Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Remembering Manisha. And her going.

Manisha Bhattacharya

I remember Manisha as a dear friend.

Not that we met very often or spent a lot of time together or even shared any deep secrets. Not even because of the series of associations we had with her family. Indeed, beginning with Gautam-da, Manisha’s brother—who had learnt the craft of stage-lighting from Snehanshu’s father, Sitansu Mukherjea (1930-1993)—her entire family appeared so naturally in conversations at home that one thought of them like part of our family.

But all that association was only a prelude. It was Manisha’s own qualities that made conventional requirements of being good friends superfluous. She would give her attention unreservedly to the people who, however briefly, inhabited the space around her; she would receive with respect suggestions about her ceramic and pottery work, even from someone like me, who is not a potter; she would constantly look for ways to extend her gifted engagement with her craft. This is why her going leaves such a vivid sense of loss to so many, even beyond her immediate circle.

The manner of her going seems doubly grievous.

Manisha used to have long conversations with friends and family, stemming from her deep interest and involvement with them. Increasingly, these conversations were on the cell phone. The repeated radiation caused cancerous tumours in her brain, which took her life. In the midst of their family’s grief at losing her, Gautam-da has been tirelessly reiterating his warning about not using the cell phone indiscriminately; about strictly limiting its use especially among children and older people, about ensuring basic safety norms such as using head-phones and speaker modes—so that others do not have to go through what Manisha did.   

How many of us will heed this warning?

Another dear friend, whom I met on the day that I learnt Manisha had died, had experience in her own family of this disease. When I recounted the devastating rapidity with which Manisha succumbed to her illness and the cause of it, she responded by saying that this reasoning was as nebulous as the belief in karma, in saying that our fate in this life is the outcome of our actions in a previous life.

I did not know how to answer. But it seems to me, on reflection, that having a link proved beyond doubt between the radiation from cell phones and the growth of cancerous cells, is too horrific to contemplate. Proved beyond doubt, would mean that practically everybody would be afflicted. Should we wait for such a day, before being more careful about the frequency with which we use our cell-phones? Wouldn’t it be more sensible to just be more cautious in ways that we can, especially when it is something concerning our lives?

It is not easy to shed the weight of the Cartesian mode of thinking. It seems more rational to refuse to be persuaded by that which is doubtful—like Rene Descartes (1596-1650), often called the father of modern philosophy. So, most of us cannot really conceive of taking seriously anything that is not proved absolutely; that is not precisely quantified and certain beyond any possibility of doubt. But an alternative way of logical thinking is possible. In A Guide for the Perplexed, E. F. Schumacher (1911-1977) writes that it occurred to him that ‘the question of what constitutes proof was a very subtle and difficult one. Would it not be wiser to turn the principle into its opposite, and say, ‘If in doubt, show it prominently’?’

Whether or not you are convinced or doubtful about the danger of cell phones, please at least consider such a danger seriously. And please see the accompanying information and links that Gautam-da has shared, and if you can, show and share them prominently—even, and especially if you are still in doubt.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Ways of Saying

Text  of the Lecture delivered at the British Council, New Delhi, 26 November 2009 to mark the Exhibition at the Delhi NGMA of Paintings/Photographs from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London 

What does a painting—made 150 years ago or more—say about the places or the people or the buildings it depicts? Does it say merely one thing? Or more? Is such a painting to be seen primarily as an expression of artistic talent and individual perception? Is it the equivalent of high art? Is it a picture postcard? Or is it a historical document? Especially when it records ways of living or places that have disappeared? And if they have completely or partially disappeared, how does one decide how accurately they are recorded in such paintings? In other words, what do we make of such paintings? How do we understand them, appreciate them, utilise them?

As a professional architect working in the field of conservation and history, early depictions of monuments, cities, gardens and landscapes of India interest me greatly. I remember my elation some years ago on finding two drawings of the Mughal Red Fort of Shahjahanabad drawn by British artists in the mid-19th century.

Delhi and surrounding countryside 1857
A. Maclure

Delhi before the Seige, 1857, 
John Luard 

 The Red Fort, as we all perhaps know, is one of the most unique urban palace complexes in the world—and one which has only 10 percent of its original structures remaining today. Hence my elation, at finding (or so I thought) vital information that could help me to piece together how the inside of the 17th century Fort looked before so much of it was destroyed in the War of 1857 and its aftermath.

My elation soon gave way to surprise. The drawings portrayed a different scenario altogether. Where was the complex configuration of the Red Fort’s many courtyards? And its palaces, pavilions, gateways, streets, and orchards within and around these courtyards? On comparing the drawings with archival records as well as the existing Mughal buildings in the Fort, I realized that the drawings employed a great deal of artistic license. So much so that the inner features of the Fort and even its outer profile were almost completely transformed in these drawings! In place of the successive airy arcades of the many single-storey palace-pavilions punctuated by marble screens and cooled by fountain-courts and gardens, there was one towering building sitting isolated within an open area. It was in fact, the image of a stately English home entered through a wide driveway flanked by trees and shrubbery, made Oriental with a generous topping of bulbous onion domes! 

Since then, I have been cautious about deriving any direct clues about historical places from such paintings. That does not nonetheless imply that they are useless as records. On the contrary, these paintings do give important information especially when they depict places which are not as complex or as large as the Red Fort. And they say as much about the places they represent as about the people who drew them and the times in which they were painted. They are not just ‘ways of seeing’ but also ‘ways of saying’ whatever individual artists thought was important to represent. Even the act of choosing to draw a particular monument out of hundreds of others, is an expression of an artist’s way of saying something. But how does a viewer in the 21st century understand and interpret these ways?

