Sculpting stillness in Alibag

A visit to the museum of Indian sculptor Vinayak Pandurang Karmarkar can be a surreal experience. Located in a sleepy, narrow lane of Alibag, a coastal town south of Mumbai, this permanent museum showcases sculptures of famous and common people, in different moods and garbs. The first floor of Karmarkar’s house has been converted into the museum, called Karmarkar Shilpalaya. The property was deserted, except for an old caretaker woman who led us into the museum.

The property’s lawns greeted us with some of Karmarkar’s works draped in plastic sheets because of the heavy monsoon. As we climbed up the stairs, we walked into a corridor lined with more than a dozen sculptures. The corridor led to a large, sunny hall housing the full collection. We spotted Mahatma Gandhi, Lokmanya Tilak, PC Ray, CR Das, Chatrapati Shivaji, and many members of the Karmarkar’s clan, including the artist’s “self-sculpture”.

The museum was shrouded in stillness, accentuated by the overall serenity of Alibag, a popular weekend getaway for Mumbai’s residents. Despite the ambient stillness, the sculptures evoked a living quality, and perhaps that is where lies Karmarkar’s mastery over the form of sculpture.

In 1964, the Alibag-born artist received the Padma Shri, one of India’s highest civilian honours awarded by the central government. The award citation recognised him as one of India’s outstanding sculptors, whose repertoire includes a 14-feet high bronze statue of Shivaji in Pune.

A student of the Bombay School of Art and the Royal Academy of Art in London, Karmarkar toured Europe to study ancient and modern Western art, the citation added. His sculptures have been acquired by private collectors in England, Germany and the U.S. He died in 1967.

Despite being a well-known artist, there are only a handful independent blogs about his art. A Wikipedia entry has a brief bio-data, there are no news articles either. Like its obscure location, the museum has been reduced to a tourist spot on Alibag’s map.

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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?

Why banning porn in India sucks?

I don’t remember the last year I accessed porn, not only because we have a common laptop and iPad at home or simply due to lack of private space, but I have just not had the time. That’s fine by me, but the same may not be true for those who have a lot of time and inclination to watch it, now that the government has blocked hundreds of porn websites.

[Here’s an exhaustive list of adult websites blocked by India. And boy! the research is stupendous]

During a question and answer session with a famous spiritual guru, a follower – who was most probably a yoga practitioner also – asked a question about sexual desire. What does one do about it? Does one have sex? Curb it? Do it? Ignore it?

The master, in his characteristic gentle and sweet style, said it is a natural desire, so why should it bother one so much? Except, he added, don’t watch porn; it makes you hornier, he seemed to suggest.

Of course I don’t follow his advice. But the fact is sex – like eating, sleeping, breathing or shitting – is a natural desire. Why must you curb anything that is natural? And to connect morality and decency with it is even more bizarre.

If you cut your desires, you will spill more blood. Banning access to porn will not “cure” people of their sexual desires. It will not, we all know, free our deeply patriarchal and misogynistic society of sexual crimes.

Anyone who has spent even a few minutes on Delhi’s roads or in the metro will know how men or boys look at women or girls, or just how some males look at other males. They’re already frustrated. They don’t spare their own, their mothers, sisters or daughters. They’re not scared of the law either. Maybe they are. Maybe they don’t care. Does that stop them from committing acts of sexual violence?

Recall the BBC documentary of the Delhi gang rape, which the government also banned, and those chilling statements supporting such offences, including by the lawyers.

Banning porn will not change the way how the mind of such people works.

And of course there will be those, driven insane by lust, who will find a way of still accessing these sites. And what would you do about those countless DVDs that are available in the market? Or brothels? Or spas offering special services?

And what about those frightening stares? Or that “accidental” brushing of hands in bus or metro? How would you ban that?

Then you must ban sleeveless shirts, hot pants or anything that has a deep neck. Ban everything. Cover people in black robes. And get rid of that phallus, for god’s sake, that the state cannot handle.

Jai Hind!

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.

Being a God in India

I am a believer in a very private way, but in India you don’t have to be rooted in a particular faith to be aware of the omnipresence of God or gods. They’re everywhere, millions of them. You see them being worshipped in temples, on streets, inside houses, at lavish mass events and at remote pilgrimages. They exist in discriminatory practices of their dear devotees and in protests against their depiction or interpretation in the arts. They are also a source of riches – and exploitation – for many.

(These days, the city administrations are sticking pictures of gods and goddesses on the walls to keep people at bay who tend to urinate there.)

But faith can be an ennobling experience as well, especially if you visit the largest religious congregation on earth, as I did in 2013 in the northern Indian town of Allahabad. It’s where the Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati rivers meet.

Photo by – Ankush Arora

In order to wash away a lifetime of their sins, millions of Hindus took the holy dip in the river, an opportunity that comes only once in twelve years. Walking in a sea of humanity, I witnessed the power of faith that made devotees brave the freezing cold to bathe in the holy river, like this man:

Photo by – Ankush Arora

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Photo by - Ankush Arora
Photo by – Ankush Arora

I shot this picture at a dhaba in Delhi. A dhaba is a makeshift restaurant that is mostly found on highways, an affordable eatery for many a traveler, particularly truck drivers. Dhabas also exist in every nook and corner of the country. Their popularity knows no bounds for their spicy mix of Indian curries, and breads.

A humble sight, this, with pictures of gods and a clock hung against a green wall appearing to me a portrait of sincere piety, expected to bring prosperity in the restaurant owner’s business. The goddess sitting on the lotus is Lakshmi, the bringer of wealth. In the centre is Sai Baba, a spiritual guru believed to be the incarnation of God. Next to him is Lord Ganesha, Lakshmi’s adopted son. He is the first god to be worshipped at the start of any auspicious event.

It was past 10 p.m. I picked up my order and left, but the image of the green wall shall stay with me forever. Amen!

(In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “In Good Faith.”)

Photo Album – Dastkar’s South Asian handicrafts festival

About two years ago, when I bought my first DSLR camera I read a blog that said deleting images was a bad idea.

“I would be VERY careful of what I delete in terms of images.  Yes, get rid of those clearly flawed images. But the rest, even the ones that don’t strike you as worth processing? Give them some time to age. You may find they are a fine wine just waiting to be uncorked,” wrote New York-based photographer in this blog post.

That makes sense, doesn’t it? Sometimes your pictures don’t appeal to you. Mostly it happens when you’re back from a shoot and can’t figure out whether what you’ve got is good, bad, average, below average or pure crap. I’ve had days, when I failed to understand why I clicked what I clicked. And yet, looking back at some of those images after you’ve forgotten about them can be useful, such as a photo walk through a crafts bazaar.

Surfing through my archive, I found pictures from a South Asian handicrafts festival held in Delhi last year. The show was organised by Dastkar, a non-profit organisation devoted to the betterment of craftspeople.

The NGO came into being thirty years ago to support India’s craftsmen and craftswomen, most of them living in villages. “(India is) … a country where the craft sector is second only to agriculture in providing employment,” according to the website.

As of today, Dastkar works with more than 350 craft-groups and small producers, a relationship that helps thousands of Indian artisans from all over the country.

It recently organised a winter festival in Delhi, featuring artisans from Kashmir – an opportunity for them to regain means of their livelihood after floods hit the Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir in September.

These images illustrate handicrafts made by artisans from South Asia. The tea cosy from Afghanistan is beautiful and vivid in its clarity of design. The kitchenware from Gujarat stood out in its austerity and simplicity of craft. And of course, there were more handbangs and earrings than anything else. In the food corner, aloo masala bhat, a snack from Maharashtra, proved to be more sumptuous than the regular biryani, ‘momos’ or kebabs.

tumblr_mserndrzzP1sgur89o9_r1_1280 tumblr_mserndrzzP1sgur89o8_r1_1280 tumblr_mserndrzzP1sgur89o10_r1_1280(You can follow Dastkar on Facebook)