Monthly Archives: March 2010

“Bharti’s Bindis”

Click here to read “Bharti’s Bindis“, a review of Bharti Kher’s first show at Hauser & Wirth, London. (“News India Times”, 2 April 2010).


“Bharti’s Bindis” by Kavita Ramdya (“News India Times”, 2 April 2010)

Bharti Kher is both social and suspicious. At a recent private viewing of her bindi paintings, I observed the gallery staff buzzing around her like bees to newly-sprung spring petals and a stream of friends and associates congratulating her on her show. It took a dozen walks around the room before I grabbed the perfect opportunity to introduce myself, knowing full well that any moment now another of the gallery’s soldiers clad in all black, a poor and paradoxical attempt at blending into the egg shell-painted walls, would tempt her into conversation with a beer or introduce her to another figure in the art world.

In person, Bharti looks nothing like her press photos: she is, instead, a far better looking version of the weary and smile-less artist in her publicity materials. However, she reacted to my friendly American introduction with a level of tiredness and suspicion that reminded me that not all artists enjoy the chance to talk about their work off the cuff nor are they all rabid self promoters. Quickly reading the situation before me, I told her the show was beautiful (an understatement) and meandered off for a lucky thirteenth whirl around what I call “the mirrors room”, a collection that Kher has decorated with bindis, forehead decorations popularly worn by women in countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

For months I’ve been looking for an opportunity to write about Kher’s work so it was with great joy that I heard that she had travelled from New Delhi to share her work internationally. As a writer covering the photography and fine arts coming out of India, Kher’s work is exciting for its inclusiveness of a common, everyday object in South Asia, bindis, as the focus around which Kher creates mixed-media sculptures. Her three-dimensional works, what I call bindi paintings, speak to ideas around femininity and interiority in South Asian women’s lives. Who wouldn’t be interested?

The bindi, I recently learned, still holds the same fascination among non-South Asians as it did when people of the subcontinent first started immigrating to the West. During a recent trip to New York, after showing a slide show presentation of second-generation Indian-American women in various styles of bridal garb to promote my book “Bollywood Weddings”, a hand shot up from the audience. A woman asked about the bindi and tilaka, inquiring about their respective significance and how they might be connected with a woman’s marital status. The rest of the audience listened with rapt attention as I described tilakas as a type of make-up for women, whatever her marital status. Whereas my answer didn’t satisfy the audience’s thirst for a revelatory and culturally significant answer, Kher’s works provide a more meaningful and culturally-insightful one.

On a very basic level, Kher’s works are aesthetically pleasing and eye catching, a trait that already differentiates her work from that of contemporary modern artists such as Jeff Koons and Matthew Barney. However, Kher is no different from Gupta, Kapoor, or Burman: artists from the subcontinent continue to prioritize both aesthetics and concept. In an interview with Sophie Leris, Kher explained why she left England and permanently moved to India: “Conceptual art is part of our culture, there’s installation everywhere… People understand the abstract—they believe in the ideas of an object.”

Two pieces in Kher’s show, in particular, are as stunning as they are intellectually exciting. “Confess” is a “sizeable Christian confessional box bedizened with bindis” whose interior is decorated floor to ceiling and wall-to-wall with a colourful array of differently-sized bindis. However, their placement is scrupulous and methodical: using bindis, Kher paints the confessional box’s interior with the precision of a royal calligrapher. Each bindi is part of a pattern or over-arching design made up of thousands of discreet bindis. The effect is one that immediately satiates the viewer’s primordial thirst for beauty and while paradoxically awakening the desire for more. Maria De Lamerens, who represents Kher at the gallery, described the bindis as “a diaphanous skin”, forming a “colourful exterior for interior space”. “Confess”, as a reviewer describes it, reflects Kher’s “interest in the gap between inner/outer lives”, the confessions box signifying the inner and the bindi the outer.

What I call “the mirror room”, a collection of approximately a dozen six by three-foot, wooden-framed mirrors decorated with bindis, interrogates the industrialization and proliferation of everyday objects in relation to the individual consumer’s participation in mass consumption. Whereas a woman traditionally wears one bindi for as long as it remains sticky, taking it off at night and placing it on the mirror before waking in the morning and removing the bindi from the mirror to wear again, Kher’s mirrors are scarred with cracks and overwhelmed by bindis, some so large that their sheer size and number threaten to block the viewer from seeing his or her reflection. The mirror collection, what the artist named “Indra’s Net Mirrors”, suggest that South-Asian women adorn bindis and are likewise adorned by them. Kher asks, “Might bindis wear women as women wear bindis?”

In addition to Kher’s mirrors creating an aura of magical design in their whimsical yet precise, colourful yet serious, feminine yet assertive qualities, their texture begs for touching. I observed one brave mother spend much of her time swatting her infant daughter’s hands as they stubbornly reached out to touch the mirrors. The bindis’ patterns, some like creeping sperm and others like acquatic bubbles, cartoonish yet critical at the same time, form designs that also double as “markers of time”: the sheer number of bindis remind the viewer that bindis are worn and collected over a lifetime.

Ultimately, Kher’s bindi mixed-media works are both political and apolitical at the same time. Her use of the bindi as her primary medium interrogates its simplicity and captures its cultural significance in the South Asia Diaspora. Bindis are a modern piece of decorative jewelry and make-up, has its origin in revealing a woman’s marital status and symbolic of an “arcane symbol of fertility”. Despite their material significance in the lives of millions of South-Asian women, Kher’s art refuses to be politicized, instead focusing on concerns around identity, cultural hybridity and shifting social mores.

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

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BBC Asian Network – marriage debate with Satnam Rana

Last Friday afternoon I guest spoke on the BBC Network Asian Network. Satnam Rana, the radio talk show host, centered the debate around Sunaina Roshan, Bollywood actor Hrithik’s sister, who recently eloped. Satnam asked listeners to dial in and share their personal stories and express opinions answering the question, “Could you get married without the support of your family?” Click here to listen to excerpts (approximately four minutes).

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Coverage in “NRI Today” and “South Asian Bride Magazine”

Click here to read about “Bollywood Weddings” in “NRI Today” and “South Asian Bride Magazine“.

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“Wise Words Bookfest” at the Women’s Library

March is Women’s History Month. This afternoon I participated in the Women’s Library’s first ever “Wise Words Bookfest”, a series of panels produced by Alternative Arts to celebrate “women writers, artists and performers”. The first panel discussed “Dowry”, a series of essays written by South Asian women. Needless to say, the discussion couldn’t be more different from my presentation about “Bollywood Weddings”. Although my audience was a diverse one, it was a little disconcerting that among the attendees I counted two men total – I should think that men would find women’s writing a great source for insight about the opposite sex…

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“Bollywood Influences Hindu Weddings in America” in “India New England”

Click here to read Jen Richman’s article “Bollywood Influences Hindu Weddings in America” in “India New England“.

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School of Oriental and African Studies

This afternoon I gave a talk at SOAS, the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies: it was my first speaking event in London. The crowd was made up of undergraduate students and a smattering of mature students, people at the end of their careers looking to return to school. Many of the attendees weren’t South Asian, but they had a deep interest in Indian culture and film.

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“Narratives about How We Get Hitched” in Khabar Magazine

Click here to read Devika Rao’s “Narratives about How We Get Hitched“, Khabar Magazine’s review of “Bollywood Weddings”(March 2010).

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“Battling Bribery” by Kavita Ramdya

Click here to read “Battling Bribery” by Kavita Ramdya in the 12 March, 2010 issue of “News India Times”.


“Battling Bribery” by Kavita Ramdya (12 March, 2010 issue of “News India Times”)

On a recent trip to India, my husband and I met a man who is currently building the “Versailles of Udaipur”, a name I playfully bequeathed the hotel after viewing photographs of the construction. Architecturally speaking, the design is an admixture of styles: Greco-Roman pillars, Arabic geometric patterns, Byzantine mosaics, and Baroque murals are all integrated to create a feeling of luxury and courtliness for the crème de la crème of Indian and international society. In our discussions with the entrepreneur about the construction effort, which will take in total five years, the headache which plagued him was not the sourcing of raw materials, managing multiple teams, keeping to the timeline and budget, or dealing with creditors and bankers. No, his complaint was the same one echoed by village peddlers selling shoes, widowed women running fruit stands and store owners marketing the latest gadget: corruption.

So it was no surprise when “The Economist” magazine’s “Fighting corruption in India: A zero contribution” (January 28th, 2010) quickly emerged as a popular link in social-networking and news sites. The reporter describes how a physics professor from the University of Maryland distributed self-manufactured zero-rupee notes to government officials while visiting India, his home country, as a way of managing the “endless extortion demands”. The professor’s clever solution caught the attention of Vijay Anand, the president of NGO 5th Pillar, who then printed “25,000 zero-rupee notes”. Since 2007, the charity has distributed one million notes in an effort to “mobilize opposition to corruption”.

