Poems | Anjana Basu

Nate Dunn, Bottle and Glasses (Wikimedia Commons)



 Seferis sky

she unbuttons her clothes

a pomegranate splits

into a scatter of stars


Moon strip

the moon en deshabille

in a froth of clouds

lets slip the haze from her shoulders

and bursts forth bare and golden

as she bathes in the pool of night


Make up

you wear sunlight

the way women wear make up

or wish they could

a casual stroking on  

a splash on the cheek bones

a wash of gold

happy or sad you glow

all the rest is reflection 

the dust motes dance on your skin

leaning close

I breathe dust and gold



The evening tiger stalked over the horizon

Black gold black gold black

The last trail of sparks

Sinking into night


White on black

The tiger springs by moonlight

First snow fall


The paper tiger stalks the garden

Stippled with those words of love

That once went beyond form to feeling

Now all substance gone

They haunt the shadows of no meaning

Measuring the territory

This space yours

This mine

In the tiger's eyes the yellow

Of a splintered moon reflects a broken anger

Origami emotions perhaps


Book Review | Roads Across the Earth: On the Life, Times and Art of Anil Karanjai | Dhritabrata Bhattacharjya Tato

Modern and Contemporary Indian Art is an oft-used term to define artworks, movements and traditions that occurred in the post-Independence era. But it gave rise to a  new problem: the creative community of the newly-born nation was compelled to define the ‘Indian-ness’ in their works, which so-far had primarily been anchored around linguistic, regional and community identity. Nehruvian period responded to it by coining a phrase ‘unity in diversity’. After more than seven decades, the unity has been achieved by erasing the ‘diversity’, and this process has now gained a new momentum with the present ruling dispension at the central government.

Chroniclers of Indian visual art tried to create a coherent history to justify works of the visual artists either in the light of some artistic movements like the Bengal School or Progressive Artists’ Group, or in terms of market value. All other movements which occurred in the next few decades, were consciously kept away from formal and academic art discourse. Eminent art historians consciously chose not to talk about several art movements due to the interest group they serve. This, on one hand pushed many talented artists into oblivion, and on the other hand, made the artist community heavily dependant on galleries, and private art foundations that does not offer artistic and artistic freedom.

Herein lies the significance of Roads Across the Earth: On the Life, Times and Art of Anil Karanjai (1940-2001). Karanjai was the chief exponent of United Artists – a group that was founded in Banaras in 1962. Unlike previous movements like the Bengal School or Progressive Artists Group, United Artists was truly independent in terms of its philosophy and existence. While both the previous movements were trying to establish the raison-d’etre of their art practices, United Artists seemed to have the basic quotient of art in the right place: art as a way of experiencing life. Needless to mention, United Artists never appears in the present historiography of Indian visual art due to their non-conformist attitude towards the discourse of the Nehruvian era and its art historians. United Artists was also linked to the Hungryalist movement, which after several decades of oblivion seems to have recently resurfaced for a reason that has little to do with both the entities: the mythical visit of American poet Allen Ginsberg to Benares and Calcutta.

The book opens with a long chronological biography of Karanjai from his birth till the last day of his life. The early part of his life is much more elaborately described than his later days. This essay is particularly important on two counts. Firstly, art historian Juliet Reynolds poignantly situates the works of Karanjai in the right context, along with the factors that determined his success and failure. Secondly, Reynolds’ essay is one of the rare documents on the artists, art movements and establishments of the 60s till the early 90s. For example, she might be the first one in India to point out the reasons that led to the so-called boom in Indian visual art industry in black and white:

‘The exchange of black money in the art world was hardly new. As in most sectors of the Indian economy, undeclared cash as part payment on transactions had for long been the norm. But through fundraising events for good causes – ranging from earthquake or flood relief to annimal welfare or communal harmony – it had now become possible to collect art with black money alone while facing no recriminations; as a bonus, the new collectors can cover themselves in glory as philanthropists and art patrons.”  In this paragraph Reynolds talked about the art market of the 90s onward. At the turn of the millennium, this trend would become more acute and slowly the ‘noble causes’ would completely disappear. Indian visual art would sustain by itself with mushrooming galleries and art events catering to a few interest groups. Reynolds also provides a vivid account of Karanjai’s activities in Delhi from 1970-74, particulary hinting at the reasons behind the imminent collapse of Nehruvian art institutions.

