Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Heathrow's breakdown

Snowed in for Christmas
I was meant to fly to India for a short Christmas break today. Only I am not. Because it snowed over the weekend, and clearly that was too much for one of the world’s oldest and busiest international airports of one of the world’s richest countries to handle.

Heathrow isn’t the only transport link to be affected. Eurostar is working on reduced capacity and is urging people to cancel bookings. Trains all around the country have been affected with more than seven to eight hour delays and cancellation.

Mind you, no sudden volcanoes have erupted anywhere this time. No, no, no. It is just snow in a country far up in the northern hemisphere where snow is not unusual. It snowed last year as well, and we faced the similar chaos (with BA workers threatening to go on strike just to add to the fun).

Why doesn’t the government just say it upfront: please don’t travel during December, we can't handle it. It might be Christmas and it might be holiday time, but really, if you travel, it is your problem. We can’t be bothered. We’ll make all the right noises -- listen to BAA CEO's  useless apologies -- but not the right choices.

It is like living in India again! Only without the warmth of the climate or the people.

Monday, December 20, 2010

On Tayyab's and the paucity of good Indian restaurants in London

Another one bites the dust
Sid's and my perennial search for a good Indian restaurant led us to the famed Tayyab’s this weekend. I had reasons to be optimistic. Whenever, we mentioned the general hideousness of Brick Lane's Indian fare, people whispered of Tayyab’s as an authentic alternative. And the Time Out London Food & Drink guide had nice things to say about it.

The snaking queue at the restaurant gave us more reasons for hope. Though the chaos was not conducive to a relaxing night, it was a positive indication of the kitchen’s efforts. Luckily for us, we were the only people in line for a table-of-two and found ourselves seated soon enough and being served by a polite, dishy-looking Pakistani émigré waiter, his soft Punjabi accent yet to be sandpapered away.

Unfortunately, he turned out to be the dishiest thing in the restaurant that night. My guess is that the saag gosht, fried daal and paneer tikka that we ordered were very tasty when they were initially made, but each subsequent reheat through the day had taken something off the flavour. So by the time it reached our table at eight in the night, I could almost taste the oil and spices crying in protest against the day's torture. The naans were tasty but without the reinforcement of good curry they couldn’t save the night.

It is really funny that the closest we have come to truly yummy, value-for-money Indian food in England is at a Burmese restaurant (Mandalay on Edgeware Road) and a Nepali one (Yak Yeti Yak in all the way in Bath). 

Sid says that the popularity of any foreign cuisine is inversely related to its authenticity. The reason our Nepali and Burmese restaurant have been able to maintain their high standard is because they are the only ones in the market – a small niche clientele is enough for them to survive. But the more ubiquitous a cuisine gets, the more a restaurant finds itself pandering to popular tastes in order to attract patrons – even if it means playing fast and loose with authenticity. So it is to the very popularity of Indian food in London that we can blame for our inability to find a good Indian restaurant in London.

But that is our theory. If you have any others, feel free to share.

On the most interesting Indian place we have found in London, Dishoom in Leicester Square, read this.

Friday, December 17, 2010

On Blake Edwards, Breakfast at Tiffany's and happy endings

Dear Mr Blake Edwards,

May you rest in peace. For now, I never will.

You died before I could ask you the one question that has been killing me ever since I watched your Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Why? Why did you change Capote’s novella ending for your film? Why did your capricious Holly Golightly had to have a sudden change of heart, character and temperament in the last five minutes of the film and agree to… agree to what… a nice, suburban life with our writer hero?

It was to give us a happy ending, wasn’t it?

Was it worth it? Was it worth killing everything that Golightly stood for – free spiritedness, eccentricity, independence, risk, adventure and total and utter selfishness? Didn’t you know that she couldn’t have been as charming, funny and unique if she wasn’t all those things first? What kind of a story-teller were you to not know that?

No, no, no. I am not a pessimist. I like happy endings too. And I believe that they happen in real life. What I don’t believe is that life has sudden delightful surprises in store for us. No, no Mr Edwards, happy endings have to be worked for and people seldom escape the price of their actions or their patterns of behaviour. Capote understood that, why not you?

But you did understand that, didn't you? But you decided to go with a happy ending anyway because you thought we girls are silly, right? And you thought we wouldn’t have loved your film as much if you had Holly leave her cat and lover in a filthy alleyway and embrace the life of a fugitive. But then, if she was that sort of girl wouldn’t she have still been Paula Mae Burns married to Doc Golightly tending to animals in hick ol’ Texas?

Perhaps, we girls are silly. Perhaps, we want our cake and eat it too. But why were you silly enough to reinforce our rainbow-washed dreams? 

I wish, instead, you had taken a chance on us. I wish you had given us a real ending. Perhaps, we would have come through for you and loved Golightly anyway. But now we will never know.

Rest in peace, Mr Edwards.

For now, I never will.


Saturday, December 11, 2010

Hacktivism: Civil disobedience or guerrilla warfare?

There was a cheeky pleasure to watching the hacktivists bring down Mastercard, Visa and the Swiss Bank in retaliation to Assange’s arrest and freezing of Wikileaks’ accounts and servers. For I think that the strategy the governments’ around the world have collectively come up with to tackle the Assange problem is sneaky and underhand.

Assange opened up a big question about transparency before world democracies. And how did the best minds of our times respond? Instead of arresting and trying him for the crime they claimed he had committed – theft and release of US diplomatic cables – they are trying to shut him by implicating him in a sex scandal and by attacking his finances and infrastructure. On no, I may not agree with what Assange did, but I am certainly don’t approve of what the governments are doing in retaliation.

But how exactly should we characterise the actions of these anonymous, amorphous group of people revolting against their own institutions? After all, the majority of hackers who are downloading the hacking programme are Americans and Europeans, whose governments are trying to censor Wikileaks.

Lokulin, in a comment to a previous post, suggested that what we are witnessing is a mass civil disobedience movement on the lines of the civil rights movement and Indian independence movement. Essentially, the hacktivists are regular citizens showing their displeasure against the establishment by bringing down the social and civil systems that the establishment depends on to run society efficiently – our credit cards, paypals, twitter accounts etc.

We can draw an analogy between hacktivists and say, Gandhi and his civil disobedience movement. Essentially, the rulers need the co-operation of ruled in order to function effectively. But if the ruled stopped co-operating – follow the rules and the laws set before them – then no government can function. That is how Gandhi fought the British colonial government: by encouraging people to openly but non-violently defy the British government. And his philosophy inspired other political leaders such as Mandela and Martin Luther King. That is what the hacktivists are doing too – they are defying and challenging the institutions that run our societies.

But then again, an important aspect of civil disobedience movement was its openness. Its moral supremacy arose from the fact that people defying the governments did is openly and publicly and were ready to face the consequences of their actions. In fact, Gandhi and Mandela both spent a goodish part of their lives in jail. But the calm and patience with which they accepted the punishment is what gave them moral authority, convinced others of their stand, and inspired others to follow them.

There is no such openness to the hacktivists. They attack anonymously. We don’t know who they are, and we only have a vague notion of what is driving them. Revenge comes across as their most important motivation as they are only specifically attacking the institutions that cut their connection with Wikileaks. They are not trying to inspire any larger debate or build a following or convince people of their stand. All they are doing is threatening institutions that break ties with Wikileaks with revenge. And how strong their convictions are, and how much they are ready to sacrifice for it – we don’t know yet.

