Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Intercalation and leaps of faith

Every now and then some Muslim scholar will pop up claiming Islam accords with modern science (or at least modern astronomy, Darwin remains beyond the pale). Zakir Naik, a popular preacher, when asked why the Quran refers to Earth as being like a carpet, responds that carpets can be wrapped around a globe. Sure they can, but somehow I doubt Allah would say 'carpet' when He meant 'globe'. There's one verse in the Quran that says, 'He spread out the Earth', which some creative interpreters, Naik included, have suggested can also be translated as 'He made the earth egg-shaped'. I'm reminded of the old saw that every word in Arabic means itself, its opposite, and a camel.
But I'm not hugely concerned about the Earth of the Quran, whether carpet or egg shaped. One thing that does bother me, though, is the Islamic calendar. It's the most useless thing ever invented: no rational being, whether human or superhuman, setting out to create a logical register of days and months, would display as a finished product this calendar.
The background to the monstrous folly goes something like this: the Arabian calendar, which the early Muslims inherited, was strictly lunar, unlike the many Indian / Hindu calendars, which are lunisolar. A lunisolar calendar year approximates quite closely to an actual solar year, and needs an adjustment (or intercalation) only of a day every now and then to keep in tune with the earth's orbit, very much like the Leap Day (as in today, February 29) added every four years in the calendar we follow. A year in a purely lunar calendar like the Arabian one, on the other hand, is between 11 and 12 days short of a solar year. This means that, every so often, an entire month has to be added to keep the calendar honest. So that's what the Arabs would do, circa 600 AD. When Muhammad began receiving messages from Allah, he denoted four months as holy months, months during which no wars were supposed to be fought. Ramadan was one of them. Occasionally, though, the Arabian calendar would repeat the month of Ramadan to keep in step with the sun, leading to all sorts of problems from a ritual point of view. Imagine 60 days of fasting.
So the revelation came through that intercalation was forbidden. Allah had decreed twelve months, and humans had no business duplicating any of them. With intercalation out of bounds, the new Islamic calendar drifted entirely free of the sun, which was a problem because, in human affairs unconnected to religion, the sun is of crucial importance, while the moon means jack. The Arabian calendar as modified by Islam provided no indication whether it was a good time to plant crops, whether a given day could be expected to be hot or balmy or snowy, and whether the sun would set early or late. The calendar would only tell you whether it was a day of fasting or not; whether it was OK to march to battle or not; and other stuff related explicitly to the faith itself.
It's no wonder that few Muslim nations run their civic and financial affairs on the basis of the Islamic calendar. Saudi Arabia claims to work entirely by the lunar year, but I'm sure Saudi officials peek at a proper calendar before undertaking any journeys. After all, the fact that it's the middle of Shawwal or the beginning of Rajab tells them nothing about whether they should pack an overcoat for London.

Inaugurating 'Conversations'

I've started a new blog where I will upload interviews and profiles published in the past which aren't available online. The first entry is a profile of Chester Herwitz, an American who built the largest private collection of modern and contemporary Indian art. The piece was originally published in Art India magazine in 1999, and an edited version is available here.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Ambani's daughters


Today's Mumbai Mirror has a front page story about the falling out between G L Raheja and his son Sandeep over the former's decision to will (or gift, the article is unclear) a portion of his wealth to his daughters. The two daughters will apparently divide 30% of their father's property between them, leaving their brother the lion's share. Sandeep Raheja, unsatisfied with the billion dollars or so he stands to control, has raised the banner of rebellion, forcing his father to retreat from the bastion of Mount Mary to a redoubt in Pali Hill.
The news item recalls to me the war between Anil and Mukesh Ambani that began after their father, Dhirubhai Ambani, died without leaving a will. Less well known than the brothers' dispute is the fact that Dhirubhai had two daughters, Nina and Deepti. Under Indian law, Nina and Deepti stood to inherit an equal share of their father's wealth, except for a negligible amount of ancestral property to which only the sons and their mother had rights. But you won't see the daughters' names on any list of India's richest people. From the moment Dhirubhai died, there was never any question of his female progeny getting their hands on his riches. It was taken for granted that Anil and Mukesh would share the spoils, and the media made no issue of it.
'Why should it have been an issue?' you might ask. After all, the daughters accepted the situation voluntarily. But people also wear burqas voluntarily, and there's plenty of debate about that. It's sad that Hindu women in India tend to be effectively disinherited once they marry, despite laws protecting their claim to parental property. Another instance of good legislation that stays in the books and bears little relationship to the situation on the ground.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The missing Goya


"If the authorities had only so much as considered an online search, it would have been clear that the painting is still housed at the Prado", said the artist Sanjeev Khandekar, about a canvas, supposedly Francisco Goya's Saturn Devouring His Son, confiscated by the police from the home of a real estate agent named Majeed Sultan Khan.
Sanjeev is absolutely right, the police should have done a basic check. But since I believe it's impossible to underestimate the competence of our investigative agencies, I'm not surprised the cops felt they'd found a 19th century masterpiece in an Oshiwara tenement. Instead of pointing a finger at the police, though, shouldn't the Times of India question the decision by its editors to feature the story on the front page yesterday? Why didn't the writer of the article, Vijay V Singh, google 'Francisco Goya' himself? I mean, if the police announce tomorrow they've found the original Mona Lisa in a Goregaon shanty, will the Times take that at face value and put it on the front page as well?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Valentine's Day

I wrote a post about romantic love on Valentine's Day three years ago, related to the Charles Darwin bicentennial. I considered doing something similar this year with respect to the other great Charles of the Victorian era, surname Dickens, but, maybe because I don't associate Dickens with romance, haven't dreamed up an adequate hook. So, I recommend the earlier post to those who haven't read it.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Subhash Ghai, Vilasrao Deshmukh and Whistling Woods film school

I taught a module at Subhash Ghai's Whistling Woods International film school (WWI) during the first two and a half years of its existence, and therefore have some insight into its current troubles. The Bombay High Court just held that Vilasrao Deshmukh, while Maharashtra's Chief Minister, transferred land in Goregaon illegally to WWI. The court has told the school to return unused land immediately, and built-up land once the all current students have graduated. If the Supreme Court upholds the High Court's verdict on appeal, Bombay will return to the peculiar status of being a major film producing city without a proper film institute.
One thing I can say with certainty, having seen the functioning of WWI at somewhat close hand: profit was not the primary driver behind the school's creation. Ghai obviously had a dream of establishing a world class institute, and put together a great board of trustees and well-qualified administrators and faculty. While I don't care for the design of the main building, generous amounts of money were poured into campus construction. WWI was, and is, a long way from the many cramped, ultra-utilitarian sites that pass off as film schools in Bombay.
A serious film school needs an extensive campus. Property rates being what they are, it's hard to imagine an educational institution of the WWI kind being financially viable if the founders have to pay market price. At that kind of rate, all we will get is an extension of the soulless residence - office - shopping complex mix that has driven the growth of North Bombay.
If we accept that a good film school would be a fillip to Bombay's television and movie-producing industry, and we agree that some kind of state grant is required even for a private film school to be viable; what should leaders look for in potential investors? Obviously, a track record in film, and a commitment to investing significant private resources rather than living off the government's land. I can't think of too many people more qualified than Subhash Ghai to undertake such a venture.
Of course, one could imagine an alternate scenario, where property prices weren't kept sky high by collusion between builders and all levels of the administration; where there weren't a whole lot of asinine restrictions on buying and selling land; and where schools could be set up without years of petitioning and lobbying.
In the situation as it presented itself circa 2000 AD, however, I don't believe Vilasrao's Deshmukh's grant of cheap land to Subhash Ghai was such a terrible decision. Certainly there's no proof that Deshmukh profitted in any way from the move. There are, of course, other views possible about this matter, and my friend Paromita Vohra has taken a harsher line in this column for Sunday Mid-day.
WWI, unfortunately, faced a number of obstacles from its inception, including some of its own creation, as a result of which it has never performed to capacity. To begin with, there was a conceptual contradiction at the heart of the school, symbolised by its name. The 'International' in WWI suggested Subhash Ghai wanted to create an institution that would attract foreign students as well as Indians. The first executive head of WWI, an American named Kurt, was charged with setting up a cosmopolitan syllabus and world-class systems. But this effort was undercut by the 'WW' part of WWI. Which international student would take seriously a school that called itself 'Whistling Woods'? The only people who would be attracted by a name as cheesy as that were those who thought Bollywood films were the cat's whiskers. It was these Bollywood-lovers who flocked to the institute. The few foreigners who did enroll were tempted to drop out before completing the course.
Having spent a lot on construction, equipment and staff (Kurt was paid something like a crore per year, I was told), WWI charged high fees, and found it tough to fill all available seats. With supply outstripping demand, all selectivity went out the window. Kurt wanted to admit mainly graduate students, but plenty of 10+2 s made the cut each year. Film schools depend on a balance of direction, cinematography, editing, sound design and acting students, but there was no way to ensure such balance. One batch I taught had over a dozen male acting students and only one female. Another cohort, if I remember right, had twenty wannabe directors, only three or four editors to cut their assignments, and a lone sound guy.
Most of the students who joined were completely uninterested in Pasolini and Tarkovsky, leave alone the art history that I taught. The very fact that a module called IALC (International Art, Literature and Culture) was part of the compulsory syllabus shows the split between the 'International' side of WWI and the dominant 'Whistling Woods' side. Since the payoff in teaching, as far as I'm concerned, lies mainly in the response of students, I soon tired of the trek to Film City. It's true there were four or five youngsters in each batch who appeared interested in what I was saying, but the vast majority were visibly bored, and I couldn't blame them. If I were an actor eager to get a start in Bollywood, I wouldn't want to spend my time hearing about differences in style between Akbar-period miniatures and Shah Jahan-period ones; or between baroque and neo-classical painting.
I cut down on my WWI lectures a few years ago, and then left the Faculty entirely, but Prabodh Parikh, who handles the Literature side of IALC and is far more committed to, and passionate about, teaching than I am, has persevered; I've gone in for the occasional guest lecture when he's asked. Since leaving WWI, I've met a number of my former students at poker games. Subhash Ghai's film school has yet to produce any notable actors or directors as far as I can tell, but it's spawned a fair number of successful No-Limit Hold'em players. "How are you, Sir?", they ask, when I first run into them. I hate being called 'Sir', and always begin courses by telling students to call me Girish, but few ever do. At the card table, though, I absolutely insist on being addressed by my first name, particularly since WWI grads are usually better at poker than I am.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Sharada Dwivedi

Just days after I mentioned Bombay: The Cities Within as a landmark book, comes the news that Sharada Dwivedi, co-author of the volume along with Rahul Mehrotra, has died. Sharada did as much as anybody to raise awareness about the city's built heritage, and to remove the post-colonial and chauvinistic ideological blinkers that had for decades prevented a celebration of that heritage. Her steady, sensible, and committed advocacy will be deeply missed.