Editorial / Ministering to the economy
Picasso in the capital city
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the Editor

 
 
EDITORIAL / MINISTERING TO THE ECONOMY 
 
 
 
 
The slow-moving saga of economic reforms in India suddenly has a new hero. The original hero was, of course, Mr Manmohan Singh, who was part author, part hero of the saga. After he moved out of the finance ministry to join the backroom politics of the Congress working committee, the reform process has had only bit players who said their lines without any accompanying action. Mr Arun Shourie, the minister for disinvestment, by announcing a package of proposals to diminish the state’s control over the economy has written himself into the narrative of reforms in India. It is not enough to laud Mr Shourie although he has done more for disinvestments than all the finance ministers who, since 1991, have promised to further privatization. It is important to underline that what Mr Shourie has announced are decisions, not promises. There can no longer be any slips between the cup and the lip. These decisions, for their significance to be properly appreciated, must be seen in a wider context. A budget, it has been famously observed, is a political statement from the government and not a mere tabling of accounts. Even though Mr Shourie’s decisions are by no means a budget statement, they cannot be understood outside the political context. The timing heightens the significance embedded in the decisions. Coming three weeks before the Union budget, Mr Shourie’s decisions say much more than what is immediately apparent.

There is no denying that Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government has been in limbo for some time. It has neither acted nor reacted to anything. It has been stuck in the morass of controversies like the prevention of organized terrorism ordinance, Tehelka and defence deals. Mr Shourie has replaced this inertia with a display of initiative. He has shown that economic reform is not a dead letter and Mr Vajpayee’s government is not stricken by rigor mortis. Mr Shourie has also gambled. It is the conventional wisdom of Indian politics that economic reforms are not a vote winner. Mr Shourie has announced his decisions just before the onset of crucial elections in Uttar Pradesh. Obviously, Mr Shourie was emboldened by the victory in the controversial Balco case. He has also brought into the exchequer Rs 2500 crore in a single day.

There is another aspect because of which the timing is noteworthy. Following the practice adopted by Mr Singh, finance ministers, including the present one, Mr Yashwant Sinha, have always announced major economic reforms in their budget speech. There has been a very deliberate departure from this practice. The finance minister has not announced the decisions, and they have been kept outside the budget speech. There is the clear suggestion here that Mr Sinha was not an active player in the making of this set of decisions. If the decisions were announced by Mr Sinha in his budget speech, the finance minister would have earned the brownie points and basked in their greater glory. This opportunity has been closed for him. After this, Mr Sinha’s budget speech cannot but be lacklustre. The name of Mr Arun Shourie is perhaps being written on the walls of North Block.

   

 
 
PICASSO IN THE CAPITAL CITY 
 
 
BY AMIT CHAUDHURI
 
 
When Picasso didn’t come to Calcutta, the city mourned briefly, then recovered. With so much passing it by — in investment and industry — the failure of a major exhibition to arrive should have left no one surprised; and, after all, art and capital are joined to each other inextricably. Yet the insult remained.

One was curious, too, to have known what a Picasso — say, Portrait of Marie-Therese Walter — would have looked like in Calcutta, with the traffic, the incomplete flyovers, and the mini buses at arm’s length. It would have added another dimension to the Picasso painting, which, anyway, is always about the deferral of its meaning. Picasso’s guitars, his women, his men with mandolins, break apart and come together again: to view them in Calcutta — the notion so contrary as to, in itself, constitute an aesthetic experience — would have meant to subject them to that breakdown and recongealment in yet another way.

It was not to be. Delhi has become our city of exhibitions, of late-night television discussions, state visits, inscrutable policy-making, stentorian speeches, dull, knowing commentaries on those speeches by social scientists, book launches ridden with envy, visiting American and German lecturers who have written books on the history of Indian art, or on Nehru, Black Cat commandos and biannual shoot-outs, endless lunches of appam and stew with fresh orange juice at the India International Centre, where more VIPs (that ugly word, India’s favourite abbreviation) congregate within spitting distance of each other than they do at Parliament. Here are, terrifyingly, the people in whose hands our country reportedly lies. It is a city of inaugurations; it’s only right, then, that Picasso should be inaugurated here, before journeying to Bombay, and not journeying to Calcutta.

The exhibition, naturally, did not have everything. There were none of the “taciturn and androgynous harlequins”, as his friend, the poet Apollinaire, called them; nothing I noticed from the Blue Period, nor the huge balloon-like women sprinting weightlessly by the seaside. Yet one was still struck by what is most disconcerting in Picasso: his bewildering variety of styles and signatures, from the Cubist representations of stringed instruments, the collages of the same, the black and white etchings of the Minotaur series, the distorted, garishly coloured faces of his women friends, the early imitations of Cezanne, the sculptures. He is not so much a Renaissance man, a master of competing genres, as an incorrigible dabbler in different modes of painting, from Surrealism to the Cubism he inherited from Cezanne; he is a sort of Auden of art.

What reminds one of Auden as one wanders through the exhibition is the evidence of indefatigability, the need to be seen to be always at work. Both Auden and Picasso are the great peddlers and vendors of their respective art-forms, Auden bringing to his clientele an array of wares — the short lyric, the long discursive poem, the love poem, the political poem, the ballad, “light verse”, reworkings of Shakespeare and of Christian mythologies; in their restlessness and promiscuity, both painter and poet embarrass those of us who believe in the focussed but circumscribed dignity of the artist’s vocation. Unlike Cezanne, for instance, who removed himself from the public eye and worked in controlled bursts of activity, revising and revising a single painting, Picasso, like Auden, not only reinvented himself constantly, but reinvented himself in public; his revisions, and departures, are his paintings.

It is always difficult to view a classic; it does not explode in our faces; one has to work one’s way towards it. If one ignores its prickliness, one will, depending on one’s temperament, or one’s mood at the moment, give it a curt glance, or a few moments’ devoted obeisance, then move on. One is hindered, further, by an absolute lack of familiarity with the original, and over-familiarity with its reproductions; its several incarnations in histories of art, encyclopaedias, and posters. Like the “Ode to a Nightingale”, one has already memorized it in childhood, and can no longer see it or know it afresh.

The work of art loses its aura in the age of mechanical reproduction, said Walter Benjamin once; this is almost true, but not quite. Instead, the aura gets transferred to the bric-a-brac, generated by the artist, which we have inadvertently hoarded; the Picasso postcards and prints that have become besmirched and hallowed with time, and with the phases in our lives made up of forgotten social interchanges, sexual quickenings, and disappointments: for it was at that moment that we discovered Picasso. To confront the original after this is to almost come face to face with a Platonic idea, something removed from the world of the flesh.

My first disappointment with the original of a masterpiece came when I was eleven years old. I was in the Louvre in Paris; the Mona Lisa was not far away from me and my parents. I had seen her pictures in school; I had discussed, perplexed, with my friends the reason for this being the most famous painting in the world. Only one of them could enlighten me. “From whichever direction or spot you look at it,” he said, “it seems to be looking at you.” This seemed to be true. I put other portraits, even photographs, to this test, and it seemed to be equally true of them; but I decided it was more true of the Mona Lisa. Nevertheless, by the time I was in the Louvre, I was prepared to be unimpressed by the masterpieces of Western civilization. The Mona Lisa was being mobbed, and was difficult to approach. When we finally did, my disillusionment was complete. I said to mother in my Cathedral School intonation (the line has been repeated to me often, as if it somehow presages immortality), “Ma, what’s so great about it?”

A degree of scepticism about Picasso survives even today; I saw it in the faces of the passers-by in the exhibition. It poses itself as an unarticulated but pressing question: “Am I being had — is this really a painting?” The question has not lost its force with familiarity or the passage of time; it is as if Picasso were less a painter than an illusionist, his business less art than sleight-of-hand. But the misgiving it voices is a perfectly valid, and respectable, constituent of our response to Picasso. For illusionism, or legitimate trickery, is an integral part of modern Western art, if we discount works of realists like the American Edward Hopper. It is there in the Impressionists; it made their early critics snarl that the human figures on their canvases were “tongues or smudges”. It is there in Dali, who turns Mae West’s lips into a sofa; in Magritte, in one of whose paintings a window looking out on a landscape doubles as a canvas and easel.

Nowhere in Picasso’s work is his illusionism, his instinct for trickery, put to better use than in his sculpture: into the bicycle seat turned into an antelope’s face, or the magnificently pregnant she-goat made from scrap iron and a wicker basket (both were displayed in the exhibition). Looking at the series of photographs of Picasso in the first gallery, I was reminded — perhaps by the neatly combed hair and the predominance of the black suit — that his world was not so distant from the world of the professional performer or magician. The black and white photographs also took me back to the early black and white French films, and, in particular, to the figure of Michel Simon in Jean Vigo’s wonderful film, first released in 1936 after his death, L’Atlante.

This is a film, Truffaut said, whose feet smell; it captures something of the dilettanteish bohemian life of magic tricks and carnal desire from which Picasso’s art sprang, and which he discovered, in Montmartre in Paris, in 1900. In it, a newlywed couple decide to spend their honeymoon upon a barge (called L’Atlante) going down the river, in the company of kittens, and an old layabout played by Michel Simon. Simon, one day, takes the bride to his room below the deck, and shows her his cabinet of curiosities. Here is a Picasso-like assortment: “rattles, tinkling musical boxes, a sawfish bone, hats from places faraway. a fan, photographs, an elephant tusk,” to quote from Marina Warner’s little book on the film. Suspended in a bottle full of liquid is a severed hand.

Terrified and charmed, Juliette, our heroine, looks on as the old man displays to her the tattoos on his body. On his stomach is a face, its lips drawn around Simon’s navel. When Simon inserts a cigarette into his navel and moves his stomach muscles, the cigarette seems to move in the mouth of the painted face. This tomfoolery, this frivolous inventiveness and amateur magic, this refusal to let a square inch of the universe go to waste in the production of a work of art, is pure Picasso; and Juliette’s shock of physical delight at that moment is not too far from our own response to the Spaniard’s achievement.

   

 
 
THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

The party and its faces

Faces that could launch a million votes. The Congress in UP is in need of a few more of these spares. Sonia Gandhi’s alone is proving to be terribly insufficient. And there is no hope of Priyanka turning up. Worse, there are practically no takers for the other CWC faces — Manmohan Singh, K Natwar Singh, Arjun Singh, Ambika Soni, Ahmad Patel and others. But small mercies. In Uttaranchal, Ajit Jogi has turned out to be a big hit, although many still wonder why he is proving to be so popular in a Himalayan state where weaker sections are in a hopeless minority. Many think it could be Ajit’s money power, while others believe that it is a case of mistaken identity. People most probably think he is a yogi, that is, a spiritual person. Jogi, not unexpectedly, has taken to this spiritual business rather seriously and has been reportedly visiting a beauty saloon in south Delhi regularly. He fully understands his face value. So does Bollywood star, Sanjay Khan, who unfortunately has shifted favours. A regular campaigner for the Congress, he is being sorely missed. Despite having gained Laloo Prasad in his stead, many Congresswallahs think that Khan could have at least spared his famous star son-in-law in these difficult times. But would that have been enough to give the Congress the much needed facelift?

All for free

Talk about face-offs. The battle in Punjab seems to be getting murkier with every passing day. Chief minister, Parkash Singh Badal, has gone to town with his worries over how the Congress chief, Amrinder Singh, will be able to run the state, just in case he wins, when he cannot even drive a car. Badal supporters, apparently, are also contributing their bit by circulating juicy little stories about Singh. The Amrinder camp is not sitting idle either. It is trying to dig out details about Badal’s reported links with the former SGPC chief, Bibi Jagir Kaur, and the mysterious events that led to the death of Jagir’s daughter. Lending substance to the campaign is Kanwaljeet, the self-proclaimed husband of the daughter, who has taken the battle to Jagir’s turf in Bolath. So wait for a murkier finish.

Tripping over

Caught in the flight. The Union civil aviation minister, Shahnawaz Husain, likes to stay in the news and keep seniors guessing. Often he is heard commenting on LK Advani or glorifying Pramod Mahajan. Husain, however, crossed the lakshmanrekha when he dared to remove the picture of the PM himself from a newspaper advertisement announcing the haj flights. The PMO promptly sought an explanation from Husain, who once again didn’t know where to duck. Don’t fly so high, dear!

Caught in a double bind

Lady of situations. Mamata Banerjee is troubled enough by the fact that she has to go on waiting at the threshold of the powers that be in Delhi. To add to her sleeplessness is another problem. She simply has no clue about how to control her marauding partymen. Didi has apparently received reports about how Trinamoolis, particularly those at the Calcutta Municipal Corporation, are getting rich. From water to sewage, from garbage to car-parking, councillors seem to be minting money. Anil Mukherjee, the CMC chairman, is said to have commented that the way the corporation was being run is a shame for the party. Didi seemingly agrees. She is said to have been thinking about asking partymen to submit their IT statements. Trinamoolis however are unconcerned. They know didi can bark, but no longer bite. The one person who knows it especially well is the mayor himself. He did not react to Mamata’s clean up act, but decided to tell Mukherjee that there was little point discussing the subject. Those who found it unacceptable could just leave. Was that message meant for Mukherjee only? Possibly not.

Stuck in a watering hole

Some civic services. Something short of an epic drama is going on inside the water resources ministry. The minister, Arjun Sethi, and his secretary, BN Nawalawala, have been continually at loggerheads ever since BN was brought in much against the wishes of the minister. Now it is Sethi’s turn. To cut the secretary to size, another sample has been brought in. This is Radha Singh, Bihar cadre officer and sister of the fabled Nandubabu. Nawalawala, a Central water engineering services officer from Gujarat who is to retire this year, is now said to be having a trying time crossing swords with the no-nonsense Radha. Need for some extra-retirement benefit perhaps.

Unbold and beautiful

Priyanka and Robert Vadra were in a well-known five star restaurant sipping at their drinks when a sudden tiff broke out. The Nehru-Gandhi stormed out and so did her SPG guards. Vadra was seen dawdling in the reception area till the SPG came to take him back to his wife. Robert must have guessed by now that self-respect was the first casualty for anyone who dared marry a Nehru-Gandhi.

Did they meet?

The Big B was in the capital last Thursday to present a cheque of Rs 2.61 crore to Doordarshan in order to clear his debts. Old flame Rekha was spotted nearby having a meal at Santushti. On being questioned, the dusky star was quick to deny any links with Amitabh Bachchan’s visit to the city. She apparently was there to inaugurate a jewellery store. Fair enough. But that’s too much of a coincidence, isn’t it?

Footnote / Piety begins at home

When in doubt, turn to god. Upset by CBI “harassment”, maverick RJD chief, Laloo Prasad Yadav, has taken to religion with gusto. He now reportedly sports numerous rings on various fingers, reads aloud the Hanuman Chalisa and Bhagvad Gita, and has started visiting temples and organizing havans to appease the angry gods. Apparently, last month itself he had gone round three temples — one at Hazaribagh, the second at Deoghar and the third in Shidhi. Religiosity has its gastronomical costs as well. A staunch non-vegetarian, Laloo seems to be veering towards the veggie side. He has seemingly given up on murgi, which he himself cooked using different recipes, and it’s been weeks since he tasted kebabs, kormas, keema and biryani. His love for hilsa, surmai and pomfret has not diminished as yet, but he is trying hard to control himself. Recently, while lunching at the residence of his college mate, Laloo is said to have surprised everyone by refusing to touch the fish. Saint of a man. If only one’s sins didn’t come home to roost.    

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

A different role

Sir — It is not surprising that politicians have cried foul over Amitabh Bachchan’s role in the Samajwadi Party’s election campaign (“Big B phobia grips UP rivals”, Feb 5). Bachchan regaled the crowd with dialogues from his hit films like Sholay and Silsila, even as he subtly exhorted them to vote for Mulayam Singh Yadav. Be it the distribution of artificial limbs or blood donation camps, Bachchan seems to be enjoying his new role. But is he testing the political waters again, years after his failed entry? Or is he just repaying a debt to old friends who had helped him clear off dues after his company went bust?

Yours faithfully
Urmila Ghosh, Patna

Open minds

Sir — Aveek Sen’s “An alien happiness” (Feb 5), was a wonderful read. More such articles are needed to change the taboo-ridden mindset that we Indians so passionately patronize. I strongly believe that section 377 of the Indian Penal Code is one of the most vague and mindless legal provisions in India. Moreover, it is often used as a weapon of abuse, extortion and blackmail by the police. It is time India woke up from its colonial stupor to the realities of life. But as Sen warns, it would be sad if the section was undone for the fear of the AIDS epidemic. We must press for the abolition of this law because it is opposed to the very nature and spirit of the fundamental rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution. The gay and lesbian community must have access to these human rights as they are no different from the more numerous heterosexual population in the country.

Yours faithfully,
S. Ghose, Calcutta

Sir — In his well-timed article, Aveek Sen has justly pointed out that decriminalization of homosexuality is only a part of the process towards its legalization. It is the moral responsibility of the society at large to begin formulating ways of talking about homosexuality outside the discourses of AIDS and mental disorderliness. This is, of course, not just for the sake of the elite in big cities, where notions of “pleasure” and “self-fulfilment” are being voiced. The society needs to develop and change its mindset in order to protect some of its most vulnerable members, many of whom work in the sex industry without pleasure, without choice and without a voice. It is hoped that Sen’s article might be the first step in alleviating their plight.

Yours faithfully,
Aniruddha Bose, Calcutta

Sir — Aveek Sen seems to suggest that pleasure should be counted as a reason for the abolition of section 377. But if people are allowed to do whatever it is that gives them pleasure, should not the world end in chaos.?

Yours faithfully,
Jyoti Samanta, Calcutta

Try again

Sir — It was good to have the president harp back to socialism on the eve of the 52nd Republic Day. He argued for the extension of job quotas to the private sector for those who live below the poverty line and the need to rejuvenate socio-economic structures. However, K.R. Narayanan also spoke of the need for private investors to take part in the process, thus aligning himself uncharacteristically with the government’s line of thinking. Is this the crumbling of another great bastion of socialism?

Yours faithfully
Naren Sen, Calcutta

Sir — I fully agree with the editorial, “Speech day” (Jan 29), on the president’s speech. Why has K.R. Narayanan mellowed? Why does he show signs of reconciliation with the prime minister? The answer is that the president’s term is expiring and Narayanan is not averse to the thought of a second term in office. In his earlier addresses to the nation he stood loyal to the Congress that was responsible for his election to the highest office of the Union of India. Narayanan’s refusing to be a rubber stamp for the cabinet was not so much because of his convictions as for his considering himself to be part of the opposition. He toed the Congress line and lost no opportunity to embarrass the Bharatiya Janata Party. Perhaps now is the time for a “reconciliation” with the BJP.

Yours faithfully,
H.C. Johari, Calcutta

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