Protest, politics and Indian contemporary art

It’s always nice to have one’s byline in a publication they read, but in many ways, The Hindu is specially special. It’s stood for a serious, no-nonsense gravitas for generations. So to be in its op-ed pages is a good feeling. As a friend put it, “Ex-governors, professors, statesmen…and you. Vaav.” I feel thoroughly grown-up. For now, at any rate. 

Here’s the unedited version of the article on Indian contemporary art and political protest:

Let’s be honest: aesthetically, Siddhartha Karawal’s “Divine Cow” is not the most noteworthy bovine in the annals of Indian art. It is, however, perhaps the most manhandled one.
Last month, at the Jaipur Art Summit, Karawal’s “Divine Bovine”, consisting of a cow made of Styrofoam and a balloon, made the news. It was floating above the Pink City, minding its own business. Unfortunately, this offended some people. So the cow was hauled away by the local police. Who the offended were and whether they were feeling offended on behalf of cows in general or Karawal’s Styrofoam cow in particular remains unclear. We can only presume they’re the same people who garlanded and worshipped the once-floating, now-grounded cow when it was in police custody, and that its bovine honour was restored when the worshippers yelled “Gau mata ki jai!”
As it turned out, all those outraged by “Divine Bovine” were mistaken in their assumption that Karawal was poking fun at sacred cows. “Divine Bovine” was supposed to be a critical comment upon the way we mistreat cows in cities. Karawal wasn’t challenging anyone with “Divine Bovine”. If anything, he and the cow-brigade were essentially saying the same thing: show the cow some love.
What this ridiculous episode served to underscore is that an artist may create a work of art, but it is the viewer who completes it. If the one who sees it will not or cannot recognise the artist’s intention, then it’s hopeless.
Around the world, contemporary art is used to seeming incomprehensible. To perplex is almost a basic requirement — it’s the first step to ending up as thought-provoking. In addition to this, most modern and contemporary Indian art is politically bland, which makes it seem almost indulgent to some. Still, art’s ability to perplex may have saved some of our more talented artists.
For instance, in his video titled “Three Bullets for Gandhi”, artist Tushar Joag multiplied himself into three and arranged his avatars to look like the Lion Capital of Ashoka. Each Joag spat out bullets and fire. Some may only notice how handsome Joag looks in “Three Bullets for Gandhi”. Others will wonder about the violence and twisted ideals that the State embodies when Joag presents his carefully-inexact replica of the official emblem of India. Ahimsa, anyone?
Back in 2002, artist Shilpa Gupta peddled little bottles filled with red liquid on the streets and local trains of Mumbai. The bottles were labelled Blame and carried this inscription: “Blaming you makes me feel so good, so I blame you for what you cannot control – your religion, your nationality.” The curious performance was her way of responding to the US-led ‘war on terror’. By the time she was ready with her little bottles of Blame, the Godhra riots had happened and “Blame” felt more pertinent than ever. Imagine her performing “Blame” today, and I, for one, get the chills.
In 1994, Bhupen Khakhar painted a watercolour in which a seated man was cradled by another. Both are nude. The one who comforts the seated man is mostly blue-skinned. He has many arms and in one hand, there dangles a garland. In another, the blue-skinned man holds a lotus that is rising out of a discarded, green shirt. The painting is titled “How many hands do I need to declare my love for you?” It’s an exquisitely gentle and tender painting, glowing with sensual intimacy. However, a homophobe may be disgusted by it and if the person viewing “How many hands…” is itching to manufacture outrage, they can go blue in the face claiming Hinduism has been insulted.
Fortunately, few know of these works of art and fewer have actually seen them, which means both the art and the living artists are safe. Since Indian contemporary art has cultivated a reputation for being elite and its audience is at best described as niche, few see or talk about it. Add to this the deplorably outdated collections of modern art in most Indian museums. Net result: the chances of being seen are low and being misunderstood, lower.
Usually, an Indian artist becomes a topic of conversation when their works break records at international auctions or if their name is Maqbool Fida Husain. When Husain was first accused of obscenity and disrespecting Hinduism because he had painted Hindu goddesses as nude figures, it must have sounded like a joke. If traditional temple art is to be believed, these divine ladies aren’t particularly fond of covering up, after all. But the ridiculous turned first into embarrassment, and then miserable shame.
Court cases were filed against the artist. Violent protests, led by right-wing political activists, would mushroom every time his paintings were shown. There were numerous cases of serious vandalism, led by thugs believed to have political connections. The fear inspired by the anti-Husain brigade was so piercing that one gallery hid the fact that an upcoming exhibition included a portrait of his. It wasn’t even a painting by Husain. It was just a photograph of him.
Husain had his share of supporters, particularly in the art world, but outside, the detractors swarmed public opinion. People said Husain was courting controversy in the hope of staying relevant. None of them paid heed to the fact that he didn’t need religious sectarianism to stay in the news. If anything, the political ‘activists’ who led the charge against Husain were the ones riding on the coattails of his fame and reputation.
The Supreme Court would eventually dismiss the cases against Husain in 2011, but by that time, the damage had already been done. The eagerness with which Husain was maligned would make many in the Indian art arena less inclined to wave their aesthetic fists in the right-wing’s face. If Husain, with his charm, fame and media-savvy, couldn’t make himself be heard, then what chance did others have? Galleries couldn’t afford to have their premises vandalised. Artists couldn’t afford long-standing court cases. The Husain experience suggested that the well-behaved world of Indian art needed to add caution to its bag of tricks.
And yet, despite being studiously apolitical, Indian contemporary art has also been unwaveringly idealistic. It was born out the Progressives’ burning need to develop a distinctively modern and indigenous artistic identity. Since then, the art may be exhibited in cocoon-like galleries. It may be bought and sold by an elite that is frequently disconnected from average Indians. Still, within the private monologues and debates that characterize Indian contemporary art, our artists have also questioned social attitudes and criticized the establishment. Only they’ve done this subtly, with neither them nor their gallerists making any noise about the politics.
Sometimes the protests and idealism would be meshed in artistic imagery, like in the works of Navjot and Vivan Sundaram. Repeatedly, we’ve seen artists rally together to create collectives like Sahmat, Open Circle and KHOJ, which have offered insightful socio-political commentary. Sometimes the questions would be tangled in the dense but beautiful works made by the likes of CAMP and Desire Machine Collective. Performance artists like Inder Salim and Tejal Shah have long perplexed many with their strange and fantastic ways of exploring political issues. Recently, 400 artists signed a petition supporting the writers who returned their National Awards. Before you ask why they didn’t return anything, check how many Indian artists have been chosen for state honours. It’s a disappointingly tiny number.
Perhaps it is time for Indian artists and art to become less polite and more political. Perhaps it is time to abandon subtlety. But that’s only half the work done. If they voice their protests, will we hear them or the cacophony? If they create a work of political art, will we see their idealism or will we see only sacred cows?

