Friday, December 20, 2019

Filmography- Birth of a New Collectible Film Journal

(Filmography first issue cover)

‘Filmography’ is a new trimonthly bilingual film journal from Kerala. Initiated by a group of film buffs this journal aspires to tread an untrodden path that avoids film trivia and intends to give focused studies and insights to the regional, national and global movies. Innovative in approach and catchy in style, ‘Filmography’ is a re-run of the ‘little magazine’ movement of the 1970s and 80s for the simple reason that there is a niche space for it between the mainstream glossy film magazines and the highly intellectualized academic film journals. Recognizing the fact that the film journals produced by the government agencies, despite their well-researched content and attractive design and production, hardly reach the target audience except for their public availability during the film festivals, Filmography tries to fit into the gaps, complementing the discourses generated by the journals belonging to the abovementioned categories.

The first issue of Filmography, which was recently released at the 24th IFFK platform in Thiruvananthapuram gives the readers a lot to look forward to. Apart from the short essays by eminent scholars the journal has a few pages devoted for the lists of choicest films by international figures like Susan Sontag. Though subjective is the list, the reader could think of picking up a few for further watching in the available archives in their own localities. If not they could really debate the issue why they don’t have such archives in their vicinities. Hence, the journal does not simply impart information but evokes a sort of aspiration among the viewers/readers for bettering the immediate contexts of their film production-dissemination-consumption cultures and circuits. Besides, the editors have invited artists to engage themselves with the movies that have influenced them so as to redo or rather recreate a film poster of the same in their own fashion, opening up a way for the re-interpretation of the visual culture disseminated through the film posters that at times attain cult status. Sample story boards from classic movies sourced from the virtual archives reproduced in the journal make the general as well as academic readers know the films a little closer at the blueprint stage.

(Filmography content page)

The first edition has an erudite critique on the majoritarian politics smuggled inadvertently into the parallel/art house movies in India as they cater to a global demand for an exotic orientalism or else reproduce the same ideology subconsciously in their movies. The essay written by the noted scholar A.C.Sreehari minces no words as he splices open the cinematic texts created by the doyens like Satyajit Ray. Though, there have been mainstream criticism on Ray for ‘selling Indian poverty at the global market’ Sreehari’s take is not on an accusatory level rather it works around the theoretical analysis of orientalism and its deeper encroachments in the cinematic imagination of the times. In the Malayalam section P.K.Surendran writes on the movies of the master Abbas Kiarostami. Apart from this wonderfully articulated article this section also traces the history of sound recording/sound design in an article written by the master sound recordist, T.Krishnanunni. A mandatory study of Jellikettu by K.G.Siju forwards a balanced view of the movie which has received more bouquets than bricks even when it should have been fifty-fifty. Malavika Nair’s take on film viewing is marred by the disturbing subjective presence. Navitha Ravi M does a review of the movie Thamasha using the feminist methodology in order to unpack the sexist body shaming. It should have been a deeper analysis, one thinks as he finishes reading it. My article on the film ‘Roudram 2018’ by the award winning filmmaker Jayaraj is also included whose merit should be analyzed by the readers and critics than I myself saying adulatory words about it.

The journal ‘Filmography’ is edited by Dr.Zeinul Hukuman and coordinated by novelist and short story writer, V.H.Nishad. I do not think that spending Rs.50/- for an issue once in three months for a journal like this is a waste why because I am sure such journals belong to the category of collectibles as they mark a period in our film discourse and return to the brains from where they have originated. M.Govindan had initiated a series of parallel magazines; though short-lived they all served their intellectual purpose and became the markers of their times rather than the mainstream magazines. Hence, I wish all the best to the first and the forthcoming editions of ‘Filmography.’


Saturday, October 26, 2019

Understanding India by Reading Africa: Secure the Base by Ngugi wa Thiong’o

I chanced upon this book at the State Central Library, Trivandrum. Immediately I knew it was from Seagull Publications, Kolkata, for the style of its production was unmissable. The title and the photograph that adorned the cover reminded me of John Berger, the irresistible writer and art historian. Later I came to know that the photograph was by Tina Modotti, an Italian photographer, model and actress who became a Communist in 1930s. ‘Secure the Base’ is a collection of speeches/essays by the Kenyan author and post-colonial pacifist, Ngugi wa Thiong’o (pronounced Gugi Thiango).

Thiong’o speaks about the rifts that the colonial masters had inflicted in the African countries. The rifts were not just political; those were cultural, social and linguistic. After the Spaniards, Portuguese, Dutch and the French, it was the British who made the schism complete. Four hundred years of slavery, unrequited, unremitted and unkind labor exporting was the foundation of the first world. Today, Thiong’o says that Pan-Africanism should prevail and all the borders that the British created to create too many countries within Africa for their divide and rule tactics should be turned into domestic trade routes than political boundaries.

(Ngugi wa Thiong'o)

Pan Africanism, which has been there in the air since the aftermath of the Second World War has been failed by the tribal identities attributed to the African populations by the colonial masters. Thiong’o says that why a 9 million population in any region of Africa is called a Tribe while a four million population in the Europe is called a nation, while the descriptive components that define a nation and a tribe are more or less the same. He also problematizes why the African languages are given secondary status while the lingua franca and also the pedagogic mediums are still English and French. The tribal conflicts are looked down upon and are not addressed as national ideological schisms while even the smallest issues within the Euro-American regions are treated not as tribal conflicts but internationally relevant politico-economic issues to be addressed immediately.

Thiong’o calls out for linguistic revival among the African countries and he insists that there should be major dialects, English and French functioning as bridge languages within the African continent. Pan Africanism is not just a cultural and linguistic argument but a demand for economic autonomy which is heavily curtailed by the post WW II phenomena called World Trade Organization (WTO), International Monetary Fund (IMF) and General Agreements on Tariffs and Trades (GATT). If colonialism and slavery were the problems of the yester years today it is debt dependency that functions as the stranglehold in the neck of the African continent. The so called wealthy G8 countries do not allow any African countries to develop their nuclear armaments while they use the African continent for conducting nuclear experiments.


To overcome this situation, Thiong’o argues that the African voice should be heard and he is one of the pioneering voices from within the modern Africa and has been relentlessly trying to make Africa visible by challenging the appellations like ‘Dark Continent’ and ‘Backwardness’ etc. He says that the intellectuals have a lot of work to do towards this. He also makes clear distinction between globalization and globalism: ‘The visible success of globalization is a glossy middle class; that of globalism is prosperous creative people, their common humanity expressed in the multicoloured particularities. (P 60).

