Some Photographs from the event –
The paintings here –
A brief outline of the talk –
First, a poem about memory –
Burnt sienna, raw umber, mahogany
twelve shiny tamarind seeds
stowed away in an old tin box on the loft
between the stack of copper vessels
and a rusty locked iron trunk
whose key can never be found
Mother played with them when she was little
and taught me when I was six
to sit cross legged on the floor
fling them on the ground
toss one up and pick the others
before it fell down
invent words and tunes,
conjure worlds and magic wands
that set things right
spells, monsters and evil witches
trounced by good people who live happily ever after
lazy summer afternoons, a soft muslin nine yard saree
and the sweet smell of a grandmothers lap
a little girl in a mango stained petticoat
grazed shins from the rough bark outside her window
of the neem and the gulmohor
holding hands to spread a filigreed pandal overhead
a fragrant carpet of crimson petals and chrome seeds at her feet
her treasure of tamarind seeds before her
with the gleam of cats eye, jasper, topaz and quartz
her dowry and her trousseau
you can throw a seed at the sky
and will it the power to hide the sun
girls become women and tin boxes
with tamarind seeds and sweet scented childhoods
get put on the loft where the sun cannot reach
not forgotten but ignored
like some words we are too embarrassed to speak
because they’ve grown labels
Let us take the box down today
spread them all before us again
toss them in the air
see how they fall
do love and loyalty stay close
do trust and honesty blink
from being in the dark all these years
or can they still look the sun in the eye
do truth and reason keep a distance
or do they hold hands, take wing and fly
like butterflies and birds
set free from the nets
if we manage to get them all afloat perhaps
we’ll also rescue gossamer wings.
Today I’d like to speak about memory, history, self identity, displacement and the consequences of erasures. All of this especially in the context of the erasures effected during the course of a rapidly metamorphosing metropolis (particularly our own city, Mumbai) that seems to be hurtling towards being ‘Shanghaied’. I’d like to speak about my response to these transformations where I attempt, through my work on canvas and with words to retrieve, record and archive the things that have symbolizes the spirit of this city and that held significance not only to me but to very many denizens of these streets who also share this love for our city, our ‘watan’.
- I) Memory forms the history of an object or being. The history of a person is his self identity. Identity defines character and character shapes action which results in the act of creation/production and events which then leads to the evolution of the being – object, person, the individual or a city.
Thus a person is defined by his actions, by his story – history.
I believe that the city too is an organic being – it develops, grows, has a character that is defined and shaped by its history. Both, its broad economic and social history as well as the particular histories of the people, individuals, communities and neighbourhoods that have organically grown around commercial and professional activity.
Mumbai has been shaped by the industry, trade and businesses that grew here along with the neighbourhoods that served these activities and the populace that served these trades, industry and business. People from diverse regions from within as well as outside the nation’s borders converged to be nurtured by the city as well as to nurture it themselves – a symbiotic relationship that also resulted in the intermingling of different cultures, social backgrounds and classes. This gave the city its consmopolitanism – a dynamic culture that was alive, symbiotic, enriching and inclusive.
2) The past two decades have seen Mumbai moving far too rapidly towards a rather drastic transformation. In that process, it is obliterating – erasing – many aspects of the city that symbolized and shaped the very character of the city.
Palimpsest is what is leftover from successive erasures. It is an indelible record, an archive, of the ghosts of erasures. Scars perhaps, that remain even when the animal is moulting.
Mumbai, then, is moulting, shedding its skin and metamorphosing.
Mills give way to malls, expansive chawls with teakwood rafters and wide wooden staircases worn down by several generations of footfall make way for cold towers of glass and chrome, the welcoming Irani cafe at every street corner is eased out by lounges, restobars and pubs, simple childhood games fade before gaming and gadgets, communities scatter before the massive JCB earthmovers …and the megapolis carries out many erasures.
In the face of this rapid transformation we obliterate many aspects that have symbolized the ethos of the city. The erasures therefore are not only of structures but also of its history and character. Many of the things that stood as the essence of the spirit of the city seem to lose relevance. The erasures then, are obliterations from public discourse, public memory and from relevance. Erasures of context, of significance, of values, milieu, of a way of life, of aspirations and co existence.
3) Thus, it is not a nostalgic remembrance of ‘the good old days’, or a recitation of ‘in our time…’ nor even a Luddite position of opposing all change but rather a statement that attempts to underline the ramifications of obliterating something that was crucial in building this city over several generations. Something that had given the city its dynamism and its character as being open, open minded, safe and modern. So even as we replace that musty old chawl with a spanking new gated community, drive out vendors from the streets and replace them with malls selling vegetables in plastic wrap, replace the Irani café and udupi restaurant with swanky coffee shops and burger outlets – we are yet left with the question of whether this implies progress, ‘development’, an advancement and betterment of Mumbai as a thriving cosmopolitan metropolis or is all of this leading the city towards becoming more parochial and exclusivistic, towards breaking of the community spirit and leading its people into becoming self directed, isolated and alienated – all of which implies a breaking of the city’s cosmopolitan character and, perhaps, a retrograde movement towards becoming more and more provincial and narrow minded.
4) What does a writer or painter do who is witness to this sad history of her city? She can retrieve, record, archive and point to these erasures. Try to outline the palimpsest (in the form of memory) left behind – to capture its bylanes, mills, Irani cafes, behemoths, chawls, chimneys, alleys, staircases, corridors and doorways not only because they are part of personal as well as collective memory, but also because they have defined and shaped the complexion of Mumbai – the warp and weft of the social fabric of this city and the character and spirit of its people.
Presenting then, a collage in Paint and Poetry – Some love letters to Bombay/Mumbai
A cruel sun beat down and roasted to a crisp within an hour
spices and red chilies laid out to dry on the pavement
then, like the child wanting to create fire with a lens and straw
it shone back reflecting from a million walls of glass
and multiplied enough to start a fire in the belly of the rubble
of wood, brick and Mangalore tiles all bulldozed in an organic heap
waiting to rise again like a new glass and chrome phoenix temple
demanding obeisance – tall, smooth, silent, intimidating and sleek.
Smooth the realtor’s tongue, intimidating the muscle power
behind his safari suit, silent the automated window pane of his jaguar
tall his promise of alternate shelter, sleek the polarized Ray Bans that cover
his swiftly calculating eyes – glass and chrome hot enough to start a fire
no place to hide or rest or nest and that was when the swift footed squirrel
eloped far away elsewhere with the soft feathered sparrow never to return.
There it is, that sound
the constant hypnotic stacatto
iron wheels on iron rails
the track waits for none
and the impatient crowd on the platform holds its breath
for a momentary pause in that rhythm
so they may enter and be one with it.
There it is, the tick tock
like blood in your veins the pulse of the clock
a beat that rules your feet
tethered to the treadmill at an unceasing urgent pace
running faster even to remain at the same place
and the smothered impatient thoughts hold their breath
for a momentary blink to get a toehold into your mind
that might compel you to think.
There it is, the roar
that restive thrashing at the shore
the restless wave on the rocks protesting reclamation
the ominous hum of earthmovers,
silent evictions and demolitions and giant cement mixers
snaking about everywhere like vipers
and the impatient wave holds its breath
for even a momentary pause, a chink
in the machine’s armour so it may reclaim
the territory that was rightly hers.
WHEN THE MOON IS FULL
When the moon is full and bloated with the sins of men
and with the lies that they speak, then she puts on a jaundiced halo
and reflects a light so blinding that the people may not see
and cringe and die in shame at the horrors that their wantonness has begot.
When the moon is full and bloated.
Then she picks up her weary satchel to set off on her lonesome beat
Through the alleys and the subways of the city that is on heat.
Searching for that one act of kindness from hands that do not seek
For courage and compassion in this city that is on heat.
Seeking a mind that still finds meaning in syllables
forming tenuous words that people are too embarrassed to speak
she searches on her lonely beat.
And when she finds them she exults at this redemption like
an excited schoolboy unearthing a stash of marbles who marvels at his find,
she exults at this redemption.
Then bathes them in her gentle light
He cleans his treasure with tender care
She covers them with her mantle
He wraps it in brown paper
She returns to the skies
He hurries home with his prize
She guards them through the night
He conceals it out of sight
She stands vigil with the stars and the fireflies
When the moon is full.
From the dark wooden staircase worn down under five generations of footfall
From Teen Batti, Saat rasta, Kaala Chowki, Lalbaug and Shivdi
to the ST bus depots at Bombay Central, Parel and Dadar running
extra services during April, September and October
eager happy families, kids, aji and atya with brass boxes
full of laddoos and rexine bags with zippers that do not work
carrying little gifts of childrens’ clothes and plastic toys that will
put stars in the eyes of nieces and nephews.
ST buses loaded with bodies aching for rest, for quiet
and for tight embraces of brothers that stayed back
or went back defeated by the city of bright lights.
Kin they must necessarily invite
to every function in the family – happy or tragic
if they don’t feed them on the thirteenth day of the funeral
who else is there when they themselves pass?
Of all the attachments the city breeds is there one as strong
and compelling as the call of the red soil he left behind
barren, meager, dry and unproductive, yes
yet his very own.
FINDING A VOICE
And I want it this way
Cafe Mondegar with you on a Saturday night
when it is crammed full of peoples voices
clatter of cutlery and Mondy’s Crew
shouting out orders over our heads
the air warm and spilling over with
beer smell and the merry old man smiling
from a frame on the wall beside
a Budweiser in blue and red neon lights.
on the busy walls, another of the crew frozen forever
in a goofy smile with foam overflowing
the six beer mugs he manages in one hand and
behind him the buggy horse with a quizzical smile for
the lobster that jumps up from a plate and bites the nose
of an astonished patron, napkin tucked into collar
knife and fork raised in anticipation,
if Hoshang is on the premises
he’ll tell you its history all over again.
Our bentwood chairs right next to the juke box
hard rock on a loop, loud, very loud
languages crisscrossing above in disciplined warps and wefts
till they become a dialect all its own
and it descends like an insistent fabric
resisting purification or decipherment
the air as crowded as the seven column menu
sandwiched between the glass and the checkered gingham
loud, very loud so we can’t hear each other speak
and we fall as silent as the stir fried
pepper garlic prawns on a Mario-print plate
silent as the condensation on the cool dark bottle
silent as the pool at its feet
Then I will hear only what your eyes speak
listen to your hands as they rest on the table
read the history your burnished skin reveals and
the whisper of the wave in your hair as she softens
the blows life has thrown at you.
I want it this way, no words between us
just that which settles down on us from above
we’ll slip in between the binaries to reach
a fuzzy logic beyond denotations
not what you said but the implication of the gap
that lies behind it wanting to be read
the semantics of the spaces between your words.
for the times to grow silent are upon us now and we must
hold our tongues, adjust the kerning, leave room for our silences
to express that which we dare not speak out loud anymore
so then we will plot a conspiracy
and make muteness a weapon for our mutiny.
A PRELUDE TO PASSION
The mynah calling
Late for work
The leaf a trembling
Just can’t shirk.
Grab a bite on the go
Clouds a gathering
Will miss the 8.20 slow.
Wait, don’t go
Where the heck are my socks?
It’s a beautiful day, take a CL today
Door shuts and the key turns in the lock.
The house still calls
Behind the locked door
Two empty glasses on the table
Still asking for more.
A deep dark sigh
Echoes to its own call
Louder at every turn
Beyond the solitary hall.
It whirls on its toes
And fills every room
Drums out the emptiness
And pirouettes round the gloom.
Till nothing else is left
But the swirling of its sound
Like a dervish in his dance
Oblivious and unbound.
Then it falls exhausted
With yet a hope in its sight
Busy as the day might have been, there’s still
The promise of the night.