Tuesday, February 15, 2011


(Photo- Robert Mapplethrope)

Fail not our feast
Forget not to do things till seven o’ clock
Let God be with you
And me till then.

They are butchering
Our brothers everywhere
They have palaces to hide
Ports and faces too.

Fail not our feast
Tonight, before
Forests, poems and dreams
Wake up
We need to avenge
The innocent blood.

But promise me
That even if you don’t turn up
You won’t scare me
With ghostly appearances
That you don’t occupy
The throne that I deem mine.

(Translated from Malayalam by myself)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Date with KMM and Connaught Place: A Photext Feature

This date was long over due; a date between the National Award winning film maker and artist, K.M.Madhusudhanan (Bioscope) and myself. We had called each other and fixed our meeting at Triveni Kala Sangam, New Delhi. From there we thought of going to Connaught Place, the enchanting shopping arcade of New Delhi.

Any artist who lives today in Delhi has something to do with Connaught Place. During the days of their seemingly endless struggles, they used to walk between Mandi House and Connaught Place, weaving dreams and scheming about life. Buildings looked grey and roads looked narrow then; people were absolutely uncouth. Artists walked along the footpaths thinking that they were Baudelaires in making and they were in the streets of Paris.

Times have changed. Connaught Place looks totally different today. Madhusudhanan says that it is more like Manhattan now. True, from the outer circle, you turn your eyes at the Barakhamba (Twelve Pillar) Road that leads to Mandi House, you see a different scene. The erstwhile greys have gone into hiding. This is the spring of urbanism. Each building there seems to have acquired a distinct identity, whether it is Statesman Building or Gopal Das Bhavan.

Madhusudhanan comes to Triveni Kala Sangam at the appointed time in his Versa car. One may wonder why he moves around in a van-like vehicle. He is a film maker and he carries a lot of books and equipments in his car always. His car, bags and brain are moving libraries.

I call him Madhu. Those people, who know him as a filmmaker, do not know his contribution as an artist. Madhu was one of the leaders of Indian Radical Painters and Sculptors Association (Radical Group). He was instrumental in formulating the manifesto of the Radical Group, which was titled ‘Against a Retrogressive Aesthetics’. Today some people call it as ‘Kerala Radicals’. One can twist history, but trust me, history has a lot of energy; it will straighten itself up.


During early 1990s (after the sad demise of K.P.Krishnakumar, who used to offer chocolates to pretentious art critics and books to artists, in 1989), Madhu, after his stint as a teacher at the NID, Ahmedabad came to Delhi. He joined as an editorial illustrator at the Economic Times. Simultaneously he worked with the noted theatre directors namely Prasanna,B.V.Karanth, Badal Sarkar, Mohan Maharshi and Kavalam Narayana Panicker in their well known theater prodcutions, as a designer. Besides, he designed the book covers for ‘Indian Literature,’ an inclusive journal of Indian Literature, which became quite influential during 1990s under the editorial direction of the poet, K.Satchidanandan who later became the Secretary of the Sahitya Akademy (National Academy of Literature). With Satchidanandan, Madhu initiated one of the alternative journals tiled, 'Pacchakkuthira' in which Madhu played the role as an art designer. He designed sets for several plays at the National School of Drama and designed posters of Sahita Akademy (National Academy of Literature). All these designs and illustrations could be considered as classical works now.

I remember Madhu telling me once in 90s’ that he was not an artist, but a film maker. Art had given him so much of pain at that point. I could understand him because he was one of those young people who had given their youthful days completely for art. What they got in return was disillusionment and a suicide. Madhu has always been interested in photography. This interested slowly turned into the moving images. Then he did a series of movies, cutting himself away from the mainstream art world. Now his works titled, ‘History is a Silent Film’, ‘Maayabazar’, ‘Self Portrait’, ‘Razor, Blood and Other Stories’ are all over the world. They all have featured in the international film festivals. Today Madhu calls himself 'an artist who paints, draws and films as he breaths'. Film is an extension of my art and my art is an extension of my films, says Madhu. He believes that all those experiences of being a Radical member and an agitated/agitating artist have contributed to his maturity. "Today, I am deeply involved in Buddhist literature and art. I am led by the compassion and philosophy of Buddhism. I look at this philosophy as an alternative practice. Through this I attempt to reach out to a language, which could reflect the wisdom and vision of the East. I am in a journey and it gives me a lot of energy to do my films and art," says Madhu.

