Thursday, December 30, 2004

Tigers and Havens. Also, regretfully, Tsunamis

The night before we were due to leave on our journey, I managed not to sleep at all. I didn't think I was running out of time till it was 3.30 a.m. and I still hadn't packed. Not that there was much to pack -- clothes for five days, with an extra just-in-case set, and no need for formal wear of any kind. My approach to cold-weather clothing is to change only the under-layers so there wasn't much bulk. But I took an extra bag to hold the few gifties I was taking along for Christmas. That took till four and then there didn't seem to be much point in even trying to sleep then. So I made tea to fill into the two flasks we were taking along with us -- and by the time I finally got the proportions right, it was time to jump into my travelling socks and leave.

We set out at 5.45 a.m., in our friend J's Pajero, J driving. The fog (for non-Delhi-wallahs: this time of year the temperature hovers around the 5-9 centigrade mark and dense fogs swaddle the northern plains of India) was kind to us -- we had about 50 yards visibility and were soon speeding along. Nine-and-a-half hours later, speeding through squalid towns and hamlets, past brilliant yellow mustard fields, overtaking toiling bullock-carts and grossly overloaded lorries, scattering squadrons of monkeys foraging on the roads and catching fleeting glimpses of tall, graceful Sarus cranes with their neat gray bodies and long crimson necks, we were there.

J's uncle, Billy Arjan Singh, a legend in his own time, lives on the banks of a pale tan river (the Sohaili) that partly defines the margin of Dudhwa Sanctuary, partly winds through it. I had never met him before, but had of course heard of him. More specifically, I'd read of his extraordinary relationship with a tigress called Tara, whom he later successfully released to the wild. My memories were hazy and so, when I saw him, a dignified nut-brown man, seated at a tea-table, wearing dark-glasses and a plaid golf-cap, I didn't have expectations. Over the course of the stay, my impression of him changed to include what must have been his earlier self: a body-builder and a strong personality, the kind that's more at home taming big cats than tending to city-guests, yet warm and welcoming towards us.

He lives alone with a family of retainers to look after the house and himself. Tiger Haven is a collection of low, white-washed buildings constructed as the need arose, with an accent on functionality. In front of the house is an open yard, with a couple of tall ficus trees, bare-branched as it happened -- on account of the floods earlier in the year, said Billy -- but starting to fill out with leaves again. Beyond it, agricultural fields. There was a standing crop of bushy-headed sugarcane waiting to be harvested. Along the horizon, trees. To the right, a wattled-fenced area, with a thatched roof or two showing above the fence, where the staff live.

Amongst the first questions Billy asked us was, "Will you have a bath now?" It took me by surprise: later I realized that the question triggered a memory of arriving home to my mother whose first command always was "Have a bath!" -- regardless of whether I'd just returned from day-school or come home for the holidays from boarding.

In the event, we had tea first, sitting in the porch in front of Billy's room, with cake and cookies as accompaniment. I poured tea, pleased to see the silver sugar-pot rising up on four spindly little legs, like a very tiny, friendly lap-dog; the sugar scoop with its handle shaped like a hockey-stick, to commemorate a club trophy whose details were inscribed on the front and back of the spoon's bowl; and the milk jug with its beaded veil to ward off flies. All familiar, yet so rarely met with these days that it was like entering a fondly detailed Merchant-Ivory production. A peacock appeared, stepping forward in its tentative way, looking for a hand-out. One of the retainers fed it scraps of chappati, which it gobbled up with unseemly haste. In the distance, its more wary companions watched but did not approach.

E and J went up for baths while I tried to resist. The fact is, I don't like water and I bathe only when physical discomfort or fear of my mother's censure dictate that the time has come to face the inevitable. However, I succumbed later just before going to bed, using a bucket of hot water that had been thoughtfully left in the bathroom -- there's no running water, so hot or cold, supplies must be carrried up in buckets, except for the toilet, that flushed normally.

