Friday, November 29, 2013

My Public Diary 12: Whose Voice is to be Believed, Artist’s or the Critic’s?

(Artist Usha Ramachandran with her sculpture)

“Now tell us when you are free and in mood, whose aesthetic interpretation of a work should we go by when there are conflicting interpretations of a work--the artist's or the art critic. Especially when the artist is simple and down to earth and not good at elucidating ideas and the critic is extravagantly imaginative,” ask my artist friend, Usha Ramachandran. She is an artist who has devoted her life to capture her emotional responses to life in various mediums including drawing, painting and exquisitely modelled bronze sculptures. Older than me by many years, she keeps a young mind when it comes to art. Like a young enthusiast she engages with questions regarding art raised by people in private and public platforms. Even when she disagrees with your point of view, she poses it mildly without causing any hurt to anybody, but stands by her opinion with energy and clarity. Such energy and clarity are seen rare even amongst the artists younger by age. Hence, I find it is extremely important to answer the question raised by her. As quoted above, the question is: Whose view is ‘the’ right view, of the artist’s or of the imaginative critic?

I remember a view expressed by a contemporary artist on one such occasion. He said: Once freed from the studio of the artist, a work of art takes to its own trajectory, finding meanings and leaving interpretations possibilities till it finds it resting place in a collection or a museum. Though the commentator avoids mentioning about the agency of people who helps a work of art travel from one place to another, the implication is quite apparent. There are people who help the work to find its own path; they are the critics, gallerists, buyers, dealers, collectors and now the new tribe called curators. In each step facilitated by these agents of meaning production both spiritual and economic or in other words, intrinsic and extrinsic meanings, a work of art behaves in a very flexible manner without disputing such meaning generations, at times succumbing to the negative pressures and at times finding wings to soar further high. This flexibility of a work of art opens up its possibility as a visual text capable of generating multiple meanings often not intended by the artist himself or herself.

Text is the key word here. A freed work of art from the clutches of the artist/studio is a text. A text carried as an implied meaning as intended by the artist. But the intended or revealed meaning of a work of art as seen within the confines of an artist’s studio is the primary meaning therefore a visual code or clue. A work of art in this sense, is a text containing one or more clues. As the artist does not work from a vacuum, his very meaning production through the creation of a visual text itself is the result of the artist’s effort to contain contesting ideas or experiences in a one comprehensive and aesthetically logical visual clue. That means, a work of art in itself is a negation of various meanings, which struggle for manifesting in the work of art. Had it been a verbal text the artist could have accommodated several meaning at one go through various characters, incidents, plots and subplots. The biggest problem faced by a visual artist is that he has to work from within the limitation of a single moment, even if the work shows the tendency of being narrative. Either it is a decisive moments, painted, sculpted, captured and documented or it is a series of decisive moments spread around one singular point of departure. Raising of one point over the other/s in effect results into the obfuscation of the other points or moments in a work of art. While literature also leaves spaces for further interpretations, it becomes a bit more ‘liberal’ in the case of a visual work of art.

This is where we talk about sub-texts. Each reading of a work of art by a critic (informed or not) or a common art lover, or in that case by anybody who happens to spend a few minutes on it, is the production of a subtext. Here, this critic or the viewer is not an innocent person absolutely coming from a vacuum. He/she too comes with a set of acquired knowledge and experience which automatically functions as a key to unpack the given text. As we have seen that the given text is the negation of several texts in favour one, the reading of it becomes at once an acceptance of the intended text and the negation of it. The whole effort of the viewer is to subconsciously negate the diktat of the artist/author and find his/her own text there. This again happens as a series of negations; first the negation of the intended meaning/text and the replacing of it with several subtexts. Even the selection of the subtexts cannot be a crowding affair. There the viewer chooses one of his preferred meanings which could either go by the author’s intentions or by his own knowledge and experience. Hence, the reading of a work of art (as it is seen as a text), is the negation of authorial intentions and consecration of the readerly intentions. In other words, a writerly text turns into a readerly one and in the process, it ones again becomes a writerly text or subtext. It happens like a chain of fissions and that is how the reading of a work of art proliferates.

Now, one may ask how then ‘a certain kind of reading’ or meaning making takes predominance over other meaning making efforts and comes to have a canonical presence. It depends on the right of speaking; who says what and when and also why. If the author is supposed to be the sole authority of a particular research and his work of art is the result of such a scholastic effort and in a given context if none is capable of challenging such erudition, naturally the verbal explanations accompanying a work of art direct the reading of it. The artist may speak for himself or even through a catalogue writer (not necessarily a critic), or a gallerist or a dealer. They all tend to repeat the scholarship of the author/artist as their tools are limited to interpret or challenge the meaning which has been already intended by the artist. In a different scenario, we see a viewer or a reader confronts a text with equal or better erudition on the given field of research within the given context and reads out a new meaning or cancels out an intended meaning. Hence, I would say, reading of a work of art is a sort of power game. It is a relationship between two or more power centres; author claiming his right to hold his meaning and the reader challenging it. While the former scenario where the artist is near to God in knowledge of the given, the reader yields to the artist’s authority and in the second scenario in subtle or aggressive ways, he questions the authority of the artist. An informed critic, while reserving his praises for the authorial intentions, reveals the chinks in those intentions and creates a new meaning in his critical intervention. However, such critical interventions do not cancel out the very existence of the work of art. Instead, it becomes an event, a point of departure that spurs too many events around it.

In any situation, creation of a work of art and reading of it or interpreting of it is a political act. What I mean by political is not in the conventional sense of pragmatic politics. This politics is about the ideology of self or rather idea and ideal of the self. How does the self negotiate past, present and try to cross over to the future. Even in the choicest expressions, unintentional ideologies could crop up as the artist is subconsciously driven by such ideological forces. It appears like a slip of the tongue that goes unnoticed. But it gets noticed in another political act, the act of reading and understanding a work of art. As I mentioned before, the viewer also does not come from a vacuum. He has his own conscious and subconscious ideological leanings which lead him towards the production of a meaning which is totally different from that of the artist.

There are three main aspects when it comes to the creation and understanding of a work of art. First of all, a work of art is an intentional and unintentional text at once so is the reading of it. So one cannot claim authority over the other in a given ideal situation. Two, it is a power game pertaining to the right to speak as well as to be heard. In this both the artist and the viewer participate in this game for power and prominence. But interestingly, both are not cancelled out in the process. However, one gets dominance over the other in a given situation which is prone to change when the situation and context change. It may take even centuries for such changes to happen. Three is the ideological negotiations of the artist as well as the viewer with the past, present and future. Some ideologies are so strong that they become myths that are hardly challenged by any. It happens both with the ideology of the artist as well as that of the reader. This myth is also prone to be deconstructed with the changing times; but the difference is unlike the second scenario, even the myth is challenged and reinterpreted for changed times by readerly intentions and creation of subtexts, the myths once created remains to be a myth, therefore a starting point for newer interpretations. The artists need not necessarily be vocal even when the critics are hyper imaginative. The mutual cancellation is simultaneously mutual rediscovery. I can say this much that in this process the artist and the viewer get constantly re-discovered, at times vigorously and at other times in very subtle ways. 

