Semiosis of the Cityscape: Part I

It is striking here that the places people live in are like the presences of diverse absences

– Michel de Certeau 

What is it to see the city stripped off its subjects; of its people and their perils. How would you ‘look’ at the space when all that is there to see is stillness. A still photograph imbued in a thread of many, unlike a movie, moving in time but not in motion. 

As I board my cab for the airport at around 2 am, I become one of such subjects. I look at the city, like the still photographs, passing by but not moving; with every frame, image, capturing a still scene of what may be the city’s identity, or the part thereof. What is this ‘city’ anyway? How and why do I perceive this space to be a ‘city’; that too a city very orderly differentiated and demarcated from the other spaces (maybe, other cities). What is it that propels an understanding within to see this space as a limited and structured display of self which is given to be demarcated from the limited and structured ‘other’; that ‘other’ being either experienced or imagined. Maybe, in that ride to the airport, I take this limited and structured demarcation to be a ‘given’; much like a Gramscian development of an internalised and rationalised hegemonic belief. Or, is it the pure ‘uniqueness’ and the aesthetic of the same, reflected in the stillness of the city-scenes, that lifts my conscience from the profanity of material understanding of meaning to the spiritual escape into the metaphysical. 

Either way, I continue to travel; being driven on the route predestined by an app that maps my movement, my journey from the start to the end, and introduces it to me in a faceless display with an alien voice. But, how much could the market and its technology  assert control over my journey? What is this ‘journey’ anyway? Is it the mere physical movement within the material space, or does it carry possibility of constructing non-physical movement termed as ‘experience’? If the literature of the past and present (and hopefully future) is anything to go by, the journey is more conversational than didactic. It is the development of oneself through an array of meanings, both constructed and understood. Yes, there is materialism, though not always, involved in what we understand as a ‘journey’. But the meanings that we construct are not always constructed upon or within the space orchestrated by such materialism. And, even if we do, let’s say, my journey is foundational and  is well within the voids structured by the materialism; there is no ‘given’ in terms of interpretations I gather off the well-defined material space. Neither, do I, bound myself to the singularity of meaning that the materialism of the space might expect off me. So, dear ‘mobile cab-booking app’, and the hideous display of inhumane manipulation of the space that you create by ‘mapping’ my movement, you can never control my ‘journey’. You might be able to control the fodder that feeds the construction of my meaning, my relationship with the space, but nothing of your volition will ever be able to decipher the understanding I rationalise through this self-driven ‘movement’ called ‘journey’.  

To be continued…

Advertisements

The Construction of Meaning in Photography

‘Photograph… a record of a reality refracted through a sensibility’

– Victor Burgin (1986)

Shadi Ghadirian and her range of artistic photography vocalise two of her most personal identities: Iran and womanhood. However, as expressed in her collection Miss Butterfly (2011), and in various films that struggle to sieve through the web of state censor board,  personal and public are not significantly distinguished and demarcated spaces for Iranian women. However, it is not the politics of her subject matter that is the only fodder for one’s fascination; if one may look closer, or deeper, it is her process that fancies. 

In her frames, Shadi Ghadirian captures the duality of contemporary existence in Iran; imbued in life’s contradictions and an innate desire to be understood. This duality can be seen as a struggle, if not a conflict, between tradition and modernity in the prevailing sense of representation in Iran. To Shadi, this duality in representation is more apparent in the representation of women. In her collection, Qajar (1998), Shadi uses the style of traditional Qajar photography, famous in the 19th century Iran, and twitches the construction of meaning by invading the traditional space with an object that signifies modernity.

Related image
Shadi Ghadirian : Qajar

The duality represented in Qajar answers well to the understanding of a ‘photograph’ as provided by Roland Barthes. Instead of its artistic composition, Barthes was more focused on its construction of cultural myths on a mass scale. In Mythologies, Barthes asserts that a photograph is a coded, historically contingent, ideological speech which is amenable to scientific study  and semiotic analysis. In Qajar, we can see Shadi substituting the surface understanding of the picture with a larger ideological and political meaning which is represented through well coded symbols that carry certain political meanings in themselves. Therefore, the use of a traditional style (Qajar) as a space where little objects of modernity are placed, alienates the meanings earlier associated with these two elements and conjoins them to construct a new political meaning. Interestingly, the women in these photographs maintain the facial features and aesthetic sense that was prevailing during the Qajar period. In such a frame, an object of modernity seems like an inevitable reality to which women in Iran might have dealt with in an operational sense but not in a cultural sense. 

Related image
Shadi Ghadirian : Qajar

 

 

Related image
Shadi Ghadirian : Qajar

Apart from construction of duality in representation of Iranian women, we see another very fascinating feature in Shadi Ghadirian’s photographic process: The symbolisation of the subject matter. 

Photography for Shadi is as symbolic as it is real. So much so, that when the urge to surface the reality, which has been brushed aside for so long, becomes irresistible, the symbols become the voice that speaks on behalf of reality so silenced. It is when the language of reality becomes too hard to gather, that the symbols become the mouthpiece of  one’s truth. 

Image result for shadi ghadirian miss butterfly

In Miss Butterfly, we see the frames depicting meanings that are drawn not from the referrant herself, but from the space in which the referrant is placed. In addition to this, the interplay or engagement created between the referrant and the object (in this case, the web) alienates both the referrant and the engaged object from their own meanings and reduces them to become mere symbols of a political message. 

Miss Butterfly was inspired by renowned Iranian playwright Bijan Mofid’s piece about a butterfly’s ill-fated pursuit to encourage her fellow insects to escape captivity of a spider’s web and go see the sun again. In each of the images from the collection, women are shown weaving or unravelling webs attached to the frames of light (an exit). They seemed at turns overpowered by the narrow staircases and rooms or dwarfed by the stately homes in which they are placed (Nagree : 2006). More than anything, it is the overpowering darkness that reflects the most upon the reality of the lives of these women. 

Shot in black and white, the women in these frames are symbols of multiplicity of layered meanings. One such layer is the public-private divide in the lives of Iranian women. The images show women wearing the headscarves even in the private space within a domestic setting. Some critics argued that the same was deliberately done by Shadi to comply with the guidelines of the state censor board. One might not see this distinction as relevant within the religious context but the same does come across as a constructed meaning from the direct reading of the photographs. 

Image result for shadi ghadirian miss butterfly
Shadi Ghadirian : Miss Butterfly 

 

Unlike the meaning usually associated with photography theorists, the pictures in Miss Butterfly are much alienated from the actual reality of the referrant. Such alienation is much evident in the poetic construction of the frame where the object which symbolises captivity is enlarged from its usual/normal size. Moreover, the careful selection of space and source of light, also work towards alienating the referrant (women) from their actual historical context; hence reducing them to mere symbols of general understanding of oppression. One may say, Shadi Ghadirian in Miss Butterfly, becomes the author of the photograph; metamorphosing the reality into well construed ideology and representing the same through intelligently placed symbols.  

We can see this well thought of placement of incongruous objects to create meaning in her other acclaimed works such as Like Everyday (2000) and Nil Nil (2008) as well. In all of these works, the ideological motive becomes a vantage point from which objects (including humans) are seen through preconceived meaning. 

Image result for shadi ghadirian like everyday
Shadi Ghadirian : Like Everyday 

 

 

Related image
Shadi Ghadirian : Nil Nil 

It is through her well choreographed process, that Shadi Ghadirian imbues movement in stillness. Since the subject matter of her photograph is not the historical fact or abstracted reality but a political meaning, the pictures escape the socio-temporal existence and remain relevant till the political objective is achieved. Therefore, the referentiality and indexicality of Shadi Ghadirian’s  photography is not reflective of the world represented in the photograph but of the world ‘out-there’; that is, the world outside the photograph but yet so near. 

This subject matter, however, runs contrary to the classical understanding of photography which considered a photograph to be stillness; so much so that some considered it to be a death. Christian Metz in his Photography and Fetish (1985) argues that photography operates as a figuration of death. Metz says ‘photography is an instantaneous abduction of the object out of the world into another world, into another kind of time… photography by virtue of its stillness ‘maintains the memory of dead as being dead.’  In common parlance, photography is compared with shooting; the camera becomes a gun.

Shadi Ghadirian, on the other hand, is bringing alive the voices of the dead and the denied. With every frame and image, she challenges the ‘still’ nature of her medium of expression by constructing meanings that remain relevant, existent and omnipresent. Shadi’s camera is not a gun; it is not a flag of peace either. More than anything, it is a mirror; reflecting what ever movement and the moved fails to see through his own naked eyes. 

Image result for shadi ghadirian own picture

 

What Is Age But Relative

My concerns do not align with how biology understands my age. Maybe we just somehow decide to develop into what biology expects us to be; like a good ole Indian parent. What fascinates me rather is how I’ve been thinking of my age lately.

When I sit across a bunch of humans from South Delhi in their twenty something, I sense abstraction; not of myself but of others. I understand them to trenches but I don’t wish to. It’s not the understanding of age as a number that propels my understanding. It is the feeling that erupts when a fish meant for deep waters is brought to the surface and is asked to breathe. If age is a hedonistic expression of lightness that makes you feel that you belong to someplace higher than this, that would be me.

Then there are metro rides where all the fascinating instances are staged. When you’re thrown into the transporting vehicle by a dictatorial regime called Rajiv Chowk, you survive. You stretch, extend and reach out to hold onto even a slightest piece of something stationary to keep yourself steady. This is where and when you are put into the strangest of situation where you are so close to a person who appears to be nothing but a body to you; also breathing (oh how unfortunate). And then transporting vehicle halts, in hope of taking more unwilling souls in; so the bodies collide, heavy gasping happens, and sometimes, smiles surface. Everything then is not your head versus my head, your bag versus mine. It is a sense of togetherness emanating from mutual understanding of travails and triumphs of a metro ride that knows no age. 

From being older, to feeling no age at all, there are times I feel much younger than the lot. A popular bar in Aurobindo Market, people walking in, walking out, or, just spread out. There are clothed in the high street; glasses and hairstyles so niche yet so similar. As the lights were dim, I saw the slightest of expressions getting lost in the rising cigarette smoke, of theirs, the frail sounds of platonic conversations dissipating in the winter chill. Where am I in all of this? Where, or what, are my expressions; how does the noise of my triviality sound like? Maybe, a little louder than silence and a lot lesser than meaning. So, there I stand, somewhere in the corner, staring into the voids that do not even exist; only if the faces so unfamiliar could be called one. I feel displaced, distracted and oh so young. 

 

 

A Sovereign Denial

In power there lies denial. The distractions aplenty that prevail over the mind in power and of what becomes of it. Of these distractions, many have been discussed, felt and written about. However, there is one that is only felt and never pondered upon; one that inevitably manifests but never looked into. And that is the distraction off the body. Of all the conscious denials that a powerful being accords himself to, this particular denial is the most precarious for it marks the beginning of an Ultimate Denial; a probable demise.

Power is what that reflects in the eyes and resonates in the hearts of the subjects. The strength of a sovereign is always valued on the scale of his command and reverence. The reverence so commanded is a corollary to an idea or a form that the sovereign represents. If only a sovereign could have been reduced to be seen as a mortal, what inspiration the subjects could have looked for that is not seen in their own faces.

This is what engenders the Ultimate Denial; the denial of decadence. Like the robe of honour that a sovereign adorns upon coronation, the body of the aforesaid grows to be nothing more than that robe; to be worn and worn out. Gravity finds the sovereign in the same brevity as the divinity does. Although, the celebration and pomp that marks the rise stand proportional to the oblivion that marks the Icarian fall.

The sovereign thus cries. In solitude is where his heart actually beats. The counting of laurels run parallel to the counting of days; marking of legacy with marking of the will of succession. The beating of retreat, the practice of the march past, stomps like the sound of the church gong. These are the days where the air coincides with the vacuum, the audience with voids and the life with death.

But there lies duty in denial. A sovereign errand that must be run before the mighty gets engraved in stone. And that is the rearing of the next immortal, the next robe that shall occupy the form that represents an idea; the one who continues to exude inspiration. A sovereign that begins to look too far wishes to look no more. So the duty is served within closed doors, dressed in the superficial pretence of what it shall look like, and knowledge that both the parties to the pact conveniently ignores.  

