Monday, February 20, 2017


It was 1985 and I was in Paris. The first programme for the day was a visit to the Picasso Museum - Musée Picasso. Hôtel Salé - Salty. (Here is why it is called so) I don't remember its opening hours exactly. But, let us say 9:30 in the morning. I decided to go to the museum area a little early and look around. See the building from outside too. I reached the place at 9.

I was expecting a deserted place. I was so surprised when I saw that a long loose queue had already formed at the ticket counter! After all, the only musea I had seen till then were Jaganmohan Palace in Mysore, Visvesvaraya museum and the Government museum, Bangalore. Except on weekends and when tourist buses had arrived, they were very much deserted. Hence the surprise.

Whenever I had read about the public outcry caused by the paintings exhibited by rebel painters who had organised an exhibition parallel to the Paris Salon, I had always wondered why the general public would get so perturbed by art. Those painters were called les Fauves - French for "the wild beasts". The style or philosophy behind their paintings was called Fauvism for quite some time and are now called Impressionism. Those painters are now considered masters and trendsetters, is a different matter.

The queue half an hour before opening time gave me an idea, of sorts, of what art may mean to the general public.

Art Abroad V

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Balzac Park Figure

In Eindhoven, my teammates and I returned every evening from Philips HiTech Campus by bus where we underwent training. We were using the same bus and route for weeks. However, one day something hidden behind the foliage of a park caught my eye. Perhaps fall was setting in and some trees had already shed some leaves, making what lay beyond them a little more visible. I told my friend and fellow commuter, Eric, that we would get off the bus a few stops before our usual one and explore what I had seen.

We got off and found the gate to the park and walked in. What I had thought I had seen was indeed that! Rodin’s statue of Honoré de Balzac – made for the memorial for Balzac. I was intrigued since I had thought it stood somewhere in Paris.

An internet search revealed that this was a copy, cast from the mould from which the original was cast!  This one normally stood in front of the van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven. Since the museum was under extensive renovation, the statue had been temporarily moved across the street into this park.

Ah! Mystery solved.

Art Abroad IV

Friday, February 10, 2017

Making Friends, with Modigliani

In Eindhoven, five colleagues of mine and I underwent training in the art and science of novelty searching.  Every patent is classified under the International Patent Classification system. You can imagine it to be similar to the bibliographic classification of books in a library. Each patent has one or more classification codes assigned to it and also has a unique patent number. When we use the classification codes to search for patents, the number of ‘hits’ is small and all are connected with a narrow field or a specific subject. So we had to learn how to classify an invention based on the description provided by the inventor and use that to search for patents which is closest to the invention on hand.

We were taught, in a classroom setting, by an expert in patent classification, Wim Krijnen. And what an expert he was! He was an elderly gentleman on the verge of retirement. He had old world mannerisms and very precise in his manners and speech. He reminded me of Mr. Chips of Goodbye Mr. Chips. He almost had the whole classification book in his head!

Just to give an example, a colleague described an “alleged” invention to him and sought his help to arrive at a classification. When posed with the question, he stood with his feet slightly apart, arms crossed and slowly rubbing his nose, with his elbow resting on the other hand. “I am a chemistry man. I am not very familiar with the electrical sciences. So, I may not be accurate. Let us see. Electrical sciences is. of course, H. Electronic circuitry is 03. The invention is about a pulse technique and that makes it H03K. And the invention is about switching and gating and that makes it H03K 17/00. And it has an element of delaying the pulses and hence it could be H03K 17/26 or H03K 17/28. He then proceeded to get the code from the internet and it turned out to be correct.*

Once, someone asked him a question and he asked us to go to his room so that he can show the relevant documents. When we went there, the first thing that caught my eye was a print of a painting by Modigliani. Perhaps this one. I exclaimed, “Ah! A Modigliani”. Wim beamed and asked me if I liked his works. Oh, yes!

He was, from then on, a friend of mine, in some ways. Whenever he met us, his pupils, as a group, he would wish us as a group and then nod at me separately!

Art Abroad III

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Print of the Print Gallery

In a room almost at the diagonally opposite corner of the building another “painting” had caught my attention. It is in fact a lithograph.The building indeed had a square plan. With a quadrangle in the middle. A corridor ran parallel to the sides of the square and had rooms on either side of it. All the rooms had windows either facing the quadrangle or the world outside. In this case it was a print. I wanted to go in and take a look but the room was empty whenever I passed by.
One afternoon I found one of the two people who shared the room in and sought his permission to walk in and look at the print. There were other interesting prints hanging on the wall but this one was special. I had a good look at it.
The occupant asked me why I was so interested. I told him that I was always interested in Escher's works and that this one was really special. He asked me why. I told him the story.
This was a print of Escher's work called the Print Gallery. Like most of Escher's works, this one too was art and mathematics and optical illusion all combined. It shows a man viewing a print hanging on the wall of the gallery. As you proceed, visually, along the path he is likely to follow, you can see other prints. As you do so, the inside of the gallery becomes the outside of the gallery and the outside in.
Since no such thing exists, and can ever exist, Escher must have painted it completely from imagination, seeing it through his mind’s eye. As the painting goes ahead it becomes so complicated that he did not know how to finish the painting! It stretched even his prodigious visualisation to its limits and beyond, because, he gave up. It was one of his unfinished works. And so it stayed.
Hendrik Lenstra, a professor of mathematics at the University of Leiden was travelling to the US. He holds a joint position in the University of Berkeley too. . He read about this work in an inflight magazine. He wondered if this problem could be reduced to a mathematical one, solve it using computers and finish the painting. Once he returned home, he gave this problem to a few of his colleagues doctoral students and that is exactly what one of them did!
I had read about this very recently and the colleague, who had read about it too, but in Nederlands, was happy that it was so well known! Later I had an opportunity to work with him and this incident, I felt, was one of the reasons that he was so friendly and helpful!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Expressive Abstractions

Every time I passed that room, I could see three large canvasses on the walls. They appeared to be abstract expressionist works. The occupant of the room was never there, whenever I passed by. I wanted to take a good look at those works.

One day, I saw a small made, good-looking gentleman in a pin-striped suit sitting at the desk and working. I slowed down and he looked up. "If you don't mind, may I have a look at those paintings", I asked him, standing at the door of his room. He said, "Sure"!

I discovered that there were four paintings, not three. The fourth was on the wall I couldn't see from outside the door. I was enthralled. All of them were of great beauty. One, in particular, in black, bluish grey, ash grey and white, was arresting. It was well illuminated from a window to its right, about a couple of meters away. I looked at them for quite some time, turned to the gentleman and thanked him and was about to leave.

He asked me gently, "do you like them"? I said, "yes, very much". He raised his eyebrows, in mild surprise and asked me, "Do you know what they are"? I sad that they were abstract expressionist works. I pointed to the one that had affected me most and told him that that was the best of the lot.

Since he looked ready to talk about it, I asked him if he had made them. He told me this story.

They were made by the father-in-law of his daughter. He too had worked for Philips all his life and had retired more than a decade earlier. After retirement, he took up painting. After some time he worked only in abstract expressionism. For nearly ten years, he created many works and then stopped. He had presented these paintings to this gentleman.

Those paintings changed my attitude towards abstract art in general and abstract expressionism in particular. While I suspect (actually, I am quite sure) that there are mediocre artists and charlatans out there and gullible culture vultures with deep pockets, I have realised that you ignore or look down upon any genre of paintings at your own artistic peril.

My only regret is that I remember neither that gentleman's name nor the painter’s!

Art Abroad I 

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

The Unfortunate Fortune Teller

Mysore. Mid-seventies. I would go to the sprawling campus of the Mysore University, flop under a tree and read. (Alas, the compound building mania has struck the university too and the grounds are not easily accessible anymore.)

On one such occasion, a couple of men in dhoti, kurta and Gandhi cap walked by. One of them came to me and started pestering me for business. He wanted to tell me my future. They were itinerant fortune tellers from North Karnataka. In the typical patois of his profession, he harangued me to show him my palm and tell him my date of birth and name and so on, so that he could foresee and tell me what great good fortune awaited me or what great misfortune. If it was the latter, I am sure some money would have to change hands so that he could intercede with the powers that be on my behalf so that the effects of the misaligned stars and planets are nullified and the misery that awaited me is averted.

I kept refusing. What I did not tell him was that my pocket was empty and there was no use revealing to me my imaginary future. He kept at it like a lone house fly on a lazy summer afternoon and droned and buzzed around me.

I sat upright suddenly and asked him, "You don't even know your own immediate future! You don't even know that I am not going to pay you to foretell my future. How do you expect to foresee MY future?"

He either saw the impeccable logic of my argument or the wild look of a cornered cat turning back on a chasing dog, he beat a hasty retreat.


Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Bhimsen Joshi and the Driver

The driver of my taxi talked to me in North Karnataka dialect of Kannada. So I asked him where he hailed from. He said he was from Gadag. We both fell silent.
He started talking without any apparent trigger. From what he told me and the way he told me, it was clear that he had been itching to share his recent experience and his feelings. What he told me was this.

He had discovered Bhimsen Joshi the previous evening. He had listened to a programme on the radio about him. He felt very small that Bhimsen Joshi was from his own district, practically his neighbour and he had not heard about him at all,  all these days. He was deeply moved by his singing. (ಏನು ಹಾಡ್ತಾರ್ರೀ!!!!) His hair on the nape of his neck had stood when he listened to him. (ಕತ್ತ್ ಮ್ಯಾಲಿನ್ ಕೂದಲು ಹಾಂಗೇ  ನಿಂತ್ಬಿಟ್ಟ್ವುರೀ) He went on to tell me how Bhimsen Joshi came to Dharwad, how he left home in search of a guru and so on.

He was pensive for a while. He then told me that his family has three acres of dry land and that his brother tends to it. He was feeling a little low the previous day and was seriously considering going back to Gadag. Once he listened to Bhimsen Joshi, he felt at peace and his mind calmed down. He decided to continue in Bangalore.

What this told me are:

I am always skeptical about the claims about the power of music, especially classical music. I feel that it affects people who have been lucky enough to be exposed to it from childhood. His story reduced my skepticism a little.

There are three important things in real estate business, they say. They are location, location and location. Similarly for any art. Context, context and context. (See this video) Like Bhimsen Joshi, this man was from Gadag. He was feeling depressed. Music does have the power to calm and heal and uplift. The combination worked magic. The skeptic in me still wonders if he would have felt the same if he had listened to, say, the story of Jasraj and his singing. Perhaps yes, perhaps no. Mallikarjun Mansur? Maybe, he would have stood a better chance.

How great a singer was Bhimsen Joshi? There are great admirers of his, who have told me that he did not have as big a repertoire of raagas as he could have had. He sang well within his immense capabilities and never really challenged himself. Even if we agree that that is a fair assessment, what he did sing was very powerful – in more ways than one.

I suggested to my driver, Sharanappa, that he listen to Bhimsen Joshi’s Dasvaani and Abhangvaani. He showed me his memory stick and said, "I will fill this up with them and listen". (ಇದ್ರೊಳಗ್ ತುಂಬ್ಶಿ ಕೇಳ್ತೀನ್ರಿ.