March 26, 2014

Of Being a Flaneur: Sam Miller's Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity and An Ode to Walking

Of late, I read two books which were preoccupied with the art of walking; the first one happened to be Julia Cameron's Walking in This World, which is a sequel to her highly successful book, The Artist's Way while the other was what I describe as a city biography, Sam Miller's Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity. In Julia's first book, which explores and encourages creative re-discovery, she mentions the idea of an Artist's Date and in her sequel, she introduces an additional tool, the Weekly Walk. "Nothing brings home the beauty and power of the world that we live in like walking," she writes in the opening pages."Walking often moves us past the "what" of our life into the more elusive "why.""

Sam Miller clearly subscribes to similar notions, describing himself as a flaneur. Incidentally, flaneur was always one of those stylish-sounding words that I saw everywhere - and yet, never bothered to look up its meaning! Well, here it is: flaneur, or someone who aimlessly wanders through the cities. In his quest to re-present Delhi in all its gloried nuances, Miller embarks upon a stylised walking tour of Delhi, diligently calculating a spiral-walking path through which to explore the city. "You will find out a lot more about a city by wandering through it than by visiting the homes of the well-off or by just exploring the ancient monuments. If you don't walk in Delhi, large parts of the city will be invisible to you," he says - and there in lies the heart of Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity. He industriously walks its streets, visiting places such as Nehru Place, Rohini, Ghazipur and Gurgaon (few of which I was not aware of until I read this book) and by doing so, he presents the vibrant, brutal, startling, and fascinating theatre of the streets and the neighborhoods: conversations, encounters, monuments, and shops. They simply would not have been available or accessible unless you had been physically in situ and walking through and experiencing it all; it is a bit like submerging yourself and snorkeling within the sea, rather than simply skating upon the surface.

Camouflage: Not the most practical of walking shoes, I know...I am an impractical walker!

I love walking myself. Not particularly inclined to other forms of outdoor physical activity, walking however is one such activity that I will happily indulge in. And while calling myself a flaneur would be a long shot, neither having the physical stamina nor an adventurous, curious explorer's instinct to warrant the label, I do like to walk around in new cities and places though as a means of getting a feel of what makes the place what it is: how its people converse, dress, eat, and look, the color and eccentricities of its architecture, even what is found scattered upon its roads and empty plots of land.

Swagatam: A brilliant colored ceiling above the entrance door at a house in old Jodhpur

One of my favorite places to walk in is the streets of old Jodhpur; once inside the warren of super-narrow, maze-like alleys and streets, studded with tailors, barbers, fruit juice stands, jewelry, sari, and beauty shops, temples, and whatnot, I feel as if I am literally in the city's arteries, getting closer and closer towards hearing its heartbeat. There is always so much going on: even the walls were crazily layered with film-posters, election campaign signage, and tuition advertisements, the alleys' hectic activity bleeding into the walls.

Plastic Angel: Electricity wire meets plastic

I didn't walk as much in Oman apart from night-time strolls, which were literally a form of exercise, rather than that of discovering and exploring. However, once I arrived in Pittsburgh, walking was the perfect way to acquaint myself with the city; armed with my phone and a new discovery called Instagram, walking went hand in hand with my photo-documentation and journaling of my new life. Indeed, as I browse through the pictures, I remember those walks purely due to the arresting sights I observed and captured: a house, a plastic angel shaped material entwined in electricity wires, and a lone chair in middle of a parking lot. The walks and the pictures in turn enabled me to forge a friendship with the place, making the unfamiliar familiar.

What suddenly strikes me is that when you leave a place, you feel that you will quickly forget those paths that you once regularly treaded upon, whose shapes and curves you knew by heart, and the houses and landmarks lining the route like old friends - and yet, the truth is that the mind still and will always retain those memory maps. At least, with me, I can still re-walk an old path in a place that I had once lived in by the sheer memory of the countless times I walked it. When I return and begin walking, it is a stranger - but only for a few moments before transforming itself into a friend once again. And so I carry on walking, as if resuming a conversation that we had left mid-sentence, indulging in nostalgia and acquainting with the new.

What do walks mean to you? Is there a place that you especially enjoy walking in? I would love to hear:)

PS Here is another photo-text ode to walks in my other (neglected) blog, Photo Kahanis...!

March 14, 2014

Photography Experiments: When Objects Meet Paper

Many years ago, when reading an interview with an Indian woman artist, I recall her saying that she was a magazine junkie and that the reason why she especially loved magazines was because of all that visual stimulation they provided - and which specifically nourished her visual soul. Upon reading her words, I realised that what she had articulated was exactly how I would have done so in regard to myself, explaining as to why I so particularly gravitated towards magazines and also helping me figure out that well, I was just a visual person;) Unlike the surfeit of visual options at our disposal these days in form of the internet and a smorgasbord-like array of online and print magazines, growing up in Oman, I could only access and rely on a limited selection of magazines for visual cues in cookery, fashion, interiors, and make-up, for example. I would spend hours at the magazine section in bookstores or stalls, swiftly browsing through multiple magazines even though a stern sign above explicitly discouraged from doing so. I remember being specially enthralled when I discovered bookstores during my late teenage years in which you could sit down and read as many magazines you wished to do so to your heart's content!

With passage of time, having both written for many magazines as well as having worked in one, my magazine mania persists although I have become much more sensitive to a magazine's design and visual elements, whether it's finding a page layout too cluttered or excess white space or jerky flow of text and images. However, in the end, I don't allow too many technicalities to dilute my enjoyment; after all, what ultimately really intrigues me and cements my affection for a magazine are the quality of  the visuals that leap off its pages - and in this context, fashion magazines and their infinitely varied fashion shoots have particularly been this magazine connoisseur's visual delight what with the crazy mashing and meshing of multiple layers and pairing of photography, styling, fashion, and stories.

Lately, though, I have started to think about 'intervening' in these magazine fashion shoots, questioning their permanence and whether or not you can alter them? After years of being a spectator, what would it be like to participate within these stories? I began exploring the notion of introducing what I called external interventions into the image - a piece of jewelry or even a bindi - and then, photographing it. How would that combination of photography, paper, and object subsequently appear?

Well, why don't you have a look below to find out?

The Power of a Bindi

As I was flipping through the February issue of In Style, I paused upon this image of Sarah Jessica Parker contemplatively studying this striking Gabriel Specter mural. My gaze lingering upon  the half-revealed eyes and the upside down rainbow, an idea struck me: I impulsively fished out a blingy orange bindi from my bindi stash and embellished the image with it to add further drama. As I had borrowed the magazine from the library, I wondered if I should let the bindi remain on the page? I wonder what a subsequent reader would make of it; would they be tempted to add embellishments of their own - or would they leave the image as it was, any library property being sacred? Belonging to that school of thought myself, I eventually removed the bindi...but I could not help thinking of the library books which I borrowed during my university days; I was always amused to encounter the notes/comments that readers would scribble in the margins - how subsequent readers would then respond or enlarge upon the points, the marginalia commentaries becoming yet another critical conversation in the text. Ah, the secret conversations of library books!

This image formed a part of a beauty editorial; the dramatically contoured cobalt eye make-up along with the matching nails made this iridiscent image a perfect backdrop for my silver and amethyst ring.

Desert Rose
There's nothing quite like the pleasure of soaking in the beauty of a rose bouquet in full bloom; however, I find it difficult to relinquish them even when they have begun shedding their petals and becoming wan, drooping versions of their formerly radiant selves. I find myself bidding farewell to them by preserving one of the roses within the pages of a heavy tome as a reminder of the blooms which once invested my home with such beauty and grace. This sepia-pink dried rose is from one such bunch I bought in June last year - and I thought it would be a whimsical and surreal idea to transplant it into a sinuously rippled monochrome desert.

