Monthly Archives: February 2010

“Mixing Magic and Alchemy in Mira Nair’s Films” by Kavita Ramdya

Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s “Mixing Magic and Alchemy in Mira Nair’s Films” in “News India Times” (5 March 2010).

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“Mixing Magic and Alchemy in Mira Nair’s Films” by Kavita Ramdya in “News India Times” (5 March 2010)

Having recently published a book that describes the Bollywood film industry’s cultural relevance and influence in diasporic Indian communities and reading all the hub-bub around Shah Rukh Khan’s recent run-in with Bal Thackeray, writing a retrospective on Mira Nair’s film career is a welcome respite. Mrs. Nair’s films offer glimpses into a world that you don’t see represented on screen in a refreshingly un-stereotyped manner. Even Jason Solomons, who recently hosted “A Life in Pictures: Mira Nair”, describes the director as a formidable force in “world cinema”.

In an interview with Mr. Solomons, Mira Nair described how she found herself in film making: “I stumbled upon film making”. As a child, her driver took her to see “traveling theatre” where she witnessed actors perform the age-old story of good versus evil without the use of any props. While pursuing theatre in her Irish-Catholic school in India she often played men’s roles “because of my deep voice”. For years she thought of herself as an actress and enjoyed performing, even joining a professional theatre group in Delhi. To explain her unconventional choice of studying drama as a young woman in India, Mrs. Nair described how her parents, despite their views to the contrary, focused on her two older brothers which left Mira to act “footloose and fancy free”, exploring “whether theatre could change the world.”

After receiving a scholarship to attend Harvard University where she studied film and majored in Visual Studies, Mrs. Nair was quickly turned off by the limited range of roles offered to Indian women. However, she regularly visited New York where she attended performances at La Mama, a well-respected experimental theatre organization. It was her education at La Mama, she explained to Mr. Solomons, which influenced her in directing “Salaam Bombay!”

“Salaam Bombay!” (1988)

“Salaam Bombay!” won Mrs. Nair the “Golden Camera” award at Cannes Film Festival and international recognition as a director committed to cinéma vérité. Additionally, Mrs. Nair also emerged from the success of the film as an international ambassador for India. So not only did Mrs. Nair capture the influence photography has in her films and her devotion “to the frame” in filming a movie, but “Salaam Bombay!” also gave her the opportunity to influence national policy with regards to children’s welfare in India. Without any foundations for street children in India back in 1987, she and her screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala created the Salaam Baalak Trust, centers for helping street kids.

“Mississippi Masala” (1991)

In her subsequent film, Mrs. Nair transitioned from Mumbai’s urban jungle to Mississippi’s agrarian economy. Describing “Mississippi Masala” as a movie “about being brown between black and white”, the movie portrays the inter-racial romance of an African-American man played by Denzel Washington and a Ugandan Asian as performed by Sarita Choudhury. The film, which contains sociological elements, was a common reference point for the women and men I interviewed in writing my book. The immigrant-Indian community’s reaction to Mrs. Nair’s love story was instrumental in teaching the second-generation Indian Americans that marrying outside the community was still taboo.

“Monsoon Wedding” (2001)

Many of the couples in my book also reference another Nair movie, “Monsoon Wedding”, when describing what their non-Indian friends and family understood to be a “typical” Indian wedding. In her discussion with Mr. Salomons, Mrs. Nair described “Monsoon Wedding” (2001) as one which contains “jadoo”, or magic; scenes from “Monsoon Weddings” are “anti-depressants, magic, alchemy that comes out of the darkest sorrow, child abuse”.

Inspired by her film teaching in South Africa, Mrs. Nair described how she challenged herself to practice what she preached by “making something out of nothing” and experimenting with whether “an interesting movie can be made with one million dollars in thirty days”. She described the beauty of having “no expectations and you’re doing your own thing”.

“Hysterical Blindness” (2002)

Made-for-TV “Hysterical Blindness”, starring Uma Thurman and Juliette Lewis, is a huge departure from Nair’s former movies. Shot over twenty-three days, the project gave her the opportunity to practice the craft of film making as well as continue to engage in the theme of female sexuality. What distinguishes “Hysterical Blindness” is its “female gaze”, or Mrs. Nair’s ability to “bring female identity to the camera”. Mrs. Nair discussed how male-dominated cinema lacks sensuality, suggesting that “Erotic is what you don’t see”.

