Monday, August 26, 2013

Kalakaar - Visual artists in contemporary India

Avijit Mukul Kishore's documentary film in two volumes, "To let the world in", provides an intimate and rare glimpse of some of the better known visual artists from contemporary India.

To Let The World In - documentary by Avijit Mukul Kishore

The world of visual artists is a hidden world and a largely ignored world, except by the people who deal with art. The only exceptions are when suddenly some artist gets in the limelight because of some scandal, like M. F. Hussein. In the recent years, economic magazines and investment bankers have also started talking about some Indian artists whose works command big money. However, both these kinds of spotlights on the artists, have little to do with them as artists and with their art.

This article is about the first volume of the documentary film "To let the world in". The film presents brief interviews with some important visual artists of contemporary India, and shows some of their works. The interviews deal with issues like early influences, finding one's own specific path of artistic expression, and interactions between artists. The visual arts touched in the film vary from paintings, sculptures, installations, photography and performances. A key area of discussion on which many of the women artists talk about is gender and art.

The film starts with artists born in the 1930s and proceeds towards younger persons.

UNDERSTANDING ART

Whatever be the area of a creative expression - writing  or painting or acting - people are always interested in understanding what made the artist reach that specific artistic expression. "What did you and why did you want to express that?", they ask.

Arpita, one of the artists in the film illustrates this when she says, "If I have made a fish, you should also see a fish. But people ask you 'what is it?' so you have to write down everything that this is a fish, this a flower ..."

I think that there is some confusion among artists and among general public in differentiating between the "artistic expression" from "understanding art". At one level, art is about experiencing it, feeling it emotionally and instinctively rather than trying to understand it logically. At another level, somehow people are also interested in whys and hows of the art.

I feel that not all persons who are good at "artistic expression" are equally good at "explaining and understanding their art", and that these are two specific and separate skills. Good artists may be skilled at expressing their feelings and emotions in their art-form, but they may not be good at explaining the subconscious processes and ideas that prompted that artistic expression.

To understand this difference, I like to use the example of persons with obsessive dreams. A person can be a wonderful dreamer and may have strong obsessions about some dreams, but that person can not always understand the significance of those dreams and may need the help of a psychologist or a psychiatrist to understand that. However, most of the time we are happy with our dreams as they are, we do not go to psychologists or psychiatrists to understand them.

Thus, in my opinion, when people say that art-experts and art-critics are "frustrated artists" (or even book critics and film critics), I think that they are confusing between two different skills.

Coming back to the film, seeing different artists tell about their creative processes and their lives, was a wonderful opportunity to look at their art through their eyes. It adds new dimensions to their work. For example, I felt moved by the explanation of Sudhir Patwardhan about the changing relationships between the city and the nature, and his conclusions about painting tiny bits of the city seen through windows.

To Let The World In - documentary by Avijit Mukul Kishore

Just seeing the artists as persons can also add to our understanding about their work, though I am not sure if there are ways to define that understanding as "correct" or "wrong" - it becomes your specific interpretation of their work. For example, after listening to Arpita, the images of nude women in the foreground and military men in the background in her paintings, were no longer generic expressions of violence against women during wars but for me they became a depiction of the situation in the north-east of India.

FINDING ONE'S OWN SPECIFIC PATH

Artists explaining how they slowly discovered their own specific way of being an artist was an area that fascinated me in the film. Thus, Arpita's process of making, cancelling and re-making, Nalini's need for an immersive experience of her art, and Nilima's decision to put her children in her paintings, were interesting in understanding their works and also the kind of forces that gave directions to their artistic expressions.

The artists come out of their art schools with knowledge about techniques, norms and the examples of famous masters. Then, they need to find their own distinctive artistic voices that can move away from the recommended techniques and norms, and become something new. In this process, the artists in the film illustrate the importance of inter-action, dialogue and conflict with their peers. They talk about coming together to hold exhibitions or living together in the same area where they can interact regularly.

The name of late Bhupen Khakhar came up frequently in these discussions in the film, as one of the important artistic influences on different artists in contemporary India.The film pays a special homage to him by showing some of his works - thus, he is the only non-living artist featured in the film.

 AGAINST THE CONVENTIONS

Artists are expected to follow their own social rules and flout the conventions. Different artists in the film express it by depicting subjects that are usually ignored in mainstream medias - violence, exploitation, nude bodies, vaginas and even homo-erotic imagery.

