Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My 2014: I am Blessed by You

(A few years back I was at Dandi Seashore)

Getting up early in the morning and hitting at your work desk, seeing the same innocent faces next to you, smelling the same smells, anticipating the same outcomes of the day, writing your heart out, wistfully looking at your social networking sites, greeting the same people who have sent you messages, chatting up with new ones with pure as well as vile intentions, vacantly looking at the postings others have done, reading so many things that you really do not need to know yet you read fearing being left out from social discourse, eating the same breakfast made by the same hands, going out, getting into the same car or any mode of conveyance, chancing upon the same strange people who have grown familiar over a period of time during the daily grind in metro/bus/railways stations, attending the same issues that reappear in different shapes and hues at office or workplaces, creating, recreating, feeling happiness, sadness, despair, elation, getting back home in the evening and attending the same rituals of yet another union. Life may sound too boring if you analyse the days in a year in your life. But this repetitiveness gives a sense of security and grounding though most of us feel that greener pastures are at the other shores. But we remain in one place, making all efforts to be happy and content.

Facebook, the agency that reassures one’s self worth day in and day out through its clever programming this year, has brought us the cheerful moments culled out from our lives and presented for us. As we go through them, the pictures that impart the feeling us riding the crests of joy, fame and success, we feel that the year was not really bad. If we see a year as a novel that tells a tragic story, these pictures are like those marked out pages where only joyous incidents are narrated. Reading those chosen pages could make someone take the book for a comedy. But it is not a bad thing; Facebook wants all of us to be happy and to be positive to receive the New Year, which in fact is not different from the year or day that has just gone by. Still we feel good. Like a soothsayer, this social networking site makes us feel good about ourselves. If it really does, then we should welcome the move. These vignettes from the year that is going to be past are like a platter of assorted desserts. The main course has already been taken; the hot, cold, sour, pungent, sharp, cutting tastes are taken with eagerness. Now it is time to relax for a few minutes. The platter makes you happy; it looks so beautiful and tastes so good. Have it, please.

(In one of my previous incarnations)

Looking back, I find myself waking up from different beds and sitting at different tables to write or read, throughout the year. I wake up alone mostly; sometimes a little bit of dullness in the head which has accompanied me to bed along with an occasional drink I have taken the previous night. Sometimes I wake up with a dazed mind with tears and screaming still reverberating from a late night phone call I have received in the night. Most often I get up with a clear mind and then I see a choir or orchestra set up in the stage of my mind with musicians ready to strike the right chord at the cue of the conductor. When I wake up and sit at the computer I become the conductor, words flow rhythmically. I find it curious and smile to myself when I am sitting with the computer on a table or on my lap, sitting on the bed itself because the environs look strangely similar. Just pull the curtain apart, the world out there is different, the language spoken there is different. Then I remind myself that I am in a new place though the hotel rooms look same. Sometimes I am in a transit home set up by myself with the help of some kind friends. I feel a sense of security and think that I am going to be here for long. I write from that sense of security. Then it is time to go.

When I walk along the streets and lanes, alone seeing things, I get this feeling of déjà vu. I have been here, I have eaten from this restaurant and I know that boy in his dirty clothes, who smiles at me. He has served me. I avoid that Sardarji who runs a gym. I know that barber who has cut my hair, I know that small provision store owner because I have bought things from him, I know the cigarette shop man and I know that old woman sitting on a wooden platform, selling vegetables. I know those old men in the parks who greet me enthusiastically. For a moment I think that I am daydreaming. But I am not. They are real people and I have been to those places. I avoid that Sardarji because I have worked out in his gym for fifteen days and then I am gone! I know those old men in the park because I have walked with them in the park. Those who care amongst them have asked me about my identity. I have given them different identities; to some people I am a writer, to some people I am an artist, to some people I am a journalist, to some people I work for an NGO. Experience has taught me to place myself finally. I do not say that I am a journalist anymore because if I say that they would tell me the names of the leading newspapers and ask me which one I work for. I used to fumble in the beginning till I chose one of the top names. I no longer say that I am a writer because then they ask me what I write. But I have found out a mid way. I tell them, I am a former journalist now writing books. It raises the respect quotient. They want their lives to be heard and written about. They tell me things and I hear them out. Some people are relentless; they just want to know my true identity. For them now I am a businessman. What business? They ask. I tell organizing exhibitions. As in? Big cultural events. They are happy. But what mental picture they must be forming about my business, I wonder. May be a contractor who rents out chairs, electronic equipments, make shift pandals, platform etc. They are happy because they think that this guy from South makes good money. He does not look impoverished either. Good...good.

(in 2012)

I have lost the count of parks and streets I have walked. In Kerala, in Hyderabad, in Bangalore, in Delhi, in Mumbai, in Pune and in many other places, I walk just for the heck of it. Besides my morning walks in the parks or working out in gyms, I prefer to go for walking. In the beginning of 2014, I had decided to leave the security of my life for the second time by leaving home and hearth. I had done it first time almost twenty three years back when I decided to leave the place where I was born and brought up. This year I have been living in different places; at a friend’s place, at my sister’s house, in some dingy lodges, in some historically important bungalows, in artists’ studios, in hugely posh residences with two servants to attend me on, in moderate homes and an old school building. Looking back, people from different walks of life have come up to help me whenever I wanted help. This helps me understand that I have become an empty receptacle. Only in empty containers you can fill up things. I have learned, from the experience of this year to make myself an empty container; a person with minimum needs and minimum demands. What do I want for myself, I ask this question. A fresh pair of clothes, food to eat, a neat place to stay, books to read, a computer to write, an internet connection, a mobile phone, and....the list could be long. But I think I need only this much. Yes, I can hear you asking; MONEY. I have told you, when you do not have any demand, money too comes to you because there are other people around you who need you to make money for them. So money too comes. I am not exaggerating. I am blessed in that way.

I do not know whether you will believe me or not. I do not have anything that I could claim as my possession. I have learnt this lesson from this passing year; live the life you want and live happily. Be a receptacle and help as much as you can. Be free and be blessed. I am not a preacher or an evangelist to say this. But let me give my own example from this year. When I left the place where I thought I was living comfortably, I had taken my clothes, which amounts to a couple of  pairs. I had a shoulder bag that carries my laptop. And this laptop was given to me by an organization which I was working for in 2011. When I left it they did not ask for it. So that is with me even today! One friend looked for a small flat for me and some other benevolent souls arranged the household things. When I went there, it was a liveable home. As I knew I was not going to stay in that place for long I did not buy a fridge or air cooler or conditioner. I decided to run the fan only on ‘two’ speed in 45 degree temperature because I did not want the idea of ‘luxury’ come to my mind for I did not have any clue where I would be staying next. For three months I wore a loin cloth at home, cooked my own meals and ate alone. One friend gave me a couple of shirts, another one gave me a pair of shoes and all of them together give me the strength to pull on. When I decided to travel, I did not have any travel bag. A young couple gave their travel bag to me, which I am still using.

