Friday, November 12, 2010

Jantar Mantar, Delhi

Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh's Observatory in Delhi
by Anisha Shekhar Mukherji
Price: Rs. 680, First Edition: 2010

ISBN 81- 903591- 1- 8
Published by Ambi Knowledge Resources Pvt Ltd
Address: Lower Ground Floor, C4/5 SDA ND 16
Telephone:011-49562700 email

Jantar Mantar: Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh's Observatory In Delhi
is available from:
21 B Pocket C
Siddharth Extension
New Delhi 110014
Ph: 01126341039
It can also be bought directly from the publisher. See
Anisha Shekhar Mukherji's new book, an informative history and field guide, explains the enigma that is the Delhi Jantar Mantar. Based on over a decade of extensive research, it uses archival images, photographs, drawings and sketches, to unravel how the 300 year old Jantar Mantar Observatory looked and worked in the past. Carry this book to the Jantar Mantar and walk around the instruments with it. Or read it before and after your visit to understand one of the world’s most unusual and intriguing works of architecture.

Each instrument of the Jantar Mantar is explained separately as a guided ‘walk’. The book includes information on traditional Indian astronomy, and on the political and cultural background of this ‘royal observatory’ established by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II. It not only traces its transformation into ‘an archaeological monument’, but also charts the way ahead by which the Delhi Jantar Mantar’s historical function may be revived and conserved for future generations.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Happy Diwali - The Commitee Reappears

Today is Dhanteras.

There is nothing urgent that I need in my kitchen. I wonder how necessary it is to follow this ritual as I contemplate what new utensil to buy, when my maid tells me in between mopping the floor, that she is shifting home. She is moving to a new room close to her old one, where she says she will get plentiful water. She can go back home and wash her children’s clothes in the afternoon without worrying about queuing up in line outside in the lane. It is ironic to me that what she deems is a luxury, is actually a chore. But the fact, that her chore will not be compounded by another chore, is in itself something for her to be treasured and celebrated.

I ask her if she needs time off to shift tomorrow. She tells me that she has already started doing so, a bit every day. She has to plan this, since her husband cannot help. He has injured his hand. When I ask how, she says he hurt himself running away from the Committee Wallahs. They came day before yesterday. “Diwali is coming”, she says sagely and resignedly.

Yes, it is festival time. And while most of us plan how to light up our homes and what to eat, for hawkers selling on the streets like my maid’s husband, it is not simply a time to decide how many new clothes and candles to buy. Certainly not a time to let their defences down, but to be more watchful and guarded. And to spend the money they set aside for the festival, on buying new thelas, new buckets, new wares to sell – many of which have been compounded, confiscated or broken by the Committee in its pre-festival swoop.

I tell her that the newspapers have reported that the Courts have said that it is the right of a citizen to sell his wares on the street. This is not something that she knows. Neither it appears does the Committee.

The Hindu edition of October 20, 2010 carried a Report on its front page which stated that ‘Hawkers have a fundamental Right to trade’. Justice A.K. Ganguly and Justice G.S. Singhvi have asked the Delhi Government to enact a law to regulate the hawkers’ trade keeping in mind also the right of commuters to move freely, and have noted that ‘the fundamental right of the hawkers, just because they are poor and unorganized cannot be left in a state of limbo’…and that ‘when citizens by gathering meager resources try to employ themselves as hawkers and street-traders they cannot be subjected to a deprivation on the pretext that they have no right.’

Some of us plan to write to the local Noida officials asking them how they propose to follow this judgment. We hope to have your support in the form of endorsing this letter by adding your signatures to it.

In the meantime, we would like you to think about creating more space in your kitchens and your homes, by ritually gifting away utensils, clothes, books, lights - or indeed anything that you deem appropriate to anyone less fortunate then you.

Have a peaceful and joyous Diwali. And wish the same for everyone.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Jantar Mantar Lecture, September 2010

Standing left to right
Ms Priya Paul, Chairperson Apeejay Park Hotels,
Shri Jawahar Sircar, Secretary Culture,
Ms Anisha Shekhar Mukherji, the author,
Shri Gautam Sengupta, DG ASI, at the book release

The author, delivering a public lecture at the book release

Book Launch of
Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh's Observatory in Delhi
by Anisha Shekhar Mukherji
Price: Rs. 680, First Edition: 2010
ISBN 81- 903591- 1- 8

Published by Ambi Knowledge Resources Pvt Ltd
Address: Lower Ground Floor, C4/5 SDA ND 16
Telephone:011-49562700 email

Jantar Mantar: Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh's Observatory In Delhi
is available from:
21 B Pocket C
Siddharth Extension
New Delhi 110014
Ph: 01126341039
"Jantar Mantar" can also be bought
directly from the publisher, or by emailing the author at

Anisha Shekhar Mukherji's new book, an informative history and field guide, explains the enigma that is the Delhi Jantar Mantar. Based on over a decade of extensive research, it uses archival images, photographs, drawings and sketches, to unravel how the 300 year old Jantar Mantar Observatory looked and worked in the past. Carry this book to the Jantar Mantar and walk around the instruments with it. Or read it before and after your visit to understand one of the world’s most unusual and intriguing works of architecture.

