Kulasekarapattinam Dassara Festival.

Kulasekarapattinam, October 2013.


You want it to stop but it won’t stop. You fall under its spell and suddenly you can hear everything; so total, all at once; the wrinkles of your skin like accordion bellows, a note for every spasm, a stab with every inward breath. I was standing, as were a hundred thousand other people, and I was falling, as were at least what I thought was all of them. Who is to know and who is to care. I was falling and I thought I was going to be crushed under the feet of the hundred thousand impatient mad men until there is neither thought nor wonder left in the jellied remains of what could be then, anybody. Nothing prepares you for death; and nothing prepares you for almost death.


What's hardest is the helplessness. When the mob takes you over. When you feel like you've lost control of yourself, when you are now everybody. When you’re neither falling nor standing, when you’re without balance and without physics,  when you’re waiting to fall expecting to be trampled upon, when a thousand strange elbows pierce your neck, spine, shoulders and every other square inch of your flesh. Sweaty bodies, slimy, slippery, writhing and wriggling, unable to move, defeatist but fighting, grabbing and shoving in anguish and hopeless failure. When you’re a pincushion for the desperate and you drown in helplessness. That’s the hardest. A certain helplessness that only laughter can understand. There is no pain, just anguish. And there is no relief, just wonder. 


No air felt as cool, and if i did feel relief, I know of no other feeling as absolute, as when I found myself standing alone bare moments later, still alive, still breathing, albeit with a shortness of breath.


They were dressed as gods but they're not gods. Fires. Scorching flames mere inches from tortured faces. Forcing themselves to experience pain, as if penance absolves; suffering now to be saved later. Trances and temporary insanity. Death felt so close, yet so far. Somehow, I don’t fear death so much as I fear how it will happen. Religious fervor is a mad rush. The energy can rattle your bones. You don't love God so much as you sentence yourself to feel like his slave, and it feels good, like you deserve it. For the love of god. Hah.


It was too hot to even stand near the cinders. The sun had already burned the earth to a crisp. But, sometimes, when I have my camera in my hands, I lose a sense of primal humanness. I dissipate into energies, I stop thinking, I stop being. The mob forces your hand, feeding you with energy you know is not your own. Totality is everything I look for in experience. The trance is scary and addictive.


I ran into the strangest people dressed in masks stranger still. To me, masks have always been a metaphor for disguise. A veneer of pretense, should it be thought about it in ways it shouldn’t be thought about. But I ran into people who became their masks, people who let their souls shine through, people who were transformed by what they were wearing. I remain unsure if they became their masks or if their masks let them become themselves. I remember a mother who pointed at her kid and told me, "take his picture, he's my son, he is mad”. “Paithiyam-pullai”, she kept repeating. His mother laughed and he smiled. I looked at his face and I searched for sadness but I couldn't find it, so I provided my own and I felt sorry. He just smiled. I took his photograph. It makes me sad when I look at it. But he looks so happy. It tears me up.


on retirement and art...

Retirement is on all of our minds today, and Chennai wears its weather wisely, a brooding grey that melts into rain and catches the light as it falls upon and disappears into a film of glaze upon every leaf that breathes life into our narrow little lives within this concrete maze. After Sachin’s beautiful retirement speech brought that familiar wet film of glaze to my own eyes, the eyes of somebody who has not ever watched  a sport with any real element of passion or sincerity, I could not help but wonder why I felt the way I did. I’ve heard his name for ever since I remember hearing names, and I like his face and I like his smile and there’s something about his demeanor that makes me want to trust. And he’s going away, breaking a billion hearts while at it, and that made me sad, and a little proud. 


Our greats retire, our legends die, and of course, not without leaving something much bigger than their own persons behind. Their journeys are beautiful and most of the rest of us slave away at the ends of our leashes so we can partake with them upon their magical journeys; 4 extra hours of work on a weekend to afford that concert ticket or season pass. 


Last evening I was at the Music Academy, to enjoy one such concert. Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and Pandit Birju Maharaj were performing together. Every year we lose a few of our greatest musicians, those whose repertoires and contributions elevated them on to the plinth of legend, living legends, as they were known while they still performed upon a stage somewhere unto their dying breaths. I remember being at Pandit Ravi Shankar’s concert at the Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco(oh how I miss San Francisco!), one year before his death, he was 91 years old then. I remember wondering what kind of vegetable I’d be when(if) I’m 91, as I sat in my balcony seat waiting for the concert to begin. He was carried on to the stage by two people, he sat on a platform because he could not sit cross-legged anymore, the sitar was placed on his lap, and he played a fabulous 2 hours that I enjoyed so thoroughly that it greatly bothered the strangers who sat in their seats around me. One of them asked me if I was a fan :)

 I met a husband and wife who’d been at Monterey Pop. Yes, they still looked like hippies. They were proud to have been a part of his journey, they told me. I believed them. His Bhimpalasi from that performance is a return to center for me, and I go there often. But, at the Davies, I heard a different Ravi Shankar from the one I was used to listening to in my records. This was a Ravi Shankar whose music had aged with him, whose abilities had waned over the years after a most blissfully magnificent peak, whose youth showed only in his eyes and sense of humor. This Ravi Shankar was mature, sedate, meditative, magical. It was not what I expected going in, and it was strange what we got, but it was beautiful nevertheless, and I didn’t care to think about it much after, except in fond reminiscence, sometimes stopping to brag about having been there.


Last evening, I was at the Music Academy, to enjoy one such concert, all over again. Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, more than anybody else, is one of my favorite musicians. He’s a conscious favorite, somebody whose music I choose to listen to over others when the mood to listen to music strikes me, or the necessity to set the mood through music tempts me. Hariji is my default musician, much like how Ravi Shankar’s recital of that Bhimpalasi from the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival is my default performance. But, last evening, as younger musicians shone brighter, and Hariji seemed to disappear into the background, I felt myself being gripped in a sadness that stopped often to betray fear. Look at his hands trembling, I thought. They shook violently while he played, only to stop when he stopped playing, and I told myself that he did it to achieve nuances in his tone to add beauty to his song, but it was blatantly obvious to me that my favorite immortal legend was showing signs of his age. While Kaushiki Chakrabarty delved blows directly to our collective psyches through a voice and effort that exhibited such grace, texture and dexterity in what were unimaginably long and complicated phrases, Hariji would respond with short, beautifully well-worded replies. But I could feel his struggle, his inability to give his instrument everything he’d previously gifted it with. His age had caught up to his playing, and it made me sad. But his ideas had developed, and his phrases, though short and simple, were beautiful as ever.


Today, as I spoke about last night’s concert, a few friends wondered aloud about why he wouldn’t just retire, being as it was obvious that he was well past his prime, and, retirement being on all of our minds today. We talked of legacy, preservation and quitting while still ahead. But our musicians don’t retire. Our artists, those who mean anything to us, they can’t retire. They continue to perform every day until the last day that they possibly can. Does an artist ever retire? I mused that the tragedy of an artist quitting would far trump that of a more restrained performance. 


Last night’s concert taught me something, and thinking about Pandit Ravi Shankar’s concert at the Davies Symphony, I recollect that it had taught me something too, I just hadn’t asked myself the question yet. Art mimics life and life mimics art and the duality requires that they both accept the realities of their being, the reality being that both life and art are resolutely cyclical. And these are musicians who were born with a gift perhaps, but no fruit or knowledge yet, people who made the effort and gave it their all, went to places even their masters had never seen, achieved a peak that lasted many decades, people whose ages caught up to them to end the cycle that they were gifted with, but most of all, people whose ideas never stopped developing. When you are so involved with your art, that it becomes your life, you need to see it through to the end, or you just stop living. When Hariji played yesterday, every breath was a measured effort, every note was an expenditure of a finite resource, every phrase was thoroughly considered, every nuance was a product of a lifetime of perfection, and what he produced, while not being an exhibition of technical ability or a mastery of technique, was instead, a display of honesty and genius. Every time Kaushiki flaunted and showed-off her own well-developed skill and ability, she herself being at her best yet, Hariji would move the performance slowly along, with his short, simple responses, taking the conversation to a new place every time. And I know that his presence made her more brilliant than she would have ever been taking the stage on her own. He was meant to be there, to pass his gift along.


What we witnessed yesterday, between two 75-year olds, still keeping at their art, was something special. It is their art, on its way to the end of its life-cycles. It is sad, but it’s the truth. The crescendo is the most impressive, but the closing act is the most important. Last evening’s concert made me feel things that so many of his best and most brilliant performances never made me feel. I felt sadness as his hands trembled, the mere visual was heart-breaking and opened me up to feel more than I ever would have otherwise. I felt fear as he ran out breath, knowing that the end was near. His music, of course, as always, was magic. A performance, truly. The best art always breaks my heart. Last night’s concert was heart-breaking.


It’s night now, the rain has stopped, the light has come home and the streets are empty. I wish forever were a real thing, but tomorrow exists to disprove us everyday. Tonight, a swan, somewhere, is singing its song. I wonder who’s listening.


Crit Group Meet 1: 3:00PM, Saturday, 19th October, 2013

Crit Group Meet 1: 3:00PM, Saturday, 19th October, 2013

We have a date! In a little under two weeks, we will have our first meeting at my studio in Anna Nagar. I think it is plenty of time to prepare, and plenty of time to spread the word. Further, we can decide to meet on the third saturday of every consecutive month. If you haven’t written to me yet, do it now. 

Decided a facebook group would be the best way to do this.

You can find the group here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/chennaicrits/. It is open to everybody and you can invite people as you see fit.

The event is listed here: https://www.facebook.com/events/634226333296326/?notif_t=plan_user_joined 

See you there!


Critique Group

Hello everybody,

I’m setting up a critique group in Chennai. I have a studio in Anna Nagar with enough wall and floor space, and I’m happy to host. As a photographer, this will primarily be a photo critique group- but it cannot stop there. I’d like for everybody who wants to sit in or participate in a conversation with a group of artists to be a part of this group. The benefits of a mixed group is immense for everybody who intends to show work at our meetings. Painters, printmakers, filmmakers sculptors, writers, critical thinkers, art historians, people who love art, people who love conversations, musicians, anybody, really. So far, a handful of people are in(GREAT!), and I’d like to open an invitation to anybody who’s interested. I’d also like for you to send anybody who you think might be interested this way. My email ID is rohit.sabu@gmail.com, just write to me.

A few thoughts(and these thoughts need work- maybe a critique group can help):

  1. Meetings monthly/bi-monthly. Smaller meetings any time that anybody is up for it.
  2. We will probably not be talking commercial work, unless it is of a personal nature to you and YOU want to talk about it.
  3. WORK IN PROGRESS. This should be a rule. Not that any work by any artist is ever truly “complete”.
  4. Prints. There’s nothing like prints. We need to be able to talk scale and texture and tactility and materiality and how all of this affects the work you’re showing. This should be a rule too. (Of course, if you work outside of the print medium, then this doesn’t apply to you.)
  5. I have a small collection of photo books that I really love. I know a lot of you do too. This can be an opportunity to share the work we admire, and even discuss it.
  6. This group will be about sharing. This is a rule.
  7. I have a black and white darkroom. You are welcome to it. Bring your own chemistry.
  8. Maybe we can do studio visits/gallery tours as the group develops.
  9. Critical theory readings/discussions. I don’t know. Discussing something we’ve read is always a good way to start a critique.
  10. People from other cities who want in. I don’t know where this thought is going or even where it should go.
  11. I think we need to have our first meeting over the next three weeks. Sitting on the idea of starting such a group for too long with only result in the vaporization of the idea. We WILL have our first meeting this month, October ’13.

Happy to have a discussion in the comments, or privately over email. Please share this post with anybody you think might be interested. Thanks!!



a meditation on hope...

I am but a dissonant in the phrasal resolution of a most beautiful song. Decisions must be the curse of the devil upon the human condition, for nature never needs to make a decision, nature operates solely upon a cosmic whim. I wish I could too, and I probably will, since there are no right or wrong decisions– only good or bad decisions, in reflection, upon the affect of time. 

The world is cruel, wretched, and unsympathetically beautiful. If there is a draw on my heart-strings it is of that damnedest despair, whence every feather draws blood and every rose bud is bitter, where the tug is unpleasant, but the recoil is music, a bloody finger on a lute that produces the most incomprehensible of sounds. Damned am I when the day comes that my music speaks in a tongue I no longer understand. I know the day is coming, as I see more and understand less already, aloof as I have become, a stranger in my own home. Yet while the only door I encounter might be locked, and the percussion of my frantic thumping upon the hard wood frame might seem musical on the other side, the bruises upon my knuckles are of a pain that only I will ever understand. It is that pain that is music, and it is that music that is beautiful. Should I wish, with all my might, that the door be unlocked, it is not hope that I channel, but merely want. Hope is not in front of me, hope can never take the place of desire. Hope is merely reassurance: a locked room with an open window.

I am going home, and I might hate myself for it, but at least I will be home.