The Great Indian Monsoon Trick

Back in the day, June was about two events: school re-opening (always on 13th), and arrival of the great Indian monsoon.

The catharsis monsoons provide is much like a revolution. Months of heavy heat and yellow dust finally give way to thundering, dark skies, gusty winds, perceptible drops in temperature and finally, rain. Dull brown transforms to glistening green-blue. Oppressive ennui melts into gutters overflowing with rain water. The smell of earth in rain makes you stop and inhale. And.Inhale.And.Inhale. Inhale the romance. Just to clarify, my paean to the monsoons is simply me being Indian. Kalidasa wrote Ritusamhara in praise of Indian seasons way back in 5th century CE, royal workshops over hundreds of years churned miniature paintings with lightning bolts, dancing peacocks and lovers in trysts. Rains seep through and soak classical, folk and popular music and art. Indeed Indian children grew up learning rhymes like Ye Re Ye Re Pausa, Tula Deto Paisa; a Marathi rhyme where a child is bribing rains to make an appearance. [It’s another thing that english medium children like me also learnt Rain Rain Go Away, Little Johnny Wants To Play, never questioning the absurdity of the rhyme in rain deprived India where children, parents and grandparents wait eagerly for the rains precisely to play *in*them.]


Monsoons are to Mumbai what winter is to Delhi. The incessant downpour (never a drizzle) can dampen many a faint heart. It is not like Mumbaikars like the omnipresent damp ceilings, swollen, peeling wall plaster, constant dripping outside, fungus infested leather shoes inside, water logging, trains stopping, or tragically wilting biscuits. Mumbaikars dislike all of the above. However miraculously,  an ingrained affinity

img_4334for the monsoon despite all its rigours is the litmus test of a true-blue Mumbaikar. I firmly believe that the wild, slate grey Arabian Sea has a role to play in that. If I’d get a penny for each time I played hookey from college while it was raining just to walk along Juhu beach, eat vada pav watching the crashing waves of Marine Drive, sing songs sitting on the rocks of Versova Beach, head for picnics (yes) to Madh Island, I’d have enough to afford a 2BHK in Andheri. I’ve waded through knee deep water just for fun, celebrated rainy day holidays and religiously bought rainy shoes and gum boots, both of which were utterly useless in the face of ferocious MumbaiMonsoons. (this is an absolute favorite song on the season and my city.)


Dehradoon, a hill town nestled up in the Himalayas where most of my summers were spent, puts on the most dramatic son-et-lumiere shows to showcase its monsoons. The lightning and thunder take on a booming entity of their own in Doon valley where trees sparkle anew with the rains. Of course, with the first thunder-clap you can be sure the
electricity will be out for 3-4-5-6-who knows how many hours, but who cares? I remember sitting in our veranda making paper boats to sail in little rivulets that cropped img_4336up magically everywhere in this hilly town. Those rains that bestowed upon us hard, heavy hail were deemed extra special because that was the closest we ever got to snow. (Hail surprisingly tastes just like ice was what we re-learnt every year.) Steaming ginger tea, nani’s  piping hot pakodas, samosas and rain dances on terraces.


Any passage on monsoons would be incomplete without mentioning Kerela – the place where the monsoon is born. The exact shade of emerald-green that the tea estates of Munnar glimmer with when freshly drenched is indescribable. As is the havoc that rain infused breeze wrecks on your senses when it carries fragrances from spice plantations of black pepper, cinnamon, coffee, cardamoms. The swollen fierce rivers that flow in all their might, the leeches and mosquitoes that dance in great delight. The waterfalls that appear suddenly everywhere, the backwater boats that take you there.


My heart doesn’t do calisthenics when it rains in New York. There’s no magic. No petrichor. No kids dancing. There’s no feeling of deliverance with rains – and that’s borderline unsettling, alienating almost. And maybe that’s why there is something visceral about how much I miss India, and its incredible monsoon..starting June 13th.

