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Wednesday, June 26, 2002


The Sulekha Miracle

How silly to forget. Sulekha is a new site of Indian writing to appear on the net. (I had already created the link on my template long ago). It syndicates high quality content, includes a great one page "headlines page," a great list of original columns , movie reviews and book reviews. By some cosmic coincidence, it is also located in Austin, where I live now. I had in fact written an article about Sulekha and web communities. The title is "Web Communities and the Art of Making Money." For those of you who don't know Hindi, "Sulekha" means "good writing."


The World's Most Low-Tech Weblog

Note: Audiogalaxy recently agreed not to allow songs to be shared on their site unless the artist/music company explicitly agrees to this. As a result, Audiogalaxy, which used to be the best source of Asian music worldwide, is now totally useless for finding Asian music (It will be next to impossible to gain permissions from Grace Chang or Liu Wen Zheng). Audiogalaxy was great for two reasons. First, it allowed you to bookmark singers with a url, and I promptly included those hyperlinks on the left and right sides of the Asiafirst page. Second, it allowed you to find musical artists similiar to the one you were searching for, a sort of "musical mental map." For the time being, I am no longer linking to Audiogalaxy, but I still will include the list of singers from India and China. It will still be relatively easy to find mp3's through gnutella, and it's doubtful that the music industry will infiltrate the p2p networks with defective Geeta Dutt mp3's, but I will still miss Audiogalaxy's ease of use.

Saibal Chatterjee from Brittanica India has written a marvelous piece, "Copycat Cinema" about the similarities between Bollywood and Hollywood, noting the countless times that Bollywood has ripped off storylines from Hollywood. (And so Hollywood doesn't do this? What about Vanilla Sky? Three Men and a Baby? For those who have seen Hollywood's "Father's Day," they should immediately go to the video store and watch "Les Comperes.") A recent film I saw, Bollywood Calling (2002), notes the great esteem Bollywood companies hold for Hollywood. Chatterjee writes, " There is one simple reason why it is so easy to mesh Hollywood plots with Bollywood formula: neither school of film production, especially in their contemporary forms, has much faith in culture-specific fare. Both purvey entertainment in standardized packages; it does not matter what story a film tells or where the action and the characters are located as long as it can inveigle viewers to part with their hard-earned money and keep the cash counters busy."

Time Magazine’s controversial profile of India’s prime minister has caused a real ruckus. Sometimes foreign correspondents can describe a politician situation the most objectively.

For the past few days I have been poring over Kamat's Potpourri, a site containing the literary and photographic works of the Kamat family. Together, “they share three Doctorates, Five Masters degrees and seven other University degrees,” and the late father, K. L. Kamat's, a scholar and anthropologist, still receives hundreds of emails a month.

Two incredible things about Kamat's Potpourri: a graphical site map , and and illustrated and hyperlinked timeline of Indian history.

The deceased anthropologist and photographer, K.L. Kamat , wrote fascinating travelogues, including the Ghotul System of Education, a description of an initiation process of teenagers in Central India. In a piece somewhat reminiscient of Margaret Mead’s writing, K.L. Kamat writes how about how the ghotul becomes a setting for youth to have sexual adventures and to teach one another about things relating to being an adult and making a living (a "learning by doing" approach). Married people aren’t allowed to be present. In the ghotul, they carouse, party, take off their clothes, chase each other and engage in sexual games. Kamar writes, "It is said that a fisherman never finds the beach beautiful. It is unlikely that freedom, free sex, and the equality of sexes are as attractive to the tribals as they are to us."

My only comment is that one ought to treat Kamat’s account with a certain skepticism. Just as Margaret Mead’s accounts have been harshly criticized (See Derek Freeman's book, “The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of her Samoan Research” ), one has to realize that any outsider’s account captures at best only a snapshot of a culture’s inner workings.

Indian labors unrolling fiber optic cable

Bangalore laborers rolling out fiber optic cable. (K.L. Kamat)

Among other things, K.L. Kamat has written a delightful piece on the uneducated workers who tore up the Bangalore roads to wire the city for the 21st century (with photographs). On visiting the world famous erotic statues in Khajuraho, Kamat notes the surprise, disappointment and awe experienced by tourists, and most of all the lack of prurient excitement. The statues reveal Indian’s acceptance of kama (sensual pleasures) as one of the four necessary component of living. Of changing cultural mores, he writes, “In the same country, what is considered perversion may eventually become to be acceptable. In India we consider kissing as a sexual act whereas in western countries it is a symbol of affection and is used just like a handshake. In America, most parts of society and the government do not object to exposing the body, except for the private parts. In England and France, nude dancing in theaters is a popular art form. In Scandinavian countries there is no restriction on nudity and their girls provide all the poses required by all of Europe. A Portuguese president and a Spanish president banned sexual magazines and pictures in order to make their citizens more "civil." It is said that after they died, the prevalence of pornographic literature skyrocketed in the two countries! In England where they once punished a scholar such as Oscar Wilde for homosexuality, the practice is legal today (1997). In the holy land of India, where it was once thought that embryo-homicide (bhroona-hatya) was a great crime, today it is a legal process, rewarded by the government. How quickly the standards of acceptance change!"

Kamat’s travelogue anecdotes about meeting a 14 year old ascetic is a classic, as is his description of trying to photograph Muslim women.

The family website contains a section, “Never been Photographed” with Kamat’s first picture of some Indians and a section on the "Women of India." The photographs on the site are rare and remarkable, including a section titled "Interviews with Poverty."