‘Bioscope’ (2009) is his first feature film. This film deals with the life of a man who falls in love with a movie projector. The story happens in the first decade of the 20th century, almost the same time when cinema came to India. A young man gets a film projector from a French film projectionist who was leaving Pondicherry for France. The young man brings the projector to his village. He gets so involved with the projector and he shows movies to the villagers. In the meanwhile, his ailing wife develops complications. People believe that it is because of the projector that things go wrong in the family. The film speaks of the history of film itself, the arrival modernism and the conflict of it with conventions and superstitions. The film talks of a landscape changed by the arrival of moving images.

This was the best film of 2009 for which Madhu received award from the President of India in 2010. In the meanwhile, the film went to the international film festival circuit, heaping awards and accolades from many countries. Currently Madhu is working on his second feature film, ‘Karuna’ (Compassion- The Return of Buddha) based on a long poem written by Kumaran Asan, which is based on a Buddhist story. National Award winning actor Mammooty plays the lead role in this movie.

Madhu washes his hands at Triveni and while showing me a few books on Buddhism, including one by Aswaghosha (an out of print book, which he could cajole out from a bookshop in Karol Bagh after much persuasion) and one by Anand Koomaraswamy. Motilal Banarasi Lal Books- They publish history and academic books. They publish coffee table academic books too, a lot illustrated with beautiful picture; India beckoning types. “Those books are clean as people handle it quite often. Books on Buddhism are pushed into the back racks where dust romances with parchment. Look at my hands, full of dust,” Madhu tells me.

I flip through the books. A sudden urge to read them all engulfs me and I know I cannot do that in one go. I want to buy the copies for me too. Madhu agrees to go with me to the store again on the same day. But I keep it for another day and we have the famous kebabs and not so famous parathas from Triveni’s Restaurant. I notice a notice board hung there. It says. ‘No Smoking and No Meeting Here- Entry Restricted’. I smile because this is the place where people meet up. Between the dirty canteen of Lalit Kala Akademy (by the way this ‘dirty’ canteen was the only place the artists and critics could afford once. I mean, the migrant artists and critics) and the busy Bengali Market’s Nathus and Bengali Sweets, Triveni’s Restaurant is quite attractive and it is very arty too. And people do come here for ‘Meeting’.

I am not a photographer. However, at times I carry my camera with me. I love men and I like to take their pictures and I like them taking my pictures too. That does not mean that I don’t like women. But I don’t like to take their pictures. Nor do I want them to take my pictures. I don’t want to leave too many forensic evidences behind. Also I believe that memories are the best albums, especially when it comes to preserving sensations, and words are the best colors, tones and textures that could relate the picturesque moments, as if these words were secret codes, which could be cracked only by those partners who have tried their private moments of alchemy.

Connaught Place is ravishing. Versa drops us at the inner circle. We walk and talk. And for the first time, we talk less than in our other meetings. Connaught Place has different stories to tell different people. I look for a different story. I find this road getting dug up and I remember myself going to the same lane a few months back and the digging up was still on. Even if we go after fifteen years, some part of Connaught Place must be getting dug up. Delhi is a permanently unfinished city; as the arty people say, it is a project in process.

I see a hug wine and beer sign board and click a few pictures and get clicked too. Then I catch a glimpse of this authentic Chinese Restaurant. Madhu says that it ‘was’ the ‘authentic’ Chinese Restaurant.

We have abundant pot holes and falling walls.

Here wealth and filth live together. This photo is very suggestive because the vaults of banks will always remain closed for those people who collect garbage.

A rusting sign board offers you everything with communication.

The hinder sides have another story to tell.

At the N Bloc, our own Banksy has left something for imagination.

The city authorities always ask others inform them of the missing people. People keep missing in a city.

A bit of window shopping.

