As we begin to plan our winter travel in the middle of a patchwork of restrictions and uncertainty, I came to photos of a Winter Solstice trip to a little known attraction in Gujarat. The small town of Kapadvanj, 65 Kms due east of Ahmedabad, was once an important link in the textile trade out of Cambay port, and specialized in mirror-work embroidered cloth. During its period of prosperity, the Dawoodi Bohra community built wonderful wooden buildings. Although most of them were converted to hybrid material over the centuries, a few still stand. We spent two days in this place, entranced by the exuberance of the local architecture.
Kapadvanj is a town of verticals; small plots were built over as prosperity increased, and the only way to go was up. Most buildings are now three or four floors high. The exteriors are idiosyncratic mixtures of styles: beautiful traditional woodwork coexists with intricately carved pseudo-Corinthian capitals. Inside, the layout is a vertical development of the traditional internal courtyard surrounded by corridors leading to rooms. The courtyard becomes a tall atrium, lined with galleries connecting rooms across the opening. Steep wooden stairs connect floors. Most families left for Mumbai in the 19th century CE, and maintain their holdings sporadically. I saw beautifully painted facades, cheek by jowl with others which have fallen into near ruin (the earthquake of 2001 did its bit for entropy). Sometime, I should go back to look at the place more closely.
Earth colours against stark white strike you as you approach any Bhutanese Dzong. The brightness of local red earth is the dominant colour, with touches of yellow ocher, contrasting with the pigment from ground black earth. After weeks of travel, separated by a year, I didn’t tire of photographing the same repeated motifs, painstakingly done by hand.
Bhutan is in the middle of large changes. When I traveled through, the monarchy had just imposed democracy on the country. One year I traveled just after a “practice” election, the next, just after a real election. During the monarchy giverning power seemed to be in the hands of bureaucrats, although, in some way that was not clear to me, dzongs played a role. Now the balance of power has shifted.
The old elite was educated in India, traveled to India frequently, reminisced about their times in Kolkata and Mumbai. The businessmen that we met were less enchanted. They were modernists in their country, and set themselves apart from the monks and the bureaucrats in every small way that they could. Even a decade back, when I traveled, the distance between the people in towns and villages was growing. The dynamics will have accelerated by now. It will be interesting to go back to see what has changed. The wooden doors have to be renewed every decade or so, and new artisans come to paint them. How fast will their tools and pigments evolve?
At 6 in the evening, the center of Mumbai was like a ghost of itself. In the blue hour, I caught Flora fountain looking like a funeral, a few mourners standing and gawking. Niece Moja has taken the day off from counseling and spent the day with us. After her partner finished an interview (you can carry your work with you when it moves online) we drove out for a coffee and this funeral. The fountain was built in the 1860s, when the British built Fort George was finally demolished, at its former Church Gate. The antennas belong to the Central Telegraph Office. Ugly constructions like that belong to the 1960s.
Another change is coming now. The new Mumbai metro will have a station at the fountain. Metro stations everywhere have the same construction: either a single cylinder with platforms on two sides, or two cylinders passing a central platform. When that hole in the ground is filled up, this station will have a central platform, and a first underground level for customer services. The city is slowly changing. Niece Moja is one of the small fraction of millennial Mumbaikars who actually knows south Mumbai; she spent her college years haunting cafes and restaurants here.
But even she was surprised that a desirable property just next to the fountain had been entirely taken over by Zara. The blaze of lights from its open doors showed us a cyclist and a person parking a scooter. I don’t think the shop’s had a customer in a while. Mumbai has split so visibly into the two cities that it always was: the service providers who must brave the horrible lengthened commute every day to open shops which the service takers are too afraid to go into. The corona virus will become endemic, we have to learn to live with it. Care, not fear, is the future.
Walking about South Mumbai on Sunday, I came to a taxi rank. These are slow days for taxis, and Sundays must be even slower. One of the drivers had left his taxi to lie down in the closed doorway of the Bank of Baroda. He looked quite relaxed as he read something on his mobile. Sitting in a car seat for hours must be quite tiring, and he looked content to be where he was.
While framing the man, I realized that the building whose steps he was lying on was rather well known. This is the Lakshmi Insurance building, which was constructed in 1938 for a company of that name. The company was owned by Lala Lajpatrai (a famous freedom fighter), Motilal Nehru (the father of India’s first prime minister) and Pandit Shantaram (a famous actor and film producer). It is an iconic Mumbai Art Deco structure, designed by the Bombay architectural firm of Master, Sathe, and Butha, with an 18 foot bronze statue of Lakshmi on top of what once was a clock tower. I decided to include the Art Deco gate into the photo.
