In a rare showing, Delhi gets a glimpse of indigenous art from National Gallery of Australia

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Fiona Foley, HHH

New Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art is currently showing masterpieces from Australia’s indigenous artists – a rare, large-scale project that is not only a precursor to the upcoming Australia-India Fest, but also part of India’s long-standing initiative of cementing ties with other nations through the realm of art and culture.

In the recent past, for example, the NGMA has hosted art exhibitions from different countries such as Slovenia, South Korea and Italy. In its latest showing, titled ‘Indigenous Australia: Masterworks from the National Gallery of Australia’, more than a hundred masterworks tell the story of the world’s oldest continuous culture. The artworks, which date back to the 1800s to the present, reveal diverse artistic styles of Australia’s most important indigenous artists.

Having existed on the Australian continent for tens of thousands of years, the art and traditions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are among the oldest and richest in human history. Their art reveals a deep relationship between creative expression and everyday life. Themes related to nature, fertility, aquatic life, spiritual seeking, race and colonialism find expression in these artworks.

The masterpieces–from paintings, videos, sculptures to installations–are a significant contribution towards understanding the traditional and modern art vocabulary that emerged in the last three hundred years. The exhibits offer a peep into the NGA’s vast collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artworks, numbered around 8000, the largest of its own kind in the world.

“The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists draw on a long tradition of oral storytelling, and their art reflects this deep, ancient knowledge. Traditionally, legends were expressed through rituals, secret ceremonial songs and dances, body painting, rock engravings, and designs and patterns on domestic and ritual objects. The exhibition mirrors this variety of expression with paintings on canvas and bark, weaving and sculpture, new media, prints and photography.”
Art Critic Meera Menezes

Here’s a virtual tour of the collection:


The exhibition is on view until August 26.

Fan-ning art: A look at Indian artist Jatin Das’ vast collection of ‘Pankhas’

For an urban audience addicted to instant air cooling, a trans-national collection of hand-made fans might be of little interest, until you visit an exhibition showcasing artefacts belonging to a rare and dying tradition. The exhibition has been curated by Indian visual artist Jatin Das, a well-known researcher and archivist of the craft of hand-made fan.

Odisha-born Das, who has many paintings, murals, sculptures and other visual art forms to his credit, has been collecting hand-made fans of different shapes and sizes for the past 40 years. It all began one summer afternoon, when he had a friend over to his Delhi studio. His friend was unhappy for some reason, and as he picked up a hand-fan to lighten the mood he said in jest, “let me stir the still air.” Little did he know the phrase would be the title of a book on Pankhas, which is due to be released soon.

Since then, Das’ abiding interest in hand-made pankhas has not only taken him to the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent, but also to regions as far and wide as Africa, Middle East and East Asia. His collection, which comprises of thousands of fans created with all kinds of organic materials (bamboo, cane, date palm), was recently mounted at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA).

His archive also includes, paintings, prints, miniatures, photographs, poems and films on the subject. Entirely funded by money received from the sale of his paintings, the archive is the result of a full-fledged project that has involved documentation, research and archiving of this dying form. Over the years, the artist’s collection of fans has grown because of gifts received from friends all over the world.

These objects have had a worldwide audience, beginning with their maiden exhibition at New Delhi’s Crafts Museum in 2004, followed by shows in Kolkata, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Zurich, London and Washington DC.

“Although the cost of making the pankha is minimal, the workmanship, effort and personal touch make these delicate objects invaluable. I feel sad when a beautiful craft of India disappears due to lack of interest, utility or outlet,” said Das.

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Palm leaf fans from Alekh Baba monastery, Dhenkanal (Odisha)

Seen together, the fans made of zardozi, applique, mirrors; carvings from woods; some of them designed from feathers, bamboo, cane, palm leaves, paper, natural fibre and batik cloth transform a forgotten art into an alluring craft, the IGNCA exhibition shows.

The exhibition offers a historical and artistic insight into an art form that was once popular in hot and tropical countries of the world. As electricity came into our homes, the use of this art form has become largely redundant, even though people in Indian villages still use it.

Mainly sold in village markets during summer, the hand-fan is seen as a symbol of communal and personal engagement. The sight of a man fanning himself to sleep on a charpoy, or a woman fanning her husband as he eats his meal are common instances of the role of a fan in rural life. The hand-fan, Das notes, could be a tool for seduction and romance as well.

