Tuesday, April 30, 2013

You Are not Alone

In your silence I could hear
The hissing of a pressure cooker
Shrieking of onions, potatoes and garlic
Sizzling of mustard in the boiling oil
A creative ensemble breaks into pieces
By the clattering of utensils in a hollow wash basin.
Each finger of yours is sliced by a memory
Each strand of hair split by a reasoning
Each pore of your body thrives in rebellion
But in silence you smother them into oblivion
While you walk to the station for a bus
That never comes and takes to you a place
Where nobody resides except hopes and dreams,
Ties of love beckon you back to the slavery of home.
The tip of your saree puffs up in pride as the wind blows
Like a lonely protestor leads a pack of spirits
Along a street that burns in asphalt hell
Still you walk into the scenes painted by clouds
When you sit alone tired and harassed
By work, time, thoughts and the utter loneliness
In the corner of a metro coach
Between your eyelids and dreams
There flutters the wings of a butterfly
That could explode a volcano of change
But you don’t wish to explode
You scramble through your vanity bag
Find out your comb, clips and tickets
With trained movements you tie up your hair
Like a dancer does her choreographed moves
You come back to a world where you don’t belong
Into the deafening noise of disparage and hate
Go back to your desk, to your dishes to the unwashed clothes
And finally to the starched and ironed hopes of tomorrow.
Before the fingers of hatred touch you
You surrender to sleep, to the lullabies of night
And in sleep you play with a host of angels
Whom you had left eons back in the middle of a school ground
And one day you would realize
When you do the dishes, listen to the harangues
When you cook, when you cut vegetables
When you stare back at the gazes of idlers
When the burners burn not for cooking
You would realize the time has come to move
And when you come down you would see
That you are not alone
And the volcanoes have erupted all along. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Rape of Yoko Ono and Retaped Rape of Fiona Rukschcio

(Rape (1969)- A still of shooting the film by Yoko Ono and John Lennon

Not too many people in the art scene, at least in India, remember a 1969 film titled ‘Rape’ by Yoko Ono and John Lennon, two legends of conceptual art and music respectively. During 1960s Yoko Ono had written a few scripts to produce movies. Out of those scripts, Ono finally chose to produce ‘Rape’. Funded by her husband, John Lennon, she hired four film technicians and asked to follow a girl and record her day’s activities, importantly without her permission. The seventy five minute long film when released had generated heated discussions amongst the art loving public and critics who accused the artists-duo of violating the privacy of a hapless individual and subjecting her to the same tribulations against which the film was intended to produce effects. The girl who was followed by the filming team was Eva Majlata, an Austrian girl whose work permit in London had been over by the time the filming was taking place. The girl was set up for the shooting in agreement with her sister who had even given access to the filming team to Majlata’s rented room in London.

(Eva Majlata first becoming aware of the camera men following her)

The film ‘Rape’ opens with Majlata getting caught by the film crew at cemetery where she goes to spend her idle time. Initially she is very flattered. Though she knows that she is not a film star or a celebrity, the sudden appearance of the filming crew before her makes her a bit elated. She plays up to the situation acting quite casually while trying to tell them that she is not a star. She does not speak English. Her working English fails after a few minutes of them following her with the camera. Slowly the tension mounts. Her elation gives way to anxiety and then to fear. She walks fast, hides and whenever the crew reappears before her she tries to reason with the men in French, German and a little bit of Italian. But the crew is determined to follow. The scene grows eerie as the viewers see not many people around in the locality. The cemetery is completely abandoned. Majlata searches for some names on the plaques and collects some flowers to hide her embarrassment and fear. But she is not able to do that. The stalking becomes relentless and the presence of camera though we are not privy to see the people behind the camera, becomes quite apparent. At one stage to make a deal with the filming crew she asks for light for her cigarette. They give light to her. Some people appear in the scene looks at her and the team with a fair amount of coldness and walk off. She walks out of the cemetery and hits the road. The gaze of camera follows her. She jumps into a taxi and reaches her apartment and even there she sees the filming crew behind her. She is now visibly tired and horrified. She makes a phone call to her sister and finally coils herself up and moves into the corner of her living room. The film ends there.

(a still from Rape)

Laura Mulvey in her pivotal essay titled ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ which became a bench mark for film criticism of the 20th century, says that cinema is basically a medium of male gaze. In the darkness of a movie hall, each person becomes a peeping Tom and possesses the male gaze. Even when there are other people around, the darkness and the visual engagement with the projected visuals and narrative makes the person identify with the male subject who holds the ‘perspective’ of that narrative. The female subjection and turning them into the objects of desire exclude the women audience from the dominant male gaze and render them uncomfortable. Going by Mulvey’s theorizing on male gaze and cinema, one could clearly see how Yoko Ono intends to collapse by highlighting the omnipresence of the male gaze in her film ‘Rape’. The initial pleasure of becoming an object of desire and attention by a male or female gaze turns into horror and violence as the object under scrutiny becomes absolutely helpless in that visual exchange and engagement. Though Yoko Ono if a female subject, her tools of filming (including the crew members) are male subjects. The power is absolutely in their hands as they decide how to ‘track’ this young woman down, capture her in her unguarded moments and subject her under the might of the camera, the male gaze.

