Sunday, July 08, 2018

Van Ruith and the Western gaze

- by Deepa Krishnan

Horace van Ruith, a painter of German origin, arrived in Bombay in the late 1800's. He stayed in Cumballa Hill and established a studio there, at what was called the Cumballa Hill Family Hotel (which is now the Parsee General Hospital). Van Ruith painted landscapes, as well as portraits. But his career really took off when he started to do these Oriental scenes, and found patronage from Indian royalty as well as Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught.
The painting above is of a Brahmin household, says Sotheby's. To me it looks more like a small local temple courtyard, given the sadhu sitting in the corner, the tiling on the wall, the temple bells and the woman returning after offering prayer. Perhaps it is a small shrine, part of a nobleman's large private wada.

I liked all the little details in the picture; they are so very real and authentic. No foreigner could paint these from memory, so I am sure there was a photo or a series of photos for reference. Photography had come to India by the 1840's, and since no such family scene could have possibly been caught on camera, it is likely that this picture was 'made up' from some photographs of a more public location, combined with the painter's imagination. It is still a commendable piece that portrays small details perfectly.

Of course, like all paintings of the "exotic Orient", this one too leaves me somewhat troubled. When I see my culture represented via a Western Gaze, it's as if someone else has taken over the narrative, and I am seeing myself through their eyes, in a way that I may not particularly agree with.

What is this Gaze thing, and why does it matter? My cousin Lavanya recently said something about "The Gaze", which I found interesting.
Gaze: to look fixedly, intently, or deliberately at something. 
The gaze has acquired different meanings in different disciplinary contexts. The Medical gaze which is the examining gaze, diagnoses and pathologizes. The Scientific gaze depersonalises, the Sociologists’ gaze diagnoses [society], the Anthropologists’ gaze [often] patronises, [sometimes] museumises, the Poetic gaze renders soulful, the Imperial gaze infantalises and talks down to subjects, the Supremacist gaze makes binaries of us and them...

This painting to me represents a Western gaze, the gaze of an outsider who sees something strange and mysterious and seeks to portray it that way. The problem with this is that when framed through the eyes of colonizers, complex cultures are often reduced to exotic stereotypes ... for example, if I were to ask you to describe Brahmin society on the basis of this particular painting, what words would you use? To me it seems to show a very idle community (see the sprawled, relaxed posture of the two men). Yet it seems to be a prosperous community (note the prosperous, healthy boy and his jewellery), using strange books and ritualistic paraphernalia to make their living in the world. It is a patriarchal community as well, with a little girl being trained in the ways of her dutiful mother (she with the downcast eyes). It's easy to see how such a portrayal may help build an image of a slothful and backward society that needs to be saved by Jesus, or reformed through colonialism.

Whether you agree with van Ruith's portrayal of Brahmin society or not, in the end, such exotic stereotypes end up creating "others" versus "us".

Here's another van Ruith, also painted in Bombay, called The Village Girl:
In this painting, a Maharashtrian woman is portrayed somewhat pensively, delicately, suggesting that she is as soft as the flower she is carrying. This then, is the Male gaze, depicting women and the world, from a masculine, heterosexual perspective. From the khuna blouse to the Narayanpet saree, to the hair tightly done in an amboda, this one is so real. But if you have ever carried a pot of water in a heavy copper pot, then you'll know that it takes strength. However, male representations do not usually reflect the strength of the woman. And we, the viewers, both male and female, internalize this male gaze, and begin seeing ourselves thus.

Raja Ravi Varma greatly admired van Ruith's work, and a whole generation of Indians have internalised Ravi Varma's portrayals of soft, vulnerable, Indian women.
Radha in the Moonlight, Raja Ravi Varma
I don't have anything against either van Ruith or Ravi Varma, or the way in which they portrayed what they did. All humans have a gaze. If you want to tell a story about someone, you need to adopt a gaze; and they adopted what came naturally to them. But my personal view is that in portraiture at least, if a story-teller begins from a point of empathy, it would perhaps help tell the story in a more authentic way. The starting point for any portrait artist is to be aware of their own gaze, and how that impacts the portrayal they are about to undertake.

I am myself a story-teller; I write about the people of India. My travels in India take me to so many different cultures and communities. Seeing van Ruith's work has come as a good reminder to check my own gaze from time to time! I now am becoming acutely aware of my own gaze, and how difficult it is to tell a story without altering it to suit my imagined worldview.

Photo sources:
http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2017/modern-contemporary-indian-art-n09664/lot.102.html This painting of the Brahmin household sold for Rs 2.5 crores in Sotheby's March 2017 auction.
https://www.grosvenorgallery.com/exhibitions/49/works/artworks1465/
https://auctions.pundoles.com/lots/view/1-58K3E/radha-in-the-moonlight

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Women Entrepreners in Tourism in India

I was happy to be featured in Tourism India's Cover Story on women entrepreneurs in tourism.
Interviewer: Mumbai Magic is considered as one of the rarest Responsible Travel experiences in India. How did it all begin?

Deepa: I graduated in 1990 with an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta. I spent nearly two decades of my career in the corporate world, mainly in banking technology. I travelled widely due to my work, and met people from many countries. My journey in tourism only started in my late 30’s, when I realized that India has so much more to offer to tourists than just monuments and shopping. So I set up a guided tours company that offers bazaar walks, heritage walks, art walks, food walks, home-cooking, textile trails, craft trails etc.

Initially, it was just a hobby, which I did along with my corporate career. But what started as just a hobby in 2006 has now become the largest pan-Indian guided tours company in the inbound segment, offering offbeat experiences in 27 different cities. Mumbai is our flagship city, but we are not just “Mumbai Magic”; we have 27 different Magic cities! I have personally visited these cities, read a lot about them, walked and explored the lanes and bazaars, and created these tours. So we are not just tour resellers, we are an imaginative company that creates tours, and we continue to launch at least 5-6 new tours each year.

