These Are The Daves I Know I Know- Jai Undurti
Updated: Aug 7, 2020
Today’s Dave is Jai Undurti who is part of the Hyderabad Graphic Novel Project. Jai offered the following bio- Jai is from Vizag and has been known to make things up. I’d like to add that he has also had dengue fever and he likes taking pictures of graveyards. He also claims to have been unbelievably close to the hallowed halls of Delhi’s infamous Haagen Dazs but never made it inside, possibly because he did not have an international passport with him at the time.
km- These Are The Daves I Know I Know are supposed to be people I don’t know very well but I know them a little. I’m not sure if you qualify because I don’t know you at all. But I’m interviewing you anyway. Do you think this will hurt and betray the four people who read my blog?
ju- First off, I’d like to mention that this is the first time that I’ve ever been interviewed and I thank you for this opportunity to talk about our project. I can sympathize with your constant readers, I picture them calling out each to each, “Friends, let us direct our faithful browsers to Third World Ghetto Vampire, that bastion of good taste in this vale of uproarious inequity, that site redolent with Kuzhali-goodness which we know and adore from the days of yore.” And what happens when they get there? They see all this. And they will be much discomfited.
(km- you speak truly. I feel the only way to assuage their discomfitication would be to give me money which I believe would go a long way in making them feel a lot better.)
km- You are part of the Hyderabad Graphic Novel Project. What is it and why are you doing it?
ju- The Hyderabad Graphic Novel Project is a part of Yugantar (a Hyderabad-based NGO)’s Archive Hyderabad project. It all started in 2005-6 when my co-writer Jasraman and I scoured the streets of the Old City taking photographs of street livelihoods. People running small businesses like selling toys, crows (if you’ve been hit with a black magic spell, you transfer it to the crow and release it), professional flagellators, that sort of a thing. Over several months and visits, we could observe the physical fabric of the city being torn, old havelis being pulled down to make way for piles of concrete, neighborhoods being broken up for new development. We began thinking of the effect all this would have on the mental/spiritual fabric – what happens for example, when you can no longer tell a joke, when a joke ceases to be, when the cross-cultural references needed to understand the joke no longer exist. One idea I was obsessed with was the necropolis, an invisible city, the city beneath the city, that sort of a thing. We joked about starting a magazine called the “Necropolitan”, a rag for the ghoul-about-town. In 2007, we began working with Yugantar, a Hyderbad-based NGO, in an archive project – to interview elderly people whose childhoods were spent in the Hyderabad of the 1930s and 40s. We would encourage them to talk without trying to impose any structure – eventually we interviewed about 20-25 people with a total of 60-70 hours of footage. This was to be a pilot and the major IT company which was paying for it wanted to extend it, perhaps interviewing over 100 people. Well this major IT company got into some…ahem…major difficulties and funding dried up.
So we had all this material and didn’t know where to go. One approach would be to cut it into some kind of documentary, probably centred around the single most disruptive event in the city’s history – the “police action” of 1948. For that we would have to shoot plenty of extra material, to relieve the tedium of just having talking heads. Then, more importantly, all of these people were talking about a city that was, and we would need to recreate it, either through sets or CGI. Then we thought perhaps the best medium, in fact the only medium which could convey this lost city was comics. We were fortunate in finding a talented and experienced artist from Calcutta – Harsho Mohan Chattoraj.
As we worked on the concept, we decided we could expand the scope, spanning over 400 years of the city’s history. In a nutshell, Hyderabad was built by the Persians as a model of Paradise, when paradise meant gardens and a fountain, the charbagh, which itself was a model of Eden. Today the idea of paradise is a mall with multiplex. Essentially, the comic looks at these two ideas of paradise and everything in-between.
(km- ‘what happens for example, when you can no longer tell a joke, when a joke ceases to be, when the cross-cultural references needed to understand the joke no longer exist.’ That’s a really, really good point.)
km- Why do you think Hyderabad is good graphic novel material?
ju- Hyderabad is many cities in one, like heaped carpets over one another. Every now and there, the badly worn fabric of one carpet shows its predecessor beneath. From the markets of the anterun which have a very Central Asian flavour it is only a short drive to the glass and concrete towers of the new city. The people have a ready, fantastic wit – we hope to reproduce it as faithfully as possibly.
Our story will start with the original builders – the Persians. Incidentally, the word paradise originates from Old Persian – pairi meaning around and diz meaning wall, i.e. a walled-in compound denoting garden. The Persians who built Naavi-i-Isfahan (New Isfahan), the original name of Hyderabad, were driven to recreate heaven on earth itself, or rather, the gardens of Eden, from which man had been thrust out from. The four flowing channels of Charbagh reflect the four rivers of Eden. The ambitions of the primeval builders can be seen in the fact that at the time of Hyderabad’s founding, Isfahan was one of the largest cities in the world, indeed a popular saying would have it, “Esfahān nesf-e jahān ast” (To see Isfahan is to see half the world).
A hint of the feast of wonders that the city contains:
• Hyderabad was a base of the so-called “Thuggees”, who much exercised the colonial imagination and have continued to do so ever since.
• The Hyderabad police had an official exorcist who was deployed in cases of possession.
• Hyderabad was a Freemason hub with the Nizam, himself a Brother, donating one of his palaces to serve as their lodge.
• Golkonda was India’s largest diamond mine at a time when all known diamond mines were in India. The mines were later closed, allegedly due to demonic infestation.
(km- why didn’t they didn’t call in the official exorcist?)
