Sunday, February 28, 2010

Mandu, detailed

The best time to visit Mandu is in the rains. The government-run Malwa Resort’s receptionist told us peak season reservations are made months, even years in advance. A waiter at the hotel, a UP boy who moved to Madhya Pradesh a year ago, said he’d never seen anything as beautiful as the palaces of Mandu when the lakes were full and the valley lush.
We went when water levels were low and it was uncomfortably warm in the sun, though pleasant in the shade. Because we visited mid-week, we had the monuments to ourselves quite often. When other tourists were around, they demonstrated that, in India, sound expands to fill available space. They stamped and shouted under every dome, seeking echoes; and screamed at each other across buildings to test the acoustics of the site.
In the 1000 years before Indian independence, Mandu was controlled by Rajputs, Afghans, Turks, Marathas and Britons. Of these, only the Sultans who ruled between 1400 and 1600 produced anything of lasting interest. Their buildings run the gamut from early mosques displaying Hindu influences, to austere audience halls, charming pleasure palaces, atmospheric pavilions and tombs small and large.

The town sits on an isolated plateau, inaccessible by rail and air. There is no public transport within, no buses, autos or metered cabs. The only way to get around is to rent a bicycle or hire a private taxi. If you own a car, consider driving up to Mandu; it will give you flexibility in planning your sight-seeing and meals. Fill up your tank beforehand, for the local gas station is a woman sitting streetside with a rusty funnel and plastic bottles containing fuel. And don’t drive up at night: a group of locals might be in the mood to waylay and rob you.
Most of the citizens of Mandu and its surroundings are adivasis, tribespeople. Most of them are horribly poor. They live in small huts made from adobe and cowdung. Their ancestors probably lived in similar huts back in Sultanate times, farming a small patch of land, keeping a few goats. The Wikipedia entry for Mandu says, “During its time of prosperity, there was nobody poor in the city.” I have a hard time believing it. Mandu demonstrates how, in India, rulers can come and go without affecting the lifestyle of the people at large.
Changes in politics and technology have, of course, had some impact on the adivasis. I’m not sure if they’re for the better. I suspect tribespeople were better off five hundred years ago than they are today. Forests were more bountiful then, and water cleaner. Improved medical facilities are, paradoxically, partly to blame for a drop in per capita income. Mortality rates have fallen, though they remain far above the national average. While it’s great that fewer people die young, it means couples frequently end up with a dozen or more surviving kids, and few ways of feeding them. The children have to work to survive, which means they aren’t sent to school, which means they’re unlikely to practice contraception, which means they’re trapped for another generation in the same cycle of debt and misery. Meanwhile, they see hotels spring up as better roads make for more tourists. A few, like our driver Bablu, gain employment within the tourist industry, just as, hundreds of years ago, a few must have been employed to build the monuments we travelled to Mandu to admire.

The Madhya Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation's Malwa Resort is built at the northern end of one of Mandu's small lakes.

The most popular story connected with Mandu is the tale of Sultan Baz Bahadur and his lover, the village girl Roopmati. Like most such tales, it is half fact, half fiction. Roopmati's pavilion, at Mandu's southern tip, contains a perfectly serviceable inner staircase, but that hasn't prevented the authorities from installing a rickety ladder to disturb the monument's profile.

Friday, February 26, 2010


Mandu is a place of serene beauty and wretched poverty. Nothing here but Sultanate monuments; hotels and shops catering to tourists; and goatherds. Lots of children about as well, seems like there are more urchins than goats. I prefer the goats; they don't pester you for money, and make dinner tastier.

