Art: Amrita Sher-Gil and Lionel Wendt

My review of In Dialogue: Amrita Sher-Gil and Lionel Wendt is up at Mumbai Boss. 

Untitled (Torso of a Sinhalese fisherman), by Lionel Wendt
Untitled (Torso of a Sinhalese fisherman), by Lionel Wendt

We can debate how realistic these artists’ visions were and the potentially uncomfortable politics embedded in the work of two people rooted in privilege who moulded their subjects to embody a certain worldview, but that would be missing the most powerful aspect of Sher-Gil and Wendt’s art: their determination to find beauty in themselves and the world around them.

It’s in the fragments of Sher-Gil’s self-portraits that the difference between Wendt’s and her gaze becomes evident. Both used their art to work out issues of identity. Wendt’s homosexuality was an open secret in his circle and this is evident in his photographs. He clothed his subjects with a distinct sexuality, highlighting their desirability and his gaze placed his models in a limbo between being a human subject and a sexual object. Sher-Gil’s gaze, on the other hand, was more inward as she tried to establish an empathetic connection between the viewer and those whose portraits she was painting. Had In Dialogue included Sher-Gil’s nudes — of herself and other women — there could have been a fascinating comparison of how sexuality and the human body was depicted by these two artists. Unfortunately, the selection in In Dialogue doesn’t allow for that conversation. It does, however, hint at it with a sketch and self-portrait that Sher-Gil made of herself.


Links: Percy Jackson and Krishna

peacock-feather-on-whiteTwo pieces on two heroes who are the stuff of legends. One was entirely ignored, the other got me all sorts of love and hate.

Review of Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters:

Although Thor Freudenthal has a name that seems like a match made in heaven for a director of a film that blends myths with pop fiction, his storytelling isn’t anywhere as clever as Riordan’s writing. The dialogues aren’t as zippy, the locations don’t feel as smartly-imagined and the build-up isn’t well-paced. Most of the film meanders, bogged down as it is by bad acting. Then suddenly, it’s time for a climax and neither the audience nor the actors feel prepared for it. It doesn’t help that Camp Half-Blood seems remarkably like a Survivor for models – godspawn look good and are about as memorable as the interchangeable faces on billboards. Logan Lerman and Alexandra Daddario as Percy and Annabeth lack charisma, though Lerman looks a little less out of place than he did in the first Percy Jackson film. There are a couple of stars in the cast as Greek gods in Sea of Monsters. Stanley Tucci, as Dionysus in rehab, makes more of an impression in two scenes than Daddario’s Annabeth manages despite being in almost every frame. Nathan Fillion is charming as Hermes and you can’t help wishing he had more than a cameo.

The full review is here.

And a piece I wrote on the Hindu god, Krishna:

Today, if a boy grew up with thousands of female companions, we’d probably think he’s weird or gay. Krishna, however, is depicted as neither. He has his male friends, but (smartly) seems to prefer the company of women. Not just that, while traditionally the male companions establish a human as divine — Ram had Hanuman; Jesus had his apostles; Muhammad had the men who would become the first caliphs — in Krishna’s case, it isn’t Sudama who completes him, but Radha.

… Krishna’s veneration of Radha flouts a variety of conventions — she’s another man’s wife, she’s older, she orders him around — but remains enshrined in Vaishnav mantras and practices even today. Yes, she thinks he’s divine, but he quite cheerfully worships her too, to the extent of drinking her charanamrit (the water in which her feet were washed), supposedly to cure a headache.

Even after he grows up and leaves Vrindavan, one of the constants in Krishna is his fondness for strong women. This is amply evident in how he and Rukmini elope. He’s quite happy to be depicted as the man who is effectively kidnapped by the woman, rather than the alpha male who rescues the princess. Despite all the attempts to assert and reassert Krishna’s divine status in the narration, it is the worship-worthy Rukmini who is the mastermind behind the elopement.

And then there’s Krishna’s special relationship with Draupadi, mythical evidence that a man and woman can be friends after all. It’s quite obvious from the Kaurava taunts in different episodes of Mahabharata that the unusual situation of Draupadi being wife to five husbands did nothing for her respectability. This didn’t stop Krishna from favouring her. When Dusshasana attempts to rape Draupadi, her husbands are silent and still. To them, she is a possession who has been lost in a game and since they don’t own her, there is nothing they can do when she is being manhandled. It’s Krishna — a man who has no claim upon Draupadi and technically, no responsibility towards her — who protects her dignity with that unending supply of sari. In this poetic description of a miracle lies a man’s ability to see a woman as a human being rather than an object or possession; as a person who isn’t sullied by what is inflicted upon her. Afterwards, in stark contrast to how we react even today, Krishna doesn’t blame Draupadi. The fault lies with the men — the Kauravas for thinking of and attempting rape; the Pandavas for witnessing it without a protest.

If only some of Krishna’s contrariness had made an impression upon Hindu society, instead of his boyhood love for fatty milk products.

You can read the whole thing here.

Links: Jobs and The Competent Authority

Yes, it's true. Deep inside me is a kimono-wearing, grey-coated Red Panda.
Yes, it’s true. Deep inside me is a kimono-wearing, grey-coated Red Panda.

One bad film and an excellent book, because what is life without balance? (she said and struck her best Shifu pose.)

On Jobs:

So imagine the disappointment of watching Jobs and realising a film about Steve Jobs doesn’t really bother with aesthetics, logic or storytelling. The music is forgettable, the cinematography is unimaginative and there are no insights into what made Jobs one of the most influential men of our times. Beginning with the unveiling of the iPod, rewinding to the 1970s when Jobs was a drug-addled college dropout and waffling on till the 1990s, when he reclaimed Apple after being forced out of the company by the board, Jobs takes a fascinating life and turns it bland and uninspiring.

You can read the whole review here.

On The Competent Authority, which is a superb satire of present-day India even though the novel is set in the near future:

Ultimately, The Competent Authority is a mischievous and insightful meditation upon the nature and effects of power. At its heart is a comparison between two people — a bureaucrat and a little boy — who become immensely powerful without warning or reason. What do you do with that power? How do you do good? How do you ensure that you know good from complete insanity? One could argue that only a Bengali author would point to teachers as the solution to India’s problems and cast a no-nonsense Bengali woman as the one who prevents absolute power from corrupting absolutely. (In real life, most of India’s experiences with stern women, Bengali and otherwise, in positions of power has been far from heartening.) But hey, it’s fiction. Chowdhury mines the depressing events of the past decades for brilliant fun and for all that’s wrong with its world, The Competent Authority leaves the reader with a sense of hope for Pintoo and our futures.

The full review is here.

Review: Em and the Big Hoom

Their books page isn’t officially my domain until June, but I’ve extended a tentacle in its direction this week. Voila, the first piece I’ve written for DNA’s The Mag.


I can’t seem to find the link on the site or open the e-paper at the moment. When I have luck with either one of these ventures, I’ll update this post. More likely, I’ll put up the text of the review here tomorrow.

UPDATE: Found the e-paper link.

UPDATE: Thanks to Yayaati Joshi for the proper link to the review. I must admit, the e-paper is much better looking (one day, some day, an Indian newspaper will have a clean, easy-on-the-eye design template that will allow for ads in a way that the visitor doesn’t feel like they’ve been momentarily plunged into A Clockwork Orange). So here’s the text of my review of Em and the Big Hoom:

Em And The Big Hoom
Author: Jerry Pinto
Publisher: Aleph
Pages: 235
Price: Rs495

In the old myths, even the bravest of brave men cower before the mad woman. Greek mythology had maenads, raving women who tore animals to pieces and devoured their raw flesh. They have a habit of killing men. For example, maenads ripped the Greek bard Orpheus to shreds, leaving only his head and lyre intact. In Hindu mythology, there’s Kali who is virtually unstoppable when she goes on her furious rampage. The only one who can make her pause is Shiva, and that too by lying prostrate at Kali’s feet. He doesn’t get into a confrontation with her. He doesn’t try to tame her. He simply, calmly, presents himself as a bulwark against Kali’s madness. In a sense, Shiva is the Big Hoom to Kali’s Em.

Em And The Big Hoom is the latest addition to a long-standing tradition of storytelling: the tale of the mad woman. Her past activities in the canon of English literature have included burning the house down (Jane Eyre), floating not-so-merrily down a stream (Hamlet) and getting into a staring contest with the wallpaper (‘The Yellow Wallpaper’). Em, in comparison, is almost domestic. She smokes beedis, keeps her family on their toes, sears her son’s mind and regularly tries to kill herself.

Jerry Pinto’s first novel is about one woman’s madness, and how it is an acidic glue that scars her family, but also holds it together. It begins with Em in a psychiatric ward, recovering from a failed suicide attempt, but the Mendes family’s story begins like a sweet romantic comedy of 1970s’ Bollywood. Imelda and Augustine meet in an office. He courts her. They get married and have two children, a daughter named Susan and a son, the narrator of the novel. Then, after the birth of her son, Em discovers depression.

It’s as though “someone turned on a tap,” says Em to her son. “At first, it was only a drip, a black drip, and I felt it as sadness. … It’s like oil. Like molasses, slow at first. Then one morning I woke up and it was flowing free and fast. I thought I would drown in it.” Em reacted by throwing herself in front of a bus. It was the first of many attempts to kill herself. They would all be violent, desperate and shocking because the Em that emerges from her son’s storytelling is — despite her death wish — as full of life as a Mumbai local during rush hour. She writes, she reminisces, she dreams, she embarrasses her children, she laughs, she smokes beedis; and yet, simmering inside her is a terrible, corrosive madness. That’s what makes her hear messages from the fan, eat Iodex, slump into nightmarish depression and slice her wrists.

Pinto has made no secret of the fact that Em And The Big Hoom is based on his own life with his mother, Imelda Philomena Perpetua Pinto, nee Tellis (or Meem, as he calls her in the dedication). The autobiographical twist is a recurrent feature in stories starring mad women. Sylvia Plath wrote about her own experiences in The Bell Jar. Charlotte Bronte is believed to have based her depiction of Bertha Rochester on her alcoholic, depressive brother Branwell who had to be confined in a room because he was considered dangerous. Knowing that the fiction is based on real life often makes a story more poignant. It draws the reader in and makes the slippery, unpredictable twists more credible. Perhaps the act of trying to extract fiction from reality is also enabling for the writer. Pinto says he spent decades trying to write this book and it is peppered with powerfully-evocative passages like this one that suggest it was time well spent: “Madness is enough. It is complete, sufficient unto itself. You can only stand outside it, as a woman might stand outside a prison in which her lover is locked up. From time to time, a well-loved face will peer out and love floods back. A scrap of cloth flutters and it becomes a sign and a code and a message and all that you want it to be. Then it vanishes, and you are outside the dark tower again.”

Although it’s hard to believe anyone could reduce Pinto to exclamations the way Em does, those who have heard Pinto speak will have no trouble imagining him as the raconteur, telling the story of Em And The Big Hoom to a rapt audience; a bit like Em on the balcony of the Mendes’s Mahim flat. For all the pain and despair in Em’s life, there’s an effervescence in the Mendes. They don’t lose sight of the moments of absurdity that make a situation bizarre or amusing. They don’t miss the opportunity to crack a joke. It makes moments like the one in which Susan and the narrator see scarring on Em’s head and realise she was given electric shocks that much darker and more painful.

Pinto’s prose quicksilvers its way through time and emotions, slipping in wit and pulling out despair elegantly. The novel is neatly structured, punctuated by little detours that help flesh out the plot and its players, and holds the reader’s attention. As Em wrestles with her madness, her son pieces together their family’s story. It has a cast of delightful characters, like Em’s mother who speaks a language of incomplete sentences and communicative gestures. How can you not be charmed by a character who, when meeting her prospective son in-law, says, “What’s your this-thing?” and expects to be understood? Or resist that feeling of warm fuzziness while reading about the Big Hoom’s engagement ring. “I liked it,” he tells her when she points out it’s an ugly ring. “It came from you,” he explains.

As Pinto writes about The Big Hoom, whose story “has the mythic resonance of India in it”, and Em as a working girl who would give all her salary to her parents, an evocative collage comes together of a Goan family putting its roots down in Mumbai and striving to be more than “the ABC professions” — ayahs, butlers, cooks. It’s rich with detail — like how Em would put chocolate wrappers in books as remembrance of the candy she’d eaten — and they serve to make Em And The Big Hoom read like a love letter to a past that has slipped out of reach and yet is too close to the present to be historical.

Every one of Pinto’s characters feels alive and real. You can almost hear Pinto’s characters chattering away as you read Em And The Big Hoom. The loudest and most riveting of them is Em, the mad woman of Mahim.

Em And The Big Hoom is also a superbly-produced book and Aleph Book Company deserves applause for putting so much effort into the book’s design. From the cover, to the creeping illustrations at the start of each chapter, the pages whose edges are indigo-stained and story on them, the book is a beautiful read.


Review: Gyan Panchal

This was published in Frieze Magazine. 

The photographs of the works that I’m putting up over here are mine. They’re all details of the works, which you can see in their entirety if you click on the link above or head over to the website for Amrita Jhaveri Projects.

Gyan Panchal

A wide, white wall confronted visitors to Gyan Panchal’s exhibition at Amrita Jhaveri Projects. On its pristine surface were two pieces of granite – one slender and grey, the other curved, and the colour of dried blood (prai, all works 2012). Panchal chose Proto-Indo-European words as titles for his work, but was adamant no translations be offered. He wanted viewers to appreciate and respond to the sculptural installations without the help of context or associations.

Cicami (detail), by Gyan Panchal

However, if you look up your handy Proto-Indo-European dictionary, you’ll discover that ‘prai’ translates as ‘before’, and Mrmrajo – sheets of sea-green recycled plastic that were pinned to the wall and fluttered delicately – as ‘murmur’. Other titles in the show included cicami (go away), and wedhneumi (link or relation). Panchal, who has Franco-Indian parentage, chose words from a language that is the root of the two linguistic traditions (Latin-derived French and Sanskrit-derived Gujarati) that he inherited. What emerged from his titles is a sense of shifting distances, as though one had to come close and then step away from the material and the work to truly see it.

Mrmrajo (detail), by Gyan Panchal

Paris-based sculptor Panchal’s first solo show in India was created from objects he chanced upon in Mumbai. In the past, he has transformed throwaway materials such as Styrofoam into sculptural pieces that barely betray their humble origins. His interventions are usually subtle. Panchal prefers to reveal what he sees as the essence or potential of the raw material he uses. The process of creating a work is more akin to an excavation than actual sculpting.

For his Mumbai show, Panchal collected commonplace items: pieces of granite (the kind used as worktops in kitchens), paper, khadi (homespun cotton), tree bark, recycled plastic and marble (often seen as flooring in affluent Indian homes). They’re all connected to the frenzy of construction that has been a feature of Mumbai in the last decade in its attempt to look like a modern world city. Panchal’s sculptures and installations abstrusely question the cogency of this city-wide project; he explores the idea of what is natural, and the artifice and effort that goes into making something seem so.

Prai and pelom 2 (The Surface 2) reveal the processes that were applied to make them look the way they do. Both are slabs of granite that have been painted over by the granite sellers who supply construction and interior decoration firms. In prai, the original grey colour is evident in the lower part of the sculpture. It looks dully lifeless under the rich, warm artificial colour of the piece that sits on top. Pelom 2 is a gleaming, artificial green on top but the base of the sculpture fades to white. Here, the circular stains left by the piece of cloth that was used to apply the paint, as well as faint, green fingerprints of the labourer who worked on the slab are visible. Process was also emphasized in cicami: Panchal rubbed chalk over some parts of the marble to show the grooves left on the stone by the machine that cut it.

Wedhneumi (detail), by Gyan Panchal

The work of the artisan was the focus of qotred (whiter). A rectangular piece of pale, weathered-orange khadi that is commonly worn by labourers – like the one responsible for the colour of pelom 1 and quotred was hung so that its soft, wrinkling folds highlighted the fall and weave of the material. The colour contrasted sharply with the pallour of wedhneumi, a sculptural installation comprising the curling bark of a palm tree and crumpled handmade paper. The panel of creased paper and the bark were installed to mimic the angle of a wilting body. Panchal treated the de-husked bark – which he had smuggled out of the compounds of Sir JJ School of Art, alma mater to some of India’s finest artists – with thinned white paint, which made it look like ageing skin; an illusion that was heightened by the dark patches on its grooved surface, which recalled age spots.

The work that encapsulated all of Panchal’s concerns was cicami. It comprised four pieces of marble – three long panels and one squatter piece. The first three were installed so that they ran like a strip from wall to floor. The fourth rested against another wall, some distance away. Following the path suggested by the gallery’s layout, cicami initially looked like a disjointed arrangement of marble slabs. However, if you faced the four pieces and moved away from the work, the logic of the placement was revealed. The three panels created a frame for the fourth piece of unvarnished marble, giving it pride of place and drawing attention to its texture and the delicate palette of greys and white. It also looked like a partially-built skyscraper, with its jagged edges and natural surface emphasizing how much work would be needed to fashion it into glossy smoothness.

There was, of course, a conceit at play in Panchal’s show. While the artist would have us believe that he was revealing the essence of the material he used, it was also evident that items that seem mundane to the average Mumbaikar – such as painted granite – were exotic to the Paris-based sculptor. After a Panchal makeover, quotidian granite, bark and khadi became silent, mysterious monoliths, crafted by the artist’s imagination.