Lippan/Chittar Kaam-Mud and Mirror Work

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Lippan/Chittar  Kaam, also known as Mud and Mirror work, is a traditional mural folk art form from Gujarat, a western border state of India. Gujarat’s Rann of Kutch (The Great Salt Desert) that lies between India and Pakistan is home to several desert communities, many of which do this mud relief work in their own distinct style. One such, the nomadic Rabari people, are especially associated with it. Desert life is tough, but the indomitable spirit of human beings is perspicuously at display in the art these people choose to create, despite harsh, inhospitable environs. Lippan Kaam is usually done inside, and sometimes, outside the mud huts (bhungas) in far-flung villages.

Traditionally, a mixture of camel dung which is rich in fibre is mixed with mud and molded between fingers before being stuck directly on walls. Kutchi motifs such as peacocks, birds, animals, human figures, trees and geometric patterns are sculpted freehand in bas-relief. Muslim communities stick to geometric patterns since depiction of human or animal form is considered un-Islamic. Each pattern in embellished with mirrors (aabhla), of various sizes and shapes – round, diamond & triangular. Authentic Mud and Mirror work is almost always colored in white clay, or at best, in shades of neutrals. The white comes from the sand of the Rann desert, rich as it is in salt content.

With increasing numbers now living in concrete homes, and with the younger generation trading traditional arts and crafts for lucrative city jobs, the preponderance of Lippan Kaam is decreasing in villages (see video below). However the upside to the story is that the art form has gathered some traction over the years, and made an entrance into mainstream art world of India. Onwards from bhungas into fancy city homes and spas… and now, Manhattan!

This is my first attempt at Lippan Kaam and I’ve attempted to stay as authentic as possible, trying to retain the rustic look and white tones these murals sport. Since the designs are traditionally handmade, their lines are seldom precise and the end result is almost never factory-like perfect. I love these little nuances, and incorporating them in my work was important to me. But there are a few adaptations made, mostly with regards to the materials used. A detailed list is given in the end. This artwork has been created on Hardboard so it can be mounted on walls.

img_2689To start, I researched traditional motifs and patterns and came up with a final design; a process that involved multiple iterations. Then, after applying two layers of Gesso to the hardboard, it was painted with thin acrylic paint. The decision of staying with a white palette was one I took rather early on and that helped with planning the work as it proceeded. Once the acrylic dried out, the design was penciled.

With the design traced, I glued-in mirrors. All circular mirrors used are glass mirrors whereas the other shapes are cut out of Tim Holtz Mirror sheets. I loved working with the latter because of the freedom of being able to craft out any shape, and also, because the sheets come with a transparent cover which is very convenient when working alongside materials like clay and color. It keeps the mirrored surface free from fingerprints, colors etc.

Apoxie® Sculpt substituted regular clay for two reasons. One, it  offers the benefits of sculpting clay and two, it has the adhesive power of epoxy so I did not need glue to stick clay to the board. It is  smooth and putty-like in consistency, relatively simple to mix and use, even for first timers like me.

The Apoxie self-hardens (no baking required) and cures hard in 24 hours to appear with a semi-gloss finish. [Tip: I mixed small batches at a time, covering small portions of the larger design, since leaving epoxy out for long durations makes it hard and unwieldy.] The clay work was followed by sticking of cowrie shells. This is entirely my touch, don’t think shells are traditionally Lippan Kaam materials.

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I’ll be honest, coloring was the trickiest part, for multiple reasons. First of all, conjuring multiple shades of white/neutrals was more difficult than I’d anticipated. Trickier still was avoiding coloring over tiny mirrors. Tedious. And last but not the least, ensuring that details of clay designs stay visible (and not get washed out by white acrylic color) took most time. If you look closely, I applied a wash in terracotta color over these just to give the details a pop, and followed that with a super diluted wash of white acrylic, in-line with the white overall look. Very. Tedious.

Once any art work is nearly done, the last bit is all about refining – bringing out the hits and covering the misses. In this case, since I intentionally wanted to leave the work rustic, this last step was more about drawing lines on where to stop..despite instinctively wanting to go on.

The end result is here for you to see.. I love it since it’s a little piece of the Rann hanging on my wall. The interesting thing is, while I lived in India, I knew not much about its rich artistic heritage. However post settling abroad, I feel a need to connect to my roots be it the philosophy, religion, sociology, arts or crafts. Don’t be surprised if they make an appearance here, often!

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List of Materials used:

– Apoxie Sculpt 1 Lb. White

Round Glass Mirrors, Assorted Sizes, 25-Pack

Mosaic Mercantile 8-Ounce Adhesive

100 Pcs Bulk Cut Sea Shell Beads Cowrie Craft

White acrylic paint and Gesso. Any good brand will do, I used Liquitex and Blick

Here are two links. 1: shows a village woman, Valuben, making this work of art the traditional way. 2: is a short read on the Rabari people.

Hope you enjoy!

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 2: http://www.kashgar.com.au/articles/the-rabari-people-of-northwest-india

Grappling with Nudity in Indian Art

2I started this blog few years ago, on a day that saw M.F. Husain’s paintings being taken off India Art Summit. Outraged and anguished, I ended up writing a few lines..mostly to vent I suppose.

Husain had painted some paintings of Hindu Goddesses in the nude and *that* became his crime. That some intellectual illiterates with no understanding of art and more importantly Hinduism, a religion I was born into, a religion I am attuned to and a religion I hold close to my heart were decrying and debasing works of a prolific Indian artist seemed akin to a personal attack and affront. Interestingly, that gut reaction occurred when I hadn’t studied art, had never taken even half a course  in it, busy as I was managing brands at an MNC. However upon moving to NYC, a city that breathes all things artsy, few things seemed destined…and studying Art History at Columbia University, a university renowned for this discipline felt as organic as listening to Moonlight Sonata whilst staring at the river and twinkling city lights out my apartment window.

An entire circle of sorts was completed when I found myself  reading  Tapati Guha Thakurta’s Art History and the Nude: On Art, Obscenity, and Sexuality in Contemporary India, a chapter from her book Monuments, Objects, Histories: Institutions of Art in Colonial and Postcolonial India. It’s a book I can’t recommend enough for anyone even remotely interested in art history and archeology as disciplines in contemporary  India. No surprises then that I chose to write a review of that chapter as a part of my coursework.

Few things happened while writing the review: one, I could now comprehend better the reasons for my anger at the India Art Fair occurrence   and two, I could understand why the people of India remained largely mum at the Husain fiasco. The confusion that exists in the mind of an average Indian (with little or no understanding of his country’s artistic tradition) is obvious to see. We have an overtly sexual artistic heritage straddling the spiritual and erotic with equal ease. This is witnessed in the full breasted, thin waisted, and broad hipped yakshis gracing the Sanchi stupa dating to the second century B.C or the unabashed sexual imagery covering the medieval temples of Khajuraho. What were these images doing on temples and stupas? Why did our rich miniature painting tradition blatantly show loving couples, kissing and copulating?

What is quite clear is that with the arrival of Islam in India and thereafter the British with their Victorian sensibilities, this very artistic heritage quickly became an embarrassment. That is the soft spot that the ‘Hindu’ right stabbed and shamed by targeting a maverick ‘Muslim’ painter. Husain made for an easy and soft target, given the bigoted rhetoric that was at play, a rhetoric with absolutely NO backing of the religion it was ostensibly ‘protecting’. India has just elected a right wing party into power. Yes, my heart did sink for many a reason, not the least of which is this kind of obvious, insufferable gundaism that the right subscribes to.

In any case, understanding the Indian nude, its passage through time and the place it occupies in the social framework of India today makes for an absolutely riveting and fascinating study.

Here is my review of Tapati’s work. It’s the shortest paper I’ve written so hopefully won’t make for a difficult read. Do glance through, if only to get  sense of where we were and where we are; to get a sense of what Hinduism was, and what it’s now claimed to be.

(There may be some formatting errors since I am copying and pasting this, so do excuse those.)

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Having grown up in what is referred to as modern India, I can say with some confidence that ‘uncomfortable’ is a good word to describe an average Indian’s feeling towards the nudity in art. In Art History and the Nude: On Art, Obscenity, and Sexuality in Contemporary India,Tapati Guha Thakurta tries to answer some pertinent albeit tricky questions about when and how nudity or semi-nudity of female figures became a problem in Indian art history. She exposes the tangle of religious and aesthetic meanings as both competing and corresponding frameworks of artistic interpretation, and probes deeper anxieties centering around the female nude, a figure imbued in contemporary India with concerns of tradition, religion, morality, and national identity.To set stage, she cleverly juxtaposes two recent occurrences, a spotlight tinged with national pride that shines on the sexually charged imagery of Khajuraho temples and an unfortunate controversy around the prolific Indian painter Maqbool Fida Husain. Both these occurrences revolve around the Indian nude in art; one celebrates it while the other condemns it, and between them they cover an entire range of emotions and attitudes to the nude.

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A painful episode unfolded for liberal Indians in the 1990s with the alarming and embarrassing witch-hunt of the flamboyant M.F. Husain. Husain’s crime was that he, a Muslim, had painted nudes of Hindu Goddesses. That he had a huge body of work of which these constituted but a small part was completely overlooked by the right wing. Wanting to score brownie points with their vote-banks in the aftermath of the Babari Masjid demolition controversy, the right wing shaped this ‘issue’ astutely into a controversy and attacked Husain. His work, they propounded, was an insult and an offense to Hindu sensibilities. Several paintings of Husain’s were removed from galleries and some were even vandalized and burned. There were violent demonstrations and he was banned from entering the city of Ahmedabad. The saddest part of this tragic tale was that the harassment reached such bizarre heights that the nonagenarian was forced to leave India in the last years of his life. And to bring the absurdity of all that happened into focus, at the center of this was a painting of a bony and taut Saraswati, lacking any tactile simulation of female flesh, where the iconographic attributes of the Goddess, though present, are never foregrounded1.

To defend and contextualize Husain’s work, art historians tried drawing attention to the Indian tradition of full bodied, unclothed female sculpted figures, medieval temple complexes like Khajuraho and Konaraka replete with nude imagery or the ritual and religious validity of nudity in Indian iconographic traditions such as the depictions of a nude Goddess Kali or even more extremely, Lajja Gauri, the female icon of fertility in the Deccan. What these arguments were saying was that a bare female body was an inalienable feature of the iconography of Hindu art, indeed even Goddesses, and that such depictions were fully within the realm of the aesthetic. Despite all arguments, the general mood remained strongly anti–Husain. Husain further went on to make a movie called Gajagamini and a series of overtly sexually charged paintings of his muse Madhuri Dixit, an Indian actress. While he did like to push boundaries, it would be fair to argue, as Guha Thakurta does, that it was a part of his creative prerogative. He ought not to be bracketed by, or answerable to, any age-old Indian tradition.

Another critically astute observation made by Guha Thakurta in this regard is that the Husain controversy could not have gained the traction it did, as quickly as it, in the absence of a fertile ground for the seeds of mistrust and intolerance to grow.It becomes rather obvious that once the genteel veneer of India is scratched, unresolved tensions, prejudices and a basic illiteracy in, and ignorance of art and art history come to the fore.The nude in India has been a continual source of both enigma and unease given the blurred boundaries between art, religion and morality in past tradition. This controversy therefore exposes a wide rift that exists between the nude as an entrenched symbol of high art and the nude as a target of popular, public disapproval, pitting the aesthetic and the moral as two opposing modes of encounter2.

Interestingly, when recovered as an object of art, the nude is accorded full religious sanction of Hinduism. This development too however, took a long time coming in postcolonial India. To start with, the explicitly erotic content of several temple sculptures gave rise to more questions than answers. British officers and scholars of the early nineteenth century caught up in their Victorian sensibilities, found these sculptures embarrassing and shameful. Even early Indian art historians were at a loss to explain the abundance of erotic imagery. What were these figures doing in temples of all places!

Embracing of the erotic came to be over decades and Guha Thakurta gives a good summary of how it came about. Post a classification of monuments in the late nineteenth century, most of Indian painting and sculpture came into its own at the start of the twentieth century after breaking away from Eurocentric biases and misconceptions. Between 1920s-1930s in a new line of scholarship by the likes of Stella Kramrisch, V.S. Agrawala and Coomaraswamy, ‘style’ came to be regarded as a prime pivot for the dating and periodization of sculpture as well as for understanding meanings of forms and motifs. Throughout these scholarly pursuits it was imperative to resist the conflation of various nude, seminude voluptuous female bodies on display with Mithuna and Maithuna (loving) couples so as to be able to consider them (female nudes) within their own references. As was wont to happen, over time and genres the feminine body came to be endowed with several meanings – from primeval associations with nature and fertility toan external guise for the hidden spiritual physiognomy of the sculpted figure3.By the 1940s, equal weightage was accorded to both the simplistic purity of Buddhist sculptures and the overtly ornamented and eroticized medieval ones. In a stunning reversal, the sensual was anointed an innate attribute of the Indian art tradition. And finally, as a natural progression to this, eroticism ‘arrived’ by the 1960s-1970s marking the large body of sensual images guilt-free and available for true appreciation.

This was also a time when the Indian nude was valorized as an integral feature of Hindu religion and aesthetics, devoid as it now was of the prudishness and revulsion that had shadowed it in face of India’s colonial past. Much was done to forge a new identity of the nude and to distinguish it from its western counterpart. In this context says Guha Thakurta, the popular sensual/spiritual distinction was deployed by contrasting the idealized and stylized concept of the Indian body with the naturalistic, western one. Furthermore, it was also argued by several scholars that the Indian nude in all its seductive charm was never completely nude. It was invariable the body adorned, as Vidya Dehejia states in her book of the same name. Alankara (ornament) always includes clothing, as indeed does shringara, a word that means “adornment” in addition to being the term for erotic rasa4.

 

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Similar meaning and spiritual symbolism was employed by art historians to explain the stunning temple site of Khajuraho with its enthralling, erotic imagery. Routinely referred to in epithets as clichéd as “Temples of Love” or “Divine Ecstasy”, these temples are well known in both popular and scholarly realms. Information generated by scholarly circles on the symbolism, iconography and dates of these temples is readily lapped up by tourist guides, coffee table books, pamphlets and fed back to the public in increasingly marketing savvy ways. There are only sixteen panels concentrated in three large temples (of total temple complex of twenty-two) that show sexually explicit imagery. Clearly then, these panels form a small part of a larger architectural and sculptural temple plan, a plan that goes unnoticed in light of the disproportionate attention lavished on panels displaying erotic content.

Sometime in the 1960s, with scholars stressing on interpretations beyond the literal, Khajuraho became an emblem for celebrating the sexual, given the more philosophical, spiritual and abstruse levels of meaning assigned to it with the help of textual, mythological, and ritual references. Several scholars, most prolific of who is Devangana Desai, have tried to understand and explain the erotic objects at Khajuraho. According to her, the best way to read these temples was to move beyond literal ‘tantric’ interpretations to more complex symbolism between the meaning these sculptures might carry and the textual imagery of religious vocabulary of the time these were constructed. Shobita Punia is another scholar who reads into these sculptures the legend of the divine marriage of Shiva and Parvati and its consummation. Attempts were therefore being made repeatedly to embrace Indian art for what it was, spiritual and symbolic. Thus, just as the voluptuous yakshis proliferating ancient Indian monuments were decoded as motifs of fertility, sexual depictions on the walls of the Khajuraho temples became emblematic of the consummation of the divine marriage of Shiva and Paravati and, more abstractly, of the removal of duality and merger of the opposing cosmic principles of Shiva and Shakti, Purusha and Prakriti5. One finds spiritual and metaphysical interpretations providing religious and aesthetic sanction to erotic Indian art almost everywhere and it was these interpretations that brought Khajuraho into the folds of Indian art history triumphantly, squashing all stigma, making it proud of its erotic heritage.

In all of this what is evident is that despite all its modernity, artists, their works and movements in India somehow need to be anchored in the lineage of Indian art tradition, in the nation’s past for to be authenticated, accepted and embraced. Maybe this need is an unavoidable outcome of a five thousand year old heritage but it does sometimes seem to be just that, unavoidable. In the case of Husain, whose modernistic artworks were based on a select coding of national themes, motifs and “a complex structure of citations” drawn from Indian mythology6, the modern, traditional and national boundaries conflated and combusted.