While Reynolds offers well-founded grounds to appreciate Karanjai’s works in terms of art theory, her essay does not talk of the overall cultural and political situations he worked in. This gap is filled to some extent by Maglesh Dabral where he vividly decribes the Delhi art hubs and haunts with some stray references to larger political developments. While Suneet Chopra’s essay provides a more politically contextualised account of Karanjai, Sumanta Banerjee’s A Friend in Remembrance supplements Karanjai’s contribution as a graphic artist to peoples’ movements on which Reynolds’ longer narrative makes some passing remarks.

Karanjai’s paintings can be divided into two visibly different periods. It may not be incorrect to say that this shift appreared in the late 1985 with his solo exhibition Images of Silence that took place in Dhoomimal Gallery in Delhi. His earlier works were full of human figures which were often termed as Daliesque. He, along with his fellow members of United Artists set up a studio called Devil’s Workshop, and created a body of work that was politcially charged and socially rebellious. This workshop was raided by the police in the wake of Naxal movement and most of the works were detroyed. Since his Images of Silence show, his visual language, form and content changed so dramatically that many of his friends of yesteryears refuted and refused to appreciate his art anymore. In The Nature of Art, a documentary made on Karanjai by Anasuya Vaidya and Ajay Shetty, the painter himself says that his art of this particular period is that of a healer. His new language was devoid of the human figures that crowded his earlier paintings; even the colour palette is more serene. Another piece by Reynolds at the end of the book titled Anatomy of a Painting offers a detailed critique of one of his paintings, The Door of Kusma, which would have been better as a part of Reynolds’ longer essay.

The most intriguing essay of the book is The Varanasi Scene Midwinter 1969-70 by Edward Loring. This piece was originally published in VARANASI SCENES at the behest of the members of United Artists and Hungry Generation. In this piece, like that of Malay Roychoudhury and Subimal Basak, the readers are exposed to the glimpses of life-style and experimentations of young band of artists and writers who indeed tried to take a route different from the ‘mainstream’ Indian cultural trends. Libertine life-styles that these young people led along with their left-leaning political thoughts marred with use and abuse of sustances portrays an atmosphere which is no less heroic and legendary than that of the Dadaists and Saint-Germain de Près of the 20s in Paris. Some shorter articles including that of Roychoudhury and Basak often repeats the information that readers are already acquainted with, courtesy Reynolds’ first article, making it less readable. One major short-coming of the book is the absence of personal information on Karanjai’s later life; equally there is almost no mention of his conjugal life except some stray references. His days in the US have no mention about his activities except a few lines in Reynolds’ first essay and another essay by Ross Beatty, Jr. which primarily deals upon the reception of Karanjai’s paintings in the US. Well- produced, this book has a few visible errors like the footnote number 93 is missing on page 72,  and the font type of Karanjai’s year of birth in Appendix 2 is different  from the rest of the book. However, apart from these minor apsects, Roads Across the Earth is definitely a well-researched historical document that would enrich Indian mainstream historiography, and may prompt academic research around this talented artist.


Busting Reservation Myths One at a Time | Zeeshan Husain

There are a number of myths surrounding Affirmative Action policies, mainly reservations for SC-ST and OBC communities. One encounters these in various spaces, mainly private.

Myth 1: Castes used to exist only in early times. No one follows the caste system in present times.

There is a substantial amount of data to show that various caste-based practices including Untouchability exist in present times as well. Scholars like Ghanshyam Shah et al. have documented various forms of Untouchability in rural India across eleven states in 2001-2. Navsarjan Trust (2010) has studied many villages in Gujarat to document ninety-eight types of Untouchability practices. Similarly, Smriti Sharma (2012) has studied violence against Dalits like murder, arson, destruction of property, rape, etc. A number of ‘honour killings’ happen when a non-SC woman marries an SC man. This clearly shows how cruel caste is when it comes to women.

Myth 2: We all are equal. All groups are equally rich and equally poor.

There is a huge amount of data from government, NGOs and individual researchers which show that there are persistent and systemic disparities between SC-STs and the rest of the population, regional variation notwithstanding like standards of living, poverty rates, health status, educational attainment, and occupational outcomes.

Myth 3: Reservation leads to loss of merit in educational institutions as most reserved category people get lesser marks.

Merit is not an objective thing, rather a subjective concept. Examination results are widely considered as a proxy for merit, but are often not good measures of true underlying ability or talent. Martha Nussbaum (2012) points out how the debate over race and intelligence quotient (IQ) in US helped in knowing that IQ tests show a partial truth. Ashwini Deshpande (2013) tells us from her personal experience that students with higher marks need not be necessarily brighter. Bowen and Bok (1998) document the long-term results on the lives of beneficiaries of AA who successfully graduate from the elite universities in US. They find that the successful blacks do very well in life despite having lower grades than their white counterparts. Added to these is the discrimination which students face since schools. A study by G.B. Nambissan (2010) shows that active discrimination starts within schools against SC students. There is evidence to show that students from SC-ST-OBC backgrounds get abysmally low marks in viva-voce for higher studies even in premium institutes, despite having good grades in written test.

Myth 4: Children of rich SC-STs join colleges. This increases elitism among SC-STs.

This statement is biased in two ways. Elitism, or the reproduction of privileges, is present in every social process irrespective of castes. Secondly, there are researches like those of Marc Galanter (1984) and Stuart Corbridge (2000) which have observed that reservations have only partly been successful for the deprived among the SCs and STs. Also, there are many other researches which show that ST-SC students joining colleges are from both middle class and poor strata of society. A research by Marianne Bertrand et al. (2008) shows that students coming through reservations are mostly poorer than Hindu ‘upper’ caste students. This research also tells that after reservation, students got good jobs which changed the economic condition of their families for the better. These two findings resonate with the William Bowen and Derek Bok’s (1998) study of benefits of AA in the context of US.

Myth 5: There is no discrimination in labour market as people get appointments, salaries and promotions as per their respective merit.

For the past two decades, a number of researches have  showed that even private sector labour markets are not prejudice-free. A work by S. Madheswaran and P. Attewal (2007) indicates that SC- STs have lower salaries as compared to non SC-STs, with the same education. Another research by S. Thorat and P. Attewal (2007) shows that even résumés get rejected if the name of the applicant happens to be that of a Muslim or a Dalit! Similarly works by Newman (2007) and S. Jodhka (2007) found out that employers are very much aware of social identity of the applicant, while professing deep allegiance only to the ‘merit’ of the candidate. It is because of these factors that thinkers like S. Thorat (2005) support reservations in private sector.

Myth 6: People from quota background reduce work efficiency.

There are studies by Thomas Weisskopf (2004) and Scott Page (2007) which prove the contrary. For example, Deshpande and Weisskopf (2011) have studied productivity of Indian Railways (IR) between 1980-2002,as IR has SC-ST employees. Three findings are worth mentioning: a) the productivity does not decrease with the increase of SC-ST employees b) accident rate does not increase with the increase of SC-ST quota and c) increase of SC-ST employees at officer level (A and B groups) slightly increases  the efficiency. Thus we can safely say that quotas never decrease productivity, rather they help in the larger cause of equal distribution of resources.

Myth 7: Women are marginalised as well but they don’t get reservations.

Few people know that even women get reservations, not in jobs and education but in local bodies, both rural and urban. Panchayati Raj Institutions and Nagar Palikas reserve one-third of the total seats for women, along with SCs and STs. This came up in 1993 through the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution. Various studies have shown slow but gradual betterment in the governance of developmental activities after the reservation of seats. There is also the debate on the introduction of 33% reservation for women in Lok Sabha.The  Odisha assembly recently fixed a 33% quota for women.

Myth 8: Diversity of social groups is a constraint in development.

Pluralism is a value in itself. Our existence depends upon the way we cherish differences and learn from it. Diversity of social groups actually helps, as Scott Page (2007) says, in the creation of better groups, firms, schools and societies.

The article is based on the book Affirmative Action in India (2013) by Ashwini Deshpande.


Poem | Robert Wood

photo credit: ebay.com 


In the space between
the steel cut oats
they saw the foundation stone.
It was where the townspeople prevailed
on the strength of their ideas
and the delicate nurturing that came with freedom, peanuts and bowerbird eggs.

We hoped.

Between heaven and earth
we found windows
in a house made empty
of talk
by a wind of wildness. Willow.

We sat down to eat
the wrasse brought up from their watery depths
and the ones we welcomed
they told us
of the many thousand miles they’d walked to be here now.

In the husked meringue
we saw
the bounty of heaven
clouds with thousand rain
quenching and crisp
aromatic as gin
a pillow to rest from weariness
and nourish each other without blame.

The orchids were at their feet
spidery and white
and we saw
breath of our breath turn to smoke in the winter morning
like dust, like light
necks craned.

They made soup from
bark and stones, laboured with sashes and honour
spoke of the ice hotel
with the furs and hares.

We sat as sovereigns do
held in our hands a globe
the size of a bull’s head,
the smell of rain on our hair.

On the forty acres
the mule carts burnt
flames green from copper
laundry a burnt reminder
of cleanliness next to thistle
next to bullets and pyramids
a netful of leopards and a raft to the underworld.

That afternoon, we saw a wave made of all the others.