Pre-dinner, we joined Billy in his cosy drawing-room, a fire already crackling cheerily in the fire-place with its white-washed mantelpiece and the walls hung with photographs of Tara and the other felines who have enriched Billy's life. We watched a video film called "The Leopard Who Changed Its Spots" about the superbly elegant Harriet, the cat who preceded Tara and the one Billy named in a magazine interview as the one true love of his life. The narrator of the film was David Niven. Amongst the amazing footage shown, was an encounter shot in Sri Lanka, between a family group of wild boar and a stalking (unknown) leopard -- ending in a rout for the leopard! Two of the boars were apparently so outraged that a predator would dare to threaten their piglets that they just rammed into the cat, literally turning it upside down and sending it scurrying off with a decided kink in its tail!

The dining table was alongside the drawing-room, and we helped ourselves to food laid out on the side-board: deep-dish minced meat with writhing whorls of mashed potatoes artfully piped onto the top of it, two types of veggies, and fresh salad. For dessert, vanilla ice-cream, poached apples and Hershey's chocolate fudge sauce! If this is jungle-living, I'm pre-hooked.

Yes, there's electricity -- from a grand old generator thrumming in the yard, as well as from the Govt. The yard supply gets switched off around 10.30 p.m., after which there may or may not be enough juice in the wires to run the lights. By then, we were variously tucked up in our separate rooms, Billy downstairs, J in one of the rooms above his, E and me in the "guest" quarters a hop-step away. Billy's sister-in-law, who spends some part of the year at Tiger Haven sees to it that all the niceties are maintained -- bare floors are covered with warm dhurries, the cots are three layers deep in blankets, cotton-quilts and clean sheets.

We went into the sanctuary (or one of its relatives) on each of the four days of our stay. It was the wrong season for seeing animals because the grass is tall and the weather cold. But it was a thrill each time -- the sense of hidden possibilities lurking in every shadow, the silence, the soaring trees. There were spotted deer of course, and once a rather forlorn little boar shot across the road, as if forced to make an appearance just to prove that others of his kind WERE after all residents in the forest. We saw pug-marks -- tiger footprints -- here and there in the loose soil alongside the roads, and several very clear ones in the wet clay by the riverside at the Kishenpur waterbody. That's also where we saw swamp deer posing regally, multi-tined males posturing for the attention of a single female, in the great distance across the water. And a group of three barking (also known as muntjac) deer, a rare find these days.

E and I went for a three-hour elephant ride through the rhino-enclosure, with a six-year old baby elephant in tow because his mother (on whom we sat) wouldn't budge without him. His father was a wild tusker and already the little one had foot-long tusks. He had his own mahoot sitting on top of him, to control him. At one point, he was being encouraged by his mahoot to pick up a piece of plastic garbage from the trail we were on, and he resisted, first by refusing to do it and then by bellowing loudly for Mom -- who turned around immediately -- it was amazing, an animal of such size and bulk, swivelling around in the tall grass like a four-footed ballerina pivoting on one foot -- and bellowed back in response. After much thumping, clucking and coercing, we were headed around the right way again and once more on our way. No rhinos to be seen -- but the ride was dreamlike and magnificent, deep in the bosom of the forest.

There were water birds aplenty, a fishing eagle or two, black-necked storks and the dearest little jungle owlet, like a well-rounded stuffed toy, blinking at us from the safety of a tall tree as we picnicked near it on the last day of our stay. Billy's farm had a number of resident peafowl and jungle fowl, but also a charming shrike whom E was delighted to see because it is many years since he saw one in Delhi. Oh -- and a racquet-tailed drongo -- much to E's chagrin because we'd been told to look out for it on our very first visit to the sanctuary and yet when it finally flashed across our combined paths just as we were leaving Kishenpur, he looked the wrong way and missed seeing it altogether. The rest of us ribbed him mercilessly -- it is indeed a handsome bird, black as a moonless night, with the long split-tail that other drongos have, but embellished by two further, graceful extensions, ending in the rounded "racquet" from which it gets its name.

