1 December 2010

Delhi: Postcards from the Last Century

On a photography exhibition:

Images courtesy of Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

The Alkazi Foundation’s newest exhibition of vintage photographs is an ambitious one: it takes as its subject a much-photographed city, while limiting itself to images from a time that ensures that very few visitors to the show will recognize that city as one they know. 'Historic Delhi: Early Explorations of the Camera c. 1860-1950', showing at the National Gallery of Modern Art, consists almost entirely of photographs from the last century of colonial rule. But under that broad rubric is a variety of pictures.

There are memorable – if strangely empty – images of Delhi’s monuments after 1857 for example, created by pioneering photographers like Samuel Bourne and Felice Beato, and there are high-quality photographs, often of the same monuments, taken for documentary purposes by the Archaeological Survey of India. There are photographs by the famous pre-independence studios, like Lala Deen Dayal, documenting with aplomb such grand affairs as the Delhi Durbars of 1903 and 1911, or showing troops being dispatched along the Grand Trunk Road, a cloud of dust rising around the horses’ feet. There are a few lovely, carefully chosen pictures from the 1940s and 1950s, mostly taken by the news photographer couple Maneckshaw and Homai Vyarawalla – these include some haunting images of Ramlila performers. And finally, there are the anonymous images – annotated, if we’re lucky, with a year and a subject.

In some ways, it is these last that are the most interesting, because they fit less easily into any preconceived category in our heads. Looking at an image like ‘Miss Azijan of Delhi, c.1905’ – a young and pretty woman, photographed without purdah and alone, in 1905 – one imagines she must be a courtesan. But not knowing the photographer or his purpose – British or Indian, old or young, official or tourist, admirer or anthropologist – sharpens our interest. One’s eyes linger longer on Miss Azijan’s carefully arranged pose: one knee placed perfectly upon another, the self-possessed finger on her chin, and the face that remains somehow towards the camera – even as her gaze turns intriguingly away.

Sometimes, of course, a mere caption is enough to slot the image: a shy looking young girl with large earrings, dressed in gypsy fashion, can never escape the words, ‘Delhi Dancing Girl, c. 1905’. It was Jean-Luc Godard who once pointed out that the photograph is “physically mute”. “It talks,” he said, “through the mouth of the text beneath it.” Sometimes, I suppose, that can be a good thing. There are certainly moments when this exhibition comes to life through the inscriptions. Not contemporary curatorial ones (though those are informative enough), but old inscriptions that mark the image, conjuring up with great immediacy the past that lies congealed within it. A postcard with an image of the Mutiny Memorial that bears an exceptionally clear Leighton Buzzard postmark for May 23, 3pm (though the year was illegible to me) – and this laconic message: “Dear Flo, This place was put up by comrades of the men who died in the mutiny.” Closer to the bone is the image of Bara Hindu Rao, with a handwritten inscription as follows: “Our main picquet during the siege. Very hard fighting all round this place.”

Whether the past you’re looking for lies in the stately and studiously composed archival image, or in the postcard accidentally discovered, this is an exhibition worth visiting.

(Published in The India Tube)

9 November 2010

Bringing Back the Funk

Are our films fixated on the 70s? Or just on that decade's cinematic style? And why the 70s anyway?

This year’s big-ticket Diwali release, Action Replayy, starring Akshay Kumar and Aishwarya Rai, is billed as a “science fiction romantic comedy”. But judging by the posters, on which both stars cavort on a scooter or an ambassador (ooh, retro!), with an abundance of flowers (on vehicle, behind hero’s and heroine’s ears) and a greater abundance of polka dots (on shirts, skirts and background) further signifying the retro-ness of a particular decade, it seems that the filmmakers expect commercial success to ride less on the “science fiction” or the “romantic comedy” part than on the thing at the forefront of their marketing: Bollywood’s ’70s fascination.

The Hindi film industry’s announcement of this love affair with the ’70s goes back to another Diwali release, exactly three years ago: Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om (2007), casting Shah Rukh Khan as a junior film artiste in the 1970s. Some might argue that it goes back yet another Diwali, to Farhan Akhtar’s remake of the Bachchan thriller drama Don (2006) — or to Sriram Raghavan’s deliciously ramped-up noir, Johnny Gaddar (2007). Whichever one favours as its starting point, it seems pretty clear that we’re currently in the middle of a full-fledged romance — this year’s love offerings so far have been Milan Luthria’s Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai, and — very differently — Abhinav Kashyap’s Dabangg. But more on those later.

First, the obvious question: why the ’70s? Why are the ’70s the decade of choice, the decade that the Hindi film industry in the 2000s seems keenest to recreate? One answer, of course, is that it isn’t. Hindi cinema isn’t the slightest bit interested in conjuring up what the 1970s — in India or elsewhere — were really like. What it is interested in, though, is as flamboyant a recreation as possible of what it retrospectively identifies as the cinematic style of that decade — especially the fashion and the music.

The Hindi cinema of the 1970s provides, for some reason, the cinematic ancestry that today’s directors wish to claim as their own. A reason often provided in interviews is that these were the films that today’s directors grew up on — so that even an otherwise English-speaking, deeply PLU Farhan Akhtar (who once said in an interview that he didn’t know what “chamkeele” meant until his father Javed put it in the lyrics of Dil Chahta Hai) reminisces about watching the super-cheesy Don over and over as a child. But there is more to it, I think, than a simple generational coincidence.

The ’50s and early ’60s are at too great a distance, the ’80s and much of the ’90s have been dismissed as distasteful and violent by today’s more urbane and sanitised standards. The 1970s, then, remain as the awkward but endearing dehati caterpillar past, which the slick, globalised, glittering creature that’s 2010 Bollywood is able to look back on fondly.

Within that broad spectrum, different films seek to do very different things. Farhan Akhtar may remake Don, but he is far from recreating cheesiness. If anything, Akhtar’s revamping is self-conscious, stylish and contemporary. In an odd way, Akhtar’s Don fits better within the larger circuit of Bollywood nostalgia — the drawing room-ification of once rambunctious film poster art, the creation of a “golden age” of “classics” by popular histories, exhibitions and programming ranging from Videocon Flashback to Lata Mangeshkar’s Shraddhanjali recordings, and the opulent, colour-drenched remaking of minimalist B&W “classics” from Devdas and Parineeta to Sahib, Biwi aur Ghulam — than does something like Om Shanti Om.

A gloriously over-the-top tribute to every Hindi film cliché there ever was, OSO also put Shah Rukh Khan (in double role!) at the centre of a take on of Subhash Ghai’s 1980 reincarnation drama, Karz. Here, the desire to laugh at ourselves — or rather, at our tradition of romantic melodramas, goes hand in hand with a we-can’t-help-ourselves love of the genre. The same goes for Johnny Gaddar — except with reference to the Vijay Anand crime capers of the ’70s. And Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai, while ostensibly telling the tale of real-life Mumbai gangster Haji Mastan, actually reprises a million cinematic retellings of that tale, starting of course with Deewar (1970). Ajay Devgn’s Robin Hoodish gangster, his stylish white shirts, the deliberately overblown dialogue — all of these are intended more to echo the Bachchan films of the ’70s than the ’70s themselves.

The most interesting ’70s tribute, though, is Dabangg, which brings back the hero’s traumatic childhood as explanation for his future cinematic journey — a la Amitabh — and places parental relationships at its core. It also contains a moustachioed hero and a heroine who actually fills out her ghagra-choli. Like the heroes and heroines of the ‘70s, who may have worn outrageous clothes, but who still seemed a little more like us. Perhaps the key to more substantive cinematic nostalgia is to go a little deeper than the surface. As a British Asian album called Bollywood Funk announced as its project back in 2000 — “We have to take it back... to the days before bad lipstick and airbrushing gripped the world of Bollywood and there was another force. The force was funk... Bollywood Funk.”

The writer is a Delhi-based writer and anthropologist.

Op-ed piece published in the Indian Express, November 5, 2010.

The Power of the Photograph: Historic Delhi

A review essay on the 'Historic Delhi' photography exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art, in The Caravan.

The Jama Masjid during the Delhi Durbar of 1877
Roland Barthes once wrote that photography started out by photographing the notable, but soon it decreed notable whatever it photographed. Almost all the images in Historic Delhi: Early Explorations of the Camera c. 1860-1950, the Alkazi Foundation’s newest exhibition of vintage photographs, belong to that truly early era, when the camera was still understood as something meant only to capture the momentous, the monumental or, at the very least, the exotic. Which is probably why, to our jaded 21st-century eyes, these pictures seem, at first glance, somewhat dull. As Susan Sontag already understood in On Photography (1977), “[t]he image-surfeited are likely to find sunsets corny; they now look, alas, too much like photographs.”

It is a difficult task to imagine in 2010 how magical it must have been to see, circa 1880, the Jama Masjid as one saw it every day from Dariba Kalan, or the Red Fort on a wintry morning, captured in silver and grey, frozen into permanent two-dimensional form. It is particularly difficult at a time when the many channels of the ceaseless image-production machine—hoardings, tourist brochures, newspaper supplements, television channels—bombard us (or at least those of us who live in Delhi) with images of these very structures, almost challenging the eye not to see them as clichés.

