Sunday, December 23, 2018

MOLD Column: On Dhanushkodi and Rewilding Language, Landscape

Dhanushkodi is an unnerving place, more so this time I visited because there is now a road that extends to the very end of land. Earlier, you could only go up to a point, then hire a very expensive, specially fitted van to take you through the shoals to the village. Now there is a very straight road that goes up to Arichal Munai, the end of India. In Dhanushkodi, I had the best rasam of my life. That simplest of dishes, transformed into an unforgettable meal.

Read my latest MOLD column here on their website, with several photos, or see below. Published on December 11, 2018.


Takkali is the name tomato goes by in the Tamil language, one of the oldest tongues of this land. A now ubiquitous element of the Indian kitchen, tomatoes came into Indian cuisine via the imperial route only in the mid to late 19th century. Asking what an everyday gojju or the very humble watery rasam (for which the recipe can only be a back-of-the-envelope kind of scribble) would look like without tomatoes would be gross irreverence. If one were to go further up north in the subcontinent, a base paste of sautéed onions and tomatoes cooked in a profusion of spices becomes the root to achieve most generic curries. Throw in baked beans and you have a stripped-down version of rajma masala, a crowd favorite. Takkali is, or can be, added to every dish. In the kitchen it is both as necessary as salt and as unavoidable as seasoning.

Tomato is relevant because in a near-straight line of land stripped down to its very basic features, I had the very best rasam of my life. The landscape is, I am tempted to say, bleak, stark, otherworldly, shocking—for these words are immediately accessible while trying to make sense of what lies before me. But I deter, and call the land, instead, alive, ethereal, fragile and too, ephemeral.

This land is Dhanushkodi. A narrow strip that juts out into the Bay of Bengal in Tamil Nadu. From Rameshwaram, a strict temple town, a very straight, very long road connects to this village whose very attraction is not its surreal-ness, but its tragedy from half a century ago. One late December day in 1964, a cyclonic storm that started off the coast of Sri Lanka, a mere 18 miles away across the sea, hit the frontier town of Dhanushkodi. Thousands died, and the town was abandoned.

Today it exists in a strange suspended plane—some fisherfolk live there in shacks that look as fragile as paper, a lot of them sell shells, jewelry and knick-knacks made from shells. She sells sea shells by the seashore. Mostly, there are innumerable tourists, far outnumbering the locals. They come after their pilgrimage for fun, photos and sea food, freshly caught just that mid-morning by the husband and fried in old oil in front of you by the wife for a hot lunch. They take photos of returning boats and the ruins of the town—there was the post office, this the wall of the railway station, that one there, the ruins of the church. Dhanushkodi isn’t a real village, for most people go back at the end of the day towards the mainland where it is safer. It is a set that is staged for us visitors, a place to sell a story along with their wares. They call the sea kadal-matha, the sea-mother.

Where once the road ended and one had to take a specially modified van that drove over shoals and shifting waters to reach the village, now a newly laid out very straight, very long road takes one further. To Arichal Munai, the very last bit of land, this side of India. The road curves around a tall Ashoka pillar that lies in lieu of a flag to establish territorial rights over the land of nobody. This is where you now park and walk down a flight of stairs to get into the water. A policeman watches over, ensuring you don’t go beyond the shoal he stands on. Every day, he must stand on a different patch of sand, for depending on the tide, the waters shift constantly. It only adds to the mystique—what you remember now will not be what you see later, in your pictures.

There are places that will always resist understanding, where every description falls flat, and words become so unnecessary that silence is by far the wisest, and only acceptable response. It unsettles me, such experiences, for I do not know how to operate without words. I do not understand how to be there and see it and be unable to process it into a measure of language. Silence itself feels like it ought to be a word.

Dhanushkodi is such. Sand dunes hold off the sea from the road. While riding upon it, it feels like one is piercing the mighty blue with a sharp knife, like cutting into a cheesecake done just right. Rocks set against the edges of the roads are wrapped in nets—so that the stones do not shift—to fortify against the sea that will time and again rage, rage against the land. In several places, there are wild horses grazing on the sparse prickly green that dots the white sand. It is all very bizarre, and everything seems out of place. Also, not.

To have the best rasam ever in a shack, with hot rice and pickle from a plastic sachet, defies expectation. The argot of the fisherfolk surely must have words for why the land looks like it does—shape-shifting, like something the sea spat out. I do not know how to ask them.

There once used to be words for every shape and dip in the land, in one language or the other. Certain languages, like the hegemony of this one you are reading this in, erased that vibrancy. Rewilding contemporary landscape might help un-erase the words that I wish I had to say what Dhanushkodi feels like.

In what language does one begin to understand such nuances though, that is, if language is even capable of such depth?

Friday, December 21, 2018

MOLD Column: Pomegranate and Ancient Menus in Sangam Literature

Here, with better photos, or see below. Published November 12, 2018. 


How to read a recipe? How to write one, in Tamilakam?

The ancients said that there were three grand academies, or Sangams/Cankams, millennia ago in what is now Tamil Nadu state in southern India. These academies created a canon of works that came to be known as Sangam literature. The dating of this supposed golden age of culture is still disputed, but estimated to have been sometime between 300 BCE and 300 CE. The first Sangam is believed to have been on a piece of land below Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of India, the end of land today. Both the first and the second Sangams are said to have been submerged, their entire works lost to sea. While the myth-making takes predictably exaggerated forms in these times of parochialism, that there is a possibility of a natural disaster, perhaps a tsunami, that might have taken back land and its people cannot be dismissed, say scholars of the tradition.

What fascinates me is that nascent research about this period shows that during the Sangam period, a popular dish was pomegranate arils fried in butter, with fragrant curry leaves. Although autumn nearly here, the story of Persephone is my favorite myth. In one version of the story, Persephone is abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld. Her mother Demeter, the goddess of grain, crop and harvest, is furious, and mourns her missing daughter by plunging the Earth into a deep winter where the crops wither and die. The equally devastated Persephone refuses to eat or drink in the Underworld, also because that would bind her to Hades forever. Finally, Demeter manages to find her daughter, who, just before she comes back up to Earth, eats six arils of a ripe red pomegranate. She is thus bound to spend six months of a year with Hades as the goddess of the netherworld. During those months, Demeter mourns by giving the Earth its autumn and winter seasons, until Persephone returns and we have the warmth of spring and summer again.

How could a story that fierce not stay on in the mind? What must the arils in butter with curry leaves taste like? Where was the recipe set in Tamil country?

The place is important because in Sangam poetry, the poems couldn’t swerve from tradition. Tradition insisted that the poems, most of them emotional verses of love, longing or bereavement, written during the third Sangam and the only ones which have survived, follow strict rules. These rules were incredibly complex.

Firstly, the region that today includes nearly all of Southern India, then the Tamil country, was divided into five thinais or geographical features. Kurinji was mountain region, Mullai was forest, Marutam, cropland, Neital, seashore and Palai, desert or dry land. Further, each of these thinais were assigned specific feelings: union (of lovers), waiting, quarreling, pining and separation respectively. A wide range of specific themes that would suit each landscape were further derived. Each thinai had a flower, a particular time of the day, a season, an animal, a crop, profession and even a particular god attached to them. Thus, for instance, a poem about a lover’s quarrel might be set in the paddy fields, at midnight, in the cool winter months. The protagonists and the actors on the side-lines were never named. They were always a he, a she, a they, her mother, his father, her friend, and so on.

