The Artful Dodgers

Maverick:The Artful Dodgers
by Farzana Versey

The Asian Age, Op-ed, May 29, 2007

The Hindutvavadis were right when they spoke about how the paintings of the Shivlinga, Goddess Durga and Jesus Christ by a student from MS University, Vadodara, would promote religious enmity and hurt religious sentiments "with nefarious intentions like creating riots." Somebody did later decide there has to be communal parity, so Prophet Mohammed became the next target.

My target is the artist community. What made them gather together and make those sounds of, "We strongly condemn attempts on the part of communal political outfits to unnecessarily politicise issues connected with artistic expression"?

Will someone please tell us that when artists themselves portray political issues, in what position are they to hide behind the skirts of artistic expression? Would they speak up for Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the Dera Sacha Sauda chief, who was accused of "sacrilegious imitation of Guru Gobind Singh"? On what grounds does imitation of clothes and speech qualify as sacrilege? If we are told that we must follow in the footsteps of those who found God or were enlightened, then why does someone fashioning His persona after one such saint become an issue?

Does anyone have the answer?

Artists happily wear the garb of noble commitment when it suits them. They may paint a downtrodden people and their buyer will be someone who is perhaps an exploiter.

Regarding the Vadodara controversy, an art historian said, "Surely government and people have better things to do?"

When the government tax department raided 25 art establishments in New Delhi and Mumbai, there was collective anger, although art is like any commercial enterprise today and must be open to such scrutiny.

If these people want to ask questions like, "What do the cops know about art?", then could someone ask them what does that Mumbai businessman, Guru Swarup Srivastava, who paid Rs 100 crores for 100 M.F. Husain paintings, know? What do tyre manufacturers and other assorted such characters know? It is market frenzy. And because you cannot frame your mutual fund portfolio, you find something prettier.

Most of these sanctimonious types tend to sound irritatingly paranoid. "The sense of fear is palpable," said a filmmaker. "This is not just an attack on art. If they go on at this rate, they will also ban Mahatma Gandhi’s image, because he too doesn’t wear enough clothes."

Puerile logic. Have you heard of the VHP going to various temples and covering up the frescoes there? They care diddly squat for the Mahatma, but it sounds so artistically right to bring in that name. Opportunists! Said another artist, "Such actions will only prove detrimental for India’s cultural future."

Says who? A bunch of people who attend art camps organised by some fat cat in a beach house when they are not gracing every little art opening where champagne and whatever thingies go with it have become mandatory? People who do nothing for a living or for life have suddenly acquired a designation: "Art connoisseur." Their outings are covered on Page 3, and their clothes are commented on.

I love observing such trivial pursuits, so I know that one such aficionado looks like a tribal woman, another’s T-shirts are the talk of the town, someone’s beard goes through a change and another one carries an attitude.

A couple of novice artists had exhibited a work rather blatantly titled, "T*ts, Cl*ts & Elephant D*ck." One would have thought the freedom of expression wallahs would wah-wah the effort. No. They thought it was in bad taste. These same guys, some getting out of their sick beds, stood to protest as part of the Free Chandramohan Committee. Why?

Do they know whether this bloke will become a good artist and a good tax-paying citizen? Have they wondered about his motivation to paint what he did?

Have you noticed that the big names are becoming passé because the new breed of art lovers is into promoting raw talent? Guys who would otherwise be shaking a leg in the nights and walking their dogs in the morning take time off between power lunches and high tea to sponsor some fellow who they are convinced will play their game.

After a while these people form a coterie. They may or may not call it affordable art, but the paraphernalia is the same as at any event, for the patron cannot be seen as a lowlife promoting lowlife. The glitzy mosaic galleries where the crisp clatter of stilettos mingles with the jaded whispers of laboured praise and "sold" tags capture more attention than the paintings themselves become the venue for this baptism baying for blood money.

On a pavement outside Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai, there has been street art that has quietly been going on. I once bought an affordable painting and still recall the utter naiveté of the artist from Kolkata who gave me a discount. K.M. Shenoy — a true pioneer for having started this movement — did not like it. He did not want the artists to short-sell. In fact, he used to photocopy his drawings and have several prints. His logic was impeccable. "No one asks the writer to publish only one copy of a book."

How one aches for such honesty where art does not become a mere facilitator for social chatter and the sari does not have "an old Warli depiction." For heaven’s sake, stop making a mockery of what those poor people do on their huts by carrying your fake concern on expensive silk.


When George Bush and I became the same

It happened last year. It was amusing. This writer had been corresponding with me and since he was leaving on a holiday with his wife, he decided to make a printout of a page of my blog where a particular piece on my city was. This is what transpired as recollected by him:

When we landed at the airport and passed through the immigration, I was stopped and the lady at the counter asked me a long list of unnecessary questions. Her poor English and in spite of my knowledge of Punjabi, Urdu, Persian and English, not knowing any Spanish was not any help. She asked me to open up my bag and started looking through my books and papers. Rather than focusing on Mao tse tung’s biography or collection of Urdu poems, for some mysterious reason she zoomed into your Blog. She found your picture and asked, “Who is she?”

“Farzana Versey.”

“What is your relationship with her?”

“We are internet friends?”

“What does that mean?”

“We write letters to each other.”

“Why do you have her picture?”

My friend could only smile weakly. For, he had not even bothered to look at the picture. He wrote further, “She took your picture and showed it to other women and had some passionate dialogue in Spanish. I was amazed that even your picture stirred up raw emotions.”

Okay. Now here comes the fun part. The picture in the blog is so small. Did I fit into the terrorist profile? In the next note he asked rather innocently, “Who is Dubya?” Aha, so this was it. Check it out. My friend must be really naïve and to imagine that I looked like George Bush in drag!

When I asked him about it, he said, “Below it was written posted by FV, so I thought…and I had never seen you.”

Ah well, when they returned from their holiday his wife managed to show him that I wasn’t quite as interesting as Dubya.


Yaad mein teri...

I love this song for its simplicity…and honesty…whenever I sing it, and I did today, I get moist-eyed and emotional and then I laugh, crack funny jokes even as the voice cracks in a parched throat…

yaad me.n terI jaag-jaag ke ham
raat bhar karavaTe.n badalate hai.n
har gha.Dii dil me.n terI ulfat ke
dhiime dhiime chiraaG jalate hai.n

jabase tUne nigaah pherii hai
din hai suunaa to raat a.ndherii hai
chaa.Nd bhI ab najar nahii.n AtA
ab sitaare bhI kam nikalate hai.n
yaad me.n terI jaag-jaag ke ham ...

lut gayii vo bahaar kI mahafil
chhuT gayii hamase pyaar kI ma.nzil
zi.ndagii kI udaas rAho.n me.n
terI yaado.n ke sAth chalate hai.n
yaad me.n terI jaag-jaag ke ham ...

tujhako paakar hame.n bahaar milii
tujhase chhuTakar magar ye baat khulii
baaGabaan hii chaman ke phuulo.n ko
apane pairo.n se khud masalate hai.n
yaad me.n terI jaag-jaag ke ham ...

kyA kahe.n tujhase kyuu.n huii duurii
ham samajhate hai.n apanii majabuurii
tujhako maaluum kyA ke tere liye
dil ke gam aa.Nsuo.n me.n Dhalate hai.n
yaad me.n terI jaag-jaag ke ham ...

(Shakeel Badayuni
Naushad, 'Mere Mehboob')


The Sufi Sell-out

Maverick:The Sufi Sell-out
by Farzana Versey
The Asian Age, Op-ed, May 15, 2007

“Are you a Sufi?” he had asked.

“You can say that,” I replied rather shamelessly. Since I was not in the flush of youth I could not claim to be a Marxist, so Sufism seemed like a safe bet.

“I see you are not a typical Muslim,” was the response.

Sufism, which is thought to be an offshoot of Islam, is being used to temper the jihadi face of the religion. This is most offensive. Has anyone asked Hindus to follow the Brahmo Samaj or the Bhakti movements only because some red-haired Vanzara guy likes encounters of the thud kind?

Today, being a Sufi is like being a hippie. You can get away with anything. It has become a convenient cop-out for those who don’t want to identify with any religion. What does a statement like “I do not believe in organised religion” mean? Religion is about a belief system and there is nothing like unorganised religion, though all are often disorganised.

