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

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Names Matter! - and a Desi Surprise

I have noted more than once on these pages that names matter and matter big time.

Here is an installation by N N Rimzon (surprise: he is a Malayali although his name has a Naga or Mizo flavor). Titled just 'The Tools', it is now on display in Kochi as part of the Biennale.

Critics have remarked: "The Tirthankara-like figure of austerity and spiritual purity placed in a cosmic circle of tools evokes the eternal duality of violence and materiality contra human aspirations." and " (Rimzon's works) reveal postmodernist nuances in their attitudes, but the social-radical statement continues as an important motif, particularly in a work as direct and unambiguous as The Tools."

Here is an icon of lord Viswakarma in majesty circled by a halo of floating tools:

Need I say more as to what I think would be a more pugnacious name for Rimzon's work than 'The Tools'?


I had always believed that India has no serious indigenous tradition of calligraphy. Among our dozens of scripts, only Bengali and Urdu (which anyway uses an imported Arab script) seemed capable of sustaining really beautiful writing; the rest of our scripts could at best be neat. Moreover, all these scripts are but medieval innovations. Indeed, precious little of what I had seen of ancient Indian writing had even passable looks(and whatever I had seen of Keralan inscriptions in Vattezhuthu etc was shoddy tending to ugly).

And then, around New Year, I came upon a volume on Pallava art put together by a certain Michael Lockwood with assistance from some Indian scholars including Gift Siromoney. Here are some samples therein of Pallava inscriptions in Grantha script dating back to 7th century AD. Most are carved onto rock faces at a place I have been to many times - Mamallapuram; despite the elegance and flashes of panache(*) these inscriptions display, I had totally failed to spot them.


I recently got a doubt: Is there any need for musical instruments to look good to also sound good? Most western and Desi instruments do have great physical beauty. A veena is supposed to look so good that its principal resonating gourd is held as the standard against which the comeliness of .... well, that should do!

In a more contemporary context, see how this saxophone holds its own among some superb watercolors painted by Prof. C S Jayaram (picture taken from an ongoing solo exhibition):

Dirac and many others have held that Nature ought to be described by beautiful equations. So there may well be deeper truths behind the physical looks of musical instruments.

Checking online, one can see an instrument from Newfoundland called 'ugly stick'. Youtube has some videos. Ugly stick doesn't look too good. Neither does it sound very good.


And to conclude, let me quote myself. This is from a valediction read when Jayaram Sir's exhibition got under way - a fondly hopeful vision of what the future promises for a gifted artist/musician/scholar (and I believe these are some of the best lines I ever wrote).

"The hoary Bard reaches for the sculptor’s tools – to carve out of Time a throbbing ‘thudi’, once more to sing slumbering Gods into existence.

The Craftsman’s undimmed eye again meets the teasing gaze of the slim dancer; and the little muse dreamed up by a distant forebear awakens ever newer epiphanies"


(*) I was pretty pleased with the phrase 'flashes of panache'. And then came the idea of actually looking up 'panache' in the dictionary. And here is what Merriam Webster gives. Panache means: 1. an ornamental tuft (as of feathers) especially on a helmet 2. dash or flamboyance in style and action...(note: this was the only meaning known to me). goes on to add this remarkable bit:

Few can match the panache of French poet and soldier Cyrano de Bergerac. In his dying moments, he declared that the one thing left to him was his panache, and that assertion at once demonstrates the meaning of the word and draws upon its history. Panache derives via Middle French from Late Latin pinnaculum, meaning "small wing" or "gable," a root that also gave English the word pinnacle. In both French and English, panache originally referred to a showy, feathery plume on a hat or helmet; its "dashing" figurative sense developed from the verve and swagger of one bold enough to wear such an adornment in public. When the dying Cyrano turned his huge nose heavenward and spoke of his panache, his nose became the literal and figurative pinnacle of a multifaceted pun

The name Bergerac rang a bell. After a bit of intense memory-trawling, I found him in an all-time favorite, Perelman's 'Physics for Entertainment'. While explaining Inertia, Perelman makes a typically brilliant reference to Bergerac's pioneering science fiction work "A History of the Kingdoms and Empires of the Moon".

