Life’s been a whirlwind, reader. So much to do, and somanythings inspiring me. Grateful for the days when energy and good health can keep up with my intentions! Here are some drawings from the past few months –
A sunrise walk with the brown boy, who tells me that I steamroll across life with my overblown sense of purpose. Good to know that I guess. Anyway, who can be mad at him for long? At breakfast we caught up on gossip we couldn’t share in front of the little tornado (who was in school).
One of the things of being a parent is that you have to spend time with your kids. Lucky for you if they are entertaining. As in years past, our tornado still takes forever to eat a meal so I use the time to draw. It’s great to have a living breathing human being at close quarters to draw from! Between mouthfuls, we chat.
We took an overnight train from Cairo and went to Aswan. From there, a felucca took us to Kato Dool, a resort in a Nubian village. On the way the felucca broke down in the backwaters of the Nile (sketch below) but luckily all the crocodiles in the Nile had either been mummified or left out in Sudan.
There was a wedding going on in the Nubian village that night and it was rather crowded. The brown boy almost got caught in a camel stampede during the wedding procession!
Finally, the ancient ruins of Egypt began…we took a Nile river cruise, and drifted down the Nile, stopping to visit the ancient ruins as we arrived at the sites. First, we visited the Philae temple, our first glimpse of imperial grandeur on the banks of the Nile. Here’s the David Roberts painting of the wonderful colors of the pillars.
This wonderful itinerary had been devised by Mishta, who even managed to squeeze us in for a lunch at the Old Cataract hotel, where Agatha Christie had stayed, writing her Egypt novels!
From Aswan we took the 3 hour long drive over miles of Sahara desert to visit Abu Simbel. I have never seen anything like the majesty of that temple. Rameses not only succeeded in convincing the god and the Nubians of his might, he almost convinced me too, nearly 3000 years later! It’s a massive Santa letter to the god Ra Horakhty asking for more power and wealth, and in case the god forgets, the inside walls of the temple are covered with details of his request.
In between the historic ruins, we chilled out on the river boat, drawing the countryside that passed and some of our fellow passengers as they sunbathed.
I skipped Kom Ombo (and the crocodile mummies!) but saw Edfu and of course the Karnak temple in Luxor, the most magnificent of all the ruins. It was too much to draw, all that imperial majesty, transferring down across centuries to transfix us in our present. We could barely think of the past and future, we were so caught up in the sense of place of these ruins.
Finally the last site we visited was the Valley of Kings. On the way we saw the fabulous ruins of the Colossi of Memnon. In my humble opinion, at some point, the pharaohs realized that it was more cost-effective and scalable to build their tombs in a conveniently located, pyramid-shaped mountain instead. All the tombs were brilliant and beautiful. I was awe-struck at the colors and the massive systems that kept the same consistency of output, and the sheer volume of labor that pulled it off across centuries!
Throughout our fortnight in Egypt, these were the insights I took away about ancient Egypt –
their fascination with death and mortality
their use of visual language – for communication as well as regal branding (this surely has to be the earliest use of regal insignia and branding). The strong sense of graphic design that permeates even today.
how they scaled their artwork and systems across centuries
these feats of engineering and architecture that broadcast the imperial narrative across centuries. A most masculine testosterone-fueled architecture of phallic forms, in my opinion…(except for Hatshepsut’s constructions).
And though defaced and obliterated, the need to adorn persisted through centuries till the present day – adornment not for vanity but as a way to worship, or appease, the prevalent religious faith…
Last October we took a much-awaited trip to Egypt. It had been a long time in planning and finally, in 2022, we could visit. The brown boy and I went with our friends Anirudh, Mishta, and Lekha, and took the children.
We landed in Cairo on a blazing hot afternoon, the city – whose name originates from “al-Qahirah” (the victorious) – so similar to Indian metropolises and yet so different in its sandy-hued dilapidation.
The first day after downing cups of cardamom-flavored Turkish coffee, (with high silt content like the Nile!), that Anirudh called “a gastronomical black hole”, we went off to see the pyramids – first the ones at Dahshur and then Giza.
The Sphinx in all its majesty was our first experience of all the obliteration and defacement of Egyptian sculpture. It was not Obelix who broke the nose of the Sphinx, as our guto believed.
Travelers, natives and conquerors across centuries have destroyed, defaced, and carried off parts of sculpture for various reasons – from necessary construction pieces for their dwelling in ancient times, to the eradication of previous regal influence, or to adapt to prevailing religious dogma. Paul Theroux calls it a sort of negative sculpture, the art of obliteration, and all done with great care. In most cases only the face or the nose missing, and the rest intact. Maybe the defacers were art lovers, or maybe they feared the wrath of the gods…
As we know, the majesty and significance of the Egyptian civilization was unknown until the deciphering of the Rosetta stone in early twentieth century – so here is the painting by David Roberts (c.19th century) that I am thinking about in the sketchbook…
The next day we visited Islamic Cairo. Cairo dates back to the 7th century, so there were multiple layers of history to be discovered there.
We visited the Al-Azhar Mosque where Lekha and I were asked to cover up our bare necks and ankles (!!). While shopping in Khan-el-Khalili Market, Mishta found a beautiful walking stick that had a preserved snake inside it. Egyptians, even now, seem to be fascinated with death and mortality. In the market there were stuffed animals, foxes, cats, and crocodiles – memories of beloved pets, being displayed and sold.
At a roadside cafe in Cairo.
One day we spent at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and marvelled at the craftsmanship skills of the ancient Egyptians.
We also spent time seeing Coptic Cairo, the areas where the Greek orthodox church settled, built around the place where Joseph & Mary took shelter with the baby Jesus as they fled to Egypt! Coptic Cairo was an avalanche of adornment. As faiths were practiced, flourished, and overtaken by other faiths at the same location, the influences of visual language remained, overlaid on top of each other…and the need to show devotion through ornamentation of the holy site, however small the space, prevailed…
In Cairo we caught a performance of the Tanoura Dance, a breathtaking spectacle.
“Look into the heart of your anger and see where it comes from…the seeds of compassion in the mind need to be watered. When you have compassion you suffer much less. Look at fellow human beings with compassion in your heart.”
Let me be honest, I don’t read Bengali literature frequently, so it was with a lot of trepidation that I started reading অগ্নিসম্ভব (Ognisombhov/ Inflammable ) earlier this year. It’s a novel set in the second half of the twentieth century in Kolkata. Written by my aunt Reeta Basu, it’s loosely based on the lives of my grandparents and their family.
For me, this book was a revelation into these two generations: the generation of my grandparents, who came over from the eastern part of Bengal (that is now Bangladesh) before the Partition of India; and that of my mother and aunts, who grew up in the late sixties/early seventies in Kolkata. It is illuminating how much society, and our outlook has changed within these fifty-odd years, especially in its expectations and attitudes towards women.
The second part of the narrative, called অগ্নিকুসুম (Ognikusum / The spark), is set in the past decade and the main character is drawn from our generation.
When I was growing up, the Bengali books I mostly read were the Feluda books by Satyajit Ray and the historical fiction by Sunil Gangopadhyay. Though I’ve also read a smattering of other Bengali fiction and our bleak literature canon in school, and apart from Pratham Pratisruti, I hadn’t come across a strong feminist perspective or many well-crafted female characters in the Bengali literature in my youth. So what stood out for me here was the specifically Bengali female gaze of the narrative, carried through by the inner monologues of the main characters, and the empathetic and compassionate depiction of all the characters.
For me, reading these two books was a very special experience.
Even though it was fiction, the characters that were based on my grandparents (my mother’s parents) were very lovingly drawn, right down to their inner lives and the little details of their day-to-day rituals. The history unfolding around them influenced their generous natures and community-driven values. Getting to know them through this book, learning about their challenges, the integrity of their choices, and how little they asked from life, was a proud and humbling experience. They have always been revered and cherished by us, and they are even more of an inspiration now. I felt lucky to get such a rare and deep connection to our family history.
The narrative arc illuminated how rapidly lifestyles have changed for middle-class women of that milieu – from being mainly confined to housework and child-rearing in their homes, to having the opportunity to be employed and financially independent in the seventies. Even then, it was no cakewalk – without a supportive husband, who didn’t see it as a detriment to his male ego, and an acceptable profession – it was fairly impossible. The academic profession, teaching in colleges or schools, was acceptable, but most other professions were deemed unsuitable. In these middle-class circles at the time, society and the norms it imposed were rarely questioned. In the second book, the daughters of the current generation make their own non-conformist career choices, and that creates great unrest among the parents – first for choosing an “unsuitable” profession, and then, the realization that their daughters were independent and empowered, and that their resistance was futile.
Another theme that was insightful for me was the rise of individualism in the second book. In অগ্নিসম্ভব, the sisters were good, dutiful daughters, who accepted their father’s decisions as final. On the rare occasions they had a different opinion, they did not dream of expressing themselves, and always accepted their father’s choices as the righteous ones. On the other hand, we saw ourselves reflected in অগ্নিকুসুম, where the main character doesn’t hold back in expressing herself through her behavior and life choices.
While reading this book, I finally understood the discord that had defined much of my adolescence and early twenties – my expectations and those of my parents were clearly at odds. Around me, I saw cousins being highly individualistic and took my cues from them, but what I didn’t realize was that the rules were still different for girls and boys! My parents were not prepared for this either and their tolerance (or the lack thereof) was the cause of some radical life choices.
Wise men have said if you don’t know your past, you don’t know where you are going in the future, and these books really serve that need – for us to know the world of women and their history, through their own voices.
A typical week in my life, pretty sure so many millions of women across the world have these exact same days…
I’ve been thinking, I haven’t seen myself or people of my demographic reflected in mainstream media for nearly a decade now. While that frees us up to define who / what we want to be, that’s one reason I keep on documenting my life.
A century later there might be no record of what Indian middle class urban working women did, in all their diversity.
Luckily I’m not the only one – Women at Leisure is a great record, our friend Smriti is a prolific blogger too, and there are probably more such personal documentation out there that I don’t know of.
Good thing that women have always journaled, at least for the past few centuries. It’s probably because they have always been silenced officially and have had to seek out a way to express themselves somewhere.
My own great great grandmother Rasasundari Devi was the first Bengali woman to write her autobiography.
This was at a time, around 1810-1830, when even basic literacy was denied to women in Bengal, so she had to teach herself to read, and after nearly twenty years, to write. She started writing her autobiography in her fifties when her children were grown. Around the same time, social reform in Bengal had barely started in Calcutta, but she lived in a village away from all this, and so was completely self-taught.
With such precedents, we would be throwing away our privilege if we did not use a bit of it to bring about a collective voice for those not represented in the mainstream. I know we can do more, and I’m speaking from my very entitled perspective, but it’s a start. It’s a purpose – to stop whiling away time and channel it towards expression.
Title re-purposed from a poem by Jim Moore, American poet.
This video and the earlier one are how my day-to-day journal drawing takes place. I sit down with my book and try to draw what’s on my mind. Sometimes I start by drawing what’s in front of me – which is why there are so many drawings of Orin eating! At other times I draw the day, how things went, what I listened to, or read. Sometimes my mind is blank and quite often the fear of the empty page threatens to take over.
But the important thing is to show up, and get over that fear, the fear of not being good enough, the fear of not living up to your own expectations. And after some time, I find the flow, I start to commune with myself, and joy takes over.