Thiong’o’s faith in culture and literature is expressed in the following lines: “Political authoritarianism is terrified of the power of the word that has become flesh. It loves the word that has been dislodged from the flesh. The challenge for the intellectual is to make words become flesh, to make them breathe distinctly. Theory must always return to the earth to get recharged. For the world that breathes life is still needed to challenge the one that carries death and devastation. Works of imagination and critical theories can only weaken themselves by pulling back from the challenge.” (P.112).The more one reads this the more one understands India and its colonial past. A must read book.


Thursday, October 10, 2019

Icarus Searching for His Land: Waswo and R.Vijay Strike Again

(Waswo X Waswo and R.Vijay pic courtesy Open Magazine)

‘Like a Leaf in Autumn’ is the latest exhibition by Waswo X Waswo and R.Vijay at the Gallery Espace, New Delhi. Perhaps, these two artists make the most successful duo in Indian art scene. They have not flown too far away from the ground and also not too close to the sun. Hence, their output as well as success has been steady all these while. Unlike the other duos in the Indian art scene, Waswo-Vijay does not indulge in authorial ambiguity that makes the style definite and recognizable while the roles are merged to become one. Waswo-Vijay duo comes together to create a solid body of works but defines their roles separately; R.Vijay as the visual executor (of course after much deliberations and angry take offs) and Waswo as the conceptualizer cum director. Together they make a perfect combination.

‘It Never Works the Way You Think’ is a work from this show, which I believe captures the crux of the argument that Waswo as an Evil Orientalist has been forwarding ever since he decided to make India his first or second home depending on the season that he prefers to be in Udaipur. The argument is simple: Can an artist from the other shores be an Indian artist? Can an artist do away with locational adjectives that qualify his name whenever it is mentioned in the land’s history as well as art history? We have had Nicholas Roerich and Svetoslave Roerich from Russia who almost became Indians as they chose to live in the foothills of Himalaya. We have had Elizabeth Sass Brunner and Mary Sass Brunner the mother-daughter duo from Hungary living very much in Delhi. They still hold their locational honorifics. Perhaps they wanted to be known as Indian artists. Waswo, a Milwaukee-ian, an exceptionally different provincial American who however knows his Duchampian tricks to be right in the middle of the things but doing things well instead of playing chess with nude models, but yes definitely capturing the hopeful visitors into images meant to be eternal thereby giving them some lease of posthumous life, must also be wishing to be known as an Indian artist. But the conflict is felt even when he naturalizes himself with the history, politics and living surroundings of the place.

(It Never Works the Way You Think by Waswo and Vijay)

This conflict is given visual embodiment in the constant presence of a Bisleri bottle, a brand of bottled drinking water which initially had become emblematic to the Westerners’ mistrust in the basics of India, meaning drinking water and breathing air. In his works, we see a plastic bottle inconspicuously lying around making its presence too strong to be inconspicuous. Also the hat and the red polka dotted neck tie. The man is either relaxing or reading, or he is simply trying to be someone who is not himself. And all the other times he is running behind invisible butterflies like a serious lepidopterist turning the very chase an occupation in itself. As we do not see any butterflies per se, we have to understand that the artist is in a wild goose chase within the wild but without the goose anywhere in the vicinity. But this absurdity of a chase has deeper meaning when I see it in the abovementioned conflict; of being in one place and belonging there completely. Ruskin Bond, just because of his white skin despite his natural citizenship in India, being an Anglo-Indian but more Indian and rooted than any Himachali, still faces this issue of belongingness; Waswo can find some solace in Bond, not James, but Ruskin.

‘It Never Works the Way You Think’ is an epiphany; a title that reveals all his revelations. It does not happen in that way dear, he pats himself and says. But the painting has something more to say. This is the tale of Icarus; the son of Daedalus, the master craftsman. They were under captivity in a tower and by looking at the eagles, they thought of escaping from there by sticking feathers to their hands, making workable wings. They were defying science (don’t ask from where they got wax for sticking the feathers. There is no question in the story) and Daedalus had only one advice for his son; do not venture too close to the sun for the fear of wax melting. But sons are always sons before they become fathers. They rebel; and upon defying his father’s words, Icarus flew quite close to the Sun and the wax melted and he came dropping like a stone to meet his watery bier. We see the surrogate Waswo, painted by R.Vijay landing on his nose in the vast ocean. This is the perennial fear of the artist himself; do not go too close to the sun where you think everyone got a place and there is hope for everyone. India is a tilted place still when Waswo looks at it in terms of his own belongingness. I do not insist that Waswo agrees with it.

(Starry Night by Waswo and Vijay)

My belief on this interpretation deepens when I see the free standing severed wing, like in a no man’s land/space in between (neither here nor there, the liminal space, perhaps an accursed space, which in India is a called the Trishanku Swarga, which is a heaven and hell at once. It is heaven because of the spatial buoyancy and it is hell because it is without roots. Having no roots is hell. That is what all the immigrants feel and suffer. That's why Ambedkar told Gandhi, ‘I don’t have a country.’), reminding the informed viewer of the violated wing of Jatayu, the mighty bird that had tried to prevent the abduction of Sita. In fact, the wing comes from Raja Ravi Varma’s imagination, where interestingly both the abductor and the savior remain hanging in the space and the poignant moment shows three different rasas, of pity, valor and ferocity. Waswo removes all those and emblematizes the wing with no space or a safe space in nowhere, and implies that even without a space that wing could belong to the collective imagination of the people because it belongs to the memory of the land. Waswo however is not a complainant; he sees the hope of his rescue in an approaching boat which surprisingly has a sail in the form of a wing. A boat with a winged sail comes directly from the imaginations of hade, the nether world which is aspiring to be hell but not yet one and there are philosophers for the oarsmen in the boat. Hence, definitely Waswo has a chance of being there in the subaltern if not subterranean discourse of art in India.