A caged Natraja. This is when Madhu remembers Stella Kramrisch, the art historian. She witnessed the Natraja sculpture for the first time and wrote: As if a huge butterfly was captured inside a huge hall covered with stain glass windows, and fluttering its wings frantically. “If you read these lines, you will love art history. I don’t think many have read it,” says Madhu.

Here you can change your money.

A meadow of magazines.

Life goes on as in Victor Hugo’s novels.

A spry paint compressor machine left alone.

Just do it. Do what? Shop.

Multi-cultural Delhi.

If you are an artist, you would remember QBA. During the market boom, this bar and restaurant was a permanent party joint after exhibition openings.

Spittoon in the liminal spaces.

Madhu looks at the wares of a peddler.

Headless attractions.

Trees in CP.

And Me.

(picture by KMM)

Finally, we come back to Mandi House. Once we reach the Mandi House circle, we could see young children practicing Taekwando at the lawns. “The moment I touch this circle, I feel like home coming,” Madhu says. I cannot have another feeling about it.

(All pictures by JohnyML)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Rohita Writes to Her Dad on a Rainy Day: A Story

(Photo courtesy: Sunil Raj)

After those days of scorching heat, it is very good to see the sky getting filled up with dark clouds. I wistfully wait for those moments when the dark and heavy clouds open their small windows and let the water drops fall on earth. Water drops are like babies, they jump, fall, get up and again fall. They fall all over the roof tops, on trees, plants and grass. They don’t spare anything. They chase the squirrels away to their tree holes. They send the birds to hide inside their nests.

We, the children love rain a lot. We all want to play in the muddy pool made by the incessant rains. We want to run over the grass fields that are wet with heavy water drops. What a sensation it is; cool water drops touching our soles. I giggle whenever rain drops touch me. I just want to get wet when it rains.

But what to do? You know, how mummies and daddies behave..as if they never had a childhood! The moment the kids jump out of the home to play in rain, the mommies and daddies would scream. “Hey, get in..you will catch cold.”

Oh, that’s what they tell kids. Actually, children don’t catch cold or anything if they play under rain. I always think about those small kids at the traffic junctions. They sell flowers, toys and some towels. Sometimes they beg too. I feel so bad about them. I ask myself why their parents don’t take care of them the way my parents take care of me. One day I asked my mom about this. She told me that they were poor and homeless. They had to work for their lives. Somehow I felt a lot of anger inside me. I decided to ask god about this. I did ask him about it that evening. But he was silent. Photographs don’t talk, I know. But I am sure that one day, when I see him in my dreams I will ask him about this. He is my friend.

Let me come back to my dear rain. One day she came. Yes, I think rain is a girl child; bubbly and cheerful. I have never seen a sad rain. Rains cannot be sad. But in cinema they show sad rains. I don’t like them. I have seen my mom and dad watching sad movies and sad rains and sad songs with a lot of interest. I don’t know what these grown up people think about themselves. They are really crazy people.

One day, finally it rained. It was a Sunday. Mom was in kitchen. Yesterday evening I had received a call from my dad. He told me he was on the way to border where some fight was on between India and Pakistan. I don’t even know why two countries fight. The other day I saw lot of children playing in a park in Pakistan. They were just like us and the park where they played also looked exactly like the park in front of our house. I don’t but then why these grown up people fight. I hate fighting. I hate wars. And I hate anything that put children into trouble.

But what to do? My dad is an army officer and he need to fight for his country. And they all say that we should be loyal to our country and fighting for our country is the best sacrifice one can make in his or her life. But I don’t want to become a woman-soldier when I grow up. I want to become a writer and I can write the stories of children and how they feel about wars and fights. I want to tell these grown up people that we feel a lot bad when they fight. We feel frightened too. You know, we are frightened like anything. And whenever you see us sleeping, don’t think that we are sleeping peacefully. No, we are not sleeping in peace. We are sleeping because we want to get rid of our fear when you fight. We, children escape from fear through sleep. We don’t have any other way.

When the rain drops were beckoning me with their trotting sounds and music, I asked permission from my mom to venture out and play in rain. She allowed me only if I took my umbrella along. I was itching to get out of home and walk in the rain and get wet. But this small compromise was worth making. So I took out my blue umbrella and went out to play.

