Life | Off The Shelf

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Off The Shelf
Text by Supriya Nair
Published: Volume 17, Issue 12, December, 2009

Ravi Varma’s life, befriending a radical Islamist, stories from Karachi, roboteers, dying folk arts, coffee-table collectibles and cocktail recipes... Supriya Nair finds an eclectic mix of reads this month


Pal’s first book, The Painter, is a compulsively readable new life of Raja Ravi Varma. Pal puts the much-mythologised Varma and the tumultuous times in which he lived and worked into poised, balanced prose while painting a comprehensive picture.

One enduring myth you’ve had to bust about Raja Ravi Varma in conversations.
That his name was ‘Raja Ravi Varma,’ when it was, in fact, just Ravi Varma. And I’ll give you another – it’s the idea that he was a bohemian hedonist, when in fact he was someone who woke at four a.m. to offer prayers, was very traditional, and went to bed early. He was concerned with giving the artist’s job respectability; he had to live a respectable and disciplined life. Not quite a Picasso.

His work unselfconsciously resounds as kitsch as well as high art. How did you negotiate those boundaries, as a critic?
At his time, what he was doing was extremely high art. I kept the context of his times in mind as I wrote the book, knowing that feminine beauty, or the urge to touch the silk of a fabric in his canvases, may not seem avant-garde or important at a time when conceptual art is the big thing. But his work was important in paving the way for what we now see as modern art.

Varma’s enjoyed a plethora of homages over the years. Any personal favourites?
I love Pushpamala’s take, both on his Lakshmi and Lady in Moonlight. And I love the anonymous forgery of At the Bath that I’ve used on the book cover. You see this print all over Trivandrum shops, but the original hangs in a private gallery at the Cowdiar Palace and is very different!

Would he have made it on Mumbai’s Page 3 circuit today?
Yes. We’d have loved him.


My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with a Radical Islamist

Sadanand Dhume
Tranquebar-Westland, 2009

So, a book related to Islam written by a reporter who once began a newspaper piece on the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks with the words ‘it is tempting to dismiss [this] as merely another sorry episode in India’s flailing effort to combat terrorism.’ You think you know how this one’s going to go. But there’s enough to surprise you in Sadanand Dhume’s My Friend The Fanatic. Most of it lies in his fantastic subject: the book is the result of his journeys through Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, in the aftermath of the 2002 Bali blasts. He travels through the nation with Herry Nurdi, a young man who lives a life both in tune with and oddly out of touch with his discomfiting dogmas (which include a special fondness for Osama bin Laden). To Dhume, radical Islam and globalisation compete for dominance in a country whose deeply pluralist roots are overwritten by its society’s growing fanaticism. The attitude is not particularly helpful or insightful for Indians in the process of negotiating similar cultural situations. The stories, however, are important.


Ghalib at Dusk and other Stories
Nighat M. Gandhi
Tranquebar-Westland, 2009

Stories from Karachi, Allahabad and Ahmedabad. Poignant characters brought to life by a lovely, mature voice.
Cyberabad Days
Ian McDonald
Hachette India, 2009

A sequel to the brilliantly-received River of Gods. Water wars, roboteers and a fractured superpower. Thrilling stuff.
The New Anthem:
The Subcontinent in its Own Words
Edited by Ahmede Hussain
Tranquebar-Westland, 2009
Anthologising the major voices of the last decade-and-a-half of the subcontinent. Selects for accomplishment over the cutting edge, and succeeds in a solid representation of the wealth of the region’s literary talent.


LSE-graduate, barrister and bartender Bhaichand Patel has lived in many parts of the world, and seems to have kept an intense beverage dairy. Happy Hours – The Penguin Book of Cocktails, promises to keep spirits up, not to miss the helpful hangover cures.
While you are preparing a heady cocktail mix for that fabulous soiree, we recommend one of the Vivanta Specials: the lip-smacking Curry Martini. An exclusive peek at the recipe: Passion fruit juice, 30 ml; Pineapple juice, 90 ml; Kahlua 15 ml; Orange-flavoured vodka, 45 ml; Lime juice and sugar, 20 ml; Curry leaves, 4 pieces; Lemongrass, 4 pieces. Mix the alcohol in a Martini shaker, and muddle the curry leaves and lemon grass. Serve in a chilled Martini glass.







Folk Yatra: Indian Legacy
Mini Chandran Kurian
Jill and the Beanstalk 2009

Veteran journalist Chandran Kurian comes out with a book full of exquisite photographs that highlight some of the dying folk arts of India. From the banana fibre craft of Kerala to the patashilpa, the divine art of West Bengal, and the Gond paintings of Madhya Pradesh, the book provides an evocative journey through ancient art forms around the country. The author’s knack for telling stories makes for a moving, humane narrative of the people who keep these arts alive, compelled by circumstance as well as creative motivation.

To India With Love: From New York to Mumbai
Edited by Waris Ahluwalia, Tina Bhojwani, Mortimer Singer
Assouline, 2009

Featuring local and international celebrity contributors from the world of the arts, fashion, politics and business (Diane von Furstenberg, Elizabeth Hurley, Padma Lakshmi, Natalie Portman, Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla, Hemant Oberoi, Karan Johar, MF Husain, Mukesh Ambani, Ratan Tata, Saif Ali Khan, Zubin Mehta, Anuradha and Anand Mahindra among others) the beautifully illustrated hard-back tome is a scrapbook of love letters to India, with the idea of raising awareness and funds to support Mumbai after the November 2008 attacks.



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