Museums

I’ve been visiting a lot of museums lately. And getting irritated by them. We charge so little as entrance fee. I would happily pay 300 Rupees for the Raja Ravi Varma museum in Trivandrum housed in an old mansion; or for the NGMA in Bangalore. But I don’t need to. When I go in, there is so few people. This column is a rant really.

Want the arts to flourish? Get educated
Along with constructing foundations and museums, consider audience participation
Shoba Narayan
First Published: Sat, Aug 24 2013. 12 05 AM IST

When was the last time you visited a museum or gallery? And what did you do there? Art exhibition openings don’t qualify: they are social, not artistic events. I visited a museum last to see the interesting Homelands exhibit organized by the British Council; and the exhibit of Tagore’s paintings and drawings at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore, which begged the question: Would the art have interested viewers if the artist had not been Rabindranath Tagore?

I’ve been thinking about funding for the arts and have come to a rather sobering conclusion. We are doing it all wrong. The good news? It is fixable.

The arts are at a crossroads in India. The big name artists have checked out. They create for a global, mostly Western audience. The upcoming artists pander to international tastes as well; walking the tightrope between making their work accessible while remaining “authentically” Indian. Indian collectors such as the Poddars, Nadars, Goenkas, are figuring out what to do with their collections. I have a suggestion for them: along with constructing foundations and museums, consider audience participation.
Starting in early 2001, the non-profit global policy think tank Rand Corporation released a series of fascinating reports on the arts in the US, which should be required reading for anyone operating in the visual and performing arts space. One of these reports, A New Framework for Building Participation in the Arts, begins with the following sentences. “Many arts institutions are re-examining their missions and their roles in what has become an increasingly complex arts environment. Concurrently, arts policy appears to be shifting its focus from influencing the supply and quality of the arts to increasing the public access to and experience with the arts.”

What was true in 2001 in the US is true in the India of today. The visual arts are fuelled by a stunningly small ecosystem of artists, collectors, gallerists, writers and historians, many of who treat art as a function of the economy rather than an endeavour that is embedded in a society. Because contemporary visual art is so specialized, it is in danger of being irrelevant to Indian lives. Rather than being stakeholders, the general public is disengaged with the arts. They couldn’t care less what happens to the painters and sculptors who are supposed to be visual representatives of our times.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Let us begin with museums. They are in danger of becoming redundant. A terribly small percentage of the Indian population enters its portals and those that do, don’t understand what’s inside. This is because museums function like zoos. They contain art in a closed space and expect that the abundance of art will give people a chance to appreciate them. This may work in modern Western societies, which are prone to compartmentalization and specialization, but it doesn’t for us. The Indian aesthetic—like that of Bali, Vietnam and the East—is intertwined with life and rooted in serendipity. You go about your business at a temple and suddenly come upon a sculpture that speaks to you. My bicycle repair man has an altar decorated with tiny photos of Christ, compiled into a collage and decorated with yellow paper flowers. Amid the punctured bicycle tyres and metal elements, it provides as much solace as good art.

We mix work and play; families and friends. We eschew boundaries. Yet, our museums and galleries have steadfastly followed the Western model of cordoning artwork instead of coming up with a new model; a new paradigm of displaying art: one that is both appropriate for our culture and does justice to the work.

India doesn’t need more art spaces. It needs arts education. It needs to bring the general public up to speed with what’s going on in the contemporary art world. As the Rand Corporation reports say, three things are needed for an aesthetic experience: supply (which we have in abundance); access; and the capacity for individual viewers to engage in and enjoy the work (demand). Indian art institutions have failed abysmally to cultivate demand. Cultivating demand isn’t about marketing campaigns and public outreach. It is much more systemic and embedded in society. Corporate houses can sponsor art appreciation workshops that will help put art in context. Knowing the jargon of art will help viewers discuss it with each other. Art will never become cricket; but the way that the game has changed to suit audience needs is a good model about adapting to demand.

Assume that the planet Mars is colonized; that humans have found a way to sustain life there. Who would we need to get society going? First on the list of people that we would put on the spaceship out to Mars would be the builders and architects of our spaces: city planners, sanitation engineers and urban developers. Next would be the professionals who provide important services: doctors, nurses, fire fighters, school and college teachers, bus and taxi drivers, and retail workers. With each successive spaceship, a new set of professionals would make their way to Mars, imbuing that society with efficiency, order and communication. The final spaceship would carry those people who would give this brave new world on Mars its soul: dancers, musicians, artists, poets, philosophers, thinkers and writers—people who have no obvious “use” in a society but are the bedrock of a civilized world. For many of us, living in a world without the arts is unthinkable. Listening to music helps us connect with our souls; watching and participating in dance gives joy to our spirit; good theatre holds up a mirror to our lives and thoughts; and the visual arts provoke our psyche while quieting it at the same time. Yet, how many Indians are engaged with the arts in a meaningful way? Very few. I reckon that if you ask the average Indian walking on the street whether Mars needs artists, he will scratch his head and say, “not really”. That is the fallacy that those passionate about the arts have to change.

Shoba Narayan believes that the arts should be brought amid the people since getting the people into arts spaces doesn’t seem to be working. Ergo, think like Carl Hagenbeck who changed the paradigm for zoos.

Tagore and Return to India

A Tagore quote prompted this piece. The quote is included in the piece published in The National here and pasted below.

The National Conversation
After a return to India, life has become more interrupted
Shoba Narayan
Aug 14, 2013

Ever since my family and I moved back to India after nearly 20 years in the US, people often ask me what it is like to be back in my native country. My answer is always the same. As the movie title says, “It’s Complicated.”
If I could describe the difference between my life in New York City and my life here in Bangalore using one phrase, it would be this: friends versus family.
When you are an immigrant in a faraway land, you set down roots and make friends.
You choose people you like and nurture these relationships. They broaden your horizons and teach you new things.
I was raised a Hindu. In New York, I made friends with Jews, Christians and Muslims. My lunch partner was an orthodox Jewish woman who catered kosher meals. My PTA partner was a Muslim woman named Ameena. She grew up in London, wore a hijab and made the best guacamole ever. Her daughter Ayesha and mine were friends. Ameena’s husband, Mohammed, was a banker like mine. Over time, the men grew friendly towards each other.
We belonged to minority cultures and faiths and this brought us closer, particularly after the September 11 attacks.
Most of our neighbours were Christian and we celebrated Christmas with them – organising parties for the building staff and going to midnight mass at a church on Park Avenue.
Here in India, a web of family surrounds, envelops, and occasionally suffocates me.
My parents, brother, cousins, and assorted uncles and aunts all live nearby. They will drop everything to come at my behest at a moment’s notice. The trouble is that they expect the same from me. There are weddings to plan, family functions to attend, gifts to buy, and relationships to keep track of.
My life in India is fraught with interruptions, both delightful and frustrating. Cousins often drop in to see me and give me things. These are objects of love: a samosa that they made, delivered piping hot from their kitchen to mine; or mere objects: vessels that are returned; borrowed saris that are given back.
My relatives know what is going on in my life on a daily basis and I know what is going on in theirs.
When my uncle complains of a chest ache, I worry about it. I call the doctor. We talk for hours. He tells me about astrology: a passion of his. This never happened when I lived in New York.
During weekly phone calls to my parents, I would get news of the extended family. But it rarely touched or bothered me.
Sometimes I wish for the anonymity that I had in spades when I was an immigrant in a foreign land.
I don’t want to account for my choices to all these relatives who care deeply about me and therefore have a view as to whether what I choose to do is right or wrong.
I wish for the friends who knew what to say and when to say it. Friends are a choice. Family isn’t. It comes bundled with birth.
These bonds of blood are tight and embracing, but intrusive as well. On the flip side, families have a history that is hard to replicate.
Your cousin can push your buttons like no friend can. He can irritate you into exhibiting emotions that you didn’t believe existed. My brother and I speak in a shorthand that only we know. A look between us can cause us to collapse into giggles in the midst of a family wedding.
Since I cannot escape my family, I have decided to come to terms with it.
I want to find joy with my new life here in India – not resent the intrusions and opinions.
A line I read recently will help me in this quest. It comes from Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel laureate poet of India.
He said, “Deliverance is not for me in renunciation. I feel the embrace of freedom in a thousand bonds of delight.”
That is exactly what I want to feel.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

Bengali Films for Mint

Thank you MKR, for the below line about Mizoguchi, that I couldn’t fit in due to space constraints.  Here in Mint’s page and pasted below.  Thank you, Ghoshi, for the introductions.

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I feel like I am in a Bengali movie.  Wait, that’s too easy.  I am in Kolkata, after all, at the top floor of Priya Cinema, which, according to some, is the hub of Bengali cinema.  I want a better simile.  I email Bangalore-based film expert M.K. Raghavendra, who can describe a film as a “French noir courtroom classic in the tradition of H.G. Clouzot” and actually know what it means, and ask if there are any cult movies or directors whose styling is reminiscent of old Bengali movies.

“Only Japanese films perhaps.  Maybe Mizoguchi,” he replies.  “There is a ceremonial sense in the indoor sequences of his period films like Ugestu Monogatari and Sansho the Bailiff as there is in Ray’s Jalsaghar.”

Okay.  Let me rephrase.  I feel like I am in a Mizoguchi film.  The scene is the dim-lit drawing room of producer and actor, Arijit Dutta, whose family owns Priya Entertainment.  Generations of Kolkatans grew up watching movies at his Priya Cinema.  Sitting at stage left is national-award winning director, Aniruddha Roy “Tony” Chowdhury, who is sipping a single malt and spreading bonhomie.  If he is stressed about next day’s shoot, he does not show it.  Across him is gifted actor, musician and director, Anjan Dutt, who, with his beard, spectacles and absent-but-possible cigarette, looks as a polymath should.  Near him is Srijit Mukherji, erstwhile economist, theater actor and director, who holds a stack of invitations for his “daughter’s wedding,” as he says—his film’s premiere, in other words.  Beside him is Birsa Dasgupta, whose parents and grandfather were in films.  He talks about Bollywood and Bengali films with the fluency of an insider, having worked with Anurag Kashyap and Imitiaz Ali.  Actor Parambrata Chatterjee is the object of much teasing, thanks to his Dutch girlfriend.  “How can a Bong patao a Dutch girl?” the others ask.  In the middle sits Raj Chakraborty who says little but grins a lot.  The others tell me that he is the most commercially successful director in the group.  The piece de resistance as far as I am concerned is a beautiful Bengali woman who comes in carrying plates filled with fried bekti and prawns; momos and dips.  She is clad in a simple yellow soft cotton sari that is pulled around her head.  She looks to be about 50, with a fair, round face and a bright red bindi.  She is Dutta’s housekeeper but the courtesy with which he treats her speaks of long association.  She opens the door and hands him the plate.  I hear whispers of hilsa and bekti.  She nods and shuts the door.  Dutta takes the plate around.  I am entranced by the lady with no name; the others don’t seem to register her presence.

When he learned of my interest in Bengali cinema, Dutta offered to put together an ‘adda’ for me.  The ease with which the group came together with a few days notice speaks of a camaraderie that is absent in other areas, let alone Bollywood.  A top Kolkata fashion designer tells me that the fashion frat in his city does not fraternize.   Certainly, I cannot imagine Tamil directors coming together and discussing their films with the self-effacing generosity that this crowd did.  None of the directors here talk about their movies.  Instead, they use each other’s films to illustrate a point.

“The entire scenario has been changed by Raj,” says one.  “He has shown that no matter what story you say, the production cannot be shoddy.”

As they refill glasses, they discuss union strikes, distribution and funding.  Perhaps this sense of community is what drew these Bengali directors back home.  Perhaps as a result, Bengali films have started picking up after year of decline.  In 2007, 56 Bengali films were made.  In 2011, that number climbed to 130.  What draws these directors is a sense of history and the ability to work outside the straitjacket that Bollywood imposes.  Mukherji talks about the thrill of working in the same studio where Ray worked; where Mrinal Sen walked by; where Uttam Kumar applied makeup.  “That gives me goosebumps,” he says.

“In Bombay, you get a lot of templates.  Here every filmmaker is a template onto himself,” says Chowdhury.

“The road was opened by Anjan-da and Tony-da,” credits Dasgupta.  “We have a huge legacy but the pace here is leisurely and vibrant.”

“Yes, but let’s not pander to the stereotype of Bengalis being a soft race,” someone says.  “We are very aggressive, very racist.”

“The stereotype of the intellectual Bengali was the class that Uttam Kumar represented,” Dutt says.

“But let’s not forget.  The first English film—36 Chowringhee Lane—was made in Bengal,” Dutta corrects.

“Even Ray was very global,” Mukherji adds.  “And Robi Thakur was very global.  He marketed himself very well.”

“And Vivekananda marketed himself very well,” adds Dasgupta.  Any moment now, I expect the Swami to open the door and walk in.

Soon, they are all correcting each other and adding to the argument and smoking and drinking.  The door opens and closes.  The lady with the red bindi makes her Shakespearean “exits and…entrances” and “all the world’s a stage.”  The scene fits every Bengali stereotype I have; every one that they insist is not true.

“My grandfather wore a dhoti but played Frank Sinatra at home,” says Dutt.  “So please, let us not say that Bengali-ness is about dhoti and rosogolla and bhadralok.  Let us not make them this monolithic paan-chewing group who wants to make movies instead of selling potatoes.”

Frankly, this group would be terrible at selling potatoes.  Look at them now, talking about Truffat and Kieślowski and Wong Kar-wai.  These aren’t brittle time-conscious Bollywood filmmakers who are engaged in the debilitating high-stakes game of commercial cinema.  These are “artistes” who have made their peace with commercial success.  They don’t disdain it anymore; they go after it.  “Look at us,” says Dutta.  “We are talking about distribution, posters, hoarding.  Two pegs down and we are all relaxed.”

“We also talk about art, but in a spirit of cooperation, not competition,” says Chowdhury, who has just made a few phone calls to fix a small glitch in another man’s production.  He invites me to watch his shoot the following day

All the directors goad Dutta to open more theaters in the districts.  “You guys need to change the mindset of the districts,” he counters.  “The days of self-indulgent cinema is over.”

I ask Chatterjee, the young actor, why he is in Kolkata instead of Mumbai.  “Kolkata is an international city but it hasn’t reached saturation point,” he replies.  “I want to be part of that ferment.”

Tamil film actor, Surya, much as I enjoy him, could not have delivered that line.  He might have attempted that sentence, but to use the word, “ferment?”  That word and that line can only be owned by a true-blue “intellectual Bengali,” the one that these guys insist doesn’t exist.

Shoba Narayan thanks Arijit Dutta for his adda.  She wishes she could return the favor, but sadly, the Kannada film industry comes together to support alleged wife-beaters, like the actor, Darshan.