Of course, the hand-fan has been deployed for grander purposes, such as in the courts and offices of Mughals and colonial rulers; and during large congregations at temples. Costing millions of rupees, the royal fans have silver and gold handles, embroidered with silver thread or zari. Personalised and ceremonial fans are also part of the archive, with many of them being centuries old and regarded as a “priceless antiques.”

During his search for hand-fans and traditional crafts, Das found a group of monks in his home state devoted to the traditional art of crafting large circular fans made of palm leaves and stems. The collection has several fans from the monastery, one of them is more than a hundred years old. Other present-day examples include a large but neglected hand-made fan at Kochi’s St. Francis Church, the first church built by the Europeans in India. The Mayurbhanj palace, also in Odisha, in another landmark where this dying art form is still being preserved.

The craft of fan-making has been primarily done by women and girls in India, and at the heart of India’s pankha art history are stories of India’s rural folk who, for generations, have made this art form a source of livelihood. As India aims for full electrification of its villages, the pankha faces the onslaught of being completely switched off.

Dispatch from an e-rickshaw

There is nothing exotic about a woman riding a battery-run rickshaw on Delhi’s roads; except it is relatively new, and definitely extraordinary. But we take time to accept new things – don’t we? – lost as we are in our little bubbles, stretching them to infinity as if it’s a day job. Especially some gentlemen – including myself, once upon a time – who may not prefer to hop onto a rickshaw being driven by a woman.

I didn’t interview or casually ask them, “Dude, what’s your problem? What is this inherent, compulsive aversion to it?” I just asked myself, and here’s the answer I got: What if she rams the vehicle into a pedestrian or a car or bike? But, she is a woman, why trouble her by overloading her rickshaw? A man would be more responsible and alert. So on and so forth.

And yet, when I sat behind her, with two women and another boy, my supercilious masculine notions got a quick, thorough beating – and happily so. For one, she was more involved and energetic than her male counterparts. And it seemed to me that she was having a lot of fun, being at the wheel, as she hollered to passengers while navigating through the chaotic streets of west Delhi.

But I did ask her, “So, what’s their problem?”

“Sometimes, one in a hundred is one of those,” she said, making it sound like spotting a minor defective piece in a large stock you would buy from a shop. “They may not be allowing their women to go out of the house.” She said she had been doing this job for the past two years. That was all she said before I got off and a group of women grabbed seats in her rickshaw. There was no time either to ask about her life or pose one of those questions – how are you feeling, being a woman, riding a rickshaw? Does your family allow it? What does your husband, if you’re married that is, say? And how do the male drivers “treat” you? The need for such questions did not arise.

In 2012, a Chennai-based news website wrote about Kohinoor, Delhi’s first woman electric rickshaw driver. These emission-free vehicles were introduced in 2010 in a city that is now the world’s most polluted. A minimum of 10 rupees is charged from passengers as against an auto rickshaw that would ask four times more for the same distance. Kohinoor, who was previously working at a school with a salary of 5,000 rupees, said she hoped to double her earnings in her new profession.

Last month, around 30 e-rickshaws were flagged off from Madipur, close to my house in west Delhi. These vehicles are equipped with GPRS and CCTV cameras. The women drivers have been trained in traffic rules, road safety and martial arts for six months. The smart rickshaws, as they are called, have been financed by India’s first women’s bank Bharatiya Mahila Bank.

When I think of the anonymous driver who dropped me home that evening, I also think of the gross magnitude of assumptions we have about life. I also think of a senior colleague – sorry sir, bitching about you on a public platform, but I will also keep you anonymous – who once gave me an unsolicited cricket update. Would he do the same to a female colleague? Why would he assume I follow cricket?

Thinking of Mehdi Hassan’s ghazals in Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village

On weekends and in my blogs, I often return to Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village. It’s one of those party jaunts you’d go to get drunk, show yourself off, maybe get hooked up, dance till you drop and blow your money over food that is simply below average.

I do neither of the above, I’d like to believe. At 28, I prefer having home-cooked food with friends and then head out for some drinks, followed by a long walk before you call it a night and before you admire some fine bodies, with disproportionately lighter brains.

One Friday night, we went to The Project in Hauz Khas Village. It’s an al fresco pub right across the parking area and at entrance of a park. A dimly lit passage takes you to a seating area surrounded by trees. I ordered a virgin mojito, which was nice. So were the guests around, who thankfully kept their conversations to themselves for a change.

After paying three hundred rupees for a glass of some mint leaves, crushed ice and soda water, we walked back to the main lane. I could see Delhi’s pot-bellied party poopers standing outside bars and cafes in their khakhis. It was time to shut shop, the cops thundered.

Soon, I bumped into a friend. After making some polite conversation, he invited me to a karaoke that sounded exceptionally discordant to me. The singers were howling into the microphone, it seemed to me, while trying to outdo the heavy music. A group of boys and girls happily contorted their faces as one of them took a groupie. And then it was time to smash each other’s face with chocolate truffle cake.

As the village began emptying itself of people, I found myself stuck in a phenomenal traffic jam that stretched until the main road.

My karaoke friend, mostly used to performing at bars, broke into a Mehdi Hassan ghazal. He had training in Hindustani classical for many years, he told me. He began –

baat karni mujhe mushkil kabhi aisi to na thi
jaisi ab hai teri mehfil kabhi aisi to na thi

le gaya chhiin ke kaun aaj teraa sabr-o-qaraar
beqaraari tujhe ai dil kabhi aisii to na thi

chashm-e-qaatil meri dushman thi hamesha lekin
jaise ab ho ga_ii qaatil kabhii aisii to na thii

un kii aa.Nkho.n ne Khudaa jaane kiyaa kyaa jaaduu
ke tabiiyat merii maa_il kabhii aisii to na thii

kyaa sabab tuu jo bigadtaa hai “Zafar” se har baar
Khu teri huur-e-shamaa_il kabhi aisi to na thi

[Translation here]

He sang of passion, of love and separation and those emotional twangs Urdu poetry is famous for. He sang as he navigated through a maze of honking cars full of drunk people, not allowing himself to be distracted. It was a moving and sincere attempt at singing a classic. I still have the notes ringing in my ear – “le gaya chhiin ke kaun aaj teraa sabr-o-qaraar
beqaraari tujhe ai dil kabhi aisii to na thi”.

The ghazal was written by India’s last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, who was more interested in poetry, dance and music than running the affairs of Hindustan. No wonder India fell into the hands of the British. He’s regarded as one of the most popular poets in Urdu literature. His grave is in what was then called Rangoon, present day Myanmar.

It was past one o’ clock. Mother called to check my arrival time. I said I’ll be home in an hour. But it didn’t matter as I found myself lost in the ghazal, even though it didn’t even remotely come close to Mehdi Hassan’s style, who made it one of his signature compositions. It didn’t have to. The words and the sincerity of my friend were enough.

The ghazal, an Arabic word which means talking to women, has its origins in the 10th century Persia, now called Iran. It came to India from the 12th century onwards as the Mughals brought their Iranian cultural influence, writes K C Kanda in “Masterpieces of Urdu Ghazal – from 17th century to 20th century.” [You can read an excerpt here]

So being an audience to a ghazal, even though impromptu, is not just a celebration but also an expression of mourning a sensuous art of singing that is now defunct.

Zafar, who witnessed the loss of his own life and with it that of the Mughal empire, wrote about the same theme in these lines:

Lagtaa nahin hai dil meraa ujday dayaar mein
kis ki bani hai aalam-e-naa_paayedaar mein

kah do in hasraton se kahin aur jaa basein
itani jagah kahaan hai dil-e-daagdaar mein

umr-e-daraaz maang kar laaye they chaar din
do arzoo mein kaT gaye do intezaar mein

kitnaa hai bad_naseeb “Zafar” dafn key liye
do gaz zamin bhi na mili kuu-e-yaar mein

[Translation here]

When in Punjabi Bagh, dig into Indonesia’s Gado Gado salad

Once a settlement colony after India’s partition in 1947, Punjabi Bagh is now a thriving locality of ridiculously ostentatious display of wealth, power and consumerism. So, it’s oxymoronic to have an austere Indonesian salad in an area many would visit for butter chicken, kebab or sharaab.

The Club Road, for example, is a hotchpotch of houses, gyms, restaurants, bars, cafes, departmental stores, tandoor kiosks, flower shops, coffee shops, and chemist shops. There’s a big jogger’s park. And there is The Punjabi Bagh Club. The road also accommodates west Delhi’s rowdy car and bike owners, who actually belong in the back seat or the prison cell.

So one fine evening, I shed my anti-Punjabi Bagh bias, and went to Starbucks with a friend, who was visiting from south Delhi. Inside, the noise of traffic was effectively blocked, with people on the street looking like mute robots.

After a cold beverage, we walked around – I found myself tour-guiding my friend through Punjabi Bagh. He did seem fascinated by the chaos, a sharp contrast to the sleepy lanes of Chittaranjan Park, his home.

Screengrab of Backyard cafe from Zomato website (https://www.zomato.com/ncr/the-backyard-punjabi-bagh-new-delhi)

We finally decided to grab a table at Backyard café, as per my sister’s recommendation. She also suggested Gastropub, a few metres ahead, which sounded more about a medical problem than food.

We ordered two virgin mojitos, a vegetarian manchow soup and a quirky-sounding Gado Gado salad. It’s a popular Indonesian eat, made of steamed vegetables and peanut sauce.

I relished every bit of it. It’s a simple, yet filling salad that thankfully didn’t come with a pungent dressing, a staple ingredient in salads these days. And it turned out to be a full meal for me.

“This is a mega salad that has its roots in Sundanese cooking and has now become the typical street food of Jakarta in Indonesia. Gado-gado means medley or potpourri, which refers to all the different seasonal veggies and ingredients that are used. Tossed with the most incredible peanut dressing, and served with something crunchy on the side, such as prawn crackers, it’s a winning combination,” writes chef James Oliver in his blog. You should check out his recipe too.

If you like salads and food that’s not spicy and don’t mind a mildly sweet taste, you must give it a try. It can be easily prepared at home. You could also add rice, eggs, cooked tofu or tempe.

Delhi’s Ritwik Sarkar makes it once every two months or so. He learnt the recipe when he moved to Indonesia in 2008 to take up a new job. After four years he returned to India with a fondness for the salad. He also got married to an Indonesian girl, who helped him “hone” his Gado Gado skills.

Being a Bengali, who’re known for their food and rapacious appetite, has Ritwik ever added the local flavour to Gado Gado? “I have never tried to add Bengali flavour to Gado Gado. But now that you told me, I may try it. Perhaps adding a tinge of mustard oil to the peanut sauce dressing,”

That sounds lip-smacking. I have had the mustard curry fish at City of Joy in CR Park and it’s a refreshing break from the staple daal, sabzi or butter chicken. I look for forward to Ritwik’s Bengali-Indonesian salad, which we will call — Godo Godo.

A spicy debut at Delhi’s Potbelly Café

If you have a pot belly and hate spicy food, chances are you’re on the right path to lose some extra kilos. But there’s one condition – you would have to visit The Potbelly Rooftop Café in south Delhi’s Shahpur Jat area.

Apparently famous for serving Bihari cuisine, the café makes food that is uniformly spicy. The curries are indistinct and have a certain sameness cooked into them. And mind you, I have had better litti chokha, three years ago at the National Book Fair in old Delhi.

I have been debating with friends and colleagues whether Bihari food should be spicy or not and I get different answers from all of them, including some who belong to Patna. “There’s probably nothing called Bihari food as such, except litti chokha or some snack like that. The food isn’t supposed to be very spicy and usually isn’t very different from what we eat here in Delhi,” one of them, who chose to remain anonymous, told me.

But chances are if you cringe at the taste of that little bit extra salt in your food, you would go back home on an empty stomach – just what your nutritionist ordered you to do. Isn’t it? Or, you’d go to sleep with some Apple lemonade and sweet lassi rolling in your bowels, like I did. I also topped it with a homemade ladoo before brushing my teeth. Thank god for mother’s obsession with making sweets at home!

So, here’s what ALL we ordered –

*Baggia basket – rice flour stuffed with spiced channa dal tempered with spices, served tomato chokha and coriander chutney

*Litti chokha – wheat balls stuffed with sattu (spiced gram flour), channa dal, aubergine and potato mash

*Mutton chaamp – thick gravy served with rice and boondi raita

*Madhubani thali – traditional aloo-chana dal sabzi with sattu pooris, onion pooris, oil pickle, teesi chutney and aubergine raita

*Bhojpuri thali – paneer and potato vegetable stew with sattu pooris, onion pooori, pickle, teesi chutney and aubergine

The restaurant is mostly indoors, where we sat. The rooftop section overlooks the Asiad village. There is no alcohol to serve.

Here’s the restaurant in pictures –

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On my way back, as I hailed an auto-rickshaw, I saw these shadows converging on a wall. It made for an interesting photo, I thought.

But my evening began with something more colourful – before it turned spicy – with a walk through the narrow lanes of the Shahpur Jat village, which has many boutiques such as these –