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The Devi Is In The Details
Published: Volume 18, Issue 7, July, 2010

This month, Parmesh Shahani learns about a legendary Indian artist-craftsman; then goes further East to unwind

By the time you read this, the wonderful Devi Prasad exhibit curated by Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Professor Naman Ahuja will no longer be up at the Lalit Kala Akademi in Delhi, but do try and get your hands on the sumptuous book if you can. Devi Prasad is known as one of the great Indian artist-potters and his ceramic works have been collected and shown previously in India and Britain. However, it was only after I saw the show, that I became aware of the variety and extent of his work. Pots, paintings, photographs, architectural drawings for structures like the one he created for the Indian National Congress’ Jaipur session in 1948, graphic designs, tool designs, writings…the exhibition covered 65 years of his work as an artist-craftsman from 1938 to 2003. I was lucky enough to get a private guided tour by Naman, who is in the middle of writing four books simultaneously and hence a very busy man indeed!

Prasad was an important figure in the arts and crafts movement worldwide, which was a fight against industralisation at the end of the Victorian era. This movement was founded on the cultures of India, Japan and China, but its historical impact, at least in India, has been ignored. Politically, Prasad participated actively in the Quit India Movement in 1942, in Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan and later, from 1962 onward, became the Secretary General (and later Chairman) of the War Resisters’ International, the world’s oldest pacifist organisation based in London.

He had quite an incredible creative life which began at Tagore’s Shantiniketan in 1944 and continued at Gandhi’s ashram, Sevagram, where he went to work as an art teacher. There he set up a Kala Bhavan – with a painting studio and pottery and photography workshops, where his commitment to the act of making was obvious, and this commitment extended right back to his source materials. Prasad did absolutely everything himself and also recorded everything he did meticulously. So as a potter he would build his own tools, kiln and wheel and in his subsequent studios, incorporated carpentry, welding and other such workshops. He would also write down precise recipes of clay, temperatures to fire pots, how to make tools, for other potters in his extensive diaries. Another thing which I found very interesting was his insistence on not having a signature style to identify his work. He preferred to play in a particular way and then move on, without attachment.

Naman spoke about how Prasad’s life might be read as a conflict between Tagore’s ideas of aesthetic beauty and Gandhi’s belief in functionality and practicality. One of the first few works that moved me in the exhibition was a self-portrait that he completed as his final painting in Shantiketan in which the young artist reclines on a bed with a book while watching two lizards. Naman’s account of Gandhi and Tagore’s organisations and their influence on Prasad as well as the many other factors that led to the possibility of his subsequent life such as Coomaraswamy coming back to India and starting printing presses or Gokhale’s own particular kind of activism was very insightful. I wish we had more such shows in India, with curators that contextualised artists’ lives against the backdrop of their times. I remember attending a Krishen Khanna retrospective some months earlier at the same venue, which seemed randomly put together and had absolutely no information for viewers about the body of work being displayed.

While in Delhi, I hosted an event with author Rahul Mehta at the Habitat Centre. Rahul’s book Quarantine is now making waves across India. The stories that are set in the US are particularly evocative in the way Rahul writes about the minute details of both desi as well as gay lives. The Tupperware containers, the separate beds in the basements, the club backrooms, the arguments whether Dolly Parton’s version of I will always love you is better than Whitney Houston’s…. When I read a preview copy of the book, I found myself nodding and smiling at several parts, relating to what was being described, and immediately said ‘yes’ when Random House asked me if I wanted to host the Delhi reading.

We spoke about the bleakness, and an undercurrent of pain and prickliness present in all his stories. Whenever happiness enters into any of these stories, it come in as a brief burst, like the sunlight that enters an apartment while friends are eating bagels and reading bits of The Times on Sunday – and it always involves other people, never the main protagonists themselves. Even the sex scenes seem harsh – there is so little tenderness – there is baring of teeth, there is crying. It is all very beautiful but also incredibly sad. Rahul brushed off Jhumpa comparisions but there are similarities in how both of them write about the Indian diaspora and the peculiar nature of Indian family dynamics. Ashok Row Kavi, who made it for the reading, made a good observation that in Rahul’s stories the protagonists keep on yanking the chain link of the family – but never break it. It tugs them right back into its orbit. Rahul charmed the audience pretty easily – his dark stories are such a contrast to his bright personality and the earnestness with which he ended the event by hoping that the world could be an equal place for everyone, a more socially just place that is not tied to things like marriage or sexuality or other markers of identity.

Fed up with the heat in both cities and waiting endlessly for the rains to arrive, I decide to whizz off to Bangkok for a quick break. (Naturally, it rains the very next day after I leave.) It’s perfectly safe here, Aaron Goodman, video journalist, who has been covering the troubles for Associated Press TV assures me, as we dig into our breakfast crepes at Sukhumvit’s Crepes and Co. The café is on a tree-lined street, right next to the famous Cabbages and Condoms. There are families with kids running around, while waiters in sailor stripes carry giant platters inside and outside. Bangkok Sunday brunches are as busy as Mumbai’s.

I have checked myself into a suite at the Lebua State Tower because I’ve heard so much about its 64th floor Dome with the Skybar and other restaurants that I’m simply dying to try them out and both the hotel as well as the restaurants live up to their hype. As I make my way through a divine dinner the next night at Sirocco – comprising among other courses, Wagyu beef tenderloin and super-yummy foie gras (clearly, the diet is on hold for a bit!) and look out at the shimmering lights of Bangkok, I can’t help thinking of my friends back in Mumbai. Are they still partying at Aer or have they all run back inside because of the recently arrived rains? Should I call them and see? Nah. There’s so much more to do.

Siam Paragon’s luxury sales to shop at. Siam Centre next door, where I discover cutting-edge Thai designers like Chanachai Jareeyathana whose brands 27 November and 27 Friday I can’t get enough of, or Tipayaphong Poosanaphong, whose sequins, colours and crazy store displays remind me of Manish Arora. Palaces to see, like the magnificent Grand Palace. Temples to visit – my favourite is Wat Pho or the temple with the reclining Buddha, where I have a soothing massage from students of the massage school ensconced within the temple complex. River cruises to meander on. Mumbai can wait.

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