Sunday, October 28, 2007

Longpi Pottery

From Manipur, a little state in the easternmost part of India, comes a craft that is both interesting and useful - Longpi Ham, the lustrous black pottery of the Longpi Village.

Longpi artists make striking pots, mugs and vases. They're all black in colour, simple and almost minimalistic in their design.

What gives Longpi its appeal is the finish. The pots and vases are smooth and lustrous. When you touch them, your fingers glide over the surface, and they leave you wondering if this is stone, ceramic or clay.

At a recent exhibition, I bought a set of 6 beer mugs from A. S. Tamreipam, a Longpi craftsman from Manipur. That gave me the perfect opportunity to ask him about this craft.

"Is this black terracotta?" I asked him. "No", he said, "it is stone." He rapped on it with his knuckles. Yes, it was stone. But stone that looked like clay?

I was intrigued, and looked it up a bit. I found out that Longpi pottery is actually made by crushing stone into powder and then mixing it with clay.

But Longpi craftsmen don't use just any kind of stone. They use serpentinite, a dark black stone that powers the fascinating hydro-thermals of the Lost City in the Atlantic Ocean. When serpentinite is formed, the process releases large quantities of heat. At the Lost City, this has created an eerie undersea world populated by strange invertebrates. (By the way, serpentinite is also the state rock of California.)

So anyway - to make Longpi pottery, you first hunt for serpentinite. Then you pound it into powder with a hammer, and mix it with other materials to form a sort of dough. You shape the dough by hand into the things you want to create. There is no potters wheel, there is only the skill of the artist. When you finish, and it hardens a bit, you bake it in a kiln at 900 degrees Centrigrade.

When it's taken out of the kiln, it is then polished with a local leaf called Chiron Na. That's what gives it that lustre.

Longpi beer mugs, anyone?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Meat eating in Nizamuddin

I have to admit, at the very beginning of this post, that I'm vegetarian.

I've been vegetarian all my life. Anything I write about meat, is therefore totally suspect. Still, these photos speak for themselves, so I should be ok!

This area of Nizamuddin is predominantly Muslim. This is one of the neighbourhood butchers. Check out the wooden chopping block - it's a round tree stump. I wonder what the little boy is trying to buy. Do you know? On second thoughts, don't tell me - I don't *want* to know :)

Some more customers walked in as we were photographing. Their motto seemed to be "inspect before you buy". There was a lot of examining going on, before orders were placed. Meanwhile the butcher was shaving off the remnants of meat from whatever it was that he was holding. Since this is India, it's probably whatever's left of a buffalo.

Further down the street was Mehboob Hotel - for ten rupees you could get a plateful of mutton curry and a tandoori naan to go with it.

Here's a closer look at Mehboob's menu, it had both Hindi and English spellings -
  • Stew - This is written as e-stew in Hindi alongside
  • Chanp - It's written correctly in Hindi, and the English spelling tries valiantly to cope with the nasal "chaap". Here's a recipe.
  • Kaleji - Liver
  • Qeema - Mince
  • Nahari Paaya - Bone marrow and trotters (this is a breakfast dish, originally)
  • Sabzi - Vegetables (finally, something vegetarian)
  • Daal - Yep. I know that one!
  • Bheja - Brain
  • Aalu Anda - Potatoes and Eggs (it's a gravy curry)
  • Karhi Pakora - Lentil dumplings in yoghurt gravy
  • Daal Gosht - Lentils and Mutton
...and so it goes on, the menu, tempting people to stop and eat.

If you walk further along the road, you'll also see this - meat on the hoof. To my vegetarian mind, this scene was both interesting and disturbing. On the left were the sheep, and on the right, a big aluminum handi in which they would later be cooked and served as mutton biryani.

I walked a little further. A goat and kids sat by the edge of the road, cool in the shade. The black kid was shy, but the white one was the inquisitive sort. I said to myself, it's one thing to see meat dangling from a hook, or ladled on a plate. It is something else altogether, to see it look curiously at you!

Walking along this area is difficult for me. I grew up in a family and social circle where almost everyone was vegetarian. Watching these gentle creatures in Nizamuddin, knowing that death awaits them, and knowing I cannot do anything about it, is very disturbing for me.

But I still think it is a good thing for me to see this place - because this way, I learn a very important lesson. I learn that not everyone is the same. Not everyone was brought up with the same beliefs as me. There are other communities and people, with other ways of life, all of which are just as equally valid. The things that seem disturbing to me are perfectly normal to someone else.

Perhaps this is the essence of all travel - it can give us the opportunity to see differences, to acknowledge them, and to accept their validity.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

007 in Delhi

Spotted in Old Delhi, a warning sign on a crumbling building. ABONDONED.
'Maybe James Bond was here', said my friend, laughing. 'And now the building is aBondoned.'
'Click' she went. And that's how this photo got here.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Great Indian Tipping Challenge

Overseas visitors to India always ask me for advice on tipping. There is such a bewildering variety of people to tip! 

Drivers, porters, doormen, car attendants, elephant handlers, tour guides and waiters at restaurants, they're all part of The Great Tipping Challenge.

But never fear - they all fall into a neat pecking order when it comes to tips. All you need is this - Deepa's Official Guide to Tipping. 

Arm yourself with this Guide, and you can waltz in and out of India with a song on your lips, secure in the comfort that you're not over-paying or being downright stingy. 

Let's start with the lowest guy in the tipping spectrum, the doorman. The doorman comes in two varieties. Let's call Type 1 the Moustachioed Turbaned Doorman. You'll see Type 1 Doormen at the Taj Hotel, or the Sheraton, or any of the grander sorts of hotels. They usually open car doors, both when you arrive at the hotel, and when you're leaving. They also open the main door to the hotel.

