nasreen mohamedi; reflections on indian modernism, bidoun

NASREEN MOHAMEDI: NOTES

BIDOUN WINTER 2009 #19 NOISE

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by Guy Mannes-Abbott

A previous post on Mohamedi referred to my catalogue text from 2001. Now I’m posting my short review of her recent retrospective exhibition as it appeared in the UK. I was pleased and proud to write something on a show that went almost unnoticed -and was certainly not engaged with- in the UK [again], but there’s much more to be written about her work and its contexts.

For now, here are scans of the pages in Bidoun [below; click to enlarge]. Let me repeat that it’s essential wherever you are in the world to see the work itself -to stand in front of the drawings in particular- whenever the opportunity arises. Until you do you will have missed an important 20th Century artist and maker of our new world.

I’ll return to Nasreen Mohamedi at greater, speculative and more definitive length in the future…

Continue reading “nasreen mohamedi; reflections on indian modernism, bidoun”

gujarat, while baroda burns; TANK magazine 2004

while baroda burns

by Guy Mannes-Abbott

In 2004 TANK reprinted extracts from my extensive notebooks on Gujarat in western India.  They’re taken from the days of “mass massacres” when I was locked up under curfew in my room on the 4th floor of a hotel, forbidden to leave the building or even to go as low as the 1st floor.

The whole story of witnessing state-sponsored pogroms while trapped with Bhupen Khakhar in his car on the outskirts of Gujarat’s second city and its various contexts form part of my forthcoming book A Gram of Gujarat. A part, but only a part. A part along with many other equally vivid, penetrating and suggestive parts! Taken together they provide a unique insight into Gujarat and contemporary India which enables a proper grasp of these signal events.

These particular extracts reflect something of the raw experience of being trapped in a room [tall building, complicit city and bone-shaking witness] looking out of a window onto a building usually only ever animated by women. I watched discretely as the traditional rhythms of everyday life went on in an abstracted way. Above rose black impressions of the terror being inflicted on Baroda’s old city; common, abstract again [literally framed by my window] but presumably at least as intense as those I’d been caught in. Otherwise; silence.

After two or three days it occurred to me to take photographs [some of which are poorly repro’d here], as the oddity of life in the building and the realisation that the smoky evidence was likely to stop if or when the army eventually took control of the city dawned. Obviously I was as visible as the people opposite and didn’t want to impose on them, so each image was snatched and for me condenses hours of the life it captures. Similarly, I only took one image of the smoke at the end and with confused reluctance; a feeble effort all around.

The politicians and authorities responsible for the massacres believe that the subcontinent is both Fatherland and Holyland; that the very dust is bound up forever with the dharma/spirit of each and every Hindu. Hindutva is a terrifying ideology, drawn from European fascism and Nazism specifically and these “mass massacres” a direct and logical result of it. Followers believe that a Hindu never loses their dharma and so India’s 150 million Muslims must recover theirs and renounce Islam -or they can ‘leave’.

Press PDFS to Enlarge

This is the same India that has a secular constitution and which was once the proud centre of the Non-Alignment movement but which has never reconciled itself fully with several centuries of Islamic dominance and conquest. Not even though a consequently rich Islamic heritage forms just one part of the subcontinent’s definitively syncretic culture. This is part of the specificity of hindutva, and why it’s worth reading VD Savarkar on the subject and understanding what there is of substance beyond the shudderingly crude race hatred that so corrupted his mind and thought.

The same India where some of the nicest people I met, seasoned secularists of various stripes, were the most complacent/deluded about the pressing actuality. It’s distressing to listen to someone making fun of their own Muslim upbringing, poo-pooing any intimacy with Islam or its wider culture, laughing at the notion that they would have any insight into such a subject when their own work, memoirs and even academic cv contradicts them. Frustrating when the point is simple; ‘they’ perceive you to be Muslim whatever your self-image. This is the nature of racism, fascism and lest we forget Nazism specifically.

Any conversation of that kind contains the unmistakable presumption that as a Foreigner I can’t possibly understand. It’s all a very complex, internal affair and only one of us can really appreciate it. In such instances they were clearly mistaken. In one exemplary case, when politely listening to an excited account of brief passage through a ‘secret’ outpost on the edge of the Rann of Kutch, I kept to myself the knowledge that I’d ridden out to the same particular outpost four times, found a floor to stay on inside its walls, a cave to sleep in beyond them.

Such an intense, ‘deep’ encounter with place and people was the yardstick I developed , which is why I was able to contextualize just how much or little right-minded, out of touch secularists of this kind understood about their neighbours [and to contextualise their insulting and short-sighted presumptions]. It’s for this reason that what happened to that particular individual and to other Muslims [religious or otherwise] across the State was profoundly shocking to me, but not a surprise. This is why it all made a horrible kind of ‘sense’.

Whilst ‘Metro’ secularists disown, deny and delude themselves about what “mass massacres” meant for India, I’d been encountering it in mud and urban kitchens, chai stops in deserts and forests, main roads, side streets and camel tracks, mandirs, dharamsalas and masjids, chellahs, tirths and tuks, Bohra wads, mohallas/pols and Societies, forts, havelis, universities and cool alleyways across the state. I listened to barots and charans, dalits and Brahmins, shia and sunni, professors and ‘local’ historians, ram sewaks and their Big Men financiers, MPs and MLAs, victims and perpetrators, writers and architects. I’d witnessed what it meant for months before this discreet horror and for months afterwards.

Understanding requires a real engagement with a wide range of things, places, peoples and times. It requires the articulation of distinct and interrelated elements in an authoritative portrait of a people and their place. Such a portrait would enable understanding of these particular events but also a much wider context. If it succeeded it would reveal the interiors of  Gujarat as a whole and provide a unique insight into subcontinental India. This is what I’ve attempted to do with A Gram of Gujarat.

gujarat, on silence and massacres; raj kamal jha fireproof 2007

On Silence and Massacres.

Raj Kamal Jha is one of the most interesting and risk-embracing of his generation of Indian writers of fiction in English. His report on the mass murders and vast internal displacement of Muslims in the state of Gujarat in the spring of 2002 was brave in the context; a nuked up hyper-Nationalist government led by the same party which ruled in Gujarat at the time, the Nazi-inspired BJP.

When he came down from Delhi -albeit two months later- he ‘joined’ those of us not targeted by the officially sanctioned killers but trapped in extended curfews, in my case for days on the 4th floor of a building in central Baroda. Jha wrote a stunned and peculiarly angular piece for The Indian Express, a cutting from which I’ve scanned and posted. His discoveries as a “riot tourist” [‘riot’ is a common euphemism in India for racist massacres or ethnic cleansing, like ‘conflict’ elsewhere] inspired the novel Fireproof, which I reviewed for The Independent below.

Jha reprimanded his readers [urban, majority-community, new-India class] in the mildest of terms; imagine the surreal boot on the other foot. He was addressing those who quietly allowed this to happen, however, and if you won’t credit him with bravery at least understand the relative unusualness of his addressing a class of readers impatient with older Indian verities like those espoused by Nehru -let alone Gandhi! [both of whom happily allied themselves with the chauvinist Vallabhai Patel, India’s ‘Iron Man’ from Gujarat.]

Elsewhere, the hero of the day was Siddharth Varadarajan who expressed his visceral horror in regular reports for the Times of India, while the heroine was Dionne Bunsha reporting for Frontline magazine, [see her site/blog]. Varadarajan also edited the first and still best book on the massacres; Gujarat; The Making of a Tragedy [Penguin India 2002] [look inside] drawing in part on an excellent issue of Seminar [‘Society Under Siege’ from May 2002 is online but not link-to-able] and has a blog here.

What happened in Gujarat is not a matter of substantive dispute [though it’s ostensible trigger, the fire in a train carriage outside Godhra is, even though extensive investigations concluded that the fire which began within the carriage was a tragic accident], there are plentiful witness reports, accounts, proofs, burnt out buildings and neighbourhoods, bodies, refugees and subsequent changes across the state. What happened persuaded urban Gujaratis in particular to reward the government of the day with two further election victories.

So despite what happened no-one has been held to account: Narendra Modi remains Chief Minister of Gujarat. He is the BJP’s only current ‘star’ and commands a state that is India’s real powerhouse once more. A state that is as ever leading the way in new India, for good and ill, and rehearsing what the coming global power will look like. Modi’s mentor, LK Advani, is also a Gujarati MP and the octogenarian leader of a much humbled BJP. However, India’s national elections are three years or so away -if the present Congress administration lasts out its second term- and everybody loves a ‘winner’.

I witnessed some of what happened in Gujarat; I saw armed policemen in uniform holding one end of a street that was being systematically ‘cleansed’ for the second time in 24 hours by a group of 25-30 neatly dressed men, vehicles used to block the various roads and escapes routes and set on fire, as remaining stores, shacks, gadis/trolleys and possession of the neighbourhood Muslims were being dragged out onto the road within sight and smell of the same uniformed accomplices and set on fire.

I witnessed it from inside Bhupen Khakhar’s car as we were trapped by these same men in a near-deserted Manjalpura, Baroda, during a one-day bandh or shut-down. They weren’t after us at that time [though BK’s paintings and sexuality had been the focus of their maddened hatred] and we managed to escape through a series of already laid road blocks and away from the scene before the neighbourhood mosque was burnt down with three men trapped inside it. I was close enough to look hard into their faces as they indulged their fantasies and it’s a sight I’ll never be able to forget.

Then I witnessed the silence, the smoke stacks and discomfort at my front-row presence on the few faces I glimpsed in the coming week locked away [anger, too, once the curfew relaxed]. A silence indistinguishable from the way that such a massacre is possible in India, because what the black milk rising from the eery quiet of Baroda beyond my window proved was that this was long coming and represented something that didn’t need words.

Gujarat’s “mass massacres” only needed silence;  official permission, wider complicity, neatly printed official records of who lived where, who exactly owned what and enabling nods … ram ram

NB Incidentally, I don’t relish criticising India from afar; my view is simply that Modi should face justice in his own country. However, Indian justice is staggeringly slow and precedent  suggests that even if it catches up with Modi before he dies it won’t have any bite. Indeed, it is as likely that he might be the next PM or PM-maker. Things do change however; the case is very much live at this very moment [see here for example].

I support universal jurisdiction; if Modi wants to travel he should be willing to face trial wherever he lands, just like Pinochet and forces’ sweetheart Tsipi Livni and gang. Meanwhile, though, he rule’s India’s most interesting state and is free to roam a subcontinent of bottomless marvels. I remind you that Modi’s BJP forged alliances with the US and Israel when in power: sometimes it’s necessary to tell the truth whatever the distance…

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Fireproof, by Raj Kamal Jha

The perpetrators of Gujarat’s holocaust escape unscathed – as they did in life

By Guy Mannes-Abbott

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Raj Kamal Jha’s third novel is based on the “mass massacres” that began on 28 February 2002 in the Indian state of Gujarat. Jha visited a smouldering Ahmedabad in May 2002, and wrote a taboo-breaking article for The Indian Express.

He found Gujarat’s old capital with 80,000 Muslim refugees, a thousand dead and many thousands of homes and businesses burnt. This “remarkable restraint” was applauded by Gujarat’s Chief Minister after the “grave provocation” of an unexplained fire on a train carrying Hindu pilgrims, in which 59 people died.

I read Jha’s article gratefully in the disturbing quiet following Gujarat’s pogroms. I had witnessed armed police smiling as clean-shaven men sent their neighbours’ livelihoods – and later their lives – skyward in blackening towers. Five years later, Fireproof disrupts another silence: just 10 convictions have resulted from 4,252 cases filed with police.

Fireproof focuses on three killings, elaborating on the article with statements from dead characters, a playlet, footnotes and talking street-fixtures. Jha’s narrator, Jay, is awaiting the birth of a child in Ahmedabad. The hospitals choke with charred bodies as the city burns; a malformed baby, which Jay believes is his own, forces him to confront events and himself. As the truth looms, the sky rains bodies, and he loses all bearings.

Fireproof is written in Jha’s signature style; elliptical fragments accumulate sense while incidental things and words are mined for effect. This worked well in his debut The Blue Bedspread, rooted in a modernist Bengali literature. But Fireproof’s problem is dramatised in the word “betrayal”, used by a credible Indian critic. The betrayal is twofold. Jha’s novel obtains substance by revisiting the notorious rape and murder of a pregnant woman. He pays witness to this horror in accomplished passages before losing its import in a gratuitously distended novel.

He also betrays himself, as acts of ethnic cleansing by Nazi-inspired Hindus become human tragedies. Jha folds responsibility for events into individual excess and the power of “the mob”: the banality of evil minus the Nuremberg trials. He has lost sight of any original outrage.

The story in Fireproof began in Islamophobia and led to Gujarat’s ovens. Its perpetrators were not “hangers-on”, but “confident and educated”: I saw this myself. In Jha’s novel, these men and their allies emerge fireproof – as in life.

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mohan rana; more and less

Mohan Rana gave a reading recently as part of the Where Three Dreams Cross ‘season’ at the Whitechapel Gallery, London. He’s been working with The Poetry Translation Centre to render a selection from his several Hindi collections into English, most closely with Lucy Rosenstein and the poet Bernard O’Donoghue.

The latter read the poems in English after Mohan read in Hindi; his soft clear voice offering lilting repetitions and arhythmic developments alluringly. The English versions seemed pretty faithful to those tones; light, concrete, quotidian and yet also exploring loops of time, philosophical and metaphysical notions, specific Indian circularities and continuities as well as things irreducible and universal.

A Standard Shirt

by Mohan Rana

Between midday and nightfall
there comes a time
when the day’s noise and actions
are already done with,

just as now,
all desires quenched,
I am ready to sit down
on any chair.

A boy in a yellow shirt
has just passed by
and made me think
of a shirt of mine
in those old ordinary days.

So it was possible.
Yes, this life was possible.
And here I am, still wearing
a shirt just like that.

3.11.1988
From Jagah, Dwelling

I went partly because so little writing is ever translated from the various Indian languages into English that the UK seems stuck in a self-satisfied Slumdog circuit, fantastically incurious about the subcontinent beyond  visible/legible hoardings. It is the British disease; we like people from other places to come and tell us about -‘translate’/dilute- it in our terms and then leave it at that. Convenient, complacent, dumb.

So I walked the walk and was handsomely rewarded, because Mohan is a very fine poet who grew up in Old Delhi but has been a resident of Bath for 20 years. His poems conjure familiar images, times and places to me; habitual dawn and dusk walks through great cities, Delhi and Ahmedabad, old and new, very remote villages in the western extremities of India, riding through heavy monsoon rains beside the Narmada river. The poems are a portal to the interior world of boys with skateboards or green shirts in the gallery, for example, and to more universal places and times, real and imagined, within and beyond memory.

Larger elements shape the everyday in India with thousands of years of rehearsal and concretion. After Mohan’s reading there was a well-meaning question about influences, the answer to which is found throughout a written [spoken and sung] legacy that long predates northern Europe’s. In some puzzlement about where to begin, Mohan mentioned the Upanishads; a repository of songful teachings riddled with poetry and philosophical wisdom dating from some 2750 years ago.

The preceding Vedas are more like hymnals, of course, but I’m peculiarly fond of the Upanishads. I know, I can remember, how dauntingly monumental they seem before you trust yourself enough to read them like you would anything else. I’d recommend two very different versions in English, Juan Mascaro [whose Gita is my favourite version of that part of the Mahabarata, and whose Dhammapada is essential reading] made a peculiar but accessible thing out of them. Penguin UK published them first in 1965, a very slim and very Sixties version that is a perfectly good place to start.

However, Valerie Roebuck’s much fuller and exact translations which were first published by Penguin India in 2000 [2004 edition at 592 pages available here] is a far better, clearer and work-withable volume. Poetry and paradox [wordplay and pun, too, as she says] are elemental to these invaluable verses and I think help make them and subcontinental culture open and more transparent as a result. The verses or aural ‘teachings’ come with clear and authoritative explicatory notes too.

Against the context of AK Mehrotra obtaining a large number of votes in an apparently hopeless race for the Oxford professorship last year [which he ought to have got by default], I look forward to Mohan’s selection of poems being available to us all to buy and read tantalised/ingly on trains, under trees, to each other [in the rain]. Until then, you can visit his website, blog or this page of poems which includes those I’ve borrowed. There is a podcast of the reading here.

After Midnight

by Mohan Rana

I saw the stars far off –

as far as I from them:
in this moment I saw them –
in moments of the twinkling past.
In the boundless depths of darkness,
these hours
hunt the morning through the night.

And I can’t make up my mind:
am I living this life for the first time?
Or repeating it, forgetting as I live
the first moment of breath every time?

Does the fish too drink water?
Does the sun feel the heat?
Does the light see the dark?
Does the rain too get wet?
Do dreams ask questions about sleep as I do?

I walked a long, long way
and when I saw, I saw the stars close by.
Today it rained all day long and the words were washed away
from your face.

22.11.2009

subcon survey one/ saatchi’s the empire strikes back & yamini nayar

I don’t like survey shows -especially of the squeeze a culture or a continent into one building in London type- but The Empire Strikes Back at the Saatchi Gallery is a must-see. It’s an elegantly curated glimpse of subcontinental art weighted, of course, towards Big Statement and Painting -most of the latter of which could date from any of the last five decades.

Of the bigger names here -Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher, Jitish Kallat, Rashid Rana- I’m happiest to see Atul Dodiya’s scandalously neglected work in London and now hope for a dedicated exhibition of it. The ‘blame’ for such seasoned indifference and the real limitations on this particular show are contextual; British incuriosity about the actuality of India [and beyond] despite its renewed global status.

Admission to Saatchi’s ’empire’ is free; no complaints, no excuses!

Yamini Nayar: What is Essential

I’d not come across Yamini Nayar or her work before. Born in Detroit, resident in New York, claimed by art criticism as one of the upcoming stars of new Indian art, her work  explores ambiguities of exactly this kind. Saatchi is showing 4 photographs dating from 2006-08; table-top constructions of mostly interior spaces, assembled from scraps/found objects before being photographed and discarded. Her own website [which includes her Studies; potential buildings rendered in lines drawn on photos of derelict sites] is here, and her gallery is here.

What is Essential 2006 51 x 61 cm Yamini Nayar

One way of entering this image is through David Lynch and the uncanny, but why use the back door? These highly ambiguous spaces are more potent with now: the world as it is and might be. What is Essential is surprisingly but appropriately small in actuality. It’s also one of the most close-up and two-dimensional of her constructions and thereby unrepresentative, but it contains all that intrigues me in her work.

At first glance What is Essential is a room, oddly but recognisably decorated. It could be anywhere but then again it must have been approached via the subcontinent; the simultaneity of four textures, the unlikeliness of those bird sculptures, the glittering objects on floor, table and wall. At the same time it’s an image about the u-topic quality of space in 2010; everywhere and nowhere, spontaneously generated as place, a kind of archival utopian vision.

But it is the coppery ‘gold’ button with its ambitious thread that engages me, granting the possibility that the parachutist might be on his way up rather than falling, captured in flight like the birds. This element is more typical of her other work too; the use of objects with ambiguous scale, or of objects as synonym or metaphor, stand ins for other things which are also approximate. The catalogue describes these objects as ready mades, which is reasonable, but then their readymadeness requires specific referents or context. What is their context?

In this model of a suggestively real interior, the button -if that’s what it ‘is’- is an open signifier. Nayar’s art is located here; the other photographs in the show and beyond build from this and this is why they are so potently suggestive. Suggestive of architectural, cinematic, religious, domestic, crime scene, student bedroom, sufi retreat, miniature painting, spooky/site-specific art installation as well as many equally improvised rooms that I’ve stood in in big cities, mountainsides or on desert fringes in the subcontinent itself.

I want to insist that these are not stills or single frames but movies, dense poems, potent visions, proper ‘utopias’ for our age; broken down but also cobbled together, existing, even if only in this moment now. The task is to extend the moment and build in it…