A Workshop on Making Deviled Eggs

On Powerful Climaxes

sexcriminals

Sex Criminals (2013)


A few years ago, I discussed a story idea in which mutants can exchange each others' superpowers when they have their best sexual climaxes yet. The longevity of their borrowed power is dependent on the quality of their sex. In one deeply conflicted love story, a mutant finds out the hard way that his lover is unrestrainedly in love with the villian. They ultimately use that to their advantage and destroy him.

Imagine my curiosity when I heard about Matt Fraction's Sex Criminals, in which superheroes can freeze time when they have sex. It will be my weekend reading! Here's a Wired article on it.

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Manga meets Mœbius

walrus_cover

Walrus: Brandon Graham’s All Bum Album. From Tusk Till Drawn. (2013)


When I experience a creative block, I find comfort in the unfinished art, unused ideas and rendered thoughts of my favorite artists and writers. They are just about all the stimulation I can handle. But, more importantly, they assure me that there is virtue in the process, even if it leads to incompleteness. Sketchbooks provide the cables I need to jumpstart my batteries, but with some irony. Here, the movement is usually not forward as much as deliberately circular, like in a Ferris wheel. It is exactly the kind of thoughtless frisson of excitement I seek. It is predictable, palpable and yet thrilling, with a definite end. When the ride stops, I will have unwound and reached a state of relaxed alertness.

Brandon Graham gets me there with his randomness and pop-culture nostalgia. This particular sketchbook of his is a bric-a-brac melting pot with all his tongue-in-cheek playfulness and purposely terrible handwriting, spelling, and some excellent graffiti-calligraphy. Unlike his main works, his sketchbook is more organic; Here, his drawings evolve and fill up space as he goes along, but at the same time, everything he draws is measured and proportioned, and makes sense as a whole. He brings a comical anachronism to his work. He appropriates pieces from reality and incorporates them in his avant-garde retro-futuristic steampunk world, so that his fantasy happens in a commonplace that is bound in a fuzzy space between the immediate-past and the near-future in an alternate world!

He is fixated with pastiche, so half the fun is in the discovery, and the other half is in making sense of that discovery, and feeling smug about cracking all the memes, the allusions, his weird humor full of cheesy wordplay and idiosyncrasies, and finding all the trivialities. You are required to have your eyes peeled at all times. You see close-ups and long distant views of the same things from different perspectives, each revealing something the other does not. I am almost afraid to make eye-contact with any part of a page, or dive in and explore a reef of drawings, because I might get lost in there forever, and will have to force-rip my eyes off of that part of the page to get to another part. And then, I am nervous that I may have moved on prematurely without taking everything that he had to offer!

He has a lot of fun with products, brand names, warning and instruction labels, and advertisements. There are clues to his many literary and artistic influences in the way he structures his story and does his artwork. His bubbles capture the shapes and sounds of everything visible, so that they are all exploding to say something. Text and objects get mixed up and lifeforms become things, and things become lifeforms and everything’s a deconstructed version of something familiar that now serves an unexpected and odd purpose. It is as if the alien city in his book is conjoined with our post-modern urban aesthetic at the hip. The ingenuity and absurdity of the modded contraptions in his book may be difficult to replicate in the near future with our limited technology. But, there are some kickstarter projects there waiting to be created in our cyberpunk future!

Sometimes I haven’t the slightest what some of his sketches are about. Those, I pretend are in a different language (some of them really are), and I decode them in my own way.

Walrus is a great book to pick up ideas on what to read next (as is his blog and his interviews. See here and here). Seeing your favorite authors mentioned in fine print in some corner of a busy page full of drawings, makes them seem like they are all part of the same cool club, and you have somehow become a part of it by recognizing that! He also takes a lot of mainstream comic characters and puts them in his sci-fi world. It’s like finding Spider-Man in Spirited Away. But, you also find yourself in it, with him, and his wife and co-artist, Marian, so that the sketchbook is a fourth-wall-breaking self-reflexive adventure of love-puppies and comic heroes in a Walrus world!

You would wonder how an artist who indulges in sillyness in every bubble moves a plot along. That’s if you haven’t read King City or Multiple Warheads. His serialized comic books detailed from the macro to the very micro will tell you how it’s done!

(Plug: Here's an assorted collection of graphic works I love from India. It is called Obliterary Journal and is one of my favorites.
I devoured the
first volume wholly, entirely and many times. It's funny how it keeps coming back alive, to be devoured again and again. I'm waiting for my parents to visit and bring me the second volume from India. It's so pricey here).
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I foresee a comics revival!

Stripped (2014)


I just pre-ordered this documentary on iTunes, which is set to release on April 1st. It features more than 70 cartoonists, and the greatest of the greats! Bill Watterson even drew the poster for the film.

Here's my previous post on other upcoming comics-awesomenesses.

