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.