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59, Rivoli: A glimpse of the alternative in Paris

Moving towards the ideal of compact, transit-oriented, efficient and sustainable cities is not at all about new designs and technologies. If at all, it entails much thinking about retrofitting and re-using existing spaces and structures in interesting and useful ways. In recent times, we’ve been seeing instances of more tolerant attitudes towards squatters-people who occupy vacant spaces usually through organized grassroots mechanisms-in European cities.

In Amsterdam, the city has reached out to former squatters and professionals to set up systems to negotiate leases with owners so unused spaces can be turned into low-rent or even rent-free spaces for artists or as business incubators (read here). I’ve always been fascinated by instances in which formal and legal institutions engage with the informal (and often illegal) to create something in between. Something quasi that is granted, if only temporarily, a legit status in order to serve a need or create an interesting situation, add flavour to our cities. The constant pull and push between formality and informality, I believe, creates a delicious tension. A frisson almost, that creates a sense of surprise and delight.

On my too-short trip to Paris early November, the highlight was the few hours spent at a legalised artists squat at 59, Rivoli. On the recommendation of my friend Valerie’s daughter, we made it a point to put this on our list of sights on my one day of sight-seeing in Paris. The place was a sheer delight. A number of artists were in residence, all different styles (you can apply to go if you are an artist). The atmosphere of freedom and departure from rules was liberating, even as the spaces were well organized and managed. Chaotic and grungy, but far from the filthy grimy places that squats are imagined to be, neither Valerie nor me wanted to leave. You can spend hours watch the artists at work or you can walk through, you can chat with them and ask questions and of course, you can buy their art too!

59 Rivoli has been in existence since 1999 and Paris is now expanding the concept to take over more empty buildings to create such artist spaces. It’s very heartening indeed, for what is urbanity (or indeed life) without a chance to enjoy the alternative?

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An emotional ride: Kids tell their stories of 10 years of Shikshantar- Sep 27, 2012

Shikshantar, where both my kids study, is celebrating its 10th birthday this week. Yesterday, the primary and secondary blocks threw their classrooms open to parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles to take a peek at how they had expressed their journey in the school. The theme was Stories and narratives were central to the exhibits around the school.

Oh boy, it was an emotional ride. While the younger kids had attacked the theme with enthusiasm and gusto, the older ones clearly expressed a strong bond with their schoolmates and the institution. Hearing the teenage kids, I was transported back into a world where even the tiniest gestures by friends meant so much, when passions ran high and relationships were intense; when we felt strongly about everything in our lives, when adults were often perceived as enemies of fun.

It was a pleasure to see the comfort the kids shared with their teachers though. I visited in the late afternoon, when things were beginning to wind down. In most classes in middle and senior school, groups of kids were hanging out and having a lot of fun. And also chitchatting and laughing with their teachers.

Here are some pictures I took, that express the love and the bonding the kids feel with their school, its spaces, its people and the entire world it creates to nurture them.

Nitya shows us a model of senior school as they visualize it to be. This is Udai’s class exhibit

Dear to all of Udai’s class, this model is about the nostalgia of the pre-primary block. Vanar Vatika, their open air play space in J Block is shown in all its glory!

I loved this way of showing kids inside a pipe….the big pipe really does exist. You can crawl inside it and it is my personal favorite space in J Block

An interesting way for kids to express the favorite part of their day at Shikshantar. The school day comprises unique elements like circle time to encourage sharing and expression, daily outdoors and project time as well as choice time, where kids can revisit activities they enjoy

Middle schoolkids got a wee bit sentimental!

Comfortable and full of enjoyment!

A middle school student explaining their exhibit

The school was peppered by these larger than life paper dolls…very expressive!

They looked rather dramatic against the lawns….

Shikshantar is also where we parents meet our friends- Gauri and Preeti share a laugh

Preeti and me….one of those crazy ‘pose’ moments!

 

I loved these quirky little figurines the kids had made from old plastic bottled and waste material….cute ones and hilarious ones!

How can you not love that guy?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Curtailing freedom of expression will not solve anything: Let ‘Midnight’s Children’ be screened- Sep 10, 2012

Decades after the Satanic Verses was banned, in another time and another era, we revisit the paranoia around Rushdie’s work with the possible banning of the film Midnight’s Children in India. Deepa Mehta’s cinematic take on the book is expected to be brilliant. And it would be a pity for Indian audiences to miss out on it, considering it tells the story of a nation post Independence with all the imagination and panache that only Rushdie can have.

The controversial aspect of the film is its portrayal, in a negative light, of a Prime Minister closely resembling Indira Gandhi and her declaration of Emergency. At the time the book was released, Indira Gandhi had sued Rushdie libel in a London Court.Interestingly, it wasn’t the criticism of her political actions that annoyed Indira, but this particular passage: “”It has often been said that Mrs. Gandhi’s younger son Sanjay accused his mother of being responsible, through her neglect, for his father’s death; and that this gave him an unbreakable hold over her, so that she became incapable of denying him anything.” These words were removed from all post-1984 editions of the book.

We can all safely say that the above is a piece of amusing trivia in today’s context. Much has been written and said about the Emergency and other writers of fiction have set their stories in that traumatic context, usually ending up criticizing the seizure of democracy fro the Indian people and the restrictions on freedom that it entailed.

However, it doesn’t look like all this is history for the ruling Congress party and the Gandhi family. Over 25 years after Indira has passed on, this country is still trying to skirt the issue, be politically correct, run away. We are dangerously close to being in a sort of Emergency situation now, with freedom of artistic expression being curtailed in the name of security. The Aseem Trivedi incident, the crackdown in Bengal on anyone who stands up to Mamata, the intolerance of the Indian government on Washington Post’s article on the PM as a tragic figure…..

When we subscribe to the view that any sort of media can incite tension and violence and therefore view cutting down the freedom of expression as a logical response, we are on very dangerous ground indeed! One of the reasons why it is a pleasure to live in India, despite the infrastructure issues, the social divide, the growing pressure of resources, the inefficiency and corruption, is the feeling of enjoying a certain sort of freedom. The pleasure of walking the streets without a Big Brother watching you. The ability to be who you are, more or less. The ability to voice dissatisfaction and dissent without fear, as long as we do it non violently.

If that changes, we lose an essential part of our identity. Each one of us should fight to continue to enjoy the right to free expression. To do so, we would first need to rid ourselves of easy prejudice and truly open our minds. Is that asking too much of a nation full of people just struggling for their piece of a rapidly shrinking pie?

 

Crossed 20,000 views on this blog today! Aug 22, 2012

20,084 to be precise at the time I write this. To be frank, I didn’t know or think of what this meant until I recently saw someone on twitter getting all excited about crossing 10,000 views. I swiftly looked at my WordPress stats page and saw a figure of nineteen thousand something…then I began to get excited about this.

My attitude towards my blog is mostly to churn it out everyday and be true to what is top of the mind on each day. But I will not deny writing everyday has done wonders to my self-confidence. Page reads and comments, likes on Facebook do drive me to write. No, I do not see likes as a sign of loyalty by my friends. I am lucky to know people who will actually like only what they like. But its given me a lot of insights on people. I am often pleasantly surprised by reactions. For instance, I didn’t know a certain friend felt so deeply about parenting, or another someone loved music so much and was indeed a singer herself!

Many a time, I am corrected by a reader for factual errors or judgements made on erroneous or one-sided information. That kind of reaction gives me a lot of encouragement because it tells me that some people read my blog closely, not skimming down the length of it but actually evaluating what I have to say.

Negative or positive, reactions boost my self esteem immensely, as a writer and as a person. Today someone gave a very backhanded compliment. He said, “You’ve kept your standard. Your writing is hasn’t deteriorated at all!” I was proud I felt not a flicker of annoyance! And that’s the best thing I’ve got out of my blog. An ability to see humor in everything, an ability to observe the details, a keener sense of the life I am living. For those of you who feel like life is a haze, try blogging! You might find you have something very worthwhile to say.

While we judge foreigners writing on India harshly, Indians writing on India can be hypocritical as well! Apr 23, 2012

Patrick French, author of ‘India: A portrait’ wrote an enlightening piece in this Sunday’s Hindustan Times. He wonders why the Indian establishment of writers and critics is so touchy about foreigners writing or expressing themselves about India, when the same bunch are happy to be feted and accepted in the international media?

To me, the touchiness that Indians exhibit has always struck me as a peculiar trait. We simply have no sense of humor, especially when the joke is on us. That is true of Indians as individuals as much as it is true of us as a society, as a nation. So it isn’t surprising that we are sensitive about what people of foreign origin write/think/say about us, while we feel at liberty to create and believe in stereotypes (and make fun of these!) about the rest of the world.

However, the piece really got me thinking about Indian writings about India. There is this particular type of writing that is about India, but very obviously caters to a foreign audience. The type that picks on the quirks and then explains them in a terribly simplistic fashion. And the type that caricatures a very specific situation, but makes it sound like a norm. The type that paints India in a deliberately negative or ridiculously positive light for dramatic effect alone. I am all for artistic license and freedom of expression, but when you read stuff that is being written with the obvious thought of packaging it for those who do not know India first hand, exploiting the fact that India is a hot flavor in the international market and there is tremendous curiosity for things Indian, it gets a bit much! For those of us who live here and can see through the gimmicks in these books, they can be a humiliating experience.

And where is the category of Indian writers who live here, but write in the global context? Because India sells easy, do we writers in India not bother to step outside the context we are familiar with and create characters and narratives set in other geographical and cultural contexts? Are we then scared of the criticism, the quality of our research? Are we defensive as well?

Artists can be true to their art only if they stay uninfluenced by public perception! Feb 08, 2012

Amitav Ghosh, a writer of fiction who I particularly admire, blogged recently about the dangers of writers facing their audience in response to the recent trend of literary festivals and the Rushdie fiasco at the Jaipur Lit Fest. He makes the point that writers are able to take controversial positions and push the boundaries of thought only because they are separated from their audience. When writers put themselves in a position where they are being questioned, they will also be influenced, therefore weigh their words carefully and lose their spontaneity altogether. On a more serious note, society needs voices of dissent, opinions that ruffle feathers, perspectives that are different from the mainstream; who offers these if everyone is answerable and no one is willing to take the risk of speaking their mind?

I have written earlier about a scary culture of intolerance that is spreading through society. Ghosh’s piece also echoes a similar sentiment. There is an urgent need for defiance in our society; we conform too much, we give in too easily. We don’t want to think things through because we are convinced of the futility of such an exercise. We don’t really believe in change.

But we do want to publicize our smallest achievement and so, expecting writers to only write and not talk about their writing in today’s world is quite impractical. Most of us put up pictures of mundane events on Facebook and its but natural to share our achievements. But Ghosh’s piece made me wonder- When is the right time to share and exhibit our work/talents/creativity? A friend writes decent poetry, but shares her work with a select few, firm in her belief that her writing needs to mature much more before she would be willing to share it publicly. This is not out of shyness of lack of confidence, I suspect, but out of a desire to hone her talent in solitude with constructive feedback. Adulation and popular opinion can often derail a creative process completely.

Even as I blog my heart out to the world everyday, I admire the ones with restraint and patience; the ones who pursue art for art’s sake and worry about its saleability at a different level, that is independent from the process of creation. That’s how I think it should be. I worry immensely when I break my rules and visit the site stats page of my blog, when I should be worrying more about how good I feel about what I have created!

Contrary to popular belief, true confidence isn’t about keeping your art in the public eye constantly; its about making it accessible, sure, but most of all believing in it yourself and continuing to nurture it.

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