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Fifty Shades of Jane!

prideandprejudice

Pride and Prejudice (1813)



Yesterday was the 201st anniversary of the first publication of Pride and Prejudice. But, it was in fact written seventeen years before that, when Austen was still as young and spirited as Lizzy. She carried the book with her for almost half her life before it was finally published, only to depart from it and this world four years later. In those seventeen years, she had experienced a tumultuous life that was to change who she was and the course of women all over the world for all time.

When she first wrote the book, her father made an earnest attempt to get it published, but it was to wait almost two decades before Thomas Egerton agreed to publish it, albeit at Austen’s expense. Curiously, Egerton specialized in military and political works until then, and Austen was his first woman novelist. He was also her publisher for Sense and Sensibility the year before. Pride and Prejudice was so popular that it caught on with readers more quickly through word-of-mouth than printed advertisements, so that a second edition had to be printed within nine months of the first edition coming out.

At that time, Austen was only the second generation of novelists. Novels were a fairly new form of literature. They became popular in the mid-18th century when the middle class expanded and there was a demand for secular stories driven not by plot, but by individuals. But, most of them were written by men, and were adventures centered around larger-than-life male heroes, usually in imaginary worlds, with women playing insignificant roles in the stories. Even the novels centered around women were mostly written by men and portrayed them as being modest and meek, or as they were meant to be.

Austen is the first novelist in history to capture ordinary life in the Regency era. Her men and women are rooted in reality and come in every imaginable shade of character. Compared to her contemporaries, her characters are bold and the flirtations are akin to today's Fifty Shades of Grey, only more eloquent and reflective. I particularly savor the way she captures the constant negotiation of expectations and impressions between the commodities in the story, that is the “eligible” suitors in the marriage market. The conversations between them are crisp, witty and full of revealing gestures, but more importantly, intentional, and often driven through indirect discourses. Every conversation, every situation and every letter arrives with perfect timing, so that the plot always moves along in unexpected ways. We are forever reappraising characters and becoming aware of their lack of self-knowledge. Everyone’s foibles and the ironies of their life are so relatable, that you delight in them because it is your reality.

Her stories are primarily human and about the pursuit of truths through sharp satire. She once criticized her niece’s draft novel for portraying people in Dawlish gossiping about news from Lyme, which is forty miles away and would not be talked of there. That is the level of adherence to fact and societal accuracy that she aimed for, which makes her works important historic documents. Her truths are loaded and “universally acknowledged”, and lay all the societal pretensions bare and impossible to dispute!

What also sets her apart from novelists during her times is her lack of indulgence in prose about material things and the description of settings. Her characters are almost entirely preoccupied with calibrating delicate feelings and abstract nouns to take notice of their surroundings. They display a desire to understand what shapes people’s consciousness and their character and morality, and what dictates their choices.

And because abstract nouns have a universal appeal, she inspires every kind of intellectual dialogue imaginable. Her work speaks different things to different generations and cultures and academicians (and also to Orangutans). It has been superimposed by so many adaptations that the mind attempts to summon Darcy only to be distracted by Olivier or Firth or whoever else made a bold attempt at being devastatingly handsome (or devastatingly conceited)!

Along with the adaptations, there are a whole sleuth of biographies attempting to construct a woman who seems almost mythical in her attainments. When Austen first wrote Pride and Prejudice, she was a teenager with little formal education, gaining knowledge solely from the books in her father’s library. And it is that tiny world that inspired novels of such depth and beauty, and insight into society and politics. One wonders how!

When I read Pride and Prejudice today, I imagine my grandmom as a young teenager, holding the very same book, and swooning over Darcy, or admiring a clever Elizabeth Bennet and marveling at the society in England back in the days! Along with the book, my grandmom also passed on hope and that love comes from pursuing the truth of one’s own character. I find Austen's persistence as a writer, through all the hardships particularly inspiring! I also take comfort in reading the bits of her unfinished novels in Juvenilia because nothing about what I do is every complete. I can’t tell if I love her more or her works, because they, and their journey are also a reflection of who she is. Jane Austen and her Pride and Prejudice came close to being in extremis, only to become immortal.

Last year, BBC recreated the Netherfield Ball for the 200th anniversary celebration of Pride and Prejudice, and shared a 90-minute Making-of documentary called Pride and Prejudice: Having a Ball! Also, there is an online exhibition called What Jane Saw, which attempted to reconstruct the art exhibit of Sir Joshua Reynolds paintings at the British Institution in Pall Mall that Austen talks about in Pride and Prejudice. Back then, the exhibition was the first commemorative museum show dedicated to a single artist, and something of a pop-culture phenomenon! Austen was something of a Rob Fleming of High Fidelity of her times, and kept up with all the who’s-whos and so-and-sos of her time and wove them into her stories. Many of the character descriptions in Pride and Prejudice were said to have been inspired by Sir Joshua Reynolds portraits. Finally, here is Pride and Prejudice cartoon by Jen Sorenson.


austen_googledoodle

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This time, I am not Marveled

msmarvel

Ms. Marvel (2014)


With all due respect, how many muslim superwomen comics will it take before the idea gets old? Back in September, I wrote about two comic series that have muslim superwomen - the New X-Men and Qahera. Apart from these two, both Marvel and DC comics have had quite a few muslim superheroes in the past. Now, Marvel’s Ms. Marvel will have a muslim teenager playing the lead, and is being touted as the first series with a female protagonist of Islamic background. Wrong.

