Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Contribute to digital network of South Asian visual culture

Tasveer Ghar has put out a call for proposals that sounds interesting:

"We are pleased to invite proposals for short-term fellowships involving the collection and documentation of unique forms of popular visual arts of India with a focus on "Gender, Nation and Spaces for the Everyday", resulting in the digitization of the collected specimens and their virtual exhibition on the website of Tasveer Ghar at the end of the fellowship.


Indian streets and public spaces are full of a variety of popular art forms such as posters, prints, calendars, advertisements, hoardings, religious iconography, photo portraits, cinema images and so on, that reflect the changing aesthetics of the urban popular culture. Most of these art forms are rather transitory – you see them one day, and they disappear or transform the next day depending upon the changes in the lifestyles of the people, as well as the available techniques of image-making and duplication. There is an urgent need to collect/document these and study the context in which they are produced and used."

This is utterly fabulous. I have half a mind to apply with my documentation of hand-painted signs, but it is neither exhaustive nor specifically focuses on gender. Still, I'd encourage anyone interested in gender, media, and India to get involved in this project, which seems uber-exciting. Surprise me!

(Disclaimer: I'm not in any way involved in this collective, but I am on a mailing list that received their appeal.)

Making the Metro

Some enterprising chap created a list of the top 11 (I like, I like -- now THAT'S thinking out of the box) transit systems around the world. A good list, but I'd like to think that in a few years, it might benefit from the inclusion of Delhi's Metro train.

Granted, the network is still in its infancy, and parts of it are still being built. But it has the potential to revolutionize the city -- it's fast, cheap, and shockingly clean (particularly in comparison with the DTC busses streaked with paan spittle).

However, it's not without controversy, and the final extension from Delhi to Gurgaon is particularly fraught with problems. It would take a long time to sort through all of them, but they touch on themes from the environment (construction could cut through a large portion of Delhi's protected forest area) to historical preservation (a monument from the 18th century, Dhauli Pyau, was destroyed earlier this month to make way for the transit line) and half-assed nincompoopery (a mall that was destroyed last year to make way for the Metro was not completely razed and now represents a public health threat).

I look at the whole issue as an outsider: Gurgaon has mushroomed as an O&O hub, and though many companies have moved their offices to what was essentially a village 25 years ago, the road connecting the capital and its little sister is pretty insufficient. Official numbers widely vary, as they are apt to, but according to a report cited here, about 800,000 people travel between the two cities everyday -- and that's on one main road, NH-8, which has two to six lanes (depending upon how you count them). To contextualize, I live in south Delhi and commute to Gurgaon every day; in the mornings (before rush hour) it takes about 45 minutes, and in the evenings, 60 to 90 minutes. If it rains, or if there are multiple weddings being held at the farmhouses that dot the connecting road, double those figures.

It seems, from my dispassionate, liberal, Western (bitchy? cold?) perspective, that improving transportation should trump political pandering -- it'll encourage investments and make life easier for people looking to travel the 20-odd miles between the two locales. But will this destroy Delhi's heritage, or should "progress" come at any cost?

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Life or death choices: Thursday

A diverse set of media performances on self-propelled carts at the Mediawala Festival ...


... 100 snake charmers in Delhi's Central Park?

I don't know how I will ever choose.

Red, red (err...poultry colored?) wine

I've always wanted to be an oenophile, but this might be going too far: chicken wine from Darjeeling.

HT reports: "The non-veg wine that comes for Rs 250 [about $5] a bottle sure gives a kick but people of this hamlet also swear by its medicinal values -- they believe it cures cough and cold."

Well, if I wasn't a veggie, I'd say, sign me up! No more flu vaccine for me!

Do they stomp on the breast, roast it whole and puree it? The article continues, "Thapa said they take a dressed chicken, remove the legs and head, make a slit in the middle and empty out the liver, intestine and the stomach. Ghee and garam masala are stuffed into it before wrapping it in a fine cloth. It is then brewed in a special container called Fonshi, which is otherwise used to brew Rakshi, the local beverage. Half the container is filled with Janr (millet bear) and tightly closed. The contraption is then heated by placing it on a wooden fire. 'The Janr evaporates and condenses once it hits the upper part of the Fonshi. The condensed liqued collects inside another vessel called Odhan. This distilled fermented liquid soaks in the chicken and more Janr is adden. The chicken wine or Kukhra-ko-Rakshi is ready."

I still can't quite picture it, but I do think they should offer innovative packaging -- perhaps a bottle featuring a beak?

(Image from here.)

Sunday, February 25, 2007

"Tits and bits" from the weekend office retreat

(By the way: Seriously, it's more common to say "tits and bits" than "tidbits" here. Is that an Indlish thing, or are Americans isolated in their sophomoric mockery of any phrase including a synonym for "breast"?)

I was feeling quite trepidatious about the office retreat this weekend. I already spend about 50 hours a week with these people, and now you're asking me to take 12 hours on a Saturday to sit around at a country club, in a city of malls, with access to no alcohol save for a meager supply of Kingfisher beers, being compelled by a Hateful Administrator to participate in potato sack races for no remuneration other than a half-melted bar of Cadbury's? You have to be kidding.

But because I am now an Office Elder, and because it's been said that I'm "willfully isolated," I decided that the best revenge is living well. I belted my morning coffee with a cupful of Kahlua, grabbed a pair of fabulous sunglasses, and slapped a smile on my face.

Shockingly? Not that horrible. By that I mean horrible, but hilarious, kitschy, and mortifyingly ironic in retrospect. And I'll never forget when the 9-year-old son of one of the most proper aunties in the office began singing "Smack That" (bend over and let me smack that, all on the floor, smack that, give me some more, smack that, 'til you get sore...oOoOOOOoooo), complete with lewd hand gestures and pelvis grinding.

Open, mix, and eat!

I saw this new product -- Haldiram's Bhel Puri, in an"one-the-move pack" -- and, despite skepticism, decided to take it for a trial run.

I suppose it tastes OK, but that's not the point. Bhel puri is a pretty quintessential street snackie, and this sanitized, hygenic, festooned-with-yellow-flowers form simply does nothing for me -- or for thousands (millions, billions?) of others weaned on the gritty mix of puffed rice, peanuts, imli chutney, chopped onions, tomatoes, spices of various persuasions, and, of course, the all-important green chillis.

The ingredients the bhel puri-wallah doesn't list, and which Haldiram's CERTAINLY would not look too kindly upon, are heaping helpings of dust, oil that's been seasoned, sizzled, and reused as various component parts are fried in preparation for the mix, dirt, and other detritus. It's the unwritten list that makes other expats shiver in anticipation of contracting cholera, but even those that have had a bout or two of Delhi belly know that sometimes, the greasiest, grottiest street food is worth a day in bed. When I was in Kila Raipur, for instance, after a few hours of shooting, I suggested we get a drink; S pointed at a man making fresh OJ, and I immediately knew that I would be sick for the rest of the day (which may have been intuition, or it might have been the fact that the man grinding kinoos had a wracking cough). I drank a glass, its rim thoughtfully wiped clean after the man before me finished his quaff, sat down for a few minutes, and spent the rest of the day vomiting. Que sera sera.

So thanks, Haldirams, for giving us this option, but I prefer my street food from, well, the street.

Found: in Mumbai's Chor Bazaar

These images are all from books found in Mumbai's Chor Bazaar, purchased for Rs 200 (for the lot). The etching is a reproduction of a Piranesi -- whoever that is -- and there are four hand-tinted postcards from Brussels by an anonymous artist. My favorite, hands down, however, is the illustration of Marguerite Dufay, from a compendium of French posters. The face! The breath of roses at her nipped waist! The errant trombone! The possibility that Marguerite was originally a Marcus!

More of the same at my Flickr pool for art; mind you, skip over those crappy collage images, which I do for fun on weekends.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Back in black

Dyed my hair black again, which isn't so much a story, but because I fully support desi products, I think I should note that I did it with Godrej's kali mehendi.

1) LOVE the packaging. Classic.
2) I'm sure there're loads of chemies in it, but it gives the illusion of being a natural product. My hair doesn't feel fried and dyed like it usually does.
3) Excellent, uniform, jet-black color.

Three thumbs up.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Signs of the times

I absolutely adore the handpainted signs that dot both urban and rural India; there's something so refreshing about the small, personal flourishes that make the advertisements somehow less intrusive, yet still inviting.

I've started a Flickr pool with pictures of some of the signs I've seen (though not all; sometimes I forget to add images to my set), but the examples I found in Mumbai were so excellent I thought it would be worthwhile to post them here.

It's not many a city that features public art of an elephant god, a woman bedecked in her finest sari, a bouquet of tulips, and a pair of kissing pigs.

Monday, February 19, 2007

An ode to Mumbai's local trains

I have to say, the penis seems unnaturally hirsute.

Bombay darshan!

Welcome to Mumbai! Care for a stroll along the dock?

Good to get away from Dilli for a long weekend; we stayed in Juhu, took the local trains tons, meandered along Colaba Causeway, explored Kala Ghoda, ate Iranian food, had a pitcher of beer for lunch, went to Elephanta Caves, marvelled at the St. Thomas Cathedral, visited the Tea Centre, had cocktails at the Saltwater Grill, marched down Marine Drive, took lots of pictures, ate copious amounts of chaat at Chowpatty, took in some cricket on Juhu Beach, drank coffee at the Prithvi Theatre, and ran into a miraculous number of people we (O.K., S) knew.

I could make some bland assertions comparing the two cities, but it would be a bit trite as I spent nary 72 hours in Mumbai. Your thoughts?

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Another day, another tangle with bureaucracy

Today, some cause for celebration: My employment visa has been extended. The babus have truly smiled upon me on this most glorious of Tuesdays!

My experience at the FRRO was BY FAR the least unpleasant it has ever been; though it did last about three-and-a-half hours, I somehow managed to wrangle a fixer from my company, who made the process much less bewildering than before. She was not just any fixer, but a fixer who specializes in relocation, a fixer who routinely spends time at the FRRO and knows how to handle every qualm brought up by the clerks, a fixer who speaks English and is utterly unflappable and balks when the bureaucrats make a lovely French (?) woman in delightful striped pants cry. I'm working up a verse in the fixer's honor, provisionally entitled "An Ode to Competence." (Aside: It's quite sad, as the beloved hubby pointed out, that competence is such a breath of fresh air to me these days.)

With a capable, strong woman facilitating the process, I got to spend some time people watching. If you're a people watcher, the FRRO is, indeed, a prime location. My favorite sighting today was a group of three women and three children, all under the age of five or so. The children were dressed in identical -- and likely handmade -- outfits of knitted, nubbly red yarn, intricately designed stitches and black stripes and fringe, yes, even fringe; the women waited stoically for their numbers to be called as the kids squirmed, their cheeks approaching the Valentine's massacre color of the sweaters and bloomers they were all trying desperately to shuck off.

Adorable, and I only hope their visa/immigration/extension-related business went as well as mine did.

Innovation -- and khana -- calling

This is a great story about innovative business in India -- props to Airtel for coming up with what seems to be an incredibly apt strategy to tap an underserved market.

If you've never heard of Mumbai's dabbawallas, a brief primer: These chaps deliver home-cooked meals to businessmen in what are essentially lunchboxes; they have been certified by Six Sigma, and it is estimated that they fuck up only one in 6 million orders. By nearly every account, they're awesome, efficient, down to earth, etc.

Which is why I think it is immensely perceptive for Airtel, a mobile services provider, to tap into their cache. Airtel is now giving dabbawallas prepaid cards and basic bundled handsets to offer to customers; a man comes to pick up your tiffin, and you remember that you haven't had time to run out to your electronics shop for a top up, so you ask for a Rs 500 recharge, pay the man, and the service is dispensed. Khana and cellies may not go hand in hand, but though this may not be a natural fit, it's an interesting offering -- one which could reach 400,000 households that the service provider didn't have access to before.

Anyone availing of the service? What are other inventive offerings to penetrate the Indian market, particularly in underserved urban markets?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

I'm a total bitch, but...

Fanny packs: So '90s, right?

(Tongue firmly in cheek. I don't mean to make fun, but it just seems so incongruous. Can't he put his rupees in a slightly less conspicuous place?)

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Clothing the color of feces

So my brother-in-law (BIL) saw my pictures from Kila Raipur and decided to comment upon color and sartorial style. He writes:
Women need clothes that are unique, personal and to their taste, in a way that the dress becomes an extension of their personality. How can something so drab, like the universal bark-coloured trouser reflect the bewildering difference of nature between each woman's personality? Most men would be understandably content to dress in denim or khaki, but I think it's criminal to constrain women's fashion with such horrible colours in spite of the great design.
It's an interesting perspective, and undoubtedly one my colleagues at work share. (Upon my wearing a rose-colored kurta to office today, no fewer than five people exclaimed, "You're looking beautiful! Why don't you wear color more often? It is looking so nice on you!") But see, the thing is, I don't *see* my clothes as an extension of my personality. In fact, I see my clothes as almost an anti-personality: I use them to engender respectability and deflect from my youth and otherwise play games with the world at large.

I forgive the lovely BIL for imagining that women somehow require clothing to express their true natures any more than men do. I do, however, want to defend my countrywomen. I know we look boring and businesslike and we don't have any of the novelty and loveliness that Indian women really capture in their saris and silks and kurta pyjamas and dupattas, but our clothes can't be equated with our personalities. I once was at a function and there was a beautiful young girl who was wearing a glittering gold sweater, and I told her she looked quite nice; she responded, "It's sparkling, just like my personality!" I've never been able to be that forthright, and I've always admired the girl.

However, not all that glitters is gold; conversely, not all that is gold glitters. Or something.

Monday, February 5, 2007

And the gold in iron-bar bending goes to...

This weekend I accompanied the hubby to the Kila Raipur festival, popularly known as the "Rural Olympics," held outside Ludhiana (in Punjab). I've long been grotesquely fascinated by feats of strength, so this even was right up my alley: men pulling cars with their teeth, bullocks racing across fields, demented tractor-keeps pulling donuts on a hockey pitch, hooting and hollering in drunken abandon at the novelty of it all.

The rest of my photos are here; hubz' will appear in Simply Punjabi one of these days.

Lest it sound like a pleasurable little weekend escape, I suppose I should mention that I drank some freshly made kinoo juice that triggered an hourslong vomiting fit. To the eternal credit of Punjabis everywhere, I made our taxi driver pull over to the side of the road so I could chuck, and an old woman came up and began to berate S. "Do something! You've got to do something. Bring the girl to my house, we'll give her some water."

It probably would have exacerbated the cholera or whatever, but it certainly was a sweet thought.