All posts by anonandon

New York Ramble

I’m sitting with my cup of tea, in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, and it’s snowing outside. Snow that’s turning to slush at first contact, but it’s still snow. White and swirly and cold. However, snow in April is not the oddest part of this trip.

A few years ago, I’d timed a trip to New York with The New Yorker Festival. A friend who lives in Manhattan (no less) heard the events I was attending at the festival and told me, “Next time you hear of stuff like this, let me know? I’d love to go.” I remember looking at him like he was a bit of an idiot. How could you live in New York and need someone in India to tell you about what’s happening at The New Yorker Festival?

Having spent about two weeks in New York in a domesticated fashion and not as my usual touristy self, now I see why he’d said what he had. I’ve managed one trip to one museum and one hour at a photography fair in the time that I’ve been here. Whereas usually my New York days are filled with walking and culture-vulture-ing, these past weeks have been all about commuting, groceries and domestic chores. I haven’t even read a book. Finding time to wander around Central Park every now and then has felt like a victory of sorts.

For the first week or so, it was actually sort of amusing to live this life. I felt like I was watching myself, like in an out of body experience. This is also how life can be — filled with invisible, bland business that leaves you without a free moment and teaches you little more than patience and the awesome cooking potential of a low flame. But after 10 days, the restlessness kicked in. Where are my words? No, groceries are not as important as cultural spelunking. Yes, writing is work even when what you’re writing isn’t something that’s going to be published right here right now. Yes, it demands time. And no, I don’t have any to spare. I feel like someone who cuts themselves. For every day that I don’t write, there is a thin slash; a set of tally marks that are keeping count of the things I haven’t done.

A novelist I had once interviewed told me that their greatest fear was that one day, their “fiction tap” would go dry, that they’d turn the faucet and there would be nothing. They told me that I had it easier with non-fiction. “Things are always happening, after all.” But it isn’t really enough for things to happen. Your work needs to take note of what is really happening in the midst of all the noise and clutter and chaos. For me, writing has been like exercising a muscle: the more you work the writing muscle, the easier it becomes to write. (I may have come up with this definition to feel marginally better about having no actual, physical exercise in my life, but never mind that.) When I say easier, what I mean is that you take less time with the paraphernalia that’s essential to writing. The words take less time to get strung into sentences; the structure of a piece comes together quicker; the point of writing something reveals itself with less coquetry.

At the recent AIPAD Photography Show, I saw this series of photographs by Stanley Forman. It’s titled “Death Fall” and they’re probably very famous, but it’s the first time I saw them. The five photographs were lined up one next to the other. You could perhaps have ignored the first few, but the last one is impossible to walk past unseeingly.

Death Fall by Stanley Forman
Death Fall by Stanley Forman

At the time that Forman took the shots, he didn’t really know what the photograph would be. “I didn’t even look at the next frame, I didn’t know exactly what I’d got. I knew I had shot them coming down, I didn’t realise how dramatic it was until I had developed the film,” he told the BBC. But his eye and his camera were focused perfectly to capture that fraction of a moment when the mother and son were literally suspended between life and death;  the terrible, balletic movement of their fall. You could call it luck, but that’s not really the reason. It is, at best, a small part of making that amazing photograph. The reason Forman got those shots was that he was practiced. He could click without having to think too much about focus and frame because those things registered almost instinctively as a result of him having clicked and clicked and clicked countless times.  

The snow has gone past ready-to-melt fluffiness. I can hear it fall now — sharp, occasional ticks against the window and the metal strips of the fire escape. I have a notebook with scribbles of a chapter of Sirius Black’s Mumbai adventures and a camera with photographs that need downloading. I should write, I could download the images. Instead, I’m listening to snow fall and the filtered fragments from the television show that my neighbour is watching. She’s watching The Office, the American version. I’m reasonably sure I heard Steve Carell. What I’m thinking about though is Irene, my neighbour, who has worked for a bank for the past 35 years and who can hear me walking in my apartment. That’s how I’ve met her. She knocked on the door and said, “Excuse me, but could you please walk softly? I can hear you walk in my apartment.” She also asked if I work at a restaurant. “You come home awful late.” She has not spoken to me in Spanish, which is what a lot of people in Spanish Harlem have done. (I just say “Gracias” to everything.) Irene wakes up every morning at 6 because she needs to reach work by 8am. I’m wondering if she’s fallen asleep with the television on or if she’s awake at 1.28am. She just turned off the television, which means she was awake. I wonder whether I kept her up. Perhaps she could hear me tapping on the keyboard (a thin wall separates her bed and my desk). When I go to sleep, I will step carefully, on my tiptoes, just to make sure my tread on the wooden floor doesn’t wake her.    

