Sunday, January 29, 2012

The best books on Bombay

Back in the late 1980s, I'd be stumped when asked to recommend one book that would provide an insight into Bombay's present and past. I usually settled for Gillian Tindall's City of Gold, a competent though workmanlike history. In the mid-1990s, Sharada Dwivedi and Rahul Mehrotra produced their breakthrough volume, Bombay: The Cities Within, and recommendations became easier. The quintessential Bombay book of the noughties for most people was Suketu Mehta's Maximum City, but I preferred to gift Arun Kolatkar's Kala Ghoda Poems.
Now Katherine Boo has written a must-read book about the city, and I use the phrase 'must-read' very sparingly. The book is titled Behind the Beautiful Forevers, and you can read my review of it in Caravan magazine here.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Manufacturing controversy, courtesy Hindustan Times

I'm involved with The Skoda Prize Show, currently on view at the Lalit Kala Akademi. One of the three artists nominated this year, Bangalore's Navin Thomas, has a work on display that uses live pigeons. They sit in a room that's sixteen feet by twelve feet, and are being fed bird food bought from Khan Market. The room's walls are made from cotton mesh that allows fresh air in. The artwork involves sound, white noise emitted by transistors inside the room. At the opening, a few viewers were disturbed by the use of live animals, and the uncomfortably high sound level. Openings are noisy affairs. We have four other pieces in the show which use sound, and the artists who created them wanted their work to be audible to the large number of viewers who came for the inaugural function. In order for Navin's transistors to be heard above the noise of neighbouring works, he turned the sound up higher than it had been in his solo show at Bangalore's GallerySKE, which I saw a year and a half ago.
Once the opening was over, we put all videos on headphones, because henceforth there would rarely be more than two or three people wanting to see a given video at the same time. Navin then turned the volume inside the bird room down to a level perfectly comfortable to human ears.
Even during the two and a half hours of the opening, however, there was no indication whatsoever that the pigeons were in any discomfort. The door to the room was open for minutes on end, and none of the pigeons bothered to hop out. They sat on Navin's copper-wire aerials or pecked at their Khan Market food. Many viewers, though, were less interested in observing the pigeons' behaviour than to drawing conclusions based on anthropocentric assumptions.
One of these, clearly, was Isha Manchanda of Hindustan Times. She's published a piece in today's paper headlined 'Artiste in soup for confining pigeons'. The truth is that Navin Thomas (who is an 'artist' not an 'artiste') is not in any soup, but Isha Manchanda clearly wants him to be in one. I spoke to her and it was evident she's an extremist who will not listen to reason: the animal-rights equivalent of those wanting to persecute Salman Rushdie and M F Husain.
Manchanda has interviewed Navin, and four (count 'em) animal rights activists. None of these activists has seen the way the birds are actually exhibited, but that has never stopped ideologues from drawing conclusions. There is one point made in the article that might have got the Skoda Prize Show in a spot of bother. This is the assertion by members of the Animal Welfare Board that permission from the Board was required before we could exhibit Navin's birds. Manchanda, however, has substituted a quote from a person who knows nothing about the show for basic research. I just looked at the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, and scrutinised with care the section which deals with exhibition of animals. The relevant paragraph (Chapter V, Clause 21) states: “Exhibit” and “train” defined : In this Chapter, " exhibit" means exhibit or any entertainment to which the public are admitted through sale of tickets, and "train" means train for the purpose of any such exhibition, and the expressions "exhibitor" and "trainer" have respectively the corresponding meanings."
The Skoda Prize Show does not fall into the category of 'exhibit' as defined by the Act. There are no tickets sold, it is not a show mounted for profit in the manner of, say, a circus. It is free to view in a public gallery. Ergo we did not and do not need any permission from the Animal Welfare Board.
Hopefully, this manufactured controversy will end right here, viewers will continue to appreciate the many excellent works on view at Lalit Kala Akademi, and the Hindustan Times will pull up its staff for bad research and dreadful language skills (an 'artiste' is , 'A skilled public performer or entertainer, especially a singer or dancer' ).