(New Year drinks that I may not open)

Throughout the year, I did not buy a single thing. All my clothes are gifted to me by friends. All my trips are arranged by my friends. I never asked for money or clothes or anything from anybody. They kept on coming and they still keep coming. Mostly I travel by flights; I know from where the tickets come but I never ask for it. I am always prepared to live in a five star hotel or a railway station because I do not have anything that could be stolen from me. I am always prepared to travel by a bus or a train without reservation. I can eat five star lunches that costs Rs.2500/- per meal to Rs.20/- per meal ‘Jan Ahar’ that you get outside metro stations in Delhi. I am not boasting. I do not make differences between these two. I drink Glenfidich or Glenmorangi and I do not have any problem to take Royal Stag or Old Monk. I can have a Corona beer in style and I do not feel lesser when I sip Kingfisher ultra. A few days before a friend came with a packet for me and I opened it to see a Mexican Tequila ‘Patron XO Cafe’, a bottle of Black Dog, one bottle of Jesterini and Brooks whiskey and one bottle of Ciroc Vodka, all for myself to celebrate the New Year eve. But I may spend the night with a glass of water, listening to some Malayalam songs in Youtube. By the way, I have not told you this: cars are at my disposal wherever I go. But I do not mind walking all the way, if there are no cars for me.

I have been telling you how my year was like. I have been blessed by friends and well meaning people. I do not want to take the names of the people who have been showering me with their blessings. I do not ask anything from them. But like Gods they know what I want or what I may want and they keep showering me with their gifts and love. But I keep myself empty always with my feet firmly anchored in reality and letting my imagination soar to the limitless skies. I am blessed because you, my reader, are with me. I live a life of emptiness so that you could fill me in with your love and care. I do not make any New Year resolutions because I do not have a vices to kick out. I kick out myself from myself every morning and every night so that your blessings could find a place to stay. I am not excitable and I am not easily susceptible to materialistic things. In high tide or low tide I want to be like this and I seek your blessings for that. I wish you a happy New Year and you stay blessed. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Hope in Mumbai Local

I am lucky to have a seat in a packed ‘Mumbai Local’ as the time I have chosen is not the ‘peak’ hour. There are enough people inside to impart the feeling of the compartment being ‘packed’. Though I do not want a comparison between a Delhi metro ride and this one comes to my mind. In Delhi metro, even when it is packed you get a feeling of luxury. In a Mumbai local luxury is not even a seat; it is just a space enough to keep both your feet on the floor; your face away from some sweating bodies. Happiness is when you have seat, bliss is when you have window seat and sublime is when you have a window seat against the running direction. Wind that touches your face makes you feel good, you think positive things about life and you are all full of hope. Life is different when you are standing or just squeezed by other people and remain suspended in a position that you otherwise do not even practice during your morning yoga class. I get a window seat, against the running direction and I feel good. Neither bliss nor sublime because I am yet to experience the peak hour travel, which I feel that I would not do anytime in near future.

There inside the train I observe so many stickers. I have just written an article about graffiti art. I take interest in the posters on the inside walls of the compartment that due to the absence of so many people reminds me of the hull of a gunned down war plane. Red, white, black and yellow in colour, these posters tell me about the solutions of life problems. Right from marital issues to decimation of enemies, from having a boy child to exorcism these posters offer you different solutions. You just need to dial a number that is given in bold digits. For a moment I think of dialling it but I resist. Problems in life come as a package deal, solutions included. You need to read the manual of life carefully, that’s it. There is not a single problem in life that does not come with a solution. You just need to read the manual of your own life and act accordingly. There are people around us who want to enjoy problems permanently; they tear off the manual and throw it out through the window and enjoy the solutions flying away in shards like little spangles of lost hopes. As I decide not to dial the number, I keep watching other posters. There are job offers; technicians needed in a printing press, plumber needed etc. No poster says artists and critics needed. Galleries seem to have gone out of business. Even if they are in business they are not fools to paste posters on a railway compartment.

I am bored a bit of the ‘slow train’ travel. It stops in all the stops. And endless stream of humanity flows in while another rivulet flows out by the force of some invisible push. Mumbaikars know how to deal with it. I am not one yet and I do not know whether I would become one ever. I look up. Bored people look out or look up. Looking out is a bit troublesome. When you are hungry you do not want to see so many people defecating in a row. In your imagination, the possible food that you are going to eat sometime later gets contaminated by the visions of excreta. And another thing that puts me off is the sighting of the long phalluses that these squatting men display shamelessly. That causes some kind of insecurity in me. So I look up. By looking up you feel hopeful; optimistic. And suddenly I see more posters on the ceiling of the compartment than the ones that I have already seen on the sides of it. Those posters are not torn off. Nobody’s hands reach there. It is a safe place to stick your posters if you are an intelligent advertiser. It remains there and most of the people read it. Why because most of the people in a parked local train are looking for hope by necessity or by force. When your face is stuck right under somebody’s stinking arm pit, you do not think about deodorants but you definitely think about god. And you hope for some fresh air. For both, you have to look up. When you look up you see these advertisements and as you do not have anything else to do you read them carefully as if it was a sheet from a prayer book that you hold closer to your heart for solace.

In Delhi Metro nobody looks up. There is no need to look up because most of them have their mobile toys to play with. Whether you sit or stand you are not looking anywhere else. You are looking only into your mobile screens where you must be helping a robber to collect more gold coins or helping a bike rider to negotiate deep curves or even keeping fruits in place. Hence, there are not too many advertisements you see in Delhi Metro. Recently they have introduced side panels for advertisement. When Arvind Keijriwal or Narendra Modi need votes they place the pictures of a broom and lotus there. When elections are not there, real estate magnets try to sell apartments thinking that all the metro travellers would one day be buying apartments. And it is for them to start dreaming. If nobody wants these spaces, Metro pitches itself in and flaunts its ability to take you from Rajiv Chowk (Connaugt Place) to the International airport in twenty four minutes. You are hopelessly displaced to the suburbs like Rohini or Dwaraka Metro gives you hope to take you there in thirty minutes. Delhi abhi door nahin hai (Delhi is not that far). People have left hoping against hope in Delhi, instead they invest their time in playing games or listening to music. Mumbai people hope for the best. They look up and they see life solutions in the form of advertisements, up there at the ceiling. Of late, I have been seeing a lot of sky also. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Clues to Find out the Artist/s behind Guess Who in Kochi

(work by Guess Who in Kochi- image- Deccan Chronicle)

Mr.Bean sitting pretty on an easy chair like a Karanavar (Grand Uncle in a Patriarchal society in Kerala), a Bharatanaytam dancer doing a ‘moon walk’ in MJ’s attire, legendary Malayalam film actor Late Prem Nazir posing like James Bond, the great gurus of Marxism, Karl Marx and Frederic Engels clad in the attire of two Sadhus (mendicants) and many more images like that, seen on the inconspicuous walls in India’s Biennale city, Kochi, have caught the attention of the international press. Signed by ‘Guess Who’ these stencilled graffiti works are done with a conscious blending of the regional and the global images and in an unmistakable ‘Banksy style’, which has been made international by the deliberate efforts of American Museums. The attention that the international and national press shower on these stencilled images especially came visible during a focused context of Kochi Muziris Biennale that celebrates local and global art is obviously because of the ‘glocal’ nature of these graffiti works. Had the same themes been done in another style, say for example in traditional Kerala Mural art style, it would not have generated such an enthusiasm around these works. Being global and local at the same time has done its bit for getting enough attention for these works. But a question that lingers the viewers’ mind is this: Why this artist or a group of artist leave their identity for guessing?

(work by Guess Who- Image- Ibtimes)

A BBC interview with the Guess Who artist which is currently available in the net suggests that the ‘authorship’ of these works has been owned up by ‘someone’. He/she speaks in first person singular and justifies his decision to be anonymous. Also he sermonizes why public spaces have to be aesthetically altered through adequate interventions. Besides, at the outset itself he clarifies that art cannot give so much of social messages. Hence, his act remains to be an aesthetical intervention that sets people think in a different direction. To put in other words, these are ‘image poking’. This was what exactly Banksy and so many of his tribe have been doing all over the world for the last few decades, until they get absorbed in the mainstream art market business and strategic systems. I have been using a male pronoun in order to qualify the name of the artist behind Guess Who to continue my writing though I have used a politically correct he/she in the beginning. Even if it may sound prejudiced, I would say, it is done by a He because the anonymity maintained by the artist so far cannot be possible if it was a woman artist. First of all, in the given social context of Kerala today where moral policing is rampant and holding hands or public kissing is abhorred like plague and those who do it are hunted down and are given rough treatment by both the right wing activists and the state Police, a woman artist cannot come out alone in the desolated streets in Kochi and do these elaborate graffiti works all by herself.

 (work by Guess Who- image Deccan Chronicle)

Now, let’s discuss the idea behind Guess Who. In fact, it is very easy to guess. In my observation, there is an advertising agency behind it. Though I have very solid inkling towards this agency, it would legally threaten my social position, if my guess work goes wrong. However, I insist that the Guess Who graffiti, which I would like to say, a copy of Banksy’s aesthetics with nothing new than punning the images and creating over visual overstatements and understatements that come quite naturally to a Malayali creative mind as it is the land that has produced the best of humour writers and cartoonists in India. From Chakyar Koothu to mimicry, from comic films to innumerable comedy programs in uncountable Malayalam television channels, from Bobanum Moliyum (Boban and Moly) to Tintu Mon comics, from youtube links to comedy apps, Kerala is always high on comic inventions and interventions. It could be a genetic modification of the Malayalis to transcend the tragedies of socio-political degeneration and to survive healthily in the given situations. Hence, these graffiti works of Guess Who cannot be discussed for its artistic merit nor can it be included as a part of a great art movement that is about to happen in Kerala. Why, because it is done by a male artist with a team of advertising professionals to back him up not only with ideas but also with sufficient machinery to produce elaborate stencils.

 (work by Guess Who- image Ibtimes)

Guess Who is done by an advertising agency, I repeat. And it thrives on improvisational aesthetics rather than innovative aesthetics. Advertising agencies, generally speaking, work on desire and familiarity in order to communicate an idea and sell a product. The desire quotient of a human being depends on his or her ideas on good, healthy and comfortable living. He needs familiar images in order to believe in what he buys to enhance his life style or living standard. When an advertisement tells you that you are not fair enough, it plays upon a familiar fairness, which could be the complexion of a famous actress who you are familiar with through films and photographs. So you have something familiar to identify with and the advertisement tells you that it is possible to gain that complexion if you really strive for it. And the product is a way to achieve that goal. That is the simple reason why an insurance company or a bank that offers loan uses ‘unidentified models’ to act out a character. The model makes you believe that you too are mortal like him and you too want a home like him, a moderate one. A film star like Shah Rukh Khan or Mohan Lal cannot sell an insurance policy to you because they look too immortal to be dying in an accident or illness. Again, most of the products that enhance your life as a human being in daily situation, are sold through advertisements that play up familial situations like family, office, hospital, street, restaurant etc. Guess Who works on everything familiar and in discourse; hence, I believe, these works are cleverly created by an advertising agency or a persona with an advertisement background.

 (work by Guess Who- image- New Indian Express)

Secondly, these stencils that are used to create the images that are hailed all over the world as the works of Guess Who, cannot be done without having a good team of professionals and equipments behind it. Too much precise and flawless like Banksy’s works, these graffiti works of Guess Who too betray the fact that they are done in a good studio with high quality equipments. A few graphic artists working for a few weeks or months have meticulously worked out on stencils under the strict directions of some advertising professional/professionals. Then a team goes out with them, equipped with spray cans or other painting materials, in vehicles, at least temporarily customized for this purpose, and done precisely during night hours not to keep anonymity of the artist but to have conducive working atmosphere. After execution, right before the beginning of Biennale, the team behind it has done secretly reaching out to the press or even open reaching out to the press saying that they have just found out a series of graffiti in Kochi. Then it spreads like wild fire. Now, those who question me on this should see ‘Exit through a Gift Shop’, a documentary directed by none other than Banksy himself.

(work by Guess Who- image- News Minute)

Finished in 2010, this Banksy film features the life and ‘art’ of Thierry Guetta, a French migrant living in the US. Guetta has this habit of video shooting anything and everything around him. He happens to see his cousin, a graffiti artist in Paris who goes under the name, ‘Space Invader’. Guetta goes around with him, documents the nocturnal activities of the underground and graffiti artists and in due course of time Guetta is introduced to Banksy. Surprised by the enthusiasm of this man, Banksy slowly becomes a friend of Guetta and they become thick friends during a US sojourn of Bansky for his first show titled ‘Barely Legal’. Soon Banksy finds Guetta going haywire so he advices Guetta to start his own graffiti works. Guetta takes it seriously and mortgages his business to start an elaborate studio and establishes himself as ‘Mr.Brainwash’, the graffiti artist. Today, he is one of the globetrotting graffiti artists who sell the works for millions of dollars. I wrote this gist for one particular visual/textual evidence available within the film. In this film, both Banksy and Guetta are seen working in their respective studios. They are plush studios with several assistants working on stencils and final prints. Also I have seen several graffiti artists’ documentaries where they are seen working with assistants. Those underground graffiti artists, who in fact now despise Banksy for compromising with the market, do not have such elaborate arrangements to produce their works and most of them remain obscure or known only amongst the peer group networks. When that is the case, it is very difficult to believe that one underground artist in Kerala decides to become another Banksy and comes with a thud during the Kochi Biennale.

 (work by Guess Who - image- Youthkiawas)

Coming to the issue of anonymity of the artists like Banksy or Guess Who, I would say, it is one of the most interesting make believe thing or illusion that the twenty first century art lovers or art community have decided to willingly stomach without raising a finger. Every year without fail spoof news reports on the arrest of Banksy do the rounds all over the world through viral transmission over internet. On the next day the Metropolitan Police send a disclaimer saying that they are still on the hunt and they are not yet successful. Here we are dealing with a man who has made the world to look at his graffiti, then had a solo show in New York, has a studio in London and perhaps travels all over the world with a passport. He is even seen documented in his studio with his face and voice deliberately blurred. Isn’t it a bit surreal and comic that the British Police of Interpol fail to catch such a con artist? We went into Abottabad to finish Bin Laden, we went into the bunkers of Iraq to catch Saddam Hussein. We know how to hunt down every rebel in the world. But our Police fail to catch one little artist called Banksy. Are you saying something seriously to me? The fact is that Banksy is an integral part of the art industry and keeping his anonymity intact is what makes his art and business successful. The state, its punitive and legal institutions, financial interests, world cultural leaders, museum directors and many others are in this chain of deception. They all work together to keep Banksy under cover. The day Banksy’s identity is revealed, the Banksy myth is lost and the Banksy industry is collapsed. It is just like a game that we used to play in childhood. We decide to pretend that one of our friends does not exist and he is invisible. Now, we make a network amongst our friends and all of them would react to him in the same way. He gets confused. But in the game the boy gets confused and in this Banksy game, he is just a willing participant.

