ANAMIKA

'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Water-weeds, Curves and Odd Guns

Of late, I have been going on lengthy paddle-boat trips around the Kochi backwaters. A short and quite crude video record of a tiny fraction of one of them is on Youtube (Readers, pls search there with 'kochi kayal by boat').

Rowing, as I have been discovering, is absolutely tiring - and just as liberating. And performed in these parts, it can give you real visions of how Kochi used to look when the Portuguese came visiting - green skylines without highrises, impenetrable stands of mangroves where, post sundown, fireflies congregate in their millions... The real hard part is when tides oppose you and worse, sweep big rafts of tenacious 'African Payal' into your path (*).

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A full year after its making, 'Poo Viriyunnu, Poo Kozhiyunnu' was screened to considerable appreciation at the Cochin Film Society on 19th November. It was very fulfilling to watch the film in a proper theater with wide screen and a solid sound system.

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Here is a painting by R Venu titled ' History of a Great Slave'.



It probably is a tribute to black African slaves who, over the centuries, contributed their sweat and blood to the rise of Cochin as city and maritime center. More specifically, it might reference 'Kappiri Muthappan', an African allegedly buried alive centuries ago by his European masters along with some treasure somewhere in Fort Kochi and whose spirit still blesses and aids supplicants.

Venu's painting bears uncanny parallels to a couplet from Ayyappa Paniker's 'Gotrayanam' that we used in 'Poo Viriyunnu, Poo Kozhiyunnu' (translation):

"The wounds without might have healed but the heart continues to bleed; yet the comforting embrace of water awakens lotuses. And as if blood were dripping from the tips of their petals, a subtle scarlet line radiates among the spreading ripples".

Kochi has been molded and nurtured by the embrace of water - the sea, rivers and backwaters. And a lot of this water is now carpeted by pink African Payal blossoms. And instead of 'poovithal thumbu alinjoori ittuveezhunna chora' (blood dripping from the petal tips), Venu visualizes 'kaiviral thumbu alinjoori ittuveezhunna chora' (for it is the slave's fingertip that melts into blood).

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Proportions and Curves:

The basic design of the Human body appears to repeat certain proportions at several places and scales. For example, see how the proportions of the triangle formed by the eyes and mouth reappear quite naturally on the torso of a 'pulikkali' dancer.



Another example:



And here is a zoomed out version of the same image!





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Long ago, when I was about 8, I asked an Elder: "The moon adorns Siva's forehead. So, is the lord hanging upside down somewhere in outer space so we don't see his person but can see the moon?"

Yday, I made my first ever visit to Wonderla(Veegaland). A ride on the oddly-named 'Space Gun' reminded me of my own ancient query - one is swept up in a big arc to a height approximately twice that of a coconut tree and left hanging upside down for nearly 20 seconds. It was absolutely gut-wrenching to see the sky beneath one's feet.

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Here is a triptych of hooded faces, of which two are iconic:



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(*) - Water hyacinth is known as 'African Payal' (African water-weed) in Kerala. Curiously, Wiki informs us it is actually of South American origin. Right now, I am too lazy to dig up how Africa came in there!

Monday, October 31, 2016

Khasak and Tahiti

This post (mostly) is an extract from a somewhat bigger and recently written article exploring affinities between Vijayan's Khasak and Symbolist art. Note: The article grew from an earlier post here titled 'A Serpentine Return'.

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In his first and most acclaimed novel ‘Khasakinte Ithihasam’ (‘Khasak’ hereafter), O V Vijayan invests the remote Malabar village of Khasak with an intensely lyrical landscape, drenched in achingly rich colors (he repeatedly asserts the redness of the twilights). The rugged mountain Chethali, occasionally darkened by cloud shadows, looms like a sentinel, its granite peaks rising like domes and minarets and the wild eastern wind whistles thru groves of dark palms. Given the savage physical beauty of the setting and the myths woven about and into this setting by generations of vivid folk imagination (the novel also incorporates these myths in several brilliantly written passages), the supernatural never feels too far. But, the Beyond always floats as a separate numinous realm just above the mundane, never intruding into the everyday (recall the novel's image of "the cloud-laden monsoon sky hanging just over the Khasak, holding back its immense power"); the gods and spirits of Khasak simply watch over the protagonist Ravi’s progress and the larger human drama that plays out in the village ….