Friday, January 27, 2012

My Business Standard article on the India Art Fair

For some reason I agreed to write a piece on the India Art Fair right in the middle of a frenzied week of getting the Skoda Prize show ready at the Lalit Kala Akademi, and trying to catch a bunch of interesting exhibitions, talks and performances. The article is on the Business Standard website already, and I've taken the opportunity to boast yet again about my prescience in predicting the crash and its medium term consequences for the Indian art market.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Otolith group's Nervus Rerum

The clock doesn't strike.
I was reminded of this stage direction from an Ionesco play while listening to Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar speak about their film Nervus Rerum. The 32 minute film, set in Jenin refugee camp, was screened at Jnanapravaha yesterday, and was followed by a discussion between the duo, who call themselves the Otolith Group, and the documentary film-maker Anand Patwardhan, whose work Otolith admire, but who, if his questioning last evening is any indication, does not reciprocate with equal ardour.
Otolith based the Jenin film on the idea, not startlingly original but powerful nonetheless, that even sympathetic representations of the Palestinian struggle can do as much harm as good by contributing to a glut of images which obscures rather than reveals. Instead of attempting a transparent flow of information, then, they sought a kind of opacity, a refusal to explain. They chose to "turn their back on power" rather than "speak truth to power".
It's a well-constructed film: the camera, a Steadicam, travels the lanes of Jenin, encountering many dead-ends, and wanders into small homes to find people looking wistfully out of windows. Texts from Jean Genet and Fernando Pessoa, voiced by Anjalika Sagar, overlay the shots, rarely connecting with the footage in a direct fashion. The film succeeds in making carefully plotted shots look improvisatory. What gives it away is not only our suspicion that a film-making crew couldn't just barge into peoples' homes without permission, but the fact that a couple of those looking wistfully out of windows are very bad, self-conscious actors. While the images do not communicate information in the fashion of television programmes, there's a coherence to them which crystalises into a fairly straight-forward message: Jenin is a prison; there's little to do, and few jobs to be had.
It's darned difficult to create opaque images: meaning has a propensity to shine through. It is even more difficult to create images that contrast in such a manner with the history of previous image-making that they stimulate viewers to reflect upon that history. It's like trying to bring to life a stage direction saying, The clock does not strike. According to the Tate museum's website, Nervus Rerum, "powerfully contributes to The Otolith Group's research into the conditions under which histories become visible." I believe it succeeds only in producing a new representation of Jenin that is not all that different from a number of previous representations of contested sites crafted by experimental film-makers. The film's metacritical impulse can only be communicated by Otolith members themselves, in conversations after the film.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Vodafone and Airtel: final frontier

Imagine this: you have a complaint and approach a judge. A flunky tells you there's no way to meet the judge, and there’s nothing that can be done about your complaint. You approach a higher bench. The same flunky appears, states once more you can’t see any judge, and refuses to answer questions related to your complaint. Sounds a bit Kafkaesque, right?

Now let’s say the flunky is working for precisely the company that you want to complain against. The system is not merely broken, but perverse.

Well, that’s exactly how Vodafone’s customer care operates. The story so far: Vodafone wrongly took 1000 rupees from me (background here). I discovered its customer care line does not allow individuals to make complaints or to talk directly to a human being.

After failing with the first rank of customer care (details here), I wrote to the Nodal office. I received a pro forma response from Parmesh Giri ‘on behalf of the Nodal officer’:

We wish to reiterate that since Rs.1000 is not a talk time recharge offer but an integrated voice and data offer which has been activated on 27/11/11 hence we are unable to credit the amount of Rs.907 in your account.

Mr. Shahane, we further confirm that the details about offers/talk time are being updated on the Vodafone website however we regret to inform that we are unable to display the details on other bank websites.

Mr. Shahane, we request you to kindly refer the below mentioned link of the website for details recharge voucher for your reference:

Happy to help,

I pointed out the website link he had provided said nothing about ATM recharges, only about online recharges. Also, Vodafone didn’t need to display any details on bank websites, it could just send a mass email to customers saying the 1000 rupee recharge would now come bundled with a 3G data plan. I got no response.

So I wrote to the Appellate authority. The same Parmesh Giri responded with exactly the same message on behalf of the ‘Appellate authority’. Vodafone are so brazen, they don’t even pretend to separate their ‘nodal’ and ‘appellate’ departments.

So I’ve reached the end of the line with Vodafone. I thought of going to the consumer court, but the requirements to lodge a complaint are formidable. Unless one is cheated out of many thousands of rupees, it makes no sense. So Vodafone can keep tricking consumers with impunity.

Meanwhile, Airtel has proven equally bad in its own right. Not only have a couple of friends reported similar episodes of being cheated, a couple of weeks ago all Airtel lines went down in Bombay, and the company failed to put even a basic ticker on its website mentioning the problem and apologising for the inconvenience. I’m going to try Tata DoCoMo; maybe the Parsi – Japanese combination has resulted in minimum ethical standards being maintained.