I have never been one to keep up with the religious beliefs of superheroes. That Superman is Methodist or Nightcrawler is Catholic is extraneous information, which distracts from what makes them truly singular for me. But, if that type of information tickles your fancy, The Comic Book Religion website has a comprehensive compilation of the religious affiliations of superheroes. The “Religious Topics” link on the top left corner of the website with excerpts from various comic books makes for an interesting read.

Superhero comics are hardly celebrated for being secular. A majority of superheroes were created during various national and economic crises, and served as harbingers of hope. They spoke to the people’s collective needs, beliefs and attitudes; gave context to their identity and re-vitalized their pro-nationalist sentiments.

If the rise of Islamic superwomen comics is looked at from this context, it may be speaking to some kind of collective guilt. This may not be a bad thing, if it leads to prosocial behavior. But, when you begin to describe a protagonist mainly by their gender or religion, then you may be running the risk of soft-pedalling their other qualities, which as I pointed out earlier, would be equivalent to describing Superman as a methodist superhero above everything else. That to me is highly irritating. Having said that, I can live with us having many muslim superwomen over having none!
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No Meaning, or Rhyme!


Musicotherapie (2013)


Another seminal musician and songwriter passes away! Lou Reed is now sadly the late Lou Reed. In his honor, I am sharing a loopy song without words.

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Jack Your Happiness

redline

Redline (2009)


The Olympics choose the most frosty military dictatorship ever as their host country, even though their government is violently opposed to it. Their military chooses to retaliate against the Olympics by unleashing the most powerful bioweapons on the participants. The Olympics officials fight back by shutting down the country’s defense systems, but too late. The bioweapons nearly destroy the country, forcing the government to unleash some more bioweapons to tackle the ones they initially released, and are now at war with themselves. Through all this mayhem, the games continue on with the surviving participants. There are no rules. The participants are even allowed to kill each other, and some even play for the mafia fixing the matches (oddly, this is the only thing that’s illegal).

This is Redline.

It is the galaxy’s deadliest illegal auto-racing event that is held every five years in a secret location. This year, the racers are to compete on Roboworld, a supreme militarized planet ruled by cyborgs. Roboworld are patently unwelcoming and intend to kill all the racers if they choose to compete on their planet. But the Redliners are unfazed by the threat, and are out to have unmufflered fun. The government unleash a powerful bioweapon named Funky Boy on the racers, but it also destroys much of Roboworld and the surrounding planets. They then unleash a cyborg-Colonel-monster to counter their own Funky boy, causing more destruction! The racers continue through the mayhem, the audience continues to bet on the racers, and the mafia continues to fix the match. The racers whip out all sorts of powerful doohickeys and pull every trick in the book to hoodwink their competition.

By the end of the movie, the plot about the government blows up and fizzles on its own. It is as if they just meant to dramatically self-destruct themselves for no reason, while the people from other planets whoop it up on their turf through the whole skirmish, like the explosions around them are party confetti!

It is a bizarrely entertaining movie, with not a dull moment in it, and not a frame that looks unexceptional! There is a bricolage of many artistic styles whisked into one creative alloy; like a necklace with diamonds, Froot Loops and plastic beads. When you catch someone wearing it, you don’t ask why... unless you want to jack your happiness.

(I recommend watching it in Japanese with English subtitles)
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Binging on Bill

billwatterson

Watterson & Thompson's Exhibition (2014)


The painting above is Bill Watterson's tribute to Petey Otterloop from Richard Thompson's Cul de Sac. It is Watterson's first public art in more than 15 years, and was done for Thompson's Parkinson's fundraising project that over hundred cartoonists contributed to.

Watterson is a very selective endorser. He's also a media recluse. So when I read his foreword praising Thompson's Cul de Sac, I was eager to read it just to see what was so special about it that made him not want to contain himself.

"I thought the best newspaper comic strips were long gone, and I've never been happier to be wrong. Richard Thompson's Cul de Sac has it all--intelligence, gentle humor, a delightful way with words, and, most surprising of all, wonderful, wonderful drawings.

Cul de Sac's whimsical take on the world and playful sense of language somehow gets funnier the more times you read it. Four-year-old Alice and her Blisshaven Preschool classmates will ring true to any parent. Doing projects in a cloud of glue and glitter, the little kids manage to reinterpret an otherwise incomprehensible world via their meandering, nonstop chatter. But I think my favorite character is Alice's older brother, Petey. A haunted, controlling milquetoast, he's surely one of the most neurotic kids to appear in comics. These children and their struggles are presented affectionately, and one of the things I like best about Cul de Sac is its natural warmth. Cul de Sac avoids both mawkishness and cynicism and instead finds genuine charm in its loopy appreciation of small events. Very few strips can hit this subtle note."


