Thursday, January 20, 2011

Reporting from New York!

"A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city (New York) is like poetry: it compresses all life; all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The...poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive." (E.B. White-Here is New York)

As I approach the end of this exciting January term in New York, I feel I have experienced a significant change in my approach towards New York and the role that different factors play in the modernization of a city thanks to my course instructor, my classmates and the city itself. I thought the following song about New York might give you an idea of the impression I had about New York and it will also help you to appreciate the complex phenomenon that New York is.
Although I have gained a lot of insights into this modern capital of the world, it’s important to recognize that the defining characteristic of New York is the 'change' that is going on all the time in its human, economic and cultural capital and still how it manages not only to survive but thrive with brighter prospects and hopes for the future. However, this never ending process of 'change' is not all utopia either because there is this nostalgia as well about the past whether it is related to architecture or culture or something else. The important point is that its horrific to be trapped between experiences of the past and a longing for the future and the more I have examined and analyzed life in New York, the more I feel that this phenomenon is an integral part of the whole experience that New York is.

While my research paper was still fresh in my mind, in which I examined the relationship between an individual's identity and the crowd, I was amazed at how Ric Burns (director of the famous documentary "New York") described his ideas, to our class, about modern New York in very similar terms. According to him, Modernism traps an individual between two remorseless directions of time (past and the future) and also that all these great structures and even the New York skyline represent the paradox that the modern city is. Its all concrete steel, overcrowded and intimidating on one hand and beautiful, cosmopolitan, inviting and full of opportunities on the other hand.

Therefore, it’s interesting to ponder this question about how modernity affects the social fabric of a city in general and individuals in particular.


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A "Playful" insight into New York!

Our latest class outing was to a Broadway production of "The New York Idea" produced by the Atlantic theater company. It turned out to be a delightful and memorable evening on many levels. First of all, "The New York Idea" was supposed to be a nice four act comedy treat for somebody like me who has always found a comedy of manners entertaining as well as intellectually engaging. Furthermore, the small theater setting brought the stage and the actors right before my eyes and it was an absolute delight to be able to observe and scrutinize the actors and the stage meticulously.

The play begins with two representatives of the old generation who, even in 1906 New York, are holding on to their notions about social propriety, societal norms and practices. The problem presented by the play is a complex one for their generation and they make a point by showing it as such on the stage through their discomfort with sending out invitations and their unease at the thought of breaking the news to their cousin William who is in agreement with the aunt about two divorced people getting married. On the other hand, the representative of the young and energetic generation, Cynthia appears exceptionally carefree about the matter when she enters the stage for the first time. Anybody who was watching the performance first hand without any existing knowledge about the plot and the characters might have mistaken her for another member of this family and certainly not the divorced woman who is about to get married with the head of this household. For me, the characters succeeded in portraying and maintaining the tension between the generations throughout the first act which the playwright had probably intended. 

Another actor that really struck me during the performance was the woman playing Vida Phillimore because she was really able to strike cords with the character. Vida comes out some sort of eccentric to me who has exceptionally 'liberal' notions about societal behavior in the 20th century modern New York. She is full of epigrams and witty comments and is a kind of counterpart for 'Algernon' who plays an eccentric English gentleman in Oscar Wilde's famous comedy of manners "The Importance of Being Earnest". Another important aspect of Vida's character is her attractiveness and in addition to my personal judgement, my professor, Cyrus Patell, reiterated the point by mentioning not once but twice that "the actor playing Vida is very attractive." For somebody like me who has never been to a theatrical production of a comedy of manners, it was exciting to see the effect that the characters could have on the audience.

The second act builds on the character of Vida Phillimore and also brings out important characteristics of Cynthia in the context of the play. I want to share something about the play on the name Cynthia which I found not only hilarious but also very meaningful considering the problem, plot and the ultimate resolution of the play. I thought it was interesting that the ex-wife of Mr. Karslake is the namesake of the most uncontrollable and "high strung" mare that John Karslake owns called Cynthia K. So, even though Vida comes out as a negative character, I think she is a more constant character than Cynthia who goes through these fits of rage, excitement as well as 'whims' about different emotional situations that arise in the play.

Due to time constraints and especially because I do not want my readers to get bored to death with a dull critical analysis of the play, I will draw my blog post to a close with a few interesting observations about the ending of the play. For instance, the last two acts were much faster in pace as compared to the first two acts and the resolution at the end of the play happens quite briskly as well. This certainly gave me an impression of how rapidly relationships and married, or divorced lives in this case, change in New York and the fact that the play picked up pace is symbolic of how modern New York society picked up pace during the late 19th and early to mid 20th century in terms of construction of the subway, architecture, the art scene as well as societal attitudes and individual behavior in general.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Fourth Idiot!

