Sunday, March 30, 2008

A Little “Renaissance” Rant

What is "renaissance"?

You may have come across the word "nee" used as in "Madhuri Nene nee Dixit". That means that the lady is now called Madhuri Nene but was born Madhuri Dixit. “Nee” is the adjective form of the French verb "naitre" or "to be born". The noun form is "naissance" or "birth" and "renaissance" is simply "rebirth".

The classic use of the term "Renaissance" is to describe the movement (mainly artistic) across Europe from the 14th to the 17th centuries which saw the gradual transformation of that continent from the late middle ages to more or less what we fondly call "modernity".

As is true with all history, it is written by the victors and we seldom get to hear the other side of the story.

I have always wondered where the "re" part of the word "renaissance", as used in this context, came from. The people who today so proudly lay claim to this term were, at the start point of this so-called “rebirth”, in the bloody "middle ages". And as you surely know, the term "Middle Ages" is synonymous with "lack of civilization". So, what were these guys being "REborn" into? Are they insinuating that they once had a glorious civilization that somehow decayed into the middle ages and then they clawed their way back via this fabled “renaissance? You bet that’s what they are insinuating. Nay, asserting.

And that’s the tragedy of recorded history - written by the victors to shamelessly propagate expedient myths.

My point is that the Europeans are laying claim, in one fell swoop with this word “renaissance”, to the entire cultural, political and social “golden age” of Classical Antiquity which saw its apogee in the Greek and Roman civilizations - a period that roughly stretched from the 8th century BC to the 5th century AD. This heritage is what purportedly they were being “reborn” into.

I’m no historian but I think that this is not historically, technically or factually correct. Continental Europe, with the exception of Greece and Rome, was never “born” into that heritage in the first place….

Even if Greece and Rome were the epicenters of the “golden period”, the breadth and the vistas of this era were southward (North Africa) and eastward (Asia Minor, Middle East and farther East) looking. This age was the fruition of a complex process of cross-pollination between Mediterranean, Central Asian and Middle Eastern cultures which were already highly evolved at that point in history…

While most of Europe was inhabited by barbarians who still had a long way to go before they could even consider themselves “born” in terms of "civilization". Much less, as the term “renaissance" blithely insinuates, “reborn”….

Am I getting too heavy? Fuck it...we'll get into that in detail again another time, preferably after a couple of stiff ones.

If that’s a tricky one from pop history, here’s one from pop culture closer home for you.

One of the associated terms of "renaissance" is "renaissance man". This was used to describe the eminent personalities of the period like Leonardo Da Vinci (yup, the guy who made the Code, god bless him!) and Michelangelo.

More recently, some rather over enthusiastic, imagination challenged, desi journalists have rehashed the term to describe miscellaneous prominent, contemporary INDIAN personalities. I have no grouse per se with the individuals who have been accorded this sobriquet by our page 3 press. But, I certainly feel that we Indians tend to over-dramatize and thus trivialize the achievements of individuals with our weakness for hyperbole. What sense does it make to compare, say, a retired Post Master General, however accomplished, with Da Vinci and Michelangelo?! Who defines the parameters of excellence that one must achieve to qualify as a “renaissance man” in India? Does Shobha De, for example, qualify? Or, MF Husain?

I’m very interested in knowing what “renaissance person” means to you and if you have ever come across one.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Madras, Nalla Madras! - some images from my last trip

A glimpse of Cunard Lines' "QUEEN VICTORIA" from outside the harbour wall...I read in the newspaper that Cunard describe this beauty as "a sonnet in motion". A classic, sinful cruise is definitely a "must do before I die" activity for me.

A family carrying lit candles at 2.30 AM Easter Sunday on Mount Road, across from the Bata showroom corner. There was hard, intermittent rain that whole night long. On the way back from my friend Apu's house in T'Nagar, I saw several families dressed in their (Easter) Sunday best, struggling across the street-wide puddles and ruined pavements on their way to church. This family stood out for the sheer grace and self-evident devotion with which they slowly navigated their way to early morning mass...

A fully loaded bike on Poonamalee High Road near the Central Station. The guy is carrying a load of waste cloth.

Making friends with a kitten in a "potti kadai" (literally "box shop") in Chetput. There were two of them and, like all kittens, completely adorable.