And yet, if one gives them a chance, some of the Historic Delhi images can make the same things appear utterly fresh. Sometimes it is the mental doubletake as the eye recognises some element that has remained constant in a space otherwise almost entirely transformed. Sometimes it is the starkness of the composition, the frame empty of everything except the building — a building we may have seen a million times, but never without people. The gleaming whiteness of the Hazrat Nizamuddin dargah in Samuel Bourne’s image from 1865, or Humayun’s Tomb in an Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) photograph from 1923-4, for example, appear almost eerily unmarked by human presence—or time.

What is the visual pleasure one might get from such an image? It is the opposite of that which one usually derives from old things — rather than presenting us with the comforting patina of age, the old photograph magically strips away layers of time to reveal an object that is almost unbelievably pristine.

This ability to conjure up a slice of the past, to make it seem as concrete, as specific, as real as everything we see around us in the present — this is the unique power of the photograph. But it is a double-edged sword. Photography constantly seeks to capture the present, but by virtue of having captured it, imbues that present with pastness. And like modernity itself, while it seeks to preserve what is past, it is irrevocably embroiled in the disappearance of that past.

The history of early photography everywhere is entwined with the history of vanishing peoples and customs. Sontag puts it sharply, as always: “From the start, photographers not only set themselves the task of recording a disappearing world, but were so employed by those hastening its disappearance.”

If colonial era anthropologists everywhere, from the Americas to Africa, saw it as crucial to photograph the traditional life-worlds they were studying, urban photography in the 19th century sought to enshrine a fast-changing Paris and London. In the Indian context, of course, photography was hardly independent of the colonial apparatus. Much has been written about its connections to the machinery of military and administrative expansion, as well as the fixing of colonised identities into a frozen ethnographic present — even as the world being fixed in images was being transformed by the same colonial processes.

There is now also a growing body of writing that examines photography’s role in the recording and preserving of historic buildings. The legendary French conservationist Eugene Viollet-le-Duc commissioned a series of daguerrotypes of Notre Dame Cathedral before he began his controversial restoration in 1842. In colonial India, too, accurately depicting the extent of decay — the pre-restoration photograph — was seen as the first step in bringing a building’s state to wider notice, and thus preserving it. There was also the post-restoration photograph. Official records were thus created in what we might now refer to as ‘Before and After’ mode.

The Alkazi exhibition presents us with at least three such images from the ASI, all immaculately composed, and bereft of people: the impressively Ozymandias-like ‘Entrance to Purana Qila before restoration, Delhi, 1914’; the earlier mentioned ‘Humayun’s Tomb with restored Tank and Gardens, Delhi, 1923-4’ and ‘Tomb of Illtutmish, c.1915,’ showing the interior in splendid detail. There are also images here that belong to a related tradition, ‘the picturesque.’ An artistic style that evolved in 18th-century Europe and became a staple of colonial representation, the picturesque composition involved landscapes with classical buildings, preferably in a state of ruin, preferably overrun by vegetation, and—unlike the scientific architectural photograph, which was almost always devoid of people — a few human figures visible at a distance, preferably ragged. The famous photograph of Flagstaff Tower, Delhi, taken in 1858-9 by Felice Beato and included in this exhibition, is in this mould. Although it is too soon after the 1857 revolt for the building to be overgrown, there are visible cannon holes in the wall and doors and a boundary wall swiftly turning to rubble — well as three carefully positioned natives, their faces in shadow.

It has been argued that such images, with their emphasis on a glorious past and a ruinous present, worked to legitimise a colonial narrative of civilisational transition. Whether you find this convincing or not, it is impossible to ignore the startling emptiness of these frames, and the strangely controlled human presence. In the first of three Chandni Chowk images, a moustachioed man looks calmly into the camera. In the second, taken by Samuel Bourne, the three men mid-frame have clearly been told to stay there and stand still. The third is the oddest: the shadows are strong and the streets deserted, except for a single figure perched on a buffalo. An odd image to create, surely, of what had to have been the busiest bazaar in the city?

Chandni Chowk, photographed by Samuel Bourne
But perhaps all this is barking up the wrong tree, and all that the picture testifies to is the shimmering heat of a Delhi summer afternoon, people hiding from the sun which glints off the buffalo’s back. And there are, indeed, simpler pleasures to be derived here. One smiles happily to oneself at the bamboo trellises around planted saplings and cement enclosures around them, their concrete particularity turning this unfamiliar black and white city into one we know.

An ASI image of the Diwan-i-Khas, circa 1880, shows the fort shorn of all its splendid lived grandeur—there are none of the furnishings that must have existed even 25 years previous. This is cleverly juxtaposed with an image from 1913-4, called ‘Recreated Mughal Room, Khwabgah,’ which marks an experiment where Mughal palaces in Delhi, Lahore and Agra were restored and refurbished under the ASI’s John Marshall. In a different part of the exhibition is a photograph from an in-between decade: the Red Fort lit by electric lights, looking incongruously like a ballroom— apparently taken just before the arrival of the guests at Curzon’s Delhi Durbar, 1903.

A preliminary thought that might bear considering: the colonial-era images we see here seem to contain either the rigidly controlled two or three locals, or else move full scale into the realm of the crowd. The most impressive of these crowd pictures is of people gathered outside the Jama Masjid during the 1877 Durbar: a vast assemblage of humans surrounded by their camel carts, bael gadis and innumerable buffaloes, and the mosque rising up at the back, every available parapet overflowing with people.

One whole section, in fact, is devoted to the three Delhi Durbars of 1877, 1903 and 1911. Most of these images—the vast tent cities, or the king and queen on an elephant—are staid depictions of the notable, a la Barthes. But there are exceptions. One such is the photograph of the Begum of Bhopal arriving at the 1911 Durbar, which is arresting for many reasons. First, it is among the few images in the exhibition with a person in the foreground, occupying at least a third of the frame. But more than that, it is that the woman striding purposefully toward us is completely veiled. All eyes are upon her, within the frame and without, but her expression, even the look in her eyes, will forever remain a mystery. In ‘Elephant Being Howdahed, 1911-2,’ a huge crowd of attendants is gathered around the poor patient beast, with only two men actually involved in fixing the howdah. It is a sharp visual commentary on the vast scale of (probably largely unnecessary) labour that kept the Raj running.

The mid-20th century section is relatively dull, redeemed only by some splendid photographs taken (separately) by Homai and Maneckshaw Vyarawalla. While Homai’s ‘Christmas Day Celebrations, 1947,’ with its grinning crowds in Connaught Place, satisfies one’s latent desire for a celebratory post-Independence moment, it is Maneckshaw’s lovely Jantar Mantar image from 1945 that seems to offer the perfect response to the constrictedness of all the earlier monument images. Two women in ghunghats descend the Jantar Mantar staircase, while at the far end of the lawn two figures in sola topis — policemen? — walk away from us. The monument is still very much centre-stage, but the women are neither dwarfed nor alienated by it. It is not a space they are likely to have been in before, and neither the building nor the stately rows of palm trees offers any shade from the sun—yet they seem, somehow, entirely at home.

Published in The Caravan.

1 November 2010

Film Preview: Daayen ya Baayen

THE AUTO MOTIVE: Light-hearted wisdom in the new indie film Daayen Ya Baayen

A LITTLE BOY, his mother, his grandmother and a young aunt are waiting quietly at a bus stop. The old woman silently opens a box and starts to sneak something into her mouth. Suddenly the angelic-looking boy jumps up and starts swatting at her arm, shouting, “Laddoo mat kha, neeche rakh, Papa ke liye hai!” Before we can dwell on the unusual irreverence of it all, or anything heavier, the bus arrives.

The moment is funny and real and a bit sad — and passes almost immediately. Bela Negi’s Daayen Ya Baayen (DYB), which releases 29 October, is chock-a-block with such moments. The bittersweet tale of a disillusioned writer who returns to his village from Mumbai (to his wife’s disbelief and his neighbours’ sneers and jeers), DYB is that rare thing in Indian cinema: a film that aspires to wisdom rather than wisecracks, yet refuses to take itself too seriously. “I have a problem with sentimentality,” laughs Negi, 39, a 1997 FTII graduate who’s written, directed and edited the film. “So whenever something sad happens, I juxtapose it with something outrageous.”

Drawing on Negi’s Nainital childhood and her mother’s village reminiscences, DYB perfectly evokes not just the light and space, but also the slower pace and gentle humour of an Uttarakhand village. The plot grew out of Negi reading about a poor man winning a lottery in Assam and imagining the “happy and not-so-happy repercussions”. “We’ve all felt sometimes that if I can get this one thing, everything will be fine,” says Negi. “But like they say: beware of your wishes, they might come true.” DYB’s protagonist, the somewhat haplessly comic Ramesh Majhila (played by Deepak Dobriyal: Uttarakhandi, long-time theatre actor, now known for Omkara and Gulaal), suddenly finds himself the owner of a big red car, setting in motion an unexpected train of events.