All through our stay, the conversation returned repeatedly to the crisis affecting the wild areas of the country and the world. Billy is a passionate conservationist -- but these words do not capture the man. He is bowed by his 87 years and needs a cane to walk, he's a little hard of hearing and says that his eyesight is diminished since he had cataract surgery. Yet he's lit from within, he's a furnace of idealism -- to sit in his presence is to be warmed by that rage to reach beyond the limits of one lifetime, to go beyond the ordinary boundaries of human endeavour.

I have a private theory that the reason so many millions of people are incapable of achieving very much during their lifetimes is their fixation on getting their daughters married. Look around and what do you see? People running around like witless little ants, either attending marriages, scheming towards them, recovering from them, scraping together their life's savings for them, murdering their unborn daughters to avoid them, or (worst case scenario) burning one daughter-in-law in order to procure another, more productive one. Whichever way you look at it, the relentless pressure to pound everyone under the mill of marriage seems to crush all individual initiative, all idealism, all creativity ...

Oh okay -- I'll stop my rant. It won't change anything, I know. Lemmings will be lemmings.

But Billy -- he's no lemming. He's a crusader, a fighter, an idealist and (this is how I see him) a sculptor. He sculpts reality around him, using the tool of his personal energy, to get others to do his will. He's a shaper of lives and destiny. He causes light to bend around him, he has gravitational weight. He has a favourite photograph he likes to show, of himself hugging Tara. The shot's taken from behind him, showing his back, with Tara's striped furry head cuddled over his left shoulder, and around his right side, her huge paw, holding him. What a guy.

Meanwhile, the tsunami.

We missed the news when it happened, hearing about it only Monday night, with the newspaper's arrival. My family wasn't in any danger, as the house is far from the coast, but of course it was shocking to imagine the colossal scale of the disaster. My cellphone lost its signal en route to Tiger Haven, so we were out of touch until mid-morning Tuesday, when I got a signal again. I really only caught up with my sister Geeta the next day -- believe it or not, she was actually at the seaside when the wave struck! They'd gone to visit their small beach-side plot on Sunday morning, she and my brother-in-law. They'd all felt a mild tremor in the morning but dismissed it. They were on the highway when the wave actually struck but had no idea that anything was amiss until they reached the turn-off to their property and were shocked to see a river of water flooding up the incline towards the highway ...

G says she saw water bizarrely fountaining UP out of the soil, as if the force of the wave first drove water into the beach, then surfaced some distance upland, where she could see it frothing out. She called the newspapers on her cell-phone, just as, on Marina Beach in the middle of Madras a wall of water crashed down on hundreds of morning walkers and fisher folk, dashing cars and fishing vessels against the walls of venerable old Queen Mary's College, where my mother did her BA.

G was unharmed, and so were the small caretaker family that lives on the plot -- they saved themselves by the simple expedient of running up towards the highway, rather than out towards the sea-shore to gawp at the odd spectacle of the sea withdrawing itself for over a kilometer. There was a good two hours between the quake and the strike -- if anyone had been alert, if only others had remembered those lessons we learnt in geography class of the typical warning sign of an impending tidal wave (the unnaturally receded sea) -- maybe thousands of lives would not today be lost, at least in India, Sri Lanka and Somalia, all of which had time to react.

It's going to be a long and terrible time, recovering from the disaster. For news, links and information, please visit Kitabkhana and Zigzackly, listed to the right.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004


Quick -- what kind of picture flashes in your head when you hear/see the word "EVERYONE"? This is a question whose answer interests me. Many years ago, I began to format my brain in order to ensure that I would ALWAYS see ... well, I'm going to delay my answer till I know you lot have given the matter just a little thought. If you feel like you can share your reponses in a comment. I'll say what my mental image is, in a comment, to start you off.

And in other news, I am going to be away from my cyber-post for six days (eeeeeeeek), starting Thursday the 23rd morning. I, E and a friend are off to see the Wizard -- he IS a sort of wizard, when you consider that he pretty much kick-started India's tiger conservation effort 'way back in the last century -- "Billy" Arjan Singh. We're spending Christmas with him and returning on the 28th. I am told there will be nothing to see in the way of striped carnivores and that it will be so cold in the shadow of the foothills that I may as well start regretting the trip right away. It's going to be a 10-hour journey by road, but since I am driving-challenged, I will be in charge of entertainment and light repartee en route. The car is a Paj and I can report from our earlier trip this year to the hills, it is a seriously comfortable vehicle in which to engage with the nation's highways.

