Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Art & Alienation: How Indian contemporary masters escape confines of reality in their idioms


By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi

Art has mirrored the socio-political movements around the world down the last 150 years. In the 1960s, several practitioners of contemporary art allowed were influenced by alienation to distance their art from the concerns of reality.
The concept founded by political theorist Karl Marx is premised on the nihilism associated with the system of production in a capitalist economy that those who produce feel at the end product does not belong to them. They become tools of a system over which they have no control  — they are neither the masters of their destiny or situations. It bred a sense of alienation from the administrative and governing apparatus — giving birth to a new school of philosophy, “situationism”.

This alienation is at the heart of a movement in art — spanning nearly three generations of artists — in three decades between 1960s-1990s during which several artists spoke of the drift away from contemporary realities with abstraction expressions of individual aspirations.

“In the last 30 years, the sense of alienation has grown. You talk about the generation gap. The generations which have battled alienation feel that they do not belong to the models of existing civilistaions. This lack of a sense of belonging prompts situationism as a notion to strike roots in the reality of a situation that may not be a part of the immediate environment. In India, the idea of alienation and situationism are pronounced in the creative arts than in the rest of the related genres of expressions,” says curator, art critic and writer Arun Ghose.

Ghose has used the “inherent situationism and alienation” in the classical contemporary art as his curatorial theme for an exposition, “Situationism: Rain & Shine” — a collection of art by five contemporary masters of Indian art at a new art space (Sanchit Art Gallery) in the upscale DLF arcade (in south Delhi), which emerging as the capital’s newest high end art destination with galleries and niche boutique counters.

The give masters on show — Satish Gujral, Ganesh Pyne, Ram Kumar, Laxma Gaud and Jogen Chowdhury — are the situationists of the 1950s who have been trying to balance the tightrope between emotional needs, artistic idioms, broad trends and the changing expectations of a rapidly developing India.
Jogen Chowdhury’s figures —stylized to distort human forms —are organic in their alienation from the realities of human anatomy. “They often convey the lyricism of sex and sensuous longing and at the end of the day, his characters are alienated from the surroundings because they are not fulfilled. The alienation of the character creeps into the artist,” Ghose says.

Bulk of Chowdhury’s figures occurs in voids — and morphs in the harmony of the dense textures he creates on his canvas. Specific backgrounds do not intrude into the sharp contours of the figures that have a life of their own. Ram Kumar in contrast does not anything specific as his subjects anywhere on his canvas. The colours — in thick pigmented swathes— offer impressions of landscapes that are remote and faraway. Ram Kumar’s canvases combine the core techniques of 20th century expressionism, European impressionistic practises and the abstraction of the Indian contemporary art that has evolved as an indigenous language in the 1950s after the progressive movement freed Indian art from European influences.

“Sometime, the Ganapati makes an appearance on his canvas. This elephant headed god does not belong to any society,” Ghose says. The alienation lies in his inaccessibility of landscapes that expresses the artist’s urge to escape his immediate surroundings to a place where nothing is definite.

Ganesh Pyne’s doodles and a couple of standalone portraits on display at “Situations” are an extension of “Nawab series”— a recollection of Kolkata’s Metiaburz Nawabs and the Islamic genteel life that flourished on the city margins till as a late as 20th century. The gallery which claims to have one of the largest body of Pyne’s works – acquired from his family archives in Kolkata — has brought to public space two rare portraits by Pyne in tempera. The portraits — one of Sufi dervish sipping tea and other of classical musician —draw attention of the viewers to the emotional play and absorption on the faces of the subjects, details and a meticulous decadence that set the characters away from the times during which they were drawn — the artist’s middle years.

“Pyne was influenced by Sufism in his middle years (as he was by C.G. Jung),” Ghose says. The doodles are also from another era — the Muslim gentry, figures in ceremonial dresses, camels and sketchy shots of Islamic architecture (aspects like stained glass windows) of north India. “Most of his doodles show the gap between choices and decisions. They have a sense of alienation. Pyne was attracted to mysticism and where he found it, he veered to it in his art like the idea of events flying to a point,” Ghose says.

Satish Gujral in comparison comes across as a relentless worker — who escapes his physical confinements through his works. His paintings reflect the elaborate lyrical structures of life as perceived by the eye in the flowing flowering eyes. The paintings are multi-dimensional and the labored human figures echo the artist’s slow war against his surroundings. The stylized human forms speak of Gujral’s alienation from the linear forms of reality — of men rising like phoenix to break down barriers, moving from negative space to light and astride wings of freedom. Laxma Goud on his part gives suppressed men “dignity” and hopes for freedom in his larger than life works and luminous faces — glowing with an inner light.

