An eclectic collection of poems, essays, photographs and interviews on subjects that strike a chord…
Could a humble jalebi, the very one you eat by the roadside, be an architectural paradigm? Yes, says Masud Taj, architect-poet-calligrapher, in his persuasive and witty essay ‘The Contours of the Sacred'. Religious structures of all faiths involve circles or spirals, he points out. Many are domed, the stupais rounded, and pilgrims circumambulate them, while leaving the centre inviolate, or dark and mysterious like the sanctorum of a temple. The Kaaba is not itself curvilinear but cuboid, representing the axis mundi connecting heaven and earth, but here again pilgrims circle it though none can enter. Paradoxically, the divine mystery is revealed through concealment, the implicit is made explicit, the invisible made visible.
The other essays in Volume 11, No.1 of ‘Gallerie' are less beguiling and less esoteric too. Ranjit Hoskote argues that in Indic culture the sacred and the profane are not as mutually exclusive as in the European tradition, and the sacred is not confined within the bounds of formal religion. Rather, it is a free-flowing energy that can be tapped in a variety of imaginative expressions including folk art, community dances and images of Hindu deities in village homes.
The sacred in art
Hoskote proceeds to explore elements of the sacred in the work of painters with diverse approaches to their art. Jehangir Sabavala, for instance, depicts figures at prayer on the shore of a lake at twilight as the sky, which fills more than half the canvas, stretches out to infinity. The forms are tenuous and the colours — brown, gray-green, pale orange and yellow — flow into each other. Atul Dodiya, on the other hand, subverts the myth of the descent of the Ganga in a playful depiction in which the river is substituted by Duchamp's ‘Nude Descending a Staircase', and Duchamp and Dodiya himself are in the frame, looking on. Tyeb Mehta's ‘Celebration' is ironically titled, for, it shows women with agonised faces performing a Bacchanalian dance, their feet stamping in rhythm, their suffering transmuted into stylised movement. A goat, the classical emblem of victimhood, dances with them.
In an outstanding interview, the musicologist Ashok Ranade shows that sacred music in India provides the abstract interface between the worshipper and God, and is participative, not a rarefied preserve of the elite. Even the poor and illiterate, can chant or clap or use cymbals, and no one needs to learn whistling, or body-thumping, or conch-blowing.
The stormy relationship between Tukaram and his deity is the subject of a lively essay by Dilip Chitre, which comes with a striking painting by the author of the saint meditating. Tuka had a visitation from Vithoba who gave him his vocation — to write poetry — and when inspiration failed him, he upbraided the god in no uncertain terms: ‘Lord, you have no opening line/ It's so hard to get you started/….Lord/ You're a lizard/ A toad/ And a tiger too…' Strong stuff this, with which any writer will empathise!
The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins represents the profane viewpoint, showing how harmful blind belief can be, particularly after 9/11, for, it encourages us to nurse hatred across generations and to see people as stereotypes, not as individuals. Christopher Hitchens supports him in his usual acerbic manner, commenting on the “essential stupidity of religion”, which exhorts us to have faith and believe things without evidence.
This is an exceptionally wide-ranging magazine. It includes an interview with Stewart Lee who created a musical based on the irreverent Jerry Springer Show, a chapter on installation art, a photo essay by the Iranian Abbas who calls his art ‘writing with light', and a critique of that path-breaking movie “Khuda Kay Liye” which questions the role of Islamic tenets in today's world. The editing is impeccable and the reproduction of paintings and photographs is of the highest quality. For the moderate price this ‘Journey' is a steal.
‘Understanding Afghanistan' is not as inspiring, perhaps because the subject is somewhat limiting and a few typos have eluded the Editor's vigilance. The same mix of poems, photographs, interviews, and essays is devoted to outlining the laudable efforts, mostly by expatriates who have now returned to their homeland, to revive a lost culture.
Afghan music is popular once again, particularly Sufi and folk music, and there is a rising demand for instruction in traditional instruments such as the rubab. Theatre is also seeing a renaissance, with translations of plays by Brecht and Moliere being adapted to suit local tastes. Fashion shows meanwhile promote native fabrics by putting traditional material to new uses, for instance making women's blouses out of turban cloth.
The Turquoise Mountain foundation is in the vanguard of this movement. Named after a great city lost to Mongol invaders in the 13th century, it seeks to resurrect heritage buildings and arts and crafts. With active endorsement from Prince Charles, a unique project is under way to help carpenters, ceramicists and carpet weavers to rebuild Kabul using their indigenous skills.
The Traveller's Manual by Rafeeq Ellias is a light-hearted departure from these rather weighty pieces, with thumbnail sketches of ebullient characters such as his incredibly resourceful taxi driver. ‘His fiancée and he communicate almost entirely through missed calls on the cell phone. One missed call to say I miss you; five to say I love you; ten from her to say call me now, dad's not at home.' India, says Ellias, is much loved, Pakistan as much hated.
Evidently then, Afghanistan is waking up from the long Taliban sleep, but it remains a sadly beleaguered country. Here is Malalai Joya, M.P, suspended from Parliament for speaking out against criminals and warlords who are fellow members. “Today, I'm not sure of my life, I'm not sure of tomorrow, and when I go outside my house, I don't know if I will make it back'. She is indeed ‘the bravest woman in Afghanistan'.
Gallerie, A Journey of Ideas,Vol . 11, No. 1. The Sacred and Profane; Vol. 11, No. 2. Understanding Afghanistan; edited and published by Bina Sarkar Ellias, Rs. 350 each.