Saturday, March 29, 2014

An ‘Earth Anthem’ in poetry – Abhay K’s poetic journey across different geographies


New Delhi: The earth is in dire need of an anthem to protect itself as the degeneration of the planet’s fragile life-chain picks speed, says diplomat-poet-painter Abhay K, who has moved the United Nations with an “idea for an Earth Anthem” to save the planet.

Inspired by the “Earth Day and Earth Hour” — a day (March 29) dedicated to the conservation of the planet Earth and its depleting “energy sources”— the anthem, however, goes beyond the immediate relevance of the day. “You have national anthems and anthems to mark different occasion, but not one for the planet that hosts us,” Abhay K told this writer at the World Poetry Festival in the capital sponsored by Sahitya Akademi March 21-24.  

The poet wrote and published his first earth anthem in 2009 and made several revisions over the years. The revised Earth Anthem was published in his collection of poems, “Remains” in June 2012 and set to music by Sapan Ghimire.        

The “Earth Anthem” is a soulful ditty — simple and touching in its childlike appeal for unity: "Our cosmic oasis, cosmic blue pearl/the most beautiful planet in the universe/our cosmic oasis, cosmic blue pearl/all the continents and the oceans of the world/united we stand as flora and fauna/united we stand as species of one earth/black, brown, white, different colours/we are humans, the earth is our home.
Our cosmic oasis, cosmic blue pearl/the most beautiful planet in the universe/our cosmic oasis, cosmic blue pearl/all the people and the nations of the world/all for one and one for all,/united we unfurl the blue marble flag/black, brown, white, different colours/we are humans, the earth is our home”.

In a memoir article about the making of the song, Abhay K. recalls, “One summer evening in Delhi, a motley group of people gathered at Azad Bhavan, the headquarters of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR), as well as Mandi House on Copernicus Road. It is near ITO, a little far from the comfort zone of Delhi’s cultural elite. The summer evening was made special by the presence of two erudite Union ministers — Kapil Sibal and Shashi Tharoor. They had gathered to listen to the anthem for our home planet, Earth, sung by Shreya Sotang, singer from Nepal, with music composed by Sapan Ghimire and written by your’s truly.”

The first draft of the lyrics of this song was written while Abhay was posted in St Petersburg in Russia at the Consulate General of India. “I don’t remember exactly what inspired me to write an anthem for our planet but in those days, I had just started painting. One of my first paintings was of our planet earth — shining like a blue pearl surrounded by dark space.”

The idea of an Earth Anthem was received with “enthusiasm” by UNESCO. “We find the idea of having an Earth Anthem a creative and inspiring thought which could contribute to bringing the world together,” the United Nations said in response of the poet’s submission.    

The poet, a winner of SAARC (South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation) prize for literature in 2013, has been striving to espouse regional solidarity with cultural interventions for the last few years— since his return to the sub-continent from Russia. Last year, Abhay penned an SAARC anthem in nine regional languages that includes Nepali, Bangla, Pashtu, Urdu, Hindustani, Dzongkha, Sinhala and English.

The anthem explores the idea of a greater geographical and cultural one-ness despite the borders — physical, cultural diplomatic and sovereign — which divide the sub-continent.

The song runs such: Himalaya theke Hinda Sagor,Naga Hills theke Hindukush (Bangla)
Mahaweli inn Ganga, Sindhu inn Brahmputra 
Lakshadweep, Andaman, Everest, Adam's Peak 
Kabul Lay Thimphu Tsuen, Male Lay Kathmandu 
Dilli sita Dhaka, Colombin, Islamabad                     
Harek paila saath-saath,Harek paila saath-saath  
Dzongkha, Hindi, Nepali,Bangla, Pashto, Sinhala 
Urdu, English, Dhivehi,Har kadam saath-saath,
Har kadam saath-saath
Apni-apni pehchan, apne-apne arman                    
Shanti ki baat-baat, Har kadam saath-saath         
Har kadam SAARC saath, Har kadam saath-SAARC
Har kadam SAARC saath,Har kadam saath-SAARC.

“It is played across all the radio stations and television channels in Nepal,” Abhay K. said.    

Art and poetry are interwoven in the romance of Abhay K. poetry that “addresses history, society and transformation of the world — tempered with personal observations about life”.  His poetry traces its beginning to painting — a vocation he took to with seriousness during his tenure in Moscow.

A new collection of his poetry, “Seductions of Delhi: Poems from the Seven Cities of Delhi”, searches the soul of the ancient capital — journeying across the layers of civilization built around seven historical settlements dating back to the era of Mahabharata — with 20 poems and 20 corresponding paintings of the historical landmarks of the capital. The volume, a collaboration between Abhay K.and an India-based Italian artist Tarshito, is “history told in poems and its impressionistic visual interpretation”, the poet explained.

“I have come across several tomes about the history of the capital; but none has ever tried to chronicle the odyssey of Delhi in poetry and paintings. The history of the capital has always been narrated in prose. I felt that a poetic document of the capital’s history and its cosmopolitan sensitivities as the political power centre would appeal to readers as an innovative literary alternative,” Abhay K. explained.      

Abhay, a native of Bihar, has experienced “different phases” as a poet to colour his poetry in emotional diversities touching upon the soulful, spiritual, lyrical, passionate and the philosophical.  
Poets go through different phases of poetry writing, usually starting with love poems, evolving continuously thereafter. My first poem 'The Soul Song' was spiritual though-
"I was always here as blowing wind or falling leaves, as the shining sun or flowing streams...I was never born, I didn't die,’” Abhay K. said.  

His “Moscow-St. Petersburg poems were a mix of poems on love, nature, relationships, life, death, immortality which were published one after another as four poetry collections- ‘Enigmatic Love’, ‘Fallen Leaves of Autumn’, ‘Candling the Light and Remains”, the poet said. After returning from Russia to India, Abhay K “felt that the places, people and the monuments of Delhi wanted to speak to through me, so he became their voice and wrote what they whispered to him”.

“My forthcoming collection of poems ‘Seduction of Delhi’ is a tribute to my beloved Delhi, its seven cities. My poem Delhi attempts to capture the essence of Delhi over millennia-
"My smell, my nakedness entices hordes of human flesh, traders, emperors, marauders. I pose nude up on the hill, below the feast of eagles, possessed, intoxicated,’" the poet said, explaining the nuances of his Delhi inspirations and its word manifest.    

Abhay’s writing in Nepal has further evolved because of his travels in the Himalayas. “My poems have become minimalist like my art works bringing unfamiliar entities together and synthesizing new relationships, giving new meanings. Here is a new poem Triptych that I wrote in Nepal-
"Quark of a poet, blossoming in the sub-atomic space, writing the uni-verse.
 A robot dreamt that it was fast asleep and dreaming.
Story of the man written in acidic double helix, where the soul hides?"

Poetry has redefined itself, Abhay said. “Poetry earlier used to mean verses written in rhyme, metre and forms. Poetry now can be written without all these, just like prose but with a higher degree and level of intensity. However, one thing that has not changed is the use of figures of speech-metaphors, images that gives poetry its uniqueness, its own identity which is distinct from prose,” he pointed out.

Post the World War II, “Poetry also gained freedom from the tyranny of rhyme, metre and form. It does not mean that contemporary poets should not know about these, as those who break the rules, should know the rules even better,” he said.

-Madhusree Chatterjee

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Poetry is changing – moving to new terrain in a real, morphing world (Overview of World Poetry Festival).


