Mystic music, divine dance

Kagura (神楽 literally god entertainment) is a Japanese art form with ritual music and dance which was originally a form of Shinto worship. It spread through the imperial court, becoming a popular form of entertainment, which eventually gave rise to the Noh theatre. But Kagura thrives, though it may be harder for tourists to see a performance. Our hosts in Japan very thoughtfully gave us a short glimpse of this ancient form one evening.

The story was easy to follow even without understanding the words spoken. Some dragons terrorized people by swallowing maidens. A god appeared to help. He left some potent sake for the dragons to drink, and when they were drunk he fought and killed them. I learnt later that this story is called Orochi after the dragons. The masks (gasso) are made of molded layers of washi. The making of this paper is itself is considered to be an intangible world heritage, and the making of the costumes is another. The dance is a third cultural heritage on top of this pyramid. The dragon costumes were dazzling. I found later that the 15 meters long bodies can weigh 12 kilos. They are made by stretching washi over bamboo scaffolding and making one can take more than a year. A mask also takes about a month to make.

There are two groups of performers. The maikata dance wearing the elaborate costumes and gasso. The hayashikata play the four musical instruments: a large and a small drum (odaiko and kodaiko), cymbals (chochigane), and flutes (yokobue). The skills which were once passed down through families are now learnt by enthusiasts. Hiroshima is said to be a place where you could get to see performances.

The performance lasted about an hour. The music and the movements kept me fully engaged with the performance. I had the impression that the show may have lasted about half an hour, and only many days later, looking at the time stamps on my photos, I figured that it was actually longer than it seemed. Ritual dances occur throughout the world, but you have to make an effort to see them. It was a very pleasant surprise to get a taste of Kagura so unexpectedly.

Saturday shop-window

Night in Tokyo’s Ginza. Ahead of the Golden Week, a man works on a window display featuring carps. On Children’s Day in Japan it is customary to hang floats of carps. The display was an interesting play on the open mouths of carps as they breach water looking for a feed. A person working in a lit up shop window late at night always seems to me to be the very definition of loneliness and urban alienation: like the characters in Ishiguro’s novels or in Hopper’s paintings. Maybe they are happy, maybe they are finishing a job before heading home to a happily waiting family, but that’s how it looks to me.

The Ornate Four-Legged Gate

The shrine and temple buildings, together with their natural surroundings, have for centuries constituted a sacred site and the home of architectural and decorative masterpieces. The site continues to function today as a place of religious rituals and other activities which maintain its traditions, both physically and spiritually.

UNESCO World Heritage citation for the Shrines and Temples of Nikko

Nikko is a place which can be visited again and again. It had been over thirty years since my previous visit, and I’d forgotten how very impressive it is. If you read through this one post about a single gate in the enclosure, you’ll realize that I’m serious. What you see here is the karayotsuashimon (唐四脚門, literally ornate four leg gate). The curved gable (karahafu) over the gate is said to be a Japanese invention, so I’ve used the reading “ornate” for the first character 唐 instead of the alternate “Chinese”. As you can see from some of the photos, all four sides of the gate have this curved gable, hence the appellation four-legged (四脚) for this gate (門).

As I gawped at it, The Family pointed out the paired dragons on each side of the gate: one rising, the other descending, done with a mixture of techniques called jimonbori (relief carving) and ukubori (embossing). I was equally drawn to the doors: each quartered and illustrated. Unfortunately, I don’t have close ups of the paintings. Only extremely important persons are allowed to pass through these doors: the descendants of Tokugawa Iyeasu, the first shogun, turned into the reigning god of this place, were among them. The rest of us have to go around and take a side entrance.

If you are not one of the many people posing for selfies or photos in front of it, then the details of the gate can keep you standing there looking, and thereby making sure you photo-bomb others’ selfies. All the details in white are carved in wood and painted, the rest is urushi (laquerwork) and metalwork. At the lowest level, just above the lintel is a panel which shows nobles queuing up to pay tributes to a seated emperor or shogun (I don’t know which). At the ends of the panels you see two musicians, one beating a drum, the other with a gong. Above them are panels representing more rarefied powerful beings. I loved the carving of the bull which you see here. The pillar on the side (with the ascending dragons) are topped by an ornate bouquet of flowers which could be the variety of chrysanthemum called the atsumono. The gate is loaded with symbolism which I cannot decipher. Is the chrysanthemum a reference to the emperor, or a symbol of longevity?

Saturday surface

Japan is a shiny surface that reflects your own image back to your eyes. You have to let your focus slide to see the people below the surface. Just so, the lotus leaves floating on Kyoyochi pond in Kyoto’s Ryoan-ji arrested my eye while we walked around it. But when I looked at my photo, I could see the more interesting sight of the flowering trees around the pond reflected in its waters. Strangely, this was clearer in the monochrome photo than in colour. Just so, when I worked around my difficulty with the language, I could make a fleeting connect with people’s lives. Travelling is more fun when you can do that.

The art of gardening

Akira Kurosawa’s three earliest movies are almost impossible to find. As a result, my closest approach to them came two weeks ago, when I visited the gardens of Denjirō Okōchi, his lead actor on all three. The Ōkōchi Sansō was laid out in the 1930s on the slopes of Mt Ogura in the Arashiyama mountains, but incorporates many of the aesthetic values that developed in the construction of Japanese gardens since Tachibana Toshitsuna wrote the world’s first treatise on the art of gardens, the Sakuteiki, at about the same time that Murasaki Shikibu wrote what is possibly the world’s first novel.

We arrived in Kyoto early in the afternoon. While checking the weather forecast as our shinkansen from Tokyo ate the kilometers, we realized that the afternoon could well be the only day on which we would see a blue sky over Kyoto. It was our best opportunity to walk through Arashiyama. So when we arrived at 4 PM, we were among the last people that day to buy tickets to enter the garden. The ticket entitles you to a cup of matcha and a sweet at the end of your walk. The tea house would be shut by the time we finished our walk, so we were firmly escorted to the tea before our walk. I wish we had reached a half hour earlier, so that we could have enjoyed the tea in the correct relaxed frame of mind, after our walk through the garden.

With our habits of always seeking our own path, changing plans spontaneously, and seeking out the novel, we have to work at reminding ourselves that formal Japanese gardens do not work like that. They are planned to lead you to specific views, where you can stop and be as informal and spontaneous as you want: dash off a piece of poetry for Whatsapp, do a Bollywood dance for Tiktok, or post photos of the view on Instagram. We stepped through the middle gate, the Chūmon. In Japanese culture passing through a gate takes you from one realm to another. So, I collected my thoughts and prepared my mind to follow the prepared path.

In the short break we took for tea, clouds had swept in from the south, and they would not lift until the day we had to leave Kyoto. Our first stop was Daijōkaku, the main house, which is said to merge the exceedingly formal shoin style of architecture with the contrasting sukiya style. I am too much of an architectural novice to tell the difference purely from the exterior, but my guess would be that the front room is in the shoin style. The Chūmon, the Daijōkaku, the Jibutsudō (the temple in the featured photo), and the Tekisuian (the teahouse) are treasured national cultural properties.

After Daijōkaku, high hedges constrained our views, and we should have walked quickly on to the next viewpoint. We were stopped in our tracks by the calls of several birds. I recorded them, and later could only identify the Japanese bush warbler (Horornis diphone), known as uguisu locally, and also called the Japanese nightingale. We walked on to the first viewpoint over Kyoto from the garden (click on the first photo in the gallery below). We studied the plaque which showed the main peaks visible from here, and localed Mt. Jizo. We wouldn’t have time to visit it, I told The Family, as she walked on to the Jibutsudō. My photo of the Meiji era temple which was transported here, leaves out two important aspects of the main view: one is the expanse of gravel in front of it, and the second is the little stream that winds past on one side.

After admiring this view the path doubled back to lead us to the moss garden. Somewhere there the nightingale was still singing. As we climbed past the tea house, Tekisuian, we stopped to see the view of the Hozu river gorge and the distant temple of Sankaku Senkoji. There was a road down to a view point. But before we could turn into it a lady appeared behind us to tell us that the garden would close in five minutes and we needed to make our way to the gate. On our way out we briefly stopped to see the view of the city from the moonlight pavilion (second photo in the clickable gallery above).

The garden has been laid out to show off each of the seasons. We passed through it late in spring: after the flowering of the cherries and azaleas. A few azalea flowers were still wilting on the bushes. I hope we will be back one autumn to see the garden again. If we do, we will take care to come earlier in the day, so that we can spend more time here. Gardens are works of art which need to be seen again and again, in different seasons. Japan has perfected gardens which remain unchanged for centuries although the individual plants are replaced. One cannot fail to remember also the unbroken lines of gardeners who make sure that the garden stays true to the vision of the artists who first laid it out.

The nine moods

Classical aesthetic theory talks of navarasa, the nine moods. Whether it was poetry or drama, music or painting, you had to identify the primary rasa, mood, of the work. Of course, the best works would be subtle, playing on your moods continually, moving you from here to there, and back again. I wondered whether I could identify the rasa in Nikko’s Toshogu shrine, the place which contains the remains of Tokugawa Iyesasu, the founder of the shogunate of Japan. The painting of the elephants that you see in the featured photo is clearly hasyarasa. It evokes joyful laughter. They are sometimes called the imaginary elephants because the artist clearly had never seen the beasts.

There’s no dearth of virarasa, courage, in the artistry of this world heritage monument. The shrine to the founder of the shogunate abounds in the imagery of the animal most closely associated with bravery: the lion. Here I show you a photo of a bronze lion rampant, sculpted at the base of one of the many ceremonial lanterns on the site.

Surprisingly, sringar rasa is also evoked in this shrine. Traditionally the mandarin duck with its striped head is taken as a symbol of familial love in the Japanese language of birds. Since I did not have a photo of the many depictions of these ducks, I decided that this pair could stand in for that rasa. To my eyes, the pair seems bonded.

This pair of dwārpālas, the nio in Japanese, illustrate two more of the rasa. I think they are each in rudra rasa, the angry mood. The one on the left has his mouth open to make the sound ā; the one on the right has his mouth closed to make the sound n. These are the syllables of the beginning and the end. Even in these times when the proprieties of visiting the shrine are forgotten by the numerous tourists, passing between the beginning and the end must bring the sense of passing time to anyone who cares to live an examined life. To many the sense of time passing brings a sense of fear, which is the mood of the bhayanaka rasa.

The Omeimon, the entrance gate to the shrine, is perhaps the most elaborately carved gate of all in Japan. This is clearly in adbhuta rasa, due to the sense of amazement it produced in me although it wasn’t the first time I’d seen it. I enjoyed seeing the details again through the eyes of The Family, who was now seeing it for the first time.

I was sure that I could find all nine rasas in the shrine. But perhaps the meanings of two of them become clearer if I take you to Hiroshima. There are wars and atrocities all the time, but when you take a walk around the circle of hell, the area of Hiroshima which was vaporised at the instant when humanity became a world-killing species you realize how terrible that instant was. Perhaps all the atrocities since then are just echoes of this. You circle hell and your steps come back near the center to find a statue of Kannon bearing paper cranes surrounded by azaleas. That is the mood of sadness, karuna rasa.

