimal. The irregular patches of shrubs accentuate the feel of a desert land. There are no high rising buildings. And the villages are in small little clusters where people live in bhungas (small huts). In each plot there are a few bhungas as per the number of members in a family. The individual bhungas assure privacy for the members who seek it.

Khamir Craft Park is one of the important centers in Bhuj. Run by Khamir, an NGO, this place houses crafts from this region. The artisans are given work spaces and the crafts and clothes produced here are distributed to other centers from here. Also Khamir functions as a nodal agency to collect and distribute the craft works produced in this region. The architecture is indigenously developed by Hunnar Shala, an organization works towards sustainable architecture.

Hunnar Shala is located in Bhuj town. Kirtee Bhai Khatri and Kiran Vaghela, architects and researchers in sustainable architecture development, lead this organization. Translated as ‘Talent House’, Hunnar Shala has many young architecture scholars and practitioners in their team. They work from indigenously developed structures, with space framing technology for roofs, paddy for thatch and reinforced mud for walls. Hunnar Shala falls back to the traditional bhunga architecture as a central theme to develop the new methods. They work nationally and internationally in the areas of sustainable architecture development.

Our destination is Shaam-e-Sarhad village resort. Designed by the Hunnar Shala team, this resort is completely built and operated by the village folk in Hodka village at the edge of Rann of Kutch that borders India and Pakistan. There are three bhungas and seven tents with state of the art facilities, but all with a folk touch. Vegetarian Kathiawadi food, folk music and crafts give special effects to Shaam-e-Sarhad.

Shaam-e-Sarhad is supported by Government of India’s Ministry of Tourism and United Nations Development Project (UNDP). Promoted as an endogenous tourism project, this resort came up with technical support of Hunnar Shala after the earthquake in 2001. Now the village boys trained by Hunnar Shala work as reception managers, chefs, room boys and service boys.

When the idea of establishing such a resort came up first, many village elders opposed it fearing the corruption of their village culture. But the youngsters, who were looking for jobs and better lives were all for it. Today the whole of Hodka village support the project and they treat the visitors as their family members.

Four months, beginning from November to Feburary are active months for this resort. Rest of the year, thanks to the acute heat and winds, the resort remains closed. The annual income from the activities is estimated as Rs.24 lakhs. The amount is equally divided for maintenance, salaries and for generating corpus fund. Today this village is self sufficient and education is imparted to the young generation.

A deep silence engulfs you once you are there. Take your cots out and lie on your back and watch the sky up there- billions of starts wink at you from up. The cool breeze embraces you and you don’t feel like talking. You just be there, one with the nature. From a distance you can hear sounds- of a dog barking or a bell ringing- that must be coming several kilometers away.

Here, in this resort we are going to have an art camp. We will be going there with 20 young artists from all over India. And we are going to ask them to produce the works of their choice, inspired or mediated by the atmosphere. One cannot escape this silence and stillness, this vastness and this beauty of barrenness. It is minimal. It is inescapable. It is going to be non-alcoholic.

It is meditation. To be here and look at the setting sun behind nothing but vast expanse of earth is something ethereal.

To be one with nature is a clich├ęd expression. But you cannot be dual in your mind here.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Still in Baroda, Thrill in Baroda- A Report

‘Thrilling, Chilling, Killing’, Rekha Rodiwittiya selected the words carefully from the collection of stickers that she brought in her work bag. The small little glittering tigers came off from their temporary abode of sticking papers and started roaring from the walls. Rekha took them one by one and made them to behave. She worked around first slowly, then fast along a tongue in cheek sticker work pasted on the wall by the young artist Bhrigu Sharma. Slowly, Bhrigu’s ‘Spot the Difference’ work became an island and around it Rekha made the ocean of god heads from different religions, Christianity, Sikhism, Hinduism and Islam.

Rekha was working at the ‘Still in Baroda, Thrill in Baroda’ project conceptualized by me at the Art Home Studios, directed by Asit Shah in Baroda. The sticker work created by Rekha was an emphasis on the unity in diversity philosophy adopted by the city of Baroda; a city that became an abode of artists and cultural communities. There was a tangential comment on the pogroms that Gujarat had witness during the yester years. But the call was for harmony and unity, through the language of art. One could read out the tigers as tigers in political maneuverings and as the ferocious creatures that accompany her protagonists. The comment was subtle but effective.

The sticker project that attempted to look at Baroda as a city of artistic attractions, a place that defines the features of Indian contemporary art, an abode of many artists and cultural activists, above all the seat of one of the prime art institutions in India. Since morning artists started coming in and they began using the industrially produced stickers collected by the Art Home team and choosing to create their comments on the city of Baroda. I am not an artist. But I selected the images of the rabbit and tortoise from the host of stickers and stuck them on the wall. I wrote on it, ‘A Parable of Art and Art Criticism- Who will win the race?’

It was a playful act. But soon the artists were at work. A day before, Alok Bal had done a work that emphasized his involvement in the game of football. He has a football club called XYZ Club in Baroda. The first sticker became a connection between the art of art and art of football. Somu Desai did a Banyan Tree graphically out of stickers. Minal Damani selected the frames of the used stickers. Preksha T, Lochan U, Shilpa, Pramesh Surti, Bhrigu Sharma, Heena Mistry, Nabneeta, Namrata Shah, Chintan, B.V.Shweta, Amarnath, Sanket, Chetan, Probal Ghosh, Amarnath Sharma, Sheetal, Danashree, Malvika Rajnarayan, Sajeev Visweswaran, Rajesh, Apurba Nandi, Sushma Shekhon, Shiv Varma, Jitendra Bowni, Piyush Patra, Sona Tina, the XYZ Football team members and many more did their works. Soon the Art Home Studio filled with sticker work and more works.

By 6 pm, it was the time to do the formal release of ‘Untitled’, a documentary on veteran artist Jeram Patel directed by me. Rekha Rodwittiya spoke a little about the sticker project and her association with the city of Baroda. Jyoti Bhatt officially released the documentary by giving a copy to Jeram Patel. The function was attended by the luminaries like Prof.Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, Nilima Sheikh, Jyotsna Bhatt, Nagji Patel, Surendran Nair, Vasudevan Akkitham, B.V.Suresh, Nandu Bhai, Jayaram Poduval, Prof.Ajayakumar, Manisha Doshi, Gargi Raina, Naina Dalal and many others. The young artists came in groups from all over Baroda. Later the documentary was screened for a host of four hundred strong crowd.