Who invented the office building? Frank Lloyd Wright was the first answer that Google mama gave me. I know better than to take the word of this mamu too seriously. A little probing, and then it seemed to be a toss up between East India House and The Admiralty, both built in London in 1726 CE. I wasn’t going to settle for that either, because I know that the Uffizi Gallery in Florence was built to be Uffizi, offices, in the 1560s, and became a museum only in the 18th century.
By the 16th century the Mughals were busy laying down an administrative structure for all of India. Their record keeping is remarkable, and the book of their administrative rules, the Akbar Nama, is the best source of ancient recipes that I know of. We only see their tombs and palaces now, but the innumerable rooms in their palaces would have housed offices. That tweaked something in my memory, and I went back to remind myself of the administrative structure of the Mauryan empire. My memory was right; in the years immediately following Alexander’s retreat from India, the Mauryas developed a complex administrative structure with extensive record keeping. Unfortunately the only structures which survive the couple of thousand years since their times are memorials. But these are unlikely to be isolated examples. Surely, every successful empire must have developed a bureaucracy, and offices, and office buildings.
So what’s the fuss about the demise of offices? Ah ha. That’s another matter. That has to do with large businesses modeling themselves after imperial bureaucracies. That fancy could be European, and, at first thought, may even be laid at the less-than-clean hands of the British East India Company. Although I believe that if you look a little more carefully, you will find that Venice did it a century or two earlier. So, if you follow that thought, then the office building started with the rise of capitalism, is its most visible symbol, and, if it disappears, would probably signal the end of this form of social organization. So I would bet that it is not going away soon. All this about co-working spaces, and working out of a Starbucks, is just a niche, like money changers working out of temples. Any takers?
The fabled Golconda Sultanate lasted from the early 16th to the late 17th century, and was ruled by the Qutb Shah dynasty. During these two centuries an amazing regional culture developed. Now that I rediscovered my photos of this trip, I will probably write another post about it. The beautiful tombs of the Qutb Shahs, their architecture a sophisticated merger of Indian and Persian styles, have fallen into disrepair. But in one of them we found a caretaker who demonstrated to us the beautiful acoustics of the structures.
I had a strong memory of taking this video, and thought I’d lost it. I’m happy that I found it again. The caretaker did not want a tip; he just wanted to pass on a beautiful discovery. I am happy to be able to help.
I dug up another old album and found that it had photos from a thirty year old trip I’d made around the world, traveling east from Geneva. Scanning old photos with a phone app is now easy. What is hard is to restore some of the faded colour from the prints. I’m not sure that I succeeded, but I learnt, and remembered as I tried out my restoration experiments. Thirty years ago, the web was still an experimental curiosity. Much more information was available then on the French Minitel. I spent quite a while on it trying to find tickets as cheap as possible.
My first destination was Japan, and one of the new transpolar flights would have been reasonably priced even if I changed in Hamburg or Helsinki. But in those days I would then have had to spend time on getting another visa. Instead I took an airline which gave me a stop in Mumbai. There was a little hiccup in computing whether I would lose a day or gain one when I crossed the date line going east; this was crucial for a quick change of planes in LA. I took no photos of the thick sheaf of tickets which I eventually purchased, and had to carry with me for a month. This was my first trip to Japan, and I was amazed by how the crowds of Mumbai and the efficiency of Switzerland fused in the working of the train which took me from Narita to Tokyo.
I spent that first day walking through a bit of Tokyo. The Imperial Palace (Kokyo) was very close to the station. This was first built in the late 19th century after the Tokugawa Shogunate was overthrown and the Meiji emperor became the head of an outward looking country. Part of this complex was destroyed in World War II and rebuilt immediately after. I gaped at the moats and remnants of fortifications (the much older gate Shimizumon above, and a defensive tower near the moat before that), before walking in to the public park called Kitanomaru (featured photo).
From there it was easy to find the shrine of the Meiji emperor (the Meiji Jingu shrine). After walking to Roppongi and spending a bit of relaxed time around the Tokyo Tower in the evening, I had just enough energy left to recover my bags from the station and get to a hotel for the night. In the early 90s Japan was slightly different in feel. Everyone had black hair, signage in English was not common, and only a trickle of tourists could be seen. But the Japanese were as open to foreign influences as they are now. I watched a Japanese street artist do a Flamenco dance on an upper stage of the Tower. For all their delight in the imperfections of life, wabi sabi (侘寂) as an artistic style, I noticed that a Japanese performer is always concerned with perfection.
I had covered about a fourth of the distance around the globe, and by the stamps in my old passport, this was the 5th day of the trip.
I exhumed a set of photos from almost fifteeen years back and began to remember that trip to Venice. I was at a loose end for a day, and I took a train down to the Santa Lucia station in Venice. I had a restaurant in mind for lunch near the Arsenale, and a nice way to get there would be to take a water bus, vaporetto, to Piazza San Marco, and then walk. I like this ride down the Grand Canal for the things that you see on the way, like the elegant facade of a palazzo that you see in the featured photo.
Its not unusual to pass tourists laden down with prints that they have just bought from a museum shop. I was happy to get this shot of the pair of tourists ignoring the graffiti that they were walking past. I guess all of us do that most of the time; just that there’s no one to take our photos.
Look at that grand door leading down to the canal. I like the general air of decrepitude that envelops Venice. It’s almost as if it wears its magnificent past on its sleeve, daring tourists to snigger at its present. I won’t do that, I like its attitude just as much as all the others who come back to it again and again.
The bus reached its destination soon enough. I liked the view of the Basilica of San Marco from the terminus jetty. You get a much grander view of the Basilica from the Piazza that Napoleon called “a jewel box”, but I liked this quieter view. The sky was overcast, and the light was dead, but good enough to show off the domes of this Chiesa d’Oro, the Church of Gold.
Let me close off this little tour down memory lane with the last tourist photo I took here, before walking past the Basilica into the little streets to look (successfully) for the restaurant I remembered. This is a view that many visitors take: of the church of San Giorgio Maggiore from behind the jetty for gondolas.
Two years ago, I decided to take one day of my last weekend in Madrid to go off to see Toledo. I kept my camera on a little stool overnight to charge. After reaching Toledo I realized that my camera was not fully charged; perhaps the stool was a bit wobbly or the plug a little loose. I was carrying a phone which was then reputed to have one of the best cameras going, so I decided to draw out the battery life on my camera as far as I could, but it gave up when I needed it most.
Behind the high altar is one of the most outrageous pieces of rococo art that you can hope to see. A tall hole was cut into the top of the immense back wall of the cathedral to let a beam of light illuminate the pastry cake of an altarpiece. This ridiculously direct approach was then disguised in a wonderfully playful way by decorating the simple architectural idea with swirls of sculptures and paintings of angels, saints, and high panjandrums of the church. The effect is not only stunning, but also, because of the natural chiaroscuro, requires finicky photography. Just as I took the first photo (featured) my camera batteries gave up. The AIs behind phone cameras were already good enough to do nearly as well (photo above), but I did not have a zoom attachment on my phone to get close to some of the details that Narcisco Tome and his four sons had put together between 1729 and 1732 CE. That gives me another reason to go back, and I think I will spend a night in Toledo the next time around. I want to see this piece in the morning when the sun is at the right elevation.
I realize that I’ve been using a digital camera for fifteen years now. I was in Germany, and The Family was supposed to join me at Christmas, which we would spend in Vienna. We had all our bookings done, including tickets for concerts and shows. Her bag, with her passport, was stolen before we left Duesseldorf airport. That’s when we realized that the old borders of EU were not really forgotten. We were not allowed to fly without a passport. So we tried to cancel whatever we could and changed our Christmas plans. On the 23rd of December we decided to make a day trip to Bremen. The featured photo shows a pub sign which incorporates the fairy tale characters of the town musicians of Bremen, one of the stories collected by the Grimm brothers.
The weather was grim when we got off the train, cloudy and a temperature just above freezing. We walked to the old town, past the town hall, the square where the Christmas market surrounded the sculpture of the four musicians which was a local landmark, and on to the picturesque region of Schnoor. Bremen has been an important port since the middle ages, and therefore seen a lot of wars. It was pretty heavily bombed in the second World War, but the old town still had a few medieval timber-frame houses standing. They were fitted with pretty modern doors and windows though (I guess bombs must have blown out all the glass even if the structure was not damaged). The quaint houses stood out against the brick walls of the buildings that were put up at the beginning of the German recovery.
Bremen is considered a little special in Germany: a member of the Hansa trading league, then after the end of the first World War a Socialist republic for less than a month, later a holdout against Nazism until it was brutally taken over, and even now more working class, Green, and left-wing than much of Germany. Still, it is Germany after all, pretty prosperous and orderly, a pleasure to walk through, stop for coffees and beers, and the hearty lunches that make so much sense in that weather. I had still not got the hang of digital photography: the idea that you take an enormous number of photos and preserve them forever.