The painted doors of Bhutan

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?

Hobby horses

For a few days now I’ve not been able to stop thinking of horses. Their origins mysterious, like the origin of everything we see around us. Their role in human history and culture, large and long. When humans arrived in most continents, the number of equine species had probably already dwindled to more or less what it is now: two or three. Historically, only two were domesticated, horses and donkeys. Although zebras have been trained (Lord Rothschild once drove to Buckingham Palace on a zebra-drawn carriage) they have not been successfully raised in domesticity.

Two sculptures of horses really stick in my mind. One is the pair of life-sized blue horses, polyester resin images made by the French artist Assan Smati, the other is the group of four harnessed to a chariot, made of fired clay in China probably 2200 years ago for the tomb of the Qin emperor Shi Huang.

Around the world in 30 days (2)

After that first day walking around Tokyo, I had a week of work before some more tourism. This work week introduced me to the pleasures of bento (this was 1990, and the box had not yet spread through the US), vending machines which gave out cans of hot tea (in four flavours: matcha, Darjeeling, Oolong, and Assam), and karaoke, which had then just taken over Japan. Finally, on the weekend, I joined a busload of my colleagues for a trip to Nara.

We rolled through crowded highways towards the town of Nikko. What I knew about it was that it had the tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the person who unified Japan after decisive battles starting in 1600 CE. There was more to Nikko than this, as I discovered when we stopped at the 97 meters high Kegon waterfall. Autumn had coloured the forest in lurid colours. One of my colleagues told us the story of a young man who committed suicide here in the early years of the 20th century after carving a poem into a tree trunk. He was able to show me an English translation of the poem later. I thought it read like something that Camus could have written.

We got back into the bus and drove on to Lake Chuzenji. The traffic was bad. Alain, sitting next to me, said “This road trip is a nightmare.” We spent the rest of the halting progress talking about the grammatical gender of dreams and nightmares in French. Chuzenjiko was beautiful in this season, when the surrounding forests had turned into a lovely gold. But we had lost too much time in the bad traffic, and we had to move on to the main sight.

I’d already seen a shrine to the Meiji emperor, so I had a picture in mind of a Shinto shrine. But the Toshogu shrine was much more than that. The huge complex has beautiful wood carvings, and a lot of gold. That, and the location made it stunning. I spent a long time wandering through the warehouse area and came to a carving of the three monkeys, a theme which I’d thought of till then as Indian. The Kathasaritsagar was collected in the 11th century, but the stories may have been in circulation for centuries before that. Perhaps some were taken to China by Xuanzang four centuries earlier, and eventually entered Japan.

This was my first inkling of the long hidden connections between many different Asian cultures. Stories of elephants had clearly been carried from India with Buddhism. I saw these wonderful carvings of what must have been imaginary beasts to the Japanese woodworkers who made them. It reminded me of the strange lion carvings which I saw in various parts of India where no lion had been seen in historic times.

The main part of the shrine begins with the Yomeimon, one of the most decorative gates I’ve ever seen. Today I would have taken many more photos of the gate. But I see only this one photo in my album. I remember that this was taken with a roll of 100 ASA Fujicolor which I’d inserted into the camera the previous night. The 24 shots had to last me the whole day, and there were so many details which caught my eye!

This carved wooden peacock on the Yomeimon was one such detail. I liked the beautiful colour of the wood quite as much as the intricate work. The gate was rebuilt in 1818 CE after a fire. There is a lot of such rebuilding in Japan, and there must be a well developed branch of restorative art. I wonder how much creativity each restoring artist is allowed. How much of this peacock is the work of the original woodcarver, and what has each restorer added?

My memory tells me that once I passed the gate I walked through a long avenue surrounded by tall trees with seasonally colourful leaves. But I only have a photo of this place: presumably where Ieyasu was interred. My intention to capture his shrine was waylaid by my impulse of capturing the colours of the leaves, the result is the photo you see above; my final photo from Nikko.

I was going to leave Japan after another day of work, so this also turned out to be my last photo from Japan on that trip.

Around the world in 30 days (1)

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.

Failing batteries at El Transparente

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.

Totoro and neighbour

I seldom have long conversations with my oldest niece any more; she is too traumatized at the end of a long day counseling people traumatized by the long lockdown to talk much. So it was a pleasure to chat with her the other day about Studio Ghibli movies. I’d just finished seeing Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. She said her favourite was My Neighbour Totoro. It is a beautiful movie; two young girls getting to know the natural world around them, full of pauses and asides, nature spirits and fantasy.

The lockdown traumatizes me when I think of all that I could have done if I wasn’t locked up at home while the epidemic rages out of control in Mumbai. The thought of infected people being turned away from over-full hospitals, dying without care, is enough to give you sleepless nights if you think about it. When I think of how much of a privilege it is to be able to have a safe place to continue to live in, it can also induce trauma about the unknown social changes around us. I guess I deal with it by changing focus. I’m very happy that long and wasteful meetings are slowly phasing out in favour of the core work. The extra time goes into household chores and the little new skills and interests that I’m picking up. Studio Ghibli is one of them.

On the road

We had a bit of a drive ahead of us and our driver pulled into a petrol pump almost as soon as we got on to the highway. I looked out of the window at the truck filling up next to us. I’ve written about art work on Indian trucks many times before, but this looked different. At eye level with me was some of the usual kitsch (featured photo), but it was executed perfectly. None of the distortions of naive art. This was a master at work.

I got off and walked around the truck. No amateur, the artists who worked on this truck. Stencils had been used. This medium is becoming commercial! But just look at that swan: wonderful lines. Never seen something like that on a truck. This could be a well-trained commercial artist, one who could as easily design a logo.

Around another tyre-well, more kitsch, this time from some cartoon. But look at that repeating motif that arches around the tyre. It is not only executed flawlessly over and over (see also the featured photo), but has been designed to be easy to execute.

An elegantly executed Hanuman was spray painted on with a stencil elsewhere on the truck. There were numerous small pieces rather than a single overall theme which I’ve seen before on trucks. Is this good or bad? Am I seeing the beginning of the commercialization of truck art? Is this the end of King Rat? By all accounts small businesses have given way to large conglomerates over the last three years. Perhaps in future large fleets of trucks will be decorated by one commercial artists’ firm, instead of one truck one artist.

Art cafes of Kochi

Kochi turned out to be a wonderful place to have a relaxed holiday. The few square kilometers contains an unending supply of cafes to hang out in, art to admire, and sometimes the two together. Unlike many of our recent breaks, we decided to go with the flow: just two or three must-dos for tourists. The featured photo comes from one of our favourite relaxed places: an old bungalow turned into a cafe. Instead of asking for the espresso, we went with pots of tea as we sat and let any cares drain away. The fans kept a breeze flowing through the hall, and the lovely space compensated for the beautiful but not-so-comfortable chairs we sat in.

There are several famous art cafes in Kochi, but we found them too crowded to relax in. You can find any number of them; most have a good espresso, and many have good food. The squid was fresh in the first cafe we visited. The one you see in these photos was remarkable because of the number of masks on the wall.

I sent a couple of photos to a cousin who is quite a mask-collector, and we decided to take a trip together to this Mecca of masks. I think she’s still trying to identify the places where each of them comes from.

Another cafe had this remarkable Kerala mural version of the last supper. I don’t quite remember what we ate in this place, but I did spend some time admiring all the art on the wall.

The one time we went to one of the better known art cafes was just after lunch one afternoon, looking only for a coffee. Strange, isn’t it, to walk into a cafe for nothing but a coffee? Fortunately, it was a slack hour, and they didn’t mind us taking up a whole table for a while. I liked this space, although I could see that it would be standing room only in a while.

While on the subject of art for sale, how can one not end with the most iconic visual symbol of capitalism on the planet? We live under a shadow.

The Mattancherry Palace

There are many things about the Mattancherry palace of Kochi which one can write about: the integration of European proportions into a traditional Kerala architectural style, the beautifully worked materials used, such as the wood, flooring, and roof tiles, or the artifacts collected in the museum it now is. But every such description is incomplete because the main attraction cannot be shown; you are not allowed to take photos of the glorious murals on the walls. It is a loss in the description, but an opportunity to visit the palace and be surprised. When I stepped over the threshold of the entrance into the long rectangular anteroom, the first detail that I noticed was the intricately carved rosewood ceiling, and, through an arch at one end, the golden glow of the murals depicting the Ramayana that cover the entire wall of the king’s bedchamber

The palace was built by the Portuguese as a reparation to the king of Kochi in the mid 16th century CE, after they previous palace was looted and burnt. The overall style of architecture is traditional, the whole palace being built around a central enclosed courtyard. Visitors can look down at this from a covered verandah that runs around the inside of the upper floor. The materials used are also traditional: dark polished rosewood and fired clay roof tiles. The polished floor is specially remarkable, since it is not stone but a traditional composite material blended from charcoal, burnt coconut shell, egg white, and other ingredients. The arched doors and windows, the elongated rooms, and the external finish of the masonry is European.

The palace museum contains a gallery of several interesting artifacts including European-style portraits of the kings of Kerala. I was specially drawn to the palanquins on display. The alternation of carved and polished plain panels of the covered palanquin, and the ornate brass end-piece to the carrying-pole, were enough to tell us that this was for royals. The seal of the royal house confirms this guess. In contrast, the open palanquin lined with silk cushions would have seated a functionary. We wandered into the coronation room where the murals were being restored. Seeing us spend an abnormally long time examining the paintings, a gentleman from the archaeological survey interrupted his work and gave us a wonderful tour of the paintings in the room. We learnt from him how this room had been whitewashed in the 20th century, and how the underlying paintings are slowly being brought to light again. I can’t wait for the work to be finished so that I can visit this place again.

The marriage hall

Most major temples in the Vijayanagara kingdom have a pavilion outside the main temple which was used for the ritual marriage of the deity and the consort. This kalyana mandapam in the Vitthala temple is quite as impressive as the main temple. When you climb a set of stairs to the east, you see a wonderful open pavilion with 32 pillars. As outer set of 20 make up a square with six pillars to a side (including the corner), and there is an inner square with 12 pillars, 4 to a side, including the corners. These are beautifully decorated.

The Vitthala temple was built in the first half of the 15th century CE during the reign of Devaraya II, with many additions made during the reign of Krishna Devaraya in the early 16th century. I don’t know which period this kalyana mandapam comes from. The Family and I spent a long time here, examining the pillars in detail. The gallery above contains a selection. Many of the sculptures represent couples from the Ramayana, or stories from the 12th century poem about Krishna and his affairs with gopis. Others depict musicians and dancers, and the festivities surrounding a wedding. Several still have traces of paint; I saw a green pigment for the first time in the featured photo. Imagine, if you can, all these sculptures bright with mineral and vegetable paint, lit with oil lamps at twilight. It would have been a sight.