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The parallels of Khasak with Tahiti, the remote and stunningly beautiful Pacific island the angst-ridden - and very carnal- artist Paul Gauguin escaped to from Europe and proceeded to paint over and over in overflowing colours - are hard to miss. This passage by Charles Baudelaire, one of the originators of the literary Symbolist movement (lines from the poem ‘Exotic Perfume’) would apply perfectly to the Tahiti of Gauguin – and with the slightest of modifications to Khasak.

”…A languorous island, where Nature abounds With exotic trees and luscious fruit; And with men whose bodies are slim and astute, And with women whose frankness delights and astounds…”

As a specific illustrative example of Gauguin’s arresting vision of Tahiti’s little world of wild colours and unfettered passion, watched over by the ever-present Incorporeal, we look at the haunting painting ‘Spirits of the Dead, Watching’. It shows Gauguin's young Tahitian wife, who one night, according to Gauguin, was lying in fear when he arrived home late: " ... motionless, belly down on the bed: she stared up at me, her eyes wide with fear, '... Perhaps she took me, with my anguished face, for one of those legendary demons or specters, the Tupapaus that filled the sleepless nights of her people."¬¬¬¬



Vijayan’s narrative of a childhood experience with a dragonfly (narrated in his ‘Ithihasathinte Ithihasam’ (written in 1989, twenty years after Khasak came out) which we shall refer to in what follows as simply ‘Ithihasam’) has an eerily similar feel:

“After several days of chasing, I managed to catch a rare brown dragonfly. I held it up and looked closely at its face – its features were very different from those of its green-eyed and common cousin. I ran home and put it in a wooden box…. I could sense dreamy visions beginning to pop up and melt into one another within my brain. I couldn’t sleep that night. I was alone in a dark room; in a corner stood the box. Another presence throbbed therein; I could almost hear a mysterious spectral being gasping for breath. Pure terror gripped me.”

In Vijayan’s depiction of a vicious epidemic of smallpox - Nallamma, the presiding deity of the disease holds dominion over Khasak - one sees the same preoccupation with Death and Sex that Gauguin expresses in glowing colours and an intensely personal reworking of native myths and imagery in paintings such as ‘Where did we come from? Where are we? Where are we headed?’

“The Khasakians lay strewn about, like a big garden. Pus burst forth like so many bright golden yellow flowers. The villagers frolicked among fields of these flowers and gathered in bowers overgrown with creepers laden with them. They wore the blooms proudly in their hair and faces and limbs. And they beheld, bedecked in the same flowers, Nallamma dancing in wild abandon. In their dreams, she became a ravishing seductress; in delirious trances, they yielded to her, lost themselves in her. And in that rapturous ecstasy, they died….”



Vijayan writes in ‘Ithihasam’ on the Khasakian character Maimuna, seen by most readers and critics as the classic femme fatale:

“The acme of experiencing the Female is not the culmination of a carnal act; it is the very essence of meditation. Maimuna had no flesh-and-blood prototype; she was a perfect spirit who emerged from my deepest reveries. In those very meditations, I coupled with her in a totally incorporeal and utterly perfect consummation… “.

For all the abstraction the author – belatedly and in hindsight, from twenty years into the future - forces into the above passage, his original portrayal and characterization of ‘the Beauty of Khasak’ bears a strong affinity to how Gauguin envisioned (much more confidently and one would say, more honestly) his essential Woman in all her dangerous beauty, smouldering sexuality and overarching mystery. For instance, consider his striking portrait of his Javan mistress Annah; looking at it, one could recall the passage in ‘Khasak’ where Maimuna ‘rose naked from the darkness and damp of the interior of the ruined mosque’ and casually refers to the body of her father, Mollakka being taken for burial as ‘savam’ – the corpse.



