Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Idiot Box

Television has always been seen as an 'instrument for entertainment'. Its prime function is to amuse and entertain people in their idle time or to kill their boredom. Most of the English teachers in primary schools are obsessed with essays on 'Television: An Idiot box'. Almost every year, students give identical rhetoric speeches on same topic in elocution competitions and debates and keep on proving television as an Idiot Box. Thus, from a very small age, we solidify the notions of watching television as a trivial activity which is used to kill time or for pleasure and to get information (through 24 hours running news channels or National Geography and Discovery channels).

Is watching television only limited till the above stated notions developed in us from a young age? As a matter of fact, television industry is a highly profitable industry. It not only generates employment in creative sector, like writing, acting, directing, etc. but also, in technical and financial sectors. Qualified engineers are recruited to develop and circulate new and latest technologies such as Direct to Home (DTH) services, inventing new and better television sets for a better television watching experience, technical assistance in producing television programmes, telecasting them and so on. Thus television also plays an important role in economic development of any country.

Not only economical, but television can also cause major political repercussions. Arvind Rajgopal in his book, ‘Politics After Television’, analysis the emergence of one of the strongest political parties and the development of Hindutva movement in India. He says, “In January 1987, the Indian state-run television began broadcasting a Hindu epic in serial form, The Ramayana, to nationwide audiences, violating a decade-old taboo on religious partisanship. What resulted was the largest political campaign in post-independence times, around the symbol of Lord Ram, led by Hindu nationalists. The complexion of Indian politics was irrevocably changed thereafter.” He further adds, “While audiences may have thought they were harking back to an epic golden age, Hindu nationalist leaders were embracing the prospects of neoliberalism and globalisation. Television was the device that hinged these movements together, symbolising the new possibilities of politics, at once more inclusive and authoritarian.” Studies like these establish that watching television is after all not as trivial an activity as it seems to be. It can influence ideologies of masses which can result into great political moments.

Along with economic and political affects, television greatly influences our cultural dynamics. On one hand India is shackling out of its third world image the popular mediums (read current Indian soap operas), representing it‘s culture across the globe still depict India as a socially rigid nation.

The idiot box is not as idiot as it seems, infact on is not aware about when the viewer is converted into believing the myths floated from the same.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Today's Monuments

Mumbai got a new landmark on 30 June 2009, inaugurated by Congress President and UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi. Much later it was named Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link, a project that claims to be ‘one of the most highly recommended project of all the transport studies done for the metropolitan region.’ The Sea link has come to be a glamorous substitute for the Mahim Causeway, which was the only link connecting the western suburbs with the island city of Mumbai.

In a recent poll conducted by the Mumbai Mirror to list seven architectural wonders of the city, the Bandra Worli Sea-Link, as it is popularly called, topped the list. The some others in the list were the Gateway of India, Mount Mary Church, Gorai Vipassana Pagoda. These were monuments were chosen over places like Dhobi Ghat, Mani Bhavan, the Seven headed Shiva, Sewree fort which also contested for ‘wonder’ status. The Banganga, Docks, the Muhamad Ali Road, Chor Bazaar, Bhuleshwer, Carter Road promenade-all brimming with the various characteristics which comprise the essence of the city, were perhaps enough uncanny to be not considered for the poll. What would be the parameters to decide a monument or an ‘architectural wonder’ in this context? Is it the symbolic importance? If symbolic in terms of history, then what is the history of the city we choose to look at? When the general mass cannot identify a prominent misquote during the polls-to call the Caves of Mahakali and Jogeshwari ‘tunnels’ of Mumbai. However, this is not a deference to the idea that the Sea link is a structure of merit. 

The success of the Sea-Link is being discussed perhaps on the following parameters- It is among the most complex & advanced construction projects ever in India, a major project in Mumbai metropolitan region after Mumbai-Pune expressway, the Sea Link reduces travel time between Bandra and Worli from 45–60 minutes to 7 minutes; also the single tower supported 500 metre long cable-stayed bridge at Bandra Channel and twin tower supported 350 m cable-stayed bridge at Worli Channel for each carriageway and also an intelligent bridge system which will provide additional traffic information, surveillance, monitoring and control systems. Last but not the least; it will be the new landmark for Mumbai, a power symbol of immense pride for the nation’s economic capital. Mumbai’s new monument which every Mumbaikar is taking a great collective pride in, irrespective whether they are entitled to use it or not. Such symbols of technological progress are thus transcending from their primary functions and begin to form our new monuments as a part of nation building. Mumbai postcards have already begun replacing the Gateway with the Sea-Link.

Interestingly the Sea Link is also a new addition to the landmark destinations of the Mumbai Darshan tours. These are a day long daily tours organised by private bus owners, cashing on the huge number of domestic and international tourists who come ‘to see’ Mumbai. They have some very interesting destinations like the clichéd Girgaum Chowpatty, Hanging Gardens to some other popular landmark  like Mantralaya, ISKON temple  and interestingly the bungalows of some Bollywood stars. This bus tour, which takes the tourists across the city creating spectacles of unusual landmarks, now crosses over to the suburbs using the Sea-Link, with the tourists-especially domestic, ‘wowing’  at the play of cables and the distanced view of the city the bridge offers

Some Reflections

Vipassana Pagoda, Gorai.    Starry Nights, Vincent Van Gough.   Space of a mirror/dream.

Walking into the space of the Gorai Vipassana Pagoda is walking into recluse. Sitting in loose circular rows directed towards the centre of the grand dome are some Buddhist monks meditating. The dome- a pink stone canopy stretches in never ending volumes forming a new horizon within. There are waves of reverberation in its atmosphere. This is not just an acoustical experience. It is the geometry or the physical manifestation of the building which aspires and manages to transcend one from the physical world into a spiritual one.  Its ‘golden’ spire, it being the largest stone monument and a technological marvel –all these factual knowledge seem immaterial at the moment one is within its architecture. It is the beginning of an introverted experience. Driving towards the monumental Pagoda, circum-ambulating the enormous golden exteriors and then as one walks into the domed mediation centre, admirations of the volumes follows a reflection into oneself. This is the experience you associate with the image of the Pagoda.

Essences of experiences are often repeated. Or one derives similarities between experiences to make sense of the previous or the present. Van Gogh painted Starry Night while in an Asylum at Saint-Remy in 1889. He has painted a night sky caught in the storm of strokes which swirl across the canvas to create a turbulence over a sleepy village scene. The steeple of the church rises from the village into the sky. To the left of the painting there is a massive dark structure, compared to the scale of other objects in the painting. Its curving lines which mirror the sky create inquisitiveness. Could it be a mountain? Or a leafy bush? Or a spirit rising to the sky? Are we seeing a reflection of Van Gough mind? A mind restless within the confines of an asylum. Each star is lit up by its own curious orb. It is unlike the starry sky one has seen. We see what the artist seems to see. He wrote to his brother in a letter: "And he dreamed yet another dream, and told it his brethren, and said, Behold, I have dreamed a dream more; and, behold, the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me."

And as we talk of dreams. There are often dreams I get of myself staring into the mirror. As I look on, at myself, I see myself going deeper and deeper into the space of a mirror and all my attempts will be to hold on to myself in that space were I do not even exist-in the mirror, in the dream. It is often a very tiring experience, one that you can call a nightmare.  After this when I encounter my dressing table mirror, the first look at my ownself sends a jolt down my spine. Somehow I am not calm to still be what I remember I am. I touch the cold surface of the mirror to only know that unfeeling reflection of mine will touch me back and the physics of the distances exist in all rationale and scientific values. I have again resorted to logic to wash out a highly emotional and evocative experience. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Some days I continue to stare at myself through all the mirrors I encounter in the day. The side mirror of my car, the glazing at a supermarket, the mirrors in the bathroom of a cinema, the glass door of my office, all which reflects me ‘me’! Logic wishes to understand the rationale of these experiences- these experiences of fear, of introspection, of obsessive analysis. Words, questions filling up in the brain-forming an introversion, a meditation. These reflections and various experiences of a mirror!

