Mumbai’s Iconic CSMVS Museum Has A Student Ambassador

I had a lovely Sunday afternoon at the Sir J.J. School of Art campus where students of various streams had displayed their annual course work. Students’ presentations — sculpture, installations, paintings, sketches, drawings, architecture models, merchandise etc — were kept open for visitor feedback. Be it pencil portraits, watercolor drawings, miniature designs or brass work, one could sense (and meet) young twenty-something creative minds which had put their best foot forward to express contemporary realities. While some works were uni-dimensional Nature paintings that evoked wonder, others were three-dimensional wood, pottery and clay forms that invited a deeper inquiry. I have shared three samples below to show the diverse range.

Having witnessed students’ ideation in myriad mediums, I turned to the Applied Art gallery where around two hundred small and big visual communication projects attracted my attention. To begin with, the first and second year typography students had displayed their calligraphic skills. Nature photography and indoor camerawork was also commendable. But the most eye catching were the advertising campaigns which students had designed for their ‘clients’ which ranged from Hajmola lozenges to Zomato Food Delivery. Some of the ads tended to spread a social message. For example, the Parle G ad condemned child labour, whereas the ad for Samsung Mobile warned against unmonitored cell phone use by minors.

Samsung Ad

Of the total twenty-four ad campaigns that were on display, one of them had special relevance for me. Fourth year Applied Art student Shivam Bharti (21) had chosen to created a campaign for a Mumbai museum, the most visited majestic Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya located in the Kala Ghoda precinct. The student wanted to drive attention to the enriching museum experience, in general, and to the CSMVS in particular. I found it a rare choice. In a country where heritage museums, national parks and libraries do not enjoy robust patronage (despite minimal entry fees and student discounts) students like Bharti bring home the need to make these institutions sellable and engaging.

Museums teach us to look back; they inculcate an interest in past civilizations; they help us to perceive the ‘present‘ with a perspective; they are rich formative forces for students of history. And yet they are not as frequented as one would have wished them to be.

Mumbai has around thirty museums worth our time and attention, the most expansive and extensive being the CSMVS which houses over fifty thousand artefacts. It is often impossible to cover all its permanent galleries in a single day span; its Natural History section offers several interactive activities. I have recently attended one of their taxidermi workshops which is a great learning for all age groups. They have an amusing mix of exhibits of ancient Indian history along with objects from foreign lands.

I am so glad that a J J School applied art student realised the need to popularise the CSMVS in his own small way, at a distinctively small but commendable scale. As part of the assignment, Bharti photographed key artefacts of the museum during repeated visits; he also created videos for social media amplification which arouse popular interest in the CSMVS.

Shivam Bharti, mentored by famous adman Gopi Kukde and faculty Avinash Gharde, has created eighteen frames which demonstrate the enlivening possibilities in the CSMVS. The copy alongside ad visuals shows Bharti‘s marketing skills, which he has put to innovative use for the museum cause. Here are a few samples:

Bharti takes a cue from the museum’s innate popularity
He puts the onus on you! A direct question from a well-meaning Mumbaikar!
Do you think museums are boring?

His use of the Mahishasurmardini image is indeed imaginative. Referring to the typical middle class fear of the ‘system‘ he asks us if we have the right to praise a Goddess, if we can’t even dare to register a consumer complaint!

He appeals us to wear the helmet! Again putting to use a headgear showcased in one of CSMVS‘ artefacts, the applied art student makes us think about our current day priorities!

Do wear the helmet and do visit the CSMVS!

Shivam Bharti’s take on museums is inspiring; where he lacks in English communication skills, he very well makes up in his well-meaning art. As he hones his art and betters his copyrighting skills and enters the industry, he promises to take on similar socially vital communication projects. Meanwhile, I take your leave, only to be back with newer collectibles from my thought haversack!

Remembering Satyadev Dubey

The young and not-so-young gather every year to celebrate Satyadev Dubey’s life, work and deep passion for theatre, writes theatre director Sunil Shanbag while unfailingly inviting Mumbaikars for the Remembering Dubey event at Prithvi Theatre today.  Shanbag celebrates the veteran’s ever-alive spirit by presenting varied productions, including Tamasha Theatre’s Urdu Hai Jiska Naam – a showcase of letters, character sketches, verse, satire and humor in Urdu language.  It is a thoughtful tribute to Dubeyji who enjoyed playing with multi-lingual flavors – A first-class first Masters degree-holder in English literature who did theatre is Urdu, Hindi, English, Marathi and Gujarati, not to forget varied renderings of Girish Karnad’s Kannada plays he zealously staged!

Satyadev Dubey

It is said in jest, but it stands true in all seriousness, that a Hindi-speaking Maharashtrian’s experimental works did tremendous service to the Marathi language.  Very rarely does a director delve into the possibilities of the spoken word, as much as Dubeyji (1936-2011) did.  He had the zeal of a linguist, which often turned his rehearsals into language appreciation sessions.  For him, the drama of language took precedence over fast-paced action or other histrionics.  As late Dr Shreeram Lagoo recalled in his autobiography, Dubey thought beyond restrictive boundaries of languages.  He was ready to go to any extremes to render a production in another language, for the sheer joy of the experience.  He did not need a commercial reason for the experiment.  Dr Lagoo said Dubey came searching for him on the sets in Shivaji Mandir and asked him to play the male lead in the Marathi version of Mohan Rakesh’s Aadhe Adhure.  Dubey was doing the Hindi version with a set cast, but he thought the play was important enough to be brought in the language of the state.  Lagoo recounts how Dubey also entrusted him with the task of perfecting a fellow actor’s Marathi.  He did not want the language to suffer at any cost.  As the rehearsals of Aadhe Adhure progressed in the famous Walchand terrace space in Mumbai, Dubey’s Marathi also bettered and he started catching Marathi speech mistakes, which took the cast by surprise.

In another instance, Dr Lagoo recalled the unflinching support he received from Dubey for the mounting of Vijay Tendulkar’s explosive play Gidhade.  When the censor board objected to 150-odd words in the play which allegedly attributed respectable society members with vulture-like qualities,  Dubey (producer) and Lagoo (director-actor), ignored the censor board and presented the play in its entirety.  They faced the board in repeated meetings (when the board realized their cuts had not been executed) and argued effectively in favor of the expletives.  The scrutiny board maintained that bad words in the play were embarrassing to the audience.  But Dubey was successful in telling the press (and the larger theatergoing world) that words lose meaning when pulled out of the immediate cultural context.  Gidhade had 35 shows in the year 1971, which is a defining statement in itself.  If Dubeyji fell in love with a script, he could move mountains to defend it.

 Another instance of his deep internalization of a script was when he was enchanted by the language of Hindi play Andha Yug written by Dharamveer Bharati in 1954.  So moving was the impact of the play on the audience which Dubey directed,  that Bharati himself was taken aback.  The play was originally written for the radio.  As the lore goes, Dubeyji would stand spontaneously in social dos and get-togethers to recite the soliloquies and speeches from the play.  He performed a solo show of the play in Delhi. 

Eight years have passed after Dubeyji’s departure, but he remains alive through such anecdotes of contemporary theatre practice.  I have had the good fortune of interviewing him at various junctures.  In each interview, he has shared something memorable that has stayed with me.  Most interestingly, the sharing was not necessarily restricted to the theatre.  In November 1999, I met him in his Bandra flat when he had just been honored with the Kalidas Samman.  His mood was reflective and admittedly disoriented.  He said he was not sure of what he wanted to do henceforth, especially since doing theatre was getting too expensive in Mumbai.  He was also unhappy that he could not be part of the larger social movements of the day.  Having returned from London, he was ready with three scripts, which he had penned overseas in an isolated and somewhat penurious state.   One was Bus Itta Sa which he wanted to do with Amrish Puri, which remained a dream as the actor passed away; the other was It Could Only Happen in London, which was staged at Prithvi in 2000.  I wrote about it Indian Express, which was another opportunity for a chat with Dubeyji.  He recalled his time in London and admitted that he never thought we would be able to write from outside India. 

In 2008, Prithvi Theatre dedicated the annual festival in his name; in 2011, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan.  He spoke energetically on each occasion for the interviews I did for Mumbai Mirror.  He said people cannot lose their patience if they are doing theatre because it is a super-long-term investment.  He was referring to artistes-directors who had left theatre in search of better pastures.  In the succeeding years, I met Dubeyji at sundry occasions and of course during the shows at Awishkar in Mahim.  His presence was reassuring in some strange way — the fierceness of his love for theatre the most indescribable.

Sir Ian McKellen On Stage: With Tolkien, Shakespeare, Others And The Audience!

The feeling of being in London is unmatched. The excitement can double when one catches up with the city’s theatre hub which has a positive warm vibe, irrespective of the winter temperatures. The sheer variety of plays – Lion King, The Mousetrap, Waitress, Tina, Noises off – fills you with a deep sense of awe. But my joy knew no bounds when I got one of the best dress circle seats for the long-running houseful Sir Ian McKellen show at the Harold Pinter Theatre near Leicester Square. The show’s name was enough to set the expectations: Ian McKellen on Stage — With Tolkein, Shakespeare, Others and You! It was nothing but good luck to watch a legend in person, and that too in a one-man play that was curated to celebrate his eightieth birthday. I couldn’t have asked for more.

Even as I entered the theatre hall, the tone was set by the Ian McKellen merchandise, posters and signage. “The money from your ticket is helping to transform lives,” read the declaration. The theatre had listed ten-odd charities which were being supported through a portion of the box office collection. The charities were companies and outfits working towards sustaining theatre and other arts for niche audiences – Mousetrap Theatre Projects, Kings Head Theatre Move, Royal Welsh College, English Touring Theatre, Ramps on the Moon, U Can Productions, Streetwise Opera etc. It was welcoming to see that the revenue generated by the Ian McKellen show was going to deserving initiatives. In fact, the star of the evening was himself involved in collecting money from the audience for various causes. I came to know from the repeat audience that Sir McKellen will stand at the foyer exit, after the play, to receive small-big-moderate sums for the causes that he cares for. Therefore, I was excited to get a face-to-face with one of the most acclaimed stage-television-film actors of our times.

But at this point, I begin with the beginning. McKellen stepped on to the stage from the aisle, almost as if he spontaneously decided to talk to a large gathering about his life, career, highs, lows, a childhood backdropped against the World War II, and every other private-public aspect that can be possibly shared. He took us through his working class roots in Lancashire and Wigan where he introduced us to parents who took him for a play at age three. Though devout practitioners of Protestant Christian faith, the father (engineer-preacher) encouraged his son’s liking for the arts in Bolton school, Manchester. McKellen lost his parents in the formative years. His sister was a considerable influence, as she too acted-directed in Shakespeare plays. We see a young McKellen’s growth as an open-minded theatre-inclined person who later goes to Cambridge on a scholarship to study English literature and then, in 1961, adopts theatre as a vocation.

The play doesn’t indulge in mechanical mentions of awards, honours, knighthood and accolades that the actor has won over the years, which are many in number. In fact McKellen is chatty to the core, which makes the show entertaining with peppy anecdotes. For instance, he shares his first erection while watching the King’s Rhapsody. Another memorable aside is his anger and embarrassment over his name being perpetually misspelt. He shares the various wrong ways in which McKellen is rendered, which is surprising because he is a national treasure and a popular global icon associated with various Hollywood hits.

The lanky 80-year-young performer treats the audience to short snippets of his popular roles. He starts the show with his Gandalf from the Lord Of The Rings. With his sword firmly in place, he calls a member of the audience to come to the stage and handle its heft. Later, he becomes the pantomime dame Widow Twankey who hurls sweet candy at the audience. Then he breaks into a Hamlet, later does a Romeo, and also Jaques (As You Like it) who convinces us that ‘all the world is a stage.’

Theatre Supporting Charities

The McKellen show lives up to the title. It is as much about the thespian as it is about others around him — family, mentors, directors, co actors and lifelong friends. It is about the actor’s coming to terms with his homosexuality and the defining time when he came out of the closet. Despite being so deeply personal, never is the narrative self-soaked, credit for which is due to the actor himself and his director Sean Mathias too, who also happens to be McKellen’s former partner. With just a few props—an armchair, a trunk, a hat, a stack of Shakespeare plays, the show delineates a vast cultural landscape. The protagonist sits on a box with stickers from different venues to which he has travelled last year — it looks like a fairytale magical set, and yet low-maintenance.

The latter half of the show is an ode to the Bard. He invites the audience to call out names of their favourite Shakespeare plays. All members of the audience respond with enthusiasm. While one shouts Measure for Measure, the other squeals Pericles, one follows with Merchant of Venice, another asks for a Macbeth soliloquy. Each request is accomodated and with each title comes an Ian McKellen story or a memory. Can there be a better way to honour the Bard and bring home the lucidity of his verse and prose. And who could have been a better advocate and ambassador for Shakespeare than a sensitive performer-British public intellectual like Sir McKellen!

As I came out of the theatre, of course after putting my contribution into the great actor’s yellow collection bucket, I was wondering if the show will ever come to India. Second, which Indian actor can sculpt a similar show? There are many great Indian powerhouse talents whose lives have been grand. We have no dearth of artists who work in different genres and lend themselves to stage, television and cinema. It will be rewarding to see one great life unfold on stage, much like Sir Ian McKellen’s does!

Useless Objects? Do You Have Any?

Hello, I return with a story about useless things. This weekend, I attended a workshop titled Secrets of Useless Things at Mumbai’s Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan. Admittedly, it was also a three-day window to catch up with South Mumbai – an opportunity to visit the Jehangir Art gallery where Subhash Awachat’s Sacred Garden is on. The Terrace Gallery also had a wonderful photo exhibition of Jagdish Agarwal called Zen Moments. The fountain pen exhibition at neighboring Coomarswamy Hall was another immersive world in itself.

But the workshop by Chinese Documentary theatre artist Zhao Chuan conquered my weekend. Chuan had flown in from Shanghai. He was brought by two other theatre practitioners who designed-curated the three-day experience – Anuja Ghosalkar and Kai Tucchman.

Shanghai-based theatre artist Zhao Chuan seen with Drama Queen Anuja Ghosalkar and Kai Tucchman

The workshop was part of their efforts to build audiences, pedagogy and new practitioners for documentary theatre in India. They are working towards Asia’s first festival of documentary theatre in December 2020 – trying to see how documentary theatre (an unconventional practice that is premised on use of real life situations as source material) can find new dimensions in India. They are trying to see if real life players (though untrained) can be woven into the practice as `experts’ to recount contemporary realities, and also if trained actors can be made part of the process — a composite learning evolving journey.

Moments From The Workshop

Coming to Zhao Chuan’s classroom at Mumbai’s Max Mueller Bhavan, one was intrigued by the rather metaphysical question that was central to the workshop.  Chuan, a believer in socially-engaged theatre, has been the founding member of Shanghai based theatre collective Grass Stage since 2005.  He has presented his idea of theatre in international art residencies and collaborations.  As part of the initial instruction, he asked the 25-odd participants to bring one or two ‘useless’ things along with themselves.  The brief excited me.  What is useless in my life? I started thinking. In fact, that was the aim of the workshop.  In an increasingly acquisitive world, what are our possessions? How much do we invest in these objects? Do we really buy these items because of a need? Or are these items acquired out of an inner urge to own a volume? How do we cut down this urge?  And can all this add a dimension to the theatre we perform?  Can these objects be source material? These questions were the focal points of the workshop.

A Sampling of Useless Things

To give you a sampling of what I carried  on three days of the workshop – an old mauve Lakme lipstick, a used face cream tube, a copper bracelet and a broken hair clip.  These were some of my favorite things, at one point. Gradually, they lost their significance; some of the objects were at the fag end of their shelf life; and one of them changed color due to air pollution.  Also the items were replaceable and not even meant for life-long company.  Or is it that they became  throwaway material for no reason?  Obviously, how could a kada, which was bought after a friend recommended use of copper on the body, lose its value? Why was no effort made to get it repolished? These and several other similar questions were posed by the workshop to each participant.  Pencils, pens, Christmas decorations, water bottles, erasers, crushed sugarcane, adapters, wires, tapes, a torn note, hair bands, invite cards, pigeon feathers, batteries, you name it … and the workshop had those many ‘useless’ objects.

May be I have your discarded Object!

 Zhao Chuan asked for each participant’s introduction through the prism of the referenced object – the back story associated with the object, the gradual loss of value and the subsequent decision to discard the object. Later, we were asked to pick up objects (from the pool) that aroused our curiosity.  What would happen if someone else chose our discarded object?  Will that rekindle our interest in the object? 

For three days, we continued deliberations around useless objects, keeping them at the (literally placed centrally too ) center of the discussion. We had to finally present the back stories in short two-minute skits.  Some skits turned out better and served as cathartic moments; whereas some seemed underdeveloped.  But the purpose was served: How much do we acquire in terms of objects and does that speak about ourselves?  How do we perceive the objects we own? Do they shape our lives and our mindsets? Much like how our human company defines us, do these objects also define us? Do our discarded objects have an afterlife? Have we re-purposed them, so as to test the possibilities? It was a reflective moment to assess the `dramatic’ afterlife of some objects definitely – my mauve lipstick was one of them! 

Forest Flavour

It was an enjoyable treat, to state the least. I was invited to a Wild Food Festival organised at Vile Parle which turned out to be more wholesome than what I had expected. Apart from fulfilling its basic promise of bringing wildly exciting food to the table, it was more of a Sunday well-spent in the company of food activists, agripreneurs, farmers, chefs, food grain experimenters, snack chain operators, journalists-turned-food bloggers, food enthusiasts, and most importantly children (of varying ages) who tasted a zapping variety of 25 unheard-of vegetables which even their parents hadn’t known about. Phodshi, Gharbandi, Kakad, Kurdu, Keni, Khurashani, Chai Vel, Pandha, Chichudi — vegetables whose names are not part of the everyday lexicon, and neither are their nutrients known to the urban consumer.

Food Quiz: Name The Plant

I have attended many organic food ‘festivals’, where the spread is limited to ragi-jowar bhakris, bamboo shoots and mahua confectionaries. Social media is put to innovative use to boost the visual appeal of such fests. That’s precisely why I was not sure of how many actual varieties I was to encounter at the Wild Food festival which promised to showcase native cuisine of Maharashtra from the Palghar (Jawhar taluka) and Ahmednagar (Akole taluka) tribal belts.

The festival, fortunately, lived up to its claim of showcasing 85-odd vegetables (a limited part of which was kept for initial tasting), of which a chunk was used in the lunch served to those who signed up for the experience! OOO Farms, BAIF and OrganicWe deserve kudos for getting the attention of 250-odd Mumbaikars on a rainy Sunday morning. Also they should be congratulated for bringing in women cooks (Warlis, Koknas and Mahadev Kolis) who not just prepared the delicious meal, but also spoke on the occasion about their positive bond with Mumbai.

Thank The Farmer

Apart from getting inhabitants who hail from the tribal region, the festival was also successful in roping in other stakeholders who work along parallel lines. Most importantly, Sanjay Patil who is the thematic program executive at BAIF shared rich stories. He works on the indigenous crop diversity and wild food resources conservation program in Jawhar, Akole, Junnar, Etapalli, Dhadgaon and Kudal. He spoke eloquently on the need for people to value the native wisdom of the farming community. He also advocated the urgent need to build on the existing indigenous knowledge, and to lessen the gap between urban and rural consumers. The super-approachable and forever-sharing Patil is a great asset for anyone seeking new beginnings in food conservation matters.

I was happy to meet actress-friend Geetanjali Kulkarni who works with husband (actor Atul Kulkarni) in the Wada taluka, as part of Quest, a research-action organisation concentrating on enhancing elementary education in rural pockets. Her core work in Wada complements the sentiment of the Wild Food Festival. Similarly, Satyajit Hange of Two Brothers Organic Farm and star chef Thomas Zacharias of Bombay Canteen added their insights. Hange stressed the need to bring the farmer at the centre of the discourse; he also shared his story of raising a farm at Indapur (Pune district) which produces organic fruits and breeds indigenous cows. Zacharias spoke about his efforts to blend the native produce in modern-day urban snacks and meals. His combination of shevli (often termed as toxic and itching) with kakad evoked awe. Similarly, he said some vegetables which are slightly bitter in taste, should not be written off immediately. Bitterness can be rounded off with a concoction that helps in retaining the nutrient, he pointed out. I was tempted to go for the Mohua toffees he mentioned, as an alternative to chocolates. The Mohua halwa and sweets served in the lunch, however, put me on a new ‘high’!

A Halwa Like None Other
Plate Full: Don’t Miss The Halwa And The Sahyadri Black Rice Kheer

The best part of the Wild Food Festival was the fact that it was not just about eating exotically-named relatively unknown vegetables made by tribal women, but the festival encouraged a sharing that was deeper. It aimed at awareness of the vegetation that Mumbaikars do not necessarily factor in. If we travel a few kilometres away from the city (passing through villages in adjacent districts like Pune, Nasik, Palghar, Thane, Raigad) we can experience the natural local produce, some of which was showcased at the Wild Food Festival. Many of these vegetables (ran bhaji) are not consciously grown or farmed. They grow wildly, without much care. But they are rich in nutrients — some highly fibrous, some suffused with antioxidants and some calcium-rich. We cannot be unmindful of the seasonal riches we have been blessed with!

For me, the festival had another personal dimension — I reconnected with my college friend Shubha Prabhu Satam, who has now turned into a food writer-columnist-experimenter. Her instagram account Masala Maharani reflects the wondrous recipes of her kitchen. Vivacious as ever, brimming with energy, Satam has done well in bringing many seasonal wild veggies into daily eating regimen. A fan of most wild vegetables, she particularly revisits the preparations of Phodshi, Khurashani and Keni Kurdu, especially the chicken stir fry (Thai style) using Keni Kurdu leaves! Below is the image capturing her Kurdu with groundnuts!

Keni Kurdu Leaves
Garnished Keni Kurdu: Grounds Add The Magic

Food makes us what we are; we are what we eat! If this is a truth we know and value, we have to make efforts to eat right. The Wild Food Festival can be a beginning in this direction. I hope each one of us gets opportunities to taste our forest wonders and I hope the green foliage is protected for this reason too!

Body As Text

I was reading The Body in Religion: Cross-Cultural Perspectives by Dr Yudit Kornberg Greenberg a while ago. The gender scholar, Dr Greenberg, was in town and I was to interview her for my Mid day column. But the book stayed with me much after the interaction with the Fulbrighter. I was zapped by the author’s nuanced analysis of various faith-based practices in which the human body is disciplined, ritualised, altered, honoured and even mutilated across the globe. It was a coincidence that as I was revisiting the chapter titled `Marking and Modifying The Body’ in the book, I was invited to the Art & Soul Gallery for an exhibition of 45 photographs which showcase the human body as readable, appreciable, observable wonder-evoking text.

Curated by art historian (and author of Contemporary Indian Art: Imagined Locales) Shubhalakshmi Shukla, the group show underscores subaltern repressed voices which articulate unspeakable truths about bodies, relationships, fears, discoveries and joys. Shukla calls them “incredible voices from within” which have sprung to life in the Art & Soul show. She has brought together 18 artists from diverse social spheres and callings — ranging from Padmashree winner lensman Sudharak Olwe to J J School alumnus-painter Santosh Kalbande to Kolkata-based scenographer Swarup Dutta to Delhi-based poet-painter Rajesh Eknath. Many artists in the show hail from M.S. University, Baroda, which is Shukla’s alma mater.

Art Historian Shubhalakshmi Shukla (in red) seen against the backdrop of Santosh Kalbande’s work titled Suno Sunao

Most of the subaltern voices (and faces) featured in the show belong to the Queer, Intersex and Asexual communities, but there are also representations of those who defy social norms in the broader sense. Two examples stand out in this context. Anuradha Upadhyay’s garish depiction of the Indian Hindu bride is a telling comment on the traditional dolling up of women. The Baroda-based artist’s self-portrait evokes the vibhatsa rasa (an oversized bindi, drooling kajal, heavy make-up, dangling nose ring, and a ‘Kali’ tongue teasing a world ruled by men) in her criticism of the behaviour ‘prescribed’ for a woman tying the nuptial knot. The chunky jewellery, inhabiting every inch of body space, denotes the burden carried by women in their domesticated roles. Upadhayay’s bride sipping tea from a kulhad is an arresting image.

I Am Multiple: Anuradha Upadhyay’s Self-Portrait
Artist Anuradha Upadhyay and lensman Sudharak Olwe in front of the former’s work

Similarly, Arpan Mukherjee’s interactive photo series, in which eyeballs have been replaced with black bindis, also provide a different perspective on human gaze. Here the viewer is asked to ‘participate’ by way of physically adjusting eyeball bindis stuck on the photo frame. Even a slight shift in the gaze places the subject in a different light. Mukherjee, a Santiniketan-based arts practitioner-professor, uses studio portraits (initially shot in rural Bengal in the seventies, later altered to address the aesthetic of analogue photography) of young people — photographed primarily as marriage market commodities. He encourages the viewer of the exhibition to play with the ‘gaze’ and perceive the rejected or accepted candidates of a yesteryear market. Clubbed under Prastav (proposal), the standalone images are unwittingly woven in a funny narrative. I had a good time while adjusting the adhesive bindis!

Bindis evoke a different response in the self-portraits of Baroda-based photo activist Vedi. The vacant look of the bare-chested subject creates a suspense. The unsaid-unspoken is hinted at, and then left to interpretation. Vedi’s act brings to my mind a fatigued artist who unmasks and unpacks after a show!

Eyeball Magic: Artist Arpan Mukherjee’s Interactive Photo series
Vedi’s Open-To-Interpretation Act

Shukla has juxtaposed a rich range of subaltern expressions — subtle as well as in-your-face. In the former category stand out the three black and white prints of Kerala-based Nijeena Neelambaran. At the first glance, an elderly woman with a toilet roll doesn’t convey much. But it invites the viewer for a second look. A memory associated with a toiletry item or an unspoken association in the private realm? In the neighbouring frame, the non-pedicured feet of a matriarch suggest the way-ahead for a woman who has not yet woken up, but will soon have to deal with the day’s chores.

On Her Feet: Nijeena Neelambaran’s Work

In stark contrast emerge Mumbai-based Sanjana Shelat’s self-portrait titled Silenced! Unheard! Ignored! The artist masquerades as the possessed woman; explores a sensual side of her personality, which even surprises her close friends, informs Shukla. In the artist’s statement, Shelat gives a choice to the viewer. He or she can react to layers of provocation and defiance, as seen in the images. Or the viewer can have a dialogue with “my inner self.” I feel both the options are worth the while.

Curator And The artist: Sanjana Shelat’s Works Form The Backdrop

Artists like Sharmila Gupta, Rachana Nagarkar, and Avijit Mukherjee have a more obvious focus on voices which are clearly off-stream. Mukherjee’s Deb Barua, a gay model, is struggling to find acceptability in middle-class Kolkata; Nagarakar’s Kausalya and Parvati are transgenders who do not get due respect in their residential locality; Gupta’s Shivali is a transgender who has undergone a sex change operation. She has had to struggle for acceptance in the family and community at large. Shivali is an ambitious person, aspiring for a career in fashion; also a trained classical dancer. Shivali was present at the launch of the exhibition; she fights for transgender community’s right to employment. She has also created awareness about sex change surgeries.

Shivali.. The Velocious: Shivali with Artist Sharmila Gupta

Subaltern Sexuality: Body As Text is Shubhalakshmi Shukla’s third attempt to delve into ‘text’ as an artistic expression. The first was a capture of text-based works which reacted to everyday angst, loss of roots and consumerism. The second series concentrated on power play and social disparities. Shukla, perennially intrigued by readable and written text, has studied national-global artists who have conveyed strong social critiques in the form of pithy texts. Her book Imagined Locales has a special focus on Text as Inscription, in which she follows artists like Anita Dube who provoked radical thought by way of cryptic text (Dystopia’s Spillage). Shukla sees text as “politically edged material” for making art where ‘meaning’ is a cultural signifier. She reads meaning in the signs, symbols and text-based images that cities like Mumbai are inundated with.

As I end this piece, India wakes up to another Independence Day, the 73rd. It is a day when we celebrate our freedom, our sovereignty and our sense of self. It is also a day when we, as a people, pledge our commitment to protection of our civil rights and democracy; it is day when we pledge support to the fair representation of all voices. That includes the subaltern too! Happy Independence Day!

Himroo: A Loom Katha

I am happy about the online onslaught of the upcoming Wear Handloom Day, August 7. It is a worthy cause to go gaga about. In keeping with the spirit of the day, I am also thinking of the prized work I will wear, so as to honor the unknown-unseen artist who created a valuable Paithani or Chanderi or Pashmina that landed in my wardrobe. Indigenous fabrics, hand weaving, artisans, crafts persons are symbols of India’s heritage and I feel it is quite appropriate to have a national day to celebrate the collective treasure. Of late, the day has assumed new proportions at the administrative level, more so in the form of awards given to outstanding weavers; and ministers tweeting their support to the 43 lakh weavers in the country. 

But I am more interested in the `wear-handloom’ sentiment popularized by the non-governmental social enterprises.  I have been following the exemplary work of the non-profit Dastkari Haat Samiti, especially since they exhibited a rare confluence of crafts and indigenous scripts in Mumbai four years ago.  The Hyderabad-based Abhihaara, which is doing a great job of promoting the Narayanpet sarees and trendy Ikkat officewear, is also inspiring, particularly its commitment to fair wages, sustainable livelihoods, skill building and restoration of the weavers’ pride.

Antique Himroo wonders discovered in Qureshi family’s workshop in Aurangabad; the archived designs are available for perusal to any Himroo lover (All pics credited to Loom Katha)

In that realm, I was happy to be privy to a handloom revival effort made by another enterprise named Loom Katha which has its operations in West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. It has won several awards like the Acumen Prize for Social Entrepreneurship and the Fondation Chanel Prize at WomenDeliver.  But my connect with Loom Katha rested on two operative words: Aurangabad and Himroo! The historic City of Gates has been close to my heart for many reasons. First, it has been a gateway to the famous Ajanta Ellora caves and the Bibi Ka Makbara; second, I have had enriching exchanges with students and faculty of the super active Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada university which was once the cynosure of a momentous political agitation; and third, the Himroo shawls-stoles-home furnishings that represent Aurangabad’s self-image. Once patronised by the ruling Mughal nobility, Himroo is a distinctively double-sided handwoven twill fabric made of silk and cotton, dating back to Mohammad bin Tughlaq’s Aurangabad rule (1328). It is woven on a 4-shaft loom with a denting pattern of 4 yarns per dent. Since weaving is done in a twill weave formation, the warping (preparatory) process for Himroo is extremely complex and time-consuming. It looks luxuriant because of the ornate designs of paisleys, marigolds, vines and fruits. The weave is linked to a slice of history when the premium luxury fabric was woven for the royals, in pure silk and gold threads. In the post-Mughal period, Himroo enjoyed sponsorship of the Nizam of Hyderabad.

However, as the Loom Katha research report (titled Himroo: Aurangabad’s Lost Art of Handloom Weaving) suggests, and which is a truth that I have experienced first-hand at Five-Star hotels, the current Himroo handloom weaving in Aurangabad is only for token display purposes at popular tourist shops.  The shawls and stoles, touted as handwoven, are made in a mechanised process. They adhere (more or less) to the aesthetic of the original, which is why they can be passed off as “fresh-from-the-loom” for the uninitiated. Only the insider can recognise the thick yarns and prosaic designs. Ironically, the tourist shops, where these ‘show piece looms’ are set up, are selling products sourced from Amritsar, Ludhiana, Surat and Benaras, with Himroo tags, states the report.

Market-ready evolved Himroo designs in the offing: Craftspersons respond to suggestions

It is sad that while there is a clear demand for Himroo products in Aurangabad and beyond (a captive market in star hotels indicates the popularity), the supply chain is broken and retailers are sourcing products from elsewhere. Through interviews with local historians and other textile experts, Loom Katha has traced the decline of the traditional art – from its peak in the mid 19th century (when approximately 2500 Himroo handlooms in the city drove the industry) to a ‘powerloom Himroo’ era when only four authentic handlooms remain in the city, of which only two are functional. The report factors in voices of 25 surviving members of the weaving families and also those trained under government schemes. Officials of the Weavers Service Centre (Delhi), Paithan Sari Kendra (Paithan) and technician-yarn suppliers from Yeola add their perspectives too. The documentation of antique Himroo samples available at the Salar Jung Museum is precious; so is the voice of textile historian Suraiya Hasan Bose who has a small training and weaving centre for the preservation of Dora Himroo.

I was happy to see that the scope of the Loom Katha study is kept as broad as possible, so as to include vendors selling raw material, artisans working in other crafts allied to Himroo weaving, Maharashtra government’s handicrafts and small-scale industries’ promotion departments, and showroom owners selling supposed Himroo products. The research team has deconstructed the production process, tools, techniques. It has given its inputs to weavers on the finished products. Loom Katha’s founder Arushi Chowdhury Khanna clarifies that the idea is not to blame a set of stakeholders, but to gain a fuller understanding of the market dynamics, so as to reinstate the near-extinct looms. The research findings are also complemented by a consumer survey to assess the market potential of Himroo shawls; over 150 respondents in metros — New Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad– have shared their appreciation of the art. The suggested changes in the Himroo motifs, also point at the expected evolution in the art and greater quality control. If Himroo has to reenter the market, it has to be stronger than ever, feels Loom Katha, which is now gearing towards market-ready Himroo products by December 2019. It has gained the support of Can-Pack India packaging multinational, which has a presence in Aurangabad. The company has also pre-ordered the first 60 Himroo artefacts originating from the revived yarns. The entire Himroo journey will be shared before a wider audience in Mumbai on August 7th (venue: Ministry of New, Fort). Two weavers — Imran Qureshi and Abdul Hamid Razzak — will share their side of the story.

The Himroo story is rooted in Aurangabad, particularly Baijupura, Nawabpura, Silk Mills Colony and Himayat Bagh where the last-known Himroo handlooms are located. The city is central to understanding the Himroo craftsmen. It is a city of contrasts (the Beer Capital of India) which was declared ‘Smart’ a while ago, but it battles with basic infrastructural woes like poor motorable roads, deficient public transport, water logging, and of course flouted city planning norms. It is home to several multinationals and yet known for unemployment and poor literacy rates. The Loom Katha research suggests that a large population, which includes the weaving community, does not have basic primary education, which has an impact on income levels. Many families reported a monthly income of Rs 3000. In such a constricting environment are located the Himroo weavers. Their city has limited resources needed for their craft. Why and how will they make an effort to travel to other towns to buy their silk, cotton, and khadi yarns? Where is the energy to travel to Malegaon or Maheshwar to buy the raw material when the looms are defunct? Himroo is a capital-intensive and labour-intensive art, which requires considerable investment in space. One shawl takes upto a week to be woven and the loom on which it is woven requires an area of 35 square feet with a minimum height of 20 feet. It is a home-based industry which collapses as soon as the loom stops and weavers take to odd jobs.

A Himroo Weaver at work: Will new weavers join?

However, the Himroo story is not a fully bleak prospect. The silver lining is that young weavers have shown willingness to come back to their hearth. They need handholding at the right juncture. They are ready to follow a road map, which in itself spells out the potential. Loom Katha has conceptualised a Himroo weavers’ collective model, based on the responses of the surviving weavers. It has recommended government intervention in identifying a new workshop space where the production resources can be shared; also government needs to locate a storage shed, so as to streamline production and accommodate ancillary equipment. In the feasibility assessment of the weavers’ model, Loom Katha specifies the working capital requirement. The research is available in public domain and open to further input, provided connoisseurs and patrons respond to the appeal.

A smiling Himroo trainee weaver

Any handloom revival effort is not an individual’s journey. It is the coming together of varied forces, which are passionate about handlooms, willing to go many extra miles and willing to forge new ties. One can sense that chemistry in the strategic partnerships forged by the Himroo project. Loom Katha founder (NIFT alumnus) Arushi Chowdhury Khanna, shuttles between Aurangabad and Mumbai, even after the four-month project is over. She was stationed in the city for the whole of 2018, so that the project would not lose its momentum. She has been earlier associated with the revival of the traditional technique of Mubarakpur handloom weaving in Uttar Pradesh, which was recognised as a UNESCO case study
in 2016. Similarly, Paris-based textile designer Neha Lad, NID alumnus, is part of the Himroo team, with special focus on the supply chain analysis covering Yeola, Paithan and Aurangabad. Not to forget, the Young India Fellows of the Ashoka University — Chitra Nair, Gaurang Garg, Kanan Shah, Leela Chowdhury and Priya Agarwal — deserve credit for the continued dialogue with the weavers. Here is wishing success and good luck to the energies supporting the Himroo craft.

Handlooms of India deserve our collective support. Not just on a celebratory National Handloom day but on any given day of the year. Our identity as Indian people rests on the traditional weaves we wear and take pride in. Mahatma Gandhi, whose 150th birth anniversary is being celebrated, advocated the study of handloom at the primary education level, so that students are sensitised to the Indian cultural core much earlier in life. I take your leave, wishing a long life to the handloom sector!

Conversations And More

To many more conversations as we continue to think of a way out of the present morass. Love, Revati. This is how she signed off my copy of her book The Anatomy of Hate. I was meeting author-journalist-filmmaker Revati Laul in person for the first time at the Bhau Daji Laud Museum where she spoke on Understanding Hate. There was a distinct informality in which she squatted on the floor and greeted members of the audience. Thanking everyone for sparing a Sunday morning to listen to thoughts on communal mob violence, she started on a chatty note. Of course, as described in Junoon Theatre’s social media teasers publicizing her talk, she lived up to the `compulsive contrarian’ tag. “If you said the sky is blue, I may say, not necessarily,” she began on a light note.

Revati Laul at Junoon’s Mumbai Local session in Bhau Daji Laud Museum; Pics by Junoon

For me, the highlight of the morning was the manner in which she shared the thinking that went into the making of her 2018 book on Gujarat violence. Many journalists cover news on a daily basis. Even if they report at periodic intervals, they monitor news breaks on a day-to-day basis, rather minute-to-minute. This process can be exhausting. It tires the best of agile reporters, analysts and editors; it causes a burn out feeling; the daily grind robs the energy needed to sit back and reflect and add perspective heft to the everyday rigor. This is one of the primary reasons why many news reporters are unable to invest time to document the conflicts/agitations-of-the-day in book form, despite being around for long. Despite having witnessed defining moments in India’s social-cultural-political history, veterans shy away from chronicling or commemorating the slice that they are so conversant with. Not only is it their personal loss, but it is a loss for journalism as well.

The intellectual discipline needed to reflect and comment on events, case studies, riot cycles, civic uprisings, iconic personalities and trends, does not come easily. It has to be instilled with practice, for which there has to be an inner-driven willingness to showcase the past in a contemporary context, and also an ability to scrutinize one’s own instincts-feelings while being caught in the heat of the moment. Revati Laul has that reflective ability along with the gift of succinct writing, which shows in The Anatomy of Hate (Rs 599, 223 pages, published by Context, Westland Publications). Laul of course has a different take on book writing. She feels journalists don’t take to long form writing because they are not sure of the financial support systems that are required for taking on such assignments. Referencing her own example, she says, it is difficult it is to be single minded about a book theme and leave the rest of life aside. “To leave your home (Delhi) and operate from another city (Ahmedabad) for over three years (2015 to mid-2018), so as to enable audio interviews of 100-odd people, is a privilege that I was fortunate to have. For me the book became my life, it still is.” She continues to follow the lives of two of the three perpetrators of hate that she chose for her book; whereas she is in close contact with the wife of the third one. Laul’s reason for writing the book was to reach out to those who needed to be talked to, to be understood, if at all long-term solutions have to be arrived at. She felt the perpetrators and executors of violence remained unaddressed (and not approached) in most reporting of genocides and mass violence. “I did not have sympathy for these characters, but there was a deep urge to experience their feelings and be in their shoes for a while. They deserved to be understood.”

Laul acknowledges the fact that the book would never have materialized without the crowdfunding it received from 105 supporters, of which 27 did not even want to be thanked in public. “Its only when you know that a large body of well-wishers believe in your central idea that you feel sufficiently encouraged, ” she adds. As the book completes a year in December 2019, people ask her about possible regional language translations and a reflection in the film space. As an author, she will be happy to see the book’s appreciation in another avatar, but the funds for such projects are again elusive. Ideally, a Gujarati translation is imperative because the book is about a set of people who live in parts of Gujarat and do not speak-read English. Laul’s reason for writing the book was to reach out to that section, which is not necessarily touched by English India. She felt her journalism was not giving her opportunities to have more meaningful conversations with people who believed in violence as a means.

Laul (45) was born, raised, and educated in New Delhi; she did her Masters in history from the Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has been equally at home in electronic and print media for long, and has served in key editorial positions in a range of media houses — Headlines Today, NDTV and Tehelka magazine. She has witnessed the formative years of Indian news television and covered a vast variety of conflict stories — from Kargil to Kabul to Lucknow to Mumbai. She was stationed in Gujarat for a year where she led the NDTV news room. In short, she had her fill of the maddening pace of activity of TV crews chasing subjects in search of live action. Like most journalists who covered riots and communal carnage in India over the years, she felt benumbed by the news cycle at one point. She started feeling that after each conflagration, and after each heinous crime, journalists (and people in general) sort of accepted their role as mere witnesses and also, in a way, accepted the possibility of its replay. They mourned, they felt sorry, they shared video clips (almost like the way voyeurs do), they cursed the perpetrators, and then continued with life, until they came across similar form of mob violence.

Laul wanted to break the circle and her way of doing this was by trying to understand the psyche of the violent person in the context of the 2002 Gujarat riots. As she shared at the Mumbai Local exchange, she decided to examine why hate and violence seem so attractive to some people. What is so ‘sexy’ about the act of ripping apart the foetus of a pregnant woman with a sword after raping her? What drives some people to burn down houses and grocery stores of old neighbors? What makes a person perceive another one as a threat to his or her religion? What makes them lob a soda bottle at an unarmed passerby? Laul zeroed in on three perpetrators, belonging to three distinct social spheres within Gujarat, who (after years of persuasion, one of them took ten years to allow her to tell his story; two protagonists’ names have been changed to protect their identity, one is a known legal case) agreed to be documented.

As she states in the Afterword of the book, she had met around 100 people accused variously of participating in crimes of 2002 in Gujarat. She realized that the larger canvas of stories was impossible to grasp. It was too expansive and people were not open to telling their stories of hate, guilt and complicity; some accused were caught in long legal battles and did not have the energy or inclination to talk to a journalist. Also, Laul interviewed the accused for over a period, which involved long gaps in the middle. Many were not ready for this extensive back-breaking process, as revisiting the inner demons was more difficult than the act itself. She decided to limit herself to three narratives, fully admitting that these stories (however layered they may be) are neither geographically nor demographically representative of the whole. One is touched by her clarity of purpose and her dogged determination to persuade three men to share their unspeakably violent karma.

Also Laul makes it very clear, as she did during the talk too, that writing the book was her emotional need. She doesn’t claim to be an academic who is trying to get to the political root of the problem. Electoral politics, caste equations, electioneering, politics of relief aid, gender disparities, Gujarat state leadership, Hindu-Muslim rivalry, educational chaos, radicalization of youth — all these themes are an integral part of the book. But that is not what she is seeking to unravel. She is trying get up close to three minds who adopted violence as their way of life.

Sunday Treat: Mumbai Local session in progress

For me, and for many others who attended Revati Laul’s talk, the observations she made towards the end provoked thought. Apart from her experience as an author, and as a journalist who has devoted rare energy (12 hours a day) to one project, her voice as an enabler mattered to me. As people who call themselves liberal and open-minded, she said, it is necessary that the liberals reach out to those whose ways they question. If we condemn a certain type of behavior or thought as ‘narrow’, we have to be broad-minded enough to address the people who show those ‘objectionable’ behavioral traits. For instance, we have to see why certain people want to belong to radical militant terror outfits? What other options has life offered them? Is there something in their personal backgrounds, possibly an identity crisis or a financial crunch, that propels them towards an ideology? Have they been treated as ‘unacceptable’ and ‘unfashionable’ by the liberal intelligentsia at some point? Are enough bridges being built to facilitate an exchange with the so-called radical elements? Or have liberals been too ‘sanitized’ to accept anyone other than their `type’ in their fold? Isn’t this also a sort of polarization that liberals perpetrate in the name of protection of core values? Her questions were purposeful and hopefully will prompt all of us to seek long-term answers, in Mumbai and elsewhere!

Sanjna Kapoor and team should be congratulated for inviting Revati Laul to Mumbai. Junoon Theatre’s Mumbai Local series, curated since 2014, has so far hosted 150-odd speakers in three vibrant venues, including the MCubed Library and Kitabkhana. Speakers have hailed from colorful backgrounds, one unlike the other — performing artistes, physicists, trade unionists, cinematographers, puppeteers, animators, instrumentalists and architects. Very rarely does a theater arts group solicit such a broad spectrum across disciplines. The series has also enjoyed patronage of diverse Mumbaikars — that breed which negotiates long distances and braves menacing traffic, to listen to vital voices. Isn’t life so much more meaningful when one listens to passionate people who speak of our times, our arts, our issues, our cities, our present, and our future!

Cotton Magic

I am quite enamored by artists who use a specific medium to express themselves. Their consistency in the use of the medium often becomes their message and their identity marker. Be it water colours or corrugated tin or plywood or paper pulp, artists seek a creative joy while toying with these materials. The familiarity of their choice becomes the key aspect of their art. In this context, one artist’s tryst with surgical cotton has been super-admirable.

Around two years ago, I met the Nasik-based cotton sculptor Anant Khairnar in his hometown Jawhar. Jawhar’s festive Dusshera was an ideal occasion for me to understand his growing up years in a tribal remote region. Being an easily accessible person, Khairnar made me privy to the transitions, personal and professional, which ultimately led him to choose surgical cotton as his preferred medium.

Giving Finishing Touches to the Mahatma way back in 1998

Later, I wrote about him in my Midday column which received considerable attention online and offline. Ever since I have been in touch with the Guinness Book Record holder who has experimented with cotton for the last three decades. The range of his work is zapping — from 12-feet tall Rama idol made for Nasik’s Kumbh congregation to the most recent 2.5 feet Swami Vivekanand, which he is now giving finishing touches to. An art lover in Kolkata has specially commissioned the Vivekanand creation, which also speaks for Khairnar’s nationwide admirers who value his art. It is not just the finesse in his work that makes his so sought-after, but Khairnar is most admired for the self-financed research (often extensive travel) he conducts before taking on an assignment. The research is directed towards understanding, rather viewing, the subject before attempting to recreate it in the cotton avatar.

Anant Khairnar’s latest creation: Vedant Philosopher-thought leader Swami Vivekanand

Also it is not just the accolades, or the 2000-odd cotton sculptures to his credit, that make Khairnar a great artist. For the 52-year-old sculptor, the real joy is in constant experimentation. He experiments with types of cotton, the chemicals and the glue that hold the cotton in the intended shape and form, the natural dyes that complement his medium, and also the instruments that aid his hands while he infuses life in cotton artifacts — whether it is Lord Ganesha or Mahatma Gandhi or Amitabh Bachchan. His cotton representation of the Life Insurance Corporation logo has also received profuse praise.

The LIC Logo: Cotton Sculpture of Anant Khairnar

What is even more commendable is his willingness to share his knowledge. His current clientele and fanbase puts him in a position of privilege, where his art is unrivalled. But Khairnar believes in giving back to his art lovers and younger artists.

Former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in A Cotton Avatar

Despite his earlier reservations against demos, he has now started with short one-hour do-it-yourself cotton art tutorials. The recent one in Nasik, where he created a Shivaji Maharaj bust, was a tremendous success. Hopefully, younger and diverse artists will learn from Khairnar.

A Demo in Progress: Khairnar constructs a Shivaji Maharaj in an art exhibitiion

In popular imagination, surgical cotton is equated with medical use. It evokes the imagery of open wounds. Soft raw cotton is associated with pillows and mattresses, not to forget the cotton wicks used in Indian poojas. It is exactly these popular equations and associations that Khairnar aims to counter. For him, surgical cotton is a world in itself. I am sharing the photos of his recent work, which prove his rich explorations of cotton possibilities! I hope you enjoy Khairnar’s cotton cosmos!

The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

On a midweek day, I wanted to catch up with an old movie for a quitet evening. As I surfed the choices in my collection, the Satyajit Ray-directed Bengali feature Ganashatru attracted my attention. The choice was unlikely because the film is shot in a dull indoor location; it is not counted among Ray’s masterpieces. Being an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play En folkefiende (The Enemy of the People), the movie relies heavily on a verbal discourse. It gets wordier towards the end. Ray is said to have chosen the play because of personal health reasons. He was not in a position to handle a demanding outdoor locale, which is why he turned inward — into the dark recesses of the human mind where a lot of drama generates.

However, my reasons for revisiting Ganashatru were personal. The movie was released in 1989, the year I took up my first job at The Sunday Observer. My office was in Mumbai’s Fort area, a few blocks away from the Eros theatre where I watched Ganashatru in the 11 am slot. That was thirty years ago. I was a reporter-writer in the Sunday paper. I had just begun to watch the milestone Ray films. My interest in Ganashatru rested on the fact that its lead doctor hero, played by Soumitra Chatterji, was the Apu of Apur Sansar. That was enough of a reference point for me to enjoy the 100-minute film, which adapts Ibsen’s script, set in a small town in Norway where a doctor refuses to be silenced about the health threat in the public baths. He hurts the vested interests of those marketing the town’s springs as a one-stop cure. Ray’s story is set in the tourist temple town Chandipur (West Bengal) where an upright doctor dares to object to the charanamrit — holy water offered at the feet of the Lord and given to devotees. The doctor thus becomes the enemy of the people. His views on the contaminated holy water are perceived as an insult to God; the laboratory evidence he cites is not paid heed to. When he decides to write about the contamination, and its connection with the outbreak of Hepatitis in Chandipur, the municipal body of the town (in which his manipulative brother is a top boss) wages a personal attack on the doctor. The doctor’s family is ostracised and he is not allowed to address a public meeting to share his viewpoint.

When I watched the movie in 1989, the Ram Temple construction issue had just begun to raise its head. My paper, and most mainline dailies, were sending correspondents to Uttar Pradesh to get fresh dispatches from the disputed site. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad had declared its intent to build a temple in Ayodhya on a plot of land where a controversial structure stood. India’s intelligentsia declared that the row was engineered to appease the Hindu majority; whereas those supporting the VHP felt it was the legitimate right of any Hindu to build a Lord Rama temple in his birthplace.

I found Ganashatru relevant in my political context in 1989. Ray had shown how easily political forces influence public opinion over matters of faith. He also demonstrated how and why matters of public health and safety are deliberately misconstrued by vested interests. The doctor in the movie speaks in the larger public interest, with no personal gain in mind. He has no takers because there are two types of people around him — a majority which is blinded by superstitious faith and a clever manipulative section which is too politically-monetarily motivated to listen to an opposing viewpoint. The plot was identifiable.

After a passage of 30 years, as I watched Ganashatru in my drawing room, I felt our public discourse is still dominated by matters of faith. Temples, mosques, churches remain our focal points of debate. Little has changed in the way we, as Indians, react to anything in the realm of religion. These reactions are getting harsher by the day, more so on social media platforms where a contrary viewpoint has the potential to create a riot. We have become technologically advanced, sharing news nuggets with a zapping speed. But we have gotten into a vicious circle — the more we claim to have changed and evolved, the more we stay the same. Our public reactions follow a set pattern. Over the years, we have chosen not to listen to the voices of reason — either river conservationists, or habitat restorers or anti-plastic campaigners.

Ganashatru left me thinking. The movie’s poor production values and trite ending was not the point of worry for me. But I was unhappy to see that the movie’s plot worked, made sense, in today’s context; its characters represented real people in our everyday life in Mumbai, Kolkata, Chandipur and most other places. Hopefully, one day we will have more patience for listening to a contrary view; hopefully we will have discerning eyes to realize the real enemy of the people!