July 19, 2013

Urban Landscapes: Lovers' Lock Bridge and Windowed Message

Constellation of locks

I remember the first time I encountered the lock bridge; it was a rare sunny Sunday in late January and after a filling brunch, we headed to Schenley Park for a walk before the sun went down and the ink-shroud of the winter night would envelop us. En route to the park, we had to cross a bridge - and it was then I noticed locks randomly studding the fence. By the time we reached the middle of the bridge, the fence was densely covered with a huge profusion of locks of all shapes, sizes, and colors. What was most notable about the locks was that they were either inscribed with presumably lovers' initials or single words such as 'mine'.


I had never seen anything quite like it before - and yet, it seemed entirely organic, having seem to grow of its own accord and evolving over time. Others walked past it without giving as much a second glance, clearly accepting it as part of the urban landscape as much as the neon yellow claws graffitiing the pavement below the locks or the cars whizzing below the bridge. And then, it too slipped out of my mind...

Few days ago, when indulging in my monthly fashion magazine round-up, I glimpsed a familiar sight in the pages of Elle: bridge studded with locks. However, this particular bridge was located in Paris and it was said that lovers 'locked' their love by affixing the locks to the bridge's fence and throwing away the keys in the Seine flowing below, thus symbolising eternal love. What I thought was a curious, isolated phenomenon was in fact - not... and simply googling 'lock bridge' revealed that apart from Paris, such lock-studded bridges are found all over the world, including Rome, Venice, Brooklyn, Seoul, Taiwan, and our very own Pittsburgh.

One of the many lock bridges in Paris

Rome: Ponte Milvio

There are several speculations as to how this tradition developed; some attribute it to the Chinese, who believed in 'locking' souls together. The lock bridge in Rome, for example, owes to the Federico Moccia's Italian novel, I Want You in which lovers affix the locks to Ponte Milvio and throw the keys  into the canal. However, authorities meanwhile see the padlocks being an eye-sore and weighing bridges down, thus necessitating being removed - and as this writer mentions here, the locks symbolise anything but love, love being synonymous with freedom.

For me, though, I perceived it as an urban shrine of sorts of lovers and for lovers; I recalled the wish trees that I had glimpsed in India and commonly appear in various avatars across the world. Here, though, the fence and locks had replaced the branches and ribbons respectively. And yet, the sense of yearning and hope radiated as strongly from the locks as they did from the ribbons.

How people engage with and insert themselves into their surroundings to create such interesting urban narratives fascinates me - and that's why I was drawn towards the lock-bridge. Thinking about it, such whimsical and honestly speaking, adorable examples of street art and installations really brighten up my day...when you are walking through man-made landscapes, you may unconsciously feel that you will not encounter as many surprises and beauties as you may do in natural environments, such as a forest or beach. However, such thinking clearly underestimate the surprises which are embedded inside the urban world - it's all a question of looking.

And so, I will leave you with a thought-provoking surprise I encountered in downtown Pittsburgh a few days ago. Lost and late for an event, I was running helter-skelter through the streets and alternately glancing down at Google maps on my phone to locate the place I was meant to go to. However, I immediately stopped in my tracks when I saw this:

It was pasted on the window of a shop, which looked abandoned and had been for quite a while...save for this sign. Who had left it there and why? Whatever the motivations and reasons behind it, I am sure it must have compelled many passerbys to pause in their frenetic wanderings and simply reflect upon the message and the question the sign enclosed. Or as in my case, take a picture of it as a reminder and remembrance. Like a bottled message, this is a windowed message...

I found it so compelling that I could not help sharing both this picture and question across different social media networks - and I now pose it to you over here.

Where will you be standing?

July 15, 2013

The Singh Twins: Re-Imagining Indian Miniature Art

For the past few months, I have been contributing monthly posts about international women artists at International Museum of Women's blog, Her Blueprint; it allows me a window into their creative mindscapes, wondering what impels them to create what they do. I have so far written about several artists including Mona Kamal, Haleh Anvari, and Tulika Ladsariya, and Lamia Gargash, to name a few.

My first post was a commentary on the British-Asian miniature artists, The Singh Twins' work, whose re-imagining of traditional Indian miniature art I have long admired and pondered about. In this post, I explore their work by examining two of their paintings which particularly left an impact upon me.

An example of a miniature painting from Rajasthan

I have been a long-time admirer of miniature paintings, especially those originating from Rajasthan, the north-western Indian state which I belong to. However, while in awe of their beauty and technical finesse, I often find myself pondering the paintings' subject matter. Apart from the miniature artists' superlative ability to so effectively create and convey a microcosm through the minute, painstaking nature of their art, I also think much about the two-dimensional figures that populate these paintings. The ubiquitous presence of Hindu deities, kings and queens, courtiers, and their attendants: yet, who are they? What are they thinking? Why is it that they happen to be where they are in the paintings? At times, it seems that the lovingly detailed leaves conjure up a greater air of vitality than the figures themselves. The figures in turn are shrouded in mystery, performing within the painting and yet, their faces are impassive, refusing to reveal what lies beneath their perfectly manicured features. Indeed, these characters seem as anonymous as their creators. 

Many contemporary artists are nowadays engaging and reinterpreting the miniature art traditions, and when I encountered The Singh Twins' miniature art, I was fascinated and wished to explore more of it. 

Internationally acclaimed artists and twins who were born, raised, and work in the United Kingdom, Amrit Singh Kaur and Rabindra Kaur Singh, create their art together, hence, their moniker: The Singh Twins. Deriving inspiration from Mughal miniature paintings which they encountered during a trip to India, they were drawn toward the richness of technique and presentation -- and were keen to practice and revive the art traditions, which were otherwise in decline and neglected. Their artistic journey has witnessed them introducing the miniature art techniques and legacies to a wider audience while simultaneously interweaving contemporary narratives, themes, and issues into their work, creating a  vital, dynamic form of miniature art.

Examining two of their paintings reveal how they incorporate the miniature art traditions into their work while infusing them with their unique identities and perspectives.

Nrymla's Wedding II

At first glance, Nrymla's Wedding II (1985/6), depicting the mehendi (henna-painting) ceremony taking place for their sister, is layered with meticulous, beautifully ornamental detail, as per miniature art traditions; however, as one looks more closely, it is evident that the painting exists beyond mere aesthetics. With the post-modern aspect of artists themselves entering the frame, being both the creators and subjects, the painting also explores the interface of domestic and public spaces. A joyful, traditional atmosphere permeates the interiors, as evidenced by these signifiers: the dancing little girl, the bright-yellow dressed boy playing upon the drum, a videographer documenting the event, and a woman arriving laden with fruit. However, as the artists' commentary denotes, outside, for instance, we see the McDonalds' logo, a universal visual byword for globalisation and despoiling of the environment, triggering a debate about globalization and its impact upon cultural heterogeneity. The paintings are therefore no longer static, frozen moments; aesthetics and debate co-exist, encouraging the viewer to both admire the artistic traditions defining the work as well as being used a medium to create a space of interrogating contemporary issues.

Love Lost (2001) channels elements from the Persian miniature traditions while simultaneously being utterly modern; reinterpreting the tale of the traditional star-crossed Persian lovers, Laila-Majnun, the artists refer to it as being a commentary on the contemporary nature of love. This work demonstrates that while the artists showcase knowledge of various miniature traditions, they also playfully reinterpret styles and structure associated with each and imbue it with their personal artistic language. For example, rather than strictly adhering to boundaries (as typically seen in Persian miniature paintings with their thick borders), they literally step out of the box as seen through the presence of the car and ladder. The artists also draw upon various literary and cinematic romantic traditions in this visual commentary: the cell-phone clutching and television watching figures are Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's famous lovers whereas reference to a popular romantic Hindi films emerges through images of the films, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge and Mughal-e-Azam. The combination of satirical commentary, mixed media, and traditional Persian art features make it an intriguing interpretation of both the traditional tale and technique. 

The Singh Twins' work is not as much a deviation from the miniature art fashion as broadening its scope for engagement with a global, contemporary audience; their work revitalises and reiterates the traditions while placing it in context to personal and contemporary global narratives. 

Please see and read more about The Singh Twins' work.

Photo credit: The Singh Twins' paintings' images courtesy The Singh Twins

July 5, 2013

Notes on Looking at Lootera

(Spoiler alert: Very mild spoilers but spoilers nonetheless;)

The first time I saw Lootera's theatrical trailer, I was instantly transfixed; for the past several years, while Hindi films have been witnessing tremendous variation in content, structure, and scope, there had been no one film that I would be yearning to see as soon as I watched its trailer or heard/read about it. Lootera had all the trappings of a cannot.wait.to.see film: its period setting, delicate romance, drama, betrayal, Amit Trivedi's sound-perfect musical score and sumptuous visual presentation.

And so, that's how I spent my first fourth of July in the States: looking at Lootera. No, I didn't see the fireworks; it was bit of a rainy evening and besides, there were enough visual pyrotechnics happening on screen to keep me enthralled.  

In fact, what I will be writing about Lootera is not as much of a review as my impressions on looking at this film; reviews have never been much of a forte of mine and I am much more interested in talking about how how this film looks - and why it's not just merely looks and no substance. Lootera is a fine film and a very good-looking one at that - yet, it's beauty is beyond a cosmetic one of water-color mountainscapes, poetically falling snow, decaying mansions, and old-school romance. It is good-looking in the sense that it compels you to not just merely look at the film; rather, it asks you to look into into the treasure-chest of details, miniature universes, and stories that the director imbues the film with and how it pleasurably enhances our immersion into the film. 

The still above captures Pakhi (Sonakshi Sinha) teaching Varun (Ranveer Singh) how to paint; the presence of trees and leaves are integral, rather than incidental, components of the scene. Based on O'Henry's powerful short story, The Last Leaf and in which painting and the titular leaf plays a crucial role, Lootera has been feted for its painterly frames, each detail serving as a brush-stroke which transforms a painting from mass of pigment and medium into a work of art. It is perhaps no coincidence that the act of painting and the larger significance of painting as a form of bringing imaginary worlds into existence and indeed, reality figures as a central narrative strand in the film. What fascinated me was the attention paid to the act of drawing and painting; the mixing of colors, the fluid movement of hand as it traces lines upon canvas. The act of creating is as vital as the finished product itself and indeed, come to think of it, we quite often do not always see the finished paintings in the film. Does it matter? What we do see instead is how the process of painting initiates and fuels Pakhi and Varun's romance, each brush-stroke bringing them closer. 

However, Pakhi's raison d'etre lies in the world of writing, rather than painting; as she tells Varun in her guileless manner, she would like to become a writer of many books and outlines her wish to be sequestered in her Dalhousie house up in the mountains, the snow falling around around her and she writing and writing and writing. In between her impishly spilling a cup of tea on Varun, coquettishly prettying herself up in exquisite sari, textured shoulder-length blouses, and delicate gold jewelry, chiding her doting father and curled up reading books in the verandah, we significantly observe her thoughtfully writing away in a red leather-bound journal, almost as if she is playfully squirreling away her thoughts. Later, when we see her at a writing desk in her Dalhousie house, her wish having become reality after all, she now almost attacks the paper with her pen, the pen-marks both wounds and text. We are occasionally privy to the content of the text but what we are given more insight into is the very visceral, physical act of writing and what it represents to her: release, balm, amnesia, and even, life. 

Without giving too much away, the film conveys its narrative through two distinctly toned halves, the first and second being set in a sylvan, fictional Bengali village and a Dalhousie house in 1953 and 1954 respectively. The first half sees a beautiful haveli as the principal site around which the narrative unfolds; while the notion of aristocracy must confront threat to its centuries-old entrenched eixstence, the haveli enjoys a pulsating, palpable life of its own: long corridors, multiple rooms and windows, mosquito-net veiled four poster beds, flickering candles and the valuable bric a brac that generations of a family accumulate over the centuries and which turn the house into both a home and living museum.

The physical setting aside, Mahendra J. Shetty's superlative cinematography peppers the first half with chiaroscuro moments, migrating from light to darkness to light, such as the memorable scene when Pakhi gleefully indulges in continually switching a light bulb on and off. At that moment in life, life suddenly offers a buffet of opportunities for her: sunshine picnics, walks through forest, and conversations by a sunset-colored lake and most importantly - love. Yet, darkness is not faraway and we soon arrive in a snow plumed tomb of her Dalhousie house: it is still lavishly decorated and yet, it is sterile, cold, and seemingly for display, rather than to be inhabited in. There is very little by way of color apart from the frightening gush of red blood, which spills out of throats and stomachs - and an ochre leaf. If the haveli is the house of living against all odds, this then is irrefutably the house of death.

The daubs of paint, the pen racing against paper, and the atmospheric surroundings only serve to reiterate that Lootera is a film of intense soul and feeling - and the aptly-cast group of actors do excellent justice to it. Once again, little moments are just as successful in demonstrating the pathos in the film as the more dramatic ones. When we hear Pakhi's cough wracking her body and choking her lungs, we can sense her desperation for relief just as we empathise with her fury when she hurls a tea-cup on the wooden floor; we feel Shyama (Divya Dutta in a brief but memorable performance)'s mixture of helplessness and sorrow as she dices okra. Pakhi's father, Zamindar Babu (Barun Chanda)'s face is a moving landscape of despair as he confronts the rapidly swirling waters of his life and the chaos they are bringing into his world - and his inability to stem the flood. Varun is more opaque about his feelings though, he is not as much a cipher as a controlled one - and yet, when he allows transparency into his life, all is visible in intense, harsh relief. The film is as much a work of auditory as visual art: falling snow, blowing wind, Dev Anand songs, and above all, exquisite pauses of silence (as Varun poignantly remarks, his desire is to see Chandratal, a lake where no one can hear a single sound, thus illustrating the beauty of silence). By now, we are no mere spectators: we too inhabit that cold house of despair, having written ourselves into the story. 

A few weeks ago, after watching Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani with its good looking actors, good-looking costumes, and good-looking locations, I thought that despite this surfeit of beauty, I came away from the film, feeling incomplete, as if all I had had consumed was the garnish and the actual meal still eluded me. Lootera is like an exquisitely plated and delectable meal, to be admired and consumed, lingering upon as much as its presentation as its taste. Like a good novel, like a good meal, it deeply embeds itself into your thoughts, the nuances of its flavors so effectively marinating your memories that you can still taste the meal long after you have eaten it.

June Instagrammed

I mentioned earlier about my new-found obsession for Instagram - and suffice to say, it is probably the form of social media that I enjoy the most at the moment. I post there much more frequently than say, twitter or blogging, finding it more effective to communicate a mood, a moment, or simply an arresting visual through a picture. Or perhaps, it would be more accurate to say that when your mind temporarily experiences a word-desert, then the visuals can take over and do the talking:)

Here is June instagrammed below (by the way, is anyone else also feeling surprised that the year is already half over? I mean, didn't it just begin?! Or maybe it's because the days simply seem to whoosh by in the summeriness?:)

Upside Down Twilight
Apart from an occasional theatrical summer storm or two, June largely consisted of clear, bright sunny days and plenty of opportunities to indulge in gorgeous sunset-watching from the comforts of my balcony, a quiet field or driving in the car. Doesn't twilight look as beautiful even when turned upside down?

Ethiopian Supper
Not being a particular foodie, my husband had to coax me into trying out Ethiopian food for the very first time and I can't say I was disappointed. Knowing little about the cuisine, I was fascinated to discover that there were plenty of vegetarian options available and of course, I was most drawn by the injera, whose appearance, texture, and even slightly sour, tangy taste resembled the South-Indian dosa. I loved how it functioned both as a plate, utensil to scoop up the various portions, and a filling meal on its own. (Also, testament to its impact: this is only my second foodgram!)

In Repose

I attended the Roads of Arabia exhibition at the Carnegie Museum, which provides a profound insight into Saudi Arabia's archaeological wealth; above, a funerary mask abstracted from gold. 

The Unbearable Beauty of a Rose in Full Bloom

Roses. Summer. Phone-camera.  Can a girl help it?:) I have endlessly taken numerous pictures of roses of all sizes, shapes, textures, and colors in the last month or so but this one is clearly my favorite. Such a rose appears to be at its most redolent and beautiful when sprouting from its parent plant; clipped and stuffed in a vase, it will quickly lose its charm, becoming diminished and lesser work of beauty altogether. 

When Mirror Became a Door

Walking back home from a street party held in a popular neighborhood shopping area, I discovered this triad of abandoned sofa, mirror, and mattress outside a house. I scarcely write poetry these days but somehow, this sight inspired me to write a poem about it; here are a few lines below:

A mirror becoming a door,
a sofa a wall
and the mattress a gate
and they said hello
and we said hello
Walking away,
we heard them laugh and sing along to the unmusical music,
reveling performing as actors
after months of being themselves.

How did your June treat you? Any exciting plans for July?