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

Monday, August 31, 2009

More From The Third Corner

Calcutta has given me several images - and shocks. Here are a few...

1. My first ever visual impressions of this city came from the Amar Chitra volumes on Vidyasagar and Rabindranath Tagore. The illustrator of both was a certain Souren Roy, who was especially skilled in capturing the cultural milieu of Bengal in all its visual detail (to use a filmy phrase, as an 'art-director', he was easily the best in the Amar atelier - although in terms of 'action' and much else, Pratap Mulick was tops). Indeed, the older parts of Cal look straight out of Roy's artwork...

And when I visited the 'Jorasanko Thakurbari', the sprawling mansion where Rabindranath Tagore was born, grew up and returned to die, the place felt uncannily familiar. While walking down the the verandahs, I looked for the balusters which little Rabi, posing as a schoolmaster, would think of as his students - and would occasionally cane for 'not being attentive' in his class. But in the part of the building where he used to live, the verandahs have only grills - those hallowed balustrades might have got replaced during the century and a half that has passed since the Master's childhood....

There are several photos of the great man on display; the most striking to me was of him as a handsome, bright-eyed and bearded young man (mid-twenties types) sharing a casual meal with some elder relatives.

Should revisit the place.

2. In a shop was an old 'calender-icon' - A goddess draped in a sari but with tongue hanging out Kali-style and Siva lying in her lap -Siva not in his 'child form' (in which he is seen blissfully asleep in icons all over the country) but as an adult - the pose strongly reminiscent of Michelangelo's pieta. Further research gave this bit of info: when Siva bravely consumed the poison which rose from the churning of the Milk-ocean, he fell senseless. His 'Sakti' assumed the form of Tara (the focus of a very popular Tantrik cult in these parts) and took the prostrate God in her lap - and revived him with her own milk!

Another episode from the myths relates how a distraught Siva madly wandered around the world carrying the half-burnt corpse of his first wife Sati (who had immolated herself). Another calender icon I saw here shows this episode. Matters of detail: Siva's face was rather benign and almost smiling and the 'corpse' on his shoulder was a beautiful (though limp) girl, not burnt or anything.

3. At the Indian Museum (near Park Street station), the 'Bharhut gallery' which I had really wanted to see, was closed. There still were a few BC Buddhist reliefs on display. But the one image that has persisted in memory is not Buddhist but medieval Tantrik. It was a sculpture of a standing male with both legs fused into one, almost like a slender tree-trunk. The caption -'Ajaikapada'. A bit of web searching gave me this page:
A-pada seems to be a form of Siva-Bhairava. Aja (to me) is a strange Sanskrit word meaning both 'goat' and 'unborn' (eternal); and 'Ekapada' means 'one-legged'. There is nothing obviously 'goaty' about the sculpture (it is not satyrical!). Both images in the above page are 'ithyphallic' (like in the 'Urdhvareta' form of Siva which I have seen elsewhere) but I don't remember the Museum specimen to be such. Perhaps one could go there again and and check!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Eastward Ho!

The day after we inspected the ruins of Lothal, I set out for Howrah from Amdavad; my longest-ever train journey, in terms of the number of states traversed (Gujarat, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand and Bengal). During this a massive swing from the extreme West to the Eastern fringes of India, I saw nothing of Orissa and Chhattisgarh as they were crossed at night, but I did see Ajni and Santragachchhi and must have passed thru Bondamunda - all places I had characterized in a quite recent post here as never having been even remotely approached by my worldline.

The Male Rivers:

The far East of India has conceived several of its rivers as male entities ('Nadas' rather than 'Nadis'). I had known about the Brahmaputra and the Damodar and on this journey, crossed the turbulent 'Rupnarayan' ( of course, this region also has the 'Padma', 'Meghna' and 'Jamuna' and yes, the Ganga). I have heard of the 'Panchnad' river in Pakistani Punjab but am not sure if that name is indeed masculine or merely neuter.

Of course, in Europe, they have had river gods - and Bernini personified the Ganga as a bearded and virile man(*)!

Belur Math:

The grand river-side temple dedicated to Sri Ramakrishna is an unusual pastiche of a sandstone edifice with a cross-shaped plan and chruch-like hall (where every evening, a ceremony takes place that is marked by church-like choral singing with an organ in accompaniment), a cluster of domes in the center (something vaguely Byzantine or Russian - or it is Turkish?!- about them) and so forth. The temple also incorporates the kind of elegant scalloped arches one sees in Mughal buildings and pillars which hark back to South Indian temples. Around the central domes are carved, in relief, allegorical figures representing the Nava-Grahas - their style is strangely foreign, reminscent of medieval European woodcuts... or better still, the pictures on playing cards - or tarot cards.

