Saturday, 20 December 2014

Book review: The Case of the Candy Bandit by Archit Taneja

Text and illustrations: Archit Taneja.
Cover illustration and design: Kaveri Gopalakrishnan.  
Duckbill. 2014. Paperback. Rs. 150. 130 pages.
ISBN: 978-93-83331-15-4

            I have been addicted to child detectives and spies since I was about seven. When I am bored today, my daydreams are often packed with Holly Short and Harriet the Spy, the Famous Five and Nancy Drew and, more recently, Andreas Steinhofel’s The Spaghetti Detectives. I am seriously tracking down The Great Cake Mystery, Precious Ramotswe’s first case as a schoolchild. Maybe with a detour via Anushka Ravishankar’s Captain Coconut and the Case of the Missing Bananas.

           I am puzzled by the dearth of captivating child detectives amidst the tidal wave of Indian children's fiction across the last twenty years. That is why my pulse quickened when I read about Archit Taneja’s Superlative Supersleuths. Who are they? The talkative, logic-wired narrator Rachita and her on-and-off sidekick Aarti, both aged about eleven or twelve. While Aarti is in week-long candy exile, following a root canal procedure, cupcakes, laddoos and candy go missing from classroom lunchbox treats. A promising start to an action-packed narrative, I think to myself.

          The assorted dramatis personae have everyday charm. This is as true of Rachita’s parents, totally in sync with their resident private eye, as of a dental evangelist who urges the children to quit their sugar fix. The motley classroom cast includes Arjun, who loves food beyond reason, and Mrs. Dutta, who teaches maths through thermocol-rich charts. The four-footed stars – a dog and a pet rat.

           Duckbill has packaged Taneja’s debut novel perfectly. Its aqua-blue cover with funky lettering has some key elements sprinkled on it. The illustrations within are a smart match. Sleuth notebook jottings. Diagrammatic desk settings. Suspect footprints. Mrs. Dutta’s maths chart. Cool chapter titles. And the irresistible fingerprint page numbers.

           Taneja’s writerly mind has a logical, playful quirkiness. I imagine him being a hit at sleuthing workshops or investigative quizzes that lead children up the garden path to a giggle-and-guffaw finale. But this plot lets Taneja down. It has too little pace or tension, too many meanderings, too meagre a scattering of clues. It trips over extended detailing – Rachita’s plethora of sheep dreams, a favorite sandwich recipe, or mundane thanks for a proffered guava.

          On an extended revisit after my first reading, I scout for reasons why. Could it be because the detective duo are not on the same page? Rachita is immersed in real-time facts, letting her mind roam irrationally only in her dreams. Of Aarti, she writes: “Aarti hates detective books. She doesn’t even share the table with me because she detests them so much. I convinced her once, to read one of them. After reading a few chapters, she threw it back at me in disgust… She’s into fantasy books.” Rachita’s voice – whether she is writing or dreaming, speaking or thinking – could have been delineated with more sparkle and conviction. The mix does not benefit from the excess of colloquial “aghhhs” and “ugghs” either. Even the clues lack surprise after the initial chapters. As a reader, I was upset that I could spot the culprit early on.

          It is not easy to get the Indian child's voice absolutely right in print and I admire writers who have perfected it – Anushka Ravishankar, Sigrun Srivastav, Asha Nehemiah, Poile Sengupta, Subhadra Sen Gupta and Uma Krishnaswami, among them.

         I now face a maze of pesky questions. Could the Superlative Supersleuths have been honed to a smoother finish with guidance from the editor/s? Perhaps a few drafts more? A sleuthing duo less reliant on adult help? More action, less sluggish thoughts? But I live in hope. Perhaps there’s a Superlative Supersleuths sequel in the pipeline. I’m sure that will live up to Taneja’s latent potential, with a guiding hand from Duckbill.

        To me, Duckbill remains one of my favorite Indian imprints for children. This book could have been a winner, but misses by more than a whisker. I wish…

(Originally published in GoodBooks online at:

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Art: An open space for ideas

Art can be an exciting idea, not something one physically owns.  This is the spirit that drives the newly-opened Gallery SKE in Bangalore.

(This article was originally published in October 2003)


A shrinking community: Mahendra Sinh portrays the Parsi.

IF YOU'RE art-alienated, it's time to take a look at the new Gallery SKE, launched on October 18, an open space for ideas that could redefine Bangalore gallery trends. 

The brainchild of Sunitha Kumar Emmart, who earlier managed Sakshi Gallery, the space takes its name from her initials. Its contemporary, globally-styled area, bamboo greened beyond sheet glass, boasts of supporting wall text. The gallery opened with Mumbai-based Mahendra Sinh's black-and-white Parsi photographs that grow beyond documentation to lyrical insights.

