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Friday, February 11, 2011
Posted by HussainModel

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Kala Ghoda Arts Festival

There's plenty going on at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, with programmes covering music, dance, books, kids workshops, films and heritage walks. Although loudspeakers have been forbidden this year, the list of events is still substantial. Notwithstanding the impressive and dedicated work the organisers have done, a few questions have arisen in my mind about the festival's future.
When the KGAF was first mooted, it was built on the idea of an arts precinct in South Bombay; and that idea, in turn, based itself on the many art galleries in the area. The KGAF was, in other words, primarily a visual arts initiative at its inception, and was meant to be an intensive, seven day immersion in the sorts of events that took place in the area as a matter of course. Its other purpose was to raise awareness of the built heritage of the district. The first couple of attempts missed the 'festival' bit in 'Kala Ghoda Arts Festival'. In succeeding years the organisers did a fantastic job of fostering a festive atmosphere, but now I've begun to wonder if the 'Arts' part of KGAF is lagging.
Part of the reason is that the idea of Kala Ghoda as an art precinct is dead. Gallery Chemould has moved out from the Jehangir Art Gallery; Bodhi opened and closed after sponsoring some impressive KGAF installations while it flourished; and the NGMA is somnolent. Colaba is now the centre of Bombay's visual arts world, with The Guild, Chatterjee & Lal, Volte, Gallery Maskara and Project 88 all clustered within walking distance of each other, and Sakshi, Mirchandani + Steinruecke and Art Musings not far away. Without the paticipation of top galleries, the visual arts component of KGAF has suffered badly. It's worthwhile giving relative unknowns an opportunity to make a mark, but the quality of this year's public installations is pretty mediocre. They all have a similar didactic and symbolic intent. A few years ago two artists made a fun machine they called a Helicoptook, a cross between an autorickshaw and a helicopter. Since then, mutant machines have become a staple feature of the festival, and none has been as successful as the Helicoptook. Another artist (I'll get names soon, just putting down this first draft) used to mould giant feet at the base of the trees on Rampart Row, making the tree trunks seem like enormous legs; it was an excellent example of what street art can be; not trying to drum some lesson into passersby, but simple and visually compelling, just like the Helicoptook. Now we have trees draped in all sorts of material to create awareness of the environment and stuff like that. It all looks like a godawful mess, frankly.
The film festival has a Basu Chatterjee retrospective, but this is mixed in with a selection of films one can watch on the telly any given day, or movies that have just finished a theatrical run. I can't understand the point of a festival dominated by these sorts of films, except as a publicity vehicle for UTV. Of course, there are people who go and watch them, but that's to be expected; any popular, free films will always find willing viewers. The question is whether it furthers the cause of an arts festival to screen stuff like The Social Network or Tere Bin Laden. It might make more sense to show movies which the KGAF-going public would be unlikely to view in the normal run of things, say a selection of regional films for example. Or to weave a specific theme into the selection and bolster it with discussions.
The literature section also appears a bit tired this year, not for the first time. There are plenty of discussions I'd like to attend, of course, but the names involved are very familiar. If I recall correctly, there was a panel on food writing last year. Another one has cropped up this year. A couple of the participants have featured in every single festival going back as far as I can remember. Again, it might make sense to create a more close-knit, well-thought out, formal programme, even if it means a smaller set of events.
The main Rampart Row stretch and the traffic island of Kala Ghoda is far too commercial for my taste. Unilever and the Times of India, plus subsidiary sponsors, have plastered every possible surface with branding. I know Indian sponsors demand the maximum bang for their buck, but the Surf Excel shamianas are way over the top. The road itself is a bazaar full of stalls. A careful vetting process is followed so only people who are furthering conservation of some kind, whether of wildlife or craft traditions, get to sell their wares. It's fun and makes for an evening well spent despite the crowd, but this year the commercialism of it all made me uncomfortable.
KGAF does take over a very busy road in the city's business district, plus an important parking lot, for a full nine days. I wonder if it might be time for the festival to become less of a mela and more of a serious arts event, held mainly indoors, spread out in more locations. After all, with the heritage buildings of Kala Ghoda having been restored one by one, the Kala Ghoda Association has already achieved its primary purpose. There is such a thing as being trapped in your own success and, judging by this year's event, the KGAF is running that risk.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Mangled Anthems

Christina Aguilera's been singing the Star Spangled Banner at public functions since she was a kid, but evidently hasn't learned the words yet. She flubbed the fourth line of the national anthem sung at the start of the Super Bowl. Should a singer do something like that to the Indian national anthem, she would have a dozen criminal cases filed against her in far flung courts ruled by attention-seeking magistrates.
We take our national symbols seriously. Three years ago, Sania Mirza was accused of insulting the national flag because she put her bare feet up while resting after a Hopman Cup match, and a photographer clicked a low angle shot that suggested the feet were in close proximity to an Indian flag placed on an adjoining table. This was enough for a criminal charge.

