Tuesday, November 24, 2009

1989: A year like any other? - Ai Wei wei in Munich

At the Haus der Kunst, a stark museum built by the Nazis in Munich, is a remarkable exhibition by the Chinese artist Ai Wei wei.  He was the original inspiration behind the Bird’s Nest Beijing Olympic Stadium, though he abandoned the commission.  He is one of the most influential artists in the world because he brings his unique, personal, shocking and sometimes heart-rending vision to the contemporary destruction, as he sees it, of Chinese traditions and culture.   His most famous art work is three photos of himself dropping – and smashing – a Han dynasty urn.  In the Munich exhibition that sense of wanton destruction, of its traumatic effect, is shown in a collection of Neolithic pots which have been simply and brightly painted in colours you could see in Ikea – the modern simply effacing and destroying the ancient without, as it were, a backward look.

His vision of destruction, sadness, loss and memory took on a particularly poignant turn when he got involved in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake.  He visited the site of schools which had collapsed killing all the pupils. All that remained of the children were their plastic backpacks. So, for the Munich show, he made a gigantic plastic cover for the whole gallery with a quote from one of the parents about the death of their child. The whole piece is made of schoolchildren’s plastic backpacks stitched together.  In the same way some of the wooden sculptures in the exhibition are made of wood salvaged from ancient temples that have been demolished. Or they are traditional wooden Chinese furniture cut in half, or with a great log through it.  All these works give a powerful feeling of how history in China has suddenly accelerated, memory can hardly keep up and everywhere there is a feeling of the traditional being ruptured and disappearing.  Those feelings of sadness and loss can exist alongside a sense of delight and wonder at what China is achieving.  The reflective self-consciousness about what we are losing and what we are gaining all the time is most of what makes us human.

And how important these themes of loss and change are so significant at the time of the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall.  I went to a debate about human rights between Bianca Jagger, who is now a fabulously glamorous and intensely serious campaigner against human rights violations, Helena Waldmann, a a ground-breaking German choreographer who had worked with Iranian and Palestinian women and Yang Lian, a Chinese poet who now lives in London.  Involving a Chinese poet with personal memories of the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989 was a stroke of genius because it reminded us that, although 1989 felt like a year of opening and freedom in Europe (even with the many subsequent doubts and regrets), for some, as Yang Lian wrote in one of his poems, 1989 was ‘a year like any other’.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Religion and politics in Ahmadabad

Ahmadabad has a beautiful Jain temple built in 1850. You enter through an arch covered with sculptures of rounded animals and gods from Hindu mythology into a courtyard with four ornate cloisters around the sides. In the courtyard too the walls are covered with elegant, sinuous carved figures of Radha and Krishna playing his flute and other Hindu gods. Away from the noisy street full of horn-blaring cars, scooters and lorries, the courtyard is quiet and still. The only other person around is a temple widow dressed in a white sari, bowing and praying at each chapel in turn. Around each of the four walls are chapels behind wooden doors containing trios of white marble gods with jewelled all-seeing eyes. You walk around a cloister looking in turn into each chapel, each subtly different, but all the statues are white. In the middle of the cloister a bell hangs from the roof. You ring the bell and then pass on to the next chapel - and in it are gods which are not white like all the others. The first one is black. Ringing the bell and the sudden sight of something unexpected are connected in your mind, as if when you rang the bell the god came alive and became different from all the others, as if by magic. The meditative act of ringing the bell and then contemplating the effect has brought you into a sharper contact with the deity you are now looking at, different to all those you have looked at before, The vast distance between your material self and the divine is momentarily, magically shortened; your belief in magic as an explanation for the inexplicable is momentarily restored. You walk round the three cloisters and ring three bells. Each unexpected god following the bell is more ornate than the last. And the third is gold and crowned. To ring the fourth and largest bell you enter the temple in the middle of the quadrangle. This is the sanctum sanctorum, the holy of holies and here is the group of three most divine statues, white again, two smaller ones on each side and in the centre a large statue with wide-opened jewelled eyes.

