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.  

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living: Moumita Das and Avijit Paul- RIP

(Moumita Das)

Never before I have found this title so meaningful: ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’. This is what Damien Hirst called his pickled shark that had once scandalized the art world by its sheer spectacular nature and the artistic arrogance behind it. Decoding this title has always been difficult for me. It is quite Lacanian in that sense. When the horrifying and saddening news of a young artist-couple’s death came to me through a Facebook update, I sat up in shock and shivered. Moumita Das and Avijit Paul, a Delhi based artist couple in their mid twenties, are no longer alive. They were holidaying in Hills; a cabbie and his friends robbed them and threw them off a cliff to their death. Hundred feet down they went. Were they holding hands still? I wish they were. In death too let us be not parted.

Death is a physical impossibility in the mind of someone living. Did Moumita and Avijit know about their impending death? Impossible. We, live on here, despite all those reminders of death, all those still lives and memento mori-s refuse to acknowledge it. Death is something that happens always to others. Death is an accident not an eventuality, though it is. Accidents are for others until we are crushed by one. We postpone our deaths by simply believing that it visits only in others’ homes. Within the safety of our contours, death is a physical impossibility, as Hirst puts it, though it is a spiritual possibility at every passing moment. Moumita Das and Avijit Paul also might have lived in the notion of physical impossibility of death. And life, like many others who seek solace in hills and mountains, for them too was a trip to the unknown where death again is impossible.

 (Avijit Paul)

A nation will not mourn Moumita Das’ and Avijit Paul’s death. Schools will not be closed and none will stand in silence for a moment. They were not achievers; they were just dreamers. I believe they were dreamers not because they went to the hills to meet their violent death but because they were artists. Before they could prove their worth they were nipped in bud by brutal force of greedy men who could kill for nothing. What would have they got from the bags of this young couple? A couple of ATM cards, some cash, some gold? Do they worth two lives? When dreamers are thrown off from the cliffs, their dreams shoot up from the depths and roost in the minds of creative people without their knowledge. Then they dwell there and hatch more dreams in the minds of the artists. Wayside graveyards fill in reverence in us because we suddenly remember that their death too has contributed to our lives. When an artist dies, another artist is born.

There is no superstition in it. When dreamers die, especially when they are non-achievers or under achievers, the world does not even blink once. But somewhere a leaf falls, a dog barks, a thought snaps and a stone moves a micro inch. We do not see it because we live in the notion of the physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living. Moumita Das and Avijit Paul were in the prime of their youth and their achievement was their freedom to be together and travel together to the hills. It would have been a non-event had there been no deaths. But today, this couple has become an event in their death, though it is not mourned widely. When dreamers die, many others living say that you are not the only one. But they too do not prefer a death by being pushed off from the cliffs to hell.

 (The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living by Damien Hirst)

Moumita Das and Avijit Paul were not my friends; not even on facebook. They worked in the NIV Studios at Neb Sarai. I too lived in the same vicinity for three months. I have faint memories of seeing them at some film screenings at the NIV Art Centre. I never had any interactions with them and I do not know how their works look like. However, they belonged to this tribe of us; a tribe called artists. When someone departs from this tribe, I realize that it is pushed towards extinction. Art has become less of creating art but more of managing creativity. I do not know whether these couple too wanted to ‘manage’ their creativity. They are now dead and gone, leaving a little for art but a lot of memories in the minds of their families and friends. They will be remembered, by us while we reassert such eventualities would never happen to us. Friends ask for justice. But that is a settled conclusion. Culprits will be caught as they are petty thieves. They will be punished or banished from mainstream lives. But we will live on in the notion of the impossibility of death in the mind of someone living. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

God’s Own Office: A Success Story

At the attic office of the famous book seller, Bahrisons, Khan Market, New Delhi, I see a man in his mid forties, wearing a black linen jacket speaking to the owner of the bookstall, who while declining an invitation for an evening drink with the man in black, saying that he has just come from Mumbai after an important and hectic meeting. I have heard it right because Mr.Bahri has been talking to the man in black linen jacket about young people who are not corrupted by too much of knowledge becoming quick learners in any profession. The man in black in obviously impressed by the way Mr.Bahri said it. It is then he extended this invitation to Mr.Bahri for a drink, because he apparently has found the scope of a book ‘in there’. I presume that the man in black is an author. Crisp and sharp in his talk, yet polite and humble in demeanour that comes naturally to people who are really successful, the man in black linen coat evokes a sort of familiarity in me though I see his profile of his face lined by a size one French beard. Mr.Bahri tells him like a British uncle coming from hunting would tell a young suitor, “Well, your linen jacket is nice.” The man in black linen jacket beams with happiness and he says that he has written about it in his ‘book’. I have been silent for quite some time, eavesdropping in their conversation and now it is time for me to pitch in with a question. I ask the man whether he is by any chance Mr.James Joseph, who has written about jackfruits. He says yes with a face where both pride and humility fights for supremacy. I introduce myself and the Malayali connection is too obvious to ignore. James Joseph signs his book, ‘God’s Own Office’ for me and he hands me over his visiting card. It is the first book which I have got signed by an author in a bookstall.
I had written about airport bookshops that thrust certain precious books into our hands without asking. A week ago, I had seen ‘God’s Own Office’ in a bookstall at Hyderabad airport. The title obviously rang in two titles or catch phrases; God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy and Kerala Tourism’s tagline, ‘God’s own country.’ I knew for sure that ‘God’s own Office’ was about Kerala and the name of the author sounded a bit unfamiliar. I picked up the book, read the blurb and felt good about it. Somehow I was not too interested to read the book as I had read too many success stories. But the jackfruit angle attracted me and I did my mental bookmarking. I literally weighed two books in my hands; Ruskin Bond’s ‘Love among the Bookshelves’ and James Joseph’s ‘God’s own Office.’  I did know why I chose Bond finally. I chose Ruskin Bond because it had some beautiful reminiscences about the author’s foray into the ‘act’ of reading. I find it always fascinating how famous writers select their reading materials. Unlike the Facebook links that show off ‘ten books that you must read’ or ‘ten books the famous people have read’ or ‘suggest ten books of your liking’, such innocent remembrance of books that are closer to a successful and widely read author’s heart is always a welcoming change. I could finish that book within two hours of flight to Delhi though I did not crave to read more Ruskin Bond after that. James Joseph was in my mind and as providence wished so, when I hit the Bahri books stall in Delhi, the author was already there, as if waiting for me to come in.’

(James Joseph)

‘God’s own Office’ is a successful corporate leader’s guidebook or manual to the ones who are interested to become a global business leader. However, it is a few notches higher than a feel good book or a self help book or even those books come to adore book shelves only because they mix up Zen and (Amartya) Sen (spirituality and economics). ‘GOFFICE’ is an alternative name that I want to give this book, mainly because shortening of it into ‘G-O-O’ would sound a bit uncouth in the larger Hindi parlance. ‘Goffice’ could stand in for God’s own Office. ‘Goffice’ simply means that an office operated solely from one’s own home. As home is a god given place (for most of the people), one could set up an office at home and work from there. That’s what exactly James Joseph did after working for a few small corporate houses and then in the corporate giant, Microsoft. James Joseph, after graduating from Trivandrum Engineering College, followed his heart that got mirrored to him by a Times of India article, went on to study Engineering Business Management in Warwick in Britain. He worked for a few small industrial groups before migrating to the United States. He became the Director of Executive Management at Microsoft and almost did his whole operations from his Goffice at Aluva near Kochi.

James Joseph did not come to earth with a silver spoon in his mouth. Born to a middle class family, Joseph lost his mother when he was too young to understand that loss. His father survived two accidents to give his kids proper education. Joseph knew what hardship meant and when in college itself he understood the need for ‘Bha-rati’ and ‘Dhan-rati’ (love for knowledge/light and love for money). As he progressed in his professional life he realized that both are inseparable in most of the cases. He wanted to fall in love with Bharati but without Dhanrati the former could not have lasted. But soon he realized that the older generations got their progress in life through following knowledge and the present global generation got its progress through following both money and knowledge, though not in its exclusive and purest of forms. Keeping these two notions in mind, Joseph worked hard to become a global leader and in the meanwhile he found out the taste of jackfruit.