The Vivekananda Samadhi nearby is also a strange syncretic structure, with a dome and a facade supported by Corintian columns. The pinnacle of the Dakshineshwar temple (across the river from Belur) bears a certain resemblance to the Sacre Coeur Basilica in Paris (which is, in turn, said to be a 19th century re-interpretation of Romano-Byzantine style). And a little upstream from Belur is another temple with a facade that, from the distance, looked quite Baroque (or was it neo-Classical?)!

Apart from the temples, the Math consists of several compounds; in one of them stands the spanking new sandstone edifice housing the Vivekananda university. There are several more modest structures around among grass-overgrown plots, dilapidated factory sheds and muddy patches. And the area has many ponds, with a particularly large one right in front of the university building - its murkily green waters teem with fish; cormorants and kingfishers plunge in eagerly; and now and then, water-snakes streak across the surface, wiggling like spermatozoa.

An overloaded, creaking kind of place - indeed, in this city, almost everything that moves creaks - the ancient ambassador taxis, the still more ancient trams (Cal is only the second place after Rome where I saw trams), the consistently awful buses, ... Of course, there is also the Metro (again, among the cities I have visited, only the second with such a thing, Rome again having been the first(**)) which does not creak at all! Half of the buildings in the city look like they could urgently do with a fresh coat of paint - and most of the other half clearly have never been painted at all. But creaking or whatever, there is a resilient vitality that is unmistakable, a vitality that declares it is certainly nowhere near *croaking*! And although decent residential buildings are rarer in Cal than in any other major Indian city, the city has far less slums than Bombay and probably even Pune and Chennai; it is certainly unfair to portray it as a hell-hole of misery and charity-destination as countless firangees have done.

The weather sometimes feels more oppressive than anything I have experienced in Kerala, Chennai or Bombay; must salute the generations of yore who excelled in a game like soccer in such a setting!

The city has several Raj-era buildings in dire need of repair - among those I saw were a huge, rambling and partially demolished warehouse on the Strand Road, the so-called Currency Building near the BBD Bagh and so forth... And somewhere there is a building housing (if I remember right) 'Standard Insurance'. At least a dozen trees have sprouted from various corners of this still functioning structure(***). Its facade has several pairs of heraldic figures done in what looks like stucco. All these (sculpturally quite undistinguished) figures are reclining, nude males playing assorted musical instruments - one of them has even contrived to play a tabla while balancing the two pieces on his person. There is a central panel with a group of figures at the very top, the details of which are now obscure. And then, there are pairs of unclothed figures hiding behind bushes; before I could wonder "The Garden of Eden?!" it struck me that both figures in each pair were actually male - although one of each had 'femininely' long hair!

(*) - The westerners have thought of Ganga as at least an important geographical marker since at least the time of Dante (who predates the 17th Century Bernini by a good 400 years). For example, a passage from the Divine Comedy (that shows awareness of Time Zones and stuff) goes something like: "At sunset on Purgatory, it is midnight in the Ebro river valley (in Spain), dawn at Jerusalem, and noon on the *Ganges*". Wonder if there are still earlier references - I mean not traveler's-notes-types but proper cultural references.

(**) - I had only seen a Metro Station in Rome (when I strayed into one, while searching for Michelangelo's Moses); I actually traveled on an underground train for the first time ever in Cal; am am yet to travel on a tram anywhere.

(***) - Tenacious fig trees growing from the walls of (not necessarily derelict) buildings is a sight I see more often in Cal than in any other Indian city. The most remarkable specimen I know of has grown from the top of the chimney of a probably defunct factory that stands across the river from Belur. The chimney is well over 50 feet tall and the tree which crowns it, something like a dozen.

Friday, August 14, 2009


Within a week of our visit to Pundareekapuram in the deep south of this country, I found myself in the far west, driving south-west from Ahmedabad along what must be one of our best toll-free highways. An easy 80 kilometers from the city, atop a mound that rises a dozen or so feet from utterly flat country, is Lothal, ('the place of the dead' in the local language; curiously, 'Mohenjodaro' too means something similar), now an intensively studied Harappan site.

