Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Ambanis and my last job

Years ago I briefly worked for a company called Reliance Infocomm. The firm had been set up by Mukesh Ambani; it was the first massive project he was executing independently of his pioneer father Dhirubhai. I was part of a team charged with creating online content for a chain of Web World cybercafes.
At the start, I reported to a gentleman on deputation from Intel, but he was soon replaced by a gang of four youngsters whose designations were never made clear. Three of them had a parent on the board of Reliance Industries, while the fourth, Milind Deora, was the son of the politician Murli Deora. I dubbed the website we were creating rajabeta.com because of the influence of these sons whose only qualification was to be born into the extended Reliance parivar.
It was the worst job I have had in my life. From the start, it was clear the project would never pay for itself, and we were going through a charade of creating content and business plans that were unlikely to fructify. At the end of four months, I quit and swore never to play the 9 to 5 game again.
Of the four sons, Milind Deora stood out as the brightest by far. He has gone on to become a Member of Pariament for South Bombay, and is doing an impressive job. What his presence in the rajabeta.com foursome told me was how close his father was to the Ambanis.
Those who follow the news will know where this is headed. A few years after I left the job, the two Ambani brothers went through an acrimonious split. India's largest private business group was divided, with Mukesh's baby Reliance Infocomm, already among India's top cellular networks, being handed over to younger brother Anil, along with group interests in energy, media and entertainment. Mukesh kept the core businesses of petrochemicals, textiles and oil and gas production and marketing.
Among the agreements signed as part of the divorce was a commitment to sell gas from Mukesh's exploration firm to Anil's power utility at a particular price. When production actually commenced, Mukesh's firm refused to honour its side of the bargain, holding out for a better deal. The case went to trial, the high court ruled in favour of Anil, and an appeal was accepted by the supreme court. So far so ordinary. Then, all of a sudden, the oil ministry stepped into the dispute with a strange argument of its own. It said that the brothers' fight was harming the nation by making a national resource hostage to a family dispute. It stated, further, that selling gas at the low price indicated in the contract would harm the national exchequer.
The oil minister under whose direction this claim has been made? Murli Deora.
While seeming to slap both brothers on the wrist for being immature, the government's intervention in effect entirely favours Mukesh Ambani. Mukesh wants a higher price for his gas, and that's what the government is now pleading for, after having washed its hands off the case in the past. The disingenuousness is so apparent that a furious Anil Ambani used a shareholders' meeting as a platform yesterday to have a public go at the oil ministry, making it clear there was no connection between the price of gas in the deal and government revenues from it. He didn't name names, but it is clear who he was charging with bias.
This was a disaster waiting to happen ever since Manmohan Singh handed over the petroleum ministry to a man known to be exceptionally close to the Ambanis (originally to the father, now to the elder son). The inappropriateness of having Deora in charge is so obvious, I'm surprised more has not been written about it in the past.
The supreme court will have the final say, of course, but I'm entirely on Anil Ambani's side in this matter for a simple reason: I want India to start taking contracts more seriously. Every freelancer out there knows most contracts in this country are barely worth the paper they're printed on. Everybody's been diddled of money by the rich and powerful and realised after being cheated that there is no recourse aside from a decade-long struggle through the courts with no certainty of justice at the end.
The World Bank Group comes out with an annual survey titled Doing Business that studies business regulations and their enforcement in 181 countries, and ranks each nation in ten different categories. In some of these, India does quite well. It is 21st in ease of getting credit, for example. Any guesses about the category in which we perform poorest? Enforcing contracts. India is placed 180th of 181 countries, an absolutely pathetic record. You can get details of the other parameters and our rank here.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Military and Non-Violence



The launch of India's first nuclear-powered submarine, INS Arihant, reminded me of an embarrassing moment from the past. I was in a city outside Bombay and needed to meet a high ranking naval officer for some work. I spoke about him to a couple of acquaintances, both of whom immediately said, "Oh him, he's on the nuclear submarine project". As I sat making small talk with the officer a few hours later, I casually asked, "So how is the work on the nuclear submarine proceeding? Is it likely to be functional any time soon?" He looked flabbergasted. "Who told you I was working on that?" he asked. I realised that, not only was the project supposed to be a carefully guarded secret, but that, until that moment, the officer had believed his official position as overseer of certain civil contracts was taken seriously. I hemmed and hawed, mumbling I couldn't remember who, precisely, had mentioned the nuclear sub, and changed the subject.
I hope the officer was present at the commissioning of Arihant the other day.
Arihant means 'destroyer of enemies'. A fair enough name for a submarine, you would think. But there's a catch. The word is used in Jain tradition to refer to certain enlightened souls who have, to mix religious terminology a bit, triumphed in the Greater Jihad against hatred and personal egotism. Jainism happens to be the most militantly non-violent faith in the world, if that phrase isn't an oxymoron. In the past, when Jains became prime ministers or high officials, and had to get involved in warfare, they atoned for their sins by endowing temples. The lavish marble monuments of Mount Abu were constructed from these endowments. Jains, literally, would not hurt a fly. Many go out of their way to try and protect insects, wearing masks so as not breathe the critters in, and sweeping the ground before their feet with peacock feathers to brush off any unfortunate beetle who might be chilling in the danger zone.
Many Gujarati Jains, it must be said, have been less than true to their ideals during the reign of Narendra Modi, but that's a separate issue. The issue, right now, is INS Arihant, and Jains are displeased that their prophets have been associated with a machine of destruction.
It must be difficult for the military establishment to cope with all the pacifist traditions we have in our country, but sometimes the brass seem to miss obvious points of conflict. Like, India's first nuclear test, conducted in 1974, was codenamed The Smiling Buddha. A number of commentators have since suggested it was unwise to connect history's most profound teacher of non-violence with the most horrendously destructive device conceived by humankind.
Not that India admitted its interest in stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. The Smiling Buddha was classified as a Peaceful Nuclear Explosion. That seems like the oxymoron to end all oxymorons, but there's actually a treaty governing such tests, because at one time scientists believed nuclear weapons could be of help in building dams and canals. India's own military ambitions used that convenient cloak in 1974.
In 1998, the cloak was thrown off, all pretense came to an end. The Buddha smiled again, they said, of the five tests conducted that year. I doubt he did.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Kambakkht Ishq and Gabhricha Paus