 (work by Guess Who- image- youthkiawas)

Guess Who works on the same game. If we come to know who is Guess Who, the mystery is lost and we will call him a copy cat of Banksy’s aesthetics. The assumed anonymity gives these works and to the artist some kind of dignity and press space. Our spaces are under surveillance. Kochi is not different. Why do our CCTV cameras fail when our home grown Banksy goes out to do his graffiti? Is Kerala Police so stupid that they cannot catch this ‘artist’ who wants to be really anonymous? Now, graffiti according to universal definition of the word is an act of vandalism done on the public property using images or letters, which are objectionable to the dignity of a large public. Banksy’s graffiti started off as intervention which was later dubbed as vandalism by the conservatives. Once it became a part of the art market, graffiti art in general got an elevated status in the public eye. It became a part of the heritage of the city! Guess Who operates on this renewed idea of graffiti. His works in fact enhance the ‘beauty’ of the city and adds to the heritage of the Biennale city, Kochi. Hence it is not an act of vandalism. Since the first edition of Kochi Muziris Biennale in 2012, graffiti art has been treated as a part of the government policy. First of all Kochi Muziris Biennale is supported by the Government of Kerala therefore anything that is sanctioned by the Biennale should also be sanctioned by the state government. Secondly, the state government recently has taken a decision to fund a group of artists in Trivandrum to do ‘graffiti’ art on the major public walls in Trivandrum. In that case, Guess Who’s works are no longer interventionist art. They are works strategically created visual images placed in the public domain in order to grab attention towards the Biennale. That, in fact, is not a bad thing to do. But the hype and hoopla around it....looks a bit contrived.

Now, guess who is behind Guess Who.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

J.Devika, Kiss of Love and the Orgy of Tongues and Saliva

(Kiss of Love protesters in Kerala)

Kissing is not an innocent act; it is a cultural construct. Like the dress code that people follow in different cultures physical acts of intimacy and their permissible limits in the public domain are also culturally constructed and ethically defined. In most of the societies ethical notions derived from folklore, myth and certain religious dictums assume legal authority by virtue of them being there for a long time and followed by many without contesting vigorously. When contested both in the private and public domains such quasi-legal notions fall apart and then those people who uphold such notions take refuge in large scenario of cultural constructs. Added to it are religious teachings that are meant for maintaining a conformist society in place. A kiss exchanged between two consenting adults in a public domain becomes an objectionable thing when it is seen as something that undermines the dictums of a conformist society. Those who object the act of kissing in public primarily seek legal sanction for their opposition and when they fail to find any such support they add religious sentiments to such objections. When religion comes to the fore in issues that involve sexuality and gender, a conformist society takes up the defining principles of the ideological (state) apparatuses like family, church, temple, police, school and so on to support its arguments. That’s why in Kerala, the larger civil society whose norms are defined by the male members of it, raises family values to resist the Kiss of Love protests by human rights activists and intellectuals.

(singer K.J.Yesudas)

Will you allow your mother and sister to kiss or get kissed in public? If police stop sexual relationship between two consenting adults, will you do it in public to protest? Questions like these have been seen on a daily basis in social networking sites that eke out disgust than argumentative response. Most recent one went on like this: AIDS is a communicable disease and the possibility of it getting contracted through saliva is high when it comes to Kiss Protests. For an average Malayali male (generically for an average Indian male) a mass protest where male and female human beings kiss each other could only be seen as an orgy that involves a lot of tongues and saliva. You must remember that peculiar question asked by a male police official to his female counterpart when she demanded trousers and shirts as uniform in the place of intimidating sarees and churidars. The question was: What will you do when you feel like peeing? The female police officer was quick enough to answer to that chauvinistic and sexist question. She said: We will do exactly what you will do when you feel like shitting. This incident happened almost a decade back and the question was posed to a female IPS officer. After a decade, after much public debate the Kerala society is still where it has started. The climax was contained in a comment by the popular singer, K.J.Yesudas who objected girls wearing a pair of jeans. Ironically Yesudas is one of the Indian singers who have sung the maximum number of sexist and male chauvinist songs. What else one could expect from a singer who has sung a song like ‘Thanka Bhasma kuriyitta Thamburatti’ (The lyrics say obliquely: Oh lady, I will interrupt your vows and squeeze your breasts).

 (Mohanlal approaching to kiss Shobhana in Thenmavin Kombathu)

Little did the young couple who had kissed behind a restaurant in Kozhikode know that their act would change the gender discourse in Kerala (and in India too). Little did the hooligans know that their act of vandalism on that restaurant would turn the heat on their ideology. Little did the news channel that telecasted the MMS clipping of the kissing couple know that they were triggering a larger debate. Good that it happened because the butterfly effect of their kiss has now taken Kerala by storm, though the cynicism of the average Malayali males still lampoons this protest down with their sexist comments. Now, let me tell why the average Malayali male sees the kiss of protest as a public orgy of tongues and saliva that would actually harm the ‘protect’ dignity of their mothers, daughters and sisters. (They conveniently forget the fact that the women whom they attack on streets both in the context of protests and otherwise, are also somebody’s mothers, sisters, daughters and wives). They also conveniently forget the fact that women do not seek male agency of redemption anymore. The very act of protecting somebody’s dignity has already been nullified when women take up their own agency and fight it out for themselves.

 (Seriel Kisser of Bollywood, Eemran Hashmi)

As I mentioned before, kissing is a cultural construct. In many societies kissing is not seen as a taboo. A passionate kiss that begins with lips and ends up in sexual union is not considered to be a kiss of love. It is considered to be a kiss of passion. A kiss of love is an act of showing affection, provided both the parties involved in it are comfortable while doing it. A kiss need not necessarily involve lips or tongues or saliva. It could be a flying kiss and even one could kiss with eye lids and eye lashes. Kiss also need not necessarily connote sexual foreplay. Kiss could be an innocent act. It is so in many other societies. But unfortunately in Indian societies that include the Kerala society too, kiss is an act of violation and subjugation. A strong kiss is as good as a tight slap. That’s how the films (the most influential public medium of modern times) have taught us. An uncompromising heroine is subjugated by a violent kiss on her lips. The kisser could be the hero or villain; irrespective of their roles, they are males and their aim is to subjugate the woman. When hero kisses forcefully it becomes a sort of conquering for good and when the villain does it, it is an act of violence that eventually seeks justice through the male agency. Those people who have seen ‘Thenmavin Kombathu’, a Malayalam movie by Priyadarshan, know the effect of kiss. Muddu Gavu is the catch word; the hero does not know the meaning of it. Finally he finds out and he takes his revenge on the heroine by acting it out forcefully on her. An average Malayali male who is born and brought up in the culture of Muddu Gavu (or similar things that have been happening for ages) cannot think about a normal kiss of love and affection. For him, it is always hidden by the sudden introduction of a flower. Otherwise, one has to be a shameless kisser like Fahad Fasil or Emran Hashmi; both could be avoided by calling them new gen actors. We have larger than life figures in Amitabh Bacchan, Rajnikant, Mammooty and Shah Rukh Khan who flaunt their aversion to on screen kissing like Oscar trophies.

