How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear*

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, ‘It is just as I feared!

Two Owls and a Hen
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard.

old man.jpg
Original illustration by Edward Lear Source: Google


No this is not 2020 Corona humour, although it pithily describes one of the fallouts of the lockdown! The verse was written by Edward Lear nearly 200 years ago. Lear is popularly associated with the Limerick, and best known for his
A Book of Nonsense, which he also illustrated, that was published 1846.

Limerick is a form of nonsense verse in which the first, second and final lines end with rhyming words, while the third and fourth shorter lines have their own rhyme. In Lear’s limericks the first and last lines usually end with the same word rather than rhyming. For the most part they are truly nonsensical and devoid of any punch line or point.

Interestingly, while he is best remembered for his absurd wit, Edward Lear was a popular and respected painter of his time. Born in London on 12 May 1812, one of 21 children, Lear was forced to start earning a living when he was just 15. This he did by selling his art and by teaching drawing. In 1832 he was employed by the London Zoological Society to illustrate birds, and later went on to work for the Earl of Derby who had a private menagerie on his estate. Lear stayed there until 1836.

Around this time Lear decided to devote himself exclusively to landscape painting (although he continued to write his nonsense verse.)  Between 1837 and 1847 he travelled extensively throughout Europe and Asia. After his return to England, Lear’s travel journals were published in several volumes as The Illustrated Travels of a Landscape Painter. Lear eventually settled, with his cat Foss, in Sanremo on the Mediterranean coast at a villa he named Villa Tennyson after Lord Tennyson whom he admired. He continued to paint seriously till the end of his life in 1888.

Edward Lear had a sickly childhood, and also suffered from epilepsy and depression. But in his verses he poked fun at everything, including himself. His irreverent humour, love for the ridiculous, and cooked-up nonsense words were like cocking a snook at the prissiness and orderliness of the Victorian society that he lived in.  Also different from the expected upright behaviour which was the norm of the period, the characters in his verses often indulge in absurd and outrageous antics.

His love for silly word play “a perpendicular, spicular, orbicular, quadrangular, circular depth of soft mud”;  his weird and wonderful creatures like Moppsikon Floppsikon bear and  “diaphanous doorscraper” (stuffed rhino); the characters with names like Quangle-Wangles, Pobbles, and Jumblies remind me of another favourite—Roald Dahl.

I have always loved the nonsense verse of Edward Lear. I remember memorising and reciting The Owl and the Pussycat, perhaps his most famous poem, when I was in school. The words seemed to frisk and gambol just like the characters.

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

We all need a bit of silliness in our lives, especially in these strange days of uncertainty. Today as we celebrate Lear’s birthday as Limerick Day, also marked as Owl and Pussycat Day, here is my humble offering to the memory of Mr Lear!

There was a wicked virus from Wuhan

Who said its time to cause some mayhem

I’ll travel the world for a lark

And make sure they close every park

That villainous virus from Wuhan.

*How pleasant to know Mr. Lear is the title of Lear’s self-portrait in verse.

–Mamata

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Swollen-headed

CBCA14C8-CCB2-4EE8-BE0A-E137CB978119At 11.11 by the clock, on the 11th of November every year (pretty palindromic, isn’t it?), at Mainz Germany, the Fools’ Constitution is proclaimed from the balcony of the Osteiner Hotel. This marks the start of the City’s Carnival, which is characterized by people wearing oversized papier-mache heads roaming around the crowds. It seems that this practice started about 80 years ago, but I could not find references as to why “schwellköpp” or ‘swollen-heads’ are an integral part of the festivities.

dolls 2

Equally mysterious to me is why shops these days have “schwellköpp” mannequins. I really can’t see why anyone would want to buy garments modelled by such weird looking dolls. I know it is all about attracting attention, but surely, there could be better ways to do this than having swollen-headed guys with multi-coloured hair? Fortunately, all the schwellkopp mannequins I have seen have been male. I fear female versions would be really too much.

The practice of using mannequins to model clothes goes back to 15th century France, but those were miniatures. The use of full size dummies started in the 18th century, and these were made of wicker. Later, mannequins were made of wire-work. In the mid-19th century,  papier-maiche dummies took over.  Today most of these figures are made of fibreglass or plastic.

Mannequins are also used by artists (lifeless figures hold a pose much longer than live models!). They have sundry other uses, for example in crash-testing and in testing defense equipment.

The use of these dolls in medical education dates back to the 17th century where ivory manikins were used by doctors as a teaching aids. Even today, medical simulation mannequins are used extensively in education and for teaching first aid.

I can only hope these mannequins are normal-headed. I would hate my doctor to have been trained on a schwellkopp!

–Meena

Bless Us, Ganesha!

C9965879-3514-46E5-950C-07964DC42871Who can have a problem with someone whose mission is to remove obstacles from your path? No wonder then, that Ganesha is a God whom all love. Wise, witty, with a sense of fun, he is quite the favourite.

No wonder then that his birthday celebrations have caught the imagination of people across the country, and they grow larger and larger every year. I love it too, though I have a question. Is his birthday the day he was made by Parvati and given life by her, or the day that Shiva beheaded him and then brought him back to life again, though with an elephant’s head in place of his original human head. Hmm…maybe someone will explain it to me some day.

Elephants have fascinated humans for ever. The Pali Jataka stories, which go back to the period 600 to 321 BC have references to elephants. According to Buddhist stories, the night before Lord Buddha was born, his mother Maya is supposed to have dreamt of a six-tusked white elephant which came to her from heaven, with a white lotus in his trunk. This is why Buddhists consider the rare white elephant the holiest of all animals, and the embodiment of the Buddha.

The Ramayana and Mahabharata have many references to elephants in war and peace. Flourishing cities for example, are those with elephants. The descriptions of elephants in Ramayana are supposed to be detailed and fairly accurate.

Tamil Sangam literature (1st to 3rd century AD), provides a wealth of information about them. An old poetical dictionary from this body of work has 44 names for elephants, four names for female elephants, and five for baby elephants. Each part of the elephant is named.

Kautilya’s Arthashastra treats the study of elephants as a branch of study and prescribes the duties of mahouts, and approaches to management of elephant populations.

Elephants abound in folktales, proverbs, similes etc. As per a popular Indian folk tale, in the days of yore, elephants could fly. Apparently they were pretty playful. One day, a herd of elephants was gambolling in the branches of a banyan tree. A branch broke and fell (why am I not surprised?). And as to be expected, there was a rishi sitting beneath the tree. His worship was disturbed by the falling tree branch, and as was the wont of rishis, he cursed the elephants that never would they ever be able to fly again. And so it was.

Well, flying elephants would be quite a management issue! But will we at least let our elephants walk the earth? With depleting forests, their habitats are ever-shrinking and ever-fragmenting. The lure of crops as an easy source of food near their habitats is another factor that brings them out of the jungles.  And as a result, human-elephant conflicts keep increasing. Train lines, electric lines and roads across their homes have led to several accidents and deaths in recent times. The threat of poaching for ivory (and sometimes meat), never goes away.

Ganesha, the God of Good Luck! We pray to Thee. Bring peace and goodwill on earth—among humans, and between humans and elephants.

–Meena

Verse and ‘Worsifier’

Every time I come across a crossword clue which calls for filling the name of a South American mammal, the first lines that come to mind are:

The one-l lama, he’s a priest.

The two-l llama he’s a beast.

And I will bet

A silk pajama

There isn’t any three-l llama.

One of my favourite verses from one of my favourite poets—Ogden Nash! Frederic Ogden Nash was born on August 19, 1902, in the city of Nashville in America. Nash was a college drop-out who tried his hand at different jobs before joining the marketing department at the publishing house Doubleday. At the age of 29, he received international acclaim with Hard Lines, his first collection of humorous poems published in 1930. Following this, he left his job to concentrate fully on writing. He was a keen observer of American social life, and his writing anti-establishment. His tongue-in-cheek humour, and often irreverent poems caricatured the pretentious middle-class mentality of America in the thirties and forties. He wrote prolifically, over 500 poems including long winding verses, pithy two-liners, and take-offs on sonnets , ballads and limericks with his own inimitable play with, and, on words.

Nash considered himself a “worsifier.” He had a wicked sense of humour, and a clever way with words that always make me chuckle, no matter how many time I read his poems.

To celebrate Ogden Nash, sharing some of my old favourites, on creatures big and small.

The Cow 

The cow is of the bovine ilkIMG_20190820_151218.jpg

One end is moo, the other milk.

 The Germ

A mighty creature is the germ.

Though smaller than the pachyderm.

His customary dwelling place

Is deep within the human race.

His childish pride he often pleases

By giving people strange diseases

Do you my poppet, feel infirm?

You probably contain a germ.

The Ant

The ant has made himself illustrious

Through constant industry industrious.

So what?

Would you be calm and placid

If you were full of formic acid?

 The Fly

God in His wisdom made the fly

And then forgot to tell us why.

The Mules

In the world of mules

There are no rules.

 The Kitten

The trouble with a kitten is

THAT

Eventually it becomes a

CAT.

 The Octopus

Tell me. O Octopus. I begs.

Is those things arms, or is they legs?

I marvel at thee. Octopus;

If I were thou, I’d call me Us.

While his observations on the human race are somewhat lengthier, here are some short and snappy classics!

The Baby 

A bit of talcum

Is always walcum.

 The Parent

Children aren’t happy with nothing to ignore

And that’s what parents were created for.

 Birthday on the Beach 

At another year

I would not boggle

Except when I jog

I joggle.

 Crossing the Border

Senescence begins

And middle age ends

The day your descendants

Outnumber your friends.

 Introspective Reflection

I would live all my life in nonchalance and insouciance

Were it not for making a living, which is rather a nouciance.

Luckily for him, and for us, Ogden Nash could make a living from his insouciance, and his verse delights us even today!

–Mamata

 

 

 

 

The Lacy Brittle: Beawar Til Papad

Indian sweets are yum to the Indian palate. But they don’t lend themselves to hyper-levels of visual appeal enhancements as do cakes and pastries and other sundry desserts, as portrayed in various TV shows.

One traditional sweet which is intrinsically beautiful and delicate is the Til Papad from Beawar. A mono-layer of sesame and thinly sliced pistas and almonds in sugar syrup, each papad is see-through. Just hold it up to the light for a lacy view of the world beyond!

055F6DD4-BC24-4333-B75D-C362216E65A6

At some point in my life, I studied in Mumbai, and it was always an adventure to reach Jodhpur, where my parents were, for the vacations. One such journey must have entailed some portion being done by bus, because I distinctly recall wandering around the Beawar Bus-stop. And that is when my fascination with this sweet began. Several shops were making the til papad. Basically til and nut-slivers were cooked in sugar syrup, which was taken off the heat at just the right moment; balls made of the goo; and highly skilled cooks rolled them out, one til-thick. It was amazing to see them at work, for they had to work with hot goo, and roll it really fast and thin.

A few weeks ago, someone from Rajasthan kindly gifted us a box of til papad, and that brought all the memories back.

Digging a little deeper into Beawar, I found that it was not one of the ancient cities of Rajasthan, the story of whose founding is part-history, part-mythology. Beawar was established by a British officer, Colonel Charles George Dixon, in the 19th century as a military cantonment. Situated as it is at a tri-junction of Jodhpur, Jaipur and Udaipur, it gained and still retains importance as a trading centre.

The people of the area were apparently as brave and war-like as from any other part of Rajasthan, and the British had a healthy respect for them. One source tells me that the name ‘Beawar’ originated from the term ‘Be aware’.

In recent history, Beawar’s claim to fame is its link to the Right to Information (RTI) movement. The RTI movement started with a number of activists demanding  transparency, after conducting investigations into wide-spread corruption at panchayat and block levels. The then-CM of Rajasthan, Mr. Bhairon Singh Shekawat assured them he would bring in RTI. But even after a year, this did not happen. So on April 5, 1996, thousands of citizens and activists congregated in Beawar. The protest took place at a busy traffic roundabout called Chang Gate, and lasted 40 days. This laid the foundation for the RTI being brought in.

So sweet little Beawar is strong too!

–Meena

 

The Worshipful Bull

In Indian mythology, Nandi the bull is both the guardian of Mount Kailash, and the vehicle of Lord Shiva. The worship of Shiva and Nandi goes back to the time of the Indus Valley Civilization. The bull-seals found in Mohenjodaro and Harappa  have led some researchers to conclude that Nandi worship goes back many thousands of years.

A statue of a seated Nandi is often found in front of Shiva temples, facing the God. In metaphysical terms, Nandi represents the individual soul, looking to unite with the universal soul or Shiva. At a mundane level, people often use Nandi as a communication medium, whispering wishes into his ears, so that he may convey them to Shiva, who may listen to him more readily than to us!

Why suddenly this interest in Nandi? Because I was in Orissa this week, and did a three-hour road journey and also visited 5-6 villages.

Still doesn’t explain it?

nandi

Well, it was the number of Nandi statues I saw in this time. Almost every hamlet and village had one. Pretty big and prominent. Sometimes the shrines they were in front of were smaller than the Nandis. And there were also some stand-alone Nandis! They were in all shapes and sizes.  A few small, most medium sized and a few really large. Some smiling, some serious, some with inscrutable expressions. Some puny and under-fed, some healthy. Some in proportion and some not-so.  But Nandi, after Nandi, after Nandi.

I have travelled to several states. I have seen ever-increasing number of stand-alone Hanuman statues; and several Shiva statues. But as far as I can recall, I have not come across so many Nandis. I am not sure why there should be so many in Orissa particularly, because traditionally, large Nandi statues are more prevalent in the South—Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamilnadu. But I do not recall that Nandi statues are found so commonly in these states.

The largest bull statue is in the Mahanadiswara Swamy temple in Kurnool, AP. It stands 15ft by 27 ft. This is followed by the bull in the Lepakshi Temple, also in AP. Other prominent Nandis are the ones at Chamundi Hills, Karnataka, Brahadishwara Temple, Tamilnadu, and of course, Banagalore’s own Bull Temple. Orissa does have one of the big 10 Nandis, at Bhanjanagar town.

But I think the state must beat all simply in the number of Nandis dotting the state scape. These are not old—would not think many are over a decade in age. It would indeed be interesting if someone could undertake a study to understand why there is such a proliferation in recent times. Wish it could be me, but sadly, I don’t think I can do it at the moment. So when I go back to Orissa, I will content myself with just looking out for them, counting them and clicking them

–Meena

Happy New Years!

April 6 was Ugadi—Kannada and Telugu New Year. Occasion for an amazing spread at a friend’s place. Puran poli, payasam, and countless dishes served on a banana leaf.

April 14 is Puthandu–Tamil New Year. Occasion for a spread at my place, with its share of special dishes. The most special being the ‘maanga pachadi.’ Made with mangoes, jaggery, neem flowers, salt, chilli and turmeric, it captures all the tastes: sour, sweet, bitter, salty, chilly. To remind us that the year to come will bring joy, sorrow, losses, gains—the gamut. And that we need to be prepared for all of these, and take them in our stride.

The New Year is fairly arbitrary. There is no particular reason it must fall on Jan 1 or April 14 or any other date, for that matter. Indian New Years are often based on regularly recurring celestial occurrences.

The Tamil New Year (as also several other new years not only in India but even in Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand etc.) follows the Spring Equinox. Now that is a bit confusing, since the Spring Equinox falls on March 22nd! But we celebrate New Year on the Sidereal Equinox, April 14nd because we follow the sidereal year, with the Chitra star as the reference point. I am assured by sources that: ‘Sidereal is calculating the movement of the Sun vis-a-vis Earth by noting the position of certain stars. i.e. with respect to fixed positions on the sky and not just the position of the sun. From around April 14, Chitra star is visible. The Sun is in the Aries (Mesham) zodiac constellation. So currently, tropical Equinox is March 22 and sidereal equinox is April 14.’

I kind of get it (I think!), but not well enough to explain it in my words. Hence the quote. Go figure!

At any rate, how wonderful that we celebrate New Year so many times a year! Vishu, Bihu, Navroj, Gudi Padva, Vikram Samvat…call it what you will, it is an occasion to enjoy the company of family and friends, to do up the house, to make and eat goodies. And the more of such, the merrier. (Except maybe the Financial Year which is a scramble to finish activities and budgets and tally accounts and other unpleasant things!)

And of course, if you have ‘forgotten’ to make resolutions, or forgotten the resolutions you have made, there are so many New Years through the year to make/renew them. No excuses!

Wishing you all yet another Happy New Year!

–Meena

Black Magic

I can never forget mum meticulously grinding whole spices using a mortar and pestle and cooking Meen Kuzhambu (fish curry) in rustic looking manchattis (earthenware). Mum loved cooking fish in clay since it retained nutrition and made the dish flavoursome.

As a tribute to the good old days, one of the first things I did as a married woman and novice cook-in-charge of an entire kitchen for the first time, was to purchase a manchatti. I resolved to carry and pass on mum’s traditional ways. This was my favourite piece of cookware until I was introduced to Longpi.

I first read about Longpi in a blog post. What drew my eyes to the article were beautiful pictures of black earthenware with cane trimming. I was intrigued! I quickly dialled the numbers mentioned in the post and got in touch with Ms. Priscilla Presley. As luck would have it, she was in Bangalore at the time and had an exhibition-stall at the famed Chitrakala Parishath. The very next day, I met Priscilla, who enthusiastically introduced me to the history of Longpi stone pottery.

IMG_20190316_165954__01Traditionally called, “Loree Hamlei”, this pottery was historically used exclusively by the royal and noble families of Manipur. The original name is derived from the village of Longpi in Manipur where the Tangkhul Naga tribe specialise in creating this pottery.

The materials used are called weather rock and serpentinite found in abundance along the river banks of Longpi. The two rocks are crushed together and mixed in the ratio of 5:3, using very little water, and are then kneaded and shaped by artisans with bare hands and placed in moulds. This makes it one of the rarest forms of pottery as it does not use the potter’s wheel. Once it is dried and hardened, the mould is placed in a kiln and fired for about 5 to 7 hours till the temperature reaches 9000 C. It is then removed whilst still hot and rubbed with a local leaf known as Machee (Pasania Pachiphylla).

These vessels get better with age and can easily go from cookware to serveware due to their elegant and simple designs. They can also be popped into the oven and microwave provided they do not have the cane accents. Additionally, they can be easily cleaned using a mild soap solution.

Today as my cooking improves (slowly), I beam joyfully whenever guests ask me about the origin of the black beauties laid out before them.

To learn more about Longpi pottery you can contact Priscilla at 9902370318.

–Sudha

PS: Intrigued when I saw her collection of this pottery, I requested my friend Sudha to do a piece. Meena.

The Beauty of Ordinary Things

lockWhy should a lock be shaped like a lady? Perfect to every last detail—the braid at the back, the holes in the ears and nose for ornaments, the necklace, the drape of the dress. Every feature sharp and defined.

Did someone commission the craftsman, saying ‘I want a very unusual lock. Shaped like a lady.’ Or did the craftsman himself decide to create something original, a break from his routine, a need to speak to his buyers and to the future about his skills, his imagination? And if he did, did he show it off to lots of people? Did the owner show it off, or since it was a lock, was it hidden away somewhere, fastened on a secret cabinet or door? What drove the artist to take so much trouble and pour in so much of his energy and love into this?

 

 

 

chuna spreader

Even more mundane, a chuna-spreader (used by paanwallahs to spread lime on betel leaves). Was it a particularly quirky shopkeeper who commissioned this? Or a nawab or zamindaar addicted to paan, who wanted to add a touch of beauty to the ritual of making his beedas? Or was it just the artist indulging himself?

 

The two preceding objects were probably custom-made or made in small numbers. The first is about 200 years old, and the second may be from the turn of the last century.

 

 

bird

 

But this whistle, available at Rs. 20 in many melas today, is contemporary. A potter’s piece, this is shaped like a bird. But even more fascinating, it sings like a bird! Fill it to the halfway mark with water and blow into it, an unsuspecting guest will think that a melodious bird co-habits the house with you. Who dreamt this up?

 

I just picked three random objects from my house. The beauty and aesthetic of Indian crafts! But sadly, much of what is produced today in the name of craft displays neither the aesthetic nor the pride of craftsmanship. How is lost pride brought back?

–Meena