(An Actor Rehearsing the Interior Monologue of Icarus by Surendran Nair)

Waswo reminds one and all that it does not work the way you think; it is not fatalistic like an Indian or Russian imagination where the providential decisions, as in the Grecian interference of Godheads in the local human affairs thwart the human aspirations. It is a pragmatic view of things for Waswo. Man proposes God disposes is not the case; not even the Tolstoyesque ‘God Sees the Truth but Waits’. There is no god to see the truth or to dislodge the schemes. But man made physical circumstances always collapse the attempts and efforts. Waswo had seen it in Kochi when he had come to participate in a Biennale collateral where his efforts to get his works back home were questioned by the unionized laborers to which Waswo’s response was nothing but dropping the artefacts and destroying them. So here he becomes a destroyer than a maker, a master of destruction in the ultimate efforts to keep the personal destiny in hand than letting it go to the hands of the muscled strangers or political gods. But it is good to remind oneself that things do not happen as we think. But it gives hopes to one and all to strive for it. And more importantly, it is one Icarus reference in Indian art after the controversial work by Surendran Nair titled ‘An Actor Rehearsing the Interior Monologue of Icarus’ where we see Icarus standing on the top of the Asokan Pillar waiting to launch himself into space while he sees seagulls flying off to their homes. Here in Waswo we see the parrots coming directly out of the miniature aesthetics and flying home happily to the folios. I have been talking about Waswo all the way but let me tell you whenever I talk about Waswo in this show’s context I am talking about R.Vijay too.


Monday, October 7, 2019

Siksha: The Manual of Delhi’s Educational Success

(Manish Sisodia, Delhi's Deputy Chief Minister and Education Minister with school children)

Shiksha means Education. Manish Sisodia is Delhi’s education minister. When Aam Admi Party came to power in 2015, the condition of Delhi schools was abysmal. Private schools were minting money in the name of quality education and other facilities. But they have been functioning like extortion rackets than educational institutions. Private schools in Delhi and the NCR literally looted the parents. Things changed when Manish Sisodia, himself the son of a teacher, took over the education minister.

Allocating one of third of the budget for education was the first step that the AAP took when it came to power. With social and educational sector activism experience to back them up, the leaders of the AAP thought it was important to focus on the educational quality of Delhi schools apart from providing basic facilities like water and electricity for controlled rates. Qualitative changes that the AAP government brought about in Delhi’s public life have become the focus of the international agencies and education sector is one such field that got phenomenal make over not only in terms of infrastructure but also in terms of teaching practice.

(Sisodia's book 'Shiksha' is released by former President Pranab Mukherjee and Arvind Keijirwal, Delhi CM) 

Sisodia made some surprise visits to the schools run by the Delhi Government and found that they were the most neglected field in the whole state. Taking many agencies, primarily the principals and teachers into confidence, Sisodia and his team undertook a mammoth task which they have completed successfully within years and now even the international educational agencies visit Delhi schools to find out how they are run effectively and how they have brought educational brilliance out of the children especially from those who come from the weaker sections in the society.

Infrastructural development with world class furniture, classrooms, buildings, toilets and so on complimented with the making the temporary teachers permanent or brining their salary scale at par with the permanent teachers and giving more economic power to the principals changed the functioning of the schools. Teachers as well as students and their parents found a new purpose in education. Today there is a steep rise in the number of students getting admitted to the government schools in Delhi, making the private schools rethink about their fee structure, educational facilities and above all the managerial arrogance.

(Manish Sisodia in a class room at a Government School)

‘Shiksha’ is a book by Manish Sisodia and he collates his experiences as the education minister of Delhi in the book without giving too much stress on his personality; instead he presents the tricks and magic of changing the educational scenario with the help of the teachers, parents, ministers and bureaucrats. The collective efforts have brought in finer and commendable results. He also speaks of the AAP Government’s will power and willingness to facilitate the changes. One of the first changes apart making more budgetary allocation was creating School Management Committees for the welfare of the schools. Also the schools were advised to appoint Estate Managers who were responsible for the regular upkeep of the infrastructure. Parent Teachers Meet became a regular feature and whenever children needed emotional and intellectual counselling, it was immediately given. Mentor teachers were selected from among the teachers who volunteered to serve the educational scenario in the state and also teachers’ delegations were taken to the foreign countries to get a firsthand experience on the teaching standards. Teachers with specific purpose in their lives and dignity given to them in their career gained confidence and their involvement became pivotal in the success story of Delhi schools.

(A Swimming Pool in a Government School in Delhi)

The book ‘Shiksha’ is a must read manual for all the teachers and educationists and bureaucrats who really want to facilitate positive changes in the field. This book is written with hard data and experiential narratives blended in the right proportions. Manish Sisodia, the author has kept his ministerial power under check and has presented himself more like a benevolent activist who has some sort of executive power in his hands. However, he says how his plants at times get thwarted by the bureaucratic hurdles, especially when it comes to the allocation of funds. Cutting down corruption in the education field is one of the reasons that made the success feasible in Delhi’s educational domain. Even for the general readers this book has got some light to offer.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Gauri Dancers: When Waswo, the Artist Triumphs over Waswo, the Archivist

(Waswo X Waswo and Rajesh Soni. Pic.

‘Gauri Dancers’ is an artist’s photographic retake made into a book apart from limited edition prints of the same, on a traditional religious performance art confined within the Mewar region of Rajasthan and the book is also a well-researched documentation of the same. Udaipur based artist, Waswo X.Waswo is the prime mover of this book and he has not only taken the photographs as his artistic output but also has contributed a very pivotal dialogic text that sets the tone and tenor of the aesthetic decisions behind each photograph. Apart from the artist himself, he has his long term collaborator Rajesh Soni who hails from a family of traditional hand-colorists on black and white photographs, now perhaps a redundant art form but amply revived by conceptual photographic practitioners like Waswo, and Pramod Kumar G, a researcher on photography as a medium of art and documentation and a publisher and archivist, who in introduces this book in a crisp academic note. And finally the main text (that is almost a sub-text or a meta-text of/for the photographic images) is written by Sonika Soni, an art historian and researcher who has been interested in the Gauri Dance/rs as she hails from the same region where this dance is practiced.