Then there are those who say they are ‘cultural Muslims’. This essentially means they greet you with an ‘adaab’, cook sevaiyaan, speak Bollywood Urdu, enjoy a drink and the occasional ‘Sufi mujra’ and say things like, “Islam needs to change with the times.”

Their favourite calling card is Jalalludin Rumi, the Sufi poet. And any singer who sounds like s/he is gargling claims to believe in Sufism – there is bhangra Sufi, Sufi pop. The Sufi rocks. It is important to dress the part – unkempt clothes, hair dishevelled and lust in the eyes. This, we will be told, is lust for union with god.

Hindi cinema that is always quick on the uptake has a surfeit of “Allah ke bande” and “Ya Ali” stuff doing the rounds. The videos stick to the spiritual quest by showing flying objects and outstretched hands.

Now I hear that even Bahadurshah Zafar is being called a Sufi because he went to temples wearing a tilak and sacred thread. Please! Sufism is not about sight-seeing trips to various god-houses. There is a lot of self-righteous noise being made because our government is not interested in bringing his remains back to the country.

There is no reason to go on about his pining for the soil of his birth; he is not here and to wake up after all these years is obviously a new liberal ploy. Amaresh Misra wrote recently, “If brought to India, Zafar’s remains would be turned into a memorial which millions of ordinary Hindus and Muslims would visit as a pilgrimage site…there will be a surge of emotions powerful enough to wash away enmities. Zafar’s mazaar would heal the Hindu-Muslim divide. For the RSS this indeed is a nightmare situation.”

What a shallow reason. Or merely a way to hit back at the saffron brigade? Hollow symbolic gestures are unimportant, especially if they have lost all validity. We do not need one more mazaar that is politically-motivated.

Sufi tombs are big-time money spinners, anyway. I finally made it to Ajmer from Jaipur. It had taken me years to reach the Khwaja’s sanctum. I had begun to believe in this ‘bulaava nahin aaya’ thing. I had spoken with an elderly friend who is deep into spiritualism. He said, “Baba will try to see you do not reach there. It is to test you. You have to take it as a challenge.”

The idea that a ‘pir’ who I had not said anything against and who I was not planning to ask anything from would want to test me was a dampener. Sometimes it is best for an idea to remain just that. Stepping out of the air-conditioned comfort of the car, having replenished myself with bottled water and organic biscuits, I was thrust into the gullies where every cute young boy claimed to be a Sufi. This looked like a peek into a heaven where god has promised one the best houris and ghilmans. I see this as the true spirit of Islam – no sham of renunciation, rather an acceptance of the good things that we forgo on earth due to morality.

At the dargah, if you are not a head of state or Katrina Kaif showing her legs, they assault you. It is a package deal where you are not left alone; a guide takes you around and decides where you stand, where you throw the flowers – yes, throw – and how long you pray. A few petals fell on the floor and I was reprimanded for insulting the blessings that were showered on me by a man with grease on his palms.

London se aaye hai?” he asked.



“How is it important?”

“I can recognise people from all over the world. You give what you want, I do not ask. I am a Sufi.”

“Me too,” I declared with aplomb.

I immensely enjoy this ‘looking for the self’ vanity. And god is certainly not in the retail.

Everytime I pass the Haji Ali dargah in Mumbai, right in the middle of the vast expanse of water, I do cast a glance in the direction. I feel embarrassed sometimes, for although the white structure stands beautifully, I know it is the sea that I find beguiling, a sea that has listened to many more of my cries and answered many more of my whys.

“Kyon hifaazat hum aur ki dhoondhen
har nafas jab ki hai Khuda hafiz
chaahe rukhsat ho raah-e-ishq mein aql
ai ‘Zafar’ jaane do Khuda hafiz”.


The Diaspora of Jon and Jhumpa

Maverick: In Which Jon and Jhumpa Give It To Those Ones?
by Farzana Versey
The Asian Age, Op-ed, May 1, 2007

Exile sounds sexy. Babubhai Katara wouldn’t know what the heck it is. Although he is involved in ‘human trafficking’, which means that he offloads our people to other shores, no one in the West cares about him. Can you imagine Jhumpa Lahiri saying about one of his ‘goods’, “I think that for immigrants, the challenges of exile, the loneliness, constant sense of alienation, knowledge of and longing for a lost world, are more explicit and distressing than for their children”?

