Lodhi Art District

The tranquil Lodhi colony, built by the British around 1940 for soldiers stationed in Delhi, and now used as a housing area for middle-ranked government employees, has been transformed into a public gallery.  It’s a spectacular sight.

More than 25 artists from India and around the world – the US, Iran, Switzerland, Cambodia, Japan, Mexico, among others – used the two story high walls as their canvases. It took the dedicated crew of St+Art Delhi nine month to get all the necessary permits. And even after that people opposed some painting or the other because maybe black paint was used, which is considered inauspicious.

More often than not, the artists interacted with the locals or the location and developed their work from there. The German Hendrik Beikirch for example painted a woman he met in the nearby railway colony. Dwa Zeta from Poland created abstract forms which refer to the flow of Delhi’s streets. And the Spaniard Borondo  interprets the concept of life and birth in his river – opposite a maternity hospital.

More typical Indian themes can also be found on the walls. The lotus, India’s national flower, features prominently in the signature of Suiko. And Indian art traditions and styles like Gond Folk art were also used.

More here: http://www.st-artindia.org/


Lodhi Art District – “2 Hands Unterwater” from Doreen Fiedler on Vimeo.

Town Trot: Pre Durga Puja Walk

When the soil is still moist from the monsoon rains, there is a buzz in the air of the Bengali CR Park in Delhi. The most eagerly awaited festival of the community, the extravaganza that is the Durga Puja, is almost here: tents are being set up, clay idols are shaped, handicraft markets are installed.

Devil’s Circuit

true winners

Everybody got a medal… and aching muscles.

People who think marathons and triathlons are too boring, should come to the “Big Daddy of obstacle Runs”, the organisers of the “Devil’s Circuit” reasoned.

But then, the 5km long obstacle run in a dirty field at the gates of Gurgaon was quite doable. Well, at least for many. I failed on two obstacles – with the effect that now I’m even more motivated to keep up the Parkour Training… next time then!

What lay in our way: walls to scale in turns with barriers to crawl through, a series of deep earthen ditches, several narrow beams to balance over, barbed wire to crawl underneath, a rope hanging down into a waist-deep pond with a vertical, very slippery wall to climb (here I fell back into the water), a horizontal ladder to move hand over hand to get along (no chance for me there as well), a tunnel, a net with heavy ropes on top to crawl through, a six meter high, free swinging rope to climb (with knots, though), a ditch filled with water and covered by a wire mesh fence, a heavy sandsack to carry for 200 meters or so, poles to balance over, iced water to wade/swim through (here’s a video from last year).


Street Art in Delhi

A house (!) full of street (!) art and art lovers – an unmistakable sign that gentrification and hipster culture is making it’s way into Delhi. Nonetheless: the talks by the artists were very inspiring. All in all, the creators of St.ART Delhi did quite a lot to colour up the city.

Nobody wants a Warhol

India Art Fair - GandhiThe India Art Fair, arguably the largest such fair in the country, showcased over 1000 artists from India and across the world displaying their painting, sculptures, digital art, photography installations and performance art.

I walked around and wanted to know: What kind of art do Indians buy? Who are the potential buyers? And how healty is the art market now after the difficult years since the financial crisis in 2008? Here are the answers:

Michael Tekath, director Galerie Klaus Benden in Cologne, which specialises in Pop Art. They are in Delhi for the first time and hadn’t sold one piece on saturday afternoon:

“People buy a lot – but Indian art. Galeries like ours must be patient. The potential is there, but we must be patient. How long are we going to sustain? Not five years,” Tekath says. But he does see potential, as the situation was similar in Hongkong seven to eight years ago, when everybody, especially the mainland Chinese, bought Chinese art, and now the picture completely changed.

“If Indians are spending 15.000 or 20.000 Euros, they want something big, something colourful, something imposing, and not a print – of which 300 are available.” (referring to the Andy Warhols)

An Indian piece of art, Tekath thinks, has greater value for many Indians than a Warhol, as chances are that you show the Warhol to the guests and they don’t recognise it. “We overshoot it when we brought so much Pop Art with us.”

Damiano Femfert of Die Gallerie, at the fair for the 4th time. He sold one, two are reserved.

