Tuesday, December 30, 2008

First Families

The two lands over which India and Pakistan have fought wars just held elections. It seems that Jammu & Kashmir will be led by Omar Abdullah, grandson of Sheikh Abdullah; and Bangladesh by Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Mujibur Rahman. India's largest party, meanwhile, is headed by Sonia Gandhi, daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi and widow of Rajiv Gandhi. Pakistan's current president, Asif Ali Zardari, is the son-in-law of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and widower of Benazir Bhutto.
The intertwined story of the four families -- Nehru-Gandhis, Bhuttos, Abdullahs and Rahmans -- is packed with visionaries and dupes, courage and cowardice, idealism and cynical manipulation, liberation and genocide, betrayals and reconciliations, power, fortune, fame, imprisonment, exile and assassination.
History as soap opera.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Manjit Bawa

Manjit Bawa, who had been in a coma for three years following a stroke, died today. It is often said, not without justice, that he brought colour back to Indian painting.
Bawa began his career in India after a stint in London as a screen printer in the late 1960s. While he was in England, screen printing (also called silkscreen printing or serigraphy) was revolutionised by Andy Warhol's brightly-coloured portraits of iconic Americans like Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy. Bawa adopted the idea of depicting figures against a bright, flat background, and introduced a number of important variations to it. He worked with oils on canvas rather than serigraphs. He painted, for the most part, full figures floating in a field of colour. He chose vivid hues from Indian visual culture, whether miniatures or street signs. And he adapted myths and legends that told of the communion between humans, birds and beasts through the medium of music. A favourite theme was Krishna fascinating the animals of the forest with his virtuosity; another was the romance of Heer and the flute-playing Ranjha. Bawa's deep attachment to sufi mysticism and music led him to looked for harmony and gentleness in art where many of his peers focussed on violence and conflict.
Whether one liked Bawa's work or not was very much a matter of taste because he favoured colours which verged on the gaudy. He would defend himself against allegations of producing kitsch by pointing out that similar colours were found in universally admired miniatures. His argument ignored the fact that using a colour for flowers taking up a few square millimeters of paper has an entirely different impact from spreading the same shade over many square feet of canvas.
Leaving aside the issue of taste, his work began to feel repititious soon after he achieved critical and commercial recognition. He arrived at a mature style sometime in the late 1970s, and replicated it for over two decades with little variation. It appeared like a successful decorative formula, mass produced to satisfy his burgeoning client base.
Among the prominent artists whose work shows the influence of Bawa are Rekha Rodwittiya, Surendran Nair and Chintan Upadhyay. These younger painters have added a conceptual dimension which Bawa's canvases lack. In purely painterly terms, however, Bawa's output is undoubtedly superior to theirs.

Samuel Huntington

Samuel Huntington, who died last week, is a hate figure for the sort of people who pepper every presentation with the word 'radical' (see previous post). At seminars, they charge at the phrase 'Clash of Civilizations' like a bull at a matador's fluttering cape. When I hear speakers criticise Huntington's central thesis, I try and enter into conversation with them over lunch or coffee, posing a question like, "Do you think Huntington's emphasis on demographics in his book is a natural extension of his argument in the original essay from Foreign Affairs magazine, or do you believe it might be a tactic to sidestep the angry response to that essay?" Without exception, I have found that the speakers haven't read Huntington's book. In most cases, they have not even read the essay which first used the term 'clash of civilisations'.
Such reflexive, ignorant criticism is regrettable, because the book has a lot to offer even those like me who have substantial reservations about its central thesis. The problem is that the multifarious conflicts Huntington wrote about have been obscured in the past ten years by one central clash: that of Islam versus the West. Huntington is not at his strongest when writing about Islamic societies. He's much better on Latin America, and the sub-chapter about Russia as one of the world's 'torn civilizations' is excellent. It explains a lot about Vladimir Putin's ascent and manner of ruling, even though it was published while Yeltsin was still in power.
I like, also, the discussion on westernisation versus modernisation, two terms which are often taken to be synonyms. Huntington points out how, in the initial phases of industrialisation within developing countries, societies adopt western habits as they modernise. At one point, a cultural reaction sets in, after which increased economic and technological modernisation leads to a reaffirmation of indigenous values.
The book contains some fodder for post-colonial activists, in the data relating to the economic power of different civilisations over the course of centuries. India produced a fourth of the world's manufacturing output in 1750, the eve of the Battle of Plassey. Its share began to sink precipitously, reaching 1.4 percent in 1914. It was only when Indians began to govern themselves, first under the British umbrella and later as a completely independent nation (or independent nations, since the data cover the entire subcontinent), that our share of the world's production rose. The figures are as strong a rebuke as can be imagined to those who still suggest that colonial rule was generally beneficial to India. It's true, part of the drop in India's relative position is explained by the boom in the west engendered by the industrial revolution, but that's clearly not the whole story.
For instance, between 1750 and 1800, China increased its share of world manufacturing marginally, from 32.8 to 33.3 percent, even as India's contribution dropped from 24.5 to 19.7 percent. What caused this sudden fall relative to China? Certainly not the industrial revolution, since China wasn't industrialising. China's own decline began around the time of the Opium wars, going down to a shocking 2.3 percent in 1953 before recovering somewhat.
Among the negative features of Huntington's most well-known book (the only one by him that I have read) are the nebulousness of his categories; his lack of fluency as a writer (the Russia pages are an exception); and his steadfast belief that the United States acts with the best intentions even when its actions have disastrous consequences.
Since he was an advisor to the state department during the Vietnam war, and never questioned that war's moral legitimacy, his stance is not surprising. If you get past hurdles like Huntington's moral blind spots there are valuable insights to be had from The Clash of Civilizations.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Ravi Varma the Radical? Part 1