Note added on Feb 21st, 2017: A strange coincidence happened today. A colleague, having read this post and looked around online told me "Bergerac and his tall tales remind me of another character, Baron Munchhausen; he could make up some very big tales!". And guess what, I had actually read about Munch... and his stunts, from where else but this very same Perelman volume!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Gulbarga - Day 2

The concluding part of the log from Gulbarga, written a long time ago ...

Day 2:

9 am: We are at Gulbarga bus station, waiting for a bus to a place called Nilogi; to see the ruined city of Firozabad, we presumably need to get down at a stop called 'Darga' and walk a few kilometers...

Late afternoon (writing from the Khwaja Banda Nawaz Darga, Gulbarga): Our bus leaves Gulbarga and progresses smoothly down the highway to Bangalore. After an hour of toordal fields, we get off at 'Firozabad Darga'. A small teashop and a deserted shack with the board "Tire Panjar & Repare"; that is all the civilization at this place. It is severely hot; the Darga enclosure offers relief in the form of a dense stand of neem trees. We ask a passerby: "How does one get to the palaces here?" He laughs: "Palace?! What do you mean?"

The teashop guy sounds more knowledgeable: He points at a mudpath branching off from the main highway. "A mile or so" he adds. We can't be sure since there is no trace of any wall or ruin to be seen from here. But lets see,...

We have walked for almost an hour from Darga. Scrub, then more scrub, the odd villager with a flock of goats, a bullock cart, that is all we have encountered. Our mud path hits a slightly wider mud path. We ponder the next course (left, right or return) when an old man approaches. He speaks urdu: "A little down the right-going path is our village. Just beyond is the old fort and ruins"

Another kilometer in the burning sun and our path hits a cluster of dwellings, all built with heaped stone slabs. A single, narrow trail winds among them; it is mercifully cooler here. We sense people staring at us. A lad asks us something in Kannada. On our failing to reply, comes the question in basic Hindi: "You, which village?". "Hyderabad", we say. Puzzlement, then silence.

Just beyond the houses we spy a stone arch, old and decrepit. Approaching, we see some walls, a couple of Bahmani style domed tombs,... But we can't quite reach them - crude thorny fences balk us; and vacant spaces among the ruins are under toordal cultivation.

A youngster - about the same age as Zafar he seems - approaches us. In my severely challenged Kannada, I ask him the way to 'Jama Masjid'. He says something which we couldnt make out a word of. Then he walks off, gesturing to follow him.

Walls on all sides, not even a pillar within - we come upon a mosque in such a state. Neem trees have grown inside near the western wall. The rest of the interior is again a toordal field. "My name is Sivakumar. This is our own cultivation" says the young chap, in Kannada even I could follow. He leads us up a precarious stone stairway to the top of the mosque wall. From here, we see a wider surrounding area. A spread of ruins, a big river (Bhima, it is) meandering past them... Not too far, rising to nearly 40 feet, stands an edifice with a mostly collapsed dome - ("Hiroshima town hall!" - Satish remarks) - must be what remains of the medieval royal palace.

We get down and walk around a bit and inspect some ruined - and awfully smelly - tombs. Toordal fields, thorn fences, heaps of stones, not even foot trails. Quite a labyrinth this place. But for Sivakumar, we would have had to leave without seeing a thing.

We were talking about Fatehpur Sikri, another 'ghost town', then the 'Roman Forum'. But those two are well-visited and well mapped places (and yes, expensive - you part with a solid fee to even enter them). Firozabad has yet to get the 'Protected Monument' board, routinely put up by our Archeology people before even most insignificant of monuments.