Reflections on work of artist : Do-Ho Suh

How would it feel to walk over a glass floor pushing your weight on miniature men? As I watch the video of this art work, and see the viewers in the gallery crouching on the glass floor to get a better glimpse of these miniature men, ‘Scale’ is the first word that comes to my mind when I see Do-Ho Suh works of art. From a distance what seemed like a carpet on the gallery floor, on further zooming was replaced by these Lilliputian men who hands were up, holding the glass. Were they trying to push the weight away? Were they being trampled under the weight? Scale not only in terms of the physical sizes, but also quantitatively. Similarly another work which uses dog badges and the sculpture slowly grows from the floor into the robes of perhaps a non-existing monarch/patriarch. As the viewers walk over it creating crunching noises, they also carefully observe what is written on these badges. So is the wall filled with identity card photographs of the students! Each unit which makes all these works is small and unique. However when they come together as a mass all that one can perhaps see is the huge scale. I can sense crowd, a sense of alienation and a search for identity. Images of the crowd of commuters taking the Mumbai local train after their office hours come to my mind. What I liked was the way gallery space was used to display/make these works.

The artist shares a similar experience he felt about school uniforms. One of his works deals with this. Uniformed busts are arranged in rows- like soldiers/students standing for drill.  Interestingly the uniforms were stitched together by the sides, so that they become one big unit. We have people who are tried to be made so similar that we do not notice them mutating into one another. I found this a very deep comment on urban lives we live in. When there daily clock to rigidity follow, set of rules without which survival is impossible, man becomes a machine-a means of production. This experience is dictated by obligations- to the employer, authorities, family, etc. We are all part of that ‘anonymous everyday life’. I remember some scenes from the movie Metropolis. Another experience which fuels his work was his term of mandatory service in the South Korean military. 

The nostalgia and longing form an important theme to many of his works. "Once my fortune teller told me that I have five horses and that means that I travel a lot," says Do-Ho Suh who was born and schooled in Seoul, Korea. Being overshadowed by his father, Suh wanted to make a mark of his own and relocated to the United States to continue his higher studies. However he still travels between his life and studio in New York and a life full of memory and family ties in Seoul, South Korea. La/seoul/NY/Baltimore/ London is one of his work coming from his idea of ‘wanting to carry his home’. Using traditional Korean techniques of sewing, Suh creates an ephemeral space with very beautiful details, all from his memory. He speaks about how memories of your childhood and its association with space becoming a part of you. In many cities when we do not own a place to stay and have to keep shifting their rented apartments, our attachments associated with the place are only carried on as memories and photographs. Also with a lot of globe-trotting and migrations, the questions where do we belong and where is our home linger. Longing and search for identity fuse

A home away from home

Perhaps since my parents migrated away from ’their’ home as a young couple to make their lives, they are always nostalgic. They are nostalgic about their childhood, their culture, their festivals (ulsavams), even their language-malayalam.This nostalgia has survived 35 years though they have accepted Mumbai as a second home. The padams(fields) and the ancestral home have been left behind only physically.

The acquisition of an ‘own’ space in Mumbai was a long journey for them. Beginning with humble earnings, it took them some years before they bought their first house after living in staff quarters of my father’s company. Aesthetically this place never satisfied them owing to comparisons with their home in Kerala. There was no open space. We had to share space and rooms with each other. It was not even comfortable as the previous quarters which were considerably huge and in the middle of a forested area-it was much closer to their idea of a home. But now they owned this place. Mom began her process of conversion of space. She added a balcony garden, a little fish tank, and some openable grills with flower creepers to our two BHK flat. Dad’s collection of wooden masks, Karnatic music cassettes and mom’s Krishna and Ganesh idols soon occupied the walls and shelves of our new house in neat organised displays. It became customary for them henceforth to carry a part of Kerela- a lamp, a brass vessel, a mask- back after our annual vacation there. That was our idea of vacation- visiting home.

We as children were to speak in Malayalam compulsorily. A habit which still continues. The language forms one of the biggest connections with their home. And this was their only bridge to their belonging, which they insisted we inherited. And perhaps of all the rules set for our childhood, this was the only one we never resisted. This extended to the dictatorship of Malayalam television and movies in our home.
The only explosion that existed in this Mumbai Keralite home was the room shared by me and my sister. School books, novels, pop-magazines, paintings, posters, some interesting discards occupyied aclusterish and revolutionary existence only in our room. The room was a confusion, a mixture and exploration. Both me and my sister, had inherited the tradition of carrying back a piece of the place on a travel, thus our travels started contributing to the décor of the house-not without resistance or debate most of the time. And sometimes blantant disapproval at the nature of the souvenir.

An important character in our home is the telephone. The telephone forms the only tangible form of communication for my parents with their kith and kin. Investing in telephones has always been my dad’s obsession. Each room has a telephone connection, inspite of being a small and accessible home.
Often I have wondered while growing up, if this nostalgia was triggered by the anxiety of alienation they faced in a city with a very different culture. However their eclectic set of friends negate this idea.Also their tolerance of our multi-cultural value system. This city was definitely a new home-where they got opportunities to fulfil their dreams. Along with adapting a 800sq ft apartment into a home filled with archives of their memories of their home, the new city was accepted and loved for its own reasons. However the eternal nostalgia of what they left, lies etched in their lives and on the surfaces our home.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Please think of our Natural Resources!

Recently, an interesting topic- Environmental Art was being discussed on many blogs. It was intriguing to read about artists and architects engaged in shaping the future of our natural resources; and redefining Art and Architecture for people at large. Not only have they challenged themselves but have also made a paradigm shift towards generating green economy.

One of the blogs on the topic mentioned about a Canadian artist, Sean Martindale and his group of friends who had creatively designed the edges of the neglected tree planter boxes and replanted them by adding, real as well as paper flowers to it. According to the artist it turned out to be an economic project. He mentioned that the money used on the project added to the green economy. Also, directly engaging with the urban fabric, his project delivered a dynamic collective participation between the living beings and the natural resources (here trees).

With such initiatives towards building a green economy, we still face the question that how much of the Environmental art will be really advantageous to our natural resources? And, will it be beneficial to the smallest of the organism? Sadly, we think in parts and not in whole. For instance, until and unless an artist considers natural resources as one of the most important aspects of his/her works, he/she will never be able to connect with it. For example an architect creates a building that shapes the land and socially connects with the surroundings. But, it is the land that is the point of intersection of the building and the human activity. Hence, natural resources form the most important organs of any work of art.

Christopher Alexander, author of the book The Pattern Language, quotes from it that when you build a thing, you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must also repair the world around it, and within it, so that the larger world at that one place becomes more coherent, and more whole; and the thing which you make takes its place in the web of nature, as you make it. In other words, any individual (whether an artist or architect) should strive to contextualize his/her project rather than showcasing it as a preposterous dog-and-pony show. Not being concupiscent will help in rejuvenating our ideas that are buried in the debris of concrete and steel.

Admissions Open

CEPT will train students to become consultants to the media and publishing industry
Art is ubiquitous. It may not be particularly dignified or newsworthy all the time, but it is there everywhere. From the arrangement of utensils in a Kutch dwelling to the art of Subodh Gupta, there is an intrinsic sense of aesthetics that transfixes an art aficionado. However, why do people use it everyday? What significance does it hold? These are questions that have gained momentum over time. This growing awareness has created a need to fill the gap between the observer and the creator.
CEPT (Centre for Environmental Protection and Technology), an educational institution based in Ahmedabad, is one of the first in the country to start a course in Arts Journalism.
The two-year Master's Programme seeks to integrate and build on CEPT's strengths in the field of architecture, interior design, environment planning, conservation and urban design, amongst others. The students will be provided with opportunities to create new paradigms in learning and presenting the arts through different mediums.
The emphasis will be on helping the students to reflect upon art, design and creativity beyond their material forms, and more as an attitude towards life as a whole.
New perspective
Dhwani Dalal, a second-year student from Arts Journalism and also a vocalist, says, “This course, apart from helping me discover myself, has been extremely engaging. Learning has never been so much fun. It has also brought in the realisation that it is imperative to provide interpretations of works of art to the common people.”
The opportunities are manifold. The Art Journalists can become writers, journalists, creative consultants to the media (electronic, visual, and the radio) and explore prospects with the publishing industry, art galleries, art and design studios and magazines.
For more details, log onto the website www.cept.ac.in.
Forms can be downloaded from the website for the coming session.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Staying Alive- on museums in the city

What is a museum?
‘  A Visitor’s attraction- is the "front porch" of the community, welcoming visitors and giving them an overview of what's special and unique about this place. A Catalyst for change- exists to deliver a message that will encourage people to think differently about their relationship to others or to the world.  Center of creativity-engages visitors in activities where they make and do things. Visitors, rather than the museum, determine the outcomes. Memory bank- displays aspects of the history of a place, person, cultural tradition, etc.  Attic- preserves objects and images that would otherwise have been discarded. Treasure trove- preserves valuable, meaningful, and/or rare and unusual objects and images. Shrine/hall of fame- honors a particular group or individual and assumes visitors have a built-in interest in this topic. Exclusive club-although open to the public, it is primarily aimed at people with special interests in and knowledge of the topic.
Above all it is a Storyteller ‘

‘Whatever the museum's role, staying alive today isn't easy’, says Alice Parman in one of her essays on strategic management and revitalisation of museums. Museums house a history and are themselves part of history. They are story tellers.  However they are also living institutions that must continually cope with the present and imagine how to prepare for the future. With internet and cell phones transforming how people communicate and learn, there are both threats and opportunities present for museums. When in their studios, architects often assert the unassailable timelessness of museums as keepers of the past, and emphasising on the poetry of the built form to make the museum iconic- they often forget that what marks the museum on the map is often not architecture alone. This is also the reason why some museums thrive and some struggle to survive.

With different kinds of museums in India-from museum of archaeology, anthropology, history, modern art to biographical, railway, transport, the state of Gujarat stands second in India in respect of the number of museum. From the government to private organisation, all want to build museums. Some museums are found-like Kocharab Satyagraha Museum, Baroda Museum, Calico museum of Textiles, Tribal Museum; while others were built like Gandhi Smarak Sangralaya, Shreyas Museum. Many more are proposed.  The Ministry of Culture, Government of India has constituted a Panel for identifying and documenting sites associated with Mahatma Gandhi. The proposed Dandi Musuem is one such initiative. Why do we want to build these museums? The Ministry puts it as a view to strengthen the upkeep of our history and conservation for posterity. Ahmedabad houses twenty two of these fifty seven museums in Gujarat.

In this paper we look at the stories of two museums in the city, in terms of its content, context and language (i.e. curator, architect and audience) and try to begin unwinding the intertwined stories of the museum, an institution housing memory in our public culture- intertwined in its built form, in terms of its functional aspects, in a socio-cultural context and many more.

Tied within architecture: Sanskar Kendra
Beating the summer’s heat as one enters one of the first concrete buildings ever built in the city, and designed by none other than Le- Corbusier, the designer of the ever so modern grandiose called Chandigarh. Moreover this visit is to the city’s only City Museum and the Kite Museum. For a Sanskar Kendra, literally translated as the Centre for Culture, one expects a busy bustling building. But it is something far from that. May be it is the summer’s heat which is keeping people away from this institution for cultural exchange. Driving in from a busy road, at the first glance itself at the monolithic exposed brick façade, the building seems introverted. A cultural node of a city, not in dialogue with the city itself? This was apparently the reaction to the city’s heat. So the architect instead of going sub-terranean(or any vernacular architectural solution) opened up the building in its insides to a beautiful, sunny but empty court, with an amorphously shaped, but now dried water feature. “This was the map of what Ahmedabad used to be”, says the self-appointed guide of the museum Chetanbhai, one of the helping staff at museum since the past 10 years.

Standing on 64 pilotis the entire building is lifted from the ground. It was meant to give a sense of floating. However the later additions of the heritage cell and the kite museum near the ramp does not any more do justice to the sense of ‘float’ to the building. But they do add a busy feel to it. In addition to lots of bikes and a few cars parked outside the building that promises some activity upstairs which the ground was devoid of. In midst of the court is a ramp, one of Corbusier’s signatures going up to the museum space with an inscribed granite template at the entrance which marks the entry-with the name embedded on it-Karnavati: Atith ki Jhanki(Ahmedabad: peep into the past). And as we walk up the ramp, one cannot help but admire the subtle monumentality and the style of architecture left behind by one of the avant garde modern architects of our times. Invited by the Sarabhais-one of the movers and shakers of Ahmedabad, to design their house, Le Corbusier was soon commissioned the museum. Located near Sardar Bridge, which is one of the bridges which connect the new city to the old, Sanskar Kendra was aspired and designed as the cultural node of the city – with programmes like centres for Natural History, Anthropology, Archaeology, Open air theatre, library, restaurant and workshop areas along with the present exhibition space. Now the complex is shared only by the Tagore hall, an auditorium. Interestingly Sanskar Kendra is also located opposite the campus of National Institute of design, designed by Gautam and Gira Sarabhai.

Initially the only exhibition that was housed here was the NC Mehta Miniature collection. However owing to neglect, the collection was moved to a newer gallery adjoining the Lalbhai Dalpatbhai museum designed by Ahmedabad’s famous architect- BV Doshi. Lying defunct and neglected for many years, ten years ago this defunct building was revitalised by incorporating the city museum. And a few years later, a kite collector Bhanu Shah decided to exhibit few of his precious collection and thus came about the kite museum, one of its kinds in the world. Another one exists in Tokyo, Japan.  

The City Musuem- Kanavati: Atith ki Jhanki, a peep into the past of Karnavati, (as Ahmedabad was called before) came about. It was architect Yatin Pandya, the Associate Director at Vastu-Shilpa Foundations who spear headed the programme. Along with an advisory board which included the who’s who of art and culture in Ahmedabad, like Amit Ambalal, Piraji Sagara, Esther David, Mallika Sarabhai, Niranjan Bhagat, B V Doshi to name a few. The museum was conceived as an institution to nurture and restore the values, ethos, pride and aspirations of the city and its citizens. It would be an event - an experience that recreated the pulse of the vibrant city of Ahmedabad and its enterprising people. No architectural commentary can be complete without the experience.

As one enters the museum, the first reaction is of confusion. There is no authority to man the desk or guide you. The only people you see, once you have walked up the ramp in the court from the ground floor and reach the entry, are a few guards and the woman in charge of cleaning. Opposite the ramp exactly is a door/window going nowhere. That is where the extension or the connection to the appendage block was meant to be. After filling in a register the time one is entering the museum- 3.40 pm, one realises that he is the third visitor today. A whole array of display objects are exhibited in a seeming order. The aspects depicted are history and antiquity, Gujarati literature , industry and commerce followed by the compartment displaying textile craft, independence struggle, etc- ‘all the characteristics of Ahmedabad’ There is a large section dedicated Contemporary Arts and artists in the city. The mural wall made of traditional wood work and intermittent mirrors where the visitor can see himself in conjunction with old and the new in the backdrop. There were also architectural models of the Mill owners Association building, Sarabhai house, etc.-most of them being CEPT student work, along with drawing panels by the Vastu Shilpa of various important architectural buildings-both old and new, in Ahmedabad. Along with this there was also an old CEPT poster and faded NID panels displaying the various courses they offer!

The building, itself can be seen as an object of display. Also a heritage building, it was also in dire need to be restored. “Ahmedabad is, arguably, the only city in the world after Paris to possess four architectural edifices of the internationally-acclaimed modern master Le Corbusier. Sanskar Kendra, one of them had hardly been maintained and the property had fallen prey to all kinds of encroachments and vandalism. Structure and finishes had eroded due to neglect and abuse” says architect Yatin Pandya in one of his interviews with a local daily, DNA

About the building, there are many- ‘could have happened, but didn’t happen’. However this was the building which inspired his design of the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, and it shares the same plan and similar elevation features of the Sanskar Kendra. Critics say that both this and Tokyo Museum were in a vague way derived from the pre-war Museum of Unlimited Growth scheme, which orthogonized a spiral to suggest unlimited growth- a good strategy for the sales pitch for museum curators  who always complain of the building being too small for their needs. The proposed/designed appendage buildings could be accessed from the main building by bridges. However these appendages never happened. Another thing that didn't happen was the ‘green’ roof. It was supposed to be a refreshing paradise of water-basins, carpeted with lilies and sending refreshing splashes down into the courtyard pond below. If all that had materialized it would definitely have been some kind of Corbusier version of the Hanging Gardens. However now the roof is a barren wasteland and the courtyard loses all sense of promenade with its ponds empty and traversable.  Versus this, the Tokyo museum is thriving cultural research center.
Why the ambitious project never could completed as Corbusier imagined, or why Sanskar Kendra isn’t the cultural hub of the city of Ahmedabad are interesting areas of investigations. The investigations will reveal stories of what kind of spaces are consumed in the city-where a sari sale in the Sanskar Kendra is more visited than the City museum next door, irrelevance of the fossilised curation of the city to locals or to the tourists-who easily can acquire a peep into Ahmedabad through the internet, faulted bureaucracy-where the directors head the institution as another government job without a literate curator to him, disgruntled locals of the nearby who are not allowed to use the empty premises for their cricket matches and drying of papads, also the scooters and cars parked below belong to the heritage department and the election commission which are now housed here.

Extending beyond architecture: Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya
‘Shoes allowed’ is what the board at the entrance steps to the Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya says. An attitude of devotion is expected, since we are visiting the memorial of perhaps India’s most documented political hero, whom Indian history loves to immortalise as someone who has delivered the nation. The Gandhi memorial Museum is a building dedicated to archival material on the Mahatma, sitting within the Satyagraha ashram complex, which was the centre of many of Gandhi’s political and social activities. Situated on the banks of the Sabarmati, the complex no longer functions as a working ashram but as a museum and also houses various institutions whose aim is ‘to preserve and propagate the legacy’ of the Mahatma. There is a sense of pride in every Indian, moreover Gujrati for the fact that Gandhi belonged here. As the museum brochure says with all its attempted humility ‘The Ashram has stood witness too many important happenings, happenings which were instrumental in shaping the Karmavir Mohandas into the Mahatma and the Father of the Nation.’ Either to pay homage, or out of curiosity, more than half a million visit here every year. The space inspires and enlightens.  It is an institution which has connected, with both the tourist and more importantly the Amdavadis.

The space of the Sangrahalaya imitates a kutir, a monastic form of space. Planted in a landscape filled with flower plants, lawns and champa trees, the ground storeyed building generously opens into the landscape. Also in the main lobby areas the pitched roof stands on columns, amplifying the sense of openness. “I want my house to be without walls, so that breeze of different cultures can blow in….”was Gandhi’s famous quote. The architect Charles Correa stays true to it. Made with very modern materials, the form of the building is inspired by the kutirs of an ashram and is designed as cluster around a central court-water body. The shaded, open, airy verandahs are ideal for people who want to escape from the harsh sun of Ahmedabad. Thus we find some taking short naps on the benches in the corridors or sleeping on the cool shaded Kota flooring of the museum. Also there are some Amdavadis who come and sit on steps by the river, couples grabbing sometime for themselves in the lawns, children running around in the garden, some playing cricket near the open aangans of Hriday Kunj. However this did not seem negligence, disrespect or ignorance. It just heightens the idea of a recluse. Even though there is museum of Gandhi at Porbandar and Kocharab, it is Correa’s museum which records the maximum number of footfalls. With a human scale of designing and lot of references from vernacular architecture, is it the architecture which connects? Or is it the philosophy of the Bapu?

The exhibition in the museum begins with this philosophy, the very first kiosk houses - Gandhi’s philosophy and his role in the freedom struggle. The exhibition begins with panel made of handmade paper, showing Gandhi’s probation with Gokhale-one of Gandhi’s key inspirations. Following are panels which tell the viewer- why the ashram was founded, why shifted from Kocharab, Gandhi’s philosophy of ashram life, etc. Thus the philosophy of the Satyagraha Ashram! Familiar words from history like Non-Coperation, Civil Disobedience, Quit India glare at us not just as words, but as evidences with newspaper cuttings, letters sent by leaders to each other, court notices to handwritten draft on the Swadeshi Sabhas. Throughout the exhibition, Gandhi is shown as a principled and righteous person-with panels showing incidences such as accounting his grandchildren’s visit to the ashram, his sister Ralityatben leaving the ashram since she refused to eat along with the Harijans. There were also some interesting panels which show Gandhi and Ba-his wife’s relationship. What was interesting is the little space for critical questioning the exhibition designer had niched out in the form of questions on the panel. Some staring questions were: Did Kasturba prepare women for Satyagraha only to help men? Though depicting only Gandhian philosophy, there was also a historical documentation of our nation or a critique of the society and its customs prevalent in that time.

The next kiosk houses many paintings of Gandhi donated by Chandulal Shah, a wealthy and the next one houses a library and the museum shop where also some publications and mementoes are on sale. Adjoining this is an exhibition mapping Gandhiji’s life-from his childhood to his death with the help of photographs. At the entrance says, ‘my life is my message.’ The rare sepia toned and black and white images of Gandhi build up a narrative of the journey of Mohandas to Mahatma.

The philosophy extends beyond the museum building. Flanking the Sangrhalaya, sharing the courtyards of Hriday Kunj- Gandhiji’s residence and Vinobha Kutir, the old guest houses have been now converted to the working offices of Harijan Sevak Sangh and Manav Sadna. It is interesting to see how the Satyagraha ashram doesn’t work as a space of dead archiving, but is taken forward as the philosophy continues with the help and outreach of these daughter organisations. In 1990, some young volunteers inspired by Gandhian philosophy of love and compassion, began under a tree in the ashram an alternate school for the under privileged children. This now has grown into Manav Sadna which works to empower people from the under privileged communities in Ahmedabad through programs in community building, value-based education, nutrition, health and women empowerment. It has also initiated disaster relief and rehabilitation programs in the aftermath of several natural disasters. It reuses the old spinning and textile units for training its volunteers and conducting their ‘learn to earn’ classes. With a range of people from different cross sections of the society, the serene and beautiful ashram complex is active.

 “In a semiotic sense, museums are 'dead', they are the past, and visitors go to pay homage to the glory of the past. Hence they are serious, severe and sombre. It is a challenge to keep a museum 'alive’. And that can happen only if the discourse that surrounds the subject is alive.” says Dr Seema Khanwalkar, a leading semiotician, on why some museums like the Gandhi ashram are ‘live’ and alive. Gandhi is definitely a living discourse, even in our day to day almost as a mythical hero. The museum thus has the possibility to extend beyond architecture alone, in the shade of the strong organisational system- Gandhi Smarak Trust, which runs the museum and the daughter organisations. Swami Narayan Museum is also one such biographical museum also amplifying a religious doctrine. In these situations the museum becomes ‘one of the functions’-in fact a tangible validation of their philosophy. This is what the City Museum has not been able to tap. As a window of the city, who is the audience? A tourist who is visiting the city? Who already has access to the Internet and travel Bible- Lonely Planet?

 Apart from what they house, museums are also very culture specific phenomena. So would not the act of viewing a museum be also culture specific? Along with the older questions of what to house, how to house, the important concern of many museums is how to stay ‘Alive’. Curatorial courses now look at strategic management as an important part of their course structure. Architects are re-programming museums inserting them into day to day. “Countries have found ways to keep histories and memories alive by experimenting with museum spaces that are not removed from day-to-day life, they are part and parcel of what you do and see. Like in Paris and Germany, the memories of the Holocaust is kept alive through monuments that you see on your daily walk and your daily conversation, or the Louvre is something you experience as you go through your daily routine”, says Dr Khanwalkar.

Google has now launched Virtual Museums. So one can take a tour of the museum, and the physical visit will remain for those enthusiasts who want the tangibility of that experience- of seeing history, of seeing art. The idea of a museum is no longer a physical. What can the pertinent questions be in a context when the museum is not only a part of public culture of global economy and media, but with technology- museums are on the move? How relevant are physical museums as a knowledge centre? Or is this physicality a monument alone?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

My First Critique ! ( Ouch :P )

We are so used to of appreciating whatever NID (National Institute of Design), Ahmedabad does that we hardly question their creations. There is no room left for criticizing their work. Housed in the permanent gallery called the Design Panorama, the ‘archival ‘exhibition had solidified this notion. Entitled as Design Classics, this exhibition was a part of a larger collection of NID. There seemed scarcely any connection between the wall text explaining about the exhibition and the displayed objects in the gallery.

There was a Gujarati Pataro located on one side of the cubic glass gallery which was located on an elevated platform. Parallel to that of the highly intricate peti was a white wall decorated with mirror work. It seemed that this Bauhaus structure of the glass gallery was trying to make its place into a vernacular backdrop to show that the ‘Indian ness’ of the space does not get diluted as the gallery struck a balance between the ‘modern’ and ‘Indian’.

With the bold letters was written ‘1961’ under which important events were highlighted. The events talked about the influences of modern movement on India, the need of a design school, the visit of Charles and Ray Eames in 1947 to India that eventually led to the constitution of NID, influence of modern movement on India and India’s first Industrial Revolution.

Entitled as ‘Moving towards Design Enabled India’, and written in an orange background; this huge text inside the gallery was a traffic stopper. Strangely, the size of the fonts of the black colored ‘moving towards’ was much small as compared to that of the white colored ‘Design Enabled India’. Does that imply that India was ‘disabled’ all this while? Ironically, there was a quote about lota that was mentioned by Charles and Ray Eames which paraphrased to say that apparently lota was the most beautiful of the designs he had ever come across. Right next to this title was another text which had some interesting statements but the most interesting statement amongst all was ‘…NID played a significant role in promoting design to move towards a Design Enabled India’. The quote did not seem to acknowledge the fact that before the inception of this design school in India there has been ample amount of architecture all around that still was the crux of the designs of many renowned buildings. People have been studying about the nuances of our ancient architecture till today because every time it unfolded itself into something new and different. Design schools; though have helped in channelising the thoughts pertaining to design but they did not ‘promote design’. Because design was always present around us, amongst us. It is we who have taken inspiration from nature and ‘promoted’ our designs.NID thinks that the history of NID is the history of Indian design which is so not true.

Moving towards the exhibition note, the text mentioned, “the objects in this exhibition are designed for everyday life in the modern world. For the designers being rained 50 years ago, object from Design today in America and Europe exhibition presented a unique opportunity to learn from some of the most important designers of the world through their works.”This exhibition was just a small part of the large collection at NID. The exhibition was based on three themes namely Modern Material and Processes, Modern Designers and Designing and Modern living and spaces.

The text of Modern Material and Processes explained the exploration in design through materials like steel, chrome, glass and plywood. There was plywood and a metal chair designed by Charles Eames that was kept in the exhibits. Second theme, Modern Designers and Designing talked about the importance of technology and mass production. Example was the Wassily chair in the exhibit. The third and the final theme, Modern living and spaces, mentioned about the need of function and ban on ornamentation in aspect of design. It projected the role of modern movement in the western world. Thus, ‘use’ became the centre of concern and was seen in the designs of spaces as well as lifestyle products. There were only around twenty five products that had been displayed which occupied a very little space in the gallery. But even for these products, the exhibition had three sections.

While looking at the exhibits, some of the interesting designs included the Side Chair designed by Charles Eames in 1951.More interesting was the base of the chair which was called ‘Eiffel tower’ created a dramatic vision of fine cross hatching of chrome and black steel. This showed that the use of new technology of resistance welding in furniture design pre empts a future concern of visual lightness through form. In the wall text that was kept outside the gallery, it was mentioned Charles and Ray Eames but only in the design pallet that showed the designer‘s name there was no mention of Ray Eames. Also, the pallet of colors wherein the details of the products and designers was mentioned was unsuitable to get engaged with the users.

Other objects were Bowls/Plates designed by Tapio Wirkala from Finland in 1951 and the toy figures by the Denmark based Allerup and Jensen in 1956.Another chair called the Swivel Chair had an interesting design wherein wood, chromed metal and leather was used in a minimal and a functional manner. Amongst these exhibits, there was a timeline that marked all the important (some random) events ranging from 1700 to 2000. Some of them mentioned were 1920 – Salt March (this event seems out of place over here), the year of 1961- NID, Ahmedabad, the year of 1919 – Bauhaus, Germany, the year of 2007 – the inception of National Design Policy to name a few.

Further continuing with the exhibits, the next object was designed by the architect Ludwig Meis Van der Rohe in the year of 1926 .Designed in Germany, it was a Laccio nest of tables which combined the tubular steel with a simple clean lacquered top. Next to this set of tables, was a Table Organizer by Hans Wegener from Denmark which got designed in 1947. This design was one of the smartest designs amongst all the exhibits. The organizer was then followed by a typewriter which was the last exhibit of the collection. The exhibition was small but captivating.

So what happened in the rest of the 2/3rd portion of the gallery? It exhibited the current PG (Post Graduation) programmes of NID. More like a three dimensional brochure, the long colorful attractive panels made sure that it strived to be ‘a design school’. Detailed information about the courses was given but not a single panel showed a sketch or a photograph of student’s output. These attractive, human size panels mentioned the courses such as Product Design, Furniture design, Textile design, Graphic design, Film and Animation design to name a few. The more recently added courses were Lifestyle Accessory Design, Strategic Design Management in the PG Campus of Gandhinagar and some other similar courses in the Bengaluru campus.

The proportion of the placement of the three dimensional brochures vis a vis the exhibition clearly showed what had to be given more weightage on. Interestingly, the note of Design Panorama mentioned that through these exhibits (the objects and not the brochures) the students would get encouraged to design. In this case, they would surely get encourage to join NID.

Further, the note also mentioned “Story of NID and design classic collection is linked in their conception and both over past 50 years have evolved together to inspire new generation of designers”. The note was so in opposition as to what was displayed and the way it was displayed in the gallery. The exhibition marketed the Institution clearly. There was no need for the exhibits to be a part of this exhibition as they were a standalone by itself since there was no relation seen between the two exhibits in the gallery.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Design Enabled India- A review of the permanent exhibition at NID

In contrast to the heat and noise of the city of Ahmedabad which surrounds it, National Institute of Design’s (NID) campus filled with green and nature, is serene. The porous architecture of the main building filled with courtyards of different scales and kinds accentuates this atmosphere.  Within one of it’s the pebbled courts, in a glass room is where NID hosts it permanent exhibition called ‘Design Enabled India’. After having had a glimpse of the ‘cool’ products designed by some professionals and students (most of them exorbitantly priced for their designer or brand value) from the Institute at Nidus, the NID store, the expectation from the permanent exhibition was to see some exclusive designs from the archives.

There are some traditional Indians artefacts like the pitara-a chest, an interesting terracotta lamp, kutchi mirror work on some wall panels which were spread across in the space, surrounding the exhibition. Situated between the stone walkway, a thoroughfare for students to their dormitories and the bubbling noise of water from the many level filteration plant in an adjacent courtyard, the exhibition space, Design Panaroma, is right opposite one of the main conference area. Through the glass we can hazily see some interesting objects on display. The entrance panel promises the exhibition to provide a glimpse of its professional design education programmes and design services spread across its three campuses. Along with it, also on display are NID’s prestigious Design Classic Collection-an archival collection. We walk along the brick ramp across the court and enter the space of the exhibition. One quarter of the exhibition space houses the Design Classic’s collection, and the other three fourths houses panels displaying the various courses NID offers. A huge orange panel describes the agenda of NID, to create a design enabled India. The proportion of the text and the impact it wants to deliver seems to say something like design is power, which will empower India. Along the glass wall, there were some flex panels narrating the story of how NID was born. Another panel maps NID’s international relations-with most connections to design schools in Europe.

The Design Classic Collection was a travelling exhibition, showcasing designs from Alvar Alto, Mies van Der Rohe to the Bahaus designers. Claiming, that since the history of NID is linked with that of this collection since past 50 years, they decided to share the space of what NID is about with it. A panel discussing the history of the collection mark the beginning- saying it was founded to encourage the study of design and inspire designers with examples of highest standard. These were designs for the everyday life in Europe. And it seemed to emphasise on the challenges the designers face, with respect to new materials, new technologies, design processes and of course aesthetics. The objects on display, sliced from history, and arranged in no specific chronology, of course showed this age of new experiments. Some of the designs were very artistic and truly classic. Though a small display, it was pretty captivating.