'Radical' is among the most overused and misapplied terms in academia. It has the feel of a shibboleth: only those who employ it can gain acceptance in the world of cultural theory. Sprinkled liberally through a text, the word transforms the most conventional ideas into incendiary-sounding propositions, in the way that monosodium glutamate imbues even thin soup with a hearty, meaty taste.
These thoughts are spurred by Ketan Mehta's film-in-the-making, Rang Rasiya, a biopic about the late nineteenth century painter Ravi Varma. As part of the publicity surrounding the movie, there's a plan to produce a reality show / talent contest for young artists. The art critic Rahul Bhattacharya, who has been working with Ketan Mehta, sent out an email publicising the film and its television spin-off. His note and the text on the competition's site bathes Ravi Varma as well as the proposed show in the glow of radicalism.
Bhattacharya writes that Ravi Varma "succeeded in bringing art out of the clutches of the aristocracy and the orthodox temple priests, making art an integral part of popular culture. Often celebrated as a reformer who brought God outside the confines of the temple, Raja Ravi Varma was successful in radicalising and energising the relationship between the audience and the painted image."
Was Indian art ever in the clutches of the aristocracy and temple priests? Was it not part of popular culture before Ravi Varma's time? Only a dreadfully narrow definition of art would allow these assertions any validity. And nothing can justify the statement that God was confined in temples before Ravi Varma freed Him. Even a cursory reading of Indian history reveals that, for centuries, divinities have been worshipped in every conceivable place: in groves, in caves, on mountains, on river banks, in homes. One of the defining features of Hindu religiosity is the variety of forms taken by worship of the divine.
Arvind Rajagopal, who teaches media studies at NYU, believes that Ravi Varma was the precise opposite of a radical reformer. He has written: "Varma's oleographed paintings of gods and goddesses, made in an enormously popular naturalist "realist" style, were promoted by the royal house of Travancore to create a Brahminical cultural lineage rivaling that of the British. Simultaneously, this attempted to deflect insistent demands for social reform from below by illustrating an idealized myth-history of a golden age whose rulers practised a steadfast benevolence, culminating in the present" (Politics After Television, page 97).
In Rajagopal's view, Ravi Varma cast Hindu gods and goddesses in new forms suited to the puritanism of the nineteenth century Hindu renaissance. These forms were then adapted to cinema by the likes of Dadasaheb Phalke, and the iconography found its culmination in the enormously popular televised epics that, Rajagopal believes, served the agenda of Hindutva.
If the Rang Rasiya crew push the idea of Ravi Varma's political radicalism too far, Rajagopal, in my opinion, overstates the case for a Brahminical, Hindutvavadi reading of the artist. But let's stay with Rang Rasiya, and consider the reality series that might accompany the film's release. Called the Rang Rasiya Freedom of Expression Movement, the project aims to "bring about a socio cultural movement which discovers new talent, and brings contemporary art into the discursive domain of the middle class. It attempts to create a domain for contemporary art outside the current dominant systems."
In other words, not content with radicalising Ravi Varma, Bhattacharya is suggesting that Reality TV is politically radical as well. He speaks of moving out of the dominant system of contemporary art viewing, but says nothing of the implications of moving into a system governed by corporate media houses. This kind of doublespeak would be laughable if it weren't troublingly pervasive within the Indian art world. People familiar with the society will know a number of artists who spout phrases like 'resisting commodification' while blithely exhibiting their work in the most commercial galleries across the country.
I will continue this discussion on radicalism, elitism and democracy in a bit. There's so much to say, one post can't do it justice.

Forgetting Harold Pinter

When Harold Pinter's death was announced, I sat down to write a few lines about his work. I didn't want to repeat cliches about menace and silence, but realised I couldn't remember enough about his plays to provide a personal impression .
I haven't looked at anything by Pinter for a decade or so, but before that I read much of what he wrote. The major plays, I read more than once. I can recall clearly many passages and characters from works by Arthur Miller, Beckett, Ionesco, Tom Stoppard, even John Osborne, though it's been a long time since I read any of these writers.
The failure of my memory in the case of Pinter suggests I over-rated his contribution to theatre, or at least to my understanding of it.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Jingo Bells

Since the terrorist attacks in Bombay, members of the public have been sending out mixed signals. During peace rallies held after the atrocity, quite a few angry citizens demanded the bombing of Pakistan. Percept Picture company seems to have hedged its bets with regard to audience mood. This ad for its new release Jumbo invites viewers to 'celebrate a non-violent Christmas' with loved ones.

A second ad for the same film sends a rather different message.

What better time than Christmas to 'say no to non-violence'?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Jilt of Seasons

In March and April each year, Indian travel companies blanket newspapers with advertisements for European holidays. In winter, their focus shifts to warm lands like Egypt and Thailand. This year, though, a few firms have decided to plug Europe in December. Two ads pitching France caught my attention this morning. Both play up the romantic reputation of the country. Cox and Kings does it using a historical example.

The Eiffel Tower was built as part of the World's Fair of 1889 which marked the centenary of the French revolution, but calling it a symbol of the country's bloody revolution is a stretch, isn't it? Kuoni's full-pager pretends France is in the middle of easeful summer.

It uses a stock photo provided by the French government tourist agency, of a pretty couple relaxing on the heather, the man wearing a T-shirt, the woman a singlet. The copy speaks of "vineyards with plump, purple grapes ripening under the benevolent sun." A quick check tells me the sun isn't being particularly benevolent to Paris at the moment. The next ten days will see temperatures rise to a maximum of 5 degrees centigrade in the afternoon and sink to a minimum of minus 3 degrees at night. I called Kuoni to ask about the validity period of the Family Fun travel deal, and was told I could travel any time before March 31, excluding the Christmas-New Year period. Which means the choice for punters runs all the way from uncomfortably cold to bloody freezing.
Indians who haven't travelled abroad extensively have a misconception about seasons in the rest of the northern hemisphere. They don't realise that summer begins in earnest only in mid-June and lasts till the end of August. That's because those are the wet months in much of the subcontinent. For us, the warm season kicks off in late March, April is the start of high summer, and by May it's time to head for the hills. Or Europe, if you can afford it.
During my first year in England as a student, I expected to start feeling the weight of the sun's rays on my arms by mid-April. Instead, all I felt was the weight of a thick jacket on my shoulders.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Reena Saini Kallat's Silt of Seasons

Reena Saini Kallat's show titled Silt of Seasons opened at Chemould Prescott Road on the 18th. It is a mix of previously exhibited and new works. In the latter group is a series concerned with the making of Mughal monuments, in particular the Taj Mahal. The artisans who worked on Mughal commissions frequently left emblems of their guilds on walls and flagstones. Reena has embossed these marks -- little fish, swastikas and the like -- on rubber stamps. The stamps make flat, wall-mounted panels, on which she has painted floral motifs reminiscent of the pietra dura decorations on the walls of the Taj.

The idea is to focus on workers who created the monument rather than the emperor who commissioned it. From a distance we see only a botanical pattern, but once we get close-up we can identify the guild symbols. The problem is that the floral paintings aren't attractive at all. The image above, of a work titled Closet Quarries, demonstrates what I mean. It isn't a low resolution picture, that's the way the thing actually looks. Compare it with the gorgeous precision of the hard-stone inlay seen on the marble walls of the Taj, like this lily.

The best way to pay tribute to the artisans who decorated Mughal tombs would be to mirror some of their technical virtuosity. I realise it isn't easy to paint on rubber stamps, but surely part of an artist's job when s/he chooses an unusual medium is to master it. Reena has been working with stamps for a while now, and the images she has produced simply aren't as engaging as they need to be. The net result of the clumsiness evident in works like Closet Quarries is a failure to transmit adequately the underlying concept.

Friday, December 19, 2008


Film used to be a precious resource in India, to be used with care. This bred discipline among cinematographers. The start, end point and trajectory of each shot had to be considered carefully before a commitment was made to shoot. Once video became widely available, discipline often went out of the window. Documentary makers shot hour upon hour of material, but frequently failed to capture any compelling frames.
Quantity can never replace quality. At least, as the case of the replacement of film by video demonstrates, it takes absurd amounts of quantity (zillions of ones and zeros packed into one digital frame) to adequately replicate quality (the depth and intensity of analog impressions on photosensitive material).
I have this example before me as I inaugurate a blog -- which is free to publish and in which I can stuff endless random thoughts -- after four and a half years of writing a fortnightly 500 word column about Bombay. The column's restricted subject matter and word limit sometimes felt like a straitjacket, but it forced me to choose each word with care. I aim to bring some of that discipline into the inevitably looser, less formal structure of the blog.
Girish Shahane