Each instrument of the Jantar Mantar is explained separately as a guided ‘walk’. The book includes information on traditional Indian astronomy, and on the political and cultural background of this ‘royal observatory’ established by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II. It not only traces its transformation into ‘an archaeological monument’, but also charts the way ahead by which the Delhi Jantar Mantar’s historical function may be revived and conserved for future generations.

Reproduced below is the text of the lecture delivered by the author at the launch of her book at the Jantar Mantar on 29 September 2010.

'Good evening, and welcome to the Jantar Mantar - the most enigmatic, perhaps the most photogenic, certainly the least understood of our city’s monuments.
When I started my research on the Jantar Mantar some ten years ago - despite training in architecture and conservation - I have to confess that I did not know much about it. Today, I know a little more, thanks largely to my association with the Jantar Mantar Project – the partnership venture between the ASI, the National Culture Fund and the Apeejay Surrendra Park Hotels Ltd. The Project has supported research on uncovering facets about the form and function of the Jantar Mantar - as well as on improving its environs, and disseminating authentic information on it. It is also due to my association with the Jantar Mantar Project, that I have come into contact with institutions and organizations such as the Delhi Nehru Planetarium and the Delhi Amateur Astronomers Association which have helped me to understand the use of the instruments here – as indeed they have helped so many residents of Delhi and visitors to the Jantar Mantar.
I would like to share some of this understanding with you this evening.
The Jantar Mantar, has of course, always been somewhat of a mystery. Not just to you and to me, but even to most people 300 years ago, when it was located on the outskirts of Shahjahanabad - the new Delhi of that time. The fantastic forms of the Jantar Mantar are a complete contrast to the other famous architectural monuments built before, during or after it. Most European artists who visited India and Delhi in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries made it a point to visit this intriguing place and record it – in drawings, paintings and photographs. These images are just some of the more known representations of the Jantar Mantar. The Delhi Jantar Mantar has also inspired other creations, one of which is a structure erected 200 years ago in a pleasure park near Paris derived from an illustration of the Misra Yantra– the Yantra in front of which we have gathered today. The Misra Yantra is of course the instrument that is most associated with the Delhi Jantar Mantar; coincidentally this Yantra, was also the logo of the IXth Asian Games held at Delhi in 1982, an event commemorated with the release of a special 2 rupee coin designed with a graphic image of the same Yantra.
However, despite its evident popularity and repeated representation in diverse forms – ranging from the design of fun-fair rides in France to a national symbol for our country - information about the Delhi Jantar Mantar in the public realm is often contradictory and incorrect. There is no unanimity about who got it built, when it was constructed, its name, and even its purpose and value. Though originally referred to simply as the “Jantra’[1], it has been called the Yantra Mandir, the Yantra Mantra and the Jantar Mantar from the 19th century onwards. And while some consider the Jantar Mantar as an integral part of the scientific heritage of the world, others think of it just as an archaeological monument. Some writers go even further and dismiss the Jantar Mantar as an architectural whimsy.
Therefore before I speak about the appropriate way forward about how we must regard the Delhi Jantar Mantar today and for the future, it is important to clarify the basic facts about its background – and I shall do so very briefly.
To begin with, who was it built by?
The Jantar Mantar was conceived by Raja Sawai Jai Singh II and his advisors, and built in the reign of the Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah Rangila, Aurangzeb’s great-grandson.
When was the Delhi Jantar Mantar built?
Probably between the years 1721-4, when the political relations between Jai Singh and the rulers of the Mughal Empire were most favourable, and Sawai Jai Singh’s schedule allowed him to remain in the Mughal imperial capital of Shahjahanabad continuously for two years - soon after the crowning of Emperor Muhammad Shah Rangila. The first few instruments in the Delhi Jantar Mantar were in metal, and the built structures that we see here today were made after Jai Singh decided that metal instruments did not suit his purpose. However, the Misra Yantra - the Yantra we are gathered in front of - was not built in the reign of Jai Singh, but in that of his son, Sawai Madho Singh - thirty years after the rest of the Delhi Jantar Mantar.
Why was it built?
The Delhi Jantar Mantar was built to take accurate observations to update the older astronomical tables, on the basis of which the yearly calendars were made in the Mughal Empire. The set of new astronomical tables devised on the basis of the Delhi Jantar Mantar, the Zij-i-Muhammad Shahi was dedicated by Sawai Jai Singh to Emperor Muhammad Shah Rangila, and was used to plan out forthcoming religious, agricultural, social and cultural activities throughout the Mughal Empire. The information in it was also utilized in the Pancangs - the traditional Hindu almanacs listing the different festivals, seasons, positions of the moons, eclipses and other such information. Such knowledge was put to practical use not only for marking time and seasonal changes, but also for accurate foretelling of natural calamities.
· How was it built?
Most of the Yantras that you see here are original creations of Jai Singh and his team. They were devised and built painstakingly after making many small working models in wood, stone or metal. The appropriate site was then chosen on Sawai Jai Singh’s ancestral land, Jaisinghpura, where we are standing today; the ground beneath each instrument was excavated and leveled perfectly with the help of channels filled with water – as can still be seen at the Jaipur Jantar Mantar. It was then marked out with north-south and east-west directions as detailed out in traditional astronomy manuals, and then constructed in local stone and lime mortar. Sawai Jai Singh, who funded and participated in experiments on astronomy and mathematics throughout his life, employed scholars from all faiths, his state-astronomers, his religious gurus, and expert masons to get the Delhi Jantar Mantar built. They built the instruments here partly below the surrounding ground level so as to make them stable and so that observations of the horizon would not be disturbed, and lessened the weight of the huge structures by scooping out arched openings within the walls. And finally plastered and rendered them in smooth white lime, and carefully marked them with measuring scales.
· What are its instruments, and what is their purpose?
Of the instruments that we still see at the Delhi Jantar Mantar, the three main ones from Sawai Jai Singh’s time are the Samrat Yantra, the Jai Prakash Yantra, and the Rama Yantra. A fourth instrument, the Shasthamsa Yantra, from the same time is no longer accessible. And the last masonry instrument here, the Misra Yantra, as mentioned earlier, was not part of the original range of instruments, but was designed later as a combination or a composite Yantra, chiefly perhaps as a demonstration tool.
Basically, all these instruments were designed to measure solar time, or the positions of objects in space. Of the three main Yantras, the Samrat, the central and the most imposing, was used to measure solar time, as well as to measure the sun’s declination. The Jai Prakash Yantra, was meant to measure local and universal coordinates of celestial bodies; it also had a secondary function of measuring solar time. The Rama Yantra, believed to have been named after Jai Singh’s great-grandfather, Raja Rama Singh was meant to measure local coordinates (in other words, the altitude and azimuth) of celestial bodies.
With these Yantras, Jai Singh’s team measured the positions of stars, the moon and the planets in the sky for about seven years, and recorded exactly when these measurements were taken. They then used these recordings to update older star positions. The instruments at the Jantar Mantar were also important for Jai Singh’s personal daily and special ritual practices. Observational astronomy in India, in fact, can be traced thousands of years back to the requirement for such rituals in the Vedic times. A temple dedicated to the Bal Bhairon Mandir still exists east of the Jantar Mantar, and was part of its original area, positioned in line with the earlier entrance to the Jantar Mantar.
· Thus, what is the value of the Jantar Mantar today?
We must recognize that the Delhi Jantar Mantar, as the first of the 18th century observatories constructed by Sawai Jai Singh II and containing many original instruments, is one of the most unique sets of buildings in the world. It has immense value as an educational and a cultural resource. Jai Singh wished to spur scientific interest amongst his people and to popularize observational astronomy, not limit it to an exclusive band of specialists. So, all the instruments that you see here today - though they are complex pieces of construction, are relatively simple to use - even for non-experts. Recent programmes by astronomers with schoolchildren and amateurs conducted at the Delhi Jantar Mantar have shown the success of Jai Singh’s premise. No other instruments anywhere in the world can demonstrate the movement of the earth and the planets with such clarity. No other instruments are so easily accessible to an ordinary person. They are in fact, particularly suited not just to observe the skies, but also to demonstrate principles of spherical trigonometry, physics, mathematics and geography. They also serve as a reminder that in any time or any age, individuals who have convictions, can still make lasting contributions.
However, our understanding of the value of the Delhi Jantar Mantar so far, has been mainly derived from the largely subjective accounts of science and technology in India by European amateur and professional researchers from the mid-18th century onwards. By this time, it was more than a hundred and fifty years since the British East India Company had engaged in planned exploitation under the name of commerce, resulting in the loss of much of our traditional scientific and artistic knowledge. Later, when the British Empire became a reality, the prevailing outlook of most researchers also became influenced by their belief in the superiority of their race, culture and religion. It is with this background that we must understand why such earlier researchers have downplayed or dismissed the scientific value of the Jantar Mantars. In actual fact, with these very same Yantras, Jai Singh’s astronomers were able to take many useful observations, reveal new data, and correct the errors not just in older tables used in the Indian subcontinent but also in prevalent European ones. The Delhi Jantar Mantar thus must be appreciated for its value in measuring time and plotting positions of objects in the sky, instead of seeing it merely as a collection of intriguing architectural shapes or archaeological remains.
