Sunday, January 31, 2010

Anju Dodiya's Necklace of Echoes at Vadehra, Delhi

The UK sales of U2's 2009 release, No Line on the Horizon, were disappointing. The album may have gone multi-platinum, but its predecessors, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and All That You Can't Leave Behind had sold three or four times as many copies. The relatively low revenues were particularly surprising because the album came after a five year hiatus, and generated positive reviews. The problem was the record sounded a lot like U2's other efforts. The band, recognising the danger of repetitiveness, had brought in Arabic elements, but eventually rejected these as not sounding genuine.
Those familiar with Anju Dodiya's paintings might see the relevance of the story to her work. Anju's show at Vadehra Art Gallery, Necklace of Echoes, has all the qualities we admire about her, notably a great facility with watercolours. She toils to individuate each image, never resorting to the 'stock-figure-against-flat-background' so popular among Indian painters. The theme she has chosen, of using necklace-like forms to tell tales of sacrifice, anxiety and violence, is parlayed effectively across the show's dozen or so large format pictures.
She is, in every way, a more accomplished artist than she was when her first solo was mounted back in 1991. After that series of rather angsty self-portraits, Anju took to splitting her self-image in two. This highlighted the playfulness in the compositions by forestalling easy biographical interpretations. The play-acting was elaborated in the next few years through images in which she appeared as everything from a movie star to a sumo wrestler. She took to using charcoal, partly to undercut some of the prettiness in her pictures. In one group show she painted on mattresses, and subsequently used fabric and embroidery extensively. The solo before the current one had her experiment with printmaking.
This brief history should establish that Anju has been concerned about not repeating herself. And yet a sense of deja vu could not be ignored as I walked around her latest offering in Vadehra Art Gallery's Okhla space. The echoes in Necklace of Echoes, intentionally or not, were of the artist's previous work. In her latest paintings she has largely moved away from the split-personlity mode, and produced works that share the dark mood of her very first show.
Anju's necklaces take on a variety of forms, from Angulimala's garland of fingers to the burning tyres used for 'necklacings' in South Africa. For me they represent a wheel that has come full circle. After two decades of concentrating exclusively on self-images, she has exhausted the role-playing mode and now needs to find a form of expression that does not involve the self-portrait.
Whatever she discovers, I hope it will be more fruitful than U2's aborted Moroccan experiment.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Delhi journey

I’ve booked an afternoon flight to Delhi to cheat the fog. Of course, once fog disrupts flights in the morning, they stay disrupted through the day. By the time I get to the airport at 1.30, the 2.30 flight’s been rescheduled for 3.30. That is moved to 4.15, then 5pm. I sit in the overcrowded hall regretting leaving my iPod at home. On one side, a woman with a Xena: Warrior Princess hairdo and IndoBrit accent speaks incessantly to her two companions, who sometimes speak as well, but fail to break Xena’s rhythm. There are bits of quaint Gujarati in the conversation. London via East Africa via Gujarat is my guess, and now back to see relatives who never left.
I move to the CafĂ© Coffee Day having nothing better to do, and sit sipping a dire Latte. The flight, on Jet Connect, leaves the tarmac at exactly 6pm. I’m hungry, so I buy a ghastly chicken junglee sandwich for 150 rupees. The man sitting next to me is very friendly; unfortunately he has foul breath. I try to smile and nod through the mephitic vapours wafting in my direction every time he exhales. On the plus side the baby two rows down doesn’t make a sound the entire trip.
No congestion in Delhi, the pilot said when we took off. By the time we reach the capital, there’s plenty of congestion. We spread aviation fuel fumes in the capital’s air for twenty minutes before being permitted to descend. I take a battered Omni to my hotel. All the Omnis being used as taxis are battered. I wonder how they got battered so fast, there were few on the street the last time I was here.
My hotel’s reasonably clean, and it has wifi. It barely works, but I refresh repeatedly and finally manage to post this.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Forbes on Neville Tuli

It is common knowledge now that Neville Tuli and his arts organisation Osian's are in deep financial trouble. A well-researched story in the current Forbes India follows the less detailed one in Mint a month ago in providing many interesting details about the web of transactions between Osian's, Christie's, Sotheby's, an offshore company run by Tuli called Bregawn Jersey, and Abraaj Capital, a Dubai-based investor in Osian's.
I learned a lot from the Forbes piece, and will write more on the subject when I have time, but for the moment I recommend that people interested in Indian art buy the February 5 issue of Forbes India. It can't be read online.
There are a few mistakes in the article which I might as well correct. First, the article gets the timeline of Tuli's development wrong. He published his book, The Flamed Mosaic, before, not after, establishing a gallery called The Window, which he ran in collaboration with Sangita Kathiwada. The Window was not, as Sangita Kathiwada is quoted as saying, "a non-commercial space". Not only was it commercially run, but I recall the art displayed there being overpriced.
The most glaring error is Forbes' estimate that the art market was worth only Rs.50 crores in 2004. When I worked for a dotcom called Chaitime in 2000, I had estimated the worth of the art market at between 100-150 crores annually. Though I never undertook any such research afterwards, it is reasonable to assume that the market had grown to between 200 and 300 crores by 2004.
Finally, Bregawn Jersey is based on the island of Jersey off the northern coast of France, not in New Jersey, USA.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The first disaster concert

As musicians sign on for a gig to aid Haiti, it's worth thinking back to the event that started it all, the Concert for Bangladesh, organised by George Harrison at the behest of Ravi Shankar, and held on August 1, 1971, at Madison Square Garden, New York. Apart from Harrison, Bob Dylan sang a suite of songs, Eric Clapton played guitar, Ringo Starr drummed, and Ravi Shankar was joined at the start by Ali Akbar Khan on sarod and Alla Rakha on tabla. Genius.
The Indian maestros played a tune called Bangla Dhun composed for the occasion by Ravi Shankar. A recording of the performance can be viewed here. If you want one short encapsulation of the sound of India circa 1971, this is it for my money. Having said that, I'm not knowledgable about music.
There's a hilarious moment about 4 minutes in, when Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan adjust their instruments. As soon as they stop, the crowd bursts into applause, at which point Ravi Shankar says drily, "Thank you, if you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you will enjoy the playing more".

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


I just captured this image of an Aamir Khan interview while flipping channels. We have a split screen, plus four horizontal tickers providing different kinds of updates (the red strip at the top is vacant at the moment), plus the channel logo, plus an animated promotion crossing the screen every few seconds. At the moment it's covering much of Aamir's face.
Soon the main image will look like a slit in a window, the rest of the frame will be taken over by news flashes and ads.

Monday, January 18, 2010

No place like Bollywood

I got talking to a tourist on a train. "What do you plan to do in Bombay?" I asked.
He said he wanted to visit Elephanta and Bollywood.
I said, "Bollywood is not a place, it's a state of mindlessness."

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Salman and Chingis Khan and John (not Khan)

Salman Khan is apparently preparing to play the Mongol chief Chingis Khan (or Genghis Khan, or Changaiz Khan, spell it which way you will). This is what Salman looks like:

At least, this is what he looks like after a hair transplant, hair extensions and some Photoshop work.
We don't know what Chingis-Genghis-Changaiz looked like, there are no contemporary images of him. But from portraits painted a few years after his death, we can accept he looked something like this:

Now you might think Salman doesn't look much like the guy to whom he owes his surname. But then, how much does this actor resemble Chingis-Genghis-Changaiz, who did not even share a surname with the emperor?

John Wayne was cast as Chingis (sick of name extensions, I'm dropping Genghis-Changaiz) in a film titled The Conqueror, produced by Howard Hughes, who saw it as an 'Eastern Western'. The Conqueror, released in 1956, has gone down in history for two reasons. First, it is considered one of the worst cases of miscasting in the history of Hollywood.

Second, the exteriors were shot in Utah, downwind from a US nuclear test site in Nevada. Of the 220 crew members, 91 developed cancer over the next two decades, about three times the proportion of the average American population.

Weirdly enough, Chingis Khan has been, at one point or another, considered Indian as well as Caucasian. The Indian bit came early on. Europeans didn't know much about this country back in the 13th century, but they had a vague understanding that St.Thomas had converted a few heathens here. When Chingis first came to their notice, it was as a warrior kicking the butts of Muslim kings. Roman Catholics, who'd waged long wars for control of the Holy Land, took this as a sign that a Christian priest-king they called Prester John was riding out from the east to retake Jerusalem. They applauded as the Mongols overran West Asian kingdoms, grew a little apprehensive when Russia and East Europe were attacked, and finally concluded: "These guys aren't Christians, they aren't Indians, they're coming to get us, and we're screwed." Luckily for them, the Mongol invasion of Europe was aborted at the gates of Vienna.

As for Chingis's European connections, that's a modern tale, but one no less peculiar. Hitler, you may have heard, was a fan of Chingis Khan. Genocidal rulers being a relatively small and select group, this is not surprising. But fitting Chingis into the Aryan pantheon was tricky. The problem was solved by Heinrich Himmler, who decided that Chingis was in fact descended from people who had fled the island of Atlantis before it sank, and was, therefore, as blue eyed as John Wayne.

As a sidelight, the Mongol invasion of Europe explains why children with Down syndrome used to be called Mongoloid. You may think it was only because of the epicanthic fold of the eyelid, but there was more to it than that. Scientists believed that Down Syndrome sufferers represented genetic atavism (from the Latin at-avus, or like-grandfather); they expressed traits suppressed for centuries. Mongols had raped or otherwise slept with European women during the 13th century invasion, and those traits within Europe's genetic pool occasionally burst to the surface. Children with Down Syndrome were like normal Mongol children, and the impairment of cognitive ability associated with the condition was explained by the fact that Mongols were not as bright as whites. A British doctor, F G Crookshank, published a book in 1924 titled The Mongol in our Midst, which explained that since most Mongols were imbeciles, it was to be expected that Mongols who atavistically appeared in Europe should share that imbecility. The book was generally well reviewed.

As it happens, the nations of North and East Asia, Mongolia included, score exceptionally well in IQ tests. From the information available today, it appears that average IQs in these nations (China, Mongolia, Korea and Japan) are 2 to 5 points higher than those measured in white-majority countries.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Freshly ground pepper for you?

You know those mills that waiters use to grind fresh pepper onto your Caesar salad in upscale restaurants? They seem to be getting bigger, like guns did in Hollywood movies between the sixties and eighties. One specimen we spotted at Olive the other day was so ridiculously large I had to take a picture of it. How is a server supposed to point that thing and get his aim right?

By the way, I did NOT ask the waiter to hold the pepper grinder in that position. He was rather reluctant to pose at all, poor guy. He tried offering the object to other staff, but they hurried off, and he was too polite to refuse my request. Luckily, the image quality is so poor he's barely recognisable.
Olive has a new menu, but some things haven't changed. Like, the food we ordered was good, but not exceptional. That's always been the case. I haven't tasted a memorable dish there, nor an atrocious one. Funny the same middling quality should have been maintained through changes of chefs and proprietorship.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The difference two days can make

Technical analyst Ashwani Gujral on CNBC-TV18, January 11:
"Banking you would actually try to enter because that has been smashed up because of rate hike fears and that has not done as well. You will probably book out of metals and move that money into interest rates sensitive ... Unitech at Rs 80 is a good stock, it could get upto Rs 110... Banking has stopped falling so that is probably an indication that sooner or later you will have an upswing even in banking. Maybe it will start the day the rate hike is announced because all of those stocks have underperformed for a bit so you tend to sell the out performers and in terms of sector rotation get into spaces which have not done so well.”
Ashwani Gujral 11 01 2010

Gujral on CNBC-TV18, January 13:
“Unitech will have great trouble getting pass Rs 96. So, I don’t think interest rate sensitive has the juice to get into them. Autos, banks, realty need to be avoided for the moment."

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


The front page lead in the Hindustan Times this morning:
Tainted generals face heat from the Army
A top army general is likely to face a general court martial while three others are being served show-cause notices for their role in facilitating a dubious land deal near an army base in Sukhna, West Bengal.

The Times of India also leads with the same story, but has a different take:
Gens may get away lightly in scam
Only 1 Faces Court Martial; Mild Rap Likely for Chief’s Aide, Two Others
In a feeble response to one of the biggest scandals to rock the army in recent times, three of the four generals accused in the alleged Sukna land scam, including army chief General Deepak Kapoor’s close aide Lt Gen Avadhesh Prakash, seem to have gotten away lightly.

In the inside pages of the same editions:
Hindustan Times
Amar placates Mulayam, but not his family

Times of India
Mulayam & family try to pacify Amar

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Swaminomics misunderstands Ellora and Dilwara

Within his domain of economics, Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar can be an incisive writer. His column about heritage conservation in today's Times of India is, unfortunately, a farrago of factual errors and misdiagnoses. He tells of his disappointment at finding the paintings of Ajanta and sculptures of Ellora largely eroded, compares these unfavourably with the finely detailed carvings in the Dilwara temples of Mount Abu, and claims that the reason the marble sculptures of Dilwara are pristine is that they are part of living monuments in which things broken are constantly replaced. From the comparison between Ellora and Dilwara, he draws the conclusion that living monuments in general are better preserved than those in the hands of the ASI. Finally, he suggests building new temples near Ellora to supplement the existing site and help keep local artisanal traditions alive.
Here's a paragraph from Anklesaria Aiyar's piece:
Why is Dilwara not eroded and discoloured like Ellora? Because the Dilwara temples are alive and functioning, attracting millions of worshippers. The temples are maintained by religious bodies, not the ASI. Donations from worshippers, plus the cultural force of ancient tradition, enable the religious trusts to hire the best artisans and maintain the highest quality in constantly repairing and replacing old, damaged sections. The replacements are as exquisite as the originals. This keeps alive ancient traditions and skills in art, which have been lost at dead monuments like Ajanta and Ellora.

1. The Dilwara temples have not been constantly renovated. The carvings are pretty much what they were when first completed. When looked at closely, the damage to them becomes visible, a nose missing here, a broken limb there.
2. There are a number of reasons why Dilwara is in a better state of preservation than Ellora. Work on Ellora began five centuries before the Dilwara temples were constructed. Secondly, the art in Ellora and Ajanta is affected by wind, rain and seeping water, wheras the carvings in Dilwara are inside protective structures. Thirdly, Dilwara uses marble, which is a very hard stone. Marble is also valuable, and therefore treated with more care than the rock of Ellora.
3. Many living monuments have gone through extensive restorations, and are not the better for it. The famous Mahavir temple at Osian, for example, has had its old pillars and lintels substituted with replicas produced in a workshop nearby. The new work has none of the exquisite grace of the 'damaged' columns it replaces.
4. Since Ellora consists of rock-cut temples, there is no method of redoing eroded sculptures while retaining the spirit of the place. You can't carve deeper into the side walls because you'll soon punch through into the next cave.
5. Ellora was damaged long before the Archaeological Survey of India was formed, so blaming the ASI for its state of repair is strange.
6. Anybody disappointed with Ellora has no understanding of sculpture. Despite the effects of time, those caves contain the finest examples of Indian sculpture's incredible treatment of mass and volume. There are, of course, sites offering greater delicacy of detail, notably Dilwara and Konark, but this does not detract from the achievement visible at Ellora.
6. Anklesaria Aiyar's argument is part of a trend of thought that believes, 'private enterprise good, government bad'. In the current context, it means living monuments funded by donations are good, protected monuments tended by the Archaeological Survey of India are bad. This is an entirely wrong-headed approach to the issue, and leads to foolish suggestions of the sort at the end of Anklesaria Aiyar's column (build new temples near Ellora!).

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Emma Watson loses a leg

Burberry's latest campaign, shot by Mario Testino and featuring Emma Watson and her brother Alex, is in the news because Hermione's leg appears amputated in one image from the series.
Maybe the photoshopper was channeling Pablo Picasso, who did something similar in The Family of Saltimbanques, an early masterpiece painted in 1905 when he was 24 years old.

The painting, which hangs in Washington's National Gallery of Art, marked Picasso's transition from blue to rose period, and is unusually big for this phase of the artist's career, a time when he could barely afford to buy large canvases. He reworked the composition extensively, changing the postures and expressions of the group of circus performers, and eventually amputated the right leg of the jester, an act that may seem innocuous today, but was radical at the time. It inaugurated an attitude to realism that still resonates over a century later, as demonstrated by the Burberry campaign.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Raj Thackeray wishes you a Happy Muharram

I usually ignore Maharashtra Navnirman Sena posters, but belatedly noticed this one at Shivaji Park last evening. It's in a prime location, about twenty meters from Raj Thackeray's home, so there's little doubt the man has seen it and approved.
Apart from wishing us merry Christmas and a happy new year, the poster also offers Moharram ke Shubhkamnaye (sic). Maybe Hindi speakers and Shia mourners will give the MNS marks for effort and forgive the linguistic and doctrinal errors.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Kingfisher Ultra

My friend Adrian, a beer connoisseur and real ale enthusiast, has posted his list of the ten best brews in the world. I'm not much of a drinker myself, but have recently discovered a beer I love, Kingfisher Ultra.

Those of you who've tasted this new product might be muttering, "Well, if that's your favourite beer, you can't be much of a drinker." I've read a couple of reviews of Kingfisher Ultra, and they haven't been enthusiastic; the beer is sweetish, mild, malty and super-smooth, which happens to be the way I enjoy it.
While I'm at it, let me confess I also like Vanilla Coke, and feel really bad that it tanked in India and was withdrawn soon after launch.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Aamir the hostel boy

In 1984, Amir Hussain made his acting debut in Ketan Mehta's remarkable Holi (he had briefly appeared in two of his uncle Nasir Hussain's films as a child, but Holi was his first proper role). Hussain played a hostelite in a college whose repressive system pushes one student to suicide. Holi was a product of a workshop at the Film and Television Institute of India, and was released around the time Rajkumar Hirani joined the FTII editing course. Twenty-five years on, Hirani has made a film titled 3 Idiots, about hostel students in an institution whose repressive policies drive more than one student to suicide. Twenty-five years on, Amir Hussain, rechristened Aamir Khan when he went mainstream with Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, is still playing an undergraduate.
Aamir, you're a fine actor, and actually pulled off the student feel better than the younger Madhavan and Sharman, your room-mates in 3 Idiots. A combination of the body language you adopted, excellent make-up, digital touching-up (?), and the director's scrupulous avoidance of revealing close-ups allowed you to pass muster. But Aamir, you should have given up playing college boys after 1992's Hum Hain Rahi Pyaar Ke. You were far too old for the role in Dil Chahta Hai, as also in Rang De Basanti, even allowing for the excuse that your character had repeated a couple of years in the latter film. 3 Idiots takes the issue to ridiculous extremes. I suggest you make a resolution never to play a student again; I, for my part, have resolved not to buy tickets for any films in which forty-somethings are cast as teenagers.