brice marden and abstract art

peter schjeldahl’s “true colors, a brice marden retrospective” (new yorker, nov 6, 2006) starts with something the artist once said: “it’s hard to look at paintings. you have to be able to bring all sorts of things together in your mind, your imagination, in your whole body”. that struck a chord – it reminded me of a short piece i wrote about why i love modern art. check it out under prose.

brice marden’s cold mountain painting


saw pedro almodóvar’s “volver”, a story about mothers, daughters and the indomitable female spirit. the film is beautifully shot and a perfect vehicle for penelope cruz’s talents. having worked with almodóvar before, the actress and director seem to have a unique bond. there is a level of trust and affection which makes it possible for cruz to blossom in front of our eyes into something strong and luminous. her charisma is greatly diminished by formula-driven, coldly procedural anglo-saxon films. here we see her as never before. she is in her element. the film is a mix of magic and realism, a supersaturated dreamscape. the colors are warm and vivid, the camerawork meticulous and obsessively focused on cruz. her performance is brought into relief by her beauty and fearlessness. with this film, almodóvar has perfected his craft and given us a visually luscious chef d’oeuvre that celebrates his love for women characters in all their splendor and complexity.


peace, propaganda and the promised land

saw this film at the anti-war storefront on monroe avenue, in rochester. being a hyphenated american who moved to the u.s., as an adult, from one of the oldest parts of the world, i was born with a healthy dose of skepticism in my blood. i know that governments lie, that the press can skew reality, that there is such a thing as propaganda. the middle east conflict is a case in point and so is the war in iraq.

“peace, propaganda and the promised land” is an excellent documentary that explains the step by step process of filtering information and using a mammoth PR machine to manipulate public opinion. many cannot accept this so-called mind control, especially when it applies to an open, free market society like ours where the unrestricted flow of information forms the very basis of our economic/political system. this too is a mirage. the only difference between american-style minutely researched, consumer-savvy, impeccably packaged, and innocuously dessiminated propaganda and soviet-style, grainy, no frills attached, in your face, badly executed propaganda (much ridiculed during the cold war), is in production values. ours is simply better quality. like a carefully flavored smoothie it goes down easy and feels good once it’s been ingested.

but i will let you decide for yourself. if you’ve never read noam chomsky, robert fisk or alexander cockburn, this documentary might be a true eye opener for you. i found it on youtube.

the film was introduced by judith bello. read more about the post-screening discussion moderated by judith on her blog under “reviewing the presentation and jenin jenin” (aug 11, 2007). she talks about “an individual in attendance who persistently and emphatically interpreted every assertion back into the standard frame of information, the very frame that the film was designed to discredit”. i attribute that to ignorance but also to the staggering power of language – our thoughts and ideas are constrained by the linguistic and therefore conceptual framework we are given. i was reading “weasel words” by john lahr (new yorker, dec 19, 2005) a review of the harold pinter double bill (including “the room” and “celebration”) and some of lahr’s comments jumped out at me. he talks about pinter’s obsession with the “psychological truth that he continued to explore brilliantly for half a century: mankind’s passion for ignorance. blindness, as pinter has dramatized it over the years, is something internal. the habit of not seeing is for his characters a sort of narrative device, an evasion of self-awareness that allows them to sustain their stories of themselves; the very syntax of their speech carries them ever farther from a real understanding of their emotions”.

susan b anthony’s house in rochester

last week i took my parents and daughter to visit susan b anthony’s house on madison street, in rochester. susan b anthony was a consummate activist – she lobbied for the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, women’s suffrage, education reform, temperance and a myriad other causes close to her heart. at a time when women were struggling to find a voice, susan b anthony’s speeches held sway over generations of men and women and changed the socio-political landscape of our country. she was arrested in 1872 for casting a vote in the presidential election. this is the speech she delivered in court in defence of women’s right to vote:

“friends and fellow citizens: i stand before you tonight under indictment for the alleged crime of having voted at the last presidential election, without having a lawful right to vote. it shall be my work this evening to prove to you that in thus voting, i not only committed no crime, but, instead, simply exercised my citizen’s rights, guaranteed to me and all united states citizens by the national constitution, beyond the power of any state to deny.

the preamble of the federal constitution says: “we, the people of the united states, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this constitution for the united states of america.”

it was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the union. and we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people – women as well as men. and it is a downright mockery to talk to women of their enjoyment of the blessings of liberty while they are denied the use of the only means of securing them provided by this democratic-republican government – the ballot.

for any state to make sex a qualification that must ever result in the disfranchisement of one entire half of the people, is to pass a bill of attainder, or, an ex post facto law, and is therefore a violation of the supreme law of the land. by it the blessings of liberty are forever withheld from women and their female posterity. to them this government has no just powers derived from the consent of the governed. to them this government is not a democracy. it is not a republic. it is an odious aristocracy; a hateful oligarchy of sex; the most hateful aristocracy ever established on the face of the globe; an oligarchy of wealth, where the rich govern the poor. an oligarchy of learning, where the educated govern the ignorant, or even an oligarchy of race, where the saxon rules the african, might be endured; but this oligarchy of sex, which makes father, brothers, husband, sons, the oligarchs over the mother and sisters, the wife and daughters, of every household – which ordains all men sovereigns, all women subjects, carries dissension, discord, and rebellion into every home of the nation.

webster, worcester, and bouvier all define a citizen to be a person in the united states, entitled to vote and hold office. the only question left to be settled now is: are women persons? and I hardly believe any of our opponents will have the hardihood to say they are not. being persons, then, women are citizens; and no state has a right to make any law, or to enforce any old law, that shall abridge their privileges or immunities. hence, every discrimination against women in the constitutions and laws of the several states is today null and void, precisely as is every one against negroes.”

frederick douglass was one of her lifelong friends. the bronze statue of susan b anthony and frederick douglass having tea in the park by laos-born sculptor pepsy kettavong is located across the street from anthony’s house. it is life-like, life-size, accessible and bang in the middle of the neighborhood where she lived. it’s genius. the house itself is being renovated and slowly restored. but what really brought susan b anthony back to life for us was the knowledge and passion of our excellent docent annie. as rochestarians, and even more so as american women, we should all be proud of anthony’s legacy.

susan b anthony

manto’s masterpiece: toba tek singh

manto – a quick blurb: master of the urdu short story, controversial, wrote about sex, incest, prostitution, tried in pakistani courts for obscenity, died in penury of alcoholism at the age of 44. the force, unflinching honesty and hard-edged realism of his writing have warranted comparisons to d.h. lawrence.

here is “toba tek singh” a manto short story that encapsulates the horror and confusion of india’s partition in 1947. it has been translated in english by khushwant singh:

Two or three years after the 1947 Partition, it occurred to the governments of India and Pakistan to exchange their lunatics in the same manner as they had exchanged their criminals. The Muslim lunatics in India were to be sent over to Pakistan and the Hindu and Sikh lunatics in Pakistani asylums were to be handed over to India.

It was difficult to say whether the proposal made any sense or not. However, the decision had been taken at the topmost level on both sides. After high-level conferences were held a day was fixed for the exchange of the lunatics. It was agreed that those Muslims who had families in India would be permitted to stay back while the rest would be escorted to the border. Since almost all the Hindus and Sikhs had migrated from Pakistan, the question of retaining non-Muslim lunatics in Pakistan did not arise. All of them were to be taken to India.

Nobody knew what transpired in India, but so far as Pakistan was concerned this news created quite a stir in the lunatic asylum at Lahore, leading to all sorts of funny developments. A Muslim lunatic, a regular reader of the fiery Urdu daily Zamindar, when asked what Pakistan was, reflected for a while and then replied, “Don’t you know? A place in India known for manufacturing cut-throat razors.” Apparently satisfied, the friend asked no more questions.

Likewise, a Sikh lunatic asked another Sikh, “Sardarji, why are we being deported to India? We don’t even know their language.” The Sikh gave a knowing smile. “But I know the language of Hindostoras” he replied. “These bloody Indians, the way they strut about!”

One day while taking his bath, a Muslim lunatic yelled, “Pakistan Zindabad!” with such force that he slipped, fell down on the floor and was knocked unconscious.

Not all the inmates were insane. Quite a few were murderers. To escape the gallows, their relatives had gotten them in by bribing the officials. They had only a vague idea about the division of India or what Pakistan was. They were utterly ignorant of the present situation. Newspapers hardly ever gave the true picture and the asylum warders were illiterates from whose conversation they could not glean anything. All that these inmates knew was that there was a man by the name of Quaid-e-Azam who had set up a separate state for Muslims, called Pakistan. But they had no idea where Pakistan was. That was why they were all at a loss whether they were now in India or in Pakistan. If they were in India, then where was Pakistan? If they were in Pakistan, how come that only a short while ago they were in India? How could they be in India a short while ago and now suddenly in Pakistan?

One of the lunatics got so bewildered with this India-Pakistan-Pakistan-India rigmarole that one day while sweeping the floor he climbed up a tree, and sitting on a branch, harangued the people below for two hours on end about the delicate problems of India and Pakistan. When the guards asked him to come down he climbed up still higher and said, “I don’t want to live in India and Pakistan. I’m going to make my home right here on this tree.”

All this hubbub affected a radio engineer with an MSc degree, a Muslim, a quiet man who took long walks by himself. One day he stripped off all his clothes, gave them to a guard and ran in the garden stark naked.

Another Muslim inmate from Chiniot, an erstwhile adherent of the Muslim League who bathed fifteen or sixteen times a day, suddenly gave up bathing. As his name was Mohammed Ali, he one day proclaimed that he was none other than Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Taking a cue from him a Sikh announced that he was Master Tara Singh, the leader of the Sikhs. This could have led to open violence. But before any harm could be done the two lunatics were declared dangerous and locked up in separate cells.

Among the inmates of the asylum was a Hindu lawyer from Lahore who had gone mad because of unrequited love. He was deeply pained when he learnt that Amritsar, where the girl lived, would form part of India. He roundly abused all the Hindu and Muslim leaders who had conspired to divide India into two, thus making his beloved an Indian and him a Pakistani. When the talks on the exchange were finalized his mad friends asked him to take heart since now he could go to India. But the young lawyer did not want to leave Lahore, for he feared for his legal practice in Amritsar.

There were two Anglo-Indians in the European ward. When informed the British were leaving, they spent hours together discussing the problems they would be faced with: Would the European ward be abolished? Would they get breakfast? Instead of bread, would they have to make do with measly Indian chapattis?

There was a Sikh who had been admitted into the asylum fifteen years ago. Whenever he spoke it was the same mysterious gibberish: “Uper the gur gur the annexe the bay dhayana the mung the dal of the laltain.” The guards said that he had not slept a wink in all this time. He would not even lie down to rest. His feet were swollen with constant standing and his calves had puffed out in the middle, but in spite of this agony he never cared to lie down. He listened with rapt attention to all discussions about the exchange of lunatics between India and Pakistan. If someone asked his views on the subject he would reply in a grave tone: “Uper the gur gur the annexe the bay dhayana the mung the dal of the Government of Pakistan.” But later on he started substituting “the Government of Pakistan” with “Tobak Tek Singh,” which was his home town. Now he begun asking where Toba Tek Singh was to go. But nobody seemed to know where it was. Those who tried to explain themselves got bogged down in another enigma: Sialkot, which used to be in India, now was in Pakistan. At this rate, it seemed as if Lahore, which was now in Pakistan, would slide over to India. Perhaps the whole of India might become Pakistan. It was all so confusing! And who could say if both India and Pakistan might not entirely disappear from the face of the earth one day?

The hair on the Sikh lunatic’s head had thinned and his beard had matted, making him look wild and ferocious. But he was a harmless creature. In fifteen years he had not even once had a row with anyone. The older employees of the asylum knew that he had been a well-to-do fellow who had owned considerable land in Toba Tek Singh. Then he had suddenly gone mad. His family had brought him to the asylum in chains and left him there. They came to meet him once a month but ever since the communal riots had begun, his relatives had stopped visiting him.

His name was Bishan Singh but everybody called him Toba Tek Singh. He did not know what day it was, what month it was and how many years he had spent in the asylum. Yet as if by instinct he knew when his relatives were going to visit, and on that day he would take a long bath, scrub his body with soap, put oil in his hair, comb it and put on clean clothes. If his relatives asked him anything he would keep silent or burst out with “Uper the gur gur the annexe the bay dhayana the mung the dal of the laltain.”

When he had been brought to the asylum, he had left behind an infant daughter. She was now a comely and striking young girl of fifteen, who Bishan Singh failed to recognize. She would come to visit him, and not be able to hold back her tears.

When the India-Pakistan caboodle started Bishan Singh often asked the other inmates where Toba Tek Singh was. Nobody could tell him. Now even the visitors had stopped coming. Previously his sixth sense would tell him when the visitors were due to come. But not anymore. His inner voice seemed to have stilled. He missed his family, the gifts they used to bring and the concern with which they used to speak to him. He was sure they would have told him whether Toba Tek Singh was in India or Pakistan. He also had the feeling that they came from Toba Tek Singh, his old home.

One of the lunatics had declared himself God. One day Bishan Singh asked him where Toba Tek Singh was. As was his habit the man greeted Bishan Singh’s question with a loud laugh and then said, “It’s neither in India nor in Pakistan. In fact, it is nowhere because till now I have not taken any decision about its location.”

Bishan begged the man who called himself God to pass the necessary orders and solve the problem. But ‘God’ seemed to be very busy with other matters. At last Bishan Singh’s patience ran out and he cried out: “Uper the gur gur the annexe the mung the dal of Guruji da Khalsa and Guruji ki fateh jo boley so nihal sat sri akal.”

What he wanted to say was: “You don’t answer my prayers because you are a Muslim God. Had you been a Sikh God, you would have surely helped me out.”

A few days before the exchange was due to take place, a Muslim from Toba Tek Singh who happened to be a friend of Bishan Singh came to meet him. He had never visited him before. On seeing him, Bishan Singh tried to slink away, but the warder barred his way. “Don’t you recognize your friend Fazal Din?” he said. “He has come to meet you.” Bishan Singh looked furtively at Fazal Din, then started to mumble something. Fazal Din placed his hand on Bishan Singh’s shoulder. “I have been thinking of visiting you for a long time,” he said. “But I couldn’t get the time. Your family is well and has gone to India safely. I did what I could to help. As for your daughter, Roop Kaur” –he hesitated– “She is safe too in India.”

Bishan Singh kept quiet. Fazal Din continued: “Your family wanted me to make sure you were well. Soon you’ll be moving to India. Please give my salaam to bhai Balbir Singh and bhai Raghbir Singh and bahain Amrit Kaur. Tell Balbir that Fazal Din is well. The two brown buffaloes he left behind are well too. Both of them gave birth to calves, but, unfortunately, one of them died. Say I think of them often and to write to me if there is anything I can do.”

Then he added “Here, I’ve brought some plums for you.”

Bishan Singh took the gift from Fazal Din and handed it to the guard. “Where is Toba Tek Singh?” he asked.

“Where? Why, it is where it has always been.”

“In India or Pakistan?î

“In India no, in Pakistan.”

Without saying another word, Bishan Singh walked away, muttering “Uper the gur gur the annexe the bay dhyana the mung the dal of the Pakistan and India dur fittey moun.”

At long last the arrangements for the exchange were complete. The lists of lunatics who were to be sent over from either side were exchanged and the date fixed.

On a cold winter evening truckloads of Hindu and Sikh lunatics from the Lahore asylum were moved out to the Indian border under police escort. Senior officials went with them to ensure a smooth exchange. The two sides met at the Wagah border check-post, signed documents and the transfer got underway.

Getting the lunatics out of the trucks and handing them over to the opposite side proved to be a tough job. Some refused to get down from the trucks. Those who could be persuaded to do so began to run in all directions. Some were stark naked. As soon as they were dressed they tore off their clothes again. They swore, they sang, they fought with each other. Others wept. Female lunatics, who were also being exchanged, were even noisier. It was pure bedlam. Their teeth chattered in the bitter cold.

Most of the inmates appeared to be dead set against the entire operation. They simply could not understand why they were being forcibly removed to a strange place. Slogans of ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ and ‘Pakistan Murdabad’ were raised, and only timely intervention prevented serious clashes.

When Bishan Singh’s turn came to give his personal details to be recorded in the register, he asked the official “Where’s Toba Tek Singh? In India or Pakistan?”

The officer laughed loudly, “In Pakistan, of course.”

Hearing that Bishan Singh turned and ran back to join his companions. The Pakistani guards caught hold of him and tried to push him across the line to India. Bishan Singh wouldn’t move. “This is Toba Tek Singh,” he announced. “Uper the gur gur the annexe the be dyhana mung the dal of Toba Tek Singh and Pakistan.”

It was explained to him over and over again that Toba Tek Singh was in India, or very soon would be, but all this persuasion had no effect.

They even tried to drag him to the other side, but it was no use. There he stood on his swollen legs as if no power on earth could dislodge him. Soon, since he was a harmless old man, the officials left him alone for the time being and proceeded with the rest of the exchange.

Just before sunrise, Bishan Singh let out a horrible scream. As everybody rushed towards him, the man who had stood erect on his legs for fifteen years, now pitched face-forward on to the ground. On one side, behind barbed wire, stood together the lunatics of India and on the other side, behind more barbed wire, stood the lunatics of Pakistan. In between, on a bit of earth which had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.

saadat hasan manto

you can read more about the partition of india in pankaj mishra’s book review in the new yorker. it’s called “exit wounds” – the legacy of indian partition.

india’s partition in film

last night i saw “garam hawa” (scorching winds) again. this film, based on an ismat chughtai short story, was released in 1973. it depicts the aftermath of india’s partition by focusing on the emotional and physical displacement of families. balraj sahni plays the lead role. he is an actor of immense stature. he was born in rawalpindi (now pakistan) and studied english literature at government college, lahore (just like both my parents, who graduated in 1964). government college lahore is the oldest college/university in pakistan. it was established in 1864 by the british and was affiliated with calcutta university. gottlieb wilhelm leitner (professor of arabic and mohammedan law at king’s college, london) was the college’s first principal.

sahni was unusually brilliant. he was an actor of great talent, an award-winning writer, a politically engaged man who believed in equality for all. in garam hawa he portrays an everyday muslim. salim mirza is a small shoe manufacturer living in his ancestral haveli (large mansion) along with his extended family. the time is post-partition, the place agra, india. one by one his family members leave for pakistan in the face of increasing discrimination and dwindling opportunities. salim sticks to his guns and refuses to get uprooted. however, things soon start to fall apart. he is evicted from the haveli, he is unable to obtain business credit, he is accused of being a spy, he is harrassed. the final straw is the suicide of his daughter, after she is abandoned by two successive suitors who move to pakistan. sahni imbues salim with much dignity. he is upright, honest to a fault and has the patience of a saint. his calm devotion to old-world principles, when that very world is disintegrating around him, is powerful and moving.

the film, made on a tiny budget, is shot cinéma vérité style. as bollywood films go, it is way ahead of its time. shot handheld for the most part, on location in a small neighborhood in agra and starring a slew of unknown actors (except for sahni of course), the film strives to be as realistic and authentic as possible. the script by kaifi azmi anchors that effort. surprisingly enough, garam hawa became a big commercial success. rather than take sides, it illuminates the hardship and pain of people being wrenched from their past, from their lives. it works at a very intimate level and is therefore much more effective in bringing people together by talking about their humanity.

the partition of india is an important and tragic chapter in human history. in india and pakistan, it triggered an explosion of literary and artistic works that tried to capture some of its anguish and trauma. more about that in my next post.

balraj sahni

muhammed iqbal

muhammed iqbal

muhammed iqbal is this great urdu and persian poet. he was born in 1877 in punjab, pakistan. he wrote prolifically about politics, economics, history, philosophy and religion. his poetry is powerful and inspiring and earned him a knighthood. this is one of my favourite stanzas from jawab-e shikwah, the second part of the poem “shikwah” (man’s complaint to god, which expresses muslim anguish in the face of 20th century problems). “jawab-e-shikwah”, which literally means answer to complaint, is god’s directive to the muslim community to stand on its feet and set in motion a process of active self-realization.

here god addresses man in the following words:

“art thou alive? be eager, be creative,
like me encompass the whole universe,
shatter into pieces that which is conventional,
bring forth another world out of your imagination –
he who lacks the faculty of creativity
is nothing to me but an unbeliever and an agnostic”

imagery in poetry

here’s a great article on poetry, written by gary smith, that uses one of t. s. eliot’s poems as an example:

Preludes by T.S. Eliot

The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.
The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.
With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.

This poem was written in 1917, when there was a worldwide critique and questioning of the values of contemporary western civilization. Due to many factors, especially the First World War and the economic depression, many artists, poets and philosophers felt that modern industrial civilization had lost its sense of meaning and direction. There was a general criticism of the status quo. Preludes falls within this ambit. In this poem, Eliot describes the modern city as a vacuum of meaning and uses imagery to intensify this feeling.

The first lines suggest a feeling of decline and despair. How does the imagery help to achieve this effect? Notice the use of “winter” images. Winter is usually associated with a lack of growth and a loss of vitality. The poem is suggesting that the modern city is in a state of “winter” and has lost its direction and vitality.
The poet builds on this image to suggest a further delineation of the modern state of mental societal decadence. The image of ” smell of steaks” paints a picture of a polluted and mundane environment. The fourth line emphasizes this feeling of loss of vitality coupled with urban squalor. The day, and the society, is associated with an image of a burnt-out (read loss of energy) cigarette end.

The poet carefully couples images of decadence with images that we usually associate with the modern urban milieu, like steaks and cigarettes. He places these ordinary images into a context that suggests a criticism of the modern world and lifestyle. The point is again emphasized with another image of decadence and dirt in “The grimy scraps”.

The image of ” withered leaves” again points to the winter motif and paints a clear picture of death and decline. Always remember that the poet is not only referring to leaves here; he is using this image, through association, to connect to the general idea of loss of meaning in the modern urban world.
The second stanza intensifies its attack on the modern world. The first two lines clearly express the idea that modern life is little more than a drunken hangover. The feeling of personal and social decadence is strengthened by the images in these lines:
“The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer”

The final image of the second stanza achieves a brilliant but shocking image of the essence of the poem.
“One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.”
This image presents us with a particularly clear impression of the intention of the poem. We can imagine all the people repeating the same meaningless actions. They all raise ” dingy shades” to greet the day. Note the use of the adjective to describe the shades, which again points to the sense of squalor and decadence of the modern city. More importantly, this image suggests a sense of repetitive meaninglessness. Throughout the poem the poet uses the images to bolster and construct his impression of the modern city. Once the function of these images is understood, then the meaning of the poem becomes clear.


pan’s labyrinth

only once in a while do you see a film with this level of artistry. pan’s labyrinth is dark, complex, beautiful, universal. the film draws a parallel between the rule-bound simplicity of fairy tales and the brute force and finality of the real world. good is set against evil with the stark contrast of so many ombres chinoises. the film brings to life the horror and violence inherent in most fairy tales (a witch who eats children, a defenseless granny devoured by a wolf, a stepmother hiring an assassin to murder her daughter) in a way that shakes us out of our inurement. elements of a child’s fantasy are intermixed with recognizable reality – the ambiguity of war in the name of ideological certitude, operatic human cruelty, selfless sacrifice, revenge, loneliness, courage. this brew of what is beautiful and vile, innocent and grotesque, noble and bestial, magic and quotidian is unsettling yet irresistible. some of the scenes are shockingly graphic but one is compelled to watch, to be a participant in this perverse fable. the underlying musical theme is a haunting lullaby – again a collision between what’s deceptively comforting and child-like and the vicious adult world. it is a beautiful piece of music composed by javier navarrete – check it out.

john lennon

i’v been listening to the instant karma cds (part of amnesty intl’s campaign to save darfur) for a while now and i have fallen in love with john lennon, all over again. first of all kudos to the artists who participated in this project and produced some amazing music. i have to single out those who captured the spirit of the songs but also made them their own. to take songs that are as well-known, as well-loved and as meaningful to so many and be able to imbue them with one’s own brand of fire, one’s own musical vibe without compromising anything is huge.

U2’s “instant karma” is first on my list along with green day’s “working class hero”. the following are some of my other favorite john lennon song renditions: christina aguilera’s “mother” (she was perfect for this song – that ache in her voice), jake dylan and dhani harrison’s “gimme some truth” (brings back to life the passion of john lennon the activist), jackson browne’s “oh my love” (exquisite, tender, beautiful), youssou n’dour’s charming “jealous guy”, snow patrol’s “isolation” (haunting, very cool), regina spector’s excellent rendition of “real love”. this is truly a terrific assemblage of great songs performed by some very strong and stylistically diverse artists. you can now get the album for $16.99 from go for it!

john lennon

i’m back

after much personal busyness (harried but pleasurable) we’ve finally been able to spend our first weekend at the lake house. we invited over my parents, two sisters and brother along with their spouses and six young children, the occasion being the celebration of my parents’ 40th anniversary. it was a wonderful opportunity to enjoy lake canandaigua on a hot summer day, get together with my entire family and honor our parents. we’re back in pittsford now and things are settling down. the kids have summer camp at the memorial art gallery and i get to spend some time at starry nites, sipping hot chocolate and catching up with my blog. i’m back…

canandaigua lake

michael ondaatje

i saw michael ondaatje on tavis smiley last night. although i obviously know him from the english patient and anil’s ghost, i have never read his books and didn’t know much about him as an author. i found him fascinating and identified strongly with both his life and his artistic aesthetic. his life is a cultural melange encompassing 3 continents. he was born in sri lanka. his ancestors were originally from india but his genetic make-up is dutch-tamil-sinhalese-portuguese – he calls himself a mongrel. he went to school in england and finally moved to canada in 1962.

his artistry is predicated on ditching the conventional form and using a non-linear, multi-media collage technique in his writing. in the words of anthony chandler: “one of the most remarkable aspects of ondaatje’s work is the fashion in which he juxtaposes and blends the media of poetry, prose, and photography, making reading an almost multi-media function while remaining on the printed page. like film montage, ondaatje’s fiction often walks the line between narrative and imagery, leaving the reader puzzled with what she has just experienced. but ondaatje’s work is more precise than montage, and his mixing of media shows an acute awareness of form and function while still calling both into question: if narrative prose is selected to carry the story, and poetry is chosen to convey emotion, his use of photographic images often shows us that we may be wrong about everything; that we need to dig deeper in holes already dug.”

because of his multi-ethnic, multi-cultural life experience, he talked about having “double vision” – being able to see different points of view at the same time. i can relate to that. i can simultaneously feel like an insider and an outsider in many cultures. i know what it is to have doubts, to never be quite sure, quite comfortable in any milieu. there are no absolutes, just an endless, ying-yang tug of war between the many sides of every issue.

ondaatje’s latest book is divisadero.

michael ondaatje

cafe colonial and the goog

while in nyc last february we had breakfast every morning at cafe colonial, 276 elizabeth st, at houston. the freshly squeezed orange juice, delicious omelets and fruit salads were a great start to the day. the decor is brazilian and the ambience very french. i highly recommned it.

we got a chance to see the “el greco to picasso” spanish painting exhibition at the goog. the guggenheim is stunning museum space. the exhibition was extraordinarily extensive and unique in how the artwork was displayed – rather than being chronological, the display was thematic and had no qualms about mixing up 5 centuries of spanish art. only when you see juan sanchez cotan’s classic “still life with fruits and vegetables” hanging right next to the modernist “still life with newspaper” by juan gris, that you begin to see the similarities. who would have thought that pablo picasso’s portraiture was somehow rooted in velasquez. it’s amazing how juxtaposition can lend a completely new meaning to art. it was the first time that we saw picasso not as a french painter but as an artist closely aligned with the spanish aesthetic.


richard foreman

while in nyc, my friends and i went to see richard foreman’s “wake up mr sleepy! your unconscious mind is dead” at the ontological theater at st mark’s church. what an experience. first we were late (it took us a while to figure out how to navigate the nyc subway system). we literally ran out of our cab and rushed to the theater. after a couple of wrong turns and missed theater entrances, we finally got in. it was exactly 8pm. however, there had been a strong directive to arrive at least 15 minutes before the start of the play. as we tried to present our tickets, an old professorial-looking, bespectacled guy told us we were late and couldn’t get in. i tried to argue that it was 8pm sharp. he was adamant. we should have come earlier. one of my friend chose the “appeal to sympathy” approach and told him we had come all the way from rochester to see this play. finally he recanted. he told the usher to seat us on the narrow stairs, in between aisles. we were happy to sit anywhere. we later found out that our tormentor had been mr foreman himself.

the play was a multimedia, multi-layered work of art. my friend sarita likened the experience to stepping into an abstract painting.

in foreman’s own words: “will i be punished if i tell the truth about my motives? i want above all, to make a play that escapes what i see as the tunnel vision of unified subject matter – creating instead a play about ‘nothing’ except the evenly distributed grid of all things at once.

most plays are built with events, adventures, ideas. but i believe this focus has locked us all in a psychological/spiritual isolation chamber, fixated on the limited plateau of always inherited, second hand desire and experience.

i want instead –
TO MAKE A FASCINATING event that – through multilayered filigree of sound, image, light, verbal statement, gesture – makes that ‘texture’ be, all by itself, a new way of ‘being’ that creates or evokes a self no longer in need of the false ‘kick’ of events, no longer needing to latch onto focused intention. but a new self that can be energized in simply HOVERING over the field of total, evenly distributed ‘multi-possibility’.

does this sound like denying what has been the very basis of theater? so be it. but this is my aesthetic obsession, my love – to make ‘theater’ that spreads in the mind, spreads the mind itself, spreading evenly until there is… ‘nothing’? and yet one is thereby vibrating, and fulfilled.”

here’s the ny times review by ben brantley.

wake up mr sleepy!

the blue note and nyc

listening to wynton marsalis reminded me of going to the blue note. three of my friends and i went to nyc for a weekend in feb 2007. we rented a small apartment in the village and spent our first evening at the blue note, legendary jazz club and greenwich village institution. we had to stand in line for an hour, in spite of reservations, but it was worth it. the mulgrew miller trio performed first. miller has played with the duke ellington orchestra, under mercer ellington, and is an accomplished pianist. the donald harrison quartet was next. harrison’s confidence and ease with the sax were immediately apparent and so was his knack for badinage. the atmosphere was intimate and convivial. some of harrison’s young band members stood out. grammy-nominated christian scott was amazing on the trumpet. esperanza spalding is this beautiful young bass prodigy and vocalist who blew everyone away. i was interested to find out later that she opened rochester’s international jazz festival this year.

esperanza spalding