Thursday, 31 May 2012

Potato chips and golf


This is a photograph from my first film roll.I had never focussed on taking pictures before design school. I'd never managed to get close to a camera, never summed up the courage to ask to examine one, either.

When I was a child, I once told my mother I'd like to try using a camera, and she shook her head saying it was a hobby for rich people, rolls were expensive, so was developing, I would have to metre out each photograph, it was like taking up playing golf, she said.
I laugh when I think of her explanation now. I never questioned it. We had code words between us since the time we were little, like whenever we were running out of money, she'd ask me to think more before asking her to buy me potato chips when we were out, for some time. When the dry period passed by, she'd get me a packet of potato chips herself, and I'd know I could ask her for them the next time I felt like some.

The camera as an object was strange, all the technicalities aside, I wondered how I would ever manage to convey the tangle of patterns in my head through a single image. It felt like such a responsibility to have to get the colours right. It felt disrespectful to not be true to the light I saw. I didn't want to waste any film.

This picture is from the first assignment, with 'balance' as the subject, the instructors wanted us to focus on lines, on complementary weights in terms of colour and object as opposed to a literal translation of the word. I had just spent 5 years in an engineering college, no one had ever asked me to explore the lateral, the tangents, seep into them, try layering them, ever before. And when you're practicing on images in a country like India, it demands you shoot pictures also respecting the delicate balance people create to go on living.
Sometimes, it does feel like playing golf.



We had travelled to the beach to be away from the routine.

It had been raining, taking the camera was a risk, I'd rather have my hands free, I lugged it with me anyway.. it had been sitting in front of me for days, it tends to develop an eagle eye after awhile.
Maybe I'd find a starfish I told myself, maybe the fishermen would be bringing in their boats..
She was walking way ahead, I started following her because of the whispery sound the hay made as she walked, like a musical anklet. She was just as I had thought when I got ahead of her, carefully put together. Her shoulders smoothed down by the sun, pulled tightly over her bones by the wear, age creeping in from the shadows, glowing from the inside, her chest covered by a cloth knotted to a string which in turn merged with her beads, layers and layers of real coral, and artificial coral, the artificiality not hurting my eye for a change. Her teeth were coral too, tobacco stained coral. Everything connected so seamlessly. May she never lose those safety pins, I thought to myself. I walked away wanting to get my hands on some charcoal, explore for myself how the light and body dipped in and out of each other.

An hour back I had nothing to say, and now I was missing my blank sheets of paper, I laughed to myself and walked ahead. I enjoy living. I can't say it any plainer.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Loud sandstone giggles


I spent the first half hour just running my fingers along the familiar columns of books, breathing in deeply this unique aroma of jute, parchment, film slide sheets and thumbed-through familiar books. I had missed it much. 
I was tracing back the roots of a nomadic tribe I am working with in Rajasthan, I always end up going back to my data mine in Ahmedabad when no one I know can answer my questions. These books talk back to me.
I happened to pick up this book on temple art. Between 950 and 1150, the Chandela dynasty of Khajuraho, erected temples as an ode to transcendental emotions. Young boys, celibates being reared to be men in hermitages were sent here to examine these sculptures so they could contemplate on life, prepare for the world, and their path ahead as householders.
I could hear her giggle out loud in the quiet corridors of the library. The poor boys. How she must have giggled at them. Loud sandstone giggles.

The body's language


A vegetable seller at the Khar mandi, preparing for the day in the wee hours of the morning at his stall, seated in a perfect lotus position.
I am in awe of this inherent, natural body language the people of this land flow into unsuspectingly.

Raju bhai


Three years ago, I was bursting with stories waiting to be told. I laugh when I think about it now.
I talk about it in the past tense because I have just gotten back to my script writing recently (I have been writing for others for the last year) and it has made me trace back paths to all my earlier projects, to reflect, to see where I've come from, and where I am now..
I was just out of film school, just completing the edit of a project I had labored on for more than 7 months and I was filled with the energy from the outcome to tell many more.
You see, it was the first project in which I came face to face with ‘the audience’. The protagonist of my film was Raju bhai. A 42 year old man from a small village in Andhra Pradesh, who found he could dance when he was a child, preferred playing ‘house’ with the girls, and wanted to be an actress when he grew up. When he came face to face with the realities of his environment, he took to dancing instead, on stage, where the audience paid at the entrance to watch.
I met Raju when I was eating an omelette outside my design school, I was laughing with some friends, drained, red-eyed, unslept, and bang in the middle of a project, he was sitting at the next table with the owner of the stall and watching me laugh. It didn’t take us long to start talking, especially after I found he was a dancer. My friend was making a documentary on dance at the time, on the Mughal form of Kathak*, and I had spent many days as part of the crew, listening to the sound of ghungroos**, I had many questions to ask about his form of dance, whether he taught it, where he trained, how it all started. He had a great sense of humour, and I liked his deep throaty laughter, we got on well from the very start.
I visited his home a few days later, in a slum, near the lake in the industrial part of our old city of Ahmedabad. He waited for me at the entrance of the slum, I saw him, when my rickshaw drew to a stop, he looked restless. He hugged me on sight, and quickly guided me through the interconnected pathways of the slum into his house.
It took me some time to discover his world, why it was so secret, why he didn’t want me to be seen with him.
Once we were in his house, in his space, he relaxed and got down to boiling a kettle of tea for me. I met his friends there, other just like him, all dancers, all surprised at my arrival.
I spent days in that dwelling of his, and each time we went through the same drill. He watched, I spoke. I felt like I was going through a series of tests, Raju bhai was gauging me somehow, seeing how I spoke to the others, answering my questions, watching me tie my hair while speaking, he was observing me, and I knew it. I didn't find it uncomfortable, I was wary of people too, I knew how it was to build oneself a cave right in the middle of a community. I stayed. And spoke.
Till one day I was talking about the boy in my life, and love, and he burst out laughing.
That’s when he told me his story, he laughed and drew closer, set himself to braid my wild, unruly hair into a neat plait, and told me his story of love. I heard about his lover, his dancing, the private birthday parties thrown by elitist businessmen, where entertainment meant watching men dance in women’s outfits to film music. I wanted to come and watch, I told him, he laughed, pulling my head straight so he could continue setting my hair,.. and continued talking. He told me the story of his sexuality, and what it meant to be gay in a low income family in India, he told me about friends who had died of AIDS in front of him on that couch in his room right before us, he told me about the meaning of Kathak, the Mujra***, the art of it. And then, he danced for me on the last day.
I made a film on him later. It started from my footage from his first dance for me in his living space.
He trained me for my trade.
Because I had to keep so many of our conversations safe.
But I still had to tell his story.
I had to tell it in the way any person.. old, young, homophobic could understand him and his lost love, the reason why he never let anyone in, why it hurt him that no one recognised him without his show make up, why daylight made him a 42 year old man again in everyone's eyes, and how the nights meant it was daybreak in his other world.
I could not allow my anger to take root in my own storytelling. And that has been the biggest lesson ever. I had to be just the messenger.
And I took on that role, whole heartedly just for him at first.
Today, it feels like every person is an ocean of stories. It felt like that back then as well, but Raju bhai made film making more than just telling a story for me.
This film making process I learnt from him is hard. It needs you to look at the surroundings, look into the context, it speaks in hard uncouth, unfamiliar tongues, makes you fight you your own prejudices, your own suffering, to be able to relate what happened and who's life changed because of the sequence of events through which life plays itself out.
It demands you be truthful, it demands responsibility.
It demands me to trust my instinct. 
And I demand it all of myself, inspite of my failings.
The image up there is the first draft of a poster my friend Jaykrishnan made for me when he saw my film first. He mailed it to me the morning after. It was unexpected, and it filled me with so much emotion. He said he tried capturing Raju bhai’s dance at the end, when he went into endless swirls in time to the music before he drew to a poised breathless stop, in his little home, in a slum in Ahmedabad.

* kathak : It is one of the eight classical Indian dance forms.The name Kathak is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘katha’ meaning story, and ‘katthaka’ in Sanskrit means he who tells a story, or to do with stories.
** ghungroo: A musical anklet tied to the feet of classical Indian dancers
*** mujra: A poetic dance form, with a lot of stress laid on lyrics, the mujra was a cross between art and exotic dance, with the performers often serving as courtesans amongst Mughal royalty or wealthy patrons.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Nomad sign post


The sign reads, "Please do not ask the driver what the time is."
I was ready to get off at my stop after a night of travel in the bus, bleary eyed. I saw his writing scrawled in a hurried Hindi, and broke out laughing. He looked up at me for a second, before looking back at the road, eyes red, a slight smile setting into them.
'It seems it's the only question they can ask me. In and out, in and out of that doorway, what's the time they ask, what's the time. It makes me mad.'

Monday, 28 May 2012



It was cold.
Stanzin and I had been down this route every morning for the last week. He brought me breakfast, defrosted the plumbing, drove me around, took me to his secret spaces up here in the mountains near Leh, and helped me get people together to work for our assignment. We usually stayed quiet in the mornings, he sang under his breath. He saw me looking down at the frozen river at the bottom of the valley. A few metres on, he stopped the car.
" Go.", he said.
I raised my eyebrows, laughing.
" You carry that camera every day. Now get off the car. 
Stay on this side of the valley. I'll come back in an hour. See that mountain over there.." he said, pointing in the distance, "Behind it is Nang, they get sunlight at 10 am in the morning everyday, 4 hours late", he laughed.
"I'll blow my horn on my way back, and you wave me down, okay?"
I nodded. We had spent so much time together working in the valley, never really having spoken about what we felt. He didn't even look up at me before he sped away in the jeep. I stepped back from the road. And wheeled around to stare at the white.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Language, as the light in your eyes

In response to a debate on storytelling in non native languages on Cowbird

From the time I was little, I have had the habit of closing my eyes shut right in the moment, an attempt to save something in my mind for later. I wrote then too. My mother had the habit of going through all I wrote, when I discovered this, my words got cut short into keywords, words only I would know, contexts only I had seen. Funny, because I use the same method to sketch out my characters for the scripts I write. It reminds of me of the exact light, the mood the person has just stepped out of, the direction he wants to go, the image description makes the language come alive for me.

When I work on the field, it is the same, I never speak the language of the people in the interiors most often, but I do manage to speak, inspite of the difference in our words.

In Rajasthan once, I spent long hours in the heat by the anvil of a reticent, quiet blacksmith, a master traditional scissors-maker, who carried on with his work the whole afternoon like I did not exist. I kept speaking to him, in the language I knew, tottering between words from his language and the closest dialect I knew to it. Eventually, he understood I had seen his method in the mountains far north, he understood I had made a short film on it, he understood I wanted to share it, the only thing he said to me after the four hours of my intermittent chirping was to come at 2 pm with the film to his house.

At 2 pm, I set up the laptop on his jute bed as instructed, he collected his wife and kids and sat himself on the floor to watch. My film, shot in Ladakh, had a Ladakhi metal worker who described his process in Ladakhi, my driver translated it into Hindi on camera, I had the film subtitled in English, and I played the film for the scissors maker and paused it every once in awhile to translate the images out into a mix of Hindi and the dialect of Marwari this man spoke. 

Right in the middle of this exchange, his eyes suddenly shone when he saw the Ladakhi man pump air into his kiln using a goat skin air pump, and started speaking excitedly in fast Marwari, he got up, let go of his intimidation with the laptop, took it into his lap, and pointing at the image kept talking to his wife and me excitedly. I learnt later, this was the exact process his grandfather had used, the same goat skin air pump, he identified tools in the background, he asked me to continue playing the video, and marveled at the old Ladakhi man's work as he carved a dragon out of molten metal on the jug handle he was crafting. I didn't have to do anything. We were just juggling around words from five languages in his living room, we were almost talking to ourselves, we continued with our words solely on the basis of the light we saw in each other's eyes.

I believe any words work, however they totter out in alien tongues,.. it is finally about the light in your own eyes, and the words flow out in desperate attempts to describe what that light sees, especially when you see the light in the listener's eyes.

The image up there for example, is from Karnataka, it was the bath house of the Queen of the kingdom. I spent the entire afternoon lying on the floor under each of the arcs forming the corridor around the bath area. Each square so different, each one such a storyteller, I thought about the sculptor who crafted each one of them, his thought process, was he thinking about the queen when he worked, had he been instructed to create each different for her amusement? I thought of the queen's maidens in waiting, the starry nights, the visiting king, about myself, about my teachers, about objects, and art and the meaning we try engraving into our bodies of work.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Precious cargo


On the move from one land to another, this last week
Got immersed in a flurry of images from the past
The sinking-in was cut short.
I was called back to the first land. Urgent, they said. 
For my own image-making this time.
I was tired, I found my seat, waited for the train to start its rumbling
A young mother sat opposite
I smiled a tired smile.
She left me to watch over him after ten minutes of my sitting there
I was a little shook up. People hide their shoes in the trains sometimes, you know?
So much responsibility handed over because she trusted something
What? What did she estimate?
He was too little to speak
He just kept looking with those eyes at me
I couldn't help but look back
Precious cargo.
She came back and he looked away, 
she said he always thought she wouldn't come back.

Friday, 25 May 2012

An ode to a building


I studied film making at an old school designed during the Bauhaus movement in the 50s, built with the objective of safekeeping the traditional crafts of the country. It is the one piece of architecture I believe breathes, and has a curious mind of its own.

Each classroom has a ledge opening outwards, students crisscross through the ledges to create routes skirting the outside of the building, to the watering holes, smoking spots, the spot facing the big tree, or leading to the canteen. All shortcuts end in spiral staircases. 
They tried removing them, but an unexpectedly united protest was launched by the students. Posters, graphics and a few abstract installations were stuck up all over the place, on most of the pillars, with odes to the spiral staircase expressed. The authorities never even got to see the protestors, the communication was enough, the spiral staircases were never taken down.
I met some of my closest friends while taking these shortcuts.
It's a building of concrete and brick. No paint used ever, except for the doors. We refrain from painting walls, unless of course you want to express something on it with paint. There is no internal wiring for the electric cables, over the years, as the number of appliances used by the institute increased, they began routing all the wires together in tight bunches strung to the side of the roof. 
It has always charged me to see the wiring just so.
Like I wrote in a diary 4 years ago about the wiring.. 'It feels raw and waiting and responsible and truthful, stripped bare and tied together in knots. It feels like great things are possible, that things can be cleaned out, that many heads have leaned back against these very brick walls and thought the same.'
The form of the building I believe lends itself to the people who live and breathe in them. 
We ended up being stripped bare and tied together in knots too, here.
This photograph was shot during the Navratri festival, at the altar of the goddess Kali, erected by the students. All the idols were crafted of straw (like the traditional artisans make them in West Bengal), the floor was smeared a muddy brown, and like any good temple pooja session, left a perfect mix of chaos in its wake... flowers, burning incense, ghee, prasaad, any mythologist's semiotic fantasy, topped with an exploring cat.
All this, in the folds of the concrete and brick building which tries picking patterns in a country where according to an old proverb, 'Every two miles the water doth change, and every four the dialect'.
I understand the need for that plain base brick and concrete.

Thursday, 24 May 2012


The form of the land makes you reach out to people in so many different ways.
The land defines your movements, the arch of your back, the tone of your voice, the pauses, how much you want to reach out to the next person. We really are not separate beings, for me, moments like these make the lines blur between the human, landform, wind, tree, each mimics the other only to be able to reach out more.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Used tea cups


The hair cutting salon has a chandelier, lustfully adorned with fake crystal
I watch this woman getting her hair dyed,
watching her watching herself.
It feels like I am the only witness.
Like a nightmare, where you know a friend is close by your side,
but he can't see,
and you can't explain
The barber picks up the used tea cups and hesitates a bit just before leaving,
he has to wait for the dye to dry.

Monday, 7 May 2012



So the children were taught at the end of the class yesterday how to brush their teeth, a volunteer donated a set of new baby sized toothbrushes, and the teachers performed a demo for the kids which sent them into peals of laughter.
This is Ravi, in the line to get his toothbrush just before leaving for the day.
I know that excitement. 
A new tooth brush can still make my day, any day!

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Of jasmine trees and clenched crayons

He thought it would be wonderful to have little children studying under the crepe jasmine tree hanging over the backyard. That was it. He rented out the space for his studio immediately. He got a black board built into the boundary wall, got slate plastered on. At the end of one of his shoots (he’s an advertising filmmaker), he got his set designers to make 15 little desks. He got them painted in matted primary colours.
One day when his life got a little ordered, when he could possibly manage to predict his days or weeks better, maybe he’d start a school here.

Classes were scheduled to start yesterday. We weren’t sure the kids would actually come.  He’d written out the permission letters himself in Hindi. He had his accountant make out a version in Marathi.

The children were from the slums nearby, some of them had never been to school, others went for afternoon classes to the free government centre close by, could make these kids out easily from the lot, they were the only two who could write out their names on their worksheets out of the set of 17 children who filed in by school time.

Art, math, and English for two hours in the morning. Part of the drill involves drinking a glass of milk and eating an apple in front of the teacher before leaving.

I'm glad he imagined children sitting under the shade of that jasmine tree when he first saw it three years ago. Yesterday, I showed a kid how to grip a crayon, she'd held it so very tightly in her small fist.