March 8, 2014

Flash Photo-Fiction: Sole of a Footprint

As you walk on the beach, leaving behind a series of footprints, they are but temporary presences; within moments, the waves will playfully erase them away, leaving blank slates of a damp sandy shore once more. And the sea will become a giant storehouse of erased soles, a catalogue of all those who once stood and commiserated by its shores...

March 4, 2014

Journeying into the World of Words

Autumn Poetry

I can't remember what it was like not to write. What I do distinctly remember are the first lines that captured my attention and drew me into the world of words: they described rivulets of water streaming across a parched desert. As I read the words, vividly visualising the shining water and the dry, cracked earth, I thought to myself: I want to write. Too. 

My first poem was published in a children's supplement of a Dubai-based newspaper, Khaleej Times when I was eight years old. I was living in Muscat, Oman and the newspaper used to be delivered a day after its publication to our home. As we scooped up the newspaper and took out the children's magazine from its folds, I can still clearly recollect my little brother and parents' excitement on seeing my name in print for the first time. The title of the poem was quite simply My Little Pie. 

While other children participated in soccer tournaments, played in the band, or acted in theater productions, I wrote. My mother has still meticulously and lovingly preserved all the lined pads and notebooks in which I furiously wrote poems, mock-interviews, stories stylistically similar to my current favorite author (Ann M Martin of Baby Sitters Club and Judy Blume, for example), and journaled. My father would gift me yearly diaries that he did not happen to use and I in turn would fill up the pages with philosophical notes on whatever intrigued or puzzled or bewildered me. When I was in the sixth grade and studying Buddhism, I became so deeply drawn towards the religion that I must have written countless poems about karma and suffering and whatnot. Yes, sixth grade, folks!

Two of my books: Silent Moments and Into My Own World

By the time I turned thirteen years old, one of my mother's relatives and a poet himself, suggested that I get the poems published given the huge number I had already written; in fact, I had such a huge bank of poetry that I eventually ended up publishing two more poetry books in 11th and 12th grade respectively. As an extremely reserved child, for me, poetry was an outlet which enabled me to record, comment, commiserate, and express myself in a way that I otherwise would not have been able to. While many of the poems were entirely based on visual observations, quite a few of them also delved into my interior feelings growing up as a teenager. Now, when I look back on them, they also help reflect those junctures of my life in which I was passionate about the environment or Buddhism or even Bollywood. Perhaps, if blogging had been around when I was growing up, I would have blogged. Back then, though, what I could not verbalise otherwise I would do so through the medium of my poetry. 

However, a funny thing happened when I started university and began studying creative writing. One of our first tutorials was about writing poetry and also, what exactly was a poem and how a poem could be so much more than just a string of lines arranged upon a page. However when it came to my first assignment, I was in severe panic mode: there was just a day left before the deadline and I still hadn't come up with anything radical. One sleepless night later, when I woke up and absently glanced out of my window, I observed that the ground was strewn with fallen fall leaves – and I suddenly thought of the Bollywood film, Mohabbatein (2000) in which Shah Rukh Khan urges his students to pen their feelings upon...fall leaves. (Chalk up to SRK for inspiration!) I ran outside, picked up several leaves, scribbled down drafts of a self-conscious ode of being an autumn leaf, carefully inked it on my chosen leaf, and sealed it in a sandwich bag – and ran to the department just in time to meet the deadline. Yet, this was the first and last time I experimented with the structure of poem; afterward, I became so hooked into writing fiction that I entirely gave myself to short stories and it has been a long time now since I have written a single poem. 

Yet, I still write: I cannot imagine a life without writing and it will always remain my raison d'etre, the reason to is still the first and most interesting way I make of my world (photography is increasingly come a close second though!) There is still nothing like experiencing the joy of assembling words together to re-create an experience or conjure up a character from thin air, as one is using individual ingredients to cook or bake an incredible dish. Whether I seek to reproduce an interviewee's thoughts or blog about an amazing holiday, writing is my bridge to the world – and it was my venture into poetry which taught me to do that. Will I ever write poetry again? Never say never!


This piece was originally published in Brown Girl magazine here