For those who are unfamiliar with one of the greatest Bollywood productions which broke all Bollywood records by grossing $43 million in the first three weeks of its release (, the title refers to the "Three Idiots" movie which is undoubtedly one of my favorites of all time. Furthermore, the title also plays on the presence of "Three Idiots" in the musical performance with the Fourth Idiot being American which is ironically a shared identity of three different people with divergent lives.

Last night, I got to see another Idiot but this time the setting was not a movie cinema in Lahore but a theater in New York with the musical titled as the "American Idiot". I assure you that neither I nor Green Day have anything against America or the American people. In fact, the musical revolves around three friends who go their different ways in life and experience different aspects of life in the United States of America. Strictly speaking, its hard to pin down such turnarounds in life to any particular city or country for that matter. But, it can be reasonably argued that the issues raised in the musical are more relevant to life in America than any other country in the world.

Spending my J-term in New York and doing a course on New York and Modernity, I am inclined to associate the theme of the musical I saw yesterday to life in New York. On the other hand, I am also quite certain that somebody is "walking down a lonely road" or is "on the boulevard of broken dreams" in almost every nook and corner of this modern world. While somebody "is in ruins", someone else is "having the time of his life" oblivious to the pain and difficulties of others. I do not know if I am stretching the point too much but I feel that the music of Green Day is not only directed at the topsy- turvy  lives of young people but some of it is also a bleak commentary on the selfishness of society in general.

Green Day is cool because its a punk band with an inherent modern outlook to its music and performances. These are some of the reasons I like Green Day and despite a 'not-so-strong' storyline according to some of my classmates, I highly recommend taking a trip to the Broadway musical "American Idiot" especially to those who like the kind of music produced by Green Day. It was definitely worth the $27 that my school paid for me and I would certainly buy one out of my own pocket as well.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"La'ore la'ore hai"-there is no city like Lahore

Before delving into any kind of details about the city, let me ask you a simple question: Do you where Lahore is located? If yes, well and good. If no, then for your general knowledge and to make the contents of this post seem more relevant to you, Lahore, the second largest city in Pakistan, is located on the eastern border with India at a distance of about a thousand kilometers from the capital Islamabad and also a thousand or so kilometers from the Kashmir region on its north.

For anybody who knows something about Lahore, it's either because of its fame as the old walled city with beautiful Mughal and Sikh architecture or because of its outlook as "The" modern city of a conservative Muslim country. 

File:Hazuri Bagh.JPG
Roshnai Gate (Gate of Lights)-located between Lahore Fort and Badshahi Mosque

File:Samadhi of Ranjit Singh July 1 2005.jpg
Samadhi of Ranjit Singh (Resting Place of Ranjit Singh)-ruled Punjab from 1799-1839

Kashmiri Bazaar
By: Shiraz Hassan Maktub: “It is written” Published: 2/8/2010

While the 400 years old Kashmiri bazaar still remains with its hustle and bustle, the old architecture like shown above has either deteriorated to the condition of being unrecognizable or has simply disappeared. Likewise, much of the sikh architecture has also been vandalized and conveniently neglected by the government.

Samadhi of Bhai Vastiram, a minister in the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh-Published on Jan 28, 2010

Copyright © 2011 Punjab Heritage News 

While in many cities in the world which are oriented towards modernity, old buildings are raised down to be replaced with modern structures, there is no apparent need for destroying the old city of Lahore because there is a lot of building space available in other parts of the ever expanding city of Lahore. So even though it's not a necessity by any stretch of the imagination, the magnificent architecture of the past is in an accelerated deteriorating state and nobody in authority is doing anything significant about it.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Abstract Expressionists were SERIOUS!

The development of abstract expressionism as a movement gathered pace during the 40’s and especially after World War II. The Pollocks and the De Koonings of the time decided that traditional figurative painting was not achieving anything new and hence abstract expressionism became the most popular technique among artists who then contributed heavily to the modern art scene in New York.

As far as I understood from my visit to the Museum of Modern art located on 53rd street close to Times Square, abstract art is created to evoke a feeling or an association within the viewer or just as “art for art’s sake” as Oscar Wilde and his contemporaries would put it. Regardless of the purpose and intent of the artist, abstract art is, perhaps, meant to evoke a reaction from the viewer that is personal and depending on the representation you decide to give to the painting, you may or may not like it. For the abstract expressionists who were proactive during this post World War II movement, abstract art perhaps was just a way to create a low identity for the US which had emerged as a world power from the War.

I would not claim that I was fascinated by all the abstract paintings that were displayed in the exhibit at the Museum of Modern art but that does not take away anything from those ‘masterpieces’ of art. Even if I could not imagine how somebody could find the paintings categorized under “Color field abstract expressionism” captivating,

 Barnett Newman, Canto VII. 1963

Mark Rothko
No 10. 1950
Oil on Canvas
(229.6*145.1 cm)

I was absolutely taken in by some of the more gestural abstract works by De Kooning and Jackson Pollock.


Especially, this densely but delicately packed painting by De Kooning appeared to have a lot of layers for me. The instant I saw this painting, I was struck by how De Kooning had used these black figures bounded by white and perhaps an excessive amount of Oil and enamel to make it multi layered. Personally, these vague forms and shapes bounded by black and white represent the interlinked and intertwined lives of inhabitants of an urban and modern society like New York city. The multi layered setting of the painting gives a notion of how modern life of an individual is entangled and tied with different entities of the urban society and setting he thrives in. Perhaps, De Kooning has also something to say about how the pace and struggles of modern life have made people to become more deceiving and also confused about their own personalities. It might be a complex concept to understand if you are not viewing the painting with that mindset but De Kooning certainly strikes that cord with me through this painting that there is something to be said about the multi layered and deceptive personalities that have been born in this era of the modern city.

Monday, January 10, 2011

An O-Puccini...

The Metropolitan Opera House at the Lincoln Center for the performing arts provided my first encounter ever with Opera on this Saturday. Premiered in Dec 1910, this Italian Opera, La Fanciulla del West,  by Giacomo Puccini was a treat even after a century of its first show. The MET subtitles in English were also a great aid in maintaining my interest in the opera and they also helped me to appreciate it even more.

It's significant to note that Opera was becoming popular in New York at the same time as the subway was being built and new artists from diverse backgrounds were encouraged to try their luck at the performing art centers throughout the city. The Opera outing on Saturday gave me a flashback of those days when different people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds were getting together to perform and entertain the people of New York. So this 'tradition' of being modern had something to do with the infusion of different cultures into each other, something to do with mixing. I do not know if I gained some significant musical insights from the Opera performance but what I gained was an understanding that Opera represents a seamless "mix" of different arts including literature, poetry, music and theater. Thus, Opera has been an important part of the modern culture in many of the big cities in the west for the last hundred years or so.

In the 'La Fanciulla del West', Puccini uses the idea of three distinct one-act operas with different kinds of music for different situations and characters that take place on the stage. For instance, there is a special native american music for some characters in the Opera performance and there is sad, melancholic music when all the miners get nostalgic about their homes and their relations. Furthermore, there are various rise and falls in the music depending on the emotional outlook of the characters on the stage as well as the dramatic rise whenever the audience is anticipating the climax of a scene or that particular act.

So the exhilarating possibility of different people coming together with different kinds of music and mixing together and performing together is what characterizes the New York modern art scene because it not only speaks for the art that is being showcased but also for the cosmopolitan face of the modernity of New York.

Friday, January 7, 2011

In THE crowd...

From my previous posts, it can be inferred that I am curious about the buzz, hustle and bustle and the level of "activity" in New York City, especially in Manhattan. Apparently, the "rich windows", "huge hotels", "side-walks wide" and "mincing, shuffling feet" as described in 'Broadway' by Whitman characterize life in New York. Furthermore, there are shopping marts like 'Walgreens' which are full of convincing salespersons for whom 'you' are just a means to the completion of their weekly or monthly target. Then, these towering residential and commercial buildings not only belittle your individual existence but also make 'you' feel insignificant and weak. Finally, how can I forget the subways and the subway stations who, with their "expressways" and unfathomable routes and schedules, play their own part in this modern drama of discarding individual identity.

So after spending three eventful days in New York and a delightful afternoon in the Whitney Museum appreciating Hopper's work on New York city in particular and other works in general, I feel inclined to ask the following questions: Is modernization equivalent to De-individualization? Can someone be modern and maintain his individual identity at the same time or does it have to be a trade-off?

 Hopper's work struck me because, unlike other artists of his time and unlike the common perception about the modern New York city, his perception goes way deeper right at the heart of the interior of this wonderfully 'modern' city. The image of this woman (see top), sitting alone in a cubicle like claustrophobic but well furnished room, with her back to the observer epitomizes the loneliness and desolation of an individual in this city which is ironically bustling with crowds. The dark colors perhaps add to the 'darkness' of the interior of New York despite its brightly lit streets and buildings and the fact that the painting does not utilize the full frame might have something to say about the notion of being incomplete that individuals living in New York might have. Furthermore, like other works of Hopper such as "A woman in the sun" and the "Morning Sun", this painting, with the woman facing the closed door of the room, also gives a sense that she is waiting for somebody or something to happen and until then her life seems to have arrived at a standstill even though "Business goes on as usual" in the city.

So as I examine life in NY more closely, I become more and more curious about what is 'really' inside these crowds?