Apart from the foreword, the only other time I saw him in the news was also when he made the Petey Otterloop portrait!

"I thought it might be funny to paint Petey “seriously,” as if this were the actual boy Richard hired as a model for his character. At first I intended to do the picture in a dark, Rembrandt-like way to accentuate the “high art” of painting vs the “low art” of comics — the joke being that the comic strip is intelligent and the painting is idiotic — but the picture went through quite a few permutations as it developed.

I found it interesting how the comical distortions in a cartoony drawing become freakish and grotesque when they’re depicted more three-dimensionally. (You sometimes see this in computer rendering and animation.)

Anyway, by the end, I wasn’t sure whether the painting came out funny or creepy, but I hope it’s intriguing somehow. The result surprised me, so I enjoyed it."

So it is undeniable that Watterson is obsessed with Richard Thompson, and it is making him less reclusive.

Both artists will be featured in The Ohio State University's Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum’s new exhibition galleries from March 22 to July 6, 2014.

Mental Floss shared an except of a rare and exclusive interview with Bill Watterson on their website. The full interview will be published in the December issue of their magazine.

Also, next month, Dear Mr. Watterson, a documentary film about Bill Watterson will release in theaters, and video-on-demand. It is available for pre-order on their website.

While we are on the subject of binging on Bill Watterson, here are
His 2010 interview, (his first since 1989); and
His 1989 speech at The Ohio State University.

He offers a wealth of insight on everything from his work to comic art and comic business.
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Clark "Chanel" Kent, Son of Jor-El!

superman

All-Star Superman (2011)


Superman goes too close to the sun, which oversaturates his cells and cuts his life to a few days. But, in these last days leading up to his death, he is most fascinating. The radiation triples his strength and curiosity, and unleashes his inner Coco Chanel (or E). He develops a fancy for fashion, and goes native with his costume design.

On his first date with Lois Lane on her birthday, he wears a costume inspired by traditional Kryptonian formal wear, and gifts her a costume he wove using indestructible thread and a serum that gives her superpowers for 24 hours. They have a role-playing date that almost turns into a foursome with Samson and Atlas. It will make you wonder what in the Ultrasphinx’s name this sequence is all about. But there’s little sense to roleplaying and pretense to begin with. Logic is highly irrelevant here.

Superman fights Solaris in a white suit that filters out solar radiation. It proves to be ineffective, but more importantly, it tells us that he always fancied wearing a fencing suit and looks spiffy in it.

When he shows Lois to a room full of artifacts, she remarks that she didn’t know he collected modern art; to which he responds, “Actually, I do, but this is the armory”; an armory full of incredibly destructive weapons including some that can hurt him. The point to note here is that Superman collects modern art. The tour of his armory feels like peeking into a museum’s vault and seeing one-of-a-kind objects locked from public view.

Superman’s creative side alone makes the story interesting. But, what makes it the best Superman story ever, is that everyone takes a U-turn in it. Everyone is a runway model strutting down to the end of the ramp, posing, turning back, and walking out.

Clark Kent reveals to Lois Lane that he is Superman. Now, you would think, Lois Lane who likes Clark Kent and loves Superman would be happy to reconcile the mild-mannered human and the strapping superhero as one person, but she instead, goes one hundred percent psycho and deludes herself into thinking Superman is in fact an evil human-harvesting nut-job who wants to impregnate her to create a race of super-children; so she attempts to kill him with Kryptonite. All the years of her adulation for Superman is reduced to distrust in a very peripeteian, existential way. Aristotle calls this Anagnorisis, where a character makes a discovery about someone that leads to love or hate, or in this case Hamartia, or accidental wrongdoing.

Throughout the story, Superman preaches humanity, empathy and forgiveness, that he was taught by his Earth parents. First, he preaches “humanity” to Lex Luthor after he poisons him; then he preaches “humanity” to his Krypton kins, Bar-El and Lilo after they tear down the statue of his parents and make plans to take over Earth; But, when Solaris destroys Sun-eater, his cute pet, Superman flies off the handle! He pummels Solaris, drags him down to Earth, and when he begs for mercy, Superman says “I don’t think I have any left!” and delivers a deadly blow both to Solaris and to “humanity”. U-turn!

Lex Luthor hates Superman because next to his “sickening inhuman perfection” even Lex Luthor’s greatness is overshadowed. Lex Luthor flaunts his “real muscle” to Clark Kent, that he takes pride in as not being is a “gift of alien biochemistry”. But, in the end, he consumes the 24-hour super-power serum that he steals from Superman, and waxes lyrical about being able to see the world as Superman does. “The fundamental forces are yoked by consciousness. Everything’s connected. Everyone.” And then, in that moment of revelation, he agrees with Superman that if saving the world mattered to him, he could have done so years ago.

