Appropriating Helen

helen rajesh

In 2015, the American artist/photographer Richard Prince stirred up a hornets’ nest when he exhibited a collection of photos from strangers’ Instagram feeds. He enlarged the images, complete with comments, put them in a show, and sold several of them for $100,000 each.

Critics and peers instantly took to Twitter and blogosphere to either denounce Prince as a thief or to sing his praises as an artistic visionary. Interestingly, one of the unwitting subjects of the controversy, a woman whose Instagram photo Prince had appropriated did not raise a fuss and seemed pleased to bask in a bit of reflected glory.

Neither was this Prince’s first brush with the art police. And nor was he the only famous artist to lift, steal or borrow other people’s work for their own masterpieces.

Appropriation in art has a long, well-established history. Its practitioners include some of the greatest names in 20th century art, such as Picasso, Duchamp, Cindy Sherman and Andy Warhol. Many artists and critics believe that in this digital age, with easy access to images, bit torrents and ubiquitous invitations to download, there is no object or image that is not available for the picking.

Of course, those whose works find their way into the art of others, without permission, are less charitable. Lawsuits are lodged and courts often decide in their favour. But the practice persists and probably will as long as humans exist.

A critical factor that judges refer to in deciding whether an artist is a genius or a thief is the concept of “fair use”. Has the photographer or artist transformed the original sufficiently to create a new and fresh work of art? Or has he lazily decided to ride on the coattails of someone else?

Question of appropriation

Growing up in India, I was a fan of Hindi movies, and though I did not understand exactly who she was at the time, Helen, the “Queen of the Nautch Girls”, was a big part of the attraction.

In more recent times, I have found Helen to be an enormously inspiring subject.

As she has danced and vamped and swayed across the internet on YouTube, I have tried to capture her in full flight as if she were a flitting butterfly.

And, in the process, my mind has turned to the question of appropriation and fair use. Am I creating something new and fresh? Or am I merely an obsessed fan stealing glimpses of my idol, like a silent Peeping Tom? [My full article with photos here]

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Redemption Song: Farewell to Leonard Cohen

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There is a certain cosmic but bitter timing to what happened in the week gone by.

On Tuesday, we watched a rank caricature of a man capture all the keys to the kingdom. On Thursday, we witnessed the passing of one of the true great souls of popular music. It is as if the arrival of the former demanded the departure of the other, like darkness snuffing out the light.

In this week in which some hailed the revival of democracy, but more feared its demise, Leonard Cohen’s song Democracy (The Future/1992) remains the best lyrical exploration of conflicted America yet.

It’s coming from the sorrow in the street
The holy places where the races meet
From the homicidal bitchin’
That goes down in every kitchen
To determine who will serve and who will eat
From the wells of disappointment
Where the women kneel to pray
For the grace of God in the desert here
And the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the USA

— (Democracy / 1992/ The Future)

As powerful a song as Democracy is though, Leonard Cohen, unlike his friend and only true peer, Bob Dylan, never fancied himself a writer of protest songs. The politics that really interested Cohen were the ones that happened between the sheets and deep in a man’s soul.

Born into a well to do family in Montreal in 1934, Cohen enjoyed a happy, “tribal” childhood secure in the knowledge that his family were well-respected members of the Jewish community. Though he led a folk band in his teens, his first and enduring love was poetry, especially the writings of Spaniard Federico Garcia Lorca, which Cohen credited with giving him permission to express his own voice.

As a young man he moved to London before settling into what he thought would be an idyllic artist’s life on the small Greek island of Hydra. In a lazy atmosphere of writing, loving, spiritual practice and drug taking he honed his unique, svelte way with words. A novel, Beautiful Losers, and some poetry received little attention.

This was, after all, the age of rock ‘n roll – thin volumes of poetry did not exactly fly off the shelf. Frustrated that his long-idealised life as a writer was stalling at the first turn, Cohen gravitated to New York’s Greenwich Village folk music scene, where he began to sing some of his poems.

He created waves immediately. Established singers like Judy Collins championed his work. And it wasn’t long before the ultimate talent scout, John Hammond of Columbia Records, the man who had “discovered” Bob Dylan several years earlier, heard Cohen and signed him up. So moved was he that after recording Cohen’s first album, he is said to have exclaimed, “Watch out, Dylan!”

Dylan often comes up in conversations about Leonard Cohen. Both men share much: Judaism, iconic cultural status, insatiable appetites for literature, and a spiritual bent. They are also amiable rivals whose styles are as different as night and day.

While Dylan screamed through the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s making headlines, setting trends, shocking and mocking his audience, Cohen focused in on slowly, painstakingly ploughing one furrow at a time. Where Dylan seemed to snap songs in their entirety out of the ether, Cohen could labour for years over a single set of lyrics. His songs often sounded effortless but each had a difficult birth.

With the diligence and humility of a disciple, for over 50 years Cohen practiced his craft. He was a man of meticulous tastes. Things had to be just so. He was wearing dapper suits in the 1960s when most rockers showed the hair on their chests. He tweaked his lines over and over, never quite satisfied even after long periods of effort.

Over the years he developed a lyrical style and musical sound that he burnished into one of pop music’s most elegant and sparkling jewels. And right up to the time of his last album, released just a few weeks ago, his work continued to garner high praise from fans and critics alike.

Extravagance and a pop star’s lifestyle were of no interest to Cohen. He loved living a simple life and as his biographer, Sylvie Simmons, points out, was from a young age obsessed with inner emptiness. This had its dark side but it also introduced a certain minimalist structure to his life.

What mattered was not the house or the jet, but the words and the music. Leonard Cohen’s great contribution has been his unshakeable commitment to exploring the grand themes of human life – love, God and death – within the structure of a pop song. He had the magical ability not just to condense deep philosophical ideas into concise lines but to render them with a gravitas that was nearly scriptural.

Yes, you who must leave everything that you cannot control
It begins with your family, but soon it comes around to your soul
Well, I’ve been where you’re hanging, I think I can see how you’re pinned
When you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you’ve sinned

— (Sisters of Mercy/1967/Songs of Leonard Cohen)

When you listen to a song such as Hallelujah or Anthem you can’t avoid the feeling that they convey ancient human truths. Almost as if they have been channelled from another dimension. And though they were weighty enough to be read liturgically, as a Montreal synagogue did, his songs always hover lightly on the heart. It was a unique magic. Even he seemed transfixed by his creations, claiming that he had no real command of the process.

Despite his self-described happy childhood Cohen struggled with depression for much of his life. And like many in his trade, he sought redemption in drugs and drink. But it was the spiritual discipline such as submitting to the rigours of strict Zen practice for several years in the 1990s that brought the greatest peace.

Yet, though he was ordained as a Buddhist priest in 1996, his melancholy lingered. It was not until he spent the better part of a year attending the lectures of Ramesh Balsekar, Mumbai’s famous Advaita (non-dualism) teacher, that the depression at last “inexplicably” dissipated.

For the best part of a decade, Cohen had released no music and seemed to have retired from public life altogether. But after his time in India, and liberated of depression, Cohen staged a comeback that saw him produce some of best work and reinvent himself as the wise old sage of popular song.

In addition to the powerful and deceptively simple lyrics of his songs, Cohen’s sound was unique and special. All his melodies, he said, were based on six chords he’d learned from a Spanish flamenco guitarist over three short lessons. His teacher took his own life unexpectedly before Cohen’s fourth lesson. But the singer now had a musical framework in which he could set his voice.

Over the years he perfected the interplay of three basic elements: his gravelly baritone, spare thoughtful arrangements of the six chords, founded often on the strains of a nylon-stringed guitar, and female backing vocals.

In time, these elements blended together with such natural warmth it was impossible not to feel blessed by simply hearing the sound. Each song comes wrapped in a beautiful melody and moves at a deliberate, unhurried pace. It is here, in the slow, gentle unfolding of each song that his years spent immersed in Eastern philosophy are most clearly evident.

Cohen’s passing leaves a huge hole in the culture. We will miss his humour and his unflinching love of the human condition. We will miss the sly smile and his elegant double-breasted suits. We will miss his deep “golden voice”. But most of all we will miss the canny prophetic words he seemed to have for every occasion.

His best songs are rich hymns of hope. Not the sort of hope a devotee feels for heaven, but rather the gritty, scarred hope of the broken, doubtful, addicted and beautiful human.

Like a baby stillborn
Like a beast with his horn
I have torn everyone who reached out to me
But I swear by this song
By all I have done wrong
I’ll make it all up to you

— (Bird on a Wire/1969/Songs from a Room)

It is that recognition that redemption is available to each of us, no matter what we have done, that is a constant thread through Cohen’s songs.

And that is a good thing to hold on to in this week gone by, where hope is very much needed.

 

 

 

[ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN SCROLL.IN]

 

So Long, Farewell. Khuda Hafez.

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All good things must come to an end.

This trite truism pertains to everything from a honeymoon to an ice cream cone. The good times eventually do stop rolling.

And such a day has come for Sunday Sounds. Or at least, for my part as your weekly curator, host, evangelist, pracharak, deewana, companion and guide through the sensational music of South Asia and the desi diaspora.

Since the early days of this digital daily I have been granted a free licence to indulge my love of music while hiding behind the mask of a columnist. Such an opportunity is a rare and great gift and one for which I will always be indebted to the editors of Scroll.in.

For two-and-a-half years I have tried to excite readers with the fantastic musical heritage of this region while also promoting the work of musicians of South Asian origin around the world.

Though I have but scratched the surface of this rich endowment, the time has come for me to hand over the excavation to others.

To all the readers of this column I say thank you for coming along for the ride. It has been a privilege to share the fun and grooves with you each week. I will miss being part of your weekend but alas, other projects (some much-delayed) await my attention.

For my last column, I have selected some old favourites from across theSunday Sounds world. I hope you enjoy listening to them as much as I have had putting them in front of you. [Full article]

3 Fantastic Urban Photographers from India

pipes

Landscape photography is a venerable old art. Who doesn’t love a shot of the sun going down over a beach or the same sun rising brilliantly over Nanga Parbat?

For most of us, the way we imagine a country, at least initially, is through images of its land. We like to know how high its mountains are and how fast its rivers flow. When we visit a travel agent, we flip through brochures covered with landscapes. For some reason we equate country with land. And based on photographs of sunsets, green fields, rugged mountains or rugged farms, we convince ourselves we have an idea of a place.

But in a country like India that is rocketing forward in its urbanisation, is the natural landscape still the best way to capture its soul?

Within 15 years, nearly 600 million Indians will be city dwellers. While today, only about 32% live in urban areas, the economy is largely urbanised. India’s cities are bursting and new ones will be sprouting up by the dozen if government planners are to be believed. Statistically, India may yet be a rural country, but energetically, it is a pumping urban nation.

In a situation like this, traditional landscape photography seems to be less relevant to grasping the essence of India. If the heart of the nation is its cities, what does photography tell us of that India?

Urban landscape photography is nothing new but it has become somewhat more codified in recent years. It is photography that seeks to find a country’s essential sprit through the way it lays out, develops, and manages its cities. The landscape in question is not the natural world but the physical world of concrete, steel, glass and plastic. And unlike traditional landscape photography its purpose is not necessarily to depict an idealised image of the scene.

Urban photography is, more often than not, photography of the ugly, the “in-the-way”, the dilapidated and the abandoned. Alienation is never faraway. Where there is beauty it is usually accidental. It is a photography not suited to travel brochures. But when done by talented photographers it is exciting stuff. [Full article originally published in Scroll.in]

The Design Mind behind Hipstamatic

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Several years ago, I began experimenting with an ancient Samsung mobile phone camera. The ridiculously cheap lens and complete absence of functionality produced quirky lo-fi – short for low fidelity, typically taken with poor-quality equipment – images that delighted me in a way SLR photography had not for years.

In just a few years and with an irresistible inevitability, mobile phone photography has gone from fringe to mainstream. Photo apps have stormed the kingdom of photography and dethroned the SLR.

About a decade ago, a camera was a minor feature on your phone. Today, Apple markets itself through giant reproductions of images taken with its iPhone 6.

But in late 2009, before the first photo had ever been posted on Instagram, an app designed to look like an old-fashioned camera went on sale on the Apple Store. The name appealed to a generation that wanted to be cool and sought something easy to use. Hipstamatic had arrived.

For the wired generation, it was love at first sight. Within a couple of years, more than four million people had downloaded the app. Hipstamatic groups sprouted around the globe. Exclusive Hipsta competitions and exhibitions were established. And for the first time, professional photographers admitted to using an app on assignment.

With its interchangeable lenses, assorted films, oddball flash guns and brightly coloured cases, Hipstamatic introduced an artist’s sensibility to photographic gear. The eccentricity of analogue toy cameras had been updated for the digital era. Hipstamatic’s mission seemed to be to make so-called ugly images beautiful. Light leaks, frayed and torn borders, overexposure and problematic focus were, it seemed, just what the times required.

Today, Instagram may monopolise the social media space for retro/lo-fi photography but Hipstamatic remains the photographer’s choice when it comes to apps. A lot of Hipstamatic’s appeal lies not just in the retro feel of the camera and the ever-growing volume of films and lenses but in its aesthetic.

Hipstamatic has style. Each lens looks as if it has been lovingly handcrafted by an expert artisan. Every film is unique and comes packaged in its own box. Both have a back story, often inspired by professional photographers that the developers particularly admire.

The app has an India connection too. Although all of Hipstamatic’s founders are design professionals, it’s the Creative Director Aravind Kaimal whose vision is most visible on Hipstamatic.

Kaimal was born in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of the South Indian state of Kerala, and spent his childhood drawing. Tintin, the hero of a comic series by Belgian cartoonist George Remi, and his dog Snowy, served as the inspiration for much of his art at the time.

At the age of 17, Kamal landed in the US and went to art school in Chicago. At his first job, he crossed paths with graphic designer Lucas Buick, who, years later, asked for Kaimal’s help in designing a new photo app, tentatively named Hipstamatic. And the rest, as they say, is history. [Full interview with Aravind Kaimal here]

The Spirit Can Never be Killed

My tribute to the Sabri qawwali tradition in Pakistan

Harmonium

imgres Amjad Farid Sabri Qawwal Marhoom

The story is told that one day, Akbar the Great heard some wandering minstrels singing about the glorious wali who lay slumbering in the desert town of Ajmer. He enquired of the malangs about this great soul who moved them to sing so beautifully. They replied in verse:

Hazaron badshah aaye
Hazaron sultanat badli
Na badli na badlegi huqumat mere khwaja ki
Mere khwaja badshah hai

[Thousands of emperors have come
Thousands of kingdoms have fallen
The kingdom of my lord has never and will never change
My lord is the emperor]

The devotion of the minstrels so impressed the Emperor he let their frankness pass without comment. Some years later he made a pilgrimage to the tomb of Khwaja Hazrat Moinuddin Chisti, founder of the most influential Islamic mystical order in South Asia, and in effect, gave the House of Timur’s blessing to the…

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Bangla Surreal: Shadman Shahid Photography

red tusker

Bangladeshi photographer Shadman Shahid was recently selected by the prestigious British Journal of Photography for its Ones to Watch–2016 listof emerging global photographic talent. A graduate of Dhaka’s famous Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, his work emerges from a deeply personal space and expresses itself in moving documentary as well as intimate and carefully constructed psychological imaginings.

Last week, Scroll.in had a conversation with Shahid about his work, his vision and the challenges of being an artist in contemporary Bangladesh.

Tell us a bit about your family background. Was it artistic? And what drew you to the camera?
I was born to two loving and overprotective parents. They are both journalists. I grew up in a joint family and my paternal uncle was also living with us. He was an artist. I enjoyed his company and he was the resource for art, music and culture for me. However, I was too safe and satisfied with my life to be interested in art at that point. I started photography after he died very young. I like to think growing up watching him influenced me.

At one point in my life, I had decided to become a filmmaker. I wanted to hone my film-making skills. One of my Pathshala teachers introduced us to the work of Julia Margaret Cameron. About her photograph “The Echo”, the teacher said that “it’s one of those pictures that will haunt you at night when you are trying to sleep.” I could see what he meant and why he was so passionate about photography. It was one of the moments that drew me closer towards the camera. [Full article from Scroll.in and more photos]