Despite the claim of having centuries-long tradition and practice, Gauri Dance which is also known as Gavri Dance is a limited art form not in its expressive faculties but in its geographical confinement. Perhaps, it’s limited reach and fame is the major reason that has goaded Waswo to work with the practitioners of this rare rural art form though he disputes his possible role in this project as a documentarian or an anthropologist. Waswo assumes different personalities in his verbal essay (as a preface to the visual essay that makes the main body of the book) of which he identifies more with the ‘artist’ incarnation than the ‘anthropologist’ or the invisible ‘narrator’ who makes all of them speak. These disembodied voices appear as a representational conflict within the text and the questionable agency that activates the events inside and outside the book. The apparent conflict is manifested in the dialogue between the artist Waswo and the anthropologist Waswo. Sometimes, there is also an archivist Waswo. Ironically, the artist Waswo is constantly questioned by the other counterpart selves calling him an ‘anthropologist with no research or an archivist no responsibility.’

(Gauri Dancers by Waswo, Book Cover)

The accusation coming from the anthropologist self of Waswo and the apparent danger of not having enough research should have intrinsic reasons in Waswo, the personality and artist whose ‘outsider’ status has been self-problematized for a long time in his works done together with Rajesh Soni, R.Vijay and other assistants and also in the graphic novel, ‘Evil Orientalist.’ Waswo has been living in India nearly for two decades and has more or less naturalized his avuncular status among the villagers in Udaipur, still some questions arise from certain quarters regarding his worth and authenticity as an ‘Indian’ who could comment on the ‘Indian’ things. Waswo besides being an artist has been handling this tender question quite skillfully ever since it was put to him in various occasions. Hence, in ‘Gauri Dances’ Waswo the artist says that it is neither the anthropologists nor the archivist sees Gauri Dance but the artistic eyes, which goes beyond all kinds of extraneous value judgements and stick to the aesthetic finesse of form and performance.

From Waswo’s narrative preface we come to know that it was a chance encounter with a couple of young male performers festooned with ornaments and odd and jarring clothes that made the artist aware of the existence of a group of people who did Gauri Dance. Asking around he got his answers soon from the locales and from his own assistants who did the painted backdrop sceneries for his photography projects. These boys and young men came from a region called Mewat and they performed this Gauri Dance for forty days from the very next day of the Raksha Bandhan. As it involves a religious theme (of Shiva and his consort Parvati who is also called Gauri) the performers abstain from all kinds of vices for forty days and they are fed vegetarian food by the host villages. Interestingly, the host villages are where these performers have their kith and kin through marriage ties. This indicates the closely knit tribal nature and a sort of exogamy practices prevalent among these tribes which also explains why this art form is limited within certain geographic limits.

(Gauri Dancers by Waswo)

Waswo gets interested in these dancers and decides to photograph them against the backdrop painted by his assistants. He clicks them in front of different backdrops as they present themselves in cheap but full regalia; a sort of iconography that decides the characters in the play. At one point, exasperated by the variety of actors Waswo the artist asks about the peculiarities of these characters and suddenly the anthropologist comes out from the wings and grins at Waswo; a hint at the fact that however one tries to avoid anthropological therefore sociological, political and economic meanings of an event or image, at some point they have to be addressed even by the staunchest aesthete among the artists. Rajesh Soni, later hand paints these photographs and they are presented as limited edition prints apart from this book.

I don’t know whether an exotic gaze is at work when Waswo clicks the pictures of the Gauri Dancers because in his practices either he naturalizes everything when he is not exoticizing them. He photographs artists, friends and causal visitors in his studio in certain costumes suitable to his fancies and whims of the moment. And his subjects happily oblige to get photographed (for them a way to immortality through the work of an artist) and even for the Gauri Dancers, despite their demand for a remuneration thanks to their dire materialistic conditions they too are eager and willing to get photographed by a fair skinned ‘chacha’. He turns them into icons unlike some of the other photography artists who turn their subjects to anthropological specimens as we have seen in many a documentary photography including the Gotipua Dancers from Odisha done by an artist namely Birendra Pani.

(Gauri Dancers by Waswo)

Gauri Dance is definitely rooted in folk traditions of story-telling and performance. Like the Bhopas in Rajasthan and the Patuas in Bengal and Odisha, these dancers talk, sing and perform. Though the major theme is devotional, ribaldry and humor play a major role, which interestingly is the main characteristic of most of the tribal/folk/traditional performance art. The etymology of Gauri Dance also leads us to its Brahminical roots and it was when a lower caste person (may be from Gometi or Meena caste who perform Gauri Dance in the modern times) tried to imitate it, the Brahmins lost interest in the art form and left it for the lower castes to perform it. It could be read as a handed down (even if the reason is pollution and irritation) art form, it could also be seen as a rebellion and snatching away of the right to perform by the lower castes. Even in Kerala, Ottan Thullal is said to have started when Nambiar was ridiculed by the Koothu performer. As rebellion Nambiar went on to start a counter performance involving a lot of ribaldry and humor. The myths behind the Gauri Dance are interesting; they range from the stereotypical victory of the good over evil to environmental issues, family ties to nostalgia and so on. Sonika Soni in her well researched essay delineates a range of myths and the various categories of performances. The text of Soni appears in this book more like an epilogue rather than the main text. Even if Waswo, the artist gains an affirmative victory over Waswo the anthropologist or the documenter, the book could be read even for the sake of anthropological interest and documentary purpose, obviously when you are full with its aesthetical nuances.

n  JohnyML

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

‘No One is Too Small to Make a Difference’: Book of the World Sensation Greta Thunberg

(Greta Thunberg with her new book)

A quick book could be read quickly. ‘No One is Too Small to Make a Difference’ is a quick book from Penguin and is written by none other than the latest sensation in the international environmental activism, Greta Thunberg. A sixteen year old Swedish school girl, whose sole mission is to make impassionate plea to the world leaders, businessmen, lobbyists, huge corporations and all the other select few money spinners to change themselves in order to leave the world for the future generations to leave. Thunberg says that she is motivated by hard scientific fact about environmental depletion which is going to finish the planet earth sooner than later. According to the prediction the carbon emission due to fossil fuel usage all over the world is going to set the clock of sixth mass extinction of the human species (along with the slow and steady perishing of all other species in due course of time) from 2030 if the emission levels are not brought down to 1.5  degree C, which in fact is lesser than the emission level in the pre-industrial times.

