Thursday, June 30, 2011

Portrait of an Art Critic as a Prostitute

These days a critic is either paid to write or inspired to write. I often write on inspiration and later on that get paid. You may wonder how. I write my blog and interested editors come to me via email or phone calls and ask me permission to reproduce them in their magazines. I give them full freedom to do edit as per their needs and they pay me. So for me blog writing at times is like displaying my wares at my window. People would see them and if they fancy for them, they come forward, pay and take it. Interesting, right? But then suddenly I think about myself as a prostitute standing inside a glass case displaying my assets to people and potential buyers come forward to choose me. Critics at times behave like prostitutes. But then that is not a problem because I respect prostitutes and their ability to dare dangers and work with all what they have (not just body but pure intelligence) and eke out a living. Prostitution is not a sin; it could be a profession by choice. Mary Anne Sprinkle was a call girl by choice and she could gain a PhD in sexology and she is now one of the most revered sex gurus in the world.

I cannot say the same thing about the women who are forced into prostitution. There are many in the world who are abducted, tortured and then pushed in prostitution. But those women too show their will to survive, dare and fight. They also expect to go back to a life that is respectable and worth living. But once you are caught into the quagmire of this world’s oldest of professions it is very difficult to go back. The best example that I remember is the case of Maria, the protagonist of Paulo Coelho’s novel, ‘Eleven Minutes’. Maria escapes the boredom of her town, goes to the city, works with a garment seller, then lured by a pimp lands up in Geneva. She becomes a prostitute and she thinks that she would go back and give a respectable life to her parents and earn one for herself. But it never happens. But in the process she realizes the finer truths of life.

But there is a fundamental difference between prostitutes who are forced into this profession and the critics in vogue. I need to clear some fog here; when I say critic, I am talking about art critics. None forces them to become critics. They become art critics by choice. Unlike the prostitutes, they have the freedom to go back at any time and start a respectable life in any other fields. Here again I go wrong. Prostitutes also could go back and live a respectable life provided if circumstances are conducive for them and some godsend people come to them by chance or by situational demands. However, critics could go back to their other fields of interests; they could become stamp collectors or they could even start an NGO (non-governmental organization) that works towards protecting the environment. The first step towards protecting the environment is withdrawing themselves from art criticism, but they don’t realize the goodness that they do to the scene.

I have great sympathy for prostitutes. But I don’t have too much sympathy for art critics because most of the art critics have come to what they do today because they thought at one point that it was the easiest thing to do in the world. You could go to a gallery, you could talk to the artist and write whatever you want and then call up your friend in the newspaper establishment and say that you have a piece on so and so artist and the friend in there would immediately tell you to send the piece to his or her desk because he is just looking for a filler. Also, any young journalist who wants to become a respectable one in his chosen profession would desist from taking up art criticism beat because none cares, he knows for sure. So in the newspaper hierarchy the job starts from police beat and art reporting. When you show prowess on both you will be send to life style stories and features, and if you are really fighter you become a political journalist. I am talking about a time when art was not a lucrative profession. So no journalist wanted to become an art critic.

That explains why we have so many art critics today who are freelancers in writing and teachers by profession. If you are ready to write art criticism you are welcome. And editors, once upon a time seriously believed that only women who wore cotton sarees and red big bindis only could understand art and most of those women who wore big bindis and cotton sarees became respectable art critics. I was a lucky one; first of all I was not a woman. I am going to tell you a serious male secret. When constant rejections pester young guys in wherever they go looking for a job, crestfallen they often proclaim to friends that they seriously wanted to do away with their male organs. They wanted to have a female organ instead and some soft looks.

You call it male chauvinistic view. But no art critic with beard and khadi kurta, minus big bindi has established themselves as art critic in India. Suneet Chopra was/is the only exception. I am talking about a time when there was no internet and mobile phones. Suneet Chopra became successful because he could understand the throb of the people as a political activist, he had better lung power than his editors, a good party back up and spoke good English. Rest of the art critics became art critics because they wrote on anything related to art not necessarily visual art. They wrote about dance, music and theatre. If they were invited to write on food, they did that too. Then when you write a good piece about one artist in one of the prominent newspapers, that artist becomes your patron. Artists in India always need an interlocutor because most of them talk nonsense and they know that they talk nonsense. As they know it they expect someone to talk one behalf of them. There comes the critic like an wolf behind a lion. So one day with a patron in tow, you leave your interest in theatre and music and involve more in writing about art.

And let me tell you the truth, you don’t have any opinion to express. In fact, if at all you have an opinion, neither the artist nor the readers (not to mention the page editor) want your opinion. So you write whatever you want in all euphemistic and flowery language and everyone is happy. You are happy because you could see your name tarnished by fine ink on the paper and you take it for an award. So tainted both by ink and lack of opinion, you walk around the city (in fact driven around) and finally someone stands up on his toes when you walk into a gallery. And be sure that day you became an art critic. It is when others recognize you as an art critic that you too start believing in it.

The problem is that you start believing in it. You print your visiting card, flaunt the title ‘art critic’ like a game trophy and tilt your head to forty five degrees upwards and become a patron of FabIndia. Once you start believe that you are an art critic, the fundamental human avarice rears its Lalach La la lap lap head in your mind. This happens because out of too much of love and affection your first patron had given you a drawing with a signature. You had never thought that this would be of any use in your life so you frame it and keep it on your wall and forget it. Then when you became aware of your avarice you look at that picture and take a vow that you are going to become an established art critic as well as an art collector. So next time when you go to an artist to do an interview with him, you metaphorically mention how the first patron was so generous in giving a singed painting for your article. The artist who is being grilled by you then gets the hint and takes out something from his collection and gives to you.

Slowly it takes the form of extortion. You start demanding a work per anything that you write on any artist, irrespective of their name and fame. I was saved from being an extortionist. Of late I too have thought of getting into this business. But I need to find new strategies to become one. Going back to my time, I was lucky because I was not a woman and my first editor was a woman (obviously so as art pages are edited by none other than women. Exceptions like Sadanand Menon are there who had turned business papers into art news papers. Salute and respect to Mr.Menon). She took me for a ‘typical’ case from Baroda; beedi smoking, beared, khadi kurta, jhola wallah and above all, someone who is struggling for the sake of art. She was kind enough and gave me a half page column and asked me to write about anything that I liked in art. She liked to smoke beedis with me and I could discuss personal problems with her. I owe part of my perseverance in the field to her.

I don’t write her name because I don’t know whether she would like to be mentioned by me as it is since a long time that I met her last. While hopping galleries, literally like a frog (with no princess around to help me to shed my skin and turn myself into a prince) I used to see this big bindi-ed art critics coming out of cars and going in and coming out of the galleries with the same tilted heads. In due course of time one could see them shedding their extra hairs on their heads and becoming more like corporate executives. After a few years the market in India literally boomed; hold on. I am not talking about the art market boom. Before that the real estate and automobile market boomed with the boom in the IT sector.

My life was taking a turn with this boom. I was about to become an automobile critic (if a dance critic could become a specialist in video art, why can’t an art critic become an automobile critic?). The newspaper where I used to contribute my columns regularly decided to reduce the space for art and devote that space for automobile advertisements. Right move, on their part, and a stab on my back, front and everywhere. My kind page editor called me and told me the story. She did not want to send me away with no money, no column and no future. So she asked me to re-organize myself a bit. Change into better clothes, go to Pragati Maidan where auto expos are conducted, write a piece on that, to begin with. I looked into her eyes. Sitting inside her cabin I took out my beedi bundle, gave one to her as usual and we smoked in silence. That was the end of my career in that newspaper as an art critic.

I am not here to tell you my story. I am talking about art criticism. Then really the art market boomed. Erstwhile critics became curators because we did not have any curators. Some journalists who hopped between galleries to do usual art reviews started taking interest in academics of art history. They went to respected universities obtained art history degrees, came back only to become art curators, experts, consultants and archivists and so on. Erstwhile red bindied women, now old but with a ‘never say die’ attitude became respectable international curators. They became specialists over a period of time. And most of them tend to cover up their past as dance and music critics and art critics. Art critic is a lesser designation today.

So we have two types of curators today- untrained art critics who became curators through experience and clout, two, trained art critics who have done not a single piece of proper art critical or historical writing and have become curators through job and by designation.

In this scenario, art critics like me stand like prostitutes inside glass cages displaying our assets.