· And so, what is the manner in which we should regard the Delhi Jantar Mantar today – and how should we conserve it for the future?
The Delhi Jantar Mantar has in the past been conserved as an urban garden in the tradition of an English landscape, rather than as a medieval Indian observatory. Its first major conservation exercise in the beginning of the 20th century—about one hundred and fifty years after its establishment—though undertaken with the help of the court-astronomer of Jaipur and funds from the then Jaipur Raja - was supervised by British engineers who chose to conserve its Yantras as a collection of monuments rather than as precise instruments of astronomy. They were thus regarded and presented as ‘architectural follies’ amidst a plantation of tall palm trees. The foreground to the Jantar Mantar was also taken over shortly after this conservation exercise, by the building of Imperial New Delhi, which appropriated much of Jai Singh’s ancestral land, to make Connaught Place and the roads leading up to Parliament House. The immediate surroundings of the Jantar Mantar changed further with the construction of many buildings surrounding it.
These interventions have reduced the area and the function, and even the perception of the Observatory. Today we see the Jantar Mantar quite differently from what it was in the 18th century. We enter it from a completely different direction from what Jai Singh did. And we often miss the point of its construction completely. One writer in the 21st century has even termed the building of the Jantar Mantars as ‘a case of a headstrong monarch looking to construct huge and extravagant monuments for himself’.[2]
It is true that the Delhi Observatory has not been used for purposes of astronomy for more than 200 years. It is also true that most of the calibrations made by Jai Singh’s master-masons have been lost. The skyline around the Jantar Mantar has been taken over by tall trees, and even taller buildings. We naturally cannot change all of these. However, it is still possible to revive the function of the Yantras at the Delhi Jantar Mantar – which even in this reduced state - contain much of their original built components. They can still be effectively used to measure local solar time, observe stars and calculate positions of celestial objects. As Dr. Rathnasree, the Director of the Nehru Planetarium, has said: ‘300 years after they were built—they are still the easiest access...of doing celestial co-ordinate measurements’.
It is this aspect of the Jantar Mantar that must be reinstated. For this, it is of course, imperative that the Yantras must be physically conserved using building materials compatible with the original materials used by Jai Singh’s masons, as well as by accurately recalibrating the measuring surfaces. At the same time, it is necessary to understand that the function of the Yantras is the most important reason for their existence - this is why they were constructed, and any conservation which ignores their historical function or compromises or jeopardises it in any way, is self-defeating. It is only by bringing the Yantras back into sustained public use will we be able to conserve the spirit and form of the Jantar Mantar.
This is what I have come to realize due to my association with the Jantar Mantar Project, whose conservation philosophy has been directed by the understanding that the Yantras of the Delhi Jantar Mantar must be brought back into use. And this, among other related issues, is what I would like to share through my new book. The book aims to familiarise visitors with the instruments and their functions as well as the history of the Jantar Mantar. However, unlike conventional histories, the book also tackles the question about the future of the Delhi Jantar Mantar.
In keeping with Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh’s wish that the instruments be used by anyone interested in the study of astronomy, it is written with the hope that such knowledge as has been gained, is shared with as many people as possible without recourse to jargon. Perhaps through the book, an awareness of the real value of the Jantar Mantar may move beyond this gathering to many more of us. So that we never have a situation where we desecrate or vandalise the Jantar Mantar in such a shameful way - or indeed any of our monuments in any guise or in any form.
I strongly believe, in the words of the historian Claude Alvares:
‘All histories are elaborate efforts at myth-making. Therefore, when we submit to histories about us, written by others, we submit to their myths about us as well. Myth-making, like naming, is a token of having power...If we must continue to live by myths, however, it is far better we choose to live by those of our own making rather than by those invented by others for their own purposes...That much at least we owe ourselves as an independent society and nation.’