For her even the likes of Anand Jon are a no-no. Jon might well have been just another FOB (fresh off the boat) immigrant. He did the unthinkable. He did not wallow in diaspora depression. Instead, he did what a small-town man in India does when he gets to the big city – lets it all hang out until someone notices.

He is not being merely held culpable for a crime – rape and lewd behaviour for which the courts have charged him – but for a sin in the rehashed morality that is overtaking America. Being surrounded by nubile girls and flashing what they now call his feeble credentials is not unusual. Paris Hilton, his client and friend, is certainly no babe-in-the-woods. Why are the accusations suddenly rushing out in spurts?

Yes, he was given the celebrity treatment in India. The boy from Kerala had made it. It wasn’t Kerala, though, that laid out the red carpet; it was the metro matrons. Today, they pretend they did not know anything about him.

Are my sympathies with the debauched guys? Not really. But that’s how the business seems to work in the entertainment industry. What about Charlie Chaplin’s obsession with young girls? Or Hugh Heffner? If Jon did indeed indulge in the acts he is being accused of, then were the girls little angels?

Were all those screeching “Sanjaya” fans merely interested in his singing abilities on American Idol? Just suppose he had won and gone around town with some of these teenagers, wasn’t there a likelihood of someone accusing him? And what about the American gay critic who went completely berserk in his fascination for the contestant, saying that he had a thing for pretty boys with big mouths? Why was the United States silent over this sexual innuendo directed at a youngster?

Sanjaya was their trump card until a trigger-happy South Korean took away their prime-time toy-boy. He could well be Gogol from The Namesake, striding two worlds, the one of the Bengali father and the other of the American Dream that gave him birth. Papa Malakar could drop those exiled tears any minute – trained classical singer trying to make it in phoren land and getting into roots mode.

The First World thrives on this. They love to watch angst-ridden sagas. Please note that all our diaspora writers and film-makers play the Western stereotype making full use of their origins. Most expats create their Gujarat and Punjab and Kerala and Jhumri Talaiyya wherever they go, and they formulate their political opinions sitting in these regional hovels. Is it any wonder that most of them have an immensely narrow vision?

These are the legitimised deserters who come home to a Pravasi Diwas. Does anyone bother to question them about the Katara-type immigrants who don’t quite make it? Does anyone ask them to prove their loyalty to the country of their birth even as they give their best to another land? When Dhiren Barot became the first person in Britain to be convicted for a terrorist conspiracy by a London court, the British Indian community was at pains to point out that Barot, a Muslim now, could not be described as Al Qaeda's “first Hindu operative” because he converted to Islam when he was an adult of 23. Yet, these same people will happily lap up Kiran Desai’s reminiscences about Gurkhas in Darjeeling who she saw when she was a child of five.

She can sell displacement easily. As she said: “I have an Indian passport and given what the political climate has been in the United States, I feel more and more Indian.”

With a Booker in her pocket not many of them will contest that, although they keep crying out loud about how the US is utopia and it is fair enough to keep your feet in two places. Even though Balti cuisine was started by a Bangladeshi, exiled Indians shrewdly claimed it as theirs because we were Britain’s largest colony.

Anand Jon, besides a few karma-print clothes, did not try hard enough to market his desi-ness. He shamelessly aped the Sunset Boulevard vaudeville. Keeping his alleged crime aside for now, he was at least upfront about his intentions. He did not expect his country of origin to be proud of him, while the pickle and papad blokes who convert these edibles into a huge business expect us to be grateful to them for making us into a household name.

Globalisation has to include people of all countries, not only those who have made their nests in the so-called developed world. It is good to see Indians doing well overseas in whatever field it be, but they are expatriates, NRIs, PIOs; they are most certainly not representative of India.

When they get moist-eyed about ‘home’, they should just go watch a Bollywood movie. These days we have many catering to their version of the country where the Vande Mataram soundtrack beats the hell out of the Manhattan skyline.