Poetry | Deepa Onkar

O Rose Thou Art Sick: by Geetanjali Joshi

Kondana caves

I didn’t touch the smooth
shining skin of the wall. It spreads
now, in memory – thick and grey
like an elephant’s. Dancing girls
and grills floated far above.
I lie on a mat, the floor flecked
with moonlight

I remember the mouth,
almost covered with branches, leaves.
The sunshine. In a photograph,
the brightness of paddy

The long climb, my reined-
in breath. You, bent on deciphering
the thorns, the airy curling scripts
of the wilderness – as if history
would vanish in a moment

A street lamp comes on –
the splayed shadows of palms
shake the dark. I toss –
in my body’s lexicon
it means I am missing something

Sleep closes in
trunk limbs ankles turn
heavy as stone.
There is the squelch
of flesh: clay, mingling with pulsing
vines. Feet sink

I excavate myself before
a dream can find me
exhale, with a vagrant’s quietude

The heart of the cave
soft folded tissue
of light, is close

Ritual at Sefton Park

You press the lighter
there is a whir –
and hold, a flickering,
heat snuffed out.
And again: sparks fly, gutter

Under this plane
tree, endless stretches
of grass and sky

The stick
– and I – wait
The quiet rhododendrons
have assembled,
petals like flickering lamps
by oaks. Such invitation
in the sparkle of things:
I want to take a chance,
make friends with the moss
the sculpted roots and stones

And now the body bucks
to the wind –
thoughts about home whirl
insistent, daisy petals around a sun

The pale nub at your thumb’s edge
catches. A fluttering
flame arrives as if on a whim,
on a scented wave redolent
of musk. The centuries curl:
perhaps there are buddhas
between those trunks.

In the distance, sounds:
the certain, useless shapes
of voices, and laughter.

You and I – we
steady the dimensions –
nameless trees thicken
and crowd in hushed spaces
to watch

Evening, Besant Nagar

What is it that nudges me along
the wet expanse of the shore?
Deliberately, across crabs’
claws, tiny gleam of shells. Thin
watery veils threaten to grab
at my toes. Girls in salwars run.

A whisper-wind tickling
a bend of skin now merges
with the roar of waves,
circles unruly sparks from
the corn vendor’s machine.
Clouds bordering on orange
hint at darkness. Let me be still:
this drowning is pleasant.

Rain song

Let me begin with a memory.
There was rain in Pathum Thani
thick and torrential, a measure
of regret – what a way I’d come –

But also of love: the signs everywhere
wet roads like braided hair
come open, pitted with jasmine,
the scent of wood-smoke mingling
with sweat. Those happy corollaries
of routine –  the hiss outside
the kitchen window
like fat on fire; the drum of slow
big drops to the kettle’s whine

How easy it was to slide
into mundaneness: coffee later
at Hom krun, shopping, run

Now, the curtains open, I listen
to the steely drone of this unseasonal
September Madras shower.
A Palmyra’s fingers curl back from
glass. I wonder what to make of
the image of your shoulder-blades
poised against the dim, filtered light

Perhaps you will walk over
to where I sit, as if you’ve read
the wisps of my whims. But
a roar is breaking in –
bedraggled crows sidle away
in surprise. The widening light
stills the body, holds breath back

We look, as grass and mud are sundered:
the gush, trickle, swallow
we look and look – find it in us
to ask what rain might be

Art of seeing

I want to say something
about the light Vermeer
painted over the kitchen maid’s
head: the tilt of it, the poured
milk. The lapis fingers
of the Picasso mother
lifted, held, for decades –

How the room itself
seems to lapse into
stillness. The furniture
congealed with sunlight

van Iykes, van Goghs,
Rouaults, collect dust:
disuse on the way to doubt

Tomorrow we move.
I brush past
these far-flung lives –
belief in them thins like slices
of late afternoon light
on the walls, the floor.

That chair in the sun
is unframed of chairness.
The house, in a limbo
of moving trucks and vans.

Out the window,
the speeding sky. Nude clouds
skim the skies
with hope, earth with rain

The mirror says I change
a little, each day. Perhaps
 the heart finds a home
in something other
than permanence.

Memories toss on the pillow
I cross over to the moment
drawn to newer sights:
the moon frees itself from
bare listless trees.

Love, of late

These shapes you don’t know
of, scatter a map of love
among the furniture – can openers,
beer bottles. A red sports shirt –

You think of telephone conversations
that caused the borders of continents
to slip. The things that just are:
the muliebrity of handspun
the remembered scent of jasmine
this early morning dew-light on the lawn

You survived
nights, strange cities
those breathless explorations
that turned into hesitation

Oddly, a song breaks through
your lips. Go, love
the brightening colours