In that sense, they are closer to guerrilla warriors than Gandhi or Mandela.

Does it matter? I don’t know. But somehow I prefer the moral certitude of the likes of Gandhi, Mandela and King than the ambiguity of PLO and Hamas. It took time for the former to win their wars but they left us in doubt about results they achieved.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

On Philipsz who won the Turner Prize and Otolith Group who should've

Susan Philipsz and her sonorous sound artwork Lowlands Away has won the Turner Prize 2010, and it is so hard to quibble with the judgement. Her spare work is more than just about her sweet, untrained, incredibly haunting voice. It makes you think of music in terms of volumes, shapes, movements and spaces rather than merely sound and thus transcends to sculptures, as they are often called.

Yet, quibble I must. For I wanted the Otolith Group to win, which considering my utterly bewildered first reaction to their works at the Turner Prize exhibition is surprising. Their works are not easy. As Adrian Searle, the guardian art critic commented in a video-article: “they are throwing a big fat, heavy book at you and saying - read this, look at this.” But the point is if you do read this big, fat book, as I did – if you engage with the works, read and think about them, go back and review them – you’ll find yourself filled with all kinds of novel ideas about reality versus fiction, story-telling, images, memories and how they are affected by time and distance. Layer upon layer of meanings and ideas will unfold as you start digging into their works.

Let’s look at Otolith 3 – a film they made in 2009 which is currently being exhibited at the Turner Prize exhibition.

The artists began with a whimsical idea – what if four characters from an abandoned film project called The Alien by Satyajit Ray stepped out of the script and demanded to know why they were never made. Then they created a voiceover script for these four characters plotting of ways to accost Ray, take him to task for abandoning them, and find a way of making the film for themselves independently. Their narrative plays to a dreamlike video that stitches together film footage from Ray’s films from the ’70s, footage of London shot by Sagar’s father in the ’60s, and more by Eshun and Sagar shot in the ’90s.

At a very basic level, the artists are interested in the haunting, unsettling presence of ideas and projects which were once talked about with vigour but never realised. What is their status in our lives – are they real because they live in our minds, or they are unreal because they never came into being? They are interested in the anxiety and frustration that the unfinished leaves inside us.

But it is the clever way in which the artists use film and images and painstakingly combine them with audio to create that sense of haunting and powerlessness inside us that takes their work to the next level. The carefully selected images and footage, the way they are edited and put them together in a loop – each time returning to the same image and story, but with a slight difference – makes us, the audience, experience the anxiety they are talking about and not merely think about it. Indeed, they have a mastery over the medium they are commenting on.

Their works are no less haunting that Susan Philipsz, but they manage to combine several more media, ideas and thoughts about story telling, narratives and film-making into them.

Some art writers like Jonathan Jones have dismissed their works as pretentious and indigestible. But as Eshun said in an interview that I did with him: “pretentious for us just means a work that aspires to make statements about the condition of reality that we all live in”. But Eshun and Sagar don’t just aspire to make these statements, they actually manage to make them through their works.

As I said, I didn’t get their work at first go. But, upon suitable reflection, I digested them and found them rich and intriguing. Perhaps, Jones just didn’t bother to ponder over them long enough.

The Otolith Group's works are serious, challenging and decidedly unspectacular. But what's wrong with serious anyway? To me, it only reflects the serious, challenging and spare time that we are all facing.

For those more interested in The Otolith Group, here is a podcast of the raw interview I conducted with the Group over the telephone.

Interviewing The Otolith Group by chetna prakash

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Julian Assange Vs Lisbeth Salander

Julian Assange: Or should we say Man with a dragon tattoo?
I recently read a profile of Julian Assange in the New Yorker. As a friend said in a comment to a previous blog on Wikileaks: "it had the effect of watching a thriller with elements of drama."

It reveals a troubled childhood, a genius mind, an amazing ability with computer hacking, problems handling relationships, trouble with authority, a leaning towards paranoia, a slight air of vulnerability, a fierce desire to fight for justice and all sorts of curious links with Sweden (his most important servers are based out of the country). And then it struck me. Julian Assange is actually Lisbeth Salander: the famous girl with a dragon tattoo.

Fact and fiction seem to diverge on one important point though: Lisbeth Salander was a victim of sexual abuse, and Assange is accused of commiting it in Sweden.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

On Wikileaks and government's right to privacy

The Wikileaks' now-famous US diplomatic cable dump has stirred a whole new round of debate on what’s private and what’s public in a democracy.

The big question, as the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson and George Packer have raised, is do governments have a right/priviledge to privacy? If democratically elected governments are essentially an extension of their citizens, then don’t the citizens have a right to know all their private thoughts, discussions and correspondence?

I tend to disagree. Yes, governments are made for us and by us but they are entities in themselves too with a certain identity of their own. Otherwise, we would never be able to hold them to account as all their actions would essentially be the actions of each and every citizen of the country. If we were to say that they had no separate identity of their own, then in essence, they could never be brought to books.

As an individual, I have a right to private conversations and correspondence before I act publicly. And a lot of these private discussions, opinions and conversations may be contradictary, difficult, unsavoury and questionable according to the prevailing moral standards of the time - but it is only through these contradictions that I am able to arrive at a position that I am ready to assume publicly on issues. Governments, too, have that right.

However, on certain occasions, my privacy will be breached because doing so will be in the benefit of the community that I live in. But, as I live in a democracy, I hope that there will be a strong enough reason to do so, and as far as possible, it will be done through the right channels. Any democratically-elected government, too, deserves some degree of the same respect.

In this particular instance, Wikileaks - and the five newspapers involved - have played fast & loose with both these parameters. However, as Wikileaks has made its name out of this kind of conduct, let us focus our energies on it. There are three things that strike me about the what, why and how of Wikileaks' actions.

To begin with, Wikileaks has never attempted to use the right channels – the laws provided within the democratic set-up – to gain information about any government. Yes, it is difficult, painful and long-drawn to use these channels but they exist. However, Wikileaks has never been interested in using them. Instead, it has consistently used underhand, Robinhood-style ways to gain private information. To put it in plain ol' English, they have indulged in theft of the cables.

This in itself could be exonerated, if indeed we learnt something that could be used to take some conclusive steps forward. I am with George Packer when he says that this is not the case with Wikileaks' latest cable dump.

Richard Adams of the Guardian has listed seven of the most important revelations made by the cable dump till now.  Let’s tackle them one by one.

Silvio Berlusconi 'profited from secret deals' with Vladimir Putin
What the cables tell us is that the US government suspected he might have profited so and was investigating him. His guilt itself remained inconclusive. And by revealing the investigations to the world before any conclusive evidence could be gathered, Wikileaks has done Berlusconi a favour. It is going to be tougher to pin him down since the investigations may never be finished now, and he is extremely good at riding out rumours about his corruption anyway.

The US pressured Spain over CIA renditions and Guantanamo Bay
What I understood from the cables is that the US diplomats had several conversations with the main public prosecutor of an important human rights case being fought in Spain. Yes, but the US government was not doing anything illegal – there were no kickbacks, frauds or bribery involved. So other than knowing that the US government tries to influence officials around the world - something that was not news in itself - we have not learnt anything particularly usable.

