Tag India


Still from Fellini’s (1963). Not the movie I’ve been talking about, but you get the idea.

One Friday night in the early 1990s, my family rented an old black-and-white foreign film for our weekend’s entertainment. I don’t recall the movie’s title, let alone what any of us thought of it when we viewed it, but I remember very clearly a bit of promotional copy on the front of the VHS cassette’s cardboard slipcase, in the space usually reserved for Siskel and Ebert’s thumbs: NOW WITH YELLOW SUBTITLES!

Fine tuning

When Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar and his ensemble played at Madison Square Garden, New York, in 1971, the audience broke into rapturous applause at the first short pause. “Thank you,” said Shankar. “If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you will enjoy the playing more.”

—Philip Ball, “Harmonious minds: The hunt for universal music

Originally published at culture-making.com.

Calligraphy by Ahmed Shahnawaz Alam

This beautiful gazelle contains lines from the great eighteenth-century Urdu poet Mir Taqi Mir, one of the great masters of the ghazal poetic form. (The gazelle-ghazal Arabic pun does not pass unnoticed. Wish I could figure out what the text itself is about—beyond the ghazal-standard “poetic expression of both the pain of loss or separation and the beauty of love in spite of that pain”).


Poetry by Meer Taqi Meer, a renown poet of India,” paper, self-made ink and bamboo pen (2009), by Shanawaz Alam Ahmed, International Exhibition of Calligraphy :: via ephemera assemblyman

Originally published at culture-making.com.

Safety not fine? Install a shrine!

Himalayan India has a rich tradition of humorous safety signs placed along precarious mountain roads (like AFTER WHISKY, DRIVING RISKY, or DARLING I WANT YOU, BUT NOT SO FAST, or ROAD IS HILLY, DON’T DRIVE SILLY), but apparently setting up traffic-slowing Hindu shrines at trouble-spots is far more effective. I wonder if Christian shrines at highway accident sites (designed to instill caution and remembrance, but not necessarily to get folks to stop) have anything like the same effect. I doubt it.

a Freakonomics Blog post, 7 April 2009

Karan Talwar, a blogger and Freakonomics reader, writes about an interesting traffic nudge near Shimla, India. The roads into Shimla are notoriously dangerous, and traffic signs have done little to lessen the problem. So local authorities began constructing temple shrines at hot spots. The nudge worked like a charm: “Turns out even though the average Indian has no respect for traffic laws and signs, they will slow down before any place of worship and take a moment to ask for blessings!”

Originally published at culture-making.com.

Indian schoolroom posters

Some of my favorite souvenirs from India are posters for schoolchildren of the sort sold in bookshops and street-side newsstands. They’re always approachable and informative (you know, for kids!) and in me at least inspire lots of far-reaching thoughts about culture and categories. When you have an outsider’s vantage, it’s easier to notice the whims of taxonomy: why display this sort of thing, and not that one. The odd notes always seem most resonant and mysterious: is the strange language and selection a product of shoddy research (Types of Rocks: Volcanic, Metamorphic, Sedimentary, Igneous, Layerd, Sharp, Small, Big, Smooth), or a sign that the obvious groupings don’t always hold up across cultures?


Newsprint and laminated schoolroom posters, 2–50 Rupees each, from the vast semi-online catalog of Indian Book Depot (Map House), New Delhi, India :: via things magazine

Originally published at culture-making.com.

The dude uniform

A funny letter from Mumbai about observing everyday Indian fashion. There’s a nice bit about distinguishing saris, but aspects of the male wardrobe bear the brunt of the critique. I find myself concurring but wonder why it’s so: perhaps because their outfits are more western-yet-not-quite-western? Or a cultural openness to the exotic feminine but not the exotic masculine? If I had to describe my combined impressions of Bollywood actresses in a word it would be “stunning”; for the actors, the word would probably be “goofy.” Clearly there’s a lot going on there in terms of my own sense of gender, culture, taste, and prejudice.

Most Indian men, at least those I see about town on the street, dress in what I call the “dude uniform”: a light-colored button-down long-sleeve shirt, slacks, and black sandals. As far as uniforms go, it’s pretty functional, working equally well for home and office, and requiring little in maintenance.

Younger guys, however, replace the sensible slacks with over-the-top denim: emulating their favorite Bollywood stars, they buy jeans that are dyed, streaked, distressed, and bedecked with clasps, latches, snaps, and pockets. Most of the time the pants are flared, giving them a bit of a disco feel.

