Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Unplugged: Bengal master Jamini Roy’s creative canvas for Gen Next


Bengal master Jamini Roy’s creative canvas unveiled for Generation Next (REVIEW OF SHOW  AT NGMA, Delhi)    

By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi 

Many years ago, Indian poet Nissim Ezekiel wrote a paean to the artistic genius of the Bengali icon of modern Indian art Jamini Roy: “An urban artist found the law/To make its spirit sing and dance”. Nearly  a century and a quarter later- 125 years after his death – Jamini Roy still remains the  mystical guru of the stylized Bengal school of art that scaled its pinnacle of aesthetic finesse in the 20th century.   

For thousands of Jamini Roy loyalists, who still look for an authentic Roy art work to carry home at any price- and the legions of emerging art lovers of the Generation Next fed on a diet of cutting edge contemporary and new media art, it is time to reconnect to the  roots  of the country’s modern art at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA-Delhi) which is celebrating 125 years of Jamini Roy with a retrospective, “Jamini Roy: Journey to the Roots”. The retrospective opened on June 24.

On display are nearly 200 of Roy’s art that include pen and ink sketches, oil paintings, figures and landscapes in tempera sourced from the gallery’s archive and donated by private collectors like Abhisekh Poddar and A. Ramachandran. 

Roy’s oeuvre- a eclectic and diverse cachet of expressions - differs from the legends of his era, elitist poet-painter Rabindranath Tagore in the sense that the artist (Roy) carved a rather lonely and salt of the earth road for himself rejecting European modernism of his time to seek inspirations from Oriental  art practices and the local Kolkata graphic art genres to portray the lives of the common people around him, the lush Bengal countryside and the religious influences of his native turf Bankura – a Vaishnavite (Vishnu) stronghold – where he was born and nurtured as a child. Tagore’s canvas was one of refined semi-abstract expressionism and complex shapes. Roy on his part was almost childlike in his realistic creative energy.

A skilled portrait artist in the European tradition trained at the Government School if Art (Kolkata- he graduated in 1916 ),  Roy’s constant quest for a personal idiom led him to spurn sophisticated iconography. Jamini Roy looked for techniques from traditions as opposed to each other  like East Asian brushstroke calligraphy, terracotta temple friezes, pen, ink, Indian folk art and  landscapes. 

The collection exhibited at NGMA spreads across like snapshots capturing the artist’s evolution as a basic portrait painter to a stylized figurative artist probing the soul of his subjects to capture their emotional and spiritual essence. Some of his paintings show a Chinese flat-tone monochrome format of execution where the figures are almost one-dimensional, zen-like, plastered on to the canvas. 

His motifs are typical- characterized by ovoid and elongated compositions in long fluid strokes on surfaces as varied as cloth, plyboard and paper.
In the end of 1920s, Roy stopped using oil as a medium of painting and make traditional natural pigments from vegetable extracts and mineral sources. Consequently, the pigments that held fast even in the tempera style became a trademark of the artist, a skill that he handed over to his son and students.

The exhibits have been strung together in a kind of chronological order by curator Ela Dutta beginning with a series of pen and ink miniature sketches like animation sequences, calligraphic brush paintings, mother and child compositions , village life, life of Jesus Christ, epics and myths.
A rare series of portraits of icons like Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi and Van Gogh document the artist’s mastery over profiles and facial drawings.                 

 In the 1940s, Roy painted one of his most powerful series of images around the life if Jesus Christ. Although, he painted occasional images  of Christ in his early phases, he developed the visual idea of Christ more lyrically later. Critics say what was most thought provoking about his Biblical paintings was his flair to adapt to the stories from alien cultures and “give them an appearance as if they were from our own villages. Christ is portrayed as a fair wise man with a goatee and a cross- very Indian profile.

According to poet-critic Vishnu Dey and John Irwin, “Why should an orthodox poet who had never read the New Testament should be interested in Christ? Jamini Roy gave several reasons. He wanted to find out if this new technique could be applied with equal effort to a subject removed from his personal life. And for this purpose, the Christian myth seemed to be a suitable choice.
His portraits of Christ are homely- the Christian deity has a next door quality to him that no early Christian or Byzantine artist could evber capture.  

In the first few years of 1920s, Jamini Roy painted a series of series of Santhal women in what he called the flat Chinese technique. He invested the peasants, the women and children with dignity. According to Partha Mitter (Triumph of Modernism in 2007), Roy used the notion of village community as a weapon of resistance against the colonial rule.

Economist, writer and critic  Ashok Mitra says the decade of the 1920s was wholly engrossed in the national movement during his Jamini Roy drew his strength from the involvement of the common man. It was the beginning of his odyssey back to his roots as a Kolkatan and as a Bengali villager from Beliatore in Bankura where he was born in 1887. Roy graduated from the Government School of Art in Kolkata as a portrait artist and made money from commissions.

The artist who showed his works all over world achieved iconic status for his lyricism and use of colours. He was conferred the  Padma Bhushan in 1955. He passed away in 1972.       

Curator Ela Dutta says Roy found simplification in form unlike Tagore. “He works were full of wonder. There was strength in his village community, Krishna Leela, Christ and mother and child paintings,” Dutta told this correspondent.

Dutta says Roy was different from his peers in many ways. “He was pne of the early pioneers who allowed his associates and students to complete his unfinished works in the traditions of the great ateliers and studios of 20th century Europe”. The result has a steady inflow of “Roy reproductions” in the market some of which are difficult to tell apart from the originals.

Collector and connoisseur A. Ramachandran of Bengaluru says unlike many Bengali artists like Nandalal Bose, Ramkinkar Baij and Benode Bihari Mukherjee, who worked in isolation, Jamini Roy was “commercially oriented like Raja Ravi Varma and M.F. Husain”.

The artist often said he wanted to his art affordable to every middle class household in Bengal. Hence he produced en masse – carrying art out of its 
ivory tower to the man on the street.
 Madhusree Chatterjee
-         New Delhi  

Friday, June 21, 2013

Dipankar Gupta calls on Citizen Elite to step into messiah’s shoes

Dipankar Gupta calls on Citizen Elite to step into messiah’s shoes
By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi

The emerging India of 1.2 billion people is increasingly pinning its wish list on to a new tribe of citizen elite to keep its democratic apparatus kicking, shifting the onus of welfare in the process from the crop of all-too-familiar politicians to the “elite citizens of calling” born to a greater destiny.

“When I refer to the citizen elite, I am thinking of the members of the elite class who push the government to deliver secular goods like health, education and infrastructure to the masses. They are members of the elite communities and yet think citizenship,” says renowned  sociologist, commentator and writer Dipankar Gupta, who heads the Centre for Public Research and Critical Theory.

In his new book, “Revolution from Above: India’s Future and Citizen Elite”, Gupta shifts the expectations of advancement of democracy in a welfare state like India to the social cream like that of the “Victorian Radicals” in 19th century Europe.

The “Radicals”- as Gupta brands them in the book- were an elite class of landlords and merchants in Britain, who carried British democracy forward with radical populist measures that had profound consequences.

In his book, Gupta says “reality everywhere runs contrary to the principles of democracy and the credo of fraternity that is so central to democracy consequently finds little resonance in popular cultures across the world”.

He points out that human tendency is to naturally distance people and cultures into “us” and “them” and in way that “us” can never be “them”. Hence there is need for fraternity and elite of calling – especially in a nation like India where democracy is fragile forced notion that has to be continuously nurtured at the hustings.

“I wanted to address our elite. And tell them what a great chance you have to do things,” Gupta says in a freewheeling interview.

The sociologist quotes 20th century Hungarian thinker Karl Mannheim to debate that the elite cannot be sequestered in a privileged existence. “Intellectuals cannot sit in ivory towers, the only way to be an intellectual is to be engaged with events around you,” Gupta says. He cites from the lives of Indian heroes Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru… “They were all from privileged backgrounds but their thoughts were not of personal interest. They (read thoughts) were of the country. They carried the Indian democracy forward.”

In this context, Gupta rakes up the “politics of the given”- a political theory that factors in given positions in life as the determinant of change and progress. “We all have our given stations in society and we are always trying to maximize on our positions in the society- playing on the power of the given instead of changing the pattern, which is the essence of democracy,” the sociologist expounds. Politics in India still thrives on a “patron-client” relationship and various other linkages between the given and the powers that be.

“A good social thinker would say that I am going to break the system…I am going to fight it,” the writer says.

Taking cue from Nehru’s life, Gupta narrates how the former Indian Prime Minister, on visiting Aligarh Muslim University six months after taking over as Prime Minister, remarked that he did not like the qualifier “Muslim University”.

“No one has ever said it,” Gupta says pointing it (the name) out as an example of playing on the politics of the given.
Globally, democracy made the maximum progress worldwide before the Cold War in 1953-1954. The War lasted for four and a half decades and the two mortal enemies – 
Communism and Capitalism- were locked in mortal struggle. “Democracy was the collateral damage in the war. It was either free market or Communist control. In the reigning and ensuing law of the market, we have forgotten about democracy,” Gupta says.

Democracy best functions in times of crisis, the writer points out. “All the major breakthroughs in democracy took place when countries (concerned) have fought acute scarcity – poverty- like the Basque country of Spain and Sweden of 1933 when one million people were hungry,” he said.

The notion of democracy is fuelled by Utopia- the utopian impulses have to be periodically surcharged to fend off dystopia (inertia)that sets in after a period of frenzied political and economic activity in a democracy. An India in an election mode cannot afford to sink into dystopia. “A democracy that is only about election is not worth it,” the writer comments. According to British journalist and analyst Walter Bagehot, democracy is a fine balance between the rule of the law and the rule of numbers, Gupta says.

When India became independent in 1947, its population trebled in seven weeks. “Out of every four Indians, three were from Pakistan. They were angry, they had suffered and they hated the sight of Muslims. How much of that anger still resides,” Gupta says by way of illustrating how Nehru won the democratic elections of 1951, 1956 and 1961 till 1967 when the Congress teetered on the brink.

“Nehru had secular goods on offer.” Gupta said.
And Nehru, an elite, thought big for the nation rising above the sectarian divides.

Similarly, the Suffragette Movement of the 1870s, which advocated women’s rights, was led by well-to-do activists who could have stayed at home, sitting pretty after attending finishing schools. Women leaders like Millicent Fawcett, Emmeline Pankhurst and Eleanor Marx came from affluent backgrounds,” Gupta says in his book.

The writer uses Mahatma Gandhi’s “Ahimsa” as a model for elitist intervention arguing that without Gandhi, India may still have become free, perhaps earlier, but it would not have been a liberal democracy. Gandhi chose to do what he thought was right and persuaded people to follow him.

But a query where politician Narendra Modi, the much-hyped chief minister of Gujarat, can be described as an elite citizen of calling meets with a measure of skepticism. “When Modi came to power, only 187 villages were left to be electrified, But Modi claimed credit for rural electrification. The fact was most of the infrastructure in the state had been built before Modi, but he has looked after the goods he inherited and built on it,” Gupta analyses.

Looking ahead at the election in 2014, Gupta foresees ample scope for “utopias” to keep the democracy alive. “But the three game changers could be health, education and infrastructure – which require universality of policies. You and I will go to the same school, same hospital and walk on the same road,” he says.

It is a trickle down effect from the top – when the elite citizens of calling will expedite delivery of goods to the roots. Almost like the Basque region of Spain that bounced back from General Franco’s brutality (remember Guernica holocaust in Basque - immortalized by Picasso) with an elite citizen driven development model that has transformed the economic soul of the region, the writer observed.         

 “Revolution from Above: India’s Future and the Citizen Elite” has been published by Rainlight/Rupa & Co. Priced Rs 495            
    Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted on   

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

South Asian soft power in print - from Karachi


Reaching out to South Asia with lit from Karachi- online

By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi

Emerging South Asian literature is bonding over a new print space online.
A literary anthology of writing from South Asia, “Papercuts”, - born in Karachi nearly a decade ago - has made a grand comeback in cyber space and recently in print.
The initiative that begun as the Desi Writer’s Lounge on the social networking site Orkut has widened its creative pool to include neighbours like India and  Bangladesh — and collate from the marathon volume of freelance traffic to publish the bi-annual compendiums of prose and poetry from the sub-continental region.
Managed by a team of 12 editors, the space was initially meant to provide a creative platform to young writers from Pakistan, who are rarely published outside the country unlike in India where emerging writers have easy access to print visibility at home and abroad owing to the publishing boom.
An average estimate says India has nearly 25,000 big and small publishers on the official roster compared to barely fraction of the number in Pakistan.   
Desi Writers’ describes itself as an online “24/7–365 days a year” writers’ workshop and community. Bulk of the workshops is conducted at forums — where members and writers have to undergo “intense critiquing sessions”.       
One of the reasons why Desi Writers’ has been able to wrest survival space online is the fact that in the last 10 years or so, writing in English in Pakistan has seen a phenomenal surge with the spread of university education in English, translations, return of young foreign-educated writers inspiring indigenous talent and a sharp increase in readership. Some of the nation’s cult literary figures like Mohammed Hanif and Ali Sethi say most contemporary Pakistanis have strident voices and opinions now than ever before on a variety of subjects touching upon politics to society, culture, romance, life. religion and even terrorism.      
Consequently, stories are easy to find among the youngsters bred on sensitivities of globalization, ideological conflicts and socio-political turbulence in the country.
“Desi Writers’ were the first people to set up a e-case from Karachi,” says editor of Desi Writers’ Lounge Afia Aslam. Over the years, Desi Writers’ has published 11 volumes of “Papercuts” with submissions to the website open to the lay writer.                         
“Last year (2012), we invited freelance entries from India and Bangladesh as well for Papercuts 2013,” Aslam told this correspondent during one of her promotion tours to India.
The array of themes – cutting through realities in the region - was startling, Aslam said. “The submissions featured subjects like Vietnam, China, war, politics and local ethos,” the editor of the Desi Writers’ recapped.      
A soliloquy on Indian train journey in South India – “Portraits from Across Window” and a short story, “The Inauguration” by freelance writer Suneetha Balakrishnan set in Kerala in the latest volume of “Papercuts” are like windows to another planet for young Pakistani readers.  

“It is essentially a cultural exchange forum to promote soft diplomatic power between the two countries that often spar with each other across the border and open people to people understanding,” Aslam said.
“It (read soft exchanges) is so easy to destroy it at the end of the day,” the editor said.   
Desi Writers’ is in the canvas of a broad trend that is bringing South Asian nations under an umbrella with regional literature festivals in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and even in Myanmar. Asian poetry forums crowd the Internet. The cultural ministries of the respective SAARC nations add to the exchanges with frequent brainstorming initiatives and literary exchange forums.
According to writer-politician Pavan K. Varma, the former Indian ambassador to Bhutan, “literature is emerging as one of the most effective and potent soft diplomatic tools in the South Asian region with writers from the subcontinent leading the creative charge”.
Cmmenting on Desi Writers' Pakistan’s literary heavyweight Musharraf Ali Farooqi (the translator of the Amir Hamza series).says English writing in Pakistan has to compete with cheap publication in Urdu, argued Farooqi.
“English is not our essence. It is difficult to do literature in English, but English is also where we are at,” Farooqi said.
The magazine needs to promote its writers’ more vigorously, suggested the writer, who turned a publisher with his publishing unit Kitaab in Lahore (2012). Literature in the region is caught in bad story-telling, Farooqi says.
“What is it that readers want to read in Pakistan and in the region? If you keep harking back to the classics, literature becomes repetitive. You need a better breed if writers,” Farooqi observes.
Desi Writers’ is scouting for this breed of original story-tellers from the region with its forthcoming annual short story competition.       
Madhusree Chatterjee 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Kishwar Desai's interview

Country needs model families to battle gender horror, says Kishwar Desai (Interview) 
Told to Madhusree Chatterjee   
This country right now needs role models in families and in how men and women relate to each other to inculcate restraint, balance and values in  younger generations to check gender atrocities like gang rape and abuse of women, says award-winning writer Kishwar Desai.

Look at Obama and Michelle. It is a perfect relationship. They are role models. People say we want to grow up like them. But here in India, we don't know anything about our politicos. What kind of men they are, how many wives they have, what is their background and how are their relationships within their families contexts — it is important for us to know so that can judge whether they can be trusted,” Desai told this correspondent in an interview.

Only then the nation can look at them as role models and parents can teach their children how to conduct their lives,” Desai said.

Desai's new book, “The Sea of Innocence” narrates the tale of Liza Kay, a British teenager who is reported missing in Goa around the New Year. A disquieting video of a group of boys attacking Liza appears on private investigator Simran Singh's phone. Singh, the lead of Desai's social thriller series, is desperate to holiday in Goa after a hectic schedule as a private eye. The video clip makes her realise that something dark is brewing in the sylvan sea-side paradise.

Singh finds her trail tangled in a web of lies, intrigues and dangerous nexus between the shadowy underworld and the local toughs who control the beaches. She is targeted as she probes deeper into the rape of Liza and her disappearance - forcing her into silence like the rest.

Kishwar says her book indirectly refers to the gang-rape of a young woman in the capital – described as Nirbhaya by the media — despite the fact that it was planned three years ago.

But it has not been inspired by the Nirbhaya case or any other rape. I am very moved by stories of women. Indian women have been treated very badly like separate caste — lowest of the low. Somebody should be looking after their issues. Gender crimes like rape and gang rape have been happening for a thousand years. I was getting increasingly upset. The book just happened. I finished it last year,” Kishwar said.

The writer says “Nirbhaya is a turning point for us whether we are physically there or not – mentally all women have to be connected”.

I don't believe women are responsible at all. I don't buy that argument that women asked to be groped. Women wanted to be treated in a respectful fashion in mutually consensual relationships. Gangrape is the most degrading. A woman cannot live through it unless she is a masochist,” Kishwar said.
The writer said “a clash of lifestyle between modernism and tradition in middle-class Indian families” was hindering a rational outlook to gender and liberation.

That is an area we have to examine in our society and families. Most incidents of rape happen in families because women in a patriarchal family are not told what they should do and what they should not do. A girl is a victim of mob violence since childhood. The family turns into a mob at birth and tries to kill her birth, holds her back in youth and torture for dowry after wedding,” Kishwar said.

A girl is rarely allowed the space top grow up, she pointed out. “Most of the rapes are unreported because they are perpetrated behind closed door at home. Only when victims like Nirbhaya – who are found out- and those connected to important people are reported in the media,” Kishwar said.
The writer, who has authored “Darling ji: The True Love Story of Nargis and Sunil Dutt” and “Origin of Love” won the Costa First Novel prize for “Witness the Night”.