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

Friday, May 29, 2009

On The Kinnara Trail...

There has been a longish spell of silence here, which shall be explained in due course.

Among the less taxing things I did over the last month was a bit of online research on the classes of fantastic, semi-divine beings in Indian tradition - the focus was on the 'kinnaras' but I also read about the 'yakshas', 'gandharvas', 'vidyadharas', 'kimpurushas' (who are sometimes identified with kinnaras) and so forth...

I have read somewhere the word 'kinnar' being used to refer to the hijadas (eunuchs). This association has no real foundation in ancient literature. Kalidasa, for instance, refers to the slow gait of the generously-endowed 'Kinnara women'(*) (somewhere in the beginning of Kumarasambhavam) and that seems sufficient to rule out attributing any hermaphrodytic nature to these beings.

In Buddhist art, some of which predates Kalidasa, Kinnaras are half-men and half-birds (see Wikipedia, for example); in the Sanchi reliefs, they are shown diving down from the sky to worship the Master or a Stupa (in an earlier post here, I had noted a resemblance between these beings carved at Sanchi with the 'buraq' from the middle-eastern and Islamic traditions). Half-bird kinnaras abound in the Buddhist art of Thailand and neighboring countries. Needless to say, Kalidasa's slow-walker description does not match them.

I also remember encountering Kinnaras in the Amar Chitra Katha volume retelling the ancient Sanskrit prose classic 'Kadambari' - one of the principal characters encounters (and chases unsuccessfully) a troop of Kinnaras, who are shown as anthropomorphic midgets with horse-like faces. This 'alternative representation' is actually consistent with the following bit from Wikipedia: "Kinnaras were mysteriously linked with horses. Puranas mention them as horse-headed beings..."


To those who grew up in Kerala, the Gandharvas are far more familiar than the Kinnaras. In the mainstream Sanskritic tradition, the Gandharvas are mostly musicians or tricksters who occasionally turn into vicious beasts when cursed by some sage or the other but in Kerala, they are lustful 'possessors' of (usually) nubile young women, causing them and their families untold misery - Yakshis are their female counterparts and prey on men, a major difference being that a Yakshi summarily kills off her victm whereas the Gandharvas cast a life-long spell.

At least two major Mallu motion pictures have explored the possibilities of Gandharvas tangling with young girls' lives. Modern Malayalam lyrical poetry (film songs, mostly) often uses 'Kinnara' almost as a synonym of 'Gandharva'; and some lyrics feature absurd compounds like 'Gandharvakinnari'.

Quite recently, I saw in Chambakkara, an eastern suburb of Cochin city, Kerala, a brightly painted shrine named: "Vaishnava Gandharva Temple" - I never knew there was a Shaiva-Vaishnava schism among Gandharvas.

And to conclude, here is a 'case-study' from the Mallu classic 'Aitihyamala': "Once, ----- suffered from a strange affliction. Although it seemed as if the lady was insane, she had in fact been possessed by a Gandharva. The symptoms were a propensity to violence, often resulting in no-holds-barred attacks on people around and a tendency to remain totally unclothed...."

Update (July 2014): 'Chhatravum Chamaravum' a superb work of literary criticism by M.P.Sankunni Nair has some interesting information on Gandharvas. Among other things, Nair clearly states that Gandharvas are often associated with horses, just like Kinnaras. So using 'Kinnara' as a synonym of 'Gandharva' has a certain validity.

(*) Only yesterday, I happened to see a bit of an adventure on 'Animal Planet'. Somewhere around Namibia, a lady explorer (white) was trying to initiate two juvenile lions reared in captivity to a normal ('feral') life. Guiding/aiding her were a !Kung tribesman and his wife, and the latter brought back memories of Kalidasa's (sometimes rather fulsome) descriptions of female beauty, including that of the Kinnaris (of course, the !Kung lady was slick and quick as she walked the dunes). Rather than dwell further on these strands of memory, let me point to the tragic story of Saartje Baartman (see Wikipedia), about whom, Stephen Jay Gould wrote 'The Hotentot Venus'.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Tintoretto, 'Tintoretto' And ...

For starters, this is how Wikipedia introduces the man:
Tintoretto ... was one of the greatest painters of the Venetian school and probably the last great painter of the Italian Renaissance. ... In his youth, Tintoretto was also known as Jacopo Robusti as his father had defended the gates of Padua in a rather robust way against the imperial troops during the War of ...


I was in primary school when first I came across the interesting-sounding name 'Tintoretto' in a series of articles on Western Art that appeared in a Malayalam weekly (the author was an uncle of mine; I have briefly mentioned this series elsewhere in this blog). One telling image has persisted in my memory from that particular episode in the series - a dark and enigmatic 'Last Supper' (I must be one of very few art-lovers for whom, the first impression of 'Last Supper' was NOT provided by the Leonardo masterpiece or an imitation thereof).

Several years later, in Chennai, I encountered a fun-game in our hostel - participants, based on yes/no answers to (usually) twenty questions, have to identify an eminent historical person. Almost everywhere else, this game is known as 'Twenty Questions'; but interestingly (and to self, shrouded in a mystery that persists to here and now), in our college, the game used to be called ... 'Tintoretto'!