Art: Noise Life by Desire Machine Collective

It’s been a while since I wrote about an art show and while writing a review of DMC’s Noise Life had me tearing my hair for a bit, I have missed writing about art.

The review was first published on Mumbai Boss. Here’s an excerpt:

Beyond the sonic force field created by the projection, the video and the floor installation (made of speakers), Noise Life has two objects: a table and a cabinet. The well-used and unremarkable table emits the rhythmic clicking of a typewriter at work. From the cabinet, you hear the high-pitched squeal of a dot matrix printer from time to time. They’re objects that make noises from another time; noises that don’t match the objects but are synonymous with the idea of creating a record. That’s when it strikes you that tables and cabinets like these have filled countless offices where people with varying degrees of power have decided which story — and whose — would be heard and which wouldn’t.

Noise Life is not a show that’s easily accessible and it takes pride in being difficult. This is, after all, an artist collective and exhibition inspired by the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, whose hard to pronounce surnames are the first indication of how impenetrable their writings are. Fortunately, you don’t have to have read Deleuze or understand terms like “schizoanalysis” to find Noise Life thought provoking. Ultimately, Noise Life is about stories — the ones that survive in memory and sensations, as well as those contained in files and archives.

Links: When Hari Got Married, The Strife of Love in A Dream

When Hari Got Married is a sweet little documentary about a taxi driver named Hari, who lives and works in Himachal Pradesh, and is about to get married:

It’s the stuff of a romantic comedy, made all the more poignant because it’s real. In Hari, a Pahadi taxi driver from Dharamsala, documentary filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam have a shuddh desi hero. He’s the little guy that you can’t help but warm up to because he’s just so utterly adorable. Pocket-sized and a motor-mouth, Hari chatters his way through When Hari Got Married. As he candidly talks about everything from the financial prospects of being a taxi driver to the caste system, it’s easy to imagine someone could fall in love with this man just because of his words. In their honesty, simplicity and wit lies a modern Indian man who may not be perfect, but whom you want to cheer for all the same.