There's a folded khadi flag in a cupboard in our home, which used to be flown during Independence Day and Republic Day in the idealistic days of the 1950s. Somewhere down the line, the government forbade citizens from hoisting flags because of the potential insult to the nation, should they be flown upside down. It took a petition filed by Naveen Jindal and a Supreme Court verdict to reverse the idiotic policy, but those who inadvertently put the green above the saffron can expect to be hauled off to jail.
All of which makes a Borat-like performance impossible in India. I mean, a guy could pretend to sing the Kazakh national anthem to the tune of Jana Gana Mana at a public function, but once the film was released (abroad that is, it would be banned in India) PILs, extradition demands, and death threats would inevitably follow. Luckily there are places where expression is freer, and so we have Sacha Baron Cohen's fabulous mangling of the Star Spangled Banner to laugh at. The horse rearing and falling at the end of the sequence, which can be seen here, is an unexpected bonus. Like the bird flying to the centre of the frame and diving straight down into the water at the end of Barton Fink.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What's inhuman?

I'm beginning to get really annoyed with S.M.Krishna and Nirupama Rao for shooting their mouths off at the slightest provocation when it comes to NRIs in the United States.
Foreign minister Krishna labelled 'inhuman' the radio tagging of Indians caught up in an immigration racket. Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, calling the men "bonafide students", said, "It's going to rankle in our minds that our young people have been treated this way". Media reports say the 'students' were duped by Tri-Valley University, but the facts suggest many were complicit in the scam. This ridiculous comment in the Hindustan Times refers to radio tags as humiliating and calls the treatment of Indian racist. Through all this nobody has explained exactly why wearing an ankle bracelet that can easily be hidden under trousers is such a dreadful punishment. Given the choice between jail and an electronic tag, I'd choose the tag in an instant. Isn't it legitimate for US authorities to believe some of these students would be a flight risk since the entire issue revolves around gaming the visa system? Impounding passports isn't a perfect solution, since people can disappear in the US and then acquire new documents easily enough.
Indians who try sneaking into the West by underhand means make getting legitimate visas that much more difficult for the rest of us. I don't understand the outpouring of sympathy for these guys, except among those who hoped to use a similar route. What irritates me even more is our government's complete silence in response to the denial of basic rights to Indians in Gulf nations. Out there, passports of labourers can be impounded by employers; workers building swish multi-billion dollar projects can be packed ten to a room in 50 degree heat and made to work long hours with no holidays; Indian citizens can be wrongly implicated in cases, jailed, and even sentenced to death en masse following a dubious judicial process; and our government remains absolutely mute, sucking up to Sheikhs who hurt our economy, while making billions for themselves, by restricting oil output through a petroleum cartel. Our ministers only wake up when some Bollywood star is detained at a US airport for an hour or two; or when tags of the kind that have been worn by well-known personalities like Lindsay Lohan and Julian Assange are prescribed to Indians.

And don't even get me started on how we treat suspects and undertrials in India.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Kiran Nadar Museum

The Kiran Nadar Museum of Art opened its new premises at DLF Place, Saket, with a huge party during the India Art Summit. The move from NOIDA, where it had occupied a hall in the HCL campus, has been accompanied by an expansion of the art on display and, more importantly a shift in focus from modern to contemporary art.
The first work I encountered on entering was Bharti Kher's bindi-decorated elephant, titled The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own, which sold at Sotheby's in London in June last year for 7 crore rupees (1.5 million dollars).

