Monday, November 28, 2005

A history lesson

I'm not a musuem buff.

There was a time when, whenever I had time to spare in a city, I'd hit the forts, the museums, the significant spots that find mention in tourist brochures. But over the last year, I'd developed a rather 'whatever' attitude to visible history, turning more and more to the written word.
Besides, it is all so repetitive - the same swords and daggers in the armoury section. The same brocade angarkhas in the costume section. The same parchment manuscripts that I could not decipher and the same erotic carvings that I couldn't tell apart, era to era.

But an impatient morning in Gwalior - with me tele-stalking a senior police official, appointment after tentative appointment getting postponed, pacing up and down, up and down, the musty hotel room - found me at the Jai Vilas Palace Museum.

And I suddenly realized that 'History' must breathe.
It's decaying living-lessons are all there - whispering in museums that nobody wants to visit because it's all so boringly 'same'.... Nobody but the college kids who don't have any other place to hang out and hold hands in. Nobody but people from out-of-town with time to spare, and a train to catch. But even so, some things have to be seen to be understood.

I re-learnt one of the most important lessons my education has taught me - life happens outside the syllabus.

You never know where you might learn what. What questions you might ask, what insights lurk in which fading artefact... you never know what a musuem is waiting to tell you.

The stuffed tigers... the photographs of row upon row of white and brown sahibs, smilingly jodhpurred, with row upon row of dead tiger, lying at their feet. Neat little ends to neat little afternoons of amusements. It was the done thing.

And now, there are no tigers in these forests of Chambal.... Why do I feel as if, if it weren't for the hue and cry about dwindling numbers, it would still be a done thing. New sahibs, new rulers, old bloodsport.

The Scindia women - originally Maratha - are portraited in silken nine-yard navaris... but that was a hundred years ago. The Maratha came to the Chambal, and the royal women found themselves in close proximity to the Rajasthani Rajputs. They were fast shedding the traditional dress for chiffon sarees, pallus delicately perched on hair piled high... that was how royalty was dressing its modern women everywhere in northern India in the twentieth century. The modern Scindia women wear chiffon sarees. The modern Rajput women wear chiffon sarees.

Was this how the saree came to be pan-Indian, and be worn in pan-Indian ways - is this how we began to think there was only one 'Indian' way to dress? To be?

Across the costume section, a man carrying one child yells at his wife, carrying another, "Hurry fast! Time is going."
Hall to hall, section to section, the broken English follows me around. "Fast-fast... what is there to see?.. .Look fast." The man always begins yelling at his wife suddenly, the moment he sees me.
I cannot understand why.

I linger long in a separate section called 'Leda and The Swan" (Yeats' version). At least one of the Scindia rulers had a taste for erotic art. But the piece that lent it's name to this room, was a poor imitation of the original. It was, nevertheless, as out-there-erotic as could be. This marble Leda was clearly having fun.
The room had several other paintings and statues, all of women in the buff. Some Indian, some western....
I spend a long time here - it is so rare to see women being unashamed of their bodies and the sexual act, in this country. Not even in art. I see too many illustrations of ravaged women, frightened women, coying-cloying women.... This was not art at it's creative best. But I spend a long time here.
I notice that Broken English is too embarrassed to stay; he peeks and flees.

And I wonder - how do you tell a woman from a Yakshi?

In the museum, I try hard to understand this mystery. Ancient carvings of dressed (minimally, but still... dressed) women are marked 'Woman, .... year/century", but a naked statue is marked 'Yakshi'... 'Yakshi with beautiful hairstyle'.
There is nothing to tell a woman from a Yakshi. There is no explanation, about era, context, where these statues were found... nothing. All I can see is the difference between the clothes, or lack thereof....

And I'm still wondering whether even our historians, curators, cannot deal with the idea of women's sexuality. If it's sexual, it's not a woman; it's a Yakshi.... Is that it? Or am I reading too much into merely incompetant labelling of museum artefacts?

I also spend a long time with a carpet. It's not pretty, but is, perhaps, some ruler's vision of us. Or a weaver's fingers toying with the idea of a multi-cultural, multi-racial time-warp. For, on one large capet, he's given us Christ being born, also at the last supper, and there, a gun-toting British soldier, and here, some Nawaab, and there a Mughal durbar, a queen, also Budhha, and what looks like a Rabbi, and a Rajput... it makes me dizzy. Who commissioned this?
But there are no answers.

