The Art of India

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Some years ago, I was sitting in the back seat of a taxi in Bengaluru. It was midday when the light is thin and bullying. I was only half paying attention. As luck would have it, I looked up for an instant and saw Superman whiz by. What followed was one of those moments where your mind, so much slower than your eye, tries to make sense of what it thinks you just saw. “Superman. On the outskirts of Bengaluru? Okay.”

I asked the taxi driver to take a U-turn and go back to the spot where I’d seen the superhero. And sure enough, after about 100 metres, we rolled up alongside Clark Kent in his cape.

I slowly got out of the taxi, drawn magnetically towards the wall on which Superman stood. Like the apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey who gape and dance in wonder at the strange plinth that has landed among them, I gawped at the scene before me. Like the apes, I wanted to touch this strange thing but was nervous I might get shooed away. I was at an artist’s workshop and didn’t want to be unceremoniously run off the lot.

[Full Article from Scroll.in]

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Trainspotting in India

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In my most recent column for Scroll.in, Camera Indica, I interview train photographer Apurva Bahadur.

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Travelling by train with all its jerks and lurching from side to side, with its frequent stops and noisy atmosphere, has long been one of the great romances of India. For decades, the express, freight, mail and fast passenger trains embodied both the power and the glory of India. The power to develop, move and grow an idea into a nation. And the glory of binding together myriad peoples and giving them a chance to have new ideas about their ancient territory.

The old-tech train may have been knocked off its perch in recent years by affordable, faster and more comfortable jet travel but for the majority of travellers, the train remains the best way to get from here to there.

Given its status as one of modern India’s most potent icons, it is a bit surprising that few photographers have made the Indian train their major subject. This is not to say that serious Indian and foreign photographers have not photographed life along the tracks or inside the bogies. But these are either one-off photographs or a time-limited project, and do not form their core body of work. Maybe because the train is so un-extraordinary, it is simply overlooked. Maybe those signs that blare “No Photography” at all stations damped the enthusiasm.

There is a group of diehards though, who are passionate about documenting India’s great world of railways and trains. They gather together in clubs all across India but connect through a matter-of-factly named online forum, Indian Railways Fan Club Association, where they enthuse about their train trips, fact-check technical minutia of engines, document the history of bridges and tunnels and report locomotive sightings. And of course, they share photographs of their favourite lines of track, stations and trains.

Apurva Bahadur, a technical writer for a multinational company, is a long time member of IRFCA and one of the Association’s most admired unofficial photographers. Bahadur posts his photographs regularly on his Facebook page with most receiving hundreds of ‘likes’ from photography and train enthusiasts all around the world. Camera Indica caught up with him recently at his home in Pune to discuss the mysterious and romantic art of photographing trains. [Full article and photos]

Zindadil Lahore!

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Chai wala

Zindadil is one the great words in Urdu. Translated as ‘lively-hearted’, ‘vivacious’, or even, ‘up for it’, the word is full of energy and veritably rings like a bell when pronounced. And while it describes Pakistanis in general, it is the people of Lahore, one of the truly great cities of the world, who can best be described as zindadil.

I lived in Lahore between August 1986 and July 1987 as a paying guest in a middle class family home in Rivaz Garden. Everyday I rode my pushbike across several suburbs to Shadman Colony where I studied Urdu. In the afternoons and on many weekends I explored the city at leisure taking in classical music concerts at the Alhamra Theatre, dance performances in Hira Mandi, mushairas (poetry recitals) in many private homes and qawwali in the Old City.

The city welcomed me warmly, as if I were a long-lost relative. No one I met questioned why I was there or made me feel as if I shouldn’t be. Whether I meandered through the cloth-draped bazaars in the Inner city or sipped a double peg at a flash soiree in Gulberg, Lahoris treated me with respect, warmth and great humour. As an outsider it was wonderful and comforting to feel simultaneously welcome and ignored.

In my year in Lahore there was plenty in the air. Benazir Bhutto had recently been allowed to return to Pakistan. When she visited Lahore the air was electric with excited expectation. Gen. Zia, of course, was very much in charge but also the butt of hundreds of jokes. Everyone wanted a change.

One of the General’s more infamous policies—nurturing ideological gangs dressed up as political or religious parties, to act as proxies to advance his political agenda—was being played out in Karachi. Small arms had flooded the city and bombs exploded in buses, markets and mosques on a regular basis. Protected politicians operated torture chambers for their enemies. But all this was just headlines to us in Lahore. Our city was the embodiment of peace and goodwill.

The atrocity which occurred this weekend in Gulshan Iqbal is, unfortunately, nothing new in Pakistan. The seed planted by Gen. Zia clearly has found fertile ground. The deadly weed is choking the life out of the country. Even the fact that the bombers targeted children and revelling families is nothing unusual. The slaughter of children and happy families at play is so commonplace it is proof enough of the existence of the Devil.

As a city and country I love binds its wounds yet again I wanted to recall that word zindadil. It is this quality that I hope Lahoris will be able to draw upon in the next few weeks. Keep your hearts alive and lively! They are stronger than the darks hearts of the murderers.

The photograph that is at the head of this post captures the quality of zindadil for me. He is a chaiwala near Lahore Fort. When I passed he called out to me with a friendly, slightly off colour Punjabi phrase. In revenge I turned and shot! He laughed and I then bought a cup of tea!

 

 

 

 

 

Of Ambassadors and heroes.

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Individual style is a sensitive issue for artists. We are told that we must have a voice or an eye that stands out, yet when we finally develop one, some smartass comes along and says, “Oh, that looks just like so-and-so’s work.”

All of us learn how to do what we do by copying those who are bigger, faster and more experienced. I remember hearing Clive James, the Australian writer, talk about how one of his teachers made him write something each week in the style of another writer – Ian Fleming, James Joyce, Mark Twain and so on. James reckoned that this process of near-slavish imitation had been very useful in developing his own voice.

In the words of the 19th-century French painter, Edgar Degas, “the secret is to follow the advice the masters give you in their works while doing something different from them.” Easier said than done.

Near the end of his short life, the fabulous Indian photographer Raghubir Singh published a book called A Way Into India, which consisted entirely of photographs of or photographs made from inside a Hindustan Ambassador car. It’s a major and quirky work, a kind of photographic ode to a piece of metal. [This article was originally published by Scroll.in and can be read there]