Saturday, March 31, 2012

Logic, Arundhati Roy style

The Booker Group owned most of the sugar industry in British Guiana before it became the independent nation of Guyana. The Booker Group is well known as a sponsor (now replaced by the Man Group) of the Booker Prize, which Arundhati Roy accepted in 1997. The Booker Group ruthlessly exploited indentured labourers in the 19th century, which makes Arundhati Roy and all winners of the Booker Prize complicit in that exploitation, and probably in the Caribbean slave trade as well.
If you like syllogistic reasoning of this kind, mixed with non-sequiturs, apples-and-oranges comparisons, factual errors and conspiracy theories, you'll love the 10,700 odd words of Arundhati Roy's Capitalism: A Ghost Story, which I got round to reading today.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Conversations: Subodh Gupta

A profile of Subodh Gupta, published in early 2007.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Skyless night

The layers of dirty brown air standing over Indian cities are visible anytime one takes a domestic flight, but what I witnessed yesterday was something absurd. Peering out of a window after the seat belt sign flashed on, I couldn’t see a thing, no Baha’i temple, no long canal, no fields or towers. It was the same minutes later, when, having brought the plane down a few thousand feet and aligned it with the runway, the captain asked flight attendants to take seats for landing. This was no billowy white fog, nor even the smog that is thick on the ground on winter mornings. It was just dirty air. I looked at my watch when I discerned a road, and the wheels touched ground exactly 75 seconds after that moment. Till then we’d been flying blind, aided solely by navigational instruments. I walked off the plane at 1pm; the day was warm, 30 degrees Celsius. Looking up, I thought of a question I’d struggled with as a child: What exactly is the sky? Most days, we see clouds streaking the blue, and the sun, millions of miles distant; and at night we look up at stars that are light years away. From the tarmac at Delhi airport, all I saw was an even brown diffusing the sun’s rays into a glare uncomfortable to the naked eye. The sun itself was entirely occluded. Whatever the sky might be, it isn’t what was visible over Delhi yesterday.
A skyless night followed the skyless day. The moon, needless to say, was invisible and ineffectual. The city's lights created what looked like a red dome above me, of a shade somewhere between rust and blood. Early for a dinner meeting, I walked around Hauz Khas village. A little way off the gentrified stretch, restaurants vanished and offices grew sparse. A cybercafé was followed by a broken-down general store. Then single-room tenements, old men sitting around in vests and pyjamas, children in rags playing hopscotch. Millionaire landlords in waiting.
Reversing course at a garbage tip, I moved upscale again. Tangled cables and crisscrossing electrical wires ran a few feet above head level, providing semi-legal power to semi-legal eateries where expats and affluent Indians hung out in equal numbers. I climbed up a dozen flights of narrow stairs to Bohème, and took in a marvellous view of the tank that Khilji built and Tughlak spruced up. It reminded me of a restaurant in Lahore called Cooco’s Den which overlooks the Badshahi mosque and is reached after huffing and puffing up about as many steps. Dishes on the Cooco’s menu are raised to the terrace in baskets from a ground floor kitchen. Nothing so quaint at Bohème, but I could sip on some semi-legal beer instead, which I thought a pretty good bargain. After a couple of drinks, we moved down to Gunpowder, lavishly praised by food critics, but, as it turned out, grossly over-rated. We had buffalo and goat that had been cooked so mercilessly they were impossible to tell apart. As for the appams, better crisp-fluffy ones are to be had at Culture Curry near my home in Shivaji Park.

It was cool this morning, and the sky was blue.