More once I'm back in cyber-friendly terrain.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Up In the Air

Up in the Air was finally released last week. Had I seen the film without any awareness of how it had been received, I'd have enjoyed it far more than I did. As it happened, I had read a few rapturous reviews in the American press, and found the product unworthy of the hype.
It's a film about a man (George Clooney) who fires people for a living. Clooney's firm is hired to do the dirty work when firms decide to downsize, and he flies from town to town handing out pink slips. Well, folders with severance packages to be precise.
The film is like a flight that's very comfortable, but during which you can't avoid breathing recycled airplane air and eating airline food. There's nothing original or deep or exceptional about the movie. It doesn't even bother to dig into the issue of unemployment, except for the trauma felt by those fired.
Clooney's character likes a no-commitments lifestyle and preaches about it at conferences, but he isn't given strong enough lines to make the option seem appealing. Like Jabeen mentioned after the film, "If somebody asked me to imagine burning all my belongings and getting rid of all my close friends and family members, and then asked me if I felt liberated, I'd say, "No, of course not, why would something like that feel liberating?"
Guys, for the most part, imagine themselves as slightly more like sharks and slightly less like swans than women do, but even for guys, the Clooney option hardly sounds inspiring.
In the end, of course, George falls in love and does an about-turn in attitude. His sister is getting married, but the groom develops cold feet. Clooney's asked to convince him that marriage is a great option. Turning his own argument around, he asks the groom-to-be to think about the happiest moments in his life. Then he asks if he was alone during any of those moments. The man shakes his head, convinced of the importance of companionship.
Well, I can say in honesty that I have been alone during some of the happiest moments of my life.
So I don't buy either of Clooney's motivational speeches, just as I don't buy the idea that Up In The Air was one of 2009's best films.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Akhenaten, monotheism and realism

Tutankhamun's daddy, Akhenaten, is known as the heretic Pharaoh. The son of one of Egypt's great rulers, Amenhotep III (or Amenophis III), Akhenaten presided over a downswing in the empire's fortunes. How much he contributed to the decline is a matter of debate.
He's known mainly for raising Aten, the sun god, to the status of chief deity. This was resisted by powerful priests in charge of temples of other gods, which led Akhenaten to abandon the old capital and shift to a new city, named Akhetaten, and now called El Amarna.
The house altar pictured above, shows Akhenaten with his chief queen Nefertiti and three of their six daughters. It's almost the only example in Egyptian art of a Pharaoh depicted in such an informal context. Friezes and paintings from this period are very different in spirit from what came before and after. They show ordinary people going about ordinary things. Strangest of all, they show a Pharaoh who is no remote ideal. Akhenaten has an elongated skull, a saggy abdomen and, in a number of statues, man breasts.

Akhenaten gained a massive reputation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was mainly because his exclusive worship of Aten was interpreted as monotheistic. Rather than an eccentric, he was seen as a rebel against the power of the priesthood. A man who gave his queen equal status, he could be see as almost a democrat. For Europeans who saw monotheism as the most sophisticated form of worship, and democracy as the most just form of politics, Akhenaten was the only Egyptian ruler who approached these ideals.
H.R.Hall called him the first example of a scientific mind, James Breasted termed him the first individual in all of history, and Sigmund Freud, in his book Moses and Monotheism, suggested Moses was a priest in Akhenaten's time, who was banished from Egypt after the Pharaoh's death, and founded Judaism on the basis of Akhenaten's monotheistic ideal.
If a chap was a monotheist, and a scientific mind, and a democrat, and a rebel, what artistic ideal would he adhere to? To a 19th century European, the answer was obvious: such a ruler would favour Realism, the most rational and democratic of styles. There was evidence enough of Akhenaten's realistic bent of mind in those casual royal images and the unflattering way he was portrayed.
Following this train of thought, experts took the friezes and statues of this period as accurate representations, and built theories based on them. If Akhenaten looked weird in paintings, it was because he looked exactly like that in real life. Why would he look like that? Froelich's syndrome was the first diagnosis. Problem was, Froelich's syndrome made people sterile, and Akhenaten, as seen in that image with Nefertiti, had quite a few children (six daughters with Nefertiti, and two sons with his other queen, his sister Kiya. One of the sons was named Tutankhaten, changed to Tutankhamun after worship of the god Amun returned to the mainstream).
Two years ago, a Yale university physician, Irwin Braverman, suggested Akhenaten's suffered from Marfan's syndrome, which is associated with long, curved fingers, a cleft palate, and an elongated skull. The latest tests have confirmed the cleft palate, and the longish skull, but have eliminated the possibility that Marfan's syndrome was to blame.
What's interesting to me is the idea that the art of Akhenaten's time was realistic. Didn't people notice he wasn't the only person who was shown with a saggy belly and long face? Not just his wives, but his kids had those features as well. Scholars explained this away by saying that, since Pharaohs married sisters, the same defect probably ran in the family. The problem with this is that the most famous sculpture to survive from ancient Egypt, a bust of queen Nefertiti, has her looking more like a supermodel than a Marfan's syndrome victim. It was among the unfinished works found in the studio of the royal sculptor Tuthmose, which explains the unpainted left eye.