In the end, when Superman dies and literally becomes one with the Sun, Lex Luthor calls Dr. Quintum and makes a literal confession, “Forgive me, doctor, for I have sinned.” (allusively referring to a previous scene where he ridicules the Padre who blesses him before his execution. “...may the Lord, in his love and mercy, help you” “Get away from me, Padre. You stink of the irrational”), and shares Superman’s genetic code that he reverse-engineered from the super-serum that can replicate him. “But, of course, it will require an ovum from a healthy human woman.” U-turn becomes :O-turn!

By now, I suspect nothing is healthy about a pigeon-feeding Lois Lane, who looks positively non compos mentis, as she assures herself that Superman is fixing the Sun. But, it’s decided that it’s she who will bear the next generation of Superhumans, and that’s that!

There are others in the story who made U-turns as well.

Solaris partners with Lex Luthor, because he wants to eat the Earth’s sun and replace it in the sky. But, he chooses to betray Lex Luthor before Lex Luthor has a chance to betray him. That double-crossing Sun of a Gun!

Robot 7, who loyally serves Superman in his secret pad, malfunctions when Solaris overrides his program, making him steal the super-serum for Luthor. But, in the end Solaris sacrifices himself to atone for betraying Superman.

Bar-El rebuffs Superman for disguising his greatness and “cavorting with the apes as one of their own” and ‘showing no dignity”. But, when both Bar-El and Lilo are saved by Superman, Bar-El says “Kal-El, son of Krypton, I am proud to call you my kin. Our greatness lives on in you.” U!

The whole story is a homily on truth. After all the years that Lois Lane spent trying to prove that Clark Kent was Superman, when he unceremoniously rips his shirt to reveal his blue unitard with the legit S-symbol and all, she plays Evey Hammond to Superman’s V. Why did he lie? Why he did he reveal his truth? And V says “...artists use lies to tell the truth. Yes, I created a lie, but because you believed it, you found something true about yourself.” As we find out, the truth about herself was so not all that it’s cracked up to me!

Superman’s truth on the other hand, is that he is Clark Kent. He is Kal-el. He is Superman.

But, as Lex Luthor teases Clark Kent, does the farmbody with brains and integrity, become “a parody of a man, a dullard, a cripple” when Superman is around? Or as Bar-el points out, has Superman always been the son of Jor-el, “a weak man”, “an ineffectual dreamer”, and therefore, has Kal-el also always been Clark Kent!

Lex Luthor who does not believe in truth, says “there are alternatives to truth, justice and all the other things you can't weigh or measure. To every abstract notion [Superman] personifies.” He says there are alternatives to what one can do with powers, other than help. We learn in this story, that pne can make indestructible costumes and collect modern art from all over the universe, and have Sun-eaters as pets!

(I recommend watching the movie and reading the book, for the artwork)
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Monsters Link!

blaft2

Kumari Loves a Monster (2010)


What's not to love about loveable monsters? What stops one from becoming a tamil pulp fiction heroine? This picture book is Blaft letting me embrace my unmaiyaana kaadhal (true love); my inner-Kumari! :)

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What Dust thou think?

Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 4.10.52 PM

New X-Men #133 (2002)


Sooraya Qadir (Dust) is a young Afghan Sunni Muslim mutant, with Sandman-like powers. She is rescued by Wolverine from slave trade in Afghanistan and brought to X-Mansion for training. She wears the abaya and niqab and observes traditional Islamic etiquette.

She is one of those characters who plays a prominent role in New X-Men and Young X-Men series, and saves the day on many occasions; still, most of the conversation around her is about her defending her faith-based choices; One wonders what motivated the writers to think up her character, in an otherwise secular series.

Most of this dialogue on Islamic faith is intriguing for several reasons.

One, because it happens over many volumes. Sooraya to everyone is a muslim before she is a mutant.

Two, because Sooraya's character was conceived right after 9/11.

Three, because it adds a new slant to the dialogue about hypersexualization and objectification of female superheroes in comics.

Four, because, in a world where mutants are misunderstood and discriminated against by humans, this discussion seems a bit captious.

Five, because the comic offers little information about the beliefs of other X-Men characters' from other parts of the world that are specific to their culture!

Six, because her faith is presented as being restrictive, and she as being one-dimensional, which is lamentable given she is an adolescent girl! 

Seven, because it makes me deliberate on the similarity between the typical superhero costume and the hijab in relation to both secret and self-evident identities, visual iconography and symbolism!

The good news is, we now have another perky hijabi superhero in a more real, non-X-men universe! Qahera, an Eqyptian superwoman, fights misogyny, Islamophobia, and offers her own brand of droll humor.  


sooraya

I recommend using the Index to navigate through the Qahera comic strips and FAQs!

