Saturday, February 28, 2009
Kate Winslet's turn as Hanna has paid off in the form of her first Oscar, apart from a crate-load of other trophies. The usual route to such honours is through playing victims of Nazis: Adrian Brody and Roberto Benigni come to mind. The Reader features two excellent actors who've taken on Nazi characters in the past. Ralph Fiennes, the older Michael in The Reader, was riveting as the concentration camp commander Amon Goeth in Schindler's List. It remains his finest role, and was certainly more deserving of a supporting actor Oscar than the winner that year, Tommy Lee Jones for The Fugitive. Bruno Ganz, cast as a professor in Michael's university, recently played Hitler in the German film, Downfall. It was a bit disconcerting to have these other Nazis floating in one's mind while watching the film.
Such characters are always controversial. A strong faction holds that Nazis should never be humanised, because any sympathy they derive from audiences detracts from the enormity of the crimes committed during the Third Reich. The opposing view draws on the idea of the banality of evil. In person, Hitler and Osama bin Laden might be courteous and affable; concentration camp commanders who consigned thousands to death could appear as boring as the stereotypical insurance salesman. Our vigilance against threats to freedom is heightened by understanding that people who perform acts of extreme cruelty are in many ways just ordinary folk.
It is impossible to make a serious film focussing on terrorists or Nazis without delving into their personalities in some fashion, and thus humanising them. At the same time, such films frequently recount or depict acts which demand the strongest condemnation: in the case of The Reader, we are told about an incident in which hundreds of Jewish women are allowed to burn to death in a church because its door is bolted from outside and the guards refuse to open it even after the building is bombed. Kate Winslet is among those guards culpable for the crime, but we cannot condemn her entirely because she has been humanised. How can the director work his way out of the conundrum? His solution utilises the other guards on trial, who are barely seen on screen and evoke no sympathy. They gang up on Winslet, thereby supplying the inhuman Nazis required by the film's plot.
The very first bit of lit crit I remember writing highlighted exactly this dichotomy between understanding and condemnation. The book we were studying was Dickens' Great Expectations, a novel with an exceptionally well-wrought plot. It begins with a boy named Pip helping out an escaped convict. A while later, Pip is invited to the home of Miss Havisham, a rich, eccentric woman, who is the guardian of a girl called Estella. Miss Havisham has been jilted as a young woman, and as revenge has brought Estella up to break men's hearts. Pip learns an anonymous donor has left him a large sum of money. He's convinced it is Miss Havisham, who wants him to become a gentleman worthy of Estella's hand. But Estella spurns him. Near the end of the novel, Pip discovers it is the convict who is his benefactor, and not Miss Havisham.
Dickens gives us three major characters who do cruel things. Estella mistreats Pip, but her guilt is transferred to Miss Havisham who has brought her up that way. Miss Havisham's treatment of Estella, in turn, is explained by her own trauma at the altar. And Magwitch the convict, too, has been betrayed by an associate who is now a sworn enemy.
To tie things up neatly, the man who swindled Miss Havisham is also the person who diddled Magwitch. His name is Compeyson, and he is never brought into the warm circle of the novel's understanding. Like the concentration camp guards in The Reader who frame Kate Winslet, Compeyson can be a conventional villain because we aren't allowed to get to know him at all.
Understanding and condemnation pull in opposite directions. That is why there are endless debates about whether explaining the motives of terrorists automatically involves condoning their actions. In real life, as in fiction, we have difficulty accommodating both impulses.
Friday, February 27, 2009
That's the way thousands of lives begin each day in India. With silence about gender and lies about birth weight. The two are more intimately connected than one might suppose. Today's Times of India carries a large feature about malnutrition in India. The writer, Kounteya Sinha, has published similar articles more than once in the past. The news remains the same. Despite concentrated efforts by this government, and by all the administrations that preceded it, levels of malnourishment in Indian children exceed those in sub-Saharan Africa. How can this be, one wonders. Sure, the bureaucracy is corrupt, sure most of the rations meant for the poor never reach the people targetted, but even so, how can all that outlay, all that effort undertaken by a nation experiencing unprecendented economic growth fail to raise nutrition levels above those of states bereft of even rudimentary governmental oversight, states whose economies are sustained largely by foreign aid. India's population has a higher per capita income, better access to sanitation and substantially better literacy rates than that of sub-saharan Africa, yet one in every three Indian children is born underweight compared with only one in every six in that part of Africa.
It's a huge puzzle, and the Times article provides no answers, just more gruesome figures. Half the child deaths in India are caused by malnutrition; 27% of the world's undernourished children live in India; 43% of children under 5 are underweight, and more than 70% are anaemic. High food prices are making the problem worse.
A few years ago, researchers isolated the cause of India's failure to improve nutrition levels among children. It lies in the extremely low position of Indian women in society. Their status is so low that the nation has an abysmal female to male ratio; so low that a girl's birth is greeted with sombre silence as often as joyous celebration. Women cook for their husbands, but eat after their men are done. They consume whatever little is left, and it is often very little indeed because the husbands have been brought up to consider only their own stomachs, and women trained to think of other people before themselves. The ideal Indian woman is defined by her self-sacrifice. All this is well-known, so it should be no surprise that over 80% of India's women are anaemic.
In Africa, they say, the social mores are different. It is shameful for men not to ensure their wives are well fed. Whatever little there is to eat is shared more equitably between the sexes.
As it happens, the nutrition levels of women are crucial to the birth weight of their babies. An undernourished female will, likelier than not, produce underweight babies, and birth weight is, in turn, a crucial determinant of future health.
The point, then, is not just to provide more food to the poor, but to ensure it is distributed more equally within households. But prejudice is bound to be a massive stumbling block in any educational campaign. The solution, in my opinion, is to fight prejudice by pandering to it. Men ought to be taught that, should they want healthy male children, they need to keep their wives well fed, and not just once a pregnancy is discovered. Women, similarly, must learn that their sacrifices are often counterproductive. By denying themselves, they are denying their children.
We may not be able to break through the disappointed silence that greets the birth of girls, but we might do better when it comes to the weighing scales.
