Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Notre Dame Fire Deliberate: Was it Shock Doctrine at its Best?

(Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris)

Notre Dame Cathedral, a 12th century Gothic Church was partially gutted down by a freaky fire on 15th April 2019. The world held its breath and watched the inferno licking away the famed church’s spiral tower and ancient roof. A renovation was underway and the fire fighters took almost a day to contain the flames. No human casualty was reported and the scale of the damage happened to the historical treasures in terms of paintings, sculptures, religious relics, golds and diamonds and so on also was not discussed in detail in the international media. While it was said that ‘a part of France soul was dead’, the French President, Emmanuel Macron said that the government would rebuild the church come whatever may.

I am not a conspiracy theorist. Nor do I have firsthand knowledge about the damages caused by the fire. However, the whole event which has been spectacularised by the television reports and the visuals shared in the social media make me think about a couple of possibilities regarding the fire and the future of Notre Dame as a center of attraction in the French Tourist Map. Tourism alone contributes to 77.7 billion Euros to France’s GDP per annum which translates in to 9.7% of the GDP of the country and 10.9% of employment. A report published in the Independent dated 15th April 2019 underlines the impact of the Notre Dame fire on the domestic tourism. An average of 36000 visitors spent two to three hours at the Cathedral on a normal day. As it is a free entry destination, the economy is surged in terms of local hospitality industry and other collaterals.

(Fire fighters at Notre Dame)

It would take at least a year to rebuild Notre Dame back to its former glory and definitely it wouldn’t be the same Cathedral as before. But can one be sure about the decimation of its glory despite the damage caused by the fire for the fire is not new to this structure? The famed spire which has been shown/seen crumbling like matchsticks was a ‘new structure’ as the old structure was gutted in another fire in late 19th century. With the technological revolution at its infancy the news and images of that fire must have been minimally circulated in those days and also their entry into the recorded history might have been controlled by the authorities. That means the Notre Dame that had been through the 20th century till date was a ‘restored’ cathedral harking back and imitating the history of the 12th century Gothic original. It also means what had been passed off as original art works, the stained glass portals and windows and most importantly the relic from crucifixion, the crown of thorns worn by Jesus Christ were ‘restored’ or ‘recreated’ ones.

When religious places catch fire there is always a good amount of hushing up regarding the damages in order to maintain the sanctity of the place primarily and then for rebuilding the damaged history into its pristine form. In the case of Notre Dame too this silence has been observed. Most probably the movable works of art and artefacts must have been taken to safe locations. The immobile items like murals and other altar related artefacts must have gathered soot and grimed which could be cleaned up by the restorers and conservationists. And the shifting of the art works and valuables must have taken place well before the fire is one of my ‘gut’ feeling mainly because of two reasons; one, little has been written about the damages happened to the art works. Had they been destroyed there would have been heated responses in the art world. No such debates erupted since the fire. Two, as the cathedral was under restoration and the access to the building restricted, the cathedral should have been free of people as well as the stuff that people generally came to see. Everything must have been already gone into the safe vaults including the fantastic crown of thorns.

(Rebuilding proposal submitted by Studio NAB in Paris)

It is time for me to speak about the unthinkable for the believers in the world culture in general and the staunch believers in the French sophistication in particular, also it could be blasphemous for many. The fire in the Notre Dame Church was accidental on the one hand and on the other it was an ‘expected’ fire. What has been gutted down is the wooden part of the cathedral; that means the famed roof and the legendary spiral tower. Within three days, reports had come out saying that France did not have much forest resources to rebuild the wooden structure. That may be an exaggeration for the government of France and the environmental activists may not be interested to shave off their green land to rebuild a cathedral however important it is in their collective history. It is a triumph of sustainable living over blind faith in tourism.

But income through tourism in Paris is not going to be affected because the Independent report already points out that the tourists will divert themselves to other Parisian destinations that include ‘big hitters’ like Louvre Museum and Eiffel Tower. I should add that while Notre Dame had been a free access destination the other two are paid points of attraction. So the fire has in a way or rather inadvertently facilitated the government to ‘renew’ the Notre Dame cathedral not only for maintenance but for added attraction. That means the fire could have been a deliberate disaster; a controlled disaster meant to be contained within a stipulated time once the target was achieved.

(Naomi Klein with her book Shock Doctrine)

Here I am reminded of the Canadian Writer Naomi Klein’s 2007 book, ‘Shock Doctrine; the Rise of Disaster Capitalism’. I remember this book particularly because Klein uses the analogy of shock therapy during the Nazi days to clean people’s memory and remake them. Memories are wiped out to create a new citizen. This theory she applies in the social sphere where natural calamities do the job of shock treatment. According to her the real estate and builder mafia in the world supported by the governments wait for natural calamities to happen so that a new and vast real estate possibility could be opened up and most importantly the squatters and ghettos could be cleaned up without socio-political resistance. She uses the typhoon Katrina as an example to show how it had cleaned up the areas in Florida and Louisiana and throw up a new real estate business.

(restoration of Notre Dame by Studio NAB will make such effects)

In Paris we are not looking at any real estate business. But something more than that; it could be called the updating of history. Updating of history becomes necessary on two counts; one, the existing structure becomes a mammoth of high maintenance. Two, the change of the structure could radicalize art, architecture and the domination of art and culture scene. What surprised me was the fact that within two weeks, upon on the calling of the French Government, a Paris based architecture firm, Studio NAB submitted a new roof structure for the historical building. Ever since the reports came out, it has been hailed as a futuristic structure which is contemporary and ecologically caring. This specially made greenhouse structure will slightly imitate the former wooden roof but will have plants and creepers in the place of wooden beams (something that reminds me of Shankar’s movie ‘Shivaji, the Boss’ with Rajnikant in the lead). The Independent report came out on 28th April says that the submissions that followed the Studio NAB’s proposal range from ‘practical to ambitious to bizarre.’

(Rajni Kant in Shivaji the Boss song scene)

That means Notre Dame fire is not a fire by accident. Behind every fire now there is a reason. I am not just putting forward a conspiracy theory. I am just hinting at a possibility. Till the Second World War (WWII) Paris was the world art and culture center. Post war world saw it moving towards New York with the movement of financial capital held by most of the European Jews. Persecution of the Jews in Europe and the exile that followed in fact built the US cultural capital as well as financial capital when it needed both most. Paris always wanted to capture its cultural leadership back. With a young and forward looking President in place against the right wing Trump in the US, France could now dream to be back on the top of the world. It needs a symbol and symbol of resurrection like a Phoenix. Can any other structure in Paris could be better for the purpose than Notre Dame Cathedral?

Monday, April 15, 2019

Chithrasenan NE, Modern Book Centre and Orhan Pamuk: Trivandrum Sketches 1

(Chithrasenan NE at his Modern Book Centre)

Trivandrum is a small city; perhaps a city in India where you could walk down to most of the destinations if you are commuting to the city by train or bus and you are travelling light. Like all the airports, here too the domestic as well as international airports are located at the outskirts, but at a distance that you could cycle down. However, Trivandrum poses a strategic dilemma to any commuter within the city. The distance between two bus stops is less than half a kilometer. But the climate is so harsh that you find it difficult to cover the distance on foot. In a bus before you collect your ticket, you are at your stop. And if you are taking an auto, you wonder why you have spent twenty five rupees for that quick and flashy ride.

Still I like to walk in this city. When I walk here I imagine I am a flaneur in a French street. That was many years back; I was a young student in the city then. The buildings were small and the streets were less crowded. You could bump into some well-known writers strolling along and paying their mandatory visits to the book stalls. Trivandrum is a city where you find eleven book stalls within fifty meters. You may say Kolkata has a College Street full of book stalls. Here you don’t have a college street like that but each building near and around statue houses more than one book stall. This is apart the wayside magazine kiosks that sell books too.

(Orhan Pamuk)

After reading Orhan Pamuk, I imagine myself walking in the streets of Istanbul. Pamuk says that the streets in his home city are ruled by stray dogs. Some rules go for occasional culling through ‘genocidal massacre’. Then people start missing their strays in the streets. So they demand their strays be back in the streets. The rulers allow. A few years back Trivandrum too had this menace of stray dogs. They used to turn violent and bite old and young alike. Some found excessive food waste and the poor waste management in the city caused the dog menace. So the corporation thought of culling. But soon they found that the city had more dog lovers and activists than stray dogs. Then came the online food companies like Uber Eats. Now as one of my friends says, ‘Trivandrum’s organic waste is recycled by Uber Eaters.’

I met Chithrasenan NE in Facebook. To my surprise I also found out that he was a key person in the fabled ‘Modern Book Centre’. I have been trying to visit him ever since the Facebook introduction. But I met him in different places. One day I saw him driving a Nano. I was standing in front of the legendary Trivandrum Hotel with Dr.Ajitkumar who had turned a corner in the air conditioned restaurant his ‘city office.’ Then I met him at the Shanghumugham Art Museum twice. He had two friends with him; both of them voracious readers. Someone told me, the guy standing with Chithrasenan was a kind of reader who went to browse in a book stall and finished reading two to three books by noon.

(Chitrasenan NE)

Finally I get a chance to go to the Modern Book Centre. It is like the Alladin’s in Pamuk’s Istanbul. You get everything that you imagine in the Alladin’s. I think I could get any book there. A lane away from the General Post Office junction on your left at the MG Road where two lonely Double Decker buses ply you find this famous book store. I walk in and see people busy browsing and reading. It initially gives the sense of a well-lit old library. Book store staffs distinct by the identity cards hanging from their necks help people find the books they want. The book store is long in shape and the endless rows of books give an impression of parallel mirror reflections, infinite.

My mind goes blank. In fact I have a particular book in my mind; Gita Hariharan’s ‘I have Become the Tide’, a novel. Before I could look for it I see Chithrasenan walking towards me from the innards of the endless book store. I think he has seen me entering the shop in the CCTV monitor or it could be just an accident also. I shook hands with him and I feel relieved for making it to the store finally. I had ordered a book almost two months back; ‘Like a Thief in Broad Daylight’ by Slavoj Zizek. We talk and by the time a staff member brings Gita Hariharan’s book for me. I ask Chithrasenan about the Zizek book, hesitantly. He goes to the counter and picks it up from a particular spot, brings back to me and says, ‘I had kept it there the day you told me to.’

(Book, The Innocence of Memories by Pamuk)

A keen observer of people Chithrasenan knows my areas of interest and the book seller’s instinct is quite sharp. He shows me some interesting books. I make mental notes so that I could purchase them in the next visit. Then I ask him about Orhan Pamuk. ‘Anything after the Red Haired Woman?’ Once again he goes to the counter and picks up a book and gives it to me saying, ‘Readers of Pamuk may not like this one, but I am sure people like you would.’ The book gives me a great feeling. It is ‘The Innocence of Memories’, a screenplay cum interview cum anecdote book on how Pamuk had worked on his novel ‘the Museum of Innocence’  and a real Museum of Innocence, a museum that houses all the objects that the protagonists in the novel had used and got mention in it.

It is a tour de force, I should say. I finished reading the book in one sitting. Reminding the reader of his illustrious book ‘Istanbul’ the book is amply illustrated with images from the Museum of Innocence, the real museum, the novel and the documentary by the British filmmaker Grant Gee. Let me quote a few lines from this book which has full of memorable lines: “We have moved on from sagas to novels which tell the stories of individual human beings, but we still haven’t managed to make that transformation when it comes to museums. Unfortunately, museums today- particularly in non-western countries- still operate as epics, more concerned with flag-waving and acting as repositories of the signs and symbols of national identity. I think that museums should concentrate on the stories of individuals, and be founded upon the creativity of individuals. Like novels, museums that rest on the imagination of individuals within a nation rather than on the accomplishments of that nation as a whole will be better at portraying its people and trials they have faced.”

(Adarsh Onnatt)

At the counter, while making the payment we chat up a little more. This time we chat about Adarsh Onnatt, a young literary enthusiast who writes literary criticism in the magazines and weeklies and a voracious reader. “It is difficult to find such a reader of his age,” says Chithrasenan quite appreciative of his friend Adarsh. I have a special place for Adarsh in my mind for he was the one who took my first interview in Kerala for an online English magazine (yentha.com) edited by Sabin Iqbal, a decade ago. It is time to go. I say good bye to Chithrasenan and his elder brother who in fact sits at the cash counter. And Chithrasenan has given me good discounts. Anybody visiting Trivandrum do visit ‘Modern Book Centre’ and meet Chithrasenan too.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Death Can be an Unlikely Title but Death is the only Likely Thing: Balucharan’s Art Exhibition

(artist Balucharan)

“I live in a demotivating society,” says Balucharan, a thirty five year old artist who has currently put up his second solo exhibition at the Lalitha Kala Academy Gallery, Vyloppilli Cultural Centre, Trivandrum. Titled ‘Death’ this exhibition ironically has more ‘fantastic life’ in it in the form of painterly narratives. They do not strictly qualify as ‘narratives’ though; they are quasi-narratives with a scene loaded with cheerful and at times grave ironies culled from the interior life of the artist himself. There are two obvious sections in the exhibition; one, with the works that Balucharan had done in the initial years after his ‘official’ entry into ‘painting’ and two, the recent body of works that shows a different iconography and narrative style. The former set has dark tones almost reminding one of the works of or portions of works by the German Expressionist master, Max Beckman. In the latter set Balucharan moves between East and West as one could see both the influences of the masters of Eastern and Western modern-contemporary paintings.

(painting by Balucharan)

Balucharan is unapologetic about the influences. Having studied Applied Art for the artist painting was a covetable target but had to be achieved with a great difficulty. Hailing from a moderate family, according to him, with his father doing wood works for hotel interiors Balucharan had financial difficulty in pursuing college studies. Prevailing conditions of finance led him to take up odd jobs while pursuing a degree course in History and only when he collected enough money for his studies he could apply for formal education in fine arts; there too financial consideration came to fore and he was guided to take up Commercial Art for graduate studies. After graduating in Applied Art from Thrissur Fine Arts College, Balucharan joined the advertising world and worked for a few years. He wanted to be a painter always and once he got financial freedom, he took up painting and now he works in a firm in Trivandrum and paints at home.

(painting by Balucharan)

That may not be an exceptional story because many do much more than this. But what makes Balucharan’s works interesting is the way he sees himself and the world in his works. The first body of works that I have mentioned earlier, which could be called his ‘grey period’ all have some kind of a drama going on as the central theme and in that drama either an unsuspecting human being or a harmless animal like a rabbit is confined, observed, teased and even tortured. In all these charades the focus of their aggression is the surrogate being of the artist himself. Someone coming with an applied art background to become a painter would often face with more ridicule than acceptance. In the general parlance an applied artist is a ‘commercial artist’ who works ‘for’ other people and their ideas whereas the ‘artists’ are the ones who work for themselves with all kinds of freedom under the sky. Though this is the myth, when it comes to monetary matters both the applied and creative artists respond more or less in the same manner.

(painting by Balucharan)

Balucharan is the rabbit inside the jar or the man inside the art gallery with guns pointing at him. It is from these experiences he says that he lives in a demotivating society. In his grey phase of painting, Balucharan was ridiculed by one and all. “I go to the places where art camps and other art functions take place. They look at me curiously. They feel that I am some kind of an intruder. They do not believe that I am artist. Even my neighbors do not understand that an artist could be like me, observant, aloof but enthusiastic in artistic surroundings,” he says. Balucharan started off as a doodler and scribbler then an artist who drew a lot. According to him he could draw a chair hundred times till it loses its ‘chariness’ and becomes something else. This kind of drawing practice took him to a spiritual trip; a trip which is unlike the regular spiritual trips. “I understood objects and human beings. I also understood there is not much in their ridicule either. They are poor people.” He lost interest in people perhaps when he realized that they too were people caught up in their own situations, not really the perpetrators of threat but the victims of their own acts.