On top, they wear a variety of shirts that make European clubwear appear dignified. Most are made of synthetic materials; gold lamé and neon orange are popular at the moment. Solid one-inch-wide black and orange vertical stripes were big in Fall 2008, but 2009 seems to favor a trompe l’oeil sweater-vest-over-T-shirt garment, usually in pastels. As far as I can tell, it’s the guys scraping by who wear the flashiest clothes. Too far down the socio-economic ladder and your duds turn to rags. Too far up and they become the dude uniform. Somewhere in between, though, is ‘70s gold.

from “The Expat’s New Clothes,” by Jill Wheeler, The Morning News, 6 October 2009

Originally published at culture-making.com.

And the universal language is … field hockey

Chak De! India (lit. “Go for It, India!”; theatrical trailer here), a 2007 Bollywood film I happened to watch last night, hits just about every sports movie cliche: a team from disparate backgrounds who fight easily and play poorly until an inspiring coach with his own troubled past gets them to work together, whereupon they go on to win, as underdogs all the way, a world championship. But cliches are always much more enjoyable when you hear them in a different language. Plenty of chance for that, too, given the DVD’s pleasing and intriguing array of subtitle options. The bottom two are South Indian languages; the rest trace the global spread of: Indian people? Indian culture? or maybe just field hockey (I recall rooting for the Dutch women’s team in the 2004 Olympics). In any case, I went with the Spanish subtitles and thoroughly enjoyed the film—especially the moment where the team came together as one for the first time and … totally trashed a Delhi McDonald’s.


Chak De! India (DVD Menu), Yash Raj Films, 2007 :: via Netflix

Originally published at culture-making.com.

A reading language

What does a culture with near-100% literacy in its local language make possible? A vibrant community of writers, readers, and loads and loads of books. Welcome to Kerala.


Outside the big cities, a very small minority of Indians – only seven to eight million – read in English. India has an overall rate of 65% literacy – measured in people’s own mother tongues. But where India drops into the Indian Ocean, in the state of Kerala, home of Malayalam literature, literacy is close to 100%. Not surprisingly, the population of Kerala – some 31 million – reads books.

Malayalam writers are in the enviable position of writing for [2008 Booker-prize-winning White Tiger author Aravind] Adiga’s rickshaw puller and not just about him.

Paul Zacharia, one of the best-known contemporary writers in Malayalam, says: “In the Indian picture, Kerala’s book readers are a record. They are the product both of the literacy movement and the earlier library movement spearheaded by a one-man army called PN Paniker [the founding father of the literacy movement in Kerala]. A whole world of grassroots readers keep emerging from the villages.” …

In a recent report in The Hindu, Ravi DC, CEO of DC Books, Kerala’s leading publishing house, said the sale of Malayalam books has been growing by at least 30% a year. At the sixth international book fair, which DC Books organised in Kerala in November 2008, sales had doubled in a year. And, he added, “the demand for books in rural areas is on the increase”. The marketing strategy was now based on the concept that “books should go to people instead of people coming to book houses”.

from “Kerala: mad about books,” by Mridula Koshy, Le Monde diplomatique, June 2009; cover image from M.T. Vasudevan Nair’s Bandhanam, DC Books :: via languagehat.com

Originally published at culture-making.com.

Some sweet, sweet South Indian song

This is one of my favorite Indian film songs, bar none, from the 1991 Malayalam film Bharatham. The plot and the music delve richly into the carnatic music heritage of South India, notable for its wide and precise vocal quavers and deep, soulful rhythmicality. Like most Indian film music, there are occasional moments of (to my ears) cheesiness, but these only make it all the more thrilling when the groove kicks in at 1:27.

Gopangane,” sung by KS Chithra and KJ Yesudas, music by Raveendran, from the film Bharatham (1991)

Originally published at culture-making.com.

S C Road, Gandhinagar, Bangalore, India

It is my new theory that all news is better when accompanied by a garland of marigolds. From the photoblogger: “There’s three hours to go before Sudeep’s latest film ‘Veera Madakari‘ opens and Kapali Theater in Gandhinagar, the heart of the Kannada Film Industry is House – Full. That’s sad news for a fan who woke up late, but good news for the producer, Dinesh Gandhi, as you can see from the garland on the House-Full signboard.”


S C Road, Gandhinagar” [map], photo by SloganMurugan, Which Main? What Cross?, 22 March 2009

Originally published at culture-making.com.