Friday, March 16, 2012

Conversations: Jitish Kallat

I've uploaded a profile of the artist Jitish Kallat on my blog Conversations. The article was written in January 1998, and published in Art India magazine a couple of months later.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Guardian can't spell Kolaveri

I've cribbed about the art and food components of the Guardian's Bombay guide, and here's an interesting new blog taking on the audio-visual interpretation of the city created by the music collective B.L.O.T.
The Guardian's never been strong on India, but a recent article about the hit song Why This Kolaveri Di seems a low point even by the paper's standards. To begin with, the writer, Priya Virmani, gets the spelling of Kolaveri wrong. Then she translates Kolaveri Di incorrectly: the phrase does not mean "killer rage", only its first word does. The second word, Di, has no English equivalent, but defines the addressee as female. Why this Kolaveri Di? is equivalent to, "Why this murderous fury, girl?"
I'd have let this slide, but Virmani goes on to suggest the singer strings words together, "in a very James Joyce-like stream of consciousness". Now, I'm a bit protective about Joyce, and once Virmani's brought him into the picture, I take it personally. She digs herself deeper in the hole by asking, "Is this Joyce's 20th-century symbolist writing making a comeback in a 21st-century guise?" Do sample, here, the most famous example of Joyce's stream-of-consciousness style, the final chapter of Ulysses, and decide for yourself if it has anything in common with symbolism, or with lines like these from Why This Kolaveri Di:
Aa.. distance la moonu moonu
Moonu colour-u white.
White-u background night night-u
Night-u coloru black-u
Haan.. why this kolaveri kolaveri kolaveri di

White skin-u girl-u girl-u
Girl-u heart-u black-u
Eyes-u eyes-u meet-u meet-u
My future dark-u
Why this kolaveri kolaveri kolaveri di

There have been hundreds of articles written about Kolaveri Di, but I'm yet to read a satisfying analysis of why the song works. Sure, as pointed out here, here, here and here, it's a catchy tune that employs demotic Tamil-English to amusing effect, but that's far from enough to explain the song's crossover success. Asking the singer-lyricist Dhanush isn't much help either, because he sees it only as a nonsense verse scribbled in under half an hour.
The song is very meta, and though that's true of pretty much every cultural product these days, it is still worthwhile underlining, as few writers have, that the singer switches regularly from a depressed, rejected loser to somebody commenting on the melody itself, using phrases like 'flop song', 'rhythm correct', 'maintain please', 'what a changeover mama', and 'OK, now tune change'. The music also contains ironic passages. It starts folksy with a nadaswaram beat, before shifting to a wedding band atmosphere and a trumpet going dreadfully, and comically, out of tune.
The distancing effect created by the words and music is greatly enhanced by an element that analysts have mysteriously missed: the visual dimension. Kolaveri Di's popularity exploded primarily through YouTube, where its viewership is about to hit the 50 million mark. The video focuses on four young, good-looking people in a recording studio: Dhanush, the singer; Anirudh, the composer; Dhanush's co-star Shruti Haasan; and his wife Aishwariya Rajinikanth who's directed the film featuring Kolaveri Di. Whether or not we know they're among the wealthy darlings of the nation, the video conveys an impression that these people have it all, in glaring contrast to the poor protagonist of the song.
The emotion felt by the 'soup boy', then, is twice filtered: first, through a pidgin tongue that varies from faintly to wholly ridiculous; and, second, through a visual rendition entirely at cross purposes with the song's theme. The two negatives end up making something like a positive. Whereas melodrama of the Devdas variety begs to be deflated, the Kolaveri Di singer -- endowed with the requisite props of moonlit night, glass of scotch, and teary eyes -- ends curiously validated. The multiple distancing, Brechtian alienation if you will, results in the condition being described floating free of its particular anchor -- the soup boy's tale of woe -- and assuming a general or universal aspect. The song's mildly nonsensical quality facilitates a disentangling of the fundamental state of being jilted, or of loving without requital, from any narrative specifics. This precipitates a recognition in ourselves of having felt a similar emotion, or been in an analogous situation, and therefore to identify with the singer and song. Viewing any incarnation of Devdas, my primary response for three hours straight is, "What an idiot". With Kolaveri Di it's more like, "This guy's foolish, but I've been there myself, or can imagine being there". I can't imagine being like Devdas, ever.
As one's identification with the singer and situation evolves, the silly lyrics, jotted in a hurry with no forethought, begin to appear clever, even eloquent, if some way short of Joycean in stature.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Fukushima and after

