Sunday, December 20, 2009
Monday, October 19, 2009
but the lions are made of stone
...I'm thinking about the lions
What happened to the lions, in the night?
"Lions" (1978), Dire Straits
After the delight of walking through the Court of Myrtles in the Alhambra at Granada, and entering the fabled Court of the Lions, we were in for a shock. For the lions, all twelve of them, had gone walkie, leaving behind a forlorn basin in a new wooden box. Why build a cage after the lions had bolted? The marble lions, the centre piece of the court had been removed to a safe haven to be restored. Over the centuries, lime and grime had coated their noble visages to a point where their features were in danger of being obscured. Conservators would toil over the course of the next two years (2009-2010) to bring back the beasts to their pristine state.
No consolation to us though, we, who had paid good money to see them. However temporarily, the centre piece of the visit to this Nasirid Court, built by Muhammad V between 1362 and 1391, was obscured. The tableau of our imaginations collapsed like a card-castle, and replaced by an entity as alien as the monolith among the Neanderthals in Kubrick’s 2001. What appreciation could be possible for the surrounding court and chambers, with their exquisite ornament of geometric and calligraphic finesse, when the vellum itself was botched with spilt ink?
This brings me to the issue of interventions. Any infill in an existing environment will be viewed critically in inverse proportion to the time that environment has remained pristine. Any change that is not incrementally invisible will hurt both memory and ‘good taste’. Part of our mooring in life is to be able to take some things for granted, and the environment in which we physically move, that of the home, the street and the city work best when they are backgrounded to our own lives. So change, any change, would in effect be undesirable. We would be fooling ourselves, however, if we thought that we could live in the vacuum of our own imaginations forever.
So what kind of intervention is the more acceptable- the harmonious or the unpredictable? In recent times architects have been called upon to make these choices in an increasingly built environment. There are few tabula rasas, especially in our ageing cities, spaces are constantly being remodeled for a variety of reasons. Insertions are inevitable, and they will be new. What attitude of conservation, or conservatism should the architect adopt?
Look at the insert in the Court of Lions. The central fountain of marble was two tiered- with a large lower basin and a carved upper fount. Twelve lions flanked this basin radially facing outwards. Positioned more or less in the center of the Charbag that the crossing water channels formed, the fountain formed the focus of both axes that led in from the entrance to the court and that led out from the surrounding chambers. Both lions and upper fount are now significant by their absence. The lower (large) basin was in need of conservation, too. The rim of the basin boasts of an eulogy for Muhammad V carved in calligraphed marble by Ibn Zamrak describing the building of the court and of the lions. You can read this poem below.
The basin is large, simply too large to remove from its central location. So it has been enclosed, not by a tarpaulin or some such, but in a ‘camera’- a room of its own. This room is made of slatted timber on a metal frame, with glazed front and back along the shorter side of the court. Visitors can view the basin as it goes through various stages of restoration from the glazed ends, while the slatted end gives a new foreground to the axis leading on to the Hall of the Two Sisters and the Hall of the Abencerrages.
Under the roof of this box is a canvas canopy that can be moved as desired. The outer box of wood can (seemingly) be slid out along its axis to allow for a larger inner volume, and the canvas roof on the metal frame can be then be a shelter against the harsh south Mediterranean sunshine. The wooden slats allow for cross ventilation and the glass has perforations too. The entire system sits lightly on the pebbled base of the court. With this intervention, the conservators and their precious object are protected from the elements- from both solar radiation and the droppings of the thousands of swallows who inhabit the Alhambra, providing a constant chirruping in the background and casting abstract patterns on plastered white walls in the various courtyards. All very functional, of course, but does the intervention work?
It does take getting used to. First, the disappointment of the missing lions needs to be overcome, and then a reconciliation with the wood, glass and canvas replacement. The ‘camera’ is a small room, proportioned not to overwhelm the arcade of the court, allowing space and light enough to appreciate the existing architecture. It forms a new element, an installation, in this space, that creates its own presence, becoming part of the stepped visual axes as it rises from fountain to arcade to roof to dome. The glazed ends form a portal framing the basin with the arches behind, and you realize that nothing is really lost.
The Court of the Lions in the Alhambra now offers an alternative view, for a limited period only, as long as the conservation process lasts. During this time the arcades themselves have come into their own, not having to remain secondary to the impressively iconic lion fountain that dominated the composition of the court. The ‘camera’ can be appreciated, in of itself, as a well crafted modern device, or seen as at an interim scale between the basin and the arcade in a larger unfolding of spatiality. The absent lions constantly intrude on our imaginations. The conservators have made the right choice by not replacing them for the time being with plaster or GRF casts.
For too long in the last two hundred years has the Alhambra been exoticized and orientalized, mostly by visitors from the West (Washington Irving, Richard Ford, et al) who came to wallow in its ‘perceived’ decadence and relegated it to a ruin by treating it as such, occupying it with unseemly callousness, vandalizing it with graffiti. After centuries of suffering in such pitiless ‘timelessness’ the Alhambra, or one part of it at least, has become a dynamic space once again, with its new intervention. Artists like Christo and Anish Kapoor today, thorough their installations in well regarded public spaces make us renew our relationship with those environments by shaking our own perceptions of those spaces, and asking us to seek new meaning in those places that we took for granted. Maybe this was not what the conservators at the Alhambra really had in mind, but the enclosure around the basin forces us to look at the former Moorish palace anew, and that is something.
John Dobbin, Lions in the Alhambra
Water color, From a sketch made in 1859, V&A Museum, London
Poem on the basin of the Lions
Ibn Zamrak (1333-1393)
"May The One who granted the Imam Mohammed
with the beautiful ideas to decorate his mansions be blessed.
For, are there not in this garden wonders
that God has made incomparable in their beauty,
and a sculpture of pearls with a transparently light,
the borders of which are trimmed with seed pearl?
Melted silver flows through the pearls,
to which it resembles in its pure dawn beauty.
Apparently, water and marble seem to be one,
without letting us know which of them is flowing.
Don't you see how the water spills on the basin,
but its spouts hide it immediately?
It is a lover whose eyelids are brimming over
with tears, tears that it hides from fear of a betrayer.
Isn't it, in fact, like a white cloud that pours
its water channels on the lions and seems the hand of the caliph,
who, in the morning, grants the war lions with his favours?
Those who gaze at the lions in a threatening attitude,
(knows that) only respect (to the Emir) holds his anger.
Oh descendant of the Ansares, and not through an indirect line,
heritage of nobility, who despises the fatuous:
May the peace of God be with you and may your life be long
and unscathed multiplying your feasts
and tormenting your enemies! "
The fountain was two-tiered- lower large marble basin, upper carved nozzle with a smaller basin. This is evident in the water colour by John Dobbin from the 1860's. The two tiers are also visible in a silent documentary on Granada and surroundings made in the 1920's.
However all contemporary photographs before the restoration show only the lower large basin with the lions. At what point was the upper portion removed? Was it, in fact, a later addition- after Ferdinand and Isabella took over the premises in 1492? I have not been able to find any references to corroborate.
For the time being, the missing part of the fountain remains a curiosity.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
If you are my age and grew up soaked in Hindi films, you know this sound. The first cousin to the more ubiquitous- ‘Dhishum!’ , which, as any fule kno, is the only technically correct foley for a punch, a box, a kick, a swipe, or (as we say in pure Gujarati) a fight. On the other hand, 'Dhann-ta-dhaaaan!!!', as any fule kno, is the loud background music exclamation! when the hero dramatically breaks into the villain’s den to save the heretobefore kidnapped heroini from a fate worse than… chiz chiz chiz.
In big, bold letters. In flashing lights, in neon. The audio equivalent to Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Whaam!’ (1963). As kids we must have made this sound in a variety of settings, telling the picchur ka shtory the morning after, or even catching a friend during chor-poliss- ‘Dhann-ta-dhaaaan!!!’ Gotcha!
Was it Bhardwaj, or Gulzar that did not get the sound just right? Dan Te Nan is a bit pale when written down, although its quite fine when sung, just like the sound we kids used to make. This dilution is not surprising- we’ve heard it done before. Rajesh Khanna used this as a dramatic counterpoint in Bawarchi (1972), but in an almost lisped ‘Dhat-ta-raa!’ which even we, as frigging seven year olds, for God’s sake, knew wasn’t the right way to say it.
This is a sound that needed to emerge full blown from within, deep within, rising up from the rectum, through the digestive tract, up the esophagus until its escaped with a roar: ‘Dhann-ta-dhaaaan!!!’ (dha-na-dha-nan)
Well, what to do? We are the people our parents warned us about.
Monday, June 29, 2009
.Gardens of the Generalife
Saturday, June 27, 2009
You knew Michael Jackson was someone else. Apart from being blown away by his dancing, it was his voice and the musical arrangements of Quincy Jones that would remain, and do even today. Just a couple of months ago ‘Thriller’ was reissued as a 25th Anniversary edition, bringing into sharp focus how we had grown, more than anything else. But the music is still fresh and continues to be part of my collection of MP3’s on my computer. Of course, after that that everyone was trying out the shaky-breaky dance movements with variable success. Mithun Chakrarvorty and Salma Agha rehashing the zombies of ‘Thriller’ in some long forgotten film still give me the heebie-jeebies just to think about it.
No one, however, could emulate the voice. In the midst of our continuing education into the Ages of Rock (Django Reinhardt onwards, by way of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry, Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, Floyd, Dire Straits and beyond) Michael Jackson was our concession to POP, and he did Rock our Joint.
I remember going to the American Center Library to watch a special screening of ‘Thriller’ and ‘The Making of Thriller’ by John Landis. Why American Center? God alone knows, but even they probably acknowledged that the cultural scene was no longer the same without Jackson. The ‘Making of’ was the first for a music video, and the first behind the scenes look at filmmaking that I can remember. This was fun to watch. Jackson played his overgrown child persona and Landis indulged him (Middle to Close up shot, Landis to camera: “This is Michael Jackson. This is Michael Jackson’s toe.’ Followed by lots of tickling and giggling). Landis, of course, had just made ‘An American Werewolf in London’. ‘Thriller’ was just a reprise of that, but the prosthetic special effects were quite novel for the time (Long strand of hair growing out of face, canines sliding out of jaws like stilettos,et al). Life Magazine (defunct and lamented too) had done a many page photo feature on the great efforts it took to apply all this on the actor, and the film showed similar atrocities being heaped upon Jackson, before he could give his shots.
Moonwalk and forever embedded himself in the cultural space of popular music. I must check if the ‘Making of’ is on You Tube, it must be. The silken backward shuffle, defying gravity still gives a thrill, watching it after all these years. Plus, there is this quiet satisfaction in the knowledge that despite one’s forty five years and weighing twice that, one can still do a perfectly passable Moonwalk.
Hope you’re OK now, Annie.
Saturday, June 13, 2009
We figure out a complicated way of visiting it- needing to travel there from Seville by train, train back to Seville and then board yet another for Granada- all on the same day. Having made bookings using the fairly limited windows of opportunity on offer, we land in Cordoba promptly at around ten in the morning- only to be told that the Mezquita is shut.
The Grand Mosque of Cordoba is now the fully functioning Cordoba Catedral. In an act of the most creative vandalism (after the conquest of al Andalus by Catholic hordes) the middle third of the venerable structure had been gutted and replaced with a grand cathedral that rises out of its innards like an alien chewing its way out of a human, as in the first film. From the inside, Catholic spaces rise cheek by jowl with horse-shoe arches of the Mezquita- not that we know it at the time. The minders at the gate point to some recently xeroxed notices announcing closure due to the investiture of priests that morning. Public access to be resumed only by three in the afternoon. Our train back to Seville is at three thirty, bugger it!
In a moment of inspired lunacy (Spain does tend to make one uno poco loco, in any case) we decide to hang around until three, give the mosque’s insides a once over in about five minutes flat and then run like hell for the nearest taxi to take us to the estacion- for we would see the mirhab, or bust! Ridiculous, but that leaves us with five hours to twiddle out fingers, and toes.
In mindless concentrics, we walk around the streets lining the outer walls of the mosque- and as the streets get narrower until even two persons would brush shoulders passing each other, and the crowds keep increasing making the shoulder brushing mandatory, we come across the first of the unexpected pleasures that alleviate our dampened souls. Before we know it, we are immersed in the United Colours of Geraniums. May is the season of Cordoba’s Patio Festival.
Every year at this time the old houses that line the alleyways around the mosque bloom with flowers. A competitive sport this, every space- entrance way, courtyard, balconies and window box vie for the prize of Best Patio. The crowds that we vie with for space have all turned out to gaze at these amazing displays, and scurry around from courtyard to courtyard filling up memory sticks of mobile phones and digicams with impunity and making a godawful racket while they are at it. Marvelous!
The spaces where the flowers are arrayed are little cortiles in these havelis (favelas?). Alfresco, with a small fountain on cobbles or paving and a stairway to the upper floor. Some of these spaces are not even bigger than a living room in a Bombay flat, but that is space enough to fill. Every available wall has flower pots with geraniums in full bloom (la flor de los patios), traversing every tint, tone, shade and hue from white to blood red, standing out in stark afterimage from bright green leaves and stems. The Nasirids are probably to be complemented, for these flowers originate from Africa. All these concentrations of color stand starkly against whitewashed walls bathed in the midmorning Mediterranean sunshine. Orange trees, rose bushes, clambering vines, azules ceramic plates and occasional bric a brac add to the clutter.
The Mediterranean in spring.
That nature is at its most fecund is obvious at this time in southern Europe. In the Andalus, one cannot miss trees laden with oranges- Naranja, especially in Seville, Cordoba and Granada. The twin legacies of the Nasirids, irrigation and plantation, are now the hallmarks of the region. Oranges, pomegranates and roses (roses, everywhere), probably descendants of those planted by the erstwhiles engulf you- chance encounters with color are a constant source of amazement. And yet, in Cordoba, our dip into color is unexpected, and overwhelming.
We did catch our train, after all.
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Spain seems to have given its vertical public spaces (of about twice human height) completely to practitioners of graffiti. There does not seem to be a single space left unmarked and unsigned. Any road, even slightly off the tourist track will have these profuse expressions of hombres at large. Although we did see some graffiti on vertical surfaces of such height that would have required rappelling skills!
Many are artistic in the fashion of the Miros of the spray can, although most are (probably) gang related territorial markers. The most vibrant and colorful graffiti that we saw was on one bank of the Guadalaquir leading up to the Alamillo Bridge in Seville.
Techniques also vary- a new form used stencils- leading to some fine work, and also work that could be replicated quickly, challenging the one off aura of larger, elaborately sprayed neighbors. A lovely one was in English that said 'Lost your (image of a) button'.
What makes graffiti a truly citizens art in Spain is the possibility of protest. Since every wall is fair game, exhortations/protestations indicate the contemporary climate. There are CCTVs everywhere and official indications to that effect. That has not stopped, probably encouraged a large graffito: 'Videosurveillance NON!' Others we saw said 'Securidad Muerte!' 'Free Catalonia' and my personal favorite- 'Errata, Ergo Sum'.
The point is that contemporary inserts into historical spaces are not always a bad thing. Contrast this with Raphael Moneo's addition to the Atocha Station- another building evoking the eighties and some of the horrors that Botta and Bofill were up to at the time. The interior spaces are interesting specially the train platforms themselves, which are a delight. But I am not sure how the drum-like central circulation space and the cuboid clock tower sit with the fabulousl19th century glass and iron station.
On the subject of retrofit, the last word surely goes to the lift installed in our tiny B&B- the Hostal Luz on the Arenal. Fitted in (the perhaps two feet three inches wide) stairwell of an older four floor building, the elevator is exquisite in its modernity- with all the fittings- the stainless steel and glass that made the Reina Sophia's what it is. Wide enough to accommodate me, but not me with a rucksack, making me feel like a mujera in a tube top, traveling in it made up in style, elegance and convenience whatever it lacked in volume.
I am writing this on a high speed train from Madrid to Sevilla (AVS), watching the rolling flatness of central Spain speed by.
In one evening, we were able to see Picasso's Guernica, Dali's The Great Masturbator, Lumiere's Employees Leaving a Factory (1896), Velazquez' Self Portrait with the Meninas of Felix II, Durer's Portrait of the unknown man and Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights and the Haywain. That must amount to something.
I finally concede that there is a difference to looking at a great work of art in a book or even a high def image to standing in front of the real thing. Contemplating the Guernica- there is so much in the painting that just doesn't register in a reproduction, especially gray on gray. The delicate and harsh brush strokes of Dali need to be looked at with your nose at a distance of six inches from the naughty bits. So up yours- Baudrillard and Walter Benjamin!
The Museum of Reina Sophia has a series of photographs of Picasso's painting in various stages of completion, and the many morphs it went through, fascinating. As are the several paintings called Postscripts to Guernica. Picasso's Hombre with Goat is also a delight leading to a wistful wish- the Great Hombre himself should have made more sculptures. The twisting goat about to spring out of the man's grasp (who holds the beast almost in a wrestlers grip) is reminiscent of the twisting Laocoon.
Nothing quite beats taking the long(ish) walk from the Atocha past the Botanical Gardens and reaching the Prado to find that the entry was Gratuitas.
Our gracious landlady at the Hostal Luz is surely the reason the late Wren and the equally deceased Martin added 'onomatopoeia' in their chapter on Figures of Speech in their unlamented text on Grammar. She spoke no English and made up for it, quite successfully communicating in a mixture of machine gun Castillian and a wide variety of sound effects (Phut-pht-pht-pht!! bole to turn right)
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Mario’s Bar Lady
The moon presents itself above Bergstrasse,
disentangling from its wobbly twin on the Rhine.
White glory showers. Work worn customers
trudge in like obligatory raindrops beneath
a dim archway. A spark flies every time-
clicketyclack! Heels connect with shiny stone.
A bearing swift, but in all her speed, never
a drop spilt.
Six gullets quenched by six massifs, delivered
vice like. She moves, mugs close to breast,
mugs that can hardly compete with her enormity.
White apron flashes, paling the moon.
She makes her rounds: ‘Was willst du denn?’
A return order: everfoaming kegs with an aperitif-
The brash customer mellows. Dependent on
deepening dimples, empties jealousies and terrors
with beer. Her nods advise, a heaving chest berates
whatever scratches her sensibilities. Empty flagons
raise groaning feet, propel them homewards, yet
in passing, a Mark is pressed with a wan grin:
Danke schon, Maria. ‘Bitte, libeling.’ She returns
to beckoning bar, ready to gush forth every time:
This poem was inspired by Mario Miranda's very lovely drawing posted here. This dates from March 1984, when some of his drawings from (I think) Germany in Wintertime were featured in Midday. I had cut this one out and ensconced it safely until today when I scanned it and put it up here for all to see. This is really from way back when- Indira Gandhi was still Prime Minister, and the back of this clipping retains part of an advertisement for a cola, now defunct called 'Do it'.
Monday, January 12, 2009
...and in the end the memories of the Bal Bharati days still most vivid are Mario's renderings of hands- open and clasped, fingers extended and expressive, that speak to me across the years. Yes, they are all there in the book and are as evocative as I remember them.
Sunday, January 11, 2009
Memory is fickle, as any fule kno.
The internet, particularly broadbanded, has been a great resource for retrival - for the remembrance of things past. Music, images, snatches of culture, bits of film, the books, comics the quirks of childhood and middlehood all bob about together like so much flotsam, allowing one to wallow about to heart's content. It is a life kept alive and enriched.
After four and a half decades, this trackback is oddly reassuring. One can go arm first into the mulch of the world wide web, feel about for an hour or two and come up trumps. This assurance is satifying. Saving to favorites and occasionally downloading allows the retention of these snippets of one's past in much the same unorganised manner as the protagonist tattoos information about himself on different part of his body in Christopher Nolan's Memento.
This blog is another way to tattoo for the short term memory challenged. Keeping the mundane day to day alive for no other reason than to wallow in later. I have never had much truck with keeping a diary. But going headfirst into the blogworld is another kettle of fish, as any fule kno.