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This book is non-fiction yet reads like fiction; a work that is historical and at the same time, philosophical. The book consists of interviews with several people from the erstwhile USSR, conducted over twenty years from 1991 to 2012. These are all first-person narratives and the author doesn’t appear anywhere except for some remarks about the narrator. As you read through the stories of the people that came out into the streets to topple the mighty Communist machine, you realise that they weren’t against the ideals of Socialism, they did not want Capitalism, they wanted to hold on to the dream of equality and fairness; yet the cruelty and oppression of successive authoritarian regimes starting with Stalin, made them do it. Mindless, unspeakable cruelty meted out in the name of an ideology that was supposed to be one of the most humanitarian. In my assessment, the revolution of 1991 was not against Communism but against corrupt, authoritarian rulers like Stalin.

Yet, no sooner had they toppled Socialism, than they were faced with the beast they had unleashed – Capitalism. People were like deer caught in the headlights of a car, with no experience or knowledge of how to live in a strange and harsh world they found themselves in. Ultimately, there were no winners, only victims. They caused a revolution and the new system did not do anything to help them; nothing changed for most and life became worse for many, some wanted the old system back, some felt there was no difference.

The human being is a very complex and often difficult to understand entity and that comes through clearly in many of the stories. How does one understand a factory director who was jailed and tortured by the Stalin government for ten years but whose one fervent wish, after being released, was to somehow get back into the membership of the Communist Party; a mother who thinks that the Party was right in sending her son to prison because he made a casual remark against the State. Raw stories of broken people, maimed for life, hollowed out frames; in short, a modern-day Gulag Archipelago. People suffered before the revolution and after the revolution; Communism was gone and Capitalism was in but people continued to suffer as before, their lives and dreams shattered.

Svetlana Alexievich deserves great credit for this book. She is a presence throughout the book, but she hardly intervenes. There are no interview questions and the stories are set as monologues. Of course, the author must have selected the interviews she wanted to record and reproduce and the order of the narratives carefully. The book is quite big (about 560 pages) and I read a review which said that it could have been made shorter by skipping some of the stories, but I felt that all the stories were required. Some of them felt similar but they really drove the point home; you had no escape, they were drilled into you. Overall, a very good book!

Moscow has been a very familiar name since childhood and one had heard about the Red Square, Kremlin etc. from a young age. In November 2019, I had an opportunity to spend a couple of days at Moscow. The fascination with the USSR and consequently Moscow, had started with some of the Soviet publicity books that I had read when I was young. Kerala, with its Communist roots, was always interested in the USSR and the stories of the October revolution, Lenin etc. were quite commonplace.

Naturally, my first port of call was the Red Square. Given the Communist history of Russia, my impression was that the origin of the name Red Square must have been connected somehow with the revolution. However, I understand this is not the case. This has been the main commercial square in Moscow since many centuries and it has been called so since 1662 or so. It separates the Kremlin (palace of the Tsars and currently of the Russian President) and the historic merchant area. This has been a very important location in Russian history and many ceremonial activities including coronation of the Tsars took place in the Red Square.

This rather large square borders the Kremlin on one side and the main attractions are the most famous icon of Russia, the St. Basil’s Cathedral, Lenin’s mausoleum etc. There is a very large department store (called the GUM) that occupies one side of the Red Square where the erstwhile commercial quarter was located. This store is more than a hundred years old, I understand.

 

On one side of the Red Square is the Kazan Cathedral. After defeating the Polish army in 1612, Prince Dmitry Pozharsky entered the Kremlin through the Red Square and in commemoration of that success, he built this Cathedral and consecrated it in 1625. The original building was of wood and burned down in a fire in 1632 and was rebuilt using brick and consecrated in 1636. It was considered as one of the most important churches in Russia and on the anniversary of liberation of Moscow from the Polish forces, the Tsar and the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church used to lead a procession around the Red Square. As part of removing religion from public life, Stalin ordered the demolition of the church in 1936 and a temporary building to host the offices of the Communist International was constructed on the site. After the fall of USSR, this was the first church to be reconstructed (1990-1993) and has been made to look like the old church.

 

St. Basil’s Cathedral is arguably the most reproduced image from Moscow and is regarded as a cultural symbol of the country. It is now a museum. its original name was The Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed. Ivan the Terrible, the first Tsar of Russia (1547 to 1584), constructed this church to celebrate the capture of two cities – Kazan and Astrakhan. The construction took six years from 1555 to 1561 and it had nine chapels with eight chapels around the central ninth one. A tenth chapel was added later, in 1588, to honour a local saint named Vasily (Basil in English). In the Soviet era, this church was taken over by the state and converted to a museum and all religious activities stopped. After the collapse of USSR, some church services have been resumed since 1997.

This building has a very unique architecture and resembles a fire rising up to the sky. Supposedly, there is no other building with a similar architecture in Russia. I read somewhere that an old mosque in the captured city of Kazan may have been the inspiration for this architecture and to the untrained eye, the building does look more like a mosque than a church, with its massive domes.

 

The interior of the Cathedral is very beautiful and richly decorated with icons, altars and nice paintings.

 

 

The GUM department store is a very impressive looking building and the roads outside were all decorated, possibly in anticipation of the New Year and Christmas (Russian Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on 7th January).

 

The next day morning, I decided to visit one of the most popular monuments in Russia – Lenin’s Mausoleum. It seems this monument attracts the highest number of visitors in a year. Lenin’s body has been embalmed and displayed here since his death in 1924; except for a brief period during the Second World War when the body was moved to a city in Siberia as it was feared that the Germans might capture Moscow. The mausoleum stands on one side of the Red Square; the square, squat red marble tiled building on the left side of the image below. When I arrived, there was a queue waiting for the museum to be opened; Mercury had fallen below zero and it was extremely cold, with a wicked wind, but people waited patiently.

 

After Stalin died in 1953, his body was also embalmed and displayed right next to Lenin’s. However, Stalin’s body was removed in 1961 as part of the de-Stalinization drive and buried in the Kremlin wall along with other leaders. Photography was not allowed inside the Mausoleum and so I could not take a picture of the body. It looks as if Lenin is sleeping on his back, with a blanket covering the lower half of his body. It looks very life like and you wouldn’t think almost a hundred years have passed since his death.

Two thoughts crossed my mind as I stood there looking at the great leader’s body. This was a man who had changed the world and made a new order of society and politics possible. John Reed, an American Journalist and Communist, was a witness to the October Revolution and he saw the whole event unfold, from close quarters. In about a year from then, he published his book “Ten days that shook the world”, which is an eyewitness account of the revolution. This was an unbiased account as it was published in 1919, before the people that came to power after the revolution had any opportunity to influence what was written. As you go through the book, it becomes very evident that the two people that made the revolution possible were Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Leon Trotsky. It is also equally evident that Josef Stalin did not have much of a role in the revolution. In the whole book, he is just mentioned in two places and that too as passing references. From the two, the body of one lies preserved in all this grandeur as a sign of respect and gratitude of the state while the other, Leon Trotsky, lies buried in a small grave in a non-descript cottage in Mexico City; after he was murdered by the KGB agents sent by the usurper, Stalin.

 

The second thought was about the seeming absurdity of making a shrine out of a Communist leader’s dead body. In a strange way, I was reminded about the relics and preserved dead bodies of Christian saints. I am sure that the state benefits from the symbolism of Lenin’s dead body but somehow I felt it was not in keeping with what this great leader stood for. After all, he was the proponent of a philosophy which was rooted in logic and not symbolism.

Next stop on the agenda was The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. This church was built in the nineteenth century and was demolished in 1931 on the orders of Stalin. It was rebuilt between 1995 and 2000, after the fall of the USSR. It is an imposing building and stands right on the banks of the Moscow river. You can walk up to the terrace there are some very beautiful views of the Moscow city from there.

 

The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts is just a short walk from the Cathedral. It has the largest collection of European art in Moscow and is a visual treat. There were works by many masters like Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso, Monet, Gauguin etc.

Solomon and the Queen of Sheba: Hans Vredeman De Vries

View of the old market in Dresden: Bernardo Bellotto

Bucentaur’s return to the pier by the Palazzo Ducale: Canaletto

View of the Grand Canal in Venice from the Fondamenta Del Vin: Michele Marieschi

The bridge across the Marne at Creteil: Paul Cezanne

Nude woman sitting on a couch: Pierre Auguste Renoir

White water lilies: Claude Monet

Luncheon on the grass: Claude Monet

A mother’s kiss: Eugene Carriere

Girls on the bridge: Edvard Munch

Young acrobat on a ball: Picasso

Spanish woman from Majorca: Picasso

Old jew and a boy: Picasso

Jaguar attacking a horse: Henri Rousseau

The muse inspiring the poet: Henri Rousseau

Mirror above a washstand: Pierre Bonnard

The King’s wife: Paul Gauguin

Her name was Vairaumati: Paul Gauguin

Gathering fruit: Paul Gauguin

What, are you jealous: Paul Gauguin

The ford: Paul Gauguin

Landscape at Auvers after the rain: Van Gogh

The red vineyard at Arles: Van Gogh

The prison courtyard: Van Gogh

 

Bolshoi Theatre is a very well known Russian icon with the Bolshoi Theatre Company having been founded in 1776. The company operates in various cities in Russia and the building in Moscow itself is very well known and is even featured in the Russian One Hundred Ruble note. I was staying very near the Theatre and used the opportunity to watch a short performance. This was on one of the side stages and not the main one and was an orchestra. It lasted for about 40 minutes and was quite enjoyable.

