Sunday, January 25, 2015

Two Road Trips, Ten Years Apart: In TNIE Today

Road trips have always been a favourite, I am that journey-is-the-destination kind of person. Tamil Nadu is another favourite place, one that is brimming and fat with beautiful memories for me. The two combined, and like another time ten years ago, I was on a road trip again, last September. Wrote about it in today's The New Indian Express. Read here or see below.


After a while, the highways all look the same. The grey asphalt that burns the eyes, the surrounding lush green from the paddy fields or the full forests, they don't distract after a while either. The road pulls your attention to it, even though the sights to see are on the side. In the periphery of your vision, there are tea stalls and quaint villages but it is, after all, the road that changes that one part of you that grows and explodes and merges into the grey or into the life of the person next to you. Road trips do that.

When you have taken to the open roads for several years, the beautiful sunrises that catch the glint of your car's rear view mirror, the gorgeous sunsets that bleed orange and yellow and then a warm dark blue into the sky, they all look the same too. Travel, where the road is the destination, becomes the thoughts that changed along the way, about the person you became because of, in spite of that trip. Yet there was that one long trip, across Tamil Nadu, about which I will probably always say, "I remember it like it happened yesterday." It happened ten years ago, in the week just before Sunday, December 26, 2004.

It was a then close friend's birthday, and I was home from university. In the afternoon sometime, dad called me to watch the news on TV, a tsunami had hit the East Coast. A strange word that was then, no one quite knew what it meant at first. One of the channels was showing huge waves lashing against the base of the Vivekananda Rock Memorial. We, my parents and I, on a road trip in an old white HM Contessa Classic car, had been standing there exactly a week ago, to the day. The boatmen who took us on the ferry had remarked, small talking, that the sea was unusually rough that day. They had casually wondered why, a week ago. I remember where I was when I heard of the tsunami because the images on the TV screen seemed surreal. Mum wouldn't let me get back to university the next day, along the West Coast, fearing...something...for the earth we knew had shook a bit that day. A newly married couple, family friends, on their honeymoon in Mangalore, had waded off the beach, for the waves had seemed a bit too menacing for their comfort. In Dhanushkodi, that vestige of an older disaster, a family from Chennai had posed theatrically before a broken brown church and asked that I take pictures and send it to them in T.Nagar. I had posted them some prints in a faded yellow envelope with a five-rupee stamp. I wonder if they were at Marina Beach when the sea pulled back, gathered force and spewed upon the Sunday picnickers that day.

Everyone has a tsunami story.

Everything had looked picturesque, calm. The windmills near Kanyakumari, towering over palm trees, had been turning full speed. Perhaps the winds knew then, the catastrophe that would blow that way in a few days’ time.

Late September, ten years later, I found myself in a HM Ambassador car, with a friend, retracing some of the routes we had taken then. Some new places were added to the itinerary, a few passed off for having been there and done that. The highways were wider, neater, better laid out with the white divider line gleaming and fresh in the emerging sun every day. We took to the highway just before dawn each day, to avoid crowds and cars, to let the breeze, cool and cold by turns, nudge us into long silences and happy conversations.

The countryside had long been cleaned up of the remnants of the tsunami. Memories would have stayed, how could they possibly not? In some village along the way, the signboard carrying its name neglected in the langour of the earliness of the day, we stopped for breakfast. We had, between us, six idlis, perhaps three crisp vadas, a cup of tea, or was it coffee? In that rather dingy shack of a hotel with a makeshift radio belting out Tamil film songs loudly, our total bill came up to a mere, to our disbelief, Rs 30.

Disaster was not among the tourist attractions where we went. Except perhaps in Dhanuskodi. There commerce has swept in, several shacks selling engraved shells, Lays chips, cheap sweetmeats and oily snacks dot the barren flat land. The story behind this dot, an afterthought on the coastline makes for a good anecdote for the dinner table.