Let me try to explain this through the example of two architectural monuments featured in the present traveling exhibition. Even if one did not know anything about when and how these paintings were made, it is quite easy for a viewer in the Indian context to understand what they are saying. Most of us would easily recognize the sites that these two paintings depict. The structures are drawn quite recognizably for what they are. It is unlikely that any viewer, especially a Dilliwala, would confuse them with any other historical building.the first is quite evidently the Jantar Mantar at Delhi, and the second is the Jama Masjid in Shahjahanabad or old Delhi as most of us refer to it today - both important ‘monuments’ in the built landscape of Delhi. The way in which the people and the surrounding topography and landscape are shown in these drawings, quite clearly places the images in a time that is past. So what they are saying and their way of saying it seems quite realistic and straightforward.

‘Eastern Gate of the Jummah Masjid at Delhi', Thomas Daniell

‘Ancient Observatory, Delhi’, William Simpson

But is it? When we come to know when they were painted and in what circumstances, we realize that there is much more to them than meets the eye at first glance. To begin with, how we see them now is not the way in which the artists expected them to be seen. Ironically, these paintings were never meant to be seen primarily by Indians or even by Europeans living within India. They were painted for a European, particularly a British audience back in Britain, who would have had an interest in India, through relations, friends or even personal visits at some time to this country. However, whether or not they had been to India, these two sites would have been familiar to most of them even in the 19th century. Why? Because Delhi, as the imperial Mughal capital since 1648 ad, was frequently visited by travelers. Some of these travelers left written accounts of their journeys which were published and circulated widely in their own countries. Hence, the choice of the Jama Masjid and the Jantar Mantar - both arresting, unusual and important buildings in Delhi, and both well-documented in the accounts of earlier travelers.

So, for instance, the Jama Masjid, whose construction was finished in about 1658 ad, is described just five years later by the Frenchman Francois Bernier, one of the earliest Europeans to have lived in and written about Shahjahanabad, the ‘new Delhi’ of that time. Bernier describes ‘two edifices worthy of notice’ in this city apart from the Red Fort (p. 278), and one of them is the Jama Masjid, ‘the principal mosque which is conspicuous at a great distance’. He writes (p. 279) about ‘the ascent to the three gates by means of five-and-twenty or thirty steps of beautiful and large stones’, ‘the three magnificent entrances’ and that ‘Above the principal gate, which greatly exceeds the others in grandeur of appearance, there are several small turrets of marble that produce a fine effect’. In short, he gives a complete verbal picture of the scene that we see in the painting above!

Not just this, Bernier goes further and declares ‘I am satisfied that even in Paris, a church erected after the model of this temple would be admired, were it only for its singular style of architecture, and its extraordinary appearance’. Bernier’s writings dedicated to King Louis XIV of France were published in Paris in 1670 and its first English edition followed barely a year later. John Dryden’s play Aurangzebe first acted at the Royal Theatre in London in 1675 and revived again in the early 18th century, was derived from Bernier’s text. Thus, the Jama Masjid, already known to a European audience through texts, and associated in their minds with the might and magnificence of Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb, was a natural choice to be depicted in paintings.

The Jantar Mantar, too, though not as old as the Jama Masjid, was a site frequently visited and written about. Barely twenty years after it was made, the Austrian Jesuit missionary Josef Tieffenthaler visited and wrote about the Delhi Jantar Mantar. In another 50 years, by the end of the 18th century, the Delhi Jantar Mantar’s value was recognized as an Observatory and it was written about in the Asiatic Researches published from Calcutta, first in an account of Delhi by W. Franklin who went to Delhi with a party of surveyors dispatched by the East India Company Government of Bengal, and later by William Hunter in a specific account of the astronomical work of Sawai Jai Singh, the King who established the Observatory. By this time the Observatory was ‘celebrated’ enough to warrant a visit not just by travelers ‘in search of the Picturesque’ (such as Fanny Parks) but also professional soldiers such as Major William Thorn who stopped here ‘on way back to camp’ as a member of Lord Lake’s campaign in Delhi sometime in September 1803. It was also valued on account of its association with Sawai Jai Singh, who was portrayed as a just and model king, different from the conventional western image of Oriental despots. So the Jantar Mantar was well known in both scholarly circles as well as in popular travel accounts.

Paintings of the Jama Masjid and the Jantar Mantar featured in many 18th and 19th century artists’ works. The pencil and watercolour drawing of the Delhi Jantar Mantar in the present exhibition, was drawn by William Simpson, (on Paper, 1864, V&A Museum 1146-1869). It is described as ‘one of Simpson’s most romantic paintings’ in the Gallery Guide.The aquatint of the Jama Masjid by Thomas Daniell (Plate 1 Oriental Scenery Part 1, 1795, V& A Museum no IS 242 (1) 1961), was also an important part of the set of drawings made by them. As the first of a set of 24 Prints published by the Daniells in 1795, it was ‘the first image produced by them to be seen by the wider British public’, as the Gallery Guide points out. Both Simpson and the uncle and son team of Thomas and William Daniell had some reputation as artists which they were seeking to capitalize on and extend through their Indian drawings.

I would like to explore the ways in which these well-known artists of their time have looked at these two famous architectural buildings, and what their drawings as first-time visitors to India, have to say about these buildings.