Four amazing items seen on TV's Animal Planet recently -- honestly, is there ANY other channel worth watching? -- two on David Attenborough's programs and two elsewhere. From Attenborough's "Life of Birds" series I saw (a) an astonishing record of a British hedge sparrow couple's response to the all-too-human situation of marital infidelity. Here's what we saw: Mrs Sparrow has a lover on the side. We see her engage with her spouse and then, not much later, succumbing to the charms of Mr X. Mr Sparrow, initially appears to be unaware of Mr X, but then, in an astonishing display of conjugal jealousy apparently confronts Mrs Sparrow. There were no translators to tell us exactly what was said but the lady very quickly obliges her mate by ejecting the interloper's sperm!! The couple accomplishes this -- what shall we call it? Pre-emptive abortion? -- by the female presenting her rear end to the male, who pecks peevishly in the vicinity of her unfaithful bum, resulting a quick expulsion of a tiny white speck, which (we assume) the researchers have confirmed is Mr X's sperm.

This is not an isolated instance, but has been observed as typical hedge-sparrow behavior. Why? According to the researchers, the system ensures that the interloper can also be co-opted in the care of the young, because he thinks that some of them MAY be his. And sometimes they are. Meanwhile, he is free to form serious and meaningful relationships with other compliant females, who in their turn may entertain flings on the side ... The result is that the species as a whole survives better and the phenomenon is tolerated.

Attenborough (b) was about a species of hummingbird (alas, I didn't catch the name, and so cannot repeat it here) which lives in the high Andes. Like all hummingbirds, its extremely high metabolic rate, occasioned by the astounding speed at which its tiny wings whirr(could it possibly be 70 times a second? I think that's what I heard but it's really quite hard to believe), permitting it to hover, as it flits from flower to flower, requires it to feed practically continuously. But at night, there are no flowers open for it to feed from. Its solution? It goes into hibernation -- EVERY NIGHT!! Its pulse-rate, blood-pressure and breathing all but cease altogether. In the morning, with the heat of the sun, it gradually warms up and is soon off on its rounds again. I don't know about you, but this blows me away. Like I wrote to a friend immediately after seeing this, it's a trick I would gladly learn specifically to cope with international travel. Just check in, belt up and aestivate for 28 hours straight. Wake up in NYC and head straight for the nearest Haagen Dazs (sp?) supply station. Joy.

The other two films were about mammals. One showed a troupe of monkeys in Sri Lanka, macaques of some sort, but we began watching too late to hear their full name. They looked quite a bit like the familiar Rhesus in India, but their social life is remarkably different. I don't know if the film crew happened to encounter an exceptional group, but what we saw was a complete reversal of animal behavior as recorded in other films I've seen on TV. I'm cutting a longish story short here, but let's just say that it's fairly typical of simian life for an alpha male to dominate the community for a period of three or four years until a rival arises who fights him and takes his place. What we saw in this film was an alpha leader who apparently had wonderful social relations with his group, being deposed by a male who was not merely more aggressive but also (apparently) of a cruder mentality than him.

In other films of this sort (there was one about black-faced langurs in Jaipur, for instance), this is completely standard. After the old male is vanquished, all the females of his harem are subjugated by the new incumbent, raped and ravished, rendered pregnant and soon enough, everything returns to normal. But in this Sri Lankan group, the group was apparently outraged by the new alpha male. Not only did they seek out the body of the previous leader, who fell by the wayside and died, but, after engaging in what certainly looked like a quiet and dignified mourning ritual (they all sat around the body and some of the females wiped flies away from his face), but one by one they began to reject the new alpha in favour of the old one's loyal lieutenant!!