There is something in the very nature of the open road that seems to demand the questioning of the existential, the obvious acknowledgment of there being something greater than just us and our many crisises. Perhaps it is the surprise of the unknown at the next bend in the highway, even when the destination is familiar, expected. Perhaps it is the act of movement across landscapes that merge one into the other, the trips themselves that become indistinguishable from the previous to the next. Perhaps it is, like the movies, the books across culture elucidate, really just about the lessons learnt and the stories constructed.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Anecdotes from Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014

On Bazar Road in Fort Kochi, it is an old building that I don't really pay much attention to, there are buildings older, and prettier than this. It is but a fleeting glance from an auto when the cheta - older bro, general moniker/honorific for an unrelated male - is zooming past the old spice market. For the Rs 30 that he is charging for a 10-minute ride into Jew Town, he won't allow my touristy eyes to linger on sights that have remained unchanged for what feels like a thousand years. In front of this non-decrepit building stands a man in a mundu, his right arm grabbing a fistful of his paunchy waist as he stands looking down the road. Behind him are sacks of cloves, cinnamon and other fragrant spices, bits and pieces that built and brought down empires.

I don't imagine this stance and the timelessness of the market to have changed much in five centuries, when Vasco da Gama landed on these shores in search of famed spices and promised riches. The stretch of road, crowded on both sides with crumbling buildings, heritage warehouses and men in mundus is the old spice market. It was once a highway, and remained so for some three hundred years, someone tells me. It was once the nerve centre of the region's spice trade.

I pass by this every day, twice, on the way to Jew Town where Forager Collective, the arts collective that I am part of is installing a work, one of the collateral projects at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014. I steal some deep breathes as the auto cheta zips past, they are all the sorts that glare you into feeling guilty if you should dare ask for a slower ride. I am an art green horn in Fort Kochi, flooded as it is with the air kissing crowd from tight knit art circles, from Bengaluru, Delhi, Mumbai and the wide world. It is fascinating, seeing art by people I have been hearing about from my own tight knit band of boys. But at most times, I feel obliged to feel a tad intimidated.

A stack of bamboo poles haphazardly strewn on a platform - now I can't tell if that's someone's work or not. Next to where a friend is showing his work are several gunny bags that I think the workers haven't cleaned up yet - they are still cleaning up several places even after the opening. Turns out that indeed is someone's work. Yikes!

Being Kochi, and the lot of us constantly spoiled by the equanimous climes in the hometown, much of the talk was about the heat. It did rain on opening night, soaking us and the bar at the club. Alcohol ran out very soon and we were mighty disappointed. It was too late and too far to go to the government store and stand in line at the 'beverages'. That, post all the rules imposed in Kerala over drinking, is a store that can pass off as a temple - seriously! - where you stand in line and buy the strangest named whisky bottles. Foreigners can cut the line, the rest of the kings and commoners have to wait for their tipple. Beer in the cheapest joint in town is Rs 200 a bottle. We want to cry but it is too hot to do anything but lament over capitalism with a cold beer in hand.

An art event allows for such oddities - there you stand near works worth millions, talking of the drudgery of consumeristic societies, expensive beer in hand. Someone tells me the fine for smoking in public is Rs 10,000. Again foreigners are spared and only, like a beloved naughty child, chastised for being bad-bad, or so I am told. God is partial to some in his own country, looks like.

The locals don't entirely seem to mind, they know who has the dollars to spare. It is just the second edition of the biennale, yet everyone knows it is a big deal. The smart guy at the thattakada - a roadside shack that sells food, tea and snacks - asks if Anish Kapoor is really coming. He promises to take time off on Sunday and go see the works. The rest of the days he is up early to sell puttu, idiappam, chaya to the fishermen who leave at dawn. The fish they bring back sometimes have a green tinge close to their bones and are almost buttery as they melt in the mouth, my two favourite boys tell me. It is cute to see the way their eyes sparkle when there is a block of fish (or any meat for that matter) before them. The thattakada is an institution in Kerala. I can see why. 

