Colourless green flowers sleep furiously

It makes no difference
If it’s sweet or hot
Just give that rhythm
Everything you’ve got

Duke Ellington

I’m no Duke Ellington. I only potter about with images. But I asked myself whether it matters that a flower smells or looks great? Can’t I just give the texture everything that I’ve got? I didn’t want to use an AI assistant for this experiment, just my own eyes and hands (that was the reason I chose a title which recalls Noam Chomsky’s famous counter-example to an early version of AI). How much texture could I tease out of a photo?

The simplest test might be to take a white flower and check out how well it does in black and white. I’m pretty happy with the monochrome version that you see above. I think I managed to get its rough texture better in B&W than I could in the coloured version. When you are working to get more dynamic range in the whites of a coloured image, you begin to affect the colour balance. That’s a whole lot of extra variables to track. Perhaps that is what an AI assistant can help you with, if it has the proper controls.

This second example seemed to be a little simpler even that the previous photo. The starting colour was almost monochrome, different shades of green. But not really. Hidden in the green are reds and blues. So, trying to enhance the texture in coloured version again produced colour artifacts which I had to then compensate. Very tedious, and, more importantly, limiting. There are some adjustments in texture space which I could not compensate in colour space (perhaps a better navigation tool in colour space is needed). The B&W is not only easier to deal with, you can do more fiddly adjustments in both the light and dark parts without worrying about colour.

I was happy doing this myself. AI assisted photo editors are becoming more common these days, and they seem to produce magical images at the push of a button. It is good to figure out a human way of doing the same things, because you can then do things that these assistants are not yet trained to do. Staying a little ahead of your tools is always a good thing.

And the featured photo? I will leave you to compare it with its coloured version, which I’d posted long back.

Open doors

The architecture of the Golden Temple is an embodiment of the core beliefs of Sikhism. Guru Nanak (1469 CE — 1539 CE) preached an open religion with the revolutionary doctrine of the absolute equality of all people, and engaged with the common themes within the two religions he knew, namely Hinduism and Islam. The architectural realization of these teachings in Gurudwaras is three fold. First, there are gates from all the principal directions leading in to the temple, signifying that there are many roads to this belief. Second, since these paths are always open, there are elaborate gateways but no doors (see the three images in the slideshow). And finally, the equality of all people is given concrete shape in the langar, a common space that absolutely anyone can come to for food at any time of the day, with everyone sitting together.

These teachings eventually brought about conflict with the emperor in Delhi, Jahangir. The fifth of the ten gurus was executed by the order of the emperor. The sixth guru’s first act was to embrace militarism through a notion which he called Miri-Piri, a combination of spiritualism and temporal authority. The physical embodiment of this philosophy resulted in the building of the Akal Takht, the seat of Sikh religious authority, facing the Golden Temple (shown in the featured photo). The next five Gurus spent their lives fighting the Mughal empire, and turning the Sikhs into a military force. As the Mughal power waned, this force was ready to carve out its own empire, as it did with Ranjit Singh (1780 CE — 1839 CE). Imperial power is on show in the marble and gold of the Golden Temple, and in the elaborate structures of the gateways.

Two views of the Golden Temple

Marble inlay work in Harmandir Sahib

The founding of Amritsar is counted from 1577 CE, the date of the digging of the lake, Amrit Sarovar, at the behest of Guru Ram Das, the fourth Sikh Guru. A few years later Harmandir Sahib was first constructed in the lake, connected by a single causeway. His successor, Guru Arjun, placed a copy of the Adi Granth in it in the year 1604 CE. During the years when the Sikhs were in conflict with the Mughals the temple was destroyed and rebuilt many times. The current structure comes from 1830 CE, when the Khalsa emperor, Ranjit Singh, had the marble and gilded copper temple built.

I’d expected to spend a long time in the area, trying to figure out the best light and angles. But I was lucky with the light. Sunset, and perhaps sunrise, are the best light for photography, and my first visit happened to be at this hour. I missed one thing, the daily journey of the Granth Sahib from the Akal Takht to the Harmandir Sahib and back. So there is a reason for me to go back.

Winter’s tales

You don’t have to be standing in this desolate landscape at the roof of the world to be cold this winter. Bleak winter weather has had the western Himalayas in its grip since early in January. The first heavy snowfall attracted Pakistani tourists into a deathtrap in the town of Murree. Things have not been so bad in India, but trekkers reported difficulties in completing their routes. The effects can be felt in Mumbai too. Instead of being comfortable in shorts and a tee, I’m now forced to wear track pants at home. The nearby hill town of Mahabaleshwar twice reported freezing temperatures: zero Celsius. Amazing at an altitude of 1.3 kilometers in the tropics.

Instead of moaning about not being able to visit the Himalayas yet again, I looked for murder mysteries set in extreme cold. I’ve had a surfeit of Nordic noir recently. So when I saw a book which was touted as a worthy successor to Gorky Park, I picked it up. Disappointing, I thought, when I was part of the way through. But the story recalled the Leningrad premiere of Shostakovich’s Symphony 7 during the siege of Leningrad. So I finished the rest of the book with Shostakovich playing in my ear buds, and an unending supply of tea at hand. Not exactly a replacement for a walk in the mountains, but what can you do in an Omicron winter? I would have preferred a re-read of John Grimwood’s Moskva. Maybe I can still do it.

This would have been a good year to sit through long concerts of classical music. This is the music season in Mumbai, but the pandemic has put a stop to that. I’ve only heard one live performance in the last two years; that was by Ustad Rashid Khan earlier this year. It looks like Omicron will burn itself out soon, and perhaps there will be time for some music before spring sets in and I finally get to an altitude of 5 kilometers above where I sit. But one doesn’t know. The La Nina winter will shift the west Pacific typhoon nursery westwards, so the east coast of Asia will probably have more rain and storms. Will it affect the weather in the mountains?

The circles of my life

One exposure lasts about a hundredth of a second. Maybe ten times longer. Perhaps ten times shorter. But the objects that are captured by the motion of electrons in the sensor may have lasted a century. That is 300,000,000,000 times longer, give or take a zero. Does it matter if the thing you are photographing is a thousand years old instead? Or only a decade old? Just give or take a zero at the end of those 11 others.

I saw a bubble released by a child, undulating across the sky, trying to achieve that perfect spherical shape in the short life time that it had. Was its shape more important than the shimmer of colour across its surface?

A scatter of painted oil drums outside an artist’s studio was a work in progress. Did I steal his work, misappropriate it by taking a photo before he could pin down his own vision? Would it have been morally different if I’d waited a few years and then taken a photograph which imposed my vision over his?

Catherine Opie said that sunsets and sunrises are the biggest cliches in photography. Ansel Adams said that a good photo is knowing where to stand. Henri Cartier-Bresson said sharpness is a bourgeois concept. David Lynch said that no matter what you mean, everyone is going to get something different from it.

Is an eclipse the shadow of one sphere passing over another? Or is it a rabbit being swallowed by a snake? In your imagination does it matter which is true? Nothing is written in stone, is it?

These photos were taken over three years and six thousand kilometers: a fraction of my life. They share one quality. They are inanimate circular objects which seemed beautiful to me at the time I took the photos. Now I wonder what I captured, the object, or the state of my mind?

Cheesecake

“Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar,” Freud is said to have said. In the same way, this attractive cheesecake is only cheesecake.

I took this photo two weeks ago, when we met a friend in a deserted restaurant for lunch. I’m happy that this Lebanese restaurant has continued to produce good food even after two years of scarce diners. I saw that there was only one other table occupied for lunch on a weekend. The omicron wave was just beginning then, on the first Sunday of January. “This won’t be good for business,” I thought to myself.

I scanned the menu and the rose flavoured cheesecake seemed to be the most interesting dessert. Not only was the flavour interesting, the cake was also light enough to round off a long lunch. The brass plate, the rosy dessert, the light, everything looked like a photo would come out well. So for once I remembered to take a photo before digging into the food.

For the last two weeks the wave of infections, now tens of thousands of new cases daily in the city, has kept people at home. Traffic has thinned out, shops and restaurants barely have customers. The number of new infections may be levelling off, but the number of deaths has just started increasing; it takes two weeks or more for critical cases to resolve. Hospitalization rates have been low, since the city is almost fully vaccinated. So one expects that deaths will be much lower than in previous waves. That is what the vaccine was meant to do. Nice to know that it is working.

Bling

Merriam-Webster defines bling \ˈbliŋ\ first as flashy jewelry worn especially as an indication of wealth or status, but adds on the broader definition as expensive and ostentatious possessions. We didn’t visit Amritsar to look for things which you can find in any market in any city, but you could not miss the bling. I suppose some people would think that covering a building with gold foil is bling, but we shall excuse the excesses of the past. It is the everyday bling of the middle class that I find especially fascinating. Not just to you and me, but also to a slew of brilliant film makers and cinematographers [1, 2, 3] who defined the look of post-Bollywood-blockbuster 21st century movies.

We’d planned one morning’s walk through the city to take us through parts where we could do some shopping. These streets were lined with shops selling clothes and jewellery. I followed The Family into one which was recommended. After some sensory overload, I took to viewing the street through my phone. Not only easier on the confused eyes, but also fodder for a blog post. It left me free to wonder about the relationship between bling and kitsch (apart from the interesting fact that a person called Kitsch acted in a movie called Bling).

Logic day

There are two rules for success:

(1) never tell others everything you know

Anonymous

January 14 is World Logic Day. According to the UNESCO, “This date was chosen in honour of two great logicians of the twentieth century: Kurt Gödel and Alfred Tarski. Gödel, who died on 14 January 1978, established the incompleteness theorem, which transformed the study of logic in the twentieth century. Tarski, who was born on 14 January 1901, developed theories which interacted with those of Gödel.” There seems to be a single photo of Gödel (Goedel) and Tarski together; the image above has been derived.

Isn’t everyone a solipsist?

Old lady in a letter to Russell

I will not write about how Tarski’s undefinability theorem extends the incompleteness theorem due to Gödel. I do not want to belabour that point that these theorems imply that every well-defined logical system, even if they are automated using computers, are limited in what they can achieve. Nor shall I mention Gödel’s discovery of a loophole in the constitution of the US which could be used to turn the country legally into a fascist dictatorship. Moreover, I don’t plan to write even a single word about how logicians tried to examine the foundations of mathematics in the 20th century and discovered beasts like the paradox which goes by the name of Betrand Russell, from which came to the theorems of Gödel and Tarsky. Instead I just want to remind you that self-referential statements lead to chaos and fun.

One has to avoid cliches like the plague after all.

Narrow lanes, wide doors

We lost ourselves in the narrow lanes that lead northwest from the Golden Temple. It is said that Guru Arjun Singh’s favourite spot to view the temple from was a place called Darshani Deori. What he saw in the late 16th century CE would have been very different. It would be another two hundred and fifty years before the present marble and gold building of the Harmandir Sahib would come to be. Nor was Amritsar then a walled city, with houses built up cheek by jowl, and the sky over Darshani Deori reduced to slivers visible over narrow lanes. He would perhaps have looked over open slopes to a small temple in the middle of a lake built by his predecessor, Guru Ramdas.

We’d been looking for the Gurudwara Guru ka Mahal. It marks a spot full of Sikh history. Guru Ramdas, the fourth of the Gurus, stayed in this place while the lake of Amrit Sarovar was dug, so laying the foundation of Amritsar. Guru Arjun, his successor, was married at this place, as was Guru Hargobind, the sixth of the line. Two of Guru Hargobind’s sons, Baba Atal Rai and Guru Teg Bahadur, who became the ninth of the Gurus, were born here. The storied Gurudwara was a little hard to find, until we spotted a sign pointing to a narrow alley which was an approach road.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, in the time of Ranjit Singh’s empire and the later British takeover, when Amritsar became a walled city, this neighbourhood must have been desirable.The building at the head of the lane was festooned with electrical wires slung every which way, but had an impressive arched doorway, with an immense ceremonial door which had a minor door for everyday use set into it. Above this entranceway was a grand, but decaying, edifice of intricately carved wood. In the post-Mughal, pre-British times, this was a style which seems to have been adopted widely in western India. If I was an art historian, I would have been able to notice the difference between the woodwork of the Khalsa Raj and the Marathas. Sadly, I don’t have those skills.

As I walked down the lane to the Gurudwara, I stopped at every door, taking photos. Right outside the Gurudwara was a later building (you see a part of it in the featured image, and more of it in the gallery above). This had more of a British influence in its construction, but still retained an elaborate wooden balcony. I wished I had more time to spend in this neighbourhood. Maybe another year.

Inside a fig

The edible fig (Ficus carica) was among the first domesticated plants. Their remains, older than 11,000 years, from Jordan tell us that they were used before any of the grains that gave us farming. Between then and 2500 years ago, when Aristotle and Theophrastus opened up figs and described them, many others must have looked carefully at the inside of a fig. So my photos must be the most recent in a long human history of marveling at a thing that we mistakenly call a fruit.

It is an inflorescence, a bunch of flowers turned inside out. When you cut it open you see a pale colored wall, the syconium, on the outside. From this a bunch of female flowers grow inwards. In the photos you can see their long stems attached to the syconium wall. The ovaries of the flower have an organ called the style, some are long, the others short. The long-styled ones (yellow in the photos, shown selectively coloured in the photo on the right, above) can be pollinated to produce fruit. The opening that you always see in the outer wall of the syconium allows entry to fig wasps (Blastophaga psenes) which do the pollination.

About 60 million years ago, just before the time that India had begun to break away from the super-continent of Gondwanaland, these wasps had begun to evolve an unique lifestyle. They began to breed inside the short-styled flowers. So now each inflorescence is home to these wasps. Pollinating wasps come and go, leaving the mother and males to breed inside. A new generation is raised by the time the fruits are ripe, and the parents die inside and are digested by the plant’s enzymes. You won’t see any wasp parts in my photos.

A nice thing about food photography is that you can eat what you photographed. The fig was ripe, juicy, and sweet. The slightly crunchy parts were the achenes, the true fruits.

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