I went to Anusha’s home. Standing outside the gate I called out for her. She came and looked at me through the door grill. I asked her to come out and walk with me. But she looked sad. Without saying anything, she went inside. I could make out that her parents did not allow her to come out and play under rain. Then I went to Sambhu’s house. Then to Martha’s. They all refused to come with me. So I decided to walk alone and play with the rain drops and puddles.

In our housing complex there is a long boulevard with tall trees on either side of it. Though I am familiar with all the plants, shrubs and weeds there, when they stand fresh washed with rain water, they look different. They look so happy that they look different too. Sad people are sad in the same way. But happy people look so different when they are happy. Plants, flowers, birds, monkeys, squirrels and all must be looking different now because they are happy.

While walking along the path with no one around and with the buzzing sound of rain falling on my umbrella and the general hissing noise that the rain drops and wind make together , suddenly something flitted across my face. Startled I jumped back. A small noise of fear escaped between my lips. I was really frightened. Who could it be? I wondered and looked around. I could not see anyone in the vicinity. Then I noticed one maina bird walking furiously on the earth. Then something flitted across my face again.

This time I saw it. It was another maina bird. It flitted across me again and again, and the other bird made some shrieking noises as if it were trying to chase me away. Briskly I walked ahead and turned back to see what these birds were up to.
They were flying around with their small wings now weakened by water and dirt. They flew between trees, ledges and fences. I wondered why there were doing so. I stood there and watched them working on something so diligently but frantically. Soon I saw that!

The birds were going in and around a bush and they were almost giving some instructions to the bush! They moved back and forth. As I approached, shrieking fiercely they retreated from the bush. They hopped back and looked at me intently. With soft footsteps I went near the bush. I could not see anything. So I walked around and tried to see what was going on inside the bush. I bend down and craned my neck towards it. There I saw a small maina chick sitting and shivering.

Its small little body was all wet. With water pushing the feathers from around its head and neck, it looked like a bald child. Its yellow beak was sharp. It gave me a side glance. And it was full of fear. I could sense how it might have been feeling then. The bird was shivering. It was impossible for me to push my hands inside and rescue the chick from there. So I decide to wait there and watch if some cat or monkey by and attack it.

The other two birds (now I could make out that they were the parents of this chick) looked at me watchfully. Once they felt that I did not mean any harm, they became calm. Their shrieking subsided. Now it was reduced to some noises that almost sounded like instructions to the little chick. I felt like calling out my mom. But then I thought like standing there alone and watching the mother and father birds taking care of their little one.

My mother might be thinking about me know. She must be also worrying about me. But then, she knew me as a child who wanted to wander alone in the park, when I did not play with other kids. She knew my love for birds and animals. So she might be imaging about me sitting somewhere under a tree and watching rain and she must be smiling also.

I was so engrossed with the activities of those birds that I did not know how many hours passed by then. The birds were like commanders and were exhorting and cheering their kid continuously. I looked at the eyes of the chick. It was now calm. The wild fear had disappeared from its eyes. In its place now I could see some kind of calmness and sense of relief.

Rain had already stopped and I did not know it had stopped long back as I was too involved with the birds. Sun came out and shone brightly over the trees, plants and grass. Other birds started chirping again. The hissing sound had given way to the normal noises of birds. Squirrels came out of their holes and started running here and there.

Then the chick hopped out of the bush. The parents flew around it. And the mother bird jumped from one shrub to the other while the father bird watched out for cats and monkeys. The mother hopped towards a stump where sunlight was falling directly. The chick followed what its mother did. It hopped, once, twice and on the third attempt it could land on the stump where it sat for a long time.

Slowly, I could see its feathers coming back to shape as the water evaporated from its body. Soon it transformed into a beautiful maina chick. I thought it was smiling. Its eyes did not show any fear. Father was still watching out for unseen dangers and mother disappeared from the scene for a while. Soon it came back. The father and mother shrieked something between each other. Then they started again showing their kids something.

Once the chick’s attention was completely on the mother, it flew from the ledge to a lower branch. The chick followed the action. From there it flew towards the next branch. The chick followed what the mother did. All these while, father bird stood guard on the earth. Finally, the chick reached the tree where its nest was perched.
I felt like jumping and screaming with joy. I did not do it though I made a happy clucking sound with my tongue.

Once again the mother disappeared. Now the chick was opening its beak wide and making a very sharp noise. The father sat a branch below and looked up as if he was taunting him for being too naughty. The chick kept its mouth opened and turned its neck around.

Soon the mother came back to the scene. This time she had something in her beak. She sat safely on a branch opposite to where the chick was sitting. Leaning her body completely forwards, with her feet tightly holding around the branch, pushed her beak loaded with some eatables into the mouth of the chick.

I felt the rain of joy pouring inside me. I did not know how to express it.
But dad, suddenly I remembered you. What are you doing now? Have you reached the border safely? Are you going to fight with somebody? Come back Dad, I want to be with you. Please come back. I don’t want you to fight with anyone. I want you.
I am writing all these down because I know you would like to read my diary when you come back. Yes, Dad, I will not forget all what you have told me. I am a good girl, Dad.

Oh...this Mom....she is calling me Dad..Before she comes in to find out what I am writing, let me rush. I don’t want to see her crying when she reads my diary. Love you, Dad. Bye.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Deewar and Vinay Lal: History of a Film and a Historian Par Excellence

(Book cover of Deewar by Vinay Lal, Harper Collins India)

‘Mere paas maa hai’ (I have mother with me) – a dialogue delivered by the dimple cheeked Shashi Kapoor in a movie titled, ‘Deewar’, even after thirty five years of its release in 1975 still reverberates in the minds of people. This dialogue, often used, misused and abused in different grave and comical situations, is a semiological referent that takes the listener of it to the turbulent years of 1970s and80s, the two decades, which could be called the decades of transition as far as modern Indian history is concerned. Today, ‘Deewar’ has achieved a cultic status. Vinay Lal, one of the most interesting contemporary cultural historians, in his latest book titled ‘Deewar- The Footpath, the City and the Angry Young Man’ published by Harper Collins India, analyses how Deewar and its narrative structure left an indelible mark on the Indian political, cultural and sociological psyche.

Written by Salim-Javed (Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar) and directed by Yash Chopra, Deewar (The Wall) was released on 24th January 1975. In no time it catapulted the young hero of the movie, Amitabh Bacchan into undisputable stardom. A lanky young man with brooding eyes and detached nature Amitabh Bacchan was best suitable for the character Vijay Verma, who brushed with the wrong side of law, only to redeem the lost dignity of his mother. As most of the Indian film goers know, the plot of Deewar was familiar and it resonated the moral, ethical, familial, political and gender conflicts of Indian puranas and epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana. And above all it brought the mother/woman as the centre of this conflict when the brothers brought for moral, ethical and social supremacy.

Ananda Babu is a righteous labour union leader who worked in a coal mine and led strikes against the management to achieve the demands of the workers for better wages and working conditions. His family consisting of wife Sumitra Devi and young sons, Vijay and Ravi, is abducted to blackmail Ananda Babu and to coerce him to sign a deal that divests the labourers of their rights. Caught between familial love and duty, and professional loyalty and allegiance, Ananda Babu finally signs the papers and becomes a turncoat before the eyes of his fellow workers. Abused, insulted and injured Ananda Babu goes into deep silence and unable to withstand the prick of conscience, he leaves his family behind and abdicates himself to the unknown.