Across India, we now have a network of more than 100 guides and experts, who help tourists see the “real India”. I believe that tourism is a great area for women to work, since the work is flexi-time and part-time. We employ female guides wherever possible – in fact, we currently have the largest network of women guides in the country, and many companies approach us for providing safe travel for female tourists.

Interviewer: You are one of the pioneers in Responsible Tourism initiative in urban travel segment who have already created different aspects to Travel through our cities, especially in Mumbai. Please tell more about this journey. 

Deepa: I have always wanted to make a positive impact through the tourism business. So we employ and train students from slums, in order to help them earn incomes and get work experience while they are in college. We have created two flagship tours – MUMBAI LOCAL and DELHI BY METRO – in partnership with local non-profits. These tours are run by college students from low-income neighborhoods, and they use local transport (bus, taxi, train, rickshaw, metro, etc.) to explore the city. Tourists really enjoy these experiences, because they are offbeat and interesting. The income from the tour is shared between the student guides, the non-profit, and our company, thus providing a winning combination. These tours have been running successfully for the past 10 years and have contributed significant income to the students as well as the non-profits. We have had 52 college students work with us (usually for 3 years or more), and they have all made us proud through their achievements. Some of our students have now entered full-fledged careers in tourism, some have acquired jobs in top multinationals, some are studying for MBA, some have gone to the USA for studies, and some have started their own tourism ventures. It makes me really happy to see these students doing so well.

In many of the cities where we work, we partner with local non-profits and actively canvas for donations to these non-profits. We try to bring incomes to marginalized sectors. Since many of our customers are foreign educational institutes, we create experiences for them where they can understand social issues in a sensitive way without disrespecting local communities.

In Mumbai we are ourselves working in 4 adivasi villages (around 4hrs drive from the city), building dams, wells, ponds and other rainwater harvesting structures. In addition, I myself run an education NGO in Mumbai called Abhyudaya, with 500+ children. Last year I also founded Abhyudaya Community Initiative, a women’s self-help group which creates textile craft products. I do a lot of work in promoting Indian handlooms and I am a member of the NABARD Task Force for handlooms.

Interviewer: Travel & Tourism sector is considered to be a man’s world. How did you make into this sector and what are the challenges that you faced? 
Deepa: I don’t believe that any sector is “a man’s world”. When women are flying fighter jets and facing combat situations, why should we have this mindset? In fact, travel and tourism is a great area for women to work in. I can honestly say that I have never faced any challenges specifically due to my gender. Creating and growing a business is always challenging; whether for men or women. If anything, I believe being female is an asset, as you are more easily able to stand out among the crowd. Besides, a lot of foreign tourists often prefer dealing with women.

Interviewer: More women entrepreneurs are now enter into the Travel & Tourism sector today. What is the advice you give to such young women?
Deepa: An entrepreneur is one who is willing to take risk, show leadership, and bear hardships. This is not an easy thing. Anyone who enters this – whether man or woman – has to be prepared for some tough times. For new women entrepreneurs, my advice would be to develop a strong spine and a somewhat thick skin! Don’t let anyone discourage you, because many people will be very skeptical of your journey.

Interviewer: How women can enhance this industry from a woman-point of view?
Deepa: I would urge all people in the industry to provide flexi-time, flexi-location jobs. This is a real boon for women. Even for men, it helps to bring more work-life balance.
In our office, we provide opportunities for our staff to work part-time and flexi-time. The employees receive a share of the profits, thus everyone is a part of the growth journey. Due to these people-friendly policies, our team has been stable since the beginning. Stability brings deeper expertise, which benefits our tourists.

Interviewer: How you feel when you look back on your journey from an ordinary Indian girl to a respected Travel professional now? How you foresee the future of Indian Travel Industry ?
Deepa: I don’t look back very often, but when I do look back, I am happy with the value we have added to all stakeholders – employees, contractors, customers and society. There is still a lot of work ahead, so I am very occupied with the future! Although I have travelled a lot in India, there are still many new places to explore and new experiences to bring to tourists. The Indian tourism industry is still focused on specific geographies, and does not do justice to many exciting and interesting segments. I am hoping to bring more balance to this.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Lahore ki Lakshmi

Lakshmi Insurance Building, Bombay
This is the Lakshmi Insurance Building on Pherozshah Mehta Road, opposite Bombay Store. It has a clock tower with a statue of the goddess Lakshmi.
Why am I calling it Lahore ki Lakshmi? Because the Lakshmi Insurance Company was originally founded in Lahore by Lala Lajpatrai. This building was the Bombay branch of the company (later merged with the Life Insurance Corporation).
There is also a Lakshmi Building in Lahore, which was the headquarters of the insurance company. In fact, the crossroads at which the building is located in Lahore is called Lakshmi Chowk.
Lakshmi Chowk in Lahore was a popular hangout for Bollywood celebrities and hopefuls, because many studios and movie offices were located there. The famous villian Pran got cast in a movie when he was hanging out at Lakshmi Chowk at a paan shop :) Apparently a director named Wali spotted him, and scribbled the address of a studio on the back of a cigarette packet. Thus began Pran's journey into films.
Dev Anand, Balraj Sahni, Mohammed Rafi, Om Prakash, Pran... all these major Bollywood stars hung out in Lahore's Lakshmi Chowk. And eventually migrated to Bombay to find fame and fortune here. 
Lahore's loss was Bombay's gain.
The cutest Art Deco Elephants in Mumbai