Ahmadabad is Mahatma Gandhi’s home town and his ashram is here by the river, the place from where he launched many of his protests and campaigns. It is now a simple museum, untainted by theme park commercialism. The most moving room in the small collection of rooms in which he and his wife Kasturba lived is the small white room in which he lived where his low table and his spinning wheel remain. On the outside are the original instructions for life in the ashram, embracing poverty, chastity, respect for all religions, the unacceptable and irreligious nature of caste divisions and so on. The ashram has no religious iconography, in fact the only icons are the Chinese symbol of the three wise monkeys, see no evil, speak no evil and hear no evil; symbols to which Gandhi was much attached. But nevertheless there are many references to the importance of spirituality. The connection between religion and political liberation is made explicit. The importance of connecting individual moral and spiritual acts to collective and political acts is constantly re-emphasised. As in the Jain temple, the link between the mortal, temporal life of individuals and the divine is constantly re-emphasised. The notion of individual influence or agency is morally and mystically connected to the unknowable divine.

These two experiences draws attention to the central place of spirituality in motivating belief as well as action in all aspects of Indian life. Almudena from Mexico, another very religious country, worked on the victorious presidential campaign of Vicente Fox and, at the Gandhi ashram, she recalls how old people, particularly in rural areas, who came to Fox’s rallies would want to touch him and then begin to cry, as if he was somehow sanctified and contact with him would bring blessings to their life. Frederico from Brazil recounts a story of a participatory budgeting exercise conducted in Brazil when local people were consulted about their priorities for public expenditure. They did not want to see public money spent on a school or a clinic to the surprise of the local government officials. Instead they wanted the money spent on building a church, which was not at all the outcome intended.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Posthumous lives in Rome

The area around the Spanish Steps in Rome is still sometimes quaintly referred to as the English quarter. At the bottom in Piazza di Spagna on one side of the steps is Babington's Tea Room, where a small fortune will buy you an English cup of tea. On the other side of the steps is the Keats Shelley Museum. This is the apartment where the English poet Keats died of tuberculosis at the age of 25. His days of writing poetry were at an end, only 18 months long, but nevertheless producing some of the most famous and beautiful poetry in English literature. My favourite line from Keats is ‘alone and palely loitering' (from the poem, La Belle Dam Sans Mercy), which, when I was a student, is how I imagined myself; the dark romantic typeon the North York moors, never without a volume of poetry, a jazz record and a packet of Gauloises.

Keats came to Rome having been an apothecary and a physician in London, both rather lower class professions. As a result his poetry went unregarded and more famous poets like Byron looked snobbishly down on him. For a short while his health did improve and he saw some of the famous Roman sights. In the Villa Borghese he was shocked by Canova's sculpture, which would then only have been a few decades old and daringly modern, of Paolina Borghese with her breasts bared and holding an apple, a Christian symbol of her temptress nature. But the revival in his health was short-lived and he soon took to his bed to live out what he called in a beautiful, tragic phrase ‘his posthumous life'. Looked after, and occasionally movingly painted by his artist friend, John Severn, his health diminished and his death mask, which is in the museum, shows that he died a gaunt, shrunken man. He had no posthumous reputation, no fortune, no good name - but he left a beautiful oeuvre of romantic poetry which was eventually revived by the Pre-Raphaelites decades after his death.

Another famous English artist is also currently making a more transitory but nevertheless remarkable impact on Rome: FrancisBacon. In the gorgeous Villa Borghese(where Keats was shocked by the bare-breasted Paolina) there is an exhibition of Bacon paintings alongside the paintings of Caravaggio, that most realistic and down-to-earth of Rennaissance painters. The contorted and unrecognisable features of Bacon's subjects sit alongside the peasants and urchins that Caravaggio had transmogrified into hyper-realistic images of saints and classical heroes with his remarkable control of light and shadow, chiaroscuro, and his bold painting techniques. My favourite Caravaggio painting is not famous and rarely shown in exhibitions, though it is on display in this exhibition. Its normal home is a dark, dusty corner of the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, just outside the Borghese gardens. The painting appears
to be a man injured by being thrown from a horse. Most of the painting is taken up with the rear end of the horse and the man lies swooning and unconscious in the bottom right hand corner of the painting by the horse's side. In fact, the subject of the painting is the conversion of St Paul on the road to Damascus. So what seems an earthy, realistic painting is in fact depicting a moment of transfiguration; a miraculous moment of enlightenment. The conversion of the real to the transfigured is Caravaggio's gift, as it is that of many other Rennaissance painters.

But by inserting Bacon paintings seemingly randomly amongt the Rennaissance masters, not just Caravaggio, but also Raphael, Cranach, Titian, Dossi, Lippi and the spectacular Bernini statues (amongst the greatest sculptures in the world), the curator is posing a big question about realism. Francis Bacon believed, as do many of those who look at his paintings, that his distortions of physical reality in the depiction of his subject brings out thier truer selves. In other words, the apparently distorted was more real, in the sense of true, than the realistic image. In thinking that he was influenced by Freudian notions of the unconscious. So here was the point of the show. The ‘realism' in painting to which Rennaissance art gave birth, with its unprecedented understanding of perspective and landscape as well as its humanistic portrayal of religious figures, was in fact depicting the spiritual, the miraculous, the transfigured: realism in painting to connect our human experiences to the divine. Francis Bacon also seemed to be arguing that realism did not serve reality. All the painters seemed to be using the voices of different times to say the real is rarely the true; look harder if you want to find the truer meaning.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Two schools in Johannesburg

The first school we visited in Johannesburg was the African Leadership Academy, a new school for students between 16 and 18 which had just taken in its first intake of 180 students. The school was set on a green, leafy campus on the outskirts of Johannesburg in an area that was until recently farmland. Peacocks roamed the campus. They had been inherited from the printing college that used to be on the campus. Some of the staff told me that the peacocks were noisy and messy pests which had gone feral. If I wanted to take one with me, I would be welcome. This seemed implausible to me so I enquired further with the students. The students told me that, in fact, the peacocks were looked after by the cooks who fed them left over food from the students’ meals. They were thriving on it and the numbers were rising rapidly. Some of the peacocks were starting to show telltale signs of obesity.

The students were from all over Africa and 85 per cent of them received scholarships, meaning that the entry criteria were based on merit rather than wealth. Most of the recruitment was done on line and relied in part on academic achievement, but also on leadership potential. The founder, whom we met, was concerned that young potential leaders from Africa almost always went abroad to study and, in many cases, never returned. Students who received a scholarship signed a contract that they would return from study abroad to work in Africa for at least five years. So he wanted to nurture a new generation of African leaders at the school. They studied for A levels, because they were more flexible than the International Baccalaureate. The greater flexibility of A levels meant that the school could add three subjects to the curriculum: leadership, entrepreneurship and African studies – a very telling and modern combination I thought. The downside of A levels was that the curriculum was British, not African. Some of it was flexible; a young man I met was doing Literature and his set texts were Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, but there were inevitable irrelevances. The case study of hyper-inflation was Germany after the First World War, though the teachers felt that Zimbabwe in recent times might be more interesting and pertinent.

The students, with whom we had a long discussion, were wonderful: animated, argumentative, idealistic, articulate – terrific in every way. Every single one of them intended to study in the US if they could. Most had already identified which college they wanted to attend. This is surely a warning sign for British universities. Apparently, American universities have more flexible, less academic entry criteria (debatable, I suspect) and more numerous and more generous scholarships (undoubtedly true).

The other school we visited was Tulani School in Soweto. The school had more than 1000 pupils and had good facilities, both classrooms and playing fields, though no peacocks. The average class size was 56 but nevertheless more than 90 per cent of students passed their matric. This statistic was all the more impressive as a good proportion of the students lived in the nearby informal settlements. Even though the school is well run and has an inspirational Principal, the problems of the local community do intrude on school life. Drug dealers come through the fence and sell drugs on the sports pitches to the pupils in breaks, making some pupils reluctant to come to sports classes. The children here too were wonderful.

These were both excellent schools but, having visited them both within 24 hours, my mind inevitably turned to the inequalities that shaped the differences between the two schools. Social justice implies a concern about the extent, nature and damaging effects of inequality. But a great fallacy of social change is the assumption that because something should be done it can be done or will be done.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Meetings with remarkable Indians

Poonam Mutreja, MacArthur Foundation
The MacArthur Foundation has conducted what is probably the largest ever survey of adolescents in India, 25,000 young people in each of six Indian states; 150,000 in all. The results are to be published at the end of the year. The findings from the survey shows what many have started to suspect anecdotally from the experience of their own families and children: Middle class Indian youth is beginning to display all the alienations and anomie of Western youth; a rash of what Poonam Mutreja called psycho-social problems, like anorexia, freely available ‘leisure’ drugs (300 rupees, about £4, will buy you a good time on the latest designer drug apparently), confused sexual identities and all the familiar traumas of Western adolescence – but without yet the propensity to rebel which has been institutionalized amongst adolescents in Western societies. The transition to adulthood, which was once so predictable and perhaps stifling in India, has now become a complex and, for some, confusing and uncertain mosaic.

