December 23, 2010
On my first weekend in Calcutta, luxuriating in the Oberoi Grand, I noticed a colour supplement in the newspapers – Indian tribal art had finally become fashionable, with an artist achieving $31,000 at a Sothebys auction in New York.
TRIBAL ART: I had been collecting this artist – Jangarh Singh Shyam from Madhya Pradesh, since the late 1980’s when I visited the Bharat Bhavan, an exciting gallery/museum complex in Bhopal. It was one of the first to collect contemporary Indian art (which was about to explode) and tribal artists – long marginalised and discriminated against because of their lowly caste status. On my many subsequent trips to India I continued to look for tribal art -I am after all a curator of Aboriginal art in Australia. I collected and exhibited paintings from the Warli tribals who live in the foothills of the Sahyadri mountains (north of Mumbai), Madhubani folk/village paintings from northern Bihar, and later, I was one of the first to arrange exhibitions of Khovar art from southern Bihar. In 1994, Jenny Kee, a famous London/Sydney fashion icon and artist, her boyfriend the late Danton Hughes, and I went on a “tribal tour” of Orissa to remote villages. Adventures included nearly being arrested for photographing near naked tribals at a weekly market high up in the mountains, to Jenny being swept up in a tribal wedding party walking along the road.
When I organized the Australian/Indian Government artists exchange and exhibition at the Crafts Museum in New Delhi in 1999, I ensured that Jangarh Singh Shyam participated joining Aboriginal artist Djambawa Marawili. This was most enjoyable, despite language barriers, and a huge “collaborative” canvas (which had no evidence of any collaboration), is now probably wrapped somewhere in the basement of the Australian High Commission in Delhi! Extremely unfortunately, Jangarh committed suicide while feeling isolated on an artists’s residency in Japan in 2001. His son is now getting recognized for his own art, but unfortunately, other tribal artists I saw this time seemed to be imitating Jangarh’s unique visual vocabulary…
Later in January 2011, I am going to exhibit my collection of Indian art at the Cross Arts Projects, Kings Cross – a small exhibition to mostly work out what to do with it, and enjoy!
MUM: Another adventure I had was with my mother who adored her trip to India in 1990 and was just ecstatic when she rode an elephant. She has long been truly fascinated by elephants which I am only now beginning to fully understand and share in her enthusiasm.
INDIA: I have been asked how different I found India after 10 years – and I didn’t find it very different. What I had forgotten was just how alive Indians are! They are just going for it – often against great odds, and mostly with a smile on their faces. Traffic and queues (and queue jumpers) can of course test one’s patience. There is apparently a huge increase in the middle class and it is good if more people have better lives and greater educational opportunities. The GNP is projected to be 9% for the coming year. Unfortunately, not everyone shares in this wealth, and the gap between rich and poor has widened. I noticed a lot of zippy little new cars and some new flyovers, and some instant suburbs, but basic infrastructure like roads seemed as run down as ever, and many open drains and worrying loose cables.
Many people were fascinated with a recent documentary (Kevin McCloud’s Grand Tour) that looked at the slums of Mumbai, where it is expected over 8 million people will live by next year. There is 85% employment in the slums, and most interestingly, a very strong sense of community that has been lost in wider suburbia, and that architects and city planners would like to replicate. I noticed two women sleep on the pavement opposite my hotel each night, probably after a day of sorting garbage, and could only imagine what their lives are like.
80 million children between the ages of 6 and 14 don’t go to school. Over a million schools have no buildings, or one teacher only, or no water or basic amenities.
But again, I can only reiterate my admiration for how well India works…given the challenges and the weight of the population.
READING: I very much enjoyed reading Nine Lives by William Dalrymple. I had previously enjoyed his history of Delhi, The City of Djinns. He is interested in how modern India is impacting on the past and traditions, and looks at nine extraordinary lives, and their religious and spiritual experiences. These include a middle class woman who has found fulfillment living in a cremation ground, and a temple dancer who is worshipped as an incarnate deity for 2 months of the year, but is a prison warden for the remainder. One of the many unique things about India is how, unlike most other cultures, the present is not disconnected from the past. Their mythological stories and epics are renewed, reinterpreted and evolving, with the Ramayan for example, a very popular television serial in the 1980s.
I loved the quote in the book from Shah Abdul Lalif a C18th Sufi master (especially as there was a recent hysterical wave of share-buying in an Indian coal company): “Deal only with things that are good. If you trade coal, you will be covered in soot. But if you trade musk, you will smell of perfume”.
One of my favourite writers is the grumpy but amusing VS Naipaul who I first read when I went to India. I loved his writing as a returning (for the first time) Trinidad-born Indian. An Area of Darkness (1964) – I love the quote, “To be in Bombay was to be exhausted”, and then India: A Wounded Civilisation (1977). Aravind Adiga (The White Tiger) recently wrote that Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990) was “so compassionate, so insightful in it’s vision of India as a land that grows through strife” that Indians forgave Naipaul his criticisms and fully embraced him.
Good news is that Vikram Seth is writing A Suitable Girl to be published in 2013!
HOLIDAY READING: Tony Fitzjohn’s Born Wild, David Suzuki’s The Legacy (I like his mantra of “clean air, clean water and clean food”) and familiarising myself with the intelligent and very relevant work of Tim Jackson and Wade Davis, starting with their TED Talks.
COLABA: In Mumbai I rarely leave the beautiful harbour suburb of Colaba, near the now unfortunately infamous Taj Hotel, and the Gateway of India. Although people still sleep in the street there, or camp beside buildings, I did find it rather odd to see in this suburb with some of the most valuable real estate in the world, rather beautiful black and white goats tethered to fences. I then realised that it was Eid-ul-Azha (EID) and they were to be sacrificed. I was extremely upset.
CAMPAIGNS: At the same time I was emailed about Australian sheep being sent to the Middle East, and for EID were also killed cruelly. You can watch a most disturbing report that was recently screened, and to add your voice of protest email the Australian Government, click here. We are complicit in this trade…and these “sacrifices”.
TONY THE TIGER: Update
Whatever your beliefs or indulgences, Merry Christmas, Season’s Greetings etc, I hope you have an enjoyable break with your families and pets. I’m most appreciative that many of you find the time to read my blog, and respond and comment – I love your animal stories and photographs! Can I thank many of you for drawing my attention to interesting stories and issues and relevant campaigns. Let’s try to make a difference next year, and I especially want Tony the tiger to be freed! My best wishes for a more peaceful and a more sustainable 2011.