Friday, 30 March 2012

Travel: Biblical Jordan ~ an Easter 2012 sharing

I did not expect a wealth of Biblical connects when I visited Jordan in November 2011. But here’s a glimpse of what I chanced upon….


When I first looked out at the mists over the Holy Land of Canaan from Mt. Nebo in Jordan in November 2011, I wondered: is this what Moses saw 3,000 years ago? Can this be where the ancient prophet/ lawgiver was buried, reportedly aged 120, after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, after leading the exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt, across the Red Sea?

Did I see what Moses saw?

All that is visible from Mt. Nebo

On a clear day, I learn we can look out over the Dead Sea, the Jordan River Valley and the even Judean hills. Perhaps even glimpse the distant domes of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. 

No matter that I’m Hindu by birth or an infrequent temple-goer, it steeps into me that I’m bound to a nebulous global past of history/ myth/ religion by my mere presence at Mt. Nebo. I remember making Easter eggs with Lynn, sharing Id biriyani with Muslim friends, tucking into a Navroze feast with Zoroastrian friends. How alike are we all? Are our mind-divides merely socially and politically imposed?

Moses was buried here

Minutes before I looked out from Mt. Nebo, I was stunned by a monolithic sculpture created by Vicenzo Bianchi in 2000 at the entrance to Mt. Nebo to mark the late Pope John Paul II’s visit to Mt. Nebo. The Latin phrase from the Bible (Ephesians 4:6) at its base reads: ‘Unus Deus Pater Omnium Super Omnes.’ In translation? ‘One God and Father of all, who is above all.’ That’s in sync with my individual beliefs.
'One God, and Father of all....'

Near the viewing point, where the late Pope made his millennial address, stands an intricate bronze cross, over which a serpent intertwines. Our guide Abdul tells us this harks back to when God advised Moses to carry a bronze serpent on a pole to ward off the plague he had sent to kill the Israelites in rebellion. Those who looked up at the serpent were spared their lives. The New Testament looks at the raised serpent as a symbol of the raising of Jesus on the cross, bringing hope to those who looked up at him. Later, of course, we came to recognize this symbol as that of ~ guess what? ~ the pharmaceutical industry.

In the 4th century, a church was erected at Mt. Nebo to commemorate the end of Moses’ life. We learn that some stones that date that far back still exist around the apse in the church. From the 5th and 6th centuries to today, the church grew into a stunning basilica that celebrated brilliant Byzantine mosaics within.

With Lakshmi Sharath in front of the Serpentine Cross
Franciscan monks, who ‘purchased’ Mt. Nebo in the 1930s, still have a monastery atop it. They close their gates to visitors an hour before sunset.

Back in Bangalore, I learn that six tombs lie beneath the mosaic-studded floor of the Moses Memorial Church at Mt. Nebo. The earliest of these mosaic remnants is a panel with a braided cross.

A mosaic from Mt. Nebo's Moses Memorial Church


Earlier the same day, we had stopped at Madaba, Jordan’s unique ‘city of mozaics’. At its 6th century Byzantine Church of St. George, we found evidence that took our breath away ~ a still extant mosaic floor map of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, the earliest religious map in any form recorded in global art history. Probably created between 542 and 570 AD, historians reckon that the map was created for the Christian community of Madaba, a city that then doubled as the seat of the bishop. 

In front of the Greek Orthodox Church, Madaba

Inside the Byzantine church of St. George

Historically, Madaba was conquered by the Persian empire in 614 AD. By the 8th century, the Islamic Umayyad rulers reportedly removed some figurative motifs from the original map. Largely destroyed by an earthquake in 746, Madaba was abandoned. In 1884, while constructing a Greek Orthodox Church at the site of its ancient predecessors, the builders stumbled upon the map. Today, guides seat tourists on benches in front of maps labelled in French, German or English outside the church, narrate its story, then usher them into the church. All the better to preserve it, I suppose.

The population of Madaba is half-Muslim, half-Christian. There’s a laidback feel to the city that reminds me of Bangalore, my own city. 

A detail of the Madaba mosaic floor map
Composed of over 2 million tesserae or mosaic tiles, the Madaba map currently measures 16 by 5 metres. It encompasses an area from Lebanon in the north to the Nile delta to the south; from the western Mediterranean Sea to the Eastern Desert. Does it have a folding perspective? Not quite. Is it an aerial view? Not entirely. Its 150-odd towns and villages are labeled in Greek. Among the wonders it maps are:

~ the mouth of the Jordan river, where John the Baptist was baptized
~ Jericho, ringed by palms
~ two fishing boats on the Dead Sea
~ Jerusalem, complete with the Damascus Gate, the Lions’ Gate, the Tower of David, and the north-south Cardo Maximus
~ Neapolis, Askalon, Pelusium, Charachmoba: each city detailed, almost street by street

Some of the icons on the map are fascinating. Abdul points out that a deer symbolizes John the Baptist, while a Greek lion stands for the wicked Herod! 

Madaba city is a living museum. So much to see. So little time to take it all in. But we are running late. We bypass the Madaba Archaeological Park, the Madaba Museum, the Burnt Church and the Apostles' Church. The modern city, we learn is built on ancient ruins. So, locals often stumble upon ancient mosaics under their houses, garages and even gardens!

We gobble our way through tabbouleh/ baba ghanouj/ hummus and other delicious mezze starters at the Haret Jdoudna (Garden of our Ancestors) complex of a courtyard restaurant and craft complex. Journo-tourists on the run, we dash into a tiny souvenir shop to pick up fridge magnets and other trinkets for folks back home.  

In and out of a Madaba souvenir shop
En route to the Dead Sea, I think of how much I want to deconstruct crafts stories for my readers back in India. We stop briefly at a rambling craft store. But the goldsmiths and metal workers have left for home by late afternoon.

To offset my disappointment, I listen to Ismath. Smiling, she shares glimpses of her life. She has practiced the mosaic craft for eight-odd years. She originally learnt it during a two year diploma course at the Madaba School for Mosaic Art, inaugurated in 1994 by Queen Noor, the widow of Jordan’s late King Hussein. Its students learn to restore discovered mosaics. Likewise, they interpret and extend the craft with more contemporary interpretations. 

Ismath works on a Tree of Life mosaic
Ismath, when I meet her, is working on a traditional Tree of Life, a theme/ motif as popular in India as in Jordan. Each of the chips she uses is natural. The greys and blacks stem from volcanic stones; the oranges, red and browns from the brilliant-hued sandstone of Petra. The spectrum spans over 26 hues.

