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.

Monday, September 16, 2019

A Musical Instrument Carrying the Politics of Bamboo

(Yet to be named Bamboo musical instrument created by Jayachandran Kadampanad)

Folk singer, actor and the Director of Folk Life Academy, Trivandrum, Jayachandran Kadampanad is quite elated about his new invention; a composite musical instrument made completely out of bamboo and leather. For many years Jayachandran has been experimenting with sonic properties of bamboo from different parts of India. Traditionally bamboo is used in/for making various types of flutes or similar musical instruments and it has been an integral ingredient in both folk and classical music. However, using bamboo exclusively for making a composite musical instrument is a new experiment which has found its process and shape in the imagination of Jayachandran.

(Jayachandran Kadampanad)

Of late Kerala has been witnessing the birth of so many folklore musical group, each vying to find its sonic and visual space in the vast array of musical traditions in Kerala. Late Kalabhavan Mani’s efforts to popularize folklore and folk songs were hugely successful because of his unbeatable energy and talent. His performances and the ability to set the folksongs both traditionally collected and newly composed within the popular and contemporary digitally orchestrated musical genre had found patronage more than he himself had expected and had opened up reality shows in the television channels in Malayalam carving out special segments for folk songs and performances. Taking the popular and populist cue many music groups came up not only to preserve the folk music traditions but also to use the genre as a vehicle to convey revolutionary ideas within a conventionally rigid society like Kerala. Presence of Dalit voices in literature, theatre, films and music during the last two decades was unavoidable and the folk music groups became an integral part of the subaltern socio-political and cultural discourse in Kerala, perhaps becoming strong with the music of Jassy Gift (2004).

(Young percussionist Bipin Kumar playing the new instrument)

This genre of music has by all means thwarted the hegemony of the erstwhile popular folk music set by the upper caste modernist poets and musicians and the inter-state and intra-state musical influence, especially of the street music, death music, protest music generated in states like Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu has considerably changed the complexion of Kerala’s folk music scenario brining more and more young people from the lower middle class and the working class background to form local bands and street side groups to innovate contemporary folk music and preserve the already existing ones. Vayali music troupe that uses bamboo as their main expression is one such folk music group with a higher amount market savvy sophistication. The folk singers of the Manaveeyam Veedhi in Trivandrum are another set of new age folk singers who use bamboo based music as well.

Jayachandran belongs to this tradition but often chooses to move as a solo performer within his band that has been using both the contemporary instruments as well as musical instruments made out of bamboo. But his extensive travels within in India and sojourn in places like Wyanad where one find an abundance of folklore and folk music have helped him to articulate a different kind approach in his music that involves various traditions including Kerala folk music, protest music and Bengal Baul songs and Rabindra Sangeet. While musicians like T M Krishna collapse the boundaries between the classical and the folk, rather challenge the classical cannons of music and take it to street, seashores and market places, we understand that the traditional approach to music is considerably pushed back by the new crop of musicians in the country, especially in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

Jayachandran’s composite musical instrument is yet to be named. As it has bamboo components that functions as drums of various shapes, sizes and traditions, rattles, bells and symbols, it is difficult to name it offhandedly, says Jayachandran. According to him this yet to be named instrument has a politics to talk about; it is the politics of bamboo. Jayachandran underlines that there was a strong tradition of using bamboo for various purposes, including making huts, houses, daily utensils, furniture and storages, besides musical instrument. With the arrival of metal and plastic mediums the use of bamboo has gone down and it has deprived the workers in the bamboo sector of their livelihood. Though there are corporations and agencies to market their products and protect the bamboo workers, the workers’ conditions is pathetic as they are not able to find new markets, incorporate new needs through design innovations, enhancing their craft abilities through added learning for the contemporary times and in enhancing their own living circumstances.

