Sunday, March 11, 2018

American/Australian performers

Cultural differences between Australians and Americans can extend to and visibly play out in performance spaces. Australian audiences can expect performers to be ‘relaxed’, and to engage them in a jokey, jovial or even blasé manner. Australians might appreciate some self-deprecating humour and like artistes to not take themselves too seriously. They might giggle loudly during breaks in the music to provoke the performer on stage, for example - generally in a good natured way. Americans, on the other hand, can be much more earnest, serious, passionate and intense about their work and perhaps life in general. They might find the Aussie vibe slightly disconcerting. I’m not suggesting that Aussies are unserious. They are very focused and dedicated but appreciate good humour and a self- deprecating disposition, especially in performers and public figures. American performers tend to engage with audiences in a more earnest way. In general, for most of my life I have also been an earnest and serious type (I get along extremely well with Americans and admire many of them greatly) but I am getting used to and can appreciate the Aussie self-deprecating approach.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

The needle in the haystack - reporting brain injury

Media reporting of stories that involve injuries and trauma are always (necessarily) incomplete. Injuries can be incidental to the story or narrative that is being focalised, and, as such, may appear as a vestigial detail in a report. It is well-nigh impossible to capture the magnitude of the impact on each individual casualty. The word 'casualty' signals that disturbing (but unavoidable) semantic quality of being reducible to a statistic - a part of a tally. A report about a terrorist attack or a mass casualty incident will include some details of the trauma inflicted on a few victims or survivors, but these threadbare details are minuscule and inevitably inadequate markers of the 'reality' of the experience and impact. It is impossible to convey the magnitude of the experience of injury and trauma, and it is completely unrealistic to expect to understand what it was like for each individual person. However, that desire to know and sense of needing to know and understand the experience - of wanting the elusive description of trauma to be fully comprehensive and comprehensible - can be quite insistent. 

To mark the one-year anniversary of the 20 January 2017 Bourke Street attack in Melbourne - in which the attacker drove a speeding car into a busy pedestrian thoroughfare, killing six and wounding thirty people - some media channels have told the stories of some of the victims and survivors, allowing the latter to reflect on their recollections of the day and the aftermath. One of the survivors, a thirty-something year-old man, was hit by the speeding car and thrown some meters, flying, into a taxi. He crashed headlong into the taxi and then collapsed onto the ground, badly hitting his head. He managed to crawl onto the kerb and into a building before blacking out. The report described that, upon regaining consciousness and emerging from his concussion in hospital, he was determined to be in a stable condition. The skeletal fractures that he'd suffered in the attack were attended to. The report summarised that, one year since this incident, this man had resumed normal life. He is now OK.  

It is hard to explain how inadequate this description is. Knowing full well that all such descriptions must of necessity be incomplete and inadequate, the gaps and fissures that mark the surface of this account render the words hollow. What does it mean to be normal again after this transformative experience of trauma that inflicted brain injury, with potentially long-lasting repercussions and lingering trauma that is imperceptible to others but ever-present for the survivor? The comforting and reassuring claim of a return to normalcy is belied by the original description. However, our desire for resolutions is an overpowering one, and we cannot, in the space of a few sentences, adequately reflect the unresolved and irresolvable nature of trauma. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The triumph of the symbolic

[A blog in progress...]

A realisation 

In India, the symbolic seems to have greater resonance than the material. By this I mean that the power and potency of symbolic markers, gestures, signage and 'acts', inter alia, is greater than that of material markers, conditions and 'acts'. This is not to suggest that material conditions can be ignored or that they are generally de-prioritised in relation to the symbolic. Certainly not - and it'd be remiss of me to downplay the importance of material conditions as well as the primacy of (what used to be called, with a modicum of dismissive-ness) 'materialism' (essentially commercialism) in contemporary Indian culture. But on a subterranean and more fundamental level, questions of a symbolic nature and significance resonate in a way that questions of a material nature do not. 

