Exclusive Extract: Anjum Hasan’s The Cosmopolitans
Nostalgia was big. Grainy black-and-white news played on a gigantic vintage TV set. The plain ceramic vase on the round-cornered, square coffee table and the dinner-plate-sized roses in it looked as if they’d been stolen from a giant’s lair as did the ten-foot-high, old-fashioned rattan chair facing them. The news on the TV, focusing on the indistinct face of the newscaster as she mouthed statistics about death in the jungles and government scams, was not new.
This magnified piece of artwork, this humungous living room installation, was Nostalgia — Baban Reddy’s latest offering to the world. World meant world in Baban’s case. Nostalgia had premiered in Venice and, after stops in major Indian cities, would travel to Shanghai, London, Los Angeles. Then Baban would go back home to New York and the art aficionados would wait, perhaps with mixed feelings but inevitably a sense of anticipation, for what he was going to cook up next. For, whatever else Baban did to get people talking, there was one thing he never did — which was to repeat himself. Each new piece was a surprise in relation to his prior work, and offered no clue about what was to follow.
Qayenaat climbed the stepladder set up by the chair and sat down, Lilliputian, at its centre, watching the news; except that it wasn’t the news she was watching, it was Nostalgia. Wherever in the world Nostalgia went, the news on its TV screen would always be the previous day’s. From country to country Nostalgia would travel, bringing up the rear as it were, reminding us, according to the exhibition catalogue, that ‘we are victims of today, hostage to tomorrow, and nostalgic for yesterday’.
Around Qayenaat people ignored the artwork and drank wine, their conversation muffled by the creamy canapés they were stuffing their mouths with, their sidestepping movements signalling high excitement. What excited them? Was it art? Was it Baban? Was it themselves? From her perch, Qayenaat surveyed the newness of the crowd. They had overrun the familiar figures: the modest artists, young savants, self-effacing patrons of art, ardent critic or two. That was Bangalore’s art scene, but today it had been transformed into something strangely electric. Baban had returned in glory to his home town and these heads of companies and leaders of enterprises, movers of share prices and shakers of public opinion, had come here to lend glamour to the scene, bringing into the marginal activity of art an unusual energy. Perhaps they’d learnt of the handbag Baban had recently been invited to design, for an undisclosed sum, for that famous French fashion house.
Sitting there on that chair for one that was big enough to hold four, Qayenaat felt disoriented and it was not just the scale of this installation, nor only the unfamiliar air of expensive perfume and boisterous laughter in proximity to art. Just fifteen minutes ago she’d been wandering in the quiet, leafy lanes of the swanky Bangalore neighbourhood of Sadashivnagar, looking for the gallery, confused about the address. At every turn she encountered soaring mansions of stupendous luxuriousness, and at every second one she’d slowed down, certain a structure so showy could not be a home, wondering if it was perhaps the place she was looking for. When she finally found it, Navya turned out to be nothing like those designer residences. It was a charming modernist throwback, a functional warehouse-like building with nothing in its simple wooden exterior to indicate that art lay within. Saraswathi Vishwanath, the woman behind it who had been converted to art not too long ago, was the Europe-returned daughter of a local, philanthropic-minded IT czar. It had taken the opening of her exclusive new gallery for Baban Reddy’s work to make an appearance in the city. Till three or four years ago, the artist was unheard of here; today, his moneyed fame ensured he was embraced as a native.
Continuing her scrutiny of the room, Qayenaat spotted an artist friend, a painter of limpid watercolours of old Bangalore that were, unlike Baban’s tongue-in-cheek Nostalgia, genuinely nostalgic. They waved at each other and she knew she ought to go over and chat. But the oddness of the evening had started to affect her, anxiety bubbling through her like a tablet taking its time to dissolve in a glass of water. Before she could think of more profound metaphors for her state of mind, her ex-boyfriend, Sathi Thakur, came up to her and touched her dangling ankle with one nicotine-stained fingernail.
‘Partner,’ she called, surprised to see him. He only went to art shows at Qayenaat’s insistence and she had certainly not insisted on this one. They were set on different paths now; she still devoted to that increasingly estranged thing called art, he being knocked around on the streets of the so-called real world. Perhaps she had mentioned the show in passing last evening or left a newspaper lying open. In any case, here was Sathi now, unexpected and unremitting, still holding on to her foot despite being the kind of man who rarely touched anyone in public and certainly not a woman he had given up his right to.