I remember sitting on steps near the Elephanta Caves during a school trip and gazing across the water at the Trombay research facility where India’s nuclear programme was born. The nation’s first reactor, a gift from the French, was framed against a thickly forested hill, but no matter how graceful its dome looked -- and it did look serenely elegant -- the name Apsara seemed a bad fit. I had recently seen the Jane Fonda / Jack Lemmon starrer, The China Syndrome, about the near meltdown at Three Mile Island, and felt keenly how catastrophic Trombay could prove for the millions who lived close by.
One of the reasons I approved strongly of the civil nuclear agreement between the United States and India was its mandate of international monitoring. While Left and Right bewailed our supposed loss of sovereignty, I figured the more inspectors we had the less likely a Chernobyl-style disaster would be, and hoped the relatively minor leaks that have been reported now and again would be curbed. In the final agreement, India separated defense facilities from civilian power plants, and Trombay, the primary production centre of plutonium used in India’s atomic weapons, was placed in the first category. Which meant no external inspectors would get a look inside, and it would be a prime target for bombing in case of any war.
A year ago, Fukushima happened, and every nation in the world that had nuclear power in its mix of electricity generation, or was considering adding it, did a rethink. Germany appears to be giving up on nuclear power entirely, and other nations are cutting down. In India, there’s a strong protest against the Russian-built Koodankulam plant in Tamil Nadu which is ready to start operations, and the proposed Jaitapur plant to be built by Areva SA of France in Maharashtra.
I understand why protests have been concentrated in Koodankulam and Jaitapur: the fear of the unknown weighs on the minds of those in the region, while the same isn’t the case among people who have lived for years close to existing nuclear reactors, Trombay included. The protests, insofar as they focus on the issue of safety, are deeply misguided. It stands to reason that state-of-the-art nuclear plants will be safer than old ones. Many have suggested that the proposed Jaitapur facility relies on ‘untested’ technology, but it will have been very well tested by the time it is completed, since a number of similar plants will have gone critical in other countries by then. If activists are truly worried about nuclear safety, they ought to demand the decommissioning of old power plants, for an accident is far more likely to happen there than in Koodankulam or Jaitapur.
A few environmentalists supported nuclear energy in the past, but most viewed it negatively, and whatever ambivalence any of them felt has been eradicated in the past year. Their major grouse is, of course, that nuclear plants and spent fuel storage facilities are potential epicenters of utterly horrifying accidents. Their safety record, though, is pretty good, all things considered. Even Fukushima ended up costing just two or three lives. We’ve had nuclear tech for seventy years, and in that time there’s only been one accident anywhere in the world that claimed a substantial number of casualties. When the tsunami of 2004 hit the Tamil Nadu coast, parts of the Kalpakkam nuclear power plant were flooded. The Emergency Control Centre built for such an eventuality remained shut through the crisis. But, despite this predictably pathetic response, the reactor itself stayed stable. Which is why anti-nuclear activists raised no alarm in Tamil Nadu after 2004 the way they have done over the past twelve months.
The reason a few environmentalists favoured nuclear power in the past was because it's pretty clean energy, especially compared to the alternative: coal-fired plants. Coal burning doesn't kill people as dramatically or decisively as nuclear radiation, but cancer hotspots near thermal power plants have been observed around the globe, suggesting that many thousands of deaths can be put down to pollution from coal burning.
Indian Greens, unfortunately, live in a dream world where they pretend to themselves that we can find an alternate development model that does not require increasing electricity output, or else that sufficient power can be generated from the wind and the sun (even the former isn’t particularly clean). To understand what will happen as a consequence of closing down our nuclear programme, one can look at Germany. Easily the world’s most ecologically sensitive large nation, it has decided to phase out nuclear power by 2022, but hasn’t increased its renewable energy targets to compensate. Germany aims to have 35% of the nation’s electricity coming from renewables by 2020, which is very ambitious. The new gap created by the shortfall in nuclear supply will have to be filled by squeezing an extra 10 GWh from burning fossil fuels, mainly coal. That's what environmentalists need to face head-on when they make arguments against nuclear energy.
The Indian government’s response to the Koodankulam protests, meanwhile, has been typically ham-handed. It has blamed American-funded NGOs; expelled a German for financing anti-nuclear demonstrations, though the poor chap barely had enough money to house and feed himself; and labelled activists anti-national instead of mounting a positive education campaign to counter the democratic agitation. It's difficult to take sides when one has a demagogic administration on one side and an irrational protest movement on the other.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Murder Incorporated