A mosaic piece about a foot square would take Ismath (or Munir/ Saif at tables nearby) about 45 days if they work normal-sized chips with their tweezers, pliers and flour glue. Or even 60 days if they opt for micro-chips.

It would sell for about 1700 Jordanian dinar (INR 1,22,400) in the marketplace. Way beyond my budget, I think, as I turn away to seek other wonders.

Yes, the Jordanian dinar is a strong currency today. We exchange $USD 200 for JD 141.

I think: I’m lucky that I can access more affordable handicrafts in India.         


One morning, we are told we are going to visit the spot where John the Baptist baptized Jesus Christ in the river Jordan. Really? I waited with bated breath for the plot to unravel.

Have folks in the area always known where the original site was? Not really, by all local accounts. In 1994, a Jordan-Israel peace pact paved the way for a significant Middle East peace treaty. Two years later, historians confirmed that they had found the original baptismal site of Jesus Christ.

John the Baptist church
The site, between Tall Mar Elias (in Arabic) and the John the Baptist church on the east bank of the Jordan, is where stories abound. Elijah is said to have ascended to heaven in a whirlwind of fire from here. Perhaps that triggered John’s decision to base his mission at the same location. For, like the earlier prophet, John confronted the religious ‘laxity’ of his time. That’s besides announcing that a Messiah was imminent.

According to the Bible (John 10.40), after being threatened with stoning in Jerusalem, ‘Jesus went back across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing in the early days.’

Baptized by John, anointed by God, it was from Bethany that Jesus Christ launched his public ministry at the age of 30. His first disciples ~ Simon, Peter, Andrew, Philip and Nathaniel ~ first gathered around him here. The evidence? Architectural remains, pottery, coins and stone objects confirm that this site was used as a human settlement early in 1 A.D., when Jesus and John lived.

A 2nd or 3rd century prayer hall at Bethany
A stone plaque about the chapels of the Jordan river
Steps lead into a chapel under another chapel

Additional sites around confirm this evidence. Such as the three chapels built by the Byzantines, 50 yards from the baptism site. The earliest of the three is on stilts, to allow for the seasonal flooding of the Jordan river. We peer into chambers beneath the existing planks and earthwork, at remains from a solid prayer site from times past. That’s besides the gooseflesh moment of coming across a 2nd or 3rd century ‘prayer hall’ at Bethany.

Across the Jordan river lies Israel. We were dissuaded from taking too many photographs across the river border, as armed soldiers patrol the barbed-wire fenced other bank. 

A baptism on the Israeli side of the Jordan river
But there was one shot we could not resist ~ when two women of the church in flowing robes came down the Israeli steps to the Jordan river. And there, we witnessed the baptism of a third woman.

It was an act of faith we could not help subscribing to.  


As we walk towards the baptism site, we look onto dry grasses, withered vegetation, and a stream that’s almost dry that November. “This is the route by the river Jordan where Moses led those fleeting Egypt,” explains Abdul.

The river Jordan today
These thickets, once the pride of Jordan, include tamarisk, willow and Euphrates poplar trees. Walking past, it was hard to imagine that when Jesus lived, the vegetation was so thick that wild animals thronged the green. Lions, tigers, bears, hyenas and jackals were reportedly sighted even by 19th century explorers.

Today, the Jordan winds its way from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea as a small, rather dirty stream. No doubt this owes much to the extensive use of its water resources by both Israel and Jordan.  If the course of the river ran straight, it would cover just 96.5 km. But it meanders, so runs through a 209 km. course instead.


~ According to the Old Testament, it was in the land of Jordan that God first manifested Himself to Man

~ When Cain killed his brother Abel, he was banished ‘east of Eden’ by God. This may refer to the ‘Cities of Refuge,’ east of the Jordan river, where a person who had killed another involuntarily could seek refuge until a fair trial was possible.

~ The lives of Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Elisha, John the Baptist and Jesus are interlinked through the ‘Plains of Moab,’ east of the river.

~ Jacob wrestled with the Angel of God here

~ Sodom and Gomorrah were located on the Dead Sea plain, perhaps in the ancient walled cities of Bad ed-Dhra’ and Numeira

~ Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt while leaving Sodom because she looked back, against God’s directive. This was probably in the early or middle Bronze Age, around 2500-1500 BC.

~  Lot’s daughters gave birth to sons whose descendents were the Ammonite and Moabite people, with their kingdoms in central Jordan

~ King David “slew 18,000 Edomites” (Samuel 8.13) in the Valley of Salt, along the Dead Sea’s coastal plain.

~ The King’s Highway in Jordan is the world’s oldest continuously used communication route. Abraham ~ a common patriarch of Jews, Christians and Muslims ~ who passed through northern, central and southern Jordan, would certainly have used this route on his journey from Mesopotamia to Canaan. 


Thursday, 29 March 2012

Travel: Weimar ~ The legend of the Bauhaus

The first inkling of an art historical revelation arrives in November 2000 as a letter from the current director of the Bauhaus museum at Weimar in Germany: 'Did you know that the first Bauhas exhibition outside Germany took place in Calcutta in 1922 under the leadership of Abanindranath Tagore?'

The news is electrifying, considering that the Bauhas, the fount of industrial design in Europe, came into being only in 1919. A follow-up missive adds details to the news break: "This exhibition was organised by the Indian Society of Oriental Art. It included 250 graphic works, 35 drawings and woodcuts from Lionel Feininger, 23 drawings and woodcuts from Johannes Itten, four drawings by Wassily Kadinsky, nine water colours by Paul Klee, 29 woodcuts from Gerhard Marcks, nine graphics from Georg Muche, 83 watercolours and woodcuts by Lothar Schreyer, 57 works by Margit Tery, 49 works from the courses of Johannes Itten and two watercolours by a student named Susanne Korner".

But the best was yet to follow: "You could buy the works for just £ 5 to £ 15". That is how Herr Michael Siebenbrodt concludes his letter.

The letter contains photocopies of the correspondence between the Bauhas and the society in Calcutta. One, dated October 22, 1922, from its assistant secretary, reads: "I am directed to inform you that the pictures sent to Dr. Abanindranath Tagore for exhibition in the Indian Society of Oriental Art have reached this city, but as a very heavy customs duty is being charged, delivery cannot be taken. The packets are with the Customs and the government has been moved for orders for delivery of the packets free of duty. We shall not receive them till the decision of the government is arrived at. Kindly let us know how long the pictures may be kept here?"

Did any of the now historic Bauhaus works find a market in Calcutta? The society's letter dated March 3, 1923, lists one: Korner's work sold for all of £ 3.