This may be the denial that over time, becomes a truth. Like orders, ranks and manners, this denial runs like a custom to a sovereign. And when the time arrives, the time where the sovereign is disabused of his denial, the great act of departure begins. Followed by endless eulogies and accounts that remember the departed, nothing of the ultimate denial is ever fancied. No words that give meaning to the life preparing to bid adieu, no song or sonnet celebrating the ending truths dealt with, of the duties so mournfully served. Maybe that is what we shall call the Sovereign’s Ultimate Denial.

 

Art: Conor Harrington

On Academic Insecurities

I am a person divided by his thoughts; conflicted by his desires, his material reality. As I approach the final year of my Law school, I quite faintly realise what sort of a journey I have traversed. What all I have done and have become of me in the course of the past three and a half years. Nothing of these years reveals anything clearly about any of the questions that wander around my conscience every day, crying for answers. I just have a vague and general perception of my life so far and I don’t know how I comprehend this understanding.

At one moment I see myself sitting on the cusp of a life-changing activity. I see every day, every hour, as a test of passion that demands action. And, then there are moments where I feel like an abandoned boat in the middle of the sea; aware of its reality but devoid of any possibility. I take solace in resignation even while constantly reminding myself of what I should be doing. I do let motivation get me but also push my energies and effort in pursuing things that might not directly assist me on the path I intend to walk on. I might call it a distraction or be diversifying my learning, but sometimes it feels like denial. It feels like running away from what you perceive yourself and your conditions to be.

I don’t know what I see of myself right now and why my friends instil hope in me. The depth of the faith that my family have in me either forces me to create a delusional perception about myself or a sense of betrayal towards them. I’m unable to trace that one ray of light that can show me the way out of this tunnel; an echo that tells me that I’m not caving further. I’m in want of something that assures me of myself and if not full then some of my capabilities. I don’t know what tomorrow looks like, but it is definitely casting a shadow on my today. I hope to see you tomorrow, but I don’t know how. 

From Numbers to Recipes: Ankit Grover of Slice of Soul Walks Us Through his Inspiring Journey

We all carry stories that need to be told or at least reflected upon. This story is of a man who not only travelled three cities in pursuit of his dream but also three professions; and what diametrically opposite these professions have been. From Jabalpur to Pune via Bombay, this is a tale of Ankit Grover, founder of town’s most intriguing pizzeria called Slice of Soul, and all the ‘in-betweens’ of having nothing to having what contents.

A man, who is now an authoritative source of any knowledge regarding beer or pizzas, was once in a profession where he didn’t even have time to cherish them in his meals. A Chartered Accountant working in one of the leading companies in Bombay, Ankit found himself engrossed in numbers and data analysis. ‘I always had the dream of having my own setup but something had to be done before that’, he said. A stint as a CA was a result of not coming from an entrepreneurial background and a prospective foundation for taking a step closer to the dream. When his job became too small to contain his knack for new technologies and inventiveness, he bade adieu to a generously paying job and embraced a life where he had nothing to do.

The environment, the culture, and everything about that corporate life had become too one-dimensional for me. I anyway had to break away from that monotony today or tomorrow. I knew this job was not what I actually wanted to do’.

Months after leaving his job, Ankit started private practice and simultaneously began to think about opening up a cafe. Back at home in Jabalpur and away from the hush of a metro life, his mind was better placed and creatively more motivated. So, when he found himself at the cusp of taking a step forward and moving from numbers to recipes, he packed his bag and his mom’s faith in him and flew off to Pune.

I had absolutely no knowledge about how the entire process will actually take shape. All I had, was an idea, a concept; and yes, a name which I wanted to give to my café.’ Ankit’s background in a corporate field came handy during the establishing days of his café. Every morning, he would head out and meet different people and hunt for a perfect place that would house his dreams. ‘Field Research was of utmost importance in the establishing phase of this journey. I knew I was taking a big risk, I knew I wasn’t a seasoned rookie, so I had to equip myself with the in-depth understanding of market and the trends.’ Pune is famous for the short lived journeys of food joints. They say, every day 10 cafés open up here and 12 shut down. However for Ankit, faith in the uniqueness of his concept motivated him to survive the competition.

Despite the well guided research and trustworthy connections, there were fall outs. Failures that shatter building faith in oneself and take one back to square one. ‘I would lie if I say that these failures didn’t shake me up from inside. I was terribly disheartened. I even started questioning my methods. However, this was the time when I gathered inspiration from my past. The transition from being academically below average to becoming a CA helped me in collating my strength back and refocusing my efforts.’ There were failures and then there were opinions that discredited his ideas; but his drive to fulfil his passions did succeed and led to the creation of Slice of Soul.

I not just wanted a pizzeria; I wanted one which is authentic. My idea of wood-fired oven seemed unattractive to many and now it is my USP.’ Many features of Slice of Soul are drawn from Ankit’s personal experiences and family outings.

My mom loved pizzas; so having pizzas for lunch was quite common. However, every time we used to go out for pizzas, there used to be quarrels and disagreements over toppings and the kind of bread. In the end we all had to make small sacrifices over desired contents. This was a driving force behind the idea of coming up with Make Your Own Pizza. At SOS, I wanted a food democracy and freedom for customers to not only choose their toppings but participate in every step of making their own pizza. And then, it was followed by Make Your Own Pasta and Make Your Own Salad.’

Many people dare to follow their dreams; but often there comes an interval called ‘backup option’. For many dreamers, this backup option becomes so consuming that it translates into the sad demise of what they actually wanted. Making that shift from a backup option to the process of actualising the dream is a small but the most difficult one and Ankit was glad that he made it without much hassles. However, taking this new step and new profession didn’t mean a total forgetting of the previous one. There were many takeaways from his stint as a CA and the most important of them being his Articleship and Strategic Financial Management that he studied therein. Although to Ankit, there’s a different takeaway which is much closer to heart – ‘After becoming CA, it was easier for me to convince my fiancé’s parents to agree upon our marriage. And it was a delight to have them at the café and prove my mettle in front of them.’

Striking a balance between taking risks and committing oneself to foolproof planning is a lesson that Ankit likes to impart to dreaming entrepreneurs. As a man who believes more in hard work than destiny, quite often uses a phrase ‘Kismat Buland Hai Apni’ as a sarcastic commentary on those who solely relies on destiny.

So if you ever wish to meet this dreamer and achiever in person, you can find him at 101, Fortaleza Complex, East Avenue, Kalyani Nagar, waiting there with his mouth watering offerings and a heart warming smile.

IMG_20170918_130256_163 (1)

 

 

The ‘Little’ Ones

If the little world gets too messy,

The little people will wail,

I will see you,

Walking past the 

Last man standing, of,

This little worn out town

I still hear the

Birds singing, the 

Little stars still flicker as

I refuse to blink, and

The night refuses to go

On this little patch of suburban property, 

All I see, are

Your giant footprints, Oh! 

Your big car never

Coming back to these little unquiet streets, So

Will not be seen, 

Your big big smile 

What if

My dried up eyes look upwards and

Find the little blue sky

Shrinking?

There’s music so unusual, so little, so small

What if you never call

Your big big life, Your big

Big flight, moving over

My little, 

Little,

Heart

 

 

Little Broken Hearts

Little broken hearts, tonight

strut across the busy streets; fleets and fleets

of lost souls 

Illuminating into a thousand colours as

The yellow flicker lights dance

Upon their bewildered heads

When you see me out there tonight, I 

will be just a face in the crowd

Not rolling along with, but 

marching across

With this army walking the Odysseus’s journey

Together, but alone.  

A Philosophy Called Vidhisha

As I vaguely remember it, like most of my conversations with her, it kind of happened after a college party at her house. She was slightly under the bliss and I was as sober as one can be. Of course, by choice. There’s always something very distinct about the conversations I have with her; whether contextualised or not. She’s not like any other talker. She’s different; she’s her.

Just like her genealogy, words coming out of Vidhisha’s mouth are anything but predictable. She still holds the award for the funniest conversation of 2017 and I don’t see anyone coming even an inch closer to that. However, that night, and maybe during that conversation, I quite unconsciously pierced through the obvious. I did not see or measure Vidhisha by the words she spoke or the moves she displayed. I looked through all of that and found myself staring straight into her super-consciousness. That night, I could see a remorse so unapologetically surfacing on her being that no gesture could disguise it as anything else. Through the eyes that were watering and the smile that was widening, I saw a Vidhisha that I’ve never seen before – a calming disposition.  