This book is a small collection of Thunberg’s small but powerful speeches (one could say cryptic word bombs that strike at the international conscience if there is something like that still left there) made since 2018 at various European forums including the ones in Sweden. Thunberg considers herself as someone coming from a privileged background and she and her ilk could conveniently forget the fact that the environmental depletion is irrevocably underway. But she cannot sit idle once she knew that the planet earth is about to perish. As a school girl she tried to initiate an educational strike in her school and she found cold response even from her friends and the school authorities. That did not stop Thunberg from sitting in front of the Swedish Parliament and handing out pamphlets, like an evangelist in panic mode to the people. The lone school girl’s unique protest (like the Standing Man protest) caught the attention of the environmentalist and other activists and soon her strike took root in the schools and girls stopped going to school for many weeks.

(Greta Thunberg)

Thunberg is positive about her activism; she says that if so many girls could boycott schools and that in turn evoke similar response in other parts of the world something could really change in the ‘normal’ course of thing. Thunberg’s fundamentals are clear. She says that anybody can bring about a change provided they rethink about their life and its practices. The primary concern should be the reduction of fossil fuel usage and seeking eco-friendly alternatives. For that there should be fundamental changes in the business pattern and the sole aim of it; making profit or amassing wealth in the hands of a selected few. This one-sided flow of global economy has put the whole population in the world at risk for she says that due to the carbon emission and the ensuing ecological collapse 200 species of life are being extinct on a daily basis. The picture is grim and the sight of Thunberg, this sixteen year old girl standing before the world parliament and the UN reminds one of the scene that we had witness in China’s Tiananmen Square (1989), where a young person took on the rolling military tanks stopping them on their mission to curb and kill the protestors who had been asking for freedom.

Thunberg does not say anything complex in all her ten cryptic speeches at various forums and one facebook post in which she explains to her detractors how she is not funded or backed up by lobbies or groups. According to Thunberg, we all can do something to save the planet. Nothing new about it but each one shifting the responsibility to the other person’s shoulder is as good as doing nothing towards the cause. World over there are movements and moves to reduce the emission levels but Thunberg says that there is no point in bringing the emission level ‘down’ but it is imperative to make a situation where there is no emission at all. That may sound her asking for too much. But if we heed that impossibility and try to do something towards it then we would understand that we need to change the rules of the game that we are collectively, blindly but blissfully playing these days. Thirdly, she says that we should be in a panic mode. When your house is on fire you wouldn’t say that let everything burn down and we would start afresh. But what we do is to panic and save even the most insignificant from being gutted. Panic mode is essential to change the situation as our planet is on fire. Also there are detractors who tell her that she should go back to school and study to become a scientist who could contribute more to the world. To this she gives an answer which is fascinating because she tells them that she and her friends would go back to the classroom provided if the grown-ups take to the street to hold up the cause and fight for it.

(A scene from the movie, My Name is Khan)

The crisp videos that have been proliferating in the social media for the last few days have made a universal celebrity out of Greta Thunberg as if the world was waiting for a new messiah in the horizon to appear. The younger the savior the better it looks. That’s why I feel I think she is another Malala in the making. Despite the fact that there soon would be a Thunberg industry around her (films, books, merchandise such as T-shirts, music videos, documentaries, morning time chat shows and so on. Already the second book of Thunberg is getting ready for publication which is co-authored by her whole family). But that shouldn’t be a reason for our cynical overlooking of the real facts. Changing today’s habits means changing us completely; means, if you are traveling by cars, then start using the public transport. But the governments should pitch in there to provide cool and comfortable public transport to the citizens. When you insist that people should walk or cycle to the work places, there should be pedestrian and cycle friendly tracks. That means a lot of changes in the society; that’s what exactly Thunberg telling the world. As Kumaranasan had put it; change the laws if not they are going to change you.

The more I look at Greta Thunberg the more I think about ‘My Name is Khan’ (2010) the movie directed by Karan Johar with Shah Rukh Khan in the lead. The Khan character is autistic; to be more precise, he has a condition called Asperger’s, a slightly different condition of autism. Khan in that movie goes to the United States of America and faces ostracism because he is a Muslim and is identified as one in the public especially after the 9/11 attack on the twin towers. Finally after a natural calamity he manages to go to the US President, a black person, obviously Barak Obama and tells him, ‘My Name is Khan and I am not a Terrorist.’ Khan does all what he could in order to convey this message to the US President, the most powerful man of the world so that his words could be heard all over the world and if possible understood. Greta Thunberg too has the Asperger’s condition. She is insistent and she wants to be heard. United Nation’s platform was one good platform for her to reach out to the world. We are practical people so we think that nothing is possible if we go by Thunberg’s line. But something is possible if we are ready to change that is why she says again and again, None is too small to make a difference.

-          JohnyML

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The Funnier Side of Trivandrum: Khyrunnisa’s Narratives

(Khyrunnisa A, humourist - author)

I did not know the word ‘cynophobia’ till yesterday though I had developed it slightly thanks to the strong belief in my ability to communicate with dogs, especially the strays, got thwarted by an unexpected reaction from a dog, a couple of weeks back. The word just got materialized before me when I was reading a book titled ‘Tongue in Cheek- the Funny Side of Life’ by the Trivandrum based columnist and humourist author, Khyrunnisa A. In one of the chapters where she speaks about her disliking for dogs, Khyrunnisa tells the readers that if they have some aversion for the dogs and the over enthusiasm that they display when you are at a friend’s place who is too fond of her pets, it is advisable to tell her frankly that you have ‘cynophobia’ though the word might fail to bring about any change of attitude in her for the sheer opaqueness of the word.

Opaqueness of a word could generate laughter when it is uttered with serious intent but ekes out a contrary response or causes an opposite reaction, so is the case of such words that are too transparent but used in out of context to express dense matters. Humourists use this technique lavishly in their writings and speeches. I always have a feeling that the humourist writers have this special knack of performing their words and statements as they put mostly themselves or their surrogate selves into the narrator’s skin. And they thrive in flamboyance of expressions, exaggeration of facts and also unimaginable yet highly convincing understatements. Khyrunnisa is a master of all these faculties. ‘Tongue in Cheek’ (an absolutely predictable name for a newspaper column, but a bit stereotypical for a humourous book) is a compilation her weekly column in the Hindu Metro Plus, a column with only one brief to the writer from the editors that it should be witty and definitely, within the space limit (though the author does not say that in her preface); that explains the almost identical length of all the essays in the book.

