Monday, November 28, 2011

Art and Wine

What is art? What is the connection between art and wine? These were some of the questions a few of us discussed some days back. It was at the Art & Wine event at Ramada Resort that was promoted by Paul George (on the right in photo), a well known art connoisseur and business man of Cochin, and Sulu Wines. The opening lamp was lit by Mr. K. Ramachandran Nair (on the left in photo), who has contributed so much for the promotion of art with his galleries.
Perhaps it would be correct to say that art relates to skill, expression and imagination. A portrait is a matter of skill. The artist studies the subject keenly and translates the details to the canvas as perfectly as he can. A few sittings may be required to complete a portrait. Does the final product contain any imagination or expression of the artist? It should not. It would be almost like a photograph. Copying landscape is more or less the same.

An artist of course may use models to create imaginary situations. The pose and expressions of the model/s come with imagination of the artist. An illustration of this can be found in the painting by the great artist Raja Ravi Varma reproduced below:

It portrays the parting of King Pururavas and Apsaras Urvashi. The situation is a sad one. The king is uncertain whether they will ever meet again. Urvashi has a better understanding of what the future would be. The Royal Painter has so brilliantly brought this on the faces of his subjects in the painting.

A photographer is an artist too. He can use methods that are not artificial to transform his subject into a condition that he visualises in his mind. Saying ‘cheese’ is not what I mean. I am thinking of the famous photo of Winston Churchill which Yousuf Karsh took on 30 December 1941 at the Canadian Parliament House premises. The British PM had made a successful speech to the MPs and had come out smiling.

What Karsh wanted was a stern looking Churchill. He set his camera and quickly moved near the PM and pulled the cigar from the man’s mouth. By the time Karsh got back to his camera, Churchill’s face was belligerent. That was how the famous photo of Churchill that came to be known as The Angry Lion was created. Here it is:

When an artist gives expression to what he feels about an object, he does not normally go in for details. See this one:

(Annie Tharakan. Copyright Reserved.)

It is supposed to be sunset. The clouds are not shown in detail. The artist has presented her impression of sunset, and it is beautiful. It was done by my granddaughter Annie Tharakan (please also see  Olakkuda – Palmyra leaf umbrella and The tooth fairy came by...) when she was eight years old. Another painting she did at that time hangs in the office room of the Executive Director of a Chennai company. Unfortunately she does not paint these days.

Some of the paintings exhibited at the Art & Wine event were good. I am giving below one of them. The artist is Linu John.

(Linu John. Copyright Reserved)

Art and wine events are quite common in the West. Tarissa Tiberti, Director of Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art (BGFA) claims that there are “many commonalities of art and wine. They are both subjective, evoke emotion and tend to be very personal.”

I like the name of a string of art classes in the U.S. which says that they hold “creative class for folks who want to learn the basics of acrylic painting in the company of great friends and good wine” – Spirited Art. 

With champagne by Sulu and well known brands of other liquor flowing, the Ramada event was truly spirited art.

Also see Popularizing Raja Ravi Varma

Click on the pictures to enlarge. The Karsh photo and Ravi Varma painting given here are in the public domain

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Gin and tonic

The midday drink of the sahibs when they ruled India was gin and tonic. Whiskey, usually with soda from which the gas is churned out was from sun down onwards. Gin and tonic is still popular in the UK and some other countries but in India very few stick to it or the new innovation, vodka and tonic. The British had a purpose in taking that drink other than alcoholic aspect. The ‘tonic’ is quinine water which prevents/cures malaria and is health wise beneficial in several ways.

I was reminded of quinine while talking to a young Darjeeling girl (she is getting married next month) at a luncheon party last week. We were talking about Darjeeling and she mentioned about the quinine plantations in that area. I didn’t know that India cultivated the medicinal tree chinchona. Quinine is obtained by powdering its bark.  On checking I find that several tropical countries grow this tree for its commercial value.

The story of cinchona and quinine is fascinating. The medicinal value of quinine was first discovered by the Quechua Indians of Peru and Bolivia. If I mention the ailments for which quinine is used, it will take 200 words more. In India it was used mainly for treating malaria and fever. Some of the elder Indian readers might remember C.A.Q. tablets in small dabbas like the ones in which gramophone needles used to come. These were prescribed often, except to pregnant women, for treating fever.

The Jesuits brought the medicine from S. America to Europe. In fact, it was known as “Jesuit Powder”. It is said to have saved thousands of Romans including Popes and Cardinals from Malarial deaths. Doctors in Europe accepted quinine as the most effective anti-malaria medicine. It remained so till the 1940s when chemical substitutes were found. But quinine is still prescribed against Malaria. It is said that the Europeans were able to conquer Africa only because they had this wonder drug against the dreaded disease.

Realizing the value of quinine Peru and neighbouring states proscribed the export of cinchona saplings and seeds during the first half of 19c. The Dutch succeeded in smuggling out the cultivars and established large cinchona plantations in Java. These trees grow to a height of 15-20 meters.  They have white, yellow or pink flowers. The genus has about forty species. Normally they grow in the altitude of 1500 to 3000 meters.

Come World War II and the demand for quinine for use by troops deployed in malaria-risk areas shot up. When Holland was captured by the Germans and Philippines by the Japanese, the Allies ran short of this vital medicine. The US managed to collect whatever quantities of quinine that Costa Rica had. But those supplies came late and were not really sufficient. The British had some supplies from India and other colonies. It is said that the Japanese were not aware of the proper use of quinine. In spite of having large supplies from the Philippines, many Jap soldiers died of malaria. It is a fact that with proper availability and distribution of quinine, the causalities in the Second World War would have been considerably lesser.

Well, continue with gin and tonic if you like it. Alternatively, in some countries there are aperitifs and liqueurs containing quinine, and all over the world many brands of tonic water is available. Malaria is no threat now. But taking limited quantities of quinine (other than by pregnant ladies) is supposed to help from heart to liver to general health.

Also see:
Tropical Medicinal Plants: Thumpa, a vanishing beauty

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Petroleum products manufacturing and pricing policy

There cannot be a single person in India who is happy about the latest increase in petrol prices.  Also, it has in its wake brought some shocking views.

A Division Bench of the Kerala High Court chaired by the Acting Chief Justice has made a statement that the oil companies are trying to choke people with a string and that the citizens should launch protests. In my opinion, the duty of Judges is to look at the legality of the matters that come before them and not to exhort people to start agitations. For fear of Contempt of Court I dare not say anything more.  

First of all, let us understand why price hikes become necessary in the petroleum field. The price of the basic raw material continues to be at a high level even though occasionally there is nominal fall. The oil producing countries decide on the output, usually at a rate that is beneficial to them. This is, one should assume, known to most people.

Recently I heard a politician speak on the TV that even though the price of crude fell by $2 per barrel, the UPA increased the petrol prices. I suppose that the fellow, like many of his colleagues, did not study the subject or even if they tried, are incapable of understanding it.

There was another one, an ex-minister telling The Kerala Assembly that from a high of $118 per barrel of oil the prices have been coming down, but the Government of India keeps increasing the price. This man has either forgotten his economics or he was purposely misleading the others.

We pay for the crude in US dollars. Fall in oil price becomes beneficial to us if the rupee-dollar parity remains steady or tilts in our favour. But look at the situation today. Rupee has slipped against the US currency; it is around Rs.50 per USD now. The calculation should be simple.

There are three ways of buying oil – spot buying, futures trading and contractual arrangement. Futures’ trading which is being increasingly applied to most of the commodities is a tricky business which requires a great deal of expertise. Like in all industries, in the petroleum field also, the efficiency in buying raw materials adds to the profit margin and provides the elbow room for price reduction and competition. Many of the important officials in the nationalized organisations are not specially trained in business management.

The NDA and the UPA whenever they were/are in power have been following the policy of subsidizing the prices of petroleum products. Obviously, vote bank politics are behind this. Subsidy expended in one sector, negatively affects the development of some other sector/s. Finally, when the day of reckoning comes, the quantum of price increase required becomes shockingly high.

Three years back I had written a post titled Tackling the oil crisis. One point I failed mentioning then was that the vehicles should be kept in good condition. Anyway, let us have a look at what could be done to handle the situation:

1. Take a look at the crude oil buying procedure and see whether    improvements can be made. There could be a committee of experts to oversee the details. At what prices other major countries are buying oil and their retail prices should be followed and the details should be publicised through the media. Even though the information is in the public domain, it is not easy for a common man to get it.

2. The Central Government should review the customs duty on oil import and see whether it can be lowered.

3. The sales tax charged by the States should be changed from the present ad valorem system to per unit, say per litre basis. Today each increase in petroleum price is a bumper lottery to the States. They get huge unbudgeted revenue from sales tax. Many States run on income from liquor and petrol.

4. A price escalation formulae should be worked out and implemented, say, every quarter. There could be a similar system which shall apply to taxi and auto rickshaw charges.  

But the real answer is none of these. Large scale corruption in the oil companies cannot be ruled out. Right now, reportedly one of them is into real estate. It is spending large amounts to buy land in several places in the country. It seems that Rs.40 crores have been spent in Kerala itself. The idea it seems, is to build holiday homes for employees. If true, it is shocking.

We have seen the damage the Socialistic (non existent?) pattern of society path has done to the country. Nationalisation, license raj, ruining of a world class airline and so on. The nation should be grateful to Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh for starting the correction process.

Now Manmohan Singh should take the final step – privatize the oil companies. Let there be competition in the market but ensure that no cartel/monopoly comes into existence. The government’s business is governance, not manufacturing goods from condoms to petrol. The BJP should support the Congress in this endeavour, or start the move themselves. Probably both would like to wait till the forthcoming State Assembly elections are over.

The people are likely to accept and agree to this change in policy if the idea that price reduction may be possible is presented to them properly. The only serious objection, if political interests are avoided, would be from the Communists. Well, for eighty years they have been making a lot of noise about many things but have not achieved anything worthwhile. If some private entrepreneurs make some money while supplying goods to the people at cheaper rates, why should anyone bother?

Also see: