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March 23 2011

Divine dispatches: a religion roundup | Riazat Butt

Bringing Mecca to the Venice Biennale; the Qur'an on trial; Holi festival casualties; Roland Joffé on Nelson Mandela

✤ Guess what this is about: "A meeting point of the two artists; of two visions of the world; from darkness to light. The work is a stage, set to project the artists' collective memory of Black – the monumental absence of colour. The first part of the installation relates to the physical representation of Black, referring to their past. The narrative is fuelled by the inspirational tales told by their aunts and grandmothers. As a counter point, the second part of the installation is a mirror image, an illumination, reflecting the present. These are the aesthetic parameters of the work." Any ideas? Anyone? Why, it's the Black Arch – the inaugural pavilion from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the Venice Biennale. The artists, Shadia and Raja Alem, hail from Mecca and say their intention is to bring their hometown to Venice through objects brought from there: "A Black Arch; a cubic city, and a handful of Muzdalifah pebbles." I claim my sum from Pseuds Corner.

✤ The Rev Steve Lawler didn't give up chocolate or telly for Lent. He gave up Christianity. He decided to pray, abstain from pork and alcohol and was planning to fast during holy week but his Muslim Lent didn't amuse his superiors. "He can't be both a Christian and a Muslim," said Bishop George Wayne Smith of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. "If he chooses to practise as Muslim, then he would, by default, give up his Christian identity and priesthood in the church."

✤ Remember Terry Jones – the Florida pastor who wanted to burn the Qur'an? Well, he finally got round to it during a "trial" at the weekend, when he and a chum found the book guilty of crimes against humanity. There is now a price on his head of 10 crore (that's about £1.4m) and the inevitable, depressing slew of protests and threats.

✤ Hundreds of millions of people celebrated the Hindu spring festival of Holi at the weekend – and the festivities threw up a dizzying number of stories about "Bollywood Badshah" Shah Rukh Khan alone – but amid the parties and high jinks there were more corporeal matters to deal with. The Times of India reports that five were blinded by flying colours and there were five fatalities while the Indian Express says 7,956 people were pulled aside for traffic offences. The Times also ran an article criticising wastefulness, saying Mumbai-dwellers threw "conservation to the wind" by working their way through millions of litres of water during Holi 2011.

✤ Who does Nelson Mandela remind you of? Morgan Freeman? OK, who else? Well, according to film director Roland Joffé, the revered nonagenarian statesman is like Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei. In "an era of ideological conformity [he] had the courage to tell people to think for themselves, and like Nelson Mandela in South Africa brought healing to Spain". Er, quite. During a special screening of There Be Dragons – a film set during the Spanish civil war that features Escrivá as a central character – Joffe said '"it would be wonderful" if the film helped the 21st century to be seen as "the century of reconciliation", in which "we began once again to discover our innate humanity that exists in all of us" and to heal the wounds of the 20th century wars. Sorry – but only pandas can bring healing and reconciliation. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 03 2010

Don't dismiss the curse of Greer

Regular readers of this column will know that my only way of gaining redress for the gross exploitation of my life and self by all those involved in the making of the film Hippie Hippie Shake was to invoke the curse of Greer. All I intended was that Working Title Films should release their film and be damned. The curse worked like a charm, as you might say. First of all the film couldn't get started; after nine years of stop-go development, filming got underway in 2007; by August 2008, the film was in the can, sort of. In 2009, director Beeban Kidron and screenwriter Lee Hall walked away, citing creative differences with the producers. Now Working Title have accepted a write-down. Hippie Hippie Shake will never be released.

It takes a single imprecation to launch the curse of Greer, and once it is launched nothing will stop it. Ever since Emma Booth shed her clothes to play me in Hippie Hippie Shake, she has had trouble keeping her clothes on. And now she's all over the internet as the naked female on the receiving end of an unappetising sex encounter in a clip from some other forgettable film. She has suffered enough, but the curse grinds inexorably on.

It is not I who harbour malice but the Hindu idol who guards my house, Kali. How she got from her temple in Orissa to New York, where she found me, I have no idea. She had been collected by some brigand or another for a friend of mine, who said she couldn't have her in the house. I paid what the dealer wanted for her and lugged her all the way back to England. I figured that her malign power could hardly survive in a household as impious as mine. I was reckoning without the charisma that comes from being worshipped for generations.

Kali, chief among the 10 aspects of the divine mother, is the consort of Shiva; he is white, she black; he is eternity and she the moment. For anything to come into being, she and Shiva have to be in congress. The legends are many, but one theme that frequently emerges shows her, disgusted with the tergiversations of self-serving humans, dancing with such fury that the whole earth shakes and mountains topple into the sea. The gods sent her husband to persuade her to stop dancing, but in her transport she danced on him, too, trampling him to death. When she looked down and saw Shiva lying crushed beneath her feet, her jaw dropped and her tongue fell from her mouth, to hang in horrified amazement.

The idol on my stairs is carved from wood and painted in wonderful faded colours. The image is the mask of the goddess, a perfect oval face with hooded eyes and patrician nose, painted blue, its cheeks marked by countless anointings with ghee. The thin red tongue that juts from her mouth almost touches the tip of a lingam set in a lotus before her, foreshadowing the union of male and female, of the phallic eternal and the immediate, of creation and destruction. As in many Orissan representations of Kali, this one wears an elaborate head-dress. If you look closely you can see that it is entirely formed of cobras with their hoods spread in strike mode, emblems of Shiva. The crimson aureole that surrounds her mask bears on each side 19 interlaced cobras with forked wire tongues; it is surmounted by a knot of five larger ones, and the scalloped edge of the whole is actually made up of 79 tiny cobras. That's a lot of hissy snakes.

For 40 years I have collected images of Kali, from small silver figures with four arms holding trident, sickle, sword and axe, garlanded with severed heads and sipping the brains from a victim's skull, to delicate miniatures of Kali in her bridal sari sitting astride her divine husband. I have a lifesize version of this image, in which Kali is not only naked and black, but old, with hanging dugs and wrinkled belly. Fangs protrude from the corners of her mouth, and even as her husband's white penis enters her dark, furry vagina, she keeps feeding on the skull in her hand. He meanwhile stirs, raising his beautiful snake-girt head as his wife's indomitable shakti (energy) draws him back to life. Over the fireplace in the breakfast room hangs an Orissan painting, showing Kali dressed in her skirt of human arms with red energy conduits running from her mouth to her right foot planted on Shiva's chest.

I went to Orissa, to find the oldest and scariest Kalis of all, with staring blood-filled eyes and bared teeth, dancing on skeletal legs. I was laying a garland of marigolds over the withered breasts of one of them when a boy-priest stepped out from an angle of the wall. He was naked but for a lunghi of hot-pink silk, a garland of flowers, and his sacred thread. He was also smiling at me in a quite unholy way. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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