Thursday, February 22, 2007

Postcard


She arrives. Hair in disarray. Sari rumpled. Her eyes glazed with jet lag and back to back in-flight movies scan the room taking in the plumped russet cushions and beige carpets offset by bronze idols, temple bells and a serene Buddha, eyes closed in sleep or contemplation. She approves. Her eyes settle on the postcard. But she keeps up her stream of inconsequential chatter about haughty white air hostesses and the bad food they serve, pretending not to have seen it

All the while she watches her mother, waiting for the sharp intake of breath and narrowing of eyes. The postcard says: ‘See! I’m not a goody two shoes. There’s a subversive streak under this long hair and diamond nose pin you forced on me.’ But nothing is said that day. Or the next. She tries more and more outrageous things. She leaves the pocket Kamasutra out where it can be seen. Walks her through Soho, past the sex shops and peep shows. She leaves her taali hanging on the bathroom mirror. But all this is met with silence.

A month passes. It is time for her to leave. She sees her off at the airport and comes back to the flat. She feels a wave of sadness, wishing she hadn’t done all those things. What had she proved? Nothing.

She leans back in her seat and takes out some magazines from her handbag. Out of the corner of her eye she checks on her neighbour. Fast asleep. It is close to midnight and they are flying over a desert. She opens her Kalki and surreptitiously takes out the postcard and marvels at the man’s bottom; glad her daughter has inherited her good taste.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Chola Bronzes





Oh Lord Shiva
On that day when you looked at me
You enslaved me
In grace entered me
And out of love
melted me

Thiruvachakam Hymn 38


These words of Manikkavachakar, printed in reverse on the lac coloured walls of the Sackler Wing, The Royal Academy of Arts, London greet those who have come to see Chola: Sacred Bronzes of Southern India.

I came to know of the exhibition late last year, on a northbound Jubilee line train home. As it pulled in to Westminster station I briefly looked up from the book I was reading and my gaze settled on an image that was all at once familiar. The curved windows seemed to hardly contain the large muscular thigh, gracefully wrought in bronze. I didn’t even need to bend down and look at the rest of the image. It was Lord Nataraja, engaged in his eternal cosmic dance encircled by a ring of flames.

It is the very same sculpture that stands below the above stanza and is the first in a series of 23 Chola sculptures which have been divided in to three broad categories – Shiva Imagery, Saivite Saints and Vishnu Imagery. The exhibits - all utsavamurtis or festival images, are made using the cire perdue or lost wax technique wherein the sculptor or sthapathi fashions various units of the idol using beeswax and shal tree resin down to the very last detail before dropping them in to cold water to harden them. This model is then covered with layers of coarse clay and baked. When heated, the wax melts and (hence the name of the method) runs out of holes in the plaster. Molten pancha loha (an alloy of 5 metals – zinc, lead, gold, silver and copper) is then poured into the space formerly occupied by the wax.

Utsavamurtis are used on auspicious and festival days when they are taken around the temple courtyard and tank in a procession. The figures are always dressed for the occasion, wrapped in resplendent silks, glittering in jewels and redolent with the fragrance of garlands made of rose, jasmine, marigold and lotus. Devotees are lucky if they can glimpse the statue’s face or a hand raised in benediction. Even when they are in repose, the utsavamurtis are dressed, though not in such a grand manner.

In stark contrast, the statues in the exhibition have been stripped of ceremonial garb. They stand as on the day they were created, but smoother and a little worn after centuries of being anointed with milk and sandalwood.

It is an altogether breathtaking and rare experience. The chance to stand as close and for as long as one likes to these expressions of divinity does not come along frequently. After all, I have spent hours crushed in thronging temple crowds, waiting, anticipating that moment when the procession - all at once chaotic, divine, majestic and haphazard - will turn the corner and come down the path overflowing with the faithful. Torn between the desire to bend ones head in reverence or look up so that the eyes may seek out what lies beneath the royal splendour.

Here one can stand for hours on end and study the sinuous, sensuous curves of these sculptures which are on loan from The Cleveland Museum of Art, The National Museum Delhi, The British Museum and The MOMA, New York among others.

From his matted dreadlocks to the ever so slight upturn of his lips, Shiva is a study in wild abandonment yet one knows that he is fully in control of both his movements and the universe he perpetually creates and destroys. Uma, in the typical thribhanga or three bends pose is all woman, from her ‘mound of venus spread like the hood of a cobra’ to her breasts which the child Saint Sambandar describes below.

Fresh as newborn lotus buds
Lustrous as kongu buds
Honeyed like coconuts
Golden kalashas filled with the nectar of the gods
Are the breasts of the resplendent Uma


The exhibition can be accompanied by an audio guide. Though each room has cards for visitors to read from, explaining the significance of various aspects of the sculptures, the audio guide allows one to keep his/her eyes free for the beauty of the murtis. As the words wash over you there is nothing to distract from what is a visual treat. A mixture of poetry, music, history and mythology, the audio guide is narrated by a number of voices. Though most pronunciations were accurate, some were not – Skanda came out as Kanda in a number of places.

The second room was devoted to Saivite Saints and Durga imagery. Amidst depictions of the Saint Sambandar as a child and Bhadrakali stands a twelfth century statue of Karaikkal Ammaiyar. The story of ‘Mother of Karaikkal’ tells us that she was a beautiful devotee of the Lord, but asked that he relieve her of the burden of flesh so she could watch him dance unfettered by physical shackles. With her bald head, sagging breasts, sharp teeth and bony hunched back, by traditional standards Karaikkal Amaiyyar is not the most beautiful of pieces, but her story and the beatific smile of satisfaction on her face captures the heart and makes her one of the most memorable.

The last room is dedicated to Vishnu imagery. After Shiva’s wild abandon and the adoring Saivite Saints, Vishnu stands proud, tall and regal. The main attraction of this room was a towering depiction of Krishna with his two consorts and Garuda. But my favourite was a slender, playful looking Hanuman – so unlike the serious, muscled depictions of this son of Anjana and a depiction of Kalingamardhana. What is interesting about the latter is that unlike most paintings and pictures I have seen where the serpent King is depicted as a many headed snake, here he is half human half snake and his hands are folded in gratitude.

As I walked out of the hall past Lord Nataraja the words of Appar’s hymn rung true.

If one may see his arched eyebrows
The gentle smile upon his lips
Of kovai red
His matted locks of reddish hue
The milk white ash upon his coral form
If one may but see
The beauty of his lifted foot
Of golden glow
The indeed one would wish
For human birth upon this earth


Chola: Sacred Bronzes of Southern India till 25 February 2007 at The Royal Academy of Arts. For more information please go to http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/

(Image courtesy Royal Academy of Arts)

(This appeared here)

Sunday, February 11, 2007

London Diary: Surviving January

I can’t believe I made it. To be honest, I didn’t think I would. Or could. I was sure I would crack, buckle under the pressure and snap under the brunt of other clich├ęs. Yet here I am with a discernible pulse going and my mental health somewhat intact, on the other side of the most depressing day of the year.

The most depressing day of the year started off like any other Monday (surprise, surprise!). I woke up to a dark mid January sky and was greeted by the icy demeanour of our flat. Though most of the night had been spent trying to free the duvet from the clutches of my not-so-better-half, I wasn’t glummer than I usually am at the start of the week. And I couldn’t think of a single reason why I should be. That is until I saw the headlines in the papers.

‘Blue Monday: the most depressing day of the year,’ said The Independent. ‘And now for something completely dreary,’ said The Guardian, as though the temperature plunging well below zero wasn’t dreary enough.

And just how had the media come to such a conclusion? According to research carried out by Cliff Arnall, a part time tutor at the University of Cardiff Monday, January 22nd was the most depressing day of the year. Appalling weather, post Christmas blues, failed New Year resolutions, mounting holiday debts and a lack of motivation all connive to depress people. And before you scoff and pass this off as the machinations of some mad scientist trying to lull us in to a state of depression before taking over the world, Arnall has a formula to prove his theory.

1/8W+(D-d) 3/8xTQ MxNA tells us just why Monday 22 spells such doom for us all. Here:
W: Weather
D: Debt
d: Money due in January pay
T: Time since Christmas
Q: Time lapsed since New Year resolution failed
M: General motivational levels
NA: The need to take action

So post this ground breaking scientific discovery, every English newspaper worth the fish ’n’ chips it wraps was full of advice from GPs, other scientists (no doubt kicking themselves for not having thought of it themselves) and Agony Aunts on how to combat the worst case of the Mondays since well, the previous Monday.

I realised I didn’t satisfy most of the criteria listed in the formula to feel as depressed as the day allowed. Sure I lived in a country plagued by miserable weather eight months of the year and my resolution to ensure that I could make a packet of chocolate hobnobs last for at least 2 days had failed at the word go. But other than that, I didn’t owe Visa enough money to call it debt. The only thing I had celebrated over Christmas was the sales that followed it. And as someone in pursuit of the pure art of writing, I wasn’t so crass as to be concerned with matters of money (a statement the editor of this newspaper can ignore). My rapidly growing disdain for January was something new to me.

After all in January Chennai is pleasantness personified. Cool breezes, the hope that a thalaivar film will release and holidays courtesy Pongal and Republic Day. Mumbai Januaries hold the promise of temperatures that ensure one won’t melt in to the pleather seats of its bumble bee cabs. As an advertising professional, January is a slow month. Award deadlines loom and everyone dreams of holding aloft statues and award parties awash with enough champagne to savour victories or drown losses. After years of looking forward to the month and all it promised, it felt odd to suddenly mourn its coming. Instead of evening strolls along Marina beach I’m waddling about in novelty socks and a quilted robe my Mother says embodies the look ’Merlin meets Confucius’. When your own mother brands you a fashion disaster you know it’s time to weep.

Despite all the scientific mumbo jumbo, I was a bit sceptical of the most depressing day of the year. The euphoria brought on by uninhibited shopping, drinking, eating and partying is bound to wear off sometime, so was the reality of everyday life being confused with depression? After all, if you travel by stretch limo to work every day for a week, going by bus after that may be just a tad difficult. Plus, if January the 22nd was the most depressing day of the year, how are the British going to feel the next time England took on Australia at The Ashes? Or at the next interview Madonna gives in riding breeches talking in her faux British accent?

Not wanting to appear churlish and worried I may be accused of not trying to fit in, I assured myself I was depressed and read the advice being doled out by the newspapers. I was told to eat a healthy breakfast, try yoga, write down things I was grateful for, be disciplined or visit Australia where it was brighter and sunnier (something I don’t need a PhD to tell me, thank you very much). So basically, unless I was a health-nut, new-age, army general doing bhunjangasana in Kurri Kurri there was no way out of this psychological quagmire I found myself in? The only one that brought a smile to my face (and hence worked) was to remember that as it was Blue Monday, I wasn’t the only one feeling low. Misery loves company.

Professionals who have access to an unlimited supply of prescription free Valium and Prozac can no doubt afford to pontificate all they like and ask people to take a holiday to Australia (exactly how that’s possible when people are already up to their cashmere scarf encircled necks in debt is beyond me). I wanted to know what ordinary people who were down in the dumps were doing. So I logged on to www.beatbluemonday.org and looked at the advice of other sufferers. The forums were clogged with people ranging from ‘I’m holidaying in Mustique’ smug prats to ‘I watch The Sound of Music’ crying out for help saddos. So much for connecting with my troubled brothers and sisters.

So at the end of the day I chucked my newspaper in the recycling bin, hoping it would be reincarnated as a far more useful creation (a winning lotto ticket, a 50 percent discount voucher at Prada, round trip tickets to Paris maybe) and went home to the most comforting thing in the world. Sambhar and a Tamizh potboiler (apologies to the not so better half). Who needs Julie Andrews when you have you have Asin? And for those intolerant to sambhar, Asin and Julie Andrews, I suggest a neat whisky. Or three.


(In this Sunday's Newindpress)

Friday, February 09, 2007

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

spotted

At the Waterstone’s on Oxford Street the Biography and Autobiography section is monopolised with tomes written about (and by) former Big Brother house inmates. Most of them are imaginatively called ‘My life’ ‘My story’ ‘Her life’ ‘Her story’ ‘His life’ and ‘His story’. Makes perfect sense since they are in the (auto) biography section. There was also a book on how to cope with life damaging problems using techniques mastered by celebrities. Well of course if we could all afford law suits, botox, Buddha-con, spa-tox, pet therapy, multi million dollar mansions, designer rags and enough Manolos for everyone in China to slip into we’d be happier. Some of us just have to make do with chocolate covered hob nobs and a Gu pudding. Or three. But my favourite shelf had to be the Poor little rich girls section. Books by luminaries such as Paris Hilton (‘How to be an heiress’), Posh Spice (‘That extra half inch’ though I think she would have been better off writing a book called ‘How to be friends with Tom and Katie without becoming a scientologist’) and Jodie Marsh (‘Keeping it real’ She’s obviously not talking about her breasts).
Sigh. I need one of those hob nobs.

rule of three


Ok, ok. So last year I may have said I’ll never take up a tag or something like that. But with the single hope of resuscitating my blog, I’ve decided to do this one. Shyam, since you tagged me and since I’m obliging how about baking me a cake for the next time we meet? (I haven't spell checked this. So please excuse any errors.) (And I have no idea why I chose this picture)

Three things that scare me:
1. Strange men in bowler hats and three piece suits who address me as ‘sister’ and ask me if I’m a believer. (Avoid the Starbucks outside Victoria station at all costs)
2. Tripping and breaking my teeth
3. The green fuzzy thing that looks like a tennis ball and used to be a chow chow in the back of my fridge. Yesterday, I swear it grinned at me.

Three people who make me laugh:
1. Ian Hislop (actually, Private Eye the magazine he’s editor of)
2. P.G Wodehouse
3. Paul Merton

Three things I love:
1. My shoes
2. My stuffed mouse (a toy, but real in every other sense)
3. My quilt

Three things I hate:
1. Cockroaches
2. The cold
3. Washing up (the dishes, not myself. I have scrupulous personal hygiene standards)

Three things I don’t understand:
1. Bond trading (and this is after my husband explained it to me for half an hour in the tone he usually reserves for goofy dogs)
2. Scottish accents. Have you been to Edinburgh?
3. Some of the ‘art’ installations at the Tate

Three things on my desk (at home):
1. My cell phone
2. A bowl of fruit
3. The Sunday Review from last Sunday currently moonlighting as a mousepad

Three things I’m doing right now:
1. This tag
2. Trying to finish a short story
3. Scratching my back

Three things I want to do before I die:
1. Get published
2. Get published
3. Get published


Three things I can do:
1. Talk. A lot.
2. Proof read menus in restaurants
3. Read maps.

Three things you should listen to:
1. Your mother’s advice.
2. Anything on BBC radio 4.
3. Seu George

Three things you should never listen to:
1. E! News.
2. The voice in your head when you’re four drinks down
3. Those people with tiny stereos who stand on the side of the road claiming non believers will burn in hell.

Three things I’d like to learn:
1. Origami. Then I could make myself paper pets who’d never need to be fed or walked.
2. The lyrics to the Macarena. I already have the moves.
3. How to do a cartwheel.

Three favourite foods:
1. Pizza
2. My mother’s puli kozhambu
3. Avakkai sadam and sutta appalam

Three beverages I drink regularly:
1. Coffee
2. Coffee
3. Coffee

Three books I read as a kid:
1. The entire Miffy the rabbit series
2. Mr. Men books
3. Everything by Roald Dahl