Finding Vivian Maier

A woman walks around with a camera around her neck and a child by her side. Some 50-odd years later, a man buys a box of negatives for about $300. They’re not precisely the kind of photos he was looking for, so he stashes the negatives away. Then one day, he pulls them out and starts looking at them. He likes what he sees so he checks the name of the photographer: Vivian Maier. Like all good people of the 21st century, he Googles her. There’s nothing.

That’s really where the story of Vivian Maier begins — with the amazing fact that the only proof of her existence are the photographs she took. This sort of traceless life is as fantastical as unicorns today. No matter how delicately and quietly we may try to tread, we leave footprints and reflections in a digital universe that is fast becoming as real — if not more so — as the physical world we inhabit. We photobomb pictures unwittingly; we appear in comments; there’s a mosaic portrait that’s being put together no matter how far you retreat from the virtual world.

Not with Maier. She lived for 83 years, worked as a nanny and caregiver, travelled around the world, met hundreds of people, and yet even now, there are only two things that can be said of her with any degree of certainty: she was born in New York and she took photographs.  And this is after the chap who found her negatives has bought pretty much all she possessed, researched her life and made a documentary on her.

Finding Vivian Maier by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel reminded me a little of Searching for Sugarman. Both of them begin with only works of art that offer few clues about the artist behind them, and in both, the filmmakers embark on a fact finding mission. Finding Vivian Maier isn’t as craftily-told as Searching for Sugarman. It’s a more straightforward, chronological account of both Maloof’s efforts to find out who Maier was and Maier’s life. At regular intervals, his interviewees remind us that Maier is a tough nut to crack. She didn’t talk about herself much. She locked her room and didn’t let anyone enter. Genealogists despair at how little information there is about her family. All of which is, no doubt, meant to make you admire Maloof all the more for having persisted despite museums like MoMA politely rejecting his offer to donate Maier’s work to them.

When you look at Maier’s photographs, there seems to be little doubt that MoMA made a big mistake when they passed on this collection. It’s also pretty obvious that Finding Vivian Maier is partly Maloof’s attempt at legitimising a body of work that he is now selling and showcasing at different galleries around the world. Maloof doesn’t hide the fact that he’s making money from this project, but to be fair, he is the one who found the negatives, scanned them, printed them, framed them etc. etc.

(All these photos are from the blog that Maloof set up for Maier’s work back in 2011.)

But never mind Maloof. What about Maier? Maloof found people who had hired her, children (now adults) who had been in her care and pretty much anyone who remembered seeing her. There’s a lot that comes out. Maier was a hoarder — she collected newspapers, badges, receipts and a lot of rubbish. She was fascinated by morbid headlines and creepy places. She created a false identity for herself by adopting a vaguely European accent. Later, she pretended to be “a sort of spy” and gave a false name to people. Some of the children she took care of were fond enough of her to rent an apartment for her when she grew too old to work. Others accused her verging on abusive. The only thing that everyone agrees upon is that she always had a camera around her neck.

It seems Maier was born in New York and that the Maier family wasn’t particularly close-knit. However, the one person Maier held on to was her mother, French-born Marie. It’s almost as if she tried to become her mother. Not only would Maier go on to fake a hint of a French accent, she told people that she was born in France. Maier would also go to the village in France where her mother’s from and meet that side family a number of times, both as a child and as an adult. Her mother was a photographer too. There’s a lovely but fleeting moment in Finding Vivian Maier when a doddering cousin of Maier’s brings out a camera. Maloof thinks its Maier’s but no, it’s Maier’s mother’s camera. The one time that Maier tried to get her photographs out of the boxes and in public, she wrote to a photo studio in that little French village, asking if they would print postcards of her work.

Finding Vivian Maier doesn’t offer the ride that Searching for Sugarman did, but it’s fascinating to realise you can have so many little pieces of a puzzle and still not see the entire picture. By the end of the documentary, we don’t really know whether Maier was a nice woman, whether she was a good friend, what her favourite colour was, if she had a history of abuse, if she was an abuser. Did she begin as an eccentric and end up to be completely cuckoo in her last years? Why did she wear men’s clothes? Did she like the work she did or was it just a means of enabling her photography? Even her fascination for her mother’s French background is conjecture. All we have are her photographs and the only thing they tell us about Vivian Maier is that she was a helluva photographer.