(a harassed Majlata making a call to her sister from her room- still from Rape)

Feminists have disputed the artistic intention of Yoko Ono’s ‘Rape’. March Richardson in his essay, ‘You Say You Want a Revolution: How Yoko Ono’s Rape Could Have Changed the World’, says that Majlata has been rendered absolutely helpless like a rape victim as she is not only confronted by four men but also with cameras and recording equipment. Women were still not liberated in 1960s England. Majlata knows for sure that her current status is that of an illegal migrant and with camera being a very powerful medium of the state the very engagement brings her in direct confrontation with the state. The filming them becomes an interrogation from which she flees with all her might. She uses her femininity in the beginning as she charms the camera crew with smiles and darting of eyes. But she knows that her position is that of a migrant with invalid papers who is supposed to evade the eyes of the state. Her status as an illegal migrant is immediately collapsed into her gender status. Hence she becomes doubly ill equipped to handle the situation. What she could do at this moment is to flee. But the more she flees the aggression of the pursuers becomes intense. They leave no space for her to stand and breathe or take a proper decision.

(Yoko Ono and John Lennon)

One could ask a question: had she been a migrant with valid papers and work permit to live in London, would she have reacted like a victim? The possible answer could be that still her gender would have made her to flee from the camera men. If she was intelligent enough she would have sought the help of the policemen or the people around. Or if she was arrogant and bold she would have smashed the camera and beaten up the men who were following her. She does not do either. Instead she flees from the spot as if her gender and social status were two crimes committed by her. Even in her illegal migrant status she could use her gender position to counter these camera men. But she fears that her gender itself is detrimental for her as it could bring her stringent punishment from the authorities. Yoko Ono calls the film, quite succinctly and metaphorically, Rape. In her film the protagonist is ensnared by the camera, the male gaze and is raped by it till she resigns to her fate of utter surrender.

(The peace people- Ono and Lennon)

The film is thrilling like any stalker film. Notwithstanding the critique of feminists, the film underlines how the male gaze (even if it is scripted by a woman) visually rapes a woman who is not in a position to react. It happens even today in party circuits. Someone who is familiar with a woman in the party or becomes friends with a woman by chance, utters something that is offensive to that woman who in a guarded moment would have reacted to such utterance violently. But she is rendered helpless and shocked, bruised and scarred by the male utterances. This kind of flashing by males is quite rampant in public and private spaces to which most of the women fail to react aggressively not because they are afraid of the consequences but because of the momentary stunning of reflexive faculties. It is like a shock treatment given to violent protestors and hysteric people. They are subjected by the shock given in a flash. Here in Rape, Majlata too is subjected to continuous flashing of gaze which makes her a victim devoid of reactive faculties and reflexes. Initially she believes that she could respond positively as she is curious about their intentions like any other young woman would do in a public space. Admiration could be through a soft gaze (of the camera) but here the filming happens without her permission and her level of accepting such intrusion is raised by her illegal migrant status. She tolerates it for a while though she feels it a bit odd. But then the real aggression happens in the stalking.

(Fiona Rukschcio filming Retaped Rape)

The backlashes that Rape had amassed while screening and later on were shrill and strong mainly because the critics thought that Yoko Ono was subjecting herself to the male ideology pertaining to gaze. She was letting the males to follow Majlata. Had it been Ono herself would things have been different is a worth pondering question. But during the debates that ensued the screening of this movie Ono took an aggressive stance and cancelled most of the criticism as ideological rubbish. To save the artistic merit of the movie or for not getting into the feminist debates, she said the film should have been seen as an artistic output and its ideological merit should have been seen in the context of artistic intention. Almost four decades later another artist from Austria, Fiona Rukschcio, decided to revisit the film, Rape and do what Yoko Ono did not want to do: to become the gaze itself.

Fiona Rukschcio makes the revisit of Rape in her project called ‘Retaped Rape’. Once she came to know that the woman, Majlata was an Austrian citizen, Fiona decided to go to the same places the Rape filming had happened. She contacted the camera man who filmed Ono’s Rape and asked whether he could do it for her again. But he refused. Fiona also contacted the Majlata’s sister who had set up Majlata as the protagonist of Ono’s Cinema Verite experiment. Majlata’s sister helped Fiona to find the locations. In Retaped Rape what Fiona does is simulating the camera movements of the original Rape. But here the difference is Fiona does not position a woman in front of her camera. She follows an invisible person who could have been the erstwhile Majlata. Fiona follows an erasure and absence, which in fact had been registered by four male member camera crew decades back under the insistence of a powerful artist like Yoko Ono. Besides, Fiona herself handles the camera. So the gaze in Retaped Rape is that of a woman and this woman’s gaze is re-enacting the gaze of four men/one camera without subjecting anyone into the status of a victim.

