Friday, February 22, 2013

Signs of Spring

Spring arrived gently a few weeks ago.  I heard it in the air, felt it in my bones and smelt it in the pollen that flew everywhere!  But I paid no heed to it until I began to see the first lilies of my garden emerge.  It was only then that I realized that winter had finally left.

My garden was also changing - the lime tree was straggling back to life and the sweet lime bending under the weight of slowly ripening fruit.

As I began paying attention to the trees, I realized they were alive with birds and birdsong - loaded with incredibly coloured creatures trilling, chirping and flying from branch to branch.  The kites began swooping down more often - to collect twigs for nests.  It is an amazing sight to watch these powerful birds whooshing down to collect a tiny little stick and soaring back up into the sky.

A few days ago, I saw a gardenful of butterflies, all fluttering about at the same time.  (It's really not possible to capture the sight of a bevy of butterflies or a tree bursting with birds.)

As the days get warmer, there are signs of things stirring everywhere - from within the earth and beyond, in the wide blue sky.  Signs of spring, now leading to the usual Bangalore early summer.  In fact, the rapidly spreading Tabebuia yellow in the last few days indicates that summer may already be here!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Serendipity at Raintree

Spring was in the air and I almost missed it, so caught up was I, trying to keep up with the newspapers' daily disasters.  I received just one other card in the mail this month, an invitation to 'Nostalgia' - an exhibition of furniture and home accessories.  This arrived on the morning of the day the exhibition and sale was to begin.

'Nostalgia' began with two women who traveled to different parts of southern India, seeking out old furniture that was being discarded or sold.  These pieces were brought back to Bangalore, repaired or spruced up and sometimes, redesigned (with additional marble and Portuguese tiles), so as to retain their original style.  The wood is largely teak and some rosewood, the pieces are selected and designed with good taste and are sold at reasonable prices (lower than those in most regular shops).

The exhibition was held at the usual venue - Raintree.  There was very little publicity (though the regulars were all there) and the sale was only on for two days - Friday and Saturday.  My husband was away and I thought I would just look in briefly, not that I had any intention of buying anything...

Raintree is a beautiful old bungalow that stands at one end of a large ground.  The area around is dominated by a huge raintree that spreads its branches high and wide.  This land was probably part of a little hillock but now stands adjacent to an over-bridge and an overhead railway track.  It still manages to remain serene and pretty, a reminder of old Bangalore ways.

I entered and walked around, looking at long wooden benches with marble tops, little square tile-topped tables and an old style wooden bar that seemed to be attracting the most attention.  They were pleasant pieces but I really did not need to buy any of them.  I felt rather pleased at how easy it was to restrain my 'wood buying' urge that morning.  I wandered about inside, glancing briefly at a teak bed with a woven cane panel, a charming old wooden cradle, bits of ceramics in unusual colours.  Nice, but not for me.

I had seen almost everything - there were just another two small rooms to go.  Then, I walked into a corner - and the spring air and a smiley cupboard did their trick again.

Of course, it was not just any old cupboard, actually, not a cupboard at all, but a kind of cabinet-cupboard.  A carved wooden cupboard stood on the floor, graceful, with clawed feet, elegant floral carved motifs and a blue-grey porcelain door knob.  A streaked white marble counter concealed a slender drawer.  Above this, was placed a glass fronted cabinet with spiral wooden carvings on each side and flowers dripping off the front.  Beautiful grainy teak and another charming blue-grey porcelain knob at the top door.  I eyed it warily.  Measured the dimensions, thinking all the while that it was too long and possibly too broad for our room.  There was no way we could squeeze it in.  Nonetheless, I took a couple of pictures to show my husband when he returned...

There was just one room left and I quickly peered in.  It was filled with large Indonesian objects, with one small exception.  A creamy marble shelf supported by a single wooden leg that was curved almost like an elephant's trunk.  It was a piece of art really - marble and wood that seemed to move and flow, though it was quite solidly attached to the wall and floor.  A piece with unusual character.  It stood in a little room, filled with large sofas and chairs but held its own.  I sighed.  I didn't think there was any place for such frivolities in my house.

 I returned home, various pieces of work required immediate attention and all thoughts of the furniture were temporarily shelved.  Besides, I was trying to convince myself that I could spend the money on other practical necessities of life...

In this manner, almost the whole of Saturday went by.  We had arranged a large family dinner that evening and I was busy the entire afternoon with some photography.  Nothing had yet been cooked.  My husband had returned and immediately rushed off to work.  I had mentioned the cupboard in passing but we hadn't had the time to look at the pictures or check any of the dimensions.

One hour before the exhibition closed forever, I wound up my photography session and my husband called to say he had an hour to spare.  I sighed.  Dinner had not yet been cooked.  But, somehow, we decided to drive to Raintree.

"Let's go soon," my husband said, one eye on his papers.

I wavered.  "The cupboard is probably gone by now, and I haven't bothered to check the measurements.  Anyway, let me call the lady and find out."

I called.  "The cabinet is still there," the lady said.  "You can come today or tomorrow morning if you like.  The pieces will be moved only on Monday."

"Let's just finish it off," my husband said, who was trying to finish as much as he could in as little time as possible.  So we drove down; luckily it is not too far from our house.  Also, very luckily, the lady was still there, friendly and helpful as ever (she is the main organizer though she has a little team who works along with her).

Cupboards have a fatal charm on my husband.  One look and he unhesitatingly said, "Let's take it."  The cupboard gleamed.

"On second thought, let's wait," he said.  "We'll just see what else there is."

The cupboard grinned ever so slightly and we turned our backs on it.

We peered into the little rooms one by one.  My husband was struck by a beautiful old wooden temple.  I looked at it - exquisitely carved in teak, with small bells hanging from the doors and a large space inside for deities.  A wonderful old piece, probably from a Chettinad home, we guessed.  But this was a piece we really couldn't accommodate so we moved on, thinking about friends who might like to buy it.  On to the room with the large sofas - and the marble shelf which still reposed, casually and elegantly against the wall.  It caught our eye and we stared for a while.

"There's nowhere we can put that," I said firmly as my husband asked the price.

"No, I suppose not," my husband said in an absentminded sort of way.

"There are other pieces," the lady said, showing us something else.  "This is cheaper.... but nowhere near as nice," she trailed off with a little laugh.  The shelf looked unconcerned and carefree as we debated its merits.  "We'll take the cupboard," I said firmly - and that was that.

We drove back, our minds on dinner and pending work.  And so, we thought no more about the furniture that evening except to inform friends about the temple in case anyone wanted to buy it.

Sunday morning dawned with that special spring feeling.  Birds, bees and sprinkles of sun.  Raintree looked nicer than ever - and so did the furniture.  The elegantly draped marble shelf looked irresistible and no one had bought it yet.  So, as we came to collect our cupboard, we couldn't help but add it to our list and finally head home.

The carpenter arrived soon after, with our furniture.  The cupboard slid neatly into the only remaining space in one of our rooms - no problems with length, width or depth.  It fit in so easily that it seemed to have always belonged there.  (It also closely resembles one of our other cupboards though it is more dignified and stately and is clearly the older of the two.)  It is now filled with crockery and elegant tea things, and looks immensely satisfied at being put to good use again.

The two carved cupboards communicate periodically, exchanging snippets in a friendly way.  The one with the marble counter is from Bombay and other one has lived for many years in Calcutta, but they are probably both remnants of old Parsi homes.  They do speak quite a bit, and I wish more than ever that I could understand what they have to say and catch up on old Parsi gossip.

The creamy marble shelf fit neatly into a corner of our living room, near a window from which gentle sunlight flows upon it.  Our rhino family love this corner - and they now look very content, with their own serendipitously sunny grazing ground.  Looking at them, we too feel pleased - and grateful.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Moving to the Earth's Beat - and One's Own

I recently finished reading a book by A. J. Chopra, called 'Moving to the Earth's Beat, the road back from eco-despair'.  It has just been published in paperback and Kindle versions.  It describes Chopra's challenging and intriguing journey that began when he realized he was depressed but couldn't exactly figure out why and what to do about it.

There may come times in one's life when, despite everything being stable and chugging along pleasantly, one feels unaccountably gloomy.  Almost always, such times of depression are accompanied by a feeling of isolation, which cut one off from a sense of perspective or purpose.  This prevents one from reaching out to the world that one cares ('used to care') about, further deepening the negativity and sense of fragmentation.  A nasty feedback loop.

A.J. Chopra discovered that his sense of gloom arose from a concern about the earth and a feeling that it was too late to prevent destruction of the natural world as we know it.  He calls it 'eco-despair'.  Being an engineer, a 'problem solver', a reader, thinker (and agnostic), he took the help of books (and a few people) to work his way, step by step out of this impasse.  The way led not to formal and classic treatments for depression, but to a change in his way of approaching life.  He decided to adopt a belief in something larger than himself, something that was consistent with his thoughts and training and something that was essentially 'good' and 'meaningful' to him.  In his life, this came in the form of viewing the world the way (certain) Native Americans do and feeling one's connectedness with the earth (a sacred being) and everything upon it.  His path was long and tenuous; one reason for writing the book (apart from allowing himself a means of self expression) was to reach out to other people who may feel this form of despair consciously or unconsciously.  The other reason is to try and make a difference (by spreading the word) about the importance of caring for the earth and fragile ecosystems that exist all over the world.

His story is steeped in analysis - of different schools of pyschology, physics, ecology, philosophy and more - a rational, step by step breakdown of thoughts and experiences.  The story is clearly written and the style of narration is engaging - one chapter leads you on to the next.  It is evident that deep thought and research has gone into the making of the book.  I perceive a few gaps though.  While each step along the path is clearly discussed, corresponding changes in Chopra's own inner state are not described in tremendous detail.  One wonders about his inner feelings (not just his thoughts) as he proceeds to align himself with his intuition - moving from his zone of safety to exploring a different way of thinking about the world, leading ultimately to his personal experience with Native American healers.  Perhaps this is because the results of his choice are illustrative enough that this belief system works for him and his changing feelings need not be dissected in exacting detail.  (His is a belief in the interconnectedness of all who inhabit this planet, of living with the rhythm of nature, of interacting directly and simply with nature and other creatures and honouring the reciprocity of gifts given and received.)  Perhaps it is also because the ultimate story is one that continues beyond him - to the state of the earth and ways to help nurture the earth and all that it sustains.

Interestingly, when I began reading this book, I was also reading a text on some of the Upanishads.  I was struck at the time between the similarity between certain thoughts reflected in this newly written American book and those found in ancient Eastern philosophy.  For this reason alone, I describe below the first five shlokas (verses) of Ishavasya Upanishad (with explanations based on Sri M's commentary and my own interpretation of these) :

Shloka 1 :

ishavasyam idam sarvam yat kincha jagatyaam jagat
tena tyaktena bhunjitha ma gridhah kasya svid dhanam

That Supreme Being pervades everything here (and now).
It pervades all that moves, and also all that does not move.
Whose wealth is all this? (Who does all this belong to?  When the essence of life is everywhere, who is deprived and who can stash it?)
Therefore, let go and rejoice!  (When the reason for one's being alive and spirited is everywhere, including within oneself, one cannot lose it - one need not feel threatened or vulnerable, neither need one fear for the loss of one's self, so one can just give up worrying about mind-created problems or requirements).

Shloka 2 :

kurvann eveha karmani jijivishet shatam samaah
evam tvayi nanyatheto asti na karma lipyate nare

If one understands (even theoretically) what has been proposed in the first shloka, then one can live, performing karmas for a hundred years.  (There is no reason to renounce the world or any of one's worldly activities).
That is the only way by which you can live a full life, performing all the karmas (tasks to be done) on this earth and yet not be affected by (not be emotionally dependent on) the results of these karmas.

Shloka 3 :

asurya nama te loka andhena tamasavrutah
tams te pretyabhigacchanti ye ke cha atma hano janah

There are some worlds which are enveloped in darkness to which those of demonic nature go.  People who are slayers of their own Self (who consciously or unconsciously deny their inner self) enter this dark world.

Shloka 4 :

anejad ekam manaso javiyo nainad deva apnuvan purvam arshat
tad dhavato nyan atyeti tishthat tasminn apo matarishva dadhati

(Attempts to explain the Supreme Being, that comprises the essence of everything and is something that cannot really be described) :
It is that which does not move.
It is one.
It is even swifter than the mind (i.e. the way to reach it is not through the mind or senses).
By itself it stands still.  It outstrips those who reach out for it.
In it, the all pervading prana (air or energy that sustains life) supports the activities of all beings.

Shloka 5 :

tad ejati tan naijati tad dure tad vadantike
tad antarasya sarvasya tad u sarvasyasya baahyatah

It moves, yet it moves not.
It is far and yet it is near.
It is within all this.
It is outside all this.
(If we think we are different and separate from our inner essence, it appears unreachable but if we understand that it is a part of our inner self or driving force, we are very close to it.  It is everywhere, whether we see it as being a part of us or see ourselves as being contained within it).

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

More Dhakai Sarees

Blue and white flowers, blowing in the wind
The Bangladeshi saree sellers came home last Sunday.  It has been about a year since their last visit and though I didn't need any more sarees, I invited them as I like to support talented weavers and craftsmen.  The pressures on these tremendously skilled people are high and come in different forms - the most recent being T.V. serials.  Wafer thin models wafting around draped in gauzy designer outfits seem to be glamour personified; solid looking women in bright 'country garb' seem to dictate what the middle aged woman ought to wear.  Where does that leave the soft, thin off white cotton sarees, so comfortable for a Bengal summer?  Or the elegant, lightly woven muslin and tassar silk in natural shades?

I had invited a few friends home to look at the sarees.  Several of them asked the same question, "Why are these so expensive compared to Bengal cottons?"  I am not sure I know all the answers but I think these are some of the reasons:

I am not an expert on weaving, however, to my eye these sarees appear much more finely woven than most of those I see in Kolkata.  They feel lighter to the touch and the patterns are better done.  These sarees are all hand woven (largely by members of one family); some of the more expensive pieces take a year to complete.  The designs are a mix of traditional and modern, but most are striking.  They stand out and my experience has been that while I am wearing these, people notice them and ask me where I bought them from.  Kolkata does have many such sarees but they are no longer to be seen in the large, regular shops.  Traditional colours and weaves are not in vogue and as for the high end products, they are best found in boutique shops, whose prices are also quite high.

Four layers thick - and still translucent!
My intention of buying these sarees is to wear some beautifully woven clothes that make me feel happy and to know also that I am helping in a small way to keep this craft (and art) alive.  So, as usual, I looked carefully at everything they had to display - everyday sarees in soft and bright hues - beiges, blues, reds, off whites - spiralling creepers, giant birds and large mango pallus.

Red and blue parrots stand beneath flowers
Small 'bootis' (circular or oval motifs) in different colours adding zest to light backgrounds.  Lemon yellow butterflies with blue eyes and antennae, resting with wings oustretched (this was a beautiful new pattern).
Colourful bootis, beautifully woven

Large blue mango pallu
Fine muslin with weaves of grass green, sky blue, lemon yellow, hot pink or midnight blue running through the borders and pallus.  Delicately spun silk (the kind of sarees that fit into matchboxes) with flowers looping all over.  Elegant black sarees with thin gold thread - stars and moonbeams illuminating a night sky.  Nature in all its loveliness brought onto cloth - what more could one ask for?

Off white and golds, intricately woven
I selected three sarees finally - an off white with little bootis, cheerful for everyday wear.  An off white woven with gold with faint traces of soft peach-pale pink - my 'Diwali' saree.  An off white (yes! I am partial to off whites!) with big, cheery dots and many coloured flowers - a party saree.

Last year I had bought a white saree with blue mangoes on it, which suffered terribly at the hands (rather teeth) of rodents.  After wearing it just once, I left it at the ironing shop overnight and a rat gnawed through every layer of my saree (leaving all the other clothes untouched)!  As I showed this to the saree sellers, they brought out another one of the same kind and handed it to me as a parting gift, saying that they could darn my older saree but it would be six months before they returned and they wanted me to be able to wear the saree soon!

A heartwarming gift from the saree sellers

My Diwali saree (pallu)

My party saree - zingy yet soft

An incredible combination - large dots, purple and blue stripes...
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