Thursday, 30 December 2010

With my feet firmly on the ground...

My trip back from the US to India was in a wheel chair. Now the down side of this is that you get wheeled at break neck speed from one place to another, bumping along like a sack of coal, with no hope of browsing in duty free shops at leisure! The upside is that you can legally jump queues without being politically incorrect and you are finished with formalities that otherwise take hours, in less than a blink of an eye! So all things weighed in a balance, the verdict is 50-50!

The route back home was from San Francisco to Seoul to Singapore to Bombay to Baroda! The end result was that I had a flat butt not unlike a south Indian paper dosa after the 22 plus hours of sitting non stop. With my right ankle all strapped up and my left knee bleeding like a weeping heart, I sat without moving from my seat on each sector, without even being able to make the short trip over to use a toilet! I should thank the dirty toilets of the faculty of fine arts in Baroda for my training in toilet abstinence! On reaching Baroda I did think fleetingly of doing the genuflecting and kissing the ground act, but thought better of it, as I bumped along in the wheelchair to my car, that would finally take me home!

It forced me to think of all the many differently-abled people and how unfriendly our infrastructures are for them. We give scant attention to people with different needs, and in all the planning and progress that we chart in India, we allow for so much corruption to syphon away funding that could otherwise be used to create systems that benefit the ably challenged. But we get away with the token few ramps and believe that we have done enough, preaching about our tolerance and compassion as a cultural virtue. For example public communication systems do not ever take into account those who are sight or hearing impaired,but who cares about such trivial details when we are on the road to make quick bucks?

We built our home with an elevator, so that as we grow old, we can still remain mobile in all parts of our house. Many friends thought this an utter extravagance and perhaps would not have blinked an eye if we had spent the same amount on a fancy car! Aging in never considered something to factor into the way we plan our lives, and so we suddenly find ourselves in situations which leave us with no choices or options for a fulfilled existence.
Today as I limp about the house I feel we are an under-sensitized nation to the real needs of those who require special attention. Though I am aware that there are policies in urban planning that on paper provide for such infrastructures I wonder when they will see the light of day in aiding those who are to benefit by them, rather than being mere poetic lines in musty files where roaches lay their eggs on.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Out on the count of ten...

Designers of architectural spaces and landscapers often leave common sense and practicality completely out of their work, desiring only aesthetics to become of paramount significance instead. Well at this beautiful location of Montalvo where the 10 studio homes are built on the slope of a hill, it is unfortunate to see that the same folly and lack of wisdom has come into play where common sense and practicality has been given a slip, whilst designing this beautiful art center!

I am currently laid up after a nasty fall on the concrete road that winds up the hill, with a busted knee and a sprained ankle; because the design of the road has a curved drain like indent that runs in the middle of this narrow road (!) making it a nightmare for all who walk on it at night. With no proper lighting your foot is being lured to slip and twist at any moment on the ascent or decent , as you walk.

The living spaces of the studio homes too in some instances have bathrooms and toilets that are on the ground floor and the bed room is on the second floor. In one studio home a spiral staircase on the outside connects the two levels (!) so you are obliged to get wet in the rain each time you scurry from the ground floor to the first floor; or if you need to use the loo! The kitchen sinks in all the 10 units are too small to wash even a standard sized plate and believe me there is no dearth of space available for this to be the reason of such utter stupidity.

As I sit with an ice pack on my swollen ankle and a bloodied knee I wonder what prompts us to create living spaces without functionality being the key factor. In Gujarat we have many well known architects, but when we built our home I chose to design every millimeter of the space myself. For me I believe that beauty and functionality should be attributes that are mutually compatible within architecture. I would give the Montalvo Art Centre full marks on beauty and fail them on functionality.

Small but tall....

It is such a tragedy to witness the hounding of Arundhati Roy and the attempt to paint her as anti national because she expresses views from a contextualized position that Indian politicians today choose to wish away. The pretense that her arguments on the issue of Kashmir are not in keeping with the policies that were laid down as the parameters for settling this dispute way back to the initial stages of dialogue that are recorded fact; implies the lack of research on the part of her detractors, and show cases the vindictiveness with which political governance can use muscle tactics to silence the voice of its citizens.

In her article that I read on line in the Hindu They can file a charge posthumously against Jawaharlal Nehru too dated 28the November 2010 she evidences the many instances where the Indian state clearly articulates its positions on allowing for the Kasmiri people to decide on their future. Today we are preferring to blatantly whitewash this recorded historical evidence. What is perhaps most dangerous is the attempt to compromise rational voices such as Arundhati's, by charging them to be in the imprint of radical fundamentalist agendas. If this is what Indian democracy translates to, then I think we are playing very dangerous games where the backlash will rent our secular fabric even more than it has occured since that fateful day of the 6th December 1992, when the Babri Masjid was demolished.

