Friday, June 10, 2011

Yankee doodle, desi doodle

Yesterday brought art into focus for me in two very different ways.

A young friend drew my attention to the Google Doodle of the day: a depiction of a guitar that can be strummed by moving your mouse over the strings, which vibrate alarmingly like real strings and acquire the colours of the Google logo. It's one of the neatest and most exciting web animations I've ever seen. On clicking a button you can put the Doodle into keyboard mode and play the strings with your computer keys. And on some versions of the Google site, the button becomes a "record" button and records your keyboard input, after which it gives you a URL to click that plays it back to you.

This Doodle celebrates the 96th birthday of the great Les Paul, musician and pioneer of the electric guitar. Without Les Paul the guitar solo that concludes Stairway to Heaven would never have existed, and I hope you'll take a few seconds off to contemplate that unbearably tragic possibility (for what it's worth, the guitar solo on Voodoo Chile would still have existed, being played on a Fender Stratocaster, so life would not have been entirely hopeless).

Of course the Les Paul Google Doodle is hardly a breakthrough. We've all seen electronic keyboards, as well as software that can convert your computer keyboard into a musical keyboard. The thing that impresses me about the Doodle, though, is how seamlessly it is integrated into one's browsing experience. You don't need to buy or install anything, just wander onto and play a tune. And that's a metaphor for art: it's not necessary to buy it or pay for admission, art is everywhere and you just keep coming across it in your life (this is specially true in Bali!).

Now I want to mention, in the same breath as Google Doodles, the late M.F. Husain. An extraordinary genius, very rightly called "India's Picasso", he passed on yesterday at the age of 95. It's amazing how much news space is being dedicated to him (four entire pages of today's Times of India, though most of it is in the nature of "I once met Husain" articles). Oh and by the way I once met Husain!  Sometime in 2000 I had gone with two colleagues to his Cuffe Parade residence to request him to do a painting for our forthcoming Strings 2001 conference. It was a rather cheeky request on our part (and we had not the slightest idea how to pay him if he asked). Of course he has a well-known attachment to TIFR, which he acknowledged, and in the end he simply agreed to do our painting. And then didn't do it. We tried to pursue him and then gave up. So that was that.

Many people will want to lynch me for saying this, but IMHO Husain was the quintessential doodler and this is why he shares space with Google in this blog posting. His Cuffe Parade residence, poky and unimpressive, had Husain Doodles just over the washbasin! His charcoal sketches, one of which hangs at TIFR, are incredibly tight compositions embodying a sophisticated level of form, structure, motion and symbolism, even as they were probably rendered in a dozen brushstrokes in as many minutes. Of course he also painted the humongous and cheekily Rajasthan-ish mural that hangs over the TIFR lobby, and this was no doodle but a labour of love performing during several barefooted months at TIFR. Still, the profound truth that I glean from Husain's life and work is that art is a natural part of life, not extraneous to it nor intended to be sequestered or shown off as a possession. If he nevertheless sold at astronomical prices and blew the money on a Bugatti, that's just his privilege for being such a genius. Long may he doodle all over the great webpage in the sky.