The red car is both visual and symbolic leitmotif: a dreamlike object from the faraway world of luxury advertising that appears, as if magically, in this poor, roadless mountainscape. It could have been heavy-handed. But DYB neither buys the consumerist fantasy, nor dwells ponderously on the irony of it all. You’re likely to think about it, but only about as much as you smile at a school assembly dissolving into giggles at Majhila’s puffed-up poetic speechifying. The lightness of touch is something Negi consciously aspires to. She mentions Bunuel and Naipaul as influences, and when she speaks admiringly of A House for Mr Biswas as being able to see the ridiculousness of characters while also empathising with them, one sees exactly what she means.

She remembers a blind roommate who’d dress up each evening and ask if she was looking nice. “I don’t mean to run down her ambition, her desire,” says the gentle Negi, who helps run her husband’s corporate film production company and has spent the past few years raising her kids. “But the blindness became a metaphor for me, of how we limit ourselves to what we see in others’ eyes.” It doesn’t look like Bela Negi does.

27 October 2010

Film Review: Aakrosh


In Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning (1988), two FBI agents with diametrically opposed ways of functioning arrive in a small town in the American South to investigate the disappearance of three civil rights activists. In Priyadarshan’s Aakrosh, two members of a CBI team with diametrically opposed ways of functioning arrive in a small town in north India to investigate the disappearance of three college students. It doesn’t end there: the narrative, characters, even scenes are happily plucked from Parker’s film and planted in Priyan’s.

All of this might be palatable if one could count it as a decent adaptation of a classic. But while Mississippi Burning managed to be both a taut policier and a passionate race relations drama, Aakrosh doesn’t quite swing it on either count.

Which is sad, because the prolific Priyan’s return to ‘issue-based’ Hindi cinema — for the first time since Virasat (1997) — has enough going for it. S Tirru’s cinematography is often impressive, with some superb action set-pieces that are clearly the director’s pride and joy (including a nice Mirch Masala tribute). The underrated Akshaye Khanna as a watchful, bespectacled CBI agent (who plays hard, but by the rules) is a perfect foil to Ajay Devgn as the hot-headed officer sent to assist him, while Paresh Rawal plays nasty cop with a carefully calibrated mix of nonchalance and menace. And they all get some decent lines.

But as one issue bleeds into another — ‘honour’ killings, police impunity, Dalit oppression, a trishul-wielding Hindu sena whose only raison d’etre is that Mississippi Burning had a Ku Klux Klan — it becomes hard to feel anything. And the more violence the evil thugs wreak on their supremely hapless victims, the greater the disconnect.

There is also the small matter of Bipasha Basu, (hapless) wife of (evil) Rawal, who is just stunningly wrong, whether glumly dusting her tasteful furniture in discreet handloom sari and just-blow-dried hair, or mouthing lines utterly beyond her ken (“Jamuniya, tohre nain kahe bheegat hain?”).

The honour killings, never much more than a peg for some solid masala, are sadly sidelined. But hey, we do get to watch the effortlessly intense Mr Devgn squeeze under a moving train, propel himself along an electricity wire with his belt and steer a whole jungle car chase atop a moving Innova. I’m a fan.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 43, Dated October 30, 2010

18 October 2010

Theatre Review: Nati Binodini

Nati Binodini is an ambitious play. It aims at being much more than a biography of the nineteenth-century Bengali prostitute who achieved almost mythical renown as a stage actress. It sets out to tell a story about modern Indian theatre, to expose the intimate yet exploitative relationship that actresses have had with the stage, and to probe the nature of acting itself.

As a line in the play has it, “Abhinaya swayam ko jaanne ki ek kriya hai, par aisa abhyas karna bahut kathin saadhna hai. [Acting is a way to understand oneself, but to practise that art is a very difficult exercise.]” But for Binodini, acting is a way to transcend her socially-scripted role as a low-born woman whose profession makes her irretrievably immoral in the eyes of society. Once on stage, she can be Juliet, Kanchan, Kapalkundala – or even Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.

The script gestures several times towards the irony that the theatre allowed her to transform herself into a bhadramahila by the sheer ability to act like one, but would not let her escape her tainted status in real life. Rather than catapulting her into respectability, the stage remains tied down by the immorality associated with actresses like herself. The alternative is also not appealing for a woman who has experienced her kind of professional success. As her mentor Girish Ghosh (played with conviction by the sonorous-voiced Jayanto Das) puts it, “Baganbari – that’s what your life will be reduced to if you leave the theatre”. (Baganbari - lit. garden house - is a kind of suburban villa that many of Calcutta’s bhadralok built as a retreat from the city.)

Director Amal Allana seeks to play with time and identity by having five different actresses play Binodini at different ages, and having them appear on stage at the same time. It’s an interesting experiment to watch, but the performances seem to clash and detract from each other, rather than allowing one to be moved by the power of a singular persona. The performances are also, by and large, extremely overblown – Salima Raza as the old Binodini has a pronounced hobble and wailing voice (not to mention her incorrect pronunciation of Bengali words) that are cringeworthy. It’s clear that the idea was to interleave the play with fragments in the melodramatic declamatory style popular in Binodini’s time, but that style seems to have taken over the production, making it difficult to be drawn in or moved by the acting. Nissar Allana’s lighting and set design is fantastic, with a transparent stage lit from below, as is Devajit Bandopadhyay’s immaculately-researched musical score, but in the end you’re left with the sense of a tremendous spectacle, and little else.

Published in Time Out Delhi, Issue 14 Friday, October 01, 2010

Book Review: Multi-Stories

Kalpana Sahni will charm you with her cross-cultural anecdotes. Just don’t expect profundity, says TRISHA GUPTA

Kalpana Sahni
Routledge India
172 pp; Rs. 595

A COLLECTION OF pieces originally published either in the Op-Ed page of the Daily Times, Lahore, or in Herald magazine from Karachi, Multi-Stories is an odd little book. Its 60 chapters — if they can be so described — have little connection to each other. There are potted histories of everything from tulips to time-keeping, interspersed with Kalpana Sahni’s observations as she meanders through countries as varied as Thailand and Georgia.

One can be reading about the global political ramifications of Mercator’s map projections, only to turn the page and find a slightly kooky-sounding plea for more bureaucrat-poets in contemporary India (a la China’s Tang period).

A book like this can either feel wonderfully wide-ranging or unforgiveably scattered. Sahni’s introduction tries to preempt the second response by claiming that organising her material by subject would “reinforce the very compartmentalisation, which has been the bane of researchers and which has resulted in hermetically sealed cultural constructs”.

But cheering Sahni’s opposition to the idea of pure, closed-off cultures is unlikely to prevent readers from seeking order in her narratives. Being whizzed in and out of an (admittedly charming) anecdote of how Uzbek women name deeply desired Middle Eastern fabrics after characters from The Bold and the Beautiful, to land bang in the middle of a history of the turkey, or being transported from an account of an American architect who loved the chaos of Delhi to the Indian visa official who wanted Sahni to find his daughter a groom, this reviewer had the inescapable feeling of being taken on a tour by a well-travelled, chatty aunt who forgets where her stories begin — but happily carries on talking.

But, as might well be the case with the imaginary aunt, you’re mostly happy to let her wander on. After all, how often are you going to find someone informed enough to hold forth on the history of sugar and its etymology (Sanskrit sharkara to Latin succarum via Arabic sukkar) and yet playful enough to end her challenge to “culturally authentic” clothing by suggesting that a bright ABVP student conduct research on “The Origins of Khaki Shorts in Vedic Texts”?

Despite her deliberately anecdotal style, Sahni is at her most engaging not when she’s describing her interminable encounters with airport officials, drivers and tour guides, but when she’s taking us, light yet surefooted, through historical and theoretical terrain she knows well — the literature and culture of Russia and Central Asia, those regions’ links with South Asia and the idea of cultures as inherently mixed up, built upon borrowings from each other.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 42, Dated October 23, 2010

Hotel Review: Amber Vermont Estate, Mussoorie

Check Out

Sleepy Hollow

Nestle-up in the Himalayan mountains in the beautifully serene rooms of the Amber Vermont Estate.

Neither bustling Dehra Dun, where we arrive by train from Delhi, nor the winding drive up through Mussoorie town, chock-a-block with hotels, leads us to expect the startling peace of the Amber, Vermont Estate. Barely 10 minutes’ drive up from the Mall, we find ourselves walking down a pebbled outer courtyard, the only sound that of stones crunching underfoot.

