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

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Mumbai - a Visit full of Revisits

It is said, a place revisited after many years looks smaller, diminished. But when I saw Elephanta caves the other day, a full 20 years after I first saw them, the sculptures looked decidedly more imposing, even physically bigger, than I could recall them. The much-damaged Dwarapalas looked colossal. The pure wrath on the face of the still-more ravaged 'Andhaka-killer' was awesome(the lower half of this 15 foot sculpture is gone, perhaps shot out by Portuguese marksmen(*)). And everywhere, the Mahayana Buddhist-Ajanta connection was unmistakeable, especially in two attendant figures flanking the huge three-faced Maheswara (both looked like the Ajanta Padamapani). The patterns on the crown/coiffure of the central Maheswara figure have a complex Mandala-like look.

It puzzles me why some folks chose to carve out such grand cave temples on this rugged little island. Some have suggested purely spiritual reasons: that the solid island in the heaving sea symbolizes the realized soul staying calm in the turbulence of 'samsara'. I had read there is a pre-Hindu Buddhist stupa somewhere near the highest point on the island; could not find it. I did see a couple of big howitzers of possibly early 20th century make. From the top, one could also see most of the Nhava Sheva container terminal. Containers were piled up like big apartment blocks all over. And I counted 40 big cranes. The much-hyped Vallarpadam has had all of 4 cranes for the last so many years (on the other side, a reliable source tells me, Singapore has 200+).

In several of the absurdly expensive curio stalls on the island (there were hardly any in '94), I saw several copies of a curious Buddha image - the Master sits, resting his cheek on a knee and seems to be asleep/dozing; the very same pose has been used by Giotto in a famous drawing of St. Joachim. Online searches clearly show this dozing Buddha form is not canonical and is probably of modern Thai origin.

Later, I found my way to the Bhau Daji Lad museum in Byculla. Here stands, in much ravaged state, the near-life-size stone elephant which gave Elephanta its name. The museum has interesting collections of craftsmanship (textiles, porcelain, metalware,...).

Also on display at this Museum was a set of paintings by Atul Dodiya ( proposing seven thousand new museums on various subjects to be set up all over India. I did not understand much of what he was getting at but some of his visions were quite curious and funny. A Sri Ramakrishna-like figure dominates the proposed 'Museum at Dibrugarh'. A stick figure is shown shitting on the road in front of the ultra-modern 'Museum at Jhumri Talaiya'.

Revisiting the Prince of Wales Museum after many years (not 20 though!), I discovered Kangra paintings and the wonderfully rich, lush green and incredibly detailed landscapes forming the backdrop for their usual theme of Radha-Krishna. The absolute highlight - a painting titled 'Vasakasajja'(**). Other findings: Milarepa is not straining to listen to some far away/ subtle voice but actually singing like a 'Bhagavatar'. An enigmatic half-smile seemed frozen on the face of a near life-size Dwarapala from the Buddhist caves at Pitalkhora. The Ashtamurti form of Siva (said to have been found at Parel in Bombay) showed the lord assuming eight bodies, all sprouting out like the branches of a tree from the same central figure (one recalls the 'Ekapada Trimutri' form of Siva where three divinites share the same lower torso but the branching there is that of a simple trident, the Ashtamurti is a much more complex affair), There was a 3-faced Vaikunthamurti (***) representation of Vishnu, the faces reminiscent of the Siva-Maheswara at Elephanta. And a benign Narasimha with Laxmi on his lap sports a big, swirling moustache that one often sees among paintings of Rajput noblemen (better still, the Narasimha looks like the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph II).

There was a photo exhibition on Swiss artist Alice Boner - her life and work. I had seen some of her work in Kashi but it was only now that I found out that she was a major influence on Ravi Shankar in his younger days; and she was a major influence behind Kerala's own poet Vallathol's decision to set up the 'Kalamandalam' for preserving our traditional arts. A sculpture by her of a striding woman was strongly reminiscent of a Greek Kouros. Her searches for symmetry and deeper geometric patterns in the figure of Nataraja and some other Indian works of art were intriguing. And here is a statement from Boner that surprises and thrills: "Geometry is the most adequate expression of the metaphysical basis of reality"

The ongoing worship of Tendulkar and the systematic construction of a cult around him leaves me colder than most ( it even lacks a minimum of originality - even the phrase 'Master Blaster', used sickeningly often to refer to Tendulkar, was flicked from Viv Richards). And at the Gallery of Modern Art, I was pretty much put off to see some of our leading artists trying to outdo one another in exalting the achievements of this one sportsman in a series of grandly mounted and lit but inane paintings and installations. A series on his absurd and phoney 'Century of Centuries' record stood out. Taking the cake was a big painting wherein all sorts of divinities belonging to all sorts of denominations (their figures have been culled from all types of famous paintings, Desi and Western) beatifically gaze at the advent of the 'Sachin-child' (at the focus of the painting is the famous photo of a 2 year old Tendulkar, barely out of his swaddling clothes, holding a tiny bat and perfectly reproducing the stance of a proper batsman). Vishnu and Siva hold cricket bats instead of their usual weapons and likewise for other gods and Biblical prophets ... But in the middle of all the stuff and nonsense, the artist has scored one genuine hit: An angel copied from Leonardo's 'Annunciation' is shown about to gently toss a cricket ball to little Sachin. Indeed, the pose of Leonardo's angel (down on one knee, he holds three fingers up in a hand as he is about to talk to Mary) is precisely the pose an adult would assume when tossing a ball to a small child.

Walking the Queen's Necklace from Walkeswar, I reached Nariman point half hour before sunset and with a few dozen others, clambered on to the wall jutting out into the sea. The tide was out so there was hardly a ripple on the waters. The sky above the red sinking sun was the color of strong permanganate solution and there was a glorious trail of orange daubs on the waters which were a striking green (the colors of potassium dichromate). The jumbled up concrete chunks on the wall looked like methane molecules (4 arms striking out at what looked like 109 degrees and a bit from a central node). A gentle blue haze obscured the headlands of Malabar hill....

A little later, I retraced the same path, past thousands of walkers and runners ( a Madari was performing with a scrawny little monkey that kept snarling at its admirers; many paid for this show - in multiples of 10 rupees), a long row of curious flowering trees (all were barringtonia asiatica, as I just found out), with the lights coming on in the high-rises (the ones on Malabar hill seemed to be shivering in the mist), the crescent moon leaving a pale silver trail over the waters and the tide slowly and almost silently beginning to flood in...

One vacant evening, I walked to Bandra and down the Bandstand to Land's End. The tide was out and the sea lay gently lapping at a vast field of black basalt which would go under at high tide and beyond was the usual neat sunset. Along the waterfront are the homes of some of top tinsel celebrities and other moneybags. Some bungalows literally reeked of wealth - a particularly opulent one looked like a reconstruction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon - lush vegetation overflowing its ample terraces. Only in front of Galaxy Apts, home to Salman Khan (must say, one of the really plainer blocks in the area) stood a score or so youngsters, mostly from interior India, waiting for darshan - an indicator of his remarkable popularity. I have seen Salman from pretty close quarters when he came to flag off the Pune Marathon in 2008 (I even waved at him then) and am no youngster either so I did not join them.

And even in this city of crazy maxima and minima, I was shocked to see that an approx 3 km X 3 km expanse to the North and East of the Airport has developed into a consolidated pack of slums. On the other side, a rapid drive up the 30 odd kilometers of the Western Express Highway in rush hour must be the kind of experience few world cities would be able to equal. And near the Police Chowki at Walkeshwar was a board with photos of known chain snatchers, pickpockets and other petty criminals in the area. The religion-wise breakup of this lengthy roster (I won't go into the details here) can be taken as producing hard evidence reinforcing certain stereotypes; it can just as well be quoted to prove allegations of bias often made against the police.


(*)The Mahakali caves near Andheri have but a handful of Buddha images. All have been defaced/decapitated.

(**)A glance at some notes keyed in after a long ago visit to this same place tells me Kangra paintings are actually a *rediscovery* and they had not impressed me as much in the first encounter. Let me quote: "Kangra and Mughal art often show landscapes interestingly. But landscapes are only backdrops for the human drama; it may be a very active background (as for example in Radha-Krishna paintings, the mango trees would be blooming and cuckoos cooing) but never a theme in itself" - again a case of a revisit amplifying an experience.

(***) A guidebook tells me it is actually 4-faced.


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