Ahmedabad. Bangalore. Two Indian cities rocked by bombs in the last two days. Two cities I’m intimately connected with. The former was where I grew up, where my father worked for many years at the Indian Institute of Management, at once the most avant-garde of Indian cities as well as the most retrograde. Ahmedabad, named after Sultan Ahmad Shah who founded it in 1411: Home of Mahatma Gandhi whose ashram nestled on the banks of the River Sabarmati; ISRO—the space research organization where India’s first rockets and satellites were developed; PRL—the Physical Research Laboratory; NID--the National Institute of Design; the aforementioned IIMA set up in collaboration with the Harvard Business School and ATIRA—the Ahmedabad Textile Industry Research Association for this was the Manchester of the East, with textile mills galore.
For years Gujaratis (Ahmedabad is in Gujarat state) enjoyed the reputation of being the most non-violent people in India, if not the planet. Mahatma Gandhi veritably personified the spirit of gentle, unagressive yet enterprising Gujarati-ness. That image was forever changed in 1969 when the worst Hindu-Muslim riots erupted in Ahmedabad with dozens of Muslims raped and killed in the most brutal way. Schoolmates who lived in the old part of the city where most of the Muslim population was concentrated witnessed atrocities they couldn’t forget for years. Since then the word Ahmedabad has practically become synonymous with ‘communal riots’ (as such periodic bloodlettings are termed) so it is not surprising that the city has been targeted by an avenging Muslim group setting bombs off in BJP-dominated cities.
This may explain why “the quaint and sleepy town of Bangalore” where my parents now live, the polar opposite of Ahmedabad in terms of communal relations, has also been targeted. The BJP, a political coalition of aggressive right-wing Hindu groups, has recently won state power in Karnataka where Bangalore is located. Karnataka is also one of six Indian states in which the Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) is active. SIMI is widely suspected to be the organization behind the multiple bombings in Ahmedabad and Bangalore.
The word SIMI stirred up a memory. Seven years ago in Trivandrum, Kerala, I had been photographing the plethora of writing on the walls of that city. Local government elections were in the offing and i was fascinated by the symbols used by political parties. I distinctly remembered one piece of graffiti by a Muslim group that had struck me with the simple force and stridency of its message. Curious I rummaged through my old albums and found the photograph, taken in 2001. It was indeed a message from the self-same SIMI-- Shahadat, by the way, means martyrdom.
Needless to say this is not what I had planned to blog about. But those distant explosions were too close to home in a manner of speaking for me to overlook. One can only hope that Kerala, the state my family is from and where most of my aunts and uncles live is not next on the list of the avenging Jehadis.
The muralist in question was Ricky Culture who lives in Three Miles where most of his work is to be found. On Tuesday afternoon I met Honor and Ricky at Sistren from where we set out. On our way to Three Miles I found myself driving along a series of roads that zigged and zagged in and out of so-called inner city communities under Ricky’s expert guidance . He knew these byroads from having walked them as a child on his way to school.
Ricky was incredibly lean and gentle. He had started out as a musician but times got so hard that he turned his hand to painting. With the frequent deaths in communities there was a high demand for the services of mural painters. Judging by his slender frame the living was still hard even though Ricky has produced any number of murals, including some stunning ones of Emperor Haile Selassie and his Empress at an ital restaurant called Food For Life at the Three Miles roundabout. These were the only portraits done entirely from his imagination. The rest were all produced from photographs. His Imperial Majesty is somewhat of an obsession with Ricky as you can see. A number of his works are to be found in Majesty Gardens, home to “the poorest people in Jamaica” according to today’s Observer. At Roots Community FM the studio has a large mural of Bob Marley with locks flowing all around him like roots. Occasionally Ricky paints himself into a mural as an advertisement of his skills. What spooked me was how similar Ricky's stance and posture was in a photo i took of him to the autoportrait.
