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Since 1st March, 1999
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- When art is plugged into sockets

Occasionally, life takes you into the homes of seriously wealthy people and you get a glimpse of how the other .0005 per cent actually live. The house I visited recently was just outside Delhi, in one of those high security enclaves, right at the end of a winding road with a series of high walls and imposing gates belonging to other billionaires. Once inside the estate where you’ve been invited, you take in the modern pile, with its mixture of stone and wood textures interrupted by large walls of glass. As you walk in, the hostess greets you with gaiety and grace, after which somebody ushers you into the party which is in full swing. It’s the kind of place where the waiters remember exactly how you like your drink once you’ve told them; throughout the evening, you’re marked by one of them as if you are a centre-forward and they are part of the Italian defence line — never is your glass allowed to be empty for more than 30 seconds. The food is completely vegetarian, impeccable and endless. But neither the food nor the drink is the point of the evening: you are actually surrounded by a major collection of Indian contemporary art, and the particular occasion tonight is a preview of a Delhi artist’s sculptures that are on their way to a well-known gallery in New York.

At some point in the evening, a young artist, a friend of the family, takes me on a tour of the house. The bedrooms are upstairs, and each room and each adjoining bathroom is an exhibition space. In one master bedroom are the ‘old’ classics, a Gaitonde, a late period, fold-out watercolour series by Bhupen Khakar, a Ghulam Sheikh oil from (I’m guessing) the late Seventies or early Eighties. In another room, right where someone stumbling in his sleep can trip over them, are shallow trays from which some liquid has spilt; once switched on, the trays and liquid obviously do something. In a hallway, is a cupboard with glass panes: again, when switched on, the lab vessels inside start to fill and overflow with liquid, the stuff eventually seeping out of the cupboard and on to the nice parquet floor. Another hallway houses a small hut made from gobar, with a video playing inside. The pièce de résistance, the one I love best, is placed on the main landing: a steel dinosaur skeleton having its way with the behind of a sparklingly immaculate, cream Jaguar XJS. More animated art, this is also dependent on electricity. Once switched on, the steel dino starts a familiar metronomic pelvic movement, a long brass member moving in and out from under the back bumper of the classic 50s sports-car.

In the Sixties, when I was growing up in Lake Gardens, there was a semi-bohemian community of artists and writers, all camped next to the open gutters of the colony and in fledgling Jodhpur Park, the adjoining para. In those days, you could cut with a knife the contempt artist-manush-people had for Marwaris. This evening, in this Marwari mansion, I stand near the door of an installation bathroom and find myself reminiscing with an inmate of that area and time, an artist who struggled, who then became known, and who now is part of the ‘Delhi Scene’. The Gujju accent wraps around the Bangla with ease, it’s a kind of Bangla I know well, having heard Cal Gujjus speak it all my life. We stand in front of the loo that contains work by friends of mine, an ‘emotion clock’, various scales and measurements of feeling, and the senior painter talks about his time in Calcutta. “It was the richest time of my creative life. I discovered myself as a painter during this period.”

That was the Calcutta when Naxalites were Naxalites, Medos were Medos, and to have any gizmo (forget about a work of art) that depended on electricity was nothing short of lunatic optimism. Now, in this well-oiled über-dacha where so much art is plugged into sockets, I look at the once-from-Calcutta-senior-artist, and wonder at how things have changed while I was too busy to notice.


Coming into Heathrow’s Terminal 3 always puts me into a state of not-so-mild schizophrenia. I hate the signs that sort me out as a ‘non-UK’ and ‘non-EU’ passport; I hate the long and winding road to the immigration desk, the maze that is created by ropes, the ones that some young woman from Southall is always shifting, saying “come this way please”, moving us along like sheep in an abattoir. Most of all, I hate that look of nervousness, and even panic, that desis get as they shuffle closer to the bank of desks. I am always the one people hit for a pen as they struggle to fill in their arrival cards and, as often happens to people who are possessive about their writing instruments, I quite often don’t get my pen back as the thing disappears into the miasma of underplayed terror. Every time I promise myself I will keep a cheap ballpoint, just to hand over to some quivering middle-aged behenji arriving in Inglyund for the first time.

On the flip side, I do like the speed with which the friendly darwans of UK-ness process hundreds of people. It’s all done without fuss and, certainly, with no trace of the pomposity you find at US airports or when arriving in France. Touching all kinds of wood, I’ve personally never had to worry about being let through, but there is no bunch of visa inspectors I would rather face than these ones. And once they let you through, there is good old normal London to wade into outside.

This time, fresh from my Art-Party, I see the whole thing as an installation/performance: Space with Rope and Figures. They’ve changed the lighting at the immigration theatre, as one could call it; instead of the spotlights they used to have, the ones pointing straight down that gave a melodramatic effect and turned every immigration officer into Richard III, they now have a general tube-lit kind of space. This is not so much to do with security, I suspect, as with some interior designer bozo who is nostalgic for the Seventies in which s/he never lived. Or, correction, the lighting may not have to do with security but it may have to do with wanting to seem less welcoming.

The young man at the desk is completely friendly though, his tone almost warm as he asks me, “And why are you visiting this country, Sir?” I have several replies available, all of them truthful, but suddenly I remember the steel dinosaur mounting the Jag and I have an urge to say, “I am here to pleasure myself upon the excellent motor-cars you used to make in the 1950s.” I control myself, mumble some friendly guff about books and films, and make my way to the luggage circus. The flight has left me feeling like an ageing tyrannosaurus, and, furthermore, one in severe need of a nicotine fix.


Barely a week into the nice globally warmed winter, I talk to a Cal friend on the phone. “The State Cabinet has okayed the uprooting of all the bastis in Calcutta,” he tells me, “now the developers can declare open season on the slums.” Suddenly, in all this order and early cherry blossoming, I am missing the large and continuous art-work that is Calcutta.

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