“The Namesake” (2006)

Mrs. Nair described reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel “The Namesake” (2004) just two months after a losing her mother-in-law. Within a year of discussing the project with Mrs. Lahiri, the director began shooting the film which stars Kal Penn, America’s best-known actor of Indian origin who has since left Hollywood to serve as a White House official for President Barak Obama.  Mrs. Nair described how she “made the movie because of loss and understanding loss” and how the movie, global in its scope, served as a “platform to connect Calcutta and the USA”.

“Amelia” (2009)

For her most recent film, “Amelia” starring Richard Gere and Hillary Swank, Mrs. Nair describes how she agreed to direct the movie just days after plans to film “Shantaram” starring Johnny Depp fell apart. Having watched sixteen hours of original reel footage of Amelia Earhart, Mrs. Nair was intrigued by the pilot’s “odd sense of humility”.

Mira Nair’s fans will be happy to learn that she is currently taking “Monsoon Wedding” to Broadway where it will be staged as a musical while working to adapt Mohsin Hamid’s novel “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” into a movie. In response to why there are so few female directors, Mrs. Nair suggested that the dearth “has to do with confidence. It’s a con game, to be a director. Men can do it, have that kind of chutzpah”. And her final piece of advice for aspiring film makers? “Have the heart of a bird and the skin of an elephant”.

Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America” www.bollywood-weddings.com

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“Wedding Paradise” in “Eastern Eye”

Click here to read Isha Prashar’s “Wedding Paradise” in “Eastern Eye” (26 Feb. 2010).

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Women Zone at “Eastern Eye”

Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s interview in “Eastern Eye” (19 Feb. 2010).

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“Marriage and Maharajas” by Kavita Ramdya

Click here to read “Marriage and Maharajas“, Kavita Ramdya’s review of photo exhibit “Stillness and Shadows: Vintage Photographs of India” at Rossi & Rossi.

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“Marriage and Maharajas” by Kavita Ramdya in the 19 Feb. 2010 “News India Times”

In the Rossi & Rossi black-and-white photo exhibition “Stillness and Shadows: Vintage Photographs of India”, the viewer is taken on an intimate journey in exploring the nature of arranged marriages inside the Indian household and the life of the maharaja and its court after its heyday. The late Bhupendra Karia’s collection includes an assortment of images including portraits of middle-aged couples, India’s poverty and still lives whereas English photographer Derry Moore’s “Evening Ragas: A Photographer in India” is a “study of post-Raj India” where the photographer records the “rich, ornate interiors, revealing portraits and calm landscapes that sensitively record the charm, eccentricity and fading splendour of a post-colonial society”.

The majority of the photographs were taken in the 1960s and 1970s, decades when Karia and Moore’s American colleagues documented the Civil Rights Movement and free love; “Stillness and Shadows” could not be more different from the popular American subjects of that time. That said, both photographers differ from their own national contemporaries as well. At a time when Indian photographers were in the throes of discovering street photography, Karia was highly influenced by Japan’s sense of artisan, hand-made crafts. His was a rigorously honed and practiced craft as demonstrated in the strict sense of discipline in his images.

Having recently returned from the empty yet decadent maharaja residences in India’s Rajasthan, Moore’s photographs of the “majestic palaces and lavish homes and their inhabitants, elegantly rendering the charms, eccentricities, and fading splendour that, in post-colonial society, already spoke of a bygone world” was timely.

The show begins with Moore’s photographs of maharaja’s palaces, spaces once filled with friends, family, business associates and court staff and now empty save the ghosts from its past. Silent echoes bounce between solid columns, chandeliers are dull from layers of dust, and chairs achingly rest upside down on solid wooden tables meant to seat large parties.

Portraits of middle-aged couples who the viewer guesses once saw better days look away whereas their bodies face the camera as if the head and body are guided by separate motivations. One imagines that these marriages were the products of deliberations between families in terms of aligning family fortunes and political motivations. However, in “Couple, Lucknow” (1977), Moore’s couple wear smiles as clear as the photograph itself; they wear the day-house clothes familiar to anyone with Indian grandparents, yet their smiles add a sense of mystery to the portrait.