The scale of Afghan corruption is overwhelming

This might be news to Wikileaks and Adams, but the rest of us didn’t need a whole government machinery to be violated in order to learn that. There were enough media reports in the public domain suggesting the same.

Hillary Clinton queried Cristina Kirchner's mental health

So? Embarrassing, yes. Illegal, no. And honestly, after all the megalomaniacs we have seen become world leaders, I’d say it is better to keep tabs on the mental health status of all politicians.

The Bank of England governor played backroom politics

So he is not politically neutral and must go. But why punish the US government for it by compromising it? And is it a matter of earth-shattering importance justifying stealing and leaking of private documents?

The British government remains in thrall to the US
To be in thrall is one thing, but did the British government do anything illegal for the US government? Nothing in the cables suggest that.

US diplomats spied on the UN's leadership
This is the only potentially damaging revelation because it could amount to a breach of international human rights. But again, “could” is the operative word out here. We don’t know for sure yet. Besides, if the same investigation had revealed that some of them had "profited from secret deals" with Vladimir Putin - how would we then view the investigation?

None of the revelations show the US government actually doing anything technically illegal on which it could be brought to books. We have always known that government’s play games, use undue influence, meddle and indulge in espionage, and now we have evidence of it. But if the US government's actions are morally ambiguous but not illegal, where does that leave us in macro-terms?

Which brings me to the last point: the manner in which these cables have been dumped on to the world. Wikileaks didn't feel the need to sift through the documents itself and question what was indeed worth revealing instead of unleashing them all over the internet. If that destabalising international relations and/or the effectiveness of an entire government department - who cares? Certainly not Assange & Co.

Some would argue that it was an impossible task to sift through tens of thousands of cables. But if the government is an entity with some rights, and only the circumstances decided whether or not those rights can be violated - how did Wikipedia even know what the circumstances of the case were, if it hadn't actually gone through all the cables itself?

If any decent person was to find a gossip-ridden letter of mine doing the rounds, unless it contained a confession to murder by me, I would expect the person to return it back to me – not plaster it all over the Internet. Why should the US government expect any less?

Here's a profile of Julian Assange from his pre-cable dump days: No Secrets by Raffi Khatchadourian published on June 7, 2010.

In particular, I liked this quote: "Soon enough, Assange must confront the paradox of his creation: the thing that he seems to detest most—power without accountability—is encoded in the site’s DNA, and will only become more pronounced as WikiLeaks evolves into a real institution."

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

On Rosa Parks, racism and India

Rosa Parks: Just another Negro in India?
A momentous thing happened on this day – December 1 – fifty years ago. Rosa Parks refused to vacate her bus seat for a white man. She had paid for it, and she was damn well going to sit on it.

Being Indian, I never paid much attention to her courageous action for at least the first 27 years of my life. For contrary to popular opinion, we Indians have no concept of racism. We understand discrimination in terms of language, community, religion, and caste but seldom colour. Because, you see, unlike in Africa, when the British left India, they left it lock, stock and barrel leaving behind a uniformly brown race to take care of itself.

That was 1947: eight years before Rosa Parks’ action avalanched into the civil rights movement in America. By that time, we were too busy with our own internal problems to pay anything more than lip service to the events shaping the world.

Our cluelessness about racism, and the politically correct way to handle it, can lead to many faux pas. For instance, until I quietly corrected him, my father would quite happily describe his granddaughter (my niece) as “chinky-looking” to all his friends. That “chinky” is a nasty, derogatory American slang for Chinese had never been explained to him. He overheard it somewhere, and as far as he and his friends were concerned, it was a rather nice, affectionate way to describe people of “slanted-eyed [his words not mine]” ethnicities.

On another occasion last year, my ears nearly burnt to cinders, when a middle-aged Indian I met in Vienna nonchalantly referred to a British Airways stewardess who had served him as “Negro”. Again, he meant no slight or offence and was merely trying to explain that she was black. It’s just that he was completely unaware of the horrifying political incorrectness of the term’s usage.

After I got over my initial shock, I started thinking how could he have possibly known. He was a 60 year old man who had spent the better part of his life in a small Indian mining town reading the Indian newspaper The Times of India to shape his world view. And with so many close-to-home problems to discuss, the newspaper is not going to waste its ink on politically correct ways to refer to people of different races that its readers may or may not meet.

But the point is that more and more, they are going to meet. Like my Indian acquaintance who was now visiting his son, who had recently migrated to the US. I imagined him quite innocently dropping the dreaded “N” word into conversations there and wondered who would be the first to correct him.

Sometimes, our ignorace of what racism is can get uglier. A former colleauge at Time Out, Che Kurrien, had once done an insightful story about the discrimination and rudeness that two Nigerian immigrants to India constantly encountered in Mumbai. For example, they were quite openly referred to as Habshis (a kind of Indian slang for Africans) by their neighbours. I know that it is possible because several of my parent's acquaintance use that word openly and find it funny.

Which is why, when Indians cry racism against themselves – as they seem to more and more these days (think the Australian fiasco and then the CWG comedy) – I am not sure whether to laugh or cry. For even though we are so quick to judge others on how they treat us, we have absolutely no self-awareness about how racist we can come across to others.

After all, far as many, many Indians are concerned, Rosa Parks may be an international heroine but she is still a Negro.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Snowfall & Disney promises

It is not quite December and it is snowing outside.

I grew up with wistful visions of lovely snowfalls. Very few parts of India see snow. And since my economical parents wanted to save money on woollies, they made sure we never visited them in winter. But snowfalls still sneaked into our lives, thanks to Hollywood and all the Christmas releases. No wonder I thought that snowfalls always come packaged with romance, comedy and Christmas lights.

All that changed circa, February 2008, Amsterdam. And I learnt the hard lesson that snowfalls usually come with slush, annoyance, traffic jams, misery and, if you are really unlucky – a broken hipbone. In England, it usually comes with broken public transport as well, just to add to the fun. Needless to say, I am cured me of snowfall sickness forever.

England, for some odd reason, seems to be in denial about its proximity to the North Pole. In other Northern European countries that I lived in, people seemed more at peace with their winters. All houses compulsorily came with double-glazed windows, and as soon as the trees would start shedding their leaves, people would start bulking-up. Fashion was given a short shrift as they all bundled-up in their excellent, expensive winter coats, gloves, thermals and hats. By the time, the snow arrived – nobody even noticed it.

London’s Picadilly Circus knows only one season: that which requires girls in mini-skirts and sheer tights. Winter coats are designed more for fashion than for heavy snowfalls, and places like M&S don’t even stock real woollen cardigans. What you find are sweater lookalikes made out of synthetic mixes. Everything is cheap and most of it is useless. And all the three houses we have lived-in in London have had no double glazing. Public transport breaks down every winter and gas prices soar. And the worst part is: everyone appears shocked by the cold – every year!

But I have made my peace with winter. So if you see a tent waddling its way around London, do stop to say hi!

PS: My favourite winter memory relates to the song Hey There Delilah. Mostly because the Turkish-German cafe in Hamburg that I spent most of my 2008 winter in was always playing this song. So I always somehow associate winter with Hamburg, descending darkness outside, a cappucino cup warming my fingers and Hey There Delilah playing in the background. Here's to winters and Hey There Delihah.

Stopping by the hood on a snowy evening on PhotoPeach

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Evening Standard vs Talulah Riley: Who's playing whom?