The full review is here.

From Camille Henrot's The Strife of Love In A Dream
From Camille Henrot’s The Strife of Love In A Dream

Camille Henrot’s short film, The Strife of Love In A Dream, is a strange and fantastic work of art:

Despite the lack of verbal commentary, Henrot’s film beautifully articulates how the various systems capitalise upon people’s anxieties and offer solutions to fear, like the neatly-packaged pills of Atarax or the make-believe stories of vanquishing evil in art and films, as well as the ritual at Annamalai Hill (it culminates with a massive bonfire, which looks spectacularly awe-inspiring in Henrot’s film). Faith — whether in medication or divinity — gives the believer the strength to counter their fears even while making them hypersensitive to symbols of its pervasiveness. Like snake venom, it is both the poison as well as the antidote.

Read the whole piece here.

Links: Mannequins, Muslima and Mallika

What do a virtual art exhibition and real-life mannequins have in common? Prejudice arising from preconceived notions. What do those two and Mallika Sherawat have in common? Not much, in all honesty. But they all start with M and there’s some screwed up thinking surrounding all of them.   

First up, mannequins. It’s a bit odd to think this piece got me on the BBC World Service — albeit for a mere second or two — but hey, it’s “This is the BBC. And you’re listening to BBC World Service”. If anyone had told me when I heard the World Service on the radio as a kid that I’d be on it one day, I’d have told them to go find a Barbie to decapitate.

Out of concern for her fellow women, Tawade has suggested that mannequins wearing “two-piece clothes that barely cover the body” be banned from public display. It isn’t a total ban on dressing mannequins in lingerie. Inside a shop, they’re acceptable as marketing tools.

Outside, they could cause crimes against women. Tawade’s proposal is awaiting final clearance from BMC chief, Sitaram Kunte.

Tawade has wasted no time though. She has reportedly forced some shopkeepers in her ward in Ghatkopar to change their display. “One must think of the awkwardness a woman will feel standing in front of such a mannequin,” Tawade told Indian Express. She also believes seeing these scantily-clad mannequins are indecent and therefore are “likely to deprave, corrupt or injure the public morality or morals”. You’ve got to wonder how dumb she thinks Indian men are. Because if they’re confusing real women with the distinctly un-human mannequins, then they’re either idiots or suffering from serious psychological issues.

This is an oddly gender-specific problem because Tawade has said nothing about the effect of male mannequins that bare their chests wearing nothing but pants or swimming trunks or underwear. For instance, there’s that nude male mannequin that’s been perched on a balcony near Kemps Corner flyover for years. I’ve seen it hundreds of times and maybe I’m just not hormonal enough, but the sight of it has never led to a tsunami of lust in me. All men in the vicinity were as they usually are in my presence: safe from any advances.

From my column, the rest of which you can read here.

Then there’s this piece I wrote on Mallika Sherawat, in which I was decidedly pedantic. But well. 

By Lalla Essaydi.

Next, an interview with author and curator Samina Ali, who has curated Muslima, an evolving exhibition that is exclusively online and explores both the reality and the fiction involved in being a Muslim woman. Ali plans to keep adding pieces and contributions over the next few months, so keep visiting the website. You’ll find some fascinating work in there. Ali took the time to do a little interview about Muslima and her long-standing campaign to ensure Muslim women are not misrepresented.

Here’s the unedited interview:

DP: Would you tell me a little bit about your own journey?
SAMINA ALI: I’ve been working on Muslim women’s issues for over a decade. I began with writing my novel, Madras on Rainy Days, which won both U.S. and international literary prizes. It’s published around the world, including in India. Through this story, I wanted to show how Islam is misinterpreted by some Muslims and then misapplied to such a way that it limits women’s lives and contributions. There’s nothing in the faith itself that diminishes women — it’s power, politics, and sometimes a purposeful misapplication of Islamic law. I took that message to the streets when I cofounded Daughters of Hajar, a Muslim American feminist organization. Our first act was to walk into a mosque in Morgantown W. Virginia to protest the custom of asking women to enter mosques through back doors and to pray in back rooms. The group went on to organize the first woman-led prayer in NY. I’ve also been a Muslim ambassador for the State Dept. in Europe. All of this led to me curating this global exhibition on Muslim women.

