Royal Rajah


Did this for TimeOut Delhi. A short profile of celebrated photographer Raja Deen Dayal whose works are on display at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts until February:

As a 20-year-old student at Thomson’s Civil Engineering College in Roorkee, Deen Dayal was content sketching plans for roads, buildings and canals. It only happened that, in the final year of his course, the college faculty introduced photography as a subject. That was how Dayal came to be quite prepared when, in 1866, as he sat in his draughtsmans’ office at the Indore Public Works Department, he received the news that all draughtsmen were to be replaced by photographers. It was time for Dayal to shed his drawing instruments, pick up the camera and begin a legendary career of photography.
This fortnight, 200 of Deen Dayal’s photographs will be dusted off and exhibited at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, the bulk of them on display for the very first time. The images in Raja Deen Dayal: Studio Archives from the IGNCA Collection range from portraits of Indian royalty to grand shots of monuments. Just like the other non-royal Raja, his exact contemporary Ravi Varma, Deen Dayal skilfully adopted a European technology that Indians had had little access to, became a greatly sought-after artist, and broke a new frontier in the visual capture of nineteenth-century Indian life.
“What made Dayal special was the way in which he photographed monuments and portraiture,” said Jyotindra Jain, the director of the IGNCA, who curated the exhibition along with Pramod Kumar KG. “In his portraiture, he recorded almost the entire lifestyle of the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad, Mehboob Ali Khan. The British hired him to photograph 78 monuments in central India, and he became famous because of the manner in which he took them. He’d use a slightly low angle to shoot a monument, so its upper part would appear against the sky. The contours of the monument would be extremely clear. But it wasn’t just Dayal’s talent that won him fame. He combined his skills with a tenacity that ensured his friendship with the high and mighty of that era.”
Deen Dayal used his friendship with Maharaja Tukoji Rao II of Indore to have himself introduced to Sir Henry Daly, the British Agent at Indore. Daly had Dayal appointed the official photographer of the Prince of Wales’ tour of India in 1875. Later, he was appointed official photographer to Viceroy Lord Dufferin. “After that, there was no limit [to the extent of his work],” said Jain. “He scored over British photographers because even they didn’t have that kind of access to maharajas, the upper classes and nobility. Being an Indian, he established a certain rapport with these people, and it reflects in his work that his sitters were much more comfortable with him.” In his fourties, he was appointed court photographer to the Nizam of Hyderabad, who gave him the title Raja.

Dayal worked in a time when the tools of photography were still rudimentary, yet he created some stunning clear visuals. Photographers used glass-plate negatives, which required long exposures and extreme care. Another striking quality is “the quality of performance in his photography”, Jain said. “The people who he photographed were always performing. For example, the Nizam of Hyderabad held a durbar thrice week. He and the visitors would dress up, and there was a certain hierarchy [of who followed whom]. The whole scenario was almost a theatre backdrop, in front of which these people performed. Deen Dayal understood this element of performance he was photographing and that drama comes out very well in his photographs.” No wonder then that his patron the Nizam composed a couplet in praise of Dayal: “Ajab yeh karte hain tasvir mein kamaal kamaal/ Ustaadon ke hain ustad yeh Raja Deen Dayal [In the art of photography, surpassing all/a master of masters is Raja Deen Dayal].”

Live and Unplugged


(Wrote this for the latest TimeOut India cover story on how social networking affects real life and vice-versa along with my colleagues Vandana Verma, Jaideep Sen and Aditya Kundalkar.)

Moksh Juneja was an early victim of a geo-social privacy breach. No, that’s not what happens when a renegade spy breaks into the CIA mainframe. It’s what happens when you tell your father you’re going to Malad, a northern suburb of Mumbai, but you check into Andheri station on the geo-social application Foursquare.