“Initially there was hardly any concrete interest. But it grew, and now we have regular customers.” Because people from the upper middle class, like doctors, professors, lawyers, have their specific interests, but don’t have any chance to obtain the work other than at these fairs.

India Art Fair - tyre

Tushar Jiwarajka, founder of Volte Gallery in Mumbai:

“We are doing pretty well, have sold something like 30 percent.” The buyers, he says, are a mix of upper middle class and the really rich. “Thanks to the Christie’s auction (in December, first one in India), more new people are entering the market.”

Carlos Cabral Nunes, Perve Galleries, Lisbon, Portugal, here for the first time, he sold seven paintings, and 14 are reserved.

“I hope to go home without any painting at all.” There was especially high demand for a painting from Raquel Rocha, which is figurative art, composed by patterns of figures – and all the characters in it are making love. “I could have sold this picture ten times,” he said.

On Indians buying Indian art, Nunes thinks: “At the moment they are protecting their own culture, their own way of thinking and being. I don’t know if this will last.”

A female salesperson at Gallery Espace, New Delhi, which sells Indian art and artists of Indian origin:

“Contemporary artists sell very well, even the younger ones.” And: “Sales are better than last year, because the economy is upward looking, so potential buyers are reassured. Maybe the Christie’s auction also had an impact. We hope this is a trend.”

Some of the buyers are younger ones, who want the art for their personal space, the saleswoman explains. The ones in their middle ages see it more as an investment, or to show off. “To let everybody know: I can afford it.” “The market is opening up gradually, beyond Indian artists, but people interested in these are still very few.”

Priya Jhaveri, owner of Jhaveri Contemporar:

“It’s picking up, there is great energy and activity. But it’s not a soaring market.” Galleries should adapt to the local market, she thinks. “We are a young gallery, so prices are sensible, and that is what many young people are looking for.”

India Art Fair - frisking

Kishore Singh, Head, Publication and Exhibition at Delhi Art Gallery:

“We need more events like this. There is not much art in the streets and public places.”

“In the schools, studies are driven by marks. So education in art is seen as a wastage of time, both by the schools and the parents.”

“There is no museum and gallery going culture, and in the schools there is no education in arts. So the images that stay with people are the ones from 100 or 150 years ago, the ones from the prayer rooms, the slightly realistic art.”

As the Indian masters are what Indians know, it’s also what they buy. “We are a young country. You have to give India a little more time to first accept Indian contemporary art and then look outside.”

“Even Indians who went to foreign countries and got to know other schools there, may want to look at it, but won’t necessarily buy this art.” And if they start buying western art, then it will first be the masters, not the contemporary art. “People want familiar names.”

The financial crisis 2008 has impacted many galleries and collectors. Many buyers felt cheated when the prices fell (at least the values of the masters hasn’t slipped very much).

“When you feel a little vulnerable, you buy tangible investments like properties, houses, gold. At the end of the day, these pieces of art a just a piece of paper.”

“Now, prices are moving up again, the interest is picking up. But it still is slow. The faith and confidence has to be won back.”

Jaipur Literature Festival, on the elections

Many conversations at the Jaipur Literature Festival circeled around the upcoming general elections. The talks had titles like “Democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all the rest” or “Why India votes” or “India at the crossroads” or “Conquering the chaos: empowering the future”.

India's elite listening to Mukulika Banerjee

India’s elite listening to Mukulika Banerjee

Mukulika Banerjee,  Associate Professor in Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics, for example asked: “Can a larger vision for basic needs like health and education come from within the current system, from the elected citizen elite?”

Yes, answered Dipankar Gupta, Director of Centre of Political Affairs and Critical Theory at Shiv Nadar University in Noida. But for that it is of utmost importance that leaders have a vision, an utopia. Governments like the one from Basque region first invested in health and education, and the once backward region became one of the shiniest parts in Europa in a matter of 20 years, Gupta said. “Unless you take that risk ask a leader, you cannot make democracy happen. You cannot play sick.”