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Happy 97th Birthday, MS!

mssubbulakshmi

MS Subbulakshmi - The Queen of Song (2011)

It takes twenty-odd pages of vivid graphics for a delightful acquaintance with MS Subbulakshmi. Within those 20-odd pages, you can also get a glimpse of other musical vidwans, freedom-fighters, artists, writers and spiritual leaders who shaped her life's work for nearly ninety years;  

For me, this graphic biography kindled some derivative nostalgia. MS Subbulakshmi sang a few times in my ancestral house in Madras, including at my maternal grandparents' wedding. To me, this fact alone makes her next to kin. My grandmother's admiration for MS however was more heartfelt. To her, MS's sweet countenance and cultured disposition, her humility when she interacted with people, her devotion as she lost herself to music, and her complete and unreserved generosity inspired reverence. 

During the time of my grandmother's wedding, MS was already married to Thiagaraja Sadasivam, a film producer, writer and freedom fighter. She also gained national recognition after her performance as Narada (a male role) in the film Savitri, and Meera in the film Meera. Her acting career was driven by her desire to raise money for Kalki, a Nationalist tamil magazine founded by her husband and Kalki Krishnamurthy.

To me, Kalki was the wellspring of some of the greatest historical novels ever written: Sivakamiyin Sapatham, Partiban Kanavu and Ponniyin Selvan. The first two epics were set in 7th century AD when the Pallava dynasty (Later Pallavas) was ruling southern India; and the last one was set in the 10th century AD when the Chola Dynasty (Later Cholas) was ruling southern India. All three epics are about romance and statecraft and beautifully bind real historical events with fiction.

Kalki was an offshoot of some pro-Tamil movements that MS too was a part of. For instance, the Tamil Isai Movement started by Annamalai Chettiar in the 1940s popularized tamil songs in concerts; most of the songs being sung in concerts up until then were in telugu and sanskrit. No other movement did better to delineate the link between language and class than the Tamil Isai movement; especially because classical music (Karnataka sangita), which was championed by the Music Academy, was brahmin-dominated; whereas Tamil Isai Sangam was advanced mostly by non-Brahmins (even though Kalki himself was a brahmin). Kalki fuelled the movement with its persuasive rhetoric, and MS lent her support to this cause by singing at the Tamil Isai Sangam, and later encouraging The Music Academy to acquiesce to tamil songs. 

For all that, MS wasn't a tamil purist. She sang in many Indian languages (Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, Marathi, Gujarati, Malayalam, Bengali, Urdu, and Sanskrit) and was particular about pronunciation and spent time understanding the meaning (bhava) behind the songs. She was also the first to introduce Carnatic music to the West and performed in many Indian languages and Indian classical music genres all over the world!

She was a devoted wife, who unquestioningly accepted her husband's reformist convictions and his desire to challenge social taboos; this also meant donating all her life's earnings to charitable causes. In the end, they were badly off; even though they were lauded for their altruism.

The illustrated biography recounts all this and more. The anecdotes in the book, of MS's childhood are particularly appealing because they call to mind a way of life that saw its end in our time. No nadaswaram player will walk up to our doorstep and play us a tune, and no unknown hermit will volunteer to teach us the Grantha script everyday; even though we may have experienced remnants of this culture up until a few years ago.

But, what the book doesn't touch upon is how MS challenged the social fabric of Carnatic music. She was part of the female trinity of Carnatic music; the other two being DK Pattamal and ML Vasantakumari, who were the first vocal singers to perform in concerts. Until then, women (mostly devadasis) were allowed to perform only in private gatherings. Women were also restricted to singing Padams and Javallis; whereas, Pallavi singing that allows for improvisation was restricted to men. The trinity were the first to have male accompanists perform with them; In fact, women were rarely even allowed to attend concerts. The carnatic music world was brahminical and male-dominated, and MS, whose mother was a devadasi, fought a war against many ideals. In the end, she even led the unjavarti processions during Thyagaraja Aradana celebrations, which were restricted to men; and eventually only allowed in a separate women-only aradhana conducted at the rear-end of the samadhi. So, when you read the book, also think of her and an incidental feminist who ushered in a new era in India, where music is free for all and knows no boundaries! :)

This biography is part of the Pictures of Melody series by Lakshmi Devnath, and features many other great Carnatic musicians! I recommend all of them.

google-doodle-MSSubbulakshmi

Story behind the Hari Tum Haro song mentioned in the book.

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Avant Guard!

supermanatmet

Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy (2008)


There is a lot that goes into making a superhero look seductive and heroic, especially when transforming the characters on page to screen, because their costumes are manifestly impractical to wear. The costumes are meant to perpetuate the unhumanness of superheroes, which is all nifty on paper, but on screen, to be both as faithful to the original as possible without the costumes coming undone and looking silly is a onerous task. Given the challenge, it’s amazing how badass and irresistible today’s superheroes look! What’s more, they even got a style update; Out with the mullets, bellbottoms and pouches.

