Last night I dreamt I went to Mandalay again …

That is nearly the famous opening line of Daphne du Maurier‘s haunting novel Rebecca. But no, I am not talking about Manderley but of Mandalay, the last royal capital of Burma. Built on the east bank of the Irrawaddy River and at the foot of the Mandalay Hill, it is the seat of Burmese culture.

The origin of the name Mandalay is unknown but is speculated to derive from a Pali word – either Mandala, meaning, circular plains,  or Mandaraa mountain from Hindu mythology.

A city was founded by King Mindon in 1857 as the new royal capital on the 2400th jubilee of Buddhism. It was built to fulfill a prophecy of a metropolis of Buddhism standing at the exact same location. The city was named YadanabonCity of Gems, or Lay Kyun Aung Myei meaning Victorious Land over the Four Islands. King Mindon’s royal palace was named  Mya Nan San Kyaw.

The king also commissioned the Kuthodaw Pagoda, the Pahtan-haw Shwe Thein hall, the Thudhamma Zayats or public houses for preaching the Doctrine, and the library for the Buddhist scriptures. In June 1857, the former royal palace of Amarapura was dismantled and moved by elephants to the new location at the foot of Mandalay Hill.

For the next 26 years, Mandalay was to be the last royal capital until the British conquered Burma and incorporated it into its Indian empire. The British administered Burma as a province of India till 1937 when it was briefly a self-governing colony until its independence in 1948.

Independent Burma started life as a parliamentary democracy but beset with strife as warring ethnic groups struggled under the dominance of the Burman majority. In 1962, following a military coup, General Ne Win came to power. In the fledgling democracy now there were no free elections and freedom of expression was almost completely denied. Student and worker protests were brutally suppressed and the Burmese people were tortured and imprisoned at the slightest suspicion of dissension.

Under General Ne Win’s isolationist policy and his “Burmese Way to Socialism” , the country faced an acute shortage of  rice that sparked widespread popular discontent amongst the people. By August 8, 1988 or 8-8-88, university students were  joined by monks, civil servants, workers, and even policemen and soldiers. They  took to the streets in cities and towns all over Burma to demand that General Ne Win and his BSPP regime be removed and replaced by an elected civilian government. Thousands of unarmed protesters died when the military fired on them.

Finally after 40 days the army responded to protesters and staged a coup to remove General Ne Win to replace him with a ruling military junta. Then the new military junta turned their machine guns on the people in Rangoon and a few other cities … It is not known how many people actually died. It is estimated at least 10,000 people were killed in the carnage. Thousands more were imprisoned and tortured.

The military junta pledged to hold elections once “peace and tranquility” were restored in Burma. But the Burmese people saw little to be optimistic about. In September 1988 Aung San Suu Kyi – daughter of the Burma’s founding father and assassinated independence hero, General Aung San– in her first political move, joined the National League for Democracy as its secretary-general.

Aung San Suu Kyi is seen here aged two, with her parents and two elder brothers in 1947.

Aung San Suu Kyi gave numerous speeches calling for freedom and democracy but in July 1989 she was placed under house arrest. She and other NLD officials had no access to media and few resources to fight an election as compared to the ruling junta.

To most observers’ surprise a free vote was allowed to take place in May 1990. Out of the 485 parliamentary seats contested, the NLD won 392, the ethnic minority parties opposed to miilitary junta won 65 more and the army-backed NUP won ten seats, a resounding rejection of military rule!

Undeterred the military junta refused to relinquish power. More NLD leaders were arrested, some died in prison and many members “resigned” under the pressure of continued intimidation. Meanwhile with only brief respites, Aung San Suu Kyi continued life under house arrest or in prison. It became increasingly clear that she was being held to prevent her from running in the multi-party parliamentary elections scheduled to take place in 2010. New laws were enacted which gave proof to this belief. One law disqualified anyone who was married to a foreign national from running for office.  Suu Kyi is a widow of Michael Aris, a British citizen, whose funeral she was not allowed to attend in 1999.