But I respect prostitutes than the extortionists.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Admission Blues and Other Stories- To My Children- 17

I still remember the day when I crossed the threshold of the illustrious Maharaja’s College aka University College in Trivandurm. The monsoon was still on and the roads leading from the Trivandrum Railway station were not in a good shape. My mother accompanied me to the college on the admission day. The walls that emulated the red bricks through the play of brown and white paints were quite imposing that that was the hall mark style of most of the buildings built during the 19th century in Travancore. I noticed the huge old mango tree in the courtyard of the college. Under the shade of this mango tree, people from different walks of life gathered along with the students of the college when a vital issue was to be discussed and the attention of the government was to be brought to it. Those were not the days of live telecasting and instant news breaking; corner meetings and coffee houses still had their own relevance in the lives of the college students, intellectuals, artists and people who thought differently from the routine of the mundane life.

I stepped inside the campus with a sort of elation brimming from my mind and oozing out of each invisible pores in my body, which was typical to person in his late teens of that time. His or her freedom to a different world existence was not through the early introduction to television or internet. He was given pair of wings when he plucked himself away from the protective eyes of his parents. Graduate colleges and cities provided them the sufficient cover to hide and nourish their secret dreams of freedom.

My mother, who was serving the Revenue Department of Kerala as a senior officer, was posted in Trivandrum during that period and I insisted that she should accompany me to the college on the day of admission. Though I used to think that I had had enough introduction to the world of the grown up through literature, cinema and imagined revolutionary political activism, when it came to very personal things I used to feel so helpless and abandoned that I needed my mother’s help even for selecting my undergarments. I was well aware of the brands of these undergarments (we were still a nationalized state in the late 80s and we did not have too many varieties to choose from) that used to get advertised in the magazines. Still I was shy of going to a garment shop and asking for a pair of underwear. So I always sought the help of my mother. Once my mother took me to a readymade shop along with her elder sister and they were looking generally for ladies’ under garments. Standing there, I started mentioning the names and shapes of those undergarments available in the market. My elder aunt looked at me first unbelievingly and then at my mother with a lot of scorn. I was behaving naturally and my argument was that if those things could be advertised in the magazines that were read by everyone at home, they why couldn’t we utter those names in public? The taboos were working in many different layers and levels in a conservative Kerala society.

(when I met Thara after two decades- from left KSR,JML,Thara)

When I recount these things I remember a hilarious incident that used to occur repeatedly at the drawing room of our home that we had rented out in Trivandrum as both my sister and I had joined the colleges there. The landlady was a Nair lady with an indeterminate age. From certain angles she looked middle aged and from some other angles she looked really old. She had two husbands as they followed the matri-linear custom of the erstwhile Nair families in Trivandrum. From these two husbands she had three children. The elder son was living away from home and a married daughter and an unmarried son were living with our landlady. Both these daughter and son worked in government departments. By evening, after the office hours, the daughter of our landlady came back home quickly, finished helping her mother in doing kitchen chores, took shower and came to our home which was in the same compound, to watch the Doordarshan programs as they did not have a television set in their home. Those days, people used to gather in the drawing rooms of other people and watched television programs as if they were doing some kind of pooja or satsang.

This lady whom we used to call ‘Chechi’ (elder sister) had the habit of repeating anything written on the television screen. So when the commercial breaks came, as we did not have the option to switch channels either we talked or gossiped or just kept our eyes lingering on the glowing screen. When advertisements of things like Nirma, Glycodene, Bombay Dyeing, Dinesh Mills, Carefree sanitary napkins and contraceptive Nirodh came, our lady of the evening recited the names religiously adding her own comments to it. It was a very subconscious response to the visuals that she was involved in. But those were the days when people averted their eyes or scrambled through other things, when the screens showed the images of Mala-D or Nirodh or Carefree. But our Chechi, each time these advertisements came, uttered their names loud and translated the function of each thing into Malayalam to everybody’s embarrassment. But for her it was not a big issue and she behaved as if she were quite unaware of the social taboos.

When I walked into the campus of the University College, I felt a sense of Deja vu. I had done it before, only the location was different. Yes, I had done the same exercise in another college in another city, almost a month back before the admission in the Unviersity College, Trivandrum. It was in the SN College, Kollam. I had gone there with my mother, she carrying all my certificates in her bag and me holding a couple of books to read while travelling by train, had stood in queue, sat in a hall, faced interviewers and had gained admission for BA English Language and Literature. Though Kollam was another city towards north, lying equidistance with Trivandrum from our place, it was not preferred as a centre for studies as we were more familiar with the city of Trivandrum. But I was forced to take admission in Kollam as a precaution. There is a story behind it.

(SN College, Kollam)

The family members, except for my mother and sister, thought that I was going to be a doctor. Our family in general had generated a lot of government servants and artists, but except for a couple of cousins there were almost no doctors in the family. As I was good at studies and always scored fairly good marks, everyone thought of me giving Entrance Examination for Medicine. They thought that my experiences at the Medical College, Trivandrum during the illness and hospitalization days of my father, would make me vengeful to become a medical doctor. But I was thinking differently. Though it was fashionable to become a doctor or engineer in those days (I was not quite aware of the economic implications of both these professions in general life and in marriage at that time), I was simply lost interest in studies. If at all I wanted to study I wanted to study English literature and become a what...err... a journalist .. a writer? I was not sure. I wanted to be in Trivandrum, that was the first and last thing in mind.

In every family there will be a couple of people who are highly revered for their worldly wisdom, age, job, authority and financial strength and equally detested for their passion for creating obstacles for anything that other would run smoothly. The youngsters in the family always want to see them dead but the more they think in those lines the more they seem to get power in their lives. These are the kind of people always get reverence mixed with hatred. They like to give a go ahead to things that would obviously look dubious and when things go wrong they would be the first to say something like, ‘look-I-had-warned-you-before’. When there is something that must be a cakewalk or a great alliance, they would come up with some outlandish theory and derail the whole project. These people are famous for creating obstacles in love affairs and arranged marriages. Young girls in the family always hate these guys. But like a necessary evil, these people are always consulted fearing wrath and more vengeance that they could wreck upon the unheeding family members.

My family was not an exception in that case and there were two or three of them and were very potent too at that point of time. One was like, ‘you have to read this or that weekly otherwise your life will be runied’ type. The other one was, ‘hello... are you okay and are you still the son of Mr.Lakshmanan?’ that type. So when came out of closet (I was not a gay to do that but a future doctor refusing to be one and going to a less lucrative subject was as good as being a gay at that time) and declared that I was not going to give any entrance examinations to become doctor or whatever, it created some sort of furore amongst the family members. Some people accused me of becoming wayward after my father’s death. Some accused my mother for not bringing me up properly. Some even thought that I had gone mad.

(J.S.Indukumar, Director, Jai Hind TV - middle)

When I declared my intention to join the University College, Trivandrum, one of the evils in the family reared his ten hooded head and hissed behind my mother. Are you sure that he would get an admission in the University College? All the cream students come there and he has not studied in the English medium. I don’t think he would get admission here. Then, if at all he wants to pursue literature let me apply to some colleges that are not so hot for that subject, he splattered his venom on an adequate platter and that was enough for my mother to turn blue with melancholy, tears and a treasury full of sighs. As an eighteen years old boy this reaction of my mother put me also in panic mode and I started thinking that I would not get admission in the University College and I should seek admission elsewhere.

S.N.College, Kollam was the second option then. As expected I got interview call from there. In fact it used to be interview cards. The fifteen paisa worth post card will come with a rubber stamp impression of the college and the interview date. You were supposed to go, face the interview board, fill the fee and join- that was the procedure. I was immediately selected at the English department of the University College. I was standing in a queue and a few paces away my mother was standing under a shade and was waiting for me to come back after submitting necessary documents and fee at the counter. I was happy and I was humming tunes, totally oblivious of the whole world. Suddenly, to my surprise one girl who was standing next to me in a parallel line just touched me on my hand. I turned my neck and found this young girl of my age, with a file held closer to her boson, wearing skirt and blouse standing next to me with a smile in her eyes. ‘Gely,’ she introduced herself to me. I told her my name. ‘Do you sing?’ she asked. ‘Yes, I do. But I am not a singer,’ I said. She said she too was going to be in the same class with me as she too got admission for BA English Literature. I found a friend there. I felt lucky and like any other boy of that time I vowed in my mind that she was going to be with me all my life.