This sculpture is on display in Berlin, as is the frieze at the top of this page, which shows Nefertiti in a rather different light. Which of the two is more realistic?
Once we get over the realism hurdle, one can see the art of Akhenaten's reign for what it is: clearly the inferior of work created in the time of many other Pharaohs, except in the last years when Tuthmose produced some marvels. Just because Akhenaten looks mis-shapen doesn't mean we should admire his sculptures more than we admire those of his father Amenhotep III.
Akhenaten's democratic attitude also crumbles on close inspection. He forced citizens to pray to Aten, abandoning the worship of their traditional gods. How liberal is that?
As for his monotheism, it wasn't exactly what scholars made it out to be. He never claimed Aten was the only God, merely that no other god should be worshipped. Akhenaten was a bit like a staunch Shaivite, who acknowledges the existence of divinities other than Shiva, but insists on Shiva's superiority, and will pray only to Shiva.
So he wasn't a realist, he wasn't a democrat, he wasn't a proper monotheist, he certainly wasn't a patron of Moses, that is a complete red herring dreamt up by Freud. He was an idiosyncratic king, probably not a very efficient ruler, who makes for an interesting diversion from the sometimes boring pomp and grandeur of the Pharaohs. Prejudices about the best form of worship and the best style of art raised him far above his station, and led to some wild theories which presumed everything in sculptures and paintings dating from his reign was an accurate representation. It wasn't. Now CT scans and DNA tests are confirming the fact that those portraits are stylised just like everything else in Egyptian art.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The death of Tut

Not long ago, it was suggested that King Tutankhamun died of a broken leg and fractured skull, possibly a war injury, possibly murder. That theory has been overturned by a two-year long DNA and CT scan study on his mummy, and his mummy's mummy, and his daddy's mummy, and his daddy's daddy's mummy, and his mummy's mummy's mummy (stop me, somebody). His daddy's mummy, it is now confirmed, was also his mummy's mummy, and his mummy's daddy was also his daddy's daddy. In other words, his parents were siblings, an unfortunate tradition among Pharaohs. King Tut was hobbled from birth by congenital defects. He walked with the help of canes, which explains the dozen plus found in his tomb. At the age of 19, he was infected with malaria, which overwhelmed his weak immune system. The malaria probably led to a fall and that broken leg.
The hole in the skull was made during mummification.
Tutankhamun, as anybody who has read a bit of Egyptian history will know, was a minor Pharaoh. His anonymity kept him relatively safe from grave robbers who plundered tombs of better known monarchs like Ramses II and Tut's grandfather Amenhotep III (his mummy's daddy as well as his daddy's daddy). Some 3200 years after Tutankhamun died, Howard Carter broke into his burial chamber, which contained an astonishing treasure trove, now displayed in Cairo's Egyptian Museum. If a king as unimportant as Tutankhamun could command such a great hoard of gold and alabaster artefacts, it boggles the mind to imagine the original contents of the tombs of the greatest Pharaohs.
It's funny that a mosquito bite should have led to Tutankhamun's death, considering one also caused the demise of Lord Carnarvon, financier of Howard Carter's expedition. A few weeks after Tut's tomb was opened, Carnarvon, still in Egypt, was bitten by a mosquito; the bite got infected, Carnarvon lanced it while shaving, causing the condition to worsen. He died of blood poisoning a few days later, an event that gave wide currency to the idea of the Mummy's Curse.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Multilateral woes