I realize that there are dozens of ways in which a film can be manipulated to show us what the film-maker want us to see in terms of an interpretation. All I can say is, the cinematography was non-intrusive and certainly appeared to be honest. Another astonishing sight we saw in this film was this group of monkeys foraging for food UNDERWATER. They swam and dove extremely well, and seemed completely at home underwater. It was an amazing sight -- I don't believe this kind of behavior has ever been seen before amongst primates (other than us, i.e.). Mothers with tiny babies just ducked underwater completely heedless of the fear of drowning their offspring -- who in turn seemed entirely unperturbed.

And finally, this evening, there was a repeat of a film about a monastery in northern Thailand where a group of monks has raised wild tigers whose habitat was being threatened by development -- and everyone is thriving -- the monks treat the tigers with an astonishing mixture of reverence and commonsensical love, and the tigers (ten, according to the film, and breeding successfully) responding with affection and calm, non-aggressive behavior. I hadn't seen the film before, but E had described it to me fairly thoroughly -- even so, it brought tears to my eyes (okay, I admit, I become a warm slushy puddle at the sight of animals looking happy), because it was just so unbearably beautiful. A vision of life as it so rarely is, with the monks practically aglow with this extreme demonstration of absolute compassion at work. And the tigers ... well they glow ANYWAY, don't they? Can't help themselves.

Sunday, December 19, 2004


Okay, so this is something I thought was funny about four years ago. I may have been sniffing chocolate at the time. But I looked 'em over again today and thought ... ehh, they're so silly I might as well share 'em. I am not sure they'll look as god intended on different browsers/screens -- in particular, I have no idea whether Mac users will see something utterly weird and incomprehensible. Of course, it's very likely that they really ARE weird and incomprehensible -- for instance, even I cannot see the point of "Coiled Sperm".

Ah, the anguish of being a misunderstood artist.


(Basic Sperm)

(De Gaulle sperm)

(coiled sperm)

(sperm attack)

(sperm looking sideways over its shoulder)

(cross (i.e., angry) sperm)

(happy sperm)

(mercenary sperm)

(sperm bank)

(old sperm)

(sleeping sperm)

Thursday, December 16, 2004

An Anti-Carol

In a fit of perversity brought on by having seen Maureen Dowd's post-Election version of the "Twelve Days of Christmas" once too often (a friend sent it to me by e-mail and this morning I saw it in the Asian Age), I felt compelled to write my own childish and mean-spirited version of the song. It's quite funny if sung, though. My family will attest to the fact that I CAN sing it and frequently DID on all those endless trips by road, all the way from Bombay to Madras, all those many years ago in the last century. Here it is:


On the first day of Christmas my true hate gave to me
... a gargoyle in a dead tree.

On the second day of Christmas my true hate gave to me
... two brutal shoves and a gargoyle in a dead tree.

On the third day of Christmas my true hate gave to me
... three flesh wounds, two brutal shoves and a gargoyle in a dead tree.

On the fourth day of Christmas my true hate gave to me
... four warm beers, three flesh wounds, two brutal shoves and a gargoyle in a dead tree.

On the fifth day of Christmas my true hate gave to me
... five rotten eggs! Four warm beers, three flesh wounds, two brutal shoves and a gargoyle in a dead tree.

On the sixth day of Christmas, my true hate gave to me
... six snitches snitching, five rotten eggs! Four warm beers, three flesh wounds, two brutal shoves and a gargoyle in a dead tree.

On the seventh day of Christmas my true hate gave to me
... seven ghouls a-gorging, six snitches snitching, five rotten eggs! Four warm beers, three flesh wounds, two brutal shoves and a gargoyle in a dead tree.

On the eighth day of Christmas my true hate gave to me
... eight lawyers lying, seven ghouls a-gorging, six snitches snitching, five rotten eggs! Four warm beers, three flesh wounds, two brutal shoves and a gargoyle in a dead tree.

On the ninth day of Christmas my true hate gave to me,
... nine beggars whining, eight lawyers lying, seven ghouls a-gorging, six snitches snitching, five rotten eggs! Four warm beers, three flesh wounds, two brutal shoves and a gargoyle in a dead tree.

