The Lady on my Wall

This figure so venerated today, was once a rebel. He was charged at Bombay court with cases of obscenity, offending public morality and hurting religious and cultural sentiments of people. There were reports that his printing press was set on fire.

When I obsessively started studying his work, I was only 14. This portrait I had cut out of a magazine and stuck on my wall beside the Periodic Table. It was not a full length portrait, only bust size, but one could feel that the lady was short and stocky. Today when I look back, it was probably the lack of a mother figure in my life that made gazing at her such a comfort.

The rebel artist was patronised by the House of Travancore. In fact, the intimate connection of his family with that of the royal family had a lurid past, on which I dare not speculate for fear of being accused of //obscenity, offending public morality and hurting religious and cultural sentiments of people//.

This man single handedly shaped the spiritual imagery of entire generations. His depiction of the gods and goddesses reached every nook in the country. They were hung proudly on the walls along with the portraits of statesmen who had led the country to freedom.
When I read C. Rajagopalachari’s narration of our mythology, every sentence, from love to battle, were painted in my mind with the delicate and rebellious brush strokes of Raja Ravi Varma.

Even though his lithograph printing workshop that had made the Gods affordable for the masses, was burnt down, billions of calendars with his work were later printed. My father worked for a company that printed the same Goddess every single year in their calendar and they still do so.

Uniformly lambasted by critics, his work dismissed as ‘kitsch’, Shri Aurobindo went so far as to say “the grand debaser of Indian taste and artistic culture”. And yet The Raja of an artist brought the gods to the poorest, and became the great equaliser of our times.

Yesterday I had used his name rather frivolously to spin a tale of my own. I therefore pay my humble tribute to the great artist today. Raja Ravi Varma lives on in my atheist heart.

The Lady on my Wall

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The Story Factory

Once upon a time, I came upon this saree sitting in a small shop in Coimbatore. It was the stuff daydreams are made of. I had been researching it, and you know I am a self proclaimed researcher. So when it manifested before me, I tried not to swoon.

It was made by the legendary weaver of the Tranvancore royal family. Lore has it that Koili Thampuran of Kilimanoor was so talented as a weaver that the then Maharaja of Travancore sent him to France to study French laces. There, Koili interacted with the cremedelacreme of the art world. This legendary saree came to him in an absinthe induced stupor while he was partaking of it at a Parisian Cafe with Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh.

He kept detailed notes of his dream and immediately started weaving the saree when he came back to India. It took 4 years but the result was more magical than absinthe induced stupors. It was a combination of pixie dust with French lace and the glorious tradition of Travancore silks. The Queen mother draped it for the coronation of the new monarch. The legendary saree could not be replicated by any other weaver in history.

So this saree that I have draped has nothing to do with the yarn I just spun. It is a Coimbatore silk all right, I found it at a showroom and another person had her hands on it. When she kept it back, I picked it up and politely asked if she wanted it. My sareepathic crazed eyes might have given away what I was thinking “I will bite your carotid if you don’t drop it”.
I had fallen in love with the blue shade and the hints of pink and green in the pallu.

PS : this is a work of fiction, no connection to anyone living or dead, I have never in my life been to Coimbatore

The Merry Makers

Everyone who owns an oven is not a baker.
-Radhikaurus Godperson

I am practicing inventing loads of cryptic comments that don’t mean anything and are deniable. Net practice for my upcoming Godperson career.

I have an oven and nobody dares tell me I’m not a bakist. That’s a person who is a baker artist, I invented the word, the profession already exists.

The paleontology fever is not over yet, so as a dear friend pointed out, my cakes are looking like fossils. If I tell them kiddos that I baked a delicious but ugly cake, they will not fancy it. But if I give it a name “Fossil Cake”, they are going to fall for it.

We need two big bowls to whip up the batter. I used to know the proportions, a friend had once taught me in a live demo in her kitchen. But I forgot.
My knowledge of science is coming in handy. I know that cake needs generous doses of baking soda.
Yesterday I might have been too generous and the cake rose so much that it cracked open.

When they go low, you go high. Or some such. Even though this quote reminds me of first base, second base and so on, (I really have to cut out the naughty mind, at least till I make it big as a Godperson), I decided to not be insulted by what baking soda did.

Today we added one less spoonful of the errant chemical. The spouse knows a chemical equation in which he claims he can prove that baking soda goes stale by picking up dihydrogen mono oxide (water, in other words). Spouse is an advocate of sweetness overload.
He says “Baking soda maketh no cakes, sweet maketh cakes”. Well, it’s quite alarming, even he can mouth nonsense that sounds profound.

‘Tis the season when I get this “Dreadful urge to be merry” to quote The Addams Family. Dreadful it is for an aspiring nihilist.
The daughter is decorating the tree. Its actually a potted plant, we have cakes, cookies in the oven. Life is merry indeed.

The Kings and I

Back home after a real time travel trip. There were Kings and Princesses, and a small palace. Once upon a time they owned cannons. They couldn’t fight the British though and had to get the adoption of a baby monarch ratified by the British Queen. So they survived through the raptor Lord Dalhousie’s Doctrine of Lapse.

They discovered dinosaur fossils on their property and they got very very interested. Foreigners came, confirmed the findings, took some back to their universities, carbon dated them. One old limestone quarry yielded more than 400 bones. Sauropods (herbivore dinosaurs) and theropods (carnivore dinosaurs) both were found in the quarry and another pit had many nests with eggs.

Rajasaurus narmadensis, the king of lizards, romped through the prehistoric Gondwanaland (named after Gond tribals), 67 million years ago. The Indian subcontinent floated in the Tethys Sea and reached the Asian mainland, pushed up the Himalayas and is still at it, birthing the Himalayas I mean.

I was happy like a kid being gifted her personal chocolate factory. It took some restraint to not fall upon the paleontologists neck and hug her. She was so enthusiastic about dinosaurs, as if they are still walking around the barren rock mountains, seeking to come join our world, if only we let them!

What was it they saw last? A comet? A volcanic eruption? Did it get too cold? Did they trample over all the trees being so big (50 tonnes easily for Sauropods) that they ran out of food? Did they smoke and drink themselves to death? (unlikely, because they had such small brains, they wouldn’t have discovered distilled liquors or tobacco cultivation)

Mrs Dino speaking to Mrs Saur discussed the fragility of her porous eggs, how the hatchling was attempting to fly and not walk, and Mr Dino just rampaging around the neighborhood for effect trying to impress the ladies. Mrs Saur complained bitterly about the cold, her aching joints, her heart pumping blood 20 feet up in the air to her head and getting mighty tired at it. Mrs Saur was a hypochondriac but the weather was indeed going chilly.

Science takes me into the prehistoric past. I live in my own privilege bubble. And yet, a walk through the countryside tells me how the majority of humans struggle to keep body and soul together. Ancient techniques of farming on small land holdings, to large holdings having migrant farm labour.
Child labour in the tobacco fields, weather beaten faces of women working their hand implements, in tattered clothes. The masters have changed, the kings have gone but poverty remains the constant in our land.

Balasinor Fossil Park, Gujarat

Sorcery

My life is like a Dan Brown novel, full of mystery, adventure and death defying stunts. I can’t find my clothes that I intended to carry to a vacation, even though I had put them separately just yesterday evening.
The household was put on the quest of the missing clothes. I climbed on a chair to look at the top shelves and fell off and almost broke my delicate head. Sonalben looked for them under the bed and found a long lost doll and 4 mysterious buttons.

When we returned from a small party yesterday evening, a black cat had jumped out of my bed and rushed past me in a tearing hurry. Though Ushaben claims that it’s the friendly neighbourhood black cat that had gotten in through the kitchen window, I have a ‘feeling’ that the cat had been sent to frighten me to death.
Sonalben and Ushaben debated the dark history of black cats. One is inclined towards the dark arts (sorcery, witchcraft, ghosts, ghouls, wizards, tantriks and godmen), the other is a rationalist.

While I was writing this, I received a call from Sonalben that the clothes have been located. They had been handed over to Manjuben, who does all the ironing. It seems I am the culprit. I totally intend to deny any role in handing over anything to Manjuben, even though there is documentary evidence in the form of Manjuben’s notes on a calendar detailing all the clothes she has received. I have to think of a strong alibi.

Draped this adorable Sungudi cotton today that has a border only on one side. Our grandmothers generation favoured these comfy sarees and I suspect these sarees had an important contribution towards their cheerful loving dispositions.

Books are True Love

This is for Sravanti Choudhury, who asked for a list of my favourite books. There is no greater delight than going over those treasures.

There were times in my past when I lived only because there were more books to be read. It was a blessing that I had lots of time to myself, and I had the beautiful library of my school in Delhi. No greater sanctuary to a troubled child than the dark corridors lined with stories where there was truth, honour and justice to be found.

Every birthday I would ask for books. My people thought facts were more important than stories, so they gave me a book with graphic description of reproduction in the human species when I was 9 years old. The book was called The Three Continents by Ruth Jhabvala. My folks thought it was a geography book! It only shattered heteronormativity in my very conservative world.
So you see, I have always been precocious. By the time they got around to sex education classes in school, I knew all theoretical details.

The first book that really changed my life was How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewelyn. I became a miner in a Welsh Mining village, that’s where I belonged.
Then in Class 9 we had the book Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome. I had just started reading it when a classmate of mine told me that she was not understanding the book at all and was about to give up. I offered to explain it to her. So we started reading on the way to and from school. Oh what a time we had! I had never laughed so much in my life! We would roll around on the seat of the bus with uncontrollable laughter. There came a time, when we would start giggling for no apparent reason, even if we bumped into each other in the school corridors. I am sure that like me, my friend still smiles at that memory. The name of the book brings something warm and joyful bubbling up like champagne in my heart.

I traveled in time with The Hitchhiker’s Guide, Catch 22, all books and stories by Munshi Premchand, Shivani, Guy de Maupassant, Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Oscar Wilde, Spike Milligan, the Bronte sisters, Ashapoorna Devi, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Tagore and many many more. I devoured books, I was insatiable.

You will likely notice the preponderance of Russian authors, i suspect our librarian had Left leanings. So while my father was a Sangh Pracharak, he was harbouring an urban naxal in his home. I didn’t voice my opinions of course, it wasn’t allowed. It was only twenty years later that I found my voice.

Then I arrived at the mother of all game changer books, The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins. Before his fall from grace, he led me to Carl Sagan, Bertrand Russell and Christopher Hitchens. There was no turning back.

In more recent years, I have been reading everything I can find on art history. And feminism. Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir, Judith Herman, Germaine Greer.

Hope to keep adding to this list of my best friends. Draped this patola cotton today, I love the gentle giants, the elephants all over it.

My Big Fat Bengali Wedding

I thought I’d preach some more but Ramya’s post distracted me. It’s the wedding season too. Must tell more about my own great Indian roadshow- the wedding.

I was some kind of a zombie. I obeyed and agreed, poles apart from how I am now. Nothing interested me, neither the groom, nor the sarees. I was slightly worried about all the study I could have done, if they hadn’t wasted my time in invoking gods over 3 whole days of ceremonies. I was the female equivalent of Casabianca (the boy who stood on the burning deck).

Literal fires were built and we poured spoonfuls of edibles in it, to cement our alliance. We fed 600 people, of which I knew about 20 personally. Shehnai was played live at my wedding which gave it a proper funereal air (we are proper, pretentious, ‘intellectual’ bengali and we absolutely have to prove it). Everyone wears hideously pricey sickly dull khadi of all kinds except the bride. The bride wears a Benaras silk that costs an arm and a leg, and is carried to the venue and around the fire on a low stool. This is the only way to make sure she doesn’t run away.

When I woke up the night after my wedding, I almost screamed. There was a bearded stranger in my bed!
Oh right, I remembered, we made love last night. He’s the ‘husband’. It was a bit worrying that few hours later, he was still asleep. He had slept through the morning and I had checked that he wasn’t dead. Then it was noon and he was still asleep.

Like it’s okay to sleep late but we ought to wake up at human hours, I believed. The slumbering giant woke at mid day and immediately set out doing things like bath etc without even looking for tea!
It was like a massive punch in the guts to me when I asked him if he needed tea and he said NO. That’s when I think I started crying (I had skipped it at the Bidai ceremony).

Then we went to Goa. I had not anticipated this but it turned out the Mr No-Tea was a fun person. I decided never again to judge people based on their tea needs. People can always be converted. People should be given the benefit of doubt.

It wasn’t Goa’s fault that we fell in love, drank no water (nor much tea), flirted all the time, bought non-sari barely-there clothing, ate no vegetables, visited not a single temple.

Then we came to his adopted home, Lucknow. The dialect that people speak there is so charming, so soothing to the soul, the people are all borderline evil though. They ate sinfully delightful kebabs, they made jokes of stunning brilliance in their mix dialect, they made me feel so very much at home. It’s where I want to spend eternity, so it is hell, my place, my people.

Draped this benaras silk from my trousseau today, it is a denser weave but has no zari, I like the green blue, the colour of bread mold I think.