Despite these clauses, Sangam poetry remains a bottomless resource to understand the culture of an ancient people. Within these poems were included every aspect of life. Between lovers, in the courts of kings and on the streets, food was important. It was enjoyed, celebrated, and was in the background of every other cultural event, just like today.

What I imagine survive are ideas of dishes that were once commonplace but now seem unlikely. Recipes, like those my mother lends me, are never wholly written down. There is a lot of eyeballing—that is how I learnt to cook. In the Sangam centuries, meat was predominant, again discounting the narrative that ancient people had plant-based diets and hence, were that much more pious and pure. It is a narrative that a new order of people in power who want to prescribe eating habits and thus decide who is a real Hindu or not, thrust upon Indians, erasing histories, facts and cultures of many communities. Post-truth.

Research of Sangam poetry shows that iguana and rat meat was popular. Without tomatoes, garlic and onion, what flavored food were coconut, coriander seeds, tamarind and pepper. While tomatoes are now an essential in Indian cuisine, it was only the 16th century onward that they began to be used after the Portuguese introduced them in the subcontinent. There are conflicting schools of thought over where and when onions and garlic originated, but researches of Sangam era food believe that these people did not use either. Well before the omnipresence of Persian-influenced biriyani rice, there was the practice of cooking vegetables and meat together in rice.

The pomegranates were a regular supplement, it is said. I wish the recipe was fully written, because just butter and curry leaves seem incomplete. Wouldn’t the fiery red of the arils melt away in butter, I wonder.

If the recipe only contains the kernels of the final dish, how does one look back into a language that carries so much historic memory and cook a dish? The Sangam period and the astounding literature it produced is still a partly-solved mystery. New readings bring new understandings of an evolved culture from once upon a time, long, long ago. When the poems have lived, why have favorite recipes been erased from daily use? What do we choose to remember? Why do we relegate what we relegate for erasure?

MOLD Column: Euphemisms and Safe Meat Words

Here on the MOLD website with other photos, or see below. Published October 02, 2018. The first three photos are from butcher shops and a beef market in Meghalaya, taken in December 2013, the last is from Bangalore, August 2018.


Some Christmases ago, I spent the end of the year break in the northeastern parts of my country. Now for many, especially the hyper-nationalistic brigand of people who believe Indians need to urgently “go back to their roots” (meaning back to an idealized society of several centuries ago with very restricted freedoms for women, among other regressive ideas), the northeast Indians are not wholly Indian. That they look very different, that their language, customs, religion, gods, weather and food are all very distinctly apart from the lives of mainland Indians is only some of the reasons why people in the Seven Sister states that make up the geography of the North Eastern Region (NER) of India call us Indians while self-identifying as people from their specific state. “Oh, you have come from India!” they exclaim. That they don’t do it too deliberately is to be noted. That they see themselves as not part of the rest of the country has several, old and complicated political reasons as well.

Around Christmas, I crossed the road at a local market in a small town to stand before a butcher shop and watch them piece apart the head of a slaughtered cow. I was told the tongue, brain and head meat were delicacies during the holiday season. I don’t eat meat of any nature, but the process of its dissection evokes a curiosity that I find odd, for everything else in the assemblage of it into a dish, I find unable to participate as the audience. My inhibitions have many histories, redundant here.

More curious are the nomenclatures applied to meat in India. Meat in this context would be exclusively beef, because the politics around beef are overly simplistic and intensely, increasingly violent these days. The simple version is that Indians, contrary to popular beliefs when the West looks in, are not primarily vegetarian. Vegetarians are in the minority, though that number still runs into the millions owing to the size of the country’s population.

Historical amnesia has erased the fact that until a few centuries ago, every other meat-eating community in the country also ate beef; many still do. The myth of the holiness of the sacred cow and hence, the ban on eating one, is a construct of very recent times. In his important book The Myth of the Holy Cow, D N Jha writes in detail of how eating beef was a non-issue until the purported sacredness of the cow began to be slowly appropriated by nationalist. By the end of the 19th century, cow slaughter was seen as among the greatest of sins against Hinduism. Today, one (obviously one of certain faiths) can literally get lynched by a mob if so much as being suspected of slaughtering a cow or carrying beef. Most states in the country, with the exception of those in the North East and in Kerala, the deep Southern state which traditionally have had an unusually high per capita consumption of beef, have strict laws that forbid the eating of this meat.

In the many restaurants owned and operated by people from Kerala in Bangalore, where I live, it is understood that they will usually have a range of beef dishes. Beef is not cow anymore, at least outside of some places; it is usually carabeef, the meat of the buffalo. None are advertised on the menu or specials board. If it is at all, the words are written in the Malayalam language, in beautiful curling letters that sound like a song. The other day my husband and I went to one such restaurant. He ordered a beef fry. We ate, paid the bill and left. Such are the problems about even saying the word aloud that on the bill the dish became a Meat Fry. In specifics there seem more danger.

Gomamsa, mattiraicci, pothe-erachi or just erachi, a generic term for meat, a safe word. Like “strong independent woman,” “minority rights” and other scary descriptives, beef needs euphemisms to keep those that tactilely engage with it safe, alive. While having to operate under illusions such as this, how can any language have innocent words? What happens to language when its words need to be shed, wiped away from tongues, obliterated from itself?

MOLD Column: The Orthography of Language

"MOLD is an editorial platform about designing the future of food. Through in-depth, original reporting and a distinct vision for how design can transform our food futures, our editors cover innovative ideas emerging from the world of food design and technology. From cellular agriculture to 3D food printing, entomophagy to beautifully designed tableware (and why it makes your meal taste better), MOLD spotlights the ideas that will revolutionize how we produce, prepare and eat food in the years to come."

I have been writing monthly columns for the platform on critical inquiries at the intersection of languages, land versus landscape and food - areas that have been of great interest to me in recent months. The first four are up on the MOLD website. 

Read it here on the very stylish MOLD website, or see below. Published October 02, 2018.


A study in palimpsest and the urbanesque, Bengaluru, India, Summer 2018

“In what language does rain fall over tormented cities?”

Language. Lan-gu-age.

A language is the most private of things, the most public of things. Communication comes later. Language is really the inevitable bearer of various burdens—memory, traditions, histories, heritage. Language is really the reservoir of a great many ideas and opinions—colonialism, authenticity, nativism, nationalism, elitism, caste, identitarian politics, politics. I want to explain what language is, but refrain, for it would be a redundant exercise.

Here, in these times that we—the liberal, the privileged, the Other for the majority—have begun to lose grips of, “post-truth” is my favorite phrase of the day, because like in any archaic tract of any institutionalized belief system, it feels freeing to pass everything on to an entity. The entity is a phrase, in this case. Post-truth seems capable of bearing heavy baggage. As if a phrase can describe the extraordinary times we find ourselves in, nearly clueless, entirely helpless.

Is it fair to burden language thus? Too, a language that is at best ill-equipped to allow finesse and elegance grace the tongues of its very many practitioners. English, they say, is taking over the world. In India, there are officially 780 languages, only 22 of which are recognized in the Indian Constitution and thus find a presence on currency notes. A further 38 languages are on the waiting list to be accorded this status. Six, including three that I speak, are deemed classical languages. There are countless dialects and sociolects that do not find place in these official numbers. The architecture of these numbers is built upon ambiguous, vague, twisted and entirely calculated geo-eco-socio-politics.

