Raja Deen Dayal, overlooked

It’s an unusual sight: a banner advertising Raja Deen Dayal‘s permanent gallery, surrounded by a pile of boxes and other back-alley kind of equipment. The Diwali lights hanging over the tree add to the kitsch.

The peculiar setting somewhat de-glorifies Dayal’s pre-eminent status as one of India’s earliest photographers, almost rendering him–and his history– innocuous. The irony peaks when you get to know that the location of the permanent gallery, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), not only has a large collection of the photographer’s negatives and prints, it also archives India’s early photographic history to a great extent.

The curatorial setup of the permanent gallery, inaugurated two years ago at IGNCA (Delhi), has been criticised for not doing justice to Dayal’s story. Reviewing the gallery’s opening, Ella Datta noted the display “merely titillates and in the end leaves the serious viewer dissatisfied” because the arrangement of the objects seemed “makeshift”, which deserved better finishing and lighting. Set in a basement, the “low-ceilinged rooms do little to focus on the magnificence of imagery that Deen Dayal sought to evoke.” She added that the gallery only offered a glimpse of IGNCA’s vast repository of early photography in India, where the medium arrived sometime in the 1840s.           

Given the way archives belonging to an important period in Indian history have been handled, should it come as a surprise that an important figure in India’s early photography history has been made to look nondescript?

In an article published on the lensman’s death anniversary, Manu Pillai writes about the struggles of Gyan Chand, who tried to keep his father’s photography business alive but rising competition and decline of royal patronage (which cemented Dayal’s rise as a royal photographer) made it difficult. In fact, when his son died a large number of glass-plate negatives had to be sold as scrap material in the city of Hyderabad, where Dayal was earlier appointed as a photographer to the nizam and even set up a studio.    

The sense of something historically significant being discarded is metaphorically evoked at this nondescript setting, showing the Raja Deen Dayal banner.  

What is your opinion about the photograph? Share your views below. 

Fan-ning art: A look at Indian artist Jatin Das’ vast collection of ‘Pankhas’

For an urban audience addicted to instant air cooling, a trans-national collection of hand-made fans might be of little interest, until you visit an exhibition showcasing artefacts belonging to a rare and dying tradition. The exhibition has been curated by Indian visual artist Jatin Das, a well-known researcher and archivist of the craft of hand-made fan.

Odisha-born Das, who has many paintings, murals, sculptures and other visual art forms to his credit, has been collecting hand-made fans of different shapes and sizes for the past 40 years. It all began one summer afternoon, when he had a friend over to his Delhi studio. His friend was unhappy for some reason, and as he picked up a hand-fan to lighten the mood he said in jest, “let me stir the still air.” Little did he know the phrase would be the title of a book on Pankhas, which is due to be released soon.

Since then, Das’ abiding interest in hand-made pankhas has not only taken him to the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent, but also to regions as far and wide as Africa, Middle East and East Asia. His collection, which comprises of thousands of fans created with all kinds of organic materials (bamboo, cane, date palm), was recently mounted at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA).

His archive also includes, paintings, prints, miniatures, photographs, poems and films on the subject. Entirely funded by money received from the sale of his paintings, the archive is the result of a full-fledged project that has involved documentation, research and archiving of this dying form. Over the years, the artist’s collection of fans has grown because of gifts received from friends all over the world.

These objects have had a worldwide audience, beginning with their maiden exhibition at New Delhi’s Crafts Museum in 2004, followed by shows in Kolkata, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Zurich, London and Washington DC.

“Although the cost of making the pankha is minimal, the workmanship, effort and personal touch make these delicate objects invaluable. I feel sad when a beautiful craft of India disappears due to lack of interest, utility or outlet,” said Das.

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Palm leaf fans from Alekh Baba monastery, Dhenkanal (Odisha)

Seen together, the fans made of zardozi, applique, mirrors; carvings from woods; some of them designed from feathers, bamboo, cane, palm leaves, paper, natural fibre and batik cloth transform a forgotten art into an alluring craft, the IGNCA exhibition shows.

The exhibition offers a historical and artistic insight into an art form that was once popular in hot and tropical countries of the world. As electricity came into our homes, the use of this art form has become largely redundant, even though people in Indian villages still use it.

Mainly sold in village markets during summer, the hand-fan is seen as a symbol of communal and personal engagement. The sight of a man fanning himself to sleep on a charpoy, or a woman fanning her husband as he eats his meal are common instances of the role of a fan in rural life. The hand-fan, Das notes, could be a tool for seduction and romance as well.

Of course, the hand-fan has been deployed for grander purposes, such as in the courts and offices of Mughals and colonial rulers; and during large congregations at temples. Costing millions of rupees, the royal fans have silver and gold handles, embroidered with silver thread or zari. Personalised and ceremonial fans are also part of the archive, with many of them being centuries old and regarded as a “priceless antiques.”

