Sunday, December 20, 2009

Which historical wrong gives you the right?



One bone of contention that bedevils any talks on climate, such as those currently on at Copenhagen is that the ‘developed countries’ must bear the brunt of responsibility for climate change. This is through fundamental restructuring of production and enterprise, everyday living and general progress in these nations, the ones who are well off. The developed countries of the world, Old Europe and New America have reaped the benefits of industrialization for the past two hundred years, most of it through the over-generous use of the finite resources of the planet. In doing so they have polluted the atmosphere, not only locally but globally, raising temperatures, and have brought the natural resources of our planet to the edge of depletion. All this is substantially true, but to make a whipping boy of industrialized countries by positioning themselves as victims, the ‘developing countries’ make poor, untenable arguments. These countries and indeed those of the ‘underdeveloped world’ want to have it both ways- make the big boys pay for the sins of the past and continue their own present substantially polluting ways because they ‘need to develop’ to come on par with the rest/best.

I think it is this misguided sense of victimhood, this subaltern posing that will bring useful action on climate change to an inevitable halt. The sense of historical wrong that the Other World is ballyhooing has a whiff of hypocrisy about it. For which are the historical wrongs that give those present a right to redress? That the sins of the fathers committed in the name of development are the sins of the sons and need immediately to be countered, whereas the sins of the fathers committed in the name of racism, religious intolerance and ethnic fundamentalism should be let go in the name of reconciliation and the need to ‘move beyond’? Can one assert that one wrong is tenable while the other is not? Take your pick. Every historical wrong, from the Jews being dispossessed by the Romans to the depredations caused by every former coloniser on every former colony, from the temple breakers of the early 1100s India to those crusaders who sacked Constantinople rather than continue their own religious jihad on Jerusalem can be called upon once again and through their descendants be made to pay for the wrongs of the past. Why then should the descendants of those who created, nurtured and ultimately prospered because of the Industrial Revolution now have to pick up the tab? Even more so, it is a wilful under-appreciation of the fact that industrial progress has, whether those crying wolf like it or not, raised the standard of living of peoples everywhere, which in turn has allowed even the erstwhile dispossessed to reclaim their rights and dignity, right up to the point where they can make these one-sided claims.

It is time primarily to put one’s own house in order. In terms of the environment, the price to pay will be high. The changes to shift to a more sustainable way of being are paradigmatic in most cases and painful for those accustomed to the comforts of a lifestyle fuelled by using natural resources and pollution as most of the developing countries, China, India, Brazil and those of the Middle and Far East already are. They strip-mine, dump sewage into fresh-water, mass produce vehicles of mass pollution and pat themselves for their progressive ways. Such countries have no business posing as victims so that they can continue their exploitative ways ‘for some more time’ so that they can come up on economic par with the First World. In the case of a ticking bomb scenario, as climate change very much is, each country should put their nose to the grindstone and find their own ways and means to convert to more sustainable ways of living. Laying down conditions, buying time, and creating ‘first you, then us’ arguments will only make things worse, and things such are they are, bring in no cheer at all.

To that extent the Government of India should be lauded for making targets for emission cuts by themselves, without waiting for agreements on climate such as those being attempted at Copenhagen. This is by no means enough, but should show the rest of the world that unilateral attempts to alleviate the ill effects of climate change should be the precursor to coming together at the negotiating table. All strategists are aware of the management game called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. When this game is played iteratively, the best way forward is ‘Do Good First’. The phenomenon of conditional reciprocity that all the developing and undeveloped countries are waiting for shows them up in a poor light. No matter how under-resourced you are, you can change and you should. Remember if you have nothing, or not much at all, you are not contributing overmuch to the problem. That does not give you the right to become an exploiter,  just because your neighbours or former rulers have been.

Strategy begins at home.

Monday, October 19, 2009

What happened to the Lions?

Starlings are tough
but the lions are made of stone
...I'm thinking about the lions
What happened to the lions, in the night?
"Lions" (1978), Dire Straits

After the delight of walking through the Court of Myrtles in the Alhambra at Granada, and entering the fabled Court of the Lions, we were in for a shock. For the lions, all twelve of them, had gone walkie, leaving behind a forlorn basin in a new wooden box. Why build a cage after the lions had bolted? The marble lions, the centre piece of the court had been removed to a safe haven to be restored. Over the centuries, lime and grime had coated their noble visages to a point where their features were in danger of being obscured. Conservators would toil over the course of the next two years (2009-2010) to bring back the beasts to their pristine state.