"I learnt so much from the energy and experience of Sakshi's Geetha Mehra," says Sunitha, who'll be shuttling between Bangalore and the U.S. because that's where her American husband, Niall Emmart, runs a software company. "But while visiting private galleries in New York and London, I admired their strong, exclusive commitment to select artists."

So, Sunitha opted to focus on three artists whose work she had a gut feeling for — photographer Sinh, and Bangalore artists Krishnaraj Chonat, and Avinash Veeraraghavan. "When I moved to New York, I knew I wanted to be involved in Indian art, but I didn't know in what way. I needed a back-up space here," adds Sunitha.

Gallery SKE opens at a time when art as commerce governs media matters, when installation and innovation are replacing oil on canvas and standard sculpture, when art is defined by ideas, not conventions. "I admire Mahen for being such a stickler for detail, from the Ilford paper he prints on to the pasta he makes at home," Sunitha recalls. "He's taught me so much about photography."

What shaped her stance? "The commodification of art bothers me. With the lack of public spaces and museums here, I feel it's important for artists to have a dialogue with other people," Sunitha says. "Ten years down the line, I have a vision that younger people might want to support art, perhaps by lending transport to an international artists' camp like Khoj."

In a society that bypasses visual culture in daily life, how would Gallery SKE bring this about? By creating cross-strata children's workshops that unfold the secrets of colour or famous art. By staying open on Sundays, so that senior citizens can join their families en route to dinner or other destinations. By inviting the corporate sector to send its young employees to expand their art horizons. By enthusing schools to share a show, despite exam-centric pressures. By throwing open the gallery's collection of books/catalogues to art students. By organising artist juries to help young talent present work impeccably. Perhaps, even by training teenagers to curate their own virtual art shows, an idea Sunitha encountered at the PS One site, affiliated to New York's famed Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).

As a first step, Sunitha is planning 16-week annual educational modules, perhaps Sinh introducing the work of various photographers. "Art could be an exciting idea, not something you own in a physical sense," she stresses. "I joined the Young Collector's Council at New York's Guggenheim Museum. You're invited to their openings, after which the artist lectures on his/ her body of work. They even recommend books to follow up on a show."

Sunitha sketches in her approach to catalogues. Sinh's show engages us through poet-critic Ranjit Hoskote's essay, dramaturge Rustam Bharucha's response, and the photographer's own perceptions. 

In the future, she hopes to coax Canada-based novelist Rohinton Mistry to write the text for an expanded book of Sinh's Parsi visuals.

"I don't see myself as a curator, but I can identify people's potential. My skill lies in bringing talent together. I'm just the facilitator," concludes Sunitha, dreaming aloud for Gallery SKE. "People should be free to fix a time to come and discuss their ideas, whether they are finally formalized or not." 

(This article was originally published in The Hindu Metroplus, Bangalore, on October 27, 2003)

Friday, 10 October 2014

Ranga Shankara: A decade of precious moments

Boy with a Suitcase

I LOVE THEATRE. As much as I love writing, reading, travelling  ~ or even breathing, I guess.

At school in Jaipur, I loved being on stage. Transforming into an 8-year-old boy in shorts at 15, playing Red Indians and cowboys, Minnie Mouse voice, silken ponytail, and all. Or being an ancient crone in a ghost story, with my hair powdered and streaked, my brow artfully etched with eye pencil.

But what I loved just as much was watching scenes come alive once the curtains went up.  Especially when Geoffrey and Laura Kendall’s Shakespearana troupe visited us at Maharani Gayatri Devi Girls’ Public School annually. Their dramatic opening line still lingers in my memory, words I took with me to Stratford-on-Avon and the recreated Globe theatre in London, ‘When Shakespeare played, the stage was bare, the throne of England was a chair in Shakespeare’s time…’

I felt so at ease while reviewing English theatre in Madras (not yet Chennai) during my first decade at Indian Express, especially brilliant productions at the Museum Theatre by directors and players like Vimal Bhagat, Ammu Matthew, Mithran Devanesan, and Nirupama Nityanandan.

When I relocated to Bangalore in May 1992, I went into mourning. As a viewer, I felt theatre during the Deccan Herald festival fell flat at Chowdiah Memorial Hall, so large, so impersonal, with acoustics more suited to music than theatre. Even Ravindra Kalakshetra, where I watched my first magical Ratan Thiyam play, seemed cold when compared to the Museum Theatre.

As if in answer to my prayers, Ranga Shankara was inaugurated in J.P. Nagar in October 2004. I have been in celebration mode ever since. The intimate space is perfect and heart-warming. So is the endearing warmth of its founder Arundhati Nag.

Now that Ranga Shankara turns ten in October 2014, I look back with wonder ~ and tenderness and incandescent joy. As a theatre buff, I would like to offer a personal tribute by sharing ten random, unforgettable moments through which I celebrate the first decade of Ranga Shankara. Here goes:

Arundhati Nag

~                ~  Listening to Arundhati Nag share the theatre’s raison d’etre in 2004, during an interview I did for The Hindu Sunday Magazine: “This theatre will strive to bring Karnataka to the centre stage of world theatre, as well as to bring world-class theatre to the common man in Karnataka.”   A dream achieved, quite irrefutably.

~              ~  The dazzling 35-day global inaugural festival from October- December 2004. It included Mysore-based Rangayana’s Kudiyattam-influenced Maya Sita Prasanga. And Habib Tanvir and his Naya Theatre’s spectacular Charan Das Chor in Chattisgarhi. And Imphal-based Chorus Repertory Theatre’s stunning presentation of Ratam Thiyam’s visually poetic Ritusamharam. I was enthused enough to attend 27 of the shows!

                 ~   November 2004. Lahore-based Ajoka Theatre’s Ek Thi Nani, in which theatre veterans Zohra Sehgal and Uzra Butt played out a plotline parallel to their own lives as sisters. Sehgal, then 92, had a fever when she stepped off her flight. But her never-say-die spirit saw her through to a standing ovation, bypassing coughs, pills and improvisations. I salute them both, onstage and off it. 

Measure for Measure

·                           ~ November 2005. Director Simon McBurney and his Euro-British Complicite theatre set the stage on fire with his interpretation of Measure for Measure as a take on the Bard for our time.  Electrifying both as drama and social commentary. I even interviewed McBurney between two back-to-back performances, the chai he requested brought to us by young playwright Swar Thounaojam. More recently, Swar’s plays have come to life at Ranga Shankara.   

·                          ~ June 2006. Germany-based Gracias Devaraj and Uwe Topmann in Nino D’Introna and Giocomo Raviccio’s ‘Robinson and Crusoe,’ a rollicking tale of two warring soldiers marooned together. Enacted in English and (yes!) gibberish, it had an audience of mainly schoolchildren rocking with laughter in their seats. As adults, hugging our knees on the steps and in the aisles, we joined in.   

·                        ~ April 2008. Under the Mangosteen Tree, directed by Rajiv Krishnan of Perch from Chennai. That was in its initial avatar as Sangathi Arinhya, a celebration of Malayalam writer Vaikom Mohammed Basheer’s life, personality and brilliant stories through a tight-knit, evocative production. In tandem with black-and-white images of Basheer’s life by Punaloor Rajan and a Moplah food festival at Anju’s in-house café.

·                    ~ June 2011. The stellar Indo-German premiere of Boy with a Suitcase, which I found rivetting enough to revisit thrice with different friends in tow. A Ranga Shankara collaboration with Mannheim’s Schnawwl Theatre, it captured dilemmas about culture, continents and identity brilliantly, especially through outstanding performances by M.D. Pallavi and Shrunga B.V.

·                  ~ March 2012: Director Sunil Shanbag’s Stories in a Song, his tribute to music as theatre (in collaboration with Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan). Spanning seven theatrical anecdotes  (some apocryphal?), it encompassed notes from Sufi geet to Kajri, brilliantly held together by seasoned performers

·                  ~ October 2012: An outstanding global Shakespeare festival. Still luminous in memory thanks to plays like Atul Kumar’s Piya Bahurupiya (Twelfth Night) in nautanki style, the Tblisi-based Marjanishvili Theatre’s Rogort’s Genebot  (As You Like It) in Georgian (a play within a play, with backstage onstage and exquisite costumes), and even a Kiswahili rendition of The Merry Wives of Windsor, notable for its impeccable comic timing.

The Kitchen

·                 ~ August 2013. Roysten Abel’s totally experiential theatre in The Kitchen, inspired by Rumi’s kitchen at Konya in Turkey. Its highlights included a 22.5 ft. high set, 12 mizhavu drummers from Kerala live, and two actors cooking payasam from scratch onstage for the audience to taste when the last notes died down. Calling sight, sound, taste, smell and touch into play, we experienced theatre as a microcosm of life.

      *       *      *

          Thank you, Ranga Shankara for bringing the best of local and global theatre to me. For energizing me to dash from Cooke Town to J.P. Nagar every time you bring a good play to Bangalore. For tempting me with sabudana vada and akki rotti at Anju’s Café, so I am never late for a show.

         I had not imagined such a dream run when I first watched the staircase, the toilets, the café, the box-office and more fall into place over slow months in 2003- 2004.

          What can I wish you now, dear Arundhati and Team Ranga Shankara? Cheers to the next brilliant decade! And perhaps the next hundred years? 

          Bangalore loves you. So do I.