Friday, April 30, 2010

Caravaggio, Maharashtra Day

I envy my friend DS who is in Rome right now, because she's seen a Caravaggio exhibition that I will miss. He's one of my three favourite painters; and though I've seen most of the canvases in the exhibition at different times and places, it would be fabulous to view them all together. Ah, well, the show will probably travel to other destinations and I hope to catch it in one of those.
Caravaggio died in July 1610, which means it is 400 years since his demise. The Scuderia del Quirinale in Rome obviously put this show together with the anniversary in mind. I can only guess how long it took to gather the paintings necessary to make a worthwhile display. Caravaggios are pretty hard to come by, and museums that have one or two (outside of Rome it's hardly ever more than two), part with these prizes very reluctantly. I'd say the idea was put in motion about two years ago at least.
Which brings me to the 50th anniversary of Maharashtra, which is being celebrated tomorrow. The Congress - NCP government which rules the state, and the Shiv Sena which rules Bombay's Municipal Corporation, were obviously not thinking of this occasion back in 2008, when prep should have begun. I got a call two months ago asking me to contribute to a publication commemorating the anniversary. I'd have refused anyway, since I avoid any connection with government stuff where possible, but I was gobsmacked that they were beginning to commission articles in March 2010. Near my home in Shivaji Park, the Sena is putting up some kind of mural depicting, what else, Shivaji's victories. The path around the park is dug up for the latest bout of beautification, guaranteed, like previous ones, to leave the place uglier. Nothing's ready in time, even though the things they're doing require only a few weeks work.
Forget Caravaggio, there are people who buy tickets for their next vacation a year in advance, despite the possibility of volcanic ash or protests by Red Shirts throwing their schedule out of gear. The anniversary of Maharashtra's founding was not going to shift because of inclement weather, so why not plan ahead?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Sahara clone army game

Please click on the photograph to view an enlarged version. Then try and spot which figure is repeated most often. Is it the guy in the Che Guevara T-shirt? The chap wearing the cap wrong way round? Could it be the woman in the checked pink shirt? And will the Warriors be able to conquer the world with this clone army?

Monday, April 26, 2010

St.Benjamin and I

If the world of critical theory venerates one secular saint, it is Walter Benjamin (1892 - 1940), a Jewish-German philosopher who grew famous in Anglophone countries following the publication in 1968 of a volume of translated prose edited by Hannah Arendt. The book, Illuminations, contains an essay titled The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction which is probably the single most influential composition within the domain of the visual arts (a text of the English version is available here). I read this essay first in my teens, and it became an important touchstone for my M.Phil. thesis about the European avant-garde's relationship with technology. When my German grew sufficiently fluent, Benjamin's essay was among the first pieces of literature I read in the original, along with Kafka's The Trial. Unfortunately, those language skills have atrophied through disuse.
Over time, I have grown increasingly suspicious of the merit of Benjamin's argument, and come to believe its influence today is mostly pernicious. Last August, at a seminar coinciding with the Art Summit in Delhi, I outlined why I felt the way I did. An expanded version of that talk has recently been published as the lead essay in the latest issue of Art India magazine. It is now available online, and those interested in a 4000 word critique of vanguardism might want to take a peek here.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Saffronart expands into property sales

The first time I read the Christie's magazine I was impressed by the art on offer, but even more so by the properties listed for sale: Tuscan villas, Bavarian mansions, French vineyards, English country homes, some of them centuries old. It was such a refreshing change from the Indian scenario, which consisted mainly of ugly apartments exchanging hands in shadowy transactions.
I'm very glad, therefore, that Saffronart is expanding its portfolio to include high-end properties. The auction house has already established a foothold in jewelery sales, and this latest diversification should strengthen it further.
Minal and Dinesh Vazirani have built Saffronart with a professionalism and passion that kept it going through the dotcom bust as well as the recent financial meltdown. I wish them all the best with their latest venture. And if any readers of this blog have a million dollars lying around, you might consider acquiring the properties shown here.
Well, OK, a million bucks will only get you the cheapest ones.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Cruellest Month

With temperatures reaching 45 degrees Celsius up north, Facebook updates have begun quoting the opening line of T.S.Eliot's The Waste Land: April is the cruellest month.

In the poem, the line is meant ironically. It is spoken from the point of view of those who feel threatened by the awakening of spring, who prefer winter's 'forgetful snow'.

APRIL is the cruellest month,
Lilacs out of the dead land,
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

A little life with dried tubers.

Eliot plays off the prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, with its evocation of the sweetness of spring that inspires people to leave their homes for pilgrimages. Here are the opening lines of the Prologue (in somewhat modernised spelling, with difficult words explained in brackets):

When that April with his showers soote (sweet)
The drought of March hath pierced to the root
And bathed every vein (rootlet) in such liquor (liquid)
Of which virtúe engendered is the flower;
When Zephyrus (West Wind) eke (also) with his sweete breath
Inspired hath in every holt and heath (grove & field)
The tender croppes, and the younge sun (spring sun)
Hath in the Ram (Aries) his halfe course y-run,
And smalle fowles maken melody
That sleepen (who sleep) all the night with open eye
[So pricketh them Natúre in their couráges]
, (spurs / spirits)
Then longen folk to go on pilgrimáges,

All this is a far cry from the oven-like plains of North India. Another misunderstood phrase frequently used in these months is 'Indian Summer'. An Indian Summer has nothing to do with India. It refers to a sudden warming of weather that is occasionally witnessed in parts of North America in October, confounding the expectations of those who assume temperatures will keep dropping through autumn. The Indians in question are Native Americans, not desis.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The IPL unravels

King Pyrrhus, after defeating the Romans at Heraclea in 280 BC, is supposed to have said, "If we are victorious in one more battle, we shall be utterly ruined". Lalit Modi is now tasting the bitter fruit of his Pyrrhic victory over Shashi Tharoor. It may be that he had no choice but to fight. Having failed to stage manage the supposedly open auction process, he took aim at the winning Kochi team's weakest link, the relationship between Shashi Tharoor and Sunanda Pushkar, in order to make good his alleged promise to the Adani group which had failed to gain a franchise.
By revealing the names of the Kochi group's partners and their stakes, he created a demand for more openness about IPL finances in general. That kind of scrutiny is the last thing any of the franchisees want, and the Board of Control for Cricket in India is equally reluctant to face it. I recall, when Sharad Pawar became head of the BCCI, he promised to put an end to Jagmohan Dalmiya's legacy by bringing transparency to the Board's functioning. He spoke, if I remember right, of hiring McKinsey to create a vision of the future of Indian cricket, and to place that report online. The BCCI, one of the richest sports bodies in the world, has a barely working website to this day. The McKinsey report, if it was commissioned and prepared, has been quietly buried.
A month ago I wrote of the beginning of the end of the IPL, and readers said it was a premature judgment. That it might have been, but the point was that if huge amounts of money was being paid for franchises, with no possible way for the investors to turn a profit, we were entering really dangerous territory. I recommended that existing investors should exit immediately, because they would never get such high valuations again, and I believe I will be proven right.

Hypnotised by the Tharoor - Modi battle, the media underplayed the bombs that went off in Bangalore just before one of the matches. It was obviously a massive security lapse, but I don't see any investigation of who was to blame. Nobody died, so we think of it as a minor incident. But what if a small explosive went off during a game? I've been to enough such events to know that there's a stampede waiting to happen at one of them. There's absolutely no system in place for an orderly evacuation, and any panic will doubtless cost dozens of lives. So now they've moved the semis to the 'home ground' of the Deccan Chargers, who weren't allowed to play in Hyderabad because, let me see, Lalit Modi decided bombs might go off there.
This IPL started with the Pakistani player fiasco (so much for open bidding), moved to the Kochi franchise scandal, and developed into a security disaster. And yet, every day, commentators laud Modi for running the IPL smoothly. Only in India.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Body and Soul

The first public lecture I ever gave involved a lot of Picasso. At one point in the talk, I conveyed what a materialist the Spanish painter was through an example from his teenage years. He had drawn the Holy Family resting during their escape to Egypt, and sketched a cloudy mass above. A friend asked him if it represented the Holy Spirit. Picasso replied, "Holy Spirit! It's a date palm. They needed to eat something, didn't they?"
I'd put the anecdote in to amuse those in the audience who might've been getting bored by that point, but the story had a strange effect. The round of questions and comments that commenced 30 minutes later went something like this:
"Do you really think Picasso had no spiritual side?"
"Don't you think all art is spiritual?"
"Who, according to you, would be a spiritual modern painter?"
"Would you classify De Kooning as spiritual?"
Then a succession of artist names with the spirit question appended.

Yesterday's lecture was a bit of deja vu. Speaking of masculinity, I stuck exclusively to issues concerning the male body. The body in painting, the body in advertising, the body on the sports field, body body body.

The first question was, "Actually, according to science, we are all women, since we all have X chromosomes, right? So those who say Indians are less masculine are only saying we are closer to our genes and to spirituality."
I saw no way I could possibly respond to this, so I asked for the next comment, which was:
"With the incursion of Islam, we have the introduction of the gendered soul into the sub-continent, whereas Indic tradition has no conception of the soul as gendered; this shift creates a crisis of masculinity."
I said I had no idea the soul was gendered in Islam.
There followed a discussion about Christian souls, the number of Quranic heavens and what they signified, the gender of Brahman in the Upanishads and so on.
Next time I think I'll clarify in advance, "Please don't ask me about souls or spirituality. Even when I show an image of the Buddha, I'm only interested in his body".

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Hurt Locker

There's a moment near the end of the Lord of the Rings -- it goes by so quickly, maybe I imagined it -- in which the hobbits, back in the shire and celebrating their victory, exchange a look that says, "The shire's normal again, we've got what we fought for, but, having battled the armies of Sauron heroically, can we ever be content in our small, leafy idyll?"
The central character of The Hurt Locker, which I finally got to see two days ago, is addicted to the extremity of war. He's every American kid's hero: a cowboy, an astronaut, a gunslinger, a life-saver, all rolled into one. He's also a profoundly disturbed individual. He volunteers for a bomb disposal unit and, when his rotation's done after he's disarmed some 900 improvised explosives, and cheated death a dozen times, he can't stand the peace of home -- a supermarket packed with goods, a suburban home, the American equivalent for the Shire of the Lord of the Rings -- and volunteers for another round of duty.
I have masculinity on my mind, because I'm due to lecture on the subject tomorrow, and that's the prism through which I viewed the Hurt Locker. One critic has suggested that the film, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, "shakes up traditional concepts of what men are and how they behave." The very opposite is true. The movie functions like an ode to masculinity. The same critic went on to write, "[Bigelow's] deeper interest lies in men's tribal rites and rituals; their fears, posturings and warrior codes; their feelings about sex and fatherhood; their conflicted loyalties and clashing ideas of what leadership and heroism mean. Like one of her inspirations, the ultra-bloody Sam Peckinpah, Bigelow is intimately concerned with the bonds that connect men with each other, and the values that connect them with themselves." This is exactly right, but I don't see how it shakes up any traditional notions of masculinity. What the film does is focus on these issues so relentlessly, they appear as phenomena worthy of dispassionate examination. A two-paced development is thus set up: an intense close-up view of men in combat which is simultaneously a clinical scrutiny of masculine rites of passage. The war, devoid of political context, becomes every war, any war, just as the protagonist becomes Everyman.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

David Headley

The way the Indian media have covered the David Headley case, it would appear the US FBI betrayed us by unravelling a major strand of the November 2008 attack plot, arresting the man behind it, getting him to plead guilty and reveal details of the plan. This column by Barkha Dutt is typical of the general Indian reaction. With Manmohan Singh in the US for the nuclear summit, we are mainly concerned not about the future security of the world, but about whether the US will grant Indian investigators access to Headley.
Hey, how about properly interrogating people we arrest in our own country, rather than subject them to useless 'brain mapping' and 'narcoanalysis' tests? How about creating an intelligence network that brings to justice perpetrators of dozens of terrorist acts that have gone unpunished in this nation? How about training our police and paramilitary forces so they don't end up being trapped and massacred during an operation in which they were supposedly the hunters?
We have decided that Headley got a cushy deal before he's even been sentenced, and that the FBI is hand in glove with its 'rogue agent'. If that is indeed the case, what's the point of Indians asking him questions? Surely his handlers will have told him what to say.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

El Clásico

On May 2 last year, Jabeen and I were waiting at Esfahan's bus terminal for our overnight coach to Tehran. On a snowy television set, a maulana droned a sermon watched by two or three pious travellers but ignored by the majority in the room. Suddenly the picture changed to a football match, and the excited commentary got everyone's attention. Once people saw FC Barcelona were playing Real Madrid, they gravitated to the TV, and soon the seats in front of the screen were all taken. Madrid went ahead to cheers from some of the viewers, then Henry scored for Barca to even greater applause, and Puyol followed up with a goal immediately after. When the bus came in a few minutes later, the rapt audience was reluctant to board. Messi put in a third goal just as we exited the terminal, and a home defeat seemed certain for Madrid.
That match ended 6-2 in Barcelona's favour, and pretty much decided last year's winners. El Clásico returns today as Barcelona travel to the Bernabeu, and the two Spanish footballing monsters are closer than ever in the league. After 30 games, they are tied on 77 points, and Madrid leads the standings by virtue of the slimmest of goal differences: 57 to Barca's 56. To get an impression of how far ahead of their other opponents these two are, consider that third placed Valencia are over 20 points behind; and Sevilla, in fourth, are on 48 points, virtually 30 points adrift of the league leaders.
Here's the bummer: I will not get to watch the match tonight because no Indian satellite channel has shelled out the million dollar asking prize for La Liga telecast rights. It's a travesty, really. I mean, what's a million dollars for networks like Star Sports? For years, one could tune to Ten Sports or ESPN around midnight and find Zidane or Eto'o or Ronaldinho working their magic. These days I take for granted that any event in any sport I want to watch will be streaming on one of the eight or nine sports channels to which I subscribe. Hamilton, Federer, Kobe, Tiger, they're all out there. But Messi and Christiano Ronaldo are not. Makes me wish I was in Iran again.
When I wake, I'll go to YouTube and watch the goals. So, go Barca, teach the fat cats at Real that money isn't everything.
UPDATE: They did it, 2-0, helped by two brilliant passes by Xavi. The first came from a one-two with Messi. Two Barcelona forwards were offside, and so Real's defenders thought they had everything under control. But they didn't catch the tiny guy whizzing by to chest the ball down and score with his weaker right foot. The second came when Madrid were pushing forward to equalise and got caught on the break.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Brit vote

A charismatic politician leading a party to three general election victories in a row, a feat considered impossible, before resigning without losing a ballot. Replaced by a pallid former Chancellor of the Exchequer who faces a recession and a resurgent opposition. The ruling party seemingly headed for defeat, but poll numbers converging as election day approaches. It feels like 1992 all over again.

At that time, John Major was ridiculed for giving speeches standing on a soapbox; Neil Kinnock celebrated victory too early, rock-star style; Rupert Murdoch pulled out all stops to prevent a Labour victory; and, when the votes were in and the counting began, and the BBC displayed a graphic estimating who would occupy the Prime Minister's chair for the next five years, the door to 10 Downing Street opened to reveal the Tory leader still in place.

I doubt history will repeat itself in 2010. The gap between Labour and the Tories appears too wide to bridge. Many now consider a hung parliament the most likely outcome, but many British voters who back the Liberal Democrats when answering pollsters choose one of the two big parties in actual voting. So, the question is, how many Lib Dems can Gordon Brown swing between now and May 6?
My feeling is the Tories will scrape through, mainly because their leader, David Cameron, is more like Tony Blair than like Neil Kinnock. Any dissenters?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Wine whine

I've been largely cut off from the Web these past days because MTNL developed one of its regular glitches. My connection's just been restored, and I find myself with a stack of posts which seem outdated. Like, does anybody want to read about Love, Sex Aur Dhokha anymore?

So let me skip to something current. The Maharashtra government has announced a plan to produce wine made from wild berries. The water resources minister Ajit Pawar promised to fund the venture if it is found feasible. The question arises: what is the government's definition of feasibility? Almost anything is feasible if you are willing to subsidise it enough.
I ask because Ajit Pawar also said, in the same breath, that "in Nashik, where making wine from grapes is huge business, the industry is making losses with barrels of wine remaining unsold in wineries". He's not exaggerating: one of the major vintners in the state has been declared insolvent and ordered to wind up is operations. If grape wine can't make the cut, what are the chances that fermented wildberries will turn a profit?
The reason why wineries are in trouble is because of absurdly high taxes levied by, guess who, the state government. In other words, the government subsidises the production of wine in a number of ways, including direct payments, and then ensures the product will not succeed by taxing it to death. Anybody who has tasted Indian wine knows that it is, for the most part, of middling quality, with some seriously bad plonk thrown in. I wouldn't mind paying 150 or 200 rupees a bottle for this quality of liquor, but the price at the store is usually twice that or more. If you go to a restaurant, you get jabbed by the substantial liquor license fee being passed on, and then hit by a 25% VAT haymaker. If the booze doesn't get you tipsy, the bill is sure to leave you reeling.
The excise department behaves like the erstwhile Department of Prohibition. In recent months, beer sales in Bombay have gone up substantially because of the entry of new brands, the availability of pint bottles, and the belief that beer will beat the breathalyser. Revenues from the brew rose by almost 100%, to 700 crore rupees in the last financial year. The reaction? The Excise department raised the duty on beer by almost 25%, supposedly as a revenue boosting measure. Hello, guys, your revenues have been boosted already, what you've gone and done is guaranteed to dampen them. Leaving the government with less money to throw away on wildberry wine.