Two days ago, I was stuck in town between meetings with nothing to do for three hours and the rain pouring down. There was no film playing at any of the multiplexes in the 1 to 2 pm slot, and so it happened that I bought a ticket for Kambakkht Ishq at Eros, and experienced the new low that Hindi cinema has plumbed.
I won't waste my time and yours saying much more about this piece of cinematic garbage, besides letting you in on a crucial plot detail. Kareena Kapoor, studying to be a surgeon in Los Angeles, operates on Akshay Kumar, a top Hollywood stuntman, and accidentally leaves her pendant watch inside his abdominal cavity while stitching him up. The watch sounds a periodic chime, a mantra, which must be magical because it travels through blood and guts to be audible at a distance of many meters from Akshay. Not able to figure out where the sound is coming from, the stuntman wrecks his house trying to find the source of the maddening chant. Much of the film involves Kareena trying to get Akshay back on the surgical bed in order to retrieve her watch.
Needless to say, the film is a hit.
The next evening, I watched Gabhricha Paus (The Damned Rain) at a theatre near my home, and a greater contrast from Kambakkht Ishq can hardly be imagined. While the Bollywood multi-starrer is set among the mansions and high rises of LA, the low-budget Marathi film concentrates on a village in Vidarbha where farmers are been driven to suicide by debt. It is praiseworthy that a film-maker has sought to bring to life the extraordinary difficulties farmers in India face, but unfortunately he has done so with no cinematic imagination. The story reads like a school lesson in the various ways in which farmers might lose their crop: the rain could fail; or, on the other hand, a flood could wipe out most of the crop. Pumps fixed to irrigate the land won't do their job because of power cuts. Procurement prices are low. The administration is corrupt. And so on. Each of these obstacles merits a scene or two. But nowhere do we feel the heat of central India before the rains or the pure joy of the first cloudburst. An old tree is spoken of as a brother, but merits no close-up. When it has to be sold for timber, we do not see the axe strike its base. Everything that could forge a bond between audience and characters is given short shrift.
Thinking back on the script I realise there's a black comedy there waiting to burst out of the drab happenings, but the director is clearly scared of gallows humour, and has strangled those bits through underplaying.
Needless to say, Gabhricha Paus has won a number of awards and citations on the festival circuit.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Half-Blood Prince Movie

I found two reasons to like the Half-Blood Prince film and two to dislike it. To consider the good things first, the movie is a joy to look at. I could watch it again just to stare at individual scenes, ignoring the storyline while marveling at the seamless combination of camerawork, set design and digital effects. The classical pace allows one the luxury of absorbing some detail before frames are whisked away.
One's enjoyment is enhanced by some fine acting. The cream of British actors has appeared in this series, though not all of them performed as admirably as one would have hoped (Kenneth Branagh and his ex-wife Emma Thomson were notable disappointments. Helena Bonham Carter isn't great, but I believe she was over-rated in her early days anyway). In Half-Blood Prince, Jim Broadbent makes a brilliant addition to the cast as Professor Slughorn, Michael Gambon finally puts his stamp on the role of Professor Dumbledore and Hero Fiennes-Tiffin makes a sinister young Tom Riddle.
The downers? They involve the adaptation from book to screen. There's far too much time devoted to developing romances; those bits weren't much fun in the books and get really tedious in the film. The second peculiar decision is to leave out the final battle. The reasoning, apparently, is that the Battle of Hogwarts in the final episode would then seem like a repetition. That's an unbelievably stupid way of thinking. The fight at the end of HBP is tiny in scale compared to the final battle. It is important because it offers some tiny release after Dumbledore's death.
I've said I liked the film's pacing, but it desperately needed some action at the end.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Nation of No

I wondered how long parliament would function before the BJP found an excuse to walk out. The question was answered yesterday, when the India-Pakistan joint statement issued on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement’s conference in Sharm al Sheikh in Egypt became the focus of strong criticism in both houses.
The joint statement is peculiar in that it reads more like a news report about the meeting between the Pakistani and Indian Prime Ministers than a cogent declaration. The two sentences in it that have raised hackles are: “Prime Minister Gilani mentioned that Pakistan has some information on threats in Balochistan and other areas;” and, “Action on terrorism should not be linked to the Composite Dialogue process and these should not be bracketed”.
Pundits are apprehensive that Pakistan has been given the go-ahead to blame India for terror attacks in Balochistan. The question is: has India been involved in such assaults? If it has, those were reprehensible acts and deserve condemnation. If on the other hand, as Manmohan Singh insists, we have nothing to hide, it ought to make no difference if Pakistan points fingers at us. It has been doing so for years. The vague sentence in the joint declaration contains no hint of an allegation against India.
The kerfuffle over delinking terrorism from dialogue is even stranger. For years India insisted that bilateral negotiations carry on independent of progress in solving the Kashmir dispute which is at the core of differences between the two neighbours. Why should action on terror be essential to the dialogue process if steps toward a Kashmir solution are not?
Accusations in the media that Manmohan Singh has sold out are symptomatic of a wide consensus in India that we ought not to make any concessions whatsoever in any bilateral or multilateral negotiation, no matter how pressing. We must refuse to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty. We must hold up indefinitely any agreement at the World Trade Organisation. We must accept no responsibility for mitigating climate change. Finally, despite our intransigence, we must demand a permanent seat in the security council as our right.
I’m not suggesting we have no genuine grievances related to these international issues. There’s no doubt that Pakistan has sponsored a number of terrorist outrages within India; that the NPT is an asymmetric treaty; that the US itself has not ratified the CTBT and is therefore in no position to demand any other country’s signature; that rich nations pollute far more per capita than developing countries do, and ought to take most of the burden of reducing carbon emissions; that agricultural subsidies in the United States and Europe undermine free trade and hurt farmers in poor nations.
Even so, it is worrisome when the mulish stubbornness that former Commerce minister Kamal Nath displayed during WTO negotiations is praised while the current, more positive approach gets hammered in the press. Even worse are controversies over agreements which require no alteration of India’s stated objectives. The civil nuclear deal signed between India and the United States was an extraordinary step forward, ridding us of a slew of sanctions and opening the way for development of our uranium starved nuclear energy industry. Yet, the vehement reaction suggesting our sovereign rights had been compromised almost brought down the government.
I suggest we agree to sign the CTBT provided the United States, China and Pakistan ratify it; we commit to increasing the percentage of our energy requirements served by carbon neutral sources; and we stop holding up an accord at the WTO solely for fear it will hurt India if an unlikely scenario such as a sudden, massive increase in food prices comes to pass. Should an emergency occur, India always has the option of taking unusual unilateral measures, as nations have done during the current financial crisis.
As far as the composite dialogue is concerned, Pakistan, for all its backing of terrorists and reluctance to act against those within its borders who have targetted Indian civilians, has taken substantial steps to address outstanding problems between the two nations. General Musharraf made a series of radical suggestions to break the impasse over Kashmir; President Zardari has come clean about Pakistan’s past support for militancy, and promised to change direction. If we give absolutely nothing in return for such steps, it will only strengthen those within Pakistan who remain committed to a belligerent posture.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Ranking Harry Potter


To mark the release of the film version of the Half Blood Prince, here's my ranking of J.K. Rowling's seven volume series. I haven't looked at any of the books since reading the final line of The Deathly Hallows, and am putting these thoughts down without refreshing my memory.

Volume 1: The Philosopher's / Sorcerer's Stone.
Rank: 3
A fascinating new world is created, the ways of witches and wizards described for the first time, the pace is fast and the adventure exciting. What more could you ask from a kids' book?

Volume 2: The Chamber of Secrets.
Rank: 5
Surely Dumbledore or somebody else ought to have figured out there was a basilisk in the pipes.

Volume 3: The Prisoner of Azkaban
Rank: 1
For the first time, a hint that this is more than a really good series of novels for children. Darkness descends on Hogwarts thanks to the Ringwraiths, sorry, Dementors. There's real emotion, fear and joy, a connection forged between past and present. Supplementing the caricature Hagrid we get the complex Lupin. And the revelation that solves the mystery of Sirius Black's actions is excellent.

Volume 4: The Goblet of Fire
Rank: 4
J.K.Rowling turns self-indulgent, but because Harry is by now a global phenomenon, no editor is going to tell the author to cut out the flab. Quidditch is a silly game (the golden snitch too important to the outcome) and the prolonged description of the World Cup tedious. Patches of excellent writing, though, like the view Harry gets, through the pensieve, of his father harassing Snape. The mudblood and house slave controversies bring contemporary politics into the equation.

Volume 5: The Order of the Phoenix
Rank: 7
This massive book, the longest in the series, need not have been written at all. It adds virtually nothing to the plot. The publishers probably realised this one was a turkey, and created huge quantities of hype about the death of a character close to Harry.

Volume 6: The Half Blood Prince
Rank: 2
A wonderful return to form, from an adult's viewpoint. The horcruxes bring the plot back on track, while Dumbledore's past is fleshed out movingly.

Volume 7: The Deathly Hallows
Rank: 6
This might seem an unfair rank for a book that advances the action in so many directions and then brings all the narrative threads together. Nevertheless, the stakes at the end are always much greater than at the start, and Deathly Hallows does not rise to the expectations generated by years of waiting. The scenes in the countryside are dreary; Rowling, who had problems with battles earlier, doesn't improve during the attack of Hogwarts; and the climax involving a horcrux in the Room of Requirement is extremely disappointing for those enamoured of the mystery.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The World Series of Poker


For the past week, I've been tracking the Main Event of the World Series of Poker, highlight of the international poker tournament calendar. Anyone willing to shell out the 10,000 dollar entry fee can play the Main Event; about 6500 people did this year, meaning top prize will be over 8 million dollars. I'm excited because, with the field down to 27 after seven tough days of play, one of my favourite professionals, Phil Ivey, is still in the hunt, and among the chip leaders.
Poker has exploded in popularity in the past decade,thanks to three interlinked revolutions: the television revolution, the internet revolution and the Moneymaker revolution. The game comes in many variations but, in most of these, players are dealt two or more cards face down, and have to match them with community cards dealt face up to form a hand. Betting happens in stages, and at each stage players try to guess hands their opponents hold while disguising their own. The guessing and disguise is skill, but the cards dealt are a matter of luck. Poker is unique in being a form of gambling where skill can assure a player better than even chances of winning in the long run.
It was difficult for the game to develop into a spectator sport because most hands end without a showdown of cards. One player, convinced an opponent has a better hand, chooses to fold rather than call a bet. Till the late 1990s, viewers could only guess at the hole cards of the antagonists. This situation changed when cameras grew tiny enough to be embedded in tables and capture face down cards as players peeked at them.


Suddenly the art in every hand became manifest and sports channels began devoting hours to poker coverage, bringing new enthusiasts to the felt tables.
Not long after this, gaming became big on the Web. Poker sites drew thousands of novices eager to start with small stakes and graduate to the big league. The sites ran satellites offering entry to major live tournaments: put down 550 dollars and you could participate in an online tourney offering a Main Event package. If that was too steep, you could try your luck in a satellite to this satellite, and so on down to super super satellites where entry was just a couple of bucks.
In 2003, an Atlanta accountant with the portentous name Chris Moneymaker played a 39 dollar satellite on PokerStars, the most popular poker site in the world. He won a seat to a more expensive online tourney, and placed well enough in that to win a Main Event package. He went on to win the Main Event itself, turning his initial 40 buck investment into 2.5 million dollars.


