Monthly Archives: October 2009

“Beautiful Betty as budding artist” by Kavita Ramdya

I enjoyed writing about Betty Draper, actress January Jones’s character in the AMC show “Mad Men”. My husband and I love watching “Mad Men”: the writing is impeccable, interspersed with meaningful silences rather than inane dialogue, and the plot lines reveal much about the historical moment. And let’s not forget the elelgant fashion sense. Betty Draper is a beautiful woman who would spur resentment among women viewers if it were not for her endearing innocence coupled with her potential to blosom into a force her philandering husband will have to reckon with. I root for Betty in every episode. Reading “Beautiful Betty as budding artist” will tell you why.

Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s article “Beautiful Betty as budding artist“, a profile of January Jones’s character on the AMC hit show “Mad Men”.


“News India Times” November 6, 2009

“Beautiful Betty as budding artist” by Kavita Ramdya

Ironically, the most nuanced female character on television today is Betty Draper, played by January Jones on the AMC hit show “Mad Men”. Betty is a blonde, stay-at-home mother and wife whose “girl-next-door” sex appeal and soft-spoken voice reflect an era, the 1960s, when women were generally considered to have less depth than a cookie tray. Mrs. Draper is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College where she studied Anthropology before falling in love with Donald Draper, her elusive husband, on a photo shoot during her short stint as a model in Manhattan. Soon after marrying her mysterious beau, Betty has two children in quick succession with a man whose name and pedigree are based on lies he’s perpetrated in order to escape his origin as a poor, motherless son of a dead whore and frequent target of emotional and physical abuse from his drunken father and his wife in the Depression-era Midwest. The viewer watches Betty raise her newly-arrived infant with as much attentiveness as an adolescent teenager pays his homework on a Friday night. Coincidentally, the baby’s conception coincides with Betty’s only extra-marital dalliance.

Donald Draper, Betty’s cheating husband, is an elusive character. He is a man of few words, but his silence is his most effective tool both in the workplace and at home.  However, whereas Don is written as a character who slips in and out of his colleagues, children, lovers and wife’s lives, Betty is even more a spectre than her husband. She says little, but TV viewers can almost feel the vibrations of an impending earthquake behind her lifeless voice and shining, empty eyes.

I’ve met my fair share number of Betty Drapers. They are women who seem to have it all: a good head on their shoulders, a flattering physique, clear skin, a loving family, an education, boyfriend or husband and often times a job if not a career. However, women like Betty Draper stew in their own self-made boredom. Ironically, it’s the safety, security and stability in Betty’s life that threatens to unhinge her and Donald Draper’s sphere of domesticity: their family, home and marriage.

The antidote to these women’s boredom, rather than join motorcycle club “Hell’s Angels”, party in Ibiza, or hike up the Himalayas, is artistry. Betty Draper is almost inconveniently good looking, but what makes her so compelling a character is her deafeningly stoic, tight-lipped persona, a result of the self- and society-imposed inability to express herself. Betty is a woman male viewers appreciate because she is easy on the eyes and female fans love because we’re rooting for her to break of out of the emotional and intellectual boundaries she’s complicit in drawing.

The challenge that faces Betty and her contemporary, real-life peers is that they struggle to express themselves artistically and intellectually. Betty’s one shot at artistic self expression is modelling which is cut short when she marries Donald, and although she bravely attempts to revive her short-lived career, she does not persevere when Donald’s business partner pulls the plug on her starring role in a Coca-Cola commercial.

Donald studies Betty while she lies to him, claiming that she quit modelling because it takes her away from her children. He knows that she is lying to him and yet he also fully comprehends her potential. However, as a woman struggling to honestly express herself, Betty is of little use to him apart from baring him children. Her inability and unwillingness to conduct herself as an equal to Donald is why he is as heartless to her as he is passionate with his lovers. Until Betty blossoms into a mature adult with an adult psyche, Donald Draper effortlessly and guiltlessly cures his passion for confident, expressive and challenging women by conducting extra-marital affairs. It is no coincidence that his girlfriends include a successful and independent photographer, a business-savvy retail titan and a teacher who loves her job.

What paralyzes Betty from self expression is that she keeps safely ensconced in her suburban home and abhors risk. The men in her life—her father, brother and husband—treat her as if the extent of her God-given gifts are her beauty and feminine wiles. Because Betty has both these qualities in abundance, neither she nor her family expect more from her. She is both blessed and cursed by her beauty, a fleeting gift.

Betty’s options are many: finding the aging process a way to relieve her from the restrictions of her self-conscious beauty, re-enact Nora from Henrik Ibsen’s ground-breaking play “A Doll’s House” and abandon her family, or discover self expression through artistry.

Perhaps the least-destructive as well as highly-constructive solution for Betty and similarly beauty-shackled women is the third option: artistry. Betty suffers from boredom in her suburban home, burdened by uninteresting children and intermittently abandoned by her passion-seeking husband. Her one option for continuing to manage her “householder” duties (as the Hindus would say of her function as a mother and wife) while also living a life committed to deep introspection and self expression is finding her method for artistry, whether through painting, drawing, writing, acting, modelling, etc.

For individuals such as Betty Draper whose gender and beauty imprison them and whose comfortable, secure lives leave them unmotivated, the arts provide a way to challenge themselves intellectually and emotionally by providing a method with which to articulate and express their observations and questions about the world in which they live.

Betty’s life is a blessed one – she is beautiful and coddled, healthy and safe. But her character demonstrates that women in the 1960s, like women now, don’t benefit intellectually or emotionally if unchallenged. Floating through life as if on auto-pilot softens the edges from which creative thought and innovation springs. Betty Draper, beautiful and young, is a television character with the potential to flourish despite her philandering husband and suburban lifestyle. I look forward to seeing, as details from her husband’s past surface, how Betty navigates the social mores of 1960s America while keeping her own individuality and self respect intact.

Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America”

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“A little bit of India in the Caribbean” by Kavita Ramdya (travel piece on Trinidad & Tobago)

Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s “A little bit of India in the Caribbean“, a travel piece about Trinidad & Tobago.

Click here to read coverage of “Bollywood Weddings” in Trinidad & Tobago’s “Sunday Guardian” (December 13, 2009).


India Abroad” 30 October 2009

“A little bit of India in the Caribbean” by Kavita Ramdya

They say “there is no place like home,” but Trinidad is a great alternative for South-Asian Americans looking for a taste of India without forsaking the conveniences of the western world.  Trinidad’s capital city Port-of-Spain bubbles with urban energy, Chaguanas is as rustic as an Indian village, the Northern Range teems with wildlife, and Tobago radiates of white beaches and emerald palm trees.

Trinidad & Tobago are two islands which sit a little north of Venezuela and directly south of Grenada in the Caribbean Sea. Port-of-Spain is on the west coast of the island; it is where you will begin your visit if you arrive on one of the many cruises destined for Trinidad. For years, indentured servants from India migrated to Trinidad to work on its sugar plantations, and although the food looks Indian, the taste has been modified over the years by Spanish and English ingredients.  Bar-b-q chicken, a favorite among Trinidadians, looks like tandoori chicken only it is baked in bar-b-q sauce and offers a sweet taste rather than a typically spicy one.  British dishes such as shepherd’s pie and upside down cake are common in South-Asian Trinni households.

South of Port of Spain is Waterloo and to the southeast is Chaguanas.  Beat-up bicycles litter the non-existent sidewalks, shanty structures double as roti shops, and Bollywood advertisements decorate storefronts.  Along with partaking in the local cuisine is the opportunity to visit spiritual sites such as the Hanuman Murti on Prasad Drive in Waterloo.  An eight-story statue of Hanuman made of sand, cement and gravel towers over the local temple; Hanuman is painted in such vivid colors that he’s visible to the naked eye for miles.  In close proximity to the statue is the pink Dattatreya Yoga Center and Ashram. The Waterloo Temple pays homage to Krishna, and his image is captured in a statue that sits along the Gulf of Paria.

Driving up Lady Young Road, you can see a view of Port of Spain before descending into the city.  The Red House parliament building, a British-looking structure faces Woodford Square, a perfectly manicured English park. Nearby is the Lapeyrouse Cemetary noted for its above-ground tombs and mausoleums. On a busy street in the nation’s capital is the Paschim Kaashi whose white marble reflects the sunlight.

Port of Spain’s Falls at West Mall shopping center sells the same mass-produced household items and clothes you’d find in any typical American suburban mall.  Rather than waste time searching for bargains that don’t exist, head east to the Asa Wright Nature Centre in the Northern Range.  Once an estate home, it is now a nature reserve worthy of any serious bird-watcher.  Over a cup of tea, observe the quiet toucan perched on a tree while a bird the size of an adult man’s fist chirps.

Tobago is only a twenty-minute flight from Port of Spain, but it feels like a world away from the capital’s crows and humidity. Coco Reef is the island’s number one resort.  The three-minute cab ride from the airport to Coco Reef ends with a drive through the resort’s manicured lawns and a complimentary non-alcoholic Fruit Frost, a deliciously cold pineapple and cherry drink.  Guests stay at the Coco Reef Resort in rooms overlooking the beach and poolside.  Breakfast and lunch are outdoor buffets.  Every evening the resort provides live entertainment such as the local band “Overdrive” that performs hits by legendary artists such as Aretha Franklin and Eric Clapton as well as reggae music by legends such as Bob Marley.  The resort even contains an upscale hair and make-up salon as well as a spa.
Popular among the Brits and Germans, Coco Reef’s beach is densely peppered with palm trees that offer shade from the sun’s rays.  The beach is quiet; tourists are usually reading or sunbathing by the water and few children, stay at the resort.  There’s plenty opportunities for adults to participate in water sports such as water skiing and canoeing. For the less motivated, you can take the three-hour Bucco Reef tour of underwater life where you can spy baby sharks, stingrays and tropical fish through a glass bottom boat.  When finally at the reef, tourists snorkel and observe these underwater creatures and the coral up close.  Further on is the famous “nylon pool,” named for the nylon-like appearance of the water and fabled for blessing married couples with eternal happiness and the elderly with youth renewed.

Trinidad & Tobago has the foods, flavors, cultures and sights reminiscent of North American life, Indian temples, and Caribbean resort life.  All told, where else are you going to find the cultures of three different continents in a single Caribbean country?

Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America”

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“Worshipping the Common Man” (art review of Subodh Gupta) by Kavita Ramdya

It was great to interesting to see how Subodh Gupta integrates humor into his art work. In his sculptures, Gupta pokes fun at the western art world’s description of his work in relation to Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst as if there is no way to understand eastern artists without a reference towards western art.

Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s “Worshipping the Common Man“, an art review of Subodh Gupta’s show “The Common Man” at Hauser & Wirth.


“News India Time” 30 October 2009

“Worshipping the Common Man” by Kavita Ramdya (review of Subodh Gupta’s art show at Hauser & Wirth)

Subodh Gupta, known as the “Damien Hirst of Delhi” and “India’s Jeff Koons”, worships the “common man” as opposed to, respectively, hyper-commoditized morbidity and the mass consumption of name-brand art. Hauser & Wirth’s Old Bond Street and Piccadilly galleries are currently showing Gupta’s work in a show entitled “Common Man” which pays homage to India’s labourers rather than the Hindu gods and goddesses typically displayed in museums and galleries exhibiting art from the Indian subcontinent.

“Common Man” integrates everyday objects, from mangoes and chappals (slippers) to tiffins (steel lunch boxes) and thalis (pans used during worship), to create thought-provoking yet aesthetically-profound sculptures. His attention to detail combined with his commentary on India’s labor population confirm why Gupta is currently India’s most celebrated living artist.

There are a number of untitled works, including a seven-foot wide stainless steel thali pan filled with kitchen utensils, tiffins, and pails, a work meant to pay respect to the way labourers eat: employing re-usable eating utensils and tiffins brought from home to the work site. In another untitled yet striking piece, Gupta’s team took a mould of a tree growing out of a window from the artist’s hometown of Bihar as a way of highlighting how nature forms around and in spite of man-made objects.

What differentiates Gupta from his contemporaries is not only his worship of the common man but also the humor in his work. In another untitled work, the viewer recalls Damien Hirst: a large fibreglass skull is ringed with stainless steel eating utensils. Here, the artist makes fun of the western media’s description of him as “the Damien Hirst of Delhi”, as if contemporary Indian art can only be understood in reference to western artists.

Likewise, in an attempt to recognize the western media’s description of Gupta as “the Jeff Koons of India”, the artist took two years to create fifty aluminium boxes bearing the Jeff Koons “Puppy” branding in a work titled “Jeff the Koons”. In a marketing ploy, Koons had created an “unlimited” rather than “limited” edition of his art work as a way to turn the economic model of supply and demand on its head which Gupta subsequently pokes fun at for Koons’s obvious effort to position his art for widespread, mass consumption.

Perhaps the most poignant and devastatingly hard-hitting piece is “I Believe You”, another large thali pan, this time covered with battered shoes worn by day labourers. While visiting an Indian village, Gupta traded the labourers’ old shoes for new ones. The shoes are served on a thali pan normally used to carry coconuts and candles as well as other assorted fruit, rice and spices as offerings when worshipping Hindu gods and goddesses. In a clockwise motion, worshippers will move the thali pan in front of a Hindu idol or photograph as a way of doing arthi, or making an offering. In Gupta’s sculpture, he places worn shoes on the thali pan as a way to worship and pay tribute to “the common man”.

Likewise, “Aam Aadmi” (Hindi for “man people”) is a collection of mangoes surrounded by hay sitting in a wooden crate. It was only after reading that the mangoes were painted bronze that, upon looking more closely, I could see the reflection of the overhead lights in the mangoes; the reflection was the only clue that betrayed the mangoes were not made of their original organic materials, a true testament to Gupta’s craftmanship. I remembered eating mangoes every summer, mangoes my parents brought home from the Indian grocery stores in Jackson Heights. When visiting my in-laws in Trinidad & Tobago, I remember rejoicing in the juicy mangoes which grew from the trees in their yard, quickly wiping the sweet juice escaping from my mouth after each succulent bite. Gupta talks about how he chose to highlight mangoes for their accessibility to the wealthy and poor alike in India, but he forgets the fruit’s universality in South-Asian communities globally.

The only piece which is romantic in nature is “Spooning”, a play on the western term. Two nine-foot long stainless steel spoons nestle, or spoon, on the gallery floor. “Et tu, Duchamp?” is yet another comedic poke at western culture. Gupta, also known as the “Subcontinental Marcel Duchamp”, upon seeing Duchamp’s “Mona Lisa with Mustache and Beard” (1919), sculpted a bronze rendering of the painting in an effort to “have a dialogue with [Duchamp].”

“A Penny for Belief II” is one of the few pieces global in scope rather than a commentary on India’s “common man”. The work is an oversized thali pan which gallery employees and Gupta threw coins into, coins from all over the world including British sterling, American quarters and Euros, before pouring olive oil into the pan. When I bent closer to the pool of coins, I smelt a strong odor of olive oil which is more popularly used in European and American cooking rather than Indian. Maria de Lamerens, the Press coordinator at Hauser & Wirth, explained how throwing a penny for good luck is a universal practice which Gupta wanted to capture in the work. Clearly the practice has benefited Gupta whose name and work are counted among the best contemporary, living artists in the world.

Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America”

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“Risky Business: How Ha Jin is becoming an American writer” by Kavita Ramdya

While a Ph.D. student at Boston University, I had the opportunity to interview Ha Jin for a profile which was later published in the alumni magazine. Dr. Jin gave me two pieces of advice that significantly influenced choices I’ve made in my writing. The first piece of advice he gave me was to write about Asian America in my Doctorate dissertation, what later became the foundation of my book “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America”.

Click here to read my profile of Ha Jin, entitled “Risky Business: How Ha Jin is becoming an American writer”.


Boston University’s “Arts & Sciences” – Summer 2004, Number 14

“Risky Business: How Ha Jin is becoming an American writer” by Kavita Ramdya

On an unseasonably warm April morning, Xuefei Jin (GRS’94), better known by the pen name Ha Jin, relaxes in the shade on a bench facing the Charles River. The morning is quiet and serene, and so is Jin. His manner is understated and calm; a casual acquaintance might have trouble believing that he is the author of the bleak and irony-filled novel Waiting, which won the 1999 National Book Award. His demeanor suggests little of the tumultuous path that brought him from China to America and Boston University, nor of the risks he has taken, as both a writer and a human being, to get here.

Jin has been a professor in the Graduate School’s Creative Writing Program since September 2002. He is an enviously prolific author, publishing a book of prose or poetry every one to two years, most recently The Crazed (2002). Known for his stinging criticisms of the Chinese government in the wake of the student-massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989, writes solely in English, a language he didn’t learn until he was in his twenties-partly in protest of Chinese government censorship.

Born in 1956 and raised mostly in a small rural town in Liaoning Province, Jin came of age just as China was entering the Cultural Revolution, and that era serves as a backdrop for many of his works. Jin recalls his mother being denounced for belonging to the “enemy class,” since her father was a landowner. Accused as a dissident, she was made to pick up trash and was later moved to the countryside to pick apples. Jin’s father, an officer in the People’s Liberation Army, was sent to a neighboring city to further the revolution. “The Cultural Revolution divided many families,” Jin says.

He joined the army at age 13, serving on the tense border between China and the Soviet Union, at a time when the two countries were near war. He served for six years, and his experiences fueled much of his later writing. Despite hardship, he says that “being in the army provided me with a mentally and emotionally clear and stable life. There was no imagination involved. In the army your enemy is clear, and you know how to fight him. It is such a formulated life.”

Jin describes himself as “half-illiterate” before he joined the army, not knowing enough Chinese characters to read a book, but full of instinctual desire to learn. He spent his army years teaching himself to read and write in his native language, despite the prevailing antipathy toward “bourgeois” activities. Ironically, once he knew how to write, he was frequently asked to compose propaganda for the regime his literature would later critique.

After leaving the army at 19, Jin worked as a telegraph operator for the Harbin Railroad Company, competing with 20,000 other railroad workers for a place in Heilongjiang University in Harbin. He was the only employee admitted, and although he was assigned to study English literature-his last choice for a major-he embraced the opportunity. He knew that most students accepted to university were admitted to technical or two-year colleges.

He earned a B.A. in English in 1981 and then an M.A. in American literature at Shandong University, where he met his wife, Lisha Bein. In 1985 he moved to the United States on a scholarship from Brandeis University to work on his Ph.D. in English. It was normal for the Chinese government to fragment families to try to curb immigration, so Jin’s wife wasn’t permitted to leave the country until two years later. The couple’s son, Wen, stayed in China for two more years. When the massacre at Tiananmen Square occurred in 1989, “I thought China was closing its doors, so we were desperate to get [Wen] here.” They were prepared to bribe officials, but that proved unnecessary; in the disarray of post-Tiananmen Square China, government workers efficiently processed Jin’s visa request for Wen. Jin speaks often of his aspiration that Wen be “an American boy,” spared the bureaucratic cruelties and the suffering detailed in his novels.

Tiananmen Square clinched his decision to remain in America with his family. As a self-styled exile, he communicates no remorse about his decision. The decision to write solely in English was in some ways more difficult. Without a Chinese audience, he was both cornered and challenged into that choice. It is just one of many adjustments he has made as a writer-and citizen-in America. “Here you are free to have to take care of yourself,” he says. “In many ways life is a fight. There are so many uncertainties. When I decided to stay in America, I had to learn to live with uncertainties. That was something I wasn’t used to in China.”

Jin’s first English-language book, the poetry collection Between Silences, was written during the summer of 1988 while he was working full time in a cloth factory in Watertown, Massachusetts. Asked how he managed to write and publish a book of poetry while pursuing graduate studies and working long hours, Jin says it had more to do with releasing tension than with serious aspirations toward a writing career. “I was not an American man to do with my life what I wanted. I was repressed in China. Rationally, I couldn’t afford to be a poet or fiction writer, so I turned to academia for my livelihood. I had to let it out that summer because I would be unstable if I didn’t.”

Jin recalls that his academic advisor at Brandeis, Professor Allen Grossman, told him that his creative writing must come first always. Grossman, who now teaches poetry at Johns Hopkins University, was struck by the way Jin’s Chinese vernacular blended with his non-native English to create what Grossman calls “a floating language,” an exceptionally non-native idiom, “floating between his native language and English:’ As a teacher, Grossman says, “this floating language was so interesting that you didn’t want to do anything about it.”

The poet Frank Bidart, Jin’s instructor at Brandeis, echoes that sentiment. He recalls reading the first poem Jin submitted to his workshop: “It was a remarkable experience to have someone turn in a poem at the end of the first class that I thought was astonishing. The poem was entirely there, and I had nothing tondo with it.” Bidart immediately called his editor and friend Jonathan Galassi at The Paris Review and recited the poem over the phone. The conversation concluded with Galassi agreeing to publish the poem.

Jin expanded his team of writing mentors to include the novelist Leslie Epstein, director of BU’s Creative Writing Program. Jin audited one of Epstein’s classes, and Epstein says he knew within the first two weeks that Jin was a genius: “If any proof were needed, it was someone struggling to come to grips with the language, then managing to write a beautiful book like Ocean of Words,” a collection of army stories dedicated to Epstein for which Jin later won the PEN/Hemingway Award.

After auditing more classes while he improved his English, Jin enrolled full time in the Creative Writing Program, and when he finished his degree, he had written every story in Under the Red Flag, a collection that won him the 1997 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. He landed a job teaching poetry, fiction, and literature at Emory University in Atlanta in 1993. He spent a happy and productive near-decade there before he was lured back to BU as a full professor in the program that he’d once audited.

The decision to write solely in English, Jin says, is seen as traitorous by some in China. He hopes his work will someday find a place in Chinese literature, but he defends his refusal to return to the country. “With China there are so many interferences; you can’t do anything. They edit out paragraphs and pages. Living as a writer in China means endless heartbreaks and heartache.” Jin’s parents and five siblings, still in China, are unaware of the extent of his success as a writer in America.

Jin became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1997, but he does not consider himself a “hyphenated” Asian-American writer, since he has not yet published a work about America. His next novel, due to be released this fall, is War Trash (Pantheon), about Chinese prisoners held during the Korean War. The work contains Chinese-American characters, and he thinks it will function as a transition to a future book, one that is set in his new homeland, America.

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“An Artist with no nationality” by Kavita Ramdya (review of Anish Kapoor at the Royal Academy of Art)

Read Kavita Ramdya’s review of Anish Kapoor’s exhibit at the Royal Academy of Art.

The Anish Kapoor exhibit at the Royal Academy of Art is all the rave right now. You can’t escape it: Anish Kapoor’s name decorates Tube turnstyles, double-decker buses, and cabs. Completely turned off the by hype and marketing, I was more than skeptical that the show would live up to the rave reviews; it’s as if art reviewers are foaming at the mouth for Anish Kapoor, stark-raving mad for more. Unbelievably, the show DOES live up to expectations. I loved it as did my husband and friends who accompanied us, an accupuncturist and the owner of a technology company. The Anish Kapoor show is among the best I’ve ever visited, and it’s fair to say I’ve seen my fair share of art.


October 23, 2009

News India Times

“An Artist with no nationality” by Kavita Ramdya

Tube (London subway) platforms, double-decker buses, and cab doors, not to mention magazines and newspapers as diverse as The Financial Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Economist, and Mayfair Times. The Mumbai-born artist the first living artist to have a solo exhibition at the elite Royal Academy of Art, one of London’s most well-respected and revered cultural institutions.

Outside the Royal Academy of Art, during all hours of the day and night, there is a glut of people spilling onto the Piccadilly pavement.

They wait on line to buy tickets to the show as well as marvel at the fifteen-metre sculpture “Tall Tree and Eye” in the Annenburg Courtyard: a Babel-inspiring pyramid made up of seventy-six large, polished, stain-less-steel spheres reaching for the sky. In it, viewers see reflections of the museum, the clouds, and themselves.

As his name suggests, Anish Kapoor was born in Mumbai before schooling and working in England where he made his career. Expecting to see art inspired by his heritage, I was surprised by the lack of references towards Indian culture, mythology, current events, and imagery. In fact, I later learned from Dr. Adrian Locke, a curator at the RAA, that the artist finds his Indian origin irrelevant and defies art historians, patrons of the arts, and museum directors to categorize his work as “Indian art”. As a writer of South-Asian descent, and one who is highly conscious that my ethnicity, faith and gender shape my concerns and thus my work, my interest was piqued upon hearing that Anish Kapoor rejects the idea of nationalizing his work. Do works of Art have a nationality? Is it possible to reproduce art which doesn’t lend itself to having a national identity?

Upon entering the exhibit, which takes up five galleries, I quickly observed that for Anish Kapoor, “bigger is better”. The scale of his work is surreal.

As I made my way past “Svayambh”, the heart of the show, where a thirty-ton block of licorice-red wax creeps its way across the gallery on a set of tracks, and walked through “Mirrors” where kids contort their faces and jump up and down while their parents sneakily took photos on their iPhones, I felt like I was walking through an “art funhouse”.

Two major differences between the Anish Kapoor exhibit and other shows I’ve attended is the interactive play between the viewer and the art and, as a result, the preponderance of young children running and screaming throughout the galleries… and, of course, the accompanying noise that further confirmed my analogy of attending the show like visiting a carnival funhouse.

Although “Svayambh” is the heart of the show and the towering courtyard sculpture tempts shoppers and pedestrians while greeting museum visitors, “Shooting into the Corner” is the most infamous piece in the show. The title borrows from a dirty, adolescent joke and with good reason. The work is made up of a canon which fires wax pallets through a doorway from one gallery into another.

There is an element of penetration in the work and expressions of masculinity and violence. And, of course, the joke is on the viewer when the semen, I mean, wax hits the wall and then, in an anti-climactic way, slowly creeps downwards into a mess of old wax. On a psychological level, the work spurs notions of sexuality – not coincidentally, the work was first exhibited in Vienna, the home of Freud. From an architectural point of view, the wax is shot into a corner: the corner as the origin of any building. And, finally, from an artistic point of view, the slowly dripping wax is in its own way a constantly-evolving piece of art work, changing and growing like a human inside and outside the womb.

Is there anything in the Royal Academy of Art show that betrays Anish Kapoor’s Indian origin apart from one work’s Sanskrit name? In my opinion, yes—the scale and the colors with which Kapoor creates his works suggest the artist’s country of origin is at the very least a subconscious force in creating his oeuvre. “Tall Tree and Eye” resembles the shape and size of Rajasthan’s ancient Hindu temples, and the vibrant crimsons and yellows in Kapoor’s work are reminiscent of common Indian spices used in cooking like red chilli powder and turmeric as well as the most popular pigments used to paint family and friends on the popular Hindu holiday, Holi, or the Festival of Colors.

Originally skeptical of Anish Kapoor’s rejection of the label “Indian artist”, after viewing the exhibition I am convinced that although Art need not require a nationality, or a specific country culture from which it originates, I stand by the fact that Art cannot be produced in a vacuum; it comes from somewhere, is inspired by something, and is in conversation with other cultural products.

However, Anish Kapoor’s body of work does not come from the culture of nationhood, specifically India’s, but from the Culture of Science. Anish Kapoor’s ambitious attempts at creating perfectly symmetrical geometric shapes, experiments with pigment, play with materials to create textures, and problem solving behind integrating two seemingly-incompatible materials into a single piece, is the most successful demonstration of Art originated from Science I have ever witnessed. Which begs the question, what does this Culture of Science indicate about Anish Kapoor’s own identity as an artist?

Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America”

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“Beauty is Beast” by Kavita Ramdya (Fashion’s Night Out)

Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s discussion of Fashion’s Night Out in conjunction with the financial services industry’s promotion of powerful women in business in her article “Beauty is Beast”. 

“Beauty is Beast” discusses the two sets of career options proposed to women by mainstream media, options that ignore the wide array of career options and ways in which women can add value that are left uncelebrated.


“News India Times” October 16, 2009

“Beauty is beast” by Kavita Ramdya

I‘m perplexed. It’s become apparent to me that there exists a press-orchestrated assault of images and stories that provide merely two diametrically-opposed portrayals of women. It all started very innocently with the “New York Times” coverage of the mid-September New York Fashion Week.

Sitting in London in front of my laptop, the slide shows of young girls upon whose practically-translucent skin carries weathered looks of dissatisfaction and boredom seem about as relevant to me and my life as the clothes these models wear: both, the models and the clothes, exist to evoke the fantasy of independent wealth and vast amounts of time to waste in-between spurts of leisure activity. The models look bored because they’re meant to emulate the small minority of women in the world whose only challenge is deciding what to pack for her next shopping spree in Dubai.

However, what I didn’t know was that Anna Wintour, the infamous editor of “Vogue” magazine had launched an international program, “Fashion’s Night Out”, to inspire an orgy of designer-name brand shopping global in scope.

Ms. Wintour has recently gone from “Man Behind the Curtain” status in the fashion industry to joining the mainstream A-list celebrities, resulting from the release of “The September Issue”, a documentary which reveals the ugliness poured into making every beauty and fashion page of “Vogue” irresistible to female readers.

On what started as a pleasant evening stroll was suddenly cut short by the combination of teenage girls screeching while running hand-in-hand across New Bond Street, car doors slamming as chauffeurs abandoned their Bentleys to congregate in small groups for a smoke break, Euro-trash techno beats streaming out of luxury-brand stores, and serious-looking fashion sluts sipping wine and chatting on their mobiles, standing around as if poor posture was a universally-attractive fad rather than just a Kate Moss-trade-marked pose circa the grunge era. 

Even Malcolm McLaren, the former manager of the “Sex Pistols” and currently a member of Dries van Noten’s design team, was turned off by the publicity stunt when he describes “Fashion’s Night Out” in New York as “swamped by gangs of teenage girls hunting for free champagne, cupcakes, ice-cream, popcorn and candy floss.

They are determined to catch a glimpse of a star – be it at Barney’s, Bergdorf Goodman’s, Saks, or wherever… it’s a free-for-all in Manhattan tonight.”

The next morning, I looked over my shoulder up New Bond Street on my way to work, trying to make sense of the half-empty plastic wine glasses strewn on the sidewalks, bags and tissue paper in messy heaps on the ground, scattered canapés sitting like frosting on mountains of garbage, and piles of trash on what is usually one of the most well-designed and artistic streets in London.

Juxtaposed to all the hub-bub over Fashion Week has been the release of “Fortune” magazine’s “50 Most Powerful Women in [American] Business” rankings and the “Financial Times” magazine’s “The women issue” which contains a top fifty list of women in world business.

None of the “Fortune” magazine’s top-ranked women in business work in the fashion industry. In fact, Andrea Jung and Liz Smith from Avon Products are the only two women listed who work in a company which caters to a female clientele. The “FT” list fares little better: Burberry’s Angela Ahrendts is lauded for bringing the company into the FTSE 100 list. Most of the women on both lists work in male-dominated fields such as financial services, technology, consumer goods, entertainment, pharmaceuticals and even mining just to name a few of the industries in which these women have succeeded.

Just as it’s limiting for young women to fantasize of a life filled with social events that demand Stella McCartney rather than Sears, it is interesting to note that companies which produce products specifically marketed to women are not companies where they will gain widespread recognition in the business world. So, according to the overlapping media coverage of Fashion Week and the top business women rankings, the only two options a young woman has is to either join the frenzied shopping masses and yearn for a job in fashion/beauty/make-up where women are valued for their spending power, or entering a male-dominated industry and restraining any interest or passion for a product that is overtly feminine and/or targeted towards women buyers.

In the former option, women are recognized as consumers of product or models for selling product. In the latter option, women enter and excel in what are traditionally male-dominated industries that have ignored, to varying degrees, female buyers and feminine goods.

But what about the infinite numbers of ways in which women can work and dream that fall somewhere along the spectrum? Where are those stories in the media? I laud the “FT” magazine for publishing an article about a white, middle-aged, female reporter who adopts a Chinese girl abandoned by her birth mother near a police station. Or the photo essay of female rebel fighters in Nepal. Or the “Economist” article which describes how in Antwerp, Belgium, Muslim women are choosing to wear burkhas while in school and jeans on the week-ends, confusing school officials and the international community by defying the notion that Muslim women have a single identity solely defined by religion.

And how about the alternative fashion movie to “The September Issue”, “Coco Before Chanel”? Here we have a French orphan-turned-seamstress tired of wearing her hair in long tresses who adapts the sleek, professional style of a traditional man’s suit for women. Stories like these remind us that there are as Top, a model is made up before the Alexandre Herchcovitch Spring 2010collection during the New York Fashion Week, Sept. 16. Above, Vogue editor Anna Wintour waits for the start of the Calvin Klein Spring 2010 show during New York, many types of women as there are men and as many dreams and visions for happiness for one gender as there are for the of a life filled other.

A few days ago I walked by the Somerset House, an elegant neo-classical building which sits in-between the West End’s theatre district and the Thames River.

Unfortunately, the scene was in for a familiar one: crowds of girls rushed into the courtyard as if someone had spotted Robert Pattinson of “Twilight” fame. But the event that spurred the frenzied push past security was “Elle” magazine’s “London Fashion Weekend” event.

I have little doubt that all the global Fashion Weeks and associated events will result in the same way. It must mean something that after all the beautiful cars and loaded shoppers, copious amounts of wine and free candy, discounted designer clothes and self-important shoppers, all that remains in the end is trash.

Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America”

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Review of Hanif Kureishi’s “The Black Album” at the National Theatre by Kavita Ramdya

Click here to read my review of the stage adaptation fo Hanif Kureishi’s novel “The Black Album”.

In the summer of ’08, for my “Contemporary British Literature” class, I taught Hanif Kureishi’s “The Buddha of Suburbia”, a coming-of-age novel about a young Indian-English Hindu Brit obsessed with celebrity culture and incensed by his father’s re-invention as a yogi master in their suburban English community. So you can imagine my interest when I heard that the National Theatre, in conjunction with Tara Arts, adapted Hanif Kureishi’s “The Black Album” to the stage. Unfortunately, the play did not live up to my expectations. The characters were shallow and the scenes a blur. However, there is value in staging such a production as “The Black Album” as a way to spur conversation about the rise of Muslim fundamentalism in London, the identity crisis and ostracization young Muslims experience in the modern world, and the question around whether religious faith is incompatible with contemporary, secular forms of art such as Prince’s “The Black Album”.


“News India Times” October 9, 2009

“Hanif Kureishi’s ‘The Black Album’” by Kavita Ramdya

I‘m still amazed at how mainstream South-Asian theatre is in London in comparison to New York where the South-Asian community is smaller in proportion. I recently visited London’s National Theatre (NT) to see the stage adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s novel “The Black Album” (1996) whose title refers to the 1989 Prince album with which the main character, Shahid Hasan, is obsessed. Co-produced by Tara Arts, a long-established South Asian theatre organization in England which “champions creative diversity through the production, promotion and development of world class, cross-cultural theatre,” the play’s themes are still relevant today despite the book’s original publication more than ten years ago. Shahid, a first-year university student, is a music-loving Pakistani Muslim raised in Kent, England.

He moves to London to attend university; there, he has an affair with DeeDee Osgood, his professor of “Post-Colonial Literature,” and falls in with the “wrong crowd”: a group of radical Muslim students who tout that all “whites are racist” and wield violence in Allah’s name. Kureishi attempts to dramatize the events of 1989: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the impending doom of Communist Russia, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his book “The Satanic Verses” (1988) and the popularity of rock music by heretics such as Prince whose ambiguous sexuality and mixed race symbolize the secularism that threatens to distract young Muslims away from Allah.

Alas, the play’s context and the players producing it promise much but deliver very little. Word must have spread because although I expected a big showing of support by South Asians, my husband and I were two of only a dozen South Asians in the audience. In the play’s first scene, Shahid is called a “Paki” by the resident drug dealer and meets the leader of the local radical Islam group, a young man from Lahore who expresses homo-erotic feelings towards Shahid. The play turns into a mess of sexual tensions, racial epithets, allusions to historical events, and philosophical discussions of political discourse, a twister of confusion which threatens to envelope Shahid from his love for music and family who pray for him in Kent.

Occasionally, the play is punctuated by a semi-articulate discussion of themes around race and politics, but, for the most part, the play closely resembles the meandering, late night, overly passionate discussions we all had in our dorm rooms while first-year university students. Although this level of discussion is appropriate and even expected for eighteen-year olds, who wants to see it re-enacted on stage? If anything, watching the play reminds us of our own foolishness that we could somehow solve the world’s problems between the hours of ten in the evening and three in the morning in the safe confine of our college dorm room.

Lines such as “Racism turns us away from ourselves” and “music poisons us from Allah… cure us from that white shit” hit the audience with precision and force, like tennis balls shooting from an ac-powered machine. Practically staggering out of the theatre, I felt bruised and beaten from the constant delivery of such heavy-handed dialogue. And it didn’t help that the show’s choreography resembled that of an MTV video: the scenes changed constantly, almost ADD-like.

Another major drawback in the stage adaptation of “The Black Album” is its lack of humour. Having enjoyed reading and teaching “The Buddha of Suburbia” (1990), I expected a good douse of humour to accompany the play’s rather serious themes. However, there are only two instances of humor, the first of which happens in response to Shahid practicing yoga. One of his new radical Islamist friends implores Shahid to stop his practice because that “Hindu shit will fuck your mind” and turn him “into George Harrison.”

As a long-time yoga practioner, I could appreciate how people unfamiliar to yoga might feel threatened by the ancient Hindu practice.

The second instance is one which points fun at all radical religious groups. Shahid’s mother cooks and packs him pakoras which his radical Muslim friends happily devour.

However, one special pakora is saved because it is inscribed with a shape that looks like “alif,” the first letter in the Arabic alphabet and the first character in the Quran.

Anyone who has seen the alif will observe that it is little more than a vertical line so when Shahid’s radical Muslim friends decide it is a sign from Allah, the crowd bursts into laughter at the sheer ludicrousness of the situation.

As we see from following the news, observing G-d’s image in one’s food and other inanimate objects is not uncommon among fervent believers.

As a writer, Hanif Kureishi is never shy about to spur conversation around controversial topics. For this reason I applaud his, Tara Arts and the National Theatre’s stage adaptation of “The Black Album.” But, had the delivery been more suited to a thinking, contemplative and mature audience, this reviewer would have sung the play’s praises rather than written the equivalent of a theatre review death sentence.

Kureishi in New York:

Hanif Kureishi is an English playwright, yet his most popular novel , “The Buddha of Suburbia”, contains a few scenes in which the hero Karim visits his bestfriend Charlie in New York.

Karim’s introduction to life in Manhattan is the crazy speed with which New York City cab drivers chariot their passengers across the city and the experience of feeling jetlag: “when we got out of the cab, I did want to lie down on the pavement and go to sleep” which pretty much sums up my feelings the first night upon arriving in New York from London.

Karim and Charlie find themselves in the Village people watching and enjoying milkshakes “thick with Italian ice-cream” which spurs readers familiar with Manhattan geography wonder whether Kureishi could possibly be referring to the Four Corners Cafes (possibly even Café Figaro where I   had my 19thbirthday party celebration while a student at NYU?)

Finally, Charlie and Karim frequent the Russian Tea Room in Midtown West, a restaurant noted for its variety of flavoured vodkas. Reading about fictional Londoners in New York offers the opportunity to connect with these otherwise foreign characters whose adventures on my home  turf affirm for me once again, “There’s no place like home.”

Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America”

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