The invisible visible air of New Delhi
How do you know your plane has started descent towards The New Delhi International Airport? When you begin to smell car exhaust inside the plane’s cockpit. Inside the terminal the smell persists and as you step outside, an acrid, sour, burning smoke assails your eyes and nose. On the way to the guest house you keep the taxi windows closed and try to breathe into your hankie to protect yourself from the nauseating effects of the blue cloud through which your taxi is moving.
At the guest-house you are welcomed by the charming, helpful and efficient hostess who yet manages to surprise you with an oddity: “What’s with the air?” you ask her (meaning: “Has something happened? Was there an explosion? A fire downtown?”) and thinking that, surely, the sheer scale of the disaster would have been first page news. But it hasn’t been: the hostess is nonplussed. “The air? Oh, in the winter it always gets foggy here, and then the dust blows in from the desert.” When you tell her that you have spent several winters in Delhi in the past and that the blue color of the air outside, its acrid smell of combustion, and the huge dust particles that palpably bounce off your face are like nothing you have ever seen before, she is surprised.
You then realize that your hostess is somewhat in the old line of pucca (“proper”) ladies and lives in a kind of purdah (“seclusion”), hardly ever going outside; and that remaining all days indoors has protected her in part from the worst of the pollution outside. Plus, the change in the quality of air must have been to some extent gradual, and therefore people living in Delhi without interruption may have been less aware of it. Still, there must be another cognitive mechanism at work here: the difference between Delhi air in November 2011 and November 2006, the time of my last visit, is so stark that no one with any sense can possibly have failed to notice it – unless they do not want to. And the truth is that most Delhites are trapped in the city and have nowhere to flee to; all they can do is pretend that things aren’t really as bad as they are and hope it will pass.
It will not. In the last decade, the city has moved most public transport to greener liquified natural gas and built a metro to try to ease the traffic congestion; yet the rise in motor vehicles has continued unabated, turning Delhi roads into one huge snarling traffic jam; and the construction of a whole new city of Gurgaon, just south of Delhi, though it has sucked out some old Delhites, has done nothing to abate the relentless population growth as more people move in from everywhere to take advantage of Delhi’s higher wages. Delhi air, never especially good, is far worse today than it was ten or even five years ago and for some, like myself, is simply unbearable.
Although statistics are not easy to come by – government’s annual surveys of Delhi air quality have not been published since 2009 (having been suppressed, some say, for the sake of not scaring off the Commonwealth Games in 2010) – reports circulate that two in five Delhites suffer from respiratory ailments. Certainly all of the city’s professional drivers hack and retch; the pollution has performed a public health miracle: unable to breathe, most seem to have quit smoking.
By miracle of evolution, we’re each a little different, and some of us are better equipped to handle the pollution: I find one of my fellow guests at the guesthouse – a North European – is actually sunning himself on the open-air terrace the next morning. Yet, even he’s not blind: yeah, he admits, the air is bad – better taken in through a cigarette filter, he quips – but at least it is better than last time I came through, a week ago. “Now, that really was bad.” I shudder and thank God I was not in Delhi a week ago; but do recall reading Delhi’s weather forecast at that time: “dry, it said, high 30 degrees centigrade, smokey”. Even Yahoo Weather noticed something was up with the air.
Originally, I had booked my Delhi room for two weeks: the plan was to spend part of the season in the city to catch as much classical music and dance as I could – in quickly “modernizing” India her classical performing arts are progressively more difficult to see; but after just three days, during which I did manage to catch one very good vocal concert (well attended but by an audience of whom none – except myself – was less than fifty), I realized I would have to leave Delhi if I wanted to live: I was choking on the air, feeling physically sick. A friend offered his house in the hills and a spare servant. “Go up there, he said, the air is good, the views are astounding, the walks invigorating.” I had missed the hills almost as much as I had missed India’s classical arts, so instead of rescheduling my flight and advancing my departure from India, I headed for the hills. Ten days is a short time for a Himalayan trip – it takes so long to get there – but that seemed a better idea than to leave India defeated, after mere three days, probably never to come back.
Two days later, about seven in the morning my car came into the full view of the Dhauladar Range. It looked, as always, magnificent; but looking down a bit, around the mountains’ midriff, I suddenly spotted clearly against her snow… clouds of brown smoke meandering in the upper air. Smog!
Around noon, the host took me up to see a property he’s contemplating buying (in order to escape Delhi air). He had selected a beautiful site: within easy access from the State Highway, yet screened from her noise by a low, but steep hill, it sits across the top of a mild hillock, with views in all directions: the Himalayas in the back, the plains in front. On a good day, he says, you can see all the way to Chandigarh; I follow his gesture but all I can make out is milky-white haze of sunlight scattered in the fine dust suspended in the air. “A bit of a fog today”, says my friend, though the temperature is in mid 20s, it has not rained in three months and the air is bone dry; “but look at the mountains, aren’t they magnificent?” They are; though a bit hard to see, veiled as they now are by a purplish-brownish haze. Suddenly I remember: The Asian Brown Cloud. I had never seen it before: and here it was, visible from ground level, with the naked eye.
My friend does not notice. “And the air, he says, ah, the air, isn’t it wonderful? That’s why I want to move here!” Actually, the air is not wonderful. It does not have the acrid smell of smoke which it has in Delhi, but it has none of the bracing freshness of mountain air which I remember from previous visits. I now recognize the phenomenon: I have seen it before.
I have of course seen it before – in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which, when I first came to live there in 2001, had mostly manageable air, little traffic, and beautiful views of Doi Suthep, a mountain which towers above it. When I arrived there, the city had a small expatriate population; over the next decade agreeable climate, low prices, favorable tax treatment and a good standard of living have caused the expatriate population to rapidly expand. By 2006 major international magazines declared Chiang Mai to be one of the best places to live in the world, throwing expatriate immigration into overdrive. Ironically, the 2006 positive publicity for the city, and what seemed like a quantum jump in new expat arrivals, coincided with the city’s first environmental disaster. Pro-growth policies of the government of Thaksin Sinawatra in part aimed at decongesting the country’s capital, Bangkok, have caused the city’s population to explode from 250,000 in 2000 to more than 2 million in 2011. Policies designed to capture car assembly business have expanded the number of cars on Thai roads even faster. As has been the case with Delhi, infrastructure development did not keep pace. In February 2006 Chiang Mai experienced its first smokey weather.
Both Chiang Mai and North India lie in the subtropical monsoon zone, at the foot of the Himalayas. The monsoon climate means between four and six months of daily rain which washes the air somewhat and six (or more) months of rainless weather, when dust, once kicked up into the air, does not get washed out from the atmosphere and stays airborn indefinitely – until the rains break again. The solid wall of mountains to the north means that the prevailing Southwest winds concentrate air pollution in the foothills – they effectively sweep garbage from the whole plain south of it and dump it overhead.
I first noticed that something was amiss with Chiang Mai air in December 2006, from my motorcycle, on one of my usual trips into the surrounding hills: a stretch of the road which runs along the top of a ridge used to afford wonderful views over successive mountain ranges fading into the distance towards Burms, each bluer and fainter than the one before. But riding along the same road in now I realized suddenly that one simply could not see the mountains: the view had completely disappeared into a kind of milky haze. Unlike my Delhi friend, I realized immediately that the haze was… no mist.
By late January, Doi Suthep – 1600 m mountain at the edge of the city – traffic-willing the top of the mountain is only 20 minutes away – has disappeared from view; by early February, Chiang Mai experienced its first “blue days” – blue clouds of exhaust hanging over its streets, an acrid burning stink of exhaust, palpable dust in the air, brushing one’s face as one rode through the streets.
Traditionally, the tourist season begins in Chiang Mai with the onset of the dry weather, sometime in late October; this is also when most new expatriate immigrants arrive. In 2006, when the first Blue Days arrived, the largest contingent yet has just bought their properties or signed their leases; people were just settling into their furniture when the pollution struck.
Their reaction to the disaster was much like that of my Delhi hostess: they chose not to notice. They had simply invested too much in their move to Thailand to allow themselves to realize that they have made a mistake. With time, the expats began to complain about the air (though usually pretending that there are only a couple bad weeks in the winter). Finally, this year (2012) the penny began to drop (see this discussion) though not before the Thai government began to wonder in public whether it should just evacuate the entire population from the North of the country. And the expats are still blaming it on Thais burning rice-fields in the winter. Yet, the truth is that Thais have been burning rice fields for about 700 years, but the smog reached catastrophic proportions only now — a clear sign that something else is at fault. What? The Asian Brown Cloud emanating out of India and China. Last year there were reports of Chinese pollution causing smog in Western Japan. This year — in Hawaii.
How bad is it? Just look at the photos of Kangra Fort, in Kanga Valley, 550 km north of New Delhi. What you are seeing is not mist. It is the Brown Cloud visible (and smellable) at ground level.
Ahmed Ali, Twilight in Delhi
The critical praise Twilight in Delhi has continued to receive is surely due to the description of Muslim life in Old Delhi before the Partition; the patterns of speech (with flowery formulas, pious quotations and love poems), hobbies (kite flying, dove-keeping, poetry meetings), magical medical practices, fable-telling, clothing, housing, the marriage customs and wedding ceremonies, the funeral practices – they are all attractive aspects of a way of life now, as the expression has it, “mostly lost”. I say “mostly” because they are not entirely gone — similar practices still survive in some parts of North India – even some parts of Delhi; they are much rarer now than they used to be; coming upon them is a matter of exotic delight; but they were clearly already threatened when the book was written – in 1939. Reading the novel one cannot help feeling that the author foresaw and rued their passing – the way a Japanese poet might preciously rue — on a balmy August afternoon — the imminent (to him) passing of the summer. And this is pretty: regret for things past is a touching sentiment, especially when it is, as it is in this novel, unstated, only implied, and when it comes from the pen of a a 29-year-old (as Ahmed Ali was at the time of writing).
Hostility towards the English and constant bewailing of the fall of the Mughal Empire – it sounds so familiar to Polish ears – are in a way part of this way of life. Remembering valiant deeds of 1857 and offering occasional charity to beggar descendants of royal blood seem customary – meaning, perfunctory — like the embroidered cap or the praising the prophet – it is all part of the formula, it need not be taken seriously: after all, despite the horrors of 1857 — mass expropriations, exiles, and executions – the old way of life still continued fifty years later (the novel is set in 1910-18) pretty much the way it had been before the conquest. The real change – and the real loss of 1857 – took place only at the top of the social hierarchy to which none of the book’s heroes has ever belonged anyhow. The ruing of the Empire’s loss is aesthetic.
But human beings mistake formulas for content and Ahmed Ali’s introduction to the book (written in 1993) makes it plain he does: there is a lot more there about colonialism – complete with the inevitable quotation from Edward Said. This subtracts from the novel: it interprets it in a tired nationalistic light, and in a suddenly florid prose — the sort Indians fall into whenever they speak of The Nation — and with the familiar old moralism of the defeated. Of course, the defeated invariably find moral fault with the victor – yet, what right had the Mughals had to conquer and rule India that the British did not?
The moralizing of the defeated is a powerful emotional cocktail and Ahmed Ali fell for it himself: in time, he came to believe his novel was about colonialism, when in fact, it is about the disappearance of a certain way of life. Yet, that way of life has not disappeared because of the British but because of – demography. By the end of the nineteenth century the poor stopped dying in the usually atrocious numbers meaning that their numerical advantage over the middle-class suddenly increased many-fold; by the beginning of the twentieth, they began to get access to information, meaning that they began to realize their strength; finally, in the course of the wars of the first half of the twentieth century, governments put guns in their hands. In one half of the world, the poor used those guns to kill the rich; in the other, to tax them. Everywhere, the old way of life came to an end.
A way of life is a form of art. Like any art, it can be more or less artful. What we call the “old ways” often seem more artful than the new ways because they were the ways of a kind of social class which has ceased to exist today: a smaller (and therefore more interconnected), richer, and far less busy middle class. Given time and resources, humans engage in art – in the broad sense of the word, meaning any beautiful skill, including mastering the smoking of the hookah. And so the heroes of Twilight in Delhi do: they pursue artful hobbies, which include poetry, alchemy, embroidery, singing and dancing, elaborate family rituals. Today, the socialist great leveler has eradicated that class — we moderns either have time or money; and while in the West there has been an offsetting gain — the life of the very poor improved as a result of transfer taxation – it is hard not to look at the life of those of our grandparents and great-grandparents who had been of the better sort with a kind of nostalgia. It was so obviously prettier than any life we live today. (This realization has driven a lot of the best art of the modern age from The Leopard, to The Buddenbrooks, to Fanny and Alexander).
Reflecting along those lines, it sometimes becomes hard not to doubt the utilitarian principle: does the greatest good of the greatest number justify destruction of goods (in this case the good is a way of life) just because they cannot be universally held? Perhaps there is something to be said for the Borges formula – that of Babylonian Lottery – let there be injustice in the world, some very rich and some very poor, but assign who gets what totally randomly — and to assure cooperation, reassign it frequently.
The characters of Twlight in Delhi provide a strong argument for the Lottery concept. Although Ahmed Ali presents them with charity; and they earn our sympathy by the sadness of their fates – all life is fundamentally tragic because it ends in disease and death; there does not seem to exist any apparent reason why this particular lot, and not their water-carrier, say — should enjoy rents on a few houses and some agricultural land. They are neither especially kind, nor gentle, nor wise; they manage their private lives with the same mixture of thoughtlessness and fumbling the rest of humanity do; and for all the artful beauty of their lives they manage to make themselves and each other seriously unhappy.
This also presents in a stark light the main problem with all novel writing: human lives — which are by necessity any novel’s main subject — are not particularly worth knowing about, and therefore reading about, and therefore, it would seem, writing about. Perhaps, like a certain other descendant of Polish nobility (see footnote 1), I am too smart, too well-read, and too philosophically inclined to find anything of interest in a novel about people.
Are there any novels about penguins, I wonder?
(1) One Nitecki, of course: cf. the famous chapters of Ecce Homo with titles like “Why I am so wise”, etc. As the Italians say, beh!
It’s all copies, of course; but it really isn’t bad at all. Besides, the Old Masters did a lot of copying — indeed, they mostly copied. (This is why Rembrandt got sent to Madrid in the first place). One copied and copied and copied and then, eventually, one painted something original, once, for kicks. And only then, if it worked, one tried more.
Sir G paid well over market price for these (300-400 euros) — but figured he was encouraging the men to stick with their job. Glad to report, it worked: both were still at it two years later and one even had a (part time) apprentice.
For your enjoyment, copies after: Mughal, Kangra, and Kotah schools. Enjoy.
The aesthetisist in me wants to understand just what is going on with Chiang Mai food.
It has never been great — traditionally Chiang Mai-ites have been gourmands (big eaters) rather than gourmets (epicures); but it has always been far better than almost anywhere else in Thailand. Foreign food in Chiang Mai — including Chinese — has always ranged from bad to indifferent — reflecting perhaps the ignorance of the public — you can sell anything to the ignorant in small quantities; but Thai food has always been at least adequate. Yet, in the last two years I have repeatedly had what I have never had here in the preceding eight years: bad Thai food. And what is far, far worse: all my favorite restaurants — all the places I used to eat in daily — are, one by one, going bad.
I really dread the approach of the lunch hour. Where can I go to eat and not be disappointed? I delay the decision and sometimes don’t dare make one at all: skip lunch, eat fruit instead (pomello and mango are still good though prices have risen dramatically), or eat nothing. More often than ever, if I do go out, I find myself poking at the animal feed I am presented instead of the food I ordered, and, unable to force myself to lift it to my lips, leave hungry and with the feeling of being undeservedly persecuted.
And one has begun to experience the heretofore unheard of: the — occasional, so far, and mild, so far, but all the same — food poisoning.
One explanation must clearly lie in the ingredients: there has been a marked decline in the quality and flavor of fruits, vegetables and meat, in a kind of variation of Gresham’s Law: Chinese imports and new hybrid crops developed for crop yields and long shelf-lives rather than flavor and texture are taking over the market (“Americanization”); the recent run up in food prices (between 50% and 100%) has probably only accelerated the process: unable to cope with the price hikes, people (and businesses) are going down the quality ladder.
But this does not explain the sudden prevalence of bad cooking: food that’s overcooked, or under-cooked, or over-spiced, or over-greasy. Sometimes the failures are shocking: how can one explain hard rice in a self-respecting (supposedly) restaurant in a nation of rice-eaters? Perhaps, in an environment of rapidly rising wages, restaurants are having hard time holding on to their kitchen staff and are forced to replace them with the ever-less skilled; but the consumers share large part of the guilt: they fail to drive home the market message that bad food is not acceptable: the quality-wise declining restaurants are as full as they were in their better-cooking days.
How is that possible?
The only explanation I can think of is that the current customers are not the old customers. In a city whose population has grown ten fold in ten years, this is not surprising: 90% of the eaters are people raised on the less-good food common in other parts of Thailand. Indeed, many immigrants are from the country-side where poor ingredients and total absence of fancy foods have been the norm — even in the villages near Mae Rim — a mere 30 minute drive out of town, only low quality ingredients can be had at the market, the farmers habitually selling all their “premium” products into the city. These immigrants are therefore, literally, food-wise speaking, know-nothings.
This no doubt accounts for the proliferation of “fancy restaurants”, with glass, black decor, halogen spot lights, pointy logos — and bad food. Their customers — and they have plenty of them — are not there to enjoy the food: they want to experience the atmosphere, the decor and the service — feel rich, modern, and fashionable — and could not anyhow tell a good dish (from a bad one) if it hit them in the face. It explains the rise in tipping, too: traditionally, one has not tipped in Thailand, as one does not generally throughout the Far East — Asia uses a different economic model for restaurants, one in which the boss pays his workers; but the hommes nouveaux only a few years out of the sticks, have never been served in their lives and, given their low self-esteem, being served makes them feel awkward; the only reason why anyone would ever serve them must surely be — money; and so they tip.
Come to think about it, one can clearly see the same phenomena — poorer ingredients, poorer cooking, less knowledgeable customers, decor-over-flavor, tipping — at work in the restaurant scene of New Delhi.
All paintings featured here are Kangra, 18th century. Sizes range from about B5 to A4, except Number 11 (scroll over the gallery to see image number), which is an incredible 2.5 in x 3.5 in.
The beast that ate New Delhi
An alarming trend in Indian cuisine
Indian cooking has always been very aromatic – as long ago as the Mohenjo Daro. Blending a different combination of aromatic spices into every dish is an excellent way to create variety and enhance the flavor of the food – an aspect of cooking which has gained in importance as the quality and taste of food-stuffs have generally declined since Independence as a result of poor farming conditions/ low investments in agriculture.
Unlike Mexican, or Thai, or Korean food, Indian upper and middle-class food has not been traditionally spicy-hot. While the poor of India have eaten spicy-hot dishes (using mainly cayenne pepper lal mirch) because other spices have been out of their reach: few farmers in India can afford the seven or eight spices, some of them pricey, which go into a middle-class Indian dish; or the time required to marinate/ roast/ cure /blend the spices prior to preparation of every meal. But the middle-and upper-class Indian homes were able to enjoy a variety of spices and retain a specialized servant — the spice-walla — to perform this laborious task three times a day. They were not spicy-hot dependent.
Indian food began to grow spicy around 2005: the first appearances of prik chillies in some dishes prepared in private homes in Delhi was welcome by several of my foodie friends as a creative nouveau cuisine touch. I do not believe my friends realized those instances were a harbinger of a larger trend and I wonder if they would have praised them as liberally then if they knew what was to come.
I believe the use of prik chillies in Indian cooking can be traced to the discovery of Thailand as an accessible/ fashionable tourist destination for the Indian middle class. Indians returning from Thailand would adopt aspects of Thai interior design, clothing and – prik chillies. Adding a handful of prik chillies to a home-made curry was a Delhite’s way of feeling cosmopolitan, fashionable, with it. It also helped to mask any minor short-comings of the cuisine: while two or three shavings of a prik chilli can introduce an interesting note to a dish normally had milder, a more plentiful use of prik chillis obscures other flavors, making it possible for not so great cooks to mask their shortcomings.
By march 2011 prik chillies have invaded all North Indian cousine, including such traditional kashmiri stalwarts as Chor Bizarre in Old Delhi, whose palate as recently as 2005 was delightfully (and authentically) mild, creamy, fruity, and sweet. (In short – Kashmiri).
An extensive, semi-professional sampling of New Delhi restaurants conducted by yours truly (a bit of a masala-whiz himself, if he says so himself) in March 2011 has failed to turn up a single North Indian restaurant which did not engage in massive over-use of prik chillies; which in itself would be bad enough, making, as it was, the entire meal (which normally consists of 3 or more different dishes) harsher, flatter, more single-dimensional and – frankly, boring, than it would have been in olden days.
Alas, in nearly all instances, the prikification of the food also went hand in hand with general lowering of standards: less use of other spices, more frequent use of poorer quality spice, and very frequent incorrect use of spices (insufficient roasting / marinating/ curing/ blending). Use of whole cardamom-nut, for instance – formerly common in the better sort of establishments – has by now practically disappeared from New Delhi repertoire.
Luckily, in March 2011, Delhi’s South Indian food still offered a refuge form mass prikification; and, after some time, bitterly disappointed by the prik-adulterated Northern fare, yours truly switched to an entirely-Southern diet. Yet, South India is not immune to trends, merely slower to adopt them: by November 2011 five of the eight dishes served as part of the set Thali at the Sagar Ratna restaurant in Ashok Hotel (formerly the proud flagship of southern cooking in the North) were rather harshly prik-spiked, preventing some diners like myself from enjoying the traditional bitterness of Tamil food. Ten years ago a spicy-hot Ghassem was unheard of. Indeed, it seems such a thing would have brought out Tam-Brams, barechested and be-stringed, protesting violently in the streets. As of last week, that other Southern redoubt in the North,Saravana Bhavan (Janpath) still served a properly, authentically Tamil Tamil Thali, but observers like myself feared that it was only a matter of time before it, too, would lower its standards and go for prik.
A PhD-level readings-course is good for one thing, if for nothing else: it teaches you how to read 2500-3000 pages a week – without actually reading them. The method is this, in brief: one takes a book (or an article), skims the introduction and reads the conclusion fairly thoroughly; by this time one either a) gets it – and moves on – or b) one gets what one has yet to get — and knows precisely which section of the middle matter of the book (or article) to zero in on in order to get it.
This method works fairly well in all fields of scholarly endeavor, from biochemistry to economics to Chinese medieval sociolinguistics; but there is one field of scholarship where it fails entirely: Indian historical scholarship. For some reason, by and large, the introductions and conclusions of scholarly papers on Indian history are entirely unhelpful and generally leave one more confused and less informed than one has begun. This seems to be in part due to the bizarre theoretical apparatus Indian scholars (by which I mean scholars of Indian history, whether Indian or feringhi) like to employ; but also to the puzzling mismatch between the overpowering ambition to theorize verbosely on the one hand and the frankly disarming inability to do so coherently on the other.
(I leave it to better men to explain why either should be the case).
Indeed, the best way to read scholarly papers on Indian history is to skip the ambitious introduction and conclusion and to focus on the unadorned middle section of the essays, where one is liable to discover the usual profusion of those weirdly delightful and ever-surprising facts which make India the treasure-chest of wonder she is: such as that Rajasthani Rajputs insisted on not adapting their combat techniques to new technological realities, which the ignorant Mughals in turn misinterpreted as stupidity (in the famous adage that „Rajputs know how to die but do not know how to fight”)1 ; or that the one significant upshot of the century-long Italian mission to Bihar was a lengthy unpublished treatise — in Italian — in defense of the caste system (er… Ecoes?)2; or that sometime around the year 1600 an unsavory free-lancing Portuguese named Sebastiao Goncalves Tibau founded a kingdom on a muddy island in the middle of crocodile infested swamp in West Bengal. Maybe it wasn’t much of a kingdom, but it was his.
Putting down the book, I close my eyes and muse: perhaps it would be unfittingly dull and boring for an Indian scholar to plow through so much delightfully zany detail and produce out of it, like chaff out of wheat, a perfectly rational theory: perhaps zany facts require zany theories. Or perhaps the history of India, like her present, really is what it so often seems to be, fundamentally incoherent, and no one, not even the best brains of the Academia, can ever hope to make sense out of it.
(Having said all this, if you read Meena Bhartava (ed.) Exploring Medieval India like it says here to do, you will like it).
1 In a broadly unfair simplification, although at the turn of the 16th century, sudden availability of good equestrian stock made horseback warfare possible in principle, tradition-loyal Rajputs preferred to gallop to battle, and, once having arrived, dismount and — face the enemy’s elephants, cannons et al, as manly tradition demanded: on foot.
2As in: echoes of, of course.
The Castro Pina donation includes two items from a category often found in Portugal (and nearly nowhere else), adequately done (not by any stretch technical miracles), but extremely beautiful because of their color scheme, Bengali embroideries made for the Portugese market in the 16th and 17th centuries, always with European subjects. Museu Oriente has one with stories of Solomon, but that was difficult to photograph and those photos didn’t convey the deliciousness of these pieces — which lies in their color — that of a Portuguese milk dessert, doce da casa.
Both of these — the cape and the bed-throw — feature what many do: a two-headed bird, probably an eagle (even if looks more like a chicken). Yet, it has no crown and thus so it is not the imperial eagle (originally Byzantine (first and second Romes); adopted by the Holy Roman Emperor — Austria; and the would be Byzantium: Russia). So here’s my question for Dona Claudia: what is this strange crown-less beast?
And, while I am at it, the second: why do so many Portuguese azulejos feature Polish knights on horseback? (Modern Portuguese don’t know this, several art historians I spoke to insisted, ridiculously, that they were Indians; but they are Poles, any Pole will know this instantly).
This is the single most famous painting at the Delhi National Museum, and the world’s most reproduced Indian miniature: Delhi’s Gioconda.
Better prints of it are probably to be found in the literature (if not online), and therefore this post has no right to exist. Except, of course, for the pleasure its posting affords me.
Here’s Krshna, the Black God, once perhaps a Bhil deity (which is to say, a god worshiped in India by proto-Dravidyans before the arrival of the Aryas); possibly the Heracles of Megasthenes; and the principal deity of the Mahabharata — who seems in it to lead with a light heart all of humanity — except for a single foetus! — into the conflagration of Kurukshetra, while telling everyone, including his friend Arjuna, not to worry — “it’s not your business to worry, just let things take their course”); and his lover Radha, the woman who symbolizes all of the god’s faithful (Krshna worship is the ultimate bhakti — a religious practice centered on intellectually unambitious but heartfelt love and longing for god, expressed in song, poetry, dance, and ritual, in which the god is evoked as a lover (see Song of Songs for a similar idea). The painting is Pahari (“hills”) – almost certainly Kangra; it is part of a series (The Smithsonian owns a piece from the series, here); the setting is a garden at night; Krshna is led by her friends to the bower of love where Krshna awaits her; she hesitates; he awaits her eagerly — the painting shows him twice — now waiting patiently in the bower, now looking out eagerly through the trees to see if his beloved is coming.
Back in 2005 I was given the opportunity to view what is probably another painting in the series — painted around 1750 — in a private home in India, about which I may say no more.
Two miniatures from the Shah Jahan studio: Wedding of the Prince Imperial (“M1”, with Shah Jahan on the parti-colored destrier); and Rich Widow Buys Yusuf (“M2”), from the Biblical story of Joseph. Shah Jahan was the Mughal Qianlong: a mighty prince with a country at peace, a strong interest in art, and an impeccable taste.
This story, from the Shahnama, figures in Pamuk’s Snow. There, Blue, an Islamist terrorist/fugitive, argues: “This story was once read by every boy from Belgrade to New Delhi, but today not one bookstore in Istanbul stocks it. Question: is it beautiful enough to die for? Beautiful enough to kill for?” His (or, rather, Pamuk’s) argument is, in other words, that modernization/westernization has deprived Turks of their past, estranged them from it, deprived them of one source of just pride (i.e. culture), impoverished them, made them rootless.
The argument is intuitively appealing (certainly at individual level, memory loss feels like a kind of emasculation); and does underscore an important fact: modern Turks are completely unaware of some very basic aspects of Ottoman history and identity.
But the theory also reveals the inherent weakness of the very concept of national identity: modern Turks are no more deprived of their identity than, say, Poles — (which Pamuk simply wouldn’t know — when it comes to theory-making, there is no substitute for breadth of knowledge). Modern Poles don’t know their history, either; and what they do do know of their literature is not much worth knowing: it is just what and how schools elect to teach it. Like Turks, we are a new nation, too: living within new borders, missing much of our genetic stock (Christian or otherwise), the economic class which had once exclusively born the right to be called Poles — “the nation” — i.e. the armed gentry — has been physically eradicated and what of it hasn’t been eradicated, has been scattered across seven continents: with the result that today’s Poles by and large aren’t genetically related to the old Poles. The name survives, but when a name means something it has never meant before, can one truly say that it has survived?
Or consider Portugal, so very proud of her great discoveries. Yet, modern Portuguese aren’t the descendants of the discoverers — they live today in places like Goa, Macau and Brazil; but of those who did not venture on the high seas: the left-behinds.
This miniature is also from Shah Alam’s studio.
Like the title say. Notice the blooming prunus (symbol of brevity and endings), the desolation of the landscape in the background, and that the trees are full of single birds. Partings are such sweet sorrow, etc. How very reassuring.
Some Mysore center of animal something or other asked me recently to donate photos of large South Asian mammals. I am happy to oblige. Voila, Mysore Center. They’re free. :)
This is perhaps the most extraordinary miniature at the National Museum in New Delhi (if not the most moving one). With apologies for quality — poor lighting, glass, etc. — this painting is about 3 inches wide and 4.5 inches high! (Not including the decorative margins). Which means that the above detail is about 5:1 MAGNIFICATION. (You’re not misreading this).
You’re familiar with the kingdom of Oudh, of course, from Satyajit Ray’s Chessplayers, if nothing else. The fellow featured here is the film hero’s Pa. The two miniatures (with apologies for the poor resolution of Awadhi 1 below) are about 5 inches across. Which means that the photo above, as it appears on this page, is about TWICE — nearly three times, in fact — the original size (i.e. scale of 2+:1).
The whole of South Delhi stands on a former gigantic Muslim necropolis. As one rushes about one keeps bumping into one crumbling tomb after another. Some are being preserved; some are fenced off to be maybe one day preserved; some are squatted in; and some are just crumbling among single family homes, or in front of apartment buildings, or in the back of a school or a police station. When inquired about, they solicit from Delhites the usual philosophical shrug: “Some generic monument”. And rightly so: India has so many. Nearly every year the decision is made not to preserve this or that — the cruel truth of life is that the past must die simply so that the present can continue.
Some parts of the South Delhi necropolis have been made good use of: the Delhi Golf Club is laid out among beautiful tombs; and the Lodi Gardens is a pleasure park designed around the tombs of the Lodi Sultans of Delhi. And laid out well, so that a walker is constantly surprised by new vistas now of this tomb, now that. In most cases we do not know the names of the rulers buried there.
And here is more.
Briefly reunited with my old photos, I am amazed at how bad point-and-shoots used to be as recently as five years ago.
All the same, here are some of the Khajuraho temple carvings. As Indian sculpture goes, with very few exceptions, they aren’t especially great; and many figures repeat — repeat identically — they were mass produced.
Still, a few are good; and at dusk, in the failing light, when you are left alone wondering among them, they do make an impression.
What I said at the conference: or: The universal opera mind, the experience of aesthetic rapture, the leading role of the audience, and how economic advancement can kill a perfectly good art
[Our current art theories are fundamentally flawed. This is important because art theories both inspire artists’ endeavors and determine official arts policy; and false theories of art lead to failure just like false theory of rocket science leads to crashes and false medical theory leads to the patient’s death: art stagnates, artists are frustrated, grant money is misspent, and the public, unserved, loses interest.
That our art theories are false ought to be apparent to anyone with but a modicum of education and experience – a little modern logic, a little modern economics, a little modern psychology, a little travel, a little business experience in the private sector; the trouble is that those who formulate and teach our art theories, and those who attempt to put them into practice, lack precisely that modicum.
It is worse, in fact: our current art theories have evolved a phalange of special interests: professors who teach it, bureaucrats who administer it, several generations of artists who have been raised on it, and a whole tribe of consultants, managers, dealers, and impresarios who live off the economic systems put in place to implement precisely those theories. Any new theory of art which challenges the economic standing of all these people is therefore resisted. And thus, our false theory of art has become a kind of scholastic Aristotelianism, an unassailable dogma, a powerful group-think, and, generally speaking, no genuine debate of it is possible.
At a recent conference I presented an aspect of a dissident point of view. Below is the text of my presentation with marginal annotations in yellow.]
1. Comparing East and West
The idea that one could learn something useful about one’s own culture by comparing it to other cultures is very old in Europe, but it has never been well implemented, mainly because most attempts to do so set out form the assumption that other cultures are so foreign that we could not begin to understand them, let alone find any similarities. Comparisons, when they are made, are focused on differences rather than similarities. Voltaire gave a perfect expression of this view; he wrote: what is in in Peking, in Paris is right out. In other words, all cultural standards are merely conventional, including our own.
In fact, the truth is precisely the opposite: there are lots of similarities and standards are strikingly alike. That Voltaire did not see this is curious: it’s almost certain that as he wrote those words, he had before his eyes somewhere in his office several pieces of Chinese porcelain: it was at the time, very much in both in Peking and in Paris.
And it was only one of many such things which Voltaire – we – should have noticed.
2. Asian dance-drama
Here is another one: my learned predecessor has just expressed the view, quite common, that European opera is a unique art form in the world. I believe it is not. I believe other ancient civilizations have evolved very similar art forms – similar both aesthetically and socioeconomically – and that it is both possible and useful to compare them and their fates. I propose to do just that today and my topic will be one such art form: Asian dance-drama.
I came in contact with it for the first time in my middle age, having been formed intellectually in the European cultural tradition: I was a great fan of baroque opera already; but, though I had by then spent a lot of time in Asia, I was not at all familiar with Asian theater. My reaction was at first that of wonder at the strangeness of the drama I was watching – the people looked different, they wore flowers in their hair, the musicians sat on the floor and played gongs, the singers ornamented their songs in unfamiliar ways, and I have never seen such dance figures before. But as the play went on, I was struck by a powerful sense of recognition: it was like meeting a masked stranger during the carnival in Venice and suddenly recognizing that the stranger behind the mask is in fact our old and familiar friend. This experience is not unique to me: it has happened repeatedly to cultured Westerners: Walter Spies, Beryl de Zoete, Collin McPhee. It continues to happen every year at the Bali Dance Festival. It happens too frequently to be an accident: it happens frequently because there is really is a very strong similarity there.
I will discuss the similarities next, but first I have to tell you what I mean by Asian dance-drama. I mean by it a dramatic form invented as a temple art in South India sometime around the year 0. It tells classical stories, usually taken from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, in the form of dance accompanied by an orchestra and a singing narrator, frequently backed by a choir. As Hinduism, and later Buddhism, spread from South India to South East Asia, the dance drama followed, sometimes – oddly – in opposition to the ruling religion (it is almost as if one imported the religion along with its sins). By the 9th century AD, dance drama became an essential part of royal ceremonial throughout South East Asia. The art form has evolved three distinct styles – South Indian, Indonesian, and Thai-Cambodian. All three are still practiced today.
Cambodian lkhaon kbach boran
3. Asian dance-drama and European opera: two branches of the same art?
So, what are the striking similarities between European opera and Asian dance-drama?
I have divided the similarities into three categories.
(1) First, aesthetically speaking, both European opera and Asian dance-drama resort to the same trick for their emotional effect: first, both art forms induce a strong sense of unreality, or otherworldliness, by staging the performances at night, with dim lights, in incomprehensible languages (Venetian dialect in Europe, for instance, or Kawi in Java); by playing music; by singing and dancing rather than acting; by telling well known and often unbelievable stories, frequently in fragmentary form. All these procedures allow the audience to suspend their sense of reality and engage in appreciating the abstract complexities of the performers’ technique: singing or dancing (or both). The complex technique lies at the heart of the art form. It takes years for the performers to master and years for the audience to learn to appreciate. Its appreciation appeals to our visceral, animal nature: we are naturally very sensitive to the sound of the human voice and the movements of the human body. When we are presented with certain aspects of these phenomena, under certain conditions, we can experience rapture. Both art forms seek to induce the experience of rapture through the procedure described.
(2) Although I believe that the central point of both arts is the attainment of aesthetic rapture, there are important similarities between the two art forms as far as their intellectual frame-work is concerned. For instance: the story does not matter in either art form: the stories are told in incomprehensible languages, they are often silly, and they are invariably familiar: there is no sense of suspense of “what happened then?” In both art forms, the libretti are either classical (Greek and Roman gods in opera, Indian epics in dance-drama), or somehow imitate the classics: there is a sense of a loyalty or adherence to the past on the scenario level. Further, on the ideological level, the stories typically concern themselves with the “old virtues” – virtues appropriate to the feudal society: chivalry, courage, loyalty and decorum. Issues of religious observance, ordinary morals, and utilitarian considerations are studiously avoided. The feudal virtues are deemed to be appropriate to, or possessed by, the aristocratic heroes, who are often contrasted with – but not opposed to – the lower classes. The principal concern is with high and low and the contrast is seen as one expressive of quality, or virtue.
(3) Both art forms have played very similar socio-economic function in their respective societies. For instance, both have always been of very narrow social appeal – a minority art form. (Even in the best of times no more than 10% of the population has ever attended opera in France). In both, core users predominate – people who are avid and frequent consumers of the art form and who devote vast amounts of time and money to its consumption, are capable of watching it every night, often the same production several nights in a row, travel long distances to see special performances, and usually sit in the first rows. Both art forms are characterized by repeat consumption: no opera lover would ever say “Oh, I have seen Cosi Fan Tutte already”. Both art forms are very expensive to put on, both in terms of time and money. Both are connected in the popular mind with the national identity: they are thought to be a kind of epitome, or perhaps even, a kind of zenith of their respective cultures. This gives them both the power to legitimize authority: kings and governments have traditionally used them to establish their authority and shore up their prestige. Finally, both art forms stimulate the same kinds of response from non-users: the first, critical, often lampoons the art form because of its unrealistic representation of life (“fat ladies singing”): popular art’s attitude to these art forms is often subversive; the second common attitude of non-users is admiration and aspiration: “I wish I could appreciate it”.
Cambodian lkhaon kbach boran
And now, allow me to engage in a spot of speculation:
4. Is there such a thing as the opera mind?
Are there enough similarities between opera and Asian dance-drama for us to suggest that they represent a single genre – in fact, the same art form with only minor, cosmetic differences? And if so, can we say that the two art forms have arisen in such similar ways because their particular “trick” fits somehow some aspects of the human mind? If so, it certainly does not fit, as audience participation shows, all human minds: it appeals to a minority of minds in each society where it is present, but, significantly such a minority seems to exist in many different societies. It is possible to take Italian opera to Warsaw in the year 1628 and stage it there without any audience training whatsoever and find that the art form appeals to some of these unprepared minds. Similarly, Indian dance drama can be taken to far away places like Laos and Bali and – be liked by some people there. I am reminded of the Parable of the Sower:
At that time, when a very great crowd was gathering together and men from every town were resorting to Jesus, he said in a parable: “The sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside and was trodden under foot, and the birds of the air ate it up. And other seed fell upon the rock, and as soon as it had sprung up it withered away, because it had no moisture. And other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it and choked it. And other seed fell upon good ground, and sprang up and yielded fruit a hundredfold.” As he said these things he cried out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (St Luke, 8:4-15)
We know from experience that different people have different personalities; and we know from Evolutionary theory that a limited variety of different cognitive skills can be expected to co-exist in any human population. Ergo, perhaps there is such a thing as an Opera Mind: a mind especially suited to this type of art form? (“The good ground”). If so, then the invention of the art form was not so much an invention as it was a discovery: a discovery of a certain kind of mind. The fact that the rules of the Italian opera genre established themselves within just twenty years and have remained largely stable since seems to support the thesis: this is the nature of all discoveries which suit underlying reality: the general outline of the invention comes into being quickly and once it does, it remains remarkably stable: think of automobiles: within two decades, automobiles already looked a lot like today’s cars because that was the form that suited the human body. Similarly, the rules of Asian dance-drama have remained, as far as we can tell, largely constant over the last thousand years — perhaps because they suit the dance-drama/opera mind?
I cannot resist counter-factual speculation: if the dance-drama mind is in fact the opera-mind, would staging Venetian opera during the dance festival in Bali meet with the same sense of recognition among the Balinese which I experienced upon my first viewing of Balinese dance-drama? We don’t know that, but, luckily, it is not too late to perform that experiment. But the reverse experiment has been performed: the Royal Cambodian Theater performed in Paris in 1906 and the performance was a huge success with the Parisian cultivated classes. (For some reason it was never repeated).
[So here are some unorthodox ideas for you, such as:
a) that there may exist different kids of minds and that different kinds of art may be designed to fit these different kinds of minds;
b) that these arts may therefore not be fungible – i.e. that arts designed for a certain kind of mind will never fit another other kind of mind, and vice versa;
c) that the distinctions between different kinds of minds – and therefore different kinds of art – can cut across different societies and manifest themselves in many different civilizations; and therefore
d) that certain kinds of minds in Europe and in Asia may be more similar to each other than they are to some of their own peers.
These ideas are strongly resisted by the Art Theory Establishment which holds, in direct opposition, that the mind at the time of birth is a blank slate and that any kind of art can be inscribed upon it. (With the necessary corollaries that the task of inscribing upon it should be paid for by the state and entrusted to the guardians of Art Theory who shall then inscribe upon this very blank slate a kind of art which will benefit the whole society, make it happier, richer, more harmonious and more virtuous).
But if true, these ideas would have many far-ranging consequences, one of them being rendering wholly impossible any utilitarian (“greatest good of greatest number”) arguments in favor of public support for opera. This may not necessarily be bad – opera can survive – even thrive – on its own – it did on 17th century Venice, in Warsaw ca. 1800, in Paris between the wars; indeed, it may be good: freed of any further need to broaden its appeal beyond its core users, to educate the broad public and satisfy indifferent bureaucrats, it just might deliver better the one thing that makes it a great art: the experience of aesthetic rapture.
Which, of course, is another unorthodox idea. The established art theory does not recognize the aesthetic experience at all: it is thought to be “just an emotion”, and “socially constructed” (and therefore arbitrary). Establishment art theorists like to credit the importance of opera to its function as civil liturgy (?), its ability to manipulate signs and symbols (??), it’s education value (all those half-baked ideological messages, I suppose, such as “love is most important” and “love your country”), etc. This makes me often wonder whether the people who write this kind of stuff have in fact ever experienced aesthetic rapture, and if they have not, then, what business do they have to tell us what opera is about?]
Javanese Wayang Orang
5. The Fate of Asian dance-drama in Bali and in Thailand: the role of the educated audience
Now I would like to devote a few words to the modern fate of Asian dance-drama as I think it contains some important clues to understanding what makes an art thrive. There is a tremendous difference between Bali, where Asian dance-drama thrives, where nearly everyone is involved in its performance and consumption, and where the artistic level is very high, and Thailand where it is, quite literally, on its last legs and the one National Theater cannot be filled even for four performances a year.
Indeed, one of the saddest experiences during my study of Asian dance-drama was to see a performance of Thai dance-drama (khon) in Bangkok in 2005. It took place at the National Theater, a grand building founded by the state, and was performed by the Royal Thai khon troupe, which is fully supported by the state. The audience consisted of perhaps two thousand high school kids herded in by their school who had no interest in the performance and talked and played with their mobile phones throughout. The performance was absolutely terrible: the orchestra played with all the oomph and gusto of ripe Camembert, and the dancers could not be troubled to lift their legs so that it was impossible to say whether they could dance at all. I thought I’d just seen the death of khon.
And then, only two years later, I saw the same troupe perform in Bali. The difference between the two performances was night and day – and the explanation for the difference seemed… the audience. The audience in Bali is knowledgeable and experienced and it gives ready expression to its likes and dislikes. This leads to a special rapport between the audience and performers and motivates the performers to try harder; and they do. On that night, the Thai khon dancers appeared to be gods come down to earth: they did not move, they floated.
The existence of knowledgeable audience probably explains the excellent condition of dance-drama in Bali where a very large number of amateur troupes (nearly every village has its own theater troupe) performs it throughout the year and where the annual dance festival features several simultaneous performances – to packed audiences – throughout the day for a whole month. The difference in the audience is probably explained by the education: growing up in Bali obliges one to dance and play music since childhood. Dance education begins around the age of 3 and continues till death: nearly every adult participates in some artistic ensemble in some capacity. By contrast, classical dance drama education, which had once been part of any upper-class child’s curriculum, has ceased in Thailand nearly 40 years ago.
[This, by the way, is another view in direct disagreement with the established theory of art. The notion that a knowledgeable audience motivates artists to a better performance, that it spurs them to greater efforts and guides them in their search for new forms of expression runs wholly against the current and general belief that a true artists is someone who leads and teaches his audience, guides it out of its ignorance – indeed, yanks it out of its ignorance and complacency, often against its will, at the cost of tremendous self-sacrifice and professional failure in his lifetime. (i.e. only future generations can appreciate the work of a genius working today who must, by definition, be “ahead of his time” and therefore misunderstood).]
6. Is Europe going Thailand’s way?
Incidentally, this is what is happening in Europe: the generation of our grandparents was taught to sing and play the piano – and not just at a rudimentary level: a reasonable level of expertise was required — enough to perform Beethoven and Schubert piano sonatas. This level of expertise made it easy for that generation to learn to appreciate opera and assured a steady audience for operatic productions. Today hardly anyone receives any musical education, and if they do, it is at best elementary. Appreciation of classical arts requires cultivation: not hours, but months and years of training the eye and the ear and today we do not devote that kind of time to cultivating ourselves. Is it any surprise that the popularity and commercial viability of European opera is going the way of Thai dance-drama?
7. The economic decline of the upper-middle class the death of art: can we even hope to have great opera for long?
And this is a good moment to ask ourselves a philosophical question: given the way our society has changed in the last century, and in particular the way the life of the middle and upper-middle classes has changed, can we even hope to foster a broad, educated audience for our opera? Only a hundred years ago a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer would leave for work at 10 and come back home by 3. Within those short five hours he would have earned (and kept) enough income to support a large household with servants. This allowed him and his family not only the financial resources, but also the time necessary to cultivate themselves, to learn how to play the piano and sing, and to amuse themselves by giving amateur ad hoc opera performances at home (such as took place at my grandparents’ house). In today’s middle and upper-middle households, both spouses work and, being professionals, probably work 60- or 70-hour weeks; then they return home to perform household chores themselves. There is no time to become culturally cultivated today. Perhaps we have to accept that opera is an art of a bygone era: an era when we had time for it.
A palampore is a type of hand-painted and mordant–dyed bed cover that was made in India for the export market during the eighteenth century and very early nineteenth century. Only the wealthiest classes could afford to buy palampore; therefore, the few examples that have survived are often quite valuable today. Palampore were primarily exported to Europe and to Dutch colonists in Indonesia and what was then called Ceylon.
A palampore was made using the kalamkari technique, whereby an artist drew designs on cotton or linen fabric with a kalam pen containing mordant and then dipped the textile in dye. The dye adhered to the cloth only where the mordant had been applied. This lengthy process had to be repeated for each color in the design. Small details were then painted by hand on the cloth after the dying process was completed. Palampore patterns were usually very complex and elaborate, depicting a wide variety of plants, flowers, and animals, including peacocks, elephants, and horse. Because a palampore was hand-created, each design is unique.
The V&A has several very nice palampores. This one hangs on the third floor, in the British gallery, where it is contrasted with some contemporaneous British prints. (Of which anon).
Suddenly last night, while watching Satyajit Ray’s Music Room (here), I was thrown into my first ever kathak rapture. (You can (sort-of) watch the performance, by 18 year-old Roshan Kumari, here, but get the film because the you-tube video is just too grainy).
Now, until yesterday, I had thought the art form more or less inconsequential, a mildly entertaining combination of tap (well, bell, really) dancing and mime and thought the celebrated gentlemen of Lucknow — its creators — cutely precious for having spent time and money so lavishly on it — a genteel form of cock-fighting, it seemed to me — done by pretty girls in nice outfits, too. Ray’s presentation of it in the Chess Players — here — only reinforced that view: thedancer in that scene is cute but — rather weak. (This may well have been part of Ray’s design — a way to portray the King as an ineffectual voluptuary).
But now, thanks to the Music Room, I know that tap-dancing-cum-mime is probably what I had seen up to now: there is just an awful lot of really bad kathak out there, it seems. And in dance, the difference between the best and the second best is the difference between night and day: everything and — nothing. Compare the Paris Opera Ballet and anyone at all — I mean, anyone at all — if you have any doubt about that.
One always wonders at the steepness of the quality curve in art — reflected in the structure of the market: with a handful of super-stars taking most of the income (and hogging all the limelight and auction results); but in dance the curve seems steeper than in other art forms.