A few years ago, Giorgio Armani’s Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy exhibition at Met Museum explored how fashion designers interpret superhero costumes in their modernist creations; It also explored where comic artists draw their inspirations for creating the costumes; say from early 20th century professional wrestling, gymnastics and circus attires; swashbucklers in stage plays; contemporary athletic wear; traditional iconography of the dominatrix (especially in the fetishized costumes of women); paintings such as of Leonardo da Vinci’s ornithopter; pulp-magazine covers; and various technologies depicting invincibility. The iconography in the costumes (letters, emblems, and such things as stars and stripes) often represent the socio-political realities they depict or are symbolic representations of their specific superhero abilities (such as stealth armors). The superheroes themselves have changed from their earlier boxy profiles to the more lissomely athletic over the years adapting to the aesthetic appeal of the time.

Fashion designers have always maintained that clothing transforms the body and plays a major role in the social construction of identity. It is one of the most visible markers of social status and serves to maintain or subvert structural boundaries. Superheroes exemplify this the most, because their costumes are explicitly designed to serve as a metaphors for identity, transcendent power, erotic spunk, heroism, politics and [American] patriotism (Superman’s costume, for instance, serves no other function); putting them above the law. Would one ever imagine superheroes testifying in court wearing their masks? (More on this later, when I write about The Law of Superheroes).

All one needs is a magical second skin to do the impossible, even if the skin itself possesses no real power. A large part of what we are is defined by our corporeal image. Designers work in the space that helps us create that image, and also unbeknown to us, they artfully transform us into metaphoric art. There is an element of fantasy in all of fashion that elevates it from commonplace to couture, and prosaic to poetry. Models on the ramp are hyperbolic impressions of reality who through exaggeration clue us in on what we will wear (which typically are subdued versions of their ensembles)! They share with superheroes, an obsessive preoccupation with the ‘ideal’ body, power of transformation (or the physical and societal agonies of transformation, such as with mutants), masking one’s identity with one’s purpose, and symbolizing ideas through visual and physical form!

I watched Tarantino’s Django Unchained again yesterday and fixated on Django’s badass costumes. Starting with that blue valet outfit, he came on every plantation scene dressed like a dandy. Costume is where you can visibly appreciate his freedom, especially when you think back to his slave days, when he was walking miles across an arid dessert, chained to the other slaves, none with a stitch on, and with iron shackles eating away at their ankles! To Django, costumes are a symbol of liberation.

And because it is a Spaghetti Western with black and german-immigrant leads, set before the Civil War, the film has two different kinds of period costumes and at least three or four different styles, each with a lot of symbolism. For instance, the valet outfit is inspired from Thomas Gainsborough’s painting of The Blue Boy, which was painted in retaliation to his rival’s statement about art: “It ought, in my opinion, to be indispensably observed, that the masses of light in a picture be always of a warm, mellow colour, yellow, red, or a yellowish white, and that the blue, the grey, or the green colours be kept almost entirely out of these masses, and be used only to support or set off these warm colours;”

Ironically, for a Superhero exhibition, there were only two American designers included!

Here's a Youtube video of the curatorial talk about the exhibition.
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Fiction Normalizes Reality!


A Boy And His Atom (2013)


A few years ago, Aardman Studios, the guys who made the Wallace and Gromit films, made a film called Dot, with a tiny 9mm character playing the lead. The character, Dot, was created using a 3D printer, and the film was shot using a Nokia smart phone and a CellScope that is used by doctors to take blood samples of patients in remote places using a cell phone. This Making of video explains the process.

More recently, scientists at IBM made a film called A Boy And His Atom by moving and rearranging individual atoms on a magnetized copper plate viewed through a two-ton scanning tunnelling microscope that can magnify atoms a 100 million times. The boy in this film is 1/25,000,000 of an inch big and cannot be seen with a regular microscope. The film project is an aside of IBM's larger research to create the smallest and fastest possible memory chip for data storage. It demonstrates that one bit of information can be stored using 12 atoms, as opposed to 100 million atoms that our current magnets use in existing technologies. This Making of video explains the process.

From the time of the pinhole camera in the early 5th century, to our era of 3D and microscopic films, Film and Technology have crossed paths several times in their evolution and changed each other forever, while pretending to be orbiting different stars. The evolution of technology is as organic as that of life on earth, and our bond with them is irrevocable and one of mutual dependence; The fictional stories of films have enabled us to assimilate this fact into our real life, as naturally as possible. For instance, when we see a video of bots slipping into our world, it's less unnatural because we have been acclimatized to it by years of consuming science-fiction. It is as if we are experiencing fiction seeping into our reality! Now, I'd be just as unsurprised but excited (or terrified) if I inadvertently came upon a real tiger or a robot in the wild, or found myself flying to Neverland with Peter Pan one night to fight Pirates.

That's about the size of it!

IBM's Official page about the movie.
Writeup about about the movie by the filmmaker, Nico Casavecchia
Wired's article "The Star Trek Fan Art That IBM Scientists Created Out of Atoms"
NPR's article "Don't Miss The Premiere Of The World's Smallest Movie"
The Wiki page about the movie

Nokia also made the world's largest stop-motion animation called Gulp, using the same Nokia Smart Phone that they used to create Dot!