Thank you!

[1] V. N. Sharma, pp. 99
[2] P. 103, A. Volwahsen

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Delhi - Of Onions and Kings


Anisha Shekhar Mukherji

The city of Delhi sometimes reminds me of an onion, imperfectly taken apart - many layered, veined and maimed. The layers are not coherent or even tightly packed - scattered stray wisps forlornly curl at the edges in some corner, many centuries lie bunched together in another. Yet within them lie hidden vapours of many pasts, rising unbidden to sting you into an awareness of a different time.

Mythology in the form of that wondrous, infinitely complex epic of the Mahabharata, written more than 2000 years ago, refers to Indraprastha, what is taken to be a part of Delhi. Indraprastha was the capital of the kingdom of the Pandavas - the five brothers, each embodying a virtue, and their arrogant and beautiful wife, Draupadi. The Pandavas lost and won Indraprastha again. Their descendants followed. And that has been the fate of Delhi through the ages - to be lost and won successively, each conqueror leaving traces behind in the form of walls, forts, mausoleums, bridges.

Historically, the city is said to have been the capital of successive strains of rulers down the ages - Hindus, Turks, Afghans, Mughals. In actuality each ruler demarcated a portion of land, within the larger area of what is now termed Delhi, as his city. So, effectively, the various cities of Delhi consisted of separate stakes of land with their own city walls, forts and supporting fabric.

And that has remained the form of Delhi, even today. Driving from one part of the city to another there is a lack of any cohesion in the city fabric. This lack of cohesion mystifies visitors and leaves the people of Delhi with no form of identity to clutch on to. How could the city be described to a stranger? Would it be relevant to talk of the jamun tree lined broad and languorous avenues of imperial New Delhi? Or the narrow, dense, streets of Shahjahanabad thronged by people and wares, dominated by the 17th century Red Fort and a multitude of mosques? Would a visitor recognise the fussily flamboyant houses in Greater Kailash, hiding behind high walls, as the same Delhi? And left alone, in the wastelands between the former edges of the city and the suburbs now enveloped in its uncaring embrace, could he say where he was? And, of course, he would still not have seen the familiar walk up flats and their clones, scattered seemingly endlessly. Yet, somewhere within all this, appearing and disappearing as if in a dream, he might come across strange apparitions - ghosts of former Delhis.

As you weave in and out of the tangled traffic of Delhi, you come across the fragments of these former cities. Some scornfully straddle roundabouts, some look on peacefully from the edge of the roads. The sight of these remnants is one of the pleasures - the few pleasures, some might add, of living in Delhi. These sudden unexpected glimpses of the past constantly reaffirm a concept of time, unrelated to the frenzy of keeping appointments in a deadlocked city. But, perhaps it is the pressure of watching the car or autorickshaw in front that makes it easy for many people to ignore this part of their city. For it is a fact, that these monuments are for the large part, neglected or forgotten.

To the great majority of people the monuments are not a consideration in any way, and that is the biggest obstacle to their conservation, apart from funds and appropriate manpower. Planning authorities, instead of integrating them into the physical fabric of the city, ignore them in their master plans. The people of Delhi do not see these monuments as a part of their physical or mental space but as isolated freaks, their reassurance and romance discovered briefly when the are young and in love in an otherwise sneering city. For the most part, however, these structures are frequented by people who vandalise them in various ways.

The task of integrating these former Delhis into the Delhi of today is made more difficult by the fact that there is no unified perception of Delhi. This, in turn is caused by the lack of a coherent city form arid by the absence of a population who retain enough affection and memories of the city to identify completely with it. Such people are dead like the poets Ghalib and Zauq. Or they have been swallowed in the aftermath of the Partition of 1947, to be replaced by a new population.

This new population is one of migrants. They are historical migrants of 1947, bereft of belongings and with a loyalty to only themselves having completely and appallingly lost what had been their identity. Or more recent rural migrants, who have left behind families and a familiar social structure in search of the proverbial and elusive streets of gold. In most cases, they find neither the financial security they come looking for nor the dignity they have forsaken. Or the people in the urban villages, not strictly migrants. In their case, it is the ever expanding city which has migrated to enfold them and their traditional farmlands. Nonetheless, the effect is that the urban villages retain their old ways of living and identify themselves with their village rather than the city.

And the problem is compounded by the planning processes of Delhi, which have relied on an interpretation of the bungalow theme, replacing individual dwellings with higher flats. The theme is one of separation - between different parts of the city; from the street; from the older structures. As a result, the city has evolved into isolated rings, manoeuvrable only on the backs of machines, dissected by wastelands of empty roads and desolate greens, pushed out further and further to satisfy the diet of developers. An ordinary man, covering many kilometres in suffocatingly crowded public transport, does not retain the will to perceive former Delhis, smothered in the pursuit of the Delhi of today.

There is as yet enough opportunity to involve the monuments with their surroundings and the people. The most visible of these are the big and famous monuments, frequented by visitors and under some form of Government protection. Then there are the structures bordering main roads, visible in their own way, but neither part of a specific living space nor famous enough to be on the tourist list. And finally those that lie within residential colonies, neither very visible nor famous. A long term conservation policy is one that aims to develop a sense of responsibility in people towards all these structures. This lack of responsibility is evident in the high incidence of vandalism in many portions of the Red Fort, which is one of the most prominent of Delhi's older buildings. These are now shut off from the public because of the impossibility of manning every structure in such a big site against vandalism.