If English is the language of the business, of the marketplace, of the outward, cities are where it whisks itself into a frenzy of need, want and measures of aspiration. Like an incoherent river in spate, it creates islands along class lines, caste lines, privilege lines, and thus, in this country, along opportunity lines. Outside of this there is a language of the city I live in that I constantly seek. It isn’t the Kannada that is the language of the state, or Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Konkani and Tulu, the mains of South India, or Hindi, various Englishes, or so many of the 780 that reverberates in the mains and crosses of the addresses in this city. Bangalore, Bengaluru, ‘ooru, ‘luru, Blr—the language I seek is of its very being. It is the vibrations, pulse, soul, hum, buzz of this geography if I were to stop and listen. Like a lover desperate for any imagined shred of a beloved, this language shifts constantly, its vocabulary swells and it defies puritanism, as language should. More often than not, it refuses to articulate certain palimpsestic experiences of anthropo-geomorphology. There really aren’t any true words in any language for everything, just like there can be no final photograph.

I like to think, however naively, that it is in food that everything comes together. All understandings, the materiality, the musicality, the outside and the potentiality of languages. In the humble thali, the round plate with little bowls of various dishes and white rice heaped in the middle, it works. That the thali itself is a map of many politics is for another time to tell. I cook food a lot—mostly with love, though once in a while it is only because I need to. More importantly, I think about food a lot—the growing of it, the harvesting, the buying, the selling, cooking and eating of food. In each activity, a new language emerges, changing everything, constantly. What we say and how we say it has never been more important than now. Language has long ceased to be a mere signature of culture. I feel a sense of urgency when I make these statements, as if facts have begun to matter again. The orthography of that which is universal in language lies in food. At least it ought to. These are, thus, my inquiries to try to make sense of where, how and why we are what we eat.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Greta Rana's Hostage: A Review in The New Indian Express

Published in the Sunday magazine section of The New Indian Express on December 09, 2018, here.


The Gulf exodus that determines so much of the society of, majorly the Indian Malayalis, is a familiar story. Lifetimes of people live suspended in between there—the place of work and money—and home, at least the concept of idealised home. It is a narrative of labour, migration and sociopolitics that is applicable to every country in the Indian subcontinent. The lives, decisions and consequences of this economic migration on Nepali society is the core of Greta Rana’s Hostage, a novel ‘inspired by the true story of Nepali migrants.'

In Nepal, the boatman Hari Prasad is going to ‘Arab’, their generic name for the Middle East. A family man, attached as he is to his land, his country and his beloved River Rapti, Prasad has debts to pay and education to buy for his daughter Subadhra and twin sons. The immigration market is rife with corrupt officers who find fault in everyone’s papers—“a ploy to get their palms oiled. Kathmandu was all about fragrant grease!” Prasad gets through and once in ‘Arab’, he keeps his head down and works hard.

Meanwhile, in Nepal, the Maoists are fast gaining power. Siva Bahadur works at the residence of the Congress man, but his subservient job is only a cover for his membership in a Maoist cell. Some follies later, he will find himself on a plane to the Middle East where his boasts of Leftist ideals and Maoist connections will be quietly ignored by his roommate, the older Hari Prasad.

Five years later, Prasad returns to Nepal, pays off his loans, frees his ancestral land and dreams of living quietly by the Rapti. But the country is in chaos, the standoff between the Maoists and the government is making everyday life a terror of existence. He decides to go back to a job in Jordan that promises to pay more—it will buy his family a brighter future, after all. En route to this job, things begin to go horribly wrong.

Then proceeds a faster-paced sequence of international legal matters, terrorist operatives, the ‘right thing to do’, family secrets, old loyalties and new relationships that covers various countries, many characters dipping in and out of the plot and touches on global politics to carry the story ahead.

Hostage dwells deep into the plight of poor migrant workers of Nepal and how men—it is nearly always men—desperately attempt to go to ‘Arab’ to try to make their families’ lives better. The economics of the migrant trade are well spelled out and in all of the simultaneous lives Rana writes about in the book, the effects of this business is ever looming. The chronology of the book takes the reader back and forth between generations and time zones.

Where the novel falters is in the way it attempts to tell too much, instead of showing. The migrant issue—its causes and effects on the individual and the larger social fabric—and gender stereotypes, both of which are globally common issues for the most part are explained sometimes to the point of fatigue. Steeped as it is in parts of history and contemporary global geopolitics, Hostage would have been more moving a novel if only it ‘showed’ more than it feels so compelled to ‘tell’.

Monday, December 03, 2018

The Hindi Supremacy: An Essay on Language Politics in ArtReview

Offered here below without comment.

Read it on the ArtReview website here or see below. Published in the Winter 2018 issue of the magazine. 


Vizianagaram station board, circa 1947, in five languages: Telugu, Hindi, English, Urdu and Odia. Pic source: Here

For those of us who didn’t live in the Hindi Belt (the region of north-central India in which Hindi and its dialects are widely spoken), Bollywood movies were how we encountered the language. Like many Indians, I learned to read and write Hindi at school, where it was a ‘third language’: the ‘first’ was Kannada, the language of my state, Karnataka; the ‘second language’ was English, also the medium of instruction at my school. We were learning Hindi, we were led to believe, because it was the national language of my country, because it was the language of patriotism and, by association, part of what made us Indian. In fact, even if Hindi and its variants are spoken by the largest number of its citizens, India has no national language.

According to the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, an ambitious project initiated by Ganesh N. Devy in 2010, India has 780 recognised languages, hundreds of dialects and endless sociolects. Language, then, is very far from being a national unifier. Multilingualism, however, is so common as to be barely worth remarking upon. While every state has one predominant language, its people might speak dozens more, further divided into the languages of the communities, tribes or castes to which they belong.

Yet, growing up in a small town in southern India during the 1980s and 90s, I do not recall meeting even a single native Hindi speaker. The language did allow us to understand state-sponsored TV programming, which was all in Hindi; then cable was introduced. Mostly, though, Hindi helped us sing along to the popular songs from the movies. Indeed, such is the popularity of this genre, you might say that a familiarity with film soundtracks is one of the few things that Indian citizens genuinely have in common and the real reason why Hindi is so widely understood. A majority of non-Hindi speakers would understand, at the very least, the gist of the songs, if not the meaning of every word. Given the prolificity of the songs in popular culture, even people in states like Kerala, where Hindi has very little presence, would be able to recognise the songs, place them in the right social context and hum along. But for India’s ruling rightwing government, this is not enough.

An end to India’s multilingual status quo and the acceptance of Hindi as the national language is something that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling coalition government headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are trying very hard – and without much subtlety – to effect. Frighteningly, any rejection of this idea is increasingly being perceived as a rejection of the country and therefore unpatriotic. It’s another instance of the ‘if you are not with us, you are against us’ politics that dominate our times. It is also typical of a political environment within which the space for dissent, debate and freedom of expression is shrinking at an alarming rate.

A lot of Hindi speakers migrated from the north and settled in the south after India’s mid-1990s IT boom, as did migrant labourers from regions that were losing their traditional pool of agricultural and construction workers to other job sectors in bigger cities. Since then, Hindi has gradually become more widely heard in cities, and more familiar to people in smaller towns. For autorickshaw and cab drivers, for shopkeepers, for delivery boys, maids and other service workers, a working knowledge of Hindi is good for business. It must be noted that English, on the other hand, remains an aspirational currency. The novelist Arundhati Roy, in her 2018 W.G. Sebald Lecture at London’s British Library on literary translation, calls English the language of mobility, of opportunity, of privilege and exclusion, of emancipation. Only a choice few continue to have access to it.