The other part of the exhibition was the panel display of the different courses and the services NID offered across its three campuses. Browsing through the course outlines and briefs, the influx of technology in design is evident. There are course like product design, lifestyle accessory design, new media design, toy and game design, strategic design management, which NID offers which sets it on equal balance with design schools of the West. Mounted orange panels with interesting line graphics adorning the bottom, it was surprising and disappointing not to see student/course output incorporated in a presentation about a course. Incorporating student archival material could have been a possible way to make the experience more interesting for a viewer. For many it seemed to be a 3-D brochure of NID’s programmes- which can always be surfed on the internet. It is a little uncertain about who is this exhibition meant for. It does not seem for the students who overlook the space in midst of their everyday along the corridors. Neither does it seemed for potential students- who will never get an opportunity to get past the strict security at the main entrance. So is this almost exclusive display meant for delegates and visitors to NID? Like a monarchy extending its umbrella or making new additions to its empire, the exhibition seems to present NID as a place which can offer any design solutions to the nation- to create the design enabled India they envision.

A little visit to Independent India’s history, tells us why institutions like NID were found during the nation building process. A flex on the entrance glass also attempts to do the same, by describing the ‘forces’ which ‘led to’ NID. They were the establishment of schools established on the lines of Macaulay’s plan of education, influence of the Bahaus and most pivotal-Charles and Ray Eames visit to India. It was the Eames Report of 1958 which helped envision NID. Another flex at the entrance glass is black and white photograph of Charles and Ray Eames. “Of all the designs I have seen, the lota is the most beautiful” was one of the lines written by Charles Eames in the report, which is one can now see put on the orange entrance panel alongside a drawing of lota. Interestingly the drawing of the lota is the only Indian/vernacular object within the space of the exhibition. The other objects like the pithara, lamp, the other traditional Indian objects are outside the exhibition space, kept like found artefacts or like sculptures to fill negative spaces. Some visitors have also pointed out that they are at a lower level than the plinth of the exhibition space, and within which the display objects are further slightly raised from the floor level.

What is the place of these traditional objects in design school inspired by the ‘Modern’? Are learnings from these traditions meant to be mere inspiration for ‘better’ designs? Many of our day-to-day traditional objects are skilful and intelligent. May be these are critical meanings trying to be read into the semiotics of the displayed objects. Many disciplines/discourses are trying to rekindle relationships with regional archives of tradition and craft, not just to preserve nostalgia but as a living knowledge system. In this context, this seems like an important critique to consider. And moreover it is the institution’s position on the same, especially when Classic designs from the west are archived and idealised. 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Art and Consumption- A review of Art 21 series (Same Title)

What is to consume? To buy? To feed? To need? To Love? The introduction to the series by John Mcguner, a popular tennis player says so. And the four artist in this series are to raise questions through their art work about the things we consume everyday. And I keep looking for ‘consume’ all through.

The series begins with an opening at a gallery and the artist on display is Michael Ray Charles. Looking for consumption in midst of conversations and wine glasses, I observe paintings of the artist in background which look like posters. Lot of popular images, many popular quotes are strewn across these posters. Most important-all the subjects of the paintings are black. I begin to understand that his ideas must be political. Also a process of relating his work of art with some other ideas has begun in my mind. Cut to-the artist is talking from a studio filled with books and souvenirs of popular imagery-so is he a thinking artist? Charles seems to be interested where and how popular imagery of’ blacks’ is born. This is an investigative interest. But his work deal with only products of the popular culture.  Showing an image of a vase from 6th century BC, Charles points out to details and tells us how the Greco-roman images were appropriated by early American illustrators for purposes of marketebilty. The artist derives inspiration from everyday experience and products of popular culture which depict the black. When he is painting over the image of a popular calendar, or painting the Classic- Modern series, his understanding and research seem to give many more layers to the art work. He says, “Concepts of past still linger” and we know that is true by nature of how these images are used especially in marketing and advertisements. We cannot blame the artist’s evident cynicism. The artist explains this with a children’s game ‘Tarzan-the wild and the leopard man’. We scorn along with the artist- Tarzan is a white handsome male ‘very much like Elvis Presley’ while the villain is a savage and a black. How naturally and unquestioningly such toys,’ barbies’ and other popular culture products neutralise many prejudices and concepts in our minds. ‘What is ugly is also beautiful ‘, he says.  

When I see Charles’ naked Elvis Presley with a black face, and the coin with Abraham Lincoln on it covering his shame, I am reminded of an Indian artist, who also puts together or quotes from popular imagery, a lot- Atul Dodiya. I kept wondering throughout, if Charles’ intends his art ‘to change the society’, and I was right. The series ended with Charles saying “I want to make a change and a difference.” He says if his painting manages to evoke someone, he has achieved his purpose.

The next work I saw was of the sculptor, filmmaker and performer, Mathew Barney who  has been working on his Cremaster film series since 1993. There was violence and it was sexually driven. The opening shot was brief-of a performer swimming in a pool of balls/bubbles. Snapshots of another work had rotting horses running a race at the race course. The work was abstract and symbolic . Well, I was looking for consumption. Were the rotting horses a symbol of it? The cut open lips? I found a lot of his imagery like the surrealists. Prosthetics, make-up, unreal decay.

 Barney’s work was the one in the series I could relate to the least. And I tried to understand why so. Is it because the work showed a lot of violence? Is it because it was too abstract? Or is it because I saw very less work.  Like most of the artists shown, this art 21 series also showed the artist at work and did not discuss his art alone. However, the artist meticulously working to put up a work of art, took much more minutes than the work of art itself. The film-maker shows the artist’s obsession with details, hence we see many anecdotes of his work…but do not see any work in totality to grapple and understand Barney’s art work. Also the film has shots at Guggenheim in Bilbao, where the artist performed and filmed for his series. Richard Serra performed for him as a chief mine worker. Here Barney, dressed in prosthetics (make-up for his role) directing the shots seemed to me like a conductor of an orchestra or like a sharp businessman.

Seeing Mel Chin’s work was an illuminating experience. What can be art! Mel Chin picks up by products of our capitalist/consumerist economy, ‘re-consumes’ and transforms them giving them a new value. All his projects are functional and they are art. His art sits within the quiet neighbourhood, the toxic land in outskirts of suburb or the space of a video game. They all seem like scientific projects, but they are much layered than that. They make a social comment.

In houses abandoned and decayed by fire, in a neighbourhood, Chin changes its image by re-cycling and re-using decayed parts of the house to create a vermiculture pit, which can be used by the fishermen of the neighbourhood. The burnt house has immediately been reclaimed as a part of the community. But my question is what about the ownerships? Am sure these things though not discussed must have been figured out. Chin’s another major concern is of the culture of tribes which are dying ‘after existing 1000s of years’. With them their exclusive cultural products-like the tribal carpets. Chin designs a video game where you travel through 36 tribal carpets. Cashing onto prevalent the video game culture, Chin hopes people question where did these patterns come from? Chin’s video game looks like a muti-layered environment.  Here I understand that part of art is to create a form, a form like video game.

The last project Revival Field seemed like a cross between a sculpture and bio-regenerating science project. Chin has planted a species of plants which are hyper accumulators in a toxic earth, the wastelands of a factory. These plants cleanse the system and the vegetation can survive on this land again. Birds and animals follow. This renewed ecology as work of art.

The last artist. And the one in the series I related to the most. Curiously dressed in a red dress and red lipstick is Andrea Zittal, as she talks about products we consume are all aspirational symbols. They include from the way we modulate our spaces to what we wear. Similar to how a painting or sculpture is also forms of representation of an idea, Zittal’s work in a new form showing the everyday is an interesting work of art. Most of her art work comes from her subjective relation to the world and her own real life experiences. Her parents like most of the middle class Americans aspired for a country home; this aspiration is what translated into her making the island home-in the middle of nowhere. The image of this island home floating in the water first looks beautiful and exotic. Every one always wants to run away from the problems of an urban life, to the country home to relax. This project takes the idea further. If there is no return from this exotic island, then it is not a momentary escape, but a cast away, leading to certain emptiness. Is it the emptiness of our aspirations? What seemed like a playful idea is full of dark humour.

Her ‘Living unit’ is storytelling through forms. This is one her works which she says has been influenced by the places she has lived in. The desk which turns into a shelf and into a seat, the bed which packs itself under the tea-stool , the neat categorisation of all the products we use daily in the bathrooms with interesting labels like tools and implements (housing tooth brush, mirror, scissors etc), addition (cosmetics) and contraptions- all categorised like a science lab. Of course, this where the personalities are experimented with- in front of the mirror.  She says each of these forms can be traced to a certain circumstance she had to deal with.
Like people buy expensive dresses and yet don’t like to repeat them, clothing is also an aspiration. She comments on this by wearing one garment per season- her one good dress.  Also she experiments by making her own clothing. Beginning with wearing rectangles-a basic form of dressing, now she uses crochet to make her clothes.

Zittal lives art. There is no moment when she begins to do art. All her work though seems introverted are all social commentaries. In a culture of ‘consumption’ where we are told what to eat, what to dress, what to aspire for- cultures are dying, ecology is being hurt and people prefer fantasy to the real experience often, all in attempts to liberate oneself. When the film ends with the scene of Zittal knitting her new exquisite crochet dress, the scene continues to haunt me. The movie said, that sometimes thing which are meant to free you, ones you acquire to free yourself often confine you. I remembered a dialogue from a Hollywood movie by Guy Richie, Fight Club, ‘Things which you own start owning you in the end!’

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The need for revival

It was once the old canteen area. Roofed with bamboo sticks and plastic sheets, they say it can come down anytime. The eucalyptus tree shadowing it bends an inch every month. It is humbly seen as ‘The waste lab’- a filthy place infested with mosquitoes with the undying smell coming from the vats carrying the concentrated pulp. A tub was overloaded with waste papers and cartridges and another with rotten banana shoots soaked in water. It was indeed a refuge for anything that was supposedly considered ‘waste.’ And a haven for anyone who is interested in moulding out something from just anything.

Paper- making workshop was once active many years back before it became defunct and it was only in the month of January this year that a weeklong paper making workshop was conducted by Anupam Chakraborty, a paper maker from Kolkata. Clay work has also been going on here for two years and the place was revived by the students as there was no space in the campus where the workshop could be conducted. During the paper-making workshop, students learnt the very basics of paper-making and were introduced to techniques of stenciling, water marks and layering. Paper is made from materials like cotton rags, jute bags, denim, onion peel, banana shoots and fibrous plants like carrot. The pulp is made in the blender called ‘Hollander beater’ after the materials are soaked for one or two days. The pulp is then stored in huge wooden vessels known as vats for few days. The concentrated pulp is taken out through deckle- a tightened sieve and spread on to wet cloth.

Easy it may sound, but it’s a laborious process and consumes a lot of time. Also the paper has to serve its primary function that is whether it is printable or not. Paper made with certain materials does not serve this purpose well but the use of dried leaves and threads for texturing, patchwork and paper cast form POP mould adds to the aesthetics part.

During Ganesh Chaturthi, final year architecture students came up with the concept of ‘Biodegradable Ganesh.’ Heaps of newspapers and used fabrics were collected for the purpose in the campus. It was a step taken in making Ahmedabad a greener place where Ganesh idols are mostly made out of POP and sold in large numbers. Also they would be making certificates for convocation next year. So far they’ve made paper boxes for ‘bhu:sattva,’ a garment company making organic fabrics and visiting cards for several others.

The students are passionately carrying forward their learning by themselves and making a difference by sensitizing other students in the campus. The festivals are celebrated with much vigour than before as newer ideas in keeping the campus clean and green are transforming the way people think.

Friday, March 11, 2011

In a Room of Mirrors

A bunch of girls walk into a popular hair and body saloon in the city. One of the girls is going to celebrate her 16th birthday in a few days, and the purpose of this visit with her friends is-because she wants a new look, a makeover. In the heavily mirrored space of the saloon, the girls are looking at themselves and each other. And looking at them are lot of advertisements of a cosmetic brand the saloon endorses. Models with brown and blonde hairstyles-with dashes of color, impeccable skins, size zero figures and branded clothing stare at them through the mirrors. No matter these posters are stuck away on the walls and the products are displayed in neat order admist them, the mirrors do a smart job of reflecting and placing these aspirational entities in conjunction with the girls- for the girls to see themselves…where they are not yet!

The saloonist walks over and starts explaining the girl what kind of new looks she can experiment. He first criticizes her present look, the condition of her hair, skin and very sweetly scolds her to take good care of it and subtly pointing out the new products she can use- a clear marketing strategy. He points out at the models in the mirrors suggesting whom would she look the best like. Her friends check and pool in their suggestions. And the saloonist sets about at his task of ‘make over’, while the girl gingerly keeps an eye looking into the mirror. Her friends simultaneously are browsing through a film magazine with a fashion coverage of a latest movie ‘Aisha’, wowing at the actresses clothes and figure.

This is definitely not one of the examples, when every day we are prolifically bombarded with images and ideas telling us what to wear (because everyone is wearing it), what to eat (because everyone is eating it), what to do (because everyone is doing it). These advertisers know how to appeal to our senses. They use peer pressure very heavily. "You need to wear these tennis shoes because (add a big name sports star) is wearing them and everyone else is going to wear them. You want to be cool don't you?" You have to have a fast car that can go 120 mph even though the speed limit is set at about half that. We are made to realise what we lack and how we will achieve fulfilment only when use the product. This is the general format all advertisements use.

Also in many Indian cities like Ahmedabad, such body care salons are recent phenomena – an undebated implication on the changing ideas of beauty. Also conspicuous consumption is one explanation for such mechanics of our growing consumer societies, and the massive growth of goods and services acquired mainly for the purpose of displaying income or wealth. In the mind of a conspicuous consumer, such display serves as a means of attaining or maintaining their social status. [1 In a society where there were clear gender demarcations, does the arrival of a unisex saloon indicate changing social order?

To a critical eye, space of the saloon may seem like Guy Debord’s quote in The Society of the Spectacle, “how we have become a society which has moved away from lived reality to consciousness of a represented reality.”

A detailed understanding of which can be gained by perhaps by looking at the two main elements which make up the salon (or that matter any beauty salon) – the images and the mirror.

1. Images:
Evidently there is a politics of the image and the act of image-making. What is taking advantage of the power of the visual and repetition versus the knowledge and the explanations i.e. ‘the words can never do what the sight itself can do.’ [2] Although most of the advertisements in this space do not physically represent the product, they all provide an important iconic representation of both the product and what the product should stand for. [3] The array of images of models and celebrities looking into the camera ‘confidently’ and saying that the product has made her desirable. Also note-the confidence stems from being notionally beautiful. As one looks at these ‘beautiful’ men and women, the self becomes the binary opposite (the non-beautiful). The products and the space of the saloon are what help the consumer strive achieve their perfection.[4] It is interesting to see the use of color red on certain products.
'Whenever a sign is present an ideology is present too'[5] and the ideology in this context is ‘what is beautiful?’ The images which are repeated over and over in the mirrored space of the saloon, to only continue in magazines, hoardings, televisions, etc reinforce this particular notion of beauty -which is non-separable from the male gaze. When the woman as a trophy to be acquired and presented, the visual becomes crucial especially when the female body is one of the most commodified object in our visual dominated society. The metro-sexual man joins the charade of visual presentation.

2. Mirror
The act of seeing is an act of choice and our knowledge systems affect the way we see things. Also we cannot forget how we are so much affected by what we have seen that our knowledge systems are slowly unquestionably being altered. Foucault talks about the mirror as a heterotopia-a place where we see ourselves where we are not.[6] Buddhist monastic practice condemns the use of mirror. There are myths about not using broken mirrors, lest we see distorted and broken images of ourselves. In representations of shringara, the mirror is used as the symbol of beauty, thus desire.

The mirrors in the saloon stare at you, in conjunction with a multitude of aspirational images. For the idea of beauty the place constantly exaggerates about, the mirror becomes the climax- a device of evaluation.

About the Rasika

The Spectator- the ‘rasika’noun
An observer of an event: beholder, bystander, looker-on, observer, onlooker, watcher.
[Latin spectātor, from spectāre, to watch]

Antonyms: participant, player, performer

John Berger opened his well-known BBC television series ‘Ways of Seeing’ by saying “It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world.” His comment points out the powerful position of the spectator, whose act of spectating creates and reinforces our social, political, and even bodily place in the world.

The word Rasika-the spectator, means one who can enjoy the rasas i.e. aesthetics. And aesthesis means a heightening of senses. So it implies that only a ‘good’ rasika will be able to enjoy the rasas well. What is being a rasika? Just as to create an art form involves lot of involvement from the artist. Similarly to be able to ‘enjoy’ an art requires involvement. All art forms always have a spectator in mind which is why enjoying art cannot be a casual act. Viewing an art is setting a conversation in motion-the conversation between the artist and the art, and the art and viewer. Art is the narration of the artists experience to the spectator. But why do we need to encounter art?

Rational man has always wanted to tame. We have tamed our physical environments. Conditioning and rulebooks are considered integral part of the civilized society. Similarly man tries to control his emotional and aesthetic environment. However one cannot control art. But the responses to art can be controlled. The conditioning systems, the Canon, etc play their role in forming these responses. But most of the times they cripple one of the experience one could have got otherwise. From the act of designing a city to some home apparel, human is always the scale. And the human is not just functional and pragmatic but also sensual. Cities designed imagining human as machine, dictating order and control, are not complete though it celebrates man power and dominance. A human scale also measures desires, agonies, anxieties, intimacies, etc. Art is able to responds to man’s this plane of existence. Hence encountering art is an emotional experience. How does one interact with art?

In one of the essay in her book ‘Art Objects’ Jeanette Winterson’s gives a personal narrative about her first encounter with art - how it was a deeply emotional experience. With this experience she draws parallel to the questions raised in her mind about her life, self and art.

When we look at art we are looking at an intense imaginative experience. Our responses are varied. Also the way we look at a work of art is affected by a series of assumptions of art and self. Sometimes these assumptions are obscure- since they mystify and raise art to an unrelateable pedestal. Our unfamiliarity with art is perhaps because many a time the work falls so much out of the comfort zone of our own experiences (of which we have complete knowledge and control of) that in order to keep this comfort intact we deny the other world of the art.

This denial of imaginative experience happens at a much deeper level than our affirmation of the daily world. Everyday, in countless ways we convince ourselves about ‘ourselves’. True art when it happens to us challenges the ‘I’ that we are.’[1]

As Winterson says, engaging with art is like falling in love. Similar to love, letting art affect you demands time and devotion. It is driven by a desire to know and explore, and a risk of complete surrender of your own being- prejudices and feelings, so that this new unfathomable emotion can overtake you and can be experienced to its fullest. Such an engagement reveals to us facets about our own selves which could never be revealed or be repeated by any other experience. Thus we are involved in just a love affair with art alone, but also with ourselves -discovering oneself in the process and what is it that constitutes this ‘I’. It involves the risk of constant learning and re-learning of one’s own self- just like how in love one is discovering a new ‘oneself’ through the eyes of the lover.

'Art is not merely a decoration or entertainment, but a living spirit. An act of art is a celebration of the profound human capacity.' Thus art is an intense act. Hence appreciating art cannot be a casual act, it itself has to be an intense act. However that doesn’t imply that this intensity is a privilege of a minority. It implies that all human have the capacity to ‘receive’ art, one just needs the resolve. Being a spectator is as important as being an artist.

‘Art does not belong to a biological evolutionary pattern. Art is not a little bit of evolution that the twentieth century city dweller can safely do without.’

Clock Towers

It is not until the Raj had arrived that Indian city landscapes began to be marked by these inescapable monumental architectural features which struck at regular intervals to announce the citizens the passage of time. No doubt they were also stylistic elements of the Colonial architecture and symbols of the power of the Raj. Though now we have ceased looking up the clock tower for ‘time’ in this digital and electronic era, since we have our own personal clocks strapped across our wrists, the clock towers loom significantly in the backgrounds as an artefact of a past and a birth of a concept of time. This very idea of time-the linear concept of time, has transcended much beyond its arrival in our context and has now assimilated unquestioned into our systems. And its sublime symbol- the clock towers through its physicality, its history tell us a story its time.

What is this time? And why is this need for the human to track time, from the time immemorial starting from tracking the sun at different times of the day to ancient scientists inventing the sundial to the clocks of today have been developed to keep time with accuracy? Is it to understand and tame the abstraction of our own existences, which is so intertwined with time? And aren’t these questions the birth of sciences, history and philosophy? And also religions-where each are trying to give their answers through their distinct mythologies, doctrines and philosophies.

Right from burning of incense sticks and candles which were, and are, commonly used to measure time in temples and churches; the intelligence of the inventions of various instruments used to measure time has been astounding. The hourglass, waterclocks and later, mechanical clocks used to mark the events of the abbeys and monasteries of the Middle Ages-are just to name few. It is only an urgency to document/understand time and acute observations that gave birth to inventions such the ancient zodiac astronomical calendar to Einstein’s theory of relativity. The clock tower, however, had a functional birth in the Biblical region when the passage of the hours was marked by bells in the abbeys as well as at sea. It is the etymology of the word clock also.

The English word clock probably comes from the Middle Dutch word "klocke" which is in turn derived from the mediaeval Latin word "clocca", which is ultimately derived from Celtic, and is cognate with French, Latin, and German words that mean bell.

Before the middle of the twentieth century, most people did not have watches, and prior to the 18th century even home clocks were rare. The first clocks didn't have faces, but were solely striking clocks, which sounded bells to call the surrounding community to prayer. They were therefore placed in towers so the bells would be audible for a long distance. Clock towers were placed near the centres of towns and were often the tallest structures there. As clock towers became more common, the designers realized that a dial on the outside of the tower would allow the townspeople to read the time whenever they wanted. And it is with the arrival of the Raj this new philosophy and religion of the clock tower came to India.

Colonialism brought with it the concept of linear time. And most of us now are accustomed to living life according to this linear beliefs and patterns of existence. We believe everything has a beginning, middle and an end. But Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism –the dominant religious schools of Indian sub-continent, had little to do with the linear nature of history, the linear concept of time or the linear pattern of life.

The passage of 'linear' time has brought us where we are today. But Hinduism views time from a cosmic perspective to. There exists the divine time of the Gods and the illusionary time of the mortals. Also, it believes the process of creation moves in cycles consisting of the yugas. And since this process is cyclical, it is never ending. Creation begins when God makes his energies active and ends when he withdraws all his energies into a state of inactivity. Time kal is thus a manifestation of God. God is timeless, for time is relative and ceases to exist in the Absolute -as the past, the present and the future coexist simultaneously. The cycle of time, Kalachakra, creates the divisions and movements of life and sustain the worlds in periodic time frames. [3]God also uses time to create the 'illusions' of life and death-which is nothing but a gateway to the next cycle, birth. This is true of the universe itself and parallel to the cyclic patterns in the rhythms of nature. The Rita, Ritu, Chandramasams and the nazhikas-vinayikas are the measurements of time.

This was the philosophical context in which the mechanical clock towers were planted. These power symbols of industrialisation- also were alien to a culture where occupation and knowledge systems were more ghetto based, when the apprentice had to report at his master’s workshop at sunrise and not at ‘Aath bajje’ i.e. when the clock strikes eight. New systems of education, new occupations, etc. dictated the importance of the clock tower. The shifts in language of the clock tower from its colonial origins to being amalgamated in vernacular architecture, as a sign of modernity, are interesting to note. These shifts are not only a case of architectural study, but it is the study of history of colonialism and its assimilation and impact on ideology of the sub-continent.

The clock towers stand in new meanings and new contexts as an artefact of a past and a birth of a concept of time.