It is important to instil in the minds of younger generations - finally the custodians of the city, a positive feeling for the elements that make up their city. In an economy that has to distribute sufficient funds for purposes as varied and urgent as poverty control, health, education, and defence across thousands of kilometres of land amongst a huge population, it is even more imperative that all the responsibility for the conservation of the past is not dumped at the feet of the government. It is equally important to develop a more vigilant public that not only does not harm the monuments themselves, but also exercises enough alertness to demand a more relevant use of the funds available.

Simultaneous action is needed on many fronts, but a start can be made with the structures within residential areas. Monuments t can be the focus of public open space in residential areas which can be used actively by families living in and around these areas. They might then develop a sense of responsibility towards that specific monument, and through it, perhaps to other monuments. Such involvement would also act as a check on vandalism.

The conservation of these older structures has thus an implication not just on the repair and maintenance of their physical fabric but also on their active and beneficial use by the communities living around them, such that they form an inseparable part of the image of the city. Finally the conservation of the spirit of the city, which is a mixture of its past and present incarnations, can only be achieved through the many ordinary men and women who live in it. An old Indian proverb notes the three necessities that go into the making of a city - badshah (king), dariya (river) and badal (cloud). The dariya has moved further arid further away, the badal is capricious and both the badshah and the Empress have bowed out ignominiously. The only factor that has remained and will continue to remain, are the people who inhabit the city and it is their thoughts and wants which will determine the form and existence of the city - or the lack of it.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Plain Tales from Doon

Plain Tales from Doon-


Some Exchanges Between the Garhwali and the Kumaonis

No one can deny that Onial Mausaji tells a tale well. And that he can do so on almost any subject on earth and at the slightest provocation.

Or so we thought as children with little patience and manners to listen appropriately to him. We could not sit still long enough to savour the slow spinning out of his stories, especially when there was the ripe lure of the lichis from Nani’s orchard that could trickle down our mouths. The orchard also held other attractions. One of my more intrepid cousins has been known to explore the ways through its large twisted trees on the back of the galloping domestic buffalo, ostensibly to entertain a train of younger cousins. Considering such pursuits that interested his nephews and nieces, Mausaji’s persistence with us is commendable. Looking back, I wonder if this was due to an incurable optimism, or his experience as house-master to boisterous boys in Punjab Public School at Nabha, or a particularly whimsical streak of humour.

Each year we - my parents, my brother and I - would descend on Dehradun from whichever cantonment in the country my father was posted, to spend the long summer holidays with my grandparents and our numerous cousins, aunts and uncles. We would generally stay at my Dada’s house right next to the East Canal, five or perhaps ten minutes walking distance from Nani’s house. Once she was at her mother’s, my mother would leave us to our own devices to our mutual delight. On warm afternoons in Nani’s house amidst Mausaji’s measured and leisurely tones, we would slip of quietly into sleep or out of the room. All, except our eldest first cousin. With irreproachable manners then, she more than made up for the absence of the rest of us, smiling and nodding with reasonably wide eyes. Mausaji obviously did not mind or notice his dwindling audience. He sportingly embarked on some other story the next afternoon. I cannot actually remember what they were about. I probably did not follow either his impeccable English or his seasoned Urdu, both of which he was wont to use with equal felicity.

Now it is a different story. Mausaji is more discriminating in his choice of listeners. Not just his reminiscences about big cats and elephants, and the Dehradun, Rajpur and Mussoorie of yore, these days he needs to be cajoled to enact his favourite anecdotes, most of which deal with the eccentricities of his wife’s clan. The best time to get him to elaborate on this theme is when he has warmed himself on a crisply cold winter evening with a whisky.

According to Mausaji, the individuality of the Ghildiyals - the family into which my Nani was married – is the inevitable result of their being true Garhwalis. They, he has deduced, “are like their landscape, craggy, unpredictable, and tortuous”. “Now Kumaonis”, he beams, “are gentle, soft, yet sharp – like their landscape”. My father, as one of the few Kumaonis inducted into the Ghildiyal clan by marriage, disparagingly strokes his well-shaped nose, and grins modestly at this praise. The mountains of Garhwal and Kumaon border each other, and Garhwalis and Kumaonis, like all good neighbours, disagree on most things. But, to be a Garhwali and a Ghildiyal, seems to not just add but heap, in Mausaji’s opinion, insult to injury. ‘Jaise karela aur neem chara, vaise Garhwali aur Ghildiyal’! As one of the few resident males in a family full of females, he feels particularly strongly about the Ghildiyal women.