“Masters are always in demand because of their classicism of styles,” says Sunil Joshan of Sanchit Art, an Agra-based art house, that is trying to position itself as a promoter contemporary master’s art in the national capital and across the country. Joshan’s relies on his family collection — his parents have collecting for several decades now. The gallery claims to have one of the largest collections of Satish Gujral’s works. “We want to move away from investment reliance in art to help the market cushion against fluctuations in money economy and cut-throat gallery business,” Joshan said.

“There has been a resurgence of actual buyers and new collectors after the 2008 crash. And the ones who are afraid of the new market are the artists who were inflated in the bubble. They are finding it difficult to come back,” Joshan said.

The art market in India has shown two broad trends post 2008.  A big body of growing institutional buyers — corporate entities and private archives — are looking to acquire meaningful young contemporary art at affordable prices as collectibles.  A new segment of collectors in their 40s are “realizing their dream of acquiring master’s works with their early millions”. Collectors in their 40s who have grown up knowing “contemporary masters” are beginning to buy.

“The market for a large chunk of older generation of buyers in India is lost. The crash destroyed several fortunes,” Joshan says.    

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Campaign to save India's traditional agriculture


Madhusree Chatterjee 
New Delhi 

Gene Campaign, a non-profit mission to improve the lot of the Indian farmers in the country’s hinterland, is connecting to the youth of urban India— the country’s biggest food consumer segment — to open a dialogue and discussion about the ways to encourage farmers to nurture better yields, preserve traditional agricultural knowledge systems and become sustainable to meet the global standards of food so that India can become food sufficient.   

The chairperson of the organization, Suman Sahai, who was conferred one of the highest civilian awards in India Padma Shri in 2011 for her contribution to agricultural research and advocacy, says she is trying to steer the movement to a new target audience by involving the youth to raise awareness about the country’s farms, agriculture and quality of food grown by preserving the traditional agricultural wealth, gene banks and helping the poor farmers overcome the constraints posed by resources.      

The campaign is extremely relevant among the youth today, says Sahai since “it deals with  issues of food, nutrition and livelihoods, it works to get farmers a better deal than they have today so that India can be a food secure country, its people having access to adequate and nutritious food,".Sahai says.  

The relevance is in the backdrop of the fact that India is home to the largest number of hungry people in the world and its malnutrition statistics are worse than the poorest of African states. The young people must engage with these issues since they must determine the country they want to  inherit and lead. As tomorrow’s leaders, they must want a country that is food secure, proud and self reliant. They should remember that a country that is not food secure, is not secure in any way. It cannot 
be secured by guns,” Sahai says.

 The movement that began in 1993 as an awareness campaign against the “negative” import of the Dunkel Draft for India after the Uruguay Round of GATT negotiation on the protection of plant varieties and patenting. The Gene Campaign sent out cards and letters to likeminded “food and farm campaigners” to move the government against patenting. Genetic resources belong to humanity and “their rights could not be transferred to individuals”.       

The inspiration for the movement was Jayaprakash Narayan’s student agitation that begun in Bihar (that eventually overthrew the government at the Centre). Many of the initial contacts of the historic students’ movements with a socialist tilt became the core support group of Gene Campaign. Preserving the country’s agro-diversity and traditional knowledge systems are the focus of the campaign. It collects seeds from farmers in the hinterland and stores them in special gene banks across the country, Sahai says.   

The campaign has been largely responsible for raising a national debate about the dangers of seed patents and its threat to food security. Its sustained struggle for farmers’ rights culminated into a legislation, “Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights” that granted legal rights to farmers. The campaign has been fighting the patent against basmati rice.

“We advocate proper regulation for stringent bio-diversity testing for GM Products. A writ petition filed in 2004 in the Supreme Court appealed for a national bio-technology policy and a change in the regulatory structure for GM crops to make it more technologically competent,” Sahai says.

The campaign requested a moratorium on GM crops till the regulatory structures were improved. “GM technology in the country is being implemented in a careless and biased manner… It is dangerous,” Sahai says. It is dedicated to preserving the rights of farmers, traditional agriculture practices, knowledge and indigenous seed pools.

The agricultural sector in India for the past 10 years has been in a throes of a complex crisis — brought about by disparate forces. While the government has increased subsidies on farms to protect the country’s economic lifeline, it has failed to streamline the distribution of largesse to beneficiaries at the grassroots, leaving millions of marginal farmers in the heartland states (like UP, Jharkhand, Bihar and Chhattisgarh) out of the purview of the benefits. This has created an imbalance in the agricultural sector with the emergence of two distinct groups — one who have access to better farming methods and sops and one that is still languishing on the sidelines with small acreage and poor yields.

Coupled with this is a sustained attempt by large -multinational corporations to push genetically modified gene banks (engineered seeds and saplings) for enhanced output  and better nutrition value — a claim that has rung hollow in quality checks worldwide.