The NLD boycotted the elections so the government parties won easily amid widespread allegations of voter fraud. Suu Kyi was released and a nominally civilian government led by President Thein Sein – former general and prime minister in the military junta – was sworn in.

However a series of reforms followed and a first ever visit from a US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton in December 2011 seemed to set the stage for a change in Burma’s destiny.  Most political prisoners are now free, there is semblance of a free media and, crucially, Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD have rejoined the political process.

Two days ago, in a by-election in which Ms Suu Kyi ran for political office for the first time, she and her NLD party won 40 out of the 45 seats contested. This is the first election that could be called free and fair in Burma.

It’s a baby step towards democracy for a nation that has seen so much violence, oppression and bloodshed. It’s time to lift the sanctions imposed on Burma that have kept the country poorer than Haiti. It’s time for Burma to come out of political and economic isolation.

And it’s time for the world to know about Mandalay again.


“You take pictures, I paint …”

Born on January 23, 1916 in Kansas City, David Douglas Duncan is one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century. His career in photography started unwittingly when he went to shoot some pictures of a fire at the old Congress Hotel in Tucson on his new 39-cent Bakelite Univex camera . One of the subjects that drew his attention was an excitable man who insisted on trying to enter the burning hotel to retrieve his suitcase. Duncan snapped a picture of the gent and three days later learned it was a picture he took of John Dillinger, Public Enemy No. 1 – whose story was made into a film starring Johnny Depp! While the photograph did not survive, the experience had a indelible impression on young Duncan.

Armed with a bachelors degree in Zoology and Spanish he set sail on an uncharted course to create a new profession – photo journalism. When the Second World War broke Duncan worked as a combat photographer. Not only did he “get the story” he brought his cameras close enough to tell the world it was the men and women who fought the war, not the war machinery.

Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu, assisted by Foreign Ministry representative Toshikazu Kase, signs the Instrument of Surrender on behalf of the Japanese Government, on board the USS Missouri, September 2nd, 1945. U.S. Army Lieutenant General Richard K. Sutherland, watches from the opposite side of the table.

When Duncan landed a job at Life magazine and was asked, “Can you be in Persia this weekend?” his dream of dreams had come true. His assignments included capturing the fading glory of the British Raj in India to the numerous conflicts in Turkey, Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

U.S. Marine inside the cone of fire at Con Thien, September/October 1967.

When the subject of a photograph is War or anguish, it is easy to forget how much artistry goes into shooting the picture – the perfect light, the perfect angle, the perfect composition and the fact that both the photographer and the subject are in imminent danger of losing their lives. You need both artistic sensibility and clearheadedness. Duncan has both in spadefuls and is a master of his visual media.

In 1956, taking up on a suggestion by a close friend, Robert Capa, Duncan knocked on the door of Pablo Picasso‘s villa in the South of France. His gumption paid off when the two men almost instantly hit it off and moments later, Duncan was taking the first of several portraits of  the artist.

Born on October 25, 1881 in the city of Málaga in the Andalusian region of Spain, Pablo Picasso’s family was middle class and his ancestors were minor aristocrats. At age 10, he was a deft little artist who was being tutored by his father, José Ruiz Blasco. Young Pablo soon surpassed his father’s abilities and when the family moved from A Coruña to Barcelona, Pablo joined the local art academy for what was hoped to be a career as an academic painter. Two years later he won an honourable mention in the Madrid Fine Arts Exhibition for a painting called Ciencia y Caridad or Science and Charity in which his father modeled for the doctor.

His next step was an obvious move to the Spanish capital of Madrid but finding the instructions given at the Royal Academy of San Fernando stupid, he spent more and more time observing life around him. In the bustling cafes, streets, brothels and most importantly in the Prado, where the works of great painters before him captured his imagination.

After recovering from an illness in the Catalan village of Horta de Ebro, Picasso returned to Barcelona and decided to break from his past – his art school training and indeed his surname, Ruiz, adopting instead his mother’s surname, Picasso. His friends were now Catalan artists and writers whose eyes were turned towards Paris.