Che lives! In a North Madras backstreet!!!

I wonder exactly how many people really know who this bearded weirdo on the Communist Party Of India (Marxist) graffiti was and what he stood for.

I haven't seen or read the "Motorcycle Diaries" movie/book as yet, but my friend Chandermouli (Mouli) did a well researched presentation on Che for our 3rd Level course a couple of years ago when we were both learning Spanish in Bangalore. The presentation was in Spanish, but we have both forgotten our "senoritas", "margaritas" and "tapas" since...

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

After Midnight - An Endless Saturday

It was after 2 in the morning of a Saturday night and MG Road was deserted except for the stray reveler straggling home, like yours truly. The odd auto cruised past with the driver scanning the likely marks.

I was tired and had a deep buzz going. A little nagging voice of good sense somewhere deep inside my head kept telling me that I should go home and sleep. Fair enough, I thought – it had not been a bad Saturday at all!

That’s when this autorickshaw drew up alongside me with a seemingly customer-friendly bandy at the wheel. He explained how he had not had any decent “savari” (fare) the whole day long and how I could pay him anything that I felt was reasonable. This is a standard ploy in Madras but rather rare in Bangalore. He seemed nice enough so I said “ok” and got in.

We were cruising comfortably along MG Road when just outside the Hotel Oberoi, he most politely asked me if I had enough cigarettes for the rest of the evening. When I checked my pack, true enough, I was down to my last 3 or so. I told him yes I needed cigarettes. By this time we had pulled up at a mobile (cycle mounted) teashop.

This hawker and a few dozen others like him are a standard feature at certain prominent spots in the deserted night streets of Bangalore. They sell cigarettes and miniscule plastic cups of hot, sweet tea dispensed from stainless steel containers. All types - from cops to BPO employees to vagrants - make pit stops at these “stalls” and move on.

Asif, the auto bandy, requested me to remain seated in the auto while he went to fetch my cigarettes. We set off again. After a couple of hundred meters, halfway home, just before turning off towards Ulsoor he casually asked me if I felt like one last beer for the evening. I asked him back where we might find beer at 3 in the morning. He replied that there were “places”.

I was intrigued, so I said yes I would have a beer. He made a U-turn and we went all the way back up MG Road and then down some side streets to the corner of Brigade Road. Again Asif ensured that I got "drive-by" service. A lukewarm Kingfisher and a plastic cup were delivered to the auto and the bottle was opened.

As I sat in the auto in a deserted side street sipping my beer , Asif solicitously asked if I were hungry.

On a whim I said I wouldn’t mind a nice mutton biriyani. Pat came the reply that sure it was possible - Sivaji Nagar mutton biriyani was the best in class.

And we set off again through some beautiful deserted neighborhoods dotted with lovely buildings of great character. The sodium vapor light and the still silence gave the streets an unreal feel - as if we were scooting through an abandoned film set.

There are still many, many delightful corners of Bangalore that haven’t morphed into grotesque steel, glass and concrete barrios. The steroidal IT/BPO wave of affluence might wash them away as yet but I’m hoping for the best.

We turned some tight corners and suddenly found ourselves in a street lined with restaurants. There was lively movement on the street. Many of the restaurants were downing their shutters – it was after 3 AM – but a few were still open. Asif enquired in two or three about the quality and freshness of their mutton biriyani before choosing one.

We gorged on fairly good biriyani accompanied by some superlative mutton bone soup. After a round of pleasantries with the man behind the cash counter (galla potti) we headed back towards MG Road.

On the way, on Cubbon Road I think, I made Asif stop the auto to photograph some ancient cannons. An insomniac military guard challenged us and after a half hearted interrogation he bid us goodbye.

It was 4 or so before Asif finally dropped me home. What started off as a fifteen minute, five kilometer trip home had somehow transformed into a two hour, twenty kilometer jaunt.

A couple of days ago when I called Asif on the number he had given me, the first thing he asked was if I had eaten….a truly solicitous bandy, if ever there was one!

If you are in Bangalore sometime and want to go on a fun auto ride, just give me a shout and I’ll give you his number.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Auto Asif and an "After Midnight" romp

Coming up: Cigarettes, Beer and Biriyani at 3 in the morning? Auto Asif is your man for the season....

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Fully Loaded Saturday! With Mani-da, the Williams sisters and Auto Asif….

So it came to pass that for months on end my only and rare excursions out of Indra Nagar were to Koshy’s, the restaurant and Blossoms, the second hand bookshop on Church Street and very little else.

On the second Saturday of March I decided to change all that. There was an art exhibition that I had read about in the papers and very much wanted to see. Also, the Bangalore Women’s Open was on with a cluster of marquee names from international tennis.

I do not play tennis nor am I an aficionado of the sport but if Serena and Venus were playing in your city, and you had a half-way chance of actually going and seeing them do their thing with your own eyes then you would be stupid not to grab that chance, right? The clincher was that the two sisters were pitted against each other in one of the two semi-finals.

I decided to take my chances with auto-rickshaws for the day.

I first went to the exhibition at the Gallery Sumukha near Double Road. The artist was 84 year old K.G. Subramanyam, also apparently known as Mani-da. The paintings were quirky, fulsome and had intriguing balance. They all had the unmistakable touch of a seasoned master. There was a pervasive odor of lust and illicit sex in many of his works. His sense of small spaces, the fractured perspectives and Dahl-esque narratives drew me into several of the frames.

It is a very acute and indefinable joy - mingled with longing - to stand in front of a masterpiece, or as in this case, several masterpieces, knowing that the joy is borrowed and ephemeral. If I had the money, I would buy lots and lots and lots more art. When it comes to art I am unapologetic about my desire to “possess”.

As I strolled through the gallery I became aware that I was under the slightly suspicious gaze of two ladies. I guessed they were the owners. They seemed to know that I was not a prospective buyer and they were suitably haughty.

They were right - I definitely was not a prospective buyer. The bigger works, some 2 feet by 3 feet or so, mostly gouache on paper, were priced at 30,000,00 rupees. The smaller works, about A4 or so, ink or pencil on paper I think, were 150000 rupees.

From the gallery I took another auto to the Cubbon Park where the Bangalore Open was on at the Karnataka State Lawn Tennis Association’s courts.

There was a crowd jostling around the ticket counters. A couple of morons inside were lording it over, taking a perverse pleasure in telling everyone that everything was sold out. I could see them shuffling bundles of tickets around. They selectively chose people from the crowd and informed them that there were only “Rs.825” tickets available. A sort of “can you afford it?” was implied in their cock-sucker tone of voice. I bought myself a ticket without getting into a pissing competition with them and strolled through.

The stands were crowded but it definitely was not a full house. The first semi-final between Yan Zi of China and Switzerland’s Patty Schnyder was on. The Swiss champ was right on top of the situation and the overall feel was desultory. Everybody was waiting for the “sisters”.

On my way in I had noticed a Kingfisher counter. So I asked the gent in the next seat to hold mine and went out to get supplies. Not sure what the connection is but at the Madras Open too I had noticed a Mercedes Benz display. The 2 sleek monsters on display drew another longing sigh from me (after Mani-da's works) and I consoled myself with a couple of photographs.

The Kingfisher counter was expectedly crowded. I loved the fact that this was Mallya’s turf and that I could legally quaff a pint or four while watching an international tennis match.

The powers that be in Madras are spectacularly blinkered when it comes to rationalizing the politics of alcohol consumption in my beloved home state. I cannot rave and rant enough about the soul scorching, demeaning nature of the drinking experience in Tamil Nadu….I’m working on a piece on that. I elbowed and excused myself to the counter and bought myself a few cans and went back to my seat.

Between sets and matches there were snatches of 70s and 80s pop numbers being blasted on the public address system. The combo of my first, fast pint and “I believe in miracles…you sexy thing, you sexy thing” got my feet tapping and I was ready for a nice evening of spectator sport.

The compere or somebody announced the sisters. He gave a nice intro about their individual accomplishments and shared the fact that they were meeting each other for the 15th time in international matches. The head on head record till date was 7-7. Woweee!!!

I love spectatorship, spectator-hood, whatever - the state of being a spectator. I love the feel of huge crowds, packed auditoriums, stadiums, big ticket entertainers, the sound of collective screaming. I would have made a mean Roman at a circus.