Syed Modi, who was born poor in a small town in Uttar Pradesh in 1962, broke free of his circumstances by excelling at badminton. He won the national championship at the age of eighteen, beating the great Prakash Padukone who was then at his peak. While junior national champion in 1978, Modi travelled to Beijing for an international tournament. A Bombay girl named Amita Kulkarni was in the women's team, and, as the Supreme Court would later record, "there arose intimacy between the two". Neither the Modis nor the Kulkarnis were thrilled with the idea of the North Indian Muslim boy marrying the upper-class Marathi girl, but the couple resisted family pressure, and wed six years later.
They had a daughter not long afterwards and, while Amita's badminton career was put on hold, Syed continued to rack up titles, winning his eighth consecutive national trophy in 1987. In July 1988, Modi was heading home after a practice session when he was shot dead on a street outside the K D Singh Babu stadium in Lucknow.
The UP police made little headway with the case, and the CBI was called in. They found an eye-witness who had not only seen the shooter but recognised him. They discovered that Amita Modi was having an affair with a state minister named Sanjay Singh, who was descended from the erstwhile royal family of Amethi. Sanjay Singh, in the CBI's view, had instructed a goon-politician named Akhilesh Singh to get Syed Modi killed. Four people were arrested for committing the murder, and Sanjay and Amita spent a small time behind bars. A few months after Modi's death, Sanjay Singh, who had a wife named Garima, married Amita Kulkarni-Modi. He didn't feel the need to hide the relationship, though it was the only imaginable motive behind the murder of a man whose friends described him as a mild guy with no enemies. By 1990, Sanjay Singh had left the Indian National Congress and was a central minister in V P Singh's new government (Sanjay and V P Singh were related). He later moved to the BJP and then back to the Congress. He's currently a Congress MP, but is showing signs of wanting to defect again. His wife, Amita Singh, just lost the election for the state assembly from Amethi, a stronghold of the Gandhi family dating back to the Indira Gandhi days.
It's obvious from this account that Sanjay and Amita were not convicted of plotting to murder Syed Modi. After making bold announcements of having cracked the case, the CBI began chasing its own tail instead of making any further headway. Last year, the former CBI Director Sumit Kumar Dutta published a memoir called Top Cop Recalls. He wrote, about the Syed Modi case: "One day, I received a telephone call from an officer close to the Cabinet Secretary that hearing for framing of the charge in the case was being preponed from the day already fixed for hearing and I should agree to it and not oppose the move. I said that it was not possible as our special counsel was in Mumbai and it was not possible for him to come earlier as there was no time for that.... next thing that came to my notice was that the Director was told to change our special counsel...".
Dutta and the then CBI Director Rajendar Shekhar resolved not to let political interference cloud the case. "He (Shekhar) told me that the Government wanted to know whether the Director would change the counsel. He wanted my views. I told him it was not possible in principle. He agreed with me. He asked me if I was prepared to put in my papers if the counsel was changed. I said ‘yes.’ He felt happy, as he too had decided to do so...Next thing that happened was something unheard of. All of a sudden, in the name of economy, the Government issued an order cancelling the appointments of all special counsels engaged by various departments to deal with their court cases. Therefore, our special counsel’s appointment was automatically terminated. All were surprised, but did not know the real reason."
When the Syed Modi case came to court, all the accused were let off, apart from the shooter identified by the eye-witness. Two acquitted underlings were soon found shot to death themselves. Needless to say, those murders have never been solved.
Sanjay Singh was in the news a few months ago, opposing his own party's decision to allow foreign investment in retail. Singh said the measure would hurt the poor, who are always foremost in his mind. Amita just gave an interview to NDTV speaking of how times have changed and dynasties like the Gandhis don't matter any more. The two will doubtless be welcomed into whichever party they decide to join next.
I've met taxi drivers from the Amethi region who speak of Sanjay Singh's power. Locals, they say, might be beaten for even looking him in the eye, men have to keep their head bowed in his presence. Syed Modi obviously got uppity, and paid the price.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Conversations: the Vaziranis

