Wednesday, October 29, 2008
In Malayalam language ‘House Warming’ is referred in two ways: one ‘Paalu Kacchu’ and two, ‘Pura Vaastubali.’
‘Paalu Kaachu’ literally means ‘boiling the milk’. A newly built house is consecrated by boiling a pot full of milk in the new kitchen, till it spills over. Once the milk is spilt all around the stove, the house is deemed worth living. The invisible gods and goddesses are appeased by this baptism by milk.
‘Pura Vaastubali’ is a bit more specific as it is all about the rituals and ceremonies related to the consecration of the newly built house. It is believed that all the eight corners of the new house have eight different gods as residents. They have to be worshipped and appeased first before the man makes it his own abode.
Hindu scriptures say: “Yatra Naryastu Pujyante, Tatra Ramante Devata.” (Where the women are worshipped, there resides the God.”
However, I don’t think, except for the Tantric practices, anywhere in India, women are worshipped as a part of the consecration of a newly built house.
May be we think the other way round now, “Yatra Devatastu Pujyante, Tatra Ramante Naari’. “Where Gods are Worshipped, there reside women.”
Now it looks like a passing thought and a digression. My idea was to talk about the house warming of our friend and internationally acclaimed artist and curator, Bose Krishnamachari at his ancestral property at Chemapakasseri, Mangattaukara, Angamali in Ernakulam District, Kerala.
When I write this piece in Delhi, the house warming ceremony is on there in Kerala. I am not attending the ceremony though I really want to be there just to feel the festive mood of the artists and friends. It is unprecedented in several ways. On the one hand, for many Kerala artists, Bose is almost like a mentor and on the other, Bose’s contributions in the Indian contemporary art scene have been acknowledged and accepted by the art loving populace of Kerala. Hence, this house warming ceremony is a point of celebration for many of the friends. Above all, Bose has made this very private affair into a pubic one by inviting all his friends to attend the function.
I should talk about the house now as it is a first of its kind in Kerala. I was there in two different occasions, first while the building process was on and second when the building was in the process of completion. Second time, Bose was consulting a nursery manager for planting right kind of plants along the drive way to the house.
As I said, this house is built in a village called Mangattukara, in Angamali, which is a few kilometers north to the famous Ernakulam/Kochi. From Angamali Public bus stand, you take a left turn and suddenly the landscape changes into the lush green of paddy fields. There are water bodies on either side of the muddy road. Cranes walk amongst the paddy fields looking for small fishes and a gentle breeze makes the paddy to wave their hands at the visitors in the car. If you are too sensitive to the rural beauty, hark, you would listen to the notes of flute played by some shepherd boy hidden away by the thickets across the fields.
The roads splits into two at one junction and you ask a passer by about the direction for Mangattukara or Bose Krishnamachari’s home.
“Our Bose’s home…!” he would exclaim and then show you the way.
“Our Bose”, I like that. It is a recognition desired by any artist. This village is proud of its famous son.
I imagine Bose Krishnamachari as a young boy, playing with discarded cycle tyres along the muddy path. While playing with it, he imagines himself sitting in an aircraft, flying above his village, watching over the deeds of people down there. A dark little boy, listening to the political discussions taking place at his non-descript home where his father presides over the party meetings. A little youth who draws posters and portraits of political leaders. A little disturbed youth acts in existential plays with friends. He falls ill one day and the illness prolongs for a year. Lying in the bed, this young boy in his late teens imagines places that lie beyond the small Mangattukara. ‘One day, I will go all over the world,’ he whispers to himself.
Yes, as an established artist, Bose travels all over the world. He spends endless hours in transit lounges, reading, sketching, planning and smiling at his own growth from a Mangattukara Payyan (lad) to one of the biggest Indian contemporary artists.
After a few right turns you take a sharp left and it takes you to Chempakasseri, where Bose has built his new house. There are several concrete houses (terraced houses in local parlance) on either side. The traditional thatched or tiled houses are not seen any more. Bose’s new house cannot be seen from the road as it is in a plot filled with medicinal trees and plants. “It is my ancestral property,” says Bose humbly.
From the raised mud mound on the right side of the property, one can see the new huge house designed by Bose himself. From this angle it looks like a gigantic serpent sitting proudly under a thicket with its raised hood. The eyes of the snake are emphasized by two small windows covered with stained glass. This is an obvious reference to the traditional Kerala belief that the godly serpents reside inside ‘kaavus’, thickets of medicinal plants.
The pillared reception area is a post modern replication of ‘kolaya’ where traditionally people sit and attend visitors, discuss household matters and air themselves on a hot afternoon. On the right side wall, there is a huge mural painted by the artists from the Mural Painting School in Guruvayoor.
A huge door leads to the main room of the house with a tall roof with glass coverings that let a lot of natural light in. There is a small water body in the middle which has water lilies growing. On the right side there is a kitchenette and there are other four spacious rooms around the central area with state of the art facilities. One of the Ghost Stretched Bodies Object works hang from the roof, suddenly bringing in a contemporary ambience to the space.
There is a flight of stairs on your left that leads to the first level, which has a huge rectangular hall on its left. It is a drawing room-guest room-movie hall. Sophisticated projection systems and Dolby Sound systems make this room a cozy viewing room. There are two other rooms in this level, whose walls are painted in luminous colors that resemble Bose’s paintings. There is an open space in between and it gives a view to the garden of medicinal plants just out there. The second level opens to a terrace that gives a view to the surrounding areas filled with greenery.
According to Bose, this house is a place for art and life. May be he is not going to stay in this house throughout the year as he has a house in Mumbai and also his work takes him all over the world during the major part of the year. His brother and family would be living here as permanent residents though the house is open for his friends, curators and international visitors.
Perhaps, this new house is the first stepping stone towards the proposed Museum of Contemporary Art by Bose in Aluva, a few kilometers south from here. Bose would initiate the building process very soon and he is planning to do all the operations from this home, which looks more like an ‘art home’ than a ‘residence.’
It is something special for Kerala. Artists are coming back to make their homes here. Shibu Natesan has already built his residence-cum-art ashram (in my terms) in Attingal, a small town near Trivandrum. Jyothi Basu’s house is being built in Guruvayoor, Thrissur. Rajan Krishnan is making his art abode at Irinjalakkuda in Thrissur. Raghunathan has already initiated the building process of his studio-cum-residence-cum-paddy field near Kakkathuruthu. In Trivandrum painter George has a beautiful house designed by Shankar, a disciple of the legendary architect, Laurie Baker.
What makes these houses distinct is not their lavishness and flamboyance. But their purpose. These are the places where people could go, see the artists in their own settings. These are the places of friendship and growth. These are the places of discipline and exchange. These are the places that linger somewhere between public and private realms. These are not houses but artistic philosophy converted into architectural forms.
Let me wish my very best to Bose Krishnamachari on this auspicious day. Let me wish all those friends who have already established their art ashrams in Kerala. And let me wish all those friends who are on their way to convert their philosophy into architectural edifices.
Monday, October 27, 2008
Why do Chinese contemporary artists do ‘political pop’ art? And why don’t Indian contemporary artists don’t do that? Veteran artist, Vivan Sundaram has an answer- “China had a Mao and India had Gandhiji.’
Vivan’s statement is a layered one. If I do the hairsplitting, I can come up with the following interpretations:
1) Chinese contemporary artists do/did a lot of ‘political pop’ art because there was an authoritarian system till the mid 1970s under Chairman Mao. Once the artists got the freedom to forward critiques about the Maoist period, they did it well and with aggression. Meanwhile in India, we had only one ‘Gandhiji’ who was not authoritarian in his ways. So Indian contemporary artists are not aggressively political about the bygone political era.
2) To create ‘political pop’ you need an authoritarian government in place.
3) If you don’t have an authoritarian political system in place, you can create only critiques on international issues vis-à-vis the imported international theories.
4) What we have right now around in the name of contemporary art is not at all political.
5) Even if they deal with political issues, they are only in the metaphorical and suggestive level.
6) Indian contemporary artists do not want to make any overtly political statements in their works fearing the censorial and punitive intervention of the government.
7) What do Indian contemporary artists do when they are faced with a real political situation?
8) Even if they create critique of our nationalist era, they cover it up with glittering surfaces or they hide behind the autobiographical nostalgia vis-à-vis the image that they deal with.
9) They speak volumes about the growing right wing fundamentalism in India. But none is ready to trace the history of it or critique its history through aesthetic terms.
10) Market has benumbed the political sharpness of our contemporary artists.
I don’t know whether Vivan has intended to say all these things because some of these interpretations could backfire on him and his works as his works too delve too much into soft political symbolism than aggressive ones.
Whether we like it or not, we have to say that Indian contemporary artists are no longer politically committed. However, they are political in their outlook. They deal with political issues in their works and these issues range right from the religious fundamentalism, ideological production of the ‘other’, segregation of religions and communities, distrust on nationalist narratives, India’s mindless submission to the imperialist forces etc.
But everything has been reduced into metaphors and symbols. Give me one example that talks directly about the political oppression that goes on in different forms in India. We will have to scramble through our memory to find one image that speaks with direct political commitment.
