Curios and curioser

I stood in front of a door with the intricately carved hardwood lintel which you see in the featured photo. The figure is possibly a variant of Gajalakshmi, the goddess of wealth in her most royal aspect. In the usual iconography she would have four hands, two in the mudras of abhaya and varada, and two holding lotuses. Here only the pairof hands with the lotuses is seen. The dark wood had certainly been carved more than a century ago, perhaps some time in the middle of the 19th century CE. Once this kind of door lintel was common across Kerala. There was a master carver who served a small group of villages. The large number of master carvers puzzled me. In a pre-consumer economy, you would not expect door lintels to be such hot items. It turns out that the reason has to do with a churn in the Kerala agricultural economy in the 19th century.

At the beginning of the 19th century the economy of Kerala had come to depend heavily on the export of pepper. It was originally grown only in two districts, but the possibility of trade made pepper the primary crop across the Malabar region. Then, in the first decades of the 19th century, the pepper market crashed and the local economy shifted first to byproducts of coconut, and then to coffee. Land belonged to a few, and was worked by a larger number of tenants who would bid for the right to cultivate. In this speculative agrarian economy there was a quick turnover of tenants, and at each turnover the newly prosperous tenants built their own family home. This required extensive woodwork and metalwork (see the ornate handle and lock in the door above).

In the Kochi area you’ll find shops full of old bric-a-brac hiding a few gems. The wooden carvings that you see in this photo also come from that time. It is interesting to see that about eight centuries of cross-ocean trade had already made Kerala a very cosmopolitan place. Local artists drew not only on old Hindu traditions, but also the deep historical connections with the west, the Levant and Arabia, the far west, Europe, and the east, Java, Vietnam, and, mostly at a remove, China. As an amateur I find it interesting to try to trace artistic influences in these everyday decorations from a century ago. I’m sure art historians have been over this territory in great detail.


Decades ago I stood in front of Gustav Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer on show in the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna (the featured image is a detail taken from Wikimedia Commons). So, when The Family decided to stream Helen Mirren’s movie The Woman in Gold, I jumped to the conclusion that I knew the sad ending of the story. I had not known that this was piece of art that the Nazis had stolen. George Clooney’s movie Monuments Men had told the story of a platoon of soldiers tasked by the US president Franklin Roosevelt to recover the stolen artworks before Hitler’s orders to destroy them could be carried out. Herman Goering had set up a clearing house for stolen art in the Jeu de Paume gallery in Paris. An older movie with Burt Lancaster, The Train, had told the story of how the French resistance had delayed a train full of stolen art from leaving Paris just before it was liberated by the Allies. After watching Mirren’s film, we talked of corrupt governments and stolen art, still residing in museums in Berlin, London, Paris, New York, as well as the 21st century theft of Iraqi heritage.

Anthony Hopkins and others in the Merchant-Ivory film Remains of the Day

Other movies led to other thoughts. Watching Anthony Hopkins as the butler imagined by Kazuo Ishiguro in The Remains of the Day, I asked myself about the economics of the Nazi era. There is a whole Wikipedia page on the businesses that collaborated in the Holocaust. Goering, Hitler, von Ribbentrop, are recorded as having looted art, and in a government that allows looting of one kind, surely other kinds of theft must have happened. The Nazi era is still under academic investigation, and the wealth of material available today is stunning.

In 1946 the Journal of Business of the University of Chicago carried an article by Arthur Schweitzer which concluded, “In terms of status and privileges, public property of state and party occupied the first place; German big business and hereditary farms as well as quisling owners composed the group of preferred private owners. German small business and non-quisling owners suffered under extensive and deliberate discrimination.” This basic view has held up remarkably well over the last seventy five years.

Further nuance has been added. Germa Bel of the University of Barcelona argued in a paper published in 2009 that the “Nazi regime transferred public ownership and public services to the private sector. In doing so, they went against the mainstream trends in the Western capitalist countries, none of which systematically reprivatized firms during the 1930s. Privatization in Nazi Germany was also unique in transferring to private hands the delivery of public services previously provided by government.” The paper comes to the following conclusion “Ideological motivations do not explain Nazi privatization. However, political motivations were important. The Nazi government may have used privatization as a tool to improve its relationship with big industrialists and to increase support among this group for its policies. Privatization was also likely used to foster more widespread political support for the party. Finally, financial motivations played a central role in Nazi privatization.”

In Anne Frank House it is hard to tear yourself away from her hiding place

This adds a whole new layer of our understanding of the corruption in that government. It wasn’t just stealing art, or gold teeth from cadavers; the Nazis were stealing from the German people, taking from the general populace, and feeding part of the stream of money into the hands of “preferred private owners” in order to cement their hold on political power. The world war and the Holocaust were so reprehensible that it is hard to look away to see this other aspect which was equally part of the Nazi corruption of government.

Another Egyptian goose

When I hear about Egyptian geese I think of the species Alopochen aegyptiaca, native of the Nile and sub-Saharan Africa, and considered sacred by the ancient Egyptians. I saw them for the first time when we visited Kenya a couple of years ago. The featured photo was taken on the banks of the Mara river. The coloured patch around its eye makes it instantly recognizable, although the rest of the colouring varies a little. But now, in a paper which will appear in April in the paywalled Journal of Archaeological Science, Anthony Romilio of U Queensland has identified another extinct goose from ancient Egyptian paintings.

The panel in the picture above is part of a larger painting which was originally on the north wall of the chapel tomb of Itet, wife to King Sneferu’s vizier, Nefermaat, and likely to have been the king’s daughter-in-law. The original is now in Cairo Museum, and a fascimile can be seen in the Metropolitan Museum in NYC. A description in the website of the Met says ” The artist took great care in rendering the colors and textures of the birds’ feathers and even included serrated bills on the two geese bending to graze.” It is this level of detail in the paintings from the tomb which set Romilio thinking about the species. A series of measurements convinced him that it is not a living species. The red breasted goose, Branta ruficollis, seems to be the closest in appearance, but it has not been spotted south of the Mediterranean, nor have remains ever been identified in ancient Egyptian archaeological sites.

“Artistic licence could account for the differences with modern geese, but artworks from this site have extremely realistic depictions of other birds and mammals,” Romilio is quoted as saying in a press release from UQ. It is interesting that the Sahara was a lush landscape about 10,000 years ago when Nile-dwelling humans began to move into this landscape. The process of desertification began at about the time of the unification of the upper and lower kingdoms, in around 3100 BCE. Romilio has worked on reconstructing taxa of extinct animals of ancient Egypt from ancient Egyptian artwork, and is an author of a book on this subject.

A painting from Bengal

When I saw this framed print in Kolkata my first thought was that it must be a copy of a Kalighat style painting. My second guess was that it was a copy of a Jamini Roy. It is neither, but it follows a tradition that both used: Durga (in the aspect of Parvati) cradles her eldest son, Ganesha, in her lap. The tradition of Ganesha as the son of Parvati is at least two millennia old, so there must have been other traditions of painting the two in a similar style. It should be interesting to dig into whatever is left of these paintings.

The painted rickshaws outside Kolkata

Painted rickshaws are common in many parts of eastern India. On recent trips I’ve spent time photographing them in various places: first in Tripura, then in Assam, and most recently, last week, in the outskirts of Kolkata. A folk tradition of art is very alive in this part of the country, and artists make some money decorating things, the most visible of them being this common mode of transport. Interestingly, rickshaws in Kolkata are as bland as the taxis you see in Mumbai. You see these beautiful pieces of folk art as soon as you cross the boundary of the city. I wonder whether it is municipal rules which prevent this style from diffusing into the city. These paintings seem to be of two kinds. One is a panel which is painted and fixed on to the back of the rickshaw. The other is painted directly on to the side of the rickshaw.

The paintings are stylized. The sunsets, the covered boats, snow covered peaks, the calligraphic stylization of flying birds; these are motifs which appear again and again. Interestingly, I saw only one religious theme, and that was a picture of Kali. I hadn’t realized that parrots are a favourite of folk painters, perhaps that is a recent development. One may call the style a modern vernacular, so different from the Kalighat style of the 19th century, and the Shantiniketan modernists of the mid- and late-20th century. I suppose this vernacular must have developed in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, and was the background from which the Bengal school rose in the early 20th century. It is wonderful to see that this folk tradition remains alive even now. Perhaps it will throw up new formal movements in the future.

The source of the river Krishna

When you see the town of Mahabaleshwar, and squint a little, you can still see the colonial layout, the remains of the colonial buildings. A typical British era hill station, you might say. Yes, almost, it was the summer capital of Bombay Presidency, when the Grand Panjandrums would leave the hot and wet city for more pleasant surroundings. But drive a few kilometers and you are in Old Mahabaleshwar, otherwise known as the village of Jor, whose only claim to fame today is a group of temples. Stop at the car park, eat the strawberries with cream, and skulk off in a direction opposite to where the crowds are going, and you will see the true origin of this place: the temple to the river Krishna. Or perhaps not; Acheulian tools have been found in this region, so perhaps humans have been here for 100,000 years.

Decades ago, I’d chanced on this deserted old temple perched on the edge of a cliff, a quiet and peaceful place where nobody comes. It has not changed. I led The Family and three others to the Krishnadeva temple. Built of black basalt, this temple surrounds a spring which is traditionally considered to be the source of the Krishna river. The 1287 Km long river crosses the Deccan plateau, and, with its tributaries, has the largest drainage area in the Deccan. The temple must be ancient, and it is a wonder that the Marathas did not restore it.

I decided to walk around it and look at each of the external walls carefully. The external walls are fairly plain, but also look extremely weathered. There is a single statue on the northern facade. I’d thought it would be a digpala, perhaps Kubera, but I don’t think it is. Instead the figure is in a posture of prayer or supplication. I couldn’t place it.

The western facade was beautifully lit by the late afternoon sun, a shadow of a single tree falling across its bottom. The external stones which made up the wall were dressed perfectly and clearly needed no mortar, but they were weathered and cracked. The upper parts had been shaped once, but had broken and eroded. Moss had found its way into the cracks. I wondered how I could trace the history of this temple.

The carving on the western wall could have been of a digpala. Traditionally this should have been one of Varuna, identified by a noose (pasa) in his hand. This figure had a mace, indicating Kubera, or perhaps a fat staff (danda), which belongs to Agni, the guardian of the southeast. Strange.

The figure on the southern wall was too eroded for me to make out anything at all. I should have expected Yama to be guarding this wall, but the other figures did not make sense either. Perhaps the iconography was different from what I was used to, but is that possible? I don’t know enough art history to be able to figure this out.

I skirted the small tank outside the temple. This holds some of the water of the stream that I could hear rushing down the cliff. The Leafless came to see the tank, and I told her that she could take a walk around the temple to see it from outside. I could hear The Longlived and The Family having a discussion of whether the temple has sunk into the surrounding soil. The Divine Promise was busy taking photos of the surroundings. “Beautiful trees,” I remarked to him.

It is usually an amazing view from here. It was still spectacular for the others, but I’d seen it much clearer in the past. How can such a small stream become such a wide river as soon as it reaches the valley? It cannot. It is joined by four other streams within a few kilometers, but that wide water body down there is created by a dam. As far as I know it is just called the Krishna lake here. The Family and The Longlived joined me at the railing next to the cliff. “What a beautiful place,” The Longlived said, and asked me how I knew about it. I gave her the potted summary of my accidental discovery of the place, and wandered in with The Family.

We admired the large tank inside, where the water of the spring enters through the mouth of a cow carved from the basalt lying under the thin soil. Galleries run along three sides of the tank. The carvings are better preserved here than in the outer walls, so perhaps there was a shikhara above this till historically recent times. Or perhaps not. Perhaps it is just the enclosure from three sides which protected them. The Longlived is the second of my nieces who is studying architecture, and she was busy taking photos. We were largely silent, talking softly, unwilling to break the pleasant silence. Eventually we pulled ourselves away towards more strawberries.

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.