Type 1 Doormen have perfected several arts:
1 - The Art of Opening Door with a Bow and a Flourish
2 - The Art of the Broad Unctuous Smile
3 - The Art of Greeting Foreigners in English
4 - The Art of Looking As If They Should Be Tipped

These guys are a Grade 1 Challenge. In the first place, they look, um, intimidating. They're tall, broad-shouldered, colourful, and of course, that moustache is nothing to scoff at. What do you tip such guys? They look as if they'd scorn a ten-rupee note. But surely fifty is too much? And when do you tip these guys? Surely not when you arrive tired from the airport at some odd hour of the night?

Deepa's Official Guide to Tipping recommends a 20 rupee note, judiciously kept ready, handed over subtly when you leave the hotel in the morning for work or sightseeing. It will earn you an Extra-Flourish when you come back to the hotel in the evening. If you are staying at a super-posh hotel, make that a 50 rupee note.

And if you want to do that very touristy thing - ask the Type 1 Doorman to pose for a photo - then please be ready to pay a crisp 100-rupee note. Anything less than that is, er, shoddy. Payment is logically made after the photo is clicked, with a pleasant thank you. Women can get away with Payment By Giggle, but honestly? Doorman Type 1 prefers cash.

And what of the Type 2 Doorman? The Type 2 Doorman, like Aesop's fable of the Town and the Country Mouse, is the poor cousin of Type 1. Found at less plush hotels, Type 2 still rush about opening and closing doors, but alas, they lack both the moustache and the turban. The Type 2 Doorman, horror of horrors, is the Doorman with the Faded Uniform And The Whistle.

Type Two has perfected the Art of The Whistle as Weapon. Unerringly and shrilly, the Whistle summons cars, stops incoming traffic, and lets you exit the hotel in a grand if noisy style.

The Tipping Guide recommends 20 rupees, handed over before you get into the car. Your reward? Frenetic whistling and much rushing about to block traffic in person, so that your car can sail forth undisputed like the Queen Mary.

....(to be continued)

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Small is beautiful

If you walk into handicraft showrooms in Rajasthan, you'll usually spot small colourful Mughal or Rajasthani miniatures. Most are faithful reproductions of older paintings, originally commissioned by Mughal or Rajput princes.

Collectors are fond of miniatures - they are small and compact, intricate and colorful, and they allow a rich display even within a limited space.

This original painting of a noble leaning at the feet of a lady is dated 1750, and priced at $15,000. I like the bold use of orange, and the small detailing - notice the fingertips of the lady, her jewellery, her finely arched eyebrows, the pattern on the sash of the nobleman. A replica of this sort of painting, executed by hand, could cost between $35 to $200 depending on the quality of the artist.

Miniatures originated in Persia, where they were used to decorate religious books. When Babur invaded India, the art came with him. Mughal miniatures depicted court life. Elephant fights, tiger hunts and pleasure gardens were illustrated in astonishing detail. The artists used fine paint brushes of squirrel hair, dipped in opaque inks made of natural materials.

As the Mughal Empire collapsed, artists sought patronage in the princely Hindu states of Rajasthan. From 1750 onwards, there was a great Renaissance in Rajasthan, as artists long used to Muslim emperors adapted their style and content to suit their new patrons.

The themes of the paintings changed - the amorous pursuits of a blue-skinned Krishna, Rajput festivals, processions, animal and bird life all made their appearance in Rajasthani miniatures.

Can you imagine what that period was like? Rajasthan was flooded with artists! In every princely kingdom, a brand new form of painting emerged, showcasing a vibrant intermingling of Hindu and Muslim culture.

Eventually, seven styles or schools of miniature art emerged in Rajasthan - the schools of Mewar, Marwar, Kotah, Bundi, Kishangarh, Amber and Bikaner.

Here is one of my favourite ones - it's called The Sports of Love, and it shows Krishna and the gopis frolicking in a lotus-filled river. His dark skin blends with the river, his gold adornments stand out in contrast. The gopis are bare-breasted, lost in longing. The foliage on the riverbank is lush with detail.

In Kishangarh, an Indian Mona Lisa appeared. Raja Sawant Singh, himself a poet, commissioned the artist Nihalchand to paint his mistress Bani Thani as Krishna's lover Radha. Bani Thani was not her original name - it was a pet-name that meant 'Beautifully Dressed'. Bani Thani's portrait is a highly stylised version of an Indian beauty - the eyebrows are arched, the forehead is high, the eyes are sensuously half open, the lips are thin yet curved. Here is a modern artist's rendition of Bani Thani:

Bani Thani - An Indian Mona Lisa

If you ask me, this woman who inspired Sawant Singh seems sharp and spicy, like a green chilli! Sharp pointed nose, and pointed chin over a long narrow neck...almost a witch! This sort of depiction became the hallmark of Kishangarh art.

Today, most artists in Rajasthan don't execute original miniatures - they make painstaking copies of older ones. Some of them are worth buying - they show an attention to detail, and a lushness which makes them attractive.

I'm not an expert, but if you're travelling to Rajasthan, and looking to take back one of these paintings as a holiday keepsake, then my advice is - look for a certain lyrical quality and delicacy of line. See if the painting has the rich pleasing effect of the originals, or whether it glistens in tawdry fashion. Check what paints are used. Compare with images of museum originals if you can. Also of course, use your common sense - the better paintings sell at a much higher price range.

P.S. Another painting style I like is Basholi, from the Punjab. Take a look at this painting called Leave your anklets behind, and Go. In what seems to me, a scene erotic with expectation, Radha's maid-in-waiting removes Radha's noisy anklets for a woodland tryst with Krishna. (Check out the green emeralds on Radha and Krishna - they're made of shiny beetle wings).