No consolation to us though, we, who had paid good money to see them. However temporarily, the centre piece of the visit to this Nasirid Court, built by Muhammad V between 1362 and 1391, was obscured. The tableau of our imaginations collapsed like a card-castle, and replaced by an entity as alien as the monolith among the Neanderthals in Kubrick’s 2001. What appreciation could be possible for the surrounding court and chambers, with their exquisite ornament of geometric and calligraphic finesse, when the vellum itself was botched with spilt ink?
What were the conservationists thinking?

This brings me to the issue of interventions. Any infill in an existing environment will be viewed critically in inverse proportion to the time that environment has remained pristine. Any change that is not incrementally invisible will hurt both memory and ‘good taste’. Part of our mooring in life is to be able to take some things for granted, and the environment in which we physically move, that of the home, the street and the city work best when they are backgrounded to our own lives. So change, any change, would in effect be undesirable. We would be fooling ourselves, however, if we thought that we could live in the vacuum of our own imaginations forever.

So what kind of intervention is the more acceptable- the harmonious or the unpredictable? In recent times architects have been called upon to make these choices in an increasingly built environment. There are few tabula rasas, especially in our ageing cities, spaces are constantly being remodeled for a variety of reasons. Insertions are inevitable, and they will be new. What attitude of conservation, or conservatism should the architect adopt?

Look at the insert in the Court of Lions. The central fountain of marble was two tiered- with a large lower basin and a carved upper fount. Twelve lions flanked this basin radially facing outwards. Positioned more or less in the center of the Charbag that the crossing water channels formed, the fountain formed the focus of  both axes that led in from the entrance to the court and that led out from the surrounding chambers. Both lions and upper fount are now significant by their absence. The lower (large) basin was in need of conservation, too. The rim of the basin boasts of an eulogy for Muhammad V carved in calligraphed marble by Ibn Zamrak describing the building of the court and of the lions. You can read this poem below.

The basin is large, simply too large to remove from its central location. So it has been enclosed, not by a tarpaulin or some such, but in a ‘camera’- a room of its own. This room is made of slatted timber on a metal frame, with glazed front and back along the shorter side of the court. Visitors can view the basin as it goes through various stages of restoration from the glazed ends, while the slatted end gives a new foreground to the axis leading on to the Hall of the Two Sisters and the Hall of the Abencerrages.

Under the roof of this box is a canvas canopy that can be moved as desired. The outer box of wood can (seemingly) be slid out along its axis to allow for a larger inner volume, and the canvas roof on the metal frame can be then be a shelter against the harsh south Mediterranean sunshine. The wooden slats allow for cross ventilation and the glass has perforations too. The entire system sits lightly on the pebbled base of the court. With this intervention, the conservators and their precious object are protected from the elements- from both solar radiation and the droppings of the thousands of swallows who inhabit the Alhambra, providing a constant chirruping in the background and casting abstract patterns on plastered white walls in the various courtyards. All very functional, of course, but does the intervention work?

It does take getting used to. First, the disappointment of the missing lions needs to be overcome, and then a reconciliation with the wood, glass and canvas replacement. The ‘camera’ is a small room, proportioned not to overwhelm the arcade of the court, allowing space and light enough to appreciate the existing architecture. It forms a new element, an installation, in this space, that creates its own presence, becoming part of the stepped visual axes as it rises from fountain to arcade to roof to dome. The glazed ends form a portal framing the basin with the arches behind, and you realize that nothing is really lost.
The Court of the Lions in the Alhambra now offers an alternative view, for a limited period only, as long as the conservation process lasts. During this time the arcades themselves have come into their own, not having to remain secondary to the impressively iconic lion fountain that dominated the composition of the court. The ‘camera’ can be appreciated, in of itself, as a well crafted modern device, or seen as at an interim scale between the basin and the arcade in a larger unfolding of spatiality. The absent lions constantly intrude on our imaginations. The conservators have made the right choice by not replacing them for the time being with plaster or GRF casts.

For too long in the last two hundred years has the Alhambra been exoticized and orientalized, mostly by visitors from the West (Washington Irving, Richard Ford, et al) who came to wallow in its ‘perceived’ decadence and relegated it to a ruin by treating it as such, occupying it with unseemly callousness, vandalizing it with graffiti. After centuries of suffering in such pitiless ‘timelessness’ the Alhambra, or one part of it at least, has become a dynamic space once again, with its new intervention. Artists like Christo and Anish Kapoor today, thorough their installations in well regarded public spaces make us renew our relationship with those environments by shaking our own perceptions of those spaces, and asking us to seek new meaning in those places that we took for granted. Maybe this was not what the conservators at the Alhambra really had in mind, but the enclosure around the basin forces us to look at the former Moorish palace anew, and that is something.


John Dobbin, Lions in the Alhambra
Water color, From a sketch made in 1859, V&A Museum, London


Poem on the basin of the Lions
Ibn Zamrak (1333-1393)
"May The One who granted the Imam Mohammed
with the beautiful ideas to decorate his mansions be blessed.
For, are there not in this garden wonders
that God has made incomparable in their beauty,
and a sculpture of pearls with a transparently light,
the borders of which are trimmed with seed pearl?
Melted silver flows through the pearls,
to which it resembles in its pure dawn beauty.
Apparently, water and marble seem to be one,
without letting us know which of them is flowing.
Don't you see how the water spills on the basin,
but its spouts hide it immediately?
It is a lover whose eyelids are brimming over
with tears, tears that it hides from fear of a betrayer.
Isn't it, in fact, like a white cloud that pours
its water channels on the lions and seems the hand of the caliph,
who, in the morning, grants the war lions with his favours?
Those who gaze at the lions in a threatening attitude,
(knows that) only respect (to the Emir) holds his anger.
Oh descendant of the Ansares, and not through an indirect line,
heritage of nobility, who despises the fatuous:
May the peace of God be with you and may your life be long
and unscathed multiplying your feasts
and tormenting your enemies! "


PS.
The fountain was two-tiered- lower large marble basin, upper carved nozzle with a smaller basin. This is evident in the water colour by John Dobbin from the 1860's. The two tiers are also visible in a silent documentary on Granada and surroundings made in the 1920's.

However all contemporary photographs before the restoration show only the lower large basin with the lions. At what point was the upper portion removed? Was it, in fact, a later addition- after Ferdinand and Isabella took over the premises in 1492? I have not been able to find any references to corroborate.

For the time being, the missing part of the fountain remains a curiosity.

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Sartorial Alternatives for a Pestilent City

Given the severe shortage of N-95 face masks in the city of Mumbai, which the city clearly cannot do without, here are a series of alternatives that doctors recommend for you to use in order to prevent your infecting others with the H1N1 madness. Choose the one that most closely fits your sartorial comfort zone:
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"Agar paas aane ki koshish kee, to main golee khaa loongi! Saala soovar ka bachcha!"
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Who would you feel comfortable sitting next to on the Vasai Fast, eh? Left or right?
.

Nah! Won't work. Not really.
.

Not this, neither.

. .... that's another fine mesh you've got me into!
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For those specialised in this sort of thing.
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The machete can come in handy dealing with those pesky critters even before they invade the hockey mask.
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Technically sound device, with triple brush filter.
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For complete all round protection, keeps you feeling fresh all day.
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Available at most leading malls and multiplexes in the city and suburbs.
No shortage of stocks. Competitive pricing for bulk orders.
Join the H1N1 mania and be counted among the happening crowd!
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Monday, July 20, 2009

Tranquility Base, Bombay

20th July 2009
When we were kids, ‘Apollo’ meant the Gateway of India. The harbor around the Gateway (we still board boats to Elephanta and Alibag from here) was known to all as Palwa Bunder, of which the word Apollo was an angrezi corruption.
Palwa, as any fule kno, is Hindi for Mystus Vittatus, a fish found in the waters off Bombay. Ergo, Apollo Bunder. Not much later, I knew Apollo to be the Greek God of the Sun, son of Zeus, whose (pater et fils) shenanigans I read about and observed in my copy of Homer’s Illiad- the comic book version by Classics Illustrated.


All that changed after Apollo 11. Forty years ago today, 20th July 2009, when I was five, the Apollo Mission put man on the moon. If ever there has been a BC and AD moment in the history of the human race, this is it. Nothing before nor since has equaled this achievement, and I am happy to say I was part of it.


Some memories help you root yourself in the past. Some are unreliable, but compelling. For me the most compelling of all the memories I have of early, very early childhood, is one where I hear people (probably at home) insisting that man can/will never step on the moon. In the fog of this memory, the 20th of July 1969 takes centre stage.


Of course, at my age, at the time, I had never heard of the American or Soviet space program. Sometime after, and I was still as little at the time, I remember sitting in the garden outside my uncle Dawood’s farm house in Shirol, near Kasara, gazing up to a completely lightless sky, except for the incredibleness of the Milky Way, and watching a star mark its arrow-straight course overhead. A moving star! My uncle had a name for it: ‘Spootnik’. What was that? A satellite, he said. That didn’t make things any clearer, but still I loved the show.


Of course, after July, the news was all around. Men had landed on the moon. We even knew their names, vivid and evocative- Armstrong, Collins, Aldrin. Images of spacesuit shod, glass visor (reflecting the blackness of space) wearing astronauts were all around us. In newspapers- the Times of India, the Sunday Standard, the Poona Herald, in the Illustrated Weekly of India, on the walls of restaurants, on Volga ice cream wrappers and on the covers of firecracker boxes during Diwali. Apollo 11, astronaut, Armstrong, Aldrin, America all became Indian words.


My role in the success of the moon landings came soon after. On the 24th of October, 1969. On that day, five years and ten months old, I found myself in Bombay, stationed at the turning outside Crawford Market, under Lockwood Kipling’s marble murals, where the D N Road swings to Carnac Bunder. I was one among a huge crowd, lining both sides of the road. My uncle Musta-ali, whose finger I had held on to for the short walk from Bhandari Street to our current location, hoisted me up on the railing at the first roar from the mob.

The cavalcade arrived soon after, dark cars, as I remember, and in one of them two red faces in suits, their arms out, waving. Armstrong, Aldrin. As they swept past us, I looked at them, and waved and waved and waved.
The Cavalcade that took the Apollo 11 astronauts though Bombay on October 24, 1969
Photo Source: www.oldindianphotos.in
Thank you Sam Miller
That night the both of us went to the Azaad Maidaan. It was a festive place. All of Bombay had turned up. A replica of the Eagle had been made, perhaps in plaster, perhaps by makes of Ganesh idols, I don’t know. From the Landed Eagle, an Astronaut was descending on to the Azaad Maidaan’s turf- just one small step away.
On one side of their tableau, exactly like during the Ganapati season, a film was being screened on a stretched white cloth. It was a documentary on the Moon Landing. I watched amazed as the astronauts somersaulted in the weightlessness of their capsule, where down was up, where they attempted to suck blobs of water out of the air. I can’t vouch for these last memories, I may have seen these in the film of the event called ‘Footprints on the Moon’ that was shown in cinema theatres not long after. I do remember the documentary being shown, though.
Indian First Day Cover commemorating the visit of the Apollo 11 astronauts to Bombay
Photo Source: www.indianstampghar.com
The vividness of that day has stayed with me. It is one of my earliest, sharpest and most enduring memories that I cherish to this day. We in our forties are getting on in years now. We predate television, we predate computers, we bloody predate man landing on the moon! Today, as I use the internet to follow a minute-by-minute recreation of the Moon Landing on wechoosethemoon.org , I am filled with nostalgia. Watching Buzz Aldrin in an interview relayed live on the BBC, I think: ‘I saw you, man, you waved to me.’  I Google for the precise date, when, in their whirlwind tour, the astronauts came to Bombay for their tryst with me.

I was five. I was there.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A Diachronous Delving into Dhan Te Nan

What delighted me even more than hearing Vishal Bhardwaj’s ‘Dhan Te Nan’ for the first time is the realization that the music director has to be of the same vintage as I am. Why? Because I instantly recognized the sound-meme from my youth that he so cleverly channeled into his song for the forthcoming ‘Kaminey’.

‘Dhann-ta-dhaaaan!!!’

If you are my age and grew up soaked in Hindi films, you know this sound. The first cousin to the more ubiquitous- ‘Dhishum!’ , which, as any fule kno, is the only technically correct foley for a punch, a box, a kick, a swipe, or (as we say in pure Gujarati) a fight. On the other hand, 'Dhann-ta-dhaaaan!!!', as any fule kno, is the loud background music exclamation! when the hero dramatically breaks into the villain’s den to save the heretobefore kidnapped heroini from a fate worse than… chiz chiz chiz.

‘Dhann-ta-dhaaaan!!!’

In big, bold letters. In flashing lights, in neon. The audio equivalent to Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Whaam!’ (1963). As kids we must have made this sound in a variety of settings, telling the picchur ka shtory the morning after, or even catching a friend during chor-poliss- ‘Dhann-ta-dhaaaan!!!’ Gotcha!


Was it Bhardwaj, or Gulzar that did not get the sound just right? Dan Te Nan is a bit pale when written down, although its quite fine when sung, just like the sound we kids used to make. This dilution is not surprising- we’ve heard it done before. Rajesh Khanna used this as a dramatic counterpoint in Bawarchi (1972), but in an almost lisped ‘Dhat-ta-raa!’ which even we, as frigging seven year olds, for God’s sake, knew wasn’t the right way to say it.
Wimp!

This is a sound that needed to emerge full blown from within, deep within, rising up from the rectum, through the digestive tract, up the esophagus until its escaped with a roar: ‘Dhann-ta-dhaaaan!!!’ (dha-na-dha-nan)

Well, what to do? We are the people our parents warned us about.
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Monday, June 29, 2009

Blind in Granada

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"Dale limosna, mujer,
que no hay en la vida nada
como la pena de ser
ciego en Granada."
attributed to the Venezulean writer Francisco Alarcón de Icaza
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Give alms, my dear girl,
for there’s nothing worse in life
than to be blind in Granada.
.
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The Court of Myrtles
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The Court of Lions
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The Mirador
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The Generalife

.Gardens of the Generalife

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Granada is unprotected from people;
since nothing or no one can defend from praisings.
Federico García Lorca
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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Remember the time

Michael Jackson’s explosion on our consciousness paralleled my years in college. ‘Thriller’ coincides with my second year in Architecture. Television was still the venerable and much lamented Bombay Doordarshan, and one evening they did a segment on the Grammy hopefuls. These were a long string of music videos- a relatively new phenomenon to us at the time. ‘Beat It’ and ‘Billie Jean’ were accompanied by David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’, Billy Joel’s ‘Uptown Girl’, Lionel Richie’s ‘All Night Long’, Culture Club’s ‘Karma Chameleon’, even Sheena Easton’s ‘Telephone’. How do I remember all this? Because I had taped the show on an old fashioned mono cassette recorder using an external mike propped up next to the single speaker on the neighbor’s television set. I must have had this tape and heard and reheard it all through college, that’s why this stays with me. Madonna, Bruce Springsteen and Live Aid all came in later years, but that year (1983) was seminal. Incidentally they never showed the Grammys, to the best of my recollection, and the memories of watching Jackson cradling his eight Gramophone replicas were from newspapers, I guess.

You knew Michael Jackson was someone else. Apart from being blown away by his dancing, it was his voice and the musical arrangements of Quincy Jones that would remain, and do even today. Just a couple of months ago ‘Thriller’ was reissued as a 25th Anniversary edition, bringing into sharp focus how we had grown, more than anything else. But the music is still fresh and continues to be part of my collection of MP3’s on my computer. Of course, after that that everyone was trying out the shaky-breaky dance movements with variable success. Mithun Chakrarvorty and Salma Agha rehashing the zombies of ‘Thriller’ in some long forgotten film still give me the heebie-jeebies just to think about it.

No one, however, could emulate the voice. In the midst of our continuing education into the Ages of Rock (Django Reinhardt onwards, by way of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry, Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, Floyd, Dire Straits and beyond) Michael Jackson was our concession to POP, and he did Rock our Joint.

I remember going to the American Center Library to watch a special screening of ‘Thriller’ and ‘The Making of Thriller’ by John Landis. Why American Center? God alone knows, but even they probably acknowledged that the cultural scene was no longer the same without Jackson. The ‘Making of’ was the first for a music video, and the first behind the scenes look at filmmaking that I can remember. This was fun to watch. Jackson played his overgrown child persona and Landis indulged him (Middle to Close up shot, Landis to camera: “This is Michael Jackson. This is Michael Jackson’s toe.’ Followed by lots of tickling and giggling). Landis, of course, had just made ‘An American Werewolf in London’. ‘Thriller’ was just a reprise of that, but the prosthetic special effects were quite novel for the time (Long strand of hair growing out of face, canines sliding out of jaws like stilettos,et al). Life Magazine (defunct and lamented too) had done a many page photo feature on the great efforts it took to apply all this on the actor, and the film showed similar atrocities being heaped upon Jackson, before he could give his shots.
But the ‘Making of’ was remarkable for another memorable performance. It showed in its entirety Jackson performing ‘Billie Jean’ live at the Motown celebrations- sequined glove, white socked, with a fedora, Jackson unveiled the Moonwalk and forever embedded himself in the cultural space of popular music. I must check if the ‘Making of’ is on You Tube, it must be. The silken backward shuffle, defying gravity still gives a thrill, watching it after all these years. Plus, there is this quiet satisfaction in the knowledge that despite one’s forty five years and weighing twice that, one can still do a perfectly passable Moonwalk.

PS.
Hope you’re OK now, Annie.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Unexpected Pleasures-I -The Patio Festival, Cordoba

It seemed that Cordoba would be a crushing disappointment.

We figure out a complicated way of visiting it- needing to travel there from Seville by train, train back to Seville and then board yet another for Granada- all on the same day. Having made bookings using the fairly limited windows of opportunity on offer, we land in Cordoba promptly at around ten in the morning- only to be told that the Mezquita is shut.

The Grand Mosque of Cordoba is now the fully functioning Cordoba Catedral. In an act of the most creative vandalism (after the conquest of al Andalus by Catholic hordes) the middle third of the venerable structure had been gutted and replaced with a grand cathedral that rises out of its innards like an alien chewing its way out of a human, as in the first film. From the inside, Catholic spaces rise cheek by jowl with horse-shoe arches of the Mezquita- not that we know it at the time. The minders at the gate point to some recently xeroxed notices announcing closure due to the investiture of priests that morning. Public access to be resumed only by three in the afternoon. Our train back to Seville is at three thirty, bugger it!

In a moment of inspired lunacy (Spain does tend to make one uno poco loco, in any case) we decide to hang around until three, give the mosque’s insides a once over in about five minutes flat and then run like hell for the nearest taxi to take us to the estacion- for we would see the mirhab, or bust! Ridiculous, but that leaves us with five hours to twiddle out fingers, and toes.

In mindless concentrics, we walk around the streets lining the outer walls of the mosque- and as the streets get narrower until even two persons would brush shoulders passing each other, and the crowds keep increasing making the shoulder brushing mandatory, we come across the first of the unexpected pleasures that alleviate our dampened souls. Before we know it, we are immersed in the United Colours of Geraniums. May is the season of Cordoba’s Patio Festival.

Every year at this time the old houses that line the alleyways around the mosque bloom with flowers. A competitive sport this, every space- entrance way, courtyard, balconies and window box vie for the prize of Best Patio. The crowds that we vie with for space have all turned out to gaze at these amazing displays, and scurry around from courtyard to courtyard filling up memory sticks of mobile phones and digicams with impunity and making a godawful racket while they are at it. Marvelous!


The spaces where the flowers are arrayed are little cortiles in these havelis (favelas?). Alfresco, with a small fountain on cobbles or paving and a stairway to the upper floor. Some of these spaces are not even bigger than a living room in a Bombay flat, but that is space enough to fill. Every available wall has flower pots with geraniums in full bloom (la flor de los patios), traversing every tint, tone, shade and hue from white to blood red, standing out in stark afterimage from bright green leaves and stems. The Nasirids are probably to be complemented, for these flowers originate from Africa. All these concentrations of color stand starkly against whitewashed walls bathed in the midmorning Mediterranean sunshine. Orange trees, rose bushes, clambering vines, azules ceramic plates and occasional bric a brac add to the clutter.


The Mediterranean in spring.

That nature is at its most fecund is obvious at this time in southern Europe. In the Andalus, one cannot miss trees laden with oranges- Naranja, especially in Seville, Cordoba and Granada. The twin legacies of the Nasirids, irrigation and plantation, are now the hallmarks of the region. Oranges, pomegranates and roses (roses, everywhere), probably descendants of those planted by the erstwhiles engulf you- chance encounters with color are a constant source of amazement. And yet, in Cordoba, our dip into color is unexpected, and overwhelming.

Some of the streets where the Patio Festival is held are within the Jewish barrio and we have a quick stop-over at a small but very elegant synagogue, built into the warren of houses. This reminds us of our own little Bene Israeli synagogue back home in Panvel, but this one is ornamented on the interior with Islamic geometric patterns and Hebrew Scriptures in stucco. Nearly seventy patios are opened for viewing during this time, not that we see them all, and we move and pick and choose like magpies attracted by every bright color that catches our attention until we do not quite know where we are. And then, satiated, we make our way back to the mosque to stand (sans expectations) at the head of the line.

Pretty soon an anaconda of touristas forms behind us, and the powers that are, probably thinking us a really desperate lot, open their counters at two thirty. We race through the (initially) empty mosque and fill ourselves with the sights of the forested arches and foliated domes, admire the stunningly ornamented mirhab, fuss over the absurd juxtaposition of the cathedral in a Muslim praying space, wonder about reused Roman columns, are thrilled by the recently excavated Roman mosaic floor on display- all with an extra half hour at our disposal, satisfy ourselves (to the extent possible) and run out.

We did catch our train, after all.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Miros of the Spray Can

16 May 2009
Spain seems to have given its vertical public spaces (of about twice human height) completely to practitioners of graffiti. There does not seem to be a single space left unmarked and unsigned. Any road, even slightly off the tourist track will have these profuse expressions of hombres at large. Although we did see some graffiti on vertical surfaces of such height that would have required rappelling skills!

Many are artistic in the fashion of the Miros of the spray can, although most are (probably) gang related territorial markers. The most vibrant and colorful graffiti that we saw was on one bank of the Guadalaquir leading up to the Alamillo Bridge in Seville.


Techniques also vary- a new form used stencils- leading to some fine work, and also work that could be replicated quickly, challenging the one off aura of larger, elaborately sprayed neighbors. A lovely one was in English that said 'Lost your (image of a) button'.


What makes graffiti a truly citizens art in Spain is the possibility of protest. Since every wall is fair game, exhortations/protestations indicate the contemporary climate. There are CCTVs everywhere and official indications to that effect. That has not stopped, probably encouraged a large graffito: 'Videosurveillance NON!' Others we saw said 'Securidad Muerte!' 'Free Catalonia' and my personal favorite- 'Errata, Ergo Sum'.


Retro fit and Retro fit

There is a refreshing nonchalance in the additions to the older buildings in Madrid. The obvious public example is the addition of the elevators in the Reina Sophia Museum. A pair of slick hi-tech glass and stainless steel towers are appended to the outside of the older palacio for easy access to upper floor galleries. Visiting the Guernica deserves such a rite of passage, I suppose. These glass boxes overlook the beautiful plaza that fronts the museum, justifying the use of the scenic elevators. The words Reina and Sophia are etched large on the towers evoking memories of the fad for super-graphics in the early PoMo day of the eighties.


The point is that contemporary inserts into historical spaces are not always a bad thing. Contrast this with Raphael Moneo's addition to the Atocha Station- another building evoking the eighties and some of the horrors that Botta and Bofill were up to at the time. The interior spaces are interesting specially the train platforms themselves, which are a delight. But I am not sure how the drum-like central circulation space and the cuboid clock tower sit with the fabulousl19th century glass and iron station.

On the subject of retrofit, the last word surely goes to the lift installed in our tiny B&B- the Hostal Luz on the Arenal. Fitted in (the perhaps two feet three inches wide) stairwell of an older four floor building, the elevator is exquisite in its modernity- with all the fittings- the stainless steel and glass that made the Reina Sophia's what it is. Wide enough to accommodate me, but not me with a rucksack, making me feel like a mujera in a tube top, traveling in it made up in style, elegance and convenience whatever it lacked in volume.

Slick!

Random Tweets from Madrid

8 May 2009
I am writing this on a high speed train from Madrid to Sevilla (AVS), watching the rolling flatness of central Spain speed by.

In one evening, we were able to see Picasso's Guernica, Dali's The Great Masturbator, Lumiere's Employees Leaving a Factory (1896), Velazquez' Self Portrait with the Meninas of Felix II, Durer's Portrait of the unknown man and Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights and the Haywain. That must amount to something.

I finally concede that there is a difference to looking at a great work of art in a book or even a high def image to standing in front of the real thing. Contemplating the Guernica- there is so much in the painting that just doesn't register in a reproduction, especially gray on gray. The delicate and harsh brush strokes of Dali need to be looked at with your nose at a distance of six inches from the naughty bits. So up yours- Baudrillard and Walter Benjamin!

The Museum of Reina Sophia has a series of photographs of Picasso's painting in various stages of completion, and the many morphs it went through, fascinating. As are the several paintings called Postscripts to Guernica. Picasso's Hombre with Goat is also a delight leading to a wistful wish- the Great Hombre himself should have made more sculptures. The twisting goat about to spring out of the man's grasp (who holds the beast almost in a wrestlers grip) is reminiscent of the twisting Laocoon.

Nothing quite beats taking the long(ish) walk from the Atocha past the Botanical Gardens and reaching the Prado to find that the entry was Gratuitas.

Our gracious landlady at the Hostal Luz is surely the reason the late Wren and the equally deceased Martin added 'onomatopoeia' in their chapter on Figures of Speech in their unlamented text on Grammar. She spoke no English and made up for it, quite successfully communicating in a mixture of machine gun Castillian and a wide variety of sound effects (Phut-pht-pht-pht!! bole to turn right)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Mario Miranda 's Bar Lady


Mario’s Bar Lady
The moon presents itself above Bergstrasse edge,
disentangling from its wobbly twin on the Rhine.
White glory showers. Work weary customers
trudging in like obligatory raindrops beneath
a dim archway. A spark flies, every time
clicketyclack! heels connect with shiny stone.
A bearing swift, but in all her speed, never
a drop spilt.

Six gullets quenched by six massifs, delivered
vice like. She moves, mugs close to breast,
mugs that hardly compete with her enormity.
White apron flashes, paling the moon.
She makes her rounds: ‘Was willst du denn?’
Return order: everfoaming kegs and an aperitif-
a smile.

The brash customer mellows. Dependent on
deepening dimples, empties jealousies and terrors
with beer. Her nods advise, heaving breasts berate
whatever scratches her sensibilities. Empty flagons
can raise groaning feet, propel them homewards,
yet in passing, a mark is pressed with a wan grin:
Danke schon, Maria. ‘Bitte, libeling.’ She returns
to beckoning bar, ready to gush forth every time:
‘Bier, bitte?’

This poem was inspired by Mario Miranda's very lovely drawing posted here. This dates from March 1984, when some of his drawings from (I think) Germany in Wintertime were featured in Midday. I had cut this one out and ensconced it safely until today when I scanned it and put it up here for all to see. This is really from way back when- Indira Gandhi was still Prime Minister, and the back of this clipping retains part of an advertisement for a cola, now defunct called 'Do it'.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Rediscovering Mario Miranda

On a recent visit to Goa, I had the opportunity of visiting a work in progress- a museum to house the works of the cartoonist Mario Miranda by the architect Gerard da Cunha. Apart from the delight of seeing a building at the bare bones stage (a delight for any architect, as any fule kno), it was the rekindling of association with the lines and forms, the crosshatching and the subtle colour infills of a cartoonist and illustrator whom people of my vintage 'grew up with'.

We knew Mario before we knew R.K. Laxman. Mario's illustrations filled our English textbooks- the venerable Bal Bharati. Right from 'This is Tim. This is Mini.' from Standard I to the later and deeper poems of Walter Scott (Kenilworth), we negotiated the byways of language mainly because of the illustrations that went with them. Mario could be funny, caricaturish but also dark and noirish as needed, and we absorbed this all. Mario's illustrations are now part of the visual vocabulary inside me and there is always a frisson, a kickback of nostalgia when I encounter (now rarely) his work.

His cartoons and illustrations were all around us too in the seventies and the eighties- mainly in the now defunct (and missed) Illustrated Weekly of India and several newspapers including the Times and Midday. These were of course contemporary and political, although Mario could, on occasion delight with full page spreads teeming with more characters that Michelangelo's Last Judgement but identifiable as people around us. Mario is from Goa, but for us Mario was quintessential Bombay- with buses, beggars, big bodied and bare bodied Bombayites teeming in Boribunder and Bhendi Bazaar. The word 'buxom' may have been coined specially for Mario's women- from the society ladies of Bombay to the fisherwomen of Goa- all bulging impossibly fore and aft.
Although Gerard da Cunha's museum is yet to see a single drawing installed, the architect must be commended for the monumental archive of Mario's work he has put together for a single book- 'Mario de Miranda', published by Architecture Autonomous and Art India. It has over 2000 images of Mario's work (sadly no Bal Bharati reprints though) from all the decades of his active life and it is a delight to possess. I have been immersed in it for the past few days and have no immediate need to emerge from it sometime soon. I can heartily recommend this book to anyone who knows his work (or doesn't).
Mario's work is also an architect's delight. In his later illustrations are single drawings of Goa, New York, Paris and Portugal, detailed and evocative of both time and place. Mario's work put together is a sociological document of many decades of work. You only need to see the New York suite to know that this is the city from the early Scorsese/Taxi Driver days and not the post Giuliani/post9/11 present.
                         
Gerard da Cunha has also put an extensive exhibition of Mario's ouvre in the Cymroza, which I have yet to
see. Fortunately it is still up for a few more days.


...and in the end the memories of the Bal Bharati days still most vivid are Mario's renderings of hands- open and clasped, fingers extended and expressive, that speak to me across the years. Yes, they are all there in the book and are as evocative as I remember them.
The illustration by Mario displayed here is of the coming of the Konkan railway- 
a wish fulfilling event about a decade ago for most of its denizens.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Memory is fickle

Memory is fickle, as any fule kno.

The internet, particularly broadbanded, has been a great resource for retrival - for the remembrance of things past. Music, images, snatches of culture, bits of film, the books, comics the quirks of childhood and middlehood all bob about together like so much flotsam, allowing one to wallow about to heart's content. It is a life kept alive and enriched.

After four and a half decades, this trackback is oddly reassuring. One can go arm first into the mulch of the world wide web, feel about for an hour or two and come up trumps. This assurance is satifying. Saving to favorites and occasionally downloading allows the retention of these snippets of one's past in much the same unorganised manner as the protagonist tattoos information about himself on different part of his body in Christopher Nolan's Memento.

This blog is another way to tattoo for the short term memory challenged. Keeping the mundane day to day alive for no other reason than to wallow in later. I have never had much truck with keeping a diary. But going headfirst into the blogworld is another kettle of fish, as any fule kno.