Hidden Chambers of Commerce
by Sumeshwar Sharma
Clark House Initiative
One of the walls of the Grande Salle at the Chambre de Commerce de Marseille has a tapestry that bears the insignia of the city of Bombay and the Chamber of Commerce of the city of Bombay. The adjoining walls hold the insignia of port cities on the path of the journey through the Suez Canal. The Suez canal was built by the French controlled by competing but allied interests of the British and managed by Italians & Greek stevedores and all that defined as the non Arab. Its attempt to nationalisation by Gamal Abdel Nasser leads to a joint action of Anglo-French and Israeli forces attacking the Suez in 1956, occupying it until 1957. What encouraged the Euro-centric paranoia? It was not only the ships and goods that sailed above, which was one of the reasons of the canal. The Venetians were desperate to draw a canal after a route had been found through the bend of the Cape of Good Hope. The fortunes of the port of Venice and its merchants depended on the trade with the East. There had been many canals to the Red Sea through Cairo built by the Pharaohs, Greeks and the Romans. After Marseille, Alexandria and Bombay were the only ports that could boast of cosmopolitanisms, bourses, and palaces that were hotels that rivalled each other for their air-conditioning, jazz music and tango dances. Modernism was to arise through an enlightenment of mercantile reaches that began to reach the natives in Egypt and India. It was in these cities that merchants funded political revolutions against the monarchy and the colonial imperialism.
But the infrastructure of the later revolutions that lead to independence of the cities of Bombay, Algiers, Alexandria, Aden and Rangoon were also midwifed by students travelling to centres of education in the metropolitan colonial centres on steamer-ships across oceans. Saloth Sar or Pol Pot reached Paris through the Port of Marseille. So did Indian nationalists and artists seeking alternates to British pedagogy caching trains from Marseille to Sorbonne in Paris but still sending home telegrams and letters. A telegram announces the death of Krishna Reddy's mother as he switches ateliers in Paris. That news was brought from cables that mapped kilometres under the sea from Marseille across to Alexandria and onwards to Bombay, these cable lines allowed trunk calls to New York and the exchange of goods and news in real time became essential to the idea of the modern.
Reuters excelled at the speed of news dissemination and collection. It gave a camera to a young Indo-French man 'Jean' Jehangir Bhownagary to report on the events of World War II in Bombay, that was a backwater and nursing home to the war. Bhownagary's experience at the camera became essential skills for him to produce movies for UNESCO in Paris and later become one of the founders of the National Films Division in Bombay. Back in Paris in the 1950s Jean began giving the camera to Indian artists who converged at his home. Later he was to produce movies with MF Husain, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee and others, all who had transgressed into the Paris art scene through the port of Marseille.
The city of Bombay found its Art Deco buildings, creating corniches just shorter than Miami, through financial speculation based on a commodity called cotton in the
1920-30s. Indians after the American revolution had begun to benefit from the spoils of the cotton trade. India had been colonised through Manchester cloth that had come to replace the linen of its craftsmen. But learning quick to exploit the speed of the telegram, Indian Merchant princes began deciding prices of cotton bales based on international exchange rates. All of this was operated through telegrams and phone calls to Port Said, Marseille and New York. The ownership of information gave fortunes to the families such as the Kasliwals who at one point fixed the rate of cotton internationally. The cables and shipping lines across these ports were essential to these fortunes. Culture flowed across these lines as the prosperity asked for cinema, art deco cinemas, music, objects, exhibitions, artists and modern apartments architects.
The fortune of a prominent family changed to the better, reaching the soaring heights of 26 billions, began with the dismantling of the old wealth based on the cotton mills. A two prone approach labour action was encouraged and then dismantled through anti-communist fear mongering and nationalist xenophobia. Soon cotton was replaced by cheaper polyester alternatives made from the byproducts of oil now cheaply available through the oil boom in the gulf. The mills collapsed leading the mill lands to gentrification by unemployment and sky-rocketing real estate prices. The Merchant Princes were now old moneyed millionaires scraping to keep their wealth by turning their mills into malls and luxury apartment blocks. The family that brought in polyester, also expanded to petrol and finance. Soon, telecommunications was on the anvil.
Marseille saw its economic depression based on similar mirrored failures of egalitarian motives of business. A Netflix television series also called Marseille unveils the relationship between politicians, contractors and the zones of influence that are either within the legal sources of power or based on zones of illegality and nepotism. But the failure of the series was not only due to low audience ratings but also unfair compensation to the central character that allowed the unveiling of a system of comparative exploitation.
The artist Virgile Fraisse digs into the processes of commercial film production by hiring actors from the series to add an addendum to the suspended series. It discusses the failure of the city in a format that mimics the film aesthetics or professionalism used by hyperrealistic tv novellas.
Alongside the copper cables that hold our phone calls, soon fiber optic cables were to be added to carry data for internet bandwidth and mobile voice calls.
During the Winter of 2016, the family of the polyester has enacted a digital revolution offering free calls and internet services to millions of Indians. This explosion of information allows access but also manufacture a consensus that is more profitable than cotton, polyester and mines more efficiently than any natural resource. Virgile Fraisse follows these cables from Marseille to Bombay through researches of the city archives. He immerses himself into the industry of cinema in the city called Bollywood. Like any visiting filmmaker out to make a documentary, he hires a team but also professional actors. He chances upon the redundant team of telegraph operators from the telegraph department who perform an opera of singing morse codes that he films. He then films social intercourse between the actors as they go interviewing those who control the flow of conversations and information, more interestingly called media. What is social media and its emotions among people? How desperately can information alter our lives? Fraisse collaborates with metal plate workers who etch door plaques to make a card game depicting cross sections of telegraph and fibre optic cables in bronze and brass.
An organisation for the visual arts in Marseille - Triangle France converts itself into a studio of content production for internet broadcasting as France falls into the abyss of identity and nationalism. Virgile Fraisse came to Clark House Bombay to challenge a similar desperation with nationalism based on the irregular and incorrect flow of information though free internet creating hidden chambers of commerce that Marseille and Bombay have always shared.