Thursday, September 29, 2011

“Wonder of the Age: Master Painters of India, 1100–1900” at MET

Some of the most intricate output of Indian painting talent is on display at Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) . Titled “Wonder of the Age: Master Painters of India, 1100–1900” exhibition is showcasing collection sourced from royal collections, museums and academic institutions. ‘Wonder of the Age is the title bestowed by Emperor Jahangir, during whose reign Indian painting touched its zenith, on his favourite painter Ustaad Mansur.

Best thing about the exhibition is that it does not focus on a region or a patron ruler. Focus here is on painters who had remained anonymous due to various factors ranging from religious prohibition to the glory of the patron. Many of the painters have been identified by the hidden signatures and a majority by the style and other details. The exhibition will be there till 8th January next year. Many painters from Hindu and Mughal courts have found limelight for the first time, not because of any lack of caliber on their part. The collection, it is told, would have been richer if diplomatic hurdles were surmounted to import more works fron Iran and Russia.

Economist has given a very comprehensive review here.

MET can be accessed here.

Monday, September 26, 2011


It is no time to review Michael Douglas as
after one year of his battle with throat cancer he says he is fine and we all hope that this is so. His last outing was reprising the iconic Gordon Grekko of Wall Street in Money Never Sleeps. 1944 born Douglas is known to do roles which are more interesting than glamorous. He allows his characters to overpower his star persona. He relentlessly pushes the realism paddle while investing his characters with the suave magnetism of his personality. Though he never allows his charms to come in the way of his characters but he is never a ‘character actor’. Artifice of art is critical to retain the interest. This is understood by the ‘star actors’ like Douglas, Al Pacino or Robert De Nero. All of them are actors of considerable talent at the same time they are ‘presences’ also which can’t but be felt keenly. This is the core of their appeal. Realism is almost always there but it is the movie realism not the documentary realism. Douglas charms even when he is playing an unadulterated slime ball with unabashed glee. We find ourselves rooting for his character. Even when he is etching the melancholic contours of his anti heroes with great authenticity, he never fails to convey pull of a genuine superstar. Good thing is that this does not dilute the experience but enhances it. It is a joy to watch Michael Douglas to work his magic on screen.
Douglas is a serious actor. Even in his Romancing the Stone and Jewel of Nile series his goofy carelessness was unique. He had a light touch to the light moments without being slapstick about it. Fatal Attraction saw him falling for adultery and his bewilderment was genuine and nuanced when he faced the neurotic rage of the woman spurned. He claims to have done Basic Instinct just for fun but he was convincing as volatile cop with endearing flaw of violence. Man of slander physique, he managed to exude toughness in the formidable company of rampaging Sharon Stone and later in Black Rain. In Wonder Boys he played Marijuana Smoking burnt out writer. In any lesser hands the role would have ended as a bundle of clichés. However, Douglas was so alive to the nuances that he decided to convey, it became a powerful display of screen magnetism without any accompanied flamboyance. His diction and quality of voice has the gruff hypnotic quality that lures and overpowers. He conveyed the confusion, anguish and total helplessness with a relish that lent life to the character. His middle aged Professor was “such a shock because most of Douglas' previous characters are guys whose entire raison d’être seems to be avoiding the aging process… Mr. Crisis of '90s Masculinity himself”. With recent knee replacement and now cancer aging, it seems is extracting its pound of flash. That voice- it needs to be seen what remains of it after the intense chemo for stage 4 throat cancer.
Relish with which he has essayed his roles has often bordered on rakish celebration of his talent. Twinkle in the mischievous eyes and a sly smile often reaffirm that he is aware that he is pushing the envelope and audience is bound to love it. In his Oscar winning Wall Street his street smartness was conveyed with these twinkles and smiles from underneath an uber polished persona of the top wheeler dealer of the Wall Street. Similarly, in Solitary Man he is a loser who is rapidly going down. If he has any qualms about being a liar or compulsive womanizer they are well hidden. He is flawed and aware of it. He elicits our support without ever demanding it. Above all throughout he is thoroughly entertaining to watch. He has played President, President’s Body Guard, District Attorney, Drug Enforcement czar, professor, cop and almost always his character is guilty of something. This flaw is carried with great panache and verve while rooted in realism. Flaws make him human and his magnetism makes us turn a blind eye to them. We are taken in by the relish and delicious nuances. In Basic Instinct he is ‘dirty’ both from the psychological and from financial angel. He is intrigued by the pull of evil charms of Sharon Stone, almost amused, but never apologetic. Solitary Man, presents an even more unforgivable rogue a man devoid of almost any moral qualms but somehow manages to make us identify with him. A loser we want to dot on, a deviant with deeply human core. Addressing the complexity of these roles is the alchemy of Michael Douglas.
He has his share of embarrassments. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is bad film with weak performance. It was so bad that it could not prop up even the formidable screen presence of Douglas. Douglas was ill at ease and could not perform with his usual energy. As a psychologist on the edge in Don’t Say a Word he could not rise above the quagmire of the dense plot. Still he elicited these words from Pulitzer winning film critic Robert Ebert “Douglas has made roles like this his own, and redeems them by skirting just barely this side of overacting--which is about where a character in this plot should be positioned. Shame that his subtler and more human work in movies like ''Wonder Boys'' is seen by smaller audiences than his fatal/ basic/ instinct/ attraction/ disclosure movies.” This ‘skirting just barely this side of overacting’ is the mastery of an actor who is sure footed about the image he wishes to convey and has the histrionic wherewithal to do that. For most of us his ‘fatal/ basic/ instinct/ attraction/ disclosure movies’ work just fine as they are pulled above their subject matter by the fine performances by their lead actor. When after a tense harassment suit he tauntingly bids silent good bye to Demi Moore, we in our weakness feel like doing hi-five with him. There was nothing trivial about the way he dealt with his characters in ‘fatal/ basic/ instinct/ attraction/ disclosure movies.
Cancer is bound to slow him down. However, it is sincerely hoped that his recovery is strong enough and he comes out without any diminishing of his wares. Just to him create another memorable rogue with that gutsy twinkle and sly smile.