The politics of this composite musical instrument made out of bamboo runs in various directions. Jayachandran cites the two flood situations that ravaged Kerala in 2018 and 2019. Immediately after the floods everyone speaks of sustainable development and new architectural methods. Also they discuss a lot about deforestation and the need for protecting our forests. There are debates on how to prevent landslides. Each time, they find the solution in cultivating bamboos in the slopes in order to strengthen the soil layers and control the piping effect. Especially in the eastern countries bamboo is given a prime place in the sustainable development models. It is high time that Kerala too batting for its bamboo traditions. Jayachandran says that the motivation for this innovative musical instrument was the floods and the aftermath. Though he has been putting bamboo instruments together in his band for long, this is the first time that he has created a ‘full’ instrument. As the instrument is unconventional in nature, the grammar of its playing is not yet in place. That means a lot of innovation and experimentation from the musician who uses it. According to Jayachandran, a good percussionist could come up with wonders in this instrument. Also he is confident that the yet to be instrument could be played by more than one person at a time with a lot of coordination and practice. The instrument was formally inaugurated in September 2019 in Green Field Stadium in Trivandrum during the Onam celebrations. A young percussionist, Bipin Kumar played it and Jayachandran feels that he could climb great heights with this bamboo instrument.


Wednesday, September 11, 2019

A Controversial Mural in its Fading Phase: Sreelal’s Mural on Kanakakkunnu Boundary Wall

(from Travancore History Mural by Sreelal in Trivandrum)

Sreelal, a Trivandrum based artist would have been hailed as the Nandalal Bose of Trivandrum had he delved a bit deeper into Travancore’s history or rather if he had checked the alternative histories that were available very much in Thiruvananthapuram in the year 2016 when he executed his ambitious mural, the History of Travancore on the 400 feet long boundary wall of the historical Kanakakkunnu Palace, as a part of the ‘Arteria’, a public art project initiated by the Kerala Tourism Department and curated by Dr.Ajitkumar G.

(Sreelal, artist)

When opened for public viewing formally (though people were curiously watching the development of the mural) the artist received more brickbats than bouquets for the concerned viewers and art enthusiasts had found certain glaring omissions in the episodic visual narratives on the wall. It was dubbed as a mural that served the purpose of the erstwhile Travancore royal family than interpreting the history of Travancore through a visual critique. It was a missed opportunity for Sreelal though I find today the prematurely fading mural attractive in many ways.

The Nandalal Bose reference does not come by fluke. In 1938 Nandalal Bose aka Master Moshai was asked by Mahatma Gandhi to make a series of panels illustrating the greatness of the rural life of India. Gandhiji was a strong proponent of the virtues of rural life though Ambedkar had pitch fight against such a romantic view for the latter had found city life more helping the Dalits to shed their caste marks and inhibitions, and live a life of near anonymity but saved from the daily disgrace of caste-ist slurs and inhuman treatments by the upper caste people. Though Ambedkar’s views did not prevail due to the larger and deeper influence of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru had seen the truth in Ambedkar’s views despite the fact that he could not do much towards realizing Ambedkar’s dreams regarding a casteless society, due to the electoral politics and the gradual depletion of the Congress Party into the pits of upper caste Hindu ideology.

Nandalal Bose shared Gandhiji’s romantic idea about the rural India and its legendary virtues; as the seat of goodness and camaraderie, which was contrary to the facts. Bose took up the cue given by Gandhiji and made a series of pictures that lauded the imagined rural life of India. We could say that they were the tableaus of Indian rural life. Life film stills, they were frozen narratives, a moment caught in time and space, as imagined by a visionary artist. Haripura panels did capture the virtues of India’s rural space but it also hid the atrocities meted out to the depressed class people under the caste system. Everything was fine with the rural life, one would think upon seeing those images, which was the aim of Gandhiji; the perpetuation of his Swaraj dream where the autonomous villages functioned smoothly by accepting the caste hierarchies as god given structure but without the vileness of the oppressive caste system that was in practice.