Though further details of the exhibition are hard to come by, either at the Max Mueller Bhavan libraries or through contacts with an art historian in Calcutta, the Bauhaus news transports me back to Weimar in the autumn of 1999, then designated the year's European City of Culture.

The aesthetics of Bauhaus design

My first stop is a room that is purest Bauhaus. I know it from the instant I step into it. The frosty-domed lamp, with its electric cable visible within the glass shaft, harmonises function with aesthetics. Since it was first made in 1923-34, it has become a milestone of modern industrial form.

It is placed on a functional table of dark wood, adjacent to right-angled shelves in wood-and-glass. The lighting overhead extends the theme of right-angles, each tube of light slotting into the other at black T-points.

The sofa is a bright canary yellow, extending the geometric resonances. The carpet is a wondrous pattern of rusts, mustards and blues; each slanted plane fusing harmoniously into the adjacent one. The tapestry on the door extends the colour scheme, its textured surface knobby. The large glass window in the room overlooks a rustling pattern of autumn foliage.

This could pass for an unusual German office room, except that it is the recreated and restored office of Walter Gropius, legendary director of the original Bauhaus, when it was founded at Weimar, 278 km southwest of Berlin, in 1919. It was re-opened to the public on December 3, 1999.

I conjure up Gropius, intense and dapper, in my mind's eye - and the visionary architect fits perfectly into the ambience of the room. As we continue our Bauhaus trip, footnotes to the movement are provided by Bauhaus University's public relations officer Reiner Bensch.

For the Bauhaus movement was, of course, a pathbreaking attempt to overcome the results of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, to erase the boundaries between the artist and the artisan, and to realise a lifestyle that respects the creative worker.

Its large, airy building, replete with zigzag staircases, features sweeping passageways, which welcome daily gusts of fresh air. And new ideas, design revolutions in their wake.

The Bauhaus was the very first German art school reformed after World War I, to teach in the Weimar Republic constituted in 1919. Its 150 initial "apprentices" rallied around the essence of the Bauhaus Manifesto framed by Gropius: "The ultimate aim of all creative activity is the building." They were to erect a Utopian "building to which all would contribute through craftsmanship".

Bensch emphasises that the Bauhaus faculty was drawn from the most brilliant creative spirits of its time, starring the painter Feininger, the sculptor Maracks, Expressionist painter Muche, avant-garde genius Klee and Kandinsky of the Munich-based Blue Rider group.

He adds, "Johannes Itten, painter and art theoretician originally based in Vienna, became a role model. With his shaved head and round eye-glasses, dressed in a special Bauhaus uniform of his own design - funnel-shaped trousers, wide at the top and narrow at the bottom, with a high-necked jacket fastened by a belt of the same material - he superscribed to the Mazdaznan sect, with its precepts of vegetarianism, fasting, disciplined breathing, and sexual discipline. Soon, many of his students began to dress like Itten, and even to think like him."

Once, Itten showed his 1920 class the weeping Mary Magdalene from the Grunewald Altar. They try to extract its basic elements from the complex maze. Itten looks at their efforts and storms out of class. He feels if they were sensitive enough, they would have burst into tears themselves.

Breakaway. Non-conformist. Radical. These adjectives are appropriate for the Bauhaus of the early 20th Century. If its teaching methods were unorthodox, including workshops on bookbinding, graphic printing and weaving, so was its campus life. Bensch narrates: "The young men and women often had wild parties with jazz music in the nearby Ilm Park, best known in the context of Goethe. The conservative inhabitants of Weimar were so shocked by their behaviour that, when a child was naughty, the parents would threaten it: Behave yourself, or will send you to the Bauhaus."

Celebrations apart, the Bauhaus was distinctive because it admitted equal numbers of men and women, the result of the 1919 Weimar constitution that allowed women the unrestricted right to study. But the women were sent directly to the weaving workshop, where they made the acquaintance of the weft and the warp by trial and error. None was admitted to the architecture course. Was it then considered a male preserve?
Today, the Bauhaus is a hothouse of youthful energy. Students from all over Europe converge on its historic premises to plunge into courses from architecture to online design. Its faculty hopes for students from more distant climes, but with little success - mainly due to the recent resurgence of the skinhead phenomenon in eastern Germany.

A special exhibition of the fruit of the early workshop looms is on when I visited the Bauhaus museum. The walls are draped in an array of richly-textured, autumn-hued tapestries. Rusts merge into browns, veering into patches of burnt gold on one. A kite- bright carpet for a children's room, made in 1923 by Benita Koch- Otte, adorns another wall. It is a visual feast, an invitation to touch - immediately denied by the custodians of the sacred cloth.

In a room nearby stands a pot-bellied Gropius teapot with its distinctive spout, now a classic prized by European families, despite its tendency to spill while pouring. Marianne Brandt's 1923 tea essence container, squat and rotund with an unusual handle, calls for attention. Close by is Marcks and Max Krehan's round-bellied 1921 jug with abstract patterns. Peter Keler's design catches the eye, an unusual kinderwiege or cradle in bright cotton with a metal frame. Their unorthodox contours made Bauhaus products stand out in the market even then. And spawned imitations by the dozen in later years. Soon, variants on the theme became the norm in global design circles.

But, to return to the core of the first major Bauhaus experiment - the building. The initial energies of the Bauhaus were directed towards a major exhibition in 1923 (partially due to the stipulation of a government loan), including a fully furnished house, named after its site beyond the Ilm Park - the Haus Am Horn.
The house, designed by painter Muche and executed by Adolf Meyer, is now regarded as an architectural classic. Its exterior resembles a white concrete block, unrelieved by landscaped greenery beyond. Its corridor-less interior - with all the functional rooms grouped around the central living room - is a challenge to conventional lifestyles. The original model features pictureless walls in the living room, with the horizontal- vertical planed furniture of Marcel Breuer juxtaposed against a geometricised carpet by Martha Erps-Breuer.

In the starkly functional Frau's room, constructivist forms dominate the furniture, besides a round mirror on a flexi-frame. The chair facing it has an angled backrest, enhancing the contrasts of light rosewood and dark walnut. The man's chamber has equestrian-style seats that require unusual balance, while the WC is tucked into a discreet corner, with standing room only.

The kitchen at the Haus Am Horn is the first ultra-modern one of its kind. Its workshop extends in front of the window, while its chairs fit under the table. It features technical innovations like a hot-water boiler in the kitchen and a laundry in the cellar. As for the children's room, it has large wooden blocks and walls to scribble on.

Today, the Haus Am Horn is infused by the humane story of its recent dwellers. According to Bensch, the head of the Gronwald family, who lived there since 1971, was an architect with a faculty position at the local University of Construction. He brought the Bauhaus back into focus in former East Germany through an exhibition of its history. Even Muche visited them, most recently in 1983. But with the reunification of Germany, the disillusioned architect hanged himself, unable to adapt to the new reality.