Each time a citizen stands up for what they believe in, the sceptics are out in full force. India prefers to garland the corrupt and boot those who are principled. We beat our chests and scream treason if the truth of situations are laid out, because they cast a shadow upon vested interests; for the coffers of greed must be filled at any cost, and dirty politics must rule!

Stand up for Arundhati Roy. It doesn't matter whether you agree with her politics or not. What is imperative to recognise is that to position a critique that may be considered contentious in no way amounts to being anti national or violating the peace of a nation. She is not a rabble-rouser and to label her as one is outrageous.

Let us please show our maturity and allow discourses on subjects that hold national significance to be conducted with openness and with civility; and not to let it degenerate into a playground of bullying tactics by our government agencies, in order that public opinion can then be monitored by big brother's supervision.

A diminutive woman with a brave heart, Arundhati Roy I am beside you all the way.

Friday, 10 December 2010

How do I teach art?

At the directors dinner last night, we had an interesting gentleman at our table; and as is the required protocol of such events, conversations ensued that centered around asking about one another's areas of interest, in order to break the ice. This led to a rather wonderful evening of conversation, perhaps because this gentleman comes from Europe initially and as a result carries with him an awareness of diverse cultural histories; or maybe I found him informed about my world as he is a frequent visitor to India on work for over two decades. In the course of our conversation at the dinner table, he asked me how I teach art.

It is an interesting question for me, because it is one I ask myself everyday that I engage with students. How do I teach art?

Sitting in Montalvo, all these miles away, I often reflect about my students back in India. Not just the immediate ones I currently engage with, but those I have taught over the years; and whose work I continue to track to observe the journey of their continued learning.

So how do I teach art?

My response was to tell the gentleman at dinner last night that I can only endeavour to make the other person attempt to find themselves. Because the truth is that the entire premise of learning is that long and arduous journey of growing to know oneself.

It is well known that my methods of teaching are completely unconventional. Every aspect of the life of my student is a space where consideration and reflection must occur so that it can be examined as a space of viewing that can reveal to them. Communication is pivotal. Discipline is essential. Honesty is crucial. Integrity is vital. Openness is imperative. Hard work a norm.

Whilst I have been away from Baroda I have insisted that each of my students are obliged to write me emails that frame their ideas and thinking. These structures are not so that I receive mail (!) but are meant to create the routine of self reflection where through attempting to speak to another; you hear yourself more clearly.

The richness of cultural histories is that they provide a vista of belonging that can take you out of your geographical territory without ever buying a ticket to any destination. It is this wide landscape of ancestry that beckons; and if one is to teach, then it is important to be an inspirational compass that guides the potential directions that can hold the magic of self discoveries.

I learnt from teachers who taught me to know myself. To take myself to that metaphorical gate and open it wide. Each day I spend in doing just that, and over time we fit the pieces together of who we are into a mosaic that hopefully is rich and fulsome. As a teacher I hope that each of my students can do just that.

Monday, 6 December 2010

The magical mystery tour....!

We had an absolutely humdinger of a great day in San Francisco yesterday! Our friends bundled us into their seven-seater car at 11.30 am, and took us for a real magical mystery tour! However, before I start I have to first salute the absolute selfless love and affection that our new Cupertino family embraces us with! It has been such a special feeling for Surendran and me; and we are delighting in every minute of the fun and sharing that this new friendship unfolds. It is my firm belief that only Indians know the capacity to love and share without ever keeping a hissab. But our new friends set standards of caring that are truly unparalleled.

The magic started off in the Mission District of San Francisco. Off the 16th street, tucked into it's corner is this lovely church popularly known as Mission Delores. You enter and exist from their tiny little gift shop, where you are greeted by the warmth of the volunteers. My sister, who had flown down to SF to be with us for Surendran's exhibition opening, had purchased a wooden crafted Mexican sculpture of the Madonna from this shop, and so I too wanted to buy the same sculpture (for my catholic memorabilia collection), so that we both would have the same object in our respective homes as a connective memory! The church is spectacularly beautiful with its wooden carved idols and interior decorated with paint and gold leaf; and you are instantly awed into silence by the magnificence of craftsmanship. The larger church that is by it's side, where larger congregations obviously gather, is filled with the most divine light that comes from the sumptuous stained glass windows that filter light into this place of prayer Outside is an intimate cemetery where the mortal remains of worshipers were laid to rest from the earliest days of the Mission, until the 1890's; and their silent stories whisper themselves to you, as you sit on the bench and rest for a while with them.

The De Young Museum was like a treasure box that we wanted to greedily devour, once we got there! With an exterior that is in burnished copper, this building stands opposite to the Science museum. One of the largest museums in SF, the De Young houses an amazing display of African art and the extensiveness of their collection is quite spectacular. Beautifully curated, each room is filled with objects that hanker for ones' attention and one feels almost intoxicated from the headiness of sheer bliss and wonderment!