 (Mammootty leading his sisters, poster of the movie, Hitler)

An average Malayali male is not a Prem Nazir. He is a Mammootty. He is a Valyettan (Big Brother), Udyana Palakan (Gardener) or Hitler (that does not need translation in any language). He is like a proverbial dog. Thinnukayumilla Theettikkukayumilla (A dog in the haystack. He does not eat hay nor does it allow the cow to eat it). He has become a Mammootty because he is born in a culture that subjugates women through kissing; the violent and passionate kissing. If that is not possible, he like the mythical Hanuman abstains from it. Hindustan Latex, the biggest condom producers in India has its head quarters in Trivandrum. If they would introduce lip condoms, I believe, Malayali males will proudly consume it. That would be one product that does not need any export for business success. The average Malayali male has taken kiss of protest wrongly. For him it is a public orgy because he expects to be witness/voyeur than a participant in the protest. He expects an orgy in these protests. When he fails to see it, he becomes aggressive. It is the Freudian repressed sexual fear and anxieties that come to play in the public domain when he attacks the protesters with lathis and clubs. Somehow, in Kerala, the kiss of love has become a gendered protest. Women have to lead the protest because men are Mammootties. Malayali men do not dance and they do not allow their women to dance too. Chitra checchi is good but Rimi Tomi, Ranjini Haridas and Praseetha are ‘pokku cases’ (gone cases).


I have been using the phrase, ‘average Malayali male’. I am sure, my friend Dr.J.Devika will be critical of that term. From her experience as a leading protestor in the kiss of love agitation, she has made it clear that there is no average Malayali male. Every Malayali male is average in his thinking, including the so called intellectuals and leaders. Devika has said that ‘May be fighting moral policing is optional for you. But for us women, it is life and death.’ For the male intellectuals in Kerala, joining the kiss of love protest is an optional thing. They are not different than the so called average Malayali male. Devika has written from the Kerala International Film Festival venue where she and likeminded women had led the kiss of love protest. But I want to assure Devika that the intellectual Malayali male who hops festival venues by night becomes a chauvinist and prefers ‘kambi padam’ (porn films) to Kim Kiduk and Abbas Kirostami. They are not going to change. But we are with you dear friend, Devika.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thiruvannamalai Journey Continues: Full Moon Day and Spiritual Business

(man impersonating Gandhi statue in Thiruvannamalai- Pic by Shibu Natesan)

If you see a lake in the middle of a forest, it feels like a fairy tale. If you see it at the foot of a mountain, then it becomes sublime, famous Nigerian novelist Ben Okri says in his latest novel ‘The Age of Magic’. At the foot of Thiruvannamalai, along the Girivalam route, on full moon days a river is formed, a river of people. It trickles down from remote villages in Tamil Nadu and neighbouring states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh and forms a huge river of people on the Girivalam road. This river of people flows northwards and comes down to south where the Annamalai Temple is located. On its shores, along the way another set of humanity, comes parking with its wares. They are the wayside vendors hailing from distant areas, coming there to sell different kinds of merchandise, from household items to souvenirs, from calendars depicting gods and amulets that ward off evils. Tender coconut sellers and sugar cane juice sellers come with their trolleys and equipments, tea and refreshments stalls prop up and the whole place gets a festive look. People who come by buses, trucks, auto rickshaws, cycles and all the possible wheeled vehicles buy things from these vendors; and for them the Girivalam route becomes an elongated and laid bare super market of exotic things. On Karthika Poornima day, the full moon day on the month of Karthika, which falls in the first week of December, this river floods.

To our surprise, Shibu Natesan and myself realize that we are there on a full moon day. As our visit is not planned according to holy days, it comes as a bonus. We suddenly see people, events and things that we would not have witnessed had our visit been on another day. We decide to go for a walk by ten o clock in the morning itself as we know that by afternoon the rush will increase and there will not be any space even to walk. In the early morning itself the streets are filled with people. Villagers walk with determined faces as they brave the asphalt with their bare feet. We flow along with them, merging our egos into this river of humanity. The flood gates are opened slowly and as we pass a nearby ground where buses that bring people from villages park in innumerable numbers, we see men and women urinating in public. Feminists, I think, should learn a lesson from these village women. They stand side by side with men and urinate, standing! With studied movements they do it without shame. None ogles at them, except us, the visitors, with no anthropological interest but with suppressed perversion trying to climb the wall of affected decency.

 (A chariot in Thiruvannamali. pic by Shibu Natesan)

As we take the right tune that hits the main path of Girivalam, we come across a series of ‘kili jyotsyans’, people who tell your future and past, if possible present (which is a difficult thing for most of them) with the help of a caged parrot. The birds are well trained, as we believe as we have seen them in our childhood days in our village, and they pick up some cards with a god’s picture on it. The jyotsyan, the fortune teller, then would tell your future looking at the picture of the god. This god is going to determine your future. You listen to their soothsaying and push a paltry sum into this fortune teller’s hand and move on, satisfied or worried, depending on what you have just heard. Most of them are doing brisk business as spirituality does not satisfy the village visitors’ ultimate curiosity for natural redemption. They want to know what lies in future for them. Soothsayers tell them what they want to hear and both the parties are satisfied. Soon I realize one thing; the birds are not ceremoniously brought out of the cages when the patrons come and squat before them. Soothsayers ask the patrons to pick up the card. You, well bloody become your own destiny, leave my bird alone, they seem to say. You pick up your card and listen what you want to listen. The birds are now props in the stage of a mysterious drama called human life. They sit inside the cages, not dreaming the vast sky up there, but the next green or red chilly that would come inside the cage through the thin bars. They have become accustomed to the ritual of being passive agents of human destiny. They are not just interested. But they pretend to be busy and serious, just like the extras in a party scene in a Bollywood movie. They are given a role and they are supposed to act it out, often out of focus.

We pass the fortune tellers and innumerable ripples of saffron clad mendicants. Unfamiliar and strange looking mendicants manifest from nowhere and they look like river fossils washed ashore by a full tide of this human river. With their primitive eyes they command the pilgrims to drop coins into their begging bowls. This is a sort of silent extraction of human piety. People come with bag full of coins to drop into these begging bowls. Some mendicants speak in local languages, some speak in Hindi or English, some are philosophical, some are abusively mundane and yet another lot communicate with you in absolute silence. Their silent stare would haunt you for a long time. Where are they coming from, both of us wonder as we walk on. They are not seen here in the next morning and they were not here a day before. They happen from nowhere and disappear into nowhere. There are some mendicants who command a better price in the spiritual way side as they look good and are charismatic. Less charismatic beggars and mendicants gravitate around these better ones and share the piety that is eked out by the leading ones. The advantage of being around them is that there is always left over in the world, they know. Some strategically position near book stalls and food stalls so that the changes would automatically go into their bowls. Location is important for any business. In begging too you need to be positioned strategically. For spiritual begging, you need to strategize your spiritual positioning in the material world. Beggars know it, perhaps better than the corporate guys.

(Pilgrims on a full moon day at Thiruvannamalai- Pic by Shibu Natesan)

While the river of humanity flows around the grand hill of Arunachala, the side shows meant for their entertainment have too many varieties. Some people just dress up as somebody else; the bahuroopis. They are the professional fancy dressers; they could stand still like a statue for a long time. Professional fancy dressers have their whole family with them to give support, right from make up to providing food and water. Street is a make shift home and theatre for them. If a god appears before you all of a sudden, you need not feel frightened or elated. It is just another man who is trying to make it when the human river flows. Perhaps, this rural agricultural worker comes and asks for alms you may reject him and you would even shoo him away. But when he comes as Lord Rama or his sidekick, Hanuman with a tail for children’s amusement, then you may give a few currency notes to him. In India, like elsewhere in the world, religion is a comfort as well as a veiled threat. At the other side of the street, we see a completely decked up cow and people thronging around it. The decked up cow does not look like a Kamadhenu or Pegasus. It looks like an ordinary cow painted with turmeric powder and sindoor. If it is brought into a gallery space, it could be passed off as a live performance by a cow artist, I mean an artist uses cow or bull as a dominant image. We walk up to it and see what is special about this cow. Soon we see the distinction. This cow has got five legs, apart from the four regular ones, there is one coming out of its hunch on the back. This boneless piece of leg hangs out from its like a hopeless memory of all deformity in the world. But the owner, a woman dressed up in a similar sari, vermillion and kumkum, and amply decked her face up in the same pattern collects quite a lot.

It drizzles a bit. We feel a cool breeze touching our faces and we feel good. But people are not feeling good. They are here to do a day’s business; if it rains...Crores of rupees will be lost. Along the sixteen odd kilometres around the Arunachala Hills this market for a day is going to get affected by an uncalled for rain. As the rain clouds gather in the sky the faces of people too go dark. South Indian people are dark skinned. They become darker than black when they feel bad. Fair complexioned Indian people rarely go for this pilgrimage. Their pilgrimage ends at Ramana Ashram and its vicinities. They opt to do the Girivalam on week days, obviously not on this day, when the villagers infest the roads like maggots. But the foreigners walk, they want to know. Once they know, they too retreat. But human beings are such creatures of faith; they challenge their fate. When you know that it is going to rain and ruin your business, they become more aggressive in their demeanour. They challenge god with hope. They hope against hope. We too pray for a sunny day because seeing the plight of these people, who have even brought a full harvest of a mango orchard on the roadside, we believe that the gods must not be crazy.

 (the singing mendicant at Thiruvannamalai- pic by Shibu Natesan)

Beneath a tree, under the canopy of a big sheet of discarded flex board, we see a man painting his body with metallic silver paint. We go near to him. He has almost finished his body smeared with metallic paint. A few patches are left on his back showing his dark brown dry skin. His emaciated wife, whose age cannot be determined (poverty is another leveller like death as it levels the ages of people beyond recognition) by her looks, helps him paint those left out patches. We stand aside and look at him curiously. He is not offended; he is here to be looked at, an object of gaze, someone who has overcome this aspect of male or female gaze. He is here to take gaze and return nothing. He looks familiar. Do we know him? We look at his accessories. There is a pair of round rimmed spectacles, a long stick and a pocket watch hanging from his waist. Oh, here is the father of our nation, Mahatma Gandhi. This man is enacting Mahatma Gandhi, not the live version but a statue in his famous Dandi walk posture. He could stand for hours, still, they say. He looks absolutely tired. His daughter who could even become his grand daughter ogles at us from within the flex canopy. What is there in her eyes? I see fear in her eyes, it turns into disgust, it then turns into hatred, then to horror and to rebellion, and then to reconciliation with poverty. I feel her eyes like a screen saver set in ten seconds. It changes and brings in all the beauty of the world to sooth our eyes. But the screen saver of her eyes I see her life saver, emotions and resigning.

Gandhiji is not able to move. He makes each move painstakingly. He seems to have lost his interest even in life. The metallic paint that has been smeared on his body since god alone knows for how many years now, is not helping him to breathe at all. The discomfort is palpable. He cannot drink enough water; if so he may need to urinate and a statue, that too of Mahatma Gandhi cannot urinate. He has to go without food and water. Gandhiji was fond of it for getting his ideals in practice. But here is a man who does it for food and water, what an irony! Shibu wants to click some pictures. He too is in an awkward state. He is not a photo journalist looking for the right moment. He is an artist looking for the right moment of life. But here there is a life coated in metallic paint, heavy in breathing trying to get up and to stand like a statue. Our eyes fall on the girl with screen saver in her eyes. If her eyes give us consent he would click his picture. She looks at us in fear. Finally she surrenders to the desire for money. She is here to get money through her father’s act. Her eyes relax. Shibu takes out a couple of currency notes and start clicking the pictures, but without hurting the man’s privacy in the middle of this human river. He is alone, utterly alone. He is marooned in a metallic island. I go and give him the notes and we walk off, our memories dipped in metallic paint.

(the Gandhi impersonator. Pic by Shibu Natesan)

“What are you taking and where are you going? When death calls, you call His name?” in rustic Tamil accent he sings with a pair of small symbols to accompany his rhythm. He wears a saffron head gear. His eyes glint in the fire of spiritual ecstasy. His body resembling granite block moves forward and backward as he sings. His voice rises into the heavens, shaming the high pitches that a professionally trained classical singer. The inflexions and tonal variations of his song and voice reverberate in the sky. Like us, people too stand there in absolute awe. I sharpen my ears and try to catch the meaning of his songs. The philosophical depth of his song and voice actually escape my poor linguistic skills in Tamil. But when a voice could take you to a different plane of being, why you need to seek for meaning of words? In his song, words disappear and meaning of life only manifests there. We stand there awestruck. We are not able to move. He finishes one song and moves on to another. The rhythm is not catchy as the first one. But he does not mind it. He is involved in his singing and the meaning that he alone knows. Meaning, as far as he is concerned, it seems, evolves as he sings on. People reverently put money into the bowl before him. Other mendicants who have positioned themselves around him look at him with equal reverence. Once in a while, another mendicant tries to croon a bhajan and fails miserable. Another blows a conch shell. Yet another one says, Om, repeatedly, all failing to attract the devotion of the pilgrims. But they too do not feel bad. They soak themselves in the ambience and try to do whatever they could. We move on. A small snake struggles to cross the road. People give it way to cross. None panic. We stand there and watch the snake struggling. It wants to go straight but its body dynamics takes it sideways. We look at it with amusement till it crosses the road and disappears into small crack at the foot path.

We walk further. We see business thriving. We reach a stall where amulets are sold by educated spiritual activists. We buy a few. One of them helps us to wear it on our wrists. As Shibu embarks on his collecting souvenirs from that shop I just decide to move around and what else is happening there. Four people, two men and two women hold a blanket open and another one smeared all over with bibhuti (holy ash) stands there and shouts: One rupee for our Shiva temple. I look around and see a flex board temporarily fitted there. It says that somewhere in a village a Shiva temple is being built. On the flex board there is a floor plan and elevation of the temple is clearly printed. It is going to be a grand one. People throw one rupee coins, two rupee coins, five rupee coins, ten rupee notes, twenty rupee notes, fifty rupee notes and occasionally someone puts a hundred rupee notes. Right in front of my eyes, the blanket fills up and the weight of the coins is too much the men and women cannot hold the blanket any more. They transfer the coins and notes into a container kept next to them and then again open it before the people. The blanket fills up again, instantly. They empty it again into the container. As the man’s wailing voice for Lord Shiva weakens, an assistant takes it up. The coins rain again. Crowd sourcing or crowd funding, I tell myself. But it is a successful model.

(Song of life- Pic by Shibu Natesan)

We walk on. We see too many things. Wounded and diseased beggars are strategically removed from there. It is a dignified begging zone. On a full moon day, love and money could flow and glow, like madness but no disease and pestilence. It is a sanitized zone of spirituality. As we walk on we see different sizes and shapes of spirituality manifested in material forms. There is an Ashram of Jaggi Sadguru, there is a Sai Mandir, all newly built in marble. But people seem to have no interest in those temples. They look abandoned compared to the rusty old temples along the road. When in pilgrimage, one looks for the tried and tested, not the organized and upcoming models. But sooner than later, I tell Shibu, that these places also would start attracting people through the fireworks of spiritualism. Long haired and beard youngsters and serene looking girls sit at many a stalls that sell spiritual discourse of hitherto unheard of spiritual gurus and swamis. Even if Jiddu Krishnamurthy or UG Krishnamoorthy walk by this way, people will not recognize them because there are more impressive swamis out there in the market. I was losing faith.

And it rained heavily by evening. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Vagina is Out, Breasts are In: I-Object of Megha Joshi

(Poster of Megha Joshi's I: Object solo)

Vagina is out and breasts are in. Judy Chicago’s 1979 work, the Dinner Party had brought in explicit vagina images on plates laid out on a triangular table with the names of highly accomplished women embroidered and etched on them. Megha Joshi, a Gurgaon based artist, creates a body of works based on the image of breasts done in various mediums including ceramics, fibreglass, rubber, prosthetic nipples, digital images of her own self and even a pair of punch bags. This coming of age show, as far as Megha Joshi is concerned, is titled ‘I: Object’ and is currently on view at the Art Konsult Gallery in New Delhi. In a world where a woman receives hundred cat calls in ten hours in public places, Megha Joshi’s ‘breasting’ through is a courageous event in itself. She actively questions the male dominated world’s view of breasts as sexualized objects and when she calls the show, ‘I: Object’, it gets multiple meanings; on the one hand the title explains why ‘I’, the self of a woman is always objectified and on the other hand, it is an emphatic protest, ‘I OBJECT’ you making me a sexual/ized object. Woven completely into the discourse of feminism, this set of works done by Megha, more than mooring itself on feministic arguments, draws its force from the dejection and objection that the artist as a human being feels in the contemporary society where she lives.

(Torso QED by Megha Joshi)

Once upon a time, as mythologies say it, Indra, the king of gods, ogled at a saintly woman with lustful eyes. Cursed by her sagacious husband, Gautama, Indra grew thousand eyes/vaginas all over his body and he had to go in hiding till he was relieved of this gaping burden. Men consider vagina as a curse, but he wants to see the woman only as a vagina. While Indra felt that it was a shame, women do not feel so though the objectification of their physical self as a vagina is always resisted, protested and even contested. In public domain, breasts are seen as an extension of female genitals and in I: Object, Megha Joshi lampoons such a deranged perspective of the male world by overplaying the mammary images in various mediums. Covered in mild sarcasm, Megha Joshi dispassionately displays the violence involved in the breast fetish of men by making permutations and combinations of breasts and nipple images in all the possible shapes and images. ‘Nipple’ becomes the marker here in these works as the moment a prosthetic nipple appears on to any surface, in the male eyes it turns out to be a surrogate breast.

(Droop by Megha Joshi)

Megha Joshi’s tryst with breast forms started when she was literally devastated by the news of Nirbhaya’s rape in December, 2012. In a show titled ‘R.A.P.E’ (Rare Acts of Political Engagement) curated by me in Art Konsult in 2013, Megha for the first time presented a pair of rubber horns used in old buses and trucks, fitted with prosthetic nipples. The bulbous form that resembled a pair of breasts had generated a lot of discussion in the art scene at that time. By picking the line of thought that she had employed in creating that work, she has walked further to problematize gender issues in stark visual terms. Reminding one of Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, Megha too presents ceramic plates with breast forms embellished by peacock feather images, followed by a series of ceramic forms with ‘nipples’ further beautified by sequins and embroideries. Absolute take away forms, these works could challenge the aesthetically drawn ‘breasts and vaginas’ commonly seen in the modern and contemporary art. In dried gourd shells, when Megha pasts the prosthetic nipples they transform into sagging breasts, literally shaming a male onlooker, in the meanwhile rousing the curiously of a female onlooker. In a series of digital photographs and prints on canvases, Megha proves that fitted anywhere on the body including the open palms and elbows, nipple forms could turn that area into sexually potent breasts. In these works, Megha in a performative act, opens her own body up for public viewing, at the same time cleverly avoids all the traps of generic titillation possible in such kind of works.

(Megha Joshi with Roots and Wings)

In a series of fibre glass sculptures, Megha evokes classical Greek sculpture references from art history. Taking a leaf from the Victory of Samothrace, she detaches the wings from the main body of the forward marching goddess Nike (2nd c BC) and places them on a breasted root base. The artist seems to say that women want to fly like a goddess but her roots are too deep in tradition, she cannot but remain steady in one place flapping her ineffectual wings. Another classical Greek female torso is cannibalized by Megha through the act of artistic irreverence as she plucks out the nipples from her breasts and places them on her buttocks. The reversal of nipple positions evokes the sad but sharp truth of men gazing at women and turning them as mere sexual objects, as seen in the illustrious work of Barbara Kruger (Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face). One of the most interesting works is a beautiful conversion of a pair of speed bags/balls used in boxing practice. By pasting a pair of nipples on these speed bags, they suddenly turn into a pair of breasts, open to be punched by the curious onlookers. There is a pair of boxing gloves ready on the table.

 (Sensor/Censor I, II, III, IV by Megha Joshi)

While looking at the works of Megha Joshi, one gets the feeling that she has more to articulate through these breasts images/forms. She wants to use more images, more mediums and more surfaces; a sense of overwhelming that an artist gets when the issue she deals with becomes overwhelming that the artistic outcome itself. Without titillating, the show holds our attention. Unlike other contemporary women artists who get into blood and gore, anatomy and veins, Megha has done a clean job and put her point across the society. May be, some may say they are too prosaic and loud, but to me these works announces the arrival of an artist who could speak about her body and its constant conversion into a sex object in the public domain. Megha’s works belong to protest art and it has to be a bit loud to be heard. But protest art could be beautiful too and Megha’s works are beautiful. They look at you with their nipples/eyes/I-s. And you freeze. Megha holds a mirror at a man’s eyes, quite unexpectedly and the reflection shames him. Megha has arrived with a what next. That I leave to the artist to decide. 

Friday, November 28, 2014

Thiruvannamalai Journey Continues: Mookkappodi Swami, an Unlikely Saint

(Mookkappodi Swami)

Sitting at the granite steps of Ramana Ashram, Shibu Natesan and myself watch a small commotion out there in the courtyard where the mendicants queue up for getting food served by the Ashram kitchen and distributed by the enthusiastic devotees of both Indian and foreign origin. They consider it as social service, a sort of surrendering their ego before the homeless and destitute who come to Thiruvannamalai in search of solace. While serving foods into the humble begging bowls that these mendicants carry in their hands, the volunteers see the face of Ramana Maharshi reflected on their serene and egoless faces. None elbows his way up here for food as that is a common Indian tendency while queuing up for anything. Food distribution has not started yet and the mendicants stand patiently there. They seem to have moved by the scenes of chaos unravelling in front of them right there in the courtyard. We see a small crowd gathering up there around an auto rickshaw. People crane their necks to see what is going on inside the rickshaw. Led by curious the incoming devotees go near it and stand there. Some fish out their mobile phones or cameras and start clicking pictures. Women and men stand around the vehicle with folded hands showing reverence. It looks like a mobile shrine has come to halt amidst them.

Curiosity is a prime mover of human beings. Motivated by this irresistible emotion people do things that otherwise they are not expected to do. Right from peeping into a half opened door to kicking on crumbled piece of paper or clothe to know what lies beneath it, from climbing up walls to standing on toes to get a better view of things happening within a crowd, and from ogling at the computer or mobile phone screen of others to checking out facebook profiles of unknown people, curiosity leads people to unknown arenas from where at times there is no return. Curiosity could change the course of life for better or worse. It could send people into ecstasy or into madness. Curiosity could kill the beauty of something or someone and even at times it could enhance the feel about a person or thing, provided how one approaches the same thing once the curiosity is tested, experienced and satisfied. We too get up from the ledge of the building and walk towards the auto rickshaw. We are curious to know what is going on there. Shibu takes his camera out of his bag and looks for chink in the thick wall of the crowd so that he could see inside the vehicle and the object of curiosity and contained in it. I follow him and I too move around the crowd for a better view of the ‘thing’ inside.

 (Ramana Ashram Shrine- JJ Jayaraman)

Inside the rickshaw we see a shrunken old man in his mid sixties. A diminutive figure with thinning curly hair and a rough beard could pass for another mendicant beggar had he not been sitting in that vehicle and attracting devotees around him. He does not wear a shirt. He sits straight and looks straight outside through the windscreen of the vehicle. His eyes are like that of a rat caught inside a trap. Though there is no fear in his eyes, there is some spark that reminds me of a rat’s eyes. His small lips are held tight as in an attempt to control or a contemptuous smile or an unbearable rage. People go near the auto and move back as they are warned by the locals. A woman stands to the vehicle as close as possible with folded palms, her lips quivering with some chanting. A man wearing khaki shirt and a black lungi stands in front of the auto. If the vehicle is a moving shrine then obviously he looks like the anointed priest of this mobile sanctum. Some locals speak to him in Tamil to which he responds reluctantly. I understand that he is the charioteer as far as the divinity sitting inside the vehicle is concerned. Some people come, show reverence and retreat. Another set of people just pass by without giving much attention to the theatre in progress there. They seem to know the content of the drama; smiles on their lips show it.

The man’s loin clothes look dirty. I feel nauseous as I look at it. He has a few clothes rolled up around his waist and it reminds me of a man who has been undergoing dialysis and carrying his urinary bags around his waist. It looks abominable. Going closer to the rickshaw and yet keeping a safe distance from the ‘divine’ force sitting royally inside it, I check out the contents kept at the seat; a few packets of Britannia biscuit, a bottle of water, a bundle of dirty clothes and some shapeless forms made of so many unknown things. The man looks straight and occasionally turns his neck slightly to left or right. Like a matador moves strategically from a charging bull, the devotees move backward with a gasp and comeback again once the man keeps his head straight. Daring ones including the woman who is in a spiritual ecstasy stand there and wait for some inevitable to happen. What do these people wait to happen, I ask myself while Shibu continues taking pictures. The man’s dirty clothes are almost soiled and I could not find a divine feel about him. However, if these many people are standing around him and waiting for something to happen, then he must be somebody with some capacity. But what is that?


The journalist in me wakes up suddenly. I keep my spiritual quest aside and decide to interview a few local people stand around the vehicle. Who is this person, I ask one of the people who seems to be too local to be a visiting devotee. ‘Mookkappodi Swami’, he says. The Snuff powder swami. He has got his name as he lives on ‘snuff powder’. Mookkappodi is the Tamil word for snuff powder. I turn my head and look at the man who has been sitting still for a long time there in the rickshaw. His nose, as I notice, is filled with a black powder and the dirt that I see around his loin clothes is from there. He wipes his nose and smears it on the clothes. He is an unpredictable character with a lot of supernatural powers, says the reverent devotee of this particular swami. He says a few things about the swami and his spiritual powers. He cannot claim himself to be a Siddha, yogis with supernatural powers and could take the form of any organic being. After interviewing a people on the topic of this interesting swami, I come to feel that when it comes to his reputation there is a divided house. Some people take him too seriously and some take him as simple nuisance. Some people worship him and some others just hate him. The uneducated amongst the devotees believe that he has powers to change the course of others’ lives. The educated section feels that he is just another swami.

Legends say that if you get beaten up or slapped by Mookkappodi swami lady luck will smile on you. That explains why people try to stand near to his vehicle but be cautious about their positions. The woman who has been standing there as close as possible is trying to get beaten up by this swami, one of the interviewees tells me. If she is beaten up, he desires will be satisfied; it could be marrying off her daughter or getting some wealth by default. It could be alleviation from poverty or redemption from illness. The basic idea of getting beaten up by the swami is to become rich; that means accumulating wealth. I see the irony there; you take spiritual help to become materialistically rich. Spiritualism here is another currency, though that was not Ramana Maharshi wanted in his ashram premises. Mookkappodi swami not materialistic. He lives on snuff. He moves around in this auto rickshaw permanently hired for the purpose, visits temples and independent homes, take his bhiksha and retires to some wilderness. People say that he is more than hundred years old. We do not see any trace of hundred years in his body or face. Nobody knows where he spends his nights and days. This mystery is what helps him to be popular amongst the people. He appears from nowhere and disappears into nowhere. In between there are many stories good, bad and ugly.

Mookkappodi swami is eccentric in his nature. Spiritual beings are eccentric. But in an organization methodical madness works not the complete no bars hold type of madness. Mookkappodi swami’s eccentricity has brought him some amount of disgrace too, especially within the Ramana Ashram premises. Seeing this mendicant and the respect so many people have for him, Ramana Ashram authorities had allowed him to visit the dining hall of the ashram and have food during the lunch and dinner time. Mookkappodi swami used to enjoy these meals. But he is a spiritual being with some amount of eccentricity, which turned out to be a curse for his own well being. While visiting the ashram dining hall, this swami started playing some pranks a few years ago. He used to go inside the kitchen where food for hundreds of people was cooked. Driven by his divine madness, Mookkappodi swami once threw a packet full of salt into a cauldron where the food was getting prepared. The whole food was spoilt. If it was in a secular situation, people would have knocked this swami’s spirituality out of his shell. But within the ashram premises violence is not allowed. On that day Mookkappodi swami was ousted from the ashram dining hall very cleverly by the ashram authorities. 

(Ramana Shrine)

This ouster was conducted in a very interesting fashion, says one of the ashram authorities. Knowing the spiritual powers of Mookkappodi swami, the kitchen workers in the ashram used to give him a lot of respect. The moment this swami entered the dining hall or kitchen they all used to stop their work and stand in reverence. This was an encouragement for the swami and he enjoyed the reverence shown by the ashram workers. Once the salt incident took place, the ashram authorities gave clear instructions to the cooks and workers in the kitchen. Even if the swami came again, none should show any reverence by dropping everything down and standing in supplication. Mookkappodi swami came again in all his mischievousness and playfulness. But lo, none was giving any damn to him. People pretended minding their business. This was a shocker for the Swami. He tried to make his presence felt in various ways but nothing was working as the instructions were strong and for the workers it was not a spiritual thing but a deed that got them their livelihood. A few days that followed Mookkappodi swami came and none showed any sign of respect. Even at his spiritual heights, the swami realised that things were not working for him the way it used to be. He stopped visiting the kitchen and dining of the Ashram. Now he makes occasional visits to the ashram premises during the lunch distribution time, sits in his auto rickshaw, receives his food and goes back to his secret life of a yogi.

As we walk back to our temporary abode in Thiruvannamalai, Shibu speaks of such mendicants and yogis whose lives have been so interesting, at times bordering comedy. Paul Brunton who has extensively written on Indian yogis and spiritual gurus, besides writing about Ramana Maharshi and introducing him to the western world, has also written about such eccentric yogis in his book titled, A Search in Secret India. We find that day in Thiruvannamalai extremely satisfying. We go back to our swing cot for siesta, carrying the comic legend of Mookkappodi swami in our minds.