This interview with Dinesh and Minal Vazirani of Saffronart was published in Take on Art magazine late last year.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Guardian on Bombay street food

If the article on galleries carried by the Guardian was bad, the one on the city's street food is arguably worse. It doesn't have as many mistakes, specially since Sardar is now correctly identified as being close to Bombay Central station rather than Churchgate as was the case when the list first appeared. The web allows such changes to be made after publication, and Nayantara Kilachand's corrected the most striking ones in her article. However, Monisha Rajesh, who wrote the street food piece, has a problem so fundamental it can't possibly be set right: she doesn't understand what 'street food' means.
Of the places she singles out, Sarvi is a sit-down eatery for the working-class of Nagpada, and a popular take-away for the affluent. It's large and airy by Bombay standards, very far from a street stall. The same is the case with Sardar (not Sardar's; the Indian love for apostrophes seems to be shared by foreign-born desis), Olympia Coffee House, Cream Centre and Mahesh Lunch Home. In other words, five out of the Guardian's ten recommended street food places are actually restaurants. In the case of the crab at Mahesh Lunch Home, the article now admits the dish isn't exactly street food.
There's also a video on the same subject presented by Vandana Verma. She starts with a home-cooked tiffin (not street food) before moving to Swati Snacks (a mid-range vegetarian restaurant, not close to street food), then takes an auto-rickshaw (that's the cut-away, anyway) along a route where no auto rickshaws operate, to a sandwich vendor whose only qualification is that he stations himself outside Verma's old school.
By the Guardian's criteria, a tour of London's best street food joints might involve bangers and mash at the Marlborough Arms and high tea at The Ritz.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Nayantara Kilachand on Bombay's best galleries

Nayantara Kilachand is the founder of Mumbai Boss, which is a sort of Time Out on the Web, and has a number of ex-Time Out people on its payroll. I browse the site now and again, mainly for articles by those ex-Time Out people. Nayantara herself writes very well about art.
Which is why I was surprised to read this article by her in the Guardian, covering Bombay's top 10 galleries. One of the ten, Matthieu Foss, is apparently about to close, so maybe Nayanatara's piece is dated already. A number of other lines in the article struck me as odd.

About Chemould Prescott Road, she writes: One of the oldest and most prestigious galleries in Mumbai, Chemould was a hothouse for a group of modernist artists who later come to be known as the Progressives (its most famous exponent, MF Husain, passed away in London last year). Today, relocated to a vast loft-like space, it alternates between showing contemporary bigwigs (Shilpa Gupta, Atul Dodiya, Nalini Malani) and emerging artists (Dhruvi Acharya, Shezad Dawood) and remains an inspiration to the art world's new generation of stars.

Chemould was founded long after the Progressives had disbanded, so it could never have been a 'hothouse' for the group's members. If there were such hothouses in the 40s and 50s, they were the Artists' Centre in Kala Ghoda and the Bhulabhai Desai Institute.
The Progessives called themselves the Progressive Artists' Group, so I don't see how they 'later came to be known as the Progressives'.
I don't consider Dhruvi Acharya and Shez Dawood emerging artists, but I suppose there's a degree of interpretation involved there.