We may also observe here that Baudelaire viewed - and described in words - his own mulatto mistress Jeanne Duval (the ‘Black Venus’) in very ( similar terms to Gauguin’s.

Note: The elemental attraction fuelled by the exotic ethnic origins of Jeanne and Annah is echoed in Khasak by Maimuna’s Tamil Muslim identity. In an intriguing episode in the novel (just as intriguingly left out by the author when he prepared an English translation), the protagonist Ravi, a Hindu by birth, gets into a vicious fistfight with her Muslim lover ‘Khaliyar’ Nizam Ali and the two men make up for no apparent reason, drinking from the same bottle of hooch.

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In earlier post here, I had mentioned an apparent correspondences between Khasak and the work of Odilon Redon (a Symbolist master who was friends to Gauguin). Here is his "Death, my irony surpasses everything!"; the 'sarpasundari' therein - a sinuous and mysterious female figure emerging from the coils of a serpent - looks quite similar to what I recall of the 'rising Maimuna' (mentioned above) as drawn by skilled illustrator AS when Khasak was first serialized. And come to think of it, the Malampuzha Yakshi (sculpted in 1969, coincidentally, the year that saw the publication of Khasak) embodies essentially the same vision.

Friday, September 30, 2016

I am Back...

1. Just before Independence Day, something curious happened in Cochin - a long forgotten (well, not quite forgotten but definitely marginalized) political leader suddenly resurfaced on posters announcing a mass gathering organized by the Congress party with brotherhood and secularism as theme.

At least among the elders, many were impressed. "Its about time someone remembered him!", "can't remember seeing him on any political poster in the last 40 years!" ... I heard them say…



The denouement: the political meeting barely caused a ripple. That the initiative had no immediate effect on the fading fortunes of the Congress is much less of a concern than that its face failed to connect with the so-called NewGen.

2. I recently executed my first ever commercial project – writing English subtitles for a documentary on the pulikkali (literally “tiger dance”) show, famously held in Trichur during every Onam. The film interviewed some of the (several hundred) of potbellied dancers who would paint up as tigers and jump around to the beat of chenda drums and cymbals. Some of them narrated stories about how the dance came into being:

“Two centuries ago, the heart of Trichur was a jungle (a historic fact but not sure if this wooded area was part of any extensive forest belt) and tigers prowled in the area (doubtful); there was this brave (in a rather qualified way, as per History) king called Shaktan Thampuran who cleared up the place (true, mostly) and it is believed he had to fight and kill tigers himself (pure fantasy, almost certainly). Our dance commemorates this thrilling episode”.

Sakthan and co might have faced leopards rather than tigers. The Malayalam word 'puli' is ambiguous about whether it refers to tigers or the considerably smaller and far more widespread leopard. But the present day dancers paint up as striped tigers - very few become spotted leopards.

Malayalam has a more curious word ‘nari’ (the ‘a’ is short) which could mean either a tiger or a fox (or a leopard). Till very recently, villagers in Karnataka would gang up and conduct ritual fox hunts (much to the chagrin of environmentalists). Perhaps something on similar lines used to happen in the thickets in and around Trichur when it was but a village and a ‘narikkali’ (fox dance) might have been occasionally staged - the ambiguity of ‘nari’ might have turned it into a full blown 'tiger dance' over a few generations. Incidentally, this same ambiguity appears to have tripped up the author of Khasak too! The character Kuttappu-Nari, trapper of naris (from the context in the novel, what he trapped were most probably foxes or at most leopards), became 'Kuttappu the tiger' in the English translation done by Vijayan himself.

And here is how an Elder recalls Pulikkali of the mid 1950s: “One skinny fellow had put on yellow paint and stripes, there was exactly one chenda player and another chap held up a placard with the name of the sponsor – ‘Bata Shoes’. And the tiger and the placard fellow would carry on a bit of dialog – it used to be in Tamil, since the performers were probably impoverished immigrants from Tam country hired for a meal or a drink - on these lines: “Hey, where you goin?!” – “To get a pair of shoes!” – “O, really? And what brand, may I know?!” – “Bata, only Bata!”. And that was about it!".

2. The dwindling sparrow population is a serious concern among Kerala nature lovers (sparrow means not the glamorous weaver bird but the formerly ubiquitous 'house sparrow'). But all is certainly not lost yet; the other day evening, I saw dozens of these sprightly avians chirpily congregating on a small tree on the Marine Drive waterfront. Curiously, none were to be seen anywhere else in the area.

3. Till recently, I could count only three books of over 1000 pages that I have read cover to cover - Collected Travel Writing of Pottekkat, John Toland's biography of Hitler (not a particularly great work) and 'War and Peace'. I had read them all while at school - and before TV arrived. Now, a generation later, a fourth name has been added - Kathasaritsagaram. More on it later!

4. On a recent visit to Kollam, I saw a roadside shrine with a big hooded cobra on its roof. The serpent was but a guardian figure - and there were more of them at the other corners. But its rather realistic (viewed from a distance) curves made a creepy first impression. Religious kitsch with a spot of creativity...



5. A recent discovery has been Abdur Rahman Chughtai, Pakistani artist. My first encounter with his work was via a print of this painting that hangs (of all places!) in a Kalyana Mandapam near Cochin:



The influence of Abanindranath and Nandalal Bose is visible in Chughtai's style but the dreamlike feel is uniquely his. And his colors are always striking - several examples are online.

It is said that the great Hindustani vocalist Bade Ghulam Ali Khan decided to leave Pakistan when his singing a composition dedicated to Krishna at a concert elicited sharp rebukes from authorities there. Does that also explain the absence of a peacock feather in the turban worn by Chughtai's dark-skinned lover?

Whoever the dream lover is, the swooning girl's complexion perfectly matches a very Keralan metaphor - "Wayanadan manjal arachapole" (just the color of turmeric paste)! Well, to be precise, the Mal metaphor is not about somebody's complexion actually matching the color of turmeric paste but of acquiring a golden tinge by regular application of that paste. But Chughtai has gone the distance! And I just heard a grad student exclaim on seeing the painting - "I want that skirt and that pretty blue blouse!"

5. I have had to really struggle to rustle up this post. One fears the problem is more irreversible decline than temporary writer's block but right now is the time to soak in the profound relief of having gotten something done

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Abdul Kalam and 'Anamika'



Mr. Umesh Nair, a very early reader of this blog, had quoted a classical Sanskrit verse as a comment to my very first post – way back in 2005. Its meaning goes approximately thus:

If one were to enumerate the great poets of antiquity on one’s fingers, the name ‘Kalidasa’ has to necessarily take the ‘kanishthika’ (the little finger, where counting begins). And the counting has to end right there, for the standards have been set impossibly high for any other name. The next finger, called ‘anamika’ in Sanskrit, thus truly becomes ‘anamika’ (literal meaning, “nameless”, "bereft of names").

I have seen a modern equivalent of this predicament play out many times. I often ask groups of college students (both undergrads and PGs) this question: “Name some great living Indian scientists”. They invariably start off with a collective “Abdul Kalam!” and that would simply be that - Anamika would invariably stay Anamika.

And of late, since the passing of our most popular President (and most popular motivational speaker and probably, the most popular non-fiction author) ever, the same question has begun to leave such collegians as I get to meet totally devoid of names.

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Recently, I witnessed some academics participate in a program aimed at enhancing their ability to stimulate the spirit of enquiry among students. As an assignment, a short presentation on “Role Models” had to be made. And here is a picture they used:



Kalam's face has been rendered very identifiably; but what can one say of his companion? Guess I can make out, thru the mangled letters, the intended name but that face stumps me!

Very recently I saw a book in a Bangalore bookshop named: “Great Scientists”. Its cover had pictures of Newton, Einstein and Kalam (I did take a pic thereof but lost it somewhere).

And it is a safe bet to predict that Kalam's works will continue to be bestsellers for generations to come. I conclude with one of his aphorisms:

Friday, June 24, 2016

Pictures From Tulu Country

Not very long ago, I saw a public appeal on display at Marine Drive, Kochi.



