Thursday, 22 April 2010

Clothing conundrum

Here's a sartorial challenge: how does one dress fashionably in 44C, dry and dusty weather? Must nod to the conservative mores of the environment: no singlets, nothing too tight nor revealing, nothing transparent, and no clingy polyester.

Trinny and Susannah would run screaming from this one. Hah. Amateurs.

That's the daily conundrum I face here, now summer has hit with a vengeance (and early, which does not auger well for the coming months). I don't have a car, necessitating the conservative bit: try standing on a street corner for 15 minutes trying to hail a rickshaw dressed in shorts and you'll quickly realise why.

It doesn't help that there seems to be this major disconnect with what's available and what the reality is outside: shops are full of thick denim jeans, polyester leggings and puff-sleeved tunic tops, when all I want is a vast choice of long linen shorts and gauzy yet opaque blouses, or sundresses that fall below the knee that can be cinched in with a belt. I should just go and get them made by one of the many ubiquitous tailors, but I'm tailor-shy after a recent bad experience. Plus, the heat is making me lazy and somnolent, like a desert lizard that can't seem to move, and the thought expending all that energy in un-airconditioned surrounds doesn't doesn't fill me with glee.

Compounding the misery is that girls here all seem to be completely oblivious to the weather and get about in tight skinny jeans and black t-shirts. How do they do that?

All senses point to succumbing to the salwar kameez, which would be the sensible option, but I just can't do it, it's an outfit not made for highlighting my best. There are some very nice ones around, and I did spend an hour at
Anokhi yesterday working my way through the various styles of cotton harem pants, only to come to the conclusion that they make me look like I'm wearing nappies. Salwar kameezes are great if you have a willowy North Indian silhouette, not so great if you bear the curse of the South Indian rice belly.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Delhi's flower markets

With daytime temperatures now hovering around the 40 degree mark, I could forgive myself for putting off sightseeing another season. But I dragged myself out of bed at crowbreak on Friday morning for an excursion/recce to check out central Delhi's flower markets.

First stop was Old Delhi's Genda Phool Mandi market. Driving along Netaji Subhash road, I watched the sun rise over the Red Fort:

A left turn took me to Chandni Chowk; inside, Old Delhi was stirring. Men were wandering the empty blocks, brushing their teeth with the chewed ends of neem sticks, while schoolgirls commandeered cycle rickshaws to get to early tuitions. At the flower market, it was unloading hour, with trucks banked up along the length of the street, tossing tightly-tied parcels of marigolds over the sides. Along the street sat a row of men, patiently waiting for the whole thing to be set up so they could get to work. On one side of the road, the entrance to the Fatephuri masjid; I nearly accidentally walked in before I realised what it was.

Soon afterwards the flower rolls were unfurled and brisk trading kicked off, even at that early hour. 

Next up was the Phool Mandi, closer to the centre of town at Connaught Place. Here, the market was already in full swing and in a relatively more developed area, meaning a paved surface and parking outside. 

There's one more, in the southern suburb of Mehrauli, known for having a lot of Mughal ruins. That's next, hopefully.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

The bridging power of art

Pakistan's just across the border, but is still so far away: considering we all used to be as one, we now know surprisingly little about them. What do they eat? What do they wear? What movies move them? Do they get Top Chef on the cable there? 

For the past few months, Delhi's had a rare insight into the minds of Pakistanis, via their modern art. Not-for-profit gallery Devi Art Foundation has been hosting an exhibition of contemporary art and sculpture from across the dotted line, called Resemble, Reassemble.

Ironically, the gallery is in the no-mans land that is Gurgaon: that mini-me Delhi, a borough perhaps, albeit one that's flush with call-centre cash; a place somewhat anathema to your average South Delhi-ite. Getting to Gurgaon is a struggle, there's no train and involves hiring a taxi for an expensive ride. It's what Wimbledon is to North Londoners, the Brooklyn to Manhattanites, the Manly for south-of-the-harbour Sydneysiders.

Last week, however, I had a meeting down there and afterwards, despite the sizzling midday heat and the surly no-English-madam cabbie, I stopped at Devi Arts for a look deep inside the minds of the other side. 

What do they think? I'm generally art-illiterate, so couldn't tell you. Modern art should come with Cliffs Notes. But I suppose in this case, that would defeat the purpose.

Perhaps they feel oppressed, particularly the women. That's the impression I got from this series of works, showing seated women with their elaborate hairstyles covering their faces.

Or another exhibit, an installation of a sink with an illuminated plughole. Look down it and you see a tiny little video of a veiled woman, sitting, looking forlornly up at you through the holes, a sink-like prison, then down at her ankles, then up, then down. She's so insignificant she can be flushed down the sink.

Nearby there's a slice of road, like a giant piece of layered cake. Layers of rock, some big rocks and some small, are all slathered in a thick layer of shiny, sticky black bitumen on top, like the icing on the cake. Like layering over rocky bits of history with an unassailable, impenetrable layer. Or something.

I only got two photos before the guard got to me; the first of perhaps my top-rated exhibit, an array of gleaming machine gun parts and surgical tools suspended from the ceiling. Even I got that one.

The exhibition's only on for a few more weeks, so don't wait for a reason to go to Gurgaon to check it out, just go.

Read more about Resemble, Reassemble here.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Single Lady's Corridor

Bless India and its love of purple prose. When Jason first started his job at a financial news organisation, he was firmly told by his superiors, "News only. Facts. Quarterly results. Announcements. No Shakespeare quotes." A few days in to the job, he realised why.

Then last year, when I did a stint as a sub for a publishing slash events company, one lovely events manager would write these exultant paeans to the grape, in what were meant to be simple press releases about a wine trade show. "I love playing around with language, it's my passion," she confessed to me, making it extremely difficult to slash and burn her prose.

I was reminded of her last week when I received this press release in my inbox from Delhi's most refined, glamorous and possibly its most famous hotel:
"The bygone era of sixteenth century spelled unforgettable names like Queen Elizabeth, acknowledged as a charismatic performer and a dogged survivor. Celebrating the same strength and passion to explore the unknown of today’s women, Hotel X has introduced ELIZA”, a special program for single lady traveller. The lady guest under the program gets enrolled for the uniquely designed privileges coupled with the unmatched Hotel X experience, the moment she checks in. 
Hotel X has taken this value added initiative for our esteemed single lady travellers to provide a distinct “stay experience” associated withcomfort, convenience and care, prioritizing their safety. 
The lady guests are allocated rooms in a “Single Lady Corridor” equipped with CCTV cameras and are provided with special In-room check-in facility. Single Lady Corridor consists of twelve rooms on the third floor for Single Lady Travelers and each room has a separate room door camera installed as an additional security feature. To make their stay with Hotel X exemplary, The rooms are provided with Manicure set, Women’s magazine and special flower arrangements. 
Only lady staff assistance for round the clock room service and all telephone calls go through a screening process before being connected to the roomSpecial Linen provides the seamless elegant touch to a perfect stay experience… only at Hotel X. 
Beginning from room amenities to bathroom accessories, the rooms have everything one can imagine and provides an unmatched opulence and memorable experience only at Hotel X."
I love how business travellers are equated here to, say, Sir Walter Raleigh, rather than the Clooney-bedding Vera Farmaggias of today. I think the reason for this antiquated language can be traced back to school textbooks; they're positively Victorian. But it's great, too, in many ways. It's a reminder that language can be floridly beautiful, even when used for something so pedestrian as a press release. Or, say, Reliance's end of financial year statement. 

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Ramayana retold for big kids

Pretty much my entire knowledge of Hindu mythology has come from comic books. As a child, we would pick up these condensed graphic versions of the Mahabharata at the station to keep us quiet on the overnight train to Bangalore. The pages of the cartoons would be interspersed with ads for Parle biscuits and competition winner announcements: "Master Abhishekh Sengupta of Calcutta has won a packet of coloured pencils!" alongside a spacey-eyed headshot of the said master.

Now, as an adult, my knowledge of another important Hindu epic is again coming via the animated form.

The Ramayana recounts of the life of the god king Rama, his marriage to the goddess Sita, their jungle exile, her kidnapping by the evil demon Ravana. Then Rama meets his loyal servant Hanuman, the monkey god, who later goes to Sri Lanka to retrieve Sita. Then Rama and Ravana's armies go to war. Later, Rama suspects Sita may have cheated on him so to prove herself she jumps into a fire and emerges unharmed, proving her purity. Nevertheless she gets banished to the forest as Rama is concerned his subjects won't take him seriously if he hangs on to her.

There's more to it, more characters and more drama. That was the abridged condensed version. Think the Lord of the Rings trilogy is dense? Try the Ramayana.  

Last month I watched a fantastic feature-length cartoon telling the tale from Sita's perspective, Sita Sings the Blues, by Nina Paley. Click through to download the film for free (after reading why it's free). But please, do donate if you have the means. Artists like to be paid. 

Then a few weeks ago I did a skype interview with the author and cartoonist behind another modern-day retelling of the story, Sanjay Patel. Sanjay spent up to five years working on the at least 100 illustrations in Ramayana: Divine Loophole

From what I've seen of it, I already love this book. The illustrations remind me of both classic Mughal art, with its flat 2D style, and Eames, in their angularity and colours. Patel did say that midcentury design is a major influence over his work, and he indeed studied that era while at CalArts (his day job is at Pixar, where he's worked on everything from Monsters Inc. to Cars to Up).

One of his driving motivators was not just to bring style and substance to the epic, but to make it accessible to a younger generation. I don't know that I'd be showing those pictures, with their bows and arrows and demonic faces, to my three year old nephew just yet, but I think he hits his mark.

You can read my story on Patel and his book here.