The circles of my life

One exposure lasts about a hundredth of a second. Maybe ten times longer. Perhaps ten times shorter. But the objects that are captured by the motion of electrons in the sensor may have lasted a century. That is 300,000,000,000 times longer, give or take a zero. Does it matter if the thing you are photographing is a thousand years old instead? Or only a decade old? Just give or take a zero at the end of those 11 others.

I saw a bubble released by a child, undulating across the sky, trying to achieve that perfect spherical shape in the short life time that it had. Was its shape more important than the shimmer of colour across its surface?

A scatter of painted oil drums outside an artist’s studio was a work in progress. Did I steal his work, misappropriate it by taking a photo before he could pin down his own vision? Would it have been morally different if I’d waited a few years and then taken a photograph which imposed my vision over his?

Catherine Opie said that sunsets and sunrises are the biggest cliches in photography. Ansel Adams said that a good photo is knowing where to stand. Henri Cartier-Bresson said sharpness is a bourgeois concept. David Lynch said that no matter what you mean, everyone is going to get something different from it.

Is an eclipse the shadow of one sphere passing over another? Or is it a rabbit being swallowed by a snake? In your imagination does it matter which is true? Nothing is written in stone, is it?

These photos were taken over three years and six thousand kilometers: a fraction of my life. They share one quality. They are inanimate circular objects which seemed beautiful to me at the time I took the photos. Now I wonder what I captured, the object, or the state of my mind?

The exuberance of Prag Mahal

Prag mahal is possibly the first example of the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture, with its design completed in 1865. I’d posted a quick tour of the darbar hall last week. This week is another quick tour to see the delightful meld of cultures that created this style: spiral staircases desecending from Indo-Greek architecture, clock towers, Victorian Gothic exteriors, and the riotous sandstone sculptures made by local artisans.

Whether you take the street entrance (with its massive door) or the entrance from the century older Aina Mahal, the first view of the new palace is that of an European building transplanted into India. But almost immediately you begin to see the differences. The exterior stonework is more reminiscent of Mughal influence, or possibly the Iberian Mudejar style, than of Victorian Gothic.

A closer look confirms this. The facade, with its regular spacing of arches, surmounted by stones in contrasting colours, and grand mosaics with geometric motifs, is redolent of the Iberian blend of east and west which goes by the name of the Mudejar style. The clock tower and its spiral staircase became a fixture in the Indian monumental architecture of the 19-th century, and is a British influence carried here. So are the cast iron railings on the staircases. The lancet arches and the massive pillars had already developed in early modern times, diffusing through the Mughal court into Indian architecture. The decorations on the ceiling are in a local style. The effect of the 2001 Gujarat earthquake are clearly visible. Some of the stone work on the facade and in some of the minor arches are visibly damaged.

One historical artifact that was not stolen in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake were the cannons that are displayed at the entrance. A plaque told us that it was a present from Tipu Sultan to the Rao.

For me one of the highlights of the building are the sandstone sculptures on the capitals of the numerous columns in the palace. Whether it is frogs standing in for the three wise monkeys, herons swallowing fish, a caterpillar being harried by a bird, a rat looking for a pigeon’s nest, or simply horse heads and foliage, each capital is unique. The local sculptors preferred working in sandstone. This is a relatively simple medium, and, since it comes from neighbouring Rajasthan, would be cheaper than transporting harder stone from further afield. However, sandstone also weathers faster. Already, in just over a hundred and fifty years, you can see the exterior-facing parts of the capitals are more eroded and the parts which face in.

The darbar hall of Rao Pragmal II

Since we had a very short stay in Bhuj, I tried to create a shortlist of places that we could see in half a day. The palaces and the old town around it kind of select themselves. There were some warnings that the palaces had been damaged in the earthquake of 2001, but others assured us that some of the damage had been repaired. A palace complex with some buildings dating from the early modern period is not something you pass up.

When I drove in through the gate of Prag Mahal I had not expected something which looks like the nearly contemporaneous Mumbai’s CST (the erstwhile Victoria Terminus). This palace was built in the mid-19th century CE, at a time when the Gothic Revival was all the rage in England. Fusing this style with the local craftsmanship yielded something we should definitely count as one of the earliest examples of the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture. The design by Henry St Clair Wilkins predates F. W. Stevenson’s design of the Victoria Terminus and other buildings in Mumbai by more than a decade (construction of the palace started in 1865). For this reason, one could view Wilkins as a possible originator of the Indo-Saracenic style. I will return to the palace again, but I wanted to post about the darbar hall separately.

After paying for our entry, we entered a corridor which led up a flight of stairs to the darbar on the first floor. The tiled floor and the arches looked European in sensibility, but, on a closer look, turned out to be Indian. You can see the luxurious details of animals and vegetation of the jali in a photo above. It was executed in Rajasthani sandstone. The floor of the darbar, on the other hand, used Italian marble. The look of the darbar was much more European than the rest of the building. This was probably a response to colonial British pressure on rajas to conform to European norms or lose their nominal independence.

I noticed one detail just as we were about to wander off. If you look at the view of the door at the top of the stairs in one of the earlier photos, you might notice a smudge in the glass. These turned out to be beautifully executed etchings. You see two examples in the photos above. Like the medallions on the arches in the darbar, this was another piece of art executed entirely in an European style. The design was the visual equivalent of code switching, long before the term was invented. But the resulting fusion of two different artistic styles gave rise to interesting architecture with a long life.