The intense social life under lockdown

Our culture is changing so rapidly now. Some of it is bad: a constant worry, leading to a tendency to be prescriptive in our little lives and dictatorial in powerful circles. But others are wonderful. The Family and I are in much closer contact with our globally dispersed families.

Apart from calling more often, we have family meals together at least twice a week. We find ourselves having dinner as others join us on video with an evening’s tea, or an elaborate afternoon meal, or a mid-morning break for tea, or even brunch. Sometimes these are formal occasions, where everyone dresses up (except an occasional hilarious couple who have just woken up and appear looking disheveled). We chat about our daily lives (I’d never pickled onions before), while the children run around and come up now and then to monopolize the conversation for a bit (they have seldom had such large audiences). Sometimes two or three of us wander off for a private phone chat, and join the conversation later. It is all a bit like a messy family weekend that I remember from my childhood.

Is this the shape of our lives for a while? I will be happy. WHO recommends that we do physical distancing. That’s what it feels like: social togetherness and physical distancing.

Yeh hai Bambai meri jaan

There are times when I can’t imagine myself living anywhere else than the heart of Mumbai. I like to think that I stalk these familiar lanes all the time, renewing acquaintance with the little things that I love, and frowning disapproval of the new. But I just discovered that I’m wrong. I see two sets of street photos from Mumbai, the featured photo is one of the group which comes from a long walk the day after Diwali 2019, and the photo below from a walk in January this year.

Niece Mbili will finish her long course in architecture this year. When she visited in January I took her for a walk to see the parts of Mumbai she didn’t know. I like this view because you see three completely different styles of architecture standing cheek by jowl: the grandiose tower of the stock exchange looms behind a dilapidated Art Deco building from the 1930s, while a newly painted chawl, probably from the early 20th century, stands off to the left.

I led Niece Mbili to a few of Mumbai’s lesser known Art Deco buildings. The photo above is of the crumbling Lalcir Chambers on Tamarind Road. The beautiful Art Deco front door still remains. The wonderful lettering in the facade is another clear Art Deco feature. If you step back and ignore the inept repairs, the data and electrical cables stapled to the walls without any consideration of aesthetics, and obscure signboards, you can see the clean Art Deco lines emerge. Niece Mbili is an expert at this kind visualization. She was suitably stunned. She didn’t know that Mumbai has almost aa many Art Deco buildings as Miami. Now she plans to visit for a longer while. When she does I’ll plan a good walk.

My earlier walk had brought me to an unexpected sight: this artful wooden door. I was quite surprised by what looked like a street art duel: one artist painting a Picassoesque face, the other replying with Pacman. But equally interesting were the padlocks on the door. I was certain that I could tear the padlocks out of the wood, if I wanted, much more easily than picking the lock. The unthinking things that people do for their peace of mind!

But that day’s highlight was the guard sitting on the road, guarding a building which was under renovation. I like the totally relaxed attitude of the man, his chair blocking what would have been an extremely busy road on a working day, slippers off his feet, knowing that no one in their right mind would walk in through that doorway. Oh, and that doorway! It must have been all the rage in the 1880s to sculpt the most modern things into arches above doors. The locomotive is great: progress and trade, and what not. Some day I should post a photo of my favourite: a sculpted stone representation of a complicated theodolite.

Let me leave you with this song by Mohammad Rafi and Geeta Dutt, from the 1956 movie CID, with Jonny Lever and Minoo Mumtaz (I think) in this scene. For many of us, that is the anthem of the city: you can’t bear to live here, you can’t bear to leave.

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.

Guerrilla art

You wouldn’t expect a sign for a toilet to be a piece of art but this mischievous piece that I saw on a wall in Fort Kochi brought a smile to my face. Just to eliminate other possibilities (“awful pun,” The Family assured me) I looked for the toilet, and it wasn’t there, This piece was exactly what I thought it was: a piece of deliberate fun. Not Guerrilla art really, more Guerrilla cartoon.

But Kochi does bring together two of its main cultural obsessions, politics and art, into true Guerrilla art. Who or what is Guess Who? Is it a person, or a collective? The style could be a single person’s, and the wit behind its political satire is evident. I could laugh out loud at the construction of a phallic symbol for censorship. The juxtaposition of an enormous mosquito and a comment on news could be interpreted as straight out Guerrilla art or as culture jamming, if you consider how TV news is now a brand, pitched at finely sliced audiences.

Some of the other pieces occupy a space between Guerrilla art and straight out graffiti. With so much energy on display, the underground art scene in Fort Kochi seems to be in great shape. Art of this kind is utterly ephemeral, so between the time you see this and you visit Kochi, the pieces will have changed completely. I hope a curator somewhere is putting together a web site of this most ephemeral of media.

I finally leave you with a piece of street art, not in the sense that it takes now, but in a more ancient sense. Once, the street truly belonged to the community living there. Its look and feel determined by local aesthetics. This little decorative panel, hidden between layers of posters is an earlier form of street art, with a longer life.

A medieval swimming pool

After a surfeit of temples in Hampi it felt good to walk into any other type of building. The first one we entered was a swimming pool. This is in the middle of the main citadel and is called the Queen’s Bath. Medieval Europe didn’t have swimming pools, heated baths having disappeared with the Romans. I found two things remarkable about this structure. The first was the size: it was a square 15 meters to a side and 1.8 meters deep. This is a sixth of the volume of a modern olympic sized swimming pool, but large for a small group of people.

The second thing which seemed remarkable was the profuse use of arches and domes. Temple architecture did not seem to have advanced much in Hampi, except in the slenderness of pillars. The simple pillar and beam construction may have been in a state of arrested development precisely because it was a temple, and its construction had to follow set patterns. The medieval advances in architecture were visible here, where fashion could triumph over tradition. The result was a profusion of arches, stucco work, and balconies. Unfortunately moss has begun to crumble the plaster into a grainy black.

Wide galleries ran along the sides of the pool, with arches supporting domes. Stairs led down from the galleries into the pool. One side of the pool contains the water channels which once brought water into the pool from a reservoir. Filling the pool would have required 400,000 liters of water. The channels were not wide enough to allow the pool to be filled fast. I wondered whether medieval Hampi had invented some sort of water filtering and purifying system to allow the water in the pool to be used over and over again. Or did the queen come here seldom, and time could be given to cleaning and refilling the pool between visits. There is definitely history waiting to be written here.

I looked up at the inside of the domes. They were not large, and they sat on simple octagonal bases. There seemed to be no particular specialty there, except for the lovely decorations on the inside of each dome. The lotus, the leaves, and the ducks all carried the theme of water. This city was founded in the late 14th century CE and lasted till the 17th century. Within this period, there doesn’t seem to be a dating of this building. At one time you could enter the gallery from all sides, but modern crowd control requires a single opening. I had completed my circuit of the gallery, and back at the southern opening, I stepped out again into the hot afternoon sun. A modern swimming pool would have been very welcome.

Garden day

Between chasing birds and scoping out animals on holidays, and traveling on work otherwise, I don’t get to spend much time in gardens. So when the opportunity does come, I lose no time in relaxing. Instead I’m up and about with my camera, until I come to a nice empty bench on which I can sprawl.

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I managed a long sprawl in this tiny garden in Hampi while others were visiting some small and insignificant forestry museum. I think it was time well spent. You decide.

Admiring kites in Wuhan

I had emails from colleagues in Wuhan. The city was isolated around the time of the Chinese new year, when some families had left on their annual holiday, and others were preparing to leave. Those who had not left have now been confined to their flats for weeks. I remembered several months ago when I was in Wuhan, perhaps not long before the novel virus crossed over to humans. I’d gone for an afternoon’s walk along the Yangtze. This is a place where mothers and grandparents bring their toddlers, and retirees come to chat or fish.

The path was hazarded by children running and stumbling. Several of them had bubble makers with them and were busy spinning out long bubbles. I wondered if it is possible to make a toy which blows bubbled shaped like doughnuts. I don’t think the little girl in the photo had anything on her mind apart from blowing longer and longer bubbles.

It was a pleasant and sunny winter afternoon. Novembers can be rather cold in this part of the world, but this was an unusually mild November, with the winter sun warming my jacket very pleasantly. Boats glided past on the river, its banks loaded with tall grass at points. I love the sight of this kind of grass: it reminds me of a scene in a movie by Satyajit Ray where a boy and his elder sister run through such a field to see a train.