It was shocking that these little birds, so ubiquitous in my childhood (and even as recently as a decade ago), have all but disappeared from our surroundings. Back home, I read in Induchoodan's masterpiece (written in the 1960s) 'Keralathile Pakshikal'(Birds of Kerala) a very affectionately detailed piece on the kuruvi - how this species of sparrows seems utterly dependent on human presence, how they enliven our markets with their incessant chirping and vigorous aerobatics and also how they seem to be under attack from some mysterious parasite that kills huge numbers of fledglings. A generation after the book was published, has the parasite begun to seriously endanger these birds? Or is it some other factor that has almost wiped them out? I have no idea yet(*).

But last week, while waiting for 'darshan' at the Kollur Mookambika temple, I was thrilled to see nearly a dozen kuruvis chattering happily and flitting around with gusto under a canopy right in front of the inner sanctum. The temple authorities have hung up a network of wires for the birds to perch and hang and generally to have all the fun in the world.

Hopefully, the goddess is watching over them. Not quite a vain hope that; did she not, as this curious (Tibetanish?) picture (it hangs in the Temple enclosure) relates, come to the aid of Sankaracharya as the Master wandered, hopelessly lost, in the nearby Kodachadri forests?



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A bright wedding sari being devoured by a sacrificial fire (I sense faint echoes of descriptions of the practice of Sati read long ago!) - part of the Chandika Homam ceremony at the Mukambika temple:



A (very modern) Goddess image incorporating attributes of Vishnu(conch and discus) and Virabhadra (staff/trident and sword) from near the Mookambika temple:



A very Keralan-looking 'Sarpakkavu' (serpent shrine) from near the temple:



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Fishing boats on the Murudeswar beach:



An elephant+fowl/peacock composite creature on the spanking new columns supporting the facade of a Matha at Udupi:



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VISHNU, THE MAJESTIC

The Anantapadmanabha temple is at Ananthapura, just inside Tulunad proper from Kolathunad. In more modern terms, it is in the far north of Kerala - very close to the border with Karnataka. The temple has an 'enthroned Vishnu' (the snake Anantha physically provides both seat and royal parasol) idol, molded in a material called 'kadu sharkara'. Here is a pic:



Ananthapura is where Vishnu first appeared before Vilwamangalathu Swamiyar, Kerala's principal patron saint (some webpages say Swamiyar was no Malayalai but a Tulu speaking brahmin; and some sources say there were three gentlemen, separated by centuries, who went by that same name) in the guise of a mischievous child; as per legend they had a tiff and the lord disappeared and granted his devotee another 'darshan' only much later at the site where the Trivandrum Padmanabha temple now stands. So, the Ananthapura temple is said to be the 'Srimoolasthanam' of the Trivandrum temple.

Let me place on record that I have serious reservations about this myth. Despite its name, the Ananthapura idol does not show Vishnu in the Padmanabha form at all - there is no 'navel lotus'. Indeed, as far as I can make out, the rather tenuous Vilwamangalam connection apart, the Vishnu temple here and at Trivandrum, separated by a distance of nearly 600 kilometers have very little in common.

The Poornathrayeesa temple in Tripunithura, Cochin can claim a much stronger connect with Ananthapura in particular and with Tulunad in general. The principal idol in Tripunithura is of an enthroned Vishnu (its differences with the Ananthapura idol are relatively minor) and is flanked by smaller images of his consorts Bhudevi and Laxmi (just as is the case at Ananthapura). And for several centuries, the Tripunithura temple has been recruiting its priests from Tulunad (the reasons for this practice seem lost in deep antiquity). Further, the local tradition of Tripunithura relates how Vilwamangalam himself visited the temple during the annual festival and saw the lord, in the guise of child Krishna, prancing about among the caparisoned elephants. This 'Krishna child' vision is a lot closer to the original vision the saint is said to have had at Ananthapura than the sleeping Vishnu of Trivandrum. And even geographically, Tripunithura is considerably closer to Ananthapura than Trivandrum.

Legends such as the Vilwamangalam story connecting two far off places could indicate migrations. While there was a gradual percolation from Tulunad into Kerala of Brahmins starting perhaps a millennium and a half ago(the earlier waves of migrants are believed to have adopted Malayalam as their mother tongue and become Nambuthiris; subsequent waves retained their Tulu identiry and came to be called Embranthiris), Trivandrum, lying in the far south seems to have been almost untouched. So, one suspects that the putative connection between Ananthapura and Trivandrum (and perhaps the Padmanabha name of the deity at the former site and at a stretch, even the place name 'Thiru Ananthapuram') might have been conceived relatively recently. A possible time is the 18th century when the royal family of Travancore is known to have adopted children from noble families hailing from far North Kerala (hailing from Kanyakumari, a heavily Tamil-influenced region, the Travancore royals appear to have slowly migrated north towards Trivandrum and made a conscious effort to forge a more Malayali identity for themselves; these adoptions and accompanying myth-making could be part of this process which played out over the entire 18th century) .

On the other hand, the very founding of the Tripunithura temple as a center of Vishnu worship (an event dating back more than half a millennium; apparently, the site was earlier a sanctuary for Mother Goddess worship) might have been due to Tulu immigrants.

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In the heart of Udupi, the principal seat of Brahminism in Tulunad, are several temples built around a Nepal-style Darbar Square-ish plaza.



What is most remarkable about the place is a curious confluence of Saiva and Vaishnava streams of devotion. The Krishna temple is preeminent but there is a Siva (Chandramouleeswara) temple right across and then there is the temple dedicated to Ananteswara, a deity claimed to be both Siva and Vishnu. The inner sanctum of the temple has a Sivalinga but above the doorway is a metal enthroned Vishnu image - sitting on the serpent throne with two of his quartet of arms holding a bow and arrow. The very name Ananteswara is an interesting compound - it could mean "the infinite Iswara" (Siva) or the "lord of (the serpent named) Anantha"(Vishnu).

The Siva-Vishnu bonhomie at Udupi is quite a surprise considering how vitriolic and nasty, doctrinal disputes between followers of Madhva and Sankara used to be - and occasionally still are.

Note: The Krishna temple at Udupi sometimes arranges the idol in the serpent throne form as in this online picture:



Aside: That the sleeping Vishnu image might owe something to the sleeping Buddha is conceivable. But even the snake-throned Vishnu probably had Buddhist precedents.



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From Kolathunad, the part of Malabar adjacent to Tulunad: the Subrahmanya temple at Payyannur has fresh-looking laterite walls. A deep perspective from there (going so deep it could be captioned "Payyannoooooor!"):



From Payyannur again, a metal peacock bearing the weight of a lamp pillar (deepastambham). In every other temple I have examined the task falls to a tortoise:



And finally, here is the gopuram of the Taliparamba Rajarajeswara temple - lying unfinished for many hundred years (?):

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(*) - The Mal film song translation of a Biblical saying goes: "behold the kuruvis, they neither sow nor reap nor horde in granaries but ...". Going by Induchoodan's observations, the translator should have found a better word for ravens (as per the King James version) than 'kuruvi' - indeed, while the sparrows don't do any of those tasks, they appear totally dependent on us humans carrying them out.

And while on that little bird, I recall the surprise mixed with a touch of horror I felt half a life ago when I saw a bright young Mallu kid from our capital Trivandrum learning his school lesson: "kuruvi means sparrow, kuruvi means sparrow...!" And I remember with great fondness the story of how a smart little kuruvi won a flying contest among birds.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Witten, Again!



1. We get going with a quiz - Who is the subject of this powerful sculpture? Location: Nellaiyappar Siva temple, Tirunelveli. Thanks to Ram Kashyap, an up-and-coming artist, for sending me this pic.



Ans: If you don't know, Reader, then I too am with you!

And while I have no definitive answer, the guess is: Indrajith, Ravana's son, about to shoot the Naga (Serpent) Astra at Rama and his forces ( this warrior, an equal to anyone else in the Ramayana, is seldom depicted in our visual arts - I recall only the fateful duel between him and Laxmana at the Mattancheri Palace and a quite dull Ravi Varma of him making a present to Daddy Dearest of Indra's consort Shachi).

And as most of us know, Rama and the monkeys had no answer to the Serpent missile and were saved only by a guest-appearance of Garuda, Vishnu's Eagle.

Aside: One gets a feeling that if the sculptural figure above were to stride forward (as he looks poised to), he would do so in the manner of the Tramp.

Another thought: The archer might be about to use the serpent not as a warhead but a bowstring. Siva, as Tripurantaka, had used the serpent king Vasuki to string an immense bow he had hewn out of the Mandara mountain. But while our hero is certainly awesome, he doesn't look much Siva - so my vote stays with Indrajith.

And (thanks to Ratish!) here is the centaur Chiron, another being wielding a bow and a serpent.



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2. Here is a face sprouting from a palm.



As to whose face it is, once again, my guesses (Stan Laurel; or may be Suppandi) are no better than yours are likely to be!

3. Another quiz:



Wasn't that a thoroughly unremarkable looking scene - three random blokes in random conversation at some random place? But, whoever took this picture (he shall remain unnamed) really knows his photography and this is but one of 3 or 4 pics he took of this very scene. I really don't know what prompted him to shoot them; but here is a strangely kindred vision:



That was Piero della Francesca's 'Flagellation', famous among the cognoscenti for its calm and cool feel and perfectly balanced perspective not to speak of the mysterious air about the three figures in the foreground.

4. And winding off the picture section of this post, here is an arrangement of clay figures. They were all crafted by some young artists I happen to know:



This pic of mine is also a sad requiem for the central Buddha figure - it fell apart while being moved around.

5. And yes, I am getting to Ed Witten, World Number One Mathematical Physicist.

Long ago, when I was a struggling student(I even had a post here on that), a certain desi academic bigwig by (false)name Camillo had paid me an unbearably massive compliment by asking: "Shall I compare you with Witten?" (even the mysterious Earl, when he was compared to a "Summer's Day", might not have felt the emotions that surged thru me then). Well, now let me just say Camillo was quite a prophet for I am actually about to get to some kind of comparability with Ed - an Erdos Number of 4 appears to be coming my way and his is but 3. And whew, isn't that CLOSE?

As to those of you who don't know what an Erdos number is, please visit Wiki!

6. And an update on the 'Kalavara'/'Óottupura' building in Tripunithura as it is about to face its first monsoon after the partial collapse documented here in an earlier post: The Poornathrayeesa temple 'Devaswam' have taken over the building (the long court case - mentioned in my post too - ended in their favour) and are about to wrap it up in tarpaulin and stuff to protect it from the rains; seems one of the decisions arrived at by the court is that the building has to be preserved somehow. But, as to whether it is at all preservable, I have serious reservations. Watch this space!

7. And a glossy BBC volume lists "100(?) things to do before you die". Among them is "exploring Kerala backwaters by (horror!) houseboat".

8. And since this post has referred to the Bard, let us conclude it with a very modern recreation of himself with one of his characters. Guess who!

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Marching Forward...

After a longish hiatus, we resume our journey with a spread of images, gathered over the month of March 2016. Plenty has happened since the last post here; while most recent events have been unremarkable or ... unmentionable, there have also been exceptions; here are a few!

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A doc film on the Mahadeva temple at Uliyannoor near Aluva, Kerala is in the works; the Optimist within hopes it would be a useful successor to “Poo viriyunnu, Poo kozhiyunnu” (now on Youtube, albeit in a somewhat unfinished form). Here is a picture from the Uliyannoor temple - the inside view of the roof of the ‘Namaskara Mandapam’ – 36 kazhukkols (rafters) radiating from the central ‘aaroodham’ (hub). A neat feat of medieval Keralan structural engineers, it is credited by Legend to the Master of them all, Perunthachan.