In “Cut-out of Late Maharaja, City Palace, Udaipur” (1978), Moore playfully positions a life-sized cut-out of a maharaja figure which the photographer then photographs in the soulless court which has long since seen its best days. The photo is a reminder of the maharajas’ demise in India as well as the emptiness of such once-splendored places which, if lucky, are turned into hotels or otherwise relinquished to the state government.

As a frequent visitor of contemporary, modernist South-Asian art exhibits, it was refreshing to read titled works in “Stillness and Shadows”. A common lesson taught in art school is to leave works untitled so that they remain abstract for the viewer and open for interpretation rather than literal and figurative. Neither Karia nor Moore obeys this adage in their works. A birdcage is titled as such.

In Karia’s “Old Woman with Hand to Face, Bhavnaga” (1969), the photographer takes a portrait of a woman clothed in dirty, tattered rags who shields her eyes from the sun or camera flash, a mystery gifted to the viewer. Both scenarios are ripe for interpretation. In a collection of mostly still lives, “Old Woman” is a refreshing portrait; her long, skinny fingers and square face give her an alien-like aesthetic.

“Abandoned Child on Road, Daneti, Kutch” (1968) is a snapshot of India at its worst: rather than lush and green, arid and dead; empty rather than teeming with people and produce. A lone boy, naked, sleeping and crying, curls up in a fetal position on the road side, as if praying to be left alone. What happens to the young boy is anybody’s guess.

“Fathers and daughters looking up, Daneti, Kutch” (1970) portrays a man well into his most senior years surrounded by three young daughters with a combined age of no more than eight years. The portrait speaks to the expectations for large families and the lack of means for birth control in rural India at a time when families needed all the unpaid help they could spawn.

“Cattle in Sabarmati” (1968) is notable for its portrait of animals that are almost completely absent in the show. Cattle sunbathe and lounge in the Sabarmati like holiday-makers in a jacuzzi: lazily. Their bodies half submerged in water and half absorbing the sun’s rays, they resemble sea creatures, they’re evolutionary predecessors. Notably, animals take up little space in “Stillness and Shadows” which focuses instead on the ghosts of India’s past and the unsaid compromises made in an arranged marriage; the silences these photos exude are for the viewer to interpret.

Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America” www.bollywood-weddings.com

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“In Conversation with Kavita Ramdya” – Q&A with MonaDarling

Click here to read “In Conversation with Kavita Ramdya“, a Q&A with MonaDarling.com

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“Faiza Butt in ‘The State of Things: Recent Art from Pakistan'”

Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s review of Faiza Butt’s show at the Aicon Gallery London, “The State of Things: Recent Art from Pakistan”, in the February 2010 issue of “Modern Art Asia“.

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“Faiza Butt in ‘The State of Things: Recent Art from Pakistan'” by Kavita Ramdya (Issue 2, February 2010 of Harvard University’s “Modern Art Asia”

Faiza Butt is obviously well-versed in talking about her work. She has done it countless times, breathless and quick, at ease yet also distant. Not once in the evening we spend together at the show or at a café afterwards where we continue our “conversation” does she let herself look me in the eye. It seems she has saved her gaze for her canvas.

In The State of Things: Recent Art from Pakistan at Aicon, Butt’s paintings are distinct from those of her peers’ for their focus on the feminine: children playing, turkey dinners and kitchencleaning supplies. Clearly her role as a mother and wife inform her work. Tellingly, in both our phone calls prior to our meeting I could hear the voices of laughing children in the background. I later learned that her marriage to an English national and role as a mother inspire an autobiographical flavour in her work, as does her youth growing up in a matriarchal family with five sisters.

Born and raised in Lahore, Butt spent a few years teaching in South Africa before attending London’s Slade School of Fine Arts, her first time living in Europe. In East London, she began what she describes as “a crash course in learning the fabric of society”. Here Butt started painting canvases that spoke to her “feminine” concerns but with a politicized and global perspective.

