“Falling Star”

My mother in law asks me if the exhibition that I am about to go to contains paintings and when I say no, I don’t think so, she wants to know what then? Well, I tell her, Monali Meher is a performance artist, and with growing curiosity, I go to see ‘Falling Star’.

The ‘performances’ are to be experienced through a period of fifteen years in this solo exhibition in several rooms of the Claeys-Bouüaert castle in Ghent, Belgium, and include photos, wrapped objects, videos and drawings but do not remotely cover her entire oeuvre, which is much more exhaustive.

I stand before a video performance in which just her midriff is recorded, covered in a blue silk saree, her hands wrapping a knife in red wool. Observing the repetitive movement of the hands winding, winding, winding, one falls into a state of meditation, just as perhaps the artist did, while breathing in and breathing out.

This video work is entitled ‘Breathing’.

‘Wrapped Feet’ – 2013
‘Portrait of Ancestors’ – 2019

And breathing in and breathing out wordlessly is also what one observes people do in another video, recorded in Beijing. Visitors came to view her performance called ‘Old Fashioned’ in a room full of potatoes and are now a part of the performance space and the recording of it. The artist is seen standing in a corner of the frame peeling potatoes.  The visitors have become participants in the peeling process, each finding an empty spot amongst the heaps of potatoes which have the words ‘anger’, ‘hate’, ‘crime’, violence’ ‘racism’, ‘war’ painted on them in black. They squat on the floor. They scrape and scrape the potatoes and the words as well, wordlessly, breathing in and out just as I, the viewer do, joining them in their meditative state.

Artist/performer, viewer/performer and viewer/observer now merge, as the space between us collapses and time as well. As geographies cease to matter, and all the rest of that which apparently separates us.

And then the image of soundless scraping of potatoes stops. The artist is seen boiling the potatoes and serving them to visitors.

Somewhere in a room nearby there are heaps of potato peels with words torn through and through – discarded letters – r and a, and s and h and e, and t and g, and m and n. Words than once rang of violence, now just scraps on a floor.

And before our eyes on the video screen, men and women and children eat the potatoes with a dash of sauce in full enjoyment somewhere in Beijing.

‘Spirit House for Brightened Body’ – 2015

‘Hunt Hope’ – 2013

Link to Monali Meher’s website


‘Old Fashioned’

‘Speakability’ – Dutch style

A few seconds after I have been overtaken by a lady wearing impressive goggles, a memory of a couple of years ago drifts through my head. I had stopped in front of a jet of water gushing out of the swimming pool wall to get a back and neck massage as I sometimes do at the end of a few laps. A lady in swimsuit, standing beside me in the pool remarked in Dutch, ‘ I noticed that your legs aren’t deep enough in the water while you swim. So you don’t have much power in your strokes’. Then she looked me up and down and continued: ‘you’re younger than me and should be swimming much faster’. ‘Oh’, I replied. ‘Thanks for the tip. I’ll keep it in mind.’ And I did. Another time, I kept adjusting my goggles because I couldn’t get them to block out water and a man who was  watching me offered some advice as well as a demonstration of how I could do it so that the goggles would act like the seal they were meant to be. He was very friendly and I thanked him. If I had seen these people before I don’t remember, and I don’t believe I have seen them since (blame the goggles).

I remembered this because I have seldom had such conversations with strangers in other parts of the world. My co-swimmers mean well and want to help. Many people I know who are born and brought up in the Netherlands have a combination of one or more of these traits:

eerlijkheid (honesty or directness) + wereld verbeteraar (do gooder) + zelf verzekerd (self-confidence)

So I see the remark from the lady as ‘free feedback’ on my lack of swimming prowess, and the instruction about getting the goggles on properly as a genuine desire to save me the struggle. ‘It helps if you wet them first’, he said. ‘Then pin the centre on the bridge of your nose with a forefinger while using the other hand to stretch the rubber band over your head and to fix the glasses in place’. ‘Thank you’, I said.

I think that the success of this very tiny place on the world map makes a lot of Dutch people feel like things get done well around here and that they’d like to share their knowledge and ideas with all concerned, which sometimes comes across as a zeal for unasked advice. To add to that, the much applauded  ‘speakability’ – or conditions under which anything can be talked about like – ‘how children are made’ with under five year olds, and a remarkable talent for getting to the point without much ado for which the Dutch are famous, and you have these conversations happening to you on a regular basis.

They aren’t the same as ‘can I help? ’ and also not the same as ‘this is how you should do it’, but somewhere in between. You get used to it, as I did, and then you smile and thank folks for their special brand of ‘speakability’.

I found my India in Amsterdam

It’s as if those feet that I bought in a shop in Amsterdam walked me into the museum quite spontaneously. I bought them because somewhere in the various layers of my brain, I knew they had some spiritual significance. I placed them on my altar at home, which consists of a motley collection of holy deities, symbols and figures from across the world.

In faraway India, the elections of 2019 were entering their fifth phase and almost everyone who has anything to do with Indian soil is forced to reckon with what makes or doesn’t make them Hindu. The elections began on April 11th and end today, on the 19th of May. Enough time to show their more Trumpian than Trump side. The hate speeches have grown more brazen as have ‘alternative facts’. Whats App, Twitter and Facebook are full of election ‘news’. Most mainstream media and many institutions favour the ruling BJP – a ‘Hindutva’ party. The recipe is to win a second term by stoking hate and fear in order to distract from the real problems of the day: the highest rate of unemployment in forty-five years, a tax levied under the present government that many find a bridge too far, farmer distress, rising inequality. Instead, ‘Hindus’ (not in my name) are ‘uniting’ to fight the ‘outsider’ who, (surprise, surprise) is the Muslim. An old, old trick of democracies at election-time. If there isn’t an enemy, find one to rally the forces. In present day India it is Islam. Without Islamophobia, this government wouldn’t get a second term. But I digress.

The feet that walked me into the museum on a day when I wasn’t planning to miraculously reappeared in a vitrine as a part of an exhibition called “What do you believe in?” And I learnt more about the feet and why my brain guided me to buy them many years ago, and a few other things.

This is how the feet in the vitrine are presented to the viewer: “The relief depicts the feet on an Indian holy man who lived in the fourteenth century. Hindus worship him as Ramdevji or Ramdeoji, while Muslims venerate him as Ramapir or Ramshah Pir. Once a year, on his birth date, Hindus and Muslims join together at his temple to celebrate his attainment of the highest state of enlightenment”.

Then there was a picture like many hundreds that I saw growing up in India and this is how it was described: “In south India, where next to a Hindu majority also live Christians and Muslims, posters such as this are put up. They stand for religious tolerance. From left to right: The Hindu god Ganesha, Jesus Christ and the Islamic sanctuaries of Mecca and Medina.

A picture in the same vitrine as the feet

A god on a horse

And I saw a god on horseback who is described thus:
“the Hindu God Khandoba was originally a rural deity of the forests and meadows, typically worshipped by herders….. Khandoba is a god for everyone regardless of caste or religion, and is venerated by Muslims, Hindus and Jains.

Also in this vitrine with it’s various figures, objects and deities, there was one of a parade, and these are the words on the museum wall to explain it: “this parade standard is adorned with Shia symbols, such as the hare, the lion and the mausoleum in the centre. But the mysterious female figures on either side of the building are more typical of Hindu art. They could be dancers like those frequently depicted on the facades of Hindu temples”.

So feet, thank you for walking me into the museum.

What do I believe in?

I believe in the India that rests on my altar and the one that I found in Amsterdam.

Vitrine of exhibits for “What do you believe in?” in the Tropen Museum, Amsterdam

All that’s spice can’t be nice

‘It gets especially out of hand in the evenings when at 10 pm at night, a bus arrives on the street and twenty people stand outside it, including children talking and laughing loudly carrying bags of rice. It’s not New Delhi on the Amstel’! For a (Dutch) resident of Westwijk in Amstelveen, this strange behaviour on the part of their Indian neighbours adds up to a form of harassment. The detail of ‘rice-carrying’ in the complaint especially catches my attention. It’s almost as if the complainant has already begun to smell what’s coming.

A distressed Amstelveense Indian resident in turn writes to ‘Shallowman of Amsterdam’ (good to know that agony uncles exist alongside agony aunts) asking for help against his Dutch neighbour who cannot bear the smell of (his) home food.

‘We moved to an apartment in Amstelveen and unfortunately got an old Dutch lady as our neighbor. She has trouble with people coming from other countries and staying over here. Hence, at minimum chance, she keeps on writing abusive letters about how “nasty and disturbing” our native (Indian) cooking smell is, and asks us to “leave her land”. Every time she sees us, she starts shouting abusive words. Even the other neighbours living in this apartment find her letters abusive and discriminatory, but she never stops. My wife and me are really tired of bearing this abuse and disturbance every alternate day. If you know any good legal service or complaint cell who can resolve this once and for all, that would be really helpful’!

And this ‘old Dutch lady’ is not the only one getting abusive. Complaints of the smell of spice, which lingers on in corridors is making some (otherwise) nice Dutch people feel not so nice. And they want an end to those busloads with their bags of rice!

It appears that in the land of the blowing wind there’s no fresh solution to this rather peculiar phenomenon. But who was it that recently told me of Mr. Daan Rosegaarde (of Dutch origin) who has designed a vacuum cleaner to suck the smog out of Peking? Maybe there’s a job awaiting him back home in Amstelveen.

Because ahem, looks like those rice-carrying folks are only increasing in number. Because ahem, we, in the Netherlands need these ‘knowledge migrants’ to work in ICT, Financial and other such-like industries on the border between Amsterdam and Amstelveen. Lekker goedkoop.

And they have their rice and eat it too.

  1. Links: ‘We live in Amstelveen and not India on the Amstel’

2. Link to ‘Shallowman in Amsterdam’ site


‘We came from far’

My friend Sara commented ‘I feel like I’m on holiday’ as we walked through the city centre. She had travelled from Olst, near Deventer to Breda, and I from Oegstgeest. She’d never been to Breda and I once before.’ But you’ve lived your whole life in the Netherlands!’ I said. To which she and her partner Joek gently reminded me that there are places in the Netherlands that they are still discovering (obviously, I thought in response). I, after almost twenty years of living on Dutch soil still cannot wrap my head around to the Netherlands as a place with undiscovered parts. After all, you can get from one end to another in a matter of a few hours. It sometimes took me longer to get to my workplace within the city of Mumbai than it took to get to Breda from Oegstgeest. And this on a day when the trains did not ride out of Leiden Station and I had to take two busses and then one train to make the journey. Such experiences make for perspectives that apparently cling despite years and thousands of kilometres of distance.

‘We came from far’.

To see a film with this title.

It was a documentary made by filmmaker Bob Entrop who greeted us at the door. On Saturday the 6th of April, Oeder drom (original title of the film) premiered at Filmhuis Breda. The smell of curry filled the theatre space and Bob was dressed in fine silk. Beyond him, ladies in sarees and glittering gharaaras, with bindis, bejewelled, hair down to the waist or put up in a bun flitted around gracefully. And blue-eyed gents in kurtas passed by. And a sense of mismatch as the senses took in the information – spoken Dutch, visions from afar and appetite awakening to comfort food. On a spring day in the city centre of Breda. First the film, then the feast.

No, Oedoer drom is no Indian language and it’s also not Dutch, but the language of the Sinti, otherwise known as gypsies. The film follows a group of them who visit Rajasthan, in search of their roots. Conversations between Rajasthanis and the Sinti reveal that the words for different parts of the face – kaan, naak, jeeb, moo are the same in Hindi as in the Sinti language. This fact, and the connection the Sinti make to parallel views on family bonds and respect for elders convince them that they came ‘from far’ – from India to the Netherlands hundreds of years ago.

‘The whole street is like caravan’ remarks Kleine as he gestures around him in Jodhpur. ‘They, like us, seek proximity, like to cluster and feel cozy together’. Other common ground they find is the connection to music and dance, to horses, to flowing skirts and colourful scarves and last but not least, matching physical features, the colour of hair and skin.

Indeed, some of the Sinti I see before me do certainly look like they could be my family!

‘We came from far’.

Trailer of ‘Oedoer Drom’

Article from the Guardian on Latcho Drom another documentary on the subject


Article on dance form from Rajasthan


Article on gypsy identity and connection to Rajasthan