(Digression: Much later in life, I saw this game converted into a big game show on a Mallu TV Channel - and grandly renamed 'Ashwamedham'. Some Pre-selected 'challengers' had to pit their GK against a certain 'Grandmaster Pradeep', who almost always won. Incidentally, one of the episodes wherein the Grandmaster lost was when the challenger had chosen the Master himself as the personality to be identified!)


Sometime in the early nineties, I started collecting volumes of 'Great Artists' - a remarkable partworks series from Marshall Cavendish. The volume on Tintoretto gave me the first proper acquaintance with the Master. In those days of maniacal art-appreciation, I would not have named any work by him in my personal Top Five, but the strange, dark (and occasionally harshly-lit) atmospheric effects (emphasized by a limited palette of colors), ghostly figures and swirling action of some of his paintings (especially the St. Mark series and of course the Supper) have held me in thrall ever since.

Very soon afterwards, I managed to briefly visit Venice. And Tintoretto became the Master whose works I have seen most comprehensively - the reason: a very large fraction of his oeuvre is located in Venice. Dozens of them are in the dark interiors of 'San Rocco' which I ran thru in a couple of hours.

I also went to the 'Academia' where, among other things, an exhibition of 'Portraits by Tintoretto' was on. With me was an Israeli student by name Yuval (I guess and hope he must be a big-time Physicist now). I spent a few minutes staring at a Tintoretto self-portrait (also featured in the Wiki article on the artist). A robust, bearded man was generally standing next to the painting. Yuval remarked to me - pleasantly albeit somewhat indiscreetly: "He looks like Him (referring to the guy and the portrait)". And the bearded man spoke in suitably gruff voice: "I too am Venetian!"

I remember asking Gyani once in those days: "Who do you like more, Titian or Tintoretto?". The prompt reply was "Neither".
I persisted: "Then, who is your favorite Renaissance Master?". Gyani thought for a few seconds and said: "Say... Botticelli". "Botticelli?... How come?!" I wondered. And Gyani said: "Why not?". And I had no further quesitons.
(It was a couple of years later that I came to know of a gentleman named Bernard Berenson, who probably inspired Gyani's answer; some of his works are at 'Project Gutenberg').

Unpardonably, I missed the 'Last Supper'.
Again, let me quote Gyani: "You are seeing too many paintings, just rushing thru galleries, almost as if you are carrying a checklist and you go tick-tick-tick with it... Go to one church or gallery, see one painting, look at it intensely... ". If and when I return to Venice, I will go to 'San Giorgio Maggiore' and stare away...


Then sometime near Y2K, Gyani (yes, himself) sent me a card from Italy; this was a San Rocco painting, 'Christ before Pilate'. Jesus appears here as a pensive, robust, thick-bearded prisoner, a far cry from the almost teenaged looking, soft-faced Italian representations of the Savior.

I am told Satyajit Ray has written a detective story titled 'Tintoretto's Jesus' ('Tintorettor Jishu'). Dunno whether Ray was referring to the Pilate painting or some other work; guess Gyani would know... But I am pretty sure Ray could possibly not have named his story "Somebody Else's Jesus", for 'Tintoretto' is just about the best-sounding name any artist ever had (*)!

And, regrettably, I seem to have misplaced that card somewhere...


A few weeks back, Gyani (again!) sent me a book 'Italian Hours' by Henri James. Although I now sadly lack the stamina to work thru the kind of frustratingly convoluted prose that James constructs rather than writes, I did manage to decrypt his opinions on 'The Tintoret'. James has had plenty to say about 'The Crucifixion' and rates this work and its author way above Titian (whose famous 'Assumption' he says is hugely overrated).


And yesterday, I saw an ad for 'Levis Buttonfly Jeans' featuring Bollywood hunk Akshay Kumar - he is shown from close-quarters, hanging out by one muscular arm from a high perch and looking down rather disdainfully at a vast city (there is also the small matter that he happens to be wearing jeans(**), buttonfly or whatever). And, something about the picture - maybe the atmosphere - very gloomy, lacking in color ... and there is a driving rain, maybe the way the actor seems to hang unreally and portentously over the chasm-like street down below - was eerily 'manneristic' ... and very powerfully reminiscent of, say, 'St. Mark Rescuing the Saracen'. Of course, I don't intend to imply here that the ad in question is a work of art of any massive merit; but it did appear to parody some masterpieces, which were close to my heart once upon a time!


(*) Update: May 9th 2009: Did a bit of research on 'Tintorettor Jishu', recently released as a motion picture by Sandip, Satyajit Ray's son. Quite a complex detective story, that. And one of the characters in this whodunit is named... Nandakumar (for example, see!

(**) The same Akshay Kumar used to model for 'Ruf and Tuf', a Desi (and fairly low-brow and probably, always dark-blue) denim brand way back in the nineties; a then TV ad used to feature the hero, in all blue denim, bashing up a gang of baddies.

By a strange coincidence, all trousers in my then wardrobe used to be (cheap) blue denims. And once, when, I was visiting a relative, his little boy, who was seeing me for the first time, asked: "Someone like you comes on TV often, and fights with lots of guys.... Is it you?"!