Talulah Riley on the Evening Standard magazine cover
I am not a fan of celebrity magazines. I have nothing against them, only I find my own thoughts and ideas more interesting than anything that celebrities offer, so don’t see the point of reading them. But the one magazine that I can’t quite resist week-on-week is the Evening Standard magazine.

Mostly, I am intrigued by its peculiar criterion for selecting its cover celebrity – she has to be the wife or at least the ex-wife of someone fabulously wealthy and famous. Seldom are these women personalities in their own right. They usually land up saying lots of faintly ridiculous things with a straight face, which is faithfully presented with such extreme seriousness that it makes me suspect mockery. And yet, I can never be sure – which is what keeps me intrigued.

This Friday, it was the turn of 25-year-old Talulah Riley. As an “also appeared” in the films Pride & Prejudice and St Trinian’s, she was on her way to become a footnote to starlet history. Luckily, she caught the fancy of billionaire Elon Musk – the founder of PayPal and now space entrepreneur – who wooed her for a whole of 12 days until she agreed to become his second wife. His billions came with 5 boys [in a set of twins and triplets] from his previous marriage.

I felt quite sure that the journalist, Ms Hermoine Eyre, was mocking her, when she quoted Ms Riley saying:

On her husband’s space exploration projects --“I’d love to get involved with designing habitat systems on Mars – like housekeeping on a grand scale.”

On Musk and his five boys – “When I was little girl I told everyone I would marry a very clever scientist and have ten children. I would always draw the children and they included twin boys whom I named Theodore and Fredrick, Teddy and Freddy for short. It became a family joke, but.. Griffin and Xavier are those blonde-haired twins.”

On meeting Musk for the first time – “There he was, smiling this very big smile and talking about colonising Mars. I was already interested in that kind of thing – the Goldilocks zone of habitable planets and so forth.”

On how she told her father about Mr Musk – “Daddy, I’ve met the most amazing man who makes rockets.”

On her virginity until she met Musk – “I’ve never slept with anyone apart from Elon, which is nice. I mean, which is great.”

About herself – “I am very shy. I don’t drink. I had a gulp of alcohol once and it was disgusting – so bitter. I don’t drink tea or coffee. I’m like a child, I like fruit juices and sodas and creamy hot chocolate.”

Of Elon’s buddies, Facebook creator Zuckerberg and Google creators Larry Page and Sergey Brin.– They are “good people, doing good things... which is comforting, seeing as they could create an artificial intelligence to destroy us all.”

Why would Ms Eyre pick these exact quotes except to present Ms Riley in her full, glorious dumbness?

But then I start suspecting that she is actually buying into Ms Riley’s ridiculous Princess Di-meets-Marie Curie self-image, when she writes:

‘She [Ms Riley] rarely had boyfriends and was more interested in quantum mechanics. So in order to get a grounding in Newtonian physics, she was studying in her spare time at the Open University.’ [err… quantum mechanics is what people do their Phd in and Newtonian physics is what we study in eight grade in high school. Doesn’t Ms Eyre recognise the difference?].


I remember meeting her on the red carpet a few times at this point in her life [her pre-Mrs Talulah Musk days], and she always came across as withdrawn, but poised and perceptive.’

‘Throughout our interview, Talulah exudes calm happiness, not showing-off so much as simply pointing out her spouse’s qualities.’

‘Talulah, I am sure, holds her own [before Musk]. Last Christmas, just to tease him, she filled his stocking with coal.’

Who is playing whom? Is it that Talulah Riley recognises Ms Eyre for an idiot and is feeding her with all kinds of rubbish? Or does Mr Eyre recognise Ms Riley for a dumb blonde and is playing her along? Or is it that they are both idiots taking each other on face value?

Such a Freudian intrigue – how can I resist it?

Friday, November 26, 2010

No, I still think Louis Vuitton is pulling a fast one on us

Louis Vuitton in Paris
 It seemed like a good idea to view the exhibition on Louis Vuitton’s history at Museé Carnavalet in Paris. Andrew had recommended it. Besides, given my previously-expressed cynicism about the brand, I felt I owed it one chance to try and understand the secret of its unceasing popularity. Then again, we were in Marais, one of the most fashionable neighbourhoods I’ve ever visited, and it seemed somehow appropriate.

The exhibition traced the luggage-maker’s history since 1835 when 14-year-old Louis Vuitton undertook a two-year trek from his hometown Jura to Paris to become an apprentice for a luggage store on 4 rue des Capucine. It took him only another 18 years to set up his own eponymous store in the capital. But interestingly – and here’s where my respect for the company grew – the first 100 years of the luggage company were as much based on innovation as branding exercises.

Think about it: 1850s to 1950s is when the means, modes and quality of travel changed dramatically. From horse-drawn carts we sswiftly moved to ocean liners, trains, automobiles and airplanes. Naturally, a change in transport necessitated a change in our luggage designs – and Louis Vuitton constantly innovated to keep up with modern lifestyles.

Luggage and writing desk rolled into one
It started with changing the shape of our trunks from domed-tops to flat tops, which could be easily stacked on top of each other. Then they changed the material used for trunks from leather to coated canvas – less prestigious but sturdier. The House also started cleverly compartmentalising spaces inside to optimise usage. They created slim cabin trunks that could be slipped under the bunks of ocean liners and trains. They created drop leaf cases (where the front end would also drop along with the top) for picnic cases, once automobiles became fashionable. These picnic cases came complete with set-to-size cutlery inside. Among their more outlandishly innovative designs were suitcases with pop-up beds and built-in writing desks for longer exploratory journeys.

The designs were exciting because functionality and not just aesthetics lay at the heart of their creation.Interestingly, after the 1950s, such functionality-based innovation petered out and aesthetics, branding and marketing exercises took over. (It is also the time when the company moves out of family control after three generations of Louis Vuittons at the helm.) It is telling that barely two percent of the exhibits included designs made between the 1950s and now. These exhibits include the luggage custom-made for Damien Hirst, Karl Lagerfeld, Zaha Hadid and film maker Wes Andersen for his film, The Darjeeling Ltd. So their wow-factor had more to do with brand association than with design innovation.

My problem with Louis Vuitton is that even when it comes to aesthetics, the brand is stuck to one look, coming up with gazillion permutations and combinations within that narrow framework. It was Gaston Louis Vuitton – second in the chain – who came up with the brand’s distinctive lazenge motif in 1888, inspired by Japanese design which was all the rage in Paris at that time. But today, the distinctiveness and prominence of the motif has made the brand an extremely easy prey to forgers – for we live in a world of easy duplication. And yet, LVMH Group seems loathe to innovate their design which is a cash cow for them. It is a far call from the days when Louis Vuitton decided to replace leather on his truck cover with coated canvas – a decidedly less prestigious but lighter and sturdier material. He took a call based on functionality, and the canvas in elegant grey went on to become the company's signature design.

Sid says, travel hasn’t changed much since the 1950s. It is still aeroplanes that we travel in so what could they possibly innovate over? Well, the speed, frequency and quality of our travel has changed dramatically. We travel more, for shorter distances and with far lesser luggage. Surely, that requires a new attitude towards luggage making. For example, if Louis Vuitton once came up with a case with an in-built writing desk, then why not one with an in-built laptop board, a device that has attached itself to our beings?

It is because the brand is no longer about innovation in luggage making. It is just another corporation looking for the easiest and safest way to cash-in on the hard-earned reputation of its founding fathers.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

FT, Martin Parr and whether ex-Mumbaikars suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome

I finally got around to reading the FT Weekend Magazine on my way back from Paris.

The tantalising cover and the bold “Seven Days in South Asia” had me most excited. I mean, how often do you see a North Indian woman in a violent pink sari and comic sunglasses on the cover of FT?

Unfortunately, the story was a let-down. It was written in the style of a diary of the FT editor Lionel Barber about his weeklong trip to India and Pakistan. During the eight days – yes, it was eight days but I guess, “Seven days in South Asia” just sounds better – he essentially hobnobbed with the rich and the powerful of the two countries starting with the governor of West Bengal, followed by Mamata Bannerjee, Mukesh Amabani, Anil Ambani, Anil Agarwal of Vedanta Group, Ananda Mahindra, Ratan Tata, PRS Oberoi of Oberoi Hotel, the Ruias, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Manmohan Singh, the governor of Punjab Salman Taseer, and finally Asif Ali Zardari. As all these interviews had to be reduced to a four page story, what we get is mostly his impressions and a few quotes to support those impressions. All that is fine by me. But why the comic, cheeky cover image which suggested insights into the self-perceptions of ordinary Indians? To me, the cover seemed disingenuous and misleading.

The image was shot by Martin Parr. Chirodeep, a photojournalist friend of mine, had first told me about him. Then in a space of a week, I found myself gazing at this works twice. First on the FT cover, and then again at an exhibition at Maison Européenne de la Photographie, which was a part of a month-long photography festival in Paris. Parr’s photographs at the exhibition were from one of his early acclaimed series published in 1986 about British tourists holidaying at Brighton.

The exhibition was about extreme photography: or images that pushed either the photographer or the audience to the extremes of their physical, social, imaginative and/or emotional abilities, and how just by doing so, made the experience a little bit mundane.

Which is why this image by Gabriele Basilico stayed with me for long after I had left the exhibition. It caught my eye the moment I entered the room, mostly because from a distance it looked like Mumbai to me. A densely packed neighbourhood with mid-rise buildings in a semi-ruinous state, where else could it be? It turned out to be shots of bombed-out Beirut from 1991. But honestly, even at a closer look, it kind of looked like Mumbai on an ordinary day to me. It was appalling to think that we Mumbaikars live in what most people would consider “extreme conditions” on an everyday basis.

But don’t extreme conditions come with some form of associated trauma? Which makes me wonder whether I am suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, now that I am not living in Mumbai anymore?

What would its symptoms be? If I had to guess, they would be:
A)    A rush of joy at the sound of traffic noise
B)    Tap water-related paranoia
C)    Morbid fear of silence
D)    And a constant bursting into happy tears at the sight of crowds

If you have any other suggestions, feel free to leave to use the comment space.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A discourse on prejudice: Or why I love coming to Paris.

What I love most about being in Paris is that I can’t understand a word of what anyone is saying. So everyone sounds intelligent and educated to me. Besides, how stupid can they be – they SPEAK French!

In England, I can eavesdrop and am constantly reminded of the general pettiness of human race. Because really, all that people ever do is complain and bitch. Like the two ladies who sat next to Sid & I in the Eurostar to Paris. Three hours! For three hours, all they did was bitch about people, including ironically the girl for whose hen’s party they were visiting Paris.

Worse, in England I can detect accents. And it gives me a sense of people’s background and education – if not of their intelligence. I try, I really try not to judge them on the basis of it. But despite my best efforts, if someone sounds like Katie Price aka Jordan, it is likely to be a short acquaintance. Because I have only limited social time and I would rather spend it with people with whom my wavelengths have at least half-a-chance to match.

In India, the instant judgements go much further because I know the society so much better. Accents aren’t the only giveaway to people’s histories there. In India, I can guess a person’s caste, community and culture by his or her very name. Add an address and occupation to that, and a person’s whole life is reasonably mapped out before me without any effort on my part.

Of course, every now and then I am proved wrong. But it is not pleasing to start an acquaintance under the burden of prejudice.

As a student of media, I know that stereotyping people is wrong. We should not slot people on the basis of their colour, ethnicity, culture, community, caste, accent or education. Because over and above all they are individuals, and their shared cultural experiences will always be modified by their own unique personalities. But how do I train my brain to filter out people’s colour, names, accents and addresses and begin every acquaintance with a clean slate. It just refuses to listen to me.

So instead, I live with guilt: the guilt of a good, Labour-supporting liberal.

And occasionally, I escape to Paris where I can always assume the best of everyone.

The Scottish comedia Danny Bhoy on French accents

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

London's Most Expensive: Or why I love and hate online journalism

What I love and hate about the internet and online journalism is the power it places in the hands of the readers.

I love it because sometimes the commentary by readers opens your eyes to the most curious ideas – ideas that that would have never occured to you. For example, when I wrote a blog about how Frieda Pinto is a fairly average-looking girl in India, I practically got assaulted by an American fan of hers in the commentary section. Her argument was that Pinto wasn’t Indian at all, but Latina, and that Indians in general were ugly and racist and hated Pinto.

Ok, so her language offensive. But I had never thought of Pinto as Latina-looking. But damn it, she is. I can see her playing Latina roles – if her acting chops are up to it – and make a successful Hollywood career out of it. But for the trenchant reader, I would have never thought of it.

But I hate it when readers point out factual errors in your story. For example, I recently wrote an article for the website Londonist on some of London’s most expensive experiences. One of them was London’s most expensive whiskey, and my research led me to a £740 double measure of whiskey at Albannach Bar at Trafalgar Square. My conclusion was based on other media reports, personal memory and internet research. And I thought how could one possibly trump £740 for a shot of whiskey?

Only, as one reader pointed out, Dorchester can. It offers a “Macallan 57 years in Lalique Crystal” for £870.

Thankfully, we were clever enough to put a rider at the end of the story asking readers to trump our finds. So we had already put the humble idea out there that our finds may not be the full and final truth.

Still, I hate being trumped. But as most literature on the future of journalism suggests, I should just get used to it.

Here's a little clip from Drop the Dead Donkey - a satirical series on journalism from its good ol' days in the '80s. Can you imagine any journalist getting away with it today!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Baby gorilla at London Zoo: Or is it EastEnders in a new avatar?

Hmm... so I have started contributing to Londonist. It is all a big experiment and all shall be revealed in due time.

In the meantime, enjoy my latest contribution on gorillas, zoos and EastEnders.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

i Spy: or what possessed The Independent to launch another newspaper?

 Why oh why, did The Independent launch i?

It is a question that has me befuddled ever since I read the first copy of this tabloid-sized newspaper that launched two days ago – the first national newspaper to be launched in Britain in 25 years. I actually read the paper for three days running to try and figure that out.

It is not that I don’t think there is a need for a newspaper, a proper paper publication at that, in the UK. The endlessness of news over the web – the twitter feeds, facebook updates, rss feeds, google news updates and reams and reams of endless commentary – does make me wish for a one-stop shop every morning for all the important events of the day past.

But I wanted it be real news – facts and information that would clue me into the important issues surrounding my life. I didn’t want to be entertained. I didn’t want gossip. I didn’t want lifestyle features. And I certainly didn’t want views and commentary telling me what to think about the issues at hand. I have enough media at my fingertips to do just that for FREE. I only wanted facts – the bare bones to build my own opinion on, if I cared enough about the issue.

That is exactly what i claimed it would do. It was supposed to be “a new kind of a paper” giving you your “essential daily briefing” that “cuts through this information overload to give you all you need”. Only it came filled with features like “Are you getting your oats?”, “best toys in town”, “10 best leggings” reviews on films, theatre and books, tv listings, and still more commentaries and views on television, arts, business, sports and politics to add to the existing media cacophony.

But it is only 20p, The Independent says. The point is I would still have to take a detour to a newsstand or at the very least, stop by a streetside vendor, search through my handbag, and extract 20p for the pleasure. For that much effort, wouldn’t I want to treat myself to a real newspaper?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Watch this space: Or has Google come to our rescue... finally?

Zuckerberg: Poor little rich boy
Watching The Social Network yesterday got me curious about how Facebook makes money. After all, the site hasn’t made a public-offer yet, it hasn’t been bought out, so how has it made Zuckerberg the youngest billionaire in the world?

The answer left me reeling. It made $500 million dollars last year primarily through advertising. Ever noticed those four small boxes that pop-up on the side of your profile page? I hadn’t. I would have, if I had known that they were making nearly $450 million dollars for Zuckerberg & Co annually. And what made me nearly burst into tears was that the rest of the $50 million dollars were being made through sale of virtual goods – those silly $1 ducks, mugs, hugs and batches we keep sending to each other.

How is it that Facebook can get people to collectively spend $50 million dollars on silly goods that are not even real but newspaper and magazine websites can’t get a penny out of people for bringing critical information to their desktops every day? What is it that media companies providing information content don't seem to understand about their audience? Or is it that they are just lazy, uncreative and incapable of thinking of innovative ways to squeeze money out their audience? The best great minds such as Rupert Murdoch’s have been able to come up with is a militant, view-on-subscription-only paywall approach. But if I haven’t felt motivated enough to get an online subscription to his Sunday Times then fat chance Mr Murdoch has with ADD-infected teenagers? 

But help may be on its way if Google’s Watch This Space campaign is even half as effective as it sounds.

Now we might as well accept that information content is all going to go digital. It is also mostly going to be free. So the only saviour content creators can possibly find is advertisors. And yet, online advertising has always been particularly dull. Those tacky banner ads have a tendency to pop-up at the wrong time and wrong place. Besides, conventional wisdom suggests that the medium is too fragmented and fractured for any campaign to make any measurable impact. However, Google has put its geek-might behind making online advertisements easy, smarter, attractive, measurable, customised and better-targeted than ever before.

Algorithm-by-algorithm, Google is trying to streamline the online digital space to make it easier for advertisers to find the right audience, place smart and attractive advertising campaign swiftly and smartly, and be able to measure its success more accurately.

For example, Google representatives Barry Salzman and Neil Mohan at the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Mixx conference last month (see video above) predicted that almost half of all online display ads will move from static text banners to real media ads, that is, videos which are interactive and expandable. Google claims to have the necessary technology called the double click studio to help the conversion. The ads will be customised in real time depending on the audience and their location. They are also working on more metrics to examine the success of the campaign, which hitherto has been dependent on the actual number of clicks on display ads. But clicks didn’t take into account people who made related searches or visited the product’s website instead of clicking on the display ad. Google claims it can make that possible in the future, apart from coming up with other solutions to measure a campaign’s success.

If Google can, and if online media becomes genuinely profitable for the first time, perhaps there will be some hope for me.

And yes, The Social Network was a fabulous film! Zuckerberg was a sneaky little bastard but what a rich sneaky little bastard he was.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Bookered Out: Or I bet Jacobson was not mantelpiece-deprived like me

As Howard Jacobson was accepting his first Man Booker Prize award yesterday for the book The Finkler Question, I was accepting my first polite rejection from the Story Quarterly to whom I had sent a short story for publication.

I don’t blame them. I was destined to fail as a writer. Because I grew-up funny in small town India reading words I couldn’t visualise and seeing things I had no words for.

Howard Jacobson: Bet his was rich with mantelpieces
We spoke Hindi at home, English at school, and a hopeless mix of the two everywhere else, and my book diet was rationed by our school librarian to 12 books a year -- to be chosen out of an exclusively selected pile of Enid Blytons and Nancy Drews. Other than that, there was a Railway Club library entirely built out of the comic books and American paperback thrillers left behind by Railway Officers passing through Dhanbad.

The problem was that everything I read related to some imaginary world out there with landscapes, terrains, houses, neighbourhoods, foods and clothes that were divorced from most things that surrounded me. I remember spending an entire winter afternoon in our large, bare drawing room staring hard at its every feature trying to figure out if anything fit the description of a mantelpiece. Mantelpieces frequently appeared in the lives of the Famous Five whom I was rather obsessed with. Yet, I had great trouble visualising it. I knew my drawing room had shelves and a cupboard, four walls and a CEMA fluorescent tube light – but nothing that could be a mantelpiece. It sounded grand, M-A-N-T-E-L-P-I-E-C-E, but what was it? What did it really look like? The fat Oxford English Dictionary gave me a hazy idea of shape and form, and the fact that it probably had something to do with fireplaces, but nothing concrete that I could grasp. And there were no google images to rush up to. There was only my imagination, and a hazy, frustrating feeling that I was not trying hard enough.

But how could an eight-year-old visualise something that she had never seen. How could I visualise bacon, mackintoshes, loafers, brogues, macaroons, jodhpurs, loafers, brambles, blueberries, awnings, turrets, gables, attics, and daffodils when I was surrounded by saris, pyjamas, polyester, aubergines, karelas, English broilers, spices, scooters, pigs in gutters and water buffaloes. Slowly, I simply started shutting descriptions out, involving myself more and more with the characters and their internal lives. After all, I could still identify with their anger, surprise, jealousies, envies and joys, if not with their mackintoshes and brogues. I thought that a better solution than the one my best friend Shilpi (or was it Shilpa?) came up with – not read at all.

To make matters worse, there were no texts around me that helped me put into specific words the things that actually formed my visual landscape. Even our school textbooks were filled with stories by English and American writers. There was nothing that described the lives we led in our Indian towns and cities. Was there a specific word to describe the standalone single-storey brick-built apartment block that I lived in? I knew it was different from the row of stone-built single-storey apartments with shared walls that my friend lived in. If there were separate words to distinguish them, I never came across them in either books or real life – they were only ever called buildings. There were bungalows and then there were buildings, nothing in between.

Confused and frustrated by words and descriptions, I simply stopped looking for words to describe the in-betweens. Rooms were rooms, houses were houses, trees were trees, colonies were colonies and chicken curry was chicken curry – if there were in-between features, they existed in the world of my vision, not in words, not on paper, not in stories, and not in novels.

Today, Indian children are more lucky. Google has made the world so much smaller, and Indian authors writing about life in India are increasingly common. But it is too late for me. Mantelpiece deprivation sealed my fate forever. Bet Jacobson never had that problem.

