Monday, April 25, 2011

Fast food and smoking guns

My Yahoo! India column this time is about media time versus real time. Read it here.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Jehangir Nicholson collection

The Jehangir Nicholson Galley opened last week, after a long delay, at the Prince of Wales Museum (which is now named after Shivaji like everything else in Bombay). I couldn't make it to the opening, but caught the inaugural exhibition on Friday, and came away disappointed. It didn't feel like a well thought-out museum show accompanied by thorough documentation; more like something thrown together fairly quickly and haphazardly.
I don't envy the task of the curators. They had a fairly small space to work with and must have been aware that the best of Nicholson's paintings had been displayed at the capacious National Gallery of Modern Art in 1998. Still, the show on view at Shivaji Museum doesn't really give us any insight into the mind and taste of the collector, or seek to underline the collection's strengths and biases. Instead, it just hangs one or two works from each of the city's canonical artists. The exception is three large Tyeb Mehta canvases, which one is drawn to immediately and which are the best things in the room.
Nicholson's favourite painter, Laxman Shreshtha, is underrepresented. The choice of a black-and-white Shreshtha marked by geometric motifs was bold, but I believe misguided. It would have been wiser to choose one of the painter's magisterial stormy abstracts, though these are better known than the picture finally chosen.
The museum trustees hired an extremely capable and dedicated curator, Zasha Colah, to tend to the collection, but have evidently not given her much latitude in selecting works for the first show. I hope this will be rectified in the future, so we get truly museum-worthy exhibitions.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Huffingtonpost and writing for free

I've never trusted Arianna Huffington. The founder of The Huffingtonpost has changed her ideological spots too often for her political beliefs to seem anything but cynical and self-serving. I wasn't surprised, therefore, when, after banging on about US unemployment for months; after bashing President Obama for supposedly doing too little to spur job growth; and after running hundreds of columns against corporate greed; she sold her website to AOL for $315 million, and sacked over 200 journalists from the two organisations.
HuffPo, as the site is known for short, was built around two controversial strategies: cannibalising (or 'aggregating') content from online editions of newspapers; and persuading hundreds of bloggers to write for free. Many of these bloggers were celebrities or politicians -- the likes of Alec Baldwin, Robert Reich, Gary Hart and Deepak Chopra -- for whom any payment would seem like a pittance. There were hundreds of others, however, who could have used a bit of cash, but agreed to contribute gratis, tempted by the site's wide readership.
The business model angered journalists as well as newspaper owners, but there was little they could do about being undercut by content aggregators like HuffPo. Everyone from Rupert Murdoch to Bill Keller of the New York Times took issue with Arianna, but her admirers interpreted the criticism as sour grapes. HuffPo groupies saw it not as a parasite but as an alternative to mainstream media. The AOL-HuffPo deal has left those naive souls disillusioned. It's worse than Ben & Jerry selling out to Unilever.
Now a class action suit has been filed on behalf of all who contributed without payment to help HuffPo become a dominant online force. It's interesting to discover how many bloggers were taken in by the idea that they'd benefit by giving away content to Arianna Huffington.
I'm used to this sort of thing happening in India. Years ago, I was asked to write an art column for the Bombay Times. Shocked at the payment offered by the most profitable newspaper in India, I turned down the proposal immediately. The journalist who made the offer thought he was doing me a huge favour, and couldn't understand my refusal; after all, many better known people were writing columns for the same amount. Two friends I spoke to about it also said I'd been wrong to refuse. As a career move, having a picture every week in the Bombay Times would be a great boost (I should clarify this was a decade ago when the supplement was at its peak).
I have a narrow moral view of these matters, though: if somebody can afford to pay, they should do so, instead of pushing for cut-price rates promising corollary benefits. I've done my share of pro bono writing and lecturing for non-commercial ventures. If I also offer discounts (from a low starting sticker price) to billionaires, how am I going to make a living at all?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

My Yahoo! column is back

After a hiatus for a tech overhaul, the Yahoo! India columns are back. My first piece went online yesterday. It is about chocolate, bananas, oil and war. Read it here.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Match

For once I wished I was on twitter. As it happened, I couldn't even blog from the stadium because I'd carried an old junk phone, just in case the police decided at the last minute not to allow mobiles inside. This is what my liveblog would've been, as best I can remember. I'm putting this in without having read any accounts of the match or heard any experts commenting on it. Will be interesting to compare my take to theirs once I'm done.