The ruins here, dating back a full 4000 years (and more) have nearly doubled my 'archeological span' (for I had not seen any remnant of civilization in this country dating farther back than 3rd Century BC). They have been extensively described in Wikipedia and elsewhere.

Much of the ancient brickwork looks neat and tidy, just like in pictures from Pakistani Harappan sites, although some amount of 20th century repair using cement and stuff has happened all over, spoiling the effect somewhat. Having seen pictures of (and written about) the wells of Mohenjodaro, I was excited to see a harappan water-well at Lothal - although unlike the Mohenjodaran ones, this solitary specimen does not have towering walls.

A guide, who bore a certain resemblance to Narendra Modi, showed us the 'warehouse' (with its solid, cubical brick platforms), the 'bead factory', and so forth... On the walls were a couple of smooth, inverted hemispherical structures formed by shards glued together (the gluing itself must have been the handiwork of modern restorers) which he referred to as 'matkas' and did not explain. He then pointed out a certain enclosure as 'ladies toilet' and added "I am saying this from my own imagination".

And then, there are some waste-water-drain-looking structures, which, though neatly made, looked quite shallow. The entire complex can be contained by a square of 100 meters side.

That of course, leaves out the famous 'dock', a very big and very neat rectangular depression, now looking more like a vast, shallow tank. If it really was a ship-building center/port, it would have held several dozens of vessels the size of modern mechanized fishing boats.

Interestingly, although photography is freely allowed, one is not supposed to record the site in *any* movie form, not even short digicam clips.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


We are about 20-odd kilometers to the South-East of Cochin, Kerala. The precise locality is called 'Mithayikkunnu' ('the hill of sweets' in Malayalam) or 'Midayikkunnu' (not sure what that can possibly mean). We are here to check out a temple dedicated to Vishnu. The temple is named 'Pundareekapuram' which means 'city of the lotus'; the area is as rural as it can get in Kerala.

There are other web-pages and books (especially 'Murals of Kerala' by M.G.Sasibhooshan) which seriously describe the remarkable Kerala-style paintings (experts date them to 17th-18th centuries) on the walls of the Sanctum of this quite small and utterly unassuming-looking shrine. Here are some quick impressions:

The main idol is of an extremely rare form (even rarer than the 'enthroned' form of Vishnu in worship at the Tripunithura temple, which is not far from this place - and about which I have written elsewhere in this blog). It shows the lord in the form of Krishna with his consort Satyabhama, riding his mount, the eagle Garuda. A mural (unfortunately, poorly preserved) repeats the theme. Garuda has wings but no beak and has fangs bared. A priest told us: "Krishna, with the help of Satyabhama, had undertaken an expediion to kill the mighty Narakasura. This shows his victorious return. Although the campaign is over, Garuda is still in a belligerent mood, and in that mood, he is often shown as a fanged being rather than a proper bird."

So focussed is Garuda on his military mission that he seems to have allowed many of his natural prey, the serpents to wind about him as garlands, bracelets and so forth - perhaps, in his present mood, he has no time to devour them. Indeed, the temple also has an enclosure outside with several hundred naga-silas (stone image of hooded cobras), their proximity to Garuda perhaps symbolizing the unusual coming together of two naturally opposed forces in the quest for an exceptional commmon goal.

Another better-preserved mural shows an amorous Siva-Parvati (come to think of it, in our art, Vishnu-Lakshmi always appear significantly more stiff and prim than this pair) . Yet another mural has Rama enthroned with his queen Sita. Rama is warlike and wears armor, which (strangely) leaves the midriff bare and hence looks like a (Indian) ladies' blouse. And (a rather bashful) Sita is virtually topless!
Note: Kerala murals, to my knowledge, always show Rama as a warrior/prince; even during the Vanavasa - - there is a mural showing the Rama-Sugriva pact somewhere - he is not shown in the 'canonical' jungle-dweller's attire.

The best-known mural here shows a horse-riding Shasta (Ayyappa) on a royal hunt - it is remarkable for the wealth of detail. And then, there is a picture of Ganapati being worshipped by quite a gallery of devotees. While most in the crowd are shown as proper Mallus (with unclothed upper bodies), one of the worshippers(?) sports a stubble and wears a collarless, full-sleeved shirt and a turban, the like of which is still worn by some Muslims from North Kerala. And next to him is a similarly attired figure who seems to sport a ponytail; a Chinese visitor?