I do not think Nandalal Bose was ever criticized for not presenting the darker side of rural life because it was being thought as blasphemous to take on two godheads of the time, Gandhiji and Nandalal Bose. In retrospect we could forward this critique though nothing much would happen to change the legacy or the suspension or nullifying of the series, which anyone attempts to do so would end up in self-annihilation and denial of a cultural past with its own drawbacks. Sreelal, however should have been much perceptive when he was given a chance to deal with the history of Travancore and the glaring absence of the Renaissance leaders such as Mahatma Ayyankali, Sree Narayana Guru, Thycatt Ayyavu, Chattambi Swami and so on. By denying them pictorial space, Sreelal was almost committing an artistic hara-kiri at least in terms of the hugeness of the public work that was given him to execute. A second chance never comes and even if it comes it comes too late.

Sreelal’s mural is impressive. He captures the history of Travancore from Veluthampi Dalava, a 18th century royal leader of Travancore who fought off the British East India Company as well as various rebellions from within the Travancore state, to Swati Thirunal and Sree Chithirathirunal Balarama Varma one of the last kings who lived through the 20th century. In the episode, Sreelal brings out how Travancore progressed in various fronts including literature, art, music, warfare, education and devotion and so on. The narrative however stays closer to the court history and the ordinary people appear as laborers within the states who did mostly menial jobs including farm labor. The Nair community is portrayed as warriors. Through certain tonal variations Sreelal shows the difference in complexion therefore the difference in social class and caste. There are the arrival of trains, motor cars, schools and theatre. We could also see Raja Ravi Varma in his studio. Unfortunately, when he depicts the school in Travancore, he conveniently forgets the legendary episode of Ayyankali and Panchami at the Venganoor school where Ayyankali took the Dalit girl for education and the denial of which had changed the course of history of Travancore history then and much later. So are the absence of Sree Narayana Guru and Chattambi Swami, both social and community reformers. Interestingly we could see Gandhiji doing satyagraha (1924) during the Vaikom Satyagraha that had demanded the public road around the temple for the use of all other castes including the Dalits.

The mural is now undergoing various stages of decay and collapse. This mural was not supposed to be a permanent one however, the preservation of it would have helped people in understanding both the present and the absent. While I would hold the artist responsible for the absences, I would appreciate the artist for doing a very agile and strong narrative by picking and choosing certain memorable moments from the history of Travancore. The social hierarchies are narrated adequately but he emancipatory acts are not vivified in lines and colors. Sreelal has a distinct visual style and he has employed it quite boldly and freely in this mural. We cannot stop its gradual decay, it seems. However, I hope Sreelal would be all the more conscious if he gets a large commission like this in future and he should invest time in studying the mainstream and alternative histories of the place before executing the work.


Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Art of Becoming an Artist and the Traps in its Path: Reading Jerry Saltz

(Jerry Saltz as Dali, New York Magazine cover)

When the American Art Critic Jerry Saltz’ quirky article ‘How to be an Artist’ in the New York magazine’s Vulture column will soon be a full-fledged book the quasi seriousness of the self-proclaimed ‘untrained’ art critic may become canonical in its own fashion helping a lot determined and impressionable people to become artists according to the rule book. However, I do not think following any number of formulas or self-help tips make anyone an artist though there are artists who are absolutely not out of the academies earning their positions as artists through sheer persistence and devotion. They do gather such pearls of wisdom from many avenues and employ them in their creative careers. As Saltz himself forewarns one should be ready to face failure and self-delusional in order to make a career in art without any formal training.

Saltz wouldn’t be the first one to write a self-help book; there are many in the bookstalls, libraries and art material shops, above all in the institutions that give crash courses in art that give modern as well as traditional wisdom in art making. Today you have Youtube videos, Instagram accounts, Whatsapp groups and social media pages that help and guide the people by virtually initiating them into the world of art. The difference, the possible difference between such portals of guidance and the one that is going to be out from Jerry Saltz’ publishers, Riverhead is this that the latter does not promise anything but hope. No guarantees and assurances. The virtual portals and tuitions do make guarantees and often the failure of which wouldn’t end up in litigation because of the lack of severity and persistence that the learners themselves are aware of through the course of learning.