Lily Wangchuk, president of a the political party Druk Chirwang Tshogpa in Bhutan, believes in the wisdom of society as a whole. “Good people are out there. They need to be given a chance.” Gupta adds, that sometimes only a handful of poeple can bring the change. “A small number of poeple put the others in action. Once they come togethter, the magic starts working, and goes out from there.”

Where are the people who can shape India's future?

Where are the people who can shape India’s future?

Gupta also believes that bribing the people into the elections doesn’t work anymore. “You give them rum and rupees, but that doesn’t mean the people are voting for you. They have a very clear vision of who they want.”

Banerjee, author of “Why India votes” pointed out that “the Lok Sabha election is the largest humanly organized event in the world“. It’s a festival, with noise and visual pollution, and a huge voter turnout. People go to the polls because of the peer pressure that the inked finger incites, she thinks. The index fingers of those who have voted in India are marked with indelible ink.

On another panel, she talked about her research village in West Bengal, and stated that issues which are discussed on the national or international level are often not known in the villages and not important for their decision for whom to vote. “For them it’s what has materially changed, like if there is water or electricity.” And: “India’s growth rates mean nearly nothing to the common man, if it doesn’t make a material change.”

Political scientist Louise Tillin sees a decline of the Congress-dominated politics, which was seen as a constant. “1985 was the last time there was a democratic single party government,” she said, then the regional parties surged. Now people are longing for a strong leader, instead of looking into good coalition building.

“The record of regional parties contributing positively to the central government is rare, if not non-existent,” backs her journalist and author John Elliott. All they want are positions so that they can get money through that.

Yashwant Sinha, a BJP member of Parliament and a former finance minister and foreign minister, believes “India is a functioning democracy“. If a tea seller can become a prime-ministerial candidate, the “majesty of the Indian democracy” shows itself, he said. He seemed absolutely confident that India would overcome the current problems and march ahead of the countries that now are heading.

The average age in India is 27, so the young ones will decide the upcoming elections

The average age in India is 27, so the young ones will decide the upcoming elections

The former Chief Election Commissioner Navin Chawla pointed out that since the state was founded in 1947, there was always an orderly transition of power. “Elections were always held on time,” he said. “These are no mean achievements.”

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, who wrote a biography of BJPs prime-ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, says Modi has very consciously shaped the religious identities. “There is a very, very dark side on Narendra Modi, which I feel very uncomfortable with.”

Modi was the first to realise the power of social media, Mukhopadhyay believes. But: “In most of India the niceties of the modern societies, which we in the urban areas use on a minute to minute basis, are not there.”

Jaipur Literature Festival – on Aam Aadmi Party

Hardly any political discussion at the Jaipur Literatur Festival went by without mentioning the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), or Common Men’s Party, whose members surprised everyone (maybe even themselves) when they managed to grab 28 out of 70 seats in the Delhi assembly elections, and are now even forming the government.

Nobel laureate and Harvard professor Amartya Sen was “inclined to cheer” at the Aam Aadmi party’s success. “It was wonderful to see that a party could appeal to the grievance that has gripped the country and sense that we need something different,” he said.

But, he added, some of the measures taken were not well thought of, clearer ideas were necessary. Cuts in prices for electricity for example are not reasonable, he argued, as one third of the people of Delhi doesn’t have power. “All you achieve is that the room temperature in hotels sinks from 17°C to 14°C.”

And the party really should ask itself: “Who are the ‘aam aadmi’?” Mr Sen advised. Are they the ones that need cheaper power and cooking gas and diesel, or the ones that don’t have access to these amenities at all?

Some of India's 1 billion or so Aam Aadmi

Some of India’s 1 billion or so Aam Aadmi

Dipankar Gupta, Director of Centre of Political Affairs and Critical Theory at Shiv Nadar University in Noida, pointed out that the AAP “is still a movement, is in the movement phase even now”. So far they came out with just one or two goals – fight against corruption and cleanliness and accountability of governance – but for being a party they need more substance.

But, Gupta adds, the new party changed the political campaigning. “In the past, elections were always about cast, religion, language. This time it isn’t. This time the parties talk about delivery to the citizens, delivery of things they demanded – rightly so.”

Gupta sees similar movements like the anti corruption protests, from where the AAP comes from, all around the world. Simple slogans that seem to make a big difference have mobilised people, he says, like “I’m Anna”, “We are the 99 percent”, or “indignados”. “These people say: ‘We are the citizens, so listen to us'”, explains Gupta. The feel they have to do something, as the current politicians can’t deliver, their ideologies don’t work anymore.

AAP members also assembled at the festival and rose their voice there

Aam Aadmi party workers also assembled at the Literature Festival and rose their voice there

Sunil Khilnani, professor of Politics, and director of King’s College in London, sees “great achievements”. The AAP has exercised great pressure on both the big parties to look into corruption, he states. Also both Congress and BJP now have to listen more to the common man. “That’s a huge shift, because in the last twenty to thirty years, politicians went away from the ordinary people.”

He also likes the fact that people now feel motivated to take action. “After Kejriwal asked the people to film corrupt bureaucrats, the sale of mobiles with video cameras went up – that’s great, people are taking it into their hands.”

Essayist and novelist John Ralston Saul thinks what the world, and India, needs, is not good management, but a revolution. “People are looking after new ways of becoming part of the system, they want to participate.”

Navin Chawla, former Chief Election Commissioner of India, said the AAP is putting two djinns back into the bottle: money power and muscle power.

Former Indian ambassador Neelam Deo sees a “broad frustration with the incumbent governments”. The AAP is challenging the system, as the campaign differently, got their financial support differently, are acting differently once elected, are expressing frustration differently (dharna). “Howsoever the saga of the AAP will go, it changed the discourse of the upcoming elections.”

Yashwant Sinha, a BJP member of Parliament and a former finance minister and foreign minister, felt like he had to defend himself and bragged that he didn’t come with police escort, supporters or driver, but “all on myself”. Back in the days, when he was an IAS (Indian administrative service) officer, he even went on the motorbike to work. “We all tend to set standards.”

Jaipur Literature Festival, in quotes

Festival director William Dalrymple: Diggi Palace is packed with people. This shows: Books still matter, authors still matter.

Novelist Jonathan Franzen: “Show, don’t tell,” I was tought in the 70s and 80s. “But it is story telling, not story showing, so I unlearned this idea.”

Franzen: “We are still post-modern, but don’t call ourselves post-modern anymore, we call it post-post-modern.”

Franzen: I don’t know how a book ends when I start it. And so I hope that if I am unsure where it’s going, maybe it feels like a mystery for the reader.

Franzen: “A novelist is a man who every morning goes to his own little world and meets the people he himself created.” Franzen adds that readers never feel alone as they connect to the people in their books.

audience at Jaipur LitFest

Question on the Bollywood Nation panel: “What happened to the angry young man?” Economist and politician Meghnad Desai: “He became Arvind Kejriwal.” He will also solve every problem in twelve hours.

Bollywood actor Irrfan Khan: Sometimes the investment in a film is there, then they get an actor, but there’s no story. The actor demands: I want five action scenes and three songs. And the movie is still a success!

Khan: Some stars basically say: Come to the cinema, get some action sequences, get some songs – and see me.

Desai on social change through films: “They reach out wider and deeper to the audience than any writer or author can.”

Khan: “These are changing times in Indian cinema and society. The audience is maturing, movies are changing.” But often the cinema doesn’t reflect society, it just wants to give you a good time. “Then cinema is like a sleeping pill: chill and relax.”

Vamsee Juluri, professor of media studies and son of Tollywood star Jamuna: This cultural pastime (films) has so much power, that as a child I was often separated from my mother by a wall of fans.

Desai: Nowadays you only need to attach “Khan” to your name to get to the top in Bollywood.

Khan: Most of the stardom is about scaling down people, making them feel lesser.

Vamsee Juluri: Bollywood keeps Gandhi’s ideas alive, more than any politician.

Author Jerry Pinto: “When the government has nothing else to do than watch twitter and facebook these days, I would like to be the government. But shall the twitterati now built roads and run schools?”

Journalist Madhu Trehan: In India, “we don’t like irony, we don’t like the funnies. Just say it as it is, and if you can’t do that, then let it be.”