“That was updated on his Google Buzz,” said Juneja, the CEO of Avignyata, a social media marketing company. “When I got home, he needed to know what I was doing there. I said I was getting a bottle of water at Andheri station, that’s all. I disabled the updates on my dad’s Google Buzz that day.” For years, Facebook has asked us everything about ourselves, except the question “Where are you?” The answer was usually obvious: “Stuck in front of my computer”. But 2010 was the year that new applications, like Foursquare, UberTwitter, Google Latitude and Gowalla, operating on our smartphones, began to ask where we were. Not in which city, but which nightclub, which ice cream parlour, which mechanic’s workshop. 

And people answered.

This wave of mobile apps use the global positioning system found on most smartphones to broadcast your location to your online social network. By taking the powers of existing online tools – your friend list on Facebook, your feed on Twitter, your iPhone’s mobility and GPS – and plugging them into each other, “geo-social networks” could change basic assumptions about how we live with the internet.
We’ve always experienced our virtual and real social lives as a zero-sum game. These new apps represent the threshhold of a lifestyle in which there’s no difference between going online and going out on the town. But as it is, most of us have only the foggiest idea of how to protect the privacy of our online presence (things like photos on Facebook). Now we’re already thinking – or not thinking – about the privacy of our offline presence, also known as our real lives. Take Foursquare. The most well-known of the lot, it lets users “check in” every time they arrive at a destination, earning a point for every visit. They can share insider tips (“try the fig mojito at Shiro”) or post quick reviews. More importantly, 4SQ frequent-fliers rack up “badges” for the nature of their social lives: for adventurousness (a first-time visit), loyalty (repeat visits) or bad behaviour (the “bender”, for many successive nights out).

Obviously, it’s a fantastic way to see if friends (or strangers with shared interests) are around. In March this year, Sarthak Raheja and his wife were holidaying in sunny Pattaya in Thailand. They ventured into Swensen’s, a local ice-cream parlour, to try its“outrageous sundae”. Before they dived into it, Raheja pulled out his Blackberry, fired up “4SQ” and checked in. Moments later, Sumit Berry, an old college chum, saw him check in at Swensen’s – which Berry had done only a little while earlier. He and his wife walked over and introduced themselves to the Rahejas. The two couples ended up exploring Thailand together.
But geo-social life is also almost instantly competitive. Really, for as long as there’s been Orkut, Friendster, Hi5, MySpace or Facebook, friends have been involved in a sort of virtual one-upmanship. We vie to post funnier status updates, better-shot profile pictures or the next awesome viral video. Traditional apps like Farmville gave users virtual rewards (like an elephant topiary) for performing incredibly repetitive game tasks, like harvesting virtual strawberries. But 62 million people were drawn into organising their lives so they could be at hand at harvest time. With 4SQ, life is the game. Every place that you go, when you go, how often you go and even who you go with, all potentially earn you points and medals, virtual scores that pit you against other users on your network.

Juneja is a 4SQ “Super User”. He’s made nearly 2,000 check-ins. By having the most check-ins at any one location, he’s been crowned “mayor” of that place, and Juneja is the mayor of 82 places, from Diamond Tyre-Shop to the Gateway of India. (Actually, no longer: “I was the mayor of Gateway of India,” he said, “but one day someone said ‘Moksh Juneja, tu Gateway ko toh chhod de.’ So I left it.”) Every subsequent visitor is informed of his supremacy, at least until one of them tops him, and steals the title. It’s a virtual twist on the hallowed tradition of the regular, who prides himself on haunting the place, and gets his last beer gratis from the bartender. On 4SQ, the pride is replaced by a mayor’s yellow crown, which proclaims your reign to the world... Or at least to the network. “The game is the mayorship. It’s the number of badges you can get,” Juneja explained. “For me there are no physical returns, only psychological benefits.
I’m getting famous, somebody is recognising my efforts… and my effort is only that I’m going to my favourite place.” The competition for a yellow crown means that off-beat locations quickly find themselves on the radar. “It brings a smile to my face to see chai-wallas and bhurji-wallas listed,” said Twain Taylor, a marketing professional in Bengaluru. “One of them is the Cantonment bread omelette wagon, which I’m trying hard to become mayor of.”

More and more, though, being mayor means real rewards as well as virtual ones. The regular’s on-the-house pint is being replaced by the mayor’s special deal. At Mumbai’s Blue Frog, mayors would get a free drink. At Faaso’s, a kabab chain in Pune, the mayor of any outlet receives a free kabab wrap with their meal.  On behalf of his client Inorbit Mall, Juneja contacted all its mayors, and handed each one a Rs 1,000 voucher for Crossword Bookstore. At Delhi’s The Yum Yum Tree, tech-savvy proprietor Varun Tuli is among the first in the capital to offer real rewards for virtually logging real activity. (Still with us?) Book a table at YYT via 4SQ, and you get a free round of draught beer. “The idea here is to be a market leader, and to be prepared for when the masses start calling on us via 4SQ or Twitter,” Tuli said. “I’d say that the reason we have so many reviews online is that we have such an online presence. But customer feedback is the primary motive. People can tell me there was too much wasabi in the wasabi prawns and we can jump on it right away!”

But the larger potential value of geo-social networks lies in harnessing them for marketing. Preetham Venkatesh of Bengaluru-based Catalyst Labs is a “techvangelist” for 4SQ, and his job is to convince businesses like bars and hotels to help 4SQ help them. That means they need to create more rewards for mayors and badges, incentives that will get more people onto the network and spur customer loyalty battles. “While other sites connect people with their actual GPS locations, 4SQ is completely based on game mechanics,” Venkatesh explained. “The game-like competitive environment of badges, mayorships, and points lets businesses reward specific actions.” It’s actually integral to the design of 4SQ that business-side incentives, rather than user buzz, drives its expansion in new cities.

Apart from getting customers to competitively visit, businesses gain access to “data that is specific to their retail outlet… which times of the day and times of the week their top visitors drop by,” Venkatesh said. The involvement of businesses will also help clean up the sometimes chaotic 4SQ map. They create their own virtual establishments, and make sure that sly users don’t duplicate venues to win bogus mayorships. In fact, Venkatesh said, the ability of 4SQ Super Users to merge or delete fraudulent venues is the earliest form of moderation to be introduced on the network. (More authority for moderation is likely to become necessary, especially to certify users’ feedback and tips. Self-marketers and spammers are already afield.)
Proprietors’ involvement may be essential to blowing this spark into a social fire. The number of Indians checking into geo-social networks is currently miniscule, as is the number of reward-schemes. The cycle by which virtual networks spread beyond just the early adopters, and become popularly indispensable, hasn’t begun to turn. Blue Frog actually dropped its mayor’s reward because “the mayor turned out to be the same one guy,” said Lilian Ricaud, head of programming at the bar.“There needs to be more population there, so people compete for mayorship.”

Yet the fire is probably inevitable. Three months ago, Facebook introduced its app Places, a 4SQ-alike that piggybacks onto the network’s existing database of 500 million users. If location-sharing is going to go mainstream, Facebook Places may be how it will happen. And predictably, once Facebook enters the picture, things start to feel a little creepy. If you pop into a bar with another Facebook Places user, it allows them to “tag” you as they check in – meaning your location is broadcast, even if you don’t know about it. That information could be useful to burglars, letting them know you’re not home, or stalkers, letting them know where you are. A trawl through web-safety forums turns up 4SQ safety guidelines – such as checking in when you leave a place, rather than when you arrive – all just waiting to be neglected.

Savvier users are thinking hard about how they manage their geo-social privacy. “The advantage with 4SQ [over Facebook Places] is that you can choose who knows where you actually are,” said Ishita Kapoor, a student at Delhi University. “On Facebook I’ve got around 500 friends and they really don’t all need to know whether I am where I’ve said I am.” Places does, in fact, allow users to define a subgroup of friends who have access to location updates. But set-up is fiddly, a fact that may be nudging most geo-socialisers toward 4SQ. “They’ve got sexy privacy settings. They’ve learned from Facebook’s mistakes,” said Juneja, though he conceded that settings are only as good as their users. “There’s a girl [who] I always tell, you make so many check-ins, and you’ve given the addresses for your home, your office. People can stalk you whenever they want. That’s a serious danger.”

These apps don’t just encourage direct contact between friends, or users and businesses, but they also imply a level of trust between both. “It [geo-social networking] can be a real problem because of the absence of privacy-protection laws in India,” said Peter Griffin, the Forbes India editor for social media. “Apps like 4SQ can be used by companies as marketing tools. The more they know you, the better their service to you. So essentially it’s a trade-off for you: how much privacy are you willing to give up? Now, a lot of these apps are used by younger people who don’t seem to care about how their personal information might be used by companies.”

On the other hand, said Hardik Sanghani, a PR executive with Text 100 and an advocate for “increasing awareness and brand loyalty” through geo-social networks, users have the option of logging into a place but not broadcasting their location. “It’s called ‘going off the grid’.It’s like going into invisible mode,” he said. But will venues you’re checking into still give you points, if you’re invisible? “No. They can’t see it either. If you’re off the grid, you’re off.” It’s not hard to imagine that, in a few years, going off the geo-social grid will feel as impractical as getting off Facebook does today. Anything you hate dealing with online – the laissez faire information economy, the “friendship” of total strangers, the endless distraction of  renewing the News Feed – is likely to crop up again, in all-too-real dimensions. But geo-social networks also point to solutions to many online-lifestyle issues. 

Having more than just information at stake may make us finally take e-security seriously. If 4SQ and its descendants actually make us go out more, rather than less, they could solve the paradox that social networks seem to make us antisocial. Having fresh information and live social options layered over real geography could make living in a new city, or the same old city, a lot more pleasant. In the future, when we connect to the internet, we might really find ourselves reconnecting with the world we live in. 

Book Review: Nomad


It takes nerves of steel for a Muslim woman from Somalia to escape a bad marriage, to lie to get refugee status in the Netherlands and then migrate to post- 9/11 America. But it takes more than just steely nerves to write two books – Infidel and Nomad – which are a scathing condemnation of conservative Muslim society. In Infidel, Ali exposed the world to her harrowing personal journey. In Nomad, the former Dutch MP writes about how orthodox Islam devastates the lives of its followers.

Hirsi Ali’s memoir-manifesto is about the journey of a Muslim woman cross-countrying Somalia, Holland and America. But it’s the people she encounters during the journey – family, politicians, college students – and the manner in which Islam has dictated their life choices which provides her fodder for her indictment of the religion. The anger in her writing stems from her family’s obsession with the Quranic dictat. In one passage Ali describes how, when she fell ill as a kid, her mother spent all her time praying for her recovery instead of giving her medicines. She blames the illnesses of her depressed half-brother and AIDS-stricken sister on her father’s polygamy, and laments the fact that her half-sister Sahra chose to marry in her early twenties in accordance with her family’s wishes.

As Nomad’s narrative races ahead, Ali makes provocative points that are bound to polarise the opinions of both Islamists and Islamophobes (both of whom have made the error of treating conservative Somalian society as a generalisation for Muslim life). She minces no words in writing that she supported the war on Iraq as an MP, and that she believes the political and legal infrastructure imported by European colonisers to Muslim countries improved the situation of women there. Ali demands that Muslim immigrants to America not stunt their children’s growth by keeping them “culturally illiterate”. These blunt arguments are anything but politically correct, but they draw on a lived experience that makes them impossible to dismiss.

A version of this review appeared in the TimeOut Delhi magazine.

Building a legacy


Apologies for ignoring this blog. Have been swamped with work with very little time to do some exclusive blog writing. Will try and be more consistent now onwards. Below is a Q&A with the eminent Delhi architect Raj Rewal who's left his unique mark on contemporary Delhi. Read on:

As a young boy in Hoshiarpur village in pre-Independence India, Raj Rewal loved drawing. In a few years, his meandering sketches grew into comic strips for Shankar’s Weekly, a journal of political cartoons. Fifty years later, Rewal’s further sketches have produced some of Delhi’s most prominent buildings, including the Asian Games Village, the State Trading Corporation and the Parliament Library. This  fortnight, the India International Centre will screen Resonance: Raj Rewal and Tradition, a film shot by Rewal’s filmmaker son Manu, centred on the construction of the Parliament Library. Rewal talks to Time Out about Delhi’s architecture and working with builders who are “architecturally illiterate”.

What’s fascinating about your work is the unconventional, striking shapes of some buildings. How do you design those projects?

All our buildings or design projects are related to a context. The Hall of Nations [at Pragati Maidan] was built to commemorate the 25th anniversary of India’s independence. It was 1972, I was very young and I wanted to project the idea of intermediate technology… that we could do a lot with our own labour, use concrete and similar material, and create a building which, at 256 ft, was one of the largest span structures in the world at that time. When model was shown to Mrs Gandhi, she was very quiet. Later, Ms [Pupul] Jayakar explained that the reason she didn’t express herself was that if she liked it, the bureaucracy would go on and on about it, and if she didn’t, they’d run me down.

After studying in Paris, what was it like beginning your practice in Delhi?

The context here is very different. When I returned, we were not an industrialised country. We had to find our own idiom and grammar of design, which incorporates what is theoretically possible with what can be implemented by our own means. I used a lot of stone because we have brilliant stone-workers. Nobody had used stone much before I began doing it.

Have architects since developed an Indian idiom of design and do they pay a lot of attention to context?

[Chuckles] Well, some of them are sensitive enough to our own situation. We have temperatures rising right up to 45 degrees, so it’s absurd to make buildings all glass – that too in a way that the cost of air-conditioning increases four-fold. So there are those architects, particularly younger ones under international influence, who make bad copies of bad architecture. But there are also those who are interested in finding a vocabulary suitable to our climate.

How do you incorporate the cultural ethos of the city in your work when you design a building or public area?

You know, Delhi is a very lucky city because it has great historical buildings and Mughal architecture. I lived in front of Humayun’s Tomb for around ten years, so it seeped into me. My work, in a way, is influenced and inspired by it [Mughal architecture], but it doesn’t copy it. It’s not a pastiche, ki vahaan se utha kar vahaan laga diya [you lifted it from here and pasted it there]. But it carries it further in different directions to suit different requirements. The World Bank building at Lodhi Road is next to Lodhi Gardens, so it carries the theme forward but doesn’t look like it. It’s the essence I’m after, not a cheap  copy.

What do you mean by the “essence of Mughal architecture,”?

I would say it’s geometrically very balanced. It’s built around courtyards, gardens, etcetera and that’s what I’d like to carry forward.

You designed government buildings through the ’70s and ’80s. Were you given a free hand to do your own thing or was there interference from the government?

Things were much better at that time, because the Government of India awarded work only to Indian architects. The projects were awarded based on architecture competitions, mostly judged by our peers and seniors. So it was architects assessing the work of others. This process was carried to the implementation stage, which wasn’t always great, but at least they wouldn’t interefere with the design ideas. Frankly, even with the Parliament library there was no interference. The then Speaker Shivraj Patil just said it should be in harmony with what we [the MPs] are doing, and that was that.
Nowadays, a lot of work is done through promoters and builders who are architecturally illiterate. Their main aim is to make fast money, so they don’t cater to architectural values. There’s been a transition from architect’s architecture to promoter’s architecture. 

Photo Courtesy: Shiv Ahuja

A version of this first appeared in the TimeOut Delhi magazine.