The hotel’s sloping green roofs sit serenely atop three separate blocks of rooms, all with glorious views of the Happy Valley. The older block, with three deluxe rooms and a luxurious suite that opens out into the flower-filled back garden, also houses a poolroom, a TV room, a private dining room and a chic but comfortable lobby. This block, we are told, retains much of the original structure, with the wooden panelled walls and some of the lovelier old pieces of furniture restored to perfection, but the rooms (apart from the suite) are usually reserved for the owner’s special guests. We are given a first floor room in the new block, a contemporary stone-and-wood structure built on the site of the old servants’ quarters. Fortified by a luxurious hot shower and a hearty breakfast of aloo and paneer paranthas with pickle and dahi, we deliberate the prospect of a walk, but are defeated by the combination of approaching rain and an irresistibly cosy room: wooden floors, a warm bed and a glass-walled balcony through which you can see the mountains whenever they choose to reappear through the fog.

Every room at the Vermont gets its own balcony, which is priceless. But the high point of the five-acre property is undeniably the Deck: an open area adjoining the lobby where guests are welcome to dine, read or just gaze into the distance, watching the mist slowly wrap itself around the mountains, or listening to the langurs chatter in the trees. There is a dining table for four, a space for low seating, as well as two reclining chairs.

A post-breakfast siesta is followed by lunch on the Deck, after which we are driven down to Mussoorie town (the hotel provides a very welcome shuttle service to and from Library Chowk). We walk first along the picturesque Camel’s Back Road, and then along the length of the Mall, stopping to look at the wrought iron bus stops, the tired ponies lined up for potential tourists to ride. It is off-season, though, and no hordes of cantering children appear. Business is slow in general, whether for ponies or cable cars, or the many photographers offering to capture couples at ‘Bunty-Babli Point’ — which turns out to be outside the Continental Hotel, where Abhishek Bachchan and Rani Mukherjee are shown conning a hotel owner in the 2005 film.

We return to the hotel, where off-season manages to seem like a quiet state of readiness rather than despair or desperation. Yes, the spa is still being built, the regular chauffeur is unavailable and the continental chef has decided to take a holiday, but things seem entirely under control. The brisk and cheerful general manager doubles up to drive guests to town and the waiters volunteer desi alternatives to the western-style snacks we ask for (wonderfully crisp paneer pakoras). The service is slightly slow, but always courteous and mostly thoughtful — though someone needs to take care of the little things, like remembering to provide a strainer on the tea tray, and a tea cosy to ensure that the tea doesn’t get cold by the time it’s found its way up to the guests. The food itself is good: carefully prepared, non-greasy and spiced mildly enough to cater to the most sensitive palate. I recommend the tandoori platter, as well as the Kashmiri rogan josh with home-style tawa rotis. (Oh, and the gulab jamuns.) There isn’t any alcohol available, though the manager suggested he would arrange to have some bought in town if we wanted.

When it isn’t pouring, you can drive up to atmospheric Cloud’s End, among the oldest estates in the area, which seems less like a functioning hotel and more like a museum to Mussoorie past, with its tiger skins and sepia-toned pictures of the Mall and Kulri Bazaar. You could also spend a day in nearby Landour, visiting the old St Paul’s Church, the cemetery or, if you’re lucky, Ruskin Bond’s house. But if you end up at the Vermont in the middle of the monsoon, as we did, there are going to be long stretches of rain during which you can do not much except eat, drink, read, sleep — or watch TV. I watched more TV in two-and-a-half days than I have in a whole year. I also read half a biography of Samuel Pepys, feeling a strange link to foggy London as I sat in my cloud-sheathed balcony, watching the rain come down in sheets. And yet, life seemed to move much faster in 17th-century London than it did at the Vermont. How often does a contemporary holiday offer you such stillness?

The Information
* Location Hathi Paon Road, Mussoorie
* Accommodation 12 deluxe double rooms and one deluxe suite
* Tariff Rs 6,500 (rooms), Rs 13,000 (suite). Includes breakfast and dinner. Valid till last weekend of September. High-season tariff: Rs 8,500 (rooms), Rs 15,000 (suite)
* Contact 0135-2630202; www.theamber.in

High Table: Food in Manali

'Tourist Food' takes on many wonderful avatars in Old Manali.

(Click on the link above to see this piece with Sanjoy Ghosh's delicious pictures)

What cuisine did they have here? In Manali? Oh, nothing!” Mr Sud waves his right hand dismissively. “They were uncivilised, jaahil people. And anyway it was too cold for anything to grow here. Isn’t that so?” He looks for confirmation at his headwaiter, who nods gravely. Neither Mr Sud or his headwaiter—both of Mayur Restaurant on Old Mission Road—are from Kullu, the mountainous district of which Manali is part. The two men from Kangra confer briefly over whether there’s such a thing as local Manali food. A long description of something called phamra follows, in which an elderly British woman sitting at the next table actively joins. It’s a breakfast dish, apparently, involving a small-grained local dal called baat, a red millet called sil, and a leafy vegetable called sukhi saag, which grows in sub-zero temperatures, all simmered together for several hours. Just when we’re beginning to get our hopes up, though, he brings the topic unceremoniously to a close. “But nowadays you won’t find it anywhere. Not in town, anyway. The locals think that’s peasant food.” The old restaurant owner quakes with silent laughter. “They all eat tourist food now.”

Tourist food. It’s a term that one might think conveys nothing at all, but in fact it’s surprisingly descriptive. In India, at least, it conjures up a vision of pasta in white sauce (usually stodgy), chocolate banana pancakes (definitely stodgier) and mango lassi (often stodgiest) in an uninterrupted chain all the way from Kovalam to Pushkar.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m as fond of chocolate banana pancakes as the next Indian-tourist-adventurously-following-firang-backpacker-trail, and when I last passed through Manali on my way to Spiti in July 2006, I ate more than my fair share. Four years later, though, I’m back in town to find out if having a food-centric holiday in Manali is possible without entirely clogging one’s intestines with maida.

So, of course, the first thing I order is pancakes.

We’ve driven into Manali on a sunny April morning, ravenous after a 13-hour drive whose high points have not been culinary (though insanely sweet dhaba chai at 4am can assume an epic quality when you’ve finally found the right road to Ropar). An hour after Kullu, our nostrils are reluctantly letting go of the fragrant damp smell of pine forest when New Manali begins to sprawl around us, its uniformly squat ugliness relieved only by an explosion of signage: ‘Gujarati Thali, Marwari Thali.’ ‘Shere Punjab.’ ‘Kalinga Restaurant.’ ‘Madras Hotel.’ ‘Delhi Chaat Bhandaar.’ ‘Annapurna Bengali Restaurant.’ As the road curves up to Old Manali, the national diversity display of the honeymoon hill-station gives way to an exhibition of bohemian tourist fashion, interspersed with budget hotels in all shapes and sizes.

The sunny first floor balcony that serves as the outdoor café of Drifters’ Inn (10am-midnight; 98050-33127) looks out over the Old Manali bazaar. You can also look up, up and away for a glorious view of sky and snow-capped peaks. Once the food arrives, though, there’s no looking anywhere else. The chicken stroganoff (Rs 220) is a bit heavy, though the creamy sauce with bell peppers and mushrooms will please those with a taste for Raj-style comfort food.

Our other main course is even more directly Raj: a whole Manali trout served with boiled vegetables and plain white rice (Rs 280). British anglers introduced brown and rainbow trout into the Beas in the early 1900s. A cousin of salmon, trout thrives in icy cold mountain streams. An abundance of wild trout still draws anglers to Manali, but the government is keen to up commercial cultivation. In 2009, there were 81 trout farms in Himachal Pradesh, with production slated to cross 100 tonnes by the end of the year.

The trout is grilled to garlicky perfection, but it’s the buttermilk pancakes (Rs 90) that steal the show: two perfect golden discs generously smeared with butter and maple syrup. The 32-year-old Nishant Singh, who runs Drifters’, tells me he has only recently switched to thick American-style pancakes. As I gratefully put away my second pancake, satisfyingly solid and gloriously fluffy at the same time, I ask why. “Because my menu is for a cosmopolitan crowd,” says Nishant. “Not the typical hippie tourist.” It’s a revealing answer. A Mumbai-based brand manager with Vodafone who decided that what he really wanted was to run a hotel in the hills, Nishant is equal parts dreamer and businessman.

He’s also part of an ongoing process: as Old Manali becomes more popular with North Americans, Europeans and upper middle class Indians, it has less of the doped-out hippie haven about it. Israelis, while still the largest single nationality among Manali tourists, have reduced in absolute numbers and as a proportion of the tourist population. Correspondingly, Israeli food, ubiquitous until two or three years ago, is less so now. You can still find it easily enough, at older budget places like Dragon Restaurant (7.30am-midnight; 01902-252790), where among others, there’s an ‘Israeli breakfast’ of pita, hummus, chips and salad (Rs 80), shakshuka (a spicy fried egg sandwich, Rs 90) and herbed zatar bread listed as ‘jatar naan’. The decent hummus (Rs 80) comes with a plate of fluffy pita that’s a lot like naan (“naan-like pita, pita-like naan,” agrees the genial waiter).

But newer establishments are making a statement by having sophisticated, highly selective menus rather than catch-all lists—and not including Israeli items. Other than Drifters’, there’s the Lazy Dog Lounge (10am-11pm; 254277), set up in 2008 by the spiky-haired Gopal, a chatty 30-something Delhi boy who abandoned a 15-year career as a television producer to do this. If it’s a cold evening, the cosy wood-panelled interior is the place to try their classic rosemary grilled chicken (Rs 170) or the more quixotic pineapple fried rice (Rs 170). But if the sun is out, get a table in the rocky outcrop of a garden out back and watch the Beas roar spectacularly past below you. The bibimkuksoo (Rs 130)—chilled noodles, thinly sliced vegetables and boiled egg, with a Korean hot sauce on the side—is served with ice cubes to keep the noodles cold and is fabulously refreshing on a warm afternoon.

The other hot-weather speciality here is the Vietnamese fresh spring roll (Rs 120)—a delicate rice flour parcel packed with chicken and slivers of carrot and cabbage, with a Thai sweet-chilli sauce. The veggie version (Rs 100) is almost as good.

The transformation of Manali’s culinary experience from generic ‘tourist food’ to a variety of specialised cuisines owes a great deal to the non-local who settles in Manali and decides to make a living selling his or her kind of food. Gopal’s Korean partner has much to do with the Southeast Asia-inflected menu at Lazy Dog.

That night, we follow the Korean food trail to Yun Café, a lovely old Himachali wooden house run as a restaurant by a local man and his Korean wife. There is traditional low seating all along the creaky wooden balcony, but it’s cold outside so we decide to move inside and warm ourselves, first with some splendidly potent soju (Rs 250 for 200ml) and then miyeokguk baekban (Rs 130), a flavourful soup full of dark green seaweed, which comes with white rice and four side dishes (the fried zucchini is superb). The tangy bibimbap (Rs 150) is a satisfying one-dish meal, as is the dongas (Rs 180), a fried pork cutlet in a sweetish sauce that’s a lot like the Japanese katsu-don. If it’s the trout trail you want to follow, try the maeuntang (Rs 250), a spicy Korean fish soup given a local twist with Manali trout.

The oldest and best-known of these establishments owned by non-locals is the Italian restaurant and pizzeria Il Forno (12.30pm-10.30pm; 9816922481). Located on a picturesque bit of hillside on the way up to the Hadimba Temple, Il Forno, too, runs out of an old wooden Himachali house. Paolo, a small man with wispy hair and a nervous energy that makes him seem a little like the White Rabbit, started it in 1995 with his wife Roberta, when the USP was (as it still is on the card) ‘Imported Ingredients Italian Chef’. Today, much of what they use is local, and the acting chef is a Nepali who’s trained with them for 15 years.

The saffron mushroom risotto (Rs 210, but you can’t order less than two plates) is fragrant and flavourful and creamy without being too dense. The chicken escalope with lime and brandy sauce (Rs 240) is succulent and perfectly marinated, though one finds oneself wishing it were veal. The wood fire-oven-baked pizzas are, without exception, superb, though my pick is the ham and mushroom pizza (Rs 230). Do not leave without dessert—the tiramisu (Rs 90) is moist and lovely, but for sheer decadence you can’t beat the fiametta (Rs 50): a large disc of biscuit, with a huge dollop of dense chocolate mousse atop it.

Of course, the authenticity of a restaurant’s food doesn’t always depend on the owners being born into the cuisine. Il Forno and its Nepali chef are paralleled by Pizza Olive and its Tibetan owners/cooks. An atmospheric little place in a garden set back from the road, Pizza Olive (9am-11pm; 9816191541) serves high quality pastas and pizzas. Then there’s People Café (10.30am-11pm; no phone), a family-run Russian establishment whose Russian items can be terrible—give the fish salad a wide berth. The food is otherwise unremarkable, but the ambience is cheerful and welcoming, with guests given crayons and invited to draw something for the wall collage.

My search for ‘local food’ has gone nowhere since my lunchtime conversation with Mr Sud at Mayur (8am-11pm; 252316). His restaurant’s perfectly executed aloo palda (Rs 70), potatoes in a light but somehow creamy yoghurt gravy, and the excellent sepu bada (Rs 80), dumplings made from a combination of soaked chane ki dal and mah ki dal and cooked in spinach with fennel and garam masala, are adapted from Mr Sud’s family recipes—which means that they are from further south in Himachal.

The sleepy and bureaucratic staff at the Kunzum Hotel (253197) say the Himachali food on their menu would need to be pre-ordered a day in advance. I say, fine. They look a little alarmed at my persistence, and now say it would need to be paid for in advance as well. I laugh, but don’t call them.

My final meal is at the magnificently laid-out Johnson’s Café (8am-11pm; 253764). Touted as Manali’s first trout speciality restaurant, it certainly has the largest range of trout dishes in town—from tandoori trout with kachumber and apple chutney (Rs 300) to wood oven-baked trout fillet with sage and butter sauce (Rs 350), not to mention Jimmy’s crispy fried trout with green apple salad and chutney (Rs 300). The eclectic menu displays a mix of culinary influences, but with a focus on fresh ingredients and an inventive use of local produce, like trout—and also Himachali apples. Try, for example, the rucola, apple and parmesan salad (Rs 160), with the rich, mellow flavour of the parmesan beautifully set off by the crisp tartness of the apple.

Just when we’re about to leave, we discover the Manali local trout curry thali (Rs 350)—a stellar meal of red rice called ukhara chawal, a lovely local green called madara palak, paneer ki sabzi and a large bowl of flavourful trout in a wonderfully full-bodied haldi-mirch-dhania gravy. As I mop up the last of the famed local lingri fern pickle with a superb fermented local flatbread called bhaturu, I think to myself, if this is tourist food, I’m glad to be a tourist.l

And there was more

Dylan’s Roasted and Toasted Started in 2006 by Rajan Nalwa with two friends (who went back to Israel the next year), this relaxed outdoorsy space serves a variety of well-made coffees (Turkish, Rs 40; French Press, Rs 60), melt-in-the-mouth chocolate chip cookies (Rs 20 each) and perfectly good snacks (cheese and olive toast, Rs 70). Dylan’s rapid cult following got them an invite to run the café at Israeli House in North Goa in 2007. There is now a branch in Arambol. It’s a true travellers’ café, with even the signature Bob Dylan mural attributed to the collective efforts of tourists down the years — when we went, there were two English girls adding their own touch. 8am-11pm; 9816054041

English Bakery and German Bakery Several different shops that attempt to distinguish their wares from each other along imagined national lines, but sell more or less the same cakes and pastries. Try the gloriously decadent bhagsu cake (Rs 30): a layer of pure, buttery chocolate set atop a biscuity base and chilled.

Shesh Besh
This ageing hangout advertises itself as a “Fresh and Funky Restaurant”. The outdoor seating area is lit with low, hanging lamps by night and has a relaxed vibe that makes it popular with all kinds of visitors. The owners have a bit of a Mickey Mouse fixation: there’s a large Mickey Mouse illustration on a board propped up at the back, and every bill comes with a painstakingly drawn Mickey Mouse face with the words, “Keep Smiling, Stay Happy”. 9am till late; 9882337320

Open Hand Café A newly-opened outlet of the sophisticated café chain that opened in Varanasi and also has two branches in Delhi (in Paharganj and at the American School). Run by a South African partnership, which decided that selling Indian-made home furnishings to tourists would be made easier if they had their own cafés-cum-display showrooms. They sell high quality coffee, cakes and sandwiches, with a few carefully chosen South African dishes like bobotie (spiced minced meat baked with egg topping, Rs 180) and sosatie (grilled marinated meat with apricots, Rs 220). 8.30am till late; 9871909777, www.openhandonline.com

New Manali is generally filled with eateries that cater to middle class Indian tourists who’re used to their own kind of food and might wish to avoid culinary adventures. Often the owner is local, someone who used to serve standard North Indian restaurant fare until he realised that there was a niche market for Gujarati food, or Bengali food, or whatever. The Himachali owner of Himalayan Dhaba (9am-11pm; 9418719313) reels off his eatery’s Bengali options (rui maachh thali, Rs 70) at top speed and with accurate pronunciation, then reveals he has had a Bengali chef for 10 years. Aashiana Family Restaurant (7.30am-11pm; 252232) serves a Gujarati thali (arhar dal, aloo tamatar, seasonal vegetable, rice and two tawa rotis for Rs 99). The addition of khichdi, karhi, papad and a gulab jamun makes it a special thali (Rs 150).

There are also such long-serving standards as Chopsticks, an extremely popular Tibetan-Chinese restaurant, known for its superb momos and large portions (The Mall; 11am-11pm, 252639) and Khyber (The Mall; 11am-11pm), which does a good job with North Indian non-vegetarian staples and serves Himachali fruit wines as well.

Published in Outlook Traveller magazine, May 2010.

28 May 2010

Book Review: The Temple-Goers

A book review, in Biblio:

Picador India, 2010, 
297 pp. Rs 495 
ISBN 978-0-330-51408-8


It is slightly unsettling to read a book that self-consciously sets itself up as fiction, while also deliberately naming its narrator the same thing as its author, placing Aatish-the-narrator in locales which the author occupies in reality, and then giving him a familial lineage, an educational background, even a social life that echoes Taseer-the-author’s.

Cleverness apart, it’s a narratorial device that seems disconcertingly to want to draw the reader into a game of catch-me-if-you-can, a guess-what’s-true-and-what-I-made-up game that has about it a whiff of the incestuous, upper-middle-class Delhi rumour mill.

It is more disconcerting to discover that Taseer is happy to cannibalise not just his life (which novelist doesn’t?) but also narrativised versions of it that he’s published earlier: specifically, a deeply personal introduction to his impeccable translation of ten stories by Saadat Hasan Manto (Manto: Selected Stories, 2008). That Introduction seeks to locate Taseer’s admiration for Manto, arguably the subcontinent’s greatest stylist of Urdu prose, within the biographical frame of Taseer’s half-Indian, half-Pakistani heritage (he is the son of Delhi-based journalist Tavleen Singh and Lahore-based businessman-politician Salman Taseer), his lack of knowledge of Urdu and his adult desire to acquire it. More crucially, it embodies the contemporary crisis of Urdu — a language whose literary “infrastructure” has collapsed around it — in the impoverished if shabbily defiant figure of Zafar Moradabadi. A poet and publisher from Old Delhi’s Sui Walan neighbourhood who comes to Taseer through the Ghalib Academy and agrees to teach him Urdu, Zafar Moradabadi lies at the core of the Manto Introduction. It is odd, then, to find this person who has already been precisely mapped in non-fictional terms, down to his clothes, his turns of phrase and the heat sores on his head, turn up almost entirely unaltered in a different book—now presented as fictional.

But there is another connection between that Introduction and The Temple-goers that is stranger still. In a passage describing Manto’s occasional use of a narrator called Manto, Taseer writes: 

"It is hard not to come to feel a great affection for this narrator. He is mischievous, compassionate, funny, a listener, a drinker, sceptical and without prejudice. His Bombay is a city of motor cars and bicycles, of chawls and mansions, of hookers and heiresses, of Sikhs and Parsis, of depressives and lunatics, and he asserts his nativity by moving freely between its varied lives, making it seem like no less his right than sitting on a bench at Apollo Bandar, watching boats and people go by."
(p. xxiii-xxiv, Introduction to Manto: Selected Stories)

Manto, the narrator, who “should not be confused with Manto, the man or the writer” [writes Taseer], “is like the narrators used by Proust and VS Naipaul, and though travelling under the writer’s name, he is, if anything, a more forceful creation of the imagination”. Taseer goes on to suggest that such a narrator is “not a gimmick”—he fulfils a particular sort of fictional need: “In an immigrant city like Bombay, where no cultural knowledge can be assumed, where the landscape if often foreign and various, Manto, the fictional presence, declares his outsider’s perspective and becomes a kind of guide to the new terrain... his discoveries become part of the narrative.”

Given that we now have before us an Aatish-the-narrator, Taseer’s comments on Manto-the-narrator are interesting. Especially so because one of the most obvious characteristics of Aatish-the-narrator is his outsider-ness — having been away from Delhi (and India) for several years, he returns to a city to which his privileged, highly sheltered childhood barely gave him access, a city that is his in name only.

All he lays claim to knowing, with the unselfconscious conceit of a child’s memory, are Jorbagh and Sunder Nagar and Amrita Shergill Marg, genteel residential neighbourhoods that mark the boundary between Lutyens’ city of government bungalows and tree-lined avenues and the burgeoning vastness that lies beyond—so removed from his reality that they are deliberately referred to by the made-up names of Sectorpur and Phasenagar. And while the narrator may describe Jorbagh and Sunder Nagar blandly as Delhi’s first “post-independence colonies” (which is a historical position they undeniably occupy), these are also areas marked out within the contemporary city for their association with old money, with a cultured elite so much at home with its wealth that it scorns the ostentation that increasingly surrounds it. Aatish’s Delhi is a network of drawing rooms: “there was no setting, no cityscape more evocative of the city I grew up in than a lamplit drawing room with a scattering of politicians, journalists, broken-down royals, and perhaps an old Etonian, lying fatly on an deep sofa.”

But while the drawing rooms seem filled with “people who all seemed to know each other”, Aatish seems to recognize how limited that that world really is. And set against this anglicised upper-class drawing room world, an island floating uneasily over a sea of real life, is the effortless inhabiting of the city by Aakash, a good-looking fitness instructor whom Aatish befriends (and becomes increasingly obsessed by). "His Delhi was a city of temples and gyms, of rich and poor people, of Bentleys and bicycles, of government flats and mansions, of hookers and heiresses, and he asserted his nativity by moving freely between its varied lives. He made it seem like no less his right than taking one of the new green buses, riding the metro, seeing the sound and light show at the Red Fort or renting a pedal boat at India Gate and floating over the reflections of dark trees and pale sky in its sandstone water tanks." The careful reader will have noticed that the passage echoes Taseer’s earlier description of Manto the narrator, for whom “it is hard not to come to feel a great affection”. What does it mean, one wonders, for Aakash to be a reimagining of the narratorial Manto? For Aakash, [whose] “versatility was like a confirmation of how authentic and robust his world was”, is clearly an insider. But weren’t we told before that Manto-the-narrator — like Aatish-the-narrator after him — is a self-proclaimed outsider, whose “discoveries become part of the narrative”?

Clearly there is a tension here, and it is a tension that takes us to the heart of The Temple-goers. What Manto exhibits is not in fact outsiderness, but an enviable facility with multiple worlds, all of which he has at his fingertips. Returning to Taseer’s Manto Introduction, one finds the admiring words: “Given the extent to which Manto inhabits his material, there is something miraculous... that his range should have been so vast. And also, “The writer seems to be writing from deep within his material so that none of this is added externally...”. The reasons that endear Manto the narrator to Taseer the writer are precisely those that make Aakash an object of such fascination for Aatish the narrator — and, one fears, also for Taseer the writer.

This fascination is the book’s dominant motif: the aristocratic but deracinated Aatish apparently spellbound by the not-particularly-classy upstart, but self-consciously upper caste, “culturally whole” Aakash. “To see him twice in the same day, and in such different ways, a hero among the people he grew up with, made me feel again the power of his position. His versatility was like a confirmation of how authentic and robust his world was.”

What is stunning, though, is how starkly Aakash’s authenticity is identified with his Brahmin-ness—and how much that Brahmin-ness is encoded in the physical. The very first time Aatish sees Aakash, he has “an intuitive sense of high caste”. Even though “his skin was dark, dark to his gums”, Aatish apparently, can see that “a paler second skin ran under a dark patina”. Later, during a temple visit, watching Aakash “effortlessly assume his caste robes” makes Aatish “feel all the horror of [his] removal”. But there’s more: Aakash’s body “seemed to have a kind of aboriginal power, as if issuing from the deepest origins of caste and class in India.”

This bizarre conflation of religion, caste, class and race into an uncritical, garbled notion of Indian-ness inflects Aatish-the-narrator’s view of just about everything. All things in contemporary India are seen — and understood — through the ahistorical lens of civilisation. Religion is simply assumed to be of hoary antiquity, such that when a jagaran in Aakash’s Sectorpur colony turns out to be a rather recently invented tradition, the narrator is shocked. “The Hindu way of life” does not mean only the pilgrim’s knowledge of the land as a network of temples (a long exegesis on which gives rise to the book’s title) but extends to everything, from the plants in Aakash’s garden to the spoiling of children (“With us, children are everything,” says Aakash.) 

Hindu-ness is, in Taseer’s Naipaulian vision, simultaneously cause for wide-eyed admiration and an irrational fear of the exoticised Other. Even “motiveless” urban crime — the Nithari case, the Arushi murder — feeds into an idea of “a vehshat deep within this country”, because “the people in their hearts do not fear God,” declares Zafar Moradabadi. “The law is not theirs, you see. It was first the Muslim law and then it was the English. And because the law is alien, they can always shrug it off and the vehshat returns.”

The word ‘vehshat’ is never eventually decoded for us in the pages of the book. Aatish ventures to translate it as ‘savagery’ but is dismissed as inaccurate by Zafar. In a recent interview, though, Taseer has said he likes to think of it as “‘horror’ in the Conradian sense”. It is a good word, a word that comes close to encapsulating the narrator’s gaze as he looks out at a country that seems to seethe with suppressed violence. But horror — not in a Conradian sense — is also one’s primary emotion as one comes to the end of the book and realises that Taseer the writer has never once questioned the garbled worldview so eloquently articulated by his narratorial namesake.

Published in Biblio: March-April 2010.

14 May 2010

Breaking Open Compartments: The Art of Sukhnandi Vyam

My essay on a fascinating Indian sculptor, for The Caravan

Sukhnandi Vyam’s art reminds us that all creative work is in some way or other an engagement with a tradition.

What you first see is one man gleefully perched atop another’s shoulders, weapon at the ready, while the man below seems to be shepherding two animals. It is only on reading the catalogue that you realise that the gleeful figure is of Bageshwar, the Gond god of fertility, waiting to turn into a tiger and kill the hapless bridegroom if he fails to sacrifice the traditional wedding boar. The arresting Bageshwar image is by Sukhnandi Vyam, whose wood sculptures form part of one of the most remarkable movements in contemporary Indian visual history: the rise of Pardhan Gond art. Sukhnandi’s first solo exhibition, titled Dog Father, Fox Mother, Their Daughter & Other Stories, opened at Delhi’s W+K Exp gallery the last week of March and ran through April.

As illustrated by the reference above, Sukhnandi’s work, while by no means exhausted by its historical-cultural context, cannot be understood without it. So bear with me while I take a brief detour.

The Gonds are an Adivasi community spread over Madhya Pradesh, eastern Maharashtra (Vidarbha), Chhattisgarh, northern Andhra Pradesh and western Orissa. With over four million people, they are arguably the largest tribe in India. In contrast to the traditional anthropological idea of the tribe as a homogenous, egalitarian community, however, the Gonds are internally stratified. Occupational castes include Agarias, or ironworkers; Ojhas, or soothsayers; Solahas, or carpenters; Koilabhutis, dancers or prostitutes; and Pardhans, or bardic priests. Traditionally, the Pardhan would visit the houses of his yajmaans, or patrons, every three years, playing the bana, the magic fiddle, and singing in praise of Bada Dev, the most important Gond deity, or of the brave deeds of the Gond rajas. He would also visit after a death in the household and perform the requisite functions. The Pardhans were, in the words of writer Udayan Vajpeyi, “the musicians, genealogists and storytellers of the Gonds.”

By the late-20th century, the importance of this ritualistic bardic tradition had dwindled. Unable to sustain themselves financially as performers, many Pardhans took to farming or manual labour. Into this tragic, almost inevitable narrative of dying tradition, there entered something strange and new: the national-cultural institutions of the Indian state. In the 1980s, Bharat Bhavan, a newly established arts centre created by the Madhya Pradesh government, was handed over to a visionary artist called Jagdish Swaminathan. A key figure in modern Indian art, Swaminathan decided that Bharat Bhavan must become a space as open to traditional Indian cultural forms as it was to Modernist movements. Under his auspices, teams of young artists were sent into the villages of Madhya Pradesh in search of local art and talented artists. It was on one such trip, the story goes, that they met Jangarh.

It started with a painting on the wall of a house in the village of Patangarh. They were fascinated. When they asked who the artist was, they were directed to a Pardhan Gond boy of about 12, Jangarh Singh Shyam. Jangarh agreed to go to Bhopal with them. Back in Bharat Bhavan, Swaminathan, impressed and intrigued by the boy’s talent, gave him art materials and a free hand—and Jangarh began to paint. He painted birds and animals, rivers and mountains, flowers and fruits and trees. He painted the stories of the Gond kings and the Gond gods and goddesses. He painted, in fact, the whole of the Gond lifeworld—that had, until then, been painted in song.

The process initiated by Jangarh has brought about the remarkable, almost magical transformation of a primarily oral culture into a visual one. Drawing on the rudimentary forms of bhittichitra (wall painting), he became the first to enshrine the Gond imaginary on canvas. Jangarh continued to work on buildings, however, putting his stamp on the MP State Legislative Assembly and the dome of Bharat Bhavan. Inspired by his enormous success, dozens of Pardhan men and women started to follow in his footsteps, moving to Bhopal and turning their talents to art.

Sukhnandi Vyam is one of them.

Sukhnandi’s initiation into artistic practice began with the terracotta sculptures he created at the age of eight, while taking part in a 1991 art and craft workshop at Bhopal’s Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya (or Museum of Man). “They were liked,” he says softly. “After that I started to work with my uncle.” His uncle and aunt, Subhash and Durgabai Vyam, were already well-regarded artists and Sukhnandi was a willing and able apprentice. In 1997, he relocated from his village, Sonpuri, to Bhopal, and experimented with clay, canvas and metal before settling on wood as his medium of choice.

It has not been an easy decision, primarily because the combined cost of the raw material, storage and transportation is much more than it would be for canvases. But Sukhnandi’s three-dimensional wooden pieces single him out among Pardhan Gond artists. His themes range from myths and folktales to depictions of everyday life in the Gond village, where animals are part of the landscape. He doesn’t paint on the sculptures instead, he lets the natural differences of shade and texture in the wood create the desired contrasts. His choice of medium and technique echo the world he seeks to evoke: a world where the natural, the mythical and the cultural are inseparable from each other.

In fact, Sukhnandi’s work challenges many cultural binaries we tend to accept unquestioningly: metropolitan and rural, traditional and (Post) Modern, art and craft. In being attributed simultaneously to a folk tradition that goes back millennia and to a single visionary practitioner (in whose honour it is sometimes called Jangarh Kalam), Pardhan Gond art is perhaps unique. But the really crucial thing it allows us to do is to break open the watertight compartments to which Modernist notions of art have confined us, where being part of a tradition is merely to practice a craft, which is assumed to mean that one mechanically recreates the same thing over and over, while being an artist is somehow sui generis. Neither, of course, is true. But the premium placed on originality, newness and individuality is such that we are unable to see that all creative work is in some way or other an engagement with a tradition.

Art historian Michael Baxandall, discussing the social milieu of art in the now-classic Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy, argued that while the painter may have been accepted as the “professional visualizer” of the holy stories, “the public mind was not a blank tablet on which the painters’ representations of a story or person could impress themselves.” The painter’s “exterior visualizations” had to get along with an ongoing process of “interior visualizations” by his public. But this did not mean the painter brought nothing to the table. It only meant that his originality and innovativeness lay in building upon the “cognitive style” he shared with his public.

What happens when an artist’s ‘exterior visualisations’ cannot be mirrored in the minds of his public, because they share with him almost none of his cultural context? I do not know. What I do know is that over the last two decades, Pardhan Gond artists have been slowly gaining access to the metropolitan worlds of museums, galleries and publishing houses, in India and abroad. Sukhnandi Vyam is in the slightly different position of representing a whole tradition to a world that doesn’t know it—while also bringing his own take on it to the table. And he does it remarkably well. His ‘Mangrohi’—a mandap of sal wood to which coconuts and mahua liquor are offered—transports us to the joyous atmosphere of a Gond wedding. But next to it we have ‘Wedding Ritual,’ where the Suvash and Suvashin, representing the bride and groom’s sides respectively, battle it out over the mangrohi in a full-scale tug-of-war. The competitive glint in everyone’s eyes—and the determined set of their jaws—dispels any simplistic notions we may have been nursing of the tribal life as egalitarian and conflictless. Then there are his images of deities: Bada Deo, who created the world, or Mallu Deo, to whom one prays when children are sick. To the ignorant eye they may seem the most traditional of all, but in fact they are a radical departure. Because, as Sukhnandi points out gently, they are traditionally formless, “Inka koi aakaar nahi hai. Yeh toh hum man se banaate hain, bhaav se.”

Even as the artists’ imaginations soar beyond the assumed parameters of Gond tradition, their work retains a unique voice and vision. Crucial to that vision is an understanding of the universe not as something fragmented, alienated or alienating, but as something in whose multiplicity there is a profound and irrevocable interconnectedness. Think, for example, of Gond artist Bhajju Shyam’s exquisite, playful re-imagining of the Western metropolis in The London Jungle Book (Tara Books, 2008) where Big Ben is a rooster, by whose call one times one’s day — while a red doubledecker bus becomes a dependable canine companion called Loyal Friend No. 30.

Within Sukhnandi’s work, it could be his ‘Thinking Man’ that best represents this vision. The piece is a wonderfully idiosyncratic re-interpretation of the artist as Rodin’s Thinker. Instead of the abstract form of thought that we are invited to imagine by Rodin’s legendary sculpture, here the concreteness of the things thought about presses in on us.

The world crowds in around the artist, even as he sits quietly there hunched, the paintbrush in his hand pointing upward like some ersatz spear—an improvised defense against the world, should it choose to attack. But it is when you start to look at the objects that float about his head—like thought bubbles in a cartoon strip—that you begin to see the playful conjunction of multiple worlds. At first glance, there appears to be an aeroplane at one end and a jungle at the other: human civilisation juxtaposed with nature. Then one begins to see that the plane is much like a fish, down to the tail and fin-like wings. And perched on the man’s forehead is a bird, resembling the plane in form—and of course, in function. But even as it seems to gently mock technology as nothing more than the mimicry of nature, what ‘Thinking Man’ retains is a sense of wonder about the world—and keeping that intact has got to be the most challenging task of our times.

Published in The Caravan, May 2010.

8 April 2010

Film Review - Well Done Abba

When Truth Turns Trite


RATING >> * *

SHYAM BENEGAL has spent a great deal of his directorial life representing the Indian village on screen. His latest offering, a rural comedy, marks the distance he’s travelled from the intensely realist critique of patriarchy and caste in Ankur (1974), Nishant (1975) or the equally trenchant Samar (1999).

It isn’t that Benegal can’t do — or hasn’t done — comedy. But the broad buffoonery and lame jokes of Well Done Abba make one ache for the nuanced black humour of Mandi (1983) — where the travails of a house full of prostitutes formed the focus of a marvellous satire about politics and middle class morality. Or at least for the warmly humanist humour of Welcome to Sajjanpur (2008), which managed to woo urban multiplex audiences into a rural cinescape, and whose success Benegal is clearly trying to recreate. Unfortunately, Sajjanpur’s already stagey village and deliberately stock characters, now transported from north India to the Dakhani Urdu-speaking regions of Andhra Pradesh that Benegal knows well, dissolve completely into caricature here.

The main narrative — about the super-sincere Armaan Ali (Boman Irani), whose attempt to build a well on his own land under a government BPL loan scheme is thwarted by the system — might even have been alright on its own. But it is forcibly tethered to the unfunny shenanigans of Rehmaan Ali (Armaan’s beimaan twin, also played by Boman) and his wife (an irritating Ila Arun) and a saccharine-sweet romance between Armaan’s perky daughter Muskaan (Minissha Lamba doing a decent Preity-Zinta-lite) and local mechanic Arif. The lack of nuance with which issue after issue is dealt with is disappointing — the sarkari ad-like reference to the RTI Act, the appallingly flat subplot about poor Muslim girls being married off to Arab Sheikhs, the fact that Arif must be shown to be of indeterminate religious background to establish secular credentials. Benegal attempts simplicity but only achieves simplisticness.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 14, Dated April 10, 2010

3 April 2010

Thanks Maa - Film Review

Children Of The Underbelly

RATING >> * * 1/2

MOVIES STARRING CHILDREN in central roles can be difficult to pull off. Kids may tug at the audience’s heartstrings, but that directorial advantage — of being able to pull the viewer in with ease — comes with the danger of tipping over into maudlin territory.

Thanks Maa begins shakily, with a confusing title sequence that cuts between a nervous burqa-clad woman so distracted by her husband’s crankiness that she endangers their crawling baby, and street kids stealing a wallet under the pretext of polishing shoes. Debutant director Irfan Kamal seems to be setting the viewer up for an oddly overcooked morality tale, pitched somewhere between Amar Akbar Anthony and Boot Polish, with neither the zany humour of one nor the emotional kick of the other. Thankfully, Kamal recovers swiftly. Initial caricatures (like the bug-eyed seth from Surat) and amateurish acting are forgotten when we meet the film’s real subjects: a charming bunch of street urchins named Soda, Municipality, Cutting, Sursuri and Shana. Shams Patel’s star turn as the twelve-year-old Municipality Ghatkopar (named for the place where he was found as a baby) has garnered a National Award for Best Child Actor, but his co-actors’ performances are pitch-perfect too — fluctuating between jaded cynicism and wide-eyed vulnerability. Among the adults, mention must be made of Alok Nath and Ranvir Shorey's superb cameos as the smarmy head of a juvenile home and a nervous middle class husband, respectively.

The narrative centres on Municipality’s discovery of an abandoned infant and his determined effort to trace its mother, who he is convinced is grief-stricken and waiting to be reunited with it. The film teeters on the brink of a Madhur Bhandarkar-like sensational excess, but Kamal and cinematographer Ajayan Vincent use Municipality’s journey as an opportunity to shoot a magnificently varied set of urban locales. That old Mumbai cliché, the Ganesh Chaturthi festival, is captured afresh and memorably, but the camera also manages to make us see a strange and startling beauty everywhere — in the hill-like slums of Parkside, Vikhroli, in the surreal space of a BPO as seen by a street child. That, in itself, is a remarkable achievement.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 11, Dated March 20, 2010

8 March 2010

Trickster City: Writing from the Belly of the Metropolis

What can a city mean for those whose homes are demolished at will? Young writers from Delhi's worker colonies produce an anthology unlike anything in Hindi literature. 

Trickster City: Writings from the Belly of the Metropolis
Translated by Shveta Sarda
Penguin Viking
326 pages, Rs 499 
A young man describes the art of skinning a hen. A man buys a refrigerator — and cuts his neighbour’s electricity cable. A 14-year-old makes up his mind to leave school and work as a courier delivery boy. A girl getting drenched in the rain steps reluctantly into a phone booth. The first thing one can say about Trickster City is that it contains voices that one has never heard before. Not in the existing world of Hindi literature, and certainly not in the world of English. For the 20 authors of Trickster City, a collection of writings on Delhi first published in Hindi as Bahurupiya Shehr (Rajkamal Prakashan, 2007), are all first-time writers, young men and women from working- class neighbourhoods across Delhi.

All under 30, they began to think seriously about writing on the city sometime in 2005, when the spectre of the Commonwealth Games first appeared on the horizon of Delhi’s future. They met under the aegis of the Cybermohalla labs set up by Ankur Society for Alternatives in Education and the Sarai Programme of the Centre for Developing Societies. These labs, “spaces for extended conversation, creative experimentation, mutual exchange and self-learning”, have had 400 young people pass through them since May 2001.

Some in the collective were closet writers before they encountered Cybermohalla. If Azra Tabassum, 26, filled diary after secret diary with the minutiae of her life at 14 (only to have them discovered and destroyed by an angry aunt), Jaanu Nagar, 24, remembers writing as having always been the stable counterpart to his ghummakkad (wandering) existence. Like with most young people, though, their initial writings were mostly about themselves. But as the group acquired a sense of collectivity, so did the scope and maturity of their writing. “We’d meet and discuss everything. And what we discussed we’d take back with us. Over the years, that questioning became fused with living itself,” says Azra, who lives in LNJP colony near Delhi Gate. The collaborative process was crucial to the texts they eventually produced. “One’s own experience of something is never enough,” says Suraj Rai, 22. “When the private is pushed outwards into the collective, it acquires a newness,” agrees Love Anand, 22. “When your perspective is forced to confront that of others, it is altered.”

Standing: Babli Rai, Love Anand, Neelofar, Lakhmi Chand Kohli. Sitting : Shamsher Singh, Jaanu Nagar
Photo: Anshika Varma
Far from what you might expect, then, the fragments that make up Trickster City are no simple autobiographical narratives, content to depict worlds familiar to themselves (and unfamiliar to us). They are pieces of carefully crafted prose, engagements with experience: their own and others’. These are writers who have grappled long and hard with the gap between life and narrative, and do not promise any objective ‘truth’. If Anand wants to escape the unreflective snappiness of news reports, Azra is keen that her writing be a product not simply of what happened but of “[her] struggle with what happened”.

The process of collective thinking and writing had been underway for some time when something did happen. Between March and August 2006, the neighbourhood of Nangla Maanchi, where several of the writers lived, was demolished under a High Court order. “Nangla did bring about a thehraav (pause) in our thought,” says Lakhmi Chand Kohli, 29. The deliberate destruction of a settlement of some 30,000 people placed upon those who lived in Nangla (as well as the rest who now visited it) a huge weight of witnessing. But this is a book that successfully steers clear of bathos, even when bearing testimony to an event as crushing, as dramatic, as the demolition of Nangla Maanchi. Lakhmi puts it well when he says, “Writing is a strange thing. It brings you nearer even as it creates distance.” The enormity of the experience was distilled in different ways. Those who lived in the resettlement colony of Dakshinpuri found in Nangla a way into their parents’ unspoken histories of displacement, while those who moved from Nangla to Sawda-Ghewra struggled with the creation of community, of place. These intellectual and emotional journeys combine with a mass of fragmentary detail — from the shapes of stoves in Nangla to the municipal markings indicating which houses would go under the next day — to create a text more moving than any all-encompassing narrative could have been.

Trickster City is the work of gifted writers, but it is also the product of a constant give and take — within the Cybermohalla labs, among the writers and, crucially, between the writers and their environments. How has their new status as published writers been greeted in their families, their neighbourhoods? “Our conversations are open to everyone,” stresses Babli Rai, 27, describing the wall magazines she helped create in LNJP Colony. “We try not to stand out as different, as adbhut.” For Lakhmi, writing cannot be about a solitary, personal vision: it must resonate in the spaces it grew out of. If Babli privately tutors local children, Anand is researching the media environment of Dakshinpuri, while Lakhmi and co-writer Rakesh Khairalia, 32, have set up a studio that acts as a gathering point for poets, cinephiles, singers and collectors. Lakhmi is exhilarated when he has Dakshinpuri readers tell him that they identify with his ‘Rasool Bhai’. He is convinced that his intellectual life is inseparable from the everyday business of living, of being part of a community of practitioners who may or may not wish to transform themselves into performers. “The intellectual/artistic world cannot, must not, cut itself off from the social. Each thrives on the other. And it is from the collision between them that creativity emerges,” he says — perhaps the greatest lesson of Trickster City.

Published in Tehelka, Vol 7, Issue 10, Dated March 13, 2010