The banquet halls are very British. Long tables, massive spaces between tables, high-backed chairs, forks, knives, crystal. Tiered chandeliers - they could hold thirty of me. Or a hundred. There's another eating hall. It has Rajput-style seating arrangements, on the floor. I ask an attendant if he can give me some background on who ate there and why the separate halls. He continues to squat in a corner, points vaguely ahead and says, "Go inside and look".

In the arms section, I look at a huge gun, and finally understand the origin of the phrase "kisi ke kandhe pe rakh ke bandook chalaana".
You would have needed more than one shoulder to lift this gun. Yet, one finger on the trigger is enough, isn't it?

The palace itself is very... what is the word... square? And hurtfully white. It is not easy on the eye, yet, in it's whiteness, size, geometricentricity (forgive the term; my layman's vocabulary doesn't know how to describe such architecture), it is a strong image.

Everywhere, along staircases, in niches and corners, there are photographs of the royal Scindia family. Especially of Madhavrao Scindia and his wife and his son Jyotiraditya and his family. Their childhood. Their weddings. Their portraits. It is almost a little too intimate, here.

And I am reminded of me: I put up my nostalgia in the same way - collage on walls - the rush to fill up a place with personal history.... I wonder if it is the royal family's way of reminding themselves that all this is theirs, just like the rest of the palace that continues to be their home, out of bounds for the public....
Yet, these photographs are too intimate, almost, for a museum. Too alive. Too 'now'.

And I remember what a young party-worker had told me a year ago, in Shivpuri. "This region's biggest ailment is Mahal Rajneeti (Palace Politics). The Scindias rule - irespective of democracy. If it's not the brother, it's the sister. Now, the son."

And across a large hall-way, I see a young woman, looking at herself in one of the queen-sized mirrors. She turns to view her profile, then runs her hand over her stomach - there is a slightly swelling belly. Her eyes meet mine, in the mirror. There is such stillness there, such history...


Anurag said...

Lovely piece of narrative. I love the insights you provide, like the one about pictures being almost too intimate for a museum.

The last two lines, about the woman looking at herself in the mirror are, for the want of a better adjective, so touching.

I'm impressed, as usual,

WillOTheWisp said...

I've must confess, at the very outset, of being a lurker on your blog for some time now. Part of me has generally prompted itself to respond to your posts, at times, and then again, I've desisted in keeping with a vague notion of the, possible, meaninglessness of the exercise.

I am not sure if I agree with your re-learnt (?) lesson that life happens ouside of the syllabus .Does it? Inevitably? Inescapably? Part of what I have seen of life ( and some death ) is that life compels you to look at the syllabus again and then again, and then try and see how it is ( for want of a better word ) coded therein. Don't we tend to disregard the syllabus too soon? Without much of experience of life as such? ( It is also curious as to how the ones who have experienced life, to some extent, tend to harp about the syllabus. Mere irony? )

Was this how the saree came to be pan-Indian, and be worn in pan-Indian ways - is this how we began to think there was only one 'Indian' way to dress? To be?
Why not?

And I'm still wondering whether even our historians, curators, cannot deal with the idea of women's sexuality. If it's sexual, it's not a woman; it's a Yakshi.... Is that it? Or am I reading too much into merely incompetant labelling of museum artefacts?
To revert to a typically contrarian view, what is the 'idea' of a woman's sexuality? ( And for that matter, what is a man's? ) For some reason, I am forced to connect to a comment that I read on someone else's blog where RK Narayan was quoted as saying ( when questioned about his supposed 'prudishness' when it came to writing about sex ) - he said that he would leave the couple to do what they were embarking upon and would not be sitting at their bedside taking notes. Is it not a 'valid' perspective? ( As any other ). And then, I have not found ( in my limited experience of some museums and temples and the like ) of too much sexual about depictions of men either. I suppose I am prompting you to give me one good reason why sex needs to be 'depicted' ( artistically or otherwise ) out in the open? If the argument were to tend towards the 'naturalness' and the 'instinctual' nature of the activity, I am tempted to link to ( quite a few ) other pleasurable ( yes, it depends...and yes, not all of them are 'mentionable' ) bodily functions which are best left 'private'. Why this particular proclivity to ( seemingly ) 'elevate' sex to a pedestal that none of the others can aspire to? You say that there is, possibly, a lack of an ability to 'deal' with a woman's sexuality? It could be argued that it has been 'suitably' dealt with. What else would one want? ( Yes, it could also be incompete(?)nt labelling of museum artefacts ).

Yes, there could be a 'debate' on the above and more. I find myself curious as to the nature of how people 'choose' to align themselves for their perspectives...

Anonymous said...

And I read you and think
When our histories are written
If our untold lives are noted
In this age of evenings:
How much of that ink will spill
And go
Or will they write on water
And watch the words flow

Will they then apologise
For all that was lonely today
Will they perhaps reason
Why so many were sad
Why did all the poets lie
Why did the divisions die
Between what was wrong
What was right
Why didn't the writers write

Is that how our conclusions begin:
Here lived people in healthy times
Women and men of steel
And here began the end
Of all that we remember
It's official: history stillborn is dead
All in this excellent land is henceforth myth

madhavan said...

After I liked what you wrote, I liked what I wrote so much that I decided to get me a blog and post what I wrote there. How's that for vanity? By the way, dunno if you remember, but you and I, we once worked in the same office, in a newspaper called Mid-Day (on second thoughts it's better you dont remember...different times different person).
Recently, I have been haunting your blogsite, quite liking your style, alliterations, itals and all. And then suddenly, coincidence. In my present office, I am whiling away my time, when suddenly someone comes and thrusts a copy on to me to proofcheck and out pops your name from the byline. An intv with Valmik Thapar which we are running in RD. It's a funny world, I tell you...remarkably funny world.

mads urf Madhavan

Innocent Bullet said...

This was a lovely vignette Annie! :-) I liked the Bad English character and the ennui with which the museum staff was laced. Looks like I need to be on your turf more often! :-)



Annie Zaidi said...

thanks, anurag.
willothewisp, agree with you about the relooking at syllabi, but not on other counts...
"Why not?"
Because I have an inherent mistrust of the homogeneous. of the pan-anything, not just pan-indian. I'm not sure I want it that way. that's why.
About sexuality, prudishness, pedestals, and other ideas...
I grew up with the conventional view, examined it inside my own head and have chosen to discard most of what we're taught to accept. I have strong views on why it important not to be 'private' about a lot of things... But I'd rather not get into a detailed discussion here. If other readers have anything to say on the subject, they're most welcome to.
madhavan, thank you so much for that :) and yes, I do remember. RD...?

WillOTheWisp said...

An inherent mistrust of the panoramic? Of homegeneity? Isn't most homogeneity only seemingly so? I would suppose that it is possible to gawk at the trees without losing sight of the forest as a consequence...or vice versa.

For a moment, as I read your response, I wondered about what it was that made me comment on your post in the first place. I guess you give me the words yourself - an inherent mistrust of "should be"s, especially of the should be no should bes variety. I really do not know if you would be able to connect this little aside to your statement that "I'm not sure I want it that way" ( and what I seem to sense beneath ).

I find myself tempted to say that I have strong views against those that have strong views ( but choose not elucidate what, how or why ).
I'm not looking at a justification as such, possibly just a sense of validation of a seemingly different view.

I grew up orthodox...outgrew it as heterodoxically as possible...realised over a period of time that heterodoxy is not very different from orthodoxy as it were.

Also understood rather late that it is impossible to be taught something without wilful learning. ( The emphasis here merely seeks to shift the onus of responsibilty from a ( typically ) 'external' ( Other? )agency onto the learner. ( It could be argued that we learn to accept instead of the way you phrased it ).

I could have sent you an e-mail. However, for the time being, I would like to let it be here. I am curious as to whether you could examine why things are the way that they are before discarding what you discarded...

madhavan said...

Apropos RD...?, RD is Reader's Digest, a magazine which inspires, enriches and does a few other things which I forget. By one of life's interesting twists (and they never end and they never end) I find myself there. By the way, if the idea is crossing your mind that we are pirating the intv, perish the thought. Dont know the gory details but am certain permission must have been sought and rights paid for. For a change, I am in good company, you know... Before I bore the hell out of you and get thrown out by fellow admirers, must reiterate: you have exceptional good things with it

Aparna Ray said...

Lovely write-up Annie! Will visit more often from now on :-)


Annie Zaidi said...

yes, willothewisp, i can examine before i discard. but i prefer not to. i don't spell out everything i think, or do, on this blog. ur curiosity will just have to excuse me :)
thanks a lot, dan. and yes, do keep coming over to my turf
and thanks too, aparna

WillOTheWisp said...

That's rather sad...isn't it?

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