It's been a bad month for multilateral agreements. First it turns out that Greece cooked its books to hide massive deficits. Normally, once the fudge was discovered, there'd be a scandal, the value of the nation's currency would plummet, the IMF or some such organisation would come in with an austerity plan, Greeks would protest on the streets but eventually swallow the bitter medicine. Now, though, Greece has a currency in common with 15 other European nations. Citizens of 15 countries in the Eurozone will pay a price for Greece's recklessness, without any leverage to punish those responsible. The downside of having economic union without political union is becoming evident.
Muammar Gadhafi's latest stunt offers a lighter take on the perils of multilateralism. The guy has a son called Hannibal who was arrested in Switzerland in mid-2008 for beating up two servants while in Geneva. The servants were paid off, and the case closed. The Swiss, though, weren't satisfied, and blacklisted the entire Gadhafi family. Because Switzerland joined the Schengen visa zone a little over a year ago, the Swiss blacklisting means the Gadhafis are forbidden from entering any of the countries in the 25 member alliance.
The move by the Swiss to bar the Libyan dictator and his kin seems specially ridiculous considering the country has for decades profited from money stashed away by tinpot dictators, corrupt bureaucrats and crooked businessmen, people whose crimes go far beyond roughing up a couple of underlings.
Gadhafi's response, predictably, has been equally absurd: he's blocked every single citizen of the entire Schengen zone from entering Libya, including those who've already received Libyan visas. Oil executives from Holland to Italy waiting to fly down to Tripoli to seal lucrative deals are furious with the Swiss, but can do little to alter the present status, since Switzerland isn't even part of the European Union.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Harishchandrachi Factory

Charlie Wilson, the former Democratic Congressman, died two days ago. The story of his assistance to the Afghan Mujahideen in their battle against the Soviet army was told in the amusing, under-rated Tom Hanks starrer, Charlie Wilson's War. Reading about his death, I wondered when we'd see irreverent biopics made in India. One, it turns out, had been produced already, but I only caught it last evening.
Harishchandrachi Factory depicts Dadasaheb Phalke's struggle to make India's first feature film, an obsessive quest that culminated in the release of Raja Harischandra in 1913.
The film is cinematically rudimentary, featuring boring frames held static for too long; music that appears to be on a loop in parts; pacing that could have done with variation; and good, but unexceptional acting. What makes Harishchandrachi Factory refreshing and engaging is its approach to Phalke's life and work. Paresh Mokashi, who wrote and directed the film, uses a light, deft touch in dealing with the moral scandal caused by the arrival of motion pictures. One of the best-known stories related to the making of India's first film is that male actors played female characters because even prostitutes refused to participate, fearing their reputation and standing would be besmirched. Phalke's trips to the red light district searching for King Harischandra's wife are among the funniest of many bizarre production-related episodes recounted by Mokashi.
Chalk up one more victory for the mini-renaissance of Marathi cinema we are currently witnessing.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Ishqiya should've ended in a shoot 'em up, but then it might have seemed too much like the climax of Kaminey. A tamer ending was chosen instead, which is a pity. I'm beginning to see a hint of Sam Peckinpah in Vishal Bharadwaj's films (OK, Ishqiya is only co-produced and co-written by him, and directed by Abhishek Chaubey), with mofussil Uttar Pradesh standing in for Mexico. Maybe it's time for a Hindi version of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.
Ishqiya requires Vidya Balan to be crazy attractive, attractive enough to get reasonable people to do crazy things. It's a difficult job, being that attractive. Chitrangada Singh managed in Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, Brad Pitt in Thelma and Louise. Vidya Balan does not come close. Her own limitations aside, she isn't helped by some weirdly lit frames.
Naseeruddin Shah is not in top form either. Playing a middle aged man in love with a younger woman, he acts a bit too much as one would expect him to.
We are left, as a result, with an enjoyable film that never quite turns gripping.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Did poverty levels in India rise in 2008?