See more of Vivian Maier’s photography here. The site also has the trailer for Finding Vivian Maier.

Delhi Dallying

For her, Delhi is the city of love stories that weren’t really about love but were so inflamed with longing that just thinking about them makes her breath snag even now.

For me, it’s that beautiful, barbaric place where life stretches comfortably between old and new. Here, I’m both the curmudgeon of the present and the college student from another century. I like what I am here — a returning tourist. I don’t know the city, but I recognise it and it behaves with courtesy and the cool politesse.

She takes me on the Metro and we stand by the door, laughing and chatting and confiding. She points out the Qutab Minar to me. Once the train goes underground, even though I recognise the names of the stations, I can’t imagine what’s actually above ground, above me, in parts of Delhi that I once knew better than its auto drivers.

I remember when I was in college, I swanned around Delhi confident that I could get lost in the city, but I’d never be at a loss here. In the Delhi Metro, underground, at a station that I approach tentatively, I wonder whether I’m lost, at a loss or both.

 

She shows me a photo of an ex on her WhatsApp. I look at it, trying to figure out whether the face that I can’t quite see (bent head, looking away from camera, at a phone) may be attractive. She notices the time stamp under the name that she hasn’t uttered since their last night together a few years ago. “7.09pm,” she says. It’s now 7.10pm.

I admit to her that when I walk into Khan Market, it’s the old market I see even though there’s newness crammed into its every spare inch. I don’t know or care to notice the bars and cafes where you can still smoke indoors, the old place that has a new outlet, the new doorway for the old shop that’s been refurbished. Mine is the Khan Market of a book shop called Bahrisons; where clove cigarettes cost Rs 1 more than they do in other parts of the city; the Khan Market of orange sunshine cake at Cafe Turtle. She tells me that Bahrisons has a new shop that’s only for children’s books.

This is the city that she doesn’t want to leave and the one she hates coming home to — “this isn’t home, it’s a stopover. It is to me what that terminal was to Tom Hanks,” she says.

 

I tell her about the man, Ratan Singh, whose son retired about four years before he did. “I take after my father. He also looks very young for his age,” was all the explanation Ratan Singh would give for the fact that as far as government paperwork is concerned, his son is older than him. His son has a birth certificate. Singh knows the day he was born there was terrible rain and the tree that was a few hundred metres from his home was struck by lightning. That was a terrible year for crops in his village so his father went to the city, Delhi, to find work.

Delhi is the city where I argue with my not-so-distant family about The Hindus and Narendra Modi, where she keeps quiet so that no one at the table will really notice she’s on her phone and not listening to the debate about whether or not the gambling circuit’s hunch is on to something when it predicts that the Congress party will get only about 50-70 seats in the upcoming general elections.

Could you live here forever, she asks me. My first thought is that I’m not beautiful enough to belong in Delhi. I sort of managed to fit in when I was in the flush of youth, with my crazy skirts and kohl and energy. I’m tired now and settled in my uncool skin, utterly misfit with my drabness against Delhi’s dusty, sun-polished prettiness. Mumbai, with its bright blue tarp and hideous architecture, with its absent green and encroaching gray, its late night traffic jams and uncunning cabbies — it may not be mine yet, but its ugliness is as comforting as a hug from an old lover. I don’t know if she’ll understand what I mean so I beat all this down to a flat, simple “No” for her.

We laugh about how she was born in Mumbai and I was born in Delhi, but here she is and there I am. I ask her if she loves Delhi, after all the years spent here. She tells me she loves the sex she’s had in the city. I tell her sex isn’t the first criterion that comes to my mind when I’m thinking about whether I belong in a city.

“Really?” she says.

“Really,” I reply.

“So why do you love a city? Its infrastructure?”

I feel vaguely like someone agreeing to an arranged marriage when I say, “Well… yes” and hope like hell she’s too drunk to list all the things that fall apart on a daily basis in my Mumbai.