There was a ring of guards around it, protecting it from the wine-sipping, canape-nibbling horde. I had a vision of Kiran Nadar holding a rifle and placing her foot on the fallen beast, for it was a trophy of a kind. I soon realised the entire museum was made of trophy artworks, bought for top dollar at auction for the most part. Nadar apparently attends auctions and bids herself, which must be an auctioneer's dream. Even on the rare occasion she doesn't get what she wants, I'm sure her underbid is high enough to ensure a high winning price. Walking through the galleries I ticked off a few auction records, and I don't follow results all that closely, so I probably missed more than I caught.
Obviously a collection built in this fashion can't reveal any personal vision. The Kiran Nadar Museum display is eclectic, disparate, and ultimately less than the sum of its parts, though the parts are so exceptional that even the 'less' is substantial. Nadar appears to resemble some late 19th century and early 20th century American multimillionaire collectors who didn't have strong personal tastes, but knew they wanted the best and were willing to pay whatever it took to get it. Nothing wrong with that.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Why we make such terrible films

A couple of months ago, I wrote a piece for Time Out about the reasons why Indian films, Hindi films in particular, are so bad. An editor at The Caravan liked it and asked if I could flesh out the argument to three times its original length. I agreed because the article did feel cramped within the space Time Out could afford. The longer essay has been published in The Caravan's latest issue, and can be read 

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Husain at the Art Summit

The removal and reinstatement of an M.F.Husain painting from Delhi Art Gallery’s booth at the India Art Summit in Delhi last week may have been a storm in a teacup, but it left a bitter taste in my mouth. The Husain canvas had earlier been part of a larger show of paintings displayed in Delhi Art Gallery’s Hauz Khas Village space. There were in fact a number of Husain works on show there, freely on view in a gallery that had very little security. Anybody walking into DAG intending to vandalise a Husain canvas would have encountered hardly any resistance. Even as one Husain picture was transferred to Pragati Maidan, others continued to hang on DAG’s walls.
At the art fair, visitors had to go through ticket checks, metal detectors and pat downs, before being allowed entry. Delhi Art Gallery hired a couple of intimidating bouncers who stood next to the Husain, glaring at everybody who passed. The state and central goverment had assured support to the Art Summit, with officials publicly stating that displaying Husain works would be no problem. This was after the Summit authorities had refused to show Husain in previous editions citing security issues.
To sum up: there was absolutely no reason not to have an M.F.Husain painting on display throughout the Art Summit.
Yet, the evening of the VIP preview, just as proceedings were winding down, we heard the Husain was being removed. Threatening emails had apparently been received, and the organisers feared a stampede. That evening, news organisations like CNN-IBN led their prime time news with the Husain story.
I was furious, seeing the episode as a craven capitulation on the part of the Art Summit organisers. It sends a terrible signal to give in to anonymous emails despite the presence of great numbers of state and private security personnel, after activists and influential people in the art world had lobbied for months to ensure all conditions were in place for a public viewing of Husain’s paintings. The next afternoon, Neha Kirpal, the head of the Art Summit, told me a solution was being worked out. A couple of hours later, the Husain was back up in the DAG booth. Nothing much had changed on the ground. Maybe an extra platoon had been posted outside, but it would hardly make a difference to a determined vandal inside the hall.
The entire episode left me feeling depressed, and wondering if the Husain issue had not been cynically used to garner valuable publicity. The Art Summit depends on footfalls, and these can best be guaranteed through the media. In a crowded media space, it’s extraordinarily difficult to receive the kind of coverage that draws real public attention. The broadcast time and column inches granted the Art Summit a few hours before its public opening were priceless. It would have taken crores of rupees to get that sort of notice through advertising. Whether capitulation or cynical ploy, there’s no doubt the latest Husain fracas helped the Summit massively.
A number of representatives of media outlets were present at the VIP opening, but the alacrity with which the news spread still seemed calculated. It would’ve been fairly easy to keep an event like this under wraps; but it was burning up the newswires within a few minutes of the paintings coming down.
Neha Kirpal’s done a tremendous job in creating an event that has grown so quickly in popularity and influence. The Husain episode, though, made me think less of the fair as a whole.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Delhi hotels

The recent Delhi trip was my first visit to a city involving stays in two five star hotels in succession. When I speak of Delhi, I'm referring to the National Capital region, including Gurgaon, for it was at Gurgaon's Leela Kempinski that I first landed.