The top story in today's Times of India suggests there are more Indians living in poverty today than there were two years ago. The headline and sub-heading read:
Did India escape impact of global slump? No, its poor grew by 34 mn
2.1% Decline In GDP Led To 2.8% Rise In Poverty
Both the 'decline in GDP' and the 'rise in poverty', however, are misreadings of a United Nations study. What fell was not India's GDP, but its rate of growth, from an average of 8.8% per year between 2004 and 2007 to 6.7% in 2008. A growth rate of 6.7%, nevertheless, is high if compared with longer term GDP growth rates in India. As such, it should not have resulted in an increase in poverty levels.
The actual statement from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs is that 47 million more people became poor or remained in poverty (italics mine) globally than would have been the case if the growth rates of 2004 to 2007 had been maintained. Of these 47 million, 34 million were stated to be in India, according to a reply to a request by the Times of India for a nation-wise breakdown in numbers.
Firstly, 34 million Indians out of a worldwide figure of 47 million seems far too high, I'd like to see the basis of those stats. More importantly, it is the 'remained in poverty' figure that's crucial to India. Nowhere does the report indicate that there are more poor in India as a result of the 2008 meltdown. It's true that many people who would have been raised above the poverty line if an 8.8% growth rate had been maintained stayed below it because of the drop to 6.7% GDP growth. But to suggest, even in a headline, that poverty increased in India even as the nation posted a 6.7% rise in real GDP is absurd, and the Times is misleading readers by saying so.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Kala Ghoda Arts Festival

The Kala Ghoda Arts Festival was driven, in its initial years, by the visual arts crowd. The area's status as an arts precinct arose primarily from the many galleries around. With Chemould moving, Bodhi closing, the National Gallery of Modern Art comatose, and other dealers presumably faced with a cash crunch, the focus of the fest has changed. What installations there are seem to be sub-par. The shift away from art is a good thing. There's a substantial programme of Lit, film, theatre, dance and music to enjoy, and people are being drawn to it in unprecedented numbers. On my first visit on Sunday, Rampart Row was so jam packed, strolling casually from stall to stall was out of the question. In addition to the din, the diesel fumes from a dozen generators got to me after a while.
Most events of my interest take place in the David Sasson Library garden, site of the literature-related programme. I've attended a couple of good discussions, but they've been undercut by the sound of workers hammering away just across the road. If it's part of the Kala Ghoda committee's wonderful project to restore heritage monuments in the precinct, I wonder why they didn't shut it down for the duration of the event, or at least ask the labourers to move into the Elphinstone building.
I may have been extra-sensitive to the noise, and to the bowl of generic, over-chillied noodles I ate at All Stir Fry after listening to a panel on food writing, because I was on the verge of being hit by a fever. It has hit now.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Postracial Oscars? No way

Here are some against-the-grain takes on the Best Picture nominees for 2010's Academy Awards.

District 9
"Yup, that’s Hollywood’s Africa, isn’t it. Black Africans shown as degenerate savages who’ll have sex with non-humans and are pretty damn eager to eat people.
Ooga-booga negroes who think *eating* the aliens will somehow give them their ~*magic*~, gun-toting gangstas, hos, and yes, we even have a barely-there sidekick who is repeatedly called ‘boy’."

"Not since The Birth of a Nation has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as Precious. Full of brazenly racist clich├ęs (Precious steals and eats an entire bucket of fried chicken), it is a sociological horror show. Offering racist hysteria masquerading as social sensitivity, it’s been acclaimed on the international festival circuit that usually disdains movies about black Americans as somehow inartistic and unworthy."

Inglourious Basterds
"Much of Inglourious Basterds confirms Tarantino's flair. But he's flashy, superficial and takes the unpleasantly racist view that all Germans were Nazi Jew-haters who deserved every bit of torture they received."

"This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare. It's not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color; it's not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It's a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.
Think of it this way. Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege."

The Blind Side
"The movie peddles the most insidious kind of racism, one in which whiteys are virtuous saviors, coming to the rescue of blacks who become superfluous in narratives that are supposed to be about them."

An Education
"We were only 15 minutes into the film and this was the second reference to the “Wandering Jew,” an age-old, European anti-Semitic stereotype. The British coming-of-age film, “An Education,” had gotten rave reviews, yet the more I watched, the more the character of David Goldman resembled the parasitical Jew of “Der Ewige Juden” (“The Eternal Jew”) — one of the infamous 1930s Nazi propaganda films I had studied in Peter Loewenberg’s class at UCLA."

The Hurt Locker
"The film largely ignores the political questions raised by the reasons for the Iraq war or by the conduct of it. For instance not one single Iraqi is killed by an air strike during the film because in the Iraq war of the film there is no such thing as an air strike! Iraqis, the boy nicknamed Beckham and the professor and his wife apart are either portrayed as passive victims or villianous and shifty. Like in many more contemporary war films, the ‘other side’ is portrayed in a one-dimensional and oppressive way... The racism of the occupying troops is throughly sanitised. We never see the full impact of war and occupation on the Iraqis."

A Serious Man
"The Yiddish shtetl shtick that opens Joel and Ethan Coen's new movie—a Jewish peasant stumbles on an old Hasid who may or may not be a dybbuk—is pretty clumsy, but at least it tips its hat to the great existential comedy that A Serious Man might have become, if it weren't buried beneath an avalanche of Ugly Jew iconography.
Set in 1967, in a Midwestern Jewish neighborhood with a strong resemblance to the one the Coens grew up in, A Serious Man is crowded with fat Jews, aggressive Jews, passive-aggressive Jews, traitor Jews, loser Jews, shyster Jews, emo-Jews, Jews who slurp their chicken soup, and—passing as sages—a clutch of yellow-teethed, know-nothing rabbis."

Among the nominees, Up In the Air and Up have not, to my knowledge, been accused of racism.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Amitabh at the NGMA, 1998

From this morning's Times of India: "In March 1998, one evening while his father was admitted to the ICU of Breach Candy Hospital, Amitabh Bachchan recited Hindi poems by Dr. Harivansh Rai Bachchan before a distinguished audience for the British Council. Big B, was nervous because this was one of the first times he was doing this publicly. But it went down well. And early next morning, charged by the experience, he returned to the hospital to find his father propped up in bed waiting expectantly. “How did it go,” Dr. Harivansh Rai inquired. Good is what Amitabh replied and he actually recited his father’s poems one by one in the ICU. Dr. Harivansh Rai listened attentively. When the Big B had finished, he said, “Thank-you, now when am I going home?” Dr. Farokh Udwadia discharged him the same morning."

I was working for the British Council back in 1998 when that reading took place. It happened at the National Gallery of Modern Art, where a collection of artefacts from the British Museum collection was on display. It was Britain's contribution to celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of India's independence. The show was called The Enduring Image and the British Council put together dozens of events to accompany it. One of these was a conversation between Jaya Bachchan and Tom Alter, along with a screening of the actress's first screen performance from an FTII diploma film. My boss Roopa Patel and Saryu Doshi, head of the NGMA, went to meet Ms. Bachchan at Breach Candy where, as the Times article points out, the elder Mr. Bachchan was hospitalised. During the conversation, Amitabh Bachchan came out to chat and, of his own accord, suggested he might read his father's poems. Roopa Patel and Saryu Doshi were, of course, delighted; Amitabh was then at a low point in his career, but was nevertheless India's biggest star by far.