Though jackfruit is shown as the central theme of the book, James Joseph does not follow that trail to satisfactory effects. Joseph realizes the fact that the jackfruit at his backyard could turn him into a successful entrepreneur if he could make it available ‘fresh’ throughout the year. With meticulous planning and implementation of technology, Joseph invented a frozen variety of jackfruit which tasted as fresh as from the backyard, using his technological know-how and managerial skills. Today Joseph is a successful entrepreneur in Jackfruit products, apart from being a consultant for start ups and a global leader of his own merit. He achieved all these laurels by working from his Goffice at Aluva, Kochi in Kerala.

Part reminiscent and part manual for success, Joseph intersperses personal anecdotes with management and entrepreneurial tips throughout the book. He does not shy away from saying that he was very bad at English and he got confidence in handling it properly when he realized that his European classmates at Warwick were worst than him in using language. He shone in public speaking when he could slowly shed his inhibitions. James became a motivational teacher for many of his colleagues and young start ups. Joseph touchingly weaves in the stories of his marriage with a European girl (arranged marriage) and his relentless efforts to get a medical practitioner’s licence for her in India though she is a qualified medical doctor. He with sympathy and perseverance reveals the pitfalls in the bureaucratic approach of Indian officials. Joseph speaks volumes about his village, his love for nature, interest in organic farming and narrates a few acts of philanthropy. Goffice is a very interesting read, though at times I feel that I cannot be this perfect and meticulous like James Joseph in my daily acts. In my madness and melancholy, I tend to goof up things and appear as a failure therefore devilish before many but in the case of James Joseph he could establish a working heaven on earth, in God’s own country itself and could almost reach the perfection of the divine. However, I am sure the author also must be feeling his own oops moments and secretly enjoying his devilish flaws. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A Few thoughts on Public Kissing and Private Discourses

(Kiss- Rodin)

One of the purest expressions of human intimacy, kiss defies definitions. One can write, sculpt or paint a kiss, the way Keats, Rodin and Klimt had done respectively. Innumerable poets and writers have written about it. Films have captured kisses starting from little pecking to violently passionate lip locks. Seeing a couple kissing does not bring revulsion but it parts our lips in pure joy, a little bit of shyness and some sort of intrigue. A kiss between two human beings, irrespective of their gender, age and relationship evokes an inexplicable emotion in us; some kind of helplessness. The kiss of human beings is marked both in public and private domains because that brings two people together to an intimate state and often it shows a temporary surrender, nonviolence and love. It is temporary because the next moment the kissers could be two different people, cherishing different ideas and even nourishing thoughts of mutual decimation. When animals kiss the same things happen. But we do not notice because they are not ‘marked’ the way human kisses are. In pornography you do not find kiss because there it is not the intimacy of human beings represented in the acts nor it shows the tenderness of love and surrender; but the acts of willingness to force and violence. In the disembodied or rather dismembered and fragmented posturing of pleasures as shown and seen in pornography, kiss does not feature as an ingredient of enhanced passion because the very intimacy that a kiss demands for itself to happen between two people is ruptured beyond repair. A kiss is a welcome note with a farewell message hidden beneath.

A week ago, in Kozhikode, a northern district in Kerala, a South Indian state that claims complete literacy for over quarter of a century by now, a young couple was caught on camera while they were kissing. As a pure infringement of privacy of the couple involved in the incident (which in fact is not an incident or event) the candid clipping was telecast on a private channel with a commentary hinting at the ‘moral’ decay of the Kerala society and accusing the establishments that encourage such ‘incidents’. As a response to the news, right wing activists went ahead to destroy the property of the restaurant where the ‘notorious’ kiss was reported to have happened. The liberal thinkers and activists in Kerala who were also agitated equally on the moral policing of a section of political faggots, went ahead to protest by giving an open challenge to them through organising a spectacle of public kissing at the famous Marine Drive in Kochi on 3rd November 2014. Though the call for protest came through social networking sites, thanks to the controversial factor of the topic, it soon became national news, even helping a few international eyes turn towards it. The protest took place at the stipulated venue and time though the state machinery was already there to prevent serial kissing by dispersing the kissers and anti-kissers by brutal force.

 (Sailor Kissing the Nurse)

Kiss has never been a national debate before on this scale. For the curious onlookers and chronic voyeurs in social networking sites, for the liberal intellectuals and concerned politicians, for poets and photographers, for news channels and print mediums, the protest and the counter protest gave ample amount of materials to ideate both in public and private zones of a cultural and moral discourse. The sad thing is that it never became a political discourse as even the most concerned politicians decided to discuss it in its sociological and cultural dimensions. A politico-legal discourse could have put the issue to complete rest had the government taken a strong stance on it through legal modes, saying that acts of intimacy that do not amount to the embarrassment of people in the public domain should be treated as expressions of human bonding therefore inoffensive. But the governments that rely on the existence of their power purely on vote bank refuse to make such moves mainly because the overtly sentimental and purist notions of culture and public morality prevalent amongst the voters make the elected and electable representatives of people cringe and play unto the gallery. Ironically, a society that is divided along three lines (as usual), as in ‘yes to kiss’, ‘no to kiss’ and ‘no comments’ is the same society that has the same opinion on the ban of liquor and closure of pubs and bars in Kerala.

‘If music is the food of love, play on,’ said the poet. We should make an amendment to it; if kiss is the fire of love, kiss on. Practically, kiss cannot be prolonged for the reasons of choking and the slow staling of oral fluids. Kiss cannot be prolonged unless it is shown in an edited sequence from various angles montage/d by many other scenes that accentuate the intimacy. When kissing is seen, it is not ‘done’ by the seer. As the character Bridget Jones wonders in her diary, why people close their eyes, especially the woman, when she is kissed. Jones also does not understand why women pout their lips and hold a peculiar expression on their faces when they apply mascara on their eye lids. Similarly, if someone sees the kiss, s/he is an active agent in the act if not a voyeur. An act of kissing lets people  forget themselves. There is complete surrendering and also taking complete charge. Whether it be surrendering or taking charge upon someone’s existence for a few moments, both the parties cease to exist in those moments of mutual give and take. At the horizon, sky and sea do not fight; they just play. At the shore waves and sand do not fight, they kiss.

 (Kiss protesters in Kochi)

Unfortunately, protesting against a kiss and using kiss as a tool to protest, go equally wrong. The protestors of kiss are goaded by their sentimental understanding of social morals defined and elaborated upon by popular imaginations of a nation’s history and contemporaenity, both of which are the constructs of dominant imaginary that refuses change to take place in a society where such imaginaries have found safer havens. The kiss protestors, by default, fall to the forces of the same imaginary as they replicate the same act as a tool of protest. While ignoring the kiss event is not a feasible idea to bring around social changes or at least making some dents in the steely social body/imaginaries, replicating the same could be detrimental in the long run and also run the risk of turning a serious discourse into a self mockery as it happened in the case of the notion of ‘installation art’ in Kochi Muziris Biennale first edition in 2012. People started talking about ‘installation’ not as a discourse but as a linguistic aberration giving it a comic edge. Kiss, seen in the same way, could also become a thing of mockery therefore a way to delegate the same ideology of the right wing forces, through over use and under ‘valued’ use. Kiss protest is good as far as the word ‘kiss’ loses its taboo-status and becomes a word less loaded with its traditional cultural baggage. This has happened to the words like ‘sex’, ‘vagina’, ‘cunt’, ‘fuck’ and so on, mostly to positive effects, at least seen from within the feminist discourse. The word ‘kiss’ could also become a part of the daily parlance and once the magic of a word is lost and gets lighter by use, the cultural values attached to it could fall off, easing the society that uses the word much lighter in word and deed. The same thing has happened to the words ‘queer’ and ‘Dalit’ in the socio-cultural and political discourses.

Protestors of kiss place themselves as proud anachronisms within a society which has gone much ahead in time vis-a-vis habit, consumerism and liberal political thinking. They happily belong to those zones where things are shielded awkwardly yet celebrated through displaced gestures, suggestions and verbal innuendoes. Popular films of yester years (when state was the only negotiator of morality through stringent censor laws within a much hailed democracy) have helped in forming this kind of a mindset, a true reflection of a forced psychological condition in which the pleasure is not sought in the actual but in the displaced, giving away a fleeting effect of enjoyment but never becoming a part of the enjoyed or the enjoyment itself. When the enjoyer is removed from the things that have to be enjoyed, it induces a sort of pain which could turn into anger at any given time. Nostalgia could be equally soothing and it could also leave someone seething with anger. If you look at our popular imagination of myths or social tales in novels, films and serials, nostalgia makes someone come back to the roots and the moment s/he recognizes the fact that s/he cannot be completely a part of it because of its intangibility, anger sets in and it forces the person into the avenge mode. The intangibility of nostalgia is displaced and seen as tangible objects, like property, deed, gift, rituals and so on. Protestors of kiss are the victims of such displaced anger that comes out through nostalgia that renders them helpless and it turns into anger and they hit the path of revenge. As I mentioned before, the tangibility of property, as it is intricately connected with the body and sexuality of women, manifests as the morality of the society/women as seen/voyeur-ed/gazed at by the nostalgia monger.

(Banksy's graffiti on Policemen kissing)

The kiss protestors, however come from a different route, but unfortunately reach the same point of conclusion; woman’s body and sexuality, therefore the morality of the society as something to be contested, hid, displayed, celebrated, gazed at and then relegated to ignominy. The identity of the kiss protestors as well as the protestors of kiss is obscure (seen in a large context, as in ‘who are those people who vandalized the restaurant? Or who are those people who came to Marine Drive to kiss?) and if at all they have their larger identities through affiliation and contract, they are pitted against each other, ironically working towards the same point of nullification. The stalemate, to kiss or not to kiss, though eminently childish and laughable up to certain extent, inadvertently works for the benefit of the state that instead of entering into a discourse with the parties, tries to neutralize the friction through brutal force. A call for kiss protest, interestingly had brought oft-said, clich├ęd and predictable reactions from the larger society of Kerala. In fact, not coming from the right wingers, and obviously coming from the ‘no comment’ parties, who are terribly tortured by their own denial of things, these comments ranged from, ‘will you allow your mother and sister to kiss in public?’ and ‘if a couple is caught on sexual act, could the protest be massive public fornication?’ Anyone uses the ‘vulgus logicus’ (I don’t know whether this term exists but it is good to use some Latin for fun) – popular logic- these could be the common questions. However, if you read these statements with logic of informed reasoning, you might know that these questions come from a sort of gender phobia. Woman’s body, as far as these nay sayers are concerned, still needs an external agency. Mother and sister are connected to their domestic roles as mother and sister (in that case daughter, wife and all those female qualifications within the domestic realm). They cannot have their independent agency of asserting their identity in the public domain.

(Girl kissing boyfriend in a Police van in Kochi- manorama photo)

It is interesting to see why these nay sayers did not raise the questions like ‘Will you allow it with your office boss?’ ‘Will you allow your headmistress to do this thing?” These questions are never asked because the larger society refuses to see woman in charge. The hypocrisy of the society once again comes to the fore when you see the post-protest pictures posted on social networking sites where girls are seen pecking on friend’s cheeks, or a couple locked in a serious kiss of protest inside a police vehicle. The pubic gaze, as seen in the gazes of the people who are within the picture frame as well as outside of it, is always on the woman who kisses the man, not the other way round. Her value has been judged then and there by the onlookers and the judgment cannot be replete with the words like ‘bold and daring’ but words like ‘a girl who could do ‘things’ in public and easy going’. The gazers want to protect their mothers/sisters/daughters/wives from this ‘public shame of kissing’ by denying the fact that the girl who is in the picture seen kissing her boyfriend or friend could be someone's daughter/wife/mother/sister. The isolation of a woman who dares/kisses and seeing her as a moral threat to the society is the process from which all issues originate. Seeing woman as an exclusive individual, unconnected or disconnected to her social/domestic roles seems to the pivotal reason behind all these conflicts. Kiss, therefore is an expression of this exclusivity of women; and a society that fears that exclusivity would obviously detest kissing whether it is public or private.