The hotel's embedded in Gurgaon's Ambience Mall, and came on board after architectural plans were drawn, so its exterior includes a standard shopping mall glass facade. The inside felt pleasant enough but unremarkable. I later learned Rajeev Sethi had put together a selection of artwork in the lobby and rooms. I'm afraid I didn't notice any of this art in my walks across the marble floor to the glass door in the mornings, or my walk across it to the lift in the evenings. What I did notice was the number of people saying namaste to me at every point: the chap who opened the car door; the two security men; two women just inside the door; two males flanking the lifts; and any other staffer who happened to be within ten yards of me at any time of day or night.
Delhi has completely gone over to the namaste greeting. In Bombay they still do 'welcome', 'good morning', 'good afternoon' without reflexively folding hands.
The room was very comfortable with a pleasant view over some scrub-like forest. All fixtures worked, and the wifi was fast, though the 550 rupee price tag for 24 hours was a bit hard. What I didn't understand was the wooden floorboards, which creaked below me every time I walked across the room, and creaked above me whenever the guy upstairs moved across his. There's really no excuse for using wooden floorboards in this day and age: tile or stone does perfectly well, and if you're worried about cold floors, a carpet's far better than wood.
Strangely the second hotel I stayed in used wooden floorboards as well: a peculiar fixation appears to have gripped the hotel designers of Delhi. This second hotel was The Park near Connaught Place. It claims to be a five-star hotel, but really is not. Like, I checked in at night, and I suppose the windows had been kept open by the previous occupant or by staff, and so the room was really cold. I turned the climate control to 25 degrees, but it didn't help. I called reception and was told the hotel had no heating, the thermostat was there only to adjust the level of cooling. They gave me a portable heater to keep the temperature comfortable, and I kept the AC switched on to ventilate the room, but really, a five-star hotel in Delhi ought to have central heating, no?
The lobby of The Park is done in retro-sixties style: bright, velvet-y biomorphic sofas, bead curtains, that sort of thing. Problem is, the place is showing its age, giving the lobby the feel of a fancy bordello.

The Park is a tourist's hotel, unlike the Leela which is full of suits; the senior citizens I saw looked quite happy. Maybe the decor reminds them comfortingly of what was cutting edge in their teenage years.

I was less than happy. The rooms are small; the water in my bathroom seeped under the glass partition separating shower from toilet; there's no wifi, only a slow ethernet connection at an extortionate 450 rupees plus taxes for an hour and 800 plus taxes for a day; the staff looked a bit too eager for tips; and the muffins at breakfast had a kerosene flavour.

The hotel that seriously impressed me on this trip was The Trident, Gurgaon, which I visited for a late night drink with a friend.

Designed by a Thai architect, the hotel makes use of traditional Indian structures such as the bangla roof, but within a spare overall plan, not minimalist by any means, but calm, reflective. Entry at night is spectacular: one walks through a gate to a black rectangle of water within which gleam four fires. To one side is the dramatically lit entrance to the reception area.
Going back to the Delhi versus Bombay theme, here's another reason Delhi scores: it has lots of interesting modern and postmodern architecture, while hardly anything good has been built in Bombay after the art deco era.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Delhi boots

My friend Adrian, commenting on a previous post, spoke of finding Delhi staid and dowdy in comparison with Bombay. Well, Delhi fashions have changed considerably since Adrian visited half a dozen winters ago. Which makes sense: all the clothes sold in all those new malls have to end up somewhere, right? The most important sign of the shift in fashion sense is, in my opinion, an exponential increase in the number of women wearing boots.
No item of clothing combines allure and assertiveness, power and play, the way stiletto-heeled leather boots do. A decade ago one could stay in Delhi for days and spot hardly a couple of boot-shod females. Young, office-going women wore shoes; seniors wore sneakers or chappals with woolen socks. Now women in boots are all over the place, striding down streets, in offices and restaurants.
If I'm right in relating boots to power, the change in female footwear represents something larger. It is a sign that women are slowly claiming Delhi for themselves in a way previously unthinkable within a city notorious for its female unfriendliness.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Bhimsen Joshi

Listening to Bhimsen Joshi was like consuming a comforting meal in a top quality restaurant, a meal based on hearty fare, devoid of frippery. I can think of singers who soared higher (Kumar Gandharva), dug deeper (Amir Khan), and had more refined voices (Pandit Jasraj). But nobody approached Bhimsen Joshi for the all-round satisfaction he always provided.
A concert by him seemed somehow basic, fundamental, even though his practice was highly sophisticated. One came away satiated. Meat and potatoes on a cold winter night; or fish curry, rice and beer by a sunny Goa beach.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Bombay versus Delhi revisited

