My Latest Himal Southasian Web exclusive

Posted in Cross-Cultural Issues on May 1, 2011 by theajnabee

Himal Southasian 29/04/2011
Amidst the British royal wedding frenzy, Sophia Furber looks into the rising trend in Western celebrity nuptials in India.

India has emerged as one of the most desirable locations for opulent ‘destination weddings’ among celebrities from Hollywood and elsewhere, a trend arising from a heady cocktail of their ideas about the country. The West, while regarding India as the cradle of Eastern spirituality and a place of escape from materialism through yoga and meditation, also gawks at lavish Indian wedding parties. The result is a strange mishmash of spirituality and spectacle.

In recent years, the glamour and conspicuous consumption of Indian marriages has captured the Western imagination and generated countless columns of coverage. Expensive weddings are hardly a new phenomenon in Southasia, but with economic liberalisation, multi-million-dollar Indian weddings are on the rise. ‘The socialist inhibitions of old have gone,’ comments sociologist Patricia Oberoi. ‘And there is encouragement from private interests, and by default from the government, to spend more.’

A case in point is the recent March wedding, dubbed India’s most expensive wedding ever, of Congress politician Kanwar Singh Tanwar’s son Lalit. The bash was the apogee of modern-day Indian consumerism; unofficial estimates put the cost at USD 22-50 million. The bride’s family reportedly gifted a helicopter to the groom, who wore a garland of banknotes during the wedding ceremony.

The media in the West is enamoured by India’s growing economic clout, especially since the country survived the recent global financial crisis in a shape better than most economies in Europe and North America. Even at times of the deepest financial gloom, India consistently provided the international media with colourful stories of consumption and runaway growth. Tales of outlandish weddings sit nicely against this backdrop.

Everything for sale
The honour of being the trendsetters for outlandish Western celebrity weddings in India can be bestowed upon Arun Nayar and Liz Hurley, the textiles heir and model, respectively. In 2007, they decided to follow their English-castle wedding with a Hindu one in the groom’s homeland. The ceremony took place at a maharajah’s palace outside Jodhpur. Hurley’s fabled cleavage was tastefully covered with a pink sari for the ceremony, and guests were required to pick an ‘ethnic’ outfit from a boutique set up especially for the purpose in a swanky Mumbai hotel. British tabloids and celebrity magazines had a field day covering the celebrations, reportedly one of the most expensive celebrity weddings of all time. The marriage itself, however, was short-lived. The couple recently separated amidst rumours that Hurley was having an affair with cricketer Shane Warne.

In December last year, American pop star Katy Perry married British comedian Russell Brand in a seven-day North Indian extravaganza. The festivities featured a procession of 21 horses, camels and elephants, and an after-party at which P Diddy, the American rap star, performed alongside Indian classical dancers. The couple later remarked – apparently, without a hint of irony – that it had been a ‘very private and spiritual ceremony’.

Now, the biggest Hollywood celeb couple of them all, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (aka Brangelina) are rumoured to be talking of a traditional shaadi in India. The couple are said to have turned to 83-year-old Hindu mystic Gurudev Ramlaji Siyag to teach them yoga and meditation, in order to get through a rough patch in their relationship. Rumour has it that it is at this guru’s ashram in Rajasthan that the pair now plans to tie the knot, sometime in 2011. Few stories would be capable of uniting both financial journalists and celebrity hacks in a feeding frenzy, but this one has.

read the rest of the article on the Himal website


For my Friends in Nepal

Posted in Uncategorized on April 8, 2011 by theajnabee

Loving the rituals that keep men close,
Nature created means for friends apart:

Pen, paper, ink, the alphabet,
signs for the distant and disconsolate heart.

(Paladas, translated by Tony Harrison)

I saw this poem on the London Underground the other day and it made me think of my friends back in Nepal. We have these extracts from poems on the walls of underground trains to keep us entertained when we are crammed like sardines during morning and evening commutes (you can see more here, on the Poems on the Underground website). The reason that this one made me think of Nepal is that I’ve been a bit crap at keeping in touch over the past month or two. So this post is my way of saying sorry (to two girlfriends in particular… you know who you are!) To Palladas’ list of  pen, paper, ink and the alphabet I would add blogs, skype and email…. so really I have no excuse.

I just wish that South London was a bit nearer to Nepal so that we could all meet up for some beers and sekuwa!

