One of the things I did while in Madras was attend one evening of the week-long Other Festival, a privately funded presentation of variegated performance arts. It's been on the events-calendar of the Southern Capital for seven years now and was the brainchild of a powerhouse of human energy called Ranvir Shah. Write that down: his name will one day be synonymous with many things cultural.
Oh and did I mention that he's been my most loyal and consistent patron, having bought my work (paintings and drawings, i.e.) since the early eighties? Yep. Most recently, he commissioned a mural 90 feet long for an interior wall in his house, to be carved in granite by the stone sculptors of Mahaballipuram based on a design by me. On Friday I went over to examine the evidence and was most charmed: after three or four draft drawings, the final result is a discrete number of carved panels set in amongst unadorned grey stone blocks.
My motif, at Ranvir's request, was little cavorting monkeys and I set them amongst lily pads, with a few trailing fronds of some unnamed palm tree. Vikram Phadke, the interior decorator, was responsible for the placement of the motifs along the wall, which borders a long blue-tiled swimming pool. Sunlight entering the open-to-the-sky central courtyard, glances off the water and projects glittering reflections up against the granite. Meanwhile real monkeys cavort in the trees leaning in over the house from the streets around it. Glass doors ensure that nature remains at a discrete remove from the interior. Lunch was outstanding: vegetarian, Gujerati and yum.
Anyway, to return to the Other Festival, the piece I saw was by the actor Arjun Raina -- a highly effective solo performance with supporting media called -- oh darn, I've forgotten the name, but will insert here the next time I log in. But it was, loosely speaking, about call centres: a young man living in New Delhi who earns a living at night by calling US customers of a credit card company to get them to pay their dues. Raina describes his performance as "stand-up tragedy" -- though he might have taken the term a little further along its path and called it "sit-down tragedy" instead, since he is mostly seated. It was an hour of powerful evocation as Raina takes on various accents (well, Indian and Indian-American) and roles to tell a provocative and plausible story of cultural cross-connection.
Must stop here ...
[later today, back at base camp. I never seem to have much luck with those bold tags, huh? Well I think I've quelled 'em for the moment]
Okay, so the name of Raina's performance is "A Terrible Beauty is Born". If any of you get a chance to see it, you should grab it. I liked it as much for what it said as for its method which managed to be effective despite my low threshold for performances by Indians putting on American accents. Raina's accent is passable but if it had been better the piece may have been less effective. Some part of its effect lay in being somewhat rough-hewn. It heightened the impression he gave of being a man walking along the outer edge of an unpleasant new world, the one that's just beyond our doorsteps and will soon be (already is) inside our homes the first chance it gets.
Other culture-notes from Madras, now that I'm no longer there: it's a city where the Olde Worlde and the Industrial Revolution lie side-by-side on the mouse-pad of Today. Flower-sellers still go around door-to-door delivering their ration of strung jasmine chaplets to households which maintain a daily puja, while bare-chested priests ride about on scooters with their dhotis flapping about their legs, racing against moped-riding Brahmin ladies in their silk saris, dropping their long-plaited daughters off to college.
Every day I spend in my mother's house feels like a Japanese art film -- I have to call it a Japanese and not an Indian art film because my mother wears a kimono-like garment at the start and finish of every day and there are certain angles from which, framed in a doorway against the light, leaning on her walker, moving only slightly faster than the minute hand on my Swatch, I can just about hear the sound of a samisen(is this what I think it is? I mean one of those nasal-sounding instruments one hears exclusively in Japanese films). Indian art films move at a different pace. Just as slow, perhaps, but all the action is ultimately about reproduction. Whereas in my mother's world, the story is about fighting for dignity, just as any Samurai might, with every muscle straining and every nerve polished to a mirror-finish. One day, not very long from now, she will lose the fight. She knows this and so she fights ever more valiantly. That's what makes the film both sad and very beautiful.
Ah yes, and that reminds me of another cultural experience I had in Madras, courtesy my computer and a CD. While browsing at the local bookstore, an Amazon.com sort of place called LANDMARK, I came across what I took to be a CD of Mussorgsky's PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION. Hmmm, I thought to myself, THIS is apt! And so I bought it. I first heard PAAE as a rock album by Emerson, Lake & Palmer during the last stone age, and only later became a fan of the classical (original) version. I have loved it ever since but have never owned my own copy of it. Thinking I was remedying this situation -- and feeling pleased on account of the pictures up at MY exhibition -- I bought what turned out to be a DVD.
When I played it on my 'puter, ta-daaaaaa! Pictures. AND music. And very nice they were too. Some thoughtful and market-savvy person has apparently dreamed up the notion of music videos for classical music -- mind you, this can and has got out of hand, as I will explain in my next paragraph -- which results in being able to listen to Mussorgsky while watching various thrilling Russian scenes. One big complaint: Night on Bald Mountain is unaccountably NOT included. Grrr.
I went back and bought three more DVDs. One of them is by Yo-Yo Ma. He shows us, first, a Kabuki dancer and female impersonator performing while he (Y-YM) plays Bach's unaccompanied cello and second, while he plays the cello in NYC's Times Square like any ordinary busker, with the Torvill & Dean ice-dancing couple performing in a studio setting, interspersed with an actor presenting scenes from JSB's life. Hmmmmm. Well. What can I say? There's that word that rhymes with "twitch" hovering just outside hearing range. And yet Y-YM is SO earnest and SO talented ...
I shoulda just stopped while I was ahead, with the Mussorgsky.