Tuesday, October 28, 2008

New York City at night - A photoblog

As India is celebrating the festival of lights, I am busy working on my presentations and projects. However, since I haven't updated my blog in a while, I thought of writing a photo post about this immense city next to which I live. Although many parts of this city are dark and gloomy, many other parts are lit up as if it is Diwali every night.

As I wrote earlier here, I spent the evening of the 15th roaming around Times Square and saw a musical. Before the musical started, I had to finish my dinner. My sister-in-law had bought me a lovely Chinese dinner - I only needed to sit down somewhere and finish it off. So I walked towards Bryant Park on 42nd Street. One of the things that I love about New York is the presence of parks where there are chairs and tables for people to sit and eat, or just relax. I had my dinner, found a water fountain where I could have a drink, and in the process, found these two photos of two of the erstwhile tallest buildings in the world. Both are somewhat dark, but that is the best I could manage without camera shake.

The Chrysler building, seen in the second photo here, was one of the two buildings that were competing for the post of the world's tallest building in the late 1920s. The other one was the 40 Wall Street tower in downtown. The architects of these two buildings were former partners now pitted against each other. Finally, Chrysler Building announced its height and 40 Wall Street topped that height. After the construction of 40 Wall Street was over, a door opened on top of the Chrysler Building and a spire came out and fixed itself on top, taking the total height of the building to more than its rival's. And so, the Chrysler building won the race and became the tallest building in the world, until the Empire State Building was completed 18 months later. Although the Empire State Building is still the tallest building in New York City (after the WTC Towers fell), there are so many skyscrapers around it that it is often invisible from a few blocks away.

Coming back to my evening in New York, I reached Times Square soon and started clicking away like crazy. People all over the world are familiar with the glowing advertisement signs at Times Square. There are neon signs, LED signs and now giant LCD displays as well. The NASDAQ sign is probably the best known permanent advertisement there, other prominent ones being Coca Cola, Chevrolet, Yahoo, Budweiser, Samsung, LG, JVC, Virgin, Kodak, Toshiba, Panasonic, TDK and HSBC. There are also huge posters for the movies and musicals like the one in the photo here. However, walking around looking upward is not very safe in New York City. Apart from the danger from traffic and people who might steal your stuff, there is often an added danger of stepping into a puddle. Yes, believe it or not, New York City like our very own beloved Kolkata is built on a swampy low lying area and the municipality here has to pump water out every minute to keep the city dry. It is said that if the human race were to die suddenly, New York city would get submerged within a couple of days. So even at a place like Times Square, one has to step very carefully after a shower. Here is a photo that I took on a rainy evening like tonight almost a month ago.

The evening of the 15th was, however, dry. I walked around the Times Square on the Broadway, taking innumerable pictures of everything between the 42nd and 45th Streets. The roads leading away from the Times Square are quite busy all the time. This is the theatre district and the major musicals are going on here. Apart from that, there are other attractions as well. Take 42nd Street west of Broadway for example (picture below). It contains Madame Tussaud's and the Ripley's Believe it or Not "Odditorium" among other things. After I had taken sufficient photographs, I proceeded towards the Minskoff Theatre where our student representative was waiting with the ticket. On the way I found some Bangladeshi tourists and tried to get my photo taken by one of them using my camera. He managed to shake the camera so much that I had to discard those shots.
The view from the second floor of the theater was amazing. I found myself looking down at Times Square. I particularly found people crossing the street an interesting subject. When there were one or two people they would wait for the light to turn green. However when a sufficiently large crowd had gathered, they became impatient and unruly and often crossed the road even when the signal said 'STOP'. Here finally I managed to get my photo taken by someone.

I will not write about the show as I did that already. As I came out of the Minskoff Theatre after the show, I was unable to understand for a moment whether I was in New York City or had gone back to Hooghly by some magic. A row of cycle rickshaws had gathered in front of the theatre and they were ringing their bells and honking their old fashioned rubber-bulb horns to attract passengers. I always get surprised when I see these rickshaws here - they seem so out of place among these expensive cars. Going by the price of any human-provided service here, a ride on a rickshaw would be pretty expensive too.

As I crossed the street to the other side of Broadway, I found this horse-drawn carriage on the side of the road. This again reminded me of Kolkata. You can see such carriages in front of Victoria Memorial. The only difference is that the horses here are much larger and healthier. This particular one in the photo is standing in front of the ToysRus store at Times Square. This is one of the largest toy stores in the world. If you enlarge the photo and look closely, you can see a giant ferris wheel inside the store.
But it was getting late and I, like Cinderella, had to return to Newark Penn Station by 12:30 as the last train left around that time. So I took some of these photos of Times Square (below) holding a starburst filter in front of my camera and left.
Americans are obsessed with moving advertisements. Each one of those lights are moving in some way or other. As an aside, I would like to mention another strange thing I saw in New York: animated wall advertisements in the subway. Somewhere along the PATH route to 33rd Street, there are these glowing pictures on the tunnel walls. They are stationary pictures the size of train windows, but like the pages of a flip-book they seem to move when seen in rapid succession. So when the viewer is inside a rapidly moving train, he sees a moving advertisement on the outside wall. Anyway, I felt this write-up on Times Square would be incomplete without a moving image of the place, so I shot this video with my digital camera to go with my post. Unfortunately, the video quality was set to 'standard' instead of 'fine' and so it is not very sharp. However, that's all I have at the moment and I think it can convey the nature of the place. Try to watch it in 'high quality'. One point to note if you have your speakers on, is how the bell of cycle rickshaws dominates the soundtrack!

