Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Anish Kapoor: Better on a second look

The official opening of Anish Kapoor's show at Mehboob Studio last evening drew a large crowd, and that livened up the work considerably. Kapoor's mirror sculptures rely on what is around them. In a massive, mostly vacant room, their effect is muted. When the space fills up, the sculptures teem with interesting reflections.
Performative pieces like Shooting Into a Corner also gain from having a substantial audience; the oohs and aahs as the cannon goes off help create a sense of community among those present.
The wood chips that so distracted me on my first visit have thankfully been removed from under the S-shaped wall, and replaced with discreet stacks of slate-grey squares.
Finally, I think I appreciated the show more this time round because I hankered less for what was absent. I knew what I was going to see -- and what I was not going to see -- when I walked in, and calibrated my expectations accordingly. I'm happy therefore, that I wrote that downbeat first-look piece: those who read it went into the show with relatively low expectations and generally came away happy.
The air conditioning was working perfectly last evening, which also helped. As did the champagne, lobster and shami kababs available in the garden.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Of Football, Potholes and Britishness

My Yahoo! column for the fortnight can be read here. It's about football, powdered eggs, textile mills, John Lennon, and majoritarianism, among other things.

Friday, November 26, 2010

First view of Anish Kapoor's Bombay show

So I saw the Anish Kapoor show at Mehboob Studio last evening, and was a bit underwhelmed. The selection consists of six mirror sculptures and two works in red wax. I had hoped for more varied fare that would give Bombayites a flavour of the artist's output over the years.
The sound stage is very atmospheric, but creates problems in display. The extremely high ceiling reduces the experiential scale of the art, and therefore its effect. The floor is not perfectly level, and so plywood chips have been inserted underneath sculptures to keep their balance right. In one instance -- a sinuous mirror wall that evokes Richard Serra -- this looks really tacky, because the sculpture is thin and the chips protrude from beneath it. As for the shiny wall-hung pieces, I've never been a huge fan of those.
The wax sculptures were by far the best part of the exhibition. But even the excellent Shooting into a Corner, which is bound to be the most popular exhibit, didn't work as well for me at Mehboob Studio as it had at Kapoor's Royal Academy survey. It consists of a cannon that periodically shoots a large plug of red wax onto a wall. The sound of the cannon going off echoes perfectly in the large hall; but the white wall has been purpose built, and extends only a few feet in each direction from the corner towards which the wax is shot. The sense of violation of a space that contributes to the work's impact is undercut by the manifest artificiality of the setting.
It appears the Delhi show might actually work better than the Bombay one, contrary to what I have suggested in my Tehelka piece. If that's the case, I'll be really angry, because Bombay is Kapoor's home town, and this is where he had always planned to have his first extensive exhibition. Kapoor, a savvy businessman as well as a fine artist, doubtless knows the benefits that could accrue from having an exhibition at the NGMA inaugurated by Sonia Gandhi.

Now for the gossip: there were quite a few Bollywood personalities at last evening's preview, as befits an event at Mehboob Studio presented by Louis Vuitton. The males -- Kabir Bedi, Shekhar Kapur, Rahul Bose -- all spent long minutes in front of the artworks, discussing them with companions. The women -- Kangana Ranaut, Mallika Arora (Update: Malaika, not Mallika, thanks Deepanajana) and somebody who apparently was Kareena Kapoor (I was too far away to get a proper look) -- were only interested in being photographed in front of the art and with the artist. I don't blame them: it's impossible to concentrate on art wearing the sort of dresses they were wearing. Ranaut looked gorgeous, but kept tripping over her gown. (Update: It was Karishma Kapoor; no wonder I thought it didn't look much like Kareena)
Securitymen have been placed next to each work, warning viewers off when they are deemed too close. I was thus warned about five times in the two hours I spent at the preview. It got pretty annoying. Plus the air conditioning wasn't functioning well. Luckily, I was wearing a shirt and jeans, the chaps in suits were in bad shape.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, 1

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows ended up being as tedious as the first half of the book from which it is adapted. I wish they'd junked most of those interminable scenes in the tent and concentrated entirely on the Horcruxes, basically made it into an action film instead of a tragi-romance of the kind that fourteen year-old girls seem to love. By which I mean HP7:1 is quite close in mood to the Twilight series. Hermione's even begun to look a bit like Bella, all pale and frail.
I liked the opening a lot though. The melancholy hits you hard right at the start, and the music has a lot to do with it. Nine out of ten Hollywood films use the same soupy sound to tug at heartstrings, but I felt the score of the Deathly Hallows had something profound to it. Maybe I'd change my mind on a second viewing, I'm never confident about my musical judgment anyway.
As soon as the first chase gets under way, one realises the director David Yates is on much firmer footing in emotional scenes than slam-bang ones. That was the case in Order of the Phoenix as well. In Half-Blood Prince, Yates chose a classical pace, and I think that resulted in the most successful of the three Harry Potter films he's directed. Perhaps not coincidentally, it's also by far the best of the last three books in the series.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

My article on Anish Kapoor in Tehelka

Tehelka has published a backgrounder by me about Anish Kapoor in advance of the artist's shows in Delhi and Bombay. It can be read here. Tehelka, as the name suggests, likes sensationalism, and I guess they found my article a bit tame. To compensate, they've picked the most potentially controversial bits for the blurbs, and somewhat misrepresented my words in the intro.
"Girish Shahane traces his decades of evolution and explains why Bombay, and not Delhi, will have the real show", the introduction reads. While I've said the Bombay show was planned first, and will have the larger pieces because of the limitations of the Delhi NGMA's new wing, by no means do I believe there's a 'real show' and a 'false show' involved. I suspect the Bombay show will be more spectacular because of the scale allowed by the venue, but there will be plenty of interest in the Delhi display as well. Anish Kapoor isn't going to send second rate work for an exhibition in India's premier museum of modern art.
I also can't understand the meaning of the headline, 'His unsunny passage to India'.

Update: After seeing the exhibition in Delhi, I realised my sources provided me with a very wrong impression about the NGMA show. Mea culpa: the article is entirely misleading about the Delhi segment's content and quality.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A matter of conviction

One problem with India's political and legal systems is that no top leader is ever convicted.
One problem with Pakistan's political and legal systems is that all top leaders are convicted.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Diplomat Pudding

My Yahoo column for this fortnight can be accessed here.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Diesel, Benz and Tata

I travelled to he burbs yesterday after a break and saw two new shops had opened on the Bandra - Juhu stretch, accompanied by dozens of placards marking the surrounding territory. Diesel at Juhu has gone the whole hog with its 'Stupid' campaign. The store itself has large letters stencilled on its glass front screaming 'In Stupid We Trust'. I don't blame them, only somebody stupid would buy that stuff at those prices.
Täshi is a new shoe store run by a wing of the Tata group. Täshi supposedly means 'auspicious' in Tibetan; or at least 'Tashi' means auspicious. Little did Reuben and Rose Mattus know, when they founded Häagen-Dazs in the Bronx, that they'd kick of a long and disturbing trend in faux-European umlauting.
I'm not going to explore Täshi anytime soon. My experience with DTH has put me off the Tata brand. Besides, their Nanos aren't doing too well either. Tata Motors has offered a free upgrade (which they insist is not a recall) because the cars have a bad habit of catching fire.

This might be Ratan Tata's shot at automotive history. Karl Benz developed the internal combustion engine for motor cars. Tata has, apparently, developed a spontaneous combustion engine.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

An accountability law

The MMRDA has revoked the Adarsh society's occupation certificate, and the society has replied that it was built after obtaining all required permissions, and will go to court against the revocation. The episode follows a common pattern: permits are provided by corrupt officials in contravention of norms; at some point, the issue becomes public knowledge thanks to activists and investigative reporters; then, the administration reverses the permission with a stroke of the pen, harming a number of people who were not part of any underhand deals.
I recall a few years ago, most taxis in the city had switched to horrid smoke-spewing three cylinder engines; after a PIL, the administration decided all these retrofitted engines were illegal and would have to be junked. Many taxi drivers who had followed a trend presuming it was legal were saddled with unbearable costs. The permits they had received were suddenly useless. The people who issued those permits suffered no adverse consequences.
Should there not be an accountability mechanism in place for such incidents? Perhaps we need a law stating that permits once given cannot be cancelled UNLESS action is taken against officials responsible for handing out those permissions in the first place. And the action against bureaucrats can't be mere suspension, for many of the culprits retire to lives of luxury before their misdeeds come to light.
If there are any lawyers reading this, I'd like to know if it's theoretically possible to develop a provision of this sort. Could we have a requirement, for example, that an FIR be filed simultaneously with any such revocation of permit?

Friday, November 5, 2010

More on Defence land

A Ministry of Defence report has reportedly criticised the lack of transparency in utilisation of defence land. The armed forces own 17 lakh acres across India, of which just 2 lakh acres is being used by 62 cantonments.
One of the arguments against my proposition that the military shift away from densely populated zones was that land acquisition is a huge obstacle. Well, it appears the forces have more than enough land of their own. If they need to acquire more, they can do so through internal resource generation. The price of unutilised defence land is estimated at 20 trillion rupees, which is ten times the current annual budget.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

What's the payment, dude?

In the long period I've been a freelancer, I've noticed a striking difference between Indian and foreign publications. When chaps from abroad ask me to write, they always provide the basic information I need to make up my mind. By basic information I'm speaking of the subject, the word length, the deadline and the payment. Indian editors, on the other hand, invariably act coy about money. I can't recall a single commissioning editor who provided me with all important details in the initial approach. Recently, I've written for Take On Art magazine and Outlook Traveller; have accepted assignments from Caravan and Tehelka; and rejected proposals from three or four other publications. In every single case, it was left up to me to ask what I was going to be paid.
The reluctance to discuss fees stems, I suppose, from the fact that most magazines and newspapers these days pay very poorly. Still, since the issue's going to come up at some point, why not just get it over with right at the start?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Siachen, Adarsh, patriotism and security

I've got lots of negative feedback for the Yahoo! column in which I suggested that military bases should gradually move out of big cities. The military is treated like a holy cow in India, and this results in tabooing logic in favour of national pride (some comments to my previous post use sound rational arguments, but many that I have junked simply question my patriotism).
The conflict at the Siachen glacier is a good example of how patriotic thinking works. Thousands of Indian soldiers are posted in rotation on the highest battlefield in the world. They are there because of a botched preemptive strike the Indian army initiated back in 1984, resulting in a standoff in an uninhabitable zone of no strategic value. The cost in human lives as well as budgetary outlay has been staggering. Some 2000 Indian soldiers died in the first 13 years of the stalemate, there are no figures of how many more have perished in the 13 years since, but a total figure of around 3000 is probably accurate. Most of these deaths are due to harsh conditions, in which temperatures regularly dip to -60 degrees C. And yet there is no will to solve the Siachen issue through dialogue, no public pressure to bring these soldiers back. Far from suggesting a solution needs to be found, we celebrate the army's sacrifices in film, song and advertising.
Consider, now, the issue of the Adarsh Housing society. Let's assume that everything was done according to the book, and the flats were given over to war veterans and Kargil widows. These apartments are worth some 80 million rupees each, nearly 2 million dollars. They are sold at 10 percent of their market value to people living on a monthly income of some 20,000 rupees, or 500 dollars. The fact is that, in ordinary circumstances, these veterans and widows would not be able to afford even the 80 lakhs they are charged. They buy the homes because they're great investments. As soon as they can, they sell the flats to civilians and buy themselves comfortable homes in the north of the city which cost half the market price of the Adarsh flats. They are left with some 30 million to put in fixed deposits at 10% interest, giving them 3 million rupees a year to live off, ten times what they are getting by way of pensions. These are back of the envelope calculations, but this sort of thing has played out in every housing scheme where defence personnel have been granted housing at subsidised rates. Within a few years, these complexes come to be occupied by civvies.
Now, I'm not questioning whether or not these particular veterans and widows deserve the largesse. Let's presume they do. The fact remains that Adarsh would have housed civilians through sub-letting or direct sale within a few years of the keys of flats being handed over. The security risk the Navy is protesting about, in other words, exists independent of the corruption scandal. That' an example of the pressure a city like Bombay places on the military.
The idea that I'm asking the armed forces to make sacrifices in favour of a builders' lobby is entirely wrong. My argument is that it might be beneficial even from the military's perspective to gradually vacate land in densely populated cities like Bombay, Poona and Bangalore. The military's presence spurs urban development upto a point, then becomes a neutral factor, before eventually turning into a net impediment. It is equally true that urban development helps the military upto a point by providing necessary services, but eventually becomes an impediment to optimal functioning.
Cities grew as hubs of manufacturing, but many of the largest metropolises now host few working factories. Armies first flourished in forts, but now have no need for such structures. The Indian army recently moved out of Delhi fort, and I hope they will soon do the same in Agra fort, enhancing the city's heritage tourism potential. All I'm suggesting is that a similar flexibility be shown in considering the future of camps in metropolises. Better to draft a twenty year plan now than to have a decision forced on you twenty years down the line.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Armies and Cities

My column on Yahoo! this time asks whether military establishments should move out of metropolises. Read it here.