We were fortunate to get tickets to view the special exhibition currently there which is an extensive Post-Impressionist show; and though packed to capacity we wandered amidst "old friends" with memories of interludes with them in other locations; and at different times of our own learning. As conversation with "old friends" go, there is always a banter that ensues which holds aspects of older conversations with new perceptions, vying and nudging for attention. Renoir is still kept at an arms length by me; and Cezanne continues to find new tricks of temptation that lure one to engage with closer consideration all over again! Lautrec holds an edginess which comes from the disdain with which he could mock at himself through his art, as well as the world around him; whilst Van Gogh and his deep hunger of life, holds my attention by the sheer nakedness of his struggle to survive.

We visited an exhibition of local art that was sadly disappointing but the dinner before at the famous Nanking Chinese restaurant was mouth watering; and the ice cream treat at legendary Ghirardelli Ice Cream and chocolate room at SF bay, was sinful. And then the delightful rummage through a shop on the walk back to the car that yielded a hand crafted tiger object from Indonesia!....what more could the lass from Vadodara ask for?!!! Surendran was equally like the Cheshire cat as he had his quota of pure blissful time in a wonderful book shop in the Italian quarter called City Lights. You can imagine what a treasure trove it was because Surendran actually turned to me and said:" Take me away before I buy more"!!!!
We were quite startled to see the streets of San Francisco dotted with Santa Clauses of every shape and size and gender! On enquiry we were told it is a yearly ritual to have this day on which from 1 in the afternoon people dress up as Santa Claus and basically have a mad party that spreads all over the town. Well there were many weaving Santas; and I think some dumped their sacks in all the merriment of the occasion that certainly appeared to be in abundance!
Finally like two over indulged children our wonderful hosts and their beautiful twin daughters dropped us home at 11.30 pm! Staggering up the path way, with all our shopping parcels, it certainly felt like a Christmas treat in advance with two secret Santa's from India seeing that we had one hell of a good time!

Saturday, 4 December 2010

The circus is out again!

I have been travelling now for many years, to many countries across the globe. In 1982 when it all started with my first hop over to London as a student, I was gob smacked (excuse me borrowing some British slang!) with the ill-informed perceptions regarding Asia and India. That people from these regions are scattered (quite liberally I may add), into the worlds population, making for languages of these regions to become credited as main languages of some countries (i.e Bengali in America); one then wonders how the skewered perceptions on socio-cultural areas still exist without much change over the last 25 odd years!

In America, Surendran and I are regularly subjected to the most appalling assumptions based on ignorance, which leaves us slowly counting to ten under our breath. We are often caught in the midst of conversations that are geared to assumptions from arranged marriages being the only norm to ideas borrowed from slum dog millionaire that have all of Indian poverty covered in sewage, that leave no space for the nuanced and for the liberal and/or intellectual to be grasped. As is always the case of many westerners who have travelled to India, they carry back haversack dreams of snake charmers and Indian band baja, as the staple memory of this complex nation. Where contemporary India fits into this (to which I belong), is anyones guess, because all we really are expected to be are the ambassadors of the Mahabharata and other grand epics and exotic Indian rituals!

As an artist I begin to also question the ability of cross-cultural discourses of relevance within such ignorance, because everything remains so superficial at the end of it all. There is no truthful curiosity that leads to common places of belonging. There are many spaces of deja vu that I encounter that are connected to a blinkered thinking that leaves no room for assimilation. I am also amused as an artist at the political correctness that prevails which shuts out the potential of genuine introspection.

I have never been a nationalist without the edge of a critique who merely desires to pretty-up all things of my country like a mindless anthem of praise; yet I equally begin to fume at the distorted versions of representations that describe my homeland to me (!) by those who know so little of its socio-cultural labyrinth; and which hold no image of who I am within it. I have always believed that it is essential to cultivate a genuine interest in others, for the pure delight of learning. But too often this is palpably absent when I travel in North America. You are told about your self (!), and/or you receive rhetoric questions; and anytime you attempt to answer something seriously - and if it's not delivered as a sound byte:a one liner that conforms to placing it as black or white- then forget it! The attention span to examine in depth doesn't generally exist, and the superficial interest pops like a soap bubble, leaving a vacuous space of nothingness!

As a teacher I put a great deal of emphasis on art students learning to be open people; who can then define who they are from spaces of exposure. To learn to filter and receive. It is interesting to be currently located in suburban America. In contrast, the awareness and information that people in Indian villages choose to posses about life and the world is much more astute than what one encounter over here. I'm not being a proud nationalist....I'm just being dead honest!

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

By invitation only!

Today I woke up and I thought what fun it would be if I could call all my favourite painters (yet I'm unapologetic about wanting to be surrounded by just painters at my soiree!), for a dinner party. Now as I'm a great one for detail, I immediately decided it must be a cozy sit down meal at a wonderful round table; that would of course have a lazy Susan that we could all spin about like the wheel of fortune!....Or do I want it out in my imaginary orchard; under the branches of my lemon trees, with candles flickering and opium incense sticks wafting thin streams of delicate fragrance into the night? Well it will all finally fall into place!

The meal will be never ending; with food and wine and conversations that criss-cross time, with no yesterday or tomorrow in sight.

But first things first: the list of guests! With an overflowing black book with names that date back centuries, I must be careful not to offend dear friends or anger those that imagine a greater intimacy than is true! As all good (or so I imagine!) thinkers do, I sit down at my writing desk and wet the lead point of my stubby blunt pencil on my tongue; and start the list with the precise numbers of 1 to 10 that need to be filled up.

With all the corners of the earth under my microscope, I must say I get the shivers! Born on Halloween, I can wave my witches wand and with an abracadabra I make the calendars of yesteryear align to the date of my dinner, in an instant. Time zones and millenniums can all get packed way under the haystack !!

1) My old friend Balacanda, is high on my list of favourites, who drew and painted the dying Inayat Khan in the court of Jehangir in 1618/19. We often chat whilst I am holding this painting in my hand, and talk about how observation feeds the interpretations of painting. He will be coming tonight!

2) Fra Angelico's The Annunciation painted in 1450 is a treasured painting that I most definitely own as my own within the inheritance I gifted myself many years ago. We talk about how the visual devices of narration can deliver a million other stories from the magic of how you paint it. He will grace the table with his elegance, because to paint so beautifully you surely must be elegant too!

3) Mark Rothko the Russian born American painter has always been my quiet seducer. He has taught me the many secrets of what pure colour alone can evoke, and the stillness that violence can contain. We always collude to meet when I travel; and he makes sure that I faithfully keep my trysts with him; despite the many other temptations that attempt to lure me away! He will come, I know, because he knows how much he matters to me.

4) Yayoi Kusama will come to my party too! Perhaps dressed in one of her outlandish attires of a pointy hat with polka dots; she will sit silent as she converses with herself in her own head. But she knows that I can hear too. She knows that every time we meet; and she grabs my hand with an authoritativeness one does not believe she possesses; and often marches me inside the chaotic world of her madness where oddly sanity is brought to book through her visual orchestrations.

5) How can my friend Frida Kahlo not be there! She prefers coming in her grand bed rather than at an earlier juncture of her own life. Maybe it is the pain of many experiences that creates this bridge of a common connection for us; as women and painters. Her love of celebrating the feminine, where decoration and the intimate are explored is another area of an umbilical connection; and that the autobiographical and the outer world are sewn together seamlessly.

6) Some friends are anonymous, and take their shape and form from the whispers I gleam about them from their art. I have decided to make an exception, (its my party and I can be whimsical!) and am calling up a Japanese ceramic artist from the 10th century, whose style is known as ding ware. Exquisitely executed, they are a marvel in the preciousness of their timeless beauty. This guest will sit clocked in anonymity but by no means invisible!

7) Picasso would kill me if I left him out! A constant confidant, he is this old friend that held me on his knee when I was a pigtailed child with starry dreams. I must have often amused him, but he was always insistent that I understood the discipline of structure. Playful and ever the hero, he nonetheless taught me some of the basics of art with a rigor that no other insisted of me. He sits by my side these days, quietly, whilst I flirt elsewhere. But he know that I always am peeking at him from the corner of my eye. Arrogant fellow! He knows his worth as my friend!

8) Paula Rego will be keeping us company too. This Portuguese woman with alluring eyes, paints and draws with a vigour that marries personal myths into worlds of other meaning. We grew apart for a while, but I have recently drawn her back into the fold of my mental landscape; and I must say that I know she will tease our imaginations quite mischievously, when we all meet up at my dinner party tonight!

9) Balthus would fret if I didn't call him up to join us. He is another confidant who holds the attention of my senses, even when I am distracted!. It isn't always what he paints about that speaks to me; but how he paints. Edged into every work is that measure of disquietening strangeness that holds me fascinated forever.

10) And what would my dinner be without the presence of Francis Bacon?! I know he would brood in a corner, drinking away and perhaps be rather anti-social as well. But I love him nonetheless, and he comforts me with the knowledge that his inner demons could find peace in the space of release, that became his paintings; and that he could in that act of painting, distance himself from the personal angst that often provokes a visual expression to be born.

Now that they have all received their invitations, I am waiting for them under the star laden sky in the wooded grove, with the deer near my feet. Dream on friends, but on this occasion I can't let you into this playground of my imaginative desires. Go out there and find one for yourself. Trust me, its a great deal of fun !!!!