Thursday, 22 May 2014

A Day at the Museum

Sometimes we have preconceived notions about certain subjects due to our deep rooted conditioning... and on one fine day without premeditation new perspectives arrive just like that... to replace the old ones… for good!

Sophocles, my first woodcut print. [Why him? You'll read about that below]

I was at 'A History of the World in 100 Objects' art exhibition at the Manarat Al Saadiyat in Abu Dhabi, looking at British Museum’s artefacts, popular since BBC series talked about them.

I must confess I got sucked into some no-so-great thoughts at first. It is lame to blame anyone else if I wanted to let my mind weave up a silly story at the museum. For a second, I thought how these objects must have landed up as the British Museum's property. Did they acquire these during their colonial sweep across the continents? [oops!]. I don't know why I let my mind wander like an idiot. But I am not a complete idiot. I have read stories of pirates and explorers... of how they used to bribe, intoxicate, torture and sometimes wage a war to take by force something priceless from its homeland to impress their own resumes or rulers who sponsored their trips.

Surrounded by caged coffin's and restored old pottery pieces, I felt more than just haunting past lingering in there. While I walked past the Roman treasures on display, I dreamt of people dressed in robes like in the Benhur movie. With objects from the colonial era symbolic of trade routes from South Asia on display, my thoughts drifted from Colloseums to villages in India. 

In my head I could faintly hear the cry of Manoj Kumar [the hero from Bollywood's evergreen patriotic hits]. It is true they say that one can remove an Indian from India but not Bollywood from him/her. True in my case, some days. 

Vintage film poster of 'Kraanti' [means revolution] by Actor-Director Manoj Kumar 
Even though British left India long ago, they have been a part of coffee table discussions in my country. Critics can't get over the fact that they were ruled over by foreign powers. Despite all the exposure media offers and easy-to-explore travel package options to clear your doubts, people wander in meaningless thoughts. I confess being one of those people at times. I don't know why on a fine day in an Abu Dhabi art museum I felt bad for freedom fighters. My sighs echoed like those in melodramatic telly soaps where silly characters weave lame stories. I feel telly soaps do nothing but expose the scriptwriter's knotted self - caught between creative content and marketing demands.

I think there is no story as compelling as the one in your head. You simply believe it even if you could verify to know the truth [or let go/move on].

I must share this story of a German friend who visited India, for the first time, and was expecting to see turban-clad Maharajas riding horses... wading their way through freely roaming cattle... while snake charmers entertained bystanders in streets. Thoughts are thoughts. What can you do with them. Nothing really. But facts are facts too, and we are lucky we can find out the truth no matter how late. After penning her first novel based on a charming Indian prince protagonist, my friend came all the way from Germany and confronted the real India. Her eyes and mouth gaped all along while moving in a hired-taxi from Mumbai International Airport to Nariman Point. She was disappointed at the amount of work she now had to put into her Indian love story.

Colours and civilisations

Most objects on display at the museum were Greek and Latin to me until I read trivia. The mummy’s coffin on display here had a green face like God Osiris', ruler of the kingdom of the dead, as per greek mythology. Osiris is often represented this way because of his associations with the life-cycle of plants, symbolizing rebirth. This painted green face reminded me of the Kathakali dancers at our village temple in Kerala. I remembered grandfather mentioning that the green face was usually the hero's and red that of the villain's. Kathakali is an ancient dance-drama and is one of the oldest folk art forms still performed by artists from Kerala. Interesting to know that the green colour signifies different things to different civilizations.  

Colours reminded me of a recent egg painting party during Easter at my same German friend's place in Dubai. It was a great evening even though the ready-to-paint kit did not give out bright stains. A first for all of us who painted eggs - a Spanish, a Syrian an Egyptian and an Indian [me] - for Easter. I wanted to know why bunnies and eggs were a part of Easter. My friend said this bit of the festival was 'big' in Germany [adding nothing more to satiate my curiosity]. But if you have noticed sometimes answers surface through random Facebook posts. A wise meme on this Easter blurted, "Eggs, like rabbits and hares, are fertility symbols of antiquity. Since birds lay eggs and rabbits/hares give birth to large litters in the early spring, these became symbols of the rising fertility of the earth at the March Equinox (equal day equal night phenomenon). They have nothing to do with Easter celebrations."

Back in the museum, I saw more art. I was happy to see the brilliant stone sculpture of Buddha from Kandahar Valley. The birthplace of Kunti, the mother of Pandavaas, heroes in the Mahabharat [Mahabharatha? Thanks to grandfather's library again for having books by various authors on same subject. I owe most of my confusion to them. How easy right?]. I think even though the Buddha statue had a broken halo, it is safe with this museum than back home [in war-torn Afghanistan]. This restored buddha seemed to peacefully project just one message - that everything is fair in love and in war. Perhaps the colonial spell of wars were not completely wrong. Hope Buddha pardons me for this observation.


Among all the 100 objects here, what held me spellbound was the marble head of the Greek dramatist Sophocles, mounted on a modern herm. Pardon me, but he looked a bit melancholic to me. Sophocles is one of the celebrated ancient tragedians. Tragedians were those writers who wrote tearjerkers for a living. Reading about his huge popularity and success, I felt smaller than my barely five feet self. Only saving grace at my end now seemed the truth that am not a tragedian! 

I don't feel tragic about most things in life. Even when it is tragedy it self. 

I am a fan of Charlie Chaplin who spins humour around grief. As a writer my job is not an easy one but I will not write tragedies. Not even if you hold a gun to my face. [But you offer me an unbelievable commission… e.g. a million dollars for 100 words sort of deal… I may use a part of it to hire someone to tickle me to survive the torture of producing your sober stuff]. 

The curls on his [Sphocles'] overgrown beard were perfect. This anonymous sculptor was brilliant. I must admit, I secretly thought, yet again, if this one was also stolen by the explorers. Well my mind had no reason to not keep thinking gibberish, especially as the venue did not support free wifi to clarify my doubts. Or did it? I never bothered to check that. It did not occur to me that I could use my mobile data package. I was busy doing nothing but weaving stories, right? Sometimes it is ok to let things be. Even if they are not great thoughts, I mean.

Most of what the ignorant skeptic in my head was clueless about was later on answered by Wikipedia. Time is a luxury. [So is mourning... I don't remember who said that!] 

It was Gavin Hamilton, a Scottish artist, art dealer and archaeologist who found Sophocles' head, while digging an old villa in Italy. The broken head was a Roman copy of the lost Greek original of 4th century. How I love trivia.

Silence please!

What I saw next made me laugh. Even though at a gallery you are supposed to adorn Sophocles-like tragic/grave/sad expressions. Sometimes rules are impossible to follow. This ancient lithograph of a rhino had me in splits. It was a very detailed work that showed each crease in the skin of the animal. But hoofs? Did Rhinos have them previously?

Made in 1515 by German Printmaker Albrecht Dürer, this work has an obvious title - The Rhinoceros. Was this artist crazy? Why hoofs? There was more to this lithograph made in a hand carved woodcut printing block. Luckily I got the answer soon after... at a workshop on woodcut print making. The art tutor here explained that printers those days worked under sever pressure and met unreal deadlines [and we thought deadline pressure was just a modern disease]. Lithographs were printed to preserve facts. She explained bemusedly how Dürer made this amazing woodcut print from mere written description of an animal he had never seen. What a brilliant artist. And what was I thinking really?

By the way I chose to make the bust of Sophocles as my first woodcut print. He looked happier in my block. Not so tragic after all.

PS: If you want to know more about this ongoing exhibition/ or attend workshops check this link:

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