But nothing happened. Within a few days I got a post card from the Trivandrum University College. I went to the SN College, Kollam, collected my documents, got a relieving certificate and so on and came back happily. The college was not yet on and I could not see Gely anywhere. Those were not the days of telephone and I had forgotten to take her address out of excitement and leaving the memories behind in that flat barren land of the college campus I left for the railway station, boarded a train and came back home. Throughout that journey I thought of a life without any girl and thought of another life that was going to be really exciting at the University College, Trivandrum. Defying the prediction of my venomous relative, I was going to get admission in that prestigious college. Almost three years later, while I was still in University College, doing my first years MA in English literature I had a visitor and I was surprised to see that visitor.

Looking straight to my eyes, she was standing there. It was Gely. Now she was studying in the Women’s College, Trivandrum, another famous and respectable college established by the kings of the Travancore kingdom for promoting the education of women in the country. During my graduation days, a few students from my class used to get selected for inter collegiate Quiz competitions and I was one amongst them. We used to travel to other colleges and compete with other teams. The finals used to be telecasted by the Trivandrum Doordarshan Kendram. One competition was held at the Women’s College. I don’t remember Gely was studying there at that time or she came there next year. Somehow she came to know that I was in the University College and she decided to pay a visit. It was a great surprise. She asked me, ‘Do you sing still?’ I said, yes. But I was not anywhere in singing. But I was desperate to please her and I was a growing poet then. I was too happy she came and met me. She said good bye and left. I never met her afterward.

(Stella Jasmine with her family)

In the large hall on the first floor of the main building, adjacent to the room of the Principal, looked upon by the oil portraits of stalwart professors and scholars who had associated with the University College, smelling the fragrance of a golden age, we all sat at the desks where many a masters had left their indelible marks. Despite the tube lights reverently shedding lights on the professors and teachers at the interview desk the room looked dark and serious. With abated breathe we all sat sending occasional glance at each other. Surprised by the gazes and astonished by the friendliness in our eyes, we prayed deep from our hearts that all those present there should have got admissions. And most of them got. And all of a sudden we were all a part of the family. The first year degree class was on the ground floor next to teachers’ room.

We, the students found comfort in each others’ company. We were a team. I don’t remember the names of all the students now. But I could recount most of the names who are still my friends even after two decades of life spent elsewhere differently and eventfully. Thara (Tara) was the biggest and the prominent one. Then came Geetha, Bina, Stella, Leju, Kartika, Robert, Ambi Das, Jayaprakash, Indukumar, Suresh and my most favourite friends of the time John Jyoti Raj and Clement Stephen.

Thara was the daughter of Prof.Nabisa Ummal, who had served as the principal of the University College at one point and also as a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Kerala. Thara was the true daughter of that reverend and progressive mother and initially we all viewed her with awe and fear. Later she became our best friend and after years I had the opportunity to meet her in Trivandrum. Stella is lecturer in English at the SN College, Varkala (where I did my pre-degree) but currently she lives in the US. Leju lives in Trivandrum. Bina lives in South Africa. Jayaprakash is a well known journalist and Indukumar is the head of the Jai Hind TV, a private television channel in Kerala (He moved to Jai Hind after a long stint with Asianet). Clement Stephen now lives in Middle East and he is a qualified advocated. John Jyothi Raj is a higher secondary English teacher and lives in Trivandrum. Suresh is in State administration and no clue about other friends.

I have a lot to talk about all of them. And I have a lot to talk about the days that I spent in Trivandrum. In fact those were the days of experiments; experiments everything, from literature, cinema, poetry, radio, television, love, kiss, sex, locally brewed liquor to marijuana. Those five heady years almost served as my foundation for the future life. A new phase of my experiments with life started there in Trivandrum in 1987.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Police, Kiss and Sex in Kerala

I cannot imagine the officers (including the constables who are seen often in the streets) in the Kerala Police Department are a ruthless lot. I don’t imagine that they live in a zombie land where pecking, touching and kissing do not happen between human beings (I don’t say between male and female because why can’t a male and male kiss or a female and female kiss?)

In fact when the same sex people kiss (yes, the real French kiss where lips dissolve in tongues and vice versa) it means more than just love and carnal instincts or mindless passion. It could be an experiment in the basic forms and in a sublime state it could be the highest form of surety and protection.

I remember Whoopie Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey kissing in Spilberg’s Color Purple (written by Alice Walker). One cannot forget because the kind of sense of security they impart with each other in that one deep kiss. Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das are reported to have kissed in one scene in ‘Fire’. I have not watched the movie.

I have kissed a male. How was it? You may ask. Hmm... it tasted a bit forced and salty. The pre-kiss trepidation would give way to a post-kiss tenderness. You feel like muscle-less.

I am talking about the feelings of a hetero-sexual while kissing a person from the same sex.

Human beings are made as homosexuals. But then once they progressed in time they became heterosexuals. More than being homosexual, human beings are great masturbators. I watch children pleasuring themselves without knowing that they are pleasuring themselves. It is natural. And having homosexual encounters during childhood and teenage and much later when you are alone with a male friend also prove that human beings are born homosexuals.

Freud had written several tomes to analyse and justify all these fundamental characters of human beings (the unfortunate thing was that he proved anything out of heterosexual sex was a form of illness and aberration, which could be corrected). Europe and later America took Freud seriously and started pumping people with electric shocks and torture machines to correct them. Thank God, they were the first to realize the folly too. With Lacan, Foucault and later with Zizek, now they are a cool lot.

Globalized India is the problem today. India do not allow couples to kiss in public. If at all they do it is seen as a shame. Gay pride is accepted now legally and constitutionally still India hums and haws at the very mentioning of it.

While kissing a male friend (I remember it was in 2003 October) I was trying to prove a point. What was the problem in kissing a male in public? Friends, including my wife cheered me. (Wives will have problem only when their husbands go on a kissing spree with women or they take their challenges too seriously and become a serious convert to the new religion).

In fact, my passion for digression is quite evident here. You may ask why I started off with a reference to the Kerala Police and then went on talking about homosexuality and kissing.

The case is different. I recently came to know about an issue of a young woman in Kerala, working in the IT industry facing harassment from the hands of the Kerala Police for travelling with her male friend by bike at a certain hour of the day or night.

I am unclear about this issue because I searched for details in google and it did not yield much result. The facebookians were so vehement in their passionate protests against the police that most of them forgot to give the finer details of the issue.

So what I know is this: Tesni Banu, a young IT professional was going by bike with her male friend, police stopped them and harassed them. Charge against them was very grave- immoral activities.

This is the same State (Kerala), God’s own country at the southern tip of our incredible India where girls are raped at home by their fathers (not foster fathers but biological fathers), only to be sold to a series of pimps and raped by people including politicians, film stars and many more important people. Many end up in committing suicide. Many end up in mental asylums. Many simply vanish. Many end up in brothels. Many end up in hospitals. A few speak up from their deathbeds and the egalitarian state of Kerala makes it sure that the girl does not speak again.

This is the state where there is 100% literacy, health care and life standard at par with New York City.

If the Police stop a couple and charge them with immoral activities, one should not take it for the moral uprightness of the state and its police. Instead, it shows the weakness of the state, its people and its law and order system.

Left wing or right wing or left of the centre rules Kerala, it remains to be so.
In no state in the world Police officials are treated as friends. Britain seems to have a street police force that is people friendly. Police force is meant for people’s protection. But in India we have a police force that has been turning fast into an anti-people militia supported by the state.

That’s why Arundhati Roy says, in the fight against the Maoists, states help their police to become an army and army a police force.

So we have a militarized police force in place.

But my question is what makes a police force militarized? Can’t the individuals within the force think differently? I am not naive to think that such people do not exist and also I am not naive to believe that any organized force is meant for the exercise of individual whims. Police is an ideological apparatus of the state.

It is meant for imposition and control of and by power. Police are expected obey and execute the orders of the ruling authorities. As a force, both the government (read rulers) and the police are abstract notions. They find their escape through abstractions of law and order.

But the individual within the force is a concrete entity. Once divested of the uniform, he is just another person. When he is out of his official skin, he is just another citizen with no special authority on anything.

But going by the general feel, we have created a cultural outlook towards the ideological apparatuses of the state including the Police. Police are a corrupt force. Our films tell us so, the constables are invariably hooligans or morons. Either they extort money from the hapless people or they extort laughter from the onlookers. Police (both good and bad cops) could kill people. They are never booked by the law of the land. They become law unto themselves. So we believe in their omnipotent status. So none takes panka with the Police.

That’s why the noted activist and artist in China Ai Wei Wei says that a person who hits a police (man) is either out of his mind or a fool with death wish (not exactly the same words). But a mob is a different entity. Like police, mob is also an abstraction.

But what about those individual police men who patrol the streets? Could they be just maniacs and fundamentalists in uniform? How could they get offended by seeing a man and woman on a motorbike, even if it is at the dead of night?

Let me talk about the Kerala Police.

There was a time when we thought the police mean a gang of thugs in uniform. They were pot bellied uncouth rogues who could fill (given a chance) a thousand pages of Wikipedia with a expletives. They drank, raped and extorted money. As they drank and raped and extorted money, we thought the governments also did the same. And the movies confirmed our fears.

Then we grew up. We saw the Police force changing in Kerala. There was a time when people used to say when one gets no job and one does not have education beyond seventh standard he could get a job in Kerala Police. So the hooliganism could have been justified. What else you would expect from a guy who is just a school drop-out, phenomenally lazy and with confusing ideas about the Police as imparted by the then movies? He would obviously become corrupt and bawdy.

Today, the scene is different. Thanks to the higher literacy standards, the young men and women applying for a job in the Police Department have higher degrees; most of them are graduates and post graduates. If you find a PhD holder amongst cops in Kerala, you wouldn’t be surprised. Most of them come to this job while giving tests and interviews for other jobs. A small state like Kerala could not afford too many people in non-Police departments. So the less fortunate ones opt for a cop’s job, if not a bus conductor’s job with the state transport department.

Interestingly, most of them, before they become cops obviously have gone through different experiences (that too most beautiful and dreamy ones) in life. They teach in tutorial colleges where you get an ample amount of time to flirt with young girls and boys. They get enough time to spend time with their friends in the village squares or city recreation joints. They watch movies with friends, visit libraries, give hope to their girl friends, fall in love again and again, steal kisses and so on.

I had a friend, extremely humorous and intelligent and we used to spend our evenings in a gang at the village square. He used to teach in parallel colleges. He taught Economics. One day he became police cop. After a couple of years, he told me that he dropped that job as he got selected to the finance department of the state government.

Exceptions are not rules or the other way round. But how can you expect a guy like my friend stopping a couple in the middle of the road and charging them with immoral activities?

There is something fundamentally rotten in our system (especially the policing system) if our young police men are behaving like this.

Is it frustration? I don’t think an average middle class guy (or even a lower middle class guy) who becomes a police cop is frustrated in the case of sex, money or status. I am talking about Kerala.

Then what prompts him to do this? His power? What is the maximum power a police constable could get in a society like Kerala? He won’t be even allowed to jump a queue in a film theatre or beverages corporation vends. Is he prompted by the moral underpinnings of man woman relationship? What has gone wrong with him?

Let me take the case of my generation. I have a few friends in the Police Department in Kerala. They are all married, settled and have sired boys and girls. They don’t look like corrupt cops who could stop a girl and harass in the middle of the road just for being with her male friend.

None of them look like the stereotypical cops. Many of them are ardent fans of light music and gazals. Some are stamp collectors. Some collect and read books. Some people have terrific knowledge about international films. Some do gardening during their leisure time.

One day I was walking along a street in a town in Kerala. Someone came by a motorbike and started following me. He was wearing a helmet and I could not make out who he was. He stopped the bike in front of me and started tickling me. I was angered, embarrassed and felt really funny in middle of the road. Then he removed his helmet and lo....M (name), my school mate and close pal. He was the gun man of the Governor of Kerala State.

Both of us were forty years old when he tickled me in the middle of the road.

How can I expect such warm people could do such things to their own brothers and sisters in their own land?

If they do, they need treatment. They are sick people. They should be quarantined and counselled.

If the Police force as a whole in Kerala is sick, then it should be disbanded and called for new recruits with sophisticated attitude, good education and with a lot of sense of fun.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Delhi Remembers M.F.Husain: Does it Strongly?

At the gate of the new wing of the India International Centre, New Delhi, I meet a uniformed guard with a pleasant smile. He does know that there is something important going on inside. He understands that the bearded old man in the picture pasted on the glass wall of the entrance is someone who is very important. While stubbing out my cigarette I ask him whether the program has started. He tells me that a lot of people have already gone inside but he could not see the ‘old man’ in the portrait. “He must be someone very important,” he tells partly to himself and partly to me. I look at his innocent face and his innocent smile flashed well between his lips.

“Sir, uska naam Yusuf Husain hai kya?” he asks me.

“No, M.F.Husain,” I tell him. “Ve bade chitrkar the” (He was a great artist).

“Yaani …vo abhi nahin rahe,” he says (That means he is no more).

“Haan….,” I make sure that the cigarette is out of sight. I don’t want to see myself littering the place though I could not see any dust bin around. May be the people who generally come to the India International Centre do not litter the place; they litter only minds.

“Shaayad..mein inke bare mein suna hai (perhaps, I have heard about this man),” the guard tells me and I could see that he was sincere and he did know who Husain was. It was just a temporary lapse of memory for him. He could not connect with what he knows and what he does. He was just guarding the gate of the new wing of the India International Centre. He does not know where he would be posted tomorrow morning.

M.F.Husain too was like that. He did not know where he would be on the next morning. In the documentary which I would see later on inside the hall has an interview with M.F.Husain in which the departed artist says, “For the last forty years I have never stayed in one place. I am always on the move. I paint from places where I find myself.”

Dear readers, you might have noticed one thing. I have not written a word about M.F.Husain after he departed. Even now I resist myself from doing that. I am just reporting what I saw, heard and understood yesterday.

Date- 17th June 2011. Location- (for those who move the cursor fast) the new wing of the India International Center, New Delhi. The hall where the condolence meeting or rather the day of remembering takes place is called ‘multi-purpose auditorium'.

When I go inside, the hall is full. Despite an unexpected pre-monsoon shower, people have turned up in strong numbers. Perhaps, I am one of the last to enter the hall and I get a space behind the television camera men; destiny, I tell myself. Journalists get the last row always.

On stage I see (from left) Syed Hyder Raza in a wheel chair, in his characteristic kurta and jacket. Next to him is Ram Kumar; an older version of the protagonists of his paintings from 1960s. Then you have Vivan Sundaram, surprisingly looking several years older (almost like chancing upon Shashi Kapoor without make up), then Ashok Vajpayee, Chairman, Lalit Kala Akademy, in his charismatic and semi-nationalistic and ethnic Fab India attire. Then Bikram Singh, author, director and cultural connoisseur in his common man’s clothes (Surinder Paajee’s clothes in Rab Ne Bana di Jodi). Next to him is the aristocratically aged Krishen Khanna in his white linen kurta with embroidered patterns around the collar and shoulder, bit retro in fashion (classic has a retro charm always). Extreme right we have an extreme left person curiously now mellowed down, that is Gulam Mohammed Sheikh in his formal dress.

Then I see a sea of heads, with gracefully aging hairs and bald patches, and arrogantly wielded wigs and dyes. I could make each and everyone from their behind. Spending too much of time with art and artists make you so aware of their presence that you would be able to tell who is who even from their shadows. Manisha Gera Baswani has played this trick in her photographs also.

I count them and then lose count, perhaps interest too. I notice a lot of erstwhile detractors of Husain in the crowd. When father dies we know that it is time for his revival and consecration because when he was alive we have desecrated him enough. We have this oedipal problem. Now we are sure Husain would not come to our lives from the grave.

I could not listen to what Ashok Vajpayee said as I enter the hall a bit late. But soon I could make out that he has set the tone of the day of remembering M.F.Husain. He might have spoken in Hindi because when Ram Kumar’s turn comes he pulls out a paper from his pocket and reads out small anecdotes about Husain’s life, in Hindi. Raza does the same. But he peps it up with French and English. Krishna Khanna also speaks in Hindi. So when it comes to Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, he prefers to speak in Hindi and he speaks in chaste Hindi. He remembers how Husain graced the youngsters of his time with his presence and support.

Bikram Singh speaks in English. Unlike the artists who have remembered Husain fondly, playfully and nostalgically, Bikram Singh shows his agitation. Perhaps, most of the young people in the audience must have been waiting for this angst and agitation to come out through any one of these speakers. Bikram Singh, with a lot of courage and verve criticizes the UPA governments (two terms) for not showing political will to bring back Husain in India and give him adequate protection. He mentions his own and Vivan’s efforts to meet the concerned ministers to gather support for Husain. His agitation is worthy and deep. Bikram Singh concludes his speech by saying that the death anniversaries of M.F.Husain should be celebrated as the ‘Freedom of Expression Day’.

‘Freedom of Expression Day’, though a bit clich├ęd phrase in the current cultural scenario, when Bikram Singh says it he means it and the audience gets the feel of it. They clap. Vivan Sundaram speaks of his experience with Husain and his life. He approaches it a bit art historically by citing the works that he had done in 1970s and later throws a question why Husain deviated from that complex practice of ideation through visual art and opted for simpler forms and styles. He closes his speech by reading out a paragraph written by his wife and art historian, Geeta Kapur. Vivan too speaks in English.

This session puts this doubt in you. Why, why the artists, the stalwarts who were present on the podium did not raise a word against the government's apathetic attitude towards Husain and the issue of Husain the way Bikram Singh had done. Are they afraid of someone? Are they afraid of closed circuit television cameras and IB men in plain clothes sitting hidden amongst the audience? Why none of them did not commit a word of protest against the government?

I am sure Bikram Singh does not have much to lose. Or he believes in what Edward Alby had said long back: Someone should be a scapegoat, when none is there.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Four Friends and a Lion- Retold from Panchtantra.

Once upon a time, in a village there lived four young friends. All of them were extremely intelligent. One had a special power to put things together logically. Second one was adept in beautifying things. The third one was magical enough to infuse life into dead things and the fourth one did not have any of these capacities, but he was wise.

One day, they decided to go out and see the world. First and second friends said that the fourth one would be a burden as he did not have any special powers. However, the third one insisted that as the fourth was their friend they should take him along.

Together the four friends set out one fine morning for their life turning journey. They entered a forest. There they saw the skeleton of a lion lying scattered. The first one decided to put them together and he did do that.

The second one, led by inspiration added muscles, flesh, skin and mane to the lion. Lo, a ferocious lion was lying there, but dead.

The third one stepped forward to display his skill. But before that the fourth one tried to prevent him from that. He warned them of the possible dangers. Shooing him aside, the third friend started working on his spells. By the time, the fourth one ran to a tall tree and climbed to a safer branch.

The spell of the third friend worked and the lion came to life. He was hungry and he looked at the three friends. Then he pounced on them and made a great feast out of the three friends.

Horrified, the fourth friend watched all these from the high branch. Once the lion left the place, he climbed down from the tree, ran back to the safety of his village.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Videokaaran- Story of a Subaltern Culture Maker

At times facebook responses really turn abusive. But then you have to take it as you cannot expect everyone to agree with your ideas. However, occasional chats with some friends (who are in fact strangers as the friendship remains quite platonic and virtual) open up different worlds before you, helping you forget all those abuses. As such I do not suffer from something called ‘sentiments hurtitis’ (a term coined by the Goa based doctor turned artist, Subodh Kerkar in order to define that response of those people whose sentiments get easily hurt when falsified religious perceptions are critiqued), I don’t keep animosity for any who writes expletives against me (what I do maximum is turning completely silent on them. But I don’t deliberately de-friend a facebook contact). Though I dream of a world where double speaks are totally destroyed and hierarchies are toppled, waking moments tell me things do not happen (and people do not behave) the way one expects them to.

The story of Sagairaj Pushparaj, a young man born in a slum in Chembur, Mumbai (then Bombay) in 1981 was introduced to me by a facebook friend and sound engineer, Jayadevan Chakkadathu (we have not met yet). What a story it is! You forget the abuses showered on you by some of your readers and you immerse yourself in the worlds that are fresh, innovating and daring. Jayadev asked me, “Have you seen this short film, ‘Videokaaran’ (Videowallah)?’ ‘No’ was my answer. “This is about a guy who used to run a ‘video theatre’ in a slum in Mumbai,” typed Jayadevan. And kindly he sent me a youtube link where I could watch a one and a half minute clipping from the film. I was hooked. I was desperate to watch this movie only because of the sheer force of that young guy, Sagairaj Pushparaj.

(Sagairaj Pushparaj)

‘Videokaaran’ is a movie directed by Jagannathan Krishnan, a film maker who lives in Mumbai. (Again, I have not met Jagannathan Krishnan, who knowing my interest from Jayadevan, sent two copies of the movie on the very next day by courier. Thank you. And Thank you Rupali for following it up with the courier company and me over phone. We too have not met). Done in a cinema verite mode, ‘Videokaaran’ tells you the story of Sagairaj Pushparaj; of his world views, friends and life in general. This tenth class pass young man, reveres Rajnikant (obviously so as he is born to a migrant Tamil couple in Mumbai) and he knows the filmography of the super star by heart. Sagai admires Rajni not just for his histrionics and gimmicks, but for the philosophical bent of his characters and dialogues (which only an ardent admirer could derive, imbibe, adopt and practice in his own life).

A group of guys, all school drop outs lives a life of Rasta (as in Rastafarians). They are happy and high on life. They are happy because they have seen the worst in their young lives. They have seen violence and gore. They have experienced ostracism and police atrocities. They have gone through all what an underdog would/should go through during the growing up years. Sagairaj, a worldly wise young man has seen it all. During the days of Doordarshan, his father and his boss devised an idea to charge a half a rupee or a rupee from those who came to see the television programs in their shack. Slowly, with the advent of VCR and VHC, this idea developed into a business plan. This was how one of the first ‘video theatres’ was established in Mumbai.

After his father, Sagairaj took to video theatre business along with his friends who have different film personalities as their idols and icons. “People do not have enough money to go to multiplexes where they show films for Rs.180. Here we showed films for rupees ten. If it is a Tamil movie, then it is Rs.5 per person. Anybody could come in and watch movie for five to ten rupees. And we have different themes for different days- religious movies to action films to pure pornography,” says Sagairaj, who is a self trained photographer and photoshop expert. But then one day everything changed. Police party came, despite the vigilance of Sagai and his friends, demolished their shack from where they used to run the theatre.

As the movie progresses the viewer comes to know that Sagairaj’s hardcore admiration for Rajnikant is only a subtext in the seventy minute long movie. It is a movie about movies and the viewers themselves. ‘Videokaaran’, by following the life of Sagairaj (now thirty years old), opens up a world that is literally ‘produced’ by the movies from all over the world, as a sub product. Noted film maker, Dev Benegal, while talking about today’s film scenario (mainly in Bollywood) observed that film has now gone out of movies as millions of people in India now use mobile phones that are capable of playing a full movie. According to Dev Benegal, each mobile phone (capacitated in that way) is a moving theatre (To see the other extreme of ‘mobile’ movie theatres, Benegal had followed a mobile theatre in a truck that goes to remote villages and show movies in open spaces and had documented them extensively).

‘Video theatre’ is a sub-culture and a subaltern culture, which like the war machines that move on the fringes of the nation state (read mainstream) to plot against it (Deleuze and Guattari), works against the economic and cultural concepts of the mainstream movie theatres. These video theatres are operated from the slums, from the dingy shacks (in fact, Sagairaj reveals that these shacks are made out of really strong walls and he shows the video recordings of the plight of the demolition squad whose bulldozers struggling against the concrete walls of the video theatre shack. Sagai himself had recorded them as a painful souvenir), they charge a nominal sum from the people and they get what they demand.

Films are not dubbed here. People watch the movies for sheer action and story (Dev Benegal speaks of the experience of the mobile theatre owner who tells him that the villagers failed to respond to the movies like Titanic whereas they enjoyed Do Bhiga Zameen or Gurudutt movies as they had ‘stories’ which they could connect with). Sagairaj tells how he and his friends had created a Chotta Bruce Lee out of a Thailand actor. “We did not know his name. When we got the CD, we liked the action and to make him familiar to our audience we named him ‘Chotta Bruce Lee’. He became a super hit amongst our audience and we sourced a few movies with Chotta Bruce Lee in the lead role,” says Sagairaj.

Copyright issues, dubbing, censorship, certification, required safety norms and other related issues of film showing are thwarted in this underground movie showing concept. Though now Sagairaj and his friends do not show films any more (Sagairaj runs a photo studio in Chembur and he does photoshop works for people), he lives in the memories of those days, which made a criminal out of him (he enjoys the status of a criminal because he believes that criminals have better intelligence). But subaltern cultures are often curbed and crushed by the state.

Sagairaj has a different world view; he says that pornography would help to establish a brave new world. There wouldn’t be anymore rapes, experienced in watching porn movies Sagairaj says, if porn movies are watched by people. The guys would know who would be the right woman for them, if they watch such movies. We may not subscribe to his idea regarding pornography but Sagairaj is not about pornography either. It is one part of his erstwhile business and the creation of a subculture, which he is conscious of. Throughout the movie one could feel the intensity of a guy who is trained in the university of life in slums divided by state and its machineries including railway track and police.

When it comes to his intense admiration for Rajnikant, he does not reserve his words. For him Rajni is a philosophy. In his movie Baadsha, Rajni sings to his fellow auto drivers, when you find people in plight, you forget money and go out to help without taking any money as auto fair. “It makes people think about good deeds because it is said by Rajni. He moves people to the core and changes their lives.” But Sagairaj does not fight with his friends who are the fans of Amitabh Bacchan. In diversity they live a life of unity, perhaps something that our democracy has not yet succeeded to achieve.

Life is not a cakewalk for Sagairaj and his friends. They live on razor’s edge, fearing police and the state. Even when they don’t indulge in smuggling CDs, they are picked up as suspects. They have seen worst things in life. “When I showed Passion of Christ, people cried and left one by one. And I stayed back, I watched the movie sitting alone. I too was crying but then I realized that I have seen bloodier things than this in reality.”

“One day, while the track was being laid, a worker fell on the other track and a train ran over him. He was cut into two pieces. People gathered around that gory sight. After a few seconds the upper part of the body moved. The man opened his eyes and looked up at the people vaguely and asked, ‘Kya be…kya dekh raha hai’ (Hey what are you looking at?) and then he closed his eyes and died.”

Sagairaj’s words still reverberates in my mind and a shiver passes through my spine when I imagine that scene.

A must watch movie. Videokaaran.

A clip from Videokaaran

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Fasting: Ramdev, Arundhati Roy and other People

(Arundhati Roy)


Tried and tested in South Africa, perfected in India, Satygraha aka fasting for a cause was Gandhiji’s mode to move a mass to see reason and towards sense. Satyagraha (literally translated as ‘the desire for truth’) does not directly translate into fasting. Fasting is a method to achieve ‘truth’ and more than a method it is a mover of conscience. Whoever takes up this method and make it a successful medium to achieve the desired ends, whether it be the bringing back and exposure of black money hoarded in the banks abroad or the articulation of Lokpal Bill, he or she needs to gain the confidence of the mass, not just that of the disciples and soothsayers.

Within a span of three months, we have made comedy out of the grand plan called ‘Fasting’ as a political tool. Started by Anna Hazare at the Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, the first fasting of the 21st century India was all for the re-articulation and implementation of the Lokpal Bill. He could make the nation wake up and speak against the corruption (as well as the corrupt personalities) in public life but unfortunately it was soon hijacked by the so called spiritual leaders like Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

One does not dispute the fact that these spiritual teachers or to be precise fitness trainers or wellness agents do have a mass appeal and mass following. But we know it for sure that most of these followers are either people who have lost interest in everything else other than their own health problems. Some people are spiritually affected and they need a guide to show them the path. Some are affected by a variety of life style illnesses and they need a trainer who could show them ways to do physical exercises in whichever given contexts; it could be in a park lawn, park bench, in your armchair, in your drawing room or on your terrace. These trainers have packaged these exercises within in the saffron foil that makes it more appealing in country like India where Hindu spiritualism is the only binding glue considering the variety of interests, factions and hierarchies within the Hindu fold.

To do physical exercise you don’t need the garb of a religion (If it is faith healing, the case is different). You don’t basically insist that you should know the religion of the doctor (or even the caste to which he or she belongs to) when you go to a hospital. You need medical assistance. A physical trainer’s religion is immaterial. His expertise in healing you and assisting you towards your well being is more important than the color of his faith. But we willingly suspend our disbelief when it comes to people like Baba Ramdev. He is a physical trainer but we consider him for a spiritual guru. I see thousands of Indian citizens sitting on the park benches during dawn and dusk, pulling their stomach muscles violently in and out because Ramdev tells them to do so. Perfect. I don’t believe that all these seekers of physical wellness ever consider Ramdev as a spiritual or political leader. Then in willing suspension of disbelief anything could happen, including poetry.

Though the saffron brigade still hates Gandhiji for appeasing the minorities during his struggle for Indian independence and after that, they don’t find Satygraha (fasting) less lucrative when it comes to the achievement of political ends. What they do is to use the ‘brand’ value of Gandhiji to promote their own purposes. It is exactly like a juice vendor in a village corner painting his makeshift juice shop with the portraits of Shah Rukh Khan, Sanjay Dutt, Salman Khan and Madhuri Dixit. Billu Paan Walaa will endorse his pan with a photo of Amitabh Bacchan in Don (khai ke paan banaras walah). For Ramdev, Gandhiji is an easy brand to be used without paying much to anyone (including the people of India). I like when Arudhanti Roy says, ‘When there is cancer hospital (by a corporate) somewhere, believe me there would be a bauxite hill around’. When someone uses or evokes Gandhiji, trust me, there is a political end around the corner.

Anna Hazare was right up to an extent when he took up fasting as a tool to evoke the conscience of the people. But when it comes to Ramdev, he looks for a gain of his own. Ramdev did not have a political agenda that would be appealing to the diversified population of India, its diversified problems and demands. Ramdev is a seller of his products, yoga exercise. If someone thinks that Ramdev’s innumerable followers (followers of his exercise regime) believes in his personal agenda he is terribly mistaken. None believes in Ramdev except for his exercise. Ramdev is not a political leader with a mass appeal or a clear track record to move the conscience of a nation. He is a corporate physical trainer in saffron garbs. Nothing more nothing less.

In 1947, after independence, when riots continued to rage all over India, Gandhiji went to Calcutta and stayed in a house which was open from all sides so that people could see him ‘fasting’. In three days time rioters from all communities came to surrender their weapons. Gandhiji could move them to do so. That’s why Lord Mountbatten said, ‘he (Gandhiji) could achieve what 50,000 strong army could not’. Look at Ramdev’s pandal in the Ramlila grounds in Old Delhi; air conditioned pandals. And who were the people who got affected in the midnight police action? Poor people from around Delhi, outskirts of the city and from the villages of Bihar, UP and so on, carted in specially for the purpose; to add strength Ramdev’s personal power. Couldn’t we think that most of them came out of curiosity, against a payment and for the sheer enjoyment of the air- conditioners in the midst of the scorching North Indian Summer?

When children boycotted their classes, women parted away with their jewelries, old people walked all the way, all just to have a glimpse of the scarcely clad old man called Gandhiji, they knew why they were going. They wanted freedom and they believed that this man could bring it and they would have done anything for this man. And they did it. Today, no leader in India attracts a crowd. None willingly travel miles to catch a glimpse of a leader with a conscience and purpose because they have pawned it for their political career and besides they have already overfed the populace with their looks through the media. People are now nauseous. They don’t want to see leaders, they want deliverers (both in its materialistic and spiritual sense).

Ramdev has made a mockery out of fasting. Now fasting does not hold any value for the Indian mass because they so called leaders have made a farce out of it. When Gandhiji fasted the whole of India knew the value of fasting. Today the Indian middle class does not know value of hunger that’s why during the housing colony meetings they even seriously thinking about conducting fasts for the upliftment of the parks and roads, and later they have a good laugh over it. For the obese Indian middle class, fasting is a joke created at the expense of the poor, who are really hungry.

That’s why you like it when Arundhati Roy says, ‘what is the use of telling people go on hunger strike, who are really hungry throughout the year’ (paraphrased from her latest book, ‘Broken Republic). She does not advocate violence but at the same time she does not denounce it either. She does not justify the Maoist killings, but she just asks how the violence could be denounced when the political and corporate hegemonies that have pushed their life into the forests cannot be justified. When your child is ill treated in his or her class room when you know that you pay a hefty amount as fee for education, you feel the outrage and you create a scene in the PTMs. Then what about those people whose mothers and sisters are raped and killed before their eyes, what about those people whose brothers and fathers are beheaded mercilessly before them? Wouldn’t they retaliate once? Is it wrong if they feel outraged?

Seen against such realities, Ramdev looks like a joker; a man with no agenda than propagating his personal career. Some people mistake their popularity and they take it for granted. They think that the whole nation moves when they make some comic gestures. Just like Sonam Kapoor’s butts were real or not at Cannes (as reported by Hindustan Times).

Only the keepers of a nation’s conscience could move it by fasting. Physical trainers cannot. Perhaps Arundhati Roy could.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

54th Venice Biennale: Gigi Scaria’s Elevator from the Sub-continent

(Gigi Scaria)

Gigi Scaria knew it well before. Not that he would participate in the Venice Biennale but that he would do a work that would somehow reflect the workings of an elevator; an elevator has been a constituent of the metaphors that Gigi has been collecting all these years not only for making art but also for making his imaginations rich and beautiful. All the imaginations cannot be translated into a reality. Perhaps, that is possible for the contemporary artists; they could imagine anything and fabricate anything. Gigi Scaria did fabricate an elevator for the Venice Biennale, 2011, in which he participated as one of the five participants. But he leaves a lot for the imaginations too as he believes that if some fabricates everything one has in his mind, the life loses its own charm. It is like as poet Satchidanandan translates a Welsh poem that says, a translation is like a kiss through a hand kerchief.

Gigi believes in kisses through hand kerchiefs when he is not kissing life directly on its lips. Known for his takes on growing urbanism and the concerned knowledge field of urbanology through various mediums such as painting, sculpture, digital art and video, Gigi this time, for the Venice Biennale, has worked on a sculptural installation that includes sculpture, video and the physical and the mental participation of the viewers. His work is titled ‘Elevator from the Sub-continent’.

(Elevator from the Sub-Continent- Gigi's work at the 54th Venice Biennale)

Before we go into the details of this works, let us see Gigi’s life in a gist so far. Born in Kottayam District, Kerala, Gigi Scaria did his bachelors in painting from Trivandrum Fine Arts College and later on migrated to Delhi to do his masters in the same discipline at the Jamia Millia Islamia. Life was not a cake walk for Gigi then (in mid 1990s). He worked as an illustrator, enjoying an occasional cycle rickshaw ride and a plateful of gulab jamun whenever he got paid from the place where he worked as an illustrator. Then he worked as an art teacher in an experimental school in Delhi. During the early years of the new millennium, Gigi got a scholarship in Australia and a spent a year there in a residency. That was just a beginning and later on he worked for a year in Italy, though at that time he did not know that he would come back to the same city as a representative of a great country called India, one day.

Delhi had taught Gigi a lot during the formative years. Urban imageries and the growing urban architecture, human displacement thanks to unmindful urban planning everything had affected him as a migrant in a huge city like Delhi (I always wonder what would have happened to Gigi had he got an admission in the Fine Arts Faculty, M.S.University, Baroda as he had gone there to try his luck at the painting department. What would have he done after passing out? Had he decided to settle there in Baroda, became a school teacher or lecturer? Had he migrated to Mumbai as his immediate predecessors had done? Or had he come to Delhi and had become the same Gigi whom we know today as one of the most proficient contemporary artists. It would be interesting to see Gigi standing in his stylish clothes and carefully groomed moustache and posing with a contingent of artists along the marine drive, who later on came to be hailed as the Bombay Boys: they are middle aged men now, though. But then I think wherever he had gone Gigi would have shaped himself to be a refined personality, sensitive human being and a great artist. I am sure on this because once Jiddu Krishnamurty was asked by a foreign correspondent or was that Mary Lutyens herself who is his official biographer, had it not been Leadbeater and Annie Beasant who found him from a non-descript Andhra Pradesh sea shore, what would have been the fate of Krishnamurty as a person. He is reported to have answered: I would have been doing the same in a small way in a small village somewhere near the same sea shore.)

Gigi spent his initial years in Laxmi Nagar and later on moved to places that even today would not invite too much of popular attention. These were the places that the young artists (migrant) preferred to live when they came to Delhi for the first time. These were the places where the people who literally strove for building the urban spaces in Delhi lived. They struggled with hostile climates and indifferent land lords. And amongst them were people like Gigi who could see the urban landscape changing before their eyes, initially in the form of flyovers and then in the form of various kind of planning and displacement. Gigi has been obsessed with the changing complexion of the cities ever since. That’s why when he went to Korea for a prolonged residency, the outcome was all about the urban population using mobile phones in various locations of the city of Seoul, in an effort to assert their identity and citizen ship. Through a series of photographs, Gigi created the complexion of the city and the various ideologies working within the fabric of it using mobile phone users as a metaphor. This project was exhibited both in Korea and Delhi.

When Gigi shifted to Rohini, a sprawling suburb, which became an integral part of the urban growth over the past decade thanks to the metro rail connectivity and innumerable flyovers, he noticed one thing while traveling between his home and work place, that the city was literally taking shape under his nose. He recounts how he used to keep his ennui and sleepiness out of his system while riding a motorbike by looking at these growing concrete structures taking various monstrous forms; all of which later became integral metaphors in Gigi’s oeuvre.

Economic growth in India brought high rising buildings a part of the urban landscapes. Elevators became a part of the urban human dwellers as they had to negotiate these heights everyday by traveling in these lifts. There are different kinds of lifts; the ancient ones with manually operated grilles, the silent and mirror-less ones that impose claustrophobia, the ones that gives you multiple reflections of your self through mutually reflecting mirrors on all the three sides, the ones that are royal with teak wood paneling, the ones with tobacco stains, the ones with figure enhancing mirrors, the ones with music and light, the ones with transparent walls so that one could see what’s happening around while one goes up or down.

In the popular imagination, even today lifts are the places where sinful thoughts come up. Inside a life one could fantasize about a beautiful fellow traveler. One could even have virtual sex within the span of a few seconds inside a life. Lift is an enclosed space of human desires where people stand politely away from each other while their fantasies run wild like untamed animals. You could smell the body fragrance/odor of people. And in the Bollywood, lifts are the places where the man meets woman and woos her with a song and in the meanwhile the lifts remain blocked and chocked on its way thanks to a technical fault.

Gigi subverts all these. He creates a lift as a social metaphor. It is almost like a time machine; you could travel in it and experience your social position, you could enjoy your status and the ten minutes glory. You could leave the place whenever you feel like. At the same time, you could see how a society is divided into different layers; and Gigi creates these layers by creating an elevator that would take you to different levels in a virtual building and tell you what exactly happening in these layers.

The Elevator from the Sub-continent is fabricated by real elevator making company in Delhi. Customized as per the demands of the artist, this elevator could accommodate seven people at a time. One could call the lift by pressing the button. The door opens and you enter. Once you are in what you see on the three sides (generally you see mirrors or panels inside a lift) the virtual simulation of a parking lot, which means you have just parked your car and walked up to the lift and got inside. The door closes behind you and you press the buttons and the lift starts taking you up first. In fact the three sides are created by video projection from the backside. And as you go up (or as you get a feeling of going up) you get to see different kinds of interiors of urban homes where different realities are played out (you may remember Gigi’s video titled ‘Political Realism’ in which you see the greatest political events of the world being acted out inside two urban houses in Delhi, interestingly suggested by a moving metro on an elevator corridor). Finally you reach the top and you get a full view (bird’s eye view) of the city. You feel good.

Now you come down and you see different realities (and if you want in between you could go out by pressing the door open! And the place/floor of your choice will be determined by the momentary impulses in you about your conditioning!). Once again you reach the parking lot. You think that the joy ride is over by now. It is just half way. Now the lift takes you to the floor below the real ground, the suppressed corners, the liminal spaces of the city and you come to see the unarticulated and unvoiced areas in a city where people live a different life (I am just reminded of a the famous movie Demolition Man with Sylvester Stallon and Wesley Snipes in the lead roles where all the rebelling people are pushed under the ground where they lead a parallel life within an anarchic republic) of suffering. And finally you pass through the floors that dark and devoid of space. Then you come back in a fast pace back to the floor where your car is parked. And you come out.. phew.. That’s the feeling you get because you have seen the truth of life.

Gigi articulates his concerns over the social divides and the sense of achievement and the general sense of satisfaction through the layering and heirarchizing of the society. It is a political and economic divide and most of us choose to escape from the floors that are unpalatable. Through this virtual travel in the sub-continent elevator, Gigi speaks of the life and times of the people outside the discourse (as well as within the discourse) of the rest of the world. This is a new imposition, he feels and he identifies the every changing and expanding imposition of hierarchies clearly articulated in the urban spaces. Elevator becomes a strong metaphor to express it.

Gigi is not yet forty years old. Perhaps, he is the only artist who has got real international acclaim through the sheer force of the work and the idea behind it. And there are many more years for Gigi to come up with more moving works, more persuasive works and more humane ones.

Monday, June 6, 2011

How Alternative is Alternative Art Practice? About the TINA Factor of Art

(Helmsboro Country Unfolded by Hans Haacke, 1990)

How alternative is alternative art practice? One day someone asked me another question that ringed the same meaning. His question was is there something called alternative art practice? I said, “Yes, there is something called alternative art practice and alternative art practice is the childhood of the mainstream art practice.”

However offending it might sound to the ears of the hardcore alternative art practitioners, from the experience of the last fifteen years one could easily say things are so. You start with alternative forms and modes of art practice and eventually you end up in the mainstream gallery systems where extrinsic factors speak rather than the intrinsic ideology and aesthetics of the concerned practice.