In conclusion, to get a sense of where and how the Indian nude is currently placed and the journey it has travelled in contemporary India, this piece by Guha Thakurta is a must-read. By skillfully contrasting the Khajuraho case study (with its pride in the Indian nude) with the Husain example (showcasing an innate discomfort with the nude), she highlights the sharply divided space the Indian nude occupies. While a little long drawn, the piece is thoroughly interesting; especially its ruthlessly incisive conclusions. Guha Thakurta exhibits a splendid strength of conviction by outing the fine line that divides the erotic from the obscene, the aesthetic from the pornographic7. From the continued proliferation of Khajuraho’s sexual imagery into public forums in posters, hotel lobbies and souvenirs to Husain’s self-indulgent voyeurism apparent in his overtly sexualized caricaturing of the ideal Indian woman in Gajagamini, she states that both sexual allure and titillation find authentication in the name of tradition7. In the wider context of a religiously, politically, nationalistically and culturally charged India, art historical resolutions tread an uncertain ground as the line between the sacred, secular, moral, immoral, art or crass become impossible to fix. On the eve of the possibility of an impending right wing government coming into power in India, it becomes imperative to watch these lines and keep an eye out for where and how the Indian nude will move next.

Notes:

  1. Guha-Thakurta, Tapati. Monuments, objects, histories: institutions of art in colonial and postcolonial India. Columbia University Press, 2004. PP. 248
  2. Guha-Thakurta, Tapati. Monuments, objects, histories: institutions of art in colonial and postcolonial India. Columbia University Press, 2004. PP. 247
  3. Guha-Thakurta, Tapati. Monuments, objects, histories: institutions of art in colonial and postcolonial India. Columbia University Press, 2004. PP. 255-256
  4. Dehejia, Vidya. The Body Adorned: Sacred and Profane in Indian Art. Columbia University Press, 2013. PP. 24
  5. Guha-Thakurta, Tapati. Monuments, objects, histories: institutions of art in colonial and postcolonial India. Columbia University Press, 2004. PP. 244
  6. Guha-Thakurta, Tapati. Monuments, objects, histories: institutions of art in colonial and postcolonial India. Columbia University Press, 2004. PP. 253
  7. Guha-Thakurta, Tapati. Monuments, objects, histories: institutions of art in colonial and postcolonial India. Columbia University Press, 2004. PP. 266

References:

  1. Guha-Thakurta, Tapati. Monuments, objects, histories: institutions of art in colonial and postcolonial India. Columbia University Press, 2004
  2. Dehejia, Vidya. The Body Adorned: Sacred and Profane in Indian Art. Columbia University Press, 2013.

 

Arundhati Roy: The Only Dream Worth Having

I don’t aways agree with what Arundhati Roy has to say. Her analyses sometimes seem rabid and her world-view biased. I don’t partake in her philosophy, at least not the way she would want me to.

But, I admire her, a lot.

I admire her guts because it takes courage to take a stand and then stand by it – especially when it falls in the wholly unpopular realm. I admire her intellect, her moral strength and her tenacity. I admire the fact that she questions status quo, that she is an outlier in the best sense of the word. More than anything, I love her way with words, her imagery. I love her writing.

Here is an excerpt I picked from an interview she did with Democracy Now! when she visited New York recently to speak about her new book ‘Capitalism: A Ghost Story’. I do not agree with her reading of the ‘Capitalist’ situation, well not entirely anyway, because I believe that Capitalism packs in itself the power to do good. It creates much more than it decimates or desecrates. But yes, decimate, desecrate and debase it does (also). However, the reason for this post is not an analysis of the interview. It is these few lines she reads from a time, when fresh in the throes of all the adulation that followed ‘The God of Small Things’, her friend made an observation…

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, it was—it was really the first—in a way, the first political essay I wrote anyway, after The God of Small Things, and it was an essay called ‘The End of Imagination’ when the Indian government conducted a series of nuclear tests in 1998. In early May (before the bomb), I left home for three weeks. I thought I would return. I had every intention of returning. Of course, things haven’t worked out quite the way I planned.

Of course, by which I meant that India just wasn’t the same anymore. While I was away, I met a friend of mine whom I have always loved for, among other things, her ability to combine deep affection with a frankness that borders on savagery. “I’ve been thinking about you,” she said, “about The God of Small Things — what’s in it, what’s over it, under it, around it, above it…” She fell silent for a while. I was uneasy and not at all sure that I wanted to hear the rest of what she had to say. She, however, was sure that she was going to say it. “In this last year,” she said, “less than a year actually—you’ve had too much of everything—fame, money, prizes, adulation, criticism, condemnation, ridicule, love, hate, anger, envy, generosity—everything. In some ways it’s a perfect story. Perfectly baroque in its excess. The trouble is that it has, or can have, only one perfect ending.”

