Friday, November 4, 2011

Artists On A Mission

Many people -- even those who profess to have a great love for the arts -- often have trouble distinguishing between the artistic process and an artistic product. Most are consumers who eagerly buy tickets to arts events, purchase books, visit museums, and have a passion for sculpture, painting, and other forms of art.

Many will purchase e-books, DVDs, posters, lithographs, and greeting cards without ever having to think of the artistic process that went into the creation of these products. What they pay to see, however, is very much the outcome of someone's artistic process. Whether it is a museum display about the Impressionists, an operatic performance, or a fashion show, they are paying for the end result.

For some people, placing a value on art is of paramount importance. Whether they look at a painting by a famous artist as a worthwhile investment or think that a superstar's fee makes him the best at what he does (rather than a marketable commodity), the dollar sign is always lurking in the back of their minds.

However, art is usually a very messy process filled with false starts, scrapped ideas, dead ends, and various forms of failure. Much of the artistic process is built around research, improvisation, and repetition.

While some people envision artists sitting at home waiting for a brilliant idea to hit them like a bolt of lightning, the truth is that most creative types are driven to keep working because it's so hard for them to turn off their imaginations. Driven to create (or continue rehearsing), they are constantly experimenting with new permutations on old ideas, evaluating nuances of color, tone, fingering, and phrasing, juggling vague possibilities that have yet to become fully articulated in their minds.

A young artist who recently had his first experience with a mentor confessed that the most valuable lesson he learned that day was to never throw anything away. In her superb article entitled Which Is More Useless:  Limbaugh or a Classics Major? writer Miranda Frum outlines the life-long blessings of studying the classics (blessings upon which an exact price cannot be placed).

Working artists tend to be fairly organized, often to a point of obsession. They have to be in order to keep track of their ideas while juggling multiple projects at any given moment. Thoughts that come to them in dreams, while shopping (or even in the bathroom) may end up getting incorporated into their art.

Somehow. Some day. Somewhere.

Just as an arts education lays the foundation that can help to shape one's goals and define one's artistic path, external forces can kick an artist into another direction. Two hugely inspirational documentaries that will be screened at the upcoming San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival (Third i) examine artists who have found themselves (quite unexpectedly) on a mission that may well keep them occupied for the rest of their lives.

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Directed by Joshua Dylan Mellars, much of Play Like A Lion is devoted to celebrating the life and music of Ali Akbar Khan, the beloved Hindustani classical musician who died in 2009 at the age of 87. Recognized internationally as an expert in performing on the sarod, he founded the Ali Akbar College of Music (first in Calcutta in 1956, then in Berkeley in 1967, and again in 1985 in Basel, Switzerland).

Ali Akbar Khan performing on the sarod

At the age of 16 Ali Akbar Khan accompanied Ravi Shankar in concert. Four years later, he became a court musician for the Maharajah of JodhpurHanwant Singh. He came to America in 1955 at the invitation of Yehudi Menuhin and, during a long career of touring and teaching, received a MacArthur fellowship and, in 1997, the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

While Play Like A Lion does a superb job of documenting Ali Akbar Khan's life, it is more intensely focused on preserving and publicizing a family's devotion to the classical music of Northern India. A prolific musician, Ali Akbar Khan also had seven sons and four daughters (his eldest son, Aashish Khan, is now in his 70s).  One of his youngest sons, Alam Khan, has taken on the responsibility of preserving and disseminating his father's contributions to the Maihar gharana school of Hindustani classical music, which includes some ragas that have been passed down since the 16th century.

Alam Khan

Thanks to the fine camera work by Joshua Dylan Mellars, Play Like A Lion captures the rich colors of India as well as Ali Akbar's rich musical coloring. Shots taken at Indian music festivals, in private gardens, and at royal receptions burst with the kind of vivid splendor one anticipates from a professional travelogue.

The sounds heard in Play Like A Lion come from a very different tradition than Western European music. Ali Akbar Khan -- who frequently told students that he could make them cry with one note -- was revered by musicians far and wide. The documentary includes deeply personal testimonials from Carlos Santana and Mickey Hart (a member of Grateful Dead)

Alam (who began his musical training at the age of seven) accompanied his father onstage during international tours between 1996 and 2006. The documentary follows Alam from Berkeley to India as he visits some of his ailing father's favorite places and performs for Indian audiences. Following his father's wishes, Alam now teaches advanced instrumental and vocal classes at the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael and has dedicated his life to preserving, performing. and teaching this music to the world.

Alam Khan with his sarod

Play Like A Lion is an intriguing documentary about a musical tradition unknown to many Americans and how a revered maestro's son chooses to devote his life to continuing his family's musical tradition. Here's the trailer:

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In a culture that idolizes fame and fortune, many artists struggle to make ends meet. Others may ride the crest of superstardom.

Few, however, decide that it is less important to develop their own artistic talents than to use their creative and critical thinking skills to help others. An inspiring documentary by David Driver focuses on Michael Daube, a man whose greatest talent may be his ability to function as a catalyst rather than as a stand-alone artist.

Michael Daube
Born on December 18, 1964, Daube grew up in Connecticut, where his family's penchant for organizing communal yard sales offered a never-ending source of ideas. It also taught Daube the value of dumpster diving.

In 1994, while working as an artist, the 30-year-old Daube was living in a warehouse in Jersey City that had once served as a storage facility. While scavenging for sculpture materials, his eye was drawn to the reflection off the frame of a discarded piece of art. Recognizing the drawing’s initials (the letters “DH”), Daube was lucky enough to discover a 1968 pencil drawing by David Hockney entitled "Ossie, Powis Terrace, London," which subsequently sold for $18,000 at a Sotheby’s auction.

Some artists might have spent such an economic windfall on themselves. But, as Way of Life clearly explains, Daube had already articulated some distinctly unselfish goals for future earnings.

Michael Daube in Nepal

As a child, Daube had fantasized about traveling to foreign lands, especially India. Following his graduation from art school, he traveled to Orissa, located near the Bay of Bengal. Thanks to a series of strange and serendipitous events, he ended up at Mother Theresa’s refuge near Kalighat Temple where he was given the task of washing the bodies of dead and dying Indian people.

The experience had a strong spiritual impact on Daube, who returned to the United States hoping to find some funding with which to effect change in India. With the proceeds from the sale of the Hockney painting, he finally had the seed money to begin a life-long pattern of using his creativity for philanthropic purposes.

Michael Daube

Daube used his money to start a hospital in rural India. During the following 13 years, he helped establish schools, hospitals, and women's collectives in India, Nepal, and Chiapas, Mexico. Throughout each project, his ability to use his organizational skills and creativity to help cut through political and bureaucratic red tape yielded impressive results.

Long before Kickstarter and gained momentum on the Internet, Michael was using his celebrity connections (from having done odd jobs as a carpenter and artist) and powers of persuasion to draw attention to his ongoing projects in remote lands. Each new experience helped develop a blueprint for future philanthropic projects.

Way of Life succeeds in showing how one man's vision, sharpened by his background as an artist, can yield stunning results. Equally important is Daube's understanding that, in order to for him to continue his work, an organization had to be created which could act as an umbrella for future projects.

Where others might choose fame and glory, Daube has remained a fairly humble soul who is far more interested in finding new ways to help others. Way of Life explores the intricate relationship between creativity, personal happiness, and finding one's life path in the unique story of how one man used his artistic skills to help make the world a better place. Here's the trailer:

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