Ironically, two of her three works on show at Aicon Gallery are of hyper-masculinized, fundamentalist Muslim men and yet the feminist concerns which have inspired Butt are loud and clear. Two tales of Whopped Fantasies, a series nspired by the photorealism of Gerard Richter’s work, are two separate realist paintings of traditional Muslim men. The viewer is forced to scan the canvases horizontally due to the visible and linear color lines that layer the subjects. This linear repeated linear pattern is meant to replicate the movement of a printing press, she tells me. In addition to the linear
swathes of pastoral colors that sweep Butt’s canvases, the “western, edible beauty” which each man carries (one wearing plastic, yellow cleaning gloves while holding a cake decorated with a generous amount of frosting and the other proudly presenting a traditional Sunday roast) points straight away to the artist’s original concerns: fitting gender expectations to cultural and religious traditions and making them compatible though they may in reality be polar opposites.

The two portraits are humorously paradoxical through their fusion of religious images with secular values. One the one hand, they wear old-fashioned clothing, but on the other hand they carry opulently-decorated Western dishes as a result of engaging in what is traditionally deemed ‘women’s work’. The contrast is inspired by Butt’s identity as a Pakistani-Muslim woman who married an Englishman and faced the pressures of integrating into an English, Christian family. The image of a Muslim man humbly yet eagerly offering his Sunday roast to the viewer, presumably after many
hours of slaving over a hot oven, expresses Butt’s own personal story in trying to win over her in-laws
and the cultural and religious sacrifices she made along the way.

Butt’s art work and biography remind us that some stories, like one of a woman trying to win over her inlaws by attempting to recreate their seductively succulent cuisine, are universal. Her work is refreshing in its appeal to the most petty yet powerful conflicts young wives all over the world face as a metaphor for the changes that occur with globalization.

About Aicon

Faiza Butt’s works showed at the Aicon Gallery, London until January 9th. The Aicon Gallery is the best place in Europe to view and learn about contemporary Indian art. The gallery, formerly known as Gallery ArtsIndia, originated in the United States, where it began as an online gallery of contemporary Indian art before opening the New York (2002)
and Palo Alto (2004) gallery spaces. After exhibiting the works of established artists such as Laxma Goud, F.N. Souza and M.F. Husain, Aicon has collaborated with such artistic institutions as Tate Britain, the San Francisco Asian Art Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum. On both sides of the Atlantic, Aicon Gallery is noted for its mission of promoting contemporary Indian art.

The London gallery opened in 2006 to serve as a “launch pad for Indian art in the capital” and showcases the works of radical and experimental artists rather than the Indian Modernists whose work is most commonly shown in the Aicon New York gallery. Located in a swanky part of town, off Regent’s Street, Aicon Gallery London is a cultural refuge amongst high-end stores and restaurants where people dine to be seen. As an Indian-American Hindu who moved to London almost four years ago, I remain amazed at the city’s established and well developed South Asian cultural scene.

Kavita Ramdya received her PhD from Boston University. She is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating,
Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America”, visit www.bollywood-weddings.com

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“A Hindu-Muslim love story” by Kavita Ramdya

Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s “A Hindu-Muslim love story” in “The Washington Post” (12 February 2010).

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A Hindu-Muslim love story

By Kavita Ramdya

I was raised by parents who were, relatively speaking, very open-minded. First-generation Indian-Hindu immigrants who moved to New York in the early ’70s, they nested in Smithtown, Long Island, a middle-class suburb that was as average as its name. “Diversity” in our well-manicured suburban cocoon meant attending bar and bat mitzvahs and even then, Jews were always the majority in my honors and A.P. classes. In my high school graduating class of five hundred students, approximately ten weren’t white.

There were many benefits of growing up in Smithtown: a well-stocked library, excellent public schools and neighbors with robust “family values.” The downside, I understood much later in life, was the sheer absence of diversity. There was nothing to challenge us, spur debate, or force us to interrogate our way of life. Not only was a there a lack of ethnic diversity but also of family structures, professions and diversions. Without a black family in the neighborhood, African Americans never entered my consciousness except when reading books like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” or Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” in English class. There were no outlets for entertainment like a solid community theater or a local gallery, and “going to the mall” was the default diversion for spending Friday nights. So it should come as no surprise that my parents and I never spoke about Muslims, the religious group most at odds with Hindus since Mughal rulers conquered India in the 700s until the mid-19th century. The lack of Muslims kept my parents from feeling the need to “teach” me about the Hindu-Muslim divide, an omission for which I am grateful.