We all know that even if there has been no deliberate attempt at dramatizing a space, any account or representation is inevitably an individual perception which can never be completely objective. Thus, first and foremost, these paintings represent the artists’ personality in what they seek to highlight or focus on, through the paintings while portraying the sights they have seen. Taken alone, they are impressionistic views (even when they seem to be completely realistic) of India as seen from the eyes of visitors from a very different culture and context; with the express purpose of making their fortune by employing their artistic talent to draw pictures of the ‘mysterious east’ for audiences back home in Europe. For instance, William Simpson (1823-1899) was commissioned to go to India by a well-known London lithography firm to sketch well-known sites associated with the revolt of 1857. Thomas and William Daniell came to India a little more than half a century before Simpson, again with the intent of drawing picturesque views of the dramatic Indian sights for audiences back in England.

Though only about 50 years separated the visits of the Daniells and Simpson, the political circumstances were quite different during their visits. After 1857, the British connection with India was fraught with feelings not just of curiosity towards India and things Indian, but also feelings of anger, contempt, and possession. The war of 1857 marked a turning point in the relationship between India and Britain, and a break in many of the older cultural, social and political institutions in India. Delhi as the scene of intense fighting, the formal seat of the ‘Last Mughal’, as well as the rallying point of the forces against the British, aroused particularly strong feelings in the British public who had followed the events during 1857 with unabated interest. This meant that scenes in Delhi were invested with many meanings.

The Daniell paintings as pre-1857 do not have the additional reportage of the post-1857 paintings. However, though they may be said to be without an obvious political agenda, they obviously had a commercial angle to fulfill. They needed to be dramatic enough, exotic enough and enticing enough to appeal to a large section of the British public, in order to sell well. So the Jama Masjid painting, the first painting of the Daniell’s Set of Views, does not show the entire Mosque itself, but focuses on one part of it - its Eastern Gateway, the grandest gateway of the Mosque as told earlier by Bernier. This is in keeping with the style employed by the Daniells in their other paintings as well. Thus, while they are known to have used the camera obscura to ensure faithful documentation of details of landscape or building, they often deliberately played up elements of the natural and built landscape—sometimes substantially—to achieve greater compositional effect. This is clearly demonstrated in the book India, Yesterday and Today, Aquatints by Thomas and William Daniell, where the revisited sites of many of these sketches have been photographed from the same position as those of the original aquatints. Nonetheless, despite this playing up of certain elements, the Daniells late eighteenth and early nineteenth century aquatints of various parts of India, are an important reference for life in those years (1795–1803).

William Simpson’s objective of coming to India was in a sense more focused. Simpson came to India after acquiring some fame in documenting the Crimean war of 1854, and was instructed ‘to sketch well-known sites associated with the heavy fighting of 1857 in and around Delhi’ (Gallery guide, Simpson’s biography). Interestingly, Felice Beato, a photographer who had like Simpson, acquired fame in covering the Crimean War also chose to record both the Jantar Mantar and the Jama Masjid. The choice of Jantar Mantar is interesting, since it does not appear to have featured at all in the fighting of 1857, which is what both Simpson and Beato were supposed to cover. So, in choosing to record this, we might say that they were going ‘beyond their brief’! The Jama Masjid, was of course the scene of direct fighting, but even if it had not been, as one of the most imposing buildings in Delhi it could not have escaped Beato’s attention, as indeed it did not of the Daniells.

This is the reason perhaps that the Daniell painting is quite simply titled ‘Eastern Gate of the Jummah Masjid at Delhi’. The Simpson painting on the other hand, is more grandly called ‘Ancient Observatory, Delhi’. Perhaps Simpson was trying to justify his inclusion of the Observatory by investing it with an obvious ancientness? It is also interesting that Simpson has chosen to highlight the ruinous aspect of the Jantar Mantar, throwing in some skeletons next to emaciated twigs and a lean dog for good measure. The Daniells, conversely choose to depict the Jama Masjid as an intact structure, in good ‘working condition’ and its magnificence heightened by the majesty of the elephant procession in front of it. Would the artists have actually witnessed these scenes in front of the buildings? Or have the human and animal subjects in the foreground been transposed on to the monument for artistic effect?

 On the face of it, it appears unlikely that two buildings in the same general area, subject to the same climatic conditions, would have weathered so differently during a similar time-span. The Daniell painting was drawn a hundred and fifty years after the construction of the Jama Masjid; similarly Simpson’s painting of the Jantar Mantar was also made about a hundred and fifty years after its construction. So, is it reasonable to believe that one building could have degraded so much over a hundred and fifty years ago, while the other was in such good condition?

 The Jama Masjid was within the walls of the imperial Mughal Capital, the most important congregational mosque which the Mughal Emperors also visited for prayer. Though Delhi had already been summarily sacked by the Persian King Nadir Shah and then by Afghan marauders fifty years before the Daniells’ visit, life within the city is reported to have revived fairly quickly, with its social and cultural institutions in place. Contemporary accounts of the looting of the city state that ‘the Chandni Chouk, the Daribah Bazaar, and the buildings around the Masjid-i-Jama were set fire to and reduced to ashes’ (Tazkira of Anand Ram Mukhlis). However, they do not mention specific destruction of the Jama Masjid itself, which as a place of worship of the same faith as that of the invaders is unlikely to have been vandalized. Even the Jats and the Marathas who attacked Delhi in the late 18th century probably did not desecrate the Masjid. It is more than likely thus, that the Jama Masjid was more or less as it was depicted by the Daniells.

 About fifty years after the Daniells painted and published their view of the Jama Masjid, Emily Metcalfe, newly arrived from England, journeyed from Calcutta to Delhi to join her father, the British Resident of Delhi, Sir Thomas Metcalfe. This is how she writes in her diary of the last stage of her journey to Delhi:
‘I could not sleep because I was so excited at the thought of seeing Daddy before dawn. At about one o’clock in the morning I looked out of my palanquin, and saw in the glorious moonlight the minarets of the Juma Masjid, the great Mohammedan mosque that is one of the chief beauties of Delhi and of Northern India.’ (p.122, Golden Calm)

Perhaps Emily had seen one of the paintings of the Daniells in the houses of her aunts and uncles in England? Whether or not she had, it is interesting how the same sight extolled by Bernier’s journal in the mid-17th century was translated into a painting by the Daniells in the late 18th century and again evoked by Emily Metcalfe in the mid-19th century. The Jama Masjid is also practically the first building that Emily’s father, Sir Thomas Metcalfe, chose to write about in his Reminiscenses of Imperial Delhie. However, the painting commissioned by him to illustrate his description of the Jama Masjid, the ‘Great Cathedral’ as he calls it, shows the interior of the actual mosque, and does not confine itself to the view of the grand steps.

  The Jantar Mantar on the other hand was well outside the then city walls, a mile and a quarter south-west. Its patron’s kingdom was many miles away, in Jaipur, and it had ceased to be a working Observatory shortly after Nadir Shah’s attack. The circle of the full moon, the glow of the fire in Simpson’s painting lend both romance and mystery to the strange shapes of the instruments of this observatory. Indeed, the very reasons that make us believe that the Observatory may indeed actually have been in a ruinous and deserted state, make it improbable that Simpson would have actually sketched the Observatory by the light of the full moon. The area of Delhi at that time and even later was home to wild animals ranging from tigers to jackals; and the Jantar Mantar outside the protection of the city walls would not have been a safe proposition to visit at night. However, it may also be that by highlighting the fact that an ancient Observatory had been allowed to fall to ruins, Simpson was driving home a point more in keeping with his commission about portraying scenes of British victory. Namely, that even ancient important monuments were allowed to fall to ruin and decay in the reign of the Mughals? It is also a fact that after 1857, the entire Indian population of Shahjahanabad was turned out of the city. With no recourse to food or shelter, they may have actually taken refuge in the abandoned observatory’s masonry structures. Simpson may have actually seen such refugees or perhaps heard of their stories.

So what direct information can we derive from the paintings about the buildings? We are told that Simpson arrived in Calcutta in 1859 and traveled over India, making his ‘rapid pencil drawings’ which were finished as water-colours after his return to London in 1862. So about two to three years elapsed between drawing his subjects, and preparing them for publication. There was thus, a substantial time gap between seeing, recording and finishing his paintings. Nonetheless, if we consider the Jantar Mantar and how it has been rendered, we find that its instruments are more or less recognizable. We can see the Samrat Yantra, the Misra Yantra in the distance with the guard house of the Observatory next to it, and the pair of very broken down JaiPrakash Yantras in the foreground next to the skeleton. There is another platform with a roud disc on it shown before the West JaiPrakash Yantra which has since then disappeared.  We know that Jai Singh built metal instruments at the Delhi observatory before making his immovable masonry instruments here. Perhaps the unidentifiable platform in front of the JaiPrakash Yantras was the base for some such metal instrument? We cannot really say, since there is no specific textual evidence which describes a Yantra of this shape next to the JaiPrakashs.

The proportions of the Samrat are impeccable, and much like the extant Yantra today. It is in far better shape than the other Yantras depicted here. This is in sync with historical records. Thus, while Syed Ahmad Khan, in his book about the historic buildings of Delhi, Atharal Sanadid, first published in 1846-7, states quite clearly that the Jantar Mantar’s ‘instruments have fallen into disuse and are almost in ruins’, it is recorded that the newly formed Archaeological Society of Delhi requested Raja Rama Singh II of Jaipur to conserve the Observatory. As a result, in 1852 the conservation of the most imposing Yantra, the Samrat, was undertaken with funds and expertise from Jaipur. This conservation would have taken place less than a decade before Simpson’s visit, and perhaps explains the reason why the Samrat looks in so much better shape than the other visible Yantras.

However, when we compare Simpson’s drawing with a view of the Observatory at around the same time by a local artist commissioned by the British Resident of Delhi, Sir Thomas Metcalfe, it shows something quite different. It is the Samrat which appears more ruinous than the other Yantras, especially the JaiPrakash Yantras which are shown to be fairly intact. The drawing depicts scattered mounds of earth and occasional crumbling edges of the masonry instruments, set amidst fairly pleasant grassy stretches with trees in the distance - a far cry from the desolation of Simpson’s scene. The perspective is faulty and the proportions of the Yantras too are not as assured as Simpson’s drawing. But should we automatically assume that a less skilled artist will also be a less accurate observer and recorder? Not necessarily. In fact, a more confident and skilled artist may actually find it simpler to depart from reality, to fill in details from imagination. In the absence of absolute corroborative information, these thoughts cannot be more than speculations. Be that as it may, they demonstrate the selective nature of perception and memory and explain why even an overwhelmingly recognisable subject, when represented many times by different artists, does not appear exactly the same in its different versions. The fact is that it gets invested with different meanings despite being rendered in a natural or figurative way.

Jantar Mantar, Delhi mid 19th century
 from The Golden Calm

The Daniells too had chosen to draw the Delhi Jantar Mantar in their collection of views. Like Simpson, they focus on the Samrat Yantra; however the only other recognizable Yantra in their drawing is the Misra in the distance. The Observatory is not as obviously ruined as it is depicted in Simpson’s version. In fact, though part of the Samrat’s lime-plaster has come off revealing its underlying masonry, the Yantra itself is more or less complete. Again, if we look at the larger historical view of the area, we realize that the Daniells saw the Jantar Mantar before its conservation was undertaken in 1852, and after the attacks and vandalism on it by the Jats. So, was it actually in worse shape than the Daniells painting? Or was it in better shape than Simpson’s painting?    

Jantar Mantar, Delhi late 18th century,
Aquatint by Thomas and William Daniell, 1808
after a drawing by Thomas Daniell 1789

We can look for at least partial corroboration in another contemporary pictorial source – Beato’s photograph of the Jantar Mantar. Both Beato's photograph and Simpson’s drawing date from practically the same time. Beato’s photograph of the Jantar Mantar concentrates on the steps of the Samrat, and underplays the exotic element that Simpson seeks to highlight. Though Beato’s photograph does not cover as much of the Yantras as does Simpson’s painting, it is difficult to say exactly how much of the surroundings have been played up by Simpson. Nevertheless, the close up of the Samrat reveals that while the steps of the gnomon and its surrounding parapet are relatively intact, the dials of the Samrat  as well as the Misra Yantra in the background are indeed, at least partially ruined.

Jantar Mantar, Delhi mid 19th century,
Photograph: Felice Beato

Beato, like Simpson, also imposes props on his photograph though his props are quite different. The thin Indians and the lean dog in Simpson’s painting are replaced by the European in the sola topee. The European positioned on the steps of the Yantra, perhaps for scale, perhaps to reflect the ascendancy of the British in the Indian political and physical landscape is not a chance bystander or passerby but is a deliberately added element to the photograph. The same European appears in several of his other photographs too. However, though they use different props, and appear to evoke very different images – Beato’s still, stark and grainy planes and angles contrasted with Simpson’s soft colours and movement, as much a constraint of their different mediums as perhaps their individual artistic expressions - the underlying message in both works appears to be the same, namely the desolation of the native landscape in the aftermath of 1857.

Jama Masjid, Delhi mid 19th century,
Photograph; Felice Beato

             If we look at Beato's photograph of the Jama Masjid and its surroundings, there is a more perceptible difference between it and the Daniells painting. The Daniell painting is of course, almost 60 years before the Beato photograph. In this relatively short span of time, the perception of the Jama Masjid underwent a dramatic change. Immediately after the capture of Delhi, there had been proposals to demolish the Mosque and build a cathedral in its stead. The eastern (main) entrance depicted by the Daniells is closed in Beato’s photograph and the mosque is now entered from the south or north. (p.78, Masselos and Gupta). The elephant procession and the open vistas beyond have disappeared. In their place are clusters of houses and buildings surrounding the roads leading up to the Masjid. They reflect the build-up in Shahjahanabad in the 19th century, when it was peopled as much by Indians as by Europeans, and the effect that its popularity as a favoured place of residence as well as a centre for commerce and production had on the open spaces of the city. Most of the structures around the Jama Masjid were later cleared away by the British after 1857. (As in the Alkazi Collection picture, reproduced on p. 197, Red Fort of Shahjahanabad, A.S. Mukherji, OUP 2003)

It is also revealing to contrast the manner in which the Jantar Mantar and the Jama Masjid are presented in these older drawings and the manner in which they are photographed today. Thus, practically all the older drawings of the Jantar Mantar either only show the Samrat Yantra, the largest Yantra of the Delhi Observatory, or give it prominence in the composition. Yet, today, almost all images of the Delhi Jantar Mantar show not the Samrat, but the far smaller Misra Yantra – ranging from the photograph printed on the ASI’s entrance tickets to the coffee-table as well as the scholarly publications on the Jantar Mantar. The reason for this is probably because the Observatory’s original entrance has shifted ninety degrees, and the way in which it is now entered means that the Misra Yantra, the last and smallest Yantra of the Observatory, is encountered first of all. Similarly, most images of the Jama Masjid today either focus on close-ups of the steps of the entrance gates or feature its internal courtyard with the domes of the mosque looming up behind. Views such as those that the Daniell painting depicts are physically difficult to draw or photograph because of the crowding in of the mosque’s surroundings. This shows the extent to which physical space and how we spatially approach a building or a monument affects how we picture, redefine and represent our past.

Thus, to sum up, we see that individual and partly imaginative as they are, the paintings give important information about the immediate and the larger context of the scenes they depict. Moreover, they do not just document and evoke a time and a pace of life that is now lost, they also help to illustrate, elaborate and corroborate certain historical facts. And finally, they remind us of the importance of symbols in a people’s memory. As we completely overwhelm the original spatial and architectural quality of the Jama Masjid, and desecrate the Jantar Mantar under the guise of people's protets, it is time to realize the importance of how the past once appeared to inhabitants and to visitors - and what may lie in store for us if we forget completely. 

Jantar Mantar, 19 November 2009 Hindustan Times

Monday, March 16, 2015

A Tenida tale

Dadhichi, Insects and Vishvakarma
Translation of a Bengali story by Narayan Gangopadhyay

Till now, I have been sitting rapt—meditating with all my mind in a deep forest. Just that, a whole lot of insects have been streaming across my nose and mouth, and I can’t describe how awful that is! They get into my nose and tickle it; into the innermost recesses of my ear to fathom what mysterious secrets, if any, lurk there. At one point, when swallowing, I even ended up eating practically a dozen. Their taste was quite a bit like sweet fennel—but what a terrible smell! I would have vomited, but that’s simply not done while in meditation. Shoo them away—that is also out of the question. At present I am still in samadhi[1]—I have to stay absolutely still.

I had guessed right in the beginning that something like this would happen. And I had told this to Habul. But he, having acquired the aspect of Lord Indra, was then occupied with thoughts of going to Shiva at Kailash, and just refused to pay any heed. He said, “go on with you, stop droning on and on about this and that. Forests have insects and they will get into noses and mouths. Bear it all quietly—or else how will you ever be a great sage?”
That is quite true. But, now I understand why great sages have temperaments as touchy as a hornet’s hive, and why they let loose curses of epic proportions at the drop of a hat. After all, there is a limit to man’s patience! Such an invasion of insects on one’s face and even a man as serene as Shantanu[2] would become as dour as Durvasa[3]. I have not the faintest doubt about this, not even as little as the size of a sesame seed.

Sure enough, I was in a fix. Truth to tell, what interest would I, Paillaram Bannerjee, a victim of jaundice getting by on the juice of Basak[4] leaves, have in putting my foot into the bewildering business of sages and rishis? I live in Patoldanga, and it is my fate to live on rice with patol [5] and fish stew, day in and out. Just a handful of chanachur[6] sets off my stomach into agonies, enough to almost send me packing! Poor me—as quiet as a cow, I fell into the clutches of Tenida, all of six feet tall and with a 42 inch wide chest!
And what that means, is impossible to imagine for those who haven’t ever had to deal with Tenida. He can make short work of anyone, from the whites on the Fort Maidan to the shifty smart-alecky shop owners of Chor Bazaar. Just by raising his hand, he effects the sensation of a big blow; the mere sight of his teeth seems as if he’s bitten off a piece of you.
It is because of the clutches of this fearsome Bhairava-like person that I sit here like a sage in meditation.
What else can I do!
It feels as if I have been sitting here forever. There is a hole in the forest—through it I can see that worthless Habul’s nose peeping out. Incensed by the insect-bites, I was wondering if I should or shouldn’t bash his nose in. Just then, my disciple, Dadhimukh, made his entrance.

Dadhimukh spoke up: “Oh Master, there is a request.”
I said: “Speak, child. It will certainly be heard.”

Dadhimukh said:
“At the close of a dark night,
I saw an astonishing dream—
The Master in god-like might,
On a fiery chariot, ascending did seem,
On the great void’s shadow-path astride.
In great fear I cried—
Yuck Yuck, thoo!”

Insects, what else? Grimacing loudly, Dadhimukh spat them out—all on to me. Such cheek, and him my disciple. I grew livid with rage. My plaited hair fairly stood up with the force of my fury. But to curse a disciple is to invite ruin. I thought to myself, just you wait, my boy, I will teach you a lesson.

I said, with a smile:
“Verily, it portends
A mystery most profound.
Your mind so dense
It would confound.
Come close to me
And I will whisper what it means, to thee.”

 Dadhimukh stared at me with his mouth open. This was not what he expected to hear. Helplessly, he looked around, uncertain what to do.

I said:
“Why then
Do you still stand afar?
Come close if you would want to hear
This secret most astonishing.
Bring your face further here,
Come child, a little near—
Why don’t you come?”

Dadhimukh was young and na├»ve. Completely flabbergasted, he brought his face close to mine. And I gave him a fitting answer. I opened my mouth and breathed in mightily, and a swarm of insects fell into my mouth. Then immediately, back they all went with the sound of my spitting—to Dadhimukh’s cheek, nose, face and forehead. The affectionate blessings of a guru to his disciple.
Dadhimukh cried out loudly. And then, the painted backdrop descended. The bamboo hit my nose first, splat, and then straight down. The end of Act 2, before the scene finished.

Immediately, Habul in the guise of Indra and Tenida in that of Vishwakarma[7], raced onto the stage.
Tenida demanded: “What was that, hey? What is the meaning of this, I’d like to know?”
I asked rebelliously: “The meaning of what?”
Tenida, gnashing his teeth, asked: “You good-for-nothing, you, are you planning to ruin the play? Why did you spit on Kaibla’s face like that? The scene has been ruined. Can’t you hear the audience laughing?”
I retorted: “It was Kaibla who first spat on me.”
Tenida exclaimed: “Humph! I will clip both your foreheads together like a pair of wood-apples. Anyway, whatever has happened has happened. Now, the remaining scenes must be dealt with properly—do you understand? Any more trouble from you, and I will give you a slap that will send your nose to Nasik.”

I said: “You say this and that is the end of the matter? But who is it who must sit there and digest insects, may I know?”
“You!” Tenida bellowed. “Undoubtedly, you. You will have to. You think you can do theatre and not eat insects? If the occasion arises, you will eat mosquitoes, you will eat flies—“
Habul joined in, “You will eat rats and bats.”
Tenida continued, “You will eat mats, and if you have to eat cots and beds, that will not be surprising either. Ho, Ho my fine friend, this is called theatre!”
“To do theatre then, does one have to eat all this,” I protested feebly.
“Absolutely. What do you understand of all this? Have you heard of Danibabu? Danibabu?[8] When he enacted Sita’s part in a play, he would eat the Monument and only then come down to the stage, do you know?”
“Eat the Monument[9]?”
“Yes, yes, the Monument on the Maidan. Go on with you, don’t make such a fuss. The curtain will rise in a moment. Scoot from here. Go learn your part by heart.”

With a frown on my face as dark as the blackened-pot on a scarecrow in a brinjal-field, I came and sat at the corner of the stage. Eat the Monument! What a story. How can a man ever do that? But, if I question this further it will mean a tight slap, so I have to swallow this tall tale.
If you have to do theatre, you have to eat insects. Indeed! As if by not doing theatre, I couldn’t stomach my fish stew. I, Paillaram Bannerjee with my stomach afflicted by jaundice—what need have I to stick on a mouthful of prickly beard and dress up as Dadhichi?
It is because I fell into the clutches of these rogues that I am in this state.

I was sitting happily on the Chatterjee’s roak—while they were all flinging their arms and legs around, as they rehearsed in the courtyard. But they could not find anyone to play Dadhichi. And then Tenida, his big saucer-like eyes swivelling around here and there, came and clapped his hand down on my shoulder.
I said: “Aiee, Aiee, what, what?”
Tenida roared like a tiger: “Not aiee, aiee, but aye aye! Yes, your face is very much like a sage, it has the look of a peace-loving goat. And once we fix a goat-like beard on your cheek, how beautifully it will become you. Aha! You will look just like old man Keshav at the Rai’s house.”
And this is the outcome of that.

I have no part in this Act, and continue to droop discontentedly in a corner. The beard is in my hand; I wave it with all my might to get rid of the mosquitoes. This is impossible. I simply cannot go on stage and sit in meditation with more insects. And what deadly insects.
But what to do?
My entire being burnt with rage. Not content with taking advantage of my kindness in agreeing to do the part, to then insult me in this gross way. Slap my nose to Nasik. Ha! Just because your nose is as pointed as a pyramid and mine horizontal as a Chinaman’s. Very well, just you wait, this same nose you have slighted will appear as high as Mainaka[10] when I teach you a lesson.
But what can I really do?
I just cannot think for the life of me; and there on the stage, Tenida is waxing eloquent. Every now and then he leaps so high that the old flea-ridden wooden divan of the Chatterjee’s wobbles dangerously. Difficult to say whether he is doing theatre or giving a high jump.

The stage manager, Habul Sen, passed by. He called out, “Hey Pailla, why are you sitting in the dark like a ghost?”
I pleaded: “Give me a little tea, brother Habul, my throat is as dry as a stick.” 
Habul twitched his nose disdainfully. “No, no, you had better not drink so much tea. Anyway, you have a nerve, wanting tea after the way you have been acting...”
Adding insult to injury! I bared my teeth and made a face at Habul, but it was too dark for him to see.    
Should I do the disappearing act with the beard? Go straight to my house? When they find no trace of me during the Dadhichi scene, then what fun it will be. But no—will that be wise? Who will save me tomorrow morning?
One slap from Patoldanga’s celebrated Tenida and I am as good as dead. No, no, that won’t work. I will need to contrive differently, so that the snake is killed without breaking the stick. I will have to set such a trap that Tenida will eat nails, and swallow them happily. And with all that, I must teach him a fine lesson so that he sprouts another tooth—the one they call the wisdom tooth. At the same time, I will also need to fix Tenida’s manager, Mr Habul Sen.
I called upon the Lord and asked him to illumine the darkness and show me the way.
And the Lord granted me light.

I told Habul I would be back in five minutes from my house. Habul questioned fiercely: “Why?”
“Oh this stomach of mine is a little, you know—“
Habul said: “That’s torn it. This is what comes of involving such puny stomach-afflicted creatures. You’ll ruin us all. Your part will be on in just a while.”
I said: “No, no, I will be back immediately.”
I thought to myself, we’ll soon see whose stomach will be in what state. You wanted me to eat the Monument, let me see what grave stuff you can digest.

I was back in exactly five minutes.
My doctor uncle’s medicine cupboard did not take too much time to yield to my hammer. I returned with just the medicine. I calculated that it was almost an hour before I was to go onto the stage. The work would be done in that time.
I went to where the big tea kettle was boiling on the oven. No one was paying any attention, everyone was watching the play from the wings. Tenida was leaping around to the dense accompaniment of claps. Just you wait, I’ll see how many claps you clamour for.

Tenida returned, his pyramid-like nose elevated even higher in the flush of victory. Smiling smugly, he enquired: “How did it go, Habul?”
Habul replied ingratiatingly: “Wonderful, wonderful! Who can do such a part but you? The audience is cheering you hoarse—well done, well done!”
I know why the audience is cheering. They have not understood that this was Vishwakarma’s part, not Bhimasen’s. But the real part is still to come, I said to myself.
Tenida let out a roar which shook the stage: “Tea, hey you—get tea.”
Habul took a deep breath and shot off.

The curtain has risen again. In the role of Dadhichi, I am sitting in a meditative pose and eating insects. My disciple, Dadhimukh, is standing at a distance now. He has not forgotten our earlier encounter.
Indra and Vishwakarma make an entrance. Tenida and Habul.
Habul spoke:
“Master, O Great one,
We have come
At the bidding of Shiva,
That from the bones you bear
May thunderbolts be hewn—[11]

Tenida said:
“The genius of Vishwakarma
Will be displayed
Such weapons will I raise[12]
That the universe entire,
And all its oceans will quiver
With a great cry.
Sentient and inanimate
Intensely will radiate
Charged as the glow of a lamp,”
After that, without slackening speed:
“Oh my, what a stomach cramp”.

Habul groaned softly: “My stomach feels funny too”.
I glanced at them just once from the corner of my eye. Now to see how strong is the digestion of those who claim that the Monument can be eaten!
I said:
‘Stay, stay—
While I pray
To my Lord and meditate
Awhile you must wait.
Be quiet, till I say
And then I give my word, my life I will give up.”

I continued to sit immobile. This meditation is not going to end so easily. The assaults of the insects continue unabated—but no matter. If I don’t suffer, how will Tenida and Habul attain salvation?
Hot tea with strong purgative—let’s see what happens now!
Tenida grimaced and said hastily from the corner of his mouth: “Quick, finish your meditation. Oh my aunt! My stomach really hurts!”
I said: “Quiet! Do not disturb my meditation
Or else I will lay the curse of Brahma on you.”

Of course, I was not actually sitting in meditation. I saw Tenida’s pale face from the corner of my eye. Habul was in a worse state. The Lord is compassionate.
Tenida spoke in abject tones: “Oh Pailla, I beg you, end your meditation quickly. I fall at your feet, Pailla.”
Habul groaned: “I am almost dead.”
I sat completely unmoved. “Contain yourself. The meditation of sages—a question of giving up one’s body—is this a simple thing to do?”
“Oh, I am gone”, and with one jump Tenida vanished. In the absolute darkness. And behind him, Habul.
And theatre?
What is the use of saying anything more about it?

[1] Samadhi, a trance like state of meditation achieved by sages after much discipline and practice
[2] Shantanu, the Kuru King, great grandfather of the Pandavas and Kauravas. Here, there is a play on the words, ‘shant’, or calm and ‘Shantanu’.
[3] Durvasa was a sage of very uncertain temper, famed for his propensity to fly into a rage at real or imagined insults. He is the one who cursed Ganga, banishing her to earth from the heavens, because she laughed at him. He is also the sage who blessed Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas in Mahabharata, and granted her the boon to summon the gods at will to father her children.
[4] Vasaka or Shwetavasa in Sanskrit, Malabar nut in English, botanical name: Justicia Adhatoda or Adhatoda zeylanica, is a medicinal plant native to Asia. Its leaves are bitter and widely used in Ayurvedic medicine; their juice is believed to cure dysentery, diarrhoea, and glandular tumour.,, accessed 10.07.2014
[5] A vegetable of the gourd family                                             
[6] Fried/roasted and spiced whole gram, a favourite street food

[7] Vishwakarma, the divine architect, was one of the fourteen precious gifts of the Samudra Manthan. He is said to have constructed the holy city of Dwarka, where Lord Krishna ruled, and the wondrous Maya Sabha of the Pandavas. He also created many fabulous weapons for the gods. He is mentioned in the Rig Veda, and is credited with Sthapatya Veda, the science of mechanics and architecture.

[8] Danibabu is the popular name of Surendranath Ghosh, who lived from 1868-1932, and was a famous actor of Bengali theatre, and the son of the great actor Girish Chandra Ghosh; see The Bengali Drama: Its Origin and Development, 1930, by P. Guha-Thakurta

[9] The Ochterlony Monument is a column 48 m (157 ft) high, located at the Kolkata Maidan and a landmark of the city. With more than 200 steps that lead to its top, it is literally a tall order to scale it, much less digest it! Named after Major-General David Ochterlony (who led the victory of the British East India Company over the Marathas in the Battle of Delhi in 1804, and over the Gurkhas in the Anglo-Nepalese War), and designed by J. P. Parker, its construction in 1828 was paid for from public funds. Renamed Shaheed Minar orMartyrs monument’, it was dedicated to the martyrs of the Indian Freedom Movement in August 1969, but continues to be referred to simply as ‘Monument’.,_Kolkata accessed on 27 March 2014; p. 186, Stones of Empire, Jan Morris, OUP Oxford, 1983.
[10] A mountain in the Himalayas. In Hindu mythology, Mainaka is the brother of Parvati, and the most powerful son of the hundred sons of Maina (Mena) and Himavat, the Lord of the Himalaya. Maina, originally resided in heaven, but came to earth because she and her sisters did not recognize and greet some revered rishis, and were consequently cursed by them. Another instance of the hot temper of great sages! In the Ramayana, when Hanuman flies to Lanka over the ocean, Mainaka, pushes himself out of the depths of the waters and invites him to rest awhile on his peak.,
[11] Indra, the leader of the Devas, the lord of heaven, and the God of rain and thunderstorms. He wields a lightning thunderbolt known as Vajra
[12] As recorded in Puranic literature, the Asthis (bones) of Dadhichi, also known as Dadhyancha, were used to make the Vajra. This mysterious weapon of Vedic origin, was the Amogha Astra (unfailing weapon) used by Indra to kill the Asura Vritra, the demon of drought, and release life-giving waters for the benefit of mankind.  Dadhichi, revered amongst the greatest of sages, was from the clan of bhrigus, and one of the greatest devotees of Lord Shiva. At the request of Indra, he gave up his life by the art of Yoga, so that his bones could be used to make new weapons to defeat Vritra, the recipient of a boon whereby he could not be killed or harmed by any known weapon. The Vajra also serves as the motif for the Param Vir Chakra, the highest gallantry award of the Indian Army.  See Official Website of Indian Army, and