More Sirius

The Magnificent Amboli launched at Sirius and stuffed Sirius’s mouth with mangoes that seemed to have appeared out of her, well, love handles. From the corner of her eye, Sirius could see The Magnificent Amboli’s sons had straightened and were looking distinctly tense, as though they also wanted to launch themselves at Sirius.
“Are you insane?” the Magnificent Amboli hissed. “Get off at Lower Parel? And then what? Walk into Phoenix Mills, go to McDonald’s and ask for a Filet-O-Fish and an appointment with You Know Who?”

(See the whole chapter here.)

Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz’s Active Door

In some ways, seeing an exhibition of abstract art is like entering a round of Fear Factor. This could happen with any kind of art, but abstract art is particularly unnerving. For me at least, the first reaction is sheer panic. In front of you is an entire exhibition that has made sense if not to anyone else, then to the artist and the gallerist. If it’s a reputed gallery and a good artist, then you know that what’s looking like a random jumble shapes and colours to you, is actually supposed to make sense. Except of course, it doesn’t at first. And here’s the thing: it’s not meant to, not at first. If it did, then it wouldn’t really be ‘abstract’ art, would it?

When I first walked around Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz‘s Active Door (currently showing in Mumbai), all I could see was a swarm of triangles, lots of indigo and white. These were mostly large works on paper that didn’t look like paper (she works on gorgeous, thick handmade paper).  Every work seemed to be a sign from the universe that I am a certifiable idiot who should just stick to reading Mills & Boons (though, I would like to state for the record, that stuff is damn difficult to write).

Having been through this a number of times, I know that while I am a bit of an idiot, if I get a grip and give the art on the walls a little time, things usually fall into place. The shapes stop looking so random and begin to reveal patterns. Colours start preening to catch your eye and connections between works glint in the gallery’s carefully-arranged lighting. So now, thinking back to Active Door, it’s strange to think that the first thing that struck me about the show isn’t how beautiful the paintings in it are.

It was, however, the first thing I noticed once I’d got past the Fear Factor stage of walking into an art exhibition. Active Door is an incredibly pretty show even if you’re just looking at the works as decorative wall hangings. The handmade paper is so thick that it seems to be as stiff as treated canvas. It can’t be rolled and it absorbs colour intensely. Against this fantastic paper, the paint is bright and bold. Some of the paintings, particularly those with indigo and gold, almost look like they’re enamel pieces. As a result, even though they’re made up of meticulously painted and arranged geometric shapes, the patterns don’t look fragile the way miniature paintings do.

Most of the paintings in the show are on paper that’s been dyed indigo. It was that blue that finally unlocked Active Door for me. Focus on the colour and the paper’s matt, unevenness and that indigo becomes reminiscent of the night sky or a deep sea that’s layer upon layer of dark, gleaming blue. And just like that, the lines and triangles in the painting before me revealed that they were, in fact, a trireme.

Argo, by Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz
Argo, by Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz

(I’d like to believe that I’d have noticed the trireme if I’d known the painting is called “Argo”. But there is no wall text in the gallery. So.)

Once you spot a form in an abstract painting, it’s impossible to unsee it. Some of Mumtaz’s paintings started looking like massive parchment to me, with hieroglyphics that are intriguing but not incomprehensible. The ragged, uneven edges and symbols that have relevance in past and present societies made these paintings modern ancients, if you will.

When I spoke to Mumtaz later, asking her to tell me about works, she said that “Argo” showed a boat, yes, but it could also be an upside-down tree. After she pointed it out, I could see what she wanted me to see, but for me, “Argo” remains a trireme making its way through the deep, blue sea; maintaining a safe distance from the jagged beauty of the yellow jagged rocks. (You might be able to tell that I rather enjoyed The Odyssey with its dark seas and blue-prowed ships.) Across from “Argo” hung the painting “Ladder”, which looks vaguely like a kilim or a prayer mat — another kind of journey, and both require individuals to become part of a collective.

There’s such a lovely tension between movement and steadiness in the triangle, a recurring motif in Mumtaz’s paintings. The triangle can be a vector, it appears in signage directed at drivers, and at the same time, sitting on its base, it’s seemingly immovable.  That elegant equilibrium quite obviously informs “Bark”, for instance.

Bark, by Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz
Bark, by Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz

It seemed like a boat — considered a symbol of the soul in many cultures — in the rain to me initially. You can’t tell either the gorgeous, rich indigo blue of the paper in the photo and neither does the rich turquoise and gold come through. Yes, those beige/biscuit coloured bits are actually 24 karat gold. I saw “Bark” and I thought of a few rays of sunlight finding their way past monsoon clouds. The solidity of the upper part, with the solid colours, is contrasted by the delicate lines in the lower section. I love the thin curves below the line of the water that denotes the boat’s reflection in the dark, shimmering water.  Looking at the golden arrows striking the boat at right angles, “Bark” makes me think of the boat being at sea, but not necessarily lost. It’s anchored to its spot by that line of arrows.