(painting by Balucharan)

With this knowledge, largely liberated, we could see Balucharan entering his ‘pink period’. He seems to have found his protagonist in these paintings; a sort of anxious chubby being which is neither a cherub nor a human being. But the artist would insist that it is his own surrogate but with some kind of genital ambiguity. This ambiguity is deliberate for the artist believes that he is a transitory being; neither a child nor a grown up person, not a god and not even a demon. He looks like as if he is taken out of his protective shell. He has a peculiar hair-do that resembles the matted locks of the ancient sages; sometimes they have wings and automatic rifles in their hands. Surrounding them are horses, horsemen, rabbits, copulating dogs and cats and so on. The phantasmagoric scenery in the paintings could be unsettling for many for the starkness of the iconic appearance of the protagonist against a surreal backdrop is too ‘abnormal’ to accept. But stylistically these are identifiable with the works of Rene Magritte and Yue Minjun.

(painting by Balucharan)

Balucharan accepts his stylistic influences and says that he is more comfortable with the Renaissance painters than the contemporary ones. I would say if his grey period paintings were the embodiments of the gazes that the other people held over/on him, the pink period works show how Balucharan has gained confidence to articulate himself within a canvas (therefore within the society) and from their observe the society in turn. If he was the object of others’ gaze in the former body, in the latest body we could see him as the one observing. But in the process he makes himself quite a bold scene. He has bugles and guns, roses and wings, the ability to sin and atone and live the life of his own, even to the extent of being an asexual one or the one who has transcended sexual orientations of any kind. Calling his works/exhibition ‘Death’ is metaphorical for the death here is also a re-birth, second life of the artist as a confident being. It could be the death of the society that he had been afraid of. It could also be the death of that coward inside him. It could be the death of conventions and restrictive archetypes. It could be the death of his nightmares. Balucharan could now change the scale of his works and also animate the iconic protagonist a bit. Postures do change in the paintings but there is kind of stiffness or diffidence in them. If it is deliberate, let it prevail and if it is not, painting is the only way to animate them further.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Why the Jakarta Mermaids Should Make Us Think about India’s Public Sculptures?

(mermaid with blouse in Jakarta)

It did make to international news though this part of the world neglected it completely. Had it been in the West perhaps the news would have rocked the art world exactly the way the shredding painting by Banksy had done it in the Sotheby’s auction hall. But it happened in a small eastern capital called Jakarta in Indonesia, a relatively Muslim majority country. In an entertainment park called Ancon Dreamland a woman artist whose name has not yet been featured in the news was commissioned to do two mermaid sculptures as a part of beautification. Today the sculptures sport two golden blouses around their breasts, a move carefully done by the park authorities in order to keep the ‘eastern family values’ and they insist that they have not been pressurized by any religious moral policing groups. It has been reported that initially the cover up of the breasts was done with a coat of paint and later with a pair of golden tube tops. Now, to the dismay of many the sculptures are moved to some unspecified location for further sprucing up.

(another mermaid bloused in Jakarta)

One does not need special mental abilities to understand it as a part of self/internal censorship by the park authorities. The very denial by the authorities of the external involvement proves that there is one if not many. It should be nothing but an ‘eastern’ sign of how Indonesia too going the ‘right’ way. World over the right wing forces have been prowling the streets to identify the morally incorrect art but only thanks to the predominant museum cultures of the West prevent them from making unwarranted entries into the premises. Besides, the museums are patronized by huge corporates whose lobbying powers with the existing governments are more than an ordinary citizen could imagine. Hence, even if the right wingers try their best to make dent on the museum culture in the west they will be disappointed. With a strong museum culture adding a lot to the tourism economy of many states no political outfit that seeks public approval would venture into moral policing. But that is not the case with the South Eastern countries.

(Yakshi by Kanai Kunchiraman)

Sitting on the powder keg of the right wing politics or right wing inclination of the influential political parties the south east Asian countries could soon turn into self-censorship as a part of their appeasing policy towards the conservative political climate. The fear factor that the right wing could destabilize the political equations and the growing anxiety among the public regarding their conflicting moral norms with the ongoing debates on socio-sexual mores could in a way make the public silent over such moves. Despite such silence and lack of interventions, there are people from odd corners of the world commenting and lampooning the authorities over such moves. Talibanization of Afghanistan was one such move in the recent history that we saw spilling over to the post war Iraq when they were destroying the museums and artefacts. Religious fundamentalism, when mixed with Nazi and Fascist tendencies could prove the most dangerous Molotov in a socio-political and cultural climate.

India has been showing such tendencies for quite some time. Though it was not driven by organized right wing parties half a century back, the right wing feelings and tendencies were instrumental in making such ridiculous moves towards art and culture. Similar cladding of the breasts was attempted on the illustrious ‘Yakshi’ sculpture by Kanai Kunchiraman at the Malampuzha Dam site in 1969.  The right wing youngsters from the area demanded an appropriate dress for the otherwise fully naked Yakshi whose body is provocatively opened to the audience/public. A very clever official who headed the contract of the site pacified the right wing youths saying that a mill at Coimbatore had been approached for a specially made sari for this thirty feet sculpture and it was awaited anytime. Whether they believed it or they were amused by the poetics of such a clever move, they called off their agitation. Today, Yakshi still sits naked exposing her ‘sex’ to the visiting public. So far no concerted efforts have been made to clad this sculpture by the strong right wing parties in Kerala. But the brittle acceptance could break at any time if political moves in India take a ‘real’ right turn.

(Navjot Altaf's sculpture given a sari by the Bastar Panchayat. Also you could see JohnyML)

M.F.Husain and the nudity portrayed by him on the Hindu Goddesses are now folk tales of the leftists and secularists. With Husain leaving first the country next this world itself, the right wingers seem to have buried their differences with him provided his works are no longer exhibited or openly sold in India. Husain for the Hindutva forces is like beef, it seems. Beef is banned in India, more or less. But in Beef Export India stands second in the world with 18% world share. The first place is for Brazil and the difference is only one percent. In Beef Export India has pushed both Australia and United States, two beef producing and eating countries to third and fourth positions respectively. Husain’s stock in the art market has not come down even if he is ‘hated’ by many Hindutva leaning market leaders including the Ambanis, whose art collection stands unparalleled in India. How does it happen, nobody knows. Perhaps, in the right wing regimes what is more hated is more circulated surreptitiously and dearly. Where sexual morality is in its stringent forms, you would have a grey market or a black market with thriving porn business.

India’s hypocrisy in terms of sexual morality is still growing. There have been efforts to clad sculptures, remove paintings from the exhibitions and even apply self-censorship by the organizers. Anybody claiming to have allegiance with the dominant right wing outfits could walk into a gallery and remove paintings and sculptures citing nudity or sexual morality as a reason. Nobody could stop them. They could stop films from making, demanding changes in the script, stop screening of movies, asking for changing of the titles. Non-obliging artists could be manhandled by them. Once in Bastar, Chattisgargh, Navjot Altaf made fifteen feet standing nude woman sculpture which was soon given a painted sari by the Panchayat for the state was then ruled by the right wing outfit. The threat is still growing. Artists have been very cautious in making visual statements. Like we have seen in history during the Fascist regimes, artists in India too have gone either silent or tactful. They have stopped openly criticizing the ruling despotic regime. Many have crossed over to the dominant camp showing willingness to paint of and for the rulers.

(Dressing up nude sculptures?)

In India there are so many sculptures in the public domain that have pronounced nudity. They have been there and were not disturbing the public morality at all. Even the oft quoted temple sculptures in various parts of India were basking under the sun wearing only sky and air for clothes. Soon they are all under surveillance. When political morality becomes vicious they compensate it with sexual morality. The more a society gets its upper echelons corrupt the more it tightens its grip on sexuality. Corrupt power employs sexual morality to whitewash its decaying facades. If we, as a society elect the right wing forces to rule us once again the possibility of our public and private works of art wearing under and upper garments cannot be ruled out. Even an electric post or tree trunk with a remote semblance of a female body part would be covered by force and definitely by order. What happened in Jakarta is not an alien thing. The process has been on in India for long and more pronounced during the last five years. Let us learn from the signals and uproot the cause than treating the symptoms misreading them for the disease.