But what really attracts me here is the variety of kites on display. Often they are the standard rectangles and triangles, some with long tail streamers. But they are wonderfully decorated. A lot of them have pop culture theme: dragons from one of the most popular movies of 2010, angry birds, Tweety, as well as anime characters which I don’t recognize. They are clearly aimed at the younger end of the crowd.

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I watched several in flight. Some of them were being flown by a single person, but several involved a whole family. A child, grandparents, mother. It struck me that like in India, kite flying is more a boy’s and men’s sport in China. Women are involved, but the boy or grandfather take on leading roles. Why is that?

Among all this was a delightfully more complex kite: the box kite that you see in the photos above. I’d never seen a box kite when I was young, and what I read of them never led me to successfully build one. So now if I see one I’m entranced. I stood and watched as the kite seller and the customer handled the kite on the ground. As it soared up I stood to watch. I suppose afternoons are not so pleasant in Wuhan in these months.

Kochi before Christmas

We walked through the brightly lit and festive streets of Kochi on Christmas Eve. We’d had a big lunch and were looking forward to a wonderful dinner, so this long walk was really necessary. About the time that the sun went down we tried to look into St. Francis Church, where Vasco da Gama was buried for a while, but it had already closed. We walked down the road to order the special bread called the breudher from a bakery which I’d located after some searching. The last part of this walk took us out of touristy parts of Kochi and into roads lined with houses which were lit up for the festival.

Almost a third of Kerala’s population is Christian, and most of them follow an Orthodox church. Some are counted as the oldest churches in the world, perhaps older than the church of Rome. The Indian church was represented in the Synod of Nicea in 325 CE, which was the first organized gathering of the Christian religion. What we see today, however, is also strongly influenced by later contact with Europe. The Indian Orthodox church celebrates Christmas, but I always wonder which part of people’s celebrations at home come through the original eastern line of traditions, and which were adopted later from the western traditions.

The Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica was gearing up for its midnight mass. The lighting scheme for Christmas was interesting. The Portuguese were allowed to build a church at this spot and its foundation stone was laid in 1505 CE. This was reputedly the first mortar and stone building in Kochi which was not a royal palace. It was declared a Cathedral in 1558, converted into an armoury by the Dutch in 1663, and destroyed by the British in 1793. The tall column in the foreground of the photo above seems to be mostly a modern structure, but the base could be part of a granite column from this old building.

Construction of a new church on the same site was started in 1887 by the Bishop of Kochi, but the building took some time to complete. It was finally consecrated in 1905 and declared to be a Basilica in 1984. A look inside showed it to be an exuberantly early 20th century construction: full of cast iron. If we ever go back at a less busy time I would take the time to look at the frescoes and paintings inside, but also a close look at this construction. One sees very few large churches from this era.

Anegundi

Across the river Tungabhadra from the archaeological digs of Hampi is Anegundi, the oldest capital of the Vijayanagara kingdom. Harihara the first of the Sangama kings had his base here as he carved his kingdom out of the disintegrating Hoysala empire in the early 14th century CE. His successor Bukka Raya moved the capital to the more easily defended south bank of the river in the 1360s. We crossed the river in the northwards to see something of the remains of the early years of the kingdom.

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There is little that remains. Part of an aqueduct is all that is visible of the hydraulic engineering of the kingdom. A few temples remain as places of pilgrimage: the Anjaneya temple which perches on top of a cliff (featured photo), is the biggest draw, followed by Pampa Sarovar and the Durga temple. One of the spots worth visiting is an iron age remnant, some dolmens and cave paintings. Unfortunately the road was not driveable, and the afternoon had got pretty hot. The rest of the capital city has disappeared, and the area has reverted to modern village life. We found a little place to stop and have a chai, drove past ripening fields, crept at a petty pace behind a large flock of goats, marvelled at stacks of bananas left on the roadside to be picked up by a delivery truck. As The Family looked at some local jewellery being hawked to tourists next to the Pampa Sarovar, I took some photos of the lady who was both modelling and selling them.