Coming back to the triangles, look carefully at paintings like “Bark” and “Clashing Rocks” and there’s a little illusion at play that confuses negative and positive spaces. In “Bark”, for instance, if you focus on the turquoise, the indigo areas seem like the negative space but focus on the indigo, and the opposite happens.

That’s not the only thing Mumtaz turns on its head in Active Door. The trireme in “Argo” could be an upside down tree, Mumtaz told me when we were chatting about this show. In the Mumbai gallery, which has a nicely shiny floor, if you look at the reflection then it’s obvious that “Our Lady of the Door” is an upside down kurta.

Our Lady of the Door, by Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz.
Our Lady of the Door, by Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz.

Seen as it is, it’s the one actual door in Active Door. Like the Hanged Man in tarot, it’s not a bad thing to be the wrong way up in Mumtaz’s paintings, just as being at sea isn’t without its charms. It provides a new perspective.

This seems like a good time to describe Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz herself. She looks like she’s a foreign student, interested in South Asia — blonde, Caucasian, glasses, flowing skirt, silver jewellery. But her engagement with South Asia is more intimate and far from naïve. As a MFA student in Columbia University, Mumtaz’s works were very different from what we see in Active Door. The change in her style has its roots in her personal life. She fell in love with and married Pakistani scholar and artist Murad Khan Mumtaz. He paints in the miniature style and that, to some extent, influenced Mumtaz to make the smaller, terrifically neatly painted works like “Bark”. But there’s more that her husband brought to Mumtaz’s art. After they got married, Mumtaz spent a year in Pakistan, living with her newly-acquired family and trying to acquaint herself with Pakistani culture.

In the poem “My Indigo”, Li-Young Lee wrote,

“…You live
a while in two worlds
at once.”

That’s what Mumtaz does in the Active Door paintings. Islamic art is clearly the starting point for her geometric abstraction, and ideas from Islam have inspired a lot of her works. She mentioned how actually seeing the Blue Qur’an (whose pages were dyed indigo) had an enormous impact upon her. There’s a set of paintings in which the rosary is arranged like constellations against the paper.  One reason Mumtaz uses triangles is because of their symbolism in Islam — the upright triangle, with its peak pointing upwards, signifies human aspiration; the inverted triangle signifies heaven’s blessings coming down to earth.

There’s reverence in Mumtaz’s art for the influence that her time in Pakistan had upon her art, but there’s also a subtle sense of discomfort. There’s one work that’s a grid of triangles, but just one is a slightly different colour. Occasionally, one of the beads in the paintings of the otherwise perfectly-aligned rosaries is just a little out of line. There is an enormous effort, an emphasis upon decorum and discipline that goes into creating the neat patterns of triangles and the trireme. There’s nothing natural about the repetitions that show up in Mumtaz’s art — they’re careful and considered. It’s an interesting coincidence that the beautiful paper is unbendable. Perhaps there are aspects of her time in Pakistan that felt similarly unyielding.

Mumtaz doesn’t shy of saying that the year she spent in Pakistan was both extraordinarily enriching as well as a challenge. The art that has emerged is, in many ways, testament to both those aspects of the time she spent in Lahore. Yet, you don’t need to know her story to see the ideas at play in Mumtaz’s art. Those triangles and delicate but deliberate lines in Active Door are waiting for you to give them another layer of meaning.

Scary Movie

SCENE: INTERIOR, NIGHT

A room with an attached bathroom. The bathroom door is just slightly open. ANON is sitting on the couch, a few feet away from the bathroom door, reading a book.

EMOTION REFERENCE GIF:

minion-vacuum

She gets up and goes to the bathroom door.

A FLAT, CRACKING SOUND.

She stops.

MORE NOISE: THIS TIME IT’S A COMBINATION OF A RUMBLE AND A CRACKLE. IT GOES ON AND ON, AND ON.

IT’S COMING FROM INSIDE THE BATHROOM.

She puts her hand on the door handle.

A LAST CRACKLE OF SOUND. THEN, CRASH!

She tries to open the door, but the door doesn’t budge. She pushes. There’s some resistance. She pushes some more. The door moves.

A CRUNCHING SOUND.

She looks down. There are pieces of thick glass on the bathroom floor. She takes a step inside the bathroom, on her tippy toes.

Inside the bathroom, it looks like an ice rink after an earthquake (if ice rinks have cheap plastic buckets bought at Dadar Market). The thick glass door of the shower cubicle has mysteriously shattered.

bathroom

She looks at the window — it is shut. She looks around the bathroom. Nothing (except the door) is out of place.

WHILE SHE’S LOOKING, LOW CRUNCHING SOUND AS SHATTERED GLASS SHATTERS EVEN MORE.

EMOTION REFERENCE GIF:

star-trek-shock3

She tries to process what has happened. The door to the shower cubicle has inexplicably shattered and its larger pieces are in the process of going from cracked to disintegrated. It sounds as though someone is walking on them.

Except, of course, no one is.

There’s no one else in the bathroom (or indeed, the house) but her. She looks around again. There are chunks of glass everywhere. It strikes her if she had gone to pee a few seconds earlier instead of doing impromptu Kegel exercises in order to finish the chapter she’d been reading, the glass would have shattered with her in the bathroom. On the plus side, she’d know what made about 6.5 feet of thick glass comes crumble. On the down side, a fair amount of the glass would have been on her.

Carefully, she steps out of the bathroom, shuts the bathroom door securely, goes to the couch and sits down. Calmly.

EMOTION REFERENCE GIF FOR WHAT’S GOING ON INSIDE:

scream

EMOTION REFERENCE FOR WHAT’S VISIBLE ON THE OUTSIDE:

match-marlened

(It was like the latest edition of Paranormal Activity was being shot in my home.)

(Have I mentioned I hate scary movies?)

(I’m not sure what it says about me that I went to sleep at my usual time, a few hours later, and slept peacefully.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Dodos and Woman Holding a Fish

V0020723 A dodo. Etching by J. Le Keux.There’s an article in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free section, in which Dean Burnett argues that if one had a time machine and could travel back in time, killing Adolf Hitler wouldn’t be a particularly coherent thing to do. Given the piece has had 1028 comments (and counting), Burnett’s done what he set out to do: get The Guardian readers’ knickers in a twist. I haven’t gone through all 1028 comments — contrary to appearances, I do have a life — but I spotted this one, which made my heart feel all fuzzy.

My first priorities if i built a Time Machine would be
1) save the Dinosaurs
2) save the Neanderthals
3) save Jesus from being crucified by the Romans
4) teach the australian aborigines and american indians how to make explosives 1000 years before they get invaded.
5) save the Dodo
6) prevent the Vikings from landing in 1066
7) Invent Solar Panels and Wind Turbines before the industrial revolution.
Then pop back to 2014 in time for tea and buscuits, job done, planet sorted

This was posted by a user who goes by the handle Klemetr. Aside from the random capitalisation and dodgy spelling of “biscuits”, this is an utterly lovable comment. This person has seven “first” priorities and they include the dodo. There’s also the questionable point about Klemetr’s grasp of history. For example, they want to prevent the Viking landing of 1066. Now, you may observe that the Normans were the ones who showed up on British shores in 1066, and you would be correct. The Vikings raided Britain back in the 9th century, but who is to say a boatload of helmetted Scandinavians didn’t land up somewhere in 1066? If I could, I would give Klemetr a toffee and a gold star for their effort.

On a completely unrelated note, I finally connected the dots between two bits of art that Mumbai has inspired. Back in 1872, there was an artist in Bombay who went by the name of John Griffiths. He was an artist and Rudyard Kipling’s godfather. Griffiths came to India around 1865 and stayed in Bombay for about 10 years, working on a variety of projects including Victoria Terminus (now known as CST) and High Court. He also painted and sketched for his own pleasure. One of those personal works is titled “Woman holding a fish” and it is, somewhat literally, of a woman holding a fish. She’s clearly a Maharashtrian fisherwoman and she’s holding a rather large fish on her head.

I’m not sure if this watercolour of Griffith’s is a famous image, but it’s in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection and I have seen it before. But a couple of weeks ago I saw it on a postcard and I had an epiphany. There’s a graffiti in Bandra that’s an ode to Griffith’s painting.

No doubt this is actually more of statement of ignorance than an epiphany. I’m sure pretty much everyone who knows anything about that period of art and/or Mumbai spotted the resemblances between the two ages ago, but the penny only just dropped in my head.

I’d taken a photo of the graffiti when it was fresh and new, (seven? eight?) years ago, but I think I lost it when my old computer crashed. She’s still an eye-catcher, but back then, she was striking. She wore a pink sari (not worn in the Maharashtrian style that you can see in Griffith’s painting) and there was such purpose in her frozen stride. On her head, that bejewelled, utterly unrealistic fish beamed. It’s as though they were a team.

The graffiti isn’t a copy of Griffith’s painting by any stretch of the imagination, but she does come across as an updated version. They’re both takes on the exotic appeal of Mumbai. Griffith’s was of his time and was informed by his generation’s desire to create a record, subjective as it may be. The graffiti is equally informed by its context — the 21st century aesthetics of cool, the rise of kitsch and the desire for an India that was getting international attention after many decades wanting to find ways of reclaiming the exotica that was traditionally heaped upon India in a way that isn’t limiting as stereotypes tend to be.

As you can tell from my more recent photo of the graffiti, she’s disappearing rather rapidly. While Griffith’s watercolour is preserved carefully for future reference and exhibition, the graffiti version of a woman holding a fish is getting grubby and being disfigured. Soon it’ll disappear entirely. Some will remember there was a really pretty graffiti on that wall. Maybe that wall will disappear too and that building will give way to a newer construction.

There are so many stories that could be placed upon this graffiti version of a woman holding a fish. The word “interpretation” surfaces mostly in conversations about art and it’s misused to be a variation of the practice of making things up as one goes along. But this bit of wall, a piece of public art if you will, gives you an idea at how many ways the everyday can be interpreted too. Because all “interpretation” is, is creating a cat’s cradle of story lines for what you see. You could take the graffiti woman with a fish on her head as a metaphor for Bandra’s ‘hipster’ credentials, which are being lost at about the same pace as the details of this beautiful bit of wall art. If the graffiti and Griffith’s painting were in a work of fiction, we’d curl our lips in a sneer and observe how the colonial power’s exotic construct is preserved while the indigenous attempts at picturing oneself are constantly being revised.

Prosaically speaking, the graffiti of a woman with a fish has been obscured by some really crude repair work, but at least she’s keeping her head above the ugliness below her and the fish is still amused.

Fishy
Fishy

Semnopithecus Modi

I’ve no idea who sent this to me because I literally just spotted in the Camera Roll section of my phone, but it is genius and therefore, I am sharing.

IMG_2588[1]

I will translate (roughly) for the benefit of those who don’t read Hindi.

“Every reader of the Ramayana knows that Hanuman is always among us. Look carefully at the above images and, putting your hand on your heart, ask yourself that are these two not the same? Please share widely.

Jai Bajrang Bali.”

Those who are better versed with the animal world will recognise which type of monkey it is. It looks like a gray langur (of the genus Semnopithecus) to me and Wikipedia tells me the gray langur is also known as the Hanuman langur, so I’m guessing that is the one. Wikipedia also tells me that Hanuman langurs may be found in all-male groups and the following are the recorded vocalisations of the langurs:

  • loud calls or whoops made only by adult males during displays;
  • harsh barks made by adult and subadult males when surprised by a predator;
  • cough barks made by adults and subadults during group movements;
  • grunt barks made mostly by adult males during group movements and agonistic interactions;
  • rumble screams made in agonistic interactions;
  • pant barks made with loud calls when groups are interacting;
  • grunts made in many different situations, usually in agonistic ones;
  • honks made by adult males when groups are interacting
  • rumbles made during approaches, embraces, and mounts;
  • hiccups made by most members of a group when they find another group.

I’m no expert, but that pretty much sums up all political parties and their rallies. But if I’m being told to put my hand on my heart and spot the similarity between BJP’s Narendra Modi, I will do so and admit in all honesty, that he does seem like a bit of a monkey.

It’s difficult to believe someone did this in all earnestness, but on the top corner is the official logo of BJP’s election campaign and at the bottom corner is their tagline: “Har har Modi – Ghar ghar Modi”. I don’t have the eloquence to translate that properly, but it’s essentially saying “all hail Modi”.  Ergo, I am forced to conclude that this is the real deal.

In the unlikely event that one of the seven people who read this blog (it’s true. I keep a count) sent this to me, please identify yourself. I owe you a cupcake.