Sunday, July 29, 2007

Art in the daily life of Indian women

Somehow, when you talk about Indian art, you think of exquisite bronze sculpture or fine wood carving or Mughal miniatures...and you forget the everyday beauty that Indian women create in their homes, all across the land.

I am stunned by the variety and richness of Indian folk art whenever I encounter it.

How can one contiguous land mass spawn so many diverse styles, so many forms of aesthetic expression?

The point came home to me yet again when I saw a collection of photos of everyday life in Indian villages. The photographer is Dr. Stephen Huyler, an American who has spent 30 years in India, and published several books. The photo above is of a small hut in Kutch, Gujarat. It is from his book, Painted Prayers.

Here are some more photos from his collection: this one below is from Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. I was struck by the sophistication of the lady's sense of aesthetic - her eye for form and shape and contrast is undeniable. The way she is making her home rise from its desert surroundings is just stunning.

And here is another photo from Sawai Madhopur, on the outskirts of Ranthambore Tiger Sanctuary. Walls and floors in this part of India are often decorated with elaborate drawings. I've seen life in that area of Rajasthan - the land is arid, life is hard I'm sure. And in the middle of it all is someone creating beauty and serenity.

And this, the last one below, from Tamil Nadu - what went through her mind, as she drew this? Did she feel the beauty? I have drawn smaller versions of these myself, with rice powder and rice paste, and I know how engrossing the activity is, and how much you can lose yourself in it.

These are just a small sample from Dr. Huyler's photos. He is writing another book now, called India's Daughters: Art and Identity. In his own words, this books is "a profile of 20 different Indian women from diverse backgrounds and professions all over India. Each is in some way an artist, although not all would consider themselves as such. It is a much more personal survey than Painted Prayers, attempting to give voice to Indian women's empowerment through their own words, stories and art."

I'm looking forward to it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Great Game

Paris has the Eiffel Tower, and Rome the Colosseum. What does Delhi have? The India Gate, of course.

It is a war memorial in honour of all the Indian soldiers who died fighting wars for the British. The most fascinating among these wars were the three Anglo-Afghan Wars.

You see, in the first half of 1800's, Russia became a sort of British bogeyman. What if the Russians, extending the Tzar’s empire, invaded India through Afghanistan? That would never do!

And so, to protect British interests in India, Afghanistan became a war zone - the centre-piece of a 'Great Game' between Britain and Russia.

The First Anglo-Afghan War - A British Disaster
The first move in the game was played out in 1838. The British invaded Afghanistan and captured parts of it.
But as locals increasingly became hostile to British occupation, the British were forced to retreat from Kabul. And guess what? Of the 16500 Indians and Englishmen who retreated, only one man reached India alive. The rest were massacred in skirmishes along the way. The Kabul retreat became the stuff of legend.

William Broydon, doctor, the sole survivor of the retreat from Kabul. Part of his skull had been sheared off by an Afghan sword. In fact, he survived only because he had stuffed a copy of Blackwood's Magazine into his hat to fight the intense cold weather. The magazine took most of the blow, saving the doctor's life.

The Second Anglo-Afghan War - The British are Successful
The Russians continued their advance into Afghanistan. So forty years after the first Afghan war, the British invaded Afghanistan again. But you know what they say about the Afghans - they are not a quiet peaceable people, easily cowed. Defeating them once in battle isn't the same as controlling them. As little revolts and rebellions started to happen, the British withdrew, fearing another massacre. This time, though, they installed Abdur Rehman Khan as Emir. It was a good choice. Abdur Rehman Khan was a tough guy who forcibly united Afghanistan into one polity - earning himself the nickname Iron Emir.

Abdur Rehman Khan - the Iron Emir. A Sunni Muslim, he enslaved the Shia Hazaras
and forcibly converted the Kafirs of Hindukush to Islam.

The Third Anglo-Afghan War - Hitting a mosquito with a sledgehammer
Under Abdur Rehman and his son Habibullah Khan, things were pretty hunky-dory. The British continued to virtually control Afghanistan's foreign affairs. But Habibullah's son Amanullah was a different cup of tea. A man with a liberal outlook, he declared that Afghanistan would be fully independent, and sent a small troop into British India to recover provinces that he had lost earlier. In retaliation, the might of the Empire came crashing down on him. Indian forces launched a massive punitive campaign, bombing his palace and several religious places. In less than a month, Amanullah sued for peace.

Although he lost the war, Amanullah Khan got what he wanted. Britain recognised Afghan independence and ensured that the British Indian empire would never extend beyond the Khyber Pass. Afghanistan also signed a treaty of friendship with the new Bolshevik government in Russia in 1921.

British interest in Afghanistan largely ended with Indian independence in 1947. But did the Great Game stop? Nah. The United States replaced Britain - and the Great Game was played all over again, this time with bigger guns.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Speaking of costumes...

I wrote earlier about the salwar kameez being very graceful - but hey, let's admit it. The Indian ghagra-choli - long skirt and blouse - is sexier by far.

The choli is a short blouse that is open at the back, and only has strings to tie it together. The ghagra is a skirt like no other. Feminine. Voluminous. Swirly. Colourful.

I was in Ranthambore Tiger Sanctuary, when I spotted this group of women walking by. The forest roads were endless, and it was really hot, but they were not bothered in the least. The skirts were swaying with every step. Isn't Rajasthan incredible?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Delhi Comic

Check out this autorickshaw. Doesn't it look like something out of a comic book? The 'eyes' give it a sort of funny startled look!

I spotted it early in the morning...and it made me smile. What a neat way to start the day.

Mornings in Delhi are special anyway.

Wide, tree-lined roads, birds, the city just s-l-o-w-ly getting to work...If you're in Delhi before winter, I think it is the best time of the day to get out and see a bit of the city.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

And the winner is....the salwar kameez!

Go to any part of India - North, South, East, West - and you'll find Indian women wearing the salwar kameez with grace and style.

For a dress that's a relative newcomer on the horizon (hey, it's not more than 800 years old in India), it sure has taken the market by storm.

In Delhi, there are probably more women in salwar kameezes than sarees. In fact, in large sections of North India, especially the Punjab, it has pretty much replaced the saree. In South India, the salwar kameez is being embraced with fervour even in small villages, and is sold in traditional southern cotton fabrics and designs. Movie stars and television soap actresses wear it as well, giving the modern 'Indo-Western' salwar kameezes social sanction and acceptance.

I wonder how the salwar kameez has managed to win over the Indian woman! Was it more modest than the saree? Did it flatter the Indian figure? Was it more convenient; did the Indian woman enjoy the freedom of wearing trousers? Did it start out as something that peasant women could wear easily to work in the fields? Or was it upper class and aspirational, an attempt to emulate the court fashions of the Delhi Sultanate?

I guess I'll never know. But I'll tell you this - this dress is going to be among the most lasting legacies of Turko-Mongol rule in India.

The word kameez comes from the Arabic qamis, which is related to the Latin word camisa (shirt). The word salwar comes from the Persian word for pants. But the garments have been Indianised, assimilated into the mainstream, and embellished with embroidery and mirrorwork and all the textile crafts of India. The assimilation is so complete that the salwar kameez has lost its original foreign connotations.

Next time you're in Chandni Chowk, take a quick look at Jain traders selling salwar kameezes to hordes of Hindu and Muslim women. It's probably among the best examples of India's multi-cultural ethos that you'll see.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

A refined poetry

'Can you take us to Mirza Ghalib's house?', we asked the rickshaw-wallah, as we cycled through the maze of streets in Old Delhi.

His name was Danny, and he was a savvy rickshaw-wallah, one of several who take tourists for tours through Old Delhi. 'Of course, madam', he said, in the half-boasting, half-servile style that we've perfected in India. 'I know every street, every corner of this area.'

So we set off, past the paan-bazaar and the kite-bazaar and the bangle-bazaar and a hundred other bazaars, until we finally reached this arched doorway, home of the great Urdu poet Ghalib.

For those who are familiar with Urdu poetry, seeing Ghalib's house is almost a religious moment, like arriving at the temple at the end of a pilgrimage.

It is hard to explain ghazals - the form of poetry that Ghalib wrote - to overseas vistors. Translations into English seem too flowery, too full-blown, and often it is impossible to convey the clean classical beauty and discipline that Urdu ghazals have.

Here's an example, a couplet from one
of Ghalib's many ghazals:
Mohabbat mein nahin hai farq jeenay aur marnay ka
Usi ko dekh kar jeetay hain, jis kaafir pe dam nikle

In love, there is little difference between life and death
I live to see her, for whom I am willing to die.

I've translated this as tightly as I can, but I've not done it justice. For example, in the second line, Ghalib doesn't actually refer to 'her' - he uses, instead, the word 'kaafir', non-believer, infidel. The literal translation of this ghazal would then be 'I live to see the infidel for whom I am willing to die'. I'd say he's using kaafir, infidel, as a term of endearment, a sort of intimate insult. I'm left with the image of a woman, beautiful and aloof, an unbeliever, uncaring of the poet's outpourings.

One of the major characteristics of a traditional romantic
ghazal is that it never specifies who it is directed at. Ghazals may refer to a woman, or a young boy, or even God, and are therefore capable of being interpreted both at the physical as well as metaphysical level. Also, because there is no specific 'lover' to whom the ghazal is dedicated, it is freed from all need for realism. It becomes a poem about love, about being in love. It is a description of a state of being - as opposed to the Western concept of love poems, which are often dedicated to descriptions of the object of love. For example, here is one of my favourite poems of Lord Byron.

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes.

See what I mean? If you're used to this kind of poetry, it is sometimes difficult to understand the poetry of Ghalib. When confronted with ghazals that describe, in couplet after couplet, the agonies of the poet, it's really tempting to say 'Hey get ON with it and stop mooning about yourself!'

For me though, ghazals conjure up a vanished world of refinement, of cultured evenings soirees, of gatherings of poets around wine and hookahs. Even the etymology of the word ghazal is poetic - it comes from the Persian word ghizaal, and it translates roughly as 'mortal cry of a wounded gazelle'. An odd sort of poetry, but one that defined, for many years, high culture at the Moghul courts.

There's not much of that culture left today. But Bollywood - that great entertainment machine - has not let the ghazal die. Every now and then, Bollywood produces a movie where the ghazal, set to soft music, shines again. And a new generation of ghazal lovers is born.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

A Jain Hakim?

Hakim Chhottelal Shri Ram Jain, says the signboard of this medicine shop in faded red letters. And above that, it says Unani Vaidik.

I stood there, bemused, looking at how this one little sign represented three of India's religions!

his is obviously a family of traditional Hindu healers (hey, why would he be called Shri Ram otherwise?), who at some point, converted to Jainism (therefore the 'Jain' surname). And then, sometime during Delhi's rule by Muslims, this family learnt Unani medicine, and reinvented themselves as Unani hakims, practising a medicine popular with Delhi's Muslims.

I wonder if they found it difficult to switch from
Ayruveda to Unani. Probably not. Ayurveda and Unani aren't very far apart, they are both holistic medicines, which believe that the cure is within the body, and that a 'balance of the humours' is essential for well-being. But I'm sure this man's ancestor was a smart cookie. How else would he get access to this prime storefront, right outside Jama Masjid?

Next time I go to there, I'm going to speak to Chottelal Jain, and check out the family history. If you get there before me, come tell me about it. And here's a tip - Jain Sahib likes a bit of tea and gossip!

P.S. Do you know what's common between the Arabic word hakim, and the Sanskrit word vaid? Both mean learned or wise person! Vaid comes from the Sanskrit root word 'vid', meaning 'to know'. And the same root word exists in Latin (videre, to 'see'), from where we get the English word video.