The enlightened call a person wise when all his undertakings are free from anxiety about results.

— Krishna in The Gita

The mind is everything. What you think you become.
— Buddha

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Art with attitude

These days Sharjah has become a haven for art-lovers thanks to the ongoing art biennial (March16-May16). Since its inception in 1993, the Sharjah Biennial is one of the most celebrated cultural events in the Gulf. In two decades it has formed a cultural connection between artists and art institutions on local, regional and international levels, while engaging the general community.
This edition’s programme has been the most ambitious so far, featuring more commissions than ever before. Some of them are massive on scale, like Imran Qureshi’s prize-winning site-specific installation. Artists, filmmakers, musicians, dancers, writers, editors and translators have brought to the table unique creations that expand the 2011 biennial’s themes.
I have already been there a couple of times and that has not been enough to view even a fraction of the works. The biennial has integrated buildings like the Sharjah Art Museum, the Bait Al Serkal and the Calligraphy Museum in the Cultural Quarter, as well as city streets to form a gigantic platform for regional and international artists. To encourage communication, commissioned works have been placed in such a way as to bring them face to face with visitors and residents.
For the first time the biennial has chosen a single theme— “Plot for a Biennial.” The “plot” is scripted around keywords like treason, necessity, insurrection, affiliation, corruption, devotion, disclosure and translation. Running parallel to the tumultuous changes in the Middle East, the theme seems to be a prescient choice, an uncanny coincidence. Who says art is removed from socio-political reality? At least here in the Middle East, where art is never removed from politics, artists seem to have contributed to the revolutions as much as twitter and facebook.
Hosted by the Sharjah Art foundation, the biennial’s framework borrows from the structure of a film narrative, wherein artists, filmmakers, performers and writers constitute a cast of players to become The Traitor, The Collaborator and The Experientialist.
Originally Sharjah Biennial was modelled on a classic biennial format with artists officially representing the country of their origin. But from 2003 the biennial underwent a bold shift under the direction of Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, who took on the role of co-curator. The focus since has been more on art and individual artists, especially contemporary art, rather than just Islamic and classical.
The uniqueness and strength of Sharjah biennial lies in that it has been able to withstand market and commercial pressures to foster a spirit of genuine creativity, cementing Sharjah’s role as the cultural centre of the Emirates.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

People power in Egypt

It is impossible not to get awestruck by the events unfolding across the Middle East, especially the Egyptian revolution. Coming on the back of the Tunisian uprising, protests in Egypt unseated Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in power in what has been described by some as an 18-day miracle.
The ouster of Mubarak, more than Tunisia’s Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, has caught the imagination of the world because Mubarak is a more widely known figure and has been a symbol of permanent power. Also, Ben Ali was quick to cave in, Mubarak clung to power for as long as he could.
Across the world people watched in fascination history being made on their television screens. From a region viewed through the prism of terrorism and war came a totally contrasting image—millions of people, mostly with no political affiliation, unarmed and non-violent, but resolute and brave, challenging the US-backed mighty Mubarak whose brutality has been legendary.
Contrast this with the attempt at regime change in Iraq—violence, deaths, uncertainty and an influx of terrorism.
There have been many heroes in the Egyptian narrative—ordinary people with ordinary lives. Wael Ghonim, a Dubai-based Google Executive for instance, set up a Facebook page that had membership of 500,000. Asmaa Mahfouz, a 26-year-old woman wrote on Facebook: "People, I am going to Tahrir Square", just days before Jan. 25, the Day of Rage. She led the first wave of protests, braving the notorious Egyptian police.
Inspired by the Tunisian uprising and aided by social media, these people were galvanised into action with nothing by their side but a will to die for freedom. A fine example of civil disobedience Mahatma Gandhi would have been proud of.
It was heartening to see protesters—young men and women, children and elderly citizens—camping out at Tahrir Square, which, after Mubarak’s resignation, was cleaned up and repainted by themselves. It was equally heartening to see private citizens
shouldering tasks of directing traffic and guarding museums during the uprising.
We don’t know yet what lies ahead for Egypt, for the saga is not finished yet. But we do know that ‘the mother of the world’ (that’s what it’s known as in the Middle East) has woken up; it can’t be taken for granted anymore, either by future governments or self-serving superpowers.
Not only has the so-called Arab Street found its voice, it has given hope and inspiration to oppressed around the world.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Stranger than fiction

Three totally unrelated events/issues, but they sure highlight the complexities of human life and psychology. These incidents are known to all, this post is just about my perspective.
1). The Talwars—Dr Rajesh Talwar and his wife, Nupur—who, according to the CBI are suspects in their own daughter Aroushi’s murder. Dr Rajesh has also spent some time behind the bars and was brutally attacked recently by a young man who resented his “fame”. The CBI insists he's the prime suspect, but so far no charge has been brought against him for lack of evidence. I’m as confused as the next person. But just imagine for a second that he’s innocent, as his wife so passionately insists—they lost their only child, reputation and all semblance of a normal life, and the murderer is still at large. Just seeing the Talwars on the TV is enough for me to lose my sleep.
2). This one is courtesy the BBC. A young American woman, now 23, was abducted when she was an infant by a woman who brought her up as her daughter. Her (foster) mother’s inability to produce any birth certificate made the young woman suspicious and she eventually found her photo as a baby on the Missing and Exploited Children's website. “Mother and daughter are finally reunited and the abductor faces the police,” Nik Gowing said something to the effect on BBC’s The Hub.
What should be a happy ending, set me thinking. 23 years…isn’t that a lifetime! What if the abductor had really loved the girl like her own daughter? And will she, the girl, able to forget the 23 years that she spent with a woman who was the most important person in her life? I’m not denying that it was the cruellest crime in the world—to take a child away from her mother is an unthinkably vile act. Having said that, I still see shades of grey in the story than just black and white.
3). This is a happy one. It turned out that Oprah Winfrey has a half-sister, Patricia, she never knew of. Patricia was given by her mother (a housemaid then) for adoption when Oprah was nine.
On Oprah Winfrey Show, Patricia said she started thinking that Oprah might be her sister when she saw an interview with Vernita Lee (Oprah’s mother) on television. She eventually tracked down Vernita, but was told by the adoption centre that the mother did not want to get in touch with her. Patricia managed to reach Oprah's niece and DNA tests showed that they were indeed related.
We thought we knew almost everything about Oprah’s life—the soul-numbing poverty and abuse, and the subsequent rags-to-reaches rise. But looks like wonders never cease in her life. Out of nowhere pops a half-sister who she never heard of. And from Patricia’s point of view, just imagine waking up one fine morning and discovering Oprah Winfrey is your sister!
Truth is indeed stranger than fiction. But the best part of the story, as I see it, is that she never tried to sell her story and make some quick buck.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Thinking of dolphins

The other day I went to see a dolphin show. The show was fantastic to say the least; one has to see the synchronised, high-spirited frolic and performance of these wonderful sea creatures to realise that Nature is full of intelligent, talented animals.
The dolphins, six of them (or was it eight?), passed balls, danced and waved their tails, somersaulted in the air and presented breathtaking acrobatics in the tank. The spectators, including myself, watched them mesmerised, bursting into applause and hoots of joy every now and then.
But, on the sideline, I couldn’t help notice that throughout the show the dolphins were being fed fish by the conductors. One trick over and here goes the fish, tossed right into the eager mouths of the dolphins. I couldn’t figure out why they should be fed during the show, and not before or after. I was then told that dolphins were starved until the show during which they were fed as a reward for their performance.
That little bit if information was enough to needle me for the rest of the show, even though I kept enjoying it and missed my daughter. I also thought fleetingly whether the pool, with its chlorinated water, was where the huge sea mammals should be in. And the music, loud and foot-tapping—what about that? I for one hate loud noise of any kind. Dolphins are said to be extremely sensitive; were they enjoying the music?
Later I did some research on the Internet and here is what I found:
1. Dolphins perform not because they enjoy, but because they are starved.
2. They injure themselves during the performances, and the chlorinated water worsens their wounds and also makes them slowly lose their sight.
3. The loud noise is extremely harmful to the Dolphins which stresses them out. Dolphins are “echolocators”, that is they locate objects by emitting sounds and detecting the reflections given back. When they are confined in a small pool they can’t use echo-location. “It's like putting a person in a small drum and shouting loudly,” says an expert.
4. The pool is too small for the dolphins, whose physiology are built for the wide open seas. Think of having to stay cooped up in a tiny room day in and day out.

Having said that, am I asking you to boycott dolphin shows? Not exactly. It’s a choice every individual has to make for themselves, you know, much like giving up non-veg or dairy products or fur.
But will I bring my daughter to the show? Well, no. There are many ways to amuse ourselves other than seeing these lovely creatures performing in captivity, out of fear and hunger.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

The writing on the (digital) wall

Recently, while travelling from JFK International Airport to Dubai I spotted something very interesting – a 40 plus mother and her teenaged son, both of whom seemed to be avid readers. Ever curious to know what they were reading, I glanced at them from time to time. The mother was holding a paperback edition of The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest. But try as much as I would I couldn’t guess what the son was immersed in, as he was reading a digital book, perhaps from a Sony reader. Later, when I boarded the plane I saw another young woman, a college student perhaps, reading from her iPad.
Looks like the digital revolution has well and truly caught up with the world of reading, I thought to myself.
All signs apparently point to the fact that 2010 will go down in history as the most significant year in publishing in modern times. Statistically, 95 per cent of all books sold no more than 5000 copies in the last year. In fact, several publishers were said to delay eBooks to help the hardcover titles sell. Others inflated prices online but gave deep discounts at real booskstores.
Small and independent publishers, on the other hand, were forced to embrace the digital technology as any profit was better than no profit at all. Social networking sites and blogs came in handy, as self-publishers could directly pitch to readers without any extra cost of advertising.
The reason why the iSlate—capable of accessing and containing audio, video, and both static and dynamic text—and Sony readers, along with iPhone have been embraced by the reading public is that these devices are sleek, easily portable and they allow people to carry hundreds of books with them. Even better, due to the use of eInk technology, they don’t cause eye strain or discomfort, a common problem one faces while reading online.
In a 2008 survey, some 40 per cent of 1,000 industry professionals surveyed said digital content would overtake traditional printed book sales by 2018. But it might be sooner than anticipated.
For me personally, it’s an unthinkable idea, at least for now. I’m attached to my books, for their smell, familiarity and the tactile experience they offer. It can’t compete with the cold, detached feel of an electronic reader, can it? But when you weigh the advantages, who knows?

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Thoughts on New Year

So the year 2010 draws to an end and here we go again, looking starry-eyedly at a brand new year as if it is going to be dramatically different from the outgoing one, and all for the better, of course.
I’ve never been big on celebrating New Years Eve (I even play down my birthday except for some extra prayers thrown in). So this year it isn’t going to be different unless I’m dragged out of the house. I do wish Happy New Year to everyone I bump into at least in the first week of Jan, but it is more after fashion than anything else.
Now don’t brand me a pessimist or a wet blanket. Because I am not. I really marvel at the enthusiasm people can muster on such occasions, but I wonder if they wake up and find the first morning of January any different from the night before. Not that I begrudge their joy or optimism, it’s just that I seem to find nothing momentous attached to one particular day of the year.
As for resolutions, well, when I used to be a naive young thing, I used to make them every year about various self-improvement “projects” like being regular with exercise, getting more organised and so on, until I realised the foolishness of it. Nowadays I believe firmly in the cliché -- ‘no resolution is the best resolution’. If you badly want to do/start something you wouldn’t wait for the New Year.
Having said that, 2011 promises to be different. I do feel that it’s bringing a lot of good things my way. Only time will tell whether I am right or not.
So here’s wishing you all a great New Year. May all of you be peaceful and happy.
So long.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Hesse’s Siddhartha

Hermen Hesse’s Siddhartha is supposed to be one of the most read novels in the 20th century, but I had never spotted it on the bookshops in Dubai or India. So I leapt at it when I saw it in the classics section of Barnes & Noble in Pennsylvania during my recent trip there. I had picked it up for my daughter though, not for myself. I had read the book years ago and for some reason I had always thought that I remembered it too well.
But I was mistaken. Back in Dubai when I started flipping through the pages I realised what a remarkable book it was. All the more because it was written much before Indian philosophy became fashionable and familiar in the West.
Published in the 1920s in German and translated into English in the early 50s, Siddhartha became intensely popular in the West during the Swinging Sixties and afterwards. At the heart of the novel lies the spiritual quest of a young man named Siddhartha, a Brahmin boy who is dissatisfied with the ritualistic life led by his father and other elders. He leaves home and spends months with wandering ascetics who have attained extraordinary mental and physical powers, some of which are now imbibed by him. But the true seeker that he is, it means nothing. What he wants is the annihilation of the “I”, the ego.
At this point he hears about Gautam Buddha, who he hopes will be the answer to his quest. But when Siddhartha comes face to face with Buddha, he realises even the great master can’t lead him to enlightenment and that he had to find his own path.
In the period that follows, Siddhartha falls in love, earns money and becomes a typical householder. Only when old age creeps on him does he again feel the urge to seek the Truth. What Hesse tries to show is that self-denial and instruction alone don’t lead to enlightenment. What matters is learning through one’s own experience.
If you can plough through the awkward translation and keep yourself focused on the narrative then Siddhartha is illuminating. The author’s grasp of Hindu philosophy and its ultimate quest – the destruction of ego and self-realisation – is impressive.
Ironically, Hesse himself never set foot in India. His love for India was derived in his childhood through his father and grandfather, who worked in India as missionaries. Later he read the German philosopher Schopenhauer (who maintained that the world is a mere reflection of our consciousness), and the Gita is said to have made a lasting impression on him. At the same time he was also deeply influenced by Buddhist philosophy. The cumulative effect of all this can be seen in a highly nuanced but instructive Siddhartha.