June 16, 2011

M.F. Husain, Grahak Panchayat, And A Rainy Day

A little under two years ago, on a rainy day similar to those buffeting Mumbai for over a week now, I stepped out of the office with my colleagues for a meeting with office bearers of the Life Insurance Corporation of India (L.I.C) in Worli.

Grey skies had blanketed the city and the rain fell intermittently. While there was respite from the skies between spells of rain, there was no respite from the pall of windswept grey and black umbrellas deftly negotiating other umbrellas passing them by, the black adding to the overall gloom, with the occasional colour floating about in the street failing to break the impasse.

After the pounding through the year, roads clung on to puddles of water, seeking relief from the humidity of a long summer. Commuters exercised caution in choosing the puddles to leap over and the puddles to walk through, often choosing the latter to avoid leaping over a puddle only to land in another with a splash.

The much trumpeted Bandra – Worli Sea Link had opened to traffic a little over a week ago, connecting Bandra to Worli across the Mahim Bay. At over five kilometers the cable-stayed bridge over the Arabian Sea had attracted joy riders soon after it was thrown open to the public, with thousands lining up for a drive in the hope they would experience the roiling sea under them from the safety of the sea bridge.

But Mumbai being Mumbai, priorities soon rearranged themselves, with matters of urgency and compulsion taking over the need for joy rides between Worli and Bandra, with the exception of those with time on hand.

As we huddled into the office transport, matters of work took a backseat in the time leading up to the moment the car lined up with the bridge over a violent sea. Rivulets streamed down the windshield, glazing over the yellows of Traffic Policemen posted on the bridge into images brushed over with effects in image software. With windows rolled up we rolled onto the bridge in a cocoon of silence save the occasional banter, the pattering of raindrops and the whooshing of rearing waves muted to the ear even as the eye sought to recreate it.

Shortly we sped over seemingly innumerable spans supported on piers before approaching the massive central tower rising into the sky, the cables descended at angles, turning the cable-stayed portions on either side of the approach into a pleasing geometry.

A few quick turns negotiating the traffic barricades and we were on the home stretch before exiting the bridge on the Worli side in quick time. I was disappointed over passing it so quickly, and I hadn’t even got a good, long, hard look at the sea as we passed over it. For a moment I doubted if it was over five kilometers long before my colleagues laid my doubts to rest. It was 5.6 kms. long.

Upon entering the main concourse of L.I.C.’s office building I was struck by how high the ceiling was. With Worli home to large corporations, private and public, the L.I.C building was in keeping in the style of buildings fashioned in Worli in the decades before modernity and transparent open spaces sectioned along temporary lines and reflecting facades came to influence architectural space in newer constructions elsewhere in Mumbai. This looked, felt, and even smelt like Babu space except for a large painting nearly rising to the ceiling behind the receptionist. It was a 1963 Husain.

Not that I needed confirmation to the fact. The lines, the colours, the figures, even if a mystery to those not well informed about the Mumbai art scene, like yours truly, pointed to Maqbool Fida Husain, or M.F. Husain as he is better known in India, or rather was known in India before his passing away in exile in faraway London a little over a week ago, just as the monsoons rumbled into Mumbai ahead of time early this month.

The Gods must have conspired in bridging the two events with a common element, the Mumbai monsoon.

The only paintings I’ve admired of M.F. Husain’s are those of the horses he painted, the lines, the strength in the lines, and the mood made for an arresting pause. Of the rest of his paintings, limited to those I’ve seen exhibited in galleries and in print, I rarely found any that distinguished itself to a layman eye, more likely ordinary than not, contrary to what many others might feel. In time I came around to believing that their value lay more in the construction of the M.F. Husain brand than any inherent elevating characteristics.

I turned my gaze at the M.F. Husain on the wall.

Dulled by inclement weather outside, the lighting struggled to reveal the painting from where I sat on the sofa with my colleagues, waiting to be summoned to the meeting.

Curious, I got up from the seat and walked up to the painting. A form rising above the masses before him revealed itself holding up what appeared to be the Sun while looking to his right at musicians playing musical instruments.

In the foreground, probably seeking a face to the faceless masses in a throng, he shows a family. For a moment I stand there, attempting to make sense of M.F. Husain’s painting from the early 1960s. I make no headway except for returning my eye to the hordes or masses populating the scene.

If the musical instrument in the scene, most likely a Tanpura or maybe a Sitar, held in the classic pose of an accompaniment in a Hindustani music recital, is meant to lend a religious significance to the gathering of the masses at the feet of the one holding up the Sun or a ball of light, I wouldn’t know for certain. My guess is as good as yours.

Whether he meant for the imposing figure holding up the ball of flame to be a leader of sorts, I cannot be sure but wouldn’t be surprised if he turned out to be holding light to the masses, showing them the way out or a way forward. I could only imagine the intent.

The only certainty, if I can lay claim to it, is the gathering of the masses, and to an extent the notion of a leader rallying the masses about him, either to lead them on, or give them an audience.

And before the day was out, additional elements I happened upon in the landing by the stairway before we got called to the meeting, soon knotted themselves into a narrative around the masses, and a leader. It was as unlikely a coincidence as it was an unlikely analogy. Ah! The dots one will connect when waiting to be called to work!

Where the concourse opened into the landing leading to the staircase, several writing/display boards were stacked up against a wooden cabin fashioned in the space below the staircase, each writing board belonging to a pressure group organized as an employee union, and serving as notice boards for union demands, appeals, and announcements laid in chalk, with the exception of Grahak Chalval. Grahak is Hindi for customer while Chalval is Marathi for movement. Customer Movement.

The announcement in chalk read:

*Happy News* *Happy News*

For L.I.C. Employees

By Courtsey of Grahak Chalval

Montex Wrist Watch Offer

On Purchase of One Wrist Watch
Get Another Wrist Watch Free*

Leather Belt Rs. 250/-
Metal Belt Rs. 300/-

Offer Date: 13 July – 17 July
Time: Between 12 pm – 3 pm

While I had read about Grahak Chalval before I was surprised to find its presence prominently announced in a Govt. institution. No other Govt. office I had visited before bore Grahak Panchayat’s presence as prominently as at the L.I.C. office that day, in fact there was no visible presence.

Grahak Chalval is a consumer co-operative movement that emerged in the unlikely event of angry residents in Pune burning down a warehouse suspected of hoarding essential household commodities, inconveniencing consumers by creating artificial shortages aimed at hiking prices. The year was 1974, and Bindu Madhav Joshi was witness to the frustrated mob running amok.

Bindu Madhav Joshi, hailing from Pune’s Brahmin community distinguished by its stellar contribution to the Arts, the Academia, Administration, and Social movements, combined with other young social-movement minded Brahmin youth, including Sudhir Phadke and Pu La Deshpande, to raise in consumers an awareness about their rights and help check their exploitation by traders, eventually founding Grahak Panchayat to achieve his objectives.

He mobilized ‘Buying Groups’ comprising members who bought commodities on behalf of consumers before distributing them at their doorsteps on a ‘No Loss – No Profit’ basis, ensuring the benefits of collective buying power while putting a check on trading malpractices formerly visited upon individual consumers. Families benefited from the discounts the ‘Buying Groups’ managed on their behalf, easing financial constraints in the process. It was a rather unique co-operative movement.

Bindu Madhav Joshi’s movement eventually expanded its scope to safeguard consumer interests in a variety of matters affecting consumers, showing them the pitfalls to avoid, the rights to exercise, and the way forward.

As we prepared to take the lift, I couldn’t help notice the parallel between my interpretation of M.F. Husain’s rendition on canvas in the reception and the genesis of Grahak Chalval, the canvas of a painter converging with the reality of a social activist rendered in the consumer movement serving the masses.

In the video below, hear Bindu Madhav Joshi inform and caution consumers of the pitfalls to avoid when buying goods in the marketplace, even advising them to bargain at the counter, reminding them that the Consumer Is King.

Further Reading:

1. Mumbai Grahak Panchayat Website.
2. How The Consumer Movement Started, Outlook Money, 1998.
3. Grahak Chalval, A Unique Co-operative Movement, The Hindu, 1999.
4. Customer’s King Turns 80, Loksatta, 2010.


Anu said...

loved reading it.. and how seamlessly u brought such diverse topics together.....

Riot Kitty said...

Ditto w/Anu. Lovely art! We have those kind of rain-drenched days here in Portland, where it's just impossible to get dry.

Balachandran V said...

The beauty of the writing surpasses the photographs of the rains! In fact, the photographs arrest the flight of mental images drawn from your words.

Never been good at interpreting abstract paintings... :-(

Meena Venkataraman said...

Wondeful Post. You have captured the mood of the monsoon season and the angry rains so well.

Anil P said...

Anu: Thank you.

The consumer movement that Joshiji started was farsighted, and seeing the board dedicated to Grahak Chalval of the Grahak Panchayat, the connection between the two became an obvious approach.

Riot Kitty: Very true. It's the same here, difficult to remain dry for the next four months. More prevalent along India's West Coast.

Balachandran V: Thank you for the kind words. Very encouraging to be told so.

I'm not good at interpreting abstracts either, and am not much of a fan of 'total' abstracts.

Personally, in Art, I prefer stylistic rendering of realism that is not ambiguous with its communication, but draws its mood from the manner of rendering.

Meena Venkataraman: Thank you. It was fiting we experienced an angry monsoon when we drove over the Bandra-Worli sea link.

The Monsoons Mumbai has seen the last week and half has been unusually heavy for this time of the year.

Lynn said...

I love when artwork is placed in locations like that. Our airport in Atlanta is full of it, but can mostly only be seen if you walk to your gate.

Sh@s said...

Interesting post but quite lengthy, shall come back again to finish the remaining part :)

Lucy said...

Loved the white knuckle ride in the rain over the bridge!

I do support and love to see art in public places like this, of course, but I can't say these paintings do much for me; they remind me of too much public art of that period, perhaps they have just grown dated. My mother had a theory that one tends to dislike the art and decor of the period one grew up with - she expressed her dislike of art deco, from the period of her youth. I'm not sure it's always true, but perhaps the fashions in public (I tend to see it, rather negatively, as municipal)art are rather over familiar to me from that time, so they seem old hat and shabby without being appealingly retro... I don't know. Perhaps if I saw these works in situ they would appeal more.

Another great post, so true abut the seamless way you move from one topic to another.

Meera Sundararajan said...

Anil first time commenting on your blog. I loved your pictures. The one on the beauty in the eyes of the beholden was really nice but I had a technical problem and could not comment. Anyway coming back to this one, I have been in Bombay for two years during my post graduation and the monsoon is something that really defines the city. The visual imagery was great. I have not been to the city in the recent past but sure I can relate to the places and the changes that seem to have come about. About the cooperative movement Maharashtra is ofcourse far ahead of any other state! Nice blog I must say.

Anil P said...

Lynn: True. It's a good initiative to have art grace public spaces, and even better if they can rotate exhibits.

Sh@s: Thank you. True, the posts here demand application of the reading eye. They're usually byte-sized bits and rarely bit-sized bytes. :-)

Lucy: Thank you. Along the West Coast of India, the monsoons can be an intimidating affair for the chaos they can bring in their wake, more so in crowded cities like Bombay.

Often, Public Art, commissioned or not can tend to reflect more the choices of the decision makers than the general public.

Moreover, as I sometimes see displayed in public space back here, abstractions in art that might qualify for "high" art among certain Art Cliques are not those that connect with people in public places.

I think your mother's observation had a point. Maybe it is necessary for one to let time put a distance between 'then' and 'now' to begin appreciating styles.

A stretch in Bombay along Marine Drive has Art Deco gracing buildings, and they're a welcome contrast with the drab buildings elsewhere, and much pleasing to the eye than the modern glass fronted buildings.

Like you rightly said, certain Art can become 'dated' and hence jarr to the eye if displayed in spaces one uses on a frequent basis.

Meera Sundarajan: Thank you. Nice to know you liked the previous post.

True, monsoons in Mumbai are an entirely different proposition, interesting even if one is meandering about in spaces that do not flood during downpours.

True, there're many co-operative movements in Maharashtra.

Coffee Messiah said...

I enjoyed the trip and that you brought up M.F. Husain.....a friend on FB has a few signed zerox works he made in the '70s, and asked if I knew about him - and didn't - so you are the 2nd person to mention him - and it sounded as if he was quite an interesting a low key person.
= Cheers!

Anil P said...

Coffee Messiah: Thanks. Long ago, M.F. Husain broke away from the Indian Art Scene so to speak and alongwith a few other artists started the 'Progressives' movement.

M.F. Husain contributed a lot to the visibility of the Indian Art movement, and played a part in giving Indian Art visibility. On the whole he came across as a gentleman.

I particularly liked his painting of horses, were quite striking in their style. His other works that I saw exhibited in galleries or elsewhere did not enthuse me much, founf them much to drab.

M.F. Husain began to become known as the prices of his paintings soared, and eventually he became among the highest paid of Indian painters, and hence among the best known.

He did however court controversies when he represented Hindu deities in ways that most found disparaging, and was critisized for picking on Hinduisim as a soft target and not his own religion Islam similarly, in which case the view was the reaction could comparatively be far more virulent and explosively violent, given the inherent nature of violence underpinning Islamist sensitivity and reaction through the ages.

He went into exile to avoid answering summons from the law with respect to 'inciting' religious sensitivity after cases were filed against him. Many considered the cases as being against the freedom of expression, others thought otherwise.

He was asked why he didn't experiment likewise with his motifs of his own religion though it was common knowledge that he wouldn't dare to out of fear of Islamist retribution compared to which the reactions from other religions would be mild.

And so he became even more high key.

Coffee Messiah said...

Thanks for that and my friend said the same thing - funny (not really) how that seems to play out with certain people -
And Thanks for more of a background, appreciate it = Cheers!