Sunday, March 23, 2014

Walking the Chikpete Area: In The New Indian Express today

The Chikpete area in Bangalore has always brought out mixed feelings in me. While I love the old world charm and the chance of discovering something new after every corner, the crush of people, the filth is something I can handle only for a short while. With its tiny lanes and alleys, it is a city wholly different from the rest of Bangalore. I wrote a travelogue of sorts of this other world sometime ago. It finds place in the Sunday magazine section of The New Indian Express today.

Read it here or see the unedited version below. Photos are not from the published story.


It would make a great scene in a movie – soundtrack and all – to stand there in the middle of a market area that’s over a century old and observe the chaos of man and cart and animal swirling around you and away in full speed. A scene when there is an epiphany. The kind where you realize history isn’t drab, that vintage ways are alive and functioning and carrying on very well, thank you, in a section of the city you have made home in for many years now.

Traversing through the dense, closely knit labyrinth lanes of the Old Pete, the old town areas of Bangalore is an intense experience, a sudden assault upon all the senses at every other turn. Each of the old towns are named after why they were first designed, to sell bangles – Balepete, rice – Akkipete, ragi – Ragipete, for the flower sellers – Thigalarapete, oil processors – Ganigarpete, and so on.Chikpete was the small town, an afterthought. Today, the entire section of town is, more often than not, collectively called the Chikpet area. The order behind the chaos of all the abbreviated street names, individual lanes, alleys that grew and grew and grew over decades, remaining in a constant state of wanting to burst at its seams any minute now is insider information. Not for an infrequent visitor. Most certainly not for the rare tourist hoping for a quick insight within a day or less.

I stand with Mysore Bank Circle behind me. There isn’t really a circle, just several roads that pour into one on which most city buses ply, onward to Majestic bus stand. Before me, along each of the narrow side streets and the jostling of a thousand people, the old town is spread out. I have lived in Bangalore many years; work, obligation, pleasure has taken me to these parts many a time. Yet, I feel like having entered a time warp; the air conditioned towering buildings, metro rails and malls seem like they belong to a futuristic city. The main road down till a crossroads is lined with shops selling textbooks, stationery, gifts, cheap plastic, clothes, faith and everything else in between. The fun lies in taking a turn further down the road, any turn, into one of the petes.

Along one, young boys and middle aged men nearly pull you into saree shops they work for, promising the best silks, the softest cottons at “best price.” Along another is Raja Market, a slightly more manageable array of shops selling silver and craft accessories. Gold leaves for Thanjavur paintings, sequins and ribbons and buttons and beads are displayed, the hung pieces of glass and translucent plastic catching bits of the winter sun now and then. Further along I take a left, then a right and a left again and I’m finally where I want to be: lost. Like the famed gallis of Varanasi where you never need see the main roads if you know your lanes well enough, the back alleys of Chikpet are like a maze that only the regulars, the insiders have the key to. The only way to see this whole other city that breathes and thrives at its own pace, its own time zone, is to get lost in its folds. Each corner promises a tantalizing secret for you to walk around and discover. Sometimes it is yet another temple – I spot ten within two parallel streets alone – sometimes it is a tiny house tucked away, the lady of the house going about doing her laundry calmly. Sometimes the curious corners host a tea shop below a flight of stairs to something else. Admittedly, the tea, or the instant coffee, is terrible, but the people that congregate there come mostly for the conversations.

There is too much to take in. Steel utensils, spices, costume jewelry, gold and silver, shiny tassels, firecrackers, plastic buckets, glass jars, wires and tools, electronics, spare parts, groceries, clothes, coir mats, vegetables, snacks, fresh dosas, stale samosas, cut fruits, raw materials for every other industry, you think it, you find it here. The addresses painted on side boards don’t help; if one side of the street is Old Khasai Road, the other side is Ragipete. Between roads, there are crosses, Mastan Sahib Lane, Nagarthpete Cross, such like.

If you peek behind the shops, or turn your head up towards the sky, there are houses with odd shaped windows and iron curtains. Some look like they have always existed, their starting dates lost in distant time. Pink sarees, baby blouses and faded formal shirts dangle down from high wires, flapping furiously in the little breeze that manages to wind down into the lanes.

At the end of one road is where the Sunday market opens up every week, selling everything you never thought you might want and if you get lucky, some lovely antiques too. Here in these parts is everything you will ever need to take you through the days of your life. Food, festivals, temples, mosques, old world healers, quacks, schools, and families of people that look like they could not belong to what the world would expect modern Bangalore to contain.

The Chikpete area is a city with a history of centuries past, with colonial marks still standing now and here, its own economy, its unwritten rules, its secrets. It is a different city after all, much older, much noisier, much of everything more than the rest of this metropolis. I have long stopped trying to make sense of how its geography works; I will always want to get lost here. It must take months, years to know a city and her manners. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Writers and Demons

It’s a way of dealing with them, or at least trying to process them. Writers who don’t have demons will find some, or they won’t be writing.

I think that writers who don’t deal with those personal things, those demons, are a little cheap. That’s the problem with minimalist writing sometimes. It doesn’t have the content beneath it. Some minimalist writers, they want to have the literary language, but they don’t want to have the passion or they don’t want to risk too much. That kind of writing is cheap. It doesn’t dare to stand out there naked. When I see that kind of writing, I always wonder, as a reader, Am I not worth it? Why don’t you want to give me any of your skin?

- Dorthe Nors, in Paris Review

One of the truest things I have read about writing in recent times.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Ranjani Shettar, a Profile in BLink, The Hindu Business Line

I will also be writing for BLink, the Saturday magazine section of The Hindu Business Line, from now on. The first piece, a profile of the sculptor Rajani Shettar, has been published today. This is perhaps my first piece writing wholly about art and artists, and I must say I thoroughly enjoyed researching this story. New learnings and unlearnings, what's life without a bit of those?

Read the story here or see below. Photo courtesy: Talwar Gallery, New Delhi

Ranjani Shettar on making wood float in air, metal fly and thread soar

An artist’s studio is perhaps what the inside of a writer’s head must look like. Materials of many kinds, paints, pencils, half-finished drawings, threads, rusting metal and the planned disorder must resemble the words that haven’t yet arranged themselves into a sequence. Though, when I meet the sculptor Ranjani Shettar in her sometimes-studio and residence in Bangalore, there is none of the chaos I had hoped to find. All her works are out for shows; her workspace-cum-home is roughly six hours from Bangalore, in a village “off the map”, near Sagara in central Karnataka. The office where we sit is huge, stark white, high ceilinged to accommodate her large installations and now, occupied by a lone artist assistant, who brings out juice and biscuits.

To understand her work, I can now only rely on her words and images of her installations that have been exhibited across the world and have found a permanent place at the Museums of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and San Francisco, and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Delhi, and elsewhere. Like in the works at her ongoing show ‘Between the sky and earth’ at the Talwar Gallery, Delhi — all in wood — Shettar’s art practice focuses on the physicality of materials. Her works have always combined the natural, the industrial and the traditional — from beeswax, sawdust, wood, mud, cotton to latex, metal, PVC tubing, rubber to tamarind kernel powder paste and kasimi (a fermented concoction of iron rust and jaggery).

Paraphrasing Michelangelo, Shettar talks of taking away all the excess to find the form hidden inside. He referred to stone, she applies it also to other materials. When “talking to the material, I push it over a little and knock it over the edge,” she says. What culminates is a bit of an illusion where her materials seem to behave the exact opposite of their true nature, where wood floats, metal attempts to fly and threads form a strong network. This has led to her work being described by critics variously as ethereal, poised, fluid, poetic, almost whimsical, though never frivolous.

Works like ‘Fire in the belly’ follow her signature style of suspending her installations, one that harks back to her student days at the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath, Bangalore from where she graduated with a Masters in Sculpture in 2000. “As a student, I used to make small sculptures that had to be displayed on a pedestal to be seen. This ended up making them look heavy. I was also playing with balance and gravity. All my imagination is three-dimensional, that’s how the installations began to be suspended,” she says.

The suspensions make her works differ every time. “‘Just a bit more’ has been shown four times and each time, people have told me that it looks different. The works begin to define their own physicality. When a work is suspended, you can look at it in three ways — either like it is floating, flying high or like it is falling down,” she explains. The 37-year old artist has talked elsewhere of how her works are “drawings in space”.

Her room-sized works take precise planning and detailed drawings to install, like in ‘Vasanta’, made from hundreds of beeswax pellets and dyed strings. Is the process of installing these, a work in itself, I wonder. Shettar tells me she likes to see the work as one whole unit, though it doesn’t always remain so, “The work acquires its own persona, a life of its own.” Her deliberations on space let the viewer navigate between her suspended works; the movements of people, even their breath, and the light cast from windows, all these change the way the work looks throughout the day. “I find those dynamics interesting,” says this lover of skylights.

Though the materials Shettar employs are locally sourced, her works have never been distinctively ‘Indian’ unlike the works of her contemporaries like Subodh Gupta and Bharti Kher. “I am so comfortable with my identity that I have never questioned it, never felt the need to say hey, I’m Indian, look at me,” she says, dismissing the question of identity.

We talk of titling works. They carry beguiling names like ‘Sun-sneezers blow light bubbles’ and ‘Me, no, not me, buy me, eat me, wear me, have me, me, no, not me’, names that come into being sometime over the months and years she spends on one work. There isn’t a process, though she says, “I find that when I listen to classical music, or maybe when I am reading a particular book, my verbal formulations are better.”

Shettar has been away from Sagara, working frenetically and putting up shows, for nearly a month, living the gypsy life. “When I’m not working, I feel like a different person, I feel lost,” she says. She clearly cannot wait to return to her studio.

(Ranjani Shettar’s ‘Between the sky and earth’ runs at the Talwar Gallery, Delhi, till March 29)

(The writer is a freelance journalist based in Bangalore)

(This article was published on March 14, 2014)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Turner: the Vaughen Bequest

My hugely talented friend Aileen Blaney allowed me to post this here. Read a review of Turner's watercolours that were recently on show at the National Gallery, Dublin,.

Image from National Gallery, Dublin

In the year 1900, the Vaughen Bequest of Turner watercolors was bequeathed to the National Gallery of Ireland. Henry Vaughen, son of a prosperous hat maker who left him a sizable fortune, was a curator in the oldest sense of the word embodying as he did a caretaker of artworks under his watch. Vaughen took care of his prized Turner collection in death as he did in life. In his bequest he stipulated that the watercolors be shown only during the sun starved month of January, safeguarding them from the corrosive effects of sunlight. And so it came to pass in the 100 and more Januarys since, in a room in the National Gallery in Dublin, the Vaughen Bequest has been brightening up winter’s darkest month.

Ironically, Turner’s predilection for extreme weather conditions is being mirrored in scenes unfolding over the last few weeks along North Atlantic seaboards. Red alert weather warnings for Ireland have been accurately forecasting 150km/h winds, unprecedented rainfall and tidal surges that are sundering promenades, spewing up the sea’s organic and calcified innards onto coastal roads, and submerging low-lying car parks. And yet on the coat tails of Christmas and New Year’s Atlantic storms are the coral hues of munificent sunsets and skies splashed with generous vaults of blue. Only the 19th Century great masters committed to a life soldered to a sketchpad and paintbrush could hope to approximate the elements’ aesthetic imprint on the earth’s land and water bodies. Walking through a chronological arrangement of Turner’s landscapes and seafaring scenes, I could not but see a progression from art imitating life to that of art’s ability to transform the subject, noticeably achieved in Turner’s more impressionistically styled mid-to-late career works. So successful he was in this entreprise that it is not unusual to hear it said that a sunset is reminiscent of a Turner and not vice versa.

Depictions of transient weather conditions are what earned for Turner the attention of art collectors in his own lifetime. In his hands watercolors become the accelerating wind gusts that send an afternoon squall whirling through Val d’Aosta, a valley in the Swiss Alps and reference point for two of the works on display. Colour and tonality paint the alpine weather more so than the landscape into existence - inclement conditions are represented in contrasting ochre, umber and grey washes of colour. The timelessness of these watercolors is in their beauty and enhanced by the context of viewing them at a moment in history of heightened anxieties surrounding a perceived increase in hurricane activity. A scene set in the estuary at Plymouth depicts a navy blue and black sky bearing down on a ship precariously unsteadied by steep crested white waves, spelling doom for the crew. Among other achievements these watercolors are commanding reminders of the vulnerability of human life in situations that can be neither exploited nor controlled for man’s own ends.

Many of the works in this January’s Turner exhibition were sketched on European tours undertaken by the painter in the company of wealthy art collectors and landowners. A respite in the Napoleonic wars in 1802 provided the first opportunity to embark on one of these expeditions. Venice, the Lake of Lucerne, Reichenbach Falls, the Swiss, German and Austrian Alps and the Rhineland were all scenic stops visited by Turner and his entourages, each location in turn giving him cause to fill a sketchpad with the outlines of later masterpieces. Turner would generate a prodigious volume of drawings on these European tours, the impulse to draw everything that drew his eye having a contemporary counterpoint in the volume of images taken on digital cameras and phones by holiday makers to photogenic locations around the world.

Unsurprisingly, during a Venetian tour in 1840, Turner was pulled into the city’s thrall. In The Doge's Palace and Piazzetta, bragozzi and other Venetian watercraft sit aloft an aqua marine lagoon mirroring the waterfront’s elegant buildings. A pen dipped in red watercolor gives the reflection of Doges Palace the rosy red of its concrete double. By the end of the 19th century, the inauguration of the Venice Biennale meant that the city would no longer be the giddy discovery of artists and adventurers, rapidly becoming one of the main satellites of the art market. In 2013, 475,000 visitors attended the biennale, among them many collectors. However, their investments are firmly in the artworks. Each January, the National Gallery reminds us of a bygone era when collectors invested themselves in the preoccupations of the artists, following them through high mountain passes, rising at dawn to see the sun rise over Venice and watching mists descend on valley lakes.

--- Aileen Blaney

Sunday, March 02, 2014

On Sri Lankan Human Rights Violations: In Filter Coffee Column This Month

(I LOVE the illustration!) Read the story here in this month's Filter Coffee column or see below.

For more on the last few months of the civil war, watch the documentary No Fire Zone, The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka here.


Deepa Bhasthi traces the bleeding away of innocence from the memories of those who have had loved ones, homes, and entire ways of life ripped from them by the generations-long civil war in Sri Lanka.

I used to ride pillion to school sometimes, on a big boys’ bicycle, behind my friend V. We rode along quiet lanes lined with tall trees and pretty houses, talking and giggling away like the schoolgirls we were. It sounds idyllic now, as must most childhood memories. But there was a war underway not too far from where we rode bicycles or sometimes walked to school. Some days when we walked, V told me stories of the war. She was there; her family had managed to escape.

Those days don’t seem very idyllic now when I look over my shoulder to 20 years ago, in the city I can only call Madras, never Chennai. Across the Bay of Bengal sea-line, the Sri Lankan civil war was already a decade old by then. The cries for a Tamil land were getting louder, killings and crimes by both sides – the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sinhalese Army – were escalating, Rajiv Gandhi had already been assassinated, and refugees were leaving Sri Lanka by the thousands – several stopping over in Madras for months, years, till their visas (for Australia, UK or elsewhere) arrived.

There isn’t anything idyllic about war, not even when you are walking down safe roads listening to stories you could never relate to, for you never were shot at, even if in lazy warning, by an army man hovering slowly over your backyard in a helicopter. It changes something, even if, at the time when you heard these stories, they didn’t strike you as raw and heart-wrenching and cruel, as it does when you revisit those half remembered stories two decades later. It changes the people whose fathers returned dead three days after they were taken for questioning. It changes something in those who walk past decaying bodies by the roadside, bodies their families are too afraid to claim, or perhaps there are none left to do so. It changes how you see the world when you leave your home behind, knowing you will never return, never again ride the cycle that your father bought for you and taught you to ride on, never again see the chair that was your father’s favourite.

How do you reconcile the beauty of the lagoon-blue beach just five minutes from your house with the smells of blood and broken limbs? How do you reconcile the continued feelings of thirst with the reality that all you got at the refugee camp was water the colour of pale mud? How do you not walk around with a messed up head after all this?

The thing is, you don’t. The years go by but drawing room conversations in Tamil households still concentrate on the trickle of news and talk that travels somehow – from Mullaitivu and Batticaloa and Kilinochchi – of people killed and of things that could be done. One man’s terrorist was another’s freedom fighter, the history of wars have always shown.

It changes you, trying to live through these things. If you aren’t lucky enough to have died already, it kills in you the mild innocence other humans, untouched by such deaths, spend their lives with. Something dies when you have seen what humans are really, really capable of. For those of us who listen to these stories, these are just stories, other people’s stories to half remember, half forget.

It is nearly five years now, since the summer of 2009 when unheard names of towns and districts appeared everyday on the front pages of newspapers and the rest of the world sat through another primetime televised war. Valvettithurai, Trincomalee and others are names that, like our Kargil and Poonch, had little business to be in the world’s consciousness, were it not for the wars, the atrocities, the all-around human rights violations. For war doesn’t sympathise, or take sides. There really are no winners.

Five years later, the United Nations wants to see Sri Lanka do something about those 25 years, 9 months, 3 weeks and 4 days when everyone killed, everyone died. Colombo has been insisting that its troops committed no war crimes, but that’s logically impossible, for there can never be a just war. Isn’t that fact as old as the hills? Isn’t it perfectly clear when you read about all the precedents of wars the world over? The rebels didn’t do any better either. The international call is for an independent probe into alleged human rights violations by both the Sinhalese army and the separatists, led by the LTTE. The focus is especially on the final months of the war, when the government’s no-holds-barred offensive and a desperate last thrust by the rebels led to the death of tens of thousands of civilians (a United Nations report estimates casualties of 40,000, mainly Tamil civilians). This is apart from the million or so who died or disappeared in the years that passed before.

The clamour for this independent probe is getting louder. Yet countries like Russia and China insist it is a matter of Sri Lanka’s internal affairs, even as the island, whose history gives it poetic names – Teardrop of India, Serendib – insists that such a probe could only bring chaos, that its national reconciliation process must be given some more years to bring harmony between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils. India, which once tried to be the big brother of the sub-continental nations and scorched its fingers badly, hasn’t decided yet what it wants to say on the matter. It mustn’t be easy trying to please everyone from Sri Lanka to the US to Jayalalithaa.

Trying anyone in international human rights courts wouldn’t bring back V’s father, or the fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, and children of an entire nation where a few generations grew up in the shadow of guns, never knowing innocence, never knowing what having no fear felt like. Perhaps closure is all that justice can bring, if there ever is any manner of justice. V refuses to talk about the past; she says it’s all over. Yet, she joins a semi-nunnery and sees a shrink to deal with her stories. Others I have known walk around with rage in their hearts and smiles on their faces that rarely reach their eyes. They move on and marry and have children and work at normal desk jobs and play cricket during the weekends, but the abandonment of home is something they will not talk about.

These aren’t just V’s stories, or those of the other Sri Lankan Tamil refugees I studied and made friends with two decades ago. This is the story of every Sinhalese, every Tamil, and every human whose life has been robbed of its innocence by war. Justice, closure and time are words we use when we try to build a life from among the shards. But the thing is, some stories aren’t written with a period to mark their end.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

You start to believe things are truly different when the first day of the previously dreaded month of March begins with the very best surprise. Those kind of surprises, I always love those. I am told I wouldn't stop smiling all day.

I still can't. 
Just too much!! :D

The year's first showers dropped by this evening. Rain and love and warmth. Looks like I will love March this year.