When you stare into a jungle the jungle stares back at you

We walked out of the Star Chamber of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT to all of us time-starved people) to admire the decorations outside. When you look up at the capitals of the columns around the station, you see a veritable jungle. The monkey in the featured photo seems to have been startled by the camera peering at it. The rough chiselling of the stone probably shows that a very large amount of stone carving had to be finished in a short time. The artistic innovation is delightful: the texture of the animal’s fur is evoked by the chisel marks.

Inside the ticketing office I’d admired this panel where two mongooses faced off against each other between swirls of Attic vines. Dear Rudyard, east and west do meet, again and again, to produce such wonderful works as these, just a few steps from your childhood home.

I looked up at the tower at this corner of the building. There was a whole line of heraldic devices carved into the stone. They included the cross of the Great Indian Peninsular Railways, compasses for navigation, a sailing ship, animals, a cherub and a steam locomotive. Very much a high-Victorian mish mash of symbols. The Family and I looked up at the beautiful facade where four colours of stone are harmonized. This reminded me faintly of Mughal monuments. The jali also seems to be inspired by the similar structures.

Looking up further, we spotted a very decorative peacock above an open window. On closer look I was quite taken aback. It is hard to capture a peacock in stone, since its main attraction is the shimmer of colour in the male’s raised plumage. The artist has done a rather good job of capturing the general idea in monochrome stone.

Closer above our head I admired owls and sundry birds, dense foliage below the paws of a stone lion about to leap on to unsuspecting passers-by. Below the owl I admired a line of ferns, their delicate leaves and spirally unfolding fronds giving the owl a perfect toe-hold.

The foliage in this jungle on the pavement is so completely different from that inside the ticketing hall that I found it useful to compare the two. Inside, animals from an Indian jungle cavort through this southern European flora. Outside, the\ese vines are often relegated to the edges of decorations, when an Indian jungle takes over the main pictorial space.

But not always. In the panel you see above, eastern fauna meets western flora again. Artists will mash up what they have spent years perfecting. That’s part of the reason I think that the work of decoration was done by students of the J. J. School of Arts and not by local artisans. The repertoire of classical western decorative motifs would not be available to Indian artists who had not studied them.

Outside, I took a closer look at the part of the structure which holds the offices of the Central Railways. This part of the building has been restored, and it is possible to visit during office hours. We will have to go back to see it from inside.

Victorian Gothic you say? Where are the gargoyles then? You have to look far up, where they jut out of the turrets, puctuating the sky, looking down on the huge stone lions holding steel banners to the wind.

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An amazing railway station

When I got on to a train to Bharatpur in early February I realized that I don’t travel much by train any longer. Most of my travel for work is done between cities connected by flights. When I make a trip far away, I try to maximize my time at the destination by flying as close to it as possible and then taking a car. These are high-impact ways of traveling. It is not unlikely that trains have smaller environmental impact.

Railway stations have changed a lot. The station in Mumbai was vast and much better organized than it used to be. But what was amazing was the station I got off at half a day later- Bharatpur in Rajasthan. This town has now defined itself by the Keoladeo National Park next to it. The park is one of the most famous birding spots in the country; if you tell anyone that you are going to Bharatpur they will immediately respond with “Birds.”

This incredible feat of conservation is celebrated in the railway station. Murals of lotus flowers and buds, metal cutouts showing deer and tigers, and paintings of birds decorate the station. If you ever rolled past the station in a train you would not miss the connection to nature that Bharatpur now professes.

Murals of owls, herons and foxes greeted me as I got off the train. My phone was not working so I waited while The Family took the photos which you see here. We were a small group of birders, most of whom we had met for the first time the previous evening as we boarded the train. Several of the others also had their phones out to take photos of the station.

We gaped at this large mural of painted storks in their nest. It seems that serious birders don’t take out their big lenses for stuff like this, although they should. I was pretty impressed by the four species which stood by the side of the nest in homage. A skein of flying painted storks were the first birds that were pointed out to us by our rickshaw-guide when we came here in the last century in the days before we had taken up birding.

Does Bharatpur have tigers? There are no residents, but occasionally one strays in from Ranthambore or Sariska, and its removal is a nine-day wonder.

Our transport had arrived, and the spree of photography had to be cut short. As The Family took a last photo I thought that it would indeed be worth a note in a wildlife magazine if we could get a photo of a Brahminy Kite fishing. That Kingfisher off on the side seems to have turned green with envy.

One door closes, another opens

I rushed into my departure gate at Mumbai airport thinking that boarding would have started, and found that the flight was slightly delayed. That gave me a few minutes to kill in an area with a wonderful art installation. I’ve written about the carved wooden doors of Gujarat sometime earlier, but I had no photos to share. This installation was full of them.

One of the things I like about older localities in Ahmedabad are the exquisitely carved doors of old havelis. The doors are certainly very attractive, as you can see here, but when you look at the architecture they are embedded in, it is clear that they are there in a supporting role. It is the whole architecture which is the star. Here, in the airport, the doors were extracted out of their settings and shown as beautiful pieces of art. Abstracted from their context, I thought they lost just a bit of life.

Used as an art installation they take on a different role, as desirable pieces. Seeing them here reminded me of a conversation I had recently with someone who was thinking of modernizing an old building in Gujarat and getting the money for it by selling the doors and windows of the house. That is a lot of money, which means that there is a market for these doors. Don’t be surprised if one of these old doors turns up in a corporate office you see, or a hotel you walk into.

Street art of Shillong

I had quick glimpses of street art as the Rath of the Clan trundled around Shillong. My impression was that it had a better developed guerilla aesthetics than anything I see in Mumbai. The figure in the featured image holds a placard which says “Eat my shit.” When I saw this I wished I had the time to seek out other examples of local street art.

Unfortunately the hectic schedule of a relaxed family holiday left no time for such individual pursuits. I passed a long mural against human trafficking on one wall. I’ve seen similar messages in other places, so I believe it is not guerilla art. I hope someone local makes the effort to document this newly burgeoning scene. It certainly wasn’t noticeable five years ago.

King Rat Loves You

You see all kinds of artwork on trucks, but you seldom see Rattus Rampant displaying a message for St. Valentine’s Day, clutching the escutcheon blazoned sable, bend sinister sanguine rose argent. This is a special from the highways of Meghalaya.

While I was sleeping

“What did you do while I slept?” I asked The Family when I finally gave up trying to sleep through my flu. “This and that. I went shopping and I took lots of photos,” she said. We went out together in the late afternoon, walking again through the Liwan district.

She showed me the photos when we sat down. She’d taken the trouble to stop in front of each of the bronze statues that the city has installed on Shangxiajiu pedestrian street and photographed it. We’d both admired these pieces of public art which celebrate the heydays of Guangzhou, the 1920s and 30s.These bronzes are evidence of China’s renewed fascination with the life of those times. I had very few photos of them, and, in fact, The Family had discovered ones that I’d not even seen. The plaques below the pedestals did not give us any information on the dates of installation or the names of artists, but, of course, we do not read Chinese. Later we searched on the web but couldn’t find any information either.

Museum of calligraphy

When I spotted a tiny Museum of Calligraphy near the Bund in Shanghai, I wasn’t sure what it would turn out to be. Our flight had been delayed, and by the time we checked into our hotel most things were closing. This was only a couple of blocks from our hotel, and in a street full of book stores and art equipment. There would be other interesting things to look at if this was no good, I thought. The Family had also grown very interested in calligraphy ever since our encounters with painters in Guangzhou. So we walked down to the self-styled museum. It was a room above a tiny shop of calligraphy brushes and inkstones, small but interestingly put together (see the featured photo).

First things first: what are brushes made of? We couldn’t read the Chinese explanations, but the pictorial guide was helpful. When I was young I’d used delicate squirrel hair brushes for fine details, and stiff hog’s hair brushes for larger areas. Mink, vegetable fiber, human hair, bear fur seemed very exotic to me. I looked at the picture of a goat illustrating the parts which yielded fiber for brushes, and wondered about the special characteristics of the brushes.

A large number of displays on the walls answered these questions. They showed the kind of work that each type of brush is used for. We walked around looking at the panels: again quite simple to follow, even though we didn’t read any Chinese. This was the part of the museum that I really enjoyed. They threw light on an aspect of calligraphy which I’d not paid attention to. The next time I go through a museum looking at the collection of painting and calligraphy, I’ll be more alert to the changes of brushes in the painting.

The part of the display which I did not understand at all was the one about ink sticks and ink stones. I understand that you put a little water in an ink stone, and grind the ink stick into it. How does the kind of ink stone you use affect your technique? This was probably the place where knowledge of Chinese would have helped me to understand the display. In any case, of the four treasures (paper, brush, ink stone and ink stick) I now understood more about one. A successful half an hour, I thought.

Suit of Jade

The short-lived Qin empire, the first empire of China, fell by 206 BCE. Much was happening in India at the time: the Maurya empire was at its peak, the Gandhara kingdoms were rising in modern day Afghanistan, the first kingdoms of South India were being established. The Nanyue kingdom was one of the successor states of Qin, covering what is today Northern Vietnam, and the Chinese provinces of Guangxi, Guangdong, and Yunnan. Han, another of the successors of Qin, was in conflict with Nanyue and occassionally dominant. I found this background when I visited the massive museum built over the mausoleum of the Nanyue king Zhao Mo, discovered in 1983 CE in the Yuexiu district of Guangzhou.

The museum is very close to the Yuexiu Park metro station. We arrived an hour short of closing, enough time for the museum, as it turned out. The mausoleum is the usual mound over small burial chambers. We climbed down, and walked through these low stone-lined chambers. Zhao Mo died in 122 BCE. Since the first emperor’s tomb has never been excavated, this is possibly the oldest tomb of a Chinese king which has been examined properly in modern times. All the artifacts found here are in the museum above the digs.

The star of the show is undoubtedly the full-body jade suit in the featured photo. The Chinese belief that jade preserves the body is likely to be the reason it enclosed the king’s body inside his wooden coffin. The rest of the things (and people) in the mausoleum were meant to serve him in afterlife. There was a lot of jade in evidence (the bowl and the belt buckle in the photos caught my eye). Gold and silver were present, but in smaller quantities. The museum of full of beautiful items, but there is little explanation. That’s part of the reason why an hour here was more than enough.

Ivory work of Guangdong

Four years ago I read news about the Chinese government destroying large amounts of smuggled ivory in an effort to curtail the illegal trade. Ivory trading is now banned in China, but most of the remaining trickle of illegal trade now passes through Guangdong. There is a reason for this. Ivory carving is an old traditional craft in Guangdong province. I had not connected these pieces of information until I saw the small exhibition of ivory carving in the Chen Clan Academy in Guangzhou. The 19th century oil painting of a mandarin on a sheet of ivory (featured photo) is not something that needs to be repeated today, since a work like this could well be executed on some other surface. It is an interesting style though; the treatment seems completely western.

The most stunning piece was one called “March into the Great Southeast”. This was carved by Guo Kang in 1958. The incredible piece (a detail from which you can see in the photo above) is carved from a single tusk. The rendering of the scenery and of an army toiling through it are stunning. This is, of course, a piece of propaganda in the style of Socialist Realism, but that does not subtract from its value as art. It translates the subjects of classical Chinese paintings quite accurately into this other medium.

The ivory carving of an 11 layer boat was made in 1990 by Pan Chuju. The details are stunning. Just that chain near the bottom edge of the photo, carved out of a single piece of ivory, would be a major technical job. The cantilevered bell, the decorative elephant heads, and all the little details are stunning. While I could appreciate the technical mastery involved, the piece somehow left me a little cold.

There were many smaller pieces. This small 19th century brush washer was typical of the exhibits. The artful asymmetry and visual balance places it quite definitely in the Chinese aesthetic tradition. The Family and I stood in front of this piece. As I thought about the kind of wealth and leisure that this piece implies, The Family said “Let’s go and see the paintings.”

Ceramic socialist realism

During one dinner in China, after much alcohol had been downed with toasts, conversation turned to calligraphy. I was surprised to hear the general opinion that Mao Zedong was considered to have produced very good calligraphy in the classical style. Recently, seeing that the brochure of the Tate gallery’s exhibition of Social Realist art from China quoted Mao extensively, I realized that he was quite strongly aware of the potential of art to subvert or accelerate social change. As early as in the Yan’an conference of 1942, Mao made statements that prefigured the philosophical basis of what came to be called the cultural revolution. This is an example: “The life of the people is always a mine of the raw materials for literature and art, materials in their natural form, materials that are crude, but most vital, rich and fundamental; they make all literature and art seem pallid by comparison; they provide literature and art with an inexhaustible source, their only source.”

A part of the permanent exhibition in the Chen Clan Academy of Guangzhou is a roomful of small glazed ceramic pieces which are clearly made in the Social Realistic style. The pre-communist nationalist movement created a ferment in the art world, with many artists experimenting with western styles. This was carried to an extreme in Social Realism, as you can see in the examples here (notice the fedora carried by the man who takes the bull by the horn). Looking closely at these pieces, I realized that there is an individuality to each. Within the constraints of the system, they are still expressive of the artist’s vision. What else does one ask from an artist but technical mastery and individual vision?