Saturday, July 27, 2013

Sleeping in the Shade

They say that Vishnu sleeps on the Ocean of Bliss, and dreams, and we and the world are his dream.

I thought of that when I saw the Taj Mahal.  In front of the Mausoleum is the long running fountain you see in pictures, and on either side of the fountain is a beautiful park filled with fruit trees. Under those trees, shaded from the hot midday sun, old men lie sleeping.  My first thought was that India herself is the dream of those old men, snoring in the shade of the Taj.

One old man twists and turns on the hard ground, bitten by bugs and tormented by nightmares.  His are the dreams of hungry children and ruthless dacoits, of beggars pleading for a rupee at the entrance to the Kali Temple in Kolkota.

That dapper old fellow, the one twitching a bit and wearing a well-pressed dhoti, is busy dreaming up Bollywood, dancing in his sleep.  Shahrukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai cavort at his command; he is the Director and Producer, the true Star.

The lovers, the suitors, the dreamers, they are the dream of the rotund old guy sprawled out under a flowering mango tree, the one surrounded by butterflies.  He smiles in his sleep and his large gray moustache twirls upward.

A scrawny old guy chews in his sleep.  When I look closer, I see that he has a ragged five-rupee note clutched between fingers crowned with black-crescent fingernails.  The shopkeepers, the sellers, honest and dishonest, labor for his dreams. Commerce flies behind his eyelids.
Photo by Laff for Photoshop Contest on

A wooden staff lies by an old man wearing an old, clean dhoti and tie-dye turban.  He dreams of fertile fields and waving grain.  The guy who sleeps too close to the fountain and feels the spray of the dancing waters at his back dreams of floods and storms, gales and monsoons, snow in the Himalayas.

And finally, alone in a corner of the Mosque that flanks the great monument, a quiet old man wearing white sleeps quietly. His prayer rug is beneath him, and peaceful smile plays on his lips.  He dreams only of God, and thus of everything.

I wonder whose dream has created me.  Perhaps it is the shopkeeper, for that is my ambition.  Perhaps the lover, and certainly the holy man who dreams of God.  I smile at them all, and try not to wake them.

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Miniature Artist

An artist friend of mine* just posted a small rant on Facebook. He was talking about talent--that to call an artist talented is almost an insult, because it is dismissive of the thousands of hours spent honing one's craft, perfecting one's senses, learning to speak in the language of art.

My friend Banty would agree. Banty is the owner of an art school in Jaipur. He teaches one thing only: the craft of the Rajasthani miniature. His own skill is so great that his paintings have been shown all over the world. The craft of miniature painting was handed down from his father, whose work hangs in pride of place in his office.

In the front of Banty's workshop, his teenage students paint birds and elephants and war horses and gods. They use brushes with a single camel hair to add detail. I always stop and watch with such fascination that I fluster the earnest young artists. But the hand of the young man closest to me  does not falter as he adds faint dappling to the war horse on the paper before him.

Rajasthani miniatures are what most people think of when they think of Indian art, and the artists take that responsibility seriously. They learn by doing, copying classic miniatures hundreds of times. Banty  has been painting since he was a child. He has painted thousands of Rajasthani miniatures, honing his art with each new piece.

Banty is a jovial man, round-faced with a robust curling Rajput moustache that he fingers endlessly. A large gold watch hangs loosely on his wrist. When I met him for the first time, he greeted me with a laugh and offered to paint my name, the date, and the place--Jaipur India--on a grain of basmati rice.  He smiled as he handed it to me in a velvet-and-plastic presentation case. He showed me a painting of his father's, along with a similar one of his own. He dared me to guess the number of soldiers in the war scene, which I failed to do. (There were over a thousand of them, swarming at the bottom of the large piece.) Apparently no one has made a correct guess (the prize was the painting), as he went through this show with my partner five years later.

He started showing me paintings. There were hundreds of them, elephants and tigers, gods and kings. They ranged from student work (still beautiful, still intricate, still spellbinding) to work by one of the school's five master craftsmen. I chose several student paintings to bring back for gifts. Many were painted on recycled paper, and bore legends in Urdu and Persian having nothing to do with the painting itself.

I asked to see paintings of Ganesh.  I shuffled through perhaps fifty of them, until one grabbed my eye and heart. He had the most beautiful eyes, looking soulfully at the viewer through long eyelashes. He was too expensive; I just couldn't do it. I gave it back with a pang, and left with the smaller paintings.

When I got back to California, that Ganesh haunted me. I sent an email to Banty, asking him about the piece. He still had it, but circumstances intervened, and I couldn't buy it then either. Two years later, I was back in India, and I asked Banty if perhaps the Ganesh was still in his studio. I tried to describe it, but all I could say was, "He had beautiful eyes, and the mauve paint surrounding the actual painting had an imperfection in it." I watched in disbelief as he smiled, pulled out his portfolio of hundreds of Ganesh paintings, and said, "I have it."

I shouldn't have been surprised, perhaps. Although it was not one of his paintings, he knew each of the thousands of paintings in his studio, each step towards mastery made by each of his students and their teachers. The thousands of hours spent in painstaking learning of the craft, of practicing the craft, was not only a means to an end, but an end in themselves. The craft is the meditation of the craftsman, and the guru knows them all.

My Ganesh
*Brennen Reece, the fantastic photographer, graphic artist, and musician who is designing the logo for The Tiger's Armoire, as well as photographs taken of his equally amazing wife, artist Sarah Scott. He also rants about people like me who put two spaces after periods because we were taught to type in the Dark Ages. I am scurrying to correct this.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Artistic Temperament

My friend Vimal and I were sitting in the United Coffee House, sipping coffee floats.

"I haven't been here in many years," she smiled, looking nostalgic.  "I used to come with friends, other artists. . ."

Her face took on the soft glow of a woman remembering good times.

She shook herself and came back to the present.

"I want to read you a poem."  She opened the book before her and started reading.  The poem was in Hindi--I didn't understand a word--but it didn't matter. It was a poem of loss and joy and power.

Vimal is a poet and a writer and a documentary film maker.  She is known, among other things, for a documentary in the 1980s comparing the position of women in Egypt compared to that of Indian women.  Back then Egyptian women were far ahead.

She is very striking, in that way that I have come to think of as "Indian artist."  She almost always wears saris, though I have seen her in a salwar kameez once, when she decided I needed the education of the Delhi bus system.  She wears enormous, nickel-sized red bindis and dark kohl.  Her eyes burn with intensity and intelligence.  When I saw Lalita Lajmi in Taare Zameen Par  with Aamir Khan, the famous artist immediately reminded me of my friend.

Vimal has an agenda for our day.  We are going to the IWPC (Indian Women's Press Corps) headquarters, where we will drink chai and talk to journalists she knows. The afternoon will pass quickly, because her friends are as smart, informed, and opinionated as she is.  I was in India when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, and their depth of information about the ramifications of the crisis in Pakistan was astonishing.  But they're funny, too:  when I said I thought I'd take some Delhi tap water home and drink bits to accustom  myself to Indian bugs, one said dryly that the Hepatitis B count was up that week; she'd written the article herself. I really ought to wait a bit.

We will go to Connaught Place and go to galleries owned by friends.  Inevitably, one or two of the artists being shown will be hanging out in the office, and will talk about wanting to come to America and show in New York.  They will give me their cards, as if I can make this happen.  But the gallery will be beautiful, and I will long for paintings and sculptures, modern pieces that have a whiff of ancient ideas and traditions.

Then we will go to the IIC (International Cultural Centre--everything goes by initials here).  We will sit in the cafe and MPs in their raw cream silk Nehru jackets and little Gandhi caps will come up and greet her.  Renowned artists will stop to exchange information on their latest projects.  Most of this will go on in Hindi so I will sit like a dunce.  After more tea and talk, we may go to a cultural program.  Once I went to a show of Orissa dance and cried through the whole thing, from the solitary tabla player to the dancer's salute to the gods, through to the final note and the dancer sinking back to the earth.  Perhaps tonight's performance will be less emotional; one can hope.

Once Vimal went shopping with me.  I wanted a pair of gold earrings, so she took me to Karol Baugh, an old shopping area that was shown in the shopping scenes in Monsoon Wedding.  It was crammed with shoppers, and, because there had been a bombing in a shopping area just two weeks prior in Delhi, there were metal detectors and armed guards on the streets.  People walked around the metal detectors and the guards ignored the whole thing.

We went into a jewelry store, all red velvet and gold, wedding colors.  There was a long glass case, and stools before the case, where shoppers sat as they were shown heavy gold jewelry.  The wedding season was in full swing, and parents were buying the heaviest, most ornate pieces they could find for their daughters.

I wanted something small, very small.  I thought Vimal looked a bit embarrassed by the modest pieces I tried on.  The salesman kept trying to tempt me with five thousand dollar bangles rich with enameling.  I wished I could do her proud.  Instead I bought a tiny pair of earrings, and we walked down the street, ogling the goods displayed in each window.

The next time I saw her, I wore the tiny gold earrings as we sipped our iced coffees, and she smiled.