(Jerry Saltz, the art critic)

‘How to be an Artist’ would be a fun reading because as I said before there is no assurance from the author’s side to make anyone an artist. The article that had appeared in his column in New York magazine in November 2018 had the same title (How to be an Artist) and Saltz had put down 33 points that would help someone enter the art scene with an intention to learn art, then practice it, see it, develop a visual sensibility and affinity towards art history and finally behave like an artist. Saltz starts his article with some sense of fun and soon it turns the author a bit meditative and as he goes further into digging the possible areas of concern, he becomes all the more serious. He ends the last section with a fair warning: Those who want to be an artist, ready to be poor, at least for some time.

Before Saltz, Mathew Collings of Britain had published ‘Art Crazy Nation’ (2001), a book that dealt with the British Art Scene since the Young British Movement. His first book ‘Blimey’ (1997) also had the same quirkiness. American-Mexican contemporary artist and critic, Pablo Helguera in 2007 published a book titled ‘The Helguera Manual of Contemporary Art Style’ – the essential guide for artists, curators and critics. This book too gives tips for all those new initiates to survive in the contemporary art scene in New York primarily and also elsewhere. For detailed read please refer to two of my articles written in 2008 and 2015 respectively (http://johnyml.blogspot.com/2008/10/manual-for-surviving-in-contemporary.html , http://johnyml.blogspot.com/2015/12/manual-for-surviving-in-contemporary.html).

(British Art Critic Mathew Collings)
 Market or no market, art is always fascinating for the people who are creative. Though there are not many people in our country who go out on the weekends to visit a gallery or a museum. There is enough money for doing shopping and owning cars, homes and latest gadgets but generally people are averse in spending money on art unless it is made too irresistible in terms of monetary benefit which was the reason why many investors came to play in the art market in India which in turn had given this illusion of everlasting windfall of richness. Today even artists in India speak about leaving the scene and looking for other openings in order to eke out a living. A few senior artists in their public speeches have categorically expressed their dismay in being in the art scene because it is not paying. According to them, they don’t feel the moral right or courage to advice any youngster turn to art as a career option.

(Artist and Critic Pablo Helguera)
In India whether you believe it or not art is still not a career option. Those who want to be fulltime artists need to take a long look into their future both in terms of being artists and citizens with decent lives. Still it is so heartening to see that there are many who come to study art in the academies and want to be fulltime artists. They are driven by a strange passion even when they know that there is no such existence possible in the given financial conditions, to be a fulltime artist. Those who could and would follow the advice of Jerry Saltz could end up in utter disillusionment though he is not talking about the Indian art scene or Indian market conditions. He is speaking about the people who could come into art because they could by means of money and leisure. What in India we need is an inter-disciplinary approach regarding the life and enduring practice of the artists. Their training could be useful for the new age which is technology rich yet needs traditional skills.

(Book by Pablo Helguera)
 I am not suggesting that the art education should become supplementary or vocational training towards technology and industry. But there are many sophisticated fields beyond advertising agencies, which is seen as first mainstay for the skillful artists. There are many young artists now go into film animation, computer aided graphics, creative directors for films and similar fields and so on. Though there would be killing schedules the financial freedom gained by the young artists help them to become artists of their own liking and imagination. But the only problem is that they themselves should set up new parameters for being artists. The romantic notion of an artist, a fulltime artist who is an eternally tortured soul should go and in its place a new artist concept should come up. This needs fundamental change in teaching art and art history in the art academies; the very basic approach towards art education should change. The art students should be opened to more advanced fields of art employment and conceptual thinking. Otherwise, reading the book of Saltz could give them wrong notions about being an artist even if he does not intend it so.

n  JohnyML

Monday, September 2, 2019

A Calligrapher who wakes up at 3 am to ‘WRITE’ Poetry: Narayana Bhattathiri

(Calligraphy Artist Narayana Bhattathiri -pic source net) 

Ask me to define ‘calligraphy,’ I would say it is the art of eternity or rather the art that captures eternity in a visual form. ‘Calligraphy’ means ‘beautiful writing’; a thing of beauty is a joy forever, says John Keats the British poet. ‘Forever’ has got a special meaning to this poetic utterance which could be easily connected to the art of calligraphy. In Malayalam, a letter, an alphabetic notation, is called ‘Aksharam’ which means something that endures. ‘Ksharam’ indicates the mortality of anything. The one that refuses to die and decay is Aksharam, the letter. Once written, it is etched forever in the memory of the human beings. Written words have got more impact and credibility than the spoken word. It was a transference of credibility from the spoken to written for the former had been the initial way of communication amongst the human beings. When the letters were found out, they were not really letters but stamps that ‘stamped’ a meaning through a pictorial intonation. That’s why noted calligrapher Narayana Bhattathiri says that as a calligrapher he does not write a ‘picture’ but visualize a sound, an action embedded in that sound. And Bhattathiri’s works have proved him right.

(work by Bhattathiri)

There is a perennial itch for the writer who attempts an article on Bhattathiri to qualify him as ‘Malayali’ calligrapher. Then the question surges forward: Is calligraphy, the art form limited by its linguistic base? The answer is negative. The linguistic base of calligraphy, Bhattathiri could easily say, is just a starting point. Once the word or words are written beautifully, they lose their connotative values and assume visual values. That’s why we could enjoy Arabic or Persian or Urdu or Chinese calligraphy. Had we been reading what was written in them, we wouldn’t have reached anywhere. It is as futile as looking for a definite meaning in abstract paintings or patterns. True that abstract paintings and patters could contain certain esoteric values then so is the case with calligraphy. According to Bhattathiri, calligraphy could evoke something beyond its visual quality; it could take the viewer to a different rhythm, a different feel and a different journey though it is purely virtual and mostly undefinable. The sheer abstraction is what makes Bhattathiri going with his passion; an artist who does not attempt other visual expression and found a niche in the world of visual art through pure calligraphy.

Bhattathiri gets up at three o clock early in the morning. And definitely there is a question, when does he go to bed? At 9.30 or 10.00 at night says Bhattathiri and the lazy ones could feel some relief. Bhattathiri’s early sojourn into the waking day is not for anything else but to draw a couple of calligraphy and post in his facebook page. It has become a ritual, a beautiful ritual which cannot be set aside for the sake of some good early morning dreams (which might come true if you persist to see them, they say). And what does Bhattathiri write? He likes poems. As creative person who spent his formative years in the Fine Arts College in early 1980s, Bhattathiri got acquainted with the modernist poets and the anarchic creative personalities who often were expressing themselves either through poems or through films. Theatre movement, political struggles and visual arts were also the pick of the days. Bhattathiri got hooked to poems and films and when he started doing calligraphy poems came to him like water to fishes. He seems to have a special liking for the poems of Balachandran Chullikkadu, a poet who had influenced many a youth through his poems loaded with existential angst and sense of alienation and the dejection for the failed revolutions. In most of his works we could see him doing Chullikkadu’s lines into calligraphic expressions.

With a special fascination for writing something beautifully in note books, black boards and stray pieces of papers, Bhattathiri started his unchartered creative journey and it was the Fine Arts College in Trivandrum that helped him anchor himself in the art of calligraphy. It may be partially true because he did learn a few techniques to do abstract art because that was what strongly recommended by the teachers of the college in those days for they had hailed from the illustrious Madras School of Art where the doyen of the so called Neo-Tantric Art Movement had perfected his modern art through a genre or a series of paintings called ‘Words and Symbols’ in which he had predominantly used palm leaf scripts and old scriptures done elsewhere. Panicker too was not intending to make sense out of the words though he liked the pictorial value of letters that could turn into intentional as well as unintentional symbols that could make a narrative sense of for many a viewer/reader. Bhattathiri excelled in such paintings and he was still writing as a personal labor of love and then it happened.

A call from the then famous Kala Kaumudi weekly, a place for creative people led by the illustrious editor S.Jayachandran Nair, came for Bhattathiri. The weekly was a meeting point of all the stalwarts in Kerala’s creative field and the comparatively young lot of them were showing the signs of going beyond the normative journalism and had been adequately fueled by the editor himself. Getting a chance to be between the two covers of Kala Kaumudi for any good or bad reason was a thing of pride. There was a famous column for literary criticism titled ‘Sahity Varafalam’ (means ‘Weekly Horoscope of Literature) written by a much revered and feared literary critic, Prof.M.Krishnan Nair. He minced no words in shattering the morale of the writers if they were not up to him mark, a parameter set by himself by reading and commenting the world class literature. Writers waited even for his condemnatory comments and that was a way to be featured in Kala Kaumudi!

The call was to start doing some calligraphy titles for the literary pieces that came for publishing in the Kala Kaumudi weekly. Bhattathiri grabbed the chance and started working on the titles and graphics only to learn that it was easier said than done. The incentive was getting featured as a creative team member in the famous magazine but the negative side was the deadlines and the last moment arrivals of the literary works. Bhattathiri confesses that the titles that had taken to the heights of fame and adulation in fact were written in short notice even without knowing the content of the piece. The title was given and he had to make out the sense of the writing through that single title. And most of the times his intuition worked! And it did vibe well with the imagination of the readers as well as the writers. Bhattathiri, along with Namboothiri in the department of illustration became two Titans to be tipped into the pages of history. Sooner than later more opportunities came for Bhattathiri from the lucrative field of movies. But Bhattathiri did not choose the invitations randomly; he kept his class and statndard apart and high. So he worked with the doyens of art house movies and could make certain titles remembered forever for the sheer sense of calligraphy.

Bhattathiri gets a lot of invitations to exhibit in group shows but he is reluctant to be a part of all kinds of shows. In 1992, one of his friends and a researcher on cartoons, Sundar helped him to put up his calligraphy works, the works that were already famous and etched in the minds of the people as magazine titles, and it got a good traction among the art loving public. Bhattathiri remembers how school children telling him about certain letters in Malayalam made complete sense to them when they saw them in calligraphy than in normal writing. Also they suggested that some of the letters could have been left half way so that they could imagine the rest. His facebook posts have not earned him domestic friends but also friends from overseas who have helped him to travel and show abroad. In South Korea, Bhattathiri’s works have a permanent space in a calligraphy museum. Besides, in China his calligraphic works have been made permanent through transferring them on granite slab; a rare recognition after none other than the handwriting of Rabindranath Tagore that also has found its way there.

(Narayana Bhattathiri giving a workshop on calligraphy to the young enthusiasts) 

A workaholic and introvert (a deadly combination commonly seen in many a creative person) Bhattathiri is ready to shed that demeanor if he is invited for giving calligraphy workshops. He says that he could see new ways of writing among the new people that could inspire him to do different works. A calligrapher is expected to create his own ‘font’ especially in the days of digital writing. Bhattathiri says that he is averse to make his own calligraphy because as a language Malayalam has more intricate letter types than English, though he has helped in styling certain Malayalam fonts. He also points out the fact that whenever calligraphy is taught it is always in English, especially in the fine arts colleges. In schools there is hardly any initiative to teach calligraphy. Malayalam calligraphy is as beautiful as the Arabic or Persian or Chinese Calligraphy, yes, when it is seen done by Bhattathiri, who has recently exhibited his series on the cult novel, ‘the Legend of Khasakk’ (Khasakkinte Ithihasam) by late O.V.Vijayan on the occasion of the it’s fiftieth anniversary. There may be many calligraphers in Kerala but Bhattathiri is the pioneer in the field and someone who has earned it a respectable position amongst other creative activities.

n  JohnyML