But this is a sadness streaked with disgust, vibhatsya rasa. In your circuit you may have seen many things which you would like to put a stop to. For me it was the incident behind this memorial which stands where a group of school girls was clearing flammable wooden debris of houses when they were annihilated by a surge of energy which proceeded from a point 580 meters above them. Their bodies, and those of about six hundred of their schoolmates, instantly separated into the elements they were made of and mingled with the air. Still, eighty years after that we have no treaty banning nuclear weapons. Instead we have a system of aparheid called the nuclear non-proliferation regime which means that only a few can make costly mistakes on our behalf.

We take a few deep breaths and we come back to Nikko Toshogu. This is the core of the shrine, where the body of Tokugawa Iyeasu was interred in the cask you see at the back. The chatter and buzz of human voices stills as the river of tourists rounds this square. This is the mood of calmness, shanti.

Still Life

Some weeks back I tried to consciously take a few still life photos. Then I began to wonder how far back I can trace the style. As far as I can tell, still life emerged as a genre some time in 16th century CE in Europe. Food and flowers, little household objects, have appeared in paintings across the world in many ages. But it is interesting that they became primary subjects of paintings in the time and culture which created capitalism. In its early days, the genre showed off beautiful objects and the rich foods of the bourgeoisie. By the 19th century the genre had lost its original purpose and was remodelled by painters like Cezanne and Gauguin, the two Pauls, into a vehicle to showcase their unique visions of the world.

It’s amazing how much influence the early history of photography has on the subjects we choose even now. In the early days of photography a still life was the easiest thing to do, and Daguerre and Fox Talbot created a few. The early 20th century artists were fascinated by photography, and pioneers like Man Ray did amazing still life photography. Today the genre is wider than ever: the images used in advertising or cookbooks, shots of what one’s handbag or backpack holds, and other arranged scenes of everyday life. And there are the wonderful interpretations given by all the wonderful amateur lens artists of the day.

Here are some of my own small attempts at still life photography. There are a couple of things that I realized while taking these. Lighting is as important here as in any other kind of photography; all of these examples used indirect natural light. Direct sunlight gives completely different effects. Since the time of Dutch bourgeois still life, the background has always been as much of a statement as the ostensible subject. So, for example, in the last photo with modern mass produced personal objects, I laid them over a microfiber duster, and dropped an empty plastic wrapper into the mix. The vegetables in the header photo are laid out on a sheet of paper which would normally be used to wrap fish in a supermarket. And the condensation on the egg comes from the fact that it had been just taken out of a fridge. Modern images should have some modern content I think.

Love and war

Chāmunda is the reigning goddess of the Mohini temple. This small temple on the south bank of the Bindu Sāgar tank is usually overlooked by the visitors who walk between the Lingarāja and the Ananta Vāsudeva temples. We had to walk down some steps from the road to the path around the tank, and then climb a short flight of stairs up to the area of the temple. I’d read two blogs, one from 2015, and another from 2020 which implied that the temple was surrounded by houses. They are now cleared, and a unimpeded view of the northern elevation greeted us. It is a small temple, just the jagamohana in the east (the lower spire in the photo alongside), less formal and religious in purpose, and the sanctum behind it, with the high spire. The temple is said to date from the 9th century, and is ascribed to the queen Mohini Devi of the Bhauma-Kara dynasty. Perhaps the history is more complicated.

We walked around it looking at the sculptures on the exterior. There were lovely carvings of Ganesha and Kārtikeya. But my eyes snagged on the sculptures of the dikpālas, the vedic gods who guard the various directions. Varuna, identifiable by the noose (pāsa) faced east, instead of the traditional west. Indra (armed with lightning and riding an elephant) and Ishāna (armed with a mace and riding a bull) faced west. They are usually seen facing east and northeast respectively. On the northern side of the temple was a sculpture of Yama riding his buffalo. I would have expected him to face south. It looked as if the temple should have been rotated 180 degrees. Had I made a mistake? I looked at the sun. I looked at my watch. I confirmed with the GPS on my phone. No I hadn’t. The dikpālas facing in the wrong direction is a great mystery about this temple, and someone with a much deeper knowledge of history than me is needed to solve it.

This photo shows another woman’s figure on the northern side of the temple. I was struck by the beautiful modelling of the figure. The figures from the frieze at the base of the temple seemed to be less well modelled than the ones on the outer wall of the jagamohan. You can see an example in the shown in the featured photo. I found this bit particularly interesting— the figures of the people making love are twice the size of those engaged in war. If people had built around the haphazardly, then possibly the base would have been subject to more damage than the upper parts. Perhaps that’s what I saw.

The Family had found the sculptures above the entrance door of the jagamohan. The nine figures represent the navagraha, the nine planets. These include the five visible planets, the sun and the moon, and the two mathematical entities which are called Rāhu and Ketu. Interestingly, the first seven figures looked the same to me, but Rāhu and Ketu were quite different. The two represent the points at which the orbit of the moon crosses the ecliptic (the path of the sun in the sky). The point at which the moon enters the northern hemisphere is called Rāhu, the one where it crosses going southwards is called Ketu. Eclipses can only occur when the moon is at these two points, which gives rise to the associated story of Rāhu and Ketu being two demons who try to swallow the moon and the sun.

I’d grown up with stories of these demons even before I understood the science behind it. It strikes me now that this conversion of mathematics to stories is a wonderful way of preserving scientific knowledge. These days when the love of knowledge is being overwhelmed by a war against it, perhaps this could be adopted as a deliberate strategy for passing hard won knowledge down to the future.

Krishna forever

Translating Ananta Vāsudeva (ଅନନ୍ତ ବାସୁଦେବ in Odia) required a little thought. Vāsudeva (sanskrit: वासुदेव) is Krishna of course, the son of Vasudeva (sanskrit: वसुदेव) and ananta exactly translates into endless. The title of this post is a close translation into modern English. That’s the temple in Bhubaneshwar which you see in the featured photo. The temple’s genesis is known precisely due to a carved stone tablet which says that it was dedicated in 1278 CE by the queen Chandrika Devi, daughter of king Anangabhima 3 of what we call today the Eastern Ganga dynasty. The tablet can be seen in the Royal Asiatic Society collection where it was taken after it was hacked out at the behest of Major General Charles Stuart of the British East India Company. It is believed that the current temple was built over the foundations of an earlier temple to Vishnu. It was extensively renovated by the Marathas in the 17th century.

Although it is nearly as large as the nearby Lingaraj temple, it is not as popular with worshippers and tourists. That made it ideal for a short visit. The date of construction of the Ananta Vāsudeva temple makes it a contemporary of the more famous Konarak Sun temple. It was not a far stretch to imagine that some of the same artists could have worked there. In fact the human figures that I saw on the base and on the walls of the temple were equally well modelled. I will probably post later with some more photos of the figures on the exterior. There was an interesting, and very visible, difference between the stone used for the base (gallery above) and the spires (gallery below). The strength and weight of building materials are always considerations for an architect.

We spent much longer at this temple than we’d thought we would. It is a working temple, with granite sculptures of Krishna, his brother Balarama, and sister Subhadra in the garbagriha. I’m glad that we stayed longer, because we noticed the enormous amount of food being cooked in the kitchens, and got to taste some. But that is a story for later.

Presidential Bonsai

Bonsai is an art that I find fascinating. It has the same relationship to plant breeding as, say street art has to painting. A painting is made to last. A plant breeder can sit back after creating a stable new line of plants and say, “There. That will spread. That will last a long while now without my care.” In contrast, a street artist lives with the certainty that the painting will disappear in a relatively short time. Bonsai is an artistic statement about a single tree, and will disappear when the tree dies. Oh, these adolescent sighs over the impermanence of things!

The President of India has a whole division in his gardening staff whose job, it seems, is to produce and care for bonsai. Going by the results, they must be a dedicated lot, quite in love with their job. They may not have the showmanship of Makoto Azuma, but I liked their work. Click on an image in the gallery above to look at it in more detail.