Tag Archives: national identity

“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.

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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” http://www.bollywood-weddings.com/Home.html

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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”.

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“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” http://www.bollywood-weddings.com/Home.html

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Welcome to Bollywood Weddings

“Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America” answers the age-old question “Why do we marry the people we choose to marry?” What attracts people to one another based on their ethnicity, religion, linguistic, cultural, vocational, educational, and financial qualities? My book is a compilation of true stories about why and how people marry; ultimately, I propose that who we choose to marry and why is meaningful in how we express our national identity.

In doing research for my book, I observed that mainstream popular culture – in this case, Bollywood – plays a significant role in how we approach falling in love and getting married. Of course, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. MTV, the Internet, our iPhones, e-mail, social-networking sites, highway billboards, magazines and newspapers are omnipresent… and influential. Mass media targets us as consumers, promoting the latest fad, technology, product, etc. in a way that is both flagrantly conspicuous yet stealthfully pervasive.

Just like wearing your favourite clothing brand, adding specific groups to your Facebook page, getting body piercings and tattoos, and choosing your hair style are forms of self-expression, I suggest that why and how we fall in love and marry are also ways of navigating and establishing one’s identity. Gertrude Stein chose painting, Amadeus Mozart music, Virginia Woolf writing, and Steve Meisel photography. Although art is one way to express oneself, so is who and how you love and marry.

My blog is an informal exploration of questions around love, marriage, religion, ethnicity, Hinduism, the Indian-American community, South-Asian Diaspora, and Indian-American culture. Here you can read my thoughts on mainstream popular culture (eg. Anna Wintour’s “Fashion Night Out”), current events (eg. Shah Rukh Khan’s detainment at Newark Airport), profiles of artists and writers (eg. Sakti Burman and Ha Jin), and art reviews (eg. “Anish Kapoor” at the Royal Academy of Art).

Welcome to “Bollywood Weddings”!

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