Jagathish Prabhu was one of more than seventy artists exhibiting today at an open-air art fair in Chennai. I really like his charming, idiosyncratic take on life in this corner of India - I bought one of his paintings, I wonder if you can guess which one? (Read till the end and you'll find out).
The fair is an annual event, when there's no pandemic, in the enchanting Nageswara Rao Park in Mylapore and it is well attended.
My old friend Vincent d'Souza - once the BBC's man in (what was then) Madras, and now, among other things, the editor of the Mylapore Times - is the key organiser. And how wonderful to be able to hold an art fair outdoors!
And I'm happy to say that the news media was there in decent numbers
Several portraitists were present willing to sketch a quick portrait for a very reasonable 150 rupees (that's £1.50) - almost irresistible! Though I did resist ...
And which of Jagathish Prabhu's paintings did I plump for? Well, here's the whole selection -
And this is the one I went for ... peeling film poster, cow, temple, perhaps a slightly dated take on Tamil Nadu, but it has charm and colour, it's well executed, and I like it.
Bernard Ingham once loomed large in my life. He was Margaret Thatcher's press secretary throughout her years as prime minister, from 1979 to 1990. For the last two years of Mrs T's time in No. Ten, I was the BBC World Service lobby correspondent (in other words, a political correspondent who also had the right to attend the twice daily, then off the record, lobby briefings usually given by the PM's press secretary).
I went along fairly religiously to the 11 o'clock morning lobby in 10 Downing Street, and more occasionally to the 4 pm afternoon lobby in the press room high up in the attics of the Houses of Parliament.
Ingham was bluff and at times bombastic. He was brought up in Hebden Bridge (now made famous as the setting for Happy Valley) - his father was a weaver and Labour councillor. He worked for the Yorkshire Post and then as a labour correspondent covering trades unions and industrial relations, for (strange as it may seem) the Guardian.
He was seen initially as a Labour supporter, though not an ideologue. But in the course of the 1970s he moved sharply to the right, and came to believe that the unions and their leadership were part of the problem not the answer.
Like Mrs T, Bernard saw himself as an outsider in Westminsiter. That was about both class and geography (and of course in Thatcher's case, gender too). And like her, he was impatient with - and sometimes contemptuous of - the cosy Whitehall establishment. As far as journalists were concerned, Ingham's great virtues were that he really instictively understood his boss, so he really did say what she thought ... and he was sometimes indiscreet.
I only caught the rough side of his tongue once. I was a very junior member of the lobby, and rarely asked questions at the lobby briefings. I recall that one time Arafat was in town and was coming round to the foreign office, but wasn't due to see the foreign secretary (then Geoffrey Howe, I think). I asked if, should the foreign secretary have a chance encounter while Arafat was at the foreign office, the two men would shake hands. This led to a minor ourburst. 'On no, I'm not going to get caught on that one again! You'll have to do better than that. I'm not answering bloody hypothetical questions. Forget it!'
He had recently got himself in a bit of bother for comments in response to another speculative question, and was clearly still a little wounded.
I liked Bernard Ingham, and from memory I believe I went to the lobby's farewell for him - when Thatcher left No 10, as I recall, he went too. John Major brought in a new press secretary, Gus O'Donnell.
He was at heart a hack, and he was still writing a column for the Yorkshire Post until a few weeks ago.
Fish markets always offer enticing images. And fish sellers - around the world, almost always women - are usually content to be photographed.
This tiny fish market is in a dingy courtyard behind a temple off Chennai's Eldams Road. I came across it by chance late in the afternoon, and there were two well stocked women-run stalls and two men who descaled, gutted and chopped up the fish that customers bought.
One of these men boasted of being the 'cutting master' - disembowelling, filleting and dicing the fish so the purchases are ready to cook.
And he was keen to show off his prowess with a cleaver.
As for the fish on display, well Chennai is on the Bay of Bengal and renowned for its seafood. Fish stalls are always a mix of the appetising, the intriguing and the grotesque.
This small fish market was both tucked away and not particularly well patronised - perhaps I came at the wrong time. But because it wasn't busy, the stall holders had the time and inclination to humour me. Thank you!
Wherever there are Hindu temples in Chennai, you also find fantastic flower stalls. Behind the stalls, men and women thread garlands which they sell to devotees. The really elaborate garlands are expensive - but if you want to buy simply a handful of rosebuds, as I did, that's just 10 rupees (about 10 pence).
The stalls always add life and colour to the streets around the temple, and the stall holders are usually very happy to be photographed - on this visit no one said 'no' (and I always ask before clicking).
These stalls are outside the Balasubramanya Swamy temple, which is on Eldams Road - near where I stay - and is decidated to Lord Murugan. It's said to be almost 500 years old and its design is typical of many temples in Tamil Nadu.
The flower stall holders are both men and women, young and old - I suspect that the stalls close to the main entrance to the temple, which have the grandest garlands, attract a premium rent.
Some of the stall holders were dextrously threading garlands between customers and happy to show how it's done -
Other stalls sell coconuts and other items which can be used as 'prasad', a ritual food offering to the gods. But it's the flower sellers which add such exuberance to Chennai's streets.
My first full day in Chennai - and on Sunday I went to an art exhibition, a group endeavour to raise funds for a fellow artist who has been unwell.
Among the artists displaying was my friend Yusuf Madhiya, who is shown here with two examples of his work. He has a very distinct style which has brought him considerable success.
The lower of his two art works is his rendition of the spirit of the wood, included below along with the work of some of the other artists displaying:
I didn't arrive in time for the official opening - or the address by the guest of honour, an artist whose name is Trotsky ... and if you think that's a surprising moniker for Tamil Nadu, don't forget that the state's chief minister is Stalin.
(I seem to remember that Stalin and Trotsky mark 1 didn't rub along too well - I've no idea how things are between their current day namesakes).
The venue was an old Gandhian institution, the Thakkar Bapa Vidyalaya Samithi, which has some delightful touches of architectural style though its level of upkeep is less delightful:
Thakkar Bapa was a Gandhian and social activist who worked particularly on behalf of Dalits and of Adivasis, India's tribal communities. Indeed, he is said to have devised the word 'adivasi' as a respectful term for forest dwellers and those of tribal heritage.
His bust is, need I say, on display - graced by what appear to be a real pair of glasses! I hope they got the lens prescription right ...
Wonderful, joyful, to be back in Chennai! I am teaching here for a seventh successive year. But because of the pandemic, over the last two years the teaching sessions have been on Zoom. So this is the first time in three years that I've been in the city that was once known as Madras.
I had a walk round my Chennai 'manor' last night. The bookshop has gone - and the gym - and the coffee stall; the 'Winter Palace', the local Russian restaurant (really!), is another casualty of Covid. But the paan stall is still here, and the local shops - I've heard word of a new tapas bar nearby - and of course the Luz church is still going strong after half-a-millennium as you can see.
I am ridiculously pleased with the photo above, and the way in which the young girl's trousers reprise the colour of the evening sky, which in turn reflects the electric red cross at the apex of the building.
The Luz church was built by the Portuguese and bears the date 1516 - so older by far than the first Anglican church in India (also in Chennai) or the oldest Armenian church. Not that the Portuguese brought Christianity to this corner of India. Many local Christians would credit that to St Thomas, 'Doubting' Thomas, who not only brought the gospel to South India but is said to have been martyred near Chennai in 53 AD/CE.
The church's full name in Portuguese was Nossa Senhora da Luz, Our Lady of Light - and in the early evening light, it's at its best.
I have on my bookshelves the novels - many of them Book Society choices and first editions - that my father read in the late Fifties and early Sixties. He would then have been in his mid-to-late thirties.
I like having them there, but don't often read them. But I have just read Stan Barstow's first, and best-known, novel A Kind of Loving. It was published in 1960 and is, broadly, a tender and acutely observed account of an ill-matched romance in a small West Yorkshire town (not all that dissimilar to the West Riding town where I was born).
The central character, Vic Brown, works as a draughtsman in an engineering company. His father is a miner. To judge by the biographical account of the author on the back cover, there must be a fair bit of him in Vic and his awkward journey to adult responsibilities.
The excellent front cover was designed by Adrian Bailey. The park plays an important role in the novel. And yes, it's absolutely worth reading.
It's amazing what you can find on eBay!
(Alternative opening line: 'Why would anyone pay good, hard-earned cash for this?')
Well, I did pay a few (though not very many) quid for this - I love political ephemera. This handbill dates from October 1968, just a few months after Tariq Ali and a few mates launched Black Dwarf with the most memorable front cover slogan of the Sixties:
Tariq Ali was prominent in street protests from the mid-1960s - this photo is from 1965 ...
.. and in 1968 he memorably strode alongside Vanessa Redgrave in one of the big anti-Vietnam War marches to the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square: this marvellous photograph by John Walmsley from March 1968 is in the National Portrait Gallery.
A while back, while going through newspapers in an archive, I came across this wonderful photo and short piece about Tariq Ali. I can't immediately find a note of which paper it was in - I suspect it dates from the first half of 1964, when Ali would have been in his first year at Oxford:
It's not a brilliant photo, so here's what the text says underneath the image:
'Tariq Ali Khan, 20-year-old Oxford student and grandson of the late Sir Sikandar Hyat Khan, a former Punjab Prime Minister, has been "gated" (confined to College) by the Proctors for participating in demonstrations against the South African Ambassador who visited Oxford last June. Tariq is taking his four-week sentence with good humour. Before he went into confinement, he threw a party that lasted till dawn, also advertised in Isis, the University newspaper, for sociable company (preferably female) to share his "gated" hours and play chess, draughts or snakes and ladders.'
That's the way to do it!
Some encouraging news! Work is underway on restoring the wonderful Bradlaugh Hall in Lahore, named after Charles Bradlaugh and one of the most important rallying points of South Asian nationalism before independence.
I had the privilege of visiting Bradlaugh Hall three years ago - it was exciting to be there and commune with its past, but sad that such an iconic building was derelict and in poor repair.
The Walled City of Lahore Authority announced last April plans to restore the hall - but it's one thing to proclaim good intentions, and another to get down to work.
Faizan Naqvi - who very kindly took me to the Bradlaugh Hall three years ago - has sent me these photos of the work underway. It's not clear how long the work will take or what purpose the hall will be used for once the work is complete, but at least the Bradlaugh Hall has been saved from gradual decay.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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