Friday, November 28, 2008

A Short Story on Love in the Times of Terror

At Leopold, everyone knew them. If it is a Wednesday, they would be there at the third table on the right.

She came from the Prince of Wales Museum, where she went quite often to do her research on Ancient Indian Art. He came from Andheri West where he had hired a studio space. They met in front of the Regal Theatre. Then they walked hand in hand to Leopold and spent their Wednesday evenings there.

It has been on for almost a year now. I, former editor of a literary journal published from a South Indian city, living a self-imposed exile in Mumbai for the last two years, doing freelance editorial jobs for various publication houses, also have been frequenting Leopold ever since I landed up in Mumbai.

I remember the date and time of meeting them at Leopold for the first time. It was on 25th November, 2007 and the time was 6.50 pm. I remember the date because it was on that day I got the divorce notice from my wife. I remember the time because after reading the court notice once again, I had just looked up and my eyes fell on the huge wall clock at Leopold. It was showing 6.50 and I was gulping my second beer. Then I saw them walking in, hand in hand, she talking to him something and he nodding his head in approval.

They were sitting at a table, which was there in the middle of the bar. A few months before when the government imposed a smoking ban, they shifted to the third table, next to mine. They chose it because they found it easier to go out through rear door and light up their cigarettes there.

Occasional glances and smiles made us friends. My age, I am fifty two now, did not seem to be an obstacle for them to chat up with me. Later I understood why they could communicate with me so easily. Both of them were from the art field. She, a curator and researcher and he, an artist, had a lot of senior friends. And one day, after we became friends, they told me that in the art scene, age was not a factor. Senior and junior artists were all friends and they called each other by their first names.

As I was accustomed to the formalities of an office, where juniors called the seniors ‘sir’ or ‘madam’, I found them calling me by name a bit irritating in the beginning. Slowly I too grew up into their mode. I started enjoying it when they called me by my first name and told me about things that happened in the art scene.

I knew very little about art. I knew M.F.Husain, Picasso and some other names like Bhupen Khakkar, Gulam Muhammad Sheikh. I knew M.F.Husain because he was always there in the news for wrong reasons. Picasso was a ‘must-know’ for us, intellectuals. It was always good to know some artists’ names because you never knew when you would bump into people who were coming from the art scene. For party talks it was always good to have some general knowledge.

I knew Bhupen Khakkar and Sheikh because they were writers too. I had the chance to go through some of their writings (in translation) and I liked the writings of Bhupen Khakkar. People talked a lot about their paintings. I had tried then to see their works. I should confess that I liked their works though I did not know why I liked them.

After meeting this young couple, I felt some kind of self pity. I was here in this city with so much of art happenings, for almost two years and I never thought of visiting any art show. That is problem of the people like us, the literary kind of people, I mean. We never want to see anything happening beyond words, words and more words.

With them, I started going to exhibitions. I felt good in the crowd that did not know me at all and I did not know it either. This young couple had tried to introduce me to some artists. I met them, shook hands with them and forgot them. They too might have done the same thing with me.

However, all these while I used to look at this young couple; the way they conducted themselves in the crowd. The way they befriended people. The way they discussed works of art. The way they argued the good and bad of some works. The way they exchanged loving glances between each other when they were in others’ company.

As my divorce case was going on, I craved for these Wednesdays. I craved for this day because I could meet up with them at Leopold. Interestingly, we never shared the same table. I sat at my fourth table and they at their third table. I loved them. May be I wished if my youthful days were like the ones they had.

Today I curse myself for one of my bad habits. I neither carry a mobile phone nor do I take anybody’s number for keepsake. I adopted this habit like a revenge on my ex-wife (I cannot say she is my ex as the case is still going on in the court); a kind of sado-masochist pleasure, you could say. I left my phone and diary back home in South. I did not want anybody to call me.

For my professional needs, I created a secret email id, which I gave only to my professional contacts.

With this couple I never felt the need to exchange the numbers or email id for it was sure that we would meet at Leopold on Wednesdays.

I curse myself today for my irrational habits.

I met them last on 19th November 2008. As usual it was a Wednesday. They came in hand in hand. They were talking something very serious and they waved at me. They sat at their table and continued their talk.

For the first time I looked at them so deeply. Deeply, the way I had never done before.

She was wearing a white shirt, elegantly designed, with one button opened from the top. A small white diamond hung from a thin golden chain and the diamond shone against her chest like a star. She was wearing a black jeans and was carrying a few books. Though she was carrying a bag made of cotton cloth, for some reason quite unknown to me, she was keeping the books in her hands. She smiled at me as I was looking at her. She had nice teeth like pearls. Her shoulder length hairs covered her face as if they were holding her face like a soft toy.

He was wearing a pair of blue jeans and a white T-shirt. It had an inscription on its back: ‘Apocalypse Now’. He was arguing with someone in the phone while she looked at him intently. Her eyes and cheeks reflected his anger, passion and aggression. After sometime he cut the phone and raised his right hand to touch her cheek. She blushed and lowered her eyes. What a sight it was! I had never seen her blushing like that. I felt a sudden surge of happiness in me.

They turned to me with a smile. They passed me that information. They were getting married. A simple court marriage on Monday. They told me that they would catch up with me on the next Wednesday same time here at Leopold. I blessed them.

I curse my bad habit of being adamant.

I got a mail from my advocate saying that I should be attending a hearing at a local court in Chennai. If I miss I would be in trouble. I had to fly out of Mumbai on Sunday itself.

I remember 26th November 2008 because that was the day, the court decided on the fate of my marriage. It was all over.

I was supposed to come back on the very next day to Mumbai. I called my travel agent on Wednesday night itself. But he told me something was wrong in Mumbai and I should be staying back in Chennai for good.

I switched on the television. Terrorist attack in Mumbai. Breaking News. Terrorists indiscriminately fired at several places in Mumbai including CST, VT, Leopold, Taj Hotel, Oberoi Hotel….

Did I see the word Leopold in television? Or was it my imagination?

Yes. Later on I confirmed that Leopold too was attacked.

Were they there on Wednesday evening? Did they wait for me? Are they safe now?

I curse my bad habit now. I hate myself like hell. Can anybody tell me what happen to them?

For the first time I am revealing my email id for the public. Please reach me at

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Lovers on Lake Side

It was my friend who told me that I should go for a walk on the banks of Lake Kali Baari at night. He had gone there several times and he said there was something very interesting going on every evening once the darkness descended from the skies and roosted on the branches of the trees that girdled the shore of the lake.

Standing in front of the famous Birla Akademy of Arts, Kolkata, I wistfully look at the road filled with vehicles, especially those Ambassador cars painted in garish yellow color. To reach Lake Kali Baari, I should cross the road. To cross the road here, you need special skills. Jay walking is the only possible way as there are no zebra lines. A traffic constable stands in the middle of the road and tries to ease the traffic flow.

With quick steps I cross the road, wait for a few minutes near the divider to find a gap in the flow of traffic from the opposite direction and then reach safely at the other side. There is a wicker gate in the long wall that separates the garden and lake from the main street. I squeeze myself through it and enter the garden, where, according to my friend, several pleasurable scenes waiting for me.

Darkness falls early in Kolkata as it is an eastern city and not to mention, dawn breaks out quite early here. I look at my watch and find it is just 5.45 pm. The trees have already become thatched silhouettes. People move around look like fluid shadows that have been peeled out from the ground by finger tips and set into vertical motion. I too turn into a dark mass vertical mass, a heavy shadow doing its ghostly prowl in an eerie twilight zone.

Walking ahead I strike a paved path that goes around the lake in zig zag motion. The pathway has concrete benches made on either side of it. And there it is- the vision that my friend has been talking about!

I see the benches filled with people- no I should not generalize them in such sweeping terms. Each bench is filled with at least five couple in various stages of caressing, patting, embracing, kissing, squeezing, kneading, intertwining, murmuring, moaning and doing their very best to suppress the uncontrollable orgasmic shrieking.

Now I understand what my friend was talking about. This is a lovers’ den. By evening, all those couple who cannot find a space to cozy up in the busy city, reach here religiously, play out whatever they could do with their clothes on.

I walk forward and find each bench full. These benches which can accommodate four people of normal body size, now carry five pairs- ten people. Each couple is separated by a hair thin space of air. But each couple has a world of their own. They don’t encroach in others’ privacy.

I realize a simple concrete bench can accommodate five republics; each with its own rules, its own ups and downs, its own fights and flings, its own passions and wars.

In between I see people who walk along the pathway ogling at these interlocked couple. It is an open orgy, consciously but helplessly thrown out for an intruding public. At times I find a lonely male figure sitting in between these couples, as if he were contemplating the movements of the lake lying before. He could be a pervert, or a loner without a partner, finding pleasure in the sights and sounds taking place a few inches away from his skin.

Why can’t these couple chase these perverts away? No, they can’t do that. Primarily, they don’t have time to engage in a verbal duel with a stranger. The girl has to go back to her home or hostel. So is the case of the boy in action. Second, it is a public park, nobody can ask someone to move away from his rightful space. If the couples have the rights to be there, similar rights are given to the perverts and peeping toms.

Suddenly, I find myself a peeping tom, watching at the life and death struggle of these lovers before parting.

They are not teased by anybody, I realize. Later I probe my friend on this. He tells me:

“They are protected by a parallel law system. The police constables collect ten rupees from each couple and it is a protection money.”

Yes, if you have ten rupees, a partner and no place to ‘love’, welcome to Lake Kali Baari.

I have seen this before. Perhaps, I have done this before. In Delhi, I have seen couples sitting behind the thickets and bushes in public parks like India Gate, Lodhi Gardens, Hauz Khaz Garden and so on. In Mumbai, along the Marine Drive, I see couples sitting ‘into each other’. But it happens in day time under the light of sun.

In Delhi and Mumbai, these couples sit showing their back to the street or to the people who walk through the pathways. It is a highly symbolic act. The lovers’ ultimate rebel and defiance against the society. We show our BACK to you. Get lost.

But in Lake Kali Baari, these couples face the world from their private republics. They do not shy away from the prying eyes. East is blessed with the early disappearance of the sun. Darkness protects them from the society.

In the darkness, I see a strip of white flesh glittering. I listen to a suppressed giggle. I get the vibes of an orgasmic throe from these benches. But then a sudden sense of pathos engulfs me.

This ten rupees protection money system, this urgency of the couples to share their love in open wet darkness, this shamelessness, this sudden fall into disgrace covered with the grace of love are a result of an economic system that exclude these have-not couples from enjoying the mainstream privacy in malls, in coffee shops, in multiplex cine theatres and in cushy hotel rooms.

Most of them are students from the lower middle class. Or they are the people with small little jobs. They have to reach their homes in suburbs before it is too late. And it is the only place where they can find some privacy for that small little sum of ten rupees. They cannot afford to sit in a coffee house that sells one cup of coffee for seventy rupees. They cannot spend their time together in the air-conditioned privacy of a cinema hall.

One chunni (the shawl that the girls wear with their dress) can create a room for them here on the bank of a lake. A chunni can stop the peeping toms. And the same chunni can hide all what those inquisitive hands do to each other.

I know the pain of this pleasure as I had also done the same in Baroda’s Kamati Garden. The stroll in Lake Kali Baari brings back all those memories in me. The insult that I faced from a beat constable, the abuses that I heard from passing by perverts and the disgrace in undertaking sinful journeys under the cover of a chunni.

May be I am wrong in my take on the Lake Kali Baari lovers. They all must be enjoying their time the way they want.

I walk back to my friend who is waiting for me in a posh restaurant.

Kolkata covers me with its black chunni.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

My Love Affair with Katharine Kuh

These days we hear a lot about market meltdown and the global economic crisis. It is rumored that many galleries are limiting their operations to the minimum. Many galleries that have mushroomed along with the art market euphoria seem to be downing their shutters until the market shows the signs of recovery. Against this scenario, it is interesting to know about an art lover and curator who started her gallery exactly during the high point of market recession during the 1930s in America. She is Katharine Kuh and she fought against all odds to establish a wonderful gallery, then a great career as an international curator. Her life story is inspirational and rejuvenating.

Born in 1904, Katharine Kuh was afflicted by polio at a very early age. She had to wear supporting braces for ten years in order to regain her physical strength, though eventually her left leg was rendered weak and slightly malformed for the rest of her life. Young Katharine did not intend to study art history, but once she attended a few lectures in art history by the legendary Alfred H. Barr, she was smitten for ever. In 1930 she married George Kuh, a successful business man. Katharine could have easily ended up as a devoted wife, looking after George and his son from the first marriage. But the marriage soon turned out to be oppressive for her. The decision to divorce came as George Kuh’s relatives mocked one of her art purchases (a print by Toulouse Lautrec) and she was forced to keep the lithograph away from everyone’s eyes. In 1935, Katharine divorced George and in the same year she started her own gallery, ‘Katharine Kuh Gallery’ in Chicago.

The book titled ‘My Love Affair with Modern Art’ is a compilation of essays and observations written by Katharine Kuh and it reveals the behind the scene actions that shaped modernist art in America. Once she opened her gallery Katharine was looking out for vibrant and radical artists who could cut away from the already accepted cannons of late 19th century art. Fernand Leger, Paul Klee, Joan Miro, Ansel Adams, Stuart Davis, March Chagall, Joseph Albers, Isamu Noguchi, Alexander Calder and so on were relatively unknown names in the art scene then. Katharine befriended them, studied their works and lives, believed in their art and exhibited them. When she exhibited these artists, the moral police of the time, led by other art critics and art lovers came to her gallery, protested, advised the visitors not to see such art and even chided the artists for making ‘unconventional’ art!

Katharine remembers an incident occurred during the exhibition of her artist friend Carlos Merida from Mexico. He was partially deaf. As the show was on, the moral brigade comprising of middle aged upper middle class women came in and started talking disparagingly about Merida’s works. Merida tried his best to capture the deriding words from these ladies. But their animated actions made him think that they were appreciating his works and he started talking approvingly of their comments. The ladies were baffled by the reaction of the artist and they stomped out of the gallery in total indignation. Katharine, however, did not convey the artist what exactly was going on there!

As it was the period of recession, Katharine could not find enough financial support to employ someone to assist her. Often she played multiple roles, from gallery director to errand girl. A few times in a week she used to give crash courses on art history in the backroom of her gallery, where ‘bored housewives’ came to attend the lectures. Katharine remembers how one of her ‘students’ reacted to a Velazquez work after a long lecture on him; the woman said, ‘Just fascinating’. (Doesn’t it sound similar to our up class ladies reaction to art by saying, ‘how interesting!’).

One day Katharine found out a bunch of postal stamps missing from her work desk. A solo show by a young artist, Charles Sebree was on at that time in her gallery. Finally she found out that Sebree was stealing stamps from her desk. He was selling it to someone just to find money for buying food. She asked him to change his behavior. But he said, it would be ‘dishonest’ if he agreed with her suggestion because he was planning to steal more stamps as he did not have any money to buy food. (It was the condition of the artists then in the US. When I mentioned it to an artist friend of mine in Delhi, he said, I too have done things like that in past. He said he did not steal money or stamps but he stole some interesting souvenirs from friends’ houses. He was forced to steal them because despite his repeated requests to part with those souvenirs, they were not listening to him!)

Another incident Katharine describes is quite touching. It was a time when Jewish migrants were coming to the US from the Nazi Germany. One day a Jewish lady came to the gallery with her small son. A few uniformed officers came in to see the show at the same time. The moment the boy saw them, he stood alert and screamed ‘Hail Hitler’. The Jewish woman explained that the boy was so traumatized by the experiences back in Germany where anyone had to say ‘Hail Hitler’ the moment they saw men in uniform. The Jewish community also adopted this to escape the eagle eyes of the Nazi officers.

After a few years Katharine joined Art Institute of Chicago (which is one of the most famous museums in America now) as an assistant curator to Daniel Catton Rich, the director of Art Institute of Chicago. Later she developed a life long affair with Dan Rich. Katharine with her hard work and vision, supported by her close relationship with the artist and collectors rose in the museum hierarchy to become the most important curator of America. She started contributing articles to Saturday Review and became its official art critic. She traveled all over the world to collect works, negotiate exhibitions and exchanges, and also to write columns for Saturday Review. In the book she remembers how the government of India could not understand her vision and turned down her proposals for cultural exchanges. Her final visit to India was in 1978.

This book is full of reminiscences about the great modern artists, their works and lives. She analyses the life of Mark Rothko who craved for social acclamation and always found young painters as a potential challenge to him. He wanted name and fame, both he got. But he was not satisfied. Finally he committed suicide. Katharine says that Rothko must have thought that death would bring him the ultimate glory.

Katherine gives vivid pictures of Leger, Stuart Davis, Brancusi, Bernard Berenson, Alfred Jenson, Clyfford Still, Isamu Noguchi, Mark Tobey, Franz Kline, Jacques Lipchitz, Hans Hofmann, Josef Albers and Edward Hopper. She observes that Isamu Noguchi’s works are a constant search for his true identity against the divided identity of his self. Noguchi, like Rothko, wanted the final endorsement to come from the nation. Also she speaks how the famous sculptor, Jacques Lipchitz accepted a commission from the White House to make a trophy that depicted the face of the then president Lyndon Johnson. After some harrowing experiences at the hands of bureaucracy, Lipchitz finally made the sculpture, which President Lyndon openly disparaged.

Katharine has her own opinion on modern art. Though she lived to experience the birth, growth and flourishing of pop art, conceptual art and ‘contemporary art’, her true love lays in modern art. She reveres the modern masters for their works and their lives. She passed away in 1994, at the age of 90.

Before I close, let me quote a few observations by Katharine Kuh:

“What exactly is an art curator? From my experience, curators can be anything they want as long as they conform at least nominally to the bureaucratic folkways of museum life. Committees, trustees, complaints, social interruptions, and the discreet pursuit of possible donors are all part of the game, but aside from these distractions, each curator is a potential self invention. To be sure, scholarship, experience, and the commitment to using one’s eyes both for looking and seeing (quite different processes) are prerequisites, yet there are no rigid boundaries.”

“Curators need no personal incomes to acquire great collections or to be surrounded many hours each day by splendid trophies. Their homes can be seedy but a large part of their lives are spent with masterpieces that would set any private collector to salivating.”

“In the United States today, the term curator is bandied about so heedlessly that any dilettante who arranges the most meager sampling of art appropriates the title. To make matters worse, the noun now poses as a verb, actively inciting freelance novices to claim professionalism sadly lacking—not unlike a first year intern posing as an experienced surgeon. The debasing of the title points to all the trappings of pseudo-scholarship.”

Anybody listening? Isn’t she talking about those half baked heads in India, who shamelessly call themselves curators?

(My Love Affair with Modern Art- Behind the Scenes with a Legendary Curator. Katharine Kuh. Edited and completed by Avis Berman. Arcade 2006)

Friday, November 21, 2008

Gay Bashing Dostana

I have lost my innocent eye. May be twenty years of constant interaction with art and its related theories has made me look at things in their stark symbolism. Anything and everything come with an ideological undercurrent. Things are not as innocent as apparently they appear.

Watching Bollywood movies is a favorite hobby for me like any other Indian. Whenever I watch a movie, I deliberately try to see it with a pair of innocent eyes so that I can flow along with the narrative without thinking much about the ideological undercurrent. But old habits die hard. Certain movies, which are successful in box office, make me watch them with my ‘trained’ eyes and I find these movies upholding all those retrogressive and conventional characteristics of Indian society.

The other day I watched one of the most successful movies of our recent times, ‘Dostana’ (Friendship). Produced by Karan Johar, who is famous for his ‘blasphemous’ approach towards tradition, ‘Dostana’ is advertised to be a ‘pro-gay’ movie. The story line is simple. Two guys, Sam and Kunal, enacted by Abhishek Bacchan and John Abraham respectively, want a paying guest accommodation in Miami. They find a place but the ‘guys’ are not allowed there. So they find an easy way; pretend to be a gay couple. And they do get accommodation there. Neha, who is a relative of the land lady, staying in the same apartment, mixes freely with these guys as they are ‘gays’ and finally realizes that they are not gays but normal ‘guys’ who have fallen in love with her in due course of events. But by that time she is already in love with her boss who is a widower with a child. She marries her boss and the ‘gays’ are happily left to lead their ‘guys’ life further.

I am not a film critic. However, I would say this movie is all about an imagined orgy. It also symbolically represents the Indian male’s perennial desire to have multi-partner sex. Pepped up by comic situations, the narrative runs smoothly, entertaining the audience to the hilt. As the viewer knows that these ‘guys’ are not ‘gays’ but just ‘hunks’ pretending to be gays, the sexual tension exist in the relationship between them and the girl, Neha (played by the sexy Priyanka Chopra) is transported into the mind of the viewer, forcing him to take it as his own sexual tension.

The movie is an anti-gay movie mainly because the guys’ entry into the apartment is mediated by their affected ‘gay’ identity. That means, two women can stay with two strong built guys (with all sexual potency suggested through the well built body of John Abraham and the bearded manly face of Abhishek Bacchan) without causing any social scandal only because they are gays. Symbolically, this suggests that gays are just ‘people’ who are ‘without’ any kind of emotions otherwise felt by the heterosexual people. Gays are just harmless people, devoid of ‘sexuality’. Their sexuality, which is as strong as any other heterosexual man or woman, is nullified ideologically by presenting them as ‘harmless’ people. It is something akin to the masters speaking their private matters in front of their drivers or servants. The human identity of the servants and drivers are in a way erased by the master’s conscious decision. In this movie, these two working guys (John as a professional fashion photographer and Abhishek as a male nurse. He is constantly asked whether he needs to wear small skirts when on duty) are almost reduced to the level of drivers and servants by the master narrative handled by Karan Johar.
It is a comedy because, they are not gays but they are masquerading as gays. And in this masquerade, they always fall into such situations that evoke comedy. In short, what the viewer get is this message: the gay situations are comic situations because they are excluded from the gravity of the master narrative. ‘Gays can do only comic act’ or ‘the gay acts look almost comic to the heterosexual human beings’- the underlying message is very clear. As these hunks are acting as gays, with slightly exaggerated physical movements, we are forced to separate the identity of the real actor from the character he is ‘forced’ to act even while being another character. Hence, the gays we see in their enactment are excluded identities, which are ‘excluded’ specially for slinging comic mud at them.

The master mind behind this movie has taken careful efforts to endorse ‘gay couple’ as a socially accepted couple. This is a surreptitious technique within the narrative to tell the people that whatever portrayed in the movie is ‘progressive’ and ‘goes’ with the attitude of our contemporary times. The social integration or acceptance of the gay couple comes through when Sam’s mother (played by the buxom Kiran Kher) initially disparages her son’s ‘gay’ identity and later accepts it with traditional verve (look at how she puts sindoor on John’s forehead and places a poorna kumbha before his feet to be toppled by his right feet as an auspicious gesture of ‘entry’). However, the viewer is not allowed to see it as a serious gesture as the mother (unlike the mothers in Bollywood moives) always responds to the situations in comic way. Her identity as a mother is reduced to that of a comedian (a take off from Om Makhija’s mother, again played by Kiran Kher in the blockbuster ‘Om Saanti Om) thereby excluding her right to be there as a ‘real’ mother in the grand narratives of Indian movies.

There is a reason why I call it an orgy and Indian male’s perennial desire to have multi-partner sex. Both Abhishek and John, despite their affected gay identities, are, in reel life and real life, potential hetero-sexual human beings. Priyanka Chopra mixes up with them the way she would mix up with her female friends. She does not have any problem to wear a bikini and walk before them and even lay amidst them in her skimpy clothes. The gaze of these affected gays is always on her body, when she ‘naturally’ does her exercise regime in front of these guys. Her butt, tits, navel, lips and all those sexual zones are constantly gazed at by four pairs of eyes, those of Abhishek and John. When Bobby Deol comes as her boss, one more pair of eyes is added to this gaze game. She is an open dinner to be devoured by three sexually potent guys. What else, it could be if it is not the desire for multi-partner sex or orgy? Interestingly, Neha never recognizes the fact that she is gazed at or used by these males. She behaves like an innocent babe, who is unaware of her sexual potency. Isn’t it the Indian male wants from the woman of his desire, an innocent yielding to his physical fantasies?

Neha, however modern, working and educated she is, eventually is a woman in the man’s imagination. Her independence and identity as Neha the working girl, Neha, the modern, urban and educated woman is simply nullified as she is not able to understand her own social position, her own identity vis-à-vis the males around her. Even after she knows that both these ‘gay’ guys make sexual advances to her, she decides to marry her boss, who is a widower and a father. Why? Because, the movie reiterates the ideological make up of Indian social psyche: the woman must be under an economically powerful male, who is stable (he is not promiscuous even after the death of his wife) and sexually potent (as he is a father he has the capacity to produce another generation, which both and John and Abhishek are not capable of in the story). She is bound to marry a male who is not cunning and deceitful (like the gays?).

This anti-gay movie further insults gays by presenting a superior officer in Neha’s office (played by Bomman Irani) and an Immigration officer (played by a western actor) as gays. Both of them are in their comical best, making advances to the masquerading gay couple, namely John and Abhishek. The ambiguity of sexuality is quite palpable here as even the males want such kind of ‘males’ (like John and Abhishek). Their ultimate desire is to have/be the perfected bodied manly men. As they are incapable of gaining it, they can indulge in comic interludes to satisfy their fantasies and desires. The sexual ambiguity (as a device to remind the viewer constantly that what you see in John and Abhishek are not real gays but real men) is enhanced when Abhishek is ravaged by a group of middle aged women in a kitty party organized by the landlady, while John has his rendezvous with Priyanka in an open air theatre, which plays a sexually confirming movie, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai by Karan Johar himself. This is a symbolic extension of their male virility as endorsed by the history of ‘movie’ itself.

This movie is very important as a case study because it clearly shows how, despite all our gay freedom demonstrations and carnivals, law making, social debates etc, our society still wants to ‘progress’ in the twenty first century with all its traditional baggage. As far as the young generation in India is concerned, Karan Johar is a very influential film maker. The success of his movies shows his undisputable reach into the minds of the young people. But again, by such a reach, what he affirms is his belief in the traditional thinking regarding the same sex relationship in India. This beautiful gay bashing in the form of Dostana should also be seen in the light of Karan Johar’s public declaration that he would be getting married soon. Karan has been a popular gay icon (along with the ambiguities of confirmation and denial of it) since the birth of new millennium. He made a movie in which Shah Rukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan played roles that had the shades of gayness (This potential gay attraction is made use by the organizers of one of the Film award nights, a few years back, where Shah Rukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan played the roles of hosts and they openly flirted on stage. Also, the same sexual ambiguity is played out in the advertisement for Airtel, where Shah Rukh Khan teaches Saif Ali Khan to say ‘I love hearts’. Only in the last moment we come to know that it was a rehearsal for a voice SMS meant for Kareena Kapoor. By collapsing the projected sexual identities, reel and real life of the actors, the gayness is made into a potential product only to be desired in the realm of consumption but not in real personal life). Even Shah Rukh Khan and Karan Johar were rumored to be having a gay affair, while keeping their ‘sexually potent male identity’ intact.

I enjoyed watching Dostana because after a few minutes of its starting, my ‘not any more’ innocent eyes could see the ‘real’ narrative taking shape under the wraps of a glittering gay story.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Winter Revolution

Its wings
Let me
Hold you tight
Before you
Fly away.
Who can
Erase these
Bloody stains?
Summer comes
Go to the city
And tell them
I had the
Stench of
In my blood
And the putrefied

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Why Do the Servants Spit too Much in Delhi?

I would have never read this book had not my artist friend Baiju Parthan told me about it.

While driving through the spacious but busy roads near the President’s Estate in New Delhi, we came across the famous sculpture ‘Gyarah Moorti’, a depiction of Mahatma Gandhi leading the Indian people towards Dandi beach to break the ‘salt tax’ imposed by the British rulers.

“Aravind Adiga, the author of White Tiger, the Booker Prize winning novel, speaks of this sculpture in his novel,” Baiju Parthan said. “He writes a lot of about Delhi in an ‘on your face’ manner. I don’t know whether you would like the novel or not, but I enjoyed it thoroughly,” he added.

Baiju is like that. His is philosophical and skeptical in everything. He does not want to impose his ideas on anybody, a true nature of an erstwhile ‘hippie’. If you want to deduce an opinion on this novel, you have to read and arrive at your own conclusions.

“Who did this sculpture?” asks Sanjeev Khandekar, another artist friend, from my right side.

“Debi Prasad Roy Choudhury,” I tell him.

D.P.Roy Choudhury, the master disciplinarian sculptor who excelled and propagated the western neo-classical sculptural idiom in Indian modern art had done this public sculpture as a post-independence government commission. From the posture and movement that this sculptural ensemble carries, one can make out where Roy Choudhury’s formal and aesthetical loyalties rested.

The physical language of the sculpture is that of western neo-classical tradition, while the aesthetical approach heralded the idea of Social(ist) Realism, promoted by the erstwhile Soviet Union. The sculptures like ‘The Triumph of Labor’ (currently installed at front courtyard of the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi) exemplify Roy Choudhury’s formal and aesthetical affinities.

The place near Sardar Patel Marg, where the Dandi March sculpture is installed, is known as ‘Gyarah Murti.’ Reason is simple. Gyarah in Hindi means eleven and Murti means Sculpture. There are eleven figures in this sculptural ensemble. Hence, it is Gyarah Murti. There is a place called Teen Murti in New Delhi. Reason, there is a war memorial sculpture with three figures. Teen means Three. One main road that leads to the famous Connaught Place is called ‘Barah Khamba’ because there is an installation of twelve pillars on the right side of the road (just below the Gopal Das building and opposite to the historical Statesman Building). As you rightly assumed, Barah means twelve and Khamba means Pillar.

I like anything written on contemporary Delhi. Perhaps, I like the works of Chetan Bhagat, Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, Aravind Adiga, Mark Tully, Gurcharan Das and so on, irrespective of their literary excellence or moderation, mainly because they all talk about the contemporary Delhi and its unsung underbelly. At times, even I like certain newspaper columns that speaks of Delhi’s alluring, disturbing and funny contemporaneity (for example Sushmita Bose’s column titled ‘Single in the City’ in Hindustan Times. Though she takes a very high-browistically liberal attitude, she speaks of the immediate Delhi, a Delhi devoid of historical burdens but a Delhi grinds through the present-ness). May be it is the same aspect that makes Maximum City (Suketu Mehta), Sacred Games (Vikram Chandra), Shantaram (Gregory David Roberts ) interesting narratives on Mumbai.

In all these works history is not a burden but just a backdrop. It is quite soothing. You need not be a scholar to understand your own life. You just need to be a reader, with a sense of ‘reading’.

Ever since Baiju Parthan spoke to me about ‘White Tiger’ by Aravind Adiga, I had this itching in my sole/soul to read it. Have you every experienced the itch in your sole/soul? You want to itch and you even try to scratch the sole of your footwear. But it will not go away, unless you reach out to it with your ‘real’ fingers.

I pick up interesting reading materials from airport book stalls. These bookstalls are interesting places for doing case studies on the reading habits of the jet setting tribe. A whole section is devoted to success stories. Another section is for quick tips on business. Here is a section that is totally for simplified economics. There is a section for inspirational literature; a heady concoction of practicality and spirituality. There is a section for Chicken Soup- chicken soup for soul, chicken soup for sex, chicken soup for happy life, chicken soup for teenagers (I have not yet understood the meaning of this chicken soup). Look at this section on Kamasutra, Yoga and spirituality.

Between Kamasutra and Yoga books, you find Arundhati Roy and Noam Chomsky. Thomas L Friedman, Stephen Hawkins, Khalid Husseini, Mahatma Gandhi, Bijan Daruwalla, Richard Branson, Richard Bach, Kafka, Sadat Hasan Manto and Shobha De. Benazir Bhutto, L.K.Advani, Mushraff, Mayawati etc are a must. Then you find a series of books with cover pages looking the same. They are pulp fiction. At times, you are compelled to look at those glossy magazines that deconstruct human body into several components. Each component has a devoted magazine and I wonder who reads all these.

And the happy thing about airport bookshops is this: you will not get the book, which you are browsing for. So you get a book, which would eventually interest you. I always think of such buying as something similar to a highly meticulous man getting married at the age of fifty. All these while, he has been looking for the right kind of girl. Finally, out of TINA factor (There Is No Alternative factor), he decides to marry the girl, who is absolutely different from his prescriptions. But after marriage, he would love this girl like anything, the way a reader reads his TINA found book again and again.

I look for ‘White Tiger’ in Delhi’s airport, but in vain. As I have another book in hand, I am not in a TINA situation.

Just outside Mumbai airport, an Eruda* approaches my car, with a bundle of books arranged like tower in his hands. He picks one book out of the tower and places it against the window glass and I read the title, ‘White Tiger’.

I lower the glass and ask for the price. He turns the book and shows the back cover where it is written, Rs.395.

I don’t like pirated books but when you have the itch in you, you don’t look at the ethics of publishing industry. So I haggle with him and say, “Hundred Rupees.”

“Original sir,” he says and authenticate his argument with the cellophane cover.

I am an experienced book lover/buyer. I stick to my price and finally, as the traffic light turns green, I shove a hundred rupee note into his hand and he, in turn, pushes the book into the car. The deal is done and ‘White Tiger’ is mine now.

I tear off the cellophane cover with some impatience and open the book and I chance upon these lines on page number 6 of this pirated edition.

“See, when you come to Bangalore, and stop at a traffic light, some boy will run up to your car and knock on your window, while holding up a bootlegged copy of an American business book, wrapped carefully in Cellophane and with a title like:




Don’t waste your money on those American books. They’re so yesterday.

I am tomorrow.”

I smile. A prophecy boomeranged.

‘White Tiger’ is the story of Balram Halwai, a man born in rural north of India. Aravind Adiga divides India into two; Darkness India and Light India.

Millions of people from Darkness India come to Light India in search of a living. Balram Halwai Munna too comes to Dhanbad, the mining district in Bihar to eke out a living. He mops the floor and washes dishes in a tea shop. He would have ended as one of those ‘human spiders’ mopping the floor in non-descript tea-shops. Despite his social and educational backwardness, Balram has a strong will to survive. He learns driving and joins an American returned couple in Dhanbad. To run their coal mine business smoothly, they need to bribe the politicians in Delhi. So they move to Delhi/Gurgaon. This opens up a new world for Balram.

Delhi is a university for Balram. He sees his mentor couple divorcing and his master falling for his former flame. He sees the politicians, shamelessly taking bribe and also he sees entrepreneurial individuals making it big in life. But inside his core, he is just a servant. And he sees Delhi through the eyes and lives of a servant and it is a different Delhi altogether. One day he kills his inebriated master and runs away to Bangalore, a land of future possibilities as put by he deceased master. He becomes an entrepreneur there by starting up a car rental agency for the call centers. He bribes his way up to the social ladder.

The question why was he not caught by the police in spite of the picture poster campaign to track him down?

Because, he looked like a ‘servant’ from the Darkness India. All servants from this Darkness look the same. How can you arrest millions of servants for one murder?

The novel is written in an epistolary format. Balram addresses the visiting Premier of China, Mr. Wen Jiabao in order to tell him the true story of Darkness India against the projected stories of Light India.

Adiga captures the spirit of Delhi, the spirit of Delhi that belongs to the servants and the servant quarters. This narrative is compelling and a pure page turner it is.

What I like about this Delhi is this: It is not cinematic. It has the quality of a pure novel, which could only be completed by the readers’ experience and imagination.

After reading ‘White Tiger’ I realize why the servant class of Delhi spit too much. They hate their masters and they hate them absolutely.

The master class cannot wish away a Madhur Bhandarkar or an Aravind Adiga.

*Eruda- A monumental work by Jitish Kallat. It depicts a boy who sells books at the traffic lights and the artist makes his feet transform into symbolic houses.

The illustration is a digital work by Prasad Raghavan. This work was included in a show titled ‘SPY’ curated by Bose Krishnamachari.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Tin Drum

When I born
Three Magi
Came to see me.
One brought
A speech
Another one,
A painting
The Third one,
A poem.
I am waiting
For those
Who would
Gift me with
A cross and
A thorny crown.
How predictable
The world looks
Even from this
The forty watt bulb
Still baptizes me
With its
Yellow light.
My mother’s
Nipples still
Have those
Swastika signs on them.
That’s why
I, like all the times,
Refuse to grow.
Don’t tease me
I can break your
Ear drum with my

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Urinating as Art Experience

Urinating is like world wars.
Such a silly but vital act!
You may be pissed off by what I say.
But I repeat, pissing is like world wars.
World Wars divide history into ‘before and after’.
Duchamp divided the history of urinating into two-
‘Before and after 1917.’
Pissing was such an easy private act
With no help from external agencies.
You could call your golden stream,
‘A fountain or a shower or a wet curve in the air.’
Pissing was absolutely free of history,
Or in that case, free of art history.
But with Duchamp’s intervention in 1917
Pissing became so loaded with history.
When you piss into a urinal,
You actually connect yourself
With a conceptual work of art
With or without an authorial sign.
But if you are historically aware
You are pissing into a ‘Fountain’
Signed as ‘R.Mutt 1917’.

Washrooms have become
Small little museums
With stylized fittings of Fountains.
Controlled temperature
Clean surroundings
Sound proofing
And state of the art lighting-
Airport washrooms are
Museums by default
And the pissers look
Exactly like museum visitors
Totally engrossed in the
Pleasure of urinating-
Oh sorry, pleasure of connecting
With a work of art.
Their faces almost show
The feel of Bernini’s ‘Ecstasy’.
Someone with alternative
Sexual identity checks out
Both your Duchamp and Mapplethorpe.

In local bars,
Fountains are treated
The way local galleries
Treat an un-saleable work of art.
They display it well,
Giving special accent with dim light
But never attended in detail.
Here you too become a casual viewer
Letting your stream of consciousness
Wander elsewhere while the stream
Of beer do the real talk with art.

Agency run public toilets are like
Real museums.
To see the work of art
You need to pay.

Real public toilets are the locations for public art
There along with Duchamp
You get Banksy and Basquiat for company.
There are permanent viewers out there
Like Gilbert and George
Standing like statues
Just to check out the size of your

Look at that…
It is the problem of art history
Even a simple but vital act
Cannot be viewed out of it.
But what about those
Who don’t know it is a work of art.
Milton has said, ‘They too serve
Who stand and stare.”

‘Follow this line’-
Like a museum instruction
You find a line up there above the Fountain.
Your trained fingers meanwhile
Unzip your fly and do whatever necessary,
The way an art history student takes down notes
While watching a work of art.
Then your eyes follow the line
And you find another statement-
‘Look, now you are peeing.’
And actually you do!
This is a performance piece of art
With audience participation guaranteed.
What about video art?
Yes, that is for the Queen’s rest rooms.
Hidden cameras do the job
While the innocent viewer
Is at her most unpretentious act.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Eternal Search for Twin Souls

Maria, a young girl living in a rural part of Brazil wants to experience life differently. She escapes from her home and finally lands up in a brothel on Rue du Berne, in Geneva’s red light district. Her dreams are shattered now. But she hopes to make enough money, go back to her native place, buy a farm house for her parents and live with them happily. Years pass by and she still remains in Geneva.

Now Maria needs a soul mate, a guru, who would teach her what real love is. She lets her life to lead her, without any conscious control from her side. A rich man hires her and tortures her physically to the extreme as he finds sexual pleasure in inflicting pain on his partner. Slowly, she realizes that she too gets liberated while experiencing the excruciating pain. It is a spiritual experience for her. Maria finds a soul mate in this man.

Later in a bar Maria comes across a struggling young creative person. He learns Maria’s story and takes her to a riverside where he asks her to remove her shoes and walk on the sharp pebbles strewn all around by the waves. First she feels the cutting pain in her feet, then slowly she learns to see beyond the pain. The pain becomes a medium for her spiritual revelations, but this time with a difference. No sex involved in it. Maria deems this man also her soul mate.

When Mr.Nigam called me from Mumbai, after reading my blog postings and asked me why I didn’t write something about ‘twin souls’, I could do nothing but remembering Maria of/from Paulo Coelho’s novel ‘Eleven Minutes’ (2003), which I translated from English to Malayalam for DC Books, Kerala.

Mr.Nigam. I have not met him in person. I don’t know anything about him- his age, profession, looks, interests or anything that makes Mr.Nigam Mr.Nigam. As he told me once, he chanced upon my blog while searching for potential writers and he liked my style of writing. Look I don’t even know his first name. May be soon I will meet him.

Mr.Nigam’s question makes me think about the notion of twin souls. And suddenly I find my soul like a broken piece of mirror, which is on a look out for the other pieces that had been once a part of it. Mr.Nigam should be one of those pieces, or the other way round, I should be one of those pieces shattered from his soul.

Indian philosophy says that before an individual takes birth on earth, he/she has to pass through several other existences. He has to live the life of a worm, a fly, a fish, an animal before he becomes a human being. In the process a part of his soul is formed. Before he comes to be the ‘present’ individual, he should also live the lives of other individuals. Life, the ‘wakening’ moments of an eternal ‘unknown’ makes the individual think about his existence as something unique till he realizes that he is a broken piece.

Who is my twin soul or twin flame? Is it my father, my mother, sister, wife, son, a chain of lovers, friends, relatives, casual acquaintances, a character that I came across in a novel or story? Who is that? Who could satisfy the search of my soul for its right counter part?

If we have lived ‘other’ lives elsewhere, then there must be people like us living ‘now’ elsewhere in the world and looking out for us. It is an eternal search. We call it the individual soul’s (jeevatma in Indian philosophy) longing for the ‘eternal soul’ (paramatma). In Yoga you achieve these moments of union with the eternal. In pain and sex too, you find the same. But these are all temporary unions. You still search for your twin soul.

We hear a lot of strange stories about young children identifying people in some other part of the world as his/her parents or relatives. They can even tell the names of those people. We come across stories, even experience at times, about certain psychic feelings that connect two different people in two different places. Carl Gustav Jung, the noted psycho-analyst says that it is ‘synchronicity’. The other person who felt the same as you would be your twin soul but you don’t know.

Déjà vu, the French word that explains the feeling of a past occurrence in the present (or ‘it has happened before’ kind of feeling), I feel is a working of the twin souls but with proper acknowledgement.

She sits against the open door. The light from outside floods on her back. As I sit opposite to her I can see only her silhouette. She is reading a book and a streak of light falls on the right of her face. Suddenly I feel that we have sat like this before, not once but several times. But she is here for the first time. Have I really met her sometime before, if not ‘now’, sometime, somewhere, in some other life?

Twin souls are like ‘soul mates’. For me soul mates are like ‘solve mates’. They can solve any problem of yours. These soul mates are there to help you out and they don’t come with a price. Generally, we find our twin souls in our wives or husbands or closest pals. However, practical life is a different thing altogether as far as living with a ‘twin soul’ is concerned. The more you become familiar with your ‘twin soul’ the more you become numb to his/her presence. Hence, the twin soul should be an ideal concept, whom we should be searching all the time, getting glimpses occasionally and slipping it most often.

I remember W.H.Hudson’s novel ‘Green Mansions’, which I read when I was twenty year old. It was a ripe year to fall in serious love and I fell in love with ‘Rima’, an ethereal character in this novel. Rima is a voice, a bird like or a fairy like character whose identity Hudson guards very well throughout the novel. I was in search of Rima then. I was looking for Rima in each girl I befriended. But I have not yet met her. Every time a new girl comes into my life, I look out for her. (I looked for her in my wife during our courting days but then she became my wife and became a ‘problem and solve mate’ rolled into one)

(Good heavens! Recently myself and my friend Anubhav were playing out a charade, posing ourselves as two up class ladies moving around in the art scene. I gave him a name ‘Pooja’ and he gave me a name, ‘Rima’!)

We don’t meet our twin souls or twin flames. We meet them for a while and then we part. We cannot live with our twin souls because they are as unreal as reality. Some of them would even tell us, ‘Look call reality ‘reality’ and fiction ‘fiction’’. Twin souls just think like us and two souls cannot live in the same body. But the search still goes on.

Twin souls are good when they are always there but not there. Love at first sight is one good example for that. You see your twin soul in the opposite and you yield to it. Then you are gone.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in one of his short stories, recounts his meeting with an extremely beautiful young woman at an airport. He is so enamored by her beauty that he wants to be with her forever. He feels as if he has met his twin soul. But she vanishes in the crowd. Then Marquez boards the flight. Look at that….the same girl comes and sits next to her. Marquez wants to talk to her. But she calls the airhostess and gives instructions not to wake her up even for refreshments. Then she sleeps off. By the end of the flight she wakes up, as fresh as she entered the flight. She walks out of the airport leaving a dumbfound Marquez behind.

What would have happened if Marquez had spoken to her? No idea. The secret of the twin soul lays in that ambiguity.

One has to remain a broken piece of mirror, knowing that other pieces are around. The pieces meet once, virtually or really, but then they part to continue the search.

And in this search for the twin souls lays the beauty of life because these pieces could reflect the world better and diverse.

Twin souls are the web of jewels. They reflect themselves and the world.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

About Spiritual Doctors and Indian Contemporary Art

In Delhi, I have an artist friend who forgets my name every time. He is a great astrologer. May be, he is a great numerologist because just by listening to your name he would tell you about the good and bad things happening in your life. Also he would tell you when things are going to change for good or bad. At times, he gives you some precautionary measures; he would ask you to wear a particular stone or suggest a color for the vehicle, which you are going to buy.

He forgets my name all the time and without any grudge I remind him of my name. I don’t have any grudge because this friend deals with a lot of names. He listens to your name and makes all the calculations out of it.

I never used to believe in this kind of stuff till I ran into some really bad times. Then I consulted my artist friend. As usual he asked my name and promptly I spelt it out the way a child does before the school teacher or a doctor. He looked into my eyes with a smile, and I should say his smile is quite soothing.

“Keep quite and keep doing what you are doing. But keep quite. You will have to handle a few people who have diversified aims. Keep away from the names that starts with….(he mentioned a few alphabets),” he said.

I was astonished because I was having problems with those people whose names started with the alphabets mentioned by him.

Being a contemporary, post-modern, logical, former ultra leftist person, I did not want to openly acknowledge that I believed in such ‘superstitious’ things. May be, for a while his advice soothed me beyond any doubt. I wanted to take these ‘consultations’ as a kind of ‘counseling’- that is a safe way of putting it as you could sound ‘contemporary, post-modern, logical…etc etc.’

Then once again I ran into some kind of trouble- a kind of trouble any married man would face as he reaches his forties. I fell in love with a woman. Despite our ‘liberal’ positioning back home and in public life, this transgression was not taken easily by my wife. I found an eviction notice signed by my wife, virtually pasted on the wall of our bedroom. Besides, she threatened me with a divorce suit and a huge amount as alimony. To pay that kind of amount I would have definitely forced to do some real works of art, which would sell in the art market.

So I consulted my friend. He asked my name again. Then he spelt out the first letter of the name of my love interest. It was matching perfectly.

“Don’t worry, things will fade off. And you will remain married to your current wife,” he said with a smile.

Later we (myself and my wife) consulted him together. Somehow he remembers my wife’s name always. He asked my name again.

“There is a water related problem in the eastern side of your home,” he said. “Rectify it. Things will be alright. You are going to flourish in your life together.”

Yes, ever since we moved to the new house, we have been having some seepage problems, predominantly at the eastern side walls. The artist friend had never visited our home!

Next day we got a plumber to work on the problem and rectified the issue. That night, my wife temporarily removed the eviction notice from the bedroom.

I am not ashamed of saying this because now I believe there are several things, which are beyond our grasp. In one of the Alien movies, a team of experts are brought in to capture the alien. An illiterate character, played by the Last King of Scotland fame Forest Whitaker, also is brought into the team. The other experts jeer at him and ask what made him to be a part of the team. He says, “I feel things intensely.” It is he who finally leads the experts to the elimination of the destructive alien.

In contemporary art scene, my artist friend is a hot property, though many people don’t publicly acknowledge their consultations with him. In one of the big openings in Delhi, I introduced a young artist couple to my friend. Till the end of the party, the couple did not allow my friend to move away from them!

Before the art market boom, most of my artist friends were consulting many spiritual experts. If someone was going to Noida to consult one of the most potent woman astrologer, someone else was going to meet South Delhi’s most magnetic astrologer. Most of the artists were wearing different colored stones in their fingers. If asked they would say, “My mother believes in all these things. Why disappoint her?” Poor mothers, without knowing all these were sitting in the remote corners of the country, while their sons consulted any available astrologer.

Still we don’t want to accept that we believe in this kind of spiritual counseling. Look, India is a pagan society, with a unified code of conduct for gods and goddesses. We have a tradition of worshipping all the natural elements. We have a tradition of consulting the planetary positions for fixing a marriage, starting a business, building a house or venturing into any enterprise. Even our scientists believe in ‘auspicious timings’ for sending a rocket into the outer space. Why sulk? It is our nature, tradition, habit and above all our belief. Why feel so ashamed of it?

Most of the artists are declared atheists. They just don’t believe in god. But I have found the images of gods and goddesses being worshipped in most of the artists’ studios. If look at that corner or worship, suddenly the artist would say, “My assistant boy does all those.” Come on, worshipping god is not a sin. Then why do they talk as if they were caught in sin.

Somewhere, we have developed this tendency to hide that we believe in certain ‘spiritual practices.’ May be it is a baggage from the modernist times. During the modernist period, with the hopes of a communist revolution around the corner, we used to think that anything that throws hurdles at progressive thinking is ‘retrogressive’, hence uncouth and pre-modern. However, we could not move much away from our tradition in this front. We shifted from dhotis to jeans, from un-stitched clothes to designer wears. But our society still believe in gods and goddesses, which is good as the presence of gods and goddesses prevent people from doing may atrocious things including public pissing and spitting, which have become almost national characteristic of India.

We should be proud of belonging to a pagan culture that worships all the natural elements. We have a tradition that asks permission from the birds and small animals living on a tree, before it is being cut. We have a tradition of giving sacrificial (symbolic) food to invisible beings. We have a tradition of appeasing all the invisible forces before we venture into an auspicious deed. If art is an auspicious thing, why artist shy away from being believers?

It is interesting to see that going to a Christian church in the Sunday best is preferred over going to a temple in simple loin clothes. Confessing before a priest looks more secular and preferable than going to consult an astrologer. I am not implicating Christianity. But the Christian church practice is preferred over pagan systems only because of our colonized mindset. We think that Christianity came from the white west so it should be better than the pagan east. What a pity!

Why don’t we acknowledge that we believe and we do consult spiritual counselors? With the recession in art market, there are several artists who actively consult their spiritual doctors. Do accept that we do it. By accepting it one does not become a religious fundamentalist. On the contrary one would become a humble person who believes that there are things beyond his capacity.

But it is not an organized call for doing yagyas and havans for the betterment of art market. It is just another hint at being human in the Indian way.

I do like those people who feed birds and ants. But I don’t like those people who feed ants in their bed.

It is all about discernment and discretion.

I call one of the top most artists in India. His sister picks up the phone and tells me, ‘He has gone to temple.’

Later I mention it to the artist. He shrugs and says, “What to do, my family wants me to perform these rituals…..”

Cartoon quip:

Q: What do you read first in the Sunday newspaper?

Intellectual: What’s happening in the US administration and what’s happening in Bihar.

Ordinary human being: Horoscope for the week.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Story of a Flute Player

I think of writer’s block; a kind of mental state that cannot be chipped away by any intellectual chisel. It has to melt down on its own, leaving some stains of memories. Next time when you see the block growing in you again, you look at these stains and see how it had melted away once, slowly.

Don’t try to push it. Let it be. If you try to chip it off, it would show how powerful it is. One should let the things to be.

I meet this young man with a full beard and a wonderful smile on his face at Papanaasam beach in Varkala. Papanaasam means ‘the dispeller of sins’. I am there with the internationally acclaimed painter, Shibu Natesan, taking an interview, patching up differences and chewing good old memories.

I know this sea very well. I came here once to immerse the ashes of my father. Then I came here again to pray for his soul on a Karkidaka vavvu day. This day in the month of Karkidakam is considered to be auspicious as the souls of the deceased come to the sea shore in the form of crows. You go there and feed them with sacrificial rice cooked by the greedy priests.

It is a kind of pilgrimage. You walk to the seashore without the sandals on your feet. The small pebbles and shrubs along the way pinch your soles that are turned over-sensitive to the touch of earth. In each step you remember the souls that are waiting for you to feed them. The pain at your feet would tell you about the flimsiness of your life, your mortality.

Take a dip in the sea after feeding the crows/souls, you are relieved of your sins. You stand in wet clothes under a cloudy sky. The breeze passes though your wet body and you shiver. This sea takes away your sins. I have dipped here and there in river Ganges too. Both the times, immersing the ashes of my beloved people.

“Johny,” this man with a smile calls me. “I know you have not recognized me. But you know me well,” he says.

I shake hand with him with a sense of embarrassment for not recognizing him. Shibu speaks to him as he knows him well.

I observe this man keenly. His eyes attract me particularly. There is a deep calmness in them. He holds a two and half feel long black case in his left hand.

“Where have we met?” I ask myself while he talks to Shibu in a very friendly way. He refers to the name of a teacher who had taught me also in an education centre at Varkala almost twenty three years back. I look at him intently and now I could see the face of a young boy without beard, but with the same smile.

“I am Venugopal,” he says and he reminds me of our days in that parallel education centre. We used to be together participating in many cultural events. We used to sing together and he used to play flute.

The black case in Venugopal’s hand has a few flutes in it. He makes different kinds of flute and sells them to the foreign tourists who haunt the Papanaasam beach throughout the year. He gives flute lessons to the interested foreigners at the beach for a fee. And now he has got several accomplished disciples all over the world. He has been doing it, ever since he left the educational institute.

“I have been coming to this beach for the last twenty years,” Venugopal tells his story. “Initially I used to hang around here and play flute for the foreign visitors who paid me for entertaining them. Slowly some of them started taking interest in learning it. Now, I have ‘students’ from all over the world, some of them even come back every year only to continue with their lessons.”

Venugopal takes out one of his flutes and plays a piece of music for us. Shibu then takes one from Venu’s hands and tries his musical prowess at it.

“I have been trying to learn guitar for a long time,” I tell Venugopal in a confessional tone.

Venugopal looks at me with the same kind smile on his face. ‘You did not learn it till now?’ kind of question was on there in his eyes.

“Johny, the last time when we performed together, yes that was twenty three years back, you had said you wanted to learn guitar,” Venugopal teases me.

“Yes, I tried my hand at Tabla in between, but in vain,” I tell him as a sort of explanation.

“In trying lays all the problems,” Venugopal tells me. “When you try, you look for the result. Better let it be. You love playing flute, you need to know only the basics, the rest will happen to you as you play on. I never tried to learn flute. I liked flute and started playing with it and then everything happened. Don’t try things…just be with it,” Venugopal looks deeply into my eyes.

The wet breeze from the sea touches my face.

Venugopal is married and has a seven year old daughter, who sings extremely well. Whenever people invite, Venugopal travels with them to any part of India. Recently, he went to Himalayas with a North Indian painter, whom he met in the beaches of Papanaasam.

“How do you earn, if there are no students around?” I ask him. He smiles at me as if he was pointing out my incorrigible materialistic concerns.

“My wife is a school teacher and she brings bread home,” he says. And I am sure that Venugopal is not a parasite in his family as he makes flutes, teaches them to students and sells them to the interested parties.

Venugopal has played flute for many orchestra. But he finds his music at this seashore. “I am quite at home here,” he smiles.

He wears a pair of trousers and a shirt. He used to sport long hairs, which he cut recently. Once he was invited to join a famous music school in Kochi. He went there, gave interview. But the management wanted him to trim his beard, wear neck tie, tucked in shirt and shoes. Venugopal refused to go by the dress code and came back to his beloved beach. Later the school authorities requested him to join on his own conditions.

“I spent there two years,” says Venugopal. He left the school because he loved this beach so much.

“Are you happy?” Shibu asks.

“Yes, I am,” Venugopal says with no doubts or second thoughts about his happiness.

I feel his inner happiness because I find a man from my own past, who just doesn’t try, but just be there with things that he likes.

I learn this great lesson from Venugopal: Trying is one thing. But being ‘spiritually’ with anything/anyone you love is what makes you happy, creative and live.

I can see the stains left by the block in my mind now.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Black Has Always Been Beautiful

Barak Hussein Obama wins. And he is the new President of the US. A Democrat, so we Indians have a lot of hope invested in him. Besides he is a Black/Mulatto. That should give us more hope for he understands the problems of a non-white world being a non-white in the white world.

End of the day race of the American president should not be counted for he is the president of all Americans, irrespective of their skin color. Obama’s win is historic because it comes with a warning: Obama should not be another Nelson Mandela- with all due respect to Mandela, a phoenix cannot return to ashes. Condoleeza Rize, the BLACK WOMAN Secretary of State, the second power in the Bush administration, is another example who got absorbed into the political system of the US and became neither a black nor a woman.

I am not a political analyst or specialist. My interest lays in the color of black- the black color of the skin. Paul Gilroy when he wrote ‘There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack’, he was saying nothing but the absence of black people in the British politics. Isaac Julien, Yinka Shonibare, Chris Ofili and so on worked really hard to include some black color in the white canvas of British art scene, along with the theoreticians like Gilroy and Stuart Hall.

We can say the world has almost deconstructed its history of white supremacy with the election of Obama as the US President. But have we, the Indians changed in some way? Do we like dark complexion? Ain’t we the most racial amongst all the world populations, despite all our democratic and secular claims? Fair skin makes all the difference, we believe. We want to become next to the white both in color and attitude. We call our brothers and sisters who have dark complexion, ‘Kaalus’ and ‘Kalias’.

Our marriage market always looks for fair skinned people. I have visited almost all the galleries in India. Not a single gallery has a dark skinned girl working as a gallery executive. In the job market dark skinned people are always pushed behind. Gigi Scaria, in his video titled ‘Interview’ comments on this issue of Indian apartheid. Black skin is a negative branding. The aspiring white people read too much into it- black skinned people are bad, ugly, unsophisticated and inefficient.

Malcolm X in his autobiography (written in collaboration with Alex Hailey) speaks of his initiation into black politics. As a young man, involved in street crimes, Malcolm X was arrested and put into penitentiary. There in the jail library he started studying more about social discrimination due to skin color. He referred the dictionary to understand the meaning of BLACK. He found all the negatives attached to the color black and he realized it was the creation of the white supremacy. Had the black man been powerful, the meaning of the word ‘black’ would have been totally different.

Indians are more color conscious than any other populace. Here the skin color is attached to the caste system. The black should obviously be a Dalit/socially deprived. A dalit should obviously be uneducated and uncouth. As he is uneducated and uncouth, he should be a ruffian. What a pity. We hail Mandela and Obama. We hail Carl Lewis and Evander Holifield. We hail Monica and Serena Williams, and Brian Lara. We hail them because they are the achievers. A black achiever could be worshipped. But a black individual could not be accepted.

In Indian academies I have seen the libraries filled with the works of white writers. Even in the art academies, I have never seen Paul Gilroy’s or Stuart Hall’s works. I have not seen the writings of bell hooks in any art colleges in India. In the art openings, if there are black visitors (black people from abroad) they look lost as we Indians give so much of attention to the white guests. Yes, the black visitor does get attention if he or she is from a powerful gallery or a museum. Or she/he should be a diplomat or a diplomat’s wife. Our news photographers who cover the art dos are trained to keep black people out of their frames. Just look at the page three pics for evidence. Can you show me one dark skinned person there?

Our cultural conditioning has gone to such an extent that the dark complexioned heroes in Indian movies romance only fair complexioned girls. If we have a dark complexioned heroine, she would be always type-casted to play the role of a rural girl. Smita Patil had been one. Now we have Nandita Das and Konkana Sen.

I try to remember the names of a few white actors and I come up with a few. But when I remember the black actors I can remember many. Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes, Lawrence Fishburn, Eddy Murphy, Chris Tucker, Martin Lawrence, Cuba Gooding Junior, Danny Glover, Ice Cube, Jamie Fox, Whoopie Goldberg, Samuel Jackson, Queen Latifa, Mario Van Peebles, Will Smith, Richar Pryor, Chris Rock, Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and Spike Lee. I ask for their movies in Indian video libraries and I find very few.

Look at these actors and actresses. Look at the writings of the black people. Look at the contributions of the non-white people in the field of art and culture. Look at the pains that they have taken to produce one Barak Obama.

Do we every come to understand these things one day? When shall we realize that Black is still beautiful and it has always been beautiful?

(To the cynics who would directly refer the provocation for writing this piece to my dark skin complexion, I have only this much to say: I am a proud black man and I believe black is always beautiful)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Estragon in Delhi

I am
One never
Things come
And when
Things go
When things
I am
I am
For this
Is not

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Touched by Butterfly Souls

“Butterflies are the winged souls of our departed loved ones. Don’t kill them.”

These words struck me when I first read O.V.Vijayan’s cult novel ‘Khasakkinte Ithihasam.’ (The Legend of Khasak)

I was just eleven years old then. Not a good age to read an existential novel. Though I did not understand much then, I liked those words about butterflies. Ever since I read this novel, I stopped chasing butterflies.

My mother used to tell me if I caught a butterfly, the colours of its wings would fade and its parents would not allow it to come back to its home. The very thought of an innocent baby butterfly being chased out of home by its parents used to send shivers through my spine. Still I chased butterflies.

Mothers are like that. They say a lot of ‘Don’ts’. And the children convert each ‘don’t’ into a ‘do’. Despite my mother’s warnings, I chased a lot of butterflies and skirts.

Then in 2006, I saw a butterfly that made my fingers burn with the desire to touch its wings. It was a huge butterfly perched on the walls of the Visual Arts Gallery of India Habitat Center, New Delhi.

While extending my fingers to touch the wings, it made a screeching noise and from the surface of its wings hundreds of razor blades bared their sharpened edges at me. Finally butterflies are striking back. The wings could cut my fingers. The empire strikes back- the age of innocence if over. The butterflies can now make you bleed.

With an inverted glistening steel sword for its body, this steel butterfly was made up of shining steel and thousands of razor blades added patterns to its wings. A motor fitted behind the sword moved the wings in regular and slow intervals.

Sunil Gawde is the artist who did this butterfly as a part of his solo ‘Blind Bulbs’, first presented by Sakshi Gallery in 2005 at their Lower Parel space in Mumbai.

From pure mechanics, it shifted its position to a desire machine that spoke volumes about politics of imperialism and the resistant ideologies.

I see the butterfly again at Sunil’s studio, at the third floor of the Kasinath Building in Fort area, Mumbai. On the spotless walls of the reception are of his studio, the butterfly sits pretty, inviting me to touch it again. This time, neither Vijayan nor my mother comes to warn me. I warn myself. “If I touch, I will bleed.”

Sunil’s spacious studio accommodates a few of his small scale works that involve a lot of technical experimentations and scientific precision. I find two heavy garlands hanging from the wall and any beautiful object makes me run my fingers over it, perhaps a character developed by imitating Bose Krishnamachari and Velu Viswanathan at art openings. I am about to touch it and Sunil warns me, “Watch out your fingers.’
To my shock I find the garlands are made up of red razor blades, arranged aesthetically like a garland of flower. Sunil plays between desire and danger. The demarcating line between them is so thin like politics, love and sex.

The danger and desire of sexuality come visible in the balloons- a couple of them sticking at the ceiling of the studio and a six of them lying on a pink bed down on the floor. Resist, I tell myself. Sunil’s balloons simulate the brittle and tensed surface of real balloons. But they are made of fiber glass and the curves of it imitate the popular heart shaped balloons. Staring deeper at them I find the female genital images skillfully incorporated there. The inverted balloons, then make your imagination run wild- are they the exposed bottoms or the breasts? The work creates a zone of ambiguous passions.

Each work of Sunil tells you something more than its formal finish. They make you think about science, philosophy and small little anecdotes from your own life. From the micro worlds of your private existence you transgress to the macro worlds of politics and ambition. They blind you for a moment and then bestow you with an unparalleled vision. They make you deaf and then fill your ears with music. They cut your fingers and light will flow out of your wounds.

I sit on a chair, against a table, where Sunil shows me his earlier works, most of which I have been following all these years.

Suddenly, a butterfly flies in and it flaps its wings between us. I look at Sunil and he at me. We exchange a smile.

I hold a pen between my fingers and jot down points which I find interesting in Sunil’s conversation. The butterfly lands on the tip of the pen. It flaps the wings for a while and then folds them together. I look at Sunil through the bluish transparency of its wings. I see a much young bearded Sunil there.

Years back, when Sunil was a struggling artist, with a fulltime Port Trust of Mumbai job in hand and a huge debt in bank, one day he was making a huge painting. He was supposed to send it for a show.

The work was finished and he decided to pack it. For a final view he opened the windows to let more light in. Then a butterfly came flying in. It flew around the painting for a while before safely landing at the top left corner of the frame. Then came another one and one more. Slowly the room was full of butterflies. Sunil stood in silence and watched them blessing his paintings.

Then they left the room one by one. Sunil stood there still listening to the petal like music that the wings of the butterflies had created inside the room.

I look at the butterfly sitting on my pen.

Sunil takes me to a cupboard where he has placed an A-4 sized frame with stuffed butterflies of different colours.

“I bought it from Brazil,” says Sunil. “They are carefully preserved ones. Dead but pristine in their celestial beauty,” he adds.

Just on the cupboard, below the framed Brazilian butterflies, I find a moth like butterfly lying still. I look at Sunil.

“It came in this studio a week back. Flew around the butterfly sculpture for a while. Then went and touched every other object in the studio and fell dead on the floor. I took it and kept it near its distant cousins. I am not going to remove it from here,” Sunil says.

The butterfly at the tip of my pen then flies up. It flies around us and leaves the room.

“Who are these butterflies?” I ask Sunil.

“Winged souls of our departed beloveds,” Sunil tells me. “They come to bless us.”

After two days I am in Baroda. I get a call from Sunil.

“Johny, I am selected for the Venice Biennale 2009,” Sunil tells me from the other end of the phone. I congratulate him from my heart.

As I finish the conversation over phone, I find a small yellow butterfly flying towards bunch of flowers at the lawns of the hotel where I stay.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Angels on a Beach

At 1 A M, Juhu Beach in Mumbai looks still busy. It is a Friday night and the week-weary folks are out in the streets to unwind.

The sea is calm though it tries to touches the feet of the people relaxing on the beach with its playful waves. They withdraw from the sandy edge of the beach, where a line of control is drawn with the garbage left by the revelers. From a distance, the line of rubbish look like a perfect girdle and the closer you go the better you see: GARBAGE.

My curator-collaborator, Anubhav Nath points at a hoarding erected out there by the city administration. It reads: ‘You Don’t Want to Keep it Clean. At Least Don’t Litter it More’.

There is no limit to littering in this city of dreams. Material waste looks like the wasted dreams of the angry people who sink their frustration in further littering. There seems to be no end to it.

Somu Desai leads our way. He is taking us to experience something new- ‘A life time experience,’ as he puts it. We are excited at this hour as the prospective meeting with ‘someone’ in the partly lit ends of the beach reserves and assures a lot of fun.

Don’t misunderstand me. We are not here to do anything unlawful or unethical. To put it straight, we are not here to look out for the nocturnal comforters.

Our muscles are tensed and tired after a few hours of dancing at the dance floor of Joss, Kalaghoda, Mumbai, where we attended the 50th Birthday Bash of the noted artist Rekha Rodwittiya. A lot of DJ-yed Bollywood music and a lot of wishful pelvic gyrations.

‘Let us go for a massage on the beach,’ Somu suggests and it sounds soothing music to our ears as the Punjabisized DJ-ying had considerably damaged our sonic senses.

So we are here at the Juhu Beach.

I train my eyes to see the soothers. There, at a distance I see the silhouettes of some crouching creatures moving up and down in a vigorous way. Their movement is so funny but very rhythmic. Somu leads the way to the garden of those moving creatures.

As we move closer, I realize the actuality of these creatures. They are young boys crouching over people who are lying on their back or stomach, partly undressed. I watch them curiously. Their practiced hands move on the bodies of the people who have temporarily forgotten their worries by the magic of dancing finger tips.

Somu waits as if he knew someone of his liking would turn up. Finally, they, three of them appear from nowhere with their plastic holders with oils and creams. There is a bundle of cloth tucked away under their arms. I feel they came out of the sea as I could not figure out the origin of their sudden appearance.
‘Shall we start,” they ask in chorus and with quick movements of their feet they make three mounds of sand and spread the clothes over the mounds. The beach suddenly turns into a spa with these three makeshift beds. We surrender our bodies to these body magicians of the beach. Their fingers start moving on our bodies.

I look at the sky, which doesn’t seem to have too many stars tonight. The expanse of the ink blue sky comes over me as a dark soft weight that could smother the cries that I want to let out from my hearts. I listen to the rhythm board played by the waves and it is meditative. I let myself go.

A new world is created where unknown fingers move along the tired tracks of muscles. The skin becomes a landscape, unexplored virgin lands at least for this night. And the boys are the explorers of this new land, sometimes they caress, sometimes they plunder and ravage and sometimes they extract the essence out of the land. It should have been the extraction of essences otherwise, but it now feels quite rejuvenating.

Suddenly I feel this guilt of making someone just a set of finger tips. I feel like talking to the boy who is on me, incising my weary muscles to let the sap of tiredness flow out. I can see the silhouette of this boy moving over my body against the yellow halogen lamp at the extreme edge of the beach, where sleepless bees hum their flimsy life out.

“Where are you from?” I ask. I make myself sound quite dispassionate as I know my query could impinge on his privacy.

“We are from Agra,” he prefers to speak on behalf of all the boys in the beach who do the same job.

From Agra to Juhu. Is it a tradition? Yes, many young boys migrate to Mumbai to become professional masseurs. Akbar, that is his name, tells me about them. It is not a family tradition but a lucrative attraction. Migrating to Mumbai to become masseurs offers a lot of things, money, material and quick time fantasy satisfaction. Yes, they are very much in demand by the foreigners (both men and women), who do not want to get massaged on the dirty beaches of Juhu. These boys are taken to the hotels and if need be they give it a finishing touch with panache.

All their names show that they come from Muslim families. There is no rule like that. But one boy brings another one. The stories told back in the village around the night fire, nude bodies of white women, the smell and sound of the five star rooms create a fantasy world before them. They just don’t think about the bodies that are spread out in the littered beach of Juhu, in their glistening brown-ness. That is the reality of the nights, the litter of a tiring city and its ultimate loneliness.

These are the angels who fly over your body. They flap their wings over you, take you to a temporary world of ease and romance. The powdery sands of the beach murmur bed time stories into your ears. You loose into your world of non-existence.

I remember the girl who massaged me Bangkok. My friend asks me ‘was she beautiful?’.

I try to remember her face. Yes I do. Under the Air-Conditioner, inside the dimly lit parlour, she sits at my feet. I recline on the chair leaving the lower part of my body to be shaped back by her arty fingers.

She washes my feet, dries it with a soft towel. Then she puts oil on her palms and rub my sole, first softly, then with some amount of pressure and then vigorously. It is like a roller-coster ride. You want to tell her to stop it, but you are not able to. She takes you to the dizzying heights. Then she brings you down softly; a kind of bungee jump on a reclining chair.

She feels cold under the blowing AC. She covers herself with the towel. I look at her face. She cannot be called a beauty. She is an ordinary looking girl with a dark brown skin. Had she been a yellow skinned Thai national, would I have enjoyed better? Would it have satisfied some of my racial fantasies, which refuse to go despite the theoretical white washing?

I don’t know. I feel this girl as another angel, who comforts you with her feathery fingers. Perhaps, she asks you of your nationality and when you say ‘Indian’ she nods. I cannot decipher the meaning of her nodding. May be she see many Indians everyday exclusively coming for massage. She also might have seen several Indian artists, who come in Bangkok for ‘art camps’.

She massaged me when the art market was going up in full momentum. And I felt the euphoria blooming in my veins like a show of fireworks.

The boys in Juhu beach boys massage me when the art market has taken a nose dive along with the global market meltdown. The whole day, myself, Anubhav and Somu were discussing art market recession with so many people. Not because that we wanted to do so but wherever we went we were drawn to such talks.

We all need a massage now, a few moments of relaxation and abandon.

Juhu is just right here, at the heart of the art hub of India, Mumbai. And the boys are there.

With their limited accessories, they look totally powerless. But when they perform, they conjure up worlds that we have forgotten to see during the market boom.

It is time to go back and listen to the sea telling the truth of time, winds carrying the philosophy of resignation, sands murmuring the words of earth.

The angels fly away and I believe they flew back to the sudden darkness of the sea, from where they came to us.
I drag my soothed legs along the sand and I lag much behind the towering figures of Somu and Anubhav.

Then someone told me in my ear, “Go and Spread the word. It is not the time of doom. Have faith. The Angels are Here.”