ANAMIKA

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

Friday, July 21, 2017

Allahabad - Impressions

For quite a while, my world line had been showing an increasingly worrisome tendency to crumple up and coil into the narrowness of Kerala with one northern outpost after another withering away. Allahabad, mercifully, has stayed stubbornly kind; so I made a long overdue revisit there - hoping to rekindle old memories and draft some fresh notes...

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Half a day's worth of landscape-gazing as the Duronto express cut thru eastern MP (Itarsi - Katni - Satna...)was a reassuring return to the bracing openness of the central Indian heartland. The flanks of the Satpuras were green and tending to lushness with the monsoon having set it in but beyond the Narmada, arid barrenness seemed to persist indefinitely and life appeared harsh among the scattered hamlets. Somewhere, I saw a dozen or so vultures wheeling over an invisible carcass...





Towards Maihar, a tableland slid into view - and stayed; rising to a remarkably consistent height of about 500 feet above the plains we were traversing, it kept at our side for a full half hour (let me leave an oxymoron here!). Like battlements of an immense fortress, occasional promontories projected towards us from the main wall-like landform...



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On arrival at the huge Allahabad railway station, a strange mural welcoming pilgrims to the Kumbh Mela catches the eye:



Guess: the Jagannath-like figure represents Brihaspati (Jupiter) as he enters the constellation of Simha (Leo, note the lion there). Such a celestial transit, occurring once in 12 years is when the Kumbh is held. Jupiter being made to look like Jagannath (a form of Krishna) is not that big a surprise since traditional astrology often links Vishnu-Krishna to the planet Jupiter - of course, the why of it is not known to me.

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Allahabad is a big city in a very advanced stage of urban rot. Terrible roads, non-existent bus service, uncollected garbage, uncontrolled crowds ... But it also appears to have started replacing the noisy, smoky 'fatfati' with electric rickshaws - a slowish but non-polluting public transport workhorse, something a congested metropolis like Cochin or even say, Bangalore or Pune, could very usefully adopt. And Allahabad has retained thousands of cycle rickshaws, some of which look a lifetime old. I would want these to make a comeback in other cities, especially those with level terrain and in old and close-built neighborhoods. IMHO, cycle rickshaws are an instance of 'appropriate technology' (a phrase I have heard being used by Professor-activist RVG Menon) and bringing them back makes far more sense than emptily preaching to citizens about the virtues of cycling.



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To reach the Harish Chandra Institute, one has branch to off the Banaras-bound Grand Trunk road and endure 3 kilometers of absolutely godawful driving along Chhatnag road. The day after I landed at the place, a bit of rain fell and vast puddles formed over the worst of potholes. Three days later, there had been hardly any further rain but the puddles remained. I noted with horror, Chhatnag road (like many other roads in the core city) had no proper drains or even open gutters running alongside it.



Let me make a humble suggestion here hoping it would be read by someone wielding decision-making powers.

"HRI could consider adopting the Chhatnag road. Surfacing it would be a good outreach initiative from the elite institution and could set an example to the city as a whole. Perhaps a deal could be struck with the civic authorities to the effect that the road could be renamed after Harish Chandra.... And in case the above proposal involves too steep costs, the institute could fund digging gutters along this road and name them after the great man; that would send a stronger message ceremonially renaming a road."

Note: Jhusi falls under the Phoolpur parliamentary constituency that returned Jawaharlal Nehru more than once.

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The riverbank of Jhusi, where HRI sprawls over a big, green and well-laid out campus, is believed to have been the site of Pratishthana, capital of the Chandravamsa kings of deep antiquity. As Kalidasa relates in his play Vikramorvaseeyam, this is where King Pururavas pined for Urvasi sitting in a Ganga-facing pavilion of his stately palace. An elevated point on the institute's waterfront has indeed been named after Kalidasa. Viewed from here in summer, one sees a largely dried up riverbed with scattered remnants of funeral pyres. The institute has built a long iron-roofed pandal at 'Kalidasa point' - it looks somewhat like the sheds seen in cremation grounds.

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As I walked around the Mughal tombs at Khusro Bagh, a tight group of kids ("urchins" as old-timers would call them) who had been generally fooling around, suddenly got together and barred my way. "Paise do!" - they ordered.

"I don't have much money on me" I protested.

The littlest of the lot said: "No problem. We need only ten rupees".

"Hello, that's a lot!" I said. "And so are we. Can't you see there are six of us?!" he says.

I knew the game was up. "Okay, I'll pay you ten bucks. But I want a pic!". And that was that.



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On M G Road, the artery of Civil Lines, the most developed sector of the city, I saw a nearly ten year old girl put on a show of acrobatics - somersaults, handstands, tight-rope walking etc... - in a bid to entertain a sparse sunday crowd. Nearby, an itinerant barber, whose infrastructure amounted to little more than a chair and a filthy white table-cloth, plied his trade on the open sidewalk.

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Google with "scalloped arch" and hundreds of pictures jump at you but I bet you wouldn't find anything quite like the scallops on the "false window frames" below. These are pictures from Khusro Bagh:





Pillar capitals from South Indian temples appear to have received some serious scholarly attention but Mughal pillars appear relatively untouched. Here are a pair.



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A very worrisome 'development' is the proliferation of coaching institutes. Every major intersection in Allahabad has big bill-boards with pictures of some 'Tripathi Sir' or 'Sanjeev Sir' or 'Toufeeq Sir' or dozens of similar miracle-workers who can get your children into the IIT, IIM or AIIMS or thru the bank test or whatever. Among the more in-your-face specimens was a certain 'Master of Conceptual and Magical Chemistry' - no, not an alchemist but a mere entrance coach. To observe that Harish Chandra was only the brightest star among a galaxy of eminent intellectuals nurtured and enriched by this once-upon-a-time educational hub, one feels immensely sad about a great tradition getting crushed under the crassest kind of commercialization.

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Saving grace: despite all its ills, Allahabad gives the impression of being at peace with itself. There is no noticeable Hindu-Muslim tension in this very mixed city. Even its backwardness does not seem an unmixed curse - the bulk of Allahabad's citizenry seem strangely attuned to (not tiredly resigned to) life among unsurfaced roads, unplastered dwellings and uncollected garbage. They continue to revere (and continue to defile) the two rivers meeting at the sacred Sangam and refer to them with unaffected love as 'Gangaji' and 'Jamunaji'.

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All over the city, on empty walls, pillars of flyovers, ... are written, fervent appeals to participate in the 'Clean Ganga' program. Most appeals were signed by a certain 'Dr. Deen'. It looked a great example of 'Muslim-Hindu Bhaichara' - 'Deen' (=faith) is indeed a very Muslim word. Later, one figured out this Deen is short for Dr. Deenanath Shukla, a very Hindu name.

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Allahabad has a very good museum. A sample of the stuff on display:

Have you ever seen a more contended looking pair of lions?



Just compare the pair above with this specimen crouching on the portals of the Napier gallery, Trivandrum:



A strange trio, presumably Bhoota attendants of Shiva from the ancient ruins at Bhumra in Madhya Pradesh:



Here is a Buddha(?) image from Kosambi, near Allahabad. Don't remember seeing the Master in a single 'Mundu' - admittedly tied in a rather non-standard fashion:

An intricate decorative piece from Bharhut:



And another:



Note: Dwarfs with fantastic flowers and creepers growing out of their mouths are visible among Sanchi carvings too (Sanchi and Bharhut are near-contemporaries - they were made around the time of Jesus). Although this motif appears to have soon fallen out of fashion in Desi art, it might have inspired the Padmanabha form of Vishnu - just as the snake-parasolled Nagaraja images led to Vishnu's 'Seshasayi' form.

Mahatma Gandhi in what appears to be half-trousers, pic taken while on a visit to Europe:



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A pervert has been striking fear among residents of nearby villages. His 'style': to attack unsuspecting people with a needle and to escape on a motor bike. He has been given a quaint name 'suinochwa'. On closer scrutiny, this Korean-sounding word('sui-no-chwa') literally translates to 'the one who scratches with a needle'; it is a uniquely pithy, Avadhi compound derived from sui (=needle) and 'noch'(=to scratch). A similar example (very different in spirit of course!): medieval poet Tulsidas had the nickname 'Rambolwa' in his childhood - this word, a combination of 'Ram' and 'bol' (=say) means "the one who keeps chanting the name of Ram".

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A splendid specimen from a private collection. He can keep Sukumar Babu's Hunkomukho very good company:



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Towards the end of my stay, a spell of severe rain hit Allahabad. Here is how the Sangam looked as I set out to catch my train:



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I boarded the Prayagraj Express for Delhi and stood for long at the doorway of my coach just to catch a glimpse of Kanpur, a city I had never ever seen, albeit at midnight. As the train rammed thru sheets of persistent rain, for mile after mile, well over the din of the iron wheels - and not to speak of the patter of rain - rose, like a tidal wave that never broke, the full-throated calls of trillions of frogs which seemed to have descended from nowhere onto the UP countryside.

Monday, July 10, 2017

"Tap .... Donnng!"

I write this from Harish Chandra Research Institute, Allahabad. As to how I got here (albeit temporarily), mum shall be the word, as of now.

The main building has two wings of unequal size. In the ground floor lobby of the main wing a metallic portrait bust of great mathematician Harish Chandra sits on a wooden pedestal (aside: I am not quite happy with "sits". A bust certainly can't stand; but it can't really sit either - or perch for that matter. "rests" too does not quite cut it). In a corresponding position in the other wing is a somewhat more modest bust of Girdharilal Mehta, who had founded the basic version of the institute around half a century ago. Here is how the former looks.



One evening, I was hanging around the place as usual and happened to walk by the Mehta bust. Out of a sudden fancy, i knocked on it with my knuckles and it produced a 'donnng!' sound. "Oh, I see, the object is hollow!".

I was soon possessed by an urge to check out Harish Chandra too. One part of the brain said "Harish Chandra ought to be solid!" but as a confirmed experimentalist, I had to verify. But to do so, one would need to step over those potato-like pebbles (qn: btw, why do potatoes and pebbles look so uncannily alike?). I waited..

Late at night, when no one was to be seen in the area, I crept up to Harish Chandra and gave a firm knock on the finely sculpted bust ... and it emitted a considerably louder "donnnng!".

Suddenly, I heard someone snap into action with great urgency and was stunned to see a gun-toting securing guard emerge from behind the staircase. Caught in the act, I could only mumble a "sorry" and slink away. Note: In hindsight, the guard actually looked more sheepish than aggressive (maybe he had dozed off and woken with a start) and must have been relieved not to see a superior officer.

One recalls another (and very different in spirit... and well, outcome, but let's not get into that) episode of 'bust-tapping' from a Pottekkatt story. A writer is invited to speak at a college cultural fest. He starts early enough but happens to stop by at a liquor bar and gets sloshed. Reaching the venue rather late, he approaches the stage from behind. On the way, he passes the green room and sees someone looking like a richly dressed woman emerge. Suitably impressed, the writer greets the 'chap': "Nice makeup. You look the real deal!"; then he goes closer and asks:"and by the way, what you got here, ... coconut shells?" and checks with a firm tap!

And the only comparable international 'literary' episode I could recall in a similar vein is Captain checking out on a big, long 'dharma trumpet' in 'Tintin in Tibet'.