Upcoming Event [View More]
27th October, 8 pm, a concert at the Vortex Jazz Club. [View More]
28th October, a talk at the School of Oriental and African Studies: ’Who is the Reader? Literary Activism and the Mehrotra Campaign’. [View More]
Readings at the Sydney Writers Festival on 21st, 22nd, and 23rd May: [View More]
Readings/talks related to the new novel Odysseus Abroad in and near London next week (all welcome)
The New York premiere, at the 15th New York Indian Film Festival, of the film A Moment of Mishearing, co-directed by Amit Chaudhuri and woven around his music, will take place at the Village East Cinemas – Cinema 4,181 2nd Ave, New York, NY 10003, Thursday, May 7, 2015, 9.30 pm. Here are the details: [View More]
James Wood’s review of Odysseus Abroad and his overview of Chaudhuri’s work in the New Yorker: [View More]
Guardian review of Odysseus Abroad by Neel Mukherjee: [View More]
Chatting with Nicholas Wroe in the Guardian: [View More]
New essay on Joni Mitchell: [View More]


The Writers

On constantly mishearing ‘rioting’ as ‘writing’ on the BBC
There has been writing for ten days now
unabated. People are anxious, fed up.
There is writing in Paris, in disaffected suburbs,
but also in small towns, and old ones like Lyon.
The writers have been burning cars; they’ve thrown
homemade Molotov cocktails at policemen.
Contrary to initial reports, the writers
belong to several communities: Algerian
and Caribbean, certainly, but also Romanian,
Polish, and even French. Some are incredibly
young: the youngest is thirteen.
They stand edgily on street-corners, hardly
looking at each other. Long-standing neglect
and an absence of both authority and employment
have led to what are now ten nights of writing.
first published in The Observer

Going for a Drive

The watchman waves. The garage door
stutters open. It’s dark inside, dark. Grope for a switch.
‘Where are you going?’ We’re going somewhere not dark,
somewhere clear and sunlit,
where the frank wind touches our faces. The watchman
brushes open the gate by habit.
Leaves—wrinkled, yellow tongues—pastiche
the driveway by habit. When you turn the key, the car
throbs, and there’s a sharp, bitter aura of petrol.
Then light a cigarette. A point glows
like an ache for the past. When was I last with you in this car,
in this closed space?
Outside, wind and dust glaze the windows. Young, I loved
that smell
of fuel washing the car-intestine, its suddenness,
its spontaneous personality.
I grew intimate with its bitter exactness. In every derelict
service station, or among ruined despondent engines,
or bleary pools in dumps
with rainbows
in their eyes,
I inspired that fragrance. It was everywhere, it was
a wise spirit, a timeless,
unromantic, amor mundi spirit,
haunting the dark cogs and the pistons
like despair, or love,
or one of those emotions I wouldn’t experience with clarity
until long after,
and not even then.
from St Cyril Road and other poems

‘The Bidet’

In my cousin’s mansion in California
my uncle and aunt, tourists
saw it separately.
At first, they didn’t know what it was –
neither basin nor commode
neither bowl nor bathtub
they circled round it anxiously
and silently.
Could it be a drinking-water fountain?
Later, when they knew, they tried
it tentatively; the dwarf-
like jet of water sprang ceilingward
and surprised their secret regions.
from St Cyril Road and other poems

‘Apples still from Kashmir’

Apples still from Kashmir
pale pink in crates in winter’s market.
Each grew through the year till it absorbed
the valley’s sweetness and undertaste
and reached its final shape and weight.
They are not dead, but come to fruition.
When you bite them, not blood,
but the valley’s clear juice floods your mouth.
from St Cyril Road and other poems

Thoughts in a Temple (This is an extract. For the full article, first published in the Times Literary Supplement, see Clearing a Space.)

Two weeks ago, I went for a walk with my daughter to the Birla temple. It is not far from where I live; and I have seen it coming up for years, from a time when I did not actually live in Calcutta, but when, during long or short periods of transit, would look at it from the balcony of this flat. It was built – this plush Orientalist artefact – by the family after which it is named: the Birlas, whose forefather moved from Rajasthan to Calcutta and made his fortune here. I can’t say I unreservedly enjoy going to this temple; there are, however, only so many places to walk about in Calcutta. My daughter, though, does enjoy going there, without reservation; and this was both her second visit and mine. The first time must have been almost exactly a year ago; I remember the warm marble floor under our bare feet from that excursion, the floor that must have absorbed the heat all day to give it out in the evening. I can also remember my daughter, a year younger, running across the space before the main shrine; on our second visit, the marble was warm again beneath our feet. — On this visit, the precincts of the temple were more crowded than the first time I went there; it was a site of recreation – men and women, and some children, sat in the large space before the steps that led to the sanctum in which the arati (evening prayers offered to the deity) was being performed. They looked content, like people at the seaside. My daughter, easily frightened, was alarmed at the sound of the bell, and did not want to investigate the arati – the familiar tune, which one can hear these days even when certain domestic water filters are used, was being played on a tape – and so we roamed around the premises. A thought came to me: would these people condone, or at least defend, what was happening in Gujarat? —-The question was probably grossly unfair, but impossible to keep out of my head, or leave unasked. In the last ten years, gradually, the idea of the ‘peace-loving Hindu’ has been turned inside out. The most innocent-seeming of activities appear to be charged with unarticulated violence. To walk in the Birla temple was to sense – perhaps to imagine; but to imagine powerfully – that subterranean violence which Hinduism is now charged with in its totality: because you cannot isolate one kind of ‘religious’ activity from another. Perhaps it was the location; perhaps I wouldn’t have felt this discomfort if these people had gathered at a more ancient, less ostentatious, place of worship. I have never really cared for the Birla temple, for its security guards who hover not very far from you once you enter, its marble floor and enormous chandelier, its expansive air of a lobby in a four star hotel, its spotless, garish, unimpeachable idols. —-This spectacle is part of the production of a version of Hinduism that has been a steadily developing enterprise in independent India: Hinduism as a rich man’s, a trader’s, religion. Although aggressive exhortations are made on behalf of Lord Ram, the principal deities of this religion are Ganesh and Lakshmi: not Ganesh, the wily and rapid transcriber of the Mahabharat, but the bringer of good fortune to the black marketeer; not Lakshmi, the agrarian goddess, but the goddess who presides over the urban dowry-system. As ever, our divinities bless their devotees indiscriminately. I have heard Hinduism celebrated for the resilience with which it, unlike other religions, has embraced capitalism; but perhaps it has embraced capitalism a little too well. It has left the Hindu with an importunate will to fit into the modern world, and without a social conscience. —-Hindutva – the BJP’s frequently used ontologically and culturally assertive term for ‘Hinduness’ -does not so much promote religion as it does material success for the followers of the Hindu religion. Success, in the Nineties, has been its key-word, but success for the majority only; it will not barter or share it with anyone else; it will even pretend no one else exists; if they do, it will see to it that they cease to. I presume it is not a coincidence that the extreme measures of ethnic cleansing in Gujarat should be undertaken by those who have been the most effective proponents of the new Hinduism’s mantra of material well being. Many of the sources that fund our new kitsch Hinduism are also those that fund, or quietly encourage, a government that has a chief minister who defends and protects murderers, and a prime minister who defends and protects that minister. Then there is the largesse that flows in from overseas, from businessmen in London, from expatriates in England and America. Does it only take an arati to keep our gods happy? —-Hinduism was never, in the past (unlike Christianity), at the heart of a revolutionary political movement, precisely because it was never an evangelical religion; it had no Word, or truth, to spread. The killings done in its name today are not part of a jihad, and nor are they the residue of a misguided evangelism; they are a brutal and calculated exercise of power in a moral vacuum: Hinduism as the punitive instrument of the powerful. Christianity has often had a quarrel with modernity, and the materialism it denotes in its eyes; Islam has a related quarrel with the West, modernity’s synecdoche. That is why Islamic militancy, even at its worst, has the dimensions of an ideology, albeit a distorted one. Hindutva, on the other hand, has no problem with modernity, or with the West; and it rushes to embrace the latter’s material benefits. This happy concordance, in Hindutva, of cultural extremism and materialism makes it less like a ‘fundamentalist’ religious movement than like fascism.

Kalighat Revisited

Early last week, Dr Jyotindra Jain, Director of the Crafts Museum at Delhi, gave a quite enthralling lecture at the art gallery in Oxford Bookshop. The subject was Kalighat painting, supplemented and illustrated by slides of pictures in Dr Jain’s book on the same subject.

The aim of the lecture was to show us how the paintings of the Kalighat patuas were embedded, artistically and psychologically, in the popular culture and history of the time; how the profane and the contemporary elements of urban existence – an existence whose provenance lay in colonial contact and capitalism – entered the space of paintings whose function would otherwise have been the straightforward retelling of mythological narratives about Hindu gods and goddesses. The paintings, then, reflect, embody, and opportunely exploit the birth of the urban modernity in nineteenth-century Calcutta with which its own birth is concordant.

Dr Jain tells us, for instance, how gossip and scandal, as a sort of ‘low’ form of history, are incorporated as subject-matter by the patuas. There are hilarious scenes from babu life which depict the babu as an ineffectual male dominated, and even physically abused, by his wife or mistress. (Surprisingly, these representations of the babu as a neutered male are not too far from the British colonialist construction of the effeminate bhadralok.)

The series of paintings about the seduction of Elokeshi, wife of Nabin, an employee at a printing press, by the head priest at Tarakeshwar, a bearded, ardent, pot-bellied specimen of unreconstructed nineteenth-century manhood, is not unrelated to this subject; the series culminates with pictures of Elokeshi’s subsequent murder by her jealous husband, and, finally, of the trial of Nabin and the head priest. This incursion of scandal and gossip – the kind of thing that would belong to the more prurient among our tabloids and magazines – is not, after all, unknown to the stylized and remote universe of the imagination. Dante’s Inferno provides an early and illustrious example of such an incursion; being part an epic account of hell and part a dubious tabloid populated with the feuds and jealousies of the time.

But the Kalighat painting refers not only to contemporary events and figures, but to other forms of art that were at the time in the ascendant – like proscenium theatre, for example – and it’s in the uncovering of these references that the heart of Dr Jain’s argument lies. The Elokeshi affair was, indeed, the subject of twenty or so plays at the time, and the Kalighat paintings on this subject (and, as we see, on other ones) are obviously, then, also a homage to contemporary theatre. Certain scenes are borrowed straight from the stage; and it is interesting that a figure in a certain painting, bent low before the feet of another figure, asking for forgiveness, should, instead of directing her attention to the feet, be giving us the benefit of a frontal view of her face, as if she were appraising her audience.

Dr Jain cites other examples of the interface between the paintings and theatre, too numerous to cite here; the most notable among these is the pleated curtains of proscenium theatre which form the border of many of the Kalighat paintings, as if the scene depicted in them were a scene from a play. Dr Jain points out with some relish how even the saris that some of the female figures wear are made to resemble theatre curtains. Moreover, in another gesture towards theatre, the faces of well-known actresses on the stage were used, not infrequently, by the patuas for the women in their paintings.

Proscenium theatre and babu society aren’t the only urban discourses that the paintings refer to. The patuas didn’t hesitate to borrow images and motifs from the urban ephemera of the time – labels, postcards, and photographs. Moreover, many of the painters, Dr Jain claims, were potters and artisans, or collaborated with potters; the shading of the Kalighat paintings, he argues effectively, is less an acknowledgement of the chiaroscuro of Western painting than it is intended to suggest the rounded surfaces of the clay figures that the patuas were also, otherwise, engaged in producing, or painting.

Finally, the paintings are often implicitly located in the bazaars of Kalighat where the patuas sat. Dr Jain showed us a painting of Shiva and Parvati taking Ganesh out on a family outing, looking rather like a lower-middle-class family in Marxist Bengal, a listless Shiva carrying the small, elephant-headed child in his arms, using the damru as a rattle to placate his son. The cosmopolitan world of colonial Calcutta, too, is everywhere in these paintings; in one of them, the god Kartik wears the Westernised buckled shoes that were then in fashion.

Listening to Dr Jain’s lecture, I felt with renewed force something I’ve felt before: that the inheritors of the Kalighat patuas are the craftsmen and artisans who transform the Durga Puja from a harvest festival into a creative exploration, and occasionally an outrageous comment, on urban reality. As the scandals of Calcutta, the embarrassments of middle-class life, and a vivacious degree of cosmopolitanism marked the world of Kalighat painting, our contemporary scandals and public events – the death of Princess Diana in an automobile accident; Satyajit Ray receiving the Oscar; the so-called ‘plague’ in India in the mid-Nineties; a scene from Kaun Banega Crorepati? or Titanic – form the subject-matter of the men from Chandannagar who do the lighting for the Pujas. These are our patuas, though their medium is at once brighter and more evanescent than the Kalighat pat ever was; like the pats, these lights are part social comment and part parody. Again, as in Kalighat, the proximity of the sacred seems to actuate, rather than impede, these artists’ (for they are artists) embracing of the profane elements of contemporary urban culture.

Moreover, does not the pandal itself echo, subliminally, the proscenium? We enter it – seeking darshan – as if entering an auditorium; and Parvati, her family, and the asura appear before us like actors upon a stage gathered at curtain-call. And just as the figures in Kalighat paintings (often inspired, Dr Jain reminds us, by clay figures) are inscribed into urban reality, women made to resemble actresses, Shiva made to look like an itinerant family man in a bazaar, so with the Puja images; one will confront, not infrequently, a Durga whose face is uncannily like Hema Malini’s, or an asura that seems to be the twin of the taxi driver who took you home yesterday. After the Kargil conflict, some of the asuras came to resemble Nawaz Sharif closely, in a typical Kalighat-type metamorphosis of the sacred into the political.

Finally, the chaos and hurly-burly of the Pujas recreate, almost inadvertently, the ambulant bazaar atmosphere of Kalighat. In his essay, ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’, Walter Benjamin notes how the ‘amorphous crowd of passers-by, the people in the street’, is imprinted on Baudelaire’s creativity as a ‘hidden figure’, and how it is also a significant constituent of nineteenth-century modernity in capitalist Europe. ‘The crowd – no subject was more entitled,’ says Benjamin, ‘to the attention of nineteenth century writers. It was getting ready to take shape as a public in broad strata who had acquired facility in reading. It became a customer; it wished to find itself portrayed in the contemporary novel, as the patrons did in the paintings of the Middle Ages.’ Among the people in this ‘amorphous crowd’ is, Benjamin points out, the flaneur, a typical figure in the urban landscape, the loiterer – often a gentleman of leisure or citified dandy – who plunges into the crowd for no particular reason, except to window-shop, observe, and survey the various ephemeral items of urban paraphernalia displayed on pavements and in windows.

If the crowd is the ‘hidden figure’ imprinted upon Baudelaire’s creativity, it is the ‘hidden figure’ in the Kalighat paintings as well; and it is through these paintings we realize that, as in Paris, the flaneur and the crowd are all-important elements in the construction of modernity in nineteenth-century Calcutta. Flaneurs, in modern, bourgeois India, often operate in families; and the picture of Parvati, Shiva, and Ganesha out on a stroll portrays the sort of family that would loiter in, and pass through, the long stretch of Kalighat with its bazaar, part devotee, part aimless, urban flaneur. Kartik, too, is represented as flaneur and leisured dandy, with his buckled shoes and Prince Albert-style haircut. The crowd is customer; like Benjamin’s novel-readers in nineteenth-century France, who wanted to read about their own fictionalized incarnations, and like the erstwhile courtly European patrons who would have their likenesses painted by professionals, the customers in the bazaar crowds of nineteenth-century Calcutta too must have demanded to see themselves in the pat; to see the divine family become as themselves, secularized, itinerant, and slightly louche.

The chaos of the Pujas, too, agglomerates us, even at the beginning of the twenty-first century, into crowds and flaneurs, forcing us to abandon our immobile, traffic-stalled cars and take to the streets, contained and disciplined only by bamboo barricades; it turns entire areas of present-day Calcutta into something like the bazaars of nineteenth-century Kalighat. This is almost a conscious homage to what the modern metropolis used to be like; for most post-modern cities in the developed world are inimical to the sort of exploration on foot that was once a fundamental part of urban life, and have become suburban enclaves connected to each other by motorways. There are exceptions – for instance, New York, San Francisco, London; the death of Princess Diana witnessed, again, a mapping of London by crowds, on foot, as the hearse made its way out of London.

During the Pujas, the crowd is both loiterer and customer; as it moves towards the pandal, it pauses at stalls selling fast food, soft drinks, balloons. The crowd wishes to pay obeisance to the deity, but it also wishes to consume its own image and its concerns – the films it is familiar with; the reports in the newspapers it reads – in what it sees around it. Thus the Durgas who still look like Hema Malini, the asura who resembles Nawaz Sharif, the stories in lights about Princess Diana and Satyajit Ray. And we relive the illusion, as the crowds in the bazaar did, of inhabiting an extraordinary city.

Originally published in The Telegraph, Calcutta

Jejuri: An Introduction (This is an extract. For the full article see Clearing a Space.)

When Jejuri was published in 1976, I was fourteen years old. I heard about it only the following year, when the Times of India announced it had won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, and carried a piece on Arun Kolatkar. Later, if I remember correctly, the Times featured, on a Sunday, an article on the poet, the book, and the actual town of Jejuri, a site of pilgrimage in the state of Maharashtra; it was probably when Kolatkar’s droopy moustache and longish hair became familiar to me from a photograph. It seems extraordinary that this newspaper, which, for a decade now, has pretended there’s no such thing as literature, should have devoted so much newsprint to a poet; but the ethos in Bombay was still friendly, in an almost unthinking, unformulated way, toward Indian poetry in English, in a spirit of friendliness towards what it saw to be various recreational pastimes.

I first met Kolatkar in early 2000, when I was in Bombay to launch a novel. I’d extended my stay in order to seek him out; I hoped to ask him to give Jejuri to the international publishing house who published me at the time (for whom I’d just begun to edit a series that would give modern Indian classics, both translated and in English, a fresh lease of life), and so make Jejuri available to the worldwide audience I felt it deserved. At the time, the book was not only not published internationally; it was only available – though it had acquired a reputation as a key work of contemporary Indian literature in the years since it had first appeared – in limited print runs at a couple of bookshops in Bombay and, I was told, Pune from Pras Prakashan. This small press was run by Kolatkar’s friend Ashok Shahane, a man who was, as Kolatkar said in an interview to the poet Eunice De Souza, ‘very active in the Marathi little magazine movement.’ Jejuri’s author was, by all accounts, content, even determined, that this was how things should continue to be.

I was told by Adil Jussawalla, one of the most respected and defining figures of Bombay’s poetry scene in English, that Kolatkar could be found at the Wayside Inn on Thursday, after half past three. The Wayside Inn was in a neighbourhood called Kala Ghoda, which means ‘black horse’: so named because of the statue in black stone of King Edward VII on his horse that once stood at its centre, in the space that’s long been converted into a car park. Shaped by the colonial past, reshaped by republican and nationalist zeal, Kala Ghoda had become a cosmopolitan ‘here and now’, located at the confluence of downtown and the arts and commercial districts. Wayside Inn itself overlooked the Jehangir Art Gallery and Max Mueller Bhavan, the centre for German culture; Elphinstone College, the David Sassoon Library, the Regal Cinema, and the Prince of Wales Museum were a short distance away; Rhythm House, for a long time Bombay’s largest music store, was next door. The banks and offices of Flora Fountain, one of the city’s more venerable business districts, weren’t far away either. In the midst of office-goers, students, and people heading towards matinee shows and art exhibitions, were the small families of the homeless who had settled down on the pavements around the Jehangir Art Gallery and Rhythm House, the prostitutes who appeared at night and sometimes loitered about in the afternoon, and the pushers in front of the Prince of Wales Museum, who, by the late Seventies, had come to stay. The friends Kolatkar met up with at the Wayside Inn were from the intermittently overlapping spheres of art and commerce, poets and friends from the advertising world in which, for many years, he’d made his living; but it was the low-life, the obscure daily-wage-earners, and the itinerant families of Kala Ghoda he looked upon from the open window, and whom he’d been writing about for twenty years. The sequence, Kala Ghoda Poems, was published shortly before his death by Ashok Shahane.

I was familiar with the area; I’d spent a year at Elphinstone College in 1978. It was then that I’d bought Jejuri from Thacker’s Bookshop in the same area; both it and the Wayside Inn no longer exist; the latter’s been replaced by an upmarket Chinese restaurant. But in 2000, I found Kolatkar there on the Thursday afternoon; three or four meetings, another trip to Bombay, and long-distance telephone calls to a neighbour’s phone (he didn’t possess one himself) followed in my attempt to make him sign the contract. I found him a mixture of unassumingness, reticence, mischief, and recalcitrance. His well-known prickliness about contracts came not so much, I think, from a feeling of neglect, or a bogus, but not uncommon, claim to nationalist pride among arriviste Indian writers, as a sense of allegiance to a sub-culture that had, by now, largely disappeared; the sub-culture that had given him his wariness as well as his writer’s cunning and resources. At one point, I was interviewed at the Inn by a group of friends, including Shahane – a sort of grilling by the ‘firm’ – while Kolatkar occasionally played, in a deadpan way, my advocate. His questions and prevarications regarding the contract betrayed a fiendish ingeniousness: ‘It says the book won’t be published in Australia. But I said nothing about Australia.’ Only my reassurance, ‘I’ve looked at the contract and I’d sign it without any doubts in your place,’ made him tranquil. Finally, he did sign; something more extraordinary to me, and of which I’m more proud, than if I’d been an agent who’d secured a multi-million-dollar deal. Why the series fell through, and why I left that publisher, is a matter I won’t go into here. But, in the long term, the bitter disappointment turned out to be a blessing. It’s the reason why the edition you now hold in your hands exists; and I should add that Kolatkar, who died in September 2004, was pleased, without reservations for once, at the prospect of its existence.

Kolatkar was born in Kolhapur in Maharashtra (the Western Indian state of which Bombay, now Mumbai, is the capital) in 1932. Kolhapur is famous for its kolhapuris – chappals, or slippers, that are designed for outside wear and can be found for sale on the streets, but also as an exorbitantly finished and priced object in shops for the rich. In its casualness, its air of classless elegance, and its itinerary through bewilderingly diverse locations , the kolhapuri is not unlike the bohemian, artistic set in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, who indeed made of it a mark of its identity. Members of this set had an abhorrence of fixity; they could be found on the street, walking past hawkers, prostitutes, and traffic lights, as well as in art galleries, seminar rooms, and drawing rooms and cafes with their rituals of food and drink. This was a peculiarly Bombay mixture of proximity and transcendence; Nissim Ezekiel – who was the oldest, and also the chief spokesman, of the poets writing in English who began to emerge in the Fifties -sought to compress it in these lines from “In India:

Always, in the sun’s eye, Here, among the beggars, Hawkers, pavement sleepers, Hutment dwellers, slums … I ride my elephant of thought, A Cezanne slung around my neck.

The journey negotiated in Ezekiel’s lines – physical and cultural – between the teeming road in Bombay and Cezanne, between recalcitrant, perspiring everydayness and the work of art – or, more specifically, the art-world – was a real journey to many of the Bombay poets. Ezekiel himself; Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, his MA student at Bombay University; Gieve Patel; Adil Jussawalla – all these poet-critics poached and encroached upon the territory of painters (Patel became a considerable painter himself), especially the JJ School of Art, which, at the time, was producing, in FN Souza, MF Husain, and others, a premier post-Independence generation (remarkably heterogeneous in class, religious, and regional backgrounds) of Indian painters. The poets seemed to have realised, instinctively, the importance of the moment and of this proximity; for instance, Ezekiel’s and Jussawalla’s essays on the Baroda painter Bhupen Khakhar (who’d later be taken up by Rushdie), written in the early Seventies, are extraordinarily shrewd readings of the then unremarked upon elements of kitsch and homoeroticism in Khakhar’s work. That this liaison between a dormant, semi-visible literary culture and a semi-visible tradition of modern art has a parallel in the now publicised liaison between similar worlds in Fifties and Sixties New York is indisputable; so is the fact of the richness of the interaction. It’s unlikely, though, that the Indian poets, despite their admiration for 20th-century American poetry, their enviable and intriguing up-to-dateness, would have known then of Frank O’ Hara or John Ashbery. Two comparable but not directly relatable metropolitan flirtations between artistic sub-cultures seem to have taken place in two continents within a few years of, and at some points overlapping with, each other. The literary history that might describe, in serious terms, the significance of what happened in that context in Bombay is still to be written, perhaps because the writer in English was, in India, till Rushdie came along accompanied by Booker-inspired fanfare, a sort of elite pariah, a ‘missing person’, in Jussawalla’s words, a figure marginal to the larger, and solemn, task of nation-building.

Madmen, Lovers, Artists

It’s now more than a month since I was drenched, like others, in the deluge of Chokher Bali. I apologise for putting my response on record somewhat belatedly; but I’ve been waiting for the tide to recede. My concern is not so much with the film’s fidelity to the book (Tagore himself was one of the first to suggest that cinema, to come into its own, must become independent of the literary) but with its own language. The venue at which I saw the film is the Priya Cinema, that old haven for South Calcutta outings. The morality of community is, you feel in the darkness of the hall, a thin veneer; and it was as absorbing to observe the old women and daughters-in-law in the audience as it was to watch the ones in the film. The audience here is seldom absolutely silent; and, for a while, I kept confusing the sounds in the audience with the background noise on the soundtrack. At one point, I thought the ‘madman’ from Nandan cinema (I use scare quotes because he is probably sane), the one who wanders like a dervish singing Rabindrasangeet – at one point I thought he was in the auditorium. Then Irealised that the loud singing, heard in snatches behind the conversation, was, like many other noises, coming from the film; it was part of the perpetual ‘elsewhere’ that surrounded the characters.

The constant presence of background noise in Chokher Bali is, I think, one of its many instances of homage to Satyajit Ray; and, like the other instances, its purpose seems partly parodic. These acts of homage, for example, are very different from Ray’s own homage to Jean Renoir. Ray lovingly translated the party games played by the French haute bourgeoisie in a country manor in La Regle du jeu into the antics of a group of Calcutta Bengalis in a forest officer’s bungalow in Aranyer Din Ratri; or, more directly, reworked the astonishing scene with a woman on a swing in Une partie de campagne into the one in Charulata. Ghosh’s quotations of Ray – Binodini on a swing, or staring through binoculars; the long verandahs of Mahendra’s house – are not homage, really. They are more like a domestication, a taming, of some of Ray’s most liberating moments in the extravagant and slightly wild palace of Chokher Bali; here, in this palace, these moments, like cockatoos or imported eunuchs, are neither at home and nor do they have anywhere else to go to; they sit around with an air of foreignness and ostentatiousness that they never possessed in their original habitat.

One is never, in India, completely alone. Even as I write this, I can hear hammering, birdcall, and, further away, traffic. I first became aware of the auditory dimension of our lives on visits home from England; perhaps it takes an outsider to hear that perennial punctuation of sound. The first filmmaker to capture that mysterious, irreducible noise was a Frenchman, Renoir, in the lovely, underrated The River. It’s there that the auditory possibilities of elsewhere – the cry of a bird, the whistle of a steamboat – are captured in a living archive for the first time. It’s from this film, I believe, that Renoir’s Bengali acolyte (Ray attended its filming in Bengal) inherited his ear for the semi-audible sound in the next street, or beyond the river or the railway tracks.

Ghosh’s soundtrack at first seems in Ray’s lineage; but we soon discover that its impact is quite different. It never takes us to that ‘beyond’, or provides that sense of fading distance; instead, it returns us firmly to the primary site of our experience: the cinema hall. No bird ever chirped as unstoppably as the ones in the film; the ‘madman’ from Nandan keeps weaving his way back; for no clear reason, we suddenly hear the sound of the muezzin. The effect of this soundtrack is to abolish distance, and to parody, rather than suggest, the notion of ‘life’; to create a vast interiority

During the intermission, I decided that Chokher Bali is a ‘Raj’ film; not so much Charulata as The Jewel in the Crown. This has not only to do with the mysterious cameo played by an Englishwoman, or with the babbling about tea, or with Binodini’s encounters with chocolate, nuns, and the English language. Tagore’s novel is set in the period of the Raj, and is probably subtly inlaid with the experience of colonialism. But ‘Raj’, in the sense I mean it, is a cultural temper invented in the nineteen eighties; it is the stirrings of nostalgia, in a newly globalising world, for Indian colonial history as a heritage site. The first half of the film was, I thought, suffused with the pastel shades of that special nostalgia; and both Tagore and 19th-century Bengal had become, in the film, elements in a heritage landscape that’s no more than a quarter of a century old.

The second half of the film, with its adulterous love-bites and scratches (a friend said to me that Ghosh displays, in the film, only a dim idea of heterosexual lovemaking), its separations and personal calamities – the second half is another affair altogether. After watching it, my preferred adjective for the style of the film is ‘operatic’. By ‘operatic’ I mean a unique artistic practice and experience in which both kitsch and the mythic come together. This is probably especially true of early opera, which the young Nietszche derided as ‘bourgeois spectacle’. But it is still a characteristic of much opera; opera is almost the only art-form that can make a private sexual scandal the stuff of both overblown entertainment and mythopoeic transport. Something similar happens in Ghosh’s Chokher Bali; eschewing Tagore’s delicate and humane psychologizing, it deliberately gives us a spectacle that is larger than life. Those who go to it looking for light and shade, and complexity, are looking for them in the wrong place; light and shade are inimical to the experience I’ve called ‘operatic’.

A few reflections on Aishwarya Rai. People use the word ‘beautiful’ to describe her, but I’m not sure in which sense they’re using a word that has a long and contradictory history. I don’t want to load this discussion with the moral and non-utilitarian values the word ‘beauty’ has had; but I think we need to find a term other than ‘beautiful’ to describe Rai’s very contemporary, and telling, appeal. Perhaps her most ardent admirers are the new beneficiaries of globalisation; the people who covet Jaguar (or is it Jaquar?) bathroom fittings, and dream of their cars metamorphosing into tigers; who like to discover a bit of ancient Rome in their back garden, and Venus de Milo busts in hotel lobbies. She is one of the means by which Ghosh silently transforms Tagore’s tale of liminality, interrelationship, and social change into

a narrative and aesthetic of materialism. Ghosh’s film, and filmmaking, tell us about the rewards and damage that materialism incurs upon itself.

Rai, and the famous collection from Anjali Jewellers, are not the only integers of materialism in the film. There is Ghosh’s vision of landscape and of ‘reality’ itself, in his self-consciously superb visuals. Someone told me who the designer of Ghosh’s interiors is; but who, I wondered, designed the outdoors? Here, again, the difference between Ghosh and the Ray he pays frequent homage to is striking: in Ray, reality – whether it comprises a group of Gurkha bagpipers in the distance, or a dog lifting itself up – is provisional, sketch-like. It has the same aura of distance, of suggestiveness, that his soundtracks have. Actual locations, like Darjeeling or Benaras, have, like the sets in street-theatre, an air of being hastily put together. Location, landscape – in Ghosh’s film, they are gilded, finished. The ghats look like expensive furniture; even the sun looks more expensive than anything to be found at Anjali Jewellers. The elusive morning light in Kashi, which Ray went searching for with his camera, is, in Chokher Bali, thick with social esteem, like oil paint. There really is no ‘outside’ in Ghosh’s film: everything in its vast, artificial interiority is caught up in a symbolic play of passion, desire, and material empowerment.

Chokher Bali has been to contemporary Bengali cinema what the fall of the Berlin Wall was to Europe. It has situated Bengali cinema firmly, almost brutally, in the current of globalisation: flirtations with art-house cinema (as in Ghosh’s own early films) and half-baked exhausted commercial movies have been both rendered irrelevant by its release. Ghosh is not an ‘international’ filmmaker, as Ray was; he is a filmmaker of the globalised universe. The absence of a real ‘outside’ in his new film reflects the fact that there are no foreign countries, no elsewheres, in the world after globalisation. His Tagore, too, is the Tagore of globalisation, quite different from Tagore the ‘bishwakabi’ or ‘world-poet’. Something like this was waiting to happen; now that it has, it’s brought both celebration and anxiety in its wake. Those who secretly feel at home in the present (whatever their political and cultural predilections are in public) will rejoice at discovering an artist who has understood its language so well. Others, out of joint, might experience unease and bewilderment.

Originally published in The Telegraph, Calcutta

In the Waiting-room of History (This is an extract. For the full article…View More)

Provincialising Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference by Dipesh Chakrabarty Princeton, 320 pp, £42.95

I went to a Protestant school in Bombay, but the creation myth we were taught in the classroom didn’t have to do with Adam and Eve. I remember a poster on the wall when I was in the Fifth Standard, a pictorial narrative of evolution. On the extreme left, crouching low, its arms hanging near its feet, was an ape; it looked intent, like an athlete waiting for the gun to go off. The next figure rose slightly, and the one after it was more upright: it was like a slow-motion sequence of a runner in the first few seconds of a race. The pistol had been fired; the race had begun. Millisecond after millisecond, that runner – now ape, now Neanderthal – rose a little higher, and its back straightened. By the time it had reached the apogee of its height and straight-backedness, and taken a stride forward, its appearance had improved noticeably; it had become a Homo sapiens, and also, coincidentally, European. The race had been won before it had properly started.

This poster captured and compressed the gradations of Darwin’s parable of evolution, both arresting time and focusing on the key moments of a concatenation, in a similar way to what Walter Benjamin thought photographs did in changing our perception of human movement:

Whereas it is a commonplace that, for example, we have some idea what is involved in the act of walking (if only in general terms), we have no idea at all what happens during the fraction of a second when a person actually takes a step. Photography, with its devices of slow motion and enlargement, reveals the secret. It is through photography that we first discover the existence of this optical unconscious; just as we discover the instinctual subconscious through psychoanalysis.

The poster in my classroom, too, revealed a movement impossible for the naked eye to perceive: from lower primate to higher, from Neanderthal to human, and – this last transition was so compressed as to be absent altogether – from the human to the European. These still figures gave us an ‘optical unconscious’ of a political context, the context of progress and European science and humanism. Here, too, Benjamin has something to say. In a late essay, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, he stated: ‘The concept of the historical progress of mankind cannot be sundered from the concept of its progression through a homogeneous, empty time.’

‘Homogeneous’ and ‘empty’ are curious adjectives for ‘time’: they are more readily associated with space and spatial configuration. Certain landscapes glimpsed from a motorway, or the look of a motorway itself, might be described as dull and ‘homogeneous’; streets and rooms might be ‘empty’. My mentioning motorways isn’t fortuitous. When Benjamin was formulating his thoughts on progress and history, and writing this essay in 1940, the year he killed himself, Hitler, besides carrying out his elaborate plans for the Jews in Germany, was implementing another huge and devastating project: the Autobahn. The project, intended both to connect one part of Germany to another and to colonise the landscape, was begun in the early 1930s; it’s clear that Hitler’s vision of the Autobahn is based on an idea of progress – ‘progress’ not only in the sense of movement between one place and another, but in the sense of science and civilisation. In India, in other parts of the so-called ‘developing’ world, even in present-day New York, London or Paris, it’s impossible properly to experience ‘homogeneous, empty time’ because of the random, often maddeningly diverse allocation of space, human habitation and community. It is, however, possible to experience it on Western motorways and highways. Hitler was a literalist of this philosophy of space and movement: he wanted space to be ‘homogeneous’, or blond and European. Benjamin knew this first-hand; he was writing his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ as a Jewish witness to Nazism and one of its potential victims. Hitler’s anxiety and consternation at Jesse Owens’s victory in the 100 metres at the Munich Olympics in 1936 came from his literalism of space, his investment in progress and linearity. That idea of space was at once reified and shattered when Owens reached the finishing line before the others.

Benjamin had been thinking of history in terms of space for a while; and, not too long before he wrote about ‘homogeneous, empty time’, he’d posited an alternative version of modernity and space in his descriptions of the flâneur, the Parisian arcades and 19th-century street life. The Parisian street constitutes Benjamin’s critique of the Autobahn: just as the crowd, according to Benjamin, is ‘present everywhere’ in Baudelaire’s work, and present so intrinsically that it’s never directly described, the Autobahn is implicitly present, and refuted, in Benjamin’s meditations on Paris. The flâneur, indeed, retards and parodies the idea of ‘progress’. ‘Around 1840 it was briefly fashionable to take turtles for a walk in the arcades,’ Benjamin writes in a footnote to his 1939 essay on Baudelaire. ‘The flâneurs liked to have the turtles set the pace for them. If they had had their way, progress would have been obliged to accommodate itself to this space. But this attitude did not prevail; Taylor, who popularised the watchword “Down with dawdling!”, carried the day.’ The flâneur views history subversively; he – and it is usually he – deliberately relocates its meanings, its hierarchies. As far back as 1929, Benjamin had explained why the flâneur had to be situated in Paris:

The flâneur is the creation of Paris. The wonder is that it was not Rome. But perhaps in Rome even dreaming is forced to move along streets that are too well-paved. And isn’t the city too full of temples, enclosed squares and national shrines to be able to enter undivided into the dreams of the passer-by, along with every shop sign, every flight of steps and every gateway? The great reminiscences, the historical frissons – these are all so much junk to the flâneur, who is happy to leave them to the tourist. And he would be happy to trade ” all his knowledge of artists’ quarters, birthplaces and princely palaces for the scent of a single weathered threshold or the touch of a single tile – that which any old dog carries away.

There’s an implicit critique of the imperial city, and the imperialist aesthetic, in this description of Rome, with its ‘great reminiscences’ and ‘historical frissons’, and in the contrast of ‘national shrines’ and ‘temples’ with the ‘touch of a single tile’. Benjamin is not alone in using these metaphors; both Ruskin and Lawrence (who probably took it from Ruskin) use Rome as a metaphor for the imperial, the finished, the perfected, as against the multifariousness of, say, the Gothic, the ‘barbaric’, the non-Western. Benjamin doesn’t quite romanticise the primitive as Lawrence at least appears to: instead, he comes up with a particularly modern form of aleatoriness and decay in the ‘weathered threshold’ of a Parisian street.