Tag Archives: popular culture

“Blackness in India” (notions of beauty in India)

I recently met Lucia King at her film screening of “At Play” at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in West Kensington, a documentary of film director Roysten Abel’s adaptation “In Othello” of Shakespeare’s play “Othello” (talk about meta texts!). “At Play” got me thinking of the recently black-faced model Lara Stone and  how skin color continues to determine people’s perceptions of beauty, class and education in India.

Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s “Blackness in India“.

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“News India Times” December11, 2009

“Blackness in India” by Kavita Ramdya

“Blackface” as a performance tool is not solely relegated to nineteenth-century minstrel shows or early-twentieth-century films such as D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” (1915). Most recently, the use of blackface re-surfaced when French Vogue published Steven Klein’s photos of a blacked up Lara Stone. Cynical yet true, blackface has a shock value that generates free marketing and publicity unmatched by YouTube promotional videos and Google advertisements. Blackface, in addition to remaining relevant in today’s fashion circles, is also topical on stage. In Roysten Abel’s production of “In Othello” (2004), an adaptation of the Shakespearean classic performed by Indian actors and actresses and interspersed with Hindi, the actor who performs the part of Othello blackens his skin in order to suggest that his color is what results in Desdemona’s murder and Othello’s own suicide.

In “Othello”, Shakespeare’s anti-hero is a foreign man who has won the heart of fair Desdemona. Despite his military success which places him in high esteem among the men under his command and poetic language with which he woos Desdemona, the insecurities of his status of an outsider, a Moor, get the best of him. Shakespeare, rather than write a seminal play about racism had in fact written a psychological study of the effects freedom and democracy have on an individual making the transition from the pre-civilized world where social hierarchy is determined by violence and war to modernity where education and language skills define success.

Lucia King, film-maker and painter, whose documentary of the making of Abel’s “In Othello”, entitled “At Play”, documents the use of blackface by the Kerala-born director who transformed the play into one about racism against northeast Indians. While working as a set designer during the filming of “In Othello”, Lucia decided to take her role as a “fly on the wall” amidst the actors, actresses and director one step further by filming while on set.

The introduction of “At Play” is a few minutes worth of video footage of the actors and actresses in full costume and make-up quietly poised and motionless as they model for the film’s publicity shots. It is initially striking to watch Indian actors wearing long, wavy moustaches and Indian actresses sober from the weight of heavy, velvet gowns.

Abel chose to focus on the anti-hero’s color rather than the psychological tensions that climax in the brutal murder of Desdemona. However, in the case of the film “In Othello”, Indians’ widespread prejudice against dark-colored brethren is the crucifix upon which Othello hangs himself. Every Indian woman I know has been subjected to comments about the fairness or darkness of her skin by family members raised in India where skin color among Indians plays a significant role in the politics of marriage. Whereas growing up in America, I was envied by friends for my “year-long tan”, I was also conscious of NRIs assessing my skin color.

Bloomberg reporter Saikat Chatterjee’s article “Fair-Skin Fashion Boosts Sales of Whitening Creams in India” describes how major global consumer product companies such as Unilever are marketing products such as the popular Fair & Lovely Fairness Cream, providing the growing middle and upper classes with an alternative to the old-fashioned “turmeric and sandalwood paste” remedy for dark skin. Hindustan Unilever is not the only company marketing skin whiteners to Indians. Blockbuster brands such as L’Oreal SA, Beiersdorf AG and Emami Ltd. Have have found success in selling “fairness creams”. Chatterjee reports how “sales of whiteners increased 17 percent to 20.5 billion rupees ($432 million) in the nine months to September from a year earlier, according to research by Haarlem, Netherlands-based Nielsen Co.”

Browsing my parents’ copies of “India Abroad”, the back pages which contained the Personal Ads inevitably advertised single women “with fair skin” and “well-educated” men. The significance of having fair skin, like “wheat”, for a woman is equally as important as completing a graduate education is for a man. Skin-bleaching creams remain popular among Indian women in the subcontinent. Of course, the easiest way to interpret the nation’s obsession with fairness is in relation to India’s social history with regards to the caste system.