 

The State Tretyakov Gallery has the best collection of Russian fine art and was started by a merchant from Moscow by name of Pavel Mikhailovich Tretyakov in 1856. Having seen some works by Nicholas Roerich in the gallery in Mysore; I was quite keen to visit this collection of Russian art. I found that many of the works from the 19th Century had very relevant and interesting social themes; especially those by an artist named Vasily Grigorevich Perov. Interestingly, the Gallery did not have many works from the Soviet era; not sure why.

 

This painting is titled “The appearance of Christ to the people” by the artist Alexander Ivanov. It is a huge work measuring 5.40m x 7.50m and this was the most important work in the life of Ivanov. It took him twenty years to finish this painting and he died within a few months of finishing the painting. John the Baptist is the central figure in the painting (wearing an animal skin) and points to the Christ who appears in the distance. Ivanov has painted himself into the portrait as the wanderer with a staff, sitting right in front of John the Baptist. The artist made several small works, probably as studies for the painting, and these were also exhibited at the museum.

 

This piece by Konstantin Flavitsky is titled Princess Tarakanova and is based on the story of a young woman named Tarakanova from Italy, who claimed a right to the Russian throne. Catherine II lured her to Russia and imprisoned her in Petropavlovskaya fortress in a cell that was known to flood every time the waters in the nearby river rose. The painting shows a desperate Tarakanova standing up on her cot as the flood waters have reached almost up to the bed. There is no evidence of whether Tarakanova was indeed killed like this but the painting caused a lot of public outcry and Ivanov was later forced to announce that he had made up the subject from a novel.

I liked this painting (The Unequal Marriage by Vasily Pukirev) quite a lot and it seems it was received with a lot of enthusiasm when it was painted as it did not stick to conventional subjects used till then, but instead chose to show a social issue that was common at that time – old, rich men marrying young women who are unwilling, but are forced into the marriage. A young man, supposedly, the girl’s lover, looks on from the back.

 

Painting titled “Easter Procession in a Village” by VG Perov. I quote from the description provided by the museum: “In the early 1860s, Perov created a series of anticlerical paintings. Its main theme was the clergy that forgot their duty. A bored and drunken procession carrying icons and gonfalons is passing by the viewer. The peasants with half-closed eyes are wading towards a precipice as if they were blind. Their leader, a drunken priest, who has crushed an Easter egg underfoot, has abandoned them. Not far from him we see a woman holding an icon whose image is effaced. Farther off there is a poor man carrying an icon upside down. But the All-Seeing eye on the gonfalon is there as a reminder that these people won’t escape the Supreme Judgment. The dull landscape, dissonant movements of the participants in the procession and bleak dawn emphasise the ugliness of the whole scene. The painting was removed from an exhibition of the Society for the Encouragement of Artists in St Petersburg on grounds of it being an “immoral” work. Its reproduction in the press was banned, and P.M. Tretyakov was advised not to show it to visitors.”

 

This painting titled “Troika” by Perov was the one that touched me the most. It was painted in 1865 and in those days, peasants used to migrate to the city in search of work, because of extreme poverty and their children used to work as apprentices. Perov used three such children as his models in this painting. The boy in the middle was living with his mother and he had no father; they were very poor as well. Shortly after modelling for the painting, the boy contracted some disease and died. The mother was distraught and heart broken and she sold all her belongings and took the meagre amount she had to Perov and asked for him to sell the painting to her as she wanted to be able to see her boy whenever she wanted. By that time, Perov had finished the painting and it was displayed at the The Tretyakov Gallery. Perov took the mother to the gallery and showed her painting.

Funeral Procession: VG Perov

 

Yet another work by Perov that speaks about the social issues of the time: “Tea-party at Mytishchi near Moscow”. I quote from the description provided by the museum: “Ordinary on the face of it, the scene of tea drinking under the shade of a tree is transformed by Perov into an accusatory picture that deals with an acute social issue. The table turned cornerwise to the viewer with a samovar on it halves the small canvas, which is almost square-sized. The world of the painting’s characters also breaks into two parts: on one side, we see a fat, well-fed priest, on the other side – a poor old man and a boy. The impression of social drama is reinforced by the Order of the Hero of the Crimean War on the old man’s chest. At the same time, the idyllic background landscape and the circular rhythm of the painting’s composition embody the idea that justice and harmony lost should be restored in the world.”

 

This painting is titled “Landscape Steppe” and is by an artist named Arkhip Kuindzhi. This work was so very different from the other paintings and I was curious to note that it was painted between 1890 and 1895. I am not sure whether there were many paintings in this style at that time. I was reminded of a photo by Andreas Gursky, which is among the most expensive photos ever sold, having fetched a sum of $4.3 Million in 2011.

 

This work titled “There is Life Everywhere” by Nikolai Yaroshenko was yet another image that I liked a lot. I quote from the description provided by the museum: “ The topic of social contradictions was one of the most important for Yaroshenko. This painting was inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s story What Men Live By. The artist originally planned to title his work as Where There Is Love, There Is God. Prisoners have huddled up together at the window of a convict car to feed pigeons. The painting’s idea was to show humanity maintained in inhuman conditions. The central group reminds the Holy Family. Like many other Wanderers, Yaroshenko used parallels with the Gospel to enhance the social resonance of his canvas. “This speaks so much to the heart,” said Leo Tolstoy about this painting.”

 

This painting “Christ in the Wilderness” by Ivan Kramskoi immediately catches the eye because of the very desolate nature. I quote from the description provided by the museum: “The artist looks upon the Sacred history in the context of the issues of his day. Gospel themes and images served at the time as a way to express ideas of what was good and just. Christ’s personality was understood as the “perfect human being” embodiment; the life journey of a progressive person was a reflection of His earthly path. Kramskoi wrote: “…There is a moment in the life of every human being, who is created in the image of God however slightly or greatly, when they are in a quandary – whether to take the ruble and deny the Lord or not to yield a single step to the evil.” The painting took on a topical nature thanks to the resemblance of Christ’s pose on Kramskoi’s canvas to the pose of Fyodor Dostoevsky in the famous portrait by V.G. Perov. Both paintings were made in 1872 and both were shown at the very same travelling exhibition. Eternal, panhuman problems are the central theme of the painting.”

 

This is a huge work titled “The Princess of a Dream” by an artist named Mikhail Vrubel. It measures 7.5m x 14m and was painted in 1896 with the help of two others. It speaks about a love affair between Geoffroy Rudel and Princess Melisandre. Supposedly, Rudel heard about the beauty of the Princess and travelled across the sea to meet her. Unfortunately, he contracted some illness during his voyage and died at the time of their first meeting and with this, the Princess became a nun. I am not sure whether this is fiction or true story. I was not very exposed to Russian art in the past and Tretyakov definitely set that right. It was quite a beautiful experience.

Moscow has very wide roads and walking around the city itself is a pleasure. I was staying close to the Red Square and many buildings around that area were very impressive. There is some more to see in Moscow and two days were not enough. I hope to be back one day.

 

Montmartre has always had a romantic kind of appeal given its association with famous artists such as Van Gogh, Picasso etc. and because of its association with events like Paris Commune. I had not been able to visit Montmartre during any of my previous visits to Paris and this time, when the opportunity presented itself, I grabbed it and set off with my camera. The first sight that greets one as we get out of the metro is the famous Moulin Rouge. This iconic nightclub, which has even made it into celluloid, has been around for more than a hundred years and is often a prime destination for the partying crowd.

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A short walk takes one to the Montmartre Cemetery. As odd as it may sound, I find it kind of peaceful to visit cemeteries, especially the old ones. One gets a strange feeling when looking at the resting places of the famous and the powerful, the dead. As Spring had not yet started in Paris, there were no leaves on the trees and that added to the ambience with the shadows and bare lines.

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Montmartre Cemetery is quite large and was started in 1825 when Paris started running out of space to bury their dead. The government banned burying of corpses within the city limits and Montmartre, which was outside the city limits and also had abandoned quarries, proved to be the right setting for a cemetery. It has now become a place to visit in the map of Montmartre because of the numerous celebrities buried there like Emile Zola, Alexandre Dumas, Edgar Degas, Adolphe Sax etc. There was a detailed map available in the cemetery which showed the tombs of the famous people buried there but it was a bit confusing and I could not locate Degas.

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The next stop on my agenda was the Dali Museum though I was not very sure of how it might turn out to be as I suspected that there was an overtly commercial angle to it. The day was quite sunny and Montmartre presented interesting sights as one passed by.

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Vincent Van Gogh lived in this house in Rue Lepic with his brother Theo from 1886 to 1888. Theo owned this house and continued living here even after Vincent moved on.

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Montmartre once had thirty two functional windmills, of which only two have survived. These can be found at “Moulin de la Galette” and this was a popular subject for many artists like Van Gogh, Renoir, Corot etc.

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The Dali Museum, though small, turned out to be quite a treasure trove. There were many sketches done by Dali, sculptures etc. “The Persistence of Memory” inspired sculptures were quite fantastic. Dali had done many sketches based on Alice in Wonderland and also a famous comic strip.

This work “Retrospective Bust of a Woman” was presented in Paris in 1933 with an actual baguette (which was then eaten by Picasso’s dog!) and it evoked mixed reactions as such objects as bread and corn had never appeared in art works before. Ants are an oft-used motif in Dali’s work, signifying decay.

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The Space Elephant is a sculpture motivated by Dali’s work “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” and the “Cosmic Rhinocerous” represents Dali’s fascination with objects that have a hard exterior and a soft interior.

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Alice in Wonderland was another favourite subject for Dali and here are a series of sketches that he did based on Lewis Carrolls’ book. In the sculpture, Alice is shown as a young woman, which kind of contrasts with the innocence that Carroll accorded to Alice, in his story.

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There were many works based on The Persistence of Memory and I liked these the best.

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Next was a work that showed Dali’s interest in Anamorphosis. On one hand, it is the painting of an insect done in great detail but the work becomes complete when one looks at the cylindrical mirror where one can see the self-portrait of Dali, shown as a clown.

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These are some sketches that Dali made for a Parisian publisher in 1971 based on some old engravings. These have been modified into Dali’s own style with grotesque figures.

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This is a work in a classic style but replete with Dalinian symbols like a watch, an egg, two ants and the divided torso.

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In 1942, Dali produced a backdrop “The Ship Aground” which was inspired by Shakespear’s Romeo and Juliet and its tory of impossible love. Dali tries to show a world torn between love and hate in the colours blue and red, emphasising the duality of passion.

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Roman poet Ovid, wrote a series of three books titled “The Art of Love” in the year 2 CE. This was supposed to be a series of instructions to men on how to attract women. Supposedly, this work so enraged Emperor Augustus that he exiled Ovid (censorship and moral policing seems to have been active even then). In any case, the work excited Dali and he produced these etchings based on it.

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“Woman Aflame” is famous work by Dali and I quote this interpretation from what was pasted alongside the work: “This work combines two of Dali’s obsessions: fire and a feminine figure with drawers. The flames coming from her back represent the hidden intensity of subconscious desire, while the drawers express the mystery of hidden secrets. Open drawers point to the private, subconscious of the human being. The flames are supported by crutches “generally used to support fragile soft structures” according to Dali. This faceless woman devoured by flames is the symbol of the mystery of femininity.”

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Next on my list was a visit to the Sacré-Coeur Basilica in the heart of Montmartre. Construction of this church started in 1875 (soon after the Paris Commune was crushed) and finished in 1914. It was consecrated in 1919 after the First World War finished. To many of the free spirited inhabitants of Montmartre, this church represented the last nail in the coffin of their freedom and they viewed this as an imposition of the will of the state.

En route to the church, I passed through the famous Place du Tertre, which was a haunt of artists in the heydays of Montmartre. Even today, one can see some artists with their tripods and easels offering to make portraits of tourists and selling their work.

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Maybe because I had an impression of Sacré-Coeur as a symbol of oppression, the first image I captured of the church was this – more like a picture from the sets of a horror film!

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The Basilica is quite impressive and it also offered some interesting views of Paris as it stands on a hilltop. Photography was not allowed inside the church and so I couldn’t capture any images there. It looked pretty much like other European Catholic churches with plush interiors. Entrance to the bell tower was closed and that was a pity as that would have offered some more interesting views of Paris.

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After you get down from hill, a few minutes’ walk takes you to the “I Love You” wall. This is set up in a small garden and has an area of about 430 sq. ft. The phrase “I Love You” is written all over the wall in about 250 languages. I could spot Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada, Hindi etc. on the wall. This seemed to be a must visit spot for the romantically inclined as I could find many people expressing their love in front of the wall.

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When you wander through Montmartre, you see plenty of buildings that were associated with artists – like this one which claims to have been frequented by Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet etc.

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One of the quaint little delights in Montmartre is the Le Clos Montmartre a tiny vineyard bang in the centre of town spread across an area of about 16,000 sq. ft. The produce from this vine yard (about 1000 bottles of wine) is auctioned off during the annual harvest festival and the proceeds used for development projects in the area. Supposedly, this vineyard was started in 1933 to stop real estate developers from grabbing the space – I wish we had similar projects in Bangalore.

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Just across the street from the vineyard is the oldest cabaret in Montmartre – “Au Lapin Agile”. It was started in 1860 under the name “Au rendez-vous des voleurs”. In 1875, artist Andre Gill painted the image of a rabbit jumping out of a saucepan and people started calling the place “Le Lapin à Gill”, meaning “Gill’s rabbit”, which later on evolved to the present name. This was also a popular haunt for artists, anarchists, students, writers etc. Picasso even made a painting titled “Au Lapin Agile”.

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My last visit was Musee de Montmartre, which was the oldest house in Montmartre, having been constructed in the middle of the 17th century. Many artists lived here, including Suzanne Valadon and Renoir had painted in the gardens of the house. There were many works of art in the museum with many works from Valadon.

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Montmartre still retains a bit of its former anarchist spirit with graffiti to be seen in many areas.

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Although I had spent a good many hours around Montmartre, I hadn’t covered all the sights. However, I could sense the spirit of Montmartre, that still lingers there – a heady mixture of art and anarchy. One could only wonder how it would have been in the twentieth century when Montmartre had its day in the sun. Just roaming around the place was great fun and I am sure I will be back here one day. For now, dusk had sent into Montmartre.

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“Arbeit macht frei” is a German expression which means “Work brings freedom”. This phrase originated from the title of a novel written by Loernz Diefenbach in 1873 and in the novel, the protagonist is a fraudster and gambler who finds the path of righteousness through proper employment. An expression which can be deemed to be mildly motivating – except when you see it written over the gate of the Auschwitz concentration camp when you walk in.

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It chilled me to the bone when I read it; what struck me was not the absurdity or even the cruelty in having such a slogan at the entrance to a concentration camp where innocent people where brought in just because fate played a cruel trick on them, in the accident of birth called religion. It was a kind of prescient moment for me, it made me understand how extreme cruelty can be inflicted on fellow human beings by people deemed normal. Work! Work on improving production; work on arriving at a “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Problem”. It was just work – how to kill efficiently; how many deaths per day will help achieve the target of extermination of a race by a certain date; what can be done to ensure that a race does not survive by ensuring that its women are sterile; how much can medical science advance if it had access to enough humans whose life did not matter and hence any type of experiment could be conducted on them – it was just work. The trick was to change the complexion of the terrible acts from what it really was to “work” and the Nazis knew this and that is why they posted “Arbeit macht frei” at the entrance to all their concentration camps. And it worked; for as George Steiner said: “We know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning”.

Auschwitz, where approximately 1.3 million people were killed in about 3 years – that is an average of little over a thousand a day; Auschwitz, the most infamous of the Nazi concentration turned extermination camps; Auschwitz, where Anne Frank was an inmate (though she did not die there); Auschwitz, which Viktor Frankl and Ellie Wiesel survived and wrote about; Auschwitz, a timeless reminder of the depths to which man can fall!

Auschwitz (situated near the Polish town of Oswiecim) was started as a concentration camp in 1940 and it was converted to an extermination camp in 1941. The first gas chamber was constructed here in 1941 and after the Nazis became convinced that gas chambers using the poison Zyklon B were an efficient method for mass killing, the camp was extended to include Birkenau which had four gas chambers. Over 1.3 million people are estimated to have been killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau with about 90% of them being Jews. The whole area was about 40 square kilometres with a plant for producing synthetic rubber also included in this space. Most of the tour is in the Auschwitz I camp as that is what has survived, including the gas chamber. In Birkenau (Auschwitz II) there are only a few barracks left and the gas chambers were demolished by the Nazis towards the end of the war in a desperate attempt to destroy the evidence of their heinous crimes.

We visited Auschwitz on a cold, bleak day and perhaps that was fitting to the mood of what we were about to see. The guide led us through the gates of Auschwitz and we could see a row of neatly arranged brick buildings, which looked quite peaceful and even serene. These were the barracks that prisoners were housed in.

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The visit started with a building that had a gruesome exhibit – an urn containing human ashes found in the camp.

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There were many photographs also exhibited in that building.

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The photographs were taken by the Nazis to help with documentation and were mostly about prisoners arriving at Birkenau, awaiting selection etc. A passage from Dr. Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning” came to my mind about how he himself stood in such a line upon arrival at Auschwitz. The prisoners were asked to go to the right or left. Although they did not know it at that time, those sent to the left ended up in a gas chamber within a couple of hours and seventy five percent of the prisoners that arrived were sent straight to the gas chambers. The Nazis wanted all those that could not work to be killed immediately, without having the need to “waste” resources on them. Don’t be appalled, just think of it as a demonstration of efficiency!

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This image really broke my heart. If you take it out of the context, this might look like children walking in a village or out on a picnic; but this a photo of kids walking to their death. Young and innocent and yet…

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Some prisoners were chosen to help with disposing the dead bodies and they were called the “Sonderkommando”. Of course, those chosen had no option but to be part of this group and some of them tried to take photographs clandestinely to show the world the reality of Auschwitz. Such an image is shown below, of mass burning of dead bodies.

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The poison gas, Zyklon B, used in the gas chambers came in these canisters. Zyklon was used as a chemical weapon by Germany in World War I and was banned later. A chemist named Bruno Tesch and others made some modifications to use this as an effective killing agent this was named as. Zyklon B. Tesch was executed in 1946 for his role in this war crime as he knew that Zyklon B was being used to kill people.

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Prisoners were brought into the camps in railroad wagons with 80 to 100 prisoners crammed into each wagon. Mostly, they had to leave their homes with very short notice and had just a few pitiful belongings with them. Even these were taken from them when they arrived at the camp and today we can see these heaped up, as exhibits.

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Some of the stuff was used for war efforts. For instance, prisoners were shaved before they entered the gas chamber and the hair was used to make vests for soldiers. Gold teeth were pulled out and the gold reused. Of course, what use do dead men have for gold!

Initially, the Nazis used to photograph each prisoner and keep records but they stopped this when the volumes increased as Hitler moved toward the Final Solution of killing all Jews in Europe. This meant that a huge portion of the people that were killed in Auschwitz were never recorded as having arrived there as they went straight to the gas chambers. Later on, the Nazis claimed that they had no idea about these “missing Jews”, in an effort to escape punishment for this criminal act.

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Facilities for the prisoners

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The sadistic and ruthless criminals from among the prisoners were chosen to be guards called “Capos” and the Capos enjoyed some special privileges including better accommodation.

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This is Block 10 where experiments were conducted on women to see how quickly sterilization could be done. The Nazis planned to rid Europe of Slavs after the Jews were exterminated as the pure Aryan race could then thrive and have enough space for itself. The Slav population at the time was estimated to be 100 million people and they realized that killing so many people was no easy task and so they needed a multi-pronged approach. One of the ideas was to sterilize women so that there would be no progeny. Here also, volumes posed a challenge and in Block 10, they conducted experiments on the inmates to develop efficient means for sterilization. Doctors who had taken the Hippocratic Oath were the ones conducting such experiments! Such is the power of hate peddling, the power of creating an “other” – the others are not humans anymore and thus do not deserve to be treated as such and of course, the others are at fault.

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Every day, the prisoners had to assemble in a particular area where their count was taken. If there was anyone missing, the count was taken again and again till the authorities were satisfied and the prisoners had to wait in the open till then. The guide told us that this exercise went on for 9 to 10 hours at times. Many prisoners did not even have shoes and their clothing was totally and completely inadequate to meet the winter conditions when the mercury dropped well below zero. As I stood there on that slightly cold day, I couldn’t even imagine standing barefooted in the mud in those pitiful robes at minus twenty degree Celsius for hours on end. Those are hardships that can’t even be imagined.

If a prisoner was missing, his or her cell mates were taken to task, tortured or killed. The idea was to make everyone suffer if one escaped. This was a cunning method to ensure that the prisoners themselves would try to stop anyone from even thinking of escape. In such conditions as in Auschwitz, the veneer of civilization drops and man starts to focus only on the primordial instinct of survival. Dr. Frankl has mentioned about how the all pervasive thought that was foremost in every prisoner’s mind, was about food as they never had enough to eat. They were fed a coffee kind of liquid in the morning, a limited quantity of very thin soup in the afternoon and some black bread in the evening. With this diet, they were expected to do heavy labour such as creating roads, buildings etc.

Our guide mentioned that the average life expectancy of a prisoner in Auschwitz was three months! In his book “Night” Elie Wiesel speaks about how a fellow inmate advised him to forget about looking after his father and try to focus on his own survival – caring for the father being a burden in that case. Such indignity can’t even be imagined by people like us and thus the horrors of Auschwitz can never be fully understood by those that weren’t there.

Facing the square for assembly are the gallows where prisoners found guilty of serious offences were hanged.

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There were tall barbed wire fences and guard posts everywhere. Anyone approaching within a certain distance of the fence was summarily shot. Yet, some prisoners did manage to escape, such is the indomitable nature of the human spirit.

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Right next to the gas chamber is another gallows. This was where Rudolf Hoss, the longest serving Commandant of Auschwitz was hanged in 1946. He was the one who perfected the use of Zyklon B and proudly spoke about how they were able to kill 2,000 people in one hour. He repented before his death and in a farewell letter to his son he wrote: “Learn to think and judge for yourself, responsibly. Don’t accept everything without criticism and as absolutely true… The biggest mistake of my life was that I believed everything faithfully which came from the top, and I didn’t dare to have the least bit of doubt about the truth of that which was presented to me. … In all your undertakings, don’t just let your mind speak, but listen above all to the voice in your heart.” Sage advice and valid even today, maybe more so today!

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Prisoners were led to the gas chambers straight from the train. They were told they were being taken for delousing and disinfecting and since this was standard practice in camps, nobody suspected anything else and they went along peacefully. I read somewhere that an SS guard had mentioned that it was easier and faster to get people to obey if you asked them politely instead of shouting at them. Once inside the gas chamber, the prisoners all stripped down and the chamber even had fake showers. The reality sunk in only when the gas started coming out of the faucets but then, it was too late.

Entry to the gas chamber

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Plan of the chamber

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Probably, this is what many a prisoner saw as the last sight of outside world before being sealed in the chamber

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Inside the chamber

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Furnaces for burning bodies

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Birkenau is slightly far from Auschwitz and we had to catch a bus to get there. The entrance to Birkenau has a familiar look from the scenes in “Schindler’s List”.

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Prisoners were brought from various parts of Europe in wagons such as these and each wagon was filled with 80-100 prisoners.

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There were four gas chambers in Birkenau and most of the people were killed here as Auschwitz I had only one gas chamber. However, there are only a few barracks to be seen here today as the Nazis tried to destroy the evidence of mass killing and dynamited all the gas chambers. The fields look very green now but the guide said that when the camp was functional, there was not a single blade of grass as the camp was overcrowded and there were people everywhere.

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Ruins of the gas chambers

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Ash from burning bodies were dumped into ponds like these

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In 1967, a monument was erected in Birkenau to serve as a reminder and warning to mankind about the horrors of Auschwitz.

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The terrible despair and sense of dejection that one feels at Auschwitz is far beyond description; my writing skills are totally inadequate to the task and I have not been able to capture even a small percentage of that horror. As one wanders through the camp the question that keeps coming up is “How”. How could a people have been so cruel? How could a people have supported such an atrocity? How could normal, respectable individuals support such inhuman crimes? How could a whole nation be brainwashed to support the bigotry of a few? I think these are very important questions and these questions need to be reflected upon by peoples of various countries even now.

This is what we have to be aware of when we see people’s minds being filled with hate for the “other” (as in India, for instance). This is what authoritarian, oppressive regimes will do and we have enough examples from the past – Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pol Pot etc. This is what we have to guard against when we see signs of such regimes, be it in any part of the world. During the tour, our guide said: “We preserve this as a museum because the world should know that this happened and this can happen in any country, at any time”.

This is why history is important. It teaches us to be on our guard and recognize the signs of Fascism and oppression. This is why George Santayana’s quote is displayed at the entrance to the first barrack in Auschwitz: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

This is why Auschwitz should not be forgotten…

 

 

At the Albertina Museum in Vienna, I came across an exhibition of the works of an artist, whom I had not heard of earlier. Of course, that only points to my lack of familiarity with the art world and Keith Haring – the artist featured – is pretty famous for his work. The show was titled “Alphabet” and it was so named as Haring had developed a pictorial “alphabet” for his work. He was of the view that art is for the public and wanted everyone to understand what he was drawing about. For him, art was a political activity and that was very evident from his work.

Haring was born in Pennsylvania in 1958 and lived but a short time before his death in 1990 from AIDS related complications. Yet, within these 32 years, he achieved great fame as an artist and produced a huge number of drawings and paintings. He had his first solo exhibition when he was just 20 and had more than 500 exhibitions between 1982 and 1989.

He was always bothered about the treatment meted out to minorities and people who were “different” – he himself was gay – and his work reflected this. He was a bit ambivalent in his approach towards money and did not like the idea of making art so that they could be hung in galleries with the viewership limited to a few; however, he considered it important to earn enough money as well. He was very critical of capitalism and its impact and was well aware of its connection to racism and suppression. War horrified him and he was also against nuclear reactors as he was aware of the horrors of the Three Mile nuclear accident, which occurred near his hometown in 1979.

Legendary artist Andy Warhol was a close friend of Haring’s and he considered Warhol as someone who had beaten capitalism at its own game. Yet, he also considered Warhol as the consummate form of the artist as a businessman and that was not a position he appreciated. Haring tried to move away from being an artist for the elite and wanted to create art for the public. Mickey Mouse was one of Haring’s oft used motifs and his ambivalent position towards Andy Warhol might have been the reason for this painting.

 

At times, he collaborated with other artists and one of the first pieces in the exhibition was a miniature Statue of Liberty which he had made in collaboration with the artist LA-II (Angel Oritz). This work is considered to be Haring’s criticism of the American promise of equal opportunity for all – take note of the black bulb instead of the torch.

 

There were about 100 works in the exhibition and good many of those are reproduced in these pages.

 

He tried to develop his own pictorial language, which he wanted everyone to understand. He borrowed some of the common motifs like the Egyptian god Anubis and the Golden Calf. He also developed his own symbols like the dog, the radiant baby etc. The meaning of these symbols depended on the context in which they appeared. For instance, the dog could be a symbol of justice or protector but could also be an attacker. In his own words: “The dogs really were representational of human and animal. In different combinations they were about the difference between human power and the power of animal instinct. It all came back to the ideas I learned from semiotics and the stuff from William S Burroughs – different juxtapositions would make different meanings.” In the image below, we see the dog attacking a street artist and there is blood all around.

 

The Golden Calf is generally understood to represent idol worship and Haring used it to show mass hysteria and manipulation. I felt that Haring might have had a field day as an artist if he were to live in present day India.

 

He borrowed the happy Porky Pig from Looney Tunes and used it as a reference to consumerist society and the growing alienation from nature. In 1978, he wrote alongside a drawing: “Everyone knows where meat comes from, it comes from the store”.

 

The flying saucer was a symbol that Haring used to depict the other – those outside the “normal” contours of the society – and he considered that these others could strengthen and empower people and society.

 

He tried to communicate through imagery that could be more easily understood and produced a huge amount of drawings. He drew on paper, plastic sheets, tarpaulins; anything that he could lay his hands on. Most of it was about celebrating life, empathizing with the sidelined and the marginalized, protesting against oppression, consumerism, mass culture etc. Good many of this was in the public space, on walls etc.

 

In 1980, John Lennon was shot dead and Haring responded to Lennon’s death with the image of a man with a hole in the middle. In Haring’s own words: “Actually, this image of a man with a hole in his stomach came after I heard of John Lennon’s assassination…I woke up the next morning with this image in my head…and I always associated that image with the death of John Lennon”. This image may also be taken to symbolize the emptiness within modern man.

 

In his early days, he also tried the abstract language as shown in the painting below.

 

However, he soon abandoned this because: “The abstract paintings would not make any sense if they were painted in public space. It was first when I started to draw images which could be read as signs that I went into public space. Because these paintings made sense in the streets – all people, all languages could read them. After studying the theory of communication, information and drawing and how meaning speaks through signs and how this language – because that is what it is – works – I chose a primitive code.”

 

The radiant baby was another of Haring’s most used symbols. He considered babies were always connected with positivity. He said: “Babies represent the possibility of the future, the understanding of perfection, how perfect we could be. There is nothing negative about a baby, ever. The reason that the ‘baby’ has become my logo or signature it is the purest and most positive experience of human existence.” This statement immediately brought to my mind a passage I had read in the autobiography of Elie Wiesel titled “Night”. Wiesel was a survivor of Auschwitz and in the book he talks about how he witnessed live babies being thrown into fire by the Nazis, at the concentration camp. The contrast between how artists like Haring viewed and valued human life and how the fanaticism makes one such values was a telling point.

 

A light bulb as a motif for ideas.

Torture

 

A self-portrait

Haring was against organized religion and in his work, crosses were used by people to commit to murder or people lost their lives on them. “You can only help and encourage people to live for themselves. The most evil people are the people who pretend to have answers. The fundamentalist Christians, all dogmatic ‘control religions’ are evil. The original ideas are good. But they are so convoluted and changed that only a skeleton of good intentions is left.”

 

This painting has a mistake which turned out to be a major hit. When Haring was painting this on a wall, he made a mistake in painting the first eye too far to one side and realized that he was going to be left with a lot of unexplainable empty space. To get over the problem, he painted a third eye – his only intention was to fill up the space. He was later amused to hear about people interpreting the third eye as Haring’s allusion to surveillance, consciousness etc. He had meant nothing of the sort – a classic case of a work going beyond the creator once he or she was done with it.

In addition to the barking and the biting dog, Haring also used a form like that of Anubis. According to Egyptian mythology, Anubis (the dog-headed god) was entrusted with weighing of the heart during the judgment of the dead; thus controlling the fate of the dead person. Here is an image which alludes to the dance of death and how everyone is equal before death.

 

Haring considered his work to be political. He says: “Most of my political concerns and social concerns came from my life experiences. Partly being born in the late 1950s and growing up in the 60s and sort of being around that counter culture but not being able to participate. Definitely being very affected by that and being at an age at the time when I think I was most impressionable, like seeing the Vietnam War when I was ten years old, seeing race riots in television and reading Life magazine.”

 

Sometimes, human shapes are depicted with dotted bodies. This can indicate otherness – skin colour, homosexuality, illness such as AIDS etc.

 

For this painting, I found the note provided by the curator to be quite interesting. “The caterpillar is the actual feeding stage of the butterfly and has to shed its skin several times before achieving its final size. Only after metamorphosis does it transform into the butterfly, whose beauty solely serves the purpose of procreation and the fades. In Haring’s art the caterpillar thus stands for both transformation and metamorphosis and for greed and a craving for food, which is why in some of his works it is depicted as a monster. With a computer replacing its head, the caterpillar turns into a technological ogre. In Haring’s art computers and robots describe the prevalent fear of new technologies, the space age, Silicon Valley, and the potential control of machines over humans. As early as 1978 Haring gave much thought to the subject of computers and to what they mean for our daily lives: “The silicon computer chip has become the new life form. Eventually the only worth of man will be to service and serve the computer. Are we there? In a lot of ways we are.””. To me, it was amazing that he had thought of this man-machine conflict so long back.

 

The Golden Calf is replaced with the red monkey to warn about mass infatuation and hysteria.

 

Towards the end of his life, Haring was sure he was going to contract AIDS as several of his partners had died because of the disease. His art also reflected this preoccupation and danger of the monster.

 

In this work, a deadly monster is shown as grabbing its victims while offering its orifices in deadly invitation.

 

Between 1980 and 1985, Keith Haring started making drawing on the unused billboards in the subway. Such advertisement boards were covered with black paper and he drew with chalk on the black paper. He is believed to have made between 5,000 to 10,000 such drawings but most of these have been lost. This was an illegal activity and was he would have been arrested if caught making the drawing and so he had to work very quickly to avoid getting caught. He considered this as the perfect laboratory for him to experiment on the ideas he was thinking of. Soon, the public started noticing these drawings and started to carry them home as collectibles. This prompted Haring to stop this activity as he wanted his work to be with the public, and be accessible to them, than be in collections.

 

I have generally not been to appreciate this type of art, which looks quite undeveloped and primitive, almost like a child’s drawing. Yet, Keith Haring captivated me; maybe because of his stance and politics in his works, maybe because of what I could sense of him as an individual by seeing his art; maybe I was amazed that such type of art could earn such international acclaim in such a short time. I am not sure, but the fact remains that I spent a good amount of time looking at his work and felt good to know of Keith Haring, his life and art.

Yet another version of the Kochi  Muziris Biennale is around the corner and I suddenly remembered that I had not finished the note I had started writing about KMB 2014. So, here goes…

I had really enjoyed Kochi Muziris Biennale 2012 and it was with barely suppressed excitement that I waited for KMB 2014 to begin. The lead up to the event was very well done with lot of functions happening in Kochi. Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend any of those as I am based at Bangalore but one got all the information through FaceBook. This time, there wasn’t any controversy about whether we should have KMB at all and I was quite pleased with that. To me, this was an indication of the success of KMB 2012 and the public’s interest in the event. Hats off to Bose Krishnamurthy and Riyas Komu, the main organisers of KMB!

The show started on December 12, like last time and went on till March 29, 2015. The theme of the event this time was “Whorled Explorations”. The curatorial note spoke about how the show was about bringing in various elements connected with exploration and travel. So, maritime trade, conquests, mathematics, navigation, colonialism, globalization etc. have all found their way into KMB 2014. A few sentences from the curatorial note struck a chord in me: “…. like exaggerated extensions to gestures we make when we try to see or understand something. We either go close to it or move away from it in space, to see it clearly; we also reflect back or forth in time to understand the present. Whorled Explorations draws upon this act of deliberation, across axes of time and space to interlace the bygone with the imminent, the terrestrial with the celestial.”

I arrived at Kochi on the morning of December 29th and went straight to Aspinwall House, the main venue of KMB 2014. There cannot be a better location for the KMB than Fort Kochi with its wonderful buildings like Aspinwall House, Pepper House etc. These are just great locations that really add character to the event. You can really feel the difference when you go to Durbar Hall (which is also a venue of KMB), which is more like a conventional gallery; it just doesn’t have the character or ambience of locations like Aspinwall House or Pepper House.

In a repeat of KMB 2012, I could not understand the first installation at all. These were minimalist poems from an American poet – Aram Saroyan – but it was well beyond me. Actually, I was reminded of the candy “m&m” when I saw one of the “poems”.

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Next was a work by Mona Hatoum. When I saw her name in the exhibition catalogue, I had great expectations as I had seen one of her videos (Measures of Distance) at an exhibition at Bangalore and that had left quite an impression on me. The installation at KMB consisted of light bulbs laid out in a circle with a wires crossing each other and snaking out to the bulbs. While there was an element of visual attractiveness around the work, I could not connect with it. It somehow reminded me of Diwali lights!

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Next one that caught my eye was a series of 90 charcoal drawings by Madhusudhanan titled “Logic of Disapperance”. These show some historical figures with connections to some incidents as well and were quite interesting. I particularly liked an image with Lenin’s head the body being made up of the skeleton of a Trojan Horse kind of structure. With the military helmet thrown in, it looked to me to represent Stalin sneaking into power on the back of the Revolution led by Lenin and Trotsky. Interesting aside: In the book “Ten days that shook the world” written by American journalist and Communist John Reed who witnessed the Russian Revolution firsthand, Stalin’s name comes up only twice and that too as passing reference.

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It seems the word “journey” owes its origin to “a day’s travel” and there was a work by David Horvitz on this theme. This was a video installation running simultaneously on two mobile phones titled “The Distance of a Day”. The artist created this work by shooting a sunrise in Maldives while his mother shot the sunset in California at precisely the same time. So, at the same instant, sun is rising and setting and being watched by two people separated by distance but united by a bond. To me, this felt like the expression of how what is perceived as truth is a function of location. A sunrise is the truth for me at a given location whereas at the same time, it is the sunset that is the truth for someone else at a different location. If we abstract physical location to locations of the mind, the work achieves an even more interesting dimension.

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On the grounds of Aspinwall House, there was a large sized installation called “Backbone” by Shanthamani Muddiah. This was a long spinal column made of cement and cinder. It seems the artist likes work with charcoal quite a lot because of its connection with remnants of prehistoric times. While it was a interesting sight, I could not connect with the work.

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Janine Antoni’s video installation “Touch” was riveting and I sat in the room and watched it for quite some time. The artist is from Bahamas and she had tied a tightrope in the seashore in front of her house and in the video, she is seen walking on the rope. The rope is interestingly positioned and so it looks as if the artist is walking on the horizon. I felt it connected well with the theme of KMB and man’s desire to reach the horizon which was forever slipping away. On another level, I felt that the work was about our desire to conquer what is essentially an imaginary entity.

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It was in a pensive mood after watching our desire to reach the imaginary that I stepped into the next room, which had another video installation titled “Standard Time” by Mark Formanek. In this video, workers continuously modified wood pieces to accurately reflect the current time. This meant that they were at it each minute as time ticked by; seemingly an exercise in futility. The video was recorded over 24 hours and as I watched it go along with its absurd sequence, I was reminded of the rat race that most of us are engaged in.

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Next was a room with paintings on large pieces of fabric that looked like the sails of ships. This was a work by Lavanya Mani titled “Travellers Tales – Blueprints.” The paintings and the shape of the fabric brought forth thoughts of voyages across seas. The link between colonialism and textiles was quite evident in this work.

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The theme of man’s progress or journey continues on to the next work that caught my interest, a triptych titled “Building a Home; Exploring the World” by Sudhir Patwardhan. The first panel shows the start of migration, perhaps the first long journey, as man started on his trek out of Africa. The second panel has images of Pieter Bruegel’s “Tower of Babel” and Vladimir Tatlin’s “Monument to the Third International” reproduced in a coastal landscape resembling Kochi. This was a depiction of man’s deepfelt desire to build and grow and the third panel shows the continued expansion and extension of the journey as we move to conquer space.

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Artist Nikhil Chopra held a live performance in one of the rooms of Aspinwall House. The performance lasted 50 hours and was about a colonial character named Black Pearl being incarcerated in a cell. He draws the sights he sees from his cell on the walls of the cell. The work was titled “Le Perle Noire: Le Marais”. I did not see the live performance but the cell, with its paintings, was available as an exhibit. I cannot clearly explain what I felt when standing in that room but it was somehow captivating.

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There was a very large (79 ft long) painting by NS Harsha titled “Punarapi Jananam Punarapi Maranam” depicting the universe as one continuous entity. The work itself was beautifully executed with very many interesting details. This one was a bit above me and I could not get a grasp of it.

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“Sea Power” is a work by Hew Locke that explores early stage of globalisation and its connectivity with sea voyages. While the images made out of plastic beads were interesting to look at, I did not feel any connect with the work.

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Often what we see on the outside is not what is inside and there was a wonderful work like this titled “Background Story: Endless Xishan Mountain Scenery” by Xu Bing. This was an arrangement of old newspapers, twigs, straw etc., which when viewed through a translucent screen with back-lighting, replicated a landscape painting by Chinese artist Xu Ben who lived in the Ming Dynasty period. It was a painstakingly created work and fills one with awe. I guess one could read a whole lot of ‘internal-external” aspects into this work.

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Africa is a continent with a lot of failed dreams; independence from colonial masters filled people with hope but slowly, these dreams faded as despot after despot ruled the newly independent countries. I have travelled to many such countries in Africa and have had conversations on related subjects with people there. Hence the work titled “Independence Disillusionment” by Kader Attia was something I could understand very easily. These 26 paintings are reproductions of postage stamps that were released around the time these countries gained independence. The dreams may have been Utopian but they were good dreams to have; but unfortunately, these countries wallow in significant poverty and even civil wars as the rulers continue from where the colonialists had left off.

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Artist Namboodiri is a familiar name from his illustrations that accompanied stories and novels in Mathrubhumi Weekly and I was pleasantly surprised to see a series of drawings he had created specifically for KMB, titled “Vara/Thira”. These were scenes of Kochi, its streets, houses etc.

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Prashant Pandey’s work “Artha” is a huge diamond made up of 10,000 discarded slides that have blood drawn from various people including the artist. According to the artist, the work talks about the sacrifices made in the course of the colonial quest for wealth. To me, it immediately brought to mind the tragedy of “blood diamonds’.

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Punaloor Rajan had photographed many of the public figures in Kerala for a long time and these images and videos form an archive of sorts. Several photographs from this image had been bunched together and exhibited under the title “Perpetual Stills”. It was interesting to see the images of our familiar figures, many of whom have already passed on from this world.

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In one of the rooms a tent had been pitched – it was much like a tent used by travelling traders. This work by Francesco Clemente was titled “Pepper Tent” and was made of fabric painted by Clemente. The images inside the tent connect with trading and travel and to be inside the tent was some sort of an interesting experience. It was quite colourful and visually pleasing.

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Pepper House, as always, is a delightful place with a quaint nice café thrown in. In the courtyard, was a sculpture by NS Harsha titled “Matter”. Sculpture is often quite beyond me and this one was no different. It blended in well with the surroundings.

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Pepper House was also witness to a performance-installation wherein a huge bell was lifted out of the backwaters and installed as a leaky fountain. This was Gigi Scaria’s work titled “Chronicle of the Shores Foretold”. The bell is a symbol of European colonialisation and it was installed with the help of the traditional labourers of Beypore – the khalasis. To me, this was kind of a depiction that colonization was possible only with the help of the locals and it seemed apt to have such an installation in Kochi which had a pliant King who bowed down before the British. However, the bell itself was leaking and so the idea of colonization was never a fully secure idea, as we have seen in history.

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I happened to look at the bell from a room in the first floor and it was an interesting sight from there. The frame reminded of the paintings of Murali Cheeroth.

dsc_0233waSumakshi Singh had created an installation titled “In, Between the Pages’ which is a 70 feet long maze made of scrolls hanging down. Viewed from a particular angle, these split images come together to form two pages inspired by a Sanskrit treatise on astronomy titled Surya Siddhanta and illustrations from a Dutch East India company manual, Hortus Malabaricus. It was quite interesting to walk through the maze as it felt as if one was being part of or inside the image itself.

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A very interesting installation that I found in Durbar Hall was Julian Charriere’s “We Are All Astronauts”. The artist collected mineral samples from all recognized countries of the world and made sandpaper from these samples. He then rubbed the surface of 13 found globes with this sandpaper till all the markings had been erased from the globes. The globes were then suspended over a table on which one can see the dust that resulted from the scraping. Does it mean that international interaction (scraping) will cause boundaries (markings) to fall away? Does it mean that there are no real boundaries even now because of the interplay of civilization and cultures? I found this to be quite an interesting installation.

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In one the other art galleries in Fort Kochi, there was an installation by Murali Cheeroth. It clearly brings out the challenge of the times we live in and I felt it was a piece of art that needs to be seen and understood by everyone in India. Murali had copied Martin Niemoller’s famous poem and inscribed it on glass panels.

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One of the joys that go hand-in-hand with KMB is the chance to see various art works that spring up on the walls in and around Fort Kochi. That is a treat by itself and this time also there were many beautiful pieces of art that were quite interesting.

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Yet another version of Biennale had gone by and it was definitely an improvement over the first one. This is indeed a wonderful event for Kerala and even the whole of India. Hope the 2016 version will keep the show moving ahead.

Once again, I found myself in Miami with a free week-end and as has been my practice of late, I checked out the possibilities, hopped into a rental car and drove off to Key West. I had booked a hotel in a town called Marathon, which is about 2 hours’ drive from Miami. From Marathon, Key West is about an hour’s drive. In retrospect, it would have been better to stay at Key West itself but I couldn’t find an appropriate hotel as I was late in booking.

Key West is the southernmost town in continental US and is only 90 km away from Cuba. Naturally, there has been a lot of Cuban influence here and some early entrepreneurs had successfully run cigar rolling factories in the town. To me however, the more important aspect of Key West was that it was the home of Ernest Hemingway for about 10 years from 1931. Hemingway arrived at Key West when he was 28, along with this second wife, Pauline. He stayed here till 1940 and then he just jumped across the ocean and moved to Cuba and he also married his third wife Martha Gellhorn, at that time. Caribbean lifestyle is etched into Hemingway’s works and Hemingway himself was a great angler. His love for fishing was well catered to, during his life at Key West and he also bought the boat “Pilar’ which remained a love of his life, at this time.

A comfortable drive in the morning took me to Key West and the day was looking sunny even though there were a couple of clouds in the horizon. I had been told that the sunset, as watched from the western end of the town, called Mallory Square was a grand spectacle and was looking forward to that. The first port of call was, of course, the Hemingway House. It is a two storey house set in a one acre, lush green compound. The house itself is built in the Spanish Colonial style and was built in 1851 – Pauline’s Uncle Gus gifted it to the couple in 1931.

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There was a free guided tour going on when I arrived. The guide seemed to be very passionate about the house and she was full of energy and enthusiasm in explaining various aspects about the house. She mentioned that almost seventy percent of all of Hemingway’s works were written in this house and I suspect that was a case of her getting carried away by her enthusiasm. What I read in the internet was that he had done the final editing of “A Farewell to Arms” while he stayed at Key West and also worked on novels like “Death in the Afternoon”, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” etc. The only novel he wrote fully in the 1930s was “To Have and Have Not” and it is a novel based on Key West and its people. The house is filled with photographs and all rooms were filled with photographs.

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The rooms upstairs had photographs reminiscent of Hemingway’s time in Paris and trips to Africa. The guide explained that his first safari was once again sponsored by Uncle Gus at a tremendous cost of US Dollars Twenty Five Thousand, which must have been a huge amount of money in those days. The master bed room was nice and airy with a large bed.

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In one of the rooms there is a photograph of a lady named Agnes von Kurowski who was a nurse with American Red Cross and was serving in Milan during World War I. Hemingway was an ambulance driver with the Red Cross and after he suffered some serious wounds, he was admitted into the same hospital where Agnes was a nurse. They soon fell in love and planned to get married. However, later on she changed her mind and married someone else. Supposedly, she inspired the character Catherine Barkley in “A Farewell to Arms”.

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From the master bed room, one stepped out onto a beautiful, wide verandah that ran all around the house. The Key West lighthouse is located just across the street and could be seen from the house.

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Hemingway had a writing room or office set-up above the coach house and had also built a walkway from the verandah to the writing room. It seems he followed a rigourous work schedule of writing each day from six in the morning till twelve in the afternoon. Rest of the day was spent in socialising and recreation. These days, the walkway has been removed and the writing room is accessed through a separate staircase.

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The grounds of the house are lush green and very tastefully laid out. There is also a large swimming pool, which was supposedly the first pool in the area and constructed at a huge cost. Hemingway was apparently very superstitious and believed that six toed cats brought him luck (seems this was a common belief among sailors of the time). He kept up a large population of cats around the house and you can see them even today.

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While I had read many of his novels, I had not come across To Have and Have Not. I found a copy of the book in the gift shop and thought it befitting that I should buy that novel from Key West itself. I spent quite some time roaming around the house and noticed that it seemed to attract a good number of visitors.

After leaving Hemingway’s house, I wandered around the town, taking in the sights. Streets of Key West are lined with nice buildings that are decidedly Caribbean in appearance. It has a special charm and adds a wonderful feel to the place.

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There is a small marker to denote the Southernmost point and it shows that Cuba is only 90 miles away. This meant that smugglers used this place as a favourite arrival point into continental US.

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By this time, I was getting tired of all the walking and decided to pay a visit to another establishment that was connected with Hemingway – a bar named Sloppy Joe’s. It belonged to a person named Joe Russell, who was Hemingway’s friend. Hemingway spent quite a lot of time in this bar and it seems his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, met him here for the first time. Sloppy Joe’s has changed hands since but they keep the history alive with Hemingway look-alike contests that are conducted each year. There are many photographs of Hemingway inside the bar and it seems like a popular place with lot of people coming in. I spent about an hour there thinking about Hemingway and his life and books; of course, a nice Martini helped me along in the process.

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By this time, we were approaching sunset and I strolled over to Mallory Square. The place was getting crowded with people that had come to watch the sun go down. There were some clouds in the sky which were threatening to dampen the whole affair. Boats were going out to the sea and there was also lot of other activity in Mallory Square with entertainers and artists displaying their wares. I got a few pictures as the sun approached the horizon but then it started drizzling rather strongly and the sun got blotted out.

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the-journey

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As I drove back to Marathon, I reflected on the day. I felt the visit to Key West and Hemingway’s house had connected me more with his work. In the past, I had been to the Caribbean a few times and had seen the island lifestyle but somehow, I had not connected well with Hemingway’s writing about fishing – possibly because it does not appeal to me as a sport. Yet, I think I understand him a bit more now. As I sat down to dinner, I opened To Have and Have Not and started on the first page.

 

 1 October 2016

 

Last month, I found myself in Miami with a couple of days to spare. I was looking for something different apart from the beaches and entertainment parks of Florida and so, I decided to drive to the west coast of Florida and I chanced upon a town called Punta Gorda and dropped anchor there. Punta Gorda is a nice, small town right on the bay. About an hour’s drive from Punta Gorda is Sarasota and while looking through the images in TripAdvisor, a building in Sarasota caught my eye as it looked kind of out-of-place in Florida and I decided to go there. Further showed this to be the Ringling Museum complex and I set out in the morning on a beautiful sunny day.

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I was not much aware of Ringling before the trip though I had heard of Barnum Bailey Circus. John Ringling was born into a family of seven brothers and a sister in 1866 in Iowa. He along with four of his brothers started the Ringling Circus and then they acquired the Barnum Baily Circus to become the largest travelling circus in the US and they called it the Greatest Show on Earth. John turned out to be the most famous of the five brothers and also ventured into areas like real estate development and eventually became one of the richest men in the world at the time. So, when I drove there, I was expecting to see the house of a rich circus man and spend some time in a leisurely manner.

The house stands on 66 acres of land and is built in the Venetian Gothic style and is named “Cà d’Zan”, which means House of John in Venetian dialect. The grounds are beautiful with many wonderful trees and small ponds.

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There are three main attractions to visit – the Circus Museum, Cà d’Zan and the Museum of Art. I started with the Circus Museum. First off, what struck my eye were a series of posters that were quite nostalgic. The Circus museum took me right back to my childhood when the circus was a rare occurrence and a visit was always a keenly awaited event. I think I have only been to the circus twice – it was a different world of amazing, hair raising acts and exotic animals. Of course, at that time, I was too young to realise that life for those performers was totally unlike the glittering visual they presented. Of course, in today’s world where visual treats and images are dime a dozen, the circus has lost out. It is no longer possible to hold interest and cause excitement and amazement through such acts as trapeze or motorbike riding within a globe or jeep jumping or a parade of wild animals. To me, the circus represented an era gone by. Such were the thoughts that flashed through my mind as I walked through the museum. The third face in the poster below is John Ringling.

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Perhaps it was this foresight that the circus would soon die out which caused the artists and sculptor Howard Tibbals to create a miniature replica of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which was the largest circus in the world at the time. This replica is available for view in the Circus Museum and is indeed a grand sight. Till then, I had no idea of the scale of size of this circus. I was thinking of something slightly bigger than the “Gemini Circus”, the whole of which fitted into 3 or 4 trucks. What I saw at the Tibbals exhibit was a circus that owned trains so that it could transport itself to various palces. The “Big Top” or the performance tent had three rings, four stages, a hippodrome track and the show lasted two and a half hours with about 800 artists participating and it could seat 15,000 people! The show was so large that it owned trains that were used to transport all the material, animals and people. The logistics behind the whole show must have been amazing. I read that the Big Top consisted of six centre poles, seventy four quarter poles, one hundred and twenty two sidewall poles, five hundred and fifty stakes and twenty six thousand yards of canvas and what was amazing was that they could erect this tent within four hours!

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There is also an exhibition of some of the real objects that were connected to the show like a human cannon, various cages used to transport animals and the private rail coach (named Wisconsin) that the Ringlings used when they travelled along with the circus.

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Cà d’Zan was finished in 1927 and looks quite beautiful. It sights right on the sea and there are steps leading to the water. The interior is quite rich and ornate with all the conveniences that the time provided.

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After a leisurely lunch at the café, I strolled across to the Museum of Art. Till then, I was thinking of the whole affair as the house of a very rich circus man who had an interest in art and nothing much beyond that. However, I soon got to know that this tale had some other interesting angles. John Ringling and is wife Mable wanted to build an art gallery to build up an awareness of art and culture in the people of the locality. It was not meant to be a museum for the viewing pleasure of a few rich people but was meant to bring the masters to be available for the public. The museum was set up with twenty one galleries and John Ringling gifted this museum with more than 400 art pieces along with an endowment of $1.2 Million to the State of Florida upon his death in 1936. There were works from masters like Peter Paul Rubens, Paolo Veronese, Diego Velazquez, Giambattista Tiepolo, Lunas Cranach the Elder etc. In the courtyard is a 19th century replica of Michelangelo’s David.

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Peter Paul Rubens: Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek

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Lunas Cranach the Elder: Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg as Saint Jerome

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Piero di Cosimo: Building of a Palace

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Paulo Veronese: Rest on the flight into Egypt

 

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Franceso del Cairo: Judith with the head of Holofernes

 

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Antonio de Bellis: The flaying of Marsyas by Apollo

 

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Jan Davidsz de Heem: Still Life with Parrots

 

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Peter Paul Rubens: Flight of Lot and his family from Sodom

 

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Peter Paul Rubens and Osias Beert: Pausias and Glycera

 

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Giambattista Tiepolo: Glory and Magnanimity of Princes

 

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Robert Henri: Salome

 

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John Ringling was one of the richest men in the Roaring Twenties and like many of his peers, he too thought that the good times would continue for ever. However that was not to be and the Great Depression arrived. Ringling suffered huge financial losses and he lost his wife Mable also in 1929. When John died in 1936, the man who was once the one of the world’s richest men had a princely sum of $311 in the bank! What struck me was that he had managed to fight his creditors for many years and hold on to his house and the art museum with its priceless works and finally willed it to the state so that all could benefit from it. John Ringling, obviously, was no ordinary circus tycoon.

 

3 January 2016

Chithra Santhe is an annual exhibition of paintings organised by the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath. However, it is no ordinary exhibition; it is not held in any air-conditioned gallery but is an open air event held in a location created by blocking off the Kumar Krupa Road! You can see paintings everywhere you look and the variety is just incredible. You can find anything from abstract to Tanjore paintings and murals. Most people are likely to find a piece of art that attracts them and also fits their wallet.

I had visited the event four years back and had the good fortune to be at Bangalore while the event was on this time. However, we had not factored in the growth and so, were a bit short on time. While walking around, I heard an announcement that about 1,300 to 1,500 artists are participating in this year’s event. The crowd had also grown as compared to our last visit and I was very happy to see that even if it meant constant jostling and shouldering to cut through.

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Most of the paintings were well crafted with most of the subjects being traditional. There were only very few works that could be classified as modern art as most paintings were focused on being pleasing to the eye. I do, however, feel that such events are very important in developing a culture of appreciation for the arts. The Chitrakala Parishath deserves a huge round of applause for organising the event. This is the 13th year of the Santhe and I would recommend this as a “must visit” event.

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It has been 46 years since a great novel shook up Malayalam literature – so much so that many critics consider that year as the start of a new era in the genre of Malayalam novel. Yes, I am talking about OV Vijayan’s Khasakkinte Ithihaasam. I was in my late teens when I first read the book and I dismissed it offhand as a book with a defeatist attitude. That was my first brush with the Ithihaasam. Then, over the years, something drew me back to it; there was something magical and surreal about it, which kept making me go back to it. Slowly, over my many re-readings, I somehow fell in love with the book and my appreciation of Vijayan grew each time I took up the book.

Vijayan’s imaginary Khasak was modelled after a real village named Thasrak. This village is just about 15 kms from my hometown Chittur, yet I had never visited the place. Vijayan visited and lived in Thasrak for a short time in 1957 and his novel is based on the lore and people of Thasrak. As I planned a trip to Chittur this time, I decided that I must visit Thasrak.

In preparation, I took up the Ithihaasam once again for yet another reading.  As always, it was provided a different reading experience this time too and new gems popped out of the book and delighted me.  The blue veins of Maimuna continued to excite me, the plight of Kuttaadan Poosaary continued to amuse, the fate of Allaapicha Mollaakka continued to haunt, Ravi’s feather like existence was still beyond me, Chandumuthu with her repeated question tugged at some corner of the heart but what stood out for me this time was the scene of Allaapicha Mollaakka making Kunhaamina promise not to join the new school, which he deemed as competition to him. He first makes her take an oath in the name of Sheikh Thangal, the most revered Islamic figure in Khasak’s lore and then, “to seal all holes”, the Mollaakka asks Kunhaamina to swear by Mariamma, a Hindu Goddess. It is expressed beautifully in the novel in Vijayan’s fantastic language.

For many a year, Thasrak and its role in Malayalam literature was forgotten by the authorities. A couple of years ago, they woke up and decided that something ought to be done. They laid siege to the Njattupura (a small building used to store paddy) that Vijayan had lived in when he was in Thasrak. In the novel, Ravi has his school in the Njattupura. The building itself is said to be more than a hundred years old and thankfully, the mud building is preserved as such. However, an eyesore of a gate has been erected and the courtyard paved with interlocking tiles. The net effect of such changes is to subtract from the overall experience and not to enhance it.

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We met an elderly gentleman named Majeed there who takes care of the Njattupura and shows visitors around the place. He told us that he was four years old when Vijayan visited Thasrak and he told us that almost every one of the characters have passed away, except Maimuna who he said, is in Coimbatore. Going by her age in the novel, she must be pretty old now. He was quite helpful and talked about how the times have changed. He said that Vijayan used to sit in the verandah and sketch. I asked him how he felt of a novel being written about his village and his friends and relatives, especially as I had read that some of the locals had been some reservations on how some people were characterised in the novel. His response was that in any story, some embellishments are to be expected and the Ithihaasam should also be viewed from that perspective.

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He took us to the Arabikkulam (a pond) where Sheikh Thangal, the legendary military commander of Khasak, had thrown the heads of his enemies after beheading them. It is completely covered with weeds now and needs to be restored.

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Right next to the pond is the new mosque. We were told that Allaapicha Mollaakka’s mosque had stood at this very site earlier.

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We walked back to the Njattupura and we could see some of the famed palm trees of Khasaak in the distance. Legend has it that the trees bent down so that the tappers didn’t have to climb up the trees to tap them.

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A visit to Thasrak is a fulfilling experience overall, if you have read the novel. The authorities, as always, could have done a much better job at preserving the ambience of a location that is so important to Malayalam. As I left Thasrak, the two images that stuck in my mind were the closed door of the Njattupura and a headless palm tree. They reminded me of the irreparable loss we have suffered as a society – never again would there be a novel like Khasaakkinte Ithihaasam and even more sadly, never again would we have that innocence in our society wherein a Muslim priest makes his student take an oath in the name of a Hindu Goddess or vice versa.

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Note: Khasakkinte Ithihaasam has been translated into English by OV Vijayan himself and is available under the title “The Legends of Khasak”.