We note with a shudder that there is very little water left. Hurriedly taking leave of Sivakumar (must say, despite the hopelessness of the language situation, he could communicate quite a bit with us, conveying information and more importantly, an earthy camaraderie; he even initially refused a small tip we tried to hand over), we walk briskly back towards Darga stop.

We are in luck and don't have to wait much there. In hour we are in the city. We grab a bite and head for the Banda Nawaz darga, located in the eastern quarter. It is quite clear from a hundred meters off that we are entering a major center of pilgrimage. Crowds, rows of shops selling religious bric-a-brac. Near the main darga complex stand a row of seven domed tombs - the Haft Gumbad. We skip them.

We tiptoe our way, barefoot, along the white-hot stone floor of the darga enclosure; to our relief, the place has only a modest number of worshipers. The complex is elaborate - the saint's tomb, then tombs of his line of followers and relatives and several other buildings. A big arch with carvings of lions attacking elephants, pillared halls with Vijayanagar-style corbels... We encounter an old woman sitting in a shady corner, singing some sufi devotional lyrics with great fervor. As we pass her, she pauses and wishes us Khwaja's infinite grace. I get an inexplicable feeling she really means what she has just said.

Khwaja's tomb is quite big, done in Bahmani style; its interior has a remarkable air-cooling system. The inner surface of the crowning dome has beautiful decorative work with pieces of colored glass and stones. A metal partition surrounds the grave and devotees touch their forehead on it and stand in silent prayer. The grave itself is covered with a rich brocade strewn with rose petals. The fragrance of 'attar' is in the air. We sit in a corner, not too far from the Master's resting place, resting our own tired bones; I reach for my notebook....

Gulbarga - Day 1

Long ago, I was a student in faraway Hyderabad. One October morning, I set out with a then friend by name Satish on a two day exploratory trip to nearby areas of Karnataka. Here I reproduce some notes – they were hastily scribbled in a tattered notebook (which is still with me) as the tour progressed, with very little reflection or rumination. They stand at the very beginning of my travel writing efforts. I wrote in Malayalam; what follows is an almost faithful translation.

Day 1

7 am: I begin writing this log at Lingampalli station, sitting in the Wadi bound slow passenger train. Across us sit a small family. Beyond is a bidi smoking old man casually reading an urdu daily and a curled up sleeper; hardly anybody else in this sleepy coach. A train pulls alongside. A whole host of shaven heads peep out of its windows; must be an express from Tirupati.

7.30: Our passenger has just halted at Shankarpalli. The woman sitting across whispers something to her husband in Marathi, presumably about us. We ponder whether to strike a conversation with them…

8: Chittigidda, a small hamlet. Eucalyptus trees and cornfields. Red earth. Shades of Bangalore.

8.30: Stuck for quite a while at Vikarabad Junction.

9: Dharur: The run from Vikarabad has been among scattered low hills. It has been a pleasantly bright morning. … A wild and largely uninhabited stretch – rocky hills, shrubs, dried up streambeds,…

9.15: Rukmapur: a big crowd of gypsy women squeeze into the train with heavy-looking loads. They raise quite a racket with their animated chatter. Then, lulled by the trains steady rhythm, they fall silent, but for a short while. At the next halt, Tandur, they troop out.

9.45: Manthatti: a flatter and drier tract of the country... fields of toordaal, monotonous stretches of thorny scrub… It is getting uncomfortably warm.

10: Kurugunta: We are in Karnataka now. Big, yawning quarries, a cement factory, … And I make a startling discovery. For a while the toddler who had been sitting with his parents across us has been exploring the coach and he has just shat in my shoes.

11: Quite hot now. Monotonous scrub, quarries, heaps of stone fragments, Flocks of scrawny goats,…

11.15: Sulhalli. Mirages flicker over plowed up fields of black soil.