In the article, Mr. Anand suggests that the popularity of the zero-rupee notes is due to the fact that “ordinary people are more willing to protest, since the notes have an organization behind them and they do not feel on their own.” For me, the beauty of the zero-rupee note is its simple cleverness and its adherence to Gandhi’s notion of “non-violent protest”. What better way to point out a corrupt government official’s abuse of power than by peacefully meeting his demands with valueless currency?

During this same trip to India, I read Aravind Adiga’s “The White Tiger”, the much-lauded novel which explores modern-day corruption in Delhi through the eyes of Munna, a poor youth who is taken advantage of by his employer and employer’s family. Munna’s respect, devotion and commitment to Mr. Ashok, his employer, is rewarded with ridicule, low wages and, finally, abandonment. Despite his years of service, Munna’s livelihood is put at risk when his boss’s ex-girlfriend, Mrs. Uma, suggests that Mr. Ashok hire a new driver, one that is not “from the Darkness,” a term used to describe the country’s poorest who live in the most remote corners of India.

Ironically, while Munna spends the entire length of his service manipulated by his wealthy employer, Mr. Ashok and his family are only but one level up in the food chain of corruption that characterizes contemporary Indian politics. He, too, is a victim of The Great Socialist Party, a newly-formed political party that has dumbfounded the wealthy and elite in Delhi by emerging as a winner in recent elections. The people of “the Darkness” were successfully mobilized into voting for this new party, following promises of clean water, as plentiful from the tap as it is in the rivers. Yet the question remains whether The Great Socialist Party won the election honorably or will fulfil their promises to their constituents.

The reader is simultaneously faced with two sets of victims: Munna whose livelihood is now jeopardized by an ex-girlfriend’s flippant suggestion that Mr. Ashok employ a local chauffer and Mr. Ashok whose heart is in the right place but whose wavering commitment to engage in business transactions in a more transparent manner and spineless inability to stand up against his family’s corruption ultimately result in murder. In the race for survival, Munna’s origin from “the Darkness” inspires his will to survive and thrive whereas Mr. Ashok’s coddled upbringing leave him vulnerable to his driver’s scheming. The novel ultimately concludes with a “Horatio Alger” ending which partly explains its popularity among the American reading audience: Munna’s life is a struggle, but one in which his hard work, commitment to self education and sense of entrepreneurship ultimately allow him to emerge ahead of his wealthy employer… but not without bloodshed.

Whereas Anand’s solution for combating corruption in India is a fake currency that neither physically harms the payer nor the receiver, Adiga’s tale is one of violent rebellion. Yet there emerges a third way of combating corruption as proposed by Shaffi Mather, an entrepeneur not unlike Anand and Munna. In the 2009 “Technology Design Entertainment” conference in Mysore, Mather discusses how “in the modern day world where time is premium… the helpless common man simply gives in and pays the bribe just to get on with life” rather than report the bribe to the police who, too, are “steeped in corruption”. Rather than “fight” corruption by paying officials with fake currency or bloody rebellion, Mather proposes setting up a for-profit, fee-based service which addresses and fights “individual instances of bribe” using legitimate tools such as video and audio devices.

India’s place among the four BRIC (Brazil Russia India China) countries is under a spotlight, perhaps due to its position as the largest democracy in the world and its commitment to values and virtues touted and subscribed by venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and global banks: research, innovation, growth and the market economy. It is also a country where the widespread use of English, from the poor teenage boy who polishes tourists’ shoes to the cook at an upscale Jaipur restaurant, facilitates cross-cultural trade. Finally, the country’s soft power, its ability to export Indian culture by way of yoga, Bollywood, fashion and art, have familiarized the country’s otherwise exotic eastern origin to potential investors. India’s politicians and government officials must recognize combating corruption is a significant step towards ensuring the country’s place among the BRIC countries for years to come.

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

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“Match Maker: Speed Dating” at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop

Last night comedian Jen Kwok and I played the role of Cupid at the AAWW’s “Match Maker: Speed Dating” fundraiser event. It was a lot of fun pairing Asian-American book lovers in search of love…

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“Mixed Masala” Brooklyn South Asian Mother’s Club

Yesterday afternoon I traveled to Park Slope, Brooklyn, where I gave a talk about mixed marriages in the Indian community at “Mixed Masala”, a South-Asian Mother’s Club. Much of the conversation returned to the universal concern of how to ensure that third-generation Indian-American children learn about and feel connected to Indian culture.

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