So what was it that made that face so unrecognisable and yet so relatable? Well, it was Jay Chou. This might seem like an abrupt disconnection of sorts but I find it imperative to mention that Vidhisha is a huge K-Pop buff, and if you ever get to know her, you’ll know she doesn’t just stop there. So, it was Jay Chou and his songs that set the tone for that conversation and everything that ran parallel to it; wait, maybe tangent.

With an almost empty pint of Budweiser in her hand, we went on to sit on what I suppose was some sort of a couch right under a string of small yellow lights. After a sip or two and her smile beginning to widen, she said – ‘You know what, I hate listening to Jay Chou, this K-Pop Singer.’ ‘Then why do you listen to him’ I asked what I thought could be the most logical follow up question. ‘Because I love his songs’, she replied. ‘Hold on a second. Didn’t you just say you hate him?’ ‘I didn’t say that. I said I hate listening to his songs’. I was so baffled by this glaring contradiction in her statements, and as sober as I was, I couldn’t help but let my shallowness take control of my tongue – ‘I think you’re tired and you need to take rest Vid.’ ‘Why would you say that’ she replied with that smile still gleaming on her face. ‘Wait, let me explain it to you’ – and that’s where I got to know what layers of complexities lie in that one statement that she made so unintentionally.

Whatever she said that night, didn’t register much with the rationalising process of my mind. However, it took me almost 12 months to understand not only that conversation but the context in which it was made. Finally, I got to get hold of an idea that is so close to Vidhisha that it just silently made its presence that night and I could not help but just restrict my reaction to mere admiration.

For past few weeks I’ve been digging a lot of ancient Japanese history; Heian period to be précised. While reading The Tale of the Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, I came across this heart warming philosophy of mono no aware. Having its roots in the Japanese Buddhist and Shinto tradition, mono no aware is one term that cannot be exactly translated into any other language. It’s more like an inexpressible emotion captured in the uttering of ensemble of words. After much deliberation, historians and linguists have loosely translated it as ‘realisation of pathos’. It is when one gets a realisation of the beauty associated with fleeting nature of life that the feeling of mono no aware surfaces. It peculiarly homes two contrasting ideas, beauty and loss, under a singular bracket of emotion. One must feel the loss when one sees something beautiful in order to experience mono no aware.  This pathos of beauty concept traces itself from the Buddhist idea of impermanence; the fleeting nature of life that Murasaki Shikibu so unapologetically described in her legendary piece of literature.

There’s one thread  that is missing from associating Vidhisha’s hatred for Jay Chou with the Japanese philosophy of mono no aware – and that is – the reason why? What can be the reason that Vidhisha hates the idea of Jay Chou in her life even while not hating him as an artist or a person? She answers to this dilemma by saying that she hates listening to him because every time she does, she loses something close in her life. No matter if it’s a boyfriend or her favourite dress, something gets ruined every time she listens to Jay Chou’s music. ‘Then why do you listen to him?’I asked, ‘Isn’t holding on to things you love more important than feeding on to your hobbies’? After hearing my questions, that smile starts to resurface on her face and without any contemplation she said – ‘But there’s nothing more beautiful than Jay Chou’s music; even if it’s worth a loss. For things that are bound to go will go, but the beauty that I discover in his music, will always remain forever. For that particular moment when I’m listening to his music, there’s nothing more beautiful that I can think of.’

So, there you go, the Vidhisha I so proudly claim to know for almost 3 years, is someone way more than the words that she usually finds herself being measured by. This Vidhisha is a philosophy. She is a depth of feelings that understands inherent truths of life more than anyone I have ever met in this college.

 

 

Of Lovers Once Here

Just sit back and stare at

What your eyes show you of this world

Of this lagoon,

Of the sky that is on the edge of being delusional.

Just sit back and stare

With your leather satchel by your side

This is not a divided world, This is

What you left for what you have

The time is running, the rain is on its way

Just sit back and stare,

There won’t be much left to see