DP: Have there been experiences that you have had that made you feel the need for Muslima?
SAMINA ALI: In post 9/11 society, Islamophobia remains one of the few acceptable prejudices. All to often, media, leaders, and communities project an image of Muslim women that is far from the truth. It’s a one-dimentional image that shows Muslim women as being weak, subjugated victims. That distorted, limiting image of Muslim women began soon after 9/11 and seems to have become cemented in people’s minds over the past decade. This exhibition is not only timely, it’s necessary to help reverse those stereotypes and create dialogue between different communities and peoples. At the same time, the exhibition doesn’t shy away from confronting the ways in which some Muslim-majority countries have implemented laws that directly limit women’s contributions. So the exhibition is speak to both communities.

DP: How did the idea of Muslima come about?
SAMINA ALI: This exhibition was inspired by the deeply entrenched fears and misunderstandings people have about Muslims generally, and women specifically. All too often, Muslim women are seen as weak, powerless, subjugated. And there are many misinterpretations about the veil and what it means to individual Muslim women to wear, or not wear, the veil.

We wanted to help reverse those stereotypes and the best way to do that seemed to be to present Muslim women speaking to the complex realities of their own lives-through interviews and art. In the process, they would help dispel stereotypes, curb Islamophobia and build understanding.

The International Museum of Women has always been a virtual museum and it’s a museum with a special focus on women’s issues. So this exhibition is a perfect fit. The beauty of a virtual exhibition means that anyone anywhere in the world has access, no matter language, location, culture, or economics. Someone in Mumbai can visit the online exhibition and become involved in the global dialgue as easily as someone sitting here in San Francisco where the museum is located.

DP: How do you respond to those who see a difference between a Muslim woman and a modern woman?
SAMINA ALI: I think anyone who doesn’t realize that a Muslim women is a modern woman needs to visit the exhibition and read the interviews I’ve conducted with leading women reformers from around the world. These women will challenge any last remaining ideas that anyone continues to believe: the constant media distortion that Muslim women are backward. Getting rid of these negative beliefs is the first step toward real understanding.

DP: Do you think Islamophobia is a global phenomenon? Do you find the prejudice against and misconceptions about Muslims in South Asia different from what you’ve experienced in North America?
SAMINA ALI: I was born in Hyderabad, India and I was half raised there. The tension between Hindus and Muslims is an unfortunate reality of India, with its communal riots. However, that tension has roots in India’s more recent history (since independence) and in India’s political environment that stirs up those religious tensions. Culturally, Muslims and Hindus are basically the same — we have the same 5-day long wedding, speak the same language, watch the same Bollywood movies. What’s happening in the U.S., where Muslims are immigrants to the country and where not much is known about Muslims and Islam, is very different.

DP: Muslima shows so many shades of opinion, from traditional to militant, but without succumbing to cliches. What did you look for in the works that you selected?
SAMINA ALI: I don’t think I would use the word “militant.” I don’t think any of our contributors can be described as such. I did make sure to show a diversity of voices and opinions as well as range of artistic expressions because that’s the reality of life. The Muslim community is diverse, just as the Indian community is diverse. There are so many languages and dialects in India, so many different sub-cultures and so many different ways to practice faith. My husband is from the north and his language is Punjabi. We don’t even share the same language but we’re both Indian. Like that, Muslims are so incredibly diverse. To eliminate that diversity does them a great disservice.

The reason the exhibition is called Muslima is because it’s open to everyone and that’s extremely important to me. I want to be as inclusive as possible in order to show the great diversity of Muslim women; their thoughts, attitudes, expressions, values and realities.

In the exhibition, we have voices from women who are deeply religious and those who are no longer practicing, women who cover and women who are comfortable in bikinis. We are even open to including voices from women who are not Muslim, like Helen Zughaib who speaks as a Christian about our commonalities. She’s a “muslima”. I’d love to include more like her. I’ve had a truly extraordinary experience bringing together leading women artists and reformers from around the world — from the first Muslim women to win to Nobel Peace Prize to the first American woman to translate the Qur’an into English.

DP: What was the brief that you set for yourself as a curator?
SAMINA ALI: I have been working on Muslim women’s issues for over a decade. My influence can be most clearly seen in the many interviews I’ve done for the exhibition with leading reformers from around the world: Dr Shirin Ebadi, the first Muslim woman to win a Nobel peace prize; Fahima Hashim, a leading women’s rights advocate in Sudan; Maria Bashir, the first female prosecutor general in Afghanistan; and I’ve just finished an interview with Fawzia Koofi, who will be running for president of Afghanistan in 2014.

