& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, April 30, 2017

WB Yeats

WB Yeats
In early April I participated in the Spur festival in Toronto. This year, I had to restrict myself to just a couple of programs – a documentary on WB Yeats and a panel discussion on journalism. The film A Vision: The Life and Death of WB Yeats (2013) by Alan Gilsenan.

“The film is a response to Yeats' vast body of work. A visual – and avowedly experimental – ‘film-poem’, to coin an uneasy term. Using solely the words of WB Yeats, the filmmakers attempted to take the viewer on a cinematic journey of sorts into Yeats’ extraordinary imagination. 

"It is a biography of a kind, but not in any conventional way. Yet, beyond Yeats’ popular profile and his cultural tourist caché, little is really known of his complex life, despite having articulated it so completely, so creatively. In so many ways, Yeats dreamt up his life. He fashioned his own majestic screenplay and we are – endlessly – the beneficiaries.”

A panel discussion followed the film on the significance of Yeats'poetry. The panellists were Mary Noonan, Adam Crothers and Charles Foran. You may listen to the discussion here: 

Yeats at Spur (recording)

Yeats is important to many Indians, especially those over 60, and with some interest in poetry. My father, Meghnad Bhatt, a poet in Gujarati language, loved Yeats. Whenever he was invited to a wedding, he’d write his own unique message of greeting, but each message always ended with the line ‘tread softly for you tread on dreams’. I picked up the line without knowing it is from Yeats’s poem.

Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,  
Enwrought with golden and silver light,  
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths  
Of night and light and the half light,  
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;  
I have spread my dreams under your feet;  
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

 A journalist friend who had done English literature and had studied Yeats gave me a collection of Yeats poems in the 1980s. The collection was meant to be an introduction for neophytes and had some of his best and most cherished poems. Even a cursory reading of Yeats would reveal his comprehensive influence on 20th-century modern thought. His Second Coming is one of the most anthologized poems in English continues to be as relevant today, nearly a century later. It was written in the aftermath of the First World War. Here’s just the first stanza.

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

In the Wild Old Wicked Man, he captures the essence of life’s struggles.

'All men live in suffering,
I know as few can know,
Whether they take the upper road
Or stay content on the low,
Rower bent in his row-boat
Or weaver bent at his loom,
Horseman erect upon horseback
Or child hid in the womb.
Daybreak and a candlc-cnd.

'That some stream of lightning
From the old man in the skies
Can burn out that suffering
No right-taught man denies.
But a coarse old man am I,
I choose the second-best,
I forget it all awhile
Upon a woman's breast.'
Daybreak and a candlc-end.

And here’s another, about imitators

To A Poet, Who Would Have Me Praise Certain Bad Poets, Imitators Of His And Mine

You say, as I have often given tongue
In praise of what another's said or sung,
'Twere politic to do the like by these;
But was there ever dog that praised his fleas?

Here are a few links to Yeats poems

The audio recording of the panel discussion was done at the Spur festival. I don't have any copyright over the recording. 

The Draupadi Project

In the Hindu mythology, Draupadi is one of the five significant women. The others are Sita (Ram’s wife), Tara (Vali’s wife), Mandodari (Ravan’s wife), Savitri (Satyavan’s wife). These women played important roles in the lives of their respective husbands to change their destinies. That was sort of unheard of and unexpected in a predominantly male society then (and even now).

According to some versions, Draupadi was an adopted daughter of king Draupad. By any account, Draupadi’s life was a mess after she got married because she was forced to share herself with five husbands merely on a casual remark made by their mother.

When Arjun won Draupadi in a Swayamvar based on a test of his archery skills and took his new 'acquisition' to show off to his mother, Kunti, his mother, apparently too busy to even look at what he was showing, instructed him, “Share with your brothers.”

For Draupadi that must have been a domestic nightmare tough to adjust to and handle. While polyandry may seem like liberation for a woman in what was then a patently unjust patriarchal system of exploitation, in reality, it wasn’t so.

Draupadi’s life tells us that having five husbands is no guarantee for safety.  She was molested and disrobed in the presence of all her husbands and her elders by her husbands’ cousins in public.

Ganapati and Vyas who sort of co-authored the epic Mahabharat may have realised the heinous nature of the molestation and gave it a slightly more tolerable twist by making Krishna magically appear and give Draupadi reams of robes so that she wouldn’t be seen in the nude in public.

By any standard, this is a horrific tale of a woman being robbed of her dignity. It is also a story that keeps repeating itself – the stupefying and deafening silence of men in the face of such an atrocity.

At a time when all the men sitting in the Hastinapur durbar of Dhritarashtra should have stopped Dushasana from dragging Draupadi by her hair, make her sit on his thigh and attempt to disrobe her, they preferred silence, or impotent rage (as expressed by Bhim).

Sharada Eswar’s The Draupadi Project is a retelling of the myth in a contemporary setting. Draupadi was also known as Panchali, the daughter of the king of Panchal. In Eswar’s version, Panchali is a young 19-year-old girl who has been imprisoned and is rationalising her situation and circumstances by chatting with herself, while imagining that she’s chatting with Draupadi.

The young woman is seeking answers that all women seek – her status in a society that perennially objectifies her and has little or no use except for reproduction or pleasure.

The backdrop of this monologue is an internecine war between a state and its own people. It could be anywhere in the world – the indigenous women in Canada seeking justice, the Tamil rebel in Sri Lanka or the tribal women in Sukama (India).

For those who don’t know, the Naxals (Moaists rebels) killed 25 Indian soldiers in Sukama, India last week, in retaliation for the repeated rape and molestation of Sukama women by Indian soldiers.

Eswar’s play is an excellent attempt to bring the focus back on the status of women in general and women in a developing world where they have to fight the state even for their basic right to survive.

Panchali is a naïve participant in a war that she doesn’t want and doesn’t understand; she is used as a pawn to fit into a larger scheme of things that she doesn’t quite grasp. Her immediate connection to her situation is her brother and her young lover.

As the introduction to the play explains, “Confined in a cell, the young woman wrestles with a multitude of voices, the futility of war and the role and status of a woman in today’s society.”

The Theatre Centre at Queen Street, the venue for the play, afforded the required intimacy between the audience and the character that is necessary to comprehend the utter desolation that the character experiences as a woman.


A Tamasha Arts Production Created and performed by Sharada Eswar, directed and dramturged by Karin Randoja, projection design by Melissa Joakim and stage management by Sasha Tate-Howarth. For RISER Project: Production management by Deborah Lim, lighting design by Kaileigh Krysztofiak, publicity by FLIP Publicity (Carrie Sager), produced by Why Not Theatre (Ravi Jain, Owais Lightwala, Kelly Read).

Friday, April 28, 2017

Vinod Khanna

Vinod Khanna with Bhagwan Rajneesh
In 2006, when I was working with the US Commercial Service, I was invited to a get together in Bombay’s tony Malabar Hill to meet US importers. The discussion was primarily about chickpeas for most of the evening, until Vinod Khanna walked in, close to midnight.

At that time, in the mid-2000s, he was well past his prime; his best days as a star were behind him. He was into politics and represented the Bharatiya Janata Party. I’d quit active journalism a decade back, but continued to be in contact with some political leaders in Maharashtra, and got chatting with the star about them. He was affable, unassuming, and attentive. I called Mahrukh on my cellphone and requested Vinod Khanna to talk to her. She was dazed, half-asleep but delighted to talk to him.
There was so much I wanted to ask him about his movies, tell him about his incredible range, share with him, but he lost interest and moved on to other guests. He loved the admiration he was getting at the party.

Vinod Khanna was a star of the 1970s, a decade that belonged to Amitabh Bachchan. It’s often been said that had Vinod Khanna not turned a sanyasi and joined Bhagwan Rajneesh, he’d have eventually become # 1, displacing Amitabh Bachchan.

I don’t buy that at all. In those days, as Jitendra has famously said, Amitabh Bachchan occupied all positions from 1 to 10, and the ranking for the rest began from 11. Shashi Kapoor, Vinod Khanna, and Shatrughan Sinha were all competing for the second spot, and Vinod Khanna’s exit created space for Shatrughan Sinha. 
Vinod Khanna gave his best with Amitabh Bachchan. It’s perhaps to Amitabh Bachchan’s credit that every actor who has acted with him gave a superlative performance/s. Shashi Kapoor in Dewaar, Vinod Khanna in Hera Pheri, Dharmendra in Ram Balraam, Sanjeev Kumar in Trishul, Shatrughan Sinha in Kaala Pathar.

According to news reports published after Vinod Khanna’s passing away, Amitabh Bachchan and Vinod Khanna worked together in ten movies, but it’s really only five films between 1976 and 1978 that really defined the team. These films were Hera Pheri (1976), Parvarish (1977), Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), Khoon Paasina (1977), Muqadaar Ka Sikandar (1978). 

Among the Vinod Khanna movies that I can watch endlessly include all the ones with Amitabh Bachchan;

Raj N Sippy’s Inkaar, 1978, the efficient cop, who prefers to let the bad guy hog the limelight secure in his conviction that he’d get him in the end. The film is remembered more for Amjad Khan’s menacing portrayal of a kidnapper and the all-time Helen hit Mungada (playback Usha Mangeshkar, music Rajesh Roshan);
Gulzar’s Imitihaan, 1974, for downplaying his star appeal to appear ordinary; the film’s more popular number is Kishore’s Ruk Jana Nahin, but Lata’s Roz Sham Aati Thi is equally memorable (music Laxmikant Pyarelal);

Raj Khosla’s Mera Goan Mera Desh, 1971, the film that launched Vinod Khanna into stardom; Jabbar Singh came four years before Gabbar Singh, and while the latter was pure evil, Jabbar set the template for villainous characters for the next decade and more. Laxmi Chhaya’s vamp and Laxmikant Pyarelal’s music made the film special. (Aaya Aaya Atariya Pe Koi Chor, playback Lata Mangeshkar, music Laxmikant Pyarelal).

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Dawn Promislow: My thoughts about The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide

Guest post by Dawn Promislow 

The Guest Cat

by Takashi Hiraide, translated by Eric Selland. Published 2014, Picador.

It's not often that you read a book, a work of fiction, that is so like life that it takes your breath away. This novel is deceptively simple and follows a man who is a writer (the narrator), his wife, and a cat, through a slim 140 pages. Nothing much ‘happens,’ there are the day-to-day comings and goings of a stray cat, and dealings with a neighbour.

I read the book with increasing wonder at the ordinariness, captivated by the simple days of this writer (days I could identify with, being a writer myself), which gesture toward something larger. The narrator stakes out his story in a geographic way, almost the way a cat stalks—so quietly—taking mastery of its surroundings. He describes in detail his house and surroundings, very simple surroundings, but surroundings which accrue weight and meaning in an allusive and elusive way, over the course of the novel. By a magical sleight of hand, the ending comes upon you—much as a stealthy cat does—and is profound.

I haven’t read anything as devastating in a while, or as haunting. It’s devastating in the way some, perhaps most, life events actually are: events and moments seemingly small and insignificant, yet accruing weight over time; mysterious in their happening, mysterious in their import, mysterious in how we manage them; essentially unpredictable and out of our control. Some actions are final, and cannot be undone. This novel, quiet and understated as it is, carries the weight of truth, and of tragedy, even in the manner of classical Greek tragedy.

The over-arching artistry of The Guest Cat, however, lies in the first-person narration. The fictional narrator—who is also, we feel, the writer himself (Takashi Hiraide)—takes control, by telling of these events, and shaping them, and making them into a book. Of course all books are this: a writer taking control of his or her story, and making an order, a sense, of it. But this book, it seems to me, is a particularly perfect example of this, a particularly moving and profound one.