But the above aaroodham comes only a distant second to the circular inner sanctum of the temple which has no less than 68 rafters meeting at the central hub (no pictures here). From the outer tips of some of these rafters hang tiny cradles with Barbie dolls – poignant votive offerings made by couples praying/hoping/waiting to become parents…



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A curious specimen of modern residential architecture - a composite column with a leafy Corinthian 'neck' and scrolled Ionic capital with a Vijayanagar-style 'stalactite' attached. It is part of the facade of a bungalow in Poonithura, Cochin.



Of course, the above pic was taken in stealth and so is not very good, even by my standards!

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A quick visit to Bangalore happened and I checked all the usual boxes – aimless tramping around the IISc campus, pub-hopping (Pecos felt, sadly, rather tired and tepid) and some more tramping among the booksellers around MG Road… The coffee was excellent everywhere and the tea, as served at a joint in Yeshwantpur, even better. And I saw the following remarkable modern temple dedicated to ‘Kanyaka Parameswari’



– the lady looks quite like Laxmi (minus the shower of gold) but is accompanied by a parrot, more associated with Meenakshi. One gathers that this goddess is a noblewoman’s daughter who immolated herself to avoid marriage to a lascivious, middle-aged king, deified; a trajectory shared by so many popular goddesses all over the country.

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Here is a dual image – a slightly damaged stone sculpture from Indus valley depicting a mouflon (at least 40 centuries old, now with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and a slightly unfinished stone sculpture by Prof. C S Jayaram showing a bull (less than a generation old, now in Subhash Bose park, Kochi); do they look uncannily alike!



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I overheard two young fellows talk while admiring a rich photograph of a glorious sunset sky:

F1 – “Hey, this kind of visual reminds me very strongly of the classic song ‘akale akale neelakasham’ (literal meaning: “far away is the deep blue sky…”)

F2 – “Fiddlesticks! Such a red twilight, and you talk of a BLUE sky!”

My sympathies are firmly with F1. The song does give a feeling of vast space, but, set in ‘Charukesi’, it also has such a powerful synesthetic association with the color of sunset that BLUE ought to be marked as a clear discordant note.

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Quiz: Here is a lovely impressionistic ‘Cheenavala’ (Chinese fishing net) by an up-and-coming artist named Justin. Can you spot a serious technical mistake therein?



Answer: The picture shows 4 brasses, which is how things are. But all four corners of the net ought to hang from the tips of the brasses but here only two are shown thus. The other two corners of the net are shown fixed to the kalasanji – an error. And the two brasses which ought to be supporting the rede seem attached to the savayam instead – a bigger error.

It is very likely several of those words sounded very alien; and they indeed are. Most parts of the cheenavala have (Mallufied) Portuguese names. Some historians say the Portuguese learnt this remarkable bit of technology from China and added several of their own innovations while setting them up in our backwaters (Thanks to Gyani who spent a long while searching for cheenavala in Needham's 'Science and Civilization in China'; remarkably, this multivolume work fails to say anything about these nets). While the most glamorous specimens continue to be active at Fort Cochin, cheenavalas are most numerous (to my knowledge) and most photogenic ( in my estimate) in the Periyar delta around Thanthonni Thuruthu – to see them in strength, all one needs is a drive down the Container Road from Cheranalloor to High Court.

The wider picture: In an earlier post, I noted that the Portuguese have a largely negative image in our history (piracy, religious fanaticism, colonialism….) - and that the Dutch have a very different image. Thinking of all Portuguese who came here as uncivilized scum (Vasco Da Gama and some other prominent Parankis certainly were) would be a mistake akin to thinking all Mughals were Jihadi fanatics (as Aurangzeb was when it suited him). The sheer number of Portuguese loan words in Malayalam – apart from the esoteric domain of cheenavala structure and dynamics, they are especially numerous in carpentry - shows how rich and varied our Iberian visitors’ contributions were. More on all that in a future post – and hopefully a future doc film! And let me also note here that Camoens's classic 'Lusiads' has recently received a long overdue translation into Malayalam.

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And let me sign off with a picture of bright sunshine and dark shadow in an inextricable mix.