Before banishing the caste system, the Untouchables (India’s lowest class), were relegated to the jobs that brought them outdoors, thereby exposing them to the sun whereas Brahmins, the priestly class, worked within the confines of the holy temple. Fairness is more a determinant of class than it is beauty. According to T.K. Oommen, professor emeritus of sociology at New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University, “Indians traditionally associate fair skin with aristocracy and not having to work outdoors in a menial job.”

The irony is that in looking at Indian-Hindu temple art, Krishna is always depicted with blue-colored skin; in fact, “Krishna” means “the dark one”. Additionally, the Sanskrit meaning of “krish” is “to draw to oneself, to attract”. Krishna is dark skinned yet attractive, contradistinct from ideals about beauty in mainstream Indian society.

It makes sense that Abel produced a version of “Othello” where the main character’s regional origin and skin color result in his unravelling. The story of Othello’s self-hatred and violence is foreboding even seven hundred years after Shakespeare penned the original play. Let’s hope Indian consumers recognize Krishna’s beauty, transcend the antiquated caste system and refrain from purchasing skin-bleaching creams; unifying India despite its regional differences, varied dialects, disparate customs and religious sects may depend on it.

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

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“Glee for Glee” by Kavita Ramdya (TV review of Fox show “Glee”)

Glee I can’t help it: I’m a self-confessed “Glee” fanatic. It’s the best show on TV… in my humble opinion. “Glee” is ironic, smart and totally entertaining. While watching “Glee”, I’m always listening for how the dialogue is going to create an opening for a musical number. I love how the cast breaks into song and dance to express teenage angst. Who knows, maybe my appreciation for “Glee” stems from my childhood watching Bollywood movies with my parents…

Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s review of the FOX show “Glee“.

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“Glee for Glee” by Kavita Ramdya in “News India Times” Nov. 27, 2009

Imagine my surprise when I learned that “Glee”, the funniest and smartest show on television, is a Fox production. The show’s writers take repetitive high school stereotypes much abused in prime-time television and portrays these archetypes in so heavy-handed and hyperbolic a manner that the TV viewer is forced to laugh at the ridiculousness of how teenagers are portrayed in mainstream media. Irony abounds in “Glee”, differentiating it from its peers (e.g. “The Hills”) and predecessors (e.g. “The OC”, “Beverly Hills 90210”).

“Glee” contains the requisite characters necessary for a popular high school comedy including the dumb but well-mannered jock, bitchy cheerleader, goody-two-shoes, punk, flamboyant homosexual, and bossy loud mouth just to name a few. What unites these disparate characters is their membership in and commitment to their show choir, the Glee Club.  These teenagers are unique: they sing and dance like it’s nobody’s business.

Teenagers get a bad rap in mainstream media news, and Fox is no exception. On both sides of the Atlantic, adolescents are in the news for gang and drug-related crime, binge drinking, less-than-average math skills, and teenage pregnancies as a result of pre-marital sex.

“Glee”, on the other hand, celebrates the fact that teenagers “are people too”, not solely bumbling bags of hormones jostling around in human form. Instead, adolescents are what cute babies grow into and are at the awkward larval stage of the beautiful butterfly’s development: one day they will blossom into productive citizens. As revealed by President Barak Obama in his first autobiography “Dreams From my Father”, he, too, was once a teenager. He seems to have turned out okay.

The show’s writers adapt familiar high-school sitcom story lines like the dumb jock torn between dating the catty cheerleader versus the sincere nerdette and the gay teenager on the verge of coming out. However, the scenes are interspersed with short, pithy singing and dancing routines that highlight the confused, exaggerated, and totally nonsensical existence that characterizes one’s high-school years.

Whether you’re the dumb jock, catty cheerleader, sincere nerdette or flaming homosexual, the American high school experience more closely resembles fumbling and tripping through a funhouse for four years rather than smooth sailing from Freshman year homeroom to Graduation Day. The path to adulthood is not a clear one and requires navigation, presumably with the help of adults: parents and teachers. Herein lies the show’s commentary on the American family unit and the role educators play (or fail to play) for their students.

Parents are practically invisible in “Glee”. Finn, the star quarterback, briefly mentions that his mother has advised him to quit doing his homework so he can relax more (time which Finn uses to play video games). Kurt, the flamboyant soprano, comes out to his father who gets less than ten minutes of air time on one episode in the current first season. Beyond these two instances, not much more surfaces in the way of parents guiding and offering ethical, moral, educational and professional direction for their teenage sons and daughters.

Teachers and coaches, on the other hand, play a far more active role for Glee Club members. Mr. Schuester, McKinley High School’s Spanish teacher and director of Glee Club, and Ms. Sylvester, the cheerleading squad’s coach, are the two adults who play the most prominent roles in the teenagers’ lives. Considering how much time high school students spend in class and after-school activities coupled with their double-income parents’ long commutes and high-stress careers which often take them away from spending time with their family, “Glee” reasonably portrays how much more an active role teachers and coaches play in the day-to-day lives of teenagers.

Which is all the more reason why it is essential that parents, administrators and instructors alike recognise and embrace the fact that teachers and coaches inadvertently take on an unofficial responsibility of acting as mentors and role models for teenagers.

However, Mr. Schuester and Ms. Sylvester fail to live up to any standards of adult decorum. The two insult one another in front of their students, shout at each other in front of the principal, volleyball insults back and forth, and pit students against one another. Ms. Sylverster insidiously implants seeds of dissent in Glee Club members by suggesting that Mr. Schuester is racist. “Glee” not only admits but also confronts the fact that racial prejudices abound in American high schools, a phenomenon other high school shows are loath to admit. Additionally, “Glee” illuminates how adults are complicit in creating a toxic atmosphere for students who are ethnic, religious, handicapped, or gay.

“Glee” is not the first example of modern popular culture to expose the challenges in navigating one’s way through adolescence, the emotionally and psychologically damaging role adults can inadvertently play in adolescents’ lives and the unofficial responsibility educators and school administrators have in guiding students morally and ethically in addition to providing the mandatory science, math, and history lessons.

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to see the Tony-award winning Broadway and West End rock musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s late nineteenth-century play “Spring Awakening”. While a student at New York University, I read the original play in my German Literature class (in its English translation!) and was blown away by the honest and critical approach Wedekind takes in his morality play about school kids whose well being are only second thoughts for parents and teachers in their attempt to preserve customs, traditions and, selfishly, their own reputations.

Who knew Fox would manifest itself as the contemporary Wedekind, critiquing the widespread mis-education of high school students as a result of President George W. Bush’s support of abstinence programs? The prominent story line in “Glee” is how the President of McKinley High School’s celibacy club and head cheerleader Quinn, in a drunken stupor, has sex with her quarterback boyfriend’s best friend, resulting in an unwanted pregnancy. Quinn desperately lies to Finn, her cuckold of a boyfriend, and tells him that their make-out session in a hot tub is what baked the bread in her oven. In an attempt to highlight Finn’s gullibility as well as widespread ignorance due to a lack of sex education as a result of eight years of emphasis on abstinence as a viable solution against the spread of STDs, AIDS and unwanted pregnancy, Finn is duped by his girlfriend and accepts her explanation when she tells him that the warm water in the hot tub somehow facilitated his semen entering and impregnating her.

Strong writing, social critique and sexual politics aside, “Glee” is also an exceptional show purely for its entertainment value. The dialogue is hilarious, characters are caricatures, and the intertwining plots momentous. However, let’s not forget the final ingredient which differentiates the show from its equally-exceptional peers such as AMC’s “Mad Men” and ABC’s “Cougar Town”. The TV viewer waits with anticipation for when the Glee Club, without any rhyme or reason, breaks into song and dance sequences much like the stars in a Bollywood movie. And, as in Bollywood films where the leading man and lady are suddenly transported to the green mountains of Switzerland, characters in “Glee” may suddenly find themselves transported from their lockers to the football field. The talent put into “Glee” is not limited to its writers and actress Jane Lych’s comedic relief but also includes the singing and dancing talents of the innocently corrupt members of McKinley High School’s Glee Club.