The politics of language has a violent history in post-Independence India. English and Hindi were both declared official languages to begin with. While the Indian Constitution was written in English in 1949 (and came into effect in 1950), its usage in official documents in India was scheduled to continue only for 15 years, after which it was to be replaced by Hindi as the official language. According to Census 2011 figures, 44 percent of India’s population of 1.3 billion are native Hindi speakers. The figure would be higher if speakers of dialects that come under the umbrella of Hindi, like Awadhi, Bhojpuri and Braj, were to be considered as well. As early as in 1895, there were protests in what is now Odisha against the imposition of Hindi, and when it was time to make the official transition there were further demonstrations from non-Hindi speakers, especially in the south.

Protests against the feared subordination to Hindi speakers took in states including West Bengal, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, but most notably and most violently in Tamil Nadu, and the widespread pressure meant that English was retained in perpetuity as an official language along with Hindi. Given this history of language movements, the Gujarat High Court in 2010 ruled that there was no provision in the Constitution, nor order issued, that made Hindi the national language. In 2015 the Supreme Court refused to admit a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) that wanted to impose Hindi as a court language. Again, in 2016, a petition seeking a direction to declare Hindi as the national language was withdrawn from the Delhi High Court on the grounds that there was no such provision in the Constitution. But such minor details seem irrelevant to partisan nationalists.

A fresh round of protests erupted as recently as 2014, when a circular from the Home Ministry directed all government departments and national banks to give preference to Hindi over English on their official websites and on social media. Such was the outcry that the order was retracted. The central government drew more flak on 14 September this year, traditionally observed as Hindi Divas, the anniversary of the day in 1949 when Hindi was declared an official language alongside English. Vice President Venkaiah Naidu (himself a south Indian), in a speech at a Hindi Divas event organised by the Home Ministry, suggested that it was not possible to progress without knowing Hindi. Stating (falsely) that Hindi was the main vehicle of communication among India’s colonial-era freedom fighters, he said that the language was a ‘symbol of social, political, religious and linguistic unity of the country’. An attempt to smooth ruffled feathers is sometimes made, with a token acknowledgement to what are termed ‘regional languages’ (any language except Hindi and English, the latter still being perceived as a foreign tongue), but the desire to enforce Hindi as the language of government administration remains consistent.

One need not go too far back into history to see how language politics have drawn new maps in the subcontinent. The separation of the erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) from Pakistan and the long, bloody civil war in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority were caused in large part by attempts to engineer the triumph of one language over the other. Several states in India have had their own language movements as well, spearheaded by writers and artists. In Karnataka, strong opposition to Hindi in the 1960s and 70s segued into a preference for English. Sanskrit was the dominant language in schools and it had become possible to finish formal high school education without learning Kannada. A widening incompatibility between what was studied and what language was required for employment in government eventually led to the Gokak agitation during the 1980s. Named after Vinayaka Krishna Gokak, a prominent writer who recommended that Kannada be made the ‘first language’ in state schools in Karnataka, the agitation was supported by other writers including U.R. Ananthamurthy and actors such as Raaj Kumar. Also called the ‘Save Kannada’ movement, it succeeded in instilling pride in the language. A standoff between Punjabi and Hindi during the 1960s eventually led to the carving out of a Punjabi-speaking Punjab state, the Hindi-speaking parts becoming Haryana state. The Sahitya Akademi (National Academy of Letters) was established at the state and national level to promote and strengthen vernacular literatures.

One of the arguments made for Hindi’s purported preeminence is its antiquity, because it was birthed by Sanskrit, which is, famously, believed to be the ancient mother of all languages. Factually, Hindi, as it is understood today, is only a little over a hundred years old. It only became an official language of any of the Indian states in 1881, when Bihar adopted it. Mohandas Gandhi, one of the leaders of India’s independence movement, wrote his autobiography in Gujarati, from which language he took his nickname, Bapu. Rabindranath Tagore wrote his most famous works in Bengali; India’s national anthem, Jana Gana Mana, is a translation of one of Tagore’s Bengali hymns into Hindi. Moreover Hindi and Urdu are essentially the same language, but the former has been made a tongue of the Hindus (thus making it more Indian to fit into the current Hindutva narrative), while the latter is understood to be a Muslim language. Both borrow copiously from Arabic, Persian and a host of other languages. Even the word ‘Hindi’ is Persian. As late as 1880, the prominent writer Bharatendu Harishchandra considered Hindi suitable at best for prose owing to its status as a pedestrian boli – a spoken language. It was a popular view among writers until the 1920s that Hindi did not have the grace and nuance needed for poetry. Instead, Braj and Awadhi were seen as the languages for poetic expression, until writers like Nirala, Agyeya and Raghuvir Sahay made Hindi gradually more acceptable as a language of creative expression. In the process, Braj and Awadhi, the language in which Bhakti poets like Tulsidas, Surdas and Kabir composed their couplets and poems, were relegated to the status of dialects. To exalt Hindi alone as a reflection of India’s long and rich sociolinguistic history is particularly jarring.

I speak Hindi fluently, but the policies of the central government are autocratic enough for me to have developed a disdain towards it. Hindi is just one of the hundreds of languages that make up this multiculture. The willingness of people across the country to engage with Hindi because it is more accessible cannot be construed as acceptance of its superiority over the vernaculars. Language is not just a means of communication. It is, too, a reservoir of memory, tradition and culture. To know another language is to unlock a new way of thinking. To prioritise just one language in as linguistically diverse a society as India is not only an unwanted attempt at homogenisation, but a means of erasing other histories.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Bangalore's Lithograph Film Posters: An Essay in ArtReview Asia

Those of us who live or have been to Bangalore will have seen those bright yellow, pink, green posters announcing a movie in (mostly) single screen cinema houses. For a long while, they used to be used to advertise adult movies. Lithograph printing is a technique that is fast vanishing, replaced by faster, cleaner, cheaper digital printing. 

I wrote an essay on these litho posters, their appeal and their transition to now increasingly being collectibles among fans of the printing technique, for ArtReview Asia's Autumn issue of September 2018. The essay is not online for me to link it. Here below is the piece, with some photos.


In the crowded landscape of excessive visual stimulation that is the streets of Bengaluru, the capital of Karnataka in southern India, one set of posters occupies a curious space: these posters are among the easiest to spot because they are so brightly coloured; and yet they are also some of the most often missed, a feature of sections of the city from which ‘respectable’ people avert their eyes or walk by at speed. You’ll find the posters pasted in, on, above or around garbage bins or dirty walls that enclose places of solicitation or drug use, and you probably won’t want to linger. But it is true also that these are largely working-class neighbourhoods with dingy alley markets and single-screen cinema halls. The posters that promote their offerings are nearly always for movies with highly dramatic plots or in the desi-Indiana Jones genre; otherwise they promote what are known as ‘XXX’ movies, which range from soft- to hardcore porn. That too is an indication of the tastes of this part of the city.

Bengaluru has a long history with lithograph posters. Home to the modestly sized Kannada film industry, it also offers substantial markets for films in languages – Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu – that are prevalent in neighbouring states, as well as for Hindi and English movies. While the last decade in Bengaluru has seen a profusion of multiplexes with plush seating and air-conditioned halls, single-screen theatres (which in India are traditionally called ‘talkies’) are still in demand, albeit mostly with lower-income groups. Beyond the city limits, where smaller cities and towns have no multiplexes, the talkies are more plentiful and the demography of their patrons mixed. Here, the ticket prices are low enough to attract the workers and the halls decent enough in terms of sanitation and decor to attract middle-class patrons to the same place. Such theatres are these days the ones that mostly order new sets of lithographed posters every other week.

While some of these small, outlying theatres screen mainstream films, several others show the type of film that might never make it into larger theatres: C-grade productions, or films in the Bhojpuri language, aimed at the migrant men from northern parts of the country who labour on construction sites, or soft-porn films. In a way, these theatres support an entire industry, of which, up until now, lithographic printing has been a part. For films that are dramatic, over-the-top, bombastic affairs, the lithograph poster – printed on very thin fluorescent orange, pink, yellow or dull white paper sheets with hand-drawn images and thick, black lettering – once offered the perfect low-budget marketing tool. Now the very qualities that made such posters economically viable – their limited colours and equally limited scope for design – coupled with newer, faster technologies for printing and a diminishing preference for the aesthetic these posters present have made the lithograph an anachronism.

Polymer sheets that will be used to paint the current week's showtimes and names of theatres being hung to dry in an anteroom at Shri Balaji Litho.

A few decades ago there were well over a dozen lithographic print workshops in Bengaluru; now only one or two presses remain, and even those only operate a few days a week. It is a commonplace story of obsolescence in which a once-thriving industry is now wheezing through the last few years of its existence. Gopalakrishna, in his mid-fifties, and Narayana, in his late forties, both of whom have been hand-drawing images and inking in names of theatres, showtimes and so on for 35 years, know that the market for their skills is in decline. Even when orders do come in, quantities that would have numbered between 500 and 1,000 per batch a decade ago are now limited to runs of 100 to 200 copies. The process, however, remains simple. The ‘matter’ – the information that is to be printed – is transmitted by phone call. These days, a reusable polymer sheet is first printed elsewhere with the name of the movie and photos of the stars. One corner is left blank. There the painter, either Gopalakrishna or Narayana, fills in showtimes, the name of the theatre and other details, using black marker ink. Then the process is as follows: dip the filled-in polymer sheet in water to ‘fix’ the ink, let it dry, sometimes using a hairdryer if the weather is damp, fit it into the lithograph printing machine, take out the first smudged copy to hang on a nail to keep a record, then print 100 to 200 copies within minutes. 100 copies are priced at Rs450 (roughly USD6.50). For a new breed of collector, however, such productions have an increasingly high value.

A Kannada film poster stuck on a wall at Gandhinagar, Bengaluru. The poster says the film has been running for the 42nd day.

When placed alongside other movie announcements, publicity materials and memorabilia, lithograph posters have a woefully short shelf-life – both in terms of utility and in terms of the durability of the delicate paper on which they are printed. As art objects, this naturally adds to their desirability. Doubtless their kitschy nature and Pop-art aesthetic also appeal. There is an interest too for those fascinated by the history of printing, while the urban language these posters represent attracts a more globally aware audience in a market still dominated by the kind of Indian prints and designs that might appear framed on a wall because of their bohemian appeal: stereotypical mango motifs, elephants and suchlike.

Increasingly, the lithograph movie posters are being taken to Europe and the US and sold at prices that are several hundred times or more than the cost of production, the value dictated both by the perceived craft in making these posters and the kind of films they advertise. For a lot of people, both within India and outside, the titles of most of these films would be unfamiliar; rarely, if ever, would a Karan Johar film be advertised thus. These factors – being from a space that is outside the mainstream, yet is popular in unfamiliar social circles; representing an increasingly archaic process of printing; offering a sharp pop of colour without being in the realm of religious and/or traditional prints – grant these posters a sheen of exoticism. It is a fate shared by the colourful wooden toys once traditionally made with natural colours and a handheld lathe in the small village of Channapatna in Karnataka. While there were a few stock designs for the toys, and generations of children in the state (including this writer) grew up with them, a renewed interest in their handmade-ness and traditional techniques have made these toys objects for display rather than a child’s entertainment. As a result of their popularity, the colours used are now synthetic, the toys are often mass-produced in factories and the designs have morphed to suit a perceived urban aesthetic. Yet as with the posters, the perception of the processes involved in their manufacture (being artisanal) and a certain backstory of ‘authenticity’ is assumed.

The first copy from each order of posters printed is hung from a nail in the wall. It serves as both a test copy before the lot is printed, and as a record for the press owner to know what the orders were.

As these humble artefacts transition from useful objects to art objects, there arise a number of uncomfortable questions: despite falling within a consumer language that enables identitarian politics based on free choices of purchasing products that are labelled ‘organic’, ‘handmade’, ‘ethical’ (and all the other latest buzzwords), lithograph posters these days are no longer start-to-finish handmade. But they do fall into a pattern described by Arthur Danto, in his seminal essay ‘The Artworld’ (1964), that suggested that it was not possible to understand (Conceptual) art without the help of what he termed the artworld – a community of interpreters within art circles that included critics, gallerists, collectors, museums and the artists themselves, all working in tandem to determine what is art and what is not.

Yet it is hard to escape the feeling that these posters are highly prized outside of India for their exotic appearance above all else, especially when hung on white walls that are sanitised and divorced from the dirty streets for which they were made. There, surrounded as they are by newer kinds of posters, graffiti and job notices, set in the context that they were meant for, these litho posters blend in, becoming easy to ignore. On the walls of a New York apartment, however, the physiognomy of the Indian actors and foreign scripts that spell out the name of a film nearly no one would have heard of in the West (the poster text is rarely written in English; phrases like ‘full drama’ or ‘mass scenes’ might be included to suggest that there are elaborate fighting scenes in the film) both contribute to a strikingly exotic feel.

This decontextualisation obviously does not pause to consider what these objects might mean for the people who inhabit their worlds. Both Gopalakrishna and Narayana have learned not to be nostalgic for the good old days. Gopalakrishna’s children are all grown up and in good jobs, so he will retire quite easily. Narayana and others in the press, all of them now middle-aged or older men with a lifetime of litho printing behind them, are unsure what they will do if and when the last of these presses close. They will find some other printing job in one of the newer presses, they reckon, but are not too concerned about job prospects just yet.

It is tempting to wonder if traditional lithographers will find a way to enter the art market directly. But without the theatre owners phoning in with the matter, they can peddle only old information, old film titles, or endeavour to make up such information. Whether fictionalised titles and images will hold the same appeal as actual film information for a consumer, and if the posters then will be valued only for the process of poster-making, is debatable.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Kodagu Floods 2018: An Analytical Report in Himal Southasian

This was a very difficult report to write. For every sentence, I wanted an emotion instead. But after many rounds of edits, it is what it is: a (hopefully) coherent reportage on the floods and landslides that devastated parts of Kodagu district in August 2018, the possible reasons for this disaster and a consideration of what might be the way forward.

Read it on the Himal Southasian website here, or see below. 

Published October 19, 2018.


In mid-August 2018, people in far-flung villages of Kodagu – a district of 554,000 in Karnataka – reported hearing a sound they described as the explosion of a bomb or a cloud burst, perhaps the rumble of an earthquake – like earth’s anger, something bursting at its seams. None of these had ever occurred in the district before; all people had for the analogies were things they had read or seen in news from elsewhere. The consensus, however, was that it was a sound that they would never be able to properly describe. What happened in those hours between 15 and 18 August, would wipe entire villages off the map, give birth to new rivers, change courses of old rivers, obliterate land and hearths, and mark lives forever.