Indira Jaiasingh, Additional Attorney General
The Indian Supreme Court complex has a special post-Raj atmosphere. It is in one of Lutyens’ wonderful cupola-ed red sandstone temples, at the heart of New Delhi. Once you get through security, which has the familiar air of barely suppressed chaos that often reigns in Indian Government environments, the compound is full of black-clad lawyers rushing hither and thither, gowns billowing behind them, mostly men, but now a few women. Laptops poke out from under flowing batwing sleeves. Following rapidly behind them are assistants carrying bursting bundles of papers. It is like a grand conclave of large black birds in permanent motion. Watching them all swirl around you feel that if you clapped your hands loudly perhaps all the black-clad lawyers would simply fly away.

Indira Jaiasingh is a radical lawyer who has fought many cases in Indian courts about the adverse consequences for poor and marginalized people of globalization and privatization. In a highly significant and confident move after the victory of his UPA coalition in the General Election, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has appointed her Additional Attorney General. So from being a radical critic, she is, now a Government official, but she has not the slightest intention of abandoning what she called her campaigning ‘baggage.’ Her radical passions burn with as much fervour as ever. Proximity to power combines the feeling that something can at last be done with the frustration that even where power supposedly resides, getting things done can still be maddeningly difficult.

Indira Jaisingh, in a white patterned sari, the blouse adapted for a legal collar combined with a black waistcoat, to denote her legal uniform. Her grey hair is firmly scraped back in a utilitarian fashion. She sits calmly in her office waiting for her two young legal assistants, who are tapping away at laptops and mobile phones in the corner, to tell her that the Supreme Court is ready for her. She is appearing for the Government to argue the case for the Delhi Master Plan which makes provision for legalizing some informal settlements and allowing some hawkers, street vendors and small traders to regularize their status and continue to trade with the protection, rather than the hostility, of the police and the law. The middle class residents of Delhi have organized themselves into a powerful and litigious network of residents’ associations and they are opposing the Master Plan. Their objections have gone all through the courts and have now landed in the Supreme Court. Indira Jaisingh regards their objections as ‘frivolous’. There is in her view no constitutional right to walk on a clear pavement unimpeded by hawkers or pavement dwellers when the people involved have nowhere else to go and no other way to make a living. Her anger is controlled, precise and absolutely to the point; she speaks slowly, in short, lucid, incontrovertible sentences which go straight to the heart of the matter. Being polite or amiable just for its own sake is evidently terra incognita. One imagines how phased her opponents must feel when fixed with her steely, unphased glare. Despite the frivolousness of the residents’ associations’ objections in the current case she fears the court may uphold them. In her view the courts have been consistently biased against slum dwellers and street hawkers and willing to back middle class residents. She is not impressed and she intends to spend the afternoon over turning that bias.

Andre Beteille, Sociologist
The monsoon, due in June, had yet to arrive when I landed in Delhi two months later at the end of July. The humidity was so high and the air so thick and viscous, you could almost pick it up with a spoon and put it in a bowl. If one ignores the traffic chaos and the hopeless overflowing drains, the monsoon is wonderful, cool and fresh – particularly for me as I hadn’t been in a monsoon in India since my childhood, so it was almost Proust-ian to feel the atmosphere lift as the rain began falling.

As the skies darkened and the heavy rain started to fall, not in drops, but in ropes, Sujata and I arrived to visit India’s most distinguished sociologists, Andre Beteille. He lives in Jor Bagh, that lovely residential district of leafy green squares near the centre of New Delhi next to the Lodhi Gardens with its palm trees and monumental Mughal tombs. We sat in his small but beautiful sitting room, surrounded be fascinating abstract paintings, with the fan whirring on the ceiling. In the rain trees turn a luminous emerald green and we sat looking out on his garden eating delicious home-made cake and drinking tea.

Andre Beteille has gained a certain notoriety in India for being an active promoter of equality for the under-privileged or ‘scheduled’ castes in India, but an active opponent of quotas in universities and jobs for them. This latter opposition had led him to resign from the Indian Government’s powerful Knowledge Commission, somewhat to the Government’s consternation. He dismisses this high-profile act of objection and defiance as unimportant. “I’m not really the committee-type. I’m at my best in the seminar room.” Under-statement, like its close cousin irony, may be one of the more benign British post-colonial legacies.

