& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Min Fami

Laila Ait-Bouchiba, 'Self Portrait, Prohibited,'
installation, 2008, from Min Fami 
The Western media shapes the world’s perceptions about different regions and cultures. By focusing on conflict, and being ideologically partisan in its coverage of events, it creates stereotypes that it nurtures by ad nauseam repetition.

In case of the Middle East (a wholly inaccurate and inappropriate geographical description coined by the West), the region has always been depicted as “dangerous” place.

The depiction of Arabs has changed over the years, but continues to remain largely negative.

Arabs were oil rich in the past, then turned fanatic some time ago, and these days are rebellious, especially in the spring (and that, the Western media has decided, is a good thing).

Arab women were and are backward, and perennially voiceless.

Recently, I attended the launch of Min Fami – a book that comprehensively shatters these myths, about the region, the language, the people and especially the women.

Published by Inanna Publications and Education Inc. Min Fami– Arab Femnist Reflections on Identity, Space and Resistance is edited by Ghadeer Malek and Ghaida Moussa.

Min Fami means from my mouth in Arabic. It is a book is about finding a voice and giving voice; it is an anthology of poetry, creative non-fiction, searing fiction, academic and political essays, and visual art by Arab women.

Arab Woman, a poem in the collection by Montreal-based Ghada Chehade eloquently frames the issue identity:

Orientalized through colonial eyes


Understood out of context, like a tale from an ignorant mind


I have selected some of the passages that I enjoyed from the book and posted them here: Select Passages from Min Fami

These passages give a glimpse of the exquisite creativity that has been collected and compiled in this volume.

If there can ever be one book that can serve as an introduction to contemporary Arab world (and not just contemporary Arab feminism), it is clearly this book because even if the essays, the poems and the art represent an individual’s worldview, collectively, they are draw an accurate portrait of the Arab world today.

And even though the creations in the collection are pronouncedly feminist (or perhaps because of it), the anthology succeeds in transcending ideological parameters and has an innately universal appeal.

Image: From Min Fami.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Moments in Dance

Dance is about a series of movements. Photography is about a moment. And art is born when moment meets movement.  

Avinash Pasricha, the renowned Delhi-based photographer has an oeuvre of over 30,000 photographs – a historic personal archive – of India’s most iconic performing artists.

Ali Adil Khan, art connoisseur nonpareil, and Asma Arshad Mahmood, artist and art promoter par excellence, have curated a small but significant piece of that oeuvre.  Ali Adil’s South Asian Art Gallery and Asma’s Promenade Gallery have come together to host an exhibition of Pasricha’s photographs titled Moments in Dance.

Effortlessly breaking the shackles of form and frame, the photographs on exhibit are alive to the poetry of splendour of motion and resplendence of rhythm. The exhibit is an ensemble of some of the most venerated names of Indian dance – right from Vyjayanthimala to Kelucharan Mohapatra, and Saswati Sen and Birju Maharaj, to name just a few.

Ali Adil and Asma introduced Pasricha’s work and then invited Akhilesh Mishra, India’s Consul General in Toronto to speak, who emphasized the universality of art. Renowned danseuse, choreographer and legendary performing artist Lata Pada then gave intricate insights into Pasricha’s work, revealing that he has an equally large and elaborate oeuvre of photographs of Indian classical singers, and an exquisite collection of photographs of MS Subbulakshmi.

In a short introduction to the exhibition Ali Adil writes, “Twenty-seven matt bromide prints of the legendary Indian dancers, vocalists and musicians are exhibited in various rhythmic forms, postures and moods. These prints have been selected from Pasricha’s large personal collection of rare ad enduring images of India’s greatest performing artists.”

Pasricha was the photo editor of SPAN magazine (published by the USIS) for over three decades, till he retired in 1997.

The exhibition runs from May 27 to June 10. 

The gallery’s Facebook page is:  https://www.facebook.com/PromenadeGallery 

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Gandhi Before India

Gandhi & Tolstoy

“Gandhi and Tolstoy were akin in good ways and bad. Both were indifferent fathers and less than solicitous husbands.” - Ramchandra Guha

Ramchandra Guha was in Toronto recently to launch his latest offering – Gandhi Before India – the first part of a two part biography of the Mahatma. The volume deals with Gandhi’s life from birth to 1915 – the year he returned from South Africa. It is a chronicle of his transformation from a failed lawyer to a leader of people. 

Guha is an erudite scholar who speaks as well as he writes. He had his audience spellbound for the better part of an hour as he narrated the highlights of the Mahatma’s life in South Africa.

