The Big Bong Theory: Homo Disappointus

This was published in today’s DNA. Warning: Contains generalisations, exaggeration and humour. Read at your own risk. Feel free to roar in the comments, but don’t expect replies.

The Tragedy of the Homo Disappointus

Screen Shot 2013-01-19 at 11.57.15 AM
Illustration by Ravi Jadhav, DNA.

There are many questions that I have pondered for years. For some, like “How is maths useful in everyday life?”, I’ve eventually found answers. (Ans: It isn’t.) A few remain. Like, why aren’t all Indian women lesbians? OK, so for centuries, we haven’t really had a choice, courtesy the charming social system of patriarchy that strives to make oppression as normal a practice as eating breakfast. Homophobic men ruling the roost in public arenas and private spaces for generations haven’t helped. But have we been held hostage by patriarchy for so long that we don’t realise that frequently, it’s just ridiculous that we choose an Indian man as a partner? Is this just a variation of the Stockholm syndrome?

Note, I didn’t say all men, but Indian men. The fact of the matter is that, broadly speaking, if we consider the criteria usually applied during the process of mate selection, the scientific name for the Indian male should be homo disappointus. It is true that our genetic mix occasionally throws up a few specimens that are easy on the eye, but let’s face it — most Indian men are not precisely eye-candy.

The aesthetics of beauty may vary, but the chances of the average Indian man’s looks making a woman’s hormones swirl with longing are slim. Add to that the near-complete absence of grooming — gentlemen, deodorants are your friend. And no, deodorant and aftershave are not the same thing. The first prevents sweaty odour; the other, when applied too liberally, can asphyxiate those around you — and it’s a miracle most heterosexual Indian men get laid.

Internationally, there are men who are considered relationship-worthy because they’re handy to have around. When you need the bed moved, the wiring fixed, the painting hung, the suitcase carried, the roadside lecher punched, these men with their muscles appear like mythical heroes. This breed is yet to be spotted in India. At best, an Indian gent may have the phone number of a carpenter or electrician. Actually lifting a finger, particularly around the house, is against his dharma (unless it’s to beat up his wife, molest the maid and/or threaten a woman in the household).

The most disappointing quality of the Indian male, however, is his conviction that he has all the answers. Mr India knows it all and every conversation must end with Mr India establishing himself as the top dog. If he hasn’t heard of something, it doesn’t exist. If he isn’t convinced by an argument, then it’s rubbish. It’s as though every Indian man harbours the vague delusion that deep inside, he’s the hero in a Rajinikanth film. So mind it, express your admiration and agreement with whatever he says. Now.

This know-it-all-ness is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the efforts to chip away at the misogyny that is so deeply-entrenched in Indian society. It’s shown up repeatedly during the recent debates on the topic of violence against women. Some refuse to believe the alarming statistics, others point out that statistics are unreliable, and most would prefer to point the finger at anyone but their own brethren.

The problem is always caused by someone else and therefore not the average Indian man’s headache. For male Mumbaikars, it’s a Delhi or north Indian problem. For those who belong to a privileged demographic, it’s the result of lower middle class mindset. Then there are the conservatives who feel “Bharat” doesn’t have such problems and violence against women is an urban affair. There’s always an “other” upon whom the blame can be pinned so that our attention shifts from the real issue — women are being raped, molested and traumatised. Is it an Indian problem? No. But is it a problem in India? Yes, and the average male behaviour makes it worse.

There are bad guys everywhere in the world, but ours lurk within and among the good guys. Which means, as a woman, depending upon a man usually means setting oneself up for disappointment. Some of us resign ourselves to this. Others argue and rant about it, hoping this will make at least some of the homo disappointus evolve. Gentlemen, it’s your move.

Big Bong Theory: Abir Karmakar and Hemali Bhuta

Quite frankly, I haven’t felt so uninspired to write in ages. But a columnist has to do what a columnist has to do. So here’s the rambly version of the Big Bong Theory column that was published in today’s DNA. To see images from Hemali Bhuta’s show, see Project 88.

Reality Bites Into Contemporary Art

Artists, it is believed, have their heads in clouds. Steeped in a personal universe of influences and ideas, the artist’s world draws from our reality sometimes, but as far as popular belief goes, artists live on their own planet. And if contemporary art is any indication, what comes from that planet is weird and rarely related to what we recognise as reality. Sometimes they’re fanciful and even when they relate to everyday events or objects, it’s usually believed art transforms them and so creates a distance between the source material and the creative work. I’m not so sure about this. Of course there are artists whose work acts like a retreat from reality, and they’re often a sight for sore eyes. But more often than not, I find art (and contemporary art, in particular) isn’t divorced from the world in which it is shown. It just falls upon the viewer to weave the spiderweb that connects what’s in the gallery to what’s going in and around us.

Take Hemali Bhuta’s Point-Shift and Quoted Objects, for instance. If you thought the title was strange, imagine walking into the art gallery Project 88 in Mumbai and seeing what looks like a massive slab of concrete (titled “Folded Line”). The exhibition has made the gallery look vaguely like an incomplete construction site. But everything is an illusion in Bhuta’s new show. “Folded Line” isn’t a sculpture made of concrete. It’s made of alum, the humble water purifier of many a household.

The strange, minimalist works in Bhuta’s new show have their beginnings in a simple feeling: homesickness. Bhuta has spent much of the past three years travelling and, as the note accompanying her show informs us, during this time, she yearned “for the simplicities of domestic life in India”. This was her inspiration – memories of home, the space created and nurtured by women.

Femininity is a volatile idea in India right now. So many of us are outraged and disgusted by the crimes inflicted upon women. Attacks like the one that has left a Delhi medical student in ICU make us as a country feel weak, fragile and helpless. These horrible incidents taunt us and raise the question of what it means to be a woman in India today. Are we vulnerable, as the cases of rape and sexual harassment suggest? Or are we resilient, as the age-old stories of womanly fortitude and suffering preach?

Bhuta’s art shows this old conundrum in a modern light. All the objects that look solid are actually riddled with pressure points. The sculpture that looks like a lance and stretches martially across a wall is actually made of beeswax. The works that look like architectural supports could actually snap easily. The massive triangular sculptural installation looks like a monolith but is actually made of 12 pieces of plaster of paris. The column, made of graphite, has a gash in the middle, making its strength look dubious.

Look carefully at Bhuta’s show and nothing is what it seems. Every single artwork in Point-Shift and Quoted Objects is delicate, prone to crumbling. If as a buyer you ask the gallery what the longevity of these works should be — one of the reasons oil paintings are valued so highly is that they’re known to last for centuries — there’s no answer. That’s how novel the territory of Bhuta’s art is. There is no precedence for these works so no one can prophesy how long Point-Shift and Quoted Objects will last. They’re like today’s feminism — it’s up to the men and women of this generation to decide how resilient or fragile it will be.

Vulnerability appears much more obviously in Abir Karmakar’s new exhibition, Room, Interrupted in Passage. This new set of works is a departure from Karmakar’s established style in many ways. The paintings are small, which is a dramatic change from Karmakar’s older paintings which spread across walls like portals into sensual but unsettling worlds. This time, however, Karmakar has chosen to paint vignettes. The series is titled “Porno Paintings” and if you’ve seen Karmakar’s earlier work, you’ll expect to see Karmakar striking suggestive poses in the paintings. But “Porno Paintings” have no people in them; they’re just haunted by human presences whose imprint can be seen in crushed bed sheets, television sets that haven’t been switched off and windows that have been left half-open. Emptied of people, they seem unnatural. They’re vaguely reminiscent of crime scenes and also of the hotel rooms that Karmakar had shown in the show titled Within the Walls. It too had hotel rooms, but they had Karmakar in them. Naked and long-haired, Karmakar offered himself to the viewer, sometimes shyly and at other times, brazenly. In one painting, he lay curled at the foot of a sofa, as though rejected. To see hotel rooms again, but this time with no Karmakar, you can’t help but feel anxious as you remember how the man had offered himself so boldly in the older paintings. Also, don’t forget the title of the exhibition – Room, Interrupted in Passage. What was interrupted and what was the interruption that emptied the rooms of inhabitants?