Thursday, November 28, 2013

My Public Diary 11: Two Artists and Two Philosophical Issues of Life

She asks me why she is not mentioned as the disciple of a particular guru, in my essay written for her catalogue, as I had mentioned a few others so in their catalogue essays, again written by me. I ask her whether it was a complaint or a compliment. She says, neither. Still she wonders, why. I tell her that if she really wants to be qualified so I could add a line or two to that effect. But she says, no.

I feel that I owe an explanation to her. So I tell her that whenever I see the works done by students under that particular art guru, they all tend to work like him. That’s quite natural, I add. But it becomes really curious when female students also work in the same way; masculine bodies, male point of views, dark backgrounds and so on. Is there a woman’s visual language and man’s visual language, she asks. I say, yes, there is. As language, visual or verbal, is a medium of expression the gender gets inscribed within the body of the text. What about the neutral subjects like still life and compositions, she probes. Even those genres could have gender inscriptions, I tell her. She looks at me with her unbelieving eyes.

I tell her the story of another artist who had come to meet me a month back with her works. She too was from the same school and taught by the same guru. She paints household utensils, vegetables, bathroom taps and so on as her predominant imageries. I find it interesting because she stands quite distinct from other disciples of the same guru. She told me that she was quite meditative. And for her meditation does not mean sitting in one place or concentrating on something. She found peace and harmony when she worked in kitchen, tidied up the rooms, washed clothes, cut vegetables, looked after her infant baby and painted at night when the baby slept.

Even if she had not told me about all these, I would have still made out that the works were done by a woman. There is a different sensitivity about a woman’s language, visual or verbal. V.S.Naipaul recently made a statement that he could tell the gender of author by reading a first few lines of a text. He received flak for his comments because he said it in a condescending fashion. He thought women were inferior writers. When I say that I could sense the gender of the author of a visual text from the embedded gender specification, I do not make a condescending statement. I congratulate myself that at least I could discern the sensibilities expressed in the visual text.

But I find it a problem when women artists work like male artists. Speaking strictly from the perspective of a visual language, one need not give much attention to the inscribed gender within the expression. Most of the artists argue that they are not here to produce a male language or a female language. They produce a language which is gender neutral. But no language is gender neutral. If some women artists are employing the language of a male guru, then I would say, that the students are not able to transcend the rules of teaching. In Zen stories it is said that one could use a boat to cross the river, once crossed it is not necessary to carry the boat on the shoulders; may be one could keep the memory of it with some amount of gratitude.

My artist friend says that she is not influenced by her guru therefore she is not reproducing his language. I tell her that even that is a false argument because the primary principle about learning is the amount of influence that one gets from his/her teacher or from the immediate surroundings. She tells me that when she joined the institution she was absolutely a novice and did not know how to do a composition decently. Hence, she started looking upto the guru for the perfecting of language. He is a perfectionist, she says. I agree and ask her whether she has seen the works of other gurus to which the answer is a no. I ask her to see more gurus so that she could transcend the teaching of the first guru. Also I tell her that the idea of perfection or perfect language is just illusionary on the one hand and on the other, it is quite relative. It depends on how much you are exposed to the world of linguistic perfection. And for me perfection is something comes with an awareness of defect; awareness does not mean that one should be conscious of the defect outweighing the assumed perfection. Perfection becomes appealing when the awareness defect adds a virtual value to it. At times, may be an apparent defect could also heighten the sense of perfection.

She asks me if it is a problem to aspire for that language of perfection and I tell her that there is no problem to it. But the issue is that once you learn the grammar you should be able to perform a language without its grammar also. Pushing the possibilities of the grammar and almost making it look like without any grammar is the success of any art. But the primary requirement is knowing the grammar well. When you are stuck with the beauty of grammar what you could become maximum is a grammarian and even the best grammarians in the world start their thesis with an apology that I am not a grammarian, because grammar is a rule and it also presents the possibility of breaking that rule and coming back to its safe havens. It is exactly like a musician with a genuine felicity to sing. He/She may belong to a particular school (gharana) of singing. But he/she becomes a distinct music personality only when he/she breaks the grammar and comes back to its protection off and on. It helps the language to flow, grow and flourish.

Are you trying to question my guru, she asks. I say, no. There is no problem with the guru. Guru is supposed to be like that and that is why he is called a guru. Guru is a person who has been grounded in his own language. He has moved enough till he decided to roost in one place. So he does not have any problem to be a guru. Is there a problem with the disciples, she continues. I say, there is no problem with the disciples either because the schools and gurus ask the disciple to function from within the grammar and idea of perfection. And the gurus at the same time know that only when the disciple breaks the grammar without asking for permission he/she becomes and independent artist. So it is guru’s job to show the way, but it does not come under his prerogative to push you out of the way. It is your job. Then there should be a problem with the school, she says. I tell her that don’t worry about the school either. The school in itself is not a problem. School exists because there is a guru and disciples. When guru vanishes school also vanishes. When disciples vanish, then also a school vanishes. Hence, it is a three pronged relationship. Guru, disciples and school, they together make the problem and the solution also is embedded in the problem itself. Once you come out of it, once transcend the boundaries, once you break the rules of grammar, and once you kill the guru in you, you are liberated to reach your language.

 I do not know whether she is convinced or not. She looks at me and smiles. I look at her and smile. She pays for my time and energy and takes leave. Then I get a phone call from another artist friend. She is in a Eureka mood. She has finally found out her problem. She has been an imaginary invalid all these years. Now she has found the root cause of her pain. She says that she is helped by a plastic surgeon turned psychologist; in fact his book. While reading it, she tells me, she found out there were three kinds of people; one, who attached their personalities with the defect they have, like a mole, wart, or a pair of protruding ears or a bulbous nose. These people, once the defects are removed by plastic surgery, gain a lot of self-confidence and become new people. Two, the people who attach their personalities with the defects and still remain the same bitter people after getting the defects removed by plastic surgery. Three, the people with no defects but still behave as if they have some defects and mold their personalities according to the defects. She says, she has been there in the third category all these while. Now she could come out of it as she realized that there was no defect in her.

You too belong to the third category, she jokes. I say, no. I am like God, perfect with an awareness of defect that makes me complete. She says, no, you are Amitabh Bacchan, the angry young man. I say, then I would be stabbed at stomach when I am at the peak of my career. She suddenly goes silent. I could listen her breathing. Then we laugh as if life was more interesting than art.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Another Tehelka Story and Tarun Tejpal

I wonder what Mathew Samuel thinks today? Or in that case Aniruddh Bahl; the architects of ‘Operation West End’, the famous sting operation conducted by Tehelka in 2000-2001. Tarun Tejpal was the captain of boardroom; Aniruddh Bahl was the chief strategist and Mathew Samuel, the secret agent on ground camouflaged in the garbs of a journalist. There were too many side characters in the drama; I was one among them. The well oiled secret machine of investigative journalism worked 24x7 at Tehelka’s Soami Nagar office. Minty Tejpal, the brother of Tarun Tejpal was giving Tehelka a new edge; the edge of popular culture. Inside the first floor office, things looked absolutely cool. Tehelka was daring enough to run a semi-porn literature channel. I used to wonder why a young woman journalist always surfed for porn sites. Later I came to know that Tarun was pushing the limits of journalism. Geetan Batra, Tarun’s wife was planning to set up a fulltime art website. In an adrenaline driven context, everyone looked perfectly happy except for persistent existentialists like me and a few others. We, the young journalists of Tehelka drank ‘banta’, a locally made soda from the only shop adjacent to the building.

