Saturday, August 26, 2017

A Meet with Author Sanjay Kumar

It was a long time desire come true when I met Sanjay Kumar at the launch of his new book, ‘the Third Squad’ in Chennai. I was so impressed with Sanjay’s first novel, ‘ Artist, undone’, that ever since, I had always been wanting to meet him. I had read ‘ Artist , undone’ at a time when I had just started appreciating art and the art world, thanks to the book ‘ How to be both’ by Ali Smith and the various shows and art writing workshop held at Apparao galleries.
Image from Tehelka

When I met him and suggested the idea to him, Sanjay gracefully agreed to visit our book club, that was scheduled to meet the next day  and introduce his new book to us. It was fabulous that he not only sat through but also lent a patient and a keen ear to the Book club’s deliberations on the month’s book, ‘ Racing in the rain’ and conveyed his appreciation to the members about how impressed he was with the depth and quality of the discussion.

Sanjay read out an introductory note about his new book and third novel, ‘The Third squad’, which was set in the Mumbai of, what Sanjay calls, ‘ the bloody 90s’. It would be instructive to know how Sanjay, who was born in Karaikudi, did Graduation in Loyola, Chennai and was one of the first non-engineering graduates to join IIM Ahmedabad, fresh out of graduation, for an MBA. Sanjay joined the Financial capital and had a good run in the Finance industry, that any young management graduate could dream of. It was Sanjay’s interests in the art world that led him to establish a gallery in Mumbai, and that him to brush against some of the worst things the city was going through.
Sanjay recounted an event, from his early days in Mumbai, when he had arranged for an art show by four Pakistani women artists and men from the local powers that be, threatened and almost ended up trying to burn down the gallery. The show had to be cancelled much against Sanjay’s wish. I believe it is personal brushes such as this and the larger violence that  the city was subject to that form the inspiration to this book.

Sanjay recounted how this book started as a short story about two cops and slowly grew into this novel. It’s about the cops who had to respond to the sudden growth in rowdyism, kidnapping, extortions etc and the solution had to be quick fire, as the judicial route proved to be dangerously circuitous.
The extracts that he read from the book conveyed what an art connoisseur he was. He had an artistic way of painting the cramped and mundane space of the chawl life. Its no wonder that an author in the audience called him the poet of cities. Earlier Sanjay also mentioned that he owed a lot of his writing to his friends from the art world, who took him under their wings during the initial days.

Another extract he read from the book, conveyed the mental agony and tension a police man goes through while facing his family for lunch just after he has returned from gunning down a target.

While the book was classified as a Noir, Sanjay was happy that many of his readers found it to be a gripping Thriller. The book has been published in the US and has had a good run there. It is no surprise that given the book’s setting in a turbulent period in the history of Mumbai, It is  being made into a Tele picture.

In a casual chat later with Sanjay, I figured that Sanjay was quite obsessed with the writings of Naipaul and these days he was mostly hooked to the television with shows on crime and investigation. Sanjay is interested in writing about the dark things in life that are often swept under the carpet. While I kept insisting that he write a memoir, recounting how he juggled his way up to success in Finance and the art world, Sanjay did not show any interest. His writer instincts were eagerly observing the present volatile political scenario in Tamil nadu about which he is itching to write his next novel.

i figured from my chat with Sanjay, that he is not someone who stakes too much in research. He does the basic ground work and lets his imagination do the rest. His novels are based in Chennai or Mumbai or both. Now that he has been living in Bangalore for the past two years and has developed a liking for golf, one can expect these to feature in his forthcoming novels.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Cuckold by Kiran Nagarkar

I had recently got to read the novel 'Cuckold' by Kiran Nagarakar. Though i had picked the book from a local library without much interest and expectation, i found the book very absorbing and an engaging read from the first page to the last. I even fancied abandoning the book in the middle, as i had gained a fair idea of how the narrative was headed, after jumping to the last few pages. But going back to where i had stopped, the book kept drifting me on its course of ups and downs.

Kiran Nagarkar has chosen a very crucial period in Indian history and chosen the grand backdrop of the Rajputs of Mewar to unfold the drama. He has chosen a non entity person, that the Mainstream history had chosen to forget and ignore blisfully and made him the hero and Narrator of his 600 page novel. It is probably Nagarkar's way of saying his sympathies lies with the person ignored by the mainstream.

It is amazing how much drama this 'cuckold' was privy and fulcrum to. He was the Heir apparent to the Rana Sangha under whose leadership the Rajputs, otherwise known for internecine rivalries, united and achieved major millitary success. This was also a time when Mughals enter and start setting house in India and the Rana has a role to play in it too.

If this political history is not inspiring and dramatic enough, our protagonist's personal life is a book of colourful drama in itself. He was married to a girl, who is enamored by the blue God and who would go on to inspire a new Bhakthi cult under the name of Meera. The prince' predicament with an 'unfaithful' wife, whom he can't seem to let go, and the blemishes he suffers for being 'un manly' in taming his wife offer fertile grounds for imagination.

The length of the novel sees the destiny of our prince toggle between the title of Maharaj Kumar and Rajkumar, and there in lies the twists and turns in the novel. It's quite another thing that the princess sees a steady rise in her profile grow from a unfaithful wife, a nsutch girl, the dervish, the little saint, to the favourite bahu of the Rana.

Having chosen such a feisty bunch of characters from history to people his novel, Kiran Nagarkar has expanded and beautifully illustrated the canvas of his novel by  weaving in history and fiction in a very fine texture and giving us an astounding Historical novel to relish.  

KN has painted his protagonist in vivid colours exploring his sense of duty and allegiance to tradition as a proud Rajaput, a husband struggling to live with a wife who has given herself up to Krishna, a devout friend who embarrassingly finds himself bedding his best  friend's mother, a passionate lover who would forsake his love, lest should the age old traditions that form the foundation of Rajput world be broken, and finally a warrior who wants to stay ahead of enemies and win wars with sound strategies, without losing a single soldier.

KN brings in grand visuals the entire theater of the Rajput way of life and rule, Their stickling for traditions and Heirarchy, and the high sense of drama in the novel is the stuff that should easily inspire a Sanjay leels Bansali film. 

 The interesting relation between the various stakeholders,  The contrast between the Jain way of life and that of the Rajputs and the ironies of the Jains financing the war from both sides, invokes instances from modern day war games of the world. 

KN uses this narrative from the 'cuckold's point of view to confound us with uneasy questions about the meaning of ideals of bravery, manhood, sacrifice, etc. He doesn't miss a hit at the epic of Mahabharata- and the ideal of Bhishma it projects giving it a new folkosh twist.

KN introduces us to the whole gamut of a Rajput courtly life, their relationship with neighbors, their approach to rising Muslim kingdoms, new warfare, etc and the role their women played in their destinies.

The court conspiracies for succession hangs around the protagonist's neck through out the entire novel. The protagonist's well intended actions and his good nature and the poor fate that follows him all make the reader pine and wish well for him. But the title of the novel and the history all stand against him and the reader is only kept waiting how the hero, painted so magnificently and loving is going to slip into doom.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

TSP lecture by Sadanand Menon

When Swarnamalya Ganesh puts together a talk under the aegis of TSP memorial lecture and it is Sadanand Menon who is delivering it, one can be assured of some brilliant thought provoking speeches that will question, dare and break many of the views that you had held close, unsuspectingly.  

I was a little late and missed the young scholar talk delivered by Kaveri Murthy of TISS. But, from what i could gather from her interactions with the audience, and in particular during q&a it was amply evident that she is a promising talent and willing to challenge traditional outlook. For instance, when one of her relative in the audience, spoke in a matter of pride, how Indian Children living abroad were being sent to dance classes to pick up on their culture, Kaveri was sharp in pointing out why the onus was only on the girls to pick up tradition in this narrative and questioned the kind of upper middle class, south indian traditional girl that these girls were being groomed into by these dance classes. 

Sadanand started off his lecture recounting how TSP reacted to Chandralekha's Angika performance at The Music academy. TSP had gone back stage to squirm at Chandra and ask, 'why were there so many beards and bare chests on the stage'. Of course, this was the time when Chandra had just started collaborating with Kalaripayatu artists. He reminisced how many chats and debates had followed this event and every time they met. However TSP was always at awe of the crowd Chandra's performances pulled soon changed his outlook.

Sadanand's lecture was  titled ' the invention of tradition in Indian Classical dance - the contribution of archaeology'. Sadanand is known to hold very strong opinions and build very strong cases for them. This time, it was no different. Sadanand recounted the birth pangs of the dance form of Bharathanatyam at the hands of Advocate Krishnaiyer around the time of Congress session in Chennai in the year 1927. The incidents and the circumstances are well recounted in this article,

E. Krishna Iyer, one of the Secretaries of the Academy and its driving force in its eventful life of the first decade, was himself a trained musician and dancer. He was eager to introduce the Sadir dance in the Academy’s programme but had to bide his time. In the autumn of 1927, the Council of State in Delhi discussed the motion of a member from Madras for the prevention of dedication of girls as devadasis. The motion was opposed by the then Law Member who held that the existing provisions of the Indian Penal Code were sufficient to deal with the immoral practices that were allegedly a consequence of the devadasi system. In November 1927, the Madras Legislative Council unanimously passed a resolution urging the Madras Government to prepare preventive legislation to stop the devadasi practice. Subsequently, in 1929, the Council legislated an amendment to the H.R. & C.E. Act, empowering temple authorities to disenfranchise devadasis from their temple connections and revoke by civil proceedings the manyams (land settlement and privileges) granted to them. In 1930, S. Muthulakshmi Reddy, a doctor and social leader who belonged to a devadasi family, brought a bill in the Council seeking to prohibit the performance of the devadasi dedicatory ceremonies in any Hindu temple. This was the last straw for pro-art progressives.

These were very exciting times and the news about the devadasi sysyem was in the papers evrey day evoking popular debate on the subject and this subject of the dancing girl attached to the temple, somehow inspired our archaeologists to call the bronze girl figurine they had unearthed at Mohenjadaro as the ' dancing girl' , even though Sadanand was convinced that there was no signs of the figure in any remote dancing posture, he jocularly hinted she could be a girl waiting in the queue to an ATM.
By one stroke of an unsuspecting nomenclature, the Archaeologists, in turn, had pushed the history of Indian dances to thousands of years. This also inspired many proponents of classical dance traditions to claim the 'dancing girl' as their own, for after all, the archaeologists had left it to anyone's guess as to which dance school did the girl belong to.

Krishna iyer and others felt the need to push their case for the Bharathanatyam by sanitising the dance practice that was in vogue then. It is sad that in doing so they had buried the dance practice and the tradition of music that it inspired and that was in vogue for centuries till then. This was also a time when these so called 'shameful tradition' practice was finding followers in the west. It was the dance tradition in this land that inspired the troubadours, french singers of love and western performances such as Radha by Ruth.

Sadanand took us a little back ward in time and narrated the circumstances in which Martha graham quit Denishawn company in 1923 and started her own enquiry into dance, since she felt Denishawn school was increasing getting clogged with decorative styles. The orgin of these decorative styles can be traced to early 1900s, when Ruth Denis performed Radha in 1906 inspired by Hindu mythology. 

Denishawn had made footages of dance forms across asia in their travels here. These are available in archives in California and should be of great use in looking at what was the dance form like before the advent of Bharathanatyam. He rued that not much was being done in researching this aspect because this was a part of history that was being happily erased.

Sadanand rued the fact that the present day dance has taken the form and abandoned the context. it was a highly decorative exercise with no soul. Dance classes increasingly resembled millitary parades and costumes made for half the dance.

Sadanand concluded ruing the fact that tradition was something that was doctored and tampered according to the political needs of the time.

Making a case for Dust

David Shulman rightly gauged the popular mood among his sprightly audience, that had assembled under the Banyan tree at Kalakshetra, to listen to the memorial lecture under the aegis of Prakrit foundation titled ' Visions of Dust - a bottom up View of the south Indian universe', and clarified that he was going to make a case for the Dust and the dynamics that go with by drawing refrences from across the Indian literary-scape and asked the audience to be patient until he had made out his case. And convince he very well did. 

Prof Shulman had through this lecture demonstrated to the Chennai audience a novel way of looking at the many threads that link the literary classics of Indian languages. In doing so he gave us all a feeler of the immense treasures that lie in store for those who are willing to explore the classics with an open mind. Though Prof Shulman could draw the ire of critics for what could be construed as contrived reading, there is no denying the fact he left his audience in awe of the richness that our classic have in store and the sheer range of his scholarship.

Professor Shulman took us throughh three dimensions of Dust as dealt in our literature, namely - the dynamics of Dust, the romantic Dust and finally 'the mind dust'.

He drew largely from Kambaramayan to substantiate the dynamics of Dust.

while searching for the exact lines Prof Sulman had quoted in his speech, i could not resist posting here the so many other poems in Kamban that now appear very relevant.

புழுதியால் விண்ணும் மண்ணுலகாயிற்று எனல்
895.நோக்கிய திசைகள் எல்லாம்
    தன்னையே நோக்கிச் செல்ல,
வீக்கிய கழல்கால் வேந்தர்
    விரிந்த கை மலர்கள் கூம்பத்,
தாக்கிய களிறும் தேரும்
    புரவியும் படைஞர் தாளும்
ஆக்கிய தூளி, விண்ணும் மண் உலகு
    ஆக்கப், போனான்.

Though, i am unable to cite the exact lines that Shulman quoted in his talk, referring to the dust that forms from the crushing of the agglomerate of the musk of elephant, froth from horse' mouth etc. And the dust formed from the 'sunnam' powder people adorn and the grains from the rub off the jewelery worn by the mob that has gathered to see Dasaratha being received by Janaka and the pollen shed from the flowers adorned by the princes in the assembly. and finally from the Ramayana reference to the dust that raises from the land to the sky through the hole Trivikrama has caused by his step measuring the skies.

In all these references from Ramayana, Shulman introduced Dust as something that keepes reviving, very dynamic, all pervading, and of various hues and forms.

Next, he moved on to build the case for 'Romantic dust'. Here he introduced ' gorajas' as the fine particles that cloud the path way of light. Thamayanthi points these particles out to Nala in an excited state in the morning after their first night together, as described by Sri HArsha in his Naishadha Charita.

He cited Dandin's Dasakumara Charitha wherein the veil of Dust, created by the fierce action in the war field is described as the 'Yavanika', through which the Apsaras of the heavens vie to choose their partner in the brave souls that have fallen in the war field below.

And quoted from Asvaghosa's Saundarnanda, the poem that describes the life of Buddha's brother, Nanda,  who is literally dragged from samsara to ashrama, and who struggles with the dust that keeps reminding him of his wife Sundari. 

Moving on to his final theme of 'Mind dust', he cited the episode of missing the elephant and reading its foot prints in dust that occurs in Sakunthala; and the description of the dust in the hooves of the racing horses, as the accumulation of the minds of all the people holding to the hooves to understand hyper velocity. He elucidated on Hanuman the grammarian and cited how Hanuman recognises Rama, when the dust off Rama's feet turns in to Gold on Hanuman. 

He concluded by quoting in length from Bana's Kadambari and reading out from a beautiful translation by Gwendolyn Layne which variously describes dust as, ' earth herself rising to the heavens to beg for mercy', ' the mist that wipes out enemies', ' a delicate veil hiding the goddess of all three worlds.' , ' generated out of space itself' 'a cool mudhut', ' blinding blackness' and ,' dust is time, the end of time'.

Shulman defnitely made and won his case for the Dust and summarised how the Indian context treated dust with fertility and positivity unlike the western / mediteranian concept of dust as waste. 

Initially, Hoshang merchant, the poet, introduced us to the brief but phenomenal life of his sister and explained the context of instituting this memorial lecture. He read out a colourful and moving poem that was an ode to a life well lived and the sibling love.