(Tongue in Cheek by Khyrunnisa A)

‘Brevity is the soul of wit’; though Shakespeare means wit differently, as intelligence, the word has travelled centuries to gain this special meaning that is humour. However, it has been a reverse journey for another Shakespearean word, ‘fool’ which once meant a wise one but after centuries of use got demoted to mean a ‘foolish one’. All that is brief cannot be witty and humorous; had it been so, the biggest comic interface would have been ‘twitter’ as it demands sheer brevity as a mode of expressing even the voluminous of ideas. For a humourist, brevity has a different meaning altogether; it is not just about condensation of ideas or sharp editing of the text or the most concentrated forms of expressions but the very talent of saying something in the most indirect or exaggerated fashion in order to reveal the funnier and sunnier side of it. Humourists have picked up their tricks from the cartoonists, it seems for most of the humourist-columnists the way of viewing the world comes from the cartoonists. Visual humourists maintained brevity both in lines and words and the verbal humourists must have borrowed the eyes and tongues from them, I should say, subconsciously.

When the British magazine, Punch (estd.1841) had been an influential pioneer in the world of humour and cartooning, Charles Dickens developed his dark as well as light humour almost during the same time period (Pickwick Papers) paving the way for the future humourists including George Bernard Shaw and PG Wodehouse. In India most of the newspapers today boast humourist columns written by many established writers including Bacchi Karkaria, Mathrubhootham, Renuka Narayanan and Khyrunnisa herself. Most of them have a huge liking for the kind of visual and verbal narratives that Mario Miranda had created around the Goan people and locations. Khyrunnisa comes from this tradition as she locates her narratives in the city of Thiruvananthapuram (incidentally, the starting point of one of the very famous animation movies titled Sita Sings Blues, written and directed by Nina Paley) and in the lives of the middle and upper middle class there.

(Khyrunnisa and husband Vijayakumar)

For the Malayalis humour created out of the life of city people is not a new thing; it has been in their veins since the origin of ‘cities’, the seats of power, lobbying, bootlicking, betrayals and survival. Pompous, snobbish and selfish, the urban middle class anywhere in the world (or at least certain sections of it) provides fodder for the humourists. A few rungs below the upper class and a few rungs above the lower class, the Trishanku status of these people makes them behave in extremely funny ways that are captured by the story writers, film directors, mimicry artists and so on. Khyrunnisa is like a flaneuse, who has earned her right to stroll in the streets (which have been a male domain for long) and finds how the city and its people behave. Khyrunnisa anchors the narrator within the family domain (reaffirming her faith in the very middle class socio-cultural values that she often pokes fun of), along with her husband who often goes without a name, her son and his friend, Ajay (who has been liberally identified as a ‘person’), and takes the freedom to move out of it with her ‘gaze’ fixed on the society in order to create humour which is fundamentally different from the male humourists (such as Yesudasan, Toms, VKN, Sukumar, Chemmana Chacko, Veloor Krishnan Kutty and a whole lot of Malayali cartoonists). Khyrunnisa is more like Radhika Vaz, the standup comedian, but with less scathing remarks.

Humourists are not considered to be top grade literary figures. Especially when it comes to the humourists and columnists they are deemed as people who write to ‘fill’ the designated spaces; as Khyrunnisa says in her preface, the only instruction is that it should ‘witty/humorous’. However, humour could transcend our own gazes about our own people; perhaps humour functions as a ‘mirror held against the society’. That’s why Khyrunnisa writes about the Malayali marriages and its aftermath (not they lived happily ever after types but the rush for the feast that follows the tying knot), the jewelry that the brides wear and of course the groom’s costumes that he tries to fit into for the day, changing a deflated tyre and all other DIY stuff in the domestic front, for example finding a lost rubber band in the curry, a snake in the pond; use of smartphones, booking the seats using a stinking handkerchief and so on. Khyrunnisa’s literary flourish comes to the fore when she speaks about a handkerchief used for booking a seat. She writes: ‘My friend wondered if the towel was an example of synecdoche, a figure of speech in which a part if made to represent a whole or metonymy, where a word or a phrase is used to stand in for another word’. Khyrunnisa makes wonderful observations when she writes about the ‘autocorrect’ faculties of smartphones, buying tissue paper from the traffic signals (or not buying it) and so on. The classic is when she speaks about the name of her husband, Vijayakumar (any Tom, Dick and Vijay, according to Khyrunnisa). For certain reason she calls out his name in the street and ‘half of the people on the road turned in answer to the shortened version, he included.’

(Shashi Tharoor MP releasing the book Tongue in Cheek by Khyrunnisa A)

On the way to the museum garden for my morning walk every day I see stray dogs in various sizes, shapes and colors and I make it a point to talk to them if they look at me. Often they wag their tails in appreciation and follow me for a short distance before they get distracted by other dogs or birds or by simply losing interest in me. I have never found a stray dog menacing because of these friendly conversations. Couple of weeks ago, I tried to talk to a dog and it started grunting and growling. Since then I have been avoiding that road and once even I crossed the road to come by another zebra crossing to get into the garden for the fear of that dog. I did not know that it was cynophobia. I was very sympathetic to the character, Mevlut, the Boza seller in the streets of Istanbul who was once assaulted by a pack of stray dogs, in the novel, ‘Strangeness in my Mind’ by Orhan Pamuk. Now I know what had prompted Mevlut to avoid that particular street. With Khyrunnisa’s book in hand I have a word for it; cynophobia. I read ‘Tongue in Cheek’ while sitting in a hospital lobby waiting for the doctor to attend my mother. I thought I could visit hospitals again and again provided if I have books like ‘Tongue in Cheek’ in my hand.

-          JohnyML

Friday, September 20, 2019

‘Choral Monologues’: Why They Sing it All Alone?

(Devidas Agase, artist)

The title ‘Choral Monologues’ or ‘Sing a group song all alone or all by oneself’ could mean many things and those meanings could include a wide range of attitudes and mental state of the one who does those monologues as well as that of the one who reads/listens to it; from existential pangs to sarcastic critique of the state of affairs around. When there is none else to sing along, it is the fate of a lonely man to sing it all alone. Also true is the case when one decides to sing along even if there are many to sing along. Equally important is the case when one finds oneself amidst a cacophony of voices it becomes imperative for him or her to sing alone but remember, in many different voices. That is pleasing at least for the singer if not for the listener; but eventually the listener or even a passerby is forced to stand and hark upon the notations that the lonely singer’s choral renditions evoke. That is the power of the pangs or critique. Even in the darkest of times, like a lonely window lit in yellow light, seen from afar, gives the hope that there is someone who is awake for the sake of humanity; either he is committing suicide after writing his last words or he is plotting for the final overthrow of the present situation. He may be failure in both the attempts however, what becomes important for him is that he is awake, he is writing or he is plotting for the impossible.