Thursday, February 26, 2009
Some day journalists will write about how thousands of suspects were injected with drugs that caused debilitating side effects, and failed to produce any credible information for investigators. Perhaps there will even be demands for compensation filed. For the moment, I hope judges across the nation agree to an immediate moratorium on narco analysis and brain mapping till forensic scientists of proven credentials attest to their efficacy.
Here are the two columns I wrote in Time Out about the issue. The first was published in 2006, the second in 2008. Some irrelevant text has been cut out and replaced by ellipses.
It now seems standard Bombay police practice to fly the accused in high profile cases down to the Karnataka State Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) in Bangalore... The Bangalore lab’s USP is what the police call ‘brain mapping’...
A little digging told me that ‘brain mapping’ is a misnomer for tests conducted in Bangalore, which are more akin to ‘brain fingerprinting’. Neurologists have known for decades that seeing a familiar image triggers a characteristic, measurable neural response called a P300. An inventor named Lawrence Farwell has created a memory-detector machine based on this involuntary response. He calls the procedure brain fingerprinting. If, for instance, an accused in a homicide claims he’s never visited the victim’s house, his brain could trip him up by sending out P300 waves when shown photographs of the home’s interior. However, finding material to which only a guilty brain will respond is exceptionally difficult and has restricted the use of brain fingerprinting. In the above instance, policemen might have shown the suspect pictures of the home during questioning, or images may have appeared in the media.
To make matters murkier, it turns out that the Bangalore forensic lab doesn’t use Farwell’s patented method but a variant called Brain Electrical Activation Fingerprinting developed by Dr. C R Mukundan, formerly of NIMHANS (National Institute of Mental Health and Neural Sciences). Three years ago, Mukundan received a grant of Rs.70 lakhs (bizarrely, from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting) to evolve an indigenous brain fingerprinting technique. BEAF involves recreating the crime through auditory stimuli, an extremely imprecise process which could never hope to provide unambiguous results. Unlike Farwell, who has been writing research papers for twenty years, Mukundan appears to have published nothing about BEAF’s efficacy in respected peer-reviewed journals. What he has done is to start a company called Brainex to market his unproven machine. This sounds to me like voodoo science, somewhere between herbal fuel and cold fusion.
The BEAF route is significantly more expensive than the default technique used by police, which, of course, is to beat up suspects till they say whatever cops want them to say. But I suspect it will fare as pathetically in court as forced confessions have done for years.
Forensic technology can help get many criminals convicted, but its judicious use requires well-trained, honest, professionals, which the police utterly lack. Case in point: the Marine Drive rape where, despite all circumstances being favourable, no clinching DNA evidence has been found tying constable Sunil More to the crime.
Bheja Fry Redux
In a column published two years ago, I criticised the police for their increasing reliance on ‘narco-analysis’ and brain scans in criminal investigations. Since then, two additional labs have been set up for Brain Electrical Oscillation Signature (BEOS) testing, including one in
Meanwhile, the inventor of BEOS, C. R. Mukundan, has yet to publish a single paper about the technique in a peer-reviewed journal. Last year, the central government appointed a committee of six experts to probe Mukundan’s system. The committee, led by the Director of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, D. Nagaraja, concluded that BEOS was unreliable as an investigative tool and should not be used as evidence in court. The Directorate of Forensic Sciences immediately rejected the experts’ conclusion and reaffirmed its commitment to quack technology.
When BEOS or narco-analysis are mentioned in the media, they are invariably referred to as “scientific tests’. I’d like to know what exactly is scientific about drugging people and prompting them to babble by asking leading questions. From the incoherent ramblings thus produced, officers pick and choose what they please. Arun Ferreira, accused of links with radical left wing groups, stated Naxalism in
If they’d stuck to established forensic tools like fingerprinting and DNA matching, they could have charged or absolved the trio with authority. DNA profiling is not something outlandish from episodes of CSI, it’s incredibly easy and inexpensive. A town near Tel Aviv uses it to fine dog owners who fail to clean up behind their pets. All pooches are brought in for mouth swabs, creating a database against which unscooped poop is compared.
Perhaps the most novel defence of narco-analysis has come from IPS officer turned civil rights activist Y. P. Singh. He argues it reduces the chance of detainees being tortured for information. Isn’t that a great option to give arrested suspects in a liberal democracy: do you want your body bashed or your brain addled? I believe the investigating officer usually fills in the answer: both of the above.
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
I'm through with giving Abhishek Bachchan the benefit of doubt. Nine years is quite enough time. The man will never be a great actor, that much became obvious when he barely scraped a passing grade in Guru. What's apparent after his smug performances in Dostana and Delhi 6 is that, not only is he incapable of getting under a character's skin, he's not even interested in trying. While forty year old superstars with nothing left to prove are driven enough to reshape their bodies for a single role, Abhishek's grown pudgy, losing the smouldering intensity he showed hints of in Sarkar and Yuva.
In Rakeysh Mehra's Delhi 6, he plays an ABCD, but sounds like an NRI. His body language is as unconvincing as his accent. It doesn't help that he is supposed to be skilled enough at parkour to bound across Old Delhi's rooftops with the agility of a monkey.
Monkeys are central to Delhi 6 (spoilers ahead). At one extreme is Bajrangbali, a deity to be worshipped; at the other a mysterious assailant known as kala bandar, who has been terrorising Delhi's citizens and delighting the media. Abhishek visits India with his grandmother -- who wishes to return to her old haveli in Chandni Chowk to die -- just as the fear of the monkey-man has reached fever pitch. Even as he grows attracted to the girl next door, an aspiring Indian Idol played by Sonam Kapoor, he gets caught up in divides of all kinds: between brother and brother, father and daughter, Hindu and Muslim. In trying to protect, assist and rescue people, he ends up becoming the focus of the neighbourhood's hatred.
The bizarreness of the storyline had plenty of potential, which a director like Emir Kusturica would have exploited fully. Regrettably, Rakeysh Mehra has attempted to squeeze the plot into the form of a conventional musical romance, creating a preachy, tedious movie enlivened by a few bright spots.
Monday, February 23, 2009
Freida Pinto came out to present the foreign film award. Walking to the mike, she clutched Liam Neeson's elbow, and didn't let go as they announced the nominations. Neeson had to disengage himself gently in order to tear open the winner's envelope. Pinto's Galliano gown looked like it might strangle her if she stepped on its hem.
Sean Penn was in a close race for best actor with Mickey Rourke and edged him in the end. I haven't seen the Wrestler, but caught Milk on Sunday morning. I think it's Penn's best role yet. He's always been a fine actor, but could never make his characters likeable enough. That was true even of the role in Mystic River that brought him his previous Academy Award. In Milk, he is effortlessly funny and endearing.
Of the Slumdog winners, Resul Pookutty seemed overwhelmed; A R Rahman stayed perfectly calm. His speech after he won for best score was heard politely, but with a distinct get-on-with-it undertone. Immediately after that, the three tunes nominated for best song were played live. Rahman had composed two of them, which he also sang, and sang pretty well. By the time he accepted his second award, for Jai Ho, audience members were thinking, wow, this chap is seriously talented, and gave him the ovation he deserved.
Saturday, February 21, 2009
A little less than a month ago, I critiqued Rahul Srivastava and Mattias Echanove's reclassification of Dharavi from a slum to a collection of villages. The pair has written an Op-Ed in today's New York Times presenting their thesis to an American audience. Titled, 'Taking the Slum Out of Slumdog', the article argues that Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire "represents what most middle-class residents of Mumbai (and now all over the world) imagine Dharavi to be. The urban legend of its squalor has taken root because few Mumbaikars have ever been there". In other words, according to the writers, there's nothing squalid about Dharavi, it's all a myth created by well-to-do folks who've never been there. Where, then, one wonders, did those images of squalor so tellingly shot by Danny Boyle come from? Did the camera miraculously transform a clean and verdant landscape into a fetid crowd of shanties? Should Slumdog be in the running for a Best Visual Effects Oscar along with all the other nominations it has received? The truth, as anybody who has ever been to Bombay will know, is that there are slums everywhere, even in some of the most affluent parts of the city. Citizens don't have to travel to Dharavi to learn what a slum is: they only need eyes and noses. Slums are the first thing noticed by tourists coming to Bombay: there's a vast sprawl abutting the airport, and hutments line miles of tracks on the route to the main rail terminus.
Echanove and Srivastava (henceforth, E&S) go on to claim, "Dharavi's messy appearance is nothing but an expression of intense social and economic processes at work." The homes double as work spaces, and represent, "a decentralized production network rivaling the most ruthless of Chinese sweatshops in efficiency". In this, too, they are mistaken. The production in Indian slums is horribly inefficient. That's why Dharavi's workers earn far less than their Chinese counterparts. In attempting to change perceptions of Bombay's slums, E&S swallow the stereotype of a Chinese workplace. I haven't been to China, but I've visited Hanoi and its environs, which have factories modelled on Chinese ones a little to the north. The workshops I saw, hundreds of them ringing the Vietnamese capital, were huge warehouses, well-lit, roomy, full of workers bending over fabric while sitting at work tables. A tedious and taxing job, no doubt, but far from slave labour: created in an environment that allows the standardisation required for mass production, and far safer for employees than are Dharavi's toxic recycling factories.
E&S stress the tropes of post-modern planning that I wrote about in my post on Ahmedabad: decentralisation, community, village, local involvement in development etc. They mention repeatedly that the government has been less than helpful in providing amenities to Dharavi's citizens. But nowhere do they state why this might be. They omit to inform readers of the New York Times that the homes of Dharavi are built illegally on government land. Using their favourite analogy of Bombay and Tokyo, the two write, "Look at large parts of Tokyo. Its low-rise, high-density mixed-use cityscape and intricate street network have emerged through a similar Dharaviesque logic. The only difference is that people’s involvement in local development in Tokyo was seen as legitimate." The only difference? Surely they jest. Their argument is, in any case, disingenuous, because the Tokyo developments they speak of were entirely legal. Citizens had rights to the land on which they built their homes. That is why they were 'seen as legitimate'.
I should stress that S&E aren't mavericks. Crazy as it may seem to some of us, the idea of Dharavi as village rather than slum, a community to be celebrated and cherished, is catching on. Prince Charles, who has become an emblem of anti-rational, anti-modernist architectural thinking in Britain over the past two decades, recently praised Dharavi's "underlying intuitive grammar of design", and held the place up as a model to be emulated. There are no signs, however, that the Prince intends forsaking London's Clarence House, his private estates in Gloucestershire and Scotland, and his new 192 acre Welsh property, to make a home in Bombay's finest village.
Thursday, February 19, 2009
In a nation where strict censorship is approved by all political parties, the stance of one government is not hugely different from that of its predecessor. Nevertheless, to those not inclined to the Gore's-the-same-as-Bush attitude, signs of liberalisation have been visible during the UPA's term in office. Sharmila Tagore, the current censor board chief, has consistently spoken up for artistic freedom, and lifted the board from the ridiculous depths it had sunk to under Anupam Kher during the NDA's reign.
The most egregious acts of censorship in the past five years have originated outside the ceritification body. Some of these came from the government, like Health minister Ramadoss's injunction to ban images of smoking, while most originated from extra-legal pressure groups. These groups have become a serious threat to free expression, and I hope some sensible judges come down heavily on them soon.
For the moment, though, one can savour the release of Milk (that sounds a bit gross, sorry), as also of Dev D a couple of weeks ago. Anurag Kashyap's film didn't come through completely unscathed, but considering the rough rides he's had in the past, this must have seemed like a holiday cruise.
Meanwhile, a fracas at the opening of Bangalore's new National Gallery of Modern Art gives an indication of what we can expect if the BJP returns to power. The Medical Health Minister Ramachandra Gowda, speaking at the museum's inauguration (the very fact he was deputed to attend tells us a lot about the Karnataka government), tore into "pseudo-intellectuals who have distorted the tradition and culture of the country".
I await NMGA Director Rajeev Lochan's repudiation of Gowda's statement, but I'm not holding my breath.
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
I saw Anurag Kashyap's Dev D last weekend. It's a very good film, though not, I think, the masterpiece some people are making it out to be. While it departs substantially, and refreshingly, from previous cinematic adaptations, it cannot overcome the central flaw in the novel as well as its many film versions: the weakness of the main figure.
If Dilip Kumar couldn't make Devdas a believable and interesting character, there's no way Abhay Deol was going to come close. Unfortunately for Deol, this performance is a step backward from Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye. He plays a rich industrialist's son possessed of an urge to destroy himself and everybody close to him. There is no reason for him to be like that, it's just the way he is. His emotions, then, seem in excess of the facts of his cushy life. I've written about such excess previously, in connection with Picasso's paintings and Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Playing Kashyap's Dev convincingly was a matter of conveying an inner intensity partly masked by outward cool. Deol manages the cool (though not as effortlessly as he did with Lucky), but largely forgoes the intensity. It's a difficult thing to convey, that inner anger which exists for no clear reason. Jack Nicholson did it consistently in the seventies, before beginning to ham it up in the next decade. He went from being a volcano ready to explode, to one spewing lava and gas everywhere. Amitabh Bachchan, too, had that power, although in his case script writers usually provided enough motivation for characters he played to feel the way they did.
When a character does plumb those depths of anger or anguish, he can become a proxy for the feelings of an entire generation, precisely because there isn't enough in his individual tale to justify his emotions or actions. This is true of Jimmy Porter from John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, and of many iconic angry young men in the half century since Osborne's play was performed.
The main victims of the anger of these young men, it should be mentioned, are frequently lovers who've done little to deserve it. We have Hamlet and Ophelia, Jimmy Porter and Alison, Jack Nicholson's Bobby Dupea and Karen Black's Rayette Dipesto in Five Easy Pieces, and Dev and Paro.
Kashyap's film left me with many questions: what if Abhay Deol had, miraculously, made Dev's actions credible through the force of his acting? Would he have become an iconic figure in the manner of the predecessors I've mentioned? Or would the fact that he plays such an affluent character have disqualified him? Is there the kind of generational anger in India now that there was in the seventies?
Monday, February 16, 2009
The TV channels were not swayed by the display of propriety. They, as always on budget day, were focussed on one simple question: would the market rise or fall? Since it fell, they drew the conclusion that the Finance Minister had messed up. 'Damp Squib Budget' was the headline on CNBC-TV18. The clamour of presenters faulting the government for providing no 'big bang' proposals drowned out sensible voices like Deepak Parekh, Nandan Nilekani and Uday Kotak.
Stocks in real estate companies were among the hardest hit, after their chiefs were denied the 'sops' (a favourite word of Indian journalists) they had lobbied for. I'm particularly glad about that. For years these people charged extortionately for accommodation, pricing most of the population out of the market and encouraging a speculative bubble. Their net profit margins were outrageous, over 50% in the case of big companies like DLF, Unitech and HDIL; and that's without factoring in the black money involved in most transactions. Yet, the promoters of some of these firms were so greedy in leveraging their gains that, once the price bubble burst, they found themselves on the brink of insolvency. Imagine that: a company makes a profit of hundreds of crores of rupees one quarter (these are not fictitious profits like Satyam's), and a couple of months later is almost bankrupt.
What's their response to the crisis? Instead of lowering prices to push sales volumes, they hoard their stock, waiting for the market to turn, all the while complaining the government isn't offering enough tax incentives to buyers. In fact, the buyers are out there. When MHADA offered 3800 reasonably priced flats in January, it received 430,000 applicants for the ballot, more than a hundred per apartment, a sign of how desperate people in Bombay are for a decent place to live. But the likes of DHL, Unitech and HDIL aren't interested in those five lakh citizens, or the many millions like them across India.
On the business channels, anchors looked at the market's falling graph, shook their heads and said, "Unfortunately, Pranab Mukherjee merely did what the constitution stipulates". So there you have it: 300 points on the Sensex on one side, and the nation's constitution on the other. Which is more important? The broadcasters have made their choice.
Saturday, February 14, 2009
When life is portrayed as a creation of God, its description usually involves fragrant flowers, chirping birds and people full of the milk of human kindness (or humankind-ness, as some Shakespeare scholars prefer). When one replaces ‘God’ with ‘natural selection acting on random variations’, interpretations of the same data change dramatically, and life becomes cut-throat, savage. Pramit Pal Chaudhuri opens his column in yesterday’s Hindustan Times with the line, “Charles Darwin wrote of ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’.” Chaudhuri is incorrect, and obviously unwilling to do simple Google searches before sending off his articles: Tennyson wrote that line, not
As a counter to the brutalist view of natural selection, I’m dedicating this Valentine’s Day post to the cause of love viewed from an evolutionist perspective.
Since I began with God, let me get in a Biblical reference first. In the Book of Genesis, God places Adam in the Garden of Eden. He invites the first man to relish the fruit of every tree, but warns him that, should he eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he will die. God creates a woman as companion for Adam, and this woman, named Eve, encounters the garden's resident serpent, who prods her to taste the forbidden fruit. Eve says, no way, God has said we’ll die if we take a bite. The serpent replies, the guy’s bluffing, you’re not going to *die* by eating this fruit. Try it, it will open your eyes. And so the woman eats, and persuades Adam to partake as well. When God finds out and gets upset, Adam cries, it wasn’t me, she did it, she gave it to me, she’s to blame. God curses the woman, saying, “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.” And so on.
I suggest an allegorical reading of this passage. What sets us humans apart from other creatures is, undoubtedly, our intelligence. We have eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge. The most obvious physical marker of this is our increased brain size. Modern humans have between three and five times the cranial capacity of any of the Great Apes. We possess, in other words, seriously big heads. These big heads create problems in childbirth. It’s much more difficult and painful for human females to give birth than for their chimpanzee and gorilla counterparts. That’s the curse which comes from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge: “in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children”.
End of allegory. But not the end of my story about big heads. Obviously, some million years ago, having bigger brains conferred significant adaptive advantages to proto-humans. But the hominid birth canal and pelvis couldn’t keep getting wider to accommodate cleverer babies. Beyond a point, the costs associated with inhibited locomotion outweighed the benefits of bigger heads. There was, however, a second way in which enhanced cranial capacity could be achieved; this was by delaying maturity, or, to put it another way, giving birth early so that more development could take place outside the mother's body.
No woman who carries for nine months feels it’s too short a period, but consider this: humans live twice as long as chimps or gorillas. They mature when they’re twice as old. But their gestation periods are more or less the same (7 to 8 months for chimps, 8 months for gorillas). By being born prematurely, humans can continue the development of their big heads without compromising the birth-giver's anatomy (Stephen Jay Gould was the most prominent supporter of this 'early birth' hypothesis). However, this clever manoeuvre creates a problem of its own, in that a human infant stays dependent for far longer than those of any of the Great Apes. It is so helpless for so long that a single parent (without the amenities offered by the affluent modern state) would be hard pressed to take care of it. Having an attentive father greatly improves the chances of an infant’s survival. Long-term emotional connections therefore need to be formed, to keep fathers interested in their children and partners. This is achieved through a variety of adaptations, notably the capacity of human females to remain sexually receptive even at times when they are infertile. The inter-connected development of bigger brains, early birth and perpetual female sexual receptivity takes hundreds of thousands of years, and results, eventually, in the bond between partners that we call romantic love, a bond geared to last long enough to ensure successful child rearing.
The conservatives who insist romantic love is an import, not part of our culture, are deeply mistaken, as are left-wing theorists who classify love as a social construct, along with everything else under the sun. Romantic love went into the very creation of humanity; we would not exist as a species without it. The modes through which the bond is expressed might change from place to place and generation to generation, but the emotion itself is found everywhere and in all eras.
I imagine the opening of a window in time, permitting us a look back fifty thousand years. We peek at a scene in West Asia close to the location of the mythical Garden of Eden. A band of men has been out foraging or hunting and, as they turn to head home with the food they've collected, a youth spots a cluster of bright wildflowers blooming under a tree in the distance, the first sign of spring. Asking his mates to wait, he sprints across and plucks a few to take back for his partner. He doesn't say, 'Happy Valentine’s Day' while presenting the blossoms to her, but the lovers feel very much as millions of couples will do today when they greet each other with those words.
Thursday, February 12, 2009
Darwin's central thesis of natural selection acting on random variations is very different from, say, the Theory of Relativity. Anybody of sound mind can understand it. It is so simple, in fact, that that any intelligent person living in the early Victorian era might have hit upon it independently, given the right circumstances. The reason nobody did is that, while the mechanism Darwin proposed was elegantly simple, its consequences were so far-reaching as to overturn all traditional notions about how trees, reptiles, insects and humans came to occupy Planet Earth. The idea was so radical that even today, exactly 200 years after Darwin was born, in the 150th year of the publication of his celebrated book On the Origin of Species, and after a century and a half of discoveries that have proved his idea true beyond all reasonable doubt, a majority of people across the globe reject its validity.
I never had a mental block against the idea of natural selection because I didn't believe any of the explanations religions provided for the origin of life on earth. My immediate family members were not religiously inclined. The only time I attended prayers was when an uncle or neighbour installed a Ganapati during the annual festival. I gorged on the modaks made in that period, but the fervent chanting always struck me as faintly ridiculous. I found it mind-boggling that intelligent, well-educated adults could actually believe their prayers would be answered by a deity with a human body and elephant's head.
It was evident that the world was very unfair to some individuals and extraordinarily kind to others; and that the unfairness and kindness did not correlate with any discernible external factor like religious faith, goodness or intelligence. Those who worshipped Ganapati were no better off than devotees of other gods. Why, then, believe in the dogmas of one faith over another?
Once I understood Darwin, life made sense. The facts as I saw them, and as they were observed by people everywhere, could be explained in ways that did not create an infinite regression of questions ("If everything must have a creator, who created the Creator? And who created that Creator?"), or unsolvable contradictions ("If Allah is omnipotent, it follows that he made me a disbeliever. Why, then, will he condemn me to hell and an eternity of torment for my disbelief?"). By the time I turned thirteen or fourteen or fifteen (past years coalesce in memory as one gets older), I was convinced that natural selection was the driving force behind the creation of the varied forms of life visible on earth, and nothing I have read or experienced since has shaken that conviction in the slightest.
I have written this post without using the word most associated with Darwin: evolution. It is, in many ways, a misnomer, implying as it does that some states of being are inherently better than others. It places Darwin in a category that includes a number of misguided thinkers who came before him, like Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and leaves the door open to criticism that he was not the 'father of evolution'. He wasn't, just as Gandhi was not the 'father of non-violence'. Gandhi's originality lay in demonstrating how non-violent protest could be the basis of political struggle. Darwin's resided in his explanation, backed by hundreds of practical examples, of how life began with extremely simple forms and changed over hundreds of millions of years, without any external impetus, to the mix of simple and complex living things we observe today.
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
He "conceptualized and curated" the Vibrant Gujarat mural project, which was executed by ten artists at an industrial location in Baroda. I would never have expected Johny to join the Narendra Modi fan club. After all, not long ago, artconcerns was in the forefront of protests against the arrest of a student from MS University's Faculty of Fine Arts. The student, named Chandramohan, was accused by members of some Hindutva outfit of displaying paintings that hurt religious sentiments. The right-wing thugs entered the campus, roughed up Chandramohan, and damaged a number of artworks. The Modi administration, needless to say, backed the vandals to the hilt. All part of its wildly successful cultural growth strategy, I suppose.
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
'Research', too, has switched to countable. This morning's Times of India speaks of, "a stunning research, which can change the way medical emergencies are dealt with". Reading further, one encounters this gem: "There has been growing consensus among the medical community that for people who witness a cardiac arrest if they are concerned about performing mouth-to-mouth then they should carry out only chest compressions."
In this case, the Times of India employee who repackaged the article is not to blame. The same punctuation-free sentence occurs in the Daily Telegraph piece that was the source of the Times report. Shockingly, the Telegraph's version was composed by its Medical Editor, Rebecca Smith. Smith goes on to write, "The study, published in the journal BioMed Central Medicine, shows that for every second paused during compressions there is a one per cent reduction in the likelihood of success, which was measures (sic) as return of circulation." The Times takes no measures to rectify the typo, and adds another error of its own near the end of the article: "The American Heart Association's first aid guidelines updated last year, suggesting that the mouth-to-mouth component of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) was unnecessary." The Telegraph has: "The American Heart Association's first aid guidelines were updated last year..." (italics added).
Putting aside the mangled grammar of the article, let's consider its message. Mouth-to-mouth is useless at best, and potentially counter-productive. How are lifeguards on film and TV going to survive if that component of CPR is eliminated? Any plans to revive Baywatch, or make a big screen adaptation, will have to be cancelled immediately.
Indians never took to the kiss of life, even in Pam Anderson's heyday. They did, however, begin trying their hand at stomach and chest pumping. I heard this from a doctor at INS Hamla, where victims of Aksa beach's treacherous rip current are taken. The naval base has (or had in those days) the only well-equipped hospital in that part of north Bombay. Bodies pulled from the Madh-Marve stretch were brought to the base for treatment. Most would be dead on arrival, but now and then a life was saved. Hamla's authorities had put up a huge billboard on the road to Aksa, providing a regularly updated death count, but it didn't deter beer-sodden youths from venturing into the sea deep enough to be dragged in by the ebb tide.
I was invited to a dinner at INS Hamla when Baywatch was at the peak of its popularity. The conversation turned to television programmes, and that's when the doctor sardonically mentioned the CPR phenomenon. He said people were drowning at Aksa at the same rate, but fatalities were higher because companions now mimicked the procedures they had seen on television instead of rushing their friends to hospital. None of the victims ever coughed water, stood up and asked about dinner plans (that only happens in fiction anyway), but quite a few were killed by wrongly administered first aid.
Monday, February 9, 2009
Here's an image of Jitish Kallat standing in front of his giant canvas titled Horrorificabilitudinitatibus. Unfortunately, the glitter I objected to is invisible, but readers will get a general impression of what the piece looks like. One feature missing when I saw the painting displayed at Gallery Articulate was the metal gargoyles on which the work is supposed to rest. They can be seen in this studio photograph. Apart from sending the image, Jitish has written a response to my post about the work, to which I have replied. Those interested, please join the conversation, which isn't only about this particular painting, but also about the use of historical reference in general.
Saturday, February 7, 2009
and Amir Parsa, an educator from New York's Museum of Modern Art currently delivering a series of lectures in Bombay, extensively discussed another iconic canvas, Les Demoiselles D'Avignon.
If laypeople were asked to name one painting to represent 20th century art, Guernica would be the most popular pick. If art historians were polled about the same matter, they'd almost certainly choose Les Demoiselles D'Avignon.
I personally believe Guernica is seriously over-rated by critics, historians and the public. Before explaining why, let me provide a brief background about the canvas. In 1937, Republicans and Fascists were fighting a civil war in Spain. Picasso had agreed to contribute a painting to an exhibition promoting the Republican cause. In April of that year, Nazi warplanes bombed the town of Guernica in the north of Spain to help out their fascist allies. Picasso set aside the work he was making for the Republican show and painted his celebrated mural-size canvas instead, as a response to the attack and to all atrocities against civilians. He used only black, white and grey, perhaps as an acknowledgment that he had learned of the attack through newspapers.
The painting is a marvellous feat of control and balance, but I find it melodramatic and dated, filled as it is with wailing, screaming figures begging for the viewer's sympathy and tears. Everything about the canvas is on its surface, there's nothing beyond, no depths to be explored and uncovered. The experience of viewing it when I visited Madrid was rather deflating.
Picasso's best paintings have the opposite effect. Even when they create an immediate impact, as does Les Demoiselles D'Avignon, they contain an intensity far greater than what is revealed at first sight. He was an extremely personal and emotional artist throughout his life, with the exception of what is called his analytical cubist period between 1908 and 1911. Having taught history-of-art modules for years, I've found that, aside from those cubist experiments, his work reaches out easily to people with no knowledge of modern art. Guernica is one of the very few major works he produced with roots outside of his personal experience. That's probably why he could not imbue it with the kind of buried, slow-release emotive values that mark his best work.
If I was to pick my favourite anti-war Picasso painting, it would not be Guernica but Three Musicians. He painted it in 1921, and made two versions, one of which hangs in MoMA, New York, and the other, the one I prefer, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The painting appears at first to be a comical, childish cut-and-paste job. Looking more carefully, one identifies figures popular in the European carnival tradition like Harlequin and Pierrot frequently used by Picasso. The painting gradually casts a melancholy spell; its dark background, and the stillness of the three figures conveys a sense of music that played once but has been quieted forever. It has been surmised that Three Musicians is an elegy for one of Picasso's closest friends, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who died in 1918. The figure of the monk is supposed to represent Max Jacob, a former room-mate of Picasso's who introduced the Spanish artist to Apollinaire.
I've always taken the headgear worn by the figure on the left to be a helmet, representing the great war that ended in 1918. It took the lives of an entire generation of European youth, and even those left alive found it impossible to remake the connections which existed between them before the fighting began. Picasso and Georges Braque, for example, worked closely for years between 1908 and 1914. Braque spoke of their collaboration as being akin to two mountaineers roped together. Picasso accompanied Braque and Andre Derain to the train station from where they departed for the front lines. He was later to say of that farewell: "They never came back again" (sometimes translated, "I never saw them again"). In fact, both Braque and Derain did return from battle, and met Picasso frequently enough, but the community of artists that existed in Paris before 1914 had been shattered. I believe Picasso imbued Three Musicians with the nostalgia and grief he felt at the passing of that incredibly rich period in his life.
The painting, then, is not an anti-war image in the classic sense, but for me it is more powerful than Guernica because it mourns the effects of war in a profoundly personal fashion, without recourse to the obvious typology of victimhood.
As a post-script, let me bring in what T.S.Eliot wrote about Shakespeare's Hamlet, which he considered an artistic failure. Eliot suggested that good drama involves the "complete adequancy of the external to the emotion". He continued, "And this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet. Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear."
I believe the contrary is the case: the exceptional power of Hamlet, its great success, derives precisely from the 'excess' of emotion to which Eliot alludes. And that is also what makes Picasso's greatest work so powerful and almost unique: there is an emotion there in excess of the available facts, which has somehow been transferred from the man to the work.
A second post-script: Picasso said once, "What matters most to us in Cezanne is his anxiety". Again, the opposite is true: what matters to us in Cezanne is his overcoming of anxiety. But it would be accurate to say about Picasso himself that what matters in his work is his anxiety.
Thursday, February 5, 2009
The big change in this series is her use of three dimensionality. The paintings are made up of segments, some of which are recessed in the mounting, creating a play of surface and depth, shadows and light. Sheetal works within a tradition of abstraction that has been unfashionable for a long time. But she has doggedly stuck with her vision, and her latest offering makes for a mature, substantial and satisfactory show.
To coincide with Sheetal's opening, Jitish Kallat exhibited a giant canvas with a giant name in Gallery Articulate downstairs. The painting, titled Horrorificabilitudinitatibus, is headed for London, where it will be part of a 40 person group show at Haunch of Venison's new space at 6, Burlington Gardens. The building formerly housed the British Museum's ethnographic collection and was called the Museum of Mankind. After a refurbishment in 1998, the ethnographic artefacts moved to back to the main British Museum, and 6, Burlington Gardens was taken over by the Royal Academy. Haunch of Venison have leased it for 3 years, agreeing to pay some 4.5 million pounds for it in a deal which may now seem a big mistake.
Horrorificabilitudinitatibus is a play on honorificabilitudinitatibus, which is the longest word with alternating consonants and vowels in the English language, and means 'the state of being able to achieve honours'. By changing 'honor' to 'horror' Jitish focuses on 'the state of being able to receive horrors', referring particularly to the fascination with which the spectacle of 26/11 was greeted. The artist gathered together news photographs of citizens staring up at the burning buildings of South Bombay, and crafted one composite image which he then transferred to canvas. The figures in the finished painting have coagulated cityscapes resting on their heads, a motif Jitish has used for the past two years, and seen in this picture from his Dawn Chorus series exhibited at London's Albion gallery in late 2007.
The striped 'rays of the sun' background he employs is also familiar from past work, particularly a sequence titled Carbon Milk he exhibited in Beijing in mid 2007.
A few insect-like forms float down from the sky; they look like flayed body parts and are also supposed to be reminiscent of Rorschach inkblots. The picture surface is covered with glitter dust, perhaps meant to signify falling shards of glass. Unfortunately, the glitter, together with the stripey background, makes the painting look cluttered and a bit kitschy. I have a feeling a plain background of the sort Jitish used for his Albion show would have been more successful here. Perhaps the problem with the image is that the central group of figures is uninvolving and Jitish has overcompensated in trying to rectify the situation.
Aside from its formal shortcomings, the canvas is also hampered by its subject. To this day, no truly important work has been created about the 9/11 attacks, because there is no way art can compete with the astonishing images of the planes hitting the Trade Centres and the collapse of the towers. In similar vein, the terrorist strike on south Bombay made a tremendous visual impact on the public at large, being carried non-stop for three days on every news channel. That's something difficult to assimilate and respond to adequately by means of a painting. Jitish is intelligent enough to realise this, which is why he has focussed on the reception of the attack rather than the attack itself. But there's been a lot of attention paid to this aspect of the event as well, and Horrorificabilitudinitatibus has no new insight or perspective to offer on the matter.
Jitish is nothing if not confident, and, by making the painting in the exact dimensions of Picasso's Guernica, he advertises the scale of his ambition. There is a congruence of subject between the Kallat and the Picasso, of course, but the Guernica reference serves only to diminish Horrorificabilitudinitatibus further. It is never wise for artists to bring to mind comparisons where they are going to come out second best.
Jitish is one of my favourite artists, but Horrorificabilitudinitatibus feels like a mis-step. In general in recent years, his sculptural and photographic works have made a far greater impression on me than his paintings. I'd never have thought that possible, given his exceptional gifts as a painter.
Update, February 7: Jitish informed me that the glitter was always part of his plan for the painting and wasn't meant to represent anything specific.
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
A previous scare they manufactured related to pesticides in carbonated beverages. At the end of this post, I've written about the duplicity involved in that report. For the moment, let's focus on the current kerfuffle. It concerns trans fats, and features prominently in the dailies this morning. The front page of the Hindustan Times asks: "How edible is your cooking oil?" The article, written by Chetan Chauhan and Sanchita Sharma, begins with the line, "You may be better off using butter than cooking oil, suggests a new study". The Hindu's headline reads: "Most edible oil contains harmful trans fat, study shows". The paper quotes Sunita Narain as saying, "The study found that if all oils are compared against Denmark standard, then no edible oil in the market could claim to be healthy".
That is NOT what the actual study found. On page 28, section 13.2, titled Trans Fatty Acids, the CSE's report states: "In 21 refined edible oil samples analysed for trans fats; trans fat content was in the range of 0.08 to 3.3%. Most of the samples were within the trans fat limit of Denmark of 2%... except Saffola Gold... and Shalimar's Classic Basmati."
Sunita Narain says no edible oil meets Danish trans fat standards; her own organisation's study says that 19 of 21 refined edible oils DO meet that standard, and 2 have trans fat levels slightly above the allowable limit. What's going on?
CSE has created the confusion by fudging two different categories of product: refined edible oils on the one hand, and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils on the other.
A QUESTION OF CATEGORIES
The first of these categories consists of any oil you can buy in shops: sunflower, peanut, coconut, mustard, olive and so on. These oils have been used in cooking for millennia. The second category, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (PHVOs), refers to margarine, shortening and, in the case of India, vanaspati. PHVOs are created through an industrial process that was invented a little over a century ago. It involves taking liquid vegetable oil and modifying its chemistry so it turns solid. The higher melting point of PHVOs makes them easy to use in baking, and because they don't get rock hard in the fridge, they are convenient breakfast spreads.
PHVOs grew popular because they mimicked animal fats like butter while being much cheaper to produce. In India, Unilever marketed a PHVO which mimicked ghee, the country's favourite animal fat based cooking medium. Such ghee-mimicking PHVOs were given the wholesome sounding name vanaspati. Unilever's vanaspati brand, Dalda, became the cheap ghee-substitute of choice in most Indian homes, particularly in the north.
Until the mid 1990s, PHVOs were actually considered healthier than their animal fat counterparts. Margarine was supposedly better for you than butter, and Dalda preferrable to ghee. That's because, at the time, the main division health professionals made was between 'bad' saturated fats with large amounts of cholesterol and 'good' low-cholesterol unsaturated fats. PHVOs had lower levels of saturated fat than butter and ghee, and contained no cholesterol, and were therefore marketed as healthy substitutes for animal fat based mediums.
THE EVIL TRANS FAT
Over the past decade and a bit, a more complex view of fat and cholesterol has come to dominate dietary thinking. We now speak of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, good (HDL) cholesterol and bad (LDL) cholesterol, essential fatty acids and so on. At the same time, the health industry has found a new super-villain in the form of trans fat. Trans fat occurs naturally in small quantities, but it is mainly created in the process of hydrogenating vegetable oil. PHVOs are chock-full of trans fat, and therefore, far from being healthier than animal fats, they're considerably worse for your heart. They are also, apparently, carcinogenic.
The CSE study repeatedly confuses edible oils / cooking oils with vanaspati / PHVO. Section 6.2 is titled: Major Players of Edible Oil, but lists a number of vanaspati brands. In its conclusions in Section 14, however, the study makes a distinction between edible oils, which, as remarked upon earlier, contain very low levels of trans fats, and vanaspati brands, which have high levels of the same.
The central conclusion of the CSE report, then, is that vanaspati has unhealthy levels of trans fat. But that is true BY DEFINITION. Trans fats are created in the process of hydrogenating vegetable oil, and vanaspati is made by hydrogenating vegetable oil. To tout this as an unusual finding is a bit like printing a front page headline screaming, "Large Scale Tree Felling Can Deplete Forests", or, "The Oil You Cook With Contains Fat". My guess is that CSE began its investigations hoping to find high trans fat levels in refined cooking oil. Having failed to do so, and recognising that a report about high trans fat in vanaspati would get little attention, they decided to mix up the two categories, so a bewildered media would spread the word that refined cooking oil was dangerous.
THE COLA CONTROVERSY
A few years ago, Narain cooked data in similar fashion to 'prove' that fizzy drinks contained dangerous amounts of pesticides. The actual amount of deadly chemicals the study found in Coke and Pepsi was vanishingly small, so tiny that no lab could have detected it ten years ago. But that was still acceptabe science. Bad methodology was introduced when CSE compared the pesticide levels in these fizzy drinks with European Union norms for WATER. Water standards are particularly strict because people drink a lot of it. If Pepsi and Coke had been compared with, say, EU norms for pesticide levels in vegetables, they'd have fallen well within allowable limits. So problem one was that the study involved a false comparison.
Since Pepsi and Coke are made from water and sugar, and no pesticides are introduced during the manufacturing process, it stands to reason that at least the same concentration of pesticides resides in our water or sugar. And since every Indian drinks water in far greater quantities than Coke or Pepsi, and ingests sugar in many different forms, it's clear that, if there is a health issue here, it relates not to fizzy drinks but to our water and sugar. But this fact was entirely ignored during the weeks of discussion that followed the release of the CSE's cola 'study'. This was problem two. Indian consumers were given no comparative data regarding pesticides in water, vegetables and other substances, and therefore could not make up their minds about how relatively safe or dangerous the targetted beverages were.
The public relations departments of Coca Cola and Pepsi did a horrible job of conveying their own viewpoint. After weeks, they framed a coherent response, pointing out that dozens of products like apples and cauliflowers contained pesticides in much higher concentrations than what the CSE found in colas. The CSE's reply? " You can't take pesticides out of apples, but you can clean up colas".
This, of course, is entirely false. Pesticides do not occur naturally in apples, and can therefore certainly be removed from the production process. But that is a fight CSE doesn't want to take up, because it involves farmers rather than multinationals.
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
Back in India, he's put together Relative VisA, currently on view across Bodhi's two galleries in Bombay. The idea is to bring art, architecture and design in dialogue with each other, something Bose has done quite a bit in his own work. The Wadibunder space has the more interesting selection, though the quality is patchy. Neither Gulam Sheikh nor Rimzon are in top form, and Gargi Raina offers a cabinet stacked with fabric that makes you feel you've stepped into a branch of Fabindia. Sujit S N's painting appears rather derivative of N S Harsha. Nataraj Sharma and Manish Nai make a satisfactory pairing, the former represented by large-format drawings carried over from his recent show at Bodhi, and Nai providing new elaborations of his characteristic pattern-cut-into-jute style. Nuru Karim's listening pod crafted seamlessly from Corian is the most striking of the architects' contributions.
For me, the high point of Relative VisA is the room given over to Charmi Gada Shah's photographs and sculpture. I hadn't seen her work before and was very impressed by its conceptual and formal rigour. She's shot the front of an old, partially-demolished building, then built a model of this facade and, aside from exhibiting it in the room, has photographed the model placed against other parts of the same or similar buildings, playing with scale and with notions of memory, destruction and conservation.
The best thing about Bose's shows is that they invariably throw up interesting new voices like Gada Shah.
The portion of Relative VisA on view at Bodhi's Kala Ghoda gallery (Bara Bhaskaran, Gayatri Subramainyan, Shankar Natarajan and K M Madhusudhanan) seems pretty dull. Perhaps my mind was clouded by the toxic fumes that filled the space on opening night: painting of specially constructed walls had been completed only at the last minute. I'll take another look in a day or two and, should I find something noteworthy, will add a few extra lines to this post.
Monday, February 2, 2009
I've mentioned, in a previous post, how vigilant Bombay's police are regarding party music. There's money to be made from them birthday bashes. Since the DJ at Zinta's was allowed to keep spinning till 2am, I suspect the police paid the actress an early visit and conducted intricate cost-per-minute negotiations.