Thursday, December 31, 2009

Man of the Year

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

Man of the Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-- I wish a happy new year t

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

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

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

PVR messes up its online booking

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

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Is Avatar a Hindi movie?

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

Friday, December 25, 2009

The omnipresent Priyanka Chopra

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

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The week in art

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Responsible leaders, unreasonable public

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

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Arithmetic, anybody?

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

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The David Headley case

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

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

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

Monday, December 14, 2009

Climate of Opinion

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 13, 2009

If life hands you lemons

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

Saturday, December 12, 2009

We are the champions

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

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

Monday, December 7, 2009

Dayanita Singh and Atul Bhalla

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

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

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

Friday, December 4, 2009

Pierrot le fou

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

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Bhopal memorials

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Are American liberals deaf?

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

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Dubai and Vegas

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

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