In the course of helping arrange the event, I learned how true all stories were of the actor's professionalism. He had an assistant (Pearl?) and through her, every detail connected with the event was scrutinised and agreed upon, right up to the wording and colour of the invite. A few years later, the British Council organised an event involving Abhishek Bachchan and discovered he was rather more relaxed about such matters. That programme, if I remember correctly began over an hour behind schedule.

In Amitabh's case, it wasn't the actor's punctuality that proved a worry so much as his health. He developed flu just days before the reading, and we were informed the whole thing might have to be cancelled. We'd been inundated with requests for invitations, of course, and had set up a screen in the NGMA audiorium to accommodate the overflow. One of the most gratifying memories of that time was the fact that, despite having a number of sponsors and VIP associates to please, we kept at least half the passes for every event aside for the general public , by which I mean people responding to ads in the papers who weren't part of the Council's mailing list.

Amitabh did make it to Colaba for the programme. He walked in a little bent and covered with a shawl, seeming weak, almost unable to climb the five levels up to the rotunda where the reading was scheduled (the British Museum's security demands meant a number of exits had to be sealed, so the NGMA's tiny lift could not be utilised). After he was introduced, he walked over to the mike, and then I saw the kind of transformation I had heard of, but never previously witnessed. A spark kindled in his eyes with the first words he spoke, he summoned a store of energy from some place he'd hidden it safe from the fever's attack, and proceeded to hold three hundred people rapt with a robust, witty interpretation of his father's poems.

Later he read from In The Afternoon of Time, Rupert Snell's recently released translation of Harivansh Rai Bachchan's autobiography. For this, he sat down. The platform we'd built proved too low for people at the back to retain a good view of him. The gallery itself grew uncomfortably warm, the NGMA's air-conditioning not having been designed to cool hundreds of people on a single level for an extended period. Despite all of this, not more than two or three people left during the 90 minute reading.

On Monday he is scheduled to read in Bandra, as part of the Times of India's India-Pakistan peace initiative. Though the event is in Bandra Fort, a public space, entry is by invitation only.

Update: The Bombay Times article mentioned 'invitation only', but there are passes available to members of the public, which can be picked up from the Times building and a location in Andheri.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Devi Art Foundation's show of Pakistani art

The highlight of my Delhi trip was a visit to Lekha and Anupam Poddar's Devi Art Foundation in Gurgaon. The current show Resemble Reassemble, curated by Rashid Rana, is an exquisite cross-section of contemporary Pakistani art, featuring the work of 45 young and youngish artists.

The Devi Art Foundation building, clad in rusted steel, stands out among the glass towers and fanciful facades of Gurgaon's shopping centres and offices. About one in twenty people traversing the road will find it a relief from structures that marry Greek pediments and Rajasthani jharokhas. 95% will see it as an eyesore in the midst of gorgeous edifices.
I don't know how much of what I say about Resemble Reassemble applies to contemporary Pakistani art in general. The Poddars have used their own taste in putting a collection together, and Rashid Rana has added his curatorial vision, concentrating on an international look while downplaying issues of identity and politics, an approach I thoroughly favour. Nevertheless, forty-five artists is a large number. If there were a show of forty-five contemporary Indian artists, I'd consider it a fair survey.
Maybe I'm jaded from seeing too much Indian painting, video and installation, but I found the Pakistanis superior in a number of ways. There was a greater sense of restraint in the pieces, as opposed to the noise and spill that characterises Indian surveys. The use of materials, from motorcycle silencers to eggshells, was innovative, purposeful and finely controlled. Nobody tried to do too much with a single work, but stayed within the limitations of the medium and scale. While cliches were not absent, they weren't as abundant as in a typical Indian show. If I counted right, at least half the artists were women.
I don't have the catalogue and, not having had the leisure of taking notes while in the museum, can't offer a detailed analysis of individual pieces. One thing Resemble Reassemble proved was the injustice propagated by Charles Saatchi in shoving a couple of prominent Pakistani artists (Rashid Rana included) into his gallery's current show The Empire Strikes Back: Indian Art Today. Not only is the notion of being placed in an Indian show inherently insulting (not because of any enmity between the nations; simply because the two countries are distinct), but it is clear that Pakistani art is capable of standing on its own in an international survey. In fact, having seen the Saatchi catalogue, it is clear to me that Resemble Reassemble is a far superior exhibition to The Empire Strikes Back, which has all the defects I mentioned earlier: loudness, spillage, cliches.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Krishen Khanna at Lalit Kala

Coming out of the Krishen Khanna retrospective organised by Saffronart, my companion, a person familiar with the art world, remarked, "This guy didn't develop much in his career, did he?" I replied Khanna's art had developed a fair amount, but the exhibition didn't demonstrate that fact. Saffronart has gathered an excellent collection of the artist's paintings spanning a six decade career, and then hung them randomly on the walls of Delhi's Lalit Kala Akademi. Laypeople would need to memorise labels and compare canvases in their mind in order to unscramble the selection and create some sort of order from it.
For me, the show confirmed my placement of Krishen Khanna as a bridge between the generation of the 1950s and that of the 1970s. Khanna was born in 1925 in what is now Pakistan, and studied in England before settling in independent India. He was employed by Grindlays Bank, and grew friendly with artists like Husain, Padamsee and Tyeb Mehta. His own painting, largely self-taught, was immature through the fifties and sixties. Saffronart's retrospective has a few examples of these early works, which resemble student studies, like this painting from 1956:

And this Family Portrait from 1967, when the artist was 42.

He really found his voice in the early 1970s, with portraits of working class citizens of Delhi. The images capture some of the feeling of hopelessness of the era.

Artists in the 1950s had concentrated on the human figure, but painted it without associations of class and location. This changed in the 1970s, with artists like Bhupen Khakhar, Arpita Singh, Anjolie Ela Menon, Nalini Malani, Jogen Chowdhury, Gieve Patel, Sudhir Patwardhan and others beginning to see identity in social rather than universal terms. That's why Krishen Khanna seems a better fit with these younger artists than with those of his own generation.
In the 1980s, he began painting brighter canvases, using more impasto and picturing jolly bandwallas instead of squatting cardplayers.

In the work created at the end of the decade and the beginning of the 1990s, the figure sometimes almost vanishes in a razzle dazzle of red yellow and green.

Over the past decade, the quality of Khanna's work has dipped significantly. Awkwardly foreshortened figures and crudely expressionist emotions dominate, and his brushwork has lost its energy, its vitality.

All these images are copied from the Saffronart website and are part of the show, which closes on the 5th of this month. Looking at the catalogue makes me regret once again that the show was not hung largely in sequence. Sometimes it's best to adopt the simplest solution.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The art market in 2004

Now that I'm back in Bombay, I can answer Elizabeth Flock, one of the writers of the Forbes article on Neville Tuli, which I blogged about last week. I stated in my blog that Forbes underestimated the size of the art market in 2004, to which Elizabeth replied, "There are several Indian art experts who have estimated the value of the art market at only Rs 50 crore in 2004."
I have before me a chart displaying the total revenues and break up of auctions of Indian art in 2004. Sales were $13 million, which, at the 2004 average of 45 rupees to a dollar, works out to 58.5 crore rupees. Saffronart was the biggest revenue earner, accounting for 35% of total sales. Christie's had a 32% share, Osian's 17%, Sotheby's 15% and small players the rest.
At that time auctions did not constitute a substantial portion of total sales of Indian art, and it is reasonable to believe the market was four or five times that 58.5 crore figure, which tallies with my guesstimate of a total market size of 200 to 300 crores in 2004. The very next year, auction house sales jumped to $51 million, definitely a higher growth rate than that of the market as a whole.
Forbes won't reveal the names of the experts they consulted, but it's clear those people either didn't know what they were talking about, or chose for some reason to hide the truth.