Friday, August 31, 2007

Weekend verse

Prison Nightfall

Rung by rung, night descends
its spiral staircase of stars.
A breeze passes gently by,
as if words of love had been whispered.

Trees in the prison courtyard, like exiles
with heads bowed, are absorbed
in embroidering arabesques on the skirt of the sky.
On the crested roof are glittering
the beautiful fingers of moonlight,
dissolving star-shine into dust
and washing the blue sky into white.

In the green corners, dark shadows collide
as if the ache of separation
might eddy and fill my mind.
But one thought keeps running through my heart—
how sweet these moments are. Though
there are those who may concoct tyranny’s poisons,
they will have no victories, not today or tomorrow.

So what if they douse the candles in rooms
where lovers meet? If they’re so mighty,
let them snuff out the moon.

From Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Prison Lyrics in Dast-e Saba

Note: In addition to the country of my birth India, gaining independence sixty years back this month (talked about here), Pakistan also woke to the throes of freedom this month. The echoes of which reverberate even to this day. The lines above were composed by Faiz Ahmed Faiz - a prominent writer and poet during those turbulent times. Even if he initially supported the creation of a separate state, he realized the blind opportunism underlying the partition logic (see brilliant essay by Pankaj Mishra in the New Yorker on the Machiavellian maneuvers of Churchill, the then prime minister of England) of the occupiers (British) after witnessing the communal violence in Punjab (during and after the partition) and the the mysterious deaths of the leaders who led the country to independence. Added to all this the corruption and social intolerance of the new government under Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan was the last straw. Faiz’s early enthusiasm for the possibilities of a viable state quickly faded. He was jailed for his writing and these were among the lines he composed during respite from the oppressive solitary confinement that he was subjected to for years...

Sunil, 'Gitmo', Digitally altered photograph

Notables during NY gallery stampede starting next week.

Separated at birth??

A different kind of Neo Rauch - Arsen Savadov at Daneyal Mahmood Gallery.

Of course, Neo Rauch had more apparent technique with oils - but what I might call as the 'narrative enigma' inherent in these pan-surrealist works compete admirably. I included a couple of Neo's pictures at the end to contrast. In all fairness, truth be told, I fall for surrealist works easily... (all pictures ripped from the gallery website(s).

Arsen Savadov, 'Volchok', acrylic on linen, 97" X 156", 2006 - 2007

Arsen Savadov, 'Oxygen', acrylic on linen, 86" X 68", 2007

Arsen Savadov, 'Untitled', acrylic on linen, 116" X 78", 2006

Arsen Savadov, 'Untitled', acrylic on linen, 96" X 68", 2007

Neo Rauch, 'Der nächste Zug (The Next Move The Next Draw)', 2007, Oil on canvas, 59" x 78"

Neo Rauch, 'Warten auf die Barbaren (Waiting for the Barbarians)', 2007, Oil on canvas, 59" x 157"

Photo post - for an eventual painting

Sunil, 'Mani', Digital photograph, 2007

Joint family

Loosely knit,
coddled, far
from home.
Fragments of other
times; A lull.

Homeward bound
yet again.
Of cavernous spaces,
colors, faces. No
crowds for now.

Thursday, August 30, 2007


We recently purchased a new car seat for our second son, made sure that it incorporated all of the numerous safety features and lugged the thing home and installed it into our minivan yesterday. Later, while trying to dispose the cardboard box, something caught my eye that seemed funny at first, but on a little more thinking, alludes to a deeper issue as laid out in a recent article I had read about our 'fat' problem.

What caught my eye was the fact that the car seat was suitable for children from 5 to 100 pounds - that is right - 100 pounds. Now, I do not rightfully think that 100 pounds and child may be used in the same sentence, but who am I…

There it was - printed right there on the box - it would have been another matter for the promotional blurb to say - 'stress tested to 100 pound duress' - or something like that... But when you come out and say flagrantly that the seat is suitable for a 100 pound child, either the company is reflecting the current conditions of our society or is being just a little humorous. I suspect it is the former.

Fernando Botero, ‘Mother and Child’, Pencil and colored crayon on paper, 48 X 41 inches, 1996

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


I had talked about the above picture back in February of this year on Simplistic Art and thought that it was amazing on a number of aspects - love, a war that I never understood, women's ability to look beyond what lies on the outside and the institution of marriage - all very powerful qualities that was succinctly captured in this very compelling photograph.

Well, I will be going to see this photo and more of this kind at the Jen Beckman gallery tomorrow and look forward to this very much - as much for appreciating the artist’s (Nina Berman) vision in capturing the brief sparks of some wasted lives as for the underlying hope in the pictures that seem to spring from the most direst of times...

From the review in the Times…
‘The bride, Renee Kline, 21, is dressed in a traditional white gown and holds a bouquet of scarlet flowers. The groom, Ty Ziegel, 24, a former Marine sergeant, wears his dress uniform, decorated with combat medals, including a Purple Heart. Her expression is unsmiling, maybe grave. His, as he looks toward her, is hard to read: his dead-white face is all but featureless, with no nose and no chin, as blank as a pullover mask.
Two years earlier, while in Iraq as a Marine Corps reservist, Mr. Ziegel had been trapped in a burning truck after a suicide bomber’s attack. The heat melted the flesh from his face. At Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas he underwent 19 rounds of surgery. His shattered skull was replaced by a plastic dome, and a face was constructed more or less from scratch with salvaged tissue, holes left where his ears and nose had been.’

Friday, August 24, 2007

Protean layering

Often, the biographical and emotional layering on top of an existing work of art lends the work of art greater significance and meaning. One tends to better appreciate the circumstances under which the piece was done and a better understanding for the motivations that drove the art/artist. The following poem while at first read tends to be a feel-good poem takes on the trappings of greatness when biographical details of the poet are added on. An ideal approach would be to read the poem first, then read the circumstances and then re-read the poem - this time slowly.

"A Vision"
I lost the love of heaven above,
I spurned the lust of earth below,
I felt the sweets of fancied love
And hell itself my only foe.

I lost earth's joys but felt the glow
Of heaven's flame abound in me
Till loveliness and I did grow
The bard of immortality.

I loved but woman fell away
I hid me from her faded fame,
I snatched the sun's eternal ray
And wrote till earth was but a name

In every language upon earth,
On every shore, o'er every sea,
I give my name immortal birth
And kept my spirit with the free.

John Clare, a rural laborer and an autodidact poet had some success early in his life, but fell into poverty and depression soon after. This poem was composed when he was confined to the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum (often referred to in his poems as 'Hell'). Although his initial poems were more of bucolic village life, the Asylum offered little hope for such sights and his poems slowly become consumed with visions, dreams and hallucinogenic encounters. 'A Vision' dated 2nd August, 1844 was written when he was 51 years old. He would die in the asylum 20 years later never ever returning to his home again.

Maurizio Cattelan, 'Andreas E Mattia', Stuffed cloth figure clothes and shoes, life-size, 1996

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Ghana diary

Recently a friend of mine traveled to Ghana - partly in order to search for her roots and partly to enjoy the local culture. I spent a long time absorbing the wealth of detail she gathered during her trip there. She also gave me permission to post some pictures of the local life there and I got to be an armchair voyeur of the culture there. Among the many images, two sets of images struck me the most and I want to describe them to you.

The first was the underground dungeons that ware holding cells for slaves in the 1700's before they were loaded onto ships waiting at the harbor for onward transport to the plantations of Caribbean or the Americas. The images are haunting, severe and speak of a time that remains a bloody spot on blotting paper of humanity.

This excerpt from an article in the venerable economist some time back makes the situation a little more explicit:

The dungeons can still shock, two centuries after their last inmates were freed. Damp and fetid in the tropical air, immersed in virtual darkness, this is where slaves were kept, often for months at a time—before being led down a tunnel through the “door of no return” to ships riding in the surf, ready to begin their appalling voyage over the ocean.
Just one of the countless inmates left a written record. Having been sold to white traders for a gun, a piece of cloth and some lead, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano recalled waiting in the dungeon till his time arrived: “To conduct us away to the ship, it was a most horrible scene; there was nothing to be heard but rattling of chains, smacking
of whips, and groans and cries of our fellow men. Some would not stir from the ground, when they were lashed and beaten in the most horrible manner.”
Of course, there are always two sides of a story as the following passage pitches to us tellingly:

A smokescreen still covers the African role in this pernicious trade. It is an awkward fact that the traffic could not have existed without African chiefs and traders. Europeans rarely went far from their forts; slaves were brought to them. Indeed, when the Europeans arrived the slave trade and slavery were already integral parts of local tribal economies. One of the few Ghanaian historians to touch these issues, Akosua Adoma Perbi, writes that “slavery became an important part of the Asante state [the Gold Coast's most powerful] right from its inception. For three centuries, Asante became the largest slave-trading, slave-owning and slave-dealing state in Ghana.”

The second aspect of her trip that struck me was a more joyous one. The aspect of coffin making among the Ga tribe of coastal Ghana. They believe that once an individual dies, they need to move onto the nether world in style and hence they tend to make coffins that represent some aspect of a person's life to ferry the person onward in afterlife. If the person was part of the fisher folks, then the coffin would be carved out of wood and would resemble a fish or a fishing boat. If the individual worked for the armed forces or was a security guard in the government, then the coffin would resemble an aspect of military life – say a cannon or a tank. This aspect of Ghanian life seems to be both frivolous as well as artistic.

The coffins seem to be made with a lot of love and care for something that is going to be buried into the ground never to be seen again - almost represent an aspect of mandala-art to me - done once beautifully, but destroyed forever by its erasure. Nevertheless, these photos capture both the sordid aspects of the slavery that flourished until recently as well as the artistic aspects of Ghanaian afterlife.

After enjoying the wealth of cultural detail second hand, I told her that after our children grow up, I would persuade my wife to take a trip over to the gold coast of Africa and see all this for real.

Hope you enjoy these pictures as much as I did.

The calm and serene seas of the gold coast hides the atrocities that must have taken place here 200 years ago.
Entrance to the dungeons. The slave masters used to live upstairs while the slaves holed up in the dungeons below.
The male and female dungeons were separated for obvious reasons (of course, a wooden engraved sign like this would not have existed then - this is for the tourists - I guess). The discoloration on the sides is from excrement. About 150 slaves were crammed into a room of this size with standing room for most. Until the ships came (sometimes three and four months late), the slaves had no choice but to defecate and urinate on themselves.
The 'point of no return' - an underground passage stright out of the dungeons into the holds of a cargo ship waiting to transport them for a triangular trade whose apex players included the Americas, Ghana and England. (The “triangular trade” as it was known, whereby slave-ships left European ports for west Africa with rum, guns, textiles and other goods to exchange for slaves, and then transported them across the Atlantic to sell to plantation-owners in America and Caribbean, and then returned with sugar and coffee, also fuelled the first great wave of economic globalisation.)

Afterlife for fisherfolk

The intricacy is amazing and humbling
Destined for someone from the armed forces - I am sure...
A shoe merchant, perhaps?

Caught my eye...

Bruce Nauman, Square Depression, Concrete, 82 x 82 ft./ 25 x 25 m (Courtesy: Skulptur Projekte Münster)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Painting Post: Rasa

Title: Rasa

Medium: Oil paint and white gesso on Masonite

Size: 40" X 48"

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


For a long time, contemporary art in India suffered from little attention (actually more confusion) from the populace who were not exposed to art in the hustle of eking the daily chore. Often, the struggle to get the living wage and tend the family would so tax the majority that they would have had little time to sit back and reflect on modern art, implications and where the art world has been going (this was the case with middle class families like the one I grew in and India is the land of the middle class). Things are slowly changing now. The fact that the world is getting flatter by the day and India having an economic spurt (with a continuous rate of economic growth averaging 8%), only helps. With prosperity comes reflection and naturally people have been doing a bit of that lately. They are savoring the yearly vacations and of course, enjoy the arts as well.

It was with no surprise that I noted news that Calcutta plans to open a museum of Modern Art nicknamed KMoMA (or the Kolkota Museum of Modern Art - Kolkota being the new name for anglicized city of Calcutta after an effervescence of regional re-naming that seem to sweeping up India). KMoMA seems to be based on the Museum of Modern Art, NY and is slated for completion in 2012 and will house the biggest collection of contemporary Indian art anywhere in India.

Of course a lot of the older artists who have been painting from the 1940's like Tyeb Mehta, M. F. Husain, Somnath Hore, Ram Kumar, Jogen Chowdhury, Ganesh Pyne, Rameswar Broota, Arpita Singh, K.G. Subramnayan and Badri Narayan will be additions to this new temple of modern art.

Among others, prominent among the new and upcoming artists over the last 20 years are Baiju Parthan, Chintan Upadhyay, T. V. Santosh, Riyaz Komu, Dayanita Singh, Subodh Gupta, Jayasri Burman, Paresh Maity and Manisha Parekh.

I enjoy pictures on blogs – just easy on the eyes – less reading, more visuals (although I manage to violate this edict every once in while with some long boring post), but this time I managed to stick to the rule and managed to collect (in all honesty - rip) representative new Indian art (the sources were various: Indian auction websites, Sotheby's and scanning of magazines from my collection here).

Hope you enjoy them.

Baiju Parthan, ‘Engineered Fruit’, Acrylic on Canvas, 23.5 x 23.5 inches, 2001

Chintan Upadhyay, ‘Smart Alec’, oil and acrylic on canvas, 96 x 72 inches, 2005

T. V. Santosh, ‘Across an Unresolved Story’, oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches, 2004

Riyaz Komu, ‘Coverpage of a portrait – 3’, Oil on canvas, 72 x 48 inches, 2005

Dayanita Singh, ‘Koshy Kids, Bangalore’, 1997, Silver gelatin print on aluminum, Edition of 7, 100 x 100 cm

Subodh Gupta, ‘Vilas’, Installation, 1999

Jayasri Burman, ‘Enchant Ment’, 72 X 45 inches, Watercolor, pen and ink on paper, 2006

Paresh Maity, ‘Song of India’, 72 X 72 inches, Oil on canvas, 2007

Manisha Parekh, ‘Bonding 2’, 36 X 36 inches, Handmade paper on board

Sujata Bajaj, ‘Beyond – IV’, acrylic on canvas, 100 cm x 100 cm, 2006

Suneel Mamadapur, ‘Blowing in the wind’, Acrylic on canvas, 60 X 72 inches, 2006

Jyothi Basu, ‘Constructed to Destruct I’, Oil on canvas, 42 X 30 inches, 2004

Monday, August 20, 2007

Work in progress

Pecha-kucha or minimalist powerpoint

Hiroshige III - Train passing along Shinagawa Beach

I use a lot of Powerpoint software at work but never did I think that PowerPoint presentations could be elevated to an art form. Recently I ran into news that talked about an artform called pecha-kucha (pronounced 'pet-shah coot-shah') developed by two Tokyo based artists (Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham) whose premise is almost 'haiku-ish'...

Pecha-kucha (Japanese for “the sound of casual chatter”) involves the presenting of a subject or a topic in exactly 20 slides with each slide lasting 20 seconds. Thus, most 'performances', last exactly about six minutes and 40 seconds - of matched images, words, prose, poetry, flying gifs - call it what you will, but it does seem novel.

Now getting all the corporate mavens to tune their boring presentations into this format will be another matter altogether, but just imagine the benefits - no more of that sitting through hours of 'death by PowerPoint' sessions of concepts or projects that in reality can be distilled to finer levels of detail if the author really set her/his mind to it...

Apparently this 'performance-art' form has caught on - there are regular pecha-nights in 80 cities from Buenos Aires to Taipei...

Friday, August 17, 2007

Weekend verse

A fable as someone described it, is a fictitious story picturing a truth. Meant primarily for children, they often contain lessons that even adults can live or learn by... I had a lot of fun reading the translations of Jean de La Fontaine versified fables into English verse by Norman R. Shapiro and wanted to quote two of his poems here - the first one deals with flattery while the second is a ditty that could be applied to our current state of governance.

In the same vein as the axiom that 'if you do not learn from history, you are doomed to repeat it', for some reason, we can never seem to learn important lessons that fables teach us even if they had been inculcated in us from our child-years.
Mr. Norman Shapiro relies a lot on rhyme rather than blank verse and in this case, it is both amusing as well as effective in delivering the message that was originally versified by La Fontaine.

The Fox And The Crow
Perched on a treetop, Master Crow
Was clutching in his bill a cheese,
When Master Fox, sniffing the fragrant breeze,
Came by and, more or less, addressed him so:
“Good day to you, Your Ravenhood!
How beautiful you are! How fine! How fair!
Ah! Truly, if your song could but compare
To all the rest, I’m sure you should
Be dubbed the rara avis of the wood!”
The crow beside himself with joy and pride,
Begins to caw. He opens wide
His gawking beak; lets go the cheese; it
Falls to the ground. The fox is there to seize it,
Saying: “You see? Be edified:
Flatterers thrive on fools’ credulity.
The lesson’s worth a cheese, don’t you agree?
The crow, shamefaced and flustered, swore –
Too late, however: “Nevermore!”

For some strange reason, I ran into images of King Lear getting the sweetness from his children after reading the above.

A Tell Tail
The snake has two extremities –
Her head and tail – and both of these
Are enemies of Man. On high,
The Fates view both with happy eye,
Content to see the harm they do,
Well, once upon a time, these two
Disputed over who, indeed,
Should lead.
Since time began it always was the head
That led;
And thus the tail discussed her case
Before the gods: “Must it be so?”

Governments that act likewise, likewise fail:
Tails can’t lead heads. And thereby hangs the tail.

For equally strange reasons, I had images of ‘Even Dick Don’t Know Dick’ at the end of reading the above. Hmmm.

Well, there is no better way to end this week other than with a piece of visual art.

Hinke Schreuders ‘Little Girls 2’, 2005, borduurgaren op katoen en vilt, 50.5 x 41 x 4.5 cm

Thursday, August 16, 2007

A report long overdue

A prescient report by New York's finest takes a good hard look at the process of radicalization - the slow indoctrination of a person into a state of mind where from the person can be subverted to perform acts that seem delusional to the general public but seem perfectly natural for the perpetrator - OK, what am I blathering about? In a quick sentence - how jihadists are born, bred and perform their telling tales.
It is a compelling report and has been written after a lot of research. The whole report is out there in pdf form (if you wish to peruse), but the gist of it remains in the executive summary.

Andy Warhol, ‘Statue of Liberty’, synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen on canvas, 72 X 72 in, 1986

In my view, reports like these are a wake up call to ethnically diverse cities like New York City. Effective programs aimed at implementing some of the recommendations would help hedge the city against home grown attacks like the ones that shook the London underground recently. It has often been stated that one of the reasons why this might have happened in the town of the Big Ben was that the people in power did not realize the extreme forces of radicalization that was sweeping across large parts of urban class that was largely disenfranchised from the general populace (of course, being demographically of a single ethnicity and economically weaker fomented the cause even further).

An assessment of the various reported models of radicalization leads to the conclusionthat the radicalization process is composed of four distinct phases:

- Stage 1: Pre-Radicalization (point of origin for individuals before they begin this progression. It is their life situation before they were exposed to and adopted jihadi-Salafi Islam as their own ideology.)

- Stage 2: Self-Identification (begin to explore Salafi Islam, gradually gravitate away from their old identity and begin to associate themselves with like-minded individuals and adopt this ideology as their own.)

- Stage 3: Indoctrination (wholly adopts jihadi-Salafi ideology and concludes, without question, that the conditions and circumstances exist where action is required to support and further the cause.)

- Stage 4: Jihadization (participate in jihad and self-designate themselves as holy warriors or mujahedeen. Ultimately, the group will begin operational planning for the jihad or a terrorist attack.)

The one new factor that this report aims to show is the rise of the internet as a coalescing factor that melds motivations from like minded groups/individuals helping lead them to faster approval of their subversive agendas using a combination of online forums, blogs, wikis, youtube and instant messaging.

Europe’s failure to integrate the 2nd and 3rd generation of its immigrants into society, both economically and socially, has left many young Muslims torn between the secular West and their religious heritage. This inner conflict makes them especially vulnerable to extremism—the radical views, philosophy, and rhetoric that is highly advertised and becoming more and more fashionable among young Muslims in the West.

It is funny when the tools that are credited most in democratization and people’s power are ironically the same that seem to be used to quell. The report also goes to say that radicalization could also be fomented through membership of individuals in voluntary organizations, groups and causes. I am pretty sure that the NYPD would start to put their surveillance hats onto activities of groups that tend towards the altruistic (and I am sure that they are not going to take the time to weed out the subversive from the ones with good intention) leading to a slow burn of freedoms that are currently enjoyed and taken for granted by the public. Melding a modicum of introspection while rushing out the door to obey stated directives could be advice that the finest could dearly use in this particular situation.

The following words are chilling...

The Internet is a driver and enabler for the process of radicalization:

- In the Self-Identification phase, the Internet provides the wandering mind of the conflicted young Muslim or potential convert with direct access to unfiltered radical and extremist ideology.

- It also serves as an anonymous virtual meeting place a place where virtual groups of like-minded and conflicted individuals can meet, form virtual relationships and discuss and share the jihadi-Salafi message they have encountered.

- During the Indoctrination phase, when individuals adopt this virulent ideology, they begin interpreting the world from this newly-formed context.

- In the Jihadization phase, when an individual commits to jihad, the Internet serves as an enabler providing broad access to an array of information on targets, their vulnerabilities and the design of weapons.

Julian Schnabel, ‘Some bullfighters get closer to the horns II’, oil, plates and bondo on wood, 108 X 94 in, 1982

Whatever way you stir it, a report like this is indeed a wake up call to the enforcement agencies that will help us better integrate irrational outliers better into the largely integrated civil system currently in vogue. In not having attacks like what shakes London every six months (and we really do not want any more – daily dose of imagery from the Mid-East is enough for anyone to put down the dogs of war), some amount of credit should go to the open nature of the American civil society, laws and its institutions.

Update: After trudging through quite some pages of the report, it is becoming a little obvious that the brush used to paint this picture seeems to liberally assume banal practices of vast members of this denomination with an air of suspicion and deigns to color them in somewhat of an unfair light. Will be interesting to see how this plays out nationally.

Street art - BLU me away

This piece of street art by artist Brandwaende (BLU) really blows my mind... He seems to preserve the overall uniformity very well and borders on the obsessive compulsive. More picture here and here. As you scroll down, you will realize the immensity of his work.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Indian independence day

Today is the 60th anniversary of India's independence from England's colonial rulers. What started off as a company trading in spices and cotton eventually morphed into a colonial behemoth whose echoes can still be heard across parts of India. A lot of bits and ink online and off are being split in dissecting the turmoil that precedes a nation’s birth (mutiny, Jallianwala, partition) and after, and I did not think much can be gained out of me here adding to the clangor and din.

I wanted to focus a bit on a more peaceful time at this hour of celebration. It was a time of relative peace (in the 1820's), when surprisingly, a lot of amity existed between the English and the Indian. At Strand, I ran into an out of print book that contained images of a bucolic kind - the kind that existed when the visitor's from England and the local populace co-existed - albeit for a short time. It is also instructive to read some of the original captioning for the images by the unknown painter – reveals the unconscious social mores. Hope you enjoy them. Buy the book if you run into it, it contains a fabulous six piece pullout in full color that shows the Indian cavalry of the 1800's in uniformed regalia and splendor so reminiscent of the time.

A party of the 1st Irregular Cavalry or Skinners Horse. Well known by the familiar name of Yellow Boys from the color of their uniforms - a splendid corps raised by the late Colonel Skinner C.B. and at one time consisted of 3000 men

A Tangah or conveyance without cover

A Rauth or covered vehicle for ladies of rank

Nautch or dancing girls

The observatory at Delhi denominated 'Juntar Muntar'

Mode of conveying females either on a long journey or through arid countries

A Nanuck Punthee or follower of the Sikh devotee Nanuck - a religious mendicant

By the way, I found a great collection of splendid black and white photographs by an American G.I. stationed in India during the year of the partition (1947) here.