Interestingly Ricky wasn’t familiar with the magnificent murals dedicated to Glenford Phipps or ‘Early Bird’ at Matthews Lane outside Father Zekes’ bar. Early Bird was Zekes’ brother and the Don of Matches Lane before Zekes. He was brutally killed in the early 90s and the poet Kamau Brathwaite immortalized his death in his long poem, Trenchtown Rock. A couple of years ago I produced a montage using images of this mural and fragments of Kamau’s poem (the image that is the frontispiece of this blog). The fact that Ricky had not come across the Early Bird wall painting or some others I had seen in Rosetown made me realize how territorially bound all these initiatives are. Someone should undertake to conduct a survey of just how many memorial murals there are in communities divided by conflicting loyalties all over Kingston. On our way home we stopped at Black Roses Corner to look at the memorials to Willie Haggart and ‘International dancer’ Bogle. A more complete selection of the photos i took of the murals we saw on Tuesday is available on my Flickr page.
Well, the ACS 2008 Crossroads conference has finally come and gone like a tsunami that rolled ashore, lifting us off our feet and depositing us back on terra firma gasping for air as it eventually receded this Monday. At its peak the Cultural Studies conference featured 20 concurrent panels or sessions, and you had to be the most dedicated, strategic, panel surfer to experience more than a smidgeon of the entire programme.
The packed few days of the conference, from July 3-7, brought more than 400 academics from all over the world to the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI). And UWI, caught like a matron in the middle of an elaborate facial while preparing for her main event--the university’s 60th anniversary celebrations that kick off on July 12th—was her charming, gracious self, wowing visitors with her flamboyant natural beauty now enhanced by the brilliant new colours the buildings are being painted.
I view the repainting of the campus as a significant step in the repositioning of the University in the 21st century. Perhaps I’m oversensitive to colours, perhaps its my coolietude, but I don’t see why we should be so committed to what I think of as boring, institutional colours like off-white, beige and gray. UWI Press was the first to buck this trend a few years ago when it painted its new building burnt sienna. I’m told the University Buildings Committee had a collective apoplectic fit but was effectively faced down by Linda Speth, the no-nonsense director of the Press.
The Buildings Committee must have undergone a transfusion of new members since then because the Main Library has just been painted shades of turquoise. I absolutely love it but seem to be in the minority—I’m told that one colleague who otherwise champions the people dem culture demanded to know why the library was being painted “inner city blue”. I sincerely hope those responsible will remain steadfast and not water down the new colour scheme; the turquoise library nestled in the lap of the green hills beyond it looks like a gem. Look at this picture and decide for yourselves.
CARIBBEAN MODERNIST ARCHITECTURE
Back to the theme of this blog which is conferences. Academic conferences to be precise. I’ve been on a conference rollercoaster since February this year. The most memorable one was the collaboration between the University of Technology (UTech) and the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in producing a conference on “Caribbean Modernist Architecture”. Held at the magnificent Jamaica Conference Centre downtown the symposium brought together architects, curators and historians of architecture from fourteen countries. The fees were steep and I wasn’t able to attend more than one or two sessions but it was one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended locally.
To hear architects from the region talking about the trajectory modern architecture took in their respective countries was stimulating. In Venezuela interdisciplinary design and research were important and modern art—the work of artists such as Vassarely, Calder and Jean Arp—was used to complement the built environment. In Mexico architects were preoccupied with a series of responses to the question of how to come up with a Mexican nationalist architecture. In Puerto Rico there was “no history but a monumental void” and so military bases became the first sites of modernist architecture and aesthetic advancement.
THE MG SMITH CONFERENCE
In June the Centre for Caribbean Thought organized a small conference in honour of MG Smith, which started off with a no-holds barred address by Professor Orlando Patterson of Harvard University. MG was an eminent Jamaican sociologist and poet who taught at UWI, Yale University, UCLA and University College in London during the course of his lifetime. Smith gained a reputation for his work on corporation theory, pluralism and plural societies (of which he thought Jamaica was one). As a poet Smith was a member of the ‘Drumblair’ group of writers, poets and dramatists who revolved around the Manley household. Smith was particularly close to Edna Manley who ran what amounted to a ‘salon’ in pre-independence Jamaica.
Patterson, who had worked at UWI with MG in the early days openly stated his differences with Smith declaring that as a social theorist he had been a failure. There was he recalled “endless bickering” over pluralism and the taxonomy Smith employed was patently inadequate. In any case according to Patterson “West Indian societies are clearly heterogeneous,” something that would not have been obvious to Smith whose problem was that he viewed West Indian society from an “upper class perspective.”
