About FOOTPRINTS IN THE BAJRA (Cedar Books, New Delhi); By Nabina Das

"Fittingly for a poet, Nabina’s novel also has a strong lyrical core. 'Footprints in the Bajra' takes the homely image of the millet field as its central metaphor. ... But the novel is less a thriller about guerrilla action than a subtly colored character study of a fascinating group of individuals who intersect at various points in their lives ..." -- DEBRA CASTILLO, author, editor and distinguished professor (Cornell University, April 17, 2010).

Footprints in the Bajra is a serious book that moves at a smart uncontrived pace. It voices deep concerns about how and why the deprived and the marginalized in certain parts of our country join the Maoist ranks; how they adopt desperate and often terrible measures to wrench justice and to make their voices heard... a confident debut novel, a good read, which will leave you with plenty to mull over. -- PRITI AISOLA, author (See Paris for Me, Penguin-India, 2009) in DANSE MACABRE XXXIV.

In her debut novel, Nabina Das writes about an India where social divides stand taller than multistoried shopping malls. Footprints in the Bajra, inspired by what she saw while touring the interiors of Bihar as part of a travelling theatre group, inquires into why the Maoists have an influence over a large section of Indian society. Das talked to Uttara Choudhury in New York about her book, and its protagonist Muskaan -- DAILY NEWS AND ANALYSIS, Mumbai, March 28, 2010.


"The interspersion of references from both the West and India do not clash. Shakespeare and Lazarus as reference points are brought in with ease, as also Valmiki and Goddess Chhinnamasta, and nothing jars ... The language is poetic and creates visual images of beauty and ugliness side by side." -- ABHA IYENGAR, poet (Yearnings: Serene Woods, 2010) and fiction writer in MUSE INDIA, May-Jun 2010

Shwetank Dubey says Nabina Das ably recreates the milieu of Maoist-infested regions of India -- Nabina Das has chosen the first person account of narrating a story from the main characters of the novel, Nora the sheherwali (urban dweller), Muskaan the rebel, Suryakant Sahay the crafty clandestine planner and Avadhut the frontrunner of all the operations... the book deals with something that no urban resident is bound to know on his own — the life and times of people living in Maoist infested areas and why do they give in to the temptation provided by the Red Brigade. -- PIONEER newspaper, April 25, 2010.
'"If you misrepresent them, they'll abduct and kill you," says Muskaan, our hostess'... goes the first line with which Nabina Das settles everything about her novel -- style, subject and pace... Excellent plotline. Wonderful detail. A beautifully crafted book. -- Karunamay Sinha; THE STATESMAN, Sunday supplement "8th Day", May 16, 2010.

"This is bitter-sweet, if a rather longish tale of a modern-day Maoist revolution and the seeds of destruction and betrayal that lie embedded in it." -- Business World, May 17, 2010

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Vogue-India: Not à la Mode

When Queen Marie Antoinette supposedly had said, "if they don't have bread, let them eat cake," about the starving French commoners during that infamous and controversial monarchical reign, she had underestimated the power of people and also, did not think much if her 'creative' quip would backfire that horribly, costing her own life. Legend may have spun this tale into something we all want to believe.

Priya Tanna is no Marie Antoinette and although being in charge of 'creative' aspects of Vogue India is something she is serious about, she is not serious about India's poverty and the way the fashion industry shape the middle class psyche, not legend but reality. She won't be guillotined for sure, but a lot of folks would want that little head of hers to think a little more humanistically.

Fascinating really is while the Indian media, of course those channels and papers that pride themselves as "mainstream", is busy producing oodles of newsprint and tape about the Indo-US Nuclear deal deliberations in Vienna, a handful of journalists are talking about a recent photo series by the fashion magazine Vogue-India. There's even a Facebook protest group.

Since the mainstream media is still dithering, let me cut to the backstory, a report in the New York Times:(http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/01/business/worldbusiness/01vogue.html)

According to Heather Timmons, the writer, for many in India there are reasons to feel squeamish about the photos as the editorial spread seemed “not just tacky but downright distasteful” according to Kanika Gahlaut, a columnist for the daily newspaper Mail Today. She denounced it as an “example of vulgarity.” There’s nothing “fun or funny” about putting a poor person in a mud hut in clothing designed by Alexander McQueen, according to Gahlaut who spoke in a telephone interview. “There are farmer suicides here, for God’s sake” she said, referring to thousands of Indian farmers who have killed themselves in the last decade because of debt."

Priya Tanna, the editor of the fashion magazine in question, tried dismissing the notes of disapproval. “You have to remember with fashion, you can’t take it that seriously,” Ms. Tanna said. “We weren’t trying to make a political statement or save the world.”