(Fiona reaches Majlata's flat)

The whole film, Retaped Rape is a re-reading of the original. It is a narrative re-written with locations in place but without its protagonists and characters. The very absence of Majlata in Fiona’s movie evokes the kind of violence that the male gaze had generated in Rape. The absence then becomes more than a presence as Fiona intercuts her narrative back to the original film clippings and comes back to the actual locations again and again. The project Retaped Rape as an exhibition consists of the stills of Fiona making Retaped Rape and the locations from where Fiona’s presence has been erased. Fiona underlines two absences, one the decimation of Majlata’s subjectivity in the actual Rape through powerful male gaze and two, the absence of Fiona herself from the frames. There is a rupture between these two absences and it is in this rupture the meaning of Retape Rape exists. This rupture is created by the replacing of male gaze by female gaze. The simulation of male gaze works in the plane of residual memories; the memories of a film that had subjected a woman to male gaze. And each time the viewer is tend to ask about Majlata in Retaped Rape and she occupies the maximum space as she keeps looking back at the viewers through memories and remembrance and pushes the dominant gaze out of the narrative. Hence, Fiona’s film becomes a counter gaze at the movie Rape.

(From Retaped Rape project exhibition at Secession 2012)

As a conclusion of this essay I would like to quote Doris Krumpl, a cultural critic from Vienna. In the catalogue for the project Retaped Rape Krumps writes: “The beauty and innocence of the woman stalked in Rape exert a spell over the viewer, who, captivated and turning increasingly into an accomplice, follows the camera that follows the woman right up until her breakdown. The public ‘ravishing’ of celebrities culminated in the antics of a Britney Spears, the tantrums thrown by Amy Winehouse and the death in a car accident of Lady Diana, another goddess of hunt. To what extent are the consumers of such stories themselves the victims of their accompliceship? This is precisely where Fiona Ruckschcio’s intervention gets its purchase from; by eliminating the attractive object of the hunt she brings about a reversal of roles, sacrificing on her media altar the viewers participating in this increasingly frustrating hunt for clues. A belated act or reparation.” 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Rape As New Urban Cult?

Have rapes become another avenue for the young and old wanton creatures that walk on earth to claim their purpose in life, a few moments of notoriety and the eventual redemption through legal punishment? Have the urban areas become the places where fallacious law enforcement is a norm that could facilitate these creatures to play out their fantasies? Has the act of rape moved from the zone of male chauvinistic aggressive power exertions to a zone where horrendous creatures with penises frivolously indulge in violating the hapless women irrespective of their age? Has the ideology of rape transformed into the ideology of purpose in life through aggressive sado-masochist pleasure seeking in our late capitalist world?

These questions have been haunting me since the day I heard the news of a migrant laborer from Bihar raping a five year old girl child and dumping her in a closed room next to her house in Delhi’s Gandhi Nagar area. When Nirbhaya was raped and when the nation’s conscience erupted in the virtual and real fields, when politicians and social activists, social scientists, feminists and economists debated the issue day in and day out in television and print media, like many I too believed that rape of Nirbhaya, like the rape of so many other women and young girls in this country and elsewhere was an incident that showed the male aggression on women’s body and mind. Today when I sit with blood dripping newspapers in hand and still refuse to believe that rape is not a chauvinistic ideological act, I tend to think about these rapes getting reported on a 24 x 7 basis in media as a new cult that the young and wanton male creatures have adopted to find meanings in their lives.

(Picture for representational purpose only)

The new economy brought in place by globalization has changed the urban localities. Till recently, these spaces were the hideouts of potential terrorists, as the parlance of Police goes. Now the internal terrorism has changed its countenance. The new terrorist has the face of a rapist. He comes from rural India and he is here in the city for making some money. He does not find a proper job, he does not find a good place to stay, he does not have friends to share his woes. Slowly he works through this urban maze as a rickshaw puller, as a daily laborer in a construction site or a small factory and so on. Nobody knows him. Not even his employers know him. He is an incognito in a large urban space. With nothing to anchor him in life, what he finds as his anchors are cheap pornographic novels, item number songs from Bollywood, cheap liquor or drugs and low grade movies in C-grade movie halls. In front of him he sees the vast difference between his life and the life of the urban middle and lower middle class. With no passport to these classes, he positions himself as an outsider who is there to either take revenge or to find some pleasure for himself. Slowly he loses the distinction between about his idea of revenge to one and all and his imagined pleasure principles.

He wakes up with the news of girls getting raped and the outrage of the people who are mentally and morally affected. He feels a secret pleasure of seeing both. Somehow he starts feeling a sort of empathy with the rapist who has ‘done’ it. He knows for sure that there is no place to run and hide. He knows well that even after committing crime and fleeing from the site, the longer hands of law would reach him. So for him in his purposeless life or in his life rendered purposeless by the urban realities, it becomes a hide and seek game with the law. He wants to wreck revenge upon the society and he wants to have his pleasure and these two ideas mutate into the idea of raping someone. Once that is done, age of the victim becomes immaterial for him. Then he turns into a man who has genetically inherited his superiority of having a penis; he reimagines his heroism by just being a male. Then he finds his prey and does his work. This does not mean that all the migrants are like that. But the migrant laborer with all these psychological pressures inflicted on to him by the disparity of social life becomes one.

(A anti-rape protester gets beaten up by Policeman)

Take the case of the brutal act committed by Manoj on to a five year old girl. Take the case of the sixty year old father-in-law who has been raping his daughter-in-law which ended up in her committing suicide. Look at the thirteen year old girl getting assaulted and then out of shame trying to commit suicide. Look at all those girls who have been raped in the urban underbelly. It all shows that the rapists are not driven by any personal revenge. They are all driven by revenge against the society and that revenge is mixed up with their own ideas of pleasure. An act of rape could be momentary but it takes a lot of planning from its perpetrator. He waits and plans. He stalks and finds out the routes of his victim. There are other hunters who just randomly hunt and they too have a method. And it is not always necessary that the planner ends of up getting his chosen victim. It could be anybody else in that context. It could be even an eighty year old woman sleeping outside her house. A twenty three year old migrant worker does not feel any prick of conscience to rape an old woman because for him the act of raping is just a physical manifestation of what he has been doing all the time to all the women in his vicinity. Or the victim could be even a cow!

Let us look at Manoj who has been caught from his native village in Bihar. He has confessed to the police and also he has said the actual criminal is a Pradeep who had prompted him to this crime through showing pornographic clippings and other offensive materials. He has even said that Pradeep was there at the room when he was violating the five year old. Here neither Manoj nor Praddep deserves any sympathy. But what we need to understand is that both of them were finding a purpose in their lives through drug induced hallucinations. They were finding a purpose in their lives taking the example of other rapists who in their eyes have achieved great feats. Also they are driven by the mundane philosophy that says that ‘sab log karta hai yaar’. They take the example of powerful people, politicians, film actors whom they admire and adore, committing crimes and they coming out successfully out of prisons. They find a purpose in life by thinking in those lines and they feel that by wrecking revenge on the society they could do justice to their own lives. They don’t find themselves capable enough to do anything other than attacking a woman who is generally defenseless. And of course they imagine that forced sexual intercourse would give them immense pleasure.

(Tandoor hun..gat khaale sayaa alcohol se....an item number from Bollywood hit Dabang 2- Demeaning women in the official way)

Rape has somehow, unfortunately gotten the status of a cult. If more and more people are raping women in this country then we need to sit up and think why it has become a viral thing. People say that there is nothing new in it because rape has been there in Indian society since ages. They cite myths and puranas as proof. But they are just washing their hands off from the larger responsibility as human beings. They endorse rape by saying that it is a normative affair. They say that it is reported too much these days that’s why people know about it. But report or no report, somehow young dispossessed and disadvantaged males have become the perpetrators of rape and other crimes. Our popular culture shows that migrating to big cities make the rural poor rich and powerful. But their dreams are shattered in reality once they migrate. They become villains in their own lives and our Bollywood staples also help them to imagine that even if do crimes if it is for the purpose of your life then you will be pardoned eventually either by wealth or by death.

I do not say that the urban middle class and lower middle class should hate the migrant poor in the cities. They are also human beings. But the increasing numbers in rape incidents and also the increasing number of the migrant poor as rapists should be addressed in a totally renewed context. It is not just about a local thug raping a village lass or someone raping someone’s wife just to prove that he is mightier than his opponent. It is a social disease rather than a patriarchal issue. Of course patriarchy is the fuel that gives them energy to push themselves into the act. But before they think themselves as powerful male there is a stage that they feel as absolutely useless sub human beings. We need to address the sub-human status of the urban migrant poor.

(Collage of Kid's stills)

I remember the 1995 film ‘Kids’ by Larry Clark. In this movie a group of teenagers move around New York city procuring drugs, liquor and so on and keep talking about sex. Finally they end up in doing orgy. And even they don’t keep themselves off from having sex with a girl who is affected by HIV and is known to everyone. The film ends up with the protagonist asking ‘Jesus Christ What Happened?’. After each rape the rapist must be asking this question to himself. He has done it for his purpose and pleasure. But what has he done finally? But the cultic status of being a rapist attracts him again to it. And we need to kill this cult at the earliest.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Men at Forty are all Not Dirty

The other day, an artist friend of mine (yes, a woman artist) walked upto me while we were in a gallery and told me that she had read my ‘A Girl in a Metro Coach’ and thought it was middle aged man’s fantasies about a young female metro traveller. She was not accusing me. But her tone sounded familiar because after reading the blog my wife too had told me the same opinion. While my artist friend said that I had taken all care to balance myself between lust and care for that girl, my wife said it was an absolute case of middle aged man’s demand for reassurance of his sexuality. Perhaps the latster was brutally truthful and the former was polite and mild. I thought they together expressed the general view on that blog. There could be a third view. Someone might have thought it was very beautiful, so expressive, so imaginative and very humane. But such views today are rare.

The general view goes like this: Men at forty are dirty. If this has earned the status of a maxim there must be some truth behind it. Most of the men in their forties look for reassurance about their sexuality. They feel the need to reassure their male virility by proving it to someone who is not his wife. In the work situations they become so assertive and dominating because they want to prove that they are still in control and have not lost the ability to keep other under their power. Their aggression and advances are mainly trained at women subordinates so that not only his need for social authority but also sexual power is reassured. They never ask themselves what their subjects or objects of their authority feel or think about them. If they ask they would never do what they do. In public spaces, men over forty try to look cooler than what they are because they are aware of the fact that they are fighting a losing battle. They try to look hep, during vacations they look sportier than the younger lot and in social networking sites they pose themselves more daring and adventurous than they are.

The fact that in their age old foolishness or the foolishness that has been transmitted to them by them by their forefathers, they believe that the moment they hit forty they start losing power. In fact a man gains power when he enters in his forties. He has a settled life. His issues are more or less resolved. He has something to base his life and something else to hope for. His sexual needs are more or less taken care of and if he needs, it is easy for him to hire sexual favours from those who are willing. Then why does he become so impatient and look around for younger girls to feel that he is still attractive to them? I would say if men at forty are foolish enough to look for young girls and their approval of their sexual prowess it is the ultimate foolishness they could resort to. If you are confident and resolved naturally the young blood will gravitate towards you and you never feel the need for sexual gratification from the younger lot.

There have been psychoanalytical and psychological studies about men’s behaviour by the age of forty. There are hormonal changes and there have been theories of male menopause. The chemical locha or hormonal imbalances make men to behave like monkeys the moment they usher into the world of forties, they say. But it is absolutely wrong. A man in his mid forties now I could clearly say that I do not feel the need to be reassured by young girls or boys, sexually, I should add. It is always good to be in the company of compatible young people who could vibe with you without disrespecting your age and experience.  I believe that the people over forty prefer to be in the company of peer group people or senior ones while keeping their company with the youngsters intact. May be I am not the right person to talk about all those men above forty. So I could talk about myself.

I have never felt the need to be sexually or physically reassured by a younger girl, even after turning forty. I am forty four now. In fact I wanted such reassurances when I was in my late twenties and in early thirties. I was married to a girl of my choice and was spending happy times with her. But the life in a metro where we had migrated to was very difficult. We were bogged down by materialistic pressures. So I would say most of my youthful days had gone into the struggle of settling in my life. In those days it was very difficult to digest the fact that none found me attractive, sexually or intellectually. Every action in life was to prove the relevance of my existence. Interestingly in such situations your partner is the only person who assures you of your worth. But when you are at war with a world what difference that assurance could have made? I had spent my days of self-doubt when I was really really young. Today I am assured about myself. I do not need any reassurance of anybody. I know what I am doing, what my body wants and what my mind seeks.

I have never been a one woman’s man. I always had multiple relationships. Those were not always physical. Those were not meant for physical gratification. At the age of forty four too I am not driven by any physical needs from the opposite sex. I look at women with respect and love. I do care for the people who are in touch with me. When I look at a woman in a metro or any other place it is not inspired by any carnal pleasure. I create a context of me looking at someone and I analyse that situation. I remember looking at a girl who was so intimately standing with her boy friend in metro and shedding silent tears for some reasons unknown to me. At one point her eyes had locked up with my eyes. I gave her a reassuring smile. I thought she felt quite a lot happy for that.

A man at forty could be good and well meaning. But exceptions are not rule. Be forewarned. I am brutally honest about my life and I pay for it.

Friday, April 19, 2013

A Girl in a Metro Coach

This week I do not have anything to offer in terms of an art story. So I am thinking of sharing an experience I had today morning. I do not know whether it would reach you as there are all chances that my editor trashing it. But if she does, don’t worry it will reach you through my blog. Doesn’t it sound like a covert warning to the editor? I can see her smiling at her computer screen. A morning smile is always good for health.

This story is quite Marquez-ian. While travelling by metro I generally read books in order to cover that one hour I take from my station of origin to my studio. I should not say that I try to ‘cover’ that one hour. Metro travelling is not at all boring provided if you have a pair of good eyes to watch people without insulting their personality or privacy. Most of the people listen to music through ear phones. They nod their heads, smile, contort their faces, jam a bit or maximum yell thinking that they are humming. It is interesting to watch music listeners. Another interesting thing is to listen to various ring tones. Ring tones tell you the nature of a person, I should add, almost. And those people who are running behind their office time tell lies point blank. But none smirks because everyone in the metro knows at some point one has to lie to survive.

I do not rush for seats. If some kind soul finds me a senior citizen who needs to rest his tired legs and gives away his seat for me, I happily take it with an avuncular air. But those people who capture the seats of senior citizens are instant sleepers. They sleep the moment they sit on them. They are at their histrionic best till an arrogant senior citizen rudely shakes them up from their best actor sleep. But only from a certain angle I look like a senior citizen. That means I travel standing between two coaches every day, reading books or watching people. But let me tell you, anything given free people make use of it to the hilt. They polish their shoes at the bristles fitted by the escalators and get a back massage by the rubbery flaps connecting two coaches.

Today morning, while standing at the same edge of a coach that meets the next one I saw a girl standing just opposite me. She could have been hardly twenty year old or less. Long thing legs where clad in a light blue jeans and her pink T-shirt showed a large butterfly in flutters. There was a line written along the waist line of the T-shirt which I was unable to read due to my self-warning. She had a pair of long arms and on the left arm she had a wrist watch with a large square dial. Her fingers were too long and veins were quite visible. Two small little finger rings adored her fingers. She had beautifully clipped nails on her fingers. As she was thin and tall, she looked a bit flat-chested but her breasts were full and round though small. Her eyes shone when she expectantly looked at the tickers running along the display board announcing the names of stations. She had a sharp nose, full lips and semi curly hairs. Two streaks of hairs kept on falling on the right side of her cheek, which she kept on combing back with her right hand. Two small black moles at her right cheek added to her beauty.

She knew she was beautiful. But she was awkwardly young and conscious of her own self. I looked at her and she looked at me. Her eyes and the token that was continuously rubbed by her anxious fingers showed that she was not a regular traveller by metro. When I had covered the first fifteen minutes of the first leg of my trip to studio, this girl had already become conscious of my presence. I kept telling myself that she was young and I should not disturb her at all by my gaze. But as she was standing just opposite, even my cursory glance out through the window would have invited her counter gaze. Her eyes were twisting and turning like a martial artist, swishing and swaging like a fish, ducking and probing like a bird and I was really amused by her reactions. Finally I decided to look at her fingers only which she had folded across her stomach, perhaps she was holding her bag tight to her body. The bag showed that she was either in college or just out of it because only undergrad kids could have such vandalized bags with them.

Her fingers responded to my gaze. Was I looking at her fingers or was I trying to look away and distract my mind with pious thoughts? After all, even while looking at her fingers I never had any uncalled for thoughts in my mind. But I knew she was looking at me and she knew I was looking at her fingers. The fingers moved as if they were like the fingers of a pianist mesmerized not only by the notes of a master but also by the taunting hand movements of a conductor. I was the conductor. An uncle. I thought she would call me uncle. Even if she had called me uncle I would have responded like an uncle. I would have taken her to wherever she wanted to go because at that moment my whole idea was to see this girl safe. The thought passed through my mind repeatedly- if I was looking at her fingers what the young guys would be doing? Wouldn’t they kill her with their gazes?

I cursed myself for looking at her fingers. By that time I had reached the Central Secretariat station where I was to change to another line to my studio. I did not want to look back as I knew she had just got out of the coach just behind me. My paced across the platform and I wanted to walk away from her and to become one with the crowd as if I were a piece of salt in an ocean of people. I waited at the other platform for my connecting train. To my shock I saw this young girl walking up to me, standing next to where I stood. Train came, doors opened, lot of people rushed out and a few people calmly walked in. One was she and the other one was I myself. I travel by the same line every day. I stand near the door. Today too I stood there. She stood just opposite me, leaning against a steel pole. She looked like a sculpture.

We, for the first time let me use the word we, were in tune with each other. What happened in the other train happened here too. In between I saw her hands going goose pimples all over. Blame it on the air conditioner of the metro coach. I could count them. They were three hundred and four altogether. She raised her hand to comb her hair behind her right ear. I saw her armpit with stubble, so tender and so attractive. She knew it that I saw it. She was so young and I a middle aged man. But the harmony in air was so mystical. I wanted to extend my hands to her so that I could hold her and release her whenever she wanted. But someone offered me a seat.

(Picture by Aditya Dhawan)

I was reluctant but I did sit. She stood there. Looking at her was difficult sitting there. But the spell was not broken. I knew it and she knew it. ‘Next station is Qutub Minar and the train terminates there,’ the announcement came. Yes it is where I get down every day. I walk up to my studio from there. I knew that she must be meeting her boyfriend at Qutub Minar. Or she might be going somewhere to her relative’s place. Anyway she too was going to Qutub Minar station. She took out her mobile phone. I knew she must be waiting for her boy friend’s call or a message. He must be waiting there. Then they would go to Qutub Minar and spend the rest of the day there in each other’s embrace. Hot kisses would be exchanged.

The train drew up to Qutub platform. I got up from my seat. I did not want to look at the girl again. I thought she was glued to her mobile phone and the message contained in it or the call she had been expecting. I came out of the coach. I did not want to look back. I walked fast, as fast as I could. The sun was blazing fiercely. I struck my usual path. Walk alone. I kept walking. But only one thing I asked myself:

Who was she and where did she go from Qutub?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

False Gods Must Die

(Moses by Michelangelo)

Which God do you want to please
Dear creator when the tools of creation
Are in your hands?
You have created a world so large
Beautiful with spirits and elements
Still are you seeking another god
To come and make a judgment of it
What a pity, I would rather prefer
A devil who would funnily itch all over
To shake away the soot of hell from its wings
A devil who will deliver confusing notes
Only that a sensible god could discern
None sits up there to judge
And none is capable of any judgment
Because when it comes to your creations
You are the one who makes and takes rest after that
You created word, voice and colors
You painted this and that with dreams and rainbows
Then why call one who is a nobody
Whose arrogance has paid him the wages of hell
The one who condemned to burn in fire forever
If he could judge then I will finish this world
With the ease and patience of a child
Who erases a wrong line from his notebook
Lesser gods are for lesser mortals
Angels deal with the ultimate one
Let him be cured by his ignorance
And let arrogance sprout as warts from his heart
Let fire and brimstone fill in his innards
And let him moan his life for eons
Grave is suitable rest for him and maggots for company
I kill false gods and bury them in the graves of oblivion.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Story of Marketing Toothpaste in Flight

At the fortieth minute during the two hours ten minutes flight from Kolkata to Delhi, a lisping voice of an airhostess filled the cabin. She spoke at length about the quality of Sensodyne, a toothpaste brand from Glaxo-Smithkline company and said that the cabin crew would be giving a free packet of the same to each passenger free. As promised, girls with pearly teeth and red floridly curved lips distributed the toothpaste packets amongst the passengers. And it thought it was one of the most successful ad campaigns that could be undertaken by any company that looks for economically above average patrons for their products. Reason was simple, for the rest of the trip, may be for thirty minutes most of the passengers kept on looking at this packet as if it were an amulet containing a secret mantra. Above all most of them were talking about it from their own perspectives. While very few of them put it inside the pouch in front of them, majority of the passengers kept it in their hands or in their pockets. The very experience of holding that packet in hand took me to a series of assumptions on the generation of consumerist desires amongst the unsuspecting people.