I just got back from a week in Delhi, and have lots to blog about. But first, I'd like to continue where I left off, with my Mumbai Boss piece on NGMAs (link in the January 10 post below). A number of Dilliwallahs looked askance at what they saw as my criticism of the capital. Sure, I'd written about Delhi's new imperial aura, but I don't believe the article as a whole was critical of the capital.
On my most recent visit I perceived that since the annoying blockages resulting from Commonwealth games prep have been cleared, the pattern I discerned some half a dozen years ago has become boldly etched: Delhi is racing ahead of Bombay and is now India's premier metropolis. And it's going to stay that way because, as I wrote in my final column for Time Out back in 2008, nobody has a claim on it. As soon as some group claims a city as its own, it signals the beginning of a decline. Bombay grew to greatness because it was the one city in India that welcomed people of all religious, ethnic and linguistic groups. Ever since its political discourse began revolving around the claims of Marathis, the city has suffered. In the past five years, Hyderabad has fallen victim to the Telengana agitation, and Bangalore to Kannadiga - Tamil conflict. Calcutta and Madras have, of course, long been mired in parochialism.

Since my valedictory Time Out column doesn't seem to be on the Web, I'm cutting and pasting it here. The final sentence suggests Bombay may soon have to give up its status as India's premier metropolis. Less than three years later, its clear the switch has happened, and Bombay's now in second place. It may be that a decade from today there will no longer be any debate about the issue. During Lord Curzon's reign as Viceroy, Calcutta was India's foremost city, with Bombay brashly staking a claim. Eventually, Bombay comprehensively overtook Calcutta, to such a degree that the debate itself died out. The same looks set to happen in the case of Bombay versus Delhi.

A Tale of Two Cities

I don’t love Bombay. I barely like it. Things were very different in my teenage years, when I had a pride in my home town that extended even to supporting its Ranji Trophy team. I viewed other Indian cities, as many Bombaywallahs did, with snobbish disdain. We had great public transport; we had power 24 / 7; taxis and autos charged by the meter; shops were located conveniently at most street corners; eateries catered to every income level; liquor stores stayed open well after sunset; vehicles maintained something like lane discipline; appointments were kept more or less punctually; and women participated in the workforce in massive numbers. None of this was true elsewhere in the country.
My attitude began changing after the January 1993 riots. That’s when the city’s liberal identity suffered a dreadful wound. It wasn’t a fatal injury. Recovery would have been possible, had the instigators of violence been punished. Instead, they were elected to run the city and Maharashtra state.
Many good things have happened in Bombay since then. Aside from revolutions in IT services, telecommunications and organised retail that have transformed all cities, we have witnessed enormous growth in the entertainment and financial services sectors. We’ve begun to appreciate the preciousness of our past: localities like Kala Ghoda, Khotachiwadi, Bandra and Juhu have benefited from the efforts of heritage activists and citizens’ groups. But 1993 and its aftermath irrevocably shattered my pride in the city. Visiting other places these days, I frequently find myself comparing them favourably with my home. Delhi, in particular, appears an increasingly congenial location. It always had abundant open spaces, large homes, magnificent monuments and important academic institutions. In recent years, the city has grown more diverse, and less obsessed with who’s-in-who’s-out politics. Infrastructure’s been upgraded, with new transport systems promising an end to the cliché about needing a car to get around. Having its own government is a great help, but what’s even more crucial to the capital’s progress, I believe, is the fact that no religious community or linguistic group can stake claim to it. Free of chauvinistic demands, Delhi has not just physical but also mental space to develop into a truly great city. I’m afraid Bombay may soon have to give up its claim to being India’s premier metropolis.
There, it’s done. This is my last column, and I’ve ended with perhaps the unkindest cut of all. Before I go, though, I’d like to thank all readers who have taken time out to respond to my articles over the past four years and a bit. Your feedback has been incredibly gratifying. I’ve been privileged to have a prominent position in a magazine of such consistently excellent quality, but I now feel the need for a more expansive and interactive format. Hope to meet you soon in cyberspace.


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