Her eyes were on me, bright with a slanting, probing brilliance. She knew that I knew what she was going to say. She was insane. She was going to say that nothing that happened to me in the future could ever match the buzz of this. That the whole of the rest of my life was going to be vaguely unsatisfying. And, therefore, the only perfect ending to the story would be death. My death. The thought had occurred to me too. Of course it had.

The fact that all this, this global dazzle—these lights in my eyes, the applause, the flowers, the photographers, the journalists feigning a deep interest in my life (yet struggling to get a single fact straight), the men in suits fawning over me, the shiny hotel bathrooms with endless towels—none of it was likely to happen again. Would I miss it? Had I grown to need it? Was I a fame-junkie? Would I have withdrawal symptoms?

I told my friend there was no such thing as a perfect story. I said in any case hers was an external view of things, this assumption that the trajectory of a person’s happiness, or let’s say fulfillment, had peaked (and now must trough) because she had accidentally stumbled upon ‘success.’ It was premised on the unimaginative belief that wealth and fame were the mandatory stuff of everybody’s dreams.

“You’ve lived too long in New York” I told her. “There are other worlds. Other kinds of dreams. Dreams in which failure is feasible. Honorable. And sometimes even worth striving for. Worlds in which recognition is not the only barometer of brilliance or human worth. There are plenty of warriors that I know and love, people far more valuable than myself, who go to war each day, knowing in advance that they will fail. True, they are less ‘successful’ in the most vulgar sense of the word, but by no means less fulfilled.” “The only dream worth having,” I told her, “is to dream that you will live while you’re alive and die only when you’re dead.” “Which means exactly what?” I tried to explain, but didn’t do a very good job of it.

Sometimes I need to write to think. So I wrote it down for her on a paper napkin. And this is what I wrote: To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.”

English Vinglish

Understanding & speaking the English language is an advantage. But if you don’t know it perfectly, it’s really not that big a deal. Most of the world doesn’t.

Having been born and brought up in a country mired in post colonial anxiety – India, I reached this conclusion only when living in Europe. And it’s got reinforced after moving to NYC. Amongst themselves, the French speak French, Germans – German, Spaniards – Spanish, Israelis – Hebrew, Chinese – Mandarin. Always. When a flight was cancelled at Ciampino airport, Rome and all initial announcements  were made in Italian with little concern for the non-Italian speaking types or when we had to carry little chits written in Portuguese to make our way through Brazil, it hit me (despite inconvenience of the situation) that people are deeply connected to their mother tongues, that native languages are a fundamental building block of a culture.

Which got me thinking..

1. Why are modern, liberal, educated Indians a tad apologetic (embarrassed) about their native tongues?

2. Why do we not play up, proudly, our unique multi lingual set-up for the definite advantages it affords us?

Don’t get me wrong. I love english. Like any good middle class Indian, it’s my surrogate mother tongue, encapsulating almost all of my reading & writing. My point is not in any way to be anti-english. It is merely to question the stigma attached to not knowing it well enough. Why do I see so many people laughing at “vernacular” accents while fawning over French/Italian ones? Grammar nazis who get their kicks from pointing fingers at incorrect sentence constructs, spellings, making fun of folks obviously not as erudite at english as they might be. In the words of one favorite blogger @natashabadhwar, do these people know what they say about themselves?

No one can deny the positive rub-offs of english in India. The language has opened many a door for many an enterprise & many an individual. It lends itself to global competitiveness. I also get the pet algo:  Good English = Good (read expensive) School = Moneyed Family = Status = Power. What I don’t get is why english should come at the cost of marathi, gujarati, hindi, urdu or punjabi. How often have we heard fellow Indians say “Oh my daughter doesn’t speak [plug-in any vernacular language] very well.. Yes she goes to an english medium school … We only speak english at home..”. How about a little more faith in your own language guys…just like the French or Italians you so wish to emulate?

Surely that must say something about our collective psyche as Indians? And surely the educated (as distinguished from the mere literate), well-travelled, well read amongst us understand the fallacy of these approaches?

While everyone can and should exercise his/her own choice in this matter, I feel it is a bloody good thing to know more than a single language. America is bending over backwards to ensure its children learn Spanish as a second language since studies have shown a direct co-relation between knowledge of two or more languages and sharper learning skills. We are fortunate since our country affords us a chance to not just be bilingual, but multilingual. Just as it’s a good thing to strive to be a global citizen, it’s also a good thing to know where you come from, where your roots are. Then why prioritize one over the other? Why belittle one? Why worship the other?

[Picture Source: The Australian]

Bani Thani

Kishangarh, about 27 kms from Ajmer, was founded in 1611 by Kishan Singh a Rathore prince. The town is home to one of India’s most famous schools of minituate paintings: Kishangarh School.

The greatest patron of Kishangarh art was Raja Satwant Singh. He was himself a painter and poet who fell in love with a court singer Bani Thani. She subsequently became his mistress. It is said that the famous Kishangarh Radha is made in her likeness (lotus-eyed woman had long been the Rajput ideal of feminine beauty.)

The paintings belonging to Rajas of Kishangarh were first seen by the outside world in the 1940s. Some of these exquisite masterpieces are now on view at the National Museum, New Delhi.

This attempt at Bani Thani marks my first painting with vegetable dyes. It is also the first time I have attempted miniature art (*and* my first work on commission!). I can only imagine the levels of patience masters of miniature must have had, because feeding in all the details is not easy.. and that’s putting it mildly 🙂
[Info on Kishangarh sourced from http://www.rajasthaninfoline.com]

Thinking Of You On Your Birthday, Bhaiyya

My favourite cousin is 10 years older than me. The oldest child in our family

My favourite cousin shaped me growing up. He was So. Damn. Cool. Full of laughter & happiness, he was.. infectious

He introduced me to Dylan

He read me  Keats, Wordsworth, Vikram Seth

He got me Dostoevsky, Chekov, J.Krishnamurti, Ruskin Bond from the library

He taught me to strum the guitar

He shaved his head. And cut my hair short (that was so much fun!)

He allowed me to learn An American Prayer by heart while he was doing the same

My favourite cousin was a brill.i.ant dancer

Every nubile girl in their city’s la-di-dah club had her knickers in a twist if he wasn’t dancing with her

My favourite cousin was his school’s Headboy

He was suspended briefly after an altercation with the headmaster when “The damn authorities tried to stop a legit students’ protest”

My favourite cousin had Bruce Lee and Brooke Shields posters in his room; his room a disconnected servants’ quarter he occupied, the only room he considered his own

My favourite cousin was a national level tennis player. He loved the game

His little cousin always wondered why he wasn’t encouraged to pursue it seriously

My favourite cousin wanted to study Japanese at JNU

My favourite aunt and uncle wouldn’t allow it. “Science!” they insisted. “You have the marks

My favourite cousin fell in love

“We are Bengalis” said the girl’s parents. “Very different from you people”

They got his girlfriend married to a Bengali boy

My favourite cousin turned a Christian,

Then, a Buddhist

Then, an Atheist

——————————————————————————————-

Something disconnected, somewhere.

——————————————————————————————–

My favourite cousin did not feel loved or understoodHe never felt whole

My favourite cousin swallowed pills. Lots of them

My mother found him in his room that day. Listless. I saw him too

My favourite cousin was saved, just in the nick of time

And sent away to a university in UK ..to recover.

My favourite cousin studied environmental economics, became an authority on organic and sustainable agriculture

He became a scholar of ecological and environmental issues of Himalayan region

My favourite cousin now however, could not sustain any relationship

He barely spoke to his parents

He divorced his beautiful, loving Hungarian wife

He divorced his Nepali-daughter-of-a-watchman-second-wife-of-few-months. She staked a claim on his assets. Thankfully, he won in court

He had several meaningless liaisons

My favourite cousin has had multiple breakdowns over the last decade. Doctors say he has schizophrenia, occasionally paranoia

He doesn’t take his medication regularly

He’s very lucid most times

And incoherent sometimes

He can be the most knowledgable, witty, amazing, fun person in the room

He can also be the person who sits in a room for hours but just doesn’t speak

He loves me

He loves me not

It’s all such an ebb and flow

But mostly, it’s all such a waste

Of a sensitive, kind, talented, loving human being

My favourite cousin