First of all, any free distribution of a product is directly meant as brand familiarizing and establishment. In a flight with very less to do other than reading, sleeping or impatiently waiting for the eventual arrival, most of the people tend to focus on trivial things which in fact they otherwise do not do. Getting a free gift spurs up a series of associations. Primarily it registers that while travelling by a particular flight you have received a gift. That particular gift, now being a commercial product, fixes two association through its tactile nature; one, it creates an empathetic relationship between the passenger and the flight. Two, that product itself get registered in your mind. These two associations are directly translated into the notion of belonging to a privileged class. As most of the people do not travel by air quite often, the reception of a free product from the flight underlines your privileged position as a person who travels by flight which is read by your sub-conscious mind as your ‘better’ position in the society. With the product, now seen within or without the flight, directly takes you to your air travels thereby your euphoric feeling about being exceptional and privileged. This also creates an empathetic relationship with the particular product.

What surprised me further was the packaging style of the product. This product, unlike many other toothpaste brands does not have a glittering packaging style. It is plain and simple and almost evokes the feeling that you have been given a free sample of some skin disease cream or mosquito repellent cream. But as you have been told that it is a toothpaste, as you don’t have much to do inside a flight, you start reading the details printed on the cover. The more you read the more you wonder based on your previous associations with toothpaste packaging and its visual familiarities, why this product negates the conventional idea of packaging toothpastes. This wonderment is one strong form of registering the product brand in your mind. The more you think about it the more you identify the differences it has from other brands. The more you recognize this fact and its clinical negation of the conventional, the more you start developing some curiosity towards it. Now, as you also invest your social positioning based on your assumed distinctions and differences, you find a location in this product where you could anchor your difference and distinction. The product moves several steps into your consciousness and those zones of desire.

The packaging of this product is further interesting because of its capacity to generate the curiosity about the content. This has been made possible mainly by using a sort of glued ends. We are familiar with those pastes and creams which have a insert-able flap, that means once you have opened and examined the content, you could push the flap back into position and close it. Here as you are in flight and after a few minutes as you are going to continue your journey to home or hotel, you feel like not opening it because if you open it, it becomes impossible to keep the content from falling out. The tube coming out of an open end provokes the idea of losing it. As you have not seen the content, you don’t want to lose it without checking it. So eventually you toy it in your hands till the flight lands or you keep it inside your pockets. In a way a passenger is made a slave of a small little packet he has received from the airhostess. While standing at the belt from where you collect your baggage, I saw most of the travellers carrying the packet in their hands or pockets. Some were even in the process of putting it into their bags.

The company perhaps does not believe that all the passengers who have received it are going to be the users of it. But it does believe that people are going to talk about it and they are going to relate to it as a product that is above average. And in a snobbish society, a consumerist product moves faster than anything else as people like to brag about things that they do or experience however silly they are. So the company knows for sure that this product is going to be talked about on the next day by people. And this talk would further the curiosity. It is just a sort of Pavlovian association. Next time when you visit a super store and shop for your toothpaste, the moment you see this brand name all those association of being above average or associating with the above average comes to your mind. So you for a test case buy one for yourself. Perhaps your children and wife or husband would resist this new product. That means you buying two different brands. As you are committed to your being distinct, at home you start using this product and naturally out of curiosity the other members might steal a chance to use it for themselves. Slowly you would see a whole family getting converted into the use of this new brand.

While in the flight, rest of the thirty minutes we three friends were talking about this product. By the end of it, we realized that notwithstanding out critique on consumerism and consumerist products and the ways in which companies use advertisement for furthering their products, we still were discussing this product. While a friend said that he need not buy a tube of toothpaste for his next trip which would be the next day or next month, the other friend said that it was always good to try a new product. While mine was mixed with both their views, my idea was to write about the whole idea of its marketing. Interestingly, after almost twelve hours, I am still hooked up to this tube of paste. It is still unopened and unused. But I am writing about it. There could not have been a better strategy to promote a product than free distributing of it a flight full of bloggers.

While thinking about this product I thought about all the other toothpaste brands which I have used or nostalgically remember. And the illustrations used in this article are my nostalgic association with other dental care products. Once it was burned husk or rice, then it was a curious smelling pink powder that burned the gums with a sweet cutting pain. Then all those brands that we all have perhaps used. 

Friday, April 5, 2013

Notebooks as Curatorial Projects

(Ekalokam Notebooks on my table)

Yesterday a small parcel came by courier. I knew it was on its way. I signed the yellow sheet and received it. I did not open it for almost a day. I knew about the content of that parcel. I knew those were small little notebooks with the photographs taken by Abul Kalam Azad. Thiruvannamalai based Ekalokam Collective (One World) has published these note books. Ekalokam is an alternative publishing house with a proclaimed aim of taking the images of works of art to a larger common public. It is a gesture of initiating people into art and culture without using persuasive jargons. Ekalokam aspires to move into the lives of people with art and make them feel that they need art, like the way they need food, security and comfort. Today, art has gone away from people because people do not think about it as food (for thought) or comfort (of spirit). Ekalokam thinks that if the images of works of art are seen regularly in mundane contexts, they would grow into the consciousness of people. There will be empathetic relationships and graceful recognitions. Even a notebook with the images of works of art could be cathartic.

I did open them finally. The small notebooks are like the quarter size pocket books with thematic titles for each; ten in total. Then I thought of the whole set as a curatorial take on the works of Azad’s photography works. His photographs reproduced here are originally printed on Hahnemuhle paper and each print is 20” x 20” in size. They are edition works. Now what you see in these notebooks are the miniature versions of the same and they are in multiple editions. When you hold a notebook in your hand, you get to see only one miniature edition of the work. This is exactly what happens in a photography show. You see framed images on the walls of a gallery and they have editions elsewhere. Hence, when you carry these notebooks you are in fact carrying small little shows of Abul Azad. The choice of using these notebooks for writing down things is absolutely yours. You may or you may not. But you have a show in your hand and if you have any impressions on these works or impressions on anything you may write them down. Each time you revisit these notebooks, you feel like stepping into a gallery for an exclusively private view. The curator/publisher stands absent but the thematic takes you from page to page. After ten years or fifteen years, if you care to keep them, they would look like the miniature retrospective of the artist. It could happen with any other artist and his/her images.

(Ekalokam Brochure)

I don’t take down notes. I take impressions in mind. During the formative years and the years that I had spent as a journalist, it was imperative for me to take down notes. I could scribble down points in spiral notebooks when I attended press conferences or interviewed people of importance. Practice took me to intense listening. When you listen intently, each word and sentence gets etched in your mind. Your brain behaves like a spiral bound notebook. The notations of time that you take in automatically while listening become punctuation marks. I have travelled to places with a notebook. I have even bought small notebooks to write down my impressions. But it never happens. I look at things and they transform themselves into words and get stored in a folder in my mind. Whenever you need to reproduce them, you just need to click them open. But I have seen people writing down things in their notebooks. I see them as well organized people. They never miss an appointment or they forget missions. I wish I could do something of that sort. But often I fail to do it. So I do not know whether I would ever write notes on the pages of these books. What I could do maximum is maintaining a task diary.

When you buy a notebook with the images of works of art in them, it becomes a thing of pride. When you spend money, a little more than what you spend on normal notebooks, you tend to store it for keepsake. Whether you write notes in them or not, you are going to keep these notebooks as souvenirs and you are going to revisit them occasionally. Think of a museum. What are those objects kept in there labelled and categorized? Once up on a time they were all functional objects; they were functional in various contexts ranging from mechanical to religious, quotidian to royal. Once removed from their functional contexts, they become relics of culture and we tend to preserve them. Photographs are the impressions of functional objects and contexts. But when they travel from function to image, they become dysfunctional in the actual sense. They become relics of an immediate time. Hence, a photograph in itself is a museum piece. It museumizes contexts. And in turn the photographs as objects get museumized as they are identified as images invested with cultural values. Removed from function they become aesthetical objects. These notebooks, in a way, are museums in themselves. Once they are removed from their actual function (of making notes) they become museum items. As they are handy objects, they become a part of our daily lives. Like a memory these books remain.

(My Anger and Other Stories notebook)

Azad is a versatile photographer with a critical view on things. He oscillates between autobiographical narratives and documenting societies. Documentation, in a conventional sense is a very detached objective act. But for an artist documentation is a sort of identification with ideas or attitudes. These notebooks produced by Ekalokam have the following curatorial thematic in each book. Periya Kovil (Annamalayiar Temple dedicated to Shiva), My Anger and Other Stories, Untouchables, Chai, Charas, Chappati, Dockland, Samadhi, Coral Hills, Beatles in Rishikesh, Etimology of Rishikes and Southern Salt are the titles. Azad’s leaning towards gender politics and subaltern politics anchor him in finding his subjects in and around the areas where he lives. He travels to the places where religious rituals are performed for peripheral people. As an avid portrait photographer too Azad has an immense collection of people in his repertoire though they have not yet been published in a book form.

 (Southern Salt Notebook)

These notebooks are precious collectibles for the reasons I have recounted in this article. Perhaps, the real buyers of these notebooks would find their own reasons to have them. These notebooks are like a collective performance. They are books but not yet books. They are pictures but not yet pictures. They are museums but not yet museums. They are souvenirs but not yet souvenirs. They are functional but not yet.....Possibilities are immense. The real possibility of these notebooks lies in their ability to discard definitions. Not this not this. Perhaps, Ekalokam happens when we keep saying, note this, note this.