Atul Dodiya’s comments are on our grand National narrative. Baiju Parthan’s paintings with esoteric images are about the apocalyptical nature of the ongoing world war. Debanjan Roy’s Gandhiji is too smooth to carry any political critique. T.V.Santhosh’s war paintings are not particularly about Indian political reality. Riyas Komu’s iconic paintings and sculptures also do not talk about the Indian political scenario precisely. Take any artist, there seems to be a control on our political symbolism. Even Ashim Purkayastha’s dig on Gandhiji and our philatelic tradition seems to be aestheticized to the maximum. B.V.Suresh’s burned bread pieces illustrate a particular political genocide in Gujarat but still controlled in its aesthetics. Vivan’s installation using the image of a dead man lying abandoned in the streets becomes a lamentation.
Should I criticize the Indian contemporary artists for not being overtly political? Or should I ask them to dig deeper into history so that we can address our issues more politically than metaphorically?
Representation of Mao in various ways gave birth to political pop in China. We have not represented any political leader or ideologue in our works of art the way the Chinese artists have done. Why?
I think, we have accepted our grand National narrative as an accepted and acceptable given. We are happy with the historical backdrop against which we are living. We are not ready to deal with the micro narratives of our history, perhaps for safety reasons.
When it comes to the rise of right wing fundamentalism, we look for images from genocides and bomb blasts. Or we go much broader in perspective by painting and sculpting surveillance camera images and war images. Our political views have been reduced to the critique of neo-imperialism that gives us a lot of spectacular and glittering images.
I would like to ask why whenever the right wing forces raise their heads, we refuse to go back to the history of it?
Why have not our artists every tried to paint a critical portrait of Golwalkar and Veer Sawarkar or Bal Gangadhar Tilak who laid the foundations for the Hindu Nationalism. Why have not ever critiqued Gandhiji and Nehru for taking political appeasement as their agenda, in our art? Why have not we every portrayed a Bal Thackaray or Raj Thackary in our works of art, the way the Chinese artists have done their political leaders? Why we have not painted a Murali Manohar Joshi when he tried to re-write Indian history? Why have we not painted a Lal Krishna Advani when he mobilized the destruction of Babri Masjid? Why have we not painted an Atal Bihari Vajpayee? Why have not we painted a Narendra Modi?
You must be remembering the way the Baroda faculty responded to the political vandalism in 2007. They mounted an exhibition showing the representations of nude bodies in Indian tradition. What was that?
Had all the students and artists painted Narendra Modi and mounted a huge exhibition, it would have been the best political response from the artists. Why didn’t they think about it? Does aesthetics means metaphorical and symbolic subtlety?
In Germany during the political oppression in the first half of the 20th century artists delved into a kind of allegorical symbolism to escape the political censorship and wrath. Do we have such a situation right now? If not, why we are so politically complacent and submissive?
We have to accept that we are not in a situation to produce political pop because we are more interested into the pop minus political.
I am not accusing anyone because I too am a part of this complacent approach.
China had a Mao. We don’t even have a ‘meawo’ in us.
Friday, October 24, 2008
I must remember late sculptor Ashokan Poduval, who had this special ability to adopt any language, speak and interpret the ways he wanted. One day, to compete with Ashokan’s ability to speak in Gujarati, another friend spoke something like this:
“Tamaro kahavat sab kuch avanu che’ (there is no meaning)
But immediately came Ashokan’s translation:
“How beautifully you twist facts.”
Charlie Chaplin comes to my mind. In the movie, The Great Dictator, Chaplin plays the role of the German dictator Adenoid Hynkel (a sly reference to Adolf Hitler). In his office he is seen dictating a letter to his beautiful secretary at her typewriter. Chaplin/Hynkel speaks some jumbled up language that sounds like German for a long time and stops. The secretary finishes it with in two strokes on the key board. Then Chaplin says two words and the secretary keeps tying for a long time.
Interpretations could be as hilarious as this.
There is a reason for remembering these two friends (Yes, Ashokan and Chaplin). I happened to be there at the Department of Arts and Aesthetics Auditorium, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi yesterday to attend a lecture on Contemporary Chinese Art by Melissa Chiu, Director Asia Society Museum.
After the presentation, it is mandatory to ask some questions even if the lecture is crystal clear. It is always interesting to see and listen the questions raised by students, who think themselves to be great intellectuals and have a strong grip on the subject that they are speaking on.
One of the students raised her hand and the mike was passed on to her. From her confident and accented ‘talk’ what I gathered was this much: she had seen some Chinese art exhibition somewhere (it implied that she had traveled the world) and had found the art works quite ‘radical’. Her question was whether the Chinese ‘state’ supports such radicalism or not.
The student’s confidence was so high that she was making the statement and raising the question in a very casual manner as if she really did not intend to ask the question but to hold the prestige of the institution where she studies high, she was forced to ask. Then came one of the teachers, who was running up and down the auditorium, handing over the mike to the aspiring debaters. Now it was her duty to explain the question in simple English to the honorable director of the Asia Society Museum.
After this charade, one more student raised her hand. This time it was very difficult to comprehend what she was asking. Almost after three minutes of talk what I gathered from her was one word, ‘commodification.’ Melissa Chiu contemplated for a while and answered the question sensibly saying that commodification of art is an unavoidable evil.
If winter comes far spring be far behind? To keep the gender balance intact, one of the MPhil students who was sitting next to me raised his hand. The mike was handed over to him and his question was simple: “As it is already commodified, what is the point in calling a section of contemporary Chinese art ‘cynical realism’?”
He was direct and simple. The answer was there in the question itself. You need not necessarily call cynical realism cynical because its cynicism has already been subsumed. But for classificatory reasons, there is nothing wrong in calling it cynical realism. The same way Radicalism is Radicalism within the state run museums.
Pablo Helguera defines Land Art as something started by Robert Smithson and Walter de Maria to prove that art exists outside the sacred spaces of museums. And he goes on to say that now one can see the examples of land art in your nearest museum.
I like these compulsive questioners. They just can’t sit in peace once some finishes his/her presentation. They provide me with good comic relief.
There is one professor, who gets up after someone’s presentation and takes the mike in hand. Then he starts from somewhere and reaches somewhere else. Most of the time it oscillates between a dramatic/critical monologue and a question. Even if the speaker has not talked anything about a particular issue, our doubting Thomas would drag the whole issue into his own area of interest. Once the thread is lost both by the speaker and the doubting Thomas, it is the moderator’s job to ‘frame’ a question out of what the doubting profession has said.
I always remember that boy who learnt five sentences on cow by heart and went to the examination hall. But the question was to write five sentences about ‘Head Mistress’. He did not have any clue. So he replaced the word cow with head mistress. So the answer went like: Head Mistress is a domestic animal. She gives milk and dung. Milk is a nutritious drink and dung is used as manure.
There is another compulsive questioner whom I meet quite often in seminars. Like our professor, he too jumps up and grabs the mike. Then he asks whatever he wants quoting from Kant to Derrida. One day he went on and on and the session was adjourned for lunch.
During the luncheon at lawn the inquisitive speaker came up to our friend and asked,
“Tell me, I am curious, what was your point?”
“Point….oh …yes…actually I forgot what I was asking. Just leave it. Let’s us have some kulfi,” answered he.
Going by Francis Bacon’s style I could say something like this:
Some questions are genuine. Some are forced and affected. Some are to be kept away like pestilence. So are the questioners.
I wonder when some senior and learned people raise their hands and once the mike is given, shoot questions that sound too pedestrian. I don’t know whether they feel like neglected if they keep silence. One of my JNU friends says that it shows the ‘power craze of the urban elite intellectual.’ They want to be seen, heard and discussed.
I would like to mention one different set of people who laugh loudly, when the speaker causally says a very subtle joke. It is nice, modest and courteous to laugh when someone says a joke for audience engagement and participation. But what about those people who laughs even when the speaker says something dead serious? In seminars I find these ‘laughers’, who look perfect jokers.
My young friend tells me that he likes to ask questions in seminar because he wants to overcome his inhibitions. I tell him it is a good strategy to develop confidence. But what about those people who sound more confident than confidence itself? They don’t stand and watch a work of art. Instead they squat, an extreme way of showing casual-ness.
Let me conclude the story by remembering Chaplin again. Once Chaplin went to participate in a Chaplin Look-Alike competition. He did not win as there were better Chaplins than Chaplin himself.
In seminar circuit, I don’t think Derrida and Foucault would even win an argument, if they really come and attend one in India.
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
I believe in certain superstitions. I believe there is some invisible ‘stuff’ around us, always watching over our deeds. In closed spaces I look for some movement around me. In hotel rooms I look out for peepholes and surveillance camera. If someone secretly records my acts when I am alone, I may look like a lunatic trying to negotiate with invisible people around me.
I am not joking. In Mayur Vihar Phase III, where we were living in a rented flat, I used to find the bedroom lights on when we came back from our work. So we used to make it sure that the lights were off when we went out. But always the lights were on when we came back. I never tried to probe the reason. We lived in that house for three years with invisible forces watching over our life.
It was not my intention to talk about the ghosts in my life. But my intuitions are very strong. When I think that someone is going to call me, they do call. When I think that I may find my bike tyre flat I find it flat. There was a bad time in my life when I used to see dead bodies everyday. I could explain that there is grave yard, almost a kilometer away from my home. There was a time when I used to go for long bike ridings with my wife and we used to end up in some cemetery. And in those days we used to see a lot of black dogs and black cows crossing our ways. One day a very dark boy appeared before us in one of the traffic junctions in Delhi. He was so dark that he looked ethereal. We tried several times to see him again. But we never saw him again.