During the reconstruction of Germany, Frau Gronwald and her two sons continued to live in the Haus Am Horn, treating it as an inhabited museum. But with mounting costs, she found the upkeep of the house impossible. That is when the "friends of the university" took over the historic house.

'Monument to the March Dead': sculpture by Walter Gropius

The spirit of the original Bauhaus has grown, brick by brick. Despite its relocation to Dessau in 1924 after the National Socialist victory in the Thuringian elections, and then to Berlin until its dissolution in 1933 under Nazi pressure, it remains a touchstone for movements that revolutionise lifestyles. Even today, the legend of the Bauhaus continues to thrive, from Weimar to Calcutta and beyond.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Art: Achuthan Kudallur ~ The ache of abstraction

A CEREBRAL vibrancy. That’s the first impression communicated in a conversation with Achuthan Kudallur. His mind is restless, darting from Rabindranath Tagore to Picasso, delving into the microcosm of abstract art. His is a ceaseless search for raison d’etre. He adheres to a fundamental honesty, intolerant of cant. He speaks in muted cadences. Even in anger, he retains an inner quiet.

Born in Kerala in 1945, Achuthan’s desire for self-expression originally took the shape of Malayalam short stories. Opting for art in 1972, his self-taught medium has since run the gamut from landscapes and portraits through blazing abstracts to infinitely detailed drawings. Change, to him, seems intrinsic to life.

Achuthan’s earlier work summons up images of nudes that are raw, tantalizing, seething with urgency and a certain edge of courage. Blazing across outsize canvases, insistent upon attention, they intermingled poignancy and contemplation equally ~ despite still seeking footsure colour equations, despite the tentative quality of the drawing. From 1976 onwards, the imagery took on overtones of melodrama, sifted rather self-consciously, and shades of surrealism crept in.

But the ache of abstraction is at the core of Achuthan’s existence today. Shunning geometry, bypassing naturalistic representations, he has chosen to unravel the secret life of colours on canvas after canvas, as if caught in an irresistible continuum. Unlike practitioners of portraiture or figurative art, he compares the  very lack of discernible patterns in abstract art to the strains of Indian classical music, dependent more on tapestries of sound than on lyrics.

An abstract artist, Achuthan emphasizes, can execute realistic interpretations with ease, and does not consider his choice an escape from weak drawing or painting skills. The evidence? The sheer range of magazine and book jacket illustrations to the artist’s credit. Why else would Achuthan once try to capture the final moments of Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek, as the protagonist in the novel looks at the mountains beyond his window, his nails digging into the ledge, before he breathes his last? But realistic renditions failed to evoke the emotion he felt.

Though his one-man show at the local Max Mueller Bhavan in 1977 featured primarily figurative work, he felt stifled by the monotony of placing a figure or two against balanced spatial backdrops. Today, intuition guides him through his abstracts. If the feedback from the canvas proves negative, the artist often abandons his pursuit. And tries afresh, riddled with the anxieties of charting his course through the unknown, away from the security of formulaic paintings.  

His room, at a lodge in Madras’s bustling Royapettah area, reflects the man. An array of drawings cascade over the bed, offering images both private and primordial. Abstracts paintings in vivid oils, varied in hue and size, vie for space with earlier realistic compositions. Books on philosophy, literature and art are piled high on a shelf. Some crop up singly on window-sills and chairs. An abundance of creative talent assails the eye.

Achuthan’s present job in a government department allows him a means to his vital other life ~ in the realm of the paint, brush and canvas. One day, he knows for sure, he will be living his life in art full time. For that is his dream, his vision, his passion.  He has both the will to wait for this dream to be realized and the willingness to let life unwind to its own tune.

In Achuthan, a critic in Madras noted one who “enters into calm discussions of serious (pictorial) problems.” So he does, even in excerpted eloquence:

What drives you to engage with art?

I started sketching at a very young age. While teaching me the alphabet, my father drew a face and I copied it. I used to caricature all the people I knew. In my high school days, I didn’t have any colour sense, actually. My passion was literature. There was some discussion of literature in our household, and poets were revered. Naturally, I took to writing.

Perhaps like venom in a snake, it was somewhere within me, because when I started painting again in my twenty-seventh year, I found I was being dragged to the medium by its own power. I think my mood is better suited to painting than to writing because I can’t plan anything.

(Thoughtfully) Because I can’t be serious about two media at the same time, I can now say I have settled down to painting. Without art or any other creative activity, I may even commit suicide. I do not exist.

I am not saying this for effect. I have been doing this out of dire necessity. Even now, death and sex bewilder me a lot. So far, I have no answers to certain questions of life. So, I can even say art is an excuse. It is an escape from these questions.

How would you define a modern artist in today’s context?

I am against schools and granting a particular group of artists a particular label. It is the critics who demand such labels.

One can define a modern artist as one who searches for his own identity. As the world retina is looking at you, it’s important to belong to humanity, not to a nationality. I do not believe in patriotism and all that.

Are there any artists whom you admire in particular?

I can say I have a great love for Henri Rousseau, especially for his Sleeping Gypsy. I think that painting is a very great work. If I grow rich and if I can afford it, I will buy that work. There are also some very brilliant works by Paul Klee. And Chagall I like.

Pablo Picasso was a great disturbance because he touched everything and took it to an extreme, thus rendering most of his contemporaries derivative.

Rabindranath Tagore’s paintings came purely from the instinct of a highly sensitive mind. In a way, he revolutionized existing norms. For years, artists were governed by the rule of the Golden Section and the principles of harmony. But Tagore’s compositions stand out in a very different way. He was a not a dandy twiddling with his brush. I have seen the same freedom in the works of Sailoz Mukherjee.

Ravi Varma was a great misfortune in Indian art. His contemporaries just sat back and watched the royal man. He spoilt our concept of gods and goddesses by dressing them up in Kanjeevaram sarees and pearls.

Do you ever feel indebted to other artists?

I am terribly indebted. It is not a direct influence. I must thank all those who took the brush before me. When I take the brush, they must be turning in their graves. (Shyly) It is a great feeling to think, when I pull out a line, that the line has been taken by so many of my ancestors.

How do you feel about art in the social context? And censorship?

Art has no direct purpose. I don’t remember any work of art influencing the public. Art is not supposed to. It gives a brighter light. You start seeing better. But the world can do without art. You know, in China and Russia, you can’t find any modern art.