Alternative practice in India started off in India almost twenty years after it got its Euro-American birth in 1960s. Art Povera, immaterial art, temporal forms of art installations all together contributed to the installation art practice in the west, which was more inclusive as it could cut across various disciplines of image and object making aiming culture as its final target. It was a critique and discourse on and of the existing cultural practices and one could say there was a strong ideological orientation against the hegemonic centers that endorsed certain kind of art practice.

In India, during the 1990s there was a strong urge for alternative art practices. Gallery based art was wrong, or it was considered so by the young blood that came out of the institutions after gathering considerable academic moss along their bodies and souls. Wiping them off was urgent and the scrub that they found was the alternative art practice. Not a single youngster, who practiced alternative art during mid-90s ever wanted to exhibit their works in a gallery. They just wanted to do it, in the colleges, in the public spaces, in their own communities and if at all they were given a chance, in the galleries.

But the latter was a rare case. That’s why famous artist A.Ramachandran famously said at that time as a critique of the system; ‘You can do any kind of installation, but the medium should be oil on canvas.’ None could have expressed the situation well than this art who in fact worked in oil on canvas and showed a lot of sympathy and appreciation towards alternative art practices.

(Reichstag by Christo)

Naomi Klein book ‘No Logo’ became a logo in itself. Che Guevara became a market icon. They became so because they were distinct and the capitalist market always wanted the distinct. When the conservative modes of a society are penetrated the distinct and the subaltern become mainstream and alluring. That’s what happened (happening) with any kind of revolution in the world. When subaltern culture become a thing of difference in the eyes of the mainstream produces of culture even expletives could become lyrics.

Hence, the alternative art practice in India could not have resisted this pressure, this sucking pressure from the mainstream market. Slowly, the alternative art practitioners found themselves in a different turf, which was considered to be better because it was distinct and because of this distinction they were provided with scholarships and financial assistance, if not from the home grown institutions but from the agencies of the foreign lands. They found name and fame there, they became names in the international art fraternity and that was the compulsion of the artists back home to become one of them and enjoy that fame and fortune in the name of alternative art practice.

This was the first step of covert co-optation of distinction by the mainstream ideology of capitalism, which has become an inevitable factor today. Even the biggest of the communist could not resist the market for his ideology. But the outcome was that new brahminical system was created out of the distinction that they carried along within their works and demeanor. The alternative artists became new Brahmins in the system only because they did distinct art thought it did not sell well in the beginning.

But the market found out ways to capitalize on the distinctive nature of art created by the alternative art practitioners. That was the reason why when the international market collapsed by the year 2009 and the art world got affected by the ensuing wrangling, to save the face and grace the museums and international funding agencies came forward to support funded art rather than art that raised funds. Immediately our artists and the galleries responded to the situation by propping up so many shows with installations and temporary art objects.

Anything that was done using traditional art materials (one should know that this tradition of oil on canvas is just one and half century old in India) was pushed to the arena of ‘traditional crafts’. This phenomenon was tremendous on the one hand and ridiculous on the other because the erstwhile alternative practices now became the mainstream and the erstwhile ones became traditional, subaltern and therefore retrogressive.

(Work by Anish Kapoor)

Young artists, who have come out of the institutions studying the traditional methods or art making, pepped up with information and knowledge of contemporary art making started sidestepping the urge to do paintings and sculptures and started going behind immaterial art just for the heck of it, without even thinking once about the funding possibilities to sustain such acts. It is quite ironic that many galleries that came up with cutting edge alternative art shows in the last two years now keep silence on whatever they have done in the name of alternative art practice.

May be this triumph and the consequential confusion and the illogical hopes maintained by the alternative art practitioners and their so called promoters could be the natural outcome of a historical dynamics, which is almost an inevitability in the case of any occurrence in history, as they say, what goes up has to come down one day. Hence, as in the political scenario in a global scale or in the regional levels, the erstwhile subaltern becoming the ruler (Mayawati to Obama), in art too the erstwhile subaltern art that had once doubled up as alternative art practice has come to take the place of the mainstream.

But the outcomes cannot be hoodwinked and wished aside. Today, we see artists running from pillar to post to get support to do their alternative art. The galleries are confused about the kind of support they are supposed to extend to the artists irrespective of their style, medium and philosophy. In this global scenario, people vacation in cooler zones of the world and come back with some inspiration and influence and impose it as the trendiest of art upon the unsuspecting and easily believing younger lot, without ever revealing the economic implications of such impositions.

(Binayk Sen performance by Inder Salim Tikku)

Hence, today we have a set of artists totally confused about the kind of art they do, they want to do and they wish to avoid doing. Recently, I met one young artist from Udaipur in conference in Delhi. He is academically trained (with a post graduation in painting from a reputed institution in Udaipur, Rajasthan). Hailing from a family of miniature painters, this artist has tremendous skill in doing miniature works with a contemporary bend to it. He showed me a couple of brochures of his previous exhibitions and I was shell shocked. The works were looking utterly mundane (in a modernist sense) and period. He was earnest in telling me that he liked to modern/contemporary works than the miniature ones. In fact he was good at the miniature style works. But he was feeling ashamed of saying that he did such works. He wanted to become the modern/contemporary ‘artist’.

This incident could exemplify the situation in a big way. The traditional art practitioners are becoming contemporaries by deliberately changing their language, the way the tribal people are forcefully converted into another religion and their tongues are interpolated with another language, which in fact does not make any sense either to them or others. On the other hand we have the contemporary artists sidestepping their academic and traditional skills and wanting to become something else; people who does impermanent art and site specific installations.

Impermanent art and site specific installations are good so long as they are meant for interacting with the local communities and involving them into the general production of the work, which would eventually benefit them materialistically and culturally. But the problem begins when an artist academically educated and invested with urban thinking adopt a poorer section of the society to build up on one’s own bio-data. The artist starts his or her work as a missionary and then goes on to build up a good documentation and then that particular documentation is used as proof to find patrons either in the funding agencies or in the galleries. This is one of the biggest crimes that the educated to do the non-educated, the initiated could do to the uninitiated.

(Performance by Shantanu Lodh)

I do not say that those artists who try to do alternative works in alternative spaces should live in such places permanently and should not aspire for career progress. If I say something to that effect, I would not be different from any cultural fundamentalists. Instead of becoming one, what I suggest is that these artists who opt to do such things should have a political ideology, if not political ideology, at least a political will to negotiate with the governing conditions of the place where they do their alternative practices and derive support to make it a sustainable practice so that even after the artist leaves that place of action, the place continues to thrive on the ideas thrown up by the artists and the improvisations later on done on them by the habitants there.

It needs a strong will. You need to negotiate with the politicians, you need to negotiate with the funding agencies, local patrons, galleries, law and order faculties, educational systems and so on. You need to carve a Medha Patkar or a Mahasweta Devi out of you in order to become a sustainable alternative art practitioner. It is easy to go to a village and paint a mural on a wall with the help of the local kids and impart a sense of wonder to the illiterate poor amongst the village, come back and post a few photographs in the facebook and bask under sun of glory and philanthropy. It is a very easy act and one could easily convert that to fuel one’s career engine.

Alternative art practices should be sought from the artists like Christo and Haans Haacke. Both of them fought and dared systems to do their works of art. Today Anish Kapoor does not find any challenge from any agencies as all are willing to make his dreams a reality. The struggle that Anish Kapoor ever has is with his own work (perhaps, a decade back he was finding it difficult to put his ‘real’ stuff in real places. Today it is different). When alternative becomes the mainstream, it becomes another convention and today we see most of the young artists do conventional alternative art works. They allure the viewer for a moment but then the attraction subsides as the time and distance increase.

(Performance by Al Saidi Hassan)

What we need to do today is the vital question. Are we going to avoid the traditional art practices and embrace the erstwhile art practice only because it is trendy? Any thing trendy and distinct at one point of time would naturally become a conventional with the passage of time.

Hence what we need today is sustainable practices, which would keep the dignity of the artist and the aesthetics of the art object high and respectable irrespective of time, location and gender. Art becomes contemporary with its ability to renew itself with any given context.

It is high time that we break the barriers between the traditional and the alternative/cutting edge aesthetics. Let us not behave like philanthropists and missionaries. Let us make our art inclusive and multidisciplinary. Let us shed all the scales of scorn that we have grown over the years with the interaction with the trendiest of people. Trendy people don’t endure, but sustainable things will be always trendy. Jeans is the best example. From collieries it has moved to haute couture.

Art is that. There is no alternative today. These are the TINA days in Art.