11.40: Wadi junction. No connecting trains to Gulbarga for hours to come. We step out into a town that is remarkably chaotic for its modest size. Dirty streets, air thick with dust, … a cement factory looms over the urban mess. As outlying as its chaos is Wadi’s diversity – in a five minute walk here, you can hear loud talk in Kannada, Telugu, Urdu, Hindi, Marathi and Lambadi.. We manoeuvre ourselves into a ‘tempo’ about to leave for Shahabad. Suddenly there is a big commotion. A hijda, wearing the dress of Lambadi women is scolding/abusing someone very loudly. The combination of sheer force and total unintelligibility make his rants interesting to hear…

4.15 pm: Wadi-Gulbarga was a long haul thru dusty scrub marked here and there by heaps of pieces of chocolate and grey colored stone. At the end, it is a big relief to be in a place where decent food and rooms for rent (and cold beer) are available.

10 pm: I am writing this from our hotel room.

Gulbarga's massive medieval fort stands at the western edge of the city, its neighbourhood marked by extreme filth and poverty. Over the centuries, large chunks of the hefty walls have crumbled, turning the surrounding moat into a row of awfully smelly pits. Over the main gate, there must once have been a dome, of which nothing remains. We got off our auto in front of the Jama Masjid.

Modelled on the famous Cordoba mosque, the Jama Masjid has about 75 small domes and a single bigger dome at the west-center, all supported by an intricate interlocking grid of structural arches. Sadly, thick coats of white lime have been recently applied and it mars the overall effect of the edifice somewhat.

A young boy of about 12 accosted us as we explored the mosque. He gave his name as Muhammad Zafar. Within minutes, he was chatting away with us as if we had known each other for a long time. He bade us to follow him and led us thru several dark and gloomy gallies in the residential quarter of the citadel. We climbed a battlement and he showed us a big bronze cannon and launched into a live commentary of an assault on the fort and the invaders being cut down by the cannon’s thunderous fire. …

Looking around and beyond the walls, we spotted a solitary domed structure perched on an elevated tableland a couple of kilometres away and asked Zafar about it. “ Oh, it’s the Chor Gumbaz! Come, lets go there!” and we were off.

More gallies, more poverty. And presently there appears a dargah. “lets pay a quick visit. Khwaja Banda Nawaz, patron saint of Gulbarga, lived here for 20 years. It’s a very holy site. All prayers made here will come true!”.

We enter the gloomy interior. Near a solitary tomb sits a middle-aged and bearded caretaker. Based on what I had seen on the television, I kneel in prayer before the grave. Baba (as the caretaker was addressed) pats me on the head with a bunch of peacock feathers and asks me to lift a smallish pyramidal piece of marble in his custody using only two fingers of the right hand. I manage, albeit with some difficulty. Baba speaks: “Very good. Most people fail in the first attempt to lift it, not because the stone is too heavy – it isn’t- but because they misjudge its weight. You are fortunate. Khwaja’s blessings will be with you!”

We approach Chor Gumbaz at almost sundown. With some difficulty, we follow Zafar up a crumbling stone staircase to the shoulder of the domed building. Sunset on the Deccan – its always such an experience of clarity and immensity…

Zafar has more to say to me: “Brother, you are truly blessed. I know you may not be convinced, you would be wondering “Hey, what is the big deal about lifting a small chunk of stone?!”. But that is the whole idea about Khawaja’s grace. If I tell you to pick up a big rock, you would say “No way!” but if His Grace is with you, you will manage, just as that piece of stone. He can get even a puny lad like me to move a mountain!”

We walk back to the fort via a different route, passing hutments and ruins, neither really distinguishable from the other. A big walled enclosure looms.

Zafar launches into another story: “ This was a building a sultan wanted constructed overnight. The architect failed, he couldn’t even begin the dome; the sultan put him to death. In there, you can see his grave!”

Its quite dark inside. A feeble lamp has been lit and shows a modest burial site and a dozen fellows sitting nearby engaged in a game of cards. They don’t seem pleased to see us. Bats wheel overhead. We retreat in haste.

We bid farewell to Zafar and cut through the fort picking our way through gallies, now depressingly dark despite the odd electric light. Children throng the narrow pathways, playing, quarreling, shitting…. Hooded and veiled women stand around in clusters and talk ...