One of my superstitions involves getting dresses as gift. Almost five years back, again a very bad time for many of us in the art scene, I was looking for a job immediately after I was forced to resign from a job I was doing then. A friend offered me a job and said that my dresses were not good enough to suit the job, which he was offering me. So he took me to a shop that sold branded clothes. He bought some new clothes for me and I was happy. But in a few months time I fell out with him. Then I scrambled through my memory and I found that whoever had given me some dresses later became my enemies. So whenever a friend offered me a dress I politely rejected it.
But I think now I am getting over that superstition. When I look at my collection of shirts, to my shock I find except for a few T-shirts rest are gifted to me by my friends. I wonder when exactly I started accepting dresses. I cant call my collection of shirts a wardrobe. I have seen wardrobes of Oprah Winfrey, Jayalalitha, Bose Krishnamachari and people of their kind. Mine is just a collection of few shirts. Insignificant, that is the only word I can find to qualify my collection of shirts.
Bose Krishnamachari was curating a show titled SPY in Mumbai and I was there with him at the fag end of preparation for the opening day. Bose decided to buy some new clothes for himself to wear during the opening. He took me to the Narenda Ahmad showroom and asked me to choose any dress I wanted. But I declined to do so because I did not want to fall out with Bose, who is in a way a BOSS to many. If I make an enemy out of him, many may become my enemy in turn. I have experienced it. So I prevented him from buying a pair of clothes for me.
When my friend and business partner Dilip Narayanan, director of Gallery OED, Kochi and a guy with a decent dressing sense and a collection of good and branded clothes, one day took me to a mall and started selecting dresses for me. I don’t know why these guys want me to dress better. Is it because I have a poor sense of dressing or because they find my clothes are not up to their mark so I should wear something that would make me their equals. I don’t know. These are crazy guys. And coming back to the story, Dilip insisted taking some dresses for me and I asked him whether he would like to be my partner for a long time. Only that indirect threat could dissuade him from his buying spree.
But I remember it was Dilip who broke my superstition with dresses as gifts. On one occasion I wanted a black jeans and I found mine dirty. So I borrowed his jeans and wore it. Then I decided not to return it. Ever since that is my jeans. Nothing happened between us. But my consolation is that it was a used jeans and I ‘borrowed’ it from him. But later he ‘gifted’ me a shirt. I waited for my fears to become a reality. But nothing happened. Still we are friends, working together and facing it from both the sides.
Then there was a torrent of gifts for me from so many friends. Somu Desai, my dear friend and a ready man for all occasions, gifted me with two shirts, which changed my looks considerably. Then one day he was staying with me and he found the black shirt that he was wearing dirty. He pushed that into my bag and took one of the shirts from Anubhav Nath who was with me at that point of time. Now, that black shirt is ‘mine’. Yesterday night he called me from Mumbai and told me, “Johny, I am in showroom. I want to buy a shirt for you. Which colour would you prefer?” I was shocked. “Buy a black T-shirt with some prints,” I told him. “Okay done. But you are going to wear it for the next art opening in Mumbai,” he said. I assured him that I would wear it. Somu still remains a friend.
Chintan Upadhyay is another person who gifted me with a shirt (Actually two shirts, one of which I forgot to take from his home in Juhu). He made me to wear those shirts and went on clicking my photographs for three hours in a stretch. Myself and Somu Desai performed before his camera and we called that performance, “Artist and the Critic.” I am sure one day we are going to release these photographs for the public. Manjunath is planning to design a shirt for me. Vaishali Narkar, a Mumbai based artist, recently met me in a gallery and the same evening she brought a packet with three designer shirts and asked me to change myself into one of them, which I happily did. They all remain my friends.
I don’t know the ‘dress superstition’ is still there or not. But I want to tell one more thing, none of these people have ever asked me any favor from me. Nor these gifts have ever made me obliged to them for doing anything out of way.
Now I know why I wrote all these things here. Whenever I attend an art opening, my friends look at me and comment, “Johny, you look really good and different.”
I should thank all my friends who regularly update my collection of shirts. The compliments that I get from beautiful girls actually belong to these friends. I am just a medium to receive those compliments.
Now, it is your turn. I am open. Anybody interested to gift me shirts?
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
I should thank a few people before I talk about a book that I read yesterday night. Thank you Kavitha Balakrishnan, a fellow art historian and writer working from Kerala, for telling me first time that my writing has the verve and joviality of the writings of the New York based Spanish artist Pablo Helguera. She came up in chat box one day and asked me whether I had read this book titled ‘The Pablo Helguera Manual of Contemporary Art Style’. She was looking for a copy of it as she could get a glimpse of it in internet. This conversation happened almost a month back and I contacted all the bookstores in Delhi in vain.
I have this tendency to hunt a book down if I really take fancy of it. Finally I found that it was available in Amazon.com but the problem was that I did not have a credit card to place the order. Then I remembered how I had asked a few friendly gallerists in India to get me interesting books on art from wherever possible. They had readily agreed on this. So I called up to Gallery Espace, New Delhi and they immediately placed the order with Amazon.com.
Thank you, Shweta Bhanot of Gallery Espace for sparing your time for ordering this book. And thank you Renu Modi, director, Gallery Espace, for affectionately dissuading me from paying for the book. And thank you Geetika Goel, again of Gallery Espace for reading the book before I could read it and sending me an sms and an email, saying that she is grateful to me for introducing her to a such a ‘lovely book’.
Yes, it is a ‘lovely’ book. I find it a ‘lovely’ book because it is one of the books, which I would have loved to write. It is a ‘lovely’ book because it is all about looking at the contemporary art scene from an inverted perspective. Again, it is a ‘lovely’ book because it tells the ‘truth about art world’ in such an engaging and funny way that you would not be able to tear yourself away from its pages until you finish reading all the 103 pages.
Perhaps, it is a book that has been already written in the minds of all the people who operate in the art world. But as the survival in a highly competitive art world is a risky affair, none would write it down. Here, we have Pablo Helguera writing it down for all of us. As I mentioned before, it is an inverted perspective and I am sure only inverted perspective could bring out the truth content of things as a normal perspective is a compromised view of things.
Helguera, at the outset itself finds an analogy between the Art World (which he qualifies as AW throughout the book) and the game of chess. According to him, the King is a Museum director, Queen is an art collector, Curators are the rooks, Dealers are the knights, Critics are the bishops and the Artists are the pawns. Like in a chess game, the paws are placed in front and are given freedom to move slowly, step by step. Their aim is to reach the King but there are many hurdles to cross. But unlike in Chess, the paws often try to please the rooks and the knights only to get the attention of the King. But all the pawns are not allowed to reach the king. In the process, many are stopped, discarded and eliminated from the game. However, once a rook reaches the final row and meets the King, he/she achieves a kind of power, which is very difficult to cut down by external forces.
The author is in his satirical best as he talks about each every participant in the AW obliquely. Helguera’s observations are based on the researches and interviews that he conducted in the New York AW. But when we read the book we feel that he is talking about our own AW. That means, wherever it is AWs use the same strategies and cunningness to survive.
I would like to give a few random examples from his writing rather than paraphrasing it:
“Curators, like politicians, should keep a friendly attitude with all artists. Regardless of how weak an artist may appear, it is in the curator’s interest to show attention and sympathy to this artist, as one never knows who may eventually rise to stardom.”
“Art consultants make deals with galleries and specialize in forging friendship with collectors who are extremely rich and extremely ignorant about art in order to help them decorate their residencies. It is the duty of the art consultant to dress extremely well in order to compensate their lack of institutional affiliation, and have a profound knowledge of upper class life in order to converse fluently with collectors, thereby gaining their trust.”
“It is fairly common for curatorial assistants to be in charge of the schedule and travel logistics of international artist who may come to visit institutions in order to mount their art works. This usually also results in brief flings, one-night stands, and even long standing affairs. It is not recommended for young curators to sleep with famous artist, since the rumors can be greatly damaging for the young curators’ career.”
“In order to generate quick exhibition ideas: a) open a dictionary and point a finger to any page randomly; b) take the ‘selected’ word as the topic of the exhibition and search Google using this word along with the phrase ‘contemporary art’; c) generate a preliminary artist list based on the names that will come up from the mentioning of this subject.”
“In order to write an essay on any subject, type the theme of the essay alongside the word ‘conceptual’. The search results will also work as bibliography.”
“The average art dealer will go through difficult financial, and other situations. Nevertheless, dealer should never cease projecting a successful image, even if their business is on the brink of a collapse. It is recommended that the dealer face his or herself at the mirror right after waking up every morning and in complete privacy, repeat: “I am the next Larry Gagosian” or “I am the next Barbara Gladstone.””
“Reviews- that form of writing concomitantly feverishly desired and bitterly hated by the AW, are the critic’s weapons. Everyone will pretend that they have not read them when they are negative, and all will say they read them if they are positive (everyone reads them, in either case.)”
The book is full of suggestions and observations written in a mock serious manner. Anybody operating in the art world is referred, their characteristics are delineated and tips are given to improve their status. Whether to have sex with an artist or art critic is one of the topics. Could you appear in public with a less successful spouse is another issue. Though apparently hilarious, these suggestions and observations would give real time tips to improve one’s own character and also it would help one to have a re-look at one’s own behavior in the AW.
Before I close, let me give a few examples from the ‘glossary’ that Helguera has compiled in the course of his research for this book.
Term that emerges from the fusion of the term ‘ornamentation’ and the name of the philosopher Theodor W.Adorno. The term refers to the practice, favored by certain curators and critics, of compulsively quoting random phrases by philosophers such as Adorno, Baudrillard, Derrida, Deleuze, Nietszche and Benjamin. Adornamentation is characterized by stating a concept that bears no relationship to the topic that is being in discussion. It is often used to prevent any potential criticism of an essay, as the random mention of the quote requires the potential critic to go back and consult the original text-which generally is a very time consuming and ultimately distracting task.
Exhibition space that shows the same kind of art as any art gallery, with the difference that those in charge do not know how to sell art.
Art of antiquity, before the invention of art fairs.
Monthly publication considered as the official magazine of the AW club. Originally conceived to transmit content, it was deemed necessary to add 275 additional pages of advertising to it, allowing 25 pages for the interesting conversations between the editors and their friends.
A marketing concept invented sometime in the nineteenth century, with the supposition that it would be interesting to invite the best artists in the world to the same place every two years to see their work. The proliferation of biennials has resulted in a deficit of ideas; today there are more biennials than rational subjects for a biennial.
Art genre, invented by Robert Smithson, Walter de Maria and Michael Heizer in the sixties in order to question the museum as a sacred space. Today, the works of these artist have become sacred and can be seen at your nearest museum.
The greatest artistic invention of twentieth century.
Symposia about Biennials
Symposia that are organized by international biennials where curators are invited to say that the biennial model has been exhausted, and that there is no other model but to continue being invited to symposia in order to speak about the exhausted model of the international biennial.
(Pablo Helguera is a visual artist living in New York. His work, which ranges from performance art, video, and public art, often involves historical research, fiction, humor, and criticism. Previously, Helguera worked as Senior Manager of Education of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, as well as many other museums. He has described the book as follows: "The Manual is an autobiography of sorts, documenting the anecdotes, behind-the-scenes maneuvers, and interactions that I have observed in the art world over the years. But it also seeks to show the ways in which we all conform to regulated patterns of behavior in order to be admitted into the high spheres of the contemporary art scene. In the art world, we all are performers, and here I tried to describe some parts of our unspoken script".)
(This section in brackets is quoted from an internet source)
Monday, October 20, 2008
The news of his death came to all as a surprise.
His friends asked each other, ‘why, why, why?’
Nobody had an answer. He was successful. He
Recently bought a new car and then moved into
That new house in a posh locality. His stuff from
The old house was packed and moved by the professional
Movers and packers from a reputed gallery. They
Themselves arranged the house as per the directions
Of the well known interior designer, who was his friend.
Since then, I know, my late friend was sad and silent.
Only I know the reason behind his death. He had poisoned
Himself. Postmortem report too said the same thing.
But I know why he poisoned himself. In the new studio
He looked for his palette, he could not find. He looked for
His brushes and he found them in a neat and clean row,
Which he hated. He wanted his music and found them
Well stacked in a shelf and he disliked it. He liked to read
His books and found them arranged in the drawing room
In a glass case without keys. He desired his girlfriend
And found her sleeping in his bedroom with a stranger
No different from his own self, but cleaner and softer.
Then he walked towards his old studio and as you know
He was found dead in an empty room with a vial of
Rainbow in his left hand. The doctor who performed the
Postmortem said, “it was still raining in his heart and
There was sunlight inside his head. And inside his
Right hand, he still had the blueness of a peacock’s dance.”
Saturday, October 18, 2008
In Singapore Art Museum (SAM) the works of the ten finalists for the APB Foundation Signature Art Prize 2008 are displayed. I walk through the halls and examine each work carefully. The finalists have been selected by a panel of reputable art experts and the works on display prove that they have not gone by any prejudice; each work looks good and declares the talent of the artist. I am with G.R.Iranna, the Indian finalist and I am sure that he would get one of the prizes as his work stands out and draws a lot of attention from the visiting art lovers.
While walking along with the guests, I keep telling myself that I should not be prejudiced. If I see an excellent work, I should be able to say this is the one I like, without being restricted by my national pride. Yes, of course, theoretically even if you don’t like to be attached to any nationalist sentiments, when you are away from your own country, suddenly from nowhere patriotic sentiments start invading your otherwise calm mind. I should restrict such invasions.
These days, as you know, exhibitions look incomplete without a couple of dark rooms, where you expect a video work. If there is no video in a show, that might look slightly anachronistic. So in any Indian or foreign gallery, you come across these dark rooms. Here also I see a dark room and with a smile I enter the space. Except for darkness there is nothing in this room. I have a pair of trained eyes and I know where to look for the work or the video projector. I find one and immediately I make out that it is a slide projection work. Crude it may sound, but slide projections at times make better works than actual videos. Anoop Mathews Thomas is one of the contemporary Indian artists who make use of slide projections well.
I ask the security guard to switch on the machine and he does it promptly. Unlike the Indian museum staff, these security guards do not scramble here and there to find an excuse for not delivering their duties. As he switches it on, the machine comes to life with a whirring sound. I look at the blank wall opposite to it and here we go.
These slides show the images from the archives of Malaysia. There are seventy one slides with the images ranging from 1863 to 2003. The artist is Ahmad Fuad B.Osman. The sepia toned images show how Malaysia conducted itself through time; right from colonial period to now. I watch all the slides and I become curious as I find one bearded man, who almost looks like a musician in contemporary clothes taking part in all the historical events. He is the only person see in color and the artist has used the photoshop software to include him in all the pictures, but with a lot of imagination. He does not look out of context or out of place. It may not be a mind blowing technique or a new artistic approach. I have seen a lot of works like that done by Indian as well as foreign artists. What catches my imagination is the idea of participation and witnessing expressed through this work.
I take this man in the picture for the artist. Later I am corrected by the artist himself that it is one of his friends modeling for him. Reason, the man looks more like the artist but with a beard. He looks likes a man who is so eager to be a part of the history, like any other person would like to have a share of his country’s history. Malaysia celebrated its 50th anniversary of Independence in 2007 and the government archives released a lot of pictures for integrating the public through patriotic imagination. For the artist, these pictures became a point of reference for articulating his ideas about colonialism, freedom and neo-imperialism.
I meet that artist later. I chat up with him and I have this strong feeling that I know him somehow. I am sure that I have not met him before nor have I seen his works.
Ahmad Fuad B.Osman must be 5’7” tall. He is in a white shirt and blue jeans. He reminds me of one of the members of the Indian football team, especially from the North Eastern region. Perhaps, he looks more like a musician than a visual artist. He studied art at the Fine Arts Faculty, University of Technology Mara (UiTM), Malaysia. He has done a residency in South Korea and currently he is one of the well sought out artists in the country. He does paintings (excellent ones), performance art, videos, photography and installations. He plays guitar and has connections with a lot of intellectuals, writers, theatre personalities and musicians.
“When I started off my career as an artist, a few galleries in Kuala Lumpur asked me to do the kind of paintings prevalent at that time. I did not want to do it. So I went to do some odd jobs and kept on doing the works I wanted to do till I found market success recently,” Ahmad Fuad tells me.
I have this perennial itch to ask this question: “Are you born in 1969?”
To my surprise, he says ‘yes’. Another artist born in 1969. I am thrilled.
I have this strange obsession to meet up with people who are born in 1969 as I also was born in the same year. I mark the people born in this year as a kind of cusp people, who did not have the chance to grow with post-modern technology but were forced to catch up with it in a mature period. These people studied in conventional disciplines and were then forced to switch to other disciplines in a later stage. These people grew up in a nationalist tradition but were forced to re-think about their nationalist tradition when they were in their early 20s. These people imbibed the lessons of international rebellion and world revolution in their late teens and were later forced to switch their allegiance to market economy. These people thought a lot about committing suicide when they were young and survived only because they had this sheer grit to live.
Now I want to know more about Ahmad Fuad and I am sure that he is going to tell me something that is similar to the people of this generation in India.
“My family does not have any artists to claim a lineage,” Ahmad Fuad tells me. “I came to the city to study art. I could have gone back to my village that is quite far from the city, and could have become an art teacher or could have started a business. But I wanted to become an artist so decided to stay back in the city.”
I am listening and finding parallels.
Ahmad Fuad, as I mentioned earlier, was asked to work according to the then selling style, which he flatly refused. So what did he do?
“I worked as a set designer for theatre groups where I came across intellectuals and writers. It was good to be with them. I found like minded artists and strugglers like me and we decided to stick together and do works which suited to our ideas and attitudes.”
There were a few galleries. It was mid 1990s. The country’s economy was opened to globalization like any other country in South Asian region. People were confused and art was the last thing someone took up for eke out a living. But Ahmad Fuad and his friends trusted their works so much that they never thought of leaving it for pursuing fulltime careers in other fields. They sang their blues and Ahmad Fuad played guitar to belt out his blues.
As there was no help coming out of any quarters, they decided to set up a self-help group and it was called ‘MATAHATI’. In Malay language it means ‘The Eye of the Soul.’
“We were five and we had a five years agenda. We thought we would stay together, work together and exhibit together till we find our own ways. We did a few exhibitions that caught the eyes of the connoisseurs in my country. They took notice of our work though money did not come in. But slowly our country also started having an art market system and we got noticed.”
What happened to the Five Year agenda of Matahati?
“We are still together because we find we have a lot to do and our egos have not affected our mutual relationships,” smiles Ahmad Fuad.
When he recalls his times of struggle, I can see how Indian contemporary artists also went through the same struggle in the same period. In early 1990s most of the artists were a disillusioned lot. Like the beads of a broken chain most of them were thrown here and there. Many went back to their villages to live an obscure life and many migrated to the cities. They worked in different places, menial jobs and went back to their shacks with never ending hopes.
“Now we are all in an upbeat mood with the galleries pitching in to support the young artists. However, compared to the International scene, we have a long way to go. But the economic changes have brought in positive thinking. We are able to do ambitious works and travel the world,” Ahmad Fuad says with a glitter in his eyes.
So is he still doing the theatre set designing job?
“No,” says Ahmad Fuad. “Not as a job. But I still collaborate with people from different fields and do collaborative works. In that sense I enjoy working with the theatre groups.”
Finally has he moved to the flat of his own?
“I am still living in suburbs, but I think I am able to find out a good accommodation and studio space there. We all meet in the city quite often and city energizes us to create new works,” he says.
Do you find any difference between his story and the story of our contemporary artists?
Friday, October 17, 2008
“What a tremor before it, and what a feeling of nothingness after.”
Finally I get a copy of ‘The Sexual Life of Catherine M’, an autobiography, a volume of intimate confessions sans regret or guilt, from a bookstall at Changi Airport, Singapore. I was not particularly hunting for this book. But in my mind the desire to have a copy of this book was always there since I got introduced to it in 2002 through an article written by the veteran editor, S.Jayachandran Nair, who was instrumental in making me one of the widely read journalists in Kerala.
For those who are familiar with the international art scene, particularly the art scene of France, Catherine Millet is a familiar name. She is an art critic, curator and editor. She edits the magazine, Art Press and she was the curator of the French section of the 1989 Sao Paulo Biennale and the French Pavilion at the 1995 Venice Biennale.
As the title shows, this book is all about Catherine Millet’s sexual life. An art critic’s sexual life need not necessarily be interesting as that of an artist, who gets more opportunities to bed and get bedded. However, Millet’s life is more exciting, exalting and exhausting. While you read this book, from the dark recesses of your mind, carnal instincts raise their hoods, they capture you by force, throw you into a realm of desires, torture you holding between the crushers of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, wake up the sado-masochists tendencies lie dormant in you and it shakes up you thoroughly. It is a life told with crystal clear transparency. It is all about her life, sex and sexual adventures.
“Talk to me.”
I cannot take my eyes off from the pages of this book. During the five hours of flight, my mind is as aroused as sexually desiring body. The pages move fast as if I was exploring the bodily secrets of a virgin. Each word simulates the curves of a virgin body, voicing the hushed up groans. ‘Fasten your seat belt. We are passing through a turbulent weather,” announces the flight commander. I realize that I never got time to unfasten the belt. I have already been going through a turbulent weather.
Catherine Millet likes to have sex with a lot of men, one by one in succession and also in group sex fondly called orgies. She speaks of her sexual initiation at the age of 18, not a shocking age as far as a Parisian girl is concerned. But once she is initiated, she is bewitched. She wants more, more and more.
Millet belongs to the flower power generation and sexual liberty was one of the hallmarks of the time. Feminists were already asking the women all over the world to burn their bras. But Millet is not interested in the feminist exhortations. She is interested in her body and her mind, and their arcane passions. She has sex with a friend, then the friend becomes a facilitator. He brings more men and ‘manages’ the orgies like a diligent control of events.
Men come and go. Millet does not know who these people are. But she knows their organs penetrating her, their desires caressing her, their perversions making her an acrobat of passion. Each of her bodily pores is filled with the unbridled heat of these men. She remembers, may be forty seven of them, but they are innumerable, artists, art students, strangers, friends, art critics, musicians and they are as varied as their career and tastes.
“Don’t come so fast…hold it…and push it.”
Catherine Millet is not the first one to have multiple orgies and multiple sexual partners. But her importance lies in her guiltless and forthright narrative with a literary flourish. And it is a big task to hide the identities of the men in question, especially her field of work is known to all. But she does it with verve, never revealing the surname of her partners.
In the well stocked library of the Goldsmiths College, University of London, for the first time I came across a women who was more or less like Millet. I was searching for Millet and I chanced up on Anne Sprinkle. It was in 2002, the same year, Millet work was translated from French to English.
Anne Sprinkle was a professional sex worker in New York. She would have ended up as one of those hapless hookers, but with her sheer grit and love for life, Sprinkle raised her position as a ‘Love Guru’ or ‘Sex Guru’, but a serious one without exotic frills. She obtained a doctorate from one of the universities in the US, in sexology.
Sprinkle’s life fascinated me at that point of time. She had multiple partner sex, orgies and lesbian relationships. Now, she is a ‘performance’ artist in her own way. You may google her to know more about her art projects.
Looking for Millet and Anne Sprinkle in 2002 took me to a video, which made me cry. I forgot the name of that girl who was ‘performing’ in that video voluntarily. Coming from some South East Asian country, this girl’s interest was to have sex with maximum number of men. She organized this performance and several young men turned up to ‘screw’ her.
In the video I saw these men standing in a queue, waiting for their turn to fornicate her, while she opened her all bodily openings for sexual entry on a platform set up in the middle of the hall. She received them one by one, at times several at one go, front, back, mouth, ear, hands and wherever imaginable. She left the stage only to take a leak. The documentary showed her having sex with around 500 men. And it was declared as a world record.
However, she is repentant in the video. She goes back to her country and meets her parents. She has told them that she is working in a medical facility in the US. Later she confesses her acts to her mother. The mother is shocked. She hugs her. And she cannot even cry as she could not understand the magnitude of her daughters ‘act’.
My research went on to find out more people who have done it and I did find a few more videos with women showing their sexual prowess with innumerable number of women. But I was not interested as those videos and the women featured in those were slipping into the realm of pornography.
“I don’t come so fast…It takes a lot of time.”
Catherine Millet is not here to prove anything. She just goes on with her experiments. She loves her body and mind. She detaches herself from the act and sees it objectively. She is a participant and a voyeur at the same time. She has read Georges Bataille to prove her point, but then she grows tired of philosophizing her act. She is just candid about her experiences and experiments.
The book could be read as pure pornography and one can derive sexual titillation from each sentence. But for me, it is not about pornography; it teaches me about my carnal desires, its depth and breadth. It gives me an opportunity to have a re-look at the ill and well tested abilities of my sexual life.
Millet likes to have sex in open places as much as she likes it in closed rooms. One day she was having it in a forest area clearing by the roadside. She was pinned up on the bonnet of a car and her partner was on her. Her eyes were closed, body and mind completely concentrating on the constant hammering inside her. Suddenly she felt a piercing light on her eyes. She opens her eyes and sees that they were under a flood of spot light. She was not sure whether it was the light of a four wheeler or a two wheeler. However, she refused to acknowledge the presence of that light and continued with their act. She says it was one of the most pleasurable moments in her experiments as she did not know it was a voyeur watching over their act or someone accidently caught them in the act and got frozen by the vision.
“You looked very tender when you finally came.”
I try to sense the language of Catherine Millet. If you don’t have the subtle sense of aesthetics, you are going to read it as pure pornography as Millet uses the words like ‘cunt’, ‘dick’, ‘prick’, ‘cum’ and all those words operative in the realm of pornography, profusely. But, the sense of urgency and calmness (contradicting pulses of a narrative) with which she writes take these words beyond the arena of pornography.
I wish I could write something like this about my sexual experiments. But then in our middle class morality, it would sound too blasphemous. Hold on, for a moment, I feel Catherine Millet’s writing is pure fiction and she never tells which part is fiction and which part is a figment of her imagination.
In the world of imagination, I feel, we all share Catherine Millet and her life in one or the other way. Between the coyness and bold action there lies a subtle area of repression. Once you break it, you are free and you see yourself in all the possible angles, perhaps you never knew that you could bend your body like that little Chinese gymnast.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
My wife, Mrinal Kulkarni, and some of my friends like Dilip Narayanan, Anubhav Nath and so on call me a narcissist. Reason, I spend more time with myself, enjoying my reading, writing and aloofness. But whenever I am accused of being a narcissist, I ask myself, ‘what is the problem?’ End of the day, who is not a narcissist?
I don’t see people as people but as a vast garden of flowers that look at their own reflection in the nearest pool- self absorbed, happily melancholic and passionate about their own metamorphosis.
If you have seen me in person, you must be knowing that I am not so self absorbed kind. I can listen to people for endless hours without uttering a word. I keep my eyes listening more than my ears do. It is here in the eyes that a person’s capacity to listen lies. You can make out from the eyes of a person who wanders away from your words even while giving all ears to you.
I listen with my eyes.
I can see words forming in the void, grouping together like clouds in a troubled sky and shower on me with meanings. My narcissism ends where that of the other begins.
Through the opened door, rain comes in to my room. She gets wet. She wants to be the most tender shoot of the plant down there on the fence, which revels itself in the wiry embrace of water. She wants to step out and get drenched completely. I don’t want to come back to my desk in soaked clothes. She calls me a narcissist.
Who is a narcissist? The one who wants to get drenched for the pure pleasure of it, or the unromantic me, who just wants to work on in dry clothes?
Look at this picture. It was taken on that day when an artist friend called me a ‘narcissist.’
“You take too much pride in your writings and your journal. In fact, without you the contemporary art can function,” he said.
“Without Indian contemporary art, the whole universe can function,” I tell him calmly. I am sure, the people have now choices. Art is not the only route to sublime life. May be to rephrase it, art is not the essential route to sublime.
But I felt bad. I was standing near a pool. I looked at my reflection and found that when I saw myself in other’s words, I got self-absorbed. Narcissism is the ideal way of identifying one’s real self through reflecting on others. Hence, a narcissist, during the moments of self absorption, does not think about himself/herself. He thinks about his own self as seen reflected in others.
If the artist’s words had hurt me, it was because I was seeing me in him. My ultimate uselessness as a writer and his ultimate futility as an artist- two flowers brooding over their flimsy existence.
Then Madhusudhanan, an artist friend turned his camera at me and I smiled. As you see in the picture above, I never thought I could smile at my futility so well and so full. Such a narcissist I am!
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Table number 15 looks like an island- just like Singapore- multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and densely populated.
I sit at this table like a ship wrecked sailor, along with nine others of different nationalities and racial features. Marooned in this strange island, unlike a naturally ship wrecked sailor I feel happy even in the indecisiveness moments of witnessing and confrontation. I don’t look for a savior ship to come along at the horizon line as I could see my friends-artists-sitting at table number 8, another island of strangeness and intimacy.
It is a grand gala dinner, to be precise, a black tie dinner- the guests should be wearing three piece suits and a neck-tie, and they should be extremely sophisticated in their demeanor. Women should come in elegant party clothes, the blacker the dress, the better. I am in my black best, including my proud black skin.
The yellow light oozing out from the chandeliers hanging low from the roof light up the predominant yellow skin, turning the hall into a pack of embers; black suits and glowing faces, hands and legs. It feels good like a hearth, still comforting in its frightening warmth.
My artist friend G.R.Iranna is here to receive an award instituted by the Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation in collaboration with the Singapore Art Museum (SAM). Named ‘APB Signature Award’, it would be bestowed on five artists from the South East Asian region; one Grand Award (S$ 45000), three Jury Awards (S$10000 each) and one Popular Award (S$10000).
I am sure Iranna is going to get one of the awards. At the table number eight, I can see, Iranna animatedly talking to the artist friends that he made during the five days of his stay in Singapore. His wife and artist Pooja Iranna looks gorgeous in her black party outfit and she too beams with happiness. From the shipwrecked sailor’s loneliness I look at her, with some kind of desire. The candle flame adds a dash of red and white mix on her cheeks and the puffed up hair glows. She looks more Spanish than Indian. I feel like making salsa movements with her- a shipwrecked sailor’s wild dreams.
(Later, after the party, Pooja would tell me, ‘Forget this dress and happiness. I just got an sms from India that my maid is going on leave for the coming ten days. So I would be spending most of the time in kitchen.” Another Cinderella story’s endless rendition)
I am reluctant speaker in parties. The white woman who is on my left makes some attempt to talk to me and I found her immensely boring in her hush-hush judgments on the works of art that she had seen in the morning at SAM. Her opinion sucks. Next her there is a white guy, another ‘freelancing’ journalist, who seems to be confused in making a choice between the white woman on his right or the Singaporean woman on his right. His middle-aged face becomes a screen of passions that flit between pure flirtation and burning desire. On my right, there are five women, all of them more or less look plump and pompous in their party mood.
Polite and pretty maids move amongst the guests as if they were doing a slow moving dance to a music which is played out in their minds. When I don’t want to speak to my fellow guests, I wistfully look at these angelic maids. They have trained eyes and they understand the meaning of each facial expression. Wasting no moments, one of them comes forward to replace the empty glass before me with a glass full of chilled beer.
There is some kind of cannibalism in drinking beer, I imagine for I think a glass of beer is a ‘live’ thing. It comes before you as if it were going to die and it leaves the last whiffs of breath in a continuous releasing of bubbles. But unlike a live animal that goes cold in death, beer turns warm in its death and its death intoxicates you slightly and you start to see things in its colour- the golden bubbly sheen.
I am a bad conversationalist in parties. People find me a boring company. But I have reasons for keeping quite. I believe in a seducer’s enigma. They guys who go out and out to talk and win, lose a lot of energy and grace in the process, whereas the enigmatic one would hold a lot of charm for a prolonged time, though he would go back to his bed alone.
Besides, I feel the party conversations are like a beautiful ancestral dress mended and worn again and again. The one who wears it should be supremely careful, if not any casual or mindless movement could reveal the stitches and mending. If you are not careful, your conversation could lead you into a disaster.
So I keep quite but the lady next to me wants to speak to me. I am not able to make out her nationality. In Singapore, everyone looks as if coming from every other place. I have not met a real Singaporean yet.
She too is shipwrecked and I look at her name as she looks at my name placed on a card before me. She is Soffy Hariyanti.
“Are you a journalist?” she asks.
“Yes, from India,” I tell her. Table number 15 is for journalists and she seems to know that.
Between silent interludes, I tell her about my mission and she tells me that she is the Press Secretary to the Minister of Transport and Home Affairs, who has come here to give away awards to the winners.
I am impressed. I have seen several press secretaries in Delhi, all throwing their weights around (literally). But this lady is quite. I am curious too. For me it is a chance to see an original Singaporean, if she is one.
“I have not seen a native of Singapore. Are you one?” I ask her. This is why I say I am a bad conversationalist. I ask things without frills.
“Hmm…my mother is from Malasia and father from Indonesia. But I am born and brought up in Singapore,” Soffy says. Now it is my responsibility to accept her as an original Singaporean and she does not seem to have any particular affinity for her parent’s original nationalities.
Soffy Hariyanti is a Singaporean and we talk. I ask the meaning of her name. She is confused. ‘Soffy’ means ‘wise’ but Hariyanti, the Malay word, she does not have any clue.
The official language of Singapore is Malayese. But people have accepted English as their first language for the number of linguistic groups settled in this island country is as varied as their racial features. So Soffy too speaks English and she is a graduate in Business Administration. The government job, initially was an experiment for her and now she enjoys it. Once in every two years, she is deputed in a new department and she enjoys the challenge of learning new things. “Many people don’t like government jobs as they are asked to take different responsibilities,” Soffy says.
During the last two days, I had noticed one thing in Singapore streets- no presence of kids. This country does not have too many kids. I had counted four pregnant women in the last two days.
Singapore has a population of around 5 million people that includes the permanent residents and the floating migrant population. But as the space is less, they say, it is thickly populated and the government had to take population control measures in 1970s. But now the government seems to be in a different mood. It gives tax exemptions and other incentives to the people who are in the family line, encouraging more to make the ‘plunge’.
“There was a time when the maternity leave was just for two months. Then they increased it to three months and now it is four months with full salary,” says Soffy. And soffy has two kids; three year old Alya and one year old Aamir.
“The ‘sublime’ and the ‘Prince,” this time she does not forget to translate their names. Then we change into parental modes. We talk about the behavioral changes in a three year old, their schooling, their demands, their interests etc etc.
“My daughter is very choosy about her dresses,” Soffy says.
“My son, Maitreya is also choosy about clothes,” I tell her. She asks me the meaning of Maitreya. I tell her that it is the name of the Last Buddha, which she understands but is intrigued why we chose a ‘Buddhist’ name for a Christian child. I tell her that I am Hindu with a Christian name, still cherishing a ‘black’ desire to call my son after my favorite film actor, ‘Denzel Washington’, to which she laughs her heart out.
Soffy is a Muslim and she is married to a Financial Analyst working with corporate sector. Her parents are around so that they could afford to have children as they promised to take care of the kids, which many of the grandparents refuse to do these days in Singapore. The maid servants are available and they do only stipulated jobs. They simply don’t look after kids.
What about the youngsters who want to come into the family line? What is the supporting system they have? “The society is changing quite fast and western values are readily adopted. There are many living in relationships. People are reluctant to get married. Then it is all about personal choice, none can pressurize them,” Soffy says.
How does this society take care of the emotional breakages and hurts, I wonder. “The young generation is not excessively sentimental like the previous generations. They have learnt to move on even if a relationship fails. This society cannot afford to have too much of emotional burdens,” Soffy comments.
Soffy tells me about the television channels that the young generation watches. There are several channels that play up traditional values, but those are watched by the older people. The fast track generation wants it now and here and they know how to choose their channels.
It is time to leave. Soffy has given me a few valuable insights about the Singaporean life and society. She says her chauffer must be have come around by this time and with a chuckle she says that her chauffer is her husband himself.
I have this itch to ask her one last question: Is she a 1969 born?
“No, 1975,” she smiles.
We shake hands and say good bye. While she floats away from the table, I see Iranna walking towards me with the Jury Award Trophy in his one hand and his Spanish lady in the other.
I hold the loneliness by its waist and waltz into the liquid yellowness of the Singaporean night.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
It is six in the morning. Bencoolen Street in Singapore has just woken up back to its busy life. This street has a lot of hotels on the either side of the road. Tourists from all over the world fill in the streets and you wonder where all the natives have gone. You cannot make out a native Singaporean from the visitor as all of them look like tourists in a tiny country with democratically elected government with ‘no opposition’.
The eateries on the waysides are the most popular haunts after the glittering malls of desire and consumption. The food courts are already active with young people puffing away cigarettes over their breakfast or morning tea. An infant sun tries to compete with the electrical illuminations in the street, and both the lights together give a kind of surreal sheen to the skins of the youngsters settled at the eateries.
Along with the aroma of the cooked food in the air, there comes a familiar sound; Tamil Songs. Many of the eateries are run by Tamils and Sri Lankans who have made Singapore their home ages back. I look at the tourists, most of them are from Japan and their only reason to enjoy a Tamil song in the early morning is their fascination for the ‘Dancing Maharaja of Indian screen’, Rajnikanth. Perhaps, I am wrong. Deeply immersed in thoughts they may not be listening to the songs. Or if at all they are listening, they are listening to foot tapping music; not the words.
I am out here for jogging; the irresistible feeling to run in a country where I am a first time visitor. I have my running shoes on and as I am not sure about the jogging conditions here, I prefer to stay in my jeans and T-shirt. But I don’t find any joggers in the street. May be, this well planned place have got places particularly marked out for jogging. I don’t know that place, if at all it is there.
Jogging has a lot to do with writing or any other creative practice. If you are an excellent jogger, then you would know the nuances of creative life. Or I would say, you need not be a jogger, you can be anything, but doing some rigorous physical work, then you would know what all creative life means.
I ask myself, why do I write this? Let me tell you, the reason is none other than the Japanese novelist and writer Haruki Murakami. I have been seeing Murakami’s works in the shelves of various book stores that I visit wherever I go, but have never felt like picking up on for reading. Of late, I was in Kochi and the book I had taken for reading was over by the flight landed at the airport.
I am like a patient who is suffering from breathing problems. Like the person needs an artificial supply of oxygen at regular intervals or constantly, I need books with me. Books are my lifeline.
In Kochi, I asked my friend Feroze Babu to take me to a good book stall. He took me the most famous one and to my shock I found that it was closed for stock verification. Feroze asked me not to panic. He took me to the beautiful Mattancheri where there is a place called Greenex. It is a complex where the foreign tourists are invited to have a glimpse of Kerala’s culture. They can enjoy whatever exotic stuff Kerala has under one roof. There is a book stall for the tourists to make leisurely purchases for soul.
I don’t believe in the airport and touristy bookstalls. I have a feeling that these bookstalls do not stock serious books. With the eyes closed you can say which are all the titles they have- Shantaram, Paulo Coelho, Chicken Soup for Soul Type, packaged Indian spirituality, Arundhati Roy, Richard Branson, Barak Obama, Hillary Clinton, Dalai Lama, Rajneesh, PG Wodhouse, Shobha De, Khushwant Singh and so on. Last not but the least, Stephen King’s ‘The Brief History of Time’- It is a must.
But let me tell you, I have found the most interesting books from such bookstalls so I cannot just write them out. I always wonder how these books find their way to the shelves.
I see Haruki Murakami’s book titled ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’. It sounds as if it was one of those self-help, personality development, management, chicken soup kinds. But the word ‘Running’ in the title attracts me. What this guy has got to do with running? Hemingway used to be attracted to sea, fishing and voyages. Marquez used to travel a lot as a journalist. But here is a guy, a best selling, award winning novelist talking about running. I am a runner too (no, not a runner in serious terms, but a passionate jogger) and I like reading offbeat writings.
Back in the loneliness of hotel room, I introduce myself to Murakami and he introduces himself to me, of course through his words. Born in Kyoto in 1949, Murakami started off his life as an entrepreneur (basically running a bar) and later left his bar career for writing. His novels are widely translated into forty two languages. And, he started jogging when he was in his thirties.
That interests me. I too have started my running in my late thirties. Murakami, became an accomplished runner and he participated in several marathons held all over the world. After gaining fame and fortune as a writer, he got enough time to train himself as a marathon runner. The more he ran the more he became creative. The more he ran the more he became a visionary. And his life as a runner should fascinate anyone who has done any kind of physically taxing hobby or work.
Many people ask what a runner thinks when he runs a long distance. I myself have asked this question to myself several times. When I run around six kilometers a day, I think I should be planning my day out, or planning my week, or at least plan my one piece of writing. But then this whole planning vanishes. You start concentrating on the pains that slowly clutches your toes, calves, knees, thighs, back and shoulders. You feel like stopping it at the third or fourth round. Then slowly your body achieves a rhythm that vibes well with your breathing. Then you forget everything, your thoughts, your pains and even your running. You become running and the running becomes you.
Murakami reveals the same thing. He asks, what does he think when he is running? He thinks about what he could be thinking. Then the same process, the pain, the conflict of mind, whether to leave it half way or not. Then the ultimate liberation of all thoughts. You become the runner.
For Murakami, pain is the ultimate thing. If you have experienced pain then you understand your body through that pain. When you are a runner, you experience pain and once the pain is liberated, you understand your system and this understanding helps you to focus and gives you the capacity of endurance- two virtues essential for a writer. Running makes you focused and the pain sets your body for endurance. If you have a grain of sand inside your running shoe, your running loses rhythm, the same way, a disturbing thought throws you out of balance while writing.
The book captivates me; not because it is a manual for any runner, but it is a philosophy of life. Murakami, while narrating the experience of running in different places, countries and distances, speaks of the people whom he has confronted, the incidents that he has witnessed and the breathing rhythms of the people who run along with him.
Murakami likes running because, it is not about confrontations and competitions. Running is all about proving something to one’s own self. It does not demand external help, what you need is a pair of running shoes, a bottle of water and your decision to run. Perhaps, this suits me too. I don’t want to confront any one and I don’t want to defeat anyone. The happiest thing in my life, or the happiest thing that I do in my life is being alone, sitting at my desk and jotting down my thoughts. The pleasure is something similar to long distance running. It is pure loneliness and liberation. In my ageing body, it once again brings back the spring of creativity and I become a garden of words and imagination.
“In the 1980s I used to jog every morning in Tokyo and often passed a very attractive young woman. We passed each other jogging for several years and got to recognize each other by sight and smile a greeting each time we passed. I never spoke to her (I am too shy), and of course don’t even know her name. But seeing her face every morning as I ran was one of life’s small pleasures. Without pleasures like that, its pretty hard to get up and go jogging every morning,” writes Murakami. True, true, true, I say in elation. There are some presences in your jogging track, some passing fragrances, some fleeting glances that make you tick. Murakami’s writing become all the more enduring because he captures the flimsy beauty of life and make them eternal in his words.
I will not ask you to start running from tomorrow morning onwards. But do something that would make you understand your body, mind and your divine bonding with the world and its immense secrets that could be revealed only through the tools of creativity. That’s why I smile at those sleeping boys, who wake up late and wash their faces with beer, dip crumbs of gossip in their morning tea and waste away their time in mutual admiration, all in the name of art and creativity!
Saturday, October 11, 2008
In the dimly lit hotel room, we meet, three friends, K.M.Madhusudhanan, Jeevan Thomas and myself. Jeevan Thomas, the sculptor has come all the way from Trivandrum to Kochi only to attend the opening of K.M.Madhusudhanan’s solo show at the Gallery OED, Kochi. They were batch mates during the most turbulent times in the history of Trivandrum Fine Arts College. It was mid 70s and the atmosphere was charged up with revolutionary ideas. They once drank from the same cup, which was filled with the intoxicating thoughts of social revolution.
My mobile phone rings for the nth time and I pick it up with some kind of impatience.
“Where are you?” someone roars from the phone and without a moment’s thought I make out it is the voice of Jeevan Thomas. “Come over, I am in Madhu’s room,” he tells me.
When I enter the room, I have a guitar hanging from my shoulders. Madhu and Jeevan look at me with amusement.
“Oh….I bought it for my son,” I just explain to dispel their doubts regarding my prowess in music.
“May be people will think that you are a guitarist,” Jeevan teases me and what he says is right.
After getting out of the musical instruments shop, I hired an auto-rickshaw. The traffic was too much and I was feeling bored. To kill boredom, I took out the guitar from the case and started strumming it to my satisfaction. I could see people from other vehicles and wayside gazing at me with some kind of admiration or scorn in their eyes. Soon I was pretending myself as an accomplished guitarist.
I don’t find Jeevan’s teasing offensive. However I remember the day he really teased me, perhaps offended me.
I used to be an aspiring poet, while doing my graduation in English Literature at University College, Trivandrum. I enjoyed spending time with Fine Arts College students, either in their college, or in their library or in the famous public library. Whenever I had a poem ready, I recited it for my close friends from the Fine Arts College. We spent our evenings on a granite slab, drinking endless cups of tea, smoking weed, discussing art and wistfully looking at the setting night.
One day, while discussing art or literature Jeevan Thomas appeared from somewhere fully drunk. He waited for a moment to get the direction of our discussion and then without any provocation he started abusing me.
“I know you, you are a sentimental poet who writes sentimental bullshit in third rate magazines,” Jeevan roared. His mane flew in the wind and he really looked like a lion against the setting sun. I was deeply hurt.
I was deeply hurt to such an extent that I was totally numb. I did not know what to do with him. Crestfallen and hurt, I took my bicycle and left the place.
I could not sleep the whole night. I wanted to wreck revenge on him. Hence, I started practicing some fighting techniques at home. My reference was popular films and I started imitating the action heroes of that time. I plunged the kitchen knife into the trunks of several plantain trees, tried to push my finger into burning sand, tried to break a few tiles or bricks with my fist. And in each attempt, I was getting more and more hurt physically.
After the martial art preparation for a week or so, I went to the Public Library campus and waited for Jeevan to make his dramatic appearance. I studied the angles, vantage points from where I could spring on to his body. I was constantly looking at the neck of a friend who was sitting next to me. There was an urge in me to strangulate this boy so that I could catch hold of Jeevan’s neck without failing an inch.
Finally Jeevan came. He shook hands with everyone. He held my hands and smiled at me as if nothing had happened between us. Some of my friends knew that I went there that evening to take revenge on Jeevan. They were waiting for the dramatic events to take place. Jeevan was cool and my throat dried up. I wanted to confront him and hit him. But he was not offending me.
He offered me the cigarette, which he was smoking. My fists throbbed in the pain of one week’s intensive martial art practice.
“Shall I take a cigarette?” I ask Jeevan and he readily offers the packet to me. Jeevan has grown old. But his enthusiasm for life, social revolution and art is not diminished a bit. Now he gives classes for the children of Sree Chitra Poor Home in Trivandrum. He invites people from different fields to give classes for these orphaned kids. When a van is available, Jeevan takes these kids to galleries in Trivandrum.
“I would like to come and see these children, when I come to Trivandrum next,” I tell Jeevan. He is extremely happy.
“I just cannot get out of that feeling…” pitches in Madhu. He is talking about cinema.
“The paraphernalia of watching a movie in a local theatre…oh my goodness…that is intoxicating. The songs, slide shows, news reels, forthcoming film trailers, advertisements, the darkness, the aroma of local cigars, the occasional cat cryings and whistles, the breaking of reels, the light of a forty watt bulb, the iron buckets filled with sand as if they were fire extinguishers….oh…for me film is that…the ambience. Now with the multiplexes the feel of watching a movie has gone…Still I cannot get out of it,” Madhu ruminates.
Madhu makes a very strong black tea. While drinking he says it is Yugoslavian rum and he offers it to me. I tell him that I don’t like East European liquor and we all laugh.
“When I listen to some old songs, my childhood comes back to me,” Jeevan picks up the thread of the talk from where Madhu left it. “These songs were played in the local theatre before the actual show. And these songs decided our daily rituals. Pain, pleasure and lot of pleading for a few coins to buy tickets…” Jeevan is silent now.
Sipping his Yugoslavian rum, Madhu remembers Marcel Proust and his ‘Remembrance of the Things Past.’ The flood gates of memory were opened when Proust dipped a piece of cake into his morning tea and he followed those memories to write his magnum opus.
Then Madhu remembers Louis Bunuel. “He was a reluctant film maker. He never wanted to part with the stories within him. His associates used to give him flavored martini and with each sip, Bunuel remembered the scenes and recounted it as if he were in a trance. And his associates noted down all what he said and those were his shooting script,” Madhu says.
I tell them about the first film that I watched as a boy, the first piece of film that I got from the projection room of the local theatre. I talk to them about the projector that I made out of an old cardboard box, a fused electric bulb, a piece of mirror and water. I remember the remarkable movie, Cinema Paradiso.
Above all I remember the stunt scenes of black and white Malayalam movies, which I had imitated to wreck revenge on Jeevan Thomas.
I look at Jeevan Thomas and Madhu, and then decide not to talk about the wounded plantain trees and unbroken bricks.
(Illustration: Work by K.M.Madhusudhanan. Title- The Tent Silent Horse, Medium: Acrylic and watercolour on paper, 28”x20” 2007)
Friday, October 10, 2008
Kakkathuruthu (Island of Crows) is an island located around 25 kilometers away from Kochi. Like any other island seen in Kerala’s backwaters, this also has the beauty of wilderness; coconut trees, paddy fields, fish harvesting ponds, weeds, small vegetable plantations, goats, cows, dogs, hens and cats. From the mainland of Kochi, you come to the shore of the backwaters and there is a person waiting for you with a boat; a kind of waiting, as a mainlander perhaps you would not understand.
While walking with Raghunadhan K, well known sculptor, who is now a ‘permanent resident’ of Kakkathuruthu, he tells us the story of the island. “Once upon a time, nobody was living in this island. Then came the land reform act. The landlords did not want to give away the fertile land to their tenants. So they found out places like this and sent the working class people away from the mainland. But they survived as the nature was so kind to them. Now they live a happy life here, without avarice, though they have to depend on the mainland for essential services,” says Reghundhan.
We, myself and artist K.M.Madhusudhanan, who is having his solo show at the Gallery OED, Kochi (curated by me), look at the people, especially women, who have come out to see us, occasional visitors from mainland, different in dress code and manners. They are all dark complexioned, with the sheen of oil on their skin. Their smooth white teeth flash smiles at us. They reverently look at Reghunadhan and he returns the smile; a kind of patriarchal acknowledgement of their presence.
Reghunadhan’s tryst with Kakkathuruthu is an interesting story. I don’t think there is a precedence like this in the recent history of Indian contemporary art; a whole village respecting an artist who is living amongst them, with them and for them. Even before Reghu became one of the much sought after names in Indian contemporary art, people in Kakkathuruthu recognized him as an artist- then came Mumbai gallerists, Delhi gallerists and a host of curators from all over the world.
All of them come to the shore of the backwater, in their flashy cars. But you don’t have the same car of James Bond, which could float on water. The oarsman is waiting for you. He asks you to balance the body and place your weight on the wooden seats so that the boat would not topple. You may be a good swimmer in the five star pools. But the backwaters have darker recesses that could beckon you to listen to its stories. “Be careful.”
While you marvel at the scenic beauty around, the weeds come up with the waves made by the movement of oar and ask you, “Where are you from?” But you don’t hear the queries of fishes, weeds, waves and the gentle breeze passing between your hair and ear.
“Slowly get down, go straight and take a right, follow the clearing and you reach Reghu Mash’s residence,” the boat man tells you. He knows where are you coming from and where are you going and when you would come back. Siddhartha.
Reghu Mash means Reghu Master. Reghu himself does not know who gave him this name. ‘Mash’. Everyone calls him Reghu Mash. It is magical realism. You don’t know the origin of your name. But Reghu can trace it back.
“I have never taught in any institution except for a six months stint Madhavan Nair Foundation in Edappally, Kochi. Some students of that time came here searching for me and I was comparatively new here. They might have asked the local people ‘where is Reghu Mash?’ Following them other students and friends came. The villagers slowly recognized that all these people were coming to meet ‘Reghu Mash’. I became their Reghu Mash. Now I am very happy when people call me that way though my college time friends find it a bit strange,” Reghu smiles.
Our driver is slightly confused regarding the ‘left turn’ he is supposed to take. He stops the car and asks one of the young guys hanging out near a junction in the highway. The young brat puts his head into the car though the front window and looks at us with a gleeful smile and asks:
“Reghu Mash or Toddy shop?”
Myself and Madhusudhan laugh and tell him that we are going to meet Reghu ‘Mash’.
“People like you come to this side only for two things: either you want to meet Reghu Mash or you want to drink some pure toddy,” the boy explains. We thank him and take the left turn and go.
Reghu and toddy are intricately connected. Whoever goes to meet him at his island ‘kingdom’ is treated with toddy, fish fry, a good meal, a walk through his studio and a lot of stories, which obviously carry a lot of wisdom. Reghu’s kitchen is always open and full. There is a full time cook, who doubles up as Reghu’s local protector, helper and errand boy. So many young art students from local colleges come, go straight into his kitchen and eat food.
“I don’t lock any of my drawers,” says Reghu. “Because nobody is driven by greed here.”
I am witnessing a historical meeting at Kakkathuruthu. Madhusudhanan and Reghu were classmates. Above all they were the founder members of the ‘Indian Radical Painters and Sculptors Association’. After a long period of trouble and tribulations, now with success in hand, they are meeting after twenty years.
And they talk like long lost brothers, one time comrades and all time mutual conscience keepers. But they have matured over a period of time; the agitation of yester years has given way to some kind of serene calmness.
Reghu came to Kakkathuruthu in 2002. He was already in Kochi, doing odd jobs like interior decoration for jewelries and textiles shops, painting altar pictures for churches etc. When Anoop Scaria of Kashi Gallery took him to Kakkathuruthu at their Kashi Retreat, Reghu said one thing to Anoop:
“I will work here. But you should not ask me to move unless and until I do it voluntarily.”
Anoop agreed immediately and Reghu started doing his sculptures there. And he was purely an outsider there. People gave him not so friendly looks.
‘I found out one thing, all the male members drink quite a lot. I knew that I am a better drinker than anybody. I got the confidence of the island people by drinking with them, eating with them and defeating them in both these fronts,” Reghu smiles.
He says he has been rehearsing for this drinking session all his life.
Reghu did not have enough money at that time. So he went to any house in the village and asked for food. He participated in their ceremonies. He became one of them. Now he shares their worries and happiness.
That’s why when Kashi Gallery presented Reghu’s solo show, the whole village celebrated as their victory. You would not believe it: the villagers made banners saying ‘All the best for our Reghu Mash’.
“These banners were tied all over the place. Even in the main junction at national highway, this banner was put up by the young people from the island,” Reghu says.
May be no Indian contemporary artist is treated with such reverence by a people who don’t have any stake in art or art market. They just celebrate their ‘own’ artists. When Reghu transports his huge sculptures from the island to the mainland by boat, it is another festival day for the villagers.
After six years of stay, Reghu has developed a deep relationship with the place.
“Many gallerists, artists, curators, critics, art collectors and friends have visited this place and I feel that it is my place and I need not go anywhere else to live or work,” Reghu says.
When money came after a couple of shows, Reghu did not invest that in concrete buildings or gold (the way local Malayalis do). Instead, he bought almost an acre of land near the backwater and started doing agriculture. Now it is the harvesting time. Also he has a fish pond and prawn breeding pond.
“The needs of the human beings are minimum and I want to find my food from this land where I cultivate my plants, art and thoughts,” says Reghu, the artist who does not want to go away from the people whom he loves.
(Reghunadhan in the picture with specs)