A Cartoonist And A Writer


The Man With His Creation

R.K. Laxman, India’s most celebrated cartoonist for more than half a century makes it abundantly clear at the begining of his autobiography that he cannot recollect events in their chronological order. And so you have a narrative interweaving past, present, and future at any point in the book. But yet the story flows smoothly and has the rare quality of making you feel like an omniscient presence sharing Laxman’s life.

The book thus reveals another side of this overwhelming personality – that of a writer. Being an autobiography, the overall impression that one gets while reading this book is that of dispassionate objectivity. This maybe due to the fact that passage of time may have lent objectivity or maybe because Laxman’s irreverence and a cock-a-snook-unto-others-kind of attitude. But there are instances where despite the light tone; the underlying injured professional pride is visible.

Some of his reactions and actions seem a little high-handed but again, may very well be his irreverence speaking. All Laxman’s thoughts, actions, and reactions are an honest, or as close to honest as possible, account of his feelings. You also get the feeling that here is a man who has little or no illusions about himself. Whether this quality has come due to passage of time and experience, or was always a part of his personality, or is a mere a façade, is a difficult call.

While the book is full of details of R K Laxman’s professional life, his personal life has just been given the token lip service. The overall effect is of him having recorded events in his personal life as fillers when nothing much was happening on the professional front. Glimpses of Laxman’s personal life are very few and far between. But one place where his natural emotion just bounds forth is when it comes to his granddaughter. Here, he is just like any other gushing grandfather, who cannot believe the joy that she has brought in his life and how life is unimaginable without her around.

On the whole, much of the book sounds like a grandparent narrating his life story to his grandchildren; just giving his impressions and not getting overly dramatic. But then what else can you expect from the country’s best known and best loved political cartoonist and satirist? All in all, the book is enjoyable and takes you on a delightful journey giving you a glimpse of R.K. Laxman’s life.

One thing that kept jarring the reading experience is however the number of typos and missing prepositions and conjunctions. It is highly disappointing from a publishing house like Penguin.


New Books on Pseudorealism

Less than a decade into its inception, Pseudorealism, the fresh new genre of art, initiated by Indian artist Devajyoti Ray is emerging as the next in-thing in the world of fine art.  In 2008, two books had passingly mentioned Pseudorealism as ‘the emerging new style of contemporary Indian art’ (What is Art Now, page 323). Now in 2011, two new books have increased our curiosity even further.

The first of these two books titled, “Images changeantes de l’Inde et de l’Afrique” written by Geetha Ganapathy Dore and Michel Olinga and published by L’Harmattan carrying in its cover a painting by Devajyoti Ray talks about the changing aesthetics in modern Indian and African imagery. The book traces the influence of Pseudorealism as an emerging style whose influence can already be seen in the realm of various commercial blow-ups these days. The book also discusses at length the newer ideas that are similarly transforming the films, the literary and the popular art spaces.

New Book by Geetha Ganapathy Dore and Michel Olinga

The second book titled ‘Asian Art’ compiled by mobile references, makes a very large sweep across almost the whole of Asia and analyses the trends in these various new art destinations of Beijing, Shanghai, Seol, Mumbai, Singapore, Manila, Sharjah and Dubai. The book once again tells volumes about Pseudorealism and indicates why this comparatively unknown genre even a few years ago is suddenly becoming the most easily selling one.

So what is it that makes Pseudorealism such a hot thing suddenly? To start with, perhaps the genre’s new appeal lies in its easy comprehensibility. It does not require the assistance of any curator or a gallery speacialist (perhaps the two most hated words in the recession-hit art-world) to  make one understand a Ray work. As the world is now seeing the upsurge of new internet savvy generation that doubts almost anything that mainstream media peddles as news, Pseudorealism seems the most original style quite in line with this sentiment. One does not need to be an expert and yet not just love art but also understand it; this seems to be the central message of Ray.

Gandhar Art Once Again

Prime Minister of Pakistan Mr Guilani has recently inaugurated an Art Exhibition at Paris. The exhibition held at Guimet Museum displayed Gandhar Art objects. Gandhar period of art was one of the most dynamic periods in the history of the Indian Art (By India is meant the Indian subcontinent covering present day India, Pakistan and Afganistan). Gandhar art showed confluence of subcontinental motifs and European aesthetics.

Because of the European aesthetics, Gandhar Art had once recieved a lot of attention from the western press and the art works were collected by many European collectors and Museums. Now as Asia is emerging as a hub of contemporary art, a fresh look at the subcontinent’s past was long waited.

However the exhibition has seen also in the context of the destruction of the Bamian statues by Talibans in Afganistan a few years back at the height of US Taliban war. The destruction of these statues rekindled a kind of nostalgia in the west and riding this wave a series of Gandhar art exhibitions were held in many cities, like in Bonn (2008), in Zurich (2009) and now in Paris.

Gandhar Art at Guimet Musuem, Paris

The exhibition was not very novel as far as the displayed items were concerned, but the impact of this exhibition cannot be denied. A new interest in Pakistani Art is welcome as all such shows help in spilling over of a little limelight to the country and its art tradition as well.

Literature of Epic Ambitions

There is no dearth of ambitions among the writers of the sub-continent. But ever since Salman Rushdie had won the Booker Prize for his “midnight’s Children”, authors in the subcontinent have stopped writing simple and beautiful stories so as to devote time for writing books of epic dimensions. Greed for big money and glamour of big prizes is making writers in the sub-continent search for big international events and then somehow joining them with a story line.

In Rushdie’s Midnight Children, the main protagonist is born at the midnight of 15th August, 1947 when India and pakistan wins their freedom. Then the protagonist charts his family history and finds that his grandfather was a Kashmiri. In the process of telling about his grandfather, Rushdie tells about the the generation of Kashmir problem. The same man then travels to Punjab and witnesses the Jalianwala Bagh massacre, then lands in Pakistan and then in Bangladesh to track the history of Bangladesh Liberation war and the state of India when PM Indira Gandhi had imposed emergency in India.

Salman RushdieEvents of epic dimension, landmarks in history and important personalities like Nehru, Jinnah, Gandhi, etc are thus sewn together for the western readers who can identify the Indian subcontinent only on the basis of these. The cock and bull stories thus created seldom match reality. Rushdie was never known to be a writer who is much read by the people whom he claims to represent. His language is also dull and his books are often very tedious to read. But so what? Readers of west is all that matters to people like Rushdie.

Now Rushdie is inspiring a generation of writers in the subcontinent and the Indian and Pakistani diaspora to write such stuff. No need to scratch one’s head on style. No need to find a coherent heart warming story either. And certainly there is no need to be real. The recepi for a good novel are as follows:

a) Pick up some imporatnt historical events

b) Pick up some important personalities from histroy who are still talked about

c) Join whatever you have picked. To do so make your protagonist travel to all these lands and meet such people who are somehow associated with these events and personalities.

The latest writer to have tried this marvellous technique is Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie.

Kamila ShamsieIn her latest book Burnt Shadows, Kamila’s protagonist is a Japanese lady who survives Nagasaki Bombing. Before the Bombing, she was married to a German soldier who had died fighting in the second world war. The German soldier’s sister lives in India. So the protagonist can now travel to to India and here she gets close to a Muslim man who suffers pangs of Partition and migrates to Pakistan. She follows this man to Pakistan later where the Muslim man’s son becomes a Islamist terrorist planning to attack USA. Finally the protagonist moves to USA where her sister-in-law who once lived in India, has also shifted. The sister-in-law’s  son has now joined the CIA so that the reader can now get the view of CIA also. The story finally ends with the 9-11 destruction of twin towers.

Epic in scope though, the question is ” Is it literature?” Badly written, unconvincing in its approach and sweep of events, such books are however the toasts of the west. The problem is that it is discouraging serious writers from attempting anything serious in the sub-continent. This may be good for some individual writers like Kamila Shamsie, for the overall development of literature in the sub-continent, this is something we have to guard against.

Marketing the Negatives: New Intellectualism of Subcontinent

The Indian Subcontinent is a land of socio-religious plurality with each community having a band of fanatics and fundamentalists. The government whether democratically elected or forced upon by coups cannot ignore these varied interest groups and their views, however skewed they may be. This is the reason why Satanic Verses written by Salman Rushdie, which was alleged to have objectionable commentary on Prophet Mohammad, was banned out rightly in all the countries in the region except Sri Lannka and Nepal.tasleemanasreen
In India however the Hindu Rightwing parties had demanded a lifting of this ban saying that it was against the freedom of expression (freedom of expression is a fundamental right in India). Nonetheless the same parties demanded the ban of James Laine’s book Shivaji : Hindu King in Muslim India, which was alleged to have portrayed the Hindu warrior king Shivaji in bad light. This book too was out rightly banned in the Indian state of Maharastra.
Up till recently it is only the religious fundamentalists who had been supporting such bans while the liberal-secular intelligentsia in all these countries opposed them. But of late a new development is being witnessed. People who had been considered liberal for a long time have come out openly against certain books and art works.
In West Bengal (the part of Bengal that remained with India after partition of India) liberal writers like Sunil Gangopadhyay, Shakti Chatterjee and other liberal vanguards of Bengali culture have criticized the books written by Taslima Nasreen who hails from neighboring Bangladesh.
Nasreen was earlier exterminated from Bangladesh for her controversial book Lajja but she became the toast of the west and she was given asylum in Europe. India too had opened the doors for her. West Bengal, the centre for modern art, literature and liberal ideas had always supported her. Why then is this sudden criticism from the liberal quarters.
According to Gangopadhyay, while Nasreen’s religious ideas or her criticisms of any culture are acceptable, her book is at the end written in very bad taste. Her books which are full of sexual encounters read often like pornography and the intellectual class believes that Nasreen is in the habit of writing such deliberately candid books only to raise controversies so as to sell well.arvindadiga
During the past few years the western market has become quite open to books, art works, films, etc from the sub-continent. While this interest is quite welcome, the problem is that the west has stereotyped impressions about the region and it buys such works which fits into this stereotype. Many believe that books like Kiran Desai’s “The Inheritance of Loss” or Arvind Adiga’s “The White Tiger” have won Booker Prizes in recent years only because they spoke about the seedy side of India; their literary values have been questioned in many forums. The west wants, it seems only something that speaks of the negative side of the region, even if what is said is more pseudo-real than real.  Even in recent sales of art works of Indian origin, many artists have complained that western buyers only go for subjects which talk about the underbelly of India.
Devajyoti Ray, one of India’s successful painters of the young generation had mentioned recently that his work on themes like Baul (name for a Bengali gypsy singer) and mother (which depicts a poor slum mother) sold mostly with the buyers from Germany, France and USA while his series on modern Indian urban women had few takers in the west. Another Indian artist of some repute, Bose Krishnamachari had complained that most of the art works that he had taken to Madrid ARCO Fair returned without sale partly because the works showed little of traditional art and more of emerging India.

The Great Censorship Culture

Stories of censorship either by the state or self styled protectors of national culture run abound in the Indian Subcontinent. They continue to haunt the liberal minded citizens of this region.

A recent exhibition in Dubai of art works of Colin David brought back the memory of one such dark phase in Pakistan. Colin David, a British by race, but a Pakistani by birth was born in 1937 in Karachi. He had his art education at the Punjab University, Lahore, when the Fine Arts Department opened its doors to male students in 1956. After taking his MFA from the Punjab University Fine Arts Department in 1961, Colin was awarded a scholarship for post-graduate studies at the Slade School of Art, London.

Colin could have stayed back in London and build up a successful career in art there but had chosen to return to his birth place and joined the faculty of the Fine Arts Department of the Punjab University. He remained there until 1964, and then joined the National College of Arts.

Colin David's Nude Study

Colin David's Nude Study

Colin’s signature works included elements of Op art fused with portraits and landscapes in classical genre. His paintings often had a nude woman in the centre. Nudity is not necessarily linked to eroticism and Colin’s works could not be classified as erotic art. For sometime Colin did have a smooth sail as his works became popular with the art –students. But the dictatorial regime of Gen Zia ul Haq put Colin in a corner. The new military regime brought in draconian censorship laws, where women could not be shown without traditional clothes and dupatta. National policies decreed that figure studies were no longer artistically acceptable.

Yet Colin decided to stay back and exhibit his works mostly in his own studio for selected viewers. His paintings could not be sold openly and so he had to export them abroad where European collectors bought his works.

Though he had stopped selling his works in Pakistan, Colin continued to exhibit his work discreetly until 1990, when an invitation to a private viewing of work at Colin David’s house fell into the wrong hands. Shamefully, the event became a black spot in Pakistan’s art history, as a gang of young men, leaving one of their numbers armed with a gun on the doorstep of the house, burst into the artist’s home brandishing sticks. They proceeded to destroy a number of canvases, including a portrait of the artist’s young daughter.

Today none of he important works of Colin David exist in Pakistan and an entire generation of Pakistani youngsters lost the opportunity of viewing one of Pakistan’s most prolific artists.

The attack on MF Husain in India’s biggest cosmopolitan city by a band of religious fanatics brings us back to that era in Pakistan when Colin David was attacked. It seems things do not quite change in the sub-continent.