I think that's all I can write at the moment as it is getting late. I started writing this last night, then fell asleep on my laptop, and finished it this morning. It is still cloudy and windy outside and I must get ready to go to the university in this weather. There are more night photos of New York here, so if you liked the ones here, you can go and see more.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Lion King - The Broadway Musical

“Anything can be shown in an animated movie;” I thought before I went to see the Broadway musical version of Disney’s Lion King on the 15th of October. “They can never come up to the movie fans’ expectations by a play.” In the next few hours, I was going to be proved wrong repeatedly.

The movie version starts with a sunrise and an African chant, and as the animals marched towards the Pride Rock to see the newborn lion prince Simba, the animators weaved pure magic on screen with the lights and colours and birds flying over rivers that reflected the sun (see video above). That movie would have been my favourite animated movie even if I had never seen another scene of it. I was naturally skeptical of an onstage rendition of this magical moment, especially after I saw the stage at the Minskoff Theatre. It seemed too small to convey the grandeur of the scene to about a thousand people.

Then the lights went off and the show started, and I realized that the size of the stage didn’t matter. They were going to use the whole theatre as their stage.

Over the next two hours and forty-five minutes, I forgot where I was, or what I was witnessing. As the giraffes and zebras and antelopes flocked onto the stage, and the elephants and rhinos and birds joined them walking out through the aisles of the theatre, pride rock slowly rose out of the stage. See the video below. Naturally photography and videography is prohibited in the theatre but I found this stuff on Youtube. It seems to be a legal professionally done recording, probably for some TV publicity programme. Particularly watch the movements of the giraffes, the zebras and the cheetah.

But then, human beings rarely learn from their mistakes, and it was only natural that I would expect them to fail to recreate the onscreen sorcery in various other scenes, like the songs “I just can’t wait to be king”, “Be prepared” and “Hakuna Matata”, the scary elephant graveyard scene, Simba’s meeting with his dead father, and most of all, the wildebeest stampede scene. I won’t say how they were done – you may get something if you search Youtube. I will only say that each of these scenes was done wonderfully. At virtually the blink of an eyelid the stage would transform from Scar’s cave to an elephant graveyard full of hyenas, to grasslands with a star-studded sky, to a gorge full of stampeding wildebeests, to Rafiki’s baobab tree with Simba’s picture on it, to Timon and Pumba’s lair with exotic plants and insects. Sometimes the actors performed so close to each other that a collision seemed imminent, but nobody ever missed a step. They have been doing this for the last ten years and of course, mistakes were out of the question.

Although whatever I write is insufficient to describe the show, I feel a special mention needs to be made of the puppeteer-actors who played Timon and Zazu, and the three hyenas of Scar. They operated their puppets so smoothly that I felt they simply vanished from stage and the puppet only remained. It’s a strange feeling; a fully grown man is roaming around the stage holding onto a puppet bird beak-synching it to his dialogues, and most of the time you don’t look at the man at all! Your eyes automatically get dragged to the bird alone. It is the same way for Timon and the three hyenas, and also for all the other animals that made brief appearances on stage. You know there’s a man inside (or even on the outside in case of Timon and Zazu), yet you see only the animal that they are representing. The child actors representing Simba and Naala were perfectly natural in their act, and I also liked the actor playing Scar very much. He has an amazing voice and dialogue delivery style that makes the character come alive.

Most of the cast was African, and the whole musical was Africa themed with African chants and songs in African languages featuring prominently. The music also had an African quality to it which was very refreshing. I wondered how they would start the play back after the intermission – usually at movie theatres people keep returning to their seats after the movie starts and that could be very distracting to the actors here. To overcome this problem, they did something very clever: at the end of the intermission, with the lights still on, they started on an African song and dance which was performed throughout the auditorium. Performers with bird-puppets at the end of poles whirled them overhead and the music was very engaging. It had nothing to do with the story, however. Its purpose was to make people return to their seats thinking the show had started, before the onstage actors could start the real show.

All good things come to an end, and so did this amazing play. After the curtain fell on the final scene, it was raised once more and all the actors came and lined up on stage, with their masks off. We gave them a standing ovation. They definitely deserved it. But as the applause died down and the crowd streamed out of the theatre, I was thinking of the people who were behind this. Who designed the elephant graveyard, the hyena suits, the wildebeest stampede? Those faceless people were the real heroes of this performance, the ones that transformed an onstage play into a fairyland storytelling. They maybe well known in their own circle, but they remain unknown to the general public. Maybe that is the way real artists work, be it the sculptors of Kumortuli or the art directors of Disney Studios, away from fame and publicity. Probably that is why they can deliver such quality work year after year.

I also thought something else: Why can’t we have such musicals in Kolkata?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A special day

This comics depicts quite well how this day started... and if I'm to believe PhD Comics, it's going to be like this for the next few years.
By the way, that would also explain why I have not written any blogs this last week.

Monday, October 06, 2008

A Thief and A Murderer

Remember Ashok Todi? The guy who became (in)famous last September by having his son-in-law Rizwanoor Rahaman murdered? Well, it seems he also sells underwear when he is not murdering people or having them threatened by the police, and the name of his company (Lux Hosiery Industries Ltd) is actually a copy of one of the best known soap brands in the world ("Lux" has a meaning in Latin, but it would be an insult to Ashok Todi to think that he knows Latin and prefers "meaning" to plagiarism). A quick search on Google will show that this company also ran into trouble for an obscene advertisement which was eventually banned from airing on TV. In short, the man and his company have aways been on the wrong side of the law.

Click to enlarge
In keeping with this tradition, this September Lux Cozi Innerwear has created a hoarding and put it up all over Kolkata (and probably other places in West Bengal) on the occasion of Durga Puja with a stolen photo. The hoarding (see photo above) is basically a collage of different images with a "kashphool" photo as the background below, and the photographer who took that kashphool photo is none other than yours truly (See photo below). I was never told about this, of course. I came to know about this today thanks to my photographer friend Mandar who also photographed the hoarding. Incidentally, this is the same photo that New Jersey based Sreeshti.org used for their Puja website last week. I brushed it aside as a funny coincidence in my previous blog post because they were not using it for some commercial purpose. Here, however, things are different. A company has stolen my photo and is using it for an advertisement without even bothering to inform me, let alone pay me for it. This is a punishable offense.

Click to enlarge
On second thoughts, murder, or forcing one into suicide, is a punishable offense too. If the man can go free with that, he will certainly survive my copyright infringement charge.

I may not.

With friends like the Police Commissioner of Kolkata (who fought with the media and redefined the role of the police force when asked why the police officers were threatening Rizwanoor), I'm sure Ashok Todi can prove that I sold him that photo for a few thousand rupees. He may even produce some SMS messages from my mobile to him requesting him to use my photo for his underwear advertisement. He seems to have a knack for such things. Besides, my being here in the US will not help matters. I can't fly to India to appear before a Kolkata judge twice a month.

So I'm doing the only thing that I can do - write a blog post about this thief and murderer, and hoping that the Goddess gives him his due. After all, which dignified lady would like her portrait pasted on a stolen picture in an underwear advertisement?

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Curious Coincidences

The other day as I was standing at the rounded windows of my attic room, I suddenly noticed something written in white on the outside brick sill of the window. On close inspection, I found the letters "J-o-y" written in thick white lettering on the brick (see photo). Unless I have been sleepwalking and sleep-painting and procuring paints and stuff in my sleep as well, it was written by someone much before I came to this house, probably by the person who painted the windows white. As none of the other current inmates of the house have any idea about my nickname, they couldn't have done it to surprise me. Whoever did it, I must say it is one of the most amazing coincidences that I have come across in my life.
Another strange coincidence concerning me occurred last week. A local Bengali association in New Jersey called Sreeshti created a webpage dedicated to Durga Puja 2008. On visiting this site, I found a "kash phool" photo on their homepage which was actually taken by me! Now I'm not really thinking on the lines of suing them for copyright infringement (at least not at the moment, as I am quite grateful to them for streaming "Mahishasur Mardini" from their site at 4:00 a.m. on the Mahalaya day) but I would have felt better had they asked for my permission before using the image. However, what seems strange to me is that out of the hundreds of images available on the Internet, they chose to use the one photo that is taken by a person currently staying in New Jersey!
And while we are at it, it also seems no less a coincidence that only last Thursday I was collecting information about the Disney's musicals on the Broadway, wondering when I can accumulate enough wealth to go see the Broadway Musical version of "The Lion King", my all-time favourite Disney animated movie. On Friday, I get this mail stating that the Graduate Students' Association in our university is selling tickets to the students for The Lion King at a fraction of their original price, and the show is due on... hold your breath... 15th October! Well, in case you didn't get it, the "hold your breath" bit was because it is my birthday on the 15th. "The Lion King" has been running for the last ten years and several reviewers say it is the most spectacular show on Broadway ever. It sure seems my first birthday in the United States will be a memorable one.
And since Durga Puja starts here tomorrow, I wish all my readers a very happy Durga Puja 2008. I'll be back after the Puja here with more posts.