Thursday, November 29, 2007

A message of urgency: Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan's second lives

A piece in the NYT today discusses an upcoming exhibit at the Corcoran that includes an unfinished work by the late video artist Jeremy Blake, who committed suicide this summer in the wake of the suicide of his longtime girlfriend Theresa Duncan, a blogger, game designer and would-be screenwriter. The article describes how Blake's incomplete "Glitterbest"--his video portrait of Malcolm McLaren, the pioneering British punk rock promoter--was put by the show's curator, Jonathan Binstock, into the hands of a videographer named David Sigal. Sigal, working with a copy of Blake's hard drive that contained both the completed portion of the work--approximately half--and the files that Blake had intended to assemble in the final product, went to work completing the piece. And there things get interesting...

Anyone who has waded through even the shallow waters of the history of the world's textual and artistic practices must have noticed this before: posthumous completion of artistic and literary works left unfinished at the time of death. An interesting and fairly impressive list of the same can be found here. One thing I noticed reading through them is the large number of works completed by editors, sons, star pupils--as though the potential danger of inauthenticity implicit in the act of posthumous completion of a "great man's" work needs to be hedged, warded off through official lines of descent, or established pedigrees of expertise.

Tangentially, let me note that depending on the weight one gives to the claims of Jauss's "reception theory", one might make the case that all works are always incomplete in the sense that the author or artist's participation in the process is only one half of an ongoing, limitless and uncontrollable process of dialogic exchange. The implications of this theory for a discussion of posthumously completed art and literature are interesting, and run counter to the vertical modes of authorization I mentioned above (i.e. the importance given to the fact that it was completed by a son, or editor, or proper student, and not just anybody); this is because the process of reception generally escapes the author, artist, or his or her proxies' attempts to control it--in other words, the author or artist's intentions--despite his or her best efforts--only count for so much. What's more, an illegitimate (from the creator's point of view) audience can, in the process of reception, so totally subvert the creator's intention as to effect an utter reversal of values: here I need only refer to the wonderfully transgressive malappropriation of the movie "Reefer Madness"--ostensibly created to combat the use of marijuana--by stoners who giggle at it in between Simpsons reruns and arguments over inconsequential bits of hippie trivia. The image of the "purloined letter" is relevant--the message that gets stolen along the way, delivered to the wrong addressee, misused, mocked, even parodied.

But I digress. The point here is that the dominant mode of post-authorial completion has depended on vertical lines of authority and authorization ("I am his editor/son/student, therefore it is my duty and privilege to do this"), while there has perhaps always existed a secondary, unofficial and uncontrollable mode of post-authorial completion--that of reader or viewer response--which is transacted along rather more horizontal lines, often trumping and debunking oppressive attempts to control that process of reception.

Perhaps it is all too obvious where I am going with this, but clearly, the advent of new technologies, especially digital audio and video technologies, has created a situation in which those vertical models of authority--the voices of the editor/curator/son/student--are losing their already contested bit of high ground to a leveling, flattening process of horizontalization. What do I mean? Well, do you think that Tupac Shakur's record company makes any money off of the numerous posthumously completed Tupac remix tunes that proliferate on mix cds and internet websites? No, I didn't think you did. They hate it. (This one is kind of awesome and horrible, a power ballad for the age of the Oil Wars.)

Let's just avoid discussing internet fan fiction, but it fits in here all the same. Too obvious. Same type of deal. If J.K. Rowling had died before completing the final Harry Potter book, the cycle would have been completed a million times over, satisfying every niche of the "long tail" of her fans. If her publishers were brave enough to wade into the turbulent welter of voices with an "official" posthumous completion by some famous writer, or editor, or student or whatever, chances are they would find themselves out-manned and out-gunned.

The NYT article describes a process of posthumous completion very much along the lines of the older, vertically authorized model, with the participation of the curator and an expert videographer, but where earlier generations of ambitious editors would have relied on messy handwritten manuscripts, letters and forgotten scribblings, their archive is rather different:

[Binstock and Sigal] discovered Mr. Blake’s labeled folders in Adobe Photoshop, the graphics-editing software. Each folder contained sequential picture files with titles. But within each dense file were numerous layers of the artist’s “moving painting” imagery, their intended direction and flow indecipherable. They also realized that Mr. Blake had tackled only the first five minutes, less than half of the work’s final visual component.

Armed with a copy of Mr. Blake’s hard drive and Mr. McLaren’s poetic though fairly incomprehensible narration, Mr. Sigal, 41, spent the next few weeks tinkering with the files on his laptop in his Greenwich Village apartment. He struggled to make sense of eerie scenes of World War II carnage shimmering with stars and bubbles; imperial imagery juxtaposed with psychedelic vegetables on the Moon; and mythical creatures that morphed into a swashbuckling Sid Vicious.

But the more he listened to the voice-over and scrutinized the layered images, “there were little clues and abstract lines that I would wind up understanding,” Mr. Sigal said.

It was this latter detail that got me to thinking. Sigal describes a process of sifting through the digital bits, searching for clues to Blake's intentions, reconstructing his half-completed artistic process. The fact that Blake was a suicide brings up an uncomfortable resonance. What do relatives and investigators do with a suicide note, if not sift through it for the same types of clues and signals of intention? Or better yet--at least in the case of the relatives--for confirmations of the suicide's loss of agency, his or her lack of control, his or her "losing it"? In both cases it involves a peculiar use of the archive. And nowadays the archive is changing.

As the weeks wore on, Mr. Sigal also felt increasingly haunted by the tumultuous lives and tragic deaths of Mr. Blake and Theresa Duncan, his companion of 12 years.

“I thought I would be able to figure out Jeremy’s life by figuring out the puzzle of ‘Glitterbest,’” Mr. Sigal said. “It was an intensely emotional time.”

Searching for answers, he turned to the Internet to learn more about the couple’s final days. There he read newspaper and blog accounts of Ms. Duncan’s setbacks as a screenwriter and the couple’s growing paranoia and conspiracy theories, some of which were detailed on her blog, The Wit of the Staircase (

Ms. Blake killed herself on July 10 in the couple’s East Village apartment by washing down an overdose of Tylenol PM with bourbon. She left a suicide note. Mr. Blake made his way to Rockaway Beach the following week, leaving a note with his belongings in the sand.

Alright, I admit it, a combination of curiosity and professional courtesy took me to Ms. Duncan's blog, The Wit of the Staircase. Probably the strangest thing about this blog is the posting from October 29th--a linked ghost story, appropriately enough, about Basil Rathbone--that, according to an "editor's note", was left by Theresa to appear automatically on this date. According to the "editor", another posting will appear on New Year's Eve.

I was only slightly bothered by the fact that The Wit of the Staircase has received rather more comments after the death of its author than my humble Jugaad has before my own. And I fell into a kind of morbid fantasy. The Wit of the Staircase, frankly, is not the most exciting blog, and consists of a lot of links to other stories and pictures of Kate Moss. If one digs deep enough, however, there are indeed references to mind control, the mysterious persistence of the supposedly banned "MK ULTRA" program, Scientology and apocalypse: the typical, banal terrorizing icons of a twenty-first century in collapse. The same anxieties that underwrite Ms. Duncan's nightmare visions are to be found in the economic and technological circuitry that surrounds all of us: an erosion of stable modes of identity and selfhood; a fracturing of once seemingly solid institutions of social, political and religious authority; an acceleration of the processes that profitably generate a sense of need and gnawing incompletion in persons and societies and then hold out solutions, products and services that promise to address the same. And then fail to deliver. It is totally appropriate that Mr. Blake was a video artist and a digital mystic, a tinkerer and illusionist of the "Superflat" landscape where selves become simulacra become selves again, and "all that is solid melts into air". The posthumous posting preprogrammed by Ms. Duncan is a link to a ghost story told by Dick Cavett in which the legendary actor Basil Rathbone receives a phone call from a psychic seconds after a friend has left a dinner party at the actor's house and immediately died in a car wreck. The psychic called to tell him that she had a "message of urgency".

Somewhere, Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan are alive, in Venice. On the internet.

There are ghosts in the machine. And there are link pages that help us find them.

On December 7th, 2006, a seventeen year old resident of St. Martinsville, Louisiana, named Kristen Ambri Barras committed suicide, for reasons unknown. It was her birthday. I've found these myspace pages before, by accident, but had never looked at one closely, as though averting my eyes from the death scene or funeral of a stranger. Look down to the comments section, where there is a disturbing mixture of automatically posted spam...

( confirmation that i qualified to receive a FREE Apple iPhone when it ships from cindy showed me the site where you just enter your email and fill out a fast 92 second survey. EASY!2$#@ I guess it's a promotion they have going on. So anyways, if you guys are interested in picking up a free Apple iPhone, just goto Even if you don't need it, you can always sell it for some free cash lol. 32 hugs!!!

...and outpourings of grief, sad words whispered at a digital graveside...

i love and miss you so much. i know you're the angel watching over us all babygirl. its not nearly the same without you but we know you're in a better place. no more hurt and no more pain

Another myspace page, this one of a young woman named Shelby Harper who was killed in Florida last summer by an intoxicated boater, continues to serve as site for communication between the living and the dead, some of it surprisingly mundane, even conversational:

hey sheb. just thinking about you. finally have a computer @ my new house so i wanted to come on and write you. my mom bought me something special to put outside when u first walk into my house, its of a sun and she said now you'll think of Shelby everytime you walk through your front door, and she'll watch over your house :) i cant wait to hang it up. its really pretty. i miss you a lot, had a dream w/ you & lizzard in it last night. love you

The circuits of communication on display here are so new, so disturbing, it would take a Philip K. Dick to document them. This is a digital multilogue between artificial intelligence, dead teenagers, and humans. It isn't hard to imagine a future scenario when people will be able to generate AI-controlled virtual selves who will stroll around digital worlds like Second Life, having conversations with grief-stricken friends and family after their living counterparts are dead. That a person on the brink of suicide might leave a new kind of note.

None of this is surprising. But what will the self that the people left behind are able to assemble look like? Now that is an interesting question.
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resisting silence: the haunting music of Ilyas Ahmed

Surrounded by bad news on all sides, I get struck by the fragile, idiosyncratic, dreamily intense beauty of guitarist Ilyas Ahmed. You can watch him on stage with this uneasy, inspired energy--rocking back and forth, his knees bouncing around, hunched over his guitar--and then somehow channeling it into eerie music that is formally rigorous, but impossible to pin down, and startlingly beautiful. Then you realize: here is a musician who has so many ideas of what to do with a guitar, so many ideas he wants to work through with his guitar that he can't sit still. Ilyas, who was born in Karachi but raised in the United States, plays music that needs to be heard right now. So I interviewed him for my blog.

Ilyas lives in Portland, Oregon--America's capital of non-conformist non-commercial creativity, a place that is lucky the neo-cons haven't discovered it and pressed for regime change, yet--and in keeping with the ethos of the place, his music for the most part has been self-released in limited editions on handmade CDs. Four of them, with samples, are reviewed here, including his 2006 release for Portland-based Time-Lag Records, Century of Moonlight. A longer interview than mine can be found here.

Has anyone else ever done one of these email interviews? I have to say, it isn't the best way to interview someone. They tend to end up like one of those one-page interviews at the back of magazines. That said, I really wanted to write something about Ilyas's music and he was gracious enough to participate. I sent him a short list of long questions that I am editing down for your benefit. I'll leave the first one as is:

Aliskandar: One of the things that appealed to me about your music is that it doesn't fall into some sort of self-conscious exoticizing. Even though some reviews I've read throw around words like "raga" or "mantra", to me there is very little obvious suggestion of that. I think in terms of visual arts--so many great young artists these days in South Asia--that there has been a strong reaction against that kind of playing up of identity, a resistance to playing to people's stereotypes about "Indian" or "Pakistani" art, "giving them what they want". Tied up with that is an insistence that their work be taken seriously as not "just" Indian or Pakistani but "also" global, regional, individual, universal, utopian, provincial, Western, Eastern, Southern or out of nowhere or all of the above. Kind of pissed me off to note that most writing on your music starts with the Pakistani connection. Sorry to start with it here. How much importance do you give to this issue of national or ethnic identity in your music? Does it matter?

Ilyas: i think of nationalism as something separate from ethnic identity though i'd imagine they're not mutually exclusive. you've got the identity you make for yourself that's in your own headand then the one that's fostered upon you by the external world. the ambiguity of identity is something that continually is in the shadows for me and is something that cannot be ignored. as far is descriptions like 'raga', i think that's a term that gets kind of misused and isn't something i think anymore about than 'folk or 'psychedelic'''s just music.

I "followed up" this line of questioning with another, drawing a comparison with the themes of exile and loss that dominate the lyrics of Hindustani music and Urdu ghazal. For many of the contemporary classical Hindustani players in Pakistan, loss and exile from their place of origin is a key part of their personal history. It got me thinking that perhaps the intense and often melancholic beauty of Urdu ghazals and Hindustani music happens not in spite of these conditions of loss, displacement, exile and absence, but maybe because of them.

A: Along these lines... I don't see anything obviously "raga-like" about your music, but there is that same deeply personal, quiet and intense beauty combined with a powerful and idiosyncratic formal rigor that's found in the best Hindustani players. Are we hearing the sound of exile and loss?

I: hopefully there's some light and joy in there too.

A: In the interview you did with Foxy Digitalis, you mentioned something about Sufi writings on music, specifically referring to the role of tension in your music/life. A lot of South Asian Sufi music revolves around words, something that your music tends to avoid. But your titles are evocative, musical and mysterious. Couldn't help but notice the Urdu, etc. in some of them. What do you see as the relationship between word and sound in your music?

I: one feeds the other, words inspire sound and vice versa. words and music are growing more closely linked which is part of why i don't make solo guitar records anymore.

A: And visual images? Your covers are fantastic. And kind of horrifying, at least the "Between Two Skies" cover which immediately reminded me of the iconic shot of the Bhopal disaster. Do you make these covers? How tuned in are you with the contemporary Pakistani and diaspora Pakistani visual arts scene, because it would seem like there might be some interesting possibilities for collaboration out there...

I: i make the covers, and a lot of visual art alongside music, writing, etc. they all feed off of each other. there are references in them that are intentional and deliberate. i'm not as tuned into the contemporary visual arts scene in pakistan as i should or could be.

A: In your Foxy Digitalis interview you also bring up the difficult issue of reconciling a world that seems to be sucking more with every second with a world that is full of impossible beauty. I have to say that your guitar music is really, really beautiful. Is beauty an act of resistance to the horrors that surround us? Is sound an act of resistance to silence?

I: for me, making things, creative acts, are acts of personal resistance, both internal and external.if your voice if is being forced into submission, let's hope it will make what you're saying stronger and clearer.

A: What about the situation in Pakistan. One of the things that has struck me about the resistance to the state of emergency in Pakistan right now is the participation of young, educated, relatively affluent and cosmopolitan urban Pakistanis--really new phenomena, using new technologies (cell phones, "flash mobs", internet video, etc.). Do you ever feel like, "I want these people to hear my music"?

I: i have a large family in pakistan and think about them all the time and now's a very strange time to be living in the states. i would say a large part of what i do is out of love and respect and in tribute to my family. and i would hope that somehow people there could hear my music.

A: Last and probably least, couldn't help but ask about the Huysmans reference [in the Foxy Digitalis interview]. I've always loved "A Rebours". Now I notice it has been retranslated not as "Against Nature" but as "Against the Grain". WTF? Which title is better? And why?

I: i've always liked 'against nature' more as it's a stronger statement of one's will.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Riot in A-certain-community-pur: media, speech and public interest

Monday's edition of the Hindu carries a story that is sadly familiar: a young girl raped in a rural area collecting firewood, a mob forming, violence, looting, road blocks, burned buses, "tension". But those unfamiliar with the the language of Indian newspapers could be forgiven for coming away from the article a bit confused:

"HINDUPUR: The alleged rape of a minor girl belonging to a particular community by a youth of another community at P. Sadlapalli village in Lepakshi mandal in the district on Saturday led to tension here on Sunday. A mob from the victim’s community went on the rampage to protest against the incident."

This type of circumlocution is so frequently encountered--indeed uniformly encountered--in Indian newspapers that one's eyes just glide right over those strange and deliberate ambiguities. A recent debate in Delhi sponsored by the BBC on the occasion of its 75th anniversary of broadcasting centered on some of the very same issues that drive this practice of identity erasure: the press's responsibility vis-a-vis the state, the degree to which the state should be involved in news broadcasting, and the "future" of public service broadcasting in India. I was lucky enough to attend, and had intended to write something on my blog about it.

Still, lethargy was overtaking my ambition and, at least for a moment its victory was uncontested--it stood gloating over the exhausted, decrepit remains of both my ambition and my good intentions--and I delayed writing this post. But today the world and its simulacra--most notably, the Hindu--have roused their sleeping carcasses and set me off on this uncertain discussion: free speech Indian style, secularism, the nanny state, Taslima Nasreen and Tehelka.

So what happened in Hindupur? You might want to ask Information and Broadcasting Minister P R Dasmunshi, and then again maybe not. Silences and blank spaces structure the news from Hindupur, identities that have been put under official erasure, elided from public discourse.

But, you ask, why not just say "the alleged rape of a Muslim girl by a Hindu boy" or vice versa, whichever the case may be? From the government of India's perspective, that type of candor would "provoke" "communal" passions, and lead to violence. Here we see the strong arm of the normative state, intent on preserving a delicate and increasingly embattled mythology of Indian national identity: India as an intrinsically, essentially tolerant, multi-religious and non-violent unified society. The demonic and dangerous Other to this anxiously constructed notion of Self is deviant, aberrant "communalism", which in the Indian context refers to group loyalties that resist inclusion, specifically religious and regional loyalties. Following the official Congress party line, the entire history of independent and indeed pre-Independence India has been a struggle between these two forces, with Partition and Gandhi's assassination as a kind of blood sacrifice, a Passion at the heart of the narrative that at once provides meaning to all the events leading up to it--the intransigence of the Muslim League and Jinnah, the stubborn factionalism of the Mahasabha and Savarkar--as well as serving as an iconic hermeneutic, a discourse modeling the representation of the independent Indian state that followed.

In other words, the Nehruvian state had a two-fold set of concerns with regard to matters of representation. One was historical. The ur-text for this would have to be Nehru's own The Discovery of India, a highly programmatic representation of India's civilization and history that aggressively downplays the importance of religious identity, and rereads Indian history teleologically, as a long march to the establishment of a modernizing, secularist, socialist state. The other aspect--and the one that is relevant for today's post--was a concern for representation of current events.

I love the daily "This Day That Age" section of The Hindu. It reprints in condensed forms the headlining news stories from fifty years ago, and there are often striking parallels to be drawn, instructive connections waiting to be made. Right now, in 1957, there is an intense, ongoing agitation in "Madras State" struggling against what was seen by many South Indians as the hegemonic aims of the North Indian political elite. Nehru had long resisted the notion of enshrining multiple "official" languages in the Indian constitution, and had initially lent his weight to a division of the Indian union into states that were not drawn up according to linguistic communities or traditional regional loyalties, fearing that they would encourage factional loyalties that, like "communalism", would threaten the imagined integrity of Indian "society". It was right around this time, fifty years ago this month, that he was being forced into a tactical retreat over this issue--a retreat that gave birth to much of the current political map of India. But he was going down swinging.

Prime Minister Nehru said in New Delhi on November 28 at a press conference that he did not think the Madras Government would ask the Government of India for any help in dealing with the “Burn the Constitution” agitation, launched by the Dravida Kazhagam in Madras State. But, “if need arises, the help is there in full measure”, he added. Mr. Nehru was replying to a question on the Dravida Kazhagam agitation in Madras. What was happening in Madras, he said, was a “return to barbarism – it is not politics”. “It is a barbarous way of thinking and even more so of acting and no civilised community is going to tolerate this, whatever the consequences”, Mr. Nehru declared.

Regional politics, following Nehru, is not politics at all, but rather a "return to barbarism" that no "civilised community" can tolerate. An essentially political struggle between Nehru's strong Centre and the emerging regional political parties in the South is recast, in Nehru's high-minded rhetoric, as a battle between Enlightenment and darkness, between John Locke and the troglodyte horde. Classic. But not all that much has changed.

And here is where the Minister of Information steps in.

It is a curious detail of India's current broadcasting licensing regime that, while private television stations are free to air both news and entertainment, the newly permitted private radio stations are not. The only news you can hear on Indian FM radio is from the state broadcaster, All India Radio, which is under the aegis of Prasar Bharti, India' public broadcasting corporation. At the BBC debate on public service broadcasting, held last week in the posh digs of the British Council here in Delhi, current Prasar Bharti chairman and expert in bureaucratic obfuscation B.S. Lally was asked about this issue. I wish I had written down his non-answer in full, but alas, years of bureaucratic training had paid off for Mr. Lally and I was lulled into a kind of stupor. Luckily, the views he expressed are so deeply ingrained in Indian officialdom that it took me about ten seconds to find a BBC interview with current Information Minister PR Dasmunshi expressing exactly the same views:

BBC Q : There is a revolution in the radio market with the government having cleared more than 300 private FM channels, but why news and current affairs has not been allowed on this ?

Priya Ranjan Das Munshi : Let us first wait and see what content would be offered by these stations for the next two to three years and then we would think about the next step. We are presently not allowing news and current affairs programmes on private FM radio stations, as it is better to delay it so that no wrong goes on air, rather than trying to control the damage afterwards, which won't be easy.

BBC Q : But virtually everything has been allowed on TV, why is radio being given such a treatment ?

Priya Ranjan Das Munshi : Let us look at the issue carefully.
Television reaches the educated class of the country and extends to those who are not literate in rural areas by way of community TV. The rural people are more interested in entertainment programmes on TV, and the interest towards news programmes is less. However, the fact with radio is that the news broadcast on it is considered the last word and has unmatched credibility. Therefore it is our duty to see that the news being broadcast on radio is correct and does not provoke any section of the society. Our challenge is greater than any other country.

Frankly, I don't have the time or energy to spend unpacking everything implied in the answers given above. If you dissected them carefully enough, you would learn a tremendous amount about the relationship between elite and non-elite that is built into the Indian style of governance and polity. You would lay bare an entire, benevolently autocratic paternalistic architecture of protection, surveillance and centralized control--partly an inheritance from the British colonial state that its elite post-colonial heirs could hardly resist, partly the result of Nehru's own genius. In essence, the reason that FM radio cannot broadcast news is that first of all, the great unwashed of India really doesn't care about news, and second, even if they do care about news, it must be given to them in safe, carefully measured doses. The specter that lurks behind all of this hemming and hawing is communal violence, the Indian state's demonic Other.

It should come as no surprise then, that today's Hindu carries the following story, announcing a new probe into the recent Tehelka expose of involvement by the Gujarat state government in the massacres of Muslims there in 2003. The sting operation, in which numerous high-ranking officials and lackeys in the BJP-led Gujarat state government boast on hidden camera of their involvement in inhuman acts of genocidal atrocity, provoked widespread outrage and condemnation across India, everywhere except in Gujarat itself, where it was banned. But the propriety of this preemptive ban is not an issue that exercises the Information Minister, rather the sting operation itself is a suspect:

NEW DELHI: Information and Broadcasting Minister P. R. Dasmunsi on Wednesday said there was some “deep-rooted” conspiracy behind the telecast of the Tehelka expose on Gujarat riots of 2002 just before the Assembly elections. An investigation into the episode was being conducted.

Speaking during the question hour in the Rajya Sabha, Mr. Dasmunsi said it seemed there was some connivance between certain people in Delhi and Ahmedabad to polarise society and flare up communal passions in the just before the elections. “A group has been constituted that is probing the matter and soon the House will be informed of its outcome.”

He defended the Ahmedabad Collector Dhananjay Dwivedi for banning TV channels from airing the expose. Under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act passed by Parliament, collectors had the power to ban telecasts of material found endangering peace and harmony. “No other collector in Gujarat except Mr. Dwivedi showed the courage to ban the telecast of the expose. Even the Election Commission later approved of his action,” the Minister added.

I'll bring this post to a close by tying it in quickly to the Taslima Nasreen affair that is currently dominating headlines in the Indian press. Ms. Nasreen, a controversial Bangladeshi feminist writer, has been living in self-imposed exile from Bangladesh--first in Europe and now, for the last three years, in Calcutta--since the 90s. Her reapplication for an Indian visa has become the flash point, some would say a politically convenient flash point for opportunistic "communal" forces, and led to a series of violent clashes last week in the city of Calcutta between police and protesters of a certain community. It is safe to say the question of her residency in India and indeed current whereabouts have become a political football, with even the grotesque Narendra Modi weighing in. For the Hindu Right, this is an opportunity to press what it sees as the "pseudo-secular" the Congress-led government on its commitment to "secularism", in essence demanding that they offend Muslims in order to prove that the Indian state isn't "bending over" for the "minorities". This is one of the opportunistic Hindu Right's favorite and most politically malleable wedge issues, and their exploitation of Ms. Nasreen's plight is all too typical, and disingenuous.

The Congress-led government responded to the challenge yesterday. Yesterday External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee read a statement welcoming Ms. Nasreen as a "guest" to India, ensuring her of her safety and shelter, but warning her that: “It is also expected that the guests will refrain from activities and expressions that may hurt the sentiments of our people.” A friend of mine and I were talking about this last night. He sees it as an outrage: "you're welcome to stay as long as you keep your mouth shut." He's right, of course. This is not unconstrained freedom of speech, nor is it an unconditional offer of refuge. But expecting anything else is unrealistic: the Taslima Nasreen issue--and others like it--will come and go, periodically returning as a test or a challenge issued from one side or the other, but one thing it will not do is break the gravitational pull of sixty years of government policy and the inertia of a state that still believes it is in the people's best interest not to know.
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Thursday, November 22, 2007

City as machine for living: Le Corbusier in Delhi

If there was one disagreement that epitomized the stark differences between Mohandas Gandhi and BR Ambedkar, the architect of India's constitution and leader of India's formerly untouchable castes, during the formative period of India's liberation from British rule, one argument that embodied the chasm between their respective outlooks, it was this: was India a nation of villages? And if so, was that a good thing? In this posting, my thoughts on Le Corbusier, urbanization, a recent trip to Chandigarh and some photos I took there...

Gandhi's utopian political vision insisted on the relevance, indeed the paramountcy of village India. He had a deep sense of optimism about the utility of Indian "tradition"--although it required some tinkering, particularly with regard to untouchability and other "deviations" that he blamed on the British, and therefore characterized as fundamentally foreign and antithetical to the authentic Indian village. "Harijans" or "children of god"--as Gandhi referred to the "untouchable" castes--were welcome participants in the new "republic of villages" that he envisioned, not as a separate, aggrieved "class", but as proud members of a horizontal hierarchy, in which each group performed its own "duty", with self-respect and humility. Cities, for Gandhi, were, like untouchability and industrialization, foreign and corrosive to the Indian "spirit".

Ambedkar, by contrast, famously attacked villages as the sites where the worst forms of violence were engendered. He asked: "What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism?” This was part of a broader attack on Indian "tradition" and "society" more generally: "Most people do not realise that society can practice tyranny and oppression against an individual in a far greater degree than a government can. The means and scope that are open to society for oppression are more extensive than those open to the government; also, they are far more effective. What punishment in the penal code is comparable in its magnitude and its severity to excommunication?" For Ambedkar, the modern state was the only antidote to the unequal power relations that structured lives in the village, the socialist liberator from caste inequality, and the eraser for tradition's in-built violence. He rejected Gandhi's designation of "Harijan" for the untouchables and referred to them instead as "Dalits", or "the oppressed". And the modern city was the engine for this change.

An exhibition at the India Habitat Centre (up until tomorrow) of archival materials, photographs, sketches and artworks tracing the career of Swiss-born French architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, who went by the name Le Corbusier, uncovers the thinking behind the utopian modernism of an urban designer and architect that Jawaharlal Nehru chose to make Ambedkar's vision of the city as liberator into an urban reality, in the city of Chandigarh.

Looking back on the modernist dreams of Ambedkar and Nehru, alongside the atavistic primordialism of Gandhi's village fantasies, one can't help but be struck by the unreality of it all. Neither model helps us make sense of the urbanization that is reshaping the cities and countrysides of India, and indeed the entire global South. The flows of migrant labor in and out of a city like Delhi move in ways that defy simple dichotomies: from village, to small market-city, to exurban labor camp, to city center, looping back and forth, creating ad hoc, informal settlements, shifting communities that sometimes take root and sometimes are violently uprooted. The stark geometries and concrete of Chandigarh are softened by piles of organic and inorganic waste, by clumsily built shanty towns, by mall complexes just on the edge of the city's zoning restrictions, by Nek Chand's once illegal "rock garden". And it is dirty and damp. I visited Chandigarh with my sister in August of this year, a month after seeing the huge Modernism show at the Corcoran Gallery in DC, and I realized that the "Modernism" I saw on display there, which bowled me over, was deficiently clean. How much more interesting when the ideal forms of a Le Corbusier get dirty, when they come into contact with bodies, and power, and history. I took these photos.

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The 'urs of Judee Sill: the kiss, 1973

Judee Sill live on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1973. She died of a drug overdose on the 23rd of November, 1979. In 1973, when this was shot, she was in the middle of a brief, critically acclaimed but commercially miserable pop career, after a rough childhood, a stint in reform school, and some time spent on the street thieving and hustling. Her songs are hard to pin down, but most deal with some pretty heavy mystical themes, and this one is no exception. She taps into a beautiful, sometimes heartbreaking melancholia, and never falls into hipster irony or poseur bullshit. Maybe that was part of the problem. After her career in music failed to take off, she disappeared into a fog of prescription pills, cocaine, heroine and depression. A lot of her friends apparently thought she was already dead by 1974, so complete was her withdrawal from the world. She was the real deal, though. If you listen to the words of this song, you should be able to figure out why I'm celebrating her death-anniversary as an urs. A huge set of unreleased concert recordings of Judee is available here. Read more!

Like a chameleon it constantly changes colour: a Thanksgiving story

It is a typical and sadly seldom questioned bit of calumny and falsehood that India owes the advent of naturalism in its artistic traditions to the colonial artistic intervention, that its precolonial rulers were as little interested in science, economy, and the natural world as they were in abstaining from their nightly, violent and erotic debauches. This is not to say that "naturalism" is some sort of grand artistic and civilizational achievement, heavens no. But it is an interesting one.

In 1616, King James of England sent one Sir Thomas Roe to negotiate with the Mughal emperor Jahangir, whom they called the "Great Mogul". Now, the folks back in England knew that to turn up empty handed at the court of the Mughal emperor was a major faux pas, especially since they hoped to secure favorable trading rights for their then-struggling mercantile adventures on the western coast. But few of the trinkets that Thomas Roe had brought with him much interested Jahangir, an emperor who was indeed given over to opiated and occasionally violent debauches but who balanced this with a curious, even scientific, mind and a strange and wonderful sense of humor--as is evident in his memoirs, the Tuzuk-i Jahangiri, or Jahangirnama. Some of the small paintings that the Englishman had with him did manage to catch the emperor's eye, however, and he asked to see them. They were (most likely) the typical dross of the European art market, early 17th century, little portraits of stuffy ladies and nervous, gilt mini-landscapes promising sexual repression and sorrow. Jahangir said to Sir Thomas, "let me borrow those for a week and I bet you that my painters can do better." Well, the ambassador thought this was a truly imperial piece of hauteur and couldn't resist taking up the "Great Mogul" on his bet. The story goes that a week later, when Thomas Roe returned to court, the emperor laid out a set of paintings and asked him to say which ones he had brought with him and which ones the emperor's own artists had produced. Sir Thomas could not.

IN A SENSE, we might say that Indian naturalism started with a drunken emperor's bet.
Sitting here in New Delhi, on a decidedly turkey-free November 23rd, I turn for solace to history, specifically to the memoirs of the same Jahangir, who was once delighted by the gift of a genuine American turkey, brought to the emperor by his courtier Muqarrab Khan from the Portuguese colony of Goa in 1612 as a little piece of exotica. Jahangir was entranced: body [it] is larger than a peahen and smaller than a peacock. When it is in heat and displays itself, it spreads out its feathers like the peacock and dances about. Its beak and legs are like those of a cock. Its head and neck and the part under the throat are every minute of a different colour. When it is in heat it is quite red— one might say it had adorned itself with red coral—and after a while it becomes white in the same places, and looks like cotton. It sometimes looks of a turquoise colour. Like a chameleon it constantly changes colour. Two pieces of flesh it has on its head look like the comb of a cock. A strange thing is this, that when it is in heat the aforesaid piece of flesh hangs down to the length of a span from the top of its head like an elephant's trunk, and again when he raises it up it appears on its head like the horn of a rhinoceros, to the extent of two finger-breadths. Round its eyes it is always of a turquoise colour, and does not change. Its feathers appear to be of various colours, differing from the colours of the peacock's feathers.

He did the only sensible thing--called in his foremost naturalist painter, Ustad Mansur, and commissioned this portrait. Oh, and by the way, I challenge anyone to write a better description of a turkey than Jahangir's. Prizes to be announced. Read more!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Qawwali in Delhi: getting started

Thursday evenings at the dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi tend to be packed with a mixed group: devotees of the Sufi saint who may have come from as far away as Pakistan or as nearby as South Delhi mingle with local residents who pass their evenings with friends there; tourists come in from Paharganj, some trying their best to dress respectfully, others who have reached the "aw screw it" phase and are simply waiting in tank tops for their flight out of Delhi, a city they probably hate. The latter group comes on Thursday evening to see Qawwali music. I assume it is written up in the Lonely Planet, a redoubtable and immensely profitable travel book with a hegemonic death grip on the minds of nearly every foreign traveler to India. Discard this book immediately. And read on.

First some Qawwali basics, which you can skip if you already know all this stuff. Qawwali is a style of music performed by a troupe of singers and instrumentalists called qawwals. Both words derive, via Persian, from the Arabic qaul meaning "(holy) words". Right off the bat this signals something important about Qawwali music: words are paramount. Indeed, some describe Qawwali as more a form of recitation of ecstatic, mystical verse than as "singing". The tradition dates back to at least the 12th or 13th century, when it emerged as a particular style of ritual among the Sufi teachers and disciples of the Chishti order, or tariqah. Historically, Sufis have been organized into discrete sectarian lineages, based around a chain (or silsila) of Sufi masters and their successors. The most important of these sectarian lines for the spread of Islam in South Asia was the Chishti order--in competition with a number of rivals, especially the Naqshabandis--who are credited with the introduction of Qawwali music as part of their ritual practice, specifically their performance of something called sama, or "listening". During Chishtiyya sama, devotees listen to the recitations of the qawwals, which consist of mystical couplets often repeated again and again, and consider their multiple meanings, allowing the couplets to penetrate and restructure their consciousness. Some of them, in the process, slip into an ecstatic trance, or hal, noticing which the singers will continue repeating the couplet that induced the trance. Sufi narrative traditions in India are replete with stories of Sufi saints and students who have died in the midst of an intense hal. These days, hals become manifest in a number of different ways, including wild, uncontrolled bodily movement and sobbing.

The tomb-shrine of the 13th century Chishtiya Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi plays a special role in the story of Qawwali music. This has more to do with the saint's most famous disciple, the court-poet Amir Khusraw, than with the saint himself. Amir Khusraw was many things: a Sufi disciple, a panegyrist in the courts of at least five Sultans during this chaotic period in Delhi's history, a poet who composed mystical verse in Persian, a riddler and a musician. The verses he composed in Persian, as well as those in early Hindi that oral tradition ascribes to him, form the backbone of the Qawwali repertoire. He is also supposed to have invented a number of Hindustani instruments, including the sitar, although the validity of these claims is nearly impossible to evaluate. In any event, contemporary qawwals frequently trace their own family trees back to an original group of young boys, or bacchegan, whom Amir Khusraw taught to sing his own compositions for the sama of Nizamuddin Auliya. For some, this is the genesis moment of Qawwali music.

An example of a popular Khusraw composition sung by qawwals is a poem called the "Chhap Tilak":

You've taken away my looks, my identity, by just a glance.
By making me drink the wine of love-potion,
You've intoxicated me by just a glance;
My fair, delicate wrists with green bangles in them,
Have been held tightly by you with just a glance.
I give my life to you, Oh my cloth-dyer,
You've dyed me in yourself, by just a glance.
I give my whole life to you Oh, Nijam,
You've made me your bride, by just a glance.

The themes the poet draws on in this verse are typical of the Sufi repertoire: love and intoxication, surrender, the annihilation of the ego through devoted love. Here, the poet expresses himself with the voice of a young love-stricken bride, gazing on her beloved "Nijam" (which refers to Nizamuddin Auliya). This is precisely the type of mystical verse that delights audiences during the sama: it is at once erotic and mystical, courtly and folksy, its interpretation can be very superficial or mind-numbingly complex. Khusraw was a master of this type of verse, and the example he set has strongly influenced the performance of Qawwali for almost eight centuries.

In fact, it is likely that even before Amir Khusraw something very much like Qawwali music was happening in the Chishtiya shrines of North India. The most famous of these shrines is in Ajmer, and belongs to the original Chishti teacher of North India, the 12th century teacher Moinuddin Chishti--known more popularly as Gharib Nawaz--who came to India from Central Asia and founded the Chishti order. Shrines like the one in Ajmer, or in Nizamuddin, are typically sprawling affairs consisting of a number of buildings clustered around a central tomb structure. This last detail is important: Sufi shrines are built around the tombs of departed Sufi saints. Devotees of the shrines believe that the saint is not "dead" but rather that he has gone into a form of occultation, or hiding, but is still present, still willing to intercede on their behalf with God. It would be safe to say that the majority of visitors to the shrines have some sort of request or desire in mind, and hope for the blessings and assistance of the saint.

The word used in South Asia for a shrine like this is dargah, which is a Persian word that literally means "royal court". In a sense, the shrine itself can be conceived of as a kind of alternative royal assembly, complete with its own rules of etiquette and a whole hierarchy of "courtiers". Any visitor to a Sufi dargah in North India will notice large numbers of official looking men loitering around the shrine--distinctive with their black caps--one of whom will inevitably approach them with a register, soliciting donations. These men, who are called pirzadehs, are hereditary lower level functionaries of the shrine, overseen by a family of officers known as khadims, who are something like the "managers" of the dargah's finances and facilities. The ultimate authority of the dargah--aside from the Sufi saint whose grave is its focus--is the sajjada-nishin. The sajjada-nishin is a direct descendant of the saint and is recognized as his living representative. He has his own disciples and someday will have a tomb-shrine of his own--albeit one on a much less grand scale than his illustrious ancestor's. The qawwals that are associated with a particular Sufi shrine--and some are not--hold a fairly low rank within this complex hierarchy.

The Delhi Walla--whose blog I highly recommend--has written this week about the intense competition between the various qawwali troupes associated with the Nizamuddin dargah in Delhi. This is completely true, and not at all surprising given the "courtly" dynamics of the shrine in general. In fact, competition and intrigue is the order of the day within the hierarchy as a whole. There are in fact two rival claimants to the very highest position of sajjada-nishin, and the dispute is a bitter one. It is likely that this has been a recurrent feature in the history of the shrine.

But aside from the rivalry that stems from the patronage structure of the shrine, there is a stylistic split as well within the Qawwali tradition. Sadly, these days the only type of Qawwali one is likely to hear on Thursday evenings at Nizamuddin is one that is strongly influenced by Bollywood film music, typically in fairly simple Urdu or Hindi, and played and sung at a very loud volume. While this shouting style of Qawwali can be very moving, for most connoisseurs of Sufi music it is a poor substitute for the now quickly vanishing style based around a more subtle aesthetic. This latter, more intimate, style of Qawwali draws on the older Persian repertoire, tends toward more intellectually challenging mystical themes and eschews shouting and loud percussion for a more conversational, dynamic register.

One of the foremost exponents of this style is the now aged Ustad Meraj Ahmed (pictured above in performance at the Chillagah-e Sharif in Delhi), a powerful Qawwali singer attached to the shrine of Nizamuddin. These days, however, Meraj seldom performs much beyond the opening recitation of the sama, leaving the rest to his sons, whom connoisseurs of Qawwali regard as ill-trained and poorly behaved. During the recent Urs, or death-anniversary of Amir Khusraw--an event that draws excellent Qawwali troupes from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh--I had the opportunity to spend some time with Meraj-sahib and his boys, and their attitude toward their father was at times disrespectful--a huge issue in the etiquette-bound culture of the qawwals--to the point that a qawwal from a visiting troupe intervened and called him out. Stylistically the sons tend to shout, their voices are enthusiastic but with poor intonation and their knowledge of their father's amazing repertoire completely deficient. I have heard--and believe me, these dargahs are gossipy places--that his sons were spoiled, especially after the unfortunate demise of their mother at an early age. But no matter.

The waning of Meraj-sahib's career and the apparent fizzling out of his style--which ultimately traces back centuries--is tragic. However, the troupe of Mohammad Ahmad Warsi, an intense qawwal from the city of Rampur, continues to perform in the Sufiana stylel that connoisseurs love. Their performances at Amir Khusraw's Urs were amazing--drawing deep from Khusraw's Persian poetry, as well as from rarely heard old and difficult Hindavi compositions, performing them with a restrained, elegant style that showed incredible musical skill and also that ineffable something, that grace or style that is called andaz in Urdu. I was lucky enough to get to travel around the Urs with the troupe and they were in high demand: first for the morning sama at the Chillagah-e Sharif of Nizamuddin Auliya--an auxiliary shrine located near Humayun's tomb, where the saint went to meditate--, then at the Khwaja Hall--which is a 20th century tomb-complex built to honor the departed father of one of the two current claimants of the post of sajjada-nishin, Hasan Sani Nizami--, at the dargah itself, at the private family cemetery of another Sufi teacher, located in the alleys behind the dargah, and finally at a special sama held the last evening of the Urs festival in a small room in the shrine complex called the Takht-e Buzurg. For me, it was a deep education in the Sufiana style. You can here a clip of Warsi here.

For most visitors to the dargah of Nizamuddin on Thursday evenings, none of this matters much. The humble pilgrims are there to see the saint, to ask for his blessings, to be moved by some devotional music. The tourists from Europe or Israel or wherever are there for a taste of something exotic. And every once in a while, if they are very lucky, something might catch fire in the air in the shrine--usually very late at night--maybe a visiting troupe has blown in by surprise from Karachi, maybe from Rampur, or maybe just the local qawwals are in peak form, and they will get the taste of something very different--a window opening up, providing a quick glimpse into an aesthetic and musical tradition whose depths you can't explore on the internet. Read more!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Batty: an embarrassing archeology

Sometimes I feel as though I'm in the midst of a tremendous bout of writer's block--and ironically, one of the only things I seem capable of writing about is writing itself or its impossibility--but then when I begin to research its origins and the history of this peculiar stasis, I realize that it goes back at least until about second grade--not, as one might have suspected to birth--when I busily engaged myself writing epic (at least relative to my size) serial novels featuring the adventures of me and my aspirational best friend Carl, engaged in all manner of derring-do and reckless adventures that at once confirmed my heroism and strengthened our intense (although outside of my textual fantasies, as yet unrealized) friendship. It is a bit embarrassing to have excavated this moment of lapse, to wade through several decades of stunted paragraphs, abandoned diaries, half-completed short stories, and pompous poesizings to reach into a dark and anxiety ridden childhood textual cave and find myself pouring over a piece of newsprint, busily and happily scribbling out an illustrated battle scene--Carl wounded and helpless under intense attack from Nazis, me charging in and coolly laying the Nazis low. But at the same time there has to be a tinge of jealousy as well: I've always admired good genre fiction.

Of course by now the whole thing has taken on the unreality of a museum diorama--like the Sioux tribesmen thundering over a rocky expanse, tremendous chocolate brown bisons stumbling toward death at the points of the Indians' razor sharp--albeit dusty--javelins, a rattlesnake coiled near the edge of the scene, watching, known only to connoisseurs--all of it unfolding in front of a painted brilliant and hard blue skyline of mesas and and cacti, somewhere between John Ford and Wiley E. Coyote, brightly lit and realer than real, just on the other side of the glass. Or the diorama of the discovery of the Altamira caves--history doubly exoticized and unknown: first by the torches, leather satchels and sketchbooks of the nineteenth-century amateur archeologist, sifting through guano at the entrance of a cave while his five year old daughter wanders its labyrinthine interiors, alone in a dress, carrying her own little torch casting weird shadows on the walls and ceilings, and making monsters move in the corners. And then she shouts and her father comes bumbling along after her and they sink into the deep darkness below a ceiling painted in overlapping figures of animals, some transparent and anatomical, some swooping and huge and alive, some executed in charcoal with a precise and primitive economy, others subtly shaded in ochre and earth. Here is the scene shining down on the girl's face. Here is the black-and-white diagram on the wall outside, labeled and numbered. Here is the question mark recorded in the table next to number 23, that should have been named: Priapic Horned God. Smudges on the glass from where our heads and hands touched it all, standing there in the archival gloom of the museum. It was 1980, and we were the audience to an incredibly condensed--and relatively inexpensive--depiction of the invention of modernity, of that feeling of the floor dropping out beneath the nineteenth century, the ceiling disappearing, the potent figure of the wandering child in the cave and us standing there in a cave of our own, watching. We were so engrossed we hardly noticed postmodernity being invented right under our noses--although I suppose if we had, it wouldn't have worked.

It gives me a strange and idiosyncratic sense of hope, laying bare this archeology of how I lost my voice, this little diorama scene of me writing fluidly for the last time--like a little caveman painting his hunting magic on the wall, big fat lard-dripping massacred bison and horny gods--there I am writing a script for an adventuresome disregard for death, global travel, and a deep respectful friendship with the coolest guys in school. Why I should have become arrested at this particular relatively primitive civilizational stage is an open question, this moment of wish-fulfilling poesis that was really no different from the way that a child sometimes thinks he can control the wind with a magic word.

In the end, Carl and I did become friends, by the way, although later on I realized he was a dork and lost interest.

Perhaps Freud was right about this--as the cruel and analytically inclined among you have undoubtedly been muttering since the second sentence--that the individual's development somehow mirrors or replicates that of the species--that this frozen moment of fluency, this unselfconscious act of world-creation and submarine adventure depiction, obscurely corresponds to an infantile and magically inclined stage of human development--in which case, my discovery of the same may herald the advent of a personal form of modernity. But then again Freud was locked into his own modernist fantasies, fantasies that no one believes any more, ones that really have nothing to do with penises or women or violence (or at least that have no more to do with that unholy triad than most other things): the slow march of progress, the Archimedean point of observation, the cold precision of reason, the surgical possibilities of improvement. At least in my case, a fair argument could be made that things have rather slid downhill. And now writing about it all, it is hard to avoid the realization that at this, the moment of my discovery of the symbols and images of prehistory, the resulting invention of an idiosyncratic and personal modernity is already debunked, already a-crumble and silly, already fallen into irony and mad splinters--all that can be done is to slow it down, freeze it with glue like the twiggy tumbleweed bobbing in the stilled breeze of the Indian diorama, about to lift off from beneath the feet of a silent stampede, and never making it.
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Monday, November 12, 2007

A rant on Indian food in the US, and a book proposal

Sorting through the inner caverns of my laptop I came across this flatulent gem, written last fall in a state of Malayali prawn biryani-induced frenzy, thinking with great, nearly Avalokitesvaran, compassion of the folks back in Wisconsin who would die never having tasted it...

Think of Italian food in Wisconsin in the 1960s. Or if you prefer, in 1994. Hell, think of Italian food in most of Wisconsin right now. Imagine a dark cavern where, without irony, wicker-wrapped wine-bottles jostle with heavy blood-red interior curtains, all gently releasing mists of dust onto large oval-shaped plates piled high with shiningly dry white spaghetti mounded with meat cooked in tomato paste, filtering down on top of them like garlic powder, like that dry cheese that shakes through the glass hand-grenades that litter the table. The tape deck endlessly repeats “O Sole Mio” and Dean Martin. Insurance salesmen pucker their mouths, turning their heads—heavy with cheap vodka and vermouth—in what they imagine to be the height of discretion to watch a prom date walk by. Garlic bread, anyone? Then quickly discard the thought.

This type of dining experience—once so familiar that it seemed an irrefutable culinary fact, a stable kingdom of the gastronomic mind filled with happy mustachioed citizens ruled by a great meatball king—now finds itself subject to thoroughly postmodern reenactments, hipster simulacra perpetrated with a nudge and a wink, that ultimate and short-lived form of damning—the sure sign that the phenomenon in question, whether “red-sauce” Italian restaurants, parachute pants, or the music of Fleetwood Mac, is running on fumes. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, ironic appreciation is the sincerest form of disdain.

Perhaps even Italians can enjoy these urbane recreations of the pasta palaces of yore—the food is undoubtedly much better than it was in the once-ubiquitous spaghetti supper clubs of the upper Midwest, rendered subtly authentic through the inclusion of fresh herbs, handmade pasta and actual cheese. But an Italian visitor to the real thing must have felt like he was witnessing something completely alienated, fantastical, empty and without nourishment—as if a medieval German baron visited the castle at Disney World, or a New Yorker were to visit New York, New York in Las Vegas. Food in Italy varies tremendously by region—the ingredients used and methods of cooking in Sicily and Bologna are so different as to present entirely different ways of eating—and yet these “Italian” restaurants transcended all regions, obliterated all difference, and from the wreckage left strewn about pasted together an Italian cuisine of the American mind, a “national” cuisine that insulted the actual cuisine of every region in Italy in equal measure.

Happily, things have changed for Italian eating in the United States. Denizens of most major metropolitan areas can sample reasonably authentic Italian food in restaurants, obtain most of the ingredients they need to cook pesto with potatoes and green beans in the style of Liguria, or cuttlefish in the style of Apulia, in the comfort of their own homes, and they can find cookbooks that will give them precise instructions on how to do so. This Italian food story—its passage from a deracinated and dreadful plateful of spaghetti and meatballs, artificially presented in surroundings intended to evoke opulence, abundance and a respect for heavy mustaches, to the inarguably improved position it enjoys today—gives us an idea of the path that all national cuisines must travel. And it provides a rudimentary map that we can use to chart their progress: Chinese food, for example, is steadily advancing, albeit with one foot stuck firmly in its sweet-and-sour-pork past. Spanish food, alas, is progressing more slowly.

But Indian food, where available, hardly has taken the first step down this long road. The
Indian restaurants that we do have present us with something directly analogous to the benighted red-sauce days of the Italian supper club: a “royal” interior design, anxiously simulated with cheaply-made ethnic curios purchased at cost from wholesalers with warehouses full of the stuff destined for the tourist trade, a menu of dishes that seems to have been photocopied and passed along. The operative ethos is undoubtedly a combination of “if it ain’t broke…” and “give the people what they want.” And who can blame the hardworking restaurateurs?

The fact of the matter is that the food served in the Indian restaurants of the United States and Europe, outside of large cities where a few expensive but welcome exceptions exist, is almost entirely restricted to dishes from the Punjab, with a sprinkling of “royal Mughlai” delicacies allegedly recreating dishes enjoyed by the storied medieval emperors on Delhi’s peacock throne. For all of India’s much-ballyhooed dedication to fresh spices, the flavors one is must likely to encounter in the Indian restaurants of Anywhere, U.S.A. are deadened with age and sodden with heaps of cream and butter. Spinach, for example, is cooked until abject surrender, and then blended to a thick green gruel that serves as a bubbling warm sea for floating islands of bland but admittedly satisfying paneer. Tandoori chicken sits beneath a heat lamp with a meager bed of onions to cushion its dry and thinly flavored exterior. Grim reminders of India’s delicious breads flop about listlessly, poised somewhere between leather and dust. Nothing here is healthy or fresh except the images it is all meant to conjure. The specter of obesity and indigestion giggles with mad delight from every “curry” stain on the tablecloth at the $4.99 all-you-can-eat buffet. Tooth-achingly sweet “rice pudding” parsimoniously adorned by two lonely raisins and a single pod of cardamom—if you are lucky—to follow. And a bottle of watery, foamy and cloyingly sweet Indian beer is served wrapped in a napkin, as though it is a jeroboam of champagne from the Great Mughal’s own cellar, or a goblet overflowing with the nectar of an Oriental paradise.

And Indian cookbooks either attempt to teach you how to perpetrate the same fantasy at home, or bossily direct its readers to some other equally stunted, equally selective notion of what “authentic” Indian food is, or at least, should be. Of special note in this regard, is the vegetarian Indian cookbook. Here we can find the genuinely healthy and fresh-tasting foods, it must be admitted. However, either the ingredients called for are, for the most part, simply impossible to obtain, or the food has been simplified to a point where it loses its footing and becomes little more than the culinary equivalent of Deepak Chopra—self-consciously and safely exotic, good for you in a platitudinous but unremarkable way. With a little luck, perhaps one has stumbled across a South Indian vegetarian cookbook and has gotten at least a glimpse of what the food of another region has to offer. (Better yet, perhaps one has found a South Indian restaurant tucked away somewhere in the lonely strip malls on the cheap side of town and found themselves confronted by a menu entirely unfamiliar, delightful and strange.) But even so, cookbooks do nothing to acquaint us with the incredible diversity of regional foods and foodways that characterizes the vast Indian subcontinent. They tend to be resolutely, sternly, even preachily prescriptive, rather than descriptive. Vegetarian cookbooks are the worst: they always seem to be wagging a schoolmarmy finger at their readers. And there is never enough chilly.

The problem that both the Indian restaurant culture and the Indian cookbook share—at least in the United States and Europe—is a reliance on an entirely outdated, fictitious and frankly ham-handed notion of authenticity: “this is the real Indian cuisine,” they tell us, “and the only one at that.” These are the culinary handmaidens of hackneyed fantasies of the ancient, spiritual, mystical East in the case of the vegetarian dogmatists on the one hand, or, in the case of the “Mughlai” restaurants, of equally clichéd pipedreams about fat despotic Oriental tyrants surrounded by medieval harem-girls and eunuch-acrobats, chewing on an unguent leg of over-spiced lamb. You either get temples or onion-domed palaces or some monstrous hybrid of the two. One almost looks forward to the day when all of this can be recycled as kitsch for the jaded palates of dissolute hipsters. Meanwhile, those of us lucky enough to have eaten adventurously in the markets, homes, taverns, roadside stalls and, yes, temples and palaces of India, know what every Indian emigrant to our country must keenly feel: our Indian restaurants and cookbooks present us with a stunted, anemic and deeply disappointing substitute for the real thing.

Clearly the last thing the world needs is another Indian cookbook. This book proceeds under a set of two related assumptions:

1. There is no real “Indian” cuisine.
2. The best Indian foods are idiosyncratic and local.

I remember taking a trip to Japan years ago and noticing that everyone boarding the train at certain stops held carefully wrapped packages of food, special products of that region, that locale. It made me hungry just thinking about it. This book seeks to do something similar, albeit through text and images: to bring back the best of Indian food and foodways—what people eat, how people eat, where they eat and what they eat with, not everywhere but in particular places and at particular times. We visit the small, nondescript but legendary Tunde Kebab in the narrow lanes of Lucknow, where a family dishes out helpings of their signature dish, a concoction of minced beef and mutton flavored with a secret mix of 160 spices, formed into patties and grilled over charcoal before being served wrapped in a layered Indian bread called a paratha, accompanied by pickled onion and fresh-cut lemons. We meander our way through the street foods of Calcutta, stopping for bialys at the famous Jewish bakeries of Hogg Market before finishing ourselves off at Chitto-da’s stall on Dekker Street, where the eponymous proprietor dishes out a chicken stew beloved by generations of Bengali food buffs, accompanied by sweet, buttery toast. We climb through the steep apricot orchards of the Himalayan foothills in search of chuli, distilled from wild apricots by villagers in the high mountains of Kinnaur and track down homemade feni, or cashewnut liquor, in the Indo-Portuguese hinterlands of tropical Goa. We visit the Sri Krishna Math temple complex in the busy pilgrimage town of Udupi down on India’s green southwest coast, where Brahmins prepare a set of vegetarian foods to be served to the god himself, cooked with ground coconuts and coconut oil, jackfruit, green bananas, red chili, pumpkin gourds and rice. Further down the coast, we visit Muslim fishing villages in search of the perfect fish biryani, served on a banana leaf.
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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Indian history gets steamrolled by the Great Flattener Friedman: I protest

A couple weeks ago I took a break from a week-long binge on Qawwali and other matters Sufiana for a trip to India Habitat Centre to see the celebrated Indo-phile and unrepentant globalism advocate Thomas L. Friedman speak. Let me say right off the bat that he is a charismatic guy and a good speaker. I'm also pleased that he has renounced his pro-war positions, confessed that he is now "embarrassed" by positions he took prior to the war in Iraq, and is writing his next book about how to save the world from environmental catastrophe using the magic of the marketplace. Anyone who has followed Friedman's writings knows he is very bullish on India, and indeed made India the fulcrum point of his argument about the "flat" world.

To me it was extremely odd--coming from the events of the Urs, or death anniversary, of the thirteenth-century poet Amir Khusraw, where it was difficult not to feel completely transported to another time, or at least a radically different style of living, to the posh auditorium of the India Habitat Centre, packed with journalists and entrepreneurs, eager to have their optimism reflected back at them by the reliable Friedman. I was going from one courtly scene to another. The first was defined by the old-fashioned adab, or courtly etiquette of the shrine, the word for which literally means "royal court"--where disciples and devotees sit in orderly rows, observing specific and appropriate styles of comportment and humility before the grave of the departed Sufi master and his living representative and descendant, the sajjada-nishin. In the latter, we sat in our ordered rows in the auditorium and waited our turns to either berate or fawn over the visiting Minnesotan, mouthpiece of a different sort of master.

Anyway, I was going to avoid blogging about the thing--it seemed too obvious. Not only that, but he made some comment about how "some of you will probably be blogging about this later tonight", that made me feel cheap and vindictive. I wasn't even going to mention this joke he started with. Referring to the conference on sanitation--a huge problem in the developing world in general and India in particular--he said, "I never thought I'd be sharing conference space with the World Toilet Congress", or something like that. It got the predicted laugh, but if any chuckle escaped from my lips I hope it was bitter with irony--apparently in Friedman's flattened world, everyone has a place to take a crap and flush, or at least will soon. I wasn't going to mention this joke, although I found it callous and representative of the ignorance about the developing world that is practically a required intellectual qualification for an unbridled pro-globalization stance.

I wouldn't stoop so low.

As a matter of fact, I think that Friedman is often very convincing, especially when he describes the irresistible pull of global capitalism, the kill-or-be-killed competition that it engenders, its remarkable ability to separate winners and losers. What I find distasteful is the chicken-hawk hard-ass-ism that accompanies his descriptions. He describes a world where you "adapt or die" with such obvious relish. Several hours later, sitting in an old schoolhouse, chatting with some qawwals, or sufi singers, who had come in for the Urs from the city of Rampur--men who carried with them a tradition that is fragile and precious, and disappearing fast--I knew that Mr. Friedman's marketplace would, as he would put it, "eat them for breakfast." Too late to retrain them for call centres at this point too.

I felt sick.

But I still didn't feel like writing about it on the blog. No point. Reading Friedman's column in the NYT today, however, finally pushed me to this unprofitable use of my time. It is one of his trademarked "what is wrong with the Muslim world" columns, this time using the historic and boring meeting between the intolerant Pope and the intolerant king of Saudi Arabia as an entry point into a discussion of why the intolerance of the former is preferable to that of the latter. Yawn. But then things take a strange turn, and he sets out to compare India and Pakistan:

"I just returned from India, which just celebrated 60 years of democracy. Pakistan, right next door, is melting down. Yet, they are basically the same people — they look alike, they eat the same food, they dress alike. But there is one overriding difference: India has a culture of diversity. India is now celebrating 60 years of democracy precisely because it is also celebrating millennia of diversity, including centuries of Muslim rule.

Nayan Chanda, author of a delightful new book on globalization titled “Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers, and Warriors Shaped Globalization,” recounts the role of all these characters in connecting our world. He notes: 'The Muslim Emperor Akbar, who ruled India in the 16th century at the pinnacle of the Mughal Empire, had Christians, Hindus, Jain and Zoroastrians in his court. Many of his senior officials were Hindus. On his deathbed, Jesuit priests tried to convert him, but he refused. Here was a man who knew who he was, yet he had respect for all religions. Nehru, a Hindu and India’s first prime minister, was a great admirer of Akbar.'

Akbar wasn’t just tolerant. He was embracing of other faiths and ideas, which is why his empire was probably the most powerful in Indian history. Pakistan, which has as much human talent as India, could use an Akbar. Ditto the Arab world."

The first and most obvious problem with this, is that the emperor Akbar belongs at least as much to "Pakistan" as he does to "India". I am struggling to decide whether or not Friedman can really be so ignorant as to not be aware that the Mughal empire included territory in South Asia that has since been carved up into various different nations. Mr. Friedman: Akbar spent at least as much time in Lahore as he did in Delhi and Agra. The other problem is that Friedman seems totally unaware that India's much-hyped "tolerance" ain't all it is cracked up to be--just ask a Muslim from Gujarat. Or read the news. Finally, can he really be serious in suggesting that the current political crisis in Pakistan is the result of some deep historical lack, rather than, say, a much more recent, easily visible set of events and policies--including the decades long U.S. preference for military rule in Pakistan? How about using Pakistan--and its sinister intelligence apparatus--as a conduit for shipping arms and materiel to our proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 80s? Ah, but only if they had had an Akbar!

But of course, we aren't really talking about some objective, empirical historical "thing" here, so much as we are about historiography--not sure there's a difference, personally, but this isn't the place for that discussion--and Friedman has clearly fallen under the spell of the Nehruvian historical tradition, one that mobilizes the image of "tolerant" Akbar as a means of legitimizing the post-Independence "secularism" that Nehru advocated. Akbar, for Nehru, was a "good Muslim", because he was one that didn't insist on being a Muslim at all. In the charged atmosphere surrounding the events of Partition, Nehru's preference for this particular picture of Akbar had a pointed contemporary relevance: the "problem" with Jinnah and the Muslim League and their "Pakistan" was that they insisted on the relevance of their religious identity as Muslims, unlike Akbar. The viceroy Mountbatten, on August 14th 1947 during the ceremony marking the end of British rule, held aloft the example of Akbar--again with pointed reference to the problematic Muslim leaders, especially Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Jinnah responded by pointing out "The tolerance and goodwill that the Emperor Akbar showed to all the non-Muslims is not of recent origin. It dates back to thirteen centuries ago when our Prophet not only by words but by deeds treated the Jews and Christians after he had conquered them with the utmost tolerance and regard and respect for their faith and beliefs." In other words, one does not have to give up Islam to be tolerant and portraying Akbar as someone who did is incorrect.

Jinnah's Akbar and Nehru's Akbar both cast long shadows in their respective countries and, I suppose, Friedman could build himself a more respectable argument if he had been aware of this--without falling into the obscure and historically ignorant essentialism that he resorts to in today's column.

What about Akbar's religious views? They are difficult to pin down. He was a Muslim with a strong attachment to Sufi teachers and shrines. In 1575, he built something called the "Ibadat-khana", or "House of Worship" in his new capital at Fatehpur Sikri, that was designed to be a kind of debating hall for learned adherents of the various religious traditions found in sixteenth-century South Asia. His contemporary, the historian Badauni, describes its construction and purpose:

"When the capital was illumined by the return of the Imperial presence, the old regulations came again into operation, and the house of wisdom shone resplendent on Friday nights with the light of holy minds. On the 20th Mír, in that place of meeting, the lamp was kindled to brighten the solitude of seclusion in the banquet of society, and the merits of the philosophers of the colleges and monasteries were put to the test of the touchstone. Súfís, doctors, preachers, lawyers, Sunnís, Shí'as, Brahmans, Jains, Buddhists, Chár-báks,* Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and learned men of every belief, were gathered together in the royal assembly, and were filled with delight. Each one fearlessly brought forward his assertions and arguments, and the disputations and contentions were long and heated. Every sect, in its vanity and conceit, attacked and endeavoured to refute the statements of their antagonists. One night the 'Ibádat-Khána was brightened by the presence of Padre Radalf, who for intelligence and wisdom was unrivalled among Christian doctors. Several carping and bigoted men attacked him, and this afforded an opportunity for a display of the calm judgment and justice of the assembly! These men brought forward the old received assertions, and did not attempt to arrive at truth by reasoning. Their statements were torn to pieces, and they were nearly put to shame; and then they began to attack the contradictions in the Gospel, but they could not prove their assertions. With perfect calmness and earnest con­viction of the truth, the Padre replied to their arguments, and then he went on to say, “If these men have such an opinion of our Book, and if they believe the Kurán to be the true word of God, then let a furnace be lighted, and let me with the Gospel in my hand, and the 'ulamá with their holy book in their hands, walk into that testing place of truth, and the right will be manifest.” The black-hearted mean-spirited disputants shrank from this proposal, and answered only with angry words. This prejudice and violence greatly annoyed the impartial mind of the Emperor, and, with great discrimination and enlightenment, he said: “Man's outward profession and the mere letter of Muhammadanism, without a heartfelt conviction, can avail no­thing. I have forced many Brahmans, by fear of my power, to adopt the religion of my ancestors; but now that my mind has been enlightened with the beams of truth, I have become convinced that the dark clouds of conceit and the mist of self-opinion have gathered round you, and that not a step can be made in advance without the torch of proof. That course only can be beneficial which we select with clear judgment. To repeat the words of the Creed, to perform circumcision, or to lie prostrate on the ground from dread of kingly power, can avail nothing in the sight of God:

Obedience is not in prostration on the earth:
Practise sincerity, for righteousness is not borne upon the brow.”

Akbar went on to construct a new "religion", one that could be loosely described as a kind of "imperial cult", called the Din-e Ilahi, or "Divine Faith". The Din-e Ilahi revolved around the mystical power that Akbar was supposed to have been infused with since birth, and bound his courtiers to him in ties of fealty modeled after the ties that bound a disciple to a Sufi master. His official historian--and disciple in the Din-e Ilahi--Abu'l Fazl's description of Akbar as religious leader in the Akbar Nama gives a good taste of how an official history represented the "divinity" of the emperor:

"But whether he checks men in their desire of becoming disciples, or admits them at other times, he guides them in each case to the realm of bliss. Many sincere enquirers, from the mere light of his wisdom, or his holy breath, obtain a degree of awakening which other spiritual doctors could not produce by repeated fasting and prayers for forty days. Numbers of those who have renounced the world, as Sannásís, Jogís, Sevrás, Qalandars, Hakíms, and Sufís, and thousands of such as follow worldly pursuits, as soldiers, tradespeople, mechanics, and husbandmen, have daily their eyes opened to insight, or have the light of their knowledge increased. Men of all nations, young and old, friends and strangers, the far and the near, look upon offering a vow to His Majesty as the means of solving all their diffi­culties, and bend down in worship on obtaining their desire. Others again, from the distance of their homes, or to avoid the crowds gathering at Court, offer their vows in secret, and pass their lives in grateful praises. But when His Majesty leaves Court, in order to settle the affairs of a province, to conquer a kingdom, or to enjoy the pleasures of the chase, there is not a hamlet, a town, or a city, that does not send forth crowds of men and women with vow-offerings in their hands, and prayers on their lips, touching the ground with their foreheads, praising the efficacy of their vows, or proclaim­ing the accounts of the spiritual assistance received. Other multitudes ask for lasting bliss, for an upright heart, for advice how best to act, for strength of the body, for enlightenment, for the birth of a son, the reunion of friends, a long life, increase of wealth, elevation in rank, and many other things. His Majesty, who knows what is really good, gives satisfactory answers to every one, and applies remedies to their religious perplexities. Not a day passes but people bring cups of water to him, beseeching him to breathe upon it. He who reads the letters of the divine orders in the book of fate, on seeing the tidings of hope, takes the water with his blessed hands, places it in the rays of the world-illuminating sun, and fulfils the desire of the suppliant. Many sick people of broken hopes, whose diseases the most eminent physicians pronounced incurable, have been restored to health by this divine means.

A more remarkable case is the following. A simple-minded recluse had cut off his tongue, and throwing it towards the threshold of the palace, said, “If that certain blissful thought, which I just now have, has been put into my heart by God, my tongue will get well; for the sincerity of my belief must lead to a happy issue.” The day was not ended before he obtained his wish."

It is difficult to reconcile the complexity of this picture--Akbar as Sufi master, magician, prophet, faith-healer, just ruler, conqueror--with the simplified, politically motivated "Akbars" of Nehru and Jinnah. Friedman's ludicrous caricature is even less historically accurate. At least when Alfred Tennyson wrote his nineteenth-century poem, "Akbar's Dream", everyone knew he was honest about the links between globalization and the exhumation of Akbar's example. At the end of the long poem, which poses as a dialogue between the emperor and Abul Fazl, the emperor sees a future in which his "fair work" is destroyed only to be restored by an "alien race":

Well, I dream’d
That stone by stone I rear’d a sacred fane,
A temple, neither Pagod, Mosque, nor Church,
But loftier, simpler, always open-door’d
To every breath from heaven, and Truth and Peace
And Love and Justice came and dwelt therein;
But while we stood rejoicing, I and thou,
I heard a mocking laugh “the new Korân!”
And on the sudden, and with a cry “Saleem”
Thou, thou—I saw thee fall before me, and then
Me too the black-wing’d Azrael overcame,
But Death had ears and eyes; I watch’d my son,
And those that follow’d, loosen, stone from stone,
All my fair work; and from the ruin arose
The shriek and curse of trampled millions, even
As in the time before; but while I groan’d,
From out the sunset pour’d an alien race,
Who fitted stone to stone again, and Truth,
Peace, Love and Justice came and dwelt therein,
Nor in the field without were seen or heard
Fires of Súttee, nor wail of baby-wife,
Or Indian widow; and in sleep I said
“All praise to Alla by whatever hands
My mission be accomplish’d!” but we hear
Music: our palace is awake,and morn
Has lifted the dark eyelash of the Night
From off the rosy cheek of waking Day.
Our hymn to the sun. They sing it. Let us go.’
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