Lovers in the street by Pablo Picasso. 1900

Eager to experience Paris first hand and conquer the city with his work – well, at least a corner of Montmatre – he set off in the company of his studio-mate Carles Casagemas. At Paris Picasso discovered that colour was not the “the black of the shawls of Spanish women, or the ochres and browns of the Spanish landscape”.  It was vibrant and brilliant and Picasso took to recording what he saw in charcoal, pastels, watercolours, and oils.

After two months Picasso returned to Barcelona but his friend Casagemas, despondent over a failed love affair, returned to Paris to shoot his lover and then turned the gun on himself.

The death of his loyal friend and a sense of guilt for having abandoned him led Picasso into the years known as his Blue Period. Between 1900 and mid-1904 Picasso moved back and forth between Barcelona and Paris. The emotional experience of Casagemas’s death and others that he gained from visits to women’s prisons or seeing the destitute beggars on the streets of Barcelona, all gave him compelling subject matter during this period.

The Soup by Pablo Picasso. 1902

'Factory at Horta de Ebro' by Picasso

Picasso was inspired by many great artists before him such as Cézanne and El Greco. However it was his work with Georges Braque that developed into what became known as Cubism, one of the most innovative and influential artistic styles of the 20th century. Early cubist paintings were misunderstood to be geometric art. It was not … it showed multiple views of an object on the same canvas almost as if the artists were trying to create a kaleidoscopic image.

Later canvases by Braque and Picasso took Cubism almost the realm of Abstract art. One such Cubist painting by Picasso is Landscape at Céret. In the words of Jan Avgikos, it was “painted with patches of muted earthy color, schematized stairways, and arched window configurations (that) exist as visual clues that must be pieced together. For this painting, as with all Cubist works, the total image must be thought as much as seen.”

Landscape at Céret (Paysage de Céret), Céret, summer 1911. Oil on canvas,

Dora Maar Au Chat by Picasso

Picasso did not stop at Cubism. His art continued to develop both stylistically and in genres encompassing sculpture, ceramics, prints and stage design.

So when this “disquieting” Spaniard with his “sombrepiercing” eyes met the American David Douglas Duncan they discovered they each had a singular passion for work, for life  that developed into an enduring friendship.

 They spoke in Spanish. “But”, says Duncan, “he would pretend not to understand what language I was talking. He would ask Jacqueline: ‘What language is he speaking?’ pointing his finger at me. ‘I think it’s Spanish,’ she would answer. ‘Yes, that’s what I thought …’ But actually we didn’t talk much, maybe 50 words in a whole day. My language was photography.”

Very clearly Duncan feels great admiration for the artist. “He was my teacher, my master […] I always called him maestro, never Pablo, not once. He called me Ismael. I never found out why …”

The friendship with Picasso had such a profound impact on Duncan that he continued to produce books about the artist years after his death. “I have covered many, many subjects as a photographer. This is the Best.”

Someone was here


It is made from unworked stones carefully piled in an arrangement for a specific purpose. While one may come across it in fairly populated parts of the Great White North, it is more often found in the vast Arctic landscape. This singular and mysterious stone structure is Inukshuk – plurally known as Inuksuit. It is the single most familiar symbol of the Inuit and their homeland.

The Inukshuk is a location marker – to mark a place of respect or a memorial for a loved one, a migration route or simply a place to do some ice fishing! The arrangement of the stones indicates the purpose of each Inukshuk.  The directions of arms or legs could indicate where lies an open channel for navigation, or a valley for passage through the mountains, or showing the path the ancient Inuit would herd the caribou where they could more easily be hunted during their annual migration. An inukshuk without arms, or with antlers affixed to it, is often a marker for where a cache of food has been hidden.

For thousands of years the Inuit people had not built any permanent settlements in the Arctic. They had simply adapted how they lived to seasonal changes in climate and the behaviour of the animals they hunted. During the long dark nights of winter the Inuit would gather together in large groups living in igloos sharing food and other resources. Most modern Inuit though now live in houses, not igloos …

As the long nights gave way to days of continuous sun the large Inuit camps would break up into smaller ones as they would move to follow migrating animals and birds. But whether in the dark of winter or the endless days of sunshine the Inuit culture revolved around the closeness of the family. Rooted in their culture is the importance of each family member towards their survival as a group in the harsh climate and terrain of the Arctic. Whether it be the children or the elderly, each of their contributions are valued. The elders teach their social values by example, by sharing their food and other items freely with others.

And during the summer hunts they built Inuksuit with piles of stones carefully chosen for their shape and purpose. In the severe landscape of the Arctic this was the only sign that someone had passed through.


OMG, I just found a new blog topic!

A few days earlier I wrote about the slow death of English as the last Lingua Franca. A reason I omitted to mention is how our vocabulary is being increasingly diminished by the use of acronyms and initializations such as OMG and LOL.

Acronymy has its uses and has been around for a long time as a short representation of a complex concept or for a long-winded name of an institution. The Roman EmpireSenatus Populusque Romanus, was shortened by the Romans to SPQR and early Christians used the symbol of a fish to represent Jesus. ΙΧΘΥΣis the Greek acronym for Iesous CHristos THeou (h) Uios Soter meaning Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior and spells “fish”.

Later abbreviations began in business, when companies had to shorten their names to fit them on railroad cars, barrels and…

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A restless genius


The Art community in India is acknowledging the genius of Ramkinkar Baij as the father of Indian contemporary sculpture in a major retrospective being held at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.

“I was probably asked to curate the show because of my intimate personal association with Kinkar da as his last student at Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan, from 1974 to 1980 – the last six years of his life and my first six years there as a student”, says sculptor K.S. Radhakrishnan, who was a student at Santiniketan in the 1970s.

Ramkinkar Baij was born into a humble family in rural Bengal. Growing up in Bankura he was enthralled by the creative process of life and Nature that surrounded him. He soaked in the local artistic traditions and those of the indigenous Santhal tribes that later helped him to forge a language that was as rooted in his local habitat as it was universal.

In 1925 Ramkinkar was brought to Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan to be trained by two visiting European sculptors and later groomed by Nandalal Bose and Rabindranath Tagore himself. Ramkinkar revelled in the remoteness of Santiniketan and preferred portraying local life to staid statues of British rulers. His art flew against convention. It was rebellious, spontaneous and reflective.

For his outdoor sculptures he usually worked with cement and pebbles, because he could not afford other materials. He quickly molded the mix before it set and then chipped at the cast. Some of his sculptures were later cast in bronze. One of these is a striking abstract head of Rabindranath Tagore called “The Poet” (shown below):

Abstract sculpture of Rabindranath Tagore called "The Poet"

Ramkinkar’s largest sculptures are still in Santiniketan, the most notable of them is the “Santhal Family” which depicts members of the indigenous Santhal tribe that live in Eastern India moving with their possessions:

"The Santhal Family".This was sculpted in 1938, when the trend was to do viceroys' busts and static statues in the Western realistic tradition. Baij was then 32.

Another iconic sculpture is “The Mill Call” from 1956, which depicts a working class family setting off for work on hearing the the mill siren. Says Radhakrishnan of this great sculpture, ” … you can sense the speed with which the women are walking, the child running behind …Movement was a crucial focal point of Ramkinkar’s oeuvre: movement that happened outside and within. He managed to somehow connect both.”

The Mill Call was done in concrete and laterite pebbles. Ramkinkar would throw the concrete inside the armature, a technique he used for the last time in this sculpture.

Ramkinkar’s work was invariably triggered by a happening that made him enter a pictorial space from the real. Take the subject of Famine that he worked on extensively. “News of the death of Jagan at the tea shop that he visited often, opened up a new space in his mind, connecting it to the famine. He moved in and out of these two spaces incredibly – from the real to artistic sculptural space.”

With the splendid retrospective of Ramkinkar Baij’s now showing at the NGMA, it is hoped that the world and indeed Indians recognize that modern Indian art and sculpture is not represented alone by the elite Mumbai-based artists such as Syed Haidar Raza, F.N. Souza, Tyeb Mehta and the late M.F. Husain. These artists benefited from being in India’s commercial capital.

In contrast, the great artists of Bengal worked in seclusion and lost their rich patrons when the British moved the capital from Calcutta to Delhi. That is only part of the reason why works of Bengali artists never rival the prices Mumbai artists command. In fact Syed Haidar Raza established an Indian art record with an acrylic abstract painting that sold for £2.4 million ($3.5 million) at a Christie’s London auction in 2010.

For those who are visiting Delhi or who reside there, the Ramkinkar retrospective at the NGMA runs until March 31, 2012. Be one of the privileged to discover the restless genius of a little known India artist whose brilliance could rival the best in the world.

Radhakrishnan sums up what he hopes to achieve with this retrospective by saying,

” We all know what Picasso looked like or even Satyajit Ray, whose life was behind the camera. After this show people will know what Ramkinkar looked like. It is very important to me that the world knows what he looked like, what he was – India’s first modernist sculptor who believed in being universal by being local. Ramkinkar Baij was not part of any school of art; he was his own school.”

Other sources of information on Ramkinkar Baij are:

“Dekhi Nai Phire” a book written by Samaresh Basu, Ananda Publications and an unfinished documentary from 1975 by Ritwik Ghatak called “Ramkinkar”.

Do we really need political parties?

On November 16, 2011 the headlines in Italy read,

“Of the 17 ministers nominated Wednesday by Italy’s premier-designate Mario Monti, not one is a politician.”

And Berlusconi finally got a well-deserved and long-awaited kick in the nether regions …

Italy has a long and storied history as a democratic republic. In June 1946 when a popular referendum gave the monarchy – the House of Savoy – the proverbial boot, the boot-shaped nation finally became a republic.

It was not the nation’s first brush with democracy though …  A constitutional monarchy was attempted by King Charles Albert of the Kingdom of Piedmont in 1848. That didn’t go down very well especially during the early 1900’s when Italy and large parts of Europe were swathed in the bloodbath of the First World War. Italian society, riddled with social inequality and continually pushed by the left-wing Marxist parties and pulled by right-wing conservative liberals, succumbed to the darker days Fascism and Mussolini.

Italy is now a parliamentary democracy. Executive power is held by the Council of Ministers led by the “Presidente del Consiglio” or in plain English, the Head of State. Legislative power is primarily vested in the two houses of parliament. And the judiciary is independent of both the Executive and Legislative branches of the government.

There have been 61 governments in Italy in the past 67 years. To put things into perspective, for most of the 67 years the Christian Democrats and allied parties have held the reigns of power in Italy. It was unthinkable for a Communist party to lead a western government during the Cold War years. Thus, the dominance of the Christian Democrats governments lent a continuity and a certain level of stability to Italy.

In the ’60s the political climate was altered when left-leaning Christian Democrats such as Aldo Moro attempted to inject the Socialist Party into the ruling alliance. The Communist Party was gaining membership in Italy due to its pragmatic rejection of extremism and by distancing itself away from Moscow. In fact the Italian communist party had even been elected to local government positions in a part of northern Italy called Emilia Romagna (capital, Bologna).

The compromise to include the Socialists into the ruling alliance was quickly snuffed out when Aldo Moro was kidnapped by the extremist Red Brigade and murdered in1978 in world headlines-grabbing incident.

The years that preceded and followed the assassination of Aldo Moro – approximately from 1969 until the 1980’s – was a period of turmoil and extremist political terrorism in Italy. These were known as the Years of Lead (the metal with which bullets are made) or anni di piombo in Italian.

It was a careful strategy of tension whereby bombings carried out by right-wing terrorists were blamed on the left. It was even alleged that the left-wing Red Brigade were being exploited by foreign powers such as the United States to discredit the Communists and scuttle attempts by those such as Aldo Moro to include Socialists into sharing political power.

On October 24, 1990, Giulio Andreotti, a Christian Democrat and the 42nd Prime Minister of Italy, revealed that there existed a secret NATO network called Gladio which had stockpiled weapons to facilitate an armed resistance to prevent a communist coup. This was proven without doubt in 2000 when a parliamentary commission tabled a report that established that Gladio was supported by the United States to prevent the communists and the Socialist party from gaining any executive power in Italy.

Despite the efforts of Gladio and the right-wing terrorists, in the years following anni di piombo, the Italian Socialist Party gained more and more support especially under the moderate leadership of Bettino Craxi. But a new illness was now plaguing Italian politics …

Scandals and Corruption.

From 1992 to 1997 Italian voters – disillusioned by political stalemates, a huge debt, the influence of organized crime in public life and extensive corruption – demanded political, economic and ethical reforms. The Mani pulite investigation that exposed the scandals and corruption of political parties and the 1993 referendum in which Italians voted for political reform led to a dissolution of the two largest political parties – the Christian Democrats and The Socialist Party.

It led to the rise of newer parties and a series of centre-left governments and four Berlosconi-led coalitions. By the time Silvio Berlosconi led his party to its fourth coalition, the hugely wealthy media magnate and former reformer was known more and reviled for his flashy populism and his bunga-bunga parties.

In comparison, the apolitical and technocratic government led by Mario Monti seems staid and downright boring. But Monti and his ministers have achieved more in their first 100 days than previous Italian governments have dating back to the mid-1990s! They have slashed borrowing costs with a mixed brew of eliminating budget deficit and promoting growth; they have simplified the tangled bureaucracy and are now discussing labour reforms by talking to both employers and unions. If the two sides fail to agree on terms, Monti and his team may impose reforms the way they think best.

For Italians, long accustomed to moribund coalition politics of bickering and compromise,  this is a business-like way of getting things done. They approve, 52% of them, and 69% do not know which party they would vote for at the 2013 election. The polls show that Monti’s government is robbing the political parties and their leaders of “visibility, centrality and prestige”.

The world should sit up and pay attention to a government that is not afraid to apply a mix of conservative and liberal economics to try to bring a nation back from the brink of economic collapse. What could be more nationalistic or patriotic than that?

So I ask, do we really need political parties to run our governments?

Just for laughs

The world’s first hacker probably came out of the academic fraternity – in particular from M.I.T. – sometime in the 1960’s. A hacker sees himself as “a person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular.”

There are essentially two kinds of hackers: white-hat hackers who use their skills and knowledge  to learn how systems and networks work and discover and fix security holes; and the black-hat hackers who use the same knowledge to create trojans and virus that intend to harm the systems they infiltrate.

Earlier today, Lulz Security or LulzSec, a hacker group that famously hacked into Sony and Nintendo, Fox and PBS, the CIA and the US Senate, announced that they were disbanding. In their farewell Twitter announcement they claim that their ” planned 50 day cruise has expired, and we must now sail into the distance …” with the hope that they had a “microscopic impact” on someone, somewhere.

Lulz is a corruption of LOL (Laugh out loud, for the uninitiated) and as their name suggests the group hacked just for laughs. The identity of the six that called themselves LulzSec may not remain anonymous if what a group that calls themselves the “A-Team” say is true. They claim that they know the names, locations and aliases of the LulzSec and despite the high profile success of their 50-day mayhem, the A-Team calls them the “dregs of the Internet“.

“To understand who/what lulzsec/gn0sis are/is you need to understand where they came from.  Everything originates from the *chan (4chan/711chan/etc.) culture.  This internet subculture is pretty much the dregs of the internet.  It’s a culture built around the anonymity of the internet.  If your anonymous no one can find you.  No one can hurt you, so your invincable.  The problem with this idealogy, is it’s on the internet.  The internet by definition is not anonymous.  Computers have to have attribution. If you trace something back far enough you can find its origins.”

To see the full transcript of the A-Team’s scathing revelation, go to

It remains to be seen if the A-Team manages to sink LulzSec’s boat or if they really do sail away into the distance. But for Nintendo, Sony and all the networks the group hacked into, the last 50 days have been far from funny. For them it’s an unanimous goodbye and good riddance!




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