10.30am: I get to Churchgate early, having encountered no traffic on the inside roads.

My companion Nikhil calls to say he's running late. I have an ice tea at Tea Centre.

I join the Divecha Pavilion queue. They're confiscating all food items, all bottles, all bags. Some women are very upset. It's difficult for a woman to go ten hours without a handbag. Friction between female security personnel and handbag toting ticket holders.

We're in, after being felt up by five different guards, police, army, NSG, whatever. I'll never get used to being frisked.

We are pointed to the seats marked on our tickets. Those are not the seats we'd have chosen within the Divecha pavilion. Besides, if we knew our places were reserved we could have come two hours later; but I'm happy it's being done. Eliminates interlopers in one shot.

Our position is high and a bit square. There's a nice breeze blowing.

Lots of Indo-Brits around us. Were foreigners favoured in the ballot? I was told last evening that I entered 'Kuwait' in my address, instead of India. Providential slip of the mouse?

We hunt for food and drink. Only samosas available, greasy. I eat two, and decide to taste Gatorade for the first time. It's blue and disgusting.

Our seats are far too narrow. Only thing in their favour is they're better than the benches they replaced.

The sound system and acoustics are atrocious; announcements are really loud but we can't understand a word being said.

The teams come out to practice. Everyone's eyes are on jersey number 10. Sachin's hair looks orange-y. Definitely a bad hair colour day.

Gambhir isn't limping; Sreesanth's bowling quite a bit; Pathan and Ashwin aren't doing much of anything. Interesting choice, if that's what the playing eleven's going to be.

The toss. Dhoni wins it, or seems to, but then they do it again. This time, Sangakkara calls right. The crowd groans. They're going to bat. Memories of 1996 always in the back of my head. Will the ball start turning square under lights?

The squads come out, each member accompanied by a child. Some of the 'children' are gangly teenagers. National anthems. The Sri Lankan one is interminable. Sinhalese, being an Indo-European language, sounds much more familiar to me than Tamil or Malayalam.

Zaheer bowls a great first spell. Trying to erase the memory of the 2003 final. It's impossible to lose a 100 over match in three overs, but Zaheer came as close as humanly possible eight years ago. This time, he bowls three straight maidens, and adds one scalp to his collection.

Sreesanth's bowling rubbish; the least you can do if you're bowling rubbish is not give free hits, but he oversteps. What pressure Zaheer creates, Sreesanth releases.

The ball's doing nothing. Looks like a 300 pitch, but Zaheer's first spell has virtually taken that score out of the equation.

Sangakkara and Mahela are looking very comfortable, batting well within themselves. Mahela's getting a run a ball without seeming to try hard.

It's a joy watching the cat and mouse game between Harbhajan and Sangakkara. Live, one sees the huge difference between a specialist bowler and part-timer. Bhajji's variation of length and pace is superb, Yuvraj is one-dimensional, but lucky.

Imran Khan says weak bowling sides should prepare pitches that favour bowlers. It's counter-intuitive but dead on. Play to your weaknesses, not your strengths. We beat Pakistan, which has a better bowling attack, because the semi-final pitch assisted bowlers.

On a pitch like this, the difference between real quality (Zaheer, Harbhajan, Murali, Malinga) and the rest (every other bowler in India and Sri Lanka) is accentuated.

India are like Real Madrid in the reign of the Galacticos. We know our defence is weak, but back ourselves to score more goals than the opposition.

