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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

India and Japan. Old Myth, New Dance.

Come read my new piece "India and Japan. Old Myth, New Dance." in NRI Magazine. Thank you! 

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On a month–long trip to Japan a couple of years ago, I visited the Todai–ji Buddhist temple in Nara. Aside from being the largest wooden building in the world, Todai–ji faces a telling walkway— the outer stone slabs are from India. Moving inward, the stone originates sequentially from China, Korea, and Japan, tracing Buddhism’s path. Buddha never left India. Centuries later, shortly after Columbus mistook Native Americans for “Indians,” ironically, Japanese locals confused Portuguese colonists in Goa with “Indians.”

Today, we’re been fed a steady diet of myth. Over the past few decades, no two countries have been more misperceived than India and Japan. Check India’s sparkling narrative as the “world’s fastest growing free market democracy.” The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) billed a fattening middle class as “India Shining.” On the other hand, Japan’s lethargic post–80s hangover has been dubbed “the lost decades.” But, unwieldy soundbytes and empty political calories obscure truth. And truth is strange. For example, India— yes, the Technicolor, doe–eyed, Bollywood–hip–thrusting, Gandhian–nonviolence–toting India— is the world’s largest weapons importer. A myopic, single–minded obsession with GDP has shrouded twin realities— India is not shining and Japan is not lost.

Unmistakably, India’s rise is real. It’s organic. It has pulled millions out of poverty into dignity, choice, and security. You don’t need to hear it from Tom Friedman. Listen to the Tamil buzz in a Chennai living room with my relatives. Ask the man who used to sell pani-puri on a Mumbai side street, the fisherman in Kerala, the single mother in Andhra Pradesh selling beauty products as a Hindustan Lever Shakti entrepreneur, the millionaire retailer in Chandigarh, the Delhi family getting off of a scooter and into a car, or the farmer in Madhya Pradesh selling soybeans using echoupal Internet kiosks.

But, we, enchanted by India, have been looking through rose–colored glasses. India’s rise is not patently unique. It has just overshadowed equally impressive growth among other countries in Asia that we ignore. Moreover, as Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen recently detailed, on many measures India has actually fallen behind its peers.

In the horserace with China, India has not translated economic growth to development. Belying Jupiter–sized malls and Audi adverts, India’s standard of living has actually fallen behind the rest of the world in the past two decades. According to the World Bank’s World Development Indicators 2011, only five countries outside Africa— Afghanistan, Bhutan, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, and Yemen— have a lower youth female literacy rate. Children bear the brunt. India places sixth from the bottom, above only Afghanistan, Cambodia, Haiti, Myanmar, and Pakistan, in childhood mortality. India is dead last in the entire world with its proportion of underweight children. In terms of Gross National Income (GNI) per capita, India’s company includes Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti, and Yemen.

Most surprising is what Dreze and Sen’s social report card reveals. In terms of quality of life— life expectancy, infant mortality, under–5 mortality, maternal mortality, immunization, schooling— India fell from the top of South Asia in 1990 to second to last in 2009, above only Pakistan. In industry, companies like Wipro and Infosys are expanding globally. But, India’s fabled outsourcing engine tallies less than 1% of the country’s economy and employs fewer than 0.1% of its people. Moreover, with its American English and love of NBA basketball, the Philippines has overtaken India as the hub of call centers. India’s greatest challenge isn’t China or fuel prices. It’s hubris.

On the flipside, for decades, Japan had always been held up as an economic basket case, an image of malaise, a showpiece of what not to do. But, I never understood this. Walking Roppongi, Shibuya, and Ginza in Tokyo or through Yokohama, even taking a Lost in Translation tour, I saw a buzzing economy— a cadence of busy commutes, twenty–somethings dressed to the tee, and orderly storefronts alongside an electric nightlife. Markets and restaurants brimmed. There was the urban dazzle. There were the manicured suburbs, the spotless metro stations, and the tallest buildings I’d ever seen. In Kyoto, I saw the Paris of Asia.

Last year, we all saw the grace of the Japanese. Quake and tsunami survivors huddled together, carving chopsticks out of wreckage. There’s something more— the myth of Japan’s “lost decades.” It’s true that Japan’s banking industry, stock exchange, and real estate market remain a pale shadow of what they were in 1990. But, as Eamonn Fingleton points out, look at what’s happened over the past twenty years— life expectancy rose from 78.8 to 83 years, the unemployment rate sits at 4.2%, and 81 high–rises have been built. Meanwhile Japan’s current account surplus tripled to $196 billion, even while every country around it became more competitive. On the other hand, the U.S. saw its current account deficit swell to $471 billion by 2010. Fingleton adds that Tokyo hosts more Michelin star restaurants than Paris. The Tokyo Sky Tree, the second tallest structure in the world next to Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, will host its grand opening this May.

So let’s renovate and refit old perceptions. India and Japan are prime for a new dance in the century ahead. As Devesh Kapur puts it, “There is perhaps no other pair of major world powers whose strategic interests overlap as much as they differ from each other socio-culturally as India and Japan. Japan is a capital-rich country with an ageing and declining population. India is a capital-poor country poised to reap a major demographic dividend… Indian food is as spicy as Japanese food is not.”

On a military level, Kapur points out that, in addition to India and Japan’s shared naval interests, North Korea’s Nodong and Pakistan’s Ghauri (Hatf–5) missiles are fitted with similar technology. India and Japan share a long, supportive economic past. Tata opened a branch in Kobe in 1891. Following several visits to Japan, Nobel Laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore praised the country’s aesthetic, elegance, and simplicity. He published Jaapaani Haaiku, a Bengali anthology of Japanese haiku. India gifted two elephants to the Tokyo Zoo to lift Japan’s spirits after WWII. The 30-year-old Maruti Suzuki joint venture holds 45% of India’s car market, selling more cars than any other automaker. Japan came to India’s side during its balance of payments crisis in 1991. For a quarter century, Japan has been India’s largest aid donor. Today, Masako Ono is Japan’s foremost expert on Indian dance.

But, commerce between the two countries totaled only $15 billion in 2010, one–twentieth the size of Japan’s trade with China. In addition to offering a large market, India offers Japan a reservoir of fresh, young talent and a base to export to Europe and Africa. Japan is looking to India to a bright future, investing $4.5 billion in a 920–mile industrial corridor from New Delhi to Mumbai, part of a $100 billion, 24–city industrial project. Japan will loan $1.7 billion for Mumbai–Delhi and Delhi–Howrah Dedicated Freight Corridor Projects and Delhi’s Phase–III metro expansion slated to open in 2016.

Fewer than 25,000 Indians live in Japan today, compared to the nearly 3 million in the U.S. It is unlikely that, in the short term, Japan will suddenly unlock its immigration gates. Japan has an enormous capability to reinvent itself, as it did in 1858 when it opened to the world and after World War II when it shifted from a military to an industrial powerhouse. Be prepared for it to do so again.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Campfires in Kathputli

Come read my piece "Campfires in Kathputli" in NRI Magazine. Thank you!

“We just Skyped our magician last week.” That’s what happens when you place two curious filmmakers smack dab in India’s fabled Kathputli colony. Jim Goldblum and Adam Weber aren’t your garden–variety directors. Their rich, atmospheric, and fiercely ambitious debut Tomorrow We Disappear, slated for release in mid–2012, is nothing short of a feast. I catch up with the Brooklyn duo to unpack their search for myth, chai, puppetry, wilderness, and re–imagination.

What was the spark? What inspires two Brooklynites to immerse themselves in a far–off colony in India?

Adam: Our strongest bond— our favorite book, which we discovered independently, is Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.

Jim: In it, the main character Saleem journeys to a magician’s colony and we were just so enchanted by it. We learned that the colony was sold to real estate developers and was set for bulldozing the following year. But, information was sparse. We had this thirst. We had to go there.

What’s the story behind Kathputli and why’s it so unique?

A: For centuries, itinerant artists canvassed India, recounting myths and performing for local audiences. They spread culture and were partly responsible for India’s unification. It’s why a story is the same from Kashmir to Kerala. With the spread of TV and radio, artists lost their itinerant routes along with their wanderlust. Many settled in slums scattered throughout Delhi.

J: The catalyst was designer Rajeev Sethi. He had spent years in New York and Paris working with Pierre Cardin and Charles Earnes, had been exposed to Andy Warhol’s ‘The Factory,’ and carried a Western ideal for artist collectives. Sethi saw genuine artists in Delhi’s slum dwellers and looked to forge a formal collective for traditional artists similar to those that already existed for journalists and lawyers. Kathputli (“wood puppet”) conceptualized a utopian society and hosted the “collective of lost and forgotten artists.”

What’s the film about and what do you want audiences to come away with?

A: The film broadly rests on Kathputli’s imminent destruction, but the story focuses sharply on three characters.

J: The life–force is this idea of “continuous beginnings.” We gravitated toward a bedrock notion in Hinduism— when you create something, you also destroy something. And this has shaped reality. Modernization has garnered obvious myriad benefits. But, we wanted to shine a spotlight on some of the things India has given up.

Do religious texts play into Kathputli’s stories and acts?

A: The colony is both Muslim and Hindu. While religious scripture inspires many themes, performers also draw from antiquity and royal court stories.

J: The magicians are the greatest swindlers. They quote the Bhagavad Gita or the Quran to suit their audience, invoke charity, and finally offer redemption.

What ran through your mind, what did you feel when you stepped off of the plane?

A: Brooklyn to India was not a seamless transition. It was uncharted territory and all we knew as that Kathputli was near the Shadipur metro station. After a 30–minute drive from the airport, we wandered into the slum, which was a labyrinth of shoulder–width alleyways. Kathputli is the center— an artist core with concentric circles of slums radiating outward.

J: Our first stroll was surreal. We passed a group freebasing black tar heroin. Kids clad in designer labels asked us if we liked Justin Bieber. As we snaked our way to the center, the art unfolded and we encountered acrobats and puppet carvers.

How did you fit into the community, were you swimming against the tide or did they pull out the red carpet?

J: Initially, we faced skepticism. But, we just kept showing up, met people, shared cigarettes, and made ourselves known.

A: Unlike the BBC and other journalists who swept into Kathputli before, we were there as artists who wanted to collaborate. We weren’t from an agency. We wanted to create something with them.

J: It’s easy to paint them as caricatures because they’re magicians and puppeteers. But, they’ve lived complex, incredible lives.

Tell us about the performers, what are they like, what are their stories?

A: Rahman is the main character and emblematic of Kathputli— he was born itinerantly then moved to the colony. His father was a famous magician. Rahman was born a magician. As a teenager he carved his own way, moved to the jungles, and made a living catching snakes for charmers, losing a finger in the process. But, he had an epiphany. His youngest daughter contracted typhoid and while carrying her through the forest to the hospital, he realized that his father had likely done this for him and his grandfather for his father. A sense of legacy and lineage took hold. He returned to Kathputli to become a magician.

J: Another, Maya, has been an acrobat since she was three. In Kathputli, acrobat parents often stretch their babies’ limbs to make them more flexible. When Maya was five she was struck by a drunken lorry driver and many thought she would never perform again. She worked tirelessly to regain her strength, refine her talent, and become Kathputli’s most celebrated acrobat.

A: Jim likes to tell a really emasculating story about me. Maya offered me a piece of rebar and said, “Bend this.” I tried to impress her, but didn’t get anywhere, my face turned beet red. She took the rebar, planted it on an angle, and with her neck, bent it into a U. She remade herself from a fragile, damaged girl to a beautiful, confident woman able to bend steel with her neck.

Who is the mustachioed man with the giant mask toward the end of your teaser?

A: That’s Puran Bhatt. He’s exceptionally talented and can bring life to a wood puppet with 15 strings— one for each finger, each elbow and shoulder, and neck. He won India’s version of the Academy Award for traditional arts in 2003 and has toured across Europe and in Tokyo. We met him in Chicago when he performed at the Harris Theater.

J: Puran brushes the larger existential issue of the colony. He’s well–recognized with the potential to leave the slum, but chooses to live there.

Kathputli has a rich history of artistic storytelling. Tell us about the stories.

J: A street magic show typically follows a trajectory— music to comedy to horror to rebirth. A timbre drum and a small flute will attract a small crowd, after which the actors will bob with jokes and banter— a son could poke fun at his father. The laughter draws in a larger crowd. The act then features something horrific— the father pretends to cut his son’s tongue out. With the audience locked in place, the father will offer to heal his son in exchange for money. It’s a continuous flow of rebirth.

A: The stories are earthed in tradition, mythology, and folklore, but they’re starting to change. Puran is currently writing a show about the colony and has carved a puppet in his own likeness— Kathputli is weaving itself into mythology.

Your cinematography, it’s brimming with textures, sights, sounds, colors, smells, emotions, and electricity. How did you capture all of this through the lens?

A: We bow to Will Basanta and Joshua Cogan, our photographers. For gifted cinematographers, a place hand–built by artists is a playground. It’s a natural interaction— Kathtputli is the greatest movie set ever built.

What was your most memorable adventure behind the curtain in Kathputli?

J: The wedding! We didn’t know what to wear. The lights were everywhere. Every home spilled out to the street. Fire breathers pitched the rail tracks. It was a blend of New Orleans big band, Diwali, and Chinese New Year, with lanterns, fireworks, and money being tossed in the air.

As a duo, you both finish off each other’s sentences. Why do you both work so well together?

J: We went to college together and lived together and we’re both neurotic.

A: The fact that our favorite book is Midnight’s Children says a lot about who we are and what are priorities are. We’re fascinated by magical realism.

J: I’m platonically in love with Adam.

Jim, what’s your biggest pet peeve about Adam?

J: Adam’s biggest weakness is also, strangely, one of his greatest strengths. He has the memory of a 95–year–old man. He’ll forget that we did this interview. But, this also means that Adam is incredibly present.

Adam, who is your biggest influence?

A: I came from the film world. I worked in L.A. with some great people like Quentin Tarantino on Inglourious Basterds and still collaborate with Michelle Gondry. I look up to them. When you’re making a documentary, though, you’re more inspired by the stories.

Jim, Thums Up or chai?

J: Chai! I take chai intravenously.

What’s on the horizon for you both?

J: We’re returning to Kathputli to finish up filming and hopefully roll into some international film festivals with a caravan of magicians, acrobats, and puppeteers!