News of his extraordinary ride sparked a new rush to poker sites, which meant fields for major live tournaments grew ever larger, the top prizes on offer juicier. By 2006, James Bond was playing poker in Casino Royale, instead of baccarat as in Ian Fleming's novel, and a Hollywood talent agent named Jamie Gold was winning 12 million dollars at the Main Event. It was a world away from the seedy backrooms described in Kenny Rogers' famous song, The Gambler: "You gotta know when to hold 'em / know when to fold 'em / know when to walk away / and know when to run".
For professionals, there was a significant upside to the poker boom: lots of mediocre players willing to gift their money ('fish', in poker parlance). On the other hand, navigating the waters of massive tournaments became difficult even for sharks: there were too many accidents waiting to happen between the first cry of "shuffle up and deal" and the crowning of a new champion. Those who'd gained entry through super satellites had little to lose and would frequently make crazy bets or calls and get lucky when the final community card was dealt. The Main Event became a professional's graveyard and the buzz went round that no top pro would ever win again.
The odds themselves told a different story. If one were to assume 200 well-known pros in a field of 6000, and give each pro three times the winning odds of an amateur, that would make for a top pro as champ once every ten years or so. Apart from the odds, grumblers also ignored the fact that many unknowns had built successful pro careers after a Main Event triumph, among them 2004 champ Greg Raymer, 2005's top man Joe Hachem, and last year's winner Peter Eastgate.
Chris Moneymaker, though, cannot be counted among those names. He has returned to the Main Event each year since 2003, but failed to make an impression. Back in his wonder year, he got very lucky late in the tourney against two pros, Humberto Brenes and Phil Ivey. In each case, Moneymaker was far behind when all the chips went in, and caught an unlikely card to come out on top. The brutal hand against Phil Ivey can be seen here. Moneymaker is a 6 to 1 underdog with a single card to come, but spikes an ace to send Ivey home in 10th place.
Perhaps that hand had something to do with Phil Ivey's attitude to the WSOP in the following years. After he burst on the scene in the early part of this decade, his aggression, ability to read opponents and, well, ethnicity, made him known as the Tiger Woods of poker. Over time he appeared to lose interest in tournaments and concentrated on high stakes cash games at the Bellagio in Vegas and online at the website Full Tilt.
2009 has been different. He appears to have realised that winning major tournaments grants a place in poker history, while cash games offer only cash (OK, that's not strictly true, cash games have their own history and Ivey made some of it when he took businessman Andy Beal for over 16 million dollars back in 2006). Ivey's won two subsidiary events already at this years world series, and is in a promising position as the Main Event reaches its temporary conclusion (once just nine entrants remain, play adjourns till November, by which time ESPN's weekly coverage will reach its climax, allowing for the final table to be broadcast live).
The Moneymaker revolution was excellent for poker in its time, but an Ivey win might be equally significant in the current situation. The United States has clamped down on gaming sites, and poker buffs are petitioning the government to exclude their favourite game from the purview of the legislation, arguing that poker is a game of skill rather than chance. Were a top professional to win the most prestigious prize in poker, their argument would be bolstered considerably.
Ending on a light note, here's an amusing commercial for the website Full Tilt, featuring Phil Ivey.

Update: Ivey made the final table, but has a short stack and will need a lot of luck to win in November.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Plant of the day

News stories frequently use anonymous sources; it's a necessary part of the trade, but easy to abuse. Like most media people, I read articles with one question always at the back of my mind: "Whose interest, if anybody's, does this piece serve?" I'm not a conspiracy theorist. Quite often, an article will appear balanced, quoting multiple viewpoints. Or else it will be a manifestly opinionated piece of editorialising, making no claims to neutrality.
But every day I come across articles which appear to be unbiased reportage, but are clearly of help to some individual or organisation. Take this piece by Laltendu Mishra in today's Hindustan Times, for instance:
The price war among airlines is now intensifying on the long-haul routes to London, Brazil and Malaysia.
Jet Airways in partnership with TAM Air is offering an all-inclusive economy class return fares to Brazil for Rs 76,000 via London and Rs 86,000 via New York.
Passengers can fly from Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai to Brazil’s Rio and Sao Paulo airports at these fares. This is comparatively cheaper than Emirates’ India-Brazil all-inclusive return fare of Rs 94,000, which industry executives say has been the cheapest going. Currently Emirates flies bulk of the passengers in the India-Brazil route through its hub in Dubai. On the eastern side, Singapore Airlines has introduced a special economy class fare in the India-Kuala Lumpur sector. An all-inclusive return ticket is priced at Rs 14,500. This is against Jet Airways’ Chennai-Kuala Lumpur all-inclusive return fare of Rs 14,715.
Jet is offering a Mumbai-Singapore return fare for Rs 11,428 in its lowest slab.
There is also intense competition in the Mumbai-London sector.
Air India is offering the cheapest basic return fare at Rs 8,900 (all inclusive Rs 27,922) as against British Airways’ Rs 11,990 (all inclusive Rs 28,390) and Jet’s Rs 11,990 (all inclusive Rs 18,390), according to information gathered from travel trade.
As traffic is declining due to various factors including slack economic growth worldwide, airlines are expected to make more attractive deals to stimulate flying, airline officials say.

In other words, Jet Airways offers the lowest priced tickets to Brazil. It also offers reasonable prices on the Mumbai - Singapore sector and nearly matches Singapore Airlines' special fare to Kuala Lumpur. Oh, and it beats the competition by 10 grand on the India-London route.
When I first read the piece, I felt it was a plant by Jet Airways. On digging deeper, I'm not so sure. As of today, the Jet Airways site offers no tickets to Brazil at all. On the Singapore route, I tried different dates but wasn't offered anything close to the lowest slab fare quoted in the article. As for the London price, it is a misprint: the actual total fare after adding taxes and a hefty surcharge (which all airlines tack on in India, cheating customers in the process because oil prices are no longer high enough to justify surcharges) is exactly the same as British Airways, Rs.28,390, not 18,390.
Anybody trying to book a ticket through the Jet Airways website on any of these sectors after reading the article is going to be disappointed and probably angry.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

And now Tata


I contacted the Tata people, formerly VSNL, to provide me with a broadband connection, handing them a multi-month advance as demanded. For three days in a row they said they'd send men across and didn't. Finally, on the fourth day, the installers arrived. One was small-built, wore spectacles, and had just three fingers on each hand. The index and middle finger were fused together and twisted as were the ring and little finger. For some reason, I thought of the toes of a Cassowary, though I've never seen one of those birds. Great that the Tatas have maintained their commitment to the handicapped, I told myself, trying to shut out jokes about digital have-nots. The job, unfortunately, required a fair bit of manual dexterity. Eight thin, colour-coded wires had to be slipped into plastic connectors at both ends of a long cable. Cassowary's partner was a rookie who couldn't help because he knew nothing about electronics. He was the roof man. Tata Broadband uses Wimax technology, which involves placing a square antenna in an open space where it can receive a signal from one of the towers installed by the provider. The signal was weak at my first floor window, so we headed for the terrace.
"I hope this isn't like Tatasky TV", I muttered. "I don't want my connection failing every time it drizzles".
I was assured that wouldn't happen.
Roofman got to work, attaching the receptor pad to a rusty television antenna, and jumping down onto a wet ledge from where he lowered the cable to my window. Once Cassowary had finished checking signal strength and GPS coordinates, we headed down to drag the cable into my home and try out the brand new connection.
It did not work.
Roofman was told to move the square antenna this way and that to catch the signal better. He did not have a cellphone which made coordination between first floor and terrace less than efficient. Ultimately, I went upstairs and played interlocutor between the two using my mobile.
"I almost slipped while dangling that cable" Roofman said.
"The work looks really dangerous", I replied.
He’d spent the last few months installing dish antennas for Big TV. His beat was in an insalubrious part of town; most new Big TV clients there lived in shanties. His partner had put his leg through a sheet of corrugated metal the other day, requiring many stitches. The house owners fought with him for half an hour as he bled, insisting he owed them money for repairs. That’s when Roofman decided to switch companies. Broadband, he said, was used by good people in good homes.

It began to rain. After twenty minutes of instructing us to twist and turn the antenna, Cassowary gave up. The square pad was taken down, the cable disconnected and hauled up, bags packed.
"So, this means I can't get a broadband connection from you, right?"
"Right", Cassowary replied, downcast. Some weeks, he said, he'd visit ten houses and manage only one successful connection. The previous few days had been good, he'd been working mainly in Colaba, in high rises close to the sea where the signal was loud and clear.
I wouldn't have expected the Tatas to adopt such hit-and-miss technology. But then, I wouldn't have expected them to roll out a satellite television service which malfunctioned at the slightest hint of rain. They've done the brand few favours in recent years.
As for me, it is back yet again to square one: to MTNL and surfing in ten-minute bursts before having to unplug, replug and hope.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The budget and the market

Finance ministers delivering budget speeches are normally constrained by having to earn more or less what they dole out. So, when Pranab Mukherjee began listing dozens of programmes which were going to receive funding boosts of between 50 and 200%, I was thinking tax, tax, tax must follow spend, spend, spend. But that's not the way the world's working at the moment. We've already seen the Obama splurge, and now India's got its own stimulus special. The idea is that government handouts will boost demand which will boost growth which will boost revenues down the line. If India returns to a 9% GDP growth rate, it should be able to bring the deficit down to a reasonable level, but that's a big If. Meanwhile, Mukherjee must have enjoyed the chance to throw around the freebies.
The market, meanwhile, behaved like a guy determined to score on a first date, and unwilling to settle for anything short of the big bang his friend Mr. Media had hinted was coming his way. Unable to make it to the bedroom, he goes home convinced the episode was a disaster. Reflecting on the evening later, he thinks, "well, she obviously is into long-term stuff rather than one-night stands (reform is a process, not an event), the dinner was fun, if a bit pricey; the goodbye kiss wasn't bad (FBT scrapped, 10% surcharge on income tax out); and she seemed serious when she told me to call her".
Maybe the market will make that call a few days down the line, and it could be the start of a wonderful relationship.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Tyeb Mehta July 26, 1925 - July 2, 2009

One of modern India's greatest painters, Tyeb Mehta, died last night. A little less than a year ago, I was invited by Sotheby's to deliver a lecture in Delhi on Tyeb's art. I'm uploading that lecture with some modifications. Delhi's Vadehra Art Gallery gave me permission to use images from the book, Tyeb Mehta: Ideas Images Exchanges. Other images have been lifted off the Web. The resolution of all has been reduced substantially, so please do not judge the impact of Tyeb's paintings based on these low-quality photos. Apologies for the changes in font; I haven't figured out how to cut and paste onto Blogger without having fonts go haywire.



Though India's art lovers have admired Tyeb Mehta's work for decades, his real moment in the sun came in 2002, when his triptych Celebration became the first Indian painting to sell at auction for over 10 million rupees. In 2005, he secured a place in the history of the art market by becoming the first Indian artist to have a work sell for over a million dollars. His place in the history of Indian art had, of course, been secure for a long time, but it is good he has lived to see himself gain pride of place on the financial side of things as well.

I edited a magazine called Art India between 1998 and 2000, a time when few believed such astronomical prices would be achieved in the near future. The first issue under my direction had a Tyeb Mehta painting titled Mahishasura on its cover.



Actually the painting was called Mahishasuramardini, but with M F Husain being victimised by the Hindu Right, Tyeb preferred to omit the reference to Durga. His health was fragile and he wanted no distraction from his work.

I went over to his apartment to collect the slide for the cover, and to speak about his paintings. We sat in a small living room that doubled as his studio. I knew Celebration well, since it hung in the Times of India building which I visited regularly. Seeing his tiny working space, I asked how he'd managed to paint that massive canvas. This is what I gathered: his studio was only large enough to hold one panel of the triptych. His neighbour, who owned a bigger flat, would take his family out every weekend. With his permission, each Sunday afternoon, Tyeb would have the three panels of Celebration moved to the flat next door so he could see them side by side. Then he’d paint for the rest of the week on the basis of that memory. Since his work is so much about balance, hearing how he painted Celebration made his achievement all the more astonishing.


DEVELOPMENT


That real public acclaim should have come to him in his late seventies is, in a way, appropriate. He is not a man to rush things. Even his introduction to art was slow to come, and he matured as a painter long after his most talented contemporaries. His family had connections in the movie business, and he trained first as a cinematographer, and then as a film editor. Around the time of Partition, he began finding it difficult to make the journey from home in Mohamedali Road, a Muslim quarter in the south of Bombay, to the editing studio in Tardeo, because the areas in between saw a lot of violence in that period. One day he happened to meet A A Majid, an art director who had studied at J J School of Art. Majid suggested he apply to the school, which Tyeb did. At JJ, he was taught by Shankar Palshikar, met S H Raza and, through Raza, members of the Progressive Arts Group like M F Husain and Francis Newton Souza.

His first significant painting, Trussed Bull, was executed in 1956, when he was 30 years old.



The picture reminds me of diagrams showing edible sections of cattle; the haunch, the rump and so on. The bull has fascinated the artist for over fifty years since that early effort. He continues to explore the image, along with select others that form a small repertoire of motifs. There is the rickshaw puller, depicted in this charcoal drawing from 1959;




the diagonal, represented by these two paintings, from 1969 and 1979 respectively.




and the falling figure, visible below in a transitional painting from 1966 in which Tyeb divided the picture space into a grid, foreshadowing later, more successful attempts to combine deeply emotive figuration and geometric precision.






The vertiginous composition above, from 1967, allows the agony of the falling subject full expression. These paintings are all fairly large, 5 to 6 feet high or wide.

Occasionally, Tyeb mixes two of these themes, combining bull and rickshaw, or falling figure and rickshaw as in this painting from 1993.



Since the mid 1980s, he has frequently painted Kali,



and the buffalo demon Mahisasura, sometimes engaged in combat with Durga Mahishasuramardini



The trussed bull, earliest of Tyeb's abiding concerns, was inspired by a visit to an abattoir. The artist saw the animals being tied up and then slaughtered, and the vision obsessed him thereafter. The idea of such a strong animal rendered helpless became for him symbolic of attacks on the spirit in general. After traveling to England and observing tendencies in the European art, he developed an expressionist, gestural style, which involved applying paint thickly for immediate emotional impact.



This phase of Tyeb’s art is often said to be deeply influenced by the English painter Francis Bacon.



The Bacon painting you see above is a version of Diego Velasquez’s 17th century portrait of Pope Innocent X.


It is evident that Bacon has turned on their head the lavish symbols of power evident in the Spanish master's portrait.

Tyeb’s work, in my opinion, never has the ruthlessness that Bacon’s does.




In this painting, for example, it looks like the bull is lying in the lap of the figure as it breathes its last. Violence and trauma are fixtures in Tyeb’s art as well as Bacon's, but the impelling force behind a Tyeb painting rarely appears to be destructive. There is usually more sympathy, a sense of victimhood, implied in the Indian artist's figures.

The variance in approach is, in my view, attributable to the very different histories of modernism in India and Europe. In Europe, modernism was born just before the first world war. It had been a time of peaceful expansion within Europe and imperial hegemony outside, but there was a widespread feeling of something being rotten at the core of the continent. This attitude was shared by artists of varying ideologies, all of whom felt a revolutionary overhaul of the existing system was overdue. In other words, modernist art was born of extremist ideologies, and therefore expressed itself in extremist forms. That history has played out from the Futurists through painters like Bacon to current shock jocks like Damien Hirst.

In India, by contrast, modernism arrived AFTER a massive upheaval in the form of independence and Partition. The modernists were sympathetic to revolutionaries like Gandhi who, in the period after independence, became establishment figures. The programme of the Progressive artists with whom Tyeb was allied partook of the liberal internationalism of Nehru. As a result, Indian modernism expresses a universal humanism that is generally absent in the work of Europeans, whose goal was, in the words of the critic Ortega Y Gasset, the dehumanisation of art. Unfortunately, the humanism of Indian artists frequently results in a sentimental version of Expressionism, as seen in Satish Gujral's early painting or that of Chittaprosad. In Tyeb’s case, the emotionalism, while present, is almost always held adequately in check.

Tyeb continued painting in this expressionist mode through the sixties, before receiving a Rockefeller grant to visit the US for a year. Among the American painters who made a great impact on him was Barnett Newman, a leading practitioner of a style called colour field painting, which involved covering the canvas with flat areas of colour without figuration or a central focus.



Tyeb has often said that seeing colour field painting physically was entirely different from viewing images of it as he had previously done. And that is true of a lot of painting which uses geometrical patterns, whether Mondrian or Raza. All Raza bindu paintings look similar in reproduction, but there’s a huge qualitative difference between them that becomes apparent on carefully observing them in the cloth, as it were.

After returning to India Tyeb tried to incorporate the lessons of colour field painting into his own practice. He was particularly intrigued by the way Barnett Newman used vertical stripes, which Newman referred to as ‘zips’, to divide the picture space. It is easy to see why Tyeb struggled to incorporate this new influence effectively. The expressionism that had been the mark of his early mature style was radically opposed to the austere form and cerebral use of pigment characteristic of Newman.

In his own account, after many attempts at incorporating Newman, the artist threw paint at the canvas in frustration. To this day, incidentally, Tyeb destroys paintings if he isn’t completely satisfied with the result. The time he flung paint at the canvas, though, was providential. The paint described a rough diagonal on the canvas and, staring at it, Tyeb realized he may have a way out of his predicament. He began to work on dividing the picture space diagonally rather than vertically as he had previously done.




The diagonal is more dynamic than the vertical or horizontal, a fact utilised by artists in numerous eras, notably the Baroque age, in which painters distinguished themselves from the classicism of Raphael and his followers by emphasising diagonals, thus creating a sense of movement.

Tyeb’s application of paint changed dramatically during his early experiments with the diagonal. He abandoned thick impasto and began to employ flat, bright planes of colours. To this day, he prefers pure colours and doesn’t use many layers, so the first application is important, it has to come out right. From the perspective of the connoisseur as well as the collector, there is a reason to be thankful that Tyeb abandoned impasto. Time has not been kind to his early works. It is not unusual to see paint peeling off canvas, and if you come across any painting of his from before 1968 which appears in pristine condition you can assume it has been heavily restored. [Dadiba Pundole, who was at the lecture, commented that Tyeb's paintings on board have survived well, while those on canvas have suffered].

With the diagonal, Tyeb arrived at the style that he has retained into the 21st century. His commitment to the figure stayed constant, and his figures usually bore hints of trauma, their mouths frequently open in a half-scream. The emotion was held well in check by a careful attention to tone and line. How much of the figure would continue beyond the breaking strip? How would it connect with or relate to that which was on the other side? A variety of formal issues like these opened up, to be provisionally resolved in each individual composition before the process began over again.


INTERPRETATIONS


When I speak of connections and relations and break ups, there is a meaning aside from the stylistic which is being evoked. It is only natural to surmise that the diagonal was substantially inspired by the memory of India’s Partition. Tyeb, as a Muslim based in Bombay who chose to stay rather than move to the newly formed state of Pakistan, obviously felt deeply the nation's division. He has often spoken of one centrally important event during those times, an occasion when he saw a man being beaten to death, his head smashed in by a mob. That image, that memory, has fed into much of his work in the years after.

It is worth asking, though, why Partition should come up as a subject for examination so many years after the event. Surely even with so single-minded an artist as Tyeb, some expiry date exists beyond which memories lose their intensity. It could be that the upheaval in East Pakistan, which was beginning in 1969 when Tyeb began to paint his diagonals, had something to do with resurrecting the Partition in his mind. Whatever the case, he has never discouraged the reading of the diagonal in such terms, and he is a man known to discourage certain kinds of interpretations of his work, or at least publicly disagree with them.

A major leap in Tyeb’s art took place in 1985, when he was living in Santiniketan as artist-in-residence. His health had undergone a turn for the worse: he'd suffered a debilitating bout of Hepatitis and, four years later, a heart attack. These were hardly the conditions under which one would expect original art to be created by a man approaching old age, but Tyeb produced in Bengal a three panel work known simple as the Santiniketan Triptych which is, I believe, one of the greatest images to be painted by an Indian in the twentieth century.

What you see on the screen does it no justice. You really need to go and spend a lot of time in front of it, absorbing the marvelous equilibrium orchestrated between forms and colours. Luckily, anybody can view the triptych because it is in a public collection: in fact, it hangs at the other end of this road, in the National Gallery of Modern Art.

I haven't been able to find even a semi-adequate image for the whole painting, so I'm adding details of the three panels separately, starting with the one on the left.









Before this painting, Tyeb had worked with one, two, at most three figures. To expand suddenly to some two dozen while retaining his hard-won formal rigour was a remarkable achievement. Obviously Tyeb had been influenced, like so many who have been to Santiniketan, by the Santhal tribals who live in the surrounding areas. The drummers who appear in the left panel would become a feature of his study in coming years.

One issue he faced when tackling this canvas was that of narrative. He comes from a school which believes making a story out of a painting and explaining it in those terms is trivializing art. It’s difficult enough having two figures without narrative, but what do you do in the case of so many? There is clearly something happening whose broad framework one can discern, even if one had not heard of the charak puja conducted mainly in rural areas of Bengal at the end of spring.

The collection of figures with the musicians on the left indicate it’s a ritual, perhaps a procession of the kind depicted in his second such triptych, Celebration, created a decade later.A green figure on the right appears to be strung up, as if by a lynch mob. In the central panel we see an upside down head and hand at the feet of an androgynous figure, female in the frontal view and male in the white profile. A deity of some kind, perhaps. All these clues might indicate a human sacrifice , but the seated woman at the centre makes a tender picture with the goat which nuzzles up to her, and perhaps grows human limbs to embrace her.

And what of the faces of the women behind her? Are they celebrating or mourning?

It is, I believe, pointless trying to fully resolve these ambiguities, though Ramachandra Gandhi made a heroic effort to do so in his book Svaraj, which uses the Santiniketan triptych as a take-off point. Gandhi’s complicated interpretation involves seeing the panel on the left as representing the secular humanism that currently dominates the world, the panel on the right as religious fanaticism which is at war with secular humanists, and the central panel as a reconciliation of the two in the Advaita philosophy of dissolving the barrier between the I and the Other.

While I believe Ramachandra Gandhi’s interpretation is a case of over-reading, perhaps a conscious one, I do feel that the idea of reconciliation is central to the painting. So much of Tyeb’s work is about equilibrium, and in this case the equilibrium involves reconciling the opposite poles of grief and joy, celebration and execution, devotion and ritual sacrifice.

If Gandhi brings an advaitist perspective to bear on a single monumental painting, Ranjit Hoskote reads Tyeb's entire oeuvre in the light of the artist's Shia (Dawoodi Bohra to be specific) upbringing. Tyeb's focus on injustice and physical suffering might be traced to his religious background, but I believe Ranjit overstates his case when he suggests that many of Tyeb's recurrent images are "avatars of Hussein", whose death in the battle of Karbala is the prime focus of Shia devotion. Martyrs are heroic victims, their heroism derived from the cause they represent. They have the option to save their skin but refuse to compromise because they believe their cause is worth dying for. Do Tyeb's falling figures, trussed bulls and trapped rickshaw pullers fit into this scheme?




To my eyes, they have no agency, make no choices, represent no cause. They are victims, pure and simple, not martyrs or avatars of Hussein. (I omitted this passage from my talk because Ranjit was not present to defend his viewpoint. I am publishing it now because this is a public forum. Ranjit's long essay, which appears in Vadehra Art Gallery's Tyeb Mehta: Idea Images Exchanges remains the best general introduction to the artist's life and art currently in print)


To return to Tyeb’s Bengal-influenced work, not all of it is about a reconciliation of opposites. The series on Kali he began painting soon after leans toward the grotesque and horrific.



This sort of depiction is not unfamiliar within the Indian tradition. I want to take a step back and then two steps forward to contextualize it. The step backward involves the history of colonial interpretations of Indian art, specially of Hindu iconography.




Sculptures like this one of Chamunda were not assimilable into the canon of European ideas about the beautiful, and were therefore dismissed as monstrous. This changed with the intervention of the philosopher-politician Edmund Burke, best known in India for his role in the impeachment of Robert Clive. Burke suggested that humans were driven by two major motives, self-propagation and self-preservation, and art appealed to one or the other urge. Art which appealed to self-propagation was about attraction to things outside oneself, and therefore consisted of objects of beauty. Art which appealed to self-preservation, on the other hand, involved emotions like fear, awe and loneliness. Such art was not beautiful but sublime. Much Hindu iconography could be assimilated into the category of the sublime and, although Tyeb is working in a secular context, his paintings involve the sublime as defined by Burke.

In the current global scenario, art is not particularly interested in the sublime. Much contemporary work is completely different in spirit from Tyeb’s paintings. Where he is intense and invariably serious, aiming to create universal images, work by young artists tends to be intellectually playful, ironic, interested in pop images rather than classical culture, and engaged with particular political issues of the moment.

To illustrate this difference, compare Tyeb’s response to India’s mythology with that of a hip young artist, Jitish Kallat. In his series on Kali, Tyeb reconfigures the traditional image of the goddess along modernist lines, turning her into an emblem of the twin faces of India, creative and destructive, without making specific political allusions. Kallat’s large canvas called Disclaimer is very different.



It is instantly identifiable as an echo of Hanuman carrying Dronagiri mountain in calendar art images like this one.



Such depictions of Hanuman, devoted servant of Rama, were part of a nexus of imagery co-opted by Hindu nationalists when they pressed to build a Rama temple in place of a 16th century mosque in Ayodhya. In his canvas version, Jitish-Hanuman's mace is inscribed with the text of a secularist pledge taught in India’s schools. Kallat ironically appropriates a familiar image and gives it a mischievous twist without undercutting his serious political purpose.

Though Tyeb has never departed from his high modernist ideals to work in this kind of postmodern mode, one painting by him stands out in being as close to the postmodern spirit as he will ever get. That is his backhanded tribute to Francis Bacon, titled The Play, in which two wrestlers, one a Tyeb Mehta figure, the other a Baconian portrait tussle for supremacy.




I hope one of the things I have done in this lecture is to show that the reputation the artist has in some quarters of being excessively derivative of Bacon is a deeply misguided and limiting view of his considerable achievement.


MALE VICTIM, FEMALE DESTROYER


Before concluding, I want to offer an interpretation of my own related to Tyeb's output down the decades. It involves locating his victim-figures not within the rubric of martyrdom but of masculinity. The idea first struck me while looking one of his early oils on display at Saffronart's gallery in Bombay. It was a reclining figure lying next to a bull's head, an image the artist has painted a number of times.


The resemblance of the composition to common reclining-mother-with-child images like this 1906 painting by Paula Modersohn Becker was unmistakable, and shocking in its reversal of the usual tender intimacy of the subject.




Relating Tyeb's exploration of the trussed bull motif to the common use of the animal as an emblem of masculinity, the replacement of the infant with a bull's head seemed telling. I looked at his rickshaw works and noticed that females frequently appear in them, but relate to the vehicle in a very different way from the male pullers.


The lolling female above is a picture of relaxation in comparison with male figures who appear to be surrounded and hemmed in by their mode of sustenance. In at least one instance, the female appears in a dominating position looming over a struggling man.


Tyeb's encounters with rickshaws go back to childhood visits to his grandmother's home in Calcutta, but his interest in film assures us that he was familiar with Bimal Roy's seminal film Do Bigha Zameen, during a crucial scene of which a rich woman orders the protagonist to pull his rickshaw ever faster as part of a game, leading to him crashing the cart and injuring himself.
The mother goddess Kali was easy to incorporate into a scheme in which the male is at the mercy of or destroyed by a dominant female. In an earlier era one would be tempted to interpret Kali's mouth as a vagina dentata (at least one important critic has apparently has done so as part of an extensive Freudian analysis in an essay that, unfortunately, has never been published).



More interesting than Kali is the case of the goddess Durga and Mahishasura, the buffalo demon. In the legend, Mahishasura proposes to Durga and she accepts, before changing her mind, turning into an implacable opponent and ultimately slaying her former suitor.


If my interpretation is valid, Tyeb's work reiterates throughout his career the theme of the threatened male and destructive female . To my knowledge, he has never hinted at such a preoccupation in the course of conversations with friends. An attempt at biographical excavation is probably pointless, for he rarely speaks about his childhood. For those desirous of talking to him about the way his life and art intersect, the story begins in his twenties, with a skull smashed during a riot, with a bull in a Bandra abattoir. Had I observed this thread running through his painting earlier, I might have attempted to take it up with him, knowing the discussion would probably be futile. Now, that time is certainly past, and I am filled with regret that I did not pay closer attention to his paintings when I first began writing about art.