All of these women are leading the movement toward justice, equality and women’s rights in their communities, systematically fighting the legal and political structures to promote lasting change. And all of them believe that this change should come about from within the Islamic framework, because Islam grants women rights that are then taken from them by politics, or power, or patriarchy, or tradition.

DP: How long did it take to put Muslima together?
SAMINA ALI: We began working on the exhibition two years ago, searching for funding. When funding came in, we began actively working on the exhibition last August. The exhibition launched in March 2013. It will remain live until the end of Dec. 2013. During this time, each day we will add new material to the exhibition. What you see today will be added to tomorrow, and so forth. Over the next few months, the exhibition will continue to grow wider, richer, deeper, and more complex. It’s exciting to have so many different voices, so many leading women on one platform.

DP: What would you like a viewer to take from the exhibition?
SAMINA ALI: I’d like everyone to be involved — no matter their faith! Come and visit. Join the dialogue. If you are an artist or writer whose work falls under one of our topics, please consider submitting your work. We just ended a global call for submission but will announce a second one in Sept. If you happen to be a Muslim woman, please submit a Muslima Story! We have incredibly diverse ones from around the world. And everyone please sign the pledge to end discrimination of women worldwide. Our Speak Up! Listen Up! campaign requires no money or commitment other than to pledge that you’ll support women worldwide who are helping to bring about a just, equitable world.

Wallpaper: On Reena Kallat’s ZegnArt installation at Bhau Daji Lad Museum

Photo: mine. Don't nick without giving credit, even if most of the credit goes to iPhone and Flickr's filters.
Photo: mine. Don’t nick without giving credit, even if most of the credit goes to iPhone and Flickr’s filters.

In the May issue of Wallpaper*, there’s a piece I’d written a while back about artist Reena Kallat and the installation that she’s put up at Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai.

This public art piece is actually commissioned by ZegnArt, which is the fashion brand Ermenegildo Zegna’s cultural activity arm. When I met Reena to talk about the work, she was in frantic mode. The installation was going to be rigged up on the facade of the museum in a couple of days, would they need cranes, what are the measurements, should we have noodles for lunch… the questions were endless. Somehow, in the midst of all that, Reena and I spent a few hours talking about work and art and life. To put the whole transcript here would mean a seriously massive post, so here are selected excerpts. I’ll put up the article once I’ve scanned it.

On Public, an international public art programme sponsored by ZegnArt.

ZEGNA’S PUBLIC will begin with working with one artist in India, one project in Turkey and one in Brazil. In each country, what they want to do is to help realise a work. It’s like an award instituted for each place. … What Zegna plans to do is partner with a local institution everywhere and in this case, they chose to work with Bhau Daji Lad Museum because of the contemporary art program. We don’t have another institution that’s doing an interesting program like this. But it’s also a city museum, it archives the artisanal and industrial past. That was my interest.

The fact that the museum itself had undergone a change of name, from being the Victoria and Albert Museum to the BDL, and that sort has its resonance in the city in terms of street names being changed from colonial names to indigenous names. I was interested at how else one could extend this, into looking at how streets reflect the imagination of the city, in what manner street names define the identity of the city, do street names mean anything to people, and so on.

On public art

I always find [public] art can be a real imposition. It’s used by all kinds of public and doesn’t really announce itself or asks for any consensual, it just comes and sits there. …

It’s also such a rare opportunity to work in public space [in India]. I’ve done larger pieces at say, the Kennedy Centre [the piece she made was a massive fallen pillar out of some 30,000 rubber stamps]. But these are opportunities that don’t come often being here [in India] and I think part of the artist’s thing is to be able to imagine, to think of this large canvas field which is difficult because you can’t be floating in a dream world when you know you can’t realise them. That’s what this project just allowed me to do.

On the piece she created for Public, which is a massive spider web made of huge rubber stamps.

This web is attached to the facade of Bhau Daji Lad Museum. If you go up to the rubber stamps dangling at eye level in the lower parts of the building, you’ll see there are street names written in English and Hindi. They’re all streets whose names have been changed because the original names were considered too colonial.

One was also looking at the city and its relationship to the museum and making a place in the city and how that relationship has changed. … The building itself is just so beautiful that I couldn’t think of anything else that would look like another decorative element on it.

The rubber stamp allows me to combine text and image and physicality. It has all the metaphorical underpinnings of being a bureaucratic apparatus, the idea of the meaninglessness of the bureaucratic which a lot of the names are, in that they have no real relationship to the city. Either they’re geographic or commemorative.

There’s a very close relationship with the museum because it has a lot of those colonial statues in their backyard, many of whose names the street names were based on. Those are there, you have the foundation stones that were laid to mark the city which was only the Fort area before the walls came down and the city expanded. So the whole vision of the city and what it meant comes together with the installation. And of course, the motif of the rubber stamp has other connotations. You know the web contains a sense of time, of space unused.

On art school and a sense of fraternity with other artists

We survived [JJ School of Art] because of our peers. The first couple of years, there’s the academic training. You learn something about figure study, face study, object drawing and so on. Because there’s a certain discipline, it’s not just about being handed over some wonderful secrets but the rigour of doing this every day, of trying to approach it in your own way every day. Not having an example to follow meant that you had to chart your own ways of doing it. Some of it helped, to the extent you weren’t swayed totally. But we were starved for visiting faculty, for practicing artists.

We had a military colonel who was good to me because I was a first class first student every year. I was very good about submitting all my assignments in time, doing all my work, doing it with sincerity. So they didn’t stop me from doing more than what was expected. There were others went against the grain, because they didn’t think they should suffer in this environment, including Jitish [Kallat]. We had clashes because of this. That’s how we met. We came from different views. I certainly saw his frustration at being in this environment that’s completely deadening and insular. So he did provocative things. He’d put up these posters, like one that said “I’m a potato because I have eyes.”

Today, all my contemporaries form this large campus. I am talking to them, responding to them, they inspire me. They could be in Delhi, Calcutta, wherever they are. The Indian art scene has really strengthened because of the interaction of artists being so strong and robust. I feel very connected to my contemporaries. Coming from artists I hugely admire, whether it was Nalini [Malani], Vivan [Sundaram], to Nilima [Sheikh] and Ghulam [Mohammad Sheikh], all of these stalwarts. Then Bhupen [Khakhar], Gieve [Patel] and coming down to Anita [Dube]; all the younger people, Sheela [Gowda], Bharti [Kher], Subodh [Gupta], everybody who’s in it. It’s not that you think of yourself as working in isolation. There’s no way that a creative moment is in isolation from everything else. It’s a byproduct of everything else.

On being ‘a mid-career artist’, which is was one of the qualifying criteria for ZegnArt’s Public

When I was being photographed, I was thinking of all my greys. Then I thought, “It’ll look more appropriate, I’m a mid-career artist.” Of course, I’ve been around about 15 years, more actually. If I have to think about my first public viewing, that was in 1994. I was in art school but we showed at NCPA. It was from work that was made at an artists’ workshop that Nalini Malani and Bhupen Khakhar were doing. It’ll be 20 years since then.

This idea of the young artist, even Atul [Dodiya] will be called a young artist and today he’s in his mid-50s, so he’s no longer that young. Or alternatively, someone will say “Oh those masters!” It’s ridiculous. You can’t be called a master. I have such an aversion to the ‘masters’ idea.

I find that you have much less pressure because you’re in a position to choose. It’s not that you’re doing it under compulsion of earning your bread and butter. You’re past that stage. I don’t see what you’re gaining when you lose your reputation.

Links: Funny terror, art and homelands, The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Here beginneth Part Two of Updates.

1. Review of Anees Salim’s new novel,  Vanity Bagh

This book is a really wonderful read. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s sharp and it will hold your attention till the very end.

Without getting on a soapbox, Salim observes how violence becomes normal and an accepted part of our street culture. The novel also looks at youth unemployment and the difficulty of finding your place within the adult world of jobs and expectations. All of these come together to create the world of Vanity Bagh, which is terrifying and yet hilarious because Salim doesn’t deliver any lectures and his narrator’s one aim in life is to keep himself amused.

You wouldn’t expect a novel about home-grown terror, in which a prisoner seems to be losing his hold on reality, to be fun, but Salim manages this feat because Imran is a delightful narrator.

Like many literary losers, he’s endearing and thanks to his descriptions, Vanity Bagh emerges as home to a set of delightful, oddball characters. If there is a weakness to Imran being the storyteller, then it is that everyone but Imran seems a little absurd because that’s how he sees the world around him. It may teeter towards uni-dimensional, but Imran’s worldview is just too much fun for this to be a serious complaint.

You really should get this book. The complete review is here.

2. Review of Homelands, a travelling art exhibition that is currently on display in Mumbai and will be moving to Bengaluru in June.

I wrote this when there was some angry chatter about the World Values Survey, which came to the conclusion that Indians are among the world’s most racist people. Because there’s really nothing like good art to offer a sense of perspective. Steven Soderbergh is so on the money when he says art is elegant problem solving.

Almost every work in Homelands makes the viewer think about what inspires a sense of belonging to a space, a set of rituals or even an idea. There is a drawing by Jimmie Durham that perhaps the economists of World Values Survey would find particularly interesting. It’s titled Our House and chances are, most 4-year-olds you know would do a neater job of drawing a house. But the point of Durham’s drawing isn’t to get a gold star from teacher. It’s a critique of urban life that Durham feels alienates and embeds distrust in citizens.

Our House shows a dark mess of black scribbles, a vertical line and a small, neat roofed building. Under the little building, it says “our house”. The vertical line has “high fence” written under it. Under the black mess, Durham has written “the neighbours”. Of course, this isn’t how anyone wants their street to look ideally. Durham’s scribbly drawing, in which “the neighbours” loom and “our house” is tiny, is a reminder of how alone so many of us feel, how threatened by nothing in particular and everything in general. No wonder then, that in an ideal world, a large percentage of the people who have a history (and a present) of being discriminated against, want less difference and more sameness in their neighbours.

Our House by Jimmie Durham

See the entire review here and if you can, do go see the show. It’s well worth a wander.

3. Review of The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

In a sentence: Riz Ahmed is excellent, but the film’s a drag. In more than one sentence:

Those who have read The Reluctant Fundamentalist may be wondering whether Nair read the same book they did. The novel is a conversation between Changez and a mysterious stranger who may be Changez’s enemy or protector. Presumably in an effort to be dramatic, when Hamid wrote the “screen story” with Ami Boghani, they decided to add elements like the kidnapping, a CIA surveillance unit and a hash-loving American reporter. Perhaps they felt that the meandering conversation that made the novel intriguing would seem too directionless in a film. It has an unfortunate side effect: whereas the novel was all about Changez’s perspective, the film is an American perspective – we’re shown Changez, Pakistan and all the events of the story from the American journalist’s point of view. You’ve got to wonder whether we needed a South Asian director to show us this worldview when Hollywood is out there.

Read the whole thing here.

Links: Films, booze, books, art and caste

‘Tis the time to update. Here’s what I’ve been up to for the past few weeks.

1. A long interview with S. Anand, founder of Navayana publishing. The first part is all about publishing and among other things, he makes the rather pertinent point that books are not FMCG products so expecting to churn out the same kind of profits is absurd. In part two, he really sinks his teeth into the privileged Hindu. If you haven’t heard of Navayana, click here. Conservative Hindus who believe the caste system is a wonderful thing, Navayana’s books are not going to be your cup of tea (to put it mildly).

2. A combined review of Amitabh Kumar and Dhruv Malhotra’s shows. Malhotra’s photographs of Delhi are unexpectedly gorgeous. Unexpected because he doesn’t photograph the obviously pretty parts of the national capital, but his photographs are still beautiful. Maybe it’s just the fact that we’re entirely unused to seeing our cities without crowds, but Malhotra makes ugly cityscapes look mysterious and poetic.

3. I reviewed Shootout at Wadala. I’m going to put up the notes I took while watching the film in a separate post, but the review is here.

4. When The Telegraph carried a report that Andhra Pradesh had decided its women will not be served alcohol after 10pm (men, on the other hand, can hang around and drink themselves silly till 11pm), I naturally had to blow some steam. So that’s here. As you can see from the headline, the authorities have said no such notice has been issued.

Here’s the truly joyous takeaway from the posts I wrote on Saturday. Everyone thinks Bollywood is what is guaranteed to click with Indian readers. Turns out, booze gets our attention more than Bollywood.


As always, the comments warm the cockles of my heart. Current favourite is by one Karthik, in the thread for the Andhra-booze-ban-that-isn’t-a-ban:

A women only could write this article. They have a problem with everything, always cribbing about gender equality but are the first to demand special right and privileges for women. Hippocrates all of them.