Monday, September 28, 2009

The Week in Art

I've been dawdling over my post about art events of the past week, because I'm not sure what to make of them. At one level it was an exciting few days. Two galleries opened, Gallery BMB on Monday and Volte on Friday; Mansi Bhatt's work at Chatterjee & Lal marked a return to form after two shows that had left me disappointed; and Inder Salim, a Delhi-based performance artist, brought his intriguing, postcard-sized pictures to The Loft in Parel. There's a very good piece on Salim by Deepanjana Pal here, and a first-person article of his practise by the man himself here.
The high season, it appears, has come early to Bombay, even as our second summer turns monsoon greens brown. A year after the meltdown it is as if nothing has changed. That, at least, was the impression left by BMB's lavish opening dinner at Indigo and its inaugural show featuring six artists from five continents (I'd have provided pics, except the gallery's website isn't fully up and running yet).
Tushar Jiwarajka's Volte will focus on experimental work: media art, performance and installation. He has already published a manifesto titled The Canvas is Dead. The most attention-grabbing part of Volte's first show took place at a distance from the gallery. A bus ferried visitors to the ruined Mukesh Mills compound where Mukul Deora had placed an old car and was handing out hammers to all who wished to help destroy the vehicle.

This kind of thing has been done before, but it was my first time participating. By the end of ninety minutes of car bashing, I'd developed a new respect for automotive technology in general, and the old Contessa in particular. The thing is built like a tank. I hear the totalled car will be transported to Volte where it might find a buyer willing to pay a much higher price than the working model would have fetched.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The UFO Moviez Scam

The Bombay police claim to have busted a gang of film pirates operating out of Karachi, who were being assisted by middle managers in post production studios. Among the people arrested is Rajesh Chaudhary, an assistant vice president at UFO Moviez.
I don't know whether Chaudhary is guilty or not, but I do know this: the entire UFO Moviez operation is a scam perpetrated by producers and multiplexes on cinema goers. It first came to my notice a couple of years ago while watching Jab We Met in Starcity, a standalone cinema near my home. The film looked peculiarly washed out, lacking depth and luminescence. An alphanumeric code that kept flashing in one corner of the frame told Jabeen and me that we were watching a digital projection rather than a proper print. Inquiry led me to the website of UFO Moviez, a firm that digitises films and uploads them to a satellite, from where they can be downloaded to servers in auditoriums across India. Striking a print is expensive, and so using this mode of distribution saves a lot of money. The downside is that UFO Moviez uses low-grade MPEG-4 technology which ruins any visual impact a film might have.
Originally, the purpose of UFO was to serve markets in the interiors that aren't covered in the opening weeks of a release because low ticket prices render sending new minted prints unremunerative. This was a sound idea. Prints are usually damaged by the time they reach such screens and projection facilities are rudimentary, so the loss of quality involved in being passed through the MPEG-4 grinder is barely felt.
Unfortunately, the greed of producers has made it standard operating procedure for UFO technology to be employed in the plushest multiplexes. Which means we shell out as much as 500 rupees per ticket on opening weekend to be treated to a pathetic projection, even though the take from just one show would easily cover the cost of a print.
That's Bollywood for you: always ass backwards. Shell out crores for the stars; more for top end cameras and cinematographers; more for the best post production facilities and cutting edge effects machines; more for lavish marketing; and then, in order to save a paltry sum on each print, destroy your technical team's efforts and cheat viewers who are being charged an extortionate entry price.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

More On Dan Brown: Spoiler Alert

My short review of The Lost Symbol gave away little of the plot, but if you plan to read the book, this post might reveal more than you want to know.
The villain of the piece is a maniacal killer named Ma'lakh, who has kidnapped Peter Solomon, the head of one of the most prominent families in the United States. Brown's symbologist hero, Robert Langdon, wants to do what he can to save Solomon, one of his closest friends, but a high ranking CIA officer named Inoue Sato who heads the operation against Ma'lakh has other things on her mind. She insists Solomon's life is trivial compared to the damage Ma'lakh might do to the nation's security with a weapon he posseses. Every time she shows characters what this weapon, they immediately accept her perspective.
The potentially disastrous weapon, when revealed, is this: Ma'lakh ascended to the top ranks of the Freemasons and, while doing so, shot secret ceremonies in which prominent Americans participated. If he sends that video file to media outlets, it has potential to undermine the US government.
Apart from the fact that this matter would come under the purview of the Department of Homeland Security rather than the CIA (there's a reason Brown needs it to be the CIA, but I won't get into that here), the video recording did not occur on government property, infringed no national security laws, and harmed no individual. Yet, preventing its dissemination it is taken to be more important than saving the life of a US citizen.
I'm certain the book's assumptions will disturb those who seek to protect First Amendment freedoms. On the other hand, The Lost Symbol will heal relations with one constituency Brown has previously offended: Christians. Not the literalists, but certainly those of a spiritualist bent, of whom there are millions in the US.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Dan Brown's, 'The Lost Symbol'

Dan Brown's latest novel has a lame title and limps out of the blocks before gathering speed and confidence. The book displays all the elements we associate with the author of The Da Vinci Code: a plot that unfolds in an extremely compressed time-span, cutting between multiple locations; chapter endings that keep the reader hooked and turning the pages; secrets buried, literally and figuratively, for centuries; a secret society with powerful members; a security chief with an agenda; a giant, beast-like killer with a fondness for self-mortification; a hero turned fugitive; mystical symbols hidden in plain view inside familiar monuments; and cyphers waiting to be cracked by the protagonist and his accomplished, good-looking female partner.
The novel reaches a climax around page 380 with a shocking passage in which Brown raises his mediocre descriptive skill a few notches above anything he has published previously. At this point, The Lost Symbol is transformed into something more than an enjoyable reworking of a successful formula. I won't disappoint you with details of what happens in the subsequent 130 odd pages. The book itself does a pretty good job of that (disappointing you, that is).

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Colossus of Bombay

Vishal Dadlani, the singer and composer, is planning to petition the high court against the state's plan to spend 350 crore on building a colossal statue of Shivaji on an artificial island. You can read the petition here, and sign if you sympathise.
Though I think the island is a dumb idea, I don't believe Dadlani makes a good case against it. His basic contention is that because we're in the middle of a drought, the money budgeted for the statue could be better spent elsewhere. I'm against arguments of this kind because they can be used against any subsidy of the arts. Why host a theatre festival when people are starving? Why spend tax rupees on bringing musicians, artists or dancers to this country when the money could be spent fixing roads or increasing power generation? It is impossible to make utilitarian arguments in favour of the arts.
In any case, it ought not to be up to the court to stop the government from spending money, unless specific laws are contravened.
I object to the island idea for a different set of reasons. Its concept was drawn up when the Sea Link project was already in an advanced stage. Our chief minister decided to place the island where it would be obscured by the final stretch of the sea bridge connecting Haji Ali to Nariman Point.

To allow for the island to be visible, the SeaLink plan was modified. As it currently stands, the final segment appears doomed. They're never going to get permission to dynamite their way through Malabar Hill. If they do, they then have to build an underwater channel parallel to Marine Drive. This will be prohibitively expensive, and the extra cost ought to be considered part of Shivaji Island's outlay.

In my view, the change in the Sea Link's orientation is the only strong basis for challenging the building of Shivaji Island. Is it not irresponsible for a carefully planned and crucially important infrastructure project to be altered, in a way that renders it unbuildable, in order to accommodate a vanity monument?
Shivaji is associated with hills rather than the sea. He raided sea ports such as Surat and nibbled at the fringes of what are today Bombay's northern suburbs, but neither he nor the Maratha leaders who came after him ever established ascendancy over these parts. Would it not have been more sensible to identify a location with which the king is intimately associated and build a statue and museum there as a way to vitalise the surrounding economy? But of course, our ministers were thinking of outdoing the Statue of Liberty, and so Shivaji had to be placed on an island. It is worthwhile recalling the sonnet by Emma Lazarus engraved on a plaque inside the statue on Liberty Island. It ends:
... "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

While Liberty invites people from across the globe and promises them a just and inclusive new home, those who practise Shivaji politics aren't welcoming of migrants even from other parts of India. Noted for his liberalism while he lived, the Chhatrapati has become, through being co-opted as a mascot for identity politics, a symbol of divisiveness based on language, caste and creed: Marathi against Hindi, Maratha against Brahmin, Hindu against Muslim.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The shack season in Goa

Goa's tourist season is still some way off, but a squabble's begun over a share of the spoils. It concerns shacks that come up along the state's beaches in winter. Back in the day, one or two could be found on each stretch of sand, but now they colonise every available square foot, and the number of prospective owners increases each year. The government handles the lucrative task of doling out permits.
The Shack Owners Welfare Society (SOWS, what could be more Goan?) is lobbying for old timers to be favoured, while the Goan Traditional Shack Owners Association, which appears to be traditional in the way the German Democratic Republic was democratic, wants a lottery to determine who will get space and where.
On the face of it, the demand for a lottery seems fair. The truth is, though, that most of TGTSOA's members have no interest in the restaurant business. All they want is to sublet the space to a non-Goan, making a tidy amount for doing nothing.
I spent a lot of time in Goa in my teens because my father was posted in Vasco, and that's when I discovered the state's beach shacks. The fish on offer was invariably fresh and cheap, and never smothered in heavy sauce. The quality of fare varied considerably, it has to be said. I recall one place in Anjuna that kept me waiting an entire hour before serving pomfret that was close to raw. But even that barely edible dish, and the lackadaisical attitude behind it, captured something of the spirit of the place that was screened out in fancy restaurants.
The last time I visited Goa, in 2007, Jabeen and I found the scene changed utterly, even from our own previous visits. Not only were there dozens of shacks to choose from, but they had much more elaborate decor and extensive menus. All minimalism had disappeared from the cooking, replaced by heavy, restaurant-style slop. Few of the waiters were locals: they came from UP, Bihar, even Nepal. The laid-back Goan pace had been replaced by frantic hard-sell. Perhaps worst of all, prices were now higher than in sit-down places on the main street.
It was still charming enough: I mean, how unpleasant can it be to sit sipping wine at a candle-lit table near the waterline with a breeze blowing landward? I knew, though, that the mood I'd experienced as a teen had died. If it was to be recaptured again, it would be on a beach in some other country which had yet to adjust fully to the demands and rewards of mass tourism.

Friday, September 11, 2009

9/11: Eight years on

Until the financial meltdown of 2008, there was no event this decade that came anywhere close in significance to the September 11 attack on the World Trade Centres and the Pentagon. Perhaps no single incident in the history of humanity has had as much immediate coverage across the globe as the fall of the two towers. The sad truth is, though, that despite all that has been said and written in the past eight years, the vast majority of Americans know little about the motives of the hijackers.
I wish some news organisation in the US would conduct a poll in which the lone question was: "Name the primary grievance behind the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001." I'd be interested to know what percentage of the public gives the right reply: "The presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia". My guess is that less than one in ten Americans will do so, having been fed on a diet of, "They don't like our values", and "They want to take away our freedoms".
All but four of the hijackers were Saudi nationals. Al Qaeda, the umbrella organisation behind the assault, was formed largely as a response to the creation of US military bases in the oil rich nation. 'Crusader warriors controlling the Holy Land' was the spin given by Osama bin Laden and his acolytes to the agreement between the House of Bush and the House of Saud following the First Gulf War.
Two years after the 9/11 outrage, the United States withdrew its forces from the largest country in the middle east, shutting down bases built recently at massive cost. A handful of US personnel remain, but as trainers rather than combatants. In that narrow sense, Osama got exactly the outcome he was seeking when he and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed planned the operation.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Rise and Fall of Bodhi Art

Four down, two to go. Bodhi Art has closed its galleries in Delhi, Singapore, New York and Berlin. Its Kala Ghoda flagship appears on the verge of going under. The lease will not be renewed after it runs out in September, say people in the art world. That will leave only Bodhi Space in downmarket Wadibunder, which is likely to function as a warehouse for the considerable collection the gallery has amassed over its five-year existence.
Bodhi, the most prominent emblem of the art market’s dizzying climb, is the highest-profile victim of the market crash.

That's the opening of my article published in the current issue of Time Out. The entire article is here.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Trishna: Go Fish

When we want to give visitors a taste of Bombay, one of our top dinner options has always been Trishna. It's a pity the waiters there are crabbier than the menu. Last night, after a panel discussion at NCPA, I entered the restaurant slightly ahead of Jabeen and our friend Anindya.
Me: Table for three?
A steward pointed to one of four empty tables. As I headed there another called me back.
Steward: When will your friends arrive?
Me: In about ten minutes.
Steward: Please wait here till they come, sir.
Me: But I want a beer. Why can't I sit at the table and wait for them?
Steward: Sorry sir, all tables are reserved.
Me: But you just told me that one was free.
He says nothing.

I wanted to leave right then, but I knew Jabeen wouldn't be in a restaurant hunting mood after a tough day that had taken her from Dadar to Andheri to Mazgaon to Colaba . I hung around near the door, reading a framed article from the International Herald Tribune which heaped praise on Trishna's crustaceans, but was considerably less enthusiastic about the waiters.
Me (to steward): See, even this review says your service is surly.
Steward (nonchalantly): There has to be something bad in a place, everything can't be good.

Despite myself, I couldn't help laughing at this philosophy. We give you good seafood, why would you want anything more? My two companions arrived, and a table was promptly dereserved for us. The king crab we had was appropriately delicious, and the other dishes weren't bad either. But two further unpleasant incidents marred the evening.
First -- and this is something I've experienced in a number of restaurants -- Trishna's menu lists prices for 30ml pegs, but if you ask for a vodka or whiskey their default option is to provide a double. At the bottom of a broad glass one can't necessarily tell it's a 60ml shot. In fact, I'm certain the first serving we were provided was a small measure. The bill, however, told a more expensive tale.
Second, the place behaves like an Udipi restaurant once the food has been consumed. No lingering over your drink and conversation even if there's nobody waiting for a seat. The waiters start fussily removing plates and cleaning up, and ask repeatedly if there's anything else you need when it's quite apparent there isn't.

I'm not sure if those crabs -- hardly cheap at around 1000 rupees per specimen -- make up for the bad service, the cramped seating and the liquor trickery. I've gone the crab in butter-garlic sauce route often enough, and would rather spend an evening at a restaurant where the food may be less flavourful, but the overall experience leaves me satisfied.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Measure for Measure

Today's bit of entertainment from Sukhada Tatke of the Times of India. In an article titled 'Rain spells good news for city', she writes: "Between Thursday 8:30 am and Friday 8:30 am, the city received a total of 364 mm of rainfall, with Colaba receiving 194 mm and Santa Cruz receiving 160.6 mm."
How did the city get 364mm if its two measuring centres recorded less than 200mm each? My best guess is the reporter added the Santa Cruz score to the Colaba one to reach her final tally. That would come to 354, not 364, but if she actually believed this method would provide a figure for rainfall across the city, I'm not surprised a further error crept in during the calculation. The same edition of the Times carries an article by Vasundhara Vyas Mehta about the salary demands of professors at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. It includes this line: "The memorandum says an assistant professor (AP) at Harvard gets $140,000 as annual starting pay, equivalent to Rs 23 lakh." At 49 rupees to the dollar, $140,000 is actually three times the rupee figure quoted.
The Times of India's method of measuring rainfall reminds me of those slimming centres which, having promised to help clients lose 20 centimeters, dehydrate the gullible fellows before totting up measurements from a dozen different places on the body. They proudly announce success to the bewildered customers, who feel lighter only in the wallet.
Come to think of it, this could be a great solution to the drought and flood problems India faces. If there's too little rain, open a few new measuring centres and voilĂ , rainfall will rise to normal levels in a matter of days. If it's pouring down excessively, the solution is even easier: simply shutting down a few Met offices will suffice.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Bombay: Urban Planning Basket Case 4

Bombay has the worst ratio of open spaces to population of any city in the world, and yet the municipal corporation's new twenty year plan envisages highrises colonising many of the remaining protected areas. As a way to enhance green spaces, the corporation's report has proposed 'community skygardens' on rooftops. Which means, I will need to take a lift to the top of a skyscraper, walk around the terrace, take a lift down and walk to the next skyscraper and repeat the process. After visiting ten such towers, I will have had my daily walk in the park. Of course, the towers will be private property, which means I won't have permission to go up in the first place.
If you liked the idea of skywalks, you'll love skygardens. And all the other pie in the sky plans the BMC produces while turning Bombay over parcel by parcel, deregulation by deregulation, to greedy builders who have bought every political party in the state.

Forest Infestation

TV news channels appear to have learned little from their coverage of the attack of November 26, 2008. For twenty-four hours starting 10am yesterday, they focused exclusively on the story of Andhra Pradesh chief Minister YSR Reddy's missing helicopter, even though there were no developments to report. During the 26/11 coverage, they had trained cameras on three buildings, hoping to catch sight of something when it happened. In the helicopter incident, even that was missing, meaning coverage was reduced to speculation and waffle. Other news items, meanwhile, were blanked from the screen, as if nothing else happened in India and the world on September 2.
The area where the helicopter went down is a stronghold of Maoists, as is pretty much any isolated, underdeveloped region in central India. The press thinks of the militants as akin to lice or rodents, judging from the automatic use of some variant of the word 'infest' in connection with Naxals.

Times of India: YSR's chopper goes missing over dense Naxal & tiger-infested Andhra jungle.

Indian Express: Almost twenty-four hours after losing contact with his helicopter over the Naxal-infested Nallamala forests in Kurnool district, hopes of finding Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y S Rajasekhara Reddy began to fade.

Associated Press: A massive search was quickly launched, focusing on a densely forested area infested with Maoist rebels.

Hindustan Times: The reason why Reddy's whereabouts are not being disclosed is because the area is heavily forested and Naxal-infested.

This is similar to the now universal practise of calling Bangladeshi migrants (at any rate the Muslim ones) 'infiltrators'. The term was first used by right-wing parties, but has been adopted by the supposedly neutral, independent press.

Update: Hari Kumar in the New York Times: Andhra Pradesh is infested with Maoist rebels and Dr. Reddy was credited with reducing the level of violence.