A few weeks ago, I went to see “3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets,” a riveting documentary about the shooting death of Jordan Davis at a Jacksonville gas station. It’s well worth your time.
On the way out, I picked up a Midtown Art film calendar that had Apu’s face on the cover. Apu as in Satyajit Ray’s “The Apu Trilogy, the highly acclaimed series of films about a free-spirited Bengali boy who grows into a man of the world.
Ray was my mother’s cousin and I always knew him as Manikmama. Manik was his nickname; mama means mother’s brother.
Ray directed more than 30 films and went on to gain international fame. But he also wrote books and made movies aimed at children. I grew up with tales of Feluda, the sleuth, and Professor Shonku, the scientist who spoke 69 languages.
But it was film, and specifically, “The Apu Trilogy” that catapulted Ray to international fame.
“Never having seen a Satyajit Ray film is like never having seen the sun or moon,” declared Japanese director Akira Kurusawa. That was a quote often recited in my hometown, Kolkata. Ray was such a point of pride, along with Mother Teresa and Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist.
Bengalis hailed him as a hero for the fame he showered on his people but many shied away from his work. His films were too negative, someone once told me. They were too real.
Yes, too real for comfort in a country still struggling to lift all boats. Ray’s movies were the opposite of Bollywood and had little to offer to the masses who wanted to escape at the cinema, not see their own reality.
“Pather Panchali,” which means Song of the Path, tells the story of Apu as a boy from a poor family in rural West Bengal. “Aparajito” or “The Unvanquished” follows Apu through his formative years as the family faces crushing poverty. Finally, we see Apu as an adult who marries and faces tragedy in the last of the trilogy, “Apur Sanser,” or “The World of Apu.”
For many years, I told my Western friends to watch Ray’s films to gain a better understanding of the place I came from, for insight into what life was like in Bengal. But the film quality was always poor, especially when the only way to see these films was to rent videotapes from Blockbuster.But now the films have been digitally restored and the subtitles are clear. If you live in Atlanta, I encourage you to go see the Ray trilogy at the Midtown Art Cinema, playing for a week starting August 14. Otherwise, you can always rent the DVDs or buy them online.The last time I saw my uncle was in 1992 when I went to visit him at his residence on Bishop Lefroy Road in Kolkata. He was in his usual stance — in repose on a wicker lounger with a cigarette in one hand and a cup of tea in the other. A month later, he received an honorary Oscar, the only Indian to receive an Academy Award to date.Audrey Hepburn presented the award to Ray, who by then had fallen gravely ill and was confined to his bed at a Kolkata hospital. I remember watching him on television that night, fighting tears of pride.He died shortly after, on April 23, 1992.There are many Indians in the world of art who have now made a name for themselves outside their homeland. But Ray, like Rabindranath Tagore in the literary world, was a pioneer.So many of my mother’s relatives were artistically inclined. They were painters, designers, poets and writers. I can’t help but feel that Ray had something to do with that. Or at least that his spirit guides me from within.
I worked for the Center for Participant Education at Florida State University and we had invited Angelou to speak on campus. I went with my friend Graciela Cuervo to fetch her at the Tallahassee airport, shook her hand and said: “Maya, I am so happy to finally meet you.”
She was a towering figure in so many ways. Even physically. She stood 6 feet tall.
She looked at me and said: “Ms. Basu, it’s Ms. Angelou.”
I was taken aback. I had not imagined her to be, well, so Diva-like.
She sent me all over town to find her an avocado sandwich. I moved her things from a west-facing room at the Holiday Inn because it was too hot. That night, at the event, I had to allow people to sit on the floor behind the podium on the stage — there were not enough seats in the auditorium. She didn’t like that and made it clear she didn’t. But on stage, she told everyone, in her resounding voice, how thrilled she was to be among them.
Others, including my friend Valerie Boyd, who curated the literary component of the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, have also spoken about how demanding Angelou could be. Journalist and writer A’Leila Bundles said she was dignity personified but sometimes haughty and over the top, according to folks who groused about the special items her contract required.
“Was the story about the rider requesting 30 year old cognac true or apocryphal?” Bundles asked. “That rumor, and the way she carried herself were the source of caricatures in recent years. How dare a little black girl speak with such precision and carry herself with such grace? Well, dare she did.”
If anyone had the right to be demanding, it was Angelou.
She grew up poor in a small Arkansas town, raised by a grandmother who assured a black girl in a brutally racist society that she was worthy, important and talented. She was pioneering in literature and wrote about the cruelty of Jim Crow like no other black woman had done before for wider audiences.
I was 16 when I read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” I was blown away.
Angelou gave voice to women of color. Her work continues to inspire generations of women, who, like me, drew from her words a strength to always live with pride.
The news of Angelou’s death spread quickly Wednesday. There are many obituaries and appreciations online. I urge you to read them, to learn more about a phenomenal woman.
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies. I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size But when I start to tell them, They think I’m telling lies. I say, It’s in the reach of my arms, The span of my hips, The stride of my step, The curl of my lips. I’m a woman Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That’s me.
I walk into a room Just as cool as you please, And to a man, The fellows stand or Fall down on their knees. Then they swarm around me, A hive of honey bees. I say, It’s the fire in my eyes, And the flash of my teeth, The swing in my waist, And the joy in my feet. I’m a woman Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman, That’s me.
Men themselves have wondered What they see in me. They try so much But they can’t touch My inner mystery. When I try to show them, They say they still can’t see. I say, It’s in the arch of my back, The sun of my smile, The ride of my breasts, The grace of my style. I’m a woman Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That’s me.
Now you understand Just why my head’s not bowed. I don’t shout or jump about Or have to talk real loud. When you see me passing, It ought to make you proud. I say, It’s in the click of my heels, The bend of my hair, the palm of my hand, The need for my care. ’Cause I’m a woman Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That’s me.
I saw a remarkable film this past weekend. “Finding Vivian Maier.”
If you get a chance, see it. It’s well worth your times.
Vivian was an enigma. A puzzle that no one solved.
She worked most of her life as a nanny for wealthy suburban families in Chicago. And she had a Rolleiflex (and later, other cameras) around her neck almost all her waking hours.
She took thousands and thousands of street photographs. Of men, women and children. At parks, the beach, the stockyards, downtown. Her images are incredible yet she never showed them to anyone in her lifetime. She was a loner. Eccentric. Strange.
This is what the website about her says:
“Piecing together Vivian Maier’s life can easily evoke Churchill’s famous quote about the vast land of Tsars and commissars that lay to the east. A person who fit the stereotypical European sensibilities of an independent liberated woman, accent and all, yet born in New York City. Someone who was intensely guarded and private, Vivian could be counted on to feistily preach her own very liberal worldview to anyone who cared to listen, or didn’t. Decidedly unmaterialistic, Vivian would come to amass a group of storage lockers stuffed to the brim with found items, art books, newspaper clippings, home films, as well as political tchotchkes and knick-knacks. The story of this nanny who has now wowed the world with her photography, and who incidentally recorded some of the most interesting marvels and peculiarities of Urban America in the second half of the twentieth century is seemingly beyond belief.”
A young photographer and filmmaker, John Maloof, stumbled upon her works. He is determined the world know the talent of Vivian Maier.
A headline in my hometown newspaper brought me to tears this morning. B.P. Panesar had died.
He was a renowned artist. Water color. Oil. Etchings. He was also made a name as mentor to Shakila, a poor village woman who gained fame for her collages.
He gave away his earnings as an artist to charity. He never married and lived for many years in one room at the YMCA in central Kolkata. He died in an old people’s home, still holding paint and brush.
I knew him as Uncle Panesar. My father taught at the Indian Statistical Institute, where Panesar worked, and from the instant they met, they became fast friends. My father became an advcate for Panesar’s art. In time, he became a part of our family, especially in the years we spent living on campus in north Kolkata.
He loved to listen to my mother sing Rabindrasangeet and spend hours with my brother and me.
He held me as a baby, played with me when I was a child, encouraged me to paint as a teenager and inspired my creativity as an adult.
From early on, I found Uncle Panesar to be a calming force in my life. I’d peer into his eyes, under his thick bushy eyebrows and try to imagine what was swirling inside his head. What genius, I thought, to be able to produce such visual feasts.
I was especially enamored with Panesar’s collages made with magazine and newspaper cuttings, old pictures, bus tickets and other things people tossed in the trash. Panesar gave up his own collages to train Shakila. He was so taken with her talent. I was sorry at first until I went to visit Shakila and saw for the first time the mastery within that Panesar had helped awakened.
In the late 1980s, I visited Uncle Panesar at the Y. He had moved onto etchings by then and showed me his small studio. He invited me to go see his show at the Birla Academy. I was so taken with an etching of Mother Teresa — I’d volunteered at one of her organizations many years before — that when his show was over, Uncle Panesar took it off the gallery wall and presented it to me. It hangs by my dresser. I look at it as I begin each day. And think of all the good in the world.
I had hoped to see you in a few days in Kolkata. But you did not wait. You have flown away to a better place.
The New York Times published an interesting story today about bicycles in Amsterdam. In a city of 800,000 people, there are 880,000 bicycles. The Dutch have led the way in pedal power but as the story points out, and as I found out firsthand when I was there a couple of weeks ago, the bikes can make for chaos on the streets.
I almost got mowed down by one on Herengracht.
I opted not to fight to find parking places for my bike. Not to fight for space with other cyclists on crowded streets. Instead, I walked.
And did things you cannot do on a bike. Like meander through the city’s Zuid district and soak in the annual sculpture show. I got off Tram 16 and walked south on Minervalaan, stopping at sculptures made by artists from all over the world. Among them: China’s Ai Wewei and Nigeria’s Sokari Douglas Camp. In all, there were 66 pieces on display under the summer sun.
“In 2008, Cintha van Heeswijck took the initiative to draw greater attention to the urban expansion of the south of Amsterdam, known as the Plan-Zuid, designed by architect H.P. Berlage almost a hundred years ago. This world-class platform for sculpture adds a jewel to Amsterdam’s crown of leading cultural events.”
After my two-hour stroll, I agreed.
Read the New York Times bike story here: http://nyti.ms/10BPQcq
I became a fan of Frida Kahlo after reading Hayden Herrera’s biography in 1983. Fan might be an understatement. I should say I became obsessed with Friday. I went to Mexico City and spent hours in the garden of the Blue House in Coyacan, where Frida and Diego lived for many years.
I’d seen most of the paintings on display at the High before, but I never tire of seeing Frida’s work. The exhibit also includes numerous photographs.
In her life, Frida, of course, was overshadowed in every sense of the word by Diego Rivera. He was larger than life — already established as one of Mexico’s finest painters and commissioned to paint his murals in important places. I am glad to see Frida take her place next to him in this exhibit. As an equal, if not more.