 Update: Naresh sent me a link related to a BBC4 documentary talking about Blyton's overpowering effect on so many Indian children. I am glad I wasn't the only one.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Zuckerberg & The Social Network: Or why when in doubt I turn to The New Yorker

On my third day at Time Out Mumbai, I dragged Naresh into our merry, cherry-red office meeting room and demanded to know what he expected of me as a journalist. I was an aggressive, green 24-year-old, and was determined that my Columbia-educated, WSJ-alumnus editor, Naresh Fernandes, was going to teach me all that there was to learn about journalism. Naresh, in his usual part-alarmed, part-taciturn way, asked me if I had heard of The New Yorker. I hadn’t – you see, I was also a stupid 24-year-old. He went ack to his desk, got a few copies, handed them to me, and said: “This was my favourite magazine in New York. This is what I want Time Out to be.”

I remember feeling a bit deflated at that time. But six years later, I wonder if he could have taught me more about journalism then to introduce me to the absolute best in the trade. I am a complete, unabashed, unapologetic fan of the publication and now website. I love it because whenever there are too many voices, too much emotion, too much hyperbole in the air about something, I know I can turn to The New Yorker for a detailed, thoroughly well-researched and reasoned analysis of the situation.

And if there is one subject that has tongues wagging at the moment, it is David Fincher & Alan Sorkin’s film The Social Network, which is the story of how Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, screwed all and sundry in the process of becoming the hippest geek in the world. It is hardly surprising that the film is so anticipated. After all, no internet tool since Google had impacted our lives as much online as offline. For better or worse, it tapped somewhere deep into our psychology and affected our notions of friendship, popularity, self-awareness, privacy and connectivity. And of its reach, I can only say that my 61-year-old Dad who still types with one finger has a Facebook account, as do many of his friends.

The film will release in the UK on Oct 15 but if reviews of the film from the US are anything to go by, Zuckerberg is depicted as a socially-retarded, sexually-charged, and morally-vacant person. The film is not kind to Zuckerberg’s personality, his intentions or the way he went about making the Facebook tool. In short, we will probably come out the theatre heartily disliking the fellow and suspicious of how his intentions for us, the unquestioning users of Facebook.

But trust the New Yorker to come out with a more questioning and nuanced profile of Zuckerberg just before the film’s release in the States to balance the Sorkin’s hyperbolic character. The author Jose Antonio Vargas still describes him as supremely ambitious, iconoclastic and socially-retarded, but tempers his portrayal with enough humanity to make him believable. There are four things from the article that I would like to keep in mind when I watch the film.

a)    He was 19 when he created the tool. He is 28 years old now. Surely, some self-reflection must have accompanied his ascent into adulthood.

b)    If money and acceptance was all-important to him, why didn’t he sell his tool to Yahoo!, Microsoft or MTV Networks, all of whom offered him between 75 million dollars and a billion dollars for the tool.

c)    His girlfriend of last seven years, Priscillia Chan, is a Chinese-American studying medicine at the University of California. Somehow that does not sound like the actions of a horny, misogynistic jerk – that the film supposedly shows he to be – who suddenly came into a lot of money and fame.

d)    And finally, the fact that the 49-year-old Sorkin admitted in the article that he knew very little about social networking and professed an “extreme dislike of the blogosphere and social media”. Are the most ignorant, often the most prejudiced?

The New Yorker article was important because how we view Zuckerberg, and perhaps Facebook, will be affected by the film for a long time to come. Hence, I am glad that there is another compelling and alternative account of him out there too to counter the film’s character. After all, as any good journalist knows, you will never know the truth but it is important to put all versions of it out there. And The New Yorker is all about good journalism.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Wright or Wrong: Or how not to get "Robie-ed" in life

Robie House: modernism or a Vaastu disaster?
I couldn’t have left Chicago without visiting at least one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings -- now could I? So I zeroed in on Robie House: a residential house he built in 1910 in Hyde Park (the neighbourhood that would later house the Obamas). Not only was it considered to be Wright's first house that truly embodied modernism, it is now a museum with guided tours of the property.

It turned out to be beautiful, peaceful, three-storey brick house with an innovative spatial lay-out, gorgeous design details and lots of delightful little aids to the modern life, such as an ice-box, planters with automated water pipes and vacuum cleaners, with reflected the forward-looking sensibilities of the young, fashionable Robie family.

I kept thinking how lovely it must have been to live in the house until our guide started disclosing the sordid fates of all its eventual residents. The house was custom-built for 28-year-old Fredrick C Robie, his socialite wife and two kids, keeping in mind their modern lifestyle, ideals and aesthetic sensibilities. But poor Fredrick Robie, who spent nearly $60,000 on the house (20 times what he had budgeted for it), went bankrupt within a year of moving into the house. He sold the house to repay his debts, but never recovered his fortunes. Soon after, his wife walked out on him with their two kids. The new owners of the house, The Taylors, didn’t have a happy run in the house either. David Taylor died less than a year after moving into it, and the house had to be sold again. The third and last family to live in the house were the Wilburs, who lived there for 13 years. History doesn’t record their fate, but they sold the house to the Chicago Theological Seminary, who bought it with the general idea of demolishing it and rebuilding larger premises on the plot. They attempted to do so thrice, and only gifts of all the adjoining plots to the Seminary by Wright fans to the premises instead finally stopped them. The house was then bought by a real estate firm which handed it over to the University of Chicago in 1963. It ran a rather dull administrative office there till 1997, after which it was converted into a museum. So it was a family home than never quite managed to become one.

How could this amazingly harmonious-looking house bring so much disharmony in the lives of all those who lived in it?

Sid and I could think of only one cheeky explanation: messed-up Vaastu (or the Feng Shui of India). I searched the Internet to find if any of the enthusiastic proponents of Vaastu Shastra might have done a post mortem of this famously controversial house pointing out all the design-disasters led to such headaches in the lives of its residents. Surprisingly, I didn’t find any.

So here’s an idea for a reality show for silly Indian television: Vaastu vs Wright, or should we say, how not be “Robied” of love and luck in life?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Me & the Bean Talk

There are few things that immediately turn me into a child. Sculptures by Anish Kapoor – especially the large, tactile, abstract ones – invariably do.

Which is why I landed up visiting the Millenium Park thrice during my two-week stay in Chicago. Just so that I could stare, touch and fool around with The Bean (or Cloud Gate, as is its official name that nobody uses) – the giant, bean-shaped, silvery sculpture by Anish Kapoor that sits in the park reflecting the amazing towered skyline of downtown Chicago.

After attending a retrospective of his works at the Royal Academy of Arts, I had written in a blogpost: “The material and colours somehow invited you to touch them, stare into their curving holes, pose in front of its shiny surfaces, hop over them, slide under them – and just fool around with them. The museum staff was having a tough time stopping people from doing just that, even though, I wonder if Kapoor would really mind. The works looked too solid to be easily harmed by anyone.”

Well, there was no museum staff to police people here, and boy, were they fooling around with the sculpture? You could see people being attracted to its shiny, curved reflective surface almost against their will. They would stare at it, crawl under it, run their palms on its smooth surface, and then slowly the camera would come out and they would go nuts shooting their own distorted reflections, or in my case, taking post-modern pictures of me taking pictures of Sid, which he has expressly forbidden me from publishing on this blog.

The work did exactly what good public art should do – get people curious, interested, fascinated and, at the end, exhilarated.

According to Wikipedia, the people of Chicago started referring to the sculpture as The Bean even before it was fully unveiled, thanks to its inverted bean shape. Kapoor thought the name "completely stupid", and went on to name it Cloud Gate. Of course, I didn't come across one person in the city who called it that. But then again, looking at his amazingly tactile works, one would imagine that Kapoor made them specifically for people to physically interact with. Yet, as Girish said in a comment to my previous blogpost, he absolutely hates the public touching his works. The fact that the people anyway call his work The Bean and continue to touch it in fascination goes to show how the city has appropriated his sculpture. It is a measure of how this public work of art has truly gone public. Would Kapoor have wanted it any other way?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Kallat in Chicago: Or you just can't escape India anywhere

Step-by-step Kallat conquers the world

I went all the way to Chicago, and guess what – the first article to catch my eye, when I opened the Time Out Chicago website, was one recommending a view of a public installation work by Jitish Kallat entitled Public Notice 3 at the Art Institute of Chicago or ARTIC. (ARTIC, by the way, houses such greats as Nighthawks by Edward Hopper and American Gothic by Grant Wood.) Never one to let a story go to waste, I quickly charged my dictaphone and set out to view the work and interview the curator. The article appeared in this week’s TOI Crest, and you can read an online version of it here.

What is interesting, and which I didn’t get a chance to discuss in the article – word counts are such a bummer! – is how the work actually got made.

So for those not keen on reading the Crest piece, this much should suffice to understand the work: “The installation links two important events in American history. The first is the landmark speech delivered by Swami Vivekananda calling for an end to “bigotry and fanatism” at the opening of the first World’s Parliament of Religions, on September 11, 1893, held at the site of the Chicago museum. The second is, of course, the terrorist attacks on the same day, 108 years later. Kallat has recreated the entire text of Swami Vivekananda’s speech on the risers of the main staircase of the museum using LED lights in the five colors of the US Department of Homeland Security alert system—red, orange, yellow, blue and green.”

However, I imagined Kallat playing a critical role in the creation of the installation. When we hear that the installation is by So-&-So, we still conjure-up visions of the artist painstakingly hammering away at his sculpture / installation. Actually, Kallat’s main role regarding this work pertained to conceptualisation. The museum curator, Madhuvanti Ghose, then found a company that specialises in making art installations, gave them the specifications, and worked with them to bring the installation to life. Kallat was consulted over phones and emails. Throughout the course of the installation’s creation – which was roughly a year – Kallat only made an appearance in Chicago once. That was in August this year, a month before the show’s opening, when the installation was ready for a mock-up.

I wonder if any credit needs to be given to the company that actually produced the installation as per the specifications received. None of the literature accompanying the work mentions them. Ms Ghose in the interview said that it is well-known within the artistic community of Chicago, so I am guessing, they don’t as such need the marketing mention. But do we as the viewers need to know who actually made this work, apart from who conceptualised it?

I am not asserting that the installation not being hand-made by Kallat in any way diminishes it. It does not: the work fully and completely remains his. But does the museum or the artist owe it to their viewers to make the process of the making of the artwork transparent to the viewer?

What was also interesting was that the installation – that is so custom-made for this particular site – can in fact be loaned to other museums. Only, it would have to be built from scratch for the borrowing museum. Ms Ghose said that the site of its display will have be relevant, since much of the artwork’s meaning is derived from the site of its installation: the staircase opposite the Fullerton Hall at ARTIC, the exact spot where Swami Vivekananda made his speech on September 11, 1893. However, I wonder, if the artwork is so site-specific, how can it ever be recreated elsewhere without either losing its meaning or donning a new meaning. Would it not then be a whole new work?

After all, if it weren’t for its site-specificity, wouldn’t the art-work simply be Detergent: a very similar text-and-light installation – with the same speech and colours – on the staircase of the Guangdong Museum of Art in China, that Kallat made last year?

I have created a soundslide – my first – of Kallat’s installation. All images except the first one are courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago. (PS: The triumphant Star & Stripes music is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, and yes, I know there are typos in the video text. I didn't realise that I wouldn't be allowed to edit once the video was made. Sorry about that.)

Kallat goes to America on PhotoPeach

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Games people play: Or why the success of CWG will spell our doom

A cracker of an Opening Night...
As I watched the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi – perhaps, the most controversial in the history of the Games – I kept thinking of the wise words by a wise Indian economist – “The 21st century is India’s to lose”. If the past few months building-up to the Games are anything to go by then lose it we will.

The opening ceremony was a success. No bombs went off, no ceilings came down, no bridges collapsed and we put together a lovely, warm, humorous opening ceremony – I damn near burst into tears twice while watching it. Unfortunately, in its very success lie the seeds of our eventual failure to make it big. Because this final face-saving effort will erase the need for any post-mortem or soul-searching that is necessary if we are ever to remove the “ing” from our “developing” tag.

What we really and truly needed was for the Games to be cancelled. We needed to be told by the world that “Jugaad” – the boastful Hindi word that we use to show the ingenuity of our last-minute “beg, borrow, steal” survival skills – is not good enough. We needed complete humiliation to realise that if we want to be taken seriously around the world then we need to start taking ourselves seriously first. We need to demand higher standards of our politicians, government officials – and before them, of all ourselves.

I remember meeting this Delhiite in Vienna who kept complaining about how Tata Nano – the one lakh car – would spell the ruin of the city. A little while later, when I asked him how many cars he owned for his family of five, he proudly declared, “Oh, seven”. He saw no irony in his position. Similarly, I am sure right this moment one of the private contractors, who bribed his way into the Games and then provided shoddy, inefficient construction work, is sitting somewhere loudly complaining about how corruption is the bane of our country. And he’ll see no irony in his complaints. If we look into our own lives, we are constantly taking advantage of our corrupt, inefficient systems to gain little advantages: whether it is dodging a traffic fine, getting a fake license, bribing examiners, exploiting our servants or getting contracts to CWG Games for a steal. Because we are corrupt and inefficient as people, we have a corrupt and inefficient government. After all, we are a proud democracy, aren’t we? And democracy is as much a government OF the people and BY the people, as it is FOR the people.

To make matters worse, there will be insidious comments about the complains being a racist conspiracy. Only, I don’t understand what is racist about pointing out that if a footbridge to the biggest stadium collapses two weeks before the opening ceremony, then the facilities are potentially dangerous? What is racist about saying that that missing deadlines after deadlines in building the stadiums and residential village is not a mark of a mature country vying to be seen as a world power? What is racist about asking for clean toilets and rooms for athletes? What is racist about holding us to the same standards as they would hold other developed countries to? On the contrary, wouldn’t it be patronising and racist to expect lower standards of us?

The fact that the ceremony opened to great fanfare will make us forget the ridiculousness of our efforts – the missed deadlines, the broken bridges, the falling ceilings, the inflated budgets, the slimy double-dealings, most of all, the deaths and injuries of construction workers that marked the event. We will just comically nod our heads side-to-side and say, we are like this only – and expect the world to congratulate us for our “jugaad”.

... but better not forget the fallen footbridges
Just remember, the only other Games to be riddled with the same last-minute, hurried problems – though on a somewhat smaller scale – was the Olympic Games of 2004 held in Athens, Greece.  And Greece was the first country to go humiliatingly bankrupt when world recession rolled-in. Internally weakened by years of corruption, inefficiencies and nepotism, it simply collapsed. Is that the fate we are looking for ourselves too? The twenty-first century – ours to lose?