Sunday, May 30, 2010

Reviewed: The Caravan, A Journal of Politics and Culture

It seemed for a while that I kept running into people who wrote for Caravan, a relatively new, Delhi-based 'journal of politics and culture'.  Caravan writers seemed interesting, intelligent, and generally excited about their work—so much so, that I eventually asked my newspaper delivery man for a subscription.  

Overall, the writing is good—and in places, excellent.  Take Trisha Gupta’s review of Sukhnandi Vyam’s art, which was recently shown in Delhi.  Gupta gives us insight into the subject under review, written in prose that is itself a pleasure to read. What more can one ever really ask for from a reviewer? 

Maybe I liked this review so much because Gupta asks the same question I had when I saw this exhibit, only she asks it more articulately:

What happens when an artist’s ‘exterior visualisations’ cannot be mirrored in the minds of his public, because they share with him almost none of his cultural context? I do not know.

I don’t know either, but I wish I’d read this review before seeing the exhibit, which was, by the way, extraordinary.  

I wasn't able to make it to the exhibit of Adivasi art at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, but I did very much enjoy Mira Kamdar's review of the show.  Kamdar looks at some of the same themes we see in Gupta's review, but from a different angle:
In the contemporary Adivasi artist’s vision, it is the West and, more specifically, Westernised India—urban, rapidly industrialising and privatising, globally connected and whose Promethean trajectory is ruthlessly enforced by the police and security forces—that is the object of an active subject’s representation. In the Adivasi artist’s world, we are among the observed, the depicted, the represented, as our world crashes into theirs. The art in the exhibition presents us with our own violent reality as seen by people who live at once on the margins of this reality and at its epicentre.
It is ironic, of course, to see Adivasi art celebrated abroad while Adivasi land and people are under attack here in India.  This irony is not lost on Kamdar:
The list of peoples who no longer exist but for what is exhibited of their culture in museums is very long. In its campaign to ‘pacify’ large tracts of land, now teeming with Maoist revolutionaries, where Adivasis have lived for millennia, in order to make that territory safe for lucrative mining and industrial ventures that involve the wholesale destruction of their land and way of life, the Indian government seems to be doing everything it can to make sure that the Adivasis join this list.
Kamdar's discussion of the art itself is compelling.  But what impressed me most is her willingness engage with the questions relating to the position of this art--and the artists who created it--in world beyond the exhibit hall.  

There is a lot more packed into this issue of Caravan, including a sympathetic but critical review of Zizek's First as Tragedy Then as Farce and a photo essay from behind Maoist lines. By the time I saw this new poem by Jeet Thayil, I'd pretty much decided that my forty rupees had been well spent.

But before I sound too enthusiastic, I must say that two stories which deal with issues of central concern to environmentalists are more problematic.  One of the headlines on the cover asks: “NREGA, 4 Years. 784 Billion Rupees.  Where is India’s Landmark Welfare Scheme Taking Us?” Also on the cover, we read: “Inside the Carbon Trading Shell Game.” 

Those headlines made me cringe.  Both play on themes commonly used by right wing media: NREGA is a waste of money, and efforts to fight climate change amount to “scams.”  After the hack job Open Magazine did on climate change back in February, I was ready for the worst.

As it turned out, neither article was offensive.  In 'NREGA'a Reality Check', Mehboob Jeelani rightly criticizes NREGRA for not going far enough and for being corrupt in many places, but the article also acknowledges that the program has vastly improved rural infrastructure’ and ‘still means a lot in rural India.’  In other words, a good idea that has been poorly implemented.  Or as welfare economist and activist Jean Dreze is quoted as saying, ‘NREGA is a pro-people law implemented by an anti-people system.’ That conclusion is hard to argue with, and it's implication is clear: we need to expand and democratize NREGA, not abandon it.  But you wouldn’t know that from the cover of the magazine—which is too bad, since the cover of a magazine like this is all many people will ever see.

'The Carbon Trading Shell Game' that we read about in Mark Schapiro's 'Conning the Climate', refers to the cap-and-trade system and the related 'carbon trading' and 'carbon offset markets that cap-and-trade engenders.  The article does a reasonably good job exposing the many problems with carbon trading markets, which are difficult to regulate and open to manipulation and corruption.  But aside from a passing mention of a carbon tax, Schapiro fails to look at alternatives to cap-and-trade.  As a result, the article feeds the idea that far reaching government-led action against climate change is futile.

Another thing that seemed strangely absent in this piece was a South Asian focus.  This seemed odd, since so much is happening right here in India—both in terms of climate change and carbon offsets.  In the end, the lack of a sustained local perspective was explained by the tag line which followed the piece: “Asia Features/Harper’s Magazine.”  Apparently, here is an example of Indian media outsourcing analysis to the US.

For a simpler, better explanation of cap-and-trade, watch Annie Leonard’s The Story of Cap and Trade.  And for a more in-depth look at the alternatives to cap-and-trade—as well as a local perspective on related issues—you’d be better off reading some of the posts on the Dhaba’s own climate page, here, if I do say so myself.

Unless a magazine is exceptionally good or bad, any judgments based on one issue only are bound to be provisional.  From what I've seen, the writing in Caravan ranges from fair to excellent.  And there's certainly a lot in it to choose from.  So far, I think I like it.  If the editors could only find a way to sell the magazine without resorting to misleading, right-wing sounding headlines, I’d feel a bit less…provisional about recommending it.

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