According to Patterson Smith “should have checked out more carefully those of us who were upwardly mobile…25 years after being born in the bush I was teaching at the London School of Economics. Thirty years later I was offered a position at Harvard.” So “it simply wasn’t true that there were core institutional divisions” between Blacks, Whites and Browns as Smith’s plural society thesis posited.
Incidentally there are scholars who disagree with this view; In an article titled "The Permanence of Pluralism" Columbia University-based postcolonial theorist David Scott (also Jamaican) argued in the wake of the 1998 Zekes Riots that "the ghost of MG Smith is haunting the landscape of the Jamaican political modern". Meaning that the total breakdown of any pretence at social cohesion, leading to the profound crisis Jamaican society finds itself in today, could have been predicted by MG Smith with his thesis that the population of Jamaica "constituted a plural society, that is a society divided into sections, each of which practiced different cultures."
MIKE and EDNA
Patterson looked to Smith’s personal life for clues to the inadequacies of his social theory. Born to a white English-born father and a ‘coloured’ mother who died in childbirth (a pity, Patterson pointed out, as MG would have benefited from knowing her family and perhaps even produced different, better informed work) Smith was sent to JC as a child where he was subjected to ‘sadistic canings’. “Smith in fact was brought up by a corporation—I think this has major implications later on” said Patterson going on to talk of MG’s unusual relationship with Edna Manley, the mother of his schoolmate Michael, whom he was “immediately smitten by.”
This was the part where the prim and proper audience, completely unused to such candid disclosures, especially in the august enclave of UWI’s undercroft, started to squirm in its seats, as Patterson dwelt at length on the putative “consummation” of this unorthodox relationship between a young man and an older woman. If Mark (“In Praise of Younger Women”) Wignall thought that having a younger lover was a privilege reserved for older males he better think again. Many a woman could write paeans in praise of younger men too.
Having delivered himself of MG’s various shortcomings Patterson acknowledged that despite this there was a “great deal that was justifiable about this conference”. Smith had been a world-class historical sociologist whose early work on the Fulanis of Nigeria and his study of community organizations in rural Jamaica were timeless classics. MG was a meticulous fieldworker whose ethnohistories were “meticulous excavations”. His best work according to Patterson was done when he wasn’t obsessed with theorizing; the problem arose when he imposed corporatist theory on his findings.
Patterson’s thorough and honest examination of MG Smith’s work and life may have raised a few hackles but it set off several impassioned, contentious and useful conversations over the next couple of days among the social and cultural theorists gathered at Mona. The highlight though was Rachel Manley’s talk (at the opening of the library exhibit on MG Smith) called “The Mike Smith I Knew” which turned out in effect to be a gracefully executed rescue of her grandmother Edna (or Mardi as she called her) and Mike, someone who had nurtured in Rachel a love of poetry.
Consummation and consumption were preoccupations of the present said Rachel, but not of the 50s and 60s, when the friendship between her grandmother and Mike would have been at its height. She had no idea whether they had had an affair or not; if it had happened it was without her knowledge and frankly she didn’t care. What she did know was that that was “a time when you consummated independence for an island…that was the romance of the time.”
Mardi, she declared, was a magnetic woman. She flirted with everything, she flirted with Jamaica. All the young poets and artists of the Drumblair group were in love with her. But Mike’s poems and Mardi’s art—those were the consummations.
It was a consummate performance on Rachel’s part, casually delivered, without a hint of the agitation that must have been behind it. Her talk illuminated the enigmatic man in whose honour this conference was being held and brought him to life for us. The next day we went back to the tendentious business of dissecting the body of his work. One thing is for sure--whether MG Smith’s framework of social and cultural pluralism has any validity today or not, he was integrally involved in the labour of building theory, of developing conceptual frameworks, valuable academic tasks that alas, seem to have been jettisoned from the agenda of social sciences at UWI over the years.
Hi, I used to write a column called Style and Passion in the Sunday Herald (Jamaica). Had to give it up when they changed the word 'Bollywood' to Hollywood in my last piece. Now I'm looking forward to life without editors in this blog which i hope you'll tell others about...