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Taken to the Gleaners

A new facebook page by name ‘Cochin Diaries’ has been put up by some Journalism students. Here is a picture there; it was taken at Chellanam, a fishing harbour near the city.

The gist of a short descriptive passage at Cochin Diaries: Day after day, eagerly awaiting the return of fishing boats, they hang around our beaches – poor and ragged old women and men, some physically challenged, some immigrants from other states. Not having money to actually buy any fish, they fervently pester the fishermen to part with some of the least appealing bits in their catch. And then they go around selling what is (often grumpily) thrown into their baskets. The fishermen themselves are hardly well off and are subject to all the vagaries of 'Kadalamma' (Ocean Mother).

These pictures of hand to mouth struggle on the margins of our modern society reminded me of some lines from the Bible (btw, a I discovered a very useful retelling of the Book called ‘The Good News Bible’ but a few weeks ago and have been reading the earlier portions thereof with great pleasure). Since quoting from the King James version is cooler, let me do so:

When thou cuttest down thine harvest in thy field, and hast forgot a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go again to fetch it: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow: that the LORD thy God may bless thee in all the work of thine hands. (Deuteronomy)

And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not make clean riddance of the corners of thy field when thou reapest, neither shalt thou gather any gleaning of thy harvest: thou shalt leave them unto the poor, and to the stranger: I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus)

Wiki on gleaning:

Gleaning is the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers' fields after they have been commercially harvested or on fields where it is not economically profitable to harvest. Some ancient cultures promoted gleaning as an early form of a welfare system.... When people glean and distribute food, they may be bringing themselves legal risk(!)… the Soviets…. criminalised gleaning, under penalty of death, or 20 years of forced labour in exceptional circumstances.

And of course, we have 'The Gleaners', Millet's masterpiece. We will always have 'The Gleaners':

Question: Is there anything known about gleaning in India? Our tradition sets great store by charity and giving ("datta" of the "da") but there don't seem to be much written on gleaning or any related kind of picking up the crumbs (no, I haven't examined Manusmriti). To my knowledge, no Indian language has a dignified word for gleaning. Those who pick up anything - scraps/offal/detritus - are insultingly called "perukki" in Malalyalam (the negative connotation of the word has led to an equally insulting slang phrase for a ball-boy ("out-perukki" - one who picks up a ball gone out of play; so much for our notions of dignity of labor!).

And I just heard that our rice-growers wouldn't return to the fields after harvest to gather anything missed - for a rather more pragmatic reason: rats would be hurriedly scurrying after the loose grain and snakes would have come out in strength to prey on them!

I couldn't yet find any Biblical lessons to fishermen - whether they ought to give up a certain fraction of their catch etc.. At any rate, Kerala's struggling fisher-folk have more than lived up to the Biblical injunction on grain gleaning: they not only part with some of their catch; indeed, rather than generally leave some fish around somewhere, they directly hand it over to the recipients (however grudgingly). Perhaps, deep within, they feel bound to their beneficiaries by the shared 'karma' of being fed by Kadalamma.

Note added on January 7th 2017:

Just found in Mahabharata (where else?!) this bit (I quote from an online source):

"There lived a Brahmin with his wife, son and daughter-in-law. He used to follow the lifestyle of Unchavritti (living on grains picked from post-harvest leftovers from the fields....."

Thus begins the story told by a half-gold mongoose. In some versions of the story, Unchavritti is the name of the Brahmin in the story.

Unchavritti (which appears to have been viewed with a certain level of respect), is often distinguished from living on 'bhiksha' (alms). Of course, the latter is a life-style absolutely devoid of labour and production, as opposed to a gleaner's. There are also some who take 'unchavritti' to mean the lifestyle of musical mendicants such as Tyagaraja, Tukaram, Kanakadasa and so forth.

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 (*).


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.


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).


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!


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.


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


(*) - 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'.


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 ….


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.


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.


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: