Tag Archives: Mumbai

‘Homi Bhabha and Modern Indian Art’

Poster: Homi Bhabha and Modern Indian Art

The other day I visited an exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai. It wouldn’t have been anything special for a student of the sciences, were it not for the story behind how this collection came to be curated.

There were paintings, sculptures and photographs on display – work from a coterie of artists that conveyed the art scence in post-independent India. I’ve never studied the visual arts formally so I’m going to desist from adding any more about the work itself, lest I end up trivialising the matter.

While this is the case, it helps for me to read the accompanying descriptions of the artwork. During this exhibition, this was particularly helpful, possibly also because I can relate to the cultural context without much difficulty.

These paintings are housed at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, a Mumbai-based institute that is also one of the most reputed in the country. It was founded just after independence in 1947, by Dr Homi Bhabha, one of India’s best known scientists and a key figure in the country’s atomic energy programme, with support from Indian industrialists and later the government.

The poster aroused my interest because it related a key scientific figure to the arts.

I should explain. I’ve been painting since I was four. I fell sick during a summer vacation and my father noticed me sketch something – I think it was on the side of newspapers, although I’m not sure. He asked if I’d like to paint with water colours, and without a clue as to how, I said yes. I was handed a little palette of watercolour cakes and a little A4 notebook whose pages would crimp at the slightest touch of water. I’m not sure what I painted, I cannot remember, but I’d finished the entire book by the end of the vacation. One painting, I distinctly remember, was a sunset between the mountains.

I’ve always been drawn to the arts and the sciences equally. Not being in touch with either for over about a month makes me feel incomplete. But while studying the sciences, I was often discouraged (not necessarily by teachers) from practising painting. Without going into why, how, and by whom I was discouraged, I will tell you that when I first started painting murals, it was a rebellious act. I’m not sure why, but not fitting into a stereotype can often be threatening to others. I often look for an artistic streak in scientists and vice versa; my search for my own sanity in others.

Bharat Bhagya Vidhata, M F Husain, 1964. Source: http://entrespaces.wordpress.com/

This is why a visit to this exhibition was such a joy. Not only was Dr Homi Bhabha an amateur artist himself, but apart from rallying for the basic sciences, he encouraged artists and maintained a sort of working group of advisors, connoisseurs of art, who would advise him on encouraging a pursuit of the arts and supporting artists in their work.

The one photograph that stayed with me was that of Homi Bhabha, Albert Einstein, John Wheeler and Hideki Yukawa at Princeton. A Husain mural, titled ‘Bharat Bhagya Vidhata’ held me for tens of minutes. This painting was the winning entry in a mural competition held by the Institute.

The basic sciences suffer in India as the best minds are drawn to applications in industry, or they leave abroad in pursuit of research interests. The condition of the arts is worse: underfunded and underrespected. The interest of greats like Dr Bhabha in both was a shot of encouragement for me.

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Heaven and Hell

“Heaven and Hell are right here on Earth.“ My  father repeats this over and over again, but it takes drastic, hard-hitting doses of reality for me to grasp and absorb his wisdom.

My friend Ajay, a journalist based out of Mumbai, just sent me this: Hell in Mumbai.  

I read it and intended to relax around for the evening but a volley of thoughts has flooded my mind, and they must be put down in writing.

Ajay rightly says that the Indian Government has failed its own people. But they’re not the only ones – so have the police and civic services, and above all, we the people.

We have failed those whom we depend on time and again.

At the risk of inviting the wrath of others, I think that a large part of this inertia that stops us from doing anything despite being faced with abject poverty day after day, is that we explain it away. And the more intelligent we are, the worse, because our intellect can help us come up with increasingly creative explanations. (Sidenote: I have a growing list of intelligent phenomena that are negative and hurtful, and that list is expanding and exploding out of control).

A large part of this is due to the perversion of the idea of “Karma” and its use and abuse by the average Indian. In a Hindu majority country, where religion is tightly intertwined into our lives, we use Karma to explain to ourselves why those born at the bottom of the social ladder deserve it.

It doesn’t matter whether or not you believe in Karma, nor does it matter whether or not you’re religious. I’m not religion bashing, nor am I blaming the concept of Karma – that is too easy. It is just another way to blame something or someone else for existing misery. Whatever you chose to blame: the person in misery, karma, religion, your conditioning, or theirs – this is just shifting blame, it is just an excuse to not act. Blaming Danny Boyle for romanticising poverty and exposing the underbelly of our cities, saying that this is not the face of real India, is also just shifting the blame.

We have such deep economic disparities that the numbers that would stun anyone. Just because they don’t make the headlines every day doesn’t mean that these are not real problems, it doesn’t mean that they are not ticking time bombs. The fact that this misery and poverty is normalised does not make it normal.

My mother teaches deaf and mute children to talk without using sign language. Spend an afternoon with them, help them articulate how they spent their day at school, and you will wonder like I do. You will wonder why we who have two hands and legs that are still working, all our senses intact, and a functioning brain, still manage to shift the blame and not act.

When we understand that Heaven and Hell are indeed right here on Earth, and that they are products of our own making, then perhaps we will get up and act. Then, maybe, we will stop waiting for a God or a saviour to come around and help us.

Before you accuse me of blogging in my comfortable bed in a pretty apartment in Western Europe: I will have to ask you to wait a few months and try and say that to me again. Then things will be clearer.

Ajay also said to me that “the women get the worst.” I do not want to begin to imagine what little girls go through in these parts of my city every day.

Just yesterday I was walking around in Amsterdam with a female friend, the weather was quite pleasant, which gave some tourists additional reason to get drunk/stoned out of their minds. There was a group of boys, one of whom tried to forcibly feed my friend some chips from a bag that he was eating from. That was bizzare, and we ignored it, walked along and then turned back to go elsewhere when we encountered them again. We walked past them without looking and a minute later one of the guys was standing in front when I realised that another one of them had forced himself between my friend and I and put his arms around us while the guy in front took a picture. Lecherous screaming from a third guy followed, which is when I lost it and screamed at them to “Get away.” We kept walking but a volley of abuse continued, which included “You talking to me bitch? I will break your head off.”

This was a minor incident, but there were about 15 people seated at a cafe that we passed. They were watching this whole scene as if it was completely normal. What really stayed with me was the violence in the guy’s words. They were drunk/stoned I know, but the words were sharp and acrimonious anyway.

I turned to my friend once we were a safe distance away and said “I don’t understand why these people think they can get away with anything. I don’t want to know what the women who work in the red-light district here have to go through. If they can talk to respectably dressed girls on the street like this, imagine what they think they can get away with when they are paying for a service.”

This is not totally unrelated to the rant about Dharavi above. Combine deep poverty and misogyny and the worst possible humanitarian crisis unfolds before your eyes.

Many will tell you that the women who work as prostitutes are opting to go through the kind of abuse that sex workers face every day. Saying that they’re earning it is the same thing again: shifting the blame.

Wheter you practice Metta like me, pray, send good thoughts, or whatever else you do – don’t forget the slumdogs of our world. Especially not the girls.

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