Thursday, December 31, 2009

Man of the Year

The title of this post is, I'm afraid, deceptive. It refers to one of Arun Kolatkar's Kala Ghoda Poems. Published in 2004, shortly before Kolatkar's death, Kala Ghoda Poems is the best collection of Bombay-related verse in English. Man of the Year returns to me every December 31st.

Man of the Year

Here I stand at this street corner,
leaning on the shoulder of a bright red pillar-box
at a drunken angle,

a foolish grin on my face,
an empty half-pint bottle of rum in my pocket,
a cracker up my arse.

listening to an old Elvis number
(Santa Claus is back in town)
coming out of a record shop.

And I feel like dancing in the street
-- but I can't.
I'm incapable of such knee-jerk reactions:

they've stuffed me
a little too tight for comfort, I guess,
Like a forked sausage.

Head full of cottonwool,
sawdust in my gloves and socks,
a bellyful of shredded old newspapers.

Actually, I'm a pretty solid kind of guy.
Underneath my faded jeans,
export surplus extra large sporty jacket,

and a hat straight out of Marlboro country,
you'll find
that my head is sewn on real tight.

Take away my dashing
rainbow-coloured muffler (it's from Chor Bazar)
and you'll see what I mean.

There are thirty stitches round my neck.
you can count them if you wish.

It's such a lovely morning in December
and it feels so good
just to be alive and standing here,

as if I had all the time in the world,
and watching the beautiful girls of Bombay
go by in a steady stream,

to their typewriters, switchboards, computers,
as to the impatient arms
of their waiting lovers.

But nobody knows better than I
that time
is one thing I'm running out of fast,

and my one regret is going to be this:
to leave this world
so full of girls I never kissed.

Malati, Niloufer, Anjali, Shanta,
Alpana, Kalpana, Shirin, Zarine, Sylvia, Maria,
Harlene, Yasmin, Nina, Kamala, Mona, Lopa;

I love you one and all,
and wish I could kiss a long goodbye
to each of you, individually.

Inside the pillar-box,
new year greeting cards are smooching
in the permissive dark.

I hear them billing and cooing,
sighing and moaning,
as if there's no tomorrow.

They nestle against each other
in the zero gravity of pure love and affection
where all laws break down,

in the no-man's-land
between the sender and the receiver,
betraying both.

One last fling before each goes
primly to its rightful receiver,
with clean ivory-card conscience.

I was a pretty unremarkable year,
all in all; and will,
no doubt, be left out of history books,

with no revolutions, wars, genocides,
no disasters, natural or otherwise,
to remember me by.

Nothing much happened, except,
that the Himalayas rose by another inch,
fewer flamingoes came to Kutch,

and the leaning tower of Pisa leaned
a little further out
by another 1.29 millimeters,

the Danube poured
two hundred and three cubic kilometers
of fresh water into the Black Sea,

the hole in the ozone layer widened,
the earth became poorer
by two thousand seven hundred plant species.

I did not resolve any conflicts,
or presume to solve any
of the perennial questions of philosophy.

There were no technological breakthroughs,
no big leaps;
just a lot of hopping around on one foot.

No new ideas.
A lot of old ones served with a sizzle,
with plenty of spice to mask the rotten smell.

The good news, on the other hand,
is that schoolboys
and girls will not have to memorize me.

Who got the Nobel for literature?
Who the Booker?
Who won the cup at Wimbledon?

And who did Time magazine pick
as the Man of the Year?
I have already forgotten.

6. Envoi
As paper trumpets blare and toot,
as sirens wail and foghorns hoot,
and as churchbells toll all around me

-- I wish a happy new year to you all.

Breathing fire, coughing smoke,
spitting ash,
as firecrackers burst inside my pants

-- I wish a happy new year to you all.

As all my buttons pop,
my chest opens and lungs collapse,
as a feather of flame starts eating my hat

-- I wish a happy new year to you all.

As the Rajabai Tower cranes its neck
to see me reduced to a smudge on the road,
and bursts into a joyous song

-- I wish a happy new year t

Kala Ghoda Poems appears to be unavailable online, but Arun Kolatkar's previous book of poems in English (he also published in Marathi), the award-winning Jejuri has recently been reissued by New York Review Books Classics, and can be purchased through Amazon here.

Eleven poems from Jejuri have been transcribed here, and explanatory notes added for those unfamiliar with the pilgrimage site.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

PVR messes up its online booking

We first booked tickets for Avatar over a week ago through the PVR Cinemas website. On reaching PVR Phoenix, I got the physical tickets, which read 'Avatar (2-D)'. Interested only in the 3-D version, we returned home without seeing the film. The man at the counter managed to resell our tickets, but we lost out on the online booking fee and the time and money spent to get to and from Phoenix mills. The PVR site, I discovered once I was back at my computer, offers two options, one for 'Avatar (3-D)' and one for plain old 'Avatar'. When both options are available, most people would notice the varying entries and choose the one they prefer. However, since the three dimensional version is the more popular one, it gets booked up fast, leaving only one Avatar in the drop box with no accompanying information.
I wrote my usual letter of protest but, as expected, the PVR people have neither acknowledged it nor rectified the problem. I now wonder if it was simply incompetence on their part or something more sinister. They might deliberately be luring clients into buying tickets for the less popular form of Avatar, assuming that most will opt to see it rather than make a second trip.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Is Avatar a Hindi movie?

Abhishek Bachchan tweets, "James Cameron is Hollywood's answer to my favourite director MANMOHAN DESAI!! He could pull off anything. Avatar too is a Hindi film at heart." Joginder Tuteja of India Abroad News Service writes, "The story conveys that Cameron is a big fan of Bollywood films from the 60s and the 70s. Just like his last effort Titanic which was as Bollywood as it gets, even Avatar has quite a few Hindi film references if one starts plotting them on paper." Needless to say, Tuteja cites no specific references in Avatar to Hindi cinema of any period.
Are Bachchan and Tuteja right, though? Is Avatar the Hollywood incarnation of a Bollywood blockbuster? A few arguments can be lined up in favour of the thesis. First, the simplicity of the storyline and dialogue. After the 1960s, Hollywood gave up lulling audiences to sleep and began overloading films with detail. Characters spoke over one another (Altman's MASH), spoke while looking away from the camera or while barely visible (Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now), spoke so fast or so low one could barely follow (Burt Young in Rocky), spoke in accents difficult to decipher (Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain). Essential twists in the story began to be taken at such speed viewers could barely hold on, and films provided more than could be absorbed in a single sitting.
In his use of dialogue, plot and lighting, Cameron is old-fashioned and close to the method Bollywood has retained. Every sentence is clearly enunciated, every plot development unambiguously marked, every frame conventionally beautiful. Few leave the theatre after watching Terminator, True Lies, Titanic or Avatar feeling they've missed something vital.
In his last two films, Cameron has foregrounded romance, another element vital to Indian popular cinema. Avatar's love-story happens to be between blue-skinned, ten-foot tall residents of the planet Pandora, but it's an old-fashioned (that word again) tale at heart, with the interloper pardesi carrying away the heart of the tribal lass, overcoming initial opposition from within her community led by the local boy who desires her.
Which leads to the next point of contact: Cameron's valorisation of traditional life over industrial civilisation parallels the idealisation of village in opposition to city seen in a number of Indian films.
Fourthly, there is the sheer length of the film to consider: while Avatar's running time doesn't quite match that of Titanic, it's closer to that of the standard Hindi film than the 90-120 minutes of most Hollywood movies.
Fifth, Avatar's pantheistic philosophy is congenial to Indians, particularly Hindus. Cameron departs from the tradition of western pantheism in creating an active Goddess who takes a role in the final combat, reminiscent of the many occasions in Indian films when characters, animals or objects are animated by divine force.
There are, however, enough departures from Hindi film idiom for us to conclude Avatar would be a misfit within the Indian canon.
The film is an allegory, a form that fell out of favour in India after independence, having being used prominently during British rule when censorship created the necessity of representing the Raj obliquely in any critique. It is, moreover, an allegory that casts American militarism in the villain's role. In Indian film, nationalism is a given, as is the glorification of soldiers. Indian movies are sentimental, thrilling, funny, but never thought-provoking; ideas are generally frowned upon and intellectually interesting conversation absent. The only contemporary film-maker who deals with ideas is Mani Ratnam, and in his case it's invariably a fake engagement, appearing to tackle ideologies only to evade them when it comes to the crunch.
The spiritualism of Avatar, which fits snugly with conventional Indian wisdom, is part and parcel of a widespread contemporary rejection of conservative Christianity in North America (evident also in The Da Vinci Code, which makes a similar appeal to the Female Principle). While Avatar can hardly be called radical or original, the animistic beliefs embedded in Pandora represent a repudiation of the values that built America. Taking the Dances with Wolves and Last Samurai route, Cameron has created a hero soldier who turns coat, going over to the anti-American side. Again, while this is a trodden path in the US, it's unthinkable in India, where any undermining of national myths is likely to be punished not only at the box office but through direct physical harm to those involved.
The technical achievement of Avatar separates it decisively from anything created in India. Cameron intimately understands machinery and what it can do. On his first shoot, he took apart a camera to figure out for himself how it functioned. He worked his way up from the bottom of the special effects ladder, to a point where he could lead innovation in technology. Indians, on the other hand, have only recently begun producing films of passable technical quality. Even the simplest opticals were botched before the digital era. How much more effective would have been the ending of Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (for my money, one of the three greatest Hindi films ever made), if the lab had created a better transition from living hand to skeleton. Singin' In The Rain, made in the same year, provides an appropriate contrast, its dissolves and effects appearing pristine over four decades after its first release. It's true that Bombay's Prime Focus did some work on Avatar, but effects in indigenous productions continue to be shockingly shoddy. As in the IT world, where our techies have failed to create a single important internationally marketable product in all these years, in animation we make reasonably good tailors, but terrible designers.
Finally, for all its technological excellence, Avatar, like Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Titanic and virtually every significant effects-driven film, warns of the dangers inherent in technological hubris. The tension between a dependence on cutting-edge technology in the act of creation and a questioning of it within that creation is at the heart of the genre, and that dil is not hindustani.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The omnipresent Priyanka Chopra

From this morning's Express Newsline. Click on the image for a better view, and then skim through the piece. Each entry is identical, and the images have no connection with the sub-heading, which relates to short films.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The week in art

Highlight of the week: the return of Lakeeren gallery. It's in a cramped space in Colaba previously occupied by the short-lived Farah Siddiqui Contemporary Art, but I'm certain Arshiya Lokhandwala will make the most of it. The artists featured in the inaugural show, All that is solid melts into air, showed prominently at Lakeeren's previous incarnation in Vile Parle. After soldiering on for years in that space, Arshiya left for a course at Goldsmith's followed by a Ph.D at Cornell, missing the boom years for contemporary art in the process. Her doctorate means that her exhibitions now come with jargon-loaded wall text, but that's easily ignored when the art is good (actually jargon-loaded wall text is common in many galleries, but is usually composed by us critics rather than proprietors). The highlight of All that is solid melts into air is a miniature rolling shutter by Atul Dodiya. It doesn't actually roll up and down, looks a bit like a slate-grey headstone, and displays names of mid-career artists mixed among a list of ailments: a very amusing in-joke.
Jitish Kallat provides a generous selection of four large paintings on paper, plus a sculpture. The sculpture, one of his fossil vehicles, is for me the least successful of the four I have seen so far. I'd rank them, in order of merit: The autorickshaw (Autosaurus Tripous); the water tanker (Aquasaurus); the sedan (Collidonthus); and the bull / bike on view at Lakeeren (Ignitaurus).

The effect of Ignitaurus is ruined by legs sticking out of the bull's jaw. This sort of thing is bound to happen when metaphors get mixed. Jitish started with vehicles that resembled fossils, but now, instead of leaving the dead animal bit in the background, he's attempted to merge a skull and ribs with a bike shape, leading to the anatomical anomaly.
While a skeletal train would probably look cool, the theme feels played out, and I hope never to see a ship or an airliner in this style.
Sharmila Samant has contributed one of her saris made from bottle crowns. The ones I've seen previously have never looked like saris to me, and this one doesn't either. For a piece of art to have symbolic resonance, it must first work at the most elementary level. If Sharmila's sari doesn't look like a sari, it doesn't matter what she wants to say about processes of globalisation, the work is already a failure.
N S Harsha offers one of his post-colonial tales about white guys doing bad things to dark people, assisted in their nefarious activities by a comprador or two. There's also a sheikh in the centre contemplating Damien Hirst's shark. A comment on the art market, which, incidentally, is the stated theme of the show (the market, that is, not the shark).
After calling this the highlight of the week, I've said more negative than positive things about it, but as a whole the exhibition feels substantial and features a well-balanced field of important artists.

Runner-up: Bose Krishnamachari's LaVA at Gallery BMB. Three years ago, Bose created his Laboratory of Visual Arts, a moving library stuffed with books and DVDs about art, design and film. At BMB, to fill a hole created by the cancellation of a travelling international show, he has paired this archive with some two dozen works from his personal collection which demonstrate what a great eye he has. The artists featured range from local thirty-somethings to Andy Warhol and Ed Ruscha.

Debut of the week: Shine Sivan's Sperm Weaver at Gallery Maskara. Meticulously put together sculptures, showing a mature control of form, and an excellent use of found material. But who's satisfied with sculptures these days? So we have photographs and a video as well. A couple of the images are passable, like the one that has the artist swathed in wedding dress fabric in the middle of a ploughed field. The video, which shows Sivan wallowing in a foamy pond, reveals, like most artists' videos do, a profound lack of understanding of basic stuff like when to use a dissolve, when to use a cut, and how to combine the two.

Disappointment of the week: a tie between the group show Detour at Gallery Chemould and Qusai Kathawala's solo, Our Breath Concrete, at Volte. The latter has two components, a grid of LED lights hanging on strings; and an interactive work in which participants' breath causes patterns of light to move about on a table. The LEDs are pretty, but nothing more, and the table seems like a lot of effort for very little impact. Detour, meant as a centennial commemoration of an early Gandhi text, Hind Swaraj, brings together photographs, photomontages and videos from highly regarded artists. Despite some fine individual contributions, I found the show, curated by Ranjit Hoskote, peculiarly sterile in its overall impact. It might have made a better tribute to Nehru.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Responsible leaders, unreasonable public

The BBC World Debate this week featured the heads of state of Mexico, Australia and the Maldives, plus a South African minister standing in for Jacob Zuma. Since it was broadcast from Copenhagen and not Delhi, Suhel Seth failed to make the panel.
The debate highlighted the recent split between threatened island nations and the heavyweights of the developing world, which has put a new spin on existing tensions between industrialised and emerging countries.
After an Indian-African activist in the audience condemned the baby steps being discussed at the Copenhagen conference, the presenter Stephen Sackur asked if politicians could do more than their constituencies allowed. The man replied that the public was eager, but politicians were letting citizens down. As I've pointed out in a previous climate change post, surveys tell a different story. In most countries, the majority is skeptical about anthropogenic global warming, and is willing to go along with emission cuts only if they're relatively painless.
In nations like the US and India, administrations are currently ahead of their citizens in their willingness to commit to sacrifices, small but significant, that might help contain AGW.
The presumption that common folk are invariably wiser than their elected leadership can be refuted by the recent example of Swiss citizens voting to ban the erection of minarets. It is hard to imagine a government that would enact such an idiotic measure. In California, voter initiatives have paralysed the budgetary process, leading a number of commentators to dismiss the state as ungovernable.
Despite being wrongheaded, the environmental activist's comment drew the loudest applause of the evening in that Copenhagen auditorium. Nothing gets people united like bashing political leaders. It's the default option for lazy thinkers.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Arithmetic, anybody?

Geeta Desai has published a mathematically challenged article in this morning Mumbai Mirror, titled Rs 1,800 crore for just 2.5 litres more water per person per day! Here's her calculation: "If you thought that the completion of the Middle Vaitarna water project by the year 2012 will ensure ample supply in your home, think again. For, the project will augment supply to the city by a mere 450 million litres per day (MLD), which translates to just about two-and-a-half litres more per person per day. The cost of the project is a whopping Rs 1,800 crore."
Later in the piece, Desai states the city's population is 12.5 million. Dividing 450 million litres by 12.5 million, we get 36 litres extra per day per citizen provided the promised 450 MLD is, in fact, made available. The difference between 2.5 litres and 36 litres is, you will agree, substantial.
In which context, this line from the piece stands out: "The BMC intends to rid citizens of their water woes, but for this the civic administration must get the basics right. They (sic) need to spare a thought for statistics..."

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The David Headley case

Today's Times of India front page carries a report headlined, India irked by FBI caginess over Headley: ‘Why Didn’t They Tell Us When He Visited India In March?’
A sentence early in the article reads, "The growing disquiet in the government... was expressed by a senior official. 'It is very strange that the US did not inform us of Headley’s visit to India in March this year when, by their own account, he had been under their surveillance since at least September 2008,’' the official said, pointing out that India would have arrested the terrorist had it known about his identity."

Right there you have the probable reason why the FBI didn't inform India about the Headley case. The agency likely knew we'd do something idiotic like detaining the guy. Indian police have no notion of building a case before making an arrest. Our method is to arrest the suspect first, book him under a law that allows long detention without any framing of charges, torture him and extract a confession, then finally try and build a case from this confession and any corroborative evidence revealed during torture. In the end, more often than not, the case is thrown out in court and the suspect walks free. If he was innocent all along, he has served months in prison for no reason. If he was guilty, he's got off lightly.

I'm glad the FBI said nothing about Headley to anybody in India. Now there's a good chance the guy will actually get the punishment he deserves, presuming he did what he's been accused of doing.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Climate of Opinion

A piece that was to appear in a newspaper this morning, but was spiked.

In Bombay in the 1970s, the rains would fade at the end of September and return only in June, at least that’s how I remember it. The pattern’s been disturbed in recent years. Heavy showers surprise the city in odd months, as they did a few weeks ago. That downpour barely inconvenienced office-workers, but had serious consequences in rural Maharashtra, where tomato farmers saw their year’s profit washed away in hours. Across the globe, people in traditional occupations, from watermelon growers in the Mekong delta to reindeer herders in Finland, their livelihoods threatened by unseasonal rains, are finding the old certainties no longer apply. Anecdotal evidence is insufficient ground for concluding a significant change is upon us, but in this case it is aligned with data which most experts consider unequivocal, and which suggests that higher temperatures recorded in recent decades cannot be ascribed to normal climatic fluctuations.
We know for certain that atmospheric carbon dioxide traps heat. Considering that human activity has led to an almost 40% increase in atmospheric CO2 within a short span of time, it stands to reason that this has played a role in warming the globe. Yet, even as the science of climate change has gained an ever firmer footing, public belief in the hypothesis has slipped significantly. Only 36% of Americans now agree carbon emissions are making the earth warmer, down from 47% a decade ago. A similar downtrend is visible in Europe and Australia. In India, only one in three adults has even heard of climate change.
The figures are bad news for leaders who've gathered in Copenhagen to settle on a plan to spew less CO2. They have to sell a prescription of higher taxation and stricter regulation to increasingly skeptical electorates. Their cause has not been helped by the release of hacked emails from a few climate scientists that imply data was being fudged to fit a preconceived conclusion.
I’m not surprised that wariness about the climate change hypothesis has grown as nations move to implement potential solutions. The shift to political action brings science into an arena where it is judged primarily on ideological grounds rather than on its own terms. Right-wingers in the United States, who dislike big government and multilateral agencies, find it easy to say, “The science is shoddy, misleading, incomplete”, rather than, “Our actions are altering the climate and will hurt hundreds of millions of vulnerable people, but that’s no reason to pay more for emitting CO2”. The Wall Street Journal and Fox News, both right-wing media outlets controlled by Rupert Murdoch, have led the attack on the science of climate change.

In 1859, John Tyndall demonstrated that carbon dioxide absorbs infrared radiation and thus helps keep the earth warm and habitable. That same year, Charles Darwin published his monumental On The Origin of Species. In the hundred and fifty years since, the ideas of Darwin and his followers have become the basis of all biological science. We now possess mountains of evidence that humans descended from other animals. Despite this, acceptance of the theory has dropped in the US in the past two decades. A recent survey concluded that a mere 14% of American adults agree evolution is ‘definitely true’, while a third say it is certainly false. The number who are unsure has jumped three times since 1985, to 21%, thanks to attacks on evolution by conservative Christians.
Like any scientific advance, evolution has attracted its share of hoaxes, from Piltdown Man to Archaeoraptor. These are seized upon by ‘creation scientists’ to discredit the entire discipline, just as the hacked emails have been gleefully publicised by climate change deniers as proof that the whole notion of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is fake.
Those questioning the broad consensus on AGW see themselves as underdogs, champions of free thinking battling an entrenched establishment. They remind me of people who, in the 1990s, rejected the relationship of HIV to AIDS. The HIV virus was isolated in 1983 and understanding of AIDS progressed rapidly enough for the first antiretroviral drug to be produced by 1987. In 1988 the Institute of Medicine of the US Academy of Sciences stated, “The evidence that HIV causes AIDS is scientifically conclusive”. Even as the disease was brought under control in the developed world, it exploded in poorer countries, particularly sub-Saharan Africa.

One of the most prominent leaders of the region, South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki, was drawn into the orbit of AIDS deniers. He grew convinced that the disease afflicting Africa was not the same as the one the West was battling. Antiretroviral treatment, he claimed, was toxic, and the whole notion of an African AIDS epidemic a conspiracy hatched by racist whites and multinational pharmaceutical companies. He obstructed the sale of drugs that could counter HIV and prevent its spread from mothers to infants. The result, according to a Harvard School of Public Health report, which compared South African infection rates with those of neighbouring countries that put in place antiretroviral treatment programmes, was that at least 330,000 more deaths occurred thanks to Mbeki’s embrace of unconventional ideas.
Climate change deniers are entitled to express their views freely, but South Africa's AIDS tragedy demonstrates there can be a dreadful cost attached to rejecting the scientific consensus. If misrepresentations by the Wall Street Journal and Fox News impact public opinion enough to wreck attempts at reversing global warming, Rupert Murdoch will have blood on his hands as surely as does Thabo Mbeki.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

If life hands you lemons

Anybody watching the T20 series between India and Sri Lanka can't have missed commercials for a brand of mobile phones now being imported from China. The Chinese need to do some investigation before settling on English-language product names, no?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

We are the champions

A multinational study has been seeking the answer to a question related to early human migration: what route did the first inhabitants of China and Japan take to reach those places? The general belief was that the tribe of Homo Sapiens that came out of Africa split into two in West Asia (into four if you count those that went west, as seen in the map above). One branch followed the coast into India, traced the peninsula and then spread east to what is now Thailand and Indonesia before crossing a land bridge to Australia. The second branch struck out due north-east, and worked its way to China, before a tiny faction made the incredible move up to Siberia, across the frozen Bering Strait and into north America, proceeding to populate that entire continent while hunting a variety of giant mammals (megafauna) to extinction.
The Human Genome Project's Pan-Asian SNP Consortium has concluded that this standard view is false, and that China was populated not from the west, but from the south, with humans who moved up from South-East Asia.
Here's how Indian papers have responded to the news:
Times of India: Ancestors of Chinese came from India
Daily News & Analysis: The Chinese evolved from Indians
Indian Express: India: Mother of all Asians
Press Trust of India: Study traces genetic origins of Asians to India

This is rubbish. The study restricts itself to lands east of India. Since India was populated from the west, you might as well claim that we 'evolved' from Iranians. It's fair, by this logic, to claim that Persia is the mother of all Asians. Except those who came from further west, of course...

Monday, December 7, 2009

Dayanita Singh and Atul Bhalla

Dayanita Singh's Blue Book, showing at Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, consists of photographs of industrial landscapes and interiors. The former were shot at dusk using daylight film and a slow shutter speed, causing a melancholic blue to permeate the images. When shooting inside buildings, or exteriors in which the sky is largely hidden (these were shot in brighter light), Singh sought out bits of blue, a piece of cloth here, the rim of a porcelain dish there, to spark the frame. In this respect, her method reminds me of the Japanese maestro Yasujiro Ozu's use of red in films such as Autumn Afternoon.
Landscapes, traditionally, are expansive; since the nineteenth century the favoured way of representing them has been the panorama. By keeping to the square format with which she has come to be associated, Singh counters the impulse behind panoramic photographs and paintings. Instead, she offers compressed, carefully framed views of factories, most of which are displayed in a small 18" by 18" prints. The play with scale is accentuated when we see views of rooms in a significantly larger size.

This seedy dispensary demonstrates the balance Singh achieves in her compositions, evoking the painterly tradition of still life rather than the news photographs with which she began her career.
While the Indianness of Blue Book is discernible on close viewing (a distant temple in one of the photos, Devanagari writing in another), any specific information has been excluded, as have human beings from all but one of the frames. We have no idea which steel, cement or newsprint production facility we are looking at. The story, to the extent there is one, is told by the machines and sheds, and develops into a kind of elegy to industrial society, a sense that these things belong in the past even though they are very much of the present and will continue to be central to the future.

Atul Bhalla also uses photographs and location, but in a diametrically opposed way. For a number of years now, his work has focussed on the river Yamuna and the streets of Old Delhi; the two are linked not just by their proximity but through the artist's preoccupation with the theme of water. Traditional drinking fountains and water vendors; ritual prayers offered in the river; pump houses built along the bank; and the incursive, smoggy urbanscape have featured in his sculptures, installations and photographs. Each image in his current series on view at Project88 comes signposted with a specific address, quite unlike Dayanita Singh's anonymous edifices. Also unlike her, Bhalla does not seek purity in his works. He is happy to use multiple images in a single piece, or to paint over a photograph, as he does when obscuring the traffic in a picture to highlight the flowering plant at the frame's centre.
One large work I liked a lot consists of photographs of dozens of pump house built along the Yamuna after a disastrous flood a couple of decades ago. At first sight, one thinks it's the same building replicated, but then one notices variations in the state of repair of the broadly identical structures. One is drawn into an amusing game of spot the difference even as the ugliness of the PWD construction becomes increasingly manifest.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Pierrot le fou

"Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou, being screened in the city this fortnight, is a perverse film, a story of overwhelming passion told dispassionately. It uses the plot of a pulp novel, but overturns established conventions of action, character and narrative development. Where you’d expect a build-up of suspense, you get farce; where tenderness might seem appropriate, conversation turns staccato; and where explication appears necessary, a new sequence transports you to a different time and location."
Read the rest of my article, published in the current issue of Time Out, here.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Bhopal memorials

Of the hundreds of images produced in the days after the Bhopal gas leak, two stand out in the public memory. Strangely, both document the same scene: the burial of a girl who died from inhaling the gas, her eyes turned glassy blue, the smallness of her face accentuated by a man's hand bestowing a final loving caress. Raghu Rai's black and white photograph was taken from a high angle at one end of the makeshift grave.

At almost the same instant, Pablo Bartholomew, crouching close to the child's head to one side of the burial spot, clicked a colour frame which went on to win the World Press Photo of the Year award.

The pictures demonstrate the different perspectives of their creators: Rai, a lover of classical compositions, drew out the pathos of the event, while the edgier Bartholomew highlighted its horror. The two photographs are often confused, not just because they are similar, but because, I believe, the intimacy of the scene creates the impression of a solitary communion between father and daughter, a moment which the photographer witnessed and memorialised without intruding in any way. One lensman might achieve such a non-instrusive presence, it is difficult to imagine two doing so.
Other pictures taken by the dozens of cameramen at the spot attest to the frenzy in places where burials or cremations were taking place. If somebody had filmed a long shot of the yard while the girl was being buried, we'd have seen, not just a father and two lensmen at an infant's graveside, but a dozen other burials not far away.
None of this indicates that the intimacy evident in Rai's shot, and to a lesser extent in Bartholomew's, is fake. Rai, describing the genesis of the shot, said he followed vehicles taking the dead for final rites, and came upon the spot where, after burying his child, a man brushed away the dirt on her face, uncovering it for a final look. Both photographers, in this account, wept afterwards.
But what if it had been otherwise? What if the man doing the burying was a stranger to the child whose body, like those of hundreds of victims, had languished unclaimed, possibly because her entire family had perished? Nobody has come forward in the twenty-five years since the disaster to provide a name and a narrative to go with the image. What if the two photographers, recognising the potential of a dramatic shot, asked the man to repeat his gesture till they found the ideal frame? That kind of thing happens regularly.
At what point would the artificiality of the process of creation begin to impede the meaning of these photographs, which derive their significance from being representations of fact? At one extreme we have the photographer as the equivalent of a fly on the wall, in no way interfering with an unfolding event. At the other end we have an entirely staged act being passed off as something real.
The most famous photograph taken by the legendary photojournalist Robert Capa, showing a loyalist soldier in the Spanish civil war falling to the ground after being hit by a bullet, seems to capture a fleeting moment without intervention.

In recent years, critical consensus has moved toward the idea that Capa staged the entire scene. If this were proven true beyond doubt, one of the most famous journalistic photographs of all time would be sapped of most of its import.
That would not be the case with the Rai - Bartholomew's pictures because the two certainly did not stage the gas leak, nor the child's death. The hand in the frame, while adding an important sense of proportion and, in the case of Rai, emotion, is nevertheless not central to the image. That role belongs to the startling face of the child, which death transformed into something like a ghastly doll, and which became representative of the thousands of painful, unnecessary deaths in Bhopal twenty-five years ago.
While the meaning of their images is secure, I find it peculiar that the two brilliant photographers have not spoken at greater length about their most recognisable (and, paradoxically, most misattributed) creations. It now appears we will never know the story of the infant, but we might yet understand more fully how she came to be the emblem of a terrible tragedy.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Are American liberals deaf?

Many liberals in the United States are disappointed that President Obama has chosen to send more troops to Afghanistan. They view it as a betrayal of what he stood for during his campaign. A typical complaint reads like this one from Michael Moore:
"Dear President Obama,
Do you really want to be the new "war president"? If you go to West Point tomorrow night (Tuesday, 8pm) and announce that you are increasing, rather than withdrawing, the troops in Afghanistan, you are the new war president. Pure and simple. And with that you will do the worst possible thing you could do -- destroy the hopes and dreams so many millions have placed in you. With just one speech tomorrow night you will turn a multitude of young people who were the backbone of your campaign into disillusioned cynics. You will teach them what they've always heard is true -- that all politicians are alike. I simply can't believe you're about to do what they say you are going to do. Please say it isn't so."
I listened to Obama's stump speeches carefully during the long drawn out election campaign and each time he spoke he said clearly that he wanted to withdraw from Iraq and send more troops to Afghanistan. As this article from the Boston Globe put it after the first McCain - Obama debate: "If elected, Obama says, he would immediately withdraw thousands of ground troops from Iraq and send them to Afghanistan to help undermanned US forces defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda."
In other words, Barack Obama is doing exactly what he said he would do. His vaunted eloquence must be grossly over-rated since his most ardent admirers appear to have spent eighteen months hanging on to his every word, but failed to register what he was saying.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Dubai and Vegas

The two cities have a few things in common: built in the desert, stuffed with grandiose architecture, obsessed with bigness and with money, and currently witnessing a terrible real estate bust. A further connection was inaugurated today, with the opening of the Las Vegas CityCenter. The $8.5 billion development in the middle of the Vegas Strip is a joint venture of MGM Mirage and Dubai World. Development halted a few months ago when MGM appeared unable to fulfill its side of the deal. On the eve of the opening, Dubai World revealed that it was in far worse shape than MGM.
I have greater confidence in the future of CityCentre than in Dubai's most ambitious projects. The reason is simple: Vegas is about one thing, gambling, to which it adds top-quality hospitality, food and entertainment. There will always be plenty of gamblers, and they will want to visit Vegas for the forseeable future. In the case of Dubai, the fundamentals themselves appear suspect.
The city's development was prescient to begin with; realising he was sitting under paltry oil reserves, the Sheikh decided to build a port and dry dock, turning Dubai into a trade hub. He pushed retail, and that was fine as well, because of the demand from South and West Asia. An airline was set up, becoming one of the best in the world, and that too was sound policy, because the region needed a travel hub. A media city came next, catering to the boom in satellite television across the Arab world. So far, so great. It was the jump into becoming a lifestyle and tourism destination that was, in my view, a leap too far. Dubai is liberal by the standards of Gulf states, but it is still a pretty restrictive place. The idea that tourists would choose to go there rather than to more laid back resorts from the Adriatic to Koh Samui never made sense to me. As for building artificial islands and expecting a hundred thousand people to buy villas on them, why would so many want a million dollar home in a place where temperatures hit forty celsius for half the year?
I've seen pictures of the completed bits of the Palm Jumeirah and they look horrible. Rows of kistchy mansions cheek by jowl, with a view that spans a few meters of water before resting on another row of bunched up houses. The whole point of the sea is that it is expansive; a sea view only a few meters wide is hardly better than no sea view at all.

The people who bought first had one thing in mind: make a pile and get out quick. The properties were sold and resold while the market was hot. Now prices have plummeted, and supply will keep coming in if work continues on the two remaining Palms.
Since Dubai's government has washed its hands off Dubai World's debts, creditors are going to have a tough time recovering their dues, even after the inevitable string of extensions. My feeling is that in the medium term CityCentre will prove a better bet than the three Palms.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Vietnam and the spectre of Osama

The major lesson American politicians learned from the quagmire of Vietnam was this: they could contain the outrage caused by the killing of hundreds of thousands of foreigners, including civilians (though the dissemination of gruesome images and stories had an impact), but couldn't afford significant losses to their own forces. Accordingly, after Vietnam, the United States opted for a war strategy that involved days or weeks of carpet bombing from great heights combined with missile strikes, guaranteed to cause substantial collateral damage but minimising the risk to American troops.
Yesterday, the American Senate released a report revealing the downside to that strategy. It confirmed beyond doubt that American troops had Osama bin Laden cornered in Tora Bora back in December 2001, and chose not to pursue him with massive force. It seems illogical that an army would launch a war specifically targetting those responsible for the 9/11 attack, only to let the leader of the pack get away. The only explanation is that a ground offensive in Tora Bora would have cost many American lives, something Bush and Rumsfeld baulked at allowing. They sent in a mere 100 American commandos along with a few battalions of Afghans and backed these up with the usual barrage of air strikes. The result, the Senate report confirms, was that bin Laden escaped across the border, the Afghan insurgency was boosted and a new one developed in Pakistan.
Donald Rumsfeld is reputedly a keen student of history, so I'm surprised the actions of generals from Alexander to Chingis Khan didn't teach him the importance of pursuing an adversary relentlessly, across countries and continents, until his capture or killing. Obviously the lesson of Vietnam trumped these earlier exemplars.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Suhel Seth and M J Akbar

Yesterday I watched a BBC World debate about women in the workplace. The discussants included the head of ICICI Bank, the head of PepsiCo, the head of Renault-Nissan and ... Suhel Seth. Seth also heads a firm, but it isn't one you are likely to have heard of. What was he doing there? Is he an expert on women's rights? Does his organisation employ lots of females? No, and no. He was there because he's become the go-to person whenever there is a spot vacant on any debate panel on any English news programme.
This is bewildering, because Seth has never said anything interesting on any of the dozens of subjects I've heard him hold forth about. It's like he has a handbook of clichés in front of him, and combines phrases from this book with references to whatever happens to be the discussion of the day. He makes points forcefully and articulately, but never with any hint of insight.
During a break in the Beeb's programme, I switched to CNBC India, where Deepak Parekh was being interviewed. Parekh is the polar opposite of Suhel Seth. He speaks on matters of which he has deep knowledge, and I always come away having learned something I didn't know before.
I accept this is an unfair comparison. There is room for generalist commentators in the media, and my own blog covers a very wide range of issues, political, cultural and even financial. I hope, though, that I bring a perspective to these subjects which readers might not agree with, but feel is well-informed and individual.
Suhel Seth revels in conventional wisdom, while his manner always suggests he's saying radical things. This, at least, is the impression I have from having watched him frequently on the Big Fight and similar programmes. Irritated by his contribution to the 'women in the workplace' debate, a subject about which I admit even the most penetrating thinker would be hard pressed to produce anything of interest, I sought out his writings (his role as cultural commentator extends to columns and a blog) wondering if they would correct my impression of him. Instead, they confirmed all my misgivings.
Here's the opening of his latest blog post on CNN-IBN's website, with notes from me after every sentence or two:
"On November 26, 2008, a billion people felt the helplessness and vulnerability of the kind we have never experienced ever."
A slight exaggeration here, maybe? And one that is in keeping with the exaggeration of the attack itself, because it played out on TV for an extended period.
"When 10 misguided young men held an entire nation to ransom and there was nothing the nation could do except live in disbelief and post that, in denial."
Wrong on three counts. First, the terrorists made no demands and therefore could not be said to have held the nation to ransom; second, the nation's administration reacted by sending in commandos; and third, there was never any hint of denial on the nation's part. In fact, when a minister appeared to downplay the seriousness of the assault, he was forced from office.
"There was an outpouring of anger and much dismay at the 'system': most of us raved and ranted and when our turn came, we left for salubrious climes instead of voting for the right person."
Odd that we were in denial, yet managed an outpouring of anger and dismay. A second conflation of 'we' who can leave for salubrious climes with the billion-strong population of India as a whole.
"The elections which were going to be manna from heaven threw up the same rogues, many of whom are back in the very offices they were shamed to give up in the aftermath of 26/11."
Straw man. Who ever said elections were 'manna from heaven'? Oh, I forgot, that's the phrase that presented itself on Seth's cliché handbook. In the Maharashtra election, which is what Seth alludes to, the choice was between an ineffectual centrist coalition and a right-wing chauvinist one that had proven itself equally ineffectual in the past. Not a great choice, but one which produced a result liberals welcomed.
"Almost twelve months later, we are still quite befuddled. By the David Headleys of the world and their impunity and at the lack of any co-ordinated intelligence gathering system that ideally should have been in place by now."
The David Headleys of the world have impunity? I thought the guy was under arrest and charged for plotting an attack on a Danish publication. We only heard of him because of well co-ordinated intelligence gathering.
"But then as in Shakespeare's words, the fault lies not in our stars but in ourselves and that is the real point."
Nobody has suggested the fault lies in our stars.
"We have sadly become a nation that is Teflon-coated because we genuinely believe this intangible 'system' is demonic and there is nothing we as common men and women can do."
'Teflon-coated' is used for people to whom no criticism sticks. Reagan, the Teflon president and so on. Not sure it applies to citizens harried by a demonic system.
"This is perhaps the best way of perpetrating the evil of the system."

Or even perpetuating it. You misread the handbook there, Mr. Seth.

The blog goes on in this fashion, but Seth's writing never gets so bad that it's good. For that, one can turn to M J Akbar's article on the same subject published in the Times yesterday.

I stopped reading Akbar's columns eons ago, following his questionable role in the St.Kitts affair. The case involved documents suggesting that V. P. Singh had amassed millions of dollars in an offshore account on the island of St.Kitts. Akbar wrote a series of articles assuming the authenticity of these documents long after every other respectable journalist had dismissed them as pathetic forgeries created by Congress politicians and their associates to tarnish V.P. Singh's image.
Akbar, at the time, was closely associated with the Congress, even becoming spokesman for the party for a period. Since then, as far as I have gathered from infrequent glances at his columns, he has turned against the party and can find nothing good to say about it. Here are excerpts from his analysis of the November attack and its consequences. I have refrained from annotating the text, so you can enjoy fully his wild mixing of metaphors:
We play piped music before one trapped cobra and call it an opera. Then we fall asleep at our own show.
It is both easy and pointless to blame the government. Every government keeps a thermometer in its holster and calibrates its decibel levels according to ground temperature.
If it’s warm, it will blow hot, as Delhi did so vigorously between November and January. If it has cooled, Delhi will cool it as well.
Washington too has measured the tensile strength of a nation that finds unique ways to postpone its threats to the next calamity. Last year, we gloried in the belief that the US had promoted us to the ascending plateau of a regional power, en route to the status of world player...
The lean and lissome Obama has learnt to slap with a long hand.

The article is titled, Terror threat: We have lost the plot. M.J. Akbar lost the plot a long time ago.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Tibet, China, India: The Lies and the Facts

The Dalai Lama is a wonderful chap. He is wise and full of good humour and has led a peaceful resistance movement for half a century. His antagonist, the Chinese government, is hard to sympathise with. The regime has committed gross crimes in the past and continues to deny its citizens certain basic human rights. It is not surprising, then, that the Dalai Lama's cause finds favour across the globe. The demand for Tibetan independence, unfortunately, is backed by arguments that twist history, misinform the public and are on occasion willfully deceptive.

Greater Tibet
Take a close look at this image. It is the map of Tibet according to the Tibetan government-in-exile based in Dharamsala. This is the area that the organisation led by Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, wants to liberate from Chinese rule.
The map will mean little even to most who actively proselytise the cause of Tibetan independence, so let me explain its implications. The area which is generally known to the world as Tibet is the bit in yellow, the Tibetan Autonomous Region. The other provinces on the map never had Tibetan majorities and were never under Tibetan rule apart from a brief period when Tibet became an imperial power, and controlled, also, a large swathe of areas now within the Indian republic. It is absurd for the Tibetan government-in-exile to claim that all of these regions, which constitute together a fourth of the total area of the People's Republic of China, belong in an independent Tibetan state. Is it any wonder that the Chinese government looks upon the Dalai Lama not as a holy man desirous of gaining autonomy for his province but as a dangerous secessionist?

Tibet as an independent nation
"As recently as 1914, a peace convention was signed by Britain, China and Tibet that again formally recognised Tibet as a fully independent country." The sentence I have quoted is from the introduction to Tibet's history on the government-in-exile's website. It is an outright lie, and the fact that the Dalai Lama has done nothing to alter it in all these years makes me think less of him. Media reports favourable to the separatist cause invariably quote the 1914 treaty as ground for considering Tibet a once-independent state.
Before 1914, all agreements regarding Tibet's boundaries were signed between Britain and the Qing emperor, proving that Britain did not consider Tibet an independent nation. In 1914, when the Qing empire had crumbled, a conclave was held in Simla between representatives of British India, Tibet and the weak new Chinese government. The final draft agreement provided for Chinese suzerainty over Tibet, and marked boundaries between China, Outer Tibet (more or less what is today the Tibetan Autonomous Region) and British India.
The first lie Tibetan activists tell, then, is that the treaty defined Tibet as a "fully independent country". The 1914 document cannot possibly be interpreted to mean any such thing, containing as it does the sentence, "Tibet forms part of Chinese territory". The Chinese envoy, moreover, rejected the draft. The second lie in the government-in-exile's statement is that all three parties signed on to the deal.
In 1914, Britain had an extant agreement with Russia, which included a commitment that all agreements about Tibet would be signed with China. Since the Chinese did not sign the Simla agreement, London believed it contravened the Anglo-Russian pact. As a result, Britain itself did not publish the accord as an official document till the Anglo-Russian treaty ended in 1938. The basis of Tibet's claim to independence, then, rests on an agreement that did not offer Tibet sovereignty, was not signed by China, and rejected for decades by the very power that drafted it, Britain.

Arunachal Pradesh
The recent diplomatic spat between China and India was sparked by the Dalai Lama's trip to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, an area China has never accepted as a settled part of India. Tawang has an interesting history. The boundaries drawn by the British in the late 19th century placed all of Arunachal in Tibet. Later on, British India moved north, but Tawang stayed a part of Tibet. Only in the 1914 agreement was the boundary of British India shifted further to swallow up Tawang. China, remember, never signed on to the agreement. The dispute over boundaries was central to its refusal to sign. The man who drafted the accord was Lieutenant-Colonel Henry McMahon, and the boundary he drew is called the McMahon line. It was a classic colonial land grab. Unfortunately, after 1950, the independent republic of India, which repudiated similar land grabs where they were found inconvenient, took the position that McMahon's border was the settled international boundary between India and China.
China was willing to talk the issue through, but after India gave the Dalai Lama asylum in 1959, relations between the nations soured, eventually leading the Chinese to undertake a land grab of their own. During the 1962 war, Chinese forces overran Arunachal, and India's military fled pretty much all the way to Calcutta. Afterwards, however, China voluntarily withdrew from almost all the areas it occupied, including Tawang.
In an impassioned editorial page article in the Times of India last week, the activist Tenzin Tsundue wrote, "For India to keep Arunachal, based on the McMahon Line, the only choice is to recognise Tibet's independence. It cannot legitimise the McMahon Line border otherwise." His argument is that, while McMahon's boundary is unjust (Tawang ought really to be in Tibet), the 1914 accord, signed by the 13th Dalai Lama's envoy, commits any future Tibetan government to respect that border, something China will never do.
I believe the opposite is true. The current Chinese regime is open to a final settlement of the international border with minor adjustments. Their forces have had control of Tawang in the past and withdrawn. India is helped by the fact that the citizens of Arunachal Pradesh have no great love for China. The situation would change radically if Tibet became a sovereign republic. Historically, geographically, culturally, linguistically, Tawang is closer to Lhasa than to Delhi. Instantly, secessionist movements would arise in Arunachal and Sikkim demanding to be part of the newly created Tibetan nation. At that point, a number of Tibetan officials would doubtless discover that the 1914 accord was, in fact, imposed by a brutal colonial regime, and must therefore be rejected.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Foreign Policy Hawks Swoop Again

The mainstream media, aided by hawkish commentators like Brahma Chellaney, have in the past few months consistently pushed the idea of China's supposedly aggressive anti-India posture. This trend has reached an absurd extreme with reactions in this morning's papers to yesterday's US-China joint declaration. In the past, Indian diplomats were prickly about the slightest interference in what we call our 'internal affairs' even when the affairs are bilateral or multilateral. In the current scenario, bureaucrats and politicians have behaved responsibly, while media reactions have been over the top.
The lead article in today's Times of India adopts a tone echoed in numerous publications. Titled, 'US wants China to police S Asia?', the piece by Saibal Dasgupta and Indrani Bagchi quotes a sentence from the US-China joint statement and proceeds to over-read it:
'“They (US and China) support the efforts of Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight terrorism, maintain domestic stability and achieve sustainable economic and social development, and support the improvement and growth of relations between India and Pakistan,” the joint statement said.
This is a rare occasion when a US president has acknowledged that Beijing has a role to play in the India-Pakistan relationship. The move, if serious, runs counter to predictions of US foreign policy experts that the US would not acquiesce in a future Chinese hegemony in the region.'

In other words, by joining China in supporting improved India-Pakistan relations, the US has accepted Chinese hegemony in the region. There is a double non-sequitur here. First, the desire to see an improved relationship between two nations does not constitute playing a role in that relationship. Second, playing a role in the relationship does not imply hegemony in the region. The leap from 'support for improved relations' to 'hegemony' is breathtaking.

This, by the way, is not the first time that a US-China joint statement has mentioned the India-Pakistan relationship. A little over a decade ago, when Bill Clinton travelled to Beijing, the two nations signed a declaration devoted entirely to South Asia. It called for a far more activist (intrusive if you like) role for the two nations, and explicitly mentioned the Kashmir dispute as an area which called for intervention:
'Reducing Tensions and Encouraging the Peaceful Resolution of Differences between India and Pakistan
We are committed to assist where possible India and Pakistan to resolve peacefully the difficult and long-standing differences between them, including the issue of Kashmir. We
welcome the resumption of dialogue between the two countries and encourage them to continue such dialogue, and we stand ready to assist in the implementation of confidence-building measures between them, and encourage the consideration of additional measures of this type.
Responsibilities of China and the U.S.
China and the United States have long sought friendly relations with both India and Pakistan. We reaffirm this goal and our hope that we can jointly and individually contribute to the achievement of a peaceful, prosperous, and secure South Asia.'

Sunday, November 15, 2009

President Everyman

Barack Obama has worked in universities in New England and Chicago, bridging the freshwater - saltwater divide. In the midwest, he speaks of his mother's Kansas upbringing; when addressing troops, he refers to his grandfather Stanley who fought in WW2; in West Asia and North Africa, he mentions his Muslim father. His childhood years in Indonesia allow him to feel at home in South East Asia; in sub-Saharan Africa, his Kenyan half is prominent; and now, in Japan and China, he has used his time in Hawaii to label himself the first Pacific President of the United States.
Nothing connects President Obama to India, as far as I know, apart from the picture of Mahatma Gandhi he keeps in his office. When he visits this country, though, I suspect he will reveal some biographical detail that will encourage us to claim him as an honorary Indian.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


Among those honoured at this year's Mumbai Film Festival was the Greek auteur Theodoros Angelopoulos. The hosts MAMI (Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image) apparently couldn't find a person worthy of presenting the citation to him, and opted to bring on a group that included Rohan Sippy, Ashok Mehta and the director duo Abbas-Mustan.

You can see the brothers Abbas and Mustan Burmawalla on the extreme left of this picture, dressed, as always, in white from shirt to shoes. They're listening intently to Angelopoulos's acceptance speech (thank you, Sankalp, for the info and pic).
After this interaction, I hope Abbas-Mustan familiarise themselves with Angelopoulos's films, starting, I suggest, with Ulysses' Gaze; Angelopoulos, meanwhile, ought to dip into the body of work created by those who honoured him on stage. Taarzan: The Wonder Car might be a good place to begin.
Next year, MAMI should felicitate Jean-Luc Godard, and ask Dharmendra and Jeetendra to present him with the award and speak of how influential Godard's vision was for them in the 1960s and 70s.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Volkswagen rewrites history

Volkswagen has monopolised the advertising in this morning's Times of India, including the entire front page and back page. The back shows an impressive looking factory, supposedly the mammoth plant built at Chakan, near Bombay.

A line at bottom right reads, "Images for representational purposes only. Terms and Conditions apply." What is one to make of that? Is the image a composite? It looks real enough, especially all those people walking along the road although a sidewalk is available. Strange.
Elsewhere, Volkswagen is decidedly economical with the truth.

In this ad, the text states: "In the late 1930s, when the world was busy focussing their engineering minds (sic) on large cars with large engines, we scratched below the surface. We racked our brains and dwelled on what the people really wanted. The solution was the Beetle, a small car that would not just take them from point A to point B, but make the journey memorable as well."
Memo to copy writers: when selling German products, DO NOT mention the late 1930s. Because, like, some might respond to this ad by saying, "Wait a minute, was the Beetle the result of a car manufacturer considering what people really wanted? I remember reading that Adolf Hitler ordered Ferdinand Porsche to produce a small, inexpensive car. It could be built only because of subsidies provided by the state. And wait a minute, there was something about the design being stolen from a Czech model, for which Volkswagen later had to pay substantial damages."

Monday, November 9, 2009

Mobiles and Tamiflu

Since November 1, prepaid connections have been discontinued in Jammu and Kashmir. The Home Ministry ordered the prohibition because it felt vendors were issuing connections without vetting applicants properly, creating a security threat in the troubled state. J&K's chief minister, Omar Abdullah, is protesting the move, but the Centre rejects the idea that the entire population is being punished. Just get postpaid connections, says the Home Minister, they're equally cheap.
The principle, though, is plain unfair. If the Home Ministry found, during random checks, that connections were being given to customers without proper verification, it should have penalised service operators and vendors. But governments in India, whether state or federal, are perfectly happy to prohibit a range of services because of fear of their possible misuse.
A great example of this is the ban on the sale of Tamiflu across the country. No chemist is allowed to stock the potentially life saving drug, though a generic version is manufactured in vast quantities within India. A few hospitals in each state hand out the tablets, after tests confirm a patient has swine flu. Now I'm no doctor (those readers who are, please verify the accuracy of what I'm saying about Tamiflu), but I've heard that Tamiflu should be taken within 12 to 48 hours of the onset of flu symptoms. The first stop for most people when they have fever is their GP. He prescribes the usual medication, and only elevates the case if the fever does not abate. By the time a patient gets to a hospital, is diagnosed, and tested for swine flu, the 48 hour mark is long gone, and Tamiflu is virtually useless.
So why aren't doctors allowed to prescribe Tamiflu, and chemists to sell it? For fear of misuse, which might lead to resistant varieties of the virus emerging. Dozens of Indians have doubtless died already because Tamiflu was not presribed in time.
It is true that, once the drug is available at the local chemist's, all and sundry will walk in and buy it, with or without prescription. Nothing will be done to address this laxity. I recall seeing the Gus Van Sant film Drugstore Cowboy, in which Matt Dillon and his fellow addicts break into chemists' shops to get their hands on prescription drugs. My reaction was: just come to India, you can buy all the prescription drugs you want, no matter how lethal, over the counter.
Even if the authorities clamped down on the sale of scheduled drugs without prescription, it would be easy enough to get one from most family physicians. When I first travelled to England as a student, I was asked to fill out a form listing ailments I'd suffered from, and get it signed by my GP. There was nothing serious in there apart from a bout of Hepatitis I'd suffered a few months previously. My doctor looked at what I'd written and said in a troubled voice, "Why did you put in the jaundice? They may not give you a visa." I told him I didn't think the visa would be a problem, but since I'd heard some kinds of Hepatitis were chronic, it was best to provide the information just in case I had a relapse.
This grew into an argument, with him insisting I should lie in the form, and me telling him it was my concern, not his, whether or not I got to England. Astonishingly, he refused to sign the document, and I had to get a signature from another doctor, who knew nothing about my medical history, and was not concerned about my prospects.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

What waiters should never do

Bruce Buschel has compiled a list of 100 things restaurant staffers should never do. I've supplemented this with a list of my own geared to Indian restaurants. Please add your own pet peeves.


drag furniture across hard floors while setting tables if some guests are already seated.

form chatting huddles at the counter or in corners.

proffer plastic bottles of water for temperature checks.

watch the cricket match on TV instead of attending to guests.

crouch, or place a hand on a chair and lean down to speak.

automatically suggest the most expensive item on the menu when asked for recommendations.

presume guests will order a particular dish because they have done so the last dozen times they visited.

insist on helping guests place napkins on their lap after they indicate they are capable of doing it themselves.

be stingy with menus by having two guests share a card and then snatching it away at the first opportunity.

place the bill before the male rather than at a neutral spot after a couple finishes dining.

Serve red wine warm (room temperature in Bombay is rather higher than room temperature in Bordeaux).

Monday, November 2, 2009

Title Trend

These are the titles of some recently released Hindi films, along with a couple of high-profile movies due for release soon: Blue, Wanted, Wake Up Sid, What's Your Rashee?, London Dreams, Acid Factory, Let's Dance, Paying Guests, New York, ShortKut, Luck, Life Partner, Daddy Cool, Do Knot Disturb, All The Best, London Dreams, Jail, 3 Idiots, Kites and My Name is Khan. It's as if all the Hindustani words in the dictionary have been used up.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

London round-up

Having failed to produce a post each day as I'd promised, and with the London trip already a couple of weeks behind me, I've decided to wrap the thing up with a single post consisting of jottings about different exhibitions. Most are still on view as I write, meaning if you're headed for England around now, you can catch them live.

Damien Hirst: After the pasting he's got from critics, it seems appropriate that black and blue are the predominant colours in Hirst's show. Its title, No Love Lost: The Blue Paintings also sounds prescient.

Most of the twenty-five canvases were produced for the billionaire Ukrainian collector Victor Pinchuk between 2006 and 2008, and are being displayed until the end of January 2010 at the Wallace Collection, a museum in central London best known for 17th and 18th century paintings and objets d'art. Hirst has painted every image himself, eschewing his usual practice of outsourcing that side of art creation to employees. The setting inside a grand museum, the reference to Picasso in the title and to Francis Bacon in the imagery, point at hubristic ambition almost impossible to live up to. Outside that context, and the rumoured 50 million dollars paid for the pictures, I liked the work, particularly the two triptychs, of which one, titled The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth is pictured above. The moody blue-black brought to mind a poem by D.H. Lawrence called Bavarian Gentians.

I hadn't been to the Wallace Collection before, and found it an exceptional group of artefacts, the only drawback being its concentration on the 18th century, which in my opinion is a low point in the history of European painting. In delivering lectures summarising the history of art, I'm flummoxed when, after considering Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian; and then 17th century masters like Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Velazquez, I arrive at Watteau and Boucher. I skip quickly past them and neoclassical artists such as David, to find relief in the 19th century, in Gericault, Delacroix and Turner.

The Collection also contains a substantial armoury, which includes Tipu Sultan's sword. But owning Tipu's sword is like owning Sachin Tendulkar's bat. There are so many of them. Vijay Mallya bought one a few years ago, and another was on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum, as part of:

Maharaja: The Splendour of India's Royal Courts. The show is high on atmosphere, but low on spectacular or unusual display items. Barely worth the ticket price for anybody familiar with the V&A's collection and those of major British and Indian museums.

Anish Kapoor at Lisson Gallery: A number of shiny pieces crying out to be bought. I saw this show on my first day in London, and was rather irritated by its overt commercialness. After catching the survey at the Royal Academy, I felt more generously towards the Lisson works. Kapoor employs a couple of dozen workers in his studio, and large projects like Svayambh probably don't provide him substantial margins. The man has to make money somewhere, and I'm sure his admirers are eager to acquire easy-to-display items.

N S Harsha at Victoria Miro: Harsha did the sensible thing, showing his new, somewhat expressionist explorations at Sakshi in Bombay, and sticking with the tried and tested -- delicately brushed images using repeated motifs -- for his London exhibition. He created, also, a fine installation on the upper level, though it was overshadowed by Grayson Perry's giant tapestry on the top floor.

Rina Bannerjee and Raqib Shaw at Thomas Gibson Fine Art: The two make a good pairing, since both are interested in decoration. Shaw, in my opinion, really gets it, pushing ornateness to its limits without apology, and combining it with violent, morbid imagery.

Bannerjee, meanwhile, muddies the waters, uncertain of how critical she ought to be about the decorative values she employs. A strong set of paintings nevertheless.

RAQS Media Collective at Tate Britain: This group came to the art world as Amar Kanwar did: through the intervention of Okwui Enwezor, who selected RAQS for Documenta 2002. They produce video and web based pieces that often incorporate historical or other documentary material. The three, Monica Narula, Jeebesh Bagchi and Shuddhabrata Sengupta, are super-intelligent, but I have always found their work visually uninvolving and their texts pretentious. This was certainly true of The Surface of Each Day is a Different Planet (the title itself gives an idea of the preciousness that puts me off) at Tate Britain. I don't have the voice-over from this video to provide as an example of what I mean by pretentious, but here's a randomly selected extract from the texts on their website:
"First, let a map be drawn. Let a cadastral reckoning be inked of who owns what, who owes what to whom. Let empty lots yield. Let letters and numbers do the talking. Let the land be silent.
Who has ever heard the land speak?"
They are fond of using immense rhetorical questions such as, "Who has ever heard the land speak?"
RAQS also featured at Frieze with a sculptural work, a clock containing words instead of numbers, words like epiphany, anxiety, duty, guilt, indifference, and so on. Again, pretentious is the first word that sprang to mind.

But RAQS have featured at some of the most prestigious exhibitions and museums in the world, so maybe there's something in their output that I'm missing.
At Tate Britain, they were provided a prominent room right next to:

Turner and the Masters: The show juxtaposes works by Titian, Rembrandt, Canaletto and others with canvases by Turner. Plenty of seriously good stuff, but my biggest take-away from the show was the ineptness of Turner when it comes to faces. He's Britain's greatest artist, no doubt, matchless when it comes to atmospheric landscapes, but he produced few, if any, memorable portraits.

The show demonstrates that the paintings which inspired Turner often contained really interesting countenances, but his own versions relegated these to tertiary status. Even when he did give such figures prominence, he usually did a far better job with the background.