Stuff Dictators Like #2: Living in London

Posted in Uncategorized on March 14, 2011 by theajnabee

Dictators and their families love London. This city has a long history as a refuge for the rich and politically suspect, including scions of the Gaddafi family and Teodorin Obiang, son of the Equitorial Guinea’s dictator of 30 years, whose spending on yachts and luxury mansions dwarfed his country’s combined health and education budget. Gamal and Alaa Mubarak reportedly arrived in London in February after the Egyptian revolution put an end to their father’s regime.

Knightsbridge is the address of choice for toppled despots, but most neighbourhoods on the Picadilly Line between Green Park and South Kensington are highly desirable (not that former dictators and their families travel by tube, that is).

Deposed despots’ wives also love London; Sarah Kyolaba Amin (Idi Amin’s former wife) allegedly works as an events organiser in Tottenham these days, while Sebha Begum Musharraf can be found pottering around Knightsbridge.

At Home with the Musharrafs

And London loves dictators too, as highlighted rather embarrassingly by events of recent weeks. The LSE and SOAS (The Ajnabee‘s alma mater) have both been tarred by associations with the Gaddafi family. Prince Andrew has been at the heart of a media frenzy in recent weeks thanks to his friendships with Saif Gaddafi and Kazakh oil tycoon and society beauty  Goga Ashkenazi.

Disturbingly, a whole industry seems to have grown up in London around meeting the needs of the global super-rich and super-dodgy. This article from the FT over the weekend, ‘The London Laundry’ by Matthew Engel explains how London has become a one-stop shop for services including ‘reputational management’, advice on tax avoidance, expensive schools and luxury retail:

“The country that famously lost an empire but had yet to find a role had finally found one: a full-service bolt-hole and pit stop for the mega-rich, however their gains were gotten.

Only within the past week, when the extent of Prince Andrew’s links to assorted oligarchs, despots and dubious tycoons became general knowledge, have the British started to realise just what a haven they are offering.

“Good schools, Harrods, and a co-operative attitude to the reputationally challenged: for the recently retired Mr and Mrs Dictator in a hurry, there’s still nowhere like London,” says one private banker with a mildly subversive view of his own high-net-worth clients. (He spoke on the condition of anonymity.)”

Harrods Deparment Store: The Cornershop of the Damned?

How the hell did we allow this to happen? I’m a Londoner myself and I am appalled that we’ve allowed ourselves to become the global destination of choice for ‘Mr and Mrs retired Dictator’. As Engel points out in the FT, the dictum ‘as long as they pay their taxes’ doesn’t even seem to apply any more, since many of these people clearly don’t contribute a penny of their ill-gotten wealth to the public coffers. It’s one thing to be ok with people being ‘filthy rich’, but Britain’s level of relaxation about people ‘getting rich filthily’ (Engel’s phrase) has now gone beyond a joke. Is this really what we want our capital city to be known for?

Golden Kela Awards: Get Your Vote In!

Posted in Bollywood on March 8, 2011 by theajnabee

There is still time to vote for the Golden Kelas, an alternative award ceremony celebrating the best-of-the-worst of Bollywood, taking place on March 12th.

Last year was not exactly a vintage year for Bollywood, and like 2009, bought us a mixture of bland big-budget movies, obnoxious holiday crowd-pleasers  and uninspiring debuts. However, thanks to the Golden Kelas, you now get the chance to vote for the worst offenders of the year. As well as awards for worst movie, worst actor/actress and most irritating song, there are ‘special awards’ such as The Dara Singh Award for Worst Accent and The Laijja Award for Worst Treatment of a Serious Issue.

For me, the absolute cinematic low of the year was Action replayy. This really was one of the worst films I have ever seen, and I don’t say that lightly. My girl Surabhi and I lost three hours of our lives watching that movie. We will never get those hours back. However, you can help by voting for Action replayy, which I believe is up for Worst Movie, Worst Actress and Worst Debut among others.

Last year, Kambakht Ishq won worst film, which I feel was very well-deserved. Any film in which the hero’s first line to the heroine is ‘shut up, you uptight bitch’, and in which aforesaid trainee-surgeon-heroine accidentally loses a heart-shaped charm from her bracelet inside the abdominal cavity of a patient she is operating on (whom she later marries) has got to merit this kind of honour. Oh, and did I mention that the heart-shaped charm plays wedding bhajans, which can be heard from time to time emanating from deep inside the patient’s thorax at inopportune moments?

In amongst all of those bad movies from 2010, I bet there were some that you Bollywood watchers secretly loved. For me, my guilty pleasure was Anjaana Anjaani, which I watched in a cinema in Biratnagar on a muggy afternoon. Contrived and ridiculous but strangely moving, and Priyanka Chopra and ranbir Kapoor were rather adorable together. Own up, what were yours?

If we’re going to talk about ridiculous, nothing can compete with rajnikanth-starrer robot. This song is up for Most ridiculous Lyrics. I can’t claim to understand all of them but from what I can catch it’s pretty absurd.

Let’s hope that 2011 is going to be an improvement, and that if it’s not, at least we can continue to enjoy some laughs at what the Golden Kela people call ‘the cream of the crap’ of Bollywood.

Thoughts on Totalitarian Kitsch

Posted in Uncategorized on February 26, 2011 by theajnabee

Kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements…

Whenever a single political movement corners power, we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch. When I say “totalitarian,” what I mean is that everything that infringes on kitsch must be banished for life… Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

There was a bit of a vogue a couple of years ago among some of my acquaintances for bagging artefacts of ‘totalitarain kitsch’ as souvenirs of travels and business trips in Africa and Asia. Gaddafi watches and rugs, Pakistan army mugs and stickers and scary gilt-framed photos of (now deposed) Tunisian dictator Ben Ali were just a few of the items that were brought back home, to be met with a delicious mixture of horror and hilarity by friends and colleagues.

This all suddenly seems in somewhat poor taste given recent events in North Africa. Ben Ali and Mubarak have gone, and Gaddafi is still clinging on to power as Libya burns. Perhaps it will only be after the dust settles on the crisis that the outside world will be able to get anything like real insight on what life has been like for Libyans under the repressive and secretive Gaddafi regime.

Sam Leith did a great piece in The Evening Standard earlier in the week analysing the way in which the Western media has turned the undeniably bonkers Libyan despot Gaddafi into a figure of fun (for an example of this tendency, see this slide show in Vanity Fair on Gaddafi’s fashion sense). By having a good old laugh at Gaddafi’s hilarious outfits and hot female bodyguards, Leith argues, we have turned him into a bogeyman – and this has rather masked extent of his brutality.

Tony Blair‘s government started flogging him arms and buying oil from him; and the general conversation rehabilitated Gaddafi as a comic character. He wasn’t the first it has happened to. Think of Turkmenbashi, with his rotating golden statues and his bonkers poetry; or of stack-heeled, bouffy-haired Kim Jong-Il, singing “I’m so rone-ery!” in Team America: World Police.

Peter York did a book called Dictator’s Homes a couple of years ago: a Hello!-style album of funny photographs of the kitsch ways in which despots did up their front rooms. My dear, the vulgarity! It seemed to epitomise the way sophisticates end up occluding what they know about very bad men by making a joke out of them.

Of course, to make bogeymen look absurd is the proper task of ridicule. But by making them cartoony, we also risk making cartoons of the people who suffer under them. We risk forgetting why they are bogeymen. From the student with his bust of Lenin and his Che Guevara T-shirt to the hipster wearing the Chairman Mao wristwatch, the ironic appreciation of foreign mass-murderers is a sort of connoisseurship.

It makes trinkets of monsters – bringing a version of them into our self-enclosed world as an accessory, and driving out the need to imagine what it is to live in theirs. It’s strange how shallow and silly we can be, in other words, when we’re being sophisticated. Remember those 200 dead Libyans, not getting the joke. Might be possible to be too sophisticated, hey? (see here for full story)

Does collecting bits of ‘totalitarian kitsch’ from travels also have the same effect? I think very possibly it does. I’m not going to be a hypocrite here because I think that this is a form of humour I wholeheartedly participated in at one point in my life. It’s just that it doesn’t seem quite so funny now.

There is a really amusing (and often painfully true-to-life) website called ‘Stuff Expat Aidworkers Like’. It includes such gems as #15 dressing like a local and #9 war junk (expat aidworkers just love to pose next to burned-out tanks!). I think I would also include ‘collecting Totalitarian Kitsch’ as something that expat aid workers like; also journalists, political analysts, business execs and students.

Pakistan army window stickers: whose poor taste?

Mundane artifacts (for want of a better word) do often reveal a fascinating subtext about political and economic processes. If you want to check out two very different and rather eccentric ‘collections’ of objects from overseas travels compare/contrast these two examples: War rug and this ‘Informal Museum of Foreign Grocery Products’. In my book there is nothing that wrong with collecting bits and pieces  when you are abroad that intrigue/amuse you or that tell a story , but when we go into the realm of pieces of ‘totalitarian kitsch’ you have to wonder whom the joke is really on…


Porn and the Kathmandu Lady

Posted in Uncategorized on February 22, 2011 by theajnabee

I’ve been meaning to put this book review (see below) that I did a little while ago of Mark Liechty’s ethnography Out Here in Kathmandu: Modernity on the Global Periphery for Himal Southasian on the blog.

Ethnographies on consumption in the developing world really do tend to divide opinion. A lot of people believe that they are somewhat frivolous and intellectually lightweight, while others argue that in important sub-plot about wider social and even political change is narrated through people’s consumer choices. Personally I’m  with the latter point of view. One of my lecturers at SOAS, Caroline Osella, had written a lot on social mobility, consumerism, migration and masculinity in South Asia and was the first person to really alert me to the ways in which stories about economic and religious change are told through seemingly mundane choices about clothing, food, jewelery and expenditure on religious rituals (Check out this paper, ‘I am Gulf’) . Ever since SOAS I’ve been sympathetic to projects like Liechty’s, but ultimately I felt that Out Here in Kathmandu just didn’t have the necessary clout in terms of depth of fieldwork and theoretical discussion. But it was a fun read and Liechty certainly tells a good story. 

And just for the record, the byline about ‘the overgrowing modernity situation’ was none of my doing. Chya! Himal, really!

Porn and the Kathmandu Lady
by Sophia Furber
The overgrowing modernity situation seen arising in the ladies of the Kathmandu valley concerning with sex and porn.

Over the past decade, a new kind of restaurant has appeared in the Kathmandu Valley – the dance bar or, similarly, the ‘cabin restaurant’. These places cater to an all-male crowd who come to drink local spirits, eat snacks and ogle girls dancing suggestively to Hindi and Nepali pop songs. Such establishments appear to have done a roaring trade even during the most fraught years of the Maoist ‘people’s war’, and can now be found throughout the valley, from the backpacker district of Thamel to respectable suburbs. It is not sex tourists that are being catered to here, but a new kind of customer altogether – the middle-class Nepali male.

The emergence of the dance bar is one of the most immediately striking of a variety of cultural transformations taking place in the Kathmandu Valley, which are the subject matter of this new collection of essays. Liechty’s focus on urban cultural practices marks a departure from the existing body of anthropological writing about Nepal, which has been dominated by studies of rural societies. These essays deal exclusively with Kathmandu, since the city is a place where Nepalis are feeling the impact of globalisation in a unique way.  The dance bar is significant because it takes food and sex (both traditionally controlled by strict ideas about ‘purity’ and ‘contamination’ among Nepal’s predominantly Hindu middle class), and repackages them as commodities for the free market.

This is not the only area of middle-class life where such a process is occurring. Other forms of consumerism, such as viewing of English- and Hindi-language videos, eating in restaurants, wearing make-up and even watching ‘blue’ movies have similarly brought the most intimate aspects of Nepali life out of the recesses of the home and into newly constructed public spaces. Out Here in Kathmandu explores a city where new, enticing foods, goods and services, ranging from momos and apple pie to Chinese electronics and sexual favours, are appearing on nearly every corner…

….read the rest of the review here!

Bollywood Dance London review

Posted in Bollywood, Dance on February 9, 2011 by theajnabee

One of the best things about being back in London (apart from all that lovely 24hr electricity, and friends/family) has been picking up dance lessons again. I’ve been taking Bollywood dance lessons with Bollywood Dance London for the past couple of weeks, which I’ve absolutely loved. Jassie, our fabulous teacher, has been teaching routines that draw on bhangra, commercial bollywood and the odd move taken from Indian classical dance. We even learned some choreography to last year’s super-hit item song Munni Badnaam Hui – a censored version, but it did include the famous ‘zandu balm’ move!

Main zandu balm hui....

There is such a wide variety of dance lessons on offer in London that the choice is somewhat overwhelming but the BDL course is definitely one I’d recommend. The classes are sufficiently laid back that newcomers can feel comfortable, but at the same time Jassie is just strict enough to make sure that you do learn and improve. It’s a good balance. She also films the dance routines each week, puts them on youtube (a private link, and one which will *not* be appearing here!) and sends them out to her students to help with memorising the routines. Seeing yourself dance on camera is not for the faintheared (‘oh my actual.. do I really have muscle control of a newborn giraffe?’ was my first reaction.) but it is a really good way to learn.

Ultimately, the criterea that separates a good/o.k dance lesson from a fabulous dance lesson for me is whether or not I come out of it feeling energised and on a high, and on this basis BDL is definitely a winner.

The next courses are starting the week beginning Feb 21st, and apparently the ‘pure Bollywood’ classes will be featuring a lot more early 1990’s-inspired routines. Think Madhuri Dixit circa ‘Yaraana’ to be more specific!