Friday 26 October 2018

Smallest Room: The Toilet Museum of Delhi, India

This article from my visit to Delhi, India appeared in The Sunday Age newspaper in 2012, but never went online: so here it is for your amusement. I was hosted on that trip by Thai Airways.

The suburbs of Delhi, India seem like a strange place to find the throne of King Louis XIII of France. Though it’s not a throne in the strict legal sense.

It’s actually a replica of a grand combination of chair and toilet, which the monarch had constructed for him in the 17th century.

Ever a busy man, the monarch used it to attend to his courtiers and, er, other royal business at the same time.

So I’ve learnt something new about the excesses of the French aristocracy today, and in an unlikely setting - the Sulabh International Museum of Toilets, located in a less salubrious sector of the Indian capital.

As my taxi driver Sharwan wove his taxi down ever more crowded roads, past increasingly more dilapidated dwellings, I started to wonder whether visiting this institution was such a good idea.

However, the Sulabh Museum turns out to be a refreshing pit stop between visits to the tombs and monuments of India’s capital.

Not only does it display an array of toilets from across the ages, it’s also a showcase for the Sulabh International Social Service Organisation’s worthy work providing low-cost, environmentally friendly latrines to communities across the subcontinent.

I’ve entered the Sulabh complex in the company of Sharwan, who had never heard of the museum before, and wants to check it out as well.

Inside the walls, we find a neatly maintained collection of low buildings around a central courtyard. To one side is the museum, with a sign bearing “Thoughts that matter”, including “Sanitation is our religion”.

A worthy notion, but is the museum interesting? Well, yes. Its contents are a mix of informative fact and colourful exhibits, including replicas of highly decorated historic ceramic loos from the houses of European gentry.

Among the collection, there’s a timeline of the great toilet developments of history, a model of a two-storey outhouse from the USA, a portable loo for noblemen’s hunting trips, a leather armchair convenience and a model of a Korean house in the shape of a toilet.

There’s also a complex Japanese model with a bank of control buttons controlling heating and other high-tech features. The organisation has even built an award-winning toilet complex at the Taj Mahal, I discover.

It’s all very amusing, even illuminating, but there’s a more serious side to the museum. Its curator, Bageshwar Jha, tells me that one of the Sulabh organisation’s founding aims was to free dalits - India’s “untouchable” caste - from their traditional latrine cleaning tasks.

Outside in the courtyard, there’s a statue of a dalit woman bearing a waste can upon her head. It’s near a series of demonstration models of the loos that Sulabh sells to villages, underlining its serious health and environmental work.

The non-profit organisation even makes a virtue of necessity, helping to operate its compound by using bio-gas and fertiliser harvested from its bank of public toilets along the main street.

It’s an intriguing institution, with an unconventional collection which has... shall we say... universal interest. But is its focus too indelicate for many tourists?

“A toilet museum is not everybody’s cup of tea,” admits Mr Jha, but then mentions visitors’ reliably amused reactions to Louis XIII’s special throne. “It provokes people’s laughter, and anything that makes you laugh is valuable.”

The Sulabh International Museum of Toilets is located at Sulabh Bhawan, Mahavir Enclave, Palam Dabri Marg, New Delhi, India. Free entry, see its website for opening hours and directions.

Friday 19 October 2018

Red Relics: The Statues of Memento Park, Hungary

This article from my second visit to Budapest appeared in The Age newspaper in 2010, but is no longer online: so please enjoy. There's nothing I like more than an artfully arranged set of communist-era relics.

Winston Churchill famously described the Soviet Union as a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. He might as well have said the same thing about its art.

At the height of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s rule in the 1930s, an attempt was made to tame the untameable. A new art movement, sanctioned by the state, would promote the goals of socialism.

The result was Socialist Realism, the genesis of a long line of dreary statues scattered across Europe and Asia, depicting sturdy grain-fed peasants and robust factory workers gesturing heroically toward the communist future.

