Creative expressions of Otagaki Rengetsu. While I am preparing a more detailed account of early women artists of Japan, you have the opportunity of learning more about her here.
art, Bharatnatyam, Cheruthuruthy, Chidambaram, culture, dance, dance festival, drama, flute, history, India, journey, kathak, knowledge, music, musical instrument, natya shastra, performance art, skill, song, Tanjore, travel
Augmenting our knowledge in various fields is arguably one of the major benefits of travelling, near or far. However it is also true, during our trips to different parts of the world we limit ourselves to more passive forms of learnings. For example, we trust mainly on our power of observation to gain vital information about the culture, tradition, habits of people etc. The benefits of this form of learning cannot or should not be dismissed. It is a lifelong process that aids in developing the person we wish to become. But there could be another form of learning, a more active education, that we can indulge in during our journeys across the globe. Today I intend to discuss about the opportunities of learning that present itself in sphere of music and dance. For this article, I will focus more on India and opportunities available there, for it is a country which boasts of formulating the most ancient form of treatise in dramatic arts (natya shastra) and music. There are many forms and expressions of this beautiful art practiced all over the country even today. But before we delve into this, let me share with you a story from my own experience.
Lord Krishna Playing Flute
About a year and a half ago, I met Thibault E at a small restaurant in a very busy city. He came to enjoy a cosy dinner with his wife. A light drizzle that started since late afternoon turned into a heavy and incessant downpour. As we were all stuck inside we thought it better to strike up a conversation rather staring at each other from the corner of our eyes. He narrated his tale over a cup of simmering hot coffee. Thibault always found himself mesmerised by the tune of flute. Since his early childhood, he yearned to have a flute for himself and learn it to play. But his parents did share his fancy and thought this to be a rather idle dream. In the face of their overwhelming practical concerns for him, he was forced to put his dream somewhere in the deep recess of his mind.
Thibault was a good student and did not find it difficult to secure a place in one of the country’s premier technological universities. He similarly excelled in his career too. To cut a long story short, he, by the age of 42, was already in a possession of so much money that he could have afforded to retire then and there if he wanted to. His private life was equally fulfilling with a lovely wife, who was and still is a renowned name in her own sphere, and two healthy children. He had nothing to complain about, or so it seemed, because the inner dissatisfaction that was gnawing at his heart was not apparent to anyone but himself.
Sarod, Musical Instrument
Increasingly, Thibault found himself lonely at his own home. He simply did not know how to fill his “free” hours meaningfully. But there was no one else to blame for this than himself. He never cultivated a serious hobby to fill his empty hours. He was only allowed an hour’s play every day. His parents were strict disciplinarians and he did not wish to mess with them. If there was nothing else to do, he simply locked himself at his study room and dozed away the time. In later years too, he hardly made an attempt to acquire some skills beyond his regular studies.
Thibault frequently needed to stay away from home for short periods of time on business trips. One such occasion landed him on a distant coast to India, in Cochin (Kochi) to be specific. Since the business engagement got delayed for some unforeseen reason, he got some time to experience an exotic place and its culture. While aimlessly travelling here and there he landed himself in a small village named Cheruthuruthi, by the river Nila. In the afternoon when he was enjoying a walk a soulful tune of flute caught his attention. After some search he found the player, a boy in his early teens. Seated on the sandy river bank he was completely engrossed in his practice.
Flowing Water, Kerala
For sure, the tune was not familiar to Thibault, but that did not matter. He leaned against a coconut tree a little distance away and closed his eyes. He felt a deep sense of peace. He could have stood there that way for hours. But the performance was interrupted all of a sudden. A man’s voice was heard from behind. It seemed an elderly gentleman came calling for the boy and the two were preparing to leave the place. Seeing Thibault in the audience the man turned towards him smiling. In a very sweet voice he enquired about his whereabouts. Thibault briefly described his purpose. The conversation was helped by the boy who was clearly knew better English. After a brief discussion about the place and its history, the kind hearted gentleman asked Thibault to come to a local school dedicated to performance art and music. It transpired that some kind of celebration was to take place there later in the evening. With child’s glee in the heart, Thibault promptly accepted the invitation. For Thibault, the evening and the rest of the days in Cheruthuruthi were spent as if in a dream.
Performance in Kalamandalam, Cheruthuruthy
When Thibault narrated the story about his boyhood childhood wish, senior members of the school encouraged him to pick up at least the basics of playing flute. Someone also handed his flute over to him to let Thibault have a feel of it. Touching it with his fingers, for the first time in his life, he felt an immediate sense of bonding. After some pondering and lenghty discussion with his wife, Thibault took a sabbatical from his work. Following the advice of the gurus of Chethuruthy, he enrolled himself to a school some distance away from this village. His teacher there also helped him to find a mentor in his home country. With much enthusiasm, he devoted himself to his learning. He segregated his time between his actual and adopted home. With hard work he rapidly advanced.
Modest as he is, when I met him at the restaurant, he could not be drawn into describing his achievements even after 15 years of continuous practice. The best compliment, perhaps, came from his wife. “Thibault is a different man,” said Erika his wife, “he is more relaxed, more engaged with life than ever before.” Like a magic wand, the charm of flute transformed Thibault and Erika’s lives.
Pose in Poise, Bharatnatyam
Time has changed. You do not need to come all the way to India to learn music and dance native to this country. You may enrol yourself to an institution nearby. Online learning opportunities are all available. But if you are musically inclined and journeying across India you may consider taking up courses in any of the reputed institutions of Chennai, Bangalore, Mysore, Coimbatore, Tanjore and beyond. All these places are also replete with schools teaching various dance disciplines including bharatnatyam, kuchipudi, kathak and so on.
It is also highly recommended that you set some time aside to visit Brihadeeswarar Temple of Tanjore. The outer wall of the temple bears all the elegant poses of bharatnatyam, a dance form that is no less than 2500 years old. The temple is a part of UNESCO World Heritage. Many of these places also turn themselves into virtual auditoriums and relive the past glory by organising annual dance festivals. Khajuraho, Modhera, Mukteswar and Mahabalipuram are some of the most prominent ones. Besides, major auditoriums across the country organise dance and music recitals for the benefits of art connoisseurs year long.
Temple Sculptures Depicting Dance Poses, Chidambaram
I sincerely hope that in your next journey you will get ample opportunities of exploring your talent in these fields and beyond. Moreover, these activities will also help you to get a closer view of the cultural treasures of any place that you choose to visit on your next trip.
A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened. ~ Albert Camus
Parallelly published in The Inked Expressions.
The name Margaret Rutherford is quite popular among the connoisseurs of old movies, particularly vintage British movies. Her characterisation of Miss Marple in such films as Murder, She Said, Murder at the Gallop, Murder Most Foul and Murder Ahoy!, based on famous Agatha Christie novels is admired even today. She started appearing on the big screen at an advanced age. Not being a conventional beauty also did not help her causes; in fact, she was derided by many for her looks who confidently preferred overlooking her superb acting prowess. But, thanks to her inimitable style of acting, she already created a firm footing for herself on stage.
In last two years or so, while watching many of the old black and white films with my brother, I stumbled upon I Happiest Days of Your Life and consequently learn about the formidable acting skills of Margaret Rutherford. In the following months, we managed to watch The Importance of being Earnest (based on an Oscar Wilde story), Passport to Pimlico, I’m All Right Jack and Curtain Up among others. Our search also yielded a rare gem – an interview with Margaret Rutherford and her actor husband Stringer Davis conducted Down Under. The web world, despite the hype around the process of digitisation, is not exactly swathed with interviews of famous personalities of the yore. So you will understand why I call this a ‘rare gem’. The interview is also devoid of any clichés associated with such interactions with film stars. I am sure you will enjoy listening to this during an afternoon recess this weekend.
Margaret Rutherford’s role in The V.I.P.s earned her both Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. She was also bestowed with Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and Dame Commander (DBE) in 1961 and 1967 respectively.
Unfortunately, her glorious success on stage or screen and a stable relationship with her devoted husband could not prevent her frequent lapses into depression and melancholia. Nearly all through her life, she was haunted by the fear of becoming mentally incapacitated. This fear primarily stemmed from her father’s violent insane spells that drenched the family into bloodbath. Though Margaret Rutherford (May 11, 1892 – May 22, 1972) was sent to stay with her aunt, Bessie Nicholson, since an early age the ghosts of the maladies existing in her family never really eluded her. As she started suffering from Alzheimer’s disease in the late sixties, these nervous breakdowns became even more frequent and acute. She was nursed by her beloved husband till her very last day. What she said about her work also applies for her life. That,
You never have a comedian who hasn’t got a very deep strain of sadness within him or her. Every great clown has been very near to tragedy … is quite apparent from the Margaret Rutherford story.
Wilfred Owen’s proverbial question, ‘Was it for this the clay grew tall?’, echoes through Gerda Taro’s life and work. She was one of the first female photographer to report events from the frontline. Eventually, she succumbed to the perils of war only when her career is starting to blossom.
“To Big–Hearted, Big–Souled, Big–Bodied friend Conan Doyle” – these were the very words mentioned on the front page of the Novel Notes, penned by Jerome K Jerome. A name made famous by his character Mr Sherlock Holmes, and not the other way round, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s life is a well documented one. Jerome K Jerome is no stranger to literature lovers either. Yet, I don’t think that too many people are aware of this enduring friendship between Conan Doyle and Jerome K Jerome.
It seems that the camaraderie between these two men existed for greater portion of their lives. Arthur Conan Doyle, an avid skier, travelled to Norway with Jerome K Jerome in the winter of 1892. The latter was one of the invitees present during Conan Doyle’s wedding with Jean Elizabeth Leckie in 1907. This small party also included such prominent names as J M Barrie and Bram Stoker. It is quite possible that Jerome K Jerome travelled to Switzerland at least once to meet his friend and be a part of his ski excursions.
Theirs were a friendship that aptly defines what Alfred Tennyson had to say on the matter,
So, friend, when I first looked upon your face, our thoughts gave answer each to each. Opposed mirrors each reflecting each, although I knew not in what time or place, methought that I had often met with you, and each had lived in other’s mind and speech.
Their companionship lasted during a particularly difficult phase of Conan Doyle’s life. Charles Altamont Doyle, Arthur Conan Doyle’s father and a talented illustrator himself, gave in to excessive drinking early in life. He soon succumbed to severe bouts of delusions which resulted in permanent insanity. More than a decade of his life was spent in an asylum. Charles Doyle passed away in the autumn of 1893. Arthur Conan Doyle’s first wife Louise was diagnosed with tuberculosis the same year. Conan Doyle planned a change of weather for his wife. This paved the way for his first visit to Switzerland. It does not come as a surprise, that Conan Doyle conceived The Final Problem, which indicated the assassination of Mr Sherlock Holmes much to the dismay of his fans, the same year.
Holmes & Watson, Illustration by Sydney Paget
Friendship between kindred spirits may not be that difficult to spot, but such alliance during hours of crisis is not something so common. Another example that darts into the mind is the concord between Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Oscar Wilde. During one of his visits to London, Toulouse Lautrec, already an established artist by then, befriended Wilde. He painted Wilde’s portrait several times during their acquaintance. The most noteworthy of them all is certainly the one depicting a visibly exhausted but defiant Oscar Wilde during the final day of his trial. Toulouse Lautrec raised voice against Wilde’s imprisonment. The artist used his name and prominent position in the society to garner considerable support for Wilde from across the Channel. Though, Wilde escaped the execution he could not evade the sheer fatigue resulted from back to back trials. His health suffered breakdown and he eventually succumbed to a cerebral attack. Nonetheless, the friendship that existed between them stood the test of time.
Self-caricature & Portrait of Oscar Wilde by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
The azure depth of ocean hides many fascinating secrets in its bosom. It is such a place where the boundary between reality and lore often gets blurred. Artists, poets and metaphysicists often take an advantage of such a world shrouded in mystery to create pieces of art, literature and hypothesis that sometimes are equally enigmatic and age defying.
One such piece of work is this cameo crafted from a conch shell. This beautiful creation is a prized possession of the jewellery museum of Ascione, Italy. Created in 1925, it is one of the finest pieces of cameo ever produced. But without the tide of deep and dark blue ocean which handed this sardonyx to man where would his art be?
Ananda Coomaraswamy, architecture, art, Art history, art village, artisan, Bharatnatyam, Chola, culture, dance, drama, India, music, musical instrument, painting, sculpture, shtapatya veda, Tamil Nadu, Tanjore, temple, Thanjavur, vastu, veena
This is not a travelogue. My trip to Tanjore (also known as Thanjavur) was taken too long ago to write a reliable travel diary on the same. I only had a brief rendezvous with the city and its surrounding. But even during that brief visit, what impressed me most about Tanjore remains to this date its greatest asset. Tanjore was one of the cultural hubs of India. Though much has changed during its millennia old history, Tanjore continues to latch on its artistic legacy. Surprisingly, even with being a UNESCO World Heritage site, Tanjore remains somewhat inconspicuous in international tourist map.
Architectural Marvel’s of Tanjore
The city experienced its biggest flourish during the Chola period, more than a thousand years ago. Its greatest architectural marvel is visible from far away, even before you set a foot on its ground. Brihadeshwara Temple celebrated its 1000th anniversary in 2010. From a distance it may look like just other massive temple structures of the region, particularly to the unfamiliar eyes, but look closer. Its shikhara or vimana (roof), which almost seems to embrace the sky, is decorated with most intricate examples of reliefs and sculptures. The pyramidal shikhara sits on a square base, a uniqueness observable in Chola architecture. It is topped with a giant kalash (pot) located on a lotus equally massive. Lotus symbolises the universe while kalash harnesses the universal energy. The kalash was moulded from a special mixture of metal, including gold and copper, filled with holy water and other consecrated materials. Step in the walled temple complex through any of the gopurams (gateways). The gopurams are made with as much care as the main building and carry beautiful carving depicting age old tales of wisdom. The interior of the temple was embellished with rich murals many of which are hardly discernible now. But the patches of paints and motifs that remain, give us a vivid example of the skilful craftsmanship of the time.
Every inch of the vast temple complex was constructed following the ancient principles Vastu Shastra and Sthapatya Veda (studies of architecture). Don’t for a moment consider these to be the current phoney version of Vastu Shastra spun out for commercial profit. This knowledge of constructing sacred or civilian buildings, landscaping and planning for an entire town or village is older than 5000 years. Otherwise, these buildings would not have had the capability of withstanding the ravages of time for so long.
Brihadeshwara Temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva. He is accompanied by his two consorts – Nandi (the bull, disciple of Shiva) and Mahakala (time). Ancient literature and art often spoke in allegories. Comprehending the underlying significance of the imagery helps greatly in the appreciation of the work. Ananda Coomaraswamy, Indian subcontinents pioneering art historian and curator of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, authored numerous books in this regard. To understand Lord Shiva or Nataraja, as depicted in Indian art, I would suggest a reading of The Dance of Shiva. Shiva paves the way for the new (regeneration) removing the outmoded elements of life (destruction). He pervades time and uproots the bondage of illusion and ignorance. It is here where his association with Mahakala and Nandi begins, the former being Father Time incarnate and the latter an example of supreme devotion and strength. The temple is replete with such remarkable examples of symbolism in art, architecture and literature.
The second exquisite example of Chola architecture lies somewhat in negligence slightly away from the city, in Gangaikonda Cholapuram. Though comparatively smaller in size, its value in the world of engineering, art and architecture is no less important than Brihadeshwara Temple. The main temple is so constructed that its shadow never falls on the ground the entire year. Innumerable pieces of sculpture decorate the entire premises. Even the water well is covered with a giant statue of lion. Those having a flair for designing dresses and jewelleries will find numerous inspirations here to borrow from.
Airavatesvara Temple is situated 35 km away from the city in Darasuram. Even though it is created during the same period, the structure of the temple differs widely from the other two sacred sites mentioned already. It speaks volumes about the versatility of the artists of the then Tanjore. The mandapam (main temple) is formed as a gigantic horse drawn carriage. Its shikhara, though not taller than Brihadeshwara, thrives on its unique barrel shape. Like the other two, the entire body of the building is decorated with ornate sculptures. The meditation hall boasts of pillars each unique in its design. Interestingly, close observation of the reliefs on the pillars reveal a lot about the socio-economic condition of the time. The inside walls of the buildings are covered with murals. Even the pipelines and water openings are carved with great care and beauty. One of the smaller shrines of the temple has three steps that produce varied musical notes on setting a foot on each of them, such was the ingenuity of creator architect. This is not an isolated phenomenon. Many temple pillars of the region produce sounds resembling the musical notes of various stringed instruments, mridangam, dholak (a kind of drum) and so on.
A visit to Tanjore’s Art Gallery will afford further knowledge of the city’s sculptural masterpieces, particularly bronze figures. There are other palaces and civilian buildings that, though built on a later date, arouse everyone’s admiration. But like renaissance art found greatest expression in sacred paintings and sculptures, here too the finest examples of art lie in the region’s oldest edifices – the temples.
Broadening of Horizon – Influence on Dance, Music & Drama
Tanjore’s artistic majesty did not limit itself to the city’s temples, palaces or other prominent landmarks. Instead, its influence reached every corner of Tanjore. Local artists and artisans found financial backing from the monarchs. The artistic supremacy of the master figures powered the evolution as well. All four forms of art – painting, sculpture, music and dancing – started observing rapid changes and introduction of new ideas. Classical Tanjore painting (not the Tanjore miniatures as it is seen today, these came into being in late 16th century) received a huge boost. Elaborate panel paintings and murals became more developed. Owing to the superior economic condition of the time, metal craft also saw amazing advancement. The paintings were encrusted with precious and semi-precious stones, gold and silver leaves.
Bharathanatyam (a dance drama form that is based on the two thousand year old principles of Natya Shastra, i.e., Theory of Drama) too could not escape this artistic resurgence. This dance form thrives on the playfulness of expression (bhava), sentiment (rasa), action (kriya) and music (ragam). Elaborate sculptures depicting various Bharatnatyam postures can still be seen on the Brihadeshwara Temple’s walls. The temples regularly arranged devotional music and dance festivals. Brihadeshwara Temple hosts annual music and dance events even today.
In this atmosphere, vocal and instrumental music could not have remained in lurking in desolation. It duly began its exploration for supremacy. Besides other musical instruments, Tanjore contributed in the further development of Saraswati Veena, a stringed instrument indispensable in Carnatic music.
Following the tradition of the region, the knowledge of painting, sculpting or playing music are still handed down by the gurus (masters) to their devoted shishyas (pupils). Many families of artisans carry these knowledge and skills as a legacy for generations.
Though greatly fallen from its former glory days, Tanjore and its surrounding still strive on to create that perfect work of art in a much smaller scale. The narrow streets of Tanjore’s Art Village, Swamimalai and other places nearby still produce brass sculptures, miniature paintings and musical instruments all the while fighting the ignominy of modern time.
The Arts & Crafts of India & Ceylon by Ananda Coomaraswamy
Early Architecture by S Kak
Your vernal foliage never had to go through the anguish of decay. Even hundred years on, your Shinryoku remains a harbinger of hope for everyone who chances an eye on them. And, you Hayami? Even if death nipped the bud of your artistic majesty, you remained defiant. Life triumphed through your art. It continue to do so even today.