Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Business of Art

A few weeks ago, I was at the Chitra Santhe, the one-day ‘affordable art’ fair organised in January every year by the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath – a Visual arts centre in Bangalore, India. I saw paintings of all kinds along the sidewalk. What I also saw was that people were taking photographs of the paintings. There were those looking at the displays on their DSLR cameras, there were others looking at their cell phone screens. Wherever I went, I saw the painting, the ‘device’ and the human eye. The “device” was that something new that had entered our lives. It was making it possible for us to share instantaneously - through a “text message” or a “digital image”. Kodak had said that it was not Fuji that was putting them ‘out of business’ but NOKIA. The cell phone had given us the power that no generation before had had.

When Walter Benjamin wrote his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in 1936, he was describing the revolution in perception that was taking place with technical reproduction through film and photography. It was now possible for a work of art to be reproduced and be present anywhere. He had said, “That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art”. Today, as we find ourselves enslaved by cameras and cell phones, I ask myself, what are the meanings embedded within ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Text Messaging’?

As I walked through the Chitra Santhe, I realised that there were no regulations that could stop you from taking photographs of this creative body of work. This was a public space and everything that was part of this space seemed available for free. But, why were people taking pictures? Were these photographs for reproducing the memory of the art fair? Were they for reproducing the painting as yet another painting? Was this about possessing art, perhaps only as a folder on your computer hard disk, to retrieve any time, as many times as you wanted? Or, was it about sharing your own creation in cyber space? This was reproduction and technology simplified to such an extent that anyone could take a picture; anyone could put it in the public domain.

However, for a generation that had grown accustomed to text messaging the transmission of an idea seemed to matter more than its authenticity. I wondered if this ‘mobile device image’ was analogous to a ‘text message’ which was cutting down on words. How did one cut down on an image? How did one reduce the wordiness from an image? Was it about image content here or was it about the time taken to make the image? Was technology not making it possible to store more and more in less and less? What was changing in today’s society? Did we have a dearth of digital space or a dearth of real time?

I was taking photographs too. Why was I there? I was taking pictures to document the art fair, to learn from how urban spaces in the city transform into temporal marketplaces. But, I was also taking pictures of ‘people taking pictures’. It reminded me of a painting I had seen many years ago at the Chemould art gallery in Bombay. It was an exhibition of Atul Dodiya’s work. Dodiya had appropriated the surrealist painter Rene Magritte, showing the backs of the artist Bhupen Khakhar and himself looking at a Magritte, a 1937 portrait of Edward James looking at himself, titled ‘Not to be reproduced’.

These are reflections coming from different directions and maybe they do not tell a story. In the production of art, the narration of the story has reflected the perception of the artist. In its exhibition, the work of art takes on a meaning that its audience generates. Here, at the Chitra Santhe, as we photograph art on our cameras and our cell phones, we transform its exhibition value and lend it multiple meanings. But, could that be true? Or, in these times of unlimited choice, was this “representation of art” an imagined option to organise our own world and our own reality?

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Pani Puri wallah

The ritual at the Pani-puri wallah always started on a silent note. You just stepped in to be a part of an existing circle around him or to form a new one. As you stood there, your eyes moved from watching the crisp puris moving into the pot of pani to watching his hands as they swiftly stuffed one puri after another. You waited as he completed this cycle of doling out delight in small, sometimes easy-to-eat portions and sometimes not.

Some more silence as he started preparations for you and the new circle. Fresh leaf bowls were handed out and the hands moved again in a rhythmic order. You swallowed the delight that came your way, one in every ten seconds or more depending on how large the circle around him was. The last of the puris and then a generous round of “just the pani”.

These are memories of the days when simple joys of life were meted out for one rupee each! Here was a man in the Bazaar who could do so much for you and what did he ask for in return? A few square feet for his puris and his pani and a space for you and me to stand around him. That isn’t much to ask. Did he have a place that he preferred over others? A street corner is what he always liked. You knew you could look for him and you would find him, he had his place in the bazaar. Today, you still can find him, though the backdrop may have changed - where there earlier was a Baskar Provision stores, today there is a Foodworld; where earlier there was an India Coffee house, today there is the Cafe Pascucci or where earlier there was a Brijwasi Sweets, today there is The French Loaf. The Pani puri wallah is still there...

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Friday, January 06, 2012

What is Chai

And, why is the chai so much a part of our lives? In India, we believe that time is cyclic and in the many years we live before we are reborn again, the chai is at the core of our existence. It is the cup of chai (tea) that helps us mark time in our homes, in our streets, in our marketplaces. Every home offers its guest a cup of tea. Every street corner offers its visitors a glass of chai. In the marketplace, the chai creates the social space that people need as an introspection, an interaction or a sharing of experiences.

The Chai glass: in a Street in Udaipur

The tea or “chai” has a special place in the homes of North Indians with its range of flavours to choose from. There is the Adrak-ki-chai (ginger tea), the Elaichi-chai (cardamom tea), the Dalchini-chai (cinnamon tea) or the Pudina-chai (mint tea) and with every cup, you add to your memories of a morning of reflection, an afternoon of family decisions or an evening of sharing with a friend. As I look closely at tea stalls in the streets and bazaars of Ahmedabad, Udaipur or Delhi, I realise that there are so many different ways in which people gather in public spaces "for a cup of chai".

As people participate in the buying and selling of goods in the Bazaar or Marketplace, they exercise control over the space in which they are situated and which surrounds them. For vendors, this control is the ability to transform some part of the bazaar environment to support their economic activity and sometimes their social needs as well. It is this transformation process that the chai stall seems to symbolise as it becomes the point of departure for economic and social exchanges in the marketplace.

1. a Shopowner sipping his morning cup of tea as the street bazaar begins to ready itself for the day’s customers

2. a Chai stall in Ahmedabad that manages its operations on a push-cart with its customers standing around the cart and exchanging the morning news or discussing the day’s work.

3. The functional space requirement for the making of the tea is quite minimal and the tea vendor needs a supply of water for the tea and for the washing to fulfill his operations at the marketplace.

4. While you can have a cup of chai as a shopper in the bazaar, the chai vendor also serves his fellow workers. At Sadar Bazaar in Delhi, the cycle rickshaw wallah, the auto rickshaw wallah and the tempo driver, all of whom bring the agricultural produce and other goods to the market in the early hours of the morning have their tea served to where they choose to rest. 

5. The chai stall in the town of Patan in Gujarat has a generous sitting place that belongs to the street. The tea seller uses a public space for private consumption and this borrowed space becomes a place of social exchange that he offers his regular customers. 

6. Sketch Plan of Chai stall in Patan: The tea vendor is part of a layering process that has spatial elements – those that mark his own territory and those that circumvent his territory

7. In Gujarat as in other parts of India, you can buy yourself adrak chai on the streets and you may have a choice of a plastic cup or a ceramic cup and saucer to suit your own levels of hygiene and nostalgia

I first began to think about the place of Chai in Urban spaces when I had the chance to listen to Philip Lutgendorf present his research work at Dakshinachitra on the Indian Tea. Here is a link to: Chai Why? – The Triumph of Tea in India

And, this is an interesting blog on the Irani cafes in Mumbai: http://www.iranichaimumbai.com/

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The Golla wallah
The Informal Economy & Urban space
Peanut festival in Bangalore
The Pani Puri wallah