Young Vijay Verma is caught by the people in the village and they brand his left hand with a tattoo, ‘Mera baap chor hai’ (My father is a thief). Ostracised by the society, the mother and sons leave the village and go to Bombay, the city where one could find a life, success and dignity. Mother works in a construction site, Vijay starts off as a shoe-shine boy and Ravi is send to school. They live under a bridge where the milling migrants spend their sub-human lives, hoping for a miracle, which would one day turn their lives into gold. Vijay, permanently scarred by the inscription on his skin and soul, becomes a dockyard worker and then a henchman of a mafia don, Davar. Soon he becomes a rich smuggler. In the meanwhile, the educated and law abiding Ravi becomes a police inspector. Vijay buys the same skyscraper as a gift for his mother, which she helped to build as a labourer. But she refuses to take that gift as she and Ravi come to know that Vijay plays with ill-begotten money. Typical to a Bollywood movie, Ravi is now ready to take the smugglers and dons and his duty to state asks him to hunt down his brother who had sacrificed his life for educating him. At the same time, as the mafia gangs are hell bent on doing away with inspector Ravi, Vijay reveals to them that Ravi is his brother. Vijay asks Ravi to get transferred to some other station but he refuses to do so. Mother falls ill and now Vijay, the atheist asks Lord Shiva to rescue her. Finally, the brothers meet under the bridge where they spent their struggling days as migrant boys. Vijay tells him that he has palatial houses, cars and bank balance. What have you got to claim as yours? Ravi looks up to the heavens and says, Mere pass maa hai. In the following scenes, Ravi shoots Vijay down and a dying Vijay lies on the lap of his mother and tells her that ever since he left them, he never could get proper sleep. Today he is on her lap and he wanted her to put him to sleep.

Vinay Lal approaches the film as a repository of semiotic treasures. In the initial chapters he contextualises the film taking the socio-political history of India as a point of departure. Citing the impending political Emergency imposed by the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, and the growing urbanization, mass migration and the utter disillusionment of the young people about their future as the markers of the film, Vinay Lal tells the readers that Deewar is perhaps the first film in Indian screen that deals with urbanization and migration as a theme in itself. Bringing the establishment of characters, actors and stars, besides establishing the psychology and sociology of stardom, Lal points out how the temporal setting of the film was ripe enough to launch an angry young man who is existential in nature rather than political. The angry young man’s private fears explode into the public realm and as Barthes says it moves from puntum to the stadium and achieves the status of a myth. Amitabh Bacchan was all the more suitable for the bill and his looks and demeanour helped him to become the first super-reigning super star. Whatever he does in the film seems to be detached but passionate; he does not do it for his well being, but for the dignity of his family. Unlike the happy-go-lucky young men of today, he was not revelling on his achievement. Only once in the whole movie, he makes claims of his achievements but that too is to save his brother’s life. And this detachment was romantic therefore appealing for the millions of young men and women of the day.

Vinay Lal focuses on the themes of signature, identity, language and mother in his study. Signature, he considers as a social bonding that makes the retractor a culprit. Signature/branding gives the signed and the branded a voice and at once it takes away the voice. Ananda Babu signs the document that would go against the rights of the workers and he is rendered speechless after that. In a sense, Vijay also loses his right of speech once he is branded by the villagers. However, this act of branding works on his psyche as a trigger to develop a speech that goes against the norms of the accepted laws of the state. While the father loses his speech, the son gains it. Vinay Lal views it as a the exit and entry into a symbolic/linguistic order that distinguishes the man from the animal.

Collating signature with identity, Vinay Lal further speaks of the scene where Ravi demands a signature from Vijay. Here Ravi demands it on behalf of the state. If Vijay signs the papers, he divests his chosen rights of being a free individual, and he refuses to surrender to the demand. Instead, he asks Ravi to get the signatures of all those people who had tortured their father and mother and left them homeless and rudderless in their early life. Also Vinay Lal narrates the role of mother who handles the conflicts simultaneously operating from either side of the state and emotional state. He identifies the mother as a supreme example of mythical mother, who eventually becomes a pawn in the games between males.

Vinay Lal analyses the film scene by scene in an interesting manner and never falls into the trap of reading it along Freudian lines, which could have made the study a predictable one. As an insightful historian, he explains the music, colours, tones, textures and linguistic flare used in making up the body of the film. Lal approaches the movie thematically as well as texturally. His textual analysis of the film makes the reader wanting for more; but this book runs into two hundred pages ends up with certain comparisons with Hollywood flicks that had treated the same theme but in dissimilar ways. Vinay Lal mouths of words of Davar who opines on the shoe-shine boy, Vijay, yeh lambi race ka khoda hai (A race horse that could run for long time) and underlines the fact that Deewar could run in the race courses of our cultural scenario for many years to come.