-Dhiraj Singh

Inspector Lewis continues

In the BBC crime series world, Oxford was granted second shot at having mythical law officer. Lewis stepped confidently in the shoes of Inspector Morse. World weary charms of Morse (played with poignant subtlety by John Thaw) found easy transition in Kevin Wheatley. This seemed improbable when Morse was alive. Lewis was anti thesis of cognitive, irascible oxford educated, Wagner listening, real ale drinking Morse. He was simple, but emotionally mature and competent at his work. He treated overbearing and condescending overtures of his master with grace and humour. He was surefooted enough to recognize detective genius in Morse and feel comfortable in contributing to it. He gave Morse's character a solidity that was not easy for the senior detective on his own.
The series scores with strong plots, good acting and charming solidity of the main duo. Liked the link below

Booktalk & More: Inspector Lewis continues tomorrow!

-Dhiraj Singh

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Review of British Crime Series Wallander

To begin with, it sounded preposterous that BBC should adapt a running, successful Swedish series. However, the news that Kenneth Branagh will play the eponymous ‘Wallander’ in the BBC Crime series, lifted much of gloom. Gloom and melancholy was to return in spades when I decided to check out the series and went through two seasons over a weekend, all the full length movies six full length movies.
Branagh, an old war horse, tunes in rather deeply with his subject material. This is evident from his forays in Shakespeare and even Harry Potter series. Here he was made to tune in a veritable quagmire of darkness. He is down in dumps with pessimisms that life has inflicted on him. Mishandled personal life and an overhang of a father who is disappearing in Alzheimer. It does not help that he is a good detective with a sensitivity fit for an aid worker. He is deeply affected by the cruelty and wanton violence that he encounters during the course of his duty. But most of the darkness comes from his own visage and the landscape that is hauntingly filmed. Ystad, Skåne län, Sweden, from the eye of the camera becomes an active protagonist.
Overall, I liked the series. It is a realized piece of mystery. We may feel bogged down by the atmosphere and may feel that Wallander’s response to his personal problems is coming in the way of story-telling. But once you accept the premise that it’s a series where they have chosen melancholy as the chief accompanying mood for the mystery and detective work, you will appreciate that they have succeeded. There are series where atmosphere is provided by the banter between the main actor and his sidekick, (Lewis, Morse and even Sherlock Holms). Some rely on the eccentricity of the detective, Poirot comes to mind. Here, it is debilitating sadness and almost unhygienic presence of the protagonist. Branagh is well clued in and does not get irritating with the overdose of inertia causing gloom. His ability to become super cop when needed is both baffling and redeeming. His fondness for prop himself up for the charges of inattentive father, son and husband borders on unfair. His disposition, commitment to work and genuine efforts to be of some use are never taken into consideration in this regard. Acting triumphs as it is mostly Branagh and he is too solid to bungle this. He is authoritative and is a treat to watch if you sit to appreciate good acting. How he avoids clichés and skirts hamming in a very heavy-handed atmosphere is a master-class in acting.
Mystery and detective work is top notch and that is saying a lot given the high standards in various BBC series. Plots, contrived sometimes but have enough twists, horror and provide satisfaction by being sufficiently grisly.
Accompanying cast is simple and is there to play a background role. Sometimes they are made deliberately stupid. For example in the first episode of the second season his efforts to play down xenophobia meet the wall of stupidity of his colleague. However, David Warner as Alzheimer ridden painter and a father with conflicted disappointment with his son, almost manages to steal Branagh’s thunder in their scenes together.
However, there is no denying the fact that there are times when we wish to shake him up and ask him to take a bath and a nice shave and generally break out of his depression. Towards the end of the second series and the last episode, they are slowly moving towards that as the episode ended with a smiling Wallander, bidding goodbye to his father at his grave and leaving the stranglehold of his wedding ring on the gravestone. He even moves away with a potential love interest. This makes the third season worth waiting for.

-Dhiraj Singh

Friday, September 23, 2011


Ruminations after the first post on Warhol

The moment you start ascribing meaning to a can of soup, you miss the entire point of Andy Warhol’s art. suffixing Warhol’s work with the label of art has its issues. Art normally involves an element of sensual/sensory pleasure. A premise of expression or representation is inherent. But the soup can in question is just that- a soup can- not an act of subversion or deeply nuanced meaning. If he was subverting anything it was the time honoured tradition of high art. Warhol was not seeking an escape from the harshness of reality but accepting that as the arena of once being. He was not representing or conveying the inherent meaning of his subjects. He was only labelling them or putting them in a frame. He was foregrounding the obvious. To use his words, it was “about liking things.” You may or may not like him for that.
He was about ‘presenting’ things rather than ‘representing’ things. This allowed him to be free of requirements of unique creation. ‘Representation’ entails an exclusivity of output. It is the artist’s interpretation of some object, event or process. A representation of female form will find expression in cubist reconstruction of Dora Maar in Picasso’s work or Odalisques of Matisse or sturdy physicality of Hussain’s nudes. These are customized creations which abhor mass production. Even portraits like Mona Lisa are not free of enigmatic intimacy of exclusive creation. But in Warholian universe even serigraph prints using silk screen technique is valid art because he is not representing but presenting. His Marilyn Monroe series along with Cow wall paper, Liz, Elvis, Accidents, Chairman Mao and Michel Jackson series were mass production and high art at the same time. Marrying this breach was a monumental achievement and Warhol did it in style. Distinction between the traditional art and his art is illustrated by his failure in case of Mona Lisa where he tried his reproduction mania in serigraph prints of multiple Mona Lisas called ‘Thirty are Better Than One.’ It looked strained and populist in bad sense. It lacked the aesthetic sensations of his Marilyn or Elvis and a major part of that was the representative appeal that makes Mona Lisa an icon that it is. However, somehow his fetish for the obvious was not devoid of beauty.
Formal decor and chromatic panache of his output is timeless and is hip even today, almost half a century later. Following one of his idols Matisse, Warhol “redid the world’s palette in tart” a new colour scheme emerged after 1962, the year when he blasted into the artistic consciousness of the world. He imparted lesser explored hues like citron, burnt orange, apple green cobalt blue to the lexicon of cool. He managed to bring the kitsch and posh disarmingly close and his main achievement was that he made it all seem irritatingly valid. He achieved this by combining aesthetic sophistication with the reproducibility of the mass production. This success at combining classical core, if not the form of high art, with the vernacular psyche gave him a stature to use his intuitive éclat regarding formal beauty and very hip colour consciousness to define a new chic. As the trends go this Warhol impact has endured surprisingly long. If his blandness of devotion to the obvious made him so pervasive that his influence or presence is very difficult to deny. His rich sense of colour, which made him such a successful commercial artist in the first place, keeps him ubiquitous. Right from the bottle of Absolut Vodka to neon induced glitz of Time Square or Tokyo to illustrated children books he is everywhere. His motifs can be seen on cloths of top fashion houses, on shoes, watches, logos advertisements. No doubt his is a defining presence on the artistic landscape of the later part of the century gone by.
Robert Hughes of Time Magazine has called Warhol’s fame his most authoritative creation- “the meticulous construction of a persona vivid in its coy blandness, pervasive and teasing in its appeal to the media, and deathlessly inorganic.” This makeover of son of an immigrant Czech coal miner named Warhola in Pittsburgh, to Warhol was in line with his philosophy of ‘absoluteness of systematic banality’. In his decline- a phase after he was shot by one of his hanger ons in 1968, he was more famous for being Andy Warhol than his work. In this phase he was prolific and active but as one critic has put it ‘intensity leaked out of his works’. A trashy melodrama over took what was the genuine exhilaration of discovering something new. When surprise waned his work stopped giving the same degree of aesthetic sensation. Detachment which provided a new standing to his work started appearing forced. But even in his decline he was interesting and provocative. Chairman Mao series bears testimony to it.
He had uncanny knack of grasping the ‘ripeness of the moment’. His was a life of celebrity acutely tuned to the pulse of media space. This ability along with the ability to grasp an image and instilling it with ‘visual clout’ put him at the centre of the orgy of fame and kept him there for a long time. Originator of the phrase ’15 minutes of fame’ had a longer moment in the spotlight- a moment that still lingers.

Great article on Warhol by Brayan Appleyard in Economist-Intelligent Life at 

-Dhiraj Singh

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Andy Warhol

Anti thesis of traditional notion of an artist Warhol was not about passion, angst or some sort of catharsis of sufferings. In fact, art is not 'actually' about all that. We just like our artists that way. Art like poetry is about 'sweet excesses'. It is about aesthetic sensations. Artists have been purveyors of condensed sensations of all sorts which could very broadly be categorized as aesthetic. If history of art has proved anything, it is the multiplicity of sources, contexts or even paradigms of such sensations. Being orthodox about one’s fix of artistic rush may be a matter of personal choice. However, on a general level excluding anything out of it is ignorance at best and totalitarian at worst. Warhol was producing aesthetic sensations in sufficient number of people. More and more artists were being emboldened to look for alternate sources to create aesthetic sensations. His own take on the dynamics of art was to foreground the mundane or obvious. He placed a frame to Coke bottle and it started impacting aesthetically. He was serious about liking things and succeeded in communicating that.

He was about ‘presenting’ things rather than ‘representing’ things. He tested this notion and felt vindicated by the raw irritation created by his output. He was perceptive enough to realize the aesthetic stirrings that his Campbell Soup series or Brillo Boxes created in the artistic circles. And that liberated him. Once, on sure footing about his raw material (anything goes) he moved to Films and silk screen paintings. He produced films of static shot of Empire State building and people sleeping. These were long movies of 8-20 hour duration, where nothing much was happening. He was just pointing to an object long enough, allowing the innate neural aesthetic coding to do its work. His ‘screen tests’ where he asked his subjects to sit and just stare at camera were also in the same vain. Intellectuals like Susan Santog and Bob Dylan subjected themselves to this fishbowl treatment. “His better paintings, in which pure aesthetic sensation transcends subject matter, are too particular to be taken as specimens of anything other than themselves’, said The New Yorker.

Some indication of Warhols continued popularity can be gauged at the following sites