Around the time that national and global attention was turning towards the unprecedented devastation caused by floods in Kerala in southern India, across the border in neighbouring Kodagu, traditionally known as coffee country, it started raining very heavily. Situated in the eastern slopes of the Western Ghats – a mountain range that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most biodiverse spots in the world – Kodagu sees heavy rains during the monsoon. But this year, after drought-like conditions for three preceding years, the rains lashed and left behind a frightening trail of destruction the likes of which no one in the district had heard of or seen in living memory. The loud boom that people heard was the sound of mountains caving in, of landslips along stretches up to seven kilometres long that buried entire villages under earth, and of rivers that gushed out from below the surface of what once used to be flat coffee plantations, sweeping away people, animals, houses and futures.

The inventory of ruin soon began to grow long. Mountains were slipping down and their debris was covering paddy fields. Sinkholes in connecting roads made nearly every town and village an island onto itself. Villages like Makkanduru, Thantipala, Kadamakallu and others, which were rarely heard of even within Kodagu, became more and more familiar on people’s tongues even as they were being wiped out of existence. The highway to Mangaluru – an important road for not just people movement, but also for bringing fuel and vegetables into the district – caved in for several kilometres, and there were rivers flowing over what used to be road. The thick mist that covers these northern parts made it impossible for rescue operations to always succeed, and often people ended up braving the fragile earth and walking tens of kilometers to reach relief camps set up in larger towns.

While the stocktaking of the overall loss continues, according to an estimate by the state government, the quantifiable damages were as follows: at least 20 dead, many still missing or presumed dead, around 2000 km of damaged roads, 1200 destroyed homes, 240 collapsed bridges, INR 3435 crores (USD 465 million) in losses, and 9000 hectares of ruined crops. Some have lost entire estates and homes, and with it, generations worth of personal history. Given the loss of top soil in many areas due to landslides, it might take several years – as many as 30, according to the former chairperson of the Coorg Planters’ Association – before these areas can be fertile enough for future cultivation.

Constructing slope failures
According to a preliminary post-disaster report released by the Geological Survey of India (GSI) in mid-September, while heavy rains in August were an important cause, human activities that modified the slope of the area aggravated the destruction. In the course of about a week, the report notes, there were 105 major and minor landslips which occurred along natural fault lines and in landslip-susceptible areas. The landslips blocked streams and rivulets in several places, leading to flash floods and further landslips.

Since the topography of Kodagu is sensitive, the report observes, any changes in land use or land-cover causes landslides or ‘slope failures’ – the downslope movement of debris and soil due to weakened earth underneath. It adds that infrastructural development that modify slopes disturb natural equilibrium of the land. During heavy rains, slope forming material – rock, unconsolidated sediment, bedrock – gets saturated by the water, resulting in increased pressure of groundwater and decreased cohesion among the material. This effectively acts as a trigger for slope failures.

Tarun Cariappa – secretary of Coorg Wildlife Society (CWS), which works on wildlife and environmental issues in the district – speculated that there were multiple reasons leading to a disaster of this scale. “There was a large volume of rainfall within a short time. There is large-scale mono-cultivation of silver oaks [for sale as timber], trees that are far away from native species. Along the Madikeri-Madapura route [the belt that bore the brunt of damage] there has been a lot of construction. Whether it was done in sync with what is sustainable is anybody’s guess. This region has slopes of at least 50 percent incline. These were cut into to build houses and roads, and they become weak and won’t hold,” he said. The toe cutting of slopes to make roads is something the GSI report lists as well among the causes for the landslides.

The landslides also sunk into the earth several hectares of paddy fields. According to Cariappa, a lot of rainwater went into the sinkholes that opened up roads and joined the streams that flow under the surface, increasing the flow and pressure. “Water finds a weak point to come out,” he said, referring to new streams that had begun to flow on the roads and to rivers and streams changing course.

Touristic transformation

Kodagu has always been an agricultural district. Together with the neighbouring Hassan and Chikmagalur districts, Kodagu produces most of Karnataka’s coffee, which amounts to 70 percent of coffee production in the country. But after liberalisation of the Indian economy, Kodagu has found it hard to compete in the global market. A fall in crop prices starting in the late 1990s along with the lack of support prices from the government have made it harder for farmers to sustain coffee cultivation every passing year. This has been compounded by increased migration to nearest cities like Bengaluru and Mysuru, changing weather patterns and crop diseases.

Around the mid-2000s, Kodagu began to brand itself as a tourist destination – cashing in on its sobriquet of being the Scotland of India – focussing on the idea of homestays. When agriculture began to lose the commercial appeal it had, the charm of hosting tourists in the house they lived in and making money off it began to slowly gain traction. The tourism industry has grown at a breakneck speed over the last decade and now keeps the town centres busy even in the rain – monsoon tourism being a holiday package in itself.

However, much of this growth has been unregulated, despite the periodic efforts made by the Department of Tourism to regulate the homestay industry. The proposed Karnataka Tourism Policy 2015-2020 mandated the grading of homestays, but soon removed the mandatory clause, and the sector remains mostly unorganised. Accurate and recent statistics are unavailable, given the high number of homestays that operate under the radar. However, in 2014, a Karnataka tourism department official estimated that the number of visitors to Kodagu could cross 3.5 million that year.

Many home owners prefer to run homestays than rent it out, because the incomes are higher in the tourism industry. And the more options to stay at, the higher the number of tourists. As a result, there has been a mad scramble to capitalise on this trend, resulting in a boom in the construction sector. But the environmental cost of this economic boom is beginning to be clear. Running these houses as homestays for tourists, rather than renting it to long-term residents, puts more pressure on the land and its resources than normal. According to the GSI report, infrastructural development that involved the modification of slopes – construction of new roads and widening of existing ones, building houses, hotels and homestays – increased the vulnerability of Kodagu’s mountains to the rain and made the landslides and floods that much more devastating.

Repairing the future

The damage is still being inventoried and government officials are starting to collect applications seeking compensation for various damages. The most important roads are being repaired first. In some places, however, the more the slush and earth is being cleared, the more the soil is loosening up, leading to further landslips. Water can be heard gurgling beneath the surface of what used to be homes and plantations, as if a new river was waiting to burst through. The majority of people in relief camps have returned, or tried to return home to contemplate next steps. Experts have suggested mapping of landslide-hazard zones, and a land survey will be needed to fix boundaries where landslips and change in river course have altered geographies and property lines. This is expected to be a time consuming and laborious process.

But the disaster was not entirely unforeseeable. Ecologists have been warning of such floods in Kodagu and Kerala for years. In a 2011 report, the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel – more commonly known as the Madhav Gadgil Committee, named after the ecologist who chaired it – noted that unsustainable focus on development was affecting the Western Ghats and urged state governments, especially Karnataka and Kerala, to limit activities like quarrying, building dams and unchecked construction near protected and ecologically-sensitive areas. The K Kasturirangan Committee Report of 2013 sought to take a more limited approach, bringing only 37 percent of the Western Ghats under the Ecologically Sensitive Area zones, down from 64 percent suggested by the Gadgil report.

Kodagu is among the regions that both the reports referred to and deemed vulnerable. Both reports, however, were rejected by the two state governments. Notably, the Kasturirangan report was rejected by Karnataka on 22 August 2018, just as the relief operations in Kodagu were ongoing in full swing and the extent of damage was beginning to come to light.

Considering the high rainfall in the area, the September GSI report ominously notes that “recurrence of such events is not ruled out.” They add, “Vertical cut slopes should be avoided in future as it unstabilises the slope. Due care should be given to the cut slopes made for read construction and plantations.” Armed with the understanding of hindsight, it is clear that both the areas of highest damage and the pattern of that destruction was something experts had long been speaking about. The bigger question is whether there will be any lessons learnt, or whether this will be another news cycle to move on from.

Arif Anwar's The Storm: A Review in The New Indian Express

Read it on the website here, or see below.

Published October 14, 2018.


The year 1970 was a packed one in the politics of the subcontinent. I would like to presume that the year was bloated with anticipation, with hope and despair – depending on what side of the borders you were on. There must have been, undoubtedly, a sense of foreboding for all that came with 1971 and in the years thereafter – war and its ugly aftermaths, the way people, their languages and their belief systems would go on to change. Arif Anwar channelizes this foreboding to begin his debut novel The Storm.

Going back and forth in time and spanning generations, the narrative is befitting of the title. From the page go, one gets a sense that this sentiment of longing is going to be a leitmotif throughout the novel. Like the life of a storm, the novel and the characters that inhabit it go through a Gathering, then the Eye and finally, a Surging – the three sections that the novel is divided into. Like the overhanging of a deep grey cloud and the still air just before the downpour and its violence begins, there is an undertone of anticipation upon every other page. One gets the sense that the collective story, and all its players are heading inevitably toward a precipice, hurtling at times toward events that are predetermined and inescapable.

Shahryar is a recent PhD graduate in the US, desperately trying to find a way to stay back in the country after his visa expires. In the last few weeks he has left, he tells his nine-year-old daughter Anna bits and pieces of his story that begins in the 1970s in what is now Bangladesh. Back in time, Jamir, a poor fisherman and his wife, Honufa are gearing up to face the storm that will hit any time now. Further away in history, it is World War II and Ichiro, a Japanese fighter pilot grapples with questions of spirituality, friendship and the morality of the war. When his story in the book plays out, it intersects with that of Claire, a British doctor stationed in Burma who has her own doubts and expectations regarding her role in history. Across the border, it is the eve of India’s Independence and there are plenty of changes afoot. While career prospects look attractive enough to stay, circumstances force Rahim and Zahira, a rich, privileged couple to move to East Pakistan to start a life afresh as landlords.

These stories find themselves being lived in the thick of historical, and often devastating, changes. Quite literally, the eye of the storm. Unwittingly, the strange ways of life interweave these five stories and it all does come to a head in the end. Once the clouds gather, they have to swirl, build up momentum and surge, leaving behind land and people to pick up the ruins from.

The Storm is inspired by the devastating 1970 Bhola cyclone, one of the deadliest natural disasters ever recorded, its fatalities numbering half a million in Bangladesh. Keeping with the foreboding of a storm, Anwar peppers the book with evocative imagery and like the long sobs of the violin on a lonely night, one cannot help but feel melancholy in its pages. While the novel doesn’t present any great surprises, The Storm is a gently told story that is grounded in history and narrated with a respect for place and what it means to the people that inhabit it.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

A Review of Dhruv Malhotra's Photography Solo Show: In Hyperallergic

Published in Hyperallergic on October 02, 2018. Read it here (includes more photos) or see below.


Over an eight-year period, Dhruv Malhotra spent sleepless nights wandering the streets of Noida, a satellite of Delhi, creating otherworldly photographs of the nocturnal cityscape.

BENGALURU, India — If a city is one thing in the daytime, it may well be a different entity altogether come nightfall. For many city-dwellers, the night brings with it a sense of quietude, of rest and recuperation before the next bustling day. The city at night is also a workplace, a playground, or a dread-inducing limbo space of sorts for countless others — such as shift workers, after-hours partygoers, the homeless, and, of course, insomniacs.

Indian artist Dhruv Malhotra is one such insomniac, and over a period of eight years, he spent many of his sleepless nights wandering the streets of Noida, a semi-urban satellite of Delhi, photographing the nocturnal cityscape. Photographs from Malhotra’s nighttime sojourns are now on view in a solo exhibition, After Dark Trilogy: Noida Soliloquy, Sleepers & After Party (2007-2015), at GallerySKE in Bengaluru.

Drawn from three different nighttime photo series, all of the images on view were made by exposing color-negative film for long periods — in some cases, for several hours. The results have an almost ethereal, otherworldly glow.

Malhotra, born in 1985 and raised in Jaipur, writes in an artist’s statement that he finds a “powerful appeal” in the night: “The silence, the palpable sense of time and the unknown draws me to photograph.” While living in the aggressively developing region of Noida, he was drawn to desolate spaces in and around the city — areas “on the edges of urbanity, inhabiting a borderland of sorts, null spaces that are almost invisible.” Compounding the lure of these places on the edge is the prevailing sense of disquiet in Malhotra’s photographs; the viewer can sense his need to be constantly aware of his surroundings and his subjects.

During his trips into the night, Malhotra often photographed people sleeping out in the open. The resulting series, called “Sleepers,” highlights how, come nightfall, public facilities assume other identities, often transforming into makeshift beds. The subjects, almost exclusively men, are pictured dozing in some unlikely places: at the back of a yellow taxi, stretched under a blanket between two plastic chairs, on a park bench, at the edge of a construction site. Most are exposed to the sky and air, except for one man who is draped in a mosquito net.

It is perhaps owing to how habituated they must be to sleeping anywhere at all that the subjects manage to look somehow comfortable, even at home. In creating “Sleepers,” Malhotra removed the geographical constraints he had placed upon himself and travelled beyond Noida to other Indian cities. It is to be noted that in India, those that sleep in the open are not always homeless. Some certainly are, but others may be guarding a work site or farmland, while still others might be driven outdoors in search of some respite from stifling heat inside homes during the summer months.

While wandering Noida’s streets after dark, Malhotra would also chance upon empty sites used to host temporary events, from wedding parties to religious ceremonies. Vacant, nondescript land by day would turn into party venues at night, a chameleon effect that sparked Malhotra’s interest. The lights, decorations and music blaring from loudspeakers during such events can be enough to delude one that is day and not night.

Malhotra’s photographs of these sites became the After Party series, depicting the aftermath of all the merriment that has passed. There are chairs to be picked up and sent back to where they were rented from, food waste to be cleared, buntings and curtains to be brought down and folded away before the area is vacated. Malhotra’s images capture a period of silence after the last guest has left and before the dismantling begins. There are some sleepers here, too, men catching a few z’s before the long task before them. Without the guests and other accomplices, the venues are now stark, almost melancholic.

The third series, called Noida Soliloquy, lays bare the rip and curl of how night unfolds in the hinterlands of the city. Quiet and subtly haunting, the images, with no human subjects, picture empty fields with tall lonesome trees backlit by the glow of distant industries; empty benches in a park; a rabbit figurine staring out into a clump of trees; wispy fog floating over fields; and white tombstones set in a frame of green weeds and trees. Noida, like every city, is loud and crowded during the day, so these images alter our ingrained perceptions of our manufactured urban landscapes.

In his book Dark Matters: A Manifesto for the Nocturnal City, Nick Dunn characterizes the city at night as a kind of darkened mirror world where time and space seem to shift, a place that enables escape from the confines of the daytime. Malhotra’s photographs illuminate the darkness, shedding light on the overlooked, crumbling, and scrubby parts of cities, documenting this separate sphere in which the norms of sunlit hours don’t seem to apply.

After Dark Trilogy: Noida Soliloquy, Sleepers & After Party (2007-2015)continues at GallerySKE, Bengaluru (2, Berlie Street, Langford Town, Bengaluru, India) through October 19.

On Kodi Bengre and Delta Beach, Udupi: In The Hindu BusinessLine

The husband up and left on a longish trip early this summer through northern parts of Karnataka. We ended up in Udupi at one point and were told of the toddy and sunset at Kodi Bengre, a village that looked like something out of a postcard. I wrote about it for The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.

