Quirky skew­er­ing of art world

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Sharon Verghis

tions about ru­ral In­dian life, and do­ing the deed with the king in his de­cay­ing fairy­tale cas­tle in the novel’s only nod to any kind of eroti­cism.

What, then, to make of The Cos­mopoli­tans? It’s a mixed bag. It’s a lively, en­ter­tain­ing read, with much to en­joy, particularly in the awk­ward, lost fig­ure of Qayenaat, a rare older fe­male pro­tag­o­nist; so too in the bluntly spo­ken Sathi and his sly punc­tur­ing of art world pom­pos­ity. How­ever there are per­haps too many story spurs that, en­joy­able as they are, end up tak­ing you away from the main story of Qayenaat’s search for her­self.

Ban­ga­lore-born Hasan is the au­thor of the nov­els Neti, Neti (2009) and Lunatic in My Head (2007), the short fic­tion col­lec­tion Dif­fi­cult Plea­sures (2012) and the book of po­ems Street on the Hill (2006).

She has some keen in­sights to share on the mer­ce­nary na­ture of the art world, the in­ter­sec­tion of cul­ture and cap­i­tal­ism, the artist as con­man, how we judge art and the mean­ing it gives our lives, and In­dia’s own bat­tle to keep its rich, an­cient clas­si­cal artis­tic tra­di­tions alive while en­gag­ing with West­ern artis­tic trends. In­dia’s young artists need to cre­ate their own Mona Lisas, is Qayenaat’s bat­tle cry.

There is a sober­ing side­line in the im­pact of re­li­gious fun­da­men­tal­ism on art, cen­tred in the tragic fig­ure of Nur Ja­han, whose nude paint­ings lead to na­tion­wide ri­ots and her sav­age mur­der at the hands of a mob that Hasan de­scribes as “an am­bidex­trous an­i­mal — its right hand and its left, its Hindu and its Mus­lim, went about its work in the same way”.

Also in­ter­est­ing are her in­sights into mod­ern In­dia, especially the di­vi­sions be­tween the ide­al­is­tic Nehru­vian post-in­de­pen­dence era, rep­re­sented by her civil en­gi­neer fa­ther and his love of so­cial­ism fed by in­dus­trial progress, to the highly com­mer­cialised In­dia of to­day, all “mam­moth malls, [and] high streets of in­ter­na­tional fashion and global en­ter­tain­ment”, Bol­ly­wood cul­ture and shal­low art trends.

She peeks into the moral­ity of In­dia’s rich lib­er­als (“should you buy Versace when peo­ple toiled in hard­ship knot­ting car­pets so that you could buy Versace?”) and ex­am­ines chang­ing In­dian at­ti­tudes to the West: “her par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion read for­eign nov­els out of rev­er­ence, her own lis­tened to the mu­sic of West­ern lib­er­a­tion and dreamt … and then there was Ba­ban’s gen­er­a­tion for whom the West was no longer a big deal; they could sud­denly stand up one day and an­nounce they were go­ing to be artists, ready to take on the world”.

Through­out, we hear a hymn to nos­tal­gia, to an in­no­cent In­dia of Fiat and Am­bas­sador cars, ny­lon polka-dot­ted saris and great dam-build­ing schemes. The past and the present rub shoul­ders un­easily in Hasan’s novel: as mad Prince Mohan says more than once, “be­ing a mod­ern In­dian is hard work”. Aus­tralian. is an arts jour­nal­ist at The

An­jum Hasan of­fers keen in­sights on In­dia

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