Room, Interrupted in Passage is also uncharacteristic because Karmakar has not appeared in the show. There are figures in the show, but they are other people who have been chosen as models and actors. You may think that “Shadows of Distressing Dreams” shows images of Karmakar lying in bed, but there are actually four men and one women who have no connection to Karmakar beyond this work. This work and “A Long Whisper” are unusual for another reason: they’re not paintings. For most of us, it’s the first time we’re seeing Karmakar try his hand at installations.

“Shadows of Distressing Dreams” shows layered moving images projected on a white background that hangs like a laundered bed sheet on a washing line (look and you’ll notice clothespins have been used to hang the work). Karmakar set up cameras to film how four people slept. They’re all nude and Karmakar has used different transparencies to create a shifting, writhing set of images that show these people at their most vulnerable. Their sleep is fitful and they have no idea of how they’re exposing themselves – often literally – and so rendering themselves vulnerable. Watching the people and their fitful sleep, you wonder about their dreams and innocuous actions become suspect – what are they seeing that makes them twitch, cup their genitalia, clench their fists? The men come across as particularly vulnerable as they play with their genitalia like sleeping babies.

As you watch the sleeping male figures, it seems almost ludicrous that people like the ones you’re watching – helpless, unthreatening, exposed – can be tormentors when they’re awake.

Masculinity has been a disturbing and complicated terrain for Karmakar. Being a man and the baggage that comes with it has long troubled the figures in Karmakar’s art. His vision of masculinity is starkly different from the aggressive brutality that characterises the stereotypical Indian man, particularly like the ones who have been accused of gang-raping a woman on a moving bus in Delhi.

Here’s how current affairs makes art relevant and more poignant. Karmakar’s “A long whisper” shows a shadow of a male figure projected on a flimsy, gauzy curtain. The curtain hangs from a doorway and if you look down, you’ll see the base of the arch has the mosaic that is often seen as flooring in middle-class homes. The projection shows a tentative figure that hovers like a nervous wraith. All you see on the curtain is the outline of the male figure that becomes darker and sharper in its silhouette, as though the person has come closer and closer, until they’re on the other side; waiting. Despite the fact that Karmakar probably didn’t intend this, the shadowy man in “A Long Whisper” looks like a voyeur, peering through the curtain, watching the women on the other side of the purdah.

Meanwhile, Bhuta’s sculptures  perfectly-straight lines look terribly prone to breaking the moment you know how fragile the raw material is and I, for one, can’t help looking at the hollow, broken works like the pillar made of graphite — touch it, and it will stain your hand like black blood — and remember the woman who is fighting for her life in a hospital in Delhi. Say a prayer and let’s hope next year, the life reflected in art is more hopeful.

Big Bong Theory: Ranjani Shettar’s High Tide For A Blue Moon

Ranjani Shettar’s sculptures are fantastical, beautiful stuff and her show at Bhau Daji Lad Museum (on till February 19th) is one of the loveliest you’ll see in a while. Considering how baroque the whole place is, you may think that pretty much anything will look good inside Bhau Daji Lad. I seriously doubt it. Aside from the fact that I have seen shows that haven’t looked spectacular in there, it’s also not easy for contemporary art to hold its own in the middle of all that gilted glory. But when artists are able to use the space, it works spectacularly, as it did in the case of Ranjani Shettar’s High Tide For A Blue Moon. My only grouse with the Museum is its policy of not allowing photography. But thanks to the help of a few kids, given due credit in column below, I have one smuggled photo. The images in this post are courtesy Bhau Daji Lad Museum.
This column was published in today’s DNA.

Ranjani Shettar at Bhau Daji Lad

There was a queue outside Bhau Daji Lad Museum and it snaked all the way out of the grand doorway, down the steps and halfway to the main gate. That wasn’t the worst of it. It was a queue of about 100 schoolkids — adorable munchkins in uniform with a formidable capacity for cacophony. As I waited for the line of children to snake its way into the museum, I overheard animated chirrups about tiffin, pranks and something about ice cream. This, I realised, was going to be my soundtrack as I saw Ranjani Shettar’s exhibition titled High Tide For a Blue Moon at Bhau Daji Lad Museum. Shettar has never shown in Mumbai before, but her sculptural installations have charmed critics and connoisseurs all over the world. They’re both strange and poetic, touching delicately upon myriad references and traditions. Friends who have seen Shettar’s sculptures describe her work as meditative. I imagined myself meditating on art while surrounded by 100, energised-by-lunch kids. I groaned, grit my teeth and walked in.
As it turns out, I, like most adults, underestimated the children. They raced in and chattered while peering into the different permanent museum exhibits while I walked around the curious, skeletal  form of the work titled “High Tide For A Blue Moon”. The sculpture is made from wood from a coffee plant that has been coated with automobile paint with a metallic glint. My reverie about the way Shettar uses simple material to complicate our understanding of the organic, the fantastical and the man-made; about how the urbane and nature were fused into one, was soon interrupted.
“My brother’s bike is made of this stuff,” said a voice from somewhere around my hip.
“No, it isn’t,” disagreed another voice from the same height above sea level.
“Yes, it is. It’s the same colour as his bike.”
“Stupid, it’s made of wood. See?”
Voice number two was clearly more perceptive and reading the note with details of “High Tide…” stuck near the sculpture. While the two of them struggled to read the word “automobile”, I scurried to the first floor, where Shettar’s exhibition continued.
Bhau Daji Lad Museum has three spacious, high-ceilinged rooms on the first floor that are contemporary art’s domain. Walk into the rooms and you will catch your breath. You could begin with “Lagoon”, which is a tumbling installation made of laquered wooden beads in shades of aqua and purple, and move into the middle room where “Tunes For A Winter Morning” and “Heliotropes” seem to grow out of the museum’s walls. “Tunes…” is white and looks fragile enough to snap even though it’s made of metal wires wrapped in muslin. In “Heliotropes”, made when Shetter was recovering from a surgery, vulcanised latex snakes around in a fleshy tangle that is the colour of clotted blood.
Then there’s Shettar’s magical sculpture “Scent of a Sound”, which turns a non-descript, white-walled room into something out of a dream. Metal wrapped with muslin create immense but delicate works that are shaped like leaves, flowers and buds. They float in the room. Wispy shadows dance on the walls. It’s like entering fairyland. Any moment now, I thought, Puck would peek out from one of the floating sculptures.
“Wow! So beautiful!” someone whispered.
I turned around. There were a clutch of kids, all wide-eyed and transfixed by the sight of Shettar’s gorgeous work.
“What’s it made of?” one child asked me.
I told him Shettar wrapped muslin around wires, stretched them into shape and then put tamarind-kernel powder paste on the cloth to harden the material. Laquer added the gloss that gave the flowery piece its pearly gleam.
“Wow!” he said.
I nodded. All of us just stood and stared.
I took out my phone to take a photo. One of the museum’s security guards growled and told me photos are not allowed. A little disappointed, I sighed. Suddenly, there was some chittering. A few of the children huddled around the guard and started asking him something. He looked frazzled and looked around for a teacher, some assistance, anything that would stop the chittering. The little boy who had been as wowed as me caught my eye, winked and gestured to me to take my photo. I grinned and clicked.