Today people talk about self-righteousness of Tarun Tejpal and Shoma Choudhury. Tehelka had all reasons to be self-righteous at that time. It had revealed the cricket gate and it was covertly moving towards a big catch. Tehelka journalists worked with a sense of purpose. I remember Safar Agha, the benevolent senior journalist who planned the stories for the day. Ever philosophical Parsa Venkateswara Rao Sr, and his enthusiastic brother Parsa Venkateswara Rao Jr. Today’s star journalist Verghese K.George, sceptical Charu Soni, poetic Nabanita, silently rebellious Ajitha GS, enigmatic Proteeti Banerjee, sports specialist Shamya Dasgupta, happy Kunal Chuhan, differently troubled photographer Iqbal MK, Arun Bhanot and Kajal Basu were the constant presences. The team was really good. They knew it was a new organization with a mission and they were all proving their mettle there. Tarun Tejpal came to the desk once in a while, tall, handsome, smiling and animated like a commander. Shoma was always in tow. At least I knew, who was the second in command. It was not Geetan or Kajal Basu.

The self righteousness of Tehelka came not from posturing but from hardcore journalism. My training in political journalism was minimal but the team work helped me to find the right stories at the right time. Whenever a good story came from my desk, Tarun Tejpal congratulated me with a smile. I used to feel a misfit there as my mind was elsewhere in art. So whenever I got a chance to do an art story, I was more than happy. I was rebellious in certain ways still I liked the way Tarun Tejpal and his team pushed the limits. The Tehelka tag gave me some kind of elation but I was looking for the right opportunity to quit. Insubordination came from my side on two occasions. One, when Amitabh Bacchan, who was said to be one of the board members of Tehelka (or honorary advisor, I don’t remember), visited office. Everyone jostled around to take a photograph with him. Some tall guys in the office even went near to him on some pretext to measure their heights with him and feel that secret happiness of matching with his tallness. Finally there was a group photo opportunity. I refused to stand in the group and take a photograph with the great actor. Tarun noticed it but did not say a thing.

The second occasion was a bit more serious. I used to get irritated when some of my stories got sidelined or severely edited. Arun Bhanot and Kajal Basu were the editors. They were really helpful. But I was getting restless. One night, I came back to the office a bit drunk. I screamed at Kajal Basu. He gave me his cool smile. In a huff I walked out. Next morning, Tarun called for a meeting of all staff members. I knew it was a judgement day for me. But Tarun did not say a word about my misbehaviour. He just said to all this much: We expect some sense of dignity and decency from all members in the team. I hope all will remember this. The meeting was over in a few minutes. I didn’t know whether it was a corporate strategy or an indirect way of asking me to leave. I wanted to walk out on the same day if it was what he wanted. I spoke to Geetan and she said Tarun did not find me offensive at all and in office situations such things happened once in a while. My respect for Tarun increased though I left Tehelka within a few months after they came out in light with the West End operations.

When I read about Tarun’s stepping down from the chief-editor’s post, in Hindustan Times’ report, my first reaction was, ‘wonderful’. Here is an editor whom I admire for his courage and straightforwardness, has taken done something only Gandhiji could have done in the present day scenario. Later when I spoke to some of my journalist friends, they also said the same thing about the news. But, in the evening when I realized the gravity of the situation, I was literally shattered. I am not interested whether Tarun is protected by the Congress or opposed by the BJP for their political ends. But what pains me today is the fall of a man from his own standards and ideals. I do not even doubt the sincerity of his apologies not only to the victim and the managing editor but also to the whole world. But beyond all apologies, the sour truth of misusing power and position persists and that renders Tarun a fallen man and predator in the public eye though even his bitterest detractors tend to believe otherwise.

A man having multiple affairs or indulging in consensual sex is not a great crime. Forget the age difference; love and sex could happen at any age. But the problem arises when a person like Tarun Tejpal forces himself on a helpless woman who is not only incapacitated by her lower position in the organisation but also by her proximity with the predator and his family and all those moral and ethical problems attached to it. The gravity of the crime increases when it is attempted twice both times with violence, force and threat. Tarun can save face only by surrendering himself to law and its consequences and that could perhaps save him from his ultimate doom. A politician can stage a comeback even after committing several crimes including molestation and rape because people accept it as the routine of cut throat political realty. But journalists with a public face are the check dams of the final erosion of social and political values. If dents appear in them, people will not pardon even if they do, they will not forget. So long as they do not forget, even if Tarun comes out unscathed from this case, his words will carry no weight. What a tragedy for a writer like Tarun Tejpal.

Today, the media’s morally agitated reactions against Tehelka, Tarun Tejpal and Shoma Choudhury do not stem from this case alone. This is the release of an anger and irritation that have been suppressed by many so far. If you see the pattern of the unveiling of the story and the debate in news channels, it is very clear that the anger is not ‘exactly’ on Tarun but it is ‘spot on’ Shoma Choudhury. It is not just because Shoma tries to protect her ‘boss’ through constant changing of statements but because everyone feels that it was not Tarun but Shoma who has been calling the shot in Tehelka and its ‘highlighted’ self righteousness. Shoma has been vocal of gender politics and she even qualifies herself as a ‘feminist’. Though you may say that finally, as fitting to a male dominated society I am shifting the burden on Shoma’s shoulders, I do not mind saying that Shoma’s claim to fame is Tehelka brand, publication house and now the Think fest in Goa. Sincerely speaking, when it comes to socio-political or gender issues, I as a reader, have never referred to this journalist’s writings or views because I know there are real feminists and activists out there than Shoma Choudhury.

The anger that the media feel towards Tarun is routed through Shoma. Slowly, she has become the real culprit who has made attempts to perpetrate the crime by shielding Tarun. Her actions may be driven by her sincerity in protecting her organization, protecting her position or even protecting her personal feelings. In this effort, she has become the real villain. When I think that it was not hardcore journalism but the capitalist dream of liberal economy through democratic facade that had led both Tarun and Shoma, I feel bad. I feel how a just act could have a nefarious plot. However, I do not believe that Tehelka’s ideals were wrong in the beginning. All what it had done in terms of sting operations and exposes were inspired by responsible journalism, social justice and political correctness. Along the way it has lost it all. Tarun’s act is emblematic of that fall and the illusionary belief of invincibility that power provides. Still I wonder, what would be the reaction of Mathew Samuel?

Post Script: A few months back I met Tarun Tejpal in a private party. It was after almost twelve years that we met first. I thought he would avoid me as I had quit from Tehelka without citing a reason. But he was very cordial and spoke to me for a few minutes and to my surprise he knew what I have been doing all these days. Tarun may not bounce back as an ethical journalist. But I am sure his atonement lies in a prolonged underground life and staging a coming back with an autobiography; a book of confessions.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

My Public Diary 10: Politics of Fear and Fear of Politics

Elections have been declared. Delhi’s streets are now vibrant with processions, sloganeering and adrenaline induced symbolic gestures. This afternoon I saw two processions passing by the Lado Sarai Street. From the first floor glass window, I get a full view of these processions. The weather is cold, I shiver and soon I understand that the shiver is not caused by the nip in the air. In fact, I shudder; my innards shake and as the cliché goes, a chill passes through my spine. Why does my body show such a reaction? I remember retching hopelessly during the slide show of a contemporary artist who has worked in the styles of almost all the materialistically successful contemporary artists in India. Some artist friend commented then; here is one art critic who has vomited after seeing works of art. I did not know why I vomited; was it her works or the revulsion caused by the heady mix of aesthetic and liquor? I still do not know. I remember an art dealer who wakes up from his automatic slumber the moment he listens to the figures that a work of art could fetch and dozes off when he hears anything else about the same work of art.

Body reacts to fear before logic and reason let it adjust to the context that caused the fear. Body shudders, stiffens and at times it pushes the inner fluids out involuntarily. Scientifically, you say, that these reactions are caused by the chemical changes happening in the brain. The first one procession that caused a shiver along my spine was by the ruling Congress Party. Young people in their khaddar uniform worn for the occasion sit inside their jeeps, SUVs, big cars and other possible four and two wheelers. I notice the jeeps; they all have very thick wheels that show arrogance, power and speed. They show their open palms at the imaginary spectators standing either side of the road. Like smaller animals before bigger ones, other vehicles and pedestrians push themselves to the shore of the road prompted by an unknown fear. I look at the people who sit in the bonnets of the car; a clear show of power, control and arrogance. They imagine themselves to be future rulers. In fact, in power or out of it is immaterial to them. They know how to push the local voters around with their display of muscle and money. That is what exactly I see before me. The people who sit on the bonnets look like invaders of an innocent city. They cherish that image and flourish in it.

The second procession is by the Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man’s Party). They are not on vehicles. They walk, shouting slogans. They too are in their uniform of Khaddar. They all wear a Gandhi topi with the inscription, ‘aam aadmi party’ or ‘mein aam aadmi hun’ (I am a common man). They hold brooms in their hands and that is their election symbol. Now they walk with confidence because the opinion polls say that they would come in power. Or, as most people believe, at least they could make some shifts in the vote bank that would make the mainstream political parties jittery. They are not on vehicles because they do not have the money to bring the vehicles out. But I am sure that once they are in power they too would come by vehicles and they too would sit on the bonnets of their car like conquerors or invaders. I do not believe neither in Congress rule nor in Aam Aadmi Party rule.

Arvind Keijriwal, the young leader of AAP is just forty six year old. I like those people in their forties and are have a public profile. Whether they are Khans in Bollywood or in politics, or in art or in literature, I like all of them because I am curious about their ways of thinking. As I am in my mid-forties, I have a strange identification with these people. But I do not believe them. I am just curious to know about them. I became curious about Keijriwal because he is in his mid forties. I disbelieve him because his voice does not convince me. He came as a social reformer along with Anna Hazare and Kiran Bedi. From social reformation he shifted his attention to political reformation. As there is no alternative left for political reforms within the parliamentary democracy he chose the same route. Ordinary people believe in his capacity to bring about changes in the society. He speaks to the middle class through the FM channels. He says with confidence that his party would come to power and instead of doing a swearing in ceremony at the secretariat or Raj Bhawan, he would call for a huge rally in Old Delhi’s Ram Leela Maidan and pass the Jan Lokpal bill that assures transparency and accountability in governance. I often change the channels when his voice comes through the speaker. Somewhere I find this man has lost his cause. He is in his own way to bad politics; the model that has been on ever since 1947.

I do not believe in the thinking pattern of the Indian middle class either. They all feel that there is a savior in Keijriwal. But I am sure that they would not vote for him. They know that he is transparent and well meaning. He has the capacity and knowledge to bring changes but they do not believe in the system that he is going to work with or the people who are going to be with him. When it comes to governance people give a chance to the established ones; Keijriwal is yet to establish. He has to face failure and he has to learn it in the hard way. But by then he also would have changed into a seasoned politician who works from within the corrupt system. Keijriwal must be a well meaning politician with right intentions. But the people who today support him see him as a point of investment. People want change; but as they have invested, they want their dividends too. So if he comes to power, they will ask for their pound of flesh.

I do not travel by auto rickshaws. When it is needed, I either choose a cycle rickshaw or a shared auto where you need to pay less ten rupees for a ride. I prefer to walk and I love walking, if possible alone. The failure of AAP is that its support base is auto wallahs. AAP offers a clean society without corruption. But corruption starts from its own support base. Not a single auto wallah in Delhi is ready to go by meter. I see them every day harassing people at the entrance of the metro stations in Delhi. You cannot question an auto wallah despite the police’ assurance of fining them, confiscating their vehicle, putting them behind bars etc, because they have now political clout. They pilfer you or just refuse to take you wherever you want to go. When they loot the passengers, they justify their acts by saying that they are pressured to do so as the prices have gone high. They never think that they people who travel by rickshaw are doing that out of necessity and they do not make their money just by fluke.

The failure of AAP is written already in the auto rickshaws itself, even if it would surprise people with its electoral success. I would have been a proponent of AAP had the autowallahs been right behaving. I believe that if at all the changes should happen, it should happen from the people; not from the government. The government comes later as it is chosen by the people. It is right that a populace gets a government that it deserves. We choose our oppressors. Suppose, the auto wallahs in Delhi say today that they will run by meter and they would behave like social volunteers, the changes would have started from then and there. You may then ask, why social change is not happening in a place like Maharashtra, where auto and taxi wallahs behave well and don’t charge a paisa more than the meter. Then my answer is that there is no AAP. Here in Delhi we have AAP which claims to be people’s party. It is not people’s party. It is an investors’ party. The leaders apart from Keijirwal have invested in it and their lumpen muscle base is in the auto wallahs.

Let us consider it a bit more realistically. The young brigade that has joined Rahul Gandhi, Narendra Modi and Arvind Keijriwal is a well meaning one. None of these young people in these parties thinks about doing corruption and getting rich. They want to bring about changes in the society and for that they work in various capacities. They are basically apolitical people who are more charmed by the ideology and charisma of the leaders. Those young people who work for Modi in fact do not think of killing Muslims in this country. Those young people who joined Rahul Gandhi at his behest really do not think about extending the Nehru dynasty. The young people who have just left everything for supporting Keijriwal do so because they believe in this man’s intentions to change the society. But the masses are different. The mass behavior and mass base is different.

How do we think that they auto wallahs who are supporting AAP today have been like this forever. Not a single auto wallah is seen without having a god’s or goddess’ picture in their vehicle. Not a single auto wallah thinks of removing those ugly posters inside their ricks. Not a single auto wallah behaves in a decent way. But I should not be generalizing. There are good auto wallahs too. But they are outnumbered and hardly their meters work. Why can’t they change? Why can’t they think that they could facilitate change? If they charge according to meters more people would prefer to travel in them. But they never do. Had they done it things could have been different. The people from all the walks of life would have thought of changing in some way. The change should start from some point. If does not start no internet can bring changes in our society. Aldous Huxley observes that in democratic societies corruption starts from up and in totalitarian societies corruption starts from down.

You should be the change that you want to see manifest in the society, said Mahatma Gandhi. Unto the last, said John Ruskin. Unless and until one changes oneself nothing will happen in this society. Congress, BJP, AAP and every other party is evil. Only the individual can change. And a series of changed individuals facilitate the changing society. Be the change that you want to see. 

Friday, November 8, 2013

My Public Diary 9: Cleaning of a Work of Art, the SBI Way: Or How not to Clean it.

(A  Picture appeared in Indian Express in October 2013)

Public sculptures cannot escape birds. Even when they are under a canopy, birds vandalize them. I was horrified to see the wasps making their nests deep into the body of ‘Santal Family’, a definitive sculpture by the legendary artist, Ram Kinkar Baij, within the precincts of Santiniketan. Though the public/open air sculptures of Baij are now under canopies and protective sheds, preventing them from the attack of wasps and other insects are not being undertaken. While interviewing the noted art historian, R.Sivakumar, for a documentary done by K.S.Radhakrishnan for the Ram Kinkar Baij restrospective curated by him in 2012, he expressed his fears regarding the slow but steady deterioration of these sculptures due to the insect attacks. One face saving aspect we have in the case of Baij is that well meaning people had made the bronze casting of these sculptures possible almost two decades back. So even if the cement and rubble mediums eventually succumb to the vandalism of nature’s creatures, their copies in bronze would remain for the future generations to admire.

When it comes to the preservation of works of art that are not owned by a person, but by the ‘public’ or state we take a very callous attitude towards it. A year back, NDTV, one of the prime national television channels had done a long new item regarding the offhanded preservation of national cultural and art treasures at our prestigious National Museum. Even the illustrious ‘Dancing Girl’ from the Indus Valley civilization is displayed in an unworthy fashion there. Well known artist and scholar, A.Ramachandran, who spent almost three decades in studying the mural traditions in Indian with special reference to the Kerala murals, has pointed out the fact that many a mural has been lost forever thanks to our mindless preservation techniques. Art historically, culturally and historically important murals are either left to rot in non-descript temples or havelis in our country. At times, when they undertake a preservation job, people responsible for doing so, engage local artists to over paint them in enamel colours leaving no chance of retrieving them ever in their original forms. Sometimes preservation takes place through complete obfuscation of the existing cultural traces. Erasure, not only in the political context but in cultural context too, seems to be the favourite way of preservation of the present than the past in our country.

(A daily report on the cleaning controversy)

Recently in Kerala something very interesting happened in the name of preserving and conserving a public sculpture. Interestingly, the sculpture, which was redeemed from the vandalising of birds, was created by none other than K.S.Radhakrishnan, who has been investing his energies in preserving and conserving certain cultural memories from their untimely decay, for a long time. The summary of the incident is as follows: In the city centre of Kozhikode (formerly known as Calicut) in North Kerala, KSR had installed his monumental open air/public sculpture titled ‘Kaalapravaham’ (Time Tides) in July 2012. Since then it has become a new landmark of the city, bringing more people to the Mananchira Ground where the sculpture is installed, during the evenings to spend their time, admiring the flow of life in the street, the sculpture towering above their heads and take a few photographs posing in front of the sculpture. When it was installed, the State Bank of India’s Manachira Branch had taken the responsibility for maintaining the sculpture. The bank which is currently celebrating its 150th anniversary, in October this year decided to ‘clean up’ the sculpture; a very commendable move.

A photograph appeared in the Indian Express Newspaper on 15th October which showed three men daring to climb the twenty five feet tall sculpture to clean it up. It was a photograph by the staff photographer, K.Shijith and somehow the caption gave away the impression that while the Navaratra festivals were on, three men were involved in cleaning a ‘statue’. It was sympathetic in tone, not in fact to the sculpture or sculptor but to the three men. Also the implied meaning was that the city as a whole was getting ready to welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. Some of the well wishers of KSR, who had seen this picture, called him up to ask whether he knew about it. In fact KSR was happy to know that his sculpture was getting cleaned. But curiosity led him to ask a further question: HOW? He contacted the Kerala Lalit Kala Akademy Chairman, K.A.Francis and asked whether he knew something about it and he was absolutely unaware of such a thing. KSR called the branch manager of the SBI and he was very happy to receive the call from the sculptor. To a question, the manager answered the artist with something that no artist would ever want to listen. Out of enthusiasm the manager said that he has cleaned up the sculpture, first with water and soap then with a fresh coat of grey paint!

(The Hindu on the issue)

KSR was silent for a moment. Then he very politely but with his hallmark witticism asked the manager, what would be done if bird dropping falls on his head, will he take a bath or paint his head? The manager fumbled. He was apologetic and he even promised that he would get the paint removed. The very next day, the Lalit Kala Akademy chairman called for a press conference in Kottayam in which KSR too was present. While the chairman pressed for a compensation worth of Rs.One crore, the artist stated that for more than compensation what he valued was the idea of conservation. Conservation of any public property, whether it is art or anything, should not be undertaken without consulting the expert and seeking permission from the concerned authorities. Applying a coat of paint on a bronze sculpture or removing that coat from it might sound simple and easy to do. But the kind of damage that it causes to the work of art cannot be compensated. The happiest thing about the whole incident was that the public in Kozhikode came out in hordes and demanded the blood of the manager of the SBI. They claimed that it was ‘their’ sculpture and nobody has any right to ‘maintain’ it without right consultation with the experts. Now the cleaning process is on.

This incident brings a couple of things into our consideration. First of all, when the artist is alive, a maintenance agency should be seeking primary consultation with the artist himself. Then experts should be brought on to the site and skilled labour should be employed to clean up a work of art. If the artist is not alive or not available for consultation, it cannot be a reason for not consult at all. There should be responsible people around and they should be asked to give sufficient instructions. The second thing is about what is to be preserved and how it should be undertaken. When a bronze sculpture is installed in a public space, an occasional washing will do the miracle. The maintenance agency should be taking more interest in keeping the environment clean and lights on during the nights. Also public vandalism in the form of graffiti writing and pilfering of materials from the work of art should be prevented. That does not mean that the area where a work of art is located should be cordoned off. Instead of that the pride about the work of art should be inculcated in the minds of the people around it. That means, a work of art situated in the middle of the non-initiated public could become a starting point to sensitize a society about aesthetics, public hygiene and taking pride in national art and culture.

(Malayala Manorama on the issue)

Before finishing this entry, I would like to furnish the background of this sculpture, Kaalapravaham. It was commissioned by the Kerala Lalit Kala Akademy when it organized a national sculpture camp on granite in May-June 2012 in Kozhikode. KSR was the director of the camp. Though KSR is not so fond of granite as his medium, he decided to facilitate the camp as a director by creating a very healthy atmosphere for a lot of young artists to do their granite sculptures in ambitious scale. Huge boulders were procured from a quarry and KSR with the help of the Akademy authorities, personally supervised the transportation of these boulders. Young and established artists worked in granite for two months (some of them became so involved that they went on working in the site for another two months). The sculptures are installed (some of them still in the process of installation) along the Kozhikode sea beach, redefining the visual feel of the place and space. KSR sculpture incorporates both granite and bronze. His protagonist Musui, like a terra fly, watches the life of from a higher plane. He is the witness of time and he is time.

PS: KSR had spent Rs. Seven Lakhs from his pocket to install this sculpture, as the per capita grant from the Akademy was not sufficient for completing the sculpture. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

My Public Diary 8: Child is the Father of a Writer

(A Still from the movie Cinema Paradiso)

My son has started watching Animal Planet and National Geographic. The progression seems to be interesting; from Japanese animations dubbed into Hindi and English to the sports channels and the channels that highlight the wonders of nature. Like other children of his age, he too lives in an imaginary world. While walking to the bus stop in the morning to catch his school bus suddenly he cups his hands catches something from air and triumphantly turns to me and raises his finger with a scream breaking out of his little mouth. He has just caught some famous bats man out who has pulled his willow up for a six. At times, at home, he falls down slowly, with labored movements on the floor and I recognize it as a slow motion replay of a very risky fielding. He has just saved his team from a four. Sometimes he asks me to close my eyes. Unsuspecting and loving, I close them and a sharp punch below my belt sends me into curls. He has just knocked down his opponent in a foul punch.

Of late, I have noticed him doing something more. He has graduated from being a cricketer to a predating animal. He watches some program that shows three different species of animals hunt for their prey; it is presented as a competition. Often, at home, I either sit glued to a book or the laptop, writing something or scrolling down the facebook page to watch the variety of interests that people display out there in the form of their postings. Suddenly some heavy form falls on me, completely unsettling me from my poise and it bites deep into my calves or biceps for some time. With some relish it removes or imagines remove a chunk of flesh from my body and gallops away from there. That is my son, who has just turned into a leopard or a tiger. He has just pounced on his prey, a deer or a bison or even a frightened rabbit. I look at him as I regain my posture clutching precariously on my computer that is literally on my lap. I see him, the fierce predatory animal walking away all on his four, making some grumbling noises of satisfaction. Now I am very careful when I sit to read or write. From the sides of my eyes, I watch out for a head slowly rising from the side of the bed or from behind the cupboard or door.

Bill Waterson, who created the famous cartoon strip (even in a graphic novel form), Calvin and Hobbes, is absolutely right. Kids behave really funny and their world of imagination is so immense that even the best writer in the world cannot match up with that. Kids are wonderful creatures. When I was reading and later on translating the famous Nigerian writer Ben Okri’s landmark novel, Famished Road, I had felt the power of childhood imaginations. Azaro, the spirit child, who is protagonist of the novel, sees the worlds that an ordinary human being cannot even visualize. I was astonished when my daughter asked a question, ‘Papa, do butterflies wear clothes?’ I mulled over the question again and again; a question as colorful and as innocent as the butterflies themselves. I thought of answering the question initially. Then left it there itself. Had I tried to give an answer to it the beauty of the question would have vanished. Some questions do not have an answer; the beauty lies in the question itself.

I remember a very beautiful and sensitive poem written by Kumaran Asan, one of the triumvirates of modern Malayalam poetry. A child after seeing the butterflies flying off from the flowers, asks his mother, why these flowers are flying away from the plant. Also the child expresses his inability to fly with them as he does not have wings like them. Then mother tells the child, dear child, you are mistaken. They are not flowers but butterflies. Then mother adds that he should not feel bad about things which he is not able to do. As a final consolation she tells the child that we know very little in the world as the world itself is a dream dreamt by God. Children, like that are great repositories of questions that generally do not demand answers but make the grown up world re-think about its deeds. As the child grows up he loses his capacity to imagine as he gets into the systemic notions of imaginations where control gets an upper hand than the liberated sense of dreaming and imagining.

Haven’t you seen the pangs of that child who wishes for the absence of his teacher as he is filled with hopes by the pouring rain? And how much gets disappointed when he sees the glimpse of a wet umbrella at the other end of the alley! Don’t you remember what the little Oscar sees as he comes out of his mother’s womb? A forty watt bulb that represents the semi-truths of a Nazi world. Isn’t it a pleasure to see the world through the eyes of Apu who walks behind the sweet vendor or runs across the steppe with his sister to see the chugging steam engine? How interesting it is to see the world through the films as young Tornatore remembers his childhood in Cinema Paradiso? What about that child who runs a race to win the second prize because the second prize would give him a pair of little shoes that he would like to give his young sister? Children send our eyes moisten, with pain and pleasure. They are mischief makers too who just don’t want a pair of lovers to have their private heaven as in Truffaut’s Mischief Makers. Sometimes, parents want to kill their children because they could make the lives of parents a burning hell. But we don’t kill our own kids. Kumaran Asan wrote in his famous poem, ‘The Delivery of a Lioness’ (Oru Simha Prasavam), No animal feel hatred for its own offspring even if the animal is so ferocious and cruel, like a lioness.

My idea was not to write about kids and their activities. I wanted to write about how words come to a writer or to be precise, how a writer launches himself to writing an idea that he has been mulling over for quite some time. In fact I have been wishing to write about this topic since my son started behaving like a predating animals and hunting me down when I was absolutely unaware of his presence in my vicinity. The more I watched him making his silent and stealthy moves, using his palms and soles as soft paws, the more I realized that a writer too was like a predating animal. He moves around his idea for a long time; like a sort of big newt of the size of a cat biting a huge bison and wait for weeks to gangrene set in to kill the big animal. He waits and at the opportune moment he pounces on his idea and shreds it into words. A writer, when he finishes a particular piece of writing looks like an animal that has just cleaned up the last piece of flesh from the bone and smacks in lips with sense of relish, celebration and inexplicable satisfaction. A writer is a like a kingfisher who meditates for a long time to swoop down to pick his fish. Sometimes he is like happy white polar bear that plays amongst a host of fish and catches very little. A writer is like a tiger, a lion but never a hyena. A writer is an arrow a trained pair of fingers, an able arm, a sharp eye and a calculating mind shoot. He is the target too. 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

My Public Diary 7: Why I Prefer to Keep out of Festivals

(India during Diwali- Satellite Map released by NASA)

Each festival poses a question before me: Why should I celebrate it? Each time I express certain reservations, people very close to me ask why I am so negative about things. Sometimes facebook utterances are quite fleeting yet they generate some sort of debate while profound statements get ignored. Especially, if the comments are on Indian festivals or international festivals, and if they tinge with some kind of despair and dejection, people take it for absolute negativism. There must be people who think about me as someone seeking attention through difference. There was a time when I used to indulge in debate. Now I do not feel the need of debating such issues. But in the case of festivals, I think I need to explain some of my oppositional positions; I am not hard pressed to explain it to anybody else but I feel that I need to make it clear to myself.

Have I not celebrated festivals? Yes, I have. When I was a child I was enthusiastic to celebrate festivals typical to Kerala, where I was born and brought up. Onam was one special festival; it was the celebration of the annual visit of the benevolent king, Mahabali, who was sent to the netherworlds by Vamana, one of the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu. Mahabali was a very benevolent king though he was an asura (demon). He ruled the land of Kerala with sense of equanimity. ‘Maveli Naadu Vaneedum Kaalam, Maanusharellam onnu pole, kallavumilla chatiyummilla, ellolamilla polivachanma, kallapparayum cherunazhiyum, kallattharangal mattonnumilla’- During the reign of Mahabali, All subjects are alike, No theft, No cheating, None says a word of falsehood. No tricky measurements, no fooling vessals, No such falsities around- A picture of ideal rule. Why did the devas send exiled him to the underworld?

I had not asked this question when I was a child. Like many unquestioning subjects, I too welcome Mahabali for ten days and revelled in feasts. Onam was quite welcoming for a child like me because it heralded a ten days off from school, visits of relatives, exchanges of gifts, new clothes, games, plays, processions, boat races, general revelries and good food. These provisions were enjoyed and the cultural side of it were amply consumed without any ideological questioning. ‘Kaanam vittum Onam Unnanam’- Even by pawning your property, you should celebrate Onam- is another maxim that was and is still prevalent in Kerala. I started having doubts about Onam as I started learning and seeing the subtexts of this maxim. One has to do anything to celebrate Onam. You could sell your property or pawn your jewellery only to celebrate Onam. It was the beginning of commercialization of a commemorative festival. People who had lived the agricultural economy came out to buy their annual provisions of some luxuries including some new clothes and bangles from the village fairs during the Onam days. Slowly it became a compulsory shopping festival. I stopped celebrating Onam almost twenty years before. Onam is a cultural memory for me and it will remain like that so long as I live. The same fate has happened to Christmas and Eid. In India commercialization of Eid is not so apparent as we just do not want to align with Islam in a larger fashion, however tolerant we pretend to be.

‘Onam Pirannalum Unni Pirannaalum Koranu Kanji Kumbilil Thanne’- Whether it is Onam or the birth of his own child, Koran (the working class man) drinks his porridge from a leaf cone- is another maxim that made me think as I grew up. During Onam everyone eats feast on plantain leaves. Only the upper class and the upper caste, naturally affluent socially and financially had the capacity to eat a full meal on a plantain leaf throughout the year. Hence, eating on plantain leaf during the ten days of Onam became somewhat emblematic of temporal prosperity and equality. But what about the working class man or woman? S/he, even during the Onam days eats his food from a leaf cone. A cone made out of jackfruit leaf or any other flexible leaf shows the location where the food is served (to the menial class), the dignity or lack of it attributed to such serving and the kind of caste/class markings. The maxim says that even on the Onam day, the menial class remains menial class. This has not changed even today. I doubt festivals because of it. Onam was my learning ground and I could apply my findings in any festivals celebrated in India.

Let me recount some everyday examples related to these festivals. Yesterday, like many other people I too stood in front of an ATM counter in Faridabad. One old Sardarji came out of the air-conditioned cabin that dispenses money from the phallic machines, and he was absolutely confused. He had taken out Rs.20000/- from his account and while making a second transaction, the machine conked off. The man was in full belief that his money had been eaten up the machine or it would later be taken away by the security man there. He approached him. One of the biggest ironies that we see today in India is the presence of impoverished security guards who man ATMs, bungalows, private properties, housing colonies and so on. They come from somewhere in their rickety cycles and go back to that somewhere. The security man at the ATM counter sees people coming taking out notes smelling mint and carrying the smiles of Mahatma Gandhi but he never gets a chance to take his money out of the machine that he guards.

This old security guard tried to convince the old Sardarji saying that the machine would not eat up his money. Unconvinced, Sardarji told him that he had a total of Rs.32000/- in his account and as he had already taken out Rs.20000/- there should be a balance of Rs.12000/- there. In the commotion the man even forgot to keep the money he had just taken out, into his pocket. He was lamenting that with each failed transaction his Rs.20/- would be cut as service charge. Finally he once again entered the room and with the help of the security guard took out the balance money, leaving Rs.2000/- in his account. He was talking about Diwali and the things that he was supposed to do with that money. I found it absolutely absurd. A man pulling out all his money from his account just to buy crackers and sweets. I understand that the social norms teach us to perform our duties in certain ways. But on whose cost and on what cost? Personal happiness and a sense of security.

I see so many worried faces in the metro coaches. They all carry sweet packets and gift packets covered in gilt papers as if they are their life; the dear life. You know something, how do you feel when you are just the receiver of gifts not the giver? That is the worry and shame that I see in many faces in the metro coach. These packets have been given to them by their superiors. Friends hardly give gifts to each other. People carry identical packets; one could even see that which sweet company has made the maximum profit this year by selling packet sweets. As the train journey crosses its half course, confidence comes back to their faces. They have forgotten the receiving part. Now they are heading towards their homes and there they are the givers. To the expectant children, old parents, dear wife and other relatives, you are going to the play the role of the giver. You have earned these packets by toiling for three hundred and sixty five days. Now you carry these packets with pride and go home. That is festival. Whenever I see the college going children with their expensive mobile phones in metro coaches, I remember only the worried faces of their parents and the furrows that appear in their foreheads when they attend their calls in a local handset procured for a paltry sum of Rs.900/- because it comes from China.

The boys who look like thugs from any angle, this evening behave like polite politicians. Yes, they are politicians and businessmen for a few days. The long stretch where the government has allowed selling of crackers is now filled with a jostling crowd. The boys entice you to their stalls. They call out, ‘Sir, this is original. We sell only Koel brand’. I found it a bit odd. I have never heard somebody insisting on the brand of crackers. The common belief is that all these crackers and sparklers come from Sivakasi factories where small children and women work day and night in sweatshops and so many PhD theses are used for preparing the ‘gunds’, known as diwali bombs in the north. Most of the crackers need papers as raw material; and I believe that academic research papers, assignments and unsold books must be contributing a lot to this industry. (Recently, in Ahmedabad, I saw one exhibition of a Japanese artist who has carved sculptures out books. Curiosity led me to look at the spine of the books and found that this was a book on Ahmedabad city written by a local scholar. I thought it was good for the artist as raw material and a indelible shame for the author as the world came to know that the majority of the copies published remained in some storage space till the artist found them good to carve!).

‘Koel Brand’ does not sound as attractive as Tag Heuer. Later on I realized that the emphasis on brand has a lot to do with a distorted idea of nationalism. What they want to tell the customers is that they are not selling Chinese crackers. Chinese wears have found an easy market in India as they are cheap and more stylish. My friend in Mumbai tells me that most of the Ganesh idols used for the illustrious Ganpati Festival there come from China; Mumbai Ganesh fans are happy with cheap but beautiful Ganesh idols. I think Bengalis still resist the Chinese project as their Kumartali has enough expertise and cheap labour to produce as many as Durgas for their ‘Pujo’ festival. Suddenly Chinese products fell out of grace because despite the good market they have found in India, the Chinese still want a few acres of land from India. They make incursions and encroachments at the North-Eastern border of India, also at the extreme North. Despite the bilateral negotiations, they attack Indian soldiers. Suddenly, we became aware of the fact that we are buying Chinese products and the Chinese in fact are attacking us militarily. When the cracker selling boys say that they sell ‘Koel Brand’ I realize that for the last few years they too were selling Chinese products masquerading as Indian brands.

I do not preach against festivals. I do not keep a negative feel about festivals. But I have my own logical and emotional reasons to keep myself away from these festivals where money and opulence is extravagantly flaunted, places are littered and in the name of social integrations boundaries are created, properties are encroached, women are teased and molested and many are brought into permanent poverty. Festivals do not create poverty but they contribute to it. The pro-festival people may say that festivals provide a lot of jobs to a lot of people and it runs like an industry. But I am sure that if there are rehabilitation programs effectively implemented there would not be any job loss due a possible lack of enthusiasm on festivals. When we say that it would leave people devoid of jobs, we do not address so many issues including the constant dispossession and displacement of people from their areas of livelihood to nondescript places that do not yield anything to support their lives. All these happen in the name of traditionally rooted way of living, progress and development.

Today morning I saw so many young boys walking along the streets and collecting small little crackers strewn here and there unexploded in the previous night when people celebrated their ‘chotti diwali’. At the other end of the street, I few kids collecting the burnt iron sticks from the used sparklers. One of the boys had at least five hundred or more iron strings in his hand. I was continuously talking to my son about the disparities seen in our society and I showed them those boys who collected the leftover things from diwali. I told my son that they too would go and sell it to the kabadi wala, get a few rupees and instead buying their food they too would go and buy some crackers. I asked my son to be aware of his comfortable life and the insecure life of so many children like those boys. He asked me what could be done. I did not have an immediate answer to that because by asking him to share whatever he has with the others would make only a society run on charity (if everyone does so). But I aspire for a society where everyone gets equal opportunity to live and perform. I told him to do something as he grows up to create equal opportunity for everyone. I do not know what an eight year old boy would make out of that. But I am sure he would remember these words when he would be a man.

If you ask me, what could be done? I do not have any answer. But I find that the festivals have lost their cultural meaning. They have become avenues to show personal might and political power. It has become a market and seriously speaking market treats consumer also a commodity, ruthlessly. The imaginary satisfaction of consuming things in fact creates a commodity out of you that curiously consumes things anything given unquestioningly. Any festival celebrated in moderate scale is welcome with a lot of emphasis on its cultural meanings. Any festival that is celebrated for the sake of showing power should be shunned like plague. Unfortunately most of the festivals have become plagues. I prefer to do some sanitation job during the epidemic and die in the process than blindly believe in my immune powers and succumb to the disease without raising a finger. 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

My Public Diary 6: ‘Fire Extinguisher’- The KMB Story

(part of Atul Dodiya's installation at KMB, Picture sent to me by Manisha Gera Baswani)

I did not attend the opening of Kochi-Muziris Biennale on 12/12/12. The organizers had not invited me. Even if they had, I would not have gone. However, I had booked my ticket to go to Kochi and see it in February 2013. But something horrible happened at home; a house break-in by thieves. I cancelled my tickets as I thought I was wanted more at home than at the Aspinwal House, Fort Kochi, Kerala where the KMB had taken place. Somehow, I feel that something that ends with ‘MB’ is foredoomed. BMB (Birla-Mehta-Bose, when Birla talks about this, Bose-Mehta-Birla, when Bose talks about it) tanked after a few expensive shows. KMB, from the beginning itself had been facing problems. Seen from the side of the organizers, I was one of the trouble shooters for them. Along with many well-meaning people, I had opposed the ethics of KMB functioning. I am not going into the details of it as the debates have already been registered in history. But once the show was on, from the photographs I realized that I had all the reasons to oppose it aesthetically also. But I did not talk much about the aesthetics of it as it was not ‘ethical’ to critique something which I had not seen in person.

However, the people who visited KMB on the opening day and the next day informed me that I was very much ‘there’ in the biennale. I am not trying to say that I am too important in the Indian art scene; as I was involved in the controversy, many people expected me to make a very dramatic entry on the opening day itself and shock the people with my presence. I had declined to do so. I knew that I was like Banquo’s ghost on the declaration of KMB. Most of the friends attended the opening had innocently thought that I would be there. Some people had even phoned me up just to know the location where I was sitting or standing at the Durbar Hall ground. I told them politely that I was very much there at Faridabad and was not thinking much about KMB declaration. On 13th December 2012, I night received a visual evidence of myself being there at KMB, but in the form of a photograph, which was a part of an installation created by none other than Atul Dodiya.

(Sent to me from KMB by Abul Kalam Azad)

The picture that Manisha Gera Baswani, who is always seen ‘armed’ with a camera (whenever I see Manisha, I think two time frames coming together in her physical presence; an elegantly dressed Manisha often looks like a woman coming directly out of the Indian Miniature paintings but as she holds a camera, she looks a lot contemporary), had sent to me on 13th December, showed me reclining on a bed reading a newspaper where a detailed interview Atul Dodiya was published. I found it a bit shocking not because of my presence in KMB even as an image but because the coincidence of a date, 13th December with 13th March 2010, when Atul Dodiya’s interview was published in the Indian Express. I was reading it on the same day in a Navsari hotel room where Atul Dodiya was clicking me while Vivek Vilasini was clicking Atul Dodiya clicking me. We all were on a trip to the Dandi seashore as a part of the Freedom to March project which was jointly curated by Anubhav Nath and myself.

The shock should have ended there itself. I was a bit curious as I saw the image because already I had been informed of my ‘presence’ in KMB. What made me curious was the location where this photograph of mine was displayed. Atul Dodiya seemed to have co-opted a wall writing as a part of the installation and he seemed to have very consciously decided to exhibit my picture there. The installation, from many photographs I understood, was a series of photographs taken by Atul Dodiya over a period of time and these pictures included the portraits of some people, objects and places, who interestingly could have been recognized by any. Initially, I thought that my image was placed there for its sensational value. Atul Dodiya knew that I was from the opposition camp and it could be a way of co-opting me cleverly to the scheme of things implying that one cannot be ‘out of’ KMB even if one deliberately wanted to opt out. I was wondering how the organizers who had sent a Rs.250 Crore defamation case against me, tolerated my presence even as an image in their own premises.

 (from KMB, sent to me by Usha Ramachandran)

The more I looked at the image and the wall writing the more I realized that what a wonderful laugh they all might have had at the expense of my reputation. The writing just under my photograph reads, ‘Fire Extinguisher’. The placement of the photograph makes it read almost like its caption. So here was the ‘extinguisher of fire’ (of KMB) but look, he has become an image and he could not even pour a few drops of water in the wild fire called KMB. Such a pathetic figure I might have cut before their eyes. Whenever friends visited KMB, they called me up from there and informed me that they were standing right in front of ‘JohnyML’ at KMB. Many clicked this picture with their mobile phones and cameras and sent to me. Initial embarrassment had given way to a sort of inexplicable pleasure for me. I was almost feeling like a monument; when people visit a monument, they call up their friends and say, guess where I am standing right now? You make guess work. Then they declare right in front of Taj Mahal. I was feeling like a monument in history.

(On 13th March 2010, at a Navsari hotel, Atul Dodiya clicking my picture reading Indian Express)

Atul Dodiya does not have any reason to join the party of disparagement though he knew that I was one of the critics of KMB. His works and words almost hide a double edged sword at times. He might have happily convinced the organizers of KMB about incorporating my image in the much celebrated mega show. The arguments might have sounded really convincing. At the same time, I wonder, had the artist also thought the multiple linguistic possibilities of the caption, Fire Extinguisher? Okay, in the public perception, at least a part of it, I look like spoilsport. But at the same time a majority still believes that the efforts of people like me were a sincere attempt to save the art world from corruption. In that sense, I have all the reasons to believe that Atul had thought a lot about the phrase fire extinguisher. Fire extinguisher is a saviour for it extinguishes fire. The person in question could be a fire fighter who fights to save the people who are caught in a burning hell. In that sense Fire Extinguisher does not have a negative connotation at all. I believe, Atul was playing a strong double speak from within a camp to which he had not pawned all his integrity.

(Gopal Mirchandani's photo essay on KMB in the latest issue of Art Journal)

I was not thinking of writing this diary entry at all. But today when I came back home, I found the latest copy of Art Journal, edited by Rajendra Patil and published from Mumbai. In the photo essays included in the magazine I found Gopal Mirchandani, a respected friend from Mumbai, presenting his takes on KMB in a visual essay. Obviously, this picture in question was there. I was a bit amused at seeing it again. Gopal Mirchandani also must be thinking of the same lines of Atul Dodiya. If it was all about exorcising the ghost of JohnyML’s ghost, the image would not have got this much celebration elsewhere. I believe, people today understand, what a fire extinguisher stands for. I am not the saviour of art scene. I do not intend to become one either. But I want to have a clean and transparent life in art. That also does not mean that I need to live according to the middle class values created by somebody.