Orient Express From Eastern Helsinki (and Eastern Europe) with LOVE

TRAFFIC AND OTHER CONTEMPORARY ARTS IN BENGALURU

  • Vivek Vilasini, Creation of Adam
    Vivek Vilasini, Creation of Adam
  • A piece of urban Bengaluru
    A piece of urban Bengaluru
  • Russels Market
    Russels Market
  • Nearly neighbors in Sheshadripuram
    Nearly neighbors in Sheshadripuram
  • A Bengaluru landscape seen from the metro
    A Bengaluru landscape seen from the metro

Traffic is a topic I fell deeply in love with while I writing my PhD on Venice (2009). I still keep my eyes on it. And Bengaluru (Bangalore), a city with 8 million inhabitants in Karnataka (a state in the south western region of India), which I visited October 19-23, really made a difference in this respect.

 

More than in any other city where I have been, traffic in Bengaluru looks like an art form, at the same time as it looks dangerously sporty. The city’s relatively narrow, and often only half-way finished streets host a hot-blooded maelstrom of buses, rickshaw cars, cows, dogs, cats, donkeys and people. It is visually fast and asymmetrical. The soundscape is industrial. And a strong smell of gasoline and dust dominates the olfactory landscape. To explain it back home, where the everyday is as colorful and exciting as a dairy product, I feel the need to start from allegories like Blade Runner, amusement park and beehive. And I just love it!

 

The first evening when I arrived, I felt like the man in the classical Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Man of the Crowd” (1845), who gets hypnotized by the urban crowd on a London street. I gazed at the enchanting mass event, the mortal dance of big and small motor vehicles, and it took a while before I gathered enough courage to take part in it.

 

I was happy I had reserved the hotel too late and ended up far away from the fancier streets, at Swastik Circle in Sheshadripuram, which probably made the impression stronger. As I thought that I need to start making it there by beginning with walking, I went for a two hour challenge, and survived happily all of it. Then I went to try the theme parkish ricksaw cars.

 

The drivers have distinctive driving styles, some acting more aggressively than others, some showing extraordinary talent in their use of space, but all of them being active horn users. Vehicles come so close to each other that all drivers must actually have a great deal of spatial sensitivity for the cars they drive. And, of course this is an issue everywhere, but in India one sees really clearly the presence of highbrow and lowbrow traffic, interestingly so that upper class cars are fancier but lower class vehicles and rickshaws, which look outstandingly trashy (and more charming), are used in a more improvised, creative way – so being the artistic highbrow.

 

I had arrived Sunday morning, reading a Vish Puri mystery (Tarquin Hall: The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing) and eating tasty dosas on the breakfast flight from Delhi. I was in Bengaluru for the sake of a Cumulus conference, i.e. a conference for people working in art and design schools, which was organized by the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology. But I used the first day for habituating myself to the environment, taking naps, finding a good rogue folk food restaurant (I went back to Tasty Paradise more than once) and, as a popular culture scholar should, watching Indian TV series, where the melodrama resembles South American telenovelas (a lot of banal camera zooming added on the top of the cake, without forgetting surprise visits by nasty looking gods).

 

The next day I took off to the conference site, Tata Auditorium, where I immediately received warmhearted help from the students of Srishti, who, together with the staff, formed one of the most attentive conference teams I have ever witnessed. The conference was launched with a band featuring a sitar, talks, panel discussion and classical Indian dance.

 

Ladakh-based Sonam Wangchuck gave a keynote, which I really liked. He talked about solving local issues in Northern India with down-to-earth solutions. He first broke my ice by saying that that marriage was a great invention in times when life and culture were in the need of more stability. But he also showed how a lot can be made in simple ways, e.g. how the glaciers can be recovered more effectively by using certain forms when you pump snow and ice on them (it really matters what forms you use if you want the ice to last).

 

As there was an opportunity to do some design studio visits, I headed with one group to the east. We were led by two positive and polite students, absolutely great hosts, Somya Saxena and Mangesh Ashrit. First we went to see the educational company Meghshala and then Tata Elxsi. After my rogue hotel ambient and the elegantly classical JN Tata Auditorium, where most of the days of the conference took place, entering a clean-cut site where the Indian creative class sipped their lattes was a bit of a cultural shock, but the company was in the end quite interesting. Meghshala focuses on redesigning teaching by working on apps, teachkits, feedback systems, and the like, and although my own position as a teacher is pretty much in the other end of teaching philosophy than the currently dominant ‘activate, activate’ school of pedagogy, I found it interesting to see the commercial pedagogy Meghshala worked on.

 

Then, as darkness fell upon us, we headed to the Tata Elxsi headquarters, the main site of the Indian design company, which is a part of the massive Tata group. We saw new media solutions where figures on the carpet became alive when filmed, heard that the cars the company was working on would soon have different user profiles for different drivers and that also Tata is working on robot cars (we have had robot cars driving around Aalto campus for a year now). It was also impressive to see the tricks and wizardries Tata Elxsi had been making for (American and Asian) movies.

 

I finished the day by eating so much incredibly tasty biriyani that I could not move. On TV Bollywood starts were singing and dancing in an urban landscape where there was no trash at all. I had never before understood how paradoxical this is. India’s streets are super polluted.

 

On day two my aesthetic romance with Bengaluru traffic drifted into a mild crisis as the driver could not find Srishti campus number 5, but took me to campus number 4. When I finally found number 5 (with a new taxi), I was already late. I have never before missed my own presentation, but I took it a ‘learning experience’. After a couple of cups of damn good Indian coffee the organizers anyway found a new slot for me, and I delivered my talk on rethinking activism from performative and resistance-minded to silent and impact-driven, and received a useful critical after-discussion with staff and visitors.

 

Srishti presented a broad variety of student projects on one floor, and as I think this is actually one of the best ways to see what kind of a place you are visiting, I spent time watching them and chatting with the intensive, future-oriented young people who were happy to discuss their work. I saw great short films – animation seems to be big in India – and media artworks, but the most peculiar thing that I saw was the appropriation of local crafts in the works. It seemed that students and staff traveled to far-away villages to learn from the countryside people and then produced commercialized design out from that dialogue. After two heavy years of debates on cultural stealing in the Helsinki scene I felt a bit uncomfortable and I had to remind myself about the fact that I really did not know the context, and how the interaction, respect for and the views of the ‘object’ of research had been taken care of. I hope well, but this part was not really presented. Anyway, formally speaking the design in Srishti was strong, I enjoyed nearly everything I saw, from chairs to bikes.

 

Some more graphical works left a trace. One fun piece was Sonali Kanavi’s writing machine installation, where an old school writing machine was mechanically writing by itself, making noise, in a bit of a decayed but still charming manner. Shreya Kulkarni’s hilarious Eat in Space was an upbeat comic/graphic work on how food will be done and eaten in space in the future. If I had a publishing company I’d go for this.

 

In the afternoon I escaped the program with an Uber (which here brings a lot of structure to the otherwise chaotic taxi system) to see some architecture. I had already been lucky to be able to go to temples and to see for example the High Court (Attara Kacheri), but I now headed for the Russels Market (1927). It is a hybrid of Hindu and Islamic architecture (spiced up by a semi-bold and well-mastered British colonial appropriation style), and so related to my specialization on Venice (which was partly built by Hindu builders and Arab architects). In the most lively part of the city, with all the stray dogs and cows, inside the bazar’s smells and darkness, I felt beautifully lost. Bengaluru’s biggest meat and fish market was worth seeing, smelling and hearing, and during the long ride back to Swastika Circle, where I first had felt alien, I now, for the first time started to feel comfortable. While eating red-hot chicken kebab, dali and biriyani like a hungry wolf, I got the feeling that this would be a very stimulating place to live and work.

 

On Wednesday Neelam Chhiber gave a stimulating keynote, where she hit upon the ways Tamil Nadu (a Southern State of India) women had gained jobs, first time access to banks and a new identity through using their craft skills to work for IKEA. I had to take a step back from my maybe overtly critical IKEA views as I had no reason to suspect that the Co-founder-Director of Mother Earth would be misleading me – she was positive about the cooperation – but of course the whole global system is a complicated issue, and not easily settled, as one staff member said to me. It was anyway nice to see a positive side of it. In my semi-Swedish mind IKEA has been only a demon.

 

The afternoon was mind-blowing, as I took part in the creative writing workshop organized by poet and word artist Mamta Sagar and her stunning colleagues. Their multi-lingual workshop on creative writing made it possible to have a group where people spoke different languages and conducted exercises side by side without understanding each others texts. I suppose these kind of methods easily develop when you live in a country where people talk so many different languages as they do in India. We had also local poets reciting their texts, and I wrote a poem myself, based upon one exercise, where I commented on the crows which you could all the time see in the sky of Bengaluru and the way Southern Indian people make circular movements with their head in a variety of situations. As I teach experimental (theory) writing, we decided to do a session together. A year ago I would not have gone into this, but as we had a great Skype session with Salima Hashmi on the course I had been working on with my course assistant Elham Rahmati (the head curator for it), Learning from the Middle East, and it had worked surprisingly well, I now think about Skype as a real possibility for teaching. Maybe the technology has actually also become better. So have of course the users too.

 

In the evening we went to a huge hub, where 80 000 workers spend their time daily In Ecoworld, a gated work resort, the creative class copied an American lifestyle with Irish pubs, Starbucks and even a gallery space. The latter one showed, like many upper class joints in Europe, black and white photos of the poor people of the slums. I always feel uncomfortable with this, the way of using the unprivileged as an object of the gaze, even if the intention would be to raise an experience with an ethical horizon. On the other hand I was interested to note, that this was not just a European / American tradition. Ecoworld had impressive artworks as cultural landmarks too, and the museumish gallery space in the end of the space we visited, had a lot of great Southern Asian visual art.

 

As night fell upon us Ravi Gururaj, serial entrepreneur and “serial capitalist”, gave us a so called inspirational speech (which is not really my cup of tea, but it is good to get reminded of what you like what you dislike from time to time). Then a fantastic band, Manesha Ram and his (Meghval) troupe from the Western Indian state of Rajastan played hypnotic music. This was stunning, all the traditional instruments in such a virtuosic use. Especially the sound of talking drums touches me. The evening ended again with a gastronomical nocturne of delicious food. It was my last evening in Bengaluru, and I used the time to talk to people. What I mostly felt happy about was the possibility to meet art and university workers from Bengaluru, Bombay, Uganda, Ghana and Japan, and to chat with them about their working conditions, practices and future plans. Even if Finland is never the center of what one usually hails or criticizes as the West or Europe, it still is heavily influenced by the centers of the West, and getting out from that bubble felt healthy.

 

So can one say about the food too. As the waiter asked in the hotel restaurant, “Do you eat dal in Finland,” I could not say anything else than, “I wish we would”. I feel like I would have had an inner spa purifying me, and I hope more good chefs would arrive from India to help us to develop our cuisine. (When the same waiter then said, “Sir, you look like someone who likes Manchurian food,” I fell speechless. I hope this was something positive.)

 

And Srishti, the art college I visited? I would recommend it for any student who is interested in doing exchange. An impressive site with a witty and professional staff, in an energetic city. May this blog be a letter for the future, for travelers, artist and scholars who think about settling down there. Why not? (Letters for the Future was the title of the conference.)

 

This travel really showed what a crazy mix of new media and tech booms the city is, at the same time as archaic culture is present in the form of old temples and primitive lifestyles. And, everywhere where you have an art university you of course have a scene. I saw a lot of great street art and walked in to every gallerish space I found. When the taxi took me to the airport Thursday morning, I noticed again the long co-produced paintings on a series of long walls on the way to the airport, which I had already forgotten since my arrival. That’s the way to treat an art tourist!

 

As I sat in the plane on my way to Bombay, there was only one question, which kept haunting me, as I saw the state of Karnataka become a miniature landscape filled with small lakes, mountains and fields. Why did middle class Westerners come to India to search for themselves? I did not see many of them in Bengaluru, just a couple of moderate non pot users with sandals and scarfs, but the whole cultural formation is somewhat perplexing. What the heck was all that about? I recalled Antonio Tabucchi’s Notturno indiano (Indian Nocturne, 1984), where the protagonist searches for his friend, but in the end finds accidentally himself, and now I kind of got a deeper understanding of the warm ironical character of the text. I felt happy about not having found myself and not even wanting to. When I watched a middle aged hippiesque woman on the street smiling to locals in an uncanny way, I couldn’t but think that it had to be some kind of an exotist disease. I was happy about not even wanting to find myself. For me it was enough to fill my stomach in the evening. And the culinary nocturnes played by the local chefs were just too good to be true.

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