Mahela steps it up at the death, as do his partners. 65 runs in the final powerplay. People around me are despondent, but if the pitch stays true it's not a great score. I'd rate India's 260 in the semi-final a tougher chase given how oddly that pitch was behaving. Lanka seem to have decided to play for a baseline score of 250 and taken everything beyond as a bonus. Mahela gave them a good fillip, but I still think it's a 300 pitch. Unless it begins turning.

The break. We get a free lunch / dinner box with our ticket. It's from Croissants etc. Dry bread with two kinds of chicken, a fruit drink and brownie. Better than greasy samosas.

Malinga's bowling at one stump. He hits it over and over. His express pace is apparent even in these practice deliveries.

Second ball of the Indian innings, Sehwag is trapped plumb. As usual, he asks for a review without consulting the non-striker. Review shows it's plumb, one of Malinga's straight and low specials.

Sachin and Gambhir demonstrate there's nothing in the pitch; they play through the line comfortably. Sachin feels confident enough to drive on the up; one of the most breathtaking sights in cricket.

Malinga gets Sachin fishing and snicking. Henceforth, he's the villain of Wankhede, booed whenever he touches the ball.

Despair in the crowd at Sachin's dismissal. I say to Nikhil, "Come on, you can't expect the thirty plus guys to do everything. Let the youngsters show why they're in the team."

It's lucky Murali doesn't like bowling in the powerplay. The Lankan attack, like India's, is twenty overs of quality and thirty of garbage. Gambhir and Virat consolidate in peace.

Gambhir lofts Randiv, bisecting deep cover and long off, but the ball just hangs in the air and suddenly there's a fielder under it; but then maybe it dips and Kulasekhara can't get to it even after a dive. Really peculiar episode: a certain boundary turns into a certain dismissal only to end up as a dropped catch.

Moment of truth. Murali comes on to bowl. No turn, at least nothing troubling. This from a guy who could get the ball to deviate on a laminated board. Now it's entirely down to our mental strength. The Sri Lankan fielding is falling apart. No mental strength there.

Murali isn't hobbling, but doesn't appear 100% fit either. Even a 70% fit Murali would be deadly on a helpful track, though.

Kohli gets out needlessly. Dhoni comes in ahead of Yuvraj, a half-expected move with Murali bowling. He begins striking the ball cleanly, as all other batsmen have done beyond the first couple of overs in each innings.

We stay in touch with the required rate. Slowly, gradually, the match equation begins to favour India. We get ahead of the Duckworth Lewis requirement. The breeze is strong and has a monsoon-y feel to it. Nikhil says he'll take a thundershower and the win now.

Luckily the breeze isn't being felt downstairs. No drift in the ball. Dhoni and Gambhir reeling the match in like a giant marlin.

Malinga back on. A last throw of the dice. Any hint of reverse swing? Nope. After two fiery overs he's taken off. Soon after, Dhoni crashes a ball straight past the bowler and Malinga at long on chases it down. A tired pick up and a defeated throw.

Gambhir gets himself out before the fish has been landed. Yuvraj comes in and looks comfortable. 50 runs in 50 balls should be an easy win for this team. Not Indian teams of the past, of course, which have lost from more dominant positions. That, right there, is the crucial difference between this squad and previous teams.

Yuvraj and Dhoni bring it home. A hugely satisfying match which hinged on the behaviour of the pitch. Sanga depended on it helping the bowlers in the evening more than it actually did. 275 is always going to be a tough chase in a world cup final, but a little movement off the track could have made it impossible.

Lots of announcements. All better seen and heard on TV. We stay till the cup's in Dhoni's hands, and then head for a beer or two.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Wankhede blues

Here's a piece I wrote for Time Out after watching this match at Wankhede stadium five and a half years ago. Though not a fan of the IPL, I acknowledge it improved the spirit of spectatorship in India by mixing players from different nations and drawing more women to grounds.


The BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) has botched its organisational duties in a variety of ways. A strict rotation policy has awarded matches to cities where it’s sure to rain. The board’s avarice has meant a preference for day-night games, though evening dew gives the side batting second an unfair advantage. There’s been chaos in the allotment of telecast rights.
The Mumbai Cricket Association’s as clueless as cricket’s national authority. The section of Wankhede stadium where I sat watching India play South Africa was packed at least 60% over capacity. Obviously, counterfeiters had gained an inside track on the ticket design. The scoreboard -- installed a few years ago at tremendous expense -- failed to function. The stadium, as characterless a pile of concrete as you’ll ever see, appeared in desperate need of an upgrade. Inadequate water supply, dirty toilets, cracked benches: that’s what my 900 rupee north stand ticket afforded me.
Perhaps we get the administrators we deserve. Indians are, without doubt, the most unsporting spectators in the world. Loutish behaviour, such as hurling projectiles at fielders, has led to stringent restrictions on patrons. All objects that can be thrown and cause damage, such as water bottles, are now prohibited in stadiums. This straitjacketing disproportionately turns off those who are usually well behaved, like women and senior citizens,. In the north stand at Wankhede males outnumbered females at least 20 to 1 and there were no elderly fans at all.
The crowd gratuitously chanted “Kallis is a bastard”, heckled Andre Nel, and fell silent each time the visitors scored or took a wicket. There was the usual racism, no less shameful because it is customary. Black players from the West Indies and England have endured taunts in the past, and it was Makhaya Ntini’s turn last Monday. Indian players didn’t escape either. Dravid was briefly booed even as he methodically guided India to the target. Winning, it seems, is not sufficient. Without a steady supply of boundaries -- it doesn’t matter if they’re wild hoicks or streaky edges -- the Indian viewer gets bored.
Television foreshortens sport, cuts it up into pieces, makes it look easy. Watching it live, feeling the real pace of the ball, ought to bring home the worth of well executed strokes, make the game less utilitarian. But we seem to prefer cricket in two dimensions even when watching it in three.
So what’s to be done? There are too many issues here for me to consider individually, but I’ve a couple of suggestions. Seat numbers printed on tickets must be taken seriously. Insisting that ticket-holders sit at allotted spots will deter fakers and ease crowd control. The BCCI could study how the Hindi film industry transformed its audience profile after the dire days of the late eighties. It could also emulate measures taken by football associations in Europe to curb hooliganism and racism. Instead, I’m sure it will slumber on until a stampede or riot takes lives, and then jerk a knee.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Road to the final: Jump the Q

The website Kyazoonga, which has partnered the Indian cricket board to sell tickets online, advertises itself with the tagline 'Jump the Q'. It seems a bit overstated for those who have spent hours waiting at the Mumbai Hockey Association in a queue that coiled and coiled like a giant cobra. Tickets are being handed out at a rate of about two every three minutes. My own tickets (I have got them in my wallet as I write) required just a two minute wait at one of the three counters. At that rate they'd be clearing three persons every two minutes, over twice the speed they're going at, and there would be no coiling queue. However, the line includes many proxies who have inadequate documentation, and everything is held up while phone numbers are verified and credit card numbers confirmed. There were about 150 people in front of me when I got there this morning at 11.30am. The ticket windows had opened early, and the queue was already moving when I arrived. I walked away a little after 3.30pm. At that point there were over 300 people in line behind me. At the pace they're going, the last person already inside the ground at 3.30pm would get his or her ticket at 9.30pm. For those entering later, well, the wait could stretch past midnight.
The counters were originally set to stay open for about 1500 minutes over three days. That would mean about 1000 applicants could be serviced at the pace Kyazoonga and the police have maintained. Since no individual is granted more than 2 tickets, no more than 2000 tickets could have been handed out in the time granted. The remaining 2000 (there were 4000 tickets in all in the online ballot) can't possibly all be taken care of in extra time. The maths is clear: lots of people who have booked tickets to the big game will not get their hands on them.
After my documents were checked, and details entered at the ticket counter, I had to fill in a form for the police providing address, phone number etc; then I was photographed on a cellphone. I wonder if all these records will be of any help if I was to lose my ticket. Something tells me they won't.