Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Through the Eyepiece

One of the honors I’ve experienced as Consul General in Hyderabad is being invited to participate in the openings of art exhibits.  In the last few weeks, I participated in the launches of two shows of photography that demonstrated what a wealth of talent this city hosts.  The first was an exhibition organized by the Bhagyanagar Photo Art Club and the Salar Jung Museum of the photographic work of award-winning photographers from Andhra Pradesh.  The second was an exhibit at the Muse at Marriott Art Gallery presented by professional photographer Arvind Chenji featuring the work of six amateur photographers who are all IT professionals from Microsoft.   Both exhibits included a fascinating variety of works, from still lifes to photos of nature and city scenes, to portraits, to abstract compositions.  The award-winning professionals had an edge on technique, including interesting developing methods and special papers, but all the artists demonstrated great talent.  At both exhibits, it was interesting to hear from the artists about how they had captured the images.  In some cases, they said they waited hours for the light to be just right.  In others, they arranged objects for effect.  In many cases, they knew what they wanted to convey and sought it out, while in others, it seemed as if they just recognized and capitalized on the moment when a great image presented itself.
I retain vivid images of many of the individual photographs at both exhibits.  There were striking photographs of children who would appear to belong to categories we would label “underprivileged” but whose expressions radiated uncomplicated joy.  At the “Photographic Thoughts” exhibit at the Salar Jung, a series of photographs of post boxes combined humor with social commentary.  There were other series showcasing Hyderabad’s cityscape by featuring clocks and doors.  I’m inspired to try to travel even more by the many beautiful pictures of different locations in India both exhibits contained. 
The travel photography reminded me of another exhibit I saw a few months ago that was organized by Milestone Enterprises at Icon Art Gallery.  I was distressed to read last week about the fire at Icon and I wish the Gallery all the best as it works to recover. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

One of the Questions

One of the questions I’m asked every day is “How are you liking Hyderabad?”  I thought the readers of this blog might have an interest in the same question, so here’s a slightly expanded version of my response.
The short answer is: “Very much.”  First and foremost, we have met wonderful people.  Azim and I have found Hyderabadis to be warm and welcoming.  In addition to feeling personally welcomed, it’s nice being somewhere that has such strong and affectionate ties with the United States—we feel understood as Americans.  Coming from Zimbabwe, it’s also wonderful being in an environment where the economy is growing and there’s great optimism about the future. 
While the people are far and away the most important reason we love it here, we’ve also found other aspects of life here notable:
Things we knew we’d love
·         The food.  We love Indian food.  Everyone told us that Hyderabad cuisine was among the best in India.  We agree wholeheartedly.
·         Paigah Palace.  Everyday when I drive up to the front porch, I’m amazed that I have the chance to work in such a lovely heritage building. 
Even better than we expected
·         The weather.  OK, I know everyone says last summer was much hotter, but we really haven’t found the heat to be as oppressive as we were warned to expect.
·         The flight connections.  India has a terrific network of airlines that allow us to fly direct to all sorts of interesting places.  The convenience and the cost are wonderful compared to our experience in Africa.
·         The golf.  Azim and I are both fanatic golfers, and we weren’t sure what to expect in Hyderabad.  The clubs, the courses and the friendship of our fellow golfers all exceed our expectations. 
·         Cricket.  As an American, I never followed cricket before, even though I’ve lived in cricket-playing countries.  But first the World Cup and the IPL have made me a fan.
It’s going to take some time to get used to
·         Late dinners.  We Americans aren’t used to sitting down to eat at 11 or 12 pm—especially when the alarm is set for 6:30 am.  But the food is so good we’ll figure out a way to adjust.
·         Indian weddings.  I still haven’t entirely figured out what part of the invitation I’m expected to accept, or when to bring a gift.  In the U.S., 200 guests would be considered a big wedding, and the invitation is only for a ceremony and reception, both on the same day.  The fact that we receive invitations from acquaintances and even people we don’t know is part of the warm welcome we have received, and it is an honor to be asked to share such a special occasion.  But we are still figuring out some of the finer points.

Things we may never get used to—but that’s OK
·         The traffic.  I know it’s much worse in other cities, but I’m glad I don’t have to drive myself!
·         The photographers.  I just can’t think of myself as a “celebrity,” and I’m always amazed that people want to take my picture.
Things we just don’t like and never will
·         Littering.  I mentioned in another blog that this is something that has changed dramatically in the U.S. in my life time, and I hope it changes in Hyderabad. 
·         Littering isn’t the only anti-social act we see on the sidewalks as we drive around the city—but I won’t mention specifics of the other habit we find unpleasant!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers

Syed Mujtaba Andrabi is the Economic and Political Officer at the U.S Consulate General, Hyderabad.  Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he was a reporter with the Associated Press. Mujtaba has a masters’ degree in Business and Public Policy from the University of Salford, United Kingdom. He speaks Urdu, Hindi and Kashmiri. Along with his formal education, from age seven to 22, he was trained to be a “Mufti” studying Islam. 

 To commemorate World Press Freedom Day, the Consulate decided to speak to the people who have the strongest opinions on the subject and who are set up to have great influence over the media in the future – students of mass communication and journalism.  We invited twenty students from four different colleges to come to the consulate to discuss the issue of press freedom and how social media is changing the way we produce and consume news.  The title of the discussion was “21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers,” and the group of young, opinionated students were eager to engage in a heated discussion on every topic from freedom of expression to civilian journalism to responsible journalism. 

Since I have noticed that Indian society tends to elevate the professions of doctor and engineer above others, I was curious to know why these students decided to break the mold by choosing to study mass communications.  Some said it's the media's power to influence opinion that attracted them, and others argued that their love for writing and quest for knowledge spurred them. One of the girls said that she chose to study journalism because it put her "on a path of self-discovery."  They also represented the wide breadth of what constitutes journalism in today’s society.  While some were focused on print journalism, others were pursuing their interests in photo or video journalism. 

I was impressed by the students’ strong opinions, their ability to express them, and their eagerness to debate with each other.  Though my role was to lead the discussion, I often ended up joining in the debate with them and enjoyed hearing the students passionately express their views.  We debated the true meaning of objectivity.  Does objectivity mean that every piece of news should strive to be balanced, or does it mean that there should be a plurality of opinions?  I argued for presenting all sides – good and bad – in the interest of supporting freedom of expression.

The students also debated the role of censorship in society, but they did agree that the line between censorship and good journalism is often blurred and deliberately confused by vested groups, political or otherwise, to censor free speech. Most fascinating to me was that the students were very self-aware, and they acknowledged their own biases and confusion or internal conflicts over these abstract, complicated issues. 

The students were passionate when they spoke about the high standards they hold journalists to, but their idealism was balanced by their keen grasp on reality.  I was impressed by their ability to present the positives and negatives to each issue we addressed.  There has been much discussion over the changing nature of journalism due to social media and new technology.  The students acknowledged the powerful role social media has in reporting, but they maintained that professional journalists and traditional forms of media still hold an important place in society.  They also noted several examples where the freedom of social media and lack of controls placed on it were a drawback as individuals used social media as a platform for misinformation. 

Despite their sharp differences of opinion, the students were eager for an exchange of ideas and listened to each other.  This openness to new ideas makes me optimistic about the future of India’s media scene.  This is exactly what makes a free press – open-minded, passionate journalists who constantly question and challenge the accepted norms and are committed to promoting the free exchange of ideas.