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Feline Unfathomables

catinparis

A Cat in Paris (2010)


Growing up, my grandparents' houses saw an influx of guests of the feline variety. Owing to them, the cats developed a taste for milk and a wholesome vegetarian diet; they found safe nooks in our cupboards to give birth to their young, and lots of corridors and stairways to play in; but most of all they experienced the freedom to wander as much and as far as they pleased. Whenever they disappeared, we would puzzle over their mysterious furloughs; never doubting that they would return. They always came back looking as happily zonked as one does after a long vacation. Cats confidently take on predators large and small. I have seen them terrorize dogs and monkeys twice their size; and within their own kind, there are quick to establish a pecking order and territorial divisions, even though the queens are happy to nurse anothers' young, and will work together to move all young away from the toms and other predators. Home is where they came to recuperate from wandering, to snuggle in their hiding places, to show off their nifty feats, to add an air of mystery to our lives and make us fall in love with the unfathomable! They taught me many valuable lessons; such as that you can lick every inch of your body; twirl down from great heights, and still land on your feet with grace and style… if you speak Meow.

A researcher at the University of Illinois spent close to two years observing the lives of 42 stray and pet cats, and found that on average an unowned cat covers about 388 acres of land. In fact, one particular wild cat covered 1359 acres (2.1 sq. miles) and travelled through urban and rural areas, fields, forests, and manicured lawns, and places overrun by wild predatory animals.

The pet cats on the other hand, were found to travel up to 5 acres of area around their houses, which is still a lot of area given that their travel pursuit is mostly driven by wanderlust and not necessity, and that they somehow manage this distance in spite of being asleep or in low activity 80-90% of the time. The unowned cats too are active only 38% of the time.

Despite covering a lot of ground, changing travel patterns seasonally, learning to share space with other species, cats are highly territorial. Two of the leading causes of cat deaths in that study were fights with other cats and diseases (from both cats and other wildlife)! Pet cats were surprisingly found to have a disproportionately more damaging effect on wildlife than unowned cats. (Another article).

Although cats love wandering, because they are territorial, they are in so many ways homebodies, more so than us. We can literally pick up our pieces and move on, but cats find our constant aspiration to be upwardly mobile very distressing. As soon as we move houses, our cats run back to our old house. They have a strong homing instinct that enables them to find their place of comfort, and we are not it.

Among other things, A Cat in Paris does well to remind us of this characteristic of cats. They are homebodies with wanderlust and a persistent itch for adventure. The film has a vibrant hand-drawn storybook-like feel to it, with many wonderful noir elements; but the biggest draw for me is that it evokes nostalgia. The storyline is slightly under-developed, but there's enough substance in there to inspire you to add your own depth to it, if you like.

I also recommend TS Eliot's delightful book of cat poems: Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, which I read right after I watched the movie. More on this some day!
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So Many Splendid Sundays!

Pasted Graphic

Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905-1913)

This was one of the first comic strips to make it to newspapers (1905–1913), by a man who was also the pioneer of early animated cartoons. Windsor McCay set the standard for Walt Disney and the likes in the later decades.

During this time, a single comic strip usually occupied an entire page in a newspaper, which is a huge contrast to our times where 20 artists share the same space and fight for attention. Whether this points to the popularity of comics, the lack of competition or the lack of other media entertainment is debatable. But, that a newspaper was willing to forgo one entire page for a “child fantasy” comic strip says a lot about what they thought eye-popping images can do to entice readers.

Little Nemo in Slumberland is about Nemo, a 5 year old kid, who falls asleep when the lights are turned off and dreams of a fantastical world with surreal characters. Nemo’s main purpose is to make it to Slumberland where he had been summoned by King Morpheous to be the playmate of his daughter, the Princess. At the end of each strip while he’s on his way to Slumberland, a terrible mishap befalls him leading to serious injury or death, like him turning into a monkey or being crushed by a giant mushroom. In the last panel, he wakes up, screaming in his sleep and a grownup in the household comes to scold or cajole him.

For an early 1900 comic strip, the rendering style is extremely sophisticated and colorful (following the popular art nouveau fashion of that era), with interesting perspective drawings that suggest limitless distance, and a linear cinematic structure. For a children’s fantasy, the adventures in the dream world are really dark and threatening, which may be attributed to McCay’s creative genius. However, a lot of comic writers also consider this his major flaw and write that he focused too much on the drawing than the writing!

Over the years, there have been hundreds of adaptations of Little Nemo, in book and movie forms but none have been as successful as the original… today the original print pages go for $50,000 or more… (and to think that there was a day when people wrapped fish in these masterpieces!!!)

There is a book called Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays! with the best of his works, reproduced in “actual size”, with the exact look of newsprint selling for $120.




littlenemo



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