‘Choral Monologues’ is a solo exhibition by Devidas Agase, a young artist based in Mumbai and is curated by Sushma aka Sushma Sabnis. Both the artist and curator are closer to my heart because I have been keenly watching their progress in their respective careers and it is a pleasure to see them working towards the public presentation of the latest body of their works. For Devidas, like any other young artist working from a metro city like Mumbai, a curated solo exhibition is something like a dream coming true. It is important on many counts; first of all, in today’s socio-cultural and political scenario, a solo exhibition could be seen as just another exhibition displaying beautiful pictures or works of art, or an exhibition with interesting works that lead to nowhere in terms of aesthetics or socio-political and cultural critique. While the former is intended to satisfy the art for art’s sake idea of aesthetics the latter could also mean the same by pitching neither on aesthetics nor on politics. In that sense many an exhibition around us goes astray evoking the Shakespearean saying: ‘full of sound and fury signifying nothing.’

(Sushma Sabnis, curator)

There is definitely a sense of awfulness in the present living contexts. It is quite Beckett-ian; Nobody comes, Nobody goes, Nothing happens, it is awful. Samuel Beckett was referring to the waiting for the ultimate arrival the omnipotent; the God. But nothing happens. We live in a world/context where we have several Gods and Goddesses both in their ideal and idol form and in their corporeal forms. New political gods and patriarchs are in place and they patronizingly pat on the backs of the scientists and artists so that the weight of the patron/s’ hands is felt intimately and threateningly. But nothing happens, is the final result of such patronizing. We move from degeneration to putrefaction, raising a lot of stink and fury, in fact signifying nothing. The Bard of Stratford upon Avon has never been wrong in his findings.

I do not know whether Devidas and Sushma while working towards this exhibition were aware of these facts however, as their mentor for some years I am sure that they have been sufficiently aware of the traps that the subject of their exhibition would pose along the way. For the artist, within the dominant Hindu-Hindi-Hindustani discourse it is a challenge to use and sub-use (let me coin such a word to qualify use of something to subvert and perhaps use the same in/with a different potential) the images that could apparently hint at the fractions and portions of such a discourse. He should be doubly carefully while doing so. It is a tightrope walk; when one does not have a different ensemble of references to forward a critique and is forced to use the repertoire of the same linguistic paraphernalia it becomes a search for exploring the possibilities of the subversive faculties of such a language. It is seeking a needle in the darkroom. The artist has to accept the primary fact that it is pitch dark in the room and what has been lost is nothing but a needle. It is a search of the ultimate kind; having accepted the ignorance rampantly thickening around us, searching for the needle of knowledge and truth is a real task. And that is what Devidas is trying to do in this exhibition.

(Invitation card for Devidas' show)

To make my point further clear, let me say that he uses the dominant Hindu visual parlance mostly with a difference; even if I say with a difference, I should accept the fact that the only referential frame work is that of the hegemonic Hindu cultural ethos. Even when the artist tries to deal with the good-bad-ugly part of life and also to emphasize the aspect of the victory of the good over evil, ultimately he has to use a language which is immediate and less exotic. The difference that Devidas creates is a via mode of folk tradition and the fair-ground entertainments where puppets/pata chithras/bhopa or kawat ensemble etc are used for depicting the stories in the collective sub/unconsciousness of the people in general. These kinds of entertainments function with on the apriori fact that the stories are known and it has to be retold adding sufficient varieties of rendering. It is poetic because people willingly suspend their disbelief not in the stories that they already now but in the ways in which the stories are told with a variety of inflections and intonations adequately chosen by the narrator. Devidas speaks about a fragmented society that pretends to be a whole, an anxious face that masquerades it with affected confidence, a society that hides truth in lies and projects lies as truth. And possibly Devidas found the best way to express them through the images of puppets. He has also experimented with them by turning them to three dimensional assemblages as well as ephemeral shadow based kinetic apparitions.

For a young artist who lives in our times in a metro city with less space for a studio and less money for a good life, it is one of the fiercest of fights that he could ever wage in his life. Perhaps he is a lucky person because he got the right time to be young and aware in the most difficult of times in the history of India and when seen against such a backdrop his personal tribulations and trials may look less severe and easy to handle. However, with each passing day with choking spaces of articulation and for words of courage, and compromise is the word through imagery negotiations, someone still doing his work from a suburban studio is an act of faith in itself. Devidas, whether he believes in the religious practices or not does not bother me much because somewhere one could see how as an artist he is doubtful about the whole thing that is happening in today’s time and that is what making him to sing his varieties all alone.

(A work by Devidas Agase)

Before concluding my views on the forthcoming exhibition, let me say a few words about Sushma. She has been under my tutelage for almost eight years whose transition from an artist who worked in a variety of styles with ample amount of misunderstandings about the very idea of ‘modern art’ and its visual expressions to a highly perceptive and sophisticated art critic and curator is phenomenal. It is not the morale booster shot from a mentor; it is rather a testimony that is to be made public at this juncture as she embarks on her journey as an independent curator. With an MSc in Marine Biology, Sushma came to the scene as an artistand when she started communicating with me I found her views on art much refined (though with her own doubts and confusions about art’s history) and the language sensitive and expressions highly effective. Taking her under my wings was an act of faith for me too and she has not disappointed me in that. Following my instructions and reading well into art history (perhaps much better than a regular art history student does) and assisting me in mega curatorial projects, Sushma has gained enough hands on experience in curating and with Devidas’ solo exhibition she does it all alone, another Choral Monologue for her. And like a distant tenor of that chorus, I too am singing my own choral music all alone. Sushma and myself enjoy when we sing ‘mile sur mera tumhara’, the legendary video of national integration, a visual and lyrical staple on which we grew up along with the history of Indian television. This voice has eventually become ours. And who could forget the song, ‘Tu jo meri sur mein sur mila de sang gaa le to zindagi to ho jaye safal. (Sing to my voice and blend it, sing it along, let the life be fruitful).

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Children in Kashmir: Thought Provoking Photographs by Dr.Ajitkumar G

(Children in Kashmir by Ajitkumar G)

Zakir Mian was not supposed to be there in the middle of things. They were ‘parakeets’ asking for blood. They chopped people down and their target was clear. Anjum, the protagonist in Arundhati Roy’s latest novel, ‘Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ too was there with him on that fateful day in 2002 in Ahmedabad. The dying Mian had a strange expression in his eyes, Anjum noticed. Zakir Mian did not know why he was killed.

When you look at the eyes of the children in the crisis zones all over the world, in the borders where refugees beg and plead with the border keeping forces to let them in for God’s sake, in the areas of genocide and pogrom, in the detention camps, refugee camps, in the no man’s lands, in the boats hopelessly abandoned in the seas, in the war ravaged neighborhoods which were peaceful heavens of familial bliss a few months back and in the states that are made into silent but horrible prisons by the state authorities you see the horror and awe of not knowing why they are pushed into such a horrendous situation.

(Children in Kashmir by Ajitkumar G)

If there is a heaven, children are from there. In a crisis zone children are the worst affected because they don’t know from where the sufferings originate and why they are forced to undergo that. The grown up people know why such a crisis has occurred. It is said that even in the worst calamity children overcome the horrors of it either by sleeping in the safe cradles of their parents’ hands or by adapt themselves to the situation faster that anybody could imagine. They are the biggest survivors in the world; but the trauma does not leave them. If someone recounts, in their days of affluence in future also the woes and pains that they had undergone, it is because of the trauma that never says die.

When I look at the photographs from Kashmir posted by Dr.Ajitkumar, an artist, thinker and a sensitive but argumentative human being, I particularly see the pictures where children are featured. When Ajitkumar visited Kashmir a couple of years back he was not thinking about the future uses of the pictures. He was clicking at the scenes and people out of curiosity. However the photographic ensemble that he has posted with a hashtag to go along particularly shows that it was not the scenic beauty of the legendary land of Kashmir that had attracted him during his visit but the people and their indomitable spirit of survival.

(Children in Kashmir by Ajitkumar G)

Even before the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution by the Government of India, the peace loving people of Kashmir were already caught between two forces; the military of the Government of India and the terrorists ‘locally trained’ (in Arundhati Roy’s words). Today, after forty days of its isolation from the mainland, ironically to integrate it with the mainland, the reality has not changed much. An apple trader was shot at not by the Indian military but by the terrorists for opening his shop. The terrorists felt that the opening of the shop was a repudiation of their diktat to keep the valley absolutely non-cooperative with the Government of India, which has vowed itself by hook or crook would bend the will of the Kashmiris and make them toe the line eventually.

In the house of the apple trader, the terrorists shot a five year old girl, Asma Jan, the granddaughter of the merchant. This has in fact turned the public sentiments against the local terrorists. Though the sentiments are still for the special status of Kashmir, the people in Kashmir seem to have lost their cool; but they are hand and tongue tied. They are not yet given opportunity to express themselves for or against India. Caught between the devil and the sea (read India and Pakistan or vice versa), the people are rendered limbless and spiritless in these days. Now both the Governments fear that be there an election or referendum, the people might throw surprise for both the governments which they don’t want to afford now for the fear of dubbing the abrogation and the counter arguments a misadventure or policy decision that has gone terribly wrong.

(Children in Kashmir by Ajitkumar G)

Ajitkumar’s photographs show the dilemma in the faces of the people; they did not know in two years their land will be a ‘part’ of India. It is business as usual in the photographs. But the tension on their faces is palpable. I pick and choose the pictures of the children in Kashmir. They are obviously not from Srinagar or Baramulla or any other city or town. They were the children who caught the attention and curiosity of the artist as he was travelling through the dirt paths of the interior Kashmir villages. They children look rustic but full of fun and frolic. They are not new to tourists and travelers so they are not amused to see a stranger training his camera at them. But they are jovial enough not to be conscious.

The same children, when they turn thirteen or fourteen, they become suspects in the eyes of the Indian military. In the previous days the police kept a watch on them but they were not picked up for interrogation and torture. But today, for the last forty days the reports come out of Kashmir say that children are not spared by the army men. Many children under ten even are picked up and taken to detention centers. One of the reports allegedly quoted an official source saying that any child who is capable of throwing a stone could turn into a militant hence he or she should be tamed at that tender age itself.

(Children in Kashmir by Ajitkumar G)

The international communities have already turned their heat on the Government of India regarding the issue of children in Kashmir in confinement. Children have been brought up amidst the stories and legends of local heroes who had bravely fought off the advances of the Indian military. Each time a young man is felled by the Indian bullets he is taken for a Shaheed, a martyr. Arundhati Roy in her article categorically states that thousands of young people defy curfew and come out in hoards to pay tribute to the dead young freedom fighter. Their freedom fighter is our terrorist or vice versa, so goes the adage. Each boy child who has seen his mother or sister being molested or father or brother picked up for interrogation and torture could turn into a militant. But the Government does not heed to the fact that despite such horrors young children, young men and women want to live their lives trouble free just like any other young person in today’s world would wish to.

Dignity is something that is taken away from the childhood of Kashmir’s children. They are put through never ending crisis and their education and childhood itself is in limbo. They do not know where to go and what to do. Confined within the homes, seeing only the troubled faces of the elders and the patients suffering pain without getting enough medication and care, these children could really lose their childhood and become anything; a militant, a recluse, mentally troubled or a rogue. Dr. Santhosh Kumar SS, the Deputy Superintendent of Medical College, Trivandrum also an active member of the Medicine Sans Frontiers, who has travelled and worked extensively in the African countries has written how the trigger happy children in Congo and other east African countries indiscriminately fire at people if they think that they are not ‘respected’.

(Dr.Ajitkumar G)

Dignity is something comes even to the children naturally. That is genetic. When dignity is denied they either kill or commit suicide. Kashmiri childhood is collectively stripped off of its dignity. Each picture taken by Ajitkumar reminds me of the lost dignity of the children or the possibility of them losing it in the near future. When I see the pictures of those girl children smiling profusely at the camera I remember Asifa Bano, the eight year old girl who was raped by Hindu brutes in a temple in Kathwa, Jammu and Kashmir and killed her inch by inch in January 2018. They were trying to teach a wandering Muslim community a lesson. Let these children live their life and bloom into wonderful human beings. Kashmir or no Kashmir, if the Indian Government is not listening, it is time that the international communities and courts take Suo moto action on this issue.