Monday, July 8, 2013

The Art Forger by B.A.Shapiro

Pablo Picasso is believed to have said, “Every now and then one paints a picture that seems to have opened a door and serves as a stepping stone to other things”.  
The series of paintings titled After the Bath by Edgar Degas have inspired author B.A. Shapiro to do just that. She uses it as a stepping stone- rather, a diving platform in her book, The Art Forger to examine art, the artist and the value of art. What makes a piece of art valuable? Is it the art itself or the fame (or notoriety) of the artist? Can an artist get more value as a forger of a painting made by a famous artist while being ignored for her original work? How much do the experts really understand about what they assess and how much stock should a non-expert put in their recommendations and valuations? A struggling painter Claire Roth tries to reconstruct her shattered professional life and find answers to questions such as these in this brisk paced tale filled with intrigue and gorgeous details of place and time.

The main character is explored in detail and so are the myriad techniques of painting - Impressionist, classical and contemporary. The same cannot be said of the rest of the characters and the relationships Claire has with them.  The detailed analysis of paintings and painting techniques, of Degas himself, of the world inhabited by artists,critics and collectors tilts the balance of the story away from the minds of its characters. There is a love interest in the story which is portrayed in a hurried and callous way, along with a lot of secondary characters and events that are unrelated to the main story. The ending is abrupt and leaves the reader feeling shortchanged.

In spite of these shortcomings, The Art forger is a fast read with exacting details and descriptions of works of art that will make you want to find out more about the intriguing world of artists and art collectors. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013


“Something smells good, Mom”, my eight year old son calls out over the music of “The Adventures of Tintin” that he is watching with his five year old sister. The smell interrupts my husband’s Saturday night semi-fugue state, induced by old Hindi movie songs, ghazals and single malt Scotch. My industrial grade Viking hood is doing the best it can, but is no match for the heady fragrance of dinner, cooking in bubbling oil on its way to a heavenly state of golden brown crispiness. I am frying Pomfret.

Wikipedia says pomfret is a perciform fish belonging to the family Bramidae. It is found in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. I say, they have no idea what Pomfret is.
Pomfret is my mother, announcing on a Saturday morning, that my brother and I were to watch out for and stop the local fishmonger  as he made his way through the neighborhood. The object of our attention for the rest of the morning was a short, dark man with round eyes and a quick smile. His bushy mustache apologetically made up for a receding hairline. He usually wore a mundu, a long rectangular cotton garment worn at the waist, and a shirt, with a scarf-like piece of cloth wrapped around his head.. He would ride into our alley on a bicycle with a basket tied precariously to the back seat. He announced his presence with a loud horn – the sound a cross between a duck’s quack and a broken reed. It was in this basket, over a thin layer of ice, under dark green banana leaves, that he presented the manna from local rivers and the Arabian Sea, occasionally his prized catch, the pomfret. It is an exciting day for us because cooking fish at home was a show of culinary bravery for my mother. She had grown up with strictly vegetarian, staunch Hindu parents and had tasted meat only after she got married .She was adventurous enough to cook fish but was not confident about buying or cleaning it. That was Amma’s job.  “Amma” is Malayalam for mother and to us, it seemed like the whole town called her Amma. She was a stern lady of indeterminate age, who worked in our house as a housemaid/translator/spreader of neighborhood information. As soon as the fishmonger stopped in front of our house, Amma was dispatched to do the needful. She wiped her strong and heavily wrinkled hands on her work cloth and walked up to him. She gave the man a once-over as if silently warning him against any mischief. Then she peered into the basket and moved back the banana leaves. She picked up the plumpest, whitest of the fish and gave it a good sniff. If it passed her olfactory test, its gills were pried open. If it was nice and pink inside, Amma gave the man a slight toothless smile and picked a few more. The care with which she picked fish for us made us feel like royal children, whose food was tested for poison before it was served. After the necessary payment was made, all of us followed Amma to the back of the house where she proceeded to clean and prepare the fish and hand it over to my mother for further processing.
Pomfret is my father, ordering fish for me, at every restaurant that we went to, even when it was the most expensive dish on the menu. The love on his face, having ordered the best dish for his favorite child, in my opinion, was returned with a grin on my face, when the waiter brought the plate of crisp golden fried fish, head intact, eyes open, garnished with red onion rings, chopped cilantro and a lemon wedge. For my brother and I, eating out at a restaurant was a luxury, a status symbol. To have a special dish ordered just for me was hence, a momentous achievement. Over time, the restaurants changed from a “dining hall” of five or six tables covered with white table cloths over worn out reddish brown carpets lit by shabby chandeliers to avant garde restaurants in five star hotels in Mumbai but the ritual never changed.
Pomfret is little fingers, peeling off the crisp skin to reveal firm white flesh held together by a skeleton of long bones. The fingers do not have find and remove tiny bones that hide inside other kinds of seafood. The fish has been fried whole, with two short slits on each side where the marinade of garlic, ginger and turmeric, green chilies, cumin, coriander and salt has made its way inside. The skin is a crispy golden brown, while the flesh has cooked in a fragrant steam of the marinade, giving it a flavor even the finickiest of eaters cannot ignore.
The smell reaches deep inside me, taking me back to the land where I grew up, thousands of miles away from this beautiful prairie that we now call home. It is the link from my childhood to the life that I am trying to create for my children. It inspires me to make memories with them, which they can turn to, when they grow up. I hope that this fine specimen of the Bramidae family thrives and multiplies for generations in the saline ocean waters so that my children can share the joy of a perfectly fried pomfret and steaming rice with their loved ones, for years to come.

Monday, January 14, 2013

A different shade of green

     A line of old Ambassador cars greets you as you step out of Kochi International Airport. This is one of only two states in India where these rotund and sturdy cars of the 1980’s have not fallen out of favor. Sleek elegance, modern amenities and power are aspects not associated with this car, but their drivers do not seem to mind. Well-maintained city roads direct the fast and unruly traffic and billboards advertise mega gold jewelry marts and silk saree emporiums. As you make your way towards the rural interiors, you remember the caption on the tourism department’s brochure – Kerala, God’s own country. Roll down the windows - use your biceps, no power windows here - and inhale the gorgeous sea air, there is no doubt you are in a tropical paradise.

     No matter what the season, there is equilibrium between the water content in the atmosphere and the air so that there is just enough air to let you breathe comfortably but the humidity makes it thick enough to be palpable. Paddy fields, with thick sheaves of rice, sitting in puddles of water put on an intense display of green. Acres upon velvety acres are tended to by hand, mostly by women, who try to coax rice, the life blood of the region, from this stubborn plant. The straight, brown trunks of the coconut trees rise up tall with a head of lush long, yellow–green fronds. It is capped off with a big bunch of coconuts and stalks of small yellow fragrant flowers. The soft, flimsy stems of the banana plants support  wide leaves and big bunch of fruits which are loved by humans and animals alike. Elephants are the workhorses here, carrying loads of timber from forests with the same aplomb as serving in religious festivities in temples, decked in gorgeous livery. 
     Then, there is the water. Tucked away in the southwestern corner of Indian peninsula, Kerala has a long coastline along the Arabian Sea. This is the landing ground for the majestic monsoon, which gathers up from the Indian Ocean, drenching the land for most of the year. Water collects everywhere; in small ponds, lakes and gurgling streams, filling up with water lilies and buffaloes in the blink of an eye. Three large rivers traverse this small state spilling their energy onto the shores and into the people. The vast waters of the Arabian Sea to the west of the land mass form the perfect backdrop for the tiring sun to rest, every evening, bathing the coconut groves and rubber plantations in a surreal golden hue.
The houses are modest, complementing a population that is cultured, conventional and hardworking. One or two story concrete buildings, painted in light colors with red tiled roofs. A compound wall marking the property line and a gate, usually an intricately welded iron one, making you pause before you enter. The yard is dirt with bushes of brightly colored flowers along the walls. Hibiscus, gardenias, jasmine and roses vie for attention under the tall presence of coconut palms and jack fruit trees. The scent in the air is primal, of a happy balance between nature and its human tenants. Technology and the progress that modern amenities promise have found their way to this remote corner of land but the culture of respectful indulgence in nature’s bounty has created a harmonious lifestyle for its population. With as many people wearing the latest fashion in jeans, skirts and pants as there are men wearing the cotton mundu and young girls wearing the silk white and golden sarees, God’s own country is not stuck in time. She is relishing time, as it flows like the deep waters of the Periyar river towards the sea.