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Tree shrine in Mumbai, August 2008

As a follow up to my earlier posting about Mumbai, I am including a very moving op-ed piece that appeared in the New York Times over the weekend. For those of you who are long time or newly converted Indiaphiles (I’m in the latter category) I think this piece will move you.

My bleeding city. My poor great bleeding heart of a city. Why do they go after Mumbai? There’s something about this island-state that appalls religious extremists, Hindus and Muslims alike. Perhaps because Mumbai stands for lucre, profane dreams and an indiscriminate openness.

Mumbai is all about dhandha, or transaction. From the street food vendor squatting on a sidewalk, fiercely guarding his little business, to the tycoons and their dreams of acquiring Hollywood, this city understands money and has no guilt about the getting and spending of it. I once asked a Muslim man living in a shack without indoor plumbing what kept him in the city. “Mumbai is a golden songbird,” he said. It flies quick and sly, and you’ll have to work hard to catch it, but if you do, a fabulous fortune will open up for you. The executives who congregated in the Taj Mahal hotel were chasing this golden songbird. The terrorists want to kill the songbird.

Just as cinema is a mass dream of the audience, Mumbai is a mass dream of the peoples of South Asia. Bollywood movies are the most popular form of entertainment across the subcontinent. Through them, every Pakistani and Bangladeshi is familiar with the wedding-cake architecture of the Taj and the arc of the Gateway of India, symbols of the city that gives the industry its name. It is no wonder that one of the first things the Taliban did upon entering Kabul was to shut down the Bollywood video rental stores. The Taliban also banned, wouldn’t you know it, the keeping of songbirds.

Bollywood dream-makers are shaken. “I am ashamed to say this,” Amitabh Bachchan, superstar of a hundred action movies, wrote on his blog. “As the events of the terror attack unfolded in front of me, I did something for the first time and one that I had hoped never ever to be in a situation to do. Before retiring for the night, I pulled out my licensed .32 revolver, loaded it and put it under my pillow.”

Mumbai is a “soft target,” the terrorism analysts say. Anybody can walk into the hotels, the hospitals, the train stations, and start spraying with a machine gun. Where are the metal detectors, the random bag checks? In Mumbai, it’s impossible to control the crowd. In other cities, if there’s an explosion, people run away from it. In Mumbai, people run toward it — to help. Greater Mumbai takes in a million new residents a year. This is the problem, say the nativists. The city is just too hospitable. You let them in, and they break your heart.

In the Bombay I grew up in, your religion was a personal eccentricity, like a hairstyle. In my school, you were denominated by which cricketer or Bollywood star you worshiped, not which prophet. In today’s Mumbai, things have changed. Hindu and Muslim demagogues want the mobs to come out again in the streets, and slaughter one another in the name of God. They want India and Pakistan to go to war. They want Indian Muslims to be expelled. They want India to get out of Kashmir. They want mosques torn down. They want temples bombed.

And now it looks as if the latest terrorists were our neighbors, young men dressed not in Afghan tunics but in blue jeans and designer T-shirts. Being South Asian, they would have grown up watching the painted lady that is Mumbai in the movies: a city of flashy cars and flashier women. A pleasure-loving city, a sensual city. Everything that preachers of every religion thunder against. It is, as a monk of the pacifist Jain religion explained to me, “paap-ni-bhoomi”: the sinful land.

In 1993, Hindu mobs burned people alive in the streets — for the crime of being Muslim in Mumbai. Now these young Muslim men murdered people in front of their families — for the crime of visiting Mumbai. They attacked the luxury businessmen’s hotels. They attacked the open-air Cafe Leopold, where backpackers of the world refresh themselves with cheap beer out of three-foot-high towers before heading out into India. Their drunken revelry, their shameless flirting, must have offended the righteous believers in the jihad. They attacked the train station everyone calls V.T., the terminus for runaways and dreamers from all across India. And in the attack on the Chabad house, for the first time ever, it became dangerous to be Jewish in India.

The terrorists’ message was clear: Stay away from Mumbai or you will get killed. Cricket matches with visiting English and Australian teams have been shelved. Japanese and Western companies have closed their Mumbai offices and prohibited their employees from visiting the city. Tour groups are canceling long-planned trips.

But the best answer to the terrorists is to dream bigger, make even more money, and visit Mumbai more than ever. Dream of making a good home for all Mumbaikars, not just the denizens of $500-a-night hotel rooms. Dream not just of Bollywood stars like Aishwarya Rai or Shah Rukh Khan, but of clean running water, humane mass transit, better toilets, a responsive government. Make a killing not in God’s name but in the stock market, and then turn up the forbidden music and dance; work hard and party harder.

If the rest of the world wants to help, it should run toward the explosion. It should fly to Mumbai, and spend money. Where else are you going to be safe? New York? London? Madrid?

So I’m booking flights to Mumbai. I’m going to go get a beer at the Leopold, stroll over to the Taj for samosas at the Sea Lounge, and watch a Bollywood movie at the Metro. Stimulus doesn’t have to be just economic.

Suketa Mehta
New York Times

Suketu Mehta, a professor of journalism at New York University, is the author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found.

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Has it happened, are there more blogs now than people on the planet? The uncontrollable sprawl of online scribblers has led to a lot of pondering in the media lately, with cultural critics ready to unpack and dissect the implications of this curious new form of expression and interconnection.

I have intentionally kept clear of this increasingly overexposed dissection of blogs, bloggers, blogging, the blogosphere, the battle for airtime and audience grab. It isn’t because I feel untouched by these issues because that isn’t the case. I’m a blogger like a gazillion other people. But it wasn’t until I read the New York Times magazine cover article on Sunday by Emily Gould that I realized just how much I was chafing against the increasing meaninglessness of the term “blogger.”

If you didn’t read Gould’s article, it was a tell all confession of a highly charged, high profile case of “he said/she said”, one that can happen when you live your life out loud, online, without much in the way of editing. Gould began as a blogger who openly shared the details of her relationships and personal life, was hired to be an editor at the now infamous website Gawker, pissed off a lot of people particularly when she defended the ethos of Gawker’s celebrity stalking, lost her job, became a target just as she had targeted others, and now is reconsidering just what it all meant. Gould is 24 years old, which explains a lot. Tact and temperance were not qualities I had honed when I was her age either.

But Gould’s confessional mea culpa—with a twist (there’s always a twist)—has been bouncing in my head for days. Her compulsive need to “overshare” (her term) is a feature of her personality she says, and even though she would like to search and destroy many of her earlier and unwise postings, she seems committed to continue her maturation process online, in full view of the public. Reading her New York Times account has inspired me to articulate my own reasons for writing and for making the determinations about what I share and what I do not.

I have a few favorite bloggers who are regular self-scrutinizers. D at Joe Felso: Ruminations recently wrote one of his ever thoughtful postings on his own blogging oeuvre, including some ideas about where he would like to take his site. Another favorite, G, who currently captains the excellent Writer Reading, taxonomized the categories of bloggers on one of her previous blog incarnations. (I particularly liked the label “Sheherazadists” for bloggers like G–yes, another G name–at How to Survive Suburban Life who use the blogging form to write about their life story in a series of vignette postings.) C at Mariachristina has written about the constraints of writing without the cover of an alias or avatar. She has had to truncate her observations and expressions in order to respect the privacy of her family and friends. The analytical and intellectually probing J at little essays often asks out loud what her blog should and could be, particularly during a time when she is pressured with pursuing an advanced degree in art history and expecting her second child.

I am not of the Gould mold. If anything, I am an undersharer. The oft-evoked distinction Stevens makes in “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” between inflection and innuendo has resonance for me. I want to be subjective, to a point. Idea driven, to a point. Personal, to a point.

I am not a journalist, a confessionalist, or memoirist or a dialectician. The closest analog I can find to describe my aspirations for this blog is my aspirations for my paintings: Evocative, but not manipulative. Suggestive, but not formulaic. Mysterious but not self conscious. Memorable and yet personal, sized for a human being.

One of my favorite descriptions of an artist is from Donald Winnicott and seems apropos for blogging as well:

“Artists are continually torn between the urgent need to communicate, and the still more urgent need not to be found.”

Gould’s blogging style of full disclosure is probably more in keeping with an increasingly confessional, privacy-blind culture. I for one am in search for something more. Or perhaps something less.

I leave today for England, followed by a visit to Italy to see my daughter Kellin.

The first part of this trip will be spent in the Lake District in Northern England, just south of the Scottish border. I will be staying at the Lodge, in Ivegill, a place that has been masterfully magicized by dear friend Kathryn Kimball. As the gate house to the mansion that once stood down the lane (now a picturesque, overgrown ruin), it seems to serve many of us as a portal, a means of access to other dimensions of ourselves and our reality (not unlike those envisioned by J.K. Rowling.) Ivegill is a place that opens me up to powerful feelings as well as powerful peace. It is a unique brand of halcyonic inebriation, one that can hold both the dark and the light. It was here that my husband David reconstituted himself after a long and very difficult season in his life. It was here that we first learned that our friend Morris had an incurable case of colon cancer. It was here where I have been able to feel an unexpected and deep sense of calm in spite of swirling concerns of every stripe.

I’ll be posting only occasionally during the next two weeks, but will return to a more steady schedule once I am home on May 26th.


Kathryn in Keswick


David at Ivegill


Garden view of the Lodge and yoga sunroom


The “Big House” in a state of poetic decay


View across the lane, a meadow filled with two-toned cows (only in England)

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I’ve written about Kathan Brown, founder of Crown Point Press, on this blog previously. While I was visiting CPP in San Francisco, I was introduced to The North Pole, Brown’s book about her adventure on a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker in 2002. With no coffee table aspirations, this paperback is simply and elegantly designed, interleafing Brown’s own narrative entries, her small format photographs, excerpts from the 19th century journal of polar explorer Fridtjol Nansen and interviews that Brown conducted with some of her fascinating cotravelers.

Brown’s encounter with this raw, uncompromising, haunting place ends up transforming her view of the world as a whole. The poles are where the earth bares its fragility, like a fraying seam in a skin tight suit. Brown’s style is straightforward and informed, and it was easy for me to be pulled into the enchantment she encounters. Her approach to the journey is refreshingly nonlinear, with chapters that cluster around key concepts, like “The Polar Bear,” “The Ship”, “The Weather.” With her astute power of observation, the ramifications of global warming are evidentiary and unavoidable.

Another quality captured in her book feels transcendent, an energy larger than the ice, the history and the ecology. Some of that is suggested in this passage:

The North Pole is the point at the top of the world on which the axis of the earth turns. A straight line drawn from it into the earth’s center, then out again to the equator, forms a right angle, or 90 degrees, so if you stand exactly at the North Pole you are at latitude 90 degrees north. You can bounce a signal from a global positioning device off a network of satellites in outer space to confirm it. But if you check again after remaining in the same spot only a few minutes, you will be at a different latitude. The North Pole has not moved: the ice on which you are standing has drifted. In 1874, the leader of a band of polar explorers discovered that after walking for two months they had traveled only nine miles. They were going south, trying to save themselves, on ice that was drifting north…

At the North Pole, there are no landmarks; there is no land. The North Star is fixed exactly above the pole and have been used for centuries everywhere in the northern hemisphere for navigation, but when you are at the North Pole, you cannot see the star.

Sometimes the life force tank empties out. It’s a kind of ennui, an emotional exhaustion that often sets in about now, when the winter is still running its weather patterns even though the soul is ready for spring. I’m also feeling overwhelmed by the complex intensity of this political season and of course, football (do not go there, please).

This extract below, from a New York Times Book Review piece a few months back, surfaced mysteriously to the top of my desk pile. It is an apt description of my current state of mind. Which can, like the weather in New England, change rapidly:

“In ancient Chinese rituals,” Gray [author of “Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia,” ] writes, “straw dogs were used as offerings to the gods. During the ritual they were treated with the utmost reverence. When it was over and they were no longer needed they were trampled on and tossed aside.” That is our probable fate. He quotes Laotzu: “Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs.” If we don’t wipe ourselves out first, the cosmos may do it for us.

Elsewhere, Gray has emphasized what he calls the modus vivendi: the possibility, beyond mere tolerance, of embracing the multiple forms of human life as a good thing in itself, since no single arrangement could ever realize the full range of ends that people pursue…“In the future, as in the past,” Gray writes in “Black Mass,” “there will be authoritarian states and liberal republics, theocratic democracies and secular tyrannies, empires, city-states and many mixed regimes.”

We may not like it, but we can get used to it. In “Straw Dogs,” he counsels a kind of neo-Stoic withdrawal from the whole mess: “Contemplation is not the willed stillness of the mystics but a willing surrender to never-returning moments. … Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?” Hitherto, the ideologues have sought to change the world. The point, for John Gray at least, is to put up with it.

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Satellite view of the Spiral Jetty

For those following the effort to preserve the Spiral Jetty, here is the latest from Tyler Green’s blog, Modern Art Notes:

The National Trust for Historic Preservation is out with a statement on the Spiral Jetty situation. From NTHP prez Richard Moe: “The National Trust for Historic Preservation believes that Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty on the Great Salt Lake is a significant cultural site from the recent past, merging art, the environment, and the landscape. We are deeply concerned about the potential harm that energy development could bring to the Spiral Jetty.”

It is an easy seduction for an artist–any artist–to complain about being misunderstood and unappreciated. But according to Oliver Sachs (by way of Trevor Hunter’s excellent blog, New Music Box,) musicians may have a neurological right to that claim:

At last week’s Chamber Music America conference, keynote speaker Oliver Sacks brought up an astonishing fact: Musicians, he noted, have recognizably different brain functions than non-musicians. This is something that has interested me for a while, and it’s noted in every book on music and the brain that I’ve read recently. However, Sacks also said that there is nothing comparable with painters and writers; they have the same neurological organization as those who do not share their abilities. The implications of this are fascinating.

Much sweat and ink has been spilled over the perceived lack of interest in classical/new/art/experimental music for decades now. But what if it is this profound effect that music has on the plasticity of our brains that is primarily responsible for this? It has the potential to explain why, as many have noted, works by abstract visual artists still have the potential to captivate a wide audience, yet comparable aural offerings are enjoyed by only a handful. It indicates that our visual appreciation of the arts is more innate, more primal, while our appreciation of music is irretrievably affected by our own abilities.

Of course, this has only come to be socially relevant over time. In smaller, pre-industrial societies, the low level of specialization meant that everyone participated in the culture’s music, and thus the differentiation between the brains of musicians and non-musicians was rendered moot by the fact that there were no non-musicians. Even in the much more specialized Classical and Romantic eras in Europe, whose composers commanded a vast repertory of arcane knowledge, both the patrons and the audiences were overwhelmingly indoctrinated into musical thinking. Only in a society like that would it have been so profitable for Liszt to make piano transcriptions of other composers’ works, since it was more likely that intended listeners would be able play through a piece themselves than hear another group perform it in concert.

But now, composers absorb more techniques and sounds than at any other time in history—the continuing specialization has led to a knowledge base that’s fully comprehendible to only those who are closest to it. Yet, on the other side is the startling fact that it is now possible and even common for a member of society to be non-congenitally unmusical. If there is an actual neurological difference in the perception of music between its most dedicated practitioners and those who are only listeners, then it would be akin to a difference in color perception between painters and museumgoers. This gap between musician and non-musician has widened through normal social development, without it being the fault of any particular group. But what is there to be done about it?

For those of us who write music that is particularly incomprehensible to the public, deliberately limiting our vocabulary might yield more economically viable results. But it can also feel artistically hollow, since we’re not using our full expressive capacity out of fear of alienation. More education or exposure is needed to give the audience access to the intellectual meaning—not to be confused with “functional understanding”—of the full range our current musical language, so that they may glean an emotional meaning. However, political and practical considerations will prevent this from becoming reality for the foreseeable future.

This essentially leaves me stumped. So, rather than shedding tears over the comparatively small number of people who understand what I do, what many of us do, I find it much more fulfilling and constructive to focus on and take pleasure in the community that shares my neurological organization.

I saw my first installation by Ghanain-born sculptor El Anatsui at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. I came back from that trip and posted about that exquisite object–part textile, part tactile sculpture, made of bottle caps and wire. Since then he was featured at the Venice Biennale and is now getting well deserved attention everywhere. For New Yorkers, good news: The Metropolitan Museum has purchased a gorgeous piece, “Between Earth and Heaven,” which will be featured in a show later this year. (To see a short video of the piece being installed, go to this New York Sun link.)

Here are a few images from a show at London-based October Gallery.

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Nukae?

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Nane

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Brookline Massachusetts, December 14th

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View from my front door

Yesterday was the first snowstorm of this winter season. I love the quality of the light, the way the sound of a city changes, the disruption of life, the patterns of tires and feet, the way a neighborhood becomes unfamiliar and redefined, how everything is conjoined in a commonality.

Snowstorms remind me why I felt comfortable leaving my childhood home in California to spend my adult life on the East Coast. Snow is a powerful reminder of our wee human role in the grand scope of things. Nature speaks, and the only sensible response is to go inside and relish the simple gifts of a roof and warmth. It also alludes to one of my favorite themes in mythology, that small things can change everything. In the Sumerian story of Queen Inanna, she is saved from her imprisonment in hell by fingernail clippings. Because they are small and insignificant, they can get past the gates of Hell unnoticed and return her to her earthly throne. Once again, a billion tiny flakes of frozen water can stop the flow of life for millions of people. To quote one of my favorite bloggers, Will Owen of Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye, humility is a very complex virtue.

There are two poems I love on days like this. The Stevens poem is probably the most famous short poem (and only one sentence) in the English language. Even memorized, I marvel at its complexity. The poem by Strand is simple but profound. Enjoy.

The Snowman

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

–Wallace Stevens

Snowfall

Watching snow cover the ground, cover itself,
cover everything that is not you, you see
it is the downward drift of light
upon the sound of air sweeping away the air,
it is the fall of moments into moments, the burial
of sleep, the down of winter, the negative of night.

–Mark Strand

Jeff Jarvis writes a blog called Buzz Machine that deals with blogging and the state of media practices. Like most bloggers, I am fascinated to watch the way the blogging phenom continues to propagate, morph and constellate. Jarvis’ blog is a good place to start if you want a catalog of opinions on where some informed types think this is headed and how blogging is interacting with other expressive forms.

This excerpt from Buzz Machine is by Andras Szanto (who teaches at CUNY in the journalism school):

The blogsphere today is more or less where the arts were circa 1975. It’s a realm of new opportunities, naïve expectations, and faux democracy. It’s smack in the middle of that euphoric moment that every innovative movement goes through before it makes its own peace with the status quo. Back in the seventies, it seemed everything was possible in the art world. Anything could be art and “everyone an artist,” as Beuys proclaimed.

But a funny thing happened on the way to this pluralist nirvana. Three decades later we are seeing an unprecedented institutionalization and commercialization of art. The entry fee into a successful art career is a $60,000 MFA. And while laissez-faire rules, aesthetically speaking, who can doubt that the artists being seen and heard are the ones who have the muscle of major galleries, presenting institutions, and distribution companies behind them. From the cloud of unbounded opportunity has emerged a new ironclad structure, no less selective and, in its own way, constraining than what had come before. To some degree, the very scale and openness of postmodern culture have mandated these new filters and hierarchies. And so it will go with the blogsphere. When the smoke clears, we will be back to listening and trusting a finite number of voices. We will depend on them, and we won’t have time for many more.

In the interest of full disclosure, Jarvis did not agree with Szanto’s assertions. His response to this excerpt was, “I’ll disagree. He assumes that there is still a scarcity of gallery walls. No, there’ll only be a scarcity of money.”

As always, it depends on your point of view. From where I sit, an oversupply of gallery walls is not the problem. (Could it ever be?)

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Empty Space, By Anne Hamilton