Monday, August 4, 2014

Out of line: Looking into life, politics & literature of Nayantara Sahgal


Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi

Politics and literary consciousness have been a response to a whole set of conditions which have influenced the growing up years of noted writer, thinker. columnist and petrel Nayantara Sahgal,  grounded in the history, collective imagination and cultural sensitivities of an evolving India - placed in the wider context of the times.

In a new biographical volume of short essays, "The Political Imagination: A Personal Response to Life, Literature and Politics", Sahgal muses on a wide range of subjects that touches on the political, cultural, environmental and personal engagements with eminent personalities to identify a nebulous contour of a contemporary India that is changing each passing minute, in a desperate attempt to find its place on the complex geopolitical map of the world.
Sahgal contexts her arguments of a new India in the perspective of the Nehruvian model of growth, which is inclusive, plural and at the same time post-modern - ensuing in the decades after Independence, when the country built its first edifices of development and culture to script a new indigenous language, moving away from the yolk of European templates.

Sahgal expounds on the new ethos arising out of the confluence of the east and west which makes political notions and creative imagination border-less. "I don't believe that in due course that we will not come back to a more civilised way of thinking. Why should we not see that nothing is static forever. Individuals change, nature changes, matters change ...," Sahgal said, defending a changing India. And its changing perception across the globe from the days when the "bulk of the Americans did not know where India was" and when "the sari was branded a native Indian costume" to a globalised country with a definite national signature in the 21st century.       

"When I was a child, the Indian postage stamps carried the pictures of the English king and the queen. I remember asking my father very forlornly, Bapu, will the English king's picture be always on the stamp. (I must have been six or seven then). The empire was then immovable, unshakable. Everyone believed that England will rule the world. Father said there will come a time when the English will not be there on the stamps. If you believe in change; change comes about," Sahgal said at the launch of her biographical essays in the national capital on Aug 1. Her personal interface with the freedom struggle was her father Ranjit Sitaram Pandit's commitment to the fight and his eventual death caused by the numerous prison terms. Her political convictions were crafted and contoured by uncle Jawaharal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of an independent India and mother Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, a foreign service officer, who was India’s first envoy to Moscow.

Nayantara however careened to a different trajectory, pitch-forked by a rash marriage to Gautam Sahgal, a Punjabi businessman of means  She became a critic,  a watch dog of a India that became aggressive after her affectionate “mamu” (Jawaharlal Nehru) made way for daughter Indira. And thereon. 
Sonia is a balm of sobriety to Indira’s strident dynasty promotion of the 1970s-1980s, she said at the launch of her book.”She (sic Sonia) did not put Rahul at the helm”, unlike Indira, “who propelled for sons”.   “I admire her greatly for the way she took up the challenge. She did not even know the language of India. but she travelled the langrh and breadth of India (more than Manmohan Singh),,,”Sahgal was expansive in her praise.               

Personally, Sahgal looked at India with the eye of a student educated in America (Wellesley College) - refreshing, uncluttered and candid about the flaws in the system.      

The writer, who has authored nine novels and 10 works of non-fiction, is often described as the fore-runner of the modern Indian novel in which she addresses the concerns of the middle class, the decadent aristocracy, women struggling to emerge from the confines of male dominated outposts and the political brass. In a chapter, "Narrating the Political", the Sahgal explains the importance of the "political" in the written work- which encapsulates the "political imagination in her narratives".

"The world is what we see from where we stand. Writing comes out of that context- but in a hundred different ways. You and I may be a part of the same era and environment, yet we may react to it very differently and write from radically different point of views. Our choice of subject, the way we describe it and from what point of view makes writing a political act... Writers have through the cloistered act of writing stepped into controversies, taken sides, made it clear that this is right or wrong not as polemics and propaganda but by fashioning the truth as they see it into the stuff of people's lives...," Sahgal says about political engagement in literature.

A section devoted to "Fighting the Emergency" brings out Sahgal's involvement with politics as a writer and a journalist. It was a period of stumbling blocks for the fiery Sahgal, who found her vitriolic columns against then Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi's imposition of emergency gagged by a "wary" government and her publishing commissions cancelled. The section is made of a series of missives and articles that Sahgal wrote to castigate the "suppression" of the citizens' democratic freedom in 1975.

In a letter to R.S. Kelkar, the then secretary of the Sahitya Akademi, the apex body of literary activity in the country, in 1976, Sahgal said "... the question of free expression and free circulation of ideas is crucial to a free society. I should have thought that nothing could be as important as this to the Sahitya Akademi which is concerned with writers and their work. Your failure to bring this issue to the notice of the President convinces me that the Sahitya Akademi does not concern itself with free expression. Indeed it seems willing to be a servile body, an obedient servant of dictatorship....I regret I cannot serve on any committee that is so lost to self-respect as to remain silent on the censorship that is strangulating India today".

Biographer Ritu Menon sees two distinct phases in Nayantara Sahgal's writing - one before 1967 and the other after her "divorce". "The break in her personal life made a change in the way she wrote," says Menon, the author of Sahgal's biography, "Out of line: A Literary and Political Biography of Nayantara Sahgal.

The anecdotal biography that opens with 21-year-old Tara Pandit's marriage to Punjabi businessman Gautam Sahgal, says Sahgal's early novels like "A Time to Be Happy", 'From Fear Set Free" and "Prisons and Chocolate Cakes" were the creative expressions of memories, realities and an urge to become something beyond "housewife and mother".

It was as her uncle Jawaharlal Nehru described, "One cannot ignore the domestic sphere, but a wider activity gives more meaning to life". The post-1967 novels were elegiac laced with bitterness, regret, cynicism - and a sharp political understanding of the key issues confronting the times. They were Sahgal's encounters with maturity and insights into the socio-political maneuverings of the Nehru-Gandhi era.      

{Both the books have been published by Harper Collins-India)






Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Mumbai Narratives: City of change, nostalgia and the bizarre. Two writers explore city’s soul


By Madhusree Chatterjee
The notion of the megapolis of Bombay (now Mumbai) — hugging the blue waters of the Arabian Sea — as a powerful literary theatre of quixotic lives, larger-than-life personalities, pioneers, dystopian urban-scapes, transformation and cinematic blitz  set two new books, “The Fuss About  Queens and Other Stories” by Darius Cooper (OM Books) and “Engglishh: Fictional Dispatches from a Hyperreal Nation” by Altaf Tyrewala (Harper Collins-4th Estate) from the rest of the printed crop this monsoon.
Primarily, both the books which build themselves around the city of techni-colour dreams – the nation’s financial soul — as geography of change and its emotional manifests are monsoon “reads”. The products are best sampled, as Altaf Tyrewala (the editor and compiler of ‘Bombay Noir’ and the founder of the Chandigarh Literature Festival) refers to in his book — “like a chemist” – to bring a smile to the monsoon-heavy intellect resting its feet on a footstool, watching the “mildlings” mill in grey nimbus mass across the watery horizon.
The anthologies, however, are not fluffy – like the milling banks on the edge of the water. Tyrewala addresses the complex soul of Mumbai in his pithy collection of stories that verge on satires and soliloquy- while Cooper revels in a retro-nostalgia of a Mumbai lost, harking back to his halcyon days of youth when Bombay still responded to the “colonial” affectations — and the Anglo-Indian Parsi “dikra” was loved like one of the city’s “very own”. Cooper, born in Pune, taught in Sion for several years before moving to US (to Mesa College in San Diego) to teach critical thinking and cinema. Tyrewala, a Nineties child educated in US, is rooted in Mumbai, sustained by the changing weather and the fluctuating tows of the city and its water body. The two volumes touch two diametrically opposite chords of Mumbai – but on a common par, nostalgia.  
“Mumbai as a city reflects the flaws within us. It remains imperfect- they have built gridways, new roads and urban railway, but the city is jammed; dotted with potholes. Despite itself, the city manages to balance perfection and imperfection, symbolic of our fears. It makes you feel at home and comfortable,” Tyrewala tells this writer on the sidelines of the launch of his book in July 2014.
Tyrewala crafts his narrative on the strength of Bombay’s euphemisms and changing lingua — new tales spawned by a transforming Mumbai under siege from Bollywood-Hollywood, Ekta Kapoor’s “K” fetish, the real estate boom, fast luck, superstitions, numerology of luck and the vanishing relics of a city born in the cusp of metamorphosis — when a closed India was opening its door to the winds of enlightenment from the west.
Tyrewala’s stories speak for India in general where orders are changing swiftly to make space for the new. “It was a rich culture,” says Tyrewala. Almost like the old “marble table tops” that once decked the premises of a 100-year-old second hand bookshop at Dhobitalao in Mumbai owned by the author’s uncle. “The culturally-aware citizens, I guess, wanted to carry the marble table tops home when the shop closed. They wanted to take home a slice of old Mumbai,” the young writer explains.   
In his story, “The New and the Second Hand”, Tyrewala recalls his uncle’s old and second hand bookshop in Mumbai in a wish-fulfilling monologue about how it would have been to have owned the shop. The writer tries to convey with passionate idealism about books – the seriousness of literature – and the unsullied objective of a bookshop to deliver to the intellect rather than the mass entertainment forum. The story is humorous and sad- funny and satirical. “My uncle closed down the bookshop in 2011 (it was set up in 1905). They are the landmarks of my imagination,” Tyrewala says. The writer uses satire as a tool to mourn the passing away of a historical Mumbai.
Don’t shut down the shop. “….Everyday, at least two customers say this to me with a sad sigh, while shelling out peanuts for their purchases. The wealth of this customer is evident from their oversized phones and leather bound tablets, branded wallets and handbags, the crisply casual clothing. I call them the lamenters of a fading Bombay. They grieve the closing down of the Irani cafes, rage against the fading out of the Padmini taxis…..”
This nostalgia contrasts with the impertinence, intelligence and astute humour that paint the theatre in stories like “Engglishhh”, “An Indian Porn Director’s Speech to his Hesitant Leading Lady” or the “One Hit Wonder Literature Festival: Welcome Kit”.  “Engglishhh” heaps scorn on Mumbai’s “nameology-numerology” fad – which Tyrewala says has been triggered by “K” factor to invoke Lady Luck for her serial assembly line soaps on screen. An extra alphabet in a name or a proper noun changes the “aura” surrounding the word or name. “I have researched Indo-Puranic principles at the Asiatic Library. It exists,” Tyrewala insists.
“An Indian Porn Director’s Speech….” is a comic look at the spirit of nationalism sweeping through Bollywood interpreted by a pep speech by a director who wants to make a “desi pondy”, (pornographic movie)” about “Laila doing Majnu” at all possible places like the blonde beauties and white hunks of our childhood “blue flicks” smuggled into hostel dorms over weekends. We can better “them”, the director tries to drive home to his leading lady.                  
Irreverent, funny, audacious, ironic, scathing, sad and experimental, is how Tyrewala tries to define his oeuvre. The stories smells of Bollywood underbelly- the all-weather Mumbai bulwark which supported Tyrewala’s growing up years like the “seasons of Mumbai” which governed the tenor and language of the writer’s creative prose.
“because, I came of age in the late 1990s, when the Internet was flowering. The web 1.0 was about ground-breaking content, meta-fiction, monologues, experimentations, new offerings and liberation. I realized that experimentation was possible in short stories. But it does not lend itself fully to the novel form,” Tyrewala says.        
In juxtaposition, Darius Cooper’s collection of 11 short stories, “The Fuss About Queens…” is a lament and an ode at the same time to a changing city, peopled with stark characters, quaint events, history, sociology and humour that layers Bombay just below its everyday de rigueur  of existence.
Cooper says, there is a critical sensibility and a creative sensibility he likes to indulge in his study of Mumbai (and Pune where he was born). “The critical sensibility tends to override the creative itch because I am an academic. In this context, the creative enterprise becomes interesting,” California-based Cooper tells his writer over telephone.
His literary outlook is influenced by prose and poetry – that he alternative between — but the overarching inspirations are Bollywood and Mumbai’s “masala language” that pervade through his work like shrouds of ethnic colours. Cooper has authored two volumes on Indian cinema, “Between Tradition and Modernity: The Cinema of Satyajit Ray” and “In Black and White: Guru Dutt and Hollywood Melodrama”.
Movies, metaphors, spirituality, symbols of modernism, landscapes of Mumbai, human dramas and transformation form the core of his narratives. “The Metaphorical Spot” crosses the tedium of the mundane to the realm of the bizarre in a “ravaged Mumbai”.
“Neelkantha decides to kill himself the day his wife announced suddenly on the dining table that she is going to take fencing lessons….”
“Now, we shall have our own Nadia in the family,” Neelkantha says. The announcement hurtles Neelkantha to the path of “self-annihilation”— weighed in by his inability to accept change in the city, at the sight of old cinema hall renovated into a monstrosity, his tele-addicts of children and his own life. The tale climaxes with Neelkantha – in the true traditions of Shaivite theology where Neelkantha is the blue throated Shiva incarnation of mass clean-up having swallowed all the sins of the world — readies to kill himself with “poison from an ink-pot (prepared by his son)” on a “static” escalator in the city of Mumbai.
Neelkantha is described as the “last bastion of modernism being pulverized by the collective post-modern fury of his own family and the metropolis”.
“I have a problem with post-modernism. As an academic trained in the modernist era, I tend to go beyond the superficiality. Someone has to explain to the Generation Next what is the image and its significance – to read between the images,” Cooper points out. His stories are these images of a morphing Mumbai.
“The city has deteriorated tremendously. It is sad for me. I come to the city twice a year – and each time I return, a significant part of the city has disappeared. The Bombay I was associated with is not there any more. The Bombay I am writing about is Rushdie’s ‘Imaginary Homeland’. I am visitor to this new city,” Cooper says, lamenting “the loss of the consciousness of the Bombay (and Pune) of his childhood”. “There is a new sensibility, new residences and a new narrowness that have destroyed the Anglophonic sensibilities and the cosmopolitanism of the city. Bombay was such a feisty place. It is this aspect that makes writing about Bombay so pertinent now,” Cooper explains.
“The Fuss About Queens” – the story from which the anthology derives its title — is a study of this conflict-riven heart of Mumbai as chronicled by a young Parsi boy Gieve. It bears a whiff of an autobiographical slice of history- but Cooper refuses to commit to “specifics”.
It is mirror to the new nationalistic wave that marks the indigenization of Mumbai in the 1950s-1960s- or may be later. Queen Elizabeth II is about to make her maiden appearance in Mumbai and the city is gearing up to welcome the queen. Gieve sees the eatery next to “chawl highrise” Dubash Building “changing to menu” to make the fare “fit for the queen”. Gieve, who lives with father Kekobad and mother Freny, puts his foot down on the euphoria, arguing for a more “swadeshi” welcome to the queen. He anoints two new queens – his mother Freny who cooks a traditional Parsi breakfast vermicelli and eggs for the family in honour of the queen and Mrs Masceranas, an old Anglo-Indian neighbor — who go out arm-in-arm to greet the queen as the Big Ben chimes 12 noon, the arrival hour of the queen’s motorcade. He manoeuvres a new patriotism in the back streets of Mumbai.
A story has to go beyond the obvious, Cooper says. “I have been disappointed with the so-called contemporary Indian literature – what I really dislike about contemporary writing are glib literary devices,” the author says. A writer has to supply something that “you have not heard or known”.
Mumbai pulses with such untold stories.       

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A peep into their creative souls of Indian women writers


 Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi

Women writers in India have carved a distinct gender niche in the sacred space of Indian literature — after centuries of discrimination — to write their voices in intelligent print on paper.
Three factors that trace their origin to the inherent bias against the “girl child” of mettle in the post-Vedic history of the nation have stood in the way of women litterateurs. In the medieval era, a concerted drive by the male dominated education bastions relegated women to the closed cloisters of homes and child bearing; entrenching them into the roles of caregivers rather than contributing to the community’s and the nation’s intellectual progress. The spread of monolithic religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and the advent of Islam laid down stricter gender laws – which when loosely translated sent men to the fields and women to the hearths- and behind the veil.
The multi-tasking nature of women in general and a forced lack of self-confidence imposed at birth by parents, families and extended clans have made the process of writing more difficult for women than their male counterparts till the dawn of modernism in the late 18th century in India – when women emerged from behind the purdah to integrate into the intellectual mainstream. Education stirred the latent creative juices in a large swathe of women, who cashed in on the opportunity to education.
Strangely — in this emotional paradox created by home and the world outside, the odds have stacked in favour of women to explore deep psychologies leading to a more powerful body of writing.
“There should be no distinction between women’s and men’s writing. It is just a difference in perspective. When I write, it is obvious that my gender influences my attitude. When a man writes, his gender shapes his writing. It is wrong to describe women’s writing as women’s alone and male writing as universal,” says writer Manju Kapoor, the author of critically acclaimed novels like “Difficult Daughters”, “A Married Woman” and “The Immigrant”.
Kapoor has compiled and edited a new volume about women writers unraveling their writing processes and influences in “Shaping the World: Women Writers on Themselves” (Penguin/Hay House).
“This is the kind of book I always wanted to read. It is an old age project. I contacted all the writers that I could think of and sifted my list from their responses. I also read everybody I contacted. I wanted the personal accounts of the writers – the nitty gritty of their lives, their aspirations, inspirations, travails, experiences and the way the way literature played out in their lives, “ Kapoor explained to this writer; outlining the process of the creation of the anthology.
“My account…,” Kapoor mused. “I thought the diary format was more effective to record the day-to-day anguish about all the obstacles I faced then in finding a publisher and being rejected. Even today, it is difficult to find a publisher. Is anybody out there to cater to women writers’ alone even today? I was rejected in India, rejected abroad- till Faber decided to publish my book,” Kapoor said.
In the anthology Kapoor describes the genesis and gestation of her writing process in a dated diary format that spans six years from 2008 to 2013 during which she wrote a novel about two warring brothers in Jat (caste) family in Rajasthan — which she christens “Bhai-Bhai (Brother-Brother)” — and a long suffering wife Tapti. The account is laced with humour and the delicate workings of the writer’s mind — a resolute but confused woman who quits her job at the university as a lecturer to write a novel and hunt for "probable beginnings" both as a creator and as an intellectual human being.
“This had to be a different novel in a different setting. I decide that my brothers will begin life humbly. The ladder from which they climb will begin in a mud hut. Which village, which state should be home to this rising . A friend o9f mine works in the rural districts of her birth place – Ajmer. She offers to introduce me to the villages she knows. I grab at the opportunity,” Kapoor recalled.
The writer’s forays into the hinterland of India, laborious writing exercises and the target of 100,000 words are punctuated by writers’ block, insecurity, household and the niggling guilt of “unemployment”— a situation that Kapoor captures with rare laughter and self-critiquing.
Pakistan-based writer Bapsi Sidhwa of the “Ice Candy Man” fame owes her tryst with literature to polio and an Anglo-Indian governess, “Mrs Penherow”, who was entrusted with “light tuition” for the child and the writer’s “solitary tedium of those hours”.
“I was about two when I got polio,” Sidhwa recounted. The doctors advised her parents not to send young Bapsi to school so that “her nerves were not burdened with things like geometry and exams”. “In retrospect, the creeping encroachment of my isolation and the arbitrary withdrawal of my right to be among children at school caused an increasing erosion of my self-regard…When on my 10th birthday Mrs Penherow gave me Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women”, some favourable aspect of my horoscope may have been triggered. The novel, combined with the feast of my loneliness, propelled me into a feast of reading”. Books, which became the light of her life taking up every waking hour, sowed the seeds of her first novel, “The Pakistani Bride” – inspired by a Karakoram (on the Karakoram Highway) folk tale of a runaway bride and her killing for filial honour- a story she heard while honeymooning with her husband in the Karakoram reaches.
Writer-playwright and social activist Anuradha Marwah names her musings, “The Activist vs Sunflowers: Writing Fifty”. Marwah’s troubled childhood full of dark suicidal thoughts and sexual fantasies found an expression in rhymes— rhymed poetry which she wrote for years as fragmented sentences studded with “antiquities like ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ in the centre of the lined pages of her dog eared diary.
“A moment of disclosure came when the school anointed me as one of the four house captains and I was asked to address the assembly. I had prepared the event the event for four days. I recited a poem about the significance of my alma mater – cleverly rhymed with ‘…. In every weather’ and earned accolades. “Did you really write some of it or did your father compose it for you”, the writer was questioned.
Marwah recalled that that “it wasn’t as though the plain-speaking, scarily inefficient principal – a handsome nun Sister Frances — was clueless about poetry”. “She sent me off to a British priest at the brother school (only for boys) to burnish the raw gold that she had mined from the native boondocks. Thus began my writing apprenticeship with a white man…”. The two years that she trained under Father Lesser “trying to emulate Hopkins, Keats, Coleridge and E.E. Cummings” were the most “exhilarating period” of her life. However, Marwah explored diverse streams of literary consciousness before she found her calling as a playwright and a social activist.
In Pakistan, writers are either scarred or compelled into critical creative thinking by the tumultuous politics of the last four decades from the era of General Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s reign. Writer Bina Shah, the author of novels like “A Season for Martyrs”, “Where They Dream in Blue” and “The 786 Cybercafe”, is a child of a political lineage — the erstwhile Pir Pagara’s Pakistan Muslim League (Functional) which was fighting the Bhutto regime. Bina’s father fled to the United States as a post-graduate research scholar with his young family of a wife and a four-year daughter in tow. The young Bina was inspired by father’s “thesis”— a high-sounding unfamiliar exercise which made her father write and painstakingly type reams of printed paper on a typewriter everyday for his doctoral degree.
“My fascination with writing started when I was very young. We lived in a small apartment in the university town of Charlottesville, Virginia, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. My parents read to me all the times- I was surrounded by books for children… but at the same time I was learning to read, my father was working on his thesis and his books were everywhere,” she remembered. “I learnt from an early age that writing was serious business,” she said. The seriousness, coupled with her education at Harvard and Wellesley College and political awareness, gave her easy insights into the Pakistan of her times posited as a “political riddle” on the global map.
Bina’s life as a writer is reminiscent of Fatima Bhutto, who writes from the violent recesses of her personal encounter with Pakistan’s politics of strife, battle, blood and loss— an insider with the fresh insight of an outsider and a victim.
The political sensitivities of an old Congress guard of a father, the rich Kannada culture, early afternoons spent reading “Chandamama” on the porch at home and the self-less life of rural surgeon have been writer Kavery Nambisan’s literary sustenance. “Father was in favour of sending me to the local government school but mother insisted that my sister and I be sent to the convent school, learn some English. It was 35 miles from home and the fee was a steep Rs 60. She won..,” Nambisan recalled.
“I became a doctor first and then a writer,” Nambisan said. The author of books like, “On Wings of Butterfiles”, “Mango-coloured fish”, “The Truth (Almost) about Bharat”, “The Scent of Pepper” and the “Hills of Angheri”, lives in two worlds The first is of anatomical knowledge and the second is where Nambisan tries to put her imagination on paper in meaningful sentences. “I come from a non-literate background. My mother went to a local school for eight years. She was a skilled wife and mother with many talent. My father’s passion for social change and his tenacious integrity made him my role model. I imbibed a little of my mother’s plainness and my mother’s dogged integrity,” Nambisan said.
It has paved her writing with an indigenous colour and the depth of international literary sensitivities.
Writer Janice Pariat’s life as a writer has been a “Journey Down the Hills” fashioned by the stories from the hills of Assam and Meghalaya — the mysterious terrain of spirits, totems, folkores, colonial legacies, green hills, hill cascades, lush tea estates and the life of the ethnic people. A native of Shillong, who grew up in a tea estate near the Assamese town of Tezpur, Pariat’s earliest desire to write – rather to emulate from the books she read – was born on a bookshelf “ordinary, made of dark wood, devoid of elegant carvings”.
“In my mind, it looms far above me,” she refreshes from memory. “The reason why I write can be traced, with a magical longwinded silver thread, to that moment – the seconds before I pick up my first holiday read (usually from Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ series), all of 10 or 11, looking at the book shelf with wonder,” Pariat recollected.
Early attempts at plagiarizing from Enid Blyton tales and writing about urban blues in New Delhi gave away to a grown investigation of her traditional roots in northeastern India – the primitive lives of the tribes and the confluences of eastern and western cultures during the colonial Raj. These narratives found their way into her anthology of short stories, “Boats on Land: A Collection of Short Stories” which won the Sahitya Akademi’s young writer award for 2013.
Writer ad poet Tishani Doshi sums up her early realizations about good writing in an epiphanic poem that she composed on the passing of her brother afflicted with Down's Syndrome—
“I hold my uncles in plastic bags
He is whispering like a soft, worn thing,
Drop me here, drop me gently
Sandy, my tutor asks’ ‘Why uncle? Why not husband or father?
‘Because it was my uncle’, I say
Dosen’t matter. Change it’.
I hold my husband in plastic bags
His’s whispering like a soft worn thing
Drop me here, drop me gently.
Everything is terribly light – incense
ash, the thinness of his voice falling
into waves, disappearing.
“Sandy was right of course. The weight of husband easily displaces uncle, gives the poem immediate emotional charge. It is one of my earliest and the most important lessons in writing: its okay to make things up and the things you make up can be more real and more powerful than the truth itself,” Doshi says.
The complex and colourful psyches of Indian women writers- a fast growing legion- gives contemporary native literature its sharpest edge.

-Madhusree Chatterjee

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Bharany Collection - A rich private art archive on public display in New Delhi


 Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi

Private art collections in India do not find acknowledgement in public displays spaces unlike in western nations – or even in China and Japan which are witnessing museum booms.  Museums and archiving institutions abroad reap the harvest of private collections — relying on donations of art by private collectors.
They are known to honour collectors by christening galleries and display sections after the donors; giving to the world an iconic legion of collectors and collections such as Peggy Guggenheim,  Richard Seymour (Marquess of Hertford), Rainn Wilson, Charles Saatchi, Hollywood mogul David Gaffen, Leon Black, Doris F. Fischer, the Borghese collection, the Medici collection, the Charles Lang Freer Collection, the Leichtenstein collection, the Thyssen collection and the Wallace Collection to name a handful- who have played stellar roles in the history of collecting, conserving and archiving of art across genres.       
In India, museums are still reluctant to identify private donors, partially because of the institutionalized nature of archiving,  which is controlled by bureaucratic red tape and government protocols that discourages promotion of individual collectors in state-owned spaces. Officials say once a collector donates his collection to a government run archive, it naturally becomes the property of the nation — and are often categorised as national treasures depending on the antiquity (antiquarian) value of the art.
In this context of the complex legalese surrounding the provenance and ownership of private collections in India, the National Museum in New Delhi- the country’s national capital— jumped the bureaucratic bar to honour one of the country’s pioneering 20th century private collection of art — the Bharany Archive. The museum dug the collection – donated by connoisseur and art and textiles dealer C.L. Bharany — out of its archives for an exposition to highlight the role of private collections in building museum repositories across the country.
The exhibition which opened at the National Museum July 11 hosts a wide and curiously eclectic collection that donor C.L. Bharany and his father R.K, Bharany collected at random since the late 19th century partly in course of the Bharany’s textile trade in traditional carpets and essentially for the love of Indian art. The collection which spans nearly 1,000 years, includes 10th -11th century mythological sculptures in stone, wood and bronze, miniature folio paintings from 19th century manuscripts, calendar art, early 20th century spiritual paintings, wall panels, artifacts and a large assortment of colourful heritage textiles — embroidery from Kashmir, phulkari work from Punjab, kantha from Bengal and stitched apparel from 19th century.  The textiles form the core of the collection — in delicate floral motifs assembled from nature that dictated the then design movement in the villages of India, where women steered the growth and evolution of hand-embroidered textiles and accessories.                        
“The museum in New Delhi has several private collections. But the Bharany Collection is the biggest in size and variety. We are trying to bring out as many collections as possible,” director-general of the National  Museum Venu Vasudevan said.
The collection had been in the archives of the National Museum for nearly 40 years still the chance publication of an article in an art magazine, “Marg” about the pioneering giants in private collecting in India brought the spotlight to the collection. The head of the three-member curators’ team Giles Tillotson, who was involved in collecting material about the Bharany collection for the publication, used the article as an inspiration to bring the donation out to public space. The aim was to “show the importance of private collections in creating the nation’s art treasures and preserving cultural heritage”
The collection, handed down to Chhote Lal Bharany, by his father R.K. Bharany, who was a man of modest means. But he amassed a large collection of embroidered as a dealer of carpets in Amritsar and miniature art. He sold some of them to pioneering Sri Lankan collector of Indian art and art historian Ananda .K. Coomaraswamy, Karl Khandalavala and Rai Krishnadas around 1913-1920 — private collectors who helped foreign museums build their archives of Indian and Oriental art.
When Chhote Lal Bharany inherited his father’s collection — he was operating from Kolkata. Bharany junior was sent to Kolkata to study under Indologist Stella Kramrisch. His clients included connoisseur and bureaucrat M.S. Randhawa, an art scholar, who contributed to building the collection of art at the Chandigarh museum. Chhote Lal (now 87) collaborated with former directors of the national museum, Grace Morley, C, Sivaramamurti and Laxmi Sihare.
The theme of the collection is close to the Bharany hearts — mythology. “I am personally of the opinion that it is not possible to really appreciate Indian art without Indian mythological background because without it, you see only the body. The soul of the body can be seen in Indian art because the word Radha means so much to us — while ‘lady’ means something different,” R.K. Bharany writes in his memoirs. Curators Giles Tillotson, Pramod Kumar KG and Mrinalini Venkateswaran agree.
“It is an eclectic collection. The museum had been acquiring from them over the decades till the collection was donated in 1976,” co-curator Mrinalini Venkateswaran said. “We started curating on the premise that the core of the exhibition should be textiles and paintings, the soul of the Bharany collection. We wanted to start a conversation about what is art and its use in our everyday life – based on objects governed by practicality. We deliberately did not arrange the exhibits in a chronological sequence,” Venkateswaran said.
The strength of the collection is its breadth of its vision, co-curator Giles Tillotson told this writer at the museum. “Bharani specialized in textiles. He had a pre-eminent collection of Kashmir shawls, phulkari and folk embroidery,” Tillotson said. He pointed out that Bharany’s outlook to art was “unusual”. “He had a completely different aesthetic vision despite the fact that he collected Mughal, Rajput and tribal art,” Tillotson said. Using an aboriginal pencil drawing by a Gond (tribal) artist, Govind Jogi, dating nearly 100 years ago, “Ganesh Landscape” (that depicts a natural world shaped like Ganesha inhabited by creatures and nature of god)”, Tillotson said, “Bharany liked subtleties in art” and “interpretations of mythology”.
When questioned about the apparent restraint in bringing private collections from archives of national museums in India, Tillotson explained “over the years, lot of has been exposed”. “Part of the problem is that the cultures of national museums are moribund unlike in private musuems. I am working for the Jaipur City Palace Museum, of the erstwhile royal family, where the exhibits are not still state owned. The national museums across India have fantastic collections, but they are not well-managed and not well displayed,” Tillotson said. The curator is working on a project, “Collections in Partnership” to raise awareness about the importance of private collections in museums and the need for acknowledgement of private collectors who donate their art to museums.                                                                                  
 “Archiving is a partnership between private collectors, museums, curators and related stake-holders,” Tillotson said.
The movement has taken off in India in the last two decades. Private collectors like Lekha and Anupam Poddar, Kiran Nader, Tina Ambani, (late) Kekoo Gandhy, Malvinder Singh (Religare Arts), B.K. Birla, Sarla Birla (Birla Academy of Arts and Culture), Sangeeta Jindal, Suresh Neotia, Ratan Tata and Dorab Tata (whose collection was donated to the Prince of Wales Museum), and Rajiv Jahangir – among many more either set up private archives, foundations, exhibited or donated their collection to international art houses and auctioneers.
The increase in disposable incomes, discerning taste in lifestyle goods, access to luxury, education, awareness, visibility, hand-holding initiatives for buyers have led to a new segment of collectors, who are younger and affluent. As years go by, these collectors are expected to mature and build “meaningful archives” for posterity.
“The museums have to reach out to private collectors to acquire quality archives and partner with them,” Tillotson said.