In fact, we are very fortunate to have freedom (in India). So, without being inhibited by anybody’s presence, I can create… (Passionately) I don’t understand why art is censored when there is uncensored science. No one censors the Theory of Relativity.

Actually, I’m anxious about whether I can exist in a changing society. If India veers to the left, and all abstract, modern work is censored, how much will my work be worth in a junkyard? I used to think it would be no more significant than a floor-tile removed from a mansion. I used to cry, thinking of that horror.

Can you justify the system of exhibiting art?

Fundamentally, I used to question the gallery-oriented system. It has become a ritual ~ hiring gallery walls and inviting some people, who are genuinely indifferent to my art. The critics come and write something. Then, bringing all the works back and turning them against my walls… For art, this is not required. I might as well paint in my room and keep quiet.

Yet, after I paint for two or three years, I exhibit for just five days. It is only for these five days that the paintings are alive. When I keep them in my room, they are totally dead even to me because I don’t remember painting them.

Do you have a strong stance on pricing a work of art and exhibiting to sell?

There is something unethical about selling. The pricing of a painting pains me. I can put on a price tag. If somebody buys the painting, I can get money to buy canvas and to meet part of my expenditure. But I can never impress myself by saying, “This is a good work. You take it.” Because it is something I have done for my own pleasure. There are some works I cannot bear to part with. There are others I don’t want to keep. If I sell these, a question arises ~ if I don’t like them, how can I sell them to others?

Somebody else may ask, “After all, it is four annas worth of paper. Why are you selling it for Rs. 400?” I reply, “It is the first time this is being impressed upon the human retina. For that alone, the work is worth a huge amount.” But in order to appreciate these things, one must belong to a visual culture.

How do you feel about the organised art set-up, especially the Lalit Kala Akademi? Is it a boon to artists?

The Lalit Kala Akademi began with great intentions, but it has become a degenerate body. It can annihilate isolated art activities in the country by collective neglect. It has never got to the grassroots. (Angrily) In a democracy like India, even now Mussolini’s children are living in the Akademi set-up. They are unapproachable. If you write, they will not reply. If you protest, they will send you a regret letter.

Its annual exhibition in Delhi is a major thing. Once you exhibit your work there, you are put on an electoral roll for their general council, exhibition committee, purchasing committee. In such circumstances, manipulation of the voter’s list gains more importance than the country’s art.

Personally, I have not benefited (from the Akademi). You might misinterpret this and say I am talking out of vendetta. But even if I am given an award, I will always be critical because, in the end, all academies pollute the set-up.

Why does the public response to art in India tend towards apathy?

I do not blame the public. The education system is to be blamed for this. At school, I studied Moghul history at least five times. Instead, if they had introduced one lesson on art or artists, it would have been helpful. Here, people talk about plastic heroes and film stars in daily conversation. No one talks of a painter.

Is art criticism and art writing relevant to your world?

Personally, no artist is benefited by criticism. In fact, the critic is a great nuisance, a peeping Tom. But when he writes well about me, I’m happy about it. (Laughing aloud) It affects my ego. When he writes adversely or ignores me, I think he is a ridiculous fellow. However, even when he praises me, I fear he is consecrating a particular approach to my art. I don’t want to be contained by any canon or dogma.

In the long run, certain critics have been helpful in creating a movement. And how would we know about the art being done in other parts of the world without writing on art?

Critics are always talking about technique. They can only see what is happening on the surface of an artist’s world. When a man pours out red on his canvas, it may be due to some personal tragedy. When the land under his feet erodes, something very vital happens to his art. This is dictated by the very source of his life, not by any external agency. The critic will never be able to understand the biological processes behind art.

(Reflectively) A funny thing happened last year. I was planning to write about my experiences as an artist. I wrote quite a lot. Then, I came across what Wassily Kandinsky had written on art. I found that 50 years ago, he had written all that I wanted to say. So, I tore up all I had written.

Do you consider your own work inspired?

Because I didn’t study under any particular teacher, I think all my works are inspired. I’m very lucky that I didn’t study anywhere. I have no regard for fine art being taught, and a degree being awarded for it. Fine art cannot be taught, though that may be required for other disciplines.

Would you like to talk about your recent series of symbolic drawings?

It is always a great test, how to control a thin line. In drawing, you cannot bluff. In painting, you can always do some patchwork. But a line is a very honest thing. (Intensely) It is something like your signature. You can’t correct it. You have only the strength of your line to guide you.

In the meantime, a lot of my dream images have surfaced. If I render my dreams as drawings, they will be just illustrations. I have tried to substitute a sense of order through stylization. If you see five or six scattered images, you immediately want to form a relationship between them. They form a certain pattern. The rhythm is always there. As I draw, forms emerge. I love these forms.

When I was young, I used to dream of a reptile that looked like a hydra. I do not know where these primordial memories came from. For years, it haunted me. But slowly I refined it. I trimmed it as a child trims paper patterns. Then, it resembled a reptile one could love.

What does this abstract phase in your work mean to you?

In 1977, I was working on a large canvas. I sketched the main figures. But when I was filling up the blank spaces with an eye to a beautiful composition, it came to me too easily. There was no feedback, except a whitewasher’s delight in covering up a surface.

I was at a loss. Then, life gave me a catharsis. I found myself entering an argument with colour. I followed my instinct, the need of the hour, pouring out reds and mauves and blues. I started talking to myself in small, inaudible whispers. That was the beginning of my abstract phase.

By abstraction, I don’t mean spoofing reality. (Pausing to think) The world and semblances are all forgotten. I worshipped at the shrine of colour. When one goes to the essence of colour, one enters the fringes of light. I tried to tame this light.

At one stage, I felt a feedback like a fish nibbling at a bait. You can pull in the cord, the fish and bait, all intact. But you can never hold the live fish in your hand. Either you tear its mouth or you set free the fish, the hook and the bait. Such is abstraction.

The best abstracts are never painted. They are held in the painter’s vision, casting a spell on all that he sees. In a painting, abstraction is a great ideal. I repeat myself till I am tired, like a great tree gone mad with flowers. A tree doesn’t count its flowers.

When I took to abstraction, I found that by a juxtaposition of certain colours a new harmony comes to the canvas. People point out that it doesn’t refer to anything. Then, what is the norm? In fact, there is no norm in abstraction. Abstraction is but a total disembodied reality. That is because painting is a very autonomous thing. It exists for itself. If it comes to a question of what guides me, I reply: my total visual sense.

But from the moment I took to colour, like a mighty river entering a gorge, I have felt the fullness of life within me. If I were asked to stop painting completely, I would sprinkle colour on a mountain stream and watch it flow.

(Indian Express, Madras/ Chennai, 1980)

Art/ Photography: M F Husain ~ The Camera his Brush

Portrait by K.N. Raghavendra Rao
An interview with India's best known contemporary artist ~ the late M. F. Husain ~ dating back to 1980. He was, then, experimenting with his camera instead of the paintbrush. His subject? The outsize cinema hoardings in Chennai/ Madras. 

IT TOOK two days in 1980. And two rolls of Kodakcolor film. And a Nikon camera with a wide-angle lens. And the vision of an artist of international repute who had his beginnings in the world of film hoardings. An exhibition was born.

Maqbool Fida Husain’s camera juxtaposes massive cinema hoardings in Madras with street life in an exhibit titled Culture of the Streets (Sarala Art Centre and Stage-1, April 20 to May 9, 1981). Of the blow-ups, none have dodged what the eye saw through the viewfinder. Except for a few collaged prints, none were cropped or altered for effect. Interspersed with the photographs are derivative drawings in which the same larger-than-life figures loom in almost caricatured forms in the Madras series and photo-prints of a set of Bombay-based line drawings.

What did Husain’s camera eye register? Women queue up outside a marquee that features an outsize Tamil mega-star Rajnikanth… The lurid figures of a poster for ‘Lonely Girl’ are juxtaposed against tattered illustrative papers upon a shoddy wall… Two giant faces from Richard Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi’ loom large over a family sipping tea on the footpath… A set of erotic film posters, some peeling off the brick walls, while a forlorn mother wanders by with her child over her shoulder on the road… The gigantic, grinning matinee idol rears his head among the trees, while a cycle-rickshaw pedals by… A couple silhouetted against a huge head on a poster. Close by, people throng the streets, waiting for the right bus… Graffiti on a street wall, as a boy idles in a corner…

Husain is a man compulsively caught in the artistic whirlpool. Earlier this year, he exhibited water-colours at Baroda. This was followed by paintings on wood icons hinged in triptych shapes, displayed in Cochin in late January. March brought a show of large canvases ~ Man Suspended ~ in Montreal. Culture of the Streets, first exhibited at the Art Heritage gallery in New Delhi in February, next came to Madras. It is scheduled to reach the Tate Gallery in London next year. It is the first time Husain’s photographs have been on show.

The catalogue for this photographic exhibition contains an introduction by the noted US-based collector of Indian art, Chester Herwitz, who writes,  “Although these cinema hoardings may be seen by some as garish, indeed much of the cinema promoted by the hoardings may be seen by some as vulgar, both contain authentic folk art elements or even reincarnate some Indian forms of devotion. For the detached observer, the scene takes on an anonymous force and order…”

What does Husain recall of the poster experience of his past?  “Once, I had to create 11 hoardings in five days. I had no time to draw the squares (of a reference grid). I did it all freehand. One large face was 10 feet by 5 feet. After a few days, I did all the paintings freehand,” he narrates.

Faced with a man so prismatic in his talents, we decided to explore how the artist felt about his new medium when we met him at a preview of his exhibition in Madras. How does Husain respond to the camera as his brush?

“In the 1930s, the camera was considered the first enemy of the painter. In the beginning, there were many misconceptions about it ~ that the camera was only a machine with nothing creative in it. It has been accepted only recently. Painters are now using the camera. It is a great help. It is an apparatus like the human body. Instead of the brush, I use the camera. What is important is the image, whether by hand or the camera. I supplement my drawings and paintings through photography,” he explains.

That brings Husain to an anecdote about another contemporary giant. “Picasso once said, ‘I like using modern technology. I want to paint in Tokyo while sitting in Paris.’ Others objected. ‘It won’t be your painting if you use mechanization.’ To which he replied, ‘What is important is who presses the button.,’ ” he says, his hands evoking images in the air. 

The thought makes Husain break into cascades of laughter through the white aureole of his beard and hair, a recurrent motif throughout our hour-long interview:

Did you have an early yen to be a photographer?

I’ve always been fascinated by the camera. When I was 17 or 18 and studying at school, I took an interest in the darkroom. As a child, I remember my father had a studio portrait with his arm resting on a pile of books. It made him look very scholarly and impressed me very much.

In 1937, a friend and I bought a box camera and set up a street studio. We had backdrops, curtains, even a bookshelf. We were doing quite well… but my partner ran away with the camera.

What drew you to the Madras cinema hoardings as a subject?

Over the last two or three years, I wasn’t happy about the several photographs I had taken. I wanted a theme. I wanted to have something to say.

The posters here are very Indian in feeling, colour and form. Poster painting is very hard work. What I saw here is very competently done. Very unique and realistic. The scale is enormous ~ a figure can rise 150 ft. or more. And they don’t use mechanical devices. Their use of colour is so indigenous, so typically Indian.

In one of the photographs you can see a queue of ladies. The oranges, maroons, blues, greens, reds of their synthetic sarees reflect the colours of the hoarding behind… (Smiling) In Bombay, the figures on the hoardings are so incongruously westernized. But in Calcutta, there is sophistication even in their cinema posters.

Are your photographs a humorous look at life or a social comment?

(Spontaneously) In a subtle way, it is a social comment, even a judgement. Especially the graffiti. Or maybe it is a reflection of present-day reality. Today, film hoardings are the only bit of entertainment left to the common man. All others are so elitist. Only 10 per cent of the people are conscious of a religious front to these posters, but they take that with a pinch of salt. A small group of people may want to bring up their children in a certain way. But what about the other 99 per cent? We can’t ridicule them.

Nowhere else in the world is this work done so well. I was searching for a way to both capture it and focus it ~ both for the people who see it and for those who are not aware.

How do you view the lot of the hoarding painter?

The film industry treats them so shabbily. Their plight is similar to that of the artists of the 9th and 10th century in Europe, before Giotto. (Passionately) They are considered as artisans, not as individuals or creative entities.

Can you recall your days as a hoarding painter?

Yesterday, I went to see the hoarding painters here. They had huge boards and buckets of paint. I had an impulse to pick up a brush and join them.

I began as a poster painter in Bombay. I painted hoardings for four years. It gave me tremendous confidence. You have to work very fast. There is no time to be afraid. No time to sit and think.

(Ruminatively) That old habit remains. I still sit down and paint on the floor at one go. It gives me a different optical perspective.

How do you view yourself as a photographer?

Photography captures the reality from life. In our country, there has been a tradition of narrative painting ~ the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the church paintings… Photography and film have a more direct appeal than painting. I have dabbled in films and still photography, but I still don’t know all about the numbers of lenses.

Last year, in just two days, I went around Madras with two rolls of film. It was all sheer chance. This exhibition is the result. I tried to compose exactly within the rectangle of the viewfinder. No trimming. In some cases, I’ve joined two frames, used the whole space. The effect is horizontal, almost two-dimensional. I haven’t tried to achieve any other perspective. There are images and figures in the foreground. But I was most concerned with the poster design ~ that it shouldn’t verge on the vanishing point.

What of your experiences as a film-maker?

In 1967, the Films Division invited a number of non-professional film-makers to make films as an experiment. I was the first victim. I decided to go to the laboratory and see for myself. What is important is the vision. It doesn’t matter if the technique is faulty or the camera jerks.

I made a 20-minute film. It had a shoe, an umbrella and a lantern. And just background music. The Films Division rejected it. I took it to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. They wanted to buy it. (Chuckling) The Central Government then sent it to the Berlin film festival, where it won an award.

Why has your life been so threaded through with controversy? Remember your deification of Indira Gandhi during the Emergency and the hue and cry over the Bangladesh war series?

I keep reacting to happenings. I am not a politician. Plunging into controversy doesn’t bother me. There is a certain habit or conviction to it. I am really concerned with true Indian culture. It is not fundamentally Islamic or Hindu, but secular. It is a composite culture that has evolved over the centuries.

Today, there is a distinct communal element to it. Mrs. Gandhi was the first to ban the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and the Jamiat-i-Islami. That should have been done long ago.

Is it essential for an artist to have religious moorings?

Artists are concerned with humanity itself. And religion should have a humanistic basis and not be dogmatic. Salvation or nirvana should not be proclaimed as the only way out. At the same time, I’m not an atheist.

(Ponders awhile)  Perhaps I’m an agnostic. The trouble begins when artists assume the roles of philosophers and saints. But it is passion that drives one. From the 1920s to the 1940s, I never wanted to do anything but paint.

As a person who’s been considered a one-man art movement, do you have an explanation for the mediocrity of current Indian art?

Today, the opportunity is immense. But the artist has to make what he does relevant to his environment. Tackling existing problems is part of the contribution of the individual. The days of a Van Gogh-like struggle are gone.

Much depends on the man. Very few have the integrity and dedication to steer clear of the onslaught of commercialism. Fewer still are enlightened in the spiritual sense. Out of ten, only one or two try to find their identities. Most are followers. And the widespread economic and political hardships only add to the difficulty.

The atmosphere today is not congenial. We are living in a mediocre society. Not only in India, but all over the world, we find only mediocre leaders. Fifty years ago, there were brilliant leaders in all countries. Therefore, paintings today are the result of a mediocre society.

How do you view the future as an artist?

I’m pessimistic at the moment. We are passing through this phase. We are stagnating. Maybe we’ve reached saturation point and a collapse must follow.

(With intensity) What we need is Shiva doing the tandava nritya for destruction. In a sense, Picasso did that. He destroyed all the old values in art. But somebody must come along to create. There is nobody in sight.

Let us hope for a miracle.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Cloud-gazing I

On some days, the words sag at the joint. Then fold up and squeeze into a trapezoid zone of silence. They refuse to wake up, dance, sing and play at my bidding.

On other days, my landline rings (yes, I still have one). Or my mobile shows 12 missed calls, 10 messages, when I check after an hour or two of putting it on silent mode  ~ to gain mindspace enough to write a fantasy for children or a travel piece for adults.

Which is more real: the far outposts of my imagination… or the tring-tring land of laughter, layered deep in sadness, embedded in personal encounters?

Pause. Delete. Escape. Is that even possible in real life? 

I escape into a 'now-you-see-me, now-you-don’t' world. Away from my PC. Away from my mobile. Far away from my landline.

My Olympus DSLR in hand, I set out to record flyaway memories ~ of clouds, of flowers, of leaves, of shadows, of sunshine. Of all that erases the mood of dyed-in-the-moment life as a fleeting sigh.

Here are a few images that shout out: ‘Hey, I’m free, nothing’s worrying me’:

Friday, 23 March 2012

Books: Bangalore ~ the morphing of a Multiple City

In 2006 Penguin India commissioned me to do an anthology of writings on Bangalore/ Bengaluru. I asked myself if I could do one as good as some of their other city anthologies, such as Bapsi Sidhwa’s Lahore or Bombay by Naresh Fernandes and Jerry Pinto. Once the butterflies settled, I thought: why not?

On December 13, 2008, the book I edited ~ ‘Multiple City: writings on Bangalore’ ~ was launched at Crossword bookstore at Residency Road.

The writers in the anthology include U R Ananthamurthy, Shashi Deshpande, Winston Churchill, Rajmohan Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha, William Dalrymple, Thomas Friedman, Pankaj Mishra and others. The book includes essays, fiction, translations from Kannada, oral history, a film song, a nursery rhyme ~ and even a blog.   

Here’s what I wrote in my introduction to the book.

First person singular:
In Search of a City

         IT’S A windy May morning in the year 2007. About 7.15 a.m. I’m helmeted, strapped into the passenger seat of a motorized hang-glider. At the helm is a veteran naval officer with a passion for the air sport. The glider, 1000 feet above the city that I’ve called home since May 1992, soars skywards from Jakkur, then banks, glides and, as I seem to suspend my breath for an incredible fifteen minutes, offers me an alternate lens through which to view Bangalore or Bengaluru. Or is that a mythical landscape that unfolds below us?
      I’m conscious that I have no parachute on board, nor the shell of a cabin to cushion me from the breeze that had the windsock at the airfield jigging furiously since dawn. The chill morning air nips at my ear-lobes, teases my bare toes. Wonder surges through me as I consciously shift gears mentally – and jettison inherited or collective notions about the city we hover over.

      I gaze upon sheets of pristine water. Is that Hebbal lake? Verdant stretches, seemingly unpopulated, cross, twist and zigzag on terra firma. Is that the Life Insurance Corporation building on arterial Mahatma Gandhi Road, and the new United Breweries tower on Vittal Mallya Road? Impeccable toy-sized houses swing into sight, as if conjured up from a Lego kit, with dinky red, yellow and blue cars arrayed in open garages. The scene unfolding below has the unlived-in openness of a Google Earth exploration.
      I mull over the past years of searching for our city through writings on it. My journey has unfolded through stop-start scenes where I’ve stumbled upon facts and features, characters and cartoons, even alternate or divisive perspectives, in lieu of a grand, linear narrative. I’ve sensed unidentified shadows through multiple conversations, had chance encounters both literary and political, gauged readings over steaming by-two cups at the India Coffee House, even entered high-voltage debates about the interior landscapes of gays and hijras. I’ve listened to the narratives of Generation Next and tuned in to their grandparents’ ajja-ajji stories over set dosas at stand-and-eat darshinis, often buoyed by excursions into the Kannada literary landscape with practitioners and interpreters. 
      What layered identities exist, or once flourished, within this emerging global city? What schismatic tugs-of-war rage between Bengaluru and Bangalore, between the western pete that can be traced back at least five centuries and the eastern Cantonment, at least three centuries younger, between the City and the Civil and Military Station, the native and the colonial, as the Mysore peta and the silk roomal from northern Karnataka come to terms with the Gandhi cap? Did the traditions of stately Mysore vanish when the City and the Cantonment were united under a single municipal administration in 1949?  Is the cosmopolitan nature of Bangalore, then, a stumbling block to defining its identity? Has the IT-propelled new city taken the shine off its established public sector undertakings, its famed silk looms? Will the city on fast forward mode towards the future spell its doom, especially since its population has boomed from 1.5 to nearly seven million in barely three decades?
       As I fly over these warring entities, deep-seated flickers of unknowing flutter within me, along with unrequited curiosity, and yet a sense of belonging. This is a city, or multiple cities within, that have enfolded me and drawn me in, oddball that I am, Bengali by birth and south Indian by choice. Is this the terrain of the four boundary mantapas or towers that the Yelahanka nadaprabhu or chieftain Kempe Gowda is said to have founded around 1537, celebrated in folk ballad and contemporary narratives alike? Why did he choose the village of Sivanasamudram, ten miles to the south of Yelahanka, to build his mud fort in? Did the city derive its name from the meal of boiled beans or bendakalu that an old woman shared with him?
        Every city dweller I interact with seems to espouse a private vision of Bangalore. I stumble upon hidden stories retold in whispers, threadbare yet convergent narratives. Of a memorial to a 9th century hero commemorated during an ancient Battle of Bengaluru. Of megalithic tombs and iron tools dating back to 1000 BC, besides records of Roman silver coins that hark back to the emperor Augustus. Of a tutelary deity named Annamma, whose temple borders the Dharmambudhi tank. Of a Jewish settlement that gave rise to Asia’s biggest shoe store of the early 20th century. Of a city that had access to electricity before the rest of Asia. Of the base where India’s first indigenous helicopter was developed, and where the Bangalore torpedo was devised by British Captain McClintock of the Bengal, Bombay and Madras Sappers in 1912.
       When the British defeated Tipu Sultan of Mysore in the Battle of Bangalore in 1791, the rural aspect of the location was its defining feature. It was a location defined by its keres or tanks. That’s besides its large temple complexes, its agraharas or Brahmin settlements. In the 21st century, the technopole represents the city as much as the annual Karaga rites at the Dharmaraya temple in the old city. 
      “Jeans pants on the outside and madi panche on the inside,” wrote Bargur Ramachandrappa, former Chairman of the Kannada Development Authority, describing the reluctant metropolis. Is the Mysore state emblem of the two-headed Gandeberunda bird, then, an apt representation of the city’s state of mind, straddling the puranas and technological advances with equal felicity?  
      Even as I juggle these notions, I carry memories of other cities, other homes, within me. Of the quintessential Tamil culture that enriches Chennai/ Madras, where silk-draped maamis in Hakoba blouses and rubber slippers critique a Carnatic music concert with as much panache as they weigh up Thiruvalluvar against Shakespeare. Of the jostling mass of Mumbai/ Bombay, with its folk-rich Ganesh Chaturthi and equally fervent Bollywood worship, its capacity to make outsiders feel at home despite the ebb and flow of a city constantly on the move to wherever. Of eating rich shahi tukra and biryani that the palate still lusts for at intimate chowkis at the Qutb Shahi tombs, or bargaining for mirror-studded Ladla Bazaar bangles in the bustling Charminar at Hyderabad. Of the beat of the dhaak and the sensuous, swirling aroma of dhuno as the priest calls the deity into public consciousness at the annual conclave that is Durga Pujo in quintessential Kolkata/ Calcutta.
     How does Bangalore fit into this framework that defines a city for me? It seems to engage with its past with insouciance, within a continuum where the past, the present and the future collide every milli-moment. Its streets voice their cosmopolitan culture and urban angst as much in Kannada as in Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam or English. It does not offer outsiders a pageant of archaeological monuments; instead, in the words of a wag, it has just ‘two rambling gardens and a crumbling palace.’ It is as much at ease with the masala dosa of Vidyarthi Bhavan as with the stiff upper lip colonial traditions of the Bangalore Club, or the shining new towers and gated communities of IT-based international commerce.

      I try to touch base with the essential Bangalore/ Bengaluru. But for every home truth that stands its ground, I chance upon a contradiction that seems equally valid. Questions jostle with answers in uneasy combat. What makes Bangalore pulse to life? Could it be the yoking of the local and the global, the contradictory aspirations of a ‘wannabe Singapore,’ as media debates would have us believe?
     Fifteen years ago, my friends from Chennai, New Delhi or Jaipur and I would often lie back on the grass in a secluded patch of Cubbon Park and ask the lazy, wandering weekend clouds in the blue sky overhead: What defines this city? Where is it going? Where is the Garden City? The Pub City? What makes this a resurgent hub of contemporary Indian art and dance today? What heaves through the underbelly of Brand Bangalore? Will it explode when the past and present collide with the future? Or will the laid-back nature of its citizens soothe ruffled feelings so that life flows on?

      From the hang-glider, the numbing crush of traffic on roads gone berserk seems like science fiction. Even the erasure of the pensioner’s paradise by realtors and mall maniacs appears unreal, however temporarily. For the city I spy below is green, calm, an eminently desirable location, even a space of infinite promise. Of what?

      Of a home truth that I acknowledge as we ease into a gentle touchdown at Jakkur. An essence that is celebrated in Bangalore or Bengaluru daily, through its myriad tongues, its multiple origins, the cacophony of sound tracks within curvilinear recountings.  

       It is a truth that this anthology seeks to represent. Not within an encyclopaedic sweep or a comprehensive, defining narrative. The multi-pronged gaze of the contributors trace the city, its culture of confluences both real and surreal, whether viewed from terra-firma or while airborne. As flexi-cities within the single location tumble into view, it would be impossible not to celebrate their underlying spirit. A spirit that, to me, is best summed up in two words: Multiple City

*        *        *        *         *          *           *           *             *            *           *          *            *        *

Author Shashi Deshpande shares a Bangalore story
A cross-section of the audience that evening

Here's a link to an interview with Kavitha K in Midday, Bangalore:

And a talk piece in Citizen Matters: