Monday, March 20, 2017

Hampi, the New Hippie Haven: In The Hindu Business Line

I could go to Hampi every year and still never get enough of that place. There is something mesmerising about the rocks there. We went biking to Hampi a few weeks ago and camped and watched the sun set behind rocks from near a temple and lay down on our backs and talked and had a wonderful time.

I came back and wrote an essay on how Hampi is the new hippie haven and the next Goa, of sorts. It was published on March 17, 2017 in The Hindu Business Line's wonderful supplement BLInk.

Read it here or see below. 


Thanks to the wannabe hippie atmosphere that Hampi actively promotes, it is now the unofficial heir to rave capital Goa

Haalu Hampi (or ruined Hampi), as we call it in Kannada, has always made me feel like a voyeuristic member of an audience watching the high drama of the empire’s life and thereafter existence being performed in a loop. I feel like I am inspecting the ruins to judge, to take surreptitious notes in my notebook and make many half-hearted photos from the same angles as everyone before and after me. I feel as if I am there in the theatre vaguely wondering if I have got my money’s worth yet. I cannot explain why this land makes me feel like I am interrupting something. The surrealistic expanse of it and the possibilities the rocks are known to hold are its magic perhaps. Returning from the new Goa of the south, I have always felt slightly ashamed and utterly mesmerised. Love can sometimes be like that.

From the excesses that wash up on the shores of Goa, it is a straight line inland to reach Hampi. The parties, the backpacks, the dreads, the harem pants and the odd-sized doobies oscillate between the two hippie havens seamlessly. One has no beaches, the other has no ancient ruins or Russian mafia lords. Not yet. Not yet discernibly, rather.

This most recent time I am there with a bike, a tent, a partner in tow and with an intention to camp somewhere. The only safe place is within a guest-house surrounded by cottages, we discover. The tent opens to paddy fields and there is a dog that barks through most of the night. There is nothing more to the camping story here, except that it was lovely and that I will now want to camp only in places with a view.

Not so lovely are the causes and effects of Virupapara Gaddi (spelled variously across different websites), on the other side of the river from Hampi the village, where nirvana-seekers bay at the full moon from underneath boulders, clutching what they can of the sweet release that is promised to them by event managers and other mercenaries. Much later I will discover that nearly every single structure on the Gaddi is illegal, but well-greased machineries keep them going and thriving year after year.

Hampi, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is the village that draws mostly two kinds of visitors — one the pilgrims, mostly from surrounding districts who revere Virupaksha, the god who presides, and two, tourists who come from big cities for a few days, find it too hot (it is always too hot in Hampi), hire mopeds to get around, buy psychedelic printed bohemian things, ‘chill’ and leave. The weekend hippies. The third kind will eventually cross the Tungabhadra river, smarting from the gross commercialisation of Hampi, to merge into the unpoliced boulders at night. A majority will be from overseas, travelling through gap years and finding that yoga-music-peace-salvation is pocket-friendly and readily packaged here by reluctant but enterprising locals.

The guest-house where we have pitched our tent is old and famous. Possibly listed in Lonely Planet too. There is a new bridge from Hampi that goes through a few villages and many fields. It had been for long a contentious project, given that the site of the former majestic Vijayanagara Empire is a protected area and most constructions are banned.

A few years ago, the shacks and shops that lined the road to the main temple were razed to the ground, famous restaurants on the banks of the river were instructed to shut shop, in the same way that they were known to shoo, albeit politely, Indian tourists after sundown. Foreigners were preferred. This was an old personal experience. Indians were unwelcome, a sentiment that continues to be vehemently denied, but is expressed in not so subtle ways.

The new road, which drastically shortens the distance between this side and that side of the river, runs along some deeply disturbing quarries, but expansive vistas that are green and happy still dominate, for now. An old man in saffron and dreadlocks calls out — ‘bhaiyya’ — and directs us to where we need to go, before we even ask. We find it highly amusing. All roads clearly lead to one place. The faster way is to take a boat or a coracle across the river from Hampi. In summer, it isn’t difficult to hop over stones and walk across either. While the boatman waits for more passengers to fill the boat, some climb onto a rock and light up a joint. It is so common a sight and scent that no one looks their way. That rave parties are a common feature at certain locations is not news. Everywhere, there are police-issued warnings against smoking what the locals call ‘masala’ cigarettes. The smell of this masala hangs in the air, everywhere.

The first rave-related story we hear is early one morning when we wait for the cooks to make us tea. A tall guy — from Delhi, he soon tells us — walks in with a bunch of bananas, a chocolate bar, a rolled-up mat and a big backpack. We recall he was at the café attached to the guest-house with a few friends until closing time last evening. An argument between him and the manager starts to heat up and we soon find ourselves in the middle of it, owing to language issues, trying to soothe things over. All before a dose of morning caffeine, sigh. A month or so ago, a large rave event, with some 300-400 people, opened somewhere among the rocks — the address for these things is always vague — and was raided by the police after a few days.

The manager tells us that no one knows where all the people went. They just merged into the rocks, he says. In the first few days, they would wake up to find that people had spent the night on hammocks that most guest-houses have outside their cottages for their guests. These people, the manager stereotypes them, spend the days hanging around in different cafés, hoping to catch the fancy of rich, single travellers who might take care of their expenses. At night they retreat under the rocks. The Delhi fella, who claims to be from an illustrious family, is trying to do the same, we are told. He does not exactly deny it.

The manager is from a neighbouring village, dresses hip and speaks English with an accent. A heavy accent, sometimes with a lilt, peppered with endearments and slang, is consistent among the staff at all cafés. It creates an English that is its own new language.

The local boys are all dudes, deriving a new language and a new image for themselves. A lot of them get close to foreigners — it is another ticket out of the village. Many of the travellers hang around for months, making bits and bobs of macramé dreamcatchers and jewellery or teaching yoga in exchange for a meal or a cheap room. One evening when we walk along the shops at Virupapara Gaddi, we spy a priest conducting what we assume is a service before Sabbath for the Jew travellers. The signboards are in Hebrew, the gathering doesn’t look like it would welcome us. Someone passes us by, talking into a phone in Hindi that he is tired of smoking up. We continue to be amused. The shopkeepers ignore us because we won’t pay in dollars, euros or pounds.

Mercenary is a hard tonic to swallow. The locals like the money that tourism of a certain kind brings, but it doesn’t go down easy that the social system has changed beyond recognition because of it. Techno and lounge music floats from cafés that serve ravioli and pasta, all spelled wrong.

Money is flowing fast and loose, as much from tourism as from the parties and the things that are supplied. Money comes with its own cause and effects.

It isn’t hard to understand why Hampi is the new Goa. It is extremely hard to police the region, for there are more than enough places to merge into. The rocks are of sizes that climbers come every year to practise on. The locals both detest the hippies and need the money they spend.

It happens to be a full moon night during our stay. The café is nearly empty, save for a family and an old couple engrossed in books. The father in the family orders one beer for himself and chicken things for the whole family. You can see that it is an occasional treat for him, the beer. At another party somewhere on top of a hill, the others must be howling at the moon, faces upturned.

Review of Kochi-Muziris Biennale: In Hyperallergic

We went to Kochi and saw the Biennale earlier this year. I love that little place, and the old warehouses are breathtaking. But the Biennale itself was very meh. I had had more expectations from the curator Sudarshan Shetty.

I wrote a review of it for the New York headquartered Hyperallergic. It is a joy working for them, with the attention to the edits they give and the kind words they always have.

Read it here (more photos), or see below. Published March 08, 2017.


The curator for the third edition of India’s first art biennial, Sudarshan Shetty, has brought together some strong works that don’t resonate with each other in any way.

Voldemārs Johansons, “Thirst” (2015), still from single-channel video, 5.1 sound, fog, dimensions variable

KOCHI, India — I could start with clichés, as many do when writing about Kerala, the southernmost state of India, which tourism officials have dubbed “God’s own country.” But I will note, instead, the dangerous road manners I encountered en route from a picturesque village in northeast Kerala to Ernakulam, the state’s modern metropolis, home to malls and metro lines, and host, on the island of Fort Kochi, to India’s first art biennial. Travelers and merchants have followed ancient routes to arrive on the island’s shores for millennia now. The latest reason to set sail is the Kochi-Muziris Biennale(KMB), currently in its third edition.

Founded by artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu in 2010, and named partly after the lost port of Muziris — which is believed to have been the region’s hub of trade before its disappearance — KMB is always curated by artists. This distinctive tradition will likely come under closer scrutiny in light of the Biennale’s current outing, which is sorely unable to match the ambitions of its curator, the artist Sudarshan Shetty.

The curatorial theme of the current Biennale, Forming in the pupil of the eye, is derived from an old story about a young traveler who seeks a meeting with a wise sage to try to understand the complicated multiplicities of all that is. “[G]athering the world into the pupil of her eye,” Shetty writes in his curatorial note, “the sage creates multiple understandings of the world.” Accordingly, he writes, the Biennale is “an assembly and layering of multiple realities.” What that translates to, in the picturesque lanes of Fort Kochi and its many gorgeous venues, is a mishmash of works derived from multiple disciplines that somehow all stand in isolation, never coming together to form anything coherent.

The list of participating artists for the current KMB features an unusual and intriguing array of poets, musicians, dancers, and contemporary artists from 35 countries. When it was first released, I had eagerly anticipated discovering what such a gathering of artists might look like in rooms and hallways forever imbued (in my mind at least) with the aroma of the spice bags that must have passed through them. Now, several weeks after my visit to the current KMB, it is already hard to jog any individual work from memory and feel pleased to have seen it.

My first stop is Aspinwall House, the Bienniale’s main venue and the former headquarters of Aspinwall & Co Ltd. — a company established in 1867 that traded in in coconut oil, pepper, spices, coffee, rubber, and other goods. I soon find myself walking in and out of the rooms swiftly, with little to hold my attention.

Across the Bienniale’s lovely venues, there are several works that, when seen in isolation, are either thought-provoking, entertaining, engaging, or all of the above. Among the most memorable are the Russian collective AES+F’s sleek and silly three-channel video work “Inverso Mundus” (2015); Alicja Kwade’s intriguing concrete wall and mirror installation “Out of Ousia” (2016), which plays with perceptions of what is original and what is a replica; and Padmini Chettur’s video installation “Varnam” (2016), which explores the nostalgic remains of eroticism and romantic love — the term “varnam” referring to the central section in a classical Bharatanatyam dance performance.

My disappointment springs not so much from any individual work, but how they all feel when experienced together. The rooms frequently strewn with remnants of performances feel like I am arriving at a party after everyone has left for the night, while other installations feel like pages torn away from precious books to paste on the walls. The sentiment behind trying to preserve and document these ephemeral acts is appreciated, but it is really a case of trying too hard to please, and failing.

After treading in and out of several KMB venues, I arrive in a sparsely lit room where the Latvian artist Voldemārs Johansons’s “Thirst” (2015) is showing. A video of a stormy North Atlantic Ocean filmed in the Faroe Islands, the work is a single-shot visual capturing the sea in all its fury. Coupled with the waves’ frightening roars, the video truly envelops the visitor; it is threatening and immersive, drawing you in, spitting you out, relentlessly pulling and pushing. It is a powerful experience and I know my memory of it will endure. The anger in the piece and its strange beauty mingle with the sentiments I have developed for the Biennale as a whole and the haunting allure of its venues, most of which are only accessible to the public during KMB’s three-month run. Being alone in these gorgeous buildings, standing in their upper rooms and watching the ships go by in the near distance, hearing the waters churning, and smelling the spaces’ evocative aromas, makes me glad that I am here. In these moments, the Biennale recedes.

Between a dozen main exhibition spaces, several smaller venues, collateral events, and the Student Biennale, there is much to see at KMB. As I make my way around Fort Kochi, I find myself looking up at the tall roofs and watching out from the expansive docks at the rear of the buildings instead of into the rooms and at the works. Nothing seems to fit anywhere.

Later — much later — my companions and I are sitting around a table over cold beer and a passable dinner, dissecting the day. It is a very pleasant evening in late January. There is a tiny pool near our table, and a Christmas tree made with sticks and lights that is much prettier than my description makes it sound. The conversation goes round and round, and the question that arises is: can language be visual art? There is no reason why it cannot be, but it certainly isn’t at KMB. The distance from one work to the next, from one venue to another, is the time the viewer has to process and ruminate on each experience. In this interim space between viewing each work, it’s the responsibility of the curatorial theme to facilitate a sense of continuity, a sense of coherence between otherwise disparate works.

Shetty took a gamble when he sought to bring other creative disciplines into the Biennale’s visual context. Did it pay off? Unfortunately, no. The latest edition of KMB is a brave experiment that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. But going to Fort Kochi — with its streets as old as time, its fabulous buildings and warehouses, and the river that runs through it — remains a grand aesthetic experience.

The 2016 edition of the Kochi–Muziris Biennale continues at locations throughout Kochi through March 29.

Bangalore's Burning Lakes: In The Guardian

Water bodies are not supposed to catch fire. But in Bangalore they do. I wrote a report on the Bellandur lake for The Guardian. The article went viral, with over 25,000 shares on social media and was trending number 1 on the Guardian Cities section of the website for some six days!

Here is hoping someone somewhere will do something about the lake.

Read here (with several links and more photos), or see below. Published on March 1, 2017.


(Photo credit: Aaditya Sood)

On the evening of Thursday 16 February, residents in the south-east part of Bangalore noticed huge plumes of smoke rising into the sky. The smoke was coming from the middle of Bellandur Lake – the biggest lake in the city at a little over 890 acres. They realised the seemingly impossible had happened: the lake had caught fire. Even fire fighters wondered how a blaze in water could be put out.

The fire in the lake burned for 12 hours and left behind a sinister black patch in the centre, according to some eye-witness accounts.

This is the new story of Bangalore – state capital, India’s Silicon Valley, and once upon a time, the “city of lakes”. The reasons why these lakes are able to catch fire begin to explain why scientists at the influential Indian Institute of Science believe Bangalore will be “unliveable” in a few years’ time.

A lethal mix of factors create an environment that merely requires the slightest of triggers for lakes to go up in flames. Untreated effluents pour into the waters from the many industries and homes on its banks, illegal waste disposal takes place on a large scale – often including rubbish which is set on fire – and invasive weeds cover large swathes of the lake in a thick green canopy.

The latest incident is not the first time the lake has caught fire; it happened in May 2015. A few days later, it was in the news again for being covered in snow-like froth, which began to swirl up in the summer wind, engulfing passers-by. The froth was the result of chemical waste dumped in the lake, and was toxic enough to crack windshields, wear the paint off car hoods and exacerbate the severe respiratory issues that have plagued citizens in recent years.

Dr TV Ramachandra, coordinator of the Energy and Wetlands Research Group at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), has been studying the lakes in Bangalore, especially Bellandur and Varthur, for over two decades. He explains that an estimated 400-600 million litres of untreated sewage is let into the lake catchment every day, creating a toxic environment fertile for disasters like the fires and foam.

“The city overall generates between 1,400 and 1,600m litres per day of untreated sewage,” he says. “20-30m litres per day is generated from the apartments in the vicinity of Bellandur Lake. There are several invasive species like water hyacinths growing in the lake, thick enough to walk on. People dump solid waste on top of it. Because of the thickness, it creates an anaerobic environment in the water below, where methane is formed. It creates an ideal environment for catching fire.”

He believes there are too many agencies governing the lake, so they all blame each other for such incidents. “The Bangalore water supply and sewerage board should be held responsible for letting the untreated sewage into the water,” he says, adding that the onus should also be placed on the Karnataka state pollution control board for not regulating industries that have been draining their untreated sewage into the lake.

Although the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act and The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act require action to be taken over such matters, the government has mostly remained silent, while its departments have been passing the buck around. The National Green Tribunal has issued notices to all the agencies involved.

Long before it began its slow and painful death, Bellandur Lake was part of a clever water and irrigation system devised by the founders of Bangalore in the 1600s, giving it the “city of lakes” moniker. The streams formed at the top of surrounding valleys were dammed into man-made lakes by constructing bunds. Each of these lakes would harvest rainwater from its catchments and the surplus would flow downstream, spilling into the next lake in the cascade via storm water drains or raja kaluves. The bodies of water would in turn serve the needs of the population.

In the 1970s, there were still 285 lakes in the city, making it self-sufficient in its water needs. Today, however, there are just 194 lakes, and the large majority of them are sewage-fed. The rest have been lost to encroachments – by the Bangalore Development Authority, private real estate developers and illegal builders – to cater to the booming housing needs of a city of 10 million.

Bangalore has been subject to unchecked urbanisation in the wake of the IT sector-fuelled economic boom of the late 1990s. The many software companies that sprung up during the dotcom boom attracted hundreds of thousands of skilled IT professionals from across the country, with thousands more people moving from villages and small towns to the city in search of work.

According to studies by the IISc, rapid urbanisation and expansion between 1973 and 2016 caused a 1005% increase in paved surfaces and decline of 88% in the city’s vegetation, while water bodies declined by 85% between 2000 and 2014.

The rise of the IT sector has also created the problem of e-waste in the city: a 2013 report estimated that Bangalore produces 20,000 tonnes of e-waste per year. Although a formal recycling system for e-waste was set up, 90% of it is dealt with through the informal sector, which is harder to monitor. Unaware of the necessary safety measures, some incinerate the e-waste, releasing lead, mercury and other toxins into the air – and dump the rest, allowing pollutants to infiltrate the groundwater.

If one lake habitually catches fire, then another throws up thousands of dead fish every other summer. Ulsoor Lake, which doubles up as a picnic spot with boat rides and snack vendors on its banks, saw dead fish floating on its waters last yearowing to the pollution caused by untreated sewage and consequent depletion of dissolved oxygen.

The water pollution in Bangalore poses a serious threat to residents’ health and creates a chronic shortage of clean water for people to use. All in all, experts predict a severe water crisis which will make Bangalore uninhabitable by 2025, with residents potentially having to be evacuated.

In the aftermath of the latest fire, I spoke to Aaditya Sood, an IT professional who watched the flames from his 10th floor balcony. He said he had seen the lake being “choked” in the seven or eight years he has lived there. “I have two kids and respiratory issues are a problem,” he says. The toxins from the lake get into the air, according to Ramachandra, noting that the cases of lung-related medical conditions have increased drastically in the city recently.

Another resident, Vandana Sinha, who works for a consultancy firm, says the smoke from the fire almost immediately caused itchiness at the base of her throat. She had heard that seven to eight trucks worth of garbage was being dumped into the lake every night, adding to the lethal combination of pollutants in the waters.

Report after report by expert committees have recommended several short and long term measures for rescuing the city’s lakes. Stopping the dumping of garbage, treating sewage water before it is allowed into the lakes, checking encroachments and slowing the development agenda are top of the list.

In the next three years, if the same rate of development continues, the built up area in Bangalore is expected to increase from 77% to 93%, with a vegetation cover of a mere 3%. Ramachandra is determined to get the bureaucracy to act before it is too late. While the city may not fully cease to exist, without drastic improvement the other possibilities still sound impossibly grim.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Irony of the day: 

Just when I am about to by and by leave the city, I want to start writing on the strange humour, the tragedies, the complicated dystopian patheticity of these very cities.