Monthly Archives: July 2011

Interview with… C. Douglas

Photo: S.S. Kumar

An interview with C. Douglas is rather like spending a couple of hours wandering through one of his tortured grey-black canvases filled with dark symbolism and cryptic metaphor. There are no straight answers to be had from this celebrated artist, no simple facts to be gleaned, no easy conclusions to be drawn.

“The hallmark of a good poem or painting is that you can keep interpreting, interpreting, interpreting,” he says at one point, as we sit at his work table, surrounded by pots filled with mud (a regular ingredient of his artworks), battered paint brushes, and books of intense Russian poetry. “What you get from it when you’re 16 isn’t what you get from it at 50. It isn’t a finished product.”

Douglas’ telling of his own artistic journey has a similar sense of open-endedness. He describes it at different times as a process of “learning and unlearning”, an “eternal postponement” in finding the meaning or essence of life, and a fight against losing our past, our history (“memory is so important, yet ignorance and forgetfulness is waiting for all of us like death,” he says. “The struggle of every artist and writer is to save us from forgetting.”)

‘Suffering’, ‘loss’, ‘struggle’… these are words that feature often in his narrative, but it wouldn’t be right to label Douglas the classic ‘tortured artist’. There’s too much contentment in his cosy existence in the tiny cottage (charmingly framed by flowering creepers) he owns at Cholamandal Artists’ Village, too much warmth in the companionship he shares with Zen, the improbably-named street dog he’s adopted, and too much enjoyment in his easy friendship with neighbourhood kids (“Hi pattas thatha!” a little guy squeaks as he alights from his auto after school — there is, apparently, a rather sweet story behind that moniker.)

As we speak, it also emerges that Douglas, today, feels a certain sense of comfort in being part of the city’s art scene. “I feel inter-related to the art world in Chennai,” he says, “I don’t feel alienated at all, otherwise I’d go away to Baroda or Mumbai. Chennai is home; I’m happy to stay here and contribute.”

His relationship with the city stretches back to the early 1970s, when he came to Madras from his native Kerala in search of an escape from boredom. “I wasn’t completely conscious of the reasons why, but I was unhappy and bored in those days, going about reading existentialist literature (which everyone was doing in the 1970s),” he says with a smile.

He was already drawn to art (“‘art is the flight from boredom’, as Nietzsche says”), and had studied under Balan Nair in Tellicherry. In 1971, his search led him to the Government College of Arts and Crafts in Madras, and there, he found an unexpected sense of belonging.

“I started coming to Cholamandal on weekends, and spending time with people such as K.C.S. Paniker and K. Ramanujam,” he says. “Through them, I found meaning to go on. They gave me understanding, a sense of faith. I remember, once the art critic Josef James told me, ‘Douglas, you’ll be taken care of here’.”

He adds thoughtfully. “I think that’s the important difference I found between Tamil Nadu and Kerala, this idea of faith, of nambikkai — not religious faith, but faith in life.”

In the years that followed, Douglas came to be known as one of the eminent artists to emerge from the Madras Art Movement. But his travels weren’t done. His marriage to Mona, a theatre artiste he met at Max Mueller Bhavan in Madras took him away to Germany for a large chunk of the 1980s, during which time some of the most distinctive aspects of his mature artistic style came together.

The result are the paintings that art lovers and collectors are today familiar with — works on textured, tortured paper, worked over in mud, resin and charcoal, filled with poetry, human angst, and, in his words, disaster. “I love the fragility of paper, that it can be torn and frayed, that it can at any time fall apart,” he says. “I sometimes wonder if I should switch to canvas for my larger works, but it’s too stretched and strong, too brave.”

Canvas is, in other words, the very antithesis of all that powerfully attracts Douglas about life — its evanescence and its frailty, its pain and its struggle. So are the expensive ‘art shop’ materials he largely eschews — “I took a vacation once and painted on nice paper, with nice materials, but then went back to my poor man’s paper and mud,” he says.

In the early 1990s, Douglas returned to Chennai and to Cholamandal, his place of comfort and belonging, and purchased his little nook in the village. But even today, the notion of ‘contentment’ sits uncomfortably on this 60-year-old’s shoulders. “There’s danger in being contented,” he says shaking his head. “Art is about wounds.”

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Book Launch: Rashmi Bansal’s ‘I have a dream’

“I Have a Dream”, Rashmi Bansal’s third book in her series on Indian entrepreneurs, is her most idealistic one so far. “In fact, there was some apprehension that it might not do as well as the other two, since it wasn’t about people making money or being successful in the conventional sense,” says Rashmi, who was recently in town to launch the book at Landmark, Citi Centre. “But the stories are so inspiring, and each one so unique, that I was sure readers would respond to it.”

The book tells the stories of 20 ‘social entrepreneurs’, idealists who aren’t driven by the bottom dollar, but have started NGOs for social change, led movements for the greater good, or dedicated their lives to the service of others.

“Working on this was a different experience altogether,” says the journalist, blogger, motivational speaker and entrepreneur, who is co-founder and editor of Just Another Magazine (JAM). “Many of the people I featured were quite reluctant to even give me an interview, insisting the credit belonged to their entire team.”

Her personal favourite is Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International (an organisation that works for clean toilets and the rightful place in society for those who once cleaned them). “When you see someone who has devoted 40 to 45 years of his life to create a revolution in a particular area of society, it really touches you,” she says. “He was just another person like you or me, who was floundering and trying to find his way, but when the opportunity came to make a difference, he made a commitment to it.”

Rashmi’s own foray into writing on entrepreneurship happened almost by accident, when she was approached by her alma mater IIM-A to do a project on MBAs who’ve chosen to turn entrepreneur. “The book wasn’t even meant to be published,” she recalls. “They had just planned to make about 100 copies to distribute internally.”

But, it did end up being published — as “Stay Hungry Stay Foolish” (2008) — and became an unexpected success. “A number of people wrote into us saying it had either given them the courage to begin their own businesses, or the motivation to keep going through rough times,” she says.

This was followed by the equally well-received “Connect the Dots” (on non-MBA entrepreneurs), and it was obvious that Rashmi had struck a chord. “There’s a wave of entrepreneurship in India today, and perhaps people needed new role models,” she says. “Earlier, our only models were foreign successes such as Bill Gates, or a Tata or a Birla. But, when you read about 20 regular people who’ve made successes of themselves, people with backgrounds similar to yours, it’s easier to relate to.”

Times have changed since Rashmi turned entrepreneur back in 1995, when she started JAM along with friends. “We just felt there was a need for a youth magazine and got charged up,” she says, adding with a laugh, “We started in one room, with Rs. 50,000, which we used to buy one computer — we didn’t even know the words ‘entrepreneur’ or ‘venture capitalists’ then!”

But, her experiences have helped her speak to the youth of the country today — through her blog ‘Youth Curry’, her seminars, and, of course, through her books. “I didn’t plot or plan any of this; I’ve just been lucky that all my experiences have culminated in what I do today,” she smiles.

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Book Launch: Amitav Ghosh’s ‘River of Smoke’

Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

Details of Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile at St. Helena, the intricacies of Parsi-Gujarati slang, and the wonders of the ancient Guangdong province of China.

The recent launch of Amitav Ghosh’s “River of Smoke,” the sequel to his bestselling “Sea of Poppies,” covered almost as much ground as the epic seafaring tale itself. Anyone in the packed audience at the Ballroom in Taj Coromandel who’d not already read the book was left in no doubt of the sheer scale of the story, which travels from Mauritius to China and from India to Europe, and the remarkable breadth of Ghosh’s research in recreating an all but forgotten time.

Former Governor of West Bengal Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who was in conversation with the author, opened the evening by saying in his lyrical way that this was a book that could be read over and over again, and analysed for its language, characters and plot, but “couldn’t be mastered.” “Not because it’s heavy or because it’s long, but because it makes you encounter, hold and behold, and witness the enormous canvas that goes beyond the book,” he said.

Set in the 19th Century, “River of Smoke” tells the story of Bahram Modi, a wealthy Parsi opium merchant from Bombay, his half-Chinese son Ah Fatt and others, and traces the period immediately preceding The Opium Wars, an event which Ghosh believes is of far greater historical significance than previously realised. “In the future, I believe people will be taught that their modern world began with The Opium Wars, and not the French Revolution, as we were told,” he said.

It is a time about which very little is known today, which is why Ghosh had to reconstruct it “brick by brick”, unearthing fascinating old documents such as the Laskari dictionary, outlining the forgotten pidgin language used by the seafaring Laskars and their European commanding officers (“I combed through the Harvard library and hey presto! There it was, written in 1812 and published in Calcutta!”). Then there’s the 1940s treatise on Parsi-Gujarati that he found, and the time he spent travelling around the “miraculous” 2000-year-old province of Guangdong…

How did he do it? That was the question posed to him by Gandhi and by the members of the audience. Did he feel weighed down by all that research? “Not at all,” Ghosh said. “The work is endlessly rewarding, whether it’s the pleasure of finding out new things or travelling to new places. I don’t know what I’d do without it!”

“Young authors are told to write about what they know,” he added, “but I feel one should write about what nobody knows. These are vanished, evanescent worlds that you have to rebuild, and to me, that’s very exciting.”

His long, detailed reading from the book gave the audience a feel of the world of “River of Smoke”, as he took them onboard a sailing vessel with Bahram, then into Bonaparte’s home when in exile at St. Helena, all the while making them chuckle at the engaging dialogue marked by his unique use of language.

Not surprisingly, Kamini Mahadevan of Penguin India called “River of Smoke” Penguin’s biggest fiction book of the year. “It’s been launched to wide acclaim in the U.K. and is already topping the charts in India — all in just three weeks,” she said, speaking at the launch.

It couldn’t happen at a more meaningful time, as general manager of Taj Coromandel, N. Prakash noted: “This is the 25th year since Amitav’s first book, ‘Circle of Reason,’ was published, which makes this evening all the more special.”

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Book Launch – ‘R.D. Burman: The Man, The Music’

The smiles came instantly, the feet started tapping of their own accord, and heads swayed to the lively tunes. The enduring magic of Pancham da’s music was on ample display as a medley of some of his best-loved hits played before the launch of the book,R.D. Burman: The Man, The Music at Crossword recently.

Clips of songs such as ‘Aaja Aaja’, ‘Kaanta Laga’, ‘Chura liya’, ‘Chingari koi bhadke’, ‘Aaja piya tohe pyar du’ and ‘Oh majhi re’ played for mere seconds, but it was enough to set the mood for an event that was all about remembering R.D. Burman’s remarkable contribution to Hindi film music.

The walk down memory lane was lead by none other than the evergreen singer S.P. Balasubrahmanyam, who talked about his decade-long acquaintance with the music director.

“We first met in the mid-1970s, when he’d come to perform in Chennai, along with Asha Bhonsle and Bhupinder, at the University auditorium,” recalled SPB. “Unfortunately, the sound system there was miserable on the first day, so I gave him my own sound system for the second show, and met him afterwards. I was literally just a ‘chhota-mota’ singer back then!”

The first song they did together was ‘Baaghon mein khile hain’ for “Shubhkamna” (1983), and their musical association lasted until SPB recorded ‘Aaja Meri Jaan’ in 1993. “It was the last song I did for him, and it’s a number that is still talked about in musical circles,” said the singer. “I get very sentimental when I sing it; I always keep it for the end of any stage performance.”

The packed audience was treated to a mini-musical biography of the great composer, as SPB talked about Pancham da’s struggles to emerge from his father’s shadow, his genius with syncopation (“he was the human embodiment of rhythm”), his punctuality during recordings (“I once came 15 minutes late and really got it from him!”), and later, Pancham’s regrets over the way he was treated by some filmmakers during the low phase of his career.

The evening ended as it began — with music — as SPB fans in the audience requested him to sing for them. He obliged with ‘Khoya khoya chand’ and ‘Sach mere yaar hai’ (his duet with Kishore Kumar for R.D. Burman in “Saagar”), his voice soaring effortlessly over the hubbub at the bookstore (he drew the line at a request for his ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’ songs, though, saying in his gentle way, “that’s not relevant”).

“My acquaintance with Pancham was not, perhaps, as much as that of some senior singers,” he said later, “but I grabbed this opportunity to speak about him because I still live with his music every day.”

 

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How to… be house proud

1.    The first step is doing up said house or flat to your absolute satisfaction. This means obsessing over every little change you make, whether it’s finding that exact shade of yellow paint for your bedroom walls (Daffodil Delight or Mango Madness?), or the perfect curtains to go with the oh-so-classy raw-silk cushions and art-deco lamps in the living room.

2.    This, of course, requires exhaustive research. Trawl through every home décor website for ideas, and then stalk sellers on eBay or Amazon so you can finally own that antique-finish Colonial-style oak desk (that’s ‘distressed’ just so). Make repeated trips to every local furniture/furnishings store, and collect catalogues and fabric swatches like they’re going out of style. Bring them home with you and obsess over which rug pattern goes with which embroidered bedspread etc. to your long-suffering family late into the night.

3.    Once the essentials – paint, furniture, carpets and so on – are in place, dedicate every free afternoon or weekend to ‘home improvements’. Hunt for the perfect plants (and by extension, the perfect planters and pots – nothing too earthy or too funky) for your entryway. Haunt every gallery in the city for that dream piece of art for your living room. Dog the footsteps of your carpenter until he creates that dream bookshelf for your study. And in any time left over, take on hopelessly ambitious do-it-yourself projects – there can be joy in suffering.

4.    Once the home is ready, have guests over regularly so you can show it off to as many people as possible. Clean and polish it from top to bottom before each ‘showing’, and then insist on conducting a guided tour of each room (going over every design decision you made in exhaustive detail) whether the guests are interested or not (pointedly ignore yawns or any attempts to change the subject). Once the guests settle down, make sure you hand out napkins, coasters, etc. and make loud hissing noises at the slightest sign of a food/drink spill; remember, prevention is better than cure.

5.    When you feel the house is truly ‘done’, every available space bulging with knick-knacks, curios and potted plants, and more importantly, it has been satisfactorily shown off to every single one of your acquaintances, it’s time to strip it down and start all over again. Pick a new colour scheme, or a new design concept (Persian passion or postmodern pastiche), and go back to Tip No. 1. After all, the house proud are happiest only when working on a new home project.

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How to… beat Monday morning blues

1.    Don’t do a Google search on ‘How to beat Monday morning blues’. You’ll just end up gagging on annoyingly upbeat advice such as ‘go for a brisk run’ or ‘take a cold shower’ or (shudder) ‘go to bed earlier on Sunday night’. All perfectly sensible suggestions, of course, but not really what you want to hear when you’re suffering from a bad case of the Monday-morning grumps.

2.    For the same reasons, make sure you stay away from chronically cheerful people at home or in the workplace (our condolences if your significant other is the sort who leaps out of bed in the morning singing ‘Walking on Sunshine’ at the top of his or her voice). Nothing makes a bad mood worse than being faced with excessive positivity and bouncy happiness, especially before you’ve had your second (or fourth or fifth) cup of coffee.

3.    Caffeine is your best friend. Load up on coffee – black, café latte, frappe, it doesn’t matter. Tea is okay at a pinch, but none of that wimpy green tea stuff. You want your caffeine strong and potent so that you’re too wired to sit still and are forced to be functional, even if work of any sort is the last thing you want to be doing. Note: sugary, chocolaty doughnuts, muffins, and other such junk food are always a plus (sugar rush!).

4.    Allow yourself to wallow. Sometimes you just need to let a bad mood be. Listen to mope-y music (emo music or sad-sack love songs, whatever works for you). Post depressing messages on Facebook or Twitter, and whine and grouse along with fellow mopers. Remember, you’ll feel a whole lot better if you can spread some of the gloom around – ‘misery loves company’ is never truer than on a Monday morning.

5.    Just stay in bed. This is, of course, the final recourse, for that Monday when absolutely nothing else works. Cash in on that sick day you were saving up, crank up the air-conditioner, snuggle down deeper into your duvet and go right back to sleep. If there’s a better cure for the blues, it’s yet to be discovered by man. (Warning: this particular remedy may cause unpleasant side-effects such as ‘No-job-itis’, so use sparingly).

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How to… be an online lurker

1.    They say that lurkers comprise about 90 per cent of the online population, so you probably think being one couldn’t be that hard. But it takes some serious dedication to spend hours and hours hanging about on various websites, forums, social networking sites, etc. without contributing a thing. Keep eye-drops handy to help those tired, strained eyes; flex that mouse-holding hand often, and invest in a comfy computer chair. You’re not going to be moving from that spot for a while.

2.    Remember – however moving the blog entry, however much you enjoyed the Youtube video, however exciting the conversation on the forum, the first commandment of lurker-hood is ‘Thou Shalt Not Comment.’ You can register on the forums/blogs, etc. In fact, you should – how else can you get access to everything and lurk properly? You can dream up comments in your head. You can even compose them on the page, but you never actually hit enter and post.

3.    Of course, just because you don’t participate, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get deeply involved in the flame wars / discussions on these websites. Drop by the site every few hours. Follow conversation threads obsessively and hit refresh repeatedly to see how the drama unfolds. Know all the regulars by their usernames, and have the ‘history’ of the online community down pat. In other words, treat it all like a soap opera that’s happening in real-time, and follow all developments with bated breath.

4.    As a lurker, you should be aware that your kind tends to get a bad rap from the average self-righteous net denizen. You might get called a ‘moocher’ who just consumes content and doesn’t contribute, or be painted as the sloth of the online universe, who can’t be bothered to do any thing more than stare at the screen slack-jawed. To this, dear lurker, you must just turn deaf ears. Only you know how much effort goes into lurking. And your (very frequent) visits still register loudly on page-view hit counters –they don’t just go up to the thousands by themselves!

5.    Finally, every lurker has that moment when he’s seized by a strong desire to ‘de-lurk’ and post something after months of silent snooping. Your heart starts pounding and your palms get all sweaty at the thought of revealing yourself to the regulars, but you can’t fight the temptation. So stick to the following rules: make sure you have a username like ‘Anon123’ (so it’s obvious that you’re a lurker at heart), restrict your comment to something inane like ‘lol’, and then return gratefully to your natural state – lurking.

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