This is definitely not a contemporary phenomenon but a longstanding one. What does it mean exactly? Well, that is difficult to spell out explicitly. Put simply, for the most part, names, images, icons, representations, films, designations, signage, conspicuous demonstration of both symbolic (even abstract and magical) power (e.g., a temple) and material power (e.g., a home), symbolic markers of primordial belonging, symbolic markers of social and economic status, among various other symbolic entities - as well as issues relating to these - have a resonance and inspire a level of emotive investment that material questions and issues simply do not. 

The symbolic is certainly not a standalone category; it is undergirded by the material. However, in every visible manifestation of the palpable tension between the symbolic and the material, the symbolic tends to triumph. 

It is hard to describe this tension but it can be seen, for instance, in this visual: an impressive, utterly glorious temple - with a soaring steeple, and magnificent arches and sculpture, in the midst of a crumbling, dilapidated streetscape; the soaring genius of the sculptor juxtaposed against the failure of the engineer/urban bureaucrat. 

Indisputably, the construction of a temple is a patently material process -  involving more engineering than iconography. But the temple overall is a symbolic entity (in terms of its conception and the purpose it serves), and, as such, the material investment that goes into it assumes a symbolic valence. This investment can be juxtaposed with investment in less symbolically-charged material processes (such as the construction of a road, for example), and found to be far more significant - on every conceivable level. The manifest disjuncture between the gloriousness of the temple and poor state of the infrastructure surrounding it exemplifies the triumph of the symbolic.  

Art is more beautiful than infrastructure. The genius of the symbolic worker (an arguably contentious category that may include all those who produce works that draw on symbolic modes - such as words and images [both religious and secular] - the content creator, essentially; as well as those who invest in symbolic entities) is outstanding and distinguishable, whereas the genius of the material worker is shrouded in a dense fog. I am not sure whether this can be rephrased using a more agentic/agential frame - the genius of the symbolic worker flourishes while the genius of the material worker is stifled and constrained (because of economic and social conditions, etc.). 

Somehow, this tension between the symbolic and the material tends to reveal itself to you as a philosophical issue (chasm even) when you step back and deliberately adopt a more distant perspective. Otherwise, it is among those things that you take for granted. How does it affect everyday life? That is the difficult question. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017


I think the way in which we use the term Asian-Australian is important. The hyphenation is a critical part of that. The term evokes hybridity and interaction, rather than straightforward identification. It’s necessarily much more complex than either of its two components considered individually. An Asian-Australian, to me, is someone who is conscious of their migrant status, whatever stage of temporality or permanency their journey might be at, as well as of their continued investment in a new homeland. Asian-Australian is an intercultural concept rather than a strictly political one. It conveys a sense of coming-into-being and expansiveness that is quite distinct from the authoritative, established and assertive sense that underlies both strictly ‘Asian’ or ‘Australian’ identification. It conveys a sense of commitment to an ongoing project of discovery and negotiation. Is it a tentative concept? Some might argue that it is. But perhaps that is authentic to the experience of being a migrant or a descent of migrants. 


Who represents the diaspora? Representation is always a tricky concept because classifying, categorising or characterising something as representative entails investing that person, idea, practice or thing with power, even if the circumstances surrounding this are problematic. This process of investing something with power is always inherently fraught but spontaneously occurs, takes place or is deliberately enacted in diaspora contexts in an almost unreflective manner. This is arguably true irrespective of whether the participants in this process are members of that diaspora community or others. Sometimes, the links between the cultural contexts of the ‘home country’ and the ‘diasporic enactments’ of the ‘host country’ are seamless, demonstrating a continuity of values, attitudes, thought processes and practices. This may include hierarchical attitudes to representation, both formal and informal.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

IP and appropriation of crafts

This is the kind of cultural appropriation that gets my back up. The sheer impossibility of enforcing any semblance of an IP claim when traditional crafts - learned, produced, marketed and transmitted within communal frameworks - are appropriated by giant MNCs is far more of a substantial concern than any of the other gimmicks that provoke debates around cultural appropriation. These products are sold by craftsmen as merchandise in their own geographically delimited markets, so it's really a question of MNCs taking advantage of the artists' lack of market access and capitalising on (or 'stealing') their designs. But the legal or even philosophical dilemma here is, how can one address issues of ownership, proper attribution, etc., when no proper framework exists for the recognition of 'IP' (which is invariably a nebulous concept when one is talking about traditional crafts)? At the very least I think MNCs should be compelled by existing IP laws to use the proper names of the products they're marketing. Correct attribution doesn't compensate for lack of compensation but at least it's something. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Fear, loathing and politically-motivated violence at Delhi University

On 22 February, students who had gathered to attend a public lecture at a college in Delhi University were severely beaten and assaulted by alleged members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP).

The event was to feature two students from Jawaharlal Nehru University, one of whom had been arrested last year on charges of “sedition” for the “crime” of organising an event where “anti-national” slogans were raised by demonstrators. (In India, “sedition” remains a statutory offense, punishable with up to a lifetime of incarceration.)

At the event last week, attending students (many of them belonging to the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)-affiliated All India Students Association (AISA)) and professors were assaulted, and the event was prevented from taking place. On 27 February, further protests and counter-protests by ABVP on the one hand, and AISA and other groups on the other, roiled the university. A febrile atmosphere has descended on campuses around Delhi.

Groups like the ABVP use violence, intimidation and harassment to stifle political discussions on university campuses. They create an atmosphere of strife and indulge in blatant fear-mongering to provide cover and justification for the violence they routinely inflict on people who do not share their worldview. As seen in the aftermath of this most recent incident, politicians and police often condone this violence, both directly and indirectly.

The core message that comes through the ABVP’s demagoguery and politicking is that the “nation” is in grave and imminent danger; that vile “anti-nationals” are out to destroy everything that they hold dear – “peace”, “unity” and “development” (even if each of these notional attainments is fraught with contradictions); that only the paragons of the ABVP can defeat this implacable evil, this profound danger and existential threat that is “anti-national” thought.

But the first question that comes to mind is – what exactly are they claiming to defend?

What or where is this nation that is so imperilled by the calumnious voices of the so-called "anti-nationals"? Where is this fragile nation that, we are told, is on the verge of irreversible disintegration? Where is this nation that is irredeemably on the verge of collapse? Where is this nation that is so in danger of being overcome and overrun by destructive forces that even the slightest criticism of its actions or policies should be stifled and nipped in the bud?

What or where exactly is this nation, and why is it that the groups like the ABVP are claiming to be its defender/saviour/only hope?

The logics of national ownership and representativeness that animate these groups and formations have long prevented others from feeling like they have a say in politics.

The exclusionary, us-against-them Manichean thinking that has long been the staple of right-wing Indian politics – indeed, the staple of Indian politics in general – engenders a siege mentality that obviates and makes impossible any lateral thinking, lateral engagement and rational discourse.

You are either with us or against us. You are either for development or you are against development. You are either for culture or against culture. You are either for the army or against the army. You are either for peace and harmony, or against peace and harmony (they say, completely oblivious to the irony of the statement).  

The warlike rhetoric and exhortations to “defensive” onslaughts that demagogues routinely indulge in make any kind of nuanced dialogue impossible.

So steeped in self-righteousness, and so dependent on other-hatred, is this whole political culture that nuanced dialogue is simply impossible.

So mired in irrational dogma is this whole political culture that thinking critically about issues is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Taking political persuasion out of the whole equation, what’s going on now cannot be excused. Irrespective of where your sympathies lie, there is no way that the hooliganism that we have recently seen can be justified.

The fact that some political formations refuse to evolve – from hooliganism and barbarism to something resembling civilised disagreement – is unacceptable.

The harassment of individual students and professors is reprehensible. It is completely antithetical to the democratic ethos that is supposedly meant to underpin student politics at Indian universities – the systems of student representation that allow groups like ABPV to exist in the first place.

The fact that violence against “political opponents” continues to erupt on Indian university campuses should compel young people to confront more seriously the question of what kind of educational environment (and ultimately what kind of society) they’re allowing their so-called “student representatives” to build.  

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Europe 2016 - vignettes

The calm and joyful atmosphere at the banks of the river Main in Frankfurt, where large and small groups of people sat together, chatted, drank beer, ate their picnics, played music and relaxed. The large Hauptbanhof with its constantly shifting flow of passengers, and innumerable small shops selling a large variety of sandwiches and other small eats at very reasonable prices. The large numbers of foreigners hanging out at the train station, with the station serving as a site of both recreation and reception for friends, family and other contacts.

The beautiful river Rhine with its ceaseless flow of ferries and cruises, carrying both passengers and cargo up and down the river. The constant rush of trains on the tracks along the river, connecting all the villages and towns in the Rhine Valley. The large numbers of old medieval castles dotting the hills flanking the river. The gorgeous villages of Bacharach and St. Goar in the Rhine Valley, with their old castles and old houses, each one intricately decorated – colours, wooden pillars and frames, and flowers in full blossom hanging off windows. The walks up to Burg Stahleck, the old castle that’s now a youth hostel, and the great buffet meals in its kitchen. The great views of the river from this castle perched on the top of a hill and surrounded by steep slopes covered with vineyards. The three enormous castles in St. Goar.

The historic city of Bonn, once the capital of Germany. Cute accommodation with a cool and relaxed host – German woman teaching IT at a training centre; with something of a glamorous past. The large crowds of people all over the city centre. The old churches and university, with its parks and large groups of students in various states of animation (outdoor zumba class) and relaxation.

The city of Cologne, with its post-war architecture and old Roman sites (Agripinna-Game of Thrones connection). The gigantic Cologne cathedral, which was once the tallest in Europe, at the very heart of the city – the only site that was not bombed by the Allies in the war, as it served as a target to estimate locations in the rest of the city. People, mostly foreigners, picking up recyclable waste from the recycle-able rubbish bins around the cathedral, and approaching tourists for their recyclable rubbish. These can be taken to supermarkets and exchanged for credit. The young, hip crowd of this city. Nice Welsh guy doing the walking tour.

The pretty Dutch towns of Nijmegen and Arnhem. Beautiful old buildings. Beautiful old market squares. Large train stations! Very calm. Cool host – Georgian woman who moved to the Netherlands as a kid. Nice large fields near the house with some cattle and horses. Giant sculpture in the park nearby. Friendly park official who chatted with us about the sculpture, and gave us bubble gum to stick on the sculpture.

Wow, the city of Amsterdam! Oh, my god. Canals, canals, canals. Bikes, bikes, bikes. Beautiful old houses all along the canals – centuries-old houses maintained in good condition. Biked all over the city and nearby North Holland over three days. Just amazing. Great parks. OK-ish food – a bit expensive. AirBnB accommodation nice and private but a bit oddly arranged. Average hosts. The sheer jam-packed-ness of the city! Pretty cafes, shops, houses everywhere. Cool people. Beautiful countryside – flat, green and expansive; seemingly never-ending. Quaint villages in the country – so pretty. Bridges that open out at many junctures all along the Amster river. Country built for boats. The modern parts of the city – astonishing architecture.

The capital Dan Haag (The Hague). Such an amazing coming together of the old and the new. Lots of lovely buildings, including very eclectic modern buildings. The long beach and its 1950s flavour. Astonishing beauty and accessibility of the palace and parliament. Nice kebab shops.

Ghent and Bruges in Belgium. Astonishing old medieval architecture. Truly, truly gorgeous – transports you to a different world. So beautifully maintained. Bruges is just so very pretty. Every stone, every brick is steeped in history. Probably the most gorgeous place in Europe. Cool host – very chirpy, and such a lovely old house. Perfect.

London! Family! The best time; so good to see everyone. Stayed with Raji Mahi and Dipankar Moha in Richmond. Dinner out in Richmond one day and at home the next – Raji Mahi cooked an elaborate meal for all of us, and Urmila Pehi, Neale and Zubin. Hung out with Isar and Tara; Isar took us around to central London for a day-long roam. Urmila Pehi came to St. Pancras to meet me before our departure for Paris.

The enormous streets of Paris with their uniform architecture stretching for several arrondissements – wide streets, 6-storey houses with intricate exteriors. Beautiful Paris, sparkling at night. The gorgeous Notre Dame de Paris at the very centre, painstakingly constructed bit by bit over two hundred years or so. The Eifel Tower, always in the distance. The endless lines of restaurants everywhere, serving all kinds of cuisines. Esgargots! Savoury crepes! Marche de Bastille. Sacre-coeur on the hill. The artists of Montmartre. Museums and other must-see sites. So many people from everywhere in the world. Never expected Paris to be such a melting pot of different geographies and races. Pretty accommodation and cool host.

The lovely town of Dijon. Pretty old village. Apartment in a quaint old and dilapidated building. Nice lunch at Flunch! Wandering the streets and sampling bits of Dijon fare.

Zurich. Clean, neat, crisp, organised and simple. Straight lines and neat shapes. Simon’s relatives were really kind and generous, taking us around town, and even on a hike in Stoos along a portion of the Swiss Alps. The view was astounding. Breathtaking. The vistas were just stunning. The five or so lakes at the bottom of the mountains – oh, my god. Amazing. A neat and clean city. 

Back to Germany. Lake Konstanz. Pretty historical town. Lovely little shops and buildings in the Alt Stadt. Absolutely packed with people. Nice little breweries. Less English spoken than elsewhere in Germany. People continue to serve beer until you put your coaster on your glass/mug, which definitively indicates that you no longer want to drink anymore. Funny – the server at the restaurant we went to poured me another glass without any prompting, and that’s when I figured it out. Nice walk around the lake. Nice house, and cool hosts. We bumped into the mother of the host in the kitchen in the morning – her effusive greetings made our day.

Munich. The city of beer, history, innovation and recreation. Nice house in a busy area, but the arrangement was a bit odd – the AirBnB apartment served as a psychologist’s office during the day, which was a little disconcerting. Anyway, lovely apartment. Beautiful city centre and Alt Stadt – Karlplatz and Marienplatz, with their ornate historical buildings (especially the gorgeous Rathaus, the palace, and old churches). The famous and historically significant Hofbrauhaus brewery in the market square. The expansive English Garden with all its public nudity and general atmosphere of merriment and relaxation. The enormous beer and food area in the English Garden, where we drank Ratler and ate some dumplings, pork hock and some side dishes, and where we had a long and interesting conversation with a German couple. Extremely busy and popular, and very well organised. The people walking around in costume. The carefree atmosphere. The Olympic Park and BMW World. The Pegida rally we came across in Karlpltaz (where large numbers of young foreign men normally hang out), which elicited a huge police presence. Commotion. Walking around in Munich’s cool neighbourhoods.

Leipzig. East Germany. Large train station. Historical buildings in the centre of town. Many small cafes and restaurants in different corners of the centre. Nice accommodation and cool host – nice and reserved artist. Faust and Goethe. The restaurant and bar where Goethe wrote Faust: nice gourmet meal and intricate interiors; lots of murals and artefacts. Walking around in the city in the cool evening. Mostly empty at night.

Nuremberg. Gorgeous city centre. Beautiful medieval architecture reconstructed after the devastation of the war. Beautiful castle on the top of the bill. Numerous imposing cathedrals and chapels. Lovely market square – numerous shops, restaurants, cafes and bars. Winding, meandering paths. University dormitory in an old historical building. A few canals. Slopes and inclines. The Documentation Centre in the outskirts – the Nazi Party Parade Ground repurposed as a museum. Perhaps one of the most insightful and astute exhibitions I have seen. Very analytical, unflinching. As visually impactful as thought-provoking. A city burdened by the pain of the past but one that exudes such resilience. Wonderful time there.

Berlin. Complex. Hard to describe. Large. Grand and monumental Soviet apartment blocks in the east. Pockets of old architecture that survived the war. The grand new Hauptbahnhof. The centre of the city, and surrounds, has a 1950s dero chic aesthetic. The distinctive blocks of the Holocaust memorial. The modern parliament. The extensive train network. The hip neighbourhoods. The eccentric, chic and kinky underbelly of the city. The numerous bars, cafes and clubs.

Back to Frankfurt. Back to Melbourne.

Europe: calm, collected, organised, neat, and resilient. Monumental. Thriving and bursting with activity. Also utterly relaxed. Pleasure-loving. Utterly libertarian. Civil. Quiet. Also, sometimes, quite evidently strained. Great experiences overall.