During his search for hand-fans and traditional crafts, Das found a group of monks in his home state devoted to the traditional art of crafting large circular fans made of palm leaves and stems. The collection has several fans from the monastery, one of them is more than a hundred years old. Other present-day examples include a large but neglected hand-made fan at Kochi’s St. Francis Church, the first church built by the Europeans in India. The Mayurbhanj palace, also in Odisha, in another landmark where this dying art form is still being preserved.

The craft of fan-making has been primarily done by women and girls in India, and at the heart of India’s pankha art history are stories of India’s rural folk who, for generations, have made this art form a source of livelihood. As India aims for full electrification of its villages, the pankha faces the onslaught of being completely switched off.

The worlds of Marquez and a Gabo enthusiast

“…because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth”

“It was the last that remained of a past whose annihilation had not taken place because it was still in a process of annihilation, consuming itself from within, ending at every moment but never ending its ending”

“Thus they went on living in reality that was slipping away, momentarily captured by words, but which would escape irremediably when they forgot the values of the written letters”

“Time also stumbled and had accidents and could therefore splinter and leave an eternalized fragment in a room.”

“That the past was a lie, and the memory has no return…and the wildest and most tenacious love was an ephemeral truth in the end”

These words, as you might have guessed, belong to Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s most famous novel, ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude.’ It’s his epic masterpiece, which sold tens of millions of copies, about the rise and fall of the Buendia family through several generations of war and peace, affluence and poverty. It’s a history of a people who, in the early 19th century founded the village of Macondo in South America.

The above extracts, most of them from the last chapter, are bleak and decidedly ominous; reminding us, somewhat, of the terrible, suffocating and “reverberating” heat of Colombia. But it’s more than that – it’s the last chapter that reverberates in these lines, when the history of the Buendia family is revealed, “down to the most trivial details, one hundred years ahead of time.” The history that began with “the first of the line…tied to a tree” would end by “being eaten by the ants.”

And yet, despite its tragic and annihilistic texture, the novel became a “virtual guide” for someone from another part of the world.

Over two decades ago, photojournalist Fausto Giaccone travelled to Columbia on an assignment that would engulf him into Marquez’s phantasmagorical landscape of Latin America. So much so that the Nobel Laureate’s 1967 masterpiece became a “virtual guide” for Tuscany-born Giaccone, who, through Marquez, found an access route to Columbia. Much like millions of readers across the world, he partook in Colombia’s “topography, its history, its traditions, and its pains, its lights and its shadows.”

But Giaccone didn’t just move on to another novel after finishing Marquez, something many of us would normally do. And what followed then was an incisive photographic investigation into the “close relationship” between Colombia and the literary world of its most well-known writer.

Reading Marquez’s 2002 memoir volume “Living to Tell the Tale” transformed Giaccone’s obsession with the writer into a book of his own, “Macondo – The World of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.” The photo book is the result of the journalist’s travels through the places of Marquez’s novels and his life, including the writer’s birthplace Aracataca, the source for the mythical Macondo village in his greatest work.

The images, shot in black and white film, are on display at the Instituto Cervantes in New Delhi. The exhibition was first showcased in Goa last year.

As you revisit Marquez through Giaccone’s lens, a vast scape of everyday life, personal and social histories, and colonial remnants comes live. But to say that the collection, as with most monochrome pictures, evokes nostalgia would be an understatement. Juxtaposed with the “magical” prose of Gabo, a nickname given by friends and fans, the photographs can be seen as an extension of the writer’s universe.

With a narrative of its own, the Giaccone show, rarely letting go of the novel’s intensely pessimistic quotes, has a bemoaning quality to it. And his subjects, the South Americans, nonchalantly go about their daily business. The bewildering contrast, stark in its absoluteness, is hard to miss.

Aracataca, Marquez’s hometown, features prominently in the exhibition. Once a boomtown of American banana companies in the 20th century, today it is home to thousands of refugees from Colombia’s endemic violence. Unfit drinking water, unemployment and drug trafficking are its other problems.

In Giaccone, Aracataca is quiet, at times apathetic, involving little activity in terms of daily life and, often, wistful.

Walking through his gallery is akin to re-reading parts of Marquez’s novel, just like this one: “Macondo was a village of 20 adobe houses built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs,” Marquez wrote in the first chapter of ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’. The photographer found the so-called prehistoric eggs, or probably their lookalike, in the Cataca river as a boy washes his motorbike.

In another picture, a man plays Vallenato music, popular on the Colombian coast and a favourite of Marquez. On the wall is seen a portrait of blind musician Leandro Diaz, a legend to Vallenato music fans.

The show also features a hundred-year-old building, the Academia de baile, once a dance hall for banana plantation workers. In another, an old woman fills water in a banana plantation near Aracataca, followed by another image that shows a washing plant on a banana plantation.

The show’s “hundred-year-old” allegory continues as you see a photograph of Marquez’s nanny, who was born in 1917. She must be 98 now. You walk past a sleepy lane showing a deserted house where the Garcia Marquez family lived in the thirties and forties. A young man, who inspired the character of Santiago Nasar in ‘Chronicle of a Death Foretold’, lived next door, the caption says.

Sitting atop a huge book is a nude statue of Remedios the Beauty at the entrance to the town of Aracataca. Wings are scattered all over this structure. A mysterious, but enchanting, character in ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude,’ here she is made to look like a pale angel, much like her last moments in the novel, when she ascended to the “upper atmosphere…in the midst of flapping sheets that rose up with her.”

The most striking image in the entire collection is of a woman cutting the hair of a man, probably her husband, as a young girl, maybe their child, sits in his lap. The caption next to the image reads: “Thus they went on living in reality that was slipping away, momentarily captured by words, but which would escape irremediably when they forgot the values of the written letters.” It’s a telling, fateful line, cleverly attached to the sight of a mundane existence, lending a semblance of oblivion to the transient nature of life, much like Aureliano in the last chapter of the book. As he deciphers the final pages of the parchment, he discovers that he would never be able to leave the room he was sitting in as it was the moment of denouement for “this city of mirrors or mirages”. Death, it turns out, was an accidental revelation for him.

Theatre Review – ‘Oh My Sweet Land’

Actress Corinne JaberLast week, the audience in a New Delhi auditorium sat in front an unusual setting during a theatre show. The artist ended her performance. As she walked off the stage, she left the door of the refrigerator open, revealing big portions of meat that resembled a slaughterhouse.

The lights were dimmed. In another corner of the stage, a dish was being cooked on the gas. The sound of oil, spices and boiling meat grew increasingly louder and I wondered if the production crew was preparing us for a final burst before the show ended. There was no “staged blast”, but the sequence left the audience confused – and unusually quiet for a few moments – about whether the show had ended or not.

The show ended, it turned out, giving way to belated applause by a thin audience of ‘Oh My Sweet Land,’ a play about a half-Syrian woman’s unexpected journey into the Arabic country devastated by war, where she meets some of the refugees.

Back home, in Paris, she falls in love with Ashraf, a Syrian man who comes to her apartment to plan fellow Syrians’ escape from the war-torn country.

Ashraf and the woman make love at night because, according to her, it’s the only antidote to the man’s agony. During the day, they’re in Paris and at night the house transforms into an atmospheric Syria. One night, he takes her to a deserted Parisian street that ends in a cul-de-sac. It reminds him of his home, he says, of sweet and now bloody memories.

And, after a three-month long affair with her, he disappears.

The un-named woman, played by Syrian-German actress Corinne Jaber, then travels to Syria to look for the exiled Damascene medical worker she fell in love with. She recounts a journey of exploding water melon fields and burning houses, a funereal hospital, a bullet-riddled Mercedes that reminds her of her father, and a narrow escape from a seedy interrogation cell. There’s also the tragic-comic story of a journalist who stages his own funeral to evade arrest.

While cooking Syrian dish kebah, the woman narrates all these – and many more – incidents with a schizophrenic intensity that smells of war, a fractured past and an uncertain future. The performance is pervaded with silences and outbursts, and lot of unpalatable plainspeak too. Occasionally, in the background, a Syrian song plays, creating a nostalgic, but painful, local setting marred by turmoil.

For the woman, who performs multiple roles in ‘Oh My Sweet Land’, cooking a traditional Syrian dish becomes a way of connecting to her homeland she doesn’t know much about. She’s half-Syrian and half-German like Jaber herself, who was brought up unacquainted with Syrian culture and language. But the only Syrian element in her house was the local food, her strongest connection to the Arabic nation.

So, on the stage, the woman prepares kebah with a compulsiveness that makes her homecoming torturous and suffocating. The aroma of stirring spices and warm oil – mouth-watering as it is – during the performance creates a semblance of irony as she narrates stories of pain and horror. This peculiar juxtaposition compliments the show’s title – ‘Oh My Sweet Land’.

The show debuted about two years ago in Switzerland and the actress has given more than 60 performances so far.

Themes of displacement and a neurosis linked to one’s homeland are at the heart of this play. And it is no coincidence that it’s directed by Palestinian Amir Nizar Zuabi.

In his earlier show, ‘I am Yusuf and This is My Brother’, a young man recollects the loss of his ancestors after the British left Palestine in 1948. Even in ‘Oh My Sweet Land’, the lines between the personal and the performative blur as Jaber draws upon a self-conscious opaqueness about Syria. The main character – and all the roles that she plays – cannot escape Syria or be part of it, peacefully and entirely. The image of the cul-de-sac in a Parisian street reverberates throughout the performance.

The final image, the woman tells us, is from a TV screen showing corpses of children, covered in white cloth, placed next to each other. They were victims of a deadly chemical gas attack in Syria.

She walks out of the stage, leaving the door of the refrigerator open and the simmering kebah on the gas. The mutton – not beef, Jaber says in the interview – is seen inside the fridge.

The show was staged as part of the yearly Old World Theatre Festival organized in New Delhi and suburb Gurgaon last week.