Mohenjo-daro: a Different Vision

A non-artist like me thinks of animals as they are normally shown in photos or paintings. This iconography, the way of representing animals, differs only slightly across the Eurasian continent; cheetahs painted by Delacroix differ slightly from those shown in Mughal miniatures. But when you come across a representation from a entirely different culture, you realize with a shock that there are other ways of seeing. The four and half thousand year old tiny terracotta head of a bull that you can see in the featured photo shocked me, when I recognized what I was looking at. This was, literally, an eye opener.

The Family and I were in Delhi for a baking hot weekend, and took refuge in the Indian Museum one afternoon. I had wanted to go there for long, and The Family wanted to go back and see the Indus Valley galleries. At its peak, this civilization spread far beyond the core Indus river valley, to cover a region from Afghanistan to modern day Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat in India, and supported a population of about five million people. The high period of the civilization is usually taken to be 2600 to 1600 BCE. All the photos you see in this post are of artifacts from this era.

Oxen from the Indus civilization, National Museum, Delhi

The representation of oxen, widely observed farm animals, are beautiful. They emphasize the massive power of the beasts. It is remarkable that this degree of beautiful modelling is visible in a tiny piece which is less than 4 cms in size. That is the larger piece. The smaller one is a little larger than a cm!

If we persist in thinking about the Indus civilization in terms of land area and land routes, it is blindness on our part. The Indus people were sea farers. Water trade between Indus cities played a major role in commerce and full-fledged ports for sea-going vessels have also been excavated in Gujarat. I saw a seal (larger than life sized picture here) with clearly marine motifs: a starfish surrounded by fish, an eel and seaweed.

Two indus figurines, National Museum, DelhiWhen I first looked at the little figure which you see at the top of this image, I thought it was a deer or an antelope. The Family read the label and exclaimed "Rhino!" Indeed it is, as you can see from the horn sprouting from its forehead. The massive body is the second, and relatively minor, clue. The other figure is a farm animal, as you can see from the decorative strips of cloth draped across its back. It took me a while to figure out what the prominent snout and large ears tell us. Do you recognize it?

Another fact about this four to five thousand year old civilization which we may forget is that the towns and villages of that time were situated in the middle of cleared forests. The large-scale clearing of forests in India has happened within living memory. My parents remember seeing herds of antelope from a passing train, or a leopard slinking away from the headlights of a car. The Indus civilization left reminders of its highly forested environment in numerous tiny terra cotta figures of wild animals. The armadillo you see in the photo above is just one example.

The collection of the National Museum is vast, and we spent more than a couple of hours just peering at the tiny terra cotta seals and figurines in the part of the museum which deals with the Indus valley civilization. It will take us the reminder of our lifetime to walk through this museum.

Pictures at an Exhibition

I’d never been to the National Museum in Delhi, although it had been on my bucket list for years. For over fifteen years, The Family has had a false memory of the place being very small. So when we had a weekend in Delhi together, we took a couple of hours to walk through a small part of it.

One of the galleries which we visited was of miniature paintings. It is an enormous collection. The range dwarfs every other collection I’ve seen. The beautiful Jain manuscript of which the featured photo is a detail was a style I’d not seen before. I don’t know much about Jain mythology, but it seems to have remarkable parallels to Buddhism, while also being different. The dreams of the mothers is part of the common lore. This was painted on paper in the 16th century CE. The paper and paint are remarkably uniform. Photography is freely allowed in the museum, but then the glass in front of most paintings makes them hard to capture. Some part of the uneven colouration in these photos is due to reflections from the glass.

This picture of the emperor Jahangir is unusual in many ways. Emperor Jehangir with a picture of the Madonna, National Museum, DelhiAlthough Roman Catholic orders were seen in the tolerant Mughal courts from the early 16th century CE, paintings with Christian subjects remained uncommon. This 17th century painting is even more so in that it shows the emperor himself with a picture of the Madonna. There are probably three or four such paintings of the Mughal emperors with the Madonna. I also found this painting a little different from most Mughal miniatures in the very subdued palette: very muted and dark colours.

Another of the paintings which caught my eye was a Persian miniature. It was a fairly common kind of painting, with many different identifiable birds, animals and flowers. Detail from a Persian Miniature, National Museum, DelhiThe reason it caught my eye was the picture of a rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri). This parakeet is said to have been found in large parts of India and modern-day Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, as well as in a wide swathe across the northern part of sub-Saharan Africa and the Gulf. Although there are reported sightings in Iran, it is not usually said to be part of the ancestral range of this bird. Is this painting perhaps proof that it was found in Iran already in the 15th century CE?

I’m afraid The Family and I are not very good museum-goers. We weave back and forth through the galleries and talk too much about things like this.

Memories of a far valley

It is now exactly the middle of April. The heat and humidity is killing. I began to search the web for Bhutan where we took refuge from the heat of Mumbai in two successive years almost a decade ago. Flipping through photos of monasteries in remote valleys I came to a stop at photos which looked familiar, yet not.

The name rang a bell: Phobjika valley. In May 2008, six of us had driven away from the tourist triangle of west Bhutan towards the east and north. One afternoon we took a detour into the Phobjika valley. I’d read about black-necked cranes wintering here, and a goemba worth visiting. We spent a wonderful day there and drove back the next day.

I was on the lookout for the Gangtey Goemba. Pema Lingpa, the historical monk who is almost as famous in Bhutan as the founder of Bhutanese Buddhism, Padmasambhava, is said to have predicted this monastery. His son caused the goemba to be built in 1618. The main gate of the Gangtey Goempa, Phobjika valley, BhutanIn fact, the head of this monastery is supposed to be a reincarnation of Pema Lingpa; the current one is the ninth.

One of our travelling companions was not very keen on "wasting time" on monasteries. So, when I asked our driver to turn the car off the main road towards the Goemba, I was hoping for it to be spectacular enough to captivate everyone. Unfortunately, it was not. The main gate (which you see in the photo above) looked beautiful but badly in need of repairs.

The inside was no better. External details on the Gangtey Goempa, Phobjika valley, BhutanThe three-story high central hall was being refurbished. I next saw a similar high atrium (featured photo) in a monastery many years later in Tawang. This kind of construction is not very common. However, the general air of devastation dampened our spirits. The Family can tell very easily when I’m down in the dumps, and she pointed out some beautiful details on the unpainted external walls (photo here). But it was clear that something was very wrong.

The mystery remained with me for years. Why would one of the major Gompas of Bhutan be in such disrepair. Nine years later I am reassured by what I just read: "Much of the interior and exterior woodwork of the 450-year-old goemba was replaced between 2001 and 2008 due to a beetle-larvae infestation." Now I must go back there to see what the place looks like after it has been redone.

Home, beautiful home

In visits to Odisha in the past we noticed the beautifully hand painted fronts of buildings. A lovely custom is that a marriage is announced by a painting on the front wall of a house with the names of the bride and groom. In the Cuttack-Puri-Bhubaneswar area these are often written in the Roman script and easy for travellers to read.

Poverty has declined by 24.61 percentage points from 57.20 percent in 2004-05 to 32.59 percent in 2011-12. The reduction of poverty by 25.11 percentage points was higher in rural Odisha than that of 20.31 percentage points in urban Odisha.
—Economic Survey of Odisha 2014-15.

We drove far outside this urbanized area on this visit to Odisha. A three hour drive took us to the east, into Kendrapara district. Odisha is one of the poorer states in India, although it has made tremendous progress in the last decade. Rural India has poverty twice as high as urban India, and Odisha is no exception. This was clear even from the windows of a speeding car when we moved out of the urbanized Bhubaneswar-Cuttack area.

Even in this region, the tradition of decorating a home with paintings can be seen. We passed many villages where there were only structures made of mud, but each of these was beautifully decorated with patterns in white. After about half an hour of driving I asked myself why I wasn’t stopping to take photos. So I did, and the result is the featured photo. The lady in the photo was working in a road development gang next to the thatched mud hut where you see her. The decoration is fairly typical.

Walking past Odisha’s oldest temple

On every trip that I make there are things really worth seeing that I miss. But perhaps nothing could be as bad as walking past the oldest temple in Odisha, noticing that it is different from the rest and beautiful, and not stopping for a close look. This was the Parasurameshwara temple. There seems to be a consensus that it was built in the late 7th century CE, although variant opinions place it as early as the early 6th century or the middle of the 8th century.

I walked past this temple to take photos of the Mukteshwara temple in the last golden light of the day. I saw that the temple had the two parts of most Odisha temples: the outer room for people to gather in, called the jagamohan, and the spire of the main temple, called the deul. The jagamohan was low, and seemed flat-topped to my quick glance, without the usual pyramidal roof. The latticed window caught my eye first. The carvings that I saw on the southern outer wall of the jagamohan (see the featured photo) were beautiful and different. Later, I realized that the sculptures of figures seated in meditation were of an aspect of Shiva, but modelled after the iconography of the Buddha. If I’d paused to think, this would have told me that the temple must be ancient. The wall also had representations of what seemed to be Shakti, the goddess of power.

The colour was fading from the sky, and the golden light was beginning to bleach out of the air. East-facing walls were already looking grey. I took a record shot of an empty niche (photo here) and hurried on without examining the sculptures in detail. Now, looking at the form just above the niche I realize that it shows Shakti in one of her aspects. She is two-armed, and rides a fierce tiger. Could it be an early representation of Parvati? Probably, since the figure just above seems to be of her consort, Shiva. The temple is eclectic: named after an aspect of Vishnu, with sculptures depicting aspects of Shiva and the Shaktis in the exterior. I made a mental note to come back, and I did. But then it was quite dark, and I did not walk around the 1400 years old temple. I will just have to leave this for another trip.

Palm leaves and cloth

In front of the Kedar Gauri temple we found a stand-alone shop with a painter at work on the porch. He was painting on cloth with poster paint and a fine brush. He pointed out work by him and his wife. He said she was away for a month’s training in a school run by the government. Those who go to such a school every now and then are paid ten thousand rupees for the month. Those who do not eventually lose their licence as a traditional artist.

Paper and canvas are historical imports to Odisha. Traditional surfaces for painting were cloth (called pata), palm leaf, and wood. These surfaces were prepared using chalk and vegetable glue. The colour palette was limited to red, yellow, white and black: all made from natural colours. Today the surface and colours are more varied: vibrant blues and greens appear. My grandmother bought a pata in vivid black, red and blue on white long before I was born. It hangs on our wall now, and inoculates me from the passing charms of mediocre patas.

This man was intent on showing us his work. The Family took a look, and politely waved away offers to show us more. We walked away, convinced that the government is doing its job the best it can, by training large numbers of people. After that the market will take care of winnowing the good.

The Lions of Orissa

East of India every temple is guarded by fearsome giants carrying terrifying weapons. In Odisha, just two lions are enough. As you can see in the featured photo, these are no ordinary lions. They have a awesome black mustache in addition to the mane that you can see on any other lion. The bottle of water between their legs backs up the statement that the mustache makes. The dwarpala which you see above stands outside the Kedar Gauri temple in Bhubaneshwar. There’s a matched lion on the other side of the entrance gate, but at the time I took this photo, it wasn’t backed by a wise Brahmin who could give you the opportunity to earn merit.

Guardians of a roadside shrine near Rajnagar, Odisha

Driving through Odisha you see pairs of lions every now and then. In the photo above you see a pair of ferocious lions bristling at those who pass by the sacred spot between them. I saw this pair far to the east, near a small town called Rajnagar on the banks of the Brahman river. They lack the mustache that you see in the Bhubaneshwar-Cuttack-Puri region; maybe that is a regional speciality. I also saw horses and elephants guarding entrances to temples in this region, so the nature of dwarpalas changes across Odisha. I need to travel more widely in the state to find out how temple guardians change from place to place.

Two beautiful pieces

On a cold day I walked into the Art Institute of Chicago, past the people taking selfies with the lions at the entrance. I checked in my coat and walked down to the basement to look at the collection of photographs from Japan, and was distracted by an odd collection. There was a room full of paperweights! The display was in a little corner, and most people seem to have walked in by accident or out of curiosity. I don’t know whether there was anyone there who looked at the displays with an expert eye. I walked around and took a photo of the stunningly kitschy piece that you see in the featured photo. I guess if you want to make an arresting piece which sits on a table and is seen every day you could do worse than load it with little details which can keep the user’s attention for years. I think this one succeeds.

Hachiman as a monk, Japanese, 10th century, Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute has a beautiful small collection of classical art from Asia and India. One of the pieces which I spent some time admiring was the wooden image of the Shinto god Hachiman in the guise of a monk which you see above. The calmness is a special characteristic of Japanese divine images. I admired the texture of the wood, and wondered how the sculpture would have looked when it still had paint on it. This is over a millennium old. How old must human emotions be, to be able to communicate over such vast periods of time.

The 106 walkers

When I first saw photos of the massive sculptural installation called Agora, I didn’t much like it. Chicago has so much public sculpture, many by great modernist masters, that I thought Agora would not be high on my list.

Agora, Chicago

Eventually, Agora was the only sculpture I managed to see, apart from the Cloud Gate and the famous lions of the Art Institute. What changed my mind? Meeting up with a very determined eleven year old who led me here early on a Sunday afternoon.

Walking through the sculpture changed my mind. This is a piece you need to interact with. As I walked through the crowd of towering legs, hollow men of rusted iron, I liked the way Magdalena Abakanowicz has used space. Situated at the southern end of Millennium park, on Michigan Avenue and Roosevelt Road, you can look north through the crowd of walkers and see the skyscrapers of downtown Chicago (featured photo). Its a short walk from there to the many attractions of the Museum Park.

Mayan Art

Although there are significant collections of Mayan art in various museums around the world, I seem to come back to visit the collection at the Art Institute of Chicago roughly once a decade. Each time I find that I have forgotten what I saw before. Every time I’m blown away by the pieces I see.

The pieces which caught my eye this time turned out to be from the classical Mayan period, lasting roughly from 200 to 800 CE. The piece which you see in the featured image is essentially undated, in that it could have been made at any time during this period. The liveliness of the figure caught my attention. The museum considers this to be one of its best pieces and gives it a prominent place in its website. It is described as a story teller, a description with which I found myself in instant agreement.

Warrior from Jaina in Mexico, AD 650-800 in Art Institute of Chicago

The second piece was a fired clay figurine, whose head you see in the photo above. The attention paid to modelling the face probably implies that it belongs to a general, and not a common soldier. In any case, it is as impressive a portrait (in its diminutive way) as the famous statue of a general in Xi’an