The story which animates him the most features Guni Mausi, my mother’s middle sister. Guni Mausi is a most fearless and spirited person. Also most bewildering. Like God, she moves in mysterious ways her wonders to perform. Not just her very proper elder daughter, Manishi, but even her less conventional younger one - my buffalo-riding cousin of yore – cannot quite comprehend or contain her. Mausi’s conversations start off midway or towards the end. They often leapfrog into action before one has quite grasped that she has finished speaking whatever she had started on. Phone calls to her rarely find her at home. She may be in the local market, seizing upon an acquaintance next to the old Tonga stand. Or on a rattling bus to one of her many relative’s weddings in a distant mountain village. Or at the carpenters assessing the quality of wood. Or on the way to the airport with 70 kilograms of baggage including tamarind and coconuts to make delicacies for her grandchildren in England. One never can tell with Mausi.

That is Mausaji’s grouse too. ‘I can never understand,’ he asks, shifting comfortably from one foot to another, “why Guniji - after specially calling us over for tea - peers at us suspiciously each time through the wire-mesh with her hand on her eyes, when we do arrive, and asks ‘Kaun’?” Mausaji is very proper. He dresses up in crisp blazers, old school ties, and shining shoes and I can comprehend that it can be a little disconcerting for him to be invited and then regarded thus by a close relative. “But,” he adds, “what I understand even less, is why when she comes over to our house and we answer the doorbell, she peers inside through our door mesh and enquires ‘Kaun’!”
“Restless and incomprehensible”, he continues. “Your Nani, and your Mausis. If they come into the room, they can never sit or stand peacefully. They will twitch the tablecloth awry; yank the curtain to one side, beat a tattoo on the light-switches. Then, having succeeded in putting on all the fans in winter or all the lights during the day and having made the room look even more unpresentable than usual, they will deign to sit down!” “And papers”, he adds, “your Nani never throws away any old letters. Every few weeks she causes a commotion by picking up one from the pile on top of her fridge, and then calling out distractedly “oh no, Damayanti has fallen ill again”. ‘As for your mausi”, he continues bitterly, “she sleeps with papers under her pillow”.

Saroj Mausi, my mother’s eldest sister (and Mausaji’s wife) taught English at the Scindia Girls School and then the Mahadevi Kanya Pathshala College in Dehradun. She is quite literally a woman of letters. She is also a social and environmental activist. Her house has an abundance of books and papers, peeping out from under the table, balanced precariously on the stairs, stuffed in closets, under the mattress. She is one of the few people I know who can simultaneously peel potatoes and propound philosophy.

Like Guni Mausi, she is also rarely at home. And if she is, Mausaji complains, his drawing room is taken over by half a dozen women from her organization drinking endless cups of tea, interfering with his mealtimes and ruining his health and that of his wife. After retirement, her portfolio of jobs outside the house has expanded. She writes letters to the District Magistrate to install lights for pedestrians, holds ‘green’ workshops in her garden for local children, lectures the Mussoorie and Dehradun Development Authority about fields of basmati rice being taken over by building agents, encourages her maids to stand up for their rights in property-disputes, promotes a women’s organization that works with children’s education, and as Mausaji points out, colonises the family car for her altruistic agendas. ‘Everyone recognizes our car. When Saroj rolls up in it, she causes a stampede! All the children scatter and shout, “Run, the Red Maruti’s coming”.
Mausi smiles at most of Mausaji’s pronouncements, only occasionally being provoked in her turn into a discussion on the Onials, the Garhwali clan that Mausaji belongs to. Surprisingly - or then perhaps not - Mausaji is a Garhwali too

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Who designed the sil-batta?

Who Designed the Sil Batta -
and why should we care?

When my mother-in-law came to Delhi from Calcutta, more than forty years ago, she brought with herself a stone-grinder – a sil batta – on the train. The sil was part of the household goods given by her family, to start her new life as a married woman. A few days ago, in the absence of my cook, I ground fresh coriander and garlic chutney on the same sil-batta. It was vigorous exercise for my arms. As the volume of green leaves transformed into a darker green, and I saw and smelt the shape of the white garlic clove disappearing into the green paste, amidst my growing anticipation of tasting the chutney, I was struck by a thought. Who designed the ubiquitous sil-batta, that indispensable part of every Indian kitchen even today? Was it designed at all? Or did one or many of our ancestors simply pick up a stone lying around by chance and use it to beat something on another convenient stone?

The germ of the idea may certainly have come from there, but when I look at the smooth black oval softness of the batta and consider how snugly it fits into my hands; the pocked and dotted surface of the sil and how well it uses friction to grind finely, it seems to me it must have been designed. Designed not in the sense that we think of today, with elaborate drawings, concept doodles and engineering drawings, but in the classic sense of the word – ‘thought of, conceived, deliberately visualized in the head’. Individual makers would have introduced minute changes in the basic configuration – depending on their personal or regional preferences. So the oblong batta preferred in Bengal becomes triangular in North India. The size of the sil varies. But, by and large, the sil-batta is instantly recognizable – the type is standardized yet each piece is unique, with its own identity.

The widespread use and acceptance of the sil-batta and its enduring popularity shows the success of its design. Of course, along with the sil, most conventional Indian kitchens today also house an electric mixer-blender, the ‘mixie’. I have one too. A Black & Decker model, bought less than a couple of years ago. We believed that it would perform better than the locally made mixie which had given up fairly soon. In about a year, much before the locally produced model, the blade of the wet-grinder of the ‘branded’ mixie had broken, and the vessel of the dry-grinder had cracked. Considering how infrequently it was used for our small family of three, and considering the claims of quality and durability of this international brand, this was unexpected - to say the least!

We considered toting the mixie back to the shop in Sector 18, not far at all from our home, but increasingly intimidating to reach with the intervening metro construction, road widening, stacks of malls and cars. And after all that effort, the shopkeeper would probably direct us to the company office, somewhere in the Industrial Sectors of Noida where we would spend more time and energy. After spending a precious morning in hunting out the bill and warranty card, we let it be.

In any case, the mixie was rarely used. One had to consider carefully what could be ground in it. The fine poppy seeds, the beloved posto of the Bengalis, used for flavouring and texturing vegetables, emerged virtually unchanged from the mixie. Mustard seeds, another favourite spice for both fish and vegetables, could only be ground in huge quantities, and even then not fine enough to bring out their pungency. Dry grinding other spices in the mixie was fast, but most of the flavour was lost.

If you pause to think about what the sil-batta does for and to you, it seems that it may actually be far more progressive and modern to use it rather than the mixie. The energy and resources consumed in its design and production are minimal – the design is well-disseminated, familiar to both maker and user, does not require fancy 3D mock-ups or scale-models, and contains no high energy parts such as steel or plastic. The stone may require high-energy resources in quarrying but further shaping is primarily by hand tools wielded by skilled stone-workers, and causes practically no pollution in production. The stone for the sil-batta in my family must have been quarried half a century ago. Unless I drop it on the floor and break it, there is no reason why it will not give service for another half a century more and be used by my daughter to pass on to whoever she wishes. Whenever my cook or I use it, the only energy we expend is ours. The taste is fresher, I believe the nutrients are retained, and I do not need to go to a gym to get exercise for my arms!

Contrast this with the steel and plastic mixie. Its production is complex, and requires detailed drawings (now probably produced on a computer, itself made with high energy materials) as a prelude to being manufactured in a large complicated factory - the setting up and running of which consumes precious water, and energy - and causes toxins to be released in the air, water and land. Every time the finished product is used, it consumes a lot of electricity. And then it breaks down in about a year.

Why don’t I throw the mixie? Or give it away to my maid as I do so many extra utensils? Perhaps it’s the particularly Indian habit of thrift. Perhaps because I nurse a fond hope that I may discover that there is something that the much advertised and branded mixie is good for. Or perhaps because it occurs to me that Gandhiji was right – giving away things whose use you have outgrown but whose usefulness you believe in, is acceptable. But giving away things that you think are practically useless, is hypocrisy.

I am, however, almost sure that my maid will be pleased to own a mixie. Why? Because we have been led to the belief that the mixie - like the image of the ‘pucca’ house - symbolizes modernity and progress. It is another matter that the pucca houses of concrete that practically every villager in India aspires to live in - and which already disfigure our cities and towns - are climatically and structurally quite inappropriate for most parts of India. They heat up dramatically in the summers, lose heat in the winters, and are unable to cope with the cycles of dry heat, humidity, or cold weather that make up the climate in many parts of our sub-continent. Whether it is the capital complex in Chandigarh that is said to represent the epitome of the ‘Modern Style of Architecture’, or the AWHO or the DDA built flats in the National Capital region of Delhi, or the hastily put up structures by local contractors all over the country, they all spall, rust, crumble and flake sooner rather than later. Sometimes, they also collapse and fall apart much before their slated time – like my Black and Decker mixie.

So we have gone back whole sale to the sil-batta. Pink onions and green mint, brown roasted cumin seeds, soaked almonds, fresh ginger, mixed dals, are all freshly ground, and just as much as we want. I no longer have to store huge quantities in the fridge, or waste much water in rinsing out the grinder, or worry about power cuts getting in the way of preparing food. The mixie is still there, occupying space in the kitchen. I hold onto the split vessel tightly trying to prevent spills when I summon up the will to use it (perhaps once in the past six months), curse it when I occasionally dust it, and look gratefully at my mother-in-law’s faithful sil, and marvel at its designer and maker.

Anisha Shekhar Mukherji
23 June 2010