Poetry- the medium of literary exposition that transcreates emotions into verbose reality— is progressing in multiple directions in the contemporary socio-political and cultural environment where diverse forces are contouring the intellectual landscape for poets to capture the riot of life’s changing fortunes and realities.
While tender emotions like love, pantheism and the response to emotional experiences — the staple nourishment for poetry over the ages — still remain the touchstone of modern poetic sensibilities— radical events like conflicts, revolution, politics, gender empowerment, heightened consciousness and globalization are redefining the poetic content to relate to the audiences that have expanded to include wider footprint from new geographies.
Poetry is still the most potent healer in this age of stress, violence and lifestyle traumas, critics say — serving as a gentle reminder of the “beauty in the melee words and real worlds”.
A World Poetry Festival-Sabad in the national capital presented by the Sahitya Akademi to commemorate the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore March 21-14 brought poets of all colours and ideologies from 21 countries for four days of reading and discussions in vernacular languages and translations in English language. The objective of the festival was to establish that “poetic sensibilities” worldwide are fashioned by the same set of forces despite the cultural contrasts and the importance of translation in global poetic exchange — only in universalism can vernacular poetry stay alive, the participants concurred.
The festival was unique because it allowed foreign poets from countries like UK, the Balkans, Germany, Seychelles, France, Cuba, Nigeria and Macedonia to share space with poets from the Indian provinces and bring to the fore the reality that poetry uses one language — that of creative expression where the styles, cadences and vernacular archetypes blur in the rush of emotional well-springs.  English – as the primary language of translation – became a medium of “glocal identification” using a hybrid idiom of non-English speaking English that accommodated references to the vernacular to give the queen’s tongue a more earthy provincial flavour. Most poets drew from the contemporary global realities to relate to the audience in the manner of poets like Pablo Neruda, T.S, Elliot, Ted Hughes and W.H. Auden to create meanings and memories rather than word wreaths.
“Poetry cannot exist without memory. My poetry is rooted in nostalgia — which is remembering something which is past, but memory is present is always in the present. Past is a situation, but the values live in the present,” noted Hindi poet Manglesh Dabral told this writer on the sidelines of the festival.
Dabral’s poetry is an echo of his “immediate environs” and everyday like his father’s “old torchlight”, the cell phone and an old man’s failing memories. “It is difficult to create big things with small things. In my early youth, I spoke of my village in my poetry and now I speak of globalization, issues of concern and what has  changed. No one knows about the audience,” Dabral said, shedding light on his “poetic process and growth”. Poetry comes from a source that is located in the world outside, the poet said. His poems like “The Places That I Have Left”, “Torchlight”, “The Missing” and “The Accompanist” from the anthology of his poems, “This Number Does Not Exist” -  a poetic monologue probing the emotions underlying a mobile telephone refrain — refer to the nostalgia created by the past slipping off the conscious memory and the movement of the old to the new.
Dabral’s poems are inspired by incidents that the poet has come across in the media, on the streets and the people who inhabit his inner and outer world.
Contemporary poetry looks for social relevance in lucid expressions that are lyrical and profound at the same time — pithy and packing meaningful punches, Irish poet Lorna Shaughnessy, a poetess and translator from Ireland, explained. “My poems come a from a very wide range. It can be a photograph from a magazine. It can be a glimpse from life, a story or anecdote. I like conversational poetry like the ones by the famous Irish poet Seamus Heaney, often hailed as the creator of conversational poetry,” she said.
Shaughnessy, an academic, said “most of her life went into academic research before she took to writing poetry exclusively”. “Academic life can undermine confidence because pedagogy and academy can arrest the flow of poetic expression,” she said. Poetry is not simple. “It is a craft and you have to work at it like any other craft and practice it,” the poet said. Shaughnessy, a native for Belfast, searches for sub-textual meanings in the “historical events that her country has witnessed”. In one of her poems “Akahista” that pays tribute to the victims of an Air India air carrier crash off the coast of Ireland coast in 1985 speaks of the cross-cultural understandings and the empathy that the disaster memorial “Akahista” has fostered.  “Hundreds of Indians flock to the site every year to mourn the dead,” she said. In yet another poem, “Good Friday, 1998”, Shaughnessy  captures that moment in Irish politics when the Good Friday Peace Accord promises to change the “turbulent revolutionary landscape” of northern Ireland.
“… Your breath is even, you have not moved, though all about you have…,” Shaughnessy says in her poem, “Good Friday, 1998”. She looks at the peace pact between the parties in northern Ireland, the Irish government and the British government through the life of her sleeping child “who sleeps through history” as the politics of Ireland takes a new twist.
Revolution, war, liberation, exile and “right to linguistic identity” are “issues” that imbues  veteran Bangladeshi poet Belal Chowdhury’s  “contemporary” poetry that has not changed much since the 1960s from its realistic style that often verges on “sloganeering”.  The ailing poet, who read out his compositions, at the festival said his poetry “was a document of the journey of Bangladesh from its liberation to our times when the country resonates with global debates about “apartheid, economy, scientific discoveries and nuclear ideas – of sovereignty and development”.
“What is inside an egg
Music, Chemical Notations
Compressed in the Miserable Womb
Ample instructions for weaving a nest
Catalogue of Balanced Diet, the stellar map
The multitudes are stored in the same single cell
Hunger, thirst and bursts of praise…”
Chowdhury belongs to a generation of poets who have “irrevocably” marked by the dislocation of the Partition (of erstwhile East Pakistan) – and the liberation of Bangladesh which saw the birth of the pioneering generations of nationalist poets. His poems shine with the “delicate and sensitive synergy between West and East Bengal’s Bengalihood” joined by cultural renaissance and human exodus from across the border to West Bengal. Chowdhury spent years in exile in Kolkata around the Liberation War.
The translations of his poems into English is embellished with “local flavours” — brought on by the use of the odd Bengali word. This is a curious “oddity” that surfaced time and again at the festival pointing to the “nascent evolution of a indigenous Indian English that touches the lay poetry lover of vernacular origin”. Colloquialism, like in works of prose, is creeping into the poetic language as well in countries with colonial heritage — a native syndrome as many literary critics would describe it.    
The allusion to the indigenous was most pronounced in the English translations of the poetry of three south Indian poets — K. Siva Reddy, P.P. Ramachandran and H. Shivaprakash (at the festival) who assimilated from folk, mythology and bigger canons of Indian spirituality to craft their “modern” poetry that addressed the “ancient” in a new voice. Ramachandran’s “Ghatkoper” paints a meticulous picture of the Mumbai suburb — suggesting the shape of the larger metropolis through the microcosm of a underbelly.
Poetry is present in almost every person like a story waiting to be narrated. Police officer Hilde Marie, one of the most promising young poets from the island of Seychelles writes poetry for the “sheer power and beauty of the language that the calling allows her”. She looks back in introspection at the colonial history of her island – of slavery, the rise of the middle class and social justice. She punctuates her “social” poetry with personal memoirs in poems like “The Continuous”, “Fireflies in the Dusk” and “The Fields Bloom No More”. The poems — in English and Creole — are powerful in their choice of words and visual imagery that is like a lens to the natural splendour of the Indian Ocean island. Italian poet Tiziana Cera Rosco seeks passionate succor in religion to invoke the “anguish of Jesus Christ” in her poem, “It is finished” — a lamentation of the prophet before his death on the cross exhorting “god to forgive mankind for not knowing what they were doing”— to themselves and to their “messiah” . His dying entreaties are addressed  to God and “Magdalene” — the woman he “imagines to have married”.   
Poet Maram-Al-Masari , a Syrian poet living in Paris, was the voice of the suppressed Arab women “breaking chains of fears and silence”.                                 
The power of poetry that springs from the gut-pools of truth conjures up images of paintings, music  and drama — three mediums that poetry is closest to. “I was raised by my grandmother in Nigeria – where she taught me the local music and arts as a child. I compose songs and performances for my people and culture. Almost all these arts interpreted in my poetry which has a lot to do with positive traditions of sculptures, painting, music and dance. You cannot separate poetry from music,” Tanure Ojaide, a poet from Nigeria, said in a discussion, “Poetry and Other Arts”. Poetry is increasingly a mosaic shard of a artistic whole — the exposition of culture as a holistic arts experience. Poets like George Szirtes, an art school graduate and curator-art critic Ranjit Hoskote (who were at the festival) would certainly concur.

-Madhusree Chatterjee                  

Friday, March 21, 2014

A tribute to India's most candid and loving writer - Khushwant Singh (Obituary)


One of India's most acerbic writers, astute columnist, inveterate journalist and acclaimed novelist Khushwant Singh passed away on March 20, 2014 at the age of 99 in New Delhi after almost seven decades of  literary brainstorming and wise-cracking across a gamut of mediums - news, books, poetry and "jokes". The iconic writer of the "Train To Pakistan", "The Mark of Vihsnu and Other Stories" "I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale", "A History of the Sikhs", The Sunset Club" and several other books of essays,short stories, history and fiction was known for "acid secularism", "sharp critical eye" and humour in his writing - as well as in life. Singh was a child of New Delhi - a city that his grandfather helped built at a time when the erstwhile British colonialists were looking for "efficient architects"to design the capital complex under the command of architect Edward Lutyens. The lineage coloured the writer-journalist's genes - seeped into his blood integrating his persona and intellect with the colonial and modern history of Delhi and India.  It is an occasion to mourn and look back in nostalgia for millions of Khushwant Singh's fans across the country - educated  middle class homes which he reached through his newspaper columns like the "With Malice Towards One and All"...

Here is the writer-journalist personal tryst with Khushwant Singh in course of her career. A homage.                      

The New Delhi that writer-columnist Khushwant Singh knew like the back of his hand has now become an alien city in which the 98-year-old thespian has lost his way, the writer says in his new volume of ruminations.
"It has grown out of all proportions, extending from Alipur to Faridabad, from Ghazibad and Noida across the Yamuna in Uttar Pradesh to Gurgaon in Haryana," Singh says in his just-published autobiographical account, "Khushwantnama: The Lessons of My Life".
Luytens had planned a city for a few thousand civil servants and staff; it now has a population of 16 million; he had planned roads for a few thousand cars, tongas and bicycles; now almost every family has a car or two or three and the roads are jammed from sunrise to sunset - and even after, Khushwant Singh says of the metropolis that his father Sobha Singh, a pioneer architect, had laid out with Lutyens and his crew.
"It is a city in which more than twice as many women get molested and raped than in Mumbai...I don't go out any more. The last time I had to step out to visit the doctor, I found the roads clogged," Khushwant Singh says.
The author's soul-searching of the city, where he lived and worked for most of his adult writing life, is steeped in memories, nostalgia and umbilical cords that tie him to the growth of modern Delhi with blood. There is a wistfulness about his reflections that borders on mourning - the blues of a man suspended on a thin thread between living and passing away.
But Khushwant Singh is nothing short of a marvel. His pen keeps painting his musings even as his body - confined to a wheel chair - could be falling apart slowly. He wants to give up, but his zest for life refuses to let him off the hook.
Death has been occupying Khushwant Singh for the last few years since he had published "The Sunset Club" - a novel about three 80-year-old men discussing about life, lust, politics and society.
"In my 98th year, I have little left to look forward to, but lots to reminisce about. To draw a balance sheet of my life and failures. On the credit side, I have over eighty books, novels and collections of short stories, biographies, histories, translations from Punjabi and Urdu, and many essays," he writes, looking inward.
One the debit side, the "reckless" sardar has "his character". "I spend many evenings going over my evil deeds I committed in my early years. With an airgun, I killed dozens of sparrows who had done me no harm," he discloses about his roster of heinous deeds.
Two years ago, the writer decided it was time for him to withdraw into himself at 96.
"Some people would describe it as retirement. I chose a hallowed Indian word, 'sanyas'," Khushwant Singh says with a hint of resignation.
For nearly seven decades, the author, a former editor of the now-defunct Illustrated Weekly of India and later the Hindustan Times, has remained on the top of the best-selling charts with classics like "The Train to Pakistan", "I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale" and "Delhi".
The pithy hard-bound book covers Khushwant Singh's orientation in pithy essays that explore "The State of the Nation", "The Importance of Gandhi", "What Religion Means to Me", "The Business of Writing", "Journalism Then and Now" and "Dealing With Death" - all subjects close to his heart.
"Thinking Aloud" devotes itself to the writer's views on partition, the English language paradox, sex and the qualities of a president.
The style is beguiling and, at intervals, shines with tongue-in-cheek self-analysis.
"I have always believed that sex is more important than romance. Romance is a waste of energy. It takes up time and loses it lustre soon... There is too much of sexual frustration in our country," Khushwant Singh says with his usual candour.
"I never rated myself very highly as a writer. At school, I was hopeless at all subjects. And although I was very keen on sports, I wasn't any good at games either. The only bright point was a comment from my English teacher in my report card," he recalls.
"Ms. Budden, who had come from England to teach at Modern School for two years, wrote that I had the possibility of making it as a writer," the writer says.
So typically Khushwant Singh that it makes you cry for the sheer humility of his "greatness".

(Madhusree Chatterjee for IANS on Khushwant Singh's 98th birthday)   

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The divine in Indian art – body as ‘bindu’ of origin and creativity Feature)


The human body in Indian art has been a visual metaphor – symbol – for expressions of emotions spanning the divine, heroic, earthly, sensuous and courage across the cycles of birth and death in the movements and practices since millennia.
 The body, since it made the first appearance in art on the walls of cave habitats of the hunter-gatherers of pre-history was that of the “man in his elemental environment” — of a hunter, forager and survivor. Over millennia, art copied man and the civilisation in motion till it reached the temple walls, where art took on divine colours and lyrical stylizations – away from the portraits of everyday life and objects of utility as during the Indus Valley epoch.

The temple friezes — etched carvings on the walls — and painted murals gave to art its first aesthetic and cultural meaning as the visual —linkages with people. Over centuries, art moved from temples to manuscripts, texts, stand alone solid objects and then on paper.  The movements, however, have remained true to its crucibles of genesis on the temple walls, rock faces and civilisational landscapes— the human body and the figure as the lifelines of Indian art down the ages.

Two  expositions of figurative works  — “The Body in Indian Art” at the National Museum in New Delhi and “Divinity in Indian Art” at the Delhi Art Gallery, try to explore the human figure as the origin of Indian aesthetics and its manifestation of the divine – with its affiliate “rasas” or emotions built around the divine. The Body in Indian Art —  a showcase hosting more than 300 works of art from 44 institutions looks at the complexities of the body as depicted in art ranging from the monumental stone sculptures of early historical periods to the Chola bronzes of Tanjore and the manuscripts of magic painted for Emperor Akbar from the archives of the Nawab of Rampur. Almost all the works on display dating back to 2500 BC from the Indus Valley civilization to contemporary interpretations of the body are either divine, spiritual or religious in nature grounded in the ethno-spiritual and religious iconography and ethos of India local and bigger pantheons of faith that thrive in spiritual philosophies like Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Islam and later Christianity with its attending living invocation traditions.

“The body in this exposition is revealed not only as the subject of art, but as the keeper of values, pre-occupations and aspirations of times ancient, medieval and modern — popular as well as classical. The complex plurality of India emerges which shows the diversity in geography, chronology, patronage, religion and art material,” curator Naman Ahuja said. Explaining about the project (which was originally conceived during Europalia – a cultural showcase in Brussels last year), Ahuja said the body is used as a bedrock on the “subject of art and civilization”. What do you mean by the body in India”

“In all studies, the representation of the body begins as a portrait – art history starts with the representation of the body,” he said. The body is used as a launch pad to begin a broader discussion on art around India and other civilizations. The exhibition, divided into segments, investigates the relevance the body in the cycles prescribed in the Indian spiritual and metaphysical studies – as vessel of birth, motherhood, supernatural, cosmic, valour and death. Each section — made of museum art — hosts a contemporary work to contrast the journey of the body in the temporal framework influenced by different schools of thoughts that evolved in the successive eras of civilization to “show whether the body has broken away from traditional stereotypes or has moved in continuum. 

The exhibition begins with the “End of the Body” which is inspired by the notion of Samsara and Kalachakra in the Buddhist canons. It is built on the belief that “I am beyond the body — a spiritual being and spirit that integrates with the cosmos as positive energy source. Two of the important sculptural representations of this segment are stone carvings of two 13th century Khakatya warrior from the Hyderabad State Museum that elevate two martyred soldiers – a man and a woman — into divine beings invoked by the people. A collection of everyday historical objects are given funerary and spiritual relevance in the context of the mortal body. 

The gallery of death continues in a series of miniature art works from the ancient Hindu “Karni-Bharni” manuscripts that visually interprets a Vedic premise – as you sow, so you reap in this world.  “In ancient Buddhism and early Sikhism, there is no actual representation of the body. What do you substitute it with,” Ahuja pointed out. The body is represented in “artistic iconographies”.
A delicate illuminated paper manuscript of calligraphic paintings of the 99 names of Allah commissioned by Mughal Emperor Aurungzeb – from the museum archive” depicts “divinity” in Islamic art, which was “conservative” about representations of spirituality in art.
The “End of the Body” is followed by “The Body Beyond Its Limits of Form” that looks at “concepts of rebirth, light, sounds and desire” with the ground as the earth and overhanging lanterns as the cosmic  sky. Birth and rebirth happens only when there is duality of solidity of earth and the in-between spaces. Birth in this segment of the exhibition is “represented as the birth of the world, birth of the universe and birth of the child”. A separate section explores the “mythical notions” of immaculate conception and “self-birth”.    

Carved into the stone motifs that spread out across the “display corridors of birth” are reliefs of mythical mothers from a group of “seven mothers in ancient Hindu pantheon” known as the “saptamatrikas” comprising the likes of “Vaishnavi, Varahi and Chamunda. A small stone carving of the “Lajja Gauri” imbues the process of physical birth with “divine symbolism”. A collection of paintings of man as “purusha” in Buddhist, Jain, Hindu and tantric traditions try to show how the “body is regarded as containing the whole universe within it”. “The Body as the Ideal Heroic” explores the “icons of valour: in every faith — Vishnu in Hinduism and the “Boddhisattavas” in Buddhism. In India, the visual interpretations of divinity through the body overlap across genres of faiths. 

“Traditions are not monolithic — traditions changes and morphs all the time. Modern artists have a legacy to interpret and re-interpret which they draw from and move away from. Artists also draw from many traditions – not within simply India. There is Mughal painting of the Birth of Mary which is based engraving by Dutch painter Comelius Cort,” Ahuja said.

The historicity of divinity in Indian figurative art finds yet another expression in an exhibition, “Indian Divine, Exploring Gods and Goddesses in 20th century Modern Indian Art” at the Delhi Art Gallery in New Delhi. More than 100 canvases and sculptural figures present the “birth and movement of the divine on the Indian canvas for the last 100 years – documenting the 20th century figurative studies of gods and goddesses that resemble human beings in celestial make-up in early Bengal oil paintings, manuscript illustrations, lithographs, tints and contemporary paintings that took off from Raja Ravi Varma’s religious art that “gave India the first faces of the contemporary gods and goddesses modeled on western style portraitures”.

The earliest work in the exhibition is that of a Chaitanya painted in 1849 in the “pioneer Bengal style” where the seer is shown as a “beautiful being” more like a nymph than an itinerant bard and preacher with mystical powers. It traces the chronology of mythological art from regions such as Bombay (Mumbai) and Bengal- where art developed in two distinct schools, an Indo-European school of art combining traditional Indian imagery and colours with western style perspectives, backgrounds and figures inspired by the European colonialists. The second school was those of the local painters like the Kalighat scroll (pat) painters – whose content was religious.      

The legends of Radha Krishna and the avatars of Durga as a power fount are the most popular subjects – explored by early modernists like M.V. Dhurandhar and contemporary masters like Bikas Bhattacharya, Ganesh Pyne, M.F, Husain, K.K. Hebbar, Robin Mandal and P.V. Janakiraman. Hinduism shares space with Buddhism and Christianity — the latter becoming a cross-cultural bridge for painters like Jamini Roy, Krishen Khanna, F.N. Souza and Madhvi Parekh.

Understanding the idea of divinity in Indian modern requires  journeying  back in time, says Kishore Singh, project editor and head of exhibition and publication of the Delhi Art Gallery.  “We have to look back at it from the point of transition in Indian art when western artists - who came to India in the early 20th century — changed the way Indian artists approached mediums and style in art with western concepts of perspectives, depths and lights. It brought a huge change in Indian environment. The improved concepts came with the European mediums,” Singh said.

“We did not have figurative likeness of gods and goddesses— our scriptures told us how they looked in terms of attributes and symbols like Lakshmi had shower of coins, Saraswati had a ‘tambura’ and Vishnu floated on a serpent’s head. That was how the early artists imagined them and gave them real faces usually in miniature styles. A element of cross-cultural exchange crept in as well when early Bengal artists began to render Krishna – Gopi Sangha lores (Lord Krishna and his playmates), legacy of Mathura (in Uttar Pradesh) in the Bengali idiom,” Singh said.                                  

However, it was painter and print maker Raja Ravi Varma, who gave India the first pan-Indian visuals of gods and goddesses. “The journey starts from there,” Singh said.

Divinity in Indian matrix of art is “about abstractions of faith — exchange in faith and faithlessness across a large pantheon of deities and traditions that go beyond the entrenched the manifestations of the divine to traditions and living cultures growing around religions”, writer, researcher and art connoisseur Ina Puri said, pointing to the broader canvas of religiosity in art and cultures.

“In the midst of it is a deep-seated religiosity – something we have to live with in our own life and in our cultures. I like the cross-currents in modern spiritual art like Madhvi Parekh looking at the last supper and M.F. Husain at Ramayana,” Puri said. Art has moved out of canvas into living cultures in a contemporary redefinition that is striving to open the mosaic of art as a greater cultural process.

In this backdrop, the art of the divine lives in performance art as well like the traditional “Bahuropias”- the chameleon actors who take on artistic physical makeovers as the deities from the pantheons, Gajan (devotional songs) musicians, folk dancers and characters from Ramayana and Mahabharata. “This whole living artistic culture of religion is not kitsch or pop..It is mainstream,” Puri said.

Interestingly, the cross cultural current was most apparent in the arrival of Christian art to India, suggested art writer Georgina Maddox in a new publication, “Indian Divine”. “The images of Christ in India first appeared in India were in the Indo-Islamic likeness of the bearded Christ, not the Caucasian Renaissance Christ – fair and blue eyed with golden hair and beard. The image which prevails in popular calendar art today had a much later influence in India. In fact, the local artists who worked in the ateliers of the Mughal kings replaced the images of Jesus Christ and Virgin Mary with the iconography of the existing Mughal miniatures,” Maddox pointed out. According to William Dalrymple, “It is one of the many examples … Moments in the history of Islamic-Christian relations that defies the simplistic strictures of Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilsiation’ thought”.
A Islamic Nativity Scene of Jesus Birth painted in 1720 CE is an Islamic version of nativity with an Indian version of Mary, clothed women attendants and floral gardens.

The compositions of divinity in Indian art are complex- abstract, individualistic, lyrical, creative and cosmopolitan at the same time grounded in history but “out of its conventional grammar” to span frontiers of artists’ imagination.                
-Madhusree Chatterjee



Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Indian government honours 10 contemporary artists with national awards 2014


The Indian government has honoured 10 artists — including five painters, two graphic artists and two sculptures — with the annual Lalit Kala Akademi's national awards (for the year 2014) for their "exemplary" works of art that reflect the new encounters in Indian aesthetics, the technical diversity and finesse in practise which Indian artists are known for. This is the 55th edition of the awards considered to be one of the most prestigious prizes in the domestic art world.
The prizes and an accompanying visual display (the National  Exhibition) recognise creativity in content, innovation of thought and mastery over practises of art in the contemporary segment.   
Art practises in India take in their stride 5,000 year old aesthetic lineage linked to the civilisational history and the universal global languages for a contemporary indigenous idiom that is more "glocal" than international. The Akademi looks for emerging artists whose works and perspectives of thought best represent these "ongoing currents" in Indian art.  
The theme of the national art awards for 2014 is "Of Challenges and Responses — Civilisation in Stress". 
Explaining the nature of selections, K.K. Chakravarty, the chairperson of the Lalit Kala Akademi, the country's national apex body of art, said a two-tier jury selected the 10 winners from submissions of thousands - invited by announcement in newspapers and the media from across urban, mofussil and rural habitats across India. Chakravarty said art in India had to connect to the settlement patterns and human lifestyles first; before "assimiliating from the east-west encounters across civilisations".
"It has to build bridges between the corporeal and the incorporeal, figurative and the non-figurative, to express the inexpressible and to communicate the sense of urgency to diagnose and cure radically fractured human condition. It reminds us that 'hidden worlds connect to things that hide them, within the red wood bark lies moss under which are roads and insects: Tide pools connect us to unfathomable seas which connect to our chromosomes," the chairman of the Lalit Kala Akademi (apex art institution) said. 
In a curatorial note, chairman Charavarty said "escape from the civilisational crisis has been sought in the fragmentation, reconstitution and objectification of organic and inorganic forms or to elusive, transient and uncertain mutations of visible reality". The 55th National Exhibition of the Lalit Kala Akademi and the awards "look at the world made by human beings in the eye and creates a spectrally heightened and distorted actuality, autonomous self-evolving structures, in tune with the transformative leavening power of nature. The exhibition tried to lend extraordinary meaning to ordinary objects by associating them in unforeseen permutations".   .     
The national award carries a purse of Rs 100,000. The categories include oil, acrylic, bronze, charcoal, etchings and ceramic art. 
The chairman of the Lalit Kala Akademi said "the awards in 2014 were significant because all the artists wanted their art works to be displayed in New Delhi. Earlier, the Akademi for nearly  last two decades had been carrying the ceremony and the exhibition to the states to "connect to a wider audience". One of the reasons that guided the Akademi's decision to "host the awards and visual showcase in Delhi was the fact that it would draw international attention and build a pool for the Akademi's Triennale exhibition in 2015 end by opening new dialogues. Moreover, the Kochi Biennale scheduled for Dec 2014 and the India Art Fair thereafter in early 2015 could use the Akademi's pool of talent for its curational exercises   — as a complimentary collation space.
"We want to pitch our talent at international events in the country and abroad as a platform and exchange forum. The prize is not an one-off engagement with young Indian art," the chairman of Lalit Kala Akademi said. 
The National Art Award Winners for 2014:  
Anamika Vijayaveeraraghavan 
Kaushik Halder 
Manoj Kumar Mohanty 
Mohammed Ayazuddin Patel 
Nongmaithem Nandaraj Singh 
Rajesh Kumar Singh 
Sanjeeva Rao Guthi 
Shrinivas Govindrao Mahetre 
Srinivas Reddy N 
Sumana Som    

 -Madhusree Chatterjee 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

From Kashmir to India with Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma in a photographic memoir



The popularity of an Indian classical musical instrument – whether it sounds good to the ear of the listeners — depends on the exponent and the way the instrument is played, says “santoor” maestro Shiv Kumar Sharma — an iconic classical instrumentalist from Kashmir, who has taken the traditional north Indian string instrument to the realm of classical and mainstream music in India – and across to America and Europe.  The philosophy applies to his calling — the musician with flying fingers who makes his instrument, the “santoor” veritably speak.   
History cites that the Indian “santoor”, an ancient string instrument from Jammu and Kashmir traces its roots to Persia and Mesopotamia – where it was played around 1600-900 BC.  A traditional “santoor” is trapezoid shaped dulcimer (fretted instrument) often made of walnut wood with 72 strings — and sets of two bridges that produces sounds in three octaves.
It is extensively used across northern and northwestern India as a classical and a folk instrument – either as an accompaniment or as a solo instrument. The strings that can be plucked or fretted are played to complex patterns of notations— that requires deftness, a flair for fine melody and a dash of exotica that makes the “santoor” different from the rest of its “classical counterparts” in its evolved musical notes. “It is not easy to master santoor,” Shiv Kumar Sharma told this writer on the sidelines of the launch of a pictorial biography of his life as India’s foremost “santoor” exponent.
The coffee table anthology, “Shiv Kumar Sharma: The Man & His Music”,   edited by Ina Puri features “rare photographs and essays documenting the journey of Shiv Kumar Sharma’s music from the sylvan valleys of Kashmir to rest of the country — even to the movie town of Mumbai where the maestro popularized the “rarely heard strings” as a playback and theme instrument.
In the process of carrying the “santoor” to the heart of India’s commercial entertainment in Mumbai, the musician brought the Dogri folk musical traditions to Bollywood as well — while composing music for films like “Silsila” and “Chandni”.   
“Classical music is a different field and film music is different. When you are working in a movie, you have to compose and compere according to the location and situations. In our times, perfection was very important (digital correction technology was not around). But when you are deep into films, you drift from classical calling…,” the musician recalled— explaining his forays into film music and back.
Mastreo Shiv Kumar Sharma’s inroad into the dream world of “Bombay cinema” happened in 1955, writes musicologist and scholar of mainstream Indian cinema Manek Premchand, who has authored three books, “Yesterday’s Melodies; Today’s Memories”, “Musical Moments from Hindi Films” and “Romancing the Song”.  The young Shiv Kumar Sharma “was not even an adult: when he came to play for a concert at Mumbai’s Swami Haridas Festival in February 1955- which was his first “santoor” recital in Mumbai. The youngster’s journey to Mumbai was facilitated by Karan Singh, the scion of the former Maharaja of Kashmir, Hari Singh, who “recommended Shiv Kumar Sharma to an event organizer” .
“Sitting in the audience was the daughter of the great V. Shantaram, a young lady called Madhura, who would go on to become the wife of Pandit Jasraj. The young lady met him: ‘I am V. Shantaram’s daughter. I liked the sound of the santoor. During the performance, I called up my dad and told him about this new instrument  I had just heard and liked. Dad said, ‘Call him tomorrow to the Rajkamal Studio. Let me hear this musician. So do please go and meet him tomorrow”. Initial reluctance and the musician’s “college examination” deferred the meeting. Two months later in April, the maestro received a telegram from the Raj Kamal Studios for an audition. V. Shantaram, who was impressed with the instrument that the young musician from Jammu played summoned music composer, “Vasant Desai, who had just completed the music for the movie, “Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje”.
Neither of them had heard the santoor before “and their synergy of excitement was palpable”. But there was an issue now. The songs “were done”. Composer Vasant Desai suggested to young Shiv of he could compose and play the “santoor” for a scene in a lake. He watched the scene a few times and readied a tune. That was how the santoor and the man behind the santoor made their first audio appearance in Hindi cinema — in a scene featuring Gopi Krishna and Sandhya romancing on a boat, Premchand writes in an essay, “A Parallel Journey: Composing  for Cinema” in the biography.
The maestro joined “musical forces with ace flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia under the Yash Chopra banner — to capture Bollywood fame as the duo Shiv-Hari, who made superstar Amitabh Bachchan sing for them in the movie “Silsila”, Anupam Kher in “Vijay” and Sridevi in “Chandni”. The two musicians came together because they had worked in several movies as background musicians and understood each other well. But the raison de etre of their “partnership” was the fact that the sounds gelled — the wild sweetness of “santoor” was a perfect compliment for the haunting strains of the Indian flute, Premchand points out. Shiv Kumar Sharma has worked in nearly 52 movies since his debut performance in Mumbai — as a teenaged performer in “Brij Narayan ji’s mega classical music soiree under the banner of Sur Sringar Samsad at the erstwhile Jahangir Hall”.
“I played two instruments — the table and the santoor at the concert,” the maestro recounted.           
Editor Ina Puri, a culture activist, writer, researcher and critic, picked up the leaves for “The Man & His Music” from an earlier book, “A Journey with 100 Strings: My Life in Music” — “Shiv ji had turned 60”.   It was a commissioned biography. “He was completely open to the idea... He allowed me to meet people close to his family, his shagirds (disciples) and people around him who made him a real person,” Puri told this writer. The book was translated into several languages and was the source text for the award-winning biopic on the maestro, “Antardhwani” – made by Jabbar Patel in collaboration with Ina Puri.
When the maestro was turning 75 last year, Patel suggested that they should bring out a pictorial memoir of the maestro. It had to be like “how he grew up — to now and all that had in between through photographs” that saw her knocking doors like that of the Sangeet Research Academy’s, the maestro’s family archive and sifting through photographer Dayanita Singh’s personal collections. “There were nearly 8,000 photographs – I chose around 4,000 because I had to do justice to Shiv ji… I  had to take photographs not just because Shiv ji was looking good, but the fact that they threw light on his musical odyssey,” Puri recalled. 
The photographs are musical historians’ delight with rare shots of “sitar legend Ravi Shankar, Shiv Kumar Sharma, Beatles member George Harrison and actor Peter Sellers” outside their “personal aircraft in United States” during a world concert tour in 1974, childhood shots of his home, parents, wedding, at leisure playing cricket on a Mumbai beach, amid the movie-tone glamour of Mumbai, live concerts across the country and official felicitations.
The musician traces his musical lineage to his father Uma Dutt Sharma—a radio musician, who was close to the erstwhile royal family of Jammu and Kashmir. 
“My father, the first generation musician in our family, trained in secret with a Kashmir court musician (percussionist) Guru Sardar Harnam Singh because music as a vocation was looked down in Brahmin families in Kashmir. He left Kashmir to learn music from Pandit Bade Ramdas ji in Varanasi and began to broadcast from Radio Lahore before Independence and from Radio Jammu after Independence. He rarely left home…,” Shiv Kumar Sharma recalled— sharing musical experiences and “pasts” with “guru-bhai (fellow student of Uma Dutt Sharma)”,  Karan Singh, the director-general of Indian Council for Cultural Relations at the launch of his book in New Delhi last week.                         
Pandit  Shiv Kumar Sharma played the “tabla” till the age of 13  under his father’s guidance – while “brother Karan Singh was tutored in Hindustani music”.
The journey has been deeply fulfilling and self-rewarding since then. The maestro has turned inwards with years as he shares with editor Ina Puri in a conversation. “I will play my music till the day I feel I am doing justice to the instrument… The day I feel because of my age or any other factor, I am not doing justice to my music, I will give up playing in public. I am looking at different avenues to find what I can do…” the maestro said. He is trying to make his music a spiritual experience – meditative and transcendental among the Generation Next — a segment of audience for whom Pandit ji is working tirelessly with the help of SPIC-MACAY, a music and culture promotion platform.              
“Santoor will survive by itself, you need not panic,” he concludes.   

-Madhusree Chatterjee          
(The book has been published by Niyogi Books)