Read it here, or see below. Published on September 28, 2018.


A sudden detour leads to the discovery of a pretty fishing village in Karnataka

I had reason to wonder again, a bit ago, if all fishing villages were near identical. An inhabitant of one would scoff at my suggestion and dismiss such sophistry. I would defend myself feebly then, and say, I am but a silly tourist. Every other time I gravitate towards the coast, which admittedly is not too often, I measure my steps slowly past every fishing village I chance upon. For my ignorant eye, they smell the same – a heady, thick fragrance of the sea, its creatures, the wind and granules of sand. Thick as could be touched, enough to scoop up and let permeate into my skin for hours after. In this nasal sphere, one village could for me be any other, save for slight changes in the auditory space of its many kinds of languages. Perhaps even the crash of the waves is different, one to the other, I haven’t really noticed, I confess. Regular life in the mountains and in the city removes the ability to separate accurately the nuances of the seas.

Then there was Kodi Bengre, quite literally a blip of land shooting out from the Konkan Coastline. These coastal parts of Karnataka have been half-home all my life, its language, accent, terrain, mugginess in the weather and most of all its food being the language and food I live with. Odd it was then that neither in those haphazard days at University, too many seasons ago, nor through several moons before and after, had I heard of Kodi Bengre or Delta beach.

Meandering our way through the top half of Karnataka, the husband and I found ourselves one day in Udupi, that which lends its name to innumerable restaurants everywhere else. Good, clean, wholesome vegetarian food, the name assures. Sometimes, it makes good the promise too. The temple town teems with people in various stages of undress – be it enroute to see god, or to splash among the waves at the beach or merely, like us, because it is just too sweltry. Not temple goers, us, we walk instead in the precincts, finding unusual spices and other oddballs conversing over the sounds of faith. 

The last bus is soon, so we start strolling back, looking for that toddy. After the second temple and the next mosque, as directed, we find the house. The owner pulls out two chairs for us – one broken, the other rickety – on his front yard, and we quickly gulp down two glasses of freshly brewed, super cold coconut palm toddy. The world slows down and the heat doesn’t seem to matter, for the first time that day. Sitting back, we see the toddy shop woman. 

On the opposite side of the road is a shack that looks busy. It was likely for more discerning customers, the other kind of tourists. While we were hurrying through our cold glasses, the women serving and/or cooking up the fresh fish fries and other snacks walked into the house. One of them was young and wore a rather revealing dress. Her hair untied, a long, very prominent mangalsutra hanging down her neck. I wondered if while drawing in the customers, the chain around her neck was a not so subtle announcement of her taken status. Look, but don’t touch. Problematic as this may be at various levels, this is good business sense, we supposed. 

There is no time to chat, for shortly, the bus comes along. In the thick of the buzz that is within my head, I think of how much I like Kodi Bengre. I also think that now when I pass by other fishing villages, I shall think of this one. Not every fishing village is quite like the other, is it? Some just have that little extra about them.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Jitendra Arya Retrospective: A Review in Hyperallergic

The National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru had a retrospective of Jitendra Arya, celebrity and glamour photographer that ended earlier this month. A review in Hyperallergic is here, published August 16, 2018. Or see below.


Being photographed by Jitendra Arya was seen as a ticket to fame.

Raj Kapoor and Nargis outside Stratford Court Hotel in Oxford Street (now the Edwardian Berkshire Hotel), London, 1956.  ©Jitendra Arya

Pandit Ravi Shankar, Studio portrait in Arya's studio in Chiswick, London, 1955. ©Jitendra Arya

BENGALURU — For a vast majority of Indians, the Hindi film industry, or Bollywood, has articulated and influenced contemporary social traditions for decades. If Bollywood equals popular culture, photographer Jitendra Arya’s retrospective Light Works at National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Bengaluru, is a trip through familiar, beloved territory. Curated by Sabeena Gadihoke, the retrospective features a selection of over 300 works from a career spanning nearly five decades. On loan from the restored archives of the Jitendra Arya Foundation, most are monochrome prints from his early career, several centered on figures from the Hindi film industry.

Arya grew up in Nairobi, Kenya. Largely self-taught, his photograph of Jomo Kenyatta, the Kenyan anti-colonial activist, was published in The Colonial Times when Arya was just 15. He subsequently moved to London, where he apprenticed with the Hungarian-British photojournalist Michael Peto, and established himself primarily as a portrait photographer. In the 1960s, he moved with his wife Chhaya, an actor and radio artist, to India, where he became Chief Photo Editor at Times of India, the country’s largest English-language daily newspaper. His son, Kavi Arya, a professor in Mumbai, told me that his father received a salary reserved only for editors. This was unprecedented in an era in which photojournalists commanded neither the money nor respect of editors in the media. At the Times, he solidified his reputation as India’s foremost photographer of glamorous people, shooting a record 330 covers for Femina, a popular women’s magazine. Some of the young, urban women he shot for the magazine would go on to be models and film stars; being photographed by Arya was soon seen as a ticket to fame.

For Light Works, Kavi Arya, along with his mother and Gadihoke, deliberately chose mostly black-and-white images — specifically of certain personalities and from his father’s earlier works — because they wanted to focus on what he termed the “classic era,” a perceived golden age of Indian cinema in the 1960s and 1970s. He also emphasized that his father’s interest in classical music and the arts contributed to his aesthetic. (In an interview with Live Mint, Kavi Arya discusses the influence of Rembrandt in his use of light in photography.)

A privileged upbringing, which included owning a camera at the age of ten and time in London in an era when travel abroad was among the ultimate luxuries, contributed to his later ease with the rich and famous people he photographed. He formed close friendships with several movie stars; this intimacy seems to come across in his photographs of them. These cool celebrity images contrast with those of commanding political presences, such as members of the Nehru-Gandhi family and the fierce Indira Gandhi, striking with short hair.

Behind-the-scene anecdotes render a retrospective that is accessible to a general audience. For instance, viewers learn that for several portraits, especially of Bollywood women, Chhaya Arya’s sarees served as the studio background.

As for the photos themselves, I came away feeling mixed about their artistic value. Undoubtedly, Arya was a skilled photographer, and his subjects were famous and popular, then and now, adding to the interest in his archives. He had a good eye for framing, light, and composition, and a strong technical grasp of photography, honed by a practice spanning nearly 50 years. His comfort around the glamorous and elite members of Indian society, often entertaining them at his home, and his powerful position at the country’s top media outlet, facilitated his access to so many storied figures. One wonders what his career might have been had he not started from privilege?

The identities that fill the exhibition are largely constructed, as befitting those who live in the public eye. Raj Kapoor is suave; Satyajit Ray is pensive, with a cigarette in his mouth; Ava Gardner is cool and sophisticated. There are candid shots, too; these make for more interesting viewing, if only because they offer a glimpse of what’s behind the subject’s facade.

The essayist and photographer Teju Cole writes in his column “On Photography” for The New York Times that photography is inescapably a memorial art, that in photographs, one moment is preserved, with those before and after falling away like sheer cliffs. Arya’s works function as a trip down that slippery slope of nostalgia. That many of the photos in Light Works record the Bollywood industry, which informs so much of the country’s cultural sensibility, is significant. Whether that is sufficient to elevate these photographs beyond documentation, to the level of fine art is arguable.

Light Works, Jitendra Arya: A Retrospective continues at National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru (#49 Manikyavelu Mansion, Palace Road, Bengaluru) through August 20.