The gladiators finally came on… and man! what fine examples of womanhood they were! I’m not sure if this sounds derogatory and I certainly don’t mean it that way…the Williams sisters reminded me of magnificent, thoroughbred, frisky fillies. They pranced onto the court and their overwhelming physical fitness was a tribute to God’s gift of life itself.

The match was not a benchmark of great tennis but the difference in quality from the earlier semi-final was evident. These 2 girls were from a different planet. There were brief flashes of brilliance that far outshone the high points of the earlier match.

I shouted myself hoarse with chants of “go..OOO, Veeenusssss, GO..oooo” but she eventually lost.

I made some friends in the stand who took turns to go out for replenishments. In the vicinity there was a clutch of cops who seemed a trifle disoriented by all the drinking and screaming. Somewhere, I have read the expression “didn’t know whether to scratch his watch or wind his arse”…kind of describes those cops in the stadium that evening.

When the match was finally over, Serena, the winner, hit several autographed tennis balls into the stands. None came anywhere near me.

I trooped out with the crowd, jumped a low gate and found myself on Kasturba Road. It was exactly 11 and I headed towards St.Mark’s Road. They were just shooing the patrons out of the Hard Rock Cafe and Koshy’s had its shutters already down. Not a problem if you are ever in that vicinity at that hour. Opposite the Empire Hotel at the corner of Church Street and Museum Road there is literally a hole in a wall manned by some polite bandicoots. They can get you your favorite poison till past 2 in the morning. The entire road was packed with people and cars and motorcycles. There was also a very quiet police jeep in the middle of the mess.

I got myself a couple of Kingfishers at an exorbitant price (Rs.100 per bottle) and chatted with some extremely drunk Punjabi IT engineers till about 2.

After they left, a family of Tamil speaking pavement dwellers exchanged some niceties with me and posed for photos. The girl in the photo said she had three children.

Later, as I passed the shuttered entrance of KC Das, she called out goodbye to me from the dark entrance. I peered into the darkness and saw her lying next to a stoned looking guy (not the one in the photo).

I kept walking. I thought I would get back home and catch some sleep.

I avoided the dense pack of auto hyenas on the Church Street corner and strode down a forlorn and disheveled looking MG Road. The scars of the on-going Metro construction were hurtful to the eye and the soul.

As I walked down, heading towards Trinity Circle, an auto sidled up and a very polite auto bandy offered to take me home. My fully loaded Saturday was not over as yet.

I’ll tell you about Auto Asif and the rest of the evening in a couple of days. Ciao and cheers till then.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Empty Weekends

The picture has nothing to do with the post below, except perhaps to remind me of days better spent. The van was parked on Portobello Road, London - The World's Largest Antiques Market.

Last May, I spent a happy, sunny day discovering the neighborhood.

To me Bangalore is a lop-sided city. I live in Indra Nagar and all the galleries and auditoriums and other venues for interesting events seem to be on the "other" side.

When I mentally rummage through the numerous shows and concerts and exhibitions featured in the newspapers I hardly ever find any for which attendance does not involve a nightmarish drive (and a frustrating search for a parking spot) or a tic-tac-toe auto-rickshaw adventure. “Tic-tac-toe” because (a) you might find an extremely decent auto-rickshaw driver or (b) you might stumble upon a complete bastard or (c) meet just about every type else in between. Anyway, the very thought of the journey kills the enthusiasm for a soul uplifting outing.

It is also a curious feature of the Bangalore cultural scene, or so it seems to me, that most of the really interesting events are scheduled in the middle of the week. If you work for a corporate then you know that it is well nigh impossible to leave office in time to go and catch a show or a performance on a working day. You need to tell a truly dark lie to escape and I reserve those for the days of my worst hangovers.

What’s left then is the weekend.

Weekends usually start with recuperation - recuperation from an over enthusiastic Friday night. By the time you are even half-way fit to face what’s left of the weekend the sun’s rays are already slanting in from the wrong side of the sky.

Then there are the myriad chores that you have been saving up (postponing) all week long – washing machine load; ironing man; telephone bill; bust bathroom bulb; state visit by her exalted haughtiness the Maid; shopping at the local “supermarket” for useless junk (just because you still have all those Sodexho coupons); visit to the temple and so on. When you are more or less done with your “to do” list you are so pooped that you need a beer or two to regain your joie de vivre and there goes what's left of your Saturday.

Sunday comes with a feeling of impending loss… loss of a weekend that might have been better spent. A weekend that might have been replete with enriching activities like art exhibitions and dance performances, dog shows and kite flying, movies and monuments…Sunday quickly grows old with the gnawing feeling that you should get out and do something.

CMH Road is the height of "happening" for the BPO and IT employee denizens of the scores of overpriced rabbit warrens from Old Madras Road to Murugeshpalya and Sunday upon Sunday I too mindlessly walked that depressing road amongst the jostling swarm to get a second hand sense of having “gotten out and done something” afterall during the weekend.

And then, just like that, Sunday too is gone and the feeling of loss is suddenly real. You did fuck-all and now the whole weekend is history. Half of the time, on Monday morning back at the office, you don’t even remember what you did since Friday night! So much for soul enrichment.


Thursday, March 6, 2008

An Artistic Bandy

The guy who painted the mural featured in my last post is Natesh.

I’ve known him for years now. I met him at the Alliance Francaise de Madras where I was learning French and generally hanging out. The path breaking Tamil theatre group “Koothu-p-pattarai” used to rehearse in the auditorium on the top floor. I knew most of the gang because I used to dabble in some French language amateur theatre and we all had common friends. Natesh was an occasional visitor at the rehearsals then. Much later I learnt that he is the son of Na. Muthuswamy, the founder of “Koothu-p-pattarai”. (click on images to enlarge)

Natesh is a loud mouth, uses a lot of profanity (“votha” “koo…” f.'s.., b's..., et al), has a refreshing lack of decorum and is a genuine iconoclast.

My favourite story about him dates to the time when he was a student at the Madras College Of Arts and Crafts. As narrated by Natesh, apparently the Lalit Kala Akademy organized a painting exhibition in Delhi. I’m not sure if this is an annual affair, but the Akademy wanted to buy some of the best works on display for its collection. The selectors or judges or jury or whatever, one of whom was the late artist K.M. Adimoolam, decided to buy Natesh’s painting. The prices were usually placed on a small sticker at the back of the painting and when the judges turned the painting over to find out the price they found that it was a little too good a bargain for their “artistic” sensibilities.

Natesh had priced his painting at “3 p” (three paise)!!!

The jury were so offended that they not only did not buy the painting but also kind of unofficially black-listed Natesh. He tells me that Adimoolam did not speak to him for ten years after that incident.

I wish I had been at that exhibition to grab that painting! When I called him last week he said that for his current exhibition, he has priced his canvases at 1.5 L each! I believe that this is still an amazing bargain because, for me, Natesh is a genius.

Another small but not insignificant factoid about Natesh – he never signs his paintings or drawings on the front. He might sometimes sign them on the frame at the back. Now, you tell me what that tells you about the guy.

And, here’s a sub-factoid on the same subject: I once was lucky enough to have the luxury of choosing about half a dozen pencil and charcoal drawings for myself from one of his sketch-books. I had the joy of flipping through almost a hundred of his drawings and picking and choosing what I wanted. And, imagine this - I had the privilege of demanding of Natesh that he sign the ones I chose. He did.

I have posted pictures of some of them. Not sure if you can notice the signatures.

I also have some of his original drawings for poster designs and a wooden "liquor trolley" kind of contraption created by him. I’ll try and get pictures of those too.

If you visit his website there is an article by Sadanand Menon on Natesh and his recently concluded exhibition of new canvases - “Missing Link(at the very same Lalit Kala Akademi, Rabindra Bhavan, New Delhi 110001. From the 5th to the 11th of March 2008. Gallery Nos. 7 & 8. 11am to 7pm.)

I accept that Sadanand has described Natesh and his angst-driven existence better than I perhaps ever can. I quote from the article: Here is a youngster who, with his anarchic intuition, has consistently resisted all the pitfalls of career, success, fame and contentment. It is as if he sets out everyday, in his own inimitable way, to ask himself, “What crime or infamy am I going to support today?” and then sets about consciously working against it – almost working against himself, as it were.

That’s Natesh for you, a true-blue, in-your-face, screw-you, “real art, no fart” bandicoot!
p.s. The mural was painted on the ceiling of the foyer at the Alliance Francaise, Madras and easily measured more than 20 feet X 10 feet. It was recently white-washed by "executive decision".