Curiously, it’s simultaneously both a bland and intimidating style, as I see for myself first-hand at Memento Park on the outskirts of Budapest, the Hungarian capital.

It’s a striking place, with high red brick walls bounding three large oval-shaped grounds, a central garden with a big red star picked out by red blooms, and an impressive collection of the massive Socialist Realist statues which once stood throughout Budapest.

It suggests an immense parade ground into which a detachment of Red Guards might suddenly march, scattering the handful of dawdling onlookers on this wet spring day.

Stepping into the grounds, I at once encounter an immense statue of a Soviet soldier standing with chin tilted arrogantly, a rifle strapped across his greatcoat. His right arm is held high, grasping a staff from which a carved flag hangs.

My first impression is of the sheer brute force manifested in this intimidating figure. The second is of what a bad piece of art it is. The flag is particularly awful, a clumpy solid mass rather than the intended depiction of cloth ruffled by the wind.

This gem once decorated the 19th-century Austrian-built Citadella on a hill overlooking the Danube. In the company of other stone soldiers, he played support act to a giant female figure bearing a palm frond, representing liberty. The woman with the palm remains in place; her Soviet entourage does not.

Clearly this grim art style was in the service of ideology and oppression, seeking to overpower the individualism of the viewer.

However, as I walk around the grounds in the company of Orsolya Madary, the park’s enthusiastic communications manager who has a precise knowledge of each piece’s history, I begin to realise that the statues have an another, unexpected aspect.

In a nutshell, they’re funny. Though designed to inspire fear, they also inspire humour. In fact, with their absurdly oversized limbs, stiff expressions and ungainly depictions of movement, the figures are nothing less than a po-faced set of posers who are begging to have the piss taken out of them.

And it’s not only we inhabitants of the safe and comfortable present who see the joke. As we progress, Orsolya relates how Hungarians used to give the solemn statues unflattering nicknames.

Pointing at a clumpy composition of a worker with hands outstretched in front of a Soviet soldier with upraised arms, she says “That was known as The Fishermen. You see, one is gathering his nets while the other is describing the length of the one that got away.”

Further on we meet The Basketballer, a chunky plasticine-like figure with one arm outstretched to the sky as if trying for a basket; and The Linesmen, two figures with small flags who could just about serve at an AFL fixture.

There are also the newly-nicknamed Mobile Phone Marketers, three abstract figures wearing ammunition belts, each with a hand raised to their right ears as if simultaneously saying: “I’m on a tram. A tram!”.

My favourite, however, is a vast muscular figure striding forth with an upraised hand trailing a long piece of cloth. He’s presumably bearing the banner of socialism toward the enemies of the state, but locals snidely referred to him as The Cloakroom Attendant, vigorously returning a scarf you’d just dropped.

Hungary’s communist regime was no laughing matter, obviously, but such everyday humour was a small, regular protest that stole puffs of wind from its sails and turned it into an object of quiet ridicule.

Back at the entrance, I browse the shop’s array of humorous communist-themed items that further take the mickey out of the totalitarian past.

Then, as I pocket my Best of Communism music CD and step past the rusting main gates toward the bus stop, I encounter the last exhibit - a mighty plinth bearing a gigantic pair of boots. No figure above, just boots.

It’s a replica of the remains of an eight metre high statue of Stalin which once stood above a grandstand in the centre of Budapest. When the revolt against communist rule broke out in October 1956, the citizens took to it with saws.

Only the boots remained, and they’ve endured as a comical symbol of communism’s eventual impotence and overthrow. It’s less a case of the emperor having no clothes, than of the boots having no emperor.

Find Memento Park's opening hours and entry fees at its website.

Friday 12 October 2018

Walking the Seoullo in Seoul, South Korea

I was hosted on this visit by the Korea Tourism Organisation.

On my last day in Seoul I made my way by bus to the western entrance of Seoullo 7017.

This cool-sounding name denotes the city's answer to New York's High Line... in this case though, it's a former freeway flyover which has been given the beauty treatment.

Walking east, the ramp slopes upward above the streets, and here I discovered a wealth of plant life in circular pots. There were also small structures that acted as shops and stages.

Here and there I also found art, and recreational equipment. The first image below is of the interior of a tiny gallery, the second of a small enclosed trampoline.

There was also plenty of evidence of the railway which the flyover was originally built to avoid. Below I could see rails, and the occasional train passing.

Just a short distance to the south was the attractive facade of the original Seoul railway station. It was built in 1925 during the period of Japanese occupation, and is now a cultural centre.

Further west there was more greenery, and shady spots to sit and rest. As it was a public holiday it was quieter than usual, and surprisingly tranquil there in the heart of the city.

I sat and reflected that Seoul, having built up its big modern commercial heart in the late 20th century, is now taking time to add human touches to the steel and concrete - such as the newly uncovered and beautified Chonggyecheon stream which I wrote about in 2014.

Eventually the walkway terminated, conveniently right above Hoehyeon station on the Seoul Metro.

I'd been impressed by Seoul's new linear park, and by the number of residents who used it the day I took my stroll. It's a great asset to the city.

And if you're wondering about the name 'Seoullo 7017', I later found out that curious number refers both to 1970, when the flyover was opened, and to 2017 when it reopened as a walkway.

There are also, as it happens, 17 entrances to the path, and it crosses the railway tracks at a height of 17 metres. It may be just another prime number, but 17 gets star billing in Seoul.

Friday 5 October 2018

Review: Madiba the Musical, Melbourne

It's not often that a stage production has a disappointing first act, then redeems itself in the second. But Madiba the Musical is that production.

The clue to its flaws lies in its misleading name. We expect it to be a biographical treatment of Nelson Mandela's life, and it starts in that vein, with a set featuring Mandela (played by Perci Moeketsi) ministering to clients mistreated by South Africa's apartheid regime in his early career as a lawyer.

It looks like we're going to get a cherry-picked tale of the great man's life, which is a little daunting; Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, the biopic starring Idris Elba, was faithful but laboured in telling that tale.

But Madiba immediately informs us that it's impossible to show us his whole life. This message is relayed by the Narrator (David Denis), a chorus-like character who raps his way through a great deal of exposition in jaunty style.

Given this admission, it's a pity the first act becomes a mish-mash of moments from Mandela's early years, a kind of 'greatest hits' of his fight against the regime and his eventual imprisonment.

The first law of storytelling is "Show, don't tell," but there's a lot of telling here.

Even crucial moments of violence such as the Sharpeville massacre are reduced to a single death, which mutes the emotional impact of such iconic incidents of state violence. And Winnie Mandela (Ruva Ngwenya) is so toned down that she's hardly recognisable as the forceful personality she was in real life.

Thankfully, the second act finally provides us an emotional entry point into this tumultuous era. A young black man named Will (Barry Conrad) has fallen in love with a young white woman, Helena (Madeline Perrone), whose policeman father Peter Van Leden (Blake Erickson) is a brutal enforcer of the status quo.

This star-crossed relationship provides the hook we need to feel the personal impact of apartheid, as the duo struggle to realise their love and are forced apart by the cruel reality of the regime's discriminatory laws.

When they finally reunite, in the post-apartheid era, we feel the surge of hope that must have accompanied the sweeping away of that unjust system.

Through their personal struggles, Mandela appears as an inspirational background character, whose own fate slowly evolves from prisoner to negotiator to free man... and then president.

Narrative flaws aside, the show's songs and dance are impressive throughout, with much co-opting of traditional African music and its rhythms.

For all the lively glory of the group numbers, the standout for me is Mandela's solo recitation of William Henley's poem Invictus, from which he's known to have drawn great strength.

In this year, the centenary of his birth, there are many celebrations of Nelson Mandela and his achievements. Despite a slow start, Madiba the Musical is a worthy addition to their number.

Madiba the Musical continues at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne to 28 October 2018, then tours Australia and New Zealand. Make bookings at Ticketmaster.