I know that "flouting conventions" is a kind of stereotype, yet it was comforting to see that in spite of the rise of the conservatives of different religions in public spaces in India, Indian contemporary artists are willing to raise questions about those issues that are usually hidden behind the walls of morality and hypocrisy.

THE DICHOTOMIES

There are different dichotomies of meanings given to words and concepts such as - visual versus spoken cultures and popular versus elitist art, that were seen as static but have revealed to be more dynamic. The film touches on some of them and raises questions about them.

What is the role of visual arts today? With social media, TV and films, and digital art, are visual arts going to change and disappear? If photography is a visual art form, how is it affected when millions of persons start taking billions of photographs with their cell phones and putting their personal exhibitions up on Facebook, Twitter and Flickr? Is it democratisation of art or the loss of this art-form because it is now a common skill and not a special skill?

In the film Pushpamala talks about the changing meanings of elitist art meaning some higher quality of art form that is accessible to a few, while popular art is that is practiced by simple persons in their communities and homes and should be accessible more easily to the people. She underlines the contradiction by pointing out that today the "elitist art" of Rabindranath Tagore is far better known and accessible to public compared to the more "popular" art of Kalighat paintings.

Before human beings learned to speak, read and write, we were visual beings and we expressed ourselves mainly through visual mediums. For long part of our history, reading and writing were elitist skills reserved for a few and thus, we continued to be mainly oral and visual societies. Then over the past centuries, gradually reading and writing became more accessible to people and slowly we had started to become words-based societies. Finally, now slowly the pendulum has started to move in a different direction, where people can click pictures with their mobile phones and share them or share short-hand messages that use visual icons. So in future will we go back to being visual societies? What would that mean for the visual arts?

I am still wondering about such questions stimulated by watching the film.

ART AND MARKETING

How do we compare and who compares artistic merits, deciding who is a better artist? The film is about certain artists who are considered important in contemporary India. How was their importance decided?

I can imagine that defining someone as "good" or "great" artist is a result of interplay between the skills of the art-making along with a range of other factors including luck, mentorship, influence and the ability to market oneself. Were it not so, we would not have so frequently persons who become famous many years or decades after their death, while during their life-times no one recognizes their artistic worth.

I was wondering about it while watching Pushpmala in the film as she prepared herself for a performance. How is the performance of a visual "artist" different from that of a person like Lady Gaga or Poonam Pandey, who are able marketers of their skills? Is the difference only in their aesthetics, attitudes and motivations?

And now with the increase in the aggressive marketing of some persons on the social media and their ability to create news, will the criteria for defining good artists change in the future? I can imagine that already some artists with better social marketing skills get more attention from media and their art sells for more - will they be the important artists of our future?

ABOUT THE FILM

I loved watching the first volume of "To let the world in" for stimulating all these different ideas in my mind. I am planning to watch it again soon. At one and a half hours, it is almost as long as a feature film, yet it rushed past so quickly. There were so many moments in the film, especially while it showed the artists' works, that I wished that I could freeze it and look more carefully at those art works.

In the film, often the screen goes dark, as if the camera-eye is blinking.I felt that as a metaphor of how we can have the world in front of us and yet not see it. The human mind is a master illusionist. Each of our two eyes sees a different aspect of the world, but our mind learns to bring those two views together and we forget that our two eyes can see two different worlds. Our eyes also keep on blinking, adding intervals of darkness in front of our eyes, but our mind makes sure that we do not notice that darkness. The film reminds you about those intervals of darkness.

Film is visually very rich, full of colourful images of different art styles. The interviews with the artists are very unhurried and gentle, leaving them to choose the kind of things they wish to talk about, making it richer also at the level of emotions.

CONCLUSIONS

As a child, I was very much aware of contemporary Indian artists of 1960s including J. Swaminathan, Hebbar, B. Prabha, Jatin Das, Ram Kumar, M. F. Hussein ... I had even met some of them. However, over the past 3-4 decades, I had lost contact with the world of Indian artists. Thus, the artists featured in the film are my reintroduction to that world. Except for Anita Dube, who had been part of an exhibition in Bologna in 2012, I was not even aware of their names.

Hearing different persons in the film talk about Bhupen Khakhar and thinking that I had no idea who he was, made me feel bad, and was a reminder of what I had lost while I had been away from India. Searching for and admiring his works on internet, made me feel better.

I am looking forward to watching the second volume of the film, as well as go back to the first volume, for a more in depth viewing.

***

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Delhi or Mumbai, the rape capital?

Since December 2012, after the infamous and cruel rape of Nirbhaya in the moving bus in Delhi, reports of other rapes in the Indian capital and other metros continue to appear in the news, including the recent news about the rape of a photo-journalist in Mumbai. Recently, I was reading a paper from a social psychology research about the messages used for changing public behaviour, that raised some questions and doubts in my mind about the common communications in the Indian media about rape. This article explains the research and those doubts.

Social psychology

Social psychology is an area of study that looks at how persons relate to and influence each other. At present, I am involved in an online course on social psychology from Coursera. These online courses are run by prestigious American and a few British universities. They are free and open to everyone. If you have never looked at the Coursera website, and you are interested in continuing your learning through online courses, my recommendation is that you should take a look at it!

Cialdini's research

The research that struck me and prompted this article was done by Prof. R. B. Cialdini from Arizona university and was published in 2003 ("Crafting normative messages to protect the environment" in journal of American Psychological society). This article is one of the learning materials in the course on social psychology.

In this research Cialdini looked at undesirable behaviours and the effectiveness of different public messages that were used in USA to limit those behaviours. Cialdini's paper is not about rapes - it is about damage to the environment. He suggests that people's behaviour can be influenced by 2 kinds of norms in our communications -

(1) Descriptive norms: these norms are about behaviours that are popular and are carried out by a large number of persons. If a behaviour is seen as common, other people feel like copying it. Thus, we should use these norms in our messages when we wish people to do something.

(2) Injunctive norms: these norms tell us which behaviour is forbidden or wrong in our society and should not be done. These norms should be used in messages when we wish people to stop doing something.

Cialdini's research showed that often messages given to public for stopping some bad behaviour used both kinds of norms in an inappropriate way so that they become contradictory, and thus may not be effective. Cialdini's research showed that such contradictory messages can be counter-productive - that is, they promote the behaviour, they wish to stop.

Let me explain myself a little better.

When we talk about an issue, usually we feel that it is important to underline the gravity and the severity of the problem, because we think that if people understand how bad it is they will try to stop it. However, it may not work in that way.

Thus, when we prepare messages, we give information that this problem is very widespread. This may give the unconscious message to public that the undesirable behaviour is very common, and that it is carried out by a large number of persons in the society. Some people listening to or watching that message start thinking that "it is something common and popular, so we can also do it". Due to this reason, such messages may have the opposite effect.

Cialdini gives different examples of his studies to support these ideas. For example, in a protected natural park containing important fossils, visiters were taking away small pieces of fossils and it was a big problem. The authorities used a message informing the visiters that every year 40 tonnes of fossils are stolen from the park and asking the visiters not to steal the fossils. However, this message-campaign did not have any effect, rather the stealing increased after this campaign. Thus, Cialdini explained that this message told people that taking away fossils was common and popular, and people felt that if they also take away a small piece it will not make much difference.

Delhi as the rape capital of India

Let me start with some of my own ideas about the issue of rapes in India. Delhi was not a safe city even 40 years ago. From those years, I remember, my sister's worries about the behaviour of guys in Delhi buses going to the university.

I am sorry to confess that at that time even I used to believe that it was because of "provocative clothes" that girls wear, and if they can look like "behen ji" they will be spared. Only much later did I realize that saying that the fault is because of girls' dress or behaviour shifts the responsibility from the guys who behave wrongly onto the girls, and in a way, approves that guys can behave the way they wish and then put the blame on the girl.

I believe that Indian society's emphasis on girls' izzat and how it is equated with "family honour" worsens this situation.

Today the things seem to have worsened. Social phenomenon are almost always complex and have different causes. I think that partly, the number of rapes may have "increased" because now more girls and more families have the courage to report it. In this sense, increase in reporting of rape should be seen as a positive sign.

Asking that police and laws should stop or reduce the rapes can be a superficial solution, because it allows us to ignore the harsh social realities of India where class and caste inequalities are closely interlinked with the way women are treated. It makes us feel that we can continue to be a chauvenistic and unequal society, and that only police or stronger punishments can resolve this problem.

Just listening to the declarations of police officers, politicians, religious leaders and sometimes, even magistrates and judges (including many women), shows how entrenched such ways of thinking are in our society's psyche.

I think that it is the same societal attitudes that are also responsible for dowry killings, female infanticide and violence against women, that are responsible for rapes and the inceased feelings of insecurity perceived by girls and women in India. Unfortunately these are so common among outside the big cities and among more marginalized groups that these are taken as the norm and do not even make it to any kind of news.

However, after reading Cialdini's paper, I was wondering, if in our desire to bring a change in our society, we are not emphasising too much on how frequent and common rapes have become and if this is fueling the perception at least in some men that it is common and even they can do it?

Can talking about "Delhi as the rape capital of India" or "Mumbai as the new rape capital of India" is the wrong message to give to country's men, because it tells them that rape is common or even "normal"?

What do you think?

***

Friday, August 23, 2013

Religions and Spirituality: a journey in India


I am more of a spiritual person rather than a religious person. I am also fascinated by the different dimensions of faith, religiosity and spirituality among people. India gives incomparable opportunities to visit, experience and learn from different religions. This photo-essay is about my journeys and experiences of religions and spirtuality in India.

The idea of this photo-essay came when I was thinking about the killing of Narendra Dabholkar in Pune (India) for his fight against religious superstitions. I feel that conservatives of different religions have taken centre-stage in all discussions about religions, and anything that is even vaguely critical about a religion is immediately attacked by such groups. In such a situation, I feel that it is important for us to not to be intimidated and to continue to express ourselves.

THE SPIRITUAL JOURNEY

Let me start my picture journey with an image from Shravan Belagola in Karnataka, a place where I felt really at peace. The massive rock hill gave me a feeling of being connected to earth and I loved the image of plants growing around Mahabali’s limbs.

Religions and spirituality in India - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

I don’t like crowded and noisy religious places, especially when aggressive touts dressed as religious persons try to use your religious feelings to get the maximum money out of you. Thus usually I avoid going to famous temples, durgahs and similar places.

Among all the Hindu gods and goddesses, my favourite is Saraswati, because of her image of a peaceful deity who represents the ideas of learning and knowledge. Every time I think about Saraswati, I am surprized that in spite of having a goddess like her, some conservative Hindus have been against the idea of education for girls and women.

Religions and spirituality in India - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

I also like to try to understand the meaning of symbols used in religious places and rites. Often I feel that these symbols have complex meanings, and I wonder how they were incorporated in the religion. Thus, looking at statues of gods and goddesses, usually I find myself looking at details and wondering about their meanings, like the next image of a hand from Talakkad sand temples in Karnataka.

Religions and spirituality in India - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

MIXTURES OF RELIGIONS IN INDIA

Compared to persons from other countries, I feel that India gives us so many more opportunities to learn about other religions. I love the next picture I had taken in Kerala that has the Christian Mary peacefully co-existing with Hindu Ganesh.

Religions and spirituality in India - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

I also love meeting and talking to persons who have chosen a spiritual way of life. The next image is of Sr Alice, a catholic nun in Mysore. The way she is talking to the kittens gives you an idea of her gentle personality. When I stayed in her convent, one of my cherished memories is listening to the group of sisters gently singing their hymns in the small chapel early in the morning. The rise and fall of their voices was like the tide of an ocean washing over me, a truly wonderful spiritual experience.

Religions and spirituality in India - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

The next two images have two persons – a Hindu sadhu ascetic in Guwahati and a Muslim caretaker of a Sufi shrine in Hyderabad – with whom I had beautiful conversations about the meaning of god and spirituality.

Religions and spirituality in India - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Religions and spirituality in India - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

While I like the experiences of spirituality, its commercialization repels me. Thus, I find it difficult to listen to famous god-men who run spiritual-religious empires and who promise eternal bliss and union with god only if you follow their formulas, especially after paying for it.

The next two images are from two such places, not far from Bangalore. These places are beautiful and peaceful, and by themselves even the persons associated with them seem to be good persons. However,  they are also the commercial face of spirituality, and in some ways, against the ideals of spirituality – the Pyramid valley and the “Art of Living” centre.

Religions and spirituality in India - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Religions and spirituality in India - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

FAITH AS A HEALER

As a doctor, I get to see people who are fighting with serious illnesses. In serious illness and death, we often turn to god to ask for healing and deliverance from pain and suffering, for ourselves and for those whom we love. I am profoundly touched by simple faith of persons, because I feel that this faith allows us to reach in to the life-force that resides inside us and in nature all around us.

The next three images are from such places, where people search for support to deal with pain, suffering and illness – a part of the dargah of Nizammuddin Auliya in Delhi; a hospital run by sisters of mother Teresa in Meghalaya; and a Shiva shrine built by leprosy affected persons in Assam.

Religions and spirituality in India - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Religions and spirituality in India - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Religions and spirituality in India - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Yet, the search for healing from an illness or a disability is also linked to superstitions. Thus, like some doctors and health professionals, some religious places and religious persons can also become agencies for making money from the misfortunes of the poor.

India also has the singular capacity of bringing together the contradictions of personal cleanliness with external dirt and complete lack of hygiene in religious and spiritual places. Thus, temples, durgahs, rivers and pilgrimage places can be surrounded by heaps of garbage. The next image has parents of a disabled child, hoping for a miracle cure for their son by bathing him in a sulphur spring full of floating garbage.

Religions and spirituality in India - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

SPIRITUALITY, ART, MUSIC AND DANCE

I like visiting some of our ancient temples, like the Lingaraj temple from Puri in Odisha, not so much for the spiritual experience (so many priests running after, trying to coax money, almost fighting with each other, was not such a good experience here), as for their architectural beauty. Aesthetics and beauty can also a part of the spiritual experience.

Religions and spirituality in India - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

A relatively new phenomenon is building of giant statues of gods. In south of India, probably there had been a tradition of making giant statues and posters, not only of the gods, but also of politicians and film actors. However, during the past couple of decades, this has spread to north of India as well. I have seen such giant statues in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain temples. The next two images show such giant statues – a Ganesh statue from Bangalore and a Hanuman statue from Delhi.

Religions and spirituality in India - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Religions and spirituality in India - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Spiritual experiences can sometimes be strongly linked to music, art and culture, as shown in the next four images.

For example, I love the singing of Gurubani in the Sikh gurudwaras. Usually the raagi (singers) in gurudwaras are trained classical singers and their prayers have simple and yet profound words, that I find very moving. This image of singing raagis is Sisganj gurudwara from Delhi.

Religions and spirituality in India - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

A few years ago, listening to an accomplished Sufi singer like Abida Parveen was also a deeply moving spiritual experience for me.

Religions and spirituality in India - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

On the other hand, personally I find it difficult to appreciate the spirituality in the dances. For example, Kathakkali dance and the accompanying songs are part of temple ceremonies, but probably I see them as cultural and artistic experiences and not spiritual experiences due to the language barrier.

Religions and spirituality in India - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

The next image is of folk-dancers carrying the temples with god statues on their heads in Bangalore. Again, I appreciated this more as a cultural experience rather than as a spiritual experience.

Religions and spirituality in India - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

UNITY OF NATURE AND FAITH

To conclude this personal picture-journey about religions and spirituality in India, let me tell about two more aspects.

The first aspect is the way nature, plants, trees and animals are brought together in the religions. People praying to trees look at them as symbols of gods, they pray to different animals because they are seen as carriers of gods, or they offer food to animals like monkeys, cows and termites, are some expressions of this close links between the religions and the nature. I feel that such ideas are important for humanity because they help in respecting nature and promoting harmony between human beings and the nature.

Religions and spirituality in India - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Religions and spirituality in India - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Yet, in spite of such ideas in the religions, it is also common to find religious people being so cruel to other people and to animals. This contradiction never fails to surprise me. I also feel that over the past couple of decades, the city lives in India are increasingly dominated by consumerism, so that the ideas of respecting nature and living in harmony with it are seen as backwards and old-fashioned by many persons, who believe in ruthless exploitation of other human beings and of nature.

The second aspect is that of old and broken statues. I don’t know why, but spiritually I find them very moving. Sometimes, looking at an old broken statue, even on the roadside or in a garbage dump, can be a profound spiritual experience for me.

For me, the idea of immersion of statues in ocean or rivers or lakes so that the form of god can go back to the nature, is also a sign of unity between the different forms of life and teaches us to respect the nature.

Religions and spirituality in India - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Religions and spirituality in India - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

MY RELIGIOUS IDEAS

I am always looking for rational answers and thus often have difficulties with faith. I am not interested in stories of miracles, rather I tend to look at how such beliefs influence people. I also tend to focus on the spirituality of the religions rather than think about their norms and recommendations.

The idea of a universal consciousness that permeates all living and non-living beings like an ocean from which, all beings come out and go back to, appeals to me.

Some shlokas of Kenopanishad (केनोपानिषद) express my religious feelings very well when they talk of "Brahman" (the universal consciousness) as something that is infinite and that can not be seen, heard, understood or explained. For example, shloka 4 of Kenopanishad says:

यद्वाचानभ्युदितं येन वागभ्युद्यते |
तदेव ब्रह्म त्वं विद्धि नेदं यदिदमुपासते ||
(What speech does not enlighten, but what enlightens speech, know that alone as Brahman, and not this which people worship here.)

I also feel comfortable in religious places of different religions and I feel that underlying spiritual ideas of all religions are the same every where. At a social level, I feel that all religions have some negative aspects. For example in my opinion, in Hinduism the most important negative aspects are those that are related to caste-system and the subservient roles it proposes for women.

I like the explanations of Baha'i religion where they give respect to prophets and gods of different religions and consider them as part of evolving spiritualities. However even among Bahai, I am not comfortable with the different roles for men and women prescribed by that religion.

Thus, I feel that while all the different religions should be respected, the space for criticising the religions is equally important. Narendra Dabholkar's fight was against the superstitions that are carried out in the name of religions.

For me the idea that religious traditions and sacred books have to be respected in absolute terms and you can not question them, is unacceptable. I think that no aspects of life can remain rooted in the past, because our societies are changing all the time, so we need to reflect some of those changes in our religious traditions. I also feel that all the religions should be judged on the yard stick of human rights – not for what they did in the past, but how they deal with human beings today.

CONCLUSIONS

This photo-essay is about my journeys and experiences of religions and spirituality in India, as my personal journey. It is a journey that respects religions and looks at spiritual experiences behind them. At the same time, it is a journey that looks at those aspects of religions that limit and diminish humanity and that need to be changed.

***

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

My dog’s Contribution to My Photography

In 2004, when I bought my first digital camera, I discovered that I loved clicking pictures. I had had other non-digital cameras before that and while I had always liked clicking pictures, it was just a hobby. After I started using the digital cameras, I discovered the passion for photography. This article is about the way our dog Brando influenced my relationship with photography.

Brando in the park, Bologna, Italy - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Brando, our dog for 18 years, died last month. I still miss him. Looking at the corner where he used to sit and sleep, brings a lump to my throat. His pictures make me feel like crying. I have talked to other persons who had dogs and who tell me that after so many years, how much they still miss their pets.

If you live in an apartment, like we do, and if you have a dog, you need to take him/her out every day, at least two times, but sometimes even more. Taking out Brando for a walk in the mornings and evenings, was my responsibility. That is where he taught me things that were so important for photography.

If you like taking long walks, when you start going out with your dog, you learn that your dog has his/her own ideas about the walk and often they do not coincide with your ideas of taking walks.

While walking, we humans usually want to walk and at the same time, talk to friends or talk on telephone or listen to music on walkman or Ipod or even day dream. Dogs are not interested in only walking, they want to stop, follow the smells, bark or say hello to other dogs, run after cats, pigeons and rabbits, and mark their territories by leaving small amounts of their pee on the plants and trees. Some times, if they like the smells, especially when the bitches are in heat, the male dogs become difficult to control and they can stay in the same place for a long time with their nose buried in some place where they can smell some chemicals.

BRANDO'S LESSON 1: STOP AND SEE

When Brando stopped somewhere for any reason, if I tried to pull him, it usually provoked an indignant reaction. He usually gave me an annoyed look and pointed his feet at that place. Though he was a small dog, in such moments, it was impossible for me to pull him and make him move even an inch. It made me think about that episode from Ramayan where Angad, the monkey cousin of Hanuman, goes to the demon king’s court and challenges him to try to move his foot.

So whenever Brando did his Angad ji act, I learned that it was better to relax and look around rather than trying to pull him and getting agitated for nothing.

Have you ever just stood in a place in a park or on the roadside, relaxed, doing nothing and just looking around? Right from the time when electricity was invented and people started remaining awake during the night, we humans have continued to invent new things to make ourselves run faster through our lives.

Doing nothing and relaxing is almost a deadly sin or at least, an anxiety laden pleasure, to be hidden behind words like “Actually I was thinking about a complex problem!” And while you stand near your dog, waiting for him/her to finish doing whatever dogs do, joggers and walkers, go past you looking at you with pity.

It was while I was standing around and doing nothing in the park, that I realized that there was the miracle of life all around us. I knew of course that there were different kinds of trees, different colours of flowers and different kinds of bugs in nature, but it had been a long time since I had really looked at them.

Wood horses in the park, Bologna, Italy - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

So while I waited, I observed the patterns in the barks of the trees, the way their branches divided, the way their leaves moved in the wind. I looked at the flowers, bees, grass and birds. Profound thoughts came to me like the realization that our language is a rough approximation of the reality. For example, I could see so many different varieties of pink coloured flowers, and each had a different shade of pink. In this case “pink” was an approximation to speak of all those different shades of colours that we call pink and that our language can not specify.

All this had happened before I had a digital camera. So I had started buying books about plants, trees and birds. I looked at trees and plants in the park and learned to identify them. I also started to stop and really look at things, at times wonder-struck at the infinite variety of life all around us. Thus, there came a time, when Brando wanted to walk, while I wanted to stand and look at things, so now he pulled me while I tried unsuccessfully, to be Angad ji.

This lesson of not taking the world for granted and to actually look at everything around us, was the most important lesson for my photography. Afterwards, when I got my digital camera, I discovered my passion while passing hours peering at wild flowers, the changing shades of colours of the grass, and the patterns made by the wind in the fields.

BRANDO'S LESSON 2: DIFFICULT SEASONS ARE ALSO BEAUTIFUL 

Normally we go out for a walk or a tourist visit when the weather is good. Rain, hot winds, freezing cold and snow storms are not meant for going out but for staying at home, possibly with air-conditioning. However, it does not matter which season is it and how terrible it is to be outside, your dog needs to be taken out at his usual time everyday.

Wood horses in the park, Bologna, Italy - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

There were mornings after snowfalls, when the paths in the park were covered with a sheet of frozen ice, and walking on it was like a drunk trying to cross a narrow bridge, constantly afraid of tipping down in the river below. Brando went on unconcerned, some times pulling me suddenly when he saw something interesting and making me crash down. The good thing about it was that mostly I was alone or at the most there were other dog-owners like me, who did not laugh at me, while they tried to hold me to their dogs.

There were other days with terrible heat and a sensation of oppression, when it was difficult to breathe. Some days had gales and monsoon like rain. Others had cold wind that knifed across my fur jacket and stabbed straight at my heart. I went out with Brando on all those days because there was no alternative.

And I discovered that the world changed with seasons. I could see the tiny changes everyday as the first leaves and first buds came out and slowly grew, till one day the leafless trees standing like dark skeletons, were suddenly covered with green leaves and bending down with flowers or the flowers falling down covered the ground like a carpet.

Wood horses in the park, Bologna, Italy - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Looking at the world in the early morning light of a foggy winter day or in the evening of a windless hot summer day, created an intimacy with nature that is impossible if you only go out for leisurely walks in good weather. Looking around those familiar and yet strange worlds was another important lesson for my photography. You do not need to go out to far away places to take pictures, you can discover the strange worlds all around you.

Wood horses in the park, Bologna, Italy - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

CONCLUSIONS

There are so many other things that Brando had influenced, like the possibility of saying hello to unknown persons. Saying hello to other dog owners, persons with small children who wanted to touch Brando and know his name, and even strangers, was so much easier. Now, without him, I will be back to my usual reserved self, finding it more difficult to talk to people I do not know. But the lessons he gave me about the nature and the way I look at the world, they will continue to be with me, as long as I will take pictures with my digital camera!

The pictures I have used with this post are from the park where I used to go for walks with Brando and show the wood horses in the children's playground during different seasons.

***

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Angels, snake-women and queens - Female forms in Viennese sculptures

Europe provides a lot of opportunities for admiring sculptures and art in public spaces. They can be memorial statues of famous persons such as kings, leaders, artists and scientists. They can be commemorative statues to remember specific events from countries' or cities' histories. They can be expressions of symbolic ideas or an expression of peoples' wealth and linked to specific buildings. They can also be artworks and cultural expressions used for beautification.

In this post I want to share 16 of my favourite images of sculptures of female forms from Vienna in Austria.

Starting from medieval period, Vienna gradually became a rich city - it was the capital of Austrian-Hungarian empire and a trade hub for commerce between western and eastern Europe. As it lacked the ruins, history and culture of  ancient Greek and Roman civilisations, over the past couple of centuries, the city asked artists to create works that represent those ancient civilisations. Late Gothic and Baroque styles are thus most prominently visible in Vienna. Most of the images presented in this post show sculptures in these two styles.

The first four images present sculptures of women from different groups of statues remembering or celebrating famous  men - persons like Ferdinand Raimund, Johann Andreas von Liebenberg and Johannes Brahms. The first one has an angel with butterfly wings and a star on her forehead. I like the playful expression on her face.

Sculptures of women, Vienna, Austria - images by Sunil Deepak, 2010-2013

The next one is also an angel, but with more classic angelic wings and a serious face. She holds in her hand a victory wreath.

Sculptures of women, Vienna, Austria - images by Sunil Deepak, 2010-2013

I especially like the next image from the famous music composer Johannes Brahms' memorial. The woman in this sculpture has one hand on a broken lyre. However, for me the beauty of this sculpture is in the cracks that seem to symbolise death and decay.

Sculptures of women, Vienna, Austria - images by Sunil Deepak, 2010-2013

Finally this last statue in bronze of a sitting woman, has nice green-effects due to oxidation, and seems to be holding a branch of olive, probably to symbolise peace.

Sculptures of women, Vienna, Austria - images by Sunil Deepak, 2010-2013

The next image shows the only statue commemorating a powerful woman - Maria Theresia from 18th century (her titles were: Archduchess of Austria, King of Hungary and Queen of Bohemia) and thus, it is also the only statue of a woman in this group of images, who is not young and beautiful.

The world is controlled by men and it is men who take decisions about the statues in public spaces. Thus statues commemorating persons are usually of men, where women are supporting figures and are selected for the male gaze. In fact, if you look at the women in the sculptures shown in all the other images of this post, you will see that they are all young and beautiful looking.

Sculptures of women, Vienna, Austria - images by Sunil Deepak, 2010-2013

The next five images have women used as a symbol to express a concept such as victory or justice. The first two are from the parliament building. The first one is a little kitsch with lot of gold-plating including an angel holding a victory wreath. Though Austrians call their country "fatherland", I feel that this statue probably denotes Austria (or may be, it is democracy? or law and order?)

Sculptures of women, Vienna, Austria - images by Sunil Deepak, 2010-2013

The next image has a half-woman and half feline mythological figure with wings, that brings to mind the sphinx from Egypt.

Sculptures of women, Vienna, Austria - images by Sunil Deepak, 2010-2013

The next two images of sculptures are from the opera house, where Mozart used to work and perform. The sculptures are in renaissance style and probably depict virtues such as shyness, purity and destiny.

Sculptures of women, Vienna, Austria - images by Sunil Deepak, 2010-2013

Sculptures of women, Vienna, Austria - images by Sunil Deepak, 2010-2013

The next image is from Schonberg residence of the king and is in classical Greek style with a Greek mythological figure (may be a forest godess or a hunting godess, with a dead deer at her feet).

Sculptures of women, Vienna, Austria - images by Sunil Deepak, 2010-2013

The next two images are also symbolic and both have women with a snake. When I saw them, my first thought was that these were figures inspired by the Adam and Eve story of the Bible, where the snake represents the temptation, while the discovery of sexuality is represented by the apple. These representations often show Adam as the personification of innocence, while Eve is shown as the temptress holding the snake or the apple in her hand and thus causing Adam's fall from the heaven. This identification of woman as the negative influence on men and thus, whose body must be covered and hidden, and who should be controlled by the men, is common in conservative groups of different religions.

Sculptures of women, Vienna, Austria - images by Sunil Deepak, 2010-2013

This next sculpture also reminded me of stories of nag-panchami in India, when you are supposed to offer milk to snakes.

Sculptures of women, Vienna, Austria - images by Sunil Deepak, 2010-2013

Women and snakes were together part of many other mythologies - like Echidna, the half-snake and half human figure from the Greek mythology and Ichchadhari nagin (woman who turns into a snake at night) in the Indian mythology. These statues also reminded me of the Cleopatra story, who had committed suicide by getting herself bitten by a poisonous snake.

Stories of snake-woman can be seen as old superstitions. In psychological terms they can also be seen as expression of suppressed emotions linked to jealousy or sexuality. (If you can read Hindi, I suggest you to read Archana Verma's analysis of Indian writer Premchand's story "Nagpuja" on the theme of snake-woman.)

The next two images are about the female figures in art. The first figure is the often represented ideal of "woman as a mother".

Sculptures of women, Vienna, Austria - images by Sunil Deepak, 2010-2013

The second figure is that of the baby girl Maggie Simpson with her milk bottle from the well known animated films of the Simpson family.

Sculptures of women, Vienna, Austria - images by Sunil Deepak, 2010-2013

Finally, the last two images of this collection are about women used as columns to support doors or windows. Using female figures as columns is an ancient practice and such figures are called Caryatids. Perhaps the most famous example of caryatids is from a temple in ancient acropolis in Athens (Greece).

Sculptures of women, Vienna, Austria - images by Sunil Deepak, 2010-2013

Sculptures of women, Vienna, Austria - images by Sunil Deepak, 2010-2013

I love these two images very much. Though they are also made in the Greek style, they represent working class women in their daily lives. At the same time, they show women who are friends, and who share an easy intimacy. Normally caryatids show young women striking poses to show off their bodies, like most other public sculptures of women. These two images instead have everyday women who seem to be together in their own worlds and who are not on display for others.

So which of these images do you like most?

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