Director, actor and writer Mahesh Dattani: “One thing we all grew up with is hating woman: We see the man being privilegded and therefore supress the woman in us.” And if the Indians hate anything more than females, it’s the hijras (men in South Asia who adopt feminine gender roles and wear women’s clothing)., “as they defy every aspect of the masculartity we aspire”.


Aditi Maheshwari, director at the publishing house Vani Prakashan: “India may dream in Hindi, speak in Hindi, but it aspires in English.”

Sir David Cannadine, professor of history at Princeton University: In 1910, the majority of the world was ruled by empires, lead by kings and queens, today we have more than 200 republics, most of them democracies, or claim to be. There is no assurance that this will remain to be like this. “The British ruled their empire more than a thousand years, in that light the republics are a very recent phenomenon.”

Another one by Cannadine: “If you asked the British why there are so many Indian restaurants in Britain, most people wouldn’t know the answer.” – “Whereas, if you asked Indians why cricket is the national sports, most knew the answer.”

Jaipur Literature Festival, on partition

Mohinder Singh Sarna was a witness of what his son Navtej Sarna described as “immense scale of bloodshed and killings on both sides of what later became the border”. The son never heard his father speak of the partition between India and Pakistan, about the “absolute terror, absolute hatred, when innocent people were being massacred for no reason whatsoever”.

But his father handed down his stories. In order to let more people know about what happened in 1947, Navtej Sarna translated the harrowing accounts from Punjabi, and had them published. The result is “Savage Harvest: Stories of Partition”.

“In some stories the marginalised or even the animals are better than humans,” he explained. But a lot of the tales are also about deep friendship. When Sarna read out the shortest of the narratives the audience at the Jaipur Literature Festival, the people fell dead silent and listened intensely of how a Moslem driver sacrificed himself to safe a Sikh family.

Urvashi Butalia and Navtej Sarna

Navtej Sarna in conversation with Urvashi Butalia on “Savage Harvest: Stories of Partition”

Gurudwaras (places of worship for Sikhs) were giving out little portions of poison, so when women were in fear of loosing their honour by rape, they could swallow it. Some groups of Punjabi Sikhs took a vow to kill all their wifes and daughters to keep them from abduction. These were two of the many terrible side stories that transpired from the conversation of Sarna with publisher Urvashi Butalia.

They also talked about the “reluctance to confront this bloody period of grief and despair” in the Indian history. “All life was destructed. The human instinct tells us to cling on, to rebuilt, to look forward. Only after a while we look back, we reflect, and pass it on to our children,” Sarna said. This is the time when books are written or translated.

He  experienced this in his own family. Nobody in the house would talk about partition – as his own sister was killed during the time. “Silence was a trick of survival.”

Butalia gave some further background information: 100 000 women were possibly raped, abducted and sold during partition, and many of them committed suicide, for example by throwing themselves into wells. The silence, she analysis, was also a way of cutting these women out of family history, because “the stigma of rape stays not only on the woman, but is also transferred to the family”.

So far, both the conversationalists concluded, not enough of retrospection, documenting and conviction is done. “That would help to heal,” Sarna said. But, for example, there are only two or three movies on partition. And: “In India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, we all have been really silent. If we would have spoken out more, we would be more tolerant, more understanding.”

Urvashi Butalia

Publisher and author Urvashi Butalia

Another panel of four talked about “Reimaging Partition”. It was lined out that the partition between India and Pakistan included the largest forced mass migration in history: twelve million people had to move in a matter of a few month.

“We have to remember partition so we can deal with the consequences and ensure it doesn’t happen again,” Butalia said. And people should grow aware of the fact that there were no clearly good or bad guys, there were victims and aggressors in sikh, hindu and muslim communities,  the publisher said. People don’t recognise how deep it lies inside them and how it remains unresolved.

These days, Butalia thinks, we listened to many a story about Sikhs and Moslems. So it should be about time to go deeper and see the layers beyond: What happened to the Christianes, the Dalits and other minorities, the second generation, and so on.

