October 30, 2007

Kala Ghoda Diwali Utsav

The Kala Ghoda Association hosted a crafts festival in collaboration with HSBC as a part of its Diwali Utsav celebrations through the weekend, ending Sunday the day before. Though there was little of Diwali in the celebrations there was enough variety to keep the audience in its seats in the open air auditorium between the Bombay Natural History Society’s Hornbill House and the Jahangir Art Gallery. The street came alive with a string of stalls, including those catering to food enthusiasts, and the stage where light, sound, and music stepped it up for the artists. We reached just as the Bharatnatyam exponents took to the stage to entertain the weekend crowd.

Later, Raell Padamsee's band of school-going children revved it up with a spirited performance.

Gary Richardson introducing Brinda Miller to the audience. Brinda Miller is a painter and is actively involved in making the Diwali Utsav happen.

Then Gary Richardson took to the stage with Nisha Harale in two interactive plays. Gary was fluent through the performance and pleasantly energetic but I couldn't help feeling that they picked up themes that didn't sit well with the Utsav, but then scripting plays that do not rely on a bit of hot spice to raise a laugh is never an easy proposition. Another place, another occasion, the same plays might have been perfect!

Alyque Padamsee holds forth from the table, attempting to make the obvious memorable until it was neither.

Max and Harry let the guitar flow to a soothing rendition of Don McLean's 1971 classic 'American Pie' before following up with equally memorable tunes.

The music changed pace again, quickening to the rendering of the Ganesh Vandana as the lights dimmed.

There was little doubt that the evening had something for everyone.

October 22, 2007

A Tight Frame

It was outside the Jahangir Art Gallery that we saw the poster advertising form and re-form, a photography exhibition at the Piramal Gallery in the NCPA complex adjoining Marine Drive, not far from the Air India building.

I paused, rewound ten years, and wondered if it was the same Joginder Singh, the slightly built Sikh lad holding forth on nature and environment while transparencies played out on the wall behind him to an eclectic audience gathered in the gallery at D’Souza Towers in the heart of Panjim for the opening of his first photography exhibition.

When I reminded him yesterday of the Jute frames he had used for his nature photographs back then, Joginder Singh laughed out loud and said, “That’s all I could afford then.” However I suspect it might have had more to do with his inclination towards nature conservation if his theme then was anything to go by, nature patterns close-up. I distinctly remember him telling the audience gathered in the basement gallery that day of an incident in a train where his fellow passengers were chucking their plastic tea cups from the window, littering the tracks in the countryside and the argument it triggered thereafter.

The talk had taken a passionate turn then while his photo slides projected instant stories on the wall behind him. In between he had made mention of Panchkula. I hadn’t heard of Panchkula until then. A news item in the Indian Express soon after reported the trapping of a leopard in Panchkula. I can still summon to my mind the picture of the leopard trapped in a cage. For reasons I cannot quite fathom I came to associate Joginder with Panchkula, Panchkula with the leopard, and the leopard with Chandigarh - a chain of associations that even if not true to their pairings served to file away the memory of that event to the back of my mind. Goa did not afford many opportunities for viewing photography efforts. Moreover it is surprising how passing time stitches fragments of remembered moments into no logical sequence even as it reminds one of the contiguity threading the seemingly random fragments together into a disparate whole.

“Ten years is a long time,’’ Joginder Singh says as we take a round of the gallery. I nod and say, “Yes, it sure is a long time.’’ He hasn’t changed much physically except for his beard. Now he wears it long. I tell him that he talks more freely now. He smiles.

I turn my attention to his exhibits. Each image cuts a distinct identity. I would suppose it is a natural outcome of zeroing in to a form’s architectural essence where lines emerge before running on to a larger interplay of intersecting contexts. Joginder has captured the essence cleanly.

Joginder Singh is a 70’s child. He trained as an Architect before practicing as one in Delhi at the Laurie Baker Building Centre in the mid-nineties before moving to Goa to work with Dean D’ Cruz for a year. “I loved doing the Laurie Baker kind of Architecture. Baker has been an inspiration, an ideal and everything. So when I moved to Goa to work with Dean who was doing similar work but for a different clientele, it involved a different expression but used similar (Laurie Baker's) ideology."

Looking at his photographs uniquely display light as the recurring theme, at times highlighting forms, other times pushing them to the background, I reflect on his use of the term ideology with context to the Laurie Baker style of Architecture and wonder how deeply might such an approach influence his photography as in narrowing his focus to a distinct thread while ‘blanking’ out the tapestry it is a part of. Would it for instance enforce a continuity of thought as an underlying thread stringing together visually disparate elements of what are essentially distinct structures but which when stripped off their larger contexts appear to belong together.

Pictures of Jantar Mantar (Delhi and Jaipur), the Padmanabhapuram Palace and a Ladakh monastery will sit together not merely as distinct eras but equally strongly as distinct emotions, each evoking in its form a completeness that cannot be mistaken for one another. However if you were to zoom into each of the three and settle on an emerging curve or a line form in the structure, the elements now stripped of their eventual contexts lose their larger identities as a Jantar Mantar, a Buddhist monastery or a Padmanabhapuram Palace and stand on their own in unison as if derived from a common architecture.

Elements combine to give a monument its identity and vice versa. To make a structural element stand on its own even when stripped of its overall context is a challenge to a photographer, even more so when exhibited in a series. There is a danger of sameness negating the very mood it seeks to create. However Joginder Singh has ‘harnessed’ light well to break the monotony and it is his use of light in delineating contrasts in his photographs, essentially minimalist in nature, that brings life to the series, casting original forms in a new light, a re-form as Jogi likes to call them.

A lady tourist who’s been going through the exhibits in silence steps up to Joginder and congratulates him on his work, her eyes lighting up. The colours appeal for sure but rendering forms stripped to their bare essentials can make for riveting viewing if cast in an eclectic play of light, where shadows play out in consonance with solid elements.

Talking of forms Joginder says, “Basically it is a process of elimination. Boiling it down to essentials where as a photographer and an architect you’re communicating the form, and you’re seeing that communication happen when things are falling into the frame.” He pauses before continuing. “It is not an analytical or logical manner, not based on any rationale but it’s just that things have fallen in place, visual synchrony I would say.” And sweeping his hand to take in the breath of his exhibits in the hall, he says of them, “Lot of these images are symmetrical.”

Joginder’s graduation from Nature photography to Architectural photography happened with his switch from being a full time architect to ‘wanting to pursue photography as a medium.’ He said, “I was thoroughly enthused with photography even while I was studying Architecture and practicing it. So I realized I could not do justice to photography if I continued as an Architect. I had to choose one.”

After returning to Delhi from Goa in 1998 he left for Himachal Pradesh for two years to help design 24 primary schools across three districts for the District primary Education Program. It was there that he began photographing architecture as a part of the project to help document the architectural heritage of those villages. “It was important to ensure that our designs did not stick out like sore thumbs. We did resource mapping of materials and resources in the village and designed accordingly.”

Joginder’s team once sourced a landslide near the site for rocks to use in construction. “In lower areas we did a bamboo and ferro-cement combination,” he recalls. “For two years I worked intensively on that project. My involvement in the third year reduced but I continued to contribute remotely to the project for a year after returning to Delhi.”

Then he shuttled between Delhi and Trivandrum in Kerala ‘to study Laurie Baker’s work in original’. He attributes his interest in Laurie Baker’s work to a trip he undertook to Kerala with the students of the Goa College of Architecture where he was teaching photography as an elective subject while working with Dean D’Cruz, a Goan Architect. “Until then whatever I knew of Baker’s work was from reading books. So with a little money, a camera and some film rolls I made for Trivandrum and started shooting Baker’s work.”

The Kerala connection bore fruit with the release of the book Glimpses of Architecture in Kerala – Temples and Palaces by Rupa & Co. in 2006. Flipping through its pages I’m struck by his use of light to highlight the temple and palace architecture of Kerala, a heritage so distinct from that of other Indian states as to be striking. Standing there I can only imagine the experience the project must've afforded him, footloose in the beauteous coastal landscape. Ramu Katakam wrote the book while Joginder Singh executed the photography to illustrate the book, a visual treat. It is priced at Rs. 995.

Talking of light and form he says, “Working on commissioned projects where I have to shoot the project in its totality I have to wait for the light, because form has been designed. Form is basically what? It’s an enclosure yaar, right? If you have an entrance to it, you’ve got light into the form or it’s all around the form. It’s eating out something from space and interacting with light. So, light is there and you need to capture that, y’know.”

Then turning to face the wall behind him he points out to one of his exhibits, “If you look at that second picture on the wall from that corner, that was shot on a day when we went to Jantar Mantar and it was extremely cloudy. There was no Sun. If you’re attuned to light then you know that when you’re shooting a picture, somewhere, subconsciously, (though you) might not define it unless you talk about it, you’re trying to capture a certain essence and then you’ve to wait for that certain light to bring that essence out, so whether it's that tight a frame, or that wide or a panorama . . . . .” then he trails off. Some things cannot always be expressed, they've to be understood. I nod.

It’s nearing seven in the evening. Two gallery attendants in white walk in, preparing to close it for the day. As Joginder prepares to put things in 'closing' order he tells me of a play he is scheduled to attend at one of the theatres in the complex later that evening. Just then he gets a call on his cell from a friend. “One wicket down,” he tells the friend at the other end, his voice rising excitedly to the pitch of his hand weaving the air. I smile to myself and wait for him to finish gathering his things on the table by the gallery entrance and reflect on how some idioms need no explaining. Then I open the door and we walk down the steps and into the cool evening air. His cell rings again, and as he speaks with someone else we turn the corner. I wave out to him and he waves back even as speaks into the receiver before the night swallows him on his way to the theatre.

Joginder Singh’s Photography Exhibition form and re-form is on at the Piramal Gallery, NCPA, Nariman Point, Mumbai until the 28th of October, 2007.

October 02, 2007

A Colaba Evening at Piccadilly

I have no idea what is running through Faisal’s mind as he stands leaning against the staircase in the shaft of evening Sun shooting across Piccadilly’s floor in Colaba. It is that kind of an evening I suppose, reflective.

We pick our way across the room dodging chairs as we head to a corner table that looks out on a quiet lane abutting the busy road crowded by roadside vendors selling trinkets and other paraphernalia among baskets of fruits. Old buildings rise from the relative quiet of the street that breaks off and passes by the window where we’re squeezed into two chairs after heaping the third with my rucksack. Two couples sit at their tables carrying on muted conversations. I take to the quiet and scan the menu for something to eat. Outside, a parakeet emerges out of nowhere and lands on the roof of a parked car. I lean out the window to get a better look, and maybe a picture. It is not everyday that I see a parakeet in Bombay. But then in the quiet streets of Old Bombay some descendants live on, offering glimpses of a city that time wore out as footpaths echoed to the urgent beat of arriving migrant feet.

I scan through Iranian and Lebanese menu items before settling for fresh lime soda and garlic bread. Jabrir smiles at us as he takes the order before disappearing out of sight. We’ve picked a corner to stretch out the evening Sun. The nook barely holds a table and two chairs while shielding us from the rest of the restaurant. A steady sheet of pieces of plaster tumble down outside while a worker holding a rope fences off a portion of the road for commuters while another worker balancing on a plank chips away at the plaster on the wall. Old buildings undergo regular maintenance to keep them standing. It hasn’t helped that monsoons stretch over four months, soaking the megapolis to its very bone.

In a building across the lane an elderly lady looks out from her first floor balcony watching a lady exiting the building by the main gate. The gray of the building sets off her wrinkled face, distinct from ethnic Indian faces. Colaba is among the more prominent homes to Parsis of Bombay. When I look up again I find her gone.

Piccadilly sits in Colaba Causeway opposite Electric House, not far from the Taj Hotel on the other side. On our way to the Piccadilly we’d passed a Victoria (Horse Carriage) in the Causeway, parked by the side of the road awaiting customers desirous of a ride on South Bombay streets lined by old buildings. It is only when you look above eye level, at the buildings sporting decidedly British architectural influence and names of its mostly Parsi past that it becomes possible to imagine and derive a sense of the gentle charm they must have lent the city, helping it find its feet as Bombay in the decades following their settlement. The Causeway came into being in 1838 after the British East India Company built it to connect the southernmost islands of Colaba and Old Woman’s island to the main Island of Bombay, now renamed Mumbai. The Causeway runs further on to Regal Circle where we saw workers on their feet, putting finishing touches to the statue of Lal Bahadur Shastri, the former Prime Minister of India, in time for its unveiling.

A building near Regal Circle

Firoze now runs Piccadilly. After migrating from Iran his father, Faredoon Kermanian, teamed up with a business partner to start Piccadilly opposite Electric House over fifty years ago. When Firoze married the business partner’s daughter, Piccadilly became a family affair.

“Piccadilly started off as a typical Irani restaurant serving standard Irani fare, Brun Maska pav, Kheema etc.,” Firoze told me. “Later we converted it to an English restaurant serving English breakfast.” Apparently in the 1970s and the 80s Goa drew moneyed foreign tourists in large numbers. A significant number of these tourists stayed behind the Piccadilly, at the Five Star Taj, looking out on the Gateway of India along Apollo Bunder, its frontage spread regally along the waters of the Arabian sea.

“They stopped over at the Taj hotel on their way to Goa,” Firoze said. “It was then we began serving up English breakfast to suit their tastes. They would walk down from the Taj to Piccadilly for breakfast.” So, the Piccadilly began opening early to serve English breakfast.

“By 8:30 in the morning we’d open for the day,” Firoze recalls. Piccadilly offered tourists a package deal on the breakfast. “Two Omlettes and tea among other items made up the English breakfast. They found spicy food too strong for their tastes, instead preferring salads and cream type of foods,” Firoze explains the change in the Piccadilly menu from the original Irani to English. However Piccadilly was to soon change character, once again.

Fired up by stories of rich tourists with dollars to spend, the late 1980s and all of the 90s saw traders from all over India descend on Goa, bringing with them business ethics and practices unique to their culture and communities but often in variance with local sensibilities and culture, opening up simmering fault lines. But it was only a matter of time before they drew in ready converts from within the local community often in pursuit of lure of the easy lucre and combined with unchecked violation of coastal regulations governing coastal constructions, tourism broke free of its aesthetic constraints formerly governed by ‘sense of place’, reducing Goa’s coasts to a sandy equivalent of a decaying mine, diminishing its charm as an idyllic coastline free of commercialisation. The introduction of direct Charter flights to Goa served further to erode Bombay as a stop over for tourists enroute to Goa though the flights were and still are too few to actually account for the large numbers who began to stay away. The no holds barred commercialization saw Goa fall out of favour with a section of foreign tourists, and the number of Goa-bound foreign tourists walking down to Piccadilly for breakfast fell quickly in the 1990s.

Luckily for Firoze it coincided with the steady influx of Iranians visiting India in the 1990s. In some ways I cannot help wondering if Firoze came a full circle with this development for, Firoze’s ancestors came from Iran, but I detect no hint of the sentiment I was looking for and I was left with little doubt about the lack of it after he said, “My father and mother visited Iran, I never did.” The persecution of the minority Parsi community with the advent of Islam in Iran was horrifying enough for Parsis to undertake perilous sea voyages to escape certain annihilation at the hands of Islamic followers, eventually finding their way to India, and safety. In time they found their way to Bombay never to return to Iran and like they say the rest is history.

“During the reign of the Shah of Iran it (Iran) was good. It was modern, outgoing, discos and all,” Firoze explained. “Once the mullahs took over in 1979, tightening their grip on everyday life, Iranians began to seek freedom elsewhere, and India was an option they exercised, visiting Bombay.” So, Iranian food made its way to the Piccadilly menu, and in time with tourists visiting India from the Middle East, Lebanese food was added as well.

Piccadilly saw an eclectic bunch of visitors. Firoze recalls instances of Iranian footballers stepping into his restaurant for food. “Some of them were looking for jobs and came to India for one. Bobby, a waiter who used to work with us, helped find an Iranian Coach an opening over the Internet. The Coach used to step into Piccadilly for Iranian food and had gotten to know us well.” Hearing Firoze talk of Iranian footballers two names sprint to the surface in my mind, that of Iranian footballers Jamshed Nassiri and Majid Bakshar who went on to play for East Bengal in the 1980s. Mohammedan Sporting responded by including in their ranks two other Iranians, Khabazi and Sanjari. I distinctly remember Jamshed Nassiri featuring regularly in Indian newspaper coverage of the domestic football scene.

“They usually came here with their families and made their way upstairs as they disliked sitting in crowds,” Firoze continues. I try and imagine the scene as he speaks. Looking back now and reflecting on it I believe that if one stays anywhere long enough it becomes home but somewhere in their hearts every migrant or exile seeks his origins if only to experience the culture and language that defined his ethnicity. In time that changes too but a sense of responsibility to their past encourages one to take pride in what made them what they are, for in preserving their culture and mores they’re in effect preserving the memory of their ancestors and their way of life. What can be a greater tribute?

The shaft of sunlight has mellowed somewhat. Faisal walks over to serve a visitor who’s just stepped in before returning to his place at the foot of the stairway to the upper floor. He has an absent look on his face as he stands quietly with his hand in his pocket.