About Project 88: This cavernous space was once a warren of office cubicles that housed employees of an elevator company. Luckily, the six-year-old gallery, owned by Sree Goswami, is now a minimalist space with exposed beams and iron pillars and bears little evidence of its industrial past. In addition to the coterie of big names – such as Vogue India fashion photographer Bharat Sikka, auction house favourite Bharti Kher and graphic novelist Sarnath Banerjee – Goswami also takes a chance on the offbeat and experimental, like the intellectual Raqs Media Collective...

Little evidence of its industrial past... except those exposed metal beams and pillars. Beams and pillars which, in my opinion, not only give the space an industrial feel but render it rather non-minimalist.
It's debatable whether a show of Raqs Media Collective is 'taking a chance on the offbeat and experimental', since the trio has shown across the globe in some of the most important exhibitions and museums.

On the Prince of Wales museum: The CSMVS, formerly the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India, was built at the behest of the people of Bombay in 1914 (though it opened to the public in 1922) and sits in domed splendour in South Mumbai. In the past few years, thanks to donations and government grants, it has spluttered into life.

A few rich guys who wanted to commemorate the visit of the Prince of Wales thought of building a museum in his honour in 1904. The building was completed in 1915, and, after being used as a hospital during WWI, was inaugurated as a museum in early 1922.
The museum's been flourishing for a long time, rather than having 'spluttered into life' in the past few years. Kalpana Desai, the museum's previous head, did a lot in terms of outreach to young students in the 1990s.

On Gallery Maskara: In a neighbourhood of matchbox-sized spaces, this former grain storage facility is enviously roomy. The ceiling alone soars to about 50ft, allowing for giant installations ...

If I'm not mistaken, the storage space was meant for cotton. That's why the ceiling's so high.

About Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke: One of the very few Mumbai galleries to bring in noteworthy international names (such as Kiki Smith and Wolfgang Laib), Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, run by mother-and-daughter team Usha Mirchandani and Ranjana Steinruecke, also rotates local talent on its small but expertly curated list – including the likes of Tejal Shah and Mansi Bhatt.

I'm certain Tejal Shah is not represented any longer by Usha and Ranjana. Neither, as far as I know, is Mansi Bhatt, whose last Bombay show was at Chatterjee & Lal.

On Chatterjee & Lal: Though compact, this one-room gallery in Colaba, founded by husband-and-wife team Mortimer Chatterjee and Tara Lal, has already managed to push the boundaries of contemporary art: it was among the first to host performance artist Nikhil Chopra, who spent three continuous days and nights in the gallery, as well as staging retrospectives of Amrita Sher-Gil, and the hugely talented but little-known Pakistani photographer Nasreen Mohamedi.

A retrospective of Amrita Sher-Gil? It must've been tough to get the NGMA to loan all those canvases. As for the 'hugely talented but little-known Pakistani photographer Nasreen Mohamedi', well, I'm sure Nayantara's got feedback on that one and is cringing already, but for those who aren't aware, Nasreen Mohamedi was Indian, and is pretty well-known. She was selected posthumously for the last Documenta in Kassel, which gave her international prominence. Nasreen did shoot some fabulous photographs, but characterising her as a photographer is almost as much a stretch as calling her 'little-known'.

So, OK, there are a few dozen people out there waiting for me to write an under-researched article so they can get back at me. I can add Nayantara Kilachand to that list. The good news is that the gallerists she's written about don't care that her piece is full of errors. They're in a top ten list in the Guardian, that's all that counts.

Update: Some of the mistakes have been corrected since I wrote.
Update: Now, Matthieu Foss has been taken off, and replaced by Tasveer, which isn't even based in Bombay. the gallery shows now and again at Vickram Sethi's ICIA. But to rank Tasveer above Sakshi, Pundole et al is utterly ridiculous.