Fort Kochi is the perfect place for an art extravaganza, I constantly catch myself thinking all through that week I am there. The coast is where a lot of the trade in spices started from and sustained for centuries. The Jews have been here. Every other building is heritage, most at least a hundred years old. If you let your imagination run with the sea wind, as I do mine, you can almost see the traders haggling over prices, the relentless movement of men and goods across countries. You can will yourself to smell the ground pepper in the air. Pepper that was once costlier than gold.

Nikhil Chopra is performing in a room facing the river, it is a 51-hour long piece. The last time I peep in, he is lying on the floor trying to light a cigarette. Just outside, the skies have turned a bright pink. I don't care for that colour, except that when it frames the famous Chinese nets and a host of ships and boats, big and small, passing by, it makes for a picture postcard. The sorts that I buy one of and write 'wish you were here' for a dear friend I miss while at Idiom Booksellers, a little store with the most eclectic collection of titles. I wish I had discovered it on day 1. 

The ships go by, bhoooaaa-ing their horns. A lone fisherman in a dug out boat floats by arranging his net. The outsiders hurry to frame him against the pink and the nets, he must be used to things like that. It is time to leave, the volunteers insist.

"I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now" Damien Hirst

Somehow, the title of his book seems to sum up why I am there, at that moment, at the biennale. I am exactly where I want to be, Fort Kochi included.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Mourning the Death of a Writer: On the Perumal Murugan Issue, in Kindle

It is with a sense of inevitable resignation, the gradual beginning of fatalism and with all the deep outrage that I can muster that I pick up this metaphorical pen and let bleed these words on the page. I feel a tad pretentious too, I force myself to admit that, though I would rather not have to, of course. I wish I had known the writings of Perumal Murugan before yesterday afternoon, beyond the extracts that magazines and websites, defiantly, have been republishing on their blogs. He has given up writing, he said, in a very poignant message posted on Facebook. His words hurt deeply, because as writers, as artists, as people who create things in reaction and recognition of what our many worlds feel like to touch, some of us understand the pain behind this declaration. Dissent is the default reaction in the face of oppression for the artist. It must have taken a lot for Murugan to say he would never write again, that the writer was dead and would not be reborn, for he was no God. It is hard to even repeat his words; how could I give up breathe? From saying that writing was his life and teaching was his livelihood to these words of desperation, it has been a swift volte face we, this 21st century globalized Indian society, have forced Murugan to make. A round of applause to us then.

I sat up late last night and read One Part Woman, the English translation of Madhorubhagan, the Tamil novel he wrote in 2010. For reasons that remain slightly mysterious, it was only recently that some organizations began to have problems with this book. At its centre, One Part Woman is a beautiful love story. Kali and Ponna can't keep their hands off each other, even after 12 years of being married. They remain childless though, despite endless rituals, prayers and penances to appease the gods. The pressures from society to procreate, for there must be a child to inherit the land, to lend support in old age, to ensure societal acceptance, threatens to rip the couple apart. The only solution left, that the families, his and hers, find is to send her on the fourteenth day to the temple festival at Thiruchengode where every male is a god, where norms are loosened to accommodate any consensual couple to have sex. A child, if it ensues, is a 'gift of god'. Kali refuses to even think of his Ponna's still firm sensual body being blemished by a fragrance other than his, for her body was his and his alone. Yet, fate and various degrees of deception and belief come together and Ponna finds herself at the festival on that night, with fresh flowers in her hair and new bangles on her wrists. What happens next destroys the fragile threads that had, for so long, helped Kali and Ponna keep their relationship fresh as new in an increasingly hostile environment. In doing so, it holds a mirror to a society that will not tolerate any veering from convention, even at the cost of individual lives. That was unfortunate collateral damage, inevitable then, a hundred years ago, and inevitable even today.

This tradition of consensual sex outside of marriage is what ruffled the feathers of the great custodians of Indian culture, those Hindutva organizations that banned and burnt his books. Apparently, the book insults Shiva, Hindu women, tradition, or some such. Of course, like in all such cases, it is a preposterous idea that a god, any god from any religion would fall down from a pedestal of faith established over thousands of years just because of a book. You would want to laugh at the absurdity of the limited minds these habitually offended must possess, if it weren't an entirely serious matter. You have to wonder why the RSS shakhas don't deliver discourses on sex in ancient India, along with their lessons in flying machines and long range missiles. If they did, they would know of the very Indian practice of niyoga, where the wife was allowed to be impregnated by a man other than her husband, with blessings from everyone and their uncle.  A form of this ancient niyoga dharma is what Murugan writes about. But then, of course, the khaki-clad pracharaks wouldn't talk of the birds and bees. "Indians don't have sex." We just wrote a bloody explicit book on it, eons ago and then went into denial about something so natural and necessary.

It is of course not about One Part Woman alone. There will be many Wendy Donigers and Perumal Murugans, more so I imagine in the present political years of this country. There will be Ma.Mu.Kannan and Durai Guna, two other Tamil writers whose books were banned and families ostracized recently. A lot of them won't trend on Twitter. Slivers of hope for the freedom of expression in my country will spill from those that, I will include myself here, rush to buy these burning books, their motives behind doing so intellectual, pretensions or otherwise.

I want to think that we will all be Charlies and Murugans even after the hashtags lose their sex appeal. That their creations will be shared and read and laughed with, even if mostly by the pontificating thinkers and liberals. At least by them. I want to desperately hope that it will be ok for me, a woman writing in English in a large modern-ish country, to say that I like sex and write so.

I have sex. I like sex. I love sex. There, I said it. Will they burn me now? It isn't about my body anymore. It is about my words, my words that will talk about what I do with my mind and my body. If they cannot own my body, they will control my words, won't they?

In defiance, I beg you to read Perumal Murugan. Defy his own words, don't consign to flames your copies. There will certainly be more like him, like them. We will write variations of these words again, with tears, with some resignation but never in defeat. They cannot win.

But if the writer dies and will not be resurrected, do we use the writer's words to weave a shroud and bury him under? What if there are no more books that can be banned and burnt? What if no one gets offended anymore?

In fervent hope that Murugan allows us more of his words.

In solidarity.

Suffixed with hashtags FOE, PerumalMurugan, JeSuis..., etc.

Tahireh Lal's Solo at Galleryske: A Review in Art India

Some months ago, I spoke to the video artist Tahireh Lal about her solo show at Galleryske, Bengaluru. The review I wrote appears in this quarter's issue of Art India. They do not have an online link to that piece, see below for a slightly different version.

Deepa Bhasthi traces how Tahireh Lal addresses the idea and experience of being a traveller.

The Hourglass. Glass, metal, motor, wood, sand. 48” x 36”. 2013. Image courtesy: Galleryske

Home is not always a physical space; it is, for someone who moves often, a set of feelings that is constantly processual and changing. It is a sense of this transience that is instantly apparent in Tahireh Lal's solo Metaphysical Gravity at Galleryske, Bangalore, which was on show from the 11th of October to the 22nd of November. Lal, who describes herself as a video artist with a material and time-based practice, brings together moving images and kinetic sculptures to contemplate the idea of not having any fixed address.

In the audio loop Bird: B3:d B3:rd  Lal gets friends to articulate the word 'Bird' in the accent and in the manner they would employ in their native countries. By showing how a common word sometimes becomes unrecognizable, the artist explores the subtle changes we make in ourselves in a distant land if we have to make ourselves understood.

The rest of the show has work featuring sand from the beaches on Toronto Island; she found the sand here to be curiously tri-coloured - white, red and black from the iron particles. In Abundance Protected, a triptych, she separates the red and black in the sand to create auspicious rangoli or kollam patterns, the act of drawing she is culturally familiar with. The accompanying video of her drawing a pattern on the sand – red upon white  –  and the wall works seek to invoke protection for the homes on the Island which are under threat from municipal authorities.

Advice from a resident to "throw a magnet into the sand" to pick out the black particles led to Lal’s interest in magnets. The power of a magnet is also a reference to the recurring pull of home. The Hourglass, a meditative reflection on the passing nature of time, uses magnets to hold on to parts of the sand in permanent suspension, calling attention to the constant conflict while measuring time in unfamiliar places. As the hourglass moves in a circular cycle, it throws poetic shadows on the wall. Time seems to acquire a new shape in relation to that which is routine and familiar. The leitmotif of home continues in Sandcastles in the Air, where magnets, periodically activated, attract the iron particles in the sand to trigger sandcastles along a vertical axis. The work is installed in a horizontal niche in a wall. The shapes and sizes of these sandcastles are never constant, just like, for those leading peripatetic lives, having homes in different places are acts of constant building and un-building.

Sifting/Shifting, a dual channel video loop, addresses constant mobility and how even when there is a moving ahead, there are some things that persist in staying on. One channel focuses on the multi-coloured sand and the act of motion while the adjacent video starts as a clean slate and quickly fills up with red sand grains. The work dwells on how the new, over time, becomes a site of the known and the familiar.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014: A Report in Kindle Magazine

I was in Kochi for the second edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale last month. Forager Collective, of which The Forager is a part, is showing a work under a collateral project The Knowledge Project. But more on that later. A report on the biennale I wrote for Kindle is here. Or see below.
Every country seems to want one. It's a bit like the space program, you need to have your own to be able to fully believe you have 'arrived', so it would seem. And so we have our own biennale, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale that opened December 12 from a gorgeous platform just by the Arabian sea, to the stupendous sound of 300 performers piercing the air with drums, horn trumpets and other traditional musical instruments. It rained on the parade, but the heat and humidity of the coast abated little. It rained too on the bar at the adjacent club where the party was, but that is another story.

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) is in its second edition this year. The first time around, there was utter chaos. Nothing was organized, there was no schedule printed, most works were not up and there was mad chaos, people in the know tell me, even two years on; I didn't go, in 2012. This time around, there is a schedule but several works remain stuck in customs. Oh, let me not nitpick, a home grown brand needs some slack, I'll allow that a biennale is not a small thing to organize.

Well known artist Jitish Kallat curates the biennale. There could not have been a prettier venue than the sea-wind weathered warehouses, old trading offices and expansive halls that fill Fort Kochi. Kappad in Calicut was where Vasco da Gama landed in the late 15th century, in the maritime Age of Discovery, seeking spices and untold wealth that travellers had promised there existed on the Malabar shores. His arrival in the court of the Zamorin of Calicut started a long period of trade, conquest and eventual colonisation of the country.

The scene, that of a traveller from distant shores, in a rich court, is much mythologized over the centuries. An 1898 painting of this imagined moment by Jose Veloso Salgado lends itself to interpretation by two artists at the biennale, Pushpamala N and Daniel Boyd. The former recreates the painting in a photograph, changing the now historically legitimate scene back into fiction, a product of imagination. Boyd, an Australian artist of Aboriginal ancestry, employs his recurring motif of resin dots over a painted image before painting the whole surface in black to trigger questions and connections that animate and unravel dominant narratives that surround the Age of Discovery.

Daniel Boyd, Untitled

Kallat's curatorial vision starts from these new discoveries and expands to the next century when astronomer-mathematicians from what would come to be known as the Kerala School of Astronomy and Mathematics were making steady advances in trigonometry and calculus, helping further understand the planet and enabling the placing of humankind within the wider cosmos. The works in the biennale draw a cluster of signs, images and metaphors from these references, alluding to the historical, the cosmological and deliberating on the axes of time and space to interface the bygone with the imminent, the terrestrial with the celestial. ‘Whorled Explorations’ is the theme and the works explore the various dimensions and narratives of space, celestial, time and history and trade that the region has experienced, and through it, other contexts.

The Aspinwall House, a gargantuan complex from the 1860s is where over 50 artists show their works. One of the star attractions of the biennale, Anish Kapoor's Descension (2014), is a water vortex that seeks to destabilise the experience of having solid ground below, drawing the viewer in, juxtaposed with the calm waters of the Periyar River at the other end. Across the hall is N S Harsha's gigantic 79-feet long painting Punarapi Jananam Punarapi Maranam (2013), an infinite loop of the universe that holds a galaxy of stars and the planets in a never-ending procession through space and time. Yoko Ono, who does not make an appearance, is distributing her iconic Earth Piece: Listen to the sound of the earth turning (1963/1999) postcards as takeaways. I take away two, to give a friend, to stick one on the fridge. Francesco Clemente, the nomadic artist, continues with his experiments with the form and structure of a tent. His Pepper Tent (2014) is a bright pink tent covered in paintings of stars and high seas and human bodies, made in his studio in Brooklyn and assembled in Rajasthan by Indian tent makers.

Graffiti in Fort Kochi

From the celestial to more earthly matters, there are the brilliant photographs of Dayanita Singh. 1.9.2014 Dear Mr Walter (2014) is not a museum, instead, the pictures, arranged upon pillars, choreograph the viewers' encounter and engagement by reinventing the space of photography as sculpture and architecture. Then there is the marvelous work of Bengaluru-based artist Sunoj D, called Zero to the Right (2014), an articulation in sound and drawing of a sum of $2000, his production budget during a Dubai residency - where the project was conceived - converted into Dirhams and Indian rupees. The recitation of 2000 USD in English, 7,346 Dirhams in Arabic and 1,25,427 Indian rupees in Malayalam, all playing simultaneously from three connected rooms, is a meditation on time, labour and iniquity. There are drawings on the wall accompanying the sound pieces, both evoking the long standing relationship that the migratory labour from Kerala to the Middle East has had with the homeland's economy and social structures.

Sunoj D, Zero to the Right

Well known illustrator K M Vasudevan Namboodiri offers glimpses of Kochi through a series of drawings of relics of the colonial era, street scenes, waterways and markets while Aji V N's mesmerising charcoal on coloured paper landscapes transform everyday earthly imagery into phantasmagorical, broody visions. One of my favourites was Marie Velardi's Future Perfect, 21st Century, a 2006 work that gives a timeline of the 21st century culled from science fiction books and movies of the 20th century. Some of the scenarios she spells out are eerily plausible, some are outright funny, some plain absurd. Yet, none can be completely dismissed. Playful at times, yet profound, the artist as a cartographer imagines a eccentric mix of what might happen to the world - ranging from complete collapse of civilisation to migration to Mars to a world where everyone speaks Portuguese.

Gigi Scaria's Chronicle of the Shores Foretold (2014)  is composed of a bell hoisted by bamboo poles, punctured - symbolically puncturing time - to spout a fountain, orchestrating a confrontation between several overlapping episodes from Malabar's history, from the trade links to transformative cultural influences. Other well-known artists like Mona Hatoum, Hema Upadhyay, Charles and Ray Eames, Gulammohammed Sheikh, K G Subramanyan, Valsan Koorma Kolleri, Sahej Rahal, Nikhil Chopra, Mona Hatoum, Navjot Altaf, William Kentridge and others show their works too, spread across eight venues, that include dedicated areas for the children’s and students’ biennales.

The second edition of the KMB evokes sharply the dual transience and permanency of time and space in the works it has chosen to include. What perhaps best sums up not just the biennale, but in some sense the art in life itself is Martin Creed's as usual quirky work, Work No 232:the whole world+ the work = the whole world (2000). The ambiguity he presents makes you want to try to ponder, as you stand before Darbar Hall, if art works are inseparable from the world or not or whether the 'whole world' is any different a place by the addition of the work. The 'work' could be replaced by any human endeavour and the same questions could be asked again. Would it matter? That such questions arise is what perhaps makes the biennale, or any place with art, matter.

Martin Creed