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20 JUNE, 2014

The London Jungle Book: What an Indian Tribal Artist Can Teach Us About Rediscovering Our Capacity for Everyday Wonder

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A humbling perspective to jolt us into appreciating all the mundane miracles of travel and city life that we’ve come to take for granted.

Something happened to us between Shackleton’s day in the Golden Age of Exploration and today — something that transformed us from wide-eyed wanderers who came to know distant lands with a sense of wonder and awe into the habitually crabby, short-tempered, entitled travelers we are today. We tap our feet impatiently at the airport security line, oblivious to the miracle we’re about to experience — a giant beast of our own creation is to take us high into the sky (where we can enjoy food and Academy-Award-winning cinema) and to a distant, often foreign land. A mere century ago, the vast majority of people never traveled more than fifty miles from their place of birth in their lifetime — and yet here we are today, jaded and irritable at the prospect of travel. How did we end up that way? And what if we arrogant moderns could, if only for a moment, strip ourselves of our cultural baggage and experience travel afresh, with eager new eyes and exuberant joy for the journey?

That’s precisely what award-winning artist Bhajju Shyam, working in the Gond tradition of Indian folk art, does in The London Jungle Book (public library) — an extraordinary and invigorating book from Indian independent publisher Tara Books, who continue to give international voice to marginalized art and literature through their commune of artists, writers and designers collaborating on unusual, often handmade books. Titled as both an homage and a mirror-image counterpoint to Rudyard Kipling’s iconic The Jungle Book, this gem tells the story of young Bhajju’s reality-warping encounter with London, where he journeyed from his native India.

At once a highly symbolic, almost semiotic visual travelogue and a work of remarkable philosophical sensitivity, the book invites us to see our tiresomely familiar world through the eyes of a young man who has a creative intelligence few adults are endowed with and a childlike capacity for wonder and metaphorical imagery. The busy King’s Cross station of the London Tube becomes a serpentine King of the Underworld, Big Ben a giant omniscient rooster, and London’s female workforce — women who seem to Shyam to do most of the work “and happily” — multi-handed goddesses.

Shyam’s creative journey is just as winding and miraculous as his voyage to London, and the two are inextricably intertwined. During his early teens, his mother used to paint the walls of their home — the Gond tradition began on walls — and asked him to help by painting the parts she couldn’t reach. The family was poor and though his parents tried to send their three kids to school, they didn’t have the means for completing even a basic education. As Shyam recounts with wistful humor, “One of us would have books, the other would have a uniform, and the third would have a bag. If we were all one child, we would have made it through.”

In 1988, at the age of sixteen, young Bhajju left his small village in the forests of Central India and went to the city of Bhopal looking for work. He got a job as a night watchman, until his uncle — who happened to be the prominent Gond artist Jangarh Singh Shyam — offered him an apprenticeship. Initially, the work was rather menial — filling out patterns in his uncle’s large canvases — but the boy’s talent quickly became apparent. With his uncle’s encouragement to strike out on his own, Shyam spent the next ten years honing his craft and slowly began to gain recognition. His work was eventually included in a significant 1998 exhibition of indigenous art in Paris.

A few years later, he received an invitation from the acclaimed London-based Indian designer Rajeev Sethi, who had come to know and love Shyam’s work, to travel to the European metropolis and paint murals on the walls of an upscale Indian restaurant alongside another Gond artist, Ram Singh Urvethi — the talent behind Tara’s magnificent I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail and The Night Life of Trees.

Shyam took the opportunity. As he observes in the book, with his signature penchant for the intersection of the humble and the profound, “An artist goes where there is work.” The two months he spent in London became his real-life version of Alice in Wonderland as he found himself in a world that made little sense compared to his familiar reality, yet enchanted him with its wonders and invited him to mediate, as MoMA curator Juliet Kinchin once insightfully defined the essence of childhood, between the ideal and the real.

As he sets out for the journey, he describes a beautifully relatable, ineffable feeling that even the most travel-jaded of us experience:

I started to feel something strange. It’s a feeling I call 50-50. Half-and-half… The mixture of pleasure and pain you feel when you leave home and set out to travel to an unknown place.

Having never flown on, or even seen, an airplane, nor traveled underground on the subway, Shyam, who doesn’t speak English, brings to these exhilarating new experiences the only language of interpretation he knows — that of symbolism, deeply embedded in the Gond style, which is unconcerned with realism and narrative sequence but rather focuses on representing “what is in the mind’s eye.” Gond art is a form of prayer, using its intricate lines, geometric patterns and symbolic vocabulary to connect the human experience with the cosmos. It’s almost beside the point, then, to note that Gond art evolved not as a commercial commodity but as a community’s private celebration.

What makes Shyam especially endearing as we follow him on the journey is that, unlike the typical Western traveler, he takes special care not to offend others, while exerting no egotistical effort to impress whatsoever. For him, the guiding spirits of travel are those of humility, openness and vulnerability, not those of arrogance and entitlement.

Once Shyam boards the airplane and begins to admire the miraculous machinery of this flying beast — which he depicts as an elephant, the heaviest animal he knows, because “a plane taking off is as much of a miracle as an elephant flying” — he is gripped with a sudden sense of unease underneath his excitement. Touching into it, he finds the intuitive sense that his world is being turned upside-down, literally:

I have always looked up to see the clouds above me, and now I had to look down to see them. The world was upside-down!

Having battled the bureaucracies of immigration my whole life — a soul-draining experience of being perpetually reminded that you’re a foreigner, a stranger in your own home — I was particularly taken with Shyam’s account of arriving in London. In a chapter titled “Becoming a Foreigner,” he writes:

It was only when we landed that I realized how different it was from India. The officials were friendly, everyone stood in neat lines and even though there were so many people around, it was quiet. Almost like someone had ordered everyone not to speak loudly. And most importantly, the sounds I heard coming from the people around me didn’t mean anything to me.

Everyone was a foreigner — all kinds of skin colors and all kinds of hair. I had seen foreigners before — some of them had visited my village to look at our paintings, but now I realized that something strange had happened. My color was different, my language was taken away from me… I myself had become a foreigner!

After accidentally calling his uncle in the middle of the night, unaware of the time difference between London and Delhi, Shyam visits Big Ben on a tour of London and once again captures the cultural differences in his symbolic drawings:

I saw Big Ben, and I thought: so this is their temple of time. It’s beautiful, and carefully built because they are very careful about time here. If you are five minutes early for an appointment, they will tell you to wait because you are early. If you are five minutes late, they will tell you that you are late. Everyone checks their watches all the time.

I have a watch too, but my symbol of time is still the Gond one — a rooster. It wakes you up at sunrise. Then the day follows its course, and the next event that marks the passage of time is the sun going down.

He marvels at the London Underground:

Who thought this up — to burrow underground because there is no more space in the world above? It was one of the most wonderful things I saw in London, and one that I will never forget — this idea of snuggling your way through the earth.

In restaurants, he finds himself overwhelmed by the variety of dishes and the unrecognizable ingredients of his food, especially the meat:

You couldn’t tell what it was just by looking at it. Sometimes it was in a tube, or in discs, or in long strips, like paper…

In this drawing, he depicts himself as an octopus, “a greedy customer with noodles for arms, eating everything on the menu.” Never sure of what animal became the meat he ate, he draws a menagerie of possible creatures, numbering their bellies to reflect the menu number the dish he imagines came from the respective creature. The fork and knife are tucked neatly to the side, almost an afterthought to the drawing. Shyam explains the symbolism:

I have put in the fork and the knife because they are strange implements to me, tools that I would never associate with food. But to the people of London, they are the symbols for food.

While most of his observations brim with innocence and joyful sincerity, some expose the heartbreaking realities of global income inequality, even if he records them with his inescapable optimism. In a section on work, he writes:

What I liked about the system in London was that working people had dignity, no matter what their job was. Even a man who cleared rubbish bins had a nice uniform, and boots. Workers on construction sites were big and healthy and had electric tools. Just from looking at the people, I couldn’t tell who was rich and who was poor.

Obviously there are poor people in London too, but they are not as poor as the poor in India… The main difference is this: anyone who has work in London is alright. But in India, you can work all day and still be hungry.

In addition to the gorgeous art and pause-giving perspective, the book has a layer of historical poignancy: A century earlier, Shyam’s tribe had been studied by the pioneering British anthropologist Verrier Elwin, who married a Gond woman, lived with the community, and wrote several books about the tribe. Shyam’s grandfather had been Elwin’s servant, so the boy had grown up with the writer’s stories. To deepen the synchronicity even further, Elwin had written in the preface to one of his books on the Gonds that he considered it a counterpart to Kipling’s Jungle Book. How beautiful, then, that Shyam got to return not only Kipling’s cultural volley but also to become an anthropologist in Elwin’s world a century later. As the project was coming to fruition, he told Tara Books founder Gita Wolf:

Elwin sahib wrote about my tribe, now it is my turn to write about his!

The London Jungle Book is immeasurably wonderful and layered in its entirety. Complement it with a few more of Tara Books’ treasures: Waterlife, Drawing from the City, Alone in the Forest, and The Night Life of Trees.

Artwork courtesy of Tara Books

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19 JUNE, 2014

Legendary Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on Why the Capacity for Boredom Is Essential for a Full Life

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“Boredom … protects the individual, makes tolerable for him the impossible experience of waiting for something without knowing what it could be.”

When was the last time you were bored — truly bored — and didn’t instantly spring to fill your psychic emptiness by checking Facebook or Twitter or Instagram? The last time you stood in line at the store or the boarding gate or the theater and didn’t reach for your smartphone seeking deliverance from the dreary prospect of forced idleness? A century and a half ago, Kierkegaard argued that this impulse to escape the present by keeping ourselves busy is our greatest source of unhappiness. A century later, Susan Sontag wrote in her diary about the creative purpose of boredom. And yet ours is a culture that equates boredom with the opposite of creativity and goes to great lengths to offer us escape routes.

Children have a way of asking deceptively simple yet existentially profound questions. Among them, argues the celebrated British psychoanalytical writer Adam Phillips, is “What shall we do now?” In an essay “On Being Bored,” found in his altogether spectacular 1993 collection On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life (public library), Phillips writes:

Every adult remembers, among many other things, the great ennui of childhood, and every child’s life is punctuated by spells of boredom: that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Phillips, of course, is writing more than two decades before the modern internet had given us the ubiquitous “social web” that envelops culture today. This lends his insights a new layer of poignancy as we consider the capacity for boredom — not only in children, though especially in children, but also in adults — amidst our present age of constant access to and unmediated influx of external stimulation. This is particularly pause-giving considering the developmental function of boredom in shaping our psychological constitution and the way we learn to pay attention to the world — or not. Phillips writes:

Boredom is actually a precarious process in which the child is, as it were, both waiting for something and looking for something, in which hope is being secretly negotiated; and in this sense boredom is akin to free-floating attention. In the muffled, sometimes irritable confusion of boredom the child is reaching to a recurrent sense of emptiness out of which his real desire can crystallize… The capacity to be bored can be a developmental achievement for the child.

Because of how profoundly our early experiences shape our psychoemotional patterns, it’s inescapable to contemplate how this translates into our adult capacities. How easily and uncomfortably the phrase “modern adult” can replace every mention of the child in the following passage from Phillips’s essay:

Experiencing a frustrating pause in his usually mobile attention and absorption, the bored child quickly becomes preoccupied by his lack of preoccupation. Not exactly waiting for someone else, he is, as it were, waiting for himself. Neither hopeless nor expectant, neither intent nor resigned, the child is in a dull helplessness of possibility and dismay. In simple terms the child always has two concurrent, overlapping projects: the project of self-sufficiency in which use of, and need for, the other is interpreted, by the child, as a concession; and a project of mutuality that owns up to a dependence. In the banal crisis of boredom, the conflict between the two projects is once again renewed.

It is unsurprising then, Phillips notes, that the child’s boredom evokes in adults a reprimand, a sense of disappointment, an accusation of failure — that is, provided boredom is even agreed to or acknowledged in the first place. In a certain sense, we treat boredom like we treat childishness itself — as something to be overcome and grown out of, rather than simply as a different mode of being, an essential one at that. Phillips adds:

How often, in fact, the child’s boredom is met by that most perplexing form of disapproval, the adult’s wish to distract him — as though the adults have decided that the child’s life must be, or be seen to be, endlessly interesting. It is one of the most oppressive demands of adults that the child should be interested, rather than take time to find what interests him. Boredom is integral to the process of taking one’s time.

That, perhaps, is what Cheryl Strayed alluded to so beautifully nearly twenty years later, when she wrote that “the useless days will add up to something [because] these things are your becoming.”

Illustration by D.B. Johnson from 'Henry Hikes to Fitchburg,' a children's book about Thoreau's philosophy. Click image for more.

Phillips goes on to consider more directly the evolution of boredom from childhood into adulthood:

As adults boredom returns us to the scene of inquiry, to the poverty of our curiosity, and the simple question, What does one want to do with one’s time? What is a brief malaise for the child becomes for the adult a kind of muted risk. After all, who can wait for nothing?

[…]

We can think of boredom as a defense against waiting, which is, at one remove, an acknowledgement of the possibility of desire… In boredom, we can also say, there are two assumptions, two impossible options: there is something I desire, and there is nothing I desire. But which of the two assumptions, or beliefs, is disavowed is always ambiguous, and this ambiguity accounts, I think, for the curious paralysis of boredom… In boredom there is the lure of a possible object of desire, and the lure of the escape from desire, of its meaninglessness.

[…]

Boredom, I think, protects the individual, makes tolerable for him the impossible experience of waiting for something without knowing what it could be. So that the paradox of the waiting that goes on in boredom is that the individual does not know what he was waiting for until he finds it, and that often he does not know what he is waiting… Clearly, we should speak not of boredom, but of boredoms, because the notion itself includes a multiplicity of moods and feelings that resist analysis; and this, we can say, is integral to the function of boredom as a kind of blank condensation of psychic life.

Lamenting that we tend to treat boredom as a handicap and to deny it as an opportunity, Phillips cites the story of “a precociously articulate eleven-year-old boy” who was once a patient of his, brought in by a mother who believed her son was “more miserable than he realized,” in large part due to his “misleading self-representation.” Phillips found that this superficial self, which the boy donned as a shield for disapproval, was largely tied to the experience of boredom. Once again, Phillips offers a passage all too intimately applicable to the modern human condition beyond just childhood:

[The boy] was mostly in a state of what I can only describe as blank exuberance about how full his life was. As he was terrified of his own self-doubt, I asked him very few questions, and they were always tactful. But at one point, more direct than I intended to be, I asked him if he was ever bored. He was surprised by the question and replied with a gloominess I hadn’t seen before in this relentlessly cheerful child, “I’m not allowed to be bored.” I asked him what would happen if he allowed himself to be bored, and he paused for the first time, I think, in the treatment, and said, “I wouldn’t know what I was looking forward to, ” and was, momentarily, quite panic-stricken by this thought.

Phillips directed the treatment toward the boy’s “false self” and his belief that being good, by the token of his mother’s approval, meant having lots of interests that didn’t leave room for the vice of boredom. Over the course of the following year, Phillips helped the boy develop his capacity to be bored. He recounts:

I once suggested to him that being good was a way of stopping people knowing him, to which he agreed but added, “When I’m bored I don’t know myself.”

Illustration by from 'The Hole' by Øyvind Torseter. Click image for more.

This, I think, is how we as grownups in the modern world often go through life. Our version of being good is being productive. Choosing constant distraction or busyness — two sides of the same coin — we seek to avoid not boredom and passivity, but end up robbing ourselves of presence, because presence presupposed a detachment from what we look forward to, what is to come, and a mindful groundedness in what is.

This is the cultural pathology of our time: If we stopped doing what we do, we might not know who we are. As I’ve reflected before, to cultivate the art of presence in the age of productivity is no easy feat.

On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored is a beautiful and psyche-stretching read in its entirety. Complement it with this cultural history of boredom, then revisit Phillips’s fantastic conversation with Paul Holdengräber on why psychoanalysis is like literature for the soul.

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19 JUNE, 2014

The Invisibles: Moving Vintage Photos of LGBT Couples in the Early 20th Century

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Archival images — sometimes poignant, sometimes playful, invariably tender — of gay and lesbian couples privately celebrating their love in an era that denied it.

Any form of excess can usually be traced to the seed of a basic human longing. Before photography turned into excessive “aesthetic consumerism,” long prior to the narcissistic golden age of the selfie, it was a miraculous medium that granted one simple, fundamental human wish — the desire to be seen and, in the act of seeing, to be understood. Perhaps that is why photography, in its dawning decades, had a particularly poignant role for individuals and groups who were largely invisible to society. It was the role photography played for the LGBT community between the time of the medium’s invention and the first-ever Pride parades as it came to document, and validate by making visible, the love of queer couples — love reserved not only for such famous lovers as Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Oscar Wilde and Sir Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, and Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, but also experienced by a great many ordinary men and women alike.

That’s precisely what French screenwriter and director Sébastien Lifshitz explores in The Invisibles: Vintage Portraits of Love and Pride (public library), a remarkable collection of archival photographs — sometimes poignant, sometimes playful, invariably tender — of gay and lesbian couples privately celebrating their love in the early twentieth century. Each couple, Diane Ackerman wrote in her sublime natural history of love, gets to redefine love, and these are some humble and humbling, beautifully human, immeasurably yet quietly courageous redefinitions

For Lifshitz, the project began somewhat serendipitously: As a longtime collector of vintage amateur photos, he chanced upon a photo album that belonged to two elderly women, “very bourgeois, very ‘old France.’” It didn’t take him long to realize that they were in a lifelong lesbian relationship. He found himself fascinated by such family albums by openly gay couples and was surprised by the freedom and happiness they exhibited in those photos, despite living in eras of extreme social intolerance toward LGBT people. Looking back over the first half of the twentieth century, Lifshitz set out to interview gay women and men born between the two World Wars, seeking to understand what life was like for them — people like the great Edith Windsor, who belongs to that generation and has done for marriage equality more than any other individual in history.

The book is a companion to Lifshitz’s 2012 film, Les Invisibles.

This touching trailer offers a taste:

Complement The Invisibles with history’s most moving LGBT love letters and Edie Windsor on what equality really means.

HT MetaFilter

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