Chennai Music and Women

I thought about this a lot, but cannot come up with any solution. Everyone lays it on the women artistes to get together and fight the discrimination, but that’s not going to happen.

A note of dismay over inequality at music and dance festivals in Chennai
Shoba Narayan

January 3, 2015 Updated: January 4, 2015 11:21 AM

Every year, between December 15 and January 15, hundreds of thousands of people across India congregate in Chennai, the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, for its Carnatic and Bharatanatyam festivals. More than 300 concert halls in the city host cultural events throughout the month in a tradition that has endured for more than half a century.

But each year, as audiences clad in silk saris and white dhotis arrive, an ugly issue rears its head: the discrimination against female performers by the show organisers and male musicians.

In a recent post on Facebook, Kalpana Mohan, a ­California-based writer, highlighted an incident that happened two years ago at a concert hall in Chennai. A prominent male vocalist kicked up a fuss when he realised he would have to perform alongside a young female violinist. An older, established musician, he refused to take the stage with a junior female artist. The organisers found a male violinist to replace the female artist, leaving her in tears.

After describing the incident in her Facebook post, Mohan ended with an appeal for gender equality: “I do hope December 2014 is the season in Chennai in which artists, young and old, fight back, ask questions, write to local and national newspapers and launch a campaign to fix the cracks, while simultaneously fixing the crackpots who believe that a woman is inferior – when all that matters is prowess, not age or gender. I certainly hope that this is the year that older, established vocalists, both female and male, step up and fight for the sake of their younger female counterparts. I hope that the next time something like this happens, the rest of the performing crew unites in support to protest the injustice.”

When The National contacted the violinist who wasn’t allowed to play, she declined to talk about the incident: “I wish to tell you that it does not interest me. I would rather focus on my music,” she said

Oddly enough, nobody in the Chennai music circles blames her for her reluctance to comment, because Carnatic music has traditionally been the bastion of men. In this rigidly hierarchical and patriarchal set-up, female performers don’t want to be seen as troublemakers, especially if they are young, because of the repercussions it could have on their career.

“It is unfortunate and terrible,” says pianist Anil Srinivasan, who works with a variety of performers, male and female. “But the only way forward is for women to band together and boycott all those musicians and percussionists who are saying such things. The audience should also show their support by boycotting concert halls that allow such ­inequality to go unchecked.”


Anita Ratnam, a renowned classical dancer, says: “Senior male performers would rather accompany a junior and emerging male vocalist than sit beside an established and accomplished female singer. It is appalling. Nobody does anything about it, so the abuse continues. Female artists should speak out, not with anger but with confidence.”

Ghatam Karthick, a young percussionist who plays the ghatam (pot), gives some context. “Legendary percussionists such as Umayalpuram Sivaraman, T K Murthy and Palghat Raghu were used to accompanying exclusively male singers,” he says.

“Until the ‘trinity’ of female singers – D K Pattammal, M L Vasanthakumari and M S Subbulakshmi, who won the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour – found success, no male accompanist would work with women,” he says.

Karthick credits female singers and musicians for his big breaks. His first concert at the Madras Music Academy was with the well-known vocalist Charumathi Ramachandran, he went on his first foreign tour with the veena player Veena Gayathri, and says his career soared after he played alongside top female singers such as Sudha Ragunathan and Bombay Jayashri, who was ­nominated for an Academy Award for Pi’s Lullaby in Life of Pi (2013).
“I owe everything to women,” Karthick says matter-of-factly, but agrees that no effort is being made to challenge senior male performers who practise gender discrimination.

“Will we need a Nirbhaya in the music world?” asks the eminent veena player Jayanthi Kumaresh, referring to the 2012 Delhi rape victim whose brutal death drew attention and galvanised support for improved attitudes towards women across India.

Vimala Rangachar

Welcome to the Sanskrit Podcast where the ideas of ancient India meet the modern world.

Vimala Rangachar has been associated with fine arts and performing arts conservation movement of Karnataka for many years. She holds multiple positions of Chairperson of the Craft Council of Karanataka, Founder Member and President of M.E.S Institutions, President of the Natya Institute of Kathak and Choreography, President of the M.E.W.S Ladies Club, Malleshwaram, Bangalore, heading M.E.S Kalavedi, President of the Seva Sadan Orphanage, Hon. Secretary of the ADA Rangamandira, Committee Member, Gandhi Center for Science and Human Values- Bharathiya Vidya Bhavan.

In this episode, she discusses temple crafts of Karnataka.

Watch it on Youtube here.

Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here

Subodh Gupta

The NGMA Delhi has this retrospective. Would be great to visit if you are in Delhi.

Arts & Culture
Subodh Gupta the Damien Hirst of New Delhi
Shoba Narayan
February 1, 2014 Updated: February 2, 2014 11:46:00

Famously dubbed the “Damien Hirst of New Delhi” by The Guardian, Subodh Gupta is arguably the subcontinent’s most celebrated contemporary artist. The National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi opened a retrospective of Subodh Gupta’s works this month, curated by Germano Celant. It is Gupta’s most comprehensive exhibition in India to date and the biggest exhibition the NGMA has ever dedicated to a contemporary Indian artist.

The exhibition is spread across two buildings – the ornate Jaipur House, originally built as the residence of the Maharaja of Jaipur in 1936, and the museum’s modern concrete-and-glass extension constructed in 2009.

Gupta’s work has been shown in many major international exhibitions including the Tate Triennial in London (2009); Kochi-Muziris Biennale (2012), Kochi, India; The Saatchi Gallery London (2010); and the Guggenheim Museum, New York NY (2010). His works are in the collections of major museums worldwide, among them Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Tate Collection in London, the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas.

What interests you about the microcosm and why have you focused on that with your solo show, Everything Is Inside?

The show came out of my previous sculpture of a black taxi with luggage on top. I had titled it Everything Is Inside. The idea for that piece came at the airline baggage carousels when I observed Indians returning from the Gulf countries where they worked. They had so much luggage that they had packed it all into bundles. You couldn’t even unpack it because it was tied so tightly. I was curious about what was inside. Was it gifts, toys, watches? This show came about based on that piece.

What are some of the fresh works that viewers can expect to see at the NGMA? Can you talk about the All in the Same Boat, the new work you’ve created for this exhibition?

The Kerala fishing boat in this piece is an object that I used like a canvas. This is an object that has a lot of poetic resonance for many people. You look at the boat and you feel calm and peaceful. I am attracted to objects that contain a lot of meaning, such as boats and vessels. It is interesting to think about what to put on top of that.

A lot of your work is about identity. What are some of the themes that interest you?

Identity is linked to my journey as an artist. I gain inspiration from the objects that surround me and the ones I see within my own world – plates, food, vessels – simple objects such as those. All these become works that go to Shanghai and other parts of the world. Everything Is Inside had four large works that have never been shown in India. Even for people who have seen my work, these are new installations. Two are outdoor works and two are indoor. The rest have come from Italy, England, Korea and other countries. There are many new pieces that have never been exhibited in this country. We spent days installing it.

Why is this show significant?

First of all, this is my first solo show at the NGMA. That is important to me because this is my country. This is my home. It is a proud moment for me because the NGMA is a great museum that I have grown up visiting. To be part of it is one of the most important things for me.

What do you think about the contemporary art scene in India?

We need more art schools. We need more space to show art. We need more art lovers and collectors. I was asking someone, why is it that in India we don’t have 100 new artists every year? Where are all the young artists? Museums should exhibit contemporary artists as well. When people see artists like me, there will be lots of questions, lots of curiosity. That is something we lack in this country.

What comes next?

I have a show at a museum in Frankfurt in the autumn. I am also part of many group shows this year, including one at Venice.

• Everything Is Inside will run until March 16 at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi. Visit

Kochi Biennale

How I wish I were in Kochi now!

 The artist Sudarshan Shetty is among those who have created artwork especially for the biennale. Courtesy Kochi-Muziris Biennale

All for art and art for all: Kochi Kerala get its first biennale

After months of excitement and controversy, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale will open tomorrow in Kochi, Kerala. Named after an ancient seaport and a renamed city (previously called Cochin), India’s first biennale will begin with a performance by the English recording artist MIA (Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam). The event will bring together 88 artists from 24 countries, 1,300 performers, as well as art historians and curators, according to the organisers.

Several acclaimed artists have created site-specific work, including India’s Sudarshan Shetty, Subodh Gupta, LN Tallur and Sheela Gowda, as well as international artists such as the Dubai-based Ubik, Hossein Valamanesh (Iran/Australia), Ariel Hassan (Argentina), Amanullah Mojadidi (Afghanistan) and Ernesto Neto (Brazil).

“Kochi’s historical roots have inspired many of the artists who are showing here,” says Riyas Komu, the biennale’s co-founder. “So we have international artists who are doing reflections of Kochi. For example, Ubik is a Dubai-based Malayali artist and he is doing a site-specific reflection of Kochi.”

The lecture series includes the conservation architect Benny Kuriakose, as well as Chris Dercon, the director of the Tate Modern, who is speaking on December 24. Films by Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Kerala’s most famous director, will also be screened.

There will also be a two-day symposium titled Emerging Platforms for Contemporary Art in India on December 15 and 16. Eminent art and cultural historians such as Geeta Kapur, Ranjit Hoskote, Nancy Adajania, Gayatri Sinha and Pooja Sood will participate.

Support from the Indian art fraternity has been strong. The artist-couple Jitish Kallat and Reena Saini plan to attend the symposium, both to support the effort and “to feel energised from it,” says Kallat. The gallerist Sunitha Kumar Emmart has been phoning friends and associates and urging them to attend the biennale. “It’s a not-for-profit and it is rare that you get to view contemporary art that is untainted by commerce in India,” says Emmart.

More than anything, the biennale will increase the footfall into the state, something that the tourism department badly needs.

The artist Sudharshan Shetty is one of many visitors expected in Kerala. Although he hails from the neighbouring state of Karnataka and lives in Mumbai, he says that he never visited Kerala until a few months ago when he went to look at the site of his proposed architectural installation. “Kochi is one of the most cosmopolitan places that existed in the old world, with [people from all over] coming together in this fertile land,” he says. “It reflects the character of this country as one welcoming to different kinds of immigrants.”

Although the scale and variety of works that are going up is impressive, the biennale has been marred by controversy. The state government wants to initiate a probe into allegations of financial impropriety. “The previous Kerala government that had supported the biennale, gave funds of 50 million rupees [Dh3.4m] to the founding team and also exempted them from the financial code restrictions that apply to government funds,” says P K Hornis Tharakan, one of the biennale’s trustees. That seems to have rubbed some people the wrong way, especially the older, local Kerala artists, who have protested against government support for what is now viewed as an extravagant project. Tharakan says that instead of resorting to mudslinging in the days before the opening, “there must be a comprehensive audit done after the biennale to find out if the government’s allegations are indeed true”.

Komu, the biennale’s co-founder, says he welcomes the government investigation. “People don’t understand the magnitude of this project,” he says. “Setting the biennale in this region is going to benefit everyone – the art lovers who will see world-class art, the artists who will be nourished by exposure to practices that are different from theirs and local businesses who will get the additional tourist revenues.”

The people of Kochi, too, have undergone a transformation. After weeks of ignoring the effort, they have now embraced it and not just because of the additional revenue it brings to the state. Some have started leasing or giving their homes to the biennale committee as guest houses, others have donated money and time. A few have tried to influence the government. “The government doesn’t have a policy to understand or preserve art galleries or museum structures. We welcome the probe into the biennale, because it will finally shed some light into what is viewed as an arcane process,” says Komu.


The Kochi-Muziris Biennale starts tomorrow and runs until March 13. For more details, visit


Dance for The National

Akram Khan is trained in kathak, a type of Indian classical dance. He launched his own company in 2000. Laurent Ziegler

Sep 17, 2012

Creating a dance performance for the Olympics was “humbling and challenging because I had to touch people – you can’t do that with superficial pieces”, says the British-Bangladeshi dancer Akram Khan, who choreographed a prominent section of the London Olympics opening ceremony.

Khan is in India on a six-city tour as part of The Park’s New Festival 2012, for which he and his company performed Gnosis, based on the Indian epicMahabharata, in which Queen Gandhari blindfolds her eyes to imitate her blind husband. The stunning piece, which explores the themes of inner knowledge, and darkness and light, brought Khan standing ovations.

“He is a magician,” says Shruti Rai, a young Indian dancer in Bangalore, after watching Khan’s virtuoso kathak (a type of Indian classical dance) solo on stage before the intermission. “He takes kathak and makes it so much more.”

Khan’s genius lies in his intuitive understanding of juxtapositions: of space, time and energy. He mixes speed with stillness, the tabla with western drums and swaying movements with staccato rhythms. The theme for all his work comes from his perspective as an immigrant.

His latest work, Desh, talks about country, homeland and exile, whileGnosis is about vision and the role of women in society. “Indian myths have fairly powerful male figures,” says Khan. “But what about the women? I want to focus on the women.”

Khan has visited India previously as part of Chennai’s The Other Festival. “Dancing in India is very important to me because when I was young, I was never accepted as a classical dancer,” he says, relaxing in the patio lounge of the Park Hotel, Bangalore, after a performance. “I was always told that you need to go [to India] and learn from the masters. But masters can only guide you to a certain level. They don’t have all the answers.”

Khan, 38, grew up in an immigrant Bangladeshi family in the UK and began dancing at the age of 7, learning kathak from the famous Indian dance guru Sri Pratap Pawar. At the age of 13, Khan was cast in Sir Peter Brook’s Mahabharata and toured with the company for two years. He trained in contemporary dance and established the Akram Khan Company in 2000. Since then, he has collaborated with the likes of the artist Anish Kapoor, the writer Hanif Kureishi, the actress Juliette Binoche and the musician Nitin Sawhney to produce well-received shows.

“Some dancers are happy doing the same old ‘Krishna-Radha’ [characters from the Mahabarata] kathak pieces,” Khan explains. “But you have to go under the skin of these pieces and make a difference, because the world has moved on. The concentration span of today’s audiences is very different from the time when these pieces were created.”

Last year, Khan embarked on what his most ambitious project so far: a work for the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. The show’s mastermind, the filmmaker Danny Boyle, offered him only one word as guidance: mortality. He also chose the slow British ballad, Abide With Me, sung by Emili Sandé, for the music.

Khan picked 52 dancers for the piece, which paid tribute to the victims of the 2005 London bombings. It became a source of controversy when NBC didn’t air the segment in the US, stating that honouring terror victims in other countries wasn’t relevant to the American audience. Khan went on record to say how disheartened he was by the omission. Since then, Khan’s company has resumed touring the world.

The Olivier-award winning solo production, Desh, will go to several European destinations, including Rome, Luxembourg and Amsterdam, before returning to the UK’s Sadler’s Wells in October. Gnosis will tour India and Taiwan, while Vertical Road, an earlier production, is touring the US.

“Dance is becoming more important for audiences to experience healing and catharsis,” says Khan. “How do you express a broken heart, for instance? When you sit at Sadler’s or any other theatre and watch a live performance, it is a completely different experience than watching it on YouTube.”

Akram Khan will perform today in New Delhi at the Kamani Auditorium. Visit

ArcelorMittal Orbit

The ‘ArcelorMittal Orbit’ is a flight of fancy that arose from a fit of bravado – a product of using time and circumstance wisely

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

Posted: Fri, Jul 20 2012. 1:15 AM IST

Its genesis is serendipitous enough to be the stuff of Shakespearean farce. London’s motormouth mayor Boris Johnson runs into steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal in a cloakroom during the 2009 World Economic Forum. Johnson corners Mittal, whom he is meeting for the first time, and describes his plan for a giant erection at the centre of the 2012 Olympic village to give it some extra oomph. The conversation lasts 45 seconds, at the end of which Mittal promises to donate steel for the monolith. He ends up funding £19.6 million (around Rs. 168 crore) of the £22.7million cost of what would become the ArcelorMittal Orbit.

This piece of information—widely publicized on the Orbit website—fascinated me because it is an example of a Sanskrit phrase I have been hearing all my life: samayam sandharpam (time and circumstance). The phrase is usually used in the context of asking for something. When I wanted to ask my grandfather for a special treat, my grandmother would advise me to ask, “depending on the samayamand sandharpam”, which alludes to time, place, the people involved, mood, circumstance and context. Mayor Johnson used samayam andsandharpam to his benefit when he requested Mittal to donate steel for an Olympic edifice.

Size matters: Mittal spent around Rs 168 crore for the 377ft Orbit outside the Olympic Park. The sculpture has received scathing criticism in London. (Photo by Steve Rose/Getty Images)

Size matters: Mittal spent around Rs. 168 crore for the 377ft Orbit outside the Olympic Park. The sculpture has received scathing criticism in London. (Photo by Steve Rose/Getty Images)

The more interesting question is this: How can India take advantage of the Mittal family connection to the Olympics? In 2005, Mittal’s son-in-law, Amit Bhatia, spearheaded the Mittal Champions Trust (MCT) with an initial funding of $9 million (around Rs. 50 crore now). Its goal is “to put India firmly on the Olympic medal grid” by supporting some 40 Indian athletes with training and infrastructure. Bhatia wants to improve India’s abysmal Olympic record. At the MCT, a panel of eminent sportspeople hand-picks sporting talent from across the country and identifies the gaps that must be bridged in order to take potential champions to the next level. “MCT then bridges these gaps,” says Bhatia. “We do whatever it takes to ensure that each of our champions has access to the same infrastructure, coaching and care as the world’s top athletes.” One thing that MCT doesn’t do is support cricket (which is not an Olympic sport anyway).

Mittal and Bhatia have taken different approaches towards imprinting their name on the Olympics. The father-in-law’s approach is a one-off sprint that carried risk and could confer glory. The son-in-law is running a marathon. His approach is akin to creating a winery from scratch. It involves the long view and many thankless hours in the sun, nurturing and coaxing the soil into sprouting champion vines. “I believe India is capable of producing world champions in sports, just like it is producing top-class professionals in information technology, engineering, medicine and business,” says Bhatia. “What is lacking are the funds needed to nurture this talent or the accessibility to infrastructure and support mechanisms that other international athletes are provided with. What MCT is doing is levelling the training and playing field.”

Mittal may be rueing his chance meeting with mayor Johnson, given the scathing criticism that the ArcelorMittal Orbit has attracted. The Timescalled it “a piece of vainglorious sub-industrial steel gigantism, signifying nothing”. Others have called it a “twisted helter-skelter”, a “turd on the plaza”. Admittedly, critics feed on each other and one early critical review can snowball into countless others. Only time will tell if the Orbitwill be viewed more benignly by future generations. I haven’t seen theOrbit in person, but from the photos, it looks like a roller coaster. It has the same advantage that all massive public arts projects do: scale. Magnify anything countless times and even a spider will awe (as Louise Bourgeois’ travelling public sculpture, Maman, does). To me, the unsung hero of the ArcelorMittal Orbit is its chief engineer, Pierre Engel, who was tasked with converting the design of artist Anish Kapoor and designer Cecil Balmond into a structure that can take 5,000 people a day. From the photos, I can’t tell if the Orbit is as strong a work as Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago, US.

If the ArcelorMittal Orbit is a flight of fancy that arose from a fit of bravado, Bhatia’s softer but consistent approach might well be the truss that props up India’s Olympic dreams. Given the murmurs about our nation hosting the Olympic Games at some future date, I can’t help indulging in a flight of fancy myself: Suppose one of our politicians or sports authorities were to meet Bhatia in a cloakroom in Davos. Who should that be and what should he or she ask of Bhatia? Should it be Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit; or Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati, with her penchant for erecting public sculptures of herself? Or should it be sports icon-turned Rajya Sabha member Sachin Tendulkar? If they meet, what should Tendulkar ask Bhatia? How can the Indian Olympic fraternity gain some momentum from a chance meeting between India’s most popular cricketing icon and a philanthropist who wants to convert India into the medal-hauling champion that China has become?

If I were to consider time, place and circumstance—samayam andsandhapam—in inventing this hypothetical scenario, I would argue that it shouldn’t be Tendulkar asking Bhatia to help create Indian Olympic champions, but vice versa. Sure, Mittal gave $30 million because Johnson asked for it at the right place and time. But he also gave the money because he recognized that it wouldn’t be frittered away. When Bhatia and Tendulkar run into each other, perhaps it will be Bhatia who does the asking. Perhaps he will ask Tendulkar to throw his might behind the Olympic fraternity after he retires from cricket. The Mittals could pledge more funds and Tendulkar could be the man who turned things around.

The champion who nurtured the next generation of Olympic champions: Not bad for a man who is a contender for the Bharat Ratna.

Shoba Narayan would have liked to be a fly on the wall when the first conversation between Mittal and Johnson happened. Write to her at

Sudarshan Shetty Profile

The artist Sudarshan Shetty in Milan.

Mar 27, 2012

 Standing outside the gleaming tower of the Maker Maxity building in suburban Mumbai is a fire-engine-red double-decker bus of the sort that used to ply the roads of Mumbai in the 1970s. This bus, however, sprouts two stainless steel wings and has its front wheel raised slightly off the ground as if it were about to take off into the sky. Beside it reads a plaque: “Sometimes when we travel, we forget who we are.” A whimsical creation by Mumbai-based artist, Sudarshan Shetty, 50, at an estimated cost of US$250,000 (Dh920,000), this Flying Bus sculpture is arguably India’s most significant public art project.

Its inception was fortuitous when Shetty bumped into real estate developer, Manish Maker of Maker Maxity, on a flight. After Maker commissioned the piece, Shetty had the automotive company Starline help him fabricate the 10 tonne sculpture in Belgaum, Karnataka. The piece was then brought 600 kilometres by road to Mumbai and unveiled to the public in late January, 2012. Inside, the bus is an exhibition space where Shetty invites young artists he admires to show their works. Currently, two videos by Amar Kanwar, a Delhi-based filmmaker, are on display, one on the upper and the other on the lower deck. Next, the kinetic art sculptures by Bangalore art duo; Pors & Rao will be on display. Shetty says that he doesn’t curate the works. Rather, he simply invites artists to show their work.

This notion of art-within-art reflects Shetty’s concern with drawing the viewing public into his world. His gallerist, Sunitha Kumar Emmart of Gallery Ske, Bangalore, calls his works “determinedly complicated,” signalling a refusal to “remain in the same position or repeat a gesture. In short, there is a rejection of a style or a signature and an insistence on the autonomy of the work itself. This separation of the work from the identity and image of the artist, tenaciously maintained by the constant shifts in the artist’s methods of production, allows for states of multiplicity. The works, if imagined as moments in a narrative, stubbornly remain as fragments pointing not back toward the artist but endlessly towards each other.” Emmart represents Shetty’s work exclusively within India and works with his galleries in New York, Paris and Vienna for global events such as Art Basel.

The son of a theatre actor father and a homemaker mother, Shetty grew up in a modest family in Mumbai. His father acted in yakshagana, or regional plays from Karnataka, and assumed the roles of many of the Gods who populate Hindu mythology. Visiting performers gathered at the Shetty home, where his father held long discussions about how to convey philosophical ideas from Hinduism through folk theatre. “The idea is to draw the viewer in through your ability to elaborate on what you are thinking,” says Shetty. “I find the aesthetic strategies of yakshagana very compelling; as opposed to the aesthetic strategy of, say, a gallery, which is to distance the viewer; to create a certain Brechtian disenchantment in the viewer.”

Shetty’s desire to draw the viewer into – quite literally – his work springs from growing up with performers whose first goal was to entertain. His first solo show was held- in 1995 – not at an art gallery, but at the Framjee Cawasjee Hall in Mumbai where, as he says, “discount sales of sweaters from Ludhiana” were held. Bargain hunters seeking cheap luggage found themselves confronting a life-size pink horse trying to mount a capsizing boat in his Paper Moon, project. Many of Shetty’s works are kinetic and mechanical—a shaking table, running shoes, falling hammers— and are vaguely reminiscent of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, both of whom Shetty cites as early influences. “What differentiates Sudarshan from the other artists in the Indian contemporary art scene is his simultaneous and intuitive engagement with both the timeless indigenous and the global contemporary,” says acclaimed art critic, S Kalidas.

Shetty’s recent works draw on themes of immigration, transit and living on the edge. His works display a spontaneity that belie the searching thought that have gone into their creation. “It is very important to me to allow objects to throw out a possibility of how they can be presented,” he says. “For that to happen, it is very important to keep your vulnerability on the surface; to stay on the edge and create works that may not be good works; works that may collapse under their own weight. It takes a lot of work to stay vulnerable.”

With his wife, Seema, a bharatanatyam dancer and television presenter, Shetty entertains visiting artists and friends in his spacious Mumbai home. He doesn’t go to parties, he says, preferring the intimacy of conversations around the dining table that allow him to question and collect the information and opinions that fuel his art. As the art collector Anupam Poddar says: “Sudarshan’s work is unique because it combines a sense of play, wonder, imagination with form and material. The way in which he thinks and creates leaves you wanting more, and interpreting his creations in your own unique way.”

Sacred Music

Violinists perform in the Chettiar Chathram, a performance space in Thiruvaiyaru, Tamil Nadu.

Feb 29, 2012

South Indian or Carnatic music has a hoary history that dates back to the Vedas, ancient Sanskrit works that form the foundation of the Hindu religion. This music flowered in the 18th century around the temple towns of Tamil Nadu when three composers – Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastry – created hundreds of songs in praise of Hindu deities.


  • Taiko drums. Courtesy Sakae Oguma
The devout Thyagaraja, arguably the most famous of the three, composed thousands of songs in praise of Rama, the hero of the Hindu epic, Ramayana. Most of the Thyagaraja kritis (songs) have the plaintive devotion of Sufi music and are filled with pleas and questions about faith and redemption.Topic

The devout Thyagaraja, arguably the most famous of the three, composed thousands of songs in praise of Rama, the hero of the Hindu epic, Ramayana. Most of the Thyagaraja kritis (songs) have the plaintive devotion of Sufi music and are filled with pleas and questions about faith and redemption.

The temple town of Thiruvaiyaru is perhaps the nucleus for lovers of South Indian music. Every January, musicians crowd into this small town and sing the Pancharatna (five gems) songs composed by Thyagaraja. India’s top musicians sit side-by-side with novices and for a few days, musical hierarchies are ignored as violinists, singers, drummers and devotees sing in memory of the composer regarded as a saint, who has a small shrine in the town.

Recently, the Prakriti Foundation, a Chennai-based charity, gave a contemporary spin to the musical heritage of this town by organising the annual Festival of Sacred Music. Founded by the businessman Ranvir Shah, the festival seeks to preserve India’s cultural heritage and inheritance, and to encourage rural tourism. “It is not only the concerts that are important but also heritage preservation,” says Shah. “We want to explore identity through history, heritage, art and cultural expression.”

The bespectacled Shah, clad in traditional Indian kurta-pyjamas and handwoven shawl, is emblematic of the new breed of Indians – at home and abroad – who take pride in delving deep into their heritage while seamlessly navigating the global world of arts and letters. As an example, one of the musicians whom Shah has invited to perform this year is Phillipe Bruguière, an ethnomusicologist from Paris, who plays the rudra veena, India’s oldest music instrument, which is on the verge of disappearing simply because few contemporary musicians play it.

Accompanying Bruguière on the mridangam drum is the London-born jazz musician and composer John Boswell, who has learnt several Indian percussion instruments. Monks from the Drepeng Loseling monastery in Atlanta, Georgia, will chant invocations to the force of goodness, melodies to deny the ego, and perform black hat dances on the first day.

The remaining two days of the three-day festival have a selection of intriguing performances. The second day begins with a nadaswaram recital by Mylai S Mohan from Chennai. The nadaswaramis akin to a trumpet and is played during South Indian weddings to connote good fortune. Very few musicians play the nadaswaram in concert halls, which makes Mohan’s concert all the more unusual. Following this, Asima is an all-male choir from Kerala that uses chanting and percussion instruments to create music that blends the ancient with the contemporary.

The last day of the festival begins with a concert of Sopana Sangeetham by Ambalapuzha Vijayakumar, also from Kerala. Sopana refers to the sacred steps leading to the holy of holies in Hindu temples. The plaintive notes and simple tunes of this music are supposed to lead devotees to higher planes of spiritual ardour. Vijayakumar comes from a family of sopana musicians who have performed in Kerala temples for generations.

The showstopper of the festival is expected to be a concert by Sudha Raghunathan, arguably the best singer in Carnatic music. Raghunathan travels all over the world for concerts, but her music is rooted in the classical traditions of Carnatic music — no fusion or experiments for her.

The Festival of Sacred Music in Thiruvaiyaru runs from Friday to Sunday. All concerts take place after sundown, when visitors congregate on the banks of the river Cauvery, clad in their cotton saris and white dhotis, and listen to sacred music reverberate through the air.


Fashion Story: Grasshopper

Altered notions: recycling last year’s fashions

Shoba Narayan (Writer)

Mar 22, 2010


It is a problem that afflicts every fashion designer: what to do with last season’s clothes that didn’t sell? In India, unlike the US or Europe, there are no luxury consignment stores or outlet malls where designer “seconds” can be sold at discount. Instead, says the designer Joe Ikareth, the “dead stock” would just lie in boxes in warehouses because “the label was too precious to just give clothes away”. So he began thinking about ways around this – ways of reinventing and recycling last season’s stock, something that he does with his own designs.

Ikareth graduated from the prestigious National Institute of Fashion Technology in New Delhi in 1996 with an award for Best Design Collection. He then worked with the couturier Suneet Varma, experiencing the business of Indian fashion first-hand. Four years later, Ikareth moved back to his native Kerala to set up an atelier. He uses local fabric and traditional techniques of embroidery and woodcutting, but his design sensibility is quirky. He says that he is inspired by the movement of clothes on the acrobats and dancers that he used to design for in New Delhi. But, he says, the image of designer clothes lying dormant in empty warehouses stayed with him through the past 15 years.

Two years ago, he approached the owners of Grasshopper in Bangalore, where he retails, with a bold idea. How about getting a group of designers together to collaborate on last season’s leftovers? They would exchange their creations and transform them into something unlike the original. The owners of Grasshopper, Sonali Sattar and Himanshu Dimri – a husband and wife team who design linen and silk dresses under the label Hidden Harmony – were immediately enthusiastic. They approached some designers, and, in June 2008, six young Indian design teams sat down in Bangalore and came up with TransForm.

“The idea was to give a new dimension to leftover stock so that it doesn’t pile up,” says Krishna Murthy, who designs leather handbags and pouches. “Since we all came from different design backgrounds and principles, we thought it would be interesting to see how we could transform each other’s pieces.” In addition to Ikareth, Sattar and Dimri the original six design teams were Atul Johri, who makes jewellery, candleware, vases and lights using traditional craft techniques; Saviojon, who is frequently cited as one of the rising stars of fashion; Murthy who worked with leather among other things, and the designers Jason Cherian and Anshu Arora, who play with textures and details for their fashion and home products under the label A Small Shop.

“It was wonderful how we all connected and agreed on how things should be taken forward,” says Sattar. For instance, even though they ended up selling the TransForm designs due to public demand, they set out to be a “conceptual exercise without the pressure of commercial output”, as Ikareth says. Also, says Sattar, they originally wanted to make the final products label-less because, in a sense, TransForm was about subsuming the individual ego for a collective one.

She points to a Hidden Harmony dress that Saviojon converted into a blousy top. “Customers liked that they were getting two labels instead of one, so we ended up leaving the labels behind,” she shrugs. The designers agreed that they would share equally in the proceeds from the sales, since the final products were design amalgamations. For the first TransForm event, which happened in November 2008, each designer had four months to create their piece. Ikareth made a fabric wall using material from other designers into which clothes were sewn in. Viewers could put their hands, legs and faces into a piece, “thereby transforming themselves into a new character”, while a photographer documented the entire process and installation.

For this year’s TransForm, the designers chose Alice in Wonderland as the theme to link the products together. Ikareth has created a line of clothes with bags stitched into them so that the clothes fold into the bags. “Poor Alice left for Wonderland in such a hurry that she was really unprepared,” says Ikareth. “Using this idea, I created a Things to carry to Wonderland line in which all the products had a dual purpose: pillows, bags and cushions could transform into skirts, pants and tops. This way you had something soft to lay your head on and spare clothes to change into if ever you find yourself stuck down the rabbit hole.”

The other designers came up with equally creative products: leather necklaces, appliqued hats, dresses converted into lamps, frilly blouses and shirts that used to be trousers. Most interesting, however, is the contrasting design sensibility evident in the difference between each designer’s original products, displayed in Grasshopper’s downstairs area, and the TransForm products, displayed upstairs. Downstairs, the clean lines and minimalist sensibility of each designer is obvious. Upstairs at the TransForm display space, everything is wildly exuberant, colourful and whimsical.

“We all had loads of fun and learnt to work on mediums that we probably wouldn’t have tried since our work is quite specialised,” says Johri. “No one was competing with each other. Rather, we had the luxury of cutting open works of other designers without any limitations and creating something quite unique.” In addition to Transform, Johri has also been invited by The United Nations Development Program and India’s Khadi and Village Industries Commission to develop paper out of banana fibre and launch a series of banana fibre paper lights for the first time in Southeast Asia. He also works with the talented artisans of the Channapatna district outside Bangalore, famed for their wooden toys. Johri has used their talents to create a range of lacquerware lifestyle and fashion products. For TransForm, Murthy made a belt out of some coloured wooden beads from the range. Saviojon took a bright purple silk skirt that was originally a Hidden Harmony design and converted it into a halter-neck dress. The Hidden Harmony duo, in turn, took a transparent blue Saviojon top and added vivid red and yellow borders.

On opening night a few weeks ago, more than a hundred people thronged the exhibition space, trying on clothes and playfully using skirts as headscarves or blouses as vests – all of which was immensely fulfilling for the designers. As Ikareth says: “Fashion isn’t a design that you wear; it is a thought you express. My clothes are represented by a stylised dragonfly label and do not carry my name. It is important that every single piece is first an object with its own independence; later the garment takes on a personal note depending on who wears it.”

For each of these politically conscious young designers, TransForm wasn’t merely a way to revamp their clothes or themselves. They view it as a way to transform the world: “The textile industry contributes in a major way to global warming. TransForm is our effort to give back to nature.”



MF Hussain

India shamed as its greatest painter is driven abroad

Shoba Narayan (Writer)

Mar 10, 2010

India’s treasured painter Maqbool Fida Hussain officially handed over his Indian passport and became a Qatari citizen yesterday. He is never returning home and Indians should not have let him go. Forced into exile five years ago due to death threats from Hindu hardliners, Hussain told interviewers that Qatar is his home now. While he loves India, the 94-year-old artist said, the country didn’t need him or want him. All overBharatmata, the Mother India painting.

I wonder if the Hindu fundamentalists who made death threats and lodged criminal complaints against Hussain had actually seen the painting in question. It is a stunning piece of art that does everything a great work should – it inspires and provokes; offers a point of view and forces you to question yours; it offers a window to the painter’s psyche; most of all, it is quite beautiful. The right-wing rebellion against Hussain boils down to a single and tragically polarising factor: MF Hussain is a Muslim painter portraying nude Hindu goddesses. How dare he?

As it turns out, the Mother India painting has nothing to do with Hindu goddesses. It portrays a distraught kneeling woman who is artfully drawn in the shape of the Indian map. Her hair becomes the Himalayan mountains while her knees portray the southern tip of India. In its geometry, it looks like a Picasso, whom Hussain is frequently likened to; in its emotion, it resembles Edvard Munch’s The Scream painting; in its use of bright but tranquil colours, it is akin to a Rothko. The names of Indian states are scratched out and the woman is nude, yes, but not in a tawdry way. The painting is more tasteful than most of the Bollywood dance sequences, none of which, I might add, evoke such ire from the religious radicals.

The reason that this painting is targeted is because a Muslim man has dared to depict Bharat Mata, who is traditionally viewed as a Hindu woman, thus reflecting the majority of Indians. But Mother India is beyond religion and region. Hussain has as much claim on her as Lal Krishna Advani, the former leader of the Hindu nationalist BJP. In portraying her as a distraught woman, Hussain is reflecting the sentiments of many a secular Indian. That he has done so beautifully is an added bonus. He should be lauded, not reviled, for this painting is one of his strongest.

Hussain doesn’t make it easy, I admit. He has painted nude Hindu goddesses in the past, and continued to do so in spite of widespread protests. Unlike his more reclusive contemporaries, he has allowed his eccentricities to flower to the point of caricature. The white beard, the bare feet, the flowing clothes, the cloth bag, are all portraits of this artist as a young (at heart) man. In his courtship of Bollywood beauties like Madhuri Dixit and Tabu, in his willingness to let the world into his heart and home, Hussain is perhaps more innocent than the other painters of the Progressive Artists’ Group of Mumbai. And unlike other Indian art luminaries, he took a chance on India. While his contemporaries such as Syed Haider Raza and Francis Newton Souza exiled themselves to Paris and New York respectively, Hussain remained determinedly Indian. He loved India and it loved him back.

Hussain has said in interviews that even when political parties sent mobs to destroy his home, the young men who invaded his home never touched his paintings, in spite of orders from the parties’ top brass. Such is the power of a Hussain. While the general public only remembers his controversial paintings, these are a small fraction of his body of work, which comprised other, less-controversial but equally inspiring Sufi paintings, his paintings of horses and chariots and of nameless Indians and shrouded women.

Hussain has said that he will visit India if invited. Several political parties and the home minister P Chidambaram have already asked him to return home. His son, Owais Hussain, told Arab News: “You can take him to any part of the world, but he would still remain an Indian personality.” Asked whether his father could change his mind about his citizenship, the son didn’t know. Meanwhile, masses of Indians have brought a petition that Hussain be awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award. But these are mere palliatives to what is essentially India’s national shame: it has lost its greatest painter.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Monsoon Diary, a memoir about growing up in South India


In reference to Shoba Narayan’s opinion article India shamed as its greatest painter is driven abroad (March 10), it takes courage to speak out as boldly, and forthrightly, as Ms Narayan has done about Maqbool Fida Husain, a modern-day Picasso, a prophet without honour in the home of his birth. What a shame! Vernon Ram, Hong Kong