Scientists say while genetically modified seeds increases yield, it runs the risk of serious health hazards.  Moreover, an inflationary market with spiraling price indices across sectors have pushed the poor Indian farmer — especially in the hinterland where the sizes of holdings are small and resources scarce — to the brink in regions and states like Vidarbha (Maharashtra), Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and rural West Bengal.

In the last two decades, the cotton growers of Vidarbha have been plagued by “debt and drought-related distress deaths” while thousands of farmers elsewhere have switched to alternative livelihoods. The quality of produce has taken a drubbing in the process together with the loss of traditional farming practices, seed varieties, ancient living cultures and cuisines.  Chemicals fertilizers and pesticides have replaced organic manure and traditional detoxification methods on the farms — taking the soil’s output capacity far below the optimal. The situation has been compounded by a changing climate, global warming, erratic rain cycles and socio-political uncertainties in states like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh where Maoist insurgency has destroyed farmlands and agriculture.

The market networks have collapsed and a vicious exploitation and debt nexus perpetuated by middlemen has deprived farmers of fair prices for their produce in the markets for decades.  As a result, the food on our platter has failed to live up to international standards .

The National Food Security Bill 2013 (Right to Food Bill) signed September 12, 2013 that aims to provide subsidized food to two-third of India’s 1.2 billion people do not factor in the plight of the small and marginal farmers. It neither comes clear on “deserving” remuneration to farmers. The status of genetically-modified food remains ambiguous — without any specific curbs on its introduction and proliferation.     

Interventions must come from within in crises-riven societies, development economists contend. In a country where nearly 40 per cent of the 1.2 billion people is below the age of 35, the youth has to be the mobilising force to spread the word about the “deplorable condition” of Indian farmers, farming and the “alarm bells” ringing in the food sector.  

If the rising prices of onions are a yardstick, the crisis only sets to deepen instead of mitigating unless a proactive citizenry deliberates on the nation’s farm anatomy. The urban youth can engage and offer effective solutions to bring the issues to the centre-stage — acting as intervention and advocacy tools to create new linkages between the urban consumers and the farmers in the villages.  

 “The Gene Campaign is of the view that the new food law is not going to bring food security. The new law 
is just a rehashed version of the public distribution system and the old ration shop system with all their  shortcomings and corruption. Instead of fostering self  reliance, the food law tries to make beggars ofalmost 70 percent Indians by giving them highly subsidized food., No food security program can succeed if farmers are not strengthened and enabled to produce food. There  is no mention of farmers in the new Food Security Act,” Sahai says.

Sahai puts the onus of the advocacy to bring about a tangible change in the agricultural sector on consumers in the city who form the largest consumers’ base. “Consumers in city should keep five simple points in mind about Indian agriculture and its significance,” Sahai says.    

Farmers grow the food we eat. If they did not produce food we would have nothing to eat. Farmers are among the  poorest and hungriest people in our country,” the food campaigner points out. That is perverse and unjust that those who feed us are themselves hungry.

“If young people would make visits to farmers fields, they  would understand the enormous mental and physical work that goes into growing our food. Agriculture is a science  and farmers are scientists.
There are no rice and wheat plants found in the forest. These are not gifts of nature but the gifts that farmers have given us. They selected wild plants and developed thousands of food crops from them…rice, wheat, maize, beans,  vegetables Shepherd women mastered the art of milking cattle. They found ways to convert milk into curd, 

paneed and ghee…in a way, shepherd women started the dairy industry”, Sahai says.

Some Gene Campaign advocacies

Rice of India: Agro-biodiveristy has been Gene Campaign’s main focus area. The decade-long work by the campaign to collect, characterize and conserve the agro-biodiversity of rice, Sahai claims to have a collection of more 2,300 varieties of indigenous rice gene displays in her collection. The campaign has been honoured with the Genome Saviour Award in 2009 for the agro-biodiversity project.        

Zero Energy Gene Seed Bank:  Conserving traditional varieties of seeds for future use became necessary with climate change disrupting patterns of agriculture. Gene Campaign established a network of zero energy gene seed banks that run without electronic energy. The banks are simple well-aired rooms that are moisture and light proof. Extensive manual labour keeps these rooms in storage conditions all round the year.  The seeds of traditional varieties of rice and other crops like legumes, oilseeds and vegetables are collected from the farmers in remote villages and conversed in the zero energy banks for future use. The information about the seeds and the characteristics of the genetic crop varieties are documented for resource guidance. The farmers access the seeds three times a year.  

Genetically Modified Crops: The Gene Campaign Advocates proper regulation and stringent bio-safety testing for GM products. A writ petition filed in 2004 in the Supreme Court appealed for a national bio-technology policy and to change the regulatory structure for GM crops to make it more technologically competent. At the same time, it requested for a moratorium on GM crops till the regulatory structures were improved. The campaign holds that the GM technology in the country is being implemented careless and biased manner. It is dangerous.     

Indigenous knowledge: In the last two decades, Gene Campaign has tapped into the knowledge pools guarded by the Indian farming communities about their seeds, crops, methods of farming and useful qualities of the crops they grow. The campaign has since been working for the recognition of indigenous knowledge as an important technology and its potential for increasing incomes for rural and Adivasi community. The campaign has successfully lobbied to keep medicines and products derived indigenous knowledge out of the purview of patents so that they can be exempted from patent law.  The work is with the Indian government as classified material.

Household Nutrition: Gene Campaign has helped farmers set up homestead gardens with green vegetables and fruit bearing trees to provide supplementary food to the families all the year round. The campaign runs a programme to revive the use of underutilized and valid foods such as locally found tubers and leafy greens for diet diversity

Gene Campaign turns 20 on November 9

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Looking at growth with soul rather than figures - battling transition and slide


By Madhusree Chatterjee 
New Delhi

Growth in the post Lehman Brothers World is aligning to a third curve that takes into account mind, body and concepts — and their possibility in the realm of contemporary reality. The three phases of growth — take off, boom and bust — that have carried the world through over the past two centuries since the industrial revolution be me measured in terms of quality rather than quantity in a resource-crunched world economy.

Growth, says technocrat-filmmaker and self-styled economist Mansoor Khan has been intricately to the way world has consumed oil. The peak-oil period is over and “oil reserves” across the world is showing a decline thus triggering a rethink in defining growth. India, as one of the developing Asian economic giants, is vital to broad oil canvas logging a sluggish economic growth in the last five years. Concern is palpable in the industrial segments as the new enterprise apparatus is veering to the softer tertiary sector — where the utilization of resources of resources is either minimal or optimal. 

Disposable resource to squander has run out of supply.
The third curve of growth plotted in tandem with global oil curve shows a downward trend for the future. The disaster management pill is a more introspective use of resource capacities to bring a qualitative change in the GDP rather than depending on the fallacy of plenty.
In a debut treatise on the global economic trends, “The Third Curve: The End of Growth as We Know It”, Mansoor Khan, suggests measures to bend the downside and strike a workable balance between concepts and reality to bridge the gap between money, resources and expectations in the inflationary money market which is scraping the bottom of the barrel to dredge funds to bring back the economy on the rails.

“The conventional model is collapsing and the reason for the downturn is the fact that we are in denial. Instead of accepting it, we are trying to perpetuate old models which are no longer applicable to the economy that has reached its maturity,” Mansoor Khan told this writer in the capital.

The options are “not that simple”, Khan says. “The move is towards a qualitative economy where the concepts about the value of money are different. Quality is the new value of money to sustain the process of growth,” the writer says. Khan’s new growth model- at the end of the progress curve— is based on a historical perspective. “Till the 1960s, beginning with the decades post-war— the world was witnessing paradise times where the sky was the limit,” Khan writes in his book.

“On July 20, 1969, man had landed on the moon. Breaking the boundaries of our little planet appeared to send ripples of boundless for the future. It assured us that we were entitled to break the limits of time, space, productivity and output,” Khan argues. Breaking the boundaries of the earth was perhaps the first retrograde motion to bear on the growth curve — with expectations surpassing resources. The future did not look as had been promised. “Starting with the disappearance of the whale, we woke to species extinction, forest depletion, population explosion, top soil erosion, ground water erosion, chemicals in our food — global warming,” Khan says. It led to ecological breakdown.

The root of the growth slide lies in the cycle of economy. The history of growth has followed a pattern boom, bust, revival and plateau — with a gradual shift to alternative possibilities of economic diversification. In the first 150 years of Industrial Revolution (in the 18th century), a growth was exponential amount of start-ups, innovations and entrepreneurships. The great depression of the early 20th century that coincided with the World Wars wiped the citadels of the industrial revolution.  New growth centres emerged across the globe — taking the action away from the traditional centres of growth like Britain, France and the allied block. While America (north) recouped, Germany in Europe revived from its wartime losses to follow a new industrial growth map. Russia, Japan and China (from 1950) in Asia became the new growth centres, followed by India.
The story of growth is linked to indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources as well— minerals, forests and water.    

Khan explains this process of growth in three phases — exponential growth, perceived growth with negative trending and failing growth. The writer believes that “the phase of failing growth” has been brought about by the ecological catastrophe.   

“As we raced down the highway of economic growth, we hoped that allotting huge funds through well-intentioned organizations to save the environment would help offset the ecological crisis. By then the financial structures were going awry,” Khan says. Suddenly, the future was not what it used to be.

Khan’s arguments about growth are linked to the mind — it is conceptual. The mind comes up with an idea — a concept that the body has to implement. The result is growth. “The body is like a runner and the coach is the concept. The coach initially pushes the body to run. The coach sets a speed limit of 10 km per hour, slightly faster than walking. The body runs with ease. After a week, the speed limit is 10.7 km per hour. Every week, the coach pushes the limit by 7 per cent pledging that in 18 months the body will break the speed of sound,” Khan says.  The sponsors are happy. But after 10 weeks, the body discovers that it has managed to touch 20 km per hour.

“The speed of the body doubles every 10 weeks like reaching for the sky. This is exponential growth,” Khan says.   

The “super coach” sells the “super concept” – of running faster every 10 weeks — to sponsors and claims that he will recover the money from the euphoric sponsors, who are impressed by early successes. This is Paradise Times.

But the bubble soon bursts. By the end of the first year, the body has can push itself by six per cent instead of the initial 7 per cent. The stressed body uses boosters to ramp up its speeds — but it is a piecemeal measure. Rigorous training fails to pull up performance. “The reality cannot be concealed any longer and sponsors hit the ceiling. They eventually withdraw,” Khan says.

This is a complex pitch, Khan says. On the one hand, the body is a wreck while on the other, huge amounts of money the sponsors have paid are a write-off. The body collapses from both outside and within. The road from this point is downhill.

“You must do two things at this time,” Khan says. The first is to kill the concept and second is to save the body. The concept is money and the body is the resource. “Saving the body requires a change of perception about the earth’s resources that the planet is not an inanimate chest of treasures but a breathing cosmic body that has life,” the writer says.

Khan connects the coach-runner concept to the discovery and the use of oil. The modern economic growth began with the discovery of oil. As the oil output grew, a third bell curve parallel to the oil curve shot up till the oil production and consumption peaked. It was the peak oil position. “I think we have reached the peak oil position, but very few people in India are aware of it. Most of the global economies are premised in oil. When oil prices touched 146 dollars a barrel, several oil-dominant economies collapsed,” Khan says.

The graph curved downhill.         

This slide downhill can be contained in two ways — denial or acceptance of peak oil. The path through acceptance is one of transition. Rebuilding the global economy in a post peak-oil scenario depends on “collective action”. “The shift to transition begins when a small group of people comes together with shared concern about shrinkage and downturn,” Khan says.

The idea that life post peak oil might be “more pleasant and fulfilling than today’s lifestyle is at the heart of the transition movement,” Khan says.

The phase embodies the quantitative reduction of energy and consumption and qualitative rebuilding of the aspects of the world that have been lost, Khan says.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Gandhi Before India - a historical journey to capture the soul of Mahatma


By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi —invoked worldwide as the Mahatma and as the father of the Indian nation — grew up as a nationalist in four distinct environments: As a child with a secular outlook in Gujarat, a student of law in a progressive London society that flourished a little away from the glitter of the mainstream British society, a civil rights and anti-apartheid activist South Africa and as the vanguard of “peaceful resistance” and “satyagraha” in British India, steering the nation on the road to Independence.

Noted writer, commentator and historian Ramachandra Guha believes that Gandhi’s unique status was influenced by the fact that he “worked in three different countries- Britain, South Africa and India — spanning three continents. In his new treatise, “Gandhi Before India”, an account of Gandhi’s pre-India years (a loose prequel of his Gandhi biography, “India After Gandhi), Guha    reconstructs the early years of the Mahatma till his departure from South Africa to India from contemporary historical sources with a combination of historical narratives, anecdotal episodes, accounts from various biographies and archival material to bring out the “apparent inconsistencies and contradictions” that set Gandhi apart from the rest of his peers in pre-and post Independence India. 

Gandhi’s global outlook as a non-violent protester, reformer, thinker, writer, polity expert and warrior was a consequence of his exposures to “several world cultures and cross-sections of people”. It bred in him the statesmanship of a visionary that none could achieve.  

The writer describes his book as a “sprint down the memory lane to resurrect an odd cast of characters in India, London and Africa who have been forgotten in the onward tide of history”. They moulded young Gandhi – an impressionable idealist — in a way that set the course for his future. The eclectic crew of inspirations included his family in Rajkot in Gujarat where he grew up as a school boy, friends in London, the journal of the Vegetarian Society (The Vegetarian of London) and a host of British and India settlers in the transformative South Africa.

Guha turns his attention to almost “every episode” in Gandhi’s life life during his years abroad in the context of the larger socio-political and cultural canvas (and movements) of the places where he worked. In course of chronicling the “Mahatma”, the writer dispels one myth about the “essential Indian-ness of Gandhi”. The “satyagrahi” who is identified in the collective consciousness of the globe down the decades as the “traditional brown native clad in a loincloth — a frail little man with a spartan lifestyle, high thinking and espousing seemingly Herculean epoch-making causes” was a cosmopolitan by soul.

His pan-Indian philosophy was rooted in his global citizenship – an idea of India coloured by the events around the world at large — wide, liberal, just, fair and inclusive.

Gandhi had been an enduring muse for Guha for more than a decade — when he began to investigate Gandhi’s role for an earlier account, “India After Gandhi” (2007).

The current volume cleans the dust off mountains of archival material in three continents — in ferreting out several startling and offbeat revelations about the life of Gandhi. “Gandhi was among other things an extraordinary prolific writer,” Guha says.

He (Gandhi) wrote extensively about his own life and works in biographical essays, journals, correspondence,] articles and books— sources which make up much of Guha’s resource base. A lot of the material comes from the first 12 volumes of the “Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi” followed by “Collected Works” which reproduces letters written by Gandhi to Herman Kallenbach, Henry and Millie Polack and Albert West. The third source were the “papers of Gandhi’s friends and associates”.

“All through out my professional life, I have encountered Gandhi. He had been part of my life as a historian of modern India – and I chose to settle the account,” the writer says. He makes a deliberate “attempt” to move beyond the public persona of the “legend” in the new volume to capture the “soul of the man behind the public figure”.   

Gandhi – as the boy and the young adolescent with human failings — comes alive in accounts of his school days by a retired school master in two series written in 1966. Guha unearths the details to reveal the young Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi as a “mediocre – or a rather chequered — student” in school in Kathiawar (Rajkot). However, his poor elementary school performance picked credible steam by the time Mohandas was ready to go to London to study law.  Billed as the “best bet” in the family of low literacy, Mohandas, however, failed to live up to his brood’s “big money” aspirations.  

Mother Putlibai’s youngest son, Mohandas was born in a “dark room in a two-storied home in Porbandar” in 1869. The family led by “diwan” (royal minister) Kaba Gandhi moved to Rajkot in 1874.    

“To begin with the boy’s attendance was spotty in the calendar year 1879. He went to school for only 110 days out of the 238 days. This showed in the results of his final examination where Mohandas was placed in the lower half of the class”.

School was Gandhi’s stepping stone to the notion of “pluralism” –religious and racial openness — that were the beacons of his later years  carrying him through London and South Africa. A secular Mohandas befriended Sheikh Mahtab — a Muslim classmate. “There were no Christian boys in Kathiawar High School, but there were several Parsis as well as few Muslims,” Guha says in his book. It was a friendship based on contradictions — between the meat-eating and sporty Mahtab and the meek vegetarian boy (Gandhi).

An early marriage to Kasturba at 13 lent him an unexpected maturity — taking him through the conjugal chores as a teenager when he was obsessed with loving his wife and later “experimenting with celibacy”. The young Mohandas was busy romancing his wife the night his father passed away, Guha records in his book. Gandhi “regrets his lust” later.       

In London, where Gandhi was probably the lone representative from the Gujarati Baniya (trading class) community to study for barristership at the prestigious Inner Temple Inn, the young man boarded (shared rooms) with a Briton Josiah Oldfield. The duo hosted “cerebral” dinner parties for like-minded friends — that doubled as “platforms for social activism”.  “While in London, Gandhi learnt to work as a group and how to mobilize (opinion for a cause),” Guha says.

His education was funded by older brother— a shifty character — Laxmidas. The one-and-a half year that Gandhi spent in London exposed him to British politics and offered insights into the workings of the imperial mind.

The usual pleasures of the 19th century London society — sports and theatre— did not lure young Mohandas. But he found a worthy cause in promotion of vegetarianism at the Vegetarian Society Journal. He wrote several articles about Indian vegetarianism and found new British friends in the society. Gandhi was inspired by the likes of Henry Salt, Dadabhai Naoroji, Pranjivan Mehta ( a Gujarati doctor) and Charles Bradlaugh. He read the Bible (and the Koran later in life) and discoursed with the theosophists, Guha says in his book.

Upon his return to Bombay, he set up a legal practice much to the anger of Bombay’s Modh Banias, who resented Gandhi’s crossing of the “black waters” to the west. He divided his time between Bombay and Rajkot till destiny offered him a passage to South Africa as a lawyer to plead a “commercial case” of an immigrant businessman in 1893.  

Gandhi’s tenure in South Africa occupies much of the book- beginning with his activity as a lawyer in Durban making way to a franchise crusader (lobbying for the voting rights of native Indians) and then a “anti-apartheid” activist after an incident (known as the watershed) in which he was pulled out of the first-class compartment of a train at Pietermaritzburg. It also heralded a new phase in the lawyer’s life — a growing up process during which Gandhi’s resilience (and efficacy) as an intelligent mover of mass opinion honed itself into brilliant leadership skills.  

“Gandhi’s experiences in South Africa were astonishingly varied and always intense. Life in Durban and Johannesburg and at the Pheonix and the Tolstoy Farm (he was an admirer of writer Leo Tolstoy), in court, in jail, on the road and in the train gave him a deeper understanding about what divided (or united) human beings in general and Indians in particular,” Guha says in his book.

Two decades in the diaspora gave him the eyes to see and the tools to use when he came back home. “As a writer, editor, healer, bridge, builder and social reformer, exemplar, political reformer and theorist — he returned to India fully formed and fully primed to carry out these callings on a far wider historical scale,”  Guha points out.

Years of “harassment and vilification at the hands of the Boers (African white settlers of Dutch origin) and Britons did not deter him from seeking the human nature whether residing in a brown-skinned or a white-skinned body”, the writer observes.

To properly understand Gandhi, you have to look at him from the perspective friends and fellows— “the secondary cast of characters”. 

“An equally interesting cast of characters (like Kellenbach, Joseph Doke, Sonja Schlesin, Tamil radical Thambi Naidoo) shaped him in SA,” Guha explains. A Gujarati doctor, Pranjivan Mehta, for example, was “Engels to Gandhi’s Marx — the *former being the latter’s chief patron and supporter”, the writer said in a lighter vein.            

If a wee overpopulated with characters and events for the lay reders to keep up with the stream of narrative (sometime too closely spaced), the volume is a definitive addition to the archive of Gandhi research pool— a subject which assumes relevance today across the world in the face of the conflicts of ideologies and violent insurrections that marks the change of geopolitical orders.

Martin Luther King to Barack Obama, Communist China, the leaders of the Arab Spring  and the commanders of the great democracies across the world have all sworn by the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi at some point of time or the other.      

Gandhi Before India has been published by Penguin Books -India. Priced Rs 899    



Sunday, October 6, 2013

Michelin fare with an eye on India- fusion is order of day



 By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi

Contemporary gastronomy is a cross-cultural journey that combines food as much as the cultures to which the fare belongs— and the cultures from which they have assimilated.  The new global food is so diverse and interesting, says food impresario Anand Kapoor, who has compiled and edited a new anthology of international cuisines, “Taste: 7 Michelin Stars and Celebrity  Chefs”.

“Food has a global approach today because it is changing and assimilating. India ranks high in this process of culinary transformation because the traditional gastronomy of this culturally-rich nation has acquired a world appeal,” Kapoor says. Indian chefs – and even the lay domestic foodie and the intrepid householder — are using European techniques to cook traditional fare. “The influence of other food is becoming important to the basic Indian gastronomic psyche- it is almost ingrained,” Kapoor points out to this writer in an interview.

The volume which brings together a blend of old and new recipes from Australia, India, UK and US by seven Michelin chefs features four Indian culinary whizkids — Vikas Khanna, Vineet Bhatia, Anjum Anand and Anand Kapoor— whose culinary repertoires reflect the spirit of a global India and its transforming palate. “Food has been never been more experimental in India,” editor Kapoor says.

Vikas Khanna, who manages Junoon, an upscale Indian eatery in New York, recommends a rather eclectic signature dish in the book — “Octopus Chaat”— a curious improvisation on the traditional  Indian vegetarian snack, “Chaat”.

The snack – of north Indian origin — in the indigenous context is a mish-mash of crushed aloo (potato) patti, dough flour crispies, ginger juliennes, apple and pomegranate seeds tossed in a sauce of iced yogurt, mint and sweet tamarind. But chef Khanna’s “chaat (licks)” sports a strange hybrid cast of ingredients. The essentially Indian cumin, coriander, whole red chilli, black cardamom, garlic garam masala (four aromatic spice mix)  and deghi mirch (a local variety of pepper) jostles for attention with eight medium size octopus.

The cooking technique is essentially Indian despite the fact that the presence of octopus on the platter of chaat . The octopus appears in a jelly form flavoured with tamarind chutney (dip) – and served with heirloom baby tomatoes, Persian cucumber and red onions and sprinkling chaat masala (a spice powder).  The dish will probably evoke extreme reactions from even the most “adventurous” of Indian gourmands. “Octopus in Chaat ….. My goodness. Never. Its madness!”.

But the offbeat is delectable in international food world over— transformational cuisine is becoming almost bizarre, if not outlandish.  

“It has all to do with globalization and the proliferation of the Internet and television,” Kapoor says. Television capsules like the “Masterchef Australia” beamed in millions of home around the world has turned serious spotlight on food. Even children discuss the kind of food that they would like on their menu – and what goes into it. “The cookery shows on television has set gastronomy on a new course. It is in every home,” Kapoor says.

Michelin chef Vineet Bhatia, who owns and manages London-based “Rasoi”, spreads out what can be best described as the “essence of the fusion Indo-European contemporary soul” with a combo-platter of Aubergine (baigan) Chutney (dip), Uttapam Lasagne with Sambhar Peas and Tomato-Coconut Chutney (in the book). The dish is served with the “aubergine chutney sandwiched between three uttapams (rice pancakes), sambhar (south Indian lentil broth) with peas, aubergine-sesame chutney and a tomato-coconut dip.

He adds to the menu with “grilled cheesy lamb chops” served with south Indian curry lead tossed potatoes sauted (or stire fried) with sea salt and spiced lamb jus — a soup of complex Indian spices, trimmings and stock of lamb.

The globalization of cuisine is leading to a funny local phenomenon on the ground — in the chef’s kitchen. The sourcing of content has become localized, almost micro unlike the macro processes. “All the ingredients are being sourced locally,” editor of the volume Anand Kapoor says.

If India falls behind the west in the quality of red meat poultry like pork, beef and ham, the country still figures on the top of the list of the finest quality of spices, vegetables, mutton and fishes. And in the sheer variety of cuisines on its gastronomy roster, Kapoor says.

Celebrity chef Anjum Anand, popular figure on US television and a health chef, picks on the niche of “desi greens” to offer a combination platter of “warm char grilled mushroom salad with roasted butternut squash, crispy potato galette, crème fraiche and green peppercorns”. She uses a tandoori marinade for the mushrooms and serves with radish florets, cashews and red onions. She has many such dishes in her kitty.

It is not difficult to rustle it up in the Indian kitchen — provided “the chef has a world outlook to food”. “My daughter loves Italian food. It is because of us. Parents influence Gen Next gastronomic flavours… I personally like comfort food, anything that brings back memories of childhood,” Kapoor says.                            
Fun fusion fare is the order of the table. For example, gems of imagination like Pumpkin cinnamon phirni, Choco rabdi, watermelon shorba and masaledar (spicy) lamb chops grace the haute menus across the world  — lending Indian gastronomy a new globalised edge away from the raucousness of the predictable “naan, daal, butter chicken” associated with the traditional colours of a prosperous India – from the Mughals to the British and  the hip Punjabi Indi-pop.

The homegrown foodies of yesterday have moved to the toney fine-dining haunts in America and Europe to sample “lasooni gobi”, “Yorkshire beef”, “Tea Infused Chickpeas” and “Pickled Artichokes” at fashionable prices.

Food has been reinventing its facade and price tags with the “lazes faire” in economy and cultures. There is health as well, says Scottish Michelin chef Marcello Tully, the power house of the kitchen at Kinloch Hotel at the edge of Loch in the Isle of Arran (on Scottish island coast).  The hotel is a boutique gastronomic destination, “where people come primarily to savour the menu and halt overnight”.   

“ Food is now very fashionable – gastronomy as a trend goes through certain cycles. It is currently more healthy and light, which is not really my style. I have trained in classical French cuisine. But I have been forced to lighten my food for my diners,” says Tully, one of the contributors to the volume, “Taste: 7 Michelin Stars and Celebrity Chefs”.

His food is international with a variety of flavours. “I have a unique style. I was born in Brazil- and hence have Brazilian influence in my food. I use a broad spectrum of ingredients like spices, herbs, Thai curry and Indian curry – it is very diverse. I work in the northwest of Scotland on an island. It is remote but has the most wonderful ingredients - fantastic sea food, ham, beef, pork, vegetables. I source my ingredients locally,” Tully tells this writer. 

Tully loves the facet of mixing herb and spices in Indian food — something that he often uses in his cooking. The Scots unlike the British love their food fried, the chef says.

Tully’s dishes, which try to retain the original flavor of the ingredients, shows his fascination with India. “I love Indian food,” he says. One of his recipes Aubergine gateau – a Scottish version of the popular Indian “Baigan ka Bharta (aubergine mash curry)”- is treated with couscous, red pepper, coriander, garlic, ginger and lime juice. Almost Indian, but European at heart, the chef says.             

The focus of food now is on ingredients, says Michelin chef Frances Atkins, another contributor to the volume.  “The nature of ingredients changes products. A dish tastes different in each kitchen because of the quality of ingredients use,” the Briton says. Her food is rich flavours of her English countryside and the Moors – with ingredients like rose petals, jasmine mist, watermelons, mango, poppy seeds and enormous amounts of fresh meat.    

A section of foodies in India argue that “international food is yet to come of age in India” given the fact there are no Michelin-starred eatery in the country unlike a smaller nation like Scotland which has 15 Michelin restaurants. But “an amazing lot is happening on the Indian plate,” the seven star chefs concur, dispelling doubts about “the state of contemporary Indian gastronomy”. More people are eating out and new eateries are mushrooming around every bend – virtually every day.  

It is wrong to think that India has fallen behind in the race for “culinary excellence and experimentation”. The country is backed by nearly three millennia of culinary heritage and any evolution of the palate will have to take the “history of Indian food” into account and “look for compatible global techniques”.
The volume serves its purpose — of taking the Indian gourmet on a journey of the continents, their sources of food and kitchens with pictures of places, cuisine and texts.      

Book: “Taste: 7 Michelin Stars and Celebrity  Chefs”. Published by Om Books International, Priced Rs 1,500