Vishwajyoti Ghosh

Vishwajyoti Ghosh, curator of “This Side That Side”, a collection of stories about the partition

Vishwajyoti Ghosh, a graphic novelist and artist based in Delhi, believes that the second generation is the biggest in denial, because they hear many stories from their parents, but stick to the thought: “I wasn’t born then, it doesn’t affect me.” They are also too busy re-building and setting up their own life.  But Ghosh reminded the audience that in West Bengal the refugee camps of 1947 still exist, as some people there still live on rented government land.

“We need more writers who tell in graphic novels or short stories or movies or write online,” Ghosh in order to communicate to different people. And anyway, every retelling of a story is a transition, he thinks.

Ahmad Rafay Alam

Ahmad Rafay Alam

The Pakistani environment lawyer and activist Ahmad Rafay Alam recounts how he had to go to another country to find literature on 1971, when Bangladesh became independent from Pakistan. “There is still an element of denial in the Pakistan establishment,” he said. But: the people should come to a point of acceptance.

Today with social media we have much more documents which can be fast and easily be shown around, Alam continues. But so far there is no museum on the partition in Pakistan, even though historians collected 15 000 interviews and 80 000 documents.

There is an urgent need to remember this part of history, but at Purana Qila in Delhi, where the biggest refugee camp was situated, there isn’t even a plaque, Butalia laments. But the good thing is, she continues, that the third generation can now deal with it, and there is more literature on partition coming at the moment.

Butalia recounted the story she heard so often in the villages of Punjab of the “Madman Radcliffe“. Sir Cyril Radcliffe apparently came to the subcontinent and couldn’t handle the task of finding the line on which to divide India and Pakistan. So all night long he got drunk, and in the morning got out a pen, and because he couldn’t draw a straight line anymore on the map, the border nowadays is ragged and totally random: this stone is in Pakistan, and that one in Bangladesh (former East Pakistan).

Jaipur Literature Festival, on the Elephant in the room

“The elephant is a big, gentle creature, eating grass, eating bamboo, and fairly peaceful most of the times,” said diplomat Neelam Deo when she opened the discussion titled “Elephant in the room – India and it’s neighbours”.

Bangladeshi writer and columnist K. Anis Ahmed believed that even though India is a big elephant, it has not come to it’s own sense as a super power, as it always acts defensive in it’s relations with it’s neighbours. “India is diluting it’s potential by these defensive policies,” he said. In Bangladesh, relations with the big neighbour are by now less front page news than, trade with the EU and US.

the elephant in the roomBhutanese politician Lily Wangchhuk spoke about the connection to another small neighbour in the Northeast: “Until now, the relationship was considered sacred and unquestionable.” But when India interfered in the elections by withdrawing gas subsidies, there was criticism in quite some part of society, she said.

Speaking about his homeland Pakistan, columnist Ahmad Rafay added: “India remains engaged in the security establishment, but has yet to make inroad into society.”

How India perceives it’s own appearance in the region and what it really is, are two very different things, said Aunohita Mojumdar, editor of Himal Southasian, the only regional magazine of Southasia (that, by itself, speaks volumes). Rafay lamented that a lot of conferences and other events, where South Asians could gather, had to be held in Dubai or London, because visas for all participants for these cities were easier to get than for the region.

He also deems it a huge deficiency that there is no legal treaty, or even initiative, between India and Pakistan on who is allowed to extract water on both sides of the border. There is only the Indus water treaty which deals mostly with the question if India is allowed to built damns. “This is the area where India and Pakistan have to start talking, and not again get into the gna gna gna, like children,” Rafay said. He also finds it strange that both sides have an army on the Siachen Glacier, “a region that is uninhabitable”. And because the soldiers are there, no scientific research is possible in that sensitive region. “But sense doesn’t go beyond 15 000 feet.”

All panelists concludes that it’s high time for India to promote good neighbouring, and change it’s present policy. “In recent years, India’s relationship with it’s neighbours was largely unfriendly,” Wangchhuk said.

Whereas some saw SAARC, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, as a good platform for that, others disagreed. “I sometimes think SAARC was set up to bury the idea of South Asia,” Mojumdar said. Ahmed added for consideration, that strong regional cooperation like the EU and ASEAN are functioning because they started with similar sized and similar powerful countries. “Here India is just too big, and therefore thinks it’s interests are better served in bilateral treaties.”

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