• There used to be Poet’s tables in cafes, you had to pay just to sit at the table and listen to them. The poets got free tea. Also, “special tea” sometimes meant tea which was served without the waiter dipping his fingers in them.
(km- you know, it’s not so bad when they dip their fingers in the tea because you can convince yourself that the heat of the tea will somehow kill waiterfinger germs. It’s when they put their fingers in the drinking water that all is really and truly lost.)
km- I understand you once made a documentary on kolams. Why did you do this and what unexpected things did you learn about kolams?
ju- This was way back when I was an infant. It was part of a misguided attempt to enrol in a film-making course abroad. As they needed a portfolio, (and no, my numerous photographs of graveyards did not suffice) I had to make a short film. I travelled around Andhra, Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, shooting with borrowed cameras from friends en route, entirely innocent of formats – it was shot in Mini-DV, VHS, Betacam etc. It was eventually edited in a marriage video studio.
I was interested, because muggulu (as they are called in Telugu) were always a part of the life around you, yet most people didn’t have much of an idea about them, except that they have been around forever, one of the “givens” that you accept when you come into the world.
Another thing which attracted me was their transience, something which took so much effort to draw the previous night, usually was smudged beyond recognition as people left for the day’s work – in fact crossing the muggu is supposed to be good luck. Incidentally, the idea behind the kolam is that of the labyrinth, a labyrinth where evil is supposed to lose its way. So, by being on the threshold it performs an important task, policing the frontier so to speak.
(km- that’s kind of awesome)
Generally, observing the whole ritual, washing the threshold, the smell of that powder, it tells everyone that all is well in the world. In fact, one of the stories I’ve heard is that – you don’t draw it when there has been a death in the family – during the Kurukshetra war – people in a neighborhood would know when someone had died in the war when there was no kolam outside. Knowing the absolute level of casualties in that war, you would slowly, day after day, see the kolams wink out as news from the battlefront would trickle in.
And kolams have been around for a long, long time. You can see such designs in Iceland, in Micronesia, in Cornwall. The omphalos, the navel of the world, of the ancient Greeks, had similar designs on them.
One of the highlights of the experience was filming a giant kolam drawing competition in Mylapore around the Kapaleeshwara Temple. It was organized by Mr Vincent D’Souza’s “Myalapore Times”. Imagine hundreds of mamis (is that the word?) with different approaches – some going for size, others making the designs as intricate as possible, some were very abstract reminiscent of Islamic art, some had incorporated text, poems within the designs, and you had the usual Disney motifs too, Goofy and Mickey et al.
The contestants were allocated patches of ground on the street, and soon the organizers had their hands full. Obviously as the drawings proceeded apace there were instances of “encroachments” – as rival kolams began overrunning each other – furious border disputes broke out – some women decided for a kind of “line of control” approach while others altered their edges and got the kolams to “flow” together. Equally wonderful was how some contestants had to incorporate existing conditions – potholes, telephone poles, rubble, etc into the designs.
Incidentally there was only one man who was participating and by the time the contest got over he was quite the media star, as all the TV and press people wanted to get their “bites” and his kolam was always surrounded by kibitzers.
To answer your question on unexpected things, it would be the relation between kolams and fractals. Kolams exhibit many of the features of fractal curves, the self-similar nature of the designs is quite obvious. A lot of work has been done in Madras – especially looking at kolams as a form of picture language. (km- I love fractals! One of the things I liked in 2009!)
I believe that the mathematicians have divided kolams into three categories: the Regular Matrix Kolam, the Finite Matrix Kolam and the Context-free Regular Array Kolam!
(km- and there is a Matrix movie trilogy. Coincidence? I think not.)
km- I’ve come across this argument that the graphic novel is really just a marketing gimmick. How do you respond to that and what do you think makes the graphic novel unique from comics, what sets them apart?
ju- I am perfectly okay with comics. Graphic novels – well its just a toff way of saying it, if it allows more people to be seen reading them, that’s fine.
km- I think the song ‘If You Come Today’ speaks differently to different people. In the end, I think we all take our own meanings from it and that’s what makes it such a superduper special song. What does the song ‘If You Come Today’ mean to you?
ju- The song, to me, really is about quantum indeterminacy. The seeming paradox of the lyrics is the paradox which can be heard throughout the universe like the beat of a mighty heart.
In ideal mechanics, a particle (point mass) follows a classical trajectory, which means that at every instant of time its position and momentum can be simultaneously and precisely determined in principle and in practice.
A quantum particle however always has some indeterminacy, for you can never determine its position and momentum simultaneously – if you know the position then the momentum is completely indeterminate and vice versa. It is this indeterminacy, this impreciseness that Dr Rajkumar returns to again and again with those hypnotic lines.
Dr Rajkumar also is not above subtle in-jokes. Quarks, for example, the fundamental particles of matter, are found in “flavours”, up, down, charm, strange, top and bottom. You will agree that Dr Rajkumar’s activities in the video of the song encompass all these flavours.
The song is a diamond rocket into that whirling void which is within us, without us. The jazzy syncopation cannot hide the destruction of the Newtonian cosmos. The revolving chandeliers cannot distract us from the ambivalent universe.
(km- epic props for connecting this song with quantum indeterminacy. Your last line in particular is very poignant and moves me to write a poem, using the bad poetry generator.
The revolving chandeliers cannot distract us from the ambivalent universe Blister fish death wish cancer sticks Let us now ride in a hearse. filtering through smoke from candlewicks