The morphing of universities
Universities, as he defines them, are a threatened species, in India as elsewhere. The heart of the traditional university, as invented in Europe and particularly in Oxford and Cambridge (800 years old this year) was teaching and research of science and humanities. The more applied academic disciplines were on the periphery. Using academic research to influence public policy or practice was more or less unheard of. The point of it all was increasing the sum of human knowledge. He sensed that this model of the university was now moribund for two reasons. Firstly, the applied disciplines of technology and business management were fast becoming the core and humanities and natural sciences were being shunted to the periphery. Secondly, academics were no longer content with just teaching and research. They also wanted to write in the newspapers, influence public debate and be policy makers (not just policy analysts) in Government. These new ambitions could not in his view be achieved through institutions such as traditional universities, but were most effectively achieved through fluid personal networks.

Institutions vs networks
He has written a paper about the differences between institutions and networks; “just a rant”, he said modestly. In fact the analysis was compelling. Institutions are characterized by clear and manifold rules and regulations. Even if many people think the rules are absurd and unjustified, compliance will still be required. Institutions also have fixed membership which is hard to enter and which people were reluctant to leave. The essence of the institution is typified, according to Andre Beteille, by the British boarding school. Traditionally universities were certainly such institutions. Networks on the other hand relied on agreements and values, rather than traditions and rules and entry and exit was straightforward, common and frequent. Networks could be long-lived but had no aspirations to permanence, whereas institutions wanted to see themselves as eternal and were therefore prone regularly to publicly celebrate their longevity.

Isher Ahluwallia, Education policy-maker
“Please come,” Isher Aluwalia, smiling warmly, shows us into her office at the Habitat Centre. The power is out at her home where we were going to meet. Even the important and influential are not immune to the egalitarianism of the ubiquitous power cut in India. She is an elegant woman in an electric blue silk sari and striking jewellery. Her thick grey hair is elegantly and perfectly evenly bobbed.
She is a distinguished researcher and has looked in great depth at the learning outcomes achieved by primary schools, comparing the performance of schools in the Punjab, one of India’s wealthiest states, with those achieved in other states. She is generally not impressed. Results are poorer even when school buildings may be better and classes smaller, not to mention higher spending per capita. Her diagnosis, in line with a great deal of international research, is that not enough has been spent on improving the skills and quality of teachers. Investment in education is not neutral. The greatest benefit, rupee for rupee, is to be had from teacher development, a very important area of work for the Council in numerous countries.

She visited a school in the Punjab with her husband, Montek Singh Aluwallia, the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, and one of the closest associates of Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister. He is therefore said to be one of the four most influential people in India. The local officials were proudly showing Montek, (as everyone calls him, even those, like me, who don’t know him) and his wife their new buildings, the new separate toilets for boys and girls and the much improved classroom equipment. They were seeking to demonstrate that the education budgets, which have recently (and very belatedly) been greatly increased all over India, were being wisely spent and not squandered in rake-offs and other forms of corruption. The officials were therefore disconcerted when Mrs Aluwallia, who was presumably supposed to just nod and smile in the background, flatly asserted that she had looked at the evidence and they were probably spending money on the wrong things, as the state of Punjab needed to spend a great deal more on improving the quality of its teachers, not just the quality of its school buildings. Cue deflated officials.

She says Indians are reluctant to compare what they are doing with foreigners because they think that talking about things too much, particularly boasting, leads to people putting the evil eye on you. Superstitions, even amongst intellectuals, die hard. She has been involved in many international exchanges. Her eyes twinkling with mischief and merriment, she tells us about a high level exchange with Chinese academics and officials, who amongst other things, wanted to find out about the Indian IT industry. As the leader of the Indian delegation she tells them, showing the smiling directness we are coming to recognize as her trademark, “The Indian IT industry happened by accident; it happened despite the Government, not because of the Government.” The Chinese officials were astonished and frankly disbelieving. They thought the Indian delegation were being disingenuous, perhaps seeking to avoid the evil eye. Such a thing would be impossible in China: a world-beating industry being created without Government support. This subject kept recurring in all their exchanges so eventually, Isher Aluwallia repeated her observation in the presence of an Indian Government Minister. He nodded vigorously and the Chinese delegation were finally convinced that things can happen without Governments and sometimes Governments even get in the way.

Ashis Nandy, Sociologist
Ashis Nandy lives in a lovely flat in Delhi, with the illustrations for the covers of his book on the wall interspersed with tribal art. There are books and paper everywhere with sculptures and computers scattered amongst them. Perched precariously on the top of his bookshelf is a large poster with a poem written by his brother to celebrate Ashis’s 65th birthday. “You left home before I smoked my first cigarette”; the opening line summons up a touching sense of sibling intimacy. Uma, Ashis’s wife, breaks off watching an angry TV debate about corruption in the distribution of the Government’s flagship cash benefit scheme for the poorest of the poor, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, to serve delicious, freshly-cooked, bite-size pakora, cooked in the Guajarati way.

Ashis Nandy is one of India’s most distinguished – and controversial – social critics. He has argued that the nation state as defined by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 and developed in Europe thereafter, which has been enthusiastically embraced by the post-colonial Indian elite, is deeply flawed for the Indian context. It can never produces stability and harmony, just varying degrees of, at least, discord and, at worst, chaos. He argues controversially that nation states will always privilege military security over social development. Their primary focus is always on strengthening the state, if necessary at the expense of the interests of the people. He goes even further to argue that nation states, whilst claiming to represent and preserve cultural traditions and linguistic identities, consistently and systematically undermine and trash traditional forms of knowledge and celebrate technocratic and globalised information even though the champions of these hyper-modern approaches know perfectly well that everyone in India can never live like people in Western Europe; there are simply not enough resources to go round. Again he points to middle-class self-interest dressed up as a nation-building project of economic and social development. In these culture and political wars, truth is often a casualty, but so too are the rights and aspirations of individual citizens.

Anil Gupta, Social alchemist
Anil Gupta is a Professor of Entrepreneurship at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmadabad, probably India’s best management school, in Gujarat, India’s fastest growing state – and its most religiously divided. But his much greater claim to fame is that he is a great champion of social innovation – probably the greatest in the world; he is a social alchemist seeking to turn poor people’s base metals into gold for their benefit. Dressed in an unostentatious traditional cotton kurta and taking his shoes off in every building he entered (though insisting we need not) his office on the lovely campus is small, dark and full of books and news cuttings from all over the world.

Although he is less combative than Ashis Nandy, he makes the same point: India is too poor to wait for globalization to bring about huge increases in material standards of living for everyone. In the meantime the productive and creative potential of poor people is their greatest asset. In developed countries highly stratified education systems identify those with talent early in life. Ignoring humble origins (like mine), the education system will make many of the talented successful, (making the successful talented is of course impossible, or perhaps that’s too unkind!). This is what Michael Young called meritocracy. India is not a meritocracy, particularly in the rural areas where three quarters of the population continue to live, many of them in great poverty. Talent is held back, and therefore, ironically, beneficially present almost everywhere, if only the best ideas could be collected, shared and developed using more conventional investment and management methods. That is Professor Gupta’s mission.

His method of research is walks around the country, a tradition inherited from Gandhi from whom many of his ideas are clearly drawn, though much adapted and modernized. These walks are long and undertaken in high summer or the depth of winter, sleeping out where necessary. He believes fervently that you listen better when walking. He and his companions record the ideas of those that they meet and publish them on the internet. We are astonished to discover that so far he has collected and published 164,000, including shoes to walk on water (invented by a farmer who wanted to visit his girlfriend on the other side of the river) and a washing machine powered by pedal power.

Using funds he received from an award from an American foundation, he has established a laboratory to test some of the ideas he encounters in a more scientific environment (his original expertise was in genetics). He shows us some of the experiments. They are conducting tests on the immunizing properties of single-bulb garlic, which some rural people told him they used for treating many ailments. He shows us the petri dish whish shows the garlic producing a larger zone of immunity than a conventional drug. If these tests prove successful, his laboratory will patent the single-bulb garlic and the farmer and his community will receive the royalties. They have already brought many products to market, including an organic fly spray (which Moumitra uses in her garden and recommends) and a natural cream for cracked skins on heels.

In another room in the laboratory, pots of earth are organized in tidy rows, some are cheap factory-made earthenware and others are darker, almost black, and handmade. In each one a small seedling is growing. The seedlings in the handmade pots seem to be larger and healthier than the ones in the factory-made pots. Sujata picks up one of these handmade pots and asks Professor Gupta, “What is this?” “That pot,” he replies, “is made of cow dung and we are testing what farmers have told us: cow dung pots retain water better and produce healthier plants than factory-made pots.” Sujata swiftly returns the pot she is holding to the table and gingerly dusts off her fingers seeking to discreetly remove the remaining traces of cow dung without looking too urban and fastidious.

Ela Bhatt: global activist for women
At dinner in a wonderful vegetarian restaurant in a historic building in the centre of Ahmadabad we meet Ela Bhatt who is the leader of a million-strong women’s movement. She is a small, thin woman, perhaps not so young now, in a pink starched cotton sari. Her balance and poise, hands folded on the table in front of her, head still, half a smile, makes me think she is probably a long-time practitioner of yoga; asking, though tempting, seemed rather personal as I had just met her.
She is feted all over the world and consulted by leaders from all over the world, including Hillary Clinton, who recently visited SEWA. Mrs Clinton has visited before, but on this visit she asked for the first time about the women’s views on environmental sustainability. The French have given her the Legion d’Honneur, nothing yet from the Brits as far as I can tell.

We are deep in conversation and she asks me about the lives of women from the sub-continent in the UK. I explain some research I had done with Bangladeshi women in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets: how difficult it was for them to care for many children and look after ailing, prematurely aged husbands and how many had taken to chewing tobacco for its sedative effects to such an extent that there was now an epidemic of mouth cancer. She listened carefully to what I had to say and at the end, moving her head from side to side in that characteristically Indian way, she said “But the men are tyrants, no?”

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Animals in the Western Cape South Africa

The relationships between human and other animal species will forever be contested; a contest for space, nutrition, power, freedom. In South Africa the proximity of wildlife to human settlements is greater than anywhere in Europe, where many millennia of human domination has left the landscape bereft and empty of the larger mammals. But the accommodation between animals and humans remains uneasy – and as a result of the growing competition the relationships and co-operation between animals and members of their own species is also contested. Zorro the hippomotamus escaped from a ‘reserve’ near Cape Town to escape bullying and attacks from his father. Perhaps his father felt it was time for the adolescent to leave home, but there’s nowhere far enough away to go in a game park. Zorro somehow managed to escape and found a more peaceful home in one of the City’s sewage farm, where he gives the impression of bliss. He reigns supreme in a kingdom of shit devoid of all other hippos. But he will have to be re-homed eventually into one of the proliferating number of game parks, all in search of a hippo.

Amongst the lizards, too, things have got difficult. One of the more colourful chameleon lizards has developed a transvestite strain. These are adolescent males (again!) who don the colouring of the females of the species in the hope of avoiding attacks and evictions by the dominant males. This strategy seems to be working and the transvestite lizards are scoring with the females before the typically stupid males realise what’s going on. As a result, the selfish genetic adaptation that allowed them to take on female colouring seems for the moment to be prospering.

But, as far as humans are concerned, our most complex mythical and practical relationships are with big cats and with the higher primates. Baboons are notoriously territorial and aggressive apes and continue to resist human invasion of their territory long after the roads and houses have been built and the people have moved in. They keep a watchful gaze from a distance and mount guerrilla attacks when they can, both in defence of their territory, causing as much mayhem as possible, but also in search of relatively easily accessible food. As well as urinating and defecating on beds and cushions, where presumably the human scent is strongest, they also steal fruit, vegetable and most other edibles. An avocado from a salad bowl is a good deal less effort, after all, than climbing all those trees. And we humans are inadequate protectors of our abundant food supplies. Unlike the transvestite lizards, this is a learnt adaptation and undoubtedly a functional one. Many groups of birds and animals are losing their fear of humans – squirrels and pigeons in North London for example.

So, once battle with the baboons is joined, fear must be deployed. Many baboons that live near humans bear the scars. A troop living in Pringle Bay near Cape Town had broken fingers, tails, hands and legs. Many other injuries had been terminal. Some injuries have been gained in fights with other baboons, motivated either by sexual competition or by an attempt to upset the established hierarchy, the former being a particularly irritating example of the latter from the point of view of the alpha male. Others have been attacked by humans, hit with stones from catapults, shot at and run over by cars, not always accidentally. Some have been attacked by man’s most faithful friends, dogs. They survive despite their disabilities, by compensating in other physical ways and by sticking with the pack.

But one human couple in Pringle Bay have come to some kind of accommodation with the baboons. Kate Jagoe-Davis is an artist who is also a paraplegic and a continuous wheelchair user. The baboons are much less aggressive to her, in part because they are less aggressive towards women: apparently they find the smell of testosterone particularly annoying. But the baboons have gone further and made friends with her, playing with her bangles, sitting on her knee and even grooming her hair. One young mother even brings her newborn to show her. They remain wary of her partner, Brian, meanwhile. He occasionally has to adopt an assertive male stance, either standing his ground in stand offs with the baboon bosses or seeing them off the premises with shows of aggression. This bizarre accommodation leads to confusion all round and even this benign human couple trying to come to terms with their baboon neighbours will more likely than not come unstuck. It will end in tears, because the baboons will eventually call Brian’s bluff. A show of aggression will not be enough.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Animals in Amsterdam

At the FOAM photographic gallery in Amsterdam, in a lovely canalside town house, there were two exhibitions, one by an African photographer, Malick Sidibe, and the other with an African subject , The Hyena and Other Men, by Pieter Hugo. The photographs in the Malick Sidibe exhibition were mostly taken in his studio in Bamako, Mali in the 1970s. They are devoid of the all too familiar stereotypes of Africa. Instead, sharply dressed, mostly young people went to his studio to have a photo taken, which conveyed their strength of pride about themselves, as if they were setting off for a night on the town, perhaps with romantic conquest in mind. Many of the outfits give them a kind of gangster quality, complete with mirror sunglasses. Not gangsta in the contemporary sense, but gangster in the sense of 1930s Chicago: dapper men in sharply cut suits; feminine, glamorous women.

Malick Sidibe also specialised in wedding photography and these photographs convey all the joys of crowds and community, of spontaneity, celebration and hospitality that one might struggle to find in Europe nowadays. Finding celebration and crowds might be particularly difficult in Amsterdam, where all is cool, distant, elegant and now conservative. How different to the 1970s when Amsterdam was colour, youth and freedom, whilst London was grey, old, broke and broken.

The other exhibition by Pieter Hugo could not be more of a contrast. Instead of the small studio portraits, the huge photographs are of men with hyenas, dogs and monkeys on chains. These men are a group of travelling musicians and performers in Nigeria whom the photographer has got to know. But the subjects do not seek to reveal intimacy or vulnerability. Instead they want to convey strength, control and, above all, mastery over the hyenas, muzzled and on the end of a thick chain. These animals are forcibly controlled, not tamed – and God knows how they were made to suffer in order to contain their fear and aggression. Aggression must have been beaten out of them.

The men are exotically dressed in beads and animal skins, whilst some of the animals are dressed up in human clothes: two monkeys are wearing football shirts and they stare at the camera in a defiant, knowing way. So somehow the so-called hyena men have tried to pull off a kind of anthropomorphic role reversal. The men are posing with their legs apart and their chest out, as if they are wild, dominant animals. The animals are supposedly becalmed and deferential. But the pose is obviously fake. The viewer senses immediately not that these men are powerful, but that they are powerless, poor and desperate. The animals, however, still suggest their barely contained wildness. The human trick has failed. We are not the masters of wild animals. We only convey an illusion of brutal power, seeking more than anything to convince ourselves, whilst those over which we claim power know that our power is conditional and temporary. One day the fight will come and the fight will be to the death.

Human anthropocentric delusion is a subject which John Gray addresses in Amsterdam. He tells the story of a vegan cat. A friend of his told him that he had trained, cajoled and tricked his cat into being a vegan and therefore to eschew meat and other animal products. The animal had apparently thrived on this unusual diet. Even a cursory acquaintance with cats confirms that there is no cat in the world that does not eat meat and fish. But then one of John’s questions hit the bullseye. Was the cat kept indoors, he asked his friend. No, came the reply, the cat was free to come and go as it pleased. The owner apparently believed that the cat maintained its vegan habits whilst out on the town alone.

The cat, one suspects, may have had a friend like Yvonne who feeds Herman the cat from next door, to the point where he is now overweight; some might even say obese. His owners think he has a poor appetite. They may even think he is a vegan.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/gerardlemos/sets/ for a few photographs of Amsterdam