While the father is dead, the website updates its content very frequently, with a new weblog by K.L.’s wife, Jyotsna Kamat, a distinguished Bangalore historian. She writes, “I am sure that this is the world's most low tech blog, written on paper, typed by a third person (mostly my daughter-in-law), and proof-read on paper. “ She has written about many topics, including ancient Indian food habits, medieval scholars and ancient Hindi card games. The son, Vikas Kamat, in addition to keeping an Indian culture/technology weblog called Me, Myself and the Web, built the site’s content management site from scratch and probably has been performing the thankless task of converting old content.

Friday, June 07, 2002


Shirley Temple Fans in China

The Wolf at the Door is a very long article about Hollywood's attempt to distribute films in China. This essay is very long, but full of interesting information and analysis. The first official cinema release of an American film was "The Fugitive," and on average China allows less than 10 foreign films legally into the country every year. China's membership into the WTO might boost this to 30 or (heaven forbid!) 40. A 1995 survey asking Chinese to name their favorite film star revealed that over 40% could not recognize any of the names on a list of 74 film stars, and among the highest scorers were Shirley Temple and Vivien Leigh. (In 1999, a similiar questionaire was given. The results: Top rated foreign stars were: Jackie Chan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Leonardo DiCaprio). He quotes an unnamed Chinese critic who writes, "In Hollywood's formulation every region of the world has its special characteristics. Africa is presented as a barbarian land with many wild animals, while Asia is a land of spies and opium smokers. The only paradise is the United States itself, the land where beautiful dreams really do come true."

Shelly Kraicer maintains an ample collection of film reviews and essays about Chinese film and also translated a list of the best 100 Chinese films of the 20th century. On the same site Shao-yi Sun has written a critique of "Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl." Sun writes "Western film goers and critics, whose knowledge of Chinese cinema is solely based on the works of Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, are not well prepared for those Chinese films that are apolitical (or non-allegorical?), comic, or with a contemporary urban background."

Stefan Landsberger's Chinese Propaganda Poster Pages provide a historical gallery of posters with ample commentary and "genres" such as chubby babies, iron women and foxy ladies and elderly people (which Landsberger describes a rare occurence in poster art). American readers, don't be complacent. The advertisements in old "Life Magazines" look just as goofy to us today, and several art critics have argued that artists like Norman Rockwell might be the most enduring American painter simply because he catalogs how Americans lived (albeit in a glorified, idealized way).

Here's a good list of books about Asian film.

The Hong Kong Film Archive has a wonderful set of retrospective essays about 1950-60's Hong Kong film comedies and musicals, produced by the Motion Picture & General Investment Co Ltd. As wonderful as the essays are, the site uses a crazy dropdown box that hides the links to the other essays, so I will include them here: Actor Peter Dunn's essay Fading Away of a Way of a Life and MP & GI's Golden Age. "Though the form and style are reminiscent of Hollywood products, the sentiments are essentially Chinese, only that they are all trying hard to beat about the post-war trauma and poverty bush and direct themselves to bourgeois sentiments."

One of the musical film stars of that genre is Grace Chang, a lovely singer whose songs could have been accompanied by Tommy Dorsey or other Big Bands. Her "Gesundheit" song is charming in a "Carmen Miranda" kind of way. (Thanks to Mike B., for this singer, who apparently figured prominently in the recent Taiwanese film, "Dong" (also named "The Hole)." The IMDB summary says "It's the last week of 1999: Taiwan is struck by a strange disease that turns men into beetles. Due to a clumsy plumber, a hole is made on the ceiling of a lonely woman's flat, revealing the apartment upstairs, where a drunken greengrocer lives. Her fantasies about him might come true, if only they could talk to each other... "


Grace Chang, Hong Kong singer and film star from the 1960's

Monday, June 03, 2002


India's Carnatic Nightengale

Musician M S Subbulakshmi, ( Music ), the “Nightengale of India” is the the most famous and successful singer of Carnatic music , a classical music genre from South India that depends mainly on the use of the human voice as a musical instrument. A wonderful biographical essay by music critic Gowri Ramnarayan explains the significance of Subbulakshmi’s music in loving terms. She writes, "That voice has been rated peerless from the shy days of her debut when it soared like the high-pitched notes of a bird in springtime. Later, the ravishing trills were weighted with the stately grandeur and sonorous devotion of the classical tradition. Few other artists have been as successful in the melding of the conscious and the unconscious, the inborn and the reflective elements of her art." Subbulakshkmi's account of her life in her own words describes her first encounter with records: "I was also fascinated by records -- gramophone plates, we called them. Inspired by the gramophone company's logo of the dog listening to his master's voice, I would pick up a sheet of paper, roll it into a long cone, and sing into it for hours."


M.S. Subbulakshmi

I have no intent to discuss the Indian/Pakistani tensions on this pages. As far as this website is concerned, the matter is irrelevant. But I find it interesting that after ignoring major political crises and natural disaster in India and Pakistan, the American media has suddenly "discovered India." Maybe if I picked up an atom bomb somewhere, people would actually read my fiction or hire me. In the next week or so I'll post some links about Pakistani culture.

Tehelka is a wonderful mainstream publication with lots of commentary, literary essays and analysis. Its editor, Venkat Parsa, recently wrote an essay, "The Ostrich School of Film Critics" which laments the dearth of good historical overviews on Bollywood film, noting that the Cannes' recent showcasing of the films of Raj Kapoor not only is long overdue, but somewhat condescending. "Ray's films are like sonatas, " Rao writes, "while Kapoor's films are more in the nature of symphonies. Ray knew his limitations, and never attempted an epic. It was different with Kapoor. He could take into his line of vision the wide sweep of life itself, and he did this in Mera Naam Joker. It was an artistically hazardous enterprise, but he attempted it. "

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