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

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“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”.

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“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” 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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“An Indian in Paris” by Kavita Ramdya (Sakti Burman at Aicon Gallery London)

Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s profile of artist Sakti Burman and a review of his show at the Aicon Gallery London.

A few weeks ago I discovered Aicon Gallery, a space completely devoted to promoting Modernist and contemporary Indian art. I must confess that the exhibits at Aicon Gallery are a welcome change from the typical South-Asian shows in London. In mainstream museums, art of the Indian subcontinent is typically focused on Mughal/North Indian royal paintings, so much so that one wonders if any art was produced by Indian nationals after the British Empire extended its reach into India. Sakti Burman surprised me with his friendly approach and frankness in admitting that he is inspired by French Impressionist art. Thank goodness the Aicon Gallery exists to show that there is a community of artists in India producting contemporary and modernist art.

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News India Times October 2, 2009

“An Indian in Paris” by Kavita Ramdya

If you’re a second-generation Indian American like me, you probably grew up hearing “Well, you know the concept of zero originated in India!” or “The Crown Jewels are all originally from India!” Only good things came out of India – family values, royal jewels, mathematical and scientific concepts, art. So you can imagine my shock meeting Modernist Indian artist Sakti Burman who openly and enthusiastically admitted that he and his contemporaries were inspired by “tremendous” French Impressionists such as Renoir and Monet. Born and raised in India, he “dreamed of moving to Paris.” More than 50 years after moving to Paris as a graduate art student, he continues to live and work in the City of Lights.

I met Burman at the Aicon Gallery London, the best place in Europe to view and learn about contemporary Indian art. The London gallery opened in 2006 to serve as a “launch pad for Indian art in the capital” and showcase 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, right off of Regent’s Street, Aicon Gallery London is a cultural refuge amongst high-end stores such as Burberry and Ralph Lauren 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… the hip and friendly South Asians I’ve met who comprise the South-Asian art community.

I attended the gallery’s private viewing of “Archetype: Two Solo Exhibitions by Ashish Avikunthak and Sakti Burman”. Avikunthak, whose sole piece on display is an 18-minute film about three girlfriends in India, is a “contemporary” artist whereas Burman, who had a dozen paintings on display, is considered a “modernist.”

Niru Ratnam, the gallery’s hip (as denoted by his beatnik glasses) and friendly director who also works as a curator of Indian art, explained to me how Burman’s works include “Indian iconography in the style of Italian mural art.” Jagroop Mehta, an equally hip (as denoted by her unapologetically orange dress) and friendly sales associate, distinguished between the two artists’ works: Whereas Avikunthak’s film symbolizes “contemporary” art, it has been inspired and informed by “modernist” works created by the likes of Burman. The show is meant to “marry modern and contemporary” art, Mehta continued, and inform people about the “history of Indian art in the West.”

Burman stands out in a crowd. He is a diminutive man with little hair, but he has an aura of energy that emanates in a crowded room. I was struck with how he always appears to be moving, even while standing in a group and talking about his work. I found him refreshingly earnest, and was completely taken aback by his friendliness and humility.

Friendly demeanor aside, what I loved about Burman’s art was not only the Western aesthetic (a pastel color palette and the juxtaposition of Hindu gods with ordinary people) but also his disarming charm when he spoke about how his work is informed by iconic European artists, painters whose countries were only tribal groups during the days when India was a set of scattered kingdoms ruled by maharajas. Talking to Burman reminded me that, as in literature, no art is created in a vacuum.

What captured my initial attention was Burman’s use of mythological figures in his paintings: Hindu religious characters are central in his works. Hanuman, Ganesha and Shiva function as the sun around which secondary characters and objects revolve on the fringes of the canvas. However, their dream-like qualities instigate questions about Freudian and Jungian concerns rather than spiritual ones.

The use of a pastel color palette and creating highly-textured canvas recall a European Modernist aesthetic and Italian fresco style. When I asked Burman about it, he freely admitted that while French Impressionism lured him to Paris, it is “Marc Chagall’s works in conjunction with the Ajanta murals” which inspire his paintings.

After completing his art education in Paris, Burman tried his hand at having an art career in India. However, when he realized he couldn’t sell his work, he returned to Paris where, he tells me, “I thought I might succeed… It is a not an easy job”. Of course, Burman is not the first artist to flee to Paris to establish himself as an artist. Following World War I, African-American musicians settled in the capital where their music and identity were embraced rather than rejected.

In writing about contemporary Indian-ethnic culture, I have picked up on a trend. I recently wrote about Nina Paley’s “Sita Sings the Blues”, a film that re-imagines the myth of Sita and Rama through Sita’s perspective.

Likewise, in Burman’s art, he presents Hindu mythological figures with a European Modernist sensibility, another twist on East-meets-West. A successful Indian artist in Paris, Burman’s work is an experiment in incubating ideas about Hindu mythology in a tandoori oven filled with European scents and spices. I wonder what other examples of fusion art and culture will come my way in exploring popular South Asian culture in London.

Aicon Gallery, New York

Aicon Gallery, formerly known as Gallery ArtsIndia, originates 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 such as Tate Britain, the San Francisco Asian Art Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum. Earlier in the summer, Aicon Gallery New York exhibited “Experiments with Truth,” a collection of works by Debanjan Roy. This show included fiberglass sculptures of Gandhi engaged in modern activities such as listening to an iPod and working at a call center. This exhibition was meant to spur conversations about the growing middle class in India and the apathy that has resulted due to their increased material wealth. Aicon Gallery New York has also exhibited the works of Pakistani artists, including Hasnat Mahmood’s “I Love Miniature” collection that comprises of miniaturist copies of Pakistan’s greatest paintings. The accompanying captions are engraved in Braille to further drive home the idea that the viewer cannot fully comprehend these miniature works of art unaided. On both sides of the Atlantic, Aicon Gallery is noted for its mission of promoting contemporary Indian art.

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 Nina Paley’s “Sita Sings the Blues” by Kavita Ramdya

Sita

Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s review of Nina Paley’s animated film “Sita Sings the Blues”.

A few days ago I interviewed cartoonist Nina Paley for a review I wrote of her animated film “Sita Sings the Blues”. The movie is fantastic – it’s funny and smart. “Sita Sings the Blues” is a modern take on the ancient Hindu text “The Ramayana”; the movie picks up when Rama is banished to the forest for fourteen years with Sita accompanying him. However, the story is told from Sita’s point of view; she emerges as an intelligent yet gullible ingénue head-over-heals in love with an effeminate Rama who is overly concerned with what other people think of him. He’s clearly not good enough for her.

I was surprised by how much interest my review in “News India Times” generated; readers e-mailed to tell me that they were eager to watch the movie which is available for free on YouTube. Even readers of my parents’ generation, a generation that didn’t grow up with home computers and are considerably less computer literate for it, were inspired to take advantage of the free, on-line creative content.

Apart from the colourful animation, diverse soundtrack and the East-meets-West look and feel, what does the success of Nina Paley’s film indicate? I propose that there is clearly a market for modern, updated versions of classical and religious stories, myths and beliefs we’ve all grown up whatever our faith. People have an innate desire to listen to stories which explain their origin and their past. In a world where media has exploded to include graphic novels, the internet, HD-screen TVs and mobile phones, we’re seeking stories from non-traditional outlets that also recognize that the world is a much more complicated place now than it was when many of these myths, stories and beliefs were formulated.

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“News India Times”  September 11, 2009

“Rama, Sita and the agony of separation: An animated film presents the epic story of the Ramayana in a format accessible to a generation that has grown up in the Digital Age” by Kavita Ramdya

I recently discovered Nina Paley’s animated film “Sita Sings the Blues” and am compelled to share it with anyone and everyone interested in what happens when East meets West, ancient mythology intersects with popular culture, and artists create “interdisciplinary art.”

Paley’s 72-minute movie tells the story of Sita and Rama from Valmiki’s Ramayana in a way that can only be described as accessible, fun and modern. Her project – to provide an animated reinterpretation of Hindu mythology from a modern and a female point of view – is a risky one but has proved fortuitous for her career: the film has received global media recognition and an enthusiastic response on You Tube, where you can watch the film for free.

Like many great works of art, albeit typically poetry and fiction, Paley’s inspiration for creating the film stemmed from challenges in her love life. After she moved to Trivandrum, India, for her hus-band’s career, he dumped her, leaving her alone to navigate India. However, the hardship she endured as a single, heartbroken woman in India gave her the insight to understand the nature of Sita’s devotion for Rama.

Rather than serve as a “sexist parable,” she writes in her blog, the Ramayana describes “the essence of painful relationships” and provides a “blueprint of human suffering.” Paley likens her husband and his cowardly abandonment to Rama and her own blind love as analogous to Sita’s.

The film, although an animated feature, is by no means a children’s movie. Instead, Paley has interwoven four disparate plots into her film. The viewer is first introduced to Paley’s autobiographical rendering of her failed marriage. The second is the comical back-and-forth between three shadow puppets who debate the mythology’s details and characters’ motivations in the Ramayana. Third, the viewer benefits from a retelling of Sita and Rama’s love story. In this story line, Sita is portrayed as a sickening goody-two-shoes, Rama as a spoiled and effeminate prince and Ravana as the prototypical Bollywood villain.

Finally, Sita sings the blues. Paley appropriates the music of Annette Hanshaw, a jazz singer from the 1920s and ‘30s, for Sita to croon in episodic bursts of song throughout the film.

In order to distinctly divide the four story lines, Paley not only provides a different sound track for each story but also a different “look and feel” in order to visually distinguish the plots from one another. The autobiographical scenes of her disintegrating marriage take place with the background of lonely yet cramped cities. The three hand puppets discuss the facts of the Ramayana while textbook-like images pop up to accompany the debating. The story of Sita’s love for Rama is told from her feminine point of view; the scenes are drawn in the style of traditional Mughal art. Finally, Sita’s musical numbers where she fawns over Rama and sings the blues have a comical and cinematically dramatic feel appropriate for the sound of early 20th-century blues music and film.

“Sita Sings the Blues” is by no means the first attempt at dramatizing the ancient love story of Rama and Sita in a modern way. Like many of my peers, I grew up listening to my mother reading Amar Chitra Katha comic books that depict the religious Hindu myths for Indian-American children to learn the ancient stories. It was through these comic books that we learned who the various gods and goddesses were, their relationships with one another and their religious significance.

And who can forget the horn that blows in the beginning of every one of Ramanand Sagar’s television episodes based on the Ramayana? The series, although revolutionary in the way it depicted a significant Hindu text and made it accessible via free mass media so that Indians from all classes, occupations and regions across the subcontinent could enjoy the shared religious story, was somewhat painful to watch as a young child. Even to a young child, Sagar’s special effects were clumsy and the acting overly dramatic compared to Nickelodeon and MTV programming.

In 2003, my husband and I were lucky to see a dance performance of the Ramayana performed by the Lotus Fine Arts Productions. The choreography was stunningly sensual, the costumes vibrant and the tabla sound hip. Significantly, the production was among my first experiences watching dance accompanied with a story line.

Alas, Lotus Fine Arts Production no longer exists, but today’s youth can benefit from Paley’s animated depiction of the Ramayana for the same effect: conveying ancient Hindu mythology with innovative technology and a modern sensibility. You, too, will find “Sita Sings the Blues” worth crooning about.

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

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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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