I attended a large university in the most cosmopolitan city in America, but still managed to isolate myself from the school’s diverse student body by majoring in English. Sons and daughters of recent immigrants don’t generally major in subjects like English out of fear of and respect for their parents. Mine, in keeping with their gentle manner, supported my decision and kept any reservations to themselves. In my English classes I might as well have still been in Smithtown. My classmates came from familiar towns like Scarsdale and Montclair unlike the business school students who came from far-flung countries like Singapore and Malaysia. It was when I took “Introduction to Biology” as a way to fulfill my mandatory science requirement that I met my “first Muslim,” the only one before meeting the man who is now husband. Sabba was lovely and bright and, soon after meeting her, I mentally likened the scarf on her head to a scrunchie I might have worn; the scarf morphed into a fashion accessory rather than a physical signal that she was in some way different from me.

Fast forward five years. It was pre-9/11 and I was dating a man who would later become my husband, a man whose name is distinctly Arabic in a post-9/11 America but whose name, at the time, registered no differently with me than an exotic Hindu name I hadn’t heard before. In fact, when I met him I assumed he was either Hindu or Christian as I did all of the men and women I met of South Asian descent. Muslim wasn’t even on option; never having met a Muslim man, much less dated one, the possibility that he was Muslim simply never occurred to me.
When I found out his religion, I was visibly surprised, but my ignorance was in keeping with my general Smithtown-bred “clueless-ness” when it comes to differentiating people from one another. My “difference” detectors weren’t rusty, they’d never even been fired up; the hints and signals other people respond to like hearing “otherness” in a name bounced off of me like water off the proverbial duck’s back.

A few months after 9/11, I introduced him to my family. My parents, brother and Indian-American Hindu best friend behaved exactly as I expected: they were gracious, accepting and supportive. They saw that our religious differences were inconsequential to us. For both of us, religious faith was the equivalent of ritual: habits formed over many years of conditioning, customs which seemed antiquated in our modern, urban lives. There was never any desire on either our parts for the other to convert. In fact, in addition to having a civil wedding ceremony, we had a Muslim one. Afterward, my husband insisted that he wed me in a Hindu ceremony out of fairness. I responded practically by explaining why “fairness” wasn’t my priority: I would sacrifice fairness for having one less wedding ceremony to plan.

And the holidays, which ones do we choose to celebrate? Thanksgiving is our favorite holiday because it is secular and involves indulging in my Aunt Kathy’s corn casserole. Christmas is for exploring far-flung places such as Spain’s Andalucia region, the Luxor Temple in Egypt and Jordan’s Petra as we have in the past and India’s Golden Triangle as we will this Christmas. What better way to avoid the entrapment of costly gift giving, cold weather and time-consuming rituals than escaping to a warmer climate for sightseeing and sun?

Many years ago, someone asked, “How could you possibly have not known he was Muslim when he introduced himself to you?” I offered no response. I was as ignorant as mainstream, white America pre-9/11; few people knew the difference between a Hindu and a Muslim name, not excluding me. He was not my Romeo Montague, nor I his Juliet Capulet. We were not each other’s “love sprung from hate!” Neither of us had prejudice towards the other’s religion because the chances of us meeting were so remote. Additionally, names of terrorists who flew into the Twin Towers, of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, of Iraqi troops we fight alongside and the Afghan Taliban we fight against were not national news pre-9/11 America when I met my husband. So, no, I couldn’t have known his name was a Muslim one.

When we discuss starting a family together, we agree that our children’s names should incorporate both their Hindu and Muslim backgrounds. The possibilities are endless: perhaps we’ll name our first-born daughter after my favorite Jane Austen heroine followed by a Muslim middle name and my Hindu last name? Maybe we’ll name our little boy after a powerful maharaja and tag on a middle name not unlike that of my neighbors’ in Smithtown: Jimmy or Tim, Mike or Steve? And with what faith would we raise our children? Ideally not only with Hinduism and Islam but also Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism. I want my children to explore all the major world religions either via my husband and I or through their friends who I hope are as diverse as the city where my husband and I met, New York.

Someone once asked if my husband would adopt a Hindu first name for the purposes of attending family gatherings. The notion was preposterous and I made sure she understood it as such. However, it begs the question, “what’s really in a name?” I would have better understood being questioned about what type of wedding ceremony we would have or how we would raise our children. Instead, the debate centered on his name. What’s in a name? Oftentimes very little, but for me here and now, there’s a millennium worth of history.

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

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