On the tenth day of Christmas my true hate gave to me,
... ten hags a-whoring, nine beggars whining, eight lawyers lying, seven ghouls a-gorging, six snitches snitching, five rotten eggs! Four warm beers, three flesh wounds, two brutal shoves and a gargoyle in a dead tree.

On the eleventh day of Christmas my true hate gave to me,
... eleven muggers mugging, ten hags a-whoring, nine beggars whining, eight lawyers lying, seven ghouls a-gorging, six snitches snitching, five rotten eggs! Four warm beers, three flesh wounds, two brutal shoves and a gargoyle in a dead tree.

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true hate gave to me,
... twelve hackers hacking, eleven muggers mugging, ten hags a-whoring, nine beggars whining, eight lawyers lying, seven ghouls a-gorging, six snitches snitching, five rotten eggs! Four warm beers, three flesh wounds, two brutal shoves and a gargoyle in a dead tree.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Return to Delhirium

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 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.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Exhib Update!

Well the show opened last night and ... only 15 people turned up!! This would normally have been an unmitigated disaster except for the very pleasant fact that they all apparently loved the work and by evening's end, 20 pieces had been bought (that includes the three that were red-dotted in Delhi thanx to our friend Amro). So the gallery and I are feeling pleased -- though disturbed about the lack of attendance. Apparently it was a busy night on the social circuit (weddings, mostly. Now you know why I detest weddings -- they get in the way of all worthwhile endeavours, such as gallery openings). Twenty paintings out of the fifty (well, 49) on show represents a little over a third, so ... I'm happy.

Anyhow, I thought the most appropriate thing to share at this moment is the "concept note" I prepared for the show. Here it is (the name of the show is "YES" -- have I mentioned this before somewhere? It's been one of my themes for a long while, and is the name of one of the squiggle-paintings too):

YES An Exhibition of Prints and Collages by Manjula Padmanabhan, December 2004, ARTWORLD

The prints were made at Atelier 2221 in New Delhi, from mid-1999 to early 2003. Most of them are zinc-plate etchings with a small handful of lithographs. The crucial difference between graphic art prints such as these and commercial reproductions such as art museum posters is that prints are processed by hand in limited editions of usually between 20 and a hundred impressions while museum reproductions are printed photo-mechanically in the thousands. It is for this reason that prints have sometimes been called “multiple originals”. Despite the effort taken to ensure that each print in an edition is the same as every other, small variations inevitably occur. In that sense, each one really IS unique and original.

These etchings and lithographs were made possible because of the excellent facilities at Delhi’s Atelier 2221, owned by artist and print-maker Pratibha Dakoji. The great pleasure of print-making is that it permits an artist to multiply the effect of one piece of art over several different buyers. Since the cost of a print is usually considerably less than a painting or drawing, it is also a medium through which younger buyers and collectors can buy genuine originals without going broke.

My subjects for the prints are those that have interested me over the years – animal and human figures, depicted in a whimsical manner. There is frequently, in my work, a suggestion of stories, fables and myths underlying the images. But I did not have any particular stories in mind when I created these combinations of heads and bodies. I prefer to leave the viewer free to make up stories to suit the drawings rather than the other way around. These pictures don’t belong to any specific tradition or culture – yet they are recognizable as peacocks or women, cats or carpets. In my view, there is a global language, which most city-dwellers understand, of familiar shapes and forms. These drawings are visual stories told in that language.

The collages, on the other hand, arise from a completely different source. A better name for them might be “hybrids” or “squiggle-paintings”. I began working in the medium maybe a year ago, initially using the paint (a type of acrylic) directly on coloured foam-boards. I think of these pieces as celebrations of form and colour, only loosely related to objects in the real world. There are two or three basic themes. One, for instance, is the idealized sunset: a line separating two colours with a single element representing the sun or any other celestial object (e.g. RED FIELD, LINEAR MOONRISE). Another theme is of an object such as a head or a rock or even two rocks, filling the frame (e.g. ROCK, FACE, PIGEON). A third theme might be called “refraction” – one element, such as a line or a squiggle, is shown passing through some other medium, such as glass or water, and is transformed by it (e.g. GOLD RAIN, RED SHIFT).

A final theme, common to all these squiggle-paintings, is nonconformity. Despite the many repeating patterns of dots, squiggles and lines, not a single element is identical to the others around it. Similar but not the same – to me, this principle reminds us that we are all distinct individuals and ALSO part of a pattern. We ourselves are built from patterns of common elements (atoms and organic chemicals), yet the sum of our millions of tiny similar parts is utterly unique. There are many different patterns represented in these collages. Some are more regular and others are less so. In some, being irregular is the pattern! Looking for patterns, finding them and also attempting to break away from them – this is what I have enjoyed while producing these pieces and what I have hoped to communicate through having this show.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Yup, I'm still alive

For all those who may be puzzled about my silence in recent days ... well, I'm in Madras now and despite three computers in the house, am less than usually able to dial-up. My laptop caught a virus the last time I dialled up and I had to reformat the hard-disk -- which was okay and fairly painless but it's left me with an unwillingness to use it for dialling up any more. My sister's machine, the one I'm using now, is upstairs and hence not available to me on tap 'coz I'm downstairs from it. Also, she's a busy journalist and needs to use her machine a lot. My niece's laptop, which she very kindly loans me when I'm visiting, has developed a tic in Internet Explorer, so it no longer permits me to browse.

So there we are. Limited access. Weird, huh? Two years ago, I'd go into shock if I couldn't dial up every half hour or so. And two years before THAT, I used to wander down to the local cyber cafe -- what my mother misheard and consequently used to call "The Khyber Pass", causing her friends to look at me strangely whenever I returned home, wondering how come I travelled so swiftly back and forth from Afghanistan -- all day long. But today, I'm almost calm about it.

Of course part of the reason for that is the continuing focus on my show. I was over at the gallery yesterday and am happy to report that all the pictures are framed and up on the walls. I think they(the collages) are looking rather sweet -- all the little ones are the same size, i.e., 12"x12", so they look like a sort of running border on the walls, just at head-height. The prints are mostly all on a wall to themselves and look rather sober and serious by comparison to the collages which I have started to refer to as "hybrids" and/or "squiggle paintings", take your pick. Both names are appropriate. They ARE hybrids in the sense that they are neither wholly collage nor really painted at all and they DO employ a large contingent of squiggles in various colours and textures.

The show hasn't opened yet, but a few reactions have been registered, mostly positive. There are five red dots up already! Nice.

And Hurree: yes, I blush and confess that a mere two days after telling you that I was still too repressed to allow you to visit for a viewing at my home, I DID allow Someone Else (who visits this blog) not only to view but to buy. Arrgh. Well there's nothing I can say in my defense except that there's a tipping point -- if I'm still technically "finishing" the work, I won't want to anyone to see it regardless who has come to visit. But past that point, gradually the veils begin to drop away and I am okay with it. Still, I should have signalled to you when I knew that point had been reached ... You are hereby free to whip me upto fifty times with a large soft feather(both peacock and ostrich feathers are good for this). Or deprive me of chocolate cake upto my next three visits at your home. Or both.

Three more days before the show opens. The gallery owners, Sarala and Bishu Bannerji are extremely friendly and seem almost as pleased with the work as I am -- which is unexpected, considering that, like most artists, I feel rather like a cat with kittens (funny how frequently I find analogies between myself and cats. Must be the combined influence of my sister Su's Siamese Callas and Hurree's marmalade Tiglath) when I gaze upon my stuff, now framed between black and gold borders, on the walls of their gallery. Anyway, they are the first gallery owners with whom I feel comfortable -- they seem to really enjoy dealing in art, even though they've had their share of burns from unscrupulous artists.

And so to close. I'm still doing some of my homework -- making up lists of names to send invitations to (yes, STILL! Apparently no-one comes anyway, but you've got to send the invitations out, even if they reach the recipients only on the day of the opening) and all the names of the items on view, plus prices and a bit of bio-data for myself. *yawn*