Guha spoke about Leo Tolstoy’s influence on Gandhi.  In the book Guha says, “Leo Tolstoy (at this time) was certainly the most famous writer in the world. (He was) admired for his novels and stories, and in some quarters, even for his attempts at simplifying his life. In his early fifties he had a conversion experience, following which he gave up alcohol, tobacco and meat. His vegetarianism became so well known that he was asked to write an introduction to a book of Henry Salt’s. He took up working in the fields, and splitting wood and making shoes in a bid to empathize with his serfs. From a martial background, he now began to preach the virtues of pacifism. Although born and raised in the Russian Orthodox Church, he developed a deep interest in Hinduism and Buddhism.

“Of the many transitions, the most painful was his embrace of celibacy. In his youth he had been (in his own words), a ‘radical chaser after women.’ His wife went through more than a dozen pregnancies. He had affairs with peasant women on his estate. A man of ‘wild passion,’ he sought in middle age to give up sex along with the other pleasures he had forsaken.”

The Russian writer was Gandhi’s intellectual mentor. His was the most decisive intellectual and philosophical influence on Gandhi. Although Gandhi hadn’t read War and Peace, and Anna Karenina, he had minutely read and re-read Tolstoy’s religious and philosophical texts.
He read Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You in 1893 in Johannesburg. The title of the book is a line from the Bible and Tolstoy used it to make an eloquent case for interfaith dialogue and for individuals to reach their personal, conscience-driven path to God.

Tolstoy claims in the book that the spiritual truth or the essence of Christianity is not what the archbishop or the pope says; the essence of Islam is not what the grand mufti tells you what it is; and the meaning of Hinduism is not what the Shankaracharya tells you. You must find your own path to God.

Tolstoy’s The First Step (translated into English in 1906) also influenced Gandhi immensely. In this book, Tolstoy says that any person who wants to contribute socially and politically to the society’s transformation, and who wants to devote his life to the service of society must abstain from idleness, gluttony and carnal desire – the three cardinal sins of the Russian aristocrats.

In Gandhi’s case, idleness and gluttony were not a problem. He was always hardworking, and he was a vegetarian. The real problem was carnal desire and he adopted a vow of celibacy, detached himself from his family and his children to simplify his life.

Tolstoy’s pacifism has played a significant role in formulating Gandhi’s ideas for non-violent struggle in Transvaal in South Africa. After reading, understanding and interpreting Tolstoy nearly two decades, Gandhi finally is inspired to write directly to Tolstoy in 1909 – a year before Tolstoy died.

Gandhi wrote to Tolstoy about what he was doing in South Africa, and Tolstoy was delighted to find an Indian disciple in South Africa. He replied immediately. During the course of this correspondence Gandhi  in an extraordinary display of self-confidence tells Tolstoy that what he and his group is doing in Transvaal (which is partly inspired by Tolstoy’s ideas of pacifism) is going to have a positive impact on the whole world. Guha observed, “It is an extraordinary confident claim to make of a nebulous movement that involves just a few thousand people – that it is going to transform the whole world.”

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

(2014) Salman Rusdie: India and Questions of Religious Freedom

Salman Rushdie spoke on India: Religious Freedom and Personal Safety on April 28, 2014 at the 2014 PEN World Voices Festival.
Let me talk a bit about my country of origin, about India.  
There is a general election under way in India right now.  
Because of the immense size of the country, it takes six weeks for everyone to vote.
The election is largely fair, largely free. Voting is peaceful, incidents are few, and the results will be a trustworthy expression of this gigantic electorate.
On this electoral process rests India's claim to be the world's largest democracy. A proud claim, for it is harder for a poor country to be a free country.
And the long civil uncertainties and frequent unfreedoms of the citizens of all India's neighbours—the north, east, west and south—make the Indian boast all the prouder.
This, we can all agree, is good. 
But a democratic society is not simply one in which such a ballot takes place every four or five years.
Democracy is more than mere majoritarianism. 
In a truly free democratic society, all citizens must feel free all the time, whether they end up on the winning or losing side in an election—free to express themselves as they choose, free to worship or not worship as they please, free from danger and fear. 
If freedom of expression is under attack, if religious freedom is threatened, and if substantial parts of society live in physical fear for their safety, then such a society cannot be said to be a true democracy.  
In contemporary India all these problems exist and they are getting worse.
The attack on literary, scholarly and artistic freedom has gathered force ever since the banning of my novel, The Satanic Verses in 1988. 
Rohinton Mistry's acclaimed novel Such a Long Journey was attacked recently by members of the Hindu extremist party the Shiv Sena in Bombay and Bombay University caved in and removed the book from the syllabus.
A.K. Ramanujan's classic essay, The 300 Ramayanas, for decades, the foundational text of Ramayan studies in Delhi University, was similarly attacked and similarly the authorities cravenly succumbed and removed it from the syllabus. 
Not only was James Laine's study of the Maratha warrior king Shivaji, an icon of the Shiv Sena Party, attacked and banned, but the great library of ancient texts in Poona, where Laine had done some of his research was attacked and many ancient manuscripts destroyed. 
And most recently, the same fanatical Hindu—a person called Batra— who attacked Ramanujan's essay, brought an action against Wendy Doniger's important scholarly work, The Hindus, accusing her ludicrously and ungrammatically, of being a "woman hungry of sex" and instead of being laughed out of court, he succeeded in scaring the mighty Penguin Books of withdrawing the work. 
A gay artist, Balbir Krishan, was first threatened and then physically attacked in India's capital New Delhi, accused of spreading homosexuality. 
The grand old man of Indian painting, Maqbool Fida Husain, was driven out of India because of threats from Hindu goon squads who disliked his nude portraits of Hindu goddess Saraswati in spite the long sculptural and artistic tradition from the most ancient times of depicting Indian goddesses heavily adorned in jewellery but very scantily clad. The wardrobe of the goddess Saraswati wouldn't take up much room. 
Episodes of this sort are multiplying it seems by the month, by the week, by the day almost, and the authorities have failed lamentably in their duty to protect free speech rights.
In fact, politicians and police officials alike have repeatedly blamed the victims for being the trouble makers. 
The climate of fear that has consequently been created is such that, as some of the examples I have given show, hooligans and censors' work is now done for them by the collapse of those who ought to be free speech's defenders. 
Penguin Books, whose merger with Random House, has created the world's largest and most powerful publisher, and who were prepared to defend my work back in 1988, this time gave in to Doniger's critics without so much as a fight. 
This already lamentable state of affairs looks likely to become worse if, as seems likely, as seems probable, the election results bring to power the Hindu nationalist BJP so that the highly divisive figure of Mr Narendra Modi, accused of being responsible for an ant-Muslim pogrom in 2002 in the state of Gujarat, whose chief minister he was then and still is, a hardliner's hardliner, becomes India's next Prime Minister. 
Films dealing with the pogrom have been banned in Gujarat ever since the attacks. Already, the threats to free expression have begun to spread beyond the state of Gujarat.
Siddharth Varadarajan, the editor of the distinguished English language daily, the Hindu, was forced to resign recently because the paper's owner's felt he wasn't pro-Modi enough. Soon afterwards, the caretaker of his apartment was beaten up in a Delhi street, by thugs who told him, 'Tell your boss to watch what he says on Television.' 
Sagarika Ghose, a leading anchor of CNN's Indian affiliate, IBN, was ordered by her bosses to stop posting tweets critical of Mr Modi. In response, she tweeted what many journalists are thinking: 'There is an evil out there, an evil which is stamping out all free speech and silencing independent journalists: journalists unite!'
Nor are the threats limited to free expression. Modi's campaign manager Amit Shah delivered a speech in early April in the northern town of Muzaffarnagar, the site of sectarian strife last year. He described the elections as an opportunity to seek revenge against the Muslim minorities.  
Giriraj Singh, a senior leader of the BJP, said in an election rally in the northern state of Bihar, that those opposing Mr Modi would have no place in India—they will only find a place in Pakistan, he shouted. 
Praveen Togadia, one of the most senior of what I have come to think of as Modi's Toadies, told his supporters to prevent Muslims from buying property in Hindu majority neighbourhoods in Gujarat. 

The writing is on the wall.  
A couple of weeks ago, the sculptor Anish Kapoor and I, along with several other Indian artists, academics and intellectuals, signed an open letter, worrying about Mr Modi's rise to power. 
Since then, the attack on us in Indian social media has been relentless and, paradoxically, has validated our fears. 
We worried about the arrival of a bullying, intolerant new regime and here are its early outriders: menacing, nasty, bile-spewing, vengeful, substituting ad-hominem attacks for any real debate. There will not be less of this after a Modi victory. 
Mr Modi's supporters hark back to the ballot box. He will win, they say, because he is popular. And they are right.  
A disturbingly high percentage of the Indian electorate wants a strong man leader, is willing to turn a blind eye to his past misdeeds, even if those include genocide, believes that dissenting intellectuals should be put in their place, critical journalists should be muzzled, and artists should behave themselves. 
This willingness to bet the house on Modi's alleged economic genius, on which many commentators have doubts, and to risk everything that's beautiful about a free society, may indeed provide the wave which sweeps Mr Modi to victory. 
It would be easy to say: then India will get the government it deserves. For all those who value what is being lost, all those who want a country free of fear, an open society not a stifled one, all those Indians will get an India they don't deserve.  
Those who value the India for which Rabindranath Tagore yearned in his great poem, 'My country awake!' will get an India that would have horrified the poet.
Where the mind is without fear and the head held high,
where knowledge is free, 
Tagore wrote, in part:
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
India is in danger of betraying the legacy of its founding fathers and greatest artists like Rabindranath Tagore. 
Thank you.
Taken from: http://blogs.outlookindia.com/default.aspx?ddm=10&pid=3262&eid=31