Precisely, that's the problem. Ms. Tanna ignored the fact that in a country like India, statements, reports, photos, features, songs -- everything has a political bearing. Every crumb of bread is politically earned by a huge majority. Every slice of cake produced (I presume Ms. Tanna likes her cake) by impoverished underpaid workers translates into social and political ballot. So, to depict a poor villager who perhaps earns less than $2 a day holding a Burberry umbrella or a toothless and clearly poverty-stricken old woman cuddle an infant wearing a designer French bib is nothing but political immaturity and an unpardonable frivolous act.
Do I then say that fashion cannot and shouldn't depict the poor and the underprivileged? Why not. I love fashion, I have my own version of it and I think the established fashion houses only need employ their resources a little better to "democratize" fashion in India.

Let's back up from the pseudo-arty pretension of Vogue/Ms. Tanna and see how else fashion events can make a difference. All of us here know about the UN's recent bid to promote awareness about sanitation and the NYC event where Indian sanitation workers (mostly Dalits) walked with top models (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/7489296.stm). Naturally, the intention of that fashion event was to make the society open up its sluggish eyes (Cosmopolitan or Bloody Mary-induced) and look at folks who have barely earned any respect for a service they have been providing to a society divided so comfortably hierarchically...

Lip service? I'd rather have folks do that than turning away from realities as if they never existed. If Vogue had an iota of concern for the people they recruited (were they paid in French bibs and Burberry umbrellas?) -- perhaps a poor farmer like thousands we hear committing suicide, an old homeless woman, her ilk neglected and discarded, a baby representing millions that don't have basic care, a young girl who symbolizes gender imbalance and female foeticide -- I'd have probably looked at their campaign with sympathy in a country where it's cruel to call this photo series anything like 'art'.
Having said that, it's a pity that quite a few people still love a war, a drought, a hungry sad face... Be it fashion or news reportage or community outreach, so many book covers/magazine covers/annual reports (of NGOs too) etc. are full of sordid images meant to sell. If you ask me, one of my favorites is that famous photo of the Afghan girl (Sharbat Gula) looking with her stunned bewildered green eyes clicked by Steve McCurry. But then, here the photographer's mission statement was clear -- exposing the brutality and uselessness of war.
What is Vogue's mission in their caricature of a campaign? Just "lighten up" as Ms. Tanna said? She should probably suggest international Vogue editions to do high-fashion photo-shoots with East European war refugees, Katrina victims, rundown Chicago neighborhoods, jobless US auto workers etc., and see the reaction. Not only lighten up, she'll sober up too. If there has to be a fashion agenda making these folks the cynosure of all eyes, there better be a good reason beyond just selling magazines.
Why boycott Vogue India? They say the circulation figure is 50,000 although I doubt about the magazine's real following. Just march to Priya Tanna's office, bombard her with e-mails and phones, post blogs and messages, so she takes both fashion and poverty seriously hereafter. As a journalist I have seen worse, as an activist I don't want to see more.
My journalist friend Subir has blogged on this issue and as he mobilizes more opinions, I shall draft all that here.


anuradha said...

A well rounded post Nabina, like it!

Lets take that woman's suggestion and lighten up and imagine;
did the women in the pictures enjoy their time modeling? did it give them a break from regular maybe dreary existence?, did they enjoy chatting, being measured up, dressed up without worry of money? Will they hang on to that picture and will it bring them a smile when they look at it during bad times, are they spending plenty of delightful moments doing a show and tell with their cronies? I love their confidence and her toothless smile. Why are their names not there with the picture? I hope the vogue issue has them.

I detest pictures capturing the pain of people or animals, poor, rich, celebrities, criminals all alike.

The questions I would ask of Tanna: Did you pay your models the same amount that you paid a previous unknown but glam face in your magazine? Was this model accorded all the dues that fashion models receive during the course of a shoot? Did you pay for location charges? -her hut was being usurped as a studio, calls for payment, Yes, Yes!

When such acts are done without apparent ethical, political and social consciousness, as you rightly pointed out -a lost opportunity to highlight a cause and lead to what T, terms 'parade of the differences '. I wouldn't spend time worrying to educate them, but I would join my voice to threaten and see through court action, if any hanky-panky with regard to payment to the models has happened (which should be considerable, going by the figures you cite).

fleuve-souterrain said...

I'd really be happy if Tanna meant her work to be a means for joy to all those who 'modeled' for the show... I doubt it though. Also, given that I have first-hand experience of these types of photoshoots (although not fashion), no one really goes back to the people with the contact sheet or tapes or even post them them the magazine to see. I have a comment on your blog too!

anuradha said...

thought as much.... wonder where that kid who acted so well in Salaam Bombay is today? and every other street kid/person who gets picked and used for a project that results in a glorious career of the media person. On this note, some photographer friends of ours were pleasantly surprised when Arundathi Roy used their fantastic pictures of NBA protests for her talk, and promptly remunerated them. so i guess, there are ethical people who use the power of images for a worthy cause, while still being nice!