Wild and weird David Bowie

David Bowie became definitive by closely entwining the performer and the performance, with his ever-changing hairstyles, make-up, clothes and music

While others felt the seismic shock of Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson and British soccer player David Beckham retiring this week, for me, it was time to remember another British phenomena called David Bowie as we attended an exhibition on his life and work at the Victoria and Albert museum.

And what a show it turned out to be. Psychedelic, mind blowing and comprehensive, because Bowie’s life was not just about music, it was also about style and presentation. He had shimmied onto centrestage in the ’70s and became definitive by closely entwining the performer and the performance, with his trademark ever-changing hairstyles, make-up and clothes as well as music. Before Bowie, most singers and bands were fairly anodyne in their stage presence.
He also changed the definition of masculinity and pushed the idea of bisexuality into the pop lexicon, while maintaining an almost camp gay profile. (He had outed himself as “gay” very early on but then went onto marry Iman, a tall and stately black supermodel).
Bowie often confused his listeners and his viewers, changing like a chameleon, setting the trend for so many latter day singer-performers: Boy George, Michael Jackson, Madonna. Some of these multiple identities became almost like his alter ego, and later, he confessed they were difficult to abandon.
Who can forget his most memorable avatar as Ziggy Stardust, an androgynous persona adorned with make-up and high-heel shoes? Bowie, born David Jones, invented a wild and weird public personality even though he grew up in dreary Bromley in London. In fact, many say that this dullness prompted him to rebel against convention. He taught himself musical notations and began performing on stage following rather desperately in the footsteps of more famous bands such as the Beatles. It was not an easy journey, but he soldiered on to his eventual fame. The carefully curated exhibition documented his difficult early years to when he finally broke upon the international arena. In fact, the museum has managed to get a really fantastic collection of his clothes — designed by famous fashion designers such as Alexander McQueen, Yamamoto Kansai among others — made specifically for particular songs.
The exhibition is mounted like an intensely physical experience complete with audio and visual inputs. We wore headsets with inbuilt sensors which were automatically activated by the various exhibits around, playing the required music or commentary. Giant screens displayed Bowie’s live performances and we also saw some of the techniques with which he wrote his songs. Peculiarly, he even “wrote” lyrics following a “cut up” system in which sentences were randomly sliced and then joined to other phrases. It was all part of his rejection of what he considered “conventional”. Of course, now he lives in New York with his wife Iman and has just released a new album at the age of 66. But going through the exhibition one realised his influence on contemporary lifestyles much of which we had forgotten about.
This influence came out clearly this week again when coincidentally Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut who had been space in five months, sang a David Bowie number, Space Oddity before he landed on earth… “Ground Control to Major Tom, take your protein pills and put your helmet on.” One has seen many exhibitions on history and art, but this was about contemporary culture and about a gamechanger.

Meanwhile, after seeing “David Bowie Is” what could have been better than the completely politically incorrect play The Book of Mormon. This is laugh-a-minute riotous theatre about the creation of a religion. According to the play, Mormons were born through a very understandable American desire to have Jesus Christ visit the US.
And that is how (it seems) after his resurrection Jesus Christ spent a few days in America and the third part of the Bible came into being. Funnily enough, this play was running while the US almost chose a Mormon President and it only goes to show that this can be truly a liberal world. In fact, one of the lead actors Gavin Creel reminded one eerily of Mitt Romney — an all-American, cheeks-glowing, teeth-shining guy radiating self-belief and Mormonism. At one level, the play was an audacious comic caper about a religious sect and at another level, it spoke (and sang) volumes about our gullibility and readiness to believe anyone who can offer salvation.

But this was also a week in which we celebrated a tall but modest man who has changed the face of architecture in India. At the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) we applauded Charles Correa being honoured as “India’s greatest architect”. His achievements were celebrated in a well-mounted exhibition that spanned many rooms of Riba. Correa himself spoke briefly about having donated all his archives to Riba so they might be useful to other architects or even academics interested in his work. He rued the fact that there was little interest or desire to preserve archives such as his in India. And, of course, one felt really sad that in India we show such little regard for talented people unless they are actors or cricketers. Yes, Riba has done what India should have done a long time back but better here than never.
Also, it was time to dust tiaras and trot off to watch the Queen open Parliament. It was a poignant moment as this might be one of the last few times that